The Karate Kid (1984, John G Avildsen)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A teenage boy moves to LA but is persecuted by some local bullies. So with the help of a mentor figure, he learns karate to defend himself…

Cast and story:
* The lead character is high-school student Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). At the beginning of the story he moves with his mother (Randee Heller) from New Jersey to California.
* Mother and son have a relaxed, easy-going relationship – she’s upbeat and can-do and they feel like pals as much as a family. The longer the film goes on, however, the more Lucille fades into the background. Daniel’s new parental figure becomes local handyman Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita).
* He’s an elderly bloke from Okinawa who has a dry sense of humour and a strong sense of honour, but also a tragic past. Forty years earlier, his wife and son died while he was away fighting in the war. So he’s lost a son and Daniel’s dad isn’t even mentioned – the two characters soon develop a bond, especially after Mr M saves Daniel from a beating…
* On his second day in LA, Daniel hung out with some new friends. He flirted with cute rich girl Ali Mills (an adorable Elisabeth Shue) but also angered her ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
* The sneering, aggressive Johnny and his gang of sycophantic mates arrive on the scene like the villains from a biker movie. They take against Daniel and bully him using their karate skills, so Mr M goes to see their sensei: Vietnam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove), a man so damaged by the war that he now finds pleasure in schooling teenage boys in how to beat up other teenage boys. Mr Miyagi strikes a deal: the gang will leave Daniel alone until he competes in an upcoming karate tournament.
* However, this gives Daniel just six weeks to train. (He’s also still trying to woo Ali, so it’s a busy time for the lad.) At first, Mr Miyagi’s techniques do not go down well. He forces Daniel to do some boring chores (cleaning his cars, painting his house), but then Dan realises that he’s been subliminally learning basic karate moves as he works.
* Full of this muscle memory, he then takes part in the tournament. Ali, who he’s now dating, and his mum are there for support. Despite some underhand tactics from an opponent he reaches the final, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he faces Johnny…
* Accompanied by rousing incidental music, Daniel wins the bout by using an unconventional ‘crane kick’ – an up-and-down kick to the face delivered while in mid-air – which he’d seen Mr Miyagi practise earlier in the film.

Review: As many people have pointed out, in some ways this movie is a redo of 1976’s Rocky (which was also directed by John G Avildsen). It’s a predictable, underdog story of a hero having to fight more powerful opponents with the help of a seen-it-all-before, older mentor. There’s even a stirring score from Bill Conti (Rocky, For Your Eyes Only). But that doesn’t mean it’s not a very enjoyable experience. Weaved in amongst the by-the-numbers, don’t-look-at-it-too-closely plotline are many details and delights – not least some strong performances. Macchio is very fine indeed and appropriately full of attitude and defiance despite looking about 12 years old. Shue and Heller are likeable presences, while Kove uses his three scenes to create one of the most memorable bad guys in 80s genre cinema. But the star of the show is Pat Morita. To some viewers in 1984 he would have been Arnold from the sitcom Happy Days; to others he was a stand-up comedian. Ever after, he was Mr Miyagi. Despite being just 51 during filming, he gives the character an ancient-feeling soul and a huge gravitas – as well as mixing in plenty of twinkle-eyed humour. The character is a superhero, rather than someone who comes from the real world. He can beat up a gang of teenagers and he can magically heal Daniel’s wounds. Away from Mr Miyagi, the movie feels part of the Brat Pack/John Hughes/teen movie cycle that was just getting underway in 1984. It’s set in and around an American high school (even featuring a dance held in the gymnasium); the soundtrack is filled with contemporary pop music (Bananarama!); and there’s a recurring theme of social class (Daniel is disliked because he’s poor; a person’s worth is dictated by the cost of his or her car). But there’s also something Spielbergian about it, especially in the scenes set at night which have wafts of smoke creating a spooky atmosphere and a young boy riding a BMX. Directed by Avildsen with a confident yet unfussy style – dialogue scenes often play out in uninterrupted two-shots – this is a very effective and amiable movie.

Nine Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championships out of 10

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Peter Quill – aka Star Lord – takes possession of a mystical orb of enormous power, various factions from across the galaxy come looking for him…

