Category Archives: Movies

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler

As I have more than enough stuff to write about here, I’m posting about the Dr. Mabuse film thrillers over at Atomic Junkshop. The post, on Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler, is now live. My shorter review of the film on this blog came out back in January.

Below, Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) gazes upon the captive Countess Dusy (Gertrude Welecker).

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From 1980s nerds to birds to Oz: this week’s movies

Words cannot express how boring I found COMPUTER CHESS (2013), a mockumentary set in 1980 about competing groups of programmers testing how their chess-playing software does against human players. I’d heard good things about it, but a mockumentary about nerds spouting technobabble, while it might have hooked a real computer buff, didn’t add up to compelling drama — no memorable characters, no story arc, nothing to hold me. Watching a movie where D&D fans debate the change from 2nd to 3rd edition would be more compelling. “I bet you and I here are the only ones who understand that computer science has a feminine side.”

THE CURIOUS ADVENTURES OF MR. WONDERBIRD (1953) is a dubbed French cartoon from the same DVD set as Alice of Wonderland in Paris.  The English language version stars Peter Ustinov as a bird roosting on a king’s palace. When the shepherdess and a vagabond from two of the king’s paintings come to life and run away together, the king’s self-portrait comes to life to pursue the shepherdess and claim her for himself. The big draw in this one is the lovely, detailed, old-school animation. Claire Bloom and Denholm Elliott voice the young lovers.

AFTER THE WIZARD (2011) from the same DVD was, with the Alice film, the one that convinced me to pick it up (it was a library sale, so it was only three bucks or so), as I’m interested in Oz films — after all, I literally wrote the book on the subject (this one was about seven years too late to be included. This one is a familiar story of a troubled kid retreating into fantasy (similar to John Cusack’s The Martian Child): protagonist is a young orphan repressing memories of her tragic past by imagining herself as Dorothy, and that the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow have landed in America by the Wizard’s balloon and are journeying cross country to take her back to Oz. I like that the creators draw on the book rather than the film, and the way everyone accepts the protagonists as kind of eccentric cosplayers. However   the acting is so-so and the production is low-budget — the Tin Woodman is just wearing silver spray paint, the Scarecrow has straw stuffed in his collar and cuffs. Given how dark Dorothy imagines her post-Oz life (Uncle Henry died in a farm accident! Aunt Em died of kidney failure! They took Toto to the pound!) I’d suggest a double bill with the adaptation of Geoff Ryman’s even darker Was. “Could Kansas possibly be a place where there is smoke without fire?”

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New Screen Rant out

About terrible fantasy shows you forgot ever aired.  G vs. E below is probably the most obscure — even my editor didn’t know it existed.

I will admit to watching Secrets of Isis as a teen purely because I crushed on Joanna Cameron (I got crushes like I breathed). But I found the show as boring as Shazam!

And then there’s Heath Ledger’s Roar, which other than bringing the Spear of Destiny to TV has nothing to recommend it.

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Two Maxwell Smarts, Two Doctor Mabuses: movies

GET SMART (2008) suffers from trying to be two things at once. On the one hand this reboot of the sixties spy spoof is a stock zero-to-hero story with Steve Carrell as a brilliant CONTROL analyst who gets his first shot at fieldwork alongside veteran agent Anne Hathaway (I wonder if the emphasis on Hathaway having undergone age-concealing plastic surgery is meant to duck the age disparity?); on the other, it wants to be a spy spoof so Carrell keeps pulling the same bonehead shticks as Don Adams (“Would you believe Chuck Norris with a BB gun?”) and the two never reconcile (it makes me appreciate how Adams could make Max’s occasional bursts of competence believable). And the climax is pure action film, and I don’t mean that in a good way. The cast includes Alan Arkin as Chief of CONTROL, Bill Murray as Agent 13, Mako Osai of Heroes as a tech nerd, Terence Stamp playing Siegfried perfectly serious, Patrick Warburton as Hymie the robot, James Caan as a nitwit President Bush II knockoff and Dwayne Johsnon as Agent 23 (who gets a twist that I spotted early). “Hey guard why don’t you come in here so I can make you my pretty little girlfriend?”

