Rocky II (1979, Sylvester Stallone)

rocky-2

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Boxer Rocky Balboa is forced to get back into the ring for a rematch with the world heavyweight champion…

What does Stallone do? After the success of the first Rocky film – a huge profit, good reviews, an Oscar win – Sylvester Stallone was in a prime negotiating position when it came to the sequel. So as well as again writing the script and playing the lead character, he also took over directing duties. (Rocky director John G Avildsen was busy working on Saturday Night Fever. Coincidentally, Stallone later directed that film’s sequel, Stayin’ Alive.) Sly had only made one film previously, a now largely forgotten wrestling movie called Paradise Alley, but he does a decent job here. For the most part, Rocky II is no-nonsense, well told and engaging – if familiar and predictable… As the story begins, Rocky Balboa has surgery after his battering boxing bout at the end of the previous movie (he says he doesn’t want to end up with a nose like his trainer Mickey’s). He may have lost the fight on points, but he came out of it with pride and has decided to retire. At first, thanks to his new high profile, he has the cash to flash on coats, watches, a car and a house, but Stallone generates sympathy from us when Rocky later fails as a minor celebrity and struggles to find work. The actor is oddly likeable and there’s a dignity in his performance. When Rocky’s finances get grim, he’s forced to consider fighting Apollo again…

Other main characters:
* After a recap of the first film’s climactic boxing bout, we rejoin the story later that same night. The victorious Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) approaches Rocky in the hospital and, embarrassed that his amateur opponent lasted the distance, demands a rematch. But while the world heavyweight champion is puffed-up and adversarial for the watching journalists, behind closed doors he’s downbeat and becomes obsessed with proving that he can knock Rocky off his feet. So he continues to taunt his rival in the media, urging him to fight again…
* Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian (Talia Shire), doesn’t want him to get back in the ring so is pleased when he retires. They get wed and soon have a child on the way. But she’s worried about how quickly he’s going through the $37,000 he earned from his title bout, then later goes into labour prematurely. The baby is fine, but Adrian falls into a coma for a while. (This section sees the film at its soppiest.) After recovering, she doesn’t attend her husband’s rematch with Apollo on doctor’s orders. (In reality the actress was busy on another film.)
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still a bit of a prick. When he thinks his sister is failing in her matrimonial duties, he suggests that Rocky break her teeth. (Rocky replies that he likes Adrian’s teeth where they are.) Paulie also asks Rocky to sort him out a strong-arm job, which he does – so as Rocky’s fortunes fall, Paulie’s actually rise and he’s able to buy his brother-in-law’s sportscar from him.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) now has a hearing aid to further emphasise how old, grizzled and world-beaten he is, and initially says no when Rocky asks him to be his trainer again. In a touching, low-key scene, Mick demonstrates that Rocky’s damaged eyesight is a liability. ‘You got the heart but you ain’t got the tools no more,’ the mentor says. But later, Mickey sees Apollo being arrogant on TV and comes round to the idea of a rematch: ‘I think we oughta knock his block off!’ His plan (which was actually cooked up because Stallone had injured his left arm before filming) is to train Rocky to fight right-handed, holding his southpaw power in reserve for later in the bout.

Key scene: During his attempt to make a living off his newfound fame, Rocky is persuaded to film some TV ads for Beast aftershave. The set-up has him dressed first as a caveman in a cage, then as a sketch-show version of himself with a fake-looking appliance for a boxing bruise. The director is an angry, rude, little man who has no patience for the fact that Rocky can neither act nor sight-read off the cue cards (or dummy cards, as they insensitively get called). As a storytelling tool, the sequence is the gear that shifts Rocky from laidback retirement to the realisation that boxing is his only viable way of supporting his family.

Review: Don’t you miss film sequels that begin with a lengthy reprise of the previous instalment? The second and third Karate Kid films give you a handy refresher of the story so far; Halloween 5 replays a cliffhanger to show you what *really* happened; while Back to the Future Part II actually refilmed the previous movie’s ending because a major role had been recast. It’s a shame this device has gone out of fashion, presumably because home video and download have made films so much easier to see more than once. Anyway, Rocky II’s recap reminds us that the Italian Stallion went the distance with – but lost on points to – world champion boxer Apollo Creed. We’re then into the new stuff… which is a conventional story made entertaining by a half-decent cast. After 80 minutes, a Bill Conti-scored training montage, which is a mini-masterpiece of rousing emotion, drives us into a final act where Rocky takes on Apollo for a second time. The fight features a ludicrous and unrealistic amount of punches, then an arch, slo-mo climax as both fighters fall to the mat at same time. But it’s difficult not to get swept up in the moment as Rocky beats the count and wins the championship…

