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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) – Review

Mark Wahlberg is The Chosen One, believe it or not this is an actually a plot point in Transformers: The Last Knight, and for those of you who thought Wahlberg playing an inventor in Transformers: Age of Extinction stretched the lows of credulity beyond the breaking point you are in for a treat as our blue collar hero is mankind’s only hope this time out. From the film’s title I assumed that it would turn out that Optimus Prime was somehow connected to the robots from Arthurian time but no, it turns out Marky Mark is the Once and Future King. This is the fifth movie in the franchise and just when you think things can’t get any more convoluted and or idiotic Michael Bay ramps up the stupidity meter to eleven.

Once again Earth’s history is being rewritten by director Michael Bay only instead of prehistoric history being mucked with the film opens with Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table being overrun by the bloodthirsty Saxons (we will forgive the fact that there is no evidence of Arthur existing as depicted in the myths because history apparently also left out that there were giant robots at the time), but then a drunk Merlin (Stanley Tucci) begs for help from a local Transformer, who was just hanging around the wreck of his ship, and is given a staff made of alien tech as well as the assistance of a three-headed robot dragon, think Mecha-King Ghidorah only not as cool, and the day is saved.


“On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”

The film then jumps to the current timeline where the world’s governments have declared Transformers illegal and have created the Transformer Reaction Force (TRF) to hunt down and either imprison or kill any Transformer or Decepticon they find. We are first introduced to a spunky Latina orphan named Izabella (Isabela Moner) who lives in the bombed out remains of Chicago and she spends her time fixing the injured Transformers that are hidding out there. How she became an expert on medical procedures for giant robots is left to your imagination.  After her and a bunch of trespassing kids are chased by some giant ED 209s operated by the TRF they are rescued by Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) who then encounters an ancient Transformer by the name of Steelbane who gives Cade a metallic talisman that imparts him the title of Chosen One. This kind of thing never happens to me.  We also encounter our old friend Lennox (Josh Duhamel) who is apparently on loan to the TRF and after a showdown with Cade and Bumblebee he lets our heroes go.


“I’m just here to add cuteness and ethnic diversity.”

Describing the plot of this movie is almost impossible as it’s a complete mess of action scenes randomly interrupted by expository dialog provided by either Agent Simmons (John Turturro), who appears in a pointless cameo from Transformer loving Cuba, or from British Lord Sir Edmund Burton (Sir Anthony Hopkins) who is the last member of an ancient order that has been keeping track of the descendants of Merlin and the secret history of the Transformers.

The military big wigs overhear a conversation between Megatron (Frank Welker) and Barricade about some all powerful weapon and how Cade is the key to retrieving it, because of the whole talisman Chosen one thing, and in one of the dumbest decision among countless dumb decisions the military decide the best way to get this all powerful weapon is to make a deal with Megatron.   This is a deal that involves releasing a squad of Decepticons from custody who will then help Megatron recover the talisman from Yeager, and then military plan to steal it back from Megatron. I can't see anyway in which this plan could go wrong.


“I also want two cases of WD40 and the complete run of Breaking Bad.”

Meanwhile Cade and the remaining nice Autobots have been living in junkyard in South Dakota, making life dificult for the local Native American community, when the Decepticons attack and they are forced to flee to a nearby deserted town. This is one of those towns that randomly has skyscrapers suddenly appearing in it. While fleeing both the Decepticons and the TRF Cade and company run into a robot by the name of Cogman (Jim Carter) who is a fussy yet sociopathic butler to Lord Burton. Cade and Bumblebee take off to Jolly Ole England with Cogman, leaving behind Izabella long enough for us to forget she was in this movie.  When they get to England they are introduced to Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) an Oxford professor who just so happens to be the last surviving relative of Merlin.


“I also play polo aggressively and do not have a man in my life.”

But what about Optimus Prime? When we last saw the leader of the Autobots he was flying off into space to find their creator and give him a stern talking to. Well poor old Optimus (Peter Cullen) ends up finding the shattered remains of their home world of Cybertron, which makes him very sad, but then he encounters a sorceress named Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who professes to be the maker that he was searching for, and she tells Optimus that she needs Merlin’s staff to drain the Earth so as to rebuild Cyberton. Did I mention that Earth is actually Cybertron's "ancient enemy" Unicron and it is now slowly waking up?


“Don’t worry Optimus, this will only be relevant in the next movie.”

Quintessa uses her “maker” powers to turn Optimus Prime into Nemesis Prime and sends him to Earth to retrieve Merlin’s staff, with a vow to destroy anyone who stands in his way. Now if any of this is making sense to you than I’m doing a better job of it than Michael Bay did. The amount of plot flung out in between action sequences, and there is of course a staggering amount of action set pieces, is almost more than previous four films had combined. What is truly strange is at 149 minutes this is the shortest in the series but yet I found myself exhausted and beyond caring about what was going on before the film had even reached the halfway mark. Now I love a good action movie as much as the next guy, and I have sat through all four of previous entries, but there is such a thing as action fatigue and this film suffers from it greatly.


