Jason and the Argonauts (1963) *****

An absolute delight, great storytelling married to groundbreaking special effects produces an adventure picture of the highest order. Though mostly known for its Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation, its success also relied heavily on the direction of Don Chaffey (The Viking Queen, 1967) and a great script. It’s one of the few films to benefit from not being viewed in its original size, the small screen minimizing the flaws of the special effects. In essence it’s a combination of three genres – the Italian peplum, the men-on-a-mission picture and the classic detective story. it was originally entitled Jason and the Golden Fleece (see below).

Plus there are interesting stabs at philosophy – if man refuses to believe in the gods do they cease to exist? And if the golden fleece brings peace and prosperity to a nation what will happen to that country when it is stolen?  And if various people can call on their own gods for help will that not create conflict in heaven as much as on earth? And the ultimately question – what can man achieve without celestial interference?

While the episodic structure derives from the clues meted out piecemeal to hero Jason (Todd Armstrong) during his long voyage to find the golden fleece these often come minus vital pieces of information ensuring that surprise remains a key element.

Without doubt the special effects are the triumph, although some work better than others. The highlights for me were the towering bronze statue of Talos and the skeleton warriors. I can’t be the only one who thinks that some of the visuals in Game of Thrones were inspired by the sight of Talos astride two land masses separated by the sea. Talos is not so much a man-mountain as an actual mountain, first viewed coming round the corner of a cliff top, his head topping it. But where, except for cunning Jason, the crewmen are viewed primarily in miniature in relation to the giant Talos, the skeletons are the same size as the adventurers and that fight scene all the more impressive as the ensuing battle appears completely real.

Scale allows Harryhausen to wriggle out of the problems of contact. If the creatures are out of reach anyway, there’s little need to attempt to bring them into close proximity. The way the Harpies are utilised, close enough to strip clothes from a blind man but otherwise hovering just out of reach, is a classic example of clever direction. The multi-headed Hydra, on the other hand, is the least convincing monster simply because it is impossible for Jason to get close to the beast. Scale is also one of the film’s best weapons. The scenes where a miniaturized Jason is transported to Mount Olympus to face the gods are well done as are the occasions when the gods peer down on tiny man.

Outside of the special effects and the varying degrees of excitement aroused, in the background is constant intrigue. Jason is the son of the King of Thessaly slain by the usurper Pelias (Douglas Wilmer) and his crew includes Acastus (Gary Raymond), son of Pelias, whose task is to cause trouble and if Jason succeeds in his endeavor to kill him. On top of that, there is a heavenly battle over Jason’s fate. Jason, having defied Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) by first of all refusing to believe he exists and that his life is determined by fate, becomes enmeshed in a battle between the king of the gods and his wife Hera (Honor Blackman) who grants Jason a get-out-jail-free card, the ability to call on her help, but only five times.

Jason determines to recruit his own team and in the manner of The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Professionals (1966) they are all experts in their fields but unlike that film and The Dirty Dozen (1967) are willing conscripts. The team also includes Hercules (Nigel Green) and Hylas (John Cairney) and in the first of the film’s many surprises and reversals, the weedy latter is able to beat the muscular former in a contest of strength.

There is enough incident to keep the story ticking along but Don Chaffey fills in the blanks with montage, the various essentials of a ship – sails, oarsmen, sides, stern, figurehead, pace set by drumbeat  – and a full color palette from the bright blue sky, from dawn and dusk to sunset and night, a wonderful image of rowers at sunset on the sea the pick. He also makes great use of the sea – pounding surf, storms, the sea turned tempest by the clashing rocks, a shipwreck. And we have dancing girls, colorful costumes, ancient backdrops and the sense that the budget has been well spent

Some scenes call for immense skills in coupling special effects with real characters. For the clashing rocks sequence five elements are simultaneously in play: the crew in danger, a tempest, rocks crashing into the water, the ship itself and Neptune.

