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).

Reminiscence (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hollywood has been running shy of genuine film noir for some time now so it makes little sense to give it a waterlogged futuristic setting despite the impressive track record, albeit not in the movies, of writer-director Lisa Joy best known as co-creator of television hit Westworld (2016-2021). Ecologic disaster dominates this future, floods reducing cities to rivers, skyscrapers and buildings existing as islands in a wet landscape. Dystopia is also rampant with the masses close to riot and big business, as you might expect, nonetheless able to exploit the situation.

Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a private eye of sorts, but concentrating his practice on infiltrating the mind, operating some kind of giant bathtub immersion which, plus a  headset that looks borrowed from a Marvel supervillain, allows him to penetrate secrets. Enter statuesque femme fatale Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) who has – wait for it – lost her keys! Yep, that’s the set-up. Some amazing technological gizmo that can be turned into a key-hunting device.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. To fill out the film noir aspect, Mae is some kind of nightclub singer, rehashing the Rodgers & Hart standard “Where or When,” singing into a  1940s mike. And there’s a voice-over reminiscent of the awful voice-over that besmirched the original release of Blade Runner, with some lines so bad that the director sees fit to run them twice.

Soon Bannister is plunged (pardon the pun) into a mystery that takes in businessman Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen) and family and there’s other bad guys like Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and a shoal of red herrings lying in wait. Instead of Bannister being the alcoholic as is usually the private eye trope, it’s his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton).

Left alone, this might have made a decent mystery, and there is enough intrigue to be going along with, family secrets to expose, but the setting destroys any possibility that the picture might actually take off.  The city is in some cases flooded to probably the first ren or twenty storeys of a skyscraper but in other sequences Bannister skips through what look like little more than a few inches of water. There is an absolutely peculiar scene where Bannister escapes his enemy by trapping him in a grand piano and sending him into a watery grave only to change his mind and try to rescue him.

There’s some interesting material about how to capture memory and keep it on permanent rewind but it’s kind of lost in the general flotsam and jetsam and there’s a sweet line about finishing a story at the good part before it turns into a sad ending. But there’s really no justification for the futuristic setting even if Bannister had invented a gizmo that opened up the mind, more of an electronic psychiatrist than a gumshoe.

Hugh Jackman (The Front Runner, 2018) does his best but the risible voice-over, striving too hard for memorable lines, does for him. Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Fallout, 2018) is satisfactory without being electrifying but Thandiwe Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018) is wasted.

Monster Hunter (2020) ****

They’re back – with a bang! Writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, 2002) and wife Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, 1997) hit the ground running in a pedal-to-the-metal all-action sci-fi rock’n’rolla. Coming up for nearly a quarter-of-a-century as the reigning action queen, Jovovich delivers in style.

The platoon of U.S. Army Ranger Lt. Artemis (Jovovoich) is inexplicably transported to an alien planet to fight, what else, aliens. The platoon doesn’t last long and in a tidy riff on John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968) – and its futuristic remake Enemy Mine (1985) – she has to battle then buddy-up with a guy known only as Hunter (Tony Jaa).

The title is a bit of misnomer. The monsters are the hunters not the hunted. Dune-like, and of uber-dinosaur proportions, they emerge from the sand, or scuttle out from the rocks in daylight, or pump forth from the tops of cones of stone, or range down from the sky with weaponry that can turn sand into glass. When not trying to knock six bells out of each other, the pair spend their time escaping or trying to outwit the monsters and then to reach a distant lighthouse around which all types of ancient vessels have run aground.

I should point out the terrain is all-desert, sand not water, so quite what purpose the lighthouse plays is a bit of a mystery. That neither Artemis nor the Hunter can speak the others’ language gets in the way of bonding, that and the fact they are still intent, in the way of sworn enemies forced to work together, in acts of one-upmanship. But that doesn’t prevent small touching moments.

I didn’t know this was based on a video game and for once it appears not to be so reliant on holding true to its antecedents. I had no trouble understanding it. What do you need to understand, for heaven’s sake? We are used to people ending up in strange dimensions with hostile populations. Although later on the story develops a bit more, the bonding and the battling is enough to get on with. Simplistic, by the way, tends to be the hallmark of a good action picture.

