Don’t Worry Darling (2022) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Rejoice: a star is born. But it’s not Florence Pugh (Black Widow, 2021). It’s my habit going to the cinema to sit close to the screen in order to avoid the audience. This time I couldn’t help but noticing the streams of young women, often in large groups taking up an entire row. Out of curiosity, I chatted to quite a few at the end, imagining they might be turning up to support director Olivia Wilde’s new picture. Nope, they were here to see Harry Styles (Dunkirk, 2017). That’s what you call star power.

And he certainly has something. A screen charisma, an electricity, and without going too overboard, something akin to the danger of an early Michael Caine or Sean Connery, other British exports. When he was in a scene, it was easy to forget Florence Pugh. You knew what she’d be doing, emoting like crazy, but he was unpredictable, exactly what the camera adores.

Anyway, what we have here is a throwback, a slow-burn paranoia thriller in The Stepford Wives utopia vein with a dystopian twist. But the ending is a let-down, the kind of baffling logic Christopher Nolan often gets away with, and a rather worn trope of male supremacy.

Happily married couple, still going at sex like rabbits, Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) live in a stylized isolated 1950s community where husbands depart for work every morning and wives stay home to do the housework or endlessly shop and gossip. Every need, basic or more luxurious, is taken care of. The men are employed by the mysterious Victory Project, run by the charismatic and fun-loving Frank (Chris Pine), and beyond their housing estate is a forbidden zone.

But strange images keep zapping into Alice’s head. Eggs crumble into nothing and wrapping Saran Wrap/clingfilm round her mouth is not an acceptable lifestyle choice and when the suicide of neighbor Margaret (Kiki Layne) is denied, and she sees a plane crash into the hills, she decides to investigate. Exactly what she discovers we are never told, but her behavior becomes more paranoid, and men in red overalls are likely to scamper out of the woodwork at the hint of any threat along with a bogus psychiatrist only too keen to prescribe pills.

And although it turns out Jack is willing to try his hand at cooking, Alice is jeopardizing their relationship and without the cunning to outwit the devious Frank.

From the outset you were waiting for this fantasy to unravel, although Alice was a shade too overcooked too quickly, and there was no explanation for some of her terrors, being trapped by a sheet of glass for example, and the ending will far from satisfy. But I found the movie suspenseful overall, enough doubt sown to seed the growing tension, the characters by and large well-drawn, otherwise confident men kept insecure by jostling for recognition from boss Frank, and the playfulness occasionally teetering into the acceptably hedonistic.

However, once Alice got the bit between her teeth, there was too much teeth, flaring nostrils and general over-acting. The cooler Frank achieved more with very little.

Generally, though, quite enjoyable, although if director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart, 2019) intended making wider feminist comment, it’s too facile by far. The something that doesn’t add up emanates from the storyline for otherwise the picture is pretty well done, including a car chase and the sinuously sneaky Frank controlling and destroying lives.

As I said, I felt Florence Pugh was too over-heated but she was also let down by a screenplay by Katie Silberman (Booksmart) that failed to come up with any real answers. Harry Styles stole every scene he was in and Chris Pine (Wonder Woman, 2017), playing against heroic type, was excellent. Although there has been criticism of Styles’ performance, bear in mind that screen stardom has been built on less and it would give the industry a shot in the arm if a new star came out of nowhere. The women I encountered in the audience would certainly agree with giving him a bigger role.

From opening week box office, this looks as if it will do well enough to sustain Olivia Wilde’s career, as here her confident direction and visual skill proves she can handle a bigger budget.   

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) ****

A more prescient picture you couldn’t find, tapping into a contemporary audience’s greatest fear – global warming. Its bold cliff-hanger ending would also appeal to a modern audience often left dangling at the climax of a blockbuster. And it cleverly skims on the special effects, relying on the more easily achieved downpours, thick fog, constant sweating, newsreel footage of natural disasters, water rationing and end-of-the-world riots than anything bigger.

But what surprised me more was the sheer pace. Not just a story moving at a frenetic pace but the British characters acting like they had been injected with a heavy dose of New York zap, talking over each other, hardly getting a complete sentence in before interruption, like Howard Hawks had taken command instead of a mere Englishman like Val Guest (Assignment K, 1968), a former journalist.

Front cover of the Pressbook.

It channels the director’s experience into creating the most realistic newspaper office you will ever come across, beating out All the President’s Men (1974) in its representation of how journalism really works, as concerned as much with the general fodder of unheralded stories as the scoops that normally drive such a narrative. And for a story that started off as pure pulp, the dialog is superb, so good it won the Bafta award.

