Category Archives: Movies

Spider Woman vs the Founding Fathers: movies watched (#SFWApro)

One of Universal’s most successful Sherlock Holmes films was Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1943) with Gale Sondegaard driving men to suicide with poisonous spiders. THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946) attempted to cash in by casting Sondegaard in what sounds like a sequel but isn’t. The film has Brenda Joyce arriving in a small farm community to car for sweet, blind Sondegaard (spoiler: not blind and not sweet!). Sondegaard and henchman Rondo Hatton (an acromegalic cast as a brute man in multiple films) then drain Joyce’s blood to feed Sondegaard’s poisonous carnivorous plants, which she’s using to kill off the local cattle herds, then buy back the land (which her family once owned) for a song! It’s a plot that could work for anyone from Doc Savage to Scooby Doo, but it doesn’t work here, and wraps up very clumsily. The title is rationalized by Sondegaard feeding her plants spiders as well. All rights to poster image remain with current holder “It won’t be really dying—because you’ll live on in this beautiful plant.”

1776 (1972) adapts the stage musical wherein “obnoxious and disliked” John Adams (William Daniels), Ben Franklin (Howard DaSilva) and Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) struggle to tug the Continental Congress toward independence despite doubt about whether it’s possible or advisable, not to mention the nagging slavery question (Northern Exposure‘s John Cullum plays South Carolina’s Rutledge, one of the main adversaries here). Will Congress wake up to Adams’ vision of the future? Will New York’s delegation ever stop abstaining? Can Jefferson pen the Declaration of Independence when he’s so frustrated thinking about his wife (Blythe Danner)? A lot of fun and while obviously not accurate (“The history books will cover it all up.”), it does convey the sense that the Founders were embarking on something astonishing.  “This is a revolution, dammit — we’re going to have to offend someone!”

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Is Sherlock Holmes — Powerless? Movie/TV reviews (#SFWApro)

Due to my wildly social weekend, not much watched:

SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK (1976) was a delayed double-bill to last week’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as the Rathbone movie clearly influenced the opening of this one. Once again, Moriarty vows to destroy Holmes’ legend by pulling off the crime of the century (“This past century and all the centuries to come.”) right in front of him. This time though his method is to blackmail Holmes into helplessness by kidnapping his son by Irene Adler (“Do you remember that night ten years ago in Montenegro?”). Roger Moore is much more a conventional leading man than most Holmes, but he makes it work; John Huston is marvelously malevolent as Moriarty; Rampling manages to infuse Irene with considerable presence given she’s a pure damsel in distress. Patrick Macnee is the weak spot, playing Watson as a thickheaded Nigel Bruce type. Well worth watching; as Moriarty’s scheme involves an impossible gold robbery, Goldfinger might be another good double-bill (all rights to image remain with current holder). “Do you now see the genius, the artistry of this Napoleon of Crime?”

POWERLESS was a series I initially didn’t care for but which slowly won me over (though I’m clearly a minority). The premise is that perky Emily (Vanessa Hudgens) goes to work for a Wayne Industries subsidiary run by Bruce’s idiot cousin Van (Alan Tudyk) that works on security products for non-super people in a world where metahuman battles, wormholes and mad science pose a constant threat. At its worst, this was a generic workplace comedy; at its best it got the feel of Astro City or Damage Control (I do hope Powerless hasn’t killed the chances for a Damage Control series) of showing life in a comic-book universe (“No, I’m not from Atlanta, I’m from Atlantis.”). The last episode probably wouldn’t have aired except Adam West’s death gave his “gratuitous cameo” some extra cachet. “Everyone knows Flash got super-speed from a radioactive cheetah.”

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Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan: Looking Back (#SFWApro)

So while doing research on one of my Screen Rant articles, I realized I’d forgotten a lot of the movies I’d watched and reviewed for my first film book, Cyborgs, Santa Claus And Satan, on made-for-TV specfic films. So I trotted the book out and reread it. Which makes me appreciate why some actors say they can never watch themselves on film.

Okay, not that bad. And seeing as it’s 17 years old, I should be fairly critical of my past work. The biggest criticism is my sentence structure. Writing nonfiction I have an odd resistance to short sentences. In my most recent books I have that under control. Here, I didn’t. So there are lots and lots of parentheses, and lots and lots of sentences with semicolons instead of periods. Bad me!

Besides that, the writing is … variable. Some of the entries read smoothly, if not quite nicely. Others turn out to be just jumbles of names thrown at the reader to the point it must have been confusing for people who didn’t see the movie (that’s something else I’m better at now).

Writing flaws aside, I’m quite pleased with the book. It’s not complete — I later stumbled across several movies I’d missed — but overall I did a damn good job, in a field that simply wasn’t covered by anyone else (this was, of course, when the Internet was in its infancy). SF movie books tended to dismiss TV movies; actor filmographies did the same.  And I think I did a good job positioning the films in both how they relate to the print SF world and the recurring tropes and shticks of specifically TV specfic:

•Robot/android goes on the run when it turns out the government wants to use him as an assassin.

