Last Update 8/31/08
Another Philip K. Dick story, in this case “The Golden Man”, makes it to the big screen. Nicolas Cage can see two minutes into the future. He’s a stage magician who uses real magic, of a sort. When he prevents a fatal shooting at a casino, he draws unwelcome attention to himself. His escape from the casino by anticipating every move is really well done. Julianne Moore is a government agent who knows what he can do and wants to make use of him as a weapon. Cage hooks up with the one girl whom he has seen more than two minutes in advance, and tries a number of scenarios to meet her, which is also a good sequence. Meanwhile, terrorists have smuggled a nuclear weapon into the US. It’s hard to tell who to side with. On the one hand, Cage is refusing to help avert a nuclear catastrophe. On the other, Moore uses cruel lies and other devices to get to him, but she’s trying to save thousands of lives. And naturally the terrorists aren’t among our favorite people either. So the “good” guys eventually catch Cage and the “bad” guys get his girlfriend. There’s a really neat sequence in which he singlehandedly checks all the possibilities in a large warehouse. The surprise climax to the major gun battle caught me unawares. It was almost cheating, but they’d laid a bit of groundwork so I bought it. I don't recall the story well enough to know how close it is, but the result is a pretty good movie. 8/31/08
A young woman returns to her home town for her sister's funeral and in short order we discover that (1) her niece believes in "dark things", some kind of monster, and (2) the aunt - troubled by a horrible accident in her past - is rumored to have visions. The opening sequences are quite low key, the mood enhanced by an understated soundtrack, establishing a number of just slightly offbeat concepts including what appears to be hints of a "monster in the closet", quite literally. When an older woman dies under odd circumstances, the child says it was the dark thing that did it. Our heroine also has an as yet fear of being buried alive. All of this is revealed slowly and deliberately, possibly a bit too deliberately, although the excellent acting and some nice photography help hold the viewer's attention. We also see some of the protagonist's visions made manifest, though they are all innocuous. So far.
Things eventually become clear. The accident victim was presumed dead after her nurse tried to give her a fatal overdose, except that it didn't work and she was buried alive. Everyone close to her is now menaced by the "dark thing", for reasons unknown. I was a couple steps ahead of the plot eventually, but not far enough to be bothersome. I had a couple of problems with the police procedure late in the movie. There is no way that the police would arrest a young woman accused of assaulting a man with no witnesses, no physical evidence, and circumstantial evidence pointing in a different direction. They don't arrest her after all, but they order her out of town and the implausibility of all this was troubling. A novelist wouldn't be able to get away with this, so how can I screenwriter? I'm also uncertain that it's legal to bury someone in a closed coffin with no embalming and no definitive test to prove the individual is actually dead. Pretty good overall. I never saw the ending coming, and won't tell you what it is. 8/30/08
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Season 2 (1965)
The second season switched from black and white to color, and opened with a two part story in which the army develops a new gas that saps the will to win, making those affected docile. Samples are stolen in a not entirely convincing opening sequence of “The Alexander the Greater Affair.” A crazed industrialist is responsible. He plans to rule the world. The farcical element that became a dominant theme is obvious in this one. Dorothy Provine provides most of the best scenes. “The Ultimate Computer Affair” has Judy Carne and Charlie Ruggles, so I knew I’d like it. Illya gets arrested so that he will be taken to a South American prison that is a front for Thrush, which has built a supercomputer. After several reversals, they destroy it with minimal comic relief and self parody. A stage magician invents a machine that reads minds in “The Foxes and Hounds Affair” but before Illya can purchase it, it comes to the attention of a Thrush official played nicely by Vincent Price. “The Discotheque Affair” is another silly one, with Thrush bugging Waverly’s office and Uncle plotting to steal Thrush’s secret records.
“The Re-Collector Affair” involves a gang who murder ex-Nazis and steal back stolen artwork from the war. One of the gang is a bit too gullible to be convincing, but otherwise it’s a good story with a kind of Mission Impossible flair. “The Arabian Affair” pits the dynamic duo against a secret Thrush base in the Arabian desert. Illya recruits some of the locals to conduct a commando raid. The disintegrating foam is silly but it’s not a bad story. “The Tigers Are Coming Affair” is a good one, written by Alan Caillou, who also plays one of the villains, and with Jill Ireland, who was married to David McCallum at the time. “The Deadly Toys Affair” is considerably less serious. A Thrush scientist who has defected is sought by both sides but is killed, making his brilliant son the consolation prize. There’s a better balance of serious and humorous in “The Cherry Blossom Affair” with France Nuyen as the innocent caught in a battle between the two sides to secure a device that creates volcanic eruptions. Some nice touches in this one including a nifty sound track.
“The Virtue Affair” involves the smuggling of high tech items in Europe by a nutcase who wants to make the vineyards radioactive so that no one will be able to drink wine. Illya’s duel with a bow-bearing arms dealer is the highlight, another variation of the “The Most Dangerous Game”. A good episode, written by veteran mystery writer Henry Slesar. “The Childrens Day Affair” is kind of silly, a boys’ school for young Thrush agents with a dominatrix running things. There’s also a major continuity error. Our heroes are taking the shortcut to a lodge but the bad guys, taking the longer route, get there first. I actively enjoyed “The Adriatic Affair”, plots and counterplots to get control of a new virus aboard a train. Good performances by all concerned. “The Yukon Affair” is very formulaic, but George Sanders give its some class. I liked “The Very Important Zombie Affair” a lot better, pitting the duo against a tinpot dictator who uses voodoo to enforce his rule. Some good twists and a predictable but still enjoyable ending.
A romantic triangle within Thrush complicates Uncle’s efforts to secure a new weapon from them in “The Dippy Blond Affair”. It’s an okay episode, and it’s nice to see Thrush being incompetent rather than the good guys, although once again both Solo and Kuriatkin manage to get themselves captured. This seems to happen in virtually every episode. “The Deadly Goddess Affair” is much better, with Victor Buono playing an over the top villain who battles Uncle for a packet of money dropped on a Greek island. John McGiver is also an excellent villain in “The Birds and Bees Affair”, using mutant bees to attack Uncle installations. “The Waverly Ring Affair” is also a good one, with a geek from Uncle becoming, briefly, an enforcement agent.
“The Bridge of Lions Affair” is a two parter about the discovery of a way to restore youth. The science is pretty bogus – cats become kittens in two hours with no explanation of what happened to the missing mass. A good cast and script otherwise even though the ending was fairly obvious. “The Foreign Legion Affair” is not nearly as good, an awkward story about the theft of some Thrush microfilm and Ilya and a young woman trekking across North Africa and stumbling into a ruined fort occupied by a nutcase who thinks the French Foreign Legion is still around. Relentlessly silly. Both agents are out of commission in “The Moonglow Affair”, so backup April Dancer, played by Mary Ann Mobley, has to take over. I imagine this was a tryout for the spinoff, The Girl from Uncle, which cast Stefanie Powers in the role. If so, it was a poor tryout. “The Nowhere Affair”, in which Solo has temporary amnesia, is ponderous and uninteresting. “The King of Diamonds Affair” is somewhat better, but only because Ricardo Montalban is so good as the master jewel thief.
