The Return of the Pink Panther (1975, Blake Edwards)

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Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot details

After the famous Pink Panther diamond is stolen from a museum, the local authorities insist on Inspector Clouseau being flown over to investigate…

The titular diamond is not the only thing returning in this fourth Pink Panther story. After 11 years away, Peter Sellers rejoins the series as the inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Blake Edwards is likewise back in the director’s chair and the music is once again by Henry Mancini. The film also, in effect, combines the guest casts of the first two movies: Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, André Maranne’s police assistant François and Burt Kwouk’s martial-arts valet Cato all return from 1964’s A Shot in the Dark, while we also have Sir Charles Litton, the thief from 1963’s The Pink Panther.

The plot begins when the famed Pink Panther jewel is stolen one night from a museum in the fictional North African country of Lugash. We see a ninja-like agent break in at night and evade the security system’s laser beams in the classic heist-film fashion. After taking the diamond, the masked criminal then leaves behind a glove embossed with a letter P – the calling card of Sir Charles Litton’s alter ego, the Phantom. It’s a slick, Bond-ish sequence, and notably it’s not meant to be funny. In fact, we get about a quarter of an hour into this film before there’s something definitely intended as a gag.

That changes somewhat once Clouseau appears, walking his Parisian beat in a gendarme’s uniform. It’s apparent straightaway that Peter Sellers has rethought the character during his decade off. Clouseau is still bumbling, dimwitted, unobservant, sensationally accident-prone and hopelessly naive. But now he’s *even more* bumbling, dimwitted, unobservant, sensationally accident-prone and hopelessly naive. He also now has a more outrageously cod French accent, which even other French characters struggle to understand. Coupled with the uniform, it inescapably makes a modern viewer think of Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

All this is a shift from the tone of the early films, which were gentle farces, into something more ostentatiously wacky. The Return of the Pink Panther is a movie where its lead character uses a succession of disguises/aliases, and where the violence and action would feel more at home in a Looney Tunes cartoon. (People get blown up and are unscathed other than soot-covered faces and tatty clothing.) It means the storyline is never the focus. It’s more about the slapstick.

As Clouseau investigates, he soon suspects that his old nemesis Sir Charles Litton is involved, but Sir Charles insists he’s not the thief. This plot point echoes one of the biggest influences on The Pink Panther series: Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, in which Cary Grant plays a retired criminal attempting to prove his innocence. But the idea doesn’t sing as much as it should, partly because the role of Sir Charles has been recast. The original actor, David Niven, was unavailable – or perhaps not keen to be upstaged by Peter Sellers again – and the Canadian Christopher Plummer is a poor replacement, lacking Niven’s effortless air. By the way, the identity of the real culprit will not evade anyone who’s paying attention. In other news, Catherine Schell plays Sir Charles’s wife, Claudine.

The Return of the Pink Panther is not what you’d call an urgently paced thriller. In its middle third, for example, this film can afford to spend more than seven minutes watching Clouseau comedically search Lady Litton’s hotel room. It also lacks the class of the early Pink Panther stories. But Sellers is still fun, Blake Edwards knows how to shoot this kind of material, there are a few laughs along the way, and it’s diverting-enough nonsense.

Six vacuum cleaners out of 10

Next time: The Pink Panther Strikes Again

 

Shazam! (2019, David F Sandberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A foster child is given magical powers by an ancient wizard – and now has the ability to switch into an adult superhero persona…

Like a TV interview done over a live satellite link-up, there has sometimes been a delay with the DC series of superhero movies. They’ve often seemed like they’re lagging behind the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe, with DC movies coming off as reactions to MCU successes. For example, 2019’s Shazam! sees the franchise attempt the comedic and youthful tone already seen in Marvel’s Spider-Man films. But there is a key difference. Despite its 12-certificate rating from the BBFC (‘Moderate violence, threat, horror, innuendo, bleeped strong language’), Shazam! is essentially an old-fashioned kids film.

