Hatful of Hollow (1984)

Hatful

Title: It means empty-headed, which is far from appropriate for this smart compilation of singles, B-sides and tracks recorded for BBC radio sessions.

Cover: A black-and-white photo of a Google-defying dude called Fabrice Collette, taken from a 1983 issue of French newspaper Libération. For some reason, reissues on CD have zoomed in on Collette’s head and made the image full-bleed, whereas the LP had a blue border for the text.

Best song: How Soon Is Now? is not so much a song as a head trip. Initially released as the B-side to the 12” of William, It Was Really Nothing, it was then put on Hatful of Hollow before being added to overseas versions of the band’s second studio album *and* getting a 7” release of its own in January 1985. It’s a stunning seven minutes of sound – a relentless shimmer, distorted guitars, searing tremolo lines, skeletal guitar phrases, reverby 80s drum sounds and even some whistling. It’s a masterpiece of production, sounding fresh and vibrant and new as well as familiar and comforting. Morrissey’s insightful lyrics are about loneliness and inadequacy, surely things that most of us have felt. They fit the metre of the song perfectly – soaring above it at times, but mostly letting the music breathe. The song doesn’t really sound like The Smiths – it has more in common with dance music. But it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Honourable mentions:

* William, It Was Really Nothing had been a recent single. It has a lovely sparkling guitar sound, an easy melody and lyrics about a friend’s boring marriage.

* What Difference Does It Make? is from a session recorded for John Peel’s Radio 1 show. It’s slightly beefier than the version on the debut album. The prominent, incessant drumming is ace.

* These Things Take Time is a good driving pop song with more vague-enough-to-mean-different-things lyrics. This version was recorded for David Jenson’s Radio 1 show

* This Charming Man gets an overhaul – this version is from a John Peel session (it predates the version released as a single, actually), and it’s softer and more laid-back than the 7”. It’s inferior, yet still intensely likeable.

* Handsome Devil is another track from a John Peel session. (A live version from a very early gig had been a B-side in 1983.) It’s a tremendously violent bit of music. Johnny Marr’s guitar riff cuts and slices; Mike Joyce’s drumming pounds away – it’s like the song is beating you up. The lyrics are witty and kinky, but they’re losing the fight with the onslaught of the instruments.

* Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now had been an A-side earlier in 1984, and is one of the band’s most famous songs. That fame is presumably because its words form one of Morrissey’s most overtly ‘depressed’ lyric. But putting aside people who misunderstand melancholy, this is a terrific song. It has quite joyful music – with a nice melodic bassline – while the lyrics are smart and funny. The song’s title is punning on a Sandy Shaw track called Heaven Knows I’m Missing You Now.

* This Night Has Opened My Eyes was only ever recorded for a John Peel show. Its lyrics are as grim as they come.

* Girl Afraid is a super bundle of energy, and was first released as the B-side to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. Now’s as good a place as any to mention something, though this comment applies to pretty much every Smiths song: Morrissey really is a terrific singer. His ‘phrasing’ sounds superbly inventive.

* Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want sends shivers down the spine each and every time you hear it. Originally a B-side to William, It Was Really Nothing, this beautiful, poignant song is surprisingly short (1.52) but says all it needs to say and more in that time – then ends the album on a tantalising cliffhanger of a suspended note… An equally gorgeous yet instrumental cover by The Dream Academy was used to great effect in one of the best movies ever made, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while the Smiths original was also in another John Hughes classic, Pretty in Pink.

Worst song: There isn’t one. There just isn’t one.

Review: Frankly, every song could have been listed in the Honourable Mentions section, but I had to draw the line somewhere. From start to finish, this album is packed to bursting with excellent, dynamic, interesting, exciting, life-affirming music. Blissfully brilliant.

Ten mammary glands out of 10.

My 10 favourite episodes of Columbo

Peter-Flak-as-Columbo-007

* Prescription: Murder (20 February 1968) – Peter Falk debuted in this ‘one-off’ TV movie, told entirely from the point of view of the killer (a psychiatrist played by Gene Barry who offs his wife and gives himself an elaborate alibi).

* Murder by the Book (15 September 1971) – the first episode once the show went to a series. Written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s about a crime novelist who wants rid of his writing partner. The murderer’s played by Jack Cassidy in the first of three Columbo-killer appearances.

* The Greenhouse Jungle (15 October 1972) – which is notable for the murderer being Ray Milland, surely a piece of knowing casting. He also played the bad guy in Dial M For Murder, a Hitchcock movie that’s more or less a pilot for the Columbo format.

* Any Old Port in a Storm (7 October 1973) – Donald Pleasance is superb as a wine-connoisseur murderer who uses a clever way to shift the apparent time of death.

* Forgotten Lady (14 September 1975) – a devilishly clever script, in which Janet Leigh kills her husband. Why she did it, why she shouldn’t have done it, and what happens next are all marvellous twists.

* Now You See Him… (29 February 1976) – Jack Cassidy returns to play a charismatic magician who uses his act to stage an alibi.

* The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (22 May 1977) – Theodore Bikel plays a member of Mensa-type club who murders his colleague. Columbo has to go toe-to-toe with a genius to prove he’s a killer.

* Agenda for Murder (10 February 1990) – Patrick McGoohan (in one of his four murderer roles) won an Emmy for playing a lawyer who kills someone who’s blackmailing him. McGoohan also directed the episode.

* Butterfly in Shades of Grey (10 January 1994) – in perhaps the series’s most ingenious plot, William Shatner plays a radio shock-jock who wants to kill a man who’s helping his daughter.

* Columbo Likes the Nightlife (30 January 2003) – the show got bonkers near the end, with episodes that broke from the formula, involved Columbo going undercover and cosying up to the mob, and even one without a murder. In this final episode, the show goes all Quentin Tarantino for a flamboyantly directed thriller about a nightclub. British actor Matthew Rhys was the show’s last ever killer.