Seven condominiums (I never use ’em) out of 10

Next: Rocky III

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The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

Torn Curtain (1966, Alfred Hitchcock)

TornCurtain

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an American scientist seemingly defects to East Germany, his fiancée follows – leading to them both being trapped behind the Iron Curtain…

Touted at the time of its release as Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie (which it was if you discount short films, Elstree Calling and the German-language version of Murder!), Torn Curtain begins with an impressionistic title sequence reminiscent of the James Bond series. Swirling, fiery images play opposite snatched glimpses of characters and incidents while lush music with a ‘full’, orchestral sound tempts us into a world of espionage. 

There had been four Bond pictures by 1965, when Hitchcock began production, but rather than the current vogue for spy films, the inspiration for Torn Curtain actually came from real life. Hitch had been fascinated by the defection to the Soviet Union of the British diplomat Donald Maclean in 1951, and specifically by what that meant for Maclean’s wife and family. Melinda Maclean followed her husband to Moscow about a year later, and Hitchcock wondered how her husband’s choice had affected her emotionally…

The film’s equivalent of Donald Maclean is Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist attending a conference in Norway with his British colleague and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrew). They seem to be deeply in love – our first sighting of them is when they’re cuddled up in bed rather than attending a meal – but Michael soon begins to act oddly. He’s sent obscure radiogram messages, then lies to Sarah that he has to fly to Stockholm. When she learns that his flight is actually heading for East Berlin – in other words, inside communist East Germany – she buys a ticket too and sits a few rows behind him…

It’s typical spy-movie stuff: paranoia and hidden agendas and acrostics and codenames. And it was far from the first time Hitchcock had worked in the genre; he’d dabbled with this kind of material on and off for 30 years. In fact, for the roles of Michael and Sarah, he’d initially wanted to reunite the stars of his phenomenally successful spy film North by Northwest: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. However, studio bosses insisted on actors who were more ‘current’. Julie Andrews was certainly that: she’d just had a massive hit with The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for 1964’s Mary Poppins. Co-star Paul Newman was hot from movies such as Hud and The Hustler.

Sadly, it often feels like their characters in Torn Curtain have never met before. It’s difficult to recall an on-screen couple in any Hitchcock film who have less chemistry. Hitch presumably wanted Andrews to be one of his classic blondes – an enigmatic female character with sex appeal and a cool exterior, but who is going through emotional turmoil on the inside. The actress, though, plays Sarah too straight, too blandly, to generate much interest. Newman, meanwhile, was a student of the Actors Studio and gives a down-to-earth, tightly wound performance that fails to connect with the heightened tone of the script. (Behind the scenes, Newman infuriated Hitchcock with questions and concerns. The director was more used to actors like James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman – people who showed up, knew their stuff, and did what they were told. When asked about his motivation in a certain scene, a frustrated Hitch is said to have told Newman: ‘Your salary.’)

Landing in East Berlin, Michael is warmly welcomed by the authorities and treated like a celebrity by journalists at a press conference that feels like it was inspired by the Beatles’ famously impressive first public appearance in America. It then dawns on Sarah what’s happening. Michael, seemingly disillusioned with his work at the US defence department being stymied, is defecting to the communists. He’s brusque with his fiancée, refusing to say whether he wants her to stay behind the iron curtain with him or go home.

Thankfully, we viewers don’t have to wait too long for the inevitable plot twist, which anyone who’s ever seen a spy film before will have seen coming from before the title sequence was over. After 40 minutes Michael gives his handlers the slip and heads out into the countryside to meet with a farmer. We’re let into his secret when he and the farmer – who’s actually an undercover agent – discuss how he’s only pretending to defect in order to get some vital information about a revolutionary new anti-rocket system. 

But of course there’s a problem. When he arrived in Berlin, Michael was given a bodyguard, who in reality is there to keep an eye on him. The gum-chewing, American-slang-loving heavy who Michael finds hard to evade is called Hermann Gromek and is excellently played by a sinister Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek shows up at the farm, Michael initially tries to bluff his way out of the problem – but then must kill Gromek in a blackly comedic scene that’s the highlight of the whole film. With no incidental music to take the edge off the violence, Michael and the farmer’s wife try to subdue their enemy by strangulation, a stabbing, a shovel attack and eventually by forcing his head into a gas oven. (A German gassed in an oven? Hitch was aware of the implication, but later said it wasn’t a political comment.) The scene is a deliberate deconstruction of the spy-film cliché of an easy kill – Gromek is clinging onto life for a long time – and is totally gripping.

