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Latitude Zero (1969)

I figured that I’d subjected my wife to quite enough of Eiji Tsubaraya’s low-budget television special effects on Ultraman and should show off what the genius would do given more money for the big screen, and the collaboration of a brilliantly talented director like Ishiro Honda. One of the best options to accomplish this, and thrill our favorite five year-old critic, is 1969’s Latitude Zero. It is a weird and strange movie.

Toho had been finding it easier in the 1960s to find good distribution deals in the United States by hiring American actors like Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn, but this is a rare sixties example of the studio creating a film with a cast who spoke entirely in English. The acting, overall, isn’t too much better than what you’d get from one of their dubbed offerings, as several of the Japanese actors are speaking English phonetically and one of the American actors, Linda Haynes, was new to the business and was clearly hired because she’s cute in go-go boots. But it’s also got Joseph Cotten in the unlikely role of a 204 year-old action hero, Richard Jaeckel as a fists-first photojournalist, and Cesar Romero as the villain.

Latitude Zero is based on an obscure radio serial that had been popular in 1941. It seems like it must have been pretty close to second-hand Jules Verne at the time – a scientist “drops out” of warlike society in a submarine and starts an underwater utopia based on scientific discovery – but it was updated by Toho to give it a Cold War edge and a platform for Tsubaraya’s special effects. Honda and Tsubaraya had actually made an unrelated “flying submarine” movie called Atragon six years previously, and I recall that it’s a better movie than this and one that I should buy again, but Atragon didn’t have hordes of bat-men, giant rats, and a gigantic winged lion.

The movie is certainly flawed, but it’s a triumph of design and it never stops getting weirder and weirder, with one strange surprise after another. I don’t think that it was a good idea to introduce us to the conflict between the scientists by means of a lengthy cat-and-mouse submarine chase before telling us who these people are. This did keep our son excited, but the comedown is too lengthy. Explanations at the undersea utopia of Latitude Zero go on forever, and a romance between Linda Haynes’ character and a scientist played by Masumi Okada (the dad from The Space Giants) comes from nowhere.

There’s a much more interesting romance between Cesar Romero’s villainous Malic and his femme fatale, played by Patricia Medina, but it all goes south because the black-clad woman who captains Malic’s submarine also has a thing for him. The femme fatale wants her out of the way, so Malic uses her as the subject of his latest grisly experiment.

I hadn’t actually watched this film in about twenty years. I forgot that the operating room sequence, apart from Tsubaraya making a liar out of my claims to his greatness with an absolutely pathetic pantomime lion costume (Monty Python fought a more realistic one in the “Scott of the Antarctic” sketch), might just be too scary for our son. The camera never actually shows the brain transplants, but we certainly hear the sound of the saw. Can’t blame the kid for hiding during that bit.

Aside from that deeply awful costume, this is a film that just looks great, with miniature work far better than what the team had done on a TV budget for Ultraman, and some terrific explosions. It honestly never quite rises above the silliness of its concept and execution, and seeing the 64 year-old Cotten charging into battle in a gold fetish suit is a special kind of ridiculous. But it’s fun and unpredictable and the silliness is rarely stupid. Our son loved the fight scenes and the winged lion – it’s markedly more successful when the camera pretends that it’s a giant monster than a real lion – though I’m pretty sure he docked it a few points for being talky and scary. But he also says that he’s glad that he watched it.

I’m not immediately planning to watch any other Toho movies for the blog, but you never know. My interest in Godzilla is as low as it can possibly be these days, although I do fondly remember Atragon and The Mysterians, and I think that The War in Space might be fun to find as we look at Star Wars cash-ins later this year. Honestly, it may be that any film with a musical score by Akira Ifukube is worth watching at least once, but Toho’s not a priority this year.

(Extra special thanks to Dave from Let’s Anime for sharing his copy of this for us to watch. Okay, technically I did break the rule about using a legitimately-purchased DVD for this blog, but I did buy a copy about a decade ago. It went walkabout along with my Terror of Mechagodzilla [another Ishiro Honda film] in 2011, but I did spend money on it!)

