Don’t Believe the Truth (2005)

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Cover: Some garages seen through a fish-eye lens. Meh. By the way, Oasis were now down to a four-piece, all of whom write tracks on this album. Drummer Alan White had quit in 2004 but his replacement – Zak Starkey of The Who and the son of Ringo Starr – was not considered a full member of the band.

Best track: The Importance of Being Idle was written (and really well sung) by Noel Gallagher. It’s in the cor-blimey-gov’nor, music-hall style of The Kinks but also has a soulful, characterful feel. It was released as this album’s second single and got to number one. The title was taken from The Importance of Being Idle: A Little Book of Inspiration, a paperback by Stephen Robins that belonged to Noel’s girlfriend, Sara.

Honourable mentions:
* Turn Up The Sun, written by Andy Bell, is a decent opener with a jangly guitar intro.
* Mucky Fingers has an incessant, drilling beat to the guitar chops, drums and piano. There’s also a harmonica. The song was written by Noel, as was…
* The rocky Lyla, which also has a relentless, four-beats-in-a-bar rhythm. When the record label weren’t impressed with the album as original presented, this song was specifically recorded to give it some extra oomph. It was then released as a single and got to number one. Noel has said that the character Lyla is intended to be the sister of the Sally mentioned in Don’t Look Back in Anger.
* Guess God Thinks I’m Abel (the finest Oasis song written by Liam Gallagher) is an interesting, acoustic track with Indian-sounding percussion. The lyrics are a let-down – the able/Abel pun in the title doesn’t go anywhere – but there’s a nice musical surprise at the end. With 30 seconds to go there’s a dramatic change of pace and tone.
* Part of the Queue (written by Noel) has a fun, jazzy rhythm with guitar, piano, bass and drums all seemingly playing their own tune. It works.

Worst track: The Meaning of Soul is a fairly uninspiring effort written by Liam. There’s also a tiresome repetition of the heavy beat you’ve already heard in Mucky Fingers and Lyla. At least it’s quite short.

Weirdest lyric: Noel goes all-out gushy on album closer Let There Be Love: “I hope the weather is calm as you sail up your heavenly stream/Suspended clear in the sky are the words that we sing in our dreams.”

Best video: The promo for The Importance of Being Idle is a smartly shot parody of 1960s kitchen-sink dramas. It also shares some similarities with the video for Dead End Street, a 1966 Kinks song that inspired the track. A game Rhys Ifans stars as a man attending his own funeral, while Oasis cameo as funeral directors. The outdoor scenes were shot on streets not far from where I live: they’re in East Greenwich, near a couple of nice pubs, and have also featured in two films about the Kray twins (1990’s The Krays and 2015’s Legend). Stylish and witty, this is Oasis’s best video.

Review: The recording of this album took a long time, with various producers having a go at corralling the material. Coupled with the fact that all four members were contributing songs, maybe this is why Don’t Believe The Truth struggles to feel like a cohesive unit. There’s no real flow to it; play the tracks in a random order and not much would be lost. But there are still some entertaining songs here.

Seven buttons and bows out of 10

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CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Grave Danger (19 May 2005, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A member of Las Vegas’s crime-scene investigation team is kidnapped and buried alive…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino once claimed to have seen every episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015). He watched many while shooting Kill Bill in Beijing and was such a fan that word reached the production team, who asked him to write and direct an episode. In the end, he provided a storyline and the script was written by producers Anthony E Zuiker, Carol Mendelson and Naren Shankar. Once Tarantino began directing on set, it became clear the cut would overrun so the episode was bumped up to a double-length special, which concluded the show’s fifth season.

Notable characters:
* Nick Stokes (George Eads) is a crime-scene officer investigating a call-out as the story begins. However, he’s soon kidnapped and buried alive by someone who has a grudge against the CSI team. In the coffin he has a light, an air fan and a gun…
* Gil Grissom (William Petersen) is the team leader who’s stunned when he’s shown a live video feed of Nick in the coffin.
* Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is Grissom’s second in command. When she and Gil need $1 million for ransom money, she convinces her casino-boss father, Sam Braun (Scott Wilson), to give it to her.
* Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) is everyone’s boss.
* Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda), David Hodges (Wallace Langham), and Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) are colleagues of Nick’s.
* Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall) is the medical examiner. At one point, Nick hallucinates his own autopsy, Doc Robbins performing it while Nick is alive.
* A delivery guy (Michael Bacall) shows up with a package from the kidnapper: it contains an audio cassette and a USB stick.
* Stokes’s parents (Andrew Prine and Moonraker’s Lois Chiles) are kept abreast of the situation.
* Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin cameo as themselves in a scene at a casino. When cross-dressing is mentioned, Curtis has a gag referring to Some Like It Hot (“Who do you think you’re talking to? Jack Lemon?”). Gorshin died two days before this episode aired.
* Walter Gordon (John Saxon) is the kidnapper, who we never fully see. In his only substantial scene he’s lit to hide his face and then, in a shock cliffhanger at the halfway mark, he blows himself up.
* Kelly Gordon (Aimee Graham) is Walter’s daughter, who’s in prison. Walter’s doing what he’s doing in revenge for her controversial conviction.

