Blake’s 7: Terminal (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Avon reroutes the Liberator to a mysterious location but refuses to reveal why. When the ship arrives, he finds a surprise waiting for him…

Series C, episode 13. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 31 March 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Avon (38) has set a new course and has been monitoring progress on the flight deck of the Liberator for more than 30 hours. But he won’t tell his colleagues where they’re going or why. In fact, when a frustrated Tarrant confronts him, Avon coolly pulls a gun and warns him off. Eventually, the ship arrives at Delta 714, a star on the edge of Sector 6, and orbits a 411-year-old artificial planet codenamed Terminal. After ordering the others not to follow him, Avon teleports down. He finds a bunker staffed by scientists so sneaks in and sees an image of Blake on a screen. ‘So Blake’s alive,’ says Avon. He’s then suddenly hit by a tranquiliser dart. When he wakes, he escapes and explores some more. In a room, Avon finds a bearded Blake hooked up to a life-support machine. ‘Well,’ says his former colleague, ‘you certainly took your time finding me.’ Avon says he’ll help him get out, but Blake replies that he wouldn’t survive being moved. Then Avon is clobbered by the scientists and taken to see their leader… Servalan, who reveals that *she* sent the clues that allowed Avon to find Terminal. He admits he suspected it was a trap, but given that the carrot was the long-lost Blake he had to investigate. She offers to swap Blake for the Liberator – and Avon has no real choice. Then, after Tarrant, Cally and Dayna have also been captured, Servalan admits that Blake has been dead for a year. What Avon saw was an elaborate, drug-induced illusion. She teleports up the Liberator, sending Vila the other way, then our heroes watch on a screen as the ship explodes. They’re now stranded on Terminal. Avon just smirks…
* Zen (33) imparts some information, but refuses to help the others under Avon’s orders. Later, after the Liberator is damaged, Zen suffers a mechanical breakdown… Before his systems totally fail, he apologises, even using a rare personal pronoun.
* Vila (39) is keeping out of Avon’s way as the episode begins – so are the others. But he later spots that the ship’s energy banks are being drained: the self-repair systems are working overtime to combat an aggressive space enzyme that is riddling the entire craft!
* Dayna (13) starts the episode by playing a board game with Cally – the same one seen earlier in the season in Dawn of the Gods. ‘Are you sure you can’t read my mind?’ she asks her opponent. After Avon, Tarrant and Cally have headed down to Terminal, Dayna stays on the ship and helps Vila work out why its systems are failing. (It’s because of a weird space cloud they travelled through earlier in order to reach Terminal as soon as possible.)
* After Avon has left for Terminal, Cally (36) and Tarrant ignore his instructions and follow. They see two local people brutally attacked and killed by primates, then search the bunker Avon found earlier.
* Tarrant (13) ain’t pleased when he learns Avon has diverted the ship without any discussion and badgers his colleague to reveal why. He’s the one member of the crew who’s heard of Terminal, which is an artificial planet that’s been sprayed with organic matter in the hope of creating an environment where life would thrive.
* Servalan (21) is flattered when Avon says he’s impressed with her trap. He thinks it has precise planning, meticulous detail and a general flair. When she has Avon in a bind, she forces him and the others to give up the Liberator – but, as she takes command of the craft, she hasn’t realised that it’s on the brink of collapse. When the ship starts to break up, she races for the teleport machine…
* Orac is seen but not switched on: Vila picks him up before leaving the Liberator for the final time.

Best bit: Gareth Thomas’s appearance as the illusionary Blake. He’s only been gone a dozen episodes, but it’s still a massive moment when the actor reappears. The twist that it wasn’t actually Blake then has real weight.

Worst bit: The surface of Terminal is a bleak, windswept location filming – you really feel the chill and the damp. There’s also a relentless throbbing noise on the soundtrack, which adds to the unsettling air. Sadly, it’s also home to a race of savage primates – in other words, poor actors trying to be menacing while wearing gorilla suits.

Review: The last episode of Blake’s 7 written by its creator, Terry Nation, was planned and made as the last episode ever. Perhaps that’s why is feels so portentously significant. Well directed, with another fantastic Paul Darrow performance, this is a deliberately slow but absolutely gripping episode. A mystery is set up immediately and then eked out for all its worth. Terrific.

Nine directional indicators out of 10

Next episode: Rescue

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Blake’s 7: City at the Edge of the World (1980)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Vila is taken prisoner by a notorious criminal and forced to unlock a mysterious door in a ruined city…

