Last Update 12/31/08

 

The Thin Man (1934)

 Having just listened to the audiobook of this novel, which I hadn’t read since grade school, I thought it time to revisit the movie.  William Powell and Myrna Loy were ideally cast and brilliant as Nick and Nora Charles.  Dashiell Hammett’s novel goes through some changes in the film version.  The movie introduces him as a slightly comic figure, still alive, and turns his ditzy, repellent daughter into a competent young woman.  In the book, she’s indulged in an ambiguous flirtation; in the movie she’s engaged.  There’s a stronger motivation for Wynant to have committed the murder than in the book, and a lot stronger hints about what’s actually going on.  Nick finds Wynant’s body in the movie, not the book, although he points the police in the right direction.  The plot actually doesn’t vary that much, but several of the characters are very different, more mature than in the book, and in many ways less memorable. The cast does a fine job and the spirit, if not the letter, of the original is maintained.  12/31/09

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)

Emperor Waltz (1948)

A Bing Crosby double feature.  The first of these, based very loosely on the Mark Twain novel, is one of those stories that most people know even if they haven’t read the book.  Crosby is an auto mechanic who finds himself back in the time of King Arthur. It’s a musical, of course, and the songs vary in quality, none being particularly memorable.  In this not at all serious rendition, Crosby is captured and labeled a monster because of his unusual mode of dress. Merlin is a villain, whom Crosby shows up by using a magnifying glass to start a fire and other ploys. The transformation of the musical group is one of the high points in the film.  Eventually he gets romantically involved with Sir Lancelot’s girl and trouble ensues, leading to a comic joust.  Eventually he teaches the king about the injustices in his kingdom. Twain’s point that the romantic times weren’t is largely lost in this, but it’s fun anyway.  The second film is in much the same vein.  A salesman in Austria prior to World War I wants to make a sale to the emperor to promote his product, falls in love with an aristocrat, and the two worlds clash, mostly humorously.  Great costumes and visually impressive throughout.  The story was okay but not great, though the songs were somewhat better than in Yankee. 12/14/08

Murder She Wrote Season 5 (1989)

This season opened with “J.B. as in Jailbird”.   Jessica’s old friend the spy gets her involved in the murder of an assassin. To keep her out of the way, her friend concocts evidence to get her arrested on suspicion of murder.  Good episode.  Better was “A Little Night Work” wherein Jessica encounters murder and a charming jewel thief.  Tom Bosley is no longer sheriff of Cabot Cove in “Mr. Penroy’s Vacation.”  It’s a play on Arsenic and Old Lace, with two spinsters burying a mysterious visitor in their back yard one night, and another the night after.  Pretty good – the obvious solution turns out to be only a half truth.  “Snow White, Blood Red” starts with the usual set up – a ski hunk who has lots of enemies at the ski lodge where he and Jessica and they are trapped by a snow storm.   This would have been a good episode if the killer hadn’t been so glaringly obvious. 

There’s an obvious killer in “Coal Miner’s Slaughter” as well.  Too many episodes involve the killer mentioning something only the murderer could have known.  This time it’s an unpopular mine owner that gets shot to death. “Wearing of the Green” involves a murder and a jewel theft, a not bad episode with another dumb plot element.  The police would not arrest a man for being in the area of a murder with no other evidence suggesting his involvement, particularly when the information comes from an anonymous, unconfirmed tip.  Sloppy. Keystone cops as well. We get to see a clip of Jessica’s husband, early in his life, in “The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel.”  He is posthumously suspected as having murdered a member of his air crew while they were bailing out of a crashing plane.  The motivation for the victim’s daughter is not very well done, but otherwise it’s an interesting set up. Another slip though.  Lie detector tests are not mandatory, nor is refusal to take one tantamount to a confession.  Then it gets really stupid. Since all of the surviving crew pass the lie detector test, the investigating officer concludes that the one who is dead is guilty.  Also, the widow of a dead serviceman has a perfect right to pursue things when her husband is accused of murder. There’s more nonsense in this one too, a contender for worst episode to date. 

One of the characters from the last episode carries over into “Prediction: Murder.”  The new age gullible woman is a bit too much – no, she’s more than a bit too much.  “After I counted down to my alpha level of consciousness, I simply lost track of the time.”  The scam in this one is absurdly obvious and there’s some really bad acting. And who keeps a million dollars cash in his safe?  “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” includes Gale Storm in the cast, which I enjoyed because I just finished watching a bunch of episodes from her 1950s sitcom. Jessica is attending nephew Grady’s wedding in an episode that misses murder and mirth.  The obstreperous housekeeping is a hoot, until she gets stabbed to death with a meat thermometer.  A good one.   “Weave a Tangled Web” is interesting primarily because Jessica plays a barfly.  A bigamous neighbor and her second husband are accused of murdering a blackmailer.  

In “The Search for Peter Kerry” a man returns to Cabot Cove claiming to have had twenty years’ of amnesia, but Jessica suspects it’s a con job. “Smooth Operators” is an interesting mystery spoiled somewhat by an unrealistically Neanderthal police captain. A man is murdered to cover up a con job run by a medical clinic and Jessica poses as a hypochondriac in order to reveal the truth.  “Fire Burn, Cauldron Bubble” starts well with sightings of a witch in Cabot Cove, and an attention hungry author played by Roddy McDowall.  Then a prodigal daughter returns who is the spitting image of the “ghost” and the story goes downhill rapidly. The town’s reaction to the supposed ghost sightings is implausible and irritating. “From Russia, with Blood” takes Jessica to the Soviet Union. A potentially interesting mystery is diluted by the comic book characterizations of some of the characters, but for the most part this was a good episode.   An old friend confesses to murder in “Alma Murder,” but obviously he didn’t do it.  This one’s much better and even fooled me for a change. 

“Truck Stop” opens with an injured Mike Connors fleeing a trailer, apparently dying. Then we have a length, black and white flashback with Connors narrating in a familiar tough detective style, but the story is too implausible to be interesting. We then return to the present of a complex but not very convincing series of revelations. “The Sins of Castle Cove” is a mix of murder and mirth.  A young writer’s first novel is a thinly disguised version of incidents that really happened in Cabot Cove. Not surprisingly, she was fully aware of the impact it would have.  This one is quite good, but I’m getting quite tired of Jessica solving the murder because the killer inadvertently says something only the guilty party could have known. Murder surrounds a ghost written book in “Trevor Hudson’s Legacy.” 

In “Double Exposure” Jessica runs into an old friend who pretends he’s someone else and his wife insists that he’s dead.  Not bad, although the ending depends on coincidence and the real killers are not caught. Another nephew appears in "Three Strikes, You're Out", a baseball player in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay, but the killer is screamingly obvious. The season came to an end with a two part episode, "Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall."  A rival mystery writer shows up in Cabot Cove hoping to rejuvenate her career by destroying Jessica. She's a thoroughly miserable character who blames other people for her own failings. There's also an annoying speech by Doctor Seth who thinks she should give up writing, that she doesn't need to have a purpose in life.  There are poisoned apples, a dead private eye, and other complications.  An excellent finale.

Jessica’s friends and family are relatively unscathed this season.  Two neighbors are accused of murder, but they didn’t do it.  There’s a murder at nephew Grady’s wedding, but he’s not involved directly.  One of her college professors confesses to a murder he didn’t commit. The man working on a screenplay based on one of her books commits murder and dies himself. Another neighbor is killed by the owner of the local bookstore, also a friend. A friend she recommends for a job ends up murdered, and a friend is responsible.  An ex-neighbor is murdered after testifying against his employer.  12/13/08

Tarzan and the Huntress (1947)

This was Johnny Sheffield’s last movie as Boy; he became Bomba the Jungle Boy instead.  A woman leads a hunting expedition to capture animals for zoos, but her assistant commits murder in order to abrogate their agreement to limit the number they capture.  The local natives are white, just as they were in the previous titles in the series, and their culture is that of India, not Africa. Tarzan forbids the hunters from working on his side of the river, then calls all the animals away from their side, so they cross anyway.  Tarzan and Boy steal all their weapons, but they recover them, mayhem results, and eventually the bad ones are killed and the rest forced to leave.  The man responsible for killing the local leader is exposed and replaced.  This was actually a pretty good installment in the series.  Buster Crabbe would only appear once more in this role. 12/12/08

Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) 

Buster Crabbe is Tarzan again, with Boy, Cheeta, and Brenda Joyce as Jane.  The story opens with a shopping trip to a native city – except all the natives are white again. This time the problem is a tribe of leopard worshippers – also white – who want to prevent the European powers from penetrating any further into the interior of Africa.  Since they’r near Zambezi, which is either Zambia or Mozambique, it strikes me as odd that all of the natives dress like Arabs or Hindus. They attack caravans, menace Jane and Boy, then capture Tarzan and his family. There’s an annoying jungle boy, brother of the high priestess of the cult, who ingratiates himself with Jane while plotting to kill her. Cheeta is the hero in this one. I’m tempted to say he also gets the best lines. The chase through the jungle is pretty good, but most of the rest is humdrum. 12/11/08

Tarzan and the Amazons (1945)

Brenda Joyce replaces Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane for the first time.  As usual, Boy and Cheeta cause a lot of the problems when a team of archaeologists wants Tarzan to guide them to a lost city ruled by Amazons – white, of course, and they speak English. There are some nice sets in this one, and the story is actually closer to the type Burroughs routinely used. Not only are the Amazons all female, obviously, but with one exception they all appear to be roughly the same age. There’s also an avaricious trader who wants the Amazons’ gold.  Tarzan and Jane in particular seem extraordinarily dumb in this one.  The Amazons won’t let the intruders go, they all get killed, and Boy is to be sacrificed.  Pretty good one, although the ending is very sketchy. 12/10/08

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943) 

Jane is still away in this one war time adventure, nursing soldiers and requesting that Tarzan provide some serum. There’s another white civilization, this one Arab, with foreign agents using false identities. For no discernible reason, Tarzan intervenes when some of these agents attempt to capture a wild horse. And Tarzan just happens to be carrying a halter with him on his trek across the desert? There’s a traveling magic show to help with the mediocre comic relief. Tarzan gets arrested early on and is off screen for much of the movie while the female entertainer charms the son of the local ruler, who is blind to the plot of the spies.  Turns out she’s not exactly what she seems either.  The son gets murdered and the woman is framed for the crime.  Tarzan escapes, thanks to a conveniently stupid guard, and rides – or rather runs – to the rescue.  The high point, alas, is probably Cheeta’s expedition to steal turbans to make a rope for Tarzan’s escape. They flee into the jungle and encounter giant spiders, dinosaurs – actually close-ups of lizards,  and man eating plants before delivering the serum.  Somewhat better than average, although the plot wanders a lot. 12/9/08

Tarzan Triumphs (1943) 

Gordon Scott was always Tarzan for me, but for most people it was Johnny Weissmuller, and I never liked “Boy”.  Since this was a wartime movie, Boy is kidnapped by Nazi invaders in the jungle and Tarzan is not happy.  Weissmuller is limited to three word sentences and small words, unlike the original Burroughs character.  Jane is away this time so we have a white African princess (huh?) in her place. “Iron bird come.”   You mean an airplane!  “Nazi hyena dead now.”  I suppose this is a kid’s movie so I shouldn’t expect much, but it’s cheaply made with fake looking sets and the actors don’t seem to be making much of an effort.  Good triumphs over evil, of course.  There’s also a comic Nazi as well as the nasty ones.  Despite the melodramatic plot, not much happens in this one until very late in the movie.  Watchable, but just barely. 12/8/08

Hannibal Rising (2006)

Although I am an enormous Thomas Harris fan, I have to admit that this was my least favorite of his novels, the story of how Hannibal Lector came to be a brilliant psycho-killer.  Obviously that made me less than normally enthusiastic about this film, which I'm just now getting around to watching for the first time. The opening is in World War II Lithuania.  Young Hannibal and his even younger sister belong to a well to do family trying to survive the carnage. Both parents are killed by crossfire and they are left alone, where they are found by a band of less than admirable Nazi soldiers who have been looting houses during the retreat from Russian forces. Starving, they eat the sister, although we don't find out initially that Hannibal ate as well.

Years later, Hannibal is a teenager in a communist run orphanage. He escapes, after dealing with some bullies, and takes refuge with a young woman who once knew his family. This portion of the movie is quite slow considering the relatively small amount it contributes to the story other than his first murder. He returns to Soviet Lithuania to track down the surviving members of the patrol and kill them.  The acting was good and some of the photography is excellent, but the pace of the movie was often ponderous.  Not a bad movie, despite some really nasty reviews, but not remotely comparable to the others based on Harris' novels.  12/7/08

My Little Margie Collection 2 (1952) 

A second collection of episodes from the early 1950s.  Margie is a young adult still living with her father.  Every episode involves an elaborate scheme by one of the characters which backfires, resulting in comic events that range from cute to absurd.  Other recurring characters include the father’s boss, the elevator operator, elderly Mrs. Odetts, dad’s girlfriend and Margie’s inept boyfriend Freddy.  The problems this time involve such subjects as a television club for children, Margie’s infiltration of a harem, and efforts to thwart a woman suspected of being a fortune hunter.  The episode in a trick room at a movie studio is pretty good.  The overall message of this series is, you’re better off telling the truth right from the outset, since the trouble always results from lies, and the complexities that result from trying to cover one’s tracks.  A probably unintentional subtext is that all businessmen are shady, stupid, or both.  By contemporary standards, this wasn’t a particularly sophisticated show, but it’s far more intelligently written than most of its contemporary sitcoms. 12/5/08

Goldfinger (1964)

James Bond number three.  This one has a sexual encounter, an explosion, an assassination attempt, and a fight in the opening five minutes.  Included is the great shot in which Bond sees the reflection of a killer in the eyeball of the woman he's kissing.  This is another of the best in the series, with a great pair of villains - gold obsessed Auric Goldfinger and his quiet assistant Oddjob - and a great story line, the planned robbery of Fort Knox.  It also has one of the best soundtracks. The usual regulars are back, although there's a new Felix Leiter. A problem with some of the Bond movies is that the action tends to overwhelm the story.  That's not the case with this one. Assigned to investigate Goldfinger, Bond finds him cheating at cards and disturbs his plan, although it costs the life of an innocent girl caught in the middle.  That makes it personal. She dies because her entire body is covered with gold, a device partially replicated in Quantum of Solace except with oil.  More gadgetry this time, primarily the fully equipped Aston Martin and a homing device.  One does wonder why the ejector seat is for the passenger rather than the driver, but it's all in fun.

There's a great golf match between Bond and Goldfinger, which ratchets up the tension between them. His surveillance gets complicated when the sister of the dead girl tries to kill Goldfinger, only to end up dead herself.  Bond is captured during the ensuing chase.  There follows the classic interchange:  "Do you expect me to talk?"  "No, Mr. Bond.  I expect you to die."  Goldfinger is supposedly planning to rob Fort Knox but he's actually working with foreign agents who want to merely irradiate that gold, destroying the US economy and increasing the value of Goldfinger's holdings.  Chief Bond girl this time is Pussy Galore, originally working for Goldfinger although Bond subverts her.  The final sequences are nicely done, with a double climax and some nice twists.  12/4/08

Max Payne Soundtrack, La-La Land Records, 2008

I almost went to see this movie when it came out, partly because the computer game it is based on comes from the same people who do the Serious Sam games, which are probably my favorites of their type.  Somehow I never got around to it, so this music was entirely new to me.  The opening band is exceptionally good and I imagine it ran through the credits and conveyed to the audience a mood of suspense and adventure.  The pace isn't always that fast in the cuts that follow but there is always a kind of suppressed tension common to action movies. Many soundtracks, perhaps most, do not stand up well divorced from their visual content, and thus aren't really playable just as music. Kudos to composters Marco Beltrani and Buck Sanders. That's not the case in this instance.  I particularly enjoyed the tracks titled "Colvin Quivers", "Storming the Office," "Vote for Dennis," and "Factoring Max." 12/4/08

From Russia, With Love (1964)

Sean Connery's second James Bond adventure is still my favorite of all the Bond movies, and it was based on my favorite of the Bond novels by Ian Fleming as well.  Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya are among the best villains in the series - and in the original book, the latter mortally wounds Bond in the final chapter.  This one also has my favorite of all the Bond themes, and the soundtrack in general is excellent.  I bought a copy back when they came out on vinyl.  Bond wants to steal a deciphering machine from the Russians.  Spectre wants to trap Bond so that they can eliminate him from the spy business and embarrass the British and the Russians.  They set an elaborate trap, using an innocent Russian girl as the bait, with murderous schemer Lenya, a brilliant chessplayer named Kronsteen, and Robert Shaw as a clever assassin all ranged against him. "Q" also makes his debut in this one. I also hadn't noticed before that Sylvia Trench is a recurring character, flirting with Bond in both films.

The action takes place largely in Istanbul.  Daniella Bianchi, who like many Bond women never had much of a career afterward.  I hadn't realized until now that all of her dialogue was dubbed because she didn't speak English. Bond is assigned even though "M" suspects a trap; the chance of getting a decoder is too much to resist. The gadgets are minor this time - a trick briefcase and a disguised handgun.  The plot is more complicated than it sounds because there are unfriendly Bulgarian spies interested in Bond, a Turkish intelligence officer with a rather large extended family, devious efforts to pit the two against one another, and rivalries among a band of gypsies to keep the action moving.  The battle with Shaw on the train and the boat chase at the end are among my favorite sequences.  12/3/08

Dr. No (1962)

After the disappointing Quantum of Solace, I sought solace of my own by watching the very first James Bond feature, with Sean Connery in the role. It opens with one of the more effective introductory sequences, the three supposedly blind hitmen who eliminate a British agent and his assistant in Jamaica. We first see Bond playing cards in his club where he first says the trademark "Bond, James Bond" line.  "M" and Moneypenny also make their first appearance in the early sequences as Bond is assigned to find out why their listening post has gone silent.  The agent was looking into strange transmissions that have been interfering with American missile launches.  Felix Leiter is the US agent on the site.  Q did not appear this early. Bond drinks his martini mixed, but not stirred the first time but Dr. No gets it right.  There are also three Bond girls, of whom Ursula Andress is the most significant.

