Blake’s 7: Weapon (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six screams of protest ringing in our ears out of 10

Next episode: Horizon

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Blake’s 7: Orac (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

With their crewmates suffering from radiation sickness, Blake and Cally head to the planet Aristo, hoping to find a cure – and the mysterious Orac. But the Federation are also hunting for Orac…

Series A, episode 13. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 27 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Gan (12) is just one of the Liberator crew struck with lethargy and sweating fits. He has radiation sickness because of his time on the planet Cephlon (in the previous episode).
* Blake (13) has very helpfully edited together a video recapping the events of last week. He’s even recorded a stentorious voiceover. He shows it to Avon, who uncharacteristically has the grace not to point out that it’s just telling him things he already knows. Blake also figures out that Ensor’s ship was sabotaged, so sets course for his home planet where they find his dying father. And a remarkable machine called Orac.
* Avon (12) feels dizzy early on: he’s another victim of the radiation sickness. When Blake hopes Ensor’s father will have some anti-radiation drugs, Avon points out the irony that they are travelling to a planet to save a stranger’s life in the hope that stranger will then save theirs. Later, when Blake and Cally don’t return from the planet Aristo, a visibly ill Avon beams down – and that’s the term he uses – to search for them.
* Jenna (13) is also under the weather, but still finds the strength to pilot the Liberator.
* Vila (13) – another radiation victim – says he can’t die. Avon points out that he can: “It’s the one talent we all share. Even you.”
* Zen (11) goes wonky at one point, slurring his speech. Then it becomes clear that he has been taken over by an outside force: Orac.
* Cally (10) finds Jenna looking woozy in a corridor, so takes her to the medical bay (and accidentally gropes her as she does so). She then deduces why Jenna, Vila, Avon and Gan are ill – they need drugs that the Liberator stores (for once) don’t have. Later, she and Blake teleport down to the planet Aristo. They find Ensor’s father and give him the power cells he needs for his artificial heart; they also ask him if he has any drugs… Oh, and by the way, what’s this Orac thing that everyone’s talking about?
* Orac (1) initially seems to be a talking plant. But that’s just the way he’s filmed in order to disguise the truth: he’s actually a super computer designed by Ensor and housed in a portable Plexiglass box. He makes a buzzy noise when switched on and has a prissy, pedantic manner, kinda like a ruder version of C-3PO. But his capabilities are quite astonishing – he can access any other computer in the known universe and collate masses of information and analysis. After Ensor’s death, using the finders-keepers rule, Blake and the others take Orac back to the Liberator with them. (Orac is voiced by Derek Farr, the actor who plays Ensor Snr.)
* Travis (5) and Servalan (4) arrive on the planet Aristo and break into Ensor’s base via some underground tunnels. At one point, Servalan is menaced by a humanoid amphibian monster called a Phibian and is visibly shaken by the experience. She manages to pull herself together quickly, but she and Travis arrive just too late: Blake, Cally and Ensor have done a runner with Orac.

Best bit: Being the last episode of season one, it needs to finish on a cliffhanger. And we get a whopper. As a demonstration of his ability to predict the future based on available information and deductive reasoning, Orac shows Blake and co a vision of the Liberator being seemingly destroyed.

Worst bit: Between the location filming and the studio recording for this episode, actor Stephen Greif injured his ankle badly while playing squash. So Travis’s indoor scenes had to be recorded with a body double whose face is always inelegantly out of frame. Greif later dubbed his dialogue over the shots, but it really jars.

Review: The first season of Blake’s 7 ends with one its duller episodes. We’re following on from the previous episode, Deliverance, and finally get to find out what Orac is and why it’s so valuable. But everything’s a bit underwhelming. There’s a fair amount of ‘Zen explains things’ rather than actual storytelling, while Servalan and Travis’s subplot seems to go on forever.

Six decontaminate drugs out of 10

Next episode: Redemption

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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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 couple’s young daughter is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock made two movies with the same title, but while they share the same basic storyline, they’re told in extremely different ways. In fact, the more you watch the more the contrasts pile up: British vs American… pre-war vs post-war… black-and-white vs colour… the nearly square Academy aspect ratio vs widescreen VistaVision… mostly forgotten actors vs Hollywood star power… a bombastic orchestra vs Que Sera, Sera. In this blog post and the next, I’ll be watching these two films and seeing how they compare.

