Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a group of criminals attempt a jewellery heist, things go wrong. Is one of them an undercover cop?

What does QT do? This wasn’t Quentin Tarantino’s first movie. He’d co-written, directed and starred in an amateur film called My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) – which is now partially lost – and did an uncredited rewrite on a forgotten erotic thriller called Past Midnight (1991). But Reservoir Dogs was his leap to the big leagues. As well as writing and directing, QT also cast himself in the minor role of Mr Brown. He has the movie’s opening dialogue and dominates the first two minutes. But the character is then rather inconsequential. (In that first scene you can actually see Tarantino break character and get ready to call cut, but co-star Lawrence Tierney has made him laugh so the action continues.)

Notable characters:
* Mr Brown (Quentin Tarantino) is shot and killed during the heist.
* Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) – real name Vic Vega – is an old friend of gang boss Joe. He’s also a sociopath who goes on a killing spree during the robbery. He then turns up at the rendezvous with a fast-food drink like nothing’s happened. In the film’s most infamous scene, he tortures a cop and slices his ear off. The key moment actually happens off-screen, the camera squeamishly panning away. Madsen’s never been better than in this role.
* Mr Blue (Edward Bunker) is killed during the robbery, but we only hear about it afterwards. The actor’s life would have made for a decent movie itself. In and out of prison until the age of 42, Bunker then became a writer of crime novels and movies.
* Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) is the shell-suit-wearing, mobile-phone-owning son of the gang’s boss. We see him joking around quite a bit, but he gets very angry when the job goes south. Penn’s manic line-reading of the phrase “Out of the fucking blue!” is a treat.
* Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) at first seems like the livewire of the group. He’s a rebel who won’t tip a waitress, moans about his assigned alias, and is hopping mad when he works out there’s an informer in the group. However, he’s actually the one character who holds his nerve and acts reasonably (given the criminal context, that is). For staying level-headed, he’s rewarded with survival. During the final scene he runs out of the warehouse and then, low in the sound mix, we can hear him being arrested. This film was one of the first to showcase the superb Buscemi and he became a key actor of 90s American cinema.
* Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) is the boss who brings the strangers together to do the robbery. Mr Orange describes him as looking like the Thing from The Fantastic Four. It’s not the most dynamic acting you’ll ever see but it does fit the character’s humourless mood.
* Mr Orange (Tim Roth) is shot while escaping from the chaos caused by Mr Blonde. We later discover he’s an undercover police detective called Freddie Newandyke. He spends virtually all of the ‘present’ scenes lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Roth is excellent, even with a cod American accent.
* Mr White (Harvey Keitel) – real name Larry Dimmick – is the de facto lead character of the film. We often experience the events through his eyes. Even when we learn about Freddie’s secret background it’s so the reveal is more powerful when Larry finds out. Keitel had got the film made by agreeing to be in it. He gives a fantastic performance.
* Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) is the cop tortured by Mr Blonde. In a nice twist, it’s later revealed that he recognised Freddie and didn’t say anything.
* Holdaway (Randy Brooks) is Freddie’s colleague who guides him through his mission.
* The script’s only female character – a policewoman played by The West Wing’s Nina Siemaszko – features in the deleted scenes available on the DVD. She gives Freddie some background information on Larry/Mr White.

Music: There’s no specially written score. All the music instead comes from a fictional radio show called K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s. K-Billy is voiced by droll stand-up Steven Wright. The best uses of songs come during the title sequence, when Little Green Bag by George Baker Selection scores a now-iconic shot of the characters walking in slow motion, and when a torture scene is timed to Stealers Wheel’s up-tempo Stuck in the Middle With You. We also hear a snatch of Blue Swede’s cover of Hooked on a Feeling, which was later used so well in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Time shifts and chapters: Reservoir Dogs is built on a flashback structure. Not only that, it deliberately misses out the story’s key scene: the armed robbery itself. After a prologue showing the characters enjoying breakfast, we cut to later that same day: everything’s gone fuck-up and Mr Orange is bleeding to death in the back of a car. The script then pushes forward in real-time segments broken up by a series of flashbacks: Mr Pink just after the heist, Mr White being recruited for the job, Mr Blonde being recruited for the job, and Mr Orange planning and carrying out his undercover mission. The Mr Orange sequence lasts nearly a quarter of the entire film and contains flashbacks within flashbacks. The three main cutaways are given title cards (‘Mr White’, ‘Mr Blonde’ and ‘Mr Orange’).