By the time you get to the end you realise it’s actually more of an origin story especially when other characters – namely The Admiral (Ron Perlman) and a piratical scene-stealing cat – enter the frame. In fact, what’s most clearly signposted is a sequel.  

Jovovich is back to her running, jumping and fighting best. I’ve no idea why Hollywood has not invested decent money in her. She is a far better fit for the action genre than many of the actresses the studios have invested bigger bucks in. Put her in a Die Hard – with requisite budget – scenario and see where she takes you would be my advice. Like Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson, her actions speak louder than words.

I can’t believe that Paul W.S. Anderson hasn’t been on the big screen since Resident Evil: Final Chapter (2016) and had to make do with DTV sequels to Death Race (2012). He has enough visual style you would have thought to stand a chance of landing something in the MCU or DC universe. Could be that he’s not all that keen on conforming to other peoples’ visions.

Whatever the reason, he’s certainly got panache where it matters most – on the screen. As the writer, too, he’s allowed his characters more time to breathe, and in Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, The Thai Warrior, 2003) recruited a more-than-estimable co-star. That Jaa does his own stunts brings a different dimension to the screen battles.

It’s worth pointing out that both stars are in their mid-40s, Jovovich the older by a year, but both look fitter than actors two decades younger. They share terrific screen charisma and might well turn into one of the best screen action pairings.

I was going to say it’s good to see Ron Perlman (Hellboy, 2004) back in action but it turns out he’s rarely been off our screens – he’s got nearly 200 movies and television shows and animated games to his credit and already another 14 movies in the pipeline. This is barely more than a cameo, however,  looking like it’s setting him up for the sequel. Also making brief appearances are Meagan Good (The Intruder, 2019) and composer Tip T.I. Harris (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018).

Welcome back, Paul and Milla and bring on the sequel.

For sure, these action-packed sci-fi numbers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but they certainly float my boat.

I saw this on the big screen, by the way, as part of this week’s Monday triple bill at my local cinema, the others being In the Heights and In the Earth. It’s not out on DVD yet, but there’s no doubt it will have a bigger impact on the big screen so if you get a chance catch it.

Possessor (2020) *****

This Brandon Cronenberg (son of you-know-who) rumination on identity is heavily disguised as a gory and occasionally sexy dystopian thriller. What appears at first glance a homage to giallo – toplining on shock, flesh and blood – soon reveals deeper layers of something more insistently disturbing. Focusing on an identity thief whose victim turns the tables into a who-owns-who, the films asks questions about the nature of identity and the effect of memory loss or memory accrual on individual personality. An early scene, part-debrief/part-interrogation, sees identity mind-robber Andrea Riseborough interviewed by boss Jennifer Jason Leigh to determine her own memory status, picking her way through a box of items carrying emotional connection, but it later becomes clear that Leigh has more sinister concerns: is the Riseborough returned from her latest adventure the same one as was sent out or has she been infiltrated by another?

Riseborough borrows identities in order to perpetrate a series of assassinations for an unseen corporation. Such murders are gorier than her employers would expect, invariably involving sharp implements, and setting the viewer to wonder whether the source for such brutality comes from a deeper part of the woman’s psyche. How much she is who she says she is is also questionable; before turning up on her ex’s doorstep, she rehearses what she wants to say. So there is mental and emotional dislocation at play, though whether that is the result of the experiments she appears to willingly undertake or whether from an existing characteristic is hard to say. So Cronenberg always has us at a disadvantage, and he keeps us that way, one step removed from what is going on, and may have occurred in the past, and only the determined assurance that nothing is going to turn out as it should.

One of the elements that places this picture in the top-notch category is that Cronenberg’s future does not fully work, components appear constantly out of place, as if a gear is always slipping. When Riseborough impersonates a man it is clear she has not quite grasped his full personality. When she possesses the identity of Christopher Abbott, a lowly drone partnering boss’s daughter Tuppence Middleton, he/she appears to be sleepwalking, parts of his personality eluding her, the disconnect so obvious that Middleton continues to ask what’s wrong and Abbott seems to forget that he is having an affair or has a friend at work. Again, it’s not clear whether this is Riseborough’s skillset drifting, or an extreme example of the dangers of identity theft. Instead of this whole concept being a scientific marvel, he/she is always one step behind. (Nothing to do with the plot but the previous butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth English actress Middleton has also gone through a screen persona transformation, searching out her inner raunch for hot action with Abbott).

