Last Update 4/30/07
Night at the Museum (2006)
I never quite found the time to go see this in the theaters although I wanted to. Possibly that's because I also sort of didn't want to. In my stacks of notes for novels I have yet to write is a brief outline of one set in a museum where the exhibits come to life at night, designed to be a humorous light fantasy. The previews of this present film convinced me that I'd probably never get to write the duel between the protagonist and the animated stegosaurus. So it goes. Anyway, I overcame my subliminal resistance at last and sat down to watch it and I'm glad I did. Ben Stiller's style of humor doesn't always work with me, but it's perfect this time. There's also an impressive cast of supporting actors including Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Anne Meara, Owen Wilson, and Robin Williams.
Stiller plays a divorced dad with an unsettled life and uncertain future who is feeling as though events are conspiring to drive him and his son apart. He somewhat reluctantly accepts a job as night watchman in a museum, unaware that the other guards share a secret they're not revealing to him. During his first night he discovers the truth and has to play fetch with a dinosaur, escape from Attila the Hun, survive being caught in a Civil War battlefield, avoid the hungry lions, and generally run for his life. Things get even worse when Dexter the monkey tears up his list of instructions.
Despite his initial intention to quit, he returns better prepared for the second night, but that ends in disaster as well and he is almost fired, setting up the climax for night number three. To prove himself to his son, he invites the boy to join him for the experience of his life. Unfortunately, the three ex-guards have stolen the magical talent responsible for the transformation and in the confusion, several of the animated exhibits escape from the museum. Stiller rallies the exhibits to defeat the villainous threesome and proves himself to his son. It's more than a little silly and the end is a bit too pat, but in general it's lots of fun, and the special effects are great. 4/30/07
Ice Age (2002)
Ice Age 2: Meltdown (2006)
I finally got around to watching these. In the original, a sloth and a mammoth attempt to return a human baby to his tribe, accompanied by a sabertooth tiger who intends to lure them to their deaths at the hands of his pack mates. Their tribulations bring them closer together despite their inherent differences and the villainous tiger finds his allegiances shifting as the trap is sprung. Excellent animation and a cute if obvious story. The little character with the acorn is my favorite. He’s back in the sequel, which follows the further adventures of our three friends as the Ice Age comes to an end. The melting ice is causing a flood and the inhabitants of a valley have to find high ground before they’re all drowned. The thaw is also releasing some carnivorous sea creatures with healthy appetites. Our mammoth friend finds a lady mammoth raised as a possum. Lots of fun and one great line when the friends first discover that the lady mammoth thinks she’s a possum. “The branches don’t go all the way to the top of her tree.” 4/29/07
Haeckel’s Tale (2006)
Another installment of the Masters of Horror cable television series, this one directed by John McNaughton from a story by Clive Barker. Haeckel is an 18th Century medical student who is fascinated by the supposed work of Victor Frankenstein but who has fallen short of restoring the dead to life. When he sees a traveling necromancer apparently bring a dead dog to life, he is torn between disbelief, curiosity, and hope, but the necromancer is not interested in explaining his secrets to the inquisitive, no matter what their motives.
When his father takes ill, he undertakes to walk home and shelters one night with a man and his oddly seductive wife. She disappears in the night and he follows, where he finds her having sex with the reanimated corpse of her dead lover. Lots of death and dismemberment follow but rather aimlessly, and the surprise that the baby is the son of the corpse rather than the living husband is no surprise at all. The resolution of the frame story is rather funny but doesn’t fit the tone of the rest, and it wanders off toward the end as well. Acutely disappointing. 4/28/07
"The Blackhawks! With no weapons but their strong fists and alert minds!"
Time for another cliffhanger serial, this one featuring aviators equipped with super-planes who venture out from their secret base to help people in distress. They are pitted against an organization of evil saboteurs commanded by a sinister woman, Laska. As the story opens, one of the Blackhawks is replaced by his evil twin brother, although the ruse doesn’t last long and the double fails to prevent them from heading off a major sabotage attempt against an industrial plant. Turnabout is fair play, and the good brother manages to infiltrate the gang. Both impersonations are painfully bad to watch.
Next a scientist is menaced.
“Is this the secret device that you’ve been secretly working on for the government?” “Yes, and somehow the secret has gotten out.”
It’s a raygun that fires a beam three times the speed of light and disintegrates whatever it is focused on. The saboteurs have been sending threatening messages so he calls the Blackhawks. Why the saboteurs would show their hand and give warning, and why the scientist doesn’t contact the government are two mysteries that are not solved. Much running around, wringing of hands, issuing of threats, and reckless driving follows. Eventually the Blackhawks are hit with the ray, but instead of blowing up, they just collapse with no breath or pulse. Later they revive, because the ray apparently just induced some kind of suspended animation. In order to save on sets, all of the gang’s hideouts are built exactly the same, supposedly so their captives won’t know which hideout they’ve been held at.
"These places all look the same inside."
"There must be a reason for that."The next plot involves an attempt to steal the secret of a fuel that never needs to be replenished – neat trick that one. There's a battle in an oil field that is surprisingly impressive visually, the first sign in the entire film that some actual money had been spent on sets and effects. On the other hand, the cartoon flying saucer weapon is downright silly. Chases and traps ensue. "There's some of that sabotage crowd!"
Then there's the airplane chase. The good guys are trailing Laska, but one of her henchmen leans out the cockpit window, fires two shots from his handgun, and not only hits but disables the Blackhawk plane, forcing it to land. Fortunately, they hitch a ride with no trouble. After more hijinks in Mexico, they return to the US for the action packed conclusion. Not one of the better serials. 4/27/07
Mr. Moto in Danger Island (1938)
Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939)
The Return of Mr. Moto (1965)
Danger Island, though it involves Moto, is based on a novel by someone named John Vandercook which presumably did not. Moto and a dimwitted professional wrestler defeat an attempt to kill Moto, who has arrived on Puerto Rico in the employ of diamond merchants who want to expose a ring of smugglers. There’s an entire room full of suspects when Moto tries to figure out how the gang learned of his arrival, after which he sets off to explore a “haunted” swamp. All the evidence points to the Chief of Police as a smuggler and killer, but we know he’s innocent because he has a beautiful daughter and he’s too obvious. Then Moto is framed as an impostor and has to go into hiding, but not all is what it appears. The comic sidekick could have been left out as far as I was concerned, but otherwise it’s a suspenseful thriller.
Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation was the last Moto film Lorre did. The outbreak of World War II made it impossible to continue with a Japanese hero even before Pearl Harbor. The title is an obvious misnomer as this time he is helping guard a priceless archaeological treasure recently unearthed in Egypt. A bumbling Englishman thwarted the first attempt to steal it, more through happenstance than planning, but the criminals aren’t discouraged so easily. There are too many jokes this time around, fatally diluting the tension of the central plot. A disappointing end to an otherwise fine series.
Mr. Moto returned for one last adventure in The Return of Mr. Moto, this time with Henry Silva playing the part of the oriental detective. The opening theme is reminiscent of James Bond, but that's about the only similarity. It's shot in black and white and involves a plot to influence the sale of oil in the Middle East. A lot of the shots look like television from the 1950s, and the acting is less than scintillating, as is the dialogue. "I dislike killing the wrong person. Professional pride." There's no attempt to make Silva look or sound Oriental, so he looks Puerto Rican.
Moto is dining with an old friend who is concerned about a burning oil well and who is the target of a grumpy assassin. When his friend is murdered in front of him, Moto doesn't take too kindly to the act, and when try to kill him as well - after one of the most tediously slow chases I've ever seen by some of the most incompetent hitmen I've ever seen - he tricks one into killing the other. The assassin then confers with his superiors in a comically inept conference that concludes with the urgent task of killing Moto, although there's no reason why they should do so. Moto neither saw nor heard anything which puts them at risk. On several occasions, there is an odd pause after one or another actor utters a line of dialogue, as though everyone concerned paused to contemplate just how inane the words really were.
There's another tediously slow pursuit and murder attempt, which Moto shrugs off almost without comment. If anything the dialogue gets progressive worse, particularly the first conversation between Moto and Lennox, an oil executive. This Moto doesn't know martial arts either, which leads to his being captured rather easily. He is tied and bagged and thrown into the ocean, after which we find that he has escaped somehow - we never find out how - but that he and the authorities are reporting him dead to lure out the bad guys. The movie stumbles rather than rushes toward its unconvincing conclusion. 4/26/07
Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938)
Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939)
Peter Lorre’s fifth outing as Mr. Moto starts with him helping a man escape from Devil’s Island, then impersonating a personal servant in order to get information about an international gang of criminals. He is trying to unmask the leader of the organization, while simultaneously protecting a businessman whose innovative steel process has made him a target of this organization. Unfortunately, the businessman suspects Moto’s identity and motives and won’t tell him everything. A car chase, bar fight, and a battle in a loft follow in one of the better entries in the series.
The sixth appeared as World War II was beginning, a development that would soon bring the series to an abrupt end. George Sanders, who would later be the Saint and the Falcon, appears along with John Carradine. Already political tensions were obvious. Foreign spies are hoping to sabotage elements of the French fleet and throw the blame on the British, but Moto is on the job. Sanders is the heavy who kidnaps and murders Moto’s associate, believing him to be Moto. A ventriloquist is head of the bad guys and Carradine is a British agent working undercover. Uncharacteristically, the villain has a gentler, better side, and several of the characters are portrayed with more depth than in previous installments in the series. 4/25/07
Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938)
Mr. Moto Takes a Chance (1938)
The first of these two titles was originally meant to be a Charlie Chan movie (Charlie Chan at Ringside), but it was rewritten when Warner Oland died. There is a very different feel to it, lighter, more inclined to be humorous and Keye Luke is clearly meant to be Charlie Chan’s son. Moto is in the US, teaching a course at the police academy, when he witnesses a boxing match in which one of the fighters dies under mysterious circumstances. The predictable byplay involving two rivals for the hand of the surviving fighter and the often ludicrous humor surrounding a kleptomaniac police detective detract from what might otherwise have been a reasonably good mystery, although I did figure out who was responsible even before Moto did.
In the second and much better film, Moto is posing as an archaeologist in a remote part of southeast Asia when a female aviator crash lands just in time to get involved in a murder, blamed on a television crew that films despite the objections of the high priest. Moto finds a poisoned dart but bides his time, then openly and also disguised as a mystic, he thwarts two plots, one by the high priest, one by the local ruler who wants to marry the aviatrix and overthrow French rule. There’s a nice touch when Moto’s carrier pigeon is served to him for dinner, message still attached. There’s a major battle with machineguns at the climax. The most violent of the series to date, which was itself much more inclined toward violent death than most of the rival mystery series of the 1930s and 1940s. 4/24/07
Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937)
Thank You, Mr. Moto (1937)
These were the first two of eight films to star Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, based on the novels by John P. Marquand. The first opens with a disguised Moto attempting to sell a stolen jewel to a shady shop keeper, an arrangement broken up by the intercession of a policeman. Undisguised he books passage on a luxury ship and gets trapped into attending a party being held for the son of the owner of the liner. A variety of subplots unfold aboard ship, including Moto’s awareness that one of the crew is a murderer, whom he throws overboard in retribution. The unsophisticated son of the magnate is romantically involved with a woman, who is apparently an agent for a crook. There’s a smuggling ring involved and attempts are made, unsuccessfully, to kill Moto. A lot happens in a rush at the end, but a fairly intricate story is well resolved.
There’s a fragmented treasure map leading to the hoarded wealth of Genghis Khan in the second. Moto is in Beijing, mixing with diplomats and spies, one of whom is particularly interested in the missing parts of the map, six scrolls held by an ancient Chinese family who refuse to part with them. When the importuning diplomat is found dead, the logical suspect is the impoverished Chinese aristocrat whom he was attempting to pressure, but it was actually Moto who killed him, to prevent a different murder. A crooked antiquities dealer (John Carradine) helped to steal the seventh scroll, but he is killed before Moto can get him to identify his employer. A nice bit of intrigue and Lorre is great in the part. 4/23/07
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Yes, I know I should have watched this one a long time ago, but I was oblivious when it first appeared and it slipped through the cracks afterward. The good side of that is that I bought the brand new DVD for a ridiculously low price. In a magical version of ancient China, a warrior plans to surrender the Green Destiny, the sword he has used in many past battles, in order to mark his break with a violent past. Chow Yun Fat plays the warrior and Michelle Yeoh his friend and partner in a quest to recover the sword when it is stolen. The thief is transparently the young noblewoman we have met shortly before, a frustrated romantic who is being forced into a marriage of convenience. She and Yeoh have one of those stylized, magical fight and flight scenes in which they defy time and gravity.
The plot thickens with the revelation that a famous thief and killer, Jade Fox, has been residing within the governor’s household, but a battle with her has unexpected results when the thief intervenes, using martial skills that suggest she has been trained by some unknown master. Michelle Yeoh uses a clever test to prove to herself that the bride-to-be is in fact the masked warrior. There is an extensive flashback in which we discover her relationship to a desert bandit, apparently her true love though their relationship is rather stormy. She disappears from her wedding chamber, apparently to be with him again and the two warriors set out to find her, in order to locate Jade Fox. Some wonderfully choreographed swordfights – one of my weaknesses – and an intricate and fascinating plot. 4/22/07
I’m not usually a big fan of animation. I hadn’t even watched an episode of South Park until last year and I still haven’t seen The Simpsons. Animation has changed so much over the past few years, however, that I’ve started watching selective films and great movies like Shrek and Monsters Inc. have gradually changed my attitude. And this one has robots, so how could I resist.
In a world of robots, a young couple decide to assemble a baby robot. “Twelve hours of labor but it was worth it.” The kid is a bit older by the time the credits are done, and the jokes have already come thick and fast already. The young robot is inspired by a business magnate, Big Weld, to become an inventor but his early efforts go predictably awry. In due course he travels to Robot City looking for a job and discovers that the image he remembers from childhood has changed to a closed system not interested in new ideas.
The plot doesn’t matter a whole lot. Big Weld has been supplanted by a young robot, directed by his devilish mother, who want to stop making replacement parts and force everyone to upgrade. Our young hero is instrumental in foiling the plot and bringing back Big Weld. The animation is great, of course, as we’ve come to expect, but the backgrounds and settings are a lot of the charm, detailed, crisp, inventive, and colorful. The frequent Star Wars references are also amusing. Voices by Mel Brooks, Halle Berry, Drew Carey, Amanda Bynes, and others. This is one you’ll want to watch more than once because there’s so much going on you can’t possibly see it all in a single sitting. Fun for kids of all ages, six to six hundred. 4/21/07
Terry and the Pirates Volume 4 (1952)
Four more light weight stories of intrigue and adventure. In “Chinese Coffin”, Terry is supposed to transport the coffin bearing the body of a prominent financier, but the man who arranged the shipment is a conman who says he wants the Dragon Lady to steal the coffin and ransom it back to the family. Terry smells a rat and eventually recovers the booty, which proves to hold no body at all, and exposes the con. In a nice touch, the man who was supposed to be in the coffin has a heart attack and ends up in it after all. “Deadly Species” anticipates the recent film, Snakes on a Plane. It’s another of the better episodes, with a murdered stowaway who turns out to be an undercover agent, missing crates, the Dragon Lady in another plot, captures and escapes and ultimately revelations.
Burma, a recurring character normally working as a night club performer, is investigating criminals and gets into trouble, so she stows away on Terry’s plane in “Extra Cargo”, while the Dragon Lady is in hot pursuit. There’s also an assassination attempt and an abduction, though the action is comparatively slow moving this time. Finally we have “The Maitland Affair”, which involves the theft of a cargo of contaminated rice and abduction of an inspector to allow its sale. The Dragon Lady comes across as admirable this time, repeating a recurring theme that she wasn’t as bad as she seemed, although at other times she seems indifferent to the taking of human life. All in all, this is the best of the four available selections from this show. 4/21/07
Captain Video (1951)
Captain Video is a superhero who lives in a kind of Fortress of Solitude, helped by a group of assistants called Video Rangers scattered around the world who function as his version of the Baker Street Irregulars. His super-scientific devices come in handy when he has to fight crime, or more dangerous menaces. One of the Rangers is being pursued by criminals working for Dr. Tobor (spell it backwards) who is plotting for world domination. Using scientific doubletalk at breakneck speed, Captain Video uses devices designed to eavesdrop on the conversations taking place in moving cards, a remote viewer, an x-ray spy device, and a jetmobile. All of this takes place in less than the first five minutes!
He eventually subdues one of the henchmen with his cosmic vibrator, an oversized hand weapon that hums. Still in the first installment, we see miniaturized radio transmitters, an electronic wave detector, a projector that remotely stops automobile engines, a cloak of invisibility, a paralysis ray gun, an electric ray weapon, a weather control device, matter transmission, and a few other gadgets. Tobor’s men try to rescue their captured companion, but Captain Video anticipates them. Meanwhile, someone is tampering with the weather, causing storms of unprecedented intensity. Captain Video traces the interference to Dr. Tobor’s laboratory and decides to confront him. “It is possible that these disturbances could be caused by forces from another planet.” An interesting leap of logic, but he’s right.
Tobor contacts Vultura, dictator of the planet Atoma, his secret ally who plans to conquer the Earth. Tobor boards the “interplanetary space projectile”, which is a bad cartoon when in flight. The scenes on planet Atoma are tinted red rather than the usual black and white, which is as close as this comes to being innovative. Vultura is at war with yet another planet, and every scene that takes place there is tinted green. Captain Video also has a spaceship, fortunately, so he and one of his rangers (always called “Ranger”) launch in a clip identical to the one showing the launch of one of Vultura’s warships, en route to Atoma although they’ve never heard of it before. Vultura also has a squad of the funniest looking robots I’ve ever seen (they have metal top hats and skirts), even though his guards carry spears. Their ship is endangered by a pair of remotely controlled comets, also cartoons, which is a problem because the spaceship can’t change course “at this speed”. All of this in Chapter 1 and there are fourteen more to go!!!
Various adventures in space result in Vultura’s immediate plot being foiled so he turns his attention to Earth and initiates a series of natural disasters. Despite their suspicions of Tobor, they allow him to roam about unsupervised in their headquarters, with predictable sabotage resulting. More clashes on Earth follow, with Tobor still evading detection, but never quite succeeding either. Captain Video always has a device that enables him to bypass a problem, whether it be a heat ray to neutralize a freezing ray, or a mind reading device to discover secret codes. They return to Atoma where they discover that fire has no effect on their bodies because of their “different chemical properties”. “Thanks to the cosmic vibrator, those guards never knew what jarred them.”
There’s a falling out between Vultura and Tobor, the latter of whom has just developed a disintegrator ray. The plot gets sillier and the science stupider. Captain Video is thrown off a space platform, so they use one machine to “increase the Earth’s gravity” in order to guide him down, then cushion the stop with a “sonic air cushion”. Another device allows them to take pictures of people who aren’t in the room any longer by interpreting the vibrations they left behind. The villains eventually get their comeuppance, thanks to the psychosomatic weapons developed by Captain Video.
An interesting sidelight is that there is not a single female actress in any of the fifteen chapters. Everyone on both of the alien planets speaks English and both planets are located in our solar system, which is apparently two billion light years wide. Captain Video was previously a comic book and a television program but there is little similarity between them and this cliffhanger. One of the silliest and worst acted of the serials, but it is frequently funny for exactly that reason. 4/20/07
This unusual fantasy film was written by Neil Gaiman so it’s not surprising that it’s clever, witty, and intelligent. A young girl, Helen, working in a carnival is unhappy with what she perceives as the difficulties of her life and longs to run away to the real world, as opposed to running away with a circus. During one performance, her mother collapses, adding another level of pressure to her life, and shortly thereafter she finds herself in an altered version of the world, filled with magical creatures and odd characters. This is the dream world, a combination of CGI effects and live action.
