Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

Where Time Began (1977)

More than a year ago, I let our son know that we’d see several variations on the classic Jules Verne tale Journey to the Center of the Earth. If the one with James Mason was too long, and it was, here’s a leaner 90-minute version that gets to where it needs to go in a comparative rush, and then adds lots more dinosaurs, among other things.

I saw Where Time Began six or seven times on HBO in 1979 or 1980 and gradually forgot that the film existed. It’s a Spanish film directed by Juan Piquer Simón and these days it usually trades under a title that’s a closer translation of the original name: Viaje al centro de la Tierra, or The Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The movie stars Kenneth More along with Pep Munné, Ivonne Sentis, and Jack Taylor, which is why this film got a recharge in my memory circuits. About a year and a half ago, I was reading up on the films of Jess Franco, and Taylor, who starred in at least three of Franco’s movies, got a little sidebar. I then remembered Where Time Began, kind of. I mainly remembered it as the movie with the giant tortoises and the poisonous dust, which is very surprising because these are unbelievably minor plot points. The movie spends about fifty seconds total on the two things!

Our son enjoyed this more than I was expecting. Some of these older films don’t quite have the punch with him that I thought that they might. The faster pace and gee-wow effects of modern movies just appeal more to kids. But he didn’t see through the really hopeless monster effects of this movie at all. Two sea monsters get into a bloody battle and he was riveted. If you’ve got a six or seven year-old at home, this is definitely one to consider watching, because ours was fascinated by everything in it: quicksand, caves, sea monsters, dinosaur graveyards, giant tortoises, whirlpools, volcanoes, and, apparently because the 1976 King Kong was making giant apes trendy again, there’s a thirty foot tall gorilla as well. That’s not in Verne’s novel, is it?

There’s one little addition to the movie’s sequence of events that really did surprise me. It’s a small scene that doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the narrative, but it’s almost as weird as that “what the heck did I just watch” finale of The Black Hole. In this version, Professor Lindenbrock’s party meets just one other person underground, a taciturn man named Orson played by Jack Taylor. He keeps to himself and speaks briefly about his own experiments, and after the giant gorilla business, he shows Munné and Sentis something downright weird. Miles beneath the Earth’s surface, there’s a bizarre super-scientific city. Through a telescope, the young people see that the people in the city are all identical to Orson. He swears them to secrecy and the odd sight is indeed never mentioned again.

A lot of this movie seems like the director was throwing everything at the screen to see what would stick. We were never bored, but it did feel like some of the danger was a little too distant. We see some monsters only very briefly, and some never menace our heroes at all, as though the film didn’t have the resources to actually do anything with them. But this is a movie for kids to watch and to enjoy safe little frights. Just having the crocodile-like head of some beast roar and retreat is all that’s needed for some viewers. If you’re a grownup, you might want to obtain the service of a kid before watching this version!

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The Phantom Menace (1999)

You said it, Jar Jar.


Okay, so we do have a few subscribers who might actually want more than five words about this berry berry bad movie, and it’s possible that one day our son might want to revisit this blog and see what we watched together. For posterity’s sake, then, this was one of the longest chores I’ve sat through. Somehow, though, when I was younger and more prone to want to see big movies on the big screen, I paid for this turkey three damn times.

One of those times was around early June, 1999. It was my oldest son’s first movie in a theater. He lasted thirty minutes, got bored, and walked to the exit. Admittedly he was really young – too young for a theater trip – but I’d been persuaded that he might enjoy the bragging rights to saying that a Star Wars movie was his first movie in a theater. Eh, it was only twenty bucks or so.

This kid, however, didn’t walk out, although the agonizing talk of trade negotiations, senate procedure, and votes of no confidence certainly left him almost as bored as the grown-ups. He really enjoyed the pod race, and the appearance of favorite characters from the original movie, and the big climactic space battle. The best scene of all was when Anakin fired “those two bullets to start everything blowing up.”

It is – I’m sure it must be – the thrill of something brand new, but our favorite six year-old critic says that enjoyed this film more than the other three, and he liked Jar Jar Binks a whole lot. But that’s always been the case. Kids have always liked Jar Jar, because he’s a character for children. (And incidentally, I was quite taken with actor Ahmed Best’s defense of his performance for Entertainment Weekly. It’s worth a read.)

And these are, as much as some snarling “adults” wish for them to be otherwise, movies for the whole family.

Binks is the reason for the subtitle in the picture up top. Our son enjoyed Binks, but he complained that he couldn’t understand what he was saying. So we watched the movie with subtitles, and I’m very pleased that he’s reading so well that it helped him follow it.