Series C, episode 6. Written by: Chris Boucher. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 11 February 1980, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* As the episode begins, Tarrant (6) has been in touch with a group who want to utilise Vila’s lockpicking skills; in exchange they’ll provide some crystals that will help the Liberator weaponry systems. So he bullies and brow-beats Vila into teleporting down to a planet. Tarrant’s hubris comes back to haunt him, though, when the group kidnap Vila and give the others a booby-trapped box rather than the crystals.
* Vila (32) doesn’t take kindly to Tarrant’s tactics: as he points out, he’s been on the ship longer; he was with Blake. Tarrant isn’t impressed and Vila is guilt-tripped into teleporting down to a planet. Forty-three seconds later, he radios in to say the others can come and collect the crystals. Meanwhile, two mutes escort Vila to a ruined city, where he encounters first an aggressive woman called Kerril, then her boss: the infamous, murderous thug Captain Bayban – aka Bayban the Berserker, aka Bayban the Butcher, aka (by his mum) Baybe. Bayban wants Vila to open a mysterious door, behind which – he thinks – are hidden all the treasures of the planet. Vila sets to work, his fear dissipating as he focuses on the challenge of cracking a complex lock. He also enjoys a bit of flirting with Kerril, who’s starting to warm to him. Eventually, Vila opens the door and he and Kerril enter but are soon teleported to a far-away spaceship. An automated message tells them they are now 3,000 light years away from the planet; the ship has been searching for a new colony for the planet’s inhabitants. Resigned to being trapped, Vila and Kerril have sex – then Vila deduces that the ship has landed. They step outside onto an idyllic planet they dub Homeworld, but then Vila spots expensive crystals lying at his feet – coincidentally the kind needed for the Liberator weapons systems – so resolves to get back to his colleagues.
* Cally (29) follows Vila down to the planet to collect the job’s payment, but find no one there. She spots a box on the floor; fearing it’s booby-trapped, Cally stands back and triggers its explosion from a distance. Realising Vila’s in trouble, Cally and Avon mount a search-and-rescue mission, and are later joined by Tarrant and Dayna.
* Avon (31) won’t let Vila teleport down to the planet without a tracer on his person. Tarrant says he agreed with his clients that Vila wouldn’t be carrying surveillance equipment. “I gave them my word,” he says. “You didn’t give them mine,” replies Avon. But after Vila has gone, Avon realises that he deliberately left the tracer behind.
* Orac (16) tells the others that there are scant records on the planet’s history. But an archaeological survey discovered that its ancient people may have called it Kezarn.
* Dayna (6) gives Vila a gun for his trip to the planet – again, against Tarrant’s wishes. She also declines to back Tarrant when the others tell him he mucked up by risking Vila’s life.
* Zen is mentioned but doesn’t appear.

Best bit: The Vila/Avon dynamic has been great for a long time now. The two characters are like warring brothers: Avon as the cooler, more accomplished, more arrogant, older one and Vila as the cheekier, less responsible, less capable younger one. They spar, they insult each other, they never openly show any affection. And yet, as in this episode, there’s a subtext to it all. Avon challenges Tarrant when he bullies Vila. He warns him off. It’s clearly a case of ‘no one beats up my brother but me’.

Worst bit: The Kezarnians’ plan is utterly bonkers. Thirty centuries ago, a planetary leader reckoned that society was inevitably going to descend into chaos. So he sent a ship, which was hooked up to a teleport machine housed behind an elaborately sealed door, into deep space to look for a new home. Then he recorded an audio message that he somehow knew would be heard by someone in 3,000 years’ time. Riiight…

Review: This vivid episode is alive and engaging in every moment and is powered by some brilliantly rich, razor-sharp dialogue. It’s also a great showcase for Michael Keating, giving Vila his usual comedy and cowardliness but also scenes of ingenuity, smarts and even romance. And there’s a very Colin Bakery performance from Colin Baker as Bayban: highly theatrical, highly bombastic, and highly entertaining. Marvellous stuff.

Nine stupid sons of a slime crawler out of 10

Next episode: Children of Auron

The Post (2017, Steven Spielberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Washington, 1971. Just as the owner of a major newspaper is attempting to float the parent company on the stock exchange, its editor wants to publish hugely controversial material…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: Tom Hanks (here playing legendary Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee) is very watchable as always. But it’s difficult to look past Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. Graham was the publisher of the Washington Post, an unusual position for a woman in the early 1970s; her father had built up the company’s legacy and she’d inherited her job after the suicide of her husband. So in The Post she’s a woman with a weight on her shoulders. The way Streep plays Graham’s development from someone who nervously fumbles a board meeting to someone who takes brave and bold decisions is wonderful.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The movie is encroaching onto some sacred cinematic ground. In several ways, The Post could be considered a prequel to Alan J Pakula’s masterful thriller All the President’s Men (1976). It’s set soon before the Watergate scandal dramatised in All the President’s Men, features some of the same characters – Ben Bradlee is a big presence in both films – and the two newsroom sets are uncannily similar. The connection is made obvious in the final scene of The Post, which Rogue Onestyle leads directly into the opening of the earlier film. And as in All the President’s Men, the sequences in The Post that feature journalists working on their stories are thrilling. Whether they can – whether they should – publish the expose is the central question of the film and, even if you know the real history, it never loses its jeopardy.

Review: A mid-range Spielberg film is still a thing to behold. It’s doubtful that, in years to come, The Post will top any polls or be remembered as one of the director’s best. But it’s still an immaculate, impressive and incredibly engaging piece of filmmaking. Rushed into cinemas to capitalise on our current obsession with ‘fake news’, the movie concerns the Pentagon Papers. In 1967, US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a study of America’s role in the Vietnam War. He intended it for academic posterity rather than political analysis but it contained some incendiary conclusions, not least that successive Presidents had continued the carnage even though they knew an American victory would never come. The Post tells the story of how the report was leaked and published. The movie ticks all the usual boxes for a film about journalists cracking a massive story, but it ticks them with such a rich, stylish flourish that you don’t mind that things are often predictable and occasionally a bit schmaltzy. The well-cast ensemble is led by Hanks and Streep but contains numerous good performances. The attention to period detail is fantastic. And the script never assumes the audience needs hand-holding. Actually, it’s not just the presence of Bradley Whitford and Sarah Paulson in secondary roles that makes this film remind you of Aaron Sorkin. His TV shows, such as The West Wing and The Newsroom, lived and breathed by scenes of clever and principled people arguing about important issues, and that’s what The Post is all about too.

