Blake’s 7: Space Fall (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake, Jenna and Vila are aboard the spaceship London, en route for a prison planet, but Blake is plotting to escape. Then the London comes across another craft drifting in space…

Series A, episode 2. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 9 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Seeing how he’s being taken to a prison planet, Blake (2) doesn’t waste any time in trying to escape. He recruits Jenna, Vila and others to a plan to seize control the ship, but it only goes half-right: some of the prisoners are caught and the sadistic crew start to murder them until Blake gives himself up. Then the London stumbles across a strange, highly sophisticated and abandoned ship in deep space. The scout party are seemingly killed, so the London’s captain orders Blake, Jenna and Avon to go aboard to see what’s happened. They manage to survive the experience and – didn’t the captain see this coming? – bugger off with the new ship.
* Jenna (2) is not surprised when the sub-commander of the London, Raiker, takes a special interest in her. She’s the only female prisoner… and he’s a prick. But when he hints that he can make her life easier in return for a favour, she whispers an insult into his ear and he slaps her. She looks back defiantly.
* Vila (2) has a key part to play in Blake’s escape plan: distract the naïve guard with magic tricks while the others are doing sneaky-sneaky stuff involving an access panel. He already feels like the comic relief.
* One of the other prisoners aboard the London is computer expert Kerr Avon (1), who initially wants to keep himself to himself but can’t resist showing off his knowledge. We’re told he nearly stole five million credits, but he ‘relied on other people’ and the plan went wrong. Blake eventually persuades him to help with his rebellion, and Avon sneaks into the ship’s access shafts to fiddle with the central computer. Paul Darrow is incredibly watchable, using an acting style that’s total bravado and confidence and commitment.
* Olag Gan (1) is another prisoner. His defining characteristic is ‘big, tall bloke’, which enables him to help the escape attempt by threatening to cut off a guard’s hand. David Jackson doesn’t have much substance to play.

Best bit: The combination of Blake and Avon is fantastic straight off the bat. The clash of the two characters’ attitudes – and the two actors’ performances – creates a fascinating dynamic. Puritanical Blake says power should be back with the honest man. ‘Have you ever met an honest man?’ quips the cynical Avon.

Worst bit: Yes, this series was made in the inflation-heavy 1970s. Yes, the BBC is a cost-effective public-service broadcaster. Yes, tastes and expectations change over time. But nevertheless the studio sets of the London are really, really crummy. Drab, flat, grey walls and bodged-looking fixtures. It’s easy to see why Blake’s 7 has so often been ridiculed for looking cheap.

Review: A fine episode that again focuses on the lead character but also expands the cast of regulars. Blake quickly becomes the leader of the prisoners, but not through violence or intimidation or resources or because his name’s in the show’s title. It’s because of his powers of persuasion. He issues orders and plans strategies, while the others – Jenna, Vila, Avon – fall into line because he’s talking sense. It’s good writing and smart acting. The London, meanwhile, is crewed by guest actors from the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who (Glyn Owen from The Power of Kroll, Norman Tipton from Underworld and Leslie Schofield from The Face of Evil). One of them, Raiker (Schofield), is clearly a nasty piece of work who considers sexual abuse then murders prisoners for sadistic fun. Just in case you were still in any doubt, this is another indicator that Blake’s 7 is not a cosy, safe sci-fi romp. It’s dangerous and cruel, and that makes it interesting and unpredictable. This is such an enjoyable episode, in fact, that you forgive it the *enormous* deus ex machina of a super-ship landing in our heroes’ laps just when they need to escape.

Eight hull punctures out of 10

Next episode: Cygnus Alpha

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Family Plot (1976)

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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.

When two con artists try to track down a missing heir, they come into contact with a pair of kidnappers…

Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, released when he was 76 years old, is a comedy thriller. Neither taking itself too seriously nor ever becoming too silly, it’s an entertaining couple of hours.  A lot of the enjoyment comes from watching omnisciently as two seemingly separate storylines slowly start to intertwine.

As we start, fake psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) is conning an elderly woman (Cathleen Nesbitt) with a cod séance routine. When the OAP mentions a long-lost nephew who would inherit a fortune, Blanche and boyfriend George offer to find him for a fee of $10,000. Meanwhile, another pair of criminals – Fran (played by the top-billed Karen Black) and her boyfriend, Arthur (William Devane) – are kidnapping VIPs and ransoming them for jewels.

The two sets of characters literally cross paths early on, when George nearly runs Fran over, but are otherwise discrete until the 45-minute mark… George has been following clues like a detective, trying to find the long-missing nephew. He talks to someone who knew him, then we see this old friend show up at Arthur’s office to tell him people are looking for him. That’s right: Arthur is the heir, but because he’s also a criminal he assumes Blanche and George asking questions about him must be bad news. The cat and mouse game is on.

