M3GAN (2022) ****

Sharp psychological drama about attachment, abandonment and loss masquerading as sci fi/horror. Plays off riffs old – Ripley in Aliens and the elevator scene in The Shining – and new, the “Final Girl” trope aka last person standing of the horror film becomes “Final Child.” While not a slaughter-fest in the Halloween/Friday the 13th vein demonstrates ingenious methods of bumping people off.

The starting point is not, as the trailers and adverts might suggest, the invention of a toy robot companion that evolves beyond initial conception, but a young girl, Cady (Violet McGraw) orphaned in a snow plough accident, who is sent to live with workaholic robotics engineer Gemma (Allison Williams), the least maternal woman on the planet.

Knives out and not an onion in sight.

In her own mind Gemma has good excuse not to prepare for this sudden onset of parenting by buying some new toys or child-friendly food or creating a playroom. She is on a deadline having spent $100,000 inventing a new doll called M3GAN that, unfortunately, doesn’t work. So tough luck for the poor little orphan until Gemma can enrol the little girl as the test pilot for the Megan experience.

And that’s a hell of a boon for Cady since the cutely dressed doll, about the child’s size, empathizes with her human companion, actually listens to her, can record and store the child’s memories and seems like it’s about to kickstart a toy revolution. That is, until it develops an exceptionally high protectionist tendency.

When its charge is whacked by an unruly boy or menaced by the dog next door, Megan steps in to deal out fitting punishment. Except the doll has no “stop” button and is inclined to go on meting out punishment until there’s no life left in the victim.

It’s not long before Gemma twigs that the doll is turning into one of those mad parents you find in thrillers, or even like Celia (Lori Dungey), the annoying woman next door who cares more for her dog than her neighbors. The signs are there when Cady starts to run amok. Well, not quite amok, but handing out slaps to adults, and reacting badly when deprived, like a child of its computer game, of the companion.

Gemma, whose idea of commitment is Tinder, takes a very long time before she can put the needs of the child ahead of her career, and when it comes to a showdown finds she is not the match she thought she was for her invention, which, like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or any other man-made monster since time immemorial, objects to being ended.

The grown-ups don’t come off well here, either idiotically bickering so much they cause the accident that renders the child parentless, or obsessed with dogs or work, and even social worker Lydia (Amy Usherwood) assigned to find out if Gemma is a fit mother seems unsuited for the work, inclined to take a rather robotic view herself of child engagement and certainly playing power politics.

Gemma’s boss David (Ronny Chieng) is a mean-minded insecure obsessive unaware an  underling is quietly harvesting his ideas for sale to a rival. All the adults view the child as a doll, a necessary adjunct to show how well the robot works.

Gemma fails to understand, as spelled out by the snotty social worker, that a child who has lost parents will attach herself to the nearest sympathetic person. But Cady, dealing with abandonment and loss, is not the only one with attachment issues. The robot has them in spades, chucked aside on a whim when her creator takes against her or when all attention is transferred to the child.

This all builds up to a tremendous climax when Megan cuts loose in the toy factory, slicing and dicing, and providing the kind of example of her prowess that would have sequel-makers salivating as they detect robot soldier opportunities. And when Gemma tries to bring her to heel finds that (to hell with the obvious pun) the boot is on the other foot.

You can see why this – and other horror thrillers like Barbarian (2022) or Black Phone (2022) that eschewed a conveyor belt of bloody thrills in favor of something deeper – has struck such a chord with the younger audience that makes up the bulk of the audience for Hollywood pictures. This is intelligent. Who hasn’t as a child dreamt of, or even invented, the ideal companion? Who as a child has not thought there must be a better way of being brought up than being left in the hands of parents with little aptitude or interest in the job.

None of these horror pictures has got the slightest chance of being nominated for Oscars while pictures with far bigger budgets, which have not the slightest chance of attracting an audience or are boring them to death, get all the critical hype.