For all its far-out, sci-fi trappings, Guardians of the Galaxy actually begins on Earth in 1988. The tone is the same retro 80s-ness used in the JJ Abrams film Super 8 (2011) and TV show Stranger Things – a lower-middle-class America seen through the eyes of pop-culture-aware kids. And even after we cut to alien worlds in deep space, the film never loses sight of this sense of wonder and fun. A big reason is the use of music. The first character we see is a young boy called Peter Quill, who’s listening to 10cc’s I’m Not In Love on his Sony Walkman. His terminally ill mother has given him a cassette called Awesome Mix Vol 1 that compiles tracks she loved in her youth, and the tape recurs throughout the film. It’s both Peter’s emotional link to his old life and – let’s face it – an excuse for some cool sounds. The events of Guardians of the Galaxy are therefore scored by David Bowie, Norman Greenbaum, The Runaways, the Jackson 5 and others. It gives the film character and distinctiveness – and a huge sense of joy. But while his tunes are top, young Peter’s not having the best day: soon after his mother passes away, he’s abducted by aliens. Jump to 26 years later and the grown-up Peter, now self-styled as Star Lord, is a scavenger working in deep space. The adult Peter is played by Chris Pratt, a former sitcom actor giving a star-making performance. There’s undeniably a Harrison Ford-like quality about him, and his Peter is reminiscent of both Han Solo and Indiana Jones – a man equally at home with action-adventure and droll comedy. After escaping some violent bad guys who want an artefact he’s stolen, for example, Peter is surprised to find a cute woman waiting for him in his space ship. “Look, I’m going to be totally honest with you,” he tells her. “I forgot you were here.” Meanwhile, a green-skinned mercenary called Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by the bombastic warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to steal Peter’s artefact, which is an orb of enormous power. Sadly for Gamora, who has her own agenda, she chooses to do this at the very moment that Peter is being stalked by two bounty hunters: comedy double act Rocket and Groot. Rocket (a CGI creature voiced by Bradley Cooper) looks like a large rodent and is a smartarse full of sarcasm and some inner sadness; Groot (a CGI creature voiced by Vin Diesel) is a walking tree whose only dialogue is the phrase “I am Groot” said with different intonations. After a complex chase sequence, Peter, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are arrested and thrown into the same prison block. In there, they join forces with another inmate – the hulking Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), a man who doesn’t understand metaphors – and it’s a very fun, inventive sequence when this newly formed team escape. Outside of the Guardians gang, however, the characters aren’t quite so enjoyable. The story’s villains – Ronan, his sidekicks Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and big boss Thanos (Josh Brolin) – are all so po-faced and dull. Maybe it’s deliberate – a way of making the heroes seem brighter in comparison, or a satire of drab superhero-film foes. Maybe. Thankfully, there’s slightly more life elsewhere. Glenn Close gamely hams it up as the main planet’s president, with John C Reilly and a deadpan Peter Serafinowicz as her lackeys. Michael Rooker is also good value as Yondu Udonta, the pirate who kidnapped Peter as a child. (Although, Christ only knows what Benicio del Toro’s doing as the Collector, a man who acquires rare specimens for his private museum. His irritating, bird-like performance teeters on the edge of risible.) The plot is not what you’d call complex (the good guys have an object and the bad guys want it) but everything is so deftly directed by James Gunn that it doesn’t really matter. He perfectly balances the jokes and pop-culture references (“A great hero named Kevin Bacon…”) with wacky alien shit (planets called Morag and Knowhere). There’s plenty of heart – Peter and Gamora’s sorta romance is very touching, for example – while the cast are entertaining, the dialogue is very funny and the film looks great: colourful but not garish, with space craft and costumes influenced by the 1930s aviation boom. If anything slightly disappoints it’s the obligatory action climax, which is yet another ‘big thing falling from the sky’ sequence (cf. Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The stunt coordinators and visual-effects designers take over and, while there still are occasional gags, the film becomes more conventional for a while. But for the most part, fun is the order of the day. Tonally, Guardians of the Galaxy has much more in common with 80s classics such as Ghostbusters (1984), The Goonies (1985) and Back to the Future (1985) than it does with modern superhero franchise movies. There’s freedom and playfulness. It’s able to tell jokes without undercutting the story; able to use action without losing sight of the characters. There’s undeniably the swashbuckling spirit of Star Wars too. A terrific film.

Nine class-A preverts out of 10


Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Anthony and Joe Russo)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captain America must battle an old friend who’s now fighting for the other side, and root out traitors within his own camp…

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) can’t escape his past and his past can’t escape him. Nostalgia, for good or bad, runs throughout this film. For example, there’s a lovely scene where Steve visits a museum exhibition about his own Captain America persona. It’s a character beat, showing us how he misses his old life, as well as a neat opportunity to remind the audience about his backstory. Steve also visits old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who’s now in her 90s, while the film’s eponymous villain is his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s now a zombie-like assassin. But the movie looks forward as much as it looks back. After the 1940s boys’ own adventure of the first Captain America movie, we’re now in the modern day. Having fought the Nazis during the Second World War, Steve has woken up from a seven-decade freezing to find fascism alive and well in 21st-century Washington, DC. You see, the counter-terrorism agency he works for, SHIELD, is not quite the all-American, squeaky-clean organisation we first thought. It’s actually riddled with insurgents from a far-right cult called Hydra. (It’s also far more famous than in previous movies. Remember when Tony Stark and Pepper Potts had never heard of it? Well, now SHIELD has a humungous headquarters on the shore of the Potomac River and a budget that would dwarf Premier League football.) When the bad guys seemingly kill father figure Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Steve goes on the run. A secret agent isolated from his support network is hardly a new idea – James Bond’s done it a few times, it’s Jason Bourne’s permanent state of being – but the film still sells it as an exciting development. And Steve’s not all alone. Refreshingly, there’s no clichéd will-they-won’t-they in his partnership with fellow agent-on-the-lam Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, enjoying the increased screen time). She’s not a love interest, and neither is she tiresomely perfect. In genre films, as a well-intentioned reaction to soppy Bond girls who scream a lot, female characters are sometimes presented as unflappable and flawless – in other words, they’re quite boring. Batman v Superman’s Diana Prince and Die Another Day’s Jinx are good examples of this; Jillian Holtzmann from the 2016 Ghostbusters is another, albeit in a comedy film. Thankfully, Natasha has more depth: she gets upset when she thinks Fury is dead, and generally has a droll line in irony. (Come on, misogynistic Marvel. Give her a solo film.) Actually, as superhero movies go, this one’s pretty good for female characters. As well as Natasha and Peggy, there’s Cobie Smulders’s Maria Hill and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon, two strong SHIELD agents who get nice roles in the story. Steve’s best male friend, meanwhile, is new character Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). He’s a dude Steve meets while out jogging. He’s also a war vet and they bond over their civvy-street problems. The film is so good that you forgive it the ever-so-convenient plotting of Steve’s random new pal being in possession of some top-secret military equipment that comes in very handy during the action climax. That climax obviously features the Winter Soldier himself, who we eventually learn is Steve’s childhood friend Bucky. We thought he’d died in the first film, but it turns out Hydra saved him, rebuilt him and now periodically use him as an assassin. He certainly looks cool – metal arm, post-apocalyptic facemask, lank hair – but in truth he’s a bit of a red herring. The story’s Big Bad is actually SHIELD executive Alexander Pearce. He’s played well by Robert Redford, whose presence provides a cute link to classic thrillers Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All The President’s Men (1976), films with an similar edgy, paranoid tone. It’s maybe not the biggest surprise in the history of cinema when Pearce is revealed as the bad guy – why else cast a heavyweight like Robert Redford? – but what is a surprise is the return of Dr Zola (Toby Jones) from the previous Captain America film. He appears on a brilliantly retro computer screen when Steve and Natasha find Hydra’s secret lair, which is full of 1970s-vintage equipment. Natasha even makes a joke about the old-school terminal, quoting 1983 cyber-thriller WarGames (“Would you like to play a game?”). In fact, generally, The Winter Soldier is a movie that’s aware of pop culture, which is rare in the superhero genre. As well as nods to WarGames and Redford’s CV, we get a cheeky reference to Pulp Fiction, while Steve keeps a to-do list that includes seeing I Love Lucy, Star Wars and Rocky, and listening to Nirvana and Marvin Gaye. All this keeps the film fresh. It’s a big-budget action movie and yet characters are clever, make jokes, trade banter, and feel like people with lives – so everything’s more involving and engaging. Credit must go to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They make sure each element of the film is as sharp as it can be: it’s often funny, it’s often exciting, the story has a bit of substance, tension is built effectively, and the incidental music is terrific. Most commendably, some of the action scenes are sensational: the percussive, visceral attack on Nick Fury’s car; Natasha’s slick, acrobatic fights; Steve’s battering-ram chase of Bucky; the brawl in the lift… What a film. There’s intrigue, espionage and mistrust. There’s wit, pathos and drama. There’s action, fun and Christopher Nolan-style theatricality. A great sequel. A great superhero film. A great film.

