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Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952)
Cheeze to Pleeze -- It's a Whiz!
This one (so to speak) is for lovers of the old Republic Serials, those incredibly silly (by modern standards) episodic films that kept our parents or grandparents coming back to the Saturday matinée week after week. Produced on budgets not much larger than Ed Wood ever had, and on sets sometimes recycled from film to film, they still offered a weekly dose of action and adventure in the days when those terms were not synonymous with earth-splitting explosions, computerized special effects, and "I'll be back." The plots were straightforward; of course, most a/a genre films are simple of plot even today, but there is something about these old cans of cheeze that satisfies more than constant viewings of "Terminatorsaur" and "Predatalienator". The goods guys wear white hats (so to speak) and smell good; the bad guys wear black hats and stink of cigarette smoke; and the simplicity of the 'fex are lovely in themselves. Yeah, things still blow up and burn down, but that is still a function of a/a films, I guess. The logic is, bigger isn't always better, and the serials prove the point.
In this Saturday-morning peanut-gallery special, the plan is for the aliens to blow up Earth, so that Mars can take its orbital place and get warm. Out to foil them is Larry, a "security agent," armed only with a .45 and a miraculous suit that lets him fly through the air just by twisting knobs (and jumping on a hidden trampoline for the initial takeoff). Can he stop the terrible zombies from completing their dastardly scheme before the train runs off the track, he gets burned in a raging inferno, or the movie runs out of reels? Return to the theater next week for the next exciting chapter...or just keep playing the tape. Get plenty of popcorn, settle in for a Saturday with the kids to introduce them to what film really was like, and keep your eyes open for Leonard Nimoy, sans ears and "Live Long and Prosper", in an early film appearance!
One of the best-remembered of the serials, as well as one of the last ones (Republic stopped producing them in the mid-Fifties or so; check a specialist film-history Web site). Warmly recommended to all, unless you have no tolerance for cheesy sci-fi. I only hope it comes out on DVD eventually, and with Nimoy to comment on it or do a special feature!
A suitable descendant of Gerry Anderson's original
This movie is far better than the "professional, serious film critics" or casual viewers wanting the latest FX-fest would have you believe. First of all, films should be >>entertaining<<. "Thunderbirds" succeeds at entertaining, both young and old. Both my 9-year-old daughter and I are in agreement on this.
Plot synopses already exist, explaining the background behind both the movie and its origin in the British children's TV show of the 1960s. I wasn't one of the original viewers, but I caught up with my loss on the TechTV network during the past year or so. This movie compares quite favorably with the original. A different spin is placed on the legend of the Thunderbirds, making it a coming-of-age situation for the teenage Alan Tracy. Instead of being part of International Rescue from the beginning, he's still slogging his way through school. But he dreams of the day he'll earn his wings and help out the family on their missions.
It isn't surprising that director Jonathan Frakes and the writers chose to make a few changes; indeed, it was expected. Solid performances are put in by all, from the well-known Sir Ben Kingsley and Bill Paxton to the younger cast (Brady Corbett as Alan, Vanessa Anne Hudgens as Tin-Tin and Soren Fulton as Fermat). Sophia Myles is delightful as Lady Penelope (though she does seem a bit awash in pink), and Ron Cook brings the "hexquisite" Parker to life at last.
People eating a constant diet of FX movies will probably find nothing new here. Others will be fearful of another "SpyKids" type movie. And then there are the grognards, unable to stand any deviation from orthodoxy and the thoughts of Chairman Anderson. I say that you should just set all that aside and enjoy the movie as itself. Get thee to a movie-ery, and go see "Thunderbirds."
Action and adventure for the kids, and Robin Williams for the adults
Find a comfortable chair, lay out the board, grab the dice, and get ready to play. But remember: once you start this game, you can't stop. If it takes you over twenty years to finish, finish you must.
"Jumanji" is loosely based on the Caldecott Medal-winning children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. The basic premise stays the same: a sister and brother find a strange game based on a jungle safari adventure. When they begin playing it, they find they cannot stop, for the characters and events of the game come to life and start filling their house with monkeys, lions, explorers and other strange things. Only finishing the game will make it all go away.
