Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Aquaman

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having joined Batman, Wonder Woman and others in saving the world, Aquaman is now a famous superhero, but he’d rather live a quiet life. Then a woman from the undersea realm of his ancestors arrives and asks for his help…

Good guys: After a cameo in Batman vs Superman (2016), Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) was properly introduced in 2017’s superhero mash-up movie Justice League. (Was he called Arthur in that film?! Honestly can’t remember.) He’s played again by Jason Momoa, who enjoys highlighting the character’s flippancy, sarcasm and reluctance to be a superhero. All this lightness helps distract you from the fact that, aside from a minor subplot about his mother, Arthur has no journey or emotional resonance in this story at all. He drifts through the film, being reasonably entertaining but rarely trying to achieve or learn anything. The film begins with a 1980s-set prologue showing us how Arthur’s parents – a stranded mermaid-type called Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a laid-back lighthouse-keeper called Thomas (Temuera Morrison) – met, fell in love and had a child. It’s a lightly sketched sequence that isn’t too concerned with nuance or texture. In just a few minutes we race through a mini-episode that’s kinda reminiscent of 80s romcom Splash… if, you know, Splash had contained a 25-second shot showing its heroine beating up an invading force of mermen. The sequence then ends with Atlanna being taken away by some goons, back to her oceanic home of Atlantis… In the present day, Arthur is a grown man (a very grown man; seriously, check out his pecks!) but it seems he would rather forget his stint as a world-saving metahuman in the previous film. Then a hot, redheaded woman from Atlantis called Y’Mera Xebella Challa, mercifully aka Mera, shows up and he’s convinced to leap into superhero action again. She’s played by Amber Heard, who’s actually quite watchable despite bucketfuls of woeful dialogue and a character without much personality. Arthur’s help is needed in Atlantis, where Atlanna’s other son has taken control. He wants to combine the seven underwater kingdoms into one force, be ordained ‘ocean master’, become the commander of the greatest military might on the planet, and wage war on the land-based nations. But because Arthur is of royal blood and is Atlanna’s first-born he can challenge his half-brother to the throne. After Atlantean forces launch attacks on the countries of the world, using tsunami to fling battleships and garbage onto shorelines, Arthur and Mera head down into the depths, where Arthur challenges his brother to a ritualistic combat. The film then goes through several genre-movie clichés: fights and chases, cryptic messages and quests, MacGuffins and globetrotting locations, CGI environments and CGI monsters, a sibling rivalry between two men who have never met before and bullshit backstories explained with a straight face… While all this is going on, we also see flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood, where he was trained in the ways of the Atlanteans by a kind mentor type called Nuidis Vulko (a bored Willem Defoe), who also tells him that his mother was executed after she returned to Atlantis. Vulko is still around in the present-day scenes too.

Bad guys: The initial foe for Arthur is a high-tech pirate called David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who we meet while he’s attempting to steal a nuclear submarine. During the heist, though, Aquaman shows up, bests him, and cruelly refuses to save Kane’s father when he’s trapped under a heavy torpedo in a flooding room. So, now with a grudge against Arthur, Kane skulks off to the guy who’d hired him… who happens to be Arthur’s despotic half-brother, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson, looking so rubbery under the post-production effect of being underwater all the time that he may as well be 100-per-cent CGI). He’s the boss of Atlantis and bobs around his undersea realm in a shiny suit of armour and Aryan hair. ‘The time has come to rise again!’ he says, movie-villain-generically. The culture he wants to dominate is one of those fictional worlds that makes such little sense that you question if *any* thought went into creating it. How can the Atlanteans talk underwater? Why do they speak English? Why do they wear clothes? Why can some people breathe oxygen and others can’t? How have they forged metal underwater? Why has evolution given them arms and legs? And hair? Where does all the light come from at the bottom of the ocean? It’s impossible to take  these scenes seriously. Anyway, Mera’s dad is often by Orm’s side – he’s called Nereus, is played by Dolph Lundgren (no, honestly), and mostly just stands– I mean, swims around saying doomladen things. Later, Kane returns to the story: he suits up in elaborate scuba gear that makes him look like a manta ray, so adopts the superhero-villain name of Black Manta and attempts to get revenge on Aquaman. 

