Young and Innocent (1937)

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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.

Accused of murder, a man escapes custody intent on clearing his name – and his only help comes from the daughter of the local police chief…

No one – well, no one who expects to be taken seriously – is going to pretend that every Beatles song is a classic or that Agatha Christie never had an off-day. However, with these cultural geniuses, even ‘lesser’ works are interesting, sometimes engaging and often entertaining. The same is true of Alfred Hitchcock. He may have been the film director who made more great films than any other, but that doesn’t mean they’re all venerated in the same way.

Young and Innocent, for example, is an enjoyable, diverting and likeable film. Yet it’s rather fallen through the cracks of popular culture, becoming so relatively obscure and forgotten that the DVD used for this blog review gets its title wrong on the menu screen.

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The story is a Hitchcock standard: a man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit so goes on the run. The director rehashed this core idea several times during his career, and for audiences in 1937 this movie must have felt oddly reminiscent of the classic The 39 Steps from just a couple of years earlier. But Young and Innocent is done with enough fun and pace to distract you from the similarities.

The young and innocent man of the title is Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who discovers a murder victim on a beach but is then suspected by the police when it’s revealed she was killed using his belt. Fearing that circumstantial evidence may convict him, Robert goes on the lam. He hopes to track down the real murderer and soon forms a partnership with the daughter of the local chief constable. At first Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) helps unwillingly, but then – as is the way with these types of stories – a romance starts to develop…

The pair have chemistry, but if the film has a failing it’s the same one that coincidentally blighted Nova Pilbeam’s previous Hitchcock picture, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that film, she’d played the kidnapped child of a married couple who never seem overly concerned that she’s missing. Now 17 years old and playing an adult, the actress must perform opposite a colleague who similarly underplays the danger and threat. Robert has been accused of a capital crime, but Derrick De Marney is too flippant, too light. 

Nevertheless, Robert and Erica chase down leads to prove that someone else is the killer, and along the way there’s a lot of fun: encounters with ruffians, relatives and a kids’ party, really cute model shots of a train yard and an action scene of a car falling into a collapsing mineshaft. Unlike the source novel, which is whodunit, Hitchcock’s film reveals the killer in the first scene – and it does this because he’s not important. The film isn’t about him or why he strangled the woman. It’s about Robert and Erica and the ‘fun’ of the chase. It’s a shaggy-dog story – the enjoyment is in the telling, not the substance. 

In fact, murderer Guy (George Curzon) doesn’t reappear until near the end of the story when we get the movie’s most famous moment – a dazzling piece of storytelling. Erica and a witness called Old Will (Edward Rigby) are in a posh hotel, keeping their eyes peeled for the man Will saw near the scene of the crime. Their only clue is that the man has a noticeable twitch.

Then in a shot that predates a similar moment in Hitch’s film Notorious by nine years, the camera swoops high above the busy hotel ballroom. It’s a God’s-eye view as we take in the huge space and see the dozens of people dancing and enjoying themselves – is the murderer among them? The camera drifts and drifts and we eventually catch sight of the band playing on the stage – how are they involved? We don’t stop moving. Slowly, methodically, Hitchcock picks out the drummer at the back of the stage – is he the killer? We push in and in and in, and the shot ends with the man’s eyes *filling* the frame. He twitches – we’ve found our man.

Eight guys with a camera out of 10

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Marnie (1964)

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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 con artist is rumbled by a businessman who then tries to help her with her psychological issues…

Much like its lead character, the movie Marnie is complex, fascinating and often admirable – but there’s also something very wrong. It’s the story of a damaged woman who’s a thief and a liar and has many deep-rooted problems stemming from a childhood trauma. But sadly it’s also the story of the man who attempts to ‘fix her’ via simplistic therapy and misogyny.

This project had a long gestation. Initially, Alfred Hitchcock planned it as his next production after Psycho (1960), but the script took a while to come into focus and eventually went through three writers. For the all-important title character, the director hoped for a huge casting coup: his former muse Grace Kelly, who’d retired from acting in 1955, was keen on a Hollywood comeback. It would have been an interesting role for her, one very different from her three previous Hitchcock characters. However, she then pulled out of the project, worried about how such a provocative movie would be taken in her new home of Monaco. Various other names were considered for the part – Marilyn Monroe, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, Vera Miles and others – until, while filming The Birds in 1962, Hitchcock decided to cast its leading lady for a second time.

