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Buck Rogers 1.23 and 1.24 – Flight of the War Witch

Well, now that is how you do a season finale. It’s the sort of thing that we expect now, but I don’t believe was all that common in 1980: a good chunk of location filming, including a big all-terrain vehicle, and a pile of guest stars. Not only are Pamela Hensley and Michael Ansara back as Ardala and Kane, but we’ve got two new enemies played by Julie Newmar and Sid Haig, along with Sam Jaffe and Vera Miles as the peace-loving people who need our heroes’ help.

Look, I’m predisposed to like anything with Newmar, for obvious reasons. Add Sid Haig as her second-in-command and I’m not going to say anything bad about it even if it was lousy. But this was really entertaining! I do feel there was one very dated missed opportunity, but this was huge fun and I enjoyed it almost as much as our son did. He had a blast. All the regulars get a chance to shine, and Twiki gets to have an ongoing war of nerves with some R2-D2 cash-in. Our kid will be imitating Twiki’s growl about that other robot having the brain of a can opener for days.

I was quite surprised by what he didn’t like. As regular readers know, he can’t stand Princess Ardala. Here, the Draconians are forced into an uneasy treaty with the Earthmen to battle the War Witch Zarina and her battalion. But Ardala’s just gotta Ardala and she tries to have a woman-to-woman talk with Zarina to sell out everybody and split… with Buck, of course. Zarina is not even remotely impressed. She calmly, firmly, quietly puts Ardala in her place and calls her a spoiled child and has her guards drag her away.

Our son was so shocked that he found himself on Ardala’s side and broke out his finger blasters to start “shooting” Zarina. She’s a villain so evil that she’s reduced his previous most-hated-villain into a shrieking tantrum. “You hate her even more than Ardala?” I asked. “Yes! She’s WORSE!”

Ardala’s deterioration over her four appearances isn’t all that surprising, but she’s really treated like a man-hungry comedy foil this time out. This reaches its nadir in a scene that the Neanderthal in me kind of loved, but I think they’d play it a lot differently today. She’s in a cell with Buck and another fellow and they trick the guards in, because this always works on television, and the two fellows beat up the guards while Ardala hides under the bed and trips them by their ankles. The part I liked came when she asks how she can help now the four dudes are clobbered, and Buck says “You can take their clothes off,” and Ardala’s all about that.

Sure, it was funny, and Pamela Hensley, as you see, has a delightfully devilish look in her eyes as she gets down to the task. But you know what would have been even funnier? Ardala should have beaten up the four dudes by herself and told Buck and his pal to undress them. That would have been a fabulous revelation: that the Emperor Draco raised his daughters to be the meanest fighters in the galaxy, but this one’s just happier being a sex kitten.

That wraps up Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for us. There was another season I’m not interested in, but life’s too short. Our kid definitely enjoyed it more than I did, but this story was very good, and so were “The Plot to Kill a City”, which was downright excellent, and “Cosmic Whiz Kid”. And they were all better than that terrible pilot movie!

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The Bionic Woman 2.6 – Kill Oscar (part three)

Happily, our son came around for the memorable conclusion of this story. He thought Steve and Jaime fighting the Fembots amid the forces of a hurricane was incredibly exciting, and he’s right. Taken as a whole, this three-parter is a master class in plotting, moving through the creepy, conspiratorial Body Snatchers business of people you can’t trust, to some good action sequences, to a tremendously busy hour with our heroes storming the island in the middle of a… well, a storm.

And since the Fembots have remained hugely troubling for him, he got to punch the air when lightning fells three of them. He was also really taken with Jaime finally getting practical with her power and doing something deadly against an implacable enemy. She uses a rock as a weapon and throws it at 60 mph into one Fembot’s back, instantly smashing it.

I was a little worried, as this episode does have a fair amount of old men – generals and admirals – sitting around a big table grumbling while the weather forces stock footage of jets and aircraft carriers to turn back. Fortunately, one of the admirals is played by Sam Jaffe with a twinkle in his eye, which more than excuses the story regularly returning to the war room.

