Last Update 3/31/08

 

The Sky Raiders (1941)

 This was potentially one of the better serials because it contains quite a bit of well above average dialogue.  Unfortunately, the story itself becomes repetitive quite frequently and chiefly involves airplane and automobile crashes.  Foreign spies are trying to steal the plans for a new fighter plane and use threats, kidnapping, a dead ringer for the hero, a femme fatale, sabotage, and armed assaults, but every attempt is – predictably –thwarted.  Robert Armstrong stands out as the frustrated friend of the hero.  The special effects are pretty awful.  The most effective villain is the woman, quite unusual for a serial, and at times she appears to be running the gang.  The secretary in love with the hero is also pretty good.  As usual, there are elaborate excuses why the characters don’t report what’s happening to the police, preferring to handle it themselves.  The chief male villain is Eduardo Cianelli in an early role.  The story advances mostly because of the incompetence of everyone, good and bad.  The hero's impersonation of the impersonator is a particular low spot, as is their convenient failure to remember that the villainous girl attacked one of the good guys, leading to her reinstatement.  There's also a really bad sequence in which their plane is attacked somewhere over the Pacific Ocean and crashes only a couple of minutes away from a convenient Coast Guard vessel. The writers also tend to forget that the secretary is supposed to be an expert pilot. Some promising bits, all squandered.  3/31/08

Philo Vance’s Secret Mission (1947) 

Philo Vance is portrayed by yet another actor this time, Alan Curtis, in the first to be made from an original screenplay.  This time Vance is younger and more in mode of the Falcon or the Saint.  A publisher wants Vance to write a mystery novel based on the actual murder of one of the former partners in the firm, whose case was never solved.  The acting is leaden, many of the lines delivered as though they were being read, and the comic sidekick is awful as well. The publisher who came up with this idea suspects that the killer is in his house to prevent him from telling Vance the details, so does he call the police?  No, he calls his secretary and says when to let Vance know when he shows up  so that Vance can come to the rescue.  He does, arrives in time to hear a shout and a shot and finds a blood stain but no body.  The romantic bits between Vance and the secretary are really incredibly bad.  That’s when we discover that the first murder victim’s body was never found either, which leads to the obvious question, why does everyone think he was murdered rather than just run off?  The body turns up in Vance’s trunk so that part of  the mystery is pretty short lived.  Some incredibly dumb dialogue follows.  The newspaper story quotes a conversation that no reporter attended.  Police procedure is badly treated.  “I know most police don’t work that way, but I’m kind of different.”  You can say that again.  During the interview, neither the police nor Philo Vance asks a single question!  Subtle investigators.  Vance and the secretary drive along a lonely country road with no cross streets and conclude that the car behind is following them.  Pretty safe conclusion since it couldn’t do anything else, but as it happens, the driver is trying to kill them and shoots out one of their tires with a single shot, forcing them to take to the woods.  This was to keep him from talking to the widow of the dead/missing man, but when he arrives, he doesn’t ask her a single question.  Not much detecting going on here.  He calls all the suspects together and apologizes for subjecting them to so many questions.  What questions?  And then he pretends to accuse his girlfriend, even though there’s no possible way.  This isn’t even high school level writing.  Fortunately Van Dine, author of the novels, was dead when this appeared because it might have killed him. A complete waste of time from start to finish. There must have been a curse on the 1947 Vance movies.  Curtis did two of them, and died at age 44.  Warren Wright did the third, and he died at 38. 3/31/08

Captivity (2007)

 This story of psychological suspense opens with a protracted series of odd cuts of the camera and an almost surreal feeling that I usually don’t care for, although it was quite effective here.  Elisha Cuthbert plays a fashion model who is drugged and kidnapped by an unknown party who likes to play mind games with his victims.  She finds herself imprisoned in a locked room which appears to be in a warehouse, basement, or other similar location, with no sign of her captor.  Her initial reaction is to trash everything, for which she is gassed to unconsciousness and threatened with an acid bath.  The sadistic games that follow are reminiscent of the Saw movies and, frankly, less than entertaining.  That franchise has already worn out its welcome, and the various clones were never welcomed in the first place. I figured out the big secret revelation almost as soon as the second prisoner was introduced, which made it even more tedious than it already was.  This is one you can safely miss.  The ending is pretty dumb as well. 3/30/08

Calling Philo Vance (1940) 

The Kennel Murder Case was one of the most ingenious of the Philo Vance mysteries, and this is a remake of the movie of that name.  The first part is new, with James Stephenson as Vance on a spy mission in Europe, after which he is deported back to the US to fall into the plot of the original movie, sometimes with lines that appear to be identical.  Stephenson looks the part, but his recasting as a man of adventure is pointless.   Vance is trying to get evidence on Archer Coe, but when he arrives at the man’s house, Coe is dead, an apparent suicide, in a locked room.  For plot details, see my earlier review of the original movie.  This version is inferior in almost every way – except that the surviving print is in better shape.  The spy plot is badly superimposed on the mystery and some of the details are badly introduced because the underpinning from the original was omitted.  Watch the first version instead. 3/30/08

The Mystery Squadron (1933)

 Another cliff hanger serial, this one featuring Bob Steele, whom I remember primarily as a western hero.  He’s one of a pair of pilots hired to protect a dam project from a group of renegade fliers led by the mysterious Black Ace, who want to sabotage the dam because of a secret gold mine that it would drown.  There’s no sign of the police in this conflict, which has the construction company bringing in antiaircraft weapons, although most of the fighting is done on an individual basis on the ground.  There are multiple revelations about the identity of the Black Ace, all of which except the last prove to be red herrings.  The buildings have secret passages, there’s a hidden airbase in a cave, and lots of attempts to frame the good guys.  Most of the thrills and chills involve the stupidity of one side or the other, a few impersonations, and lots of running around and flying.  This is one of the earlier talkies so in some ways it’s pretty primitive, but the mystery is actually rather intriguing and the plot is more interesting than in most of the Republic serials – this one is from Mascot Pictures. 3/29/08 

The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939)

This was the last Philo Vance movie to be based on one of the books by S.S. van Dine, barring a remake of The Kennel Murder Case as Calling Philo Vance.  Warren William returns as Vance, although he mostly serves as a straight man for the jokes in this one.  The book was written around the character of Gracie Allen, who subsequently starred in this movie, which mixes murder with comedy, with a decided tilt to the latter. “Isn’t it funny how the band stops playing just when the people stop dancing?”  The mystery involves an escape convict and a night club owner.  Gracie – who calls Vance “Fido” throughout - runs into a dead man  when she stumbles into a private office by mistake. By the time the police arrive, the body is missing and her date is a suspect.  The body shows up in the river and superficial evidence seems to support the police theory despite Vance’s skepticism. Gracie decides to do her own investigating and stumbles into more trouble and some farcical adventures in a supposedly deserted penthouse.  Vance sends flowers to one of the suspects to get her fingerprints and she’s found dead, killed by poisoned flowers.  Vance gets arrested in one of the most implausible plot twists of all time, given the fact that he would never have had any access to the flowers and could not have been responsible. Even one of the other characters describes that development as “idiotic” and Vance is released. 3/29/08

Someone's Watching Me (1978)

John Carpenter did some early, quite watchable suspense films for television, including this one starring Lauren Hutton.  Shortly after taking a new apartment in Los Angeles, Hutton begins receiving disturbing anonymous telephone calls from a man who appears to be watching her apartment and following her when she goes out.  She's a bit of an odd character, talks to herself, spins elaborate stories to strangers.  The initial incidents are quick and effective, setting the mood right from the outset.  The talking aloud comes in handy since the stalker has bugged her apartment, as well as a means by which he can remotely dim her lights.  She receives a series of presents, supposedly part of an ad campaign from a travel agency, but each is followed by a disturbing telephone call.  Finally she calls the police, but they refuse to even take a report because the caller made no threats, a development I found totally implausible.

When she discovers that he is watching her through her window, she begins to get angry as well as frightened.  She figures he has to be living in the building opposite and at least on the 30th floor.  Even when he actually sends a written threat, the police resist installing a phone tap.  Nor does she get herself a new, unlisted telephone number. Predictably, the evidence points toward the wrong man, giving her a false sense of security when the police finally are compelled to act.  They become obtuse again when she receives another threatening note.  The first climax has Hutton sneaking into the stalker's apartment rather than calling the police, while her friend watches from the apartment and we know what's going to happen from that point on, but it's still effective even though our heroine does the usual stupid thing and goes after the killer herself rather than immediately call the police.  The friend's body is missing and the equipment disappears from the apartment before she finally calls them.  And naturally once again they won't believe her so she and her boyfriend track down the culprit, break into his house, and then there's the final confrontation.  Despite some really contrived plot points this was very good for a television movie. 3/28/08

The Garden Murder Case (1936) 

Edmund Lowe portrays Philo Vance in this installment in the series, and the other recurring characters have all been recast as well.  The action opens at a race track where one of the jockeys is acting very peculiar and dies after a fall during the race.  He was employed by a man whose niece is clearly unhappy at being financially dependent upon him.  The uncle is also being blackmailed by a servant whom he apparently promised to marry in return for certain favors.  He is also interfering with the niece’s romance, which frankly is just as well because her beau is a spineless cad.  The dead jockey’s father also has reason to want the man dead, but he goes into a coma when he sees the man.  So it’s no surprise when the man is found dead in what appears to be a suicide, although that’s clearly not the real explanation. 

One of the women at the house calls Vance and says she knows who the killer is and arranges to meet Vance, but she never makes it there, falling to her death off a moving bus after acting strangely.  It’s obviously murder by hypnotism, which I didn’t believe for a minute. Vance sees a python, whose hunting method he gets rather wrong, but that tips him off that hypnotism is the secret.  Vance then sees the killer using hypnotism on a cat – which gives the cat the power to understand English!  There’s more romance in this one, but it’s often awkwardly done.  Not much of a mystery in this one, and the ridiculous misunderstanding of how hypnotism works spoils what would otherwise be an exciting ending.  Easily the weakest of the series.  I haven’t read the novel so I don’t know if the book is similarly flawed. 3/28/08

Ghost of Zorro (1949) 

I don’t really consider the Zorro movies to be westerns, ordinarily, although I suppose California is about as west as you can get.  This one, however, is a Zorro movie in name only.  The hero – played by Clayton Moore of Lone Ranger fame – is the grandson of Don Diego de la Vega and he’s living somewhere in the Old West, ostensibly as a construction engineer, but actually donning the mask and black clothing – no cape – to anonymously battle the villains, who are determined to keep law and order out of this part of the country.  The usual western cliffhangers follow – our hero unconscious next to a lit fuse, etc. – and there’s a young woman to be protected after renegade Indians in the pay of the bad guys kill her father and threaten the construction project he championed.  Moore is a better than average serial actor and the story line is okay though a bit convoluted at times.  It also depends on some pretty unbelievable contrivances, including a contested title to the land that makes absolutely no sense.  The fight’s are a bit more realistic than usual, but the female lead is unusually incompetent, both as written and as a performance.   Oddly, whenever Moore is “Zorro”, someone else speaks his lines, giving him an entirely different voice. 3/27/08

The Casino Murder Case (1935) 

The entire cast changed for this installment in the series, which puts Paul Lukas in the role of Philo Vance.  Since he has a pronounced French accent, this was really jarring in an otherwise pretty good mystery.  It’s another dysfunctional family, in which there is one fatal poisoning and another near fatal one.  The matriarch of the family is found dead with a suicide note, but no one really believes she was responsible, least of all Vance who pursues his instincts and a trail of evidence to an abandoned building that turns out to be a trap and a concealed laboratory to create heavy water.  It was obvious to me for non-obvious reasons who the killer was, but Vance figures it out through more logical means.  An average entry in the series, but Lukas was so totally inappropriate that it bothered me throughout.  Fortunately, he was replaced for the next movie and never returned to the role. 3/27/08

The Dragon Murder Case  (1934)   

