Category Archives: Movies

Atlantis, Doctor Mabuse and H.G. Wells: movies

UNDERSEA KINGDOM (1936) is one of the worst serials I’ve ever seen, despite being produced by Republic, the master of the genre (creator of Tiger Woman, for instance). It’s clearly modeled on the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials: Unga Khan, evil tyrant of Atlantis, plots to destroy the surface world, so instead of Flash, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov we have Lt. “Crash” Corrigan (Ray Corrigan), Professor Norton (who like Zarkov is forced to work for the villain) and reporter Diana. Unfortunately the acting is terrible (even Gene Autry in Phantom Empire did better); Corrigan, a physical fitness coach in Hollywood at the time clearly has no idea how to act (though they do show off his physique as much as possible), and the guy playing Unga Khan is equally stiff. Worse, the cliffhangers are terrible. In one, a tank smashes into the wall; in the next episode, the impact doesn’t happen. Crash’s plane is blasted by a missile, he’s buried under a toppling temple and caught in a rocket exhaust but in the following episode he just gets up unharmed. That’s Grade-Z stuff. “We’re trapped in a metal tower that is being brought to the surface of the ocean by a madman!”

THE LIVING CORPSES OF DOCTOR MABUSE (1970) is a British film (from Amicus, the British horror studio that isn’t Hammer) titled SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN when it was released in the UK, but Mabuse-ified to juice the German box office. The film switches between seemingly unrelated plotlines such as a jogger who keeps losing his limbs, a serial killer haunting the London disco scene, kindly doctor Vincent Price (spoiler: he’s not kindly!) and sinister goings on at a secret police HQ somewhere in Eastern Europe (East Germany in the source novel by Peter Saxon). Does it all fit together? Yes, and not in a happy way. Despite the poster, Cushing doesn’t appear with Price or Lee, and the latter two only have one scene together. That said, this is fun, like a lot of Amicus. Oh, Price’s character is the one turned into Mabuse for the German market. “In this instance, this license has been taken to an excessive and gruesome extreme.”

While I rewatched THINGS TO COME (1936) just a year ago, I picked up Criterion’s edition during Barnes & Noble’s DVD sale. This definitive version adds three minutes to the DVD I had (the original ran 130 minutes before the editors began cutting), telling the story of how World War II runs into the 1960s and reduces the world to barbarism, only to have an enlightened cadre of scientists and technicians rebuild it. A century later, it’s time to head out into space, but for some small minds the thought of such adventures reduces them to terror. What got me to pick this one up was that David Kalat (author of the definitive book on Dr. Mabuse) provides the commentary, detailing how H.G. Wells actively involved himself in this project, with a clear understanding it would be filmed his way (which it was, but Michael Korda reshaped it in the editing room). The film’s fixation on ideas over character or plot reflects that Wells really did fear what another world war would do, and this movie was his Western Union on how to prevent it. Wells also wanted the film to be the anti-Metropolis (too simplistic a view of the future!) but never captured or understood the power and drama of Fritz Lang’s film. Raymond Massey plays the voice of reason in three eras (“Our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death, it simply made danger and death worthwhile!”) while Ralph Richardson plays a warlord who doesn’t realize he’s already a dinosaur. Flawed, but I freely admit I’m a fan. “God, what is the use of trying to save this mad world?”

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Dr. Mabuse vs. the Black Panthers, Abba vs the Librarians: Movies and TV

With THE DEATH-RAY MIRROR OF DOCTOR MABUSE (1964) the 1960s Mabuse cycle ends not with a bang but a whimper. Peter van Eyck, who was adequate as part of the ensemble in 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse is miserably dull as the central character, a super-spy out to secure the title McGuffin for England while You Know Who wants it for his own ends. This is a Mabuse film done as a Bond film, with a lot of similarity to Thunderball (David Kalat, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse, wonders if Death-Ray Mirror could actually have influenced the later 007 adventure) but none of the flair Eon brought to the Bond films of this era. It’s also much more sexist than Bond in its treatment of the female lead, and has the least mind-control of any of the films (mostly just a vague reference to Mabuse mindwiping people at the start of the film). “The almighty took seven days to create the world, and you could destroy it in a few seconds.”