Other guys: There are a host of forgettable characters around the coastline of the story – creatures from other undersea realms who presumably have detailed backstories and personalities that were worked out in story conferences and workshopped in rehearsals but then don’t translate at all into interesting on-screen storytelling. We won’t waste time cataloguing them here.

Best bits:
* Having been taken into Thomas’s home, Atlanna is spooked by a TV playing the title sequence to puppet show Stingray – so she chucks her trident at the screen.
* As a child, Arthur is threatened by some bullies at an aquarium – then they realise the shark in the nearby tank is attempting to smash the glass in order to protect Arthur. All the other life in the tank assembles behind him too, like a gang backing up its leader. (It hardly makes any sense, and the moment – like all moments of drama in this film – is rushed through as quickly as possible, but it’s a decent image.)
* David Kane is a fun bad guy. The sequence that introduces him – as he and his dad storm a submarine – is well shot and works nicely as a character introduction. ‘I’ll do you deal,’ he tells the captured captain of the sub. ‘I won’t tell you how to captain, and you don’t tell me how to pirate.’ There’s sadly then a really awful beat as – right in the middle of taking over a submarine! – Kane’s father decides to pause, give David a family heirloom and impart some parental homilies. It’s almost like he knows he’s not to survive much longer.
* Aquaman shows up! ‘Permission to come aboard,’ he says over his shoulder like he’s in a James Bond film. He then starts beating people up in gleefully cartoony ways.
* Aquaman has a drink in a bar with his dad. A huge, scary, tattooed man aggressively interrupts – ‘Are you that fish boy from the TV?’ – and it seems like a fight will ensue… But the guy just wants a selfie because Aquaman is famous! High-larious.
* The flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood training with Vulko feature an exceedingly irritating child actor giving a wide-eyed performance, but the film actually cuts between the past and the present with a bit of flair.
* It’s quite funny when, in the midst of all the pretentious portent of the Atlantean realm, Arthur is frustrated to learn that he must fight Orm in front of thousands of onlookers. ‘Shit,’ he says to himself.
* Arthur and Mera are in a sportscar-like submersible, being chased by Orm’s henchmen. ‘Heads up, we’ve got a bogey on our six!’ he says. Mera: ‘What does that even mean?!’ Arthur: ‘Bad guys behind us.’ Mera: ‘Well, just say that!’ Arthur, in a high-pitched voice because he’s worried: ‘Bad guys behind us!’ (Momoa and Heard are a pretty good double act. They deserve a much better script.)
* Kane gets an A-Team-style montage as he builds his Black Manta cybersuit, complete with a Depeche Mode song on the soundtrack.
* Needing water to kickstart an ancient hologram machine that they’ve found buried under the Sahara, Mera uses her magical powers to delicately extract a drop of moisture from Arthur’s forehead. ‘Could have just peed on it,’ he later says.
* Hanging out in a picturesque square in Sicily, Mera eats some flowers (because being an ocean-dwelling isolationist means she doesn’t know what they are, I guess).
* Black Manta’s armoured suit looks both cool and ridiculous at the same time.
* Some of the action sequence in Sicily is quite exciting: Mera running across slated rooftops, Manta crashing through walls, that kind of thing. (It’s such an action-movie cliché, though, isn’t it? Characters visit a Mediterranean country? Gotta run across the rooftops! See The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Quantum of Solace, Taken, Skyfall…)
* Mera smashes the facemask of a Atlantean bad guy’s helmet while they fight on dry land. As he can’t breath without the water that’s now drained away, he solves the problem by… plunging his face into a nearby toilet. (Aquaman is basically a kids’ film tarted up with a blockbuster budget.)
* Arthur’s mum is still alive! I did not see that coming when they cast a really famous actress for what seemed quite a small role! She’s been hiding out all alone for several years in an uncharted area of sea near the centre of the planet (I think), so is this film’s equivalent of Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s Michelle Pfeiffer.

