Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Aka WW84. Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think. As a young girl, immortal Amazon demi-goddess and princess Diana (Lily Aspell) competes in an athletic competition on Themyscira Island against older Amazons. She falls from her horse, misses a stage, and is disqualified after trying to take a shortcut. Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) who is general of the Amazon army lecture her on the importance of truth. In 1984 adult Diana (Gal Gadot) works as a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. She specialises in the culture of ancient Mediterranean civilisations and studies languages for fun. She continues to fight crime as Wonder Woman, albeit while trying to maintain some anonymity, rescuing people from a botched jewellery heist in a local mall. Diana meets new co-worker, gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) an insecure woman who idolises Diana and tries to befriend her. Aspiring businessman and charismatic TV huckster Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) visits the museum to try to acquire a mysterious Dreamstone which grants wishes to anyone who touches it. It is one of the artifacts found as part of the black market the jewellery store engages in and both of the women unwittingly use it for their own desires: Diana wants to be reunited with her dead WW1 pilot lover Steve Trevor (Chris Pine); while Barbara wants to be like Diana. She gets a makeover at a local boutique and Lord turns up at a Smithsonian gala and manipulates her in order to retrieve the stone. Once it’s in his possession he wishes to become its embodiment and gains its power to grant wishes, while also able to take whatever he desires from others: he’s been selling shares in oil without striking it yet and in a matter of days becomes a powerful and influential global figure leaving chaos and destruction in his wake. Barbara, Diana and Steve try to investigate the Dreamstone’s power further, and discover it was created by the God of Treachery and Mischief; the stone grants a user their wish but takes their most cherished possession in return, and the only way to reverse the condition is by renouncing their wish, or destroying the stone itself. Steve realises that his existence comes at the cost of Diana’s power. Both Diana and Barbara are unwilling to renounce their wishes, and try to figure out another solution. Maxwell, upon learning from the U.S. President (Stuart Milligan) of a satellite broadcast system that can transmit signals globally, decides to use it to communicate to the entire world, offering to grant their wishes. Barbara/Cheetah joins forces with Maxwell to prevent Diana from harming him. Steve convinces Diana to let him go and renounce her wish so that she can regain her strength and save the world. She returns home and dons the armour of the legendary Amazon warrior Asteria, then heads to the broadcast station and battles Barbara, who has made another wish with Maxwell to become an apex predator, transforming her into a cheetah-woman. After defeating Barbara, Diana confronts Maxwell and uses her Lasso of Truth to communicate with the world … Does everybody parachute now? What a great welcome this film deserves: a charming, heartfelt feminist superhero sequel with a message of peace, love and understanding – but not before the world comes close to annihilation. Adapted from William Moulton Marston’s DC Comics character with a screenplay by director Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham, this starts out very well but tellingly goes straight from a prehistoric setpiece into an Eighties mall sequence and the first half hour is fantastic. Then … there’s character development when the klutzy Barbara arrives and her transformation to Cheetah takes its sweet time while odious businessman Lord is also introduced with his own backstory. The wheels don’t come off, exactly. The scenes are fractionally overlong and the two villain stories don’t mesh precisely with excursions into politics (the Middle East and a bit of an anti-Irish scene in London) which then escalates when Lord introduces himself to the US President (Reagan himself though he’s unnamed) at the height of the Star Wars policy (and we don’t mean sci fi movies). The winged one then learns the beauty of flight from her reincarnated boyfriend; while Barbara becomes more feline and vicious, an apex predator as she puts it. And Lord gets greedy while alienating his little son. So there are three somewhat diverging narrative threads. This is a structural flaw in an otherwise rather wonderful story. An exhilarating pair of back to back introductory setpieces followed by a Superman tribute that is exceedingly pleasant but doesn’t capitalise on all the characters’ considerable potential, this is a half hour too long (like all superhero outings) with scenes that need to be cut and political commentary that doesn’t sit quite right. Some of the jokes about the Eighties (in Pine’s scenes) get a little lost (directing or editing issues?) but the costuming is on the money and given that Diana lives in the Watergate Complex it’s a little surprising more wasn’t made of this or that it wasn’t set a decade earlier. Otherwise DC is nicely established in terms of geography and obviously it’s plundered for story. There are jokes that land rather well, like the Ponzi scheme; and when Steve gets into a modern aeroplane and Diana suddenly remembers that radar exists. In effect, this is a movie about the conflict in using your powers – there is a time and a place and it’s not always appropriate to get what you want because there are consequences and making a choice implies potentially terrible consequences and sometimes loss of life. It also engages with rape culture, sexism and the dangers of TV, taking down cheap salesmen and televangelists. Witty, moralistic and humane this has everything you want in a superhero movie and it looks beautiful courtesy of cinematographer Matthew Jensen and production designer Aline Bonetto. There’s a neat coda in the end credits. And how nice is it that the late great Dawn Steel’s daughter Rebecca Steel Roven is a producer alongside her father Charles Roven? You go Gal! You’ve always had everything while people like me have had nothing. Well now it’s my turn. Get used to it