The Smiths (1984)

the_smiths_the_smiths_1993_retail_cd-front

Title: Dully eponymous. The band chose their everyday name as a reaction against contemporary groups with elaborate monikers such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

Cover: A still of actor Joe Dallesandro taken from Andy Warhol’s Flesh, a 1968 art-house movie. It’s been cropped to highlight his torso.

Best song: This Charming Man, which had been a single in October 1983, was on the cassette version of the original album. At the time of its release, the NME’s Danny Kelly called hearing it “one of those moments when a vivid, electric awareness of the power of music is born or renewed” – and it’s hard to disagree. This is a pop song par excellence: dynamic, upbeat, fun and catchy. It was kick-started when Morrissey watched 1972 film Sleuth on TV and noted Laurence Olivier calling Michael Caine a ‘jumped-up pantry boy’. The resulting lyrics convey everything and nothing all at the same time. They’re evocative and full of detail and emotional resonance, but what the ‘story’ actually means is anyone’s guess. (The lyrics are also short: just 88 words.) Like the rest of this debut album, the track was recorded multiple times before everyone was happy. This version positively *sparkles* with energy. A dozen or more guitar lines – some acoustic – create a kinetic energy cloud of music, under which there’s a funky bass riff driving everything along. The gleaming 12-second instrumental intro is amongst the most precious passages of sound in popular culture.

Honourable mentions:

* Reel Around the Fountain is a sumptuous opener to the album. Its ornate lyric vaguely recounts a first sexual encounter. However, it was misunderstood by idiots at The Sun, who argumentatively claimed that one line (“…you took a child and you made him old…”) means the song is about a paedophile. Such dreary literal-mindedness created a mini-furore, the track was temporarily banned on BBC radio, and a planned single release was shelved. Morrissey’s vocal is lovely, especially on the radiant verse that begins “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice…” And the music is fantastic – Johnny Marr delicately picks the notes out on his guitar, there’s a good bassline, while Paul Carrack of Roxy Music and Squeeze was brought in to add some nice piano and Hammond parts.

* Pretty Girls Make Graves is one of Morrissey’s playfully ambiguous lyrics – is it about virginity? Celibacy? Being gay? – and has a pleasant buoyant rhythm. There’s also real drama in sections when the song flies off into another realm for a few seconds (at 0.37, 1.26 and 2.16). This re-listen has been the first time I’ve ever noticed that Morrissey is quoting Hand in Glove during the fadeout.

* The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a very early Morrissey/Marr track, and another song that some claim is about child abuse. The lyrics sound more like an ode to parenthood – until, that is, a final verse that contains worrying phrases like “your mother she need never know…” (This verse is not included in the printed lyrics on the album’s packaging). Whatever the truth, there’s some nice alliteration and it fits the driving, hypnotic music really well.

* Still Ill was only written after a failed attempt to record this debut album had been written off. It starts and ends with a distinctive staccato passage and rattles along in-between, thanks in large part to Morrissey’s lyrics. By magpie-ing phrases from and references to a myriad sources he created something that sounds big and important and vital, even if it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. The album’s house style of production – it’s an oddly ‘small’, contained sound – is the only downside. You get the feeling the song could take flight a bit more.

* Hand in Glove – urgent, moody, a little bit punky – was one of the first songs the band ever recorded, and released as their debut single in May 1983. (This version is the same take as the 7”, though remixed by album producer John Porter.) Like the Beatles at the start of their recording career, the Smiths add some earthy harmonica to beef up the sound.

* What Difference Does it Make? is strident guitar rock with a powerful arpeggio intro, some big acoustic chord chops and an energetic, busy arrangement. Whether we need Morrissey’s high-pitched wailing is another matter. During its recording, the singer went AWOL and only returned after drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke agreed that he could have more money than them. What difference did *that* make? It led to a row years later in the High Court over royalties.

Worst song: Miserable Lie is unremarkable to begin with – but then a jarring descent into a thrash-punk beat at the 0.54 mark is irritating beyond belief. A bad mix, which sounds bass-light, doesn’t help.

Review: An entire version of this LP was produced by former Teardrop Explodes guitarist Troy Tate then junked before John Porter was brought in for another go. (The Troy Tate version is easy to find online. It’s rubbish.) Morrissey still wasn’t thrilled with the result, but having spent so much money it was felt they needed to release something. Despite all that kerfuffle, the album stands up well. The quality of the writing is certainly there, right from the start – but it does sound like a band working under restraints. The album sits shyly in the corner rather than dominating the room. Very good rather than great.

Eight sore lips out of 10.

Dracula 2000 (2000, Patrick Lussier)

dracula-2000-gerard butler

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We begin in 1897, on board the ship the Demeter then in London. We soon cut to the year 2000, in London and later New Orleans.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a new story – a sequel to the events of the book, in effect – but there are lots of interesting parallels. After a Victorian prologue, the main action takes place in 2000. Matthew Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer) initially tells us that he’s the grandson of Abraham Van Helsing, the man Bram Stoker fictionalised in his novel. Matthew runs an organisation called Carfax Antiquaries and collects ancient weapons. One night, a team of criminals break into his vaults, where they find a coffin – inside it are the remains of Count Dracula, who was defeated a century earlier. When the crims steal the coffin and fly it back to America, Dracula (Gerard Butler) is accidentally resurrected and starts killing. The plane crashes near New Orleans and the pilot is later found lashed to his controls (a nice echo of the captain of the Demeter in the novel). Van Helsing and protégé Simon Sheppard (Johnny Lee Miller using a wideboy accent) follow the count to the States and start to hunt down the vampires he’s created. Van Helsing also reveals that he’s actually Abraham: he’s been taking small doses of vampire blood for over a century in order to extend his life. (We see flashbacks to him capturing Dracula in 1897: it’s nothing like what happens in the novel. Is the idea that Bram Stoker invented all the stuff with Jonathan Harker and the others?) Unfortunately, Van Helsing’s connection to vampire blood has been passed on to his daughter, Mary (Justine Waddell, poor), who Dracula is now targeting… The character of Dracula is given a new history – after the clichéd hint that he’s Vlad the Impaler, we get the real story. In a move that adds an extra layer of meaning to the film’s title, it’s revealed that Dracula was Judas Iscariot before his immortality – hence his dislike of Christian symbolism and his allergy to silver. There are also some other interesting rhymes with the novel: Mary’s best mate is called Lucy Westerman (sic), a police doctor is named Seward, while three of Dracula’s female victims form a version of the Brides.