This story marked the end of an era. This was the last time the two bionic series crossed over, and in fact they apparently barely mentioned each other going forward. In part that’s because ABC canceled The Bionic Woman at the end of this season, and NBC picked it up with the understanding that there wouldn’t be any more crossovers. I may have given my son a somewhat flawed presentation of the programs, since we’ve watched all of the crossover stories, even the ones with very small appearances, but only a few of the many “counterfeiters in turtlenecks” that really dominated the actual schedule. But in our memories, Steve and Jaime were always teaming up anyway. That’s maybe the way it should have been.

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Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Our summer season of Star Wars cash-ins comes to a crashing finale with the much-maligned Battle Beyond the Stars, a movie so derivative that it recycles sound effects from Battlestar Galactica, making it a cash-in of a cash-in. It’s also a remake of The Magnificent Seven, with George Peppard in the Steve McQueen role and Robert Vaughn in the Robert Vaughn role, which was itself a remake of The Seven Samurai… could you tell that Roger Corman produced this?

Actually, one of the most delightfully Cormanesque qualities of this movie is that all of the principal actors, except for John Saxon, who plays the Vader Villan Sador, were probably only required on set at the same time exactly once. Saxon never interacts with any of the principal characters, who also include Richard Thomas, Sybil Danning, Marta Kristen, and Sam Jaffe, who plays a cyborg. I think that if I were casting a movie in 1980, Sam Jaffe would not be the first name I’d come up with to work for about eight hours as a disembodied head stuck on top of a bunch of wires and machinery.

I can’t credit this turkey with much of anything myself, except that I was genuinely impressed with at least the first two-thirds of the script, which is lean and mean and moves absurdly fast, all character and nuance chopped for the bare bones of a fast-moving plot. It makes a huge error in breaking the battle against Sador into two chunks; the momentum vanishes when they return to the planet Akir (as in Akira Kurosawa) for the respite between fights with Sador. The last half-hour of the movie drags.

But it certainly didn’t drag when I was ten or so. This was one of those movies that was shown on HBO about thirty times over a couple of months and I saw most or all of it about twenty-nine of those times. I don’t know why bits of it were so unfamiliar this time around, though. I’d forgotten all about the collective-consciousness aliens who join the fight, but remembered Sybil Danning’s last line exactly. This is a movie that you watch when you’re a kid for all the space explosions and the illicit thrill of some mildly bad language because your parents see this and assume it’s more kiddie space junk and they don’t need to monitor it.

There are other cute little bits. I like that John Saxon’s character is in search of a new arm, and there’s one of the all-time great “Show me more of this Earth thing you call kissing” scenes between Thomas and Darlanne Fluegel, in a very early role. George Peppard’s Cowboy character has a belt that dispenses scotch, soda, and ice.

I nearly fell asleep during the last half hour, and my wife cringed and winced through the mess, as indeed she did with all the other outer space dramas we’ve watched this summer. But our son whooped and hollered and punched the air and had the best time in the galaxy again. He has, in that delightful way of six year-olds, decided that each and every one of the eight silly movies we watched during this season of cash-ins was better than the previous one, and this – this! – was the best of them all. I’d say that it’s not half as good as Starcrash or Message From Space, but it’s his opinion that counts the most.

We’ll head back to Earth for our next few Sunday movies, but we’ll let him see the actual sequel to Star Wars one day next month, so stay tuned!

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Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

This was the first time that we sat down to watch a film together that didn’t have the safe introduction of a familiar TV series! Daniel did mostly well, but we had to take a short intermission break because this movie was a lot longer than I expected. It’s not fair to say that I was familiar with a shorter version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but the one time that I saw it, back around 1979-1980, it sure was shorter than this.

B & B was originally released in 1971 and was made by many of the crew and team who’d worked on Mary Poppins. This was, it turned out, a backup plan had Disney not been able to acquire the rights to Poppins. As dramatized with some considerable liberty in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, that was a real possibility.

B & B is a pretty fun movie about Miss Price, an “apprentice witch” who has been burdened with three orphans who’ve been evacuated from London during the Blitz. Simultaneously, her witchcraft correspondence course has been closed down. Searching for answers turns up her professor, who has actually been running a mail-order scam, having no idea that his spells actually work. Now that they realize that, in the right hands, the magic will work, they set off to find the missing half of the old book from which he’d been pilfering the incantations.

