Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

New York teenager Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is disappointed not to be a fully fledged member of the Avengers. But he then stumbles across a gang trading in dangerous alien technology…

In the opening scene of this slick and vibrant movie, the villain’s entire motivation is justified in one smart, underplayed line of dialogue. It’s the immediate aftermath of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, and a blue-collar crew of workmen led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) are clearing up the mess left by that film’s climactic battle. But then a woman (Tyne Daly) turns up and says a new agency will take over and the crew are out of work. Toomes argues that he has a contract, but the woman won’t budge. “Come on,” he pleads. “Look, I bought trucks for this job…”

In a single beat, we get this guy. We understand his grievance. He’s been wronged and wants revenge. When a superhero script defines its villain so elegantly and so economically, you know you’re in for some good storytelling. Eight years later, Toomes and his crew are running an underground operation in salvaging, repurposing and trading in alien tech. Toomes has even built himself a mechanical pair of wings: “Business is good,” he says as he swoops into the workshop.

Meanwhile, teenager Peter Parker (a fantastic Tom Holland) is flying to Germany. We’re in the timeframe of Captain America: Civil War, the 2016 film that introduced this version of Spider-Man, and see Peter’s contribution to that movie via videos he shot on his smartphone. It’s a neat and fun way of recapping the story so far. However, two months after being co-opted by the Avengers, Peter is feeling ignored by Tony Stark and the others. He’s back to being a student in New York who fights minor crime in his spare time. So, instead of a superhero film, Homecoming mostly feels more like an 80s teen comedy. Peter’s school halls could be out of Pretty in Pink, though this school is a more diverse, working-class place than the WASPy, privileged Illinois of John Hughes’s world. Peter has a nerdy best pal called Ned (Jacob Batalon); fancies a girl called Liz (Laura Harrier); is bullied by a lad called Flash (Tony Revolori); and also knows MJ, an enigmatic girl who wants to keep to herself (Zendaya). The fact these five characters match up to the quintet from The Breakfast Club can’t be a coincidence. The bully even jokes that Peter has an imaginary girlfriend in Canada, a la The Breakfast Club’s Brian.

Peter is also trying to hide the fact that he’s YouTube sensation Spider-Man. Ned finds out by accident, but Peter’s guardian – Aunt May (an effortless Marisa Tormei) – is still in the dark. Peter then happens to see Toomes’s crew selling advanced weaponry on the black market, which leads to some fun action sequences (and a laugh-out-loud Ferris Bueller reference). It’s very enjoyable stuff: light on its feet, with freedom and playfulness. Every scene, in fact, has a sense of humour. This film hits the sweet-spot of taking itself just seriously enough. It also looks great, with bold colours for the teens’ world and a down-and-dirty, bodged-together vibe for Toomes and his gang.

If Spider-Man: Homecoming has a flaw, ironically it comes in the shape of the MCU’s brightest star. After his cameo in the Civil War recap, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) re-joins the story after 36 minutes. He acts as Peter’s kinda-mentor, though he wants to stop him getting too involved in large-scale crime-fighting. Despite this, he gives the lad a super-duper, hi-tech, all-singing, all-dancing Spider-Man suit that comes with a never-ending array of weapons and features and a sexy-voiced, female AI programme (Jennifer Connolly, a star of the pre-MCU film Hulk). In other words, we get another version of Iron Man. It’s not only repetitious but it jars with the film’s otherwise homespun charm. Peter works best as an underdog, a teenager using his wits, rather than someone being dragged along by cyberpunk technology.

But what is a huge success is Michael Keaton as Toomes. The actor obviously has superhero form (for this reviewer’s money, he’s still the best Batman), but here he turns his hand to supervillainy. Stand aside, Loki: Adrian Toomes is the best played, most interesting, most entertaining bad guy in this entire series. Like all modern genre films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is full of blockbuster action sequences and flashy CGI. It cost $175million to make. And yet the greatest special effect in the whole movie is Toomes staring at Peter in a rear-view mirror…

As we enter the third act, Peter plucks up the courage to invite Liz to their school’s homecoming. She agrees and, after some nervy prep with Aunt May’s help, he goes to Liz’s house to collect her. But her dad answers the door. And her dad is Toomes. As a plot twist, it falls neatly into the ‘well, I shoulda seen that one coming’ camp. It raises the stakes and leads to a fantastically edgy scene as Toomes drives his daughter and Peter to the party. Then it goes up a further gear after Liz gets out of the car: Toomes warns Peter, who he’s worked out is Spider-Man, to stay away from his business. And it’s chilling, like something from a Mafia movie.

