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Monday, December 11, 2017

The Secrets of Isis (1975-1976) – Review

With the moderate success of Filmation’s live action show Shazam! the studio decided to create a female counterpart to Captain Marvel but as they were unwilling to pay licensing fees for Mary Marvel a new character called Isis was created. Later Isis would appear alongside other heroes in animated form on the cartoon series The Freedom Force, which was part of Tarzan and the Super 7, and eventually DC Comics would adopt her officially into canon where she would eventually became the wife of Captain Marvel’s nemesis Black Adam. Yet before all that, back when it all started, she was just a simple high school science teacher who was suddenly gifted with powers of a god.

Like many Saturday morning kid's shows The Secrets of Isis didn’t have an origin episode but unlike in the case of Shazam! we do at least get a little backstory as to how she got her powers; for The Secrets of Isis it was in the form of the show's opening narration where we are told how the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut was given a powerful amulet by the royal sorcerer that would endow her and all her descendants with the powers of the goddess Isis,“With the powers of the animals and the elements. You will soar as the falcon soars, run with the speed of gazelles and command the elements of sky and earth.” Then 3,000 years later science teacher Andrea Thomas (JoAnna Cameron) dug up the amulet while on an archeological dig (don’t bother asking why a high school science teacher was on an archeological dig…maybe it was some kind of vacation thing) and found out that she was the heir to the power of Isis, and now she must live a dual life as “Andrea Thomas, teacher; and Isis, dedicated foe of evil, defender of the weak, champion of truth and justice!”


What were the odds of the person finding it being one of Hatshepsut’s descendants?

The basic formula of the show was very similar to Shazam! where mostly stupid teen-agers would get into some kind of trouble and Andrea would have to call on the power of Isis, “O mighty Isis!” and she would transform into her Egyptian counterpart to rescue whatever particular idiot was in danger. What made this show work better than Shazam! was that Isis had a massive variety of powers on hand to add a bit of variety to the proceedings, and with the catchy incantation of “Oh Zephyr Winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!” she could take to the air like Captain Marvel, but whereas flying and super strength were the only powers Captain Marvel had to work with Isis on the other hand could control all the of the Earth's elements (not only sky and earth as the opening narrator stated but air and fire as well), she has also had complete control of matter and molecular density which allowed her to phase through objects or make them immaterial instead.  Her headband even allowed her to see through the eyes of her raven as well as to look into the past, but most startling of all her abilities was the one that allowed her to stop and reverse the flow of time.


“Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”

If seeing Captain Marvel relegated to using his immense power to convince kids to not give into peer pressure seemed to be a gross waste of potential than seeing Andrea use these amazing powers to uncover the real culprit behind the theft of a school mascot will surely blow your mind.

In the episode “Lucky” a little boy is taught by Isis that his dog drowning is just part of the circle of life, cause that kind of logic is comforting to a child, but the real crazy thing here is that she literally has the power over life and death and could have easily reversed time and stopped the kid’s dog from dying. I must say there’s a difference between teaching a life lesson and being a cold-hearted bitch. In fact the power to halt and reverse time kind of trumps all of her other powers as it could pretty much undue any moment of trouble her students get into.

As Isis she also has the ability to create matter with a wave of her hand, which is in contention with time manipulation as the most awesome power ever, and in one particular episode fleeing crooks are captured when she makes a ring of full grown trees suddenly appear around them to form a cage.  It's quite clear almost from the outset that she must just be screwing with those around her as that power set could end any conflict in seconds.  This is what makes the show so good, the complete and utter absurdity of this woman snapping off a rhyming couplet to call on immense powers for some of the most mundane and ridiculous reasons, "I've got to find out which cheerleader is cheating, better call on all the forces of the Heavens and the Earth!"  My all time favorite moment in the entire series is when she used her elemental abilities to create a ring of flames around a bear who was endangering an idiot school slacker, and throughout that sequence you couldn't help but pity that sodden bear.


Also the bear suit used for this show was beyond hilarious.

The Secrets of Isis also had a bigger supporting cast than Shazam did; aside from Andrea Thomas we have fellow teacher and possible love interest Rick Mason (Brian Cutler), though he’s too much of doofus to have a real chance with Andrea, there’s Dr. Joshua Barnes (Albert Reed) the stern but kind school principle, and then over the course of the two season she had two different teaching assistants; Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) for season one and Rennie Carol (Ronalda Douglas) in season two. My question is, “Do high school science teachers actually get teaching assistants?”  They certainly didn’t at my school, unless it was kept a secret from me for some reason, but with most of the cast clearly being played by actors in their twenties this could easily have been a show about a local college campus.  I guess having it in a high school setting is more relatable to the show’s target demographic.


I'm sure science nerds got a kick out of it.

It’s interesting that a show based on an original character would completely outshine the more well-known comic book character of Captain Marvel, but as Standards and Practices forbade such violent stuff as punching and kicking on a children’s show Captain Marvel found himself hopeless kneecapped by those restrictions, while Isis on the other hand had her wide gamut of magical powers which allowed her to take on opponents in variety of interesting ways. Where Captain Marvel was relegated to mostly saving people by lifting things, followed by the required stern lecture, Isis was able to whip up magical barriers and reverse time if need be. Though to be fair she also used her powers to magically retrieve dirty dishes from the bottom of a river, so not always that impressive.


She could be fighting for world peace but teaching kids responsibility is more important.

Most of the episodes for The Secrets of Isis had insanely ridiculous plots with the first episode “The Lights of Mystery Mountain” being a prime example of this as it had Andrea and the gang uncovering a real estate scam that used flying saucers to scare off owners so they could get a hold of their land, or in the episode “No Drums, No Trumpet” our heroes found themselves in an old west ghost town haunted by a trio of thieves, both of those were more in keeping with something you’d see on Scooby Doo, Where are You! then what you’d expect on a superhero show.

