Die Hard 4.0 (2007, Len Wiseman)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: In North America, this film is called Live Free or Die Hard. But it was thought that the rest of the world wouldn’t get the pun on New Hampshire’s state motto (‘Live free or die’). The replacement title is arguably a better fit, given the movie’s subject matter, and director Len Wiseman and star Bruce Willis have both said they prefer it.

When cyber-terrorists take control of every Government computer system in America, New York cop John McClane teams up with a young hacker to stop them…

Source material: The genesis of this movie lies a magazine article by John Carlin called A Farewell to Arms, which was published in 1997 and investigated cyber-terrorism. Its research and ideas were then used as the basis of a film script called WW3.com, but production was postponed due to the 9/11 attacks. A few years later, it was dusted down and rejigged as a Die Hard sequel.

John McClane: It’s been 12 years since we last saw our hero. In that time, he’s lost both his wife and his hair. He also has an edgy relationship with his now-grown-up daughter. Bruce Willis plays the role with noticeably less sparkle than in the previous films: this is a middle-aged, world-weary, grouchy John McClane.

Regulars:
* Lucy Gennero (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was last seen as a small child in the first film. She’s now in her mid-20s and, like her mother two decades earlier, is refusing to use dad John’s surname. She crops up early in the film when her father warns off her boob-grabby boyfriend, then returns much later when the villain takes her hostage. It’s a good, spirited performance from Winstead.

Villain: Nestling somewhere between the first Die Hard’s icy-cool Hans Gruber and the third movie’s OTT Simon, Thomas Gabriel is one of those bad guys who’s so well-funded you wonder why he’s bothering. Seriously, his operation – dozens of goons and nerds, thousands of dollars’ worth of high-powered computers, helicopters, cars, a Knight Rider-style techno-truck – must have cost an absolute fortune. Why doesn’t he just retire to an island somewhere? Well, joking aside, his motivation is that no one listened when he warned the authorities that the US was open to a crippling cyber-attack. So he’s decided to do it himself to teach them a lesson. Timothy Olyphant is suitably intense in the role, and also has a couple of dry one-liners. His chief sidekick is Mai Linh (Maggie Q), a sexy Asian chick who can beat people up. (Was this film written by men, by any chance?)

Music: The unremarkable score is by Marco Beltrami. (Michael Kamen, who worked on the opening trilogy, had died in 2003.) Credence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 song Fortunate Son is heard on a radio in one scene – John is disappointed that his young friend Matthew doesn’t know it.

Review: The Die Hard series moves into the 21st century. The world has changed since John McClane’s last outing, so we now get a plot built around cyber-terrorism. There are lots of computer screens and keyboards and servers and cables and primitive smart phones and Red Bull-gulping hackers listening to loud nu-metal music (and never using a mouse). All that coupled with a race-against-the-clock storyline means the whole movie is reminiscent of TV show 24, especially in the way that computers can basically do *anything* the plot requires. Later on, we also meet Warlock (Kevin Smith), an angry geek living in his mother’s basement surrounded by Star Wars toys. It’s a fun world to drop the old-fashioned John McClane into. He feels out-of-place and is far from comfortable with computers and modern technology. It’s a case of PC vs McClane, you might say if you were stretching for a pun that doesn’t really work. But the movie also has a huge sense of Hollywood scale. Outdoor scenes often feature masses of extras and wide-open spaces, while the stunts and general carnage are ridiculously overblown. Plausibility and the laws of physics are thrown out of the plate-glass window as cars fly through the air and crash into helicopters. With such an action-movie budget to play with, in fact, it’s a shame that so many dialogue scenes in vehicles are shot against unconvincing greenscreens. But the spine of the story is another buddy-movie team-up. This time, John McClane’s companion is 20-something whizzkid Matthew Farrell (Justin Long) and they’re an entertaining partnership. The age difference is used for several gags and characters beats (John is “a Timex watch in a digital world”), while the two actors have chemistry. And for all its flashy pyrotechnics, Die Hard 4.0 is actually about something: the film has comments to make about society’s overreliance on technology. (In a neat gag, a Terminator action figure – a symbol of cold, soulless, artificial intelligence – falls off a shelf and starts a bomb.) It might lack the bite of the first three films – it’s a 12 certificate, for example, so the dialogue is not as colourful – but Die Hard 4.0 zips along and is very enjoyable hokum.

Seven fire sales out of 10

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Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An enigmatic man called Simon forces Lieutenant John McClane to complete a series of tasks and puzzles in New York City – otherwise he’ll blow up a school…

Source material: Whereas the first two Die Hard movies were adapted from unrelated novels, this one is based on a film script called Simon Says. Originally intended as a standalone thriller, it was then rewritten as a potential Lethal Weapon sequel. But after Bruce Willis rejected several storylines for a third Die Hard film – including an idea that was later used for Speed 2: Cruise Control – Simon Says was appropriated and retooled as Die Hard With a Vengeance.

John McClane: He’s in a bad way as the story begins. John’s back working as a cop in New York but has been suspended; he hasn’t spoken to his wife for a year, and spends the whole film with a monster hangover. Incidentally, between the previous Die Hard movie and this one, Bruce Willis had cameoed as John McClane in Loaded Weapon 1. One of the leads of that 1993 comedy film was Samuel L Jackson, who’s the chief guest star of Die Hard With a Vengeance. Both Willis and Jackson were also in Pulp Fiction together in 1994, though their characters only shared one scene and didn’t talk to each other. So as an in-joke during Die Hard With a Vengeance, John McClane quotes some lyrics from Flowers on the Wall, a song that Bruce Willis’s character listens to in Pulp Fiction.