A teenager being nervous because he’s taking a hot senior out on a date but then realising that her dad is the super-criminal he’s been hunting for? As a scene it’s pretty fantastic on its own merits, but it also encapsulates this movie as a whole. Homecoming is an excellent mash-up of the superhero format with teen-comedy conventions. Both elements feel equally important. A hoot.

Nine men leaning out of their window out of 10

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Topaz (1969)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A French spy based in Washington attempts to rout out a mole in his organisation…

There’s an international feel to this, partly because of the European actors dominating the cast list, partly because of the use of Copenhagen and Paris as locations. But there’s also a Euro vibe to the filmmaking. It’s loucher, more laid-back, more self-consciously sedate, than a typical Hollywood movie.

We begin with cloak-and-dagger clichés as a Soviet intelligence officer defects to the West. He’s lifted by American spies led by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe, in his second Hitchcock role) and soon reveals that the Russians are placing nuclear weapons on Cuba. (It’s 1962, by the way: post-Bay of Pigs, pre-missile crisis.) Nordstrom can’t approach the Cubans directly, though, so enlists an old pal to do it for him – James Bond-ish French spy André Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), who then becomes the movie’s lead character.

As events develop – Devereaux investigates, travels to Cuba, has a liaison with his sexy mistress, splits up from his wife, learns of a double agent codenamed Topaz – the script uses an odd structure. The focus keeps switching as characters pass the narrative baton on to the next person in the chain. Nordstrom sets the story running, then drops out of the film for long stretches; Devereaux is the nominal lead, but during one section has a proxy called Philippe Dubois.

The Dubois sequence is actually the best in the movie. Played by Roscoe Lee Browne with a smirk and a cool confidence, Dubois is a French-Martinican agent hired by Devereaux. A delegation of Cubans are in New York to attend a UN powwow. In order to show solidarity with the black community, they’re staying at a hotel in Harlem – but Devereaux knows their leader has a document that details the Soviet missile plan. So he hires Dubois to bribe his way into the hotel, pretend to be a sympathetic journalist and charm the leader so he can get a look at the document. In a film that seriously lacks tension at times, this part of the story really grips you.

There are other pleasures too, including a striking shot when a key character is killed – as Cuban resistance leader Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor from You Only Live Twice) falls to the floor, we see it from a camera directly above her, her dress billowing out to echo a pool of blood. There are also some fun moments where Hitchcock shows characters discussing the plot but places them so far from the camera that we can’t hear the dialogue: Hitch knew how boring exposition can be.

But all too often the story drags or diverts down a cul-de-sac. A flat, low-energy script and a weak cast – Frederick Stafford and Dany Robin, playing Devereaux’s wife, are especially poor – make it difficult to care about what’s going on. A number of badly dated rear-projection shots for dialogue scenes in moving cars really don’t help either, nor does the lack of star power in the cast.

Five men in a wheelchair out of 10

Note: The film suffered horrendously in some pre-release test screenings, with the climax (a duel between Devereaux and the unmasked Topaz) coming in for most criticism. So around 20 minutes were cut out and two alternative endings were hastily knocked together. The version used for this review was the longer edit but had the ending seen in the UK in 1969 – Topaz gets away with his crimes and flies off to Moscow. (The default release print in 1969 used stolen shots from elsewhere in the movie to imply that Topaz has killed himself.)

Downton Abbey: The Finale

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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 Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 25 December 2015, ITV.

The end approaches… Mr Carson is forced into early retirement… Thomas and Molesley are offered new jobs… Isobel learns that Lord Merton has pernicious anemia… Henry and Tom go into business together… And Edith and Bertie reunite and get engaged, but his mother poses a problem… 

When is it set? The first 55 minutes of the episode take place in September 1925, then we cut to 29 December and the following few days for Edith and Bertie’s wedding. Downton Abbey draws to a close in the early hours of 1 January 1926 – fictionally speaking, nearly 14 years after the events of the first episode.