As formulaic and silly as the show was it did have some interesting science fiction elements such as a force field generator in “The Sound of Silence” or the weather machine that Rick is framed for stealing in the two-parter “Now You See It…Now You Don’t.” Sadly episodes like that where Isis and company are up against actual criminals were rare and the plots mostly revolved around more mundane topics such as cheating, taking dares, learning about responsibility, low self-esteem, and the dangers of hitchhiking. In one particular idiotic episode the students believed the legendary Bigfoot was living in the nearby hills, but it of course turned out to just be a tall dude in hat.


If they thought this was Bigfoot I doubt their ability to graduate from high school.

As silly as most of the episodes were they are also insanely fun to watch as an adult now, my friends and I laugh harder watching The Secrets of Isis than we do most actual comedy shows, it seemed like every two minutes something lacking any logical sense was happening, and it's bloody brilliant.  In one particular episode there was this scene where a girl was trapped in a well (seriously this show had that old chestnut) and the girl's father finds her but it's up to Isis to save the day by magically reassembling an old broken ladder, levitating it down into the well, to save both the girl and her useless father, but what made this scene amazing was that she then levitated the girl's father, ladder and all, out of the well. What was the fucking point of rebuilding that ladder if you could have just levitated them both out?


This is how a goddess has fun.

Whatever can be said about The Secrets of Isis one has to admit that JoAnna Cameron really sold the character, no matter how ridiculous the setting she was fully committed to the part, she even put up with that stupid raven that the show runners refused to get rid of, and those few times Captain Marvel teamed up with her clearly illustrated how useless he was in comparison to her. If you can get a hold of this series I recommend you do so, and then have a few friends over for a real fun time.


I bet she treats him like a boy toy when no one is around.

Final Thoughts:

• Andrea has the standard Clark Kent disguise of wearing glasses but then she doesn’t wear them half the time which makes her friends even dumber than Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen.
• Andrea builds a force field generator in her high school science lab that is radioactive and somehow she’s not fired for this.
• Rick was working on a top-secret government plan to build a weather machine. I must say this high school hires fairly over qualified teachers.
• Isis occasionally would break the fourth wall and wink at the audience. Could this be part of her being a goddess?
• Whenever President Trump demands the destruction of Isis I can’t help think that somewhere out there JoAnna Cameron is turning around looking startled and asking, “What was that, destroy me?”
• In an episode of Smallville Lois Lane was possessed by the spirit of Isis.


O mighty Isis, indeed.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Shazam! (1974-1977) – Review

In the early 70s kids were overjoyed to see Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends cartoon starring their favorite superheroes each and every Saturday morning but in1974 over at the rival animation house Filmation a half-hour live-action Saturday morning program featuring the adventures of Captain Marvel was being produced, and to say the results were something less than heroic would be a vast understatement. Sure as a kid from the 70s I ate this show up with a spoon but at the time I’d never read a Captain Marvel comic so had no basis to measure it’s accuracy to the comic book character, and the Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie had yet to appear in theaters, so us kids back then were more easily impressed.  Looking back now with adult eyes this show is rather quaint with its low budget effects and almost complete lack of action.

Filmation's Shazam! was not Captain Marvel’s first live action appearance as his the first appearance was actually on the big screen back in the 1941 with the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial for Republic Pictures, making him the first superhero to do so, and though that incarnation of Captain Marvel veered wildly from the comic book (as in comics Captain Marvel didn’t murder bad guys left right and center as he did in that serial) but this Filmation incarnation ditched even more of the elements found in the pages of Fawcett Comics. There would be no appearances of Captain Marvel’s comic book enemies like Dr. Silvana or Black Adam but instead Billy Batson and his super heroic alter ego would deal with kids joyriding or committing acts of vandalism.  These are not really crimes you’d think would require someone who has wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury.


Captain Marvel, the world’s most powerful hall monitor.

This series would ditch most of the trappings from the comic and would instead follow Billy Batson (Michael Gray) as he and his pal Mentor (Les Tremayne) as they travelled around the country in their motorhome until a blinking orb in their vehicle would notify Billy that the Immortal Elders needed to speak to him. And why exactly was Billy hanging out with this old dude you ask? Well the character of Mentor may have been loosely based on the comic book character of Uncle Dudley but in the show no family connection is mentioned and his sole purpose seemed to be in driving the motorhome and using the mobile phone to call for help on occasion.  We do get one throw-away line of dialog in the first episode where Billy mentions being on vacation from his job at the radio station (which comic book readers know to be Billy’s actual job), but we never get a clear definition of his relationship to Mentor.


"Hey Billy, want to check out that leather bar we passed a while back?"

When the "Eterni-Phone" rings (that's what the blinking orb was called) Mentor would pull over so that Billy could go into some kind of trance by uttering the phrase, “Oh, Elders, fleet and strong and wise, appear before my seeking eyes.” We would then see live action actor Michael Gray superimposed over a fairly static cartoon image of the Elders; they would then give him a heads-up on what current crisis he was about to deal with, such as a teen facing peer pressure to steal a car or cheating in school, and then the "gods" would quote Shakespeare or some such thing to lay out today’s moral message. Billy would pop back into his body to inform Mentor what their mission of the day was and the two would then proceed to drive around until they literally ran into the paricular trouble the Elders were talking about.

Note: The wizard Shazam, who gave Billy his powers, is completely absent from this series in favor of the Greek pantheon making personal appearances.


I’m not sure why the Greek gods cared so much about American teens.

In the first episode “The Joyriders” a group of teens think it would be cool to borrow a car but one of them thinks it’s a bad idea, it being a crime and all, and despite being called "chicken" this particular kid refuses to go along. It’s at this point that Billy and Mentor arrive causing the stolen car full of idiots to peel off in one direction while the other kid hoofs it in the other, with Billy in hot pursuit on foot.  Could this be a job for Captain Marvel?

Watching this pilot episode one quickly comes to the conclusion that we are not going to be getting much in the way of actual super heroic action.  Captain Marvel ( played by Jackson Bostwick in the first two seasons and John Davey for the third) appears about once an episode and the twenty-two minute running time of the show consists mostly of Billy and Mentor lecturing whatever stupid kid they encounter that week. What may seem a bit odd is that the writers of this show never gave much thought as to how creepy it was to have two dudes traveling together who constantly hunt down kids to give them a “lesson” from their motorhome base. At one point the peer pressured kid we met in the pilot has his bike stolen, his idiot friends having kidded him about locking it up, and Billy and Mentor offer to give the kid a ride to the police station in their aforementioned motorhome. I think today’s lesion shouldn’t have been about peer pressure but instead about getting in a van that belongs to two dudes you don’t know.