Regulars: Holly McClane is mentioned a couple of times and we hear her over the telephone briefly. But this is essentially the only Die Hard movie with no recurring characters other than John. 

Villain: The film’s bad guy is only a voice to begin with – he makes calls to the cops and demands that John McClane play parlour games. They deduce that he’s German and clearly holds a grudge against John, yet no one puts zwei and zwei together… The character is played by a blond, athletic Jeremy Irons, who finally appears on screen after 45 minutes. Sadly, it’s a pretty irritating performance. Truly successful bad guys don’t think of themselves as evil; in their heads, they’re the heroes. However, Irons is a paid-up member of the Jonathan Pryce School of Villainy – ie, he thinks his character should be twirling his moustache and laughing manically. (The actor also does a naff American accent during one scene.) He has several lackeys, but none makes much impression. Eventually, it turns out that all the games and puzzles are just a distraction while Simon steals tons of gold bullion from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Why involve John McClane at all? Because Simon is the brother of the first movie’s Hans Gruber and wants revenge for his death.

Music: Michael Kamen returns for a third Die Hard score, and has perhaps too much fun quoting the tune of 19th-century song When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Review: After LA in film one and Washington, DC in film two, the Die Hard series now hits New York – and it’s a very NYC-centric story. Manhattan, Harlem, Central Park, Wall Street, traffic jams, the subway, yellow taxis, coarse cops, rude businessmen – they’re all here! The spine of the story sees Bruce Willis’s John McClane forced to team up with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus Carver, a smart, pragmatic shopkeeper from Harlem. They make a great, bickering team and we’re soon into classic mismatched-duo, buddy-movie territory. The characters bounce around New York, solving puzzles and trading sharp dialogue. It’s a lot of fun… for 45 minutes. Then the actual plot kicks in, Jeremy Irons shows up, and it all becomes very on-the-nose. The stunts get bigger, the villains’ plot becomes more convoluted, the terror levels are raised – but we’ve lost any Die Hard-ish distinction.

Seven sandwich boards out of 10

PS: I spotted an oddity while rewatching this 22-year-old film – the script mentions both candidates from the 2016 US Presidential election…

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (2017, James Gunn)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

As the Guardians of the Galaxy finish a job for a bizarre queen, Peter Quill encounters his long-lost father who turns out to be a god – but not all is as it seems…

The influence of The Empire Strikes Back on sci-fi, sequels and sci-fi sequels has been enormous, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that – whether intentionally or not – this second Guardians of the Galaxy movie contains a number of echoes of it. We get a daring dash through an asteroid field and our heroes are split up into two groups. There’s a snowy planet and a character with a robotic hand. And most significantly, the plot is built around some major fatherly revelations…

We join the team mid-mission: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are fighting an enormous, octopus-like space alien, while Baby Groot (a young offshoot of the first film’s Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel) dances around to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky. In other words, it’s more of the same – just like the first Guardians flick, we’re being entertained with a charming mix of action, jokes, pop music and bright colours. It’s infectious, broad-grin-generating fun. But then, slowly, something happens. The film never loses its sense of humour (a good gag is always around the corner); the cast continue to be likeable and vibrant. However, the longer the story goes on the more vaguely disappointing everything becomes.

Peter’s long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), shows up and takes the Guardians to a CG-heavy planet of wonders. He reveals that he’s a god and he wants Peter to join him in being godly and doing godly things. But then, after some sitting around, the Guardians discover that Ego is not that nice after all so they set out to destroy him. That’s it. Despite a terrific turn from Kurt Russell, the story never really takes flight. Peter’s father was a talked-about, off-screen presence in the first film. There was mystery over who he was and why he abandoned Peter as a child. But the answer – that he’s an eternal being who has planted his seed on planets throughout the galaxy for his own selfish ends – sadly doesn’t make for gripping storytelling. It’s a good idea to focus on Peter and give him some emotional trauma, but there’s a frustrating paucity of twists and turns. (Ego’s nice! No, he isn’t!)

More fun are the subplots. Gamora’s evil sister, Nebula, gets much more screentime than in the first film and actress Karen Gillan does a lot with it. The literal-minded Drax has a fun friendship with Ego’s nervy assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff). There’s a race of uptight, golden-skinned aliens who act as a deus ex machina. The first film’s villain, Michael Rooker’s Yondu, is brought back and retconned as a more-decent-than-you’d-thought anti-villain. (His death is surprisingly touching and the film ekes out as much emotion from it as possible.) Oh, and Sylvester Stallone (no, honestly) shows up as a pointless character who’s presumably being set up for a future sequel.

So while the spine of the film – Ego’s designs on universal power and Peter’s reunion with his dad – doesn’t especially linger in the memory, there are still plenty of pleasures. The Guardians themselves continue to be tremendous company, the new selection of 1970s pop songs on the soundtrack throws up some real gems, and the script is full of funny one-liners. It’s just a shame that the Empire Strikes Back-y-ness doesn’t extend to caring about our heroes’ emotions a bit more.

