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Logan’s Run (1976)

A case might be made that our son, who has only turned six recently, might be too young to appreciate or understand Logan’s Run, and maybe I should have held off on showing him this. However, we’ll be watching Star Wars in a couple of weeks, and I wanted him to have a little idea of what American science fiction films were like before George Lucas showed up and kiddified everything.

He’s far too young to grasp the cerebral likes of 2001, Westworld, or The Andromeda Strain, and while Planet of the Apes is on the agenda for later this year, I still worry that film’s going to scare him quite a bit. So I decided that Logan’s Run, despite the worrying premise of early death and fleeting glimpses of nudity, would serve as our example. It also led to a much more kid-friendly TV series the following year, and so I decided we’d watch that as well, so look out for that next month.

So the techno-future of Logan’s Run is all lights and computers and travel capsules and escalators in shopping malls under a big dome. It’s a PG film of the seventies, so much of the discussion of pleasure is left understated, but this is a world where the people play with abandon and sleep together without repercussions. They’re under the thumbs of the Sandmen, who wear black and there are quite a few more of them than you’d expect standing around in the background. The Sandmen take their orders from a sultry-voiced evil supercomputer. People are promised the possibility of renewal – reincarnation, basically – after their lastday, and a garish and totally over-the-top death ceremony called Carrousel. People don’t question the system, and people don’t ask what’s outside the domed city.

The film stars Michael York as Logan 5, a Sandman who has been given a deep undercover assignment to find the secret exit to Sanctuary which Runners – people who make a bid for freedom before their lastday – have been using. He realizes that Jessica, a girl that he recently met while looking for some free evening company who is played by Jenny Agutter, wears an ankh symbol affiliated with the Sanctuary movement.

This level of detail went a little over our kid’s head. We did have to pause early on, because the first half-hour is a little talkier than our six year-old wanted to handle, and so we had to tell him to quit kicking his legs around and pay attention, and if he had questions, actually ask us instead of ignoring the movie until some shooting started. He improved, but in fairness, the action quotient did, too.

Logan is so deep undercover that the other Sandmen don’t know about his mission. He’s forced to become a Runner himself and make his way through the strangely complicated way out of the city that the underground resistance movement guards. Unfortunately, the network of Runners have made their own jobs so difficult that none of them know that they’ve been sending Runners to their deaths at the hands of a demented robot who has killed hundreds and hundreds of people. Until Logan shows up, nobody has been armed and able to defend themselves from it.

The robot, Box, is played by Roscoe Lee Browne, and I don’t mind telling you that when I first saw this movie on HBO around 1979 or so, Box really gave me the creeps. He’s not around for long – educated guessers have figured that the Box scene, and an earlier one in their run in which Logan and Jessica get separated in a steam room orgy, were both ruthlessly edited down to remove as much nudity as possible so the movie would get a PG rating – but Box is one of those creations that every kid of the seventies remembers. Until Star Wars made them safe, robots were often very menacing.

The movie is flawed in places and certainly dated, but there’s really a lot to like. I enjoyed how the music is all disco synthesizers and Jean-Michel Jarre electronics inside the city, but is played by a traditional orchestra once our heroes get outside. I like how the lasers used in the New You clinic are surgical things that cut you with solid beams of light, and not zap guns. I enjoyed Farrah Fawcett and Peter Ustinov, and I especially liked that the writers didn’t make Ustinov’s character, the old man that they meet outside the dome, the wise fellow who can explain everything. The old man is just as baffled by the world as Logan and Jessica, but he understands a tiny bit about how families can work in a society where kids aren’t born in tanks and raised by computers. And Richard Jordan, who plays the Sandman who believes Logan has betrayed the system, is an entertaining villain, but heaven knows how a guy who’s never seen the outside world before is able to track our heroes on an overnight excursion.

Actually, the real flaw in the film is its need to make Logan the savior of the story and individual cause of the city’s explosive downfall instead of the protagonist who got out and began getting the outside world ready for people leaving the dome. Things should have been set into motion by having Jordan’s character call for as much backup as possible once he found all of the bodies that Box had frozen, and then let a large company of Sandmen see the sun for themselves.

The writer seems to have painted himself into a corner by the path they took, which means there’s no real way out except for explosions and destruction literally driving the population outside. This means that the sultry-voiced evil supercomputer has to do that “Does not compute… SELF-DESTRUCT!” thing that evil supercomputers often did around the seventies. No wonder all of our generation’s parents were terrified when we gave them their first hand-me-down PCs. They spent more than a decade waiting for the darn things to blow up in movies.