An attempt is made to abduct Bond as soon as he arrives, and the perpetrator commits suicide rather than be questioned. Suspicion rests on Crab Key, a private island owned by Dr. No, supposedly Chinese although he's played by Joseph Wiseman, who doesn't look remotely Chinese. The investigation proceeds with regular, low key threats to keep the suspense high and the story moving quickly. No is probably patterned in part on Dr. Fu Manchu, and in fact a poisonous spider is one of the murder weapons directed at Bond, a favorite device in Sax Rohmer's novels. Bond attends a rendezvous with a woman he knows to be in No's pay, and escapes another assassination attempt in an exciting and oft repeated car chase. Future chases would be much better done, although they almost always ended with exploding cars.

Bond makes a clandestine visit to the island, where he meets Honey Ryder (Andress), who sneaked ashore to harvest shells. They both end up captives of Dr. No, who works for Spectre, the international criminal organization. Eventually he turns the tables, escapes, finishes off the bad guy, and saves the day.  Oh, and gets the girl too. Cool headed, suave, always in command, capable of killing in cold blood when necessary, Bond may not be the most plausible character in action movies, but he's certainly one of the most appealing. It's no surprise the franchise has lasted as long as it has, but even though I think Daniel Craig is fine in the role, I worry that something essential is being lost in recent attempts to make him more imperfect, current, indistinguishable from other similar characters, and by the bad choices about film editing and story line in the last entry in the series. 12/2/08

My Little Margie Collection 1 (1952) 

I vaguely recalled this from my childhood, and when the first episode played, I recognized the theme song and character names. Margie Albright is the adult daughter of Vern Albright, both of whom are constantly getting into gentle trouble.   The comedy is light and unsophisticated, though not as slapstick as Lucille Ball.  The plots involve things like Margie going on a date with the son of a powerful business client and Margery being swindled into buying a broken down wrestler.  Some of the episodes are less implausible than others, and almost every one involves an elaborate plot that goes wrong.  Margie is considerably more together than Lucille Ball or I Married Joan, and in fact it’s her father who usually comes across as the more scatterbrained.  This is not a chronological collection as far as I can tell but a sampling from the various seasons.  There are, as you might suspect, a lot of stereotypes that would no longer be politically correct.  Some of the jokes repeat themselves with some regularity.  Margie plays her own mother and grandmother in one episode.  Their visit to a house with secret panels and a sinister history is one of the better episodes. 12/1/08

Vantage Point (2008)

Back during the 1960s I read a novel called Le Maison de Rendezvous by Alain Robbe-Grillet which presented the same scene over and over again, from different viewpoints, altering and enhancing the story with each retelling.  This action thriller makes use of a similar technique.  The action in question is the assassination of the President of the US while at a meeting in Spain. Sigourney Weaver is the hard nosed, somewhat annoying news producer covering the event.  William Hurt is the Pres and Dennis Quaid is a Secret Service agent. Moments after the shooting, a large bomb goes off, claiming many more victims.  The story then rewinds for the first replay. We see subsequent variations from the point of view of the secret service operative, a tourist, the President himself, and some of those involved in the plot. I don't want to say too much because there are a number of revelations along the way that reveal that what we think we saw isn't what really happened.  There's an exciting chase sequence, and a good ending - though it involves a bit of a coincidence.  I heard very little about this when it came out, but I'd say this was one of the best movies I've seen this year.  11/30/08

Murder She Wrote Season 4 (1988) 

The fourth season opens with “A Fashionable Way to Die.”  Murder at a fashion show, quite well done even though I guessed the murderer.  “When Thieves Fall Out” is much better.  The man convicted of a murder twenty years before returns to Cabot Cove to prove that he was not responsible.  Not bad, although I don’t buy the motive for the original murder.  Uncharacteristically, Jessica remains critical of the intervention of the wrongly convicted man, although he gets the last word and is clearly in the right. There’s a technical error in “Witness for the Defense.”  Jessica is in the audience of a trial when the prosecution calls her as a witness.  For one thing, they wouldn’t have known for sure that she’d be there. The defense lawyer’s extensive use of innuendo verges on the comical rather than realistic.  The killer’s identity was obvious despite a clever bit of red herring.  “Old Habits Die Hard” involves a missing heiress whose identity is being concealed by an elderly nun in a convent where the girl took refuge. Murder ensues.  

“The Way to Dusty Death” is the familiar gathering of business people, one of whom is thoroughly unpopular and ends up dead.  Varying the usual formula, we hear one couple plotting his murder in advance, although someone beats them to the punch.  It’s a good episode even though the writer (or Jessica at least) doesn’t know libel law. “It Runs in the Family” has Lansbury portraying her British cousin, accused of poisoning an aristocrat she knew during their youth. This one is more than usually full of really awful people, but as a pleasant change the investigating officer is quite shrewd.  One of the better episodes.  “If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Beverly” is the best episode in the entire series to date.  A softspoken deputy in Cabot Cove turns out to have a crowd of mistresses when his wife gets murdered.  A great mix of humor and mystery. A television show that tries to plagiarize one of Jessica’s plots in “Steal Me a Story” is a solid but unexceptional episode.  She impersonates a dead woman’s sister to solver another murder, this one in a hotel, in “Trouble in Eden.”  This one’s quite good, murder and blackmail and Jessica finds herself briefly operating a bordello. 

“Indian Giver” involves a land claim that appears to prove that the entire town of Cabot Cove belongs to someone else. Nice concept, not done very well.  The claimant announces his claim by throwing a spear into a public meeting. The mayor appoints the local doctor and Jessica to investigate rather than a lawyer, which is nonsense. They take the photocopy to a specialist who says it is probably genuine, which is also nonsense. Then they call a town meeting to discuss it, without knowing if it’s genuine, without hearing what the claimant wants or even knowing who he is.  There’s also some inconsistency since they’re planning to have a major resort built in town, even though last season the town refused to allow any such thing.  The claimant shows up, announces that he will be charging them all rent, and conflict obviously ensues.  Still no lawyers.  Nonsense. The immediate, almost universal violence is also disproportionate and unbelievable, and where were the authorities? There’s also a statement that the claim would be invalid if the claimant is found guilty of murder, which is even more nonsense. Several men assault the man and the sheriff doesn’t charge them with assault.  Absolute nonsense. Instead the arrest the claimant, even though there’s no evidence linking him to murder.  The sheriff also searches a room without a warrant. Absolute crap. There’s a subplot about spousal abuse, a doting father who can’t accept his daughter’s independence, and other incidentals designed to suggest various motives for murder.  The abuser ends up dead, killed with an Indian spear, an obvious frame.  The mystery elements aren’t badly done, but the background is atrocious.  Dreadfully bad writing. 

“Doom With a View” is considerably better.  Nephew Grady is in trouble again when an old friend from high school is murdered and the evidence all points to him.  “Who Threw the Barbitals in Mrs. Fletcher’s Chowder?” is another blend of mystery and humor, but not a good one.  Sheriff Fletcher’s sister’s in-laws arrive, an unlikable bunch, and her husband is murdered at a dinner party at Jessica’s. “Harbinger of Death” mixes science, politics, and murder at a college campus.  There’s a scientist searching for a legendary comet which is expected to appear within 24 hours, displaying the usual scientific ignorance. “We factor out the time coded galactic shift.”   Another standard story with the mystery well done, though it was easy to guess the identity of the real killer. “Curse of the Daanav” is a slight pastiche of Wilkie Collins and similar writers.  An adventurer steals a jewel from an archaeological site and falls under a curse, supposedly. Dr. Seth has been estranged from his brother for thirty years. They reconcile, just in time for the brother to be murdered and Jessica to solve the case.  A good episode. 

“Mourning Among the Wisterias” is family intrigue and murder in a Savannah setting.  I liked it and the actress who is revealed as the killer did an impressive job.  A dying hitman confesses his latest murder to Jessica in “Murder Through the Looking Glass”, and her efforts to report it to the police get her mixed up in a government plot.  This is another one where the police are too stupid to be believable, as the priest is an obvious fake. Cute touch – all four major characters are named after Presidents: Pierce, Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren.  She runs afoul of organized crime while investigating murder at a winery in “A Very Good Year for Murder.”   In “Benedict Arnold Slipped Here” Jessica is named executor of an estate.  The antique dealer who doesn’t recognize the value of antiques is a pretty dumb plot device. The house was supposedly home to a mistress of Benedict Arnold (unlikely that he spent any time in Maine).  The writer also doesn’t understand how estates are probated.  The beneficiary’s brother cannot perform the evaluation for tax purposes, for one thing, and it takes six months to settle an estate even with a will.  And if the house has been left to the niece, then it can’t be sold without her permission in any case.  Okay mystery destroyed by idiotic ignorance.  The solution is also telegraphed badly, and there’s a stupid logical flaw when the man after the contents instead buys the house.  And Arnold did not surrender West Point to the British. Bad episode. 

Jessica solves a murder at a rodeo in the pretty solid “Showdown in Saskatchewan.”  One of her books is adapted – badly – for the stage in “Deadpan”, and then a critic who reviews it turns up murdered.  There’s a nice twin in this one.  The season ends with “The Body Politic.”  Jessica is temporary speech writer for a friend running for office when the campaign manager is murdered.  The way a defamatory news story is promulgated in the press is nonsense.   A few good episodes this season, but a great deal of very bad research and writing. 

Body count among Jessica’s friends.  One friend and former student was an accessory to murder, and then is murdered himself by yet another of her friends.  An author she encourages is accused of the murder of his wife. Another friend is tried for murder, and it turns out his mother is the killer. Another neighbor is murdered.  Her nephew is once again a suspect. Another niece and her husband are also a prime suspects in another murder. Her friend Seth’s brother is also murdered and he’s a suspect. Another neighbor is murdered and a friend commits a murder, although he’s terminally ill and never arrested. Nephew Grady’s fiancé kills a man in self defense. Another niece gets involved with a married man and a friend who is running for office has her campaign manager murdered by her husband. 11/29/08

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

Brendan Fraser starts in this story about a scientist, his nephew, and a female guide who use Jules Verne as their guide in a descent into a series of caverns under Iceland.  It’s not very plausible.  There’s an underground mine in the beginning that has been abandoned for many years, but the power is still on. The ride on the ore cars is fun, if not very plausible, and it’s clear that we’re not supposed to take any of this seriously. There’s not much story, of course, and the sets vary from interesting to very fake looking.  The interplay among the characters is pretty basic and superficial. The carnivorous plants were kind of cute but the man eating fish were corny, as was the little bird that keeps helping the kid.  The magnetic rock sequence is also pretty bad.    It wasn’t an awful movie and I actually enjoyed parts, but in general it was disappointing. 11/28/08

Transporter 3 (2008)

Having enjoyed the first two in this series, I was really looking forward to the third and having seen it, came away with mixed feelings.  First of all, the story is pretty much the same. This time Frank Martin is coerced into driving across Europe accompanying a kidnapped woman by bracelets around their wrists which will explode if they get more than 70 feet from the car.  Obviously that restricts his mobility, although not the action.  There are spectacular stunts, chases, and fight sequences before he is able to turn the tables on the bad guy.  It was a reprise of the earlier stories, with better acting, better stunts, and a nice twist.  Now the bad part.  Just as with Quantum of Solace, the action scenes are done with very rapid, constant jarring cuts which make it difficult to follow what's going on.  They're better done than in the Bond movie, but by the end of the movie I was thoroughly irritated because the best parts of the movie obviously were the action sequences and they were badly flawed by this technique.  If this is the new trend in action movies, I'll be watching a lot fewer of them in the future.  11/27/08

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I didn't much care for the Hulk television show or the first Hulk movie, so I wasn't expecting much from this new one, particularly since I'd seen and not been impressed by a trailer some time back. Bruce Banner transforms into the Hulk when he gets mad, so he's  been taking some unusual anger management training. The army is still trying to recapture him because of the secrets concealed in his biochemistry and he's still on the run, determined to find a cure.  There's a good chase sequence early in the movie during a capture attempt, but not surprisingly he gets mad before escaping and that triggers the change. We see very little of the Hulk, perhaps wisely because it's all CGI. Back when I was reading this comic book, I thought the stories had gotten awfully repetitive, and unfortunately they haven't varied it much here.  Banner tries to reconnect with an old girlfriend without being detected.  The military still plans to dissect him.  Edward Norton and Liv Tyler spend a lot of time looking at each other winsomely.  The army provides a soldier with injections which give him superhuman powers, which made me wonder what they need to capture him.  And of course the injection has unpleasant side effects. I have to wander why the army wouldn't be in big trouble for launching all these openly military actions inside the US, which is clearly illegal.  The second confrontation is more spectacular, we see a lot more of the Hulk, but it wasn't nearly as good as the first.  Maybe it's not possible to film a really good movie featuring this particular name from Marvel's extensive stable.  11/26/08

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947)

The most famous novel by the mysterious writer B. Traven came to the screen in this John Huston, Humphrey Bogart piece about down and out men prospecting for gold in Mexico.  The sometimes bitter criticism of the waste and inhumanity of capitalism is notably absent from the film version.  Two drifters get stiffed by their employer and run into an old prospector who convinces them to follow his lead for one more strike.  Bogart insists he would just take enough to suit his needs and leave the rest behind but the prospector says that gold subverts you, that you end up taking more and more and eventually destroying yourself over it.  Although they start out as friends, they get testier as the gold starts to accumulate, and eventually stop trusting one another. Their encounter with a band of bandits isn't as exciting as in the book, and I was surprised to find that the line "We don't need no stinking badges" is actually a misquote.  They finally decide to leave and return to civilization, but the mutual distrust among them results in attempted murder and eventual disaster.  Traven's point was that capitalism, even in the form of gold prospecting, corrupts everyone.  The message is rather clouded in the movie though still present.  One of the classic films. 11/25/08

Captains Courageous (1996)

This version of the classic Rudyard Kipling novel opens with a major variation from the original story.  Harvey Cheyne isn't the child of indulgent parents; he's a spoiled, rich orphan.  He falls overboard during a voyage across the Atlantic and is picked up by a fishing boat.  After that, the story sticks pretty close to Kipling for quite a while, then varies - and unwisely - by killing the captain's son and having the captain become bitter and angry at him.  The result is to turn an uplifting and inspiring story into something of a tear jerker, and coupled with the absence of the boy's parents, takes a lot of the vigor out of his ultimate redemption.  Not a bad movie, despite some perplexing plot elements, with a good performance by the cast.  11/24/08

Blackmail (1929)

Yet another early Hitchcock, the first talking picture made in England, although for much of the film there is essentially no dialogue.  A young woman is attacked by a man intent on rape and kills him.  Her boyfriend is a Scotland Yard detective who helps cover up the crime, unfortunately not well enough.  Someone else knows the truth and is determined to blackmail the couple.  Although this is nicely done and has an excellent early chase scene, it is really in appearance a silent film despite the limited use of sound. The young woman's performance from the point of the murder through her journey home in shock afterward was quite impressive. It's one of those movies I'm glad to have scene but which I'm not likely to ever look at again. 11/23/08

The Secret Agent (1936)

John Gielgud stars in this early Hitchcock thriller about spies and murder, based on the novel Ashenden by Somerset Maugham, which I read so long ago that I don't remember it at all.  Ashenden is a British soldier who is recruited into a mission to terminate a foreign spy.  He is paired with a young woman and a psychopath, overplayed in one of his least impressive roles by Peter Lorre.  They don't know the identity of the spy they are supposed to eliminate and, not surprisingly, they make a misidentification and kill the wrong person. Their first contact is found dead in one of the more effective scenes in the film. Initially the woman finds it all exciting while Ashenden considers it his unpleasant duty, but after the mistake, she begins to have second thoughts. Robert Young's comic romantic scene is another low point.  The pacing in this one is very inconsistent and that changes the tone, sometimes inappropriately.  This one could actually benefit from a remake because some of the questions it raises are serious and worth considering again. 11/22/08

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Another Hitchcock thriller, this one based on a mystery novel by Ethel Lina White.  An English tourist traveling through a fictional European country notices that an elderly woman who was on the train with them appears to have disappeared. She's a retiring governess and there appears to be no reason in the world while anyone who mean her harm. A musician at the hotel where they're staying is murdered, which obviously is connected to her disappearance.  Some of the other passengers insist she was never there in the first place.  One passenger finally admits seeing her, which enables her to convince the dashing but unorthodox male protagonist that she's not hallucinating. Then another woman appears on the train, claiming that it was she who had accompanied our heroine, who begins to doubt her own memories.  There is also a patient on the train who is completely enclosed in bandages. Our hero finds evidence that it's not an illusion and the two of them solve the mystery. There's an exciting ending as well. I don't think I'd ever seen this one before and it's a definite winner, right up there with The 39 Steps. 11/21/08

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

This is the original version of the film Hitchcock remade in the 1950s about a man and his wife who stumble into information about an assassination plot, but is prevented from immediately reporting it to the authorities because of the kidnapping of their daughter.  Dad goes off after the daughter while the wife goes to London's Albert Hall to try to prevent the assassination. The authorities suspect the truth but can't get them to talk. The remake, which I haven't seen in years, was understandably much better.  This version suffers from some slow moments, particularly early in the film, and occasional stiff performances. The fight sequence at the mission is very unconvincing and our hero tracks down his daughter with disappointing ease.  Peter Lorre does a fine job as the villain but not enough to make this more than an interesting and intermittently entertaining curiosity.  11/19/08

Mork and Mindy Season 1 (1979) 

I only watched this a couple of times back when it was on.  This kind of silly humor rarely appeals to me, although Robin Williams is brilliant enough to make it work. The extended introductory episode has Mork sent to observe Earth and ending up in Mindy’s apartment after convincing her to let him stay. They travel back through time and visit the Fonz. Dawber is perky as the straight man in the combo, although there at times when it’s evident she’s trying not to crack up. The early episodes continue the slapstick with occasional – very brief – moments of seriousness.  Having Mork living with her complicates Mindy’s social life. The plots are even less sensible than in Third Rock from the Sun, which bears considerable resemblance.  Mork falls in love with a mannequin, drinks through his finger, has conversations with his spacesuit, and so forth. 

