Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captured and imprisoned on an alien word, Thor is forced to fight an old friend in gladiatorial combat. But back home on Asgard, his evil sister has taken control…

Despite cynics claiming that all superhero films take themselves too seriously, there’s been comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series since day one. The Iron Man strand has given the world lots of droll sarcasm from Robert Downey Jr. Ant-Man and its star Paul Rudd often have tongues placed firmly in cheeks. Even the muscular thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier uses gallows humour alongside its high-octane plotting. But even so, there was still something very significant about 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

As much an out-and-out comedy as a sci-fi adventure film, Guardians was very funny indeed. There were actual gags as well as playfulness, satire and self-deprecation. It was a risk, but it earned a huge amount of money and reviews were great. Coupled with the similar success of the likewise light-hearted superhero film Deadpool, and Marvel Studios knew they were onto a winner. Guardians soon got a sequel, but its influence also extended to another floor of the MCU skyscraper.

There had been two previous Thor films. Neither was without merit, but both suffered from a lack of distinction. The character’s debut movie, 2011’s Thor, hardly rewrote the rule book. Its sequel, 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, was the closest the MCU’s got to being actively boring. But for the third movie, there were big changes. It’d be underselling it to say Thor: Ragnarok is influenced by Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s more a shameless copy. Jokes are never far away from any scene. The film constantly pokes fun at itself and the genre as a whole. The colour scheme has switched from The Dark World’s grim, earthy dirge to an explosion of bright, bold, pop-art colours. And old music is used as score.

Inside five minutes, for example, there’s a confrontation between Thor (Chris Hemsworth, who knows how to handle comedy) and a mystical, all-powerful entity. It’s a moment seen often in genre films, yet here it’s played entirely for laughs. Then, as the action kicks in, so does the heavy-metal chugging of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song (1970). As the film develops, we get pop-culture references, slapstick, insults, a cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, another confident turn from Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and even guest appearances from Matt Damon, Chris Hemsworth’s brother Liam and Sam Neill as actors playing Loki, Thor and their father in a play loaded with in-jokes for attentive viewers.

It’s fun. Bags of fun. Enormous fun. A lot of the credit must go to director Taika Waititi, who also voices a very funny secondary character (‘I tried to start a revolution but didn’t print enough pamphlets so hardly anyone turned up.’). It would be very easy for a film like this – where the cast are clearly having a ball and where the writers are running free of the usual shackles – to descend into self-indulgent nonsense. Thor: Ragnarok teeters on the edge a few times, but Waititi always keeps it upright.

Having said that, long-term MCU fans do have to let a few things go. This film bears such little tonal relationship to Thor’s previous outings that it may as well be a spoof. Humour is no bad thing in a multi-million-dollar franchise blockbuster, but here it can sometimes feel flippant (a problem that the Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy movies have always sidestepped). When Jeff Goldblum shows up and gives the most Jeff Goldblummy performance in the history of Jeff Goldblummary, it’s certainly entertaining. But it doesn’t exactly help with the suspension of disbelief.

Because, buried under all the silliness, there is actually a plot going on. On a far-off planet, Thor is captured by a sometimes drunk bounty hunter with a secret heritage called Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson, very good). He’s sold into slavery, forced to have his Nordic locks cut off, and must fight as a gladiator in an intergalactic amphitheatre. His opponent? As revealed in the film’s gleeful trailers, it’s Hulk! Thor’s trepidation instantly dissolves as he sees his old pal (‘We know each other! He’s a friend from work!’) but the two superheroes are forced to brawl for the paying audience. Eventually Hulk calms down and, for the first time in two years, reverts into Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, always good value). Then Thor gets word that home planet Asgard is under threat, so he and Bruce – the latter wearing a Duran Duran T-shirt – escape with the help of Scrapper 142 and Loki. The quartet form a team, jokingly self-named the Revengers.

Meanwhile, Hela – the goddess of death and Thor’s never-before-mentioned sister – is taking over Asgard, killing millions and waging war on the universe. She’s played by Cate Blanchet, who gamely wears a skin-tight costume and black eyeliner as she rants and raves and pontificates. The actress also has a Lord of the Rings reunion with Karl Urban, who here plays a cockney wide-boy Asgardian who unwillingly becomes her sidekick. But, as talented and entertaining as the pair are, their section of the story never really takes flight. The relentless comedy works against the story here: with the script constantly undercutting her pomposity, it’s too difficult to take Hela seriously.