Elsewhere, regrettably, some of the filmmaking has not dated well. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to have a high tolerance for artificial devices such as rear-projection screens for scenes in moving cars and matte shots to extend sets and locations. All well and good for a movie made in the mid 1960s. Less excusable, however, is his decision to build an entire – and entirely fake-looking – park on a soundstage for a key scene that comes after 69 minutes. Knowing Gromek’s death will be discovered sooner rather than later, Michael takes Sarah aside and admits that he’s on a secret mission. In a neat trick that Hitchcock used in other films too – Topaz, for example, and North by Northwest – we don’t actually hear the dialogue because it’s information we viewers already know. But the plot swings here: now, Sarah is in the know.

Michael had buried Gromek’s body, but is rumbled when the taxi driver who delivered him to the farm reports seeing Gromek there too. (The taxi driver is played by American actor Eugene Weingard, who went by the stage name Peter Lorre Jr. He actually had no connection to the Hungarian-born star who had appeared in two Hitchcock films in the 1930s – aside from a slight resemblance. The more famous Lorre attempted to stop Weingard using the name, but after the former’s death in March 1964 the latter was free to pretend they were related.)

So the pressure is mounting. Seeking out a famed rocket scientist, Michael tricks him into revealing the secret equations he needs to take back to the States. With the sneaky plot now played out, Michael and Susan then flee down their escape route, which involves a bus service run by the resistance, some help from an eccentric Polish aristocrat (Lila Kedrova’s Countess Kuchinska) and a showpiece finale at the ballet that brings to mind the Albert Hall sequences in Hitchcock’s two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

There’s plenty to admire and enjoy in Torn Curtain, whether it’s the Hitchcockian touch of demonstrating how cold a room is by showing someone breaking up the ice that’s forming in his glass of water, or the cat-and-mouse sequence in a museum that has echoing footsteps creating tension and menace. The blocking – the relative positioning of the actors in a scene – also tells the story just as much as dialogue, such as the distance between Michael and Sarah when she thinks he’s a traitor compared to later when she’s learnt the truth.

However, it’s far from a wholly successful film. It mostly feels too safe, for example. This is the story of a man taking the enormous risk of going undercover in a communist state but it lacks the cynical edge and – Gromek’s death scene aside – the sense of danger seen in other 60s spy films like The Ipcress File (1965) or even the Bond series. Hitchcock also seems to get bored with his lead characters: Sarah in particular goes missing for long stretches, while in the second half of the story both she and Michael feel like passengers rather than drivers of the plot. 

Seven men in the hotel lobby out of 10

Note: In a 1999 interview, Steven Spielberg revealed that as a teenager he’d sneaked onto the set of Torn Curtain to watch the filming. He lasted 45 minutes before someone realised he shouldn’t be there.

Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 2045, everyone spends their time in a massive virtual-reality game. But then teenager Wade Watts learns that a huge prize can be claimed by finding an Easter egg hidden within it…

Seen before? Once, before which I’d read the source novel.

Best performance: Wade’s love interest in the story is a fellow ‘gunter’ (ie, Easter egg hunter) known by the moniker Artemis, who we initially only see as a digital avatar – a kind of cartoony, anime-ish representation of herself. The character might be a CGI creation in these scenes, but the eyes sparkle and the smile is infectious; actress Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem, TV show Bates Motel) radiantly pops through the mo-cap technology. There’s a subplot going on here about Artemis being ashamed of the way she looks; that’s why she doesn’t want to meet Wade outside the RPG fantasy of the virtual-reality game. Of course, seeing as we’re dealing with a Hollywood movie here, when Wade (Tye Sheridan) does finally encounter her in reality she is captivatingly pretty even with a minor birthmark.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The film is based on a terrific 2011 sci-fi novel, which is full of references to popular culture of the 1970s and 80s. Wade has a love for and a deep knowledge of the period and the book sings with a geeky passion and enthusiasm. The movie does too, and the nods soon begin to mount up: He-Man and The Wizard of Oz, Batman and Superman, Star Trek and Star Wars, Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club, a-Ha and New Order, King Kong and Godzilla, Alien and Silent Running, Back to the Future and Tron, The Buggles and Tears for Fears, Dark Crystal and The Iron Giant, Beetlejuice and Buckaroo Bonzai, Bill & Ted and Monty Python, RoboCop and Freddy Krueger, Last Action Hero and Dune, GoldenEye (the game) and Saturday Night Fever, and many, many, many more. When adapting Ernest Cline’s novel for the screen, however, one key section caused a problem. In the book, Wade’s quest takes him into a digital recreation of the futuristic LA seen in Blade Runner. However, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic was in production at the same time as Ready Player One, so Spielberg couldn’t get hold of the rights. As a replacement, the creative team instead used the setting of the 1980 horror movie The Shining. And the sequence is a wonder: a pixel-perfect recreation of the sets, lighting schemes and general mood of Stanley Kubrick’s best film. (Quite what it all means if you’ve never seen The Shining is another matter!)