The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much – produced when Alfred Hitchcock was the star director of the UK film industry – came about after an aborted attempt at filming a Bulldog Drummond story. Tickled by the subject matter but unable to get the project going, Hitch concocted an original plotline about international intrigue and topped it off with a title taken from an unrelated GK Chesterton book.

The action begins in Switzerland. Married English couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks – who later grimed himself down to play a bad guy in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn – and Edna Best) are on holiday with their precocious young daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam). They’re a frightfully clipped and proper family, one where the mother tells her nagging daughter that she’ll be with her presently. They watch the ski-jumping and Jill enjoys taking part in a clay-pigeon shoot. But the lightness ends when, later that night, fellow hotel guest Louis (Pierre Fresnay) is shot by a sniper. Before he expires he has just enough time to tell Jill to collect a shaving brush from his room and take it to the British consulate. In its handle, the brush contains a secret note: ‘Make contact A. Hall 21st March’.

The Lawrences then learn the shock news that Betty has been kidnapped, and are warned by the bad guys to keep quiet about the note. Jill is so overcome she faints, dramatised by Hitch cutting to some jarring, spinning camera shots to convey her dizziness. The notion of innocent characters getting caught up in dangerous, criminal or espionage-related events was a favourite of Hitch’s, appearing in various movies and reaching its zenith in 1959’s North By Northwest. The idea drives The Man Who Knew Too Much, with the gag being that the man didn’t *want* to know too much; he’s just lumbered with it. (The title’s misleading, by the way: both parents know too much.)

The Lawrences return to London – what else can they do? – and pretend that nothing’s amiss. Jill lingers round Betty’s room holding her toys and drinking, while Bob glibly pretends to the police that Betty has gone to stay with friends. Then a man from the Foreign Office shows up. He knows what’s really going on, in the way that silky spymasters from Whitehall always do, and tells them that a man called Ropa is about to be assassinated. Louis had uncovered this so was killed by the bad guys. Bob asks why the death of an obscure foreign dignitary should matter, so the mandarin makes a direct analogy to the assassination of Serbia’s Archduke Ferdinand (an event then just 20 years in the past).

To modern eyes, the biggest problem with the story is the parents’ calmness. The emotion’s not strong enough; the situation lacks punch. Bob and Jill should be devastated with worry yet seem to be coping reasonably well. Lawrence and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) start to investigate, but it’s not driven by a father’s desperate need to find his daughter. It feels more like a mild curiosity. Their quest takes them to Wapping in east London and into contact with a peculiar man called Abbott, who we recognise as a guest from the ski resort. They tail him to the Tabernacle of the Sun, a religious order in a ramshackle building, and now the film picks up intensity thanks to a scene-stealing performance.

Abbott is played by Hungarian-born Peter Lorre. Hitchcock knew the actor from Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), in which he had played an oddly sympathetic child murderer. Initially cast here as another character – the assassin Ramon – Lorre was soon promoted to the main villain role after impressing Hitchcock in person. He reportedly didn’t speak English at the time of filming, but this is a well-trodden anecdote that we should take with a pinch of salt. Not only does Abbott have *reams* of dialogue in uninterrupted takes, which would be near impossible to learn rote, but Lorre had actually already performed a movie role in English – the English-language version of M, which had been filmed alongside the original.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lorre’s unforgettable bearing – that smirk, that bulk, those eyes that seem both evil and lovable at the same time – is used to create the first truly great bad guy in Hitchcock’s cinema. Abbott is a clever man with charm, a calm confidence and a gaggle of grotesque underlings. In fact, he’s more or less a precursor of a James Bond villain. Aptly, Lorre later played a Bond villain – the first ever seen on screen – in a 1950s TV adaptation of Casino Royale. After moving to Hollywood he also gave enjoyably baroque performances in films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s a real shame that he only worked for Hitchcock once more, in 1936’s Secret Agent. Actor and director feel made for each other.