Review: One of the most important elements of any film is its tone. Get your tone wrong or a bit off or inconsistent, and you’re sunk. While watching Aquaman – the sixth film in the extremely variable DC Extended Universe series – you start to feel like the filmmakers have approached this issue by attempting 17 different tones all at once. The movie is occasionally so portentously po-faced that you can’t help but giggle (‘You wield our mother’s trident. Powerful, but flawed. Like her. I wield my father’s and it has never known defeat!’). Other times, there’s actually a sweetness and a charm about the characters. Elsewhere, it’s a slapstick comedy, a bombastic action movie or a collection of filler scenes from a computer game. It’s a terrible film. It really is. And it’s not just that it can’t decide on a unified mood; other faults keep piling up too: the dialogue that’s so awful it could have been written by someone who’s never heard human beings speak, the drama scenes done as swiftly and perfunctorily as possible, the self-important characters impossible to find interesting, the fight scenes that lack any impact or consequence, the musical score than hammers home every single point imaginable, the over-reliance on sudden explosions as a way of ramping up the tension, the final third that just becomes white-noise of meaningless action… However… Because the film contains some attempts at humour, and because we get two half-decent actors in the main roles, it is more diverting and slightly more enjoyable than most of the previous movies in the DC series.

Five drumming octopuses out of 10

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I Confess (1953, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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.

Will a priest break his sacred vow when he’s accused of a murder committed by one of his flock?

Filmed in black-and-white, often on real locations in Canada, I Confess has a low-key feel. Lauded at the time of its release by New Wave critics in France, who swooned over its film-noir aesthetic, it now comes off as a bit artificial. This is an undemonstrative film, which lacks the usual Hitchcock X factor.

The incident that ignites the slow-burn plot is the death of a dodgy lawyer called Villette. Soon afterwards, the German immigrant who tends to his garden, Otto Keller, asks to speak to the local Catholic priest. Father Michael Logan takes Keller’s confession and is shaken when the man admits that he’s accidentally killed his employer. Due to the priestly oath of the confessional box, however, Logan cannot reveal this information to anyone. And that becomes a major problem when, due to circumstantial evidence, the police suspect that Logan may be a murderer. He’s eventually put on trial but still refuses to speak, even though it may lead to his conviction…

The priest is played by Montgomery Clift, who gives a decidedly un-Hitchcockian performance. Introverted and quiet, he underplays everything to such a degree that it’s questionable whether it still counts as acting. Clift was a pioneer of the Method school, an acting technique that’s been called the ‘art of experiencing’ (rather than pretending to experience something), and he employed it in Hollywood before the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Clift, you do get a sense of the character’s turmoil. But he mostly remains a distant figure. Compared with the emotional weight on the shoulders of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, and Logan seems bland and unsympathetic. Hitchcock certainly didn’t enjoy working with an actor, who didn’t respond well to direction and required multiple takes. ‘Too obscure,’ was his pithy assessment.

The director also objected to having to use Anne Baxter as Father Logan’s old squeeze, Ruth, who’s now married to a politician and was being blackmailed by Villette. (The backstory of Logan and Ruth’s relationship is revealed in a long, overly romantic flashback – one of the odder sequences in Hitchcock’s canon.) Swedish actress Anita Björk was initially cast in the role but then let go due to a minor scandal, so Baxter was a last-minute, studio-suggested replacement and Hitchcock thought she was miscast. (Perhaps he got on better with Keller actor OE Hasse, who began his career with a small role in the German classic The Last Laugh (1924) – a film that the young Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed being made while working at a studio in Potsdam.)

But whatever the respective merits of the actors, they’re fighting a losing battle in I Confess. All great Hitchcock films are told from specific points of view. In Psycho, for example, we follow Marion Crane; in Dial M for Murder, we spend the bulk of the story with would-be killer Tony Wendice; in Rebecca, the unnamed female lead is our eyes and ears. Movies don’t have to stick to just one character – Psycho, of course, switches perspective after its most famous scene – but I Confess goes too far in the other direction. We flit about all over the place, at various points experiencing the story via Logan, Keller, Keller’s wife, Ruth and Karl Malden’s classily played Inspector Larrue. There’s no fluidity to these switches and therefore we never really empathise with anyone too deeply.

Another issue is the key fact that the movie is built on a theological quandary, which obviously will have differing levels of resonance for different viewers. Hitchcock himself summed up the issue when he said, ‘We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists and the agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”’ Perhaps. However, the script and its treatment seem to *assume* the viewer will care about Logan’s plight, rather than justifying it. After all, stripped of its religious implications, this is a story of man protecting a selfish killer.