•Human cop pairs with robot/android.

•Human cop pairs with a psychic.

•Endless knockoffs of The Fugitive, the 1960s series (basis for the Harrison Ford film) in which the protagonist wanders endlessly across America getting involved in people’s lives as he struggles to escape a murder charge. The Immortal, The Phoenix, the Visitor, The Incredible Hulk, Dr. Franken, the list of Fugitives is huge.

So while I wince at my stylistic weaknesses, I still feel happy I wrote the book.

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India, Czechoslovakia, London, Argentina: Around the World in Movies (#SFWApro)

CHARULATA (1964) was a disappointing film from Satyajit Ray in which the wife of a 19th century Indian newspaper publisher finds herself strongly attracted to his ne’er do well intellectual brother. The best moments are between the husband and wife, so the focus on the wife/brother connection didn’t work for me. “Have you ever seen actors play dead soldiers on stage?”

HANGMEN ALSO DIE (1943) was made a year after the Nazi officer “Hangman” Heydrich was assassinated (though as the film notes, “executed” for his crimes would be a fairer term) in Czechoslovakia, showing the resistance struggle to shield gunman Brian Donlevy in the belief his escape makes him a symbol of the Czech spirit. But can they keep it together when the Germans start shooting random hostages and weasel Gene Lockhart is ratting out the resistance from within? Well made by Fritz Lang, who co-wrote the script with Bertold Brecht, and while uplifting, also grimly realistic about the price of defiance — parts of the plot concerns the efforts to get kindly professor Walter Brennan off the hostage list before he’s shot and they don’t work. “I happen to remember another Hitler joke.”

STORY OF A HANGMAN (2014) was a documentary special feature by the author of a Heydrich biography, revealing that unsurprisingly things did not go as well in the real world as in the movie. Not only was the Nazi retaliation horrifyingly brutal, but the execution was arranged by the Czech government-in-exile, not by the resistance. And depressingly much of the operation was given up by informers, resulting in the killers committing suicide rather than being taken alive. As all I know of Heydrich was watching films (e.g. Hitler’s Madman), this was a welcome addition.

THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES (1939) has George Zucco’s Moriarty inform Basil Rathbone’s Holmes that to pay the detective back for almost sending him to the gallows, Moriarty will destroy his reputation by pulling off the crime of the century under Holmes nose. Holmes is supposed to be helping with security at the Tower of London, but Moriarty knows a routine job will bore him compared to the spectacular mystery the Professor arranges to distract him (the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a fake clubfoot, Incan death music — it all makes sense!). This is an excellent film (nominally based on a successful stage play, but nothing of the play remains), though Nigel Bruce’s Watson remains an appallingly dim bulb. Zucco and Rathbone are both great though (though Rathbone is too high energy — he never does capture those moments when Holmes relaxes into uneasy calm) with great dialog between Holmes and Moriarty (“I admire your brain so much I’d like to donate it, picked in alcohol, to the Royal Medical Society!”) and Moriarty and his butler (“All that’s left of him is one boot.”). With EE Clive as a Scotland Yard boob and Ida Lupino as a damsel in distress. The commentary by a mystery-magazine editor was interesting too, pointing out the usual trivia along with comparisons to the stories (he’s quite right, stories of avengers rising from the client’s past to kill are quite common in Doyle). “This is no childish game, Miss Brandon, but a cryptic warning of avenging death!”

GILDA (1946) has gambler Glenn Ford become the right hand and kept man of George Macready (they don’t come out and say it but the subtext is pretty much text here), who gets knocked for a loop to discover his boss has not only married, but it’s Ford’s old flame, Rita Hayworth. What follows is a really twisted romantic triangle (as one of the special features says, it probably makes more sense if we think of Macready, not Hayworth, as the apex of the triangle) which is far more interesting than the crime plot involving a tungsten syndicate. Very good. “A man who makes his own luck, as I do, recognizes it in another.”

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I’m curious to see the reactions to this Screen Rant post (#SFWApro)

It’s on TV comics adaptations that changed everything. Which is a very subjective judgment. The Incredible Hulk TV show for instance, caught the character of Bruce Banner (even if it renamed him David) as a tormented loner, endlessly wandering and seeking freedom from his curse. In that sense, the show is true to its roots. But the Hulk comic books are at least as much about Hulk Will Smash!! followed by massive amounts of property damage, which didn’t translate to the show. I didn’t include it in the list, but it’s on the borderline. I did include The Incredible Hulk Returns for its variant version of Thor (all rights to image remain with current holders).

Read the article. Enjoy!

