Category Archives: Movies

A djinn and a detective: two series on DVD

Given my love for the Arabian Nights, it’s not surprising that as a kid I loved SHAZZAN, Hanna-Barbera’s fantasy series about two kids and their nigh-invincible genie. Rewatching as an adult, I can see all the flaws I expected, but I still enjoyed it.

The premise is that two American kids, Chuck and Nancy (Janet Waldo, Jerry Dexter) find two halves of an ancient ring, join them together and are instantly transported back to fantasy Arabia. The genie of the ring, Shazzan (Barney Phillips), whose name is an obvious riff on “Shazam!”, tells them that to return home they must deliver his ring to the Wizard of the Seventh Mount, but he has no idea where the mage is. Until then, they have a magical flying camel, Kaboobie, and whenever they join the ring together they can summon him. Which of course they need to do as they run into a variety of wizards trying to oppress, conquer or otherwise wreak havoc (so yes, we have something of a white savior element).

The animation is more imaginative than I expected, though the stories are formulaic. A bigger problem is that Shazzan is so powerful, he usually overwhelms everyone he goes up against. As the series goes along, the kids get absurdly powerful too. At the start they have a couple of magic items (enchanted rope, cloak of invisibility) but by the end of the show they’re just pulling endless magical gadgets out of their utility belts, as it were.

Still, I had a lot of fun watching this.

THE UNPLEASANTNESS AT THE BELLONA CLUB brought back Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey. The eponymous unpleasantness is that an elderly general expired in his arm chair at Wimsey’s club on Armistice Day. Nothing suspicious about it, until it turns out the exact time of death will determine the distribution of sizable inheritance. And someone worked very hard to cover up the time … This is much better than Clouds of Witness (of course, it’s a better book) though it’ll be a while before I get any more of Carmichael’s later seasons. “If you keep people young with monkey glands, they’re not going to die of heart failure.”

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Four weddings, a funeral and Supergirl: movies and TV

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994) stars Hugh Grant in his career-making role as a commitment-phobic Brit who beds Andie McDowell, a more sexually experienced American, in the aftermath of a friend’s wedding. He’s hooked, but she’s flying home; over the following three weddings and a funeral, they keep meeting, bedding and discovering reasons they can’t be together — one of the weddings is hers, for instance and not to Grant (Romantic Comedy might make a good double-bill for a couple who are similarly never available at the same time). A funny, charming rom-com with a cast that includes Rowan Atkinson as a mumble-mouthed minister and Kristin Scott-Thomas as one of Grant’s buddies. “There’s nothing more off-putting at a wedding than a priest with an enormous erection.”

I found SUPERGIRL‘s third season an exercise in frustration. The cast is great (Smallville‘s Erika Durrance didn’t add much as the new Alura) Melissa Benoist is always winning, we got a visit from the Legion of Super-Heroes. Storywise, the season’s big arc — a battle against a gen-engineered Kryptonian called Reign arriving on Earth — seemed to run out of steam well before the end. Supergirl and her team spend a lot of time worrying that more “world killers” are on the way, but when two more show up, they’re disposed of laughably quickly. The show still seems unsure what to do with Jimmy Olsen, Alex’s romance with Maggie Sawyer just flatlined and I really hope they don’t turn Lena Luthor evil — she’s much more interesting as the one good member of her clan. The one good arc involved J’Onn reuniting with, and ultimately losing his Martian father.

More generally, this is the third time we’ve had a menace tied to Krypton as the big bad, and I wish they’d stop. It feels like they’re paralyzed and unable to move beyond the Kryptonian threat of Superman II but they’ve had plenty of minor Earthborn adversaries. There’s no reason they can’t do one more formidable (just not Lena, please!). But while I’m unenthused about picking up Arrow next season, Supergirl‘s still on my list.

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Character in The Thief of Baghdad

As I mentioned Saturday, I love Alex Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad. Rewatching last month, I was struck by the way the film handles several of the key characters.

Abu. Abu, the young thief played by Sabu, has absolutely no qualms about stealing food from vendors in the Baghdad markets. He’s gluttonous and selfish, although when Ahmad needs help, Abu reluctantly gives him whatever he needs (the advantage of dividing the romantic lead and the real hero is that they’re at least a little conflicted). But what I noticed was that in his first appearance, Abu watches a couple of beggars turned away by a fish vendor. He then sneaks a couple of fine grilled fish away, but rather than eat them himself, he throws them to the beggars (the owner does not see this, of course) before running off. It’s as much an act of mischief as charity (Sabu plays very mischievous) but it is charitable. It makes it clear that thief or not, we can root for Abu.

