Friday, March 31, 2017
Thursday, March 30, 2017
Saturday, March 25, 2017
After being absent from the screen for five years, James bond was set to return when the legal troubles surrounding the film franchise were finally resolved. In those five years, however, much had changed. Most pertinent to the plot of GOLDENEYE, the Soviets had finally been beaten and the Cold War was (more or less officially) declared over. (This was ridiculous, of course, since communism hadn't died, only Russia had been neutralized.) Also, entertainment media had embraced with all it's might the concept of political correctness -a condition antithetical to James Bond's very aesthetic. As result, agent 007 was now seen as a backwards relic and M was played by Dame Judi Dench. Still, our hero rises to the occasion when a former 00 agent goes rouge and plots world destruction. Brosnan made a good Bond, but due to the era in which he held the coveted License To Kill, he never really had a great script to work with. Still, the films got by on their entertainment value. I don't want to give you the impression that Brosnan's films were bad, they were just a product of their time. They tried to balance the traditional elements of series with an urgent sense of relevance, and the resulting films are, as a whole, rather so so. GOLDENEYE takes it's name from the Jamaican mansion where Ian Fleming lived, and the film is largely considered one of the better Bonds.
So far, the only really disappointing Bond film has been TOMORROW NEVER DIES, in which 007 must contend with maniacal media mogul Elliot Carver and his plot to jump-start a war in order to secure exclusive media broadcast rights in Red China. Seriously. THAT's the plot. Yes, it's James Bond vs Ted Turner! Quite a far cry from such memorable heavies as Goldfinger, Blofeld, Scaramanga, Drax, Stromberg, etc. One wonders if the writers were even trying. What's more, Bond falls into bed with Carver's wife, an old flame of his. While 007 has never been a tower of morality, he usually stuck to something of a code that never previous involved affairs with married women (though, there is a line in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN in which M includes "jealous husbands" among those who might've hired Scaramanga to kill Bond, so maybe this isn't as radical as it seems -granted M was making a joke). Bond teams with a female Chinese agent and uncovers Carver's stealth boat in an adventure which has it's moments despite the weakness of it's main plot. Part of the problem is that the pre-credit sequence is among the best in the whole series, making the uninspired film that follows all the worse by comparison. Again, Brosnan makes for a good 007 even when the scripts are working against him. His next assignment would be much better.
THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH was the last Bond I saw in a theater. While it's no GOLDENEYE, I've always felt it one of Brosnan's better episodes. On par with one of the better Moore vehicles, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH tells of Bond's involvement with an heiress who has recently been the victim of a cruel kidnapping. Bond comes to trust her as he tries to help protect her pipeline across Europe, the legacy of her father, who in turn was very close to M. The kidnapper, meanwhile, is up to something involving radioactive cores from dismantled Soviet warheads. One of the best entries for both Brosnan and Dench, with a story that really opens up their characters beyond the normal play of things (it's with this entry that M's being a woman actually comes into the story, and the results are pretty strong). Also the last film of Desmond Llewelyn, Q from the very beginning of the series. If not his passing, his departure seems to've been planned, as Q tells Bond he's about to retire and exits in star fashion. John Cleese comes on board as Q's assistant/replacement. In the next film, he would graduate to the Quartermaster position. The title refers to the Bond family motto.