Bumblebee blowing away Nazis barely roused me from my stupor.

What, you want to what Bumblebee was doing in Nazi Germany? Well according to Lord Exposition the Transformers had been secretly aiding humanity ever since the Dark Ages. We even learn that Hitler was actually killed by a Transformer disguised clock.  This begs the question, "Did the Nazis have Decepticons on their side?" Because if not WWII should have been a lot shorter than it was. If we let slide that somehow the Transformers were able to fight in two world wars without their secret getting out we still have to ask why Optimus Prime or Bumblebee have never mentioned this before. So apparently Bumblebee never thought to look for the Allspark all that time? There is a difference between retconning your story to fit the current plot and just making shit up as you go, and this is certainly a clear case of the latter.


“We don’t have time to make sense, we have things to blow up.”

As this is a Michael Bay film it is full of frenetically cut action sequences, sexist and racial jokes that rightfully fail miserably, and all the characters are about as dimensional and as interesting as cardboard cutouts.  Even the robots get a short shrift treatment this time out as the villainous Megatron seems only there to appease fans of the cartoon and not for any purpose to the story they are trying to tell, and Optimus Prime's turn to the dark side is as lame as it is lazy.

Now If you loved the previous four films in the series you may get a kick out of all the action and cool robot fights, and Anthony Hopkins seemed to be having a good time spouting all that nonsense, but for me I’ve about reached my breaking point with this franchise, and I can best sum up my reaction to Transformers: The Last Knight by quoting the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, “Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”


Final Question: How can one make a three-headed robot dragon this boring?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Power Rangers (2017) – Review

Though the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was a very popular children show of the 1990s while I myself was a kid of the 70s, so my heroes were Scooby Doo and the Super Friends, which means that I went into this big budget adaptation of Saban’s Power Rangers with no nostalgic bias at all, a completely open mind with no axe to grind, and no danger of this movie “raping” my childhood.

The original Power Rangers series was a campy show that used stock footage from Toei's Super Sentai franchise and dealt with a group of teens who gained superhero costumes to battle various enemies with their martial arts and giant robots. Simply put if I’d had been a kid in the 90s I would have eaten this show up with a spoon, but as an adult the show only held a bit of kitschy novelty to me and nothing more, so seeing a summer blockbuster version of the Power Rangers had no instant appeal to me.

The movie opens with a prologue that takes place during the Cenozoic-era where we see alien warriors dying to protect some magic crystals from Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), our film's chief villainous, and who is defeated when the last remaining Ranger (Bryan Cranston) orders a meteor strike that though it kills him it also sends Rita to the bottom of the ocean.

Going by this film and Transformers Extinction it would appear that pre-history was constantly being screwed over by alien invaders. It’s kind of surprising we even bothered to evolve and come out of the trees.


Rita seen here about to go all Breaking Bad on Cranston.

The movie then jumps forward to present day and we are introduced to Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery), star quarterback and town hero, who after a failed practical joke involving a cow earns him a knee brace for his damage leg, that he received during a car chase collision, and an ankle monitor from the cops for said car chase and prank.  He is given permanent detention for his crimes and that is where he meets autistic student Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler) and former popular girl Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), who would be a possible love interest if this was a different movie. Later when Billy gets Jason to join him on a trip to the local gold mine they encounter Trini (Becky G), an outsider who is questioning her sexual orientation, and Zack (Ludi Lin) who lives in the nearby trailer park with his sick mom. These five teens are the ones who will discover the hidden Power Coins and become the Power Rangers, making this movie basically The Breakfast Club with super powers, but the problem here is that once they find the coins, and gain super strength that allows them to rip doors off their hinges, it takes bloody forever for them to become the actual Power Rangers we came to see.


“For Christ’s sake, suit up already!”

The beginning stuff where we start to learn about our heroes is all well and good, the inclusion of an autistic kid and a gay member to the team is one of the best elements added here, but once they encounter the robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), and the big head in the wall that is Zordon (Cranston), who we later learn was the Ranger from the prologue, the film really starts to bog down. The movie has a two hour running time yet the group does not appear in costume until about the ninety minute mark and there is very little action in this movie let alone heroics to tide us over.  We do get some training combat scenes and one lame encounter with Rita, where not having earned their armor yet they get their asses kicked, but that's about it.


Rita running around looking for gold occasionally makes things interesting.

Most of the second half of the film is about the team not being able to “morph” and thus gain their Power Ranger armor, because they have to learn the true meaning of Christmas or some such nonsense, before they finally get their armor and take the fight to Rita. Unfortunately the plot to this film is about some lame MacGuffin called the Zeno Crystal, which Rita wants but is hidden somewhere under Angel Grove.  She has been collecting gold so that she can construct a giant monster to dig up the crystal and use it to destroy the world, so that’s bad I guess.

Will our heroes pull their heads out of their collective asses in time to stop Rita? How about those mecha-animal Zords the gang will get once they are proven worthy? Can the group pull it together and form the giant Megazord and defeat Rita and her giant molten monster Goldar before the Earth is destroyed?