The religious order turns out to be a front for Abbott’s criminal operation: he is arranging the assassination of Ropa, for unspecified reasons, during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (That’s what A. Hall meant in the note.) Bob manages to get word to Jill and she attends the concert. As well as hearing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, which was specifically written for the film, she manages to distract the would-be killer by screaming at the apposite moment. It’s one of the film’s best scenes: tense and edgy.

But it’s not the end of the story. Betty and Bob are still being held prisoner by Abbott and his cronies, so armed police surround the Tabernacle of the Sun and an epic, Wild West-style shootout develops. The 15-minute sequence was influenced by the Siege of Sidney Street, a violent confrontation between police and Latvian revolutionaries that took place in east London in January 1911. Alfred Hitchcock had been 11 years old at the time and lived nearby, so would have remembered it well. The harum-scarum scale doesn’t especially match the rest of the film, which mostly takes place in paranoid shadows, but at least Jill’s sharpshooting skills come in handy.

Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that the film’s not as good as it could be. It’s a story about the assassination of a man we don’t care about; about a couple who don’t seem unduly worried about their missing daughter. Thirty years after the release of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock said it had been the ‘work of a talented amateur’. The 1956 movie with the same title, he said, ‘was made by a professional.’ In the next blog, let’s see if he was right…

Six men in trenchcoats out of 10


Suspicion (1941)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young heiress falls for a charming rogue. But after their wedding she begins to doubt his intentions…

While there’s a nice, rising menace in this story, events start conventionally enough. Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) comes from a stuffy, drab, middle-England life; she meets charmer Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant); he sweeps her off her feet; they fall in love and quickly marry. But then when they return from their honeymoon, Lina learns that Johnnie’s skint and a cheat and a liar.

You feel for Lina’s plight. She’s trapped in a bad situation she didn’t see coming – and sadly the modern-day solution (telling him to get lost) doesn’t seem to be an option. Johnnie is clearly a wrong’un. He pawns two priceless chairs that were a wedding present from her father, shows little concern when his best friend nearly chokes to death, then pretends to have a job just to stop Lina asking too many questions. But because he’s played by Cary Grant, he also has genuine charisma and you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Then, on the day the increasingly worried Lina learns Johnnie was sacked weeks previously for stealing £2,000 from his employer, her father dies. Johnnie soon has designs on the family inheritance, but is visibly disappointed when they don’t get anything from the will. So he starts planning a dodgy-sounding real-estate deal with his friend Beaky (played by a fun Nigel Bruce). But then Lina suspects that her husband plans to kills his mate – in a nice Hitchcockian moment, the idea hits her while she fiddles with some Scrabble tiles and spells out the word ‘murder’. Beaky dies a few days later…

The tension’s mounting now, especially after Johnnie drives dangerously down a clifftop road with passenger Lina fearing for her life. But then comes the truth: Johnnie has an alibi for Beaky’s death. He’s a crook, yes, but not a killer. And now the film rather undercuts itself. An unsatisfying ending can undo a lot of good work – and as Lina begs her shit of a husband for another chance, you’re suddenly reminded that Suspicion was made in a bygone era. In a final moment with troubling undertones, Johnnie says they have no future but then puts his arm around her as they drive home.

Six men posting letters out of 10

Vampira (1974, Clive Donner)

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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.

Note: In order to trade on the success of Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein, this movie was released in America under the title Old Dracula.

Setting: Transylvania and London, 1974.

Faithful to the novel? No, it just uses the character of Count Dracula (played here by David Niven). He wants to resurrect his long-dead love, Vampira, and needs some blood. So he invites a party of Playboy Playmates over to Transylvania – they think they’re there for a photoshoot with a writer – and takes samples of their blood. However, due to a mix-up, Dracula and his loyal manservant Maltravers (Peter Bayliss) use the blood of the one non-white Playmate. So when Vampira awakens she’s now black (and played by Teresa Graves). No, seriously, this actually happens. She’s a fan of her new look, but Dracula sets about reversing the process. To do this he flies to London with Vampira and Maltravers to track down the other Playmates and to acquire their blood. The writer from the photoshoot, Marc (Nicky Henson), gets mixed up in it all, as does his friend Angela (Jennie Lindon). Eventually, after much busking about, the plot resolves when Vampira bites her husband… and changes his ethnicity too. (For the final scene, I’m sorry to report, Niven is blacked up.)