Best performance: Nathan Fillion shows up as a priest, a role that prefigures his grandstanding stint in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a show that must surely have been an influence on this movie).

Best bit: Newly arrived in America, Dracula attacks a TV reporter (Jeri Ryan) and cuts her throat – but because we view the incident through the viewfinder of a camera (which uses a mirror) we don’t see the vampire as he does it.

Review: A pleasant surprise. ‘Executive produced’ by horror legend Wes Craven, this is good schlocky fun. There are effective scares, a few good gags, and lots of pleasing directorial flourishes. It also inventively riffs on Stoker’s story and characters, while there’s a pleasing combination of old-school horror tropes and modern, high-tech thriller elements. It’s not perfect, of course, and sadly the two lead characters – Simon and Mary – are very underwritten. But this is a mid-budget B-movie that isn’t embarrassed to be a mid-budget B-movie. It revels in its genre-ness and is all more entertaining for it. (When released in Europe several months after its US debut, it was renamed Dracula 2001.)

Eight Virgin Megastore logos* out of 10

*The movie’s director claims on the DVD commentary that the frequency and blatancy with which we see the Virgin logo is not actually product placement but rather a gag punning on the brand’s name.

Spaceballs (1987, Mel Brooks)

spaceballs

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this spoof of the Star Wars movies, the president of the planet Spaceball plans to steal the clean, fresh atmosphere from their neighbours on Druidia. In order to extort the king, Spaceball military leader Dark Helmet is sent to kidnap Princess Vespa…

WHICH VERSION? The cut released in cinemas in 1987 and on DVD in 2004.

GOOD GUYS

* Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) is the film’s Princess Leia equivalent. She’s a spoilt brat of a young woman with a flash sports spaceship. In the opening scene, she’s being married off to a dull, yawning prince called Valium, so does a runner. After meeting up with the roguish Captain Lone Starr, the pair bicker in a we-clearly-fancy-each-other way.

* Dot Matrix (body: Lorene Yarnell, voice: Joan Rivers) is the C-3PO of this story – a female, gold android with a droll sense of humour.

* Barf (John Candy) fulfils Chewbacca’s function as the hero’s co-pilot. He’s a ‘mawg’ – half man, half dog, who is his own best friend – and has a big appetite. He and Lone Starr travel round the galaxy in Eagle 5, a Winnebago motorhome with wings.

* Captain Lone Starr (Bill Pulman… or is it Bill Paxton? Jeff Bridges?) has a combination of Luke Skywalker’s destiny-driven purity and Han Solo’s edgy anti-hero charisma. Hired by Druidia’s King Roland to save Princess Vespa from the Spaceballs, Lone Starr tracks her down and rescues her – but they then crash-land on an unnamed desert planet (not unlike Tatooine). There, some cloaked midgets (not unlike the Jawas) take our characters to an underground temple where they meet a guru called Yogurt (not unlike Yoda). Later, Lone Starr confronts the bad guy Dark Helmet, who reveals that they have a familial connection: he’s Lone Starr’s father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.

* Yogurt (Mel Brooks, in one of two roles he plays in this film) is, as mentioned, the film’s version of Yoda. A short, green alien played by Brooks on his knees like someone doing a Toulouse-Lautrec impression, Yogurt teaches Lone Starr in the ways of the Schwarz (a mystical energy field not unlike the Force). He’s also managing a range of Spaceballs: The Movie merchandising. When Lone Starr leaves the temple, Yogurt hopes they’ll meet again… in Spaceballs 2: The Search for More Money.

* John Hurt shows up in a scene at a space diner and comically recreates the iconic chestburster moment from Alien. “Oh, no,” he says mid-birth, “not again!” (I never spotted this when I was a kid, but the people he’s with are specifically cast and costumed to resemble Kane’s crewmembers in Alien.)

BAD GUYS

* Colonel Sandurz (George Wyner) is one of the Spaceballs military officers, usually seen at Dark Helmet’s side. His name has seemingly been chosen solely so there’s an extra laugh when Dark Helmet accuses him of being ‘chicken’.

* Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) is obviously the Darth Vader of the story, though a lot shorter than his inspiration. And clumsier. He has an enormous helmet with a retractable visor (when it’s down he sometimes struggles to breathe). He enjoys playing with his Spaceballs action figures.

* Pizza the Hut (voice: Dom DeLuise) is a large sentient mass of cheese, tomato and bread. Like Return of the Jedi’s Jabba the Hutt, he’s a gangster who wants some money from the scoundrel in the cast. He has a robotic Mafia-like sidekick called Vinnie.

* President Skroob (Mel Brooks again) is the leader of Spaceball City. He’s a man of no principles – a smarmy 1980s businessman of a character. He likes sniffing air from cans of ‘Perri-air’ and having threesomes with twins. (Skroob in an anagram of the actor’s surname, of course. Well, I say ‘of course’. I’ve only just spotted it. And I first saw this film 27 years ago.)