Review: Ready Player One is certainly a visually dazzling film. Huge stretches of the story take place inside the virtual-reality world of a MMORPG called the Oasis – ‘a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination’. Near-flawless CGI is used to create a sleek, sweeping, 360-degree, photorealistic and immensely detailed environment. It’s a gamer’s wet dream, and there are hundreds of pop-culture references to spot and feel smug about spotting. But for all this razzmatazz and Spielbergian panache, the core of the movie is ultimately hollow. There’s a sense of a good adventure and some decent gags, but the longer the film goes on the more it gets bogged down with boring action scenes. Wade is a limp, uninteresting lead character who lacks the zip and charisma evident in the source novel’s first-person prose. An affected Mark Rylance is miscast the Oasis’s geeky creator. There are some weak young actors in secondary roles (a real rarity from the director who had strong juvenile performances in ET, Jurassic Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence). And despite a typically watchable turn from Ben Mendelsohn, the story’s business-exec villain is as one-note as they come. It’s not a dreadful film – far from it – but all the fantasy could do with a bit more reality.

Seven corn-syrup droughts out of 10

The Ring (1927)

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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.

An exhibition boxer is hired as a pro’s sparring partner. But then the pro makes a move on his girlfriend…

Some of the earliest ever movies were boxing films. In the 1890s, cinema pioneer William Kennedy Dickson – the man who came up with the industry-standard 35mm film format – recorded fights involving boxers such as world heavyweight champion James J Corbett. Short and basic, they were the world’s first sporting films – and they were staged specifically for the camera. So Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring was following an established tradition. By 1927, of course, drama elements had been added to the mix – and the title of The Ring is actually a pun. As well as the boxing arena, it refers to a wedding ring. Because, for all the ways it prefigures movies such as Rocky and Ali, this is mostly a love-triangle melodrama.

At a funfair, Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, who had once been a prizefighter himself) is an undefeated boxer who puts on shows for the punters. But one day a man challenges him to a fight – and Jack is beaten. No wonder: it turns out the challenger is heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Jack’s done well enough, though, to be offered the job of Bob’s sparring partner. Bob then takes a shine to Jack’s girlfriend, Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis). She initially returns his affections, then pulls away. She later marries Jack, but is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Jack sets his sights on challenging Bob for the championship…

The film climaxes with the men’s bout, which seems to be taking place at the Albert Hall – a venue where Hitch used to watch boxing, fascinated by the rituals of the sport, and where he later set the finales of his two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. We get all the now-familiar clichés of a boxing movie: the well-to-do crowd, the frantic cornermen, POV shots as the fighters square up, the camera shooting through the ropes.

You can sense a lineage from all this to, say, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. But nonetheless The Ring has dated. How could it not? It was released 91 years ago and everyone involved in the production is long gone. There are six actors credited in the opening titles, for example, and five of them died in – respectively – 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967 and 1975. (London-born Harry Terry’s date of death is unknown, but given that he was in born in 1887, we can safely assume he’s no longer with us either. The most tragic death was the first: depressed after a downturn in her career, Lillian Hall-Davis took her own life, aged just 35.)

Perhaps the most old-fashioned elements is the lack of dialogue. There are very few title cards containing speech, so as a modern viewer you’re left to infer an awful lot of the detail. It doesn’t help with engaging with the drama, and after a while you wish you could get inside the heads of the characters just a little bit more. This paucity of words may be explained by the fact the script is credited to just Hitchcock himself. (Other people did work on it, however, including his wife, Alma Reville.) He was much more comfortable with and interested in visual storytelling, so while the story, characters and situations are conventional and predictable, there is the usual array of dynamic shots and effects. Crowd scenes at the funfair always have a waltzer rotating in the background; some shots have superimposed images so we can know what a character is thinking as well as what they can see; and at one point Mabel and Bob are filmed reflected in the gently ebbing waters of a river.