In this other reality, which clearly parallels our own, the queen (her mother) is magically incapacitated and Helen also has a counterpart. A mysterious doom hangs over the world and Helen has to save the day by finding a specific charm. There follows a kind of grand magical tour like that of Labyrinth or The Wizard of Oz, but with a very distinctive artistic style (thanks to Dave McKean) and much cleverer dialogue. They follow a series of clues in order to reach their goal, confront the black queen, bring her doppelganger back where she belongs, and save the day. The visuals and the story are nicely balanced; when you’re not caught up in the scenery and effects, you’re engage by the interplay among the characters. I can understand why this had a limited theatrical release, but it would be a shame if it doesn’t reach the many viewers who would enjoy it. 4/19/07
The Last Starfighter (1999)
This is one of those movies that seemed better in retrospect than it was when I actually decided to watch it again. Alex is a young man obsessed with arcade games and the need to get out of his trailer park, so he’s a prime candidate for alien abduction to fight in an interstellar battle that requires very similar skills. The abductor, Centauri, comes in a spaceship that looks like a fancy car, asking for the identity of the person who broke the record on a video game, runs off with Alex and leaves a rather imperfect duplicate in his place. Okay but unexceptional special effects as they travel to a base on a distant planet while his girlfriend back on Earth deals with the replacement.
Alex finds himself among a group of alien recruits, all of which are rubber faced humanoids, but given the less than serious tone, the corny costumes seem right in place. The bad guys, apparently led by a renegade although he is actually just a tool, are threatening to overwhelm the good guys, but Alex just wants to go home. While he’s en route, the base is destroyed by treachery and all of the starfighters except Alex are killed.
Alex and his duplicate have an amusing encounter, but a bad alien has arrived, hunting for Alex. Centauri returns, kills the assassin, and convinces Alex that he has to return to the stars or risk luring more of the killers to Earth. Accompanied by a reptilian friend, Alex sets off in his ship to battle the alien armada – singlehanded. Back on Earth, his double is preparing to fend off alien hitmen. CGI space battles follow, and a number of shots and screen elements are clearly copied directly from the Star Wars movies. Through a subterfuge, they avoid the main enemy fleet and target the command ship and you can pretty well figure out what happens from here. Amusing and inoffensive, but there’s not much depth or charm to this one. There’s a big inconsistency at the end when Alex and his alien friend visit Earth and everyone there can understand him without wearing a translator. 4/18/07
Pick Me Up (2006)
Another installment in the Masters of Horror series from cable television, this one directed by Larry Cohen, the source of a large number of “B” horror films, and based on a 1991 short story by David J. Schow, one of my favorite horror writers. Two separate maniacs have intersecting, and complementary, careers in this one. The first is a truck driver who has a habit of killing people who take him up on the offer of a ride; the second a hitchhiker who likes to murder the people who stop for him. When a bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, several people fall into their sphere. Michael Moriarty is his usual charming self as the homicidal trucker; Warren Kole is the ambulatory serial killer.
In short order, the only survivor is Fairuka Balk, who left the others to hike to a motel. The two killers now know about each other but their paths have not directly crossed. Balk, unfortunately, is less fortunate, ends up in a room next to Kole and his most recent victim, and who should show up shortly afterward to rent the other adjacent room but Moriarty. The killers subsequently meet and recognize each other’s nature, and a bizarre little mind game ensues. The set up is pretty good, but the pacing slips a bit even though technically quite a bit happens. Balk leaves the motel and is picked up by Moriarty, and we learn that he considers Kole a poacher. After revealing himself to Balk, he picks up Kole and the final confrontation is set to unroll. The mildly surprising ending you’ll have to see for yourself. One of the weaker entries in the series despite the good story line and acting. 4/17/07
Terry and the Pirates Volume 3 (1952)
Another four episodes of one of my favorite childhood television shows. Terry is a commercial pilot working for shady Chinese businessman Chopstick Joe, usually involved in a conflict with the likable villain, the Dragon Lady. “Compound C3 Theft” is the usual mixture of humor and adventure. This time part of the cargo on a recent flight is some stolen military explosives disguised as a string of sausage. Chopstick discovers the truth but cannot reach the plane by radio. Terry and his sidekick Hotshot are captured by a band of criminals, but the situation is complicated by the fact that Hotshot ate some of the explosive. They use this to bluff the bad guys, but of course he didn’t really eat the explosives and they’re in hot water again. Hotshot is the focus of the problem again in “Diplomatic Passport” when a thief puts a dead man’s passport in his pocket, hoping to retrieve it later.
The Dragon Lady takes a more active role in “Little Mandarin”, sending her fighter planes after Terry’s ship because one of his passengers is the young son of a local warlord. After the usual complications, they outsmart her, rescue the kid, and make their escape in an ok but not scintillating adventure. Last up was “The Randall Affair”, which involves a treasure hunt. The story takes too long to develop and is the weakest of this set. Yes, it’s a kids’ show and mostly interesting as an exercise in nostalgia, but there was also a kind of naïve optimism about programs of this type that give them lasting charm. 4/17/07
The Black Widow (1947)
Sax Rohmer was robbed for this one, which is transparently stolen from the Fu Manchu books. An Asian supergenius, Hitomu (who doesn’t look remotely Asian), sends his daughter Sombra (who doesn’t look remotely Asian) to the United States to steal military and scientific secrets, with which he hopes to dominate the world. She is equipped with a variety of mechanical and electronic devices to further her ends, and in the opening chapter we discover that she has already murdered several people using spider poison, hence the title. A mystery novelist and a feisty female reporter are investigating the murders, unaware of the more sinister plot that lurks behind the killings.
Almost by chance, the two investigators stumble into Sombra’s fortune telling parlor on their very first try. Due to the incredible incompetence of one of Sombra’s underlings, they find evidence linking the last victim to the site. Sombra gets orders from her father, who appears in some sort of mystical teleportation, to secure the secret of a new atomic rocket fuel. Through a ruse, the scientist’s assistant is kidnapped and Sombra impersonates her and steals the formula, which is hidden in a tube of explosive gas. The villains have this neat car that can repaint itself a different color while it’s moving and they use this ploy to fool their pursuers.
Frustrated by her inability to open the tube, Sombra continues the impersonation, hoping to learn the secret. She is successful, but the neutralizing gas is available from only one company. Entanglements, fist fights, chases, ambushes, and subterfuges follow, including the inevitable car chase, although this time it’s the good guy trying to warn the reporter that there’s an explosive in her car. Much of the action results from obvious stupidity on the part of our heroes, and one does wonder what happened to the government, which seems unconcerned with the potential loss of military secrets and equipment. Even the police seem to have disappeared from the world, leaving the reporter and the writer to battle alone. In fact, the newspapers routinely print sensitive information which, naturally, the Black Widow and her allies read. At one point, our hero gets a clue that the Black Widow is a fortune teller, and it never occurs to him to go immediately to the fortune teller where he found the first clue to the murders!
The dialogue is pretty bad, stilted and corny, and there’s even one point where one of the characters uses “ingenuous” when he means “ingenious”. When the disguised Black Widow is arrested, even though they know she’s in disguise, they decide to find out which fortune teller is missing rather than simply remove her disguise. And they lock her up without taking away her bag, which contains a communication device. The plot stumbles its way to a conclusion with both Sombra and her father apprehended, their henchman eliminated, and the military secrets safe once again. Not one of the better serials. 4/16/07
The Prestige (2006)
The novel by Christopher Priest, upon which this is based, was one of my all time favorites, so I approached this movie with some trepidation despite the good reviews. The opening sequences, though beautifully filmed, are a bit difficult to follow, I suspect even more so if you aren’t familiar with the book, and the movie jumps around among three different time frames from that point onward. A stage magician is murdered and another is found guilty of the crime. We then travel back through time to find out what caused the animosity.
Borden and Angier are two aspiring late 19th Century stage magicians, friends initially, who work in tandem with an engineer named Cutter (Michael Caine) who designs their tricks. Borden is impatient, wanting something entirely new, even if it means taking risks, while Angier is more cautious. Borden alters a trick involving Angier’s wife as a result of which she dies a tragic death, thereby ending the friendship and starting a string of increasingly nasty efforts to sabotage each other’s act. These scenes alternate with a later sequence in which Angier attempts to convince Nikola Tesla to build him a duplicate of a device he previously created for another magician. His early encounter convinces him that Tesla has stumbled on real magic, rather than technology. Borden is also interested in Tesla’s work, which intensifies their rivalry.
Borden begins performing a new trick in which he enters one cabinet and emerges from another in plain sight and much too quickly to involve a journey under the stage. Cutter insists that he’s using a double, but Angier is convinced that it is the same man entering and leaving. They decide to duplicate his trick, but to do so, they need to find a double for Angier. It works, but Angier isn’t satisfied because he still doesn’t know how Borden manages the same effect without using a double. To this end, he asks his assistant to quit and take a job with Borden in order to steal his secret, but she tells Borden the truth.
The sabotage continues on a grander scale. It is only then that Angier realizes that he is more interested in Borden’s secret than in avenging his wife. Borden adds Tesla’s visual pyrotechnics to his show, but are they responsible or just window dressing? And elsewhen, Angier is given a demonstration that boggles his mind. I can’t say much more about the plot without revealing the multiple surprises, but trust me, your head will be spinning before it’s over. An excellent adaptation of a superb novel. 4/15/07
The Jack Benny Show Volume 4 (1953)
Four episodes of the Jack Benny comedy show, starting with one dominated by a New Year’s skit that’s considerably below his usual quality level. The second episode is considerably better, no monologue but some good jokes sprinkled throughout the show. There’s also a nice dose of Rochester, one of my favorite supporting actors. Mary Livingston, Benny’s wife in the real world, plays his girlfriend and in this episode Jack has a dream of married life with their relationship considerably different. More jokes about Jack’s legendary cheapness, some of them still funny. The remaining two episodes are similarly undistinguished. There’s a fairly amusing bit about a really cheap suit which Jack wears, and wears out, during a musical number with Giselle MacKenzie. The musical number itself is pretty good. Last comes a skit about the theft of Jack’s car and his experiences at the local police station. The jokes about the classiness of the Beverly Hills police would be echoed years later by Eddie Murphy in the Beverly Hills Cop movies, but they’re actually funnier here. 4/14/07
This low budget horror film has an amusing opening. We’re introduced to each of the characters by a freeze frame and textual overlay that includes commentaries on their life expectancy in the film, not quite up to the savvy self analysis of the Scream movies but still way ahead of most of these direct to video releases, which take themselves entirely too seriously. They’re all drinking or working in a seedy bar apparently in the middle of nowhere one night when bad things start happening. Don’t be fooled, however. They lie.
The “hero” arrives almost immediately, followed by toothy monsters who kill him in the middle of his rousing speech and deal considerable carnage within a couple of minutes. There’s blood and gore aplenty, mixed with a couple of visual jokes before the initial attack is done and the siege is underway. The plot confounds expectations. The cute kid gets gobbled up early on, and the man drowned in slime doesn’t dissolve. More insanity follows. “Monster tongue stuck in the door!” The motivational speaker was probably my favorite character. The blood and gore – even though it’s comic – will turn off many even though it’s so over the top that it’s not remotely believable. If you can get past that, this is a surprisingly good spoof of modern monster movies. 4/13/07
I became an instant fan of Dario Argento when I saw two of his films many years ago, Suspiria and Creepers (aka Phenomena), although I’ve been more or less disappointed with most of his subsequent work. This is one he did for the Masters of Horror cable television series, based on the story by F. Paul Wilson. A father and son harvest trapped raccoons from traps they planted among ruins in a part of the woods that most people avoid. They plan to sell the pelts, which are of unusually high quality, to another man who is incidentally obsessed with a local stripper. Sounds like trouble brewing.
Sure enough, the son brutally murders his father that very night, our first clear suggestion that possession of the pelts is a curse. Then the son commits suicide by bear trap and the pelts pass into the hands of the lustful dealer. He wants to make a coat for the stripper to wear, but the first one of his employees to work on the pelts later uses a pair of shears on his own body. Another worker sews his eyes, nose, and mouth shut and suffocates. Finally the coat is finished and the stripper falls under the spell, promising anything in order to keep it, after which our repulsive protagonist skins himself alive. It would have been more effective if any of the characters involved had been even remotely likable, but they’re all pretty horrible and deserve everything that happens to them. 4/13/07
Mr. & Mrs. North Volume 8 (1954)
Four episodes from the 1950s mystery show featuring Gerry and Pam North, who keep falling into mysterious situations. In “Busy Signal”, a change of telephone number gets them into trouble with bookies, double crosses, and murder. The byplay with crossed telephone lines and mistaken identities makes this one of the best of their adventures. They cross paths with a confidence man in “Hot Mink”, and although the plot is advanced by a rather large coincidence, it’s still better than average. There’s murder at a birthday party in “Surprise”. One of the guests is knifed while the lights are out and the murder weapon is missing. Not one of the better installments; the murderer’s identity is obvious even before it is revealed and his attempts to cover up the crime are ludicrous at best. The Norths befriend a woman accused of murder in “Suspected”, and outwit an avaricious heir and a disreputable journalist to clear her name. The half hour format limits the plots to simple story lines, but at its best the program presented interesting puzzles, and these four are among their better efforts. 4/12/07
Flash Gordon (1936)
Buster Crabbe did three Flash Gordon serials. I’d already seen the other two so I had a pretty good idea what to expect from this one, the first in the series. Earth is subjected to a series of natural disasters thanks to the approach of the planet Mongo, home of Ming the Merciless. The story opens with astronomers concluding that the two planets will collide and both will be destroyed, but Dr. Zharkov believes otherwise and is determined to prove it. Quite by chance, Flash and Dale Arden bail out of a damaged airplane and land beside Zharkov’s experimental spaceship, then decide to become his crew as he sets off to try to deal with the “wild planet”. Their trip is successful and they land on a barren world populated by giant lizards and, fortunately, a breathable atmosphere.
They are promptly captured by Ming’s soldiers, who speak English, of course. Ming is planning the conquest of Earth, but he immediately falls for Dale and condemns Flash to the arena. Ming’s daughter, however, has simultaneously become infatuated with Flash, and when she intervenes, the two of them are plunged into a pit but escape. Flash is off (in the charmingly cornball spaceship) to join Ming’s enemies while Ming’s daughter is off to kill Dale Arden and remove her rival. Some of the sets in Ming’s palace are surprisingly good and the lobster monster is good for quite a few laughs. There are quite a few interesting if not particularly convincing models revealed during the course of the film including ray guns and other futuristic equipment, an animated statue, the submarine used by the Shark Men, and others.
The king of the hawk men, Voltan, deliciously overplays his part as a villain while the other actors utter such memorable lines as “Our resisto force will soon be overpowered by those melting rays”. Dale’s skimpy outfit attracts more evil admirers as well as Flash, and Ming’s daughter doesn’t react well to being second best. More battles follow, sword fights, a duel with a cross between a gorilla and a unicorn called an orangopoid, and some really awful specials effects involving a floating city. Dale gets to do a lot of screaming and fainting. “At the mystic midnight hour the fire monster will be asleep and only the sacred gong can rouse him.” They just don’t write great stuff like that any more. This whole thing was a lot of fun if you are capable of not only suspended your disbelief but of sending it off on a separate vacation. 4/11/07
MacGyver Season 7
I never saw a single episode of this show when it was being televised, and about five months ago I started watching the first series. It took that long to watch the first six seasons because although most of the episodes have a pretty good formula, it’s the same formula. This is the seventh, and last season, truncated to only 14 episodes rather than the usual 22. MacGyver uses his ingenuity to get out of traps, foil criminals, steal secrets, help people in trouble, and so forth. Originally he worked for the government, reporting to Dana Elcar, but they both switched to the Phoenix Foundation somewhere along the way. There were a few other recurring characters including his arch-nemesis Murdock, who returns from the dead with alarming frequency, a disreputable pilot/adventurer, the staff of a community youth center, a scatterbrained young woman with a penchant for getting into trouble, a cantankerous grandfather who dies in the fifth season, and a young girl who frequently needs to be rescued. There were signs that the writers began to tire of the formula as well, with episodes in which MacGyver dreamed that he was back in the Old West.
Anyway, season 7 opens with a pretty obvious self parody, “Honest Abe”. MacGyver gets involved with a semi-rogue CIA agent who steals a stealth helicopter in order to kidnap a South American dictator he helped put in power. The supporting cast is actually pretty good in this one, but not enough to save what was obviously never meant to be taken seriously in the first place. “The ‘Hood” is a little more typical, although it involves our hero giving up his houseboat (thanks to a fire) and moving to new digs. One of his new neighbors overhears a criminal conspiracy and is pursued by a pair of killers, so MacGyver is off to the rescue. This one’s a bit contrived and only works because the various characters fail to call the police when they should. The fake voodoo scene is particularly corny. MacGyver begins to dream that his old enemy Murdock is still alive in “Obsessed” and Pete puts his reputation on the line when he refuses to inactivate him. Pete was played by Dana Elcar, who began to lose his vision during season 6, which handicap was subsequently written into the script. No one else believes Murdock is alive, but of course he is, until he gets killed…again. “The Prometheus Syndrome” pits our hero against a serial arsonist, but the plot suffers from some very clumsy dialogue, a contrived obtuseness on the part of the fire inspector in charge of the case, although the identity of the arsonist is surprising.
The Colton brothers, bounty hunters who appeared in several earlier episodes, return to hunt down a witness to a murder in Chinatown in “The Coltons”, with MacGyver making little more than a token appearance. The surprise revelation of the man secretly working for the crooks isn’t much of a surprise. There’s a nasty voodoo priest in “Walking Dead”, so one of MacGyver’s new neighbors, the voodoo priestess, gets a major part in this one. Our hero gets partially zombified but eventually unmasks the Haitian criminals posing as Baron Samedi and company. There’s another surprise revelation that was obvious early on. “Good Knight MacGyver” is a two parter, and further evidence that the writers were getting tired. Knocked unconscious, MacGyver finds himself in Camelot just in time to save Sir Galahad’s life and meet King Arthur (Dana Elcar). There he discovers that his ancestor is believed to be in league with Morgan Le Fay. Merlin declares that he must be a sorcerer because he claims to know the future but eventually becomes his unhappy ally when Sir Duncan frames him for an attempt to murder Arthur. They rescue a prisoner from Morgana and end the threat of her revolutionary new weapon. A fairly entertaining version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Henry Gibson does a great job in “Deadly Silents” as a silent film star who wants MacGyver to help him recover his collection of old films, stolen by armed men. This is another self referential spoof, but a reasonably clever one. “Split Decision” is more serious, bringing back Dick Butkus, an ex-con who turned his life around in an earlier episode and who now wants custody of his daughter, but who gets involved with a fixed prize fight. Bubba Smith is a henchman, always a treat for me because I knew him slightly back in my college days. Sarah Koskoff, whom I’d never heard of, does a great job as the daughter. “Gunz ‘n Boyz” is another episode involving street gangs and the Challenger Center, with an ex-gang member accused of murder until MacGyver finds the real killer. Not one of the more stellar episodes. Oversimplified, preachy, and implausible.
The social commentary continues in the livelier but still unrealistic “Off the Wall”, pitting MacGyver against developers who force poor people out of an apartment building that doesn’t mean minimal standards. The fact is, they should have been evicted given the horrible living conditions, which invalidates much of the plot. Even making allowances for that, MacGyver agrees to meet, alone, the same man whose minions tried to kill him only a day earlier, with no safeguards and taking a young kid with him. He arrives to find the caller dead, designed to look like an accident. By this point, it was obvious the writers were just going through the motions. “The Mountain of Youth” (nice title) brings back his recurring buddy, Jack Dalton, with another hair brained scheme, this one to find the fountain of youth in Asia. They end up defending some independent mountain people from a band of nasty government soldiers guarding a secret heavy water plant in this okay but unexceptional episode. The remote, primitive mountain people all speak unaccented English, of course. The final episode was “The Stringer” (although two made for tv movies followed later on). MacGyver is trying to expose illegal labor camps in China when he meets a young man who turns out to be his illegitimate son. It’s one of the better episodes and probably the best of the final season. Likeable as the show was, it very nearly overstayed its welcome. 4/9/07
The Illusionist (2006)
This unusual blend of suspense and alternate history is set in Vienna during the time of Prince Leopold, son of Queen Victoria. Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is a stage magician who is arrested in the opening scene for crimes against the state, the nature of which we do not immediately learn. Instead, we witness a recap of the man’s youth, his discovery of the art of magic (though whether real or trickery we are not quite sure), and his friendship with a young noblewoman whose family disapproves of the familiarity of the couple. They run away together, but not very successfully. Years later, now known as Eisenheim, he returns to Vienna and gives extraordinary performances as a stage illusionist. One evening, Prince Leopold’s presumed fiancé volunteers to participate in one of his effects, and thence the plot thickens.