The 20th EON James Bond adventure would also be the last for Pierce Brosnan. Sadly, the film is something of a mess with a few bright spots shining through. The plot concerns 007 trying to figure out what's being unfolded by a British philanthropist and adrenaline jockey, involving a large assortment of diamonds. DIE ANOTHER DAY is basically a remake of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, right down to the villain using plastic surgery, posing as a prominent citizen, and commanding a deathray mounted in a satellite and powered by diamonds. The twist is in the heavy being a rouge North Korean with a personal grudge against Bond. There are some good things to be found here. John Cleese has taken over the role of Q and he's perfect for the job. Unfortunately, this would be the only time we get to see him play it. Brosnan is on the top of his game, and the antagonism between Bond and his latest foe is handled very well. The film's featured swordfight between the two is one of the great highlights of the series. Of course, there's a lot wrong here, too, in addition to the film's plot being largely a rehash of Connery's last (official) mission. A major bit in the middle of the film was re-edited and the results are astoundingly sloppy! A character is seen entering frame before we cut away and then several minutes later the same character is just now addressing 007, apparently after taking seven minutes to walk three feet! The film's theme song is provided by Madonna, a good decade after she ceased to be relevant (which I only mention because the Bonds in times past made it a point to hire performers at the top of their game), and it's a dreary mess of a tune that twice had me worried that the disk was skipping! Somewhat more minor is a bit where 007 is being examined by a medical team and mention is made of a deteriorated liver. "It must be him" is heard, which sounds more like a gag you'd use for Matt Helm. It never fails to throw me for that very reason. DIE ANOTHER DAY carries on a Bond tradition of presenting even the most impoverished areas of the world as paradises, in this case the island of Cuba looks like it did before the revolution! (This may sound bizarre, but it's worth noting that India was also represented as a paradise in OCTOPUSSY, so it's just part of the 007 aesthetic.) Ultimately, the film is plagued with numerous issues in both script and technical matters. Still, it's a fun adventure and remains entertaining. So long, Pierce. You should've had one more assignment.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
NORTH BY NORTHWEST was one of the great Hitchcock "wrong man" thrillers. Enemy agents take Cary Grant to be a secret agent and target him for elimination. Adventure takes off from there. This has always been one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, and it could be argued the film sets the stage for the spy craze which would erupt a few short years later. Indeed, the cast is full of future spy stars, including The Man From UNCLE's Leo G. Carroll, Mission: Impossible's Martin Landau, and Get Smart's Edward Platt! Cary Grant, in fact, was approached to play James Bond, but didn't want to do a series! James Mason was the first choice to play Hugo Drax in MOONRAKER, but that sadly didn't happen. In addition to a cast dripping with familiar faces, the film features one of Bernard Herman's most impressive scores. Of particular note is his pounding main theme, which is enough right there to leave one feeling exhausted! A certified classic, always worth another look.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Friday, March 17, 2017
When it comes to the old East Side Kids movies, GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE was one of the best (that I've seen). It was one of two entries to star Bela Lugosi, the other being SPOOKS RUN WILD. The gang thinks they'll be doing their recently-wed buddy a favor by fixing up the honeymoon cottage he just bought. However, the gang ends up at the house next door, a sprawling residence supposedly haunted and crawling with enemy agents. It's a situation which has been used many a time, but this one exudes all the charm one expects, with the cast in top form. Leo Gorcey, Bobbie Jordan, and Huntz Hall were among the juveniles hired to play a tough street gang in the dramatic play Dead End. When the story was brought to the screen, the kids were carried over. Though a gritty drama meant to cast a critical eye on city slums, the boys had a chemistry that made them, and DEAD END, a hit. Audiences liked the kids, and soon other crime pictures were incorporating "The Dead End Kids" into other gritty crime stories. In time, new kids joined the group and they began headlining movies as The Little Tough Guys. Producer Sam Katzman then took over and created a series of films to star The East Side Kids. These proved highly popular mixtures of comedy and drama, with the kids running afoul of Nazi spies and slum hoods. Finally, Leo Gorcey took over and re-worked the concept into The Bowery Boys. From here, the focus was more and more on laughs, until the series became full fledged comedy. This incarnation lasted through the 1950's, going beyond Gorcey's eventual departure. Huntz Hall carried the remaining films. The movies became popular on television, and in the 1960's, director Ray Steckler paid tribute to the boys with his characters, The Lemon Grove Kids, in a couple of featurettes edited into a feature film I haven't seen yet.