In fact, the whole Asgardian section of the story feels unnecessary. Thor, Bruce Banner and co having breezy, riotous adventures in a colourful, sci-fi setting – all scored by 1980s-ish electronica and 1970s rock music – would be even more enjoyable without it.

Eight hairdressers out of 10

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Blake’s 7: Killer (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While Avon and Vila attempt to steal a cipher machine, Blake encounters a derelict spaceship with a dangerous cargo…

Series A, episode 7. Written by: Robert Holmes. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 20 February 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (19) teleports down to the planet Fosforon with Vila, and together they break into a Federation command centre called Q-Base. There, Avon seeks out his old friend Tynus (Ronald Lacey) and asks for help in cracking the Federation’s new communications encryption. Tynus is reluctant, but Avon blackmails him into starting a small fire as a distraction while he and Vila nab the technology.
* When a derelict space craft drifts close to the Liberator, telepath Cally (17) senses that there’s life aboard. She says it’s something malignant…
* After Vila (20) has helped Avon break into Q-Base, he enjoys some of Tynus’s booze while they wait to acquire the crystals used to decipher Federation messages. Then, later, he stumbles across a note from Tynus to Servalan – Tynus has betrayed them and is stalling until back-up arrives!
* While Avon and Vila are away on their mission, Blake (20) becomes aware of a nearby derelict ship. He deduces that it’s centuries old and is about to be salvaged by Q-Base. But the people on Fosforon don’t know that the ship contains some kind of life, so Blake teleports down to the planet and warns lead scientist Bellfriar (Paul Daneman, who skilfully underplays everything). When the ship is opened, a body is found inside. While being autopsied, it awakens and kills a doctor…
* Jenna (20) wants to search the derelict, then is very nervous indeed that Blake plans on beaming down to Q-Base – what if he’s caught?! What if they take his teleport bracelet off him?! (The fact Avon and Vila are already down there doesn’t seem to bother her. Neither does the fact they’ve all been in similar situations many times before.)
* Zen (18).
* Orac (7) does the research on the derelict ship (he Googles it, basically) and tells Blake that it’s K47, a Wanderer Class-1 ship that went missing with three crewmembers 700 years ago.

Best bit: This is a terrific episode, with action, intrigue and horror. But it’s a tiny character moment that sells the terror the best. The station is eventually overrun by a deadly virus that strikes and kills quickly. After Blake and co have escaped, Bellfriar contacts them via the radio to tell them about the antidote – but as he’s explaining, he realises that he’s forgotten how to read. Looking at his hands, he sees bubbling scars. He’s been infected too.

Worst bit: It’s unavoidable perhaps, but the fact the long-dead corpse is clearly an actor in full-body make-up tips us off that it’s going to reanimate.

Review: Scholcky but entertaining. No, scratch that: it’s entertaining *because* it’s schlocky. This is space pulp that zips along very enjoyably. Robert Holmes had been the writer or script editor of some of the best Doctor Who of the previous decade, and in this script you can see several of his favourite themes. There’s a love of horror-movies ideas (the episode soon becomes a zombie story). There’s an understanding of historical precedent (Blake mentions Field Marshall Jeffrey Amherst, an 18th-century British Army officer who tried to deliberately infect Native Americans with smallpox – though Blake calls him Ashley for some reason). There’s the idea that space travel is dangerous, with exotic risks at every turn. There’s a complex guest character who’s not what he first appears. And there’s a distinct lack of interest in women (Jenna and Cally are noticeably peripheral to the action). Ronald Lacey, meanwhile, becomes the second future Indiana Jones villain to play a duplicitous official on a space station in Blake’s 7 (cf Julian Glover in Breakdown).