Review: This taut, muscular and musical script is peppered with pop-culture references and it’s noticeable how many actors are mentioned in the dialogue – Lee Marvin, Doris Day, Marlon Brando, Charles Bronson (twice), Anne Francis, Pam Grier… That’s apt, because the film’s characters are all putting on a performance. They tell stories, use costumes (a black suit and tie), assume stage names, analyse the ‘truth’ of dramatic situations – and put aside rehearsal-room laughter to ‘get into character’. Being a crook in this film is a self-conscious ‘act’ with its own code of behaviour. Mr White is prepared to kill someone who gets in his way, but considers Mr Blonde a lunatic for shooting bystanders. However warped, he has a morality. (Of course, Mr Orange is playing an additional role because he’s lying about his true identity.) They can surprise you too. These guys discuss Madonna’s discography with a real level of knowledge; Mr White shows compassion; and Mr Orange gets scared. Hardly your average heist-movie hoodlums. Everyone – even a genuine psychopath like Mr Blonde – is an interesting, dynamic personality. And they get plenty of *electric* dialogue. Tarantino’s writing constantly brims with attitude, rhythm and gallows humour. The structure is just as entertaining. In some ways, Reservoir Dogs is like a stage play. Flashbacks aside, it’s a real-time story set in one location. Characters actually go off-stage at certain points, or have dramatic up-stage entrances. But at the same time it’s vastly cinematic. The flashback structure is vital to the story. It *is* the story, really. The reveals and twists are only possible because we cut to scenes that certain characters are not privy to – no matter the chronological order. For example, the longest flashback comes right after the biggest plot twist. Tension is eked out because we leave the warehouse once we’ve learnt Mr Orange is a cop. That warehouse, incidentally, is glossy without being glitzy. It’s artfully lit, with plenty of natural-seeming light and highlights in the distance, but still rundown, functional and everyday. It’s a good job it’s such an interesting location because we spend about a third of the movie in there. There’s plenty of nifty camerawork too, such as handheld, slow dollies and even a POV shot from inside a car boot that became a Tarantino motif. Quentin also uses numerous long takes: White and Orange analysing what went wrong at the jewellery store, for example, is played out in just two shots totalling nearly three minutes. Reservoir Dogs is a film made by a film geek for film geeks. It was filmed 25 years ago, but is still stunning. Still captivating. Still fresh as fuck.

Ten severed ears out of 10

Star Trek: The Next Generation: season six (1992/93)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season six…

Best episode:
* Starship Mine. Picard must combat terrorists who have taken control of the Enterprise… It’s the Next Generation does Die Hard. Comedy, suspense and drama go hand-in-hand. It’s not especially Star Treky (not being ‘about’ anything), but very entertaining.

Honourable mentions:
* Time’s Arrow, Part II. Data’s colleagues travel to 1893 to locate him… Very enjoyable follow-up to last season’s finale.
* Relics. Long-missing Captain Montgomery Scott is found trapped inside a transporter buffer… SCOTTY!
* True Q. A young woman seems to have godlike powers, so Q arrives to help her… It’s always fun whenever Q shows up.
* A Fistful of Datas. Worf and his son, Alexander, take part in a holodeck Western programme, but things go wrong… Very entertaining and often funny. It revels in its Old West conventions. The first Worf-based episode to really succeed (all the others are so po-faced).
* Chain of Command, Part I. The Enterprise gets a new captain… The start of a fine two-part story. Ronny Cox guest stars and shakes up the cosy Enterprise family.
* Chain of Command, Part II. A captured Picard is interrogated by a Cardassian officer… Anything with David Warner in it is going to be worth seeing.
* Ship in a Bottle. A sentient hologram of Professor Moriarty escapes from the holodeck… Amazing episode with an audacious plot development.
* Tapesty. When Picard is ‘killed’, Q lets him relive a key moment from his youth… Let’s face it, if it’s about Picard it’s going to be a good one.
* Frame of Mind. While rehearsing a play about being imprisoned, Riker suddenly finds himself in the same situation as his character… A trippy story in which we don’t know what’s real and what’s not.
* Second Chances. A transporter malfunction results in a duplicate Will Riker… The kind of idea Star Trek does so well – taking a silly sci-fi concept and turning it into a fascinating character story.
* Timescape. Picard, Troi, Data and La Forge find the Enterprise frozen in time… Another science-fiction gimmick, but enjoyable stuff.

Worst episode:
* Aquiel – in which Geordie falls for a murder suspect – is boring, twee, and it ends very abruptly. Characters also have to act stupidly for the plot to work.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: season five (1991/92)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season five…

Best episode:
* Conundrum. The crew of the Enterprise lose their memories after being scanned by an alien… A fun, gimmicky episode where our characters have to rediscover everything afresh. The regulars are having a ball playing with expectations and there’s some good humour too.

Honourable mentions:
* Ensign Ro. A disgraced Starfleet officer joins the Enterprise crew… Another no-easy-answers story about terrorists, and a good debut for a new semi-regular character.
* Silicon Avatar. A mysterious space creature that has killed millions returns… There’s a fine guest performance from Ellen Geer in this story about the crystalline entity from season one.
* Unification I. Picard and Data go undercover in Romulan territory to find a famous Vulcan ambassador… SPOCK!
* Unification II. MORE SPOCK!
* A Matter of Time. A man called Berlinghoff Rasmussen arrives and claims to be an academic time-traveller from the future… Matt Frewer plays Rasmussen and is a lot of fun.
* Hero Worship. A young boy latches onto Data as a new father figure… A sweet episode.
* Violations. There’s a delegation on the Enterprise, and one of them mentally abuses crewmembers… A nasty story about a rape metaphor with some trippy dream-like sequences.
* Power Play. Data, Troi and O’Brien get possessed and take control of the ship… An enjoyable enough go at a hoary old concept.
* Cause and Effect. Unbeknownst to the crew, the Enterprise becomes trapped in a time loop… Gimmicky and full of holes, but still very entertaining and well staged.
* The First Duty. At Starfleet Academy, Wesley Crusher is involved in a colleague’s death… A talky but enjoyable episode – a courtroom drama.
* I, Borg. An individual Borg is captured and the crew decide to use him as a weapon… A decent examination of moral issues.
* The Next Phase. Everyone thinks Geordie and Ro have been killed… An enjoyable sci-fi idea, though it’s a shame the solution is so rooted in meaningless science terminology.
* The Inner Light. Picard is unconscious for 20 minutes but in that time experiences decades’ worth of life on an alien planet… Very touching. An excellent performance from Patrick Stewart, as always.
* Time’s Arrow. After finding Data’s head buried on Earth, the android travels back in time to San Francisco in the 19th century… Tremendous. A foot-to-the-floor time-travel romp with comedy, Samuel Clemens and a terrific turn from Brent Spiner.