When Abbott begins to imagine inhabiting Riseborough’s face, the ghastly apparition seen on the poster, and in one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, the story takes a different turn, as if a Terminator is now on her tail.

The world depicted is an invasive one. Riseborough can infect the brain and take over the body, while Abbott’s day-job appears voyeuristic, as if the internet eye had become all-encompassing. To complete the dystopian feel, streets are always deserted and although that may be the result of budget restriction it fits the overall tone, this concrete jungle in sharp contract with murder in marble halls (a cameo by Sean Bean).

Riseborough is at her haunted best, Leigh steely as her boss, Abbott a revelation as the disturbed stolen property. Nod to Jim Williams for a brilliant score. While Cronenberg tags Blade Runner, Brazil, Blue Thunder and Terminator, the movie is an original. With enough drive and mystery to keep the thriller aspects at full tilt and while following in father David Cronenberg’s footsteps in his thirst for gore, the thrust of the picture is quite different, the concept so good it could have gone any number of different ways: the burglar trapped between two identities: the identities at war: or the personalities trying to make up what has been removed. You are left wondering what else could be going on in the world of Cronenberg’s imagination and not so much begging for a sequel but another parallel adventure in this particular universe. When a movie is still preying on your mind several days later, that’s when you know you have uncovered something special.

The Lost Continent (1968) ***

Hammer had struck gold revisiting ancient civilizations in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and with its adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1967). The Lost Continent was another Wheatley number (source novel Uncharted Seas) mixing dangerous voyage, hints of the legendary Atlantis, and monsters. While the first half could have been marketed as The Wages of Fear At Sea the second half would come under the heading  “The Greatest Oddball Film Ever Made.”

It boasts one of the most intriguing setting-the-scene openings not just of a Hammer picture but of any film – a camera pans along a steamship on whose deck are: people dressed in furs, others in modern clothing and – Conquistadors. Attention is focused on a coffin.  How and why they got there is told in flashback. A first half of taut drama, mutiny, sharks, a ferocious octopus, and lost-at-sea a thousand miles from land segues into sci-fi with carnivorous weeds, monsters, and a weird, weird world.

It’s hard to know what’s worse, ship’s captain Eric Porter (straight from television mega-hit The Forsyte Saga) with a cargo of toxic chemicals made combustible when touched by water or the equally combustible passengers all with murky pasts, so determined to escape their previous lives that they refuse to turn back in the face of a hurricane. Heading the Dodgy Half-Dozen is dictator’s mistress Hildegarde Knef  (Catherine of Russia, 1963) with two million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. Nigel Stock (television’s Dr Watson in the 1960s Sherlock Holmes series), a back-street abortionist, is at odds with daughter Suzanna Leigh, who has cornered the market in backless dresses. Tony Beckley (The Penthouse, 1967) plays a conman while Ben Carruthers is trying to recover the pilfered bonds.

But the arrival of cleavage queen Dana Gillespie from the weird world signals a shift to Planet Oddball. The only way to navigate the weeds trapping the ship is with a primitive version of snowshoes with (naturally) balloons attached to the shoulders. Soon they are trapped in the past, not as prehistoric as One Million Years BC, just a few centuries back to the Spanish Conquistador era. The film steals the idea from the Raquel Welch picture of giant creatures locked in battle but without going to the necessity of hiring Ray Harryhausen.

On board ship, director Michael Carreras, fresh from Prehistoric Women (1967), does well, the characters are all solidly presented with decent back stories, the tension mounting as the passengers encounter nautical turbulence, but once he enters weird world budget deficiencies sabotage the picture. Even so, it’s worth a look just to see what you’re missing. If you’re looking for a genuine freak show, this ticks the boxes.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

First Men in the Moon (1964) ***

Christopher Nolan take note – sci-fi works best if the premise (no matter how preposterous) is simple to understand. In this endearing adventure, set in Victorian times, Professor Cavor (Lionel Jeffries) has invented a paste that defies gravity. Thus liberated, a spaceship covered in the stuff, for example, would fly to the Moon.

The story begins in present times with a worldwide space mission landing on the moon where the astronauts discover the British have been there first. Investigation on Earth leads to Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961), the last surviving member of the original endeavour’s three-person crew.