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Batman 3.24 – The Joker’s Flying Saucer

Every once in a while, we run into an episode so boring that there’s nothing to say about it beyond noting the firsts or lasts. This one, like the second Louie the Lilac episode, is just plain dull. It’s the fourth and final appearance in the show for Richard Bakalyan, who here plays one of the Joker’s henchmen, painted green and sent to cause a Martian panic in advance of the Joker’s arrival in a craft-built flying saucer. It’s the final appearance of Cesar Romero, and I would say that it’s the final appearance of the Joker, but I think we’ve got one very silly cameo by a stand-in to get through before that.

Earlier this evening, I picked up two more volumes of the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold for our son, since he’s watched the 13 episodes on the one that he has about six times each. This episode was so dull that I genuinely felt bad putting on this bore instead of letting him have fun with the cartoon. I’ll make sure he has time to watch a couple tomorrow.

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Batman 3.17 – The Joke’s on Catwoman

I’m wondering what in the world they used for the “shag” on Catwoman’s car. Some old carpet, perhaps? That honestly looks like my kid brother’s bedroom carpet from 1974-82. Well, they really didn’t have as much money in season three, and brother, does it ever show in this episode. By this point, we’re used to the “limbo” sets of black nothingness dressed by random props. This time out, the limbo set is used for the baddies’ hideout, some rocky outcrop, the interior of a lighthouse, and a courtroom. Writer Stanley Ralph Ross evidently wasn’t told to keep the number of locations to a minimum.

In the one of the strangest casting moves in a series full of odd ones, Pierre Salinger plays Catwoman and Joker’s attorney, Lucky Pierre. Salinger was between careers in 1967. He had been President Kennedy’s press secretary and later, briefly, a U.S. senator, appointed by California Governor Pat Brown to serve the remaining term of the late Senator Engle. In the 1970s, he would become a correspondent for ABC News.

This was the final appearance of Catwoman, and Eartha Kitt, in the series, although the Joker still has another outing ahead. Cesar Romero really functioned more like a loudmouthed henchman than a criminal mastermind this time. It does at least end with a really big fight scene in the courtroom that Daniel adored. Except… rather than hiring another actor to play the Gotham DA, that unseen character gives Batman some offscreen permission to handle the prosecution.

Now just wait a minute. Remember what we learned last episode about Bruce Wayne’s activity with the prison system? So now we see that Batman arrests criminals, AND he tries them, AND, as Bruce Wayne, he decides whether they’re eligible for parole?! I think there’s a story here. Somebody give that Clark Kent fellow at The Daily Planet a phone call.

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Batman 3.16 – The Funny Feline Felonies

In the previous installment, I mentioned how they made a trio of three-part(ish) stories in the final season of Batman. So far, there I have not noticed any continuity blunders like the props in the Egghead episodes to suggest that the producers might have run these in the wrong order, but I could be wrong. It’s possible that they intended to introduce Eartha Kitt here, driving a very ridiculous car, and “kidnapping” the paroled Joker, or they intended to introduce her in episode 14. Either way seems to work.

Two huge missed opportunities occur to me: the last time Cesar Romero got to sink his teeth in a really good script was the previous season’s “Pop Goes the Joker” two-parter, where, among other things, he got to really demonstrate a complete contempt for Bruce Wayne. Here, Wayne is the chairman of the parole board – now hang on a minute, he captures all the criminals and he decides whether they’re fit to rejoin society?! – and he gets to wish the Joker well and see him off in a new suit and a crisp new $10 bill, but since Romero is playing the Joker as pretending he’s gone straight and owes his freedom to Wayne, he doesn’t get to sneer at him. That’s a darn shame; that menacing contempt was a real highlight of that story.

Another is that there isn’t any kind of deathtrap this week, which, in a completely surprising development, annoyed my son! Considering how often he’s become annoyed or upset at the traps, I’m frankly shocked that he’d rather have seen another one than seen the baddies waiting outside in the bushes. According to my very badly beat-up copy of Joel Eisner’s Official Batman Batbook, a cliffhanger trap was planned and cut. It doesn’t say whether it was filmed, or if it was cut from the script.