It certainly helped that an actual newspaper editor, Arthur Christiansen (of the Daily Express) lent a guiding hand, playing the role of the editor of this downmarket daily. The summoning of copy boys (actually grown men), the demand for 500 words, the printers ready to switch the front page at a moment’s notice, the inevitable diet of pie and pint, and the emotional casualties as marriages crumble under the strain of a husband more concerned with this next story than wife or children, all serves to ground the film.

And yes, the narrative plays into the usual journalistic tropes, ambitious newspaperman Peter (Edward Judd), career on the line, uses typical wiles, duping lowly scientific secretary Jeannie (Janet Munro) into revealing more than she should. It’s a meet-cute of the old-fashioned variety, she hates him on sight.

Peter is as off-kilter as the world, knocked off its axis by the simultaneous explosion of nuclear devices, unable to come to terms with his divorce, finding solace in the time he spends with his child, and it seems fitting that much of that is spent diving into the darkness of the ghost train ride, the fog equally thematic as he wanders round in circles in that, as aimless as in his life, while a bath is just as cinematically important, not just for the obvious semi-nude scene but as a place of refuge from impending terror.  

These journalists know how to sniff out a story, how to separate the what from the chaff of the official line, digging deeper, and with global connections able to put two and two together far swifter than officialdom. It helps that Peter’s guardian angel Bill (Leo McKern) has a scientific brain and is able to work out the source of the infernal rising temperature.

It’s axiomatic of how clever the screenplay is that Peter and Jeannie come together over a lost child, although Peter, cynical and bitter, but more vulnerable than most, remains a conniving character, happy to risk their burgeoning relationship for the sake of a scoop.

Like Quatermass and the Pit (1967) it’s one revelation after the other as the world hurtles towards oblivion, though not before ending up as the biggest barbecue of all time. The film acknowledges the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the time before piling on proof that man has sown the seeds of destruction on a four-month countdown to doomsday.

We have been here before with end-of-the-world scenarios but this story unfolds not in scientific or official offices, and there’s no President around to add gravitas or take the blame, but in the minds of the dogged journalists, soon appalled by their discoveries, and for once a scoop is unable to save the day or give the villain his just deserts. Whoever is behind the catastrophe remains nameless, although the outcome of superpowers duking it out for supremacy is never in doubt.

Edward Judd (First Men on the Moon, 1964) delivers a star-making performance as the jaded, jagged, journo capable of emotional depths while Janet Munro (Hide and Seek, 1964) escapes Disney tomboy servitude with a very adult role. Leo McKern (Assignment K) has the solid acting chops that would, two decades before television fame as Rumpole of the Bailey, see as a formidable heavyweight addition to any film and a threat to any co-star through jis charismatic ability to steal scenes.

But the film belongs to Val Guest, who constantly turns up the emotional heat and the terror scale, getting the most out of the riveting, sparkling screenplay he co-wrote with Wolf Mankowitz (The 25th Hour, 1967).  

Nope (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

So I’m going to start with a SPOILER ALERT. To give you a moment to digest that, I’m going to explain that if I included half points in my ratings system, this would be a three-and-a-half rather than a four. But it’s certainly better than a three, so it automatically becomes a four. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s take the plunge.

After a pretty good build-up, invoking elements of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979) and, yes, Predator (1987), the mysterious spaceship goes from being a cloud that doesn’t move for six months to a flying saucer (yawn!) to a giant stetson with a hole in the middle to the kind of piratical sail that might have been shredded in a storm. And for an alien that’s flown a gazillion miles to get to this spot of wilderness, it’s pretty dumb, falling for the old trick of swallowing a balloon. Yep, didn’t make much sense to me neither.

But that’s most of the downside because it’s anchored by an absolutely outstanding performance from Daniel Kaluuya who is not far off being this generation’s Tom Hanks.

And there’s a lot of pretty neat stuff, a couple of sizzlers of a red herring, some clever moves at the end by our beleaguered team as they turn from hunted to hunters. And there a host of stunning images, blood drenching a house, a pig on a roof, the deflation of inflatable stick figures, a guy wrapping himself in barbed wire, a boy trapped under a table by a chimp terrorizing a television studio, a shoe that stands up on its end, a horse statue rammed through a windscreen, a bug on a camera that might just be the alien and innovative sound effects.

O.J. Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) runs a ranch specializing in supplying horses for the movies. But it’s on its last legs after the mysterious death of his father (Keith David). He’s not helped by his sister Emerald  (Keke Palmer), as wacky as he is sombre. Amateur Ufologist Angel (Brandon Perea) invites himself to the party while sometime cinematic genius Antlers (Michael Wincott) is a late recruit, but in the end a bit too close to the nutters atop skyscrapers in Independence Day (1996) desperate to welcome aliens.