The tension builds slowly as we learn that Leopold is prone to beating women, and receive confirmation that the young woman, Sophie (Jessica Biel), is in fact his childhood love. Perhaps because of this, he is driven to irritate Leopold during a private performance, and the angry prince orders the police to shut down his show and drive him from the city. He has more reason than he realizes, because Eisenheim and Sophie are driven into each other’s arms by the mini-crisis. Sophie informs a drunken Leopold that she will not marry him. Enraged, he pursues her and the next day her dead body is found in the river.
Eisenheim buys a theater and changes his act, now acting as a spiritualist. Leopold wants him arrested and applies pressure, but the spirits he conjures onto stage seem to be genuinely supernatural. Fortunately for Eisenheim, he has attracted a large, popular following that partially protects him from governmental oppression. One night, Leopold appears incognito in the theater and Eisenheim conjures Sophie’s ghost, who accused Leopold of killing her. Finally the police attempt to arrest him during his next performance, with surprising results. Edward Norton is superb as the magician, and the supporting cast are all excellent. I guessed what was really going on but I almost think it works better knowing the truth. 4/9/07
Spy Smasher (1942)
It felt like time for another serial. This one was released in 1942, so unsurprisingly the bad guys are Nazis. The Spy Smasher is a costumed hero based on a comic strip series who, in the opening sequence, is caught by the Nazis in occupied France, whipped in a Gestapo dungeon, but who refuses to admit that he works for the US government even when he is sentenced to death. He has been trying to track down his arch enemy, the Mask, a Nazi superspy. He escapes death thanks to a subterfuge by a French officer and subsequently returns to the US. We also learn that he has a twin brother and that he faked his own death some time before in order to more effectively function as a spy. The possibilities for mistaken identities and, conversely, a verifiable secret identity are obvious.
The plot moves very quickly even for a cliffhanger. During the first chapter alone, we have the battle with the Nazis, a fistfight on a train, an attack by a gang of thugs on the home of the twin brother’s fiancé with subsequent gunfight (her father happens to have a mine chart in his safe), mistaken identity, a secret Nazi submarine landing on the American coast to offload counterfeit money, some clandestine eavesdropping and another fistfight at a secret base, a boat chase with guns blazing, and finally a desperate flight through a mine tunnel to escape a flash fire. And we still have 11 chapters to go!!
Spy Smasher is back in France for more fights, chases on horseback through a landscape that looks more like the American west, and encounters with almost comically inept Nazis and their stooges. One has to wonder why a spy, who presumably wants to avoid being noticed, would wear goggles and a cape, but it’s probably some mysterious spy stuff I never knew about. The usual hijinx follow, back in France for a while, then back to the US. I can’t figure out why the Mask was necessary, since the villain reveals his true identity in chapter three (and it’s revealed in the credits as well). The Nazi agents try to steal military secrets using a futuristic flying machine, but our masked and cloaked hero thwarts them again. Just once I’d like to see the hero get the drop on someone and not have the gun knocked out of his hand, precipitating a fistfight.
Subsequent sequences involve the kidnapping of a military officer (who doesn’t seem to ever wear a uniform), a plot to reveal Spy Smasher’s real identity, a ray gun that knocks planes out of the air, a car chase, and naturally a collection of last minute escapes from near death. 4/8/07
Another teenaged revenge story borrowing heavily from Carrie at the beginning, and also another one where the teenagers are all played by actors in their twenties. Tamara was never popular to start with, but when her paper on teenaged drug use becomes public just as the school suspends several athletes, she’s the target of abuse and eventually a fatal prank. But Tamara practiced witchcraft, and she’s back from the dead and looking for a little payback, although since she wasn’t above trying to curse the wife of the teacher she has a crush on, it’s hard to be entirely sympathetic. There’s the usual – we didn’t kill her it was an accident – conversation and the conspirators, including two innocents who were dragged into it without knowing what was going on, dispose of the body.
The next day, Tamara is back in school, self confident and sexy, much to the consternation of the conspirators. She also has the power to make anyone do anything she wants merely by touching them, a bit of omnipotence that takes most of the suspense out of the film. She forces one to commit suicide with a razor, another to become a compulsive eater, two jocks to have sex together, and her father to eat broken glass. Unlike most horror films released direct to DVD, the acting is reasonably good, the dialogue isn’t awful, the special effects are minimal but convincing, and the plot moves crisply and logically given the initial premise. It would have been better if there had been narrower and more discreet limits to Tamara’s powers. As it is, her eventual defeat is unconvincing. And why do the fugitives always end up on the roof? 4/8/07
The Last Stand (2006)
Although I was a Marvel Comics fan for many years, X-Men ranked right with Doctor Strange as the least interesting title in their line for me, and the first two movies didn’t do much to rehabilitate them for me, particularly since Wolverine was probably my least favorite of the X-Men. So I didn’t go see this in the theaters and haven’t watched the DVD until today. After a couple of brief flashbacks, we’re back with the usual crew and the usual animosities, as tiring in the film as they were in the comics. Jeanne is still dead – killed last time – but we know she’s going to be back because she’s in the credits.
A drug company has come up with a “cure” for mutation, disabusing us of any notion that the writers are scientifically literate. Obviously this causes a crisis in the mutant community and Magneto is quick to capitalize on the growing fear. There’s also a young boy with the ability to temporarily suppress mutant characteristics in others, obviously the source of the supposed cure. Sure enough, Jeanne is restored to life with a little help from Cyclops, and pretty much no explanation, and all the pieces are in place for the battle to come. Paradoxically, although a lot happens in a short period of time, it seems very drawn out, the individual scenes either too long or their meaning too murky, although Magneto’s ambush of the convoy is nicely done.
Things finally start to pick up when Jeanne, corrupted by her power, becomes the Phoenix and apparently kills Cyclops and Xavier, leader of the X-Men, then joins Magneto and the evil mutants. Most of the mutant powers are well done, but Juggernaut is unconvincing. The final battle is full of nice special effects, but the plot is so dull and predictable that it was hard to remain interested. This won’t do anything to improve my interest in this particular subset of Marvel, and I suspect it will also be the last of the movies. 4/7/07
The Buccaneers Volume 2 (1956)
Four more episodes of this kids’ adventure story featuring Robert Shaw as reformed pirate Dan Tempest in the Caribbean. “Before the Mast” involves a plot by Spanish pirates to impress several British sailors and attack a supply ship. Shaw impersonates one of their number to find out the details of their plans while a young boy over zealously attempts to help. Eventually they both sabotage the pirate ship and escape. In “Conquistador” Tempest and his friends are captured by another Spanish pirate, who frames them for a series of attacks. “Captain Dan Tempest” was the first episode in which Shaw appeared. Through a technicality, he isn’t covered by the general pardon for pirates and he is arrested. The governor puts him on furlough and tries to reform him, leading to an unlikely confrontation with Blackbeard in which two men successfully fight off a pirate vessel. He also acquires a fiancé, although I don’t think she ever showed up again. The Spanish conquer Tempest’s home island in “Conquest of New Providence”, and then capture most of Tempest’s crew as well. Roger Delgado makes a suitably sinister villain and the subsequent sword fighting melee isn’t bad. A fair collection of light adventures stories. The rousing theme song is stuck in my head. 4/7/07
Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)
This Republic serial has the best title of them all, and Leonard Nimoy has a bit part in it as well, playing one of the aliens who have come to Earth to knock it out of orbit with a hydrogen bomb and make room for Mars. They’re not zombies though, despite the title. Rocket Man, like Commando Cody, has an individual flying suit which he uses during the not too bad flying sequences. The aliens land and contact their human allies – crooks no doubt – then take off again before our hero can arrive. The spaceship is also borrowed, right out of the Flash Gordon serials.
The conflict begins as the Martians and their human allies attempt to build the bomb. No telling why they didn’t just bring one with them in their ship. The villains try to hijack a train full of uranium but are foiled because there just happens to be an operational tank (!) at the railroad station, which our hero knows how to drive (!!), and which can travel as fast as a speeding locomotive (!!!). There are some pretty good cliffhangers in the first few installments of this one including a train running off a collapsed bridge, a motor boat going over a dam, a car driven over a cliff, dropped into the ocean chained to a weight, and a runaway coal shuttle in a mine shaft. Lots of speedboat sequences as well, a nice switch from the usual car chases.
Thwarted in their quest for uranium, the conspirators have also run out of money, so they build a remote controlled robot (a pretty silly one) to rob banks, smash things up, and menace the good guys and the heroine. It lumbers around for awhile until they eventually electrocute it. The next effort to smuggle in uranium is aboard a submarine, so our heroes requisition some depth charges (!), attack it without identifying the vessel as unfriendly (!!), and manage to sink it with their second charge (!!!), which they launch from a speedboat (!!!!). Unfortunately, while they’re doing that, other henchmen kidnap their female colleague, but only for a little while. More near death experiences follow, but in the end the collaborators are identified, the bomb is disarmed, and the Martians are foiled. I particularly enjoyed the sequence where our hero stands easily on top of a hurtling rocket without even having his hair tousled. Nimoy is the Martian who turns coat and tells the hero how to save the world, so I guess he deserved to be reborn as a Vulcan. In the closing moments, we first hear the Martians referred to as zombies, for no apparent reason. Good title though. 4/6/07
Terry and the Pirates Volume 2 (1953)
There’s a healthy dose of the Dragon Lady as chief villain in all four episodes in this installment of the popular 1950s kids adventure show. Terry and Hotshot are pilots working for Chopsticks Joe, a Chinese businessman whose business can be found on either side of the law. In “Black Market for Death”, a plague has affected a remote area of China and when Terry flies in the serum to treat it, he has to thwart a gang of hijackers working at the behest of the Dragon Lady, who appears to be interested in hijacking the medicine for her own use but who turns out to be involved in a less dishonorable brand of criminality. The Dragon Lady helps a bandit leader cheat Chopstick Joe and coerces Terry and Hotshot to train pilots for him in “Loaded Dice Affair”, but they have to fight their way out when they discover they are prisoners. Two average episodes.
Different actors fill in for Chopstick Joe and singer Burma in “Macao”, which involves a consignment of gold bullion and some fast paced double crossing. I was surprised by the substitutions because I believe the show lasted less than 20 installments. The Dragon Lady wants to steal the gold and kidnaps Hotshot to apply pressure. Keye Luke guest stars as a police official in one of the better episodes. Finally we have “Tee Hee”, in which the Dragon Lady’s smuggling operation puts an innocent, elderly woman in jeopardy until Terry unmasks the plot. Surprisingly good for a kids’ show, and some of the fascination I felt for the Dragon Lady as a kid lingers yet.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
I was never a particular fan of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although I did recognize the powerful imagery in the movie. Frankly, during the second half the constant taunting of the imprisoned girl and the parade of grotesqueries became boring rather than horrifying. But it does have its following, and has spawned at least fur more movies including this latest, the prequel, which opens with an even more grotesque sequence, a woman giving birth in a slaughterhouse. Years pass and the slaughterhouse is closing, but that child – adopted informally and now an adult – seems to be disturbed by the loss. He, obviously, will later be known as Leatherface, the masked killer from the original film, and in short order he has committed his first murder and stolen a chainsaw.
Meanwhile, two soldiers about to leave for Vietnam are on their last vacation trip with their girlfriends and obviously they’re about to cross paths with Leatherface. They’re attacked by a biker, who is killed by Leatherface’s adopted father, now playing the part of sheriff. Three of the four are immediately captured by the crazy family, with only Jordana Brewster managing to hide. What follows is both predictable and redundant, a tepid rehash of the last film in the series, and since we know that the bad guys survive to kill again, there’s not much point in hoping to see them get their just desserts. Add in unconvincing gore effects and a surfeit of screaming and shouting, a climax that is an obvious imitation of the end of the first film, and you have 90 minutes of wasted time.
Cry Wolf (2005)
The opening scene of this horror film is one of those too-dark-to-see-anything sequences that I normally despise, a young girl running through the woods pursued by someone with a flashlight. On the other hand, she does the smart thing for once, hiding in heavy foliage rather than giving away her location by continuing to flounder through the brush. Unfortunately, her cell phone goes off at the wrong time. Another good reason not to carry one.
The story is set at a prep school and has some superficial resemblance to The Assassination Game – one of my favorites, which also involved an elaborate game that takes a deadly twist. As usual the youngest of the “high school” kids is actually 23 and one is 28, and the female lead looks every bit her age. If you’re using college age actors, why not set the story at a college? Anyway, the initial set up is a little muddled, but once we’re past that the story moves well. The new kid gets initiated into the game, which involves lying, manipulation of other players, and general unpleasantness. The next day, police find the body of the girl killed during the opening sequence, and the tenor of the game changes. The kids hatch a plot to pretend that the murderer is a serial killer on campus, even describing how he dresses, and as you might expect, their guesswork is uncomfortably close to the truth. And the truth will come closer as they pattern the killer’s fictional victims after each other.
The plot thickens quickly. Threatening emails begin to show up from an unknown source. A dorm room is trashed. A bloody tongue stud turns up. The friends still suspect one another, but evidence is mounting that someone else is involved as well. There’s a nice scene in the library. The lack of overt violence in favor of slow, deliberate, well designed suspense is a pleasant change from the usual style of slasher movies, and the first appearance of the actual killer, who fails to claim his victim, is cleverly done because it’s set in the middle of a Halloween dance which features a variety of people wearing the killer’s costume. Some nice twists and surprises ensue and we find out that a lot of what we suspect to be true is just as wrong as what the characters believe.
Then one of the girls decides to take a shower and tells us “the whole dorm is empty”, which is an unfortunate lapse into blatant cliché, although there’s a nice touch as one of the other characters see the masked killer through her cellphone camera. They find the body of their missing friend a short while later. The campus police refuse to believe the call, which I found implausible, so the survivors decide to leave campus together, a sensible precaution, but separate first, which is not. What follows appears at first to be a descent into the ordinary, but there are layers of surprise yet to be revealed. I did guess the truth, but only near the end. Not a great movie, but a good one.
The Jack Benny Show Volume 5 (1954)
Four episodes of the first show by one of my favorite comedians during my childhood. Jack Benny, master of the slow burn, starts most of these with a short standup routine, after which the skits vary considerably, but the first episode is predominantly one long monologue. Benny is interrupted by singer Bob Crosby, during which his reaction is classic. A second interruption comes when a talkative taxi driver shows up, played by Mel Blanc, who apparently adlibs a line about Bugs Bunny, breaking up everyone on stage. The rest of the show is mostly music including a hillbilly skit that is one of the few times I’ve actually heard Benny prove that he really could play the violin well. This was one of his best shows and I actually remembered the skit from having seen it more than fifty years ago.
Episode 2 is just okay, despite having George Burns, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope as guest stars. There’s a vaudeville spoof that goes on too long and jokes about Benny being too cheap to pay reasonable rates to his guest stars. Guest stars in the next were Dan Duryea and singer Dennis Day, who feature in a moderately funny spoof of mystery thrillers. Day gets the best lines. The last episode is taken up primarily with Jack and Rochester preparing for a trip and his rather unorthodox methods of renting out his house while he’s gone. The humor is a bit out of fashion and not always crisp, but Benny is a delight.
Demon Hunter (2004)
This horror film from the producer of Silk Stalkings is a kind of low budget vs of Constantine. Sean Patrick Flanery is a demon killer, called in by the Church when exorcism isn’t enough to kill the bodies infested by demons. We see a not very convincing example of his handiwork before the opening credits, which have an oddly inappropriate, bouncy soundtrack. This most recent posession has convinced Flanery that it isn’t mere demons involved but a fallen angel (Billy Drago) impregnating prostitutes to spread his tainted seed. Drago is assisted by a horned woman who, in addition to being a poor actress, is graced by ridiculously corny looking wings and horns, and who attempts to seduce Flannery in his dreams.
The church sends a nun (Colleen Porch) to be his moral compass while he searches for the big bad evil, although she’s nonsensically naïve at times. They run into a uniformed police officer in a scene so badly written that I almost stopped watching at that point, but inertia triumphed and I left it running. We’ve also learned at this point that Flanery is only half human and has superhuman strength and that he has no compunctions about casually killing innocent people who inconvenience him. After following some clues, Flanery and the cardinal he works for have another inane conversation in which we discover that all prostitutes by definition have lost their souls, which makes it puzzling that Drago is preying on them instead of the innocent. Flanery has a list of women, all of whom have been possessed except for one, whom they cannot locate. The cardinal announces that this means she is either dead or married, apparently reaching this conclusion through the miracle of bad scripts.
Meanwhile, the missing woman is burying her dead husband and being seduced by Drago while the mediocre soundtrack switches to actively awful. For reasons unknown, she is accompanied by five martial arts trained bodyguards, allowing us to watch an inept fight scene while the nun, unarmed and untrained, chases the now demonically possessed woman into a mausoleum. More stupid dialogue follows as Flanery tries to convince Porch to go away and she tells him that when she was a child the nuns used to frighten her with stories about him. Which, of course, makes no sense since he was working for the Church. The cardinal, incidentally, has sent for inquisitors from “all over the world”, all of whom apparently are expected to arrive within a few hours. Must be another one of those pesky miracles. There’s eventually a confrontation and final battle, more dreadful soundtrack, and a stupid surprise ending, but I had long since stopped caring by then.
“I’m not half the man you think I am.”
“No, you’re more than that.”
It’s hard to believe that the people who produced, directed, and acted in this film didn’t know how bad it was. I suppose any work is better than no work, but when the end result is a movie in which Billy Drago has one of the more convincing parts, maybe it’s time to consider another line of work.
You have to get past the unlikely premise to really enjoy this movie, which is otherwise reasonably well done, with some creepy scenes, competent acting, acceptable dialogue, and fairly decent production values overall. We know something creepy is going on right from the outset because the opening follows an obviously frightened young man through a series of scenes which are photographed with some kind of dark blue filter to keep things indistinct. He’s apparently planning to meet someone in a library, but things don’t go as arranged. Something scary and obscure attacks him and apparently drains away his substance.
Switch to a group of young friends engaged in the usual banter and sexcapades. Kristen Bell is puzzled by the sudden reclusiveness of her friend Josh, who appears strangely transformed when she finally locates him. Moments later, he hangs himself and the blue filter is back for most of the rest of the film. All of his friends begin receiving emails from him asking for help after he’s dead and one, who goes to his apartment, is attacked by a mysterious figure after which he begins to act in the same manner. Elsewhere, bizarre images of suicide and odd figures begin appearing on the dead man’s computer screen, and news reports indicate that there has in fact been a rash of suicides throughout the city.
The blue filter was intentional, but I think it was a mistake, at least used for so much of the film. The effect of the abnormal on the normal world is much less effective when the latter looks so alien to start with. The following day, Bell sees an apparition on a bus, watches one man nearly commit suicide, and another jump to his death from a tower. She consults her psychiatrist, whose response even when presented with verifiable facts is unprofessional and unconvincing and a horror film cliché. Meanwhile, friend #2 is absorbed into a wall and friend #3, who saw it happen, freaks out.
The weird events are sufficiently random to be a bit frustrating, as is the sequence when the psychiatrist begins to realize the truth, cut short so that we don’t see the smug bastard eating his own words. Nor is it clear why the apparitions are content with tormenting Bell rather than just forcing her to commit suicide as they have with everyone else they’ve encountered. Panic is spreading as more people are affected by the apparitions, and the internet is troubled by what appears to be a new virus.