Warren William, who played Perry Mason in several movies, takes over from William Powell as Philo Vance in this mystery.  I’ve always like William and he does his usual fine job in the part.  The story opens at a house party where there are some obvious animosities.  The young hostess is marrying a man she doesn’t love for reasons unclear and the man she does love is frustrated.  The prospective bridegroom dives into the elaborate natural swimming pool and doesn’t come up.  In fact, there’s no trace of him. The police decide to drain the pool and all of the guests are forced to remain, even though they mostly hate one another.   There’s no body in the pool, however, and the hostess’ nutty mother says that the dragon that lives in the water carried him off.  The dead man shows up in a deep hole elsewhere on the estate, with no water in his lungs, indicating he was strangled, not drowned.  A second guest is seriously injured in another mysterious attack, and a third disappears during the night.  Vance is suspicious of the locked family vault which supposedly has not been opened for fifteen years. The climax comes in a classic recreating-the-crime sequence.  I guessed the killer fairly easily but it’s still a nice job. 3/26/08

Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949)  

Boston Blackie drops off his laundry, unaware that the shop owner has just been murdered.  Naturally that makes him a suspect although, for a change, he isn’t actively being chased by the police.  There’s a young Chinese woman, a crooked tour bus driver, a suspicious shill, and a club owner who seems too good to be true.  There’s a cute scene in which the players in a “Chinese gambling den” turn out to be actually playing bridge, and the “slave girls” are actresses, as are the tong war assassins.  Blackie and runt pose as crooks to try to put pressure on the real ones, who are smuggling stolen jewels into Chinatown and having them recut for sale.  The gang’s delivery system for the jewels seems unnecessarily complicated but it’s more scenic that way.  When our heroes find the weak link, he’s murdered right in front of them by someone we never see.   Everything turns out all right in the end of course.  There was a silent film based on the same original characters, The Return of Boston Blackie (1927), but it has a very different story line.  There was also a television series that cast him more as a tough private eye. 3/25/08

The Monster and the Ape (1945)  

The invention of a really corny looking Metalogen robot opens this cliffhanger.  The five men supposedly responsible receive a warning from someone who claims they stole his work.  He uses a giant ape to kill them.  In one particularly amusing scene, the ape successfully conceals himself in the back seat of an automobile during a protracted journey.  Yeah, right.  Anyway, there are only two of them left and we know one of them has to be the bad guy, and in fact he reveals himself almost immediately when the robot is stolen.  Fist fights ensue but the robot is now under the control of the bad guys, so the odds are in their favor even though they discover who is responsible for the murders.  Some of the early escapes are based on the villain doing stupid things, like dropping the hero onto a rubber mat instead of the electrocution plate and then not using the robot again when it’s obvious he’s still alive.  There are lots of secret panels and hidden rooms and about the only good thing I can say about the early chapters is that the female protagonist acts sensibly and assertively rather than standing around screaming, although inevitably she gets carried off by the ape later on. 

Then things get even less sensible.  We were told early on that the scientists plan to build vast numbers of the robots to help alleviate human labor.  Now we are told that they only work with Metalogen, a meteoritic metal that is almost impossible to find, and it may not be possible to build only one more robot, not a small army, and the only other known quantity of it just happens to be on exhibit in a local museum.  Then they revert to the original story, planning a factory to produce the robots in mass quantities.  So how do they decide to steal it?  Why, by sending the oversized ape after it, of course, even though they’ve already knocked out the guards.  Our heroes, meanwhile, have decided that the museum will be robbed but do they call the police?  Of course not.  They go over to investigate themselves so that they can have another fist fight.  The ape (Ray Corrigan, whose last movie role was, I believe, as the alien in It: The Terror from Beyond Space) mugs it up horribly.  It seems that the two thugs are zoo attendants and that’s where the ape originates. 

Next we discover that Metalogen isn’t necessary after all.  And the villain can direct it from a distance because somehow he gets a clear picture of the robot in action even though there is no camera.  The wonder metal is all destroyed, but that same day another scientist announces that he has developed a device that can detect meteorites, suggesting another source.  Unfortunately, our chief villain steals the device, impersonates the real scientist, and gets involved in more skullduggery and failed attempts to kill the hero.  Why just shoot him when you can lure him to a remote spot and have your ape drop a giant rock on him from above?  More sources of the mineral show up, get stolen, stolen back, re-stolen.  Poor Willie Best has to speak an unrelenting number of stupid lines playing the uneducated assistant.  This one has its moments, if you can ignore the plot flaws, and is of about average quality overall. 3/24/08 

Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948)  

Boston Blackie and his friend Runt are working as investigators protecting jewels and are present when they are stolen, and naturally they run away when the police arrive – which makes no sense.  As a consequence, they are the prime suspects.  Through an incredible stroke of luck they recover the jewels but decide to use them to trap the real crooks rather than just turning them over to the police.  Multiple impersonations follow in one of the more cleverly constructed plots in the series.  An interesting contrast in times is that the police officer shoots a fleeing man in the back, twice, at short range, without firing a warning shot, to prevent  him from escaping.  The climax is triggered by a fairly clever ruse by Blackie. 3/24/08

Gordon of Ghost City (1933)  

Although I collect cliffhanger serials, I normally exclude the westerns.  This was one I picked up as an experiment and have been putting off watching.  It stars Buck Jones and Madge Bellamy, the latter of whom lived to be 101 although she stopped acting a few years after this appeared.  She was apparently famous for a while because she shot her fiancé.  Jones gets involved with protecting Bellamy from a gang of rustlers who are headquartered in a ghost town.  There are the usual western thrills, a stampede, being dragged behind a runaway coach, a wagon run off the side of the cliff, chases on horseback, fights with guns and fists, and a villain pretending to be one of the good guys.  There’s a gold mine, a mysterious man lurking in the background, and an invalid grandfather with a secret.  One clever touch is that the entrance to the gold mine is inside a deserted dry goods store, and Bellamy plays a strong minded character not afraid to use her gun.  The two main characters do a lot of their own riding and stunts, which almost makes up for the stiff acting from Jones.  Jones was one  of the most popular actors of that period, his career cut short when he was fatally burned in the famous Coconut Grove fire.  Although this wasn’t bad, it reinforced by determination to avoid western serials in the future.  The clichés are just a bit too thick. 3/23/08

Boston Blackie and the Law (1946)  

Boston Blackie returns, this time performing a magic show at a women’s prison when one of the prisoners escapes, apparently with his contrivance.  After escaping from the police, again, he tracks down the escapee’s former husband, who is about to get remarried.  For a change, there’s no murder in the early stages, although the escapee attempts one.  Apparently she and the ex were in cahoots and she took the rap for both of them.  More complications ensue until the inevitable body is discovered, the ex-husband whom Blackie has been impersonating in order to trap the escapee.  Blackie is in and out of jail this time, but I’d already figured out that the new fiancé was too good to be true, so it came as no surprise when he uncovers the truth.  This was one of the better entries in the series even if I did guess the solution. 3/23/08

Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidrah (2001)  

This is one of the few Godzilla movies I’d never seen before.  Yeah, it’s a rubber suit and there’s never much of any story, let alone acting or other film values, but there’s something oddly appealing in the series.  I had to watch this with subtitles, but they’re better done than usual.  This one is also from late in the series, after Godzilla was back being evil.  A Japanese mystic calls on Mothra, Ghidrah, and Barugon – all of whom were villains at one point – to battle Godzilla and protect Tokyo.  The story opens with an American submarine lost at sea, an underwater sighting of a large creature, and an earthquake in Japan.  More incidents follow but the authorities seem unusually slow on the uptake despite reports of giant creatures.  It’s not as if they hadn’t seen Godzilla before.  

Production values are better than in the earlier films, obviously, and the mysticism is stronger.  Godzilla is targeting Japan because the Japanese have chosen to forget the souls of those lost during World War II.  There’s some amusing dialogue.  “Hey, that hill wasn’t there before!”  The primary story line – other than monster bashing – is a frustrated film maker charged by a holy man to resurrect the three guardian dragons that can defend Japan.  It’s interesting how the back story of the various monsters changes almost from movie to movie.  Barugon appears and is mistaken for Godzilla.  Darned bad eyesight since Barugon is a four legged, has a unicorn horn, and is the wrong color.  I don’t know if it was intentional, but the four monsters represent three of the four elements.  Godzilla breathes fire, Barugon tunnels underground,  and Mothra and Ghidrah fly in the air.  Godzilla comes from the sea so maybe he’s water as well.   

Godzilla beats Barugon easily in the first bout.  The crumbling buildings are much more realistic than in the past, but the monsters are as fake as ever.  The government finally decides to counterattack.  Not a very proactive group obviously.  Not that it makes any difference since Godzilla knocks them out of the sky with atomic fire rays from his mouth.  But Mothra and Ghidrah are both waking up from their protracted sleep, both rendered much better than previously.  Mothra is a giant moth and Ghidrah is a dragon with three heads.  They have the usual battles, but the three are no match for Godzilla and go down to defeat, but the film person’s father, an officer in the army, pilots a one man submarine down Godzilla’s throat and blows him up from the inside.  Mindless fun. 3/22/08

Phantom Thief  (1946)  

The screenplay for this Boston Blackie film was co-written by Richard Wormser, who wrote a long forgotten SF novel some years later.  Blackie gets mixed up with some mistakenly stolen jewels and a fake spiritualist with something to hide.  There’s a murder in the middle of a very badly done séance and naturally Blackie is suspected of jewel theft and possibly murder.  It turns out the faker is also blackmailing one of his clients and Blackie can’t clear his name without exposing her secret.  Too many of the scenes are set in the dark and are difficult to follow, and the humorous sequences – particularly the bit with the skeleton – are decidedly silly.  The sneaky husband and the extortionist both get their comeuppance but this is another case of a terrible title since there is neither a phantom nor a thief in the movie. 3/22/08

The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd (1953)  

It’s mildly surprising that toward the end of the serial era, the quality of the productions dropped dramatically despite more modern film techniques.  This is a highly fictionalized account of the career of Captain William Kidd, who in real life turned pirate and preyed on various ships in the Indian Ocean before he was arrested and tried.  In the film version, he’s misunderstood, and parts of his career are set in the New World, which just did not happen in real life.  In addition to the poor script and poor acting, chunks of the film consist of cuts from old movies, sometimes used more than once because practically everyone they meet tells them a story about Kidd in the form of a flashback. The new material has pitched battles between ships, with about six people on either side and the gun emplacements are behind plywood walls rather than the hulls of ships.  There is also some silly plot twists designed to make our two heroes – agents of the British government who are supposed to acquire proof of Kidd’s crimes – always in jeopardy from every side.  They are shanghaied by a British ship and make no effort to identify themselves, then captured by pirates, escaping again after rescuing one of their hostages, a princess.   Their contact in New York decides for some reason that their presence will make him look bad, so he sets the local constabulary on them as pirates.   

They get shanghaied by another group of pirates, and almost immediately one of the pair is promoted to second in command.  The papers describing their mission, which they should have shown to the British naval ship that grabbed them earlier, are found in their clothing and get them back into hot water with the pirates, but Captain Kidd attacks this group of pirates and our heroes find themselves on his ship next.  There they discover that Kidd is a good guy who has been hunting down and destroying pirates.  Kidd’s crew is starving, even though they just captured a pirate ship whose crew was well fed.  They forage ashore and run into hostile tribesmen, as well as discovering that some of Kidd’s crew are involved in a plot to foment a mutiny.  Most of the rest of the episodes deal with that subplot, not very convincingly most of the time.  Tepid sword fights, clumsy fist fights, uninteresting cliffhangers, and implausible plot twists dominate the serial from beginning to end. 3/20/08

The Benson Murder Case (1930)  

William Powell resumes the role of Philo Vance, amateur detective, but he would leave this series again after the next installment and would next appear as a detective in the Thin Man movies.  A disreputable businessman is having a house party during the course of which he is murdered.  Vance happens to be among the guests and decides to investigate after being challenged by a professional criminal to figure out the truth.  Everyone present has a motive for wanting the man dead, but it appears that no one had the opportunity.  The solution involves a complex scheme involving a mechanical device, a silencer, and some clever misdirection.  Despite the ingenuity of the solution, this was strangely uninteresting, much more static than most of the others in the series. The awkwardness of the early talking films lingers here as well but not as markedly as in the previous titles in this series. 3/21/08

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)  

The last appearance of William Powell as Philo Vance.  A prize dog is stolen and killed at a dog show.  A young woman chafes under the restrictions of her uncle, who manages her inheritance.  A frustrated suitor claims not to take things personally.  A man refuses to even speak to his brother for unspecified reasons.  A business deal falls through.  A mistress is discovered to be two timing and is cut off without a cent.  A Chinese servant expresses horror at the prospective sale of a collection of antiquities.  Plenty of motives here for a number of murders, but there’s only one, the man whose popularity suffers because of them all.  When the victim is found, an apparent suicide in a locked room, Vance smells a rat.  Then they discover that the bullet wound was inflicted hours after his death.  And he has a skull concussion, but that didn’t kill him either.  And he was stabbed, but that didn’t kill him either.  And there’s no hole in his clothing where the wound is, suggesting he was dressed later.  This is by far the most intriguing mystery in the entire series. 

