STOCKING COAL: THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978)

With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by Rian Johnson), it appears that Saint Nicholas has appeased a considerable sector of movie goers in 2017, except for the formula-craving fanatics who were preferring something akin to the pedestrian Rogue One. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in declining to subscribe to expectations of franchise assembly line lovers, has refreshingly provoked butthurt nostalgists, and revealed what a lot of people already knew: the wrongheadedness of fandom, seen at its silliest and most cult-like in petitions to remove the film from “the canon” and Twitter threats cast at the director.

Of course, the jolly old elf has delivered us a few genuine clunkers over the last seventeen hundred years, among the most notorious being the 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” (directed by Steve Binder, best known for the 1968 ‘Elvis Comeback Special”). It’s a made-for-television abomination that George Lucas and company have desperately tried to keep buried, but like bed bugs at night—the damn thing just wouldn’t go away. It’s a good thing too; ’tis the perfect present for infantile palettes. Since its release, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” keeps cropping up in bootleg copies. The late Carrie Fisher even attempted to deny its existence and dismissed it as an urban legend, which only fanned the flames of demand. Despite her protestations, there she is, along with many of the original cast.

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BLADE RUNNER (1982) & BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

When Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 was released this Fall, many were surprised that it did not meet box office expectations. Nor did it’s father, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Having seen the original on its opening weekend, I’m among those who witnessed its initial weak box office evolve into a cult phenomena.  John Carpenter’s The Thing, released the same year as Blade Runner, also took off slow amidst lukewarm reviews, yet both became examples of visionary science fiction, joining a small cluster of classic films from the last half century that includes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Alien (1979), E.T. (1982), Videodrome (1983), Back to the Future (1985), The Fly (1986),  A.I.(2001), Minority Report (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mine (2004), Children of Men (2006), and Prometheus (2012) (and of course a few others). Like  Steven Spielberg’s aforementioned Close Encounters, competing edits of Scott’s Blade Runner (my advice: go with “The Final Cut”) didn’t hinder its eventual cult status.

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?,” the iconographic texture of Blade Runner was apparent mere moments into its release, despite the awkwardness of the silly studio-mandated Phillip Marlowe narration (supplied by star Harrison Ford as Deckard) and a happy ending that was woefully unconvincing for a film that practically defined dystopian noir. Thankfully, Scott was able to restore the film and added to it considerable by omitting those executive errors (while excising five minutes).

With his “Final Cut,” Scott cemented Blade Runner as his second (and greatest) of three unquestionable science fiction classics (the first being Alien and third being its belated prequel Prometheus—which of course will provoke futile debate). The cast is uniformly excellent. Despite its initial weak box office performance, Blade Runner made a brief star of antagonist Rutger Hauer, whose characterization of the replicant Roy is far more haunting and aptly hammy than its source material. The same could be said for Sean Young; she’s magnetic as Rachel, in her chic 2019  Joan Crawford shoulder pads and Louise Brooks-inspired bob, diaphanously exhaling a smoky-treat. Darryl Hannah as Pris (with lethal thighs), Brion James as Leon, and the eternally underrated Joanna Cassidy as the snake-wielding Zhora make a trio of memorable replicant villains, more poignantly human than most of the humans. Apart from Ford’s Deckard, who—as has been noted and debated endlessly—is possibly a replicant himself, the human exceptions are Joe Turkell as doomed Dr. Tyrell and William Sanderson as the pathos-ridden toymaker Sebastien. Both remain etched in the memory.

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1979 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE RETURN OF THE BIONIC BOY

The final year of exploitation cinema’s greatest decade begins with Alien, the film that made the careers of director Ridley Scott and star Sigourney Weaver. Ian Holm stands out in a top-notch ensemble, which includes the late John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright. Seven years later, James Cameron took a very different route with the belated, high octane sequel, which, unlike its predecessor, was an immediate hit. Apart from the performances of Weaver and Bill Paxton, however, Cameron’s sequel doesn’t stand up, lacking the tension, freshness, and sense of wonder of Scott’s original, which took its time earning its cult status.

Likewise, The Brood cemented David Cronenberg’s reputation as a startlingly original and provocative filmmaker. Status quo critics, such as Roger Ebert, were mightily offended. Thank God.

Staying consistent, Ebert missed the boat again with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. It spawned a lot of imitations, including Coscarelli’s inferior sequels, which have curiously imitated the imitators.

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre is a homage to F.W. Murnaru’s original. Although some will undoubtedly scream blasphemy, Herzog’s effort, starring Klaus Kinski  in the role made famous by Max Schreck, is the equal of the 1922 classic.

Dracula (directed by John Balham) was an unnecessary big budget remake with  a feathered-hair Count (Frank Langella). Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance co-starred.

