Blake’s 7: Warlord (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon attempts to organise the anti-Federation rebellion, but a local planetary leader causes problems when his daughter disobeys him…

Series D, episode 12. Written by: Simon Masters. Directed by: Viktors Ritelis. Originally broadcast: 14 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* On Xenon base, Avon (50) has called a meeting of powerful men in order to discuss how they can combat the Federation’s pacification programme, which is being used to subdue planet after planet. He wants to coral the factions into a cohesive team, and offers them access to the antitoxin. The only problem? He needs both raw material and equipment. Then there’s a late arrival to the confab – a bombastic dullard called Zukan, who’s the president of the planet Betafarl and a man with lots of resources. The others don’t like him, but he has the raw material so an accord is reached. Zukan then flips his lid when he learns that his daughter, Zeeona, is secretly on the base. In order to keep him happy, Avon agrees to accompany her home. But when Zeeona tricks him and teleports back to the base, Avon has little choice but to continue his journey to Betafarl and keep up the pretense – he knows that moody Zukon is following in his ship. On Betafarl, though, Avon twigs he’s been conned too when he and Soolin are attacked by Federation troops! They escape and race back to Xenon; on the way, they encounter Zukon’s ship, drifting in space after an accident. He wants rescuing and says he’ll tell Avon how to save his colleagues from their base, which he’s booby-trapped, but Avon reckons he can save them himself – and leaves Zukon to die…
* Dayna (25) realises, after Zukon has left the base, that he’s planted an airborne radioactive virus in the ventilation system.
* Vila (51) does a lot of moaning and, later, some drinking. Remember when he had a personality?
* Soolin (12) goes with Avon when he attempts to take Zeeona home. (The colleagues dress like mechanics at a disco for some reason.) But when alone, Zeeona asks for help. She wants to teleport back to the base to be with Tarrant, so softie Soolin helps her. (Women!) Later, on Betafarl, Soolin pretends to be Zeeona when they bump into some Federation soldiers… and they just let her go! Don’t they have photos in the future?
* Orac (34) warns the others of an explosive device (‘A bomb?’ asks Dayna, hoping for further clarification), which Zukon has left behind after his visit.
* When Zukon’s processing equipment is being installed in the base, Tarrant (25) is shocked to catch sight of Zukon’s daughter, Zeeona. (He could hardly miss her. She has a massive, pink, Cyndi Lauper wig and a vacant look in her eye.) Her dad doesn’t know she’s there, but she and Tarrant have met before and there’s a romantic connection. The pair spend some sexy time together, but then Zukon finds out and goes ballistic… Later, Tarrant is caught in the explosion caused by the bomb Orac mentioned: despite it going off *in his face* and destroying most of the base, Tarrant survives more or less okay. But he and the others are now trapped and their air is running out. Later still, Tarrant is cut up when Zeeona is killed by radiation. (No one else seems that fussed.)
* Towards the end of the episode, Servalan (29) is… YAWN… revealed as… YAWN… being behind Zukon’s machinations. Doesn’t a plot twist lose its impact when it’s already been used 27 times?
* Slave (11).

Best bit: Surely next week’s episode will be better?

Worst bit: There’s a lot to choose from, but let’s go for an obvious one. The powwow of anti-Federationists features some of the worst and cheapest-looking costumes in Blake’s 7 history – and that’s really saying something. None of them feels like clothes someone would wear or like they represent a culture or imply a backstory. It’s just a random collection of bizarre outfits.

Review: It may be elaborately directed – a trippy opening sequence showing drugged citizenry, slow dissolves and extreme close-ups, dreadful greenscreen and crummy video effects, handheld camera and crash zooms – but all the gimmicks in the world can’t save Blake’s 7’s weakest episode. The script is fairly awful, but then we get one of the worst guest casts ever assembled. It’s a parade of bad acting. The regular actors just look embarrassed. 

Three non-aligned planets out of 10

Next episode: Blake

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Stan Helsing (2009, Bo Zenga)

Stan Helsing

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting? Small-town America, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? This lame comedy film’s link to Dracula is lead character Stan Helsing (Steve Howey), who is the great-grandson of the Abraham Van Helsing from Stoker’s book. Stan is a slacker who works at a video store (did we still have those in 2009?!). He’s given the task of delivering some tapes, which he attempts to do while on his way to a Halloween party with his friend Teddy (Kenan Thompson), his ex-girlfriend Nadine (Diora Baird) and Teddy’s date Mia (Desi Lydic). They get lost in the countryside and end up in a gated community where various monsters from other movies are causing some rather tame havoc. So we therefore get spoofy – and unnamed for legal reasons – equivalents of Leatherface (from 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Michael Myers (from 1978’s Halloween), Jason Voorhees (from the Friday the 13th series), Freddy Krueger (from 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street), Pinhead (from 1987’s Hellraiser) and Chucky (from 1988’s Child’s Play). Various other horror movies are referenced too, including an oh-so-topical joke about the snotty nose of the girl from The Blair Witch Project (1999). An additional connection to Dracula comes from an appearance from his Brides, here repurposed as a trio of slutty strippers.

