The Predator (2018, Shane Black)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an alien crashes to earth, the authorities want to capture it for investigation – but then another alien creature arrives, hunting the first one…

The cast: Our lead is a rather underwhelming action hero. We’re told that army sniper Quinn McKenna (played by Logan bad guy Boyd Holbrook) has PTSD, but he generally seems unaffected and has no problem killing and running into danger and quipping like it’s the 1980s. After a surprise jungle encounter with an alien recently crashed on earth, Quinn is interrogated by his superiors then shuffled out of the way so he won’t blab. But he’s already posted some key alien tech to his family back home (as you do). His estranged wife is a nothing part played by Yvonne Strahovski, and they have a young, bullied, meek but very clever son called Rory (Jacob Tremblay); the latter accidentally ends up with a predator mask and uses it as a Halloween disguise. When it becomes clear that aliens have landed on earth again, the government calls in evolutionary biologist Dr Casey Becket (Olivia Munn), who has a look at a captured predator and realises its significance, but then must go on the run with Quinn and others when it escapes and goes on a rampage. In a less sexist world, Becket would be this film’s central character – she’s smart, sexy, sassy in the usual Olivia Munn style, and even goes all Sarah Connor when the plot requires. (Why a university professor is so proficient with machine guns and high-octane combat is not addressed in the finished film. A sequence showing her out jogging, which maybe would have implied her physical aptitude, was famously cut out after Munn learned that the other actor in the scene was a registered sex offender.) As the story develops, Quinn and Becket hook up with a group of prisoners being transferred by the army; all have psychological problems as a result of their service, and they’re one of the highlights of the film. Gaylord ‘Nebraska’ Williams (Trevante Rhodes) is a cool, laidback ex-Marine and the de facto leader of the team; Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key) is a course joker and another Marine vet; Baxley (Thomas Jane) has Tourette’s and, we eventually learn, is in a relationship with Coyle; Lynch (Alfie Allen) is a quiet Irishman who doesn’t make much impression on the film at all; and the sweet Jesus look-a-like Nettles (Augusto Aguilera) is a former chopper pilot who suffered a head injury in a crash. The collective are, for long stretches, being hunted by a human as well as the predator: Sterling K Brown’s constantly chewing Will Traeger, who runs the Stargazer Project, the secretive organisation that investigate aliens incursions. He’s a bit of a cartoon villain.

The best bit: Thirty-eight minutes into the film, Quinn, Nebraska, Coyle, Baxley and Nettles have escaped the army base, evaded the predator, and are holed up in a motel room. They’ve saved Becket from being killed for what she knows about the alien, but she’s out cold on the bed. What follows is a highly comedic scene. We see the guys nervous about how to wake Becket up; she then regains consciousness and immediately reaches for a discarded shotgun; and the guys howl with laughter because they’ve placed bets on how she’d react. The plot is discussed and moved forward, character detail is revealed for several people, and there are many genuine laughs. If only the whole film was as good as this.

Crossover: A weapon from Alien vs Predator is glimpsed in the lab sequence, and we get many subtle nods or explicit references to the first two Predator movies. (As it’s set on another planet, 2010’s Predators isn’t mentioned.) One of the most grin-inducing is the appearance of a scientist called Sean Keyes (the son of Predator 2‘s Peter Keyes) played by Jake Busey (the son of Gary Busey, who played Peter).

Review: Writer/director Shane Black has made so many wonderful films over the last 30 years that there were understandably high hopes for this relaunch of the Predator brand. His style of witty, cynical, pulling-the-rug-from-under-you storytelling works so well in an action-movie or thriller context, whether it’s in Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scount or Iron Man 3. He also had a pre-existing connection to the series: he played a small role in the 1987 original, cast essentially so he could be on set to do some dialogue punch-ups. However, we didn’t really get the film we were expecting… Things take quite a while to get going, for example. The opening third of the movie feels by-the-numbers – there’s little humour, little charm, and none of the Shane Black sparkle and fizz. It gets better, though, once Quinn hooks up with Casey and the ragbag group of prisoners, most of whom are distinctive, memorable and oddly likeable. The gag rate rises appreciably, the pace also picks up, and you even start to enjoy the movie’s weirdly flippant tone. All this helps distract from the unimaginative storyline, the hollow father/son subplot and some distastefully callous humour such as when Quinn murders someone in front of young Rory and then makes a joke about it. Fun at times but too often unsatisfying.

Six alien Whoopi Goldbergs out of 10

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Son of Dracula (1943, Robert Siodmak)

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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: Contemporary America.