Pulse is an okay but not great horror film that could have been better if they’d foregone the filter except for specific scenes, made the story more consistent and easier to follow. The menace is so random and so powerful that there is very little suspense, and the only glimpse we get of the wider crisis is a newcast that stops in mid-word. One of her friends tells Bell that the figures are the dead, who want to steal life from our world. Her new boyfriend finds a virus that might stop the incursion if they can find a missing hacker in time. It also needed a much different ending, not another recursion of the heroes outrunning the apparitions (who were previously too fast to avoid), to load the virus that can thwart them into just the right computer system in the basement of a shadowy building. Good acting can’t overcome a mediocre script.
This Japanese horror film, presented here with English subtitles, opens with three young girls joking about reincarnation. The subtitling isn’t great; I can understand that with dubbing but it seems like laziness when you have the freedom to have your work checked by a native English speaker. The awkward phrasing suggests a cheap production, which is unfair to the film, whose other production qualities are quite high. Anyway, there are a couple of very quick, creepy scenes involving an elevator, a rest room, and elsewhere, suggesting that something serious is starting to happen, presumably connected with a new film being produced based on a series of brutal killings at a hotel. The film crew is in fact visiting that very place and each actor is supposed to take the part of one of the actual people killed.
One of the actresses has been having strange visions, usually but not always of a little girl and her doll, who corresponds to one of the victims. The director’s obsession with re-enacting certain parts of the crime provokes more episodes. With no gore and refreshingly little blood, the viewer is dragged along with the protagonist into a series of increasingly disturbing visions of past events impinging on the present. The abduction of a young woman from a library by spirits of the dead is visually effective, but doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the movie.
The actress, who reveals that she has had dreams of the hotel as a child, investigates further, discovers that the killer was a professor who believed in reincarnation. She also finds more links between herself and the little girl whose image we keep seeing, which suggests that the other actors are also the returned spirits of the dead. Then the living people begin acting strangely, eventually appearing to die in the same manner as their predecessors, only to be revived for the climax. There’s a surprise ending here that I guessed before it was revealed, but only shortly before it was revealed, and I won’t spoil it here. The final scenes contain almost no dialogue so the subtitles have no bearing. Decidedly creepy, even though ultimately we really don't know what was going on exactly.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)
Gene Wilder stars as Sigerson Holmes, the third and youngest of the Holmes brothers, whose efforts to outdo Sherlock’s exploits invariably end up in failure. When Sherlock leaves England, Sigerson rises to his greatest challenge, accompanied by a detective, played by Marty Feldman, who has “a photographic sense of hearing”. The female lead is Madeline Kahn, reuniting three veterans of Young Frankenstein, and had the script been a little better, this would have been a comedy classic. As it is, the film is merely very good and very funny.
Secret crown documents are missing and if they aren’t recovered quickly, England could find itself at war. He also has a new client, Kahn, who claims that she’s being blackmailed, and their initial interview is one of the highlights of the film, and their constant interplay as she tells lies and he sees through them is a clever parody of the Holmes story. They are being watched by minions of the chief villain, Leo McKern as Moriarty, who manages to deliberately chew the scenery almost as ravenously as does the rest of the cast. The musical numbers are also excellent.
With Sigerson’s sometimes dubious help, they avoid multiple attempts to assassinate Kahn, who is obviously linked to the missing documents. Wilder’s seduction of Kahn in order to extract the identity of her father (Foreign Secretary to the Queen) is another great scene; the chemistry between the two is excellent. The bits with McKern and his cronies don’t work as well. Wilder and Feldman eventually are captured by Kern and imprisoned in a deathtrap, which they narrowly and comically escape. The farcical climax comes as the villains attempt to transfer the document during the performance of an opera, whose cast has been infiltrated by our heroes. There’s even a decent sword fight.
The Adventures of Captain Africa (1955)
This is without doubt the worst of the cliffhanger serials that I’ve seen. Captain Africa is transparently the Phantom, given a new name to avoid having to pay royalties for the character. In fact, some of the footage from earlier serials which is patched into this came from the Phantom serial. Even more depressing is that the old cuts are far and away the best. The acting in the new material rarely rises to the level of mediocrity and is usually lifeless, inane, and delivered in a monotone. The plot, such as it is, involves efforts to claim the throne of an Arab African kingdom, with good and bad Arabs fighting for their factions, although the real villains are the Europeans who are trying to manipulate events for their own good. The photography is dreadful; even the outdoors scenes feel claustrophobic. I picked up a book in installment two and finished it before the last episode concluded without missing a bit of the overly redundant, simple minded, and uninteresting plot.
The Gabby Hayes Show Volume 1 (1950)
Although I remember Gabby Hayes as a constant sidekick in early westerns, to Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers among others, I had no recollection of his having his own television show at all, but it all came back the first time he said “durn tootin’”. It was a western anthology series which he hosted, featuring a variety of guest stars including, in the first episode here, Buster Crabbe, who has to prove that a man accused of murder is innocent and bring the real culprits to justice. The plots and action were very reminiscent of the cliffhanger serials of the 1940s, even using some of the same music. This was a kids’ show so there’s plenty of scenes of racing horses, fistfights, and gunfights, and not a whole lot of story. Episode 2 seems to start in the middle. Apparently another innocent man has been jailed as part of a conspiracy between a local businessman and the sheriff. A visiting lawman confronts him, gets into a fight, and eventually is knocked cold and locked up. A not very plausible stories with unconvincing action and clichéd dialog.
Tex Ritter adds some class to the last two stories, playing Tex Haines in both. In the first, he has to unmask a mysterious figure who is coercing the local ranchers and in the second he stops a range war. In the former, the villain is known as the Whispering Skull, even more reminiscent than ever of the serials. There are some amusing but contrived false unmaskings before the real villain is identified. The last segment is less noteworthy. Gabby’s tall stories are cute but overall the show doesn’t hold up well at all.
Dark Ride (2006)
Part of the After Dark Horrorfest. Two young girls take a ride through a haunted house and are attacked by someone posing as one of the exhibits. The opening sequence is pretty scary, but then we jump forward to the present and a group of typical Hollywood college students, including the mandatory nerd and the two babes, are brought together for an unauthorized excursion to the very same amusement park, where they hope to spend the night. Unbeknownst to them, two sadistic guards at an asylum unwisely provoked a deformed inmate and met a rather over the top bloody end resulting in his escape and, unsurprisingly, move to the amusement park.
The prospective victims engage in the usual inane dialogue, although at least they are better actors than most of those gracing direct to dvd horror flicks. They pick up a hitchhiker – what a surprise! – who turns out to be yet another gorgeous young woman – what a surprise!! – though she’s a bit of a psycho. They break into the horror ride and make the usual jokes, then swap scary stories. One of them tells of the murders of the two girls and that Jonah, the killer, is still alive and rather clumsily explains that Jonah was mimicking the exhibits. Not very subtle foreshadowing is it?And this phase of the movie goes on a bit too long with dark sets, odd sound effects, but not much happening.
Eventually they discover that they’re locked in. Boy was that a surprise. And then they find one of their friends, who has been killed and turned into a puppet, and the fun and games finally begin. There’s the obligatory bare breasts and sex scene and we know that the body count is going to rise again. If you’ll believe that a guy can not notice that the woman he’s having sex with has just had her head cut off, you’ll believe anything. They separate, of course, with the usual results. The surprising ending isn’t. Although uninspired plotwise, this is a much better production than the majority of horror films that show up at Hollywood Video, and it does have some good photographic effects, when it’s not too dark to see anything, and a low key but not bad soundtrack. Tobe Hooper did the same basic story, much better, in The Funhouse.
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Matt Damon and Heath Ledger take the parts of the Grimm brothers, who travel through French occupied Germany telling stories and helping with problems that verge on the supernatural. They come to Karlstadt to deal with a witch, which they do, except that it’s all an elaborate con game they’ve arranged beforehand. We then cut to a young girl walking through the woods, wearing a red cloak and hood, menaced by the sound of wolves and carried off mysteriously. The two fakes suddenly find themselves faced with a genuine supernatural opponent when the local governor, who knows that they are con artists, coerces them into search for the children who have disappeared in recent days.
Their initial investigation involves the disappearance of Gretel, reported by her brother Hansel. With a woman as their guide and a deranged Frenchman as their companion, they penetrate an enchanted forest and find a presumably abandoned tower. Unbeknownst to them, a mysterious figure enchants one of their horses and when they return to the village, the enchantment goes with them and another child is stolen. They battle animated trees while the woman fights a werewolf. After various adventures, they decide to break into the tower, which they believe still holds a cursed queen, as well as the explanation about the kidnappings.
Ultimately they defeat the plot to revive the queen at the cost of the children, but only after dealing with an ax wielding masked man and showing up the French, led by Jonathan Pryce. There is some gorgeous photography in this and some of the plot is quite well done, but the acting is only competent, not inspired, and the pace is frequently slow enough that my attention wandered. Most of the special effects are just okay, but the tar baby in the well is particularly clever and well done.
The Mysterious Mr. M (1946)
This is one of the lesser known cliffhanger serials. It opens with a more mysterious air than most. Several small time criminals have been found dead in the river, each bearing the insignia of Mr. M, but they’ve been killed by a chemical that paralyzes the brain. The mystery dissipates quickly as we see Mr. M. using hypnotism in his quest to apply pressure on a scientist who has developed a revolutionary new submarine. The scientist dies of a heart attack after providing the location of his secret plans. The opening scenes advance the plot even faster than normal, but the very poor acting robs it of any sense of urgency.
Mr. M turns out to be a conspiracy of three people, but the tables are turned when a fourth party assumes the role and pressures them to work for him. Now we don’t know the chief villain’s real identity, but we do know that his suddenly reduced minions have several people under hypnotic control. Some of the cliffhangers are innovative, however, as our hero attempts to spy on the criminal organization while they in turn try to lure him to his death. He is particularly motivated because his brother, under hypnosis, committed crimes that have darkened his reputation, and then died from wounds he received sabotaging an industrial facility.
Meanwhile, the conspirators are feuding among themselves, as well as resenting the new Mr. M. Lots of big explosions follow, with our hero escaping every time, and with more of his allies falling under the influence of the hypnotic drug. The frequent conversations among the characters reprising all of the events that have already taken place might have been useful when the chapters were shown at one week intervals, but viewed together they are awkward and stilted and after a while, positively annoying. The real villain’s identity becomes obvious about halfway through, which doesn’t help either.
Freaks and Geeks (1999)
I just finished watching the entire run of eighteen episodes of this blend of comedy and drama, a few of which I’d been able to see when it was originally on television. If ever there was a program that illustrated the fact that quality is no guarantee of success, this was it. Cut short before it could really establish its audience even though it was highly regarded by critics, it is still one of the high points of television history, and the existing episodes are of uniformly high quality.
For those who never saw it, the program was basically split between two overlapping groups of students at a typical high school, more specifically through the eyes of Lindsay and her younger brother Sam. Lindsay has always been an honor student, a member of the Mathletes, a perfect daughter, well behaved and conventional. Following the death of her grandmother (although we never know if there is a connection), she lost interest in her old life and began hanging around with four freaks, rebellious but unfocused, self centered, unrealistic, and preoccupied with pot, sex, rock music, and other things the adult world frowns upon. Her young brother and his two best friends are the geeks, boys interested primarily in academic subjects, science fiction, and similar things, although there is a dawning recognition that girls might be interesting too.
First of all, the casting is great. Most of the recurring characters remind me of people I knew in high school. Lindsay’s parents, though they are exaggerated into caricatures, are also perfectly portrayed by Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker. Second, the scripts are without exception superb. They blend comedy and tragedy, parody and pathos, and the delivery is crisp and riveting. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever watched is the episode in which Lindsay discovers that one of her friends is a con artist and spontaneously bursts out in hysterical laughter. This was Linda Cardellini’s first significant role and it’s not surprising that her subsequent career has been very successful. Most of the rest of the cast have remained active as well.
There are too many great scenes and lines to describe here. The party where everyone gets drunk on non-alcoholic beer, Sam’s first exposure to a pornographic film, Lindsay’s first (and only) attempt to smoke pot, the breakup of the garage band, the fake IDs, the school mascot, the missing diary, Sam streaking through the corridors, and many many more. The various story lines were taking interesting turns as the series ended, with Lindsay’s parents becoming less caricatures and the other parents taking an increasingly significant role. One of the frustrations of a program like this is that once it’s cancelled, we never get to find out how things work out. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t leave us hanging the way Surface and Invasion did a year ago, but it’s still annoying that the network didn’t give this lovely bud turn into a full flower. The final episode does provide some hints of the futures of its various characters, which just makes it that much greater a loss that we'll never see where that road leads.
The Red Skelton Show Volume 1 (1951)
The clownish type of humor for which Red Skelton was famous appealed to me as a kid but not so much as an adult, which made me apprehensive that I wouldn’t care for this show, which I hadn’t seen in fifty years. The humor of Freddie the Freeloader and Clem Kadiddlehopper is more akin to circus clowns (Skelton’s father was a professional clown) than to modern standard comics or sitcoms. The first of the four episodes gathered here starts with a monologue that demonstrates the best and worst of Skelton. Most of his jokes were less than scintillating, even by 1950s standards. On the other hands, his impersonations and characterizations – almost always silent – are great. He had a very expressive face and a skilled eye at picking out people’s mannerisms.
The first skit, Skelton as a British newscaster, is pretty lame as is the lecture on a new sport, Pedestrian Polo, although it may be the origin of the joke about scoring points for running down various kinds of pedestrians. Like Ernie Kovacs, Skelton makes fun of his sponsor, in this case Tide laundry detergent, Pet Milk, Johnsons Wax, and Geritol. The second monologue is much better, with Skelton demonstrating how different professions applaud. Ed Sullivan is the guest star, laconic as always, doing a fairly serious version of his own show, ending with the introduction of Skelton as a stereotyped prizefighter. It is interesting to see how many celebrities were in the audience but otherwise it’s very dull. The western skit is considerably better but goes on a bit too long. Some of the flubs (this was live television) are funnier than the material.
George Raft is the guest star for the third episode, which opens with a short but much funnier monologue than the others. Skelton plays a man fascinated with his son’s toys. He stumbles on a formula that dissolves fog and decides it will make him rich but a bunch of gangsters, led by Raft, want to steal his discovery. Most of the fourth episode is spent on an extended skit in which Skelton is searching for a hobby and encounters a pair of flim flam artists, but the laughs are few and far between. The set has its ups and downs, but more of the latter than the former.
I overheard a conversation a while back discussing the film, The Transporter, making it sound interesting enough that I picked up a cheap copy. I watched it three times in the next two months and the day Transporter 2 came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it. The star is Jason Statham, who does martial arts with complete seriousness, even when the fight sequences are ridiculously stylized, and somehow he made me believe them. With a less than stellar supporting cast, which improved with the sequel, he foiled the criminal, never quite got the girl, and entertained me immensely. In both films, he’s a likable criminal, a man who drives the getaway car but doesn’t participate otherwise. He’s a crook this time as well, a hitman who is injected with a poison in retribution for his last job. The drug will kill him within an hour and he decides to use that time to get some payback.
There’s a lot of ground to cover quickly, so the opening stages of the movie are a bit jerky, but convey considerable background, his girlfriend, his job, his presumed fate, and his initial reaction. The time limit gives this something of the feel of 24, although it’s concentrated on a single character. The catch is that the drug affects his adrenal glands, so the only way to stay alive is to stay excited and active, on an adrenaline high that overcomes the drugs. In a scene reminiscent of The Blues Brothers, he leads the police through a mall – his car ends up on an escalator – then escapes in a cab and stocks up on stimulants. The jerky camera action is a bit disorienting at times, but is appropriate for what is actually happening.
Things accelerate rapidly, with an encounter with his nemesis’ brother, a raid on a hospital, and his subsequent escape. There’s also quite a bit of, sometimes crude, humor that works surprisingly well in this context. Statham suspects that the killer might go after his girlfriend (Amy Smart), so he goes to her apartment, where she refuses to leave with him until he fixes the clock on her microwave A gang of killers shows up before they get away and she seems oblivious to the danger, even when he is killing two of the opposition. The dead parakeet is a nice touch. Later he tries to tell her the truth about what he does for a living, and she refuses to believe him.
Then the plot changes when we discover the truth about the hit. Statham discovers that his former friends want him dead as well and his ditzy girlfriend keeps getting in the way. There’s a nifty car chase after which he gets the final word. There is no cure; he’s going to die. But he’s determined to take his killer with him, so he sets up a meeting, knowing that there will be a small army waiting for him. Violent, simple minded, and with no redeeming social value, but still fun.
Although the movie lacks some of the charm of the Transporter films, in large part because the protagonist is a lot less likable, there is certainly no shortage of action. His patron has already written him off, but a doctor friend tells him to steal some epinephrine, while another friend spies on the man who injected him. Statham has more presence than almost any other actor I’ve ever seen, which makes up for his relatively unsophisticated delivery.
Brick Bradford (1947)
Brick Bradford is a typical cliffhanger serial hero, a man of many skills who is contacted by an envoy from the United Nations. It seems that a Dr. Tymak has invented a futuristic anti-missile system and the authorities are concerned that it will be stolen, specifically by a gang of men led by Laydron, an arch-criminal, who knows that the invention could be “the most devastating weapon of war the world has ever seen”. Unfortunately, the weapon can only be powered by lunarium, an element found exclusively on the moon and a handful of meteorites. In order to secure more lunarium, Tymak has built the crystal door, a matter transmission portal that leads through the “fifth dimension” to the moon. The fact that this is far more significant than the anti-missile defense apparently never occurred to the writers. He also has an electric force field that surrounds his laboratory.
When the bad guys penetrate the shield and accost Tymak, he uses the portal to escape to the moon, which has a breathable atmosphere, gravity identical to Earth, and is inhabited by a race resembling ancient Romans who fortunately speak English!They throw him in the dungeon and remark that he’s the first Earthling to arrive for fifty years. Meanwhile, Laydron decides to impersonate Tymak, although he’s unmasked fairly early and flees. Bradford and friends then follow Tymak to the moon, hoping to rescue him, nearly losing their own lives as the moon men trap them repeatedly.
They escape and contact the democratic opposition to the queen and her ruthless supporters. After engineering a revolt, they return to Earth to thwart the villains again, now using new weapons including a device that allows them to become invisible. Tymak is kidnapped again, however, and after being rescued, he reveals that he has built a time machine. This guy is obviously a real genius! But Bradford and friend are not; they travel back to the past and are immediately captured by a primitive tribe. While they’re trying to survive in the past, Tymak comes up with a new weapon, a disintegration ray.
There are quite a few amusing scenes in this one, sometimes even intentionally so, with Brick’s sidekick getting most of the good lines. The actual cliffhangers are subpar, as is most of the acting. One novelty is that instead of having a good guy revealed to be secretly a villain, which is the usual formula, one of the good guys in this case decides to change his loyalty. They win in the end, of course, but there is surprisingly little violence, only a handful of fist fights and almost nobody gets shot, blown up, run down, or crushed. Bradford never even gets his hair ruffled and remains calm in the face of every danger.
Sky King Volume 1 (1951)
I have fond memories of this from my childhood, but based on this sampler of four episodes, I’m not sure exactly what the attraction was. Sky King is the pilot of the Songbird, a private plane, and uncle of Penny, who lives with him on the Flying Crown Ranch. The characters were based on an earlier radio program, and other regulars were introduced later in the 1950s. The sometimes annoyingly perky Penny often gets into trouble that her uncle is forced to extricate her from, but there are plenty of other excuses for conflict.
The episodes collected here are fairly typical. In “Sky Robbers”, the proceeds of an air race are stolen by a gang of thieves in a reasonably clever manner, although not clever enough. A blind child and his seeing eye dog help solve another robbery in “A Dog Named Barney”, which was a bit too cute for me. A prospective bridegroom is framed for a crime he didn’t commit in “Bullet Bait” and in “Wild Man”, the best of the set, a reclusive mountain man is similarly unjustly accused until Sky and Penny uncover the real villain. Corny at times, light adventure at best, but there is still an undeniable charm about the characters.