Nine Smithsonian security guards out of 10


Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While suffering from anxiety attacks, Tony Stark must defeat a terrorist who’s severely injured an old friend…

One of the most interesting things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has been its choice of directors. Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, king of the geeks Joss Whedon – these are people with form, hired to make flashy, popcorn-cinema superhero movies. There’s maybe been a change of emphasis in recent years, with Marvel now preferring directors who have either less clout or more experience of working in producer-led television. (A cynical blogger might assume the switch came after visionary director Edgar Wright quit 2015’s Ant-Man at the 11th hour due to  creative differences.) But for Iron Man 3, the series put all its chips on Shane Black, a writer/director with both a real authorial voice and a proven record of success. Since bursting onto the Hollywood scene as the writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), his career has been notable for both his smart scripts and huge salaries: $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout (1991), $1 million for rewriting Last Action Hero (1993), $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1994). He then started directing his own scripts with 2005 caper movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Black’s style is idiosyncratic, postmodern and full of dark humour. His films are crime stories with vivid characters, deliberately surprising plot developments, sharply comedic dialogue, self-aware voiceovers, and sequences that build up to an archly cool moment…. only for that moment to then be undercut. He also has an obsession with setting stories at Christmas. Well, all those traits appear in Iron Man 3 (which, as well as directing, Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce). After the events of Avengers Assemble, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is in a mess. He’s dogged by panic attacks, sleep-deprived, and suffering from flashback nightmares. He’s got PTSD, basically. It’s an instantly interesting place for a movie to position its hero. It gives an extra shading to everything that goes on and, of course, means his journey is all the more textured. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still by Tony’s side and even gets to put on the Iron Man suit in an action scene. She then becomes a damsel-in-distress and you think she’s been killed off. But Shane Black revels in subverting clichés: just as you’re wondering why the character’s been treated so shabbily, Pepper shows up alive, kicks some serious ass in a sports bra, and actually *kills the bad guy*. Go, girl power. That bad guy is businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, good), though it’s a while into the film before we’re certain he’s behind it all. Initially, the big threat seems to be the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden-type terrorist with an indeterminate accent, a psycho stare and a penchant for broadcasting violent propaganda videos. When one of his attacks puts Tony’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films and is now having a ball with his comic-relief sidekick character) in hospital (where he recuperates while watching episodes of Downton Abbey), Tony vows revenge… As mentioned, when you’re watching a Shane Black film and a cliché is being set up, it’s so the film can then subvert it. This keeps things surprising, refreshing and unpredictable, and lifts his movies above the crowd. Black knows the rules of filmmaking, of movie logic, of genre conventions – and he knows how and when to break them. Iron Man 3 is full of examples of this kind of switcheroo storytelling, from a henchman who immediately surrenders when challenged to the Iron Man suit being destroyed at the worst possible time. The biggest, and best, is the *audacious* plot twist we get at the 72-minute mark. To reveal that the Mandarin is a stooge created by Killian as a decoy and is actually a meek, drug-addled English actor called Trevor Slattery is a bravo moment of the highest order. The gag works so well because we’re used to the theatricality of self-important superhero-movie villains. (And, let’s be honest, because of Ben Kingsley’s reputation as an actor who takes himself too seriously.) It’s pure Shane Black: introducing something you think you’ve seen before and then pulling the rug from underneath you. If there’s one element of the movie that doesn’t fit that format it’s Rebecca Hall’s character, Maya Hansen, a scientist who gets lost in the mix and feels very functional. The actress has said that the part ended up being very different from what she’d signed on to play, which is a shame as in the finished film she makes very little impression. But overall, this is a superb piece of work. Like all great sequels, it’s more of the same… but different. It’s routinely funny; there’s an engaging story; and the action, such as the free-falling ‘barrel monkey’ sequence, is often spectacular. We also get precisely the right amount of character depth for one of these big superhero tentpoles. As was the case in Iron Man 2, the middle act here sees Tony at rock bottom. But rather than that earlier film’s maudlin tone, Iron Man 3 has richer and more dynamic storytelling. Some critics and fans have complained about this segment of the movie, saying it’s Iron Man minus Iron Man because it sees Tony with no working suit, no fancy workshop and no huge mansion. But it’s very interesting character development. The world thinks Tony’s been killed, and on a metaphorical level he has been. He’s lost his swagger, he’s lost his support network, and he even refers to the lifeless Iron Man suit as ‘him’, as if detached from his old life. It takes a friendship with a young boy he meets to get him back on track – but again this subplot takes a surprising turn. Tony doesn’t talk down to Harley (Ty Simpkins). He treats him like an equal, which involves being rude and arrogant towards him, and Harley gives as good as he gets. Their friendship is therefore likeable and fun and interesting and entertaining and unpredictable. Just like the film as a whole. The old Tony is back.