Space pioneers are usually stalwarts, but Bedford is a bit of a con man, an impoverished wannabe playwright, convincing his American fiancé Kate Callender (Martha Hyer) that he owns the cottage he is renting. Continuing with this ploy, he sells the cottage to the madcap inventor before realising the fortune that could be made from investing in Cavorite (the anti-gravity paste) and signing up for the voyage to the Moon.

Jeffries is a delight as the manic inventor, a far cry from the stuffy seriousness of modern movie scientists, and in a very British way sets up some wonderful comedy, obsessed with keeping out the draught, which would affect the temperature of his experiments. He thinks the mission will survive on a diet of sardines. The romance is not quite as old-fashioned as it first appears. Where Hyer is madly in love, Judd is madly in love with making money. Eventually, she goes off in a huff only to return with supplies for the journey – chickens (to provide further comedy), a shotgun and alcohol. Inevitably, accidentally, she joins the mission.

Then we are straight to Ray-Harryhausen-Land. The title offers a clue to proceedings – “in the Moon” rather than “on the Moon” – as the explorers discover intelligent life in the shape of a race of insectoids under the surface of the Moon. The science, based on genuine scientific principles, continues to be simple – the  aliens employ solar power; they live underground because they lacked irises to protect their eyes from the sun; and they hibernate in pods. Maybe the giant centipede has no truth in scientific possibility, but who knows? But the aliens are smart enough to try to replicate the paste and they attempt to communicate. A stand-off naturally ensues though where Jeffries sees the potential for scientific partnership the other pair see danger.

Screenwriter Nigel Kneale (the creator of Quatermass) added Kate Callender to the original  H.G. Wells tale. Director Nathan Juran was an old hand at sci-fi, being responsible for The Deadly Mantis (1957) and Attack of the 50ft Woman (1958). Producer Charles H. Schneer had previously teamed with Harryhausen on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963).

If you’re desperate for time-travel nonsense and gigantic gunfights and want sci-fi to be a mystery nobody can unravel, give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you fancy a well-crafted story and accept the limitation budgets place on sets and alien creatures, then sit back and watch.

Day of the Triffids (1963)****

Pandemic means pandemonium and these are by far the best scenes in the adaptation of John Wyndham’s famed sci-fi novel. Virtually everyone in the world is struck blind by the fierce  brightness emitted from a bombardment of meteorites.

When passengers on a plane realize their pilot is blind, the panic is breathtaking. Ditto a train crashing into a station. While those with sight intact such as a busload of convicts can terrorize the blind, forcing them to submit to sexual overtures. On top of that are terrific scenes of deserted cities – very familiar to us all during the current pandemic – and of those unable to see trying to walk hands outstretched or attach themselves to anyone still blessed with sight.

One of the standouts is patient Howard Keel, saved from seeing the dazzling light display because his eyes were bandaged, walking through a deserted and trashed hospital. And perhaps Jurassic Park found useful the scene where the plants test an electrified fence.

And on top of that, of course, are the unstoppable monstrous man-eating plants whose growth has been triggered by the comets. Steven Spielberg over a decade later showed how to maintain tension by showing a terrifying predator in small doses and indicating its presence through musical cues and especially, when your monster ain’t quite up to scratch, keeping it hidden for as long as possible.

Interestingly, this film uses sound cues, specific noises attributable to the creatures, though the plants are shown too soon and too often but, in terms of special effects, not at all bad for their time and the low budget. And the sheer normality of the locations works very well – a caretaker having his sandwich, hard-boiled egg and flask of coffee the first victim. Some deft humor undercuts the terror. “Once you’ve tasted this coffee of mine,” remarks a character, ”you’ll know nothing worse can happen.”

Leading the battle against the monsters are sailor Howard Keel, ironically recovering from an eye operation, hotel proprietor Nicole Maurey and in an isolated location alcoholic scientist Kieron Moore and his wife Janette Scott.  Keel and Maurey are initially intent on mere escape, but in the end have to fight.

But once again a film like this shows how much more powerful is imagination. We can imagine being blind and walking in a vacuum with the vulnerability and helplessness that fear  entails. As the present pandemic has shown, the unknown is terrifying and fear of the unknown even worse.