Eight A-line messages using a new pulse code out of 10

Next episode: Hostage

Blake’s 7: Horizon (1979)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew of the Liberator follow a Federation freighter to a hidden planet with a secret. Blake and Jenna, then Gan and Vila, then Cally are all captured, leaving Avon with a dilemma…

Series B, episode 4. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Jonathan Wright Miller. Originally broadcast: 30 January 1979, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* When Vila (17) suffers from a panic attack, he has to be sedated by Cally. After he comes round, all he wants is a drink – but then Gan guilt-trips him into searching for their friends who have gone missing…
* Jenna (17) continues to be the Liberator’s default pilot. In fact, during a jaunt off the ship, Blake specifically takes her along because he knows Avon will be less likely to do a runner with the Liberator if the best pilot is not aboard. Jenna and Blake teleport down to a planet codenamed Horizon and find some Federation-run mines. Again, the two characters feel like the closest friends in the group, which is more down to the actors’ chemistry than anything inherent in the writing. On Horizon, things don’t go well: the pair are knocked out by poisoned darts, tied up, tortured, questioned, then set to work breaking rocks.
* As the episode begins, Avon (16) doesn’t understand why they’re still running. The Liberator is in deep space, away from Federation eyes, so why don’t they stop and rest? Then when a Federation freighter shows up, he wonders what it’s doing this far out. After all, he says, they’re in zone eight. (It’s a nice thought, isn’t it, that space has a zonal system akin to the London Underground. The Liberator’s so far away from the action they’re in the cosmic equivalent of Cheshunt or Watford High Street.) After all his colleagues are captured on Horizon, Avon is left alone on the Liberator. He seriously considers abandoning them and fleeing, but then his conscience gets the better of him.
* Cally (14) acts like the crew’s doctor, tending to Blake’s headache, Avon’s bad back and Vila’s stomach cramps – all things brought on by fatigue. Later, after most of her colleagues don’t return from Horizon, she beams down to help but ends up being captured herself.
* Blake (17) recognises the crew’s need for a break, but where can they find sanctuary? They’re so well known, he argues, that nowhere would be safe. Then the idea of some R&R is forgotten about because the Liberator encounters a Federation freighter. Blake decides to follow it to find out why it’s so far into deep space – perhaps there’s a planet he could use as a base for the rebellion. They track the freighter to a planet where the natives are being forced to work as a slave-labour force. After being captured, Blake is forced to work too – sans shirt. (Vila is also stripped to the waist when he’s caught. Jenna and Cally get to keep their clothes.)
* Zen (15) tells the crew about the existence of Horizon, but other than its name he knows bugger all about it.
* When Blake and Jenna don’t return from Horizon, Gan (16) decides to teleport down to look for them – but he’s also caught and then strung up on a wall as a warning to other rebels.
* Orac (5) gives the crew some information on Horizon and also operates the teleport. He also features in the episode’s best scene…

Best bit: …which is a *terrific* showcase for the hazy, dangerous genius of Avon actor Paul Darrow. In a scene loaded with be-careful-what-you-wish-for subtext, Avon is left alone aboard the Liberator and ponders whether to leave his friends to a life of slavery. He reasons that he has enough food and power to survive quite adequately, and with Orac’s help he can pilot the Liberator well enough to hide from the authorities. He’s genuinely tempted – but also clearly torn. Orac acts as a kind of sounding board, but it’s essentially a soliloquy.

Worst bit: When captured and forced to work in some caves, Blake arrogantly bosses the other slaves about because they dare to eat some food put in front of them. That’s right: some *literally starving* prisoners get a lecture on social behaviour from a middle-class twat who’s been enslaved for about five minutes. They have the good grace not to tell him to fuck off.

Review: There are some nice surprises in this one. The main plotline – bad guys oppress population and make them break rocks in caves while wearing rags – doesn’t sound like it’s going to be anything special. And it isn’t. But in and around this cliché are plenty of things of interest. As well as all the great Avon business mentioned above, there’s also a short but fun sequence when the Liberator passes through Horizon’s ‘magnetic barrier’, a planetary-defence system that shakes the ship, unsettles the crew, and even manages to playfully corrupt the episode’s videotape image. There are also plenty of telling moments for the regular characters, their behaviour and attitudes revealing (or reinforcing) something about them, and an interesting guest character. Ro is a villain who doesn’t know he’s a villain. He’s the local who the Federation have appointed as a puppet leader on Horizon; he sits on a throne but has no real power. Despite being a prisoner, Blake is able to rekindle Ro’s rebellious spirit and he soon fights back.