In the hands of Hollywood, more story is added. Now we have a game spanning 26 years, when one of the two children playing the game in 1969 gets sucked into the game itself. He's trapped there until a fresh pair of children in 1995 find the game and begin playing. The right number is rolled, and out Alan comes...as Robin Williams! Finding the grown girl to complete the group, the four must complete the game before their town is destroyed by the stampeding rhinos, killer pod vines and crazed Great White Hunter.
Robin has some good moments in this film, though he isn't allowed to riff as much as in other vehicles. He's supported by an excellent cast, including a young Kirsten Dunst as the sister of the new pair of children; Jonathan Hyde as both the 1969 father and Van Pelt, the Great White Hunter from the game; and Bebe Neuwirth as the modern children's aunt. The effects are, not surprisingly, ILM-excellent -- necessary in a film of this type. The script was co-written by Van Allsburg to insure the atmosphere of the film and book mesh, but he did not fall into the "This is MY baby" syndrome, and received good help from his two co-writers (for details, see the main page). Highly recommended for old and young alike.
The Best Version of Wolfe So Far
Fans of mysteries (book or film) break into several political camps, prominent among which are the Chain of Reasoning group vs. the Hard-Boiled party. While the puzzle aspect is present in both, it takes on possibly more importance in the Chain of Reasoning, where clues are examined through deductive reasoning, as opposed to the knock-on-doors, grind-it-out Hard-Boiled method. (You can probably guess which camp I prefer.) Typical of CoR would be Poirot and Miss Marple; Hard-Boiled is exemplified by Spenser and any standard cop show.
A pleasant cross-pollination is Nero Wolfe, with its eccentric, heavyset genius and his wise-cracking assistant, Archie Goodwin, both created by author Rex Stout. Wolfe, according to Goodwin (the voice in the Wolfe books and this TV-movie), weighs a seventh of a ton (English, not metric), refuses to shake hands, feels himself capable of ordering the New York Police around at his whim, charges exorbitant fees, and is an absolute genius. He refuses to leave his brownstone house except on the most urgent of business; he has the suspects brought to him, believe it or not, usually by Archie, assisted (grumpily) by Homicide Detective Inspector Cramer. And it works!
Six recreations of Wolfe and Archie are on record in IMDb. The most recent, Maury Chaykin is excellent as Wolfe, if perhaps a little more human than Wolfe was written in the books by Rex Stout. However, a character who is nominally the hero of a story has to be made sympathetic if the viewer will accept them. Chaykin not only has the requisite skill, he also has the needed girth, bluster and general facial appearance of a Wolfe. Opposite him, Timothy Hutton plays Archie; he gives a most satisfactory portrayal of the wisecracking, completely competent Goodwin.
The story is straight from what is probably Rex Stout's most famous novel, and for justifiable reasons. In "The Doorbell Rang," Wolfe is engaged by a client for $50,000 -- retainer! -- to get the FBI off her back, where they have been unjustifiably hanging. The only way to do that, understandably, is to somehow hang J. Edgar Hoover's FBI up by the heels in a dry wind.... The book was set in the 1960s; Hutton (the executive producer and director as well as Goodwin) chooses to set it in the Fifties, for the more colorful styles. The supporting cast is excellent in their various characters, and the script is quite faithful to Stout's book. But does Wolfe pull it off? Well, that's for you to discover (heh, heh....) The show was the first in a series on A&E, so watch the others, and watch for this one (or buy the tape, of course). As Wolfe would say, it is most satisfactory.
The Three Caballeros (1944)
An imperfectly polished semi-precious stone
"The Three Caballeros" is a nice little gem of golden-age Disneyana, that could have used perhaps a little more polishing.