Alfred Hitchcock was born just four years after the Lumière brothers invented the medium of cinema, and had been a film director for half a century when he made Family Plot. But here’s a movie that’s startlingly of the 1970s: the fashions, of course, and the cars and the also the style of filmmaking. Or rather not *film*making. The master’s final movie is surprisingly televisual. It’s very talky. There are studio sets and California locations. To be honest, it often looks and feels uncannily like an episode of Columbo. Also, being his 70s and suffering from poor health, Hitch was unable to travel too far from the San Francisco production base so an action scene as a car with no brakes careers down a mountain road is done with second-unit POV shots, an under-cranked camera and some very unconvincing process shots of Dern and Harris in a studio.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, not least the four central performances. Bruce Dern is a loose, pipe-smoking charmer (Al Pacino was considered for the role but was too expensive). William Devane is terrifically icy cool and sinister (they actually starting shooting with Roy Thinnes, but then he was ungraciously dumped when first choice Devane became available). Barbara Harris is adorable and funny. And Karen Black has real star quality (she’s also the focus of a self-aware gag from Hitch: when we first see her character, she’s a classic, enigmatic Hitchcock blonde… then she takes her wig off to reveal brunette hair).

There’s also a grandstanding cameo from Nicholas Colasanto (later Coach in sitcom Cheers) as a kidnap victim; Katherine Helmond (later Jessica in sitcom Soap) playing Basil Exposition and telling George the necessary plot information at just the right time; and decent incidental music by John Williams, then hot from Jaws (1975).

Eight silhouettes out of 10

 

 

Blackmail (1929)

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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 policeman’s girlfriend kills someone in self-defence, but then the pair are blackmailed by a witness…

There’s something about Anny. The star of this 1929 movie is Czech actress Anny Ondra, who had also been in Hitchcock’s The Manxman a few months earlier. She’s Hitch’s first tortured, haunted yet beautiful blonde, and is extremely watchable. Her character, Alice White, is annoyed with her boyfriend so rebels by going up to the apartment of an artist friend called Crewe (Cyril Ritchard). He, however, is a nasty piece of work and attempts to rape her. Fighting back, Alice grabs a knife, kills him and flees.

Her turmoil as she tries to hide her crime while the rest of the world goes on with its daily life is very affecting. One scene has her numbly walking through busy crowds, another has a family friend innocently repeating the word knife – each instance making Alice feel worse and worse. But as good as Ondra is, there’s something not quite right in the performance and it doesn’t take long to see – or rather hear – what it is.

When filming began, Blackmail was planned as a silent film. But ‘talkies’ were the coming thing and halfway through production Hitchcock jumped at the chance to convert his movie to sound. (It’s Britain’s first film with dialogue.) But Anny Ondra presented a problem. Her natural, mid-European accent wasn’t appropriate for the character of Alice. (To hear Ondra speaking, check out this amazing piece of test footage where Hitchcock embarrasses her for a laugh.) It needed replacing, but the technique of post-dubbing had yet to be developed. The solution? Have another actress, Joan Barry, stand by the camera and perform the dialogue as Ondra mouthed along – sometimes it works, but usually it’s just distracting. (Ironically, while English, Barry’s clipped voice doesn’t especially suit the working-class character of Alice either!)

Visually, the movie is brilliantly innovative: a shot of Alice and Crewe climbing a staircase is staged on a specially built set that allows the camera to climb with them; the rape scene is off-screen, with billowing curtains standing in for the violence; and there are match-cuts, a montage and a large-scale chase set at the British Museum. Oh, and Hitchcock has a substantial cameo as a train commuter being bothered by a naughty child. A real treat.

Eight men on the London Underground out of 10

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970, Peter Sasdy)

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An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: We begin in that Hammer favourite: an nebulous area of central Europe in the late nineteenth century. But then we cut to a little while later in London and the story plays out in leafy suburbs, the squalid East End and the fancy Café Royale on Regent Street.

Faithful to the novel? This is the fourth sequel to Hammer Films’ 1958 adaptation of Dracula, and follows on from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. It begins with a man called Weller (an always fun Roy Kinnear) accidentally witnessing the demise of Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) – the vampire has been staked with a crucifix. After the body crumbles away, Weller collects some of the remains and leaves… Cut to England, some time later. Three stuffy, middle-aged businessmen – William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis) and Jonathon Secker (John Carson) – are telling their families that they’re off to do some charity work in the East End, whereas in fact they’re visiting a hedonistic, anything-goes brothel. While there, they meet a shady, arrogant aristocrat called Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates), who takes them to a shop run by Weller to acquire some of Dracula’s blood. (They’ve heard of the Count and know of vampires.) Wanting the thrill of interacting with the undead, the trio and Courtley perform a Satanic ritual but Courtley is killed when he drinks some of the blood. Terrified, Hargood, Paxton and Secker flee. Then the corpse transforms into a resurrected Dracula, who vows revenge on the three men for the death of his servant Courtley. The vamp starts by targeting the trio’s grown-up children – he hypnotises Alice Hargood (Linda Hayden) into killing her father, then turns Lucy Paxton (Isla Blair) into a vampire…