The plot then concludes with a tacked-on chase scene and a convenient climax as Keller’s guilt is revealed. But the resolution lacks any punch or grace. At least lessons were learnt: almost every aspect of the movie – the noir-ist photography, the vérité locations, a decent man being accused of a crime and reacting stoically, the stroke-of-fate ending – would be repeated by Hitchcock three years later, in the much more interesting, entertaining and powerful The Wrong Man.

Five men walking down the street out of 10

Easy Virtue (1928, Alfred Hitchcock)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

The Paradine Case (1947)

Poster - Paradine Case, The_02

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a barrister takes on the case of a woman accused of killing her husband, he begins to fall for her – will it compromise her chances of acquittal?

The rumour is that Hitchcock only made this film to fulfil his contract with famed Hollywood producer David O Selznick, the man who’d first brought him to America. The partnership had produced at least one classic of cinema – 1946’s Notorious – but Hitch was feeling hidebound and wanted free of a producer who was all-too-keen to put his own stamp on each film. (Selznick’s name is egotistically all over The Paradine Case’s credits, even going as far as introducing two of the actors as ‘new Selznick Stars’.) Leading man Gregory Peck later said that Hitch had seemed bored with the material, and that’s not hard to believe. It’s one of his most flatly orthodox movies.

London, 1946. A wealthy widow called Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, who’s lit like a movie star but has little of the sparkle) is arrested for the murder of her husband, an older, blind man. She’s a frosty, calm, reserved woman, but when hotshot barrister Tony Keane (Peck) is hired to represent her, he can’t help falling under her spell. This causes tensions in his marriage, with wife Gay (Ann Todd) feeling increasingly sidelined and ignored…

A big problem is that neither the script nor the performances ever convince you why Tony is so infatuated with Mrs Paradine. Peck is fine enough as the blinkered barrister, but Italian actress Alida Valli – credited as simply Valli as a marketing gimmick – is too cold, too aloof, too drab to generate much interest as the defendant. (Hitch had wanted to cast Greta Garbo, but she turned it down. Hedy Lamarr and Notorious’s Ingrid Bergman were also considered.) It’s also – it must be said – a rather boring, two-suspect case. Mrs P is accused of poisoning her husband, perhaps as an act of mercy because he was unhappy with being blind. The only other person who could’ve done it is the man’s valet, a French Canadian called André Latour. Given that Tony is desperate to prove his client’s innocence, he travels to the Paradines’ Cumberland holt to meet Latour (future Bond villain and future Dracula Louis Jourdan, all brooding and intense). The valet acts suspiciously and evasively, then snaps and tells Tony that Mrs Paradine is evil.

Then, after an hour, we enter the courtroom section of the movie. We’re in the Old Bailey – still bomb-damaged after the war – so it’s a world of wigs and gowns and people sitting in place, rather than suited American lawyers Perry Mason-ing all over the place. A haughty Charles Laughton is the judge; Hitchcock regular Leo G Carroll is the prosecution lawyer. Gay Keane sits in the gallery with a friend helpfully spelling out what each story beat means. But despite Mrs P being the accused, Tony has by now gone overboard in love with her, so the scenes play more like *Latour* is on trial. Tony harangues him in the witness box, to such a degree that during a recess in the trial Latour kills himself with shame.

Courtroom stories always have built-in drama; they’re difficult things to make boring. And The Paradine Case has its fair share of legalese, barristers’ objections, semantic bickering, shock reveals and the judge intervening. But the earlier sections of the film haven’t set up the second half well enough. So when the news of Latour’s death hits Mrs Paradine hard, and she admits that she’s guilty, and that Latour was her lover, and that she hates Tony for what he’s done, it has nowhere near the punch it should have.

Five men carrying a cello out of 10

Blake’s 7: Animals (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Dayna attempts to recruit her old mentor to the gang’s cause, but Commissioner Sleer gets wind of the plan…