Returning actors: John Saxon had a small role in From Dusk Till Dawn. Aimee Graham had acted with Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn and been directed by him in Jackie Brown. A clip of Tony Curtis on a chat show was seen in Jackie Brown.

Music: At the start of the episode, Nick is singing along to Bob Neuwirth’s Lucky Too on the radio – and he sings it again later when he thinks he’s being rescued. The kidnapper sends the CSI team a cassette that plays Outside Chance by the Turtles and its lyrics (‘You don’t stand an outside chance!’) play ironically under the rest of the scene. Kasabian’s Running Battle is also heard at one point, while the incidental music is by the show’s composer John M Keane.

Time shifts and chapters: After the cold open (Nick investigating and being captured), we cut back to earlier that same day and follow Nick as he’s given the assignment. Then we jump to him in the coffin and it’s chronological from then on.

Connections: The central idea of a character being buried alive featured in Tarantino’s most recent movie, Kill Bill Vol 2. In a nice visual twist, this time the coffin is made of Plexiglass so we can see the soil and worms and stuff. On original broadcast, the two ‘hours’ of this episode were titled Volume I and Volume 2, aping the naming convention of Kill Bill. Around this time, Tarantino also directed one scene of Robert Rodriguez’s film Sin City (2005), which is a comic-book adaptation that owes a structural debt to Pulp Fiction. He did it to return the favour for Rodriguez writing some music for Kill Bill, and also because it gave him a chance to work with digital cameras for the first time. The scene is a two-hander between Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro set in a car.

Review: This has a slower style of storytelling than CSI usually provided. There are also no B-plots to cut away to and the momentum sadly loosens rather than tightens as the 90 minutes progresses. But pacing issues aside, this is still an enjoyable enough piece of television. Tarantino’s influence is most clearly felt in the dialogue and his use of close-ups. For a show usually dominated by cold science and forensic procedure, it’s refreshing to have characters talk about real life. Gil chats about a Roy Rodgers certificate he’s bought; other characters play a Dukes of Hazard board game; others shoot the breeze and swap anecdotes about dating. (It must be said that this kind of dialogue disappears once the plot kicks in, however.) And while the team start off very calm and professional considering a friend has gone missing, the realisation of what’s happened to Nick is played in dramatic close-ups. You could write a book – perhaps someone has – on how television overuses the close-up. But Tarantino knows precisely when to cut to one: they all have meaning, are timed to perfection, and tell you something about a character. Also, as in Quentin’s episode of ER, there are also close-ups of equipment and procedures that border on the fetishist.

Seven intestines out of 10

Serenity (2005, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this movie spin-off from Firefly, the crew of Serenity must protect one of their own – the ‘reader’ River Tam – who’s being hunted by an assassin…

Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Best performance: Oh, let’s just say all of them. This is one of the great ensemble casts, and it’s so lovely that they got a chance to shine on the big screen.