It does veer too often from sci-fi to horror but instead of Spielbergian awe the characters, while intrigued by the prospect of aliens, are just as likely to be shit scared, too worried about consequence to actually come clean about what they may have witnessed. Emerald and Angel are the enthusiasts, OJ the naysayer. Turns out the sassy Emerald, prone to unearned self-importance and acting too often on whims, annoys the alien by planting in a field a statue of a horse, stolen from a Wild West tourist attraction run by Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), a one-time child television star. Turns out Ricky has the same sensitivity to the presence of the cloud as OJ but instead of leaving well alone plans to publicize its existence to help market his ailing venture.

I’m not sure where the rampaging chimpanzee fits into the equation since that incident occurred in 1998 and Ricky was the youngster hiding under the table.

But once the quartet turn their attention to attempting to lure the alien onto a camera, previous efforts ruined by the alien’s ability to knock out any electricity supply, it turns into quite a cinematic spectacle, the kind of equivalent to Apollo 13 (1995) or The Martian (2015) where survivors of catastrophe have to come up with ideas out of left field.

Adding a bit of spice surprisingly enough is some interesting comedy, OJ and Emerald rubbing each other up the wrong way, Angel complaining of being dumped by a model-turned-actress, and some deadpan one-liners.

There’s a certainly a welcome freshness in terms of the characters, all superb inventions, recognisable as only too human, some of the family dysfunction but none of the obsession of Roy Neary from Close Encounters, nor the enclosed world of the space travellers from Alien whose personalities are generally revealed only in relation to their reaction to the predator, and none of the governmental mumbo-jumbo of ID4.

As I mentioned, the acting is a huge plus. Often sci-fi characterisation is paper-thin, the director thinking, wrongly, that audiences just want to get to the monsters. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, 2017) is top-notch but energy-on-a-stick Keke Palmer (Alice, 2022) runs him very close. Brandon Perea (American Insurrection, 2021) and Steven Yeung (The Humans, 20201) are also excellent, investing their characters with considerable ambiguity, while veteran  character actor Michael Wincott has his first movie outing since Forsaken (2015).

I take issue with the notion that director Jordan Peele (Get Out) has fallen into the M Night Shyamalen (The Sixth Sense, 1999) trap of following an inspired debut with subsequently less inspiring pictures. This is a very bold effort for his third outing and only really let down by the fact that, in carrying out the roles of writer, producer and director, he doesn’t have anyone to rein him in when the ideas go off-piste. Trimming twenty minutes out and losing the self-consciously arty elements and adding a bit more clarity and spending a bit more on CGI and this might have been a real winner.

As it is, worth seeing but with reservations.

Thor (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

It was time someone took the piss out of the MCU. Just as well Marvel decided to do it for themselves. The result is a hoot.

Finding gainful employment for the universe’s dumbest superhero is no joke, but in a welter of visual and verbal gags the studio celebrates his stupidity. I was laughing from the outset and I didn’t stop and from the mad recaps to the giant goats, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) treating his weapons as if they had the power to upset him, his ignorance of the devastation he wreaks, and non-PC references to orgies and the size of his manhood, the inevitable Marvel save-the-world plot takes second place to humor.

Asgard has been turned into a tourist attraction, terrible actors perform sagas in tacky productions to entertain visitors, until Gorr (Christian Bale) the god-killer, having been allocated in normal mysterious fashion and in Excalibur-style the Necrosword, comes calling, kidnapping children, packing them off to the Shadow Realm as a means of luring Thor. Fortunately, lost love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), unfortunately dying of cancer, reappears in his life, though, on the debit side, she steals his hammer, causing him to turn to his axe. There’s hammer hocus-pocus, the usual lengthy daft exposition, but that’s offset by Thor, sensitive soul that he is, feeling he has to woo the discarded axe.

Also recruited are Asgard king Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and stone-man Korg. First port of call, naturally, is Omnipotence City where all the top gods hang out, including Zeus (Russell Crowe), the top god of all. Unwilling to help them out when there are delectable maidens hanging on his every word and orgies to enjoy, Zeus foolishly picks a fight and loses his lightning bolt.

But that’s enough of the madcap fun. Now it gets serious in the usual annoying way, redemption and its alter-ego sacrifice required at every turn, as you try to keep up with the new ideas suddenly introduced, the Bifrost and Eternity, and have to remind yourself of the rules regarding the axe and sword and the various pitfalls awaiting the characters. But the first half has given the movie sufficient energy to woosh you through the second half.