Before the cheeky sense of humour used for most of the runtime, we do actually start with the kind of dark, sombre, taking-itself-seriously mood that dogged some earlier DC movies. In the 1970s, a young boy called Thaddeus Sivana encounters the mysterious, cave-dwelling wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou, who played a different role in DC’s Aquaman). Shazam is searching for a worthy successor to take over his role of… protecting goodness or something? Being a champion against evil? Something nebulous like that. Anyway, Thad is swiftly rejected because Shazam realises the lad is tempted by evil and corruption.

Cut to 45 years later, in Philadelphia, and we’re introduced to a much more likeable young boy: 14-year-old foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel). We first see him conning a pair of cops so he can hack into their computer and search for his long-estranged birth mother. It’s economic storytelling, quickly demonstrating that he’s both street-smart and troubled. When the authorities catch up with him, he’s then placed with a new foster family: a diverse bunch of kooky kids, each with their own easily sketched personality, and all overseen by a kindly, laid-back couple called Victor and Rosa.

Meanwhile, the superhero element of the plot kicks off when Billy too has a dreamlike encounter with Shazam (does this wizard have an especial fondness for puberty-age boys or something?). Billy is more successful than Thad, though, and before you can say rushed and arbitrary origin story, he has been endowed with special abilities – the most notable of which is that he can switch instantly from an innocent-looking teenager to an muscular adult superhero who wears a cape. The alter ego is played by Zachary Levi from TV comedy Chuck.

The film comes alive as Billy rather haphazardly road-tests his new powers. Initially, the only other person who knows his secret is his new foster brother Freddy (an impressive Jack Dylan Grazer). He’s a disabled wiseass who acts as both Billy’s comedy sidekick and his conscious when Billy gets too big for his new superhero boots. Together they experiment, trying out which abilities the grown-up Billy has – flight, invisibility, shooting lightening bolts out of the fingers, hyper-speed, super-strength… and buying beer underage. The scenes are largely played for laughs and some are scored by Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. It’s zippy and playful wish-fulfilment stuff, and the events of previous DC films are used smartly to explain why Billy and Freddy are aware of superhero cliches.

But after a while you do start to wonder what it all means. It’s a bit empty, a bit too flippant. We’ve already had a setup where our lead character is essentially chosen for greatness at random and then the story throws up a spectacularly vague threat. Mark Strong plays the grown-up Thaddeus, who now has an obsession with rediscovering the mysterious Shazam and claiming his power. He’s a blood-and-thunder character with a frown standing in for any emotion, daddy issues instead of any compelling motivation, and the plot is a fairly standard taking-on-the-bullies narrative we’ve seen countless times before.

There is more substance, thankfully, in the subplot about Billy’s search for his mother, which is a storyline that throws in a couple of unorthodox beats and adds a bit of heart. It’s also in the film’s favour that they’ve cast age-appropriate kids, rather than the 20-somethings we’re used to seeing as youngsters in John Hughes movies or the various recent Spider-Man tellings. The central idea of the lead character being played by two actors is a very fine needle to thread; we have to believe in both versions individually and as a pair. Casting actors with an age gap of 22 years certainly helps (imagine if the ‘young’ Billy actually looked about 25?!), but it’s got to be said that you never really buy the idea that they’re playing the same person. The performances are just too different, and Zachary Levi in particular pushes his wide-eyed wonder and goofiness over into irritating.

An obvious comparison here is with the 1988 comedy drama Big, which starred Tom Hanks as the adult version of a boy magically aged by a wizard. (Well, in Big’s case, the wizard is a mechanical, wish-granting vending machine.) Shazam! even contains a sly reference to the earlier film when characters run across oversized piano keys in a department store. But one of the reasons why Big was more successful is that lead character Josh Baskin only switches bodies twice: from 12-year-old to seemingly adult, then much later back again. Shazam!’s repeated flicking between the two actors gets in the way of Billy popping through enough. It never really feels like *his* story. We never fully invest in him.

What Shazam! does feel like, though, is a children’s film with modern superhero trappings. There are big action sequences and lots of CGI and tie-ins with other movies, but at its heart this movie has more in common with, say, Flight of the Navigator or Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The violence is never too harsh; the danger is never too intense; there are reassuringly dependable parent characters. Children embark on fantastical adventures, outsmart some grown-ups, and get the better of some rather tame school bullies. There’s slapstick and silliness alongside moral lessons. Many, many people – including previous blogs on this website – have criticised the DC film series for being po-faced and overly grim and laughably pretentious. Shazam! redresses the balance by going so far the other way that, while having some charm, the film ends up feeling too small. Too unambitious. Too low-key. Not Big enough.