A couple of interesting cameo walk-ons in this episode: Dick Kallman, a pop star who starred in a single season sitcom called Hank on NBC in 1965, plays a pop star hitmaker, and Joe E. Ross has about three lines as his agent. One of those lines, naturally, starts with “Ooh, ooh!”

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Batman 3.10 – Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!

Here are the most entertaining things about tonight’s Batman:

1. This episode reminded me of the Hodads, and for that, I’m grateful. If you were in Atlanta in the late 1980s, you may remember this band. They had really fun and silly flyers for their shows. Here’s their track “Motel Six.” A hodad is somebody who hangs out at the beach and thinks they know about surfing, but they’re really just squares, daddio.

2. Y’all, there are some gorgeous girls in bathing suits in this episode. I’m serious.

3. This installment can be used as evidence to prove that “Cowabunga” was a real surfer-slang word a good seventeen years before the first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

4. Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara, in disguise, look astonishingly like Jack Benny and Bob Hope in this breathtakingly unfunny skit from one of Benny’s shows.

5. Providing surf rock in this episode on the beach is a group called Johnny Green and the Greenmen, who claim, on their website, to have “played on 27 episodes of the Batman TV series.” Well, here’s one, and there are sixteen more episodes before we’re done, and math is hard, baby.

Speaking of before we’re done, Daniel asked to take a break from Batman. To be fair, we’ve been watching it straight, without a break, since we began the blog, so we’re going to take a few weeks off and slide something forward in the rotation. What will it be? Stay tuned!

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Batman 2.58 – Flop Goes the Joker

Daniel really surprised us this evening by naming this his all-time favorite Batman story. The scene that took the honor was toward the end, when the Joker shows up at Wayne Manor with his hostage, Baby Jane Towser, who’s shown above apparently wearing Marsha, Queen of Diamonds’ costume from episodes 42-44 this season. Anything to save a buck, eh, costume department?

Anyway, Alfred proves himself more than a match for the Joker, who loses a brief bout of fencing with fireplace pokers, runs to the study, jars the Shakespeare bust and opens the secret passage to the batpoles. Mercifully, Alfred had taken down all the signage for a new coat of paint – amazingly, this was set up in part one of the story – and the Joker has no idea that it’s the Batcave down below him. Alfred just keeps sending him up and down on those compressed elevators until his employers arrive, and Daniel absolutely loved it.

Between the wacky painting competition in part one and the Joker’s foibles in part two, our son was in heaven. This was the perfect balance of slapstick comedy for kids and goofball satire for everybody else. This didn’t necessarily need Cesar Romero – this could have been jerry-rigged for one or two of the other regular villains or given to a new character – but he was having a ball as usual, and the season, despite all expectations, looks like it might actually end on a high note. There’s one more show to go, so fingers crossed…

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Batman 2.57 – Pop Goes the Joker

“We artists should not be judged by ordinary standards,” the Joker says at one point in this very silly and very fun episode. “We’re a very special breed.”

On the one hand, this story is more evidence that the show was running out of gas. The Joker gets elevated as an artistic genius, and bamboozles several wealthy socialites into taking an art class, and then holds them for ransom. There isn’t anything interesting at all in that plot, and it certainly doesn’t require the Joker. But appearances are deceiving. The whole affair is a chuckling satire of modern art. It’s done with sledgehammer subtlety, and if you’re not watching it with a four year-old, there’s a three-minute sequence that goes on forever, but there are elements of delicious, nasty, biting commentary inside it.

Things start very well, with Fritz Feld playing a very bored artist who is suddenly inspired anew by the Joker’s vandalism of his tedious landscapes and Grant Wood copies. Feld is actually downright perfect in the role; oddly choosing to play it straight and not overact even a shade, making the parody of pop art more vicious.

