Last Update 6/30/08

 

Hexed (1993) 

Arye Gross and Claudia Christian star in this spoof of steamy thrillers.  Gross is an ambitious hotel clerk and compulsive liar who manages to hook up with Christian, a famous model, after a disastrous series of misfires at work.  She’s spokesperson for Indifference Perfume (“for those who could care less”).  Through a subterfuge, Gross gets a date with her, but it’s not what he expected.  There’s a comic scene of violent sex after which Christian attempts to kill her with a butcher knife.  She says she is being blackmailed by the man Gross is impersonating and the two go to his house for a conversation, at which point she kills the blackmailer, leaving Gross nonplused.  Complications follow as it becomes obvious Christian is bonkers and a hotel guest is suspected of the murder.  Then she kills another man in his apartment and sticks the body in the refrigerator.  The sequence in which he tries to dispose of the body is the best part of the movie.  Some of the jokes are too farcical for my taste but most of it was very amusing. 6/30/08

The Jade Mask (1945) 

Charlie Chan’s fourth son, Eddie, takes over in this uneven mystery.  A brilliant but flaky and well hated scientist is murdered by a poison dart.  His family, associates, and servants all have excuses and alibis.  There is also a mysterious prowler, a disappearing policeman, and a secretive servant who ends up as victim number two.  The new Chan son is played as a stiff, hokey intellectual and the performance is flat and insulting instead of funny.  Chan makes his deductions on guesses as well as clues this time, and the story limps along toward its ending as he attempts to find not only the killer but the missing formula for a new gas process.  The solution also involves the removal of a life mask from one character revealing that he’s another, a ridiculous supposition that could not possibly have worked as described.  A few good bits, but they’re mostly lost in the nonsense. 6/25/08

What a Way to Go (1964) 

I first saw this Shirley Maclaine comedy when I was in high school and I remembered it clearly even after forty years.  Maclaine throws over rich and snobby Dean Martin to marry under achiever Dick Van Dyke, who changes his lifestyle in order to give her riches and drops dead of overwork.  Rich but unhappy, she goes to France, where in due course she marries Paul Newman, a very unsuccessful artist.  Then she accidentally helps him become a tremendous success, history repeats itself, but he dies when his automatic painting machines malfunction.  Next she encounters Robert Mitchum, a tycoon and playboy.  He already has his money so she figures he’s a safe bet, but the curse recurs.  He decides to retire to the simple life, tries to milk a bull, and gets fatally tossed. Gene Kelly is next in line, a down and out nightclub performer.  A small change in his performance turns him into a hit and she’s doomed to be widowed again when he is trampled by his fans.  She ends up with Dean Martin, who learned the error of his ways. Each episode of her life is mimicked in a short film clip in the style of a different movie – a silent film, a Hollywood blockbuster, a French art film – featuring an incredible variety of fashions. Very funny, very well written. 6/24/08

Meeting at Midnight (1944) 

This Charlie Chan movie has also appeared as Black Magic. Mantan Moreland continues as the primary comic relief, and number one daughter makes her first serious appearance.  It’s another story involving phony spiritualists and the creepy atmosphere is designed to play against Moreland’s bulging eyes and silly responses.  There’s a lot of real silliness in this one, hands coming out of curtains and no one investigating, unrealistic incidents of hypnosis, a husband unrecognizable because of plastic surgery, and generally poor acting.  The medium is shot during a séance attended by Chan’s daughter, which brings him into the case.  He uncovers the mechanical tricks used to fool the customers and eventually solves the murder, but this is decidedly sub-par, the least interesting to date in the entire series and, unfortunately, a taste of what was to come. 6/24/08

Nightmare Man (2006) 

After buying a bizarre fertility mask, a woman has recurring dreams of being attacked by a full size version of the creature depicted.  Her husband, naturally, thinks she’s losing it.  I had trouble getting involved with this one because both actors are less than convincing.  Their car breaks down on a remote mountain road and hubbie decides to walk back to a gas station but she stays behind for reasons that failed to convince me.  The mask is in the trunk thanks to another unconvincing plot twist.  I note also that although he is walking “back” to the gas station which they passed, he walks away from the car in the opposite direction.  Night falls and the boogeyman appears outside the car, attacks her, and drives her into the woods where she takes refuge in a cabin occupied by a small group of people, a collection of the least likeable jerks I can recall in some time.  The monster is also the most incompetent killer I’ve seen in a while.  They call the husband who tells them he was about to have her committed and that she’s potentially dangerous – which dropped the credibility level of the script to near zero.  No one gets involuntarily committed for having bad dreams and there is no evidence that she was ever dangerous to herself or others.  Now she thinks the creature is trying to get back into her body, which makes no sense since he was trying to carve her up with a butcher knife.  Once again we have a movie in which the writer/director has no clear vision of what the story is supposed to be about and just adds scenes that might individually be effective but add up to nonsense.  And it goes down hill from that point forward, aided by mediocre special effects and bad acting.  Turns out it was all a plot to kill the wife arranged by the husband.  But why the elaborate costume, which was totally unnecessary?  Of the sixteen After Hours Horrorfest films, this is far and away the worst.  6/23/08 

The Chinese Cat (1944) 

The second Charlie Chan movie from Monogram is quite a bit better than the first, though the quality would drop again quickly.  Charlie is prevailed upon to investigate a sort of locked room mystery, except that the solution is obvious from the outset.  He uncovers a gang of diamond thieves who had a falling out among themselves.  It’s more of a crime story than a mystery since we know who the villains are right from the outset.   There are two more murders, both members of the gang who threaten to expose the rest, and a fairly good sequence of chases, captures, and escapes in a carnival fun house.  Charlie and his son both get roughed up and, frankly, he shows less than his usual astuteness in entering the gang’s lair without adequate backup.   A tolerable addition to the series, and Toler continues to do a creditable job. 6/22/08

Borderland (2007) 

I am automatically suspicious of any horror movie that claims to be based on a true story, but then this is more suspense than horror as far as I’m concerned, more like Hostel or Saw than anything else.  Three young men visit a shady part of Mexico and cross trails with a cult that believes in torturing and murdering people to invoke the god Chango.  One of them is kidnapped and a second dies before the big confrontation, in which seven of the cult members and a few assorted bystanders die.  Whatever the original inspiration, I doubt it was even close to the version that appears on the screen.  The movie alternates between tedious and predictable scenes and gratuitous gore.  I don’t have anything against gratuitous gore, but in this case that seemed to be the only real reason for the film in the first place.  Oddly enough, I thought the performances by the two main characters – Brian Presley and Martha Higareda – were unusually good, but they were wasted in a movie doomed to be dismissed, properly, as just an inferior imitation. 6/20/08

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944) 

The Chan movies changed studios with this entry, and it was definitely a step down.  A scientist is killed and the only copy of the plans for a revolutionary new weapon are missing from his wallet, thanks to the very inept coverage by two supposed government agents.  There is also a house full of suspects and, for some reason, the scientist keeps an armed aerial bomb suspended in his laboratory.  Right.  Anyway, Manton Moreland joins the cast as Birmingham Jones along with two new kids, number three son and number two daughter, neither of whom shine.  The production values are very bad and there is some particularly inappropriate use of music that is almost funny.  Chan, who is working for the secret service, has to take a taxi to the murder site and passes a stand of palm trees even though he’s supposed to be in Washington, D.C.  Even though all the suspects are supposedly confined to a single room, they’re able to sneak around taking shots at people with guns that magically appear, set booby traps, lurk in the dark, and so forth.  The mystery is solved by luck as much as skill and I guessed the villain well in advance.  A foretaste of the uneven and often disappointing movies to follow. 6/20/08

Drive Thru (2007) 

This slasher film could and should have been a lot better than it is.   There’s a talented cast, decent special effects, and the dialogue is good.  That said, it still falls apart under the weight of clichés.  For one thing, it’s a rip off of Nightmare on Elm Street.  The ghost of a murdered man comes back to seek vengeance against the children of the people responsible for his death.  He manifests himself as Horny the Clown, mascot of the Hella Burger fast food chain.  Unfortunately, the writers have added a crowd of cliché including the Ouija board that warns the protagonist, characters who split up to investigate when they should be staying together, backward messages in rock songs, a haunted house at a carnival.  Add to that some really implausible plot twists.  The heroine doesn’t seem particularly upset by what is clearly a series of supernatural occurrences, and then seems to forget all that and consider the killer perfectly human.  One character in the final sequence was apparently forgotten by the writers because she just disappears.  The haunted house has no emergency lights.  When our feisty heroine straps a bulky 45 revolver over her short shorts, no one notices it until she pulls it out of its holster.  And the rules of the supernatural creature change at the end for the “surprise” ending.  On top of all that, I thought all of the menaced teens were pretty unlikable people – and why does Hollywood continue to cast people in their mid-twenties as teens, particularly in this case since there was no nudity? 6/18/08

Castle in the Desert (1942) 

I understand that this and other Charlie Chan movies were sharply criticized by Asian Americans because of the condescending and racist attitude of some of the characters.  I’ve never understood that because the ones who do so are clearly portrayed as ignorant or actively evil.  Chan is highly respected and even his air headed son if generally treated as an equal.  Anyway, this one attracts a large number of people to a remote mansion in the Mojave Desert where one of the guests is promptly poisoned, although the death is covered up.  Charlie gets an urgent summons to come visit, which appears to be a forgery, but circumstances maroon them all more than thirty miles from help with no telephone.  The cast of suspects includes a fortuneteller, a confidence man, a supposedly scarred writer, and a descendant of Lucrezia Borgia. Nice mystery and one of the best in the series. 6/18/08

The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007) 

The not entirely likable protagonist of this horror movie is attacked one night by a demonic looking creature who throws him in front of a train.  Instead of dying, he finds himself living an entirely different life.  A stranger accosts him and tells him that “they” are hunting for him and when they kill him, he’ll find himself in yet another life, and sure enough his girlfriend kills him by turning one arm into a giant claw. He doesn’t last long as a taxi driver either, then finds himself unemployed, and so on.  His fate is somehow linked to a woman he appears in each of his lives. Then he discovers that he is one of them, outlawed for some reason he cannot remember. The concept is good and there’s some nice photography.  The acting is so-so and too much of the dialogue is very low pitched. The last few minutes are kind of strange in that the dialogue and the acting both plummet.  Creepy though it is, I early decided that Ian had no chance to escape, which drew most of the suspense out of the story, and then they changed the rules at the end and I was just annoyed.  6/18/08

Charlie Chan in Rio (1941) 

Charlie and number two son are in Rio to arrest a nightclub performer who has a talent for attracting other people’s husbands.  She announces her engagement that same evening, then visits a psychic on her way to the engagement party, unaware that the police are planning to arrest her for murder as soon as she arrives home.  The psychic drugs her and extracts the secret of her crime. Before she can be arrested, the woman is found stabbed to death in her apartment.  The psychic turns out to be the brother of the man she murdered, who drugged her in order to get a confession.  The dead woman’s jewels are missing, but Jimmy Chan discovers that the butler stole the jewels, but he is murdered himself before he can talk.  The end is okay but Charlie seems to make a great leap of reasoning to figure out who’s responsible. 6/17/08

Dead Men Tell (1941) 

An elderly woman organizes a cruise to a island where a very large pirate treasure is supposed to be hidden.  Her captain is a shady character, and her project has attracted the attention of Charlie Chan’s son, leading his father to pursue him.  The woman is frightened to death by someone posing as a ghost and Charlie gets involved, quickly discovering that one of the men aboard is using a false name.  The treasure map – surprise – has been cut into many pieces and distributed among the passengers, but someone is systematically stealing them, and the possibility of further murders hovers over everyone.  Lots of running around, a second murder, and only a middling amount of detection.  The younger Chan’s comic antics really get out of control in this one and it’s as much a comedy as a mystery, and not very good at being either. 6/16/08 