WORST:
* Redemption II. Picard visits the Klingon homeworld to oversee a new leader’s coronation… A horrendously boring exercise in fanwank. The hoops the storytelling jumps through in order to justify Denise Crosby’s return to the show are risible.

Red Dwarf V (1992)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written by Rob Grant & Doug Naylor. Directed by Juliet May (episodes 1-3, 5, 6) and Grant Naylor (episodes 2, 4-6). Broadcast on BBC2.

NOTE: With Ed Bye busy on wife Ruby Wax’s comedy show, Juliet May was hired as Red Dwarf’s new director. However, she struggled with the sci-fi elements of the series and lost the confidence of the cast, so left partway through production. Writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor took over, using a portmanteau credit. (May has since had a successful career in TV, directing episodes of Chalk, New Tricks, Miranda, Call the Midwife and much else. She gamely appears on Red Dwarf V’s DVD extras, speaking honestly and good-naturedly about her experiences on the show.)

Regulars: The same as series three and four. In fact, the 18 episodes shown between 1989 and 1992 represent the most stable Red Dwarf’s ever been in terms of its cast.

Episode 1: Holoship (20 February 1992): The gang encounter a spaceship crewed entirely by holograms and Rimmer is given the chance to sign up… A decent episode with some heart and good gags. Last series, it was Kryten who fell in love in the opening episode but had to give her up; here it’s Rimmer.
Observations: Jane Horrocks puts on a plummy accent to play Nirvanah Crane, the officer who Rimmer falls for. Don Warrington adds even more class when he cameos as an aloof, arrogant hologram. Lister is said to (still) be in his mid-20s.
Best gag: Rimmer is teleported off Starbug. Kryten says, “They’ve taken Mr Rimmer! They’ve taken Mr Rimmer!” The Cat: “Quick, let’s get out of here before they bring him back!”

Episode 2: The Inquisitor (27 February 1992): A mysterious android arrives and judges the crew: if they fail to prove that they’ve led a worthwhile life they’ll be erased from history… It’s an intriguing sci-fi idea with some legs. It’s a shame it isn’t funnier, though.
Observations: Jack Docherty plays the Inquisitor and becomes the third actor from sketch show Absolutely to guest star in Red Dwarf (after Morwenna Banks in Stasis Leak and Gordon Kennedy in The Last Day). Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules and Robert Llewellyn also play the android in the trial scenes. An alternative-timeline Lister is portrayed by Jake Abraham.
Best gag: “I can do better than that, Kryten. I can give you 15!”

Episode 3: Terrorform (5 March 1992): Rimmer and Kryten crash on a planetoid that adapts its terrain to reflect Rimmer’s unconscious mind… It’s fast-paced and funny, and also nicely plotted across the half-hour. A good Rimmer story for the second time in three episodes.
Observations: Rimmer doesn’t feature in the first 10 minutes. The location work is the show’s first ever night-shoot, and it’s really well done – lots of smoke, coloured lights and fire make it look like a Hammer movie. In the scenes on the planet, where Rimmer has physical form, Chris Barrie doesn’t wear the H symbol on his forehead. He also plays musketeer-like manifestations of Rimmer’s emotions.
Best gag: Lister and the Cat type out a conversation on a keyboard because they’re too scared to talk. (They think a tarantula is nearby.)

Episode 4: Quarantine (12 March 1992): Affected by a virus that turns him insane, Rimmer locks his colleague up in a cell… It’s a bit lumbering to begin with, but once the quarantine stuff kicks in the episode is very enjoyable. Chris Barrie’s having a blast with normal Rimmer being a twat and ill Rimmer wearing a gingham dress and army boots.
Observations: How gorgeous is the model filming of Starbug landing on the snow-covered planet? (Lots. Lots gorgeous.)
Best gag: Mr Flibble.

Episode 5: Demons and Angels (19 March 1992): An accident creates two duplicate Red Dwarfs – one is good and pure, the other is bad and decaying… The same problem from Quarantine exists again here: for the first half or so the comedy is in a low gear while sci-fi plotting dominates. But it picks up once the seedy versions of the characters arrive.
Observations: This is the last episode to feature Red Dwarf itself for quite some time. All five regulars play ‘high’ and ‘low’ equivalents of their characters. The former are pacifist, Buddhist-like hippies; the latter are twisted, violent psychopaths. (There are lots of split-screen and composite shots to show us the same actor in multiple roles. Some are more successful than others.)
Best gag: The low Rimmer. It’s as if they’d cast a Tory MP to play Servalan from Blake’s 7 in an episode where she dresses up as a Dr Frank-n-Furter who’s a fan of the Sex Pistols and wants a shag.

