Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Avatar: The Next Generation and the Rescue Marathon. Not sure about that, Jim, lacks punch. How about Avatar Meets Moby Dick? Hmm. You got a MacGuffin? Yep, the Earth is dying and the bad guys need to wipe out everyone on Pandora before they ship out the emigrants. And more Impossibilium? You’ll like this, this time we’re extracting anti-ageing serum from whales, worth $80 million a pop. And there’s also Avatar Meets The Titanic, seemed a shame to waste a ship going down.

So we don’t see as much of Sam Worthington this time round, is that right? Well, we’ve got to introduce his four kids, all approaching the rebellious stage, plus Spider, who’s maybe the son of the Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who was cloned before he died, plus the kids of the water king and of course all the kids squabble and make up and squabble again – you get the picture.

So how many rescues, exactly? To be honest I’ve lost count, but basically when A gets captured he needs rescued by B who then also gets captured and needs rescued by C who also gets captured and then…Yes, we get the picture.

Sigourney Weaver? Kate Winslet? Blink and you’ll miss them. But great for the marquee, right?

So, you see, with all these complications, you’re darned lucky I can manage to cram everything into a three-hour-plus running time.

Yep, it’s a bit of a mess, but the good news is while I might have been irritated by the narrative repetition I didn’t walk out. It certainly looks amazing. And you can’t top James Cameron for extended battle scenes. And there’s an emotional twist, starts out Jake protecting his family and ends up with his kids and wife saving him. Plus if you want woke, there’s a ton of Gaia-style philosophy.   

Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5, Supercar, Now in Color (2022) ****

Heading for the five-star bracket on nostalgia alone. Before he hit the cult heights in full color with Thunderbirds (1965-1966, plus later films) and live action Space:1999 (1975-1976) innovator Gerry Anderson created a number of television series including the three highlighted here – western Four Feathers Falls (1960) and the futuristic Supercar (1961-1962) and Fireball XL5 (1962-1963).

Now colorisation, it has to be said, is anathema to the movie buff. A whole slate of top directors exploded in anger when Hollywood had the temerity to try and make an extra buck by colorising classic black-and-white movies in a bid to reach a younger audience.

Dynamic duo from “Fireball XL5” – Venus and Steve Zodiac.

But I can’t see anything wrong in making these wonderful programs, that would otherwise just be limited to the cult audience, more accessible to the modern youngster. To achieve the correct color palette, the producers here simply used on-set stills taken during the original shooting (you didn’t think actors in black-and-white programs or movies only wore black-and-white costumes, did you?) to match the vivid visuals of the later color series. Computer wizardry did the rest.

So the result is far more interesting than mere nostalgia, which would have been the case with releasing the three series in original format. Children of all ages are going to love the results.

Anyone unfamiliar, if that is humanly possible, with the Gerry Anderson output should be aware that he uses marionettes – based on the difficult Czech style. Ever with an eye to marketing, he called the process “Supermarionation.”

Inventiveness is the key to whether old television programs can capture a new market and I reckon this succeeds hands-down. While the color makes them instantly more attractive, the worlds established are what appeals more.

Got a copy of one of these memoranilia spin-offs and you’re probably sitting on a fortune.

Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi, far from rudimentary with advanced space-age machinery, had interesting heroes and narrative drive. In Supercar square-jawed hero Mike Mercury was supplemented by interesting boffins, Professor Popkiss and Dr Beaker. Pet monkey Mitch could be counted on for comedy. In Fireball XL5 Steve Zodiac has a female sidekick Dr Venus (voiced by Sylvia Anderson) , blonde template for Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds, while Professor Matic keeps everything shipshape and lazy pet Zoonie (vocabulary only marginally bigger than Groot’s) from a distant planet provides the humor.

Villains, invariably out to disrupt or destroy the universe and invariably recurring, were straight out of James Bond: Masterspy in Supercar and a whole bunch of them, the Subterrains, from Planet 46 in Fireball XL5.   

Trademarks included a launch sequence, catchphrases, and a theme song (has any romantic lyric ever surpassed “my heart would be a fireball, a fireball, if you would be my Venus of the stars” in Fireball XL5?).

So what we’ve got here are three 30-minute episodes of Fireball XL5, two of Supercar and one 13-minute episode of Anderson’s debut series Four Feather Falls plus compilation features You’ve Never Seen These and Space City Specials. The Fireball trio are “The Sun Temple,” “The Granatoid Tanks” and “A Day in the Life of a General.” Supercar contributes “Pirate Plunder” and “Supercar: Take One” while the offering from the western is “First Train Through.”

The stories follow a similar format of threat and rescue – in “The Sun Temple” Venus is mysteriously captured and laid out to be tortured by the rays of the sun (think James Bond and the laser). And they’re none the worse for that.

Of course, I may be biased since Gerry Anderson formed a key component to my childhood, these programs followed in due course by Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds.