Six walkie-talkies out of 10

Sabotage (2014, David Ayer)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. 

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Watched: 14 September 2019
Format: Channel 5 showed it on 7 February 2019, so I took a recording.
Seen before? No.

Review: Arnie’s back as an 1980s-style action hero! Specifically, he’s the tough, respected leader of a squad of DEA agents who split their time between going undercover, bashing down doors while firing machine guns, and bickering like children. The fact Schwarzenegger was by now in his mid 60s has a consequence or two. You have to ignore the issue that he’s too old to be an active agent out in the field, but his age does help with the weight on the character’s shoulders. John ‘Breacher’ Wharton is a man mourning his wife and son, who a few months before were sadistically murdered by Mexican drug lords. 

The exciting incident of the plot comes early. We see Breacher and his team storm a drug kingpin’s mansion. They find an enormous stack of cash in the basement… and promptly siphon off a few million for themselves, hiding it in the sewerage system. The sequence is crass – lots of swearing, macho bravado, gunplay and punch-ups – but it’s also quite slick and some fun. This is typical of the entire film, actually. It’s not great, but it is watchable in a rough-round-the-edges way. However, when the team later return to collect their skim, the money has vanished and we’re then thrown into a paranoiac mystery story.

As things develop, members of the team are killed in brutal ways by an unseen assassin, and this draws the attention of investigators played by Olivia Williams and Lost’s Harold Perrineau. They feel like they’re on secondment from their own HBO cop show; they have nicely written banter and an everyday, cynical attitude. Williams’s Caroline Brentwood soon begins to put the clues together and also forms a bond with Breacher.

All this gives Arnie a tad more acting to do than is usual. He’s grieving, he’s bitter, he’s world-weary. He leads his team like a loving father who’s not adverse to showing his anger. He has a crewcut and tattoos. The gang includes Mireille Enos as a livewire agent hooked on drugs herself, as well as Josh Holloway (also from Lost), Terrence Howard (Iron Man), and Sam Worthington (who, coincidentally, was the star of the only Terminator film that Schwarzenegger skipped). The characters have the feel of old friends and their childish name-calling reminds you of similar gangs in films like Aliens and the pre-heist scenes of Reservoir Dogs. (Caveat: Sabotage is nowhere near the overall class of those movies!)

You could argue that the story is about the hypocrisy of law enforcement, about the breakdown of trust within a team, or about how far a broken man is willing to go. But in truth, it’s a balls-to-the-wall exploitation movie and it makes no apology for that. It’s like a Tony Scott thriller done with less money, less glamour and a lot more horror-movie violence. Surprisingly entertaining.

Six sensible shoes out of 10

Next: The Long Goodbye

Avengers: Secret Wars – Why I Hate Halloween (2017, Micah Gunnell)

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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Initially known as Avengers Assemble before some season-specific rebrands, this animated show for children is a spin-off from the phenomenally successful series of Marvel movies. It uses many of the MCU’s characters and puts them in very similar situations, though the TV show forms its own fictional continuity. Beginning on Disney XD in 2013, there have so far been five seasons totalling 126 episodes. This episode – a kind of Halloween special – was first broadcast on 8 October 2017 during season four, which formed a story arc called Secret Wars. However, the events actually take place during season three (Ultron Revolution). We begin on 31 October in an unspecified year (modern day) at an underground base in Manhattan. Events then move to a safe house in Rutland, Vermont (codenamed, ironically, the beach house).

Faithful to the novel? No, it just uses the title character. As the episode begins, the Avengers – Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, Thor, Iron Man – are invading a secret base under New York City which is a home for the fascist cult Hydra. They find a scientist called Whitney Frost, who has been experimenting with vampires in order to create super-soldiers for Hydra’s evil plans, but when the vamps – animalistic creatures more like humanoid dogs than anything else – attack, Hawkeye takes Frost to a safe house. They’re soon attacked by Hydra goons, and then someone knocks on the door. No one appears on the CCTV camera aimed at the porch, but when Frost opens the door standing there is Dracula (voiced by Corey Burton). He’s an arrogant, silky-voiced, tall, well-built man with light-blue skin and white hair. The character had actually been a recurring bad guy in this show’s first season. He wants to punish Frost for meddling in the affairs of the vampires: ‘She must be chastised.’ The heroic Hawkeye protects her.