Best performance: The whole film is pathetic, lazily sexist trash. Many moments feel specifically designed to amuse idiotic, immature frat boys – hence the obsession with boobs, upskirts, porn, masturbation, strippers, hookers and perverts. One of the main characters, Mia, is even a ditzy blonde who works as a massage therapist (‘Someone who whacks people off…’), dresses in a succession of kinky outfits, asks whether her vagina makes her look fat, and looks happy when someone accidentally penetrates her. Having said all that, actress Desi Lydic manages to land her crummy jokes and is – by some distance – the funniest performance in the movie.

Best moment: The four friends enter an unwelcoming, redneck bar. Dressed in their Halloween fancy-dress costumes, they nervously walk across the room to a vacant table. As they pass by the bar, we see three men reading newspapers. The respective headlines read: ’10th anniversary of tragic fire’, ‘Town fears Halloween horrors’, and ‘Cowboy, Indian, superhero and stripper headed for table 9.’

Review: This boring and witless mess is one of the many, many genre-spoof comedies that looked at 1980’s Airplane! and thought it was a really easy film is make. There are tits gags, lots of toilet humour, a bit of homophobia, a tired Leslie Neilsen cameo, and a plot that isn’t even trying to make sense. The script reeks of being tossed off without any thought at all, then filmed by people who are far too in love with themselves.

Three rats out of 10

Blake’s 7: Dawn of the Gods (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator falls through a black hole and encounters a mythical being…

Series C, episode 4. Written by: James Follett. Directed by: Desmond McCarthy. Originally broadcast: 28 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (30) is losing a board game he’s playing with Cally, Avon and Dayna – it’s clearly modelled on Monopoly. But he then has bigger things to worry about when the Liberator is dragged off course and heads towards an uncharted area of space (Vila soon reaches for a bottle). When the ship ends up in a mysterious location, he’s persuaded to put on a space suit and venture outside. He finds a surface, gravity and wreckage of other ships. Eventually, Vila and the others encounter a flamboyant man who tells them that the Lord Thaarn – a mythical figure that Cally learnt about in childhood – rules this artificial planet…
* As the episode begins, Cally (27) is actually on her way home: the Liberator is en route for Auron. But after the ship is dragged into a black hole, she’s knocked unconscious and spends time in a resuscitation capsule. She then starts to hear voices: specifically the Thaarn, a being from a children’s story about gods who oversaw the development of Auron. When she encounters him for real on the artificial world, he says he wants her to join him…
* Avon (29) is concerned by the Liberator’s course deflections. Soon he and the others realise that it’s gravity pulling them away from their target – the ship is falling towards a black hole. As it passes the event horizon, however, the crew are not crushed down to the size of an atom (or whatever actually happens when things fall into a black hole). Instead, they experience a sluggish, dreamlike period of time… and then are basically fine. After landing on the artificial planet, Thaarn imprisons them, and soon Avon and Tarrant are put to work… on maths. You see, the all-powerful Thaarn doesn’t like computers so wants his new captives to work out how to control gravity or something. Avon, not unreasonably, decides to escape.
* Dayna (4) tends to the ill Cally, fires the neutron blasters, then stays on the ship while the others investigate outside. She’s the new Jenna, it seems.
* Orac (14) admits that the Liberator’s new course is his fault: he changed it simply because he fancied seeing a black hole up close. What a twat.
* Tarrant (4) is the one who notices that the ship is falling off course. At first he thinks they’ve been snared by a tractor beam. Interestingly, despite only joining the crew about five minutes ago, Tarrant smoothly assumes the role of operational commander during a crisis. He issues orders and plans strategies. He’s the new Blake, it seems.
* Zen (26) claims nothing is wrong with the ship when the crew can’t work out why it’s going off course. He’s right – it’s Orac who’s changing the heading – but not very helpful. Later, after the ship has landed on Thaarn’s world, Zen and Orac team up to repel some salvagers trying to break up the Liberator.

Best bit: On the artificial planet, the mandarin who takes the crew prisoner wants to know who Orac is and where he is. He also has the means to cause pain if our heroes lie. So first Dayna and then Tarrant must answer his questions truthfully but without giving any information away. The dialogue is carefully written to fulfil both aims.

Worst bit: The half-arsed attempt at a Vila-is-dead story beat? The Robot Wars-style machine that has to filmed in glimpses to hide how naff it is? The painfully underwhelming, Wizard of Oz-ish reveal of the Thaarn? Take your pick.

Review: Dawn of the Gods is reaching for something big and important; it’s trying to be upper-case, bold-font Science Fiction. There’s more than a hint of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the guest characters feel vaguely Star Trekian. (Why is an Auron god’s spokesperson dressed like a Regency fop? Answers on a postcard please.) It’s certainly not typical Blake’s 7. In fact, you get the impression that this script was written by someone who’d never seen the show before. It’s also another episode that backloads its story. Not for the first time, a Blake’s 7 adventure features just the regular characters for its opening half, then squeezes a hell of a lot of storytelling into the second. Very little of it works, sadly. The worst episode so far.

Three neuronic whips out of 10

Next episode: The Harvest of Kairos

Number Seventeen (1932)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Various characters congregate in an old, abandoned house…

This is a film seriously lacking of oomph. Underwhelming and boring, it has the distinct feeling of having been made by a director whose mind is elsewhere. There’s a real absence of polish, for example, which is a vanishing rarity with an Alfred Hitchcock movie. We get poor, hammy performances throughout, some of which often feel like unrehearsed first takes. There’s a difficult-to-follow plot with bland, ill-defined characters (most of whom seem to be pretending to be someone else). The editing is jarring and clumsy. The score often bares little relation to the mood of the scene. It’s a *mess*.