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933) is the sequel to Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in which Mabuse, despite being insane and committed to an asylum, wreaks so much havoc even his agents are unsettled (without giving away too much, it’s one of those films where the terrorism looks horrifyingly plausible and effective). This time he has a more formidable adversary in Otto Wernicke as Inspector Lohmann (plus a henchman who wants out) but it’s still Mabuse’s show. This has a number of excellent special features, most notably commentary by Mabuse expert David Kalat (which goes into detail on Lang’s dubious claim the film is an anti-Nazi allegory) and a documentary The Three Faces of Mabuse. This compares the original masterpiece to the shorted French version (filmed by Lang with French actors for the French market) and a later American cut, The Crimes of Dr. Mabuse. A great DVD from Criterion. “No-one has any idea what kind of phenomenal, superhuman mind came to an end with Dr. Mabuse’s death.”

THE LAST WILL OF DR. MABUSE (1933) was the American title for the French version (as Kalat notes, “will” has a double meaning in a Mabuse film) which was included on the Criterion DVD. Not as good as the German — Lohmann is much less impressive and forceful here — and with one change Kalat didn’t mention, Mabuse being described at the start as a super-hypnotist with a history of mesmerizing people into crime. Worth the added time it took to see it. “The testament of Mabuse? Is there such a thing?”

The TV movie GET SMART AGAIN (1989) was the good reunion film (I haven’t seen an earlier theatrical release, The Nude Bomb but I’ve never heard anything good about it) using some of the original creative team and all the original cast except Ed Platt as the Chief (Platt had passed away fifteen years earlier). KAOS acquires a weather control machine so US intelligence puts Max back in the field, reuniting with not only his old friends but archfoe Siegfried (played by the original actor, Bernie Koppell). Captures the show’s spirit perfectly; John de Lancie plays a KAOS mole and Harold Gould is a villain plotting to improve American literacy (“KAOS will publish the world’s great books, and if people don’t read them all — they die!”). “In 1969, KAOS traded him to THRUSH for two rookie killers and a minor-league mugger.”

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New Yorkers, PT Barnum and angry dogs: movies this week

PLEASE GIVE (2010) is a quirky film focusing on Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt as a couple who scavenge estate sales for valuable pieces they can resell, despite Keener’s liberal guilt at exploiting the grieving. Remarkably charming; with Amanda Peet as the self-obsessed daughter of the couple’s elderly neighbor. “Oh my god, there’s a homeless man with no head!”

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2018) stars Hugh Jackman as PT Barnum who finds success as as the flamboyant proprietor of a freak show only to run into trouble when his desire to impress the upper classes estranges him not only from his freaks but from supportive wife Michelle Williams and buddy/partner Zac Efron. The musical numbers are pleasant, but not standout, and the handling of the freaks didn’t work for me; I’m fine with the anachronistic attitudes towards them but the film shows Barnum blowing them off when they inconvenience his social climbing, then ignores that for the happy ending. Not a waste of time, but B-list. “The world is better with a man who has too much imagination than one who has too little.”

Any story about abusing dogs is a long shot to win me, so it was probably inevitable I gave up WHITE GOD (2014) midway through. The Eastern European story of a young girl and how her pet gets mistreated by their caregiver is nasty, brutish and not short enough for me.

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Alice in Wonderland, mutants and a visitor: movies, TV and a couple of graphic novels.

ALICE OF WONDERLAND IN PARIS (1966) is very marginally an Alice film, being primarily an anthology of children’s stories: the mouse protagonist of Anatole invites Alice to Paris to try different classic cheeses; she agrees because she wants to meet Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline (who gets a couple more stories). One I’ve been curious about, though I can’t say satisfying my curiosity has enriched my life in any other way. “I have figured out the difference between the horns of a dilemma.”