Best performance: Despite the dodgy finale, David Niven is effortlessly entertaining. He’s giving the David Niven performance of cool, unfussy charm. (By the way, this is a Vlad-is-Dracula movie: we’re told that the count used to be Vlad the Impaler and he even uses the name Count Vladimir at times.)

Best bit: There’s a neat trick when Dracula hypnotises Marc and Niven takes over the role for a scene. The switch between actors comes in a fun dissolve as Marc looks at himself in a mirror.

Review: Hmm… There are two films here, operating side-by-side and in conjunction, and they need reviewing separately. One is a madcap, rough-round-the-edges, schlocky comedy horror with some oddball casting choices (David Niven! Bernard Bresslaw! Carol Cleveland!), plenty of attractive models trying to act, lots of impressive incidental music, and some likeably silly gags. Sadly, the other movie is an embarrassingly dated mess of antiquated gender, sexual and racial politics. Teresa Graves is very watchable presence as Vampira, but she has to gamely ignore a plotline that’s based on her skin colour being an unwanted aberration and something different from the ‘norm’. If you can excuse that as naivety, the film has an enjoyably quirky tone and it’s clearly not taking itself too seriously. So maybe we shouldn’t either.

Six fake fangs out of 10

Penny Dreadful: season one (2014)

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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: An early scene in episode one tells us it’s 22 September 1891. The events mostly take place in London. We also see a flashbacks to some of the characters’ youths.

Faithful to the novel? This first season of glossy television drama Penny Dreadful takes a couple of characters from Stoker’s book and mixes them with several other 19th-century creations as well as some new elements. The idea of a mash-up of Victorian fictions is nothing new, of course: from the Universal horror movies of the 1940s to Kim Newman’s novel series Anno Dracula and the comic book The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s a well-mined idea. Penny Dreadful’s biggest steal from Dracula is the character Mina Murray, who as the season begins has gone missing. We’re told she was married to a solicitor called Jonathan Harker, but then became embroiled with a mysterious, supernatural creature and became his slave. Her father, the explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), doesn’t appear in the novel but is a lead character here. He’s searching for his daughter with the help of an original character called Vanessa Ives (Eva Green). She’s an enigmatic woman who’s haunted by evil spirits. In episode four, another of Stoker’s creations shows up – but oddly Professor Van Helsing (David Warner) is a colleague of a non-Dracula character. Vanessa also makes a passing reference to Henry Irving, Bram Stoker’s real-life employer and mentor who was an influence on Dracula’s eponymous villain. Away from Stoker, Penny Dreadful’s dramatis personae is a mixture of people borrowed from famous literature (Dr Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray) and characters invented for the show.

Best performance: Eva Green plays Vanessa like a swan – she’s an elegant, controlled beauty but there’s enormous power and violence under the surface. The character is a torrid mix of guilt and doubt yet hides it so well, and Green’s performance ranges from serene poise to literally foaming at the mouth. In episode two, for example, there’s an extraordinary séance sequence that sees her possessed by malevolent, foul-mouthed spirits. It’s a bravura piece of acting. Incidentally, Green is just one of many Penny Dreadful alumni who have connections to the James Bond films. She played Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, while elsewhere there’s also creator/writer John Logan (who co-wrote Skyfall and Spectre), executive producer Sam Mendes (who directed Skyfall and Spectre), and actors Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill), Rory Kinear (Quantum of Solace onwards), Joseph Millson (Casino Royale) and Helen McClory (Skyfall).

Finest episode: Closer Than Sisters, the dark, twisted, intensely peculiar fifth episode, is a thing of wonder. It’s an hour-long flashback, telling Vanessa’s back story, filling in some of her mystery and explaining her connection to the Murrays. Vanessa suffers family upheaval, demonic possession and extreme medical ‘treatment’.