The best piece of narrative-by-pictures comes when Jack’s success in the boxing world is dramatised by a montage that shows his name being given more and more prominent placings on successive posters. A fantastic Hitchcock grace note has the seasons changing too.

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Seven bracelets out of 10

Blake’s 7: Assassin (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Hearing that a killer has been hired to hunt them down, the Scorpio crew decide to find him first…

Series D, episode 7. Written by: Rod Beacham. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 9 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (45) and the others discover that a mysterious and expensive assassin called Cancer has been mentioned on a communique of Servalan’s. Assuming that Cancer has been employed to kill them, Avon argues they should bump off Servalan before she can make the payment. So, following a clue from the communique, Avon and Vila teleport to the planet Domo and the former deliberately gets himself captured by some space pirates. He’s then placed in a cell with an elderly man called Nebrox (Richard Hurndall), who comes over all Basil Exposition and tells Avon about the slave auction they’re both due to be part of. Nebrox also recently saw someone arrive, buy a prisoner and leave – Avon reckons it must have been Cancer. At the auction, where Servalan is one of the bidders, Nebrox manages to help Avon escape. So Avon takes his new pal back to the Scorpio and the gang chase after Cancer’s fleeing ship (which handily has a painting of a crab on its hull). When they catch up and teleport aboard, Avon finds Cancer – a large, imposing man – holding a simpering woman hostage. After the assassin has been subdued, the woman, Piri, explains that Cancer bought her from the slavers for sexual purposes. Avon then lies in wait for Servalan to show up. But soon Cancer gets loose, Nebrox is found dead, and is ship is disabled. Oh no! It gets worse: Avon is then knocked unconscious and tied up. When he comes round, Piri reveals the shock plot twist that no one saw coming: *she’s* Cancer, and the large, imposing man is an actor she got from the slavers as a decoy. She tries to kill Avon with her signature weapon – a poison-delivering mechanical crab – but thankfully Tarrant and Soolin burst in and kill her.
* Vila (46) is the one who stumbles across Servalan’s message about Cancer and Domo and ‘five targets’. Later, he and Dayna take the Scorpio back to base while the others continue with this week’s plot.
* As well as Servalan (24), one of the bidders at the slave auction – which, like so many Blake’s 7 location scenes, takes place in a non-descript bit of wasteland – is played by Betty Marsden off of Carry On Camping. (Others are non-speaking white actors in various ‘ethnic’ costumes.) We’ve come a long way since the fascist psycho-drama of episode one…

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Servalan wants to buy Avon and is willing to outbid anyone – but he then scuppers her plan by escaping. Later in the episode, it’s revealed that the communique giving away her plan to hire an assassin was a plant: Servalan masterminded the whole thing, and actually ends the episode believing that Avon and Tarrant have been killed in an explosion.
* Tarrant (20) thinks Avon might be scared of Cancer – and he’s right. Tarrant later flirts with Piri, who at this point still seems to be a dippy drip of a woman.
* Dayna (20) teleports down to Domo to help with Avon’s escape. When she spies Servalan, she attempts to kill the woman who murdered her father (yes, it’s time for that plot point to be remembered!) but she fails.
* Soolin (7) has heard of Domo, the planet mentioned in Servalan’s message. Ten years earlier it was colonised by space pirates. Later, during a Die Hard section of the episode set aboard Cancer’s ship, Soolin is brilliantly cold and harsh towards the wet Piri. She’s then nearly attacked by a mechanical crab… but just as it approaches unseen, she has a eureka moment and jumps out of its reach. What has she realised? That Piri is not what she seems…
* When the initial threat is discovered, Orac (29) counsels the gang to find Cancer before he finds them.

Best bit: There’s a great sequence when our heroes are searching the ship for Cancer. It’s compelling and there’s good incidental music too.

Worst bit: Sadly, this episode has a real disparity between the quality of the location filming and the scenes recorded in the studio. The latter stuff is well paced, well lit and inventively shot. Tension and atmosphere are generated. But when the episode is outdoors, the filming style is so drab and staccato.

Review: A decent and fun episode marred by two things: the hamfisted location scenes and the spectacularly obvious plot twist, which is based on the idea that the audience won’t even consider the possibility that an assassin might be female. The characters assume Cancer is a man, and we’re meant to as well. In the plus column, Soolin has a meaningful role to play in the storytelling. A rarity.