Best bits: Listing every single one would go on forever, especially given how witty the dialogue is. So despite its length, this is still a cut-down selection…
* The opening scene, explaining the world for viewers who don’t know the TV series… which is then revealed to be a dream as we cut to River being experimented on in laboratory… a scene that’s then revealed to be a hologramatic recreation being watched by a mysterious Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
* The never-named Operative’s partly noble, partly sadistic way of killing people. It involves paralysing them and letting them fall on a sword.
* The first image of Serenity itself: a CG shot of the ship entering a planet’s atmosphere. (You can see Mal through the cockpit’s window: cute touch.)
* A 253-second-long take, which introduces the seven crew members on board and lays out Serenity’s internal geography – all while the ship rocks and rolls from the re-entry. The dialogue is smart and stylish, and the shot ends on key character River. (There’s actually a hidden edit halfway through the four-minute shot as Mal and Simon move from the ship’s upper level to the lower.)
* The crew’s hover-buggy vehicle.
* River’s steampunk goggles.
* The slick sequence of the crew robbing a bank, which of course goes badly.
* The zombie-like Reavers show up! (These savage, barbaric people were hinted at in early TV episodes, but then seemed to drop out of the mix. A 15-certificate movie allows them to be seen, not just discussed.)
* Mal kills someone rather than leave him to the Reavers.
* River: “I swallowed a bug.”
* Kaylee, frustrated that her crush Simon is planning to leave: “Going on a year now I ain’t had nothing betweixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries.” Mal says he doesn’t want to know that; Jayne says he could stand to hear more.
* River beating up a room full of people – an action sequence demonstrably performed by actress Summer Glau herself.
* Simon explains that he has a trigger word that will put River to sleep. When he nearly says it, Jayne panics – assuming it works on anyone.
* Mal and Inara’s guarded chat over a vid-link. It’s obvious they haven’t spoken for a while (she was planning to leave the ship as the TV show ended), while there are fun cutaways to Wash, Zoe, Kaylee and Jayne eavesdropping on the chat.
* Mal says Inara’s call for help is a trap. The others question how he knows that. “Do you see us fight?” “No.” “Trap.”
* Mal’s first confrontation with the Operative. There’s cagey dialogue, then the Operative says he’s not armed – so Mal shoots him.
* Mal faces mutiny from Jayne. “You wanna run this ship?” Mal asks in frustration. “Yeah,” says Jayne. Mal: “Well… you can’t.”
* Shepherd Book dies…
* Mal’s macabre plan to pose as Reavers.
* The saturated look to the scenes on the planet Miranda.
* A super, smooth, circular Steadicam shot of River as she freaks out.
* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
* Serenity crash-lands.
* Wash is killed! On first viewing, it was around now that I started to assume the film was going to kill off the entire crew – an idea that the story then teases you with as virtually everyone is injured or placed in a life-threatening situation. (According to rumour, Wash bit the bullet because actor Alan Tudyk refused to sign up for potential sequels without a big pay bump.)
* Kaylee resigns herself to the fact she’s going to die. But then Simon says his biggest regret is never being with her. “As in sex?” she asks, perking up. She then resolves to survive the battle.
* River dives into a room full of Reavers and the doors close… When we next see her – in a dramatically framed hero shot – we discover she’s killed them all.
* The coda scene of Mal flying Serenity with River as his co-pilot.

Review: This film faced a tough task: having to appeal to both fans and newbies. And given that Firefly wasn’t a mainstream hit, most of the audience for this movie version would be coming to it fresh. So the River situation – the biggest character arc from the series – is focused on again, but the script actually goes deeper than ever before so old hands don’t feel patronised. We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring. It has very little fat on it. In fact, you could say it’s gone on a diet – presumably writer/director/creator/geek god Joss Whedon thought having nine regular characters was too cumbersome for a movie script. So two of them are absent as the story begins, while Wash is reduced to a pilot with mostly functional dialogue. Inara only joins the action after 42 minutes; Book is little more than a cameo. But this streamlining works well, with maybe only Book feeling short-changed. It’s practically criminal that the Firefly story ended here.

Ten certain older civilised cultures out of 10

King Kong (2005, Peter Jackson)

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The 1976 version of King Kong actually got a belated and ridiculed sequel, King Kong Lives (1986), but this is a section-by-section review of the second remake from 2005. Warning: there are spoilers ahead!

Note: this review is based on the DVD edit of the film, which is around 12 minutes longer than the cinema version.