Tippi Hedren has always maintained that Marnie is her favourite of all her films – despite the fact she and Hitchcock fell out during filming – and it’s easy to see why. She gives a sensational performance, which is both dynamic and dangerous. She plays the eponymous Marnie Edgar, who drifts from town to town, gets jobs at high-flying firms, rips them off and does a runner. But when she shows up at a new company in Philadelphia, boss Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) recognises her from a previous encounter and twigs that she’s hiding something…

Connery was then two films into his original stint as James Bond, and he looks the part of a dashing movie star. But for some reason he doesn’t quite gel in this role. Maybe it’s the incongruous accent (to try to explain it away, the character is given a British father played by Alfred from the 1960s Batman TV show), maybe it’s his age (Connery was only 33), but he’s rather miscast as a Pennsylvanian widower from the American aristocracy. It also doesn’t help that the character is lumbered with a storyline that is at best naïve and at worst exceedingly sinister.

Marnie the movie is an attempt at some rigorous psychology. Its lead character has turned to crime in order to compensate for something lacking her life. She has a troubled, seemingly hollow relationship with her mother; she has a pathological hatred of men touching her; and she suffers from panic attacks when confronted with the colour red. The script holds back the reason for these issues until the final act when we learn that, as a child, she killed a pervert (Bruce Dern) who was attacking her prostitute mother.

But when Mark Rutland takes a shine to new employee Marnie, even though he’s worked out that she’s stolen from his company safe, he decides to help her. It’s presented mostly as curiosity and affection, but there’s more than a hint that he’s sexually attracted by the danger. And in 21st-century terms his help amounts to nothing less than abuse. He essentially blackmails her into starting a relationship with him and even marrying him. Then, on their honeymoon, while she cowers and shakes with fear, he rips off her nightdress and rapes her.

The first person to work Marnie up into a screenplay – Evan Hunter, who also wrote The Birds – was fired from the project when he left the rape scene out of his draft. It appears in the source material, a novel by the British writer Winston Graham, but Hunter argued that there’d be no way back for Mark as a character if he did something so despicable. Hitchcock disagreed. So did Hunter’s replacement, Jay Presson Allen, who gladly included it in her rewrite. (Disturbingly, given some of the accusations made about Hitchcock down the years, Hunter later said the rape scene had been the primary reason why the director had wanted to make the film. ‘When he sticks it in her,’ Hitch had told him, ‘I want that camera right on her face.’)

If that wasn’t bad enough – which it is – the film also has a ham-fisted approach to trauma therapy. Marnie is forced into a cathartic remembrance of what happened when she was a child… and then all is fine and she and Mark walk off into the sunset. Psychoanalysts scoff at this moment. So should we. Most Hitchcock films might get away with this kind of simplicity, but that’s because we understand the popcorn context. Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is a cartoon character, a precursor of James Bond, so we don’t especially fret when his life is threatened or when he’s framed for murder. Margot Wendice is put through a horrifying time in Dial M for Murder – attacked in her home, forced to kill a man in self-defence, jailed despite her innocence – but she’s essentially a character in a Cluedo-style parlour game. She only exists for the 100 minutes she’s on screen.

Marnie Edgar, however, is a woman with a life, with baggage, and we feel for her desperately. She’s been severely damaged by the actions of one sexual pest and is now being groomed by another. Tippi Hedron deserved huge credit for making her so watchable and both strong and vulnerable at the same time.

But while its treatment of its lead character is antiquated and objectionable, much more impressive is the movie’s style. Early in his career, Alfred Hitchcock worked in the German film industry, where he directed his first full-length film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), and the buzz and innovation of Weimar Republic cinema had a lasting impression. ‘I worked there for many months,’ Hitch said in a 1960s interview. ‘And I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.’

In Marnie, as in many Hitchcock films, you can see the influence of German Expressionism, a style that dramatises stories, characters and settings in non-realistic ways. It uses lighting, set design, editing, costumes and all the other tools of filmmaking to turn subjective emotion into something that can be *seen* and which has a physical affect on the world of the fiction. (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, takes place on off-kilter, out-of-proportion sets in order to reflect the twisted story and the unbalanced characters.)

The most obvious piece of Expressionism in the present movie is the use of the colour red. Whenever she sees it, Marnie has a physical reaction. She pulls away, scared, at the sight of ink spilt on her blouse, for example, or the polka dots of a jockey’s silk. But it’s not just the acting that tells us she’s suffering: the screen becomes infused with a crimson wash. It’s not ‘literal’; it’s not actually happening in the diegetic world of the story. It’s Hitchcock using a cinematic device to *show* us her emotional state. (Not that every visual in Marnie is for art’s sake. The indoor sets for exterior scenes and the painfully dated backscreen projection for car journeys are most likely just down to Hitchcock’s dislike of location filming.)

There are other more trad, yet still tremendous, sequences in the film too. Marnie stealing from the Rutland & Co safe is a tension-sustainer of the highest order – complete with the absurd detail of her nearly being rumbled by a deaf cleaner – while the death of a beloved horse is genuinely moving and sees Hedren’s acting reach a fever pitch of emotion. The climactic flashback, which shows us Marnie’s violent experience as a child, is also very impressive – not least the fact that the scene begins with a disorientating zoom-in-and-track-out shot that seems to place the events inside a nightmare.