The story begins when a man searches an empty house at night. He encounters first a homeless man and then a spirited young woman, each of whom have their own reasons for being there. Later, a group of criminals also shows up – and we eventually learn that the gang is using the house as part of a plan to steal a diamond necklace and escape via a nearby railway. But the storytelling is astonishingly scant and perfunctory. Alfred Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out. In Number Seventeen, it often feels like he’s removed the *interesting* bits.

With the events taking place in a spooky house at night, at least Hitch enjoys playing around with shadows and some tricksy lighting. There are a few arresting images and clever shots. The studio set is also quite elaborate and built on several levels, which allows for a fun stunt when two tied-up characters fall off a balcony and are left dangling in mid-air. But the travesty of a script insists on telling its convoluted and clichéd tale with no finesse or clarity at all. When you *can* understand what’s happening you often wish you hadn’t bothered.

In the last quarter of the film, the characters leave the house and Number Seventeen morphs into an action thriller involving trains, a Green Line bus and a ferry. At least the new energy creates some enjoyment. (Check out the charming Gerry Anderson-style model shots!) But there are still some head-scratching plot twists to come in the final scene. There aren’t many Alfred Hitchcock films you’re glad to see the back of. But this is one of them. The director himself later called Number Seventeen a disaster and ‘very cheap melodrama’, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Three bus passengers out of 10

NOTE: Clips from Number Seventeen were later seen in The ABC Murders (1991), the very best episode of ITV detective series Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Although the story takes place in 1936, a character called Alexander Bonaparte Cust spends an afternoon at the cinema and takes in Number Seventeen. He’s later accused of being a serial killer. It’s a toss-up which is the more traumatic experience.

Justice League (2017, Zack Snyder)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

For this review of Justice League, the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series of superhero movies, I’m going to do something different. Rather than watch the movie, scribble a few notes, do some research and then type up a blog post at a later date, I’m going to write it as the DVD plays. I’ll note down observations as they occur to me. Aside from correcting typos, I won’t do any retrospective changes. Here goes…

The first scene is iPhone footage of Superman chatting to some kids. I now remember that he died in the previous mash-up film, 2016’s beyond turgid Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Oh, we’ve now cut to the present day and there’s a discarded newspaper with the headline ‘Superman is dead’. Given that Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, is front and centre on the DVD cover, I’m gonna guess that the character’s Jesus metaphor will extend to a resurrection.

Now a criminal is fighting Batman on a roof. It’s dark and there’s steam everywhere, a visual palette that makes me wish I were watching the Tim Burton Batman. Or Gotham. Have you seen Gotham? The TV show? It’s *amazing* – it’s the best-looking show on television, so beautifully shot and designed, and the characters are all brilliantly macabre and theatrical.

Oh, shit. My mind wandered already. Back to the film. Now Batman is fighting some strange, buzzy, giant-insect thing. His butler, Alfred, is back at HQ and looking at screens like he’s Chloe in 24. He says he has ‘Luthor’s notes’, which are full of a repeating pattern of three boxes. On other screens, there are photos of four characters, including Wonder Woman.

A song has started: a quirky, Scandinavian-sounding woman sings over a piano as we see music-video-style shots of the world mourning Superman. Poor Lois Lane lies in a double bed all alone. Clark Kent’s mum moves out of her house. A newspaper front page links the made-up-for-a-film death of Superman to the real-life deaths of David Bowie and Prince. ‘Did they return to their planet?’ it asks crassly.

CRIME! In slow motion, some twat kicks over a crate of oranges outside a shop. It seems the world is a worse place now that Superman’s gone!

Joss Whedon’s name is in the writing credits. (I knew it would be. He was brought in to tweak the script then took over directing the film when Zack Synder had to leave for personal reasons.) This is reassuring. I bet the humour will work really well…

Now we’re in London. We swoop past the Shard! Tower Bridge has a huge black flag with Superman’s S logo on it! There’s St Paul’s Cathedral! A well-dressed gang break into a building and it’s a well-staged sequence. The music’s fun, the shots are bold. Oh, now it’s got a bit silly: Wonder Woman is across the street. In full cosplay outfit. Standing on top of the Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey. How did she get up there? WHY is she up there? Now she’s suddenly inside the building, using her lasso of truth to find out that the men are terrorists.

Oh, fuck off, Hollywood. A British criminal committing a crime in the bloody City of London has just said ‘four city blocks’ are about to be destroyed. Not everyone talks like an American!

Wonder Woman to the rescue. She beats everyone up. She dodges bullets. She pushes a hostage out of the way of a speeding bullet. She throws the bomb so high in the air it smashes through the ceiling and explodes in mid-air. What a load of laws-of-physics-flaunting horseshit.

Now Bruce Wayne is in… Iceland, I guess? He’s in a town looking for a ‘stranger’ who brings fish when the locals are hungry. The one guy who answers in English is on the DVD cover. He’s Aquaman. Bruce tells Aquaman that he’s building an alliance to defend the world (and presumably reckons that some bloke he’s never met will be more useful than the private army Bruce could easily afford to fund).