Eight seams of Monopasium-239 out of 10

Next episode: Pressure Point

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)


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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A couple’s young son is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock once said he wasn’t ‘audience conscious’ when, in 1934, he first made a film called The Man Who Knew Too Much. But 22 years and 25 movies later, he directed a loose remake. It was produced at the height of his Hollywood popularity and power, and as well as the many cosmetic or production differences from the original – colour! Widescreen! Americans! – there was also a significantly different script.

Writer John Michael Hayes was told not to view the 1930s movie or read its script, so instead he worked off an outline told to him verbally by Hitchcock. The result is the same vague storyline: an innocent couple on holiday stumble across some dangerous information and their child is kidnapped to stop them from talking. But the plot has been rejigged and the trappings moved around. One reason for this was to give the father character more action – Hitch argued that if you’ve cast James Stewart, you can’t lock him up for as long as Leslie Banks was in the original.

This was Stewart’s third role for Alfred Hitchcock, after a key supporting character in Rope and the lead in Rear Window. A charismatic powerhouse, Stewart was perhaps the best ‘everyman’ Hollywood’s ever had. He possessed an amazing ability to play decent, likeable men who wear their intelligence lightly. Here, he’s Ben McKenna, a successful doctor on holiday in north Africa with his family. Ben’s wife, Jo, is played by Doris Day. Hitch cast her against the wishes of colleagues who wanted a more ‘serious’ actress – someone like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly or Jane Russell – but he knew Day was more than just a singer. And he was right. She’s fantastic in this film.

In the early scenes of Ben, Jo and son Hank (an irritating Christopher Olsen), the movie has a travelogue feel. Unlike the 1934 film, which began in the Swiss Alps, we’re in Morocco. We see markets and traders and street exhibitionists and bustling buses; we learn about why Muslim women wear veils and all about Moroccan restaurant etiquette. The sequence is a combination of location work in Marrakesh, and shots taken of Stewart and Day back in Hollywood acting against massive rear-projection plates. It’s also a more leisurely opening than in 1934 – but that allows us to get to know Ben and Jo much more than Bob and Jill, their equivalents in that first movie. The couple meet a Frenchman called Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), then an English couple called Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles). Ben is jovial towards them all, but Jo is suspicious of Louis.

The situation is preparing the ground for a suspense plot, but as ever with Hitchcock there’s also time for human moments or humour. In their hotel room, Jo and Hank enjoy singing Que Sera, Sera together – being played by Doris Day, Jo has quite a nice voice and the scene is adorably sweet. There’s also some fun business when Ben can’t settle on a low, soft chair and struggles to eat with one hand.

Then comes a crisis… The next day, Bernard is stabbed in the street. Just before he dies he whispers a message to Ben. There’s to be as assassination in London! This is a nice simplification of the 1934 film, which only got to this information after some silliness about a secret message hidden in a shaving brush. Then Ben receives a phone call while at the local police station – Hank has been kidnapped and Ben better keep quiet about what he’s heard. To make matters even more harrowing, Ben twigs that the kidnappers are the friendly English couple from the hotel.

A big problem with the 1930s movie is that the parents’ reaction to their child being taken hasn’t dated very well. In that film, the Lawrences are too reserved, too pent-up, for us to have much sympathy. This version, though, solves that issue with more heartfelt writing and acting. Ben doesn’t tell Jo straightaway, and James Stewart plays his character’s isolated terror very well indeed. You really feel for him as he tries to maintain an appearance of calmness when he’s clearly going through hell inside. Then when he finally breaks the news to Jo, she balls and cries with anguish. It’s very affecting.

Bernard’s message mentioned ‘Ambrose Chappell’ in London, so the couple head there now. Ben tries to find Mr Chappell, but his quest is a red herring that involves a comedic brawl in a taxidermists’ workshop, the various animals staring down impassively. Jo, meanwhile, deduces that Ambrose Chapel is a place – an actual chapel which turns out to be run by the English couple from Morocco. Ben confronts them but is knocked out and locked up – he later escapes by climbing up the church’s bell rope – while Jo heads to the Albert Hall. That’s where the police chief is because he’s attending a concert with a foreign dignitary. It also turns out to be the location of the assassination…

At the Albert Hall, we get a nine-minute scene with no dialogue as Hitch cuts between the orchestra, Jo looking nervous, Ben arriving, Jo explaining she’s spotted the assassin… The intensity rises with the orchestral music (which is the same Arthur Benjamin piece as used in 1934). Then Jo screams at the key moment, the assassination is avoided, and the shooter dies after a fall from the balcony. It’s a wonderful sequence, staged and edited with real skill.