Faithful to the novel? This is the third movie in Universal Pictures’ Dracula series, following the Bela Lugosi original and its 1936 sequel. So we’re a way past the plot of Bram Stoker’s book (which actually exists in this story). The enigmatic foreigner Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr) has been wooing an American heiress called Kay (Louise Allbritton) and arrives at her New Orleans plantation just before her father dies. Suspicion obviously falls on the mysterious visitor, with Kay’s sister (Evelyn Ankers) and local doctor Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) especially keen to work out what happened. (Brewster had already clocked the oddity that Alucard’s name spelt backwards reads Dracula. The film presents conflicting evidence on whether the character is meant to be the Dracula from the original film resurrected or – as the title suggests – his descendant.) Before they can crack the case, however, Alucard marries Kay and takes over as master of the plantation. Then, in a rage, her ex-boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) attempts to shoot Alucard but accidentally hits Kay – and seemingly kills her. When she later turns up, we realise that she’s been turned into a vampire…

Best performance: When Universal first put a Dracula movie into production, horror icon Lon Chaney was their first choice to play the vampire. However, he died of cancer in August 1930 and Bela Lugosi was cast in his place. Now, Chaney’s son – who was then well known as The Wolf Man in another Universal series – takes over the role. Sadly it’s a pretty neutral performance, lacking either menace or romance. He wears a cape but doesn’t attempt an eastern European accent. Much better is Frank Craven as Dr Brewster. He’s the story’s Van Helsing equivalent, the man who takes up the challenge of investigating and defeating the vampire threat. As he doesn’t have Van Helsing’s prior knowledge of the undead, he calls in a Transylvanian called Professor Lazlo (J Edward Bromberg) to provide the plot exposition.

Best bit: There are several instances of Dracula or Kay morphing into or from the form of a bat or a cloud of smoke. The special effects are very impressive.

Review: The functional direction and under-rehearsed performances are a shame, as the story has the potential for Gothic grandeur. A mysterious outsider enthralling a vulnerable young woman and taking over her family’s rambling estate could be straight out of a Victorian melodrama. But rather than tension or drama, most of the movie’s atmosphere comes from Hans J Salter’s stirring incidental music. In the film’s favour, a nice twist comes when we learn that, rather than a meek, naïve victim, Kay has been manipulating Alucard. She pretended to fall under his spell so he would turn her and grant her immortality, then her plan was to dispose of the Count and live forever with her true love, Frank.

Six earthbound spirits whose bodies comes to life at night and scour the countryside, satisfying a ravenous appetite for the blood of the living out of 10

Scooby-Doo! and the Reluctant Werewolf (1988, Ray Patterson)

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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: Modern-day America, then Castle Dracula and its surroundings in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? Nah, course not. The character of Scooby-Doo – a semi-anthropomorphised Great Dane – was created for American kids’ TV in the late 1960s. Initially conceived as a sidekick for a human gang of amateur crime-solvers who investigated spooky goings-on, he became the star of the 1969/70 animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and then appeared in a plethora of further series, one-offs, direct-to-video specials and live-action movies. This special was produced in 1988. As usual, Scooby (voiced by Don Messick) is hanging out with his owner/old buddy/old friend/old pal Shaggy (Casey Kasem), a stoned slacker who never seems in total command of his surroundings. The pair are accompanied by Scrappy-Doo (also Messick), Scooby’s puppy nephew who had been added to the format in 1979 but proved controversial so tended not to be used after this special. (The other famous members of the gang – Fred, Daphne and Velma – aren’t involved.) In his spooky, Gothic castle in Transylvania, Count Dracula needs a werewolf to take part in a motor race where all the drivers are monsters. Voiced by Hamilton Camp, Dracula is green-skinned like a corpse, has a Bela Lugosi accent and a cape, and can transform into a bat. Sunblock 500 also means he can be out in the daylight. Luckily, a prophecy has predicted that a man in America – who we recognise as Shaggy – is about to be transformed into a werewolf so the Count order two sidekicks called Brunch and Crunch to kidnap him. Meanwhile, Shaggy and Scooby are competing in a car race of their own; they’re cheered on by Shaggy’s ‘adoring but liberated’ girlfriend, Googie (BJ Ward), who’s then on a date with him when that night’s moonshine ‘turns’ him. Eventually, after Brunch and Crunch have nabbed the trio and taken them to Castle Dracula, Shaggy is convinced to take part in the Monster Rally, racing against various other monsters. However, Dracula wants him to lose, so starts to sabotage his attempt…

Best performance: As well as Dracula, there are some other stereotypical monsters involved in the story – Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, Swamp Thing, some witches, a skeleton called Mr Bonejangles, a Mummy, a version of Jekyll/Hyde. But the most entertaining character is Brunch, a hunchbacked dwarf who wears a monocle, has a thin moustache and speaks like David Niven. He’s voiced entertainingly by Rob Paulsen.