Episode 6: Back to Reality (26 March 1992): Having apparently been killed in a crash, the gang ‘wake up’ attached to a virtual-reality machine. For four years, they’ve been playing a computer game called Red Dwarf… I remember watching this on transmission, 10 days after my 13th birthday. I fell for it hook, line, sinker, rod and copy of Angling Times. I assumed it was the last ever episode of Red Dwarf and this was a subversive way of wrapping the show up. The whole thing has a moody vibe about it, especially the oceanic opening but also in the ‘real’ world, which is a 1984-ish Britain of fascists and thugs. The plotting is lovely, with clues well seeded early on and some big twists. And it’s routinely funny. The best episode since Polymorph.
Observations: Timothy Spall has one scene as a technician. In the ‘real’ world, Lister is Sebastian Doyle, a wealthy and corrupt politician. Rimmer is Sebastian’s down-and-out brother, Billy. Kryten, meanwhile, is Jake Bullet, a half-human cop. And the Cat is a nerd called Duane Dibbley who has a key to a Salvation Army hostel. We also see the next batch of players in the Red Dwarf RPG: versions of Lister, Rimmer, Kryten, the Cat and Kochanski. This episode has no scenes set on Red Dwarf itself. In fact, Back to Reality is the start of a 14-episode run where the ship is only seen in very occasional flashbacks.
Best gag: It might have been sullied by self-indulgent callbacks in later episodes but the Duane Dibbley stuff is great.

Best episode: Back to Reality. Worst episode: The Inquisitor.

Review: A really entertaining set of episodes. The series is evolving yet again, though. For a kick-off, the writers seemed to be bored of their title ship. Red Dwarf doesn’t feature in episode six at all, while there’s a vast reduction of scenes in Lister and Rimmer’s bunkroom. Starbug is now the setting of choice: it’s used in all six episodes, and in the first two we don’t even find out why the characters are in the shuttle. It’s now just somewhere they hang out. Elsewhere, the crutch of running gags is creeping into the scripts more and more. One example sees the Cat suggest a plan of action and then Kryten tell him it’s an excellent idea with just two minor drawbacks (minor drawbacks that prove the plan is nonsense). Additionally, despite being introduced as a senile butler, Kryten continues to have encyclopedic knowledge of whatever sci-fi element the plot throws up – holoships, the Inquisitor, psi-moons… Put politely, this is economic storytelling; put critically it’s just lazy. We’re also seeing a shift of the balance of power in Rimmer’s favour. Lister is still nominally the lead, but three of these episodes could be said to be about Arnold. He even has two sex scenes. Compare with poor Hattie Hayridge as Holly. The odd gag aside, she’s been reduced to reading out technobabble. (It’s noticeable that when Back to Reality sees the characters wake up from their ‘fantasy’, Holly isn’t included.) Nevertheless, the comedy is good, the production values very fine indeed, and the cast enjoyable company.

Nine blatant clues out of 10

Alien3 (1992, David Fincher)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ellen Ripley wakes up on a prison planet – her spaceship has crashed, her companions have been killed, and it soon becomes clean that an alien has got loose…

The cast: Sigourney Weaver’s back, playing Ripley for a third and final time. (Spoiler: she dies at the end.) Due to the prison’s lice problem she has to shave her head. Also returning is Lance Henriksen, this time in two roles. He has one scene voicing the android Bishop (the damaged body is an animatronic puppet), then shows up at the end as the human designer of the Bishop model. Not back, however, are the other survivors from Aliens. Hicks and Newt are killed off in the opening credit sequence, leaving Ripley alone and isolated. (During research I discovered that some literal-minded prat has edited Alien³’s Wikipedia page to specify that it’s not Hicks’s body in the escape pod. It seems that in Aliens: Colonial Marines – a 2013 videogame that takes place between the two movies – he was replaced by a guy called Turk. Give me strength.) Charles Dance is quiet, melancholic and likeable as prison doctor Jonathan Clemens. Brian Glover is good fun as warden Harold Andrews. Ralph Brown plays Andrews’s assistant, Aaron, who’s been nicknamed ‘85’ because of his low IQ. Paul McGann is billed fourth in the opening credits, even though mentally unstable prisoner Golic is quite a minor role. (Brown and McGann had both been in 1986’s Withnail & I, of course, and their Withnail co-star Richard E Grant was actually offered the role of Clemens.) Various other inmates are played by a panoply of British character actors: Danny Webb, Pete Postlethwaite, Peter Guinness, Phil Davis, Clive Mantle… As with Ripley, they all have buzz-cut heads. One of the few non-Brits in the film is Charles S Dutton, who’s very good as Dillon, the prison’s top dog who’s found Jesus.