Golden Age Theater Volume 1 (1956)
This anthology show produced over two hundred episodes, featuring a wide variety of big name talents. Each story was presented almost as a stage play, with limited sets and a small cast. Four episodes are included here, the first, “Let It Rain”, starring a very young Ronald Reagan and Cloris Leachman. Reagan is a debunking reporter who arrives in a small southern town that hasn’t completely let the Civil War die. He encounters a trio of unlikely characters including Cloris Leachman, who sits in a tree. Reagan observes that this is the first town he’s visited in North Carolina that doesn’t have a Civil War statue. She tells him that the whole town is a monument because every young man in the town died during the war. She also shows him a tree transfixed by a sword, supposedly thrust there by the ghost of one of the fallen. Reagan, convinced that he can only win her heart by dispelling her curious belief in legends, writes a column debunking the entire legend. He then discovers that he is descended from a Confederate deserter who came from this very town. This surprisingly complex and effective story is based on a short story by James Street.
“Feathertop”, starring Natalie Wood, is based on the fantasy tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A witch brings a scarecrow to life and sends him off to make love to the daughter of a proud local man. It’s a comic fairy tale with painted backdrops and deliberately exaggerated acting, quaint in its way, but a bit too artificial for me, although the scene in which the scarecrow’s real appearance shows up in a mirror is nicely done. Joe E. Brown, one of my favorite comedians from that era, stars in a more serious role in “The Golden Key”, playing a retired railroad worker who has lost interest in life. No one in town believes that Earl was anything but a bum except a young boy, and even he is discouraged by the man's alcoholism. The crisis comes when a telegrapher arrives in town, hired to provide real time coverage of the World Series. The telegrapher recognizes Earl as a well respected railroad man, much to the surprise of the rest of the community. At the crucial moment, Earl refuses to announce the results of the game and leaves town to work on the railroad again, telling only his young friend what happened.
Jack Benny is a piano tuner in "The Honest Man." After an amusing opening scene in which he tunes Liberace's piano, he visits the apartment of Zsa Zsa Gabor to work on hers. He gets involved with a succession of beautiful women, gangsters, and his girlfriend's irritable brother (Charles Bronson) in a sometimes lightly funny but in the end pretty trivial piece replete with the usual Jack Benny shticks.
The Buccaneers Volume 1 (1956)
Robert Shaw starred in this lightweight story of pirates in the Caribbean as Dan Tempest, a man determined to reform and earn a pardon by acting as a privateer in the English war against Spain. The program, filmed entirely in England, only lasted a single season. It has a nice, lively theme song and some nice camera shots, alas in black and white. The four episodes here start off with “Articles of War”, which places more emphasis on humor than anything else. Because of a shortage of red meat, everyone on Nassau is eating fish except for the sick and injured, which includes three Spanish prisoners. A small group of sailors decide to find a way to secure some of their provisions for themselves, setting the stage for the arrival of a Spanish warship which demands the release of a prisoner in exchange for safe passage for their provision ship. Tempest decides to attack the Spaniard instead, but the malcontents hatch an elaborate and unlikely impersonation.
“The Aztec Treasure” has another traditional plot. Tempest and his crew are off to find a rumored treasure trove on a remote island, despite the fact that it is supposed to be guarded by a crocodile. They reach their goal and are promptly captured by the local tribe, who are led by a surprisingly enlightened priest and who conveniently speak English. Tempest saves the priest’s life and they’re allowed to leave in peace. “Blackbeard” pits the authorities against the most notorious pirate in the Caribbean. It was the very first episode, with a new governor coming to offer a pardon to the pirates, and Robert Shaw didn’t appear until episode three. Fairly well scripted, with a few good lines, and a moderately well done sword fight. Finally there’s “Cutlass Wedding,” in which a reluctant bride groom’s flight leads to the capture of several women by a ruthless pirate. Surprisingly sophisticated for what was essentially a children’s show, and several of the performances lend the show more stature than it might otherwise command.
Komodo vs Cobra (2005)
Jurassic Park IV this definitely isn’t. I wasn’t expecting much from this low budget, CGI monster movie, so I wasn’t particularly disappointed. Originally made for the Sci-Fi Channel, I believe, it does feature some very nice outdoor photography, and the two monsters – an oversized lizard and an oversized snake – are reasonably well done, although I thought the former moved rather jerkily at times. Anyway, the story opens with a woman and two men running from the komodo, which eats the younger man. The other is gulped down shortly thereafter by the cobra while the woman, his daughter, joins the ranks of scream queens.
We soon learn that the island is a military reserve, that they are late communication with the mainland, and that a group of environmentalists and a pair of photojournalists have hired a boat to take them to the island to investigate what the authorities are doing. The team is obviously fodder for the monsters and all the guys are studs and all the gals look like they’ve arrived fresh from a pinup calendar shoot. They converse in snippy bits of dialogue that sometimes don’t seem to mean everything, and the female contingent switches to bathing suits at the first opportunity. If this had been theatrically released, presumably they would have dispensed with these as well.
A military unit arrives by helicopter during the night but they have “a bad feeling about this place”. Someone must have slipped them a copy of the script. An oversized komodo kills most of the soldiers, ignoring multiple gunshot wounds before being blown apart by an explosive. Then momma komodo shows up and the rest of the team is toast. Come morning, the environmentalists arrive and we discover that they believe that illegal animal experimentation is taking place on the island, which they plan to expose.
Meanwhile, the military, led by a John Cleese lookalike, has realized that their team is missing, so they order a reconnaissance flight to take photographs. I don’t blame them. The scenery is gorgeous. Our dauntless explorers run into a field full of giant corn on their way to the compound, which turns out to be a rather fancy looking building in the middle of nowhere. “Who the hell built this way out here?” Good question. The environmentalists have a picture of an expert on “DNA cloning” at the site and believe he came to the island to conduct research that is illegal in the US.
They plan to enter the building before the people inside can destroy any incriminating documents. One wonders how they expected to get to look at them even if there were such things since the invaders have no legal status and no weapons. They find the complex deserted and there’s no sign of a laboratory. A few minutes of inane dialogue follow. Enter the survivor from the opening attack, carrying a gun and an attitude. She insists that they all leave the island immediately, herself included, but doesn’t tell them why. Their plans to do so are somewhat interrupted when one of their number is promptly devoured by the cobra after stupidly refusing to run away.
The komodo claims the next victim while our hero with the gun that never needs to be reloaded pumps several dozen rounds into it without any effect. The survivors take refuge in a hidden installation below ground, a very elaborate setup which apparently has no communications equipment (!), and no one has a cell phone (!!). We get some back story here. The scientists were stimulating plant growth by injecting the seeds with animal DNA. One wonders why the military would be supporting an agricultural research program at the outset, although later they decided that there might be military applications and insisted on use of the research on the two now giant animals. These two species were chosen because they were both “amphibious” and were immune to most diseases affecting humans. We never actually find out how they escaped, or why there was no provision to deal with them if they did get loose. She also explains that communications are out because the “short wave radio tower” was knocked over by one of the creatures.
The survivors expect to be rescued, but the surviving scientist disabuses them. The army is more likely to respond by “destroying this whole island”. They’re on their own, and there might be as many as a dozen of each of the giants. The next incredible plot twist is that the military was unaware of the giant creatures, which means either they were created overnight, given the daily progress reports the island was sending. And predictably, the commanding officer wants “the entire island pulverized”. The environmentalists set off for the boat, hoping to escape, and run into another survivor from the original scientific staff. His skin is affected by toxic saliva and he dies promptly, but not until he tells everyone that “we shouldn’t have messed with nature”. Later we are told that the scientists have “recklessly transgressed the boundaries of nature”. The script writer really likes the word “heinous” as well.
They arrive at the shore safely, just in time to see a military aircraft blow up their ship and get chased by the cobra. The gun that never needs reloading is ineffective for another few dozen rounds and two more victims are eaten. The cobra was swimming in the ocean this time, which seems to me unlikely, but given the number of unlikely events that have already taken place, what’s one more. They contemplate building a raft, but there’s a helicopter elsewhere on the island, and the ship’s captain just happens to be a trained chopper pilot. En route to the chopper, they cross a river and are attacked by unconvincing giant leeches. That’s when we learn that it took the lizard and snake two weeks to reach their present size, which makes the military’s ignorance of their existence completely nonsensical. More gobbling until the two giants square off for a battle at the helicopter site, just as the army launches its bomb assault on the island. Bad enough to be funny. And I do wonder why the general has a plaque on the wall of his private office celebrating customer service.
Dark Fields (2006)
Sometimes a movie is so bad that you wonder if the people making it could possibly have thought anyone would take them seriously. This horror film opens with a moderately sexy young woman going to school where she discusses a concert that evening. First of all, the actors are clearly too old to be in high school, second, the main character’s clothing would almost certainly not be acceptable in any high school. But I could overlook all of that because neither sin is uncommon in horror films, even some of the better ones.
But then we take some of the most inane dialogue I’ve ever heard, delivered in near monotones by all the characters, and written with plenty of unrealistic detail to fill in plot holes in a compressed format, leaving more time for stupid interchanges, particularly those surrounding the girl whose parents think she’s pregnant because she kissed a boy. Come again? And our heroine’s parents don’t object at all when the people picking her up for the ride to the concert moon them from the driveway. It’s always nice to have an understanding mom and pop.
The camera work is uninspired at best, fuzzy at worst, and frequently uses extreme close-ups that just don’t work. The editing is even worse. Several shots last so long that I thought my DVD player had frozen. Others just wander off meaninglessly. So anyway, guess what happens on the trip to the concert. The get lost and run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and, naturally, and there’s no reception for their cellphones. What an original concept for a horror movie! I bet you think they’ll go to a dark, spooky farmhouse to ask for help. Well, you’d be right because that’s exactly what they do.
When the driver fails to come back from his quest for gas, the remaining four follow, and have no compunction about entering the house uninvited to look for him, and promptly decide to split up. A succession of badly redone horror clichés follows, but what’s really surprising is that for the longest time, nothing really happens except that we get more and more annoyed with the cast, the under-lit sets, the bad dialogue and shoddy production values. The performance by the hairy killer makes the work of the rest of the cast seem Oscar quality. Even the brief, tame sex scenes are boring. If you get to see this for free, you’ve been overcharged.
I enjoy good disaster films, and the original The Poseidon Adventure was entertaining and, for its time, had quite good effects. A remake seemed promising, and the opening scenes were pretty much what I expected, nice photography and lavish sets while we are introduced to a variety of characters, including Kurt Russell as Emmy Rossum’s overbearing father, plus the cute kid, the stowaway, and Richard Dreyfuss as the desperate man. Once we’ve become acquainted with all the major players, we go to the bridge, where they’ve decided that “something is wrong”. And just as Dreyfuss is about to jump over the side, the tidal wave hits.
The capsizing, which is in some ways the high point of the movie, is convincingly done. I thought the overflowing swimming pool was a particularly nice touch. There are hundreds of survivors, but they’re all trapped in the now inverted ship, and they’re surrounded by mangled corpses and occasional fires or electrical discharges. The usual stuff. Panic and confusion follow. There are more explosions, bloody death scenes, and stunts than in the original film, but it’s not as engaging despite good performances by most of the cast. There’s just not enough time to get involved with the characters; they’re in imminent crisis mode so constantly that there’s no time for reflection.
We dispose of the excess cast members by having the windows collapse under the pressure. The handful still alive are now desperate to reach the surface, the bottom of the boat, before the interior is completely filled and the vessel sinks. The usual clichés follow, the trapped kid, the noble sacrifice. Finally the last few make it to the surface in time to greet the rescue parties. Much spectacle, less content.
The Thirteenth Hour (1947)
Return of the Whistler (1948)
This was the last Whistler film by Richard Dix, in fact, his last film altogether. He died in 1949. Dix is found guilty of drunk driving on a technicality, reported by a policeman he beat out for the affections of a young woman. With his license suspended, he is forced to hire someone to drive for him, but one day he is trapped into driving himself, even though he has no license. Dix has a rival, another trucking company run by a ruthless man who arranges the theft of a truck Dix is driving and its involvement in the death of a policeman. Dix is the prime suspect, of course, and is on the run, trying to find the real criminal before the police catch up to him.
Where The Fugitive involved a one-armed man, this time it’s a missing thumb that is Dix’s only clue to the identity of the real killer. Masquerading as a blind man, Dix spies on people working for his rival to get whatever information he can find. Before long he is knocked unconscious – again, finds himself suspected of a murder – again, but perseveres, eluding the police as he investigates a stolen car ring. And then there’s the mysterious diamonds found in the guilty man’s glove. Despite some implausible incidents, it’s a reasonably suspenseful story and one of the better ones in this series, and the revelation of the criminal mastermind was a complete surprise.
The final Whistler film, Return of the Whistler, based on another Cornell Woolrich short story, was the only one not to star Dix. Newlywed wannabes find the justice of the peace has been called away, so they are forced to stop at a dumpy hotel run by Olin Howland, who refuses to let them share a room. The bride to be, Alice, gets the room while the protagonist, Ted, sleeps in their car, but in the morning she’s missing and the clerk insists she left right after he left her. A private detective overhears the conversation and offers to help, and hears the story of how the couple met only two weeks earlier, under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and that the young woman was previously married to an American, now supposedly dead.
The detective clearly believes that Alice is a con artist, and Ted’s account – a series of flashbacks – seems to suggest the same thing. These include an apparent break in by someone who went through Alice’s belongings. When Ted finds information about Alice’s in-laws, including her marriage certificate, the detective slugs him and steals the documents. He goes to their house to confront them and is greeted by a man who claims to be Alice’s husband and insists that Alice has episodes in which she forgets that he’s still alive. Alice is there as well, and hesitantly confirms the story, but Ted refuses to believe her, with justification as we discover as soon as he leaves. They’re all after her estate, of course. We also discover that the detective is unaware of the true state of affairs.
Ted finds evidence contradicting the story he was given and tries to see Alice alone, only to discover that the family has decamped and plans to have Alice committed to a sanitarium. At the same time, the detective sees a picture of Alice and her dead husband, and becomes suspicious himself and heads off to advise the police. Ted, posing as a prospective patient, visits the sanitarium, rescues the girl, punches the chief villain just as the police arrive to save the day. A very similar plot was used for another classic suspense film, The Vanishing.
The Riverworld novels are not my favorite books by Philip Jose Farmer in the first place, and I had a feeling that the interpretation produced for the Sci-Fi Channel would be even less to my taste, which explains why it has taken more than three years for me to decide to watch it. It opens with a shuttle crashing, a brief surrealistic bit, and then a horde of naked people, including a badly designed caveman, struggling ashore on the banks of the Riverworld. Everyone has been restored to relative youth and have been harvested from various times and places. An explosion draws their attention to one of the towers from which they will be provided with food. Somehow they can all understand each other, but not well enough to prevent several fistfights before they’re attacked by barbarian warriors and mounted cavalry.
They are promptly impressed into the army or taken as slaves, and the story starts to decline promptly. There’s also an alien who apparently died on Earth some time in the future. The initial conversation with him almost made me stop watching, full of scientific terms that have no meaning in context. He announces that he died trying to warn the Earth of an asteroid collision, which warning they ignored, and that the Earth was therefore destroyed. Another unique individual is in the same cage, a mute child who is, supposedly, the only child that has been resurrected. At this point, I imagine Farmer must have stopped watching.
Our hero, Hale, escapes, thanks to a mysterious hooded figure, steals a guard’s uniform, and follows the captives to the villain’s stronghold, where the prisoners are scheduled to fight to death in the arena. One of them announces that he is Nero, emperor of Rome, and the bad guy’s cohorts immediately begin hailing him as their leader. After rescuing the prisoners, the astronaut and the alien have another mind numbingly dumb conversation during which we learn that the Riverworld’s mountains are all unclimbable and that the atmosphere is so thin that there are frequent meteor strikes, three of them happening on cue to illustrate the point.
The fugitives find an uncertain refuge with a reclusive group led by Samuel Clemens who are building a riverboat. The inane dialogue continues. Even though less than two days have passed since she was alive, one of the characters announces that she’s “almost forgotten what it’s like to wear civilized dress”. Meanwhile, Nero’s minions have already informed him of the riverboat’s existence. Since our hero has the power to catch glimpses of the future (!!!), he informs them that he knows the riverboat should go upriver rather than down. Apparently the Riverboat is going to be propelled by cold fusion, an installation of which has been built even though they don’t have enough metal to forge sufficient weapons.
While attempting to steal metal from Nero, Hale is captured and discovers that there is a spy among the riverboat people, who are promptly attacked and defeated. Hale is released by the mute girl while Nero attempts to convince the female lead that she should be his empress. Hale frees the prisoners and leads a counterattack. The final confrontation is a ludicrous swordfight aboard the riverboat. Nero, who has easily defeated the Vandal leader barehanded against a sword, loses to a man who never had to fight with one before. The best part of the film is the occasional glimpses of beautiful scenery, and the nicely designed riverboat. I know that film is a different media than the printed word and that books don’t usually translate directly to the screen, but there’s no excuse for internal inconsistencies, and sloppy writing. We don’t even find out why the child was the only one on Riverworld, or why the hooded creatures are particularly interested in these particular characters. Presumably further films were contemplated. Fortunately, they didn’t come to pass.
The Mysterious Intruder (1946)
The Secret of the Whistler (1946)
Two more Whistler movies. In the first, Dix is a seedy private investigator who is approached by an elderly man who wants him to track down a missing girl. Dix chews the scenery quite a bit this time, particularly in the first part of the movie, as he tries to find out why the missing Elora Lund is potentially worth a very large amount of money. Frustrated, he sends another woman to impersonate Lund, hoping to elicit more information from his client. He tells her that he found something very valuable among the possessions she left behind, but doesn’t explain what it was. Before he can do so, Mike Mazurki appears and kills him, then kidnaps the girl, but he lets her go when he discovers she’s not who he thought she was.
Dix tracks down Mazurki , who is killed in a shootout with the police before providing any useful information. Dix hightails it out of the area to avoid being connected to the case and is nearly shot by a police detective. He loses a shoe in the process and the police suspect that he is more involved than he lets on. Meanwhile, the real Elora Lund, who has been staying in a rest home, discovers that someone is looking for her and contacts the police. Dix is arrested but released, and he confronts the imposter, who set him up because she knows how much money is involved, although he still doesn’t know what the source of that income is. He soon figures it out, though - rare wax recordings of a famous singer. Although he pretends to be helping her, Dix arranges for her to be held incommunicado while he recovers the recordings. The imposter is then found strangled in her apartment, and Dix is the prime suspect again. Dix discovers and kills the real murderer, the apartment house manager, and then is killed by police accidentally while trying to prove his innocence.
The Secret of the Whistler deals with a love triangle. Dix is an artist this time, a man supported by his wife but secretly interested in his new model, although she doesn’t reciprocate. He’s not a very good artist, and the guests at his parties are contemptuous of him behind his back. She’s no prize either, is clearly taking advantage of Dix for purely mercenary reasons. Dix is just waiting for his wife to die before proposing, but a new treatment results in a remarkable recovery. She discovers his infatuation with the model and cuts him off financially, ordering him out of the house.
Eventually he uses poison to murder his wife, whose health is in any case quite poor, but the results aren’t what he expected. Months pass and Dix marries his fortune hunting girlfriend. She discovers the dead wife’s diary and begins to suspect that Dix tried to murder his wife, but the last entry indicates that she saw him meddling with her medication. That, however, means that she died of natural causes after all. She provides evidence that brings the police, but he discovers her treachery and kills her before being shot himself. He lives, but despite the discovery of evidence that he didn’t kill his first wife, he is clearly responsible for the murder of the second. John Hamilton, who later played Perry White, has a small part.
