House of Dracula (1945, Erle C Kenton)


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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s vague. There are lots of Germanic names, but most of the characters have American accents. There are telephones but no cars.

Faithful to the novel? This is a sequel to 1944’s House of Frankenstein and another of Universal Pictures’ character-crossover events. Despite being destroyed in the previous film, Count Dracula (John Carradine) is back. He wants a cure for his undeadedness, so visits Dr Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), who is remarkably unfazed by a famous vampire walking in at 5am and asking to see the cellar. Dr Edelmann has a couple of nurses working for him. One of them, Nina (Jane Adams), has a deformed back and he intends to help her with an operation. Then – how’s this for a coincidence? – a guy called Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) shows up asking the doctor to cure his werewolfedness. (This was Chaney’s fourth time playing Universal’s Wolf Man.) Depressed that the treatment might not work, Talbot then tries to top himself. He jumps off a nearby cliff but ends up in a cave, where he and Edelmann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and the corpse of Dr Niemann from the previous film. Meanwhile, Dracula tries to seduce a nurse called Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) – so to protect her, Edelmann kills the Count with 25 minutes of the film still to go. However, Dracula had earlier infected Edelmann with some vamp blood during a transfusion. So the doctor now has a bonkers dream, which involves clips from previous movies, then goes mental and kills a couple of people (including poor Nina). Talbot reluctantly has to shoot him dead.

Best performance: This was John Carradine’s second appearance as Dracula, after House of Frankenstein. He’s suave and cultured. He later played the Count in three non-Universal films: Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Las vampiras (1969) and Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979). His son David was Bill in Kill Bill.

Best bit: Nina is an interesting character. Given her deformity, she was actually classified as one of the movie’s monsters in some of the publicity (see the poster above). Yet Jane Adams plays her with an inner sadness, and the moment when she realises Dracula isn’t casting a shadow is well staged.

Review: There are a few nice elements on show here, such as some fantastic sets and some good special effects. The bat-to-Drac transformation is neatly done in shadow, for example, while Talbot turning into a werewolf is achieved via some very nifty dissolves with Chaney’s make-up getting increasingly hirsuite. But the B-movie dialogue and cod acting drag everything down.

Five hunchbacks out of 10

Ant-Man (2015, Peyton Reed)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ex-con Scott Lang is recruited by a wealthy scientist to steal some dangerous technology….

There’s a parallel universe out there where film fans got Ant-Man as originally conceived. Nine years before the movie’s eventual release – no, seriously, that’s how long this project was in development – writer/director Edgar Wright was hired. Given his track record – Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), The World’s End (2013), all excellent – it promised to be something special. But he then quit just a few months before filming, citing creative differences, and was replaced by Peyton Reed. The result is enjoyable, but you can’t shake off the feeling that it’s not as good as it could have been…

We start with a short prologue set in 1989. In a meeting with MCU semi-regulars Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell in a grey wig) and Howard Stark (Trevor Slattery), scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) resigns from SHIELD. He’s developed technology that can shrink a person down to just a few millimetres tall, but objects to other people using it. Cut to the present day and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, a classy, charming presence) is released from prison after serving time for burglary. While he tries to go straight and raise the cash he needs to support his daughter, he hooks up with ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña, very funny). However, after Scott is fired from the one job he managed to get, he’s tempted by a criminal gig Luis has heard about…

The opening third or so of the movie is comedic, quick and slick – a style typified by a breezy montage showing some information being relayed from person to person. This freewheeling sequence is the most Edgar Wright-y that Ant-Man ever feels, though the idea was actually cooked up after he left the project. (Incidentally, the scene is scored by a terrific music cue written by Roy Ayers for the 1973 film Coffy then reused by Quentin Tarantino in 1997’s Jackie Brown.)

Meanwhile, Hank (“Yes, I’m still alive…”) starts to take an interest in his tech company again. It’s now run by his former assistant Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, who may as well have ‘I’m the villain’ tattooed across his forehead). He’s developed miniaturisation technology of his own, which he hopes to sell to the military, so Hank and grown-up daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, totally rocking a black bob cut) set out to steal it and wipe all the data files. How do they plan to do this? By using Hank’s miniaturisation technology from the 1980s. (Hypocrites.) However, Hank reckons he’s too old to wear the shrinking suit and doesn’t want to risk his daughter’s life. They need someone else, so recruit Scott via a sting operation…

So far, so good enough. It’s enjoyable stuff. But now the film gets a bit messy. Once Hank and Hope have enlisted Scott, the story moves into a leisurely middle act. There are Mr Mayagi-like scenes of Scott being taught how to use the miniaturisation suit, a bit of backstory is revealed, some plotting is set up for the climax, series regular Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has a cameo, and we get the rather silly notion that Hank can control and coerce ants to his will. But all the threat disappears from the story – as does Darren Cross, and Luis and his gang, and the cop who’s been on Scott’s trail. All these characters seem to conveniently freeze for – what? – at least a few days while Scott gears up.