Nine beauty-pageant judges out of 10


Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston)

Captain America: The First Avenger

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Steve Rogers wants to sign up for the army during the Second World War, but repeatedly fails the medical. Then a scientist encourages him to take part in an experiment that will transform him into a super-soldier…

The director of this fifth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has very good genre credentials. In his early career, Joe Johnston worked on the special effects for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was the art director of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That’s some CV. It’s not surprising, then, that the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg strongly influences this film. In many ways, Captain America: The First Avenger is pleasingly, reassuringly and unashamedly old-fashioned. The central storyline of good guys fighting Nazis who are obsessed with supernatural powers echoes the Indiana Jones series, of course, while a motorcycle chase through a forest recalls both Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The lighting schemes, framings and camera moves are often reminiscent of 1980s cinema, and the terrific score by Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Predator, The Abyss) is stirring and exciting in the John Williams tradition; it even has deep, dark motifs for the bad guys. The story, characters and settings also pulse with an arch, movie-serial 1940s-ness: sepia cinematography, dieselpunk stylings, retro sci-fi, dashing derring-do and swashbuckling adventure. It’s therefore jarring when it sometimes steps outside that tone and does something, you know, modern. An early scene at a New York Expo is one of the most green-screen-iest bits of cinema you’ll ever see, with actors floating against CG backgrounds. Much more successful, thankfully, is the special effects used to make six-foot-tall and muscle-bound actor Chris Evans seem short, skinny and wiry. It’s very impressive stuff, which is vital set-up for when Steve Rogers is artificially strengthened by science. (Anecdotally, I know of people who were fooled and thought Evans had done a Robert De Niro and lost weight for the early scenes.) Steve is an all-American character, a man who’s brave and “doesn’t like bullies”. He’s the heart of the film, and this is a film with a lot of heart. But after he’s been turned into a super-soldier, rather than go off to fight Nazis he’s forced to tour US theatres selling war bonds. It’s embarrassing and frustrating for him, and he has to wear a cheesy costume as he takes on the comical role of ‘Captain America’. Of course, on a storytelling level, this segment is the trough from which our hero has to climb out. It’s dramatised via a fun musical montage as we cut from show to show: the longer it goes on, the more Steve grows in confidence and the more the dance routines grow in complexity. His persona becomes popular, and even appears in comic books. (There are also cute foreshadows of scenes we’ll see later in the film.) The theatre shows also reflect what the movie’s doing generally. It’s showbiz, it’s entertainment. It’s age-old storytelling and genre conventions. This is a film where the villains have an enormous lair in the Alps (full of Stormtroopers marching up and down corridors, and the longest runway ever constructed), while the good guys’ HQ is an underground base with a secret entrance in a Brooklyn book store. (The red-brick Brooklyn was actually shot in Manchester, by the way.) The supporting characters, meanwhile, are a great mix. Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, a British officer who works on the project that transforms Steve’s body. She looks like a posh-totty pin-up, but is probably the smartest and most able person in the whole film. She has Princess Leia levels of confidence and charisma, and is an unapologetically brilliant female character. (Her appearance here was so successful that she returned for cameos in later films and even got her own spin-off TV show: Agent Carter, which lasted for 18 excellent and stylish episodes before being axed.) Howard Stark – Iron Man’s dad, of course – is played by Dominic Cooper and is a Howard Hughes-style showman and industrial genius. He’s the film’s equivalent of Q from the Bond movies. The villain, meanwhile, is played by a fun Hugo Weaving. Schmidt is the Nazis’ head of advanced weaponry and also the leader of the militant Hydra group, terrorists who will recur throughout this series and its spin-offs. We also get a succession of interesting actors in secondary roles: Stanley Tucci as the scientist who invents the super-soldier process, Toby Jones as Schmidt’s toady, Tommy Lee Jones as a typically gruff, grouchy army colonel, Richard Armitage as a spy, Natalie Dormer as a flirty private, and even Jenna Coleman as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her girlfriend. Then series regular Samuel L Jackson shows up in a coda scene after Steve wakes up in 2011, having been frozen in ice for nearly 70 years. He ends up trapped in that ice because he sacrifices his life to save New York City from a deadly attack. His final conversation with Peggy over a two-way radio reminds you of similar scene in 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death, and while maybe not as instantly tear-jerking as David Niven and Kim Hunter, it comes pretty close. A triumph of popcorn cinema.