Stranger Danger!

I know the 70s were simpler times, and the fear of pedophiles snatching your children off the street wasn't as much in the public consciousness as it is now, but looking back at this show with modern eyes the creep factor is pretty high. Later the Shazam! show became part of the Shazam/Isis Hour that paired episodes of Shazam! with Filmation's other live action kids show The Secrets of Isis, which had a similar structure, but instead of having two guys driving around “helping” kids that show’s main character was not only female, thus a little less threatening, but also was a school teacher and not just some random stranger in a van.

Being both Shazam! and The Secrets of Isis were produced by Filmation Captain Marvel and Isis would make cross-over guest appearances on each other’s shows, which of course made the “crisis of the day” seem in even more ridiculous for needing two beings with godlike abilities, but most of the cross-overs involved Captain Marvel just moving the odd boulder around while Isis dealt with the kids more directly.


The Big Red Cheese and Isis.

Seeing Captain Marvel lift those boulders and fly into the air like Superman was certainly enough for most kids of that era but the lack of actual action makes it harder to watch now.  The main factor that hampered these shows is that both it and the Super Friends cartoons were under the watchful eyes Standards and Practices who would not allow "kid shows" to include any real violence, you know, punching and stuff, but at least with the Super Friends you had a wider variety of heroes to watch, and not to mention that the Batmobile and Wonder Woman’s invisible jet were certainly cooler than Mentor’s creepy motorhome. The entire run of Shazam! has been made available through Warner Archives but the nostalgia factor is probably not worth the price they are asking.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Black Hole (1979) – Review

What do you get when you cross Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with Shakespeare's The Tempest? Well in 1979 Walt Disney Studios released their first PG rated film called The Black Hole which kind of answered that question, unfortunately that answer was something audiences of the late 70s were not particularly interested in.  Making things even worse was the fact that Disney’s attempt at a science fiction film had neither the hard core science elements of Kubrick’s film nor the fun space-fantasy elements of the current hit Star Wars, resulting in fans of either of those films feeling rather dissatisfied. It’s like that old adage says, “If you can’t please everyone you may as well please no one.” Wait, that’s not an old adage?  Well it should be as it definitely sums up the problems with Disney's The Black Hole.

I’ll dispel one major belief that seems to hang over The Black Hole like a cinematic dark cloud and that of Disney trying to shamelessly cash in on Star Wars and that they bombed in the attempt, this is not true, for one the film was well into pre-production before Luke Skywalker left his home world of Tatooine and secondly it did make a profit.

Note: Even though the film eventually made it into the profit column it only managed to take in $36 million dollars domestically on a $20 million dollar budget, drastically under-performing to expectations.  That would certainly not have impressed the shareholders.

In fact aside from cute robots making an appearance there isn’t all that much to compare between the two films; Stars Wars was pure space fantasy while The Black Hole was more in the vein of such science fiction films as Destination Moon and The Forbidden Planet. The key problem with The Black Hole was not in its subject matter or the special effects, which were pretty amazing for the time, but that the script was simply terrible and that they went into production without even having an ending figured out.


Incredible matte painting can do a lot but sadly they can’t solve poor plotting.

The movie introduces us to the crew of the spacecraft USS Palomino while they are on their return leg from a deep space exploratory mission; the crew consists of Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) the stalwart commander who must make the tough decisions, First Officer Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) the brash young space hero, Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) a journalist whose cowardly nature could spell destruction for them all, then we have Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) as the expeditions civilian leader and person you'd least like to have visit you in the shower, and finally there was Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) the ships psychic whose ESP abilities seem to be plot specific and only used for her to telepathically communicate with the ship's robot V.I.N.CENT (Vital Information Necessary Centralized), voiced by Roddy McDowall. I’m sure on their prior missions she had other important duties to perform but in this movie everything Dr. McCrae does could be replaced by a Radio Shack walkie-talkie.

Note: We never do see her communicate with any of her human crew members via ESP just the robot, which is kind of bizarre because mentally linking with a machine doesn’t seem very ESPish, but then again I’m no expert on telepathy so I’ll let that slide.

The crew of the Palomino are stunned when they discover a large spaceship seemingly perched at the edge of a massive black hole; Dr. Durant is especially impressed as he intones with much gravitas, “The most destructive force in the Universe. Nothing can escape it, not even light.”

When watching this film you should be prepared to hear everyone speaking as if whatever is happening is the most significant thing that has ever happened. Self-importance just oozes out of every frame of this movie as if the four screenwriters, and yeah there four writers which is never a good sign, were writing a story to rival the works of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, but when the film finally rolls to its “conclusion” the audiences is left realizing that nothing substantive has been said about anything. When your film is about one of the universes biggest mysterious you’ve got to put at least some thought in to it.


It’s a visually stunning whirlpool but has little bearing on the movie’s actual plot.

What story we are given owes more to likes of Jules Verne and Shakespeare then it does Clarke or Asimov; when the crew of the Palomino learn that the ship they’ve spotted is the long-lost USS Cygnus, and that the only person on board is the famous Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), we get serious Captain Nemo vibes with a heavy dose of The Forbidden Planet, which of course was a science fiction update of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  In The Black Hole we have Reinhardt as this film’s version of Prospero and in place of a the villainous island native Caliban from the play we get a robot by the name of Maximilian, who looks like he was purchased from a Sharper Image catalog edited by Satan.


I will admit that Maximilian is one damn fine piece of robot design.

We learn that Dr. Hans Reinhardt had been ordered to return to Earth, his mission to find “inhabitable life” (that should have been “Inhabitable worlds” but somehow this kind of mistake got by four writers) being deemed a failure, but he tells our heroes that his ship had suffered major damage from a meteor field and that his communications equipment had been wrecked. Reinhardt explains that he is the sole human aboard, having sent the rest of the crew off twenty years ago, and he appears shocked to find out that his crew never reached Earth.