Thursday, March 16, 2017
KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS was one of a handful of killer tarantula movies produced in the 70's, and is by far the best of the bunch. William Shatner is a country vet who comes across a mystery. It seems the spiders, particularly tarantulas, have converged on the southwest in atypical cooperation. What's more, with their food sources depleted by insecticides, the spiders have declared war on larger animals -and human beings! One of the best genre movies of the 70's, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS starts small and builds to fever pitch, climaxing with a full assault on the normally quiet town of Verde Valley. Those looking for a good ecological horror movie will be well served to go with this one. Those interested in a good science fiction movie in general, as well as a solid suspenser, will not go home disappointed either!
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. -St. Paul, Romans 10:9-10
Monday, March 13, 2017
MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was created by much of the creative staff that gave us KING KONG. Although it too is a fun adventure movie, the two are very different animals. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG concerns the story of a young girl in love with a cowboy who has been brought to Africa by a night club owner to capture live animals for a jungle-themed club to be built in the States. Our heroine just happens to have a domesticated giant gorilla, and all think Joe, as she calls him, would be a dandy attraction at the new club. All goes well until some drunks rile Joe and he breaks loose! Classic family entertainment, I saw this one at a very early age. It may be at least partly responsible for my romantic notions of Africa. Robert Armstrong, Kong's Carl Denham, plays bigwig Max O'Hara mostly for laughs, and indeed there's a sweetness that undergirds the whole film. Our young starlet is Terry Moore. Miss Moore would go onto a long career, but is mostly noted for being the secret wife of industrialist and innovator Howard Hughes. In her 50's, Moore posed for Playboy, and still looked much better than the bulk of the younger models found within the skin rag's pages. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was also a milestone behind the scenes, and it was the first feature collaboration of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen and his idol Willis O'Brien. O'Brien's career continued to slide until his passing in the early 60's, but Ray's career flourished. The two men would work together again to create the dinosaur sequences of Irwin Allen's nature documentary THE ANIMAL WORLD.
Friday, March 10, 2017
In the realm of obscure movies, Coleman Francis claims an interesting place. A (good) character actor who decided to become a (bad) director, Francis helmed a total of three miserable pictures. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS was the first, and it defies description. Story-wise, it's the tale of Joseph Javorsky, defecting Russian scientist. Minutes after touching down in the States, enemy agents surround his security detail and open fire at a deserted airport outside the Yucca Flats testing grounds. Javorsky manages to escape into the desert, but an atomic bomb goes off and fries him. Being a shockingly resilient sort, Javorsky doesn't die! He only mutates into a rambling murderer who strangles anyone he can get his hands on while lumbering about the badlands. Filmed in 1959 and released in 1962, the film was notable mostly for the fact that wrestler-turned-actor Tor Johnson was cast as the atomic caveman. In an effort to keep production costs down, the film was shot silent -and in such a way that looped in dialog wouldn't have to be synchronized! We're constantly watching characters listen to other characters speak, and the camera immediately cuts back to the other person as they begin listening to the reply! (The foley work, however, is flawless... whatever you feel that distinction is worth.) In addition to the cheapjack production techniques, the film is also nearly plotless. After Javorsky's mutation, he strangles some people. A couple of cops think the killer is in the badlands and search for him aimlessly. A family drives through the area and the kids wander off. The parents look for them. The cops mistake the father for the killer and try to shoot him down. The kids run across Javorsky. They get away. They run across him again. The cops look for the kids. And so on, none of it nearly as exciting or interesting as it sounds. The only distraction from this lack of cinematic action is some of the most baffling narration ever committed to film. Supposedly there to explain things and comment on the situation, it's as incoherent as anything Ed Wood ever scribbled. "Push a button, things happen. A man becomes a monster." is a typical -if more lucid- example. Though it clocks in at under an hour, THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS remains something of an endurance test! Oh, I guess I should mention the other little thing the film is noted for, which is an unexpected nude scene in the beginning. A young girl gets out of the shower, is strangled, and we never see her again. On top of that, the scene in question nowhere fits into the film's narrative!