* Michael Winslow has been brought over from the Police Academy series to do exactly the same kind of vocal-gymnastics jokes he was doing there. He cameos as a radar technician.

* Gretchin (Brenda Strong, who was later in Seinfeld, Sports Night and Desperate Housewives) is a sexy nurse in a scene where the Spaceballs threaten to reverse Princess Vespa’s nose job.

* The captain of the guard (Stephen Tobolowsky) is very smug when he thinks he’s captured Lone Starr, Barf, Vespa and Dot Matrix. When they turn to face him, however, he realises he’s actually imprisoned the characters’ stunt doubles.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: During Lone Starr and Dark Helmet’s duel (using beams of energy not unlike lightsabres), Dark Helmet accidentally kills the movie’s boom operator.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Another, more inventive, fourth-wall-breaking gag is when Colonel Sandurz suggests they watch a VHS copy of Spaceballs: The Movie in order to find out where the missing Vespa has gone. As indicated above, the film is littered with self-aware references to it being a work of fiction.

MUSIC: The score is by John Morris and is pretty good.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I saw this film a silly amount of times as a child, but this was my first viewing in God knows how long. A lot of it was still familiar to me.

REVIEW: The Star Wars-spoofing elements are all obvious but generally funny – the wordy crawl of text that starts the film, the ridiculously enormous spaceship seen in the opening shot, the character types and mysticism… But it also pokes fun at Star Trek a few times; has a completely delete-able scene taking off Alien; and also has a Planet of the Apes gag. There are a lot of jokes and they come at a relentless pace – and most are successful enough for the film to gallop along enjoyably. Whether it’s characters being laughably earnest or making intertextual asides, it’s all great fun.

Eight virgin alarms out of 10

Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest (2008, Michael Feifer)

bram-stokers-draculas-guest

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting? The Victorian era. In London, the English countryside, Transylvania, France and ‘Eastern Europe’.

Faithful to the novel? Dracula’s Guest is a short story by Bram Stoker, published by his widow in 1914. It seems to have been the original opening chapter of his novel Dracula, but was cut by the publisher because the book was too long. Its unnamed protagonist (assumed to be Jonathan Harker) travels across Europe and has a worrying encounter with some kind of werewolf… This film is a very, very, very loose adaptation, which makes the incalculably illogical decision to name the lead character… Bram Stoker. Like Harker, he’s a London lawyer; but like the real-life Stoker, he’s Irish. A mysterious foreigner called Count Dracula (who has no problem sitting in sunlight) employs the fictional Bram to help purchase a house on Regent Street. Meanwhile, Bram is courting a young woman called Elizabeth Murray, whose father is unhappy with their relationship. Sick of her dad’s interference, Elizabeth runs away and bumps into Dracula at the train station – he kidnaps her, takes her back to Transylvania with him, and rapes her (bye-bye, subtext!). When Bram hears what’s happened, he travels to Castle Dracula to rescue her – on the way, he has several spooky encounters, including a nighttime meeting with a quartet of Brides. Bram finally confronts Dracula, but can’t defeat him. Luckily, Elizabeth’s dad then shows up and – because he’s apparently a vampire hunter! – easily kills the count.

Best performance: She can’t act, but at least Kelsey McCann (Elizabeth) is pretty.

Best moment: As part of its start-up sequence, the DVD played a trailer for a low-budget zombie/Western movie called Undead or Alive. It had bags more wit, energy and fun than the film I then watched.

Review: Fuck a duck. This is genuinely one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. A pathetic, boring, bland, badly thought-out, badly paced script of clichés has been given to a uniformly dreadful cast who trot out some atrocious English and Irish accents. (Helpfully, a bad sound mix means you sometimes struggle to hear them. It seems the film’s budget didn’t stretch to ADR.) Even more annoyingly, it’s all so awfully directed. The washed-out cinematography is irritating enough, but the laughably inept framing and sloppy editing mean every scene trundles along with no momentum or style or drama.

One fencing duel out of 10

My 10 favourite episodes of Jonathan Creek

qafovrprlwofvxmsdtlh

* The Wrestler’s Tomb (10 May 1997) – a fantastic double-length opening episode, setting up the series’s humour, ingenuity and characters. Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin are superb right from the off.

* Jack in the Box (17 May 1997) – a brilliant locked-room mystery with plenty of twists.

* The Reconstituted Corpse (24 May 1997) – HOW DID A DEAD BODY GET INTO A WARDROBE THAT WAS EMPTY JUST A MINUTE AGO?!

* No Trace of Tracy (31 May 1997) – Danny from Withnail & I spends a night tied to a radiator. More fun than I’ve made it sound.

* Time Waits for Norman (31 January 1998) – a lovely little episode about neurosis.

* Black Canary (24 December 1998) – the best one of all, a fantastic Christmas special with a stunningly clever mystery and stellar guest turn from Rik Mayall.

* Ghosts Forge (18 December 1999) – a mystery solved by punctuation, and a fun subplot of Caroline Quentin’s Maddie winding up a rival character.

* Miracle in Crooked Lane (28 December 1999) – one of those seemingly simple/actually really complicated stories that the show does so well.

* The Seer of the Sands (14 February 2004) – probably the best of the largely disappointing fourth series, with a macabre twist.

* The Judas Tree (4 April 2010) – the best of the recent occasional specials, with Sheridan Smith fantastic as sadly short-lived sidekick Joey.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005, George Lucas)

Revenge_of_the_Sith

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The galaxy is in chaos: a separatist droid army is waging war with the republic, and Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker is feeling torn between the two sides…

WHICH VERSION? The 2005 DVD release, which was more or less the same cut as the theatrical version. (Apparently Darth Vader’s infamous “Nooo!” is shorter on home video.)