One of the suspects has an ironclad alibi, having been on a train to Chicago.  Ironclad alibis always make me suspicious. It’s no surprise that he wasn’t on the train after all, but then his dead body is found in the closet in the same house as the faked suicide, having died shortly after the first man.  The solution is one of the most clever in all of mystery fiction and depends on a botched murder plan that becomes more mysterious than if it had gone correctly.  This is one of the half dozen best of the old black and white detective movies. 3/21/08

Canadian Mounties vs Atomic Invaders (1953)  

This was one of the last Republic serial adventures, the story of a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman and his battle with foreign agents attempting to set up a missile base in a remote part of Canada.  The Mountie and his associate, a female secret agent, are investigating the theft of a map and join a group of settlers trekking to the remote location it described, despite efforts by three saboteurs to divert the party.  Lots of scenes are set in front of an obvious painted backdrop and production values in general are even lower than I normally expect from serials. For one example, whenever the sleds move away from center stage, we never see the dogs, just hear canned barking, because they usually didn’t use dogs at all except in the distance shots.  The dog sled chase about a third of the way through is dismally bad.  The villains use a variety of methods to eliminate the Mountie, man traps, a pack of wolves, fist fights, and so forth, but he’s too resourceful for them.   The thrills and chills are repetitious and unimaginative and it is obvious that by this point, the spirit had gone out of this type of segmented movie.  A minor example of its type. 3/20/08

A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)  

Blackie gets involved with a woman running from her recently paroled husband and her baby.  The husband gets shot in Blackie’s apartment, and as usual rather than tell the truth Blackie decides to hide the body.  The justification is that the woman doesn’t want news of the baby’s existence to get out, but that was because she didn’t want her husband to find out, and he’s dead now so the reasoning is circular.   We soon learn that it’s all a scam.  The baby isn’t hers, but the conspirators want to claim it as heir to a large estate.  Part of the plan is to frame Blackie for her husband’s murder.  The police are slightly skeptical of the set up but they still chase Blackie, who has the baby in hiding.  Most of the comedy this time involves the baby, who is cute, but the others aren’t.  They come cross mostly as corny.  Once Blackie realizes what is really happening, it doesn’t take him long to expose the wrong doers and clear his name.  An average entry in the series. 3/20/08

The Killing Floor (2007)

Marc Blucas provides a very strong performance in this thriller about a literary agent specializing in horror writers who rents a large three floor apartment in New York City and who is harassed by photographs sent anonymously and other evidence suggesting that murders were committed there and covered up by the police.  Another man claims that the apartment is his, but disappears, and the police officer covering the case acts very strangely himself.  There’s also a woman in the same building to whom he’s attracted, but who is mildly suspicious herself.  Blucas tries to uncover the truth despite being terrorized by the continuing string of incidents.  All of this is quite effectively done, well acted, and with great sets.  I did wonder why someone as obviously wealthy didn’t take more positive steps to get help.  He never even asks the policeman to provide identification and he appears spontaneously, without being called.  Then he receives a video recording of himself in bed and realizes that someone has been in the house.  When he sees the desirable girl socializing with the supposedly dispossessed mystery man, he begins to wonder if the conspiracy is greater than he suspected.  My one quibble is that Blucas plays a pretty disagreeable character even when he’s not under pressure, which made it impossible for me to really care what happened to him in the long run.   The first climax, though exciting, depends on Blucas being stupider than I can credit, but I won’t explain why.  It’s quite suspenseful despite the dependence on a somewhat untenable premise.  Nice twist at the end though. 3/19/08

The Bishop Murder Case (1930)  

Although William Powell played Philo Vance in the first two, and then in subsequent films in the series, Basil Rathbone filled in for installment three, one of the cleverest of the mysteries  A man named Robin is found shot to death with an arrow, or was he?  Vance suspects that the death was staged and a subsequent series of murders – each connected to a nursery rhyme – bears out his suspicion.  As the police, inevitably, gravitate toward an innocent man, Vance cleverly outsmarts the killer and exposes him, although not before the body count has risen significantly.  Rathbone does the erudite detective marvelously, anticipating his stint as Sherlock Holmes.  This is a very early talkie so it still has many of the mannerisms and techniques of the silent era, but it’s still quite watchable.  It’s also one of the more intelligent mysteries, and based on one of the best books by S.S. van Dine. 3/19/08

I’m Reed Fish (2007)  

Someone told me this was very funny, but the opening scenes about a very amateur radio broadcaster didn’t do anything for me although as it went along I started liking the characters a bit more.  The main character is Reed Fish and he has a problem.  He’s engaged to be married, but an old friend has just come back to town and that causes predictable friction.  What starts as just catching up gets more complicated and Fish gets more and more confused about his feelings toward her and toward his fiancé. Next thing we know, his wedding is off and he’s still not sure just how he feels.   And the town is small enough that everyone knows what happened and everyone has an opinion.  Eventually he ends up with both the new girlfriend mad at him as well.  So he blows up on the radio broadcast and that’s about as close as we come to any serious action.  Except that it’s all a movie within a movie, reflecting what actually happened to him (and since the writer is named Reed Fish, it’s sort of a movie within a movie within a movie).    It has its charming moments but not enough of them. 3/18/08

Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945)  

I had hopes that this would be an upturn in the series, since they finally got a new writer and they added Nina Foch to the cast.  Unfortunately, it opens with more silly slapstick comedy.  An old friend shows up with a story about his nephew who is “incurably” insane following an automobile accident and who has escaped from the asylum.  Through an astounding coincidence, the fugitive was trying to burglarize Blackie’s apartment just as he is hearing the story, even though they had never met before.  The kid really is crazy, homicidally so, and one of his murders is – predictably – pinned on Blackie so that the police have to chase him from that point forward.  The killer is not portrayed convincingly and the plot is even more contrived than usual.  It is much darker in concept and execution than the previous ones, and once again the title seems completely unrelated to the story, since there’s no particular rendezvous involved.  3/18/08

Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945)  

Boston Blackie decides to impersonate a bookseller whose health prevents him from appearing at a rare book auction.  He auctions off a forgery and then has to track down the crooks while the police search for him, convinced that he is behind the fraud.  The police are almost smart enough to catch him this time, but in the end they get outsmarted.  Blackie’s job is complicated by the murder of the original crook, and he is unaware of the fact that the woman who helped him with the auction is not only a co-conspirator but a murderer.  Lots of lurking in disguise but not much action this time around.  Some of the police procedure is outright nonsense but it’s only peripheral to the plot.  For a change, there are serious hitches in Blackie’s plans, although eventually he gets his man, and his woman, although the reversals back and forth in the closing scene are unconvincing.  It’s interesting that there has been, so far at least, virtually no romantic interest for Blackie. 3/17/08

The Greene Murder Case (1929)   

The second Philo Vance movie is a classic detective story set up.  The potential heirs to an estate are forced to live in the same house for fifteen years to get their inheritance, even though they hate one another.  Then someone starts murdering them in rapid succession.  Is it the mother who is supposedly unable to walk, or one of the kids, or perhaps the family physician, the strange housekeeper, or the adopted girl?  Why has the library been locked up for ten years, or has it?  What is the strange note that has gone missing?  William Powell is excellently cast as the cerebral Vance who uses psychology as much as clues to figure out who is responsible, and prevent one final tragedy.  The day of the amateur detective may have given way to Crime Scene Investigators, but it’s still one of my favorite forms.  3/17/08

The Canary Murder Case (1929)

 William Powell’s first appearance as Philo Vance in a movie that was originally supposed to be a silent film and had to be remade, without the assistance of the star, who refused to cooperate.  A young man has escaped the wiles of a blackmailing nightclub singer and into the arms of the “nice girl”.  The blackmailer gets killed but is it the blackmailed young man, his doting father, his fiancé, the philanthropist she’s blackmailing on the side, her jealous lover, her ex-con ex-husband, or one of her other victims who’s responsible for the murder?  The set-up for the murder is painfully obvious.  The father is leaving the woman’s apartment when she screams.  He then responds to her through the door, getting answers, in front of a witness.  The entire incident is pointless except to suggest that she was still alive when the man left, which naturally leads to the assumption that she wasn’t and that he recorded her responses and played them back somehow.  Since he’s one of the first on the scene, it would not be difficult for him to dispose of the evidence except that a police officer shows up too quickly, although we don’t realize that until later. 

Almost everyone with a motive to kill her was in the vicinity of her apartment at the time in question, and Vance has reason to believe that one of them actually witnessed the murder.  Vance decides he can evaluate the suspects by talking them all into a poker game so that he can observe their reactions. The witness tries to blackmail the killer and ends up as victim number two.  When the son confesses, Vance knows he’s covering up for his father, but when the father decides to tell the truth, he is accidentally killed in an automobile accident. The only way to clear the young man’s name is to duplicate the staged dialogue. The dialogue (by the author of the novels, S.S. van Dine) is clunky at times – most times in fact – not surprising for such an early talkie.  3/16/08

One Mysterious Night (1944) -1098 

This is one of the most inappropriately titled movies of all time, since it doesn’t take place at night and there’s no mystery involved.  A fabulous jewel is stolen from an exhibition, but we know immediately who took it, one of the employees, who has second thoughts and won’t give it to his crooked partners.  Why he had partners in the first place is rather a mystery, but we’ll let that pass.  Boston Blackie, a reformed jewel thief, is recruited by the police to investigate, although predictably they eventually suspect him of both the theft and the murder of the real thief.  Blackie plays tag with the two thugs, loses and reclaims the jewel, employs some subterfuge that is a lot less clever than usual, and carries the day after the thugs pretend to be dressing dummies in a room full of police that is not at all funny and terrifically implausible.  The series seemed at this point to be going steadily downhill, but there were seven more installments before it came to a close. 3/15/08

The Last of the Mohicans (1932)

I re-read this book late last year.  It was my favorite of James Fenimore Cooper’s Hawkeye novels.  The plot clearly lends itself to the serial format, which this is, but I was curious to see how closely they adhered to the original story line.  The Hurons have sided with the French against the English colonists, but the Mohicans remain loyal.  There were only two Mohicans in the book, but there’s an entire village in the serial, although the Hurons wipe them out in the first installment.  Magua, the villainous Huron chief, tries to talk them into switching sides.  Chingachkook and Uncas, the Mohican survivors, are friends of Hawkeye, played by Harry Carey who was too old for the part.  Magua pretends to be the guide for a party that includes the daughters of the local English commandant in the book in order to spy on the British.  Except for a few details, the first installment reflects the book with reasonable fidelity.  The canoe chase is nicely done as well. 