New York City: Director Carl Denham is about to be shut down by his bosses, so hires an actress, kidnaps his writer and sets sail for a far-off location…
* This film essentially follows the same story as the 1933 original, and is even done as a period film. From the Art Deco credit sequence through the opening montage of Hooverville and Manhattan, the sense of time and place is established very well. In fact, the film’s single biggest strength might be the stunning recreation of 1930s New York. It was filmed on a backlot in New Zealand, but the physical production design and the CGI set extensions are mind-blowing. It’s a totally immersive world. There are rich, bold colours – yellowy yellows, bluey blues – and all the period clichés you could ask for. Depression, prohibition, skyscraper construction… Taxis, pedestrians, Broadway…
* We first see Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) on stage in a failing vaudeville show. This is a nice example of what this adaption is doing compared with 1933. In the original movie, we were just told Ann was an actress; now, we see her in action. This film dramatises its story much better.
* James Newton Howard’s score is terrific throughout, but I mention it here because I love the punchy and jaunty music in this opening New York sequence.
* Meanwhile, Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing it just the right side of comical) is under pressure from his studio execs, who want to cut his funding (another good example of dramatising events rather than just saying things are so). The 1933 Denham felt like a street hustler, whereas this one is clearly informed by Orson Welles: he’s ruthless and arrogant, but undeniably likeable too. (“Goddamn it, Preston, all you had to do was look her in the eye and lie!”) Preston, Denham’s put-upon assistant, is played by Colin Hanks.
* In need of an actress at short notice, Denham mentions people he could ask. They’re all real-life actresses of the 1930s: Jean Harlow (1911-1937), Myrna Loy (1905-1993), Clara Bow (1905-1965), Mae West (1893-1980) and ‘Fay’ – ie, Fay Wray (1907-2004). The gag here is that Fay can’t do Denham’s movie because she’s working for ‘Cooper’ over at RKO – in other words, filming the original King Kong with Merian C Cooper! (In additional self-referentialism, Jean Harlow was considered for the role of Ann Darrow in 1933.)
* It’s noticeable how scenes and even dialogue (“No funny business!”) are being specifically repeated from the original now. The 1933 Kong is Peter Jackson’s favourite movie, and this is pretty much a love letter to it.
* One big change from 1933, however, is that the character of Jack Driscoll has been repurposed. No longer the first officer on a merchant ship, he’s now Denham’s writer. Jack (Adrian Brody) only delivers 15 pages of his script, though, so Denham tricks him into staying on the Venture until after it’s left the dock. Jack then spends *months* sailing to and from an island in the Indian Ocean rather than a couple of minutes swimming ashore.

On board the Venture: Denham has paid for a ship to take him, his actors and his crew to a mysterious island…
* The captain of the Venture has the same name as in 1933 – Englehorn (played by Thomas Kretschmann) – but is now German and has many more featured crewmen. Jamie Bell plays Jimmy, a young boy who reads Heart of Darkness just in case you’re not getting the subtext; Andy Serkis plays the cook, Lumpy; Evan Parke plays first mate Hayes; and Lobo Chan plays a janitor called Choy. These characters are being introduced now so we’ll care when they get killed later on.
* Denham also has new characters with him. In 1933, he was a one-man film crew, but here he has a cameraman called Herb (John Sumner), a sound recordist called Mike (Craig Hall), general dogsbody Preston and an up-his-own-arse actor called Bruce Baxter (John Chandler). There’s a lovely gag where Bruce finds that Jimmy has defaced some of his movie posters, but then comes to like how he looks with a moustache drawn on his face.
* En route to the island, we see Ann and Bruce film a scene for Denham’s movie. As a bit of postmodern tomfoolery, the cheesy dialogue has been lifted from a scene in the 1933 Kong.
* Ann and Jack’s romance begins around this point, and it’s quite sweet. In fact, the whole segment rattles along very enjoyably. There’s lots of fun, especially with Denham driving the story. But the tone turns darker as the Venture sails off the shipping lanes and then stumbles across Skull Island. It’s very spooky stuff – set at night, unlike the previous two films, with lots of fog and moody music.