And the romance is well handled dramatically: if Jason rescues Medea (Nancy Kovack) then she too rescues him. Love produces conflict. To love Jason, Medea must betray her country. There is hardly a moment when Jason, confronted either by monsters or kings, does not face death.  

In addition, there is a stunning score by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, 1960).

Any top-notch acting would have been overshadowed in any case by the special effects. Which is just as well because the entire cast is drawn from the lower strata of the stardom ladder. Todd Armstrong, from the Manhunt tv series (1961), needs only not to mess up, which he manages adequately. Nancy Kovack (Diary of a Madman, 1963) does well to make an impact given she does not appear until the final third. This did not turn out to be much of a star-making vehicle for either. Honor Blackman drops the slinky persona with which she had made her name in The Avengers tv series (1962-1964) and instead plays a confident goddess willing to out-maneuver husband Zeus.

The rest of the cast comprises a regiment of future movie supporting actors – Nigel Green (Tobruk, 1967), Niall MacGinnis (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Douglas Wilmer (The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966). Future television stars ranged from Patrick Troughton (the second Dr Who) and Scottish actor John Cairney (This Man Craig, 1966-1967) to Laurence Naismith (The Persuaders, 1971), Gary Raymond (The Rat Patrol, 1966-1968), Mike Gwynn (Poison Island, 1965) and Andrew Faulds (The Protectors, 1964).

The screenplay was written by Jan Read (First Men on the Moon, 1964) and Beverley Cross (The Long Ships, 1964), husband of Maggie Smith. Cross returned to ancient worlds again for producer Charles H. Schneer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) and Clash of the Titans (1981)

Although the ending appeared to leave the door open for a sequel, none was made. A huge box office hit in Britain, it did not repeat its success elsewhere.

I first saw this film as a boy and was so enthralled I wouldn’t have noticed if there was anything awry with the special effects. I have not seen it since. Coming at it with some degree of scepticism I found that attitude misplaced for I was equally enthralled.

Catch-Up: Nigel Green’s portrayal of Hercules was a far cry from his normal screen persona of martinet. His movies previously reviewed in the Blog are The Skull (1965), Khartoum (1966), Tobruk (1967) and Africa Texas Style (1967).

Hercules and the Captive Women / Hercules Conquers Atlantis (1961) ***

Something of a cult in the peplum vein in which Hercules (Reg Park), wanting to enjoy domestic life with his wife and son, is instead drugged by Androcles, King of Thebes (Ettore Manni), and spirited away by ship to Atlantis whose Queen Antinea (Fay Spain) is intent on global domination and the resurrection of the dethroned god Uranus to his rightful place in the heavens.

This isn’t your normal Hercules, not that keen on demonstrating his physical prowess, preferring to sleep or lie around. It’s not your normal ship either. Androcles, unable to persuade his Senate to properly fund the expedition, has crewed his vessel with renegades who are inclined to abandon Hercules on the nearest island  And unbeknownst to Hercules, his son has come along for the ride.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan and Hercules is soon shipwrecked on an island where he finds Ismene (Laura Efrikian) imprisoned in rock as a sacrifice to the gods. Rescue never being simple, Hercules has to first withstand fire then tackle in quick succession snake, lion, eagle and a giant lizard. Ismene turns out to be Antinea’s daughter and the Queen, rather than being delighted at her return, is appalled, for, according to the way the ancient world works with all its prophecies and religious ritual, the girl must be sacrificed to prevent the destruction of Atlantis.

Nor is Atlantis your usual kingdom. Even setting aside the peculiarities that mark the Greek world, this is a place where abnormality rules. Hercules finds Androcles, whom he believed died in the shipwreck, but it turns out to be a vision, or some kind of shape-shifting being. The Queen believes she can subjugate nature and has a tendency to throw those who disappoint her into an acid bath. There is a fiery rock that controls life and death.