Later, on Bruce’s private jet, he’s discussing the plot (if you can call it that) with Alfred. Jeremy Irons is bringing new meaning to the phrase phoning it in. Alfred has been researching another potential recruit: Barry Allen of Central City. He’s ‘completely off the grid’ but they also know he regularly visits his father in prison. How is that completely off the grid, then? There’s also mention of another guy – Victor Stone, genius IQ, football scholar… and dead. Er, why are they interested, then?

When Alfred mentions Diana (aka Wonder Woman), Bruce bristles. He fancies her. Of course he does. Now Alfred’s made a smarmy reference to a better Batman film by sarcastically mentioning ‘exploding wind-up penguins’. Oh, piss off.

The storytelling in this movie is absolutely atrocious. Information is just dropped into scenes with no context or justification or finesse or meaning or impact on character.

Here’s a bit of humour. Barry Allen can move so fast it’s imperceptible. Kinda like Quicksilver in the X-Men films. Now I wish I were watching X-Men: Days of Future Past instead of this. In his first scene Barry draws glasses and a moustache on a bully’s face. Sides. Splitting.

With Barry introduced, we move onto the next member of the team: Victor. He’s part-man, part-machine, and clearly not-dead. He was injured in an accident and his scientist father rebuilt him (as you do). He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. (A microchip, am I right, guys?!)

Jesus, where are we now? This film has ADHD. We’re cutting around all over the shop. Oh, I see – we’re on Diana’s home island with the Amazons. They have a magical box (no sniggering at the back), which is ‘awakening’. It glows, it explodes. They point arrows at it. Then a huge, hulking CGI creature arrives via a portal or something. ‘Steppenwolf,’ says one of the bland Amazons. Cheers, love! Saves me looking up his name on Wikipedia. He’s been searching for the box. Lots of the alien insect creatures follow through the portal and we’re into one of those CG-heavy action scenes that makes you think filmmakers are now deliberately aping computer games in an attempt to please Millennials. The Amazon leader does a runner with the box but Steppenwolf gets his motor running and heads out on the highway. He chases and steals the box.

‘We have to light the ancient warning fire,’ she says once Steppenwolf has left.

‘The fire has not burned for 5000 years,’ replies another bland Amazon. ‘Men won’t know what it means.’

‘Men won’t. She will.’

I’m now reminded of The Lord of the Rings’ wonderful warning-fires sequence. It’d be wrong to switch off this garbage and watch that instead, wouldn’t it?

Cut to Diana at her day job in a museum. The sound on the nearby telly magically rises and a hysterical BBC news reporter blathers on about a fire somewhere in the world. Diana knows what this means…

And now we’re with Lois Lane at the Daily Planet in Metropolis. Amy Adams must have the worst agent in Hollywood. She was really good in Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, then couldn’t get another job for love nor money. Now she’s trapped in this DC contract and is given perfunctory, badly written scenes like this one where she and Clark’s mum fail the Bechdel test.

Diana’s come to visit Bruce. She’s just made a passing reference to the Chris Pine character from her solo film, and I now wish I were watching that instead. Or any other Chris Pine movie. I love the Star Treks he’s in. Yes, all three of them. And Unstoppable is an amazing film. It’s essentially one 90-minute action scene but is also great fun and-

Fuck! Got distracted again. Diana is now telling Bruce who Steppenwolf is. Via grimy, CGI flashbacks. To cut an underdeveloped story short he’s a powerful bad guy who wants the Mother Boxes, three mystical cubes that contain nebulous but enormous power. There’s a common problem with these kinds of films: they misunderstand how a MacGuffin works. (I’ve paused the DVD while I make this point.) A MacGuffin – the term was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock – is an object or idea in a story that motivates the characters but is essentially unimportant to the viewer. In a heist movie, it’s the money in the vault. In a Indiana Jones film, it’s the ancient relic. But in many superhero films the MacGuffin is so ridiculously bizarre or maddeningly vague you stop caring that the characters care. A MacGuffin shouldn’t need explaining. *Because it’s not important.* In Reservoir Dogs, there isn’t a big long sequence exploring why a gang of criminals want to steal some jewels; we just understand that they’re valuable. It’s how the MacGuffin affects the characters that counts. In Justice League, the Mother Boxes have no psychological impact on our characters at all.

Press play. Bloody hell, I’m only half an hour in. I need to stop commenting on everything I think of.

Diana says that, thousands of years ago, various races – Amazons, men, gods – came together to form an alliance to defeat Steppenwolf. The Mother Boxes were then split up to hide them. “One was entrusted to the Amazons,” says Diana in voiceover. “One to the Atlanteans… The box of men was buried in secret.” This script REALLY has a hard-on for The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it?

Bruce and Diana’s recruitment scheme continues. Bruce finds Barry in an abandoned building – it’s now clear that Barry is this film’s comic relief. His dialogue feels like it’s from a different movie; it’s more like the tone in Marvel’s Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy. Some of it’s amusing, but it’s mostly tiresome. It’s far from breezy wit. This comedy feels plastered on top of someone else’s script. (Rumour has it extensive reshoots were ordered to make the film funnier.)

Meanwhile, Diana seeks out Victor. He knows that she’s Wonder Woman and that Bruce is Batman. How? Fuck knows. And also meanwhile, Aquaman swims down to the bottom of the ocean. One of the boxes is there and bad guys arrive to steal it. How did they know it was there? Fuck knows.