Where is it set? Downton and its estate. The village. The countryside. Lord Merton’s house. Edith’s flat and the Ritz restaurant in London. Bertie’s ancestral home. Violet’s house. Downton’s hospital.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lady Pelham (Patricia Hodge) is Bertie’s severe mother. When Edith, Robert and Cora go to meet her for the first time, they find a woman who clearly means to be the puppet master for her newly ennobled son. She also disapproved of the previous Lord Hexham – Bertie’s cousin, who was gay – and wants her son to be a moral leader. So when Edith tells her about having an illegitimate daughter, Lady P assumes the marriage won’t now go ahead – but Bertie has other ideas and puts his foot down. So at a dinner party, Lady Pelham announces that Bertie and Edith are to marry, then tells Edith she admires her honesty and character.
* Thomas Barrow finally leaves Downton to work as butler in the house of Sir Mark Stiles (James Greene). But it’s a quiet, soulless household and he doesn’t enjoy it.
* Lady Rose and Atticus return from America for the wedding. We haven’t seen them since the previous Christmas special, which was set about a year before this one. They’ve had a daughter, Victoria, in the interim, but haven’t brought her with them.
* Rose’s father also shows up for the wedding.
* Anna gives birth to a son.

Best bits:
* “Is Daisy interested in men?” asks Andy. Mrs Patmore laughs: “What are you implying?” He just meant because she’s so focused on her studies.
* When Thomas tells everyone that he starts his new job on Monday, Mr Bates begins to say something either sarcastic or cutting: “Downton Abbey without Mr Barrow-” but then Anna touches his arm and says, “Nothing ungenerous.”
* Rosamund takes Edith to the Ritz… where they find Bertie at the table. It’s a set-up, arranged by Mary. He wants her back. He says he couldn’t live without her. She points out that he’s done a good job of it recently. He asks her to marry him; he’s ready for the gossip a secret stepdaughter may bring.
* Edith later phones home. Robert takes the call then says to his wife she’ll never guess what’s happened. “She’s pregnant again?” asks Cora. “She’s been arrested for treason?”
* Thomas Barrow has a couple of touching farewell scenes before he leaves for his new job.
* Isobel’s subplot: previously, Lord Merton’s son and daughter-in-law wanted to fob him off on Isobel, but now he’s terminally ill they don’t want her involved. Isobel is distraught, so she and Violet march round to the house and insist that he come home with them; Isobel also agrees to marry Lord Merton. (There’s then a happy ending: Merton’s anaemia was misdiagnosed and is not fatal. Yay!)
* Mary and Edith agree to make more of an effort to be nicer to each other. No melodrama or unrealistic reunion; just two sisters conceding that they’ve both made mistakes.
* After we jump forward three months, Anna is heavily pregnant and says she’s due in 10 days. But her waters break on the day of the wedding.
* Carson’s illness – shaking hands inherited from his father – means he has to resign from position of butler. Robert decides to ask Thomas Barrow to return from his new job to take over.
* The long-running and tedious hospital subplot gets a nice capper: Rose arranges for Robert to witness Cora running a public meeting about the changes and he sees how well she’s doing the job.

Worst bits:
* A few episodes ago, Andy couldn’t read. Now he’s doing the accounts for Mr Mason’s farm. Similarly, despite episode after episode of him showing no interest, Andy has now developed a fancy for Daisy.
* The silly story about butler Spratt masquerading as an agony aunt continues: Edith comes to visit and offers to increase the size of his column.

Real history:
* Edith and Rosamund go for a meal at the Ritz, a hotel on Piccadilly in London that opened in 1906.
* When Robert has a moan, Cora says she doesn’t need the Gettysberg Address – a speech given by US President Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863 at the dedication of a cemetery.
* Henry says he wants to be worthy of Mary – “and I know I sound like Bulldog Drummond”, a fictional adventurer created by HC McNeike for a novel in 1920.
* Violet compares her maid, Denker, to the Biblical figure Salome.
* Mrs Patmore says, “Hark at you, Becky Sharp,” when Daisy talks about how Edith will become a marchioness. Sharp is the lead character of Vanity Fair (1847-48), a novel by William Makepeace Thackery.
* Having learnt about Spratt’s double life, Denker compares him to the lead character of Strange Case of  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel.
* Daisy uses Lady Mary’s new electric hairdryer but makes a mess of it, so Anna styles her hair. Daisy then asks how she looks. “Like Clara Bow,” says Andy, referring to the silent-movie star who lived 1905-1965.