But if the storytelling is loose, at least we get plenty of comedy. There are self-referential gags – “I think our first move,” says Scott when presented with a big problem, “should be calling the Avengers” – as well as Ocean’s 11-style, planning-the-heist scenes, which are always enjoyable. If anything, it’s a shame the film doesn’t push harder on that pedal and try to be a more full-on caper movie. The heist itself – with Luis and some friends now part of the team – is great fun and the film picks up pace again. It also helps that director Peyton Reed throws in some bonkers imagery: a shootout with a tiny Scott running across a scale model of a factory, an enormous Thomas the Tank Engine bursting out of a house, and a very trippy sequence of Scott shrinking beyond infinitesimally small.

These visual effects are very impressive, as they are throughout the film, while the fights and chases are inventive and the film never loses sight of humour. During Scott’s climactic battle with Cross, for example, Cross has miniaturised himself… so Scott picks up a table-tennis bat and swats him into an electric fly zapper. Oh, how the film should’ve ended on that gag! But for all its fun and vibrancy, Ant-Man lacks ambition. It feels a bit stunted, a bit limited, a bit scared to go all-in. Too small, you might say.

Seven bartenders out of 10

Screenshot 2017-03-24 13.16.07

My top 10 Quentin Tarantino films


Today is the 54th birthday of my favourite film director, Quentin Tarantino. So to celebrate, here’s my rundown of the 10 best movies he’s directed and/or written. Click the links for full reviews…

10. Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) – 100 minutes of escapism.

9. The Hateful Eight (2015) – a character-driven chamber piece.

8. Django Unchained (2012) – it might not have greatness, but it does have bags of distinction.

7. Death Proof (2007) – certainly Quentin’s least successful movie and probably his least loved – but that gives it an underdog quality.

6. True Romance (1993) – a pleasing meshing of director Tony Scott and writer Tarantino’s styles.

5. From Dusk Till Dawn (1995) – terrific dialogue, great group dynamics, reversals of expectation, power games, grudging respect and edgy humour.

4. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – very impressive and headlined by a tremendous cast with some electrifying dialogue.

3. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – filmed 25 years ago, but is still stunning. Still captivating. Still fresh as fuck.

2. Jackie Brown (1997) – as it gets older, and you get older with it, it becomes more and more effective.

1.  Pulp Fiction (1994) – a sprawling film-noir masterpiece, populated by fascinating and entertaining characters, with more going on in 147 minutes than in most film directors’ entire careers.

Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 6

Episode 6 Season 2 1

SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Andy Goddard. Originally broadcast: 23 October 2011, ITV.

The household mourn for footman William, Sir Richard makes plans for his married life with Mary, and a man called Patrick Gordon claims to be the heir to Downton and its wealth…

When is it set? Early November 1918.

Where is it set? The house. Isobel’s house. Haxby Park, the nearby stately home that Sir Richard plan to buy. The cottage where Ethel’s living.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Patrick Gordon (Trevor White) is a Canadian serviceman who’s been disfigured in the war and is recuperating at Downton. He claims to be related to the Crawley family and that he spent time with them as a child, but no one can remember him. He then has to spell it out to Edith: he says he’s Patrick, the heir to Downton previously thought drowned on the Titanic. He says he survived the disaster, though with amnesia. He signed up in 1914, then was caught in an explosion at Passendale that brought back his old memories. When the others find out, Matthew immediately twigs that, if the claim is true, he’d no longer be the heir. Robert asks his solicitor to look into the situation, but the findings are inconclusive. So Patrick leaves… (Rather brilliantly, we don’t learn if he was the genuine article or not.)
* New maid Jane is now working at the house, and shares a flirty look or two with Robert. When Robert luncheons alone, Jane serves him and they get to know each other…
* We learn that Major Bryant, the cad who fathered Ethel’s child then didn’t give a stuff, has been killed in the war.