I’m not sure of The Avengers recruitment policy and how Thor ever fitted in and it’s just as well his cohorts in this adventure, part of the way at least, are the equally demented Guardians of the Galaxy phalanx led by the vain and vainglorious Star Lord (Chris Pratt). I always felt the rest of the MCU mob, albeit they occasionally deliver a good quip or two, were just too serious a bunch, what with all the saving-the-universe-and-beyond malarkey whereas Thor and Star Lord are blood brothers, daft specimens, useless at romance and anything serious, good for nothing except a good scrap.

There are a whole bunch of stand-out comic scenes – Thor looking to Star Lord of all people for advice on matters of the heart, the goats leading the space craft crash-landing into a planet. Admittedly, excepting the serious bits at the end, this is far more light-hearted than anything else in the MCU and thankfully sticking to the one universe rather than the multi-universe departures of late.

Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017) as usual is superb, just the right bombast and imbecility coupled with vulnerability and sweetness, his clipped delivery at odds with his befuddlement, his eve-of-battle speeches would have Churchill turning in his grave. But Russell Crowe (Unhinged, 2020), with his mangled Greek accent, matches him in the dumb stakes. Natalie Portman (Lucy in the Sky, 2019) makes a welcome return and Tessa Thompson (Passing, 2021) proves a good side-kick to both. Christian Bale (Ford vs. Ferrari, 2019) bring his malevolent A-game as a memorable villain. Watch out for cameos from Matt Damon (The Last Duel, 2021), Melissa McCarthy (Superintelligence, 2020), Luke Hemsworth (Death of Me, 2020) and Sam Neill (Jurassic World: Dominion, 2022).

Director Taika Waitiki (Thor: Ragnarok , who also voices Korg, does a quite brilliant job of combining action and comedy. He also takes credit for the screenplay along with Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (Unpregnant, 2020).

36 Hours (1964) ***

High concept thrillers that derails two-thirds of the way through. While it’s a battle of wits between German psychiatrist Major Gerber (Rod Taylor) and kidnapped spy Major Pike (James Garner), and between the German and his cynical superior, S.S. chief Schack (Werner Peters), it’s a fascinating insight into the power of mind games, almost slipping into the sci fi genre. Pike has intimate knowledge of the Allied D-Day plans but instead of submitting him to routine torture, he is handed over to Gerber who convinces him he has been suffering from amnesia for six years.

Pike finds himself in what he perceives to be an Allied hospital where everyone wears Yank uniforms, speaks English and listens to baseball scores on the radio. Pike has aged, thanks to greying hair and vision blurred so badly he requires spectacles. There’s even a wife, Anna (Eva Marie Saint), he doesn’t remember marrying. On the eve of D-Day the Germans expect the main invasion thrust to target Calais, the shortest crossing from England, not the Normandy beaches further to the south.  Someone who knows the truth might well be willing to suffer extreme torture to keep the secret out or enemy hands, therefore justifying this approach.

While the idea of a prefabricated existence would not be foreign to today’s audience, it was  an unusual idea at the time, although films as diverse as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and 1984 (1956) revolved around alternative reality. That the whole scheme is entirely plausible is down to Gerber. Rather than the one-dimensional villain, he’s an early version of the “good German,” whose scientific breakthroughs have alleviated suffering. Yes, he’s charming and suave and clever enough to hurry Pike along, but also very humane.

As you might expect, the best part is the constructed universe, Pike’s understandable disbelief at suffering from amnesia, and for so long, the shock to his vanity that his hair and eyes show signs of ageing. Just like Battle of the Bulge (out the next year) where American-born Germans were dropped behind enemy lines as saboteurs, Gerber’s ease with American idiom and culture is key to making the enterprise work. An easy-on-the-ear scientist, he employs a cupboard as a prop to explain the differences in the various types of amnesia. Pike is fooled and does inadvertently betray his country and the twist is that Schack, with so much invested in the notion of the invasion at Calais, refuses to believe it.

As ever in this kind of semi-sci-fi film it’s something incredibly simple (along the lines of the aliens susceptible to water in Signs or the common cold in War of the Worlds) that makes the clever construct unravel. In this case it’s Pike finding a paper cut on his finger and working out it should not be so sore after six years. So, thereafter, the film shifts into escape mode, which is considerably less thrilling compared to the sci-fi hi-jinks. A sub-plot involving Anna, a Jew willing to do anything to avoid the concentration camp, adds some depth to the proceedings.