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Blue Jasmine, death, giant ants and super-hero girls: movies viewed (#SFWApro)

Cate Blanchett is awesome as the protagonist of Woody Allen’s BLUE JASMINE (2013), the selfish, snobbish, shallow wife of Wall Street wizard Alec Baldwin, now divorced, broke and forced to live with her sister in a blue-collar West Coast milieu (including Andrew Dice Clay giving a surprisingly good performance as Blanchett’s brother-in-law). Unfortunately the movie itself displays a vicious streak out of proportion to Jasmine’s failures — I kept wanting her to learn her lesson rather than just keep suffering. It doesn’t help that her fatal misstep was calling the cops on her husband’s financial scams when she learned he was in love with their sixteen-year-old au pair — it feels like Allen’s getting back at Mia Farrow by showing how unreasonable she was not to step aside when he fell for her daughter. “Have you ever gotten high on nitrous oxide?”

A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH (2003) is a good documentary about what happens to people who die without next-of-kin, from cremains found in a funeral home with no identifying tag to a derelict dead in his hotel room. This looks at both the legal and practical problems, and covers them well. “The last thing you want on your machine is ‘I’m Lt. Neff from the coroner’s office, please call me.’”

THEM (1954) was  the ur-Giant Insect film wherein James Whitmore and James Arness discover the reason for a string of brutal assaults is the gigantic ants created by the atom bomb tests, now swarming across the landscape for food and killing everyone in their path. Shows how good a 1950s giant insect film can be, a lesson unfortunately lost on pretty much all the ones that followed. With Edmund Gwenn as an ant expert. “Are you suggesting that we put the lives of all the people in this city at risk for the sake of two children who in all probability are already dead?”

DC SUPERHERO GIRLS: Hero of the Year (2016) has the Super Hero High students preparing for the annual Hero of the Year festival along with Principal Waller and Vice-Principal Grodd (“Waller got him out of prison for some kind of community service squad.”) only to have Eclipso and Dark Opal steal a set of McGuffins that will give them Power Absolute. Cute, and as always, interesting to see what carries over from other versions — Starfire and Beast Boy are very much modeled on their Teen Titans Go! characterizations, for instance. “I never wanted to be a world conqueror — I wanted to be a theater major!”

(All rights to poster image remain with current holder.)

THE NIGHT MANAGER was a British miniseries based on the John Le Carré book, which Hugh Laurie as the amoral munitions dealer and Tom Hiddleston as the man who infiltrates his organization to take it down from inside. Despite the talents of the cast, this didn’t click with me — and as in the original book, the main romance didn’t work well at all. I quit midway through. “If you cross Roper, I’m going to cut it off—and I don’t mean your fingers.”

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Superheroes did not create Trump (#SFWApro)

So Bill Maher has a theory: superheroes created the Trump Presidency. ““Superhero movies imprint the mindset that we are not masters of our own destiny, and the best we can do is sit around and wait for Star-Lord and F*cking Raccoon to sweep in and save our sorry asses.” He continues on, “Forget hard work, government institutions, diplomacy, investment, we just need a hero to rise. And so, we put out the bat signal, for one man who could solve all of our problems, very quickly. And that’s how we got our latest superhero, Orange Sphincter.”

Which is not a new theory, except for the Trump parts. The idea that superhero movies inspire us to stand around waiting passively for rescue goes back at least 20 years. But it was bullshit then, it’s bullshit now.

No question, on 9/11 I fantasized about what it would be like if the JLA existed: Superman and Flash speeding people out of the Twin Towers, Martian Manhunter tracking other terrorists, Green Lantern supporting the towers until everyone was clear. But it was quite obvious in that situation there was nothing I could do.

But in general? I don’t fantasize about being saved by superheroes, I fantasize about being the superhero. That’s the appeal of the genre. They don’t teach us to sit passively, they inspire us to be better. It’s part of why I’ve written about politics since getting out of college — to try to make some small, positive impact on the world. To use my abilities, such as they are, for the greater good.

Or as my friend Jon Maki puts it in reference to Wonder Woman: “The “No Man’s Land” sequence was possibly the single greatest moment of super-heroism ever committed to film*. It was exactly what being a super-hero is about. Not just swooping in and saving the day single-handedly, but taking that first step that only a super-hero can and inspiring others to follow. It so perfectly encapsulates the allure of super-heroes, and their very reason for existing. No, in real life we don’t have super-powered badasses who can deflect bullets and blaze a trail for us, but the fictional and, admittedly, often ridiculous adventures of gaudily-dressed people with silly nicknames speak to that part of us that wants to do the right thing and they can inspire us to find a way to take that first perilous step.
They do the impossible to free us up to do what’s possible, and remind us that maybe, just maybe, those impossible things aren’t so impossible after all.”

*Spidey stopping the train – and the immediate aftermath of doing so – in “Spider-Man 2” ranks up there as well.

So there, Mr. Maher.

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