Series D, episode 5. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 26 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (18) hopes Dayna’s old friend Justin, who he calls a ‘mad scientist’, will be worth the trouble. The Scorpio has come to the planet Bucol-2 so Dayna can visit him, but once she’s teleported down Tarrant is menaced by some Federation pursuit ships. With Scorpio damaged in the encounter, he has no choice but to leave Dayna behind and head back to base…
* Dayna (18) hasn’t seen Justin for a long time and hopes he remembers her; he was a friend of her father’s, who used to visit their home to mentor Dayna. On the surface of Bucol-2, she’s stalked by strange creatures – humanoid animals with fur and large horns. Thankfully Justin then appears and they retreat to the safety of his lab. He reveals that the creatures are the result of his Federation-funded experiments in merging humans and animals into troops who are immune to radiation. When he tried brain implants, they rebelled and escaped. Dayna is disgusted but still asks Justin to join her anti-Federation group. Later, she goes outside to try to reason with the lead animal, Og. But he bashes her on the head and she falls down a ravine… and then is found by Servalan’s soldiers, who have just arrived on the planet. Servalan brainwashes Dayna into thinking she hates Justin, so she’ll lead Servalan to him. Later, though, Dayna manages to escape when Justin sacrifices his life for her – leaving her distraught.
* Slave (5) and Orac (27) get some functional dialogue.
* Upon hearing that the Scorpio is damaged, Avon (43) orders Tarrant home. The repairs take a long time, but eventually Avon, Tarrant and Soolin are able to head to Bucol-2 to look for Dayna.
* Servalan (23) – who’s still going by her new identity, Commissioner Sleer – learns that some pursuit ships had an encounter with a super-fast planet-hopper near Bucol-2, and her interest in both the ship and the planet is piqued. After some investigation, she learns about Justin and his experiments, so journeys to Bucol-2, captures Dayna and forces her to help find Justin.
* Soolin (5) flashes a cheeky smirk when Vila (44) is forced to crawl into Scorpio’s gloopy, mucky innards to fix a fault.

Best bit: Idiosyncratic character actor Kevin Stoney drops in for a single scene as a decript, blind old man who Servalan interrogates about Justin. He realises who ‘Sleer’ really is, but then has to smartly backtrack when she makes it clear what will happen to him if he reveals the information.

Worst bit: Does Servalan’s new persona make any sense at all? Isn’t it like Vladimir Putin showing up with a moustache and expecting no one to recognise him?

Review: At least it’s a Dayna-centric episode, which is a nice change. (The storyline was planned for Cally but then the actress quit the series.) There is also some fun season continuity going on: the Sleer storyline and the pacification drug were set up in Traitor, the Scorpio’s new engine in Stardrive. But this is a script with very little panache and quite a lot of leaden dialogue. Meanwhile, the design of the animals themselves – more like Muppets than a menacing threat – really makes it difficult to take things seriously.

Five inertial-guidance glycolene ballast channels out of 10

Next episode: Headhunter

Blake’s 7: Power (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Stranded on Xenon, the gang try to gain access to the spaceship Scorpio, but also encounter two warring factions of locals…

Series D, episode 2. Written by: Ben Steed. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 5 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (41) is under pressure from his colleagues to crack open the door that leads to the Scorpio, the team’s only escape off the planet Xenon. When working on the problem alone, though, he’s surprised to see a woman has somehow entered the base. Pella (Juliet Hammond-Hill from Secret Army) is a local who reveals that the base will blow up if Dorian – a character who inconveniently died in the previous episode – doesn’t reset the security codes.
* Tarrant (15) goes outside with Dayna to look for a missing Avon. Without success. He then tries to work out how Pella entered and left the locked base. Without success.
* Dayna (15) reckons the gang’s food supplies will only last three weeks, so they must have access to the Scorpio. Later, while outside, she and Tarrant are captured by a tribe of local men called Hommicks. (They’re yet another example of Blake’s 7’s obsession with medieval-like natives, though these ones at least know about technology.) Plucky Dayna challenges chieftain Gunn Sar (Dicken Ashworth, playing him working class and northern) to a fight and managed to beat him… with some help from a watching Pella, who has telekinetic powers.
* At the start of the episode, Avon (40) is scouting the local area when he’s attacked and captured by the Hommicks. Gunn Sar tells Avon that he’s killed 26 challengers in ritualistic combat, but an aide corrects him: it’s 25 confirmed kills and one gone missing after he fell off a cliff. After a tiff, Avon challenges him to a fight. Avon has the upper hand, but then one of Gunn Sar’s underlings bashes him on the head. (Referee!) Avon is put in a cell with Pella, who has also been captured and she explains some context for what’s going on: her female friends from the Seska tribe are captured by the male Hommicks, operated on, and then must provide children. (The boys are kept, the girls discarded.) It’s later revealed that Pella has been plotting to get access to the Scorpio for her own ends. When she uses her telekinesis skills to get inside the ship, Avon follows via a new teleport system Orac has been working on… and shoots Pella dead.
* Orac (24) declines to help Tarrant with the puzzle of how Pella got into and out of the base, then later tells him the base will explode in three hours and 24 minutes unless they get to the override switch – which is behind a locked door.
* Slave (2) has some lines when Avon teleports aboard the Scorpio.
* Soolin (2) appears on the scene at the very last minute and asks to join the crew. Where the chuff has she been all episode?!