I don’t think it’s a spoiler to answer yes to all of those questions.

This is the third theatrical Power Rangers movie, the first two being much more in keeping with the television show, where here they are trying to reboot the franchise with more well-rounded characters and a more serious tone, but as much fun as Elizabeth Banks seems to be having as Rita Repulsa we never get a sense of their being a real danger here. Sure if she wins the world will be destroyed but the film never quite makes her into a credible threat. When we finally get to see the Power Rangers duking it out with Rita’s minions the putties, who look like leftover effects from Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, it’s too little too late.  The big third act of the film is this big fight with a two hundred foot tall monster called Goldar, who is a tall molten gold giant and not all that interesting looking, but by this point we've mostly stopped caring.

Note: The original Goldar from the show was humanoid ape with red eyes, wings and golden armor, while this movie gives us a version that looks like someone's unfinished grade four art project.  Which version of Goldar do you prefer?


The Goldar from the Power Rangers series.


The Goldar from the 2017 Power Rangers movie.

That the movie had us wait so long for this big showdown between the Power Rangers and Rita’s giant warrior and then for it to turn out to be about a five minutes of CGI fighting is unforgivable. Now the stuff with the Rangers in their Zords, and them finally combining into the Megazord, was nice but as their up against a monster that even Godzilla wouldn’t give the time a day to it kind of falls flat.


“Go Go Power Rangers!”

I will say that young actors playing the Power Rangers all do solid work here, and as we learn more about them we actually do care about them, but when the film’s final act does arrive, after an incredibly long wait, it feels like a different picture than the one we started with. The tonal shift is just terrible.  I guess it’s hard to organically go from important real life problems such as bullying and sexual identity issues to Rita Repulsa snarling at the screen, but as it stands this Power Rangers movie wasn’t terrible it just seemed to make a few big missteps along the way.

Final Thoughts:
• We get a cow masturbation joke at the three minute mark. Nice.
• The group take to the idea of suddenly having superpowers rather easily.
• Apparently a lot of people in Angel Grove have gold teeth.
• Zack inexplicably is able joyride in one of the zords.
• When Rita drowns Billy none of the group thinks to try CPR.
• Rita Repulsa is a name that works in a children’s show but it's a bit too goofy for the film they were trying to make here.


"Look, we're finally in costume!"

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Sentinel (1977) – Review

From the late 60s and throughout the 70s there were some very successful horror movies dealing with Satanic forces; poor Mia Farrow getting knocked up by the Devil in Rosemary’s Baby, little Linda Blair being possessed by a demon in The Exorcist, or Gregory Peck finding out his son is the Anti-Christ in The Omen, but one little gem that didn’t make as big a splash as it’s contemporaries was a little flawed gem called The Sentinel.  Today we will delve into where this horror adaptation went right and where it failed.

Based on the book by Jeffrey Konvitz the story of The Sentinel deals with a young woman who moves into an old brownstone apartment building, meets a group of eccentric neighbors, and then learns that almost everyone around her has malicious intent and sinister motives. Now those of you who have read or seen the film version of Rosemary’s Baby you can clearly tell that this story is a tad derivative but it still does manage to be effective, mainly due to the amazing cast director Michael Winner managed to assemble, and it provides enough creepy moments to make a viewing warranted by any fan of the genre.


Also included are several severely fucked up moments.

Our heroine is a fashion model by the name of Alison Parker (Christina Raines), who has several mental issues stemming back from the time she walked in on her decrepit father having sex with a pair of prostitutes, her father’s brutal reaction to said interruption and her following attempted suicide is just the foundation of her problems. Though she is dating successful lawyer Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) she’s still not ready to tie the knot and wants an apartment of her own, and this leads to her being shown a gorgeous furnished  brownstone apartment in Brooklyn by real estate agent Miss Logan (Ava Gardner).  The place does look amazing, that is if you let slide the fact that there is creepy blind priest Father Halliran (John Carradine) who lives in the attic and does nothing but “stare” out the window all day.  When the agent quotes the rent as being $500 dollars a month Alison tells her, “I’m afraid that’s too much” Miss Logan responds, “$400 is not excessive.” This is our first clue that things may not be exactly on the up and up with this place, and that’s before she runs into her neighbor Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith) who puts the X in eccentric.


“I’m totally not an agent of Hell.”

Alison’s life begins to take a downward spiral as she starts to suffer from crippling headaches, nightmares and insomnia, the latter not being helped by the stomping and banging every night from the person living in the apartment above. This is the first problem with the film's plot as Alison's staying in this apartment becomes more and more unbelievable as time goes on.  Being invited to a cat’s birthday party and dancing the polka with Burgess Meredith is one thing but then you have a bizarre lesbian couple played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo (in her screen debut) who masturbates in front of Alison while her partner is making coffee, this stretched credulity a tad, and when Alison asks them what they do for a living she is told…


“We fondle each other.”

