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

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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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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