Oddly enough, despite the title there’s no real sense of a deadline, nor does it come close to achieving the tension racked up in Day of the Jackal (1973) for an event the audience knew never took place, since 36 Hours fails to convince us the D-Day landings were ever in jeopardy.

It’s much more involving, not to mention highly successful, in the middle section where Pike is being duped, the lengths to which Gerber has gone to create the perfect fiction under audience scrutiny, while we watch Pike twist and turn as he comes to terms with what in those days would be perceived as serious mental illness, and from which there is no defined cure. That the escape is triggered by Gerber’s ego adds another element.

The picture did not hit the box office target on release in part I guess because by that time no enemy had to kidnap anyone to fill in the blanks in their scientific knowledge since there was such a plethora of defectors and in part because it seems insane that anyone would go to such excesses when less costly and proven torture implements were to hand.

That it works at all is down to the acting. James Garner (Hour of the Gun, 1967) straddles a number of his screen personas, from his instantly recognisable cocky character of The Great Escape (1963) to the befuddled double-takes of A Man Could Get Killed (1966) and tougher incarnation of Grand Prix (1966). Rod Taylor (Dark of the Sun, 1968) is his match with one of his best performances, infusing the mad scientist with surprising humanity at the same time as wriggling out from under the maw of the inhuman Schack, and, despite clearly being desperate to see his plan work, managing to keep his character on an even, chatty, keel. Eva Marie Saint (The Stalking Moon, 1968), the go-to choice for a vulnerable woman, brings an edge to her role.

Audiences glimpsing the name Roald Dahl in the credits in those days would not have been expecting an imaginative confection in the Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory  (1971) vein but something much more adult given the twist-ridden short stories which had made his name. This was based on his Beware of the Dog (1946) tale, the first of his pieces to be made into a film although some of the best of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958-1961) had lent heavily on his work.

Writer-director George Seaton put the project together, with occasionally some elan,  but as with The Counterfeit Traitor (1962) it’s a film of two distinct parts, but whereas with that film the latter stage was the more interesting here it is the first section. This is best approached as an offshoot of the kind of sci fi themes that inform the work of Philip K. Dick.

Catch-Up:  Rod Taylor’s acting development can be traced through films already reviewed in the Blog – Seven Seas to Calais (1962), Fate Is the Hunter (1964), The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967), Dark of the Sun (1968) and The High Commissioner (1968). James Garner pictures previously reviewed are: Doris Day comedy Move Over, Darling (1963), spy spoof A Man Could Get Killed (1966) and the westerns Duel at Diablo (1966) and Hour of the Gun (1967).

Moonfall (2022) ***- Seen at the Cinema

Whether you enjoy the latest offering of Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 1996) depends very much on how you liked your sci-fi served up. If you require your characters to wear long robes, spout cod philosophy, use superpowers and exist in empires with deposed heirs and family conflict, and whose story cannot be told in one sitting, this may not be for you. Emmerich protagonists tend to be ordinary people, albeit of the planet-saving variety if push comes to shove, and in this case not only does he prioritize diversity but the two most courageous are the wrong shape for heroes.

Where his previous films have enjoyed a longer build-up before catastrophe or invasion, here we are almost straight into the action. The moon is out of orbit, the government wants to hush it up against the advice of senior scientist Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), but conspiracy theory geek K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) activates social media to send the world into panic. Into the mix comes disgraced astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and it falls to these three not to just save the world, but first save the moon in order to prevent Earth’s destruction. They are certainly not quick enough off the mark to stop tidal waves swamping Manhattan, a bombardment of moon debris, and assorted earthquakes and tectonic activity, and in a piece of sfx bravura a gigantic gravity wave.

The trio leave behind loved ones, who are basically left to their own devices to combat the onslaught of destruction. And that is in stark contrast to officials in high office who abandon their positions in order to head for the hills (literally). In one spicy exchange two generals who hold the keys to a nuclear weapon are divided over who to save. In the various sub-plots which all coalesce, the theme is character transition.

The trailer doesn’t give away the movie’s big secret and I’m not about to either but it’s a whopper as Emmerich tracks back to favored ruminations about Earth’s origins. You can chuck away Genesis and the Big Bang as he settles on a different explanation. There are nods to Ridley Scott and even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the end Emmerich ploughs his own path of originality. The second half is amazing and really lifts the picture.

One of the problems of science fiction movies is that virtually every one falls apart under micro examination. They are filled with plot holes and make up for lack of genuine characterization by having heroes plagued by preposterous villains and back stories that lack any sense. But who the hell cares?