Upstairs, Downton: Edith’s complex relationship with her mother-in-law-to-be echoes Georgina’s storyline towards the end of Upstairs Downstairs.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is asked what she thinks makes the English the way they are. “Opinions differ,” she replies. “Some say our history. But I blame the weather.”

Mary’s men: She’s now a married woman again, though Henry is at a crossroads: since his mate Charlie’s death in a crash, he’s gone off racing driving. So he and Tom cook up an idea: they open a used-car dealership together. Mary is so proud when she finds out that she reveals her news: she’s pregnant.

Doggie! Robert’s new puppy, Tiaa, is in the opening scene as he and the family go for a walk. Then a few more times throughout the episode.

Review: And relax…

Family Plot (1976)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When two con artists try to track down a missing heir, they come into contact with a pair of kidnappers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, released when he was 76 years old, is a comedy thriller. Neither taking itself too seriously nor ever becoming too silly, it’s an entertaining couple of hours.  A lot of the enjoyment comes from watching omnisciently as two seemingly separate storylines slowly start to intertwine.

As we start, fake psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is conning an elderly woman (Cathleen Nesbitt) with a cod séance routine. When the OAP mentions a long-lost nephew who would inherit a fortune, Blanche and boyfriend George offer to find him for a fee of $10,000. Meanwhile, another pair of criminals – Fran (played by the top-billed Karen Black) and her boyfriend, Arthur (William Devane) – are kidnapping VIPs and ransoming them for jewels.

The two sets of characters literally cross paths early on, when George nearly runs Fran over, but are otherwise discrete until the 45-minute mark… George has been following clues like a detective, trying to find the long-missing nephew. He talks to someone who knew him, then we see this old friend show up at Arthur’s office to tell him people are looking for him. That’s right: Arthur is the heir, but because he’s also a criminal he assumes Blanche and George asking questions about him must be bad news. The cat and mouse game is on.

Alfred Hitchcock was born just four years after the Lumière brothers invented the medium of cinema, and had been a film director for half a century when he made Family Plot. But here’s a movie that’s startlingly of the 1970s: the fashions, of course, and the cars and the also the style of filmmaking. Or rather not *film*making. The master’s final movie is surprisingly televisual. It’s very talky. There are studio sets and California locations. To be honest, it often looks and feels uncannily like an episode of Columbo. Also, being his 70s and suffering from poor health, Hitch was unable to travel too far from the San Francisco production base so an action scene as a car with no brakes careers down a mountain road is done with second-unit POV shots, an under-cranked camera and some very unconvincing process shots of Dern and Harris in a studio.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least the four central performances. Bruce Dern is a loose, pipe-smoking charmer (Al Pacino was considered for the role but was too expensive). William Devane is terrifically icy cool and sinister (they actually starting shooting with Roy Thinnes, but then he was ungraciously dumped when first choice Devane became available). Barbara Harris is adorable and funny. And Karen Black has real star quality (she’s also the focus of a self-aware gag from Hitch: when we first see her character, she’s a classic, enigmatic Hitchcock blonde… then she takes her wig off to reveal brunette hair).

There’s also a grandstanding cameo from Nicholas Colasanto (later Coach in sitcom Cheers) as a kidnap victim; Katherine Helmond (later Jessica in sitcom Soap) playing Basil Exposition and telling George the necessary plot information at just the right time; and decent incidental music by John Williams, then hot from Jaws (1975).

Eight silhouettes out of 10

 

 

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 8

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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 David Evans. Originally broadcast: 8 November 2015, ITV.

Edith is torn over whether to tell Bertie about her secret daughter, then he becomes a marquess. Also, Violet has gone away, while Mr Molesley begins work as a teacher.

When is it set? 1925.

Where is it set? Downton and its estate. The local village. Isobel’s house. Mrs Patmore’s B&B. The Bateses’ cottage. Lord Merton’s house. The office of Edith’s magazine in London. Downton’s church and churchyard.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Although we’ve never seen him on screen, Bertie’s cousin the 6th Marquess of Hexham has died of malaria while in Tangiers. (He went there often, we’re told. And was unmarried.)