Review: The world presented in Penny Dreadful is a fascinating place, if not that original. It’s ‘Gothicana’: a never-existed London of Cockney boozers, opium dens, Pall Mall gentlemen’s clubs, secret crime gangs, mentions of Jack the Ripper, prostitutes waiting in fogbound streets, rat-infested docks, Tower Bridge under construction, and Grand Guignol theatre shows. It’s a shame the drama that takes place there isn’t more gripping. A big problem is a distinct lack of urgency. The various stories meander along, and we drift from subplot to subplot. There are sparks of energy when the characters start to crossover and collide – there’s a terrific sequence at a theatre in episode four which has Ethan, Bronagh, Vanessa, Dorian, Caliban and Sebene all in attendance – but all too often there’s a slow, earnest pace. There is some genuine horror and a few shocking plot twists, but sadly the show is a bit humourless and pretentious.

Six exorcisms out of 10

Dracula (1979, John Badham)

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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: The entire film takes place in and around Whitby – so we never see Castle Dracula nor go to London. It’s slightly later than the 1890s of the novel, evidenced by the presence of cars. Some sources claim it’s 1913.

Faithful to the novel? The script is based on the 1920s stage adaptation of Dracula and differs from the book in several key ways.
* As mentioned above, the action is limited to Whitby.
* The story begins with the wreck of the Demeter and the eponymous character’s arrival in Britain.
* Unlike in the novel, Count Dracula (Frank Langella) makes friends with the good guys before starting to seduce the women.
* The hero characters’ relationships have been jumbled around. Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is now the daughter of Dr Jack Seward (a fruity Donald Pleasence), rather than someone he wants to marry. Her other suitors from the book, Arthur and Quincey, have been dropped. And her role in the story has also been swapped with that of her friend Mina (Jan Francis), who now becomes Dracula’s first victim. In another break from the book, Mina is the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), who appears on the scene after she dies.
* Because of the Lucy/Mina switch, solicitor Jonathan Harker (an over-keen Trevor Eve) is now the boyfriend of Lucy. He also never goes to Transylvania, though is still dealing with the Count’s affairs.
* Local man Renfield (Tony Haygarth) is not an inmate at Seward’s sanatorium, as in the novel, but he still falls under Dracula’s thrall.
* The building the vampire has bought, meanwhile, is in Whitby not London – and is a Gothic castle rather than a townhouse.

Best performance: Frank Langella had been playing Dracula in a Broadway revival of the stage play since October 1977. Whether trading cool repartee over dinner or climbing down the side of a building, the Count exudes charm and authority. He wears a cape but uses a neutral accent and, at the insistence of Langella, never flashes any fangs.

Best bit: Well, it’s certainly not the bit where Mina can’t breathe after her sexual encounter with Dracula. What does medical expert Dr Seward do? He slaps her round the face and shouts the word ‘Breathe’ a few times. Not too surprisingly, she then dies. More positively, the sight of the undead Mina is a creepy bit of make-up.

Review: There’s some great staging in this film. The sets are very impressive, while the wreck of the Demeter on a beach is achieved via a full-size ship on a real location. There’s also a good attempt to beef up the gothic-romance side of the story, especially in the subplot of Lucy’s fascination with Dracula. (Their ‘sex scene’ is dramatised by trippy, music-video-like visuals put together by James Bond title-sequence designer Maurice Binder.) John Williams’s score is terrific too. But the whole enterprise has a very earnest tone. The cast – some good, some poor – are fighting against a lacklustre script and the cinematography is very cold with lots of drab, lifeless greys. (Although, perhaps I’m being unfair on that last point because the movie on DVD looks very different from its 1979 print. Director John Badham had wanted to shoot the film in black and white – partly as a homage to the 1931 Dracula – but was overruled by his bosses at Universal Pictures. So when it was released on Laserdisc in 1991, he took the opportunity to de-saturate the image, bringing it closer in line with his original vision. That’s the default version now, which is a shame.)