It’s an odd mixture of genres, this film – part psycho-drama, part perverted romance, part heist movie. The central storyline has many troubling issues, especially when viewed today in the era of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, but Tippi Hedren’s superb performance and the general flair of the filmmaking means it’s still worth seeing.

Eight men in a corridor out of 10

Blake’s 7: Orbit (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The opportunity arises for Avon and co to acquire a new weapon – but can they trust the man who’s selling it?

Series D, episode 11. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 7 December 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Slave (10) reports that the Scorpio has arrived at a mostly inhospitable planet called Maldovar.
* Avon (49) initially plans on sending Tarrant and Dayna down to the surface (‘I get chilblains,’ is his excuse for not going) to seek out a renegade genius called Egrorian, who disappeared years previously with a chunk of cash. But when Egrorian then gets in touch, he insists that Avon come himself… in a shuttle… and alone. Avon manages to negotiate a concession: he’ll bring his ‘assistant’ Vila with him. On Maldovar, they meet Egrorian and his elderly helper, Pinder, then learn that Egrorian has a super-weapon to trade: a tachyon funnel, which can destroy distant and enormous objects at the push of a button. He offers it to Avon in exchange for Orac – in part, he says, because he wants the infamous rebel Avon to destroy the Federation. On the way back to Scorpio to fetch Orac, Avon infers – from a very small piece of circumstantial evidence – that Servalan is behind Egrorian’s plan. So he pretends to trade Orac, but it’s actually a mock-up Avon prepared earlier. Avon and Vila do the deal and get away, but then realise they’ve been conned too: their shuttle is too heavy and has little fuel. It’s about to crash…
* At first, Vila (50) doesn’t volunteer to go down to Maldovar – he says he likes to stay with Avon ‘where it’s safe.’ His logic then comes back to bite him when Avon has to go and insists on taking Vila with him. Later, after the exchange, when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash, they frantically jettison every available item they can think of…
* Soolin (11) has to be the crewmember who’s never heard of Egrorian so the others can explain. Later, it’s also clear that – for some reason – she wasn’t informed about Avon’s con. (Good old Robert Holmes. Amazing, witty, exciting writer. Seemed to have no interest in female characters.)
* Tarrant (24) takes the Scorpio into deep space – out of harm’s way – while Avon and Vila are down on Maldovar. He *then* decides to reveal a rather important nugget of information: he once heard rumours that Egrorian and Servalan were in cahoots. Shouldn’t you have mentioned that before Avon left?
* Dayna (24) and Soolin ridicule Vila when he returns from meeting Egrorian and pretends he knows all about tachyon technology.
* Servalan (28) shows up. Again. Hasn’t she got a day job?
* Orac (33) is seemingly given away by Avon – but it was just a trick.

Best bit: The episode takes a sudden, dark and gripping turn late on when Vila and Avon realise they’re going to crash unless they lighten the load of the shuttle. They get rid of everything that’s not bolted down, but still need to lose an extra 70 kilos. ‘Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon,’ points out Orac. Avon coolly reaches for a gun and begins to stalk the ship to find his colleague. Vila hides nervously in the cargo hold… (This story beat, which only lasts about three minutes, could have been the basis of an entire episode. Eventually, Avon finds the item that’s dragging the ship down – a super-heavy cube of neutron matter planted by Egrorian – and manages to get rid of it.)

Worst bit: Telling a story economically is commendable. No one wants to linger on boring details. But here, we’re asked to believe that Avon is convinced of the star-destroying capabilities of a new weapon of mass destruction simply because he’s shown an easily mocked-up image on a video screen. Egrorian is then likewise conned after a very scant demonstration of Orac. (Also: why didn’t Avon and Vila just take their teleport bracelets as a back-up when they visited Egrorian?)

Review: The fact Orbit is so entertaining is somewhat strange, because it’s far from perfect. The plot is a bit too mechanical, a bit too convoluted. Servalan’s involvement is head-banging-on-desk tiresome. And some of the acting is… let’s be charitable and say dated. Fond as he was of writing pairs of characters, Robert Holmes has populated his planet with just two residents: Ergrorian and Pinder, who come off like a bickering married couple. Egrorian is the Hyacinth Bucket figure – self-obsessed, vain and a little bit cruel – while Pinder is the henpecked husband. Egrorian is played by John Savident (I say, John Savident) and is a florid, bombastic man. And the actor isn’t exactly playing against the writing. It gets even worse when Servalan enters the stage: Savident and Jacqueline Pearce seem to be egging each other on to be more and more theatrical and hammy. But stories with characters conning each other are often fun, and this is no exception. The episode doesn’t hang about and gives plenty of action and meat to Avon and Vila – the last remaining characters from the early days of season one.