The actors seem to have settled into their roles by mid-season, and the jokes are more frequent and generally better. The episode in which he raises a man from the dead is particularly good, as is his encounter with a bully. The references to O.J. Simpson in one episode have a very different feel today. There are a few new sets, but most of the story still takes place in Mindy’s apartment or in her father’s music store.  The troublesome neighbor is one of the better episodes, as is David Letterman as a New Age conman and another where Mork decides to turn off his emotions.  Mostly silly humor, but Williams makes it work, and there is almost always at least one good laugh per episode.  There is, however, a certain amount of repetition by the end of the season. 11/18/08

The 39 Steps (1935)

One of my favorite movies from the 1930s and one of my favorite Hitchcocks, based on my favorite John Buchan novel. There have been at least a couple of remakes and I understand there's another in the offing next year. A Canadian named Richasrd Hannay (Robert Donat) visiting England stumbles into an international conspiracy when he runs into a mysterious woman.  There's no mysterious woman in the novel.  She tells him she's a spy on the run from foreign agents, which he doesn't believe at first but eventually discovers is true. She mentions 39 steps without explanation.  The rationale for Hannay not going to the authorities is thin in the book, and slightly more justified in the movie.  Anyway, female spy gets killed and Hannay decides to complete her mission, which means going to Scotland without being captured by the enemy spy ring or the police, who think he killed the female spy. He arrives at what he thinks is the house of the spy's contact, but it's actually that of the head of the foreign agents.  He's nearly shot by the chief bad guy, then arrested by the police, but he escapes again by giving an impromptu politicasl speech after being confused with someone else.  This last is perhaps my favorite part of the movie. He then gets caught up with another woman - also not in the book - with whom he has to flee the spies yet again since they are handcuffed together. The chemistry between Donat and Madelein Carroll is quite good. I love chases and this is essentially one very long chase, and the mix of light humor and suspense is very well handled.  The second half of the film is particularly strong.  It's a great story that probably deserves a remake, but it'd be a shame if this classic was forgotten.  11/17/08

Number 17 (1932) 

This early and somewhat less than memorable Alfred Hitchcock suspense film involves the arrival of various disparate characters at an abandoned house.  Several of them appear to have been involved with a recent jewel heist although things are confusing enough to make this less than obvious.  The first line of dialogue is five minutes into the film.  There's also a dead body in the house. There's lots of 1930s style suspense - shadows, reaching hands, mysterious sounds - but relatively little happens during the first half of the film. Some pretend to be residents there while others claim to be house hunting.  One is carrying handcuffs and a gun, and none of them have plausible reasons for being there. Two are women and one is a deaf mute. The last few minutes pick up the pace a bit and I'd pretty much figured out who was who, but it was too little too late.  A curiosity only. 11/16/08

Quantum of Solace (2008)

The new James Bond movie has all the chases and fights you could want - in the air, on the water, on foot, and in automobiles.  Bond is on the trail of a mysterious group called Quantum (who act a like like Thrush) whose current project is to replace the government of Bolivia with a dictator in order to make money selling water rights in that country.  The main story is mixed up with Bond's ambivalent feelings about the death of the woman he loved in the previous one, Casino Royale.  As usual, Bond gets suspended by his own organization and this time the CIA is out to eliminate him as well.  There's a great deal of violence and not a whole lot of story, but that's really what the Bond films are about -excitement, sudden death, and a touch of sex.  On the whole, I enjoyed the movie, but there was one immensely irritating problem throughout.  The camera cuts are constant, rapid, jerky, and difficult to follow.  This was particularly true during some of the action sequences where I couldn't always tell who was who or what was going on or why.  Even more puzzling is that this same technique was used during the non-action sequences, which made them jerky, annoying, and pointless.  Some of the best parts were the infrequent but welcome interactions between Bond and M.  Not nearly as good as its predecessor.  11/15/08

The Bank Job (2008) 

Heist movies are almost always fun, and this one has Jason Statham in it as well.  The opening track by T. Rex was another good sign. Statham is a small time criminal in debt over his head to a larger time criminal in London. Elsewhere another thug named Michael X is able to stay out of jail because he has compromising photographs of a member of the royal family.  Statham gets involved in a plot to steal the contents of a bank’s safe deposit boxes, which includes the damning evidence, so British Intelligence decides to help the plot along, up to a point. There’s a good deal of gratuitous sex and nudity in addition to those scenes which actually contribute to the story.  The plot is complex enough that the movie is very slow to start and neither the acting nor the dialogue are exceptional enough to compensate. Portions of the movie are based on actual events, liberally enhanced by speculation and outright invention.  Although not awful, the pacing is absolutely terrible and my attention wandered constantly from beginning to end. 11/13/08

The Shaft (2001) 

This film also appeared as Down. I had never heard of it until I spotted the DVD, which is kind of surprisingly because it’s actually pretty good, with a talented cast, some really suspenseful scenes, and a plot that holds together despite some minor glitches until the end, which becomes very silly.  Something strange is happening in the elevator in a New York City skyscraper. A group of pregnant women are trapped and a blind man is lured into a fatal fall.  Two elevator repairmen are our main characters, plus Naomi Watts as an inquisitive reporter.  The deaths are all plausible initially, but then someone is sucked up into the garage and thrown out of the top floor, which was a great visual but not very plausible.  The rationale is definitely hokey.  Computer chips were created using organic components so that they were able to grow and, eventually, initiate actions for themselves.  One of the scientists who worked on that project is doing research for the elevator company. After the next accident, the President announces that the building is being closed pending an investigation, suggesting terrorists are involved.  And why do they bring in boxes of ammunition and a bazooka when (1) the building is deserted, and (2) if they know it’s the experimental computer chips, small arms aren’t an appropriate response?  They might have sneaked this past us at least for a while except that the pace slows down right about then, giving us plenty of time to think about the inconsistencies.  Watchable despite the late developing problems, but this could have been a lot better if they’d actually thought about the resolution.  11/12/08

The Man from Uncle Season 4 (1967)

The final season opened with “The Summit-Five Affair”.  Spies in a European office precipitate a crisis and Solo is accused of being one of them.  The return to serious themes was welcome, but this is a horribly badly written episode.  “The Test Tube Killer Affair” is better written, though still not particularly good.  A killer trained to control his emotions falls in love with a girl.    “The J for Judas Affair” opens with an inept rendezvous between our twosome and an informer warning of a Thrush assassination plot.  Fortunately the story picks up from there and isn’t at all bad. “The Prince of Darkness Affair” is a two part episode.  A megalomaniac has developed an airborne weapon that beams what is effectively a heat ray down to Earth.  They perform a clever heist only to discover that one of their allies has stolen the device for his own use.  It gets silly toward the end. 

Solo gets caught in a factional battle within Thrush in “The Master’s Voice Affair.”  Illya gets brainwashed.  An okay episode, but Nehemiah Persoff uncharacteristically overacts. “The Thrush Roulette Affair” is also about brainwashing.  Illya gets programmed to assassinate Solo but – surprise – he fails.  Somewhat similarly, Illya is kidnapped to lure Solo to an ambush in “The Deadly Quest Affair.”  A sinister group seeks to overthrow the government of a South American country in “The Fiery Angel Affair”, and a traitor among Uncle’s latest batch of trainees has to be ferreted out in “The Survival School Affair.”  There’s a thought control device in the possession of ex-Nazis in “The Gurnius Affair” and an earthquake machine is destroyed in “The Man from Thrush Affair.”   

A new weapon is actually a trap designed to destroy Uncle headquarters in “The Maze Affair” and secret plans are sought by both sides in “The Deep Six Affair.” The program ended with a two part adventure, “The Seven Wonders of the World Affair.”  A gas that saps the will is the key to a plot by Thrush to take over the world.  They fail again.  The fourth season almost recaptured the freshness of the first season at times, but it was too little too late and the show was cancelled before the end of the season. 11/11/08 

Murder She Wrote Season 3 (1986) 

Season 3 opened with a two part episode, “Death Stalks the Big Top.”  One of Jessica’s nieces is about to get married when she receives a gift that appears to have been sent by her dead grandfather.  He, we soon discover, is working as a clown in a traveling circus. The circus is a hotbed of tension, on the brink of financial collapse.  The young manager is concealing something, there’s a romantic triangle or two, etc. Charles Napier is the obnoxious roustabout whom everybody hates for a variety of reasons.  He’s rather a caricature because of the need to establish so many motives so quickly. Jessica tracks the missing man to the circus with implausible ease, also to move the plot along. Not a bad mystery although the dialogue and plotting are uneven at times.  Jessica’s friend Seth is suspected of a ten year old murder in “Unfinished Business.”  All the suspects and a retiring cop gather at a string of cabins.  Two guests change cabins and one of them is murdered, possibly a case of mistaken identity.  I guessed the murdered, even though it’s not particularly plausible.  Next was a spy story of sorts.  Jessica gets caught up in an East German defection, is trapped in a British embassy, and a murder is committed in “One White Rose for Death.”  An okay episode but once again I guessed the killer.  

“Corned Beef and Carnage” starts with sexual harassment, an advertising client and a boss who wants his assistant to sleep with the man.  The boss is nasty to his employees, heavily in debt, and there is also some intrigue with a woman working for a rival agency and who is not above a little espionage.  “Dead Man’s Gold” is interesting chiefly for Leslie Nielsen as Jessica’s one time beau, but the mystery involving a loan shark and a flim flam involving sunken treasure is dull.  The next episode, “Deadline for Murder,” is dreadful. A nasty publisher is murdered, which isn’t badly set up, but the police suspicion of Jessica is comically badly conceived and written, and some of the later dialogue is subpar. “Magnum on Ice” is a cross over in which Magnum is arrested for a murder he didn’t commit and Jessica has to find the real killer.  The police are comic book style stupid in this one, one of the worst episodes to date. 

“Obituary for a Dead Anchor” concerns an investigative television journalist who crosses a dangerous drug dealer at the same time as another reporter is preparing a feature on Jessica.  Because of death threats, the first is ordered to take over the second’s project. There’s also tension among the television staff and with his wife. A faked death becomes a real one in one of the better episodes.  “Stage Struck” is below average.  Old friends come to town to act in a play but someone murders the under study.  The motivation is murky and the dumb police officer is just too dumb to be convincing.  “Night of the Headless Horseman” is an obvious play on the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  It’s a very good episode involving murder at an exclusive private school. It’s murder on an airliner in “The Corpse Flew First Class.” There’s a jewel theft as well, and a very nicely done resolved mystery.  An excellent episode. 

Jessica’s telephone line gets crossed and she overhears murder plans in “Crossed Lines”.  No one believes her, of course, until after the murder takes place.  “Murder in a Minor Key” steps outside the box.  The story is one of Jessica’s novel, which she is supposedly proof reading.  It’s a dreadful story with a cast that varies from very good to very bad, about plagiarism and murder on a college campus. Among other things, the idea that a Broadway musical would be ready to open, even though they had yet to receive two crucial songs, is ludicrous at best.  “The Bottom Lines Is Murder” starts badly with a television consumer advocate so obviously and stupidly dishonest that he’s totally unbelievable, and the obvious victim since everyone despises him.  A lot of bad writing in this one even though the solution is well handled. “Death Takes a Dive” moves to the boxing business where Jessica has to prove that another friend isn’t responsible for murdering a rival. This is another one where Jessica is off stage for a large part of the story.  It’s also another one where the police ignore very simple evidence.  The quality of the writing has definitely declined in season three. 

“Simon Says, Color Me Dead” is about the murder of an artist and the theft of his latest painting.  I found myself disliking all of the suspects, even the ones I was supposed to like, except for the woman who is arrested and obviously is innocent.  Guessed the killer almost immediately this time but it’s not a bad episode.  In “” Buddy Hackett and Steve Lawrence are feuding comedians whose kids are getting married.  They are also arguing about the supposedly non-existent royalties from their videotapes.  Their financial manager is clearly crooked.  A very young George Clooney is the young lover.  “No Accounting for Murder” even has a ghost, blamed by some for a murder inside an accounting firm. Good line: “The only things that go bump in the night in this city are the taxicabs.”  Unfortunately, the writer had no idea how accounting firms work.  The subplot involving Grady and the IRS agent is complete nonsense, and when that leads the police to arrest Grady, I was ready to skip to the next episode. 

“The Cemetery Vote” is pretty good.  A corrupt sheriff is covering up a murder and an illegal gambling operation.  “The Days Dwindle Down” has a confusing premise – that a man would kill himself, but have arranged it to look like murder, but before he can follow through, he really is murdered.  This episode incorporates bits from an old movie called Strange Bargain, with some of the same actors. The final episode, “Murder, She Spoke”, has Jessica clearing another old friend accused of murder.  Not a bad season but quite uneven.  The acting is generally excellent but some of the writing leaves considerable to be desired, particularly in verisimilitude and plot logic. 

Third season summary of why it doesn’t pay to be a friend of Jessica Fletcher.  One brother-in-law accused of murder, one old friend accused of murder, and another gets shot in the arm while a professional acquaintance is strangled in his bed.  Yet another niece is accused of murder after being pressured to sleep with a business client. Her one time beau is a conman suspected in a murder and another old friend has a stroke after a confrontation with a man who is later murdered. Still another friend is nearly murdered in the Magnum crossover. A reporter doing a feature on her is nearly murdered, and then accused of one. Another old friend commits murder to avoid blackmail, another is accused of murder of a television personality, and still another is accused of murdering a boxing promoter.  An artist friend is also murdered.  Nephew Grady finds his boss dead. Another friend and his son are both killed for trying to expose a corrupt town government, and in the closing episode, another friend is accused of murder. 11/9/08

Dead Waves (2006)

This is a Japanese horror film that suggests that evil spirits might be able to attach themselves to the broadcast waves of a particular television show, in this case one that specializes in investigations into the paranormal.  Even making allowances for the language barrier - and the subtitles are actually quite well done - the acting seems to be subpar right from the outset.   They're offered a chance to film a young woman who is believed to be possessed, but she and her brother balk at the last minute. One of the crew members then disappears after telling the producer that she heard odd voices on one of the tapes. He's troubled by the suicide of his girlfriend and becomes convinced that the possessed girl is simply suffering from clinical depression.  His efforts to help her have unintended consequences. It's not always clear what's going on, and the occasional effective scene is lost among many others that either drag interminably or restate the obvious.  Some interesting camera work but, on balance, pretty minor overall.  11/6/08

Maximum Overdrive (1986) 

One of Stephen King’s oddest short stories was the basis of this moderately unsuccessful horror film, later remade with even less to recommend it under the story title, “Trucks”.  The tail of a comet affects the atmosphere of Earth and mechanical objects come to life, an extraordinarily implausible idea if you consider this SF, which I don’t.  It’s a horror movie with a superficially rational explanation.  The world is overwhelmed by the machine revolt, most specifically in the form of murderous tractor trailers who besiege a group of travelers in a rest stop on an unnamed highway.  The malevolent soda machine is a minor classic.  Yeardly Smith is also excellent as Connie, the newlywed. The rest of the acting is competent but unexceptional.  A balance of power is achieved but the machines insist that the humans refuel them.  11/5/08

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) 

Jackie Chan and Jet Li both appear in this epic martial arts fantasy.  The opening is in contemporary America.  A teenager gets pushed around by thugs who make fun of his interest in martial arts. They’re about to kill him when he finds himself in ancient China. There he encounters Jackie Chan and learns that he may be destined to return a magic staff to the Monkey King, which will make him all powerful in battle. There’s a nicely choreographed fight scene after which he takes leave of Chan and continues with an almost equally formidable young woman. Then they run into Jet Li, another elaborate fight scene, and the boy now has two teachers.  Meanwhile the Jade Warlord (the big bad of the piece) has sent a witch to search for them.  It’s a quest story with magic duel, a not entirely happy ending, and a coming-of-age story.  Not great cinema by any means, but thoroughly enjoyable. 11/4/08

Left for Dead (2007) 

This supernatural western opens with a peculiar premise.  An insane prostitute led her fellows on a slaughter of every male in town.  The ghost of the local preacher vows vengeance, but cannot leave the local cemetery.  Fifteen years pass.  It’s a bit hard to follow at first.  A tough looking young woman is accosted by two others, and she beats them both up fairly easily.  Eventually we discover she’s looking for her wandering husband, and convinces the now aging prostitutes to leave their encampment and follow her back to Amnesty, where the preacher’s ghost (not really a ghost though – he’s a zombie or the equivalent) is killing anyone who comes within reach.  In small doses, the odd film techniques – expressionless acting, odd camera angles, sudden freezes – isn’t bad but at length it becomes annoying.  Say, around 15 minutes into the film. Why does one character speak most of his dialogue in Spanish, and why are their subtitles even when he speaks in English? The gore and other special effects are really awful.  I like the idea of mixing supernatural and the Old West, but this could have, and should have, been much better. As it is, it makes use of pseudo-artsy techniques, done badly, to suggest that it's a meaningful movie, when it's actually just poorly conceived and badly executed. The acting is atrocious as well.  An immense disappointment.  11/3/08

The Loch Ness Terror (2008) 

No surprises in this one, with a CGI dinosaur that is sometimes not bad, sometimes awful.   A young boy sees his father killed by the creature and thirty years later he is still trying to prove its existence.  One does wonder how they covered up the slaughter of three scientists at the time, but that’s a minor point.  Anyway, in the present, Nessie has swum through a 4000 mile tunnel to North America and pops up in a lake there, along with some of her offspring.  Although the story, such as it is, isn’t entirely awful, the habit of prospective victims of standing around whenever the creature shows up gets annoying pretty quickly. The sequence following the arrival of the young protagonist on the island where he’s looking for his friends is the high point of the movie.   On the other hand, the chase with the microwave gun is pitiful. Parts are stolen from Jurassic Park and Lake Placid, but at least they’re stealing from quality.  Predictable ending although for some reason they forget about at least two of the critters.  11/2/08

The Man from Uncle Season 3 (1966)

 Season 3 opens with a jazzier version of the theme song in “The Her Master’s Voice Affair.”  The daughter of a prominent scientist has been programmed by parties unknown to perform acts unknown.  Shenanigans at a girls’ school follow, marred a bit by the juvenile way people respond on several occasions. The bodyguard duty isn’t taken very seriously either.  “The Sort of Do-It-Yourself Dreadful Affair” was written by Harlan Ellison.  Solo is attacked by a woman turned into an indestructible robot (who walks around looking rather silly actually).  Waverley doesn’t believe him and puts him on light duty.  Obviously he gets proven right, there’s lots of running around, Ilya gets taken prisoner for the one millionth time but escapes with ridiculous ease, and the bad guys are routed. The show had already become a spoof of itself, so this fits its present tone.  “The Galatea Affair” teams Ilya with a new temporary partner for some reason.  They need to train a dance hall girl into a countess to impersonate a courier for Thrush, an obvious Pygmalion spoof.  The bad guys substitute the real girl for the ringer, and complications ensue.   “The Super Colossal Affair” pits our heroes against organized crime figures plotting to drop a nuclear weapon on Las Vegas.  Too silly to be entertaining.  “The Monks of St Thomas Affair” involves the takeover of a monastery by sinister villains.  Okay but nothing special. 