THE BLACK PANTHERS: Vanguards of the Revolution (2015) is a good documentary about how an Oakland movement to stop police abuse of blacks (which, of course, makes this depressingly relevant) broadened into providing free breakfasts and health clinics while attracting followers across the country (as much because of their apparent pride and self-confidence as their actual policies), including a large percentage of women. The film chronicles the FBI’s obsessive war against the Panthers, the party’s attempt to switch to straight politics (“After the loss, there was no plan B.”) and the gradual internal collapse, heavily influenced by the FBI’s efforts at subversion. “We didn’t get those brothers to revolutionary heaven.”

MAMMA MIA: Here We Go Again (2018) is the sequel to the 2008 stage-to-screen musical, alternating the story of Amanda Seyfried struggling to open late mom Meryl Streep’s dream hotel despite everything going wrong with her secret origin as her mother heads to Greece for a summer of love and winds up bedding three different men in rapid succession. This was pleasant enough, but doesn’t feel as well structured as the first Mamma Mia — Cher’s appearance at the end is quite gratuitous, though she does give a great rendition of Abba’s Fernando. “You have the courage of the lion, the heart of the panther and the wisdom of the flamingo.”

The third season of THE LIBRARIANS has the cast coping with an unleashed chaos demon plotting to turn the world upside-down and a new government magic-hunting agency that’s determined to put the Librarians and their assets under lock and key. This has the series’ usual quirky fun, such as a reluctant cult leader trapped by her own popularity, a reunion of evil monsters and a magician wreaking havoc as he tries to impress his (he thinks) true love. I’ll also give them points for resolving Cassandra’s cancer problems without the usual miracle cure. “He didn’t tell you the Eye of Ra requires a human sacrifice.”

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Is There a Doctor In the House? Lots!

The past week reminded me of when I’d be watching nothing but time travel material for Now and Then We Time Travel. I started subscribing to BritBox, a streaming service for British shows. The main reason was the access to Doctor Who, which is surprisingly spotty on Netflix. I’d Netflixed the first two Tom Baker serials a while back, but I started on Britbox by going back further …

THE POWER OF THE DALEKS was the first Second Doctor serial; Patrick Troughton here is so dotty and so unlike William Hartnell’s cantankerous senior that companions Ben and Polly and even the Doctor himself aren’t sure he’s really who he says he is. To make matters worse the TARDIS has dropped them on a colony planet riven by rival factions, one of which is convinced these mechanical creatures they found in a spaceship will make wonderful robot servants … Although the video was lost the soundtrack wasn’t, so the Beeb animated it as they did with Hartnell’s The Reign of Terror. Not a classic story, but a landmark for proving the show could survive the loss of its star. The emphasis that the Doctor survived through the power of the TARDIS shows they still hadn’t established regeneration as normal — even when Troughton left at the end of War Games, it was the Time Lords forcing him to change (it wouldn’t be until the Fourth Doctor that regeneration became a normal Time Lord thing). “The law of the Daleks is in effect.”

Enough of THE WHEEL IN SPACE survives that rather than use animation, the BBC used stills from the show to accompany the voice track (two episodes remain intact). The Second Doctor and Jamie land on a drifting rocket from which they wind up on the eponymous space station. Here they meet Zoey, a brilliant, petite young woman who begins to realize her life has trained her to prepare for emergencies but only carefully predicted ones. Which does not include an attack on the Wheel by the Cybermen … Zoe’s one of my favorite companions (cute, small, brainy brunette — it’s like I have a type!) and the serial is overall good, but loses steam at the finish (the purpose of all the Cyber-scheming to seize the Wheel is quite underwhelming). And it’s depressing to think of the Time Lords just wiping Zoe’s memory at the end of War Games and dropping her back on the Wheel; I do hope she found some other way to break out of the box her society put her in. “Logic, my dear Zoe, only allows one to be wrong with authority.”