My only reservation is the strings often show up quite clearly. I viewed this via Vimeo on a screen that i doubt was even a foot wide, so a tiny screen by modern standards and the strings were clearly visible, so I’ve no idea what they’d look like on a 40-incher or bigger. Maybe another bout of computer wizardry in the future would erase those.

The colorization works a treat and opens up a new audience for these early Anderson programs. Hopefully, if the idea works, then we can look forward to the entire series of the three programs being colorised. If you want to make sure that happens, play your part by buying this new DVD which is available on December 12, but can be pre-ordered now. You wouldn’t want to miss out, would you? You can always pretend you’re buying it for the kids or grandkids.  

Thanks to Network for a streamer. Link below.

https://networkonair.com/coming-soon/3489-presented-in-supercolorisation-blu-ray-

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1963) *** – Seen at the Cinerama

With Hollywood already snagging the best characters of the Grimm inventory – Snow White, Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb – and others like Rumpelstiltskin not deemed cute enough, George Pal (The Time Machine, 1960) had a battle on his hands to come up with a decent enough second string. Spurning for no obvious reason contenders like Hansel and Gretel and The Frog Prince, he plumped for a strange hybrid.

He incorporated three fairy stories – The Dancing Princess, The Elves and the Shoemaker and The Singing Bone – in a drama about the authors. Both sides of this tale had a common background, 19th century Germany with its rich vein of fairy castles and cobbled streets where kings ruled. The Grimms are posited as wannabe writers but with warring personalities.

Unmarried Jacob (Karl Boehm) wants to stick to the knitting and complete the work, a biography of the Duke (Oscar Homolka), they are being paid for while married Wilhelm (Laurence Harvey) prefers to use that time instead to write down the stories he has collected from a variety of sources.

The stories Pal chooses to bring to life pop into the narrative by the simple devices of telling kids a bedtime story or overhearing the tale. Jacob is actually more interested in academic writing; books on law and grammar are what capture his imagination. The narrative switches between the brothers falling out, enduring poverty and Jacob falling in love with Greta (Barbara Eden) but lacking the romantic touch mostly making heavy weather of it.

The first tale in the triptych – The Dancing Princess – is simple enough. A King (Jim Backus) promises the hand of his daughter (Yvette Mimieux) in marriage to whoever can find out what she does at night which a humble woodsman (Russ Tamblyn) manages with the help of a cloak that makes him disappear. In the second story elves come to life to save the skin of a shoemaker more interested in helping orphans than his rich clients.  

The third, demanding the biggest special effects, less successfully translates to the screen since it involves the creation of a dragon to be slaughtered. However, it is saved by humor, since the knight (Terry-Thomas) is too cowardly to do the job and relies on servant Hans (Buddy Hackett) for the actual slaying, and by the most gruesome of endings.

Plus, since it is in Cinerama, something speeding is required seen from the audience point-of-view or a hero who could fall into a canyon. And in the best fairy tale tradition the heroes are unsung and under pressure.

Laurence Harvey (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968), Karl Boehm (The Venetian Affair, 1966) , Claire Bloom (Two Into Three Won’t Go, 1969) and Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie television series, 1965-1970) are just about buoyant enough to keep the main story ticking along and carve out a piece of Disney territory without so much as a decent song to help proceedings. Three unexpected twists – four if you count a miraculous recovery from serious illness – nudge this in unexpected directions.

The first is the solidity of brotherly love, with one having to choose wife over his close bond with his sibling – the kind of emotional hit that would be more common in an adult picture, though kids obviously couldn’t care less. The second is the appearance of virtually all the famous Grimm characters in what amounts to a cameo. Last is a proper fairy tale ending where it’s the kids who elevate the brothers to literary success.

Laurence Harvey hides his snide side and does his best Dirk Bogarde impression as the errant brother whose imagination brings his family to near-ruin. Despite being offered love on a plate, Karl Boehm remains steadfastly dour, while Claire Bloom as Wilhelm’s wife has little to do. Scene stealing honors go to Oscar Homolka (The Happening, 1967) while Terry-Thomas (How to Murder Your Wife, 1965) just about shades it in the comedic duel with Buddy Hackett (The Love Bug, 1968).

George Pal concentrated on the fantasy elements with Henry Levin (Genghis Khan, 1965) directing the drama so it’s a mixture of very grounded and very flighty. It’s not really long enough for a true Cinerama roadshow movie but with an overture and intermission it stretches enough.

It was filmed with the traditional three Cinerama lenses and would have been projected with three projectors but at the Bradford Widescreen Weekend  I saw a new restoration that does away with the vertical lines. For contemporary audiences who only view fairy stories through the microcosm of animation and for whom live-action means Ray Harryhausen, the special effects here will come as something of a disappointment. But on the other hand it is still George Pal, so enjoy.

William Roberts (The Magnificent Seven, 1960), Charles Beaumont (Mister Moses, 1965) and David P. Harmon (Dark Purpose, 1964) cobbled up the screenplay.