“The Project Deephole Affair” has a nice twist. Thrush screws up this time, attempting to kidnap an innocent man instead of the one Uncle is protecting. The bad guys have an earthquake machine and are planning to sink California. Jack Weston helps this one rise above average. “The Round Table Affair” is another silly one, with a tiny kingdom functioning as a refuge for criminals. Solo investigates a woman with apparent psychic talents in “The Batcave Affair”. She’s a dupe of Thrush, of course. More silliness, with Martin Landau eating the scenery. "The Minus-X Affair" is only marginally better, a plot to use a sensory enhancing drug to steal secret info. Last of the season was "The Indian Affairs Affair." Not a good one, opening with one of the dumbest sequences yet. Obviously any serious intent had long since disappeared. Indians with bows and arrows attack our two heroes in the middle of a city. It goes downhill from there. Despite a few good episodes, this was in general a disappointing decline from Season 1. 8/28/08
Starship Troopers 3: Maraudeer (2008)
There's no question about the Earth government being evil and repressive in the third installment, although I suspect Heinlein would not approve of the rock singing Sky Marshall or the execution of war protestors as traitors, although I suspect the latter is an inevitable consequence of the society he created. There is also a military draft, which Heinlein presumably would have opposed. Nor do I find the reversion to trench warfare very convincing. Anyway, Casper von Diem is back to fight the bugs again. There's more high tech equipment, new varieties of bugs, and a new cast of characters to be sliced and diced. The opening scenes are so blatantly preachy about the evil government and the selfless, liberty loving patriots that it was impossible to take it seriously. Predictably, our hero sees both sides and gets caught in the middle. The CGI bugs aren't done very well, and a lot of times we just see shadows or electronic radar images. And why do the humans not have aircraft to protect their bases? Why are the bugs allowed to develop large, unprotected concentrations of their forces adjacent to human a human base, let alone the base where the leader of the human forces is visiting? Didn't anybody bother to think about what they were filming? And how does a patrol of a dozen overcome hordes of creatures which have already overrun a much larger force? The dialogue is frequently inane, when it's not just cliched. The attempts at light humor fall flat and some of the supposed emotional reactions are even flatter. The interplay between the supposedly nice marooned starship captain and her surviving crew and her insubordination contradicts her character, although the perpetually praying trooper is indeed annoying. There's a coup within the government, a conspiracy, and a secret mission in power suits to rescue the marooned survivors. Bits and pieces of good stuff overwhelmed in a flood of nonsense. The closing sequence where the captain gets religion is particularly dreadful. 8/27/08
This is an homage rather than a parody, a dead serious and sometimes creepy variation of the classic, The Birds. This time it’s a pack of carnivorous ravens who begin killing people in the outskirts of a small town whose sheriff has just resigned his job. Rod Taylor, who starred in the Hitchcock film, has a small part as the town doctor. Some of the early scenes are quite effective, although I couldn’t help wondering where this very large flock of predatory birds came from. There's a fair number of cliches - the car that won't start, the crashing car that bursts into flames, the town oddball whom no one believes, the broken down school bus. The close minded religious nut is supposed to be Mennonite, but he doesn't act like one. The ravens are inconsistent about how they attack and leave some victims uninjured or only disabled for no apparent reason. The sheriff does tumble to the truth pretty quickly, although oddly he doesn't sound the alert even when he knows the birds are responsible, nor does he call for outside help for several hours. The special effects are surprisingly well done since most of the birds aren't real. The explanation - mad cow disease - is absurd.8/26/08
Batman Gotham Knight soundtrack, composed by Christopher Drake, Robert J. Kral, and Kevin Manthei, La-La-Land Records, 2008
This is the soundtrack for the animated feature of the same name. Since animated superhero movies are primarily a scene of action strings, the music is somewhat predictable in that regard. I’ve noticed two major trends in soundtracks. There are those composers who write independent pieces which suit the mood of the scene, and those which write specifically to what’s happening on the screen. This appears to be in the latter category, which is probably more effective in the film, but doesn’t make the soundtrack that accessible to casual listening. The opening track for this one includes several different styles of music, some of which I liked, but the promise really wasn’t carried through and except for the last few bands, I found the dissonance jarring. The sounds are often evocative, but they’re not particularly melodic. 8/26/08
This was on my maybe list when it first appeared and I just never got around to it. Vin Diesel is an unlikely semi-vigilante who gets temporarily recruited by a government agency to help them infiltrate a Russian mob that may be connected to a deadly bacteriological weapon. The opening sequences where they test his survival instincts are fast paced and entertaining, but pretty low in plausibility. Having accepted the job, he gets equipped with some James Bond gadgetry, but almost gets exposed early when one of the local agents - they're in Prague - makes a really stupid mistake. Eventually his cover gets blown, but only after he gets involved with a woman in the gang who wants to get out. His contact - Samuel Jackson - orders him to go home, but it's not clear if that's what he really wants, and of course Diesel isn't about to go without the girl. More shootouts and explosions, and Diesel proves to be smarter than Jackson, which also comes as no surprise. The ski chase sequence is super. Mindless action, pretty well done so long as you don't examine the plot details too closely.8/25/08
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Ghidorah, or Ghidrah, is one of my favorites of the Japanese man in the lizard costume monsters, and I suspect one of the few that is operated mechanically rather than by someone under the skin. Japanese police are about to provide security for a visiting foreigner whose life could affect the outcome of the world balance of power, but at the same time strange objects are appearing in the sky. The visitor disappears mysteriously from her plane just before it is destroyed by a bomb planted by political enemies. She later reappears in Japan claiming to be a Martian. Elsewhere, a giant cocoon in the Japanese wilderness appears to be growing. There’s the usual scientific gobbledegook about dimension wrapped around the Earth that enabled the girl to survive the explosion, but we know she was taken off the plane by some mysterious intelligence.
The tiny twins who accompany Mothra are visiting when they learn that Rodin has emerged from his burial place, alive and destructive as ever. Godzilla shows up as well, teams up with Rodin to attack Ghidorah. The special effects are primitive, but at times almost convincing. The dialogue is frequently silly, and almost always unconvincing. The monster action is frequently silly, particularly the volleyball game between Rodin and Godzilla, and at the end, although Ghidorah is bested, all of the monsters are still alive and free, which would leave a lot of questions unanswered, if we bothered to ask them. 8/23/08
The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
Based on the children’s fantasy novels, this opens with a somewhat dysfunctional family moving into a long empty house, where they discover a book that claims the property is home to a number of mysterious creatures. The opening dialogue is clever and the kids are all talented. I also really like Mary Louise Parker. Reading the book makes the kids vulnerable to the various creatures, and one of the boys is promptly carried off by a group of goblins. Rescue follows, but the three kids are under siege in the magically protected house. The big bad, Nick Nolte, wants the book but they don’t dare surrender it and apparently it can’t be destroyed. It’s cute and the creatures are well done, but the kids make an awful lot of bad decisions, but still triumph, which suggests the bad guys aren’t nearly as formidable as they would appear. A bit too whimsical for my tastes despite the scary plotline, but I imagine kids would love it. 8/22/08
The Fold (2008)
This is an online, episodic series of SF stories available at www.thefold.tv. The scripts are by Polly Frost, Ray Sawhill, and Matt Lambert and are inter-related, although not one continuous story. The actors are unfamiliar to me, but the quality of their performance is quite high. Obviously this is done on a very low budget, so you won't see a lot of special effects. There is also a persistent, intentional, erotic element although it is more suggestive than overt, at least in the three episodes that I've seen. It's also quite funny at times. I don't think this will appeal to everyone equally, but you might want to watch an episode or two to check it out. 8/22/08
The Glass Key (1942)
The Dashiell Hammett novel is adapted for the screen with Brian Donlevy as the crook who goes straight because he wants to impress the daughter of a reform politican, Alan Ladd as his suave assistant, and Veronica Lake as the femme fatale. Ladd and Lake fall for each other, which is certain to mean trouble. Donlevy also doublecrosses his former crooked cronies, which is even more certain to do the same. Things get even more complicated when the politician’s son begins seeing Donlevy’s sister, and the son ends up dead. It looks like Donlevy is the killer, but us suspicious types figure it was the thug he doublecrossed setting him up. The plot has a few surprises even for us suspicious types. Ladd fakes a break with Donlevy to get the goods on the thug, but gets beat up and locked up instead. He escapes, and more reversals and counterplots unfold. Superior performances all around, and an excellent story despite the confused moral tone. Great line” “My first wife was a second cook at a third rate joint on Fourth Street.” 8/21/08
Evil Behind You (2006)
This is labeled a “Christian Thriller”. I suppose that means all the others like The Exorcist and The Omen aren’t Christian? Anyway, it’s low budget nonsense that opens with a speech about creatures from another dimension existing within our dimension, which makes no sense. Two couples find themselves in a dungeonlike room. The men are chained to tables but the women are free for some reason. The men have been subjected to a medical experiment designed to let them see the creatures invisible to the rest of us. When the men wake up, they start referring to creatures lurking behind them, hence the title. Even though it’s clearly a cell, one of the women decides to go find a nurse. Surprise! The door is locked. Reasonably bad dialogue, really bad acting, laughable special effects, minimal and asinine plot. This one makes low budget movies look good. 8/20/08
The Thing (1982)
Although I’m not ordinarily a big Kurt Russell fan, I thought he was perfect for the part in this remake of the classic SF movie, although it really isn’t a remake at all. It’s much closer to the original story, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. Ennio Morricone’s low key soundtrack also works surprisingly well here, which isn’t always the case in suspense movies. The setting is a remote scientific installation in the Antarctic where the staff has pretty much reached the self destructive point because of the long isolation. The opening sequence is very effective, a helicopter chasing a dog across the snow, the passenger using a rifle in an attempt to kill the animal, which takes shelter in the American base. The two pursuers, Norwegians, are killed before they can explain what they are doing. The dog is given free run of the base for a while, which is mistake number one. Two of the men visit the ruined Norwegian base, and bring back a strange, burnt body, which is mistake number two.