Jaffar. The thing about Veidt is that he truly loves the princess. Oh no question it’s an evil, possessive and obsessive loveut the looks of desperate longing on his face when he beholds her makes it clear his heart aches. He could magically compel her to love him, but he won’t; he wants real love, not enforced (though he’s quite willing to wipe her memory at one point so she forgets Ahmad, in hopes that’ll give him a clear field).

Happily the movie does not imply this makes him a nice character or redeemable or sympathetic. He’s a villain, willing to kill her along with Ahmad when he realizes the princess (who never actually gets a name) will never be his. But it does add some shading to his character. I don’t know if the same thing would have worked on the printed page — it’s all in Conrad Veidt’s performance.

The Sultan. As the Sultan of Basra, Miles Malleson (who wrote a lot of the dialog) initially appears to be a comical eccentric in the classic British style. He’s a lovable fuddy-duddy who collects toys and automatons of all kinds, including a prototype clock (leading to Jaffar’s warning that the people must never know about this: “Once they can tell time, they’ll wonder how time is spent.”). He seems so utterly lovable as he tells Jaffar the wonderful thing about toys is that they do exactly what he wants, exactly the same way, every single time. “My subjects,” he sighs, “don’t do what I want every time. That’s why I have to chop off so many of their heads.”

It’s delivered in the same fuddy-duddy tone as all his other lines. It’s all the creepier for that. To cement the fact he’s not one of the good guys, he then trades his daughter’s hand to Jaffar in return for Jaffar’s new, cool automaton. It’s still hard to think of him as a bad guy — I can’t help feeling a little sorry when Jaffar sends him to the arms of the prophets — but bad he is indeed.

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A world I’d LOVE to live in: Thief of Baghdad (1940)

When I was around 10 or 11 I found a copy of The Arabian Nights in a classroom back in England. I’d often spend recess sneaking back inside and reading it. I fell in love with this strange, foreign world, and the strange stylized way people talked. It’s truly a world I’d love to live in, where even beggars and lowly laborers can stumble into wonders. So even though THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1940) is orientalist and probably cultural appropriation (all the leads but Sabu are white Europeans), I honestly don’t care. I love this one.

The movie opens as the sinister Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) arrives in Baghdad where his female agent (Mary Morris) has located a blind man (John Justin) and his dog. The blind man, Ahmad, tells how he was the sultan of Baghdad until his vizier, Jaffar, usurped the throne. Fleeing Jaffar, Ahmad falls in with Abu (Sabu), a street thief. Abu’s dream is to travel the world and see its wonders, but he reluctantly accompanies his new friend to Basra to seek help from the Sultan there. Instead, Ahmad falls in love with Basra’s beautiful princess (June Duprez) — whose automaton-loving father (Miles Malleson) has agreed to give her to Jaffar in return for a new clockwork toy, a flying horse. And Jaffar does not want competition for the lady’s heart …

This movie is just a delight. Genies, flying horses and magical transformations, memorable performances by Sabu, Veidt and Malleson (I’ll be writing some about them next week) — not to mention Rex Ingram as a mocking genie — the fantasy-Arabian style of dialog (“This is no dog but the reincarnation of a debt collector!” “Where have you come from, beggars of no importance?”), cool sets and everything in lush technicolor.  It’s a spectacle (producer Michael Korda believed you go big or you don’t go at all) and some great music in the background. Justin and Duprez are less memorable actors than the rest of the cast but they’re good enough. “In the morning, unless the sun stops still and never rises, we die.”

This being the Criterion edition, Thief has two commentary tracks, both interesting, and a documentary on the special effects (this was the first film to use blue screen as a technique). It also includes THE LION HAS WINGS (1940) a less memorable WW II morale booster director Michael Powell made in the middle of Thief. The film is a documentary showing how Britain has spent the years since the Great War working to give its citizens a better life and protect their freedom, in contrast to the militaristic desire of Germany to Conquer, Conquer, Conquer (offhand references to the British Empire are now just reminders that England did its share of conquering). It also reassures viewers that having gotten past the whole appeasement thing, Britain’s industrial machine is cranked up to 11 and ready to win the air war as well as the land war. It’s good-looking, but like a lot of WW II propaganda, not terribly gripping. In fictional sections, Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon play stiff-upper lipped Brits. “They did what they set out to do and drew first blood in a war that was none of their making.”

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20 Things About the Winter Soldier That Make No Sense

Bucky Barnes was there on Captain America’s first cover.

Then he died.

Then he became the Winter Soldier.