Nine linotype machines out of 10

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While London is being rocked by a series of violent murders, a man checks into a boarding house near the scenes of the crimes. Is he the killer?

Context is everything. I’ve started Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger on three occasions, yet only finished it twice. The first time was during my university degree course in the late 90s, projected onto a big screen, and for a long time afterwards I remembered an entertaining, creepy and visually ambitious film from the silent era.

Two decades later, when it came to viewing the movie for this blog, I went online and found a cheap second-hand DVD available to buy. After it arrived in the post, I excitedly put the disc in the machine… and barely lasted 10 minutes. I had to switch off in disgust.

The DVD had been issued by GMVS Limited in 2004 and was such a ghastly piece of work it made me cringe. I was offended on The Lodger’s behalf. As good as many silent movies are – as great, as important, as interesting, as fun – it’s sometimes difficult watching one. Unless you’re a silent-era buff, the passage of such a long period of time inevitably creates barriers. As a modern viewer, you often need to abandon expectations of pacing and storytelling conventions, and learn how to enjoy a movie without audible dialogue, that has fewer cuts and camera moves, and can (sometimes) be dogged by overly theatrical performances.

And the process wasn’t helped by the awful, lazy, sloppy presentation available from GMVS. The print of The Lodger was dirty, scratchy, damaged. There were jarring cuts. Every scene was in dull black-and-white. Unrelated – and presumably available for free – music had been plastered onto the soundtrack, irrespective of relevance or rhythm or mood. (The macabre discovery of a murder victim next to the Thames? Scored by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy….)

Thank the cinematic gods, therefore, for the heroes at distribution company Network who, in 2012, reissued The Lodger as a lovingly assembled DVD and Blu-Ray. The print had been artfully cleaned and repaired by the British Film Institute. The film’s colour had been restored to what audiences in 1927 would have seen – the image tinted blue for exterior scenes at night, for example, or tinted a warm yellow for homely interiors. And a musical score by Nitin Sawhney had been specially commissioned, recorded and expertly dubbed. Now, thanks to Network, The Lodger can shine in all its glory.

(Just to balance all this gushing, I should say that the new score is only partly successful. Although a definite improvement on the GMVS disc’s that’ll-do dubbing, Sawhney opts for too much bombast. There are also – bewilderingly – *songs*, which is just distracting.)

The Lodger is the story of a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer called the Avenger. Near where his victims are being found, the family who run a boarding house start to fear that their new resident – a handsome but troubled young man played by Ivor Novello – could be the killer. The daughter of the house is a fashion model called Daisy (June Tripp) and she soon grows close to the man; her boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen), is a policeman investigating the deaths.

Of course, Ivor Novello isn’t the killer. His character is actually a bereaved brother searching for his sister’s murderer. This revelation follows a fantastic scene where the suspicious police search his bag and discover details of the Avenger’s crimes. Novello’s performance alters at this point – his eyes well up and he pleads with the audience for sympathy in the classic silent-movie style. (Hitchcock had considered leaving it ambiguous as to whether the character was guilty, but studio bosses insisted on him being innocent. They reasoned that Ivor Novello’s fanbase wouldn’t like him playing a serial killer.)

Not for nothing, The Lodger’s director later called it ‘the first true Hitchcock movie’ because it introduced so many of his favourite themes and ideas. There’s tension and suspicion, romance and playfulness, dark humour and cynicism, an ambiguous hero and an enigmatic blonde. The film tells its story both through the perspectives of its characters *and* from a detached, omniscient point of view. It also makes great dramatic use of the boarding house’s staircase, starting an obsession with stairs and steps that ran through the rest of Hitch’s filmography.

At times the movie feels like a horror film (especially in the evocations of Jack the Ripper, whose crimes were then just 39 years in the past), while there’s also a real debt to German cinema of the 1920s. Hitchcock had worked in the German film industry prior to making The Lodger, and had generally been wowed by the works of directors Robert Wiene, FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. There’s some of their influence in The Lodger, especially in its use of shadows and camera angles. The way the lodger himself is sometimes shot brings to mind Count Orlok, the Dracula-by-another-name villain of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu.

But the movie also has its charming and upbeat pleasures. There’s the gorgeous, Art Deco title cards… Scenes in the 1920s fashion world… A snappy, inventive sequence showing news spreading across London… The famous ‘glass ceiling’ shot as Hitchcock shows us a man pacing about in his bedroom *from beneath*, a moment of filmmaking bravura that takes your breath away…

What a brilliant movie. Inventive, clever, dark. It’s well worth seeing. Just make sure you see a decent version.