Seven galactic informants out of 10

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Mystery and Imagination: Dracula (ITV, 18 November 1968, Patrick Dromgoole)

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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 late Victorian era. The action all takes place in a town near the sea. There’s mention of a headland and it’s fair to assume it’s meant to be Whitby. In flashbacks, we also see Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? The British horror anthology show Mystery and Imagination began on the ITV network in 1966. Each episode was an adaptation of a classic story by gothic authors such as MR James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Sheridan Le Fanu and Mary Shelley. Initially, a recurring character – David Buck’s Richard Beckett – was shoehorned into the adaptations, but this conceit had been dropped by the time they got round to doing Dracula. It was the final episode of the show’s fourth series and is essentially a shuffled retelling of the novel.
* As we begin, Count Dracula (Denholm Elliott) is already in London, mixing in polite society. He wears sunglasses, can’t cope with daylight, and has an eastern-European accent.
* The count has befriended a young couple, Dr John Seward (James Maxwell) and Lucy Weston (Susan George); he also seems to know one of Seward’s patients, a mentally unbalanced man (Corin Redgrave) who’s known as 34 after his room number.
* Lucy’s other suitors from the novel – Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Morris – have been dropped. But her mother is still around, played by Joan Hickson.
* John says that 34 was recovered from a local shipwreck, the Demeter. Lucy points out that it’s the same ship that brought Dracula from Varna, a coastal city in Bulgaria.
* John’s old tutor Dr Van Helsing will soon be visiting to examine 34 – Dracula has clearly heard of him and wants to meet him.
* Van Helsing (Bernard Archer) turns up – much earlier than in the novel – and sees 34. The man has been babbling about his ‘master’ and catching flies (as the lunatic Renfield does in the book).
* We learn through filmed flashbacks that 34 once visited Dracula in Transylvania on business. He encountered three vampire Brides (one of whom is played by Carry On dolly bird Margaret Nolan) but Dracula saved him…
* Back in the present day, Dracula tells Lucy that he’s descended from Attila the Hun. Then Lucy’s friend Mina Harker (Suzanne Neve) arrives for a visit. She’s shocked to meet Dracula because her husband, Jonathan, went to see him overseas and never returned. Dracula says Jonathan left the castle safe and well, but then Mina discovers that her hubby is locked up in Seward’s sanitorium: he’s 34! What are the chances?!
* Lucy, who has developed a fascination with Count Dracula, and Mina get a version of the book’s scene where an old duffer ridicules the headstones in the local churchyard. In the novel, the scene takes place before the count arrives in England. Now, after they head home, we see him rise from one of the tombs. He turns into a bat, visits Lucy while she sleeps, turns back into a man, and feeds from her.
* The next day, Lucy is ill so Van Helsing is called in. He clocks the bite marks on her neck and arranges a blood transfusion. He also brings in what John haughtily calls a ‘popish affront to Christian conscious’ – ie, a crucifix – to ward off her attacker. However, in her sleep Lucy knocks the defence away and Dracula attacks her once again.
* Van Helsing tells John about vampires. John reckons they were mythical beings that were supposed to exist in a bygone age and drank the blood of others. Van Helsing says, “Well, Lucy has been attacked by one!” He shows John his research of vampire history – they appear in many cultures’ legends, he says, under a variety of names. When Van Helsing mentions Transylvania, John realises that’s where Dracula comes from. He also twigs that Dracula pretended not to recognise 34 yet we now know he’d met Jonathan Harker.
* John finds Lucy dead – drained of blood. But then she wakes and attempts to attack him. Then she seems dead again. Van Helsing says she’s under Dracula’s thrawl.
* Mina sees the undead Lucy wandering the graveyard. Lucy is now vampiric and ever-so Sapphic: she bites Mina, who enjoys the experience. Dracula then finds and tries to seduce a confused Mina.
* Van Helsing and John open Lucy’s coffin, which is empty. Later, Lucy shows up, wafting around in a white nightgown, and tries to bite John. So Van Helsing wards her off with a crucifix. They find her again in her coffin and Van Helsing stakes her.
* Van Helsing and Mina then ask Jonathan where Dracula is. Harker goes potty, though, when he senses that his wife has been bitten by his master. She can’t remember how she got the bite marks… but then hisses and shrieks and breaks down. She admits that it was Lucy who bit her.
* Van Helsing and John follow the manic Jonathan to the graveyard and realise Dracula is using the unconsecrated grave of a suicide victim as his daytime lair. The count shows up, but the men distract him until the sun rises and destroys him. His demise is done in a gruesome series of crossfades between increasingly burnt and decayed heads.

Best performance: Susan George as Lucy.

Best bit: There’s a lovely rejig of the novel’s plotline going on here. Combining Jonathan Harker and Refield into the same character is a really smart move: he’s in an asylum because of his experiences in Transylvania. The idea is not unique to this version but this sells it best.

Review: This is a very contained piece of television, mostly taking place in just two buildings (plus some minor location filming), and the cast is good and the script tight. It’s an economical idea to only see Transylvania in flashback, for example, while the Whitby-based climax betters the book’s ending in both conception and execution. The dialogue can sometimes be stilted and on-the-nose, but overall this is an enjoyable 80 minutes.

Seven smashed windows out of 10

 

Dig Out Your Soul (2008)

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Cover: It makes my eyes hurt.

Best track: I’m Outta Time was written by Liam Gallagher and is another vehicle for his John Lennon obsession. The piano phrases are similar to Lennon’s 1971 song Jealous Guy, while John himself can be heard towards the end via a snatch of a 1980 interview. But whatever the provenance, the resulting song is enjoyable. It has a resonant, anchoring bassline, a plaintive vocal melody, and a nice mid-tempo rhythm. It was the LP’s second single.

Honourable mentions:
* The Turning (written by Noel Gallagher) is initially based on a hip drum pattern and soft organ chords, and it’s a nice laid-back vibe. The track then turns more rocky for the chorus and guitar solo.
* The Shock of the Lightning – which was the album’s opening single – was both written and recorded very quickly. Noel has said that the finished track is essentially a demo that was good enough to release. It’s an urgent and head-nod-inducing rocker.
* The pleasingly odd (Get Off Your) High Horse Lady has a seesaw rhythm, relentless acoustic strums, handclaps and a distorted lead vocal from Noel, who wrote the song. (It also has a boring 30-second coda of footsteps that we could live without.)
* Falling Down (written and sung by Noel) was this album’s third single and therefore the band’s last ever before splitting suddenly in August 2009. Like a lot of this album, it has a grungy feel with a prominent drum pattern.
* Soldier On is another down-and-dirty production, with a swampy-sounding bass guitar. This is the last track on the last Oasis album and was written by Liam.