My new Screen Rant on the Winter Soldier looks at Buck’s whole career. Why did nobody notice that Bucky Barnes had the same name as Bucky the sidekick? Why didn’t the Russians dispose of Bucky as soon as they found his body? What about his brainwashed relationship with the Black Widow? Don’t get me wrong, I think Brubaker created an awesome character, but his stories have a few logic gaps.

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Martial arts, slashers, con women and dead musicians: movies viewed

THE HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004) was one of those lush martial arts fantasies that got US release in the wake of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Ddragon. Here the protagonists are a blind freedom fighter allied to the title revolutionaries and the government agent infiltrating the Daggers by playing her heroic rescuer, both of whom soon develop stronger feelings than is safe. This is more a tragic romance than the spectacular action movie I remembered, but the action is quite spectacular, such as the fight in the bamboo forest mid film. Well worth rewatching.“You will be more convincing with a dagger in your back.”

As I mentioned yesterday, I caught FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) on a big-screen TV during an outing with TYG. A very young Kevin Bacon is among the camp counselors who learn the legend of Jason, the boy who haunted the woods since his death. Only it’s not a legend and they’re all going to die brutally, aaagh! Can’t say it compares to Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.

I wasn’t much impressed by OCEAN’S 8 (2018) either. This spinoff stars Sandra Bullock as The Sister We Didn’t Know Danny Ocean Had (“Are all your family crooks?”), recruiting a team including longtime bud Cate Blanchett, hacker Rihanna, gem cutter Mindy Kaling and fashion designer Helena Bonham Carter to steal a priceless necklace from around the neck of Anne Hathaway and nail the squealer who sent Bullock up the river. Despite the strong cast, this is too generic, lacking either the twists or the character bits to make it click (though I liked it more than Ocean’s 13) — but I suppose at this point it’s like complaining about a Fast and Furious film being formulaic. “Somewhere out there, an eight year old girl is lying in bed, dreaming of becoming a criminal. This is for her.”

COCO (2017) is the charming Pixar story of a Mexican boy determined to follow in the footsteps of a legendary musician despite his family’s opposition. When he stumbles into the netherworld on the Dios de la Muertos, he learns not only the importance of the festival, his departed relatives give him some unexpected revelations about family history. Very good, and I like some of the little touches (Santos and Frida Kahlo among the celebrities of the afterlife). “A minute ago I thought my great-grandfather was a murderer. This is an upgrade!”

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Sic transit gloria Jason Vorhees

So last weekend, TYG and I were out with some college friends of her, and some undergraduates from the same frat. We wound up in a bar where the undergrads were playing Candyland while watching Friday the 13th on a big-screen TV. Which is an amusing image, but not the point of this post. To wit, that none of them had heard of the film.

It’s another example of how different generations have different cultural experiences. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Friday the 13th film in its entirety, but I still know they’re about Jason Voorhees, the guy in the hockey mask who slashes people to death. The films were everywhere in the 1980s — eight installments in the series in that decade. TV’s Night Court could make a joke referencing the series and be confident people would get it.

Now, though? The students responses when I identified it (had to use Google) were “Friday the 13th? That’s a movie?” or wondering if it was the one with Freddie Krueger. But why would they remember it? There was one series film in the 1990s, one in 2001, Freddy vs. Jason in 2003 and then the 2009 reboot. It’s their dads’ horror franchise.

I won’t shed any tears if the series vanishes into the memory hole, but I hate it when stuff like this makes me feel old.

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Dr. Mabuse and Peter Wimsey: Movies and TV

THE TERROR OF DR. MABUSE (1962) was a remake of Testament of Dr. Mabuse and known under that title as well as Terror of the Mad Doctor; under all the names it’s a pale shadow of the original. Wolfgang Preiss returns as Mabuse #3, now frantically dictating a new Testament of his own. Could he possibly be behind the crime wave sweeping the city? His shrink (Walter Rilla) says no, but in the world of Mabuse, you know how little statements like are worth. A good example of why this is an inferior film is the sequence where a rebellious hood confronts Mabuse in his lair. Instead of facing drowning as in the original, we get a silly sequence involving a hall of mirrors (pretty to look at, but not much of a threat) and then Mabuse spares him for plot reasons. Not without its moments — Mabuse’s wry second-in-command is a hoot (“Here’s money for bus fair.”) — but a poor wannabe compared to Lang. Gert Frobe adds his usual talent in his last role in this series. “This is not a philanthropic institution — corpses are part of our business.”

DR. MABUSE VS. SCOTLAND YARD (1963) is even weaker and not even terribly continuous (the references to Mabuse burning down his lab to destroy his Testament don’t fit the end of Terror) as the devil doctor (Walter Rilla again) now resorts to mind-control rays to accomplish what the original Mabuse did with sheer personal force. Peter van Eyck returns as a rather bland secret agent, aided and abetted by his dotty mother. “It means the control of mankind — a power more effective than any atom bomb.”

