Champagne (1928)


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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A hedonistic heiress has to make her way in the world when her father says he’s financially ruined…

An odd Hitchcock film, this. Almost entirely lacking in tension, and featuring a lead character whose biggest problem in life is that she has to have a job, Champagne may be frothy and occasionally fun. It features some nice humour and the contemporary 1920s fashions are a treat. But it ultimately falls flat. There’s no fizz.

Betty (Betty Balfour) is a young, rich socialite who angers her father by using his Charles Lindbergh-style biplane to fly out to the middle of the Atlantic and board an ocean liner. The plane is sunk in the process, but she fares better: on the rowboat sent out by the liner’s crew, she removes her hat, goggles and coat to reveal an immaculate flapper frock. She’s made the journey to be with her boyfriend (French actor Jean Bradin), but he’s suffering from seasickness. The boat, you see, is rocking violently with the Atlantic swell – a motion that’s conveyed charmingly well by the Star Trek trick of having actors stagger from side to side. There’s also a creepy-looking passenger (Ferdinand von Alten) who eyes Betty up at any opportunity…

Eventually, Betty and the unnamed boyfriend reach Paris and she throws herself into the lifestyle of a bright young thing. When her fella visits her apartment she says to him, ‘Come on in – I’ve met some lively people – invented a new cocktail – and bought a lot of snappy gowns.’ Being a silent film, of course, the dialogue is relayed via a title card. There are remarkably few of them in the movie: we’re told just 70 lines of dialogue in 93 minutes.

However, back in America, Betty’s millionaire father (played by Gordon Harker, who was the son of the man Bram Stoker named the character of Jonathan Harker after in Dracula) is fuming. His mouth twitches comically as he reads about his daughter’s rebelliousness in the newspaper, while a phalanx of employees nervously fuss around him. He makes the journey to France and when he arrives he says he has grave news: his fortune – earned in the champagne business – has been wiped out after a bad day on the stock market. They’re now skint. (A prescient plot point, this: the Wall Street crash was the year after this movie’s release.) This distressing news doesn’t seem to affect either father or daughter too badly, though, and soon the two are making a fist of it. They share a cramped bedsit and she sets about finding a job.

Finding one at a high-class restaurant, Betty goes off the rails – or at least by 1920s standards. She drinks! She smokes! She dances! She enjoys herself – the slut! Both her boyfriend and her father disapprove, while the creepy guy from the ocean liner is still sniffing around. She then gets an almighty shock when her father confesses that he’s not penniless after all. It was all a lie – a ruse to see how she’d cope without capital. Justifiably angry, Betty turns to the creepy guy and asks for help in getting out of the country. He agrees to take her home to America, but then aboard the boat he locks her in their cabin…

But don’t worry! He’s not a dangerous, sinister type – turns out, he’s a detective hired by Betty’s father to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t come to any harm. So that’s all right, then. I guess. The dad and the boyfriend show up, relationships are mended, lies are forgiven and everyone gets a happy and disgustingly rich ending.

With such a drab, lifeless story, you have to look elsewhere for Champagne’s pleasures. As ever with Hitchcock, it’s a visual treasure trove. The director is regularly experimenting or innovating with point-of-view shots (including a few through champagne glasses), crowd scenes, dissolves to suggest time passages and character’s thoughts, and other tricks such as moving footage becoming a still photo. There are also a few decent gags, like when Betty embraces her boyfriend while cooking and leaves flour handprints on his back. But overall this is a rare thing indeed: a *boring* Hitchcock movie.

Four cocktails out of 10

NOTE: An interesting quirk of film restoration means that the footage in Champagne is now probably *entirely different* from that seen in cinemas in 1928. When archivists at the BFI studied the surviving negative it soon became apparent that it was actually a version of the movie assembled from ‘second-best’ takes. It’s assumed this was compiled as a kind of safety copy. Sadly, no print of the theatrical cut has been found, so this ‘echo’ version of Champagne is now the default.


Blake’s 7: The Web (1978)

Screenshot 2017-12-25 20.39.09

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator is ensnared by an enormous cobweb in space…