Best bits:
* “That life of changing clothes and killing things and eating them – do you really want it again?” – Isobel suggests that Downton might not return to normal once the war is over.
* Mary and Carson’s relationship is routinely charming: she’s a lady, he’s a servant, but she clearly likes and respects him and he has an avuncular love for her.
* Sir Richard asks Carson to book him on the morning train to London. Carson replies that Mr Bates will be on the same train… The next day, Bates returns from the capital with a scar on his face and Sir Richard comes back late. A day or two later we hear the news that Vera Bates has been found dead. Has one of them killed her?!
* Matthew feels a twinge…

Worst bits:
* Daisy’s sackcloth-and-ashes routine is getting boring now, as is Sybil and Branson’s glacially slow romance.
* Violet’s dialogue can often be the highlight of an episode. You sometimes get the impression that Julian Fellowes spends as much time crafting her acerbic barbs as writing all the other characters put together. But occasionally the metaphors become painfully tortured. This week, Cora says that Isobel is being awkward and “has the bit between her teeth”. Violet replies, “Well, change the bridal. Find a course than needs her more than Downton.” Cora then says Isobel wants to be a martyr. Violet: “We must tempt her with a more enticing scaffold.”
* Edith isn’t sure whether Patrick is the man she was deeply in love with six years previously. Robert is similarly unable to recognise him. Even with an accent that’s changed a bit and a scared face, is this plausible?

Real history:
* Pushing Matthew in his wheelchair, Mary says she’ll have arms like Jack Johnson if she’s not careful. Nicknamed the Galveston Giant, American boxer Johnson (1878-1946) was the first black man to be world heavyweight champion.
* Cora tell us that, “Turkey’s about to capitulate and Robert says Vittorio Veneto will finish off Austria.” The Battle of Vittorio Veneto (24 October-3 November 1918) was an Italian victory that secured the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
* Patrick claims he was pulled out of the water by Fifth Officer Harold Lowe (1882-1944), a real-life officer on the Titanic who was one of the few to return after the ship sank to look for survivors.
Branson and Carson discuss European politics, disagreeing over whether Germany will soon be a republic and namechecking American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924).
* Robert walks into the servants’ hall to announce that the war is over. The ceasefire will commence on the morning of 11 November. At the allotted time, the household gather in the main hall as the clock chimes 11 times…

Upstairs, Downton: There’s a passing reference to European refugees, a piece of real history that Downton Abbey has mostly ignored. The Upstairs, Downstairs episode A Patriotic Offering (1974) saw a family of Belgians come to stay with the Bellamys. Additionally, the First World War ended in the Updown episode Peace Out of Pain (also 1974).

Maggie Smithism of the week: “I don’t dislike him, I just don’t like him, which is quite different.” She’s talking about Sir Richard.

Mary’s men: Sir Richard is hoping to buy – and renovate – a house close to Downton called Haxby Park. He even offers Carson a job as its butler. But Mary is still having doubts, telling Matthew that she needn’t get married. He insists that she do: he wants her to be happy. Later, Mary’s shocked when Sir Richard makes it plain that she’s not to jilt him. “You have given me the power to destroy you,” he points out. “Don’t ever cross me.”

Doggie! Isis is spotted at Robert’s feet in an early scene.

Review: The Patrick subplot is hoary nonsense, but it does put the cat amongst the pigeons. The various reactions to his claim – Edith’s, Robert’s, Mary’s, Matthew’s, Sir Richard’s – are all very interesting.

Next episode…

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an artificial-intelligence programme called Ultron is let loose, he wants to destroy the world – only the Avengers stand in his way…

This second Avengers film is big, flashy and at times a lot of fun. But because it tries to squeeze so much into a paper-thin plot, none of the elements gets enough attention and the film also feels too long. It’s 136 minutes and sags in the middle under the weight of too many characters and too many action sequences…

In the first scene, as the Avengers launch an attack on a scientific base, there’s a continuous, 59-second shot that reintroduces the six core members of the team. (Well, it’s not actually continuous – you can spot how various elements have been stitched together in post-production – but it’s still impressive.) We meet Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). They’re a well-drilled team, complementing each other’s abilities and trading quips while they fight.