As for me, no, but it’s nice to look at. The costumes and landscapes are interesting. None of the actors do a particularly standout job, though I remember enjoying Ewan McGregor much more in the next two movies. Oliver Ford Davies, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Liam Neeson, Ray Park, Natalie Portman, Terence Stamp, and BRIAN BLESSED have all done better work in other films. At least I think Neeson has. Like Prentis Hancock, he’s one of those actors I just never enjoy. I guess in retrospect it’s kind of amusing that they cast Stamp, of all people, as a man without a backbone. That’s all I have. It’s a berry berry bad movie.

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Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, which was made under the title Doppelganger in 1969, isn’t a great movie. In fact, it rivals Disney’s The Black Hole as one of the silliest and least scientifically plausible films ever made. But there’s still a lot to recommend it, such as a fantastic musical score by Barry Gray, terrific visual effects, and one heck of a good cast.

Included in the cast, in a tiny bit part, is Nicholas Courtney. And, for regular readers of this blog, I’m delighted to say that our son recognized him even without the Brigadier’s distinctive mustache. I punched the air.

He also figured out very, very quickly that this movie was made by Gerry Anderson’s team. It perhaps helped a little that the look, feel, and sound of Anderson was fresh in his mind; last night, he rewatched the Thunderbirds episode “The Cham-Cham.” Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was directed by Robert Parrish, but the cinematography is by Anderson regular John Read, and this looks precisely like an episode of one of the Supermarionation series, only with live actors. I think it helped our son with a feeling of comfort. Journey is fairly justifiably accused of following in the footsteps of 2001, but the working-man’s-world of the near future in that movie is its own thing. This is the world of Captain Scarlet, right down to the camera decisions to spend agonizing minutes panning across control rooms while nobody really moves, focusing at dials counting down, and getting emergency crews into position for crash landing airplanes.

Adding a little bit to the Scarlet similarity, NASA’s liaison with the EuroSEC space program is played by Ed Bishop, who was the voice of Captain Blue. Other small parts are played by Cy Grant (Lt. Green), and Jeremy Wilkin (Captain Ochre). Wilkin passed away last month; we’ll see him again in Doctor Who next weekend.

The film’s leads are played by Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Lynn Loring, and Patrick Wymark. Backing them up is an all-star cast of recognizable faces from film and TV, including George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal, Philip Madoc, sixties spy movie regular Loni von Friedl, and the great Herbert Lom, who plays a foreign agent with a camera in his artificial eye to snap secret photos of the plans for Sun Probe.

Unfortunately, two big problems are working against this awesome cast. First off, this movie is paced more like a glacier than just about anything I can think of. The rocket doesn’t launch until halfway through the film, and twice we have to mark the passage of time with slow and trippy psychedelic sequences. A big problem upfront is that Patrick Wymark’s character, the director of EuroSEC, has to find the money to fund his mission to a new planet on the far side of the sun. Agonizing minutes are spent worrying and arguing about money, instead of just having NASA immediately pay for it in exchange for sending an American astronaut on the mission.

The astronaut’s marriage is in trouble. Mercifully, Wikipedia tells me that they chopped out a massive subplot about his wife’s affair, otherwise we’d never have got into space. Either the astronaut can’t have a baby because of space radiation or because his wife is secretly taking birth control pills. Neither really matters much. But they keep introducing new elements and complications. Ian Hendry, who is awesome here, is out of shape and shouldn’t go on the mission. This is all interesting character development, but none of it ends up mattering.

It’s like the Andersons and scriptwriter Donald James were writing an interesting prime-time drama about the machinations of life among astronauts getting ready for a mission, and were told instead to do it all in forty-five minutes and then do something with the rocket and another planet. So you’ve got spies, a broken marriage, a physicist who’s not fit to fly, budget troubles, security leaks… Wymark had played the lead in The Plane Makers and The Power Game, a backstabbing boardroom drama that ran for seven seasons earlier in the sixties. I think Journey could have made a good show like that. I don’t think our son would have had all the neat rockets and crash landings to keep his attention, but I’d probably give it a spin.

Or possibly not. Bishop and Sewell were pretty boring in the TV series UFO, which the Andersons made soon after this.