But Hank is still being held hostage, and Ben and Jo deduce he’s at the embassy of the foreign dignitary. Ben and Jo blag their way in, and a nearly tearful Jo sings a heartfelt performance of Que Sera, Sera to distract everyone while Ben searches the building. It’s a happy reunion for the family, unlike the cursory moment in 1934. And that’s the key reason why this version is the better film. Times change, of course, as do moviegoing tastes. But whereas both films contain suspense, action, intrigue and Hitchcock-style flamboyance, the British-made, pre-war movie now comes off as quite shallow. In 1956, thanks to actors as good as James Stewart and Doris Day, there’s emotion alongside the excitement.

Eight men in the market out of 10


Blake’s 7: Breakdown (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Gan suffers from debilitating headaches and attacks his colleagues, they must find a way of fixing his malfunctioning implant…

Series A, episode 10. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Gan (9) is stricken by crushing headaches, then flips out and becomes violent. The implant in his brain has gone on the wonk, you see, and Jenna is knocked unconscious before the others subdue him. Later, he awakens but writhes about like a werewolf then goes on another Incredible Hulk rampage. Eventually an operation is performed. The implant remains but he’s back to normal. Phew!
* Zen (8) acts very obstructively this week, refusing to answer standard questions and then switching off when the crew need his help.
* Jenna (10) is the first to find Gan is his dangerous state, and suffers as a consequence. Later, she has to flirt with a scientist to distract him (‘Hello, hello, hello,’ he says appreciatively as they meet).
* Blake (10) tries to talk Gan down from his initial fury – then has to fight with him. Once Gan is knocked out, and it becomes clear his ‘limiter’ implant has gone wrong, Blake moots operating on him themselves. Avon points out that’s slightly risky and suggests another idea: take Gan to XK-72, an independent space station that carries out research into weaponry and medicine. (Well, it’s obvious now he says it.) Blake agrees. When they reach the station, Blake teleports aboard and finds a doctor called Professor Kayn (Julian Glover, providing plenty of knows-what-he’s-doing-ness). Kayn, however, twigs who Blake is and secretly informs the Federation…
* En route to XK-72, Avon (9) tells Blake he wants to leave the crew – Blake’s zealous streak, he says, leads to too many risks being taken. So when they reach the space station, Avon offers its leader his services and knowledge – in exchange for a guarantee that his colleagues will be allowed to leave unmolested. However, when he realises that the Federation are on the way, guilt takes over and Avon warns his friends.
* When Blake, Avon and Jenna agree to take the Liberator through a dangerous area of space to reach XK-72, Vila (10) says, ‘Don’t I get asked?’ They just ignore him. Later, he tells Avon that he stays with Blake because he likes him… and has nowhere else to go. During the climax, Vila gets a nice moment where he rumbles the duplicitous Kayn.
* Cally (7) acts as a nurse, tending to the unconscious Gan, but doesn’t spot when he wakes up with an evil look on his face. She’s also later tricked into removing his restraints. #FlorenceNightingFAIL.

Best bit: A nifty, never-seen-before stellar map on a sheet of Plexiglas – shot from behind, of course, as is the cinematic cliché. (Quite how useful a *two-dimension* map of fucking space can be, however, is another matter.)

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Worst bit: The ‘dangerous bit of space’ subplot feels terribly artificial. Zen builds up a big mystery about the area for no reason, then the Liberator travels through it unscathed. It’s just padding, which is a real shame because if this enjoyable episode has a major flaw it’s the fact it’s so lopsided. The first 32 minutes are set aboard the Liberator and feature just the regulars, then we race through *a lot* of plotting in the last two-fifths of the episode.