Warriors of the Deep (1984) 

Peter Davison is Doctor Who in the third encounter with the Silurians, reptilian creatures who once ruled the Earth but who went into hibernation until the 20th Century.  The costumes were different in each of the three, and convincing in none of them, but that’s part of the charm of the series.  This time it’s some time in the future when the Doctor and his companions arrive on Earth.  The nations of the world are on the brink of a devastating war, which the Silurians secretly hope to provoke.  The action takes place in an undersea base and features a particularly silly fake dinosaur that appears to be immune to bullets.  Although Davison was not my favorite actor for the role, it has to be admitted that he suffered from having several inferior scripts during his short tenure.  And, alas, he gave way to my least favorite, Colin Baker. 6/16/08

The Sea Devils (1972) 

Doctor Who and his companion travel to a remote English island where the villainous Master is being held prisoner.  The Master seems at first to have reformed, but the wary viewer will know that the mysterious disappearance of several ships in the area is not unrelated to his current plans.  The Doctor and Jo Grant then find themselves marooned on a small island where reptilian creatures similar to the Silurians have been secretly plotting against the surface world.  At the same time we discover that the Master has suborned the man in charge of his private prison and is virtually free to go at any time, and that he plans to help the sea creatures eradicate the surface world.  Captures and escapes ensue and the sea devils appear surprisingly infrequently, since most of the struggle until quite late is with the Master and his puppets.  A pitched battle determines the outcome.  One of the best of the Doctor’s exploits. 6/13/08

Murder Over New York (1940) 

Charlie Chan is on his way to a police convention in New York when he runs into a plot to sabotage the war effort. An old friend from Scotland Yard is on a hot case when he turns up dead in a mutual friend’s apartment.  This installment in the popular series is fast moving, involving a spy – another man who appears to have had his face surgically altered, a fearful ex-wife, a Hindu henchman, and multiple murders.  The story is driven more by events than by Charlie’s detection this time, a common modification during the war years.  Although he follows logical steps, the case solves itself almost despite his involvement.  The acting is up to snuff and the dialogue’s good, although number two son gets to utter his usual naïve blather.  The climax comes when the Chans and several others are apparently locked in an experimental airplane with a poison gas capsule by saboteurs, but Charlie’s nonchalance suggests it is a plot to force the culprit to reveal his identity by identifying the threat. There’s a nice twist right at the end. A continuity glitch – while the plane is in a power dive, the interior of the cabin is perfectly level.  6/12/08

Pumpkinhead 4 (2006) 

The Pumpkinhead movies are quite formulaic, but the monster is nifty and in general the quality has been above average.  The creature is a magical creation that can be invoked for revenge.  Its only weakness is that damage to the invoker affects the creature as well.  This installment adds another level of cliché, the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, whose latest conflict comes when one family crashes the wedding of the other.  A romance between members of the two families leads to the death of a young girl, and that in turn leads to the invocation of the monster to wipe out the Hatfields.  Predictable carnage follows, not always convincing although the animation of the monster is actually well done – it’s acting is better than that of many of the real cast members.  The plot goes downhill after the first few murders, with the feud taking precedence over common sense.  There is also some inconsistency.  The ghost of a previous invoker appears and announces that the only man to survive Pumpkinhead’s last appearance is doomed to his fate, which makes no sense since he never called Pumpkinhead.   The end is all too predictable. 6/11/08

Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940) 

I remembered this Charlie Chan film quite well despite not having seen it in many years, probably because of its creepy atmosphere.  An escaped criminal with a grudge against Chan takes refuge in a wax museum.  After having his face altered, he tries to trap Charlie at a radio broadcast from the museum where he is face the challenge of solving an unsolved crime.  Various other parties are involved including the museum owner and his assistant, who are reluctant accomplices, a mysterious woman, and naturally Charlie’s interfering son.  There are secret rooms inside secret rooms inside secret rooms.  The plan to electrocute Charlie goes awry when another man is killed by a blowgun dart instead.  The presence of two murders, both of whom have had their faces changed, provides a complex and very well constructed story with a clever resolution. 6/10/08

Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970) 

As much as I like Tom Baker’s interpretation of Doctor  Who, Jon Pertwee remains my favorite, and in general I think the scripts were more consistently entertaining during his tenure.  The Timelords have exiled the Doctor to Earth where he acts as scientific adviser to UNIT, a United Nations military organization.  The episode opens with maintenance workers hearing some strange sounds underground and the subsequent disappearance of one of them.   The Doctor spots a large dinosaurish creature but no one believes him. The tension between the Doctor and the Brigadier, whose response to everything is to blow it up or shoot it down, recurs several times in this adventure.  There’s a bit of silly pseudo-science.  The creatures exude some sort of aura that causes certain humans to revert.  One man goes insane and begins drawing cave paintings on the walls of his room.  At least two of the scientists at the power plant above the caves are aware of the creatures and are covering it up because they hope to gain knowledge lost to the human race.  The creatures are, of course, the Silurians, an intelligent reptilian species that has survived underground until the present day and whose very appearance frightens a number of people to death.  Ultimately both humans and Silurians prove to be so xenophobic that despite the Doctor’s best intentions, they probably could not have lived together under any circumstances and obviously it’s the humans who prevail.   This was one of the longest, and best, of the Doctor’s adventures. 6/9/08

Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise (1940) 

This is a remake of Charlie Chan Carries On, based on the novel Charlie Chan Carries On by Earl Derr Biggers.  A friend of Charlie’s from the British police is strangled in his office after reporting that he has joined a cruise to track down a strangler.  Charlie takes his place aboard ship, accompanied by his excitable son, and quickly finds another victim, murdered in one room and placed in the bed in another.  Various characters are introduced, each of whom has some mystery attached to him or her.  As one might expect since this is based on original material, the story is complex and well structured and Charlie’s investigation is systematic and entertaining.  Definitely among the best in the series, which became increasingly interested in spies and saboteurs during the war. 6/8/08

Dream Cruise (2006) 

An installment from the Masters of Horror cable tv series.  It opens with a number of dream sequences and flashbacks establishing that the protagonist, a businessman named Jack working in Japan, has a morbid fear of the ocean because as a child he watched his brother drown.  The scenes immediately following are slow moving and the actors speak in a subdued tone that had me nodding off.  Things pick up slowly as we discover he’s romantically involved with a client’s wife, and that he’s going on a boat trip with the couple to talk business, although obviously hubbie has an idea what’s going on.  It appears that he plans to kill them both, but as night falls, the engine dies, disrupting his plans.  The propeller is fouled and when he goes down to investigate a supernatural force turns on the engines.  He appears to survive and goes back aboard, but his behavior is very strange.  He deliberately burns out the engine, stranding them far from shore. Then things really get creepy.  The first half of this needed to be tightened up considerably, and the lack of animation in the characters’ voices bothered me a little, but it’s still one of the better episodes in the series.   The reanimated husband insists that it was his wife’s fault that he was murderer (?) and attacks her, then is killed/rekilled in a fight with Jack.  One good line: as Jack is fighting with a disembodied hand, the wife is trapped in a flooding bathroom, yelling “I need a hand in here.” 6/7/08

Charlie Chan in Panama (1940) 

This one is more about spies than common criminals.  With the war underway, the Panama Canal is the target of a sabotage plot.  Charlie is posing as a hat dealer to monitor spy activity when his contact dies in front of him, poisoned.  The police arrest him and he runs into his son in the local jail.  There is an interesting cast of potential master spies including a Viennese scientist, a cigarette dealer, a cabaret singer, a nightclub owner, an American engineer, and Lionel Atwill as a sinister Englishman.  The younger Chan is back to providing comic relief, but it’s not as overpowering as in some of the others in the series.  The solution is well worked out, even though I guessed the guilty party well in advance.  6/7/08

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937) 

A fifteen part serial starring Ralph Byrd as Blake, the developer of a revolutionary weapon – a death ray.  A villainous industrialist hires the mysterious Scorpion to steal the technology.   This was an early serial that hadn’t fallen into the standard formula, so the constant fistfights and stupid decisions by good and bad guys alike are less frequent.  Unfortunately the acting is terrible, the Scorpion is unbelievably corny, and ultimately everything hinges on people making big mistakes at critical moments.  I found the kid particularly annoying in this one, and the scene where three people begin to run out of air within seconds of having been locked in a very large, sealed room was a joke.  As serials go, this is interesting mostly for historical reasons – although I do rather like Ralph Byrd, who was later Dick Tracy. 6/6/08

Charlie Chan in City of Darkness (1939) 

As Europe spirals toward war, hysteria spreads across the continent.   A woman tries to smuggle an unidentified man out of France without attracting the attention of the authorities.  Charlie Chan, visiting friends from World War I, is temporarily trapped in Paris.  It appears that the fugitive has been framed by a man named Petrov, who is involved with arms shipments.  None of Chan’s family are in this one, but the godson of the local Chief Magistrate provides the excessive comic relief this time around.  Predictably, Petrov ends up dead with the innocent man, his assistant, and two shady business associates as suspects.  There are also two small time crooks who apparently broke into the dead man’s basement and spent some time drinking wine, but who are unlikely to have been responsible for the murder, just burglary.  It’s more of a police procedural than a traditional detective story, but it’s a pretty good one.  6/5/08

Dead Clowns (2003) 

Evil clowns have shown up with some regularity in horror fiction and movies, most noticeably in It by Stephen King.  This low budget addition to the list refers to its clown creatures as zombies, but they’re actually revenants, reanimated bodies seeking vengeance for a crime in the past, as in The Fog.  The clowns in this case died when a bridge collapsed under the train car in which they were riding, and for some reason their bodies were never recovered.  For some reason, this annoys them even after death and they want to strike back at the townspeople even though fifty years have passed.  They return just as a hurricane is about to strike, adding to the confusion.  The first problem I had is the long wait before we actually meet any of the characters.  We see people preparing for the storm but there’s almost no dialogue during the first few minutes.  Otherwise the opening scenes are reasonably effective in building mood despite the poor photographic quality – obviously shot on videotape.  It’s probably just as well that there was so little dialogue because it’s not scintillating when it starts.  There are some nice bits in this.  The calliope music that starts up during the early stages of the hurricane is creepy.  The bulk of the movie is unusually quiet – people speak in undertones, victims accosted by wormy faced clowns don’t scream or shout, even when they are killed.  The bad acting doesn’t help either.  Sometimes the clowns have to hack their way into houses; sometimes they magically appear in bedroom closets.  This seems more designed for visual impact than through any logic.  Needless to say, this will not be a part of my permanent collection.  It’s not even inadvertently funny. 6/4/08

Charlie Chan at Pleasure Island (1939) 

Charlie and Jimmy Chan are traveling by air with their friend, a mystery novelist, and a man who claims to be an insurance adjuster, although he’s strangely interested in the writer’s latest project.  Shortly after receiving a cryptic telegram, the writer is found dead, apparently from a heart attack, after which his briefcase disappears.  The dead man’s wife also receives a telegram from her husband indicating that he expects to die because of something known as Zodiac.  Dr. Zodiac turns out to be a fake clairvoyant, obviously the focus of the mystery.  Charlie receives a threatening note even as he learns that several people connected to Zodiac have recently committed “suicide”.  The spiritualism is a cover for a clever blackmail scheme and Zodiac is actually two people working in collusion.  The comic relief is refreshingly brief and the mystery is a pretty good one.  A solid addition to the series with a great finale at a magic show, even though the solution depends on some genuine mental telepathy. 6/3/08