Like most of the peplum output, you have to accept a standard of production lower than the Hollywood norm, and the terrifying beasts sent to test the hero are not at all convincing, but on the plus side are feats of imagination that mainstream American studios would never conjure up, unless it was something that fitted into the swashbuckling genre. You pretty much have to go with the flow and accept what is offered in terms of narrative oddity. Bear in mind, too, that there is no one dressed in as skimpy or revealing a costume as suggested by the poster.

You also need to be get hold of a good copy. Several versions are available, some for free, where the colors are so washed out you can hardly determine what is going on never mind enjoy the costumes, creatures and sets as intended. This was filmed in Technirama 70, shot in 35mm but blown up to70mm widescreen for exhibition, so should generally be of a high technical standard – this was the process used by Spartacus (1960).

It’s not a film to fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category, but of course imagination too often exceeds budget which renders the filmmaking somewhat random at times and like the bulk of the peplums acting skill is not at a premium. As you might expect, the British-born Reg Park was a bodybuilder first – three times winner of the Mr Universe title – and an actor second. He played Hercules another three times and Maciste once but outside this narrow comfort zone made no other films. But he was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inspiration, so that was probably enough.

American Fay Spain (The Private Life of Adam and Eve, 1960) never got  beyond bit parts as a B-movie bad girl and television, although she was seen in The Godfather: Part II (1974). Italian Laura Efrikina made her debut here and you would later spot her as Dora in the Italian television mini-series David Copperfield (1966).

Director Vittorio Cottafavi was steeped in peplum, from The Warrior and the Slave Girl (1958) to Amazons of Rome (1961) but although he worked consistently in television made only one other piocture, 100 Horsemen (1964).

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

While sharing similarities to Black Widow with family to the fore, warring siblings,  understated love interest and greater emphasis on character than action, this is a bolder origin story.  Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), living as a car valet driver in America under the pseudonym Shaun, is drawn home by his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who gave up global domination for love. Shang-Chi is somewhat surprised to discover that the mother he believed dead is instead being held prisoner.

Family reunion is complicated by the fact that Shang-Chi shamed his father and abandoned his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Shang-Chi’s not-quite-girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina), when not aiding exposition, mostly provides comic relief until superceded in that department by  wacky thespian Trevor (Ben Kingsley). As the story picks up it also drops back to explain the family dynamics but without losing any tension. On paper the tale sounds a tad overcomplicated but it works like a dream on screen and we only really enter Marvel territory filled with mythical Chinese creatures in the last reel. So on the one hand it works as an interesting drama while on the other delivers innovative bang for your buck.

There’s a brilliant sequence on a runaway bus in San Francisco, Shang-Chi battling a group of thugs led by the appropriately-named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) while Katy tries to control the vehicle. Then there’s a terrific battle on skyscraper scaffolding. Throw into the mix a drive through a terrifying forest and a return to their mother’s village to confront the evil that threatens the world. And in keeping with Marvel dynamics pendants that hold the secret of finding the hidden village.

The set-up is particularly well-done with clever twists to audience expectations, what appear at first to be expository voice-overs turning into conversations, the undefined Shang-Chi/Katy relationship causing grief among parents and friends, their driving skills put to superb use in the plot, while the father’s backstory, lust for power being assuaged by love, is not given short shrift. The story more than toys with the audience in other ways, setting up different expectations which prove unfounded.

All the main characters have great story arcs –  Xu Wenwu from ruthless villain to romantic softy and back to ruthless when training his son, Shang-Chi from apparent waster to unwillingly accepting a different path, Xialing the girl who had to learn skills her father refused to teach her, and, her driving apart, Katy from mere observer in action scenes to participant.

Primarily a television actor and stuntman Simu Liu makes massive impact in the leading role, adding a fresh face to the MCU. Asian superstar Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, 2003) makes a comfortable leap into the Hollywood big time. The relatively unknown Meng’er Zhang (In the Mood for Love, 2019) comes up trumps and rapper Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Level, 2019) brings a welcome touch of normality to the proceedings. Look out for Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), Florain Munteanu (Creed II) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, 2016).  Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley almost steals the show.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, 2019) does a brilliant job of marshalling not just the visuals but the drama and brings clarity to the storyline. Special mention to an unusual score by Joel P. West.