John le Carre 19th October 1931 – 12th December 2020

The death has taken place of David Cornwell, otherwise known as John le Carre, the man who was in the British security service and then took to writing novels that enlightened the world about the Cold War and the machinations of spying. One of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, he was a superb communicator about the conditions of the world. His work has inspired film and television adaptations and frequently shone a light on the murky side of realpolitik and state-sponsored surveillance and violence. His most celebrated character, George Smiley, has been incarnated and reincarnated for big and small screen alike, a prism into the changing political landscape and the puppet masters behind it. We are the wiser for having been able to partake of his knowledge, his conscience and his elegant writing. Rest in peace.

Little Nikita (1988)

I was crossing into the west before you could spell bolshevik. Jeffrey Nicolas Grant (River Phoenix) is a cocky hyperactive teen living in a suburb of San Diego with his parents Richard (Richard Jenkins) and Elisabeth (Caroline Kava) who run a garden centre. Ambitious and keen to fly, Jeff has applied for entry to the Air Force Academy. During a routine background check on Jeff, FBI agent Roy Parmenter (Sidney Poitier) finds contradictory information on his parents, who have adopted identities of people dead a hundred years, making him suspect that all is not as it should be especially given the present whereabouts of a Soviet agent Konstantin Karpov (Richard Bradford) on the trail of a rogue agent Scuba (Richard Lynch) apparently killing off all the Soviet sleepers in the US. Further investigations reveal that the Grants may be sleeper agents too. Unable to arrest them as they have not done anything illegal, Roy continues his investigation, moves into the house across the street from the Grant family, and worms his way into Jeff’s confidence, eventually confronting Jeff with his suspicions and seeking his cooperation to learn more about his parents. Jeff is soon forced to accept the facts and discovers that his real name is Nikita. Meanwhile Karpov is moving closer to home and Scuba is heading straight for the Grants … Straight As. Tells his friends he gets Cs. A coming of age tale with a difference. Written by Bo Goldman and John Hill the intriguing premise is let down somewhat by the uneven directing from actor Richard Benjamin and the conclusion. Phoenix impresses as the brash teen who isn’t remotely what he thinks he is while Jenkins and Kava perfectly capture the fear implied by the big reveal. It all ends predictably enough with respect between Poitier and Bradford winning out over the presumed quarry. For Phoenix fans this is of course the perfect companion piece to the comparable but superior Running On Empty, released 6 months later, another story about a teenager on the cusp of adulthood whose parents’ politics are dangerously problematic. Shot by the legendary Laszlo Kovacs with an occasionally discordant score from Marvin Hamlisch, there’s a fabulous sequence of the Sleeping Beauty ballet choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. You’re not my father. You’re not even my friend

The Teckman Mystery (1954)

Why all the mystery about him? Novelist Philip Chance (John Justin) meets a beautiful woman named Helen (Margaret Leighton) on a flight from France to London just when it’s been announced he’s researching a biography on a pilot Martin Teckman (Michael Medwin) who died during the test flight of a new plane. He’s her brother. As Chance uncovers more about the test flight, people connected with the case begin to die: the engineer Garvin (George Coulouris) who used to work with Martin; and when Chance fails to fly to West Berlin for a high-paying magazine job calculated to divert his attentions,  he has a third meeting with the mysterious magazine publisher Reisz (Meier Tzelniker) but the man is dead on Chance’s arrival.  Scotland Yard inspectors (Roland Culver and Duncan Lamont) are on the case, uncovering Martin’s secret marriage to Ruth Wade (Jane Wenham) who might have persuaded him to join a conspiracy. Then the supposedly dead Martin makes contact with Chance … We don’t want anything political – no sir. From a story by Francis (Paul Temple) Durbridge and a screenplay he co-wrote with James Mathews, this is a nifty thriller cogitating on matters of family, loyalty and patriotism in the middle of the Cold War – not that our handsome but dim hero puts any of that together, always one step behind. Leighton is excellent as the potentially duplicitous femme fatale designer and Tzelniker has the juicy kind of role a bigger budget would have had Peter Lorre play. It all concludes at the Tower of London in a production which makes terrific use of its smog-free locations – practically all of which are shot in broad daylight. Justin was himself a test pilot during WW2 and appeared in The Sound Barrier! Directed by Wendy Toye. You’re asking me to kill you