Best bit: Dracula’s sexy assistant, Vanna Pira (Pat Musick), acts like a game-show dollybird when she talks about the prizes available to the Monster Rally drivers.

Review: Draculas – whether the actual Count, his relatives, or people using his image as a disguise – have cropped up a lot in Scooby-Doo stories over the years. A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts – the 11th episode of original series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? – saw the regular characters visit a spooky castle and encounter the famous vampire (or so they think). Later, in an episode of The New Scooby and Scrappy Doo Show (1983) called Who’s Minding the Monster?, Scooby and his pals are hired to babysit the Dracula family’s children in Frankenstein Castle. The following year, A Halloween Hassle at Dracula’s Castle – the eighth episode of The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries (1984) – has the gang invited to a party hosted by monsters who need help because they’re being haunted (or so they think) by the ghost of Dr Van Helsing. Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School is a 1988 TV movie that sees Scooby, Shaggy and Scrappy work at a school for the children of various monsters, including Dracula. An episode of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1988-91) called Dog Gone Scooby features a cameo from the Count. And Music of the Vampire, a 2012 direct-to-video film, is set at a vampire museum run by a guy called Vincent van Helsing (as well as having another character called Bram). So The Reluctant Werewolf is not doing anything stonkingly original. It’s a very silly and very throwaway animation that, while passable fun, sadly outstays its welcome. A very thin story is stretched out to 90 minutes, and the Wacky Races-style Monster Rally really does seem like it’s never going to end. But there are some funny moments along the way.

Six bat burgers (a little undercooked) out of 10

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Scott Lang is under house arrest, but must leap into action when old pals Hank and Hope need help finding a long-lost loved one…

By the mid 1980s, Christopher Reeve had played Superman in three successful movies. For the fourth instalment, he was given an opportunity to develop the story himself and he hit upon the idea of Superman tackling the world’s growing proliferation of nuclear weapons. He then went to Tom Mankiewicz, the writer of the first two films, for some advice… and Mankiewicz told him to avoid the issue like it were Kryptonite. If Superman can solve the Cold War, he argued, then surely he can do anything. As a story idea, it just opened up too many cans of worms. Why doesn’t the Man of Steel cure cancer, then? Why doesn’t he solve world hunger? Why doesn’t he stop every rapist?

In the event, the advice was ignored – and we ended up with the rotten Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. But Mankiewicz had a point. Superheroes are not real. They don’t fit well into the real world. Superhero films need to construct a context for their stories – one where, for example, it’s plausible that an all-powerful character such as Superman could have obstacles to overcome. But in Ant-Man and the Wasp, the desire to have some fun results in a film where you constantly ask, ‘If they can do *that*, why don’t they just…?’

It’s been a couple of years since we last checked in with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the ex-con who became the miniaturising superhero Ant-Man in his debut film. He’s under house arrest after an unauthorised sojourn to Germany in Captain America: Civil War, but is having fun visits from his young daughter and is also setting up a security business with his pals. Meanwhile, his old cohorts Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are attempting to develop technology that will allow them to locate Hope’s mother, Janet. She was lost in the quantum realm when she shrank down dangerously small 30 years earlier. Oh, and Hope has become a superhero herself: she has her own miniaturising suit – complete with wings and blasters – and is known as the Wasp. (She’s therefore the first woman mentioned specifically in the title of an MCU movie. It’s taken 20 films.)

Hank and Hope’s quest means doing a shady deal with a rent-a-complication bad guy called Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins). They need to acquire some vital equipment for their Death Star-like quantum tunnel – a device that will shrink them small enough to find the infinitesimally small Janet. And here’s just one instance of ‘Why don’t they just…?’ Hope can reduce herself to the size of a wasp. She has a gizmo that means she can change the size of other things too – cars, salt cellars, entire buildings and all their contents – so where is the suspense meant to be when Burch reneges on the deal? Can’t she just buzz in, shrink the equipment and buzz off without anyone knowing?