Best bits:
* There’s a throwaway subplot about Mrs Patmore’s B&B: her first ever paying guests turn out to be a couple having an affair and now the cuckolded husband is suing for damages. Mrs P is aghast but her colleagues and the family just find it funny.
* Bertie worked as his late cousin’s agent, so Mary assumes he’ll now be out of a job. But then Edith informs her that Bertie has inherited the title. If Edith marries him now, as he desires, she’ll outrank all her family in the aristocratic hierarchy. Mary is consumed with seething jealousy and things turn nasty when she deliberately forces Edith to tell Bertie that she has a daughter.
* Edith’s whole dilemma is very engaging. After the secret is spilled, she’s fearful that Bertie will dump her. He says he’s not sure if he can spend his life with someone who doesn’t trust him, and they part – assuming they’ll never see each other again.
* There’s then an electric scene between the two sisters, as Edith tells Mary some home truths. “I know you,” she says. “I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch.”
* Thomas Barrow gets another rejection letter in his quest to find a new job, then is uncharacteristically kind to Mr Molesley. Miss Baxter deduces that something is very wrong – and she and footman Andy find Thomas in the bath with his wrists slashed.
* Mary tearfully admitting that she can’t face being a “crash widow” again. A few scenes later, she visits Matthew’s grave to explain that she’s fallen in love again. All very moving.

Worst bits:
* Bertie plans to fly to Tangiers, and Robert says that now commercial airlines are operating “we’ll all be flying hither and thither before too long.” It’s Rosamund’s turn to complete the cliche by poo-pooing something that we viewers know will become true: “I rather doubt that,” she laughs.
* Isobel’s storyline with Lord Merton’s manipulative daughter-in-law is all a bit clunky. It feels like the meat of the plot has been moved to the wife because the actor who played the twatty son is unavailable.
* In the last episode we learnt that an agony-aunt columnist for Edith’s magazine, Cassandra Jones, was using a pseudonym. Now it’s revealed who it really is: Mr Spratt, Violet’s dour butler. What a silly development.
* After a lot of build-up, Mary’s wedding comes along very quickly indeed.

Real history:
* Bertie says his mother makes Mrs Squeers – a character from Charles Dickens’s 1838/39 novel Nicholas Nickleby – look like nursing pioneering Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).
* When Mr Molesley begins work as a teacher, his first lesson covers the period between the English Civil War of 1642 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Later he talks about King Charles I (1600-1649) and the Divine Right to Rule.

Mary’s men: She hasn’t see Henry for a while and doesn’t know whether to pursue him. Their different backgrounds are an issue for her, bt Tom points out that she and her first love, Matthew, also had different upbringings. Then Henry shows up at Downton – Tom has illicitly invited him. Mary is angry, but Henry won’t give up. Then she’s upset when he leaves (women!) and despite everyone saying that Henry is right for her she refuses to admit it. So Tom writes to Violet and asks her to return from her overseas trip. When she’s back she’s able to talk some sense into her stubborn granddaughter. Eventually Mary telegrams Henry asking to see him, then tells him she wants to spend her life with him. They agree to get married… the following Saturday! She becomes Lady Mary Talbot.

Doggie! Robert’s new Lab puppy, Teo, sits in a basket in the library.

Review: An episode dominated by Mary and Edith’s rocky romances.

Next episode…

Blackmail (1929)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A policeman’s girlfriend kills someone in self-defence, but then the pair are blackmailed by a witness…

There’s something about Anny. The star of this 1929 movie is Czech actress Anny Ondra, who had also been in Hitchcock’s The Manxman a few months earlier. She’s Hitch’s first tortured, haunted yet beautiful blonde, and is extremely watchable. Her character, Alice White, is annoyed with her boyfriend so rebels by going up to the apartment of an artist friend called Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). He, however, is a nasty piece of work and attempts to rape her. Fighting back, Alice grabs a knife, kills him and flees.

Her turmoil as she tries to hide her crime while the rest of the world goes on with its daily life is very affecting. One scene has her numbly walking through busy crowds, another has a family friend innocently repeating the word knife – each instance making Alice feel worse and worse. But as good as Ondra is, there’s something not quite right in the performance and it doesn’t take long to see – or rather hear – what it is.