With the success of Carrie, it was inevitable that Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, would be adapted too. Surprisingly, it was made into a mini-series. Even more surprisingly, it’s directed by Tobe Hooper, although like Poltergeist, it feels more like the work of its producers. David Soul, riding high on his “Starsky and Hutch” popularity, stars, but James Mason, as usual, steals the show.

Cleopatra Wong (Marrie Lee) showed up in 1979 for a couple of ass-whuppin features: first in Bobby A. Suarez’ The Devil’s Three (AKA Mean Business). As usual with Suarez, oddity is in his DNA. In order to save the day, Cleopatra has to dine with the devil (Johnny Wilson), who’s not literally the devil—he’s just a gang lord who goes by that name. Along the way she picks up a flaming bunny in drag (Chito Guerrero) and a four hundred pound psychic (Florence Carvajel) as sidekicks. It’s low budget, badly dubbed, G-rated (well, perhaps PG-rated) lunacy at its most inspired. It probably played at every drive-in theater in the country, for which it was tailor-made.

The Return of the Bionic Boy features a returning Wong, teaming up with the Bionic Boy (Johnson Yap) who is not only bionic, but also an eight-year-old Tae Kwon Do master. Suarez and company jump on the bionic bandwagon, pitting our heroes against Nazis, laser thingamajigs, the campiest gay villain in all of cinema history, and a fire-breathing pseudo-Godzilla as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Being expired cheese, this comes with a manager’s special discount, including a fee pack of antacids for afterwards. Enjoy.

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ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

Forty years after his superb 1977 début with The Duelists,  Ridley Scott has proven, more often than not, to be an engaging filmmaker. At nearly 80 years of age, he remains a provocative dinosaur from the school of ambitious science fiction, a genre he excels in, but has only worked in sporadically. Along with the late Stanley Kubrick, Scott does it better than anyone—arguably, even better than Kubrick. It’s often forgotten today, but upon its première, Alien (1979) was criticized by some as a jazzed-up variation of the gorilla in a haunted house. Those trappings were deceptive. If Alien were only that, it would hardly have come to be considered a science fiction/horror yardstick. The same could be said for 1982’s Blade Runner, which was initially a critical and box office flop, but became a cult phenomenon. When Scott belatedly returned to the Alien franchise, he produced the sublime and startling Prometheus. It proved to have too many unresolved mysteries, was too aesthetic, too peculiar, too cerebral, and too resourceful to be the fix that the formula craving audience desired. With Alien: Covenant, he delivers a hybrid: a sequel of sorts to Prometheus, and a vague segue into Alien. It’s a summer blockbuster that, coming from Scott, is something more. As can already be seen by its modest American opening and outraged reactions spewed by those who prefer their sci-fi unchallenging, Covenant is not going to please face-hugger followers. And unless it does well overseas, the likelihood of another Scott-helmed Alien seems a stretch. Although that is almost predictable, it’s also unfortunate.

Paradoxically, Covenant contains some of Scott’s most assured filmmaking along with his roughest. Beautifully filmed, filled to the brim with surprises, drawn out, disheveled in sections, and sporting what, on the surface, appear to be derivative fan-appeasing choices, it, along with the 1979 original and Prometheus, make up Scott’s standout Alien trilogy. These are far superior to any of the sequels made by others, including the action-oriented Alien-Rambo crowd-pleaser from James Cameron. Although Aliens is a memorably punchy film with etched-in-stone performances by Sigourney Weaver, the shiny beast (courtesy H.R. Geiger), and Bill Paxton, Cameron unwittingly gifted it to a fanbase who then pedestaled it. The eventual consequences of that dumbing-down was the trailer park science fiction franchise, Alien vs. Predator.

The consensus seems to be that Covenant is better than Prometheus but falls short of the original Alien. Undeniably, that spook house gorilla has its distinctive, addictive history, having been inspired by It, The Terror from Beyond Space, Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, and John Carpenter’s Dark Star. As is well known, Scott upped the ante of anxiety by not allowing the cast to read the entire Alien script ahead of time. That tension spilled over, making a celluloid model so formidable that it merely inspired imitations.

With Prometheus, Scott escaped the doldrums of vapid ritual and crafted a film so original, so divisive, it became almost a standalone that no one would dare emulate. Although the rampaging rapist xenomorph was nowhere to be seen, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw still manages to be impregnated with something, making for a nail-biting race against birth. Behind it all is Michael Fassbender’s bewitchingly enigmatic David, the most compelling cinematic android since Rutger Hauer’s Roy in Blade Runner and Jude Law’s “Gigolo Joe” in A.I.. Finally, Alien was exciting and fresh again.