I’m all for healthy displays of affection but I don’t normally masturbate in front of somebody in the first five minutes of meeting them. But the real kicker is that when she complains to Miss Logan about the odd tenants she is told, “My dear Miss Parker aside from the priest, and now of course you, nobody has lived in that building for three years.” And what does dear Miss Parker do after learning that little tidbit? Why she returns to the apartment to try and get a good night’s sleep. It’s at this point I lost what little sympathy I had for our lead character, she doesn’t come across as a plucky young heroine determined to crack the mystery of this building, instead she's more the kind of bloody idiot who if was sucked through the gates of Hell we as an audience would only sigh and say “Well, we totally saw that coming.” It’s at this moment in the film that the largest horror cliché is rolled out as when awoken again by strange noises at night she decides to investigate the noises armed with a knife and flashlight and in her bloody nightie. I will admit as silly and moronic as her motivations are, and you can feel the believably meter practically breaking down under the strain, the scene is still rather effective and downright spooky.  She stalks the dark rooms until eventually being attacked by the living corpse of her recently deceased father.


It looks like she stumbled into Resident Evil: Biohazard.

I will give her some credit here as she stabs the shit out of her walking dead dad, but once she makes it to the street her character kind of checks out of the movie. Christina Raines is a fine actress but she isn’t given much to do here, not helped by the fact that apparently director Michael Winner was a complete shit to her on set, and once she survives this horrific encounter with ghost of her father the movie kind of switches into mystery solving mode with her boyfriend Michael trying to figure out what is going on. So basically her character goes from being rather passive to almost non-existent. The interesting thing here is that once she claims to have murdered her dead father the police get involved, even though there is no body or any evidence of an attack, but Detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) and his partner Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) have a history with Michael Lerman as his first wife committed suicide and his mistress died of an overdose. Gatz is sure that Lerman is dirty and though he failed to nail him for the previous deaths he hopes this stuff with Alison will give him another shot.


I’d love to see a movie starring Wallach and Walken as buddy cops.

Unfortunately this goes nowhere, we get a couple of scenes of them investigating but after they discover that the supposed tenants Alison claims to have seen are all dead murderers, and the body of an private investigator hired by Lerman turns up dead as well, they vanish from the movie. They aren’t even allowed to show up in the epilogue like Lieutenant Kinderman did in The Exorcist. Instead of delving into how law enforcement would deal with supernatural forces the movie turns its focus on Lerman running his own investigation on the building and its inhabitants, and when he learns that the building is owned by the church he hires a safecracker to help him break in and rifle their files. It’s at this point the big reveal happens, apparently over the centuries a secret organization within the Catholic Church has been finding people who have attempted suicide and then they turn them into guardians of the Gates of Hell.  That the Gate of Hell is in Brooklyn makes total sense, Trump Tower not having been built yet, and Alison Parker is to be Father Halliran’s replacement.


Needless to say the residents of Hell aren’t keen on there being a new Sentinel.

When Lerman tries to strangle Father Halliran, to save her from a fate worse than death, he is bludgeoned to death by Monsignor Franchino (Arthur Kennedy) who is the current Church agent behind the Sentinel program. What follows is a nice twist where a now dead Lerman shows up with the legions of Hell because he was in fact responsible for the death of his wife, and I’m betting trying to strangle a blind and in-firmed priest is pretty high on the “Don’t Do List” of how to get into Heaven. Alison shows up, having slipped away from a party she was told to attend while her boyfriend went off investigating, and she is given the skinny on her new role by the now dead and damned Lerman. She is then chased by Chazen, and his disturbing minions of Hell, until she is cornered up in the attic.  It’s there in the attic that Chazen tries to convince her to commit suicide so that she can avoid the torment of being a Sentinel, but just then Monsignor Franchino and Father Halliran show up (was Halliran on a smoke break during all this?) and with brandished cross they force back the cursed and the damned. Then like a mindless zombie Alison takes her place in the Sentinel's chair.


Hooray…I guess?

As horror movies go The Sentinel is not the cream of the crop, nor is it one of the countless dregs of the genre that followed in the wake of The Exorcist, but instead it kind of sits there as a novelty of the “Devil is Here” subset, and it is bolstered up by a cast of veteran actors as well as many up and coming stars; aside from those already mentioned this film includes the likes of José Ferrer, Martin Balsam, Jerry Orbach, William Hickey, Jeff Goldblum and an uncredited cameo by Richard Dreyfus. That’s one helluva cast for a horror movie and if the script had maybe a few more drafts this could have been a classic, but as is there's just too many abandoned threads and unanswered questions for the whole thing to hold together. Now I’m not the kind of person who has to have every “t” crossed and ever “i” dotted but this film trots out tons of characters but then leaves most of them underdeveloped, and it waits till almost the very end of the movie to introduce us to the whole "Sentinel" mythology, which by that point we've long stopped carrying about Alison and her problems.

Then just when you thought the movie was over we get this idiotic stinger ending where the film jumps ahead several years, where the old apartment building has since been demolished and a new one has taken its place. Real estate agent Miss Logan is back at it with her finding of new residents as she gives two newcomers (played by Tom Berenger and future Deep Space Nine star Nana Visitor) a tour of their new home, obviously implying that one of them will become the new Sentinel.