In the two decade since he has apparently spent all his time studying the black hole with the intent of someday, “Going in, through and beyond!” That he is lying about the fate of his crew is fairly evident and soon even our dimwitted heroes have figured out that the android crew that Reinhardt supposedly built are actually zombified crew members via laser lobotomy.  Harry discovers that the Cygnus has an AgroPod big enough to feed an entire crew yet the ship supposedly only has one human on board and Captain Holland witnesses what appears to be a funeral procession for one of the androids. This is when the shit hits the fan and Reinhardt orders his robot Stormtroopers, who look and move like goose-stepping cybermen from Doctor Who, after the Palomino crew with orders to “Liquidate our guests.”


Lucky for our heroes these robots are even worse shots than your average Stormtrooper.

Now this all may sound rather exciting; an obsessed Captain Nemo like character having lobotomized his crew to fulfil a mad dream to explore a black hole, a ship manned by said creepy humanoids as well as laser gun toting robots led by a robot devil with spinning Cuisinart blades for arms, we even have a ship that looks like a cross between an oil refinery and the S.S. Poseidon, and all of this would one would assume would lend itself to a pretty gripping an action packed tale, but sadly it doesn’t.

So how can a film with all those elements, including a first rate cast, fail to engage an audience? Well instead of a sci-fi blockbuster or a taught and thought provoking tale we got an overwritten melodrama with some of the hammiest lines of dialog ever uttered on film. The robot V.I.N.CENT's sole character trait is that he speaks in clichés such as, “There are old pilots and bold pilots but very few old bold pilots” and he keeps uttering them with such frequency that one must assume he was programmed by Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. Then we also meet an old battered robot B.O.B. (Bio-sanitation Battalion) that has us wondering why someone would program it with the voice of Slim Pickens, sure we are told it was designed in Houston but would even a Texan robotics engineer incorporate such a voice into a robot?


Maybe the programmer was a huge Dr. Strangelove fan?

The movie isn’t even helped by the score provided by the great film composer John Barry because even though the movie has some wonderfully operatic themes, stuff you'd expect in a space opera, when the final act eventually kicks into gear we get this down tempo and ponderous music during the supposedly exciting laser battles between our heroes and the evil robots.  What was Barry thinking?  The entire film is guilty of having the worst pacing ever as each scenes seems to just plod along until the next bit of melodrama must be thrown at us by one of our main characters; Anthony Perkins will spend most of the screen time ass kissing Maximillian’s Schell’s mad scientist Reinhardt, the hot shot young hero Pizer is only around so that he can argue with V.I.N.CENT, “When I volunteered for this mission, I never thought I'd end up playing straight man to a tin can” and then we have both Robert Forster and Yvette Mimieux who both seem completely out of place in the film, and then there's Ernest Borgnine’s character who never made any sense to me from the start and had me asking, "What kind of news outlet sends middle-aged out of shape reporters on a deep space missions? Did his editor hate him that much?"


I guess surviving The Poseidon Adventure gives him some screen cred here.

Of course the real stars here are the movie's visual effects, and they are spectacular; the film sports 150 matte paintings by the great artist Peter Ellenshaw and the model design and construction of the spaceship Cygnus is absolutely fantastic. The shots of the little Palomino craft as it search lights scan the dark hull before the Cygnus suddenly lights up like a high-rise on Christmas Eve is simply stunning. It’s clear that not only did a lot of money go into this project but also a lot of love, but no matter how awesome your movie’s visual are if they are in service of a lacklustre script the film is pretty much doomed.

As I mentioned earlier this film began shooting without a finished script, which kind of explains why the film really doesn’t have much of an ending, and as our heroes follow the mad Hans Reinhardt into the maelstrom of the black hole we get a bit of stuff that a charitable person would say was an “homage” to the trip through the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then the film all of a sudden goes Biblical for no rational reason as our "heroes" pass through Heaven and Hell. You can just picture those four sad sack writers banging their heads against the wall as they try to come up with an ending, and I'd say director Gary Nelson should have had them shot for dereliction of duty.  So what did these genius writers eventually come up with? We see Hans Reinhardt and the evil robot Maximillian doing a bit of space ballet before Reinhardt finds himself trapped within his own creation and then we see them literally in Hell.


Parents at the time must have had fun explaining this to their kids.

Earlier in the film Anthony Perkins compared the black hole to Dante’s Inferno so I guess that can be called foreshadowing but then the movie decides to double down on the Bible motif by the appearance of an angelic being that guides us through crystal hallways that I’m assuming we are to take as Heaven. Eventually our heroes and their spacecraft are spit out the other side of the black hole, all perfectly fine after their cosmic trip, but before any of what we just saw could be explained the film abruptly ends with a quick shot of their ship flying through space towards a new planet near a bright star and...roll credits.

The Black Hole had a lot of potential but saddled with a weak script, and a director mostly known for television work, it really didn’t stand much of a chance.  We are constantly treated with glimpses of the better film this thing could have been; Hans Reinhardt is depicted as your clichéd obsessed mad scientist but there is a moment in the film where he runs up to Kate, right after the evil robot Maximillian has buzzsawed into Durant’s chest, and he whispers to her, “Protect me from Maximillian.” What is that about? We do see that the robots all seem to function in some autonomous fashion, with Maximillian tending to take things into his own hands (clamps?) but we never get the impression that he isn’t anything more than a mechanical thug created by Reinhardt, so what’s his deal? Why at the end does Reinhardt fear him?


They should have focused the movie on rogue A.I. robots and skipped the black hole.

As mentioned earlier this movie was Disney Studios first PG rated movie, years before Touchtone or Miramax were created to handle this kind of more adult stuff, but there really isn’t much here to offend anyone or frighten children.  I guess the use of the word “damn” as well as images of Hell and the occasional on screen death were enough to make censors force the PG rating on the film but there certainly isn't anything here that most kids would even blink at as all the violence is quite bloodless. Unfortunately bloodless pretty much sums up this entire film as it is quite pale and lacks any real substance, which is a shame as the visuals are often breathtaking. So if you come across The Black Hole on Netflix or Turner Classic Movies give it a perusal if you are the curious sort, but just be sure to lower your expectations a tad or two.