Best performance: Geoffrey Keen was later a regular in the James Bond films, appearing as the Minister of Defence in all six movies between 1977 and 1987. Here, he plays the grumpy, troubled William Hargood, who’s the ring leader of the three businessmen. His character’s trauma after the black-magic ritual is very convincing – he develops paranoia, drinks heavily, abuses his daughter…

Best bit: There’s some handsome location filming at Highgate Cemetery in London, most notably in the beautiful, Gothic, curved row of tombs known as the Circle of Lebanon in the West Cemetery. (Among many others, buried at Highgate are actors Corin Redgrave, Jean Simmons, Ralph Richardson, Roger Lloyd-Pack, Diane Cilento, Sheila Gish and Bob Hoskins, writers Douglas Adams, Anthony Shaffer, George Eliot and Carl Mayer, comedian Max Wall, punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren, singer George Michael, poet Christina Rossetti, scientist Jacob Bronowski, painter Lucian Freud, Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, and most famously Karl Marx.)

Review: This film was originally going to be Dracula-free because Christopher Lee was tiring of the role. Ralph Bates’s character would have taken over as the series’s new vampire threat, but distributors objected so Lee was coerced into another sequel. And it’s one of the best in the Hammer cycle: engaging, seedy, scary, complicated, and with a psychological depth that’s almost always missing from these movies. These characters suffer emotionally as well as physically.

Eight snakes out of 10

Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living god Diana Prince leaves her home on a mystical island of Amazons to help American spy Steve Trevor during the First World War…

Good guys: This film is part of the DC Extended Universe series, so we’ve seen lead character Diana Prince before. Thankfully, actress Gal Gadot is better here than she was during her cold, one-note contribution to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The bulk of Wonder Woman is a flashback set a century ago… The young Diana lives on a Mediterranean island which is magically cut off from the rest of the world, populated solely by females, and where everyone trains to be in an army that doesn’t have anyone to fight. Two women bicker over Diana’s future: her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright), wants her to learn how to fight; but her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), wants to keep Diana safe. (All the women on the island speak in a vaguely Middle-Eastern accent, presumably to complement Gal Gadot’s Israeli voice.) Then a biplane appears in the sky. An American spy called Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) has (somehow) stumbled across the island and tells Diana and co about the war. “War?” she says. “What war?” Learning about the horrors going on in Europe (it’s 1918, you see), Diana resolves to travel with Steve to London because she thinks Ares, the god of war, must be responsible. When they arrive, we meet Steve’s secretary: the nervy but very capable Etta Candy (Lucy Davis, who is so funny she very nearly steals the whole film). Then when Steve and Diana head to France to prevent chemical weapon being used by the Germans, Steve recruits three old colleagues. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui, decent) is a French Moroccan spy; Charlie (Ewen Bremner, likeable) is an alcoholic Scottish sharpshooter who’s clearly suffering from PTSD; and Chief Napi (Eugene Brave Rock, barely an actor) is a Native American smuggler.

Bad guys: The major villains initially seem to be the sadistic leader of the German Army, General Erich Ludendoff (Danny Huston), and his sidekick Isabel Maru aka Dr Poison (Elena Anaya), a Spanish scientist developing chemical weapons. Huston’s hamming it up – he thinks he’s in a more childish film – while Anaya makes little impression despite an interesting backstory and a Phantom of the Opera-style facemask. But they’re actually red herrings. In the London sequence, we meet British politician Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) and anyone who’s ever seen a movie before will probably guess that there’s more to him than meets the eye. He turns out to be Ares, another powerful living god and Diana’s evil half-brother.