The absence of Rapace is keenly felt in Covenant, but Fassbender’s David returns—twofold—and it’s his relationship with himself that propels Covenant and cements Scott as a late-in-life virtuoso filmmaker. He’s that rarity of rarities: an artist that started strong and, far from becoming derivative, has revisited and reflected on his body of work and ongoing themes, managing to say something epic about his oeuvre and himself. Comparatively, late in their careers, filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Chaplin, Disney, and even Picasso were producing what amounted to rudimentary, even fatigued sketches of previous wonders. The Scott of Covenant is like John Coltrane at Newport in the Sixties, expansively recomposing “My Favorite Things” into something so epic that it eradicates its former incarnations into faint skeletons. A small minority have accused Scott of compromise here, but that’s as deceptive as the criticisms thirty-eight years prior.

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1967 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: CORRUPTION, QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, AND THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS

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We start our 1967 genre survey with a considerable amount of barrel-bottom scraping with two of Herschell Gordon Lewis‘ most execrable efforts: The Gruesome Twosome and Something Weird. He also made the somewhat better A Taste of Blood the same yearWith a bigger budget and longer running time (118 minutes), Lewis referred to Blood as his “Gone With The Wind” masterpiece.  Actually, it’s modeled more after Roger Corman than Victor Fleming. Lacking the excess of Lewis’ previous films and featuring a “classic” monster in Dracula, it’s mostly seen as a noble misfire by Lewis’ cult.

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Elsewhere in 1967, Larry Buchanan, a director on par with the likes of Lewis, William Beaudine, Ed Wood, or Phil Tucker, produced a pair of jaw-dropping bombs in Mars Needs Women and Creature of Destruction. Jean Yarbrough, who had previously helmed such masterpieces as The Devil Bat (1940), directed Basil Rathbone, Joi Lansing, John Carradine and Lon Chaney, Jr. in Hillbillies in a Haunted House. Rathbone died shortly after filming and was spared embarrassment from a film so wretched that it’s virtually unwatchable. His surviving co-stars and director weren’t as fortunate. Nazis-on-ice figure prominently in Herbert Leader’s The Frozen Dead, which at least has some unintentional humor going for it. Joan Crawford went Beserk for director Jim O’Connell. The film’s a paltry effort, but Joan is a humdinger channeling her inner Mommie Dearest.

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A blind Boris Karloff got whupped by Viveca Lindfors in Cauldron Of Blood, but the on-his-last-leg genre icon fared considerably better in Michael Reeves’ excellent cult classic, The Sorcerers. Harald Reini did Christopher Lee few favors when directing the actor for The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism. John Gilling likewise missed the mark in Hammer’s The Mummy’s Shroud. Away from Hammer Studios, Terence Fisher was out of his element in his final sci-fi opus[1] , Island of the Burning Damned, starring Lee and Peter Cushing. By his own admission, Fisher had no enthusiasm for science fiction and went back to his Hammer Horror niche later in 1967 with Frankenstein Created Woman.

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Fisher favorite Peter Cushing made a sharp departure from his typical acerbic-but-classy screen persona by dipping into pure sleaze for Corruption (directed by Robert Hartford-Davis). Although most sources give the release date as 1968, it’s also listed as a 1967 production. Most likely it’s the later date, but since we have that year already filled up, we’ll cheat a tad in placing it here. A sordid hybrid of The Corpse Vanishes (1942) and Eyes Without A Face (1960), Corruption can be summed up by the Blu-ray cover art image of a middle-aged Cushing taking a knife to the throat of a scantily clad buxom blonde. He plays surgeon Sir John Rowan, engaged to fashion model Lynn Nolan (Sue Lloyd). An accident (caused by Rowan) leaves Lynn disfigured. After conventional skin-grafting plastic surgery fails, Sir John resorts to slightly unorthodox methods to restore her back to potential trophy wife status, which involves medical and Egyptian mumbo jumbo along with removing the pituitary gland of a corpse. The treatment works, but only temporarily. Soon, Lynn is back to being an ugly duckling. So what does Sir John have up his sleeve? Fresher specimens, which can only be supplied via a murder spree. This being 60s swinging London, there is a ready supply of hot female victims with raging pituitaries.

PETER CUSHING, SUE LLOYD, ANTHONY BOOTH KATE OMARA DAVE LODGE VALERIE VAN OST 'CORRUPTION' 1968 Dir ROBERT HARTFORD DAVIS PETERCUSHING.ORG.UK
PETER CUSHING, SUE LLOYD, ANTHONY BOOTH KATE OMARA DAVE LODGE VALERIE VAN OST ‘CORRUPTION’ 1968 Dir ROBERT HARTFORD DAVIS PETERCUSHING.ORG.UK