Eight ruthless desperadoes of legend out of 10

Next episode: Warlord

Blake’s 7: Gold (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew of the Scorpio attempt to steal a large consignment of gold…

Series D, episode 10. Written by: Colin Davis. Directed by: Brian Lighthill. Originally broadcast: 30 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (48) has had Scorpio chase after and hook up with a cruiser called the Space Princess. He’s seeking out old acquaintance Keiller, who has a proposition for the team: the ship may appear to be a luxury liner, but is actually used to transport gold incognito; they could steal a cache worth 17 billion. There’s a snag, though: the gold is processed in such a way that they need a special code to restore its glistening amber loveliness. So Avon, Soolin and Keiller teleport down to the processing plant on the planet Zerok… Later, during the heist attempt on the Space Princess, Avon learns that Keiller used to work for ‘the president’ so confronts him. He admits that he was told to contact Avon and co, but is twisting the plan so he can escape with the gold for himself. Near the end, Avon is nearly caught in the air lock between the two ships, but Vila manages to teleport him to safety just before his air runs out. He then leads the gang to a rendezvous to meet the gold’s enigmatic buyers…
* Vila (49) stays aboard the Scorpio when the others go to hear Keiller’s pitch. He doesn’t want any part in the heist, thinking it’s a trap.
* Dayna (23) and Tarrant teleport to Zerok as back-up when Avon and Soolin attempt to break into the processing plant, but find Keiller unconscious and two scarred bodies. Assuming Avon and Soolin are dead, they take Keiller back to Scorpio, and he explains there was a fight and an explosion. Later, during the gang’s attempt to steal the gold, Dayna has to take drugs that make her appear desperately ill; this then gives the team an excuse to move her to the Scorpio… with the gold stored under her bed.
* Soolin (10) frisks Keiller when he comes aboard Scorpio (bet he enjoyed that). He then flirts with her, unsuccessfully. Soolin later helps Avon sneak into the processing plant. After Keiller has been found unconscious and taken away, we viewers learn that Soolin and Avon are alive and well – it was actually two security guards who were burnt to crispiness.
* During the heist, Tarrant (23) and Soolin mingle with the Space Princess’s passengers, who have been drugged to keep them in line.
* Orac (32) pipes up to explain why the team can’t just teleport the gold off the ship. After the successful robbery, however, he points out that the cash the team have gained from selling the gold is now worthless: Zerok has just ceded to the Federation, invalidating its economy.
* Slave (9).
* Servalan (27) shows up at the end of the episode – turns out, she’s Keiller’s buyer. Avon has seen the twist coming. (We all have, mate.)

Best bit: Keiller is played by Roy Kinnear, an actor who often combined slyness and guile with bumbling humour.

Worst bit: The tiresome twist that Servalan has been pulling the strings. (The revelation also means that last week’s connection between Servalan and Tarrant has to be all but ignored.)

Review: A heist episode with all the usual conventions: twists, turns, complications, booby-traps… It’s fun, fast-paced, engaging and entertaining.

Eight notes drawn by the Bank of Zerok out of 10

Next episode: Orbit

Blake’s 7: Games (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Attempting to steal a valuable resource of energy, the crew of the Scorpio encounter both an old foe and a man who enjoys playing games…

Series D, episode 8. Written by: Bill Lyons. Directed by: Vivienne Cozens. Originally broadcast: 16 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (46) has heard about a new power source – Feldon crystals, which provide an infinitely inexhaustible supply of energy – so has devised a plan to steal a large stash worth 900 million credits. Without telling his colleagues, he’s even made contact with an expert to help them – an academician called Gerren. The geezer who runs the crystal mine then gets in touch and offers to give the gang some Feldon if they help him escape the clutches of the Federation… Belkov is a fruity, charismatic man who enjoys playing all manner of games and puzzles. (If this episode were made today, he’d be a teenage hipster who gulps Red Bull as he bashes away at a keyboard.) However, when Avon and co finally reach where the Feldon crystals should be, they’re not there. The whole thing was a con: Belkov just needed someone to take the blame for his theft of the loot.
* Dayna (21) doesn’t trust Belkov as far as she could throw him, which as Vila underlines wouldn’t be very far. (Well, he is skimming millions of credits’ worth of profit off the top of his Federation-sanctioned mining operation.) Later, she stealthily comes to the rescue when Tarrant and Vila are caught by guards near the mine – but soon after, Belkov betrays the team and locks them up, hoping they’ll be blamed for some Feldon he’s swiped.
* For the most part, Soolin (8) has another episode where she hangs around on Scorpio, looks pretty, and asks male characters questions so they can appear clever. Her one moment of focus this week is when the gang attempt to break into Belkov’s ship, Orbiter. He’s booby-trapped it with interactive computer games (of course he has), so Soolin uses her quick-draw skills to win the first round.
* Orac (30) explains that Feldon is the hardest substance in the universe. (‘And currently the most valuable,’ adds Avon.)
* When Avon lays out his plan, Tarrant (21) has a concern: he wants to ensure they’re stealing the crystals in order to use them, not to sell them and risk them ending up back with the Federation. When the crew arrive at mining planet Mecron II, Tarrant, Dayna and Vila take Gerren with them to find the cache of crystals. Tarrant also has to try his hand at one of Belkov’s booby-traps: a flight simulator not too dissimilar to that land-a-jumbo-jet game they used to have on The Krypton Factor.
* Vila (47) is initially bored by Avon’s lecture about Feldon, but perks up when he learns how much money they could make On Mecron II, he uses his lockpicking skills and then is given a side mission by Orac: steal a complex circuit from Belkov’s female-voiced artificial-intelligence unit. He tries talking her into giving up the circuit and letting his friends free from their prison… and he succeeds on both counts. Yay, Vila!
* Servalan (25) has come to Mecron II because she – rightly – assumes Belkov is on the take. But when she makes it clear that he’s in deep shit, he uses the fact he’s made contact with Avon and co as a bargaining chip.
* Slave (7).