Best bit: This dramatic composition.

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Worst bit: The two fights we see – Avon and Gunn Sar, Dayna and Gunn Sar – are slow, cumbersome and decidedly unthreatening.

Review: The conflict between Gunn Sar’s all-male Hommicks and Pella’s all-female Seska is a war of the sexes. Is this a searing satire of gender politics, or just an excuse for some more misogyny dressed up as entertainment? Well, perhaps the answer comes in a scene where Avon uses his alpha-male virility to push Pella onto the floor. ‘However you use [your strength], a man’s will always be greater,’ he says. ‘Unfair perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.’ He then kisses her. Times change, of course, and judging previous eras by today’s standards can be troubling. But it’s fair to say that Power has not dated very well. (Elsewhere, in another jarring moment, Dayna is referred to ‘the black woman’ when there’s only one woman the speaker could mean.) There’s also a muddled plot and plenty of hammy staging. It’s a slog to sit through generally.

Five ordinary, domestic heliofusion rods out of 10

Next episode: Traitor

Elstree Calling (1930)

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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.

This rough-and-ready revue film was made at Elstree Studios (‘The most marvello studio in Europe-o,’ says compere Tommy Handley) as a British reply to the lavish, all-star examples then in vogue in Hollywood. It was directed by André Charlot, Jack Hulbert, Paul Murray and – thankfully for our purposes here – Alfred Hitchcock.

The bulk of the film is presented as if you’re watching a live television broadcast made up of sketches and performances, all linked together by Handley (who still had a few years to go before his hit BBC radio series It’s That Man Again). Hitch was responsible for some bonus scenes: a rather silly running gag about people whose TV set isn’t working, which was at least topical given that television was an excitingly new medium at the time.

The format sees a parade of musicians, comedians, dancers (including a blackface trio) and magicians, then the climax is an elaborate and chaotic spoof scene from Taming of the Shrew, with superstar actress Anna May Wong throwing custard pies around for not immediately obvious reasons. One of the more interesting aspects of this black-and-white movie is that some of the dance numbers have been given primitive, yellow-heavy colour in post-production via the Pathécolor process.

Along the way, we get lots of precious footage of bygone stars – music-hall star Will Fyffe, actress Cicely Courtneidge, percussionist Teddy Brown – but most of the segments drag tediously and many have dated badly. At least the film never takes itself too seriously.

Five xylophones out of 10

Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)

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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.

After a couple realise they’re marriage isn’t legal, they go their separate ways, but find it hard to let go…

Hitchcock later claimed he only took on this project as a favour to its leading actress, Carole Lombard. She was one of the biggest – and most highly paid – stars of the age. Hitch was a fan and had wanted to make a serious film with her, but after a short sabbatical she was keen on a return to the genre that had made her name: screwball comedy. (Tragically, it was one of her last films: Lombard was killed in a plane crash just a year after Mr & Mrs Smith was released.)

The pair had a relationship of mutual respect and affection. He allowed her to direct his ubiquitous cameo and she delighted in making him do multiple retakes; she also poked fun at his comment that ‘actors are cattle’ but arranging to have three heifers brought into the studio with actors’ names on their hides. However, this behind-the-scenes fun doesn’t translate onto the screen. The movie Hitchcock and Lombard made together feels very much like something produced by an assembly line. It lacks zip and punch and too many sequences fall flat.

Married couple Ann (Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery) make up after a three-day row, though in the name of full disclosure he admits that, if given his time again, he wouldn’t have got married. He loves her and wants to be with her, but can’t resist admitting that he regrets getting tied down. Then a man shows up at David’s office (played by Charles Halton, the bank inspector from It’s a Wonderful Life) and reveals some shock news. Due to boundary changes in Idaho, David and Ann’s marriage is not legal. The man coincidentally knows Ann from her childhood so then, without David’s knowledge, seeks her out and tells her the same news.