But some big things have changed since the first Avengers mash-up movie. The SHIELD agency that recruited the gang has been disbanded and our heroes are now a self-governed collective (who even have their own logo). Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), three secondrary characters from previous films, are still giving them occasional support – but there’s dialogue to explain why conspicuous absentees Pepper Potts and Jane Foster can’t be arsed to turn up to a party. This post-SHIELD set-up feels like a storytelling backwards step after the political machinations of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s more simplistic and less interesting. For example, the film doesn’t make much effort in placing its story in any context – we see lots of civilian extras looking scared, and a few local cops who defer to these vigilantes at a moment’s notice, but there’s little sense of the wider world the characters are trying to save. The Avengers exist in a bubble, so their storyline feels very inward-looking…

Having stumbled across some research into artificial intelligence, Tony Stark wants to use it to run a global defence system. But when the AI system, Ultron, is prematurely activated it goes rogue and – for some reason – decides to wipe out humanity. Tony has other problems too: most of the team didn’t know what he was up to and are angry with his arrogance. Then, after a big action sequence that includes an Iron Man/Hulk face-off and yet more MCU urban carnage, the group is struck by paranoia thanks to one of Ultron’s sidekicks. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are twins who want revenge on Tony for building the weapons that killed their parents, so initially team up with Ultron. Pietro is super-fast, while Wanda is psychic and plants hallucinations in our heroes’ heads. Tony sees a grim future where his friends are dead; Thor thinks he’s home on Asgard; Natasha flashes back to her cruel childhood; and Steve fantasises he’s at a party with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell showing up for a one-line cameo).

So, riddled with doubt and fear, the team are in a bad way. The film is too. As the Avengers hide at a safe house, the pace seriously flags. There’s plenty going on – Thor buggers off on a nonsensical subplot; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) crops up; Natasha angers internet fans by referring to herself as a ‘monster’ because she can’t have children; there’s a sweet romance between Natasha and Bruce – but the script short-changes the 573 subplots and character stories. A new one even gets added into the mix late on, when Tony creates a new being called Vision (Paul Bettany) by combing the personality of his computer Jarvis with an organic body. It’s all very scrappy.

At least the big, third-act sequence has a twist. This series of films has coined a new action-movie cliché: big things falling onto a city. Now, it’s the city itself that’s about to fall because Ultron has floated it up into the sky with the intention of crashing it back to earth. (It’s a big job and means our villain is busy off-screen for curiously long stretches.) The team fight an endless supply of robots, helpless people need rescuing, Avengers make gags. But it all feels very mechanical and verges on boring.

Six WW2 vets out of 10


Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 5


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 16 October 2011, ITV.

Matthew is badly injured during the big push in France, leading to heartache for both Mary and Lavinia… William is also injured and asks Daisy to marry him, Vera Bates return to stir up trouble, and Mrs Hughes continues to help ex-maid Ethel.

When is it set? A caption says it’s 1918. We start at the Battle of Amiens, which began on 8 August.

Where is it set? Amiens in France. Downton Abbey. The village hospital. Leeds General Infirmary. Sir Richard’s office in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* We meet William’s father, Mr Mason (Paul Copley), for the first time when he comes to sit by his son’s hospital bedside.
* Former maid Ethel has had her baby since the previous episode. Major Bryant, the father, couldn’t give a stuff.
* Mrs Hughes interviews a new maid: Jane Moorsum (Clare Calbraith), whose husband died on the Somme. Despite it being unconventional to hire a woman who has a child, she gets the job. She then makes a quick impression on Robert, bursting into the library with brush and bucket in hand.
* Local vicar Reverend Travers (Michael Cochrane) needs some convincing before agreeing to marry William and Daisy.
* William dies at the end of the episode, having recently married Daisy.

Best bits:
* The opening is a dramatic sequence at the Front, full of death and danger. We then suddenly cut to both Daisy and Mary back home. Daisy thinks something’s passed over her grave, while Mary says she feels terribly cold.
* In the middle of the night, a telegram arrives: Matthew has been wounded and is coming to Downton to recuperate. Everyone upstairs and down, it seems, gets up to hear the news.
* The Dowager, against type, argues for ex-servant William having a place at Downton’s recuperation home. But Dr Clarkson says no, so Violet arranges a place at a Leeds hospital instead. (She’s generally less acerbic and more kind this week.)