Then we have an international painting exhibition, which isn’t anywhere as mean as it should be. Four incredibly renowned artists – their names, like Vincent Van Gauche, chosen just to be recognizable to a mass audience – deliberately paint like dimwits. One paints with his feet, another has a monkey toss rags at a canvas. The opportunity for great, gleeful cruelty was here, but they went for raucous comedy that had Daniel – oddly very talkative and kind of annoying tonight – roaring with laughter. He absolutely loved this scene, but what I thought was funny was the reaction of the judges after the “artists” finish, as they give this nonsense somber consideration, informed criticism, and their unfettered praise. Twelve years later, John Cleese and Eleanor Bron did a celebrated cameo in Doctor Who praising the TARDIS as a work of art with much the same pretentious, academic gravity as these twits.

Then they give the Joker the award for his completely blank canvas, which is entitled “Death of a Mauve Bat.”

It’s done with a sledgehammer, and it is hoisted by a bunch of old squares in Hollywood who just cannot believe what passes for art these days, darn kids, in my day we knew how to appreciate a good portrait, but there are traces of something very informed in there, and frankly, the whole thing is, quite surprisingly, a complete hoot.

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Batman 2.48 – The Joker’s Epitaph

My heart sinks just a little when I see that an episode is written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. His gags and his planning don’t seem to pay any attention to how the world works, and are just there in the hopes of a guffaw. I really prefer the episodes by Stanley Ralph Ross, who seems to have thought things through with logic, consistency, and backstory. They don’t always work – the Archer story is his most notable turkey so far – but they’re never as dopey as Semple’s.

In part one, Gordon’s office is “haunted” by the booming laughter of the Joker, coming from nowhere. Batman uses a device to track the sound to a false cuff link on Gordon’s jacket. Clearly, the Joker bumped against the commissioner on the street and switched them. Never mind that for the better part of half an hour, he and O’Hara can’t find the speaker, Batman also sees that during the bump, Joker wrapped the other half of the device around the commissioner’s waist and down his trouser leg. We accept a certain level of helplessness on the part of the police for this show to work, but there’s helplessness and then there’s body-and-brain-dead.

Another example: Batman and Robin suspect that the Joker is running his counterfeit printer from a defunct comic book company recently purchased by a “W.C. Whiteface.” They know that’s likely a pseudonym, but just in case it is a real guy with an unlikely name, they can’t rush in and arrest him, leading to Bruce Wayne’s bozo “pretending to be bankrupt” scam. But… they know what the Joker looks like! They’ve sent him to jail at least five times by now! They don’t have to lead with a blind sock to the unknown man’s jaw, and further, look, we’re two-thirds of the way through the series at this point. Batman must know that: a) the Joker will have at least two henchmen, and b) Robin, on his own, is incapable of winning a fight against three men. He will get locked in a medieval torture rack with eggs on his head and shoved in an airplane’s engine.

In his scripts, Ross treated the characters as real, albeit square, silly, or ridiculous. Semple didn’t care; he was in it for the pop art gags, but they aren’t funny and induce eye-rolling, not giggles. Oscar Beregi plays this wacky German psychiatrist in part two, brought in because, well there’s no simple way to explain this. The Joker recorded Bruce Wayne’s story about embezzling foundation money, and now he’s blackmailing him into marrying his babe-of-the-week, who’s played by Phyllis Douglas.

When word of the engagement appears in the society pages, Commissioner Gordon has this doctor brought to his office, and the doctor – who’s about as believably German as Peter Sellers was French – diagnoses Bruce, whom he’s never met, as having lost his marbles two or three months ago, and so Gordon sends O’Hara and two men from the – get this – Anti-Lunatic Squad – to put Bruce in a straitjacket and send him to “Happy Acres.” And Gordon claims to be Bruce’s friend? I’d love to have heard the apology. “I heard you appointed the Joker to be vice-president of one of your banks and were going to marry the Joker’s babe-of-the-week, but it never occurred to me that you might have been threatened. I just figured you’d lost your mind, so I had you committed!”

At least the Joker’s dragster gets a few more seconds of screen time. Seconds.

Daniel was disinterested until Phyllis Douglas started smooching Adam West. Then he covered his head with a blanket. “That was horrible,” he concluded.

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