Anyway, when the deal goes south, a fight breaks out – and Hope and Burch’s goons are not the only ones involved. A mysterious character referred to as Ghost shows up and is determined to claim the equipment for herself. (Ghost is patently a woman, though at first Hope and Hank assume she’s a man for some reason.) Covered in a mushroom-grey bodysuit that brings to mind tardigrades, bizarre micro-animals that grow to just half a millimetre in size, she steals the MacGuffin and legs it. We then learn that she’s Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen), a young woman who – due to an scientific accident when she was a child – is constantly phasing in and out of reality. She’s being helped by an old pal of her father’s, Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne, previously Perry White in the rival DC series of movies).

With the pieces now in place, the ‘plot’ becomes a succession of chase sequences as various characters attempt to gain control of Hank’s lab, which has been shrunk down to the size of suitcase. Some of them are fun, such as a comedic sequence at a school that sees Scott inconveniently stuck at either half or twice his normal size. (After her time in the Hobbit films, Evangeline Lilly has form for playing opposite actors being artificially sized up or down by CGI. The film also wisely ignores any fetish subtext of her appearing half the size of Paul Rudd.) But there are a large number of plot holes, which become more and more difficult to ignore.

The biggest comes when Hank, Hope and Scott manage to send Hank down into the quantum realm and he finally locates his long-lost wife. Janet is played by silver vixen Michelle Pfeiffer, but no attempt is made to explain how she’s survived in a desolate micro-world for 30 years. What has she been eating? Drinking? Using for moisturiser? Why hasn’t she gone insane after three decades with no human contact or external stimuli? Perhaps, having been Catwoman in a different superhero series, she’s got more than one life to play with.

Another disappointment is the drearily orthodox filmmaking. Maybe this is like criticising a four-door family salon for not being a sportscar, but Ant-Man and the Wasp is very bland cinema. Scene after scene plays out in boring medium shots and over-the-shoulder cutting. There’s no distinction or panache to anything, no visual storytelling (which is even more of a shame when you notice that the cinematographer is Dante Spinotti, who shot Heat and LA Confidential). All the movement, drama and emphasis comes from the never-ending editing. It’s by no means unique to this film, it must be said: it’s the MCU house style.

But despite these problems, this is still a zippy, enjoyable – if disposable – couple of hours. Paul Rudd is charming, funny and likeable. Evangeline Lilly is excellent, providing both sass and heart. There are some good jokes, including a few meta-gags that poke fun at the film’s clichés. Michael Peña is good value as Scott’s mate Luis, even getting a reprise of his fast-talking montage from the first Ant-Man film. And of course there’s the general Marvel sheen to everything. But it’s doubtful it’ll linger long in the memory.

Six men who miss the 1960s out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Stardrive (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Avon learns about a new, super-fast propulsion system, he insists the crew track down its creator…

Series D, episode 4. Written by: James Follett. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 19 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (17) and the team have found an asteroid that, if they shadow it, will allow them sneak into the Altern system and acquire some much-needed fuel for the Scoprio. Later, though, the craft is damaged and Tarrant and Avon have to set about fixing the problems – they work with only a force field shielding them from the vacuum of space.
* Avon (42) advocated the mission to Altern 5 to get some selsium ore, but then takes the risky decision to fly within just 50 yards of the asteroid. After the plan goes wrong and Scorpio is badly struck, his colleagues quickly turn on him. A new mission then presents itself when Avon learns about a high-tech stardrive – can they steal one for the Scorpio? Their quest leads them to the planet Caspar, home of the vicious Space Rats. (Vila explains that they’re ‘maniacs, psychopaths; all they live for is sex and violence, booze and speed.’) Avon callously sends Vila and Dayna on as a distraction, then teleports to the Rats’ base with Tarrant and Soolin. They manage to nab a stardrive and also rescue a scientist called Plaxton (Barbara Shelley, trying gamely to add some dignity to proceedings).
* Soolin (4), Dayna and Vila spot three pursuit ships while Avon and Tarrant are repairing Scorpio, but then the ships mysteriously explode. Later, Soolin watches a recording of the disaster and realises that there was another craft nearby – one so fast it must have a new type of engine.
* When the explosions are still a mystery, Dayna (17) is given the first shift of analysing the 10,000 frames per second of the recording. Later, she and Vila are sent on a mission to negotiate with the infamous Space Rats. But the Rats turn on them and kidnap them. Dayna then attempts, unsuccessfully, to pretend that she knows Dr Plaxton, the Federation scientist who developed the new drive and who has been working with the Space Rats.
* Vila (43) isn’t happy with Avon’s asteroid plan. Then, after it’s gone awry, he quickly gets drunk and leary. (Or so it seems. He actually fakes it so Avon won’t ask for his help in fixing the Scorpio.) When the team watch back the footage of the explosions, Vila recognises that the killer craft belongs to a Space Rat.
* Slave (4) does some more answering-questions-and-sounding-like-Parker-from-Thunderbirds.
* Orac (26) watches the recording of the explosions but refuses to tell the others what caused them. He does later reveal that Dr Plaxton has perfected a photonic drive that uses light to exert thrust. It’s nicknamed the ‘stardrive’.