Series A, episode 5. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 30 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Like the rest of the crew, Jenna (5) has found some more new clothes in the Liberator’s storerooms. This week, she’s sporting a rather fetching burgundy dress with pastel detail on the shoulders. Her main contribution to the plot is a moment when the antagonists psychically take over her body and speak through her, which is a bit hammy.
* When the Liberator’s systems go wrong, Blake (5) assumes that one of Avon’s private research projects has caused the issue. But once it becomes clear that someone on a nearby planet is to blame for the ship being tangled up in an interstellar cobweb (no, really), Blake teleports down to the surface. He finds two strange scientists (who turn out to be from Cally’s planet: small galaxy!) and a race of angry midgets called Decimers. The former created the latter via experimentation but now want the energy resources to wipe them out. This puts Blake in a moral dilemma: unless he helps, the Liberator will forever be trapped.
* Cally (2) only joined the crew last episode, but early on here she’s acting very strangely. She sneaks around, boshes Vila over the head, sabotages the ship… But we soon learn she isn’t herself: the scientists are using her via physic powers to trap the Liberator in the web.
* Zen (3) reports that the ship is suffering from a deliberate malfunction.
* As mentioned, Vila (5) is knocked out cold. But his day improves when he finally gets to use the Liberator’s neutron blasters – something he’s been looking forward to.
* When the craziness begins, Avon (4) deduces that Cally is responsible. Well, she did ask about a vital bit of machinery just before it went on the blink. Not for the first time, the strikingly selfish Avon saves Blake’s life (when a small explosion is triggered in the cargo bay). He later moots to Gan that they could moneytise the Liberator’s advanced technology.
* Gan (4) restrains Cally when she’s under the influence of the bad guys.

Best bit: The Decimers storm the scientists’ base and violently tear them apart. I mean, really violently. You see ripped flesh and gore and bones and everything.

Worst bit: There’s an awful lot of boring procedural dialogue aboard the Liberator. Scenes of the regulars on the flight deck and staring at a viewscreen we can’t see seem to go on and on.

Review: As it was produced at the same time, by some of the same people and in the same building, it’s not surprising that Blake’s 7 shares a lot of similarities with Doctor Who. Both were mostly made on brightly lit studio sets. Both used video for indoor scenes and film for exteriors. Both stuck largely to non-diverse casting choices. The Web, however, feels more like an episode of Space: 1999 – despite the vastness of space, our characters randomly bump into something, are threatened by some out-there sci-fi nonsense, and get caught up in the very boring storyline with drab guest characters. Then just as you’re losing the will to carry on, some poor actor has to play a withered head in a water tank. The first rubbish episode.

Four fully charged flutonic power cells out of 10

Next episode: Seek-Locate-Destroy

The Next Karate Kid (1994, Christopher Cain)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Mr Miyagi gets a new student when the granddaughter of a friend needs some help…

Cast and story:
* In the opening scene, Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) – the only character to be carried over from the previous films – talks to the widow of an old army buddy during a ceremony to honour their platoon.
* Louisa Pierce (Constance Towers) invites him to her house in Boston, where he meets her surly teenage granddaughter Julie (Hilary Swank). The girl is bitter and angry because her parents have been killed in a car crash; her only friend is a tame hawk she secretly houses on the roof of her school.
* Seeing that Louisa is struggling, Mr Miyagi suggests a plan: she can live in his house in California for a few weeks and he’ll stay to look after Julie. (Louisa now vanishes from the story entirely: she misses her granddaughter’s suspension from school, birthday and high-school prom. Great timing, Granny!)
* Julie goes to a very strange school (or at least it seems strange to this British viewer). It’s a place where a thuggish fraternity wear branded T-shirts and roam the halls dishing out punishments. Even more strangely, their leader is a grown man: Colonel Dugan (Michael Ironside), who even bosses the principle around. One of the self-titled Alpha Elite, a cocky little shit called Ned Randall (Michael Cavalieri), picks on Julie for no readily apparent reason.
* Meanwhile, another pupil she doesn’t know despite going to school with him for several years is Eric McGowen (Chris Conrad). He takes a shine to her and even learns about her hawk.
* Visiting the school, Mr Miyagi sees how cruel Dugan is with his students and intervenes. The bullying continues, though, and Julie is then suspended for some lame reason or other. So Mr Miyagi offers to take her away for a couple of weeks…
* They go to a Buddhist monastery somewhere within a drive of Boston. While there, Mr M teaches Julie about karate. While she learns she begins to calm down and find an inner peace. She even smiles.
* They return to Boston, but Julie is devastated to discover that nasty Ned has let her hawk loose… so in the next scene she simply retrieves the bird from a local animal sanctuary. (High drama, there!)
* Nice Eric asks Julie to the prom, but despite living in an enormous, upper-middle-class house she can’t afford or find a suitable dress. So Mr Miyagi goes and buys one for her. (The frock he picks out does not contain a huge amount of material. The perv.)
* In a lovely reversal of the wax-on/wax-off scene from the first movie, Mr Miyagi then tells Julie he’s going to show her a karate move – but as they practise it she realises he’s actually teaching her to dance.
* Julie and Eric go to the prom, but later that night the Alpha Elites target Eric and taunt him into fighting them. They give him a good beating and Dugan wants him killed (seriously?!) – but then Julie and Mr Miyagi show up. Julie fights Ned; Mr M fights Dugan. Both our heroes win, obvs.