Eventually the dog gets put into the kennel and the other dogs know there’s something wrong. This is the first transformation scene, with the dog thing sprouting tentacles and mouths and such, to the stunned horror of the human contingent. The cast is surprisingly well differentiated since they are all superficially similar and there are quite a few of them. One of them figures out the implications of the shapechanger and decides to sabotage the base in order to prevent it from escaping, but he is subdued. One of their number is caught in mid-transformation, alerting them to the danger, and they burn all of the remaining known contaminated material. Unfortunately, they don’t know who else among their number is no longer human. Kurt Russsell take charge, escapes an attempt to trap him outside, then comes up with a test to determine who is human and who is not.
There are a couple of details that don’t make real sense. Why is the outpost so well armed, to include a flamethrower, shotguns, and other firearms. One sequence involves the opening of a safe to destroy medical equipment, but it turns out neither of the two who had access was infected. So who did it? Also, supposedly the creature rips through the clothing of those it imitates, but the first human discovered to be an alien is wearing perfectly normal clothing. That notwithstanding, this is still one of my favorite movies. 8/19/08
Godzilla: Final Wars (2005)
This recent Godzilla movie opens with a futuristic submarine apparently defeating the monster and sending it into a bottomless chasm. Oddly, parts are in English and parts are subtitled. It adds a new dimension in that an international force of mutants has been organized to protect the world from various monsters and other dangers. Following the credits, the sub battles Manda, a serpent who has appeared in at least one earlier movie. The subtitles on this are strange. The crew is passing out but the caption says the heat is only 90 degrees. There are subplots involving a rivalry between two of the mutant heroes, and another between one of them and a feisty and attractive female scientist.
The immediate plot involves the discovery of a mummified monster of alien origin. Since it shares some chemical oddities also found among the mutants, the scientist speculates that it is their ancestor. Huh? It’s obviously Ghidorah, whose previous adventures have apparently been retroactively erased from the saga. He has also been renamed Gigan, as identified by the tiny twin girls who usually accompany Mothra. A handful of other monsters show up, wreaking the usual special effects havoc, some familiar, some new to me. Then a gigantic UFO shows up as well. Looks like bad times for Tokyo. Again. The aliens claim to come in peace, but we know better, don’t we?The usual explosions, monster battles, and the revelation of the real purpose of the aliens follows. To be fair, the special effects are better than usual, the monsters are less clunky looking and their fights actually resembles real fights. 9/18/08
Murder She Wrote Season 1 (1984)
The pilot for this popular series was “The Murder of Sherlock Holmes” in which newly successful mystery writer Jessica Fletcher comes to New York City and solves a murder at a costume party. Frankly, I don’t understand why it was picked up on the basis of this, a not particularly good episode despite Angela Lansbury’s excellent performance. The first regular episode, “Deadly Lady”, is much better. A rich businessman is lost at sea while sailing with his four grown daughters, none of whom have reason to wish him alive. His daughters’ story sounds rehearsed, and then one of them confesses to having shot him to death. But that story doesn’t sound right either. It’s fairly obvious that the hobo at Jessica’s house is actually the supposedly dead man, but then he really does show up dead. Her niece is about to get married in “Birds of a Feather” when her fiancé is accused of murdering Martin Landau, an unscrupulous businessman who has a superfluity of enemies. Nice acting helps an otherwise weak plot.
“Hooray for Homicide” is quite good. Jessica becomes suspect number one when the producer of the butchered film version of one of her books is found dead, by Jessica, under suspicious circumstances. I guessed the killer early but it was still fun. “It’s a Dog’s Life” is cute but very silly. A man dies during a fox hunt and the chief suspect is his primary heir, a dog. The family obviously objects and there is a surprising lack of care taken to prevent foul play. A second murder appears to have been committed by the dog in a very contrived sequence, and the ensuing investigation and events are absurd. “Lovers and Other Killers” is an excellent episode. Andrew Stevens plays a young man false accused of murder, but he has some personality flaws of his own that make the plot more complicated. Jessica twice goes to meet people in dark buildings without telling anyone, which seems pretty dumb. “Hit, Run and Homicide” involves a remotely controlled car used to commit murder, but in addition to being obvious from the beginning, it’s full of plot holes. Among other things, the control van appears at the confrontation with no explanation of how it was found, or how it got there, or why. The police are criminally negligent in not tracing the car, which has license plates, or the van, which is quite distinctive.
“We’re Off to Kill the Wizard” is a reasonably clever locked room mystery in which the obnoxious owner of an amusement park is murdered, though I guessed the killer if not the method almost instantly. It only took a little longer to figure out who killed the Soviet security agent in “Death Takes a Curtain Call”, in which a defection has deadly consequences. “Death Casts a Spell” involves murder in front of hypnotized witnesses, but the comic book version of hypnotism is ludicrous and the identity of the killer painfully obvious. “Capitol Offense” starts with a ludicrous situation. Fletcher is appointed to the seat of a recently deceased Congressman because there is a great deal of important legislation pending. She also takes over his committee positions, suggesting the writer didn’t do his homework. A woman who saw two lobbyists moving the body turns up dead a short time later, and another Congressman is implicated.
Milton Berle has a cameo in “Broadway Malady”, one of the best episodes. A stage actress is inexplicably shot by a mugger and replaced by a new actress. Jessica is suspicious of the circumstances of the mugging and bugs the police into keeping the investigation going. A pretty good plot this time, although as usual I spotted the killer almost immediately. The jazz scene in New Orleans is the scene in “Murder to a Jazz Beat.” A very talented musician has alienated his fellow band members, his manager, and others. Jessica is the first to suspect poison when he collapses, but her encounter with the police is highly implausible. I didn’t buy the solution at all. Jessica’s niece is recovering from the apparent suicide of her husband in “My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean”. The two of them go on a cruise, and someone appears to be trying to kill the widow as well. Pretty good until it becomes obvious who is responsible. “Paint Me a Murder” has a classic detective set up, the house party at an isolated house. The host is killed with a crossbow and there are numerous suspects. I liked this one also.
“Tough Guys Don’t Die” is another good one. Jessica hires a private detective to do some research, then investigates his murder, fearing that her case led to his death. Jerry Orbach is excellent as a tough, if less than brilliant private eye. Jessica inherits part ownership of a minor league football team in “Sudden Death.” One of the majority owners is murdered and Jessica nearly joins him in the aftermath. An average quality episode. “Footnote to Murder” takes place at a convention of writers, one of whom has the “only” copy of a new novel, just one of the various implausibilities in this one. I suppose it was meant to be satirical but it just comes across as silly. On the other hand, Paul Sand is great as the unjustly accused poet. “Murder Takes the Bus” has a very contrived setup but if you can ignore that it’s a good episode.