In its present form, the movie is badly bloated. I didn’t spot the problem until we realized that some of the film footage within the agonizing ten-minute (!!) “Portobello Road” musical number is of markedly inferior quality to the rest of the movie. Apparently the original cut of the film for the 1971 release is 117 minutes, the one that was reissued in 1979 was 96 minutes, and this is 139 minutes, which is way too long. They tried to restore everything, including cut scenes that no longer had an existing soundtrack and had to be redubbed entirely. (Another scene, which had a soundtrack but no film footage, is included as a reconstruction as a bonus feature.) To the Disney team’s, and the voice actors’, considerable credit, the only two times that I noticed that a scene was redubbed was when the fellow with David Tomlinson’s part read his lines. The imitation was good, but not quite right.

So the first half of the film is far too bloated and slow for a four year-old to embrace it, and so we took a break midway through the scene where Sam Jaffe and Bruce Forsyth, playing a shady book dealer and his criminal associate, briefly antagonize our heroes, but also give them a clue that the magic words that they need can be found on a fantasy island. The first half has some cute magical moments, but they were not paced well enough to hold his attention, and the long “Portobello Road” number destroyed what was left.

The animated section of the film livened things considerably after our break. It’s centered around a bad-tempered lion king engaging David Tomlinson as the referee for a soccer match. Nobody wants to referee his matches; they all get trampled underneath elephants and hippos and rhinos passing the ball around. Anybody who ever wondered why this movie, and Mary Poppins, have animated portions never watched them with four year-olds. He loved it, roared with laughter, and his interest was reignited at precisely the right time.

Anyway, Angela Lansbury is incredibly fun as Miss Price. I’m so used to her playing supremely confident and assured characters that it’s a complete delight to see her strung along by a con man and slowly – very, very slowly – falling in love. She and Tomlinson are really fun together and have a lot of genuine, believable chemistry. Other than the children, everybody else is really here in bit parts. Roddy McDowall has a small and insignificant role as the new village vicar. Jaffe and Forsyth had maybe a day on the set and that was that. Lennie Weinrib at least sounds like he got to have some fun with a couple of voiceovers for the cartoon animals.

Daniel enjoyed the movie, even if he did need an intermission, and while I think that the original, shorter theatrical cut must have been better, I enjoyed revisiting it. Now I want to read more about the restoration; it all seems really fascinating!

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Batman 2.2 – Walk the Straight and Narrow

Over the last few years, there’s been a bad math meme that keeps going around, exposing the poor arithmetic of the gullible. It goes something like how if the government is going to spend $2 billion on Project X, they could just give all 240 million of us citizens a million dollars instead. The meme is made further heartbreaking because it’s inevitably shared on Facebook by somebody that you sat with in Ms. Montfort’s algebra class in the eleventh grade.

The Archer has some inside help in part two of this story. Surprising absolutely nobody over the age of six, the Wayne Foundation’s treasurer Alan A. Dale is a traitor. If the character’s name wasn’t a giveaway to people unfamiliar with Robin Hood, the actor, Robert Cornthwaite, is playing him so snootily and fussily that he just can’t be a good guy. He’s meant to be overseeing the Wayne Foundation’s charity giveaway of $10 million to 100,000 of its poorest citizens.

This means that all 100,000 of them get called in reverse alphabetical order to receive a brand new $100 bill, meaning everybody’s going to be there all darn day. And the first to take the podium is the legendary actor Sam Jaffe, in an uncredited role as Zoltan Zorba. Jaffe was very well known to viewers at the time for his role as Dr. Zorba in Ben Casey, and he spots the bill as a phony, in part because he brought a magnifying glass onto the stage, and in part because the Archer did not merely go to the trouble of obtaining $10 million in counterfeit money, he printed money with his own face in place of Ben Franklin’s. We’ve already established that the character is a raging egotist, but that must have taken a little time!

Anyway, other name parts in the cast are Barbara Nichols, whom imdb describes with some accuracy as “an archetypal brassy, bosomy, Brooklynesque bimbo,” and Vinton Hayworth, later to co-star in I Dream of Jeannie, as yet another Gotham civic official, this one both an old fraternity brother of Commissioner Gordon’s and a former governor(!), whose principal job description seems to be “overact, as much as possible.”

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