“I’m too old for this shit.”

But this raises one huge question, “What happened to the Gate of Hell between the time the original building was torn down and the construction of the new one?” Did the Vatican ring up the Devil and call a “Time Out” until they had it rebuilt? Was Alison allowed some vacation time during all this or did they just give her a folding chair to sit in among the wreckage? A stinger ending should make you want to find out what happens next not make you wonder what the fuck just happened. That all said The Sentinel is a decent if flawed horror and is well worth checking out...but if Burgess Meredith shows up run!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. “The Finny Foot Affair” (1964) – Review

The popularity of the James Bond films lead to one of the best espionage action shows on television in the form of the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. which had a tone that ran from taught thriller to almost campy fun at times, but midway through season one we got a delightful blend of serious spy action, with a nice dash of fun, as secret agent Napoleon Solo found himself teamed up with a young Kurt Russell.

The episode has a rather grim beginning as we open on a small Scottish island where all of the inhabitants seem to have died rather suddenly. American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Soviet Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) arrive via helicopter, one that is helpfully named branded U.N.C.L.E. on the side, which makes one wonder what kind of secret international agency these guys are running if they label their vehicles so obviously. The two agents step out of their helicopter wearing 60s versions of hazmat suits and start to investigate the scene, a scenario that looks chilling familiar if you’ve seen The Andromeda Strain which hit theaters seven years later, and when the pair begin to investigate the village they soon discover that not one soul is left alive.


“This man is not sawing wood, he’s dead.”

This is pretty bleak stuff for your average 60s television show and it gets even darker, after finding a mysterious crate with a note attached to it that reads, “To Highest Authority Open only under controlled conditions” Solo and Kuryakin load it into the helicopter and then proceed to use incendiary grenades to destroy the village. They don’t even know the cause of the mass deaths but whether it's because of the threat of a possible contagion spreading, or possibly they don’t want word of such an atrocity getting out, they take extreme measures to get rid of all evidence of it ever happening.


Meanwhile in Norway we meet our villains.

Much of the series had Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin facing off against U.N.C.L.E.’s opposing organization THRUSH but as WWII was not so long ago when this show aired we occasionally got leftover Nazis and Japanese villains to fill the roster of threats to the free world. In this episode the chief villain is General Yokura (Leonard Strong) and his villainous femme fatale Tomo (Tura Satana), and as we are introduced to them we learn that General Yokura is very angry that agents of U.N.C.L.E. had beaten him to the site and retrieved what could be an important clue before he could get his own men there. He quickly gives orders for Solo and Kuryakin’s helicopter to be shot down, but he didn’t take into account U.N.C.L.E. equipping their helicopters with air to ground rockets that easily dispatch the bad guys. Our heroes escape but Kuryakin took a round in the arm and so he’s basically out of commission for the bulk of the episode.


He is replaced by a young Snake Plisken.

Back in London offices of U.N.C.L.E. the contents of the crate is revealed to be a Pinnipedia Otaridae, meaning “finny footed” and “having ears” or in layman’s terms a common eared seal. An autopsy reveals that the seal's last meal was a feast of blue-gilled sardines, a very uncommon variety only found off the coast of Norway. The doctor informs them, “That the though it is an unmistakenly young seal he unquestionably died of old age.” Solo noting that all the residents of the island appeared to have been very old when they died he deduces that some foreign chemical must have been ingested by the sardines who in turn were eaten by this seal, along with some of his brethren, and they washed ashore on this lone Scottish island where the villagers fell victim to it as well. Director Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) benches the wounded Kuryakin and sends Solo to the town of Bergen in Norway to find the origins of the “Age Plague” and if it is a weapon of an enemy power he is to put a stop to it.


“Relax, what trouble could a single agent have against unknown forces?”

While at the London airport Solo saves a boy by the name of Christopher Larson (Kurt Russell) from being run over by a luggage cart, and for some reason this causes the young man to decide that Solo would be a perfect husband for his widowed mom. The kid notices Solo’s luggage name tag and states, “That’s kind of funny name, but I guess I could get used to it.” He then proceeds to inform Solo that his mom is a very pretty widow and a good cook, and that he is off to visit his grandparents in Bergen, Norway, “Oh, uh, you aren’t married, are you?” he quickly asks.  After Solo walks off to take care of some business Chris goes to the ticket counter and has his ticket for New York City exchanged for one to Bergen. Now Robert Vaughn is very suave and cool character but this kid goes straight into stalker mode just because of one act of kindness, you got to wonder what his home life was like that he is so eager to have a new dad.


I guess finding a dad in the 60s was tough business.

The business Solo had to take care of was checking in with headquarters and from Kuryakin he learns that their agent in Norway is dead but before he died he managed to smuggle something to them, a strange oversized ring and a cryptic message “Marry the Maiden” but unfortunately for our heroes the agents of General Yokura were listening in the phone call and now plan to intercept Solo and retrieve the ring. An agent tries to deliver the ring to Solo, who is patiently waiting for his plane, but the man is intercepted by an assassin. Christopher witnesses the agent being stabbed, who was at least able to kill his assassin, and Chris is even more shocked when the dying man gives Chris the ring to deliver to Solo.