GOOD GUYS:

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is often at Anakin’s side, especially during the opening action sequence.

* General Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is on Jedi business at the start, saving Chancellor Palpatine from the bad guys. Obi-Wan lets Anakin take the credit for the rescue, but can afford to be magnanimous because he’s now a member of the Jedi Council. Later, when droid leader General Grevious is located, Obi-Wan is sent to kill him – he does so by shooting him after a long lightsaber fight. (“So uncivilised,” he says, nodding towards dialogue from Star Wars.) However, Obi-Wan’s life is threatened when stormtroopers – under orders from Palpatine – start to assassinate all the Jedi. Obi-Wan then learns that Anakin has gone over to the Dark Side. He finds his old friend on the planet Mustafar, where they have an epic duel. After Anakin is defeated, Obi-Wan leaves – but only after collecting his padawan’s lightsaber so he can give it to Luke in 20 years’ time.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) coordinates the Jedis’ efforts in defeating the separatists. When he learns that Palpatine is a member of the evil Sith religion, Windu goes to arrest him but then realises the Chancellor is too deranged and must be killed. However, Anakin comes to his new master’s aid and helps him murder Windu.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is gold and shiny now. He’s seen by Padmé’s side a few times, then has his memory wiped at the end of the film (because in the original movies he doesn’t remember the events of the prequels).

* Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) gets more to do than in Attack of the Clones. He could hardly have less. He’s loyal to the Jedi, and they use his space ship – THE SAME ONE FROM THE OPENING SCENE OF STAR WARS! – as a refuge. At the end of the film, he takes the newborn Leia home to Alderaan.

* Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now secretly married to Anakin. She also tells him she’s pregnant, but they need to keep the news under wraps. If it were public knowledge, he’d be kicked out of the Jedi club, while she’d have to give up her job. She’s already showing, however, so maybe she’s telling friends that she’s developed a love of cake and beer. The character isn’t in the film a huge amount, goes missing for long stretches, and does a lot of wimpering. (Princess Leia must be turning in her mum’s womb.) When she’s told that her beloved Anakin has gone evil, Padmé goes off to find him – he responds by assuming she’s betrayed him and throttling her. She later goes into premature labour and gives birth to two enormous CGI babies. She has just enough time to make sure we all know their names before she dies. (So how come Princess Leia says she can remember her mother in Return of the Jedi, then? EH, GEORGE LUCAS?!)

* Yoda (Frank Oz) tries to offer guidance to a clearly stressed Anakin, but is unhappy when the young Jedi is given a seat on the Jedi council. Because he has an established relationship with the Wookies, Yoda then takes a battalion of troops to their home planet – Kashyyyk, last seen in The Star Wars Holiday Special – to reinforce a rearguard action. When the stormtroopers turn evil, Yoda senses the danger. With the help of ally Chewbacca, he manages to escape. He confronts Palpatine and they fight, but Yoda can’t beat him so has to go into hiding.

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) features briefly in the scenes on Kashyyyk, where the combined Wookie/republic forces are repelling the rebel droids. There were plans to feature a 10-year-old Han Solo in this sequence, but they were dropped. Probably for the best.

* Commander Cody (Temuera Morrison) is a featured stormtrooper. He’s Obi-Wan’s mate until Palpatine sends the coded message – order 66 – that turns all the clones into murderous brutes.

* Tion Medan (Bruce Spence, who was the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2) is an alien whose people are being held hostage by General Grevious.

* Luke and Leia are Padmé and Anakin’s twins, born near the end of the film. In order to protect them from their evil father, the babies are split up and hidden. The girl is given a home by Bail Organa and his wife (we skip over the conversation where he pitches *that* idea to her). The boy, meanwhile, is taken by Obi-Wan Kenobi. His brainwave is to hide the child… on Anakin’s home planet… with Anakin’s stepbrother… on the farm where Anakin’s mum used to live… growing up with Anakin’s surname…

* Captain Antilles (Rohan Nichol) appears briefly. He runs Organa’s ship and was also seen in the first Star Wars film, being throttled to death by Darth Vader. The process of writing this review has been the first time I’ve ever realised that the guy being strangled (“We intercepted no transmission… Argh! This is a consular ship!”) is the Captain Antilles that C-3PO later mentions to Luke Skywalker. It’s taken me over 30 years to spot that.

* Beru (Bonnie Piesse) and Owen (Joel Edgerton) appear when Obi-Wan shows up to give them the baby Luke. They’re not surprised to see him, so presumably he called ahead and asked them to spend the rest of their lives raising the secret child of the galaxy’s most murderous maniacal murdering maniac.

BAD GUYS:

* Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is more or less a good guy at the start of the film. He mounts a daring rescue of Chancellor Palpatine after the republic’s leader is seemingly kidnapped by the separatists. (It’s actually been staged by Palpatine.) During the mission, Anakin is ordered by Palpatine to kill head ‘kidnapper’ Count Dooku. Anakin’s conflicted… but does it anyway, severing Dooku’s head just to make sure. Later, after learning that he’s going to be a father, Anakin is dogged by prophetic nightmares about Padmé dying in childbirth. Meanwhile, Palpatine engineers it so Anakin gets a seat on the Jedi Council; but *they* meanwhile want him to spy on the chancellor. Palpatine drips poison in Anakin’s ears, stokes his anger, and also dangles the power to save Padmé in front of him. Anakin deduces that Palpatine is the Sith Lord they’ve all been searching for, but rather than hand him in he helps the chancellor kill Mace Windu. Anakin feels guilty, bless him, but still becomes Palpatine’s apprentice in exchange for the skill to save Padmé from an early death. So Palpatine gives him a new (Sith) name – Darth Vader, which he seemingly picks out of his arse. Off the deep end now, Anakin murders a load of Jedi (including some kids, though the one with dialogue is a precocious little shit so let’s not be too judgemental). Anankin also goes to the volanco moon of Mustafar and wipes out the separatist conspirators. But when Padmé and Obi-Wan arrive, Anakin thinks they’re against him so begins to throttle Padmé. After a long, epic, mostly green-screen-shot lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan, Anakin loses his limbs (he’s now more Monty Python Black Knight than Jedi Knight) and is burnt by lava. Obi-Wan leaves him to die (harsh), but Palpatine shows up, takes him back to Coruscant and encases him in a full suit of sleek black armour. Now recognisably the Darth Vader from the original movies, the character’s dialogue is voiced by James Earl Jones. (Or is it? He’s not credited and Jones himself was evasive when he was once asked about it.)