Nine men standing by some railings out of 10

Psycho (1960)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman on the run checks into a motel and encounters its nervous owner…

Everyone knows the story. Everyone knows the stories behind the story. The film Hitchcock made in black-and-white with a TV crew for $800,000… The audacious script that kills off its lead character with an hour still to go… The movie that launched the slasher genre with the terrifying, innovative, never-beaten, endlessly analysed shower scene… The disturbing reveal of Norman Bates’s ‘mother’… The Bernard Hermann incidental music made up of violent, piercing strings… The Saul Bass title sequence… Janet Leigh in a bra (several times)… The first flushing toilet ever seen in Hollywood cinema…

With such a history, it’d be easy for a blog like this to trot out the anecdotes and conclude that Psycho is still a brilliant, incisive, shocking, addictive horror movie. So let’s take all that as read, and instead focus on something else.

After Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has done a runner with $40,000, her boyfriend grows worried and starts to search for her. Sam Loomis is not cinema’s most enthralling character. However, as dull as he is, he does provide access to a behind-the-scenes rabbit hole that’s well worth burrowing into… Sam is played by John Gavin, an actor with a few notable credits. He was Julius Caesar in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and had a supporting role in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). In later life, he became the US Ambassador to Mexico. But we’re going to discuss a role he *didn’t* get to play.

In 1971, Gavin was cast as James Bond. Signed and sealed. A done deal. Original 007 actor Sean Connery had jumped ship after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, tired of the press attention and feeling underpaid. But his replacement, George Lazenby, had walked away from the role after just one film – 1969’s marvellous On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. So, keen to keep the train on the tracks, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman searched for a new lead actor and decided on the 40-year-old John Gavin. He would have been the first American to play the role on film.

However, studio executives at United Artists then got cold feet. On Her Majesty’s hadn’t made as much money as previous Bond movies, so it was decided not to risk yet another new lead actor. They dug deep into their pockets and coaxed Connery back to the series with an enormous fee and a promise to greenlight two other films of his choice. Poor John Gavin graciously stepped aside and was paid off in full. Connery played Bond in Diamonds Are Forever and the film earned 15 times its production budget at the box office. The series was saved.

But Gavin is not the only actor who links Alfred Hitchcock with James Bond. Most notably, Sean Connery was in Hitch’s 1964 film Marnie. The story goes that Cubby Broccoli personally contacted Hitchcock to recommend the star, who wanted to work with prestige directors. (Connery had also been in the running for a role in the previous year’s The Birds.) Hitchcock later said he’d miscast the Scot as Philadelphia widower Mark Rutland, but Connery had nevertheless impressed the director. He also impressed the movie’s crew, who presented him with a gold watch worth $1000 when filming concluded. (Connery was touched, but then grimaced at having to pay £25 in duty when he took the watch back to the UK to start work on his third Bond movie, Goldfinger.)

Elsewhere, the cast of Hitchcock’s film Frenzy (1972) is a positive nexus point for actors with Bond on their CV. Bernard Cribbins (Felix) was a taxi driver in 1967’s Bond spoof, Casino Royale; Noel Johnson (Doctor in pub) played a Navy bigwig in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only; and Alec McCowen (Chief Inspector Oxford) was Q in 1983’s Never Say Never Again. Michael Sheard (Jim) was cast in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die but his scene was cut out. John Finch (Dick Blaney), meanwhile, was reportedly offered the role of James Bond in 1973 and turned it down. If true, it would be another example of Finch being a nearly man of genre cinema: he was also cast as the unfortunate Kane in sci-fi classic Alien (1979) but had to drop out shortly into filming due to illness.

Away from Frenzy, Anthony Dawson was in three Bond movies after his gloriously slimy performance in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder (1954). Also in Dial M, although uncredited, was Guy Doleman, who then played Count Lippe in Thunderball (1964). Francis de Wolff was in Under Capricorn (1949) before a small role in From Russia With Love (1963), while another Under Capricorn alumnus, Martin Benson, played Mr Solo in Goldfinger. German actress Karin Dor brought sultry sexiness to both Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967) and Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). French star Louis Jourdan had appeared as the valet André Latour in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) before playing the villainous Kamal Khan in Bond film Octopussy (1983).

And it’s not just actors who connect the two worlds. Screenwriter Ben Hecht, for example, worked on several films with Alfred Hitchcock – Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Notorious, The Paradine Case, Rope, Strangers on a Train – and was also the first writer of what became the 1967 film Casino Royale. (He died before the latter went into production and his more serious take on the story was heavily rewritten.)

The links also extend to television. Before the famous James Bond movie series began, the character featured in a 1954 American TV adaptation of Casino Royale. It was co-written by Charles Bennett, who had worked on the scripts of several Hitchcock movies in the 1930s and 40s. Cast as Bond was Barry Nelson, who later appeared in some Hitchcock-produced TV shows. And the villain of the piece was played by Peter Lorre, who’d been so memorable in two of the director’s British movies – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). (In fact, as well as starring Lorre and being written by Bennett, Secret Agent is an uncanny precursor of the whole Bond idiom. It came out 16 years before Ian Fleming put finger to typewriter, yet is an espionage thriller about a British intelligence officer given an overseas mission by a spymaster boss who’s known by a single initial. The officer soon teams up with a beautiful and classy woman, with whom he falls in love, and there’s even a scene set in a casino.)