Best bits:
* The early sequence on the magical island of Themyscira is quite flat and po-faced – it presents a world that’s difficult to believe in and has lots of clunky exposition – so it’s something of a relief when the 20th century crash-lands into the story. Chris Pine is absolutely terrific as Steve Trevor, bringing some much-needed charm, irony and urgency to the story. It’s a very Harrison Ford-y performance.
* Steve being interrogated by the Amazons. They use the Lasso of Hestia, a rope that compels people to tell the truth. “But it’s really hot,” says Steve. He then involuntarily blurts out, “I AM A SPY!”
* Steve sneaking into a German scientific base in the Ottoman Empire has the feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark as he steals an important notebook, jumps into a biplane, and drops a grenade as he escapes.
* Diana walks in on a naked Steve. “Would you say you’re a typical example of your sex?” she asks. “I am… above average,” he replies.
* There’s a lovely bit of movie logic on show here: leaving the island, which is near Turkey, Diana and Steve get into a small boat that sails along at about five knots. They fall asleep, but when Diana awakes they’re sailing up the Thames! “We got lucky, we caught a ride, we made good time,” is the lame line of dialogue Chris Pine has to toss off without looking too embarrassed.
* The London sequence is a triumph of production design, CGI and period detail. There’s also plenty of fish-out-of-water humour with Diana not understanding social conventions and etiquette. Steve takes her to Selfridges to get some Western clothes.
* Etta Candy is a marvel. Everything she says or does is both adorable and hilarious. Every eye roll or nervous vocal utterance is a joy.
* This area of the film also contains some knowing references to the 1978 Superman: Diana puts on glasses, struggles with a revolving door, and saves her human companion from a guy with a gun in an alley – all things Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent did too.
* In order to prove he’s telling the truth about going to Europe to stop a genocide, Steve wraps the Lasso of Hestia around his own hand… then can’t stop himself admitting that it’s a terrible idea and they’ll probably be killed.
* Diana deals with a bully in a pub by throwing him across the room. “I’m both frightened and aroused,” says Sameer.
* Diana climbing out of the trench and marching across no-man’s land, rallying the British to follow her. It’s an unashamedly epic moment of rousing music, slow-motion photography and iconic hero poses.
* Steve and Sameer blag their way into a German castle where a gala is being held – Steve masquerades as a German colonel, Sameer as his driver.
* The Armistice celebration scene in Trafalgar Square – which was shot in the genuine location.

Review: What a lovely surprise. After three movies of gobsmacking ineptitude – Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad – the DC Extended Universe gets on track. With a female lead (so rare in the superhero genre) and a female director (ever rarer), Wonder Woman shrugs off DC’s alpha-male obsessions with explosions, killings and carnage, and instead opts for heart, humour and a light touch. It’s very likeable stuff that zips along. But that’s not to say the film is perfect. Its feminist credentials, for example, are superficial. For all her barrier-breaking and popularity, Diana is still an objectively beautiful woman who parades around in a sexualised outfit while the men dictate the plot and explain things to her. It’s hardly Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor. Her naivety is also sometimes difficult to fathom – she can speak hundreds of languages, yet doesn’t know what marriage is; she comes from a magical community of superhuman isolationists yet berates a middle-aged general for hiding in an office ‘like a coward’. The movie also has some dull villains, can’t resist an overblown climax of CGI nonsense, and repeats ideas from Captain America: The First Avenger a few times too many. But as a two-hour slice of popcorn cinema, this hits the spot. It’s fun, entertaining and charming.

Eight pairs of specs (suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen) out of 10 

The Lego Batman Movie (2017, Chris McKay)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Joker is causing carnage in Gotham, while Batman is going through issues of loneliness…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is the hero of Gotham City (“I love you more than my kids!” says a member of the general public). However, new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) wants to put an end to his vigilantism. Meanwhile, Bruce is also feeling lonely in his millionaire’s mansion with just loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) for company. Later, the household gets an addition when Bruce accidentally agrees to adopt a young, enthusiastic orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who joins Batman on his missions and eventually gets the name Robin. Superman (Channing Tatum) also has a couple of appearances.

Bad guys: The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) wants to blow up the city but he’s upset when he realises Batman doesn’t consider him to be his number-one enemy. There’s also a large gang of bad guys who initially support the Joker. They include the Riddler (Conan O’Brien), the Scarecrow (Jason Mantzoukas), Bane (Doug Benson), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), Clayface (Kate Micucci), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome), Mr Freeze (David Burrows), Penguin (John Venzon) and Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate). After the Joker surrenders to the cops he’s sent to the Phantom Zone (the mystical prison from the Superman movies), where he recruits lots of other bad guys from non-DC fictions. These include Sauron (Jermaine Clement), Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong (Seth Green), Daleks (referred to as “British robots… Ask your nerd friends”), the shark from Jaws, Gremlins, the Wicked Witch of the West (Riki Lindhome) and the flying monkeys, Dracula, Medusa, Agent Smith from The Matrix and a velociraptor from Jurassic Park. The Joker brings them to Gotham to take his revenge on Batman. 