Emmerich films tend to take a hammering because the hero is a close relative of Tom Hanks, the dependable guy whose life has gone a little awry but wants to make amends. Here, both Brian and Jo have family issues and make wrong decisions, both, in effect, abandoning their children for the greater good, and while that might seem to set up a series of sub plots it’s no different to any superhero picture where a beloved relative is put in harm’s way because  said superhero unleashes devastation in order to rein in the villain.

Emmerich could easily have anchored this with younger talent. Will Smith was in his late 20s when he starred in Independence Day. But going for older actors allows Emmerich more leeway with the family issues he brings to the fore. Nor do his disaster movies tend to top-bill a female star. That changes here with Oscar-winning Halle Berry (Bruised, 2020), who hasn’t had a hit in years, receiving a well-deserved career boost for a thoughtful role. Patrick Wilson, usually relegated to horror, also steps up.

John Bradley (Game of Thrones) is the wide-eyed geek who sees disaster as another name for adventure and as far removed from the clever-clogs Jeff Goldblum of Independence Day as you can get. Michael Pena (Fantasy Island, 2020) is the pick of the supporting roles. Donald Sutherland (The Hunger Games) has a cameo. Younger players worth a mention are Charlie Plummer (All the Money in the World, 2017) and Wenwen Yu (Forever Passion, 2021) and

Admittedly, the dialogue is cheesy in places, occasionally overburdened with scientific gibberish, but that’s par for the course.

A good old-fashioned fun ride.  

Dr Who and The Daleks (1965) ***

The maiden voyage of the time-travelling Tardis is triggered by some unexpected pratfall comedy. On board are the venerable doctor (Peter Cushing), his intrepid great-granddaughter Susan (Roberta Tovey) and a fearful pair, granddaughter Barbara (Jennie Linden) and accident-prone Ian (Roy Castle). They land on a petrified planet ruled by robotic Daleks with menacing electronic voices.

The malfunctioning Tardis forces them to investigate an abandoned city but they are quickly imprisoned, the steel robots determined to discover why the earthlings should be immune to the radiation that has consumed the planet after nuclear war. Meanwhile, the planet’s remaining inhabitants, the Thals, are planning an uprising.

Studio One was one of the smallest cinemas in London’s West End and often used as the launch pad for Disney pictures. Limited capacity ensured that a hit film would run for months and the crowds queueing outside would attract the attention of other passersby.

Budget restrictions ensure that menace is limited, even as the characters endure a heap of traditional obstacles such as swamp and rocky outcrop. Adults who did not grow up in the 1960s when the BBC television series took Britain by storm and apt to come at this without the benefit of nostalgia will certainly look askance at the sets and costumes. And it doesn’t possess the so-bad-it’s-good quality of some 1950s sci-fi pictures. But since it was primarily made for children, then perhaps it’s better to watch it with a younger person and gauge their response – of course, that may be equally harsh from someone brought up on the modern version of the series or already immersed in superheroes.

On the plus side, it does move along at a clip. Roberta Tovey (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) charms rather than annoys as the plucky grand-daughter even if her grandfather has mutated from the sterner figure of the television series into an eccentric inventor. Peter Cushing (She, 1965) is only required to ground the production which he does adequately. The innate comic timing of Roy Castle, in his leading man debut, brings a light touch to proceedings as the bumbling boyfriend and generates some decent laughs. Jennie Linden (Women in Love, 1969) has little to do except look scared.

With no built-in audience, the U.S. distributors marketed it in typical fashion – “half men half-machine” – and possibly roped in a bigger adult audience unaware of its origins in children’s television.

Oddly enough, it was American Milton Subotsky who, in opportunistic fashion, brought the project to the big screen, although the BBC had a track record of providing product that might make such a leap, The Quatermass Experiment in the 1950s the leading example. He wrote the screenplay and acted as producer and had previously worked with Cushing on Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) and was about to embark on horror masterpiece The Skull the same year. He has approached the material with some reverence and the fact that the budget allowed for hordes of daleks rather than being seen one or two at a time as on the television probably made some child’s day.

Scottish director Gordon Flemyng (The Split, 1968) would make the leap to Hollywood on the back of this picture and its sequel the following year and you can see what made studios have faith in his ability – he deals with multiple characters, works quickly on a low budget and delivers an attractive picture that was a box office hit.

I suspect that audiences will divide into those who watch the film with nostalgia-colored spectacles, those who think it only as good as a bad episode of Star Trek and those who adore any low-budget sci-fi movie.

You can catch this on Amazon Prime.