“Armed Response” is an okay episode in which two doctors conspire to murder their boss despite their mutual animosity. "Murder at the Oasis" is one of those where the dead man, an actor, is such a miserable person that you can of cheer for the murderer. Joey Bishop and Piper Laurie are both in this one, definitely pluses. The final show of Season 1 was "Funeral at Fifty-Mile". Fairly good, as Jessica solves a murder and clears up questions about a questionable will.
It is often joked that it is not a good ideas to be a friend or relative, so I kept track of the body count in her first season. In addition to casual acquaintances, the following closer associates kick the bucket, or get arrested. Her publisher turns out to be a murderer and her niece’s fiancé is accused of murder. So is her temporary secretary when she lectures in Seattle, a poet friend, and her eccentric neighbor back in Cabot Cove. Her new handyman gets shot to death, as does the producer of a movie based on her book. The man who hosts her at a fox hunt is murdered, another friend temporarily loses his job, and another nephew nearly loses his. A niece is targeted for murder, but survives after her husband IS murdered, as is an artist friend. She also hires a private detective to research an old case and he gets killed because of the job. An uncle dies, of natural causes, and an author she meets at a convention is murdered hours later. A fellow passenger on a bus trip also kicks the bucket, as does a doctor when Jessica is hospitalized. 8/17/08
See No Evil (2006)
Another routine slasher movie that relies on an unbelievable premise, in this case that eight convicts, half of each sex, would be sent to clean up an old building for a weekend with only two lackadaisal guards as escort, even though most of them are openly insubordinate and uncooperative. They’re not volunteers even and there’s a fistfight on the bus ride to the site. It opens in the past, when two policemen are attacked by an oversized killer with an axe. The survivor is one of the two guards. Since none of the characters are even remotely appealing, there’s no chance at all of any emotional connection with the viewer, which eviscerates the element of suspense. The rapidity with which most of them get killed doesn’t help. Surprisingly, the acting is above par for this sort of thing. 8/16/08
A few angels got infected with lust and haunt a stand of woods, where they seduce and then kill unwary travelers. Except they don’t have sex, which kind of makes the premise event stupider than usual. A group of typical obnoxious young people – incorrectly identified on the DVD cover as teens – run into trouble not only them but with psychotic Tom Savini, who has little more than a cameo even though he’s the only actor who gets billing on the packaging. Naturally they have no cell phones to call for help when their car is wrecked. They break into an abandoned house – don’t they know this is just asking for it? – and then have to escape gruesome death at the hands of Savini. I tried to think of something nice to say about this one, but I couldn’t think of a thing. The soundtrack isn’t awful. No suspense, lousy acting and dialogue. Even the gratuitous nudity is boring. 8/16/08
In the Name of the King (2008)
I’m a fan of Jason Statham who has excellent screen presence even when the dialogue isn’t so hot, as is the case at times in this fantasy adventure, a mild ripoff of the Lord of the Rings. The bestial krugs have been magically altered into intelligent warriors at the behest of an evil magician, and one of their raiding parties carries off Statham’s wife and kills his son. You can see where it’s going to go from there. Our passive hero becomes actively vengeful. The krugs are essentially orcs, but their makeup is less than impressive. The fight scenes are the best part of the movie, actually. Although the sets aren’t bad, the color isn’t always crisp. There’s a good supporting cast – Ron Perlman, Ray Liotta, Leelee Sobieski, Claire Forlani, Matthew Lilliard – but this would have been much better, though still predictable, if the dialogue hadn’t been riddled with clichés and convoluted grammar, and if the special effects had been less ambitious but better done. The story is almost immaterial. The king's nephew is a traitor who splits the army and conspires with the evil wizard. Several of the other plot twists make no apparent sense. This was an improvement over the disastrous Dungeons & Dragons but that's not really a compliment. I was impatient for this one to end, and it's over two hours long. 8/15/08
Murder by Death (1976)
As a devoted mystery fan, this has to be one of my favorite movies, a spoof of detective tales that casts Peter Sellers as Charlie Chan, David Niven and Maggie Smith as Nick and Nora Charles, Peter Falk as Sam Spade, James Coco as Hercule Poirot, and so forth, all with slightly altered names of course. They’re all invited to a mysterious dinner party at a remote house. Alec Guinness is absolutely great as the blind butler and Nancy Walker as the mute cook. Their host, Lionel Twain – get it? – is played by Truman Capote. This is based on the Neil Simon play so it’s full of slapstick humor. The entire cast is superb and the plot is clever and great fun. After a series of funny mishaps and tricks, Twain is found dead, and it turns out that each of the five detectives has a good reason for wanting him dead. Inspired silliness with lots of twists in the solution. One of the best comedies of all time. 8/14/08
This is a ripoff of Cloverdale, and since I wasn’t very happy with the original, I expected to be bored to distraction by the imitation. Two American women are going to visit Tokyo and they’re doing a documentary so they’re filming all the boring details of their trip as well as the good parts. Everything we see is through this camera so the picture is off center, badly lighted and sometimes unevenly focused, and generally annoying. In some shots, some faces are blurred out – presumably they wouldn’t sign the release. For some reason the back story of this is that the destruction of Tokyo is being covered up, blamed on an earthquake rather than a monster. Ignoring the fact that there is no reason to do so, the impossibility of concealing the truth is staggering, and anyway, it’s immaterial to the plot, such as it is. The visuals are even grainier than I expected and the fact that almost no one speaks English just makes it even more confusing.
So our two protagonists leave their hotel in a panic after shocks and an explosion occur nearby and the power goes out. They argue about whether or not to film, which makes no sense, and generally act dumb. Then someone tells him to leave, that it’s not safe in the city, and indicates he knows this is not an earthquake. Godzilla maybe? The actors pause every once in a while to film each other summarizing what we didn’t see. Helpful but implausible. Somehow they end up in a tunnel they hope will lead them to the surface. Lacking a budget, we hear crowd noises when they emerge but never see the crowds, just shots of their faces. Then text appears telling us the next section of tape – when they walked through the damaged part of the city – was damaged and cannot be viewed. Convenient, and cheap. This happens a lot. One of the women announces the magnitude and epicenter of the supposed quake – pretty neat since it wasn’t a quake, and she couldn’t have known anyway. The few shots we do see of the city don’t help, because everyone is acting normally and there’s no wreckage. Oh, and the wound one of the women receives in the opening scenes is gone for the rest of the movie.
They run around a lot, but it doesn’t look like Tokyo. For the first half of the movie, they don’t see any damage, any injured people, or any police or soldiers. And definitely not the monster. They eventually find one wounded guy and hear the creature roaring and we even catch a brief glimpse of an indistinct tentacle. Then another crowd scene, where people are acting normally except the two actresses, who take time to film each other but nothing else. Finally there is a fire and the sound of shooting, but it’s only for a couple of seconds and we’re back to moaning and bitching because no one speaks English. The comparatively interesting scene on the cover does not appear in the movie. A worthless excuse for a movie. 8/13/08
Another haunted dormitory movie, this one opening with the gathering of new college students who, for the most part, seem exceptionally obnoxious. Our heroine gets warned by the strange handyman to be careful, and she almost immediately has a brief supernatural experience, which she somehow manages to ignore. The cast is too old for their parts, which is par for the course, and the budget couldn’t afford enough extras to make the orientation meeting look authentic. The sexual interplay is awkward and unconvincing. Guess what? The dorm used to be a mental asylum. What a clever new idea! I’ll bet they even had unauthorized experiments and mysterious deaths too. Yup, that’s what it is. Torture with barbed wire, needles through the eyes, and no one on the staff, none of the patients’ families, and no one else was at all suspicious that anything was wrong until after the head man went nuts and started murdering the patients, until they rebelled and killed him. That’s more clichés in one sentence than you usually see in an entire movie. No one apparently has paid attention to the fact that students are still disappearing from the dorm, or committing suicide. Just college freshman hijinx, no doubt.