Nine army generals who thought he’d be taller out of 10


Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971, Don Taylor)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: In the opening sequence, a spaceship has crashed on a beach in southern California. It contains three intelligent apes: series regulars Dr Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall, back after a film off) and new character Dr Milo (Sal Mineo). They fled the Earth when it was destroyed at the end of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Travelling backwards through the time distortion that brought 20th-century astronauts to their world, they now find themselves in 1973. The date is mentioned a couple of times – even though it contradicts the first two films. In those movies, the missions took place no earlier than January 1972 but are now said to be ‘over two years ago’. While drunk, Zira says her era was ‘3950-something’ by the human calendar, which tallies with Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

Humans: Two animal psychologists are called in to assess the three apes after they’re detained by the military. Dr Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Dr Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) are decent, caring and clever people, and are taking the ‘open-minded scientists’ role that Zira and Cornelius played in the first film. Dixon and Branton soon learn that the apes can talk and are intelligent. So Zira and Cornelius are paraded in front of a stuffy presidential enquiry, during which they charm the audience but stoke the paranoia of a mandarin called Dr Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden). A bit of an all-round shit, he advocates killing pregnant Zira’s unborn child and neutering the apes in order to prevent the ape-dominated future. After 70 minutes, circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalbán) is introduced. He’s willing to hide Zira and Cornelius from the authorities, and their son is born in the circus. It’s not the most naturalistic plotting you’ll ever see (conveniently helpful character shows up near the end!), but it’s a fun performance.

Apes: Zira and Cornelius’s friend Milo wasn’t in the previous films. He’s been added to explain how – in the midst of a nuclear holocaust – two mild-mannered scientists retrieved a spaceship from the bottom of a lake, launched it into space and piloted it 2,000 years into the past. His purpose over, Milo is killed soon after they reach 1973. When subjected to tests by the naïve humans, Zira and Cornelius initially act dumb. But Zira can’t resist answering back and reveals her intelligence to Dixon and Branton. Once they’ve been outed to the world, Zira and Cornelius then become celebrities. They stay in a posh hotel, get makeovers, give talks and appear on TV – the film just *sings* around this point. But Zira faints during a trip to a museum because she’s pregnant. The couple are then moved to the CIA’s Camp Eleven for interrogation (Lord knows what the public gets told about the apes’ disappearance). There they explain the franchise backstory. The world encountered by Taylor in the first film came about because of a plague that killed off all the cats and dogs; humans started using apes as pets, then two centuries later as servants. Three hundred years after that, an ape called Aldo rebelled and uttered the first ape word: “No.” Distressingly – genuinely upsettingly – Zira and Cornelius are killed while trying to escape the authorities. At first you also think that Zira’s baby son is dead. But then we learn that Zira had hidden him in the circus for safety (and sequel storylines).

Review: This is a movie that deserves to be much more famous than it is. At its heart is a bonkers idea: talking apes from a post-apocalyptic future are dropped into modern-day LA. But it works, largely because the silliness is played straight. The role reversal of a role reversal motors the story along, keeps the interest, and provides plenty of fun. The film has a dry sense of humour, while the smart satire – of the media, of celebrity culture, of racial prejudice, of political paranoia, even looking forward to reality TV – is fantastic. That’s not to say the film is frivolous or smug. There’s darkness and tension, especially in the second half. But everything is directed with an impressive light touch. Telling character moments are allowed to breathe, jokes land perfectly, themes bubble under the story rather than swamping it… On the downside, the movie is more televisual than the first two, largely being talky scenes in small sets, while the human characters are either wet or one-dimensional. But it’s still got lots of heart. What a film. A real treat.

Nine ape-onauts out of 10

Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J Schaffner)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: The story begins in space. Four astronauts are six months out of Cape Kennedy and know it’s a one-way journey. The date from the crew’s perspective is 14 July 1972, but because of the time displacement caused by travelling at such high speeds, back on Earth it’ll now be March 2673. The astronauts go into hibernation, but a year later the ship crash-lands on a planet. According to the ship’s controls, ‘Earth time’ is now 25 November 3978. From this point, the film makes big efforts to disguise the planet’s identity. Not only does lead astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) assert that they’re 320 light years from home, but the world has no moon and abnormal weather patterns (a storm in a desert, for example). Famously, the story’s climax confirms that Taylor is actually on Earth – within a horse ride of New York City, in fact.

Humans: Taylor is the point-of-view character and is in virtually every scene. Rugged, hirsute, very often near or actually naked, and sometimes seen smoking a cigar, he’s masculinity squared – and Charlton Heston is decent casting. When the character finds himself in Ape City, however, he’s locked up, can’t speak due to a throat injury, and his captors even threaten to geld him. At first, Taylor has three crewmates. One is killed in the crash; another dies when they encounter the apes; and the third, Landon (Robert Gunner), goes missing. He later returns to the story when we discover the apes have lobotomised him. The only other human character of note is Nova (Linda Harrison), a sexy, mute savage woman who attaches herself to Taylor in captivity.