Review: After being in the background for so long, at last Gan is the focus of a storyline! And he spends almost all of the episode unconscious. So instead of a character study on a character who doesn’t really have a character, we get plenty of good, inter-team drama with the other regulars and guest stars. Blake, Avon and Jenna have believable, plausible opinions about what to do with Gan and this creates some engaging conflict. They all want to help their friend, but not at any cost, and crucially none of the characters is a moron so you can see their points of view. The inhabitants of XK-72 are an interesting bunch too and the story develops and twists when we meet them.

Eight unstable magnetic fields out of 10

Next episode: Bounty

To Catch a Thief (1955)


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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a former jewel thief is accused of a new spate of robberies in the south of France, he sets out to discover who’s really responsible…

There’s huge star power in this film. In fact, the wattage created by its leading actors outshines everything else to such a degree that when it’s finally revealed who’s been stealing some jewels from well-to-do socialites it’s very difficult to care. Much more interesting is the flirtation, romance, sex appeal and chemistry of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

In an early Hitchcockian image, a domestic cat trotting over some rooftops is used a funny metaphor for a cat burglar. Someone is purloining valuables in the beautiful, sunny, stress-free French Riviera and suspicion soon falls on American ex-pat John Robie (Grant). He has form for this kind of thing, but swears blind he put his criminal habit behind him 15 years previously – around the time he became a hero in the French Resistance. (He blithely says that he killed 72 people during the war.) However, with the police breathing down his neck, Robie reckons the best way to prove his innocence is to catch the actual thief…

This was Cary Grant’s third Hitchcock role (of four) and actually came at a point when, at 50, he was considering retiring from acting. Here, as in so many movies, he shows off world-class charisma, effortless panache and wonderful comic timing. He also *moves* so well, with a gentleman’s grace but great, masculine power too. It’s no surprise that, just seven years after this, he was sounded out about playing James Bond in the first 007 film. (Grant had been the best man at Bond producer Cubby Broccoli’s wedding, but the actor’s reluctance to sign up to multiple movies ultimately put him out of the running.)

Robie gets help in his plan from Lloyd’s of London insurance investigator HH Hughson (John Williams, who’d sparkled in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder a couple of years earlier). Together, they identify a likely target for the cat burglar – a rich American widow called Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis, terrific), who’s holidaying in the area with her grown-up daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly). In order to keep an eye on them, Robie engineers an introduction in a hotel casino (another instance of Cary Grant seeming James Bond-ish). To attract the Stevenses’ attentions, he accidentally-on-purpose drops a casino chip down a French woman’s cleavage then embarrasses her into paying him what it was worth. It’s a bizarre moment that must have had Hitchcock giggling like a schoolboy, and it gets Robie talking to the Americans. He charms them and, as a cover story, claims to be a lumber man from Oregon.

Here, at the half-hour mark, as Grace Kelly enters the story, is when the film really comes alive. At first, Frances seems sullen and uninterested in Robie. He doesn’t pay her too much attention either, preferring to cosy up to her jewel-flaunting mother. When Jessie brazenly asks him if he likes her daughter, all he can muster is that she’s ‘quietly attractive’, which might very well be the greatest understatement in 20th-century cinema. But Robie and Frances’s romantic subplot is kicked into the stratosphere when she then surprises him with an exceedingly sensual goodnight kiss. The flirtation is on.

Frances was Kelly’s third and final role for Alfred Hitchcock. Given its impact and success, it was a remarkably short collaboration: all three movies were filmed between July 1953 and September 1954. In each, she’s pure class: stunningly beautiful, of course, and effortlessly sexy; but more importantly every character has a wonderful spirit and charm. Frances Stevens is no exception – she’s smart, funny, adorable and you can’t take your eyes off her. She was also one of Grace Kelly’s final roles for any director. In April 1955, at the Cannes film festival, she met Prince Rainier III of Monaco; they married a year later and she quit Hollywood to become the principality’s princess.

As they grow closer, Robie and Frances look at a villa that he claims he needs to rent (and he can’t resist scoping out its windows and entry points: old habits die hard!). Frances then drives them very fast down mountain roads – a tremendous sequence achieved via rear projection, wind machines and the loud throb of the car engine. All the while, the two actors are having a ball with their flirtatious dialogue. So are we – the whodunit plot has been all but forgotten. There are a couple of suspects, one of whom is a flighty teenage girl played by Brigitte Auber, but Grant and Kelly steal the show.