Six children of the night (what sad music they make) out of 10

The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

American Dre Parker is the target of bullies when he moves to Beijing, so the local handyman comes to his aid…

Cast and story:
* This remake of The Karate Kid, filmed 26 years after the original, follows the same basic storyline. But there are also some significant changes.
* Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is an American boy who’s forced to move to China when his mother, Shelley (Taraji P Henson), gets a new job. Unlike the original movie’s 16-year-old Daniel, Dre is just 12.
* They leave a drab, saturated, rainy Detroit and fly to the vibrant, bright, busy Beijing. It soon becomes clear that one of the aims of this American/Chinese co-production is to show off China in a positive light. Both the city and the surrounding countryside look gorgeous, while the film ignores any difficult political stuff.
* Having moved into an apartment building, Dre soon meets handyman Han (Jackie Chan). He’s a bit of a loner and doesn’t mix with the other workmen. (Han solo, you might say.) He also tinkers with a damaged car that’s parked inside his home.
* Dre then plays basketball with some new friends (not football, as in the 1984 film). He flirts with a girl called Meiying (Wenwen Han) but irritates a local bully called Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng and his cronies are soon picking on Dre, who tries to fight back but ends up getting hurt.
* So, wanting a way of defending himself, Dre seeks out a local kung-fu school. (Yup, that’s right. Because we’re in China, the story’s martial art is kung-fu not karate. They kept the movie title from 1984 just for marketing reasons.) But wouldn’t you know it? The school he investigates is where Cheng and co are being taught how to be thugs by a psycho sensei.
* This telling of the story has no fancy-dress party, but Dre – like Daniel before him – still can’t resist tipping water over Cheng and legging it. Cheng gives chase through the streets and eventually corners him. Cheng and his gang then start to beat Dre up, but Han appears and stops them with ease… Now, here is a significant area where this movie has missed the point of the original. In the 1984 film, it’s a huge moment when the elderly, short, meek Mr Miyagi quashes a rough, tough gang of aggressive teenagers. He shouldn’t be able to do that! Here, however, the teenagers have been aged down to 12. And the Mr Miyagi figure is played by Jackie fucking Chan. *Of course* he can best a gang of brats. He’d still win if there were a hundred of them! The surprise, the wow factor, is totally lost by these casting choices.
* Han visits the king-fu school and – like Mr Miyagi in 1984 – strikes a deal with the bullies’ teacher, Li (Yu Rongguang). Cheng will leave Dre alone until after an upcoming tournament. The sequence is capped by a good gag: because the deal is struck in Chinese, it’s only on the walk home that Dre finds out he has to fight in a competition. “Huh?” he asks, not unreasonably.
* We then get the equivalent of the wax-on/wax-off stuff from the original – but with a nice twist. Dre has a habit of dropping his coat on the floor, and Han had earlier seen his mother getting irate about it. So, to begin with, Dre’s training regime consists *only* of him hanging his jacket up, putting it back on, taking it off, hanging it up again… and so on, ad infinitum. Of course, Dre gets frustrated with doing this a thousand times, but he’s unconsciously learning the basic kung-fu moves.
* Meanwhile, Dre is also still trying to chat up Meiying. They see each other at a shadow-puppet show and share a kiss. But her fussy parents object to her dating an American boy when she should be practising the violin. (Later, though, they’re impressed when Dre learns how to suck up to them in Chinese.)
* Jackie Chan then gets the same drama scene that Pat Morita had in the original: Dre finds Han drunk and mourning his dead family. Mr Miyagi’s wife and son died 40 years earlier in childbirth; Han’s were killed in a car crash – in the car he’s now obsessively tinkering with. It’s a very sweet moment when Dre pulls his friend out of his depression.
* After a training montage, we’re into the Open Kung-fu Tournament. The story then follows much the same beats as in 1984.

Review: This remake of The Karate Kid is enjoyable enough, with a mixture of pros and cons. It’s directed with an indie sensibility, so as well as lots of handheld camerawork we get some lovely and kooky images. When the drama comes it’s often effective – especially the moment when Dre realises Han’s been teaching him to fight – while the fights themselves are great; helped by some violent sound effects, you feel every punch and kick. But the movie is too long (135 minutes) and lowering the characters’ ages works against the story. Writing Dre and the other kids as 12-year-olds makes the bullies seem silly rather than menacing; gives Han an unfair advantage; and pushes Dre’s ‘romance’ with Meiying into uncomfortable territory. Presumably the switch was made so that Jaden Smith – the son of executive producer Will Smith – could be cast.