Now, I’m not a comic-book fan. I love movies based on them, but actual comic books themselves? Nope, not for me. So I may be very wide off the mark here. But it strikes me that one of the reasons this storytelling doesn’t work is that aping a comic book too closely. Scenes are short. Information is summarised succinctly and then we move on. Emotion and humour are faded up and down like sound effects rather than feeling integral to the characters and situations. Seemingly important characters pop up with no explanation then vanish from the story just as quickly. There’s no movie-like development, growth, progression or pacing.

I’m banging on now. Let’s cover the next few scenes with just one-line comments. JK Simmons has turned up as Detective Jim Gordon. There’s a shameless shot of Gal Gadot’s arse. Steppenwolf has taken hostages including Victor’s dad, who’s played by Miles Dyson from Terminator 2. (I now wish I were watching Terminator 2. But I always wish that.) Batman, Wonder Woman, Victor (aka Cyborg, I think) and Barry (aka The Flash) save the hostages with relative ease. They don’t break a sweat. I bet the CGI team had to pull a few all-nighters, though. Oh, and Aquaman shows up. He helps by controlling water or something.

Right, so now Steppenwolf has two of the Mother Boxes but needs the third – the one entrusted to men. And Victor has that one. It had ended up at the lab where Vic’s dad works. Ooh, here’s a bit of inter-team drama. Bruce wants to use the Mother Box to revive Superman from the dead. (Barry mentions Pet Semetary – good gag.) Diana says it’s a bad idea and rows with Bruce. He cruelly – but accurately – calls her out for spending a century doing bugger all to help innocent people. At least the scenes are *about* something now, but we’re also into that slow middle phase of a superhero movie where people in the cinema start going for a wee.

Barry and Victor dig up Clark Kent’s body, then the whole team go to the alien ship from Man of Steel and, thanks to some bullshit science, resurrect him. But Superman is pissed: with his shirt off to please certain fans, he fights his former colleagues. He’s especially angry at Batman. Ungrateful twat. But he calms down when Lois Lane appears on the scene and the pair leave together. But – oh no! – Steppenwolf has sneaked in and stolen the third Mother Box! Cripes! He has them all now! Which is bad!

Diana’s not too concerned, though. ‘So we find them,’ she says. ‘If the boxes are even close to each other, there is going to be some kind of energy surge.’ Seriously, that’s a line of dialogue she actually says. I know the global geek concensus is that Diana Prince is a marvellous character and a great role model for women of all ages and that Gal Gadot is a goddess of imperishable magnificence and all that. But I’m really bored of the character being flawless. Her enjoyable solo film gave her a bit of depth, but in these crossover events she has to the perfectly beautiful, unflappable know-it-all who can do anything. Surely characters are only interesting if they have to overcome things.

Next we get another lame attempt at comedy when Batman nervously asks Aquaman if he talks to fish. “The water does the talking,” says Aquaman like that means something.

So, let’s be clear. The worst, most powerful villain in the history of villains now has all three of the plot devices he needs to destroy the whole world. So do the Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg leap into action? No, they skulk around and discuss their feelings. Meanwhile, Superman is being cheered up by Lois – the scene is meant to be touching, but once you twig that this is the footage where Henry Cavill’s moustache has been digitally removed because he’d grown one for another film, you just can’t stop staring at his rubbery top lip.

We’re approaching the climax now (I hope). Our team are aboard a huge, technologically advanced cargo plane, heading for a nuclear power plant in northern Russia. The plane reminds me of the equivalent craft in the Avengers movies, and I now wish I were watching those films instead. Justice League makes the weakest of that series (Thor: The Dark World?) seem positively masterful. At its worst, the Marvel series always has a basic storytelling competency that’s woefully absent here.

Right, the home straight now. A big long action sequence that feels depressingly artificial. As is often the case with these kinds of third acts, there’s no heft or consequence to anything. No real threat or suspense. It’s just actors and stunt performers matted into CGI. Our characters fight the bad guys. There are occasional gags involving Barry. Jeremy Irons radios in with exposition. Superman shows up, looking all smug. (The music quotes the John Williams theme from 1978 – nice touch!)

But they win, obviously. We then get the usual wrap-up scenes that point the way to more sequels. Oh, and there’s a tiny, one-shot scene filmed outside the British Museum.

Well, we’re near the end now, so can I sum up Justice League?

It was awful. Really crummy. I suppose it was slightly less awful than Batman v Superman. It was certainly more colourful to look at, lighter in tone, quite a bit shorter and slightly less boring. But it was still a dreadful movie.

Three snack holes out of 10

Oh, I forgot there’d be post-credits scenes. The first one’s quite funny: a dick-measuring contest between Superman and the Flash over who can run faster. Then, after a further 387 minutes of credits, Lex Luthor returns. Oh good.

