Blake’s 7: Cygnus Alpha (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having escaped, Blake, Avon and Jenna use their new spaceship to travel to Cygnus Alpha, intent on rescuing their colleagues. But a religious cult is ruling the prison planet…

Series A, episode 3. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 16 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Blake (3) is being defined as the crusader of the regular cast – a leader of men, an almost messianic figure. Having said that, he’s not *totally* altruistic: he wants to rescue Vila, Gan and the others stranded on Cygnus Alpha not because of their suffering but because he needs a crew for his rebellion against the Federation.
* Having found a firearm aboard their new ship, the Liberator, Avon (2) points it at Blake and Jenna. But they simply shrug the incident off – as Jenna later admits, the fact Avon is clearly out for number one would be unsettling if she thought he didn’t mean it. When Blake later heads down to the planet to look for the others, Avon advocates leaving him behind – especially after finding a fortune stored aboard the Liberator – but Jenna won’t let him. Paul Darrow continues to make his character endlessly interesting: this is a man who doesn’t even push a button in a conventional manner.
* Jenna (3) is biding her time, working out how to pilot the Liberator and operate its controls, while alpha males Blake and Avon take the lead. She also gets a colourful new blouse after finding a storeroom full of clothes.
* Zen (1), voiced by Peter Tuddenham, is the artificial-intelligence programme that runs the Liberator. He knows who Blake, Avon and Jenna are, so computer expert Avon is therefore suspicious of him.
* Vila (3) and Gan (2) arrive on Cygnus Alpha with other prisoners from the London. They’re soon told by the religious cult who act as jailers that they’re now infected with a condition called the Curse of Cygnus, which means they’ll need special medication for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, after Blake has arrived and rescued them, we learn the curse was just a cover story to keep the prisoners in check. Phew!

Best bit: If I were condemned to a lifelong prison sentence on a barren, rocky planet run by religious nutters, I’d still take solace from the fact I’d be near Pamela Salem. She plays Kara, one of the cult, and is extremely attractive.

Worst bit: The super-ship that showed up so conveniently in episode two continues to unashamedly provide our heroes with advantages. When Blake, Avon and Jenna explore the craft, they find complex weapons, an AI computer, a teleport device, a cache of enormous wealth and an ability to travel through space at high speed. Aren’t characters meant to achieve things themselves rather than just randomly be given the upper hand?

Review: For episode three, there’s a nice change of tone. So far, the show has taken place in a cold, colourless, metallic, sci-fi world of totalitarianism. But now we arrive on Cygnus Alpha, which is a windswept, mediaeval world run by a monastic-like cult. Its leader, Vargas, is played by Brian Blessed in a pre-Flash Gordon performance that’s not *quite* as bombastic as those he later indulged in. Enjoyable stuff.

Seven human souls are the only currency (our god is bankrupt without them) out of 10

Next episode: Time Squad

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The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974, Roy Ward Baker)

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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: There’s a prologue in Transylvania in 1804. The main bulk of the movie is set in China 100 years later, firstly in Chongqing (or Chung King as the caption spells it) then in the countryside.

Faithful to the novel? Not in the slightest. This was Hammer Films’ ninth Dracula movie in 16 years. It ignores the modern-day reboot of the previous two entries in the series, and heads back to a turn-of-the-19th-century setting. After the prologue, in which a Taoist monk (Chan Shen) awakens a docile Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson, taking over from Christopher Lee, who’d finally jacked it in) to ask for his help, all the action takes place in China. This was because this film was a co-production between Hammer and the Shaw Brothers Studio of Hong Kong. Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) – seemingly the same version of the character seen in Dracula and Brides of Dracula – is lecturing at a university in China. He talks about his encounters with the famous vampire Count Dracula then recounts rumours of seven vampires who have been terrorising rural China. Most of his students are cynical, but a man called Hsi Ching (David Chiang) believes him and tells him he knows where the vamps are. Eventually, a team is assembled: Van Helsing and his son, Leyland (Robin Stewart); a rich Scandinavian woman called Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege), who agrees to fund the expedition because she needs to leave town quickly; and Hsi Chiang and his kung-fu-proficient siblings. They head to the village, intent on destroying the vampires. Various fight scenes ensue, then at the climax Van Helsing realises that the vamps’ leader is Dracula is disguise.

Best performance: As always, Peter Cushing plays his part with total commitment. You never get the sense that he’s phoning it in or just doing a film for the fee, do you?

Best bit: More than a Dracula movie, this is a Hong Kong-produced martial-arts flick. There are crash-zooms and whip pans and loud fake sound effects for every punch or slap. Great stuff.

Review: You have to admire Hammer for trying different things. After setting two Dracula movies in the modern day, they then tried to breathe new life into this series by moving the action to China and blending their house style with the kung-fu phenomenon. The result is by no means a masterpiece, but it passes the time well enough and is a fun little vampire film. Written by Don Houghton – a true Sinophile – the plot is simple beyond belief. But the mythological context (and non-European landscape) gives the story a interesting setting, while shots of zombies rising from the grave are as striking as any image in a Hammer Dracula. The film is also lit with bold, expressionist colours. Only some gnarly special effects and poor monster make-up really disappoint.