The best bit: There are some great shots used for the alien’s point of view, which are filmed with a steadicam using a wide-angle lens. The cameraman twists and turns as he moves forward, making it seem like the creature is running along the walls and ceilings. Incidentally, the cinematographer was originally Jordan Cronenweth, who’d shot Blade Runner. But he dropped out after two weeks because of Parkinson’s disease, so these POVs were the work of Alex Thomson.

Alternative version: Director David Fincher more or less disowned this film after its release because he’d been so upset by interference from studio executives. Huge portions of the script were rewritten during the shoot, so many scenes had to be dropped and entire subplots were changed. In 2003, without Fincher’s involvement, an ‘Assembly Cut’ was compiled for a DVD release – this version went back to the original script and used a lot of footage that had been dropped in 1992. The changes in the 37 minutes of new stuff include:
* Ripley’s escape pod now crashes near a coastline. Clemens finds her and carries her into the prison.
* There are a few extra moments that beef up the inmates’ religious zeal.
* The alien now impregnates an ox rather than a dog. After the ox dies there’s a scene of two prisoners taking it to an abattoir. One of the guys then finds a dead facehugger but doesn’t know what it is.
* Golic’s role is more substantial. He’s disliked by other inmates because he’s so crazy. The prisoners’ attempt to capture the alien is successful – but then Golic, who’s fascinated by the creature, lets it go.
* When Ripley throws herself off the gantry into the furnace, the alien inside her no longer bursts free.

Review: We’re back to the horror vibe of film one. In the first few minutes of this remorselessly dark film, there’s a very creepy shot of a facehugger lurking in the escape pod – and there always seems to be something scary hiding in every corner of the frame. Also, the society in this left-to-its-own-devices prison is an interesting world for an action-horror story. There’s an unsettling feeling of decay to everything – both physically and psychologically. At one point Aaron tells Ripley they have torches but no batteries. It’s a metaphor for the men: they have the equipment but no energy. However, there are big problems… The story’s pace is monotonous and there are few surprises. The whole film’s all on one level, basically: it’s a song with no choruses. It’s also *unremittingly* grim. The other Alien films mixed in flashes of humour or moments of humanity, whereas this gives us dour characters, a post-mortem on a child, an attempted gang rape and a sickly brown colour palette. The film has nowhere to go tonally. And the camerawork is often quite irritating. There are lots of low angles for not very clear reasons, and it often looks like a macabre music video. Watching this movie is a real jolt after the tight, experience-based direction of the first two films. Ridley Scott and James Cameron dropped the viewer into their stories; Alien³ watches events from afar.

Five double-Y chromosomes out of 10

Next time: Joss Whedon writes an Alien film? What could go wrong?

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1992, Ridley Scott)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 1982, during post-production of Blade Runner, a work-in-progress edit was shown to preview audiences in Dallas and Denver. Negative feedback led to numerous changes for the release version, such as the addition of both Deckard’s voiceover and a ‘happy ending’ scene of Deckard and Rachel escaping the city. Eight years after the movie came out, a 70mm copy of that early rough cut (known to Blade Runner fans as the workprint) was found and screened at film festivals. A buzz quickly grew, so Warner Bros decided to cash in. Despite its name, Ridley Scott was too busy to oversee this ‘Director’s Cut’ for its 1992 release, though it was an attempt to restore more of his original vision. As I’ve already reviewed the 1982 version of the film, this is instead a discussion of the changes made a decade later.

* The Director’s Cut uses the US theatrical version as its base, so it’s missing the 16 extra seconds of violence that were seen in other countries. A shame.
* Deckard’s narration has thankfully been completely removed. Early in the film, to plug a gap where voiceover used to be, we hear a longer Tannoy announcement coming from the massive blimp flying above the city.
* As Deckard sits at the piano in his apartment, he now has a 12-second daydream about a unicorn running through the woods.
* The film ends one scene earlier than before, with the lift doors closing on Deckard and Rachel. So the daytime shots of them driving into the countryside are missing.

Review: At the original film’s climax, Deckard finds a small origami unicorn outside his apartment. The fact it’s a unicorn is neither here nor there; it’s simply a tip-off that Gaff tracked down Rachel but let her live. However, the Director’s Cut introduces the daydream mentioned above, which gives the story new meaning. Now we must ask: is Gaff actually revealing that he knows what Deckard has been dreaming about? If so, does that mean Deckard himself is a replicant? Of course, a unicorn is a mythical, fictional creature: in other words, not real. The dream also acts as a magnet, pulling other pre-existing clues into focus:
* When asked if he ever took a replicant-spotting Voight-Kampff test, Deckard doesn’t answer.
* Deckard’s eyes glint in the light at one point, in the same way replicants’ eyes do at various times in the film. (Harrison Ford says this was an accident when he stepped across Sean Young’s mark – but of course the fact Ridley Scott used the take is significant.)
* Deckard’s apartment is littered with photographs. Not only are they mostly old-fashioned and black-and-white, so therefore seem to be from someone else’s life, but we’re told that replicants collect photos as a way of forming their own histories.
* When Deckard is briefed about his mission, his boss tells him that six replicants have escaped and that one was killed trying to infiltrate Tyrell HQ. That leaves five: Roy, Leon, Pris, Zhora… and Deckard? Could he actually be one of Roy’s gang reprogrammed to hunt them down? (Again, this plot ambiguity is actually a mistake: the line should have been that two were killed before the film began, but the wrong take was used and no one noticed the mathematical error.)
Pleasingly, the film never comes out and says for certain either way. But on balance, the Director’s Cut suggests that Deckard is a replicant. This was the first version of Blade Runner I ever saw, on VHS in 1992 or so. Perhaps that means I’m biased, but because it erases the dreary voiceover and adds ambiguity via the daydream I’d say it’s even better than the original.