Lloyd steps into the role that Luana Walters filled in The Corpse Vanishes and Cushing replaces Lugosi. It goes without saying that the Hammer thespian’s work far surpasses the Hungarian vampire’s. That might not be much of a compliment, since Lugosi was, with few exceptions, one of the horror genre’s worst actors. Cushing himself seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the film, having described it as excessively sick. His belated embarrassment aside, Cushing is superb in this atypical role. While a natural for the character’s reserved side, among the flower-power generation Cushing is the proverbial fish-out of water, which benefits the characterization. The actor excels when transforming into a batshit looney toon, even wiping the blood of one victim on her exposed breast, before one of the most outlandish finales ever committed to celluloid. Aside from Cushing, Kate O’Mara, as the sister-in-law-to-be, gives a serviceable performance, but Lloyd fails to convince in her underwritten part. Working against flat direction, an out-of-place jazz score and an unenthusiastic cast, it’s entirely Cushing’s film. It’s no Eyes Without a Face, but after being unreleased for years, Grindhouse Pictures gives it the Criterionesque treatment it deserves, with the extreme closeups of a sweaty, bug-eyed Cushing doing the dirty, popping in a glorious 60s wash. Both the (slightly longer and more risqué) international and American versions are included, along with alternate scenes, interviews, the shooting script, audio commentary, and the misogynistic trailer, which declares: “This is not a woman’s picture. No woman will go home alone after seeing Corruption. Therefore, no woman will be admitted alone to see this super shocker.”

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DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA

mario-bava

An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of Mario Bava. He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Quentin Tarantino (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.

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It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).

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Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on Georges Franjou’s Eyes Without A Face. Although crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost(1963), both with Barbara Steele. Freda walked out mid-production (for unclear reasons), leaving cinematographer Bava to finish the directorial duties for the remaining shooting schedule. Reportedly, the film was heavily censored by Italian “moralists,” which resulted in scant showings and rendered it a financial loss. Image Entertainment released a superlative DVD of I Vampiri, but it’s currently out of print.

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Freda and Bava re-teamed as co-directors for 1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, which lays claim to being one of the earliest Italian science fiction films (Bava had served as a cinematographer for the very first Italian sci-fi, The Day The Sky Exploded, in 1958 and, according to some sources, co-directed it as well).

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Apparently inspired by The Blob(1958), Caltiki far surpasses its source material (which isn’t hard to do). Set in Mexico City, the opening narration gives a brief synopsis of the ancient Mayan civilization, the mystery of its demise, and warns of an evil Mayan deity, known as Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. The opening is unabashed Bava: an archeologist runs, terrified, through an eerily lit jungle as a volcano erupts in the distance. He makes it to his campsite and leads the group back to the Mayan ruins he had stumbled upon. Finding a long-lost temple, the archeologists succumb to avarice, which leads to the unearthing of Caltiki; a Blob of a god who melts away skin and mental faculties. The FX are grisly for the time period, but shock value always dates, and it’s the Bava touches (excellent matte work and cinematography) that still seem fresh. Although well-paced, the writing is a pastiche filled with cardboard characters.

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Bava co-directed 1959 The Giant of Marathon with Jacques Tourneur (!), which would be a typical Steve Reeves sword and sandal opus, were it not for Bava’s camera work on some of the elaborate (and bloody) battle scenes (including an underwater confrontation). Of course, it has lots of cleavage—from both sexes. It’s hokey as hell, and while it hardly represents the directing craftsmanship of Tourneur, it does highlight Bava’s superb camera work.

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With the box office success of Marathon, Bava was finally given his own film to direct solo, and the result was Black Sunday. This horror classic remains Bava’s most famous film and is covered here in greater detail.

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UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1963) AND CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1966)

 

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Unearthly Stranger (1963, directed by John Krish) often showed up on late night television from the late 60s through the 70s. Naturally, there is always a risk in revisiting a movie first seen during adolescence. Chances are that it may not hold up—and more often than not, that is the case. Or, one my find value in it, but for very different reasons.

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Subdued, with a distinctly British flavor, The Unearthly Stranger has qualities similar to The Quatermass Experiment (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), I Married a Monster from Outer Space(1958), “The Twilight Zone,” and the “Outer Limits.” Shot on a low budget, this Independent Artists production does not rely on special effects, which would have inevitably dated by now anyway. Although short on action and surprises, its virtues are atmosphere, dialogue, and solid performances.

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Unearthly Stranger opens with Dr. Mark Davidson ( John Neville, best known for The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen ) running through an empty city at night before reaching his apartment. Finding a tape recorder, he leaves a message: “In a little while I expect to be killed by something you and I know is here,” which segues into an extended flashback.

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Shortly after the mysterious murder of fellow researcher Dr. Munro (Warren Mitchell), Davidson and Professor Lancaster (Phillip Stone) resume work on their government funded project, one which enables people to telepathically travel to other planets and potentially contact alien life. In addition to investigating Munro’s death, project supervisor Major Clark (Patrick Newell) has taken an abnormal interest in Davidson’s new Swiss wife, Julie (Gabriella Licudi). Lancaster, a close friend of Davidson’s, is also curious and surprised that he has not been introduced to the new bride.