Best bit: Pitching his plan to steal the Feldon crystals, Avon lists the problems they face. One is the fact that the prize is ‘protected by a security system that’s supposed to be impassable.’ Vila replies, ‘They’re *all* supposed to be impassable.’ That’s an amazing pun, that is.

Worst bit: Servalan’s appearances got monotonous and unimaginative a while ago. It’s also dreary that the show has distilled the entire threat of the galaxy-wide Federation into one character – the regulars never come up against other officers or officials.

Review: There’s an awful lot of plot for a 50-minute episode of Blake’s 7. It’s a nice change from previous stories that take half an hour to gear up, but maybe there’s too much here. Games is occasionally so swift it’s hard to follow. Some moments – the rescue of an injured Gerren, for example – are simply skipped over. But things are kept enjoyable, thanks in part to a fun, detailed performance from Stratford Johns as Belkov. He’s a game-player, a manipulator, so it ain’t a huge shock when he betrays our heroes. But he’s very entertaining along the way.

Eight recalcitrant chiefs out of 10

Next episode: Sand

Blake’s 7: Headhunter (1981)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Things go badly wrong when the team attempt to contact a cyberneticist…

Series D, episode 6. Written by: Roger Parkes. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 2 November 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Slave (6) wakes up Vila as the Scorpio approaches the planet Pharos, where the gang have come to recruit an expert to their cause. But later the computer is mysteriously incapacitated.
* Vila (45) has come on the mission to Pharos with Tarrant. Their aim is to collect a genius called Muller, who works for a robot-development cartel. When the guest’s on board, however, he acts oddly and attacks Tarrant – so Vila whacks him with a spanner, apparently killing him. They put his body in a cryogenic capsule and head back to base, but due to some bizarre problems with Scorpio the craft has to be quarantined with Vila and Tarrant still on board. When the life-support system then fails, the two men need rescuing. After he’s recovered, Vila is given the job of opening a box that belonged to Muller…
* Tarrant (19) is suspicious when Muller changes the rendezvous for his pick-up at the last minute – it seems ‘they’ are on to him. Armed, Tarrant teleports down to Pharos to collect him; he also picks up a box Muller seems wary of. After Muller’s death, Tarrant orders Vila not to open the box until they can deduce what’s inside – then the ship suffers from unexplained buffeting and power failures and a course change…
* Meanwhile, Avon (44) is keeping Muller’s wife company back at the base. When news comes through that Muller has been killed, Vena (Lynda Bellingham) is distraught and accuses Avon’s friends of being murderers; Avon reminds her that they needed him alive. Then contact is lost with the crippled Scorpio – and Avon is torn over whether to risk a mission to rescue Vila and Tarrant. Eventually he agrees and sends Dayna and Soolin to fetch their colleagues. Later, Avon and Vena go aboard too to check on Muller’s body – but it’s gone walkabouts! They find him back on the base – alive and seemingly well. But he then kills Vena. Avon deduces that Muller is able to manipulate nearby electrical circuits, hence Slave incorrectly diagnosing his decease. Then when the gang look inside the box, they find an android’s head. ‘Muller’ is actually a rebellious robot who’s propped the murdered Muller’s head on his body as a disguise. The whole thing was a ploy to gain access to Orac.
* Orac (28) mentions his creator, Ensor, who we met way back in season one and was coincidentally Muller’s teacher.
* Dayna (19) teleports over to the stricken Scorpio with Soolin to retrieve Vila and Tarrant. She later tries to deal with ‘Muller’ by throwing a grenade at him – at the time he’s conveniently in a corridor of the base that’s shot on film. Sadly for Dayna, he survives… sans head. Eventually, the gang manage to lure the robot outside and onto a metallic bridge, which they then electrocute and disable their nemesis.
* Soolin (6) consoles Vena and gives her a drink when she learns her husband is dead. But she’s later surprised when Orac begins to waffle on about philosophy and then asks to be switched off and hidden. She later has to play fox to the hounds and run around the base with Orac in an attempt to lure ‘Muller’ to follow her.