The computer geek in the group hacks the university’s security system in less than 5 seconds and they go into the locked part of the dorm, which is an unrestored, ruined asylum with no lights. There they find personal medical records! The police and medical authorities didn’t bother to take them during the presumed investigation of the murders and riots. Writer Ethan Lawrence is either terminally stupid or thinks we are. Anyway, the group separates in the creepy old asylum and one of them encounters the security guard. Except he supposedly didn’t have a key so how did he get in? Oh, they lied before. There are three people with access. Then the grad assistant physically attacks one of students after being told off by the security guard, who seems to have some authority inappropriate for his title.
When one of the women reports having seen a student dead, campus security investigates, not the police department, and since the body disappears, there is no further mention of it. Nor do the students get freaked out by a missing dead body. Neither do they have any inhibitions about telling strangers their innermost secrets. The next cliché is the creepy shower scene, about which the less said the better. Then it starts to go downhill and I had to force myself through the last few minutes. At no time do these students ever seem to go to class, communicate with the outside world, or entertain an intelligent thought. At one point, one of them is on the internet reading an article about “insanity” which gives statistics for probability of inheriting the condition. But it doesn’t indicate which condition and is obvious crap. Let me repeat again that the writer is either ignorant of the real world to a degree I find unbelievable or he has no respect for his audience. The screenplay is actively insulting. Oh, it’s the ghost of the mad scientist who’s responsible, obviously, who eats the scenery at every opportunity. Oh, and get this. When the campus cops finally realize students are disappearing from the dorm, they order all the students to STAY IN THE DORM ALL NIGHT BY THEMSELVES! That way they’ll be safe. Right. 8/12/08
Although this opened with some well done sequences, it starts to fall apart after that, probably because that’s when the dialogue starts. Bad acting or bad dialogue can mortally wound a movie; when you have both you either go over the top into inadvertently funny or just bore the audience to death. This is more in the latter category. The woman who is killed in the opening sequence left her purse in a field, where it is found by four typically dumb college students who attempt to return it by trespassing, being nosy, and generally acting like idiots, all of this while an intrusive and irritating soundtrack tries to drown them out. There’s a town that changed its name and is suspicious of outsiders, and a radio caller who warns that there’s a killer in the woods, but won’t explain which woods. There’s also a doofus sheriff who gets to utter the worst lines of all. He warns them to leave the area despite their pointless lies and then they decide to split up, some of them waiting in the creepy old house while the others go looking for gas – even though the sheriff told them there are no gas stations in town. One of the women decides to take a shower in said creepy house, which leads to gratuitous near nudity. Turns out there was a truck driver who was beaten nearly to death years earlier by a local crowd, and now he’s killing people and covering his malformed face. There are various stupidities in the plot, like a trial of the men responsible, even though there was nobody to complain, no body, and no evidence that anyone even died. Any hint of plausibility ends when the sheriff shoots one of the protagonists for no apparent reason. A waste of time. 8/9/08
10,000 B.C. (2008)
I never outgrew my childhood fascination with dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Actually, there are a lot of things from my childhood that I've never outgrown. So movies in this vein always attract my attention, everything from One Million BC to The Giant Behemoth to Super-Croc. This looked like it had the potential to be one of the better ones, based on its obvious lavish budget if for no other reason. No dinosaurs, but lots of mammoths and sabre toothed tigers. The story opens with a psychic wise woman warning that four legged demons - men on horses - will bring an end to her tribe's way of life. There follows a nicely done mammoth hunt, which establishes the tribe's outcast as the new tribal leader. So naturally a more advanced tribe - which turns out to worship an alien from another world - attacks and enslaves most of his people, including the woman he loves. This inspires him to pursue them on a journey that defies geographical logic, an alliance with another tribe, and a final reckoning with the bad guys. The battle with the giant chickens - and where did they come from? - isn't bad. The scene in the pit with the tiger could have been good, but they did nothing with it. This is one of those rare cases where they got most of the little things good, but most of the big things bad. Plot holes? Why did the slavers travel so far when there were plenty of closer tribes? How did the bad guys get mammoths across the desert no one has ever crossed? What do they forage on in the middle of a desert? Why would a band of nomads spend the harsh winter in the mountains? The climax is intermittently exciting, but most of the journey there is boring, and the twist ending is very stupid. 8/9/08
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Although this is supposedly the third in the Mummy series, it seems likely to kill the franchise. For one thing, two of the recurring characters were replaced by new actors - Evie and their kid - neither of whom really shine in the role. Part of that is because the dialogue just doesn't measure up to the earlier movies, nor does the plot, and actually there are no mummies in it. Some of the special effects are quite good, some pretty bad, and many of them so chaotic that I couldn't tell one way or another. The plot, which is full of holes and contradictions - like everyone's magic powers are forgotten when it is inconvenient to remember them - involves the younger O'Connell digging up a Chinese emperor and his terra cotta army, a nasty general who wants to restore the emperor to life, an army of the undead who fight on the side of good, a threesome of helpful yeti, lots of battles, chases, and explosions, a visit to Shangri-La, immortality, power over the five basic elements of the universe, and so forth and so on. Brendan Fraser does as well as he can with such a silly plot, and good performances by Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh don't help much. A nice "B" film, but I was hoping for another "A". 8/8/08
The Eye (2008)
This remake of a Japanese horror film is a variation of The Hand or Heart Condition or any other movie in which an organ transplant carries with it some aspects of the donor. In this case, it’s the ability to see things invisible to the rest of us. And hear them too, in a completely blockheaded lapse in logic. Jessica Alba, blind since she was very young, gets a new set of eyes and learns to see all over again, but she sees more than she bargained for. Yes, she sees dead people. The soundtrack is set way too low as well, particularly early in the film. I had to turn the tv up close to maximum to hear the dialogue from eight feet away. Everybody mumbles or whispers or both.
One of the problems I have with many Japanese horror films is that they are very impressive visually and individually scenes can be extraordinarily creepy – e.g The Ring – but often the plot doesn’t resolve well, apparently because it is not considered necessary to explain supernatural events. I haven’t seen the original of this one, but the opening sequences – including an encounter with some kind of phantasm in the hospital – never really seemed very suspenseful to me and I never formed much of an attachment to the protagonist, even though Alba does a good enough job. There seemed to be little sense of urgency in the story development, and the somber soundtrack didn’t help either. The writers hadn’t really thought things through either, because she has a nightmare in which she sees things happen about which she had no visual experience and therefore would have been unable to imagine accurately.
Alba goes to a therapist who is to help her learn to use her eyes properly. He doesn’t believe her visions, believing them to be delusions. They are also inconsistent. If she can see only the recently dead, why does she have recurring versions of those who have been dead for a long time? Why does she always see another woman when she looks in a mirror. Sometimes the visions are in dreams rather than when she’s awake. When she decides to retreat into darkness, why does she break the lamps rather than just turn them off, and why were they all on when she wasn’t in her room in the first place? Why can she feel her visions with her eyes closed? Why did I continue to watch? She decides to track down her donor in Mexico. She is linked to a fatal fire which also involved a witch, who is the donor of the eyes, and who saw death BEFORE it happened, not after. Another nonsensical contradiction. Her claims are vindicated when she saves a number of lives by anticipating a disaster. Not once did the movie feel at all suspenseful. 7/30/08
The Undying Monster (1942)
Although the novel on which this movie is based is pretty minor, the movie itself is unusually good, comparing very favorably to the Universal horror monsters, and in fact I prefer it to both The Werewolf of London and The Wolfman. A family has labored under the curse of a mysterious monster for generations and the present one, which doesn’t believe the legend, is troubled by mysterious attacks and other odd goings on. The servants are clearly covering something up and two investigators from Scotland Yard are determined to find out the truth. The investigators use scientific means to analyze the evidence and find clear evidence of the supernatural. This is a surprisingly intelligent and well executed thriller, with spectacular sets and a clever plot. There’s also a comparatively rationalized explanation of lycanthropy. The movie deserves to be much better known. 7/29/08
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)
I hope that the original dialogue in Japanese wasn't as dreadful as it is in English. The dubbing is incredibly bad. The hero is a writer who got "rich" writing SF, which makes this a fantasy. There's an older man who thinks the dinosaurs saved his life during World War II and that they are watching over the Japanese homeland through some miraculous means. There are also two inane explorers who find the skeleton of Ghidorah underwater, minus one of its three heads. The army is concerned about a mysterious UFO that has been sighted. When they send helicopters to investigate, they are all destroyed by a flying saucer. Meanwhile, the Institute of ESP reports that Godzilla is being held prisoner by "anti-nuclear bacteria". And fishermen find the bones of a plesiosaur off the coast of New Zealand. The writer concludes that the heroic dinosaur turned into Godzilla. The spaceship disgorges three holographic humans who claim to be from three centuries in the future, bearing a warning. The time travelers claim that they have come to pick up three "experts" from the present day to help them capture the dinosaur and prevent it from being changed into Godzilla. No one wonders how a science fiction writer could be an expert, but that's par for the course. They are now teamed with a person from the future and an android. They also have three not very cute flying pets who respond to human emotions by reading "microwave impulses". Right.