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THE PRISONER (1967-1968) EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

The British series “The Prisoner” (1967-1968), starring and co-created by Patrick McGoohan, is the model for cult television. It is an indirect sequel to a previous series, “Secret Agent” (AKA “Danger Man,” 1960-1962), which also starred McGoohan. By general consensus, “The Prisoner” ranks as one of the best, if not the best, example of science fiction as a television genre. The consensus, for once, is probably accurate, because “The Prisoner” is far more than science fiction, dispensing with genre expectations. We could also describe it as being psychological, surreal, allegorical, existential, countercultural, satirical, Kafkaesque, psychedelic, nightmarish, absurdist, comic bookish, supernatural, born from the spy genre … Continue reading THE PRISONER (1967-1968) EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN STARRING GEORGE REEVES: SEASON 1 EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVESADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

Today, few seem to pay mind to the artists, writers or creators of comic book characters. When as Indiana adolescents, Denny Stephens and I walked into Denny White’s comic book shop, we immediately knew -without looking at the credits, if a book was penciled by Jack Kirby, Frank Robbins, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Neal Adams, Steve Ditko,  Mike Ploog, Curt Swan or Wayne Boring. In their place is a bland homogeneity permeating both the world of comics and the shops which market them. One book looks the same as the next, blending without seams, shorn of rough edges, entry points, atmosphere, originality, color, or inherent personality.One could say the same regarding the recent spat of films based on DC characters (not so with their television work, including animation where they rule their Marvel rivals. On the big screen, Marvel does it better).  While the 50s Television Superman was nowhere near as imaginative as stories being cranked out by Otto Binder in Superman Magazines, ( TV didn’t have the budget or, still in its infancy, the know how) the first season of The Adventures Of Superman has reached something of a silver age within itself.

George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson, John Hamilton, Robert Shane, Tommy Carr and Lee Sholem each put an individual stamp on the characters and episodes; a personalized milieu and individuality that today is alien to an audience whose primary concern towards character tends toward biblical fidelity and adulation.

Phyllis Coates TV's first Lois Lane

actor Jack LarsonJohn Hamilton aka Perry WhiteRobert Shayne aka Inspector Henderson

For many, George Reeves remains the quintessential portrayal of Clark Kent and his alter ego, Superman. It’s not out of nostalgia or because he was the first actor to portray the pulp character. In fact, he wasn’t the first at all. That honor belongs to Kirk Alyn who starred in the serials: Superman (1948) and Atom Man VS. Superman (1950). Alyn, who interpreted Kent as a kind of bumbling Jimmy Stewart character, simply doesn’t inspire. That lack of inspiration isn’t just limited to the serial’s quality. Certainly, many of the later television and big screen incarnations were equally poor in writing and execution. Rather, it’s due to Alyn’s Kent, which set the blueprint for the later Christopher Reeve performance: Kent really isn’t Kent.He’s Superman and the newspaper paper reporter is just a caricatured facade.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

It’s hardly a secret that George Reeves had no love for playing a role that later actors would kill for. For Reeves, this was scraping the bottom of the barrel. Not only was he playing a little boy’s pulp comic book character who wore underwear outside of his pants, but he had been reduced to television. Like many actors of his time, including Alyn who had refused to repeat the role for TV, Reeves was suspicious of the new medium. It was called small screen for a reason, lacking the glamour of the big screen.

George Reeves as Tv's first SupermanClark Kent Nash-Healey

Earlier, Reeves’ career had been on a roll, having played the Tarleton twins in Gone With The Wind (1939) and a critically acclaimed starring role in So Proudly We Hail (1942) before being drafted into service for WWII.

Gone With The Wind George Reeves So Proudly We Hail George Reeves So Proudly We Hail George Reeves Claudette Colbert

So Proudly We Hail George Reeves Claudette Colbert

From Here To Eternity George Reeves Burt Lancaster

After returning from the Air Force, Reeves discovered he had been forgotten by studios. Adding to that woe was the unexpected death of the producer who had aided Reeves career. Still, known for his ability to quickly memorize dialogue, along with a rugged physique, Reeves landed roles in low-budget serials and features, which were rushed productions, and live television. Although he was successful on the small screen, the quality of scripts he was offered seemed to confirm his trepidations.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

In 1951, Studio executives and producers unanimously chose George Reeves for the starring role in Superman and The Mole Men, which was to be followed by one season of a television series. Producers saw something of the quintessential Superman/Kent in Reeves that neither the actor himself, nor post-Christopher Reeve audiences could see. Producers envisioned Reeves as embodying Kent/Superman as a barrel-chested father figure (he is closest to Wayne Boring’s Superman). As Whoopi Goldberg astutely observed in a documentary about the actor, “Reeves’ disappointment in not becoming the next Gary Cooper inspired him to put his all into Kent.” Reeves refused to play Kent as a slapstick idiot. His Superman is merely an extension, or an afterthought of Clark Kent. As two villains observed in one of the series’ episodes,”it’s not Superman we need to worry about, but Kent.” George Reeves’ aggressive Clark Kent was far more of a threat with type writer than Superman merely banging two heads together.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN GEORGE REEVES