The Vengeance of She (1968) ***

Sequels boomed in the 1960s mainly thanks to multiple spy spin-offs in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Derek Flint vein but for every From Russia with Love (1963) and In Like Flint (1967) there was a more tepid entry like Return of the Seven (1966). One of the prerequisites of the series business was that the original star reappeared. But Ursula Andress who played the title character in Hammer’s She (1966) declined to reprise the role.

John Richardson did return from the first picture but in a different role, as the immortal Killikrates within the lost city of Zuma. So Hammer brought in Andress lookalike statuesque Czech blonde Olinka Berova (The 25th Hour, 1967), even emulating the Swiss star’s famous entrance in Dr No (1962), although instead of coming out of the sea Berova is going in and substituting the bikini with bra and panties, but the effect is much the same.

Story, set in the 1960s, has supposed Scandinavian Carol (Berova) mysteriously drawn south against her will driven by voices in her head conjuring up the name Ayesha. We first encounter her walking down a mountain road in high heels only to be chased through the woods by a truck driver. It transpires she has unusual powers, or someone protecting her has, for the lorry brake slips and the truck crushes the driver. Next means of transport is a yacht owned by dodgy drunken businessman George (Colin Blakely) and before you know it she is in Algeria, assisted by Kassim (Andre Morrell) who attempts to forestall those trying to control her mind, but to no avail.

Philip (Edward Judd), whose character is effectively “handsome guy from the yacht,” follows as she continues south and eventually the pair reach Kuma, where she is acclaimed as Ayesha aka She. Kallikrates’ immortality depends upon her with some urgency crossing through the cold flames of the sacred fire. There’s a sub-plot involving high priest Men-hari (Derek Godfrey) promised immortality for returning Ayesha to Kuma and further intrigue that comes a little too late to help proceedings. You can probably guess the rest.

There’s no “vengeance” that I can see and certainly no whip-cracking as suggested in the poster. Berova, while attractive enough, lacks the screen magnetism of Andress and the mystery of who Carol is and where she’s headed is no substitute for either pace or tension and Berova isn’t a good enough actress to convey the fear she must be experiencing. The  script could have done without weighting down the Kuma high priests with lengthy exposition explaining the whys and wherefores. Neither a patch on the original nor the expected star-making turn for Berova, this is strictly Saturday afternoon matinee fare and the slinky actress, despite her best sex-kitten efforts, cannot compensate.

Director Cliff Owen (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) assembles a strong supporting cast, headed by Edward Judd (First Men in the Moon,1964) and Colin Blakely (a future Dr Watson in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970). You can also spot Andre Morrell (Dark of the Sun, 1968),  George Sewell (who later enjoyed a long-running role in British television series Special Branch, 1969-1974) and television regular Jill Melford.  

Old (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Surely no director has cut his cloth according to his means more than M. Night Shyamalen. After a series of big-budget failures, he returned with a series of low-budget numbers like The Visit (2015) and Split (2016) with a couple of forays into television to keep his hand in. And although his movies sometimes don’t work, usually from over-ambition, he is still a brand name and as a triple-hyphenate one of the few working directors to completely control his output.

So the starting point is you don’t know what you’re going to get, except there will be twists and occasional shocks along the way. Even the Glass films aren’t a trilogy in the accepted sense of the word. 

Old is a neat idea. A group of strangers on vacation end up on a strange beach where time moves along at quite a clip and they can’t escape. Most of the action involves the characters responding to one calamity after another and despite a couple of gruesome moments Shyamalan seems intent on swapping jump-out-of-your-seat moments for a continual slow burn. He takes the disaster trope of who’s gonna die next – the bad old guy or the cute younger person – and inverts it until nothing makes any sense except impending apocalypse, at least for all stranded in this apparent paradise.