The plot of the movie is about the mission and a mystery. Why did Thinnes and Hendry turn back and return to Earth halfway through their six week mission, when Thinnes insists they landed on the hidden planet on the far side of the sun? The answer won’t surprise anybody who read this chestnut of a story when they were a little kid thumbing through schlocky pulp sci-fi from the thirties, but I enjoyed the way that Read and Parrish kept finding hints for the audience in the form of mirrors. If you like watching Gerry Anderson’s work or a cast full of great actors, this isn’t a bad way to spend a hundred minutes. If you’re looking for an even remotely plausible science fiction adventure, though… you’re really, really going to have to check your disbelief at the door.

Today’s feature was a gift from Nikka Valken, and I invite you all to check out her Society 6 page and buy some of her fun artwork! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

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Clash of the Titans (1981)

I remember the summer of 1981 pretty well. That was when I was old enough to go to the movies with a friend without a grownup. That was quite a summer for films. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Clash of the Titans several times. Five bucks would get me a matinee, popcorn, Coke, and a complaint from my mother that movies used to cost a dime.

Grown-up movie critics thought that Clash of the Titans was old hat, but not to this ten year-old. You may recall that Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie ever made. Objectively, Clash isn’t as good, but it had absolutely everything that ten year-old me could ask for. There are monsters, blood, angry Greek gods, a skeletal ferryman, and seven or eight seconds of nudity. This was the best use of five dollars anybody had ever come up with.

Honestly, this really is a little old hat, and perhaps not Ray Harryhausen’s finest film, but it’s still entertaining, and since he was planning to retire after it, it’s a high point, just not his highest. It’s another of his classic quest stories, this time drawn from the myths and legends of ancient Greece, and the visual effects are as good as ever. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress scheme and backstab on Mount Olympus, and on Earth, Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Siân Phillips, Judy Bowker, and Tim Piggot-Smith get caught up in their machinations.

None of them get caught as badly as Neil McCarthy, whom our son remembers fondly as Sam from the first series of Catweazle. For the crime of slaughtering Zeus’s winged horses, Calibos is turned into a deformed, demonic creature, portrayed by McCarthy in the closeups and by stop-motion animation in longer shots. During their first fight, Perseus slices off one of Calibos’s hands. The villain replaces his lost hand with a small trident, and, proving that he wasn’t paying the strictest attention in the world, when we see Calibos later, our son asked “Why does he have a fork?”!

It did, mercifully, register that Burgess Meredith was playing the role of Perseus’s friend, the poet and playwright Ammon. That might be because I pointed out his name in the credits. “You know who that is, right? He’s been in three Twilight Zones and he was the Penguin in Batman, okay?” I’ll get this kid recognizing character actors, by Zeus.

But overall, he was not quite as wild about this as I was as a kid. Marie suggested that I was a couple of years older during my weeks of seeing this again and again, and it’s probably also true that the ferryman Charon blew my mind because, in 1981, I was a bigger fan of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider than any other boy in America. I just liked skeletons a whole lot then. Our son even protested that the Kraken’s four arms were excessive.

But another reason this wasn’t a mammoth success is that this is one of those rare films that actually opens with the scene that he loved the most. The Kraken’s destruction of the city of Argos was the high point, and the rest of the movie, even the amazing battle against Medusa, didn’t compare. He did, however, get all hunched up and worried during that fight. Then he complained afterward that Medusa didn’t use “her eye weapon” as much in the fight as he wanted.

In fairness, though, he has already seen Jason of the Argonauts.

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The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

I read about this film and decided that I’d give it a spin by myself before showing the last segment to our son. I understood that the movie, written by Robert Bloch, was comprised of four segments: three traditional horror episodes before ending with one a little more lighthearted. This is true, and I enjoyed the heck out of it, but those first three are way too frightening for our gentle son. The last one, though, was just right.

The sadly defunct Amicus studio was Hammer’s biggest rival in making horror films between 1965 and 1974. Amicus’s big specialty was the “portmanteau,” an anthology film with four segments and a framing story. In The House That Dripped Blood, a police inspector from Scotland Yard comes to investigate the disappearance of a movie star. A local sergeant and the home’s estate agent tell him three terrifying tales that took place in the same house, setting up stories that star Denholm Elliot and Joanna Dunham, Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland, and Christopher Lee and Nyree Dawn Porter. Amicus could get these big name actors in because each segment took maybe a week or ten days to film. And they’re hugely entertaining, although far too frightening for our kid at this age!

The fourth story is just right, and it has a completely terrific cast full of faces he’s seen recently. The movie star is Jon Pertwee and he buys his cursed cloak from Geoffrey Bayldon! Plus, there’s Ingrid Pitt, who he’s seen in “The Time Monster,” and Roy Evans, from “The Green Death” and “The Monster of Peladon.” The police inspector is John Bennett, from “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” This segment was made in between Pertwee and Bayldon’s first seasons of Doctor Who and Catweazle, and of course the actors would be reunited about eight years later in Worzel Gummidge, playing the scarecrow and his creator.