Best performance: Whitney Frost is voiced by Wynn Everett, the actress who played a different version of the same character in the superior live-action TV show Agent Carter. Nice touch.

Best bit: When Hawkeye smugly points out that Dracula can’t enter the safe house unless he’s invited, Dracula simply orders his vampire hordes to tear the house down.

Review: Unlike the parent film series, this episode gives a lot of screentime – and some personality – to the character of Hawkeye. Frost calls him the ‘weakest’ Avenger a couple of times, a gag that reflects how the character in the movies has failed to pop in the same way as his colleagues, but it works in context here as this episode is all about him stepping up and doing his job well. It’s action heavy and nuance light, but fast-paced and enjoyably flippant.

Six back-up quivers out of 10

Rocky III (1982, Sylvester Stallone)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now the world champion, Rocky Balboa faces a threat from a young new fighter…

What does Stallone do? Sly wrote the script, directed the film, and obviously reprised the role of Rocky Balboa. A few years after the events of Rocky II, our lead character is now world heavyweight boxing champ. We see a quickly cut montage of him easily beating various challengers in the ring, becoming a major celebrity (even appearing on The Muppet Show – the footage comes from when Stallone was in an episode for real), meeting presidents and raising a family. However, his world come crashing down when he loses his title to a young upstart from Chicago. Down and out, and having also lost his father figure, Rocky resolves to win the rematch… This film maybe sees Stallone’s acting talent stretched a bit thin. It’s a pretty docile performance and lacks the charm of the first two movies. Nevertheless, Rocky remains a compelling character because he’s a nice guy – unlike other famous boxer characters. He’s not a violent, quick-to-temper thug like Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, neither does he carry the anguish of On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy. And that makes us root for him even more.

Other main characters:
* Up-and-coming boxer Clubber Lang (Mr T) watches on as Rocky fights a string of no-hopers. When the Italian Stallion then announces his retirement at a public event, Lang steps forward, confronts his rival and demands a shot at the championship. Affronted by the younger man’s arrogance and brashness, Rocky has little choice but to agree. Clubber wins the bout easily – his punches sound like shotgun blasts, his arms look like pneumatic pistons – which sets up the second half of the film as Rocky works towards a redemptive rematch… More a force of nature than an actor, Mr T plays Clubber with a snarling, fuck-you attitude at all times. And yes, at one point he says, ‘I pity the fool.’ This film is where the catchphrase comes from.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) has not benefitted from his brother-in-law’s success; as the story begins, he’s still a bitter dullard stuck in a Mean Streets-style life. When he lashes out drunkenly and breaks a Rocky-branded pinball machine, Rock has to bail him out of jail. Rocky then agrees to give him a job, which involves Paulie standing around for the rest of the movie and doing a lot of moaning.
* Early on, Rocky takes part in an exhibition fight against Thunderlips, the reigning world wrestling champion played by real-life wrestler Hulk Hogan. Given all the razzmatazz and the fact the event is for charity, Rocky assumes it’s going to be a faux fight – a bit of fun for the punters – but Thunderlips then attacks him for real, forcing Rocky to respond in kind. Balboa wins eventually, and to his credit Thunderlips’s aggression drops instantly: it *was* just an act.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) is still Rocky’s trainer, but suffers from severe chest pains a couple of times. When Rocky says he’ll take on Lang, Mickey doesn’t want anything to do with it because he reckons Rocky can’t win. Lang has the hunger that Rocky has long since lost (and, admits Mickey, Rocky has been fighting handpicked below-par boxers since film two). Rocky soon talks him round into helping, but just before the fight with Lang, Mickey has a heart attack. Soon after Rocky loses his championship belt, Mick dies in the locker room. (In the storytelling handbook, this is called the lowest ebb.)
* At Rocky’s first bout with Clubber, former champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is ringside doing media work – and he takes an instant dislike to the disrespectful Lang. So after Rocky’s defeat and Mickey’s death, Apollo offers to train his old foe for the rematch. He takes Rocky to a rundown gym in LA, away from all the hype in Philadelphia, but Rocky struggles with Apollo’s techniques.
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) mostly stays in the background of her husband’s story. Her only big moment is a scene on a Californian beach where she and Rocky spell out the subtext to each other: ‘You gotta [fight Lang] for the right reasons – not for the guilt over Mickey, not for the people, not for the title, not for the money or me. But for you.’
* The Balboas’ son, Rocky Jnr (Ian Fried), looks to be about six years old now, which kinda makes sense when you consider that Rocky II (1979) was only set a few months after Rocky (1976).