Demons (2009)

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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: London, the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a spin-off, really. This short-lived TV series – one of ITV’s responses to the BBC’s Doctor Who – tells the story of teenager Luke Rutherford (Christian Cooke). He’s the last descendant of the famous vampire-hunter Abraham Van Helsing, who was actually a real person and not just a character in Bram Stoker’s book. Because of this lineage, Luke has a duty to ‘smite’ the various ‘half-life’ creatures (vampires, demons, harpies, etc) who live unseen in London. Luke learns all this from his American godfather, Rupert Galvin (Philip Glenister), who explains the mythology and guides him in the fight. He also introduces Luke to another person who was dramatised in Stoker’s novel: Mina Harker (a haughty, humourless Zoe Tapper), who looks about 30 but is immortal due to being infected by Count Dracula’s blood in the 1890s. She’s now a famous pianist, blind, and has a visionary sixth sense. In the first episode, Luke’s sarcy friend Ruby (Holliday Grainger) also gets caught up in proceedings and joins the team; she fancies Luke but he doesn’t realise. Later on, there’s another explicit connection to Bram Stoker when Mina’s son, Quincey, shows up. He was born near the end of the novel but is now a murderous vampire.

Best performance: Not this show’s strength, acting. The regulars can’t bring any life to the scripts, while guest stars such as Mackenzie Crook, Richard Wilson and Kevin McNally are often in League of Gentlemen-style make-up that encourages comedic playing. Philip Glenister is especially disappointing. Galvin was written as a Texan, but the actor opts for a soft, generic American accent and you can see the lack of conviction behind his eyes.

Best episode: Probably episode four, Suckers, which features some heavy connections to the book Dracula. We see flashbacks to a younger Mina during the First World War (when she deliberately turned her ill son into a vampire to save his life), while Luke is given a copy of Bram Stoker’s novel. He can’t be arsed to read it, though, so Ruby does it for him. When she reaches the final page she realises that Quincey is Mina’s son… but never mentions that another character called Quincey, who the son was named after, features in the novel from page 57 onwards.

Review: No one sets out to make a bad television series, but this is really, really crummy. It’s a British photocopy of the American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a young hero having to juggle school with secretly fighting demonic monsters. (He also has a foreign mentor called Rupert G and a mum who doesn’t know what’s going on; can call on the help of a sexy immortal; and uses a library as a base of operations. Joss Whedon is owed royalties.) But Demons feels like a series made by people who neither understand nor have a passion for the genre. Shows as good as Buffy support their strangeness and mythologies with strong characters, genuine emotion and a balance of action, drama and humour. But here there’s never any sense of the stories or the characters or the situations existing organically. Everything feels mechanical and soulless and hackneyed. It’s all effect, no cause. (Oh, and the fight scenes are often rubbish.)

Three scenes filmed at Highgate Cemetery out of 10

Dracula (BBC1, 28 December 2006, Bill Eagles)

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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: It’s 1899, which is a little later than in the novel. The locations include the fictional Castle Holmwood and the genuine graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Whitby; the fictional Westenra House and the genuine Harley Street, Chelsea and Highgate Cemetery in London; and the fictional Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? This TV version of Stoker’s novel is another one of those vaguely faithful adaptations that nevertheless makes many changes.
* For a start, the first character we meet – in a spooky prologue – is Abraham Van Helsing (David Suchet). He doesn’t appear in the book until nearly a third of the way in.
* The lead character here is a secondary character in the novel. Arthur, aka Lord Holmwood (Dan Stevens), is a wet fish who quotes poetry at girlfriend Lucy Westenra (Sophia Myles). Nevertheless she agrees to marry him.
* This disappoints Arthur’s pal John Seward (Tom Burke), who fancies Lucy too. The novel’s third suitor, the American Quincy Morris, has been dropped.
* Arthur then travels to his childhood home, Whitby, to see his insane, dying father. He also learns that the syphilis-related condition that soon kills his dad is hereditary… (Why Arthur was being called Lord Holmwood while his father was still alive is not addressed. In the novel, his father is not insane and dies ‘off stage’.)
* A month later, looking for a cure, Arthur visits a mysterious man called Singleton (Donald Sumpter). Together they plot to bring a “magician” to England so he can use his knowledge of blood transfusions to cure Arthur…. The character of Singleton was created for this film. Being Dracula’s ally in the UK, he takes the place of the lunatic Renfield from the novel.
* We then meet Lucy’s friends Jonathan Harker (Rafe Spall) and Mina Murray (Stephanie Leonadis). Jonathan is a newly qualified solicitor who’s soon given a job. He’s told that a client called Mr Singleton has an associate on the continent who wants to buy some London property, so Jonathan travels to Transylvania to meet the secretive nobleman Count Dracula (Marc Warren). He looks very old – a detail from the novel that’s almost always abandoned in adaptations – and insists that Jonathan stays longer than planned. We get the usual scenes of Harker being trapped in a scary castle and being unnerved by his host’s demeanour, but in a break from the book’s plot he’s then killed rather than escapes.
* Cut back to England, and Arthur and Lucy are getting married in the rain. Lucy’s joy is short-lived, though, because Arthur chooses to go off with Singleton rather than be with her on their wedding night. This lack of interest in sex makes John suspicious so he tails Arthur, who takes part in a bizarre religious ceremony.
* Meanwhile, Dracula is travelling to Britain on board a ship called the Demeter.
* The next day, Arthur sheepishly turns up in Whitby and gives Lucy a necklace. She responds by grabbing his crotch, but he resists because of his secret syphilis.
* The Demeter beaches at Whitby, but the crew have vanished and Jonathan’s corpse is aboard. The only cargo is a box of earth. Lucy and an in-mourning Mina soon encounter Dracula, who now looks younger and doesn’t have an issue with daylight. Arthur is angry that they’ve all become friends and demands that Dracula does what he was brought to England for: cure Arthur. But the vampire openly says he’s more interested in the women of the house.
* We’re told that Dracula is 900 years old (it’s quite refreshing that no connection is made to Vlad the Impaler) then see that he can transform into a bat.
* During the night, Dracula uses his hypnotic vampire abilities to sexually abuse Lucy while Arthur sleeps in the same bed. He forces her to feed from his chest.
* Lucy subsequently falls ill, so Arthur calls in medical doctor John. He says she needs a blood transfusion, but it doesn’t work and she dies. She’s buried in Highgate Cemetery, which also features in the novel (if disguised with a fake name).
* Now that Dracula is in the UK and feeding, he doesn’t need acolyte Singleton any more so kills him. John, still on the case of what the fuck is going on, finds the corpse in a room full of ritualistic paraphernalia then searches the cellar underneath. There he encounters Abraham Van Helsing, a gibbering lunatic who’s been imprisoned because he knows a lot about Dracula. (He dodged death because he has a crucifix round his neck.)
* Van Helsing explains that Singleton and Arthur are part of the Brotherhood of the Undead, a cult who arranges for vampires such as Dracula to come to Britain. John then travels back to Whitby to confront Arthur.
* Dracula, meanwhile, targets Mina in London.
* Having cleaned up both his clothes and his mind, Van Helsing tells Arthur and John that they must view Lucy’s corpse. They creep into her crypt at night and find the coffin empty. Luce then appears standing behind them; she’s a vampire so attacks her husband and taunts John. Arthur must stake her. As he does so, we see that elsewhere Dracula is simultaneously hurt.
* The men find the Count at the Brotherhood’s HQ. He murders Arthur – by twisting his head off! Then Van Helsing distracts the vampire with some Christian rhetoric (which is very reminiscent of dialogue from The Exorcist) so that John can stake him. Dracula dies.
* In the final shot, we see a seemingly resurrected Dracula living rough on the streets of London…