“Here kid, try not to get murdered.”

The traumatized kid boards the plane but he takes a while to finally tell Solo what he witnessed.  Upon taking possession of the strange ring Solo convinces the kid that what he witnessed was a practical joke that his friend was pulling, and that the blood he saw was just ketchup.  This subterfuge doesn't last long for when they arrive at Bergen a group of enemy agents, led by the beautiful and dangerous Tomo, try grab Solo and retrieve the ring, but our "hero" uses the kid as cover to escape through the luggage area.  The rest of the episode proceeds along these lines with the villains chasing after Solo and the kid, narrowly escaping death at every turn, and even at one point they are captured and are only able to escape when Solo uses a novelty toy that Chris had as a distraction which allows them to shoot their way out, with the poor boy still in tow.


Chris is going to have the best “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay ever.

While being “interrogated” by General Yokura Solo learned that the villains are after a chemical known as J-47 which was developed by a Japanese scientist during the war in a secret laboratory here in Norway. The man who developed this accelerated ageing chemical only made one small batch before he died, having succumbed to “Romantic fantasies of guilt” he overdosed himself on the stuff.  General Yokura wants that last batch of the formula and he believes Solo knows where it is. Of course Solo doesn’t have a clue where the hidden supply is but when he and Chris arrive in Stromberg he notices a statue called “Maiden of Norway” and he deduces that putting the oversized ring on the statue’s ring finger is what the clue was alluding to.


It’s like a Nancy Drew mystery only with a pretty high body count.

Peering through the ring, once placed on the finger of the statue, Solo sees that it points towards a cave up on a coastal cliff side. When Chris climbs up on the statue to see for himself Solo spots a tracking device on the back of the kid’s belt, obviously planted by General Yokura so he could follow them to the lost chemical, solo attaches the tracking device to the collar of a local dog and then yells “Fetch!” and tosses a stick into the water. The dog dives in after it and Solo and Chris beat it to the hills to find the last remains of J-47, with the hopes that Yokura and company will be busy following the dog. It was a great plan but unfortunately the dog was also a great tracker and it manages to follow the pair to the cave.


Man’s best friend my ass.

General Yokura, Tomo, and a couple of goons arrive at the cave and Solo, Chris and the dog are soon trapped inside. What Yokura doesn’t know is that not only did Solo find the hidden chamber where the last metal drum holding J-47 was placed but he discovered that over the years the metal drum had rusted through and in time all of the chemical had all poured out of a hole and made its way down to the ocean below.  There is no more J-47 left, it’s either dried up or washed out to sea where the sardines ended up eating the stuff. . Solo tries to explain this to Yokura, who of course doesn’t believe him, and we are then treated to a nice little gun battle. Solo kills one of the men while Chis knocks another goon unconscious, and when the man comes to Solo forces him to call out to Yokura to say that Solo is dead. The happy general enters the cave only to find himself facing the very not dead Man from U.N.C.L.E.


Do not screw with Napoleon Solo.

After shooting the General Yokura our hero turns to Tomo and asks, “What about you? I thought it was the old Japanese custom for the servant to follow the master by hari-kari.” She glibly responds, “You’ve got the wrong century, Jack.” I must say that Robert Vaughn makes a pretty badass spy and is certainly no knock-off James Bond, and the first season of the show was probably more in keeping with the tone of Ian Fleming’s books rather than the later Bond movies. The Finny Foot Affair is a damn fine episode and is absolutely a great kid’s adventure story with Kurt Russell playing the part that every red blooded American boy would dream to have. Who wouldn’t want to be a Junior James Bond?


And meet exotic femme fatales.

The episode has a sweet epilogue where Solo and Christopher arrive at the New York City airport and Napoleon is shocked to find out that Chris no longer finds him to be proper dad material, “I like you an awful lot, Mr. Solo, but I still got to take care of mother first. Well she needs somebody to be around a lot, you know to kiss and stuff. Well, being a spy and all you probably wouldn’t be able to spend much time at home. Well that would make my mother awful unhappy.” So Chris decides he needs to shop around a little more for a father.


It’s actually a really sweet moment.

Of course it has to end on a nice comic moment with Solo spoting Mrs. Larson who turns out to be a beautiful blonde, and Waverly drags Solo away before the man can chase after the pair. As televised adventure shows go The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the best and it still holds up remarkably, and seeing a young Kurt Russell tussling with a gang of villains is just the cherry on the top of this rather excellent episode.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Coherence (2013) – Review

Never trust a comet, it's as simple as that, if they aren’t blinding people ala Day of the Triffids they are turning the population into red dust or mutants vis-à-vis Night of the Comet but in James Ward Byrkit's directorial debut the nature and effects of the comet are of a more subtle and insidious nature. Coherence is a clever independent film that dabbles in metaphysical ideas and quantum mechanics, but as the cast of characters are just your average suburbanites we see such themes through the eyes of horror and paranoia.