Worst track: Ain’t Got Nothing is a rambling, uncontrolled and irritating track written by Liam.

Weirdest lyric: The first song on the album, Bag It Up, starts with this piece of nonsense: “Gold and silver and sunshine is rising up/Pour yourself another cup of Lady Grey/Take my hand in the meantime, when you’ve had enough/You’ll find me on the end of a runway, babe.”

Best video: I’m Outta Time’s promo is in black and white, and sees Liam hanging out with foxes and owls.

Review: Before starting work on Dig Out Your Soul, Noel told a reporter that he wanted to make ‘an absolutely fucking colossal album’ – and this does fit the bill. It’s dominated by a huge, heavy, distorted sound. But because of this it lacks variety – even after several listens, many songs blur into one.

Seven days turning to night out of 10

Don’t Believe the Truth (2005)

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Cover: Some garages seen through a fish-eye lens. Meh. By the way, Oasis were now down to a four-piece, all of whom write tracks on this album. Drummer Alan White had quit in 2004 but his replacement – Zak Starkey of The Who and the son of Ringo Starr – was not considered a full member of the band.

Best track: The Importance of Being Idle was written (and really well sung) by Noel Gallagher. It’s in the cor-blimey-gov’nor, music-hall style of The Kinks but also has a soulful, characterful feel. It was released as this album’s second single and got to number one. The title was taken from The Importance of Being Idle: A Little Book of Inspiration, a paperback by Stephen Robins that belonged to Noel’s girlfriend, Sara.

Honourable mentions:
* Turn Up The Sun, written by Andy Bell, is a decent opener with a jangly guitar intro.
* Mucky Fingers has an incessant, drilling beat to the guitar chops, drums and piano. There’s also a harmonica. The song was written by Noel, as was…
* The rocky Lyla, which also has a relentless, four-beats-in-a-bar rhythm. When the record label weren’t impressed with the album as original presented, this song was specifically recorded to give it some extra oomph. It was then released as a single and got to number one. Noel has said that the character Lyla is intended to be the sister of the Sally mentioned in Don’t Look Back in Anger.
* Guess God Thinks I’m Abel (the finest Oasis song written by Liam Gallagher) is an interesting, acoustic track with Indian-sounding percussion. The lyrics are a let-down – the able/Abel pun in the title doesn’t go anywhere – but there’s a nice musical surprise at the end. With 30 seconds to go there’s a dramatic change of pace and tone.
* Part of the Queue (written by Noel) has a fun, jazzy rhythm with guitar, piano, bass and drums all seemingly playing their own tune. It works.

Worst track: The Meaning of Soul is a fairly uninspiring effort written by Liam. There’s also a tiresome repetition of the heavy beat you’ve already heard in Mucky Fingers and Lyla. At least it’s quite short.

Weirdest lyric: Noel goes all-out gushy on album closer Let There Be Love: “I hope the weather is calm as you sail up your heavenly stream/Suspended clear in the sky are the words that we sing in our dreams.”

Best video: The promo for The Importance of Being Idle is a smartly shot parody of 1960s kitchen-sink dramas. It also shares some similarities with the video for Dead End Street, a 1966 Kinks song that inspired the track. A game Rhys Ifans stars as a man attending his own funeral, while Oasis cameo as funeral directors. The outdoor scenes were shot on streets not far from where I live: they’re in East Greenwich, near a couple of nice pubs, and have also featured in two films about the Kray twins (1990’s The Krays and 2015’s Legend). Stylish and witty, this is Oasis’s best video.

Review: The recording of this album took a long time, with various producers having a go at corralling the material. Coupled with the fact that all four members were contributing songs, maybe this is why Don’t Believe The Truth struggles to feel like a cohesive unit. There’s no real flow to it; play the tracks in a random order and not much would be lost. But there are still some entertaining songs here.

Seven buttons and bows out of 10

Heathen Chemistry (2002)

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Cover: A really boring, black-and-white, distorted shot of the band. This was the first Oasis album with new members Gem Archer (guitar) and Andy Bell (bass), who’d joined in 2000. They brought with them a more democratic approach to songwriting: here, every member of the band bar the drummer contributes.

Best track: The Hindu Times is energetic and infectious. It was the lead single from the album and became Oasis’s sixth number one. The title comes from a T-shirt Noel saw in a charity shop.

Honourable mentions:
* Stop Crying Your Heart Out was the album’s second single. It’s a lush, bombastic and unsubtle rehash of old Oasis tunes. You can hear elements (or at least echoes) of Slide Away, The Masterplan, Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back in Anger. But it’s inoffensive.
* The overly simple but pleasant-sounding Songbird was written by Liam Gallagher and is an ode to his then girlfriend, Nicole Appleton (who cameos in the promotional video). When released as a single in February 2003 it became the first Oasis A-side not written by Noel.
* Little By Little is a pocket-rocket of a track, packing a lot of punch into four minutes. It was released as a double A-side single with the disposable She is Love, which also appears on Heathen Chemistry. Noel sings the lead vocal on both.
* The entertaining (Probably) All in the Mind has a guitar solo played by Smiths legend Johnny Marr.
* Born on a Different Cloud – written by Liam – has the feel of a John Lennon record. The lead vocals are drenched in reverb, for example, which was Lennon’s preference too. The lyric also uses a phrase – “Busy working overtime” – from Happiness is a Warm Gun, a Beatles song John wrote in 1968. There’s a good bottom end, while the lead guitar pierces through well.
* The funky Better Man, meanwhile, sounds like the Stone Roses circa 1994. It’s another track written by Liam.