Best bit: The spacesuits worn by all the regulars at some point are beautifully retro-futurist. They’re like something from Dan Dare.

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Worst bit: Due to the actress having to time her dialogue to some 1981-style computer graphics, a six-second countdown read aloud by Soolin actually lasts for 15 seconds.

Review: It’s certainly from the pulpy end of Blake’s 7 storytelling spectrum, but this is really enjoyable stuff. A decent plot always keeps the interest. It’s also the first episode where Soolin feels like a proper part of the line-up.

Eight superstitious halfwits out of 10

Next episode: Assassin

Love at First Bite (1979, Stan Dragoti)

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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 start in Castle Dracula in Transylvania, then events move to New York City. It’s the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? No, this comedy film is set later than Stoker’s story. As we begin, Count Dracula (George Hamilton) is living in his gloomy castle with a servant called Renfield (Arte Johnson), who has a dirty laugh and enjoys eating insects. When the Count is evicted from his home by the local communist authorities, he flees to New York City in order to find his long-lost love: a woman who has been reborn into successive bodies over the years. He first met her in Poland in 1356, then when she was called Mina Harker in 1930s London. (This last incident is a nod to Universal’s famous 1931 film adaptation.) Her latest incarnation is successful fashion model Cindy Sondheim (a fun Susan Saint James). Dracula woos her and sleeps with her. But then her therapist, Jeffrey Rosenberg (an increasingly demented Richard Benjamin), becomes jealous of the relationship. Rosenberg’s real name is actually Van Helsing (he changed it for professional reasons), and he sets about trying to prove that Dracula is a blood-sucking vampire.

Best performance: George Hamilton, who was also a producer on the film, plays Count Vladimir Dracula with a Bela Lugosi accent and cape – and a fantastically straight face. There are no nods or winks to the audience; it’s a performance that works and is funny because of Hamilton’s commitment to staying in character. This version of Dracula is at least 700 years old and can turn into a bat and a dog.

Best bit: The film’s tone is set up in the opening scene. Dracula sits alone and playing his piano. Outside his castle window he can hear howling wolves. ‘Children of the night,’ he says, a frustrated look on his face. ‘Shut up!’

Review: There was a vogue in the 1970s for contemporary-set Dracula films – and especially for dropping Dracula-ish character into busy, thriving, modern cities. Hammer rebooted its long-running series with the marvellous Dracula A.D. 1972, shifting the Count from a vague Victoriana setting to modern-day London. Comedy film Vampira (1974) was also based in the UK capital in the 70s, while Blaxploitation movie Blacula (1972) and its 1973 sequel took place in an up-to-date Los Angeles, and the risible Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979) in New York City. So Love at First Bite is not doing anything especially new or different. But thanks to some amusing performances and general air of easy-going-ness, it’s a very entertaining hour and a half. The script toys with the usual Draculian clichés, but there’s never any sense of smugness about the humour.

Eight black chickens out of 10

Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers must spring into action when the powerful Thanos begins to acquire the Infinity Stones…

Avengers: Infinity War is the fourth massive, multi-character, multi-plot, multi-focus mash-up movie in the Marvel series – and it’s easily the most successful. A big reason for this is the structure of the plot. Avengers Assemble (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) all feature many, many heroes and sidekicks wanting our attention and yet are built around a single, unifying idea. In the first film, the team must come together to face Loki. In the second, the team must stay together to defeat Ultron. In the latter, the team are split into two camps and face off against each other.

But the script of Infinity Wars is a different kettle of superheroes. There’s still an overarching plot, of course. After several cameo appearances and references in previous films, the all-powerful god Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants to be even more all-powerfuller so is collecting the magical Infinity Stones, ancient totems that will allow him to wipe out half of all life in the universe. The extended Avengers family must work towards stopping him.

But writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – key players at MCU HQ since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger – break this storyline down into discrete segments. As the various characters we’ve got know over the last 18 movies react to the Thanos threat, they’re divvied up into separate groups, each one getting its own chance to shine. For example, in one thread, there’s the joy of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) butting heads and trying to out-Sherlock each other. Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) also tags along like a fanboy. Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) crash-lands into the sarcasm-and-sassiness world of the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are living a mean, tough, espionage-y life. With such a big cast – the DVD cover manages to squeeze *24* of them into one collage – it’s admirable that they all feel like they have a role to play in the story. (The only notable absentees from the MCU roster are Ant-Man, being held back for the next movie in the series, and the forgettable Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton who’s said to have retired.)