Review: The character of Mr Miyagi is part of a grand tradition in genre cinema – the wise, old mentor who schools the young hero/es. He sits alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Doc Brown, Charles Xavier, Gandalf, Mickey Goldmill and many others. So why not give him his own spin-off film? Not a terrible idea in and of itself, but sadly this limp movie doesn’t serve him very well. For a start, he’s written and played quite differently from before. (Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the first three Karate Kid movies, wasn’t involved in this project.) The character has been repurposed as a social-worker type who can’t resist helping a damaged teenager: he’s less mysterious, more openly avuncular, and much less interesting. Elsewhere, Hilary Swank (a future Oscar-winner, of course) is perfectly fine as Julie and Michael Ironside (who’s usually able to make trash watchable) is doing his best as Dugan. There’s also some nice comedy business with the Buddhist monks and the film is occasionally sweet. But all too often it’s just cheesy. The on-the-nose dialogue and thin characters are difficult to get past, and there’s the general air of the kind of soppy TV movie you get on a weekday afternoon on Channel 5.

Four dancing monks out of 10

The BFG (2016, Steven Spielberg)


An orphan called Sophie is kidnapped by a benign giant who takes her to a strange land. He won’t let her go home because he can’t risk people finding out about giants, so she comes up with a plan…

Seen before? No. But Roald Dahl’s 1982 novel was probably my favourite book when I was a child.

Best performance: Penelope Wilton is fun as the Queen. It’s never actually specified that she’s Elizabeth II, but that’s certainly who she looks like.

Best scene/moment/sequence: Being a Steven Spielberg movie, there are plenty of great images and visual gags – especially when the BFG is creeping around London in the middle of the night. He has to hide in plain sight to avoid passers-by.

Review: Spielberg has made children’s films before, of course. The best of them – ET, The Adventures of Tintin – are for kids of all ages. But The BFG is more like 1991’s Hook: aimed squarely at a very young audience. There’s whimsy and fart gags, but the film misses the ‘real life’, wit, and sense of danger that make ET so effective. We start in an arch, fantasy-land London of cobbled streets, bumbling drunks and an orphanage that doesn’t notice when one of its girls goes missing. It’s possibly the 1980s (there’s a gag about ‘Ronnie and Nancy’). The action then moves to a magical realm and huge stretches of the film are two-handed scenes. Aside from brief appearances by some other giants, Sophie and the BFG are the only characters in the first 74 minutes… The film seriously drags. Not a huge amount happens, and given the difference in their sizes you soon get very bored of shots of Sophie actress Ruby Barnhill looking up and shouting her dialogue. It’s a huge relief when the action returns to London. Sophie’s plan for helping her new friend is to give the Queen a dream that will make her predisposed to giants, so we then get a childish but lively sequence at Buckingham Palace. As well as Penelope Wilton, this section also features Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall, two good actors gamely playing cardboard characters in return for a chance to work with Steven Spielberg. The BFG himself is a marvellous creation, played charmingly by Mark Rylance via motion-caption technology. But overall this was a chore to sit through.

Four snozzcumbers out of 10

The Return of Dracula (1958, Paul Landres)


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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Mostly the fictional town of Carleton, California, but there’s also a brief sequence in eastern Europe (we spy a Berlin newspaper in one scene). It’s the 1950s.

Faithful to the novel? This 1958 B-movie horror begins with a portentous voiceover telling us all about Count Dracula, the infamous vampire who terrorises innocent people and spreads his dominion around the world. We’re told that various attempts to destroy him have been unsuccessful and then see a group of men break into a tomb only to find the coffin empty… Then we cut to an artist called Bellac Gordal, who’s about to travel from Europe to California and stay with his cousin. On the train, however, he’s killed and replaced by Dracula (Francis Lederer). In the US, Cora (Greta Granstedt) hasn’t seen her cousin for a long time so doesn’t notice it’s an imposter. She welcomes Dracula into her home but he soon focuses on Cora’s grown-up daughter, the wholesome Rachel (Norma Eberhardt). He also turns Rachel’s friend Jennie (Virginia Vincent) into a vampire. (If we think of this as a loose remake of the book’s plot, Rachel is the Mina equivalent; Jennie is Lucy.) But when people start to suspect he’s not Gordal, the Count has to start killing. Meanwhile, Rachel’s finding it difficult to resist him…

Best performance: Francis Lederer plays Dracula as a man rather than a monster. There’s no Bela Lugosi cape (instead he wears a suit) and you almost feel sorry for him. The actor had the distinction of living in three different centuries: he was born in Prague in 1899 and lived until 2000. As well as a successful film and theatre career, he fought for the Austrian-Hungarian Army in the First World War. Lederer later played Dracula again, in a 1971 episode of TV show Night Gallery. Incidentally, while we’re on the topic of actors’ backgrounds, Cora actress Greta Granstedt had a notorious incident in her past. In 1922, when she was 14, she shot her 17-year-old boyfriend with a pistol. She claimed it was accidental, though newspapers said she’d stalked him from some bushes and wanted to hurt him because he’d been with another girl. The boyfriend eventually recovered and Granstedt was sentenced to time in a reform school.