“The Pop Art Affair” is another silly one.  A beatnik type wants to sell Thrush secrets to Uncle, including a gas that causes a fatal onset of hiccoughs.  There’s an assassination attempt in “The Thor Affair”, and the proposed victim takes refuge with a man who is actually the man in charge of the operation.  Disjointed and whimsical despite the theme.  The obligatory dumb female character receives their radio transmissions through her tooth.  The killer toys sequence is ludricrous.  “The Candidate’s Wife Affair”, in which a ringer is substituted for a politician’s wife, is more serious in tone, but it’s an oddly subdued, slow moving episode that made me keep whispering “get on with it”.    Next was the “Come to Me in the Casbah Affair”.  It’s another silly one about an attempt to steal a code book in Algeria with comic book villains who fall all over each other.  “The Off Broadway Affair” is a much better episode.  An actress is murdered and the dynamic duo investigate the off Broadway play where she’d been working.  Shari Lewis is always a delight. 

“The Concrete Overcoat Affair” is a two-parter.   The investigation of a plot to divert the Gulf Stream gets complicated when Solo inadvertently compromises the honor of a young Sicilian woman, which results in her three aging gangster uncles swearing vengeance or marriage.  Yes, it’s uncles vs Uncle.  Illya gets caught by Thrush and Solo is at the altar when Jack Palance, in one of his oddest roles, decides to take him prisoner for Thrush.  For a change, the comedy elements work without destroying the tension of the main plot.  Janet Leigh is also excellent as the homicidal hitwoman.  “The Abominable Snowman Affair” continues the downward slide, a nonsensical story in which Uncle helps with the rightful transition of the government of a thinly disguised Tibet.  “The My Friend the Gorilla Affair” has a scientist creating super warriors in Africa in a plot to conquer the world.  A truly stupid episode with painted backdrops and a female Tarzan. “Me Girl.”  When the guy in the gorilla suit shows up, an already stupid episode gets dramatically stupider.  The worst episode to date.  One oddity: the other female character in this episode eventually became Ronald Reagan’s White House astrologer. “The Jingle Bells Affair” is marginally better, but only marginally.  Comic book Russians plot against their own leader while visiting a Santa Claus school in New York.  The acting is particularly leaden in this one. 

In “The Take Me to Your Leader Affair” a scientist believes that he has detected an alien space vessel on the way to Earth.  Then his daughter (Nancy Sinatra) is kidnapped and it is clear that the assistant is involved.  It turns out the equipment has been rigged by the manufacturer.  Illya has a shoe that converts into a chainsaw!  “The Suburbia Affair” is another farce, this one about a brilliant scientist hiding in a small town.  Silly, but the humor actually works in this one, so I’ll forgive them for this one.  The dueling ice cream trucks and the ever adaptable realtor are the high points.  Illya has to organize a mutiny to prevent Thrush from deploying a tidal wave machine in “The Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum Affair”, an average episode.  “The Napoleon’s Tomb Affair” is a plot they’ve done before.  Number two in the government of a North African country wants to be number one and plots to disgrace his boss during a visit to France.   

“The It’s All Greek to Me Affair” is another one involving mistaken identity, the effort to recover stolen documents, and some sophomoric humor. “The Hula Doll Affair” is marginally better.  Two brothers in Thrush battle one another for a position of authority, unaware that the explosive they stole from an Uncle agent is going to explode. There’s also a nice twist when we find out who the real mystery agent from Thrush is.  Harlan Ellison wrote “The Pieces of Fate Affair” in which the author of a book, obviously based on Thrush documents, suffers amnesia.  Our two heroes try to help her recover her memories while Thrush, obviously, tries to kill her. “There’s no more vain creature in the world than an author with his name on the cover of a cheap book.”  It’s another silly one, but at least witty. “The Matterhorn Affair”, on the other hand, is merely silly, the story of a race to find some missing film.  Almost as stupid as the female Tarzan episode.  “The Hot Number Affair” is much better, thanks in part to an amusing soundtrack and the presence of a very young Sonny and Cher in the cast.  Thrush codes a document into a fabric for some reason, and it ends up on a designer dress. Still pretty silly. 

“The When in Roma Affair” is a fairly routine episode about efforts to get back a sensitive item left in an innocent tourist’s purse. It’s one of the rare serious episodes in this season.  There’s more nonsense in “The Apple a Day Affair”, in which Thrush develops exploding apples in order to trigger a nuclear explosion.  “The Five Daughters Affair”, a two parter, is probably the high point of the season, with Kim Darby, Terry Thomas, Herbert Lom, and a host of other guest stars.  A formula is divided among four daughters and the race is on to recover all of the parts.  The final episode of this uneven but generally quite weak season was “The Cap and Gown Affair.”  It’s another blend of serious and silly about hijinx at a college where Waverly is supposed to receive an honorary degree.  Not a high end point. 11/1/08

Flu Birds (2008)

Since this was another Sci-Fi Channel CGI monster movie, my expectations were pretty low to start with.  Not low enough.  A bunch of juvenile delinquents are on a work program in the forest – where have I heard this before? – not far from where two hunters were just attacked by creepy looking flying creatures. The usual stereotypes are all included: wise cracking punk, overeater named Porky, computer hacker, horny female, and overly earnest counselor.  As usual, the teens are all played by actors five or more years out of their teens.  The counselor gets killed and the others try to make their way out of the woods.  The acting varies from leaden to okay, but the dialogue is so insipid that it all seems bad.  Anyway, they accidentally kill one of their own number in one really bad scene, and then discover a cache of dynamite in an abandoned building! There’s also a gas leak in the same building.  Elsewhere we have a doctor and a park ranger who were formerly romantically involved who are examining an injured, comatose hunter attacked by the flying creatures – they’re not birds despite the title. The hunter has an unknown infection on top of his injuries. Once again, with only one exception the delinquents are crappy people who deserve to die, so we don’t care if, and when, they do.   Elsewhere, after muttering scientific nonsense, the doctors with the plague ridden man – who is not attached to any monitoring equipment in the hospital – fail to take even the most rudimentary safeguards to prevent the spread of the disease.  They even take their masks off in his presence.  Eventually they call the CDC, which shows up with shotguns to quarantine the hospital. They’re led by a thug who thinks avian flu could wipe out the entire city.  He then lets the two stars leave the hospital, despite what he just said, and the next few minutes are so confused and nonsensical.  The people enforcing the quarantine don’t wear protective gear either.  One of them talks to a guard, which would presumably have infected him, and then he shoots her rather than physically restrain her. I won’t even attempt to describe them. The disease suddenly mutates and goes airborne, spreading through the hospital.  There’s a sex scene between two of juvies in the middle of their attempted escape that is so out of place and unlikely that I was laughing even before the bad birdies showed up to interfere.   I won’t even describe the rest of the movie but they even forget to resolve the situation at the hospital.  It’s dreadful even by Sci-Fi Channel standards.  Remember when we first heard of the Sci-fi Channel and some of us were optimistic?  This is an insult to their viewers. 10/31/08 

Eagle Eye (2008) 

This is one of those wild action movies that hurtle by so quickly that the plot holes aren’t evident until later.  Two people, apparently at random although that turns out not to be the case, are contacted by cell phones and coerced into becoming fugitives, part of a plot which appears to be connected to a terrorist attack in the US.  There are car chases, crashes, explosions, gun battles, and daring escapes galore as they try to evade the authorities long enough to figure out who is manipulating them and why.  Spoiler alert here.  I was a bit dubious early on because the unseen mastermind seemed to be able to think too quickly and interfere with too many electronic systems to be convincingly human, a problem I also had at times with the last Die Hard movie.  Only a computer could be that quick, if even a computer could do it.  Lo and behold, it’s a computer doing it.  There’s some fuzzy logic involved.  The male half of the duo is being maneuvered to release a biometric lock that prevents the computer from acting on its major plot.  Well, even exact twins don’t have the same finger prints and retinal patterns, so this part makes no sense.  For that matter, since the computer was already putting the master plan into motion while it manipulated him, then clearly it already had found a way around the biometric lock.  And for that matter, we were told early on that the computer was in beta testing and not actually operative.  Looks pretty operative to me.  The plot flaws are annoying because it would have been relatively simple to eliminate most of them, which means the writing was sloppy or lazy or both.  Exciting to watch, but disappointing when brain is engaged. 10/31/08

The Chair (2007) 

The first minute or so of this one had me already concerned that it was another subpar horror film, with a montage of shots taken with odd color filtration and at peculiar angles, none of which conveyed any actual content.  It improves a bit when we focus on a young woman moving into her new house.  Almost as soon as she moves in, she’s trouble by odd sounds, and since it is clear that she had had recent problems in her past, the logical assumption is that they’ve returned to haunt her somehow.  Then her books rearrange themselves – shades of Poltergeist! Fortunately, things improve pretty steadily though.  Despite its obvious very low budget, it manages to be genuinely scary and the lead actress, in her first significant role, does a good job as she becomes increasingly influenced by the evil presence in the house.  It’s clearly not delusional, because her sister sees at least one of the odd manifestations.  Although relatively slow moving, and with a few bumps along the way, this one’s actually worth your while if you want an alternative to the usual slasher-of-the-week.  I saw the surprise ending coming but it was still a good one. 10/29/08

The Legend of Bloody Mary (2008) 

The dream sequence that opens this low budget horror film was more irritating than mood setting, and the first few scenes after that are filled with quick and annoying cuts and washed out color.  Not a good start for what looked like potentially one of the more interesting of the recent spate of direct to DVD releases.  I recognized a couple of the actors in the flashback to a witch trial, but the sequence was not particularly well written and did not make use of their talents.  The main castare all strangers to me, and they didn’t impress me with their talent.  The male lead is having bad dreams so his girlfriend gets him to talk to a priest.  Their conversation is conducted with rapid switches in close-ups between the two, neither showing much emotion, with short snatches of dialogue.  It’s pretty terrible, and I almost hit the eject button.  Then we get a flashback to the guy’s sister disappearing at a house party in a thunderstorm, which we have to assume has something to do with the witch.  Lots more tight close ups, underlit scenes, glimpses of something weird looking, and so forth.  The constant camera jumps have by now become actively annoying.  The priest sounds like he’s reading his lines and the color is still washed out of most of the shots.  Sometimes the sound seems to have been added after the fact and doesn’t quite match the action.  The witch, we are told, was beaten for hours before her execution, but she and her clothing are completely unmussed.  One also wonders why there are satanic symbols like pigs heads and skulls erected around the place of execution.  There’s more, but do you really want to know?  Not worth your time. 20/38/08

Grizzly Park (2008) 

A bunch of juvenile offenders are sentenced to community service in a remote wildlife park, but their tenure there overlaps with the arrival of a serial killer.  The set up even without him is a little hard to believe, since they’re completely untrained and unequipped to live in the wild with dangerous animals.  The serial killer gets eaten by a grizzly bear almost immediately, which made me wonder why he was in the story in the first place.  The plot advances rather slowly but I wasn’t bothered by its deliberate pacing.  I was bothered, however, by the fact that all of the eight young people are thoroughly unlikable and a few of them downright dreadful people whose deaths came as a relief rather than a shock.  Some of the details are not believable.  The $5000 a night prostitute didn’t convince me at all.  I also wondered what happened to the jeep that the killer drove to the remote camp, which seems to have disappeared when the rest arrived. Wolves get the first of two who wander away; the bear gets the other.  The story progresses very predictably from that point on, neither particularly good nor particularly bad. The camera work is generally quite nice but the acting is erratic as is the dialogue, which varies from adequate to awkward. Glenn Morshower is excellent as Ranger Bob, but no one else impressed me.  Some nice outside shots and an amusing soundtrack.  Not an award winner, obviously, but very watchable up until the stupid ending.  10/27/08

Seed (2007) 

The basic plot on this one didn’t inspire me since I’ve seen it so many times before.  An executed serial killer survives the process and, we are told, if a prisoner survives electrocution, the law requires that he be set free, which is nonsense. We jump back in time to his arrest, accomplished with great and messy loss of life. There’s some not very clear stuff including a dream sequence that establishes the fact that one of the officers is disturbed by the case and that the killer, Seed, is a really sick person.  When the execution fails, even after three attempts, they bury him alive to get around the “law” that says they have to set him free.  He escapes from the grave and, not surprisingly, wants revenge.  I have nothing against blood and gore, but the gratuitous violence in this one is sometimes so raw that it’s hard to take and, frankly, it overpowers the story so much that I lost interest.   Not recommended. 10/25/08

Vipers (2007)

Okay, I like snake movies although CGI snakes are a bit disappointing.  This one involves a group of mutant snakes that escape from a government laboratory during some kind of criminal attack.  Of course.  It was made for television, but a little bit of nudity has been added for the DVD. A young couple camping nearby are the first to become victims of the ravenous snakes, which hunk in packs and rip their prey to pieces.  Gory but not entirely believable.  Obviously there’s not much of a surprise about the plot from that point forward.  There’s an irritating subplot about a man whose son died in Iraq or Afghanistan but the military won’t send his remains back to the US for burial.  This makes no sense and is also unnecessary. The usual characters are introduced, the doctor about to retire, his younger replacement, the dysfunctional family, quasi-hippie romantic interest for the doctor, uptight woman, philandering husband, and serious minded police officer.  The menaced kid – there’s always a menaced kid – apparently recovers completely from a snakebite within five seconds of receiving an antivenom, although there is a later relapse. And of course there’s no cell phone service. 

Meanwhile, the company responsible is trying to send a team to capture or kill the snakes.  The town undergoes a wholesale attack and the telephones, inexplicably, stop working as well.  The handful that escaped have now become a massive horde of adult snakes even though only a day has passed. One group takes refuge in an ice cream truck and – guess what! – it won’t start.  Most people act like idiots.  Instead of waiting for the snakes to go away, they decide to run through them.  Surprise!  They don’t all make it.  The later part of the movie is so implausible, including the comic book villain, that I lost interest. The acting isn’t bad but the script is below par, and the dialogue varies from inane to acceptable. The surprise ending is absurd. I assume this was made for the Sci-Fi Channel and it’s not one of their better efforts. 10/25/08

Knock Knock (2006) 

Another slasher film, sort of, which opens as a Scream clone, with someone knocking on a teenager’s door rather than calling, but you get the idea.  There’s even a weird school custodian. The opening credits looked promising, but some of the early dialogue was relentlessly inane, and some of it nonsensical.  If there was a murder, it would be in the newspapers, so why are the high school students uncertain whether or not the victim is dead. And we know there’s a murder because we saw the killer drive his hand through the front door (!).  Then a jock is attacked and stabbed to death, his body brutally displayed, after which a female cop – who has zero personality – is sent to investigate. Then the new story refers to it as a prank gone wrong, which is clearly stupid.  My hopes were now in steady decline. Sample of the dialogue:  “She looked like she’d seen a ghost.  A big one.” The killer, who seems to have tinfoil all over his face, kills a couple more and mutilates their bodies, eluding security precautions with apparent ease.  The police arrest the janitor even though they have no evidence and our lady copy resorts to physical abuse although she still doesn’t express any emotion, and she’s also incredibly dumb because she ignores other clear evidence that a retired copy is pointing out.  Naturally there’s a nude shower scene.  It’s all revenge for the sins of the fathers.  Lots of gore, lots of clichés, not totally unwatchable but very close. 10/24/08

No Man’s Land (2008) 

The opening of this low budget horror film was quite promising.  Businessman driving through Death Valley is accosted by a scurrilous looking hitchhiker who tells him about the Death Valley Drift, a serial killer.  Then the businessman quite deliberately runs the man down, smiling as he does so.  Except this time a policeman spots him and his reign of terror is over.  Or is it?  Execution only results in his return as a supernatural force. Years pass and the deputy who arrested him is now sheriff.  The acting is competent or better and the dialogue actually has some life to it.  There’s a young man about to take over as sheriff (his estranged son) and a woman from Los Angeles working in the local diner who become the centerpieces of the story.  She’s the first to discover something weird, a toilet full of blood. Three thieves show up and a combination of circumstances leads to one death and a violent confrontation.  There’s a brief earthquake and most of the people in the diner disappear somehow, leaving two crooks, one hostage, two police officers, and a doctor. 