Seven vems out of 10

Next episode: Games

Blake’s 7: Traitor (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Scorpio crew investigate why the Federation is rebuilding so quickly and encounter a mysterious figure called Commissioner Sleer…

Series D, episode 3. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: David Sullivan Proudfoot. Originally broadcast: 12 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (41) hears that the expanding Federation has annexed another planet, and wants to know why they’re making so many gains all of a sudden. So he sets course for Helotrix, one of the oldest Earth colonies. Despite his burning curiosity, however, Avon is happy to stay aboard Scorpio while his colleagues teleport down and investigate. Later, he’s stunned when Dayna and Tarrant return and tell him that while on the planet they encountered Servalan…
* Orac (25) is working on a redesign of the Scorpio that will increase its speed – and rather naively hacks into the local Federation network to glean some information. Prat.
* Dayna (16) is also concerned by how many worlds are being brought under the fascistic wing of the Federation. Once at Helotrix, she and Tarrant beam down and do some snooping. They find a population who have been pacified by drugs, allowing the Federation to take over with ease, then hook up with local resistant leader Hunda. (For the second episode running, there’s also a reference to Dayna’s skin colour – which was never an issue in the third season.)
* Vila (42) moans about the Federation expansion, fears the gang will soon be caught, laments that they no longer have a ship as fast as the Liberator, advocates fleeing, and generally spends the episode being a whiny little bitch.
* Soolin (3) is now part of the gang but spends the whole episode sitting around, occasionally saying something disposable and not actually doing anything. (The story goes that Glynis Barber is saying lines written for Cally before Jan Chappell quit the show. No wonder the latter left.)
* On Helotrix, Tarrant (16) and Dayna also meet a Federation officer who’s supplying information to the resistance and learn that the pacifying drug is being synthesised nearby. (They don’t know, however, that Officer Leitz is a double agent working for a shadowy Federation figure called Sleer.) The pair head for the refinery and find a blind man in a wheelchair. He invented the drug that ‘adapts’ people, but only did it under duress from Sleer, who’s been torturing him. Before they escape the planet, Tarrant and Dayna catch a glimpse of the elusive Sleer…
* Slave (3).
* At first, Federation bigwig Sleer is only discussed – and anyone who’s ever paid attention to how dialogue works will spot that every character refers to Sleer in an unusual way. Whenever mentioning Sleer, the person will call Sleer by Sleer’s name, pointedly avoiding any personal pronouns that would give the game away that Sleer might possible be – how’s this for a monumental plot twist? –  a *woman*. A woman in a position of authority and power? Imagine! Later, someone sneaks into a local politician’s office and kills him, but the scene is shot in such a way that we don’t get a good look at the assassin. Then we hear Sleer’s voice over a radio and it’s been artificially disguised. Even though we’re told by a Federation character that Servalan (22) was killed recently, it’s not a huge surprise when it’s revealed that she’s on the planet, bumped off the politician, and is now going by the name Sleer.

Best bit: Christopher Neame’s performance as a calculating Federation officer called Colonel Quute. He obsequiously goes along with what his superior says, but you can see the snarl and sneer behind his eyes.

Worst bit: Poor Soolin. She was a secondary character in the season opener, and then crowbarred into a perfunctory scene in episode two. Now, she’s seemingly been accepted by the regular team… but between episodes. So there’s no getting-to-know-you scenes, no focus on her as a character. Surely she could have taken Tarrant or Dayna’s role in this story, which would have given more screentime, more dialogue and a chance to interact with someone meaningfully.

Review: This is a typical Robert Holmes script, in that the dialogue is peppered with telling references to unseen locations, events and people that imply a larger world without us having to know the context. The incidental music, meanwhile, often makes you think of a stiring, stiff-upper-lip war movie. Enjoyable enough stuff.