If you search pedantically enough, small connections crop up all over the place. However, some of them are so tenuous – Malcolm Keen, who appeared in three Hitchcock films in the 1920s, was the father of Geoffrey Keen, who was a Bond semi-regular as the Minster of Defence – that perhaps we should focus on the main man himself.

Alfred Hitchcock directing a James Bond film is one of the great missed opportunities of cinema. In the late 1950s, Ian Fleming co-wrote an original James Bond film script and was keen on Alfred Hitchcock directing it. He reached out to the great man via a mutual friend, but the director had just made a spy movie so wanted to do something different. Aptly for our purposes here, he instead turned his attentions to a horror project called Psycho.

Three years later, Bond finally hit cinema screens in Dr No. Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli had made a production deal with United Artists, and Hitchcock had again been sounded out as director. One of his regular leading men was also considered for the part of James Bond. Ian Fleming was a fan of Cary Grant, and the actor was also a friend of Broccoli’s. (In 1959, he had been the best man at Cubby’s wedding to his second wife, Dana.) But Broccoli knew that Grant would never sign up to a multi-film deal so the notion was dropped.

One of the reasons Grant and Hitchcock were such plausible choices was because, in a sense, they’d already made a Bond picture: 1959’s North by Northwest. That movie’s stylistic influence on James Bond is obvious. It pointed the way towards a new type of film: a hip, fun, light-on-it-feet thrill ride full of action, comedy, espionage, outlandish villains, theatrical sequences and a certain amount of sex. Grant’s lead character, Roger Thornhill, was even a good-looking, well-dressed, intelligent, debonair charmer with an eye for the ladies and a wry sense of humour. (It only took the Bond producers two films to acknowledge the debt. An action scene in From Russia With Love is remarkably reminiscent of North by Northwest’s famous dust-cropping sequence… and it doesn’t feature in Fleming’s original novel.)

As for Psycho? Well, after Marion Crane steals $40,000 and goes on the run, she ends up at a motel. Its owner, Norman Bates, is a peeping Tom and considers her for his eyes only. But she gets the living daylights scared out of her when the spectre of Norman’s split-personality gives him a licence to kill. Sadly for film fans, Marion lived twice. The character was later resurrected to die another day when, in 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a hollow, mechanical remake of Psycho. He didn’t even use any actors from the James Bond series.

Nine men in the street out of 10

Blake’s 7: Project Avalon (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When resistance leader Avalon is captured by the Federation, Blake and his colleagues mount a rescue attempt…

Series A, episode 9. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (3) has a new second-in-command: a dead-eyed, cold-blooded and undeniably sexy mutoid played by Glynis Barber. As the story begins, the two of them are on a cold planet looking for a rebel leader called Avalon, who Travis knows has been in contact with Blake. After tracking her down and imprisoning her, Travis uses Avalon as bait to catch Blake – but the plan goes wrong and Travis is relieved of his command.
* Blake (9) tells us that Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen worlds, and he plans to transport her to a new planet. He arrives too late, though: the Federation have captured her. So Blake and co break into a command base to rescue her. When they return to the Liberator, however, they realise ‘Avalon’ is a robotic imposter.
* Zen (7).
* Jenna (9) is the only member of the team who has seen Avalon before, so she accompanies Blake on his mission.
* Gan (8) spends the episode on the Liberator flight deck. Sadly, all too often he feels like one regular character too many – it seems as if writer Terry Nation has no idea what to do with him. The pull of the number seven is admittedly strong in popular culture: seven deadly sins, the movie Seven, Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, 007, the Seven Dwarves, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Seven Year Itch, 7-inch singles… But in this case it’s more of a hindrance.
* Vila (9) has to teleport down to the planet and join Blake and Jenna when they need his breaking-and-entering skills.
* Cally (6) is now adept at piloting the Liberator. Jenna jokes that she’s taught her too well.
* Avon (8) says, sarcastically, that while he’s eager to meet the famous Avalon it doesn’t mean he wants to travel down to a snow-covered planet where the temperature is 180 below. While Blake and the others are on the planet, the Liberator is found by some Federation pursuit ships. So Avon convinces the others to flee, lose the ships, and hopefully return in time to pick up their colleagues.
* Servalan (2) wafts into the planet’s command bunker in an all-white outfit with furry wrap. She’s come to oversee the captured Avalon’s interrogation, and also to remind Travis that she wants the Liberator as well as Blake. In the episode’s final scene, she actually meets Blake for the first time.

Best bit: Blake tells a reluctant Vila to teleport down to the planet. “It’s cold out there,” moans Vila, “and I’m very susceptible to low temperatures. I’ve got a weak chest.” Avon: “The rest of you’s not very impressive.”

Worst bit: Blake needs to demostrate to his colleagues that a gun is firing less-than-lethal shots. He does this by shooting at a cup on a nearby table. Sadly, actor Gareth Thomas puts the cup down so deliberately and so specifically that it’s obvious he’s placing it on a special-effects lever that’ll flip it into the air at the required moment.