Worst bits:
* We get some more prime Downton Abbey plotting. For example, events keep happening off-screen. O’Brien drops into conversation that she’s written to Bates’s wife, which is a plot development of huge significance, while the scene of Mary telling Sir Richard about the Mr Pamuk controversy is skipped over.
* Not to belittle any real-life cases (Matthew is fictional, remember) but it’s difficult not to titter when characters talk in euphemisms about how Matthew can’t get it up any more.
* Daisy’s dithering over whether to marry a man she doesn’t love is so boring. He’s dying, love! Have a heart! As William points out, if they do wed she’ll get an army pension.

Real history:
* The first scene is at Amiens. The battle was the opening phase of the Allied offensive that ultimately won the First World War.
* Branson has read in the newspaper than the Bolsheviks have shot Tsar Nicholas II (1868-1918) and his family. “Sometimes the future needs terrible sacrifices,” he says, lamely. The executions took place in the early hours of 17 July.
* Branson also mentions suffrage campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960).

Upstairs, Downton: Like Matthew, James Bellamy was invalided out of the First World War. It happened in the Upstairs, Downstairs episode Missing Believed Killed (1974).

Maggie Smithism of the week: She uses the phone to call her nephew-in-law Shrimpy, but struggles with the device. “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?” she snaps.

Mary’s men: She’s shocked by the news of Matthew’s injuries and insists on seeing him when he arrives at the hospital. He’s out on morphine, but has ‘probable spinal damage’ – and is permanently paralysed. On top of all that, Mary learns about Vera Bates’s plan to sell the Mr Pamuk story to the press. So she resigns herself to telling fiancée Sir Richard, who agrees to squash the story. He’s not doing it altruistically, though: it’s because it’ll mean he’ll have more power in their marriage. He tricks Vera into selling him the information and signing a confidentiality contract, but he has no intention of publishing. He then announces his and Mary’s engagement in the newspaper, without telling Mary he’s going to, and tells Vera to piss off. Mary, meanwhile, is mopping Matthew’s brow and holding a pan for his vomit.

Review: A downbeat, sombre episode with tears never far from the surface. There’s a grim opening of Matthew and William in the trenches, preparing for the big push, and the horrors of war reach home too. We’re not spared the details and visuals of the men’s injuries.

Next episode…

Boo! (1932, Albert DeMond)


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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: N/A

Faithful to the novel? This is a 10-minute comedy short produced by Universal Studios, who in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were behind some very successful monster movies. Boo! is an affectionate parody of the genre, using sarcastic narration over repurposed clips from The Cat Creeps (1930), Frankenstein (1931) and, slightly oddly, the German film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922). Why writer/director Albert DeMond didn’t – or couldn’t – use excerpts from the studio’s recent Dracula (1931) is unknown. Other than the title sequence (see pic above), the only new footage in Boo! is of actor Morton Lowry. We first see him reading a copy of the novel Dracula that strangely has its title printed on the wrong side of the cover. A narrator (DeMond) then explains the premise of the film: to explore how nightmares can be entertaining. The man falls asleep and dreams a surreal episode made up of clips from old movies… Firstly, Dracula (actually Count Orlok from Nosferatu) wakes up in his coffin and spooks someone. Next, Frankenstein’s monster wakes up on the operating table, kills a doctor, and then bumps into Dracula and is scared. This historic on-screen meeting – the first ever in cinema – is achieved by cutting together clips from different films. We then meet actress Helen Twelvetrees in footage from The Cat Creeps – “Maybe the nightmare is going to become a pleasant dream!” trills the narrator. The monster approaches her (again, via some cross-cutting) and then Dracula’s hand reaches in and attacks Helen’s male friend. Being a scene from The Cat Creeps, the hand actually belongs to the bad guy from that film. Scared, Helen later goes to bed, where again the monster watches on as Dracula attacks her and another male friend. Then, inspired by Dracula’s actions, the monster heads off to spook actress Mae Clarke (in footage from Frankenstein). We then end on the man from the start of the short, who’s woken up while hanging from a chandelier.

Best performance: N/A

Best bit: The clips used from The Cat Creeps are the only surviving footage from that film. It seems to have been an unsettling horror with a villain not unlike Lon Chaney in the similarly missing London After Midnight. It was a remake of a silent film called The Cat and the Canary (1927).