Skull Island: Denham and his team sneak ashore to film some footage, but encounter natives who kidnap Ann and deliver her to a giant gorilla living in the interior of the island…
* Well, clearly more thought has gone into this native culture than in either 1933 or 1976. These people have a vaguely Cambodian or Polynesian feel to their costumes, and there are skulls and skeletons dotted around the ancient ruins they live in. Initially it seems Skull Island is uninhabited, but then we get some trippy editing and staccato frame jumps. This heralds an attack from the threatening locals. It’s more like a horror movie than anything else: the fun and zip has gone. Then when Ann screams after seeing Mike killed, Kong enters the story – we hear his enormous roar in the 57th minute.
* One thing we don’t get in this version is a scene of the natives sacrificing one of their own before they spot Ann. But once Ann is offered up to Kong, we move into action-movie territory as the men set off to rescue her. (As in the previous films, the island natives oddly vanish from the story at this point. Where do they go?!)
* Kong appears for the first time at the 67-minute mark. After the stop-motion puppet of 1933 and the man-in-a-suit of 1976, this film has a 100-per-cent CG Kong. The character’s performance is driven by actor Andy Serkis using motion-capture technology and it’s a superbly impressive piece of work. He fits into the surroundings very well indeed – and his face carries genuine emotion and empathy.
* We’re into a long section now, which cuts between the men encountering dinosaurs, giant insects and sea monsters, and Ann’s Stockholm-syndrome subplot with Kong. It drags, to be frank: the characters are on Skull Island for nearly half the film and it’s largely dialogue-free. The Ann/Kong scenes seem to never end. But there is also fun to be had, especially in the way Denham keeps shooting his movie even when colleagues are being killed before his lens. The action is generally good too, if a bit cartoony at times (as well as Kong and the monsters, the island is often computer-generated).
* Kong’s fight with a T-Rex contains allusions to the equivalent scene from 1933, while the famous ‘giant insects’ sequence that was cut from the original has been restaged here.
* When Denham loses his film footage, he decides to transport Kong back to New York instead. It takes this gang a lot longer than their 1930s counterparts to subdue the beast!

New York City (again): Carl Denham presents his Broadway show ‘Kong – Eighth Wonder of the World’. But his star attraction breaks free and goes on the rampage…
* After the same kind of audacious jump-cut as in 1933, we’re back in the glorious New York City we saw at the start of the film.
* A change from the original movie sees Ann not involved with Denham’s stage show – instead she’s got a lowly job in a chorus line. Time has passed and things have moved on: Denham’s bosses return from the start of the film, but are now much more kind to him, while Jack and Ann are estranged. It’s a more downbeat section than in 1933, which basically had everyone okay with kidnapping a wild animal for entertainment.
* At the theatre, Denham’s show features music and costumes from the 1933 film: nice touches. Kong then goes crazy because it *isn’t* Ann on stage with him (Denham has hired a stand-in), which is lovely twist on expectation.
* As Kong tears through the city, we get lots of action. There’s no big stunt involving a train (as in 1933 and 1976), but Kong does trash a tram. He calms down once Ann appears on the scene – and there’s then a very silly sequence where the two of them go ice-skating! (Firstly, where has everyone else gone in this moment? Secondly, would a 25-foot-tall gorilla not break the ice on a small lake?) The timing of this section is also difficult to fathom. We go from an evening Broadway show to dawn the next day, but nowhere near enough story seems to happen to justify that time stretch.
* Once Kong has climbed the Empire State Building, the action sequence featuring biplanes is very enjoyable indeed. And, in keeping with this version’s emotional rigour, it’s actually a moving moment when Kong is killed and falls to the ground.
* The 96-year-old Fay Wray was asked to cameo as a bystander who utters the line, “It was beauty killed the beast.” She initially said no, then hinted she might be up for it. But she died on 8 August 2004, a month before filming began.

Review: Unlike a lot of recent blockbusters, this uses CGI in skilful and stylish ways – to create believable creatures and environments that wouldn’t otherwise be filmable. The title character might be the focus, and he is a marvellous creation, but it’s the New York scenes that really wow. They’re so believable you wonder whether time-travel was involved. Super stuff. The script also has a light touch and tells its story briskly and with economy… well, at least until the story gets bogged down with repetitive action on Skull Island. Things really drag at that point, which is a shame. The King Kong template has a slender, simple plot, but this version is *twice as long* as the original. Peter Jackson clearly has an issue with brevity. His Middle Earth movies are enjoyable, but all feature superfluous encounters with elves or talking trees or skin-changers. Here, the terrific work of the film’s first half is nearly scuttled by self-indulgence on Skull Island. But there’s still more than enough good stuff to see us through.

Eight bars of chocolate out of 10

Dracula III: Legacy (2005, Patrick Lussier)