* General Grevious (Matthew Wood) is the leader of the separatist droid army. He’s a droid himself, though has organic elements (such as a heart and real eyes). He wheezes and coughs a lot. When Obi-Wan tracks him down, Grevious reveals his USP: he has four arms and can wield a lightsaber in each one. He’s a totally CG character.

* Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has been captured when the film begins. But Count Dooku has only pretended to take him – it’s all a ruse, staged by Palpatine himself. As well as playing both sides of the war off against each other, the chancellor is plotting to make Anakin his new apprentive *and* manipulating events so he can have even more power. His to-do list must be massive. When his real agenda is discovered and Mace Windu tries to arrest him, Palpatine shows us he’s shit-hot with a lightsaber. But during the fight with Windu, the chancellor is aged by exposure to an energy beam so he now looks more like he does in the original films. Anakin finally becomes his apprentice (“You’re hired!” “Thank you, Lord Sidious!”) and gets a new name. Together they start to wipe out their opponents. Palpatine then declares a new Galactic Empire to replace the old republic, with himself as Emperor. After relatively minor roles in the previous two films, Palpatine gets a lot of screen time here – and McDiarmid is a terrific panto villain.

* Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is in one scene, just enough time for Anakin to behead him on Palpatine’s orders.

* Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) is on the brains trust of the separatists, but then Anakin kills him.

* Grand Moff Tarkin (Wayne Pygram) makes a mute cameo in a scene of the Emperor (as he is now) and Darth Vader looking at the shell of the under-construction Death Star. Hang on, so that means it takes the Empire 20 years to build the first Death Star, but then they knock up the second one in a few months. Perhaps the original involved a lot of R&D work.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The opening is pretty spectacular. It’s a tremendously detailed 74-second CGI shot, which takes us through an enormous space battle going on above Coruscant.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: R2-D2 gets some entertaining slapstick in the first act.

MUSIC: Another excellent score.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this movie on Thursday 19 May 2005. My pal Simon Guerrier had got us tickets to the first showing of the film’s first day on general release – at the ginormous Odeon Leicester Square. I was so nervous that morning, because we all assumed it was the last time we’d ever see a new Star Wars film. The 1,679-seat auditorium was full. When the caption ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ came up, someone shouted out, “I’ve seen this one!” and we all laughed. It broke the tension brilliantly. I really, really enjoyed seeing the film that day.

REVIEW: The drama is basic and clunky, but at least it’s there. This is a story based on character choices, which means that while not perfect the film is more watchable and engaging than its prequel cousins. There’s a vivid sense of events spiralling out of control; an awful inevitability hangs over everything. Meanwhile, as with every Star Wars film, the design work is really smart. It tells story just as well as dialogue or acting – better, probably. The good guys’ space ships are starting to precursor the Empire models, for example, while Anakin’s costumes are now from Gestapo’R’Us. Also, the series’s obsession with CGI is better handled here than it was in Attack of the Clones. The action feels weighter and a bit more physical, while environments seem less cartoony for the most part. (It helps that the whole film has a darker, moodier colour palette.) The same old problems remain – terrible dialogue, wooden cast members – but this is the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.

Seven younglings out of 10

Blood of Dracula (1957, Herbert L Strock)

MovieQuiz_734-1

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting? Sherwood School for Girls, somewhere in America, 1957.

Faithful to the novel? The connection is slim. It’s the story of a teenage girl packed off to a boarding school by her newly remarried father. Nancy Perkins is targeted by the science teacher, who performs an experiment on her. Miss Branding wants to let loose a primeval force (or something) so doses Nancy with a chemical then hypnotises her with an ancient amulet from Carpathia. Nancy loosens up, joining in with the cool kids as they have a party, but then a student is brutally murdered. The police find two puncture marks on the victim’s neck. Nancy then strikes again, and we see her this time: she morphs into a rodent-faced vampire. Tired of being used, however, Nancy rebels against the teacher and both are killed during a fight.

Best performance: Sandra Harrison is suitably dour and uptight as Nancy.

Best moment: There’s a ridiculous bit where a dorm full of girls and three visiting boys perform a song-and-dance routine. They mime to Puppy Love on a record player, but have clearly worked on their choreography.

Review: A melodramatic B-movie, which was churned out by the production company as more or less a remake of their earlier hit I Was a Teenage Werewolf. A copper uses the term ‘Draculas’ to mean ‘vampires’. The fact the MacGuffin is from Carpathia suggests a link to the novel, but none is spelt out.

Five rock’n’roll parties out of 10

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002, George Lucas)

Attack_of_the_clones_1

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various planets are planning to leave the Galactic Republic, putting strain on the Jedi knights and threatening civil war. A republican army is proposed, but someone is trying to kill its main political opponent…

WHICH VERSION? The 2002 DVD release, which made some minor changes to the theatrical release.