When filming began, Blackmail was planned as a silent film. But ‘talkies’ were the coming thing and halfway through production Hitchcock jumped at the chance to convert his movie to sound. (It’s Britain’s first film with dialogue.) But Anny Ondra presented a problem. Her natural, mid-European accent wasn’t appropriate for the character of Alice. (To hear Ondra speaking, check out this amazing piece of test footage where Hitchcock embarrasses her for a laugh.) It needed replacing, but the technique of post-dubbing had yet to be developed. The solution? Have another actress, Joan Barry, stand by the camera and perform the dialogue as Ondra mouthed along – sometimes it works, but usually it’s just distracting. (Ironically, while English, Barry’s clipped voice doesn’t especially suit the working-class character of Alice either!)

Visually, the movie is brilliantly innovative: a shot of Alice and Crewe climbing a staircase is staged on a specially built set that allows the camera to climb with them; the rape scene is off-screen, with billowing curtains standing in for the violence; and there are match-cuts, a montage and a large-scale chase set at the British Museum. Oh, and Hitchcock has a substantial cameo as a train commuter being bothered by a naughty child. A real treat.

Eight men on the London Underground out of 10

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970, Peter Sasdy)

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We begin in that Hammer favourite: an nebulous area of central Europe in the late nineteenth century. But then we cut to a little while later in London and the story plays out in leafy suburbs, the squalid East End and the fancy Café Royale on Regent Street.

Faithful to the novel? This is the fourth sequel to Hammer Films’ 1958 adaptation of Dracula, and follows on from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. It begins with a man called Weller (an always fun Roy Kinnear) accidentally witnessing the demise of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) – the vampire has been staked with a crucifix. After the body crumbles away, Weller collects some of the remains and leaves… Cut to England, some time later. Three stuffy, middle-aged businessmen – William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis) and Jonathon Secker (John Carson) – are telling their families that they’re off to do some charity work in the East End, whereas in fact they’re visiting a hedonistic, anything-goes brothel. While there, they meet a shady, arrogant aristocrat called Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who takes them to a shop run by Weller to acquire some of Dracula’s blood. (They’ve heard of the Count and know of vampires.) Wanting the thrill of interacting with the undead, the trio and Courtley perform a Satanic ritual but Courtley is killed when he drinks some of the blood. Terrified, Hargood, Paxton and Secker flee. Then the corpse transforms into a resurrected Dracula, who vows revenge on the three men for the death of his servant Courtley. The vamp starts by targeting the trio’s grown-up children – he hypnotises Alice Hargood (Linda Hayden) into killing her father, then turns Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair) into a vampire…

Best performance: Geoffrey Keen was later a regular in the James Bond films, appearing as the Minister of Defence in all six movies between 1977 and 1987. Here, he plays the grumpy, troubled William Hargood, who’s the ring leader of the three businessmen. His character’s trauma after the black-magic ritual is very convincing – he develops paranoia, drinks heavily, abuses his daughter…

Best bit: There’s some handsome location filming at Highgate Cemetery in London, most notably in the beautiful, Gothic, curved row of tombs known as the Circle of Lebanon in the West Cemetery. (Among many others, buried at Highgate are actors Corin Redgrave, Jean Simmons, Ralph Richardson, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Diane Cilento, Sheila Gish and Bob Hoskins, writers Douglas Adams, Anthony Shaffer, George Eliot and Carl Mayer, comedian Max Wall, punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren, singer George Michael, poet Christina Rossetti, scientist Jacob Bronowski, painter Lucian Freud, Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, and most famously Karl Marx.)

Review: This film was originally going to be Dracula-free because Christopher Lee was tiring of the role. Ralph Bates’s character would have taken over as the series’s new vampire threat, but distributors objected so Lee was coerced into another sequel. And it’s one of the best in the Hammer cycle: engaging, seedy, scary, complicated, and with a psychological depth that’s almost always missing from these movies. These characters suffer emotionally as well as physically.

Eight snakes out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 7

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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 David Evans. Originally broadcast: 1 November 2015, ITV.