Apes: They first appear after half an hour in an action scene – and they’re on horseback, which is a good way of immediately telling us they’re not normal apes. They have a medieval culture (well, mostly: they use modern guns and have cameras) and, notably, can talk. “Smile!” is the first word we hear, when a soldier takes a photo of some colleagues. All the apes are actors in masks, of course, and while they masks are not especially articulate the performances still pop through. The fact you can see the actors’ eyes is very important. The two chimpanzees we get to know best – scientist Zira (Kim Hunter) and her archaeologist fiancé, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) – are likeable and decent characters. They nickname Taylor ‘Bright Eyes’ and help him escape. Their superior Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) isn’t quite so liberal. There’s also talk of the Forbidden Zone, a nearby region of desert where relics from an age-old culture have been found.

Review: Based on the 1963 novel La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) by Pierre Boulle, this film was co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. And like a lot of good science fiction, it’s deceptively full of meaning and subtext. The story of a human outsider encountering a society run by apes can be read as a number of different metaphors. It could be a satire of the class system, a discussion of science versus superstition, a look at feminism (the chimps represent women while the other apes are the male establishment), a parody of religion, war or the legal system… or simply a comedic role-reversal plot. But it never feels bogged down with dogma. This is an engaging movie that’s very often a lot of fun. And it’s solidly directed: well paced, inventively filmed, with good action and jokes that hit home. There’s also good use of wide-open, ‘alien’ locations and a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith, which is mysterious and dramatic. But it’s such a shame that the two biggest shocks are so famous. That the society is ruled by intelligent apes is kind of given away by the film’s title. The twist that the planet is actually Earth has been revealed so often over the years it’s one of cinema’s best-known endings. (The film’s spoilertastic final image is on both the DVD cover and menu screen of the copy I used for this review.) Excellent, nevertheless.

Nine stinking paws out of 10

Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

Film Title: Inglourious Basterds

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In France during the Second World War, two plans to assassinate the Nazi high command are put into place…

What does QT do? Writer/director Quentin Tarantino had been mooting this project for over a decade, and it seems he had a few failed attempts at finishing the script. It started off as a loose remake of the 1978 Italian movie Quel maledetto treno blindato, which was released in America under the name The Inglorious Bastards. (An exploitation rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, it’s a gung-ho men-on-a-mission film. Bits of it are fun.) But the more Tarantino wrote, the more his script moved away from the original. The Brad Pitt subplot has an echo of the 70s film, but this is certainly not a remake. Tarantino claims his misspelt title is just an affectation. He also has a cameo as a dead German soldier who’s being scalped.

Notable characters:
* Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet) is a French farmer who’s visited one day by an SS officer hunting for Jews. LaPadite’s conversation with the officer, Landa, is the film’s opening salvo and is a scene loaded with menace. One of LaPadite’s briefly seen daughters is played by Léa Seydoux, who later stared with Landa actor Christoph Waltz in Spectre (2015).
* SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has gained the nickname The Jew Hunter because he combs war-torn France looking for them. It’s an astonishing performance, for which Waltz won an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Landa is unspeakably evil – if all the cunts in the world got together to vote for the biggest cunt, he’d stand a chance of winning – but you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s polite, seemingly easy-going and has a childlike and formal manner, yet has ultimate power in almost every scene. Because of the story’s chapter-like structure, the character actually goes away for long stretches. But he still dominates the film.
* Shosanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent) flees LaPadite’s farmhouse when Landa kills her family. Four years later, she’s living under an assumed name in Paris and managing a cinema. When the Nazis plan to use her establishment for a film premiere, she sees an opportunity to kill the top brass. Laurent gives a brilliant performance of strength and quiet turmoil.
* First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is a showboating army officer who leads a small platoon of Jewish-American soldiers. They call themselves the Basterds and their mission is to hunt down and kill Nazis. (Raine insists on scalping the victims.) Pitt is as broad as his Tennessee accent, but it’s quite entertaining.
* Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) is Raine’s second in command. He’s acquired the nickname The Bear Jew and enjoys killing Nazis with a baseball bat. Eli Roth is billed fourth in the opening credits. FOURTH. It pays to be Quentin Tarantino’s mate, it seems.
* Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke)… oh, you know.
* Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is an Austrian member of the Basterds. They recruited him after he killed 13 members of the Gestapo.
* A narrator (Samuel L Jackson) twice provides some exposition. He tells us Stiglitz’s backstory then later explains why cans of nitrate film are so dangerous.
* Private First Class Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a young German who has risen to fame because he killed 250 Allies in three days from a sniper’s position. A movie called Nation’s Pride has been made about his exploits, with Zoller playing himself. He meets Shosanna/Emmanuelle and flirts with her. But she isn’t interested because he’s, you know, a fascist fuck-stain. Brühl is really good at playing a cocky little twerp who can, and does, turn nasty at a moment’s notice.
* Marcel (Jacky Ido) is Shosanna’s lover, a black man who works at the cinema. He’s an oddly minor character who we sadly never focus on.
* Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) appears twice, firstly when he delivers Shosanna to a meeting with Goebbels, then later in an underground tavern when he suspects some German officers of being spies.
* Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and aide (ie, mistress) Francesca Mondino (Julie Dreyfus) are in Paris to oversee the premiere of Nation’s Pride.
* Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British Army officer who used to be a film critic and is an expert on German cinema. He’s handpicked for a mission to go behind enemy lines, hook up with the Basterds, and assassinate some Nazis. However, once he and the Basterds have met a double agent in a local tavern, Hicox gives the game away by using a non-German hand gesture (very Red-Grant-ordering-the-wrong-wine-in-From-Russia-With-Love, this). Fassbender is terrific, clipped accent and all. (Simon Pegg was considered for the role but was busy on The Adventures of Tintin.)
* General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) gives Hicox his assignment. Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) watches from afar.
* Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a famed German movie star and also a double agent for the Allies. She arranged to meet Hicox once he’s in France, but chooses a location that brings a whole heap of problems… Kruger’s is another excellent performance.
* An OSS Commander (Harvey Keitel) is heard over a radio when Landa wants to make a deal for his surrender.