As I said I saw this in the magnificence of the big screen and in widescreen Cinerama to boot so I am bound to be a shade benevolent but this still holds up, the drama dramatic enough, as a biopic interesting, and kids who might be taken with the fairy stories are way too young to complain about the effects.

Quatermass and the Pit / Five Million Miles to Earth (1967) ****

Five million dollars.  That’s roughly the budgetary difference between Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit and Twentieth Century Fox’s Fantastic Voyage. Although the protagonists in the latter face the unexpected, the movie is (as would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) an exercise in awe, in controlled exploration of wonder, whereas Quatermass, lacking the money for special effects, concentrates more on story and human impact. The government funds the experiment in Fantastic Voyage while Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) finds nothing but obstruction from his superiors.

Quatermass and the Pit is a masterpiece of stealthy exposition. Virtually every minute brings another development, gradually building tension, stoking fear. The principals – Dr Roney (James Donald), Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) and the professor – are cleverly kept apart during the early stages. A human skull discovered on a building site for a London Underground station is followed by a skeleton. Palaeontologist Roney determines it is five million years old, older than any previous find.

A metallic object is found nearby. First guess is an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. But it’s not ticking. And a magnet won’t stick to it. Col Breen (Julian Glover) is called in along with hostile rocket expert Quatermass. They have been locking horns from the outset.

There’s a whole bunch of apparent red herrings, mostly of the demonic variety. The location, historically associated with weird occurrences, is a nickname for the Devil. A pentagram is detected. Touching the object can give you frostbite. Col Breen argues it’s a leftover German propaganda machine from World War Two. A hideous dwarf and other spectral images are sighted. Telekinesis is involved. And tremendous vibrations.

Some people, such as Barbara, have a more receptive brain and can play memories millions of years old that reveal the alien truth. But this is an alien race with genocidal tendencies and able to unleash psychic energy.

The genre requires the scientists to discover an improbable solution which of course they do. Given the miserly budget, the special effects are not remotely in the Fantastic Voyage league. But that hardly matters. The movie coasts home on ideas, marrying sci-fi, the demonic, dormant and institutionalized evil, the militarization of the Moon and the ancient infiltration of Earth by Martians, no mean achievement, and a vivid narrative.

Director Roy Ward Baker (aka Roy Baker) provides many fine cinematic moments as he chisels away at the story, finding clever methods of revealing as much of the aliens as the budget will permit, focusing on very grounded characters, concentrating on conflict, and human emotions, mainlining fear rather than awe, building to an excellent climactic battle between man and monster.

Barbara Shelley (The Gorgon, 1964) is the pick of the stars, in part because she is at such a remove from her normal Hammer scream-queen persona, but more importantly because she brings such screen dynamism to the role. It’s refreshing to see her step up, as she carries a significant element of the story. Oddlyenough, although she has as good a movie portfolio as Andrew Keir and is certainly superior to James Donald, the denoted star, in that department, she is only billed third.

While Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967), warm-hearted for an intellectual, and James Donald (The Great Escape, 1963), trying to keep a cool head in the middle of inclination to panic, are good, they don’t bring anything we haven’t seen before. Julian Glover (Alfred the Great, 1969) is never anything but imperious and/or irascible, so ideal casting here.

The innovative electronic music was down to Tristram Cary and the unsettling credit sequence deserves some recognition. Nigel Kneale, who originally explored similar ideas for the character on television, came up with the screenplay.

Triple Bill Blues: Fall (2022) ***; The Forgiven (2021) **; Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

You may be aware that I am partial to a triple bill on my weekly Monday trip to the cinema. I’m rather an indiscriminate cinemagoer and generally just see what’s available, though it’s true return trips to view Top Gun: Maverick have helped paper over cracks in the current distribution malaise. Sometimes a triple bill can reveal unsung gems, sometimes I am rowing against the critical tide in my opinions and sometimes, not too often thank goodness, I end up seeing movies with few redeeming qualities. That was the circumstance this week.

FALL

So now I know. If I need to get a mobile phone dropped 2,000 feet without it breaking into pieces, the thing to do is stuff it inside a cadaver. That’s one of the more outlandish suggestions in this climbing picture two-hander that for most of the time is quite gripping.

So as not to have to spend the first anniversary of her husband’s death sozzled in booze and despair, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) agrees to partner YouTube click-hound Hunter (Virginia Gardner) in scaling an extremely high disused radio mast. Becky, a mountaineer, had watched her husband fall to his death, so is pretty iffy about the expedition. When they reach the top they can’t get down again since the ladder they climbed has disintegrated. Although there was mobile phone reception at ground level, there’s none this high up. Hunter has 60,000 followers and reckons if only her phone reached the ground it would automatically activate so they toss it down in a shoe stuffed with a bra.

