It was a time before time, in a world before history, when Argos was not yet a retail chain. The mists of myth enwrap both men and gods in Clash of the Titans (). Liam Neeson’s Zeus and his fellow Olympians stand about on stone plinths, all but the chief god’s brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) – someday his plinth will come – who plots against Zeus’s bastard offspring, the Argos-based demigod Perseus, played by a Sam Worthington still looking numbed-out by Avatar.
All this is in 3D, plus tasty special-effects monsters. Watching the movie is like sitting at a giant conveyor-belt sushi bar as each marvel presents or re-presents itself for salivation. The giant scorpions wave monster claws. (They roll around twice, the second time looking more tempura.) Medusa is a long, horrible snake with a semi-human, asp-twirling head: best to let her move along to the next customer. Finally there is the Kraken, which comes on the most expensively patterned plate: waving its enormous tentacles, it indicates that, one, you can’t afford it and, two, it will eat you anyway before you eat it.
Like the first Clash of the Titans this one is null and void as human drama. They have actually found a hero, in Worthington, less expressive than Harry Hamlin. For company he has a discount bimbo (Gemma Arterton) and a band of warriors led by snake-lipped Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. He is the most interesting face on screen apart from the one you can only look at in a shield. She, Medusa, has a wonderful skill in turning heroes to porcelain, producing life-size warriors which would grace any living room or terrace, and probably feature in the statues-and-furnishings section of your nearest Argos.
Sorting the sheep from the goats, an activity that might have been invented by the Vikings as depicted in the animated How to Train Your Dragon () – barbecue-pyring the sheep while using the goats for milk, cheese and clothing – is a craft critics are learning in the digital age. Some pixel-enhanced fantasy adventures are crude, untrained and head-butting. (Like much of Clash of the Titans.) Others are well-mannered, nourishing and pretty to look at.
Dragon is in the second category, though it still has plenty of action bravura as it inducts Hiccup, a young Viking, in the art of slaying fiery flying monsters. For grace and painterliness, this is the best digimation feature in months. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coens’ lens-master, gets a mystery credit as “visual consultant”. Perhaps he imposed the aesthetic harmony. There is a picture-book faux naivety, combined with a panache of line and colour, in every frame. Think of Grandma Moses sharing an easel with J.M.W. Turner.
The older Vikings (lead-voiced by Gerard Butler) have Scottish accents while the younger ones, including Hiccup and his Norse-braided prom queen, speak high-school Californian. Clearly the world was on a fast track to Americanisation even in the Year Dot AD. Some dialogue is pure Pacific Coast – “We’re Vikings, we have stubbornness issues” – but we smile it away, knowing the next crash-bang fight, exploding dragon’s nest, or 3D coup de cinéma (I loved the flakes of ash that float two inches from your nose) will make it irrelevant what characters say in their approach to the next Parnassian height of visual poetry.
Forget the Biblical and/or pop musical kitsch that whirls in your head on hearing the title Samson and Delilah (): falling pillars, testosterone-imperilling haircuts, Cecil B. DeMille, Tom Jones. We start in the Australian desert in the new S and D, in what could be the nihilistic afterglow of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. The Aboriginal with the bottle-orange hair (Rowan McNamara) loves the old crone’s granddaughter (Marissa Gibson) – though since the stammering lad speaks just one whole word in 100 minutes how can we be sure? – and runs off with her after a violent fight with his brother’s band. Does the music provoke him? Or his own exclusion? Or the life consisting of one tin-roof church, one payphone and one health centre on wheels?
Hope springs eternal, but Alice Springs is the next stop on the journey. Under a road bridge, sustained by a tramp, they measure out their life in scraps. (It sounds like a T.S. Eliot poem: it almost is.) At Cannes, filmmaker Warwick Thornton won the Camera d’Or prize for best first feature. Samson and Delilah has that quantum of power and originality. It leaves some haunting mind-wrack inside you, though while watching it you more lucidly register the occasional gaucherie of performance and marking of time in the story. (Sometimes it seems to stop dead like a stuttering clock.)
The surreal leitmotifs, though, keep the essence alive even when the drama appears dormant. Grandma’s quirky paintings; Samson’s brief descent into substance abuse (petrol-sniffing); the tutelary role of the tramp (played by the director’s brother). To Australian and other fans the film already seems so many different things – a blast of native-race misery, a rebuke to white overlording, a folk-expressionist portrait of town-and-desert schism – that you pays your money and you takes, and perhaps you contribute your own ideas to, the created dreamscape.
Is it me, or is Kick-Ass (), as they would say in California High, so yesterday? Troubled teen Dave (American-accented Aaron Johnson, lately John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) dreams of becoming a costumed superhero. Oh dear. Must we, again? Been there; done that; got the T-cape. The western world seems to have been living with wannabe comic-book crusaders for weeks, months, years. Here, Dave’s fantasy goes triplicate, spreading to contemporaries such as the Mafia boss’s son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who starts wearing his underpants outside his trousers, and the pre-pubertal daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) of practising superhero Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). She starts prancing around slaying and scaring people, like a jumped-out-of-bed Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
Matthew Vaughn, former Guy Ritchie producer, co-wrote and directed, and on this evidence is all flash and no flair. Mintz-Plasse is the best thing on screen, but even he passed through this story station years ago in the better, funnier Role Models. Cage provides one or two droll line readings but still looks like a man who realises too late he has come to the wrong fancy dress party.
The acclaimed-by-some Double Take () is also, if differently, a blast from the past pretending to be fresh air. Belgian filmmaker Johan Grimonprez takes old TV and movie teaser footage featuring Alfred Hitchcock and marries it to newsreel clips of Vice-President Nixon, President Kennedy and Premier Krushchev (Hitchcock lookalike) during the cold war and Cuban missile crisis. Grimonprez then adds stuff about a real, working Hitch impersonator (Ron Burrage) and a Borges-derived fictive rigmarole about H meeting his double.
This recipe for intellectual indigestion lasts 80 minutes. Its laboured contention that the cold war era was an age of unique and privileged anxiety seems dubious. (Every age in its different but equal way is an age of anxiety.) Its sub-thesis about the interdependence of culture and consumerism – Grimonprez bombards us with Hitchcock-era television commercials for a well-known brand of coffee – is as old-hat as Kick-Ass’s superhero brand revivalism.