I couldn’t make up my mind whether the doll, being so lifelike, was CGI or human and it turns out she was played by newcomer Amie Donald, though presumably either with a stunt double or a computer doing the crazy dancing. Whatever, the doll is very convincing. As it has to be said, are Allison Williams (Get Out, 2017) and Violet McGraw in her movie debut.

But the star of the show is undoubtedly director Gerard Johnstone, also a movie newcomer, who had the guts to opt for  slow-burn rather than visceral fright and develop themes that would resonate with any adult. Screenplay honors go to Akela Cooper (Malignant, 2021) while director James Wan (also Malignant) cops the story credit.

Virtuoso thriller. Can’t wait for the sequel.  

Deus (2022) ** / Watcher (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Luckily I had been fortified in my weekly cinema outing by the wonderful Living (2022) before entering dudsville for this double bill. Both Deus and Watcher have all the hallmarks of direct-to-DVD productions which have, to use the old parlance, “escaped” into cinema distribution.

I’m probably a bit rusty about the cost of making the kind of giant spacecraft shown in Deus, billions of dollars surely, so am assuming that big projects like this will encounter budget overruns which would account for the rationing of electricity on board, resulting in the  murky lighting. And there’s not an alien in sight unless you count the robotic crew who speak in strangely monotonous tones.

Like most sci-fi films this involves a crew on a mysterious mission awaking from hibernation to investigate a distant object, in this case a sphere. The title assumes this might be about someone playing God and so it transpires, taking a leaf out of The Avengers: Infinity War (21018) playbook with a plot to wipe out three-quarters of the Earth’s population in some kind of eco good deed.

Not only has an evil genius Vance (Phil Davis), who appears only as a hologram (natch), gone to all this bother and created a heavenly apparition but in order to achieve his ends he has had to go to all the clever bother of killing off the family of Karla (Claudia Black) in a car crash so that he can have the opportunity to insert a chip in her brain to infiltrate her imagination.

Former hitman Ulph (David O’Hara) forms part of the crew and the only measure of excitement comes when, mercifully, parts of the mother ship explode. Any action or suspense is purely theoretical with writer-director Steve Stone (In Extremis, 2017) responsible for this monstrosity.

It’s a terrible thing to say I know but I was praying for the serial killer to get a move on and wipe out dull lifeless heroine Julia (Maika Monroe) in Watcher. A former actress, now unemployed,  who has moved to Bucharest with advertising executive partner Francis (Karl Glusman) she spends all her time moping around crying wolf. Naturally, everyone ignores her if only for the fact that when she claims to be watched by a man from across the street she has facilitated such voyeurism by leaving her curtains wide open.

The serial killer is known as The Spider for obvious reasons – I guess he has either a hairy back, six arms, climbs up the outside of buildings, or is the type of arachnid who bites the head off his victims or all of the above or because newspaper headline writers had run out of murderer nicknames or were simply devoid of imagination.

As with Matt Damon in Stillwater (2021) her sense of isolation, what with hubby working all hours, is increased because only a tiny minority of the population have the courtesy to speak English.   Location-wise you know where this is going to end up because next door neighbor Irina (Madalina Anea) keeps a gun in a drawer in case her ex gets antsy, making him of course the first red herring.

For a time it looked as if this was going to turn into something a lot more interesting, a twist on a twist, for in fact she is as much a watcher as the man (Burn Gorman) – a cleaner in a strip club who stares out of the window in a break from the relentless task of caring for his aged father – accused of this crime. In a very foolish gesture she appears to be encouraging him.  

You begin to hope that, to redeem this picture, the upshot is going to be that a paranoid woman shoots an innocent man. Instead, the climax is straight of Hancock’s Half Hour, a legendary British television comedy series, where the heroine survives after losing more than a good armful of blood, probably enough to fill all arms, legs and the bulk of her body.

Maika Monroe (It Follows, 2014) has gone with the erroneous assumption that the less acting she does the more she will appear withdrawn. I felt sorry for Karl Glusman (Greyhound, 2020) in his first leading man role, given nothing to do. Oddly enough, Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim, 2013) has the best scene, demanding an apology from his accuser.