They land in the middle of a pitched World War II battle, in time to see the dinosaur intervening on the side of the Japanese. Although not yet Godzilla, the dinosaur is giant sized and relatively impervious to bullets, although artillery eventually brings it down. Briefly. Really bad special effects. When they return to the 20th Century, they discover there is no Godzilla, but there is Ghidorah with a grudge against Japan. Lots of buildings blow up and fall down. Then we find out what I suspected from the outset. The people from the future created Ghidorah from the three pets we saw earlier, although one of them apparently didn't know what was planned, except she did. Translation here just confused the plot. The Japanese - who secretly have a nuclear weapons stockpile - decide to use them to turn a dinosaur skeleton into Godzilla to fight Ghidorah. Got all that? If you're confused, so was I, because when they go to revive Godzilla, he's already reconstituted and unfriendly. The monsters fight, Godzilla wins, and so do our heroes, who disrupt the plans of the time travelers in a ray gun fight. Now Godzilla goes on a rampage, so they decide to got to the future, revive Ghidorah, and bring it back through time to fight again. Silly. 7/28/08
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
I finally made time to go see this before it disappeared into DVD land. I am a big fan of the earlier titles so I was afraid that this one would turn out to be disappointing. To my surprise, it was closest in tone to the first in the series, essentially a series of action sequences loosely tied together by a simple exterior story line. Jones is in a race to rescue a kidnapped colleague and unravel the secret of a crystal skull, which takes him to various parts of South America for adventures underground and in a lost city apparently founded by aliens from another dimension. The ending was surprisingly similar to that of The Mummy Returns. There are the usual plot holes but the action moves so quickly you won't notice them until later. The revelation that his young companion is actually his son comes as no big surprise, but it's good to see Karen Allen back. Some spectacular chase and battle sequences. The cast is beginning to show its age, but not so much as to make it unbelievable. I look forward to the DVD so I can watch it again. And again. 7/26/08
Night of the Demons 2 (1994)
The first in this series was so bad – kids at a house party invoke demons – that I figured the sequel couldn’t be any worse. Stupid assumption. The movie opens with some comic relief bloodletting, followed by gratuitous nudity, all wrapped up in bad acting. Good line. “A kiss is a sin when it’s an upper invitation to a lower invasion.” Probably not original with the movie. There’s a bunch of troubled “kids” (they’re all well into their twenties) who feud with a nun, make out at every opportunity, and play around with summoning demons. Bad lines, bad special effects, and poor logic follow as the demons claim their victims and a feisty nun sets out to rescue the endangered teens, who have allowed the evil force to leave Hull House, where it was previously confined. The deaths are grotesquely over the top and funny rather than frightening. The water pistol full of holy water is funny. It’s better than staring at a blank screen. I think. 7/24/08
Majin, the Monster of Terror (1966)
A Japanese warlord usurps the throne and enslaves the people, but there’s a godlike creature in the form of a statue in a nearby mountain. After some time has passed, the statue begins to stir and the locals aren’t sure what’s coming next. Samurai swordplay and ancient rituals abound as the godlike Majin, who is actually neither good nor evil, stirs to interfere in the affairs of mortals. The son of the rightful ruler has grown up and he’s looking for payback as well. Technically this is a giant monster movie, but unlike the tales of Godzilla, there’s a complex and interesting plot and in fact Majin doesn’t even make an appearance until an hour into the movie when the bad guy kills a priestess. Mayhem follows until a young woman manages to call the angry god off. There were actually three movies in this series in Japan, but only two of them ever made it to English screens, this and the sequel, Return of the Giant Majin. 7/23/08
Return of the Giant Majin (1966)
Another evil warlord is on the prowl. They never learn. This follows much the same pattern, with considerably more samurai swordplay, chases and escapes, and nothing much about Majin until quite late in the movie. The sets are unusually good and the music includes a variation of the Godzilla theme. The bad guy makes the usual mistake, preparing to burn the female lead at the stake. Majin gets pissed, rises from the lake, and makes mince meat of the evil army. Some reasonably good special effects given the age of the movie, including a parting of the waters, and a fairly complex plot. The sound of the approaching avenger in the final scenes is very effective. 7/23/08
Tobor the Great (1954)
Time for an old fashioned robot movie. Because humans are accident prone, the space program decides to use robots instead, directing them telepathically. We never exactly find out how they developed telepathy but that's another story. After a lengthy prelude, there is a meeting to discuss this highly secret info, but a spy manages to sneak in past the obviously pretty bad security. But since it was a press conference, the whole question makes no sense. Shame on Philip MacDonald, a good mystery writer who penned the screenplay. Since the scientists speak openly in restaurants with spies sitting at adjacent tables, I suppose this should have come as no surprise. It's a kids' movie. The sinister spies are almost comical, the cute kid saves the day, and everything comes out right in the end. A minor fix for my nostalgia addiction. 7/22/08
Sky Dragon (1949)
The last of the Charlie Chan films barring a single one much later with Peter Ustinov. Keye Luke and Manton Moreland look uncomfortable in this story in which everyone aboard an airliner is drugged to facilitate a major robbery. Charlie has to solve the crime, of course, but only after the body count eliminates most of the suspects. More bumbling detection, a dose of sophomoric humor, and a transparently obvious villain, or rather villains – there are three of them. The method by which Charlie exposes the criminals is itself criminally negligent and nearly results in multiple deaths, and it’s totally unnecessary since the physical evidence was already known about. Interesting primarily because Noel Neill, later Lois Lane, is the female lead. A disappointing end to what at times was a quite intelligent series of films. 7/21/08
Robot vs the Aztec Mummy (1958)
Final volume of the original trilogy, although Wrestlers vs the Aztec Mummy appeared a few years later. I haven’t seen that one in years either, but I can wait. A long time actually. More corny dialogue, bad acting, cheapo special effects, bad makeup, silly plot, and bad logic. There’s also a stupid lead in that claims that parts of the movie are based on actual fact. Well, there WERE Aztecs at one time, so I guess that’s true. Once again, we have extensive flashbacks to waste time and save money. The recap of the first two movies consumes the first half hour of the movie – including a goof when one of the henchmen is renamed. It turns out that the two chief crooks from the last film weren’t killed after all and they’re back with a fresh plot to steal the treasure and destroy the mummy. Guess what? They fail again. The “human robot” is hilarious, and no match for the walking undead. 7/19/08
The Feathered Serpent (1948)
While vacationing in Mexico, Chan and company run into an expedition searching for two missing scientists, one of whom promptly shows up with a story about being imprisoned at a hidden temple, the details of which are concealed because he is promptly murdered. Chan has two sons with him for the first time as Keye Luke returns, but even he can’t do much with this boring story of betrayal among the search party, mysterious Mexican Indians lurking in the shadows, and Charlie solving yet another mystery more through luck than brains. 7/18/08
Curse of the Aztec Mummy (1957)
I first saw this with a bunch of college friends during the 1960s. We had a lot of fun with it. It’s not as “good” as the first in the series, which makes it even funnier, particularly the low rent superhero, the Angel. The masked villain, the Bat, has been arrested and his gang is at loose ends. He escapes despite the inept efforts of the Angel, a wrestling superhero, to stop him. The Angel poses heroically at every opportunity but loses almost every fight he gets into. He gives the endangered couple a radio wristwatch so that they can call him if they need to. Even though the movie runs only slightly over an hour, there are very long stretched of flashbacks and I suspect there’s only about forty minutes of new material. Anyway, the liberated Bat still wants the valuable artifacts our heroes found in a tomb in the first movie, so they kidnap them in an effort to coerce their cooperation. The Angel tries to ride to the rescue. There’s a hilarious scene where he’s holding onto an illuminated lightbulb above a pit of vipers. Sure, I believe that. The mummy doesn’t even show up until less than ten minutes before the end. It would be better after a few beers. But not much better. “Drop that zombie before he murders us.” Mummy, not zombie, you idiot. The bad guys never bother to unmask the angel even though they capture him – several times – until the end, when we discover he’s the comic relief sidekick in disguise. The bad guy gets thrown to the snakes and the mummy returns to his tomb. 7/17/08