Speeded-up life makes for speeded-up dread. While wounds heal in seconds and pregnancy might last, oh, a half hour or so, the malfunctioning body malfunctions at lightspeed.

The great thing about Shyamalan is he is a writer first so the characters here are all very well drawn. He gives a geeky kid the geekiest of all character traits, going up to everyone he meets to ask their name and job. But it’s an ensemble picture so nobody is more important than anybody else. And the characters bring along a hamper full of tensions – there’s an epileptic, a couple on the verge of divorce, a doctor on the verge of a breakdown. He also has a distinctive visual style, preferring to track the camera from one character to another rather than using cuts.

It slightly runs out of steam as the body count mounts and it might have been an idea to introduce the shock ending – which asks significant questions about the direction society is heading – a bit sooner

There’s a solid cast, good actors rather than A-list stars, a bundle of whom are best-known for television. Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004) takes pole position in the credits, supported by Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle television series, 2015-2019), Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps (Das Boot, 2018- 2020), Ken Leung (Lost, 2008-2010), and Abbey Lee (Lux Aeterna, 2019).  Scions of Hollywood royalty get a leg-up here – Francesca Eastwood being the daughter of Clint and Alexa Swinton cousin to Tilda – and there are cameos from the likes of Embeth Davidtz (Schindler’s List, 1993)

Otherwise it’s a decent addition to the Shyamalen oeuvre, enough at least to keep him chugging along until he gets the next big idea or budget. While the chances of him alighting on another Sixth Sense (1999) or Unbreakable (2000) might appear remote bear in mind the guy has barely passed 50, an age when top directors are just coming into their prime – Hitchcock was a few years older when he hit the hot streak of Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

There’s a fair chance the ending is uncomfortably close to science fact rather than fiction and if Shyamalan can activate social media along those lines the picture could build up enough of a head of steam to bring the director back into the big-budget Hollywood fold or ensure at least that he is never cast aside.

Saw this at the cinema as part of my Monday double bill. – but on the previous week to Suicide Squad/Jungle Cruise.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

Current Cinema Catch-Up 1 – Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong

Before the pandemic and before I started writing this Blog I used to go to the cinema once a week on a Monday, normally catching a double-bill of my own choosing, and occasionally lucky enough to watch three movies in a day. Since cinemas re-opened in my neck of the woods in mid-May I’ve found it impossible not to return to my old habits. So here’s my first triple-bill.

Nomadland  (2020) ****

Easy Rider meets The Grapes of Wrath except in both these cases the travellers had a distinct destination in mind. Like the title implies, the characters in Nomadland are going nowhere, and often just round, though somewhat contentedly, in circles. Deservedly winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress Frances McDormand and Best Director Chloe Zhao, this not so much invests in diversity but in a world we never knew existed, of people who live out their lives in the backs of vans and trailers. In a previous generation, they might be deemed trailer trash, but that’s not the case here. They may be humbled but they are not unprincipled.

Recently widowed Fern (Frances McDormand) takes to the road after unemployment closes down her small town and temporary work at the local Amazon depot dries up  after Xmas. Considering herself “houseless” rather than “homeless” Fern finds herself involved in a peripatetic community of like-minded individuals, some drifting due to circumstance, others wanting to live out their last years as sight-seers. It’s not a drama and it hardly even qualifies as a docu-drama because virtually nothing happens but it is an eye-opener, not just for the visuals but for the way it explores the inherent loneliness in society. Once she has a taste for the road, Fern spurns every opportunity to settle down. The characters encountered are definitely originals and have the feel of genuine nomads – Swankie and Linda May certainly are –  the camera just happened to catch as it tracked by.

A true original with McDormand – her third acting Oscar after Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2107) plus another one as producer here – giving a tremendous performance as a passive individual surrendering, despite occasional indignity and hardship, to the joys of roaming.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) ****

Rather than face a jail sentence. car thief Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) turns FBI informant and infiltrates a Black Panther group led by Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Spurred on by FBI controller Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), O’Neal’s work has disastrous consequences.