Even stranger, they are unable to radio or call out, and they hear a report that the diner was destroyed with no survivors, even though they’re standing in front of it.  Strange characters begin appearing and disappearing.  The waitress gets the best lines as they attempt to discover just what kind of world outside the world they’ve fallen into.  A man who’d been recently reported missing shows up claiming that they were in a dark world between the living and the dead shortly after the two crooks drive off, although they also become separated, but there’s an invisible barrier preventing anyone from leaving.  Some nice special effects.  This is one strange movie, and a surprisingly good one.  Quite out of the ordinary. 10/23/08

Trackman (2007) 

This one is a Russian made horror movie.  Two thieves rob a bank, seize some hostages, and take them into an abandoned subway tunnel.  Unfortunately, there’s a psychopathic killer down there.  The dubbing varies in quality but is generally okay.  It’s not clear why they take the hostages with them AFTER they’ve apparently made a clean escape, but they do. This almost works, but not quite. Among other things, why would anyone bother to keep the lights on in an abandoned series of tunnels. The acting may have been okay but the occasional lapses in dubbing make it sound amateurish.  Some of the interim sequences last just a bit too long to sustain the suspense they’re trying to achieve.  I also wondered why the thieves hadn’t checked out their escape route in advance.  One of the hostages is hysterical, and she gets on the viewer’s nerves as well as those of her captors.  There’s also a falling out among the bad guys.  Part of my problem was that I didn’t like any of the characters, not even the hostages.  There’s occasionally some nice camera work and a few good scenes, but for the most part this just didn’t work. 10/22/08

Jack Brooks Monster Slayer (2008) 

This blend of humor and horror opens with an impressive sequence in which natives battle a monster.  Next we flash back to the youth of Jack Brooks, a teen with anger management problems after monsters kill his parents and sister.  As a troubled adult, he is attending night school, a class taught by Robert Englund/Freddy Krueger and working as a plumber.  Englund asks Jack to look at the plumbing in his house, and Jack’s work disturbs an evil force resident in the plumbing, which transforms Englund into a monster.  He’s excellent early on when he’s possessed but still human.  After the transformation, the creature is pretty corny.  It starts converting its victims into more monsters while Jack and two students hide in one of the classrooms.  The humor pretty much vanishes during the series of battles that follows as Jack’s anger helps him defeat the monsters and get the girl.  Uniformly fine acting and generally convincing dialogue lift this one above most of the recent competition.  Not that that’s much of a leap based on my recent viewing experiences, but this was actually a lot of fun to watch.  Camera work and special effects were good if not spectacular.  The first half includes most of the best parts though. 10/21/08

The Tomb (2006)

In honor of the season, I’m indulging myself with a week long horror movie festival, mostly small independents that don’t look too promising.  Maybe we’ll have some pleasant surprises.  Despite the cover and the credits, this has nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name.  The opening intersperses scenes of a bloody woman clawing her way out of a plastic bag with odd camera shots of a masked horseman and bizarre dolls and skulls.  It doesn’t take long to realize this is a Saw clone.  A series of people are imprisoned with various injuries to compete in a game rigged so they can’t win, or survive. There’s some jumpy camera work, annoying, and more shots of the masked rider that don’t contribute anything, also annoying. First victim encounters a second, and we finally have some dialogue, inane and unconvincingly delivered and followed by standard evil laughter from the Puppet Master. The cheap sets don’t help.  Eventually eight people are unbagged. Frankly, I fast forwarded through most of what followed, and it didn’t get any better. I used to think that there was no point in trying to write screenplays because I couldn’t compete with the professionals.  The last few horror films I’ve seen have convinced me that talent is not a prerequisite. 10/20/08

Doctor Who: The Destiny of the Daleks (1979) 

This episode opens with an amusing but annoying bit in which Romana, a Time Lord, tries on various bodies in a short period of time, which is nonsense because they have a limited number of regenerations.  Romana is my favorite of his many companions, and the only Time Lord to be one, but the Daleks are my least favorite recurring villains in the show. Anyway, they land on a desolate planet which turns out to be Skaros, the original world of the Daleks, although they don’t know that for quite a while.  They get separated when the Doctor has an accident, then gets taken aboard a visiting alien spaceship.  Romana, meanwhile, has radiation poisoning, runs into a mysterious looking man in the ruins, and falls into a pit.  She gets captured by the Daleks and put to work in their mines.  The Doctor allies himself with the alien visitors, but they seem to be concealing something as well. Reunited with Romana, he tries to beat the Daleks to the object they’re searching, the body of their creator, Davros.  A three sided battle erupts when we discover that the aliens are actually another race of robots planning to eliminate the competition. The good guys win, as always, but Davros is still alive.  We never hear about the rival robot race again in any of the later episodes, a bit of an anomaly since they were locked in battle with the Daleks for centuries.  An above average episode. 10/19/08

Five Across the Eyes (2008) 

Apparently it doesn’t take much to make a cheap horror movie and get significant distribution.  This one opens with a group of unlikeable characters unskillfully portrayed by five young women in a car, all recorded with odd camera angles and washed out color as they utter inane dialogue.  They’re supposed to be high school girls on the way home from a football game when they get lost.  They hit a parked car and decide not to report it.  Bad decision.  Almost as bad as getting cast in this in the first place. None of them can get a signal on their cell phones when an unconvincing car chase ensues. They get caught by a shotgun wielding woman and most of the next few minutes of dialogue is incomprehensible.  She orders them to strip, which they do although there’s no nudity and even if there was, the photography is so grainy nothing would have been visible.  Then she just drives off and leaves them. No explanation.  At this point I looked it up and found that it was shot in nine days for a total cost of $4000 from a script by a high school kid.  Figures.  Anyway, nutty woman comes back and chases them again, ramming their car, etc. while they get increasingly silly.  For some reason, they discover a burial urn with the ashes of the father of one of the girls in the back of the van.  Huh?   I’ve seen more interesting test patterns. 10/18/08

Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (1975) 

The Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith answer a distress call from a remote planet. The mining expedition that landed there is being attacked and several of its members have literally disappeared.  More ambitious and effective sets in this one; the alien jungle actually looks like an alien jungle.  The dead bodies reappear in advanced stages of decay. A rescue party arrives, promptly decides that the Doctor is responsible, and our two protagonists become fugitives.  The actual killer is a quasi-visible creature that only comes out at night.  The only survivor of the original expedition, Sorensen, appears to be only marginally sane.  They get captured again, but can’t convince the rescuers that they are tampering with antimatter and could destroy both universes.  The tide of battle goes back and forth.  They take off but Sorenson is infected with antimatter and turns into a murderous creature from time to time, and the planet itself won’t let them get out of orbit because they still have some antimatter aboard.  There’s a mutiny setting up the final battle.  Silly science but an enjoyable sequence. 10/17/08

Remote Control (1987) 

Jennifer Tilly and Kevin Dillon got themselves roped into this absolutely dreadful SF movie about a video tape that is actually a device used by aliens in an effort to subjugate the human race.  We are saved by the two loyal clerks of a video rental store and the cute but useless female customer they carry along with them.  There’s no mention of any official reaction to a world wide wave of motiveless murders.  There are no redeeming qualities at all except the female lead has a nice smile.  And the costuming is so bad that I actually noticed it, which is very unusual.  My favorite costuming bit is when the female lead gets into a car wearing one set of clothing, and emerges wearing another!  The plot and science are appalling.  The tape can turn a VCR back on when it’s off, even when it’s not plugged in, can show what’s happening in another room, directs the action in complex situations.  It’s magic. If they’d played this for laughs, it might have been watchable. 10/16/08

Forbidden World (1982) 

This has been repackaged as Mutant but I know this Roger Corman cheapie by its original name.  The opening sequence – which includes shots that were used in multiple other movies – is full of bad special effects, corny sound effects, and even cornier dialogue as a wandering space adventurer defeats some pursuing space pirates before landing on a world where a scientific establishment has been experiencing problems.  A genetic experiment has been acting strangely and it promptly kills one of the researchers thanks to a really stupid security lapse.  Then we have some voyeuristic straight sex, some kinky sex, and some lesbian sex, catering to whatever vice you prefer.  Meanwhile the mutation – obvious borrowed from Alien – continues to change form and lurk in the dark corridors.  The next gets killed because he investigates a problem, alone, without telling anyone.  And of course we have the nutty scientist who doesn’t want the creature killed because we could learn so much from it.  The spider version of the monster is so badly done that it’s comical and distracted me initially from the really bad acting, including inappropriate emotional responses. The two supposedly bright female scientists decide to try to communicate using English. Really, really silly and really, really bad. Oh, and the title has nothing to do with the story. No wonder Dawn Dunlap retired from movies at 23. 10/15/08

Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (1978) 

The Doctor had had a long standing feud with the rest of the Timelords since at least the third incarnation, and in this episode he appears to have returned to Gallifrey to exact his revenge. Initially it appears that the Doctor is in cahoots with an unidentified alien.  He returns to Gallifrey and demands to be installed as president of the Timelords, acting seriously out of character.  Obviously this is to be a ruse to expose his supposed allies although frankly the Timelords are so obnoxious it would serve them right if he was on the side of the villains.  Anyway, this gives the Doctor access to the Matrix, the repository of all the accumulated knowledge of his race. He and K9 sabotage the planetary defenses and the aliens arrive to take over while Leela has become a fugitive inside the Timelords’ citadel. Plots and counterplots abound as the Doctor fools the invaders into manifesting themselves physically, thus making them vulnerable to a counterattack.  He expels them from the planet and everything seems great, except that another alien force has taken advantage of the situation to invade as well – his old enemies the Sontarans.  There's an amusing sequence near the end when they're caught in a time loop. One of the best of the Tom Baker adventures and the last with Leela. 10/14/08

Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (1976) 

Tom Baker is the Doctor in this other worlds adventure.  The Timelords divert the Tardis to a ravaged planet that seems to attract crashed space vessels and which conceals a madman searching for a perfect humanoid cranium to house the brain of a renegade Timelord in a new cranium.  There’s also a cult of women who have mental powers that rival those of the Timelords and who view the Doctor as their enemy.  Sarah Jane Smith, his current companion, tries to help when the Doctor is drugged, but he is teleported to the cult, who plan to sacrifice him.  More subplots involve the animosity between the scientists and his servant, dissension in the cult, and Sarah’s temporary loss of vision. Some really corny special effects but that’s part of the charm of the earlier Doctor Who shows.  Some of the acting is even less stellar than usual.  There’s a tendency of potential victims to not run when it is obvious that they should. Morbius ends up in a body reminiscent of Robot Monster, with a lobster claw and Dalek protrusions.  A good episode although Baker was at his best when there was more humor in an episode. 10/13/08

Doctor Who: The Time Meddler (1965) 

This installment of Doctor Who is a change war story.  The first Doctor and two companions arrive in Europe in time for the Battle of Hastings.  They stumble onto some mysterious events, including a monk who is strangely interested in the battle, and another man who has a 20th Century wristwatch.  Turns out the monk is another time traveler who wants to change the course of history.  William Hartnell was the Doctor and the series was broadcast in black and white at the time.  As one of the historical episodes, it needed little in the way of special effects, so they don’t show up as clunky as they sometimes do.  The plot is reasonably complex but the action is much slower than usual.  A few seconds of the original were lost and are bridged with some redoing.  Although it’s one of my favorite of the Hartnells, it doesn’t compare to the later manifestations of the Doctor. 10/12/08

The Onion Movie (2008) 

This is a collection of fake news stories, movie trailers, and commercials, among other things, with cameo performances in some of the skits.  Some are quite funny, others not so.  Stephen Segal as Cockpuncher is clever.  So is the neck belt sequence.  After a flurry of these, we get a plot, efforts by the station management to change the way their star anchorman presents the news, but the plot disappears quickly in a fresh wave of skits.  The sequence about sexual innuendoes in pop music is excellent.  So is “Little Known Racial Stereotypes”, the computer upgrade skit, and the limitation of all smoking in the US to one room in Iowa.  The Dungeons and Dragons bit was right on; the annoying jerk reminds me of people I’ve met.   There’s not a great deal one can say about this except that while it is not quite as consistently funny as Kentucky Fried Movie it is amusing in its own right and a lot more current in its satire. 10/11/08

Prom Night (2008) 

I was expecting this to be a remake of the Jamie Lee Curtis thriller of the same name, but it’s not.  In fact the plot more closely resembles that of the first of the Halloween movies by John Carpenter.  The teenage heroine (played by a 22 year old actress even though in the early scenes she’s 15 – but some of the other teens are 24 or 26) lost her parents and brother to a psychopath who is now locked up in an asylum.  As prom night approaches, he escapes, determined to finish his job of eliminating the family, as well as any of the other characters who happen to wander into his path.  The plot, obviously, is nothing special.  Nor did I recognize any of the major cast members.  The dialogue and situations – the bitchy prom queen candidate, the police being notified too late to help, etc. – are such creaky old slasher movies clichés that they verge on the insulting.  Oddly enough, those responsible decided to get a PG rating, so there’s no harsh language, no nudity or sex, no drug use except alcohol, no gore, and very little actual graphic violence.  The killer is played in such low key that he isn’t particularly menacing, and the characters are so flat that we don’t care which of them lives or dies, although it’s pretty obvious from the outset.  He tricks a maid into letting him into his room, which I found somewhat unlikely in a contemporary setting.  I don’t believe they’re allowed to do that nowadays. One good line: “If he were any dumber, I’d have to water him.”  Some of the murders make no sense at all. They only complicate matters for the killer – and add to the body count.  There are absolutely no surprises and virtually no suspenseful scenes.  The ease with which the killer outwits the police, stakeouts, searches, etc., is annoyingly implausible. They secure the doors to the girl’s house, but forget about locking the windows?  Two police officers and the boyfriend get taken out without a sound?  The senior cop only calls for backup after he finds the SECOND body, not the first?  Give me a break. Better than a blank screen, I suppose, but only marginally.  The gag reel isn’t even funny. 10/10/08

Sabotage (1936) 

This early Hitchcock film is based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad, which was partly based on actual events by anarchists in England.  Oscar Homolka is a reluctant saboteur who doesn’t want to risk placing a bomb, which is what his contact wants him to do.  He is suspected by a local undercover policeman, but his illegal activities are not known to his wife, or her mildly retarded younger brother.  There’s some running around and spying on each other, and the detective’s identity gets revealed.  Homolka is desperate for cash but cannot find anyone who will agree to deliver the bomb, and he can’t do it because he’s under suspicion.  He finally decides to have the boy do it, but through mischance the boy is delayed and the bomb is set with a timer.  The wife finds out the truth and kills him in revenge.  Much of its interest is its historical value and current events made give it modern relevance as well. The title had to be changed because Hitchcock had already made a movie under that name. 10/9/08

One Missed Call (2007)

This is an American remake of a Japanese horror film which I haven't seen, although I did see One Missed Call 2.  A group of students receive cell phone calls from themselves in the near future, at the moment of their deaths.  The effect is very similar to the Final Destination movies. The first death scene - which doesn't involve the call - has a woman pulled under the water in a pool by some unknown person, or ghost, or whatever.  We then learn that she'd been acting strange lately.  Her friends are discussing this when one of them receives a phone message, from herself, ending with a scream.  Meanwhile, a detective looking into the supposed accidental drowning of the first victim - his sister - discovers a red candy in her mouth, which is repeated for subsequent victims. 