Frances is convinced that she’s rumbled Robie’s cover and says he just doesn’t seem like a lumber man from Oregon. Over a picnic high above the coast, she tells him he’s out of place: more like “an American in an English movie”, which is surely a multi-level in-joke from Hitchcock and his writers about Cary Grant (who was an English star in Hollywood) and Grace Kelly (who’d played an English woman in Dial M for Murder). The two actors are endlessly watchable in their two-handed scenes, which Hitch allows to play out in natural, uninterrupted long takes.

Their sexually charged banter also contains some shameless innuendo. At their picnic, Frances offers him Robie some chicken and asks, “You want a leg or a breast?” He knowingly replies, “You make the choice.” Later, she says, “I have a feeling that tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights.” When Robie doesn’t reply, she adds, “I was talking about the fireworks,” and he quips, “I never doubted it.”

But there’s genuine romance to match the badinages. Eventually the pair sleep together – dramatized by a cheeky Hitch cutting away to a nearby fireworks display. When the film later reveals who the jewel thief actually is – after an elaborate sting planned by Robie, Frances, Jessie and Hughson – it’s rather underwhelming. We’ve already had the climax.

Eight men on a bus out of 10

Blake’s 7: Duel (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake and his nemesis Travis are selected by a pair of mysterious women to fight to the death…

Series A, episode 8. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Douglas Camfield. Originally broadcast: 20 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (2) and his mutoids – female troops who have been technologically modified – have hunted Blake down. They start to attack the Liberator, but then Travis and Blake are forcibly teleported down to a nearby, rocky, barren planet by its two inhabitants: powerful, sorcerer-type women called Sinofar and Giroc. (One’s a looker with distractingly noticeable nipples. The other is played by Miss Roberts from Upstairs, Downstairs.) They’re tired of death and destruction so insist that Blake and Travis take part in a duel – the idea is that then one only one of them will die and their respective crews will be safe.
* Blake (8) is more amused by the situation than Travis is. After a lengthy sequence in the forest venue of the duel, he manages to avoid Travis’s traps and gains the upper hand. But because he’s a hero he refuses to kill his enemy. Yay!
* Avon (7) doesn’t take part in any of the action, but more than makes up for it with witty, attitude-driven dialogue. He bickers with Vila and makes cynical quips about the duel (“Blake is sitting up in a tree. Travis is sitting up in another tree. Unless they’re planning to throw nuts at one another, I don’t see much of a fight developing before it gets light…”).
* When the Liberator crew first encounter the rocky planet, Jenna (8) explores it with Blake and Gan. Then when the duel begins she’s selected – seemingly at random – to be Blake’s companion during the event. The notion is that if she dies Blake will learn what it feels like to lose a friend. (He points out that he already knows that.)
* When Blake and Jenna are in the forest, their friends watch a representation of the events on the Liberator’s viewscreen: Cally (5) infers/intuits that it’s the real deal.
* Gan (7) is the first to see the women, who appear like ghosts while he, Blake and Jenna recce the planet.
* Vila (8) operates the teleport machine but falls asleep on the job.
* Zen (6) features occasionally.

Best bit: The Liberator is under attack from Travis’s ship so Blake and Avon discuss tactics. Blake wants to ram Travis, a desperate manoeuvre, but Avon is doubtful.
“Have you got any better ideas?” asks Blake bitterly. Then the whole Liberator rocks violently, having been hit by a bolt.
Avon catches a falling Blake, holding him in his arms: “As a matter of fact,” he says, “no, I haven’t.”
“Does that mean you agree?”
“Do I have a choice?” asks Avon softly.
“Then I agree.” Avon lets go of his homoerotic embrace and walks off.

Worst bit: The duel scenes were filmed on location in the New Forest, and are generally pretty good. However, a moment or two of dialogue between Travis and his lead mutoid stand out like a sore mechanical hand because – for some reason – they’ve been shot in the TV studio against a green-screen background. Did they run out of time on location? Was it assumed that no one would notice or care about the inconsistency?