Last year’s Christmas special TWICE UPON A TIME (on Amazon Prime, not BritBox) has Capaldi contemplating not regenerating when he winds up meeting the First Doctor (David Bradley) who’s contemplating doing the same thing, which would, of course unmake the entire series. Can they survive and work together long enough to stop the seemingly sinister schemes of …. Testimony? A fun concept, though a bit heavy-handed on First Doctor Sexism; the ending gives us the new female Doctor, though not for very long. “By any analysis evil should always win. Good is not a practical survival strategy.”

THE FIVE (ISH) DOCTORS REBOOT was a spoof special tied to the 50th anniversary of the show in which Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Doctors Five Through Seven) desperately try to convince current showrunner Stephen Moffat that they’re a vital part of the history and need to make an appearance — oh, did you know McCoy was in The Hobbit, a major blockbuster theatrical release? Fluffy but very funny. “Instead of a sonic screwdriver I could have sonic beams come out my eyes!”

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A superhero, a Jew, a rom-com and spies: this week’s movies (and one TV show)

M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE (2000) stars Bruce Willis as a train-crash survivor confounded by comic-book buff Samuel L. Jackson’s insistence that he survived because just as Jackson’s bones are abnormally fragile (“They call me Mr. Glass.”), Willis’ body is indestructible. This was Shyamalan’s second movie and I like the way he plays with comic book tropes. However I don’t see why Willis would also acquire a kind of spider-sense for spotting evildoers, and no question Mr. Glass is a Cinema of Isolation cliche (particularly the isolation aspect: he apparently has no social life except his mother, and the film treats his condition as if he were unique). And I wish the ending captions had told us what happened to Willis, not just Jackson, though I gather a sequel may be in the offing (but given how much Shyamalan’s quality has fallen, I’m not optimistic). The deleted scenes here were interesting but a documentary on comics (including a number of noted creators) was disappointing: I’d be more interested in how Shyamalan applies the tropes here than a general comics discussion. “I’m going to ask you a question — it may sound a little strange.”

The only production of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE I’ve ever seen was a 1970s TV movie. When I rewatched it a couple of decades back, it left me wondering whether it was just a poor production (despite a cast including Laurence Olivier) or the play itself was dull (even Shakespeare can’t bat 100 percent). After watching the 2004 version with Al Pacino as Shylock, I can say it was definitely the production. Pacino does a great job as the resentful money-lender who puts up money for Antonio (Jeremy Irons) to help his bestie/possible ex-lover Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) woo wealthy heiress Portia (Lynn Collins). But when Antonio’s bill comes due and he can’t pay, Shylock demands his right to the forfeit — a pound of fles, cut out from Antonio’s heart. Powerful though it was, the anti-Semitism is still repellent: Shylock pays a penalty for being Jewish and the Christian bigots all get happy endings (Shakespeare After All may have a point that Shylock pays for being anti-joy as much as being Jewish, but that doesn’t erase the anti-Semitism)  “You called me dog before you had a cause; since I am a dog, beware my fangs.”

SET IT UP (2018) has the stressed-out administrative assistants to demanding bosses Taye Diggs and Lucy Liu decide to make their bosses fall in love and hopefully take it easy—when you control someone’s schedule completely, how hard can it be to arrange a meet cute? As they struggle to get the couple past the inevitable obstacles (including that Diggs is quite a jerk), they also notice how cute each other is … This is a pleasant enough movie, but for the life of me I don’t see why it’s gotten so many gushing reviews online. For a double bill I’d suggest White Christmas for a variation on the same premise. “We are not Cyrano-ing, this is totally The Parent Trap.”

The fifth season of THE AMERICANS was a disappointment — not bad, but they juggled a lot of plotlines and none of them paid off strongly enough to make the season work. There’s a possible American bioweapon targeting Soviet grain, Paige’s torment at being the child of spies, Henry getting an arc of his own, follow-ups on Oleg and Martha in Moscow (Martha, a character from previous seasons, really felt shoehorned in) … the cumulative effect leads to a personal turning point, but not enough to make the season work. Still, I’ll be back for S6. “Now I have power — I can crush people for you.”

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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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