 

 

 

Passport to China (1960)

Aka Visit to Canton. The city lives on whispers – all of spies. Former US pilot Don Benton (Richard Basehart) is running a profitable tour company out of Hong Kong when he is persuaded to perform a dangerous undercover mission following a plane crash in Formosa involving his good friend Jimmy (Burt Kwouk). He travels to Canton to rescue lovely American Lola Sanchez (Lila Gastoni) but following some dealings with casino operator Ivano Kong (Eric Pohlmann) she asks him to transport refugees out of Red China … I’ve never been so scared in my life. Suave Basehart puts his genial persona to good work in this unusual entry from Hammer – because it’s so conventional even as Cold War thrillers go. The screenplay by Gordon Wellesley has some nice quips and action and it’s quite a surprise to see Athene Seyler playing Mao Tai Tai, grandmother to Kwouk, not to mention Bernard Cribbins as a junior wheeler dealer type.  The sophomore outing from director Michael Carreras, such a huge figure at the studio, has some exotic backdrops to enhance a studio-bound production. A wise man never arrives too early – or too late

The Russia House (1990)

You live in a free society; you have no choice. Publisher Bartholomew ‘Barley’ Scott Blair (Sean Connery) is caught in a conspiracy when he receives manuscripts from a Russian scientist, Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) claiming that the Russian nuclear programme is a sham. Ned (James Fox) from British intelligence and Russell (Roy Scheider) and Brady (John Mahoney) of the CIA have the book intercepted en route to Blair at his Lisbon home because they consider it to contain crucial information.  They recruit him to investigate its editor, Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) a divorced mother of two. As Blair goes to Moscow and learns the origin of the manuscript and discovers Russian military secrets, he falls in love with Katya and fights to protect her family even as he realises that Katya may have another admirer. The two intelligence agencies have a shopping list of questions to check that Dante is for real but Ned begins to wonder where Barley’s loyalties really lie … How the fuck do you peddle an arms race when the only asshole you’ve got to race against is yourself? Adapted from John le Carre’s novel by Tom Stoppard, this elegant look at Russian-British relations at the tail end of the Glasnost Eighties may have been overtaken by real events but it’s nonetheless a wittily constructed espionage story with one of Connery’s best performances as the sax playing book publisher whose heart is stolen by Pfeiffer, an atypically stunning editor with Pfeiffer turning in a really nuanced performance as the semi-tragic Russian. Only the second major American film to be shot in the Soviet Union, it’s picturesque indeed, using so many beautiful settings in Leningrad and Moscow and enhanced by the fantastic cast among whom film director Ken Russell makes a splash as Walter, the Brit spy, in his inimitable fashion; while the tension between the British and American agencies supplies much of the suspense. A superior entertainment directed by Fred Schepisi. If there is to be a hope we must all betray our country, we have to save each other because all victims are equal and none is more equal than others. It’s everyone’s duty to start the avalanche

A Touch of Larceny (1959)

A Touch of Larceny

I was implying I might be a matrimonial hazard if I were wealthy. Rakish former Naval submarine Commander Max ‘Rammer’ Easton (James Mason) realises he needs plenty of cash to win the heart of American widow Virginia Killain (Vera Miles) currently the companion and soon to be wife of his Naval colleague Sir Charles Holland (George Sanders). Max disappears after faking treachery as a Soviet spy, planning to reappear and sue all the tabloids which libelled him so as to win the hand of Virginia but his plans go awry when he really does get into trouble in the Western Isles … One of the hardest lessons in life is to accept defeat gracefully. Adapted by Roger MacDougall, director Guy Hamilton and producer Ivan Foxwell from Andrew Garve’s (a pseudonym for Paul Winterton) novel The Megstone Plot, this sees Mason at his best as the breezy playboy and former WW2 hero who has finally met a woman he can see himself living with – and the sparks fly between him and Miles in a comedy that has wit, guile and surprising wisdom. He sets himself up and then spends a third of the film as a raffish beachcomber listening to rumours of his supposed defection. Sanders feasts on the prospect of revenging the man who appears to have compromised his fiancée, whose intentions are far from clear. You’ll recognise Martin Stephens the creepy boy from The Innocents as Sanders’ nephew. There are good jokes about newspapers and that year’s current scandalous novel, The World of Suzie Wong. Perhaps its occasional moments of true feeling guy the comedy’s intent so that the tone shifts but in the main it’s an impressive production and the performances are terrific. An interesting syncopated beat to Mason’s other Cold War movie that year – North By Northwest. You know Max, one of these days somebody may take you seriously