GOOD GUYS:

* Senator Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is no longer Naboo’s… Hang on a sec, her first name is actually Padmé? The name she was using when she secretly disguised herself as her own handmaiden in The Phantom Menace? It wasn’t a pseudonym?! That makes even less fucking sense now. Anyway, she’s no longer Naboo’s queen (which is actually an elected position). She’s replaced Palpatine as her planet’s senator in the galaxy-wide parliament and is said to be the leader of the opposition. She’s still using the decoy trick, though, and her unfortunate stooge is killed in the opening scene – it’s just the first of two assassination attempts. After going all the way to Coruscant to vote against the creation of a new army, the threat to her life means she flees home before the division is called. Old pal Anakin Skywalker acts as bodyguard and – despite his dialogue seeming like quotes from Fascist Nutjob Monthly – they fall in love. Disappointingly, Portman is astonishingly terrible in this movie. It’s a dull, listless, placid performance. When Anakin confesses that he’s killed some bandits and their children in a violent rage, she *barely reacts*. At the film’s end, Padmé and Anakin secretly marry: droids C-3PO and R2-D2 are the only guests. In the plus column, the character’s costumes and hairdos often echo Princess Leia’s from the original movies, which is a cute touch.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is still by Padmé’s side, even when she has to go into hiding. On Tatooine, he forms a double act with fellow droid C-3PO and they get some comic-relief action beats in the final third. In this film, R2 has hitherto unseen booster rockets, which means he can fly. Those would’ve been handy in the original series.

* Captain Typho (Jay Laga’aia) is Padmé’s latest head of security. And yes, his name is actually Typho. He can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though, because as soon as Padmé’s life is threatened, the job of guarding her is given to the Jedi.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) is deeply suspicious of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine and his politicking. Near the end, the Jedi turns up on the planet Geonosis – he’s brought the other knights with him to save the day. “This party’s over!” Windu says in an attempt to feature in the film’s trailer. He also unleashes his lightsaber, which is uniquely purple. Is this a hint that his loyalties lie somewhere between Jedi blue and Sith red? No, it’s just that Jackson wanted a cool-looking weapon.

* Master Yoda (Frank Oz) is now a totally computer-generated creation. It’s a remarkable achievement, which clearly took many talented people a lot of time and effort. But doesn’t everyone miss the puppet version? We see him leading the Jedi council and training a group of ‘younglings’ (kid students). For the climax, he goes and fetches the new clone army and leads them into battle against the bad guys: as he says, begun the clone war has. In a moment that is as gleefully wonderful as it is laughably ridiculous, we see Yoda draw his lightsaber and duel with the six-foot-plus Count Dooku.

* Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) is a politician from Alderaan. If you know your Star Wars, you’ll know he’ll later be Princess Leia’s adoptive father. But he’s a spectacularly redundant character in this film.

* Dormé (Rose Byrne… Sorry, my mind wandered there for a moment) is Padmé’s handmaiden.

* Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) has had his contribution reduced, presumably because the character went down so poorly in The Phantom Menace. When Padmé goes into hiding on the eve of a crucial vote, she asks him to take her place in the senate. (She can do this, can she? Just appoint a proxy?) Jar Jar fucks up his responsibility, however, when Palpatine cons him into kickstarting the vote that gives the Chancellor dictatorial power.

* Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) has, in the last 10 years, grown a beard, grown a mullet, and grown some balls. Ewan’s much better in the role this time round – he has fun with Obi-Wan’s wry humour, sarcasm and pensive anger. Kenobi is assigned to protect Padmé, but breaks off that mission to investigate her would-be assassin. He then gets a subplot where he plays private detective, following one small clue to the heart of the conspiracy. It’s maybe the film’s best element in conception, yet sadly consists mostly of McGregor staring into the middle distance and trying to act opposite aliens who’ll be added in post-production. His investigation leads to the rain-lashed planet Kamino, where tall, long-limbed, serene creatures are cloning a 200,000-strong army. The fully grown soldiers all look like Dr Ropata from Shortland Street. That’s because they’re being cloned from bounty hunter Jango Fett. They’re also being kitted out in white armour – THE CLONES REFERRED TO OBLIQUELY IN STAR WARS ARE THE STORMTROOPERS! What a great subversion of expectation that is. Obi-Wan then tracks Jango to a planet called Geonosis, where he overhears the bad guys spelling out their evil plan. He radios for help from apprentice Anakin – and after a lengthy Ray Harryhausen-influenced action sequence, our heroes fight back. Obi-Wan corners evil leader Count Dooku and they duel. Obi-Wan is about to be killed when Anakin saves him.

* Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) has been Obi-Wan’s padawan apprentice for 10 years now. He’s in love with Padmé, but is gutted when she patronises him during their first meeting in a decade. He’s also been having nightmares about his mother. (Shouldn’t have abandoned her to slavery, then, should you?!) Anakin’s headstrong and impetuous, which doesn’t reflect well on Obi-Wan’s 10-year training regime; has been getting chummy with the clearly evil Palpatine; and has a nasty right-wing attitude to law and order. When he guards Padmé as she returns to Naboo, he wears her down with his stalkery whining and they fall in love. But he’s still having those mum-related dreams (paging Dr Freud!). On the basis of this, he risks Padmé’s life by taking her to Tatooine. He finds his mum’s new home, a farm run by the Lars family. Anakin’s old droid, C-3PO, is also there. But Shmi has recently been snatched by bandits and is presumed dead. Anakin hunts the bandits down and finds his mother in a bad way; she then dies in his arms. Going ape-shit, he murders the bandits, then risks Padmé’s life even more by going with her to rescue Obi-Wan. Anakin ends up fighting bad guy Dooku, but has his arm chopped off. Ouch. Hayden Christensen gives an atrocious performance in this film. When you see the list of actors auditioned or considered for the role – Paul Walker, Colin Hanks, Jonathan Brandis… *Leonardo DiCaprio* – it’s all the more mystifying what they saw in him.