This portrayal of Kent is matched by the writing of the first season. It’s not as well-matched in seasons 2-6 with Noel Neil’s Lois Lane and John Hamilton’s Perry White making occasional snide comments about Kent’s “being afraid of bullets or running to hide  from danger,”which we never see as Reeves’ portrayal of a toughened, fearless reporter remains consistent throughout the series run.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES, PHYLLIS COATES

Still, despite his enthusiasm for playing Kent, Reeves was told, and hoped, that the series would be shelved and forgotten. He seemed to get his wish when producers sat on that first season for two years, in an attempt to find a sponsor. That delay turned out to be a blessing for sponsors.

THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN

By the time The Adventures of Superman beamed into 1953 living rooms, Dwight D. Eisenhower had been elected President and the country was swept up in a style of leadership that came to be known as Rockefeller Republicans. Reeves/Kent/Superman fit that mood like a glove. Reeves’ Kent/Superman has a genteel, patristic quality that no other actor has given the role (s). His type of conservative echoed Ike and the Webster definition of conservative as a moderate. Tradition was valued, but never at the expense of being bought by special interests (the NRA and religious right).

Superman gun control

Superman and the Mole Mn lobby card

Nor was the Eisenhower conservative prone to anti-government sentiments. Indeed, the idea of conservatives allying themselves with confederacy sentiments would have been unthinkable to an ideology still under the influence of its founding father figure, Abraham Lincoln. Of course, this was before Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats infiltrated and sabotaged the conservative American party. It was also before the appearance of radical right-wing Dixiecrat offspring who have rendered conservative and bigot as synonymous.

George Reeves AKA CLARK KENT

Indeed, in Superman And The Mole Men, Reeves’ Superman seems to symbolically echo mounting warnings of the threat in uneducated right-wing thugs dismantling an authentic conservative tradition.

Superman and the Mole Men news adSTARRING GEORGE REEVESSuperman and the Mole Men advertisementSuperman and the Mole Men advertisementSuperman and the Mole Men George Reeves Phyllis Coates

Nor would Reeves’ Kent be given to bigotry and homophobia. He proved an advocate for gun control  in Superman And The Mole Men, and, although hetero, his best pal was the gay Jimmy Olsen (Jack Larson). It’s no wonder that Reeves’ Kent/Superman is indeed an alien to millennials who only identify conservative as extremist kooks.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES, PHYLLIS COATESthe mole-menGun control Superman style

Off-screen Reeves was a passionate drinker, known for his partying and decade-long affair with a mafioso’s wife. However, the actor took his role seriously enough to stop smoking and give Kent-like moral advice to the show’s pubescent audience. In this he had a model in William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, which is apt; Reeves’ Superman is more noir B Western cowboy than sci-fi character (and it probably is no coincidence that the series debut director was Tommy Car, who had previously helmed several episodes of Hopalong Cassidy and Dick Tracy). When finally released, the success of The Adventures Of Superman took everyone, including Reeves, by surprise and he immediately transitioned into mantling a public persona.

Suerman and the Mole Men lobby cardSUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES

superman and the mole-mensuperman and the mole menGeorge Reeves and Phyllis Coates in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)George Reeves and Phyllis Coates in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951).

The consensus, for once, is right in ranking the first season of The Adventures Of Superman as the best, being heavily inspired by the preceding noir radio show (with Bud Collier voicing Kent/Superman). There really never has been anything like it before or since. The second season has its gems, and some actually prefer its slicker sheen, but few of the episodes were well-written and set the stage for the lower, Kellogg’s sponsored, family friendly quality for later color seasons (many of which can compete with the ineptness of Ed Wood script writing).

Naturally, the special effects throughout are dated and sub par (the Mole Men ray gun is a decorated vacuum cleaner, Superman’s flight is executed by placing the actor on a glass table, etc). Seen today, it becomes clear that the enduring legacy of The Adventures Of Superman six seasons are primarily due to Reeves’ performance.