Master of the World (1961)
In some ways I’d like to see this classic remade with modern special effects, but on the other hand, no one is ever going to be able to bring Robur to life the way Vincent Price did. The movie is based on two novels, Clipper of the Clouds and Robur the Conqueror. An ominous voice and a rumbling sound frightens the citizens of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, the first hint that Robur and his airship are about to challenge the world. Robur is an airborn version of Captain Nemo, so opposed to war that he is willing to kill people to express his distaste. A government investigator, played quite well by Charles Bronson, is included in a group who are taken prisoner after they investigate the interior of a supposedly dead volcano.
The captives, including an arms manufacturer, his daughter, and her snooty boyfriend Evans, are given a detailed tour of the ship, which is made primarily of specially treated paper to reduce its weight. The Albatross is nicely modeled and the aerial photography is convincing. Robur reveals his true purpose when they encounter a military vessel at sea. The crew refuses to abandon ship, so Robur drops a bomb and destroys it, to the shock of his involuntary passengers. All but Bronson attempt to escape a while later, but they are thwarted, turned in by the government agent. Robur, who moves forward with his plan despite occasional doubts, orders the British government to disarm. Their response is a naval broadside, to which he responds with more bombs, destroying numerous vessels.
Additional conflict rends the prisoners. Bronson’s motives and honor are questioned. A rapid sequence illustrates Robur’s campaign against various foreign powers, with no effective defense suggested. Bronson finally suggests that they sabotage the vessel, even if it means the loss of all their lives. Like the Nautilus, Robur’s mission and his marvelous invention must die. Although necessarily a period peace, the moral question of employing warfare to prevent warfare is as valid today as it was when Verne first wrote the novel.
Severed: Forest of the Dead (2005)
As a general rule, I don’t care for zombie movies. There are a few exceptions, but they generally concentrate on gross outs rather than suspense, and after a while the blood and guts loses its shock value. So the description of this one didn’t make it look too promising, and the only reason I gave it a look at all was because – unlike most of them – it had a cast that didn’t consist of unknowns, although none of them are really star quality. The story gets underway in logging country, when a worker is infected by strange sap from a tree he is cutting down. The next we know, the logging camp has stopped communicating with the outside world and the boss sends his son in to find out what happened. There is also a group of environmental activists to add a bit of peripheral conflict.
Sonny boy shows up and is promptly attacked by one of the loggers turned zombie. In this particular interpretation they’re not much more coordinated than in most, but they’re considerably louder. Naturally, he doesn’t carry a cell phone or radio even though he’s venturing out into the wilderness alone. More zombies show up, along with a small number of surviving normals, all of whom are similarly bereft of anything that will allow them to communicate with the outside world, including the environmentalists, who are hiding in a shack not far from where the zombies are devouring the bodies of the fallen. It’s obvious right from the outset that the disorder is caused by an experimental substance the lumber company is using to accelerate tree growth. If we’re too slow to catch the hints, there’s a scene in due course in which a lab technician cuts himself and runs amok.
The next clumsy and implausible plot trick is that the board of trustees of the lumber company agrees to implement a series of “containment procedures”, which obviously means sacrificing the lives of anyone still alive at the logging site. Almost equally implausible is the refusal of the survivors to simply vacate the area, since they can easily outdistance the zombies. Instead they stay around so that they can be picked off one by one. The reasonably competent acting just makes the absurdities of the plot more obvious. The camera work is atrocious as well, constantly jerking around so that we don’t have time to actually focus on anything, presumably to emphasize the violence of the attack, although the same technique is used even in transitional scenes. We don’t even get the benefit of seeing the beautiful outdoor scenery since everything is shown in a dull grey haze and almost every scene is shot in so close that we can’t see the background.
Eventually several of them do manage to find a working vehicle but it’s two hundred miles to the nearest town and someone has locked a gate across the road. Rather than leave on foot, they return to find the communications room, which apparently they had forgotten about previously. Then an encounter with a zombie results in an accident and they’re on foot anyway. Predictably, they don’t make it and, after losing several others, they hook up with another group of survivors who are systematically killing off the zombies. The company, meanwhile, has sent an armed helicopter to shoot them all from the air. By this point, I’d lost all interest in whether they lived or died, and the scene in which the leader of the survivors shoots one of his own, followed by an apparent attempted rape, just muddled further a plot that had already become hopelessly undirected. I was greatly relieved when it all finally ended.
Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939)
The basic premise of this twelve part cliffhanger serial is that an escaped criminal mastermind has decided to get revenge on the man who was instrumental in having him sent to prison. To do this, he impersonates his enemy and sets about systematically destroying the industrial empire that he has built. To this purpose, he employs a small army of thugs and crooks. Unhappily for him, one of the steps of his plan awakens the animosity of three daredevils who perform various death defying stunts while attempting to identify and neutralize the mastermind behind the attacks, and who is always referred to by his prison number, 39013.
The imposture is handled simply by switching actors. The action is, as is the case in all of these serials, unrelenting. The Red Circle is the collective name for the daredevils, who are nearly interchangeable. They survive the usual collection of traps, chases, fistfights, gunfights, and car crashes including being trapped in a uranium mine, poison gas, are nearly electrocuted, and foil a plot to sabotage a gas pipeline. There’s a clever double reversal. The real businessman is punching codes into a newspaper which he discards from his cell and which are found by the daredevils, who conclude there’s a turncoat in the crook’s organization, as does he when they seem to know his plans in advance. However, since they tell the imposter what they’re going to do, he can circumvent them, leading them to conclude that there’s a traitor in HIS organization. Actually, there are no traitors at all. Nothing really out of the ordinary but if you enjoy the format as I do, this is well above average.
The Adventures of Kit Carson Volume 9 (1951)
Western television shows during the 1950s generally followed the same pattern as the Cisco Kid, an itinerant adventurer with a hint of Robin Hood, accompanied by a comic relief sidekick. Bill Williams played Kit Carson and Don Diamond was El Toro, his amorous companion. The show lasted for 104 episodes, approximately one third of which are now available on DVD. There are four collected here, a representative sampling in terms of plot if not quality. In “Return of Trigger Dawson”, the twosome befriends a woman and her daughter when they are menaced by the child’s father, an escaped convict. It’s one of the slower episodes, the conflict developing only after some mildly humorous interactions centered on El Toro’s flirtations and some overly cute scenes involving the child. “Riders of Capistrano” is considerably better. A silver bell en route to the mission at Capistrano is stolen and Carson must recover it before it is melted down. “Road to Destiny” is less than enthralling. A false charge of murder is complicate by clandestine animosity from another powerful family. The final episode, “Road to El Dorado”, pits Carson against a gang of stage coach robbers. It’s the best of the four with a relatively complex plot, but all in all, this was a disappointing selection of some of the lesser episodes.
Voice of the Whistler (1945)
Back in 1993, there was a movie called Indecent Proposal in which a millionaire offered to purchase a night with a woman, an arrangement that she and her husband agree to, with predictable tension. This fourth installment in the Whistler series used a very similar device and frankly is much better in its own modest way. John Sinclair is a millionaire who doesn’t expect to live more than a few months. En route to a vacation, he is befriended by a cab driver who shows him another side of life and sets the stage for his personal renewal. He also introduces him to a pretty nurse, engaged to a young doctor, for whom Sinclair feels a growing affection.
Sinclair proposes marriage as a business agreement and the nurse, expecting him to die within months, agrees despite the opposition of her fiancé. Unfortunately for her plans, his health improves remarkably. The jilted boyfriend shows up at the lighthouse where they are living, and Sinclair recognizes the affection that still exists between the two of them. He suggests, ostensibly as a joke, a perfect murder plot involving sleepwalking and a fall from the top of the lighthouse, but when the doctor decides to make use of the device, he falls into the trap. Sinclair kills the doctor but when he tries to make it look as though his victim fell from the window, he is foiled because his friend had nailed the windows shut, believing that it was Sinclair who was sleepwalking. Neatly done, nicely photographed, well paced, and well directed by William Castle.
Although inspired by the computer game, this movie reminded me of the Underworld movies, less well done. It’s a period piece about a young female vampire who is imprisoned in a traveling freak show until she escapes one night, slaughtering various people in the process. She’s a bit odd for a vampire, however, because she can wear a crucifix, but a team of vampire hunters is after her anyway, as well as a group of evil vampires sent by the leader of the undead, who raped her mother. Michael Madsen and Michelle Rodriguez lead the hunters, delivering their lines leadenly. Billy Zane and Ben Kingsley ares only marginally better as vampires. The fugitive vampire, played by Kristanna Loken, starts killing vampires, cutting their heads off, mercifully sparing them from having to listen to her inane dialogue. Apparently in this alternate world, no one has invented the contraction.
Rayne has considerable luck, encountering a fortune teller who provides all the information she needs to locate an artifact that might give her leverage against her father. But naturally there’s a vampire spy who reports her plans. The story continues to move with even more jumpiness than a bad computer game, switching scenes and characters, skipping plot elements, and even the interesting landscapes are photographed with a murky darkness that makes them unappealing. In case you missed it, I was not impressed with the first half of the movie.
There are guardians protecting the artifact, including a badly made up ogre, and a room full of mechanical traps. A battle scene follows with some of the worst fight scene choreography I’ve ever seen, accompanied by grotesquely bad gore effects. The fact that this only received six Razzie nominations is an achievement in itself. Even the soundtrack was awful. One of the vampire masters has a lair which conveniently has windows arranged so that by breaking them all, the entire interior is flooded with sunlight. It’s there that the vampire hunters find and eventually recruit Rayne to their cause. They all get betrayed by Michelle Rodriguez but by that point I no longer cared who lived or died and I only watched the balance of the film because I was too lazy to get up and switch disks.
The Power of the Whistler (1945)
The third Whistler movie opens with a mysterious man (Richard Dix) being struck by an automobile, as a consequence of which he loses his memory. A woman playing at fortune telling tries to read his future, and the cards say that he will die within twenty-four hours, so she impulsively warns him even though he’s a stranger. She tries to help him identify himself, but he carries no identification, only a series of cryptic receipts and notes. One of these is a receipt for flowers sent to a stage performer, but she insists that the flowers came from her fiancé. Another is a doctor’s prescription, but the address is a bookstore and she finds a book there that was written by a doctor with the same name, who died during the 19th Century. There is also the mysterious death of a child’s pet.
The plot is well conceived but the execution, particularly the dialogue, is less than scintillating, and Dix seems much less articulate than in the first two Whistler films. The story slows awkwardly for a while when the woman and her sister offer to let Dix sleep on their couch and doesn’t pick up for several minutes, during which time we learn that the fortune teller is already romantically attracted to the amnesiac, and he announces that he is in love with her a short time later. Their pet bird mysteriously dies during the night, and a squirrel meets a similar fate a short time later.
The three set out to track down clues to the man’s identity, accompanied by quite a bit of inane dialogue, and the sister discovers that he bought poison and ordered a cake delivered to someone else. The Whistler tells us that Dix has recovered his memory and is now only pretending amnesia. The resolution is another mixed bag. The sister’s boyfriend rounds up all of the characters connected to the various clues, who together reveal a story that points to Dix as preparing for murder. Unfortunately, in some cases their reticence to talk earlier is badly handled. One character admits that she knew he was an escaped maniac, but said nothing. His escape from the insane asylum was not reported because the warden thought he was no danger, another absurd twist. Not a shining example of the noir film, and a waste of a potentially good plot.
Sea of Fear (2005)
This thriller opens with an engaging image, a dead body lying across the bow of a small boat, blood dripping into the water, and a shark circling, looking for the source. The story jumps to introduce the major characters, a cast of unknowns other than the captain (Edward Albert). Two young couples have chartered a jaunt aboard a small ship run by Albert and one crew member, with one other passenger whom the captain foists upon the charter group against their wishes. Some nice cinematography follows, but there were early signs that the film would be less than scintillating, including the artificial tension between the two male members of the party, and the general lack of sympathy with feel for any of the characters. Albert is arbitrary rather than cantankerous, and the rest of the cast are either superficial, pretentious, or both.
Telegraphing the rest of the plot, the captain induces them all to announce what form of death they each find most frightening – drowning, suffocation, sharks, stabbing, etc. One night the navigator and his equipment both disappear, along with their dinghy, but the impact of this on the other characters is implausibly low key. There are some nice minor touches implying that not is all that it seems, but the pace remains laconic, not conducive to building suspense. One of the women then commits the cardinal error of horror movies, investigating in the dark by herself, and is stabbed to death. Apparently no one hears her screams even on such a small boat.
Victim number two is hit with a shovel, slashed, and thrown to the sharks and the carnage continues until just the remaining woman and the captain are left. Although there is a genuine surprise in the end, it only works because the script cheats, providing false information that the viewer has to accept as true, followed by a series of additional revelations that made me burst out laughing, and not in a good way. There are good bits and pieces scattered all through the film, but they’re never pulled together and the dialogue during the final confrontation is atrocious, redundant, and the motivations nonsensical. Throw this one back or cut it up for bait.
Mr. & Mrs. North Volume 7 (1953)
Mr. & Mrs. North were a husband and wife amateur detective team who just happened to stumble upon murder and other crimes every time they turned around. The television series was based on the characters created by Frances & Richard Lockridge, but not the actual novels. Richard Denning and Barbara Britton are perfect in the title roles. Since this was a half hour program, each story has to proceed very quickly and the limited number of characters that could be fit into the format usually meant that the viewer could solve the crime long before the Norths. The opening episode on this disc is “Forgotten Grave”, which is set up by a classic situation. The Norths have car trouble during a stormy night, inquire at an inhospitable house, hear a scream and see mysterious writing on a window pane, and plead illness to force the man of the house to take them in. As is frequently the case it is Pamela rather than Gerry who insists something is wrong, that the woman confined to her room is a prisoner rather than a mental patient. Both Norths get involved in fistfights before this one is over. Predictable twists and turns but entertaining.
There’s an escaped convict and a gang of counterfeiters hiding in a vacation lodge in “Loon Lake”, a less successful episode. The Norths take advantage of a falling out among the crooks. Jack Elam looks menacing as the chief villain but can’t save the weak plot. “Terror” is also rather contrived. Another vacation goes wrong when the house of a prominent but secretive scientist is plagued by the attentions of an apparent homicidal maniac. The scientist announces that he is going to cure the maniac by staging a fake murder which will provoke a beneficial crisis. The psychological hokum is pretty thick and the true identity of the mentally disturbed man is painfully obvious from the outset. The fourth episode is “The Nobles”. Pam has agreed to volunteer as an aide to the elderly, but her first client is found shot, not fatally, in her room. She insists she was shot by accident, but it’s obviously a lie, and her family is full of people who seem perfectly capable of murder. The build up is pretty good but the payoff is very lame.
Casino Royale (2006)
I’ve been a James Bond fan from way back, and yes, I think Sean Connery was the best actor for the part, though Pierce Brosnan was nearly as good. It’s too soon to tell about Daniel Craig but, despite all the negative hoopla before this appeared, he does a creditable job in his first outing, continuing the hardbitten tone restored after Roger Moore left the series. The opening sequence is untraditionally low key and shot in black and white, a nod to noir films I imagine, and it establishes how Bond achieved his double-0 status, re-imagining the series from the beginning with Judi Densch as “M”.
The real action starts with Bond trying to apprehend a terrorist, doing so only after the first obligatory chase scene. Unlike other Bond movies, this one is decidedly low tech, a footrace ending at an embassy, which Bond invades and trashes before escaping with a cryptic reference to Ellipsis gleaned from the dead terrorist’s cell phone. In fact, the only car chase in the entire movie lasts less than thirty seconds. Meanwhile, Le Chiffre is manipulating funds belonging to the terrorists for his own purposes. The character is played by Mads Mikelsen, who does an okay job, but he was far less impressive than Orson Welles in the same role for the earlier spoof version of the story. The rest of the characters are well cast, particular Eva Green as Vesper Lynd, Bond’s atypically unspectacular love interest.
Following a lead, Bond heads to the Bahamas and the casino where Le Chiffre is gambling and where Bond wins an expensive car from Dimitrios, one of Le Chiffre’s associates. He also picks up Dimitrios’ wife and, in one of the movie’s cleverer touches, takes her a spin around the driveway of the hotel to his home which is “very close”. Bond follows Dimitrios to a mysterious rendezvous but is discovered and forced to kill him, in the process stumbling into the middle of a plot to set off a bomb at Miami Airport. Another footrace follows, less impressive than the first but still exciting, and not surprisingly Bond foils the villains’ plans. The battle in the cab of the bomb laden truck is well choreographed, but we’ve seen it all several times before.
That leads to the main conflict. Le Chiffre was betting his clients’ money on the stock market, and when the bombing is averted, he loses over one hundred million dollars, putting him in serious jeopardy. To mend the situation, he organizes a high stakes card game at Casino Royale, and the British Secret Service finances Bond to prevent him from winning, hoping to pressure him into seeking protective custody. The story proceeds predictably from there, for the most part. There’s a nifty exchange between Bond and Lynd on the train, one of the highlights of the movie. As usual, Bond’s identity is an open secret, as is his provenance from British Intelligence.
There’s a high tech car, naturally, although no “Q” to deliver it. Giancarlo Giannini is as smooth as always as the duplicitous local agent who helps grease the wheels for Bond. The terrorists show up to put pressure on Le Chiffre and Bond gets caught in the crossfire. Eventually Bond does prevail at cards, after overcoming a doublecross within his own team and a nearly fatal poisoning. And finally, just as we think that everything is over, another level of treachery reveals itself, leading to a spectacular and tragic ending. Easily one of the best Bond films.
The Mark of the Whistler (1944)
Spoiler alert! The second Whistler movie is based on the short story, “Dormant Account”, by Cornell Woolrich. This time Richard Dix plays a one time business executive now homeless and destitute. He decides to improve his lot by claiming an abandoned bank account when he discovers that the account owner’s son, who has the same name, has been missing for years. In order to pursue the impersonation, he makes a deal with a local merchant, agreeing to pay him for temporary room and board and a clean set of clothes. In due course, he is awarded the money, considerably more than he expected, which he takes despite growing worries that he will be discovered. While leaving the bank, he is accosted by a reporter and photographer, worsening the situation.
A mysterious man reads the news story, announces his intention to kill Dix, and then hunts him down at the nightclub where, coincidentally, he has run into the same reporter he met earlier. Dix spots the man, takes alarm, and makes a clandestine exit, but his stalker knows which hotel he’s staying at and follows. The story is interrupted at this point by a totally unnecessary recapitulation of the plot by the Whistler, or more precisely by the Whistler’s shadow. A street beggar warns Dix that his room is being watched, so Dix enlists his aid to retrieve his money.
Dix is then accosted by his pursuers, who claim to be police arresting him for a murder committed by the real heir. Actually, they are the sons of a businessman ruined by the man they believe to be Dix’s father and they want revenge. Dix escapes and takes refuge with the street peddler, who turns out to be the real heir. There’s a brief, violent climax, the villains are killed or captured, but Dix is also unmasked, although the ending is still upbeat. Much of the plot would be implausible today, of course, but in the 1940s record keeping was still primitive enough for this to be convincing.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1966)
I hadn’t watched this in years but it came up in a conversation the other night so I moved it to the top of the stack. Roman Polanski’s spoof of vampire films featured Sharon Tate, not long before her murder by the Manson family. Its opening resembles that of Dracula, with the vampire hunter, played by Jack MacGowran, and his literally frozen associate beating off an attack by wolves and arriving at a remote inn, where they are thawed out by the fire. The inn is festooned with a suggestively large amount of garlic. The dialogue is mildly difficult to follow, not so much because of the accents but because the soundtrack fluctuates so much that it’s hard to hear some of the words.
MacGowran becomes smitten with Tate, who flirts with him as well. When she is attacked and carried away by a vampire while bathing, MacGowran happens to be spying through the keyhole, and is recruited into an effort to rescue her despite the warnings of the populace. In due course, they invade the vampire’s castle, intent upon rescuing the girl and destroying the undead creature. Their less than stealthy approach fails and they make an effort to convince their host that they are completely ignorant of his nature. The castle is, of course, home to dozens of vampires, and the ball scene – in which only the three living people are reflected in the mirror – is worth the price of admission all by itself. There are a couple of other classic scenes, including the one in which one of the young women tries to defend herself from a Jewish vampire using a cross. “Have you got the wrong vampire!”