Worst track: Sadly, the contributions from the band’s two new members do not impress. Hung in a Bad Place, written by Gem Archer, is a tired pub-band rocker, while Andy Bell’s A Quick Peep is a throwaway instrumental.

Weirdest lyric: Hung in a Bad Place contains this gem from Gem: “I can sing to the trees/Tarzan on harmonies for free, yeah.”

Best video: Little By Little’s promo stars actor Robert Carlyle as a tiny little man in central London who mouths along to the song as people ignore him. Noel is busking in a doorway, while the other members of Oasis have cameos. Everyone in the video is dressed in muted, dark colours – then Liam appears in a startlingly white jacket. He helps Robert Carlyle get up from the floor and magically turns him back to 5′ 7″. Bobby then shoulder-bumps him – which may be a reference to the Verve’s video for Bittersweet Symphony – but Liam doesn’t react. (Well, you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with Begbie from Trainspotting, would you?) London then morphs into a country lane and now Robert is a giant. Obvs.

Personal connection: The second and final time I saw Oasis live was when they toured to promote this album. At their gig in Finsbury Park, London, on 5 July 2002, the support bands were The Coral, Proud Mary, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and The Charlatans. Oasis did a cover of My Generation and dedicated it to The Who’s bassist, John Entwistle, who’d died the week before. 

Review: This one sees Oasis go back to basics after the studio flamboyance of recent albums. There’s a simplicity to some tracks, which means the album doesn’t stand up too well to repeat listens. But the good stuff is worth checking out.

Seven wheels of your life have slowly fallen off out of 10

Dracula’s Widow (1988, Christopher Coppola)

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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 1980s. A seedy, neon-lit Hollywood full of punk gangs, graffiti and rain.

Faithful to the novel? This 80s B-movie is essentially a sequel to the events of Bram Stoker’s novel. In Los Angeles, a wax museum is preparing for a new display based on the long-dead Count Dracula and an extra crate of materials is delivered from Romania. It contains a female vampire called Vanessa (Sylvia Kristel), who wakes up from hibernation and says she wants to find a way to get home to Romania. While she puts absolutely no effort at all into that, she goes on a killing spree. She also enslaves the museum’s manager, Raymond Everett (Lenny von Dohlen). But she’s troubled when Raymond tells her that her husband, Count Dracula, was killed many years ago. Meanwhile, a cop called Hap Lannon (Josef Sommer) is investigating her murders. Soon, local antiques dealer Helsing (Stefan Schnabel) figures out that vampires are in LA and offers Lannon help. He’s the grandson of the famed Dr Van Helsing who killed Dracula in 1893. The movie contains a few other references to the Dracula myth: at one point we see Raymond watching the 1922 film Nosferatu, while his girlfriend has the same surname as one of the novel’s characters (Harker) and sleepwalks like another (Lucy).

Best performance: Josef Sommer as LAPD Detective Hap Lannon. Here’s a character actor having fun with a rare leading role. He plays the film-noir voiceover for all its worth, wears a hat and raincoat, smokes, and tosses off the dime-novel dialogue. (Hap jokingly claims to be Sam Spade’s nephew.)

Best bit: The schlocky special effects are a real treat. The physical monster make-up and gore are both gross and charmingly cheesy. (Vanessa turning into a bat during the climax is more risible, though. You can almost see the prop’s strings.)

Review: The film has a lot of style to it. It’s lit like a giallo movie, with lots of bold colours that expressionistically match the mood of the scene (and even change during a shot to reflect the drama). The production design is also good fun. The story is set in the 1980s, yet the feel and look of a 1940s or 50s noir is never far way. However, the story is muddled and drab, and there’s a very mixed cast (Sylvia Kristel is especially rubbish). It’s enjoyable in a trashy kind of way, though doesn’t linger long in the memory. The film was directed by Christopher Coppola, the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola (who made his Dracula movie a few years later). In a not-so-sly nod to his famous relative, Christopher places the museum of the story right next to Francis’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Seven pentagrams out of 10

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The evil Galactic Empire is building a planet-killing weapon, so the Rebel Alliance sends a young woman called Jyn Erso to talk to her father: the man who designed it…

WHICH VERSION? There’s only one. The on-screen title is simply Rogue One.

GOOD GUYS:

* Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a young woman who can handle herself in a fight and has an independent spirit. As a child she saw her father arrested and her mother killed, so went on the run. Now, 15 years later, she’s a prisoner of the Empire. She’s soon rescued by the Rebel Alliance, who convince her to find her estranged father. He designed the Death Star, an enormous space station capable of destroying entire planets, and they want to know its weaknesses. Joining forces with a Rebel captain and a few others, Jyn eventually tracks down her dad on the planet Eadu, but he’s then killed in front of her. Helpfully, she’d earlier seen a message he pre-recorded which explains how the Death Star can be destroyed. So Jyn tries to rally the pessimistic Rebels: she pitches that they steal the station’s blueprints from a heavily guarded Imperial planet. When the Rebel bosses say no, she goes anyway with her newly formed gang, giving some rousing motivational speeches along the way… Sadly, Jyn is a character who’s very difficult to care about. Actress Felicity Jones is one-note, remorselessly dour and barely shows any emotion other than frustration. This might be relevant for a woman who’s living a harsh life, but it hardly makes for engaging viewing. Compare her with Luke and Leia from the original Star Wars or Rey and Finn from The Force Awakens, characters full of vim and verve and energy and charisma and likeability. They feel so much more alive because they attack each scene full on and have dynamic emotional journeys. They also drive their own stories: they have desires and goals, and we experience their adventures with them. Jyn, meanwhile, takes about half the film to show *any* fight. It’s only after her father dies that she starts being pro-active; before then, she simply gets dragged along by circumstances outside of her control. The character nominally carries the whole story, yet coupled with a boringly introverted performance, her early passiveness means there’s a big, blank hole where our heroine should be.

* Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) used to work for the Empire as an engineer. At the start of the film he’s hiding on a farm with wife Lyra and daughter Jyn, but the Empire soon come looking. They coerce him into finishing work on the Death Star, a project he once headed before feeling guilty about, you know, building a WMD. So, because he knows they’ll go ahead with or without him, he deliberately adds a design flaw into the blueprints then sends word to the Rebels that they can destroy it. (Yes, that’s right: the narrative thrust of this film is based on explaining away a plot hole from the original Star Wars movie. Ever wonder why the Empire’s most important weapon self-destructs after a laser bolt is fired down a small exhaust port? Now you can find out!) The character doesn’t actually appear that much – just the prologue, a hologram message, a quick flashback, and his death scene – but Mikkelsen is good value and implies a lot with little screentime.

* Lyra Erso (Valene Kane) is Jyn’s mother. She’s killed by the bad guys early on.

* Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is a Rebel who helps the young Jyn escape in the prologue scene. He then raises her (off-screen) before a parting of the ways. When he returns to the story – as a stepping stone on Jyn’s quest to find her dad – he’s in a bad way. He has mechanical legs and wheezes into an oxygen mask at regular intervals; he’s also broken from the Rebel Alliance and gone solo (and a bit loopy). It’s been rumoured that Gerrera was originally going to have a much bigger role in the story, but reshoots watered his contribution down. He certainly feels like an underdeveloped character who’s more of a diversion than a vital bit of storytelling. Whitaker opts for an irritating, raspy-voiced performance. (The character previously appeared in the animated TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars, where he was voiced by Andrew Kishino.)

* Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) rescues Jyn from the Empire and takes her to a Rebel Alliance powwow to discuss the crisis. He’s a no-nonsense soldier who’s willing to kill an ally for the greater good. He then leads the mission to track down Galen – but unbeknown to Jyn, he’s been ordered to murder her father not rescue him. He later helps Jyn steal the Death Star plans. This theft involves playing a Crystal Maze skill game where he has to operate a mechanical arm in a giant multi-stack archive. Andor is the film’s Han Solo equivalent, though – like Jyn – is a relentlessly sombre character. The actor plays every scene, every moment, with the same level of energy. “You seem awfully tense all of a sudden,” Jyn says to him at one point. It’s an odd comment to make given that his behaviour and demeanour haven’t changed one iota since she met him. There’s no charm in the performance, no charisma, no irony, no fun.

* Tivik (Daniel Mays) is a nervous Rebel informant who doesn’t last very long: Luna executes him rather than risk him giving them away to some Stormtroopers.

* Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is an Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebels, bringing with him a message from Galen that explains all about the Death Star’s in-built weakness. He’s initially held by Saw Gererra, who treats him like an ISIS hostage (and exposes him to a slobbering monster with tentacles that can shred his mind; thankfully for Bodhi, it leaves him compos mentis). After Gererra is killed, Bodhi joins the missions to find Galen and steal the blueprints. He also gets to name the film when he improvises a call sign for the team: rogue one. It’s a fun, jittery performance from Ahmed. It deserves more focus.

* K-2SO (voice and mo-cap performance by Alan Tudyk) is Andor’s sidekick, a former Imperial droid who’s been reprogrammed by the Rebels. He’s humanoid but about eight feet tall and very strong; his specialty is strategic analysis; and he says what he thinks. In a film populated by po-faced characters, K-2SO sticks out like a hilariously sore thumb with his deadpan humour and comedy timing. A CG creation, he’s voiced by Alan Tudyk with an English-ish accent. The actor has form for this kind of work – he also played a likeable android in 2004 film I, Robot.

* A number of Rebels attend an executive meeting at their Yavin IV base – ie, the one seen in the original Star Wars movie. Ooh, look, there’s the guy with a white beard who gives the briefing in the 1977 film (he’s been recast, of course). Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) crop up too and are cutely played by the actors who played them in the early 2000s Star Wars prequels. It’s a neat way to connect that trilogy with this new phase of movies.

* Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind mystic who Jyn and Andor meet on the planet Jedha. He seems drawn to Jyn, helps her evade some Stormtroopers, then joins the gang. He has a mantra (“I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”) and is very handy in a punch-up or gunfight. He also says he’s one of the guardians of the Whills, which is an obscure reference to early drafts of the original Star Wars script. The character is an interesting addition to the team, giving this muscular war movie a nice dose of mysticism and ambiguity.

* Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) is Chirrut’s mate, a dryly funny mercenary who carries around a huge backpack like he’s a Ghostbuster. He also joins the gang.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) share a throwaway cameo. It’s there solely to maintain the characters’ record of appearing in every Star Wars film. They play no role in the story.

* Gold Leader (Angus MacInnes) and Red Leader (Drewe Henley) are fighter pilots seen when the Rebels attack Scarif, the planet that contains the Imperial archive. The footage of these characters was actually filmed during the 1976 shoot for the first Star Wars movie. New backgrounds have been added to shots intended for that film’s climax. It’s a fun, subtle way of reinforcing that we’re in the same time period as the original trilogy. Drewe Henley coincidentally died while Rogue One was being filmed.