A few months back I mentioned how uninteresting I found Fox’s X-spinoff THE GIFTED, focusing on the mutant underground in a world where both the Brotherhood and the X-Men have disappeared. To my surprise, as I kept watching it actually improved. Garrett Dillahunt is enjoyably creepy (as he usually is) as a sinister anti-mutant scientist, and Skyler Samuels makes a good mutant villain as the hive-mind Frost Sisters (a riff on the comics’ Stepford Cuckoos) — having one sister start talking and the other finish the sentence comes off much more unsettling with a real person than it would on a comics page.  I’m still not sold, but I will be watching when S2 returns. “If your eyes turn blue you’re a dead woman.”

To avoid stretching tomorrow’s books post to excessive length, I’ll add some extra entries here—

HENCHGIRL by Kristen Gudsnuk is one of those books where the bits are more than the sum of the parts. The story of Mary Posa, half-hearted member of a supervillain’s gang, works in small doses but the doses don’t add up to a satisfying story. Part of it is that Mary’s turn to evil midway through doesn’t quite work for me, another problem is that I can’t tell a lot of the supporting characters apart. Good enough I’d have loved for it to be better.

THE VISITOR: How and Why He Stayed by Mike Mignola, Chris Roberson and Paul Grist spotlights an alien who appeared in Conqueror Worm and revealed he’d been watching Hellboy for years. This story shows what he was doing all that time, including falling in love with a human and fighting the Oghdru Hem on his own. I enjoyed it, but definitely not something to read if you’re a Hellboy newbie.

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Sixties spies and families, teen runaways and the Doctor: TV seasons viewed

Due to attending Illogicon, I didn’t watch any movies last weekend, but I’ve wrapped up a few TV seasons recently, so—

GET SMART was easily the best of the many Bond parodies that appeared in film and TV during the 1960s (the first season launched in 1965). Don Adams (left) plays Maxwell Smart, agent for CONTROL working to defeat KAOS, “the international organization of evil” (neither name is an acronym) with the help of Barbara Feldon (right) as Agent 99. The biggest challenge, though, is that Max is an utter and complete idiot. Funny scripts and deft performances (including Ed Platt as CONTROL’s Chief) makes this one a winner, though like a lot of 1960s material it sometimes shows its age (like one involving stereotypical comic Native Americans going on the warpath again). Amusingly the very first gag in the show involves Smart’s shoephone (seen above) going off in the middle of a concert audience — as co-creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry note in the commentary track, what’s now routine was outrageously ridiculous at the time. “What you’re saying is that there could have been 50 people in this room with the victim, but only two of them smoked!”

The second season of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW improves on the first: it’s funnier, and there are fewer variety-show episodes where everyone’s doing a musical number. As always the cast is top notch, like one episode in which a game of charades turns extremely personal. And like Anatomy of a Murder, it’s a hand visual guide for writers, in this case what an upper-middle class suburban lifestyle was supposed to look like in the mid-1960s (within limits: most couples didn’t sleep in twin beds). “How did you get On The Street Where You Live from that?”

RUNAWAYS‘ first season makes a number changes to the Marvel comic, some of them typical (much the same way Asgardians are ETs in the MCU, the Minoru Staff of One is explained as nanotech), some of them presumably because the characters are people rather than drawing — the parents get more screen time and they’re not as openly evil. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the story of a group of LA teens who discover their wealthy parents are actually members of a sinister cult known as the Pride, organized around sinister Julian McMahon. The only change that really didn’t work for me was that Molly’s not old enough to really stand out from the other kids. “After twenty years, your cheese jokes still never fail to amuse me.”

The latest season of DOCTOR WHO (tenth season of the new era) as y’all may know, is Peter Capaldi’s last, and I think he went out on a win. He has a new companion (black lesbian Bill), another new companion (the ET Nardol) and finds himself dealing with Ice Warriors, the original Cybermen, Missy and the Master’s previous incarnation in various stories. One or two yarns were weak (Eaters of the Light didn’t do much for me) but overall a solid season. “You can’t possibly set a trap without painting a self-portrait of your own weaknesses.”

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