The sets and cinematography are excellent and the best of the jokes are classic. The closest I have to a serious complaint is that I think it needed tighter editing. Some of the scenes go on too long and some of the camera pans don’t seem to serve any purpose. There have been subsequent vampire spoofs, but none even approach the quality of Polanski’s.
The Whistler (1944)
Although seven of the eight movies in this series starred the same man, Richard Dix, he played a different character in each and the stories are not related to each other. The program was based on the popular radio show of the same name. The Whistler is the narrator, a sort of early manifestation of the Crypt Keeper from Tales of the Crypt. The titles of the films, therefore, rarely have anything to do with the content. In the opening film, Dix plays a despondent man who wishes to end his life following his wife’s loss at sea, but can’t bring himself to commit suicide. His solution is to take out a contract on himself, but when his wife is found alive and he changes his mind, he realizes that he doesn’t know how to cancel the arrangement since his contact has subsequently died during a police shootout.
An interesting, if bizarre, touch is that the killer – whose face we don’t see during the early stages of the film – is reading Studies of Necrophobia. There are other bits of perhaps unintentional humor. Dix’s butler believes that he is “cracking up” and Dix owns a ceramics factory, thereby suggesting he is a crackpot. When a telephone repairman shows up, Dix believes him to be the killer and invites him to do the job, much to the latter’s confusion. The Whistler surfaces as a mysterious whistle and shadow, but the scene adds no value to the story and is simply a concession to the format.
The real killer’s identity is revealed when he breaks into the house, but events conspire to prevent him from finishing the job. Dix finds the dead man’s widow and tries to find out who her husband hired, but she thinks that he is responsible for her husband’s death and wants revenge, so she drives the two of them over a cliff. Dix survives the crash and avoids the police, but the woman is killed. He becomes increasingly paranoid, ducking further encounters with the authorities because he mistakenly believes them to be the hired assassin. The killer, however, has decided to scare Dix to death, and there is clear evidence that he himself is none too mentally stable.. He becomes so interested in his experiment in psychology that he kills a mugger just as he is about to attack Dix.
There’s an additional twist. Dix’s secretary is in love with him and is not overjoyed when the wife is found alive, although a subsequent telegram tells her that the woman has died after all. Dix, unaware of this, is still trying to evade the killer, whose identity he knows, but who refuses to drop his assignment regardless of the circumstances. Everything proceeds from there to the logical conclusion. One of the more engaging of the noir films, although not technically a murder mystery at all.
At Last the 1948 Show (1967)
Five episodes of a British television show that featured Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle, Marty Feldman, and David Frost, an obvious precursor to the Monty Python show. There’s a succession of skits of varying quality but invariable lunacy. Cleese dominates the first episode. One of the early skips has hi as a psychiatrist madder than his patients, a spymaster assigning janitor Marty Feldman to burn down the Kremlin, and an official at a zoo berating one of his subordinates who has been swallowed by a boa constrictor, for the fourth time. The final skit in the first episode is “The Four Yorkshiremen” with Cleese, Chapman, Frost, and Feldman vying to outdo one another about the vicissitudes of their childhood. This was redone as a Monty Python skit.
Episode two, which is far less successful, includes a group of Italians trying to speak English with interesting word substitutions, a less amusing parody of a contest between school children, Marty Feldman has a crooked doctor in a skit that goes on for too long, a somewhat funnier bit about police apprehending a thief in a library, quietly, and a dance program spoof that did nothing for me. The third opens somewhat more promisingly with Cleese as a newscaster whose script has been stolen in mid-broadcast and then as an interviewed who won’t let his guest get a word in edgewise. Marty Feldman is perfect as an annoying passenger on a train. The episode concludes with a piece in which a studio tour interrupts a life television drama. Cleese’s talent for the slow burn is very effective.
The fourth episode starts with an encounter among four men who have the same names, jobs, and clothing and a robot designed to visit lonely hospital patients, both of which have kernels of humor but neither of which is entirely successful. The parody of thriller movies is considerably better, with Cleese as the master criminal, but none of the remaining pieces are of more than minor interest. There’s a more promising opening sequence in the fifth episode, but the balance is a mixed bag. The shirt shop routine is flat and the quiz show frantic but uninspired. Cleese and Chapman have the best spot, an encounter between an insurance salesman and an accident prone client, followed by a cute bit about police confronting burglars. Despite a few low points, these five episodes measure up to the quality of the more polished Python show of a few years later.
Terry and the Pirates Volume 1 (1952)
This early 1950s television show, like the cliffhanger serial of the same name, was based on a syndicated comic strip. Terry and his sidekick, Hotshot, fly a cargo plane around the Orient, employed by a shady Chinese businessman named Chopsticks. They outwit a variety of enemies, the most interesting of whom was the Dragon Lady, played by Gloria Saunders, and sometimes come to the aid of Burma, a nightclub singer. It’s surprisingly easy to stowaway aboard Terry’s plane, a device used frequently throughout the series. The first episode on this disc is the cleverly named “The Boxer Rebellion”, which actually deals with their efforts to assist an exploited Chinese prizefighter. Michael Ansara guest stars in “Chinese Legacy” in which crooks try to defraud a Chinese American who has inherited a small fortune. Keye Luke is a smart police detective in “Green God”. A desperate sailor is murder in front of Chopsticks and an apparently worthless souvenir is stolen. The dialogue is livelier in this one, and the underlying mystery isn’t bad either. It turns out there was a falling out among thieves, including a treacherous doublecross. The Dragon Lady only appears in the last of this set of four, “The Co-Pilot”, consulted by Chopsticks who is looking for assistance with some diamonds, which are being smuggled in the gizzards of a pair of fighting cocks. Terry turns down a bribe but Hotshot is badly in debt and weakens, but there’s a double doublecros this time.. The Dragon Lady (DL to her friends) is prone to dialogue which is delightfully corny at times, with a fake accent and phrasing like addressing Terry constantly as “my golden-haired one”. The series ages surprisingly well and the writing is considerably better than most of the other adventure shows of that decade.
Atomic Rulers of the World (1964)
Early Japanese SF films have a quaint kind of incompetence that is occasionally charming. This is not the best example, a blend of political intrigue and superhero antics. The opening monologue warns that radiation from atomic testing has spread into outer space and is endangering other planets, particularly one in the Emerald Galaxy, whose inhabitants are concerned that one aggressive nation on Earth might make this situation even more dire. So they choose a robot named Starman and send him to save the Earth, where he promptly discovers that a diplomat in Japan is carrying a miniature nuclear device with him.
Given his steel body, it takes him a surprisingly long time to subdue three thugs, during which fight a bunch of school children run off with the bomb. The villains kidnap one of the kids – they all turn out to be from the same orphanage – and pressure him to identify the boy who has the briefcase containing the nuclear device. Meanwhile, Starman catches up to the rest of the kids and identifies himself as a “friend of all children”. He impresses them all by crushing a revolver with his bare hands and takes the bomb away, then sets out to rescue the captured boy.
Even for kiddie fare, the dubbing is spectacularly bad, the dialogue corny, and the fight scenes awkward, although there is a brief but nicely done sword fight sequence. Starman returned in two sequels, Evil Brain from Outer Space and Invaders from Space, both of which were even less plausible, and paradoxically more interesting for just that reason.
The Case of the Black Cat (1937)
The Case of the Stuttering Bishop (1938)
Warren Williams gave way to Ricardo Cortez in the role of Perry Mason for the fifth movie, which was much more a traditional murder mystery. Mason is portrayed in a much more conservative manner, although he is still a foil to the district attorney. This time he’s involved in the investigation of the death of an eccentric millionaire with a penchant for changing his will, missing diamonds, avaricious relatives, and a nosy private nurse. Two more murders follow, and the key to the solution involves a cat which belonged to the caretaker, one of the victims. There’s almost no humor in this one, and for the first time an extensive courtroom scene with a nicely executed resolution with a surprise that caught me completely by surprise.
The sixth and final Perry Mason movie changed stars again, this time casting Donald Woods in the part. A stuttering bishop visits Mason and claims to be the witness that will prove a woman innocent of a manslaughter charge. Rather predictably, he is seriously injured in a mysterious attack almost immediately thereafter, then leaves the country before Mason can speak to him. A complicated story slowly unravels, involving the murder of a very rich man, a possible impersonation, and a twenty year old trumped up criminal charge. The comic sidekick is back, but is rather clumsily done and the mystery, though interesting, is revealed jerkily and without imagination. A disappointing end to the series.
Lights Out! Volume 2 (1950)
Four episodes from Lights Out!, a horror anthology show from the era of black and white television. In the opening episode, “Dark Image”, the new wife of a widower sees the wrong face when she looks into a mirror formerly owned by the dead woman, who supposedly died in an accident. She is recovering from a nervous breakdown, which suggests that she might be imagining things, but the viewer may well suspect that there is foul play at work. The dead woman manages to change places with the living one, briefly at least, followed by a confrontation in which the mirror is smashed and the malevolent spirit is chased away. “The Faceless Man” concerns a once hideously deformed man who undergoes plastic surgery and acquires a normal appearance. After killing the surgeon, he uses his new persona to court the girl who once cruelly rejected him because of his appearance. But he himself is troubled by the appearance of a man with a masked face who seems familiar and knows of the murder, and an earlier one as well, but who refuses to identify himself. I suspected from the outset that the intruder was a manifestation of his guilty conscience, as in Edgar Allen Poe’s “William Wilson”. The nameless character even suggests that he might be a product of the protagonist’s overactive imagination, and in due course we are told that he is in fact a manifestation of the man’s evil side. He falls to his death and his original face is restored. Ably played by Robert Sterling.
Lee J. Cobb and Arlene Francis, later a regular on I’ve Got a Secret, star in the third episode, “The Veil”. Cobb is an ambitious lawyer who arranges the murder of Francis, his lover, to avoid being linked to a scandal. The next morning he has a strange visitor, a heavily veiled woman who wants him to prosecute the man who shot her. The viewer will realize long before Cobb that the woman is in fact his dead lover, seeking justice for her own murder. He is eventually put on trial by a jury of the ghosts of people whose killers Cobb had successfully defended. Much too talky, too obvious, and too flat. The fourth episode is “Perchance to Dream”, a much more interesting piece. A writer for Weird Fiction magazine reads a story by another writer that is word for word the same as one he wrote himself but never submitted. The two meet and other strange affinities manifest themselves, and the first writer’s dreams eventually are premonitions about the other man’s life.
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)
In Warren Williams’ fourth and final Perry Mason outing, he and Della Street get married, of all things. Olin Howland returns as Coroner Strong in time to hear Mason announce that he is retiring from criminal law, another ploy common with film detectives of this error. This time he’s hired to prevent a tabloid from printing a scurrilous story about a woman who greets him in his hotel room with a loaded handgun. The tabloid is obviously set up to blackmail celebrities, and there’s a brief dance of ploy and counterploy before Mason identifies the real power behind the company, a man named Belter. Belter’s wife turns out to be the woman who hired him.
When Belter threatens to divorce her, his wife apparently kills him, and predictably Mason is framed for the crime. He disposes of the various subplots as well as the charges against him in his usual suave, almost casual manner. There’s a reasonably satisfactory surprise in the solution, but it comes so completely out of left field that it’s less satisfying than it might otherwise have been. The performances are less than scintillating, with a new actress playing Della and a new comic relief sidekick who similarly has absolutely no charm. Even Williams seems stiff at times. The dialogue lacks the zip of the earlier films and there’s very little mystery in the mystery.
Lights Out! Volume 1 (1950)
The first volume of this series is a bit of a cheat. There are two episodes from Lights Out!, but the other three episodes are from different, though similar programs, The Veil hosted by Boris Karloff, and Witchcraft, hosted by Franchot Tone. The best single episode is "Jack the Ripper" from the Veil, accompanied by the less interesting "The Return of Madame Vernoy", in which a widow is haunted by her dead husband when she plans to remarry.
"The Passage Beyond" from Lights Out! is a rather talky ghost story. A love triangle unfolds in a drafty old house supposedly haunted by a woman who murdered her husband for infidelity. You can probably figure out where this is going from there, although it isn't quite as clearcut as it seems. No special effects at all, but reasonably suspenseful. In "the Man with the Watch" , taken from a story by SF writer Sam Merwin Jr., a policeman investigates a series of mysterious disappearances. Each victim has previously had a dream about an imaginary country. When he has another victim vanish in front of his eyes, he confronts a man with an odd wristwatch, who is able to interject himself into dreams. The man later identifies himself as an alien visitor, but the actor is so uncertain of his lines that it is sometimes hard to follow his dialogue.
The single episode from Witchcraft is "The Doll in Brambles", based in part on the work of William S. Seabrook. A very young Darren McGavin arrives at a lodge on the coast of France where he tries to intercede on behalf of a friend who has been warned away from the girl he loves and threatened with witchcraft. In due course he is mysteriously paralyzed, and the skeptical McGavin refuses to accept the situation, and in due course the wicked witch is dead and the fair maiden saved.
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)
This is the third and best of the Warren Williams' Perry Mason movies, although the portrayal of Mason varies even farther from the original books. Olin Howland is back, but as a different character. SF fans might just barely recognize him as the old man who becomes the first victim in the original version of The Blob. The story opens with a beauty contest whose promoter skips with the money. A friend of the winner hires Mason to track down the deadbeat and get her prize money. It's obvious from the outset that this one is going to be played more consistently for laughs, starting with Mason's meeting with a client while still recovering from a hangover. Along with the money, this time, one of the contestants is missing.
Mason tracks down Patton, the scam artist, but finds him dead in a hotel room, apparently shot by a woman. Two flimflammed contest winners are sharing another room in the same building, and are obviously the two prime suspects, but there's soon a mixture of imposters, Mason evading the police and spiriting his client out of their grasp, before he finally solves the crime, explaining the intricate sequence of events while his doctor gives him a physical examination in front of the police.
The snappiest dialogue yet, filled with puns, double entendres, and other wordplay. Olin Howland plays Mason's personal physician, who is convinced that he is seriously ill, the consequences of which play out during the course of the story. Genevieve Tobin takes over as Della Street and steals much of the movie with her top notch dialogue and wonderfully bright eyed delivery.
Saw III (2006)
I watched the first in this series, Saw, because I'm a fan of horror movies and the concept as I understood it was interesting. There were sequences in the film that I thought worked very well, and others that I thought failed dreadfully, and the final surprise ending was so implausible that it left me shaking my head. I only watched Saw II because it was cheap on Ebay and I was curious to see what Shawnee Smith was up to since Becker went off the air. The sequel was, I thought, even less interesting and less plausible, although the surprise ending this time was considerably better.
I picked up a used copy of Saw III mostly out of curiosity. It doesn't open well. The first sequence is impossibly dark, the next a pale imitation of something out of Hellraiser. The Jigsaw killer and his new assistant are at it again, devising intricate tests of pain and mutilation for their victims. The first one had its ups and downs, the second one up and a lot of downs, and the third never really gets off the floor. The traps go for gross instead of clever. Inadequate lighting, a complete lack of sympathetic characters, no real sense of urgency despite the emphasis on time limits, and mediocre performances by the cast. The final surprise isn't particularly surprising either.
The Case of the Curious Bride (1935)
Warren Williams' second outing as Perry Mason varies even more radically from Gardner's creation. This time we discover that he's a talented gourmet chef with an active social life, a garrulous nature, and a weakness for pretty faces. The usual pattern of the Lone Wolf, Falcon, Saint, and Bulldog Drummond movies is superimposed, including infatuated ladies, bumbling policemen, and a comic relief sidekick.
Mason is approached by an old friend who wants help proving that her husband is legally, if not actually, dead, although she pretends that she is only making inquiries for a friend. Soon after, an exhumation reveals that the occupant of a grave is missing, and reportedly still alive. Mason figures out that this was his friend's husband, Moxley, who discovered his supposed widow had remarried and saw an opportunity for blackmail. But when Mason goes to warn him off, he discovers that Moxley has been murdered, and his blackmail victim, Rhoda, is the prime suspect.
The case is complicated by the fact that Rhoda's new husband is the son of a wealthy man who would prefer to see her convicted because he believes her to be a fortune seeker. The son, shown in an unfavorable light from the outset, proves to be a spineless worm. The police, on the other hand, indulge in an elaborate ruse to keep Mason from seeing his client. Since this was before George Bush, Mason is able to secure a writ of habeas corpus to see Rhoda, who has been tricked by the police into signing an incriminating document.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, the story barely stops for breath from beginning to end. There's a common misconception that a husband cannot testify against his wife; the law actually says that they cannot be compelled to testify, but can do so voluntarily. Olin Howard is great as the coroner. The mystery isn't quite as clever as in The Case of the Howling Dog, but it's still pretty good.
Master of Orion 3, Infogames, 2003, $49.95
I'd been looking forward to this game for over a year, so I picked up a copy almost the day it appeared. The previous version of the game remains my favorite space combat simulation of all times. The premise is that you are the leader of a space traveling civilization – you can choose the human race or any of several others, each with different advantages and disadvantages. As you explore the galaxy and colonize worlds, you have to deal with a variety of issues. You administer the tax rates, direct research, allocate resources among military, developmental, welfare, technological, and expansion requests, negotiate alliances with other races you encounter, contend for political leadership, recruit talented individuals to help you, and eventually and almost inevitably conduct battles. Master of Orion 2 was set up so that you could click on tabs for the various activities and deal with each on every turn.
Orion 3 replaced the tabs with hyperlinks, which initially seems like a great idea. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that I was forgetting to do things because there was no visual reminder of each activity. That wasn't a major problem, since I could create my own checklist, but unfortunately that wasn't the only problem. In the new version, the designers decided to automate some of the more tedious steps, particularly in allocating resources and choosing which improvements to make. They overdid themselves. Mysterious artificial intelligences do all this work for you, and the whole process is invisible, arbitrary, and maddening. Some planets build items I don't want and I can't seem to turn them off. In fact, much of the game play is taken out of human hands, including some of the things I enjoyed most about the previous version.
There are some improvements. Galaxies are bigger and the new way of constructing star routes makes it much easier to defend against widespread attacks, although that's actually less realistic. Some of the graphics are improved, the passage of laws is a nice feature, there are cases where the hyperlinks are useful. But on the other hand, there's a monotonous sound track, an inadequate and occasionally opaque manual, and the feeling that no matter how long I play it, I'll never really understand what's going on. Mark this one up as the biggest gaming disappointment I've had in years.
I became in instant fan of Jennifer Aniston while watching the otherwise unpalatable horror comedy, Leprechaun. Her quirky, peppy humor was wasted there but it eventually found its outlet elsewhere. It has only been comparatively recently that she's been cast in more serious roles, of which this suspense thriller is one. I was not, however, drawn into this one quickly. Clive Owens' portrayal of a man uncertain about his loyalties and his relationship to his job and his family seems tentative and frankly uninvolving. His initial contact with Aniston's character, whom he meets on a train, didn't engage my interest either.
Their drift toward an affair is gradual. Aniston has an absentee husband, but it's not clear why Owens and his wife have grown apart, although it may be linked to their daughter's health problems. Things are precipitated by a totally unconvincing bar fight, but their tryst is aborted when they are attacked by a criminal who beats Owens, rapes Aniston, and then launches a blackmail campaign, with increasing violence. The plot proceeds primarily due to the stupidity of the protagonist, who doesn't cut his losses despite a clear pattern of escalation and a direct physical threat to his family.
He enlists the aid of a streetwise friend who offers to pressure the blackmailer, but who ends up getting killed instead. Owens' actions from this point onward become increasingly implausible, although his failed effort to dispose of the car carrying his friend's body provides a moment of dark humor. When Aniston is taken hostage by the blackmailer and his accomplice, he still refuses to advise the police and pays their final demand, even though it may cost his daughter her life. The plot advances so slowly from this point on that I couldn't wait for it to end.