Ten attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion out of 10

Next time… Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a prologue set in Transylvania in 1462. We then cut to London, 1897 (‘Four centuries later,’ a caption helpfully tells viewers with poor maths). The film is littered with mentions of dates, a way of echoing the novel’s use of diaries, letters and newspaper articles. Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is on his way to Castle Dracula on 25 May. On 30 May, diary entries from Harker, Mina (Winona Ryder) and Dr Seward (Richard E Grant) are read out as voiceover. We hear extracts from the log of the Demeter dated 27 June and 3 July. Having arrived in the UK, Dracula (Gary Oldman) rises from his coffin on 7 July. Harker’s finally escaped the castle by 12 August. On 17 September, he returns to London. And Harker’s diary tells us that he and his colleagues are chasing the count across Europe on 28 October.

Faithful to the novel? At the time of the film’s release, much publicity was made of it being an unusually unswerving adaptation of Stoker’s text. It is roughly the same story. However, *lots* of things have been changed, such as:

* Dracula actually is Vlad the Impaler, a 15th-century psychopath who enjoyed torturing his enemies. Stoker certainly took inspiration from the historical figure when researching his novel, and Van Helsing suggests a connection between the two men – but this movie began a vogue for making it much more literal.

* Mina is the reincarnation of Vlad’s lost love, Elisabeta, who committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking Vlad had been killed. When he learns what she’s done, Vlad seemingly just decides to become immortal so he can avenge her death. (He blames God rather than the Turk who lied to her.)

* Once the story moves to the Victorian era, the role of Renfield (Tom Waits) has been changed: in this version he was a solicitor who visited Dracula and came back insane.

* Unlike the novel, the film presents events in chronological order, so Harker’s experiences at the castle are intercut with Mina and others back in Britain.

* Something that *is* faithful to the book is that when Harker first meets Dracula, the vampire appears to be elderly and only becomes visually younger as he feeds. It’s a detail that’s often ignored in adaptations. Oldman’s old-man make-up makes him look like the Emperor from Return of the Jedi.

* Dracula is buying 10 properties in London, not just Carfax Abbey.

* It’s possible Whitby is ignored. The Demeter lands at a seaside town with vertiginous headlands, but the rest of the UK action appears to all take place in London. Lucy’s mother is also absent from this version.

* Mina’s friendship with Lucy (Sadie Frost) is a touch more salacious: they get giggly while looking at sexually explicit drawings in a book, while they share a cheeky kiss at one point.

* Dracula can move around in the daytime.

* Newly arrived in London, Dracula spots Mina and recognises her as the reincarnation of Elisabeta. A newly invented subplot sees them then have an affair of sorts, which runs parallel to his pursuit of Lucy. The story’s chronology is rejigged significantly around this section.

* Dracula is often in the form of a wolf, and even becomes a big human/bat type monster.

* When under Dracula’s influence, Mina seduces Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). He’s well up for the kiss-kiss, but pulls away when she tries to bite him.

* Mina kills Dracula.

Best performance: Richard E Grant is probably the best of a bad bunch, playing a half-klutzy, half-junkie Seward.

Best bit: Jonathan Harker’s more-sexual-than-usual encounter with the Brides (one of whom is Monica Bellucci).

Review: Francis Ford Coppola had impressive form when it came to making great cinema out of a potboiler novel. But the magic dust he sprinkled over The Godfather got blown away by a stiff breeze here. The movie certainly looks good, especially in inventive sequences such as the puppet-show-like flashbacks. There are plenty of impressively in-camera special effects. And the notion of Dracula’s shadow having a mind of its own is a neat idea that very nearly works. But this is a terrible film. The cast are appalling – most notably the horrendously miscast Keanu Reeves – while it gets thunderingly boring about halfway in. Ideas get set up then abandoned and there are also lots of jarring oddities, such as Victorian gentlemen not spotting that a woman’s breast is exposed, which make you question how firmly focused Coppola’s directorial eye was. The film also loses at least two marks for codifying the dreary cliché that Dracula is Vlad the Impaler.

Three beheadings out of 10

Carry On Columbus (1992)

Columbus

In 1492, a Turkish ruler learns of an explorative voyage to the Indies, which might rob him of income from trading taxes. So he sends an agent to infiltrate Christopher Columbus’s crew…

What’s it spoofing? This film came out 500 years after Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and found the American continent. He wasn’t the first European to do so and he never actually set foot on what is now the USA (he bounced around the Caribbean and South America), but the anniversary was still big news. Two other films on this subject came out in the same year as this final Carry On movie: Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise and John Glen’s Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. None of the three did very well.

Funniest moment: Marco warns Chiquita not to fall into the water as there are sharks nearby. “Will they eat me whole?” she asks. “No,” he replies, “I’ve heard they spit that out.”