The young women get taken prisoner by Magua and a French spy steals the dispatches Hawkeye was carrying.  The story line begins to diverge more noticeably from the book now.  The older sister gets rescued from being burned at the stake and the party is reunited, but the dispatches get stolen again and Hawkeye has to go after them.  “The fate of an empire is at stake!”  The women become prisoners of the French, but Hawkeye sets them free again.  Magua treacherously slaughters the civilians after the British fort is taken, which sequence is a reversion to the original story line, although the fresh perils for the two sisters strays again.  The rest of the installments feature repeated captures and escapes, some reflecting the book, some entirely different.  The acting is very stiff, particularly the kid playing Uncas.  The large scale battles are well staged and look realistic; the individual fights are less so.  Some of the expressions and gestures are right out of silent movies, so exaggerated that they seem silly. 3/15/08

The Chance of a Lifetime (1943)

 Chester Morris returns as Boston Blackie, reformed thief.  He sponsors a program of early release for prisoners who want to help with the war effort, but one of his charges goes missing, endangering the entire program.  Some old loot and a fight over its disposition results in a dead man and when Lieutenant Farraday finds Blackie with the body, Blackie claims to have done it in order to cover for him.  That means he has to escape custody using another of his clever ploys in order to track down the remaining thug and force him to tell the truth about what happened. There’s a cute sequence where Blackie is in a dumb waiter and one team of police is trying to pull him up while a second tries to pull him down, each unaware of the other.  Unlike the previous titles in the series, this tends to drag quite a bit, particularly during the second half, and even the climax is subdued and unsatisfying. 3/14/08

Myth (2005) -1151 

I watched this Jackie Chan film with subtitles, which for a change were intelligently written.  The opening sequence has Chan attempting to protect a princess in ancient China, but that turns out to be a dream of a contemporary archaeologist who becomes peripherally involved with an anti-gravity project.  A friend wants his help investigating unexplained phenomena.  While investigating a floating coffin in a shrine, he sees a painting of the woman from his dreams.  There’s a nice fight scene in the shrine, followed by the usual daring, acrobatic escape.  The story alternates between the past and present, and to a great extent the historical episodes work better than the contemporary ones.  The bonding between ancient Jackie Chan and the girl is a bit protracted.  There’s a late developing plot about a sneaky tomb raider, the discovery of a meteorite that counteracts gravity, the existence of a pill that gives immortality, and other issues that converge toward the climax.  There’s also a plot against the emperor back in ancient China.   There’s an amusing fight scene in a glue factory and an elaborate pitched battle between two Chinese armies.  The ending is downbeat, and not as impressive as soon of the earlier sequences. 3/12/08

The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1941)  

The Green Hornet is a costumed hero who is a crusading newspaper reporter in his real life.  With his faithful servant Kato (Keye Luke), he crosses swords this time with an illegal lottery crime ring and a crooked newspaperman.  An early sequence has our hero appearing as the Green Hornet aboard a cruise ship, which seems risky considering the need to keep his identity secret.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, the ship catches fire and is evacuated.  Back in the US, the crooked newsman is murdered to keep him from talking.  The Green Hornet uses his gas gun to immobilize his opponents but doesn’t make much progress, although he does stumble into a plot to destroy a manufacturing plant.  A car chase ensues.  “It’s a good thing we built this car bulletproof.”  There are lots of people jumping from one moving car to another in this one and a nice shot of a car going off a drawbridge. 

The Hornet just can’t catch a break.  When he rescues a kidnapped woman, a thug is hit by lightning just as he’s about to shoot them, one of the most unlikely escapes in all of serial movieland.   The plot is even more episodic than usual.  There’s a plot to seize control of a defense contractor, another to blow up a building, an arson operation, a scheme to hijack trucks, a plan to defraud a housing group, another to steal control of an oil well, yet another to force a woman to write large checks, plus the usual attempts to kill the Green Hornet.  Most of the characters believe the Hornet is a gangster trying to muscle into the business, despite his frequent intervention on the side of the good guys.  There are a lot of plot shifts that raised my eyebrows – people acting illogically, writers ignoring or ignorant of how law or business operates, coincidences and enormous leaps of logic.  Not as much action as in most other serials and an uninteresting story line.  A surprisingly large number of vehicles end up driving off cliffs on lonely roads even though it’s all supposed to happen in a city.  Good soundtrack though. 3/12/08

After Midnight with Boston Blackie (1943) -1097 

One of Blackie’s old friends gets out of prison and immediately goes into hiding because he has old enemies who want to silence him.  There are some continuity problems.  Lieutenant Farraday is back to suspecting him of being an active criminal, which was not true last time.  The comic relief is still annoying, but less overwhelming.  The friend gets killed and his daughter kidnapped, and there are some diamonds that a gang of heavies is trying to get, but which Blackie wants to return to the girl, who is the rightful owner.  The war time backdrop provides a crucial plot point, and there are some exciting chase sequences.  The formula was well established by this point and the characters familiar, although Farraday is not nearly as shrewd in this one as when he was first introduced. Okay thrills and excitement but not as good as the Falcon or other similar series. 3/11/08 

Haunted Harbor (1944) 

This cliffhanger serial is also known as Pirates’ Harbor and it’s supposedly based on a novel by someone named Dayle Douglas. A sea captain named Marsden is wrong accused of murder and condemned to hang with, as far as I could see, no trial.  He breaks out of jail and “steals” a boat belonging to a friend to make his escape.  An early sequence involving a rescue during a storm at sea is surprisingly well done given the general low production qualities of these serials.  Our hero is on the trail of the real killer, which leads him to Haunted Harbor, a place the natives avoid because of claims that there is a monster in the area.  Us smart viewers know it’s a plot by the bad guys even before we see the obviously fake monster. There’s also a chase sequence on horseback through a landscape that looks like the Old West, which is odd because I thought this was supposed to be the South Pacific. 

Eventually they find the sea monster, which is so hokey it’s hard to believe anyone – let alone the supposedly bright protagonists – would believe it anything but a hoax.  When numerous bullets don’t phase it, our hero jumps into the water and swims toward it brandishing a knife, adding to the silliness.  He’s knocked temporarily unconscious and they don’t find out anything.  There’s another nice chase, this time on horseback, early in the second half, but the girl gets captured.  Again.  She gets tied to a post with a weapon aimed at her, but for some reason she doesn’t seem to realize until the very last second that she can duck or move to either side to avoid being in the field of fire since it’s only her wrists that are tied. 

The hero is framed for the murder of a local chief, inciting the natives, and has to clear his name.  The female lead gets tied up a few more times, and thankfully arranges her own escape on a couple of occasions rather than waiting for the hero.  The true identity of the ringleader is revealed and everybody lives happily ever after, except the bad guys.

The two stars are Kane Richmond, who later became Lamont Cranston in a couple of Shadow movies, and Kay Aldridge, best known as Nyoka in The Perils of Nyoka and a veteran of several serials.  She retired from acting at age 28 a year after this came out, perhaps tired of the mindless roles in which she was cast.  The body count in this one is unusually high as well.  Usually no one dies until quite late in serials other than possibly an opening murder to get things rolling.  There are multiple gunfights in this one, and both good guys and bad get picked off regularly. 3/10/08

Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942)

 The fourth installment of this series has an odd casting choice.  The actress who played the murdered spy in the first one is back as another character this time around.  Morris is still great, but the policeman this time is a complete idiot.  Blackie is attempting to evade the misguided police who think he’s involved in a jewel theft in order to deliver money to a friend who is having trouble with a small time mobster.  More time is spent on the comic relief than on the story, and this one is decidedly inferior to the first in the series.  The last few minutes are the most interesting part, with double crosses and reversals following on each other’s heels, but there’s no real mystery about what’s going on and the farcical scenes ruin any chance of making it suspenseful. 3/9/08

The Three Musketeers (1933)

 Although this claims to be loosely based on the Alexander Dumas novel, this is a modern version adapted as a cliffhanger serial involving the French Foreign Legion and bears no real relation to the story except that there are four friends involved.  John Wayne plays the D’Artagnan figure, coming to the rescue of three beleaguered legionnaires in his biplane and teaming up with them for a series of adventures.  A secret society of conspirators frames Wayne for gun running and later murder, making him a fugitive.  A nice chase on horseback follows.  Although some  The fight scenes are rather hokey though.  Eventually we learn who the mysterious head of the organization plotting a rebellion against the Foreign Legion really is, but there are some complicated plot twists in the last two installments before the truth is revealed.  Some of the sequences are nicely shot, particularly the chase scenes in the desert, but the story is more than usually repetitive and even though this is one of the shorter serials, it feels much longer.  3/8/08 

Alias Boston Blackie (1942)  

After some of the usual distracting humorous bits, the story launches with Blackie organizing a Christmas show at a prison, the same one where he served a term fifteen years earlier.  One of the prisoners changes places with an entertainer and escapes, and Blackie feels responsible.  Another good story except that I got pretty tired of the brain dead policeman who keeps letting Blackie escape to pursue his own investigation.  The usual confusion and misidentifications follow as a dead man shows up, apparently the victim of the escapee, although we all know that everything is going to turn out right for him in the end.  Blackie’s escape from jail is quite clever and even the long suffering police detective gets some good lines. Lloyd Bridges has an uncredited bit part as a bus driver.  3/8/08

The Desert Hawk (1944)

 One of a pair of twin brothers becomes the new caliph while the other disappears, and people are glad to see him go in this comparatively elaborate cliffhanger serial.  There must have been a decent budget for this one which has reasonably good sets and a large cast of extras.  Gilbert Roland is the star playing both twins and the supporting cast is much more competent than usual in this format.  Predictably, the evil brother Hassan secretly replaces the good brother, Kasim, who manages to escape from his planned murder and then spends the rest of the serial trying to reclaim his throne.  There are some okay swordfights in the early chapters as Kasim reappears, cannot establish his identity, escapes imprisonment in a mosque, and then fails to kill his brother.  Some of the chase scenes in the desert are also effective.  The comic relief magician is less successful. 

Naturally there’s a beautiful princess who must be rescued from the attentions of Hassan.  The main plot is much more linear and integrated than in most serials.  There is a band of bandits who provide a third source of conflict, taking the heroine’s father prisoner and providing another excuse for a daring rescue and an exciting chase sequence, and later a group of slavers who surprise our heroes at an oasis.  Roland fakes his own death on more than one occasion, sometimes quite cleverly.  I was taken aback a bit by the presence of a wine room in the caliph’s palace and the apparent equanimity with which all his subjects tolerate this, given that he’s supposed to be very devout and should not have indulged, at least publicly.  There’s a fantasy element about midway through when the fugitives consult a wizard who can show them possible futures.  He also has rooms that lead only back to themselves.  This was apparently one of the more popular of the serials, and it certainly had better production values and marginally better acting. 3/7/08

Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) 

Blackie is suspected of murder when someone shoots a woman at an art auction and kills a bystander just as she is about to expose a counterfeit statue.  The body is concealed inside a statue that is sold and shipped, which means the police and Blackie can’t check the bullet against his gun, and the heavies have a problem because the combination to their vault is in the dead man’s pocket.  There’s a short but effective chase sequence in an ice cream truck.  There are some plot holes.  The injured woman withholds information from the police for no logical reason, and the police arrest her with absolutely no justification and without charges.  Blackie’s two friends get similarly arrested at an inconvenient time on an equally nonsensical basis.  It’s a shame that the producers felt compelled to (a) insert liberal doses of comic relief that verges on slapstick, and (b) didn’t make any serious attempt to emulate actual police procedures because otherwise the story is a good one.  The writers made sure we knew that Blackie had reformed, mentioning it frequently in this and the next in the series.  3/6/08

The Iron Claw (1941) - 1075 

This is one of the more leaden cliffhangers, with exaggerated acting and overly melodramatic situations.  The title refers to a mysterious villain who murders one of three brothers who have been hiding an apparently illegal fortune.  They think the killer is a former partner whom they believed dead, but it seems likely from the outset that they’re wrong.  You can get a good idea of the quality of the writing from one early scene when two investigative reporters prowling through an old house find a skeleton in the closet and explain it as evidence that this is an old Indian hunting ground.  Lots of gloved hands grabbing people from behind, lurking figures, secret passages, screaming women, and deserted buildings.  The awkward, obvious humor is more reminiscent of the less interesting Charlie Chan movies than anything else, and even the heroes aren’t particularly appealing.  The Iron Claw, the avaricious brothers, and the gang of mobsters trying to discover the secret are all villainous, but not enough so to even be interesting.  The heroine has one of the most irritating screams I’ve ever heard, and I got to hear it a lot, probably two or three times per installment, often for no good reason.  I kept hoping someone would shoot her. 3/5/08

Dark Corners (2007)

I had never read a review of this one so I had no idea what to expect.  It looked to be a psychological horror story with perhaps a touch of the surreal, and it certainly starts that way.  First there’s a double murder in a church, which might be a dream sequence.  Then a couple celebrating their anniversary in the woods.  Then a definite dream sequence involving blood and a mysterious key.  A small bit of plot advancement, then another surreal dream, if dream it is.  I don’t like dream sequences much, not in books, not in movies.  They generally don’t serve any purpose except to function as either a kind of symbolic shorthand or they’re space fillers.  Anyway, it appears these aren’t dreams at all but visions of another version of herself living in a world where corpses get up and talk and other weird things take place.  It is in fact very difficult to tell just what really happens and I suspect that it was left ambiguous so that viewers could end up with varying interpretations.  There are blind homicide detectives, people who die but actually don’t, a world that doesn’t look entirely real.   Some of the imagery is very well done and I have no complaint at all about the acting.  I think this is the first time I’d seen Thora Birch in anything and she is very effective.  Basically, though, I have trouble enjoying a story whose internal logic is so loose or disguised that I have trouble figuring out what was going on until after it’s over, if then.  3/4/08