Six cobras out of 10

The Karate Kid Part II (1986, John G Avildsen)

karate-kid-part-2

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Mr Miyagi hears that his father is dying, he returns home to Okinawa. His young friend Daniel comes with him, but both are soon the targets of bullies…

Cast and story:
* We begin with a recap montage of the first film. (Don’t you miss sequels that did that?) So we’re reminded of how schoolboy Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) met handyman-cum-karate-teacher Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) and how a close friendship developed between them. It’s a lengthy sequence: almost five minutes.
* Then there are scenes set immediately after the climax of the first film. Daniel’s mum and girlfriend are said to have gone on ahead to a restaurant (to save hiring the actresses), but bad guy John Kreese (Martin Kove) is there. He’s aggressive and racist, so Mr Miyagi puts him in his place and embarrasses him.
* We then cut to six months later. Daniel has been dumped off-screen by Ali, while his mother has to go away for a few weeks for work, then Mr M gets a letter from an old pal in Okinawa. His father is seriously ill so he must leave for Japan. Faithful Daniel goes too because he’s now at a loose end over summer.
* When they arrive, things don’t go well. Miyagi’s former best friend, Sato (Danny Kamekona), is still holding a grudge from 45 years earlier and wants a fight to the death. Turns out, Mr M fell in love with a woman who was planning to marry Sato.
* Our heroes also meet Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto), a young thug with a shit-eating grin who works for his uncle Sato. He takes against Daniel because… well, you know, plot.
* Also living in the village are Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman Miyagi fell in love with, and her hot niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), who shares a flirtation subplot with Daniel. In one romantic sequence the young pair explore a coastal area typified by some dodgy matte paintings of ancient ruins.
* After Mr M’s father dies, Sato gives him three days to mourn but then wants the duel he’s been waiting 45 years for. Meanwhile, Daniel has pissed off Chozen (somehow) so he’s got problems of his own.
* After a lot of going round in circles, things finally reach a head when there’s a violent storm. Sato’s house is destroyed, but because Mr M is a nice guy he saves his rival’s life. Sato is grateful and the grudge is forgotten (yay!).
* However, Chozen still wants to hurt Daniel (seriously, pal, get over it!). So he gate-crashes a ceremonial dance being held in the matte-painting castle and attacks Daniel. The pair fight and Daniel gets the upper hand, but because he’s a nice guy he declines to kill his rival.

Review: This disappointing sequel suffers from three main problems. Firstly, it lacks drive. There’s a sedate pace to the storytelling – especially in the middle third – while neither Mr Miyagi nor Daniel are ever attempting to achieve anything beyond ‘not getting beaten up’. Secondly, the dialogue is often tiresome with lots of scenes of Daniel asking questions and Mr M explaning Okinawan culture. There are also several lines that feel like they’ve been added to explain a plot hole (“But I thought you said…”, that kind of thing). And thirdly, the story is difficult to get excited about. The plot sees grown men bullying the elderly and a teenager over something that happened 45 years ago. You spend half the film wondering why Daniel and Mr Miyagi don’t just shrug their shoulders and go back home. Even potentially interesting story material feels thrown away. Our characters’ overseas visit is a trip back in time – to a country of old cars, antiquated customs and rock’n’roll music. Meanwhile, a nearby US Army base is eating up the village, bringing modernity and danger. Helicopters sometimes fly past in the background of bucolic scenes. But none of this has any bearing on the story.

Six handheld drums out of 10

Be Here Now (1997)

oasis-be-here-now-artwork-large-1469112956Cover: An archly staged shot of the band in the grounds of a Georgian mansion. The Rolls-Royce in the swimming pool is a reference to an urban myth about Keith Moon of The Who. What’s less obvious is that the motor’s number plate (SYD 724F) is the same as a van’s on the cover of the Beatles album Abbey Road. Be Here Now’s release date (Thursday 21 August) is visible on a calendar, while the inflatable globe is a call-back to the Definitely Maybe artwork. The album title doesn’t actually appear on the cover.