The Big 10:

* Jim Dale (11) returns for his first Carry On since the 1960s to play Columbus – he did it as a favour to director Gerald Thomas.

Notable others:

* Rik Mayall has a fun, petulant cameo as Abdul the Benevolent, the Sultan of Turkey (“NEEEEEXT!”).

* Nigel Planer, Mayall’s Young Ones co-star, plays his lackey, the Wazir.

* Tony Slattery appears as Baba the Messenger, who trots out the old “I have come hotfoot”/cut-to-his-feet-giving-off-steam joke.

* Burt Kwouk plays a trader called, um, Wang. THIS WAS THE 90s, PEOPLE!

* Sara Crowe might be the best thing in the film: she gets the arch tone perfectly as skilled-but-naive Turkish agent Fatima.

* Martin Clunes plays Martin, a dim customer in Columbus’s map shop.

* Peter Richardson sounds like he’s dubbed all his own dialogue himself for the role of Columbus’s brother, Bart, who draws the maps for his shop but keeps putting naked mermaids on them.

* Alexei Sayle – another Young Ones veteran – plays Achmed, the Sultan’s man in Lisbon, who accompanies Fatima on her mission.

* Bernard Cribbins plays Mordecai Mendoza, a former Jew who’s now a Christian. He has a map of the far west so comes along on the voyage.

* Leslie Phillips is King Ferdinand; it’s the actor’s first Carry On appearance in 32 years. The role was first offered to Frankie Howerd, but he died just days before production began. Bernard Bresslaw was then asked to step in, but he said no.

* June Whitfield is the Queen of Spain. Both Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor turned the part down.

* Maureen Lipman plays Countess Esmerelda, a Spanish noblewoman with two pretty daughters who ends up on the ship by accident. She gets to reprise Joan Sims’s ‘the count’ gag from Don’t Lose Your Head.

* Jon Pertwee’s fourth Carry On cameo is a doddery old man being married off to one of Esmerelda’s daughters.

* Holly Aird and Rebecca Lacey play the daughters, Maria and Chiquita. The former flirts with Burt.

* Lynda Baron pops up for about five seconds as a local woman.

* Richard Wilson plays Don Juan Felipe, an inspector appointed by the king to oversee the voyage.

* Julian Clary plays Don Juan Diego (“I’m Juan too!”), a jailer who’s bored with his job so joins Columbus’s crew.

* Keith Allen appears as the ship’s cook, Pepi the Poisoner.

* Daniel Peacock plays Tonto the Torch, the Andalusia Arsonist.

* Jack Douglas has a role smaller than most of his 1970s characters: Marco the Cereal Killer (so named because he beats his victims to death with a sack of Rice Crispies).

* Don Henderson is likewise barely on screen; he plays the bosun.

* Peter Gilmore’s 11th and obviously final Carry On character is the governor of the Canary Islands.

* Chris Langham, Charles Fleischer and Larry Miller are reasonably funny as the incongruously savvy and civilized natives who Columbus and co find in the Americas. They have New York accents and attitudes.

Top totty: Whatever happened to Sara Crowe?

Review: With so many of the old guard dead or unwilling to return, this restart of the series – after a 14-year gap – introduced a much-hyped ‘new generation’ of talent. It basically boils down to a few people who had been around for a decade by this point and a hotchpotch of jobbing comedy actors. If there’s any significant change to the Carry On formula it’s in the flashes of Monty Python-style surrealism. But there’s still a surfeit of corny jokes, a plethora of cultural stereotypes and far too many cultural stereotypes standing in for corny jokes. It *is* rubbish, there’s no denying that. But it’s no worse than the sludge being produced at the end of the 1970s. Go in with low expectations and it raises a smile occasionally.

Four cigars out of 10

Batman Returns (1992, Tim Burton)

BatmanReturns

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Corrupt industrialist Max Shreck manipulates the Penguin, a former circus performer with a grudge against Gotham City, for his own ends – and also injures his secretary so much she ends up transforming into Catwoman.

Good guys: We first see Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton again) sat alone, brooding in the dark. Aside from this moment and a short action scene that follows, he’s not in the film’s opening 34 minutes – and not a huge amount afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a title character getting less screen time in a superhero movie. In a nice touch, Bruce is initially sympathetic towards the Penguin because they’re both orphans. He refers to Vicki from the previous film and tells us their relationship petered out.

Bad guys: There are two Big Bads. Danny DeVito is terrifically freaky and unhinged as the Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot. The character is born in the opening scene, but then abandoned by his parents because he’s deformed. The child ends up in a sewer and is adopted by some penguins. Thirty-three years later, he orchestrates mayhem from his hidden lair in Gotham Zoo; when he kidnaps businessman Max Schrek (Christopher Walken, uneven), the two end up joining forces. The Penguin wants to come out of hiding, find his parents and learn his real name. He knows about Max’s dodgy dealing because of the evidence Max throws away: “You flush it, I flaunt it!”. With Max’s help, the Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham, but when the population turns against him, he plans to kill every first-born child in the city (a knowing reference to King Herod: the film is set at Christmas). Schrek himself has mad hair, wears leather gloves to business meetings, is well liked by the public but is blackmailing the incumbent mayor. He wants Bruce Wayne to invest in a plan to build a new power plant, which will actually steal energy from Gotham City; he later learns that Wayne is Batman but is then electrocuted to death.