Meet Boston Blackie (1941)

This was the first of fourteen movies in this series with Chester Morris playing Boston Blackie, a semi-reformed jewel thief reminiscent of the Lone Wolf.  Blackie is returning to the US after unloading some stolen jewels when a dead man shows up on the ocean liner.  Fearing that he will be accused of the crime, he follows the woman who is responsible, who claims she killed the man in self defense, but she gets killed herself by a poison dart on a carnival ride before she can tell him much.  She does mention the mechanical man in one of the exhibits, after which he is pursued by two thugs.  The mechanical man turns out not to be mechanical after all, and Blackie is on the run again, this time for a car chase.  He escapes by driving into a railroad car on a departing train.  Snappy dialogue, particularly between him and the woman he shanghais into helping him.  “I can see that.  You have tattle tale grey matter.”  Unlike many of the others in this vein, the police detective hounding Blackie is actually quite smart, but Blackie gets the best of him and stays out of his clutches long enough to uncover a nest of international spies.  I am very fond of these old black and white mystery adventures, and this is one of the best examples.  3/4/08

Saw IV (2007)

 Although I think this franchise has outstayed its welcome, there is still a degree of fascination about the idea of deadly games perpetrated on innocent victims.  This installment opens with an interesting one, two victims unable to communicate with one another who have to fight to stay alive. Another previously unsuspected collaborator with the now dead Jigsaw killer is loose.  The second test is just gratuitously violent, however, and unconvincing.  The set up in which the police suspect one of their own is completely implausible and I was unable to buy anything that followed.  It becomes increasingly contrived with the police officer acting exactly in accordance with the killer’s script and totally opposed to what a policeman would actually do.  It also assumes that the killer has almost preternatural knowledge about the secret activities of various characters.  The novelty of the first film is gone, and the ingenuity of some of the earlier traps is missing.  The plot logic, always strained, is pulled completely out of its sockets this time, as dismembered as are several of the characters.  The police all act stupidly and the killer is practically omniscient. Tobin Bell is still the best part of the series with his understated portrayal of Jigsaw and his great voice.  I understand Saw V is coming.  I can wait. 3/3/08

30,000 Leagues Under the Sea (2007)

I assume this update of the Jules Verne classic was released direct to video because I never heard of it before. Sean Lawlor is Nemo and Lorenzo Lamas is the hero. It's set in the present day so Nemo's supersub has to be even more high tech than in the original versions.  An American submarine detects an unusual object under the ocean.  (Do they allow female sailors on nuclear submarines now?  I think that's still an all male preserve despite the female crew member in this one.)  I do know that the captain's comment that fish don't go as deep as submarines is nonsense. The sub gets attacked and apparently destroyed by a giant squid.

Lamas commands a submersible rescue vessel which arrives on the scene. He finds himself under the command of a female officer he was once married to.  What an original idea!  The dialogue is pretty leaden, and delivered with a notable lack of inflection.  The female officer is particularly bad and no one seems to be in a particular hurry to get the rescue underway. She's played by Natalie Stone, whose previous credits include Werewolf in a Women's Prison.  The water pressure drops when they get deep enough.  They get taken aboard the Nautilus under mysterious circumstances, and Nemo appears, delivering inane lines like a stand up comedian.  He gets to utter the majority of the really stupid lines, although there are plenty to go around.

Nemo tells him his ship carries "tens of thousands" of people.  It has night clubs, laboratories, a hospital, and other facilities.  The dialogue gets progressively worst, and the giant skids are very bad CGI.  Scientifically ignorant, badly written, poorly acted, and internally inconsistent, this is an insult to the audience.  I once turned down an offer to write a screenplay because I didn't think I could do it justice.  After seeing what gets actually produced, I'd never make that mistake again.  3/2/08

The Lost Planet (1953)

Another cliffhanger, this time involving a plot by inhabitants of the planet Urgro to conquer the Earth.  We are first introduced to the villains, a scientist posing as a hermit whose cabin is the entrance to a secret laboratory, and his henchman back on Urgro.  They send flying saucers to scare humans, but the saucers are cartoons, not even models, and look pretty silly.  They're actually just a ruse to cover the launching of the cosmojet, a Flash Gordon style model camouflaged by a cosmonium ray.  The evil scientist has developed a metal which can make things invisible as well as control the minds of others.  The cosmojet travels to Urgro in less than 60 seconds.  Either it's a really close planet or a really fast engine.  The chief villain follows the ship's course by peering into a periscope for some reason.

The cosmojet crashes on its return trip and we finally meet the good guys, two reporters who go to cover the crash.  Unfortunately, the bad guy has a remote viewer and a disintegrator ray and he destroys the wreckage, then unaccountably decides to frighten off the reporters with rolling fireballs that explode on command. Then the two of them and the daughter of a missing scientist are hypnotized and sent to Urgro, where they almost die when their ship crashes into an erupting volcano.  And that's all in chapter one.  Chapter two is "Trapped by the Axial Propeller", one of more eccentric titles I've seen, which is followed by "Blasted by the Thermic Disintegrator".  Sounds exciting!

Our hero returns to Earth after making himself invisible and stowing away, but he screws up his escape.  All through this, all of these brilliant people never seem to notice that if the hypnotized workers have their caps taken off, they recover their will in seconds.  On the other hand, the villains are too stupid to realize that a spaceship door opening and closing by itself probably indicates an invisible interloper.  The hero returns and is almost destroyed by the sonic vibrator!  But the imprisoned scientist has built a cosmic divisor, which allows each person to duplicate himself so that one can appear to be working as ordered while the other sabotages things.  The characters are literally beside themselves in enthusiasm.

The captive scientist also has his own spaceship - which has a propeller and wings!  The heroes eavesdrop using an induction receiver and discover that they are to be executed with neutron detonators. Then another group of thugs try to seize control of the operation, adding more characters but less logic.  Meanwhile, our hero escapes the prysmic catapult, which propels him into the stratosphere (and turns him into a cartoon character briefly).  He also avoids being shot by the cosmic cannon or seduced by the hypnotic ray machine, partly thanks to the atomic nullifier.  Then there's the solar thermo-furnace, and the reversing ray that makes fire cold, radio messages sound backwards, death rays make people lively, and so forth.  Not to mention the degravitizer, which does just what you'd think it would do, or the de-thermo ray which freezes "only the brain". And the spaceship is always in danger of passing through the exosphere and burning up in the thermisphere. 

More repetitive than most serials, with fewer sets, even fewer fights.  The special effects are laughable, the scientific doubletalk even more so.  Not one of the better serials, although unintentionally funny at several points. Oh, and the planet is never lost. 3/1/08

Mysterious Island (1951)

Once again I'm indulging my fondness for cliffhanger serials, this one based on the Jules Verne novel.  The opening sequences are somewhat similar to the book, with some captured Union soldiers hoping to escape Richmond in an observation balloon.  They crash on an island after one man jumps overboard.  He is rescued by a mysterious figure whom I assumed from the book version was Captain Nemo. There's a smoking volcano on the island, and a ship full of pirates offshore, not to mention the mysterious flying object.  "It looks like some strange craft from another planet."  Don't recall that in Jules Verne.

The spaceship is crewed by two spear carriers and a young alien woman wearing tinfoil and a miniskirt.  And then there are some oriental looking literal spear carriers - with zigzag shaped spears - who chase the other survivors into the depths of the island.  And then there's the wild man, who turns out to be an ex-pirate.  This was one of the man written by George Plympton and associates, so it's generally chases and escapes, fist fights and such  The tinfoil girl, whom we're told comes from Mercury even though she speaks English, has a flashy spark gun which turns out not to be lethal.  The spear guys came up when the island rose from under the sea.  Wonder how they breathed down there?  Or up here?  Or whatever.  One of the good guys communicates with them because sign language is the same no matter what your species.  I knew that.  It's the original language we learn in the womb, no doubt.

The spear people and the castaways patch up their differences, but the pirates interfere and cause a rift.  Mercury girl captures one of the castaways but doesn't explain much. The pirates immediately reveal their involvement, which makes their whole plan meaningless.  Then the spear people reveal that they speak English, which makes much of their previous activities nonsensical.  Plot consistency and even common sense were rarely associated with cliffhangers.  And the characters frequently have implied psychic powers, as is the case when our hero looks at a plain white box with four unmarked levers and correctly concludes that it is a communicator, and one of a pair. 

Sides change constantly in the waning chapters, sometimes not making any sense at all.  The link to the Verne novel is tenuous at best.  Some of the acting is wooden and none of it is particularly inspired, but it's an amusing example of the genre.  2/29/08

Thriller (1960-1962)

I only vaguely remembered this anthology series, hosted by Boris Karloff, but I remembered enjoying it and jumped at the chance to watch them again.  An amusing tidbit is that the introduction to each episode includes the phrase “or my name’s not Boris Karloff” and, of course, that wasn’t his real name.   The opening episode is “The Twisted Image”, starring a very young Leslie Nielsen.  An obviously nutty young woman announces she has a crush on Nielsen despite his efforts to put her off.  At the same company, an embittered man working in the mail room has ambitions to become an executive.  Murder, confused identity, and mayhem follow in a pretty good original story. This was based on a novel by William O’Farrell.  “Child’s Play” has a creepier premise.  A domineering, self important man and his frustrated wife fail to provide a warm family home and their son escapes into fantasy so deeply that he steals a loaded rifle and takes a stranger prisoner, fitting him into his imaginary world.  “Worse Than Murder” is a complex story of a hidden murder, a blackmailing widow, a mousey young woman faced with a crisis, and a diary that recounts a recurring nightmare.  It is based on a story by mystery writer Evelyn Berckman.  “The Mark of the Hand” is based on a novel by mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, which I remembered reading as I was watching this.  It opens with a man found dead, apparently killed by a small girl found in the same room with the murder weapon in her hand.  The girl refuses to talk, but the investigating officer is skeptical, even when she supposedly attempts to kill another. 

‘Rose’s Last Summer” is about a faded movie actress turned lush.  Shortly after announcing that she has a new job, she is found lying dead in a garden.  Two friends suspect foul play on the part of the family who owned the property and investigate.  It turns out it is an elaborate impersonation in order to secure an inheritance.  It’s based on a novel by Margaret Millar.  “Three Guilty Men” is marred by overacting.  A bunch of gangsters have a power struggle complicated by childhood relationships.  Mr. Big, who has recognized the error of his ways, is tricked into having a fatal stroke.  His associates begin to feud among themselves and their lawyer decides to spill the beans, but his phone is tapped.  The end is flat and predictable.  An original screenplay this time.  “The Purple Room” – another original script - has a classic set up.  The man who inherits his brother’s house must live in it for one year before he can sell it or it goes to the dead man’s retainers instead.  He suspects, rightly, that the retainers are going to try to scare him off, but he has a stroke and dies, and when they try to cover things up, they recreate the tragedy they had invented to frighten him.  Hokey, and a bit confusing at times.  There’s a very young Richard Chamberlain in “The Watcher”, the story of a gentlemanly serial killer, from a novel by Dolores Hichens.  I hope the novel was better than this pedestrian, predictable, and overacted mess. 

“Girl with a Secret” is a convoluted story about the periphery of espionage, taken from a Charlotte Armstrong novel and adapted by Charles Beaumont, but there was just no way to fit all that plot into less than an hour and have it make sense.  Nice to see Cloris Leachman though.  Karloff adds acting to hosting in “The Prediction”, a predictable original piece in which an amateur mentalist begins to have real visions of the future.  The chance that violent death would menace four people in the span of a few days, all from different causes and all linked to the mentalist, defies credibility.  “The Fatal Impulse” features Robert Lansing and Elijah Cook.  Cook makes an anonymous death threat against a city official, then sets about building a bomb. He is foiled is his attempt to plant it, then accidentally killed, but not before he slips the bomb into an unknown woman’s purse in a crowded elevator.  This was the best episode so far, neatly plotted, well acted, and suspenseful. Mary Tyler Moore has a small part. Screenplay by one of my favorite mystery writers, Philip Macdonald, from the story by another of my favorites, John D. MacDonald. “The Big Blackout” has an interesting premise.  The protagonist, who is missing a couple of years of memories, inadvertently finds out that a hit man has been hired to kill him.  The hit man is himself murdered before he can find out why.  Reasonably clever resolution, from a novel by Don Tracy. 