That doesn’t work nor does firing a flare pistol to alert two guys in a nearby RV – all they are alerted to is the girl’s vehicle which they promptly steal. The girls are trapped without water or drone, both stuck 50ft below on radio dishes. At one point you think this is going to go in an entirely different – murderous – direction after Becky discovers Hunter had an affair with her husband. But they manage to get over that hiccup. Recuing their water and drone results in Hunter being out of action as far as further climbing goes and it’s up to Becky to reach the top of the mast and recharge the drone from the power there, fending off a passing vulture.

There’s definitely one weird bit where it turns out that Hunter, who you imagined was up there all the time supporting a defeatist Becky, is already dead. But, luckily, the corpse provides the cavity in which to bury the mobile phone. I’m not sure much of a human body survives a drop of 2,000 ft, certainly not enough to safeguard a phone, but that’s the way this plays out.

A great mountaineering film is always a welcome find in my book. This isn’t great but it’s certainly passable. And while Becky is more interesting than the gung-ho Hunter, the pair, emotions almost spinning out of control, make a very watchable pair.

Grace Caroline Curry aka Grace Fulton (Shazam!, 2019) does well in her first starring role and Virginia Gardner (Monster Party, 2018) is as convincing. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Rampage, 2018) has a small role. A novel take on the mountaineering sub-genre, it’s kudos to director Scott Mann (Heist, 2015) – who co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Frank (Final Score, 2018)  that I spent a lot of time wondering just how the hell they managed to make it look so realistic.

THE FORGIVEN

Note to studios, no matter how much you plan to tart up a modern version of Appointment in Samarra – aka a tale of unavoidable fate – you ain’t going to get anywhere if it’s filled with entitled obnoxious characters. The worst of it is this is well-made.

Functioning alcoholic doctor David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) knocks down and kills young Muslim boy Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) while on the way with wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) to a hedonistic weekend party in Morocco hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). There are hints that Driss was planning to hijack the tourists, but while his death is deemed an accident by the local cops, David agrees to go back with the boy’s father Ismael (Abdellah Taheri) and observe the local funeral rites and possibly pay the father off.

While her husband is away Jo has a one-night stand with serial seducer Tom (Christopher Abbott) while the rest of the party – including Lord Swanthorne (Alex Jennings) and assorted beautiful men and woman – trade bon mots and make racist and sexist remarks. While the arrogant David changes his perspective and accepts his fate, there is not, himself included, a single likeable person in the whole of the tourist contingent which makes it impossible to care what happens to anybody. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, 2014) it spends all its time trying to make clever points, not realizing the audience has long lost interest.

THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING

Note to studios, if you’re going to indulge an action director in a vanity project, make sure he hires actors who don’t just drone on. It might also help if the director could decide what story he wants to tell, and not essentially present a voice-over narrative of stuff that happened in the past, no matter how exotic the timescale.

I was astonished to discover there actually is a job called narratologist. Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is a dried-up old stick of a narratologist who summons up the dullest genie/djinn in movie history known – no names, no pack drill – just as The Djinn  (Idris Elba) who proceeds to bore the audience to death with his stories of how he came to end up in a bottle.  

There’s a bundle of academic nonsense about storytelling, a swathe of tales that sound like rejects from The Arabian Nights, and a lot of unconnected characters. The invention of director George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015) just isn’t inventive enough and the visuals just aren’t arresting enough. I’m assuming this got greenlit on the basis Miller would turn in a couple more in the Mad Max franchise.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) ****

If this had appeared a couple of years later after Stanley Kubrick had popularised the psychedelic in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and with his budget, it might have been a bigger hit. As it is, the ground-breaking sci-fi adventure, going in the opposite direction from Kubrick, exploring the mysteries of the body rather than the universe, is a riveting watch.  

Before we even get to the science fiction, there’s a stunning opening 15 minutes or so, a thriller tour de force, the attempted assassination of scientist Dr Jan Bedes (Jean Del Val), vital to the development of embryonic new miniaturization technology, baffled C.I.A. agent Charles Grant (Stephen Boyd) transported to a futuristic building (electronic buggies, photo ID) where he is seconded to a team planning invasive surgery, entering the scientist’s bloodstream and removing a blood clot from his brain. They only have 60 minutes and there’s a saboteur on board.

Heading the mission are claustrophobic circulation specialist Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), brain surgeon Dr Peter Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and lovelorn assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). Backing them are up Captain Bill Owens (William Redfield) who designed the Proteus submarine.  

The high concept is brilliantly delivered with ingenious improvisations, of the kind we have come to expect from the likes of Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian (2015) that save the day. I’ve no idea how accurate the anatomical science was but it sounded very convincing to me. There’s a brilliant sequence when the scientist’s heart is slowed down and the heartbeat is reduced to a low thump but when the heart is reactivated the sub literally jumps.

The bloodstream current proves far stronger than imagined, taking them away from their planned route. After unexpectedly losing air, they need to literally suck air in from the scientist’s body. Swarms of antibodies attack. Claustrophobia and sabotage up the ante, not to mention the anxious team overseeing the operation in the control room, the minutes ticking by.