Aniston's small role is convincing but insignificant. Owens plays such a nebbish that I had little sympathy for his plight, and his belated confession to his wife makes no sense. The police detective's instinctive suspicion that Owens is involved in the murder comes out of nowhere. There are some nice twists at the end, including a Rambo style ending that was almost comical, but on balance it's just thoroughly unsatisfying. A snappier pace and some judicious editing might have helped.
The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
Warren William, the actor playing Perry Mason in this early adaptation of one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, later became the Lone Wolf, a suave reformed criminal. I confess that my image of Mason has been influenced by the rather grumpy portrayal by Raymond Burr, so there was a mild clash of imagery for the first half hour. The mystery is a clever one. Mason has a new client named Cartwright who claims that his next door neighbor, Foley, is trying to drive him crazy by provoking his dog to howl at night. Cartwright also wants to leave his property to the “pretended” wife of Foley, but when he writes the document he alters the beneficiary to Foley’s legal wife.
Foley contends not only that he’s innocent but that Cartwright is mentally unbalanced, but the viewer is meant to be skeptical. Foley’s wife has mysteriously decamped, supposedly with Cartwright, and Foley’s housekeeper also behaves suspiciously. A little investigation uncovers the fact that Foley ran off with Cartwright’s wife a year ago, so he may have simply stolen her back, but since neither person can be found, Mason is left in a quandary about disposition of the estate. Foley is subsequently murdered in the presence of his real wife, whom he deserted, and the police suspect that Mason is covering up for his client when actually he knows little more than they about what is actually going on. They key depends on the truth about whether or not the dog howled, but proving it either way may be difficult because the dog was killed at the same time as its master. A surprisingly fast moving mystery depending heavily on dialogue and surrounding an intriguing and complex mystery, with a surprising revelation on top of the solution to the mystery.
I was originally attracted to this movie because I'm fond of jungle settings, and this one is filled with gorgeous scenery and some impressive wild life shots. Unfortunately, the plot itself is about adultery and a romantic triangle involving Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly, and even though it's directed by John Ford, it isn't up to his usual standards. Gable and Gardner go from mutual irritation to obvious attraction, but he's too shy to do anything about it. Grace Kelly, an irritatingly pert client, arrives with her less than charming husband shortly after Gardner leaves the outpost, frustrated by her inability to connect with Gable, but she's back in time to stir the pot when Kelly and Gable begin to feel attracted to each other.
If we needed any further clues to tell the good girl from the bad one, it's Gardner who interacts with the animals and doesn't mind getting her hands dirty, while Kelly is the fastidious airhead. Gable finds himself awkwardly caught between the two women rather than the husband and wife and his naive response is not always convincing. A safari into gorilla country runs into trouble and the crisis comes to a head, and Gable's final reconciliation with Gardner is a foregone conclusion, although they don't end up together. A bit hackneyed, particularly the corny death bed scene when they find themselves in the middle of a native rebellion, but gorgeously filmed and with its good moments. I am particularly fond of the sequence where a cheetah casually walks through Gardner's tent and she's so mad at Gable that it takes a few seconds for it to register.
An interesting sidelight is that the Spanish authorities in the 1950s would not allow adultery to be shown in a movie, so they altered the dialogue to change the relationship from marriage to brother and sister, which clearly implies that they are engaged in incest rather than adultery!
City of Death (1975)
I am a long time fan of the Doctor Who series and it has been agonizing how slowly they've been appearing on DVD. This is one of their best installments, featuring Tom Baker, my second favorite Doctor after Jon Pertwee, not surprising since Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker fame was co-writer. The story opens with the Doctor and Romana - my favorite of the Doctor's companions - visiting Paris. There they get involved with an intricate mystery in which an alien who exists simultaneously in different points in time has concocted a scheme to get rich and finance his clandestine project.
The earlier version of the alien - played by Julian Glover - convinces Leonardo Da Vinci to paint several more Mona Lisas, which are then locked away. In the present, the alien arranges to sell the copies to various different collectors, all in secret, each convinced that they are getting the original. Of course, in order to make this believable, he has to actually steal the first one from the Louvre. Great concept, great script, lovely scenery, and excellent performances by all concerned. If you watch only one Doctor Who episode, it should be this one.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Yeah, I know almost everyone has seen this by now and it doesn't serve much purpose to review it at this late date, but I watched it again today and once again felt frustrated by the mix of excellent and awful elements. You all know the plot, and most of you probably know as well that the science is hokey, that you couldn't recreate dinosaurs the way the film (and Michael Crichton's novel) describe, and Lex's instant understanding of the entire computer system operating the resort as soon as she recognizes that it runs under Linux makes me groan every time I watch that scene, but the storytelling in general is excellent and some of the visual effects - particularly the scenes in which the Tyrannosaurus escapes from its cage, and later the hide-and-seek match with the raptors in the kitchen, are so well edited that I can watch them over and over again.
I originally saw this in theaters and - even though I'm a Sam Neill fan - I thought it was Samuel Jackson, Laura Dern, and occasionally Ariana Richards as Lex that really made the film work. I'm also a Jeff Goldblum fan, but I found his character tedious and annoying, and his declaration at one point that the work at Jurassic Park was invalid because the scientists didn't create anything new, they just built on the work of others, is such an outrageous misunderstanding of what science is that it completely invalidated the character for me.
I was also disappointed by the absence of two scenes from the book which had greatly impressed me. The first was probably a question of film length, the sequence in which Dr. Grant and the children travel down the river on a raft, pursued by the Rex. The second is another matter entirely, and I think Spielberg erred in dropping it. At one point, John Hammond is asked how he knows that the dinosaurs are not breeding. He demonstrates a computerized system that counts heat signatures. It counts up to exactly one hundred and stops, because it has been set to count all one hundred dinosaurs. When the question is altered to simply a request for a complete count, it goes over one hundred, a very quiet and very effective device.
The opening sequence from the novel was also dropped, the one in which a young girl is attacked by small dinosaurs when her family's yacht stops over at an island. Oddly, this scene was later used as the opening for the second movie, The Lost World.
Electric Dreams (1984)
This incredibly corny, completely implausible romantic comedy is one of my favorite popcorn movies. The plot involves a nerdy guy (Lenny Von Dohlen) who spills champagne into his computer, which somehow makes it self aware. The naive but increasingly assertive PC, voice by Bud Cort, eventually interferes in Dohlen's clumsy attempt to court Virginia Madsen, a new neighbor who is also a concert cellist. Most of the antics that follow are predictable, but it really doesn't matter. This is almost like re-reading a classic fairy tale. You know exactly where it's going, but you're there for the ride, not the destination. The two stars rise above the mediocre material and the soundtrack is terrific, particularly the sequence where the PC and the cellist play a kind of duelling banjos, without the banjos.
Girl on the Run (1958)
77 Sunset Strip was one of my favorite television shows back during my high school years. This made for television movie was the pilot for the series, introducing Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Stu Bailey, a suave private detective. Edd Byrnes, who would become Kookie as a regular on the show, appears in a very different role, and technically the movie does not fit into the series. The movie opens with the murder of a businessman as he sits in his car, the only witness a beautiful woman who believes she can identify the killer, which obviously places her in danger.
Stu Bailey is hired to find her when she disappears of her own volition, and he does so promptly, insinuating himself into her life after a staged rescue from an offensive drunk. Unfortunately, the killer (Edd Byrnes) has also managed to track her down, which is not surprising because the man who hired Bailey to find her is actually responsible for the murder. Bailey switches from search mode to protective mode, with a little romance on the side.
In true PI tradition, Bailey is knocked unconscious by the chief villain, who has sources inside the police department. Following the third attempt on her life, our heroine disappears again, forcing Bailey to resume the hunt. During the ultimate confrontation, we discover that the killer is the local district attorney, but Bailey outsmarts him in the end. For a television movie, this one's pretty good, but I liked the resulting show even better.
Ecological disaster movies have until recently concentrated on mutations of existing creatures, usually giant sized versions of lizards, spiders, ants, even rabbits in Night of the Lepus. As you might guess from the title of this one, it's mosquitoes in the present instance, mutated because a corrupt businessman has corrupted the local sheriff and is dumping toxic waste into the water supply. There's nothing unusual in the plot, the special effects are merely okay, and the ending is predictable. Tracy Griffiths and Jim Youngs are slightly above leaden in the lead roles. The best part of the movie is in the supporting cast, with Charles Napier as the sheriff and Michael J. Pollard playing one of his usual disturbed characters.
When Do We Eat? (2005)
I'm not sure who recommended this to me, but it proved to be a very funny movie indeed. A dysfunctional Jewish family gathers for a Seder over which patriarch Michael Lerner will preside as Ira, a frustrated man whose wife is playing around, whose children include a sex therapist, a philanderer turned religious conservative, and an autistic teenager, and another daughter who shows up with her lesbian lover. His intention to rush things through run awry when someone slips a psychedelic drug into his drink. What ensues is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on acid, with fine performances by Jack Klugman, Lesley Ann Warren, Shiri Appleby, and the rest of the cast.
The Perils of Nyoka (1942)
One of my not particularly secret pleasures is the old cliffhanger serials from the 1940s, of which I have several dozen. They usually range from 12-15 installments, each ending with one or more of the major characters apparently dying or facing imminent death, only to be reprieved at the beginning of the next installment. Some of them cheat, but most just introduce information we didn't have at the end of the previous installment. A surprisingly large number of these productions included fantastic elements, usually secret inventions. This particular one is set in North Africa. An ancient papyrus provides hints to the location of the scrolls of Hippocrates, which contain among other things a cure for cancer.
The good guys are off to find it, lead by a dashing hero (played by Clayton Moore, later the Lone Ranger), and Nyoka, an American woman searching for her father, who disappeared on an earlier expedition. The other female lead is named Vultura, which obviously means she's a villain, the chief one in fact. With a band of thieving Arabs and a pet gorilla, she variously abducts, tortures, threatens, and imprisons her opponents, determined to find the tablets and melt them down because they're made of gold. Both women are surprisingly aggressive considering the time these were made, involving themselves in fist fights, firing weapons, and generally refusing to wait until rescued by the brawny male characters. Trick rooms, secret passages, ceilings full of knives, double crosses, ambushes, chases, and multiple fight scenes all add to the fun. The plot almost makes sense, the acting is at its worst tolerable, but the settings don't look much like North Africa. There's an amusing scene in which the gorilla pulls the heroine up the face of a cliff she was descending with a rope, mimicking the similar scene with Fay Wray in King Kong. Kay Aldridge, who plays Nyoka, spends a lot of time standing with eyes wide and mouth open, but is a far less impressive actress than Lorna Gray, who plays Vultura.
The Black Swan (1934)
The pirate adventures of Rafael Sabatini were among the earliest books I read, long before I discovered science fiction, and I re-read them a few years ago and enjoyed them more than ever. So it should come as no surprise that I also enjoy pirate movies, with dashing heroes like Tyrone Power, Erroll Flynn, and Burt Lancaster. This particular film is based on one of Sabatini's best novels, set in the Caribbean when the governments of Europe tended not to be too precise in differentiating between pirates and privateers, so long as it was their enemies who were being raided.
The plot pits good (reformed) pirates against bad ones, lead by George Sanders. Henry Morgan, the notorious pirate, has been pardoned by the throne and appointed governor of Jamaica. He uses his prestige to rein in most of the pirates but Sanders and his ship, the Black Hawk, return to the old ways after kidnapping Maureen O'Hara. Spectacular sword fights and sea battles, and even a fairly accurate reflection of actual historical events, although in practice pirates rarely resorted to broadsides, preferring to cow their prey into submission. Power didn't have the casual charm of Errol Flynn, but he could swashbuckle with the best of them.
Murder in the Private Car (1934)
I've been a fan of black and white murder mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s for as long as I remember. This is one that is sadly overlooked, featuring a youngish Charlie Ruggles as the protagonist. Ruggles was one of those rare actors who can babble and make it sound witty. There are also cameos by Walter Brennan and Sterling Holloway (the voice of Winnie the Pooh), two more actors who deserve better than their current obscurity.
A young woman discovers that she was kidnapped as a child and that she is the only daughter of a wealthy businessman. For obvious reasons, there are certain parties who are unhappy with this revelation. Ruggles, whose interest in the matter is deliberately left vague, intervenes to prevent her abduction. The action then switches to a train as the young woman sets off to be reunited with her father, with a variety of villains and Ruggles in attendance. The usual devices follow - shadows on the walls, mysterious hands in the darkness, a knife stuck through a note, moans in the night, and mysterious threats that no competent killer would ever have left. Ruggles finally explains his appearance - he is a crime "deflector" rather than "detector". He prevents crimes from happening rather than solving them.
Genuinely witty dialogue, particularly from Ruggles, enlivens things as several different men claim to have authority over the heiress, who finally puts her foot down and starts to make her own decisions. There's an encounter with a group of escaped circus animals including a brief sequence with a rampaging gorilla. Ruggles has an amusing scene with a kangaroo. Eventually her father joins her on the train, after which they are trapped when metal shutters close over the doors and windows, and they are told that they are all doomed. The climax involves a runaway car filled with dynamite and a surprising revelation. More fun and more cleverly done than many of the movies I've seen in theaters in recent years.
The Gay Falcon (1941)
A Date with the Falcon (1941)
The Falcon Takes Over (1942)
The Falcon's Brother (1942)
The Falcon was created by writer Michael Arlen for a short story which inspired a series of movies and a long lived radio show. In the original, the protagonist's name was Gay Falcon, but in the films it was changed to Gay Lawrence, with no explanation of why he was called the Falcon. Lawrence was a typical 1940's mystery movie rogue similar to the Lone Wolf and others, and in fact Sanders had played a very similar character, The Saint, in an earlier series of pictures. He tired of the role and the these were the only four he completed. His character is killed heroically in The Falcon's Brother and Tom Lawrence, played by Tom Conway, took up the part for nine more movies. Tom Conway was in fact the real life brother of George Sanders. All of the usual devices of this type of film were present - the string of girl friends, an almost wedding reminiscent of the Bulldog Drummond series, the partially reformed criminal sidekick to provide comic relief.
The debut film was a solid adventure story, but not the best in the series. The follow-up, A Date with the Falcon, was considerably better. A scientist who developed a method to create artificial diamonds appears to have been murdered but is actually being held captive in order for the criminals to coerce his secret. As usual, they've framed the Falcon for the crime and even though the crusty but likeable police detective attempts to arrest him, even he admits that he doesn't believe the Falcon is responsible. The third is actually taken from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, the first of at least three film versions of that novel. The substitution of the Falcon for Marlowe really doesn't work tremendously well, and it's an interesting commentary on the times that Anthor, the truly nasty woman who runs the whorehouse in the book, is transformed into a man running a shady swami racket in the film. The Falcon's Brother reflects its time, a story of Nazi spies attempting to sabotage an international conference. A nice balance of wisecracks and serious adventure, and Tom Conway does a grat job of picking up the reins from Sanders.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
I haven't read the book, which I'm told is considerably darker than the movie, although I found the film dark enough despite the frequent humor. A young, fashion challenged journalism student finagles a job as assistant to the domineering, unreasonable editor of Runway, transparently Vogue, succeeds despite herself by allowing the allure of the fashion world to subvert her preferred lifestyle, and alienates her boyfriend and others by her slavish devotion to her tyrannical boss. Meryl Streep and Ann Hathaway both do an excellent job, but I found the subplot involving the problems with the boyfriend trite and even distracting at times. It was also difficult to sympathize with a character who would put up with the kind of crap she was expected to tolerate. Entertaining for the most part, but occasionally irritating.
The Falcon Strikes Back (1943)
This is the first of the Falcon movies following George Sanders' departure from the series, and it has one of the best plots of all the sixteen movies. It opens with a familiar ploy. Lawrence is framed in a case involving the theft of war bonds, becomes a fugitive, and eventually unmasks the real culprit. There is a series of surprises and reversals in this one that keeps the story moving in virtually every scene, and the supporting cast does an exceptional job as well. There's more color and life in this black and white film that in a good many technicolor spectaculars.
The Falcon in Danger (1943)
One of the weaker installments in the series. The story opens with an interesting mystery. An empty plane crashlands at an airport, the two businessmen aboard having disappeared. The Falcon unravels the mystery in his usual fashion, but this time the byplay with three beautiful women is more distracting than amusing, and it's pretty easy to figure out what really happened well before anyone else does.
The Falcon and the Coeds (1943)
A more conventional murder mystery in this one, in which the Falcon visits an exclusive girls' school and discovers that a supposed accidental death was either suicide or murder. The case is complicated by the presence of a student who appears to have prescient visions and who predicts the murder of the head of the school during a theatrical performance. The distractions from the main story are minimal this time, consisting primarily of several rather well done musical interludes.
The Falcon Out West (1944)
The Falcon in Mexico (1944)
A rich Texan drops dead at a New York City, apparently bitten by a rattlesnake. The Falcon ends up on his ranch with three beautiful women, two bumbling police officers, and a host of suspects. Although he seems somewhat out of place in this setting, the mystery is sufficiently convoluted to be interesting, although one wonders how the New York City police officers were able to operate officially in another state. The second title is even less satisfactory. A painting appears in the style of an artist believed dead for fifteen years, but the model is still alive and young. The solution is not much of a mystery and the explanation is so implausible that it spoils what little entertainment value preceded it.
The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)
An improvement over the previous two in the series. The Falcon stumbles into a murder plot on a Hollywood backlot. A fairly wide cast of characters, a plethora of plausible motives, and a second murder to move the story along. The supporting characters are particularly good this time, and the comic relief comes chiefly in the form of a female cab driver.
The Falcon in San Francisco (1945)
A mysterious murder on a train, a false charge of kidnapping, and a beating by a pair of thugs introduce the Falcon to a convoluted and mostly convincing story of an old time gangster reverting to type when a gang threatens to expose his past and blackmails him into a smuggling venture. Robert Armstrong has a small but interesting part in this solid, but not outstanding entry in the series.
The Falcon's Alibi (1946)
The Falcon's Adventure (1946)
The last two Falcon movies featuring Tom Conway. The first is a slightly above average outing involving jewel theft, a secret marriage, insurance fraud, murder, and the usual mayhem. The murderer's identity is obvious almost from the start, but there are some amusing interludes in which the location of the real (as opposed to fake) becomes increasingly uncertain. The second title has an interesting sequence while the Falcon is traveling by train, carrying a formula to make synthetic diamonds, but the story peters out after that. There's also a plot error. An elderly man dies of a heart attack after being slapped by a thug, and the police announce that the Falcon is suspected of the "murder", even though there's no evidence that a murder took place. The Falcon had already been turned into a radio series by this point, and that led to a reinvention of the Falcon for three more movies with a new star.
The Devil's Cargo (1948)
Appointment with Danger (1948)
Search for Danger (1949)
The last three Falcon movies switched things around considerably. Tom Conway was replaced by John Calvert in The Devil's Cargo, a stage magician who actually performs tricks during the course of the movie, a distraction mercifully dropped for the other two. Calvert lacks the charm and screen presence of Conway. Also dropped was the Falcon's cute dog, Brain Trust. The Falcon's real name is now Michael Waring, but there's still no explanation of why he's called the Falcon. Really bad dialogue and mediocre acting mar what might have been a reasonably good murder mystery. A man comes to Waring and hires him to see that he's not mistreated when he turns himself in for murdering the man who fooled with his wife
Appointment with Danger involves art fraud and although it's an improvement, the acting is still sub-par and the cheapness of the production is emphasized by the cheap sets. The scenes set in Italy are exclusively set inside small rooms and are obviously shot in the studio. The movie gets progressively worse as it proceeds, with lines delivered with leaden imprecision, a total lack of suspense, and a mystery that is all too obvious right from the outset. Calvert's final appearance as the Falcon was in Search for Danger. The plot, which involves a murdered private eye, is an improvement on the previous two, but the uninspired acting and stilted dialogue render it barely watchable.