* Princess Leia (Ingvild Deila; voiced by an archive clip of Carrie Fisher) only appears in the final few seconds of the film and takes possession of the stolen Death Star plans on behalf of the Rebels. Because the scene is set literally minutes before the opening moments of the original Star Wars, Leia needed to look as she looked in that film. Therefore, CGI has been used to recreate a 19-year-old Carrie Fisher’s face and superimpose it onto a body double. It’s emblematic of Rogue One’s biggest problem: it’s so desperately eager to make references and connections to previous films that it doesn’t stop to consider that less is sometimes more. The moment smacks of over-explaining a joke or underlining the subtext, and Leia suddenly cropping up, having only been obliquely referred to, is pretty meaningless in the context of this story. (Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of viewers will still know who she is – but she’s played no role in Rogue One’s story at all.) Also, while the CG work is an astonishing achievement, it’s a tad unnerving too. The character’s baby-fat face glistens like she’s had plastic surgery, and the fact Fisher died while this film was on general release only adds to the sense that this well-intentioned idea should have been shelved.

BAD GUYS:

* Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is the Imperial officer in charge of the Death Star construction. He forces Galen to work for him, then later demonstrates the station’s capabilities by destroying the city of Jedha. But Krennic is royally pissed off when his colleague Tarkin takes all the credit for the project’s success. So he kills his engineers, including Galen, out of spite. He’s a terrifically nasty character, who snarls his way through the movie. Mendelsohn is very watchable.

* Governor Tarkin (Guy Henry) is the officer in charge of the Imperial forces, reporting directly to the unseen Emperor. He clashes with Krennic and, in a rather strange decision, chooses to destroy his own archive *after* the Death Star plans have been stolen. (Hope they had everything else backed up.) Obviously, the character was one of the main baddies of the original Star Wars, so – as with Princess Leia – CG technology has been used to recreate how he looked in 1977. Holby City actor Guy Henry played the role on set, mimicking the late Peter Cushing’s voice and posture very entertainingly. Then a digital reconstruction of Cushing’s head has been superimposed onto his body in post-production. This kind of thing has been done before in the Terminator series and a recent X-Men film, but never for a character with so much dialogue and so nuanced a performance. It’s a really brave attempt at something genuinely ground-breaking (and something that will presumably now be done more and more in these kinds of films). But because it’s only 95-per-cent photorealistic – it’s the lip-sync that lets the side down – you do question whether they’d have been better off just having Guy Henry play the full role.

* Darth Vader (Spencer Wilding and Daniel Naprous; voiced by James Earl Jones) is the Emperor’s hatchet man. He lives on the planet Mustafar (last seen in Revenge of the Sith) – and when we first meet him he’s out of his famous battle suit and submerged in a tank. He’s summoned Krennic to a meeting to make sure he knows that the Emperor wants results. At first, the scene appears to be little more than a fan-pleasing cameo – it ratchets up the pressure on Krennic a bit, but could be deleted with no damage to the story – then you realise it’s also seeding the character for his role in the climax (see Best Action Sequence below)…

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The final few minutes of the film knock your socks off. For its third act, Rogue One becomes a full-on action movie and the intensity levels rise significantly. The Death Star plans have been stolen and the Rebels are attempting to flee the archive with them. However, Darth Vader is on their tail. He boards the Rebel ship and savagely, relentlessly cuts soldiers down with his lightsaber and Force powers: it’s a violent, intense sequence. The plans are finally smuggled on board another ship – which of course we recognise from the opening scene of Star Wars – and it flies away, Vader watching on… Run Rogue One and Star Wars back to back and the action flows across the two movies brilliantly.

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: K-2SO gets more funny lines than the rest of the script put together (and by some distance). A random gag: “I’ll be there for you,” he says to Jyn at one point. “Cassian said I had to.”

MUSIC: Not being part of the main Star Wars series, Rogue One doesn’t feel obligated to have a score by house composer John Williams. In his place comes Michael Giacchino (Lost, Jurassic World, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Star Trek reboots). He provides some very John Williams-ish incidental music, which quotes and echoes the original trilogy a fair bit. The main theme is a bit underwhelming, but generally the music is very effective.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw Rogue One on Thursday 15 December 2016 at the Everyman Baker Street in London. I went with my pal Fraser Dickson and it was a significant day for us both. We’d just completed the final ever issue of All About Soap, a magazine we’d worked on for the previous 10 years.