Review: What a bizarre little thing this is. The clips are mostly silent, with narration commenting on the action and sometimes providing silly voices and groans, while some footage has been reversed or repeated for comedic effect. The continuity isn’t especially convincing or important. The narrator sometimes assumes different characters are the same person, for example, and there’s even a joke about it: “So the caretaker comes downstairs with a hatchet. I don’t know how he got upstairs [because in the previous clip he was in a cellar], but anything can happen in a nightmare.” Some gags work, some don’t. But at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Six woman automobile drivers out of 10

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Peter Quill – aka Star Lord – takes possession of a mystical orb of enormous power, various factions from across the galaxy come looking for him…

For all its far-out, sci-fi trappings, Guardians of the Galaxy actually begins on Earth in 1988. The tone is the same retro 80s-ness used in the JJ Abrams film Super 8 (2011) and TV show Stranger Things – a lower-middle-class America seen through the eyes of pop-culture-aware kids. And even after we cut to alien worlds in deep space, the film never loses sight of this sense of wonder and fun.

A big reason is the use of music. The first character we see is a young boy called Peter Quill, who’s listening to 10cc’s I’m Not In Love on his Sony Walkman. His terminally ill mother has given him a cassette called Awesome Mix Vol 1 that compiles tracks she loved in her youth, and the tape recurs throughout the film. It’s both Peter’s emotional link to his old life and – let’s face it – an excuse for some cool sounds. The events of Guardians of the Galaxy are therefore scored by David Bowie, Norman Greenbaum, The Runaways, the Jackson 5 and others. It gives the film character and distinctiveness – and a huge sense of joy.

But while his tunes are top, young Peter’s not having the best day: soon after his mother passes away, he’s abducted by aliens. Jump to 26 years later and the grown-up Peter, now self-styled as Star Lord, is a scavenger working in deep space. The adult Peter is played by Chris Pratt, a former sitcom actor giving a star-making performance. There’s undeniably a Harrison Ford-like quality about him, and his Peter is reminiscent of both Han Solo and Indiana Jones – a man equally at home with action-adventure and droll comedy.

After escaping some violent bad guys who want an artefact he’s stolen, for example, Peter is surprised to find a cute woman waiting for him in his space ship. “Look, I’m going to be totally honest with you,” he tells her. “I forgot you were here.” Meanwhile, a green-skinned mercenary called Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by the bombastic warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to steal Peter’s artefact, which is an orb of enormous power. Sadly for Gamora, who has her own agenda, she chooses to do this at the very moment that Peter is being stalked by two bounty hunters: comedy double act Rocket and Groot. Rocket (a CGI creature voiced by Bradley Cooper) looks like a large rodent and is a smartarse full of sarcasm and some inner sadness; Groot (a CGI creature voiced by Vin Diesel) is a walking tree whose only dialogue is the phrase “I am Groot” said with different intonations. After a complex chase sequence, Peter, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are arrested and thrown into the same prison block. In there, they join forces with another inmate – the hulking Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), a man who doesn’t understand metaphors – and it’s a very fun, inventive sequence when this newly formed team escape.

Outside of the Guardians gang, however, the characters aren’t quite so enjoyable. The story’s villains – Ronan, his sidekicks Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and big boss Thanos (Josh Brolin) – are all so po-faced and dull. Maybe it’s deliberate – a way of making the heroes seem brighter in comparison, or a satire of drab superhero-film foes. Maybe. Thankfully, there’s slightly more life elsewhere. Glenn Close gamely hams it up as the main planet’s president, with John C Reilly and a deadpan Peter Serafinowicz as her lackeys. Michael Rooker is also good value as Yondu Udonta, the pirate who kidnapped Peter as a child. (Although, Christ only knows what Benicio del Toro’s doing as the Collector, a man who acquires rare specimens for his private museum. His irritating, bird-like performance teeters on the edge of risible.)

The plot is not what you’d call complex (the good guys have an object and the bad guys want it) but everything is so deftly directed by James Gunn that it doesn’t really matter. He perfectly balances the jokes and pop-culture references (“A great hero named Kevin Bacon…”) with wacky alien shit (planets called Morag and Knowhere). There’s plenty of heart – Peter and Gamora’s sorta romance is very touching, for example – while the cast are entertaining, the dialogue is very funny and the film looks great: colourful but not garish, with space craft and costumes influenced by the 1930s aviation boom.