Dr No (1962)

Dr No

You are carrying a double 0 number. It means you are licensed to kill, not get killed. British agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) by head of the Secret Service M (Bernard Lee) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, Strangways (Timothy Moxon) to determine if it is related to Strangways’ decision to co-operate on a CIA case involving the disruption of rocket launches from NASA’s base at Cape Canaveral in Florida by radio jamming. When Bond arrives in Jamaica, he is immediately accosted by a man claiming to be a chauffeur sent to collect him who is really an enemy agent sent to kill him. Before Bond can interrogate him, following a struggle, the agent kills himself with a cyanide capsule. After visiting Strangways’ house, Bond confronts Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) a boatman who was collecting mineral samples from Crab Key for Strangways and who reveals that he is aiding the CIA, introducing Bond to agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), who is also investigating Strangways’ disappearance. Local geologist Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson) claims the samples are normal but Bond is not convinced. Dent travels to the underground base of megalomaniac Dr Julius No (Joseph Wiseman) a Chinese-German with prosthetic metal hands who is the operator of a bauxite mine on the Caribbean island of Crab Key (and a reclusive member of SPECTRE) who is plotting to disrupt the US space programme … Cyanide in a cigarette? Fantastic! The first in the series, based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel (the sixth in the book series) this really introduced Connery to the world. Shot with a relatively low budget, it’s fast-moving, whip smart and set the tone for a secret agent trend that has never really ceased. Fleming originally came up with the idea for the story as a screenplay for a film called Commander Jamaica with Dr No a riff on the character of Fu Manchu. That film never got made so Fleming adapted it into a novel. The screenplay for this was based on that as well as several other strands of Fleming’s work: Richard Maibaum and Wolf Mankowitz did the original draft which the producers rejected then Maibaum did one while Mankowitz removed his name; Irish writer Johanna Harwood who worked for Harry Saltzman rewrote that draft with thriller writer Berkely Mather. SPECTRE wasn’t mentioned until Thunderball, the 1961 novel that the producers had originally wanted to adapt first before legal issues complicated that plan. This may not have the bells and whistles of later films in the series but it has many of the iconic elements that became part of the identity of this long-running franchise including Ken Adam’s production design, Bond being introduced to the Walther PPK and an undertow of S&M. Connery’s performance is nigh-on perfect, a combination of violence, suave intelligence and droll wit; while shell diver Honey Rider’s (Ursula Andress) arrival like Venus on the beach is for the cultural ages. Directed by Terence Young. I do not like failure