It’s not a fantastic voyage but a fantastic planet, the visualisation of the human interior – at a time when nobody could call on CGI – is as fascinating as Kubrick’s meditations on outer space. They could have landed on a distant planet judging by what look like rock formations. It’s wondrous. Sometimes the world takes on a psychedelic tone. The special effects rarely fail, the worse that occurs is an occasional flaw in a process shot, and a couple of times the actors have to fall back on the old device of throwing themselves around to make it look like the vessel was rocking.  The craft itself is impressive and all the gloop and jelly seems realistic. There’s a gripping climax, another dash of improvisation.

The only problem is the characters who seem stuck in a cliché, Grant the action man, Duval blending science with God, Michaels the claustrophobic, an occasional clash of personality. But given so much scientific exposition, there’s little time for meaningful dialogue and most of the time the actors do little more than express feelings with reaction shots. Interestingly enough, Raquel Welch (Lady in Cement, 1968) holds her own. In fact, she is often the only one to show depth. When the process begins, she is nervous, and the glances she gives at Duval reveal her feelings for him. It’s one of the few films in which she remains covered up, although possibly it was contractual that she be seen in something tight-fitting, in this case a white jump suit.

If you are going to cast a film with strong screen personalities you couldn’t do worse than the group assembled. Stephen Boyd (Assignment K, 1968), five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy (Nevada Smith, 1966) ), Donald Pleasance (The Great Escape, 1963), Edmond O’Brien (Rio Conchos, 1964) and William Redfield (Duel at Diablo, 1966) aren’t going to let you down.

But the biggest credit goes to Richard Fleischer (The Big Gamble, 1961, which starred Boyd) and his Oscar-winning special effects and art direction teams. While not indulging in wonder in the way of Kubrick, Fleischer allows audiences time to navigate through the previously unseen human body simply by sticking to the story. There are plenty of set pieces and brilliant use of sound. Harry Kleiner (Bullitt, 1968) created the screenplay based on a story by Otto Klement and contrary to myth the only part Isaac Asimov played in the picture was to write the novelization.

A joy from start to finish with none of the artistic pretension of Kubrick. This made a profit on initial release, knocking up $5.5 million in domestic U.S. rentals against a budget of $5.1 million according to Twentieth century Fox expert Aubrey Solomon and would have made probably the same again overseas plus television sale.

The Lost World (1960) ***

A pair of pink knee-length boots, courtesy of adventuress Jennifer (Jill St John), are among the wondrous sights awaiting our band of intrepid explorers. She’s not the only curiosity, Professor Challenger (Claude Rains) is certainly the most obstreperous of archaeologists, aristocrat Hoxton (Michael Rennie) must have a screw loose to keep on resisting the charms of Jennifer, while Gomez (Fernando Lamas) brings along his guitar to (literally) strike a chord at appropriate moments. But it’s a fun ride – cannibals, volcano, giant phosphorescent spiders, carnivorous plants, and dinosaurs.

There are secrets, too. Hoxton has been here – a lost plateau in the middle of the Amazon – before and abandoned an earlier exploration in favour of hunting for the mythical diamonds of El Dorado, Gomez wants to kill Hoxton, Jennifer plans to hook a duke, and Professor Summerlee (Richard Haydn) wants more than anything else to prove Challenger wrong.

A bit of poetic licence here by the illustrator, Jill St John’s pants staying intact throughout.

And of course, in the way of dinosaur pictures, having battled to find the damned creatures, intrepidity goes out the window and the explorers spend all their time running away from the dinosaurs, seeking a hidden way down from the plateau, while being hunted by cannibals. Any time you see a ledge you know there’s something terrible above – battling monsters with long tails capable of swishing you downwards – or below, not just a sea of lava but a giant sea beast. The only element that’s missing is the booby-traps. Unfortunately, all the spunk goes out of the otherwise spunky Jennifer when faced with monsters and she turns into the quivering screaming cliché.

But the script is on point, feelings indicated by action rather than dialogue. Having learned of Hoxton’s past, Jennifer spurns him by refusing a cigarette and a moment later taking one of her own, Gomez sneaks glances at a mysterious locket. With so much action there’s little time for romance so mainly by looks and the occasional rescue sparks fly between Jennifer and newspaperman Ed (David Hedison) and between Jennifer’s brother David (Ray Stricklyn) and the native girl (Vitina Marcus). And to alleviate the drab scenery there’s always Jennifer in a new bright outfit and, for comic effect, her poodle.

Given that writer-producer-director Irwin Allen (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, 1961) was unable to hire the likes of Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963) for the special effects or even find the budget to utilize the drawings of Willis O’Brien (King Kong, 1933) who had been responsible for the stop-motion techniques in the original silent version of The Lost World (1925), the monsters come across on the small screen as acceptable enough. The infusion of sub-plots keeps the project ticking along.