Best bit: A few neat tricks are used to show off Dracula’s vampirism: when he first arrives in Carleton he appears out of thin air; we later get the clichéd no-reflection-in-a-mirror shot; and there’s also a great moment when he forms from a cloud of smoke. In the latter, the actor speaks dialogue as the smoke dissipates around him. The effect was achieved by having Lederer talk backwards as smoke is blown around him and then reversing the shot.

Review: For a horror film, this is incredibly safe material. We’re in a pre-rock’n’roll, small-town America where Cora bakes cakes, Rachel has a child-like enthusiasm for life and her boyfriend drives around in an enormous convertible. There’s no sense of danger to anything, and the whole film falls very flat. It’s directed with no attitude, there’s a bland cast, and lots of night-time scenes are shot in broad daylight. One notable – and very effective – aspect of the film is that it’s in black and white… aside from the shot of gushing red blood when Jennie is staked!

Four dull and useless worlds out of 10

Planet of the Apes (2001, Tim Burton)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: This movie could be viewed as a second adaptation of the 1963 novel La Planète des Singe, a remake of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes, or simply a waste of everyone’s time. The story starts aboard a United States Air Force space station called Oberon in the optimistically chosen year of 2029. But the bulk of the action is set on an alien planet in the far future. The end of the film then brings a surprise twist, though not the same one as in the 1968 film. The action moves to the Earth of 2029, but history has been changed. Apes now rule this world too. It’s never explained how. Or why. It’s a silly sequel-baiting coda that was never followed up.

Humans: Our lead character is Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg, who dropped out of Ocean’s Eleven to star in this sludge). He works with primates being trained for space missions. After one of them is sent out in a small pod and falls through a wormhole, Davidson follows and ends up on a planet where intelligent apes are in charge and humans are kept as slaves. It’s not all bad news, though: he soon meets a cute woman called Daena (Estella Warren; what she lacks in acting talent she makes up for in standing around looking confused in an adorable kind of way). Kris Kristofferson plays her dad and there are a few other featured people. In a change from the 1968 film, the humans of this world can talk – which makes the apes’ control of them seem even more cruel. We learn that the humans used to be the dominant species, and once Davidson tracks down his space ship he infers the planet’s backstory. The ship crashed here centuries before Leo did (somehow…) and populated the planet with intelligent apes.

Apes: The ape masks are well designed and more articulate than in the original movies. Also, more thought has gone into giving the characters non-human postures and movements. But little of that work was worth it… Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) is the most interesting of the apes. She’s sensitive, smart and opposes the harsh treatment of humans. She buys Davidson and Daena for her father, Senator Sandar (David Warner), then helps them escape. Meanwhile, General Thade (Tim Roth) is a warmongering chimpanzee; he also has a thing for Ari, but she’s not interested. In one scene, Thade’s father is played by – get ready to prevent your sides from splitting – Charlton Heston. He even has a jokey reference to the original movie: “Damn them all to hell!” he says before dying. Also worth mentioning is Limbo (Paul Giamatti), who’s a slaver and the comic relief – two things that don’t often go together.

Review: This film was a turning point for director Tim Burton. He was coming off a decade-plus run of wonderful movies – but this has none of the wit, style or creepiness of Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood or Sleepy Hollow. It feels like a studio film where creative decisions have been so flattened out by committee that nothing of any distinction remains. There’s cheesy dialogue, paper-thin characters, painfully weak comedy, a score that drones on, and a general absence of wonder. Wahlberg is a dreadful leading man, lacking charisma, while many exterior scenes are shot indoors and feel drab and lifeless. Rubbish.

Four skankiest, scabbiest, scuzziest humans out of 10

Dracula (2002, Roger Young and Eric Lerner)


Aka: Dracula’s Curse

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This two-part miniseries made for Italian television starts with a scene of a horse being attacked in the Pampas Plain of Argentina. We then cut to Budapest and the rest of the story takes place there and in Romania. It’s the modern day, circa 23 April.