Best bit: With the Scorpio damaged and drifting in space, Slave reports that the life-support system will last a further 151 hours. ‘By the time the oxygen runs out we’ll be bored as well as dead,’ quips Soolin. (The episode’s Star Wars-style screenwipes for passages of time are quite fun too.)

Worst bit: The Space Rats. They should be violent, threatening, sneering, dangerous Hell’s Angel punks – like something out of Mad Max. But they just come across as silly with their Day-Glo costumes and love of words like zap and splat.

Review: It takes around 20 minutes for the Space Rats to show up, and this is emblematic of episode as a whole. It wants to be an urgent, visceral, life-on-the-edge thriller, but there’s no drive, no momentum. The Scorpio crew don’t actually affect what’s happening on Caspar until the last few minutes of the story.

Six gooks of 10

Next episode: Animals

The Birds (1963)

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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 small town is terrorised when the local bird population begins attacking people…

The Birds is one of those films with a big reputation. Too big, perhaps. Like Psycho – the film Hitchcock made immediately prior to this one – it’s a horror movie that’s built on its scares. And admittedly the sequences of avian assaults are relentless and violent and terrifying. But sadly, once the trick’s been played, there’s not a huge amount left to admire. It’s a film whose bark is more deadly than its bite. Or should that be, whose squawk is more deadly than its flight?

A vital component to this kind of story is a slow build-up to the terror so we have a chance to get to know the characters before the carnage begins, and this one starts with a meet-cute in a pet shop. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) and is so intrigued by the confident lawyer that she finds out where he’s spending the weekend and drives there to surprise him. She soon meets his family – a haughty mother played by Jessica Tandy, a tweenage daughter played by Alien’s Veronica Cartwright – and his neighbours. But it’s a slight story with precious little interest and it’s soon forgotten about when the strangeness begins.

Why the local birds begin persecuting and attacking people is never explained. They simply target our characters and the other residents of sleepy town Bodega Bay, California. As the incidents pile up, including an impressively staged explosion at a petrol station and scenes where people have their eyes plucked out, the film starts to seem familiar – at least to a modern viewer. Swap the birds for the undead and you’d have a zombie movie.

That genre wasn’t really defined until a few years later, when George A Romero directed the seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). But here’s Alfred Hitchcock in 1963 preempting so many of its ideas and themes. The characters in The Birds are pushed to the limit by an impersonal, illogical threat that they don’t understand and they can’t reason with. It wants to hurt them, pure and simple. Also, with people fleeing, in hiding or killed, Bodega Bay soon starts to feel like a post-apocalyptic frontier town. Residents board up their houses, preparing for the next onslaught, while the authorities are noticeably absent. (There is a cop character, but he does little more than belittle the threat posed by the birds.)

But the best zombie films work because – like in any kind of successful thriller – you care about the characters. Melanie and Mitch, however, never quite punch through. They’re uninteresting people played by actors giving uninteresting performances.

Six men walking his dogs out of 10

Blake’s 7: Volcano (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tarrant and Dayna attempt to forge an alliance with a secretive group of people on a planet dominated by a volcano…