Key scene: By this point in the series, training montages have become as much a part of the idiom as Stallone’s slurred delivery and fights with a thousand punches per round. Rocky III contains more than one. The best, which comes directly before Rocky and Lang’s rematch, is a whopping 205 seconds of Rocky running on beaches, hitting punching bags, sparring with Apollo and learning how to be nimble on his feet.

Review: The song Eye of the Tiger by Survivor is heard a few times in this movie, but it’s not just a catchy bit of soft rock to keep us entertained and flog the soundtrack album. Its title phrase becomes a mantra given to Rocky during prep for the rematch – ‘Eye of the tiger, Rock,’ calls out Apollo. ‘Eye of the tiger!’ – while the tune’s lyrics tie in directly to the film’s theme of celebrity. ‘You trade your passion for glory,’ counsels lead singer Dave Bickler. ‘Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past/You must fight just to keep them alive.’ Rocky III has several scenes that reflect this idea – while Rocky appears on TV and gets a taste of the showbiz word of pro-wrestling, his fame and money are making him soft. His training sessions for the first fight with Clubber are glitzy, open-to-the-public events with bunting and a house band. Clubber, meanwhile, trains hard and wins. Away from this thematic thread, there’s nothing much new to the Rocky format: it’s the third movie in a row with the same basic structure and a very similar finale. But it’s passable fun.

Six has-beens messin’ in my corner out of 10

Next: First Blood

Under Capricorn (1949, 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.

In 19th-century Sydney, a man reconnects with an old friend who’s keeping a dark secret…

Speaking in 1963, 14 years after its release, Alfred Hitchcock summed up a pesky issue with his period drama Under Capricorn. ‘I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, “We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.” They went in expecting something and didn’t get it.’ Not since his silent-movie days had the director made such a laidback film, and after two decades distinguished by thrillers, spy stories and capers, audiences wanted more of the same. Under Capricorn, however, is decidedly sedate and orthodox.

But while the plot is wispy, the emotion overwrought and the sloshy incidental music constant to the point of tedium, Hitchcock’s shooting style is worth discussing and also ties into a theme of time that runs through the whole movie.

In 1831 in Australia – the film’s title is a reference to being south of the Tropic of Capricorn – a new governor (Cecil Parker) arrives to take over the administration of the town of Sydney. Convicts were once transported there from Britain, and a delicate etiquette has now built up. Reformed characters known as emancipists are given respect and freedom as long as they behave.

One of the governor’s aides is his cousin, a happy-go-lucky yet ambitious Irishman called Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), who soon befriends shifty local businessman Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Then Charles is surprised to realise that he already knows Samson’s wife from when they were children – but Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman, in her third and final role for Hitchcock) is now a deeply troubled and isolated alcoholic. She’s more or less a shut-in, wracked with some unknown guilt and apparently under the spell of her domineering housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton). Over time, Charles and Henrietta grow close and he starts to tempt her out of her malaise…

Though based on a novel by Helen Simpson, all this feels like stage-play material – the kind of thing you can imagine a rep company wheeling out on tour. As well as performances that are being aimed at the audience as much as to other characters, one of the reasons for this is that virtually every scene is shot in a long, uninterrupted take. Writing for The Guardian in 2012, the film critic Joseph D A Walsh argued that the long takes ‘challenge audiences used to rapid cuts and edits’ and he’s not wrong. We’re drawn into a world where, as in the theatre, actors are allowed to dictate the pace and rhythm of each scene. Unlike classic narrative editing, which creates its own sense of time by chopping together moments in precisely chosen orders and at precisely chosen points, this kind of storytelling exposes the script and the cast: there’s little support and no hiding place. Sadly, with Under Capricorn, it sometimes means you feel ‘stuck’ like a theatre-goer with a poor view of the stage. Boredom creeps in a bit too often.