Review: Great stuff. This is a very well-structured script, the storytelling has good energy and pace, and there’s even a nicely disguised plot twist. It’s Blake’s 7 doing an action movie in 50 minutes and everything is impressively staged by director Michael E Briant. Locations are used to their fullest, for example, while a busy fight scene is shot with a handheld camera. There’s also an inventive use of the greenscreen technique to make a phial containing a virus seem strangely alive. Well… *nearly* everything is impressively staged. Sadly we get another glimpse of the shaky, cheap-looking patrol robot last seen in Seek-Locate-Destroy. As well as being beyond naff, it also begs the question why are the Federation using a mechanical sentry that shuffles along at two miles an hour? Elsewhere in the episode is a dextrous, lifelike android who can be programmed to do anything.

Nine Phobon plagues out of 10

Next episode: Breakdown

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Charles Oakley needs to lie low, he heads to California to stay with his sister and her family – but niece Charlie soon begins to suspect why Uncle Charles is on the run…

Alfred Hitchcock said this was his favourite of his movies, and it’s very easy to see why. It’s a dark and addictive story about pervasive evil in a sweet, all-American setting. The cast is excellent. And there are plenty of twists, turns and shocks.

The film grabs you straight away: Charles Oakley (a terrifically complex Joseph Cotten) is staying at an inner-city flophouse. Two men come calling, asking after him, but he gets the landlady to tell them he’s not in. Then, clearly avoiding the heat for *something*, he leaves a film-noir Philadelphia for apple-pie Santa Rosa in California to stay with his sister, Emma (Patricia Collinge), and her husband, Joseph (It’s a Wonderful Life’s Henry Travers). The couple have three children. The eldest is the movie’s lead character – Charlie, played by a soulful, charismatic Teresa Wright.

Charles brings life and excitement to an otherwise staid and sleepy town. He wows his family with presents then flashes some cash around at the bank, where he meets and flatters a rich widow. But it’s young Charlie with whom he has the biggest connection. She was named after her uncle and idolises him; his arrival shakes her out of a bout of ennui. The two characters are also two sides of the same coin. Each is even introduced in the same way – in their respective first scenes, they’re lying down on a bed fully dressed. At one point, a smitten Charlie says they’re like twins, but there’s also an incestuous feel to their relationship. They stand just a bit too close to each other; he sleeps in her bed while he stays at the house (she moves to her sister’s room); and he even gives her a ring as a present, slipping it onto her finger himself.

However, then comes the darkness. Charles has to think quickly when Charlie spots that her new ring is engraved with the initials TS. He also turns nasty for a moment when Charlie realises he destroyed Joseph’s newspaper to prevent the family seeing a certain story. Then two men show up, claiming to be conducting a government survey. But Charles sees through them straight away and realises they’re after information on him. They blag their way into the house and he tries to avoid them. It now becomes clear what Shadow of a Doubt really is: it’s a more polished, more intriguing and more multi-layered version of the idea that powered Hitch’s earlier film Suspicion. In that movie, the lead character comes to believe that her husband is a murderer. Here, the scales fall from Charlie’s eyes as she begins to doubt her uncle.

One of the snoopers, Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), takes a fancy to Charlie and asks her out. Their sweet romance runs through the rest of the film, and is a subplot that grows Charlie up from naïve youngster to strong woman. (Her age in the story is debatable. The actress was 24.) Jack also admits that he’s a detective on the trail of a criminal, and that criminal may be Charles. Charlie doesn’t want to believe it, but the seed of doubt has been sown. She races to the local library to find a copy of the day’s newspaper: the story Charles ripped up was about a serial killer called the Merry Widow Murderer. One if his victims had the initials TS.

The menace level is now creeping up and up. Charlie’s clearly upset, so Charles confronts her, dragging her into a seedy bar to find out what she knows (the fact he picks that kind of location is a another example of their relationship being less than wholesome). It’s classic cat-and-mouse stuff: every scene is working on different levels as characters know more than they’re willing to say. Then Hitch cranks up the intensity significantly as uncle tries to kill niece…

Sometimes called Alfred Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, it might be fairer to say that it’s his first ‘modern’ film. Now established in Hollywood and working with American stars – Wright had had three Oscar nods in the previous two years, Cotten was fresh from starring in Citizen Kane – Hitch can go full throttle on suspense and darkness. But he never forgets to balance it with humour and charm. Shadow of a Doubt is an absolute marvel.

Nine men playing bridge out of 10

 

 

Blake’s 7: The Way Back (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Earth, the far future. Citizen Roj Blake learns of the authorities’ use of brainwashing, drugs and murder to keep the population under control…

Series A, episode 1. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 2 January 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Roj Blake (1) is living in a drab, soulless, fascist, dystopian, enclosed city cut off from the outside world when he’s approached by members of a resistance movement. They tell him he’s been brainwashed – he used to be a rebel leader but the state forced him to confess his ‘crimes’ and then wiped his memories. When he’s then caught with the resistance, Blake is arrested and framed on kiddie-fiddling charges (amongst other things). Found guilty after a trial that lasts less than three minutes, he’s loaded onto a spaceship bound for a prison planet… Actor Gareth Thomas is great throughout: you see his character believably transform from naïve bloke to forthright Blake.
* While waiting to board the transport ship, Blake is put in a holding cell with a compulsive thief called Vila Restal (1), who swipes his watch but is otherwise unthreatening. Michael Keating is a lot of fun in his one scene, playing the part with a twinkle in his eye.
* Another prisoner is the smuggler Jenna (1). Sally Knyvette plays her cool and seen-in-it-all-before, then gets a moment or two when the character admits she’s scared.