Victim number two starts having odd hallucinations, mostly dull or actively silly, although a couple are mildly creepy. She falls, or is thrown in front of a train, after which her friend - our protagonist - sees an odd vision of a humanlike creature herself.  The dead girl's male admirer is acting strange and it turns out he received a similar call, from himself.  He dies right on schedule when a propane tank explodes.  The next victim receives the call and she and our heroine destroy their cell phones to try to break the chain.  That doesn't work so she teams up with the detective to trace the chain back to its origin.   There are a couple of good scenes, the search of the empty apartment for one.  Although the acting is pretty good throughout - particularly Ray Wise - the story was only moderately interesting.  The mystery wasn't that intriguing - it's all caused by child abuse. Many of the chills are of the jumping-out-at-you variety, which gets old pretty fast.  The climax doesn't work because they make the ghostly villain so powerful that there's no way that she could have been defeated.  It take another ghost to defeat her through some never explained intervention.  I still need to watch the Japanese original, but this was disappointing.  10/7/08

Doctor Who: Black Orchid (1982)

Peter Davison plays the Doctor in this mildly creepy installment set in England in 1925.  It opens with a strangling by persons unknown, setting the tone right away.  They are met by a car that was apparently expecting them - or at least a Doctor of some sort - and taken to an estate where a cricket match is underway. A costume party follows, during which we discover that the servants are being murdered, and that some enigmatic prisoner has escaped.  Since the oldest son of the family was supposedly lost in South America and one of the servants is from that region, it appears likely that the son - somehow transformed - is the escapee, and probably the killer as well.  A sinister clown appears and there's no doubt that this is the missing person, particularly since he doesn't speak. A short time later he takes off his mask, displaying a disfigured face.  The Doctor, coincidentally, dresses in the same costume, which leads to him becoming the chief suspect in the murders. One of the shortest of the Doctor's adventures and one of the least fantastic. 10/7/08

Young and Innocent (1937) 

This early Hitchock film is based on the Josephine Tey novel, A Shilling for Candles.  A young man finds an actress strangled on the beach and is suspected, thanks to a misinterpretation of the circumstances, of being her killer.  He escapes custody with the help of the chief constable’s daughter and the two of them decide to track down the real killer, whom we suspect from the outset is the dead woman’s estranged husband.  There is a good deal of mild, effective humor, particularly between the two main characters.  The dinner conversation with four young boys is excellent as well. The fugitive and his ambivalent ally end up at a child's birthday party among other side trips.  Inevitably, he is identified and they both become fugitives.  The collapse inside the mine when they're trying to hide from the police is also excellent. Eventually she is apprehended but he avoids capture.  Although none of the cast are familiar names, this is as good as many of the films for which he is better known. 10/6/08

Jamaica Inn (1939)

Kicking off a mini-festival of the lesser known Hitchcock movies.  This was the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in England and the first of three he did based on fiction by Daphne DuMaurier.  The setting is the Cornish coast where a gang of villains deliberately lures ships onto the rocks in order to kill the crew and steal their cargo.  J.B. Priestly contributed to the screenplay.  It was also Maureen O'Hara's first role and one of Charles Laughton's least memorable.  In the novel, the O'Hara character comes to live with her sister and her husband at the Jamaica Inn, immediately suspects that something is amiss, then discovers her host is a leader of the band of criminals.  Since we see the wreckers in action in the opening scene, there's not much mystery involved in this version.  There are other major variations from the plot.  In the novel, the secret head of the group was a clergyman. It's a magistrate in the movie, and his complicity is also revealed very early.  That was the climactic revelation in the novel.  DuMaurier's evocative animal imagery and the power of the moors is largely lost.  The plot veers closer to the original after that, adding some internal dissension among the wreckers.  Our heroine comes to the rescue when they turn on one of their own, also a variation from the book where she instead became romantically interested in her crooked uncle's brother, who was also a bit of a thief, although a much nicer person. Competently done but not particularly inspired.  10/5/08

Jungle Drums of Africa (1953)

The stars of this cliffhanger serial are Clayton Moore (the Lone Ranger) and Phyllis Coates (Lois Lane).  Moore is going to meet a progressive local chief when a messenger is killed right in front of him, the agent of a villainous white guy.  Moore wants rights to search for uranium and welcomes the proffered help of the chief villain.  There's also the obligatory unhappy witch doctor who is undermining the chief's authority.  The villain is working for a foreign power.  Coates is the daughter of the late doctor who helped the tribe and she has as much influence as the witch doctor, another source of conflict.  The first villain's perfidy is revealed in the opening chapter, but he escapes retribution.  The plot follows a familiar pattern with our heroes trusting some of the wrong people, who plan a series of assassination attempts, ambushes, and other pitfalls, all of which the heroes escape, often after fistfights or gun battles (with weapons that never seem to need reloading).

One of the plots is to set loose a devil beast - an imported tiger - to terrorize the natives and turn them against the mining people.  Further dangers include hanging over a fire pit, arrows fitted with dynamite, and various traps set in the jungle.  Some of the cliffhangers are actually fairly inventive, and the rescues are usually plausible.  The acting and dialogue are above average for Republic serials, and the plot even has a couple of amusing twists.  One of the best of the jungle serials.  10/4/08

Silent Movie (1976)

This was Mel Brooks’ nod to the silent movie era, whose only dialogue comes at the very end and is spoken by famous mime, Marcel Marceau.  Brooks stars with Dom Deluise, Sid Caesar, Marty Feldman, Bernadette Peters, and others.  It’s somewhat self referential since it’s about three Hollywood types trying to convince the studio to make the first silent movie in forty years.  Obviously most of the jokes have to be visual ones.  Anyway, Sid Caesar is the studio head facing bankruptcy unless they have a hit.  In order to sell their idea, Brooks and company announce that they will recruit a bunch of big name actors to take part, staring with Burt Reynolds (this was 1976, remember) and James Caan.  They add Liza Minelli in one of the funnier scenes, accosting her in a commissary while wearing full suits of armor, then impersonate flamenco dancers in order to approach Anne Bancroft. Some of it is quite funny, some of it quite silly.  My favorite sequence is the wheelchair race with Paul Newman.  10/3/08

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) 

The best of all the Robin Hood versions,with Erroll Flynn in the title role and Basil Rathbone as the Guy of Gisbane.  Robin bears Prince John at Gisbane’s castle, an exciting fight follows with a brief chase scene to follow.  Robin has announced himself as a rebel and calls for fellow Saxons to join him in Sherwood Forest.  He already has Will Scarlet, but he soon meets Little John and Friar Tuck, both classic scenes, as is the thrilling ambush of the tax convoy.  A plot is concealed to play to Robin’s vanity, an archery contest to which he travels in disguise, although when he wins – by splitting his opponent’s arrow - it is obvious who he is.  He is captured but, with Maid Marion’s help, escapes just before being hanged.  Richard returns incognito and the villains plot to murder him. Beautiful sets, vivid colors, clever dialogue, excellent performances, and a classic story.  I’ve never tired of watching this one and I’ve seen it more than a dozen times. 10/2/08

The Third Man (1949) 

The distinctive zither music from this classic is the only thing I remembered from having seen it way back in the 1950s sometime.  It’s set in post-war Vienna, an occupied city, where Joseph Cotten comes to stay with a friend, Harry Lime, who has offered him a job. Upon arriving, he hears that Lime was just killed in an auto accident. He goes to the funeral and attracts the attention of several dubious mourners. One of them indicates that Lime was a crook and Cotten decides to prove that he’s wrong. There are also contradictory stories about how and when Lime actually died, suggesting to those of us with devious minds that he isn’t actually dead at all.  The title refers to the possibility that a third witness was present.  One witness indicates he wants to talk to Cotten alone, but he ends up murdered and Cotten is a suspect. Eventually we see that Lime faked his death, the romantic interest gives up her chance to escape being deported behind the Iron Curtain, and things end on a very downbeat note.   Lime is, of course, a thoroughly awful person, although the television series of the same name reformed him. More deliberate than modern thrillers, but no less engaging.  The ferris wheel sequence was the high part of the film for me. 10/1/08

Mother of Tears (2007)

A long time ago I went to the movies to see something called Suspiria, a Dario Argento horror film about which I knew nothing.  It knocked by socks off and it's still one of my favorites, although the same director's The Creepers (aka Phenomena) is still my favorite of his work.  This is the second sequel to that classic film, another battle against an ancient order of witches that still live in the modern world.  All of this should have made me look forward to this one, but I've not been impressed with Argento's last few films and that left me feeling ambivalent about finally watching this one.  It opens with a familiar device - a construction crew digging in a church cemetery finds a buried chest, chained shut, dated 1815.  There's a very decayed body in it  There's also a stone box which the local priest considers significant and which he sends to an expert for evaluation.  Unfortunately, two of the expert's assistants open instead, and one of them cuts her finger and drips blood on the box. Never a good sign.  Inside is a knife and other artifacts, suggesting satanism and witchcraft.  One of them is promptly attacked and killed by witches and baboons (yes, baboons!), her body horribly mutilated.  The survivor, Sarah, our heroine, escapes with the aid of a disembodied voice.

What they've done is bring back to life one of three master witches.  Her revival causes a wave of senseless violence throughout the city and begins attracting other modern day witches to gather.  Fortunately, if coincidentally, Sarah is the daughter of a very powerful good witch and she has inherited a balancing power with which she can combat the evil, if she can learn how to invoke it in time.  The plot isn't all that fascinating, but the power of Argento's early films was in his ability to create tense scenes, strange imagery, and to suggest creepiness he never needed to show.  This one, alas, is more in the modern vein, and the spilled intestines and spurting blood are very much what we'd see in any average modern horror film.  Nor is there any subtlety - we see everything in sometimes excruciating details - and not much in the way of suspense.  We know what's going on almost from the outset, and we can predict the shape of what is coming. Some of the scenes that are supposed to be scary are funny, and the benevolent spirit (her mother) is too much of a deus ex machina. There's also a characterless soundtrack in place of the excellent accompaniment provided by Goblin in his earlier work, and most of the actors play their parts so low key that they appear lifeless.  So my fears that I was going to be disappointed were, with the exception of a couple of nicely done scenes, fully justified.  9/30/08

One Missed Call 2 (2005)

This is a sequel to another horror film which I haven’t seen.  The plot summary made it sound a lot like The Ring, and that’s what it is.  It’s a curse transmitted by cellphone which reads your stored numbers and spreads to everyone you know.   Picture quality is good, not great, as is the dubbing. A mysterious call to a cell phone suggests danger to a young waitress and all her friends.  The mechanism of how this all happens is never completely explained and doesn’t always seem to make sense.  One man receives a call with sounds of his daughter’s death, but he’s the one who dies. There’s a somber police investigator and an obsessed journalist trying to uncover the truth.  The first murder we actually see is grotesque and suggestive rather than explicit.  The investigators trace the chain of deaths back to Taiwan.  The story gets less plausible as it proceeds and far too much time passes with little or nothing happening.  The action picks up a bit at the end, but I wasn’t always sure just what was going on.  Fair, but no great shakes. 9/29/08

Wishing Stairs (2003) 

Yet another Asian horror film, this one from South Korea.  This one has much better picture quality than the first to, and an interesting premise.  The staircase at an exclusive has 28 steps, except that sometimes it has 29 and in that instance you can make a wish.  Good wishes are rewarded, but bad ones have consequences. There’s an unrequited lesbian relationship that is the center of the trouble.  One of the girls is awkward and overweight and, predictably, the butt of several jokes until she wishes on the 29th stair and loses weight overnight.  Their dancing instructor is a bit of a tyrant, adding to the pressure.  There’s a dancing competition whch exacerbates the existing hard feelings. The trouble really starts when one of the girls wishes to be the representative in a dancing competition despite the superiority of another. She does so, but only because the other girl is seriously injured in an accident.  

The injured girl dies, and suddenly everyone thinks the accident was deliberate.  It’s not clear how that transition comes about, and additional tension that I didn’t entirely understand.  There’s also what might have been a dream, or a ghost.  The overweight girl, we discover, was in love with the dead go, and she wishes for her return.  Anyone who has read “The Monkey’s Paw” knows that’s a bad idea. Various creepiness follows including the cliché of blood from the shower head. The returned dead girl apparently has the power to possess the one who summoned her and causes her to murder one of the other students.  The conclusion is a bit drawn out, but mostly quite well done.   The subtitles are occasionally awkward but generally well done, and as far as I could determine, the acting was quite good. Some very strange imagery in the closing moments. 9/28/08

Ju-Rei (2004) 

Second in my mini-festival of Asian horror movies.  Although the picture quality on this one isn’t great, the opening sequence is mildly creepy and the subtitles aren’t bad. A group of high school girls are out one night and spot a hooded figure on a city street, accompanied by strange sounds.  At least one of them gets snatched by something unseen.  Turns out there’s an urban legend about a contagious curse – contagious curses are popular in Japanese horror – and anyone who is touched by the stranger, or touches someone touched by the stranger – falls under the curse.  Adding to the difficulty of following the plot is the fact that events apparently are revealed in the reverse order of how they actually happened.  Those are its bad points.  On the other hand, the acting seems to be good – hard to tell sometimes when there’s dubbing or subtitles.  Some of the images and scenes are downright creepy, much more effective than American style gore. If they had only tied things together more closely, this would have been very good.  As it is, I couldn't figure out how some of the characters interconnected so it came across as a series of random, if individually effective, episodes until I had seen enough to realize the train of events was moving in reverse. 9/27/08

Misa: The Dark Angel (1997) 

I decided to sample some more Asian horror, although I’ve been disappointed by much of what I’ve seen in the past, since there seems to be a preponderance of great imagery and plot set up, but with no explanation or plot logic.  This one appears to be part of a series about a high school girl with supernatural talents who battles evil.  The story opens with the discovery of a body that has been devoured by and is still host to “larvae from another dimension.”  The parasites manifest themselves quickly, but Misa expels them back to their own dimension. Misa then gets involved in a pretty dumb sounding school play, which is actually a ceremony contrived by a sorcerer who wants to raise an army of zombies. Despite the explicit opening, not much happens until halfway through. Then one of their rehearsals causes the forest to come alive and attack one girl in a scene reminiscent of The Evil Dead.  There’s also a reference to Cthulhu and Yog-Sototo and the Whately family, but it’s all mixed up with black magic, homunculi, and alchemism. Misa interrupts the ceremony and the whole cast is transported to a strange landscape where they are menaced by shrouded creatures. The dubbing is less than scintillating but better than some I’ve seen.  Ditto for the acting.  Much of it is shot in very dark, indistinct colors, mostly with some kind of blue filter.  There’s a nice soundtrack. Not much else to recommend it. 9/26/08

The Earth Dies Screaming (1965)

I don’t believe I’d ever seen this SF thriller before.  It opens with scenes of people suddenly dropping dead all over the world.  Only a handful survive and animals also seem to have been affected, although our first hero carries a rifle around with him for some reason.  There’s still electricity, but no broadcasts.  Then he meets two other people, a couple, who are also armed. They assume that it as an attack by a foreign power, but really have no idea what happened. Another couple, who appeared to be dead initially, turn out to be alive as well. Two spacesuited figures show up and kill one of the women, and they appear to be robots, but they don’t bother the other survivors.  Another couple shows up right afterwards and the whole party goes looking for weapons. Things move very slowly for a while, then the dead woman comes back to life and one of the men shoots her. One of the survivors is acting suspiciously.  Eventually there are more animated corpses chasing them, but a jeep crash destroys one of the robots and the zombies can be shot.  They figure out that the robots are being controlled by radio and set out to locate and destroy the transmitter. Presumably they’re from outer space, but the invasion certainly wasn’t very effective.  Not awful, but awfully vague. 9/25/08 

Chosen Survivors (1974) 

This one opens very strangely with a group of disoriented people being delivered by soldiers to some kind of underground bomb shelter.  There’s some kind of explosion – bombs? – and some dumb efforts to be artsy as their elevator descends. Supposedly this small group is one of several chosen to carry on the human race, which seems strange since they are not balanced sexually and are without exception middle aged rather than young and presumably fruitful.  As they watch televised images from orbit of the destruction of the Earth, their future is menaced by panic and bad acting.  Poor planning because a colony of vampire bats starts attacking, and the survivors are fighting among themselves as well. The lights keep going on and off as well. The frequently inane and consistently scientifically ignorant dialogue doesn’t help. When one of them is killed by the bats, another announces that there was no war, that this was all an experiment, which was obvious from the outset. Lots of time wasting shots that don’t advance the story.  The signal to end the experiment fails.  They kill a lot of bats, but another person gets killed, off camera.  The death scene is almost comical.  The set dressers evidently never heard of blood spurts, so they just drew red patterns on the walls.  There’s also a terrible logical flaw.  The bats are only attacking underground because there is no longer any blood on the surface. Okay, except that there was no war, there’s plenty of blood on the surface, and the writers are idiots. Bad enough to be insulting, not bad enough to be inadvertently funny.  9/25/09

Meet the Spartans (2008) 

I’m a sucker for these broad spoofs of other movies, even though most of them are pretty terrible and funny only occasionally.  The title gives you a good idea where the thrust of this one is directed.  The early sequences about Leonidas, stalked by a robot penguin, is gross rather than funny, setting an appropriate if not high tone for the rest of the movie.  The kicking people into the deadly pit and spoof of American Idol sequence is dreadful. The story, such as it is, involved raising an army to defend Sparta from the Persians. The crude sexual jokes get old fast, and the other jokes are repeated so often that they lose even the small amount of humor they had initially.  Lots of not very good imitations of people like Paris Hilton, George Bush, Sylvester Stallone, and others.  The Sandman routine has a couple of clever touches but that’s about it. The jokes get stupider as the story progresses. Forget this one.  At least it’s very short. 9/24/08

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) 

A very young Sean Connery is the dashing, singing hero of this Disney fantasy, one of my favorites from this studio.  Janet Munro is the daughter of a feckless groundskeeper to an Irish gentleman. A bellicose young man wants the job, and his pushy mother wants the same.  Darby insists that he caught but was outsmarted by the king of the leprechauns.  Connery is hired to take Darby’s job.  Darby is lured into the land of the leprechauns and told that he can never go home, but he outsmarts King Brian and takes him captive.  To regain his freedom, Brian arranges a romantic entanglement between Connery and Munro and everyone eventually lives happily ever after. There’s lots of nice music in this as well as a cute story.  The banshee seemed really scary when I was a kid, but the special effects seem very primitive now. 9/23/08

Island of Terror (1966)  

I remembered the sound effects from this rather creepy British film more vividly than the images.  On a remote island, a scientific experiment leads to the creation of bloblike creatures that absurd the bodies of their victims.  Peter Cushing and many others are temporarily isolated on the island, which is very convenient for the critters.  Good cast and acting make up for the so-so special effects, and the story itself is quite suspenseful.  Cushing is part of a team investigating an unusual death.  He pays a visit to the cancer institute on the island, and discovers that the staff has been wiped out by an unknown force, all of the bones dissolved from within their bodies.  Horses and other animals are found in a similar condition as the menace spreads across the island.   Another human victim, fleeting glimpses of a blobbish thing and a tentacle and the tension goes up a notch. We get to see the creatures then, kind of silly looking but still creepy.  There’s an annoying the-car-won’t-start sequence, but otherwise the plot advances smoothly. The female lead is annoyingly wimpy but that was standard in the 1960s. Bullets, dynamite, and gasoline bombs both prove ineffective as everyone on the island retreats to a central location. One drops improbably from a tree and claims a victim in perhaps the most unconvincing of the special effects scenes.  Radioactivity finally saves the day.  A very solid “B” thriller. 9/22/08