…not, of course, that our kid actually recognized anybody other than Pertwee, even with a heads-up at dinner about who to look out for!

The whole movie is really entertaining, and it builds really well, with each episode more fun than the previous one. Pertwee is having a hoot as a temperamental, egotistical movie star who has nothing kind to say about the low-budget movie that’s hired him, with a former – gasp – television director in charge. The sets are too flimsy, the costumes are too new, and horror films are no good anymore anyway. This “new fellow” they’ve got playing Dracula these days isn’t a patch on Bela Lugosi.

The movie star buys his own cloak for thirteen shillings from a strange costumier to bring a little authenticity to this silly movie – it’s called Curse of the Bloodsuckers – and then things start getting a little weird. The story builds to an amusing twist, and the police inspector goes to this blasted cottage to see what he can find there.

That’s where I left it. I did want our son to get a good night’s sleep! But should you, dear reader, investigate this house for yourself, do continue on and see what comes next. Pleasant dreams!

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Pippi on the Run (1970 / 1977)

One day when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I was at the Lewis A. Ray Public Library using their incredibly neat microfiche machine to see all the books in the Cobb system. Well, all the books that I knew to look for, anyway. I seem to remember that this largely consisted of me verifying that every book I’d already read or owned was in the system for other people to read. So I put the “authors” page where Astrid Lindgren could be found under the glass, and confirmed that they had all three of the Pippi Longstocking books.

They had four. There was a fourth book called Pippi on the Run which not only I’d never heard of, the other three books didn’t list in their “read the other books in this series” page. One of the other branches had it, and they could transfer it to ours. I’m not going to claim this was like Calvin waiting impatiently for six to eight weeks for his propeller beanie, but I was probably very cranky for the four or five days it took for this book to get from Acworth or Marietta or Antarctica or wherever it was to us in Smyrna.

When the book arrived, I’m not sure whether I was disappointed or amazed, but I was certainly surprised. After the success of the 13 episode Pippi Longstocking TV series, the producers went to work on two feature films. The first was an adaptation of Lindgren’s novel Pippi in the South Seas and the second was based on an original story that Lindgren provided them to make fairly inexpensively. The book was a hardcover photo album that told the movie’s story, with dozens of color pictures from the movie. The blog Silver Shoes & Rabbit Holes has a delightful post about the very book I mean, although my memory swears that the cover of the edition I read was a little bit different. You should check that out!

I’m also not sure whether I ever saw this movie before. I know the library showed South Seas and one and maybe both of the compilation films during their summer kiddie festivals, but maybe I saw this one before and maybe I didn’t. Who knows?

Anyway, the plot this time is that Annika and Tommy decide to run away, and their mother, because she isn’t actually a very good parent, asks Pippi to go with them and make sure they don’t get hurt on their escapades. This is Pippi Longstocking we’re talking about. Of course the kids aren’t going to get hurt, but Pippi’s also going to lose track of them while she’s going over waterfalls in a barrel, and they’re going to get their clothes eaten by cows, and Pippi’s going to build a flying car powered by rainwater and super glue that falls apart in the sky.

Pippi on the Run wasn’t released in America until 1977, in another dub job by Fred Ladd’s outfit. Bizarrely, he gets credited as the movie’s director over Olle Hellbom. The movie is certainly pretty, but it’s about as exciting as a trip to a petting zoo. I’m not kidding. This is a film that lingers over lots of footage of woodland creatures and goats, pigs, and chickens on a farm. It’s a movie for kids who are still at the age where the sight of baby horses is a fun little thrill. There’s a great bit where Ladd’s translation misidentifies badgers as ground hogs, and the fact that I’m calling that a “great bit” lets you know how dull this movie is.

Our son wasn’t as taken with this as he might have been a year earlier. Granted, this is a far weaker and simpler movie than South Seas, but outside of a few sight gags built around Pippi doing impossible things, there’s just not a lot of meat to this story, and no real sense of importance to anything that happens. There isn’t a plot; they just wander around having mild adventures until Annika and Tommy give in and want to go home. Our son did have a great laugh when the cows eat their clothes, leaving them stuck in grain sacks until Pippi can raise some money to buy them new things, but overall this is a pretty weak movie on which the franchise would end. I wish they’d have gone out on a higher note than a trip to the petting zoo!