All this makes for a dynamic film that keeps zipping around a huge canvas – from enormous starship battles in deep space to a kebab shop in Edinburgh’s Old Town – and always to characters you’re interested in. Each scene moves the larger plot forward and no section outstays its welcome. There’s the usual helping of action sequences, of course, including an arch moment when Tony walks out of a quiet building, down a street full of fleeing people and turns the corner to see a gigantic space ship hovering above Manhattan – all seemingly done in one uninterrupted take. Meanwhile, the script never loses sight of humour, with Thor and Peters Quill and Parker probably getting the most amount of funny lines. Black Panther sidekick Okoye (Danai Gurira) also wins a big laugh during the obligatory third-act battle. Secondary Avenger Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) had earlier been in the palace looking after an injured Vision, but now joins the fighting and blasts some bad guys with her psychic force powers. ‘Why was she up there all this time?!’ deadpans Okoye, impressed.

This is a big, brash popcorn movie that entertains so successfully that you’re distracted from the flaws. There’s the inherent silliness of the premise, which is a rather unimaginative story about a bad guy wanting to do bad things to innocent people just because he can. There’s the lazy repeat of a third-act battle taking place in Wakada (which also happened in the immediately previous film, Black Panther). And there’s the fact that the Infinity Stones are thunderingly boring and drab plot devices. But little of this matters when a movie is this much *fun*, and when it keeps throwing up telling character moments, enjoyable combinations of characters, and even an apocalyptic, how-will-they-get-out-of-that?! cliffhanger, designed to lead into 2019’s as-yet-unnamed sequel…

Eight bus drivers out of 10

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Monty Python’s Flying Circus: You’re No Fun Any More (Ian MacNaughton, BBC1, 30 November 1969)

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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: Various. The Dracula section takes place in a bedroom.

Faithful to the novel? This episode of Monty Python’s fiercely adventurous comedy sketch show merits an inclusion in this blogging project because of a 10-second gag. In the first full sketch of the show, a camel-spotter’s enjoyment is ruined by an interviewer who points out that he’s actually a trainspotter. ‘Oh, you’re no fun any more,’ he laments. We then cut to several short vignettes where someone says the same thing. One of the mini-scenes features Dracula (Graham Chapman in the classic Bela Lugosi get-up) approaching the bed of a woman (Donna Reading). As he gets near, his prominent fangs fall from his mouth into her cleavage. ‘Oh, you’re no fun any more,’ she moans.

Best performance: Elsewhere in the episode, Chapman and Reading also play an earnest scientist and his ditzy assistant – a clear spoof of boffins like Doctor Who or Bernard Quatermass and their attractive female sidekicks.

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Best bit: The bulk of this early episode is made up of Flying Circus’s first ‘feature-length’ sketch. Departing from the usual format of linked but separate ideas, around 23 minutes of the half-hour-long You’re No Fun Any More is one sustained storyline. A race of alien blancmanges invade England and begin to turn the populous into bagpipe-playing, kilt-wearing, ginger-bearded Scotsmen. The Python team would later do more and more of these long stories, but at the time it was an oddity.

Review: A lot of fun. Tremendously silly.

Eight fangs out of 10

Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having taken over as ruler of Wakanda, King T’Challa – aka the Black Panther – faces a challenger from his family’s past…

Black Panther is a marvellous showcase for Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that combines African-influenced art with technological motifs. Many scenes dazzle with costumes, sets, make-up and CG-created backdrops that show off this bold, beautiful, colourful look, and it gives the film a tone and mood different from any other movie of its type. As a new-to-Hollywood explosion of design it’s comparable to Blade Runner’s use of futuristic film noirism in 1982. You can feel the fresh air blowing through the genre, and this is indicative of the whole movie.

After 17 consecutive films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe built around white, male lead characters, here – pointedly, unashamedly, gloriously – is a story about black characters, featuring a mostly black cast and made by a black director. It certainly paid off financially: at the time of writing, Black Panther is the highest-grossing solo superhero film ever, the highest-grossing film made by a black director, and the ninth highest-grossing film of all time. Thankfully, it’s an enjoyable watch too.

The story begins a week after events seen in Captain America: Civil War (2016). After the death of his father in that movie, the new king of secluded African country Wakanda is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a dignified, unflappable man who clearly cares for his nation and takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s officially crowned after an elaborate and ritualistic ceremony, which is a scene that risks dragging the movie into po-faced territory. Thankfully, there’s some comic relief from T’Challa’s cheeky sister, Shuri (a sparkling Letitia Wright), who as the story progresses acts as Q to his James Bond. The king also has an entertainingly grumpy bodyguard called Okoye (played by Danai Gurira, who has badass form after her stint in The Walking Dead), while Hollywood old hands Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett crop up in small roles.