Charlie Chan in Reno (1939) 

Although this is a Charlie Chan movie, it is based on a short story by Philip Wylie, obviously freely adapted.  A friend of Charlie is in Reno to get a divorce when she runs into her soon to be ex-husband’s paramour.  The paramour has also jilted the man who thought she was going to marry him, establishing two people with good reason to wish her dead.  The hotel manager throws the troublesome woman out of the hotel and it’s clear that she doesn’t like her either.  Predictably, she ends up dead and the wronged wife is found crouched over the body.  A local doctor is found searching the dead woman’s room and her former fiancé appears to have the money she won at the casino.  There’s a much stronger element of detection in this one, including a trip to a ghost town, and the humor isn’t quite as intrusive, provided by Jimmy Chan and a local police officer with a limited imagination.  A much stronger follow up to the weak predecessor which introduced Sidney Toler in the title role. 6/2/08 

Beneath Still Waters (2005) 

Although I really enjoyed the novel by Matthew Costello that is the basis for this movie, I had heard enough about the transition to lower my expectations dramatically.  The locale is moved from North America to Spain.  A town has been condemned and is about to be covered by water following the construction of a new dam.  Two boys inadvertently unleash a supernatural creature imprisoned there just before the inundation.  Forty years later, the old evil returns to the surface.  After a few not bad scenes, the story deteriorates quickly.  Several of the actors are obviously uncomfortable with English.  Then there’s the usual screenwriting idiocy.  The police attempt to arrest a man just because he arrives in town as a man apparently dies in a swimming accident.  The English speaking characters trade clichés for a while.  A diver spots what appears to be a crack in the dam.  There are several dream sequences – I hate dream sequences.  The dead begin to rise from the water, apparently led by a sorcerer, and the effects range from okay to corny, which pretty much matches the acting.  The body count rises as the count of risen bodies rises, but it’s largely lacking in suspense.  The acting actually gets progressively worse, including the most stupidly gratuitous and unappealing nude scenes I recall ever seeing.    A waste of good source material. 6/2/08

High Anxiety (1977) 

Although I’ve enjoyed all of Mel Brooks’ films that I’ve seen, I recalled this as being one of his lesser ones, even though it’s a spoof of the kind of suspense films Alfred Hitchcock was noted for, and I’m a fan of those.  Brooks is a psychiatrist with a fear of heights recently promoted to head a psychiatric clinic. He suspects that his predecessor may have been murdered and his oddly behaving staff seems to suggest he’s right.  The plot development is accompanied by the usual combination of visual and verbal jokes, some of which are very clever, some just low farce.  Harvey Korman is the doctor who wanted the job and Cloris Leachman is the malevolent head nurse.   They are part of a conspiracy to keep rich patients who are perfectly sane locked up so that their family can spend their money. There’s an amusing parody of the shower scene from Psycho.  The scene at the conference where the psychiatrists try to discuss sexual matters in the presence of two little girls is also quite funny.  Brooks gets framed for murder after which there is another good scene, a takeoff on The Birds.  A fugitive, he enlists Madeleine Kahn’s aid in clearing his name.  Confirmed my memory that this is not one of his best, but it’s still fun. 6/1/08

Son of Zorro (1947) 

Although the hero of this cliffhanger serial is supposedly a descendant of Zorro, he really has comparatively little in common with the original.  He’s a soldier returning home after the Civil War who discovers that the town has been taken over by crooked politicians who use intimidation to back up their shady efforts to defraud and disenfranchise the local citizens.  He decides to take action in disguise, and spends much of his time rescuing the female lead, who manages to get into fresh trouble in almost every installment.  The acting is okay but unexceptional, but some of the chases are quite good.  Unfortunately, this becomes just another western rather than a real “Zorro” movie, and by the second half of the serial, situations are repeating themselves and the repeated stupid moves (by both sides) have grown irritating.  6/1/08

Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) 

Sidney Toler took over as Charlie Chan in this one, and Keye Luke left the series to be replaced by Number Two son, who was much less competent.  There’s a goof in the opening scene.  Charlie is described on a business card as a private detective, but he’s actually a police officer.  Mrs. Chan appears in this one as well as the Chans become grandparents.  There’s been a murder aboard a freighter involving the delivery of a large sum of cash and a number of suspicious characters are aboard.  The identity of the killer came as a surprise, but the movie is so heavily into humor – two of Chan’s sons are on screen almost as much as he is – that the mystery never really develops.  Toler does a creditable part in the character but the script this time is definitely far below the standard of those set during the Oland years. 5/31/08

The Marsh (2006) 

Gabrielle Anwar stars in this atmospheric ghost story as a children’s book author who has nightmares and visions of a young girl in a variety of menacing situations, some of which are visually quite creepy.  She decides to take a vacation but does so in a remote farmhouse that resembles the building in her dreams – which strikes me as a pretty bad decision right from the outset.  Not surprisingly, the visions become more intense, not less.  One of the locals seems familiar, faces appear in the mirror, inanimate objects move by themselves, etc.  She also finds a business card for a psychic investigator (Forest Whitaker) who joins her investigate.  The local newspaper editor offers to help but their research into the history of the house, and the tragic death or disappearance of a young girl who may have been sexually assaulted, suggests that he has been lying.  Then people connected to that old crime begin to experience weird events and then those connected to the past tragedy begin dying.  Much better than I expected. 5/30/08

Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1938) 

This would be Warner Oland’s last movie.  Shortly thereafter he succumbed to dementia and died the following year.  Charlie and Lee Chan are visiting Monte Carlo, obviously, when they run into another crime. Two bitter business rivals joust over cards.  A woman who “borrowed” some negotiable bonds attempts to return them before being discovered.  Then a courier is found murdered and a fortune in bonds has disappeared.  Charlie helps the local authorities investigate.  The owner of the bonds covers up because he suspects correctly that his wife was responsible for an earlier theft, which she gave to a man who is blackmailing her.  Then another couple of bodies turn up and the plot thickens even further.  Lee has good instincts, but manages to get into his usual trouble.   Good story, but I guessed the killer again. 5/30/08

Primeval (2007) 

There’s a pretty good cast in this almost good movie about an expedition that originally plans to capture a man eating crocodile in Burundi but ends up just trying to stay alive.  Unfortunately, too much of the movie is consumed by the petty politics and tribal rivalries they encounter along the way, and a couple of coincidental last minute rescues.  By the time the crocodile appears, I’d lost considerable interest, and the sudden very action packed sequence is too dark to be as effective as it might have been.  There is death and destruction as the crocodile proves to be larger, fiercer, and faster than they expected.  And then we’re back to dodging the various armed factions among the locals again.  We finally get back to the crocodile which chases one of the crew for a very long distance over dry land.  I thought they could only turn on the gas for a minute or so.  A near miss that could have been better if they had concentrated more on the crocodile. 5/29/08

Charlie Chan on Broadway (1938) 1352 

An adventuress hides something in Charlie’s luggage to get it through New York customs.  She threatens to talk out of turn about some local mobsters and ends up getting murdered.  Lee Chan finds himself arrested as a prime suspect and Charlie has to solve the case to free him.  Not a particularly gripping story despite a second murder and a trick designed to fool the killer into revealing himself.  I guessed who was responsible very early in this one.  Odd title, since neither of the Chans ever actually makes it to Broadway.  Lee gets to save the day in this one as well, but it’s a substandard plot.  Warner Oland, who played Chan even though he was actually Swedish, would make only one more film after this one. 5/28/08

Monstroid (1979) 

The claim that this monster movie was based on a real incident in Colombia is pretty sad.  Jim Mitchum, John Carradine, and Anthony Eisley all look uncomfortable in this story of a giant reptile that gets pissed off because people are polluting its lake and begins killing those nearby.  Poor production values, poor lighting and camera work, poor script, and poor acting don’t help.  Attractive women insist on swimming, sometimes naked, in the lake despite the rash of killings, but don’t always get eaten.  Even when half eaten bodies turn up on the shore, the Americans refuse to consider the possibility that there really is a dangerous animal in the lake.  Some of the scenes are so dark that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.  The usual clichés turn up – the kids trying to take a picture of the creature at night, the drunken fishermen who get gobbled, the ominous blip on the radar screen, the bad company man who wants to cover everything up, the crusading reporter who wants to tell the world.  Eventually they blow it up, but there’s are eggs.  Ho hum. 5/27/08

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937) 

Charlie Chan is planning to take number two son fishing when a problem with an experimental plane on the eve of the Olympics complicates things.  The substitute pilot steals the plane and manages to disappear and when it later turns up, the experimental equipment aboard is missing.  Charlie traces some suspicious characters from there to the Berlin Olympics, where number one son is competing.  Lee Chan gets kidnapped and there are crosses and double crosses in a three way struggle for control of the secret technology.  The real villain was obvious almost from the outset in one of the weaker of the Warner Oland Chan movies. Even the interesting shots of the Olympics fail to bring this one to life. 5/26/08

Feeding the Masses (2005) 

This is a really bad horror movie.  I mean REALLY bad.  And in every way.  Bad acting, bad script, bad special effects, bad continuity, bad transitions, bad logic.  I only kept watching because it supposedly takes place in Rhode Island, although it didn’t look much like Rhode Island to me, and Pawtucket is NORTH of Providence, not SOUTH. The state house building isn’t remotely like the RI state house.  The government is suppressing the seriousness of the situation through control of the media.  A cameraman and an anchorwoman decide to reveal the truth.  Even the flashes from the rifles are computer generated for some reason.  Someone raided the cookie jar for the budget, apparently, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the actors donated their time.  At one point a woman screams, but the sounds don’t coincide with her face.  The funeral home commercial was actually fairly funny.  They provide a re-kill and re-burial service.  It was the high point of the movie.  Watchable only if you want to laugh at the silly makeup and dialogue, e.g., “I look very forward to working with you.”  They also mislabeled Johns Hopkins Hospital as John Hopkins.  Too lazy to look it up? 5/25/08

Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936) 1302 

Boris Karloff is the guest star in this above average mystery.  An unidentified opera singer with amnesia escapes from an asylum after seeing a newspaper that triggers his old memories.  Then a female opera singer, who is cheating on her husband, receives a death threat. Nice line: “This opera’s going on tonight even if Frankenstein walks in.”   Lee Chan (Keye Luke) provides more comedy this time, but is still favorably portrayed as bright and enthusiastic. Karloff shows up, obviously insane, insisting that he was almost burned to death in a fire.  The plot is a little too artificial in this one.  It was obviously designed as a gimmick movie to match Karloff and Chan, but the story doesn’t hold up very well. 5/24/08

Prince Caspian Soundtrack composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, 2008, $18.98

A great many soundtracks suffer from the fact that the music is, obviously, designed to fit what is happening visually and therefore it is incomplete when played separately.  In the past, composers like Henry Mancini got around this problem by making each separate piece an inherently individual element.  Today, there is commonly an effort to tie things together with a repeated theme or themes, and to more closely approximate the movie.  For that reason, most soundtracks fail to become memorable or something that listeners might want to play repeatedly.  I haven't seen this movie, which has not been faring well with reviewers, and since I was never a fan of the Narnia novels in the first place, I'm in no hurry to do so.  It might well be, however, that the soundtrack is the high point, because for the most part I found this quite enjoyable.  Only two tracks really suffer from the problems mentioned above - "Sorcery and Sudden Vengeance" and "The Duel" - and even those have moments when they're good.  My only real complaint is that the few vocals at the end - one of which was not included in the movie - are musically quite good songs but the orchestration drowns out the singers so often that I often could not distinguish the words. 5/23/08