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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: Other than short scenes at a train station in Germany and Cardinal Siqueros’s mansion in fuck-knows-where, the story takes place in Romania. It’s the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Being the third film in the Dracula 2000 series, it begins with a vague recap of the previous movie’s plot. Since then, Dracula has headed home to the Carpathian Mountains, so Father Uffizi (Jason Scott Lee) and Luke (Jason London) are now on the hunt. Luke calls his new friend DG (“Damaged Goods… It was either that or Buffy…”) because Uffizi has been tainted by the vampire curse. They go to Romania, which is suffering from a civil war. NATO have been called in and everything, but there are hints that the government forces are actually vampires. Uffizi and Luke find British journalist Julia (Alexandra Wescourt), and eventually they end up at Dracula’s castle, where they find priests impaled on stakes (a neat nod to the Vlad Tepes myth). Julia soon gets drained of blood by Dracula, who finally appears at the 65-minute mark and is now played by Rutger Hauer. ‘Dracula’ is said to be a conceit, a name used simply because it inspires terror. The creature actually goes back as far as Ancient Egypt – which rather contradicts the backstory laid out in Dracula 2000 – and has corrupted all the world’s religions. His castle is full of often-naked women used for their blood supplies. One of them (with clothes) is Luke’s friend Elizabeth from the previous film. Uffizi has a showdown with Dracula and, with Elizabeth’s help, kills him. But then Luke has to behead Elizabeth for her own good, while infected Uffizi takes his place as the king of the vampires.

Best performance: It is shame that they could only afford Roy Sheider for a day’s work. His scene as Cardinal Siqueros shows what a classy presence he could be.

Best bit: Dracula’s first appearance is pretty trippy with staccato editing and double-exposures.

Review: Like the first two films in the series, this is passable hokum. There’s a gag or two, some scary bits, some well-mounted action. But it’s not subtle: English characters talk in Americanisms, Uffizi’s virus has no effect until the plot requires it, Uffizi and Luke stumbles across the next story point whenever they need one, and the middle act is an exercise in killing time until the climax.

Six EBC cameramen out of 10

The Batman vs Dracula (2005, Michael Goguen)

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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: Gotham City, the present day.

Faithful to the novel? No, it’s using the character of Dracula as a villain. This feature-length animated film was a straight-to-DVD spin-off from The Batman (2004-2008), a 65-episode cartoon series. In it, the coffin of Count Dracula (Peter Stormare) is found in a Gotham cemetery by the Penguin (Tom Kenny), who has recently escaped from Arkham Asylum and is looking for some lost loot. A drop of the Penguin’s blood inadvertently brings the vampire back to life. He initially appears haggard and corpse-like, but grows stronger and more human-looking as he feeds. We see flashbacks to him being staked years earlier in Transylvania; his body was then moved to Gotham for reasons unknown. We also learn that the count was once married to Carmilla Karnstein (from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella), who he now wants to resurrect. Dracula hypnotises the Penguin into being his acolyte (he’s this story’s Renfield), and also assembles a gang of followers by turning them (temporarily, as it turns out) into vampires. Meanwhile, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Rino Romano) is dating journalist Vicki Vale (Tara Strong). Dracula meets them both when he gatecrashes a party – using the alias Dr Alucard – and identifies Vicki as a means of helping Carmilla. When his battle of wits with Dracula gets underway, the Batman uses the infected Joker (Kevin Michael Richardson) to research a cure. But it’s by targeting a new solar-energy machine, which was clumsily seeded earlier in the story, that he’s finally able to defeat the vampire.

Best performance: Thomas Chase Jones’s music is superb, especially when using flashes of rock guitar.

Best bit: The Batman and Dracula’s first fight – staged on rooftops, Dracula has the upper hand with ease.

Review: The meeting of Batman and Dracula, two bat-related fictional icons who have had many incarnations, is an interesting one. The Count himself even draws the parallel in this film: “My legacy has been quite influential,” he says. And this animated special makes great play of the characters’ connection. Bruce Wayne even has a psychologically resonant dream in which the Batman and Dracula are merged into one creature. The plot might be simple, but the stylish animation and genuinely scary sequences mean this film is entertaining enough. Although superficially similar, it’s unrelated to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I reviewed elsewhere on this site. It’s a new continuity and a new cast.

Seven lost ones out of 10

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

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

GOOD GUYS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BAD GUYS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MUSIC: Another excellent score.