Allen made significant changes to the original – introducing the diamonds, making Challenger rather than following in the footsteps of a previous explorer having previously visited the plateau but lost his proof, swapping the heroine’s pet monkey for a pet poodle, turning the heroine into a gold-digger, substituting as plateau inhabitants natives for ape men, and adding the heroine’s wardrobe. The spicing up of the story helps divert the tale in certain places from the dinosaurs, so the tension is not just waiting for the next attack.

Oddly enough, the film strikes a very contemporary note with regards to the current contentious issue of invasion of privacy. Challenger hits out at pestering journalists for what he views as the invasion of his privacy. Later on he says, “invasion of privacy gives man the right to kill,” but that bold statement relates to the explorers breaching the lost sanctuary, “we are the invaders.”  

It’s still pretty enjoyable stuff especially allowing for the budget limitations. None of the actors is called upon to do much, which is what you would expect, although Claude Rains is a surprise and Jill St John a delight. Michael Rennie  (Hotel, 1967), primarily there for his stiff-upper-lip, is provided with a neat reversal, the supposed hero with feet of clay. Claude Rains (Casablanca, 1942) is the standout as the feisty bombastic professor not above battering annoying newspapermen with his umbrella.

In an early role, Jill St John (The Liquidator, 1965) provides not just sultry evidence of her physical charms, but carries a terrific almost playful screen presence, though she’s better as the tough gal in a man’s world of the earlier section of the movie than the damsel in distress of the last part. Former Latin movie heartthrob Fernando Lamas (100 Rifles, 1969) is the only other one with a decent part, participating in the expedition to find his lost brother. Vitina Marcus (Taras Bulba, 1963) has a small but pivotal role. David Hedison (Live and Let Die, 1973) and Ray Stricklyn (Track of Thunder, 1967) are outshone by their respective amours. Jay Costa (Escape from Zahrain, 1962) is a pantomime villain.

Charles Bennett (City in the Sea, 1965) helped Irwin Allen flesh out the screenplay.

Sumuru, Queen of Femina / The Girl from Rio / Mothers of America (1969) ***

Cult fans assemble. Sci fi crime thriller with for the time a fair sprinkling of nudity, and channelling psychedelic turns like Barbarella (1968) and Danger: Diabolik (1968) and one step up from the ultra-confident gals of Deadlier than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do  (1969). It would have helped if there was a decent plot, and not just a barrage of double-crossing halfway in, but you can’t have everything and director Jess Franco seems to believe that the presence of a tribe of women decked out in red capes, white knee-length boots and not necessarily much in between, goes some way to compensate.

Crook Jeff Sutton (Richard Stapley) holes up in Rio with $10 million in stolen cash, unaware that his presence has already been noted by gang boss Masius (George Sanders) and local ultra-feminist Sununda (Shirley Eaton). After hooking up with manicurist Lesley (Maria Rohm), Sutton is set upon by Masius’ henchmen but escapes in a plane to Femina, “the capital city of the world of women,” a female fortress along the lines of the Bulldog Drummond pictures.

Turns out Sununda is partial to men with piles of cash, kidnapping and torturing them until they hand it over. So she can’t believe her luck when millionaire Jeff walks into her lair. Except Jeff is a bit of a fibber, having made up the story about the ten million, and instead landing at Femina in order to rescue Ulla (Marta Reves).

The plot only really kicks in when he escapes. Masius agrees to help Jeff in return for the pretend-thief helping him hijack Sununda’s vault of gold. In reality, Masius is using Jeff as bait, to tempt Sununda down from the clouds, and then turn him over in exchange for just half her gold. And so it’s back to Femina for all concerned.

There’s no real pretence at the kind of sci-fi that enthralled Barbarella audiences and none of the slick campness of Danger:Diabolik, and most of the ideas seem still-born and occasionally contradictory – in order to enslave men women must first be taught how to be irresistible to them – torture is accomplished either by whispering or kissing, and the ray-guns employed looked like cast-offs from the 1950s, but the regiment of women, with spies infiltrating everywhere, led by the ruthless Sununda, have the makings of a warrior nation.

The movie has far better luck with Masius, a splendidly-drawn character who doodles on restaurant tablecloths, enjoys reading Popeye comic books, and – a bit of drawback for a man in his profession – can’t stand the sight of blood. While his sidekicks are mostly incompetent, they do drive around in hearses that resemble pagodas or dress in unnecessary masks and while his girlfriends appear docile they are in fact spies. And there’s a spot of waterboarding in case you ever wondered where the American secret services got the idea.

The source material was from Sax Rohmer but Sununda lacks the inherent obvious evil of the author’s more successful Fu Manchu series, Shirley Eaton no match for Christopher Lee, the most recent Fu Manchu, nor Richard Shapley on a par with Fu Manchu nemesis Nayland Smith, regardless of whether played by Nigel Green (The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965),  Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966) or Richard Greene (The Blood of Fu Manchu, 1968, and The Castle of Fu Manchu, 1969).