REVIEW: This movie has a significantly different tone from the original Star Wars films or 2015’s series relaunch, The Force Awakens. It’s a tougher, harsher, less fun world populated by earnest characters dealing in life-and-death situations, and the swashbuckling zip of those earlier movies has gone missing. So has a sense of joy. Rogue One has regularly been called a war movie, so it was never going to be a laugh-a-minute. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be humourless or that the lead characters have to be so bland. Compare Rogue One with, for example, Aliens (1986). Both are science-fiction war movies, but Aliens is full of vibrancy and attitude and gallows humour and characters who grow and develop and who you care about. In contrast, Rogue One is disappointingly one-dimensional. The second half of the film is exciting and engaging, but before we reach the assault on the Imperial archive there’s over an hour of scenes where our heroes achieve little and learn even less. The story happens to them, rather than them being in control of events. Jyn is captured by the Rebels, blackmailed into going on a mission, stumbles across Saw Gererra by accident, can’t save her father… She’s not so much a character as a piece on a chess board, being moved around simply to keep the game going. (The reason the second half of the plot is more entertaining is because Jyn and Andor *decide to do things*.) Perhaps it would work better if those heroes were more interesting people, but the leads lack any personality beyond being moody and sullen. Some of the secondary characters fare better, especially the droll K-2SO and the twinkle-smiled Churrit, but they get little screen time in comparison. Another huge issue is the movie’s dogged obsession with other films. Rogue One is the cinematic equivalent of a tie-in novel, where providing cheeky in-jokes and dropping hints for fans is more important than telling a decent story. The connections to other Star Wars films (especially the 1977 original) soon mount up: a prop bottle full of blue milk, a pointless cameo for the bully who squares up to Luke Skywalker in the first film, a hologram of Jabba the Hutt’s dancing girl, an oblique mention of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a pointless appearance for C-3PO and R2-D2, repeated shots and sets and lines… Some people have criticised The Force Awakens for aping the earlier Star Wars films, but that movie was reusing themes and motifs, not shamelessly nodding and winking to the audience. And as well as specific postmodern nods, Rogue One is also hamstrung by being as prequel-y as a prequel can be. The plot is as much dictated by what needs to be in place for the ‘next’ film as it is by character choices – more, in fact. We can’t see the Death Star destroy a planet because the weapon’s use in Star Wars is its first ever, so here it just levels cities. The story’s heroes have to all die because otherwise literal-minded viewers would ask why they’re not in the 1977 movie. Tarkin has to take over running the Death Star so he’s there for the next film. It’s far from organic or breezy drama. But despite all that, there is a lot to admire in this movie. It’s never boring and has a real polish to its visuals. There’s a fantastic fidelity to the design work of the original Star Wars and also numerous striking images along the way: the barren, windswept planet seen in the prologue, an enormous collapsed statue of a Jedi in a desert, the apocalyptic finale. CGI is used with great discretion. The action scenes are often busy and well staged. The sound design is excellent. And the cast is the most culturally diverse yet in the Star Wars series. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have more heart.

Seven Kyber crystals out of 10

Ant-Man (2015, Peyton Reed)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ex-con Scott Lang is recruited by a wealthy scientist to steal some dangerous technology….

There’s a parallel universe out there where film fans got Ant-Man as originally conceived. Nine years before the movie’s eventual release – no, seriously, that’s how long this project was in development – writer/director Edgar Wright was hired. Given his track record – Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), The World’s End (2013), all excellent – it promised to be something special. But he then quit just a few months before filming, citing creative differences, and was replaced by Peyton Reed. The result is enjoyable, but you can’t shake off the feeling that it’s not as good as it could have been… We start with a short prologue set in 1989. In a meeting with MCU semi-regulars Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell in a grey wig) and Howard Stark (Trevor Slattery), scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) resigns from SHIELD. He’s developed technology that can shrink a person down to just a few millimetres tall, but objects to other people using it. Cut to the present day and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, a classy, charming presence) is released from prison after serving time for burglary. While he tries to go straight and raise the cash he needs to support his daughter, he hooks up with ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña, very funny). However, after Scott is fired from the one job he managed to get, he’s tempted by a criminal gig Luis has heard about… The opening third or so of the movie is comedic, quick and slick – a style typified by a breezy montage showing some information being relayed from person to person. This freewheeling sequence is the most Edgar Wright-y that Ant-Man ever feels, though the idea was actually cooked up after he left the project. (Incidentally, the scene is scored by a terrific music cue written by Roy Ayers for the 1973 film Coffy then reused by Quentin Tarantino in 1997’s Jackie Brown.) Meanwhile, Hank (“Yes, I’m still alive…”) starts to take an interest in his tech company again. It’s now run by his former assistant Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, who may as well have ‘I’m the villain’ tattooed across his forehead). He’s developed miniaturisation technology of his own, which he hopes to sell to the military, so Hank and grown-up daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, totally rocking a black bob cut) set out to steal it and wipe all the data files. How do they plan to do this? By using Hank’s miniaturisation technology from the 1980s. (Hypocrites.) However, Hank reckons he’s too old to wear the shrinking suit and doesn’t want to risk his daughter’s life. They need someone else, so recruit Scott via a sting operation… So far, so good enough. It’s enjoyable stuff. But now the film gets a bit messy. Once Hank and Hope have enlisted Scott, the story moves into a leisurely middle act. There are Mr Mayagi-like scenes of Scott being taught how to use the miniaturisation suit, a bit of backstory is revealed, some plotting is set up for the climax, series regular Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has a cameo, and we get the rather silly notion that Hank can control and coerce ants to his will. But all the threat disappears from the story – as does Darren Cross, and Luis and his gang, and the cop who’s been on Scott’s trail. All these characters seem to conveniently freeze for – what? – at least a few days while Scott gears up. But if the storytelling is loose, at least we get plenty of comedy. There are self-referential gags – “I think our first move,” says Scott when presented with a big problem, “should be calling the Avengers” – as well as Ocean’s 11-style, planning-the-heist scenes, which are always enjoyable. If anything, it’s a shame the film doesn’t push harder on that pedal and try to be a more full-on caper movie. The heist itself – with Luis and some friends now part of the team – is great fun and the film picks up pace again. It also helps that director Peyton Reed throws in some bonkers imagery: a shootout with a tiny Scott running across a scale model of a factory, an enormous Thomas the Tank Engine bursting out of a house, and a very trippy sequence of Scott shrinking beyond infinitesimally small. These visual effects are very impressive, as they are throughout the film, while the fights and chases are inventive and the film never loses sight of humour. During Scott’s climactic battle with Cross, for example, Cross has miniaturised himself… so Scott picks up a table-tennis bat and swats him into an electric fly zapper. Oh, how the film should’ve ended on that gag! But for all its fun and vibrancy, Ant-Man lacks ambition. It feels a bit stunted, a bit limited, a bit scared to go all-in. Too small, you might say.

Seven bartenders out of 10

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