Best performance: David Suchet as Van Helsing. It’s little more than a cameo – like a big famous actor showing up for a day’s work on a low-budget movie – but at least it’s an interesting performance.

Best bit: How good Sophia Myles looks in a nightgown.

Review: One of the jewels in the crown of the BBC’s Christmas schedule in 2006, this 90-minute TV movie falls very flat indeed. It has no life to it; no blood coursing through its veins. By shuffling the book’s plot, it also leads to some odd storytelling. Arthur is the lead character, but is quite unlikable and selfish. The focus then shifts to Jonathan, who meets Dracula barely a few minutes after being introduced and is killed off very quickly. The script also changes the motivations of several characters, notably Arthur. The story is now about his hubris, rather than the savagery of Count Dracula. Admittedly, it’s an interesting idea that Dracula targets our group of characters because one of them made a deal with the devil. In the novel, he more or less picks them at random. But the biggest problem with this film is a general sense of going through the motions. The cast lack energy, the script lacks distinction, and the direction is boring. It’s very difficult to care about anything that’s happening. There’s also precious little discussion of vampirism; it’s just assumed that every character and every viewer knows all about it. As BBC adaptations go, this is not a patch on the 1977 effort.

Three garden parties out of 10

Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Lovebirds Mickey and Mallory Knox go on a three-week, 52-victim killing spree…

What does QT do? Tarantino’s draft of Natural Born Killers, based on an earlier script by his pal Roger Avary, ended up in the hands of director Oliver Stone. Stone heavily rewrote it with colleagues David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, leaving Quentin with just a ‘Story by’ credit. Tarantino wasn’t involved during production.

Notable characters:
* Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Wilson Knox (Juliette Lewis) are the couple at the heart of the story. They meet when he shows up at her house delivering meat, and they soon kill her parents and go on the run. They become media darlings, though Mickey is disappointed that the TV show covering them gets lower ratings than a Charles Manson special. As with True Romance, this film is about a couple who are so in love they don’t care about anyone else. But unlike Clarence and Alabama, Mickey and Mallory are total wackos. Harrelson and Lewis certainly don’t hold back in their performances.
* Ed Wilson (Roger Dangerfield) and Mrs Wilson (Edie McClurg) are Mallory’s parents, who we see in a sequence presented as a 1960s-style studio sitcom. Ed is a slobbering monster who abuses Mallory, and her brother, Kevin (Ross Malinger), is actually her son. Mrs Wilson is played by Grace from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
* Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) is a TV journalist on a current-affairs show called American Maniacs (‘Hosted by Wayne Gale, written by Wayne Gale, produced and directed by Wayne Gale’). It sensationalises Mickey and Mallory’s crimes and features staged reconstructions of them killing people. Gale has a mullet and possibly an Australian accent (it’s very hard to tell).
* Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) is the corrupt, prostituting-killing cop on the trail of the Knoxes. After he catches them he writes a book about it.
* Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) runs the prison that features in the film’s third act. He has a 1970s suit and a 1970s tache. Jones hams it up something rotten.

Returning actors: Tom Sizemore had also played a cop in True Romance. Stand-up comedian Steven Wright, who’d voiced K-Billy in Reservoir Dogs, has a small role here as an expert interviewed on Gale’s TV show.