Returning actors: Brad Pitt had an enjoyable cameo in True Romance. Eli Roth and Omar Doom (one of the Basterds) had been in Death Proof. Julie Dreyfus was in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode and Death Proof. Bo Svenson, who’s glimpsed in the Nation’s Pride film, had a small role in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and was also the lead actor in 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards. Although only providing voice parts, Samuel L Jackson is in his fifth Tarantino film, Harvey Keitel his fourth.

Music: Tarantino wanted the great Ennio Morricone to score the film – and it would have been the first purpose-written score for one of his movies – but the composer was busy. So some archive cues by Morricone and others have been employed. David Bowie’s 1982 song Cat People (Putting Out Fire) is used to great effect when Shosanna is preparing for the premiere. She’s also surrounded by the colour red, symbolising her murderous intent.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is divided into five chapters with on-screen titles: ‘Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France’ (which lasts around 20 minutes), ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (16 minutes), ‘German night in Paris’ (25 minutes), ‘Operation Kino’ (40 minutes) and ‘Revenge of the Giant Face’ (42 minutes). They play in chronological order, but the second has fun with flashbacks within flashbacks, while the finale also features brief flashbacks.

Connections: Tarantino has said that Eli Roth’s character, Donny Donowitz, is the father of Lee Donowitz, the coke-head movie producer in True Romance.

Review: Inglourious Basterds is a film made up of great scenes rather than a wholly great film. There is a through-line and the subplots build to a shared climax, but the episodic structure means that characters often go absent and the tone varies quite a bit. (We switch from scenes of unbearable tension to sections played for laughs.) So as a piece of storytelling it’s a bit fragmented. Despite all this, though, it’s still very impressive and is headlined by a tremendous cast with some electrifying dialogue. Some of the individual chapters are also mini-masterpieces in their own right, such as the opening scene at the farm. Here, Tarantino shows a *masterful* control of time and space. The build-up of anxiety is palpable, as is the creeping horror, and there’s a constant threat of violence and catastrophe underneath the surface. The camerawork is also thrilling in its clarity and precision: it’s always telling story, always adding meaning and subtext. You find yourself holding your breath while Landa gently (ie, menacingly) questions LaPadite. The scene is reminiscent of the Westerns of director Sergio Leone, which favoured long, slow, deliberate preludes to violence and revelations. In fact, the chapter title is a pun on Leone’s best film: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). This buttock-clenching fear is generated elsewhere in the film too. Landa’s meeting with Shosanna in Paris (the strudel scene) is equally nerve-shredding – despite a few hints, you’re never quite sure if he knows who she is – and the sequence in the tavern, while a superficially light-hearted conversation, has real edginess and danger once a Gestapo officer sits at the table. On the other hand, despite giving the movie its title, the Basterds’ scenes tend to be a bit cartoony. Cartoons with horrific bursts of violence, that is. Other notable aspects of this marvellous movie include the fact it’s Tarantino’s first period film (he revels in the culturally arrested Paris of 1944), the extensive use of subtitles (there are entire conversations in French and German), a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy (THEY KILL OFF HITLER!), and a motif built around the power of cinema (which is evident in Shosanna’s job, Zoller’s fame, the nitrate film, Hicox’s career, the premiere…). It might be damning with faint praise to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s fourth best movie. But given the strength of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, that’s still an accolade worth having.

Nine pages of history out of 10

ER: Motherhood (11 May 1995, Quentin Tarantino)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this penultimate episode of ER’s first season, Dr Susan Lewis’s sister gives birth to a baby…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino was a fan of ER (1994-2009) right from the start so jumped at the chance to direct an episode. Unless you count one scene in 2005 movie Sin City, this is the only time in his career he’s directed someone else’s script. (It was written by ER’s supervising producer Lydia Woodward.)

Notable characters:
* Dr Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) is woken early by her flighty sister, Chloe, who’s gone into labour but waited until the contractions are two minutes apart before doing anything about it.
* Chloe Lewis (Kathleen Wilhoite) gives birth to Little Susie in this episode – a plotline that had major implications for the next season or more. While in labour she insists on hearing the Beatles song Blackbird.
* John Carter (Noah Wyle) is a medical student who ends up helping with the delivery. He struggles to find the Beatles cassette, so Susan and Chloe have to sing Blackbird themselves. (Presumably this was done to avoid paying for the use of the original recording?)
* Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) is the ER’s head nurse.
* Dr Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) is the chief resident.
* Dr Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) is a surgical resident and Carter’s mentor. During his shift, he gets a call to go and see his elderly mother. By the time he arrives, though, she’s died.
* Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) is a womanising ER doctor who ruins a fledging relationship by messing around with an ex.
* Dr Angela Hicks (CCH Pounder) is everyone’s boss. She tells Carter he’s missed out on the surgical placement he wanted.
* Cookie Lewis (Valerie Perrine from Superman: The Movie) is Susan and Chloe’s ditzy mother. We first see her holding an enormous bunch of flowers, which mask her face.
* The episode has a flurry of one-off patients and other characters, including… A 15-year-old boy who’s been impaled on a metal bar (his mother is played by Tarantino’s old drama teacher, Brenda Hillhouse)…  Boy Scouts with diarrhoea (their adult supervisor is played by Kathy Griffin)… A man found unconscious after mixing ammonia and bleach (his concerned wife is played by Amanda Jones)… A young girl with a fever… A girl who’s been bitted by a bee… A guy with an obstruction in his throat… An elderly woman who dies before she can be examined… A drug overdose… And two warring gang chicks, one of whom has had her ear bitten off.