V  Word (2006)  

Two teenagers break into a funeral home one night to get a look at the body of another who tormented them during high school. Naturally they find blood splotches and the doors are locked, preventing them from leaving.  A ghoulish figure menaces them and, equally naturally, one of them manages to break his leg very early in the chase that follows.  He dies but the other one escapes.  The dead kid shows up at the door, animate but obviously not really alive. Surprise!  He kills his friend, who is up and walking around when Mom and Sis come home.  Despite the melodramatic theme, this really dragged after the initial sequence.  It’s basically a vampire/zombie story with nothing new to say, and without a new way to say it, and the end didn’t even make much sense. One of the lesser entries in the Masters of Horror series. 5/23/08

Millennium Season 3 (1998)

 I dragged my feet for some time after watching the end of season 2 because, other than occasional standout episodes, I grew increasingly disappointed with this program despite its promising beginnings.  The final season opens with “The Innocents” in which a stewardess causes a plane crash.  Frank is apparently back working for the FBI, or never left – it’s not really clear and feels like a continuity glitch.  Apparently five months have passed since his wife died of the artificial plague last season.  The occasionally sloppy writing is in evident right off the bat.  Frank’s superior goes from being intelligent to obtuse in a matter of minutes, refusing to accept that two obviously linked incidents have any relationship to one another.  The animosity of Frank’s father in law could have been made plausible, but the writers didn’t bother.  First of a two parter, continued in “Exegesis”.  With his new, unofficial partner Emma, Frank tries to figure out why several apparent sisters are willing to kill themselves and their children rather than allow the authorities to question them.  And someone else is trying to kill them as well. Now the FBI believes Frank’s leak to the virus from last season, which makes no sense because there has been no further evidence to that effect since they discounted it.  And now Frank, who claimed to have been ignorant of who was responsible for the virus, now insists that the Millennium Group did it, and for some reason he thinks the women he’s investigating are gifted with prescience, despite a complete lack of evidence.  I think sometimes the writers in this series just wanted to be mysterious and didn’t care if the links weren’t established.   

“Teotwanki” combines the Y2K panic with Columbine.  Someone goes on a shooting spree at a high school pep rally.  One of the teenagers later is found dead, an apparent suicide, but he’s the son of one of a group who are reacting to the incident very suspiciously and Frank suspects that he killed his own son to keep him from talking.  One troublesome side issue is that Frank keeps his weapon in an unlocked box in his bedroom even though he has a young child living with him.  I don’t buy all the hysteria among the various characters about the end of civilization but it’s otherwise an okay episode.  “Closure” concentrates on Frank’s new unofficial partner, Emma.  She gets involved with a shooting at a motel, for no apparently reason and despite the fact that the FBI would not have jurisdiction anyway.  Other than that, it’s one of the best episodes of the show, with a trio of really bizarre spree killers.  “Thirteen Years Later” starts with a film crew making a film based on one of Frank’s old cases, with fatal consequences.  The first two victims are so obnoxious that I was cheering the killer on.  Then it devolved into self parody, fingers in sandwiches and the like.  “Whoever’s doing this is trying to drive me insane, for the third time in my life.”  By then, I figured it was a dream.  Nice touch with the female lead reading Borges in the bath tub. It wasn’t a dream, unfortunately even though there’s no explanation why Black is carrying a gun for the first time in the series and spouting clichés at every opportunity. 

“Skull and Bones” is a fairly good episode, although the unresolved nature of the Millennium Group is starting to wear thin.  Terry O’Quinn’s character admits to the murder of innocent people by the group, supposedly for the greater good of society.  “Through a Glass Darkly” involves a released, convicted child killer whom Frank eventually decides is innocent, although in the opening scenes he dresses up preconceived prejudices in scientific doubletalk, testifying on the man’s mental state without ever having interviewed him.  When a little girl disappears, he’s the obvious suspect.   “Human Essence” starts okay, a story about a drug that causes physical transformations, but it descends into a government conspiracy mode that has become so much of a cliché that it ruined an otherwise good episode.  “Omerta” is a strange episode in which a very strange killing, an apparent madman, people returning from the dead, and other weirdness all converge.  “Borrowed Time” has an other interesting concept that they don’t handle well.  A mysterious character who doesn’t appear to be human miraculously kills people who cheated death in order to buy time for others who might otherwise die.  A bit more explication would have helped.  “The Sound of Snow” has an interesting mystery – tapes of white noise that cause people to hallucinate.  I don’t buy the mechanism, but it was interesting, though not resolved well. 

"Antipas" reminded me of the Omen movies, a politician with a governess who uses supernatural powers to affect his life.  An unpleasant and basically boring episode. "Matryoshka" starts with the apparent suicide of a retired FBI agent who investigated the death of a scientist during at Los Alamos duringWorld War II.  Frank and his female quasi-partner become interested when they discover that Peter Watts, a Millennium Group member, visited the man shortly before his death. A big chunk of this one is a flashback to the original investigation.  A very strange Jekyll and Hyde story. The moral – that some scientific research usurps God – is ignorant, presumptuous, and offensive.  Cultists kidnap a pregnant woman in “Forcing the End” in order to raise her unborn child as the key figure in the return of the messiah.  The religious bigots are thoroughly unlikable despite an effort at the end to make their leader seem human.  Black’s daughter has more visions in “Saturn Dreams of Mercury” when they get some new neighbors.  Definitely supernatural in this one, although it’s not really clear what the neighbor is. 

“Darwin’s Eye” opens with a narration that inaccurately summarizes how evolution works.  A woman murders an orderly and escapes from a mental institution.  She convinces a local policeman that she’s telling the truth – way too easily.  This one slides into the government conspiracy syndrome that made me stop watching the X-Files.  The explanation of why the girl was assumed to have killed her parents also makes no sense, although it turns out she did.  Minor problems but a good episode.  Frank gets involved in a case involving a Millennium Group member who has broken with the others and is now the target of an assassination plot in “Bardo Thodol”.   Nice creepy element, dismembered hands that are apparently alive and growing, and the entire crew of a merchant ship found murdered.  It would have been a good episode except that nothing really gets resolved or explained and I was thoroughly tired now of the FBI official who for one reason or another doesn’t wish to know that the Millennium Group is evil, even after they commit multiple murders.  Mysterious photographs linked to a childhood trauma, coupled with a break in at Frank’s house, provide the suspense in “Seven and One”.  He changes the locks, but doesn’t get a deadbolt, which strikes me as a strange lapse. The paranoia element helps overwhelm the poorly written plot in this sub-par installment that uses pseudo-profundity to mask a lack of actual content.  There’s a continuity problem in “Nostalgia”, since Frank was supposedly permanently severed from the FBI, but he’s on a fresh case in this one, a series of murders in a small town.  Since I can’t believe that the police would find an abandoned car with bloodstains, and that in less than two weeks they would have allowed it to be cut up for parts, without even checking the VIN, the story fell apart early for me. It doesn’t get any better either, probably the worst single episode in all three seasons.  

“Via Dolorosa” has Watts, Frank’s supposed friend at one point, trying to use Frank’s partner to force him out of the FBI – the FBI that fired him two episodes back!   There’s also a rather weird serial killer, a much better story with some surprising twists.  The final episode is, appropriately, “Goodbye to All That”.  It’s the second half of the same story, still not resolving anything, ending with Black and his daughter on the run, and Watts apparently dead.  The DVD set also includes an episode of The X-Files that tried to tie things up.  When four FBI agents are removed from their graves and apparently reanimated, Mulder and Scully consult an uncooperative Frank Black for information about the Millennium Group.  This was well above average for both shows although it really doesn’t tie things up very well.   Overall, I think the show’s biggest flaw was that it relied too heavily on weirdness without a unifying theme.  The quality of individual shows varied widely as well.  5/22/08

Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936)

 A jockey takes a bribe to throw a race while riding a horse owned by one of Charlie’s friends.  He appeals to Charlie for help but is killed shortly thereafter, apparently kicked to death by his own horse.  In order to investigate, Charlie agrees to join a ship en route across the Pacific.  Charlie has Lee deliver more threatening letters to all of the suspects in order to see what transpires, but meanwhile someone sets a fire in the hold where the race horses are held, but the fire is designed not to be serious.  Then Charlie is wounded in what appears to be an accident, but may have been intentional.  I’m not sure the plot concocted by a gang of crooked gamblers would have worked even back in the 1930s, but given that it would, this is still another very good mystery film.  The quality of the Chan films, at least in the early years, was as good as or better than any of the other similar series. 5/21/08

Spirit Trap (2005)  

Five students are offered the chance to share a large house, in which they find an antique clock about which hangs a mild sense of danger.  There’s also an old journal, dusty paintings, and other suggestive props.  Two of the five are involved in drug dealing, but the obvious “good girl” is Billie Piper, one time companion to Doctor Who.  The plot begins to thicken when we discover that the school had nothing to do with the placement.  More strangeness follows, including nightmares, and the fact that one of the tenants – Tina – is oddly reclusive.  Then they find the planchette from a Ouija board, definitely not a good sign.  Low key but distinctly unnerving experiences begin occurring.  Piper begins to have visions of violent acts which took place in the past.  When a cache of drugs disappears, they break into a sealed room while searching the house.  Then we discover that all four – minus Tina – were responsible in some fashion for the death of another person in their past.  Murder, visions, hallucinations, and madness follow.  The delivery is relatively slow paced and understated and dream sequences mix with reality.  My attention drifted at times but the acting was good and I was generally satisfied with this one. 5/20/08

Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)  

The Honolulu detective takes his rather large family to visit the circus, but crime rears its inevitable head when the circus owner asks Charlie to investigate a series of threatening letters he has been receiving.  Given his personality, it’s no surprise he has enemies. There are also plenty of motives -  a business partner on the verge of defaulting on his loan, a spurned lover, a maimed animal trainer, a recently fired performer, and a host of badly treated employees.  Charlie has an appointment to meet the man, but he is locked in his quarters and not responding.  It’s not a locked room, however, because the skylight is open and accessible.  The culprit appears to be the circus ape, who was released after someone stole the key to his cage.  Before we’re done, we discover a secret marriage, another murder, and other conspiracies that complicate the plot quite nicely.  Although Lee, number one son, is at times used for comic relief, he is also shown to be quite competent on more than one occasion.  This is the first time we get to see Mrs. Chan.  I’m not sure she ever appears again in the series.  The solution involves intersecting crimes which is a bit coincidental, but does make for an interesting conclusion. 5/19/08

Iron Man (2008) 

What a pleasant surprise this was, the best superhero movie I’ve seen since Michael Keaton was Batman.  The script takes a few liberties with the original – since it becomes public knowledge that Iron Man is Tony Stark – but it’s a very good alternative origin story.  They also chose not to use any of the established Marvel characters as chief villain this time, choosing instead a treacherous business partner who steals the plans and builds a more powerful suit for the final confrontation.  The technological explanation is a little hokey but not obtrusively so.  The special effects are good as well, but what really impressed me was the script – crisp, funny, clever – and the delivery by the three main characters, particularly Robert Downey, who is perfect in the part.  They kept the back story that Stark was a playboy type who wasn't always the nicest of guys and worked that into the plot.  The editing is tight as well and there wasn’t a single moment when I was tempted to look away from the screen.  Although the action sequences are quite good, I actually preferred the pieces in between, which is rarely the case in this kind of action thriller.   I wouldn’t at all mind a follow up to this one, if it was even nearly as good. 5/18/08