The Disney Studios apparently produced several pieces around the time period of this animated-live action featurette; "Caballeros" is probably the best known of the series. The basic premise here is that Donald Duck is celebrating his birthday, and a large package of presents is sent to him from friends in several Latin American countries. The event turns into a celebration of Latin culture, focusing on Brazil and Mexico; Donald is given tours by two "colleagues," a cigar-chomping parrot-cum-boulevardier named Joe Carioca, and Panchito, a bandito rooster (complete with never-empty six-guns).
Perhaps twenty to thirty minutes of the piece is made up of the cartoon characters superimposed over live action, or live actors doing carefully choreographed moves in front of a screen. The techniques are apparent to the eye, and dated by modern standards, but they were reasonable attempts to fuse the two worlds together. More problematical to this correspondent is the last 10-15 minutes; while having a few interesting sequences, the lack of a plot (becoming a dream of random images in Donald's ever-confused thoughts) makes the section drag down the rest of the film. Less importantly, politically correct types may object to the "Hollywoodization" and "Disneyfication" of Latin culture/music that turns it into a progression of scenes from a folkloric or idealized mariachi show. Of course, shows like "The Three Caballeros were never meant to show the actual grit of much of Latin American life....
If you're looking for that reality, avoid this like the plague. If you're looking for fun, good Hollywood-Latin music, and "poorty girls," head out and rent it.
Great music and fashion
"Roberta" is fairly typical of the movies set in Astairerogersland (as one author called their world). What is atypical is that their roles are not the main ones. Fred and Ginger supply the vehicle to get the actual leads, Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne, together; their own romance is more of a subplot. They do, of course, sing and dance, most excellently....
Dunne provides the showstopper number, with an excellent rendition of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" performed to balalaikas. She also supposedly supplies many of the costume designs for the characters in the plot (which were actually created by Bernard Newman, and were wonderful). Watch for a young Lucille Ball in a frothy, feathered evening gown in the final fashion-show sequence.
The definitive version!
I was six years old when CBS premiered this updated version of the musical written for television. Rodgers and Hammerstein penned "Cinderella" in the Fifties, and Julie Andrews was cast in the lead role. I have been lucky enough to see a clip of her performing one of the songs on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and consider her unsuited for the role; even back then, her voice had a maturity that was unnatural for the character of a young girl.
But Lesley Ann Warren.... Let's say I fell in love that night, and have had a crush on Lesley Ann ever since, even after I've been married for eight years. (Grin) However, having seen this version any number of times now, I think I can give a more objective opinion.
Music: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II supplied the score; need we say more? This show turned me on to R&S. In particular, "Ten Minutes Ago," "Impossible," and the instrumental waltz at the ball (where Warren and Stuart Damon have their first dance) are incredible.
Cast: Excellent all the way. More objectively than above, Lesley Ann Warren as the young innocent who wins true love was inspired; while her voice is a little undeveloped at this age, it lends a certain charm to the performance. Her dancing was excellent across the board; not surprising, since she was trained as a ballet dancer before taking this part.
Stuart Damon was also excellent as the Prince (unnamed in the production). Far more handsome in 1965 (logically!), he was wonderful as the romantic young here, returned from adventures, but without a wife to carry on the dynasty. An excellent singing voice, and he used it on some wonderful songs.
The others of the cast were, in short, generally great. Walter Pidgeon and Ginger Rogers were wonderfully witty with each other; Jo Van Fleet, Pat Carroll and Barbara Ruick as the stepmother and stepsisters were characters you love to hate; and Celeste Holm was an excellent, sympathetic fairy godmother.
Costumes: Cinderella in her ball gown was the main reason I fell in love with Lesley Ann! In that floaty gown, with her hair pulled up and a long Hepburn swan's neck, she was the picture of beauty to a six-year-old boy. Still is....
Production: This may let people down today if they rent or buy the videotape (Hallmark Entertainment). Logically enough, the state of the art had advanced in 35 years, and the jaded viewer of today may not accept the simple camera cuts and video dissolves of 1965. Ride with the boat; you'll still enjoy if you give it a chance.
Highly recommended, both to the student/historian of television and to the simple viewer. My 5-year-old daughter enjoys this tape immensely, and she's a child of the modern effects world!