As a devastating expose of the criminal activities undertaken by the world’s highest- profile criminal-catching operation, the FBI,  this is a first-class procedural type of picture, where, courtesy of the suspense created by director Shaka King (Newlyweeds, 2013), you find yourself rooting for O’Neal as he comes close to being discovered. But it is also grounded by an impeccable performance by Kaluuya (Queen and Slim, 2019) who portrays Hampton as a gentle soul, shy with women, but with a gift for public speaking that rouses a put-upon generation.

The Black Panthers are shown as instigators of genuine social reform, setting up medical programs etc, rather than just gun-toting rebels. Kaluuya won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but in truth he steals the show from the lead Stanfield.  

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) ***

If you can make out what is going on in among all the noise and implausibilities then there is a halfway decent summer blockbuster to be enjoyed. The sci-fi gobbledegook spouted by scientist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) leads Kong-whisperer Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and Ilene (Rebecca Hall) into harm’s way, so far beneath the earth you are likely to poke up in Australia. Naturally, the two ancient behemoths go head-to-head while destroying everything in sight.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)***

There may be spoilers ahead.

No wonder Warner Brothers took the first opportunity to dump this bloated mess onto HBO Max. It’s two hours of heavy-handed satire/message and 30 minutes of action. The date of the title is bit of a misnomer, so don’t look too hard for any George Orwellian influence (or even any old hit singles). And the jokes about Steve (Chris Pine) being in a state of awe about turning up 70 years into his future are mostly weak – how many times can you squeeze a laugh out the fact that an elevator moves for goodness sake?

Which is a shame because it starts very well indeed with a young Diana (Scottish actress Lilly Aspell) taking part in a Games against much older rivals. The competition itself is very imaginative and there is a surprise come-uppance for the young lass. And the transition of the ultimate Wimp Woman the nerdy needy Barbara (Kitsten Wiig) into super-predator The Cheetah is a joy to behold as she lifts jaw-dropping weights, discovers her inner slinky sexy self, and literally kicks the ass of a sleazy scumbag. Gal Gadot’s sardonic Wonder Woman has not lost any of that character’s freshness.

The story is set, for no apparent reason, seven decades on from the superhero’s previous incursion with Wonder Woman quick off the mark to rescue a woman from being knocked down and foil a robbery, played in part for comedy. Wiig and Gadot are by far the best part of the picture, linked by a desire for something beyond their existing realities and by the contrast in how they use their super powers. Had their initial friendship turning sour provided the film’s entire focus then the result would have been far more enjoyable, Wiig’s evolution into uber-villain commanding the screen, and the ultimate battle royal worth the wait.

But it’s as if Big (1988) sneaked in, the old make-a-wish idea, but this time when wishes come true they do so at a price, as Diana, pining for the return of Steve, soon realizes. Oil prospector-cum-conman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) runs Wish Fulfilment Central (and Over-Acting Central as a sideline) after discovering an ancient artefact. And that leads to a mountain of guff. No global political issue seems outside this movie’s remit as we dash between the Middle East and Russia and a remake of War Games (1983).

There’s an unhealthy obsession with chucking children into the action with the sole intent of heightening tension (especially in one sequence when kids with acres of desert to play in insist on playing on the road!) And there’s a predilection for instant solutions – Wonder Woman suddenly remembers she can make things invisible, and the golden wings she finally dons come with a quickly-inserted legendary backstory.  

The element of Wonder Woman turning more human through the loss of her powers, and the human consequence of regaining those powers, would have been enough to anchor the story without the need for an endless lecture. The action sequences are top-notch – there’s a sensational sequence in the desert – but overall this feels like a movie Meghan and Harry would make.

Ironically, this $200 million picture – whose sole function is to make gazillions – informs us that greed is bad. Even more bizzarely, I guess in the interest of future sequels, nothing – not even love – can interfere with Wonder Woman’s super powers.

In cinemas now (if you can find one open, that is) and on HBO Max on Dec 25.

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