Crazy Eights (2007)

 This horror film got off to a really bad start, a lecture about the role of emotion in society that was both semi-literature and illogical.  Then we segue into a familiar story, the old friends reunited for the funeral of one of their number, leading to disaster.  All of them have already been experiencing hallucinations or nightmares, which will figure largely in what follows, as they find a map leading to a time capsule created by their dead friend.  It picks up a bit, thanks to a good cast – Traci Lords, Gabrielle Anwar, Frank Whalley – as they uncover the capsule in an old barn, which contains a skeleton.  When they try to leave, they keep looping back to the same place.  A glimpse of a young girl leads them to a large abandoned house.  We know they’re in trouble when one of them falls and breaks his leg, although how he could have done so much damage falling down one step is a puzzle.  Shortly after that, they’re all trapped in the house, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside.  The obvious theory is that they killed or were in some way responsible for the death of the young girl whose skeleton is in the box, and they must somehow resolve this issue.  They’d better hurry, because one of them dies very quickly when a window falls on his neck.  They decide to make coffee in the large kitchen of a building which was condemned supposedly many years in the past but which has two large, modern microwaves.  One of the women knows where all the utensils are, suggesting she’s been there before, although she claims otherwise. Then others start to exhibit familiarity they cannot explain. Eventually we discover that they were all part of a secret scientific experiment as children, as was the elusive girl they occasionally spot in the distance.  I was a bit put off by how passive they are.  None of them makes any attempt to break a window or force a door, even when the next victim is found torn apart. The way they decide to resolve the situation seems like a leap of logic to me, but it wasn’t totally unbelievable.  Other than these few rough spots, I thought this was pretty good up until the ending, which it not only vague but suggests that there was never any way for any of them to escape. The washed out colors didn’t help.  I suppose they were meant to provide atmosphere as well as keep costs down, but I just found it visually unappealing.  5/17/08

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Season One (1964-1965) 

Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuriatkin (David McCallum) work for U.N.C.L.E., an organization engaged in battle with the sinister THRUSH.  The show was a serious spy story, at least for the first season, and the opening episode, “The Vulcan Affair”, has Solo and a civilian woman attempted to prevent the assassination of a foreign diplomat.  Lots of action, good performances by all, and a nice twist at the end.  This was later extended into a movie as To Trap a Spy.  Illya has only a cameo this time and I believe he was not intended to be Solo’s partner at first.  The second episode is “The Iowa Scuba Affair”, which has Solo and Kuriatkin both in the credits, but Solo is working together again.  The actors speak directly to the audience in the opening credits, establishing the context for the show.  This time it’s more foreign agents spying on a secret Air Force installation.  Both these episodes feature surprisingly competent and brave female characters, unusual for the 1960s.  “The Quadripartite Affair” has a great cast, including Anne Francis, Jill Ireland, and John Van Dreelen.  Four people are involved in running an international conspiracy to gain power through use of a gas which makes people irrationally frightened.  It was the first to use McCallum.  A box of chocolates that sprays gas is a nice touch.  Three straight good episodes.  Good start for a new show. 

“The Shark Affair” also has a great guest cast, Sue Ann Langdon and Robert Culp, the latter playing a modern day pirate.  Solo’s ahead-of-its-time cell phone is neat.  Culp is actually a survivalist with a contemporary version of the ark, convinced a nuclear war is imminent.  It’s a kind of retelling of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Not nearly as good as the previous episodes.  Neither is “The Deadly Games Affair”, which featured a female Thrush agent who was totally inept and a story line that includes Adolf Hitler in suspended animation. 

"The Green Opal Affair" casts Carroll O'Connor as a Thrush operative who is brainwashing people into absolute obedience.  It felt very much like a James Bond story.  Jill Ireland and Anne Francis reprise their roles since the villainous Francis escaped in her first outing.  Not this time in a well crafted story of plots and counterplots in South America.  A Thrush agent is surgically altered to replace Solo in an attempt to steal a superweapon in "The Double Affair", which isn't bad other than the hokey science and the really bad painted cave backdrop.  "The Project Strigas Affair" has an amusing casting twist.  William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are both among them.  Shatner is an exterminator recruited to help destroy the reputation of a nasty foreign diplomat who is assisted by Nimoy.  Solo and a young boy get caught up in a dangerous search for a drug that accelerates the aging process in the okay but unexceptional "The Finny Foot Affair". 

"The Neptune Affair" is an average quality episode about a group trying to precipitate an international conflict, but "The Dove Affair" is an excellent installment starring Ricardo Montalban and June Lockhart, with Solo trying to smuggle information out of a foreign country, opposed by the villainous agents of Thrush and a not entirely sympathetic local spy.  "The King of Knaves Affair" is rather silly, a would-be king with a small army wants to buy some black market uranium.  I didn't care for "The Terbuf Affair" at all, a routine and implausible story about smuggling a spy out of a foreign country.  "The Deadly Decoy Affair" was much better, with our heroes escorting a high ranking Thrush prisoner cross country.   

In "The Fiddlesticks Affair" Solo and Kuriatkin arrange a break in to destroy a secret Thrush treasury underneath a casino.  It's a heist story, obviously, and not a bad one, though I didn't care for the female lead this time.  An Uncle agent transporting an experimental device is murdered in flight and the plane crashes in “The Yellow Scarf Affair”.  Solo arrives to investigate and discovers another man doing the same thing.  It turns out that a revival of the Thuggee cult is responsible.  Above average episode.  Next up was “The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”.   Thrush has managed to get an explosive conference table into Uncle headquarters in time for a major conference, assisted by a traitor within Uncle, but there’s another party at work as well, a fascinating, amusing man who puts fish in the water lines, walks through detection systems without setting off alarms, and flies toy planes through security fields.  My favorite episode so far, but the next one, despite some good moments, was pretty flat.  It was obvious from the outset that Solo’s old friend was a crook who faked his own death in “The Secret Sceptre Affair.” 

“The Bow Wow Affair” is fairly routine.  A group of criminals turn dogs against their owners to coerce them into selling their stock.  An Uncle agent is killed and Solo lured into a deadly trap in “The Four Steps Affair”, an okay but undistinguished installment.  Next up was “The See Paris and Die Affair.”  Two men steal a horde of diamonds and Uncle and Thrush battle for control.  Good episode.  Military secrets are being sold in Hong Kong in “The Hong Kong Shilling Affair,” until disrupted by our two heroes and an American tourist who thinks it’s a great game.  Another good episode although some of the acting is below par.  “The Never-Never Affair” is much better.  Solo sends one of the staff on a bogus mission that turns out to be real when she takes a list of Thrush agents with her.  She and Solo and Illya play tag with a host of enemy agents led by Cesar Romero.  A nice blend of humor and action. 

“The Love Affair” has Thrush working on a secret project to orbit a satellite, under cover of a religious cult led by Eddie Albert.  “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair” is another very good one with George Sanders and Jeannette Nolan as the rather dotty villains who plan the downfall of Uncle in a remote English village. Uncle and Thrush contend for a formula that allows one to recover from fatal wounds in record time in “The Girls of Nazarone”, but there’s a flaw.  Those who recover become hyperactive and die anyway.  Nicely done.  Sharon Tate has a small role.  The final episode from the first season was “The Odd Man Affair”.   A file clerk who wants to be an operative “helps” Solo and Illya trap down an international terrorist.  This was also pretty good.  The first season ended with several above average episodes. 5/16/08

Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936) 

Charlie is back, investigating a man missing after the ship upon which he was traveling sinks in a storm.  To start with, he has to show up a fake medium, which he does with the assistance of a comic relief butler afraid of the supernatural.  The missing man shows up, recently murdered, during a séance.  The family all had reason to want him dead, as did one of the retainers.  The police suspect the fake psychics, but Charlie isn’t convinced that they’re right, so of course they aren’t. This one even has a climax with all the suspects gathered together, but once again I figured out who the killer was well in advance.  It’s a shame no one is doing this kind of classic mystery story any more. 5/15/08

Lake Dead (2007) 

Three sisters inherit a run down motel from a grandfather they never knew they had, and whom we know was killed by the local sheriff.  The first sister goes up to inspect the property – somehow managing to get in even though she has no key and no one meets her.  She’s attacked shortly after arriving, then drowned in the lake.  No surprise.  Sister number two and her husband have a lengthy, and functionless, sex scene before setting out with sister three and some friends.  Most of them are going to be dead soon, of course, and we know they deserve it because they smoke pot, drink beer in the morning, are horny, unlikable, and they speak in dreadfully bad dialogue.  There’s an absolutely terrible scene in which one of the men loses his wallet while swimming – do people actually swim with their wallets? – and then dives down with his eyes closed to find it right next to the dead body.  An even stupider scene follows in which one of the young women takes off her clothes to seduce the guy she barely knows.  And since we know the police are involved, when the group is attacked and goes for help, that’s not going to help.  Yes, this is a just a rehash of the Texas Chainsaw movies, with even less style.  The acting’s not so hot either.  I tried to think of something good to say about this one, but came up with nothing. The acting and dialogue actually get worse toward the end and we even have the twisted ankle while fleeing cliché.  And they escaping trio actually run along the roadway rather than staying out of sight! 5/14/08

Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) 

Warner Oland proves that he can’t sing in the opening scenes of this one.  The local authorities stage a banquet to honor Charlie Chan’s visit to Shanghai, but things don’t go exactly as planned.  One of the speaker’s is killed by a booby trap in the middle of his speech. When he investigates, he gets tricked into captivity through a clever ploy by the bad guys.  Number one son – Keye Luke – proves to be competent in a tight spot in this one, a quality he was to be denied in later movies.  There’s a smuggling ring to be uncovered, and an American agent who is partnered with Chan until late in the movie.  I kind of suspected the surprise ending, but it was nicely done.  The Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies were generally quite good as mysteries, much better than most of the similar series then, and later for that matter. 5/13/08

Black Sheep (2006) 

A mad scientist, actually a mad sheep farmer, turns his flock into flesh eating mutants who threaten to overrun all of New Zealand in this comic horror thriller that mixes zombies and wool.  One of two brothers returns to the farm after many years absence, prey to a terrible phobia about sheep, to be reunited with his brother, who clearly isn’t playing with a full deck.  A pair of comical animal rights activists are there as well, hoping to clandestinely liberate the enslaved flock.  One of them gets bitten by the prototype mutant sheep, and he starts craving raw, fresh meat.  A ram gets bitten as well and the plague is spreading.  The humor is sometimes quite good, particularly the bits involving the female protestor.  At one point there’s a sheep driving a pick-up truck, so there’s no chance you’re going to take any of this seriously.  Chaos spreads with humans who survive the attack becoming half sheep themselves, including the villainous brother.  This is another case where the story overstayed its welcome.  It should have ended about ten minutes sooner than it did, but for the most part it’s good, if gory, fun. 5/12/08

All Monsters Attack/Godzilla’s Revenge (1969) 

Although this is in some ways the most sophisticated story in the Godzilla series, it isn’t one of my favorites.  It was designed for children and consists of two parallel stories.  In one, a small Japanese boy is having problems with bullies.  In the other, which the boy sees in his dreams, Godzilla is attempting to teach his son – a really silly looking creature – to stand up to the various other giant creatures on Monster Island.  By observing the eventual success of the giant lizard, the boy gains the courage to turn the tables on his own tormentor.  The double title above relates to the two versions on this dvd, the original Japanese and the variation for the US market.  Both are provided.  5/12/08

Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) 

Not surprisingly, this installment in the series involves the theft of antiquities in Egypt.  Charlie shows up at an archaeological site when some of the items unearthed there are illegally sold to European collectors.  The head of the project is missing, until his body turns up inside a supposedly sealed mummy case in one of the best scenes in the entire series of movies.  His assistant then admits to having sold some of the artifacts clandestinely in order to provide funds to continue the expedition.  Although the dead man was shot, a doctor indicates that the wound is an old one and not responsible for the man’s death.  It was actually our old friend the blunt object that did him in. His son is convinced that it is a consequence of an ancient curse, a theory Chan dismisses out of hand.  Stepin Fetchit plays the clown as someone attempts to reinforce the idea that something supernatural is afoot.  There are secret passageways and other discoveries to be made before the very human killer is revealed.  I liked this one a lot. 5/11/08

Unearthed (2007) 

Badly rendered CGI monsters mar what would otherwise be an okay monster movie.  A small town is cut off from the outside world when something attacks a tanker and blocks one road out.  The other is open but there is no gas in town so no one who comes in can leave.  The female sheriff is an alcoholic facing dismissal after accidentally killing a little girl.  We get introduced to several other characters, most of them quite ably portrayed, as a couple of others get carried off by unseen creatures.  Fortunately they stay mostly out of sight so our imaginations can fill in.  The creature bears a noticeable resemblance to the Aliens movies and seems equally unkillable.  Naturally the sheriff redeems herself during the emergency.  Predictably, most of the movie takes place at night so that we can’t see  much.  Most of the characters are killed before we have a chance to like or dislike them, so there’s little emotional impact. There’s a subplot about Native American legends, evidence that the creature is an extraterrestrial recently revived from hibernation, and a few other distractions, but much of the movie moves slowly after the initial attacks and the subplots become more annoying than helpful.  The latter part of the movie descends into the old habit of substituting gore for actual suspense or terror, with dismembered and mutilated bodies all over the place.  Above average for direct to dvd, but largely because that average is so low to start with. Since it's an alien, I suppose this is SF rather than horror. 5/10/08

Charlie Chan in Paris  (1935) 

Chan arrives in France as part of a clandestine investigation, but receives a threatening message within the first few minutes. An obviously disguised derelict appears at the airport and later near a nightclub where Chan hopes to meet his contact, a young cafe dancer who is murdered by the same derelict during a performance and before she can talk to Chan, who nearly becomes the next victim. Number One Son, Keye Luke, is introduced in this one, but he's a competent assistant rather than the joke he would become later.  The Paris in the title was convenience more than anything else.  No one has a French accent, not even a bad one.  Chan is investigating a bond fraud connected to a major bank, threatening a potential panic if the news is made public, which explains why Chan won't inform the police.   The derelict, who is faking his need for crutches, keeps appearing while a crooked banker prepares to flee the country and then is killed – derelict again – while trying to recover incriminating love letters.  Naturally, that makes her chief suspect in the murder. Some of the mystery was diluted because I saw through the disguise at one point.  This is one of the best in the entire series, suspenseful and very well constructed. 5/9/08

Charlie Chan in London  (1934) 

Philip MacDonald, an excellent mystery novelist in his own right, provides the screenplay for this early Chan film, which stars a very young Ray Milland.  A condemned man relies on a sister and his best friend, Milland, to prove his innocence before he is executed.  Chan has only three days to solve the crime, which he starts by visiting the scene of the crime and recreating the incident, helped by the coincidental reunion of all parties concerned at just the right time.  Chan correctly interprets the evidence as circumstantial and dismisses it.  "No time to expose lies.  Must expose truth."  An unruly horse and a nosy groom prove instrumental to answering the various questions. Then the groom is murdered, presumably to keep him from talking to Chan, his death arranged to look like a suicide.  A good mystery with a logical solution that follows logically from Chan's investigation. 5/8/08

I Am Legend (2007)

This is at least the fourth movie version of Richard Matheson’s classic novel, and probably the least loyal to the original.  Scientists trying to find a virus that will eliminate cancer make a big mistake.  Three years later most of the population is dead, and those that aren’t have been transformed.  Will Smith is unaffected and lives alone with his dog in the ruins of Manhattan. That seems a pretty short time frame to have herds of deer in the city, but it does make for an interesting visual effect.  There are also lions, presumably from a zoo. He has a house with generators for power, lots of food, arms, and he keeps up a semblance of normal life.  During the day.  At dusk, he has to shutter the windows and lock the doors, because he’s not really alone after all.  In Matheson’s novel, everyone else was a vampire.  After dark, the mutants are out, though we don’t see them for a while.  Smith is a virologist who knows that the secret of immunity is in his blood, but how can he make use of it?  Particularly since it’s not clear that he is entirely sane. It also occurred to me to wonder about the dog, deer, and lions since other animals do not appear to be immune, but later we’re told that drugs are immune to airborne but not contact infection.  He thinks the mutants have lost all intelligence, until the day he is caught in one of their deadfalls.  That costs the life of his dog and leaves him really alone. The CGI isn’t bad, Smith does a good job, and the basic plot is so compelling that it overcomes most of the minor implausibilities.  Crazed, he indulges in a suicidal attack but is rescued at the last moment by an apparently normal woman and a young boy. She insists that God told her there is a colony of survivors in Vermont.  Almost equally illogical is Smith’s insistence that no one else survived, other than the three of them.  I didn’t think much of the ending either but it was a fun ride getting there.  5/7/08

The Black Camel  (1931 ) 

This is the oldest surviving Charlie Chan movie, and one of the few actually based on the books.  A movie crew is in Honolulu, and the star has fallen in love with a man she's just met, which interferes with the film's progress.  Bela Lugosi is a fake spiritualist about whom Charlie Chan is suspicious.  This is early enough that the actors overdo the emotions visually, but the script is a good one.  The bedazzled actress is afraid that her involvement in an unsolved murder might pose an obstacle to marrying her new love, a fear which Lugosi is taking advantage of.  Various people aren't who they seem to be.  Chan's family makes a brief appearance but the comic relief is provided primarily by an inept police officer. Not nearly as good as the book although it's not bad at all for a mystery movies of this era. 5/6/08

Infested (2002) 

I actually got this movie for free so I suppose I shouldn’t have expected much, and it’s subtitled “Invasion of the Killer Bugs”, so I pretty much knew what the story was going to be about.  It has a competent cast with lots of previous credits, but the only two I recognized were Zach Galligan and Amy Jo Johnson.  The bug who flies through the opening credits/scenes is a cute touch.  A group of childhood friends reunite following the funeral of an old acquaintance and decide to spend the weekend at a remote cabin.  The cabin, unfortunately, is home to a swarm of deadly mutant flies!  Really bad special effects detract from story, but essentially the flies get inside people and instantly turn them into killing machines.  One of them literally gets his head torn off and continues to function in what is obviously meant to be really dark humor.  The humor actually works better than the horror as the story progresses.   The rules about how the flies can take you over change a lot, but by halfway through I was more interested in the jokes than the story.  For free, I got my money’s worth. 5/5/08

Day of the Dead (2007) 

This is a supposed remake of my least favorite of the original George Romero zombie movies.  The plot, however, is so dissimilar that it is just another zombie movie with no real correspondence to the original. The story is set at the beginning of the outbreak, and it's a conventional plague rather than caused by being bitten by another zombie.  A small Colorado town is quarantined but none of the residents know why.  We catch brief glimpses, including a teenaged girl chased through the woods and carried off, but little else in the opening sequences.  The quarantine troops aren't wearing any respirators or masks, however, which doesn't make sense if they know there's a problem. The onset of the symptoms isn't entirely consistent, but they're effectively gruesome.  These zombies are agile and fast, not shambling. In short order, we have two small groups of survivors trying to avoid the zombies.  Not tremendously plausible but action packed. 5/4/08

Doctor Who: Timelash (1985) 

Colin Baker was the least successful of the Doctor Whos, in part because the stories weren't very good.  In this one, the Doctor and Peri arrive on the planet Karfel, which has been taken over by the Borad, an alien creature, who makes use of a time tunnel that links that planet to H.G. Wells.  The Doctor is coerced into searching through time for a lost amulet in order to save Peri's life, but she is helped by the rebels including a descendant of Jo Grant, who visited with the Doctor in an episode never actually written.  There are the usual plot shortcuts, e.g. the Karfelians speak English.  Peri, not one of my favorite companions, spends most of her time yelling for help. The costuming, never great, is particularly bad this time. The Borad wants to wipe out all life on the planet except for himself and the Morlocks, underground creatures, so he tries to precipitate an interplanetary war.  The closing scenes are rather silly.  Definitely not one of the better episodes. 5/3/08

Hitman (2007)

Another movie based on a computer game. The Hitman is a specially trained killer – and despite the blurb that says he's genetically engineered, that's false since all in his group were chosen after they were already born – who is hired to assassinate the President or Russia. He succeeds, only to discover that a duplicate has taken the dead man's place, part of a conspiracy, and that the hitman himself is now the target of a murder plot. Various convolutions follow although it's mostly a straight series of murderous encounters – he kills more than fifty people during the course of the film. The action is impressively staged and rather explicit, and there's a ghost of an interesting relationship between the asexual killer and the young Russian woman who becomes his companion, but there really isn't a lot of story in this one. Some of the actors looked so similar that I had occasional trouble figuring out what was going on. Not bad, but not going on my favorites list either. One plot flaw, also. They make it a big deal that the first assassination must be public, but logic suggests that it would be easier to make the substitution if the victim had been killed in private. 5/2/08

South Park Season 10 (2006)

This season opens with the famous death of Chef episode, after Isaac Hayes left the show, supposedly annoyed by the spoof of scientology. It's obviously a grudge show, but funny at times. Then comes "Smug Alert", much better, about Kyle's father becoming an ecofreak and moving out of South Park. The smugness becomes a weather front and creates a devastating storm of smugness. Very biting satire in this one. "The Cartoon Wars" is a two parter about The Family Guy trying to show an image of Mohammed. The point is doubly emphasized by the fact that the Comedy Network would not allow South Park to do so either. One of the best episodes, followed by one of the least interesting ones, a swipe at Oprah Winfrey's selection of the hoax autobiography for her book club. Good target, poor execution. Not very funny at all.

"Manbearpig" is a mildly funny sendup of Al Gore's campaign against global warming, but "TSST" is another excellent episode. Cartman's mother is desperate to control his behavior and after several specialists fail, she brings in a dog trainer. There's a surprisingly sophisticated story in this one. "Make Love Not Warcraft" is another very good one, with the boys teaming up to defeat a virtual reality game player who has found a way to break the rules. "Mystery of the Urinal Deuce" pokes fun at 911 conspiracies and "" does the same for teacher-student love affairs. Both are pretty good. "Hell on Earth 2006" and "Stanley's Cup" are both fair but unexceptional. The second two parter, "Go God Go", in which Cartman wakes up 500 years in the future, is very good. I'd say as a whole this was a slightly above average season.