Best bits:
* The film starts with a black screen and Batman giving a meta voiceover about how all great films begin with a black screen. He then comments on the production-company logos.
* The opening scene features an aircraft from MacGuffin Airlines. The flight is also Flight 1138, which is a reference to two George Lucas movies.
* The first appearance of the Joker. He tries to intimidate an airline pilot, but the pilot just points out that all the Joker’s plans fail (“Like that time with the parade and the Prince music?”).
* In a gag that only becomes apparent during the end credits, Two-Face is voiced by Billy Dee Williams, who played the pre-villain character in the 1989 Batman film.
* When characters shoot guns, they vocalise the ‘Pwew-pwew-pe-pwew’ sound effects.
* The incidental music is great.
* Batman sings a song while he deals with the Joker: “In the darkest night/I make the bad guys fall/There’s a million heroes/But I’m the best of them all.”
* The Batmobile’s horn is the theme music from the 1960s TV series.
* The password to Batman’s secret lair is ‘Iron Man sucks’.
* Batman bored at home: microwaving lobster thermidor, struggling to find the right AV channel on his telly, and watching Jerry Maguire.
* The interior of Wayne Manor is reminiscent of Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s home in Citizen Kane.
* Alfred says that Bruce also had maudlin periods in “2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.” As he mentions each year we get a flash of the relevant Batman movie (Lego reconstructions for the first eight, then a live-action clip for 1966).
* “My name’s Richard Grayson but all the kids at the orphanage call me Dick.” “Well, children can be cruel.”
* Barbara Gordon is announced as Gotham’s new police commissioner via an X Factor-style VT. It tells us she cleaned up a nearby crime-ridden city by using “statistics!!! And compassion!!!”
* When Barbara says they can manage without Batman, Bruce Wayne calmly asks a waiter for a drink, then gulps some of it so he can spit it out.
* The shark repellent: a neat call-back to the 1960s film.
* Batman asks if Dick is “110-per-cent expendable”. Dick: “I don’t know what that means, but okay!”
* Dick tries out some potential superhero costumes. Batman says the El Mariachi one is culturally insensitive.
* Batman has been keeping count of how many good ideas he’s had (5,678,482) and how many good ideas everyone else has had (none).
* Superman’s front-door bell at the Fortress of Solitude is the musical motif from Superman: The Movie.
* Batman’s nervous flirting with Barbara.
* When he reaches Gotham, Lord Voldemort turns police officers into fish, frogs and fish-frogs. “Sergeant Jackson,” says the police chief, “stop floppin’ around!”
* Barbara Gordon tells Batman she will let him out of prison if he agrees to team up with other people to fight crime. “Who am I working with? SEAL team six? Fox Force Five? Suicide Squad?”
* A cat gets engulfed by lava. “I’m okay!” you hear it say.
* Robin needs the loo. “Can you hold it in like a big boy?” asks Batman.
* Having joined the fight, Alfred says: “Bob’s your uncle, you ruddy duff cobblers!” He’s British, of course.
* Phyllis, the brick-shaped administrator of the Phantom Zone, calls Batman ‘Mr Batman’ and emphasises the first syllable, as if his name was Harman or something.
* Batman tells Robin they’re going to punch the bad guys so hard that “words describing the impact are gonna spontaneously materialise out of thin air.”
* The music over the end credits is “happy, poppy music, the kind that makes parents and studio executives happy.”

Review: This spin-off might not be quite as awesome as the original Lego Movie but it’s still enormous fun. It balances gags for kids with postmodern references, and lots of action with plenty of heart. As with The Lego Movie, the most impressive thing is the design work. The look of the film is astonishing. Although done with CG, the characters and their surroundings feel real and solid and three-dimensional. There’s smoke and water and lens flares. Scenes are shot inventively, with crash-zooms, whip-pans and circular tracks. Action is Michael Bay-huge and dramatic. And the movie’s colour scheme is vibrant and dynamic. The movie is also remorselessly funny, but if anything the assault of jokes and fun details is too relentless. You just can’t keep up and have to accept that on one viewing you’re going to miss a large proportion. (Not that repeat viewings would be a chore.) Nevertheless, a charming, smart and very enjoyable 100 minutes.

Eight snake clowns out of 10

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000)

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Cover: An artsy shot of New York City, taken from a high angle and showing the Empire State Building. It’s pretty, but it’s difficult to see the relevance. The album’s title was taken from the edge of the 1998 £2 coin, although Noel wrote it down slightly wrong while drunk. (The Isaac Newton quotation is actually, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the *shoulders* of giants.”) By the way, this album sees Oasis as a trio. Original members Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs and Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan quit during the recording sessions and for legal reasons their contributions had to be replaced. So here Oasis is just Liam Gallagher (vocals), Alan White (drums) and Noel Gallagher (everything else).

Best track: From its crackly, vinyl-like opening, Gas Panic! is a special piece of music. The lyrics are sinister and threatening, the music is dramatic and dynamic, and the overall effect is rather magnificent.