And anyone attracted to the picture by director Jess (Jesus) Franco is going to be disappointed by the lack of sleaziness he exhibited in pictures like Succubus (1968), 99 Women (1969) and  Marquis De Sade’s Justine (1969) and there’s not enough style, though abundant campness, to make up.  It’s hard to say quite why it did not have a harder edge, perhaps producer Harry Alan Towers, responsible for 99 Women, felt it should err in the softer direction of Fu Manchu than the overt sex-and-violence of the nascent women-in-prison genre.  

Franco and Towers (24 Hours to Kill, 1965, and Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) had collaborated on The Blood of Fu Manchu and The Castle of Fu Manchu as well as Venus in Furs (1969) and Marquis De Sade’s Justine so presumably knew how far they could go and decided that here it was better to rein in Franco’s tendencies. Whether a tougher-edged approach would have made much of a difference given the indifferent playing – neither Shirley Eaton (The Scorpio Letters, 1967)  nor Richard Stapley (Two Guns and a Coward, 1968) bring much to the leading roles and George Sanders (Warning Shot, 1967) is not in it enough to save it. Maria Rohm, Franco’s wife, appeared in many of his films.  

Towers appeared on surer ground in the likes of 24 Hours to Kill (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) and Five Golden Dragons (1967) when he could draw on a more interesting cast, better stories and more colourful locations. This was a sequel to The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967) again with Shirley Eaton and plum role for Klaus kinski.

Despite the film’s potential, the director and George Sanders it does not fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category nor has enough going for it to be labelled a true cult film. But I could be wrong in both those assumptions.

A Tale of Two Duds – The Northman (2022) ** / Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hamlet goes Viking is basically as much of a story as “visionary director” Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015) can be bothered with. Yes, there some Viking lore and for all I know this has been exceptionally well-researched but what it amounts to is the same kind of gobbledy-gook that makes no more sense than your average horror picture, with a ton of underdeveloped occult elements. Once our hero is freed from being hung from the rafters by crows beckoned, I presume, by some unexplained mystical power, pecking at the rope – and with a sword handily discarded in the vicinity – I was even more convinced this was a load of old cobblers.

So, basically a revenge saga. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) – pronounced Amlet for punters too stupid to get it – manages to escape when his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murders his brother King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Vowing revenge, he is next seen “years later” as part of a raiding party slaughtering a village. He discovers that his uncle has been dethroned by a bigger king and sent into exile in Iceland. So he hauls himself off there, pretending to be part of a chain gang. He has every opportunity in the world to kill his uncle – and save his mother (Nicole Kidman) who has been carried off – but there is always a really dumb reason why he can’t.

Revenge delay seems a pretty odd way of stringing out a movie. Of course, when he gets round to saving his mother it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved and – a la Hamlet – was in on the plan to kill her husband. He falls in love with fellow prisoner Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who spouts a lot of witch-type stuff that is no less convincing than any of the other spiritual malarkey.

There’s a lot of bloody violence, but the sexual violence is kept to a minimum on screen though Olga has clearly been abused by Fjolnir. And there’s a game that seems close to the Irish game of hurling and whole bunch of oddities thrown in there wholesale as if such a joblot will add depth to the movie. A misconceived art picture that looks more like a top-of-the-range direct-to-DVD movie that might have cost around $40 million rather than the $90 million quoted.  

There’s a smorgasbord of dodgy accents and everybody speaks in stilted English, not far short of the “thee” and “thou” dialogue that critics used to make fun of. Alexander Skarsgard (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) and Claes Bang (Locked Down, 2021) look rugged enough but neither has the screen presence of Schwarzenegger or even Stallone and it ends up Conan-lite. Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho, 2021) looks as if she wondered how she managed to get talked into this. Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos, 2021) who has a plum scene towards the end offers the only acting of any distinction.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore

I kid you not, this is about an election. Yep, someone’s greenlit a $200 million fantasy picture about an election. Whatever delightful element the original entry to this series possessed has been destroyed not just by a preposterous storyline – this is for kids, remember – but a very somber tone. Everyone talks in a low voice, it is very darkly lit and there are those awful meaningful pauses.

The story they pretend is about to occur never happens. Something about “counter-sight” if I got that bit correct and how our heroes had to act together to “confuse” the bad guy because he could see into the future. There’s never any sign of him seeing in the future and most of the confusion arises because there are just way many characters.  With a piece of Hollywood wizardry Grindelwald has completely changed his appearance, no longer Johnny Depp but Mads Mikkelson. You will be aware of the reason for this but Mads has taken on an impossible task. There already was an over-large contingent of players – Newt Scamanger (Eddie Redmayne) and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his brother Abeforth (Richard Coyle), Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and assorted characters who have a romantic interest in the principals.