When Ian Carmichael first appeared as LORD PETER WIMSEY on TV I found him way too flighty and silly-ass. Rewatching now, I realize he’s a dead-on portrayal of Wimsey in the earliest books, though I’m not sure how well he’d have worked romancing Harriet Vane (this series never got to those books, though a later BBC production did). For the first season they adapted Clouds of Witness, in which Peter tries to clear his brother of murdering their sister’s disgraced lover. It’s a poor choice for an opener as it’s a very stiff mystery, with way too much time spent on Who Was Where When; having actors deliver the lines rather than reading them on the printed page helps, but not enough. I must admit though, Carmichael and the rest of the cast are good and the visuals (like the climactic trial in the House of Lords) are nice. “I did not travel 3,000 miles to pass moral judgment on someone as charming as you.”

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From the arctic ice to subterranean cities: movies viewed

After reading I May Be Some Time, I streamed SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC (1948) as an example of the Scott-worship Spufford’s book talks about. The film stars John Mills as a thoughtful, stiff-upper-lip Naval officer who wants to reach the South Pole simply because it’s there, and it should be a Brit who gets there. And the polar explorer Shackleford just wasn’t close enough (“90 miles isn’t it — isn’t the South Pole.”). Scott in real life failed and died because he was a bungler (I’m in the middle of a book on that topic); here, he’s just too noble, too British too sporting. Norwegian Roald Amundsen might be willing to use dog sleds, then kill and eat the dogs for sustenance, but Scott’s just too decent a chap to treat them like that. As a result, everyone dies with the upper lips still stiff, leaving a noble legend of heroic failure (which as Spufford says is probably more inspirational than if Scott made it to the Pole and returned alive). I do think Spufford underestimates the degree to which this sort of thing has universal appeal — dated though it is, I could see at least some millennials enjoying this tribute to challenging extreme environments and dying heroically. Christopher Lee has a part in this somewhere. “There’s a letter for the King of Norway and a note asking Captain Scott to be so kind as to deliver it.”

I first heard of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935) in the book The Great Movie Serials, then got to see it years later as part of PBS’ Matinee at the Bijou (an attempt to duplicate the feel of a Saturday matinee — B movie, cartoons, newsreels and a serial). After reading about star Gene Autry in Peter Stanfield’s Horse Opera and Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s, I figured I’d give it a second look, as I’d picked up the twelve chapters as part of a boxed set.

The premise is that Autry, playing himself, broadcasts his radio show every day from a vacation resort, Radio Ranch. Unfortunately Radio Ranch is a)right on top of a radium deposit some crooks want to mine and b)on top of Murania, a xenophobic civilization of advanced technology and robots (you can see one in the poster, though they look way worse on screen), ruled by Queen Tika (Dorothy Christie). Both Tika’s Thunder Riders and the crooks set out to eliminate Autry — if he just misses one performance, he’ll lose Radio Ranch (which often seems to be the real cliffhanger rather than whatever fatal fate is looming). Can Autry, with kids Frankie (kid actor Frankie Darro) and Betsy (Betsy King Ross, some sort of trick rider, though they don’t make much use of it), survive and save Radio Ranch?

While Stanfield makes me appreciate Autry’s music a little more, I can’t say the serial gains any. The cast is stiff, the robots are laughable and Murania, at best, is adequate. The thrilling cliffhangers are easily resolved. In one, a Muranian aerial torpedo hits an airplane; when we resume in the next chapter, the damage is minimal.

This one is watchable enough if you’re into serials, but something like The Tiger Woman  or Drums of Fu Manchu would be a more entertaining choice

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Random thoughts related to previous posts

First, a complaint. GoComics.com, which is where I read a lot of daily comic strips online recently redesigned. The way it now works, I go to the page for a given strip, and instead of seeing today’s strip, I have to click through further. It’s not a lot of time, it just annoys me.

A bigger problem is that I can’t get more than eight or nine strips read before the site cuts out. That’s very inconvenient — I’d much sooner work through my strips in one fell swoop than a bit at a time. It’s bad for them because I just settle for reading the ones I like best, then giving up.

Second, the struggle to use up all the herbs TYG is growing is not getting easier. I’m managing to find recipes, but now we have oregano coming up in addition to the sage and basil. This week, definitely some of it’s getting frozen. And I will invite one of our neighbors to take some extra — TYG has way more lettuce than she needs for salads now.

That said, here’s an illustration I didn’t use for my next Screen Rant, about embarrassing roles by Star Trek actors (Leonard Nimoy was in this one)

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