Honourable mentions:
* Fuckin’ in the Bushes starts the album and immediately tells you that this is something different from the Oasis norm. It’s based on a heavy drum pattern, features wordless backing vocals, and uses samples of dialogue taken from the film of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Oasis often used this track as walk-on music at gigs.
* Go Let It Out was the album’s first single and got to number one. Noel has said it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written and is “the closest we came to sounding like a modern-day Beatles.” That might be a stretch, but there’s still an enjoyable polish to the sound. It’s also another sign that this album sees Oasis playing in a slightly different sandpit – this is psychedelic rock with a full, rounded bottom end. (Noel plays the bass guitar throughout the album. “Pick up the bass!” he says just as it enters this song.)
* The very likeable Who Feels Love? was the album’s second single. Like Go Let It Out, it has a ‘heavy-hippie’ vibe. There’s a strong Beatles influence – the intro is reminiscent of Within You Without You, an instrumental passage from the 2.47 mark sounds like Dear Prudence – while the whole track also has echoes of the Stone Roses. The multi-tracked vocals, meanwhile, are like something from a Crosby, Stills & Nash song. Oh, and the mix is fantastic. There are lots of details you’d miss on a scant listen.
* Sunday Morning Call was the album’s third single. It’s a pleasant-enough ballad, but lead singer Noel has never liked it – he thinks it’s pretentious and earnest. So in 2009 he had it relegated to a hidden track on an Oasis singles compilation. In a recent radio interview, he chuckled over the fact that no one’s ever missed it.
* The rousing Roll It Over is a Champagne Supernova-style epic.

Worst track: Barring cover versions, Little James was the first Oasis song not written by Noel Gallagher. His brother Liam’s opening effort is a tepid, insipid and musically boring tune about his seven-year-old stepson.

Weirdest lyric: Speaking of Little James, on this song Liam proves that he can go toe-to-toe with Noel in terms of lazy rhymes: “You live for your toys/Even though they make noise/Have you ever played with plasercine?/Or even tried a trampoline?”

Best video: Go Let It Out’s promo is shot in extreme widescreen, heavily edited, and features Liam singing from the back of a double-decker bus. There are also shots of him playing guitar, which he doesn’t do on the audio.

Personal connection: Although they didn’t play on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, Gem Archer and Andy Bell (not the one from Erasure) had joined the band by the time I first saw Oasis live. It was at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium on 15 July 2000 and was during the tour to promote this album. The support acts were Johnny Marr’s Healers and the Happy Mondays. And someone threw a cup full of piss over me. (He wasn’t aiming specifically at me. Trapped in a throng of thousands, some louts had taken to urinating into plastic cups and chucking them as far as they could.)

Review: Some say the release of the Oasis album Be Here Now in August 1997 marked the end of Britpop. (Personally speaking, I remember realising it was all over when Q magazine covered drum-and-bass DJ Roni Size in about January 1998.) But Standing on the Shoulder of Giants represents a new phase in the band’s career in more ways than one. Two-fifths of the line-up quit during the recording sessions, while the style of music moved towards drum loops, samples, snyths and prominent bass sounds. Liam Gallagher even started writing songs. The result is a very interesting and often enjoyable album: it might not all work, but it has ambition. 

Eight years between fantasies and fears out of 10

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972)

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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 short prologue set in London’s Hyde Park on 18 September 1872: Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) is killed by his arch-enemy Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). A disciple of the vampire (Christopher Neame) then collects his ring and some of his ashes… Cut to a hundred years later, and for most of the film it’s inescapably, joltingly, face-slappingly 1972. The story takes place in London, mostly around the King’s Road area of Chelsea.

Faithful to the novel? This is often assumed to be another sequel to Hammer Films’ 1958 version of Dracula, but not so. The events of the prologue don’t match up to any previous movie and this is actually a reboot of the series. In 1972, a man called Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame again) has inveigled himself with a group of young, happening hippies. He convinces them to go to an abandoned church and perform a dark-magic ceremony. Most of the friends are freaked out and flee before the ceremony is complete, but it’s successful and Count Dracula is resurrected. The next day, the friends are worried about one of their group, Laura Bellows (Caroline Munro), who’s gone missing. She was actually Dracula’s first victim, and after her body is found a copper called Murray (Michael Coles) is assigned to the case. The death especially upsets Laura’s friend Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham, sporting a very strange haircut). She’s the granddaughter of academic Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing again), who in turn is the grandson of the 1872 Van Helsing. Lorrimer and Murray soon team up and work out that Johnny Alucard is an acolyte of Dracula (the big clue: read Johnny’s surname backwards). Meanwhile, the Count and Johnny are killing other members of the gang. Dracula really wants Jess, as revenge for what the Van Helsing family have done to him, so uses Alucard (who’s now a vamp himself) to lure her to the church. Lorrimer, though, sets a trap and kills him.