Seven red-hot filaments through his nerve centres out of 10

Next episode: Stardrive

Blake’s 7: Rescue (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Stranded on Terminal after the loss of the Liberator, Avon, Vila, Tarrant and Dayna encounter a salvager who harbours a dark secret…

Series D, episode 1. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 28 September 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Dayna (14) and her friends are still on Terminal, the artificial planet they found in the previous episode, but Servalan has boobytrapped their only means of transport. Dayna spots some aggressive ‘links’ (Terminal’s savage primates), is menaced by a large Venus-fly-trap-style plant, then falls down a ravine. (Bad day!) She’s rescued by an ever-smirking salvager called Dorian, who is then forced by the gang to give them a lift off the planet. He seems to grow tired quickly…
* Scouting the local countryside – it’s snowed since the events of the last episode – Avon (39) realises that Servalan will have set explosives in the underground base as well as the transport ship. And he can’t get back in time to warn the others… Cally is killed, but Avon manages to find and retrieve Orac. After meeting Dorian, Avon leads a hijacking of his ship – but Dorian has set an unchangeable course and our heroes end up at his base on the planet Xenon. Dorian shows off his comfortable living and his technological achievements. ‘What did you do in your spare time?’ quips Avon. Suspicious of Dorian’s evasive answers, Avon then pulls a gun on him – only to find Dorian has surreptitiously removed all the bullets. Dorian reveals that he built his base on top of a cave he found 200 years ago. It cleanses him of all his impurities and vices, and he hasn’t aged a day in two centuries. The cave now contains a creature that was once a man but is now a receptacle for all of Dorian’s negativity. He intends to replace the creature with Avon, Tarrant, Dayna and Soolin, who will be somehow merged into a gestalt entity.
* When the Terminal base explodes, Vila (40) helps an injured Tarrant out through the escape hatch. He then tries to get to Cally, but the smoke and heat hold him back. On Xenon, having resigned himself to the group’s situation, Vila uses his lockpicking skills to open Dorian’s generous stock of booze. But when he overhears Dorian revealing his evil plan, forgotten-about Vila manages to sneak a gun into Avon’s hand.
* Tarrant (14) is injured in the blast on Terminal, then passes out as the gang try to move. On Xenon, Tarrant and Dayna want to know more about Dorian’s setup, so do some furtive exploring. Dayna finds a hatch leading to a staircase down to a cave, where there’s a monster lurking in the dark…
* After the explosion in the base, Cally (37) sends a psychic message to Vila, asking for help. But her friend can’t get to her and she’s killed.
* Slave (1) is the lugubrious artificial intelligence aboard Dorian’s space ship, Scorpio.
* When our characters reach Xenon, they meet Soolin (1), Dorian’s sidekick who is a crack-shot quickdraw. We’re told she killed the men responsible for the deaths of her family. Being so formidable, however, doesn’t help when Dorian unloads her gun without her noticing. After Dorian’s secret is spilled, she feels betrayed… Glynis Barber, who also had a small role in the first season, doesn’t get much chance to shine in her first episode as Soolin. But she certainly knows how to wear a tight jumpsuit.
* Orac (23) is switched on by Dorian, who wants to know how the Liberator’s teleport system worked.

Best bit: There’s a new title sequence with a charmingly blocky 1980s logo…

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Worst bit: …that still has its apostrophe missing!

Review: Another new season, another refreshing of the format: we’ve lost the Liberator, Zen and Cally; we’ve gained a new ship, a new computer, a new character and a new base. Rescue is quite blatantly based on Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It passes the time without ever fully gripping the attention.

Seven corruptions of time and appetite out of 10

Next episode: Power

Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Crypt of Dracula (Sebastian Montes, 27 September 2017)

 

Dracula

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Transylvania, year 1300. A cliffhanger ending is set near Castle Frankenstein, Germany in 1818.

Faithful to the novel? Originating in a 1984 comic book, the intelligent, man-size, crime-fighting turtles Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo were soon spun-off into a series of cartoons, a film franchise, computer games and plenty of kiddie-baiting merchandise. The Crypt of Dracula is the 15th instalment from the fifth and final season of the third different animated TV adaptation. At the beginning of the episode, as part of an ongoing storyline, the turtles and their time-travelling friend Renet arrive in Transylvania via a time portal. It’s the year 1300 and they’re on the trail of a bad guy called Savanti Romero who wants to destroy the future. In order to help their quest, Renet uses her magic staff to provide the turtles with new clothes and weapons, which are anachronistically 19th-century-looking and very steampunky. (Leonardo namechecks the 2004 film Van Helsing.) Renet tells them they must find and defeat Count Dracula, lord of the vampires, before Savanti recruits him to his cause. This leads them to Dracula’s castle…

Best performance: Vlad Dracula has a Bela Lugosi accent and cape, and can turn into a flock of bats. He’s voiced by Chris Sarandon who gets into the campy spirit of the thing.

Best bit: All the usual clichés appear: a spooky castle, werewolves, an abandoned village, locals with a cursed secret. There’s also – incongruously – the headless horseman of the Sleepy Hollow story. But, as fun as all the Gothicana is, the best thing about the episode is actually the marvellous, pop-art title sequence.