So later that night, as the couple go to an old haunt for dinner – which is owned by William Edmunds, another It’s a Wonderful Life alumnus – there’s tension in the air. Ann has assumed David will tell her the news then suggest they make their common-law marriage legal by ‘remarrying’. But she gets increasingly frustrated as he plays dumb and doesn’t mention the development.

Finally she snaps and explodes into a rage (the momentary increase in energy is a rare instance of the movie coming alive). She throws him out, their relationship over. In a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, though, David then gets jealous of Anne moving on with her life. He eventually tails her as she goes on a wintery holiday with new boyfriend Jeff (Gene Raymond) and – wouldn’t you just know it? – the movie ends with the pair reconciling.

At the time this film was made, there was a real vogue in Hollywood for screwball comedies: light-hearted romcoms with rat-a-tat dialogue, sharply written romances and a battle of the sexes where the female character is at least the equal of the male. In 1934, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night had become the first film to win all five major Oscars; in the three years before Mr & Mrs Smith, Howard Hawks had directed two of the very best examples – Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), both starring future Hitchcock regular Cary Grant. Sadly, judged in that company, Mr & Mrs Smith seems staggeringly slow and ploddingly predictable. Lombard and Montgomery are far from awful, but you can’t help but imagine snappier dialogue and pacier scenes and other, better actors in the roles. Hitchcock had wanted Cary Grant for the part of David – no wonder.

Five men walking past in the street out of 10

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A widower searches for a new wife…

In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock gave an interview to Peter Bogdanovich, then a film critic and later a movie director himself. Hitch talked about his career so far, giving fascinating comments and opinions on every film he’d made. When asked about The Farmer’s Wife, though, he was noticeably sparse, saying just that it was ‘merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.’

He wasn’t wrong. The film has sweetness and a few interesting techniques on show, but it’s mostly a soppy, conventional and not very memorable melodrama about a widower looking for love when it’s under his nose all along. So let’s use the space to discuss something else. Where did Alfred Hitchcock get his ideas?

The stage play that this film is based on, also called The Farmer’s Wife, was written by Eden Phillpotts. Born in India in 1862, Phillpotts had worked as an insurance officer before turning to a writing career that produced numerous novels, plays, short stories and poems. He became a friend and supporter of Agatha Christie and lived to be 98. (After his death, his daughter Adelaide – herself a successful writer – revealed that he had sexually abused her for about 30 years.)

In 1913, Phillpotts published a novel called Widecombe Fair and then three years later adapted it for the stage. Renamed The Farmer’s Wife, it was first performed in Birmingham. Between 1924 and 1927, the play was a smash hit in London with over 1,300 performances at the Royal Court Theatre. So it was prime material for a film company to snap up the rights and produce a movie version. This was a standard practise in the British film industry, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that basing films on pre-existing material would continue to be Alfred Hitchcock’s modus operandi for the rest of his career.

As the years went by, there were movies inspired by real-life events – Foreign Correspondent (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Wrong Man (1956) – and a few that were original ideas thought up by or for Alfred Hitchcock. But almost all of his 54 full-length movies have plots taken from other sources.

Early on, he often looked to the theatre. Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Blackmail (1929), Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931) and Number Seventeen (1932) are all based on plays, while Waltzes from Vienna (1934) is an adaptation of a stage musical. Hitch then rather fell out of this habit, with only two more examples of him turning theatre shows into films: Rope (1948) and I Confess (1953). (You might also include Dial M for Murder (1954). Although it began as television play, it was the later stage adaptation that caught Hitch’s attention.)

More popular with the director were novels or short stories. Over half of Hitchcock’s output used prose as a starting-off point – take a deep breath if you’re reading this out loud: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), Rich and Strange (1931), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). You could also argue for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) being on this list. Its plot was taken, rather loosely and with no formal acknowledgement, from a Bulldog Drummond story. (The 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, of course, is essentially a remake of the earlier movie.)

Of course, Hitchcock’s genius was to take all these sources – melodramas, romances and thrillers; high literature and potboilers – and give them his own spin. In some cases, the adaptation is very liberal. The longer Hitchcock’s career went on, the more you get a sense that being entertaining is more important than being faithful to the original text. Perhaps that’s the problem with The Farmer’s Wife: it comes too early in the filmography, at a time when Hitch wasn’t bold enough to do something daring. Phillpotts’s play is too orthodox, too predictable, too safe, too cosy. And so is the movie.