“Knock 3-1-2” is based on the novel by Fredric Brown.  A desperate man tricks a serial killer into attacking his wife, but gets his just desserts instead.  “Man in the Middle” is from another Charlotte Armstrong novel.  A man overhears a kidnapping plot and gets involved despite his intentions not to.  Fairly good script enlivened by Mort Sahl’s excellent performance.  The next two are both from stories by Robert Bloch.  “The Cheaters” is based on one of his best stories, about a man who makes a pair of glasses – “cheaters” was once a synonym of spectacles – that allow you to see the “truth”.  He looks in a mirror wearing them and commits suicide moments later.  A young Jack Weston appears in this one.  The glasses show up years later and the finder discovers that his wife and his employee are plotting his murder when their thoughts become audible while he is wearing them.  He kills them instead and is shot to death by a policeman.  The glasses are then purchased from a junk shop by an elderly woman, who discovers that her son and his wife are planning to kill her with the help of her doctor, so she stabs the latter, then dies herself.  A year later, her beneficiaries find the glasses again and the husband discovers that his acquaintances despise him. More deaths follow.  “The Hungry House” has William Shatner in the cast. He and his wife buy an old house whose former owner was obsessed with mirrors.  Immediately upon arriving they begin to see strange things connected with reflections. Then they find a hidden room filled with mirrors and that’s when things get really scary.  Shatner overacts, but so does everyone else so it’s not noticeable. Another excellent episode. 

“The Poisoner” was disappointing, the story of a not very nice man he murders several not very nice people.  Poorly written and dull, an original screenplay.  “Man in a Cage” is an adaptation of the Jack Vance novel, a little compressed at times but otherwise well done.  “Choose a Victim” is another original story, better than most, although it was a rather predictable double doublecross.  The plot is surprisingly close to that of Body Heat, which was a very successful erotic thriller.  “Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook” is a quite suspenseful, atmospheric story about standing stones and the murder of people suspected of being witches.  There’s an amusing exchange when a policeman asks the local constable if the latest victim ever spoke to herself when she was alone.  The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t know.  “I was never with her when she was alone.”  It was written by Alan Caillou, who was in the cast, and who later wrote some pretty good adventure stories. 

“The Meriweather File” is based on a mystery novel by Lionel White.  It’s a complicated murder story in which a husband and wife are both concealing something from the other, apparently to protect them, but in both cases it makes the situation worse.  The plot is a bit too contrived to be completely believable and the actress playing the wife should have had a meal before shooting because she chews up a lot of the scenery.  What she leaves, the husband gobbles up.  The solution did take me by surprise though.  Nehemiah Persoff stars as the detective in “Fingers of Fear”, which involves a compulsive child killer.  The obvious suspect turns out to be innocent.  This was quite well done, with lots of nice little touches, good dialogue, and tight editing.  Persoff is always good.  Based on a short story by Philip MacDonald.  Richard Kiel is the hulking minion of Moloch in “Well of Doom”, set on a haunted moor.  Moloch claims to have returned from the dead to kidnap and man and his bride to be in revenge for his own murder by the captive man’s father years before.  Mildly interesting set up but it never comes to life and a lot of the time is spent on trivial matters rather than advancing the story. It’s all a scam, of course, and the ending is lame. Original story by John Clemons, whom I’ve never heard of.  “The Ordeal of Doktor Cordell” stars Robert Vaughn.  A scientist is nearly killed by a gas during an experiment, but recovers, but he has an exaggerated reaction to certain sounds. He starts to experience blackouts during which he kills people associated with those noises.  The plot resembles any number of “B” movies from that era. 

“Trio of Terror” is three short tales, dealing with a sorcerer who sends his familiar to kill his murderer, a clever robbery, and a strangler who wanders into a wax museum.  The first two are quite good, but the third drags.  The stories are by August Derleth, Nelson Bond, and Wilkie Collins.  “Papa Benjamin” is a rather dull story of voodoo, from an original by Cornell Woolrich. Two brothers try to cover up a murder in “Late Date”.    Predictably everything goes awry in the attempt to dispose of the body. “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, from the Bloch story, is one I remembered vividly even after more than forty years.  The Ripper is immortal and still alive in contemporary America.  Nicely done. 

“The Devil’s Ticket” is another deal with the devil story.  The twist this time is that MacDonald Carey has pawned his soul rather than sold it, although it comes to the same thing in the end. It’s another Bloch story.  Cute twist but I saw it coming. “Parasite Mansion” is from a story by Mary Elizabeth Counselman and it’s an okay but not exciting thriller.  Edward Andrews is super in “A Good Imagination”, another Bloch story, as a bookworm who murders three people using ideas from his reading.  This was one of his best roles.  Well directed, paced, and scripted and all of the actors are excellent too.  “Mr. George” is from what is probably August Derleth’s most famous short story, in which a benevolent ghost returns to help a young girl escape the unwanted attention of three murderous relatives.  Another very good episode. 

“Terror in Teakwood” is from a story by Harold Lawlor, in which a jealous pianist cuts off the hands of his dead rival, but the hands get their revenge.  Okay, though predictable.  “The Prisoner in the Mirror” is a not particularly interesting story about Cagliostro’s spirit trapped in a mirror, written by Robert Arthur.  “Dark Legacy”, an original story, is an even less satisfactory story about a stage magician who conjures up Ashtaroth.   Robert E. Howard’s “Pigeons from Hell” is marred by lifeless (no pun intended) acting, but is otherwise pretty good.  Two men sleep in an abandoned house after their car breaks down.  One goes upstairs, screams, and walks around afterward with an axe even though he’s dead.  The survivor and the sheriff return to investigate and uncover an ancient voodoo curse. 

“The Grim Reaper” is about a cursed picture which bleeds when someone is about to die.  The killer isn’t whom it appears to be.  The killer’s spontaneous confession rings false, even if it is the only way for him to get tripped up. Another Harold Lawlor adapted by Robert Bloch.  “What Beckoning Ghost” is from another Lawlor story.  A convalescing woman has strange visions which are quite obvious rigged by her unfaithful husband and philandering sister to cause her to die and leave them her money. The plot succeeds but the woman’s ghost gets her revenge. “The Guillotine” involves a plot to escape execution by arranging the death of the executioner, but plans go awry.  Charles Beaumont adapted the story by Cornell Woolrich.  Next came a pretty good version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial”.   A cataleptic with an obsession about death appears to have come back to torment his unfaithful wife. 

Bloch has another episode from his story, “The Weird Tailor.”  A man commissions a magical suit to bring his son back from the dead, but it ends up bringing a mannequin to life instead.  “God Grante That She Lie Stille” is from a story by Lady Asquith.  The ghost of a vampiric witch tries and fails to possess the body of the living.  There’s a great cast for the adaptation of Henry Kuttner’s “Masquerade” including Elizabeth Montgomery and Tom Poston as two stranded travelers whose stay at a creepy looking inn run by John Carradine.  Great chemistry between the two and a nice touch at the end.  Ida Lupino wrote and directed “The Last of the Sommervilles” which is another plot to kill the rich eccentric relative in order to get the fortune.  Mediocre but inoffensive. 

“Letter to a Lover” is based on a mystery play.  The mystery itself isn’t bad except that it’s unfortunately dependent upon various people acting stupidly at crucial moments.  And I guessed the real killer almost at the outset.  “A Third for Pinochle” is a murder comedy with a few good moments, but it’s basically too silly, an original screenplay.  ‘The Closed Cabinet”, another original, concerns a family curse.  Routine, and the acting wasn’t great either.  “Dialogues with Death” is from two Robert Arthur short stories, neither of which translates very well to the screen.  “The Return of Andrew Bentley” deals with sorcery and an evil spirit returning from the dead.  Richard Matheson adapted it from a story by August Derleth and Mark Schorer.  Margaret St Clair’s story inspired “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk”.  Circe is alive and well and operating a pig farm whose human help ends up being prize winning hogs. 

The quality became increasingly uneven late in the show’s career.  “Portrait Without a Face” and “La Strega”, both original screenplays, involve a hoax involving a ghost returning to paint a portrait of his killer and a dreadfully dull story about witchcraft in Italy.  “An Attractive Family”, from a Robert Arthur story, is better.  The family schemes to murder a young woman but get caught.  Robert Bloch’s “Waxworks” is quite good, the story of a wax museum whose figures can move around and commit murder.  “The Storm” is an okay story of a woman isolated in a house with a dead body, but it has a lousy ending.  “A Wig for Mrs. Devore” is from the August Derleth story about a wig that makes its wearer young and beautiful, reasonably well done. 

“The Hollow Watcher” is one of the better originals.  Two people plot to steal money from a rural family and run into trouble with an animated scarecrow.  Another lousy ending though.  One of the murderers apparently escapes and the innocent guy gets killed for on discernible reason.  “Colonel Tundifer” is the best of the original scripts, a humorous murder story about a house that is a gateway through time for certain people.  Edward Andrews is, as always, great.  “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” is from a short story by August Derleth and Mark Schorer.  A young couple take shelter in the house of the man’s peculiar uncle who, it turns out, has come back from the dead.  One of the more effective episodes.  “Flowers of Evil” is from a Hugh Walpole story, a predictable story of infidelity and murder.  “Til Death Do Us Part”  is yet another Robert Bloch story that opens with a mortician murdering his wife.  A series of comical adventures follows before he gets his just desserts.  I don’t remember the story, and the screen version is no more memorable. 

“The Bride Who Died Twice”, an original screenplay, is a dreadful bit about a political officer exerting personal power to get the girl he lusts after.  “Kill My Love” is a mystery based on a novel by John Creasey, writing as Kyle Hunt.  I found the character of the murderer to be too inconsistent to be plausible.  Robert Bloch has another story next, “Man of Mystery”, which has Mary Tyler Moore in her second appearance on the show, involved with a mysterious millionaire.  The mystery kept me fooled until almost the end.   "The Innocent Bystanders" is about Victorian bodysnatching a la Burke and Hare and is an original story. It's another uninspired one.  "The Lethal Ladies" is based on short stories by Joseph Payne Brennan about murderous women, both of which are good.  The very last episode was "The Specialists", based on a novel by Gordon Ash.  I suspect this was supposed to be Gordon Ashe, a John Creasey pseudonym. It's a rather confusing crime story of little interest.

On the whole, this was one of the better anthology series, not as good as Twilight Zone by any means, although a few episodes were of that caliber, and the fact that they drew primarily on previously published stories is a bit plus from my point of view.  Quite a few well known actors showed up in several of the episodes and the production quality was high, except for the special effects which varied from mediocre to comically bad.  Unfortunately, this kind of format isn’t likely to ever become popular again. 2/28/08

Phantoms (1997)

Since I just finished listening to the audiobook of the novel that this is based on, it seemed like an appropriate time to watch the movie again.  My recollection, reinforced the second time through, is that the major problem was a too small budget that made the effects look cheap.  The cast is okay, although I don't care for Affleck's portrayal of the sheriff and Rose McGowan sure isn't a fourteen year old.  The two sisters who arrive in a deserted town were on good terms in the book, but they're definitely not in the film version, and neither of them comes across initially as a particularly nice person.  Since Koontz wrote the screenplay himself, I suspect the changes were designed to accommodate the particular cast rather than the other way around. Otherwise the opening sequences are quite loyal to the book, the discovery of the mysteriously dead housekeeper, the dismembered bakers, etc.  One of the problems I had with the book is that they never tried to just drive away; that's fixed here because their car is disabled almost immediately.  Some of the best scenes in the novel are here, but they come with such rapidity in the film that they lose much of their impact.  Sheriff Affleck and the obnoxious deputy are already in town in this version, rather than showing up after being called.  Deputy Stu is a creep, just as he is in the book, but a very different kind of creep, and most of the other deputies aren't there at all.  Why is Stu insane even before anything happens? Liev Schreiber is fine at being nutty but it doesn't make sense. The younger sister also starts acting weird, which was not in the book. Affleck is also moderately obnoxious, depriving us of anyone at all to like.  Peter O'Toole is great as the scientist who has insight into what's happening.  The back stories for several of the characters have been changed as well. The army sends a mobile laboratory along with O'Toole and some armed guards.  They don't last long.  Dead versions of them begin walking around, which isn't in the book, but it's an effective visual.  The creature's repeated attacks on organized religion were left out or played down.