Music: It’s almost non-stop. There are tracks playing for virtually the entire film. Incidental cues tend to be overblown and melodramatic, while the best use of a pre-existing song is Rage Against The Machine’s Bombtrack. A scene is really well timed to its murmuring bass riff.

Time shifts and chapters: We start with Mickey and Mallory already on the rampage – a newspaper headline tells us they’re just killed six teenagers – then 10 minutes into the film we cut back and learn how the couple met and fell in love. Later on, after Mickey and Mallory have been arrested, there’s a jump to a year later.

Connections: According to Tarantino, the cop Jack Scagnetti is meant to be the brother of Mr Blonde’s unseen parole officer in Reservoir Dogs.

Review: Here’s a sample of the cinematic techniques used in this movie – slow motion, sped-up footage, off-kilter camera angles, point-of-view shots, shots played in reverse, black-and-white shots cut into colour scenes, colour-tinted shots, negative images, film scratches, videotape footage, Super-8 footage, 16mm footage, CCTV footage, stock footage, animation, on-screen captions, subtitles projected onto actors’ bodies, clips from commercials, disorientating editing, obvious rear-projection, an entire sequence presented as if from an old studio sitcom (laughter track and all) and segments from a TV news show. It’s *exhausting*. Early on, you subconsciously expect the film to calm down, but it’s constantly gimmicky and tricksy. And with no variety or nuance, it becomes very boring very quickly. The second quarter, in which the Knoxes meet a Native American who gives them hallucinogens, is especially tedious. Yes, there’s satire going on – the journalists are ruthless, the authority figures have no morals, the public is entertained by mass murder, everyone’s a moron – but it’s like a drunk pontificating in a pub. Even if the points are valid, you just want the ranting to stop. Every now and again there are flashes of Tarantino dialogue or wit, but then comes along more ultraviolence, brutality, incest, torture, vulgarity… A mess.

Three prison riots out of 10

House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C Kenton)

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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: Somewhere vaguely European, maybe around the turn of the nineteenth century. This is an entry in Universal Pictures’ series of horror movies all set in the same continuity, so we’re not too far away from what had been established.

Faithful to the novel? No. Dr Gustave Niemann (Boris Karloff) and sidekick Daniel (J Carrol Naish) escape from prison and seek revenge on Bürgermeister Hussman, the guy who imprisoned Niemann. Along the way they murder a travelling showman and take his place – the show includes an exhibit of the bones of Count Dracula. So Niemann resurrects Dracula (John Carradine), who does his bidding. The vampire seduces a woman called Rita (Anne Gwynne) and murders Hussman (Sig Ruman). Niemann then exposes the count to sunlight, killing him. The story continues without any Dracula-related-ness. The doctor ends up in Castle Frankenstein and finds both Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr) frozen in ice.

Best performance: Elena Verdugo’s not too bad as Ilonka, a gypsy girl who gets dragged along with the story and forms a love triangle with Daniel and Talbot the Wolf Man.

Best bit: The opening in the prison.

Review: Well, it’s not very good, sadly. It starts off spookily enough, with dramatically lit scenes and plenty of foreboding. But you soon realise the plot is just an excuse for dragging classic monsters into the same story. It gets sillier – and more boring – the longer it goes on.

Three stinky, slimy dungeons out of 10

Dracula 3000: Infinite Darkness (2004, Darrell Roodt)

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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: The year 3000. Deep space, on board a ship called the Demeter that’s been found drifting in the Carpathian System.

Faithful to the novel? No, although there are some deliberate echoes. The plot sees the crew of a salvage space ship called Mother III board a large derelict (which seems to be Soviet for some reason). The leader of the team is Abraham Van Helsing (Casper Van Dien), while his five-strong crew include characters called Arthur Holmwood (Grant Swanby), who’s a tech guy in a wheelchair, and navigator Mina Murray (Alexandra Kamp). Away from the source material, Coolio plays a guy obsessed with getting high on dope. The characters soon find the skeleton of the captain, which is tied to a chair in an echo of the sea captain from the book. The captain is played by Udo Kier from 1974’s Blood for Dracula and 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire. We see his log entries from 50 years previously, but the characters don’t. After a lot of wandering about, Count Orlock (aka Dracula) shows up. He’s the last of the vampires and has been woken up by the Mother III crew. Our heroes have never heard of vampires, so have to Google the concept. An on-screen history of the mythology includes mention of Lord Ruthven (from the 1819 short story The Vampyre), the original Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s book and the lead character from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871-72 novella Carmilla.

Best performance: No one’s any good. Erika Eleniak at least wears a tight vest and leather trousers as Aurora. The character is later revealed to be a robot on a covert mission, sorta like Ash in Alien. However, rather than go psycho, her twist is that she used to be a ‘pleasure bot’… and at the end she offers Tiny Lister’s character some free sex. So the film can add misogyny to its many flaws.

Best bit: Um. Let’s see. Er. I’ll get back to you on that one…

Review: This low-budget Alien rip-off was released on DVD in 2004, and it’s shot like a TV show, with ‘drama’ done in big fat close-ups. It’s not scary or especially violent; the dialogue is crass; the performances are awful; and the action is very poor. It’s all so incredibly shallow. No one seems that bothered about what’s going on, or that their colleagues are getting killed. Dross but it passed the time.

Three moon cycles out of 10