Final Thoughts:

• The actors walking around in slow motion to simulate no gravity is pretty goofy.
• The film's designers chose to make V.I.N.CENT a hovering robot to differentiate him from R2-D2 but the amount of times you can spot the wires he is hanging from illustrates this was a bad idea.
• The robots aboard the Cygnus have a rec room where they can challenge each other at laser target practice yet despite the need for robots to practice targeting being patently ridiculous it also apparently didn’t help as they can’t seem to hit our heroes even when they are standing still and right out in the open.
• The double barrel horseshoe shaped laser guns the bad robots use makes no practical sense.
• The hull of the Cygnus is breached in multiple places by meteors yet our heroes survive catastrophic decompression when they should have all died almost instantly and been sucked out into space.
• V.I.N.CENT notifies his friends that “A meteorite struck the ship” and you’d think a robot that is supposedly a "Vital Information Necessary Centralized" unit would know that a meteor is only referred to as a meteorite when it passes into a planet’s atmosphere.

The Black Hole is a film that bills itself as science fiction movie and a not space fantasy but more often than not it goes for “What looks cool” over making things scientifically accurate, and to be fair I’m normally okay with this but only if the story is good enough to make me forgive such things, sadly that is not the case here.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) – Review

Republic Pictures may have been considered a “Poverty Row” company when compared to bigger studios like Warner Brothers, Columbia and Fox as they were mostly relegated to doing B movies and westerns, but when it came to producing serials they left all the others in the dust by giving us such great entries as Dick Tracy and Zorro’s Fighting Legion they dominated Saturday morning matinees. Then in 1941 Republic Pictures brought to the world the Adventures of Captain Marvel that was not only the single greatest serial of all times but it would also be the first time a comic book superhero had ever graced the silver screen.

In 1940 Republic Pictures struck a deal with National Comics (later to become DC Comics) to make a fifteen chapter serial based Superman but unfortunately disagreements with the script and how to handle the character forced the two companies to part ways. Enter Fawcett Comics, the publishers of Whiz Comics, and they offered the serial rights of their flagship hero Captain Marvel to Republic who were more than happen to tackle The Big Red Cheese. And why exactly does the Adventures of Captain Marvel stand head and shoulders above its serial brethren? Republic Pictures certainly didn’t spend any extra money to bring a superhero to life, the action isn’t any better than you’d see in a King of the Rocket Men or Zorro serials, and the cast though filled with excellent character actors it wasn’t anything to write home about.  What the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial did have was an iconic hero who actually looked to be flying through the sky.  For close-ups of Captain Marvel the standard process shot of a guy on wires in front rear-projected screen was used but for the long wide shots of our hero flying across the landscape or up to the top of a building they actually filmed on location without any optical effects, and this was done by having a slightly larger than 1:1 scale papier-mâché dummy of Captain Marvel being slid down a long cable between two points.  A simple but effective technique that must have blown the minds of any 1940's kid who had the pleasure of seeing it.


You will believe a dummy can fly.

The plot of the Adventures of Captain Marvel wasn’t all that dissimilar from the dozens of other serials that came out before or since; an American archaeological expedition traipse into the country of Siam so that they can loot the Valley of the Tombs and thus find the lost secret of the Scorpion Kingdom. And what exactly is this lost secret? Well turns out that hidden inside the tomb is an artifact called the Golden Scorpion, which is basically a large model of scorpion that has special crystal lenses located in each of its pincers, but when the legs of the scorpion are moved and the crystals aligned you could either find yourself at the wrong end of an atom smasher or be turned to gold. Needless to say both its destructive power and its ability to generate endless wealth gets the Malcolm expedition all hot and bothered.  The group decide to divide the crystals amongst the members, giving Billy Batson (Frank Coghlan Jr) the scroll that contains the directions on how to operate the Golden Scorpion, and they plan a quick return to the United States.


The Malcolm Expedition consists of your standard group of white upper class twits.

Of course it’s not a proper serial if it doesn’t have a nefarious villain for our hero to thwart at every turn and for this one we have hooded dude named The Scorpion who manages to incite the locals to attack the Malcolm Expedition for defiling the sacred Valley of the Tombs. During the attack Billy is knocked out and both his scroll and the Golden Scorpion are stolen, but it’s when members of the expedition get trapped when the nearby volcano causes the tomb to shake apart that we are introduced to the wizard Shazam (Nigel De Brulier).  It's this immortal wizard who tells young Billy that he will be given the ability to transform into Captain Marvel (Tom Tyler) by simply speaking the wizard's name, and with this transformation he will be granted great power that he must only use in the service of right.  He's also supposed to protect the secret of the Golden Scorpion but us comic book fans could give a rat's ass about that.

These powers consist of the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and speed of Mercury and because of that line-up of powers this serial has a tough time coming up with viable threats for a character who is basically a demi-god. In his first real battle he approaches a few of the Scorpions men who are manning a Browning heavy machine gun; they open fire on him but the bullets bounce harmlessly off Captain Marvel’s chest and the goons logically run away in terror. What many fans of comic books may find surprising is that Captain Marvel’s response to this is to pick up the Browning and gun down the fleeing natives by shooting them in their backs.


The smile that he sports during his fights is kind of chilling.

In fact Captain Marvel ends up killing more people in these twelve chapters than the villainous Scorpion does, and for the most part he does it with an almost maniacal grin on his face. This stone cold killer version of Captain Marvel so upset creator C.C. Beck so much that he made no bones about how much he hated this take on his beloved creation, but on the other hand he found the almost sadistic glee in the kills absurdly funny.