Treasure Island (1950)  

Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story comes to life in this Disney live action film.  The opening sequences, in which a young boy named Jim Hawkins gets involved in a search for pirate treasure, are very close to the original story. Squire Trelawney, head of the expedition, has a loose tongue and he unwisely allows Long John Silver to pick a crew for the ship, all of whom are his former pirate cronies. Jim overhears the crew talking about mutiny and realizes Long John Silver is at the head of the conspiracy.  The story diverges in many details once they arrive on the island, with Jim held prisoner briefly, then escaping into the wild.  Jim and friends hold a stockade on the island, and only the captain can navigate.  The pirates, on the other hand, have them outnumbered.  A pitched battle ensues. The pirates are driven off but the captain is wounded as the plot reverts to that of the book.  Jim sneaks aboard the ship just in time to see one of the pirates left aboard kill the other, and he manages to overcome the survivor. The pirates eventually get the map, but Long John is hedging his bets, trying to keep one foot in each camp.  9/21/089

Deathlands: Homeward Bound (2003) 1673

A long lived apocalyptic men’s adventure series comes to the screen with this low budget entry.  Ryan Cawdor is one of the survivors in a quasi-feudalistic world, survivor of a bloodbath in his own family initiated by his brother.  Badly done fight sequences and overacting establish the situation during the credits, and Ryan is on the run, minus an eye, in a world of mutants.  Twenty years later, fitted with a patch, he’s still around.  His girlfriend is a “half-mutant” and one of his friends is a full mutant.  The dialogue is leaden when it’s not being silly, and the blood red filter used in most of the film is more than slightly annoying, as well as pointless.  Even if the ground was radioactive, it wouldn’t be red.  Nor would the sky.  They’re tracking a band of villains who have most recently kidnapped a girl and find them in an old military installation, which looks to be in surprisingly good condition.  Slow motion fight sequences, some positively silly blood spills, and chintzy martial arts follow.  An old friend tells him that he must return home and get rid of his homicidal brother.  “It is your destiny.”  So Luke, I mean, Ryan takes it under consideration. Fortuitously they find fuel and a working armored vehicle, but are soon taken prisoner by the insane brother and his wife, then become the prey in a hunting expedition. Slow motions scenes don’t contribute much.  Neither does the hideous overacting.  Most of the villains are so overdone that they’re positively absurd.  The half-mutant turns out to have some kind of split personality that she can invoke when she needs to do her martial arts stuff.  There’s an awfully lot of working automatic weapons and ammunition considering that this is at least three generations after the war ended. What a waste of time! 9/20/08

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) 

Since this movie is about a double, it’s only appropriate that the DVD also be double, presenting the two best known adaptations of the novel by Anthony Hope.  One casts Ronald Colman vs Douglas Fairbanks Jr., while the other has Stewart Granger battling James Mason.  Great casts in both instances. A coronation is due in a mythicasl Balkan country called Ruritania when Colman arrives, unaware of the fact that he is virtually the twin of the soon to be crowned ruler. Rudolph.  Rudolph’s brother Michael wishes to take the throne himself, as we learn when Colman is entertained at a drunken dinner by Rudolph, who is more than slightly a cad.  The king is drugged to prevent him from attending the coronation, so Colman has to take his place. There’s some mild ambiguity in the novel about Michael’s motives, which aren’t entirely self serving, but he (Basil Rathbone) is clearly a villain in the movie.  Fairbanks is excellent as the impertinent Rupert of Hentzau, Michael’s chief henchman. Rupert kidnaps the drugged king, but Michael can’t reveal the truth without implicating himself.  The standoff is an uneasy one and grows more complex when the imposter falls in love with Princess Flavia. The villains decide to kill the imposter so that they can dispose of the king with impunity. There’s a falling out among the villains and a daring rescue with much swordplay at the end of this, one of my all time favorite movies.  By necessity, the lovers have to go their separate ways, very atypical for movies of that era. The sequel to the book was even more depressing, with everyone except Flavia biting the dust. 

The 1952 version is in color.  Stewart Granger plays the double role, with Deborah Kerr as Flavia.  It hews very close to the same story line and some of the scenes are set and shot almost identically, with virtually the same dialogue.  The supporting cast isn’t quite as good, particularly the two co-conspirators, but the lead casting is excellent.  Granger, whom I like, isn’t as good as Colman, and I’d give a slight edge to Fairbanks over James Mason as well, although all four are excellent.  Mason strikes me as far too old for the part.  The final swordfight is better but otherwise I prefer the earlier version. 9/19/08

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) 

Hubert Selby’s novel made a big impression when I read it back in the 1960s, and I never expected to see even a mediocre movie version, let alone a pretty good one.  The setting is Brooklyn during the Korean War.  We follow the travails and triumphs, mostly the former, of a disparate group of characters including a trouble young gay man, a strike organizer who has recently discovered that he is gay, a prostitute who teams up with a group of thugs to roll her clients, a young officer spending his last days before shipping out to Korea, and a factory worker whose daughter is unexpectedly pregnant.  The major backdrop is a prolonged strike – and the riot on the picket lines is a particularly good sequence.  All of the acting is good to great, but Jennifer Jason Leigh steals the show as Tra-La-La, the not very bright prostitute.  In many ways this is an ugly movie, intentionally so, and the portrait of what the various people do to themselves and others is bitter and pointed.  This is definitely not an uplifting experience, but it’s a memorable one. 9/18/08

Colossus (1970) 

This is based on the first novel by D.F. Jones, a British writer whose work I generally liked, although the two sequels to this particular one were decidedly inferior.  The premise is a familiar one now, and had been previously used by Philip K. Dick and others.  We build a supercomputer, computer decides it knows better than we do, computer takes over the world.  The computer was designed to take over the defense of the United States in a scenario that I’ve never found very plausible.  I can’t foresee any time in the near future when the government, or the country, would be willing to cede human control on this scale, particularly given the unreliability of computer programming.  Anyway, Colossus goes on line and gets in touch with its Soviet counterpart.  Together they decide that it is best for the human race if they run everything, even if that means destroying a few cities and their occupants to achieve their goals.  The scientist in charge of the project attempts to undermine his own creation, but since they didn’t leave an escape clause or panic button – another device I don’t buy – their efforts ultimately fail.  Reasonably good acting and sets, although the budget was clearly not generous.  A cautionary tale about ceding authority and avoiding responsibility that has considerable relevance today. 9/17/08

Terror at Tenkiller (1986)

The Last Slumber Party (1988) 

Time for some mindless serial killer movies.  The first one opens with a murky, barely visible murder and the disposal of the body in a lake.  Then we get introduced to a bunch of female swimmers who can’t act, with occasional doses of creepy music to suggest something bad is about to happen, but it doesn’t.  The efforts to give the characters some depth fall miserably flat.  The first murder takes place, but there’s no mystery since we see who the killer is.  No one at the lake where the young women go can act either. No suspense, no mystery, nothing out of the ordinary.  Pass this one by.  The Last Slumber Party has a slightly more promising opening, if only because the picture is clearer.  The heavy metal soundtrack doesn’t help.  A prowler with a bloody scalpel causes a brief panic at a private house.  There’s an offstage murder and the expected bad acting.  The characters are so exaggerated that they bear no resemblance to reality, so who cares if they die?  They’re supposed to be high school students, but only one member of the cast looks the right age. Here’s a surprise – the three leading names never appeared in anything else, before or after.  Cut to a mental institution where one of the patients is scheduled for a prefrontal lobotomy, is prone to violence, but is unrestrained.  Guess what?  He escapes, but no one notices because there’s no surveillance.  Some of the local girls schedule a slumber party and guess who shows up unexpectedly?  Mind rotting nonsense. 9/16/08

Song of the South (1946) 

The most controversial of all Disney films has still not been released on DVD, and may not ever appear.  The controversy appears to be primarily because of the portrayal of contented black servants on the plantations, and the usual racial stereotyping.  Undoubtedly valid complaints, although I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that these attitudes never existed.  The movie is based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Remus is a storyteller who tells trickster stories, which are animated within the live action frame.  In the first, Brer Rabbit outfoxes Brer Fox and Brer Bear.  The second story is the rabbit’s famous encounter with the Tar Baby.  He outsmarts then one more time by taking them to his “laughing place”.  The live action frame story is pretty minor.  I believe this was Disney’s first live action film.  9/15/08

Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956) 

Third in an unofficial set of female alien civilization movies, although I suppose Journey to the Seventh Planet might also fit the definition.  This time the space expedition lands on one of the moons of Jupiter.  For some reason, the most brilliant nuclear physicist in the world is assigned to lead the expedition, which bypasses our moon, Mars, and other more likely destinations for the Jovian system.  Nor is it clear why an American would command a British crew.  Anyway, they’re headed for a previously unknown moon much like the Earth, which was formerly concealed by fog! “You know, there could be humans on that planet.”  The ship is launched and survives the obligatory encounter with a meteor storm before arriving at its destination.  I love the directions: “Bear right, zero zero two.”   They are then hailed by the spaceport on the moon, who happen to speak in English.  The space command gives them direction by a “compass reading”.  But then the planet’s “gravitational laws are different than ours.”  They also have the same atmosphere as Earth.  And the same trees. As usual, the entire crew leaves at once, with no one on guard, and without having received further info from the locals or an acknowledgment from Earth.  Pretty sloppy work.  A blinking light uses Morse code to tell them run for cover when rocks start falling from the sky.    They find a statue of a naked woman.  “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”  Must have lived in a monastery.   

After seeing the statue and listening to the broadcast, they still don’t know if there’s life on the planet until they respond to a screaming woman menaced by an apelike creature.  The captain insists they shouldn’t get involved, so he has them fire at the creature.  Huh?  The woman, who dresses conventionally, except for a cape. responds by beckoning them to follow her.  They find themselves in New Atlantis, where they are surprised to find electricity despite having been radioed in space.  Their host is “the last male survivor of Atlantis”.  He tells them the rocks were thrown by the “man with the head of the beast” whom they must destroy, even though he is “indestructible”.  Then there’s the obligatory silly dancing by a host of women. The creature, immune to bullets, is more than ordinarily silly.  They call it a throwback to the Neanderthal period even though it looks nothing like one. More silly dancing, an attempt to perform human sacrifice, the monster sneaks past the defensive system, and everybody runs around a lot. The photography is better in this than in most similar movies from that period, but the special effects are dreadful, the script corny when it isn’t actively stupid, and the acting tolerable at best. At one point the actors mention the soundtrack music, which isn't actually being performed inside the movie.  9/14/08

Missile to the Moon (1956) 

This was a remake of Cat Women of the Moon (1953), one of those movies that really didn’t deserve to be made in the first place, let alone a second time.  I do remember enjoying the battle on the moon’s surface as a kid, though it’s pretty silly now.  This time a privately built spaceship is en route to the moon with an unlikely crew that includes two escaped convicts.  This time it’s one of the men under the influence of the moon people, but he dies en route after an accident.  There’s the same bit about the sun burning them to a crisp, but the monsters are marginally better, walking rock people who live on the surface.  The photography is so bad that the cheap effects aren’t as obvious as they might have been.  They escape into a cave where they will eventually find an underground civilization consisting entirely of women.  They find a burnt out torch.  “Does that mean people are living in here?” Since there’s a torch, there must be air, so they all take off their spacesuits.  There are more monsters in the cave, but this time the puppet is positively hilarious.  There’s also a power struggle among the moon women, which leads to the climax.  All I need now is to find a copy of Fire Maidens from Outer Space to make my week complete. 9/13/08

Cat Women of the Moon (1953)

This was one of a rash of low budget SF films which found exclusively female societies on other planets, or in this case the moon.  The science involving the space journey is, predictably, hilarious with near encounters with meteors and other wonky menaces.  The one female member of the crew is behaving strangely and knows more about the moon than she should, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone else in the crew.  She talks them into landing on the dark side of the moon.  A meteorite almost hits them on the moon but they hear (sic) it in time.  They demonstrate that anything exposed to the sun will immediately burst into flame (sic) even though they had planned to land on the day side originally.  They find a cave and decide to explore.  They brought a gun, but they don’t leave anyone on guard.  “How can there be water without atmosphere?”  They light a match (a match?) inside the cave and it burns, so they know (sic) the air is okay to breathe, and all take off their helmets.  Next they meet a really funny spider puppet, which they shoot.  The female crewmember joins the cat women in their underground city after the men are attacked, and they are eventually captured. “We have no use for men!” Victor Jory is the only one who suspects something is wrong, and even he is inconsistent. There’s also the mandatory silly, inept dance sequence.  Although I think that B films in the 1950s were generally better written than today’s direct to DVD nonsense, this is one of the exceptions. 9/12/08

Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo soundtrack, composed by Kristopher Carter, Michael McGuiston, & Lolita Ritmanis, La-La Land Records, 2008 

Although I’ve never seen this movie, and probably never will since I’m not big on animated action adventure, the soundtrack is pretty good.  The longish opening piece reminded me somewhat of psychedelic rock from the late 1960s, one of my favorite periods musically.  The music changes styles shortly, more like the theme music for a television series, but it’s still pretty good.  There are only a few bands that are just so-so, but overall the quality is surprisingly consistent, even though the style changes considerably.  With three composers involved, that’s not really surprising.  Some of it sounded vaguely like it should have come from a Japanese monster movie, appropriately enough.  Later it has an almost Latin feel. My only real complaint is that some of the cuts were very nice but most were far too short.  The last few bands are probably the best overall. I particularly liked “Chasing Titans” and “Meet Brushogun.” 9/12/08 

Eureka soundtrack, composed by Bear McCreary, La-La Land Records, 2008 

If I’m not mistaken, this is the same composer who did the excellent music for the Battlestar Galactica series.  I haven’t seen this program at all, so all the music is new to me.  Most of the cuts are very short, and I get the impression from the titles and music itself that the show is a comedy. For the most part, the music is very low key, some of it quite nice, some of it tending toward the vanilla.  Since soundtracks generally aren’t suppose to draw attention to themselves and away from what’s happening on the screen, that’s probably a good thing. It was consistently good enough that I kept listening, and it’s the kind of thing I’d play in the background again from time to time, without jumping up and demanding that I listen closely.  The best cuts are “Through the Vortex”, “The Mask of Fargo,” and “A Night at Global Dynamics.” 9/12/08

Murder She Wrote Season 2 (1985) 

The second season opens with “Widow, Weep for Me.” Jessica answers a pleading letter from a friend at a vacation resort, but too late, since the friend is murdered by an intruder in her apartment.  Jessica uses an assumed name in order to investigate. A very good episode with a nicely convoluted solution.  The writing is not so hot in “Joshua Peabody Died Here…Possibly.”  A body turns up at the site of a controversial hotel construction project in Cabot Cove.  The overbearing businessman is ridiculous exaggeration, and his machinations are clearly not possible in the real world. It improves after the magnate is murdered, but then deteriorates when the FBI agent shows up, acting just as unrealistically. And I guessed the killer right off the bat. A typically nasty new story editor begins eliminating cast members on a soap opera, and making lots of enemies in the process in “Murder in the Afternoon”.  The police suspicion of Jessica’s niece is not entirely credible, but otherwise this is a very good one, and I wasn’t even close to guessing the killer.  “School for Scandal” opens with a couple of unpromising scenes on a college campus where an ambitious professor reads romance novels to his students for no discernible reason.  The prodigal daughter and her boyfriend are more caricatures than characters, and it’s no surprise who the murder victim is. The police detective is far too naïve and humble to be real. Guessed the killer right off the bat this time. 

Lansbury has a dual role when her cousin survives a series of murder attempts in “Sing a Song of Murder”.   An okay episode but another one where I guessed the killer almost immediately.  Next up was a bad one, “Reflections of the Mind”.  Someone’s trying to convince a wealthy woman that her husband is back from the dead.  Implausible reactions by the characters and unlikely police procedures.  There’s never a good explanation of how someone can sneak into an occupied room and start a music box, repeatedly, and perform other similar acts.  “A Lady in the Lake” has a superfluity of exaggerated characters, but the story is somewhat better.  Jessica is visiting an inn when she sees an apparent murder, although divers can’t find the victim’s body.  The supposedly dead woman was an experienced swimmer, which suggested right from the outset that she wasn’t really dead. It looks like a simple hoax, but then the woman’s body turns up after all.  But when did she die?  And how?  Pretty good one, though I guessed the killer.  There’s a major flaw in “Dead Heat” even though it’s a good one.  A fixed horse race leads to murder.  The problem is that the motivation for the killing is to prevent the deportation of a man illegally in the US, except that he’s married to an American woman, so that wouldn’t have happened, at least not in the 1980s. 

“Jessica Behind Bars” has our heroine taken as a hostage in a prison riot.  The prison – which seems awfully informal – has a prison doctor who is feuding with the warden and is holding something over at least one of the prisoners.  The warden is also feuding with the cook, and seems to be a bit dotty herself. The doctor gets killed and Jessica has to solve the mystery to end the takeover.  I guessed most of the solution, but it’s a good one. A woman is found electrocuted in his bathtub in “Sticks and Stones,” apparently an accident although we know that it was murder.  John Astin takes over from Tom Bosley as sheriff, a comic relief travel writer shows up to visit, and someone is sending poison pen letters to the locals.  Then a woman is found hanging in her garden, an apparent suicide, with a typed note indicating she wrote all the letters, but I didn’t believe it for a minute.  The letters, and the two murders, are connected to a controversial real estate deal.  A very good episode whose solution I never guessed. A body shows up at an archaeological dig in “Murder Digs Deep”, and one of Jessica’s former students is killed in “Murder by Appointment Only.”  Both of these are standard but unexceptional episodes. 