Faithful to the novel? Mostly. Here are some areas in which the story departs from the original or provides a fresh spin:
* It’s the early twenty-first century.
* We never see London. The story is largely set in Budapest, Hungary. American lawyer Jonathan Harker (Hardy Krüger Jr) suggests to his fiancée, Mina Murray (Stefania Rocca), that they get married the following week. He’s even arranged for their friends – Lucy (Muriel Baumeister), Quincy (Alessio Boni) and Arthur Holmwood (Conrad Hornby) – to fly over for the ceremony. It’s not 100-per-cent clear which nationality some of the characters are. Jonathan is American, Arthur English, Quincy Italian – the women are anyone’s guess.
* Meanwhile, a local psychiatric doctor, Johann Seward (Kai Wiesinger), is dealing with an unstable patient called Roenfield (Brett Forest). After that, Seward meets Lucy and through her becomes part of her friend-group.
* Harker meets a client called Vladislav Tepes (Patrick Bergin), who needs help to buy Carfax House, a large property next to the hospital, for his Romanian uncle.
* Lucy starts to sleepwalk as in the novel, but instead of wandering a windswept cliff, she falls down the stairs of her mod-con house.
* When Quincy hears of Jonathan’s business deal, he suggests they rip off the Tepes family.
* A man shows up at the hospital – Dr Valenzi (Giancarlo Giannini off of Casino Royale), an old friend of Seward’s and an expert in zombies and the like. He’s the Van Helsing character, of course.
* Harker and the gang meet Tepes, who riles Mina for no apparent reason. Harker then has to drive to Romania (via some stock footage scored by a nondescript soft-rock song) to see Tepes’s uncle, who is also called Vladislav Tepes (and is clearly the same man). En route Harker has two encounters with nasty-for-no-reason locals.
* At Tepes’s castle, Harker is wined and dined and forced to change into Victorian-style clothes (very Doctor Who-y). He then realises he’s locked in, so escapes. But crashes his car and ends up in hospital.
* Tepes, meanwhile, sails to Budapest. (Er, Hungary is a landlocked country…) Once awake, he can CGI-transform into a wolf. He then seduces Lucy (well, you would) and starts to grow visibly younger.
* Valenzi deduces that Tepes is really the infamous Dracula. It’s 80 minutes into the piece before the word is spoken. (Arthur sarcastically mentions Boris Karloff.)
* Arthur and Lucy get engaged, but then Lucy turns vamp. There’s an equivalent of the ‘bloofer lady’ sequence from the novel.
* The gang hunt down and kill Lucy, then go after Dracula, who forms before their eyes from dozens of rats. He escapes and later seduces Mina. So the men use Mina as bait to lure Dracula in – and in the film’s one great elaboration on the Stoker plot, it’s Mina who kills the vampire.
* Quincy was killed during the climax (as in the novel) and we see his funeral.

Best performance: The Renfield equivalent, here called Roenfield, isn’t in the story much. But it’s a creepy bit of acting, helped by the fact he’s one of the few characters who doesn’t sounds like he’s been dubbed by another actor.

Best bit: The film is at its best when visually interesting – the elaborate dancing at the ball, a neat trick where Tepes moves at normal speed and everyone else is in slow motion, the creepy scene on the ship, Tepes seducing Lucy… The problems start when people talk.

Review: This is 100 minutes of heavy-handed storytelling delivered by a very weak cast. Maybe something has been lost in translation. The film is in Engilsh, but there’s a large number of badly dubbed performances and actors talking in what is clearly a second language. In its favour, the script is an attempt at a faithful adaptation of the novel with some nice twists and changes. But overall? A mess.

Four Porches out of 10

Dracula: The Dark Prince (2013, Pearry Teo)


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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a short prologue set in 1453, then the main action takes place a century later. Despite being set in Romania, everyone on screen seems Anglo-Saxon.

Faithful to the novel? No. It’s a period film with yet another telling of the myth based on Vlad the Impaler. It’s also another film where Dracula’s long-dead love is resurrected as another character – in this case a woman called Alina (Kelly Wenham), who dresses in kinky leather as she searches for a mythical weapon. Dracula (Luke Roberts) is said to be the descendent of the Biblical Able. He renounces God after his girlfriend is killed by invading Turks, so a touchy God responds by condemning him with immortality. The non-Bram Stoker storyline sees Alina team up with others, including a vampire hunter called Leonardo Van Helsing (Jon Voight), to fight evil. In nods to the novel, Dracula has several Brides at his CGI castle, as well as an advisor called Renfield (Stephen Hogan).

Best performance: No one’s great. Jon Voight – an Oscar-winning actor, of course – is especially poor with a cod accent and a Monty Python prosthetic nose. But Ben Robson isn’t too bad as a charismatic thief called Lucian.

Best bit: The prologue contains a battle sequence stylishly – and presumably cost-effectively – presented as animation.

Review: It’s never very clear what any of the characters actually want in this straight-to-DVD movie. There’s a MacGuffin that seems to be important; Dracula is keen on knowing Alina. But nothing drives the story – certainly not any of the characters. It’s corny, cliched trash for the most part. The near-constant incidental music drones on, treating every scene as if it has equal importance. And that’s also true of the flat, drab and uninteresting storytelling.