The Dowager Countess decides to leave for the south of France, Thomas Barrow feels pressured to find a new job, and tragedy strikes when the family attend a motor-racing meeting…

When is it set? 1925. Daisy’s imminent exam is on the 20th, while Isobel is invited to the wedding of Lord Merton’s son on Saturday 29 August.

Where is it set? Downton Abbey. Violet’s house. Lord Merton’s house. Edith’s magazine office in London. Rosamund’s house. Brooklands racing circuit. The Carsons’ house. Mrs Patmore’s new B&B.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Charlie Rogers, Henry’s racing-driver mate, is killed in an accident during a race.

Best bits:
* Daisy says, “Oh, my God!” when she’s told her exam has been set for the 20th of the month. Mrs Hughes tells her not to take the Lord’s name in vain. “I hope it’s not in vain,” says Daisy. “I need all the help I can get.”
* Violet visits Miss Cruikshank, the fiancée of Lord Merton’s son, in order to root out what she’s up to. Miss C makes the mistake of trying to shit a shitter… Turns out, the only reason she wants Isobel to marry Lord Merton is because she, Miss Cruikshank, doesn’t want to look after him in his dotage.
* The sequence at Brooklands racetrack is very impressive. There’s a meticulously art-directed location, lots of extras and lots of period cars. Henry Talbot and his friend Charlie are competing in a race. “Come on, Talbot!” Robert shouts during the race. When his sister points out that Talbot is a type of car, he says he can’t shout out, “Come on, Henry!” because they might all be called Henry for all he knows. Everyone seems to be having a great time, but then there’s a crash and Charlie is killed.
* Having taken an exam after impressing the local schoolteacher, Mr Molesley is offered a teaching job. The way actor Kevin Doyle plays the reaction is very touching.
* Sick of her husband’s constant complaints about her cooking and housework, Mrs Hughes feigns a hand injury so he has to do it all. (The effort of making dinner is so bad he falls asleep while eating.)

Real history:
* While in London, Edith goes past the site of Devonshire House. Something new is going up in its place. On Piccadilly, the grand London residence of the Dukes of Devonshire was built in the middle of the 18th century but demolished in 1924. (There’s now an office building on the site.)
* Robert mentions the Egyptian queen Tiaa, who lived during the Eighteen Dynasty (1549 BC to 1292 BC). She was the wife of Amenhotep II and the mother of Tuthmose IV.

Maggie Smithism of the week: Violet is going to see Miss Cruikshank, who Isobel says is a “quite a tough nut”. Violet: “And I’m quite a tough nutcracker.”

Mary’s men: When Mary asks maid Anna what she thinks of Henry Talbot, Anna says she’s not sure if he’s a good match for her. Mary seems to agree. A few days later, Mary and Henry kiss when she attends a race he’s driving in, but her stomach is in knots because the fast cars are reminding her of late husband Matthew, who died in a crash. Then during the race there’s an accident elsewhere on the track – fearing the worst, Mary runs to the cars. Her relief when she sees that Henry is alive confirms that life with him would be too painful. She calls off their relationship, but it’s clear she loves him.

Doggie! Before she leaves for the a visit to the continent, Violet arranges a present for her son: Robert is given a puppy, who he names Tiaa.

Review: One of the major characters, Violet, who must be well into her 80s, leaves for a trip to France without saying goodbye – will this be the last we ever see of her?

Next episode…

The Trouble With Harry (1955)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A dead body causes problems for various people in a sleepy New England village…

This laid-back comedy sees characters treat a murder victim like a minor inconvenience. Morality is sidelined in favour of humour. The plot kicks off when a local man called Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn, using the same befuddled charm that won him an Oscar for Miracle on 34th Street) is hunting in the woods. After shooting at a rabbit, he finds a corpse with a bullet wound and assumes he’s killed him. But before he can dispose of the body, various neighbours arrive on the scene – and each has their own part to play in the mystery of what really happened. One is local painter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe); another is the corpse’s widow, Jennifer (a winsome Shirley MacLaine in her first movie), who seems glad he’s dead.

However, the maybe-murder-mystery never feels that important because Hitchcock is more interested in the black comedy. The characters and situation are heightened and not intended to be taken too seriously. But because of this, it does fall a little flat at times. The script is often structured like a stage farce, complete with characters arriving and leaving at key moments, people hiding behind trees, and a dead body having to be buried and dug up multiple times. However, it’s played and directed too slowly to really take flight. So while amusing, it’s rarely gripping.