Seven bat medallions out of 10

The Trouble With Harry (1955)

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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 dead body causes problems for various people in a sleepy New England village…

This laid-back comedy sees characters treat a murder victim like a minor inconvenience. Morality is sidelined in favour of humour. The plot kicks off when a local man called Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn, using the same befuddled charm that won him an Oscar for Miracle on 34th Street) is hunting in the woods. After shooting at a rabbit, he finds a corpse with a bullet wound and assumes he’s killed him. But before he can dispose of the body, various neighbours arrive on the scene – and each has their own part to play in the mystery of what really happened. One is local painter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe); another is the corpse’s widow, Jennifer (a winsome Shirley MacLaine in her first movie), who seems glad he’s dead.

However, the maybe-murder-mystery never feels that important because Hitchcock is more interested in the black comedy. The characters and situation are heightened and not intended to be taken too seriously. But because of this, it does fall a little flat at times. The script is often structured like a stage farce, complete with characters arriving and leaving at key moments, people hiding behind trees, and a dead body having to be buried and dug up multiple times. However, it’s played and directed too slowly to really take flight. So while amusing, it’s rarely gripping.

At least it looks good. Vermont’s autumnal colours and wide-open spaces are really well served by the Technicolor and VistaVision format. (As well as shooting on location, a woodland clearing was created in a Hollywood studio, with hundreds of New England leaves shipped in.) But you yearn for a bit more oomph behind the dialogue. Sam Marlow drives the story despite being one of the few villagers who has nothing to do with the victim, yet John Forsythe is a bit underwhelming. Jack Lemon or James Stewart, say, would have *commanded* this movie and Sam would have sparkled in every scene. As it is, the film trundles along entertainingly if not that spectacularly.

Seven men walking past a limousine out of 10

Red Dwarf XII (2017)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

Regulars: This is the fourth series of Red Dwarf in a row with just the fab four ­– Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten – though a couple of old regulars make guest appearances.

Episode 1: Cured (12 October 2017): The crew of Red Dwarf stumble across a moonbase where a scientist has resurrected famous evil people but cured them of being evil… A not-bad series opener. The plot doesn’t hang together, but there are some good laughs along the way. Ryan Gage is very funny as an upbeat and friendly Hitler who has a smiley face on his sleeve rather than a swastika, while the woofer at the end – the Cat bluffing that he’s betraying the others – is set up nicely by an opening scene of the guys playing poker.
Observations: Four people have been recreated via DNA sequencing: sadistic warlord Vlad the Impaler (1431-1477), Soviet despot Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), Roman empress consort Messalina (c17/20-48) and Nazi twat Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). We’re told about a fifth – media baron Rupert Murdoch (born 1931) – but apparently he’s not responding to treatment. Starbug is featured.
Best gag: The Cat says he thought Hitler died playing golf. Rimmer explains that, no, he was in a bunker in Berlin. “He poisoned his partner and shot himself.” “Golf can do that to you.”

Episode 2: Siliconia (19 October 2017): The crew of Red Dwarf are captured by a space freighter populated by revolutionary mechanoids… An episode based on the idea that Kryten puts up with a lot of shit from the others, which doesn’t especially fly. It’s not helped by some cheap-looking robot masks for the revolutionaries. Then Lister, Rimmer and the Cat’s consciousnesses are downloaded into mechanoids, so Craig Charles, Chris Barrie and Danny John-Jules have to also put on Kryten-like masks and body suits. They get funny stuff to say – especially Barrie, who uses his mimicry skills to copy Robert Llewellyn’s voice – but the characters look too different and the performances don’t pop through the latex.
Observations: Kryten has an odd line of dialogue about Lister’s guitar that sounds like an unnoticed fluff or a rewrite that went wrong: “It’s almost to the day that it got flushed into space.” Starbug is seen again. Late on, James Buckley (The Inbetweeners, Rock & Chips) shows up for a tiny role as a working-class mechanoid. His scenes are all on location and shot in a way that suggests he wasn’t there at the same time as the regular cast.
Best gag: Kryten is busy ironing but gets constantly interrupted by messages appearing a screen – first from the Cat, then Rimmer, then Lister. Then we see that the latter is actually in the same room as Kryten. And wants Kryten to fetch a beer from a fridge that’s within Lister’s reach.

Episode 3: Timewave (26 October 2017): The crew are struck by a ‘timewave’, which brings them into contact with a spaceship from 24th-century Earth. On the ship, criticism has been outlawed… It’s a fun episode if not that plausible. The central idea (that people who criticise get high on criticising) might be a pop at internet forums and morons who write over-long, pretentious blog posts about Red Dwarf’s strengths and weaknesses.
Observations: Starbug is featured. The Om Song from series three is mentioned. Amrita Acharia plays a waitress who doesn’t care that she’s shit at her job because no one’s going to criticise her. Johnny Vegas shows up as a dressed-all-in-pink ‘crit cop’. He arrests the crew and puts them in a cell with another offender (Joe Sims) who, when we first see him, wears a mask and straight jacket a la Silence of the Lambs. (His crime? Tutting.) The episode has vague visual echoes of The Happiness Patrol, a 1988 Doctor Who serial.
Best gag: Rimmer likes the no-criticism law: “They’re on to something. Take me: back in the day I misrepaired a drive plate and killed over a thousand people. Now, in our culture, that sort of thing is really frowned upon. But here, you just move on.”