Mr. Lucky (1959)

When I was a kid, I watched this show devotedly for the short time that it was on. John Vivyan, whom I liked a lot, was the title character, owner of a gambling boat that later became just a restaurant because of protests about the show’s supposed immortality. Ross Martin was his assistant. The music was written by Henry Mancini, who also did Peter Gunn. I rewatched these recently in no particular order with mixed results. The first I saw was “Stacked Deck”, which guest starred Yvette Mimieux who is hiding on the boat to avoid a psychopathic beatnik serial killer who calls everyone a square and goes around uttering lines like “I get by on nothing but cosmic vibrations.” Most of the episode is the three of them being chased and menaced by the psycho, who takes his time about shooting them with predictable results. Corny but except for the killer, the acting is great. “Magnificent Bribe” is a much better episode in which Lucky and sidekick Andamo have to escape when they become involved in the assassination of a despotic ruler. The interplay between the two is particularly effective this time. The next two episodes are just okay, one in which a parolee resists committing a murder ordered by his sponsor, with help from Mr. Lucky, and another in which marked cards show up at a private club and Lucky discovers their source.
 

“Cold Deck” and “” both involved organized crime. In the first, a hoodlum is trying to force Lucky to sell his boat so that it can be used as part of an illegal smuggling operation. In the second, a gambler being pressured by the mob tries to have Lucky killed. Both are very good episodes, and Pippa Scott and Joy Lansing both stand out, Scott as Lucky’s girlfriend, Lansing as femme fatale. There’s another woman in peril in “Taking a Chance”, an actress who is the target of an extortion plot. The explanation doesn’t work very well, but the dialogue is at its best in this one. It took some tight writing to get an entire mystery into about 22 minutes of air time. The sequence at the carnival is also nicely done. “Taxman” is a solid episode about a crooked businessman who frames Lucky in order to cover up his own tax cheating. “That Stands for Pool” is one of the best episodes. Lucky gets caught between murderous gangsters who variously want him to win or lose a pool game.

“Little Gray Home” is cute, opening with a prison sequence in which we think the prisoner is about to be executed but instead is being released. He asks Lucky to get him back into prison, which unpredictable consequences. “The Gordon Caper” is a good episode about blackmail and murder, written by Gene Coon who would later work on Star Trek, but “Hijacked” is a less interesting one about a mobster who has it in for Lucky. “Vote the Bullet”, in which Lucky runs for city council to foil a mob boss, is very unrealistic, one of the weakest episodes. A crooked charity organizer fails to outwit Lucky in the okay but unmemorable “Sour Milk Fund.”\
The next two episodes are quite good. Two gangsters bet on whether or not Lucky will survive the next few days in "Bet Your Life" and Gene Coon provides his rendition of "The Ransom of Red Chief" with a spoiled, beatnik girl who thinks it's groovy to be a kidnap victim as long as she gets her pizza. "Maiden Voyage" is pretty minor. Lucky foils an attempt to hijack his boat. "Maggie the Witness" has a silly premise. Lucky's girlfriend witnesses a mob hit and goes into hiding, except that given the circumstances, the killers would have eliminated her right at the outset. The episode is played mostly for laughs, though. "Stowaway" is also played for laughs, and quite well. A small time crook is followed to Lucky's ship by three mobsters and his wife for a convoluted game of hide and seek. Lucky is framed for a crime he didn't commit in "The Big Squeeze" and has to rescue a kidnapped Andamo while proving his innocence.

"They Shall Not Pass" is the origin story, explaining how Lucky meets his girlfriend and acquires the gambling ship, foiling a local mobster in the process. "Dangerous Lady" is a very good episode in which a scheming woman and more thugs make life difficult for Lucky. In the last few episodes, Lucky foils a crooked boxing promoter, a plot to smuggle counterfeit money, rescues Maggie from kidnappers, . All in all, this was one of the best shows of its time, which probably explains why it only lasted one season. Most of the best episodes were written by Gene Coon. 4/30/08

Alien vs Predator Requiem (2007)

I heard very mixed reviews about this second attempt to fuse the two movie franchises.  The opening sequences aren't bad, reasonably good special effects aboard a Predator starship on which an alien escapes, precipitating a crash landing on Earth.  A father and son happen upon the wreck, and are promptly victims of face huggers.  Meanwhile, another predator receives news of the disaster and sets off for Earth to correct the problem. That's the first part of the setup.  The second part involves introducing heroes and victims to come as a bunch of face huggers reach the outskirts of a small town.  These include a young convict recently released, his younger brother, a group of three thuggish teens, a pretty girl, a female soldier home on leave, and a youngish police officer.  We can pretty much guess who's going to live and die, although there was one that surprised me.  Other than the fact that much of it was too dark, literally, I though this was a surprisingly good action piece, though not up to the quality of the two original series.  The special effects are reasonably good, though often too dark to see clearly, presumably a budgetary consideration.  The soundtrack isn't great.  4/19/08

Mulberry Street (2007)

The first I've seen of the new batch of After Dark Horrorfest films. These are low budget horror films which are not, contrary to the promotional material, obscure because they're too explicit for general audiences.  On the other hand, the quality of the first eight was well above that of most direct to DVD horror films, although admittedly that's not a major accomplishment. The premise - nothing new - is that a new disease spreads through a major city, one which turns those infected into homicidal killers.  The focus is on a group of people who are facing eviction from a run down apartment building.  There's some interesting camera work but the color - probably deliberately - is generally washed out or heavily toned in some scenes, which is a device I rarely find appealing.  The opening scenes are very effective at building the situation slowly but surely toward what we all know is coming.  The infected actually grow pointed rat ears, whiskers, and snouts, an implausibility I could do without, and after a while the chases and fights began to feel repetitious.  Not bad, but not great.  4/18/08

King of the Wild (1931)

One of the earliest talking cliffhanger serials, this is a kind of variation of The Prisoner of Zenda.  Richard Grant is traveling in India when he is prevailed upon to impersonate a local aristocrat and complete a dangerous mission.  Unfortunately, he's betrayed by his partner and framed for the murder of the man he is replacing.  Some of the scenes look as though they were excerpted from earlier, silent movies. A year later, thanks to the timely intervention of a rogue lion, he escapes in North Africa.  There he gets involved in criminal efforts to steal a diamond mine, as well as meeting a hunter who has the missing link locked up in his hotel bedroom.  No kidding.  And that's just in the first of twelve installments. Throw in a secret agent, more murder, a falling out among thieves, escaped wild animals, a rough ocean voyage, impersonations, plots and counterplots, stir well. The acting still betrays the mannerisms and excesses of silent films, and the sets are cheap and sometimes unconvincing.  Not one of the better serials, although the plot is more interesting and complicated than in most that followed.

Pirates of the High Seas (1950) 

Buster Crabbe stars in this cliffhanger serial about modern day piracy, except that they’re not really pirates and they only operate along the rivers and coast, not on the high seas.  He’s the mildly misogynistic charter boat captain who is en route to a remote tropical island with a crew of passengers that includes at least one murderer, another who claims to be an agent of an international investigatory team looking for the fortune left by a Nazi war criminal, and the owner of the island.  One of the crew, identified as a former OSS agent, is murdered the first night out and Crabbe isn’t happy.  There’s another killing before we arrive and discover that at least two different groups are after the missing treasure.  One group has a motorboat that is also a submarine.  The usual hijink follow, fist fights, gun fights, chases on land and sea, planted microphones, prisoners killed before they can spill the beans, allies taken prisoner.  Then there’s the tribe of hostile natives on another island.  The sequence in which we discover that the natives worship a music box that plays “Three Blind Mice” is nicely done.  Halfway through, we have a recap episode, flashbacks retelling the entire first half of the story for those who came in partway through.  4/14/08

Chaos (2005)

 I was very impressed with Jason Statham in the Transporter movies (and there’s a third one coming!) so I’ve been watching for anything else with him in the cast.  This time he’s an experienced but disgraced police detective partnered with Ryan Philippe, a relative novice.  Wesley Snipes, whom I also like, is his opponent, a brilliant bank robber who gang has taken approximately forty hostages in a bank.  He escapes and a pattern begins to emerge.  The robberies aren’t designed to get money so much as to fulfill another purpose.  And Statham seems to be a person of particular interest to the villain.  Evidence emerges that another detective was working with the criminals.  Finding clues is difficult because the master criminal is systematically killing all of his accomplices.  The surprise ending was almost what I was expecting, but different enough to make me blink, although they did cheat a little by concealing who Wesley Snipes really was, which should have been obvious from the outset if they had played square. 4/13/08

30 Days of Night (2008)

 Vampires in books have become romantic figures and/or private detectives in recent years, but the movies still maintain the horrific image, although I imagine it’s only a matter of time until that changes too.  The premise is that vampires come to an Alaskan town just as it enters a period of thirty days without sunlight.  The early shots of the countryside are spectacular. The tension starts with a slaughter of the sled dogs.  Then people start dying.  The first few of these scenes are effectively creepy.  We don’t see much of the vampires, but they’re fast, strong, and they don’t need to be invited in.  Josh Hartnett is the local policeman, in over his head when the phones and power are cut. Within a few minutes, most of the population is dead.  A handful of survivors make it to a hidden loft, but they can’t stay there for thirty days without food or water.  The odds are stacked pretty high against them, and their internal struggles and panic don’t help.  The last few attempt to shift to a new refuge under cover of a blizzard.  The encounter with the toddler vampire is pretty gruesome.  There seemed to be some inconsistency about how long it takes to transform once you’re bitten, and the rather disappointing ending hinges on this point.  Still really good, but the end game could have been better. 4/12/08

The Ruins (2008) 

I was so impressed by the novel this is based on that I ordered Scott Smith’s other novel before I even finished reading it.  I was looking forward to the movie, particularly when I heard that Smith did his own screenplay, and I was not disappointed in the slightest.  Mild spoilers here.  The story is about a group of American tourists who visit a remote ruin and are not allowed to leave the site once they arrive, hemmed in by Mayan villagers who threaten to kill them if they try to leave.  This is kind of a big spoiler here, although it’s obvious fairly early in the movie.  The vines covering the ruin are malevolent.  The form that malevolence takes is gruesome, clever, and quite well staged in the movie.  Some of the scenes are pretty difficult to watch even for one already jaded by slasher movies.  A few minor changes are added so that the viewer can figure out what’s going on without benefit of the author’s indirect revelations in the novel, but they are nicely done.  The acting is also quite good even though I didn’t recognize anyone in the cast.  Nice photography, nice special effects, nice acting, and a really good story.  Not for those weak of stomach, but it will be one of the more memorable movies you see this year. 4/11/08

Croc (2008) 

I didn’t expect much from this Jaws-with-feet clone, but in general I was very pleasantly surprised.  An oversized crocodile begins hunting people along the coast of Thailand.  This is interspersed with efforts by a contractor to illegally oust the owner of a crocodile park whose land he wants.  The park owner is a young man who gets romantically involved with the animal rights inspector who is being pressured to shut him down.  Most of the actors are apparently Thai, but their English is very good and most are acceptable if not spectacular actors.  The main characters, including hunter Michael Madsen, are quite good and the story itself, though not amazingly original, is competently laid out and developed.  One real treat is the photography, underwater and otherwise, which is consistently excellent and sometimes outstanding.  The special effects are quite good and the usual cheesy CGI is thankfully absent.  No world beater, obviously, but a solid little adventure story.  4/10/08

Doctor Who: The Time Warrior (1973) 

Jon Pertwee was my favorite Doctor Who, and generally I thought the episodes were better written during his years in that role.  Although I’m also fond of the Sontarans, this was not one of my favorite episodes.  It’s also the one in which his new companion, Sarah Jane Smith, is introduced, and she was one of my favorites in that capacity.  Lynx is a Sontaran warrior who is stranded in England during the Crusades.  He helps a local renegade noble in return for work to repair his ship.  In the present, the Doctor is part of a large scientific convocation when Smith, a journalist posing as a scientist, shows up.  Lynx kidnaps the scientists into the future and the Doctor, with Sarah Jane as a stowaway, go back to rescue them, foil Lynx, and prevent an alteration of human history.  The heavies are a bit too comically stupid to be believable and Lynx's robot warrior is so badly designed that it's comical.  Pertwee and Elizabeth Sladen are both good, but there's only so much you can do with a silly story.  4/9/08

The Cellar Door (2007)

I have to say up front that I would probably have passed this by if my son didn't have a small part in it.  The DVD has an undistinguished cover and looks to be a standard serial killer kidnaps beautiful girl story.  The early scenes make use of a lot of quick cuts and odd angles, which is often distracting but mostly seems to work here.  Weirdo James Dumont stalks Michelle Tomlinson, choosing her as his next victim.  Very quickly she ends up in a wooden cage in his basement.  Unfortunately, the set up leads to a rather static story as the two interact.  Dumont is creepy in an odd sort of way, and Tomlinson does an okay job as the victim, but the occasional dream sequences don't really provide any momentum, and the low pitched voices and almost inaudible soundtrack don't help either.  The dialogue is generally quite good but some physical action would have helped.