Best bit: In the scene of Blake being interrogated by an official after his arrest, the vision mixer crossfades between close-ups of the two men. The official is calm and stock-still, while Blake has his head in his hands and is jittery. It’s a striking image.

Worst bit: The title-sequence logo doesn’t have an apostrophe in the word Blake’s! Christ, that’s going to irritate me each and every episode.

Review: The first image we see is a CCTV camera keeping watch over the oppressed citizenry of a fascist state. Later, the police murder innocent people and lawyers fabricate evidence. Blake’s 7, it seems on the basis of this opening episode, is not going to be a laugh-a-minute experience. The tone is cynical, cold and humourless, and the drama seems more like a self-contained morality play than the pilot of a sci-fi adventure show. But it really works. The script has a fantastic sense of foreboding and the dread builds and builds. Blake’s fate seems cruelly inevitable, even if his lawyer (Tel Varon, played by Michael Halsey like he’s the lead character) is a decent guy with a conscience. And the fictional world is convincing and feels like it stretches out beyond the events we see. A very strong start.

Nine judgement machines out of 10

Next episode: Space Fall

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017, Jon Watts)

SPIDER-MAN™: HOMECOMING

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

New York teenager Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, is disappointed not to be a fully fledged member of the Avengers. But he then stumbles across a gang trading in dangerous alien technology…

In the opening scene of this slick and vibrant movie, the villain’s entire motivation is justified in one smart, underplayed line of dialogue. It’s the immediate aftermath of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, and a blue-collar crew of workmen led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) are clearing up the mess left by that film’s climactic battle. But then a woman (Tyne Daly) turns up and says a new agency will take over and the crew are out of work. Toomes argues that he has a contract, but the woman won’t budge. “Come on,” he pleads. “Look, I bought trucks for this job…”

In a single beat, we get this guy. We understand his grievance. He’s been wronged and wants revenge. When a superhero script defines its villain so elegantly and so economically, you know you’re in for some good storytelling. Eight years later, Toomes and his crew are running an underground operation in salvaging, repurposing and trading in alien tech. Toomes has even built himself a mechanical pair of wings: “Business is good,” he says as he swoops into the workshop.

Meanwhile, teenager Peter Parker (a fantastic Tom Holland) is flying to Germany. We’re in the timeframe of Captain America: Civil War, the 2016 film that introduced this version of Spider-Man, and see Peter’s contribution to that movie via videos he shot on his smartphone. It’s a neat and fun way of recapping the story so far. However, two months after being co-opted by the Avengers, Peter is feeling ignored by Tony Stark and the others. He’s back to being a student in New York who fights minor crime in his spare time. So, instead of a superhero film, Homecoming mostly feels more like an 80s teen comedy. Peter’s school halls could be out of Pretty in Pink, though this school is a more diverse, working-class place than the WASPy, privileged Illinois of John Hughes’s world. Peter has a nerdy best pal called Ned (Jacob Batalon); fancies a girl called Liz (Laura Harrier); is bullied by a lad called Flash (Tony Revolori); and also knows MJ, an enigmatic girl who wants to keep to herself (Zendaya). The fact these five characters match up to the quintet from The Breakfast Club can’t be a coincidence. The bully even jokes that Peter has an imaginary girlfriend in Canada, a la The Breakfast Club’s Brian.

Peter is also trying to hide the fact that he’s YouTube sensation Spider-Man. Ned finds out by accident, but Peter’s guardian – Aunt May (an effortless Marisa Tormei) – is still in the dark. Peter then happens to see Toomes’s crew selling advanced weaponry on the black market, which leads to some fun action sequences (and a laugh-out-loud Ferris Bueller reference). It’s very enjoyable stuff: light on its feet, with freedom and playfulness. Every scene, in fact, has a sense of humour. This film hits the sweet-spot of taking itself just seriously enough. It also looks great, with bold colours for the teens’ world and a down-and-dirty, bodged-together vibe for Toomes and his gang.

If Spider-Man: Homecoming has a flaw, ironically it comes in the shape of the MCU’s brightest star. After his cameo in the Civil War recap, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) re-joins the story after 36 minutes. He acts as Peter’s kinda-mentor, though he wants to stop him getting too involved in large-scale crime-fighting. Despite this, he gives the lad a super-duper, hi-tech, all-singing, all-dancing Spider-Man suit that comes with a never-ending array of weapons and features and a sexy-voiced, female AI programme (Jennifer Connolly, a star of the pre-MCU film Hulk). In other words, we get another version of Iron Man. It’s not only repetitious but it jars with the film’s otherwise homespun charm. Peter works best as an underdog, a teenager using his wits, rather than someone being dragged along by cyberpunk technology.