In the chapter titled "Death Takes the Wheel" the serials main damsel in distress Betty Wallace (Louise Currie) is unconscious in an out of control car as it careens wildly down a multiple story parking garage (this wasn’t even the first time she found herself unconscious in an out of control vehicle) but Captain Marvel of course arrives in time save her. Unfortunately for the villains, who had placed poor Betty in that particular death trap, Captain Marvel is all about brutal payback; he flies to roof of the 30 story parking garage, catches an engine block the idiots try to drop on him, throws the engine block at one of the henchmen and then the grabs the other goon and tosses him off the roof.


Do not screw with Captain Marvel.

So how do the Scorpion and his men pose a threat to Captain Marvel? I mean you can’t really have a movie serial with nail-biting cliffhangers if the outcome is never in question.  Well to solve this problem most of the chapters deal with one of Billy’s friends being in danger, whether it be Betty or his best pal Whitey Murphy (William Benedict), and occasionally it will be Billy in danger but then the script forces the henchman to gag Billy for no particular reason (we know it's so he can't speak the name "Shazam!" but the bad guys don't know that) and they never gag Betty or Whitey.  Of course most of those cliffhangers are resolved with Billy managing to get the gag off at the last minute so there really wasn’t all that much suspense after the first couple of times he does this.

The funniest cliffhanger has to be when Captain Marvel gets knocked back between an electric eye and is shocked unconscious by a bolt of high intensity electricity (he gets shocked unconscious a total of two times in this serial and being his powers arrive via a lightning I guess electricity could be a weakness) and he falls on a conveyor belt that carries him towards the deadly blade of a guillotine. Watching this cliffhanger one can only ask the question, “What in the hell is a metal blade going to do against the world’s mightiest mortal?” The answer is of course nothing at all.


The Guillotine of Total Fail.

Now you certainly can’t fill twelve chapters, and roughly four hours, of your serial with just Captain Marvel beating the crap out of a bunch of dime store hoodlums, it’d be fun but you still need some kind of plot to hang it all on, so for much of serials running time you have the Scorpion trying to steal the crystals from the members of the Malcolm Expedition while also dealing with Billy trying to figure out which one of the members is most likely the Scorpion himself. The serial does cheat a bit to keep the big mystery of “Who is the Scorpion?” by having Billy, Betty, and Whitey almost tumbling on a clue that would reveal the secret multiple times but then the writers would just abandon that particular clue and race off to the next scene. To make it even harder for audiences to figure it out who the Scorpion is under that hood his voice  was provided by uncredited actor Gerald Mohr who sounds nothing like any member of the Malcolm Expedition.


In fact his voice sounds a lot like someone narrating a nature documentary.

Co-directors William Whitney and John English clearly knew that the mystery wasn’t all that important, the members sitting around a table all looking equally suspicious is almost laughable at times, the real point to the plot is how it can be used to string together all those scenes of peril, daring do and knock-down drag-out fights. A key components to all of that is stuntman Dave Sharpe who doubled Tom Tyler for the more dangerous and acrobatic feats; one particular moment when a couple of native goons go after Captain Marvel we get to see Dave Sharpe perform a standing back flip to kick the two bad guys in their jaws. Sharpe was also integral in making the flying moments work as his acrobatic training made the take-offs and landing that much more effective.  Add all that to how bang on Tom Tyler looked in costume and you had all the ingredients you needed to make a great superhero serial.

As serials go there really isn’t anything in the same league as the Adventures of Captain Marvel as its stunts and set pieces make almost all others pale in comparison, with maybe King of the Rocket Men being the closest contender, and the pure fun that fills these twelve chapters makes this a true gem.  Kino Lorber has now released this action pack serial on Bluray with a beautifully re-mastered 4K scan from the Paramount Pictures Archives, simply put this is a must own for fans of superhero movies and classic serials. Highly recommended!

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Cat from Outer Space (1978) – Review

By the 1970s the Golden Age of Disney animated movies was clearly over and the studio began to focus on their live action movies as not only were they cheaper to make then animated features but you could also make a dozen or more live action films for the price of one animated feature.  Sadly the gamut of quality in these live action movies ranged wildly from the excellent adventure tales like The Island at the Top of the World to the less than memorable zany comedies such as One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing. One could suspect that many of these lower budgeted films hit theaters for just a quick buck, with no real intent to become lasting classics or big money makers, but were really meant to provide content for the studio’s very popular television show The Wonderful World of Disney. A prime example of this would be 1978’s The Cat from Outer Space as its low budget, and a cast of mostly television actors, has a very “Made for Television” feel to it.

The premise for The Cat from Outer Space was nothing new to audience goers as aliens being stranded on Earth for repairs dates back to the 50s with It Came from Outer Space, a film that this Disney version clearly wanted to invoke by their choice of title, but instead of a one-eyed horrifying looking alien creature the boys at Disney went in the cute and cuddly direction with a house cat. Of course a few years later a young Steven Spielberg would take the stranded alien premise with his film E.T. The Extraterrestrial in a slightly different direction, which funnily enough had more of the classic Disney feel of childlike wonder than anything the studio had managed to put out in years. Now looking back, without our nostalgia glasses on, let’s take a peek at Disney’s The Cat from Outer Space.


Regardless of anything else I’ll give them that the alien craft was a neat design.

The movie opens with an unidentified flying object landing in a farmer’s field because it is suffering some kind of mechanical failure, and before you can say “Anal Probe” a farmer has called in the military and the place is soon swarming with guys in uniform. First on the scene is General Stilton (Harry Morgan), a four star general who is bound and determined to find out if this strange craft is some kind of commie weapon, and along with him is Colonel Woodruff (Howard Platt), Captain Anderson (James Hampton) and Sergeant Duffy (Ronnie Schell) who also provided the voice of the cat), and they will be supplying much of the comedy relief as they bumble along trying to track down the alien invade.


“No sign of death rays or tripod war machines but shouldn’t we nuke’em just to be safe?”