Episode 4: Mechocracy (2 November 2017): Lister accidentally downloads a virus into Red Dwarf’s mainframe, so as a precaution the crew prepare to evacuate. But the self-aware vending machines object to being left behind… A bottle episode, entirely set on Red Dwarf and featuring no guest characters other than voiceover roles. Enjoyable stuff. Successful gags include a decent set-up/punchline about Kryten manipulating Rimmer; a scene where Lister, Rimmer and the Cat have a long, irrelevant conversation while an emergency alarm is going off in the background; and a runner about the Cat needing reading glasses. Halfway through the episode, the storyline takes a left turn as an election for a new Red Dwarf leader is held: Rimmer and Kryten go head to head in scenes that spoof UK and US politics.
Observations: Doug Naylor’s obsession with vending machines, a motif that has recurred throughout this show since day one, gets another airing. Clips from 90s episodes are used in the election adverts, while the events of 80s episodes The End and Kryten are referenced. There’s then yet another, much larger callback to old continuity as Talkie Toaster (still voiced by David Ross) makes his first appearance since 1991. The scene is a bit of an embarrassment: old gags and camera angles are simply trotted out rote in an attempt to please long-term fans.
Best gag: Rimmer wants to demote Lister as a punishment but Lister is already the lowest rank possible, so he promotes him in order to demote him again. However, after his promotion, Lister points out that he’s now Rimmer’s equal and can’t be demoted.

Episode 5: M-Corp (9 November 2017): Lister is blighted by a perception filter that means he’s no longer able to see objects that are not approved by M-Corp, the ship’s conglomerate owners… The comedy about things and people being invisible or inaudible to Lister gets some good laughs, even if the surrounding plotline makes very little sense.
Observations: Lister hits a significant birthday (implied to be 50). Helen George from Call The Midwife guests as M-Corp’s spokesperson who reels off dialogue in a serene voice. The plot’s climax sees Lister’s personality regress to how he was when he was 23 – and the final scene deliberately repeats dialogue and blocking from Red Dwarf’s first ever episode.
Best gag: A medical computer asks Lister if he wants to know his predicted date of death. Before Lister can answer, Rimmer leans forward and mimics Lister’s accent: “Yes please, man!” (The computer says Lister will die at the age of 63.)

Episode 6: Skipper (16 November 2017): An anomaly penetrates the universe, causing a giant lesion in the space-time continuum. As a result, any decision results in the option not taken coming to pass. Then Rimmer uses the lesion to travel to various alternative realities… The storyline is another one of those sci-fi gimmicks that doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. And the second half becomes something of a fanwank explosion as Rimmer visits different realities and old characters get cameoes.
Observations: The episode features yet more continuity references – Rimmer’s three brothers are mentioned; Norman Lovett makes his first appearance as Holly since 1999, likewise Mac McDonald as Captain Hollister; the famous ‘Everyone’s dead, Dave’ routine from Red Dwarf’s first episode is liberally paraphrased. Danny John-Jules gets to play Rat in one of the alternate realities: a man-sized rodent who evolved in place of the Cat.
Best gag: Rimmer quantum skips into a new reality and meets a refined, upper-class Lister. “Are you different from my Lister?” asks Rimmer. “A guy who cleans his teeth and pees in the toilet simultaneously even though the basin and the toilet are in different rooms?”

Best episode: Mechocracy. Worst episode: Skipper.

Review: After its decade off, Red Dwarf has now been on TV channel Dave for eight years, four series and 21 episodes. It’s settled into a pattern of wacky, sci-fi exploits, and the show’s initial gimmick – that these characters are stranded in deep space – has been forgotten about. Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten are now routinely bumping into people from earth. Despite this ‘opening up’ of the format, series 12 suffers from repeating ideas: there are two consecutive episodes about Red Dwarf’s computers causing problems, for example, while two are about the rights of non-organic life forms. The show has also lost some of its bite. Lister and the Cat still ridicule Rimmer; he in turn still shows disdain for them. But it’s all noticeably chummier than the BBC years. The characters have reached middle age and calmed down, and so has the tone. It’s still funny and likeable, but nothing in this series matches Red Dwarf at its best. Perhaps the aging process also accounts for the show’s obsession with its own history – most people get nostalgic as they get older. Sadly, series 12 can’t resist making smug callbacks to old episodes, old characters, old sets, old jokes, old incidental music, old scenes… The bigger references are accompanied by whoops, cheers and applause from the studio audience, which sounds stacked with Red Dwarf die-hards.

Seven nice cups of char out of 10

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

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