At least it looks good. Vermont’s autumnal colours and wide-open spaces are really well served by the Technicolor and VistaVision format. (As well as shooting on location, a woodland clearing was created in a Hollywood studio, with hundreds of New England leaves shipped in.) But you yearn for a bit more oomph behind the dialogue. Sam Marlow drives the story despite being one of the few villagers who has nothing to do with the victim, yet John Forsythe is a bit underwhelming. Jack Lemon or James Stewart, say, would have *commanded* this movie and Sam would have sparkled in every scene. As it is, the film trundles along entertainingly if not that spectacularly.

Seven men walking past a limousine out of 10

Downton Abbey: series 6 episode 6

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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 Michael Engler. Originally broadcast: 25 October 2015, ITV.

In order to raise some money for the local hospital, an open day is held at Downton Abbey. Also, Daisy sits her exams, Mr Molesley is offered a new future, and Robert recuperates after his burst ulcer.

When is it set? It’s been a few weeks since the previous episode. Downton opens its doors to the public (for a sixpence each) on Saturday 6 June 1925; the episode begins a few days beforehand.

Where is it set? The village. The house. Violet’s house. Mr Mason’s farm. The Carsons’ cottage. The Bateses’ cottage. Lady Rosamund’s house and the Criterion restaurant in London.

Debuts, deaths and guest stars:
* Lord Merton brings his daughter-in-law-to-be, Miss Cruikshank (Phoebe Sparrow), to see Isobel. Knowing that his son is the main reason Isobel won’t marry him, Merton hopes Miss C can ease the troubles.

Best bits:
* Mr Carson is irritating his new wife by suggesting they get some help in their home and telling her to ask Mrs Patmore for cooking advice. She bites her tongue but is clearly angry with his arrogance.
* Mary says she’s having dinner at the Criterion with her friend Evelyn. Edith interrupts: “I used to go to the Criterion with Michael.” Mary: “Do you have to put a dampener on every restaurant in the capital?”
* Thomas Barrow is secretly teaching Andy to read, but Mrs Patmore overhears them planning to meet in a bedroom and gets the wrong idea. Later, Mr Carson sees Andy coming out of Thomas’s room and confronts Thomas, who’s hurt by everyone doubting his intentions.
* Mary wears yet another stunning 1920s frock and headdress while at the Criterion.
* Edith introduces her ‘ward’, Marigold, to new beau Bertie, and it’s clear she desperately wants to tell him that she’s her daughter.
* The open-house sequence is fun, especially in the way the family have to act as tour guides despite their shaky knowledge. Visitors ask questions they can’t answer and point out features they’ve never spotted before. A young lad by even wanders into Robert’s bedroom and starts chatting to him.

Worst bits:
* We’re glibly told the result of the trial Miss Baxter was going to testify at. The man has been given 10 years, but then writes to Miss Baxter asking her to visit him. Yet another mostly off-screen plotline.
* The climax of the hospital subplot sees Downton’s institution taken over by York and Cora appointed the new president of the board. Yawn.

Real history:
* Robert says the house has in its collection “a decent Reynolds, a couple of Romneys and a Winterhalter.” He’s referring to painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), George Romney (1734-1802) and Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873).
* Isobel says that even “Elizabeth Bennet wanted to see what Pemberley was like inside”. Bennet is a character in Jane Austen’s 
1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.
* Carson mentions the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Robert replies that he knew his wine and women.
* We’re told that Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), the architect who built the Houses of Parliament, also designed Downton Abbey.

Maggie Smithism of the week: “Why should anyone pay,” asks Violet, “to see a perfectly ordinary house?” She’s talking about the palatial Downton Abbey.

Mary’s men: She heads to London to see her old pal Evelyn, who arranges for Henry Talbot to be at a big group dinner. Mary and Henry leave together and she tells him why she’s cautious of him: he’s a racing driver, and her first husband died in a car crash. It then rains – instantly, like in a film – so they take shelter… and kiss. He says he’s falling in love with her.

Review: The end is in sight – the ‘open day at Downton’ storyline foreshadows the kind of future some of these stately homes had in store.

Next episode…