But what is a huge success is Michael Keaton as Toomes. The actor obviously has superhero form (for this reviewer’s money, he’s still the best Batman), but here he turns his hand to supervillainy. Stand aside, Loki: Adrian Toomes is the best played, most interesting, most entertaining bad guy in this entire series. Like all modern genre films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is full of blockbuster action sequences and flashy CGI. It cost $175million to make. And yet the greatest special effect in the whole movie is Toomes staring at Peter in a rear-view mirror…

As we enter the third act, Peter plucks up the courage to invite Liz to their school’s homecoming. She agrees and, after some nervy prep with Aunt May’s help, he goes to Liz’s house to collect her. But her dad answers the door. And her dad is Toomes. As a plot twist, it falls neatly into the ‘well, I shoulda seen that one coming’ camp. It raises the stakes and leads to a fantastically edgy scene as Toomes drives his daughter and Peter to the party. Then it goes up a further gear after Liz gets out of the car: Toomes warns Peter, who he’s worked out is Spider-Man, to stay away from his business. And it’s chilling, like something from a Mafia movie.

A teenager being nervous because he’s taking a hot senior out on a date but then realising that her dad is the super-criminal he’s been hunting for? As a scene it’s pretty fantastic on its own merits, but it also encapsulates this movie as a whole. Homecoming is an excellent mash-up of the superhero format with teen-comedy conventions. Both elements feel equally important. A hoot.

Nine men leaning out of their window out of 10

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Die Hard 2 (1990, Renny Harlin)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While waiting for his wife to land in Washington, policeman John McClane stumbles across a terrorist plan to seize control of the airport…

Source material: The plot of Die Hard 2 is taken from 58 Minutes, a novel written in 1987 by Walter Wager. A good, rattling thriller, it has no connection to either the first Die Hard film or the book it was based on. As well as rejigging 58 Minutes for John McClane and co, screenwriter Steven E de Souza took the opportunity to add a sly crossover with his earlier movie Commando (1985): both films feature the fictional Central American country of Val Verde. (By the way, Die Hard 2 is often referred to as Die Hard 2: Die Harder in promotional material – but that subtitle doesn’t actually appear on screen.)

John McClane: Our hero has become a minor celebrity in the two years since the first film. His heroics at the Nakatomi building led to interviews and TV appearances, though we’re told he struggled on current-affairs show Nightline. Bruce Willis is again superb in the role and the frequency of his wisecracks has only increased. “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he asks himself knowingly as goes up against terrorists while wearing a dirty vest.

Regulars:
* John’s wife, Holly McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), is on a cross-country flight that’s approaching Dulles when the bad guys take over the air-traffic-control systems and stop all landings. The plane is going to run out of fuel, of course, upping the personal ante for John down on the ground. While the crisis develops, Holly gets an enjoyable little subplot with…
* Slimy news reporter Dick Thornburg (William Atherton) is – how’s this for a coincidence? – on the same flight as Mrs McClane. This causes an issue because a judge has ordered that she stay 50 yards away from him after punching him on live TV. When he deduces that there’s a problem on the ground, Dick calls his station and broadcasts the information – so Holly zaps him with a taser.
* Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) appears briefly when John phones home to LA to ask for his colleague’s help. Al’s eating a Twinkie, which is a call-back to the first film.

Villain: The leader of the terrorists is Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), who’s introduced via a bizarre scene of him doing yoga in the nude. The character is a cold, calculating baddie who’s nowhere near as dynamic or interesting as Die Hard’s Hans Gruber – but then again, who is? Stuart has several lackeys, including guys played by Robert Patrick (soon to be the T-1000 in Terminator 2) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (who later directed an episode of Firefly). Their plan is to secure the release of General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a Central American fascist who’s being extradited to the US and is due to land at Dulles. Halfway through the film, a crack team of US Army commandos arrive on the scene, seemingly to defeat the bad guys – but then we later learn that they’re actually allies of Stuart. The squad’s leader is played by John Amos, later a semi-regular in The West Wing.

Music: Michael Kamen again provides the effective score. Vaughn Monroe’s Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! plays the film out, as it had done in the first Die Hard movie.

Review: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This sequel shamelessly reuses most of the successful ingredients from the first Die Hard – a wisecracking John McClane, his composed wife, the slimy journalist Dick Thornburg, a group of well-drilled terrorists, a confined location at Christmas, some local police who don’t know what they’re doing – and the result is very, very near to being equally entertaining. The film has real drive and momentum, and crosscuts between the subplots with a genuine slickness. The action scenes are inventive and exciting. The dialogue is packed full of action-movie attitude. And while the antagonists feel a bit off-the-shelf, there are some other enjoyable guest characters. Instead of an almost empty skyscraper, this time we’re in a wintery, blizzard-struck airport containing 15,000 people. The place is run by the unflappable Ed Trudeau (Fred Dalton Thompson, a fascinating man who was a lawyer during the Watergate hearings, later a US Senator, and ran for President in 2008), while the local police force is headed by Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), one of *the* great sweary/ranty/angry police captains in genre cinema. Meanwhile, a TV journalist called Sam Coleman (Sheila McCarthy) is on the scene to not only provide the audience with exposition but to also help John out a couple of times. So, while not reaching the Mount Olympus heights of the first movie, Die Hard 2 is a very fine action thriller in its own right. There’s a certain untidiness in some areas – a bit of unconvincing ADR here, some clunky dialogue there – and we miss a villain as good as Hans Gruber. But all in all, a very, very enjoyable film.

Nine sitting ducks out of 10