Returning actors: Amanda Jones, Kathy Griffin and Brenda Hillhouse all had small roles in Pulp Fiction. (Although not in this episode, Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames was a semi-regular in ER around this time.)

Music: The incidental music – tense but unshowy – is by ER’s in-house composer, Marty Davich.

Time shifts and chapters: The episode is presented in chronological order.

Connections: A character losing an ear a la Reservoir Dogs is a coincidence, apparently. It was in the script before Tarantino was assigned to the episode.

Review: The episode title is bang on the money. This story is set on Mother’s Day, Chloe gives birth, Cookie refuses to help her daughter, Susan’s thrust into a surrogate mother’s role, and the mums of patients recur throughout. The episode actually begins with a labour and ends with the death of Benton’s mother. The early birth comes in a pre-titles sequence that’s quite astonishing. It’s a fast, funny, five-minute prologue that tells the story of Chloe’s labour; like a little mini-episode in itself. As the episode progresses, as well as ER’s standard well-written drama, we get a lot of comedy: pratfalls, fart gags, projectile vomiting and people running around in the background of a serious drama scene. There are also a couple of brilliantly playful scenes where, bored of their respective families, Susan and Carol sneak up on the roof and sunbathe. Tarantino, ever the arbiter of cool, insisted on the characters wearing all-black sunglasses. (He also has them barefooted: another example of the director’s fascination with women’s feet.) In fact, given that this is the 24th episode of a TV show with its own storytelling conventions, Tarantino is able to bring a lot of himself to the party. Motherhood is a fascinating mixture of ER’s house style (Steadicam shots arcing around characters, long takes, frenetic medical jargon, lots of extras rushing around a huge, four-walled set) and Tarantino’s obsessions (fetishist close-ups, flashes of violence, self-conscious coolness). Of course, a visual technique that both ER and Tarantino have excelled at is the long take. The show used them routinely, especially in high-energy scenes to build tension and a sense of real-time, and Motherhood contains Quentin’s most elaborate example yet. Just shy of two minutes and featuring dozens of characters and huge reams of dialogue, it’s a rather spectacular piece of work. Check it out here:

Nine blackbirds singing in the dead of night out of 10

Firefly: Trash (21 July 2003, Vern Gillum)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Mal bumps into con artist Saffron, who’s also kinda his ex-wife, she tempts him with a job that could make them both rich…

Written by Ben Edlund & Jose Molina. Directed by Vern Gillum.

Best performance: Christina Hendricks again. Her character was clearly being set up as a recurring villain/adversary/flirting partner for Mal, but sadly the show was axed before she appeared again. She’s a shameless liar and con artist, can beat people up, and has no scruples – yet you also feel sorry for her. At one point, Mal calls her Yo-Saff-Bridge, a jokey portmanteau of her aliases. We never learn her real name.

Best bits:
* The episode begins with Mal, alone and naked and stranded in a desert. “Yeah,” he says to himself. “That went well.” Cut to 72 hours earlier…
* Mal meets a friend’s new wife… who turns out to be Saffron, the con artist from the episode Our Mrs Reynolds. Saffron and Mal immediately pull guns on each other. (The mate thinks she’s called Bridget. For ease, I’ll keep calling her Saffron.)
* Saffron tries to convince her husband that Mal a liar, but slips up and gives herself away. Mal looks smug.
* A long while after he gets back to Serenity with some crates, Mal opens one of them up… to reveal Saffron trapped inside it.
* While Saffron pitches her heist plan, there’s a funny two-shot of Wash and Kaylee listening to her. The former looks confused; the latter hangs on her every word.
* Jayne proudly asks a question that the conversation has already covered.
* Zoe punches Saffron.
* The intercutting of planning the heist and carrying it out.
* Jayne, Zoe and Kaylee in their aviation goggles as they dangle underneath Serenity to reprogramme a drone.
* While stealing the MacGuffin, Mal and Saffron are rumbled… by another of her husbands. (He knows her as Yolande.)
* Saffron lifts Mal’s gun while he’s being nice to her.
* Mal is abandoned in the desert. Naked. “Yeah, you better run!” he shouts at the departing space ship.
* Saffron, having tricked everyone, searches in a rubbish bin for the antique gun they were stealing… But Inara has got there first! (The reveal that Inara – who flounced off in a huff earlier in the episode – is actually part of a plan to double-cross Saffron is audacious. Add an extra mark to the score!)
* Inara traps Saffron in the garbage bin. As the lid closes, you can hear Saffron shout, “You can’t do this! I’ve got a condition!”
* Simon confronts Jayne about the events of the episode Ariel. He’s forceful but calm and reasonable. Then River adds: “Also, I can kill you with my brain.”
* Mal walks back on board Serenity and chats to his colleagues… while still naked.

Review: This is a sequel to Our Mrs Reynolds, and the second heist plotline in three episodes. And like that previous heist story, the cast needs to be whittled down so everyone gets a role to play. Shepherd Book barely features – he does seem like one character too many at times – while Simon and River are shuffled off. Another good one, with twists and turns aplenty.

Nine feminine wiles out of 10