Five steam rollers for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman out of 10

Blake’s 7: The Keeper (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew head for the planet Goth, looking for information that will lead to the secretive Star One base. But Travis and Servalan have beaten them there…

Series B, episode 12. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Derek Martinus. Originally broadcast: 27 March 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (25) accompanies Blake and Jenna on a mission to Goth, a planet with a thick, toxic atmosphere and medieval-level people living underground. He and Jenna are soon captured by the locals and taken to see the chief, who’s a bombastic, arrogant man called Gola. Vila uses close-hand magic tricks to appease Gola’s aggression, but this enrages the official court Fool. (Demarcation! Everyone out!)
* Blake (25) has come to Goth to find out what happened to former Federation surgeon Lurgen, a man who knew the location of the all-important Star One installation. His digital ‘brain print’ – or maybe his actual brain – is now in the possession of someone called the Keeper. But Blake doesn’t know who that is. On Goth, Blake’s friends are captured by the natives then he bumps into the chief’s brother, Ron. With Ron’s help, Blake gains access to the chief’s tent but eventually discovers that the Keeper is not the chief, nor Ron, nor their soothsayer sister… It’s their dad, a decrepit old man Blake had earlier seen in some cells. In the meantime, the brain-print has been stolen by Travis. But – and how’s this for a spot of luck? – the chief’s Fool also knows the location of Star One.
* Avon (24) points out that, instead of destroying Star One, the Liberator crew could take it over and run it themselves. Blake says something about power corrupting. Avon then stays on the ship while Blake, Jenna and Vila are on Goth. On two separate occasions he sees Federation ships nearby – he destroys the first, assuming Travis is on board, then assumes Servalan is on the second. Er, Avon… What’s that saying about never assuming things?
* Jenna (25) reminds Blake (and us) that Travis will be looking for the brain-print too. Down on Goth, she’s caught and tied up by the locals. But then Gola takes a shine to her (in that way that primitive, tribal chieftains always do in stories when they meet an attractive blonde woman), so installs her as his consort. He also wants to ‘pair bond’ with her to produce a son. Jenna plays along as a chance to search for the brain-print and soon realises that both Gola and his sister are wearing amulets that could contain the information.
* It’s not a great week for dogsbody Cally (22). She operates the teleport, pilots the Liberator, fetches Blake a glass of water, defers to Avon…
* Zen (21) reports that some Federation pursuit ships are nearby. That’s all he seems to do some episodes.
* Travis (12) wasn’t on the ship that Avon attacked – he had stayed down on the planet, having arrived before the Liberator. Like the others, he’s searching for Lurgen’s brain-print. But then he vanishes from the story after just a couple of scenes. We later learn he found the print and scarpered.
* Servalan (11) is *also* on Goth, though spends most of her time lazing around eating grapes. She and Travis have reached an uneasy truce, then Travis pitches a new idea: why don’t they seize control of Star One and command the galaxy together? He next borrows her ship so he can send a message to the Federation. At least, that’s what he tells Servalan…

Best bit: The first and last scenes of the episode are both nicely directed in single, uninterrupted takes. We start with an 88-second shot featuring all five members of the Liberator crew moving choreographically in and out of frame as they discuss the plot. Then the episode concludes with a simpler but still effective 16-second shot as the same characters return to the flight deck and set course for Star One…

Worst bit: The OTT, panto performance from Bruce Purchase as Gola.

Review: Notwithstanding the fun shots mentioned in ‘Best bit’ above, The Keeper is a badly staged episode of television. At several points, important pieces of storytelling are fumbled. For example, we’re seemingly shown Travis being destroyed… but then there he is in a later scene, with no comment or focus or attention. Similarly, Jenna’s realisation that Servalan is on Goth – a rather big piece of information – is simply skipped over. Less vitally, there are also scene transitions that break the ‘law of re-entry’, the theatrical convention that says a character can’t appear in consecutive scenes without some time ‘off stage’. The script is no masterpiece, admittedly, but it’s not being given a chance. In its favour, the episode is a rare chance for Jenna to drive some plot and it’s also another example of how well Blake’s 7’s serial format works.

Five torches (I don’t like the dark!) out of 10

Next episode: Star One