But basically – hold your breath – Grindelwald is trying to crash an election party. Two candidates are already in contention to be, I presume, Chief Wizard. He kidnaps something that might be called a “chillin” – a mythical creature that looks like a gryphon – which like the wands in Harry Potter has a way of choosing the best person for the job. There’s very little CGI for a fantasy picture. One monster, a bunch of dancing lobsters (maybe scorpions, I couldn’t work it out) and the usual contents of Newt’s suitcase is just about it. The wands are now used more like light sabers or pistols. You won’t be surprised to learn there’s not much in the secrets department either.

There’s not enough Newt and he’s not as delightful as he once was and there’s far too much of boring electioneering, huge crowds gathered for rallies in favor of their candidates. This one cost $200 million and I have no idea what that was spent on. Certainly not the script. A franchise-killer if ever I saw one.

The Power (1968) ***

Low budget sci-fi effort that had little chance in the box office stakes that year up against the big budget psychedelic 2001: A Space Odyssey and the visceral Planet of the Apes. Producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin, the key figures behind War of the Worlds (1953), would later become among the most exalted in the sci-fi genre, but the cult of the 1950s sci-fi movies did not exist yet. Yet if made today, we would be treating this as an origin story with a sequel already in the works and creation of its own universe on the cards.

As the budget can only accommodate a few explosions and a derisory number of tiny special effects, emphasis is placed on imagination as the source of tension. The uncanny remaining unexplained helps ensure mystery remains character-driven. Wisely, the film makers steer clear of providing any detail on the strange force.

It begins with the neat title “Tomorrow.” As part of a planned space program, a team of scientists  experimenting on the limits of human endurance discover that one of them has unusual powers. As a group they are able to make revolve a piece of paper attached to a vertical pencil without establishing who is the driving force. When Professor Hallson (Arthur O’Connell) is found dead in a centrifuge, the only clue being a scrap of paper with the name Adam Hart, suspicion falls on the other members. Professor Tanner (George Hamilton) is dismissed when the investigation discovers his credentials are fraudulent.   

Seeking to prove his innocence, Tanner goes on the run before establishing that the main suspects are the mysterious Adam Hart and three of the original team – military chief Nordlund (Michael Rennie), Professor Scott (Earl Holliman) and Tanner’s girlfriend Professor Lansing (Suzanne Pleshette). But he is mostly baffled by the goings-on which include being dumped in an air force target range. He could be the culprit but again so many odd occurrences take place when others are present that it would be hard to pin the blame on Tanner. As the corpses begin to pile up, the list of potential suspects naturally decreases.

A toy winks at Tanner, walls appear were there were none before, a man is convinced Tanner is someone else (not Hart), a high-flying professor’s wife lives in a trailer, characters collapse under psychic assault, a young woman trying to seduce an old man discovers she is kissing a corpse, the imagery appears inspired by Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch,  and you could easily argue that Tanner’s academic records have been deliberately erased. On the more prosaic side, the cops are next to useless, there’s a car chase and a sequence in a lift shaft, but the bulging eyeballs suggested in the posters are a marketeer’s invention. There’s even a clever joke, Tanner  misreading a newspaper headline “Don’t Run” as being a message to him.

The oddities are sufficiently off-beam to appear as figments of the imagination and it certainly seems Tanner suffers from hallucinations.  And there are some deliciously off-key characters, an old woman obsessed with fly-swatting, a sultry waitress. If Hart is the superhuman then experiments may have taken place long before now. In his hometown, people still act on instructions Hart handed out a decade before and accomplices are in place such as Professor Van Zandt (Richard Carlson).

Adding to the mood are philosophic discussions about the existence (as already a fait accompli) of a superhuman: some want to clone him, others would happily submit to him.

Byron Haskin (also Conquest of Space, 1955) and George Pal (also The Time Machine, 1960) have marshalled their puny resources with exceptional skill, down to hiring as leading man George Hamilton (Your Cheatin’ Heart, 1964), so far from being a big star at the time that audiences would not automatically assume he had to be the good guy, and peopling the production with names from 1950s sci-fi like Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) and Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954).

George Hamilton, in the days before the perma-tan became his calling card, is surprisingly good and the supporting cast does what a good supporting cast should do. Susanne Pleshette (Nevada Smith, 1966) convinces as the lover who could be the cool killer. Also look out for 1940s glamour puss Yvonne De Carlo and a staple of The Munsters television series (1964-1966), Aldo Ray (Johnny Nobody, 1960) and Miko Taka (Walk, Don’t Run, 1966).

Perhaps the biggest coup was the recruitment of triple Oscar-winner Miklos Rosza (Ben-Hur, 1959) who provided a memorable score.

In most sci-fi films, the danger is readily identified. Here, you might hazard a guess but whenever you come close some clever sleight-of-hand misdirects. For most of the time I was happily intrigued, enough coming out of left field to provide distraction. This is a masterclass is how extract the most from very little.

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