Best track: D’You Know What I Mean? was the album’s lead single and is its opening track. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster with huge guitar sounds, massive production, electronic noises, a string section, a wild guitar solo and even aircraft flying by. The lyrics mention two Beatles songs – The Fool on the Hill and I Feel Fine – while some Morse-code beeping is a reference to another: Strawberry Fields Forever. The track also uses the ‘Amen break’ drum pattern, one of the most copied pieces of music ever. In 2016, a remix called D’You Know What I Mean? (NG’s 2016 Rethink) was released. It tones down some of the excessive production and is a blander listen. The strings are more prominent, but it misses the original’s oomph.

Honourable mentions:
* Noel Gallagher sings the lead vocal on Magic Pie, which starts out pleasingly gentle then takes off. There’s a vaguely psychedelic feel at times, as well as lyrics that paraphrase a speech Tony Blair gave at the 1996 Labour Party Conference: “There are but a thousand days preparing for a thousand years.” (Coincidentally, Be Here Now was mastered on the first day of Blair’s premiership.) The track does admittedly bang on, which is a recurring problem with this album.
* Stand By Me was the album’s second single. It got to number two, being held off the top spot by Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997. Written while Noel had food poisoning – hence the line “Made a meal and threw it up on Sunday” – it’s obviously not a patch on the Ben E King song of the same name. But it’s still a likeable, string-driven ballad.
* Fade In-Out has a Wild West-sounding opening – all stark, skeletal guitars, like something from a Bon Jovi B-side. Then a primal scream at the 190-second mark kicks it into a higher gear – the idea for which came to Noel late one night and he woke his wife up by trying it out. Incidentally, Johnny Depp plays slide guitar on this track. (It was the 90s.)
* The soulful Don’t Go Away was written in 1993 when Oasis were hanging out with a band called The Real People, who later hinted it was a naughty copy of one of their tracks.
* All Around the World is frankly ridiculous – a nine-minute, repetitive, derivative and simplistic singalong with three key changes. But you have to chuckle at the sheer gall. It was actually written before Definitely Maybe, but Noel held off recording it until he had the muscle to produce it as an overblown epic. The song became the longest-ever number one when released as a single in January 1998. Hardly original in itself, it was then uncannily echoed in the melody of Hear’Say’s 2001 hit Pure and Simple. Noel was asked whether he’d like to sue for plagiarism. Showing the kind of self-awareness he rarely gets enough credit for, he just laughed.

Worst track: Whereas the enormous production on D’You Know What I Mean? sounds tight and controlled, My Big Mouth is just a rambling mess. It reportedly has 30 separate guitars on it, which swamp an already boring tune. People who dismiss Oasis as ‘dad rock’ probably think this is what all their songs sound like.

Weirdest lyric: In the drab title track, this nonsensical verse appears twice: “Wash your face in the morning sun/Flash your pen at the song that I’m singing/Touch down bass living on the run/Make no sweat of the hole that you’re digging.” There’s then a mention of Digsy, the band’s mate who had a whole song written about him on Definitely Maybe.

Best video: The promo for All Around the World drops Oasis into a surreal animation that owes a great debt to the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine and not a small amount to the work of Terry Gilliam.

Review: The week of Be Here Now’s release seemed amazingly stage-managed. On the Tuesday there was a hubris-heavy documentary about the band on BBC1. Radio play of the album’s tracks was limited (reportedly because the record company thought they weren’t very good). Then branches of HMV opened at midnight on Thursday morning for eager fans to buy the album as soon as possible. All this created mystery and anticipation and resulted in first-day sales of 424,000 copies – an astronomical figure. But now it’s been 20 years (!) and the dust has not only settled but been blown away and forgotten, how does Be Here Now stand up? Sadly, it lacks the quality-control of the first two Oasis LPs. A number of songs are bland, almost all of them are too long, lyrics plumb new depths of meaninglessness, and the production is overblown in a way that only cocaine-quaffing rock bands can achieve. There is good stuff here, but it’s overshadowed by the bad.

Six questions are the answers you might need out of 10