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

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

Seven younglings out of 10

Batman Begins (2005, Christopher Nolan)

Batman-begins

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Wayne is haunted so much by the murder of his parents that he decides to invent a vigilante persona to battle crime in Gotham City…

Good guys: As a young boy, Bruce Wayne falls into a well, where he’s scared by some bats. His millionaire father rescues him but is later murdered – along with Bruce’s mum – by a mugger. Aged about 20, and now played by Christian Bale, Bruce goes to the mugger’s parole hearing with the intent to kill him. However, a gangland assassin beats him to it – so instead Bruce travels the world and loses his “assumptions about the nature of right and wrong”. He ends up in a prison in Bhutan, where he accepts an offer from a strange man called Ducard to train as a ninja. But when he refuses to murder someone on the orders of Ducard’s boss, Ra’s al Ghul, Bruce returns to Gotham with a new crime-fighting agenda. Realising he needs a symbol – “something elemental, something terrifying…” – he focuses on his own fear of bats. A cave underneath his mansion provides a hideaway; the applied-sciences division of his father’s company gives him access to as much hardware as he needs. Bruce makes contact with Sergeant Jim Gordon, the only noble policeman he can find, then sets to work: his first target is local mobster Carmine Falcone and his drug trafficking. As the Batman – dressed in an all-black combat outfit and cowl, and with a growly voice – he soon becomes famous in the city. To ensure his cover, meanwhile, Bruce ostentatiously acts like an immature playboy in public. He soon has a run-in with the Scarecrow, a master criminal plotting to poison Gotham’s water supply, then discovers that Ra’s al Ghul is actually engineering the chaos… The inherent problem with the traditional Batman story – why should we feel sympathy for a good-looking, intelligent, ridiculously rich yet altruistic playboy like Bruce Wayne? – sadly isn’t helped by casting the po-faced and unlikeable Christian Bale, but there’s more interest elsewhere. Bruce has a trio of allies, all of whom are surrogate father figures. Michael Caine (fun) plays concerned butler Alfred; Morgan Freeman (droll) appears as Lucius Fox, Bruce’s pal at Wayne Enterprises; while Gary Oldman (excellent) plays Gordon. The latter’s look (glasses, moustache) echoes how the character appeared in Batman: Year One, a seminal comic book from 1987.

Bad guys: Liam Neeson, who used to be an actor before his recent conversion into Steven Seagal, plays Ducard of the mysterious League of Shadows. We also meet the League’s honcho, Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). As the story progresses, we get hints that someone is operating the principle bad guys – so it’s not a thundering surprise when Ducard reappears two-thirds of the way through and reveals that actually *he’s* Ra’s al Ghul. He wants to purge the corrupt Gotham City, so releases lots of dangerous prisoners to cause chaos and then pumps toxic gas into the air. Before his surprise return to the action, we think the Big Bad is Cillian Murphy’s chilling Dr Jonathan Crane. He’s a psychiatric doctor who uses a hessian scarecrow mask and a hallucinogenic spray to drive people insane with fear – one of his victims is Falcone (Tom Wilkinson with a hammy American accent).

Other guys: Bruce’s childhood friend/romantic interest, Rachel Dawes, is an idealistic Gotham DA. Katie Holmes is miscast in the role: she’s just not strong enough and the character makes little impression. Linus Roache plays Bruce’s dad, Thomas. Rutger Hauer is Earle, an executive at Wayne Enterprises who wants to take control of the company. Mark Boone Junior plays corrupt cop Flass.

Best bits:

* After brawling with a group of Bhutanese peasants, Bruce is pulled away by some soldiers for ‘protection’. “I don’t need protection,” he says. A soldier says, “For their protection!”

* Bruce’s training montage. (Shame there’s no 1980s pop hit, though.)

* Oh, look: it’s Gerrard Murphy from Doctor Who: Silver Nemesis as a judge.

* The trippy, shaky image when we see Bruce’s POV while he’s affected by drugs. (It reminds me of Mirrorlon, a TV technique used in early Doctor Who serials to create an unstable image.)

* Bruce says he’ll need a crime-fighting identity. Alfred suggests it’s to protect Bruce’s loved ones. “You’re thinking about Rachel?” asks Bruce. “Actually, sir, I was thinking of myself.”

* Oh, look: it’s Charles Edwards from Downton Abbey as a Wayne Enterprises executive.

* Oh, look: it’s Christine Adams (who’s in the Allison Janney episode of Studio 60, my single favourite piece of television) as a secretary.

* Alfred suggests they order 10,000 cowls in order to avoid suspicion. “At least we’ll have spares,” says Bruce.

* Bruce tests the Tumbler, a massive military bridging vehicle. “Does it comes in black?” he says, almost drooling.

* Bruce’s first outing as Batman – a creepy, slasher-movie scene at the docks.

* “What the hell are you?” “I’m Batman!”

* Batman tying Falcone to a searchlight, so the resulting image in the sky looks like the outline of a bat.