Review: There’s a different feel to this one, perhaps because this is the only Blake’s 7 episode directed by Douglas Camfield, one of the behind-the-scenes stars of Doctor Who in the 1960s and 70s. The action is a bit tougher than usual, for instance, both in the combat on the planet and in the busy, visceral and noisy space battle. Camfield’s appointment also meant a less cosy soundtrack: he didn’t like using in-house composer Dudley Simpson so Duel’s excellent music is harsher and more unsettling than in earlier episodes. The result is a lot of fun, not least because this is the show’s most blatant evocation yet of Robin Hood. The entire series could be summed up as ‘Robin Hood in space’, but Duel gives us forests, medieval weapons and traps as Blake and Travis go head to head like the Hooded Man and the Sheriff of Nottingham. After his introduction two episodes ago, in fact, it’s nice to see Travis fleshed out a bit. With no Servalan tugging at his lead, he’s free to drive his own story and gets a lot of focus. There’s also some light-heartedness: while Blake and Travis creep around a woodland, the rest of the Liberator crew watch events on a screen and comment on them like they’re in an episode of Gogglebox. They even get bored when nothing happens.

Eight stasis beams out of 10

Next episode: Project Avalon

Blake’s 7: Mission to Destiny (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Liberator crew find a spaceship called the Ortega, whose inhabitants are unconscious… It soon becomes clear there’s been a murder aboard.

Series A, episode 7. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 13 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* When the Liberator encounters a spaceship called the Ortega, Blake (7) teleports aboard, taking Avon and Cally with him, to see why it’s circling the same area of space. They find crewmembers passed out in various rooms and deduce that the air supply has been poisoned; then a dead body is discovered. When the crew wakes up, Blake takes charge and tries to work out what happened. He soon learns that the ship is on a mission of mercy: they must deliver a vital energy reserve to their home planet in time for a new agricultural cycle. Seeing how the ship is damaged, Blake offers to deliver the reserve in the Liberator and leaves Avon and Cally behind as collateral.
* Avon (6) assesses the damage to the Ortega when he arrives with Blake and Cally. He deduces that it’s been sabotaged and now can’t travel at light speed – which is a major problem for the crew’s mission. After Blake has left with the energy reserve, Avon stays behind to help with the repairs – though he admits it’s less to do with sympathy for the crew’s plight and more because he can’t stand an unsolved mystery. To that end, he becomes a space-age Hercule Poirot and starts investigating the murder; he even has grandstanding scenes where he lays out his theories to the assembled suspects. (Although, Hercule Poirot never punched the murderer in the face and then said he enjoyed it.)
* Cally (4) is the one who finds a dead body when she, Blake and Avon first search the Ortega. It’s really not her day in that regard: she later finds a second corpse down in the storage compartments. She also stays behind when Blake leaves and uses the opportunity to do some snooping on the murder suspects.
* Jenna (7), Vila (7), Gan (6) and obviously Zen (5) all stay on the Liberator throughout the episode. Once Blake returns from the Ortega, they head off for the planet Destiny to deliver the MacGuffin. Halfway there, however, they realise its box is empty so have to return sharpish.

Best bit: Blake pitches his idea to the crew of the Ortega: he’ll take their precious cargo to Destiny while Avon and Cally stay behind to help with repairs. Cally adds, “We will regard ourselves as hostages against Blake’s return.” Avon looks askance and deadpans: “Why, thank you, Cally. What a clever idea.” She telepathically tells him, “Blake will return,” and he says out loud, “You can bet your life on it. In fact, you’ve just bet both our lives on it.”

Worst bit: The Liberator-based stuff in the second half of the episode – Blake, Jenna, Vila and Gan travelling through an asteroid field – is inconsequential filler.

Review: This is a fun, self-contained episode built on Agatha Christie clichés: a murder mystery, a small, defined group of suspects, an enclosed environment, cryptic clues, and observant, insightful detectives. The suspects are middle-management types aboard a spaceship stocked with 1970s office furniture, but they’re distinctive enough to make the puzzle engaging. Blake bosses the first half of the episode, then once he’s left the stage Avon dominates the second half. Prophetic, that.

Eight homing-beam transmitters out of 10

Next episode: Duel

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

Family Plot (1976)


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