If anything slightly disappoints it’s the obligatory action climax, which is yet another ‘big thing falling from the sky’ sequence (cf. Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The stunt coordinators and visual-effects designers take over and, while there still are occasional gags, the film becomes more conventional for a while. But for the most part, fun is the order of the day. Tonally, Guardians of the Galaxy has much more in common with 80s classics such as Ghostbusters (1984), The Goonies (1985) and Back to the Future (1985) than it does with modern superhero franchise movies. There’s freedom and playfulness. It’s able to tell jokes without undercutting the story; able to use action without losing sight of the characters. There’s undeniably the swashbuckling spirit of Star Wars too. A terrific film.

Nine class-A preverts out of 10


Downton Abbey: series 2 episode 4


SPOILER WARNING: Plot points will be revealed in this episode-by-episode discussion of ITV period drama Downton Abbey.

Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Brian Kelly. Originally broadcast: 9 October 2011, ITV.

The patients staying at Downton plan a concert party, Isobel feels left out of the management of the house, Sybil and Branson grow closer, while Matthew and William run into German soldiers and go missing…  

When is it set? A caption simply states ‘1918’ at the beginning of the episode.

Where is it set? The house. The dower house. Isobel’s house. The trenches in France (which oddly only come up to people’s shoulders). The pub where Bates is now working.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* A wounded soldier (Howard Gossington) shows up at Isobel’s house, asking for food, so Mrs Bird starts to run an impromptu soup kitchen.
* Ethel is dismissed, with no reference, after being caught shagging one of the officers. She returns a few days later and asks Mrs Hughes for help: she’s pregnant.

Best bits:
* Isobel and Cora go to battle over control of the hospital. Isobel’s expertise is ignored and her wishes countermanded by Cora. Isobel responds by saying, “It would be foolish to accuse you of being unprofessional since you’ve never had a profession in your life.” Penelope Wilton (Isobel) is terrific, of course, while Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) drops her head and stares intently.
* Molesley has nothing to do now that Matthew is at war, so helps out at the big house – he’s clearly hoping they’ll give him a full-time job as the new valet. Sadly for Molesley, Robert’s recently found out that Bates is nearby, so talks him into returning.

Worst bits:
* Thomas and O’Brien’s bitter twistedness is getting tiresome now. They’re just evil for evil’s sake. Thomas preens when Bates returns, throwing his rank around.
* When O’Brien finds out about Mrs Bird, Mrs Patmore, Daisy and Molesley running a soup kitchen, she makes sure Cora catches them. However, Cora simply insists on them using food bought by the family, not the army. You can see the saccharine twist coming a mile off.
* The soldiers staying at Downton put on a concert party, which forms the climax of the episode. Meanwhile, news reaches the house that Matthew and former footman William have gone missing in France. After days of worry, the two men walk into Downton while Mary is performing a song at the concert. Matthew even joins in. Melodrama has rarely been melo-er. (Facetiousness aside, it’s admittedly a moving moment.)

Real history:
* The rioting in Dublin “last Easter” is again mentioned by Sybil. Branson says it was put down in six weeks. (As it’s now 1918, she means the Easter before last.)
* Preparing for the concert party, Mary sings a bit of If You Were the Only Girl (In the World), a song written by Nat D Ayer and Clifford Grey for the revue The Bing Boys Are Here (1916). At the concert she sings a full-length version, with Edith on piano. It’s in 3/4 waltz time, which is historically inaccurate.

Upstairs, Downton: Sybil and Branson’s romance echoes the taboo relationship James Bellamy had with servant Sarah in the first two seasons of Upstairs, Downstairs. William and Matthew being missing in action echoes series four of Updown, when James was similarly lost behind enemy lines. And a 1974 episode of Updown was named after the song Mary sings here.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.”

Mary’s men: She’s resigned to marrying Sir Richard, because Matthew has moved on, but is not thrilled by the idea. She writes to Matthew, who’s in France, to let him know her decision. Later Matthew goes missing. Initially the fact is kept from Mary, but then Edith tells her. Mary cries, but thankfully he shows up the following day.

Review: The First World War famously broke down social barriers, which here is dramatised by Sybil and Branson’s romance. (Incidentally, clips from their cross-class flirting in this episode were used for comic effect in superhero movie Iron Man 3.) But this isn’t a flowering of socialism or anything: the soup-kitchen storyline is there to point out that Downton is only helping injured *officers*. Additionally, maid Ethel loses her job for sleeping with an officer. The class system is still alive and well.

Next episode…