Four frozen seas out of 10

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009, Gavin Hood)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Immortal mutant James Logan takes part in a scientific experiment and is injected with a metal called adamantium…

Get used to multiples names…
* James Logan (Hugh Jackman) adopts the name Wolverine in this prequel to the X-Men trilogy. The film is the story of his life up to and including the moment he loses his memory.
* Logan’s childhood friend Victor Creed, who becomes one of the movie’s main villains, is played by Liev Schreiber. Early on we learn that the two share a father. Notwithstanding that, an actor who looks similar to Hugh Jackman has been cast as Logan’s mum’s husband.
* For the second time in three X-Men films, William Stryker features. As this film is set 20 years before X2, he’s been recast: Danny Huston has taken over from Brian Cox.
* In the early 1970s, Logan is seconded into a military squad of mutants. One of the team is played by Ryan Reynolds and is later experimented on by Stryker and becomes a zombie-like creature called Deadpool. Other mutants in the squad include Fred J Dukes, who’s later known as the Blob after putting on a ridiculous amount of weight (Kevin Durand), Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), John Wraith ( and Zero (Daniel Henney).
* While hiding out in Canada Logan has a boring girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins). She may as well be called Character Who Gets Killed To Make The Hero Angry. (She later shows up again: it’s revealed she’s a mutant too and her death was staged.)
* On the run, Wolverine is given aid by an elderly couple (Max Cullen and Julia Blake) who may as well be called Mr and Mrs Convenient Characters Who Help The Hero Before Getting Killed.
* When Wolverine needs information about Styker’s base, he asks the only mutant to have ever escaped: Remy LeBeau aka Gambit (Taylor Kitsch).

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that will be contradicted or expanded in future movies.
* William Stryker had featured in X2 (2003) and will also crop up in the First Class trilogy (2011-2016). In this film he mentions having a son, who we then see briefly: the son is also in X2. Stryker’s secret base at Alkali Lake is also seen in X-Men (2000), X2 and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).
* Deadpool got a whole film to himself in 2016. Although still played by Ryan Reynolds, it’s a different take on the character.
* Both this movie’s Victor and Sabretooth from 2000’s X-Men are based on the same comic-book character, though it’s open to debate whether they’re meant to be the same man in the film series.
* We meet a teenager called Scott Summers (Tim Pocock). The grown-up Scott was one of the good guys in the 2000-2006 X-Men trilogy.
* Although not named, one of the mutants being held prisoner by Stryker is clearly meant to be Emma Frost – a popular character from the comic book. A different version of Emma will be X-Men: First Class (2011).
* Near the end of the film, Charles Xavier shows up to rescue the freed mutants. Patrick Stewart recorded new dialogue, while unsettling CGI has been used to show the character look like he would have done in 1979.

A comic-fan writes… Because I know next to nothing about the source material, I’ve asked my friend the writer Rebecca Levene to talk about this film: “I may be the only human being on the planet who actually likes this movie. Yes, the story’s a convoluted mess, but then so is Wolverine’s backstory in the comics and there are some genuinely inspired moments – particularly the title sequence montage showing Wolverine and Sabretooth’s long and violent history. Most of all, though, the comic geek in me loves the other X-Men cameos. Here at last is Gambit in all his sexy Cajun glory. And Deadpool’s ultimate fate may be a travesty – what lunatic takes away the Merc with a Mouth’s ability to speak? – but before that Ryan Reynolds gives us a glimpse of the star turn he’d later deliver.”

Review: This one doesn’t work. The characters are as thin as the pages of a comic book. Laughs are few and far between. But the biggest issue is simply that there’s no wow factor. The action is computer-game-ish – boring slo-mo violence and laws-of-physics-defying stunts – while there’s a real lack of polish to the filmmaking: exterior scenes are often filmed on a sound stage, while greenscreen shots are sometimes laughable. Also, curse of the prequel has struck again. Because we already know the broad strokes, at times the movie feels like an exercise in box-ticking. There *are* some good ideas, of course. The titles sequence shows us a montage of Logan and Victor fighting side-by-side in the American Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War (very Saving Private Ryan, this) and Vietnam. As the eras progress, Victor gets more and more reckless – smart, economic, fun storytelling. But after that the film gets vague and aimless. The main body of the story is set in 1979, for example, but the production design isn’t especially pushing the period. Instead it’s a bland version of ‘a few years ago’. There are no mobile phones or computers, but the odd old car aside it could be any time. That’s representative of the way the whole film is directed: no focus, no unity of vision, no distinctiveness.

Four ‘Three Mile Islands’ out of 10

Red Dwarf VIII (1999)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written by Doug Naylor (all) and Paul Alexander (episodes 5 & 7). Directed by Ed Bye. Broadcast on BBC2.