The spacecraft’s occupant had managed to exit his ship before the military arrived to snatch his craft and is thus able to follow them back to the army base, and being the alien is in fact a cat he is able to quietly sneak around and find out what the Earth men are planning to do. Lucky for him General Stilton seeks advice from local science lab Energy Research Laboratory (E.R.L.), hoping to find out how the alien’s propulsion systems works, and even luckier for the space cat he encounters one of the visiting scientist Dr. Frank Wilson (Ken Berry) whose radical scientific theories just so happen could be key to fixing his damaged ship. Frank is an “Out of the Box” kind of thinker and is kicked out of the briefing by Stilton, not so much because of his outlandish theories but because of his terrible attempts at humor. Ken Berry was a staple of television throughout the 60s and 70s most notably in The Andy Griffith Show and its spin-off Mayberry RFD but as good as a comic actor he is Berry can’t really pull off the scientist aspect of the character and basically makes Fred MacMurray’s Absent Minded Professor look like Albert Einstein.


In this film Ken Berry comes across as a poor man's Dean Jones.

The cat is named Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7, who Frank names Jake for the sake of convenience, and the cat promises to give Frank advanced scientific knowledge if he would help with the fixing of the spacecraft (apparently whatever planet this cat is from they don’t have any kind of non-interference prime directive), Frank quickly agrees and thus madcap shenanigans can now begin. Rounding off the comedic cast of characters is Dr. Elizabeth "Liz" Bartlett (Sandy Duncan) in the thankless role of fellow scientist at E.R.L. who is this movie’s possible love interest and girl hostage when things go bad.  Then we have Dr. Norman Link (MacLean Stevenson) another scientist from E.R.L. but one who is more interested in drinking Frank’s beer and losing money to his bookie than he is in science (his specialty is garbage and I’m not sure what field of energy that falls in), and because the military don’t fill the antagonist bill completely we have another employee of E.R.L. by the name of Mr. Stallwood (Roddy McDowall) who is in fact a spy. But what kind of spy is he? Is he a Russian spy working for the commies? Maybe he’s an industrial spy employed by a rival research company? Either one of those would have made perfect sense but this movie has no intention of ever making sense.


He’s actually working for what looks like a Bond villain.

And what interest would a shadowy organization have with an alien cat? Well what they really want is Jakes magical collar. And why is that you ask, well we learn that on Jake’s home world cats are the top of the evolutionary ladder, as he explains, “In our civilization that’s as far as we needed to evolve. We developed are brain to a fine point. Now, man rose off his four legs and developed tools, machinery, agriculture and a chronic pain in his lower back. We developed tools for the mind. This collar here, it amplifies brain power.” With the collar Jake can amplify his telekinetic and telepathic abilities; he can defy gravity, freeze people in their tracks, and most importantly he communicate telepathically with Frank so the people at Disney don’t have to worry about getting a cats lip movements synced to any kind of dialog. What doesn’t make sense is that Jake tells Frank that without the collar he’s just an ordinary cat. If that is the case how did these advance cats manufacture and develop the tools required to make those special collars?  Because according to Jake without them they don’t have telekinesis to move shit around. Last time I checked cats do not have opposable thumbs, which is one of the key things that allowed man to become top of the food chain, and so I’m not sure how even super smart cats managed to pull this off. It would have been much simpler for the script to state that it only amplified his ability but even without the collar he’d still have some degree of telekinetic and telepathic ability. Of course this would have prevented those comic moments when he loses his collar and our heroes have to figure out how to pull off whatever scheme they've got going without Jake’s help.


Such as hustling pool.

And why would our hapless heroes be hustling pool when they’ve only got a short time to fix Jakes ship? Well turns out that to fix the ship they need about $120 thousand dollars’ worth of gold and Link’s bookie connection is the only way to get that kind of money fast enough. Disney has clearly stated in such films as Son of Flubber and Black Beard’s Ghost that cheating is completely okay as long you have a good reason, but unfortunately in this movie the cheating done isn’t even orchestrated all that well.

• Jake makes a horse win a race by speeding up the animal in such a fashion that it goes from being several lengths behind to winning in a matter of seconds, which mostly likely would have exploded the poor horse’s heart and tore up most of its muscles.
• They hustle their neighborhood bookie by winning a pool game against the bookie’s ringer, but the manner in which they make the balls fly around the table telekinetically there is no way the crooks wouldn’t suspect foul play, our heroes would most likely find themselves fitted with a nice pair of cement galoshes.


And good ole Frank could go to jail for impersonating a four star general.

With gold in hand Frank and Jake are able to fix the ship, after of course having to outwit the military at every step of the way (Frank is able to pass himself off as General Stilton because the base gate guard is clearly clinically blind), but once things seem all wrapped up a wrinkle appears in the form of Stallwood’s mysterious boss Mr. Olympus (William Prince) who had his goons kidnap Liz to force our heroes to hand over the cat’s collar. How does this plan work? Well Mr. Olympus sends Link to deliver the ultimatum to Frank and Jake, while they are working on the ship inside the bases hanger, and once again the military personnel show their lack of sense by letting Link on the base by him simply stating that he is the General’s friend. Worse is that the manner in which Mr. Olympus planned to counter Jake’s ability to freeze people is never explained nor what he exactly planned to do with the collar if he managed to get it.

Note: Somehow Mr. Olympus believes this collar won’t just make him a lot of money but will also somehow help him conqueror the universe. Sure telekinetic and telepathic powers are pretty nifty but I don’t see them on par with something like the Death Star.

The film’s big finale has a chase between a helicopter occupied by Mr. Olympus and company and a wreck of bi-plane being flown by Jake’s collar and a terrified Frank. The flying stunt-work on display during this sequences is quite good, harmed of course by close-ups of our leads that are clearly in front of a badly processed blue-screen (not to mention the really fake looking stuffed cat prop that is supposed to be Jake), but as good as some of the moments in this chase are it goes on far too long. By this time in the movie we've had Frank and the gang win the money needed to get the gold, they then managed to infiltrate the military base (a second time I might add) against all odds, next they fixed the ship in time for Jake to make the rendezvous with the mothership, but then the ending is hijacked by this silly subplot with the Bond villains.


At this point the end credits should have finished rolling.