Written and directed by James Ward Byrkit Coherence is more of an "improv theatre experience" than it is an intricately plotted science fiction tale as the actors received no script, they’d get notes each night based on each of their characters, and it would be up to Byrkit to guide the ensemble based on the treatment he had developed. Shot in continuity over five nights at Byrkit’s home the story of Coherence deals with eight people coming together for a dinner party the night of a mysterious comet passing and the effects of said passing. The group of actors Byrkit assembled for his film are mostly known for roles on various television shows, Nicholas Brendon being the most recognizable, but it’s the lack of big name stars which gives the movie that air of reality and the added science fiction elements become easier to digest as well as a making them a little more grounded.

Trivia Note: In this film Nicholas Brendon plays an actor who starred on the television show Roswell when of course he starred as Xander Harris on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The crux of the story is that a dinner party is interrupted by a power failure during the comet's passing, the inability to use their cellphones or the internet adding trouble to the situation, but then a house two blocks away is seen to be the only place with lights still on, so two of the guests decide to investigate. It’s at this point one can see how Byrkit was inspired by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone as the arguing and fighting that follows is very reminiscent of the episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and as the story of Coherence unfolds we get a glimpse of who the real monsters are.

"Who goes there?" is a major theme here.

The science fiction hook here is that it’s discovered that the house down the street is populated by the same eight dinner guests we'eve already met and that somehow the comet’s passing has fractured reality and whenever someone heads down the street they pass through a “Dark Zone” and cross over into one of many alternate realities.  The key issue that plagues our “heroes” is in trying to figure out if the people in the room with you are from "your" reality or if in fact you have been lost from your world. This of course leads to more infighting and rampant paranoia as people run in and out of the house, for one insane reason or another, and then wondering if those coming back are the same ones who left. We get cool moments such as one person writing a note to pin on the door of the “other” house only to then hear a noise outside and discover that very same note already pinned on their door.  At one point they recover cryptic box from the “other” house that is full of photographs of the guests but more disturbing than the idea that they may have a stalker is that the handwriting on back of the photos matches that of a guest named Emily (Emily Baldoni) who is the character that slowly transforms into the film’s chief protagonist.

"Trust me, I'm not an evil doppelganger."

This is a smart film and its improv nature only works because it follows a very strong treatment written by Byrkit, one that tackles some pretty heavy metaphysical shenanigans, but it is not without flaws as some of the character reactions are less than believable; case in point Nicholas Brendon's character wanting to murder the other versions of themselves based on almost no evidence that these "others" are a threat. This leap to violent paranoia happens a little too fast and murder seems a bit too harsh of a way to solve a mystery. This is the kind of thing that can be expected when you have eight actors working without a script so that can be forgiven, but as a whole the cast is quite excellent and when the film reaches its conclusion we are treated to a philosophical quandary that has the viewer wondering “What would I have done in that situation?” which is more than you get out of your average science fiction movie these days. I highly recommend this one.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Latitude Zero (1969) – Review

Toho Studios may mostly be known for their Godzilla and other kaiju movies but in the late 60s they created a little gem called Latitude Zero where an altruistic Nemo type did battle with his nefarious evil counterpoint and his monstrous creations.  Now to capture some of that good ole American box office Toho wasn’t shy about importing American actors, thus this film sports a cast that includes the likes of Richard Jaeckel, Cesar Romero and Joseph Cotten, and in case you were wondering it was as awesome as it sounds.

This movie doesn’t so much as have a plot as it does a series of events that unfold during its 105 minute running time, and would have probably worked well as a pilot for a fantastic television, but as plots were never the strong suit of Toho Studios its lack of such is something one kind of comes to expect. Latitude Zero opens with narration explaining to the viewer that a Japanese research vessel has come to the equator to investigate something called The Cromwell Current, and where a bathysphere containing Dr. Ken Tashiro (Akira Takarada) physicist and oceanographer, Dr. Jules Masson (Masumi Okada) a French geologist, and Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel) a photographer from Transglobe News is lowered into the depths.


“I hope we run into some hot mermaids.”

Things go bad rather quickly when a seismic eruption rips the bathysphere from its mooring cable and tosses it across the seabed, but lucky for our heroes the advanced submarine Alpha, commanded by Captain Craig Mackenzie (Joseph Cotten), just so happened to be nearby to monitor the seismic activity and our trio is rescued. Jules and Perry’s injuries are quickly healed by the super science aboard the Alpha but Ken’s injuries are too severe for the onboard medical equipment and so the Alpha is forced to abandon its research mission and return to its base.


Joseph Cotten certainly rocks that green scarf.

Unfortunately it’s not all that peaceful under the sea thanks to the villainous Dr. Malic (Cesar Romero) who works out of his evil lair on the secret island of Blood Rock. We learn that Malic and Mackenzie were old schoolmates back in the day but where Mackenzie’s career choices led to the creation of an undersea world in the hopes of aiding mankind Malic on the other hand decided to go the super villain world conquering route. A more interesting note is that Mackenzie and Malic are both over two hundred years old and the submarine Alpha was apparently launched back in 1805. How or why this is the case is never really explained but as later we see that Mackenzie has a pool of water that a three minute dunking in grants a person twenty-four hours of immortality I’m going to assume “Super Science” is the reason. Their difference in world views has made Malik hell-bent on destroying his old school chum.