Reporter Lois Lane Phyllis Coates

Additional standout performances include Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen and Phyllis Coates as Lois Lane (still, the yardstick measure of both characters). The Lois Lane of Noel Neil, from seasons 2-6, was uneven, through no fault of the actress. In contrast to Coates’ brassy portrayal, Neill gave Lane a charming perky, petite quality, but was often reduced to June Cleaver-like decor. It’s a testament to Reeves’ that he responded well to both actresses. His chemistry with Larson, and at the opposite end, Robert Shayne (as Inspector Henderson) was equally winning.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES

Special effects always date and, in a few years, it’s a given that Man Of Steel (2013), like Superman (1978) will look antiquated. Unfortunately, Snyder’s film neither has a good narrative, nor a charismatic lead performance to ground it, such as in Superman II (1980). Although in slight defense of actor Henry Cavill, the Kent of Man of Steel, like Dean Cain’s Kent from the TV series Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman, proves more influenced by George Reeves’ portrayal, rather than Christopher Reeve’s.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN GEORGE REEVES, PHYLLIS COATES

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN PHYLLIS COATES

 The Adventures Of Superman actually premiered in theaters with Superman And The Mole Men. Dispensing of a pointless mythology-making origin, it gets straight to the action and is far more a testament to the Clark Kent/Superman character than its predecessors (the dual serials) or offspring. Here, Kent is pure 50s Americana. A tough, but genteel defender who inherently knows that “Truth, Justice, And The American Way” means justice and civil liberties for all, including the minority, misfits, and outsiders.

SUPERMAN AND THE MOLE MEN PHYLLIS CAOTES GEORGE REEVES

Continue reading “THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN STARRING GEORGE REEVES: SEASON 1 EPISODE GUIDE AND REVIEWS”

LIVE DIE REPEAT: EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

Live Die Repeat Edge Of Tomorrow (2014) Emily Blunt Tom Cruise

If his family of origin had their say, Tom Cruise would have went through life as an anonymous Franciscan priest. Of course, things turned out differently. With his Napoleon complex, switching obssessively from one extreme religious approach to an opposite extreme end religious fad, questionable treatment of wives, narcissitic salary demands, rants against psychology, an embarassing appearance on Oprah Winfrey, and purported paranoia over box office standing, Tom Cruise seems to make himself an easy target. In some quarters, he is likened to the personality meltdowns of Michael Jackson and Lindsay Lohan. Except, there is a major difference: Rather than being self-destructive, Cruise seems downright zealous regarding self-preservation and apart from personality quirks, he ranks as one of Hollywood’s most consummate professionals, often picking interesting, against type roles. That professionalism has paired him with the industry’s most established directors and, as a producer, Cruise takes additional risks with first-timers.

Live Die Repeat Edge Of Tomorrow (2014) Emily Blunt

Cruise started off roughly around the same time as Johnny Depp, and early in their careers the contrast between the two could not have been more pronounced. If anyone was the patron saint of loud, dumb summer blockbusters, it was Cruise. He set the model with Top Gun (1986), and who could forget Cocktail (1988)? That box office bonanza, one of the worst movies of the last half century, is proof that the masses will buy just about any excrement if it is marketed right. Cruise went on to act in and produce Mission Impossible (1996). Despite having Brian DePalma in charge, it was not an ideal start to the franchise. Yet, the franchise dramatically improved, especially with Ghost Protocol (2011) and Rogue Nation (2015).

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25TH ANNIVERSARY: WILLIAM SHATNER’S STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)

STAR TREK V- THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) poster

William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) has been called the “Plan 9 of Star Trek.” There is no denying that it is awful, but it is more like the misfit Yukon Cornelius of Trekdom. It is not quite as bad as Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), and to say that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) is ludicrously overrated is a given, especially when the best performances are by two anonymous trash collectors. William Shatner, perhaps feeling envious of Leonard Nimoy’s directorial “successes,” insisted on his turn at bat. Rather than keeping the franchise in the experienced, imaginative hands of director Nichols Meyer ,who had written and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), Paramount and producer Harve Bennett foolishly handed the asylum keys to lunatic stars who had no experience in big budgeted space oaters apart from acting.
STAR TREK V- THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy

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A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001)

A.I. (2001 Spielberg)A.I. (2001 Spielberg) William Hurt

Once or twice a decade comes a film that polarizes audiences, particularly of the American variety. This is not surprising given that few Westerners, spoon-fed on undemanding aesthetics, even know how to watch film. Recent examples of divisive cinema include Noah and Birdman from 2014. Both appeared to be genre films of sorts.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001 Spielberg) Theatrical posterA.I. (2001 Spielberg) Frances O' Connor and Haley Joel Osment

The audiences going to Noah jumped off the church bus, expecting to see the cinematic equivalent of a Velcro bible lesson with rosy-cheeked prophet loading friendly snakes into his wooden yacht, capped off by a “Love American Style” rainbow. Instead, they were pounded by Aronofsky’s brass knuckles of mythological and theological diversity, with a Creator who actually cared about his planet. The result was widespread provocation.