The Golden Eye (1948)
This is ae Charlie Chan film, not a James Bond. Charlie is approached by a mine owner who fears for his life. His mine, formerly played out, is suddenly producing a suspiciously large amount of high grade ore. Once again there is a whole gang of bad guys smuggling in Mexican gold this time, and Charlie and company actually engage in a short, pitched gun battle. The impersonation of the comatose man is a particularly inept plot element. It was a slight improvement over the earlier Roland Winters’ entrees, but once again stilted dialogue and a fairly transparent mystery prevent it from being memorable. 7/16/08
Attack of the Aztec Mummy (1957)
This early Mexican horror film, first in a series, is often numbered among lists of the worst movies ever made, and with good reason. There is virtually nothing done well in this silly story of reincarnation and mummy revenge. An experiment with hypnosis leads a scientist to believe in reincarnation, which in turn leads to an expedition to find the bones of an earlier version of the heroine who was entombed after an illicit romance with Popoca, the Aztec Mummy. Where have I heard this story before? The opening sequence in which a scientist presents his paper on regression through hypnosis sets the tone of silliness since, after presenting his controversial views, he admits that he had no evidence to back it up. In fact, he has never found anyone willing to be hypnotized so he has never even made a simple experiment. No wonder his colleagues are skeptical. I didn’t feel sorry for him, though, because he addressed the audience – half female – as “gentlemen.” The scenes from the past memory sequences are alternately films of obvious ruins or drawings. During one of these, she mentions that no one is allowed to see her at this point because she is to be sacrificed, but she’s standing in a crowd! The usual clichés appear – the cute kid, the comic relief sidekick. There’s also a costumed crimelord who keeps peering in windows and, of course, the mummy, whose makeup is so dreadfully bad he’s more comical than scary. The climax is so underlit I couldn’t tell what was going on, which was probably a plus. 7/15/08
The Shanghai Chest (1948)
One of the last four Charlie Chan movies. There’s an interesting gimmick but a bad story. A dead man’s fingerprints show up at three separate murder scenes. There’s also the usual dreadful bit where an innocent man picks up the murder weapon just before the police arrive. Various people act suspiciously as three people connected to the legal profession all end up dead, with the linking item being the prints of a man who was executed six months earlier either on the murder weapon or near the body. Charlie does considerably more actual investigating this time and the story might actually have worked if the acting hadn’t been so consistently lukewarm. 7/14/08
Docks of New Orleans (1948)
Another Charlie Chan movie, this one a remake of a Mr. Wong mystery. The writers get Tommy and Jimmy Chan mixed up and never corrected the mistake in the four remaining films. A slight improvement over the first Roland Winters Chan movie, although the gullibility of the businessman who appeals to Chan for help against a mysterious threat is pretty much unbelievable. This time a group of investors are all threatened by death after they form a kind of tontine. The acting is a bit better and Winters isn’t quite as flat, but it’s still a minor piece. This is another one where virtually everyone is guilty of something. Charlie needs to associate with a better class of people. There’s a “you’re probably all wondering why I called you here” climax that is less than satisfying. 7/13/08
The Chinese Ring (1947)
Roland Winters took over as Charlie Chan in this film by William “One Shot” Beaudine, with Birmingham Jones and number two son bridging the gap from Sidney Toler. Winters doesn’t look remotely Chinese and his acting is flat, along with the dialogue. A Chinese woman comes to see him but is killed before they can speak, leaving a cryptic message behind. A policeman and a female journalist, obviously patterned on Torchy Blaine, show up and begin quarrelling. The interview with the ship’s captain is particularly stupid. Chan stumbles through the plot and the murder is solved as much by others as by him. It’s all about a swindle involving funds meant to purchase military hardware and almost everyone involved in the story is part of the conspiracy. Thoroughly disappointing. 7/12/08
The Trap (1946)
Sidney Toler’s last appearance as Charlie Chan. A crowd of showgirls and their managers are vacationing at a beach house in Malibu when the nastiest of the group disappears just as the nicest is found strangled. Through a rather forced comic coincidence, Charlie and company arrive and are put in charge of the investigation. Toler’s failing health probably explains why he appears in so few scenes and why the usual comic antics are stretched beyond the breaking point in this one. The other woman shows up on the beach, dead with a cord around her neck, but for some reason it is considered a probable suicide until the coroner’s report. As usual, some of the people are using a false identity and others have things to hide. There’s some really awful over acting in this one, particularly the young woman who keeps having hysterics and the Maestro, whose similar hysterics verge on the comical. The housekeeper is also an eavesdropper who makes use of a secret passage in the house. The solution relies on information we never possessed, although I did guess who the killer was. 7/11/08
Dangerous Money (1946)
A government agent is fatally stabbed as he sits beside Charlie Chan on an ocean voyage. Murder mysteries aboard ship are a small but interesting subgenre, but unfortunately this isn’t one of the better examples. Sidney Toler, who was playing Chan, was dying of cancer while the last few movies were in process, including this one. Several people aboard have secrets of their own which hampers the investigation. The comic relief is clumsier than usual, and Charlie seems more brusque than usual. A blackmail plot, another murder, and missing art objects add to the plot. There’s a pitched gun battle and a female impersonator as well. All the elements are there, but the story never quite comes together. 7/10/08
Shadows over Chinatown (1946)
With the war over, Charlie Chan could turn his attention from spies to ordinary criminals. This installment of his career gets off to a bad start. He’s aboard a bus forced to layover by mechanical problems in a remote location. Several passengers discover that their pockets have been picked and someone tries to shoot Charlie, after which an armed man shows up protesting his innocence. As it happens, his gun has not been fired. At journey’s end, we discover that most of the characters are involved with each other, and with a scheme to defraud insurance companies and a young woman who has gone into hiding because of information she overheard. It’s more convoluted than most of the other films in the series, and incorporates a torso murder, a stabbing, a shooting, and other mayhem. The usual comic relief is even flatter than in the past. 7/9/08
Mrs. Bradley Mysteries (2000)
The first of these four adaptations from PBS is “Death at the Opera”, which opens with a murder at an exclusive finishing school. I was amused to see two Dr. Who’s in the cast, Peter Davison and David Tennant. The stories are based on novels by Gladys Mitchell, none of which I’ve read, or even seen. Mrs. Bradley, played by Diana Rigg, is a criminologist and psychologist who attended the school, but who lacks fond memories of the place. A nice, traditional British mystery although I didn’t buy the hypnotism scene at all. The second episode is “The Rising of the Moon”. A murder among the members of a traveling circus group leads to the revelation of sexual tensions and a rousing indictment of small town prejudice in England (and elsewhere, obviously). A bit better than the first, and I like Rigg a lot, as well as her chauffeur assistant, but the mystery itself is rather pedestrian. The third is “Laurels Are Poison”, a bit of a haunted house story. Shortly after arriving for a visit, Mrs. Bradley finds the cook lying dead, poisoned without her underwear. The man of the house is a supposed war hero and martinet who is obviously only one of several people concealing secrets. I liked this much better than the first two. The fourth and final episode is “The Worsted Viper.” This is the second best of the four, a not very gripping story about cult murders, although I have to admit that the identity of the killer took me completely by surprise. Despite good moments in the film versions, I am not at all tempted to look up any of the original novels. 7/8/08