Series C, episode 3. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Desmond McCarthy. Originally broadcast: 21 January 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (3) teleports down to the planet Obsidian with Dayna. Their aim is to make contact with the planet’s leaders because the Liberator crew need a base of operations for their continuing rebellion, and Obsidian has never been affiliated to the Federation. They’ve also heard a rumour that Blake has been spotted there. Tarrant offers the Obsidian leader, Hower (Michael Gough), a slice of any spoils for the use of his planet. But Hower is a pacifist and says no. So Tarrant next tries to nobble Hower’s son, who then betrays him by contacting Servalan… Luckily for our heroes, Hower then steps in and, er, kills his own son. Hashtag overreaction.
* Dayna (3) has a connection to Hower: he knew her late father. During the negotiations she acts as the good cop to Tarrant’s bad, and by using her charm learns the reason they’re not going to get any help. Hower and his cronies have turned the whole population into pacifists – mainly by education, but partly by electro-shock treatment and propaganda. Detective Dayna also finds out why the planet has never been invaded by the Federation: there’s a massive atomic bomb under the surface, and Hower is willing to wipe out his own people rather than see war. Hower even shows Dayna the convenient planet-destroying button. Hashtag Chekov’s gun.
* Back on the Liberator, Cally (26) is worried when Tarrant and Dayna don’t radio in with news. Later, after the Liberator has been breached, she’s able to use her often-forgotten-about telepathy to warn Avon. But the Federation troops that have come aboard then steal Orac and take Cally hostage. Taken down to Obsidian, Cally is hidden in a cave until Tarrant and Dayna come along and rescue her. Hashtag damsel in distress.
* Avon (28) is worried as the episode begins. He knows the Federation once visited Obsidian and carried out a survey. Why did they not colonise the place, then? He’s also cynical about the rumour Blake has been spotted there. When Tarrant and Dayna fail to check in, Avon teleports down to look for them. He finds dead bodies and then spots Servalan and a squad of soldiers so beams back up. Not long after, the soldiers manage to get aboard the Liberator – and one of them shots Avon in the arm during a gunfight. Hashtag ouch!
* Vila (29) points out the oddity that Obsidian has just one volcano on the entire planet. (Earth today has approximately 1,500 of the fuckers.) Avon and Cally also tease him about how he fancies their new colleague Dayna. Later, Vila acts rather foolishly and accidentally teleports some Federation soldiers aboard the Liberator. But he also gets a nice moment when he hears Servalan’s voice on a discarded radio so answers her sarcastically. Hashtag pwned.
* Orac (13) is asked to operate the teleport and is not happy: he points out that it’s a menial job more suited to someone like Cally. Hashtag patronising.
* Zen (25) reports that Obsidian has not had serious volcanic activity for ‘some years’, a vagueness that does not go down well with Avon. Hashtag get your act together.
* Servalan (15) has regained power since we last saw her. She’s now President of the Universe or something, but rather than lounging about in a mansion she’s commanding a ship staffed by thugs and mutoids. Their mission is to snatch the Liberator! (How many times has she tried that now?) Down on Obsidian, she encounters some locals and orders her second-in-command to kill them. He’s shocked. (Has he never met Servalan before?) She then manages to get a squad of agents aboard the Liberator, who snatch Orac. She also receives word of how to wipe out Obsidian’s control bunker – but before she can act, Hower pushes the button and destroys his entire planet. Hashtag overkill.

Best bit: Hower has a robot butler! It’s not vital to the plot. Nor is it especially remarked upon by the characters. It’s just a cute bit of texture.

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Worst bit: Michael Gough plays Hower and gives one of *those* performances where a clearly capable actor shows up in a genre show and just goes through the motions. You get no sense at all of Hower – and therefore the society at large – having a life outside his scripted dialogue. Gough also has a moment or two where he’s obviously grasping to remember his next line.

Review: Volcano begins with Tarrant and Dayna landing on the surface of Obsidian – two characters who weren’t seen or mentioned in the show’s first 26 episodes. It feels like a mission statement: a chance for the two to get some screentime. And it works, at least until the pair go missing from the episode for a 10-minute chunk in the middle. Not especially gripping, Volcano as a whole doesn’t offend either. The dialogue contains some clunky exposition, while Servalan has a moronic sidekick who says stupid things just so she can then explain things. But there’s been worse. One thing in its favour is the impressive location work. There might be some stock footage thrown in, but director Desmond McCarthy sells the idea that the scenes are taking place on the slopes of a volcano. There’s smoke, wind and actors shouting over roaring sound effects that must have been added later. (Having said that, there’s also one CSO shot of a soldier falling into the lava that just makes you howl with laughter.)

Six narcotic spray guns out of 10

Next episode: Dawn of the Gods

Rich and Strange (1931)

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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.

Note: In the US, this film was released as East of Shanghai.

An English couple inherit some money so go on a round-the-world trip, but hit problems when they reach Singapore…

The ‘rich’ comes when – after a frustrating commute home to the suburbs from his City job – a middle-class man and his wife learn that his uncle is giving them a huge amount of money. The ‘strange’ is not so much that Fred (Henry Kendall) and Emily Hill (Joan Barry) decide to set off on a cruise to the Orient. It’s more that the film plays it all for laughs. This is Hitchcock directing a throwaway comedy.