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Return of the Jedi (1983)

There used to be a magazine that I enjoyed called Sci-Fi Universe. In 1997, they published a story called “Fifty Reasons Why We Hate Return of the Jedi.” Most of it was the sort of nitpicking that gives Star Wars such a splendid reputation, but it was all really funny, especially one key problem that I had with it when I was twelve: “It’s just a bunch of Muppets.”

And so, when I was twelve, I didn’t watch this movie. I’ve mentioned how insufferable I was as a twelve year-old before; basically, take my present levels of obnoxiousness and ramp them up to eleven. And twelve year-old me saw publicity photos of Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks and the green pig guards and that piano-playing elephant and said “Nope, not for me.” I didn’t see this film until the early nineties. I didn’t buy a single trading card, and not one action figure. And it wasn’t like I had suddenly turned against kid-friendly sci-fi. I was addicted to DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes in 1983, and was about eight months from discovering Doctor Who. I just had absolutely zero interest in Star Wars.

Not one frame of this boring movie has shown that I was wrong.

Regurgitating at length what I think is wrong with this movie would just be counter-productive. Overall, it just feels like a contractually-obligated hangover. I enjoy the scene where they go out to the Sarlacc, and nothing else. But this is supposed to be about evaluating or reevaluating movies with a six year-old and seeing what he sees, and he really enjoyed everything he saw.

All that physical comedy that seems like it was made for kids? It was, and it worked for him. He thought Jabba’s posse was full of frightening and menacing aliens, and the Rancor was scariness incarnate. The speeder bike chase amazed him, the space battle had him on the edge of his seat and furiously kicking his legs. I asked him to tell me more about what he thought.

“I really liked the Death Star exploding and the big fight, yeah, I loved those. And I loved that blue elephant thing, because it’s blue, and I like blue, and I like elephants, he was funny. The scariest part was when the Emperor was shooting out like, electric out of his hands. I did not like that at all, it was too creepy. The old characters were my favorites, but I also liked those furry things that were in the big fight, those little ones? I really liked those because I like furry things! The furry things caught everybody in a net, and R2-D2 cut the net and they went falling out of it!”

I would absolutely rather watch Message From Space or Starcrash than this movie. I’d rather watch any of the other Star Wars installments, even the prequels, which also suffer from Ian McDiarmid stinking up the place with his awful line delivery. But that’s great that the kid loved it. I’m glad he got to see it before he got jaded.

Actually, I will tell you what might annoy me most of all. The end of this film was likely to be the last time that the major characters ever appeared. For six years, they were just about as popular and identifiable as any characters in the popular culture of the time, parodied and imitated in equal measure. Star Wars wasn’t just some thing for children or nerds, it was mass culture and deserved its success. You might could argue that the toxic elements of fandom, along with Jar Jar Binks, eventually turned that around. Most people don’t care who or what General Grievous is, but every adult in the western world could identify Darth Vader in 1983.

The characters deserved a sendoff. We should have been able to say goodbye to them and share their final conversation together, their last words.

But we can’t hear a thing they’re saying because George Lucas figured we needed to hear the Ewoks singing their jub-jub song instead. Damn, I hate this movie.

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City Under the Sea (1965)

During his amazing career, Vincent Price probably made nine or ten pictures where he was by some measure the best thing about the whole production. One example: 1965’s City Under the Sea, which was released in America with the confusing title War-Gods of the Deep. This led to a silly moment early on, when a bargain basement Gill Man is chased away from a remote house on a cliffside and our son said “I think that must be a War-God!”

Like nine or ten other pictures in Price’s catalog, this one takes a little inspiration from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Our heroes, played by Tab Hunter and the redoubtable David Tomlinson, who is accompanied by a chicken in a picnic basket for comic relief, stumble across a first edition collection of Poe in the strange underwater city, so that Price can recite a passage from the poem over footage of the miniature of the city, next to a volcano as the pressure inevitably builds.

The movie has small parts for familiar faces like Derek Newark, John Le Mesurier, and Tony Selby, who isn’t credited, and the only female character is played by Susan Hart. It has some impressive sets, an underwater chase/fight that goes on forever and features old-fashioned diving suits so angular and clunky that they reminded our son of Minecraft, and, of course, a great big volcanic eruption. I thought the movie was the most boring thing we’ve watched in ages, and the villain’s henchmen were just about the most pathetic and sorry bunch of dopey bad guys in any universe, but it’s worth watching if you’re six, or if you want to marvel at Price’s ability to rise over everything, or if the movie comes on a double-feature DVD with something else and so you have a copy anyway.

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