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Monday, March 6, 2017
Although this paste-together still might not be the most convincing image, the fact remains that GRIZZLY is a great drive-in movie. Though basically, and rather bluntly, JAWS set in a National park, the film manages to be far better than one might expect. A huge killer bear begins slaughtering the patrons of a tourist park, prompting action from ranger Christopher George. Though he has the support of naturalist Richard Jaeckel and helicopter pilot Andrew Prine, Joe Dorsey's Murray Hamilton-like commissioner stymies any serious attempt to kill the bear until it's too late. Director Bill Girdler had been toiling on cheapo knock-offs of bigger movies, and GRIZZLY was his first real shot at the majors -though it, too, was a knock-off of a hit film. Oddly, it may be GRIZZLY's similarities to JAWS that make it stronger than most blatant rip-offs of Speilberg's epic. Girdler even cast Susan Backlinie (Crissy Watkins of JAWS) to play one of the bear's first victims! Backlinie would play a much larger part in Girdler's follow-up effort, SOMETHING IS OUT THERE/DAY OF THE ANIMALS. A huge success, the film was one of the biggest independent hits of the decade, holding a record until HALLOWEEN came along a couple years later. A handsome movie, it got a lot of play on television in the following decades. Seems like TBS used to run it periodically in my younger days. Interestingly, the film was a bit of a reunion for it's three male leads, as they all acted in CHISUM if I recall correctly. Girdler would make a handful of movies after GRIZZLY, but was tragically killed in a helicopter crash while scouting locations. He was only 30 years old, and had only been married about half a year. A gorgeous DVD release was issued in a boxed set with Girdler's DAY OF THE ANIMALS and the TV movie DEVIL DOG: HOUND OF HELL. I highly recommend this release. The transfer for GRIZZLY even has a faint (only noticeable if you know your film) flicker that makes the film look as if it's being screened at the drive-in!
Friday, March 3, 2017
What can one say about The Twilight Zone that hasn't already been said? Rod Serling's imaginative anthology series remains one of the best of it's breed, continuing to captivate and win fans through continued television re-broadcasts decades after it's original run. Sharp, well-written, limitless, the subjects of episodes ranged from shock to moody scares to broad comedy and everything in between. Dozens of episodes jockey for position of "Best" like the gripping tale of a passenger jet lost in time (The Odyssey of Flight 33), the desperate search for a little girl trapped between dimensions (Little Girl Lost), the terrifying and thought-provoking story of a monster in the form of a small boy with unlimited powers (It's A Good Life), the story of a lost traveler discovering the terrifying secret of a group of secluded holy men (The Howling Man), the complacency of humanity in the face of friendly other-world visitation (To Serve Man), the terror of a frightened woman menaced by tiny space travelers (The Invaders), or the panic that ensues when the unexplainable happens in an all-American suburb (The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street) are all in the running. Basically, discussing The Twilight Zone comes down to asking what your favorite episode is. Were I to select a single one, it might be The Shelter, a reality-based tale of impending enemy attack and the suburban panic to enter the street's single fallout shelter. Other favorites of mine include The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms, 100 Years Over The Rim, and the classic The Obsolete Man. What's your favorite? The series was a smash from the beginning, though Serling reportedly didn't get along well with the network. In the fourth season, the station felt the show should be an hour series. Serling complied, but this experiment failed. The packed fifth season returned to the half-hour format, but it was too late. There have been scattered attempts at reviving the show, but without Serling's smarts each have fallen by the way side. Faring a little better was a big budget movie, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, in the early 80's. There was also a TV movie reportedly base on a couple of unused scripts Serling had written for the original run. I don't think I even finished it. Though Serling intended to do other things with it, many saw his 70's series The Night Gallery to be an attempt to re-create the older series. This was largely what the network wanted The Night Gallery to be, but it was a different animal. Every spooker anthology series that has followed owes to The Twilight Zone to some extent. There were a few such programs before The Twilight Zone, of course, but Serling crafted the perfect blend of elements. "There is a fifth dimension...."