Regulars: Lister, the Cat, Kryten and Kochanski are carried over from the previous series – in fact, the story picks up immediately after that batch of episodes ended. Holly is back full-time (played by Norman Lovett). And more importantly, Rimmer’s returned! Chris Barrie enjoyed his contribution to series seven more than he’d predicted, so reversed his decision to quit Red Dwarf. (After all that fuss he missed a total of four episodes.) However, this isn’t the Rimmer from the first 38 episodes of the show. This character has been artificially resurrected by tiny robots, along with the ship and its entire crew. So not only does he lack the memories and experiences of old episodes but he behaves how Rimmer was in the early days. (Well, to a point. He now *gets on* with Lister. They buddy around like old friends! Oh, and this Arnold’s not a hologram, of course.) And finally, we have a new regular character: Mac McDonald had played Captain Hollister in three 1988 episodes, and is now in the show every week.

Episode 1: Back in the Red: Part One (18 February 1999): Red Dwarf has been rebuilt by tiny robots and its crew resurrected… Oh, this is tiresome. Admittedly there’s a lovely opening – a deliberately old-school scene between Lister and Rimmer – but we then cut to three days earlier and just get clunky plotting and crass jokes.
Observations: There’s a scene in the bunkroom from series one and two, the set having been specially recreated. Lister’s old pals Selby and Chen – last seen in series two – have inconsequential cameos. It’s not explained why the nanobots didn’t resurrect Kochanski, who originally died along with everyone else of course. Rimmer finds the ‘positive viruses’ from series five’s Quarantine, which then become overused storytelling shortcuts.
Best gag: The Cat’s heartbeat and pulse form an infectious Cuban-flavoured dance rhythm.

Episode 2: Back in the Red: Part Two (25 February 1999): Put on trial for crimes against the Space Corps, our heroes are surreptitiously given hallucinogenic drugs so the captain can see what they do when the think they’re escaping… It was a chore watching this one. And just when you think it can’t get worse, the climax is more thunderingly awful than Red Dwarf had ever been before. In need of a disguise, Lister, the Cat and Kochanski use mop heads and false teeth to dress up as ‘the Dibbley family’ – yet another reference, of course, to Duane Dibbley from series five. At least some people are enjoying the gag: the studio audience burst into joyous applause and yelps (earlier on, they’d also applauded a long, tedious scene between Hollister and Rimmer). But it then gets even more depressing. When we see the characters in disguise, they walk down a corridor in slow motion to the sound of the George Baker Selection’s Little Green Bag. It’s not even a topical gag: Reservoir Dogs was seven years old by this point. Horrendous.
Observations: Captain Hollister records a log entry, which acts as a recap of last week’s events. Geoffrey Beevers plays a doctor. Robert Llewellyn hams it up something rotten as an AI computer (around this era it often seems like Llewellyn thinks he’s in a show for five-year-olds).
Best gag: Affected by the sexual-magnetism virus Lister has taken, an aroused Kochanski starts snogging him. Then the virus wears off and she comes to her senses. “I don’t know what got into me,” she says. “Well, nothing, sadly,” laments Lister.

Episode 3: Back in the Red: Part Three (4 March 1999): Oh, Christ, it’s still going on. Continuing the hallucinogenic fantasy started last week, the characters think they’re escaping Red Dwarf – but their actions are being observed by the captain… Another terrible episode.
Observations: Two versions of a Red Dwarf flight controller are seen: the fantasy version is played by the gorgeous Yasmin Bannerman; the real version is played by the roly-poly, middle-aged Jeillo Edwards. The Cat does a dance routine for the former, which involves CGI space shuttles copying his moves (incidentally, this is our first sight of Blue Midget since series three). When they exit the drug-induced fantasy, Lister, the Cat, Kryten and Kochanski find themselves as stop-motion plasticine puppets on an icy landscape – I consider myself an averagely intelligent guy and I genuinely have no idea what’s happening in this scene. At the end of the episode, Graham McTavish – later one of the dwarves in the Hobbit movies – debuts as the prison warden Ackerman.
Best gag: The Cat claims to be so gorgeous that “there’s a six-month waiting list for birds to suddenly appear every time I am near.”

Episode 4: Cassandra (11 March 1999): Now serving a two-year stretch in the brig, Lister volunteers the gang for the Canaries, an advance team sent on dangerous salvage missions. On their first trip, they encounter a computer that can predict the future… This episode isn’t especially majestic or anything, but after the previous three-parter it feels like a genuine treat. The hit-rate of gags is much higher, while there’s a story worth following. It has the feel of an episode from, say, series three to five: a sci-fi spoof with lots of comedy. Enjoyable stuff.
Observations: Cassandra is played by Geraldine McEwan. Jake Wood debuts as semi-regular character Kill Crazy, who’s one of the other prisoners. Ackerman appears again.
Best gag: Rimmer’s been told by Cassandra that he’s going to die while having sex with Kochanski. “So let me just repeat what I think you’re saying,” he gleefully replies. “Arnold – that’s me – and Kochanski – that’s the woman, the really attractive one you saw me with earlier – me and her are in bed, giving it rizz…”

Episode 5: Krytie TV (18 March 1999): Kryten is being held in the women’s prison, so male inmates manipulate him into filming his colleagues in the showers… Another not-bad episode. It has a funny subplot about an appeal process that comes with a woofer of a punchline.
Observations: Kill Crazy and Ackerman appear again.
Best gag: Lister tells Kochanski about the live feed from the women’s shower. “I saw the whole thing,” he says. “All three terrible hours of it.”