Seconds (1966) *****

John Frankenheimer’s censor-baiting and game-changing paranoia drama was decades ahead of its time – it created the template for Blade Runner (1982), The Swimmer (1968), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Parallax View (1974) and The Truman Show (1998) to mention just a few –  and underneath the sci-fi surface asked deeper questions about identity, reality and depression. And it might well qualify as reaching for the impossible dream. Kafkaesque aspects intrude. It’s as much an essay on hopelessness as it is on hope, a scorching portrayal of the human condition. Unusual camera angles and depth of field make this a visual, if occasionally challenging, delight.

Disillusioned banker Arthur (John Randolph), marriage off-kilter, reacting to a call from someone he believes is dead, gets hooked into a deal which promises rebirth. After plastic surgery and a faked death, he is reborn as a much more handsome figure (Rock Hudson), pursues a new career as an artist, is sexually re-born during an orgy, but finds memories of his old life resurfacing at  inopportune moments and takes against the notion that he has to recruit friends or colleagues to go through the same process.

Although audiences had been treated to some paranoid impulses like The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and films dealing with mental health such as Lilith (1964), this was the first film to touch on paranoia about big business, the unseen conglomerates controlling lives in unseen ways that directors in the 1970s pounced upon. Although a piece of breakthrough technology, the rebirth business is now just that, a business, wherein an anonymous  corporation, known here only as The Company, seeks to maximize profit from human misery.  

You could almost view the men who had more successfully undergone the experiment than Arthur as Stepford Husbands, guys who had created an ideal version of themselves. They could be body snatchers who have stolen a more convenient body. In another respect, the conventional Arthur turns into the rebel in society, refusing to accept this new creed. And he is gullible enough to believe his employers will accommodate his demands.   

On the one hand it is a self-destructive horror story. Arthur willingly gives in to his desire for a better life regardless of the emotional cost and is somewhat surprised to find that the community in which he lives is a construct, almost as fictional as any computer game.

It is an amazing mixture of sci-fi and horror. But the sci-fi has the bleakness of Blade Runner,  the hospital and offices where the future unfolds are drab, while the beach locations have an uncanny unreality. The horror is for the most part confined to two scenes – the new Arthur waking up swathed in bandages and later, strapped to a gurney, realizing too late his destiny.

But mostly what I found resonating was the examination of male psyche and its inability to deal with adversity and depression. Arthur isn’t so much desperate to wake up as a handsome hunk as to enter a new existence where he does not feel so lonely and displaced, where he can discover the humanity he has lost. It is not that he wants to be absolved of all responsibilities but wishes to be free of his current joyless life. While he becomes an improved physical specimen, he finds to his consternation that he has not shaken off the gloominess lurking in his brain.

The futuristic aspects are compounded by brilliant down-to-earth scenes. Company executive Ruby (Jeff Corey) goes into all the details of their contract while eating a chicken dinner, an old friend Charlie (Murray Hamilton) is deskbound, when Arthur arranges in his new skin to meet wife Emily (Frances Reid) he discovers his old true self had been only too apparent, cursed with unspoken longing and divorced from reality. Even romance with the outgoing Nora (Salome Jens) only offers brief reinvigoration after he partakes in an orgiastic grape-stomping event.

This is Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, and given he also directed The Manchurian Candidate, that is some accomplishment. He exercises total control in a film about total control but he is indebted to cinematographer James Wong Howe for developing new techniques to achieve a quite different, often austere, look.

It incurred the wrath of the Production Code – the U.S. censor – with scenes of full-frontal female nudity. These were all cut (though you will find them on the DVD). Whether their inclusion would have turned the film into a hit – rather than being booed at the Cannes Film Festival and a big flop at the American box office – is a moot point since, at that time, films as obscure as Blow Up (1966) had attracted big audiences due their more permissive approach. This should have been a late career transition for Rock Hudson (Strange Bedfellows, 1965) into more mature work but his excellent and brave performance was dismissed by the critics.

Ghostbusters Afterlife (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

This Geeks’R’Us (Junior Dept) reboot of a dying franchise is a blast. After the last leaden reinvention, this social-media infused spin brings redemption few brands can dream of. Most kid-centric films rely on a really cute kid. No need here. A brilliant screenplay does the job of bringing the kids to life, and you better believe kids can be that smart.

Drained impoverished Callie (Carrie Coon) dodges eviction by sneaking off to the prairie heartlands with her two offspring to a bleaker version of Bates Motel, owned by her unloved distant grandfather, now deceased. Pretty soon strange things happen, chess pieces move of their own volition, an overhead light points the littlest dork Phoebe (Mackenna Grace) in the right direction. Meanwhile the older nerd Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) uncovers the original Ghostbusters vehicle mouldering away in a collapsed barn. Teacher Grooperson, the kind of guy who lets his charges watch horror videos all day, fills her in on the seismic activity in the region.