Best performance: It would be needless to point out that Peter Cushing was an actor who knew what he was doing. (It might be less obvious to say that this was only his second Dracula film with Christopher Lee. After both appearing in the 1958 movie, they’d split the subsequent entries in the series until now.) Stephanie Beacham’s also impressive as Jessica. But the star of the show is Christopher Neame. With a sneering face and flamboyant outfits, he preens and glides through the film, like some kind of malevolent Doctor Who.

Best bit: The ceremony to resurrect Dracula… Johnny has drawn a pentangle on the floor of an abandoned church then switches on a tape recording of spooky sound effects and hypnotic, Pink Floyd-style music. While Johnny recites an incantation, calling out to the long-dead Count Dracula, the gang of pals get lost in the moment (all aside from Philip Miller’s Bob, who tries to cop a feel of Caroline Munro). Smoke swirls around Johnny… The camera zooms in on a terrified Jessica… Outside, a grave bulges as its occupant wakes up…. Johnny wants Jessica to play the ‘sacrifice’ of the ritual, but Laura insists on doing it instead. She lies back on the altar, both her eyes and her cleavage pulsing with anticipation, while Johnny cuts his own wrist and pours the blood into a cup. He then tips the thick, coagulated contents of the cup over Laura’s chest. The others are so freaked out that they flee the church. Then, in a swirl of smoke and scored by music that’s aping the crescendo of the Beatles song A Day in the Life, Count Dracula appears. He bites Laura’s neck as Johnny watches on. In a perverse sexual twist, Laura seems to enjoy the experience…

Review: This marvellous movie is a real treat – much more fun and vibrant than a typical Hammer film, it’s directed with panache, paced very well, and has some fine performances. Most noticeably, of course, it’s set in the modern day rather than the vaguely Victorian world of the company’s earlier Draculas. The 1970s-ness seeps out of every pore of the film: the fashions, the locations, the attitudes. The music, for example, could hardly be any more of its time. Mike Vickers’s score is all Blaxploitation wah-wah guitar and horn sections, while a forgotten pop group called Stoneground appear in an early party scene. Also, the main characters are young (maybe teens, maybe twenties), carefree and happy hippies. It’s a representation of early 70s youth culture – or at least a version of it cooked up by middle-aged filmmakers – and that’s not something Hammer was famed for. But whether or not it’s true to life, it works. The film has bags of charm and is enormously enjoyable. The key is that it’s not patronising anyone. The kids don’t come across as dull clichés (which they are, after all). The lead police character is a decent, smart guy who likes playing with executive toys. Van Helsing is far from a reactionary old man (showing concern for his granddaughter, he just looks uncomfortable when she assures him she’s never dropped acid). And most importantly the film assumes the viewer wants scares, style and storytelling – and they get all three. Fantastic stuff.

Eight tickets for the jazz spectacular at the Albert Hall out of 10

Dracula’s Daughter (1936, Lambert Hillyer)

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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: This film picks up directly from the end of Dracula (1931), so we start in Whitby. The bulk of the story is then set in London, with a diversion to the Scottish countryside and a climax set in Transylvania. From people’s outfits and the presence of both airline travel and automobiles, it seems to be the 1930s, which is more modern than the first film.

Faithful to the novel? This direct sequel to Dracula is nominally an adaptation of the Bram Stoker short story Dracula’s Guest, though the similarities are vanishingly few. (Published posthumously, Dracula’s Guest was actually a chapter cut from the original book before its release.) As the story starts, we see the corpse of Count Dracula (played by a wax model of Bela Lugosi), and Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has been arrested for murder. Yes, that’s right: *Von* Helsing. They’ve changed his name for some reason. He admits to killing Dracula but is determined to tell the truth about vampirism at his trial, so hires an old psychologist friend to defend him in court. Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) is soon on the case with the help of his American assistant, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). Meanwhile, a strange, mysterious, dark-haired woman (Gloria Holden) hypnotises the police guarding Dracula’s remains. You see, she’s the count’s daughter and thinks that by burning his corpse she will finally be free of the vampire curse. It doesn’t work, though, so she must continue to feed in London while posing as a Hungarian artist called Countess Marya Zaleska. With the help of manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she drains the blood of both men and women. She then meets Garth at a soirée (hosted by a lady played by infamous right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) and sees her chance for redemption. Without spilling that she’s a vamp, she asks Garth to help her through her psychological issues. Later, however, Garth attends to one of Marya’s victims and recognises the signs of vampirism, so asks Von Helsing for his opinion. When Marya then recoils at the sight of a hypnosis machine (because it uses a mirror), Garth’s suspicions are sealed and he knows she’s the vampire they’re looking for. So Marya kidnaps Janet and flees home to Transylvania. Garth, Von Helsing and the very laissez-faire boss of Scotland Yard, Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), give chase. Marya is at Castle Dracula and says she’ll release Janet if Garth agrees to stay, but then Sandor kills his mistress because he’s grown jealous of her wandering loyalties…

Best performance: Marguerite Churchill is fun, flirty, cute and sarcastic as Janet, who’s kinda in love with Garth and he’s kinda in love with her but they act like they’re not.