Definitely a low budget effort despite the name cast. Having "I Fall to Pieces" playing at the Inn is a very nice touch.  Too compressed to be really effective.  2/21/08

Rush Hour 3 (2007) 

Chris Rock’s humor is a bit too far over the top for me much of the time but I’m a Jackie Chan fan and while this isn’t his best series, I enjoyed the first two.  When a Chinese official barely survives an assassination attempt, the twosome vow to find out who is responsible.  The Who’s On First routine is only mildly funny, but the obscenity filled interrogation with a nun as translator is quite funny.  Nice car chase.  They rescue a girl who has the names of the leaders of a massive Chinese crime ring tattooed on her head.  The revelation that Max von Sydow is one of the chief baddies is no revelation at all.  It is only slightly surprising that they made it so obvious.  Pretty good fight sequence at the Eiffel Tower but the story was only moderately interesting and too close to the previous ones.  I wasn’t sorry to have seen it, but it isn’t among Chan’s better movies. 2/19/08

Halloween (2007)

This is the remake of the classic John Carpenter film about an apparently invulnerable killer who escapes from an asylum to track down and kill his sister, and anyone else handy.  The original movie gave shape to the slasher genre and is still possibly the best single example, and one of the few to have artistic as well as visceral qualities.  As one might expect from a film connected to Rob Zombie, this new version is more explicitly violent and sexy, although not to the extent of most of his other work. The plot of the first is followed reasonably closely, except that there is a much longer prologue about Michael Myers' childhood.  That portion is interesting in its own right, but I think it detracts from the impact of the latter part of the movie by making Michael seem more human and understandable.  The cast does a reasonably good job - and Malcolm McDowell matches Donald Pleasance's performance as the psychiatrist.  Jamie Lee Curtis' character has her part cut dramatically, but it was played in near constant hysterics and that was more than enough of her for me.  Some nice touches, good visuals, and no clunkers, but I still think the quiet violence of the original is a lot scarier than this much more aggressive boogeyman.  2/18/08

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)

The first in this series was an okay zombie film, the second a second rate one.  The third is complete garbage from start to finish.  The acting is abysmal, the plot stupid, and while the special effects are okay, they are in service of such nonsense that they were rendered worthless.  The zombies have taken over the world, which for some reason has turned into an enormous desert.  Why?  Our heroine has some sort of psychic power which the evil normal living underground want to use for their own purposes, but she sides with a convoy of survivors who would rather travel around a lot and get attacked by zombie crows and such than find a safe place to hole up.  This was so bad that I don't even want to waste time describing it, but I have to mention the scene where they find the Statue of Liberty, the Sphinx, the Eiffel Tower, and the Washington Monument all gathered together in the middle of the desert.  Why?  How?  Who cares?  If you get a copy of this one for free, you were overcharged.  2/15/08

Jumper (2008)

I really enjoyed the original novel by Stephen Gould so I was doubly disappointed at this confusing, inconsistent, poorly written mess.  The story is about David (Hayden Christensen) , who can teleport, and who leaves home, robs a bank, and lives in luxury until he is tracked down by the Paladins, an ancient order of fanatics led by Samuel L. Jackson.  The Paladins use these electric whip devices to prevent Jumpers from teleporting and then kill them.  This leads to an interesting replay of Annakin Skywalker and Mace Windu's light sabre fight.  Anyway, the bad guys track him down through his girlfriend, whom he inconveniently decides to look up after eight years just in time to get in a fight and betray his teleporting abilities.  He also meets another Jumper, Griffin, who seems more than slightly nuts and who is determined to kill Jackson and his minions.  Various chases and battles ensue, sometimes with interesting camera effects although most of the cuts, you should pardon the pun, too jumpy.  Eventually he wins, stranding the chief villain in the middle of a desert, gets the girl, tracks down his missing mother, and lives - presumably - happily ever after.

Now the problems.  It is established early on that he can only jump to places where he has been and he keeps pictures to remind himself of each jump site.  Then how can he jump to the top of the Sphinx's head in Egypt?  Or into a prison cell he's never seen?  Next, there are too many unresolved plot lines.  He leaves his wounded father at a hospital, but we never find out if he's alive or dead.  He leaves Griffin caught in a power grid that prevents him from jumping, and we never find out what happened to him.  We don't even know if the villain makes it out alive or not.  Third, he looks up his missing mother - who appeared and helped him escape at one point - and discovers that she is a Paladin.  When she discovered she had given birth to a Jumper she left in order to "protect" him, because the alternative was to kill him.  But she helps him escape!  And then she tells him she will have to hunt him down but is giving him a head start!  And how did she know he was a Jumper when his power didn't manifest itself until he was older?  Bad writing, bad logic, and everything moves so quickly that I couldn't tell you if the acting was good or bad - although I doubt Jackson could act badly if he wanted to.  2/14/08

The Mystery of the Riverboat (1944)

 This particular cliffhanger serial also appeals to one of my other obsessions, riverboats, and it’s full of excellent footage of riverboats, and from riverboats.  The story is a bit more complex than most serials as well.  A scientist discovers a superfuel which can only be found in a swamp area that is owned jointly by three families.  He is murdered by villain number one, who shows up on the riverboat to talk the captain – one of the owners – into taking him to another so that he can complete the sale.  Also aboard is the son of one owner, a lawyer who is suspicious of the sudden interest in worthless land.  But that’s not all.  There are at least three people pretending not to know one another who appear to be a rival gang hoping to hijack the operation.  And there’s another man who acts mysteriously and may be yet another party, or is he involved in some other fashion?  And one of the hired entertainers is acting strangely as well.   As with all these serials, there are lots of fistfights, plots to sabotage the ship, fires, explosions, and what not.  The multi-sided conflict was rare in this format so it makes this one stand out, and it has riverboats.  What more could you ask?  Manton Moreland, who played the comic relief in several Charlie Chan movies, gets to actually act intelligently this time, even comes to the rescue a couple of times.  Unfortunately they leave the riverboat about half way through but it's still one of the better serials.  2/12/08

Junior G-Men of the Air (1942)

I collect the old time cliffhanger serials that used to accompany movie matinees, most of which have become available once more thanks to dvds.  This wasn't one I was really anxious to see because a little of the Dead End Kids goes a long way, and this one also has the Little Tough Guys. Huntz Hall and crew misuse words and employ their peculiar lingo as they triumph in this war time adventure, a twelve part serial that starts with them witnessing a bank robbery.  The crooks are actually foreign agents led by Lionel Atwill - the Black Dragon, and they're even more exaggerated caricatures than are most serial villains.  Atwill must have needed a strong drink before uttering these inane lines.

The kids, meanwhile, are trying to build a muffler that works with airplanes. They also enter an air race which their pilot insists on finishing, with a crash, even though the plane caught fire.  A rival sabotages another plane and frames our young heroes.  Meanwhile, the police have somehow figured out that the bank was robbed by foreign spies. From this point on, it's a battle between the spies and the Dead End Kids, who foil their attempt to sabotage aircraft fuel and disrupt other plans.  Although the pattern of most other cliffhangers is repeated here, the dangers are less impressive, the escapes less convincing, and the jokes are repetitious.  Not among my favorites.  2/7/08

Skin Walkers  (2006)

The premise for this is that the skinwalkers, shapechangers, have been held in check by a secret organization and now they want to assert pre-eminence over the human race.  Legend has it that a young boy will destroy them on the night of the full red moon, which is only four days away as the movie opens. The title makes no sense, since it doesn't have anything to do with the Navajo legend. But the skinwalkers have gained intelligence on the operations of their enemies, and move on their four encampments. Some pretty obvious visual gimmicks in the opening sequences as characters we haven't had time to care about get killed.  Jason Behr is in this one too, a villain this time, but with just as flat a portrayal as in Dragon Wars, see below.  Anyway, this is more motorcycle gang than supernatural.  The bad guys find the kid and a major gun battle ensues with lots of macho posturing and an exploding gas station. Later they get all hairy and kill everyone in a bar, which does nothing to advance the plot.

There are lots of little errors and annoyances.  Why does the bad girl try to strange the boy when she has a knife, which would be much quicker.  How can the bird guide the bad guys to the boy?  Why do bullets hurt some of the skinwalkers but not others?  Why does it take so long for the police to show up during these gun battles and how come they don't chase those involved?  Why don't they just alert the authorities that a gang is after them? Why do the restraints that can hold a werewolf give way when the untransformed human yanks at them for a few seconds? Why do they abandon the truck for the final confrontation? Why do the good shapechanger's clothes rip during his last transformation, when they didn't during all the previous ones? Turns out the head of the bad guys is the boy's father, but that doesn't add much pathos.  This one's not awful, but it's not good either. Silly ending.  2/3/08

Dragon Wars (2007)

Okay, you caught me.  I like movies about giant creatures, at least when they're reasonably well done. The opening monologue for this one was not promising.  Every 500 years a woman is born who can turn a serpent into a giant dragon that can "protect the universe".  Jason Behr, who mugged his way through Roswell, is a reporter mugging his way through this one with a monotonic voice.  A construction project unearths something strange in Los Angeles and the reporter notes a similarity to the really ugly, oversized pendant he's wearing.  Then there's a flashback to explain how he got it as a kid.  A box magically opened in an antique store more bizarre stuff happens there as the owner recognizes the kid has magical powers and tells him the legend, including the existence of a bad dragon.  Some really bad acting in this sequence from all concerned.  Then there's a multiple flashback within the flashback to ancient Korea.  I can't judge the acting because this part was all subtitled and far too long.  Then, believe it or not, there is as brief flashback within the flashback within the flashback.

There's a reasonably good battle scene in the ancient Korean flashback involving rockets and cannons and large numbers of dinosaur like creatures.  Bet you didn't know there were dinosaurs in Korea in the 19th Century.  Dragons too.  The special effects are pretty well done.  The bad guys win and carry off the girl with the magical power, but two martial arts experts rescue her.  By now I had realized the Jason Behr functions in part as a modern day Raymond Burr and Godzilla.  Then there's the scene where the nineteen year old girl drops into a bar and has a few beers!  She beats up three powerful thugs, which attracts the journalist's attention.  Could she be HIS Sarah?  And for some reason, never explained, she's locked in her room in the hospital and no one will respond when she screams for help.

Meanwhile a giant serpent eats an elephant, but only one passerby notices.  It, and its evil looking human minion, are able to move around the city without being observed.  Sometimes neat special effects can make up for a silly story, but this was sinking fast.  Apparently being a journalist means you can walk through police lines, examine corpses at crime scenes, and interrogate witnesses without being arrested. Then we find out that Sarah is quarantined because of the birthmark on her shoulder, which might be contagious.  Contagious!  Meanwhile, the reporter can also ignore quarantine.  The police just say, oh, you're a journalist, and let him into her room.  And the evil minion has this small bullet proof shield, which is remarkably effective because when people shoot at him, they ALWAYS AIM FOR THE SHIELD. I cannot believe this was a good career move for Behr, or anyone else involved. 