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy

Englishman. Likes eggs, preferably Fabergé. Likes dice, preferably fully loaded. British MI6 agent 009 drops off a fake Fabergé jewelled egg at the British embassy in East Berlin and is later killed at Octopussy’s travelling circus. Suspicions mount when the assistant manager of the circus who happens to be exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), outbids 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) for the real Fabergé piece at Sotheby’s. Bond follows Kamal to India where Bond thwarts several ingenious attacks, kidnapping by Kamal and encounters Kamal’s ally, the anti-heroine of the title (Maud Adams), an international smuggler who runs the circus as a cover for her illegal operations. It seems that Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a decidedly rank and belligerent Russian general is planning to raise enough money with the fake Fabergés to detonate a nuclear bomb in Europe and then defeat NATO forces once and for all in conventional warfare… The West is decadent and divided. The thirteenth in the series and Moore’s seventh appearance as the sexy superspy as well as the first to feature Robert Brown as M following Bernard Lee’s recent death, this is derived from a number of Ian Fleming’s stories: the title is from his 1966 short story collection and there is a scene inspired by another story, The Property of a Lady (included in 1967 and later editions of Octopussy and The Living Daylights), as well as one brief bit of characterisation lifted from Moonraker; while the events of the titular story Octopussy form a part of the title character’s background which she relates herself; but the bulk of the narrative is original, the screenplay credited to novelist George MacDonald Fraser who suggested that it be set in India, series regular Richard Maibaum & producer Michael G. Wilson. In fact Moore had intended retiring from the role but was deemed the most profitable actor for the part when the rival production Never Say Never Again with former Bond Sean Connery was up and running at the same time: James Brolin was apparently due to take over from Moore – can you imagine! The perception of this as the weakest of Moore’s particular Bond films doesn’t hold up despite its apparently problematic heroine (her MO is a bit slight) but Bond’s seduction of a woman who is his equal is particularly well observed –  in fact they both have a death to avenge. The narrative is especially prescient – to have a nuclear bomb planned for Germany, at the time the centre of Cold War fears (see the TV show Deutschland 83 for a dramatic interpretation of the time), feels utterly relevant and Moore is given great space for both humour and action, pitched at a perfect balance here and decidedly lacking in camp. It’s probably the best written of all his Bond iterations. The chases (and there are quite a few) are brilliantly mounted, including trains, planes automobiles and elephants and there’s a great homage to The Most Dangerous Game when our man is the jungle prey. The climactic aerial stunts are some of the most astonishing you’ll ever see – utterly thrilling. Legendary tennis player Vijay Amritraj has a great supporting role as Bond’s MI6 ally in India and even Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets in on the action with a fabulous hot air balloon! Jourdan makes for a suitably insidious villain and Berkoff (almost!) has a blast as the nutty military man who makes the KGB’s Gogol (Walter Gotell) look sane. There is a terrific performance by Kristina Wayborn as Kamal’s stunning henchwoman Magda – her exit from a night with Bond has to be seen! Adams had of course appeared opposite Moore in previous Bond outing The Man With the Golden Gun as Scaramanga’s doomed mistress and she gets to flex more muscles here albeit her entrance is not until the film’s second half. Watch out for former Pan’s People dancer Cherry Gillespie as Midge, one of Octopussy’s bodyguards.  It’s wonderfully paced, with each sequence superseding the action of the previous one and the flavourful locations are beautifully captured by Alan Hume’s cinematography: this has undergone a pristine restoration. Among the very best Bonds, an episode whose influence can clearly be seen in both the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible franchises.  The theme song, All Time High is written by John Barry and Tim Rice and performed by Rita Coolidge. Directed by John Glen, the second of his five outings at the helm. Perfect escapism. Mr Bond is indeed a very rare breed, soon to be made extinct

 

Thunderball (1965)

Thunderball

A poker in the hands of a widow.  Two of NATO’s atomic bombs are hijacked by the criminal organisation SPECTRE, which holds the world to ransom for £100 million in diamonds, in exchange for not destroying an unspecified city in either the United Kingdom or the United States (later revealed to be Miami). The search leads James Bond (Sean Connery) to the Bahamas, where he encounters Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) the card-playing, eye patch-wearing SPECTRE Number Two whom he bests at the tables. Backed by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Rik Van Nutter) and Largo’s mistress Domino Derval (Claudine Auger) Bond’s search culminates in an underwater battle with Largo’s henchmen but time is running out … What strange eyes you’ve got. The one that caused the franchise a whole lot of legal issues in the ensuing years, this was also the one the audiences went bonkers for with Widescreen shooting, seriously glossy production values and slick underwater sequences that take up about a quarter of the overall running time which at two hours ten minutes was by far the longest in the series thus far. The legal issues arose because Ian Fleming’s 1961 novel was based on a story by producer Kevin McClory and was intended as the first in the series with a screenplay by them with Jack Whittingham. The new screenplay is by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins and it commences with an ingenious escape from a surprising funeral. The cat and mouse relationship between Bond and Largo is consistently surprising and satisfying; Celi is particularly good in the role. The production design by Ken Adam is quite breathtaking, the women are among the most beautiful of the era – Auger (Miss France, voiced by Nikki van der Zyl), Luciana Paluzzi as femme fatale Fiona Volpe, Martine Beswick as Paula Caplan, Bond’s tragic CIA ally, Molly Peters as physiotherapist Patricia Fearing – and Bond is actually saved by a woman. The gadgets include water-firing cannon affixed to the rear of the Aston Martin, a jetpack and a handbag-friendly Geiger counter. It all looks glorious and the incredible underwater work is shot by Ricou Browning although it’s not always clear what’s going on. The theme song by composer John Barry (returning to the franchise) with lyrics by Don Black is performed by Tom Jones who fainted in the recording booth as he sang the final note. What’s not to like? Directed by Terence Young in his third and final Bond outing. Remade 18 years later as Never Say Never Again, with Connery once more taking the lead in what was his final Bond film. Was ever a man more misunderstood?