Episode 6: Pete: Part One (25 March 1999): As punishment for pulling a prank on the warden, the gang have to play a basketball game, then Lister and Rimmer have to peel a lot of potatoes. Meanwhile, the Cat, Kryten and Kochanski find a device that can freeze or speed up time… This feels like a bubble-and-squeak episode, with disparate ideas and scenes mashed together in the hope they’ll make something worthwhile. They don’t. It’s always dangerous to assume motives, but were eyes taken off the ball behind the scenes? Director Ed Bye certainly lets through some pretty sloppily staged moments. It was depressing watching this mess.
Observations: Ackerman appears again. There’s a running joke about Lister and Rimmer being frog-marched into the captain’s office, with the same camera moves each time. Ricky Grover plays a prisoner. The episode ends on a cliffhanger: a dinosaur has been created and is loose on the ship.
Best gag: Lister taps out a long Morse-code message on his cell’s pipes, then gets a reply from a nearby robot; they exchange taps for ages, then Lister says, “Damn… Wrong number.”

Episode 7: Pete: Part Two (1 April 1999): A dinosaur is on the loose, but has swallowed the gizmo that would turn it back into a sparrow, so the gang feed it roughage… This episode is so dreadful it beggars belief. There’s a sketch-like scene with Kochanski and Kryten where his artificial penis has escaped and is running around like a mouse. When it later shows up under the Cat’s T-shirt there’s a half-arsed attempt at spoofing the John Hurt Alien scene. Give me strength.
Observations: There’s a quick recap of the last episode. The running (limping, more like) joke of Lister and Rimmer being taken to see the captain continues. Kill Crazy appears again.
Best gag: Rimmer slags off the captain while Lister drops heavy hints that Hollister is stood behind him. (Yes, the pickings are that slim.)

Episode 8: Only the Good… (5 April 1999): Characters pull pranks on each other, then for tedious and perfunctory sci-fi reasons Rimmer has to go into a ‘mirror universe’… *Ghastly*.
Observations: This was the last episode of Red Dwarf for 10 years, and the final one ever to be shown on BBC2. Tony Slattery voices a vending machine. Danny John-Jules and Chloë Annett play ‘mirror’ equivalents of their characters. The episode ends on a cliffhanger.
Best gag: Kryten has been tricked by Lister into giving Kochanski a tampon as a present. “I hope I chose the right size!”

Best episode: Cassandra. Worst episode: Only The Good….

Alternative versions: The multi-episode stories, Back in the Red and Pete, are available on the DVD as omnibus edits. The first one has a few deleted gags added back in.

Review: Change is good. This show has revelled in ditching formats, switching characters around, and having regular boosts of new energy. For 1999, we’re back to the episodes being recorded with a live audience and having a videotape look. Rimmer is back to how he used to be in the early days. In scenes set in Lister and Rimmer’s cell, we’re back to dialogue-based character comedy… Sadly, though, this is a pretty disastrous set of episodes. There are problems everywhere you look. The show’s defining element, that these characters are stranded in deep space, has been thrown away. The comedy has taken a turn for the childish – lots of slapstick, lots of toilet humour – while Kochanski, Kryten, the Cat and especially Holly all get squeezed out to varying degrees. There are some really dodgy actors in minor roles. The CGI special-effects shots are rubbish. And basing a two-part story on a dinosaur running rampant isn’t the greatest idea in the world when you have a sitcom budget. An even bigger issue is an ugly thread of sexism that weaves through the whole series. Kryten is classified as a woman because he doesn’t have a penis – that’s laughing at someone because they’re different from a perceived ‘norm’, that is. Even in 1999 it felt ancient. Kochanski, a successful space-ship officer, also asks if a time-manipulating device could give her a boob job. (Just generally, Kochanski is a non-entity in this series. Chloë Annett often has nothing to play.) The sexual-magnetism virus is just as bad. The potion is only used by men and it only attracts women… except in one scene set in the prison where the punchline is essentially ‘Bum rape is funny, isn’t it?’ This was the last series for a very long time. It needed a break. If early Red Dwarf episodes showed a youthful exuberance, and the time of, say, series three had the confidence of being in your prime, this is a midlife crisis. A couple of decent episodes aside, series eight is tiresome, boring-uncle-at-a-wedding stuff.

Four bottles of hooch out of 10