But all is not copacetic is the world of Wakanda. Just like the Amazonian paradise seen in Wonder Woman – that other recent superhero film that broke free of the white-male paradigm – Wakanda is a highly developed society that has chosen isolationism. It hides away from the rest of the world, actively putting forth the myth that it’s a backwards country of farmers when it’s actually wealthier and more technologically advanced than anywhere else on the planet. It’s an odd situation in which to place your hero. Superman, Batman, the X-Men, Iron Man and the rest all risk their lives to help innocent strangers. T’Challa, however, is the ruler of a pull-the-ladder-up society. We don’t see him help a single person other than himself and his allies until the film’s closing moments. (It’s best not to ponder how many atrocities Wakanda has stood by and ignored over the years – just in Africa alone.)

But there’s a dissenting voice to this conservatism. T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), spends her time helping women in other countries and advocates sharing Wakanda’s wealth and resources with the world. This gets the king thinking, but his aide W’Kabi (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is concerned. ‘You let the refugees in, they bring their problems with them and then Wakanda is like everywhere else,’ he says. Charming.

Meanwhile, the plot kicks off… At the Museum of Great Britain, two men overpower security and steal an ancient weapon from a display case. Surely the UK was chosen by the writers deliberately because of its colonial past, while the use of a museum is a neat comment on the West’s appropriation of African heritage and culture; we even learn that the weapon has been naively mislabelled. It’s a fun, slick sequence and it introduces the movie’s villain in style. Erik Stevens (Michael B Jordan) is an American with Special Forces experience. Within moments of showing up, he’s joined Loki, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Yondu and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Adrian Toomes as one of the most effective bad guys in the Marvel series. There’s danger and attitude in Jordan’s performance. There’s fun too: as well as nabbing the axe, Stevens also steals a flamboyant mask from the museum just because he ‘feels’ it. Working alongside him is Ulysses Klaue (an entertaining Andy Serkis, returning from 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron). In another loaded reference to white oppression, Klaue has an Afrikaans accent.

When T’Challa learns that old nemesis Klaue has some Vibranium – an exclusively Wakandian mineral – and plans to sell it in South Korea, the king wants him caught and brought to justice for past crimes. We then get a sequence in Seoul that’s often reminiscent of a similar scene in the Bond film Skyfall – our heroes stalk a golden-lit casino, quipping to each other over earpieces, before the fighting begins. At this point we’re also reintroduced to CIA agent Everett K Ross (Martin Freeman), who T’Challa encountered earlier in the series and is now after Klaue for his own reasons. (When Ross and Klaue meet, it means a reunion of Hobbit actors. As somewhere far cleverer than me once joked on Twitter, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis are this film’s Tolkien white guys.)

After a fun car chase, with Shuri remotely operating a vehicle from back in her lab and T’Challa suiting up as his Black Panther alter ego, Stevens nabs Klaue from under the noses of new allies T’Challa and Ross. Stevens then kills his former ally and delivers his corpse to Wakanda. We learn that – although raised in America – Erik is actually N’Jadaka, the king’s cousin, so he has a claim to the throne. And he’s a far more radical personality than T’Challa. He’s seen the hardship suffered throughout the world by people ‘who look like us’ and wants to use Wakanda’s resources to help them fight back. Swaggering into a meeting of the king’s retinue, he demands a challenge of combat. T’Challa feels he has no option but to fight; Stevens wins, seemingly kills our hero, and takes over running the country.

There’s then, sadly, a rather leaden period of the film as it tries to pretend that T’Challa is dead. (Does that cliché *ever* work in a film?) Meanwhile, Stevens starts to enact his aggressive policies, much to the chagrin of the other Wakandians. It’s a bit like those episodes of The West Wing where CJ, Josh and the others react badly as John Goodman takes over as President. No one’s happy, but they don’t feel as if they have a choice. (Perhaps a fistfight in a lagoon is not the best way of choosing a nation’s executive officer, guys.)

Eventually, after it’s revealed that T’Challa is alive (yay!), he and his friends mount a huge assault on the capital and we head into one of those loooong superhero-movie climaxes of fighting, jumping, crashing, fighting, flying, quipping, fighting and lots of CGI-ing. But you forgive the film the indulgence. Firstly because Black Panther has been – for the most part – an engaging and enjoyable action flick. But secondly because it’s patently an important movie. Hollywood has been maddeningly slow to recognise the need for diversity, and superhero films have not been immune to that. Black Panther is a proud, confident step in the right direction.

And as it nears its end, it becomes apparent that the stylish design work is not the only echo of Blade Runner. There aren’t many films where the bad guy steals the scene as he realises he’s about to die, but it happens in Black Panther. After T’Challa and Erik have fought for the future of Wakanda, the latter is mortally wounded. The king says he can get help. ‘Why?’ says Stevens, tears in his eyes. ‘So you can just lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.’

Eight gamblers in the casino out of 10

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