The Cat from Outer Space though released theatrically does have a very made-for-television vibe to it which is not surprising as director Norman Tokar was known mostly for his television work; he had helmed a handful of Disney projects like Follow Me, Boys! and The Apple Dumpling Gang but the kindest thing you can say about his stuff is that it is competent and work-man-like. Clearly he was like many directors brought on by Disney Studios as just "guns for hire" with no individual style required or probably wanted. One can look back at The Cat from Outer Space with fondness but at most it can be charitably called inoffensively nice with a couple of fun comic moments. Sure this a movie aimed at kids but for me that's no excuse for poor story telling as just a year later we’d get another sci-fi comedy from Disney called The Unidentified Flying Oddball which though scientifically accurate as The Cat from Outer Space it at least worked the comic elements a little better.  Then that very same year we’d get Disney’s The Black Hole where we’d see that maybe Disney should have stayed focused on the comedy aspect and left science fiction to other studios.

Final Thoughts:

• General Stilton brings the spacecraft’s propulsion unit to E.R.L. to get the best minds on the case but then for some reason he puts the unit back inside the ship. Wouldn’t that thing be kept in a lab to be studied?
• Frank is able to use Jake’s collar in the same fashion as the space cat. Does that mean we are just as mentally evolved as them? If so does that mean we've just been too lazy to develop interstellar travel?
• Jake hits on Liz’s cat which would be like a human hitting on a particularly attractive neanderthal.
• Mr. Olympus and his goons are all wearing parachutes in the helicopter which is a strange thing for anyone to do unless you had planned to bail out from the start.
• Jake decides to stay on Earth and is allowed to as a representative of an off-world "friendly power" but when he is sworn in as an American citizen he makes the judge float up into the air.


So he’s from an advance alien civilization but also a bit of a dick.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) – Review

Can true love save the day? Well in the 1997 science fiction film The Fifth Element writer/director Luc Besson certainly thought so as that film revealed that love was the key ingredient to saving the universe and now 20 years later with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Luc Besson once again puts love center stage, if not exactly in saving if not the universe this time out but at least the day. Now we must ask ourselves, does the theme work this time out?

The movie opens with one of the best cinematic moments put to film as we see the International Space Station where over the years it becomes a place of peace where people of many nations can come to work and explore the future of humanity, and during this opening montage the visitors to the station start coming not from just Earth but from the far reaches of space.  Mankind is not alone.


Note: Luc Besson really loves those big clunky alien spacesuits.

The President of the World State Federation (Rutger Hauer) explains to us that the ever expanding space station has reached such a point of weight and mass that it now poses a threat to the Earth and so now named “Alpha Station” it is must be sent off on a deep space mission of peace, and over time it becomes the home of thousands of alien species or as one could say it becomes the city of a thousand planets. The first five minutes of this film perfectly encapsulates our hopes for the future but unfortunately it also raises our expectations for the rest of the film that Luc Besson is unable to meet. The film jumps 400 years further into the future as we are introduced to a beatific seemingly primate alien race who seem at total harmony with their planet, and they do seem to have amazing beaches, but soon this idyllic world is destroyed when it is caught in the crossfires of a massive space battle.


Paradise Lost.

Who could be responsible for such an atrocity you ask? Well if you are well versed in your science fiction analogs you’ll probably assume its evil white government men who are behind the wiping out of a primitive indigenous people, and you’d be right. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a simply gorgeous film but its themes are less than original and covers ground that has recently been well hammered over by James Cameron in his film Avatar.  I will give Besson credit for at least giving us a more interesting alien race than what Cameron’s did incessantly dull Navi, but unfortunately the film does not escape having two truly dull characters as the titular heroe, and the title character of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) is about as boring as one could get.  Though he is teamed up with slightly more interesting of Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who is not only Valerian’s partner but also the film’s love interest.


The lack of on screen chemistry between these two is truly staggering.

The plot is your standard hero must retrieve space MacGuffin while various nefarious dark forces will try and stop him.  Valerian and Laureline will run and shoot their way through various CGI created environments as they bounce between being ordered given to them by the Defence Minister (Herbie Hancock) and Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) who does everything but a twirl a moustache to clue us in that he is the bad guy. Subtlety has never been Luc Besson’s strong suit and none of the film’s characters venture far beyond their two dimensional natures that is required by the plot.


Stock alien underworld crime boss #3

The hundreds of alien races and cool locations are sadly unable to overcome the fact that the film lacks any sense of urgency (towards the end they throw in the ticking clock but it doesn’t help much) and the pacing is all over the map. The biggest example of this would be when Laureline is captured a group of nasty aliens who make her dress up pretty so that they can have her brains for dinner, and it has nothing to do with anything. Just how bad does this sequence fail?

Let's break it down:

• Laureline is supposed to be Valerian’s partnerm and a bit of a badass in her own right, but she is captured with ease and just sits around waiting to be rescued.
• Valerian needs a disguise for his rescue plan to work so he visits an exotic bar owned by Jolly the Pimp (Ethan Hawke).
• We next sit through a “striptease” number by a shape-shifting dancer named Bubble who is played by Rihanna.
• Valerian wears the shape-shifter so he can sneak in to the alien clubhouse and start lopping of alien heads.
• Bubble is killed during their escape because the filmmakers thought we needed a bit of pathos and killing off this sweet innocent character would be the best way to achieve that.


What was Besson thinking?

This is a twenty-two minute detour that had no business being in a film that is two hours and twenty minutes long, not only was it a complete waste of screen time but it also undercut the character of Laureline while introducing and killing off one of few other interesting ones the film provided. This kind of scene may have worked great if you reading it in an issue of a comic book, and this film is based on the French comic Valérian and Laureline, but in a movie it just derails any momentum you had achieved up to that point.


Rihanna is given a character that deserved a better movie.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has space battles, colorful villains, and frenetic chase through the underbelly of an amazing space station but at no point did I ever find myself fully invested. There was a lot of potential on screen, and every penny of the $180 million dollar budget is clearly on display, but when the film tries to hang itself on the emotional core of Valerian and Laureline’s relationship it fails and it fails hard. If you want to see one of the best looking science fiction films out there this is worth a look but if you are hoping for a solid story and good characters this is hard one to recommend.  True love may have saved the day but it didn't quite save the movie.


"I can't be this film's white savior if you guys are even whiter than I am."