She’s part of a contentious jury in “Trial by Error”, the show’s version of Twelve Angry Men.  A separated woman takes pity on a man who just had a serious automobile accident.  The estranged husband takes umbrage but is killed in the encounter.  Jessica is the foreperson of the jury trying the case.  Nicely worked out, with some surprises at the end.  There’s murder at a restaurant in “Keep the Home Fries Burning”.  Tom Bosley is sheriff again and he and Jessica decide to try a new restaurant. Unfortunately, the chief chef wants out of his contract, so he’s underperforming blatantly.  When several diners collapse with stomach pains, one fatally, it’s obvious that something is going on. The observant viewer will note that the marmalade and preserves passed from table to table are undoubtedly the delivery method. Anne Francis is great as the annoying medical investigator.  A cute episode but I guessed the murderer very early on.  I didn’t care much for “Powder Keg”, where Jessica has to solve a murder before the accused gets lynched.  “Murder in the Electric Cathedral” is better.  An evangelist and an oil family battle over the estate of an elderly woman.  Okay, but not one of my favorites. 

“One Good Bid Deserves a Murder” has Jessica acting as agent for a friend to buy a controversial diary at an auction.  The friend’s dead body shows up at the auction site, disrupting things.  Jessica is primary suspect and the diary disappears.  She finds it, then finds another body. An okay episode marred by the fact that the solution comes out of nowhere.  “If a Body Meet a Body” has a good set up, but I was way ahead of the plot.  An investor fakes his own death to cover up his misappropriation of funds, but the fake becomes real when an accident uncovers part of the plot.  This one kept me guessing right up to the end, the best episode so far this season.  “Christopher Bundy – Died on Sunday” opens with an implausible situation.  Jessica sold a story to a literary magazine which suddenly becomes a men’s magazine, so she goes to the publisher’s house to demand her from her contract. I did wonder how a disgruntled business associate could get into the house, through the front door, unannounced, after being told how tight the security was.  Obnoxious publisher gets offed, unsurprisingly, in a house filled with suspects. Fair episode.  There’s murder at a contention tennis tournament in “Menace Anyone?”, but the victim may not have been the one intended to die when he borrows his girlfriend’s exploding automobile. This was almost a good episode, but some of the details are so contrived that I never really believed the story. 

Jessica goes to the Mardi Gras in “The Perfect Foil.”   A solid episode, although the murderer is obvious from the outset when a crooked gambler is killed at a costume party.  The season ended with “If the Frame Fits”, a mix of murder and art theft.  This one kept me guessing and was one of the better episodes.  John De Lancie is excellent. Season 2 maintained the quality of the first without exceeding it.   

Body count among Jessica’s companions for season 2.  A very close friend is murdered. One of her nieces is accused of murder and her cousin is the target of a murderer.  A close friend is nearly driven insane by her own daughter, who also murdered her husband. Another niece gets involved in a murder at a race track after being falsely accused of helping fix a race. An old friend is concerned that a controversial diary will ruin his reputation and ends up murdered.  A friend and neighbor murders her husband after being involved in an embezzlement, while another neighbor is murdered in her bathtub and yet another hanged in her garden. Yet another friend is suspected of schizophrenia and murder and another cousin is accused of murder.  Still another is burglarized while Jessica is visiting, and then his daughter is murdered.  One of Jessica’s students is also killed, as is her old writing teacher.  9/11/08

The African Queen (1951) 

I hadn’t seen this movie in years, but I recently re-read the novel, and since I’ve always been a fan of both Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, it wasn’t much of a leap to pick this out of the stack.  Hepburn and her brother are missionaries in Africa at the outbreak of World War I, oblivious to the fact that their flock is indifferent to them.  Bogart is a disreputable riverboat captain.  The brother dies almost immediately in the book but lasts a bit longer in the movie.  There’s a priceless scene when Bogart comes to tea. Hepburn’s brother loses his mind and dies after the Germans burn the local villages.   Bogart wants to hole up in some hidden spot, but Hepburn insists on a more active plan.  She wants to move to an inland lake and destroy a German gunboat.  He gives in initially, but only because he’s sure they can’t possibly make it down the river. Tensions escalate, particularly when Hepburn destroys their liquor supply.  Eventually they successfully pass under the guns of a German fortress and a string of rapids, swarms of insects and impassable swamps.  They repair a broken propeller and fall in love, and her strength of purpose sweeps Bogart along in their mission against the Germans.  The movie has a Hollywood ending.  They are captured after their ship sinks, sentenced to death, but granted the right to be married first.  At the critical moment the German ship hits the half submerged African Queen, sets off the explosives, and is sunk.  In the novel, they are captured, eventually turned over to the British, who sink the gunship. 9/10/08

Countdown: The Sky’s on Fire (1998)

Ecological disaster mix with bad science in this disaster movie, based on a much better novel by Michael Tobias.  People on a small plane break out in blisters and lose their vision thanks to what we later discover is a problem with the ozone layer.   A dozen or so whales wash ashore the same day.  A host of stock characters emerges – the ecologist in bed with the leaders of commerce who doesn’t want to release a warning, the renegade scientist who does, the feisty helicopter pilot who escapes death, the hesitant mayor who doesn’t want to evacuate Los Angeles.  Bradley Whitford is the diligent journalist.  Meanwhile the hole in the ozone layer kills the entire crew of an ocean vessel (no one used the radio to call for help?).  Weird continuity problem.  We watch Whitford conduct an interview.  When he plays it back for his boss, the meaning is the same but the words are very different.  The mayor decides to believe the “evil” scientist despite compelling evidence that something is seriously wrong.  Fortunately, and coincidentally, there happens to be an untested bomb that could reverse the process and close the hole.  How fortuitous!  The hospitals are filling with burn victims, but apparently no one bothers to tell the mayor’s office.  The rebel goes public, riots and panic ensue.  The looting scenes go on for far too long.  The woman under siege by bugs in her apartment who was to be rescued by steel jawed hero was more than slightly over the top and quite implausible.  The fact that the scientists forget that temperature is a variable in an experiment is more than slightly bad writing, particularly since rather than altering their equipment to fit the temperature, they alter the test temperature to fit their equipment. Naturally the scientist has to personally fly in the plane to the danger zone, and naturally the heroic chopper pilot is also qualified to pilot a sophisticated military aircraft.  Balderdash! Obviously the desperate effort succeeds, but I didn’t feel even the slightest sense of urgency or suspense at any time in the movie.  It’s emotionally, visually, and artistically flat and lifeless from beginning to end. 9/9/08

The Great Los Angeles Earthquake (1990) 

I was in the mood for a brainless disaster movie and this looked like it might fit the bill.  The opening scenes introduce us to a typical dysfunctional family, professional mom, neglected teenage daughter, frustrated husband.  We’re supposed to feel sympathy for all concerned, but the woman comes across as arrogant rather than dedicated.  She’s working on a system to predict earthquake and she’s had a (psychic?) vision that there will be something major very soon. She runs off again when there’s a minor quake nearby.  Then there’s the mandatory skeptical government official who doesn’t want to call an alert. Then we meet another branch of the dysfunctional family, this one with money.   The usual suspects appear – the self centered real estate magnate who opposes declaring an alert, the paid flunkey in the mayor’s office, the unconventional journalist, the disgruntled employee.  There’s also an assassin planning to shoot a prominent foreign official visiting the city.  The news leaks and there’s a panic.  Although the script is uninspired, to say the least, the special effects – mostly done on a very small scale – are surprisingly good.  The mini-stories in the aftermath are predictable as well, not badly done, but nothing special.  With one exception, I was 100% correct about who would live and who would die. 9/8/08

Terror of the Blood Hunters (1962) 

This one is proof, if we needed it, that American filmmakers can be just as bad as those from other countries.  It’s one of those movies I only own because it came as part of a package and I felt an obligation to watch it before disposing of it.  A prisoner on Devil’s Island escapes with the connivance of the warden’s daughter, but the twosome have to survive wild animals, bloodthirsty cannibals, and a great deal of stolen footage from other movies.  It opens with an overly long, really awkward ritual dance culminating in an entirely unconvincing human sacrifice that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.  No one even bothers to attempt acting, the sets are minimal, and the story downright silly. The soundtrack is often totally inappropriate to what’s happening on the screen.  The cameras are almost always fixed and don’t move to follow the action, which gives it a particularly choppy feeling.  The female lead never had another role.  Not a surprise.  The male natives, incidentally, are black, but the females consist of Asians and Caucasians. 9/7/08

Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959) 

I only saw this movie once, on television back when I was in high school, and I remembered very little about it.  One scientist invading a Mayan ruin disappears and the other emerges out of his mind and collapses, calling the name of Caltiki, a Mayan deity.  The other members of the expedition investigate and find unexplored chambers but no sign of their comrade.  They do find an underground pool littered with skeletons and jewels, and evidence that their friends were attacked.  Then there diver is killed, his body stripped of flesh, and a giant, bloblike monster emerges from the water.  They blowup a truck full of gasoline drums to drive it back into its lair.  One of their number has been attacked and the blob’s tissues are removed from his now fleshless arm back in Mexico City.  It’s a creature “made up of one complete cell”, and it’s twenty million years old.  Exposure to radioactivity stimulates rapid growth, and the sample they hold is still alive.  Then a comet conveniently comes toward Earth, radiating the energy which precipitates a crisis.  The sample begins to grow to gigantic size and the army is called upon to destroy it. Adequate but uninspired special effects even for the 1950s.  Dubbed from the Italian. 9/6/08

Eyes of a Stranger (1980) 

I remembered this one primarily because Jennifer Jason Leigh, in her first significant role, does a great job playing a blind, deaf, mute woman.  Lauren Tewes is a newscaster – who acts very unprofessionally in her opening sequence – and Leigh’s older sister.  A serial rapist is at large, whose work we see in a couple of lurid scenes with the usual gratuitous nudity.  The killer, John DiSanti, does a good job, but that about exhausts my list of compliments.  He’s not very smart about his stalking, since he calls his victims in advance.  No clue about how he gets all of these telephone numbers, including the phone in the elevator car and a private office inside a large building.  Nor do we find out how he can break into locked apartments without making noise. One also wonders why one of the victims, warned about the killer, would receive several threatening phone calls from him before calling the police, and never mentions the death threats.  And when she does, the police tell her they’ll stop by – but not until the next day, even though they know there’s a serial rapist at work.   The Friday the 13th style beheading follows, not surprising since there’s a considerable overlap in production companies.  

Tewes’ boyfriend is more annoying than entertaining, but then so is she.  Conveniently, she and the killer share the same parking garage, and she sees him return one night with a bloody shirt.  Why he changes clothing out in the open instead of in his car is another unanswered question.  This makes her suspicious, but she doesn’t notify the police.  Instead she engages in another pointless outburst during a broadcast, for which she should have been warned, if not disciplined. Then there’s the flashback – also implausible - in which we discover that the sister’s various maladies are a reaction to having been raped as a child.  Plausible, but why isn’t she in some kind of therapy?  The next victim also gets threatening obscene calls, and doesn’t call the police, even after the news reports connect obscene calls to the previous murder, and even though she knows she has to walk through a poorly lit, deserted garage to reach her car.   

Despite her suspicions, neither she nor her lawyer boyfriend say anything to the police, even though she is unaccountably convinced that her sister’s life is in danger.  It’s not, although because of her subsequent actions, it ultimately is.  Our villain cuts two more throats after getting stuck in the mud disposing of a body.  When Tewes hears of the new murders, and that the body was found in the mud, she connects it to the mud on the killer’s tires, but still doesn’t call the police.  Even if we assume she was just trying to get a news story, she was putting other people’s lives at stake.  She discovers the apartment number of the killer and steals a key from the security office so that she can investigate personally.  She almost gets caught and has to climb down off a high rise balcony, after stealing his shoe.  Serves her right. 

Then she does something really dumb.  She starts making threatening calls to the killer.  Great way to protect her sister, right?  More nudity and another murder, this one certainly Tewes’ fault in this morally bankrupt movie.  The killer watches her broadcast and recognizes her voice. The lawyer finally goes to the police and there’s an obvious connection, but the police apparently don’t think physical evidence is important.  This does, however, lead to the only effective sequence in the movie.  The killer gets into Tewes’ apartment (how?) where Leigh is alone.  He plays a really frightening cat and mouse game, moving items around, until she realizes she isn’t alone and tries to escape.  Naturally, he catches her and we have some more brief nudity before Leigh recovers her vision, finds the gun, and shoots the bad guy, though sis has to come and finish him off.  The last fifteen minutes is the only part worth watching. 9/5/08

Prince of Space (1959)

Invasion of the Neptune Men (1961) 

Two of the worse dubbed and most badly written of all the cheap Japanese sf movies, the two adventures of Sonny Chiba as Starman.  So stupid at times that it is positively hilarious.  The kids are cute, and probably could have written a better script than the one that was used. An evil alien in a funny looking spaceship threatens the Earth, but Starman is ready to defend the human race.  The human developer of a new rocket fuel decides that the alien technology is inferior to ours or they would have sent more ships.  The logic there defies me.  The alien announces to the world that he will arrive at precisely 8:00 PM.  What time zone?  Somehow they also know that he’s going to land in Japan.  Must have read the screenplay.  The spaceship lands and the scientist joins the police in greeting it, and brings his kids! The villain’s deathray destroys entire human bodies except, for some reason, helmets. 

Starman arrives in costume and in a flying saucer that looks like Eric Cartman, except he calls himself Prince of Space. The villains fire their ray a few more times, which depletes their power supply so much that they have to retreat.  Sounds like a design flaw to me. They have a battle in space.  “Discharge the caustic vapors!”  For some reason, we now find the aliens back on Earth with a fully functioning spaceship. They also have a tracking device which pinpoints Starman’s location.  How?  They decide to kill him.  “Prepare the underground tank!”  He beats them easily, but they come back yet again and try to kidnap the kids and the scientists, ending up with the formula.  Starman chases him, on foot this time, and they have a badly choreographed fist fight.  Both disappear into space. 

An airliner disappears and a plane is sent to look for them.  He conducts his search from 10,000 feet – must have good eyes – until a dragon shaped spaceship shows up and freezes his controls. This new ship – crewed by our old friends from Krankor – somehow abduct the scientist as well, although we never find out how. Planet Krankor, incidentally, is 500,000 miles from Earth. Starman shows up again as well but doesn’t rescue anyone, at least until he travels to Krankor, defeats the bunny faced giant monster, and foils the villains at last.  The special effects make those of the old Flash Gorden serials look great. 

Invasion of the Neptune Men feels like a sequel, although it really isn’t.  Our hero is now called Space Chief and he has a spaceship with wheels so it can drive on roads.  The villains are from Neptune and look like pointy headed robots. There are more kids and an alien ship that makes clocks and trains run backwards.  They use an unknown form of energy.  “It’s an ultra short wave we can’t record on Earth.”  So how are they observing it?  The special effects are marginally better but the script isn’t.   After some attempts to infiltrate, the aliens launch a full scale attack, blow up a lot of buildings, but get chased off by Space Chief.  Definitely a product of their time, never to be seen again. 9/4/08

The Blue Dahlia (1946) 

Raymond Chandler, creator of Philip Marlowe, wrote the screenplay for this one, which I don’t believe I’d ever seen before.  Alan Ladd returns from the war to find his wife involved with a local night club owner.  He leaves but he doesn’t take his gun with him, and someone uses it to kill her, leaving him as the prime suspect.  There are lots of potential suspects.  The club owner is involved in something criminal and he has a hidden past.  One of Ladd’s buddies suffered a head injury and has blackouts.  There’s a crooked security man and hints of blackmail, followed by a kidnapping. Ladd runs into Veronica Lake, who is the estranged wife of the club owner, stretching coincidence a bit.  They are attracted to one another, but the situation obviously confuses things.  Excellent cast and nicely tied up at the end.   9/3/08

Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) 

This was one of several movies spawned by the success of The Great Race including Those Magnificent Young Men in Their Flying Machines and Those Fantastic Flying Fools.  It stars Tony Curtis, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Susan Hampshire, Terry Thomas, and Gert Frobe (Goldfinger).  The race this time is the Monte Carlo endurance drive, 1500 miles of bad roads in bad weather.  The contestants are crooks, cheats, entrepreneurs, crackpots, and the like.  Much of the humor is visual and slapstick, and the quality of the jokes varies greatly.  The better sequences involve rescuing a car as it teeters on the brink of a precipice and mixing up the rooms during a power failure at one of the stops. Terry-Thomas is great as the villain and Cook and Moore are always great together.  The rest of the cast is adequate or better.  Also known as Monte Carlo or Bust. 9/2/08

Murder, My Sweet (1944) 

Dick Powell plays Philip Marlowe in this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely, one of my favorite all time mysteries.  Marlowe is hired by Moose Malone, an ex-con played by Mike Mazurki who is looking for his one time girlfriend, Velma, who used to sing at a bar.  Powell tries to uncover her past, but is frustrated by what is revealed to be a conspiracy of silence because Velma is now married to a prominent man and has used her connections to organized crime to cover up her past.  There are a couple of changes that are amusing.  One of the villains is originally a female Madame.  In this version, she’s a male, a spiritualist conman.  I guess whorehouses didn’t exist in the 1940s.  The dialogue is crisp and clever and for the most part the acting is good to excellent.  I’ve watched this so many times over the years that I can practically mouth the dialogue in advance in some of the scenes.  One of the classics. Robert Mitchum did a good job reprising this role several years later. 9/1/08

 

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