“The bastard also refused to sign my yearbook.”

While heading for Mackenzie’s undersea kingdom they are attacked by the Black Shark, a submarine captained by Malik’s chief minion Captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki). The Black Shark is faster and better armed than the Alpha but Mackenzie’s clever maneuvering, as well as some new modification to his sub, allows our heroes to escape and safely dock inside underwater paradise known as Latitude Zero. Now there have been many underwater cities depicted in various movies and televisions shows up to this point in time but this one is more of a bloody underwater country than it is a mere city. It has research buildings, hospitals, community centers, farms and districts with varying architecture depending on the particular residents tastes and nationality.


Think of it as a giant undersea version of Disney's Epcot Center.

Professional cynic Lawton can’t believe Mackenzie when he is told no one is in charge of Latitude Zero but according to Mackenzie when greed is no longer a factor there is no need have power over one’s neighbors or become Top Dog, and as the community mainly consists of scientists, that he secretly invited to Latitude Zero over the years, it is an interesting theory. Many of the residents walk around in gold lame outfits, as this is a science fiction movie that’s kind of expected, but as everyone here is immortal some tend to walk around in the clothing of the time period they came from.

We learn that over the centuries Mackenzie has been sending agents abroad to collect like-minded individuals to take part in his dream, and they also secretly sneak some of their scientific achievements to the topside world, but of course Malik is the fly in the ointment and the main plot of this movie is him trying to kidnapped world renowned scientist Dr. Okada (Tetsu Nakamura) who has come up with an inoculation for radiation. The Black Shark intercepts the ocean liner that was carrying Dr. Okado and his daughter Tsuruko (Mari Nakayama), before they could rendezvous with agents from Latitude Zero, and the two are brought back to Blood Rock. Not only does Malik hope to get the secrets from Okado but he also wants to lure Mackenzie into a trap with the captured scientist as bait.


Dr. Okado and daughtered menaced by Malik’s monstrous minions.

Will our heroes team-up with Captain Mackenzie to rescue Professor Okado and his daughter? Will Ken Tashiro fall in love with the beautiful Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes) who looked to have fallen in love with him while he was still unconscious from his injuries? What of Lucretia (Patricia Medina) Malik’s lover and confidante, will her jealousy of Kroiga’s affections for Malik doom them all? Of course yes is the answer to all of those questions but it’s the last one that leads to the film’s most interesting moment. After the Black Shark failed to destroy the Alpha Malik promised Lucretia that he’d do away with Kroiga but instead of the standard "Dump henchperson into a piranha pool" plan he instead has her brain transplanted into the body of lion that he then grafts condor wings onto, and then sicks her on Mackenzie and friends.


That’s some next level mad scientist shit right there.

There may just be one slight flaw with that plan; if you’ve put the brain of someone you just betrayed inside the body of a giant killing machine how does one expect this monster to react? Oh, did I forget to mention he also used a ray that increased the monster three sizes? So while our gold lame wearing heroes traipse across Blood Rock, fighting off giant rats and bat monsters, the Kroiga-Griffin just watches, not giving two shits what our heroes do. Malik is forced to flee aboard the Black Shark, stupid Griffin not doing her job, but Malik’s not out of the fight yet. Mackenzie and company managed to make it back to the Alpha but Malik was waiting for them, and even though the Alpha’s newest modification allows it to fly it doesn’t look like it can escape the deadly laser cannon aboard the Black Shark…or that would have been the case if the Kroiga-Griffin didn’t attack the Black Shark causing its laser to misfire which then resulted in both it and the island exploding.


Who could have seen this coming? Oh yeah, everyone.

Latitude Zero is an immensely goofy science fiction movie, but it is incredibly fun and there is just so much to enjoy with this thing; Cesar Romero hamming it up wonderfully as he did on the Adam West Batman series, Richard Jaeckel is no stranger to Japanese production as he starred in the sci-fi monster flick The Green Slime, he does a good turn as the jaded hero, and Joseph Cotton…well he kind of looks tired and was probably doing this film so he could buy a nice new boat or something. This isn’t the kind of movie that would ever win a Best Foreign Film award but if you got some youngster in your family this could be a movie that may turn them onto more Toho films.  My two little nieces just love Toho’s monsters and the suitmation in this film is really good so it really has something for everyone of all ages. The film was directed by the great Ishirô Honda and has a fantastic score by the legendary composer Akira Ifukube, so if you are up for a fun afternoon matinee viewing of submarines, monsters and campy acting you couldn’t pick a better movie.

Note: I like to imagine that this movie is a prequel to the Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer Christmas Special and that Kroiga survived the destruction of Blood Rock and is now ruling the Island of Misfit Toys.