Best bit: As has been noted by many people – and indeed, as was hinted at in some of the film’s release publicity – there’s a definite lesbian vibe about Marya. She wants to rid herself of her vampire impulses, and has heard that alcoholics are sometimes told to sit with a bottle and simply use freewill to stop taking a drink. So she gets Sandor to procure a beautiful – I mean, really quite remarkably beautiful – young woman to act as an artist’s model. The subtext of the scene where Marya asks Lili (Nan Grey) to undress, all the while trying to resist biting her, is not so sub.

Review: Helpfully, an early scene has a quick verbal recap of the first film and an explanation of what vampires are. Well, it had been five years since the Bela Lugosi classic. And you know what? Whisper it quietly, but this sequel is the better movie. Free of the shackles of the original’s stageplay plot, Dracula’s Daughter is able to tell a fun and very watchable story. It has more life and energy to it than the first film, still has plenty of spooky fog-bound scenes and Universal Monsters lighting, but also adds some likeable humour (bumbling coppers, a running gag about a bowtie). It’s quick too – just 68 minutes. And in Marya, it has cinema’s first great female vampire. Holden reportedly didn’t think much of the project and only did it because she was under contract. If anything this seems to have helped, because her frustration drove a detached and dangerous performance. There’s a great sense of Marya being a victim too. She’s trapped by her vampiric curse and longs to be ‘normal’. You can’t help but feel for her during the scene where she happily plays a piano and recites flowery poetry – only for the more cynical Sandor to chip in with comments about darkness and death.

Eight vacillating women out of 10

Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After being held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan, billionaire businessman Tony Stark builds an armoured mechanical suit and fights back…

This feels like a mission statement right from the word go. At face value it’s a one-off action-adventure movie, but we now know it’s actually the ‘pilot episode’ for an enormously successful film franchise. Therefore, as well as telling its own story, Iron Man is setting the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the feel of Iron Man is noticeably different from many previous comic-book films. It’s not as matinee as Superman: The Movie, not as Gothic as Tim Burton’s Batman, not as metaphor-driven as X-Men, not as serious as Batman Begins, not as immature as Fantastic Four… Instead, this film is its lead character writ large. Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the movie itself are clever, witty and hugely confident. There’s a pre-crash, noughties swagger on show, while the music is a mix of AC/DC and a rock-heavy score. However, the in-your-face attitude is matched by oodles of comedy: having fun is the order of the day. Throughout the film, dryly funny dialogue and well-timed visual gags keep things entertainingly breezy, even if the story is actually about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. This is a film where the lead character asks journalists to sit on the floor with him during a press conference; where his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, decent), has to play a real-life game of Operation and reach into his part-mechanised chest; and where his AI computer (Paul Bettany) has the voice of a droll, English butler. Note that all those examples centre on Tony. He dominates the film and Downey Jr – a former loose cannon who’s had issues with drugs, rehab and prison – is supremely smart casting. The actor gives Tony lots of off-putting attributes. He’s an arrogant, selfish womaniser who belittles his closest allies and, you know, gets disgustingly rich from producing and selling things specifically designed to kill and maim people. But he’s also charismatic, self-deprecating, and very likeable. In fact, if anything, Iron Man is too much the Tony Stark show. It’s having so much fun with him that other characters don’t get much of a look-in. Terrence Howard’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who’s both Tony’s best friend and a conduit to the military, has some nice moments and Pepper Potts gets stuff to play. But other than some bland, generic Afghans, the story has no real antagonist until its second half. At least they’ve cast the bad-guy role well: Tony’s business associate Obadiah Stane is played by the reliable Jeff Bridges, and the dude does a lot with a predictable, underling-wants-to-muscle-in-on-the-boss character. It’s actually not a huge problem that it takes 70 minutes to set up Obadiah as the villain. The film has been speeding along very entertainingly, thanks to a script that tells its origin story with no fuss and some crisp, not-getting-in-the-way direction from Jon Favreau (who also plays the minor role of Tony’s bodyguard). There was a lot resting on this movie when it was first released. It’s nearly a decade old already – Tony makes a joke about Myspace – and has been followed by 13 movies set in the same fictional universe with many more on the way. You can see the seeds of that series being sown in Iron Man with the appearances of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the deliciously deadpan Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), two characters who’ll crop up again in future films. But those dozen-plus films wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man had got it wrong. It got it right and an empire of superhero movies has been built on its success.

Eight Hugh Hefners out of 10

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