 

Review: This CGI animation is obviously essentially childish, but there’s also enough spooky and sometimes downright macabre stuff going on to keep the interest. For example, Raphael is bitten by Dracula and starts to turn into a vampire. We see his woozy point of view; we see his fangs grow and his eyes light up.

Seven time sceptres out of 10

Blake’s 7: Death-Watch (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When the crew of the Liberator decide to view a duel being held to decide an intergalactic conflict, Tarrant is shocked to learn that one of the fighters is his brother…

Series C, episode 12. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Gerald Blake. Originally broadcast: 24 March 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Dayna (12) is far from impressed when she hears about the two-man fight being staged to resolve a dispute between the United Planets of Teal and the Vandor Confederacy. But her interest is piqued when she learns that the neutral arbiter is to be Servalan – Dayna reminds us that, a dozen episodes ago, Servalan murdered her father. Initially, she and Vila travel down to a planet where festivities are being held to mark the duel, but then they radio back to say all the shops are shut so return to the Liberator. (That saved building some sets!) Later, Dayna gets a chance to confront Servalan and hold her at gunpoint: at Avon’s request, she refrains from killing her.
* Tarrant (12) sets course for the combat zone of the Teal/Vandor conflict when he hears one of their famous duels is on. But he gets a shock when he settles down to watch the ‘pre-game show’ on the Liberator’s viewscreen: the Teal combatant is his brother, Deeta. Despite the sibling bond, Deeta refuses to see Del before the fight, so instead our Tarrant talks to Deeta’s colleague, Max, who tells him both fighters will be wearing physic implants that will allow anyone to experience the duel from the contestants’ points of view. When the violence gets underway, Deeta is quickly killed by his opponent (the death plays out in fetishist super slow-mo). Enraged, and suspecting a fix, Tarrant offers to refight the duel on his brother’s behalf. Thanks to Cally offering insider information via telepathy, he’s able to win.
* Avon (37) goes to visit Servalan when the Liberator arrives for the fight. Knowing she can’t touch him because of the official neutrality of the situation, he accuses her of manipulating the conflict in order to take control of both star systems. After Deeta is killed, Avon delights in ruining Servalan’s masterplan by having her removed as arbiter and the duel voided.
* Vila (38) is the first to suggest they go and watch the Teal/Vandor combat – he argues that they could all do with a holiday. He then seems to spend the entire episode with a vast array of differently coloured drinks in front of him.
* Orac (22) reveals the shocking statistic that fatigue is decreasing the crew’s efficiency by 1.02% every work period. He later deduces why Deeta lost the fight so easily: his opponent, Vinni, is an android.
* Zen (32) sets a course or two.
* Like Dayna, Cally (35) isn’t happy about travelling across the galaxy to watch two men fight to the death. (Women, eh?) She’s so against the idea that she says she’ll stay aboard the Liberator while the others head off to experience the festival atmosphere that surrounds the duel. Her objection doesn’t stop her later helping Tarrant cheat in his codified conflict with Vinni, but admittedly this is after she’s learnt that the latter is a robot.
* Servalan (20) has managed to bag the gig of head neutral adjudicator of the fight. But, of course, she has a plan. She knows the Vandor champion, Vinni, is an android – and when that’s revealed, it will lead to all-out war between the two regions and she’ll be able to swoop in and take over the two damaged empires. When Avon confronts her, she tells him that she doesn’t consider him an enemy – more a future friend. Avon responds by kissing her. As you do.

Best bit: Though the episode doesn’t pursue the idea, for a little while we’re treated to a section from a television show covering the fight. A reporter delivers solemn clichés to camera, and even touches his ear as if he’s wearing an earpiece. He talks to the camera and explains how the duel will go down. Then, after he throws to a VT, we stay with him and listen as he bickers with his out-of-shot director.

Worst bit: Steven Pacey plays two brothers and there’s no scene where they meet via the science of 1980s video split-screen?! Oh, come on!

Review: This is mostly a passive episode for our heroes, who spend a large chunk not even trying to achieve anything. Instead the story plays out while they’re in the general vicinity. But it’s enjoyable enough. For the third time in six episodes, the series resorts to that sci-fi standard of a guest character being played by one of the regular actors – whether he needs to be is another matter.

Seven final frontiers – yes, seriously, the TV reporter makes a Star Trek reference – out of 10

Next episode: Terminal