Dark Alibi (1946)
Manton Moreland returns after a brief hiatus for this Charlie Chan mystery adventure. Charlie has to help when a reformed ex-convict is framed for bank robbery and murder and sentenced to death. It turns out that three robberies have all been “solved” with three different men convicted, even though all three were committed in identical fashions. Charlie correctly assumes that someone has found a way to plant fingerprints to shift the blame to innocent men. Someone tries to kill Charlie, and another woman involved in the case is fatally killed when she is run down by a truck. The comic relief is overpowering this time around, so even though the set up isn’t at all bad, the delivery is less than successful. 7/7/08
Lake Placid 2 (2007)
This is the sequel to one of my favorite low key monster movies, about a crocodile in Maine. Cloris Leachman replaces Betty White as the irascible old woman, and that’s about the only thing in the movie that isn’t a complete disaster. The sequel follows the standard monster format – body parts floating about, stupid people swimming where they shouldn’t. This time with have incredibly stupid dialogue instead of surprisingly clever bits, and despite John Schneider’s efforts, we have bad acting instead of good. Oh, and some gratuitous nudity, cute animals, and a teenage romance, which is even more awkward than the real thing. The sheriff and a fish and wildlife person try to track down the croc before it eats up all the extras, but they aren’t notably successful. The teens, incidentally, are actually aged 27-31. The croc is CGI, of course, and badly done. It doesn’t even move like a real animal. It’s animated so badly that the humans are able to outswim it! Apparently in Maine, wet hair dries out in less than 60 seconds. They kill the croc, but naturally there’s another. No fun at all. 7/6/08
Red Dragon (1945)
This is the Charlie Chan movie, not the more recent one about Hannibal Lecter. Willie Best replaced Manton Moreland as the comic relief chauffeur afraid of his shadow. Chan is summoned when the secret of the atomic bomb appears to have fallen into the hands of an enemy agent, and naturally there’s a dead body when he arrives. Everyone associated with the case is hiding at least one secret and everyone has a motive for having committed the murder. There is also the mystery of how the victim was shot when there was no firearm in the room, which is cleverly explained by means of a mechanical device. Minimal comic relief this time, but things move so fast that it’s difficult to keep the various suspects straight. 7/5/08
I wasn’t expecting a lot from this low budget horror film, and the special effects during a prologue sequence in which a soldier is killed by a snaky lifeform didn’t promise much. Things jump around in time during the first few minutes and I wasn’t always certain of the order of events, but the acting and camera work were good and I overlooked the not entirely convincing scene as our hero tries to get into a condemned military base. I assume this is where the “project went wrong” that we saw in the opening. This is confirmed when the intruder reveals that his mother was assigned at the base and claimed there was something dangerous locked up in one of the sublevels. They check and uncover it, despite his warning to let it stay where it is. The effects and the story get better, thought not consistently, with a snaky, vinelike organism that grows at a spectacular rate erupting from the sealed vault and spreading through the facility, and then into the countryside. Some of the plot elements designed to advance the story are too contrived. They happen to find a man who used to work at the base and who has been holding an unopened package given to him by a scientist years before for no obvious reason. Then the plot takes a nosedive. Through incredibly stupid handling, one of our heroes gets infected by the creature, but it turns out he has a natural resistance to it. Predictably, the army is going to attack with major weapons, which we have learned will just provoke further growth. There’s a change in command of the army in the area, but against all reason the technicians and specialists are all to be replaced as well, despite this being an emergency situation. Nope. Doesn’t work that way. And I very much doubt that a man could lose enough blood to completely cover a human body and still be able to run around and be heroic. Nor does it make sense that the army would attack a helicopter in the area when they know the whole region is going to be hit by a nuclear strike within minutes. Has its good moments, but not enough of them. 7/4/08
Wall-E soundtrack composed by Thomas Newman, Walt Disney Records, 2008
As I write this, Wall-E is at the top of the list for attendance, but I haven’t seen it yet. The soundtrack, however, is well above average, one of the best I’ve heard, with one cut by Peter Gabriel and a lot of quite entertaining original music. It escapes, for the most part, from the trap of being so tied to the on screen action that it doesn’t have much independent life, and it also varies considerably. Some of it is serious to somber, some obviously going for cuteness. The theme cut is cute, “Eve” has lush orchestral sounds, and there’s even Louis Armstrong performing “La Vie En Rose”. “Foreign Contaminant” and “72 Degrees and Sunny” include some musical styles that were new, to me at least, and “First Date” makes effective use of a vocal chorus. A few like “Rogue Robots” and “Horizon 12.2” sound more like a traditional soundtrack, whatever that might be. I only had two minor cavils. Some of the very short cuts are very nice but never get developed, and for some reason the overall volume level goes up and down so that I was constantly adjusting my player. But it’s still going to be one of my favorites. 7/3/08
Dragons of Autumn Twilight soundtrack composed by Karl Preusser, 2008
This soundtrack from what is, I believe, an animated movie based on the Dragonlance game/novels, and it is in generally pretty generic. “Tasslehoff and Flint” and “Returning to Solace” stand out slightly “The Circle Is Broken,” “Darken Wood,” and “The Battle of Pax Tharkas” are actually good, but most of the rest is relatively lacking in character and it all blends in after a while. It didn’t make me want to go out and see the movie, but then I had no plans to do so in any case. 7/3/08
The Shanghai Cobra (1945)
A man collapses at a clandestine meeting just as he is about to tell a young woman something important. He has been killed by cobra poison, as have three other employees of the same bank where a supply of radium is being kept, so Charlie Chan is called upon to investigate. An escaped killer is suspected, someone whom Chan may be able to identify by his distinctive hair. The bank manager himself displays this feature, which makes him an immediate suspect. An undercover detective disappears and, as usual, Chan’s son and Birmingham get into mildly comical trouble. There’s a lot of running around in sewer tunnels, a secret entrance to the bank, a ruse by Charlie Chan, and an underground explosion. A bit slow moving at times but generally quite good. 7/3/08
The Lodger (1944)
I recently reread this novel so I decided to watch the film again as well. The book never specifically refers to the killer as Jack the Ripper, but the film does, although it’s inconsistent because this killer specializes in actresses. In the book, a strange man takes lodgings in London and the couple who rent to him strongly suspect that he is responsible for a series of murders in the neighborhood. Eventually he makes his escape. Most of the story is told from the point of view of the landlady, who tries to convince herself she is imagining things because they really need the rent money. The movie plays up the niece, an actress, who attracts the killer’s attention when they first meet. Otherwise it stays close to the book until the conclusion, although the landlady voices her suspicions rather earlier than in the novel. George Sanders is his usual urbane self as the police inspector. There’s an amusing error toward the end. We see the Tower Bridge, which had not yet been built at the time. Overall, a reasonably good adaptation and a good thriller with a great climax. 7/2/08
The Scarlet Clue (1945)
Charlie Chan protects government secrets again in this murder mystery which appeared just as World War II was coming to an end. Despite some of the usual problems, this is one of the better ones, with the criminals connected to a radio broadcast studio, messages from the murder sent by teletype, an irascible woman he treats the actors like criminals, and a suave henchman. The dialogue isn’t always great, but the short interchange between Manton Moreland and another man in which they anticipate each other’s sentences is the most genuinely funny episode in the entire series, reminiscent of Abbott and Costello. The henchman gets blackmailed by an actress who wants better jobs in return for keeping quiet about some incriminating evidence, but the unseen mastermind eliminates her promptly. Charlie gets a good line as well. “Someone would have us believe he fall eight stories…up.” Clever murder method revealed at the end. 7/1/08