The story picks up a bit when Dumont is insulted by a rude store clerk and beats her to death in the parking lot.  The violence eventually begins to ratchet up when he kidnaps the victim's roommate and then is surprised by two door to door proselytizers - one of whom is related to me - who end up dead very quickly.  I could imagine the audience cheering this time because they were so obnoxious.  Victim eventually gets out of the cage and its retribution time, after more bloodshed.  Above average for this type of film, but the first half should have moved more quickly. 4/8/08

Jungle Menace (1937) 

Frank Buck stars as, surprise, a big game hunter and trapper in this story set in Malaya.  River pirates backed by western criminals are attacking riverboats while more circumspectly attempting to seize control of a plantation.  Except for the setting, this follows the pattern that would prevail throughout the serial period.  In fact, several of the incidents are directly mirrored in Tim Tyler’s Luck.  There’s the man shot just as he is about to reveal the name of the criminal mastermind, the comic relief servants, the traitor among the plantation staff, and the plot to turn a legitimate enterprise into a criminal front. Duncan Reynaldo, who was later the Cisco Kid, is the chief henchman working for the crooked businessman behind the plot.  Various characters are assaulted and whenever anyone learns anything, he is either killed, kidnapped, or too severely injured to talk.The acting varies from competent to dreadful.  The heroes correctly conclude that the bogus doctor is lying, but they were pretty gullible to believe him in the first place. Buck gets several chances to work with jungle cats, which figures given his non-acting profession.  Some of the shooting locations are interesting as well, but only early in the story.  After that it looks like mostly studio shots.  It's okay in parts but stays in a rut  most of the time.  4/7/08

Godzilla: Tokyo SOS (2003)

Another Japanese rubber suit extravaganza, and was also made after the film makers decided to make Godzilla bad again.  The government is rebuilding Mechagodzilla, who started bad and is now good, but they ignore a warning from the psychic twins linked to Mothra to discontinue the project.  Then Godzilla reappears intent upon destroying Tokyo, again, and it appears that Mothra is on his side this time, although he went from being mildly bad to good a while back.  It’s not exactly a continuity problem, because obviously no one cared. Mothra is upset because they’re using Godzilla’s bones to build Mechagodzilla, which is odd since Godzilla appears intact.  Mothra changes sides to defend Tokyo in the last part of the movie.  This is actually the most visually impressive of all the Godzilla movies I’ve seen, particularly some of the sequences of Mothra.  The plot doesn’t bear close analysis, but then that’s true of virtually all of the series. 4/6/08

Tim Tyler’s Luck (1937)

 This is one of the best of the cliff hanger serials.  Tim Tyler is a young boy who stows away aboard a riverboat in Africa in order to search for his missing father.  He and a female passenger are the only ones to survive when pirates massacre everyone aboard the ship.  They get involved in a battle between a gang of crooks and the local peacekeepers, a kind of English foreign legion.  The chief villain is Spider Webb, who has stolen Tim’s father’s armored jungle vehicle.  There are some great chase sequences, some of them three way, and lots of stock jungle footage.  The kid playing the father is the author of nine novels and collections of stories about Sherlock Holmes. There’s also a great soundtrack. There are lots of jungle thrills – hungry lions, a band of malevolent gorillas who ambush convoys, falls from cliffs, and such.  Tim helps a wounded black panther, which shows up periodically to rescue him.  Then it turns out his father is still alive and knows the location of the elephants’ graveyard.   Webb wants the ivory to be found there and holds father and son captive to extract the information.  Chases, captures, and escapes follow.  One rescue is achieved because Tim’s dad speaks gorilla.  There’s also a rampaging elephant that turns friendly, a turncoat among the bad guys, a turncoat among the good guys, and almost none of the fistfights that usually dominate serials.  If you were going to watch only one, this would be a good choice. 4/5/08

Bug (2006)

Another movie that I knew nothing about until I popped it into the DVD player.  Ashley Judd is a waitress trying to get away from the ex-husband who used to beat her.  He shows up briefly, as well as a very strange man who believes in a whole array of conspiracy theories, mostly that the government is spying on all of us all the time.  She and the oddball end up in bed together and he gets bitten by a bug so small she can’t even see it.  There’s good dialogue between the two, which partially makes up for how slowly things develop.  The story is about paranoia and although it was listed as a horror film when I bought it, that’s really not the case.   Good performances but a story that begins to drag once it's obvious where it's going.  This is one of those movies I’m glad I watched once, but will almost certainly never look at again. 4/4/08

The Mysterians (1957)   

This is one of my three favorite corny Japanese SF movies, second only to Battle in Outer Space, which has never been released on DVD and which, I have been told, no longer exists in the English language version because the film deteriorated too badly to be restored.  (The third of my favorites, incidentally, is Rodan.)  The story opens with a scientist breaking off his engagement for mysterious reasons.  Then a strange forest fire breaks out, followed by a major landslide, and finally an attack by a giant robot with laser eyes that vaguely resembles Godzilla. Much of the dialogue is bad, but it’s impossible to tell whether the story made more sense in the original Japanese.  Probably did.  As it is, we have scientists observing that “there are some small stars between Mars and Jupiter” which turn out to be the remains of the planet Mysterion.  The special effects are above average for the period.  The landslide is done well,  as is the robot attack, and the flood generated by the Mysterians during the final battle.  I also always liked the music they used for this and Battle in Outer Space

The robot is destroyed but then spaceships are seen emerging from the dark side of the moon.  Somehow they secretly reach Earth, a lake in Japan that scientists suspect is their site because all the fish die.  The Mysterians then appear in a giant dome that emerges from the Earth and announce that they come in peace.  I didn’t believe them for a second. Then they decide to kidnap human women as breeding stock, which leads to an unsuccessful military assault intended to drive them off Earth.  Scientists regroup and begin creating a heat ray, knowing that the Mysterians prefer a colder climate.  The reluctant bridegroom reveals himself to be in league with the aliens because of a misguided belief that they will save humanity from itself.  There’s another big, spectacular battle, the turncoat sees the error of his ways and dies, and humans win in the end.  Not very well written, obviously, but fun. 4/3/08 

Justice League: The New Frontier soundtrack, composed by Kevin Manthei, La La Land Records, 2008 

Apparently there’s a full length Justice League animated movie out there that escaped my notice, although I’m not a big fan of animation in any case and certainly wouldn’t have paid money to see this one.  The soundtrack isn’t bad, although it suffers from the usual problems of soundtracks, the sound tailored to match visual images that we can’t see rather than constructed as separate musical experiences.  I miss the days when Henry Mancini movie soundtracks were often as good or better than the movies.  Anyway, this one works fairly well in what I believe are the action sequences, but not as well in the moody or atmospheric ones.  The theme is okay, and I would have guessed it to be a superhero movie even if I hadn’t known.  The other tracks I thought were better than average were “The Flash Saves Las Vegas,” “Driving to Ferris,” “J’onzz Contemplates,” and “Thick of Battle.”    4/3/08

Blood and Chocolate (2007) 

I read the novel this is based on a while back but I had no recollection of the plot while I was watching it.  I don’t know if that’s because the plot is changed or because so many werewolf novels are pretty much the same.  The heroine is a werewolf who resents the rules imposed on her kind.  So do a number of younger males.  The alpha male, however, wants her to be his new mate.  There’s an interesting variation of the transformation scene during an early mass hunt, but more for its novelty than its visual impact. Alpha male’s son is also hunting contrary to the rules of the pack, but Daddy doesn’t know, or want to know.  Werewolf girl gets romantically involved with a human boy, Alpha Junior gets pissed and tells Alpha Senior who decides to have his son eliminate the threat.  Surprise.  The human uses silver and kills Junior, but the pack finds out and takes him capture. The pack members other than the girl are so unrelentingly nasty and mean spirited that there was no depth to the conflict.  Okay, but unmemorable.  4/2/08

Babylon 5: The Lost Tales (2007)  

Two new episodes of the popular television series, which unfortunately fall short of evoking the flavor of the original despite the use of characters from the original show.  The small cast fails to suggest the bustling life of the station, the sets are minimal, although the scripts aren’t bad. In the first episode, Tracy Scoggins – now commander of the station – calls in a priest to perform an exorcism when a crew member is possessed and other signs suggest a demonic presence.  The crew member claims to be Asmodeus, a disembodied demon exiled to this particular region of space, and now trapped in human form.  I figured this was some kind of elaborate hoax designed to reawaken interest in the church, but it turns out that it’s a plot by genuine demons to escape Earth into outer space.  Boxleitner returns as Sheridan in the second story, having been President of the alliance for ten years.  Also low budget, with token appearances of a few of the alien species that brought the show to life.  A technomage tells Sheridan he will have to kill a young Centauri noble to prevent him from destroying the Earth thirty years in the future.  The Centauri is an obnoxious twit so we don’t have much sympathy for him. It’s the old question of whether you would kill a young Hitler to prevent World War II.  (The answer to that question is that it probably would NOT stop World War II.)  The intention is good but the inner dialogue Sheridan struggles with is unconvincing.  The special effects are good throughout, but this still didn’t measure up to the original. 4/1/08

Philo Vance Returns (1947)

Philo Vance’s Gamble (1947) 

The last two Philo Vance movies are barely recognizable as such, and barely watchable as anything.  In the first, a rich playboy type has his new fiancé murdered, after which he dies, his will leaving most of his money to his four ex-wives, who would seem to be the prize suspects except that someone is killing them as well.  Vance does no detecting again, just wanders around until things fall into his lap.  At one point he finds a dead woman in a bathtub and concludes that she has been dead for a couple of days, but the soap bubbles still fill the tub.  There’s also an appalling ignorance about psychological terms.  One patient is scheduled to be institutionalized because she’s “neurotic”.  The acting is atrocious and the solution comes when the killer – who was obvious from the outset – is nice enough to drop a note confessing everything where Vance just happens to pick it up, although we have no hint of that until the final scene when he reveals all.  Bilge. 

The second one isn’t as nonsensical, but the acting is worse and the plotting only marginally better.  A con man claims that he has hired Vance to protect a valuable gem but the various investors are getting knocked off in rapid succession and Vance, trying to protect his good name, investigates and finally unmasks the killer.  Once again he solves the case through a sudden burst of revelation rather than by acting figuring anything out.  The last three in this series make me happy that they’re the last three in the series, although they are Philo Vance movies only by courtesy of naming their protagonist thus – even though he isn’t even remotely S.S. van Dine’s Philo Vance.  4/1/08

 

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