When the humour works, the film does too. There aren’t many belly laughs but a few smiles are raised. Kendall and Barry indulge in some funny drunk acting, while Elsie Randolph plays a fellow tourist who gets several bits of comedy business. (The character is a middle-aged spinster. The actress was 27. Her second Hitchcock role came 41 years later in Frenzy.) Also, the prologue showing Fred’s tiresome journey home from work is a joy: dialogue-free and full of sight gags, it’s like something Charlie Chaplin would have shot.

In fact, at this point Hitchcock was only two years into working with sound and you wouldn’t say it was Rich and Strange’s strength. The score is too prominent and you soon tire of heavy-handed sound effects such as footsteps. Perhaps the director was already nostalgic for the silent era, hence the many sequences without dialogue. There are even expositionary title cards to push the plot along. But he was certainly keen on making the film look as modern as possible. As well as sending a camera crew off round the world to capture shots of some real locations – such as an elaborate and daring stage show at Paris’s Folies Bergère – he also built large sets of the ship back at Elstree Studios.

As entertainment, the film passes the time without ever really impressing you. A big problem is that it’s not especially *about* anything: it’s an extended comedy sketch with the loose appearance of a story. Hitchcock historian Noël Simsolo disagrees, once saying it’s an ‘almost tragic’ film because it deals with a childless couple idly filling their lives with frivolity. ‘They are empty,’ he purred. ‘They are sterile.’ In the same lecture, though, Simsolo also claimed that Dale Collins – the demonstrably real man whose story was adapted into the film – never existed. So what does he know?

Six games of deck tennis out of 10

Blake’s 7: Hostage (1979)

Screenshot 2018-04-07 17.01.05

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake receives a message from Travis, who has taken Blake’s cousin hostage and wants to talk…

Series B, episode 8. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* After being attacked and chased by Federation pursuit ships, Blake (21) learns that his old nemesis is on the planet Exbar. Travis is now on the run from the authorities. He wants to talk and maybe join forces with Blake – so takes Blake’s cousin Inga hostage as a bargaining chip. Blake heads to Exbar and teleports down alone, despite his colleagues (and the audience) all telling him it’s clearly a trap. He finds his uncle, Ushton, then climbs a hill to search for Travis – but yes, it is a trap and Blake is captured…
* When Blake says he has to try to save Inga, Avon (20) reminds him that while he’s off the ship the others may just leave him behind. (That’s nice.) However, after Blake has gone down to the surface, Avon gets jittery. He decides to follow his colleague, and soon discovers that Ushton has betrayed Blake to Travis.
* Vila (21) is actually open to negotiations with Travis, which is grimly ironic considering the fact that he’s later captured and intimidated by him.
* When the episode begins, Zen (19) warns the Liberator crew that Federation pursuit ships are nearby. He later fails to spot, however, that a single ship is just a few hundred metres behind them. Aboard it is Travis’s replacement as Servalan’s space-commander-of-choice.
* Jenna (21) pilots the Liberator to avoid the pursuit ships (one of the controls seems to be the arm of an adjustable table lamp). Later, she’s tricked into teleporting a ‘crimo’ – one of Travis’s new gang of criminal psychopaths – aboard the Liberator. But she then manages to re-teleport him into space, killing him.
* Cally (18) gets very little to do. She’s mostly taken over Gan’s function in the team: stand around, beef up the numbers, and occasionally say something that doesn’t really develop the plot. Her one moment in this episode is just before Blake leaves the ship. Telepath Cally gets a Deanna Troi-style vague sense of danger.
* Orac (8) picks up the coded message from Travis.
* Travis (9) has been on the run since his interrupted trial a couple of episodes ago. The real reason he’s taken Inga prisoner and coerced Ushton into helping him is because he wants the Liberator. The plan seems to be going well: he manages to capture Blake, Avon and Vila, but then Inga and Ushton turn on him. Blake and co escape, leaving Travis tied up with Servalan on the way…
* Servalan (8) ain’t happy that Blake is becoming a folk hero. To make matters worse, Travis’s replacement turns out to be rubbish at hunting down Blake. She then gets word where Travis is… Once she finds him, they do a deal. If he gets her Blake, she’ll officially list Travis as dead (thereby allowing him to disappear and avoid his execution sentence).

Best bit: Pretty much anything Avon says or does. It’s another terrific episode for the show’s most enigmatic character. He acts cool and disinterested in Blake, but then risks his life to save him (again). This is clearly a man with a complex psychology. He’s also part of the episode’s best plot twist – it’s he who sends an anonymous message to Servalan telling her where Travis is.