The witness to the killing of the elephant is in a straight jacket, but gets untied when he pretends not to have seen anything after all.  The giant snake wraps itself around the hospital, but no one notices.  If this was played for humor, it might work, but it was supposed to be serious. A little common sense could have made this an okay movie, but apparently no one could be bothered.  The minion, incidentally, can not only change his shape but can conjure up an army of soldiers in an eyeblink.  On the other hand, the antique store owner, who also shapeshifts, appears regularly to save the hero's bacon. The bits involving the FBI and Secretary of Defense are so awful that I won't even attempt to describe them.  The battle between the army and the minion's minions is even worse.  A few good visuals but the movie is really, really bad.  1/31/08

Lake Placid (1999)

Although this movie did not get particularly good reviews when it came out, it is one of my favorites and this is probably the sixth or better time that I've watched it.  The plot is nothing special. A very large crocodile somehow finds its way to Maine and starts eating people.  A forest ranger, the local sheriff, a snobbish museum employee, and a rich nut all get involved in tracking it down. The special effects are quite good and the scenery is even better.  Best of all is the acting and the dialogue which is crisp, witty, and amusing.  The cast includes Bill Pullman, Brigit Fonda, Oliver Pratt, Brendan Gleeson, and Betty White. It's an unassuming little horror film that delivers more than you'll expect.  1/22/08

Cloverfield (2008)

I decided to go see this before anyone revealed the secret that is supposedly so closely guarded, but it's really not much of a secret at all.  You can consider this a spoiler alert if you want, but I doubt that there is anything to spoil.  There's a giant monster - whose origin and even nature we never learn - that appears one night in New York City and sets about knocking down buildings in the best Japanese rubber suit tradition, although admittedly with much better effects.  The ruins are actually quite done but we never see enough of the monster - monsters as a matter of fact - to judge how well it's done.  The people responsible decided to go for a Blair Witch Project approach - the entire film is the amateur tape recorded by one of the people caught in the disaster.  We never learn very much about the actual characters - yuppie types who initially try to flee the city and then return to rescue a trapped friend.  There are some nice scenes, but it isn't long before the jerky camera movement, poor picture quality, and other problems with the conception begin to become irritating.  I kept wanting to tell the guy to point the camera in the right direction because I could only take so many closeups of moving feet and other boring stuff that made the tape seem more realistic, but also made the movie frustrating and visually uneven.  There are also too many unexplained features including those already mentioned.  Why does one victim apparently exploded later on, for example?  Can batteries really last for an entire night's nearly continuous filming?  How do they reach the helicopters so quickly after making the rescue?  And why does the very large creature show up where they are with incredible consistency?  And what does the title have to do with anything? An interesting experiment but the results aren't entirely satisfactory.  1/19/08

Hatchet (2006)

Looking this one over in advance, it appeared to be a not entirely serious homage to slasher movies, with Robert Englund, Tony Tood, Kane Hodder, and John Buechler doing cameos, and Mercedes McNab from Buffy in the cast.  There's a teaser opener in which Englund and a co-hort are torn apart by an unseen something in the swamp.  Then we're at Mardi Gras where our nerdish hero is trying to get over losing his girlfriend.  A little gratuitous nudity follows.  Eventually our cast of characters gets collected aboard a bus for a night time swamp tour that's supposed to be mildly scary.  Obviously, it's going to be more than mild.

The tour isn't authorized and the tour guide ignores a warning that the swamp is dangerous. They pass a deserted (?) house supposedly once the home of a hatchet murderer. Then they go aground, the boat begins to sink, and an alligator shows up to chase them to shore. That's when the quiet woman tells them "these are his woods", and recounts the story of Victor Crowley, a deformed killer.  He shows up right on cue, kills two people, and falls down where quiet woman shoots him.  At least for the moment.  He's back a few minutes later to twist a head off. Yes, it's the unkillable monster with lots of gore, and as the movie progresses the humor subsides and it's mostly the usual chases and screaming and so forth.

Production values are generally very good.  The soundtrack is nice, the photography well done, the acting convincing, and the editing isn't bad.  Some of the humor is pretty obvious, but there were quite a few of clever bits, particularly when the Southern Fried tour guide lapses into Japanese and the interplay between the two aspiring but hopeless actresses.  Nothing spectacular, but better than I had expected.  1/16/08

The Invisible (2007)

This was almost a very good movie despite a few logic problems.  The hero is a high school boy who runs into trouble with the local bad girl, who thinks he turned her in and beats him nearly to death.  Thinking that he is dead, her life spirals out of control, but he's still alive and his disembodied spirit wanders around, trying to get people to find his body before he's really dead.  All of this is complicated by her boyfriend, a real schmuck, who moves the body.  The boy survives; the girl doesn't.  The acting is excellent throughout, particularly Margarita Levieva, who plays the troubled girl.  Of course, there's the usual problem.  Three people have out of body experiences in this which makes one wonder what was so special about this particular threesome.  The middle is a bit slow at times, but it was quite watchable.  1/15/08

Superman Returns (2006)

Way back when, I thought the first Superman movie was okay and the sequels less than interesting, so I've put off until now watching the new incarnation, although Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor was a strong lure.  While Superman has been away exploring his home world, Luthor is out of prison and has found the Fortress of Solitude where he hopes to steal his arch enemy's secrets.  There the recording, which was unaccountably made in English, responds to Luthor as though he were Superman, revealing hidden knowledge. Fortuitously, Clark has returned to the Kent farm just in time and gets his old job back.  As usual, no one notices the odd coincidence that both he and Superman are absent simultaneously.  Lois has a significant other and a child, as well as a Pulitzer Prize.

Superman saves a falling airliner, which is visually spectacular, but after the passengers are thrown back and forth from one end of the cabin to the other repeatedly, the fact that they are uninjured, in some cases don't even have their hair mussed, pretty much tells you how little attention was paid to detail.  And how can prize winning reporter Lois Lane not know how to spell "catastrophic"?  How many "f"s indeed!  It's also not clear for entirely too long just what it is that Luthor is up to or how he's doing it.  And naturally he picks up some kryptonite along the way. The middle part of the movie drags at times.  Overall, it is way too long.  The ending sequences just seemed to last forever and ever.  I was actively annoyed by the time they'd gone through the twentieth soul searching look.

The acting is palatable but uninspired, occasionally mixing awkward dialogue with blank or exaggerated expressions. The throwaway bit about the two dogs left alone in the mansion, one of which eats the other, is a cute touch. So is the piano duet between Lois' kid and the thug. Smallville does it much better. For all their faults, the various Marvel comics inspired books are generally better.1/6/08

Sublime (2006)

I came to this movie with no preconceptions because I had never heard of it.  A couple of the cast members sounded familiar, which suggested it wasn't low budget.  The opening scenes are a bit slow and jerky, neither drawing me in nor driving me away.  The protagonist, George, is about to enter the hospital for a colonoscopy.  The nervous humor at admission rings true but the camera work continues to be jerky and distracting.  Flash forward to his recovery, although I was immediately suspicious that he was still anaesthetized and this was all going to be a dream.  I hate it when that happens.  When he wakes up, he finds a closed incision that shouldn't have happened. 

There are some bizarre flashbacks of varying quality, at least I think they're flashbacks.  The interactions with two nurses, one male and one female, are not quite surreal, and by this point my attention was beginning to stray.  Several of them refer to unnecessary and mistaken surgery, which appears to be what happened to George. While sometimes enlightening, they are slow paced and occasionally drawn out.  George briefly has a roommate, who apparently is stabbed to death by the male nurse.  My drifting attention had by now morphed into mild irritation.  If it's not a dream, it's just bad scripting.  There's a closed off area of the hospital that was never mentioned before, George's lawyer never shows up, his wife appears to be having an unusual relationship with one of the doctors, and the female nurse says she is suspicious as well.  It doesn't look, sound, or act like a hospital either - there's no one else around, no paging system, the room is enormous, and there's no monitoring equipment in George's room.

George and the nurse explore the supposedly "locked" wing, which isn't locked, in what should have been a suspenseful sequence but isn't.  They find George's medical files in a section of supposedly old records, then some notice several weird operations going on in unlit rooms, all revealed in stunningly boring slow motion, ending with his discovering his wife screwing the doctor. Obviously all of George's subconscious fears are manifesting themselves as he lies in a coma.  The pace picks up toward the end, finally, but I was so disenchanted by then that I didn't care.  1/5/07

The Reaping (2007) 

Hillary Swank is the very skeptical debunker of various “miracles” but what she’s about to find in Louisiana is going to test her lack of faith.  The local river has turned red and some of the locals blame a twelve year old girl.  Since Swank lost her daughter at that age, she agrees to investigate.  The bloody river is done quite well, a contrast to the opening shot of Santiago, Chile, which is obviously a painting.  While investigating, they’re hit by a rain of frogs, which might give even a non-believer reason to think. The plague of flies shows up while they’re having supper that night, after which a herd of cattle become homicidal. The explanation for the Biblical plagues in Egypt was fascinating.  The hallucinations/visions/dream sequences were less than thrilling and just confused things. The little girl everyone is afraid of is definitely creepy.  In fact, the acting is good throughout. I won't give away the explanation of what is happening, though it was a bit disappointing. 1/2/08

Heroes Season One (2006) 

I only saw the first episode of this when it first appeared, and by the time I got back to it, so much had passed that I gave up.  The first two episodes establish the characters and main plot pretty well – the invincible girl, the teleporting man, the telepathic policeman, the prescient artist.  The woman with the alternate personality is suggestive but still a mystery, as is the reason why a secret group has suppressed research into genetic changes in humans, using murder to silence a prominent scientist.  There is also the serial killer Sylar, who steals his victim’s brains, the conspirator who has adopted one of the mutants, and the threat of a nuclear explosion in New York City only a few weeks into the future.  Chapter three provides more details about Sylar and advances the subsidiary stories, but the subplot in which the cheerleader is accidentally killed seems forced, although the scene where she wakes up on the autopsy table is certainly effective.  The characters begin to converge in the fourth, but I was bit taken aback when Claire, the cheerleader, commits an apparent murder.   

Episode five is mostly designed to start bringing the various characters together and the common thread is that they must save the cheerleader.  The next installment moves them closer together, but there’s not a lot of change.  And I’m really unclear just what is going on with Ali Larter and her doppelganger. Episode 7 has the cheerleader’s brother discovering that she heals instantaneously.  I have to wonder how it is that none of this showed up in any school medical exam or anything else until now.  Meanwhile, the serial killer Sylar strikes again.  There’s some slow advancement of the plot and we find out that more of the recurring characters have powers, a few too many for my taste.  The next couple of essays bothered me as well, with ghostly children, visions, and other paranormal things that hint at the supernatural rather than SF.  They also introduced an interesting character – the waitress with total recall – only to kill her off in the same episode.  The apparently villainous father of the cheerleader is somewhat redeemed, but the guy who exudes radiation is so clearly out of the ordinary that I couldn’t accept his being arrested as a terrorist. 

Chapter Ten goes back six months.  Parts of the episode were intriguing, but I can’t help wondering how the Indian scientist was able to pinpoint specific people as having powers even before they knew it themselves.  The young woman with the Voice out of the Dune novels (or Star Wars) was interesting, but we never find out how she gets caught either.  The number of shortcuts in the plot start to get annoying after a while.  The origin of Sylar was the high point.  The next episode takes us back to the main story line, the aftermath of Sylar’s capture.  Wheels within wheels begin to turn as the mysterious Haitian proves he has his own agenda, and the man who paints the future has a new vision.  This and the next one have dream sequences.  I HATE dream sequences.  They’re almost always a cheap shortcut in a plot.  Several scenes also seem very washed out and too blue for some reason.  Nice construction of overlapping plots without completely losing the audience.  The revelation of who Claire’s father is caught me completely by surprise. 

“Hair of the Dog” continues the parade of ignorance with an FBI agent who is clearly assuming authority and issuing threats totally inappropriate and out of character.  The story involves the murder of a young woman, who turns out to have been a werewolf.  The script this time is so bad that it was painful to watch.  The FBI arrests Dresden on evidence flimsy even by flimsy evidence standards, for no particular reason, and they lock him up in the city jail rather than a federal facility.  The locals don’t object, even when ALL of the crime scene evidence mysteriously disappears.  Really bad story and even more really bad werewolf special effects.  Cartoon quality.   

The show had a nice idea and does some interesting things, but there are holes in the plot that are irritating, and too many characters and story lines, which kills any real suspense and often confuses the continuity. “Rules of Engagement” is better, the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil and wants it back.  “Run!” shows the other side of Claire’s newly discovered Mom, the blackmailer.  Two other stories finally overlap, though collide is probably a better word. Sylvar claims another victim.  An awful lot of the characters in this series are not nice people.  “Unexpected” starts to bring several of the characters together and reveal some of the hidden back story, and the surprise shooting at the end was a really nice touch.  In some ways the best episode of the season.  Pretty good follow up in “Company Man”, and the moderately bad guys turn out to be even worse than I thought.  Minor point but amusing.  When Claire is incinerated, then regenerates, why does her hair – dead cells – regenerate as well?  We also discover the existence of a shadow organization within the shadow organization, but nothing of its motives. 

I have to say that my interest dropped rapidly.  Sylar is much too powerful and the doppelganger hit lady has been getting on my nerves increasingly as time passes.  Too many levels of intrigue and too many character jumps to keep me in the story.  The subplot about Hiro is still good, but the rest no longer interested me.  I watched the last few episodes with decreasing interest.  It was clever having the true nature of the future President revealed, but the general nastiness of some of the others seemed out of character.  Back in the contemporary timeline, the escape from the secret organization’s jail complex was not at all believable, and Malcolm McDowell’s speech about sacrificing New York City for the greater good didn’t even make sense in crazy land let alone the real world.  I applaud the efforts to provide a really complex story line, but the writing just wasn’t up to the concept. 1/1/09

2007 MOVIE REVIEWS