I’m not quite sure what debut director Chloe Okuna did to the original screenplay of the more experienced Zack Ford (Girls’ Night Out, 2019) to grab the main writing credit but it was far from enough.

Like The Banshees of Inisherin, too much appears to be expected of both writer-directors who might have benefitted from a stronger producer challenging their concepts and helping shape the finished material.

War-Gods of the Deep / City Under the Sea (1965) ***

Hollywood careers rarely end in a blaze of cinematic glory. Sudden death ensured Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (The Misfits, 1961) and Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967) went out with a bang but more likely a  career is just going to tail off and end with this kind of whimper. Director Jacques Tourneur, in any case, was long past a heyday that saw him set the horror genre agog with Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943).

If that wasn’t enough to solidify his credentials he dipped into another genre, the nascent film noir, and helmed gems like Experiment Perilous (1944) with Hedy Lamarr and Out of the Past (1947) with Robert Mitchum. Thereafter came swashbucklers The Flame and the Arrow (1950) headlining Burt Lancaster and Anne of the Indies (1951) plus crime drama Appointment in Honduras (1953) with the ever-dependable Glenn Ford and Joel McCrea western Wichita (1955). Then, miraculously, it was back to horror with Night of the Demon (1957) and the late flurry of The Comedy of Terrors (1963).

You can tell where I’m going with all this. War-Gods of the Deep has nothing on any of these pictures. The backstory is much more interesting than the actual film.

Basically, this is one of those pictures where an unlikely pair, American Ben Harris (Tab Harris) and eccentric Brit Harold Tufnell-Jones (David Tomlinson) get themselves into an unlikely situation and have to get themselves out of it.

Set in the smugglers’ paradise of the British Cornish coast around the turn of the last century, on a hotel on top of a cliff, the duo need to track down another American, Jill (Susan Hart), who has disappeared down a plughole, sorry mini-whirlpool. This leads to a legendary underwater city where smugglers led by Sir Hugh (Vincent Price) have found the secret of eternal life, a paradise now endangered by tremors from a nearby volcano.

The Italians didn’t fancy the two titles on offer so came up with their own
by purloining the Jules Verne classic.

He sent his enslaved Gill-Men to kidnap Jill in the erroneous belief that she is his dead wife. Bored out of their minds with listening to Sir Hugh prattling on endlessly about how the underwater city came into being and how important he is to the whole affair and what imminent dangers the inhabitants now face, and of course faced with their own imminent demise as sacrificial victims, the pair decide to scoot, having found a willing accomplice.

There’s a chase and whatever, and some undersea adventure, but there’s not much to it.

However, what you do get when you add someone like Tourneur – and to that extent Vincent Price and his ominous tones – to this listless mix is atmosphere. Tourneur can inject eeriness almost just by switching on a camera, despite a very stage-bound picture, and he knows how to add a music score that tremendously aids his enterprise. The opening section by the shore and in the hotel adds the necessary element of mystery to make the whole idea float.

There clearly wasn’t enough of a budget for the Gill-Men to appear as anything but peripheral figures which actually might have helped since, the state of special effects in that time might have made them laughable rather than distantly disturbing.

The best you can say is that Tourneur made the best of a bad job. Vincent Price (Diary of a Madman, 1963) only has to turn up to inject an element of danger. Tab Hunter (Ride the Wild Surf, 1963) and Susan Hart (Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, 1965) needn’t have bothered turning up for all they bring to the party. And David Tomlinson (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, 1971)  brings far too much, saddled with a pet comic chicken for no apparent reason except to extract a few laughs.

AIP, having made its name in the horror department by raiding the portfolio of Edgar Allan Poe, turned up this source material deep in that vault. But the only connection to Poe is the original idea –  which was not that original, other poets having plumbed those depths prior –  and that appears only in occasional desultory recitations of the poem. But, as a marketing tool, hey, Edgar Allan Poe, that’ll scare their socks off!

So, you are warned, but also you can’t help but warm to this final movie by one of the Hollywood greats as he tries to put a sheen on something that in other hands would have sunk like a stone.

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.

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