Worst bit: During an action scene on the surface of Exbar, there’s a *very* polystyrene-y avalanche of rocks.

Review: One of the pleasures of Blake’s 7 is the way it develops across the episodes. This is not a show with a reset button at the end of every adventure. Travis, for example, has a character arc – once a respected and feared officer in the Federation military, he’s now reduced to a mercenary on the edge of society. And that kind of thing makes the series more interesting. (He certainly fairs better than Jenna and Cally do: this is yet another episode where the male crew members get action and story, and the female crew members get standing-around-on-the-Liberator.) Too simple to be really enjoyable – we all know it’s a trap and it is – Hostage passes the time well enough.

Six kissing cousins out of 10

Next episode: Countdown

Blake’s 7: Weapon (1979)

Screenshot 2018-02-25 15.30.18

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake and the others become aware that a key Federation weapons-development scientist has gone missing and taken something called IMIPAK with him…

Series B, episode 3. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: George Spenton-Foster. Originally broadcast: 23 January 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (6) kills Blake in an early scene! No, not really: it’s soon revealed that ‘Blake’ was an identical clone bred by a mysterious race of beings called Clone Masters. (Their leader is played by Kathleen Byron, an actress whose career was long enough to include both A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).) Travis is therefore angry with his boss Servalan, who had manipulated him as a test to see how good the clone was. He even puts his hand around the Supreme Commander’s throat – a menacing move that suits the character’s robust recasting. Original actor Stephen Greif was busy on a film, so Travis is now played by the more earthy, more working-class Brian Croucher.
* On the Liberator, Avon (15) is worried because Blake has been planning a risk-heavy attack on a key Federation installation without telling his colleagues. But Avon later concedes that if possible they should try to acquire IMIPAK, an enigmatic Federation weapon that’s gone missing.
* Jenna (16) is in a prickly mood this week. When Avon asks where Blake is, she haughtily replies: “I have no idea. Why ask me?”
* Cally (13) gave Blake the idea to attack the Federation’s weaponry research station – the idea being that they’ll need all the weapons they can muster if Blake is set on attacking central control. But neither she nor Blake told the others of the plan because they knew there’d be resistance.
* Having said that, Gan (15) is happy to go along with Blake’s idea – he tells Avon he’ll never leave Roj’s side. (FORESHADOWING KLAXON.)
* Vila (16) has a quiet week.
* Blake (16) is clearly getting more forthright and arrogant, plotting dangerous missions without any discussion. When he learns via Orac that a Federation scientist called Coser (John Bennett) has fled his research base with something called IMIPAK, Blake decides to track him down.
* Needing to find Coser too, Servalan (5) is playing a long con. She’s hired a man called Carnell (Scott Fredericks), a ‘pyscho-strategist’, to predict where Coser will be hiding. Then she uses a clone of Blake to trick Coser into handing IMIPAK over to her.
* Orac (4) intercepts a Federation communication that tells Blake where to find Coser.
* When the Liberator is hit by a mine, Zen (14) rather lamely explains that he didn’t see it.

Best bit: The character of Carnell. A lesser show would have made him psychic, but writer Chris Boucher is a smart man and instead creates someone so adept at understanding psychology and human behaviour that he can accurately predict how complex situations will play out. After an error of judgement – not considering that Coser would take someone with him – Carnell flees the Federation in disgrace. But he leaves a flirtatious message for Servalan, who despite her anger can’t help smiling at his charm. (The character of Carnell had a life outside Blake’s 7 too. Boucher later used him in a Doctor Who novel, 1999’s Corpse Marker, then Scott Fredericks reprised the part in an audio-drama spin-off called Kaldor City.)

Worst bit: There’s a laughable bit when Travis uses IMIPAK. The weapon turns out to be a gun that silently and imperceptibly ‘tags’ its victims, allowing the shooter to then kill them at a later date with the push of a button. Travis tags Blake, Avon and Gan while hiding behind a wall – and in a dreadfully hackneyed bit of blocking, our three heroes conveniently take turns to stand in his line of sight.

Review: The episode doesn’t really come together, which is a shame because bits of it are very entertaining. The scenes with Carnell are fun, there’s some odd choral voices used in the incidental music, and the script contains plenty of hard-boiled Chris Boucher dialogue (especially among the Liberator crew). But the story underwhelms.

Six screams of protest ringing in our ears out of 10

Next episode: Horizon