I’m grousing a lot over a generally entertaining movie that has our son curious to see its retelling as a weekly show, but the ending is massively silly, and I love the way all the people fleeing the dome just show up at the top of some stairs. None of this army of extras has any urgency, none of them move like “our entire world is blowing up,” they just show up and say “check out Peter Ustinov and his old man hair.” It’s a good setup, an interesting dystopian utopia, full of good actors, and one deeply goofy ending. Maybe the show will do it better?

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Treasure of Matecumbe (1976)

Over the last several months of writing this blog, I’ve been cross-checking actor and director credits in IMDB while also searching around for new ideas for films to watch together. If I’d ever heard of Disney’s Treasure of Matecumbe before last year, it’s news to me. Definitely one of the company’s lesser-known features, it’s a quite good family adventure film, a search for gold in 1870s America.

As befits a movie that’s flown under the radar, it’s also the victim of some considerable misinformation. It was released on DVD in 2008 under the Wonderful World of Disney label, and a few sites have stated that this was made for that long-running TV anthology. It turns out that it was not. I did one last little double-check and bit of research before writing this, thank heaven, and ran into this article at TCM, written by a friend-of-a-friend, Nathaniel Thompson, which explains that it did get a theatrical release in the US. A little more checking and it seems it debuted on July 9th of 1976, and showed up on the TV series a good eighteen months later, where it must have been edited by about fifteen minutes, because this is a packed movie, very nearly two full hours.

The young stars of the film are Johnny Doran, who had impressed me very much in that “explaining death to kids” episode of Isis, and Billy “Pop” Atmore, who was a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. Among the grown-ups, a really impressive cast including Robert Foxworth, Joan Hackett, Peter Ustinov, and Vic Morrow. I was very amused by one little cameo. I’ve been noting how certain directors keep coming back to use actors again, and Rex Holman shows up for thirty seconds as an informer in New Orleans. Eight years before, this film’s director, Vincent McEveety, had used him as Morgan Earp in the one Star Trek episode I actually enjoy, “Spectre of the Gun.”

Like many of Disney’s travel movies, this one has an episodic feel to it, and about halfway through, there’s a musical interlude when the party docks at a river landing where the menfolk haven’t seen any women in heaven knows how long. I love watching movies with my son for many reasons, but a big one is that he will often appreciate something that I never could without him. If I were reviewing movies that I watch on my own, I’d grumble that this bluegrass hoedown is completely superfluous to the story and unnecessary. But it turns out that it’s perfectly timed and very welcome. He was up on his feet and dancing along and when, inevitably, people get dunked in the river, he was roaring with laughter.

This isn’t a movie with very much levity and precious little of Disney’s seventies slapstick. In fact, Morrow’s character is far more realistically evil and cruel than your typical Disney antagonist, and guns down a man early in the story. There’s even a quite surprising scene where a character is rescued from being lynched by the Klan, which I certainly didn’t expect to see in a Disney movie. And the ending has a very surprising undercurrent. I don’t think children will really understand just how grim it actually is, but this certainly isn’t Keenan Wynn getting hoist on his own petard by a Volkswagen. So when the opportunities for laughs did come, we appreciated them.

I was really impressed by the production, which took the actors on location in Kentucky, Florida, and California, and subjected them to swamps and lashing rain. There are some obvious stunt doubles and stock footage and animated swarms of insects and painfully poor rear-screen projection, but they really did throw millions of gallons of water on big name actors and stick them on boats in the Everglades. You’ll watch this and think it’s a huge shame that they only captured half the dialogue shots on location and filled in the rest in the studio.

Anyway, Ustinov plays a traveling medicine show “doctor,” and his small river boat gets blown up, which our son strangely insists was the scariest part of the movie despite looking to the grown-ups like nothing at all consequential. Then the climax, in which Morrow and his henchmen square off against an angry Everglades tribe, had him cheering and loving it, while I gulped, knowing the grisly fate that awaited the villains. You can never tell with kids, which is part of what makes this so fun. Five-nearly-six might have been a little young for this movie, but he has seen a lot of films and action-adventure TV and might be a little more mature than many viewers his age, so if you’re thinking about showing it to your own kids, bear that in mind. I’m glad that we watched it and he certainly enjoyed it.

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One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.

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