A.I. (2001 Spielberg) poster

Birdman was a sort of belated, near perfect follow-up to Batman Returns (1992) (never mind that it was a bird instead of a flying rodent). Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was off-kilter as his alter ego, and the hyperkinetic actor was tailor made for this iconic role, revealing slivers of a manic-depressive personality as he played ringmaster in a freak show carnival. Birdman takes that development further, exposing the actor behind the actor behind the suit. Audiences, desiring more blockbuster mayhem, were treated to something far more idiosyncratic and original. By and large, they responded like a hostile bull charging to a flag of artsy-fartsy red.

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SIMIAN WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

Boulle Monkey PlanetIn the 1960s Arthur P. Jacobs purchased screen rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet,” for Twentieth Century Fox. It became Jacobs’ dream project, facing an uphill battle with skeptical executives. Not helping the producer’s cause was Boulle’s public statement, calling “Monkey Planet” his worst novel.*

POTA HESTON

Rod Serling and Michael Wilson co-wrote the screen adaptation for Planet of The Apes (1968), which is far more Twilight Zone in construction than Boulle. Jacobs wisely cast Charlton Heston in the lead role. Heston, who loved the script, was helpful in influencing studio heads to green light and assign director Franklin J. Shaffner, who the actor had worked with in the underrated The War Lord (1965).

POTA HESTON EVANS 1968

Studio misgivings were laid aside when Planet of the Apes (1968) proved to be a monstrous success. Before Star Wars, Batman, etc, Planet of the Apes was the original blockbuster franchise, spawning four sequels, a short-lived television series, an animated series, and a comic book. The original film still retains its classic pop status, despite revisionist opinions, usually by those who have not seen it and dismiss it as a cheesy byproduct of the sixties and seventies. Actually, it is science fiction at its most preferable: the cinematic equivalent of Cracker Jacks with its prize being smart dumb fun amidst caramel popcorn and salty peanuts. Who, in all honesty, would find  Kubrick’s academic  psychedelia 2001: A Space Odyssey, made the same year, as fun an experience as American icon Heston being put through Sterling’s pulp karma in the form of gorillas on horseback? Heston’s Col. Taylor, disdainful of mankind, is replete with character flaws, yet we root for him as he is catapulted through a physical and emotional nightmare, in which he is forced to do a philosophical about-face, only to learn he was right all along. Heston’s physicality  perfectly responds to Sterling’s blunt ironies. It is the hippest performance of the actor’s career and one can understand his hesitancy regarding the sequel; Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970). Continue reading “SIMIAN WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)”

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

BTPOTA

It is all there in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): from Alpha to Omega, from Moses to St. John of Patmos all the way through to Martin Luther’s antisemitism.

We last saw Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes crying like a baby, making mud pies before the post-apocalyptic ruins of the Statue of Liberty with dumb (i.e. mute) brunette Nova (Linda Harris, in a bad performance) by his side. Insert invisible wormhole to swallow Taylor up whole. Nova now waits for new knight-in-a-loincloth Brent (James Franciscus) to rescue her.

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Yes, American astronaut Brent has a loincloth too, and cuts a leaner, more-sylphlike figure than Heston (of whom he gives a second-rate impersonation. Franciscus fared better in his best performance as blind detective Mike Longstreet in the TV series “Longstreet,” which is as lamentably forgotten as Franciscus himself). Nova and Brent go cave exploring and what do they find? An elongated and pointless rehash of the first movie.

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Cornelius (David Watson, briefly replacing Roddy McDowell as the chief chimp) and Zera (Kim Hunter) do much hand wringing. Meanwhile, there is a gorilla named Ursus (James Gregory) who is prone to booming his own second-generation, agenda-laden scripture. (“The only good Jew is a dead Jew” has far more expansive potential when mouthed as “the only good human is a dead human.”) A simian neo-Fascist yahoo, Ursus takes his cavalry into the Forbidden Zone, hot on the trail of Brent and Nova. A prophetic Jonestown awaits.

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Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) laments: “Someone has outwitted the intelligence of the gorillas.”

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“The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!” Hallelujah, General.

The hippie apes protest the impending war (i.e. Vietnam).

Meanwhile, our Adam and Eve protagonists (make that Second Adam with Eve) have been bamboozled into joining a charismatic, apocalyptic religious cult, a la Jim Jones.

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Former King Tut Victor Buono (with Moses’ staff and sacred scroll in hand) starts slaying in the spirit and whips up a pillar of fire, apparently delivered personally by a cobalt-cased deity, to stall the Mighty 7th. Ursus may just be another replacement for the Pharaoh, but with Gregory’s evangelical charisma practically melting the ape makeup, the stoic Randolph Scott could never have competed.

BTPOTA HARRISON

“If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.”

“What’s that?

“Never to speak!”

“What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?”

“That thing out there, an atomic bomb… is your god?” “Get outta my head!”

“Mr. Taylor, Mr. Brent, we are a peaceful people. We don’t kill our enemies. We get our enemies to kill each other.”

Insert nihilistic finale.

BTPOTA XV Continue reading “BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)”