But whereas edits are rare, there are plenty of camera moves which dictate where our attention should focus. The camera tracks, glides, swoops and even climbs storeys of the Fluskys’ house. (During one take, the rig actually ran over Hitchcock’s foot – breaking his toe!) A great example comes early on in a grandstanding scene presented as one fluid camera move that lasts for seven minutes, takes place in several rooms and features 13 (!) actors. (It’s actually two shots stitched together by a disguised edit, to allow an actor and the camera to pass through a doorway.) The camera roves around a large, complex set as Charles approaches the Fluskys’ house; we shadow him as he eavesdrops on events from outside the window; we follow him as he goes inside and talks to Samson and Milly; he meets several other dinner-party guests, and the men all sit down to eat… but are then shocked by the unexpected arrival of a barefooted and distracted Henrietta at the door. As a self-contained example of what cinema can achieve, it’s an absolute wonder.

Other long takes in Under Capricorn are more static and less showy, essentially being played out in a locked-off frame, such as a key scene where Henrietta reveals her terrible secret to Charles… We’ve earlier been told that Samson is an emancipist who was transported to Australia for seven years for killing Henrietta’s brother; she followed him from Europe out of love. But now, in a monologue that dominates an astonishingly controlled take that lasts close to nine minutes, she spills the truth: *she* shot her brother and Samson gallantly took the blame. It’s a bravura piece of acting. ‘The crowning achievement of the story,’ says Walsh, ‘and, in my opinion, one of the finest performances of [Bergman’s] career.’

Hitchcock had used long takes throughout in his most recent film: the dazzling and experimental Rope, which is a 78-minute movie with just 11 shots in it. (He would have made the whole thing as a ‘oner’, but film cameras can only hold so much film at a time.) In that movie, however, the style is totally simpatico with the story’s real-time setting and the way tension is built inexorably and steadily. Trapped in a single apartment with a body stashed in a box, waiting to be found, the long takes enhance the viewing experience no end. However, while extraordinary moments in and of themselves, the long takes in Under Capricorn are – in comparison – hollow pieces of showing-off by a director who doesn’t seem engaged with the material. (Variety magazine agreed at the time, saying in its contemporary review that the long takes and moving camera are not ‘a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper storytelling.’)

When Hitch mentioned critics having to wait ‘105 minutes’ for the first thrill, he of course chose the figure as an arbitrary way of suggesting a point when the film was almost over. (Under Capricorn is 117 minutes long, so 105 minutes is close to 90 per cent of the way through.) But he was hitting on the truth in more ways than one. Yes, he meant that critics didn’t like the film because they were expecting another thrill ride like The 39 Steps or Notorious and felt short-changed. But his comment explains the failings of Under Capricorn in another way.

Throughout this story the past weighs heavily on many characters. It’s also a film about waiting – Samson for power and respectability, Charles for independence and happiness, Henrietta for romance and to be free of her history, the devious Milly for Samson’s attentions – but the people who have to wait the longest are the viewers, and not just because Hitchcock and editor Bert Bates make us wait for a camera cut. Early on in the story, newly arrived in Sydney, Charles is shocked to see a man carrying a shrunken human head on the street. Samson tells him there’s an illicit trade for such things because people use them superstitiously. It then takes 90 minutes for this plot point to come back into focus when we learn that Milly has been using a shrunken head in her attempts to drive Henrietta insane. Under Capricorn is clearly not a movie in a rush to deliver anything, thrills or plot developments.

At the time of its release, audiences even had to wait to see it. The New York premiere was held on 8 September 1949, followed by a US nationwide release on 8 October. But many other countries – Italy, France, West Germany, significantly Australia – had to wait until the clock had ticked over into the 1950s before they could view the film. Sadly, while interesting on an intellectual level, it wasn’t especially worth it.

Six men listening to the governor’s speech out of 10

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

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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