Other guys: A victim as much as a villain, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the star of the show. The character starts out as Selina Kyle, Schrek’s lowly secretary (“Lowly assistant,” as she puts it), who gets caught up in the opening action scene and meets Batman. She owns a cat called Miss Kitty and has an unseen boyfriend who abandons her at Christmas. “I guess I should have let him win that last racquetball game,” she laments. After she finds out about her boss’s evil plan, he pushes her out of a skyscraper window. She lands in an alley, cut and bruised but alive, where a pack of cats swarm around her. Heading home, she goes through some kind of psychotic episode: she trashes her flat, constructs a tight-fitting, black, leather outfit and creates a new persona: Catwoman. As her alter ego, she clashes with Batman and teams up with the Penguin to get rid of him – but at the same time, Selina is attracted to Bruce Wayne. Annette Bening was originally cast in the role, but then became pregnant. Sean Young campaigned for the job, famously turning up unannounced at Tim Burton’s office in a homemade Catwoman outfit. But Pfeiffer got the call, and she’s sensational as both the dowdy Selina and her erotic alter ego. Returning from the preview film are Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, while the most notable member of the Penguin’s gang is played by an underused Vincent Schiavelli (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ghost, Tomorrow Never Dies, the Humbug episode of The X Files). Pee-wee Herman cameos as the Penguin’s dad, reportedly replacing 1960s Penguin Burgess Meredith, who was too ill.

Best bits:

* The baby Oswald, unseen in his cage, pulling a cat through the bars and presumably eating it.

* Another masterpiece of a score from Danny Elfman.

* Selina meekly pouring coffee, and trying to not get in the way, at the board meeting.

* The Batman logo shining through the window at Wayne Manor.

* Vincent Schiavelli and the collection of macabre, grotesque henchmen dressed as skeletons, devils and clowns.

* A goon holding Selina prisoner. Batman fires a dart attached to a wire at him, which imbeds itself in the wall. “You missed!” the bad guys says. Batman pulls on the wire, detaching a huge chunk of masonry, which clobbers him.

* Selina finding a taser and testing it on the unconscious henchman.

* Selina enters her flat. “Honey, I’m home!” she shouts. Then, to herself: “I forgot, I’m not married.” She then listens to her answerphone messages. The fourth one is: “Hey, Selina, this is yourself calling to remind you, honey, that you have to come all the way back to the office unless you remembered to bring home the Bruce Wayne file because the meeting’s on Wednesday…”

* Selina, after her accident, returning to her flat and – in a daze – going through the same motions as the earlier scene.

* The Penguin, on his parents: “I was their number-one son and they treated me like number two.”

* The first appearance of Catwoman. “Be gentle,” she says to a mugger she’s confronting. “It’s my first time.” She beats him up, then says: “I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”

* The Penguin, huffing and wheezing and eating a raw fish, being introduced to a room full of election campaign staff.

* Catwoman going mental in a department store – using her whip to first knock the heads off mannequins, then as a skipping rope.

* Catwoman back-flipping up to Batman and Penguin and saying, “Miaow…” The building behind her then explodes.

* Batman knocking Catwoman off a roof… and her landing in an open truck full of kitty litter.

* The Penguin finding Catwoman on his bed. “Just the pussy I’ve been looking for!”

* Catwoman straddling Batman and licking his face. Oh, my.

* The Penguin taking remote control of the Batmobile.

* Bruce chastising Alfred for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave in the previous film – a scene that feels like it was included to explain away a plot hole.

* While dancing at a party, Bruce and Selina each figure out the other’s secret identity. “Does this mean we have to start fighting?” Selina asks.

* The Penguin’s army of actual penguins.

* Max pleading with an angry Catwoman: “I don’t know what you want, but I know I can get it for you… Money? Jewels? A big ball of string?”

Review: What an odd film. It often feels like key bits of it are missing – especially when it comes to dramatising events and explaining characters’ motivations. But maybe that’s just because the film isn’t too concerned with story. The plot is simply a fake Christmas tree to hang some nice decorations on. Those decorations are the film’s design work and its guest characters. The former is dazzling. Sets, props, costumes and lighting are simply glorious. We get hints of German Expressionism mixed in with a bizarre fairy-tale world. It’s even more heightened and surreal than the preceding film. The villains, meanwhile, take all the focus. The Penguin and Catwoman form an entertaining double act about halfway through, while Batman himself is generally sidelined. It struck me, actually, that there was a massive missed opportunity here: to do a superhero film totally from the villains’ point of view. We do get close to that, but I suspect not on purpose. Also, the lack of any roots holding up the tree – no genuine emotion, no rigorous plotting – is a serious problem. The dialogue falls flat more often than it takes flight. And the longer the movie goes on, the less it all means. While watching the opening half-hour or so, I wrote ‘8?’ down in my notes as a score out of 10. A little later, I crossed that out and put ‘7’. By the time the movie crawled to an unengaging climax, I’d changed it to…

Six references to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari out of 10.

Next time: Batman goes animated.