It’s not long before all hell lets loose with new types of monsters, something to do with an ancient civilization and a mine filled with diabolical secrets. The action scenes are great fun but what holds it all together, as in the original, are the characters, and in particular the cynical social-media-savvy Podcast (Logan Kim) with a wry comment on every event, the kind of kid who enters what looks like a haunted house with relish.

If Ghostbusters (2016) was a gender reversal, this is a generational reversal, with the adults in general flopping around, Callie on an alcoholic spectrum (she’d be drunker if she could afford it), Grooperson capable of boring a date into insensibility. The kids take charge and not only save the day but save the brand. Podcast looks good for a few sequels to come. The scene where this oddball realises he has made a friend in Phoebe in pure acting gold.

Phoebe is saddled with the exposition, Podcast given the snappy one-liners. We’ve seen a Phoebe before but never a Podcast. Sappy Trevor, in love with waitress Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), brings more zing as the driver of the recharged Ghost-mobile. But this is the kind of film where all the parts fit, where something that seemed like a distraction turns out to be anything but.

Setting it in the middle of nowhere is a masterstroke, with fields and mountains aplenty for ghosts and ghosthunters alike to roam, and a town small enough that even the smallest ghost is going to make a big impact.

Four-time Oscar nominee Jason Reitman (The Front Runner, 2018) brings home a sequel so fresh it feels like a stand-alone. He co-wrote the screenplay with Gil Kenan (Poltergeist, 2015). Amazingly, this is Logan Kim’s movie debut. Much as he steals the show, Mackenna Grace (Malignant, 2021) delivers an excellent portrait of an outsider who grows into herself. Celeste O’Connor (Freaky, 2020) and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, 2106-2022) create a believable juvenile not-yet romance. Paul Rudd (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018) is better for dropping the cuteness and Carrie Coon (The Nest, 2020), drained by life of all life, in a different movie universe would have had a movie all of her own.  

Not so much afterlife as reborn.

The Double Man (1967) ***

A bit more action and this could have been a John Wick-style winner because C.I.A. agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) is a big-time bad ass, all steely stare and resolve, and no time for anyone who gets in his way as he investigates the unexpected death of his son in the Austrian Alps.

It’s probably not this picture’s fault that any time a cable car hovers into view I expect to see Clint Eastwood or Richard Burton clambering atop all set to cause chaos, or any time a skier takes off down the slopes anticipate some James Bond malarkey. Luckily, director Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) avoids inviting comparison in those areas but rather too much reliance on the tourist elements of the ski world puffs out what would otherwise be a tighter storyline. And he also sets too much store by loud music to warn the audience of impending danger.

Slater is out of the ruthless espionage mold and, convinced on paltry evidence that his son has been murdered, determines to track down the perpetrators. There is a reversal of the usual plot in that those he asks for help are unwilling to give it, retired agent Frank Wheatly (Clive Revill) and chalet girl deluxe Gina (Britt Ekland) who initially views him as an older man to be fended off but turns out to have the vital information he seeks.

There’s a lot of tension but not much action and today’s modern vigilante would have beaten the information out of anybody who crossed his path rather than taking Slater’s path. Despite this, the relentless tone set by Slater ensures violent explosion is imminent. To be sure, you will probably guess early on, from the appearance at the outset of some Russians, that Slater is heading into a trap, but the reasons are kept hidden long enough.

There are some excellent touches. Slater’s boss (Lloyd Nolan) has a nice line in keeping his office underlings in check, chalet hostess (Moira Lister) is all style and snip, the Russian Col. Berthold (Anton Diffring) clipped and menacing. And the skiing sequences that relate to the picture are well done while the others are decently scenic.   

It’s a shame that Brynner is in brusque form for it gives Britt Ekland in a switch from her comedy breakthroughs not enough to do. Revill is excellent as the former agent who has had his fill of espionage and dreads being pulled back into this murky world. Producer Hal E. Chester clearly spent more on this than on The Comedy Man (1964) but with varying results, top-notch aerial photography but dodgy rear projection. And there are some screenwriting irregularities, such as why conduct the son’s funeral before the father is present.

Catch-Up: Yul Brynner performances previously reviewed in the Blog are The Magnificent Seven (1960), Escape from Zahrain (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Return of the Seven (1966) and Villa Rides (1968). Britt Ekland movies already covered are: The Happy Thieves (1961), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Machine Gun McCain (1969) and Stiletto (1969).

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