* Batman standing on a skyscraper, surveying his city. (Never really worked when Torchwood copied this idea, did it?)

* Alfred wakes Bruce up at 3pm. “Bats are nocturnal!” he moans.

* “Would you like to see my mask?” asks Dr Crane. Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.

* Batman is dosed by the Scarecrow. “You look like a man who takes himself too seriously,” says the Scarecrow, pre-empting some of this film’s reviews. “You need to lighten up,” he adds as he sets Batman on fire.

* Bruce asks Alfred to keep some party guests busy. “Tell them that joke you know.”

* Batman squirts Crane’s gas in the Scarecrow’s face – so the Scarecrow then sees him as a demon.

* The Tumbler in action. Gordon looks on and says, “I gotta get me one of those.”

* Oh, look: it’s Shame Rimmer as a guy working in a water-company control room. (I’ve decided to assume it’s the same man he played in Superman II.)

* The climax on the monorail.

* The sequel-baiting gag at the end: Gordon mentions a new bad guy who leaves joker playing cards at the scenes of his crimes.

Review: Most versions of Batman mix up eras, styles and fashions, but this chooses to flatten those differences out. Whether Bruce Wayne is eight, 22 or 30, Gotham looks the same. It’s a recognisable, modern-day American city, with a vertiginous monorail system being the only outlandish embellishment. And that’s telling. Verisimilitude is the order of the day. Jokey self-referentialism and heightened production design have both gone. Other than a few dry quips from Alfred and Lucius Fox, there’s also precious little humour on show. This film actually heralded a vogue for take-it-seriously reboots of established film series – I’ve already reviewed 2006’s Casino Royale and 2009’s Star Trek, two films I adore. But as well as a play-it-straight agenda, it also has the feel of a graphic novel come to life. Scenes tend to be short, for example, and there are lots of pithy exchanges rather than conversations. Also, the threat is a sinister and secretive crime syndicate with grandiose plans. It’s an interesting combination. Perhaps it takes too long to build up steam, and I’m no fan of the dour Christian Bale. But there are lots of plusses. The second half is very enjoyable. Cinematographer Wally Pfister gives a real sheen to every image. There are plenty of interesting locations, which have been surprisingly rare in Batman movies so far. CGI is largely sidelined in favour of some stunning old-school modelwork. And Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s music is ace. Good stuff.

Eight rare blue flowers that grow on the eastern slopes out of 10.

Next time: Superman rebooted! Kind of. In a way. Well, not really. Look, it’s complicated…

Munich (2005)

munich

After 11 Israeli athletes are murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics, Mossad agent Avner Kaufman and a team are tasked with finding and assassinating the Palestinians responsible…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Geoffrey Rush has a small but enjoyable role as the team’s case officer. (Daniel Craig’s in the movie too, playing a South African. His accent takes some getting used to.)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The first ‘hit’ – tense, well staged, detailed, it feels like a sequence from The Godfather or The Untouchables.

Review: Well, it’s a darkly apt time to be watching a film about Israel violently targeting its enemies, isn’t it? It’s a curious mix and can be seen as an historical drama, a revenge movie and/or a spy thriller. It drags slightly in the middle and gets repetitive at times, but is mostly impressive stuff.

Seven Bond villains playing father and son* out of 10.

*Michael Lonsdale (Hugo Drax in Moonraker) and Mathieu Amalric (Dominic Greene in Quantum of Solace – alongside Daniel Craig, of course).

War of the Worlds (2005)

waroftheworlds

Divorced stevedore Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two kids have to go on the run when huge, three-legged alien machines burst out of the ground and start killing people…

Seen before? Once, on BBC Three a few years ago.

Best performance: Dakota Fanning (playing Ray’s daughter) is astonishingly naturalistic for a 10-year-old. She’s equally terrific in Tony Scott’s Man On Fire.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The first appearance of an alien machine is brilliant – it’s a heady, seamless blend of practical effects, stunts, pyrotechnics and really good CGI. A few minutes later it’s topped by a scene in a speeding car, which is (on the face of it) all one extraordinary long take. Check it out here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUv7iRaWOOQ

Review: Enjoyable for the most part. There are lots of wonderfully staged scenes and the first 90 minutes of the movie have an energetic momentum – both are necessary as the story is paper-thin. Once Tim Robbins turns up (part plot device, part Basil Exposition), it loses its way somewhat and the climax is a bit flat.

Seven crashed Boeing 747s out of 10.