* Sio Bibble (Oliver Ford Davies) is still doom-mongering on Naboo.

* Queen Jamillia (Ayesha Dharker, who was later in both Doctor Who and Coronation Street) is the new leader of Naboo. They like voting for teenage girls on that planet, it seems. Bit dodge.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) has been finished off by someone since the last film: he now has a metal casing, though it’s not yet the shiny gold we know and love. A thought occurs: given that the droid clearly spends time living with the Lars family, why doesn’t Owen recognise him in Star Wars? After hooking up with R2, 3PO gets dragged along to Geonosis for unexplained reasons.

* Owen Lars (Joel Edgerton), girlfriend Beru Whitesun (Bonnie Piesse) and invalid dad Cliegg (Jack Thompson) are Shmi’s new family. Cliegg bought her from slave-owner Watto, freed her and married her. When they sit Anakin down to tell him that Shmi’s missing, they do so at the same table that Luke has breakfast at in Star Wars.

* Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) has one scene before dying.

BAD GUYS:

* Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is in charge of the senate now. He has his eye on Anakin, who he reckons will one day be the most powerful Jedi around. As well as campaigning for a new republican army, he’s secretly growing a clone force as well. He wants a civil war so he can manipulate events and take absolute power. He’s aged visibly in the 10 years since he got the top job. So did Tony Blair, I suppose.

* Zam Wesell (Leeanna Walsman) is a bounty hunter hired to kill Padmé. When her attempt fails, Obi-Wan and Anakin give chase. Zam is a shape-shifter and we see her face go reptilian before she dies.

* Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) is a bounty hunter who wears the same kind of armour we saw Boba Fett sport during the original movies. That’s because Jango is Boba’s dad – well, his clone source anyway. You see, some aliens have paid Jango for his DNA, which they’re using to create a massive clone army. As well as the fee, he’s asked for one clone who he can keep for himself. Let’s be charitable and assume he’s feeling paternal. Probably the film’s best dramatic scene is between Jango and Obi-Wan when the latter comes to investigate: both characters know more is going on than they can admit, and their chat is frosty and guarded. Jango has a space ship, Slave I, which Boba uses in the original movies. During the final battle, Jango is beheaded by Mace Windu.

* Boba Fett (Daniel Logan) is a young clone – in effect, the son – of Jango. He witnesses his father’s death and we see him retrieve his iconic helmet from the battleground. Hopefully Jango’s severed head has rolled out beforehand.

* Watto (Andy Secombe) returns from The Phantom Menace.

* Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is the leader of the separatist movement, but is basically a puppet for Palpatine’s Sith alter ego, Darth Sidious. He’s been building a droid army, ready for when the republic votes to have one. After fighting with Yoda, he escapes so he can be in the next film.

* Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) also shows up again. He’s still the Trade Federation viceroy, despite numerous attempts to indict him.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Obi-Wan’s fight with Jango in the rain on Kamino. Obi-Wan loses his lightsaber, which means it’s more of a punch-up than is usual in Star Wars.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: It’s slim-pickings, but Ewan McGregor gets some dryly amusing lines. “Why do I get the feeling you’ll be the death of me?” he sighs prophetically when Anakin pisses him off. A moment later, he has a comedic chat with a black-market conman: “You want to go home and rethink your life,” Obi-Wan says, using a Jedi mind trick.

MUSIC: The score is most fun when it’s quoting stuff from earlier movies – such as the ‘Luke stares at the twin suns’ cue from Star Wars, the ‘Darth Maul fight’ theme from Phantom Menace or the ominous notes of the Imperial March.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film at a cinema in Derby on Tuesday 21 May 2002 with my ex-housemate Hilary and her friend Giles. But I’m going to use this category for a rant. Is it just me or do the Americanisms in these prequels seem really incongruous? In film one, Qui-Gon spoke of “an odd play for the Trade Federation”; in this film, we learn that Padmé had to stop being queen because of a presidential-style term limit; and in the next film, Anakin will refer to himself as a “poster boy”. In the originals, talk of senates and regional governors felt more Roman than Washington, but maybe that was my misplaced assumption. Did those films feature Americanisms too, but I was just so young I didn’t spot them?

REVIEW: One step forward, one step back. There *are* improvements from The Phantom Menace. This one gets going more quickly, with intrigue and mystery being set up straightaway. There’s a better plot here with twists and turns, and it’s basically a more engaging story. Also, there’s some lovely thematic rhyming going on. The same kind of events keep happening in this series, but in interestingly different ways. However, visually speaking, it’s all so bloody *artificial*. Watching Attack of the Clones is like watching a computer game play itself out. There are CGI backdrops, CGI sets, CGI creatures, CGI extensions to virtually every shot, at times 100-per-cent GC sequences… It’s exhausting and relentlessly distracting, especially for those of us who grew up on the physical, palpable, visceral special-effects movies of the 1970s and 80s. It’s also horrendously ‘indoors-y’ – only on location in Italy and Tunisia does the film get out of the green-screen studio and blow some real life through the scenes. Another perhaps unavoidable problem is the curse of the prequel. By showing us backstory, the mystery is considerably lessened. When Luke Skywalker casually mentioned the Clone Wars in the first movie, it felt so evocative. By not explaining it, it seemed huge. But now we can see it, and it’s CGI soldiers shooting at CGI robots, it’s rather less exciting. Most disappointingly, though, the drama is still brain-curdlingly dreadful. It makes it almost impossible to care about what’s happening. The writing is especially pungent during the stilted, sparkless romance between Padmé and Anakin. Two wooden actors trot out hackneyed lines and hammer away at any subtext until nothing is left but a desire to switch the film off.

Six death-sticks out of 10