Sunday, November 26, 2017

A Review and Defense of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

When I was but a child, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen kinda passed me by. I saw the trailers for it, but for some reason they didn't really interest me. Cut to about a year later, when the movie aired on TV, I decided to tape it. Surprisingly, I ended up really enjoying myself! Not only was it a super fun watch, but it introduced me to some literary characters I wasn't aware of up until that point, which served to greater stoke my growing interest in the classics! Much to my endless shock and annoyance however, this is an EXTREMELY unpopular movie. Fourteen years later and people still despise League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and crack snide jokes about how awful it is. Is it though?...No, it's bloody not!...

The year is 1899, and troubled times are marking the turn of the century, as attacks with advanced weaponry have been waged against several countries, with each one being tricked to think a rival country is responsible. A global war is on the horizon, and the enigmatic British intelligence man M brings together a group of unique individuals in order to locate and eliminate the mysterious villain known as The Fantom. These heroes include legendary hunter and hero of the British empire Allan Quatermain, the charming and powerful Mina Harker, invisible gentlemen thief Rodney Skinner, the feared Captain Nemo of The Nautilus, Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous counterpart, and the shifty Dorian Gray, as well as the later addition of the U.S. secret agent Tom Sawyer. Together, they must use their special powers to find and stop The Fantom at all costs before the world is swept into ruin...

The plot to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn't a hugely complex one, but it's sufficiently entertaining, has enough twists and turns, and fun setpieces. The story is more an excuse for all these characters to get together and fight evil, which in no way means it's bad, just that the cast and general aesthetics are given a larger focus.

Throughout, there are little easter eggs and clues, some of which I really liked. One relatively early on actually says quite a lot despite the utterance of just a single word, and you'll only notice it on second viewings...Well, you would if I hadn't just told you, anyway.

The trouble with team-up movies is that it can be difficult juggling all the characters without some of them getting either shafted for screentime, or undercharacterised. Surprisingly, not only do the heroes in League all feel well-rounded, but their characters inform each-other, like for example the relationship with Quatermain and Sawyer. It works on one level with the grizzled but goodhearted old mentor to a brash and eager younger man, but also another, with Quatermain's memories of his own dead son, who he sees in his young protege, and is trying to not make the same mistakes. The same goes for exchanges other characters have, like Mina and Dorian, or Jekyll and Nemo. No-one gets left in the corner with nothing to do here.

Getting more into the protagonists specifically. Quatermain is an old 'soldier' disillusioned with the British Empire, more at home in his adoptive home of Africa than the rainy streets of London. Further character I mentioned above. While we don't find out much of anything about Nemo's backstory, he's not a one-note character  I also dug his crew, based on their actions throughout, such as in the aftermath of the attack on Venice. It's small but important details like that that help flesh out out the world of a movie, and make it feel real.

Mina is a total badass. Even when not kicking all kinds of ass with her vampiric superpowers, she has some great lines, zings, and verbal telling-off. Not afraid to make her feelings known or to criticize Quatermain's sometimes antiquated feelings about women, she has a backstory that definitely feels of 'less is more', with us knowing just enough for it to be compelling.

Jekyll and Hyde are used effectively, and while it can be a bit silly that this interpretation of Hyde is a hulking behemoth, it works for what the movie is. His redemption into somewhat of a hero is well-executed too, for the most part. It works in the sense that these aren't really different people, but two facets of the same mind, at different extremes. Making Hyde more of a good guy by the end feels weird in one respect though, given what he's is implied to have done. It's like the writers forgot he was a possible rapist and/or murderer! As for screentime, the duo don't show up until half-an-hour in, but from then on they appear enough and do enough that they don't feel underused by any means.

This story's invisible man is one Rodney Skinner, who stole the original invisible man's formula. This change in character was done because the filmmakers apparently didn't have the rights to the H.G. Wells story. It's in regards to this character that the film is unfaithful to the graphic novel no matter which way you cut it, but this is another one I'm grateful for, as a genuine hero on the team is more preferable to me than an annoying rapist and murderer. Anyway, back to the movie's character, he vanishes for a while, which works when suspicion of foul play falls on him, and you're not sure if you can trust him, and then works for another reason later on down the track, but it is a bit irksome how there is quite a chunk where he's absent.

Tom Sawyer's inclusion is a controversial one, because his character's flat out not in the book, but I don't mind it. While the reason for his presence may have been just to add an American to the cast, he fits in the story, and him being a grown-up secret agent Tom Sawyer does gel with the whole World Newton vibe. Even moreso back when I was under the mistaken impression that the Mark Twain book Tom Sawyer, Detective was about him as an adult solving a seedy urban brothel murder! Plus, he is the only American in the cast, so it's not like they're hogging the spotlight.

Dorian Gray is another character that wasn't in the source material, but fits in like he was always there. If you're going to add a new character in an adaptation, it's important that you give them important relationships and interactions with the rest of the cast that really inform the story, to justify their presence.

Moving onto the baddie. He's effective, looking interesting and proving himself early on to be a threat, even engaging the heroes directly early on in each of their encounters, which makes him feel like quite a proactive villain. One complaint I do have though is that The Fantom is such a neato villain, but he turns out to just be a disguise for the baddie's true identity, so after the Venice segment, he just sort-of vanishes in a sense. As for said reveal, it was my first exposure to a certain character, so that's cool! It's a bit out-of-nowhere and rushed though, not really playing into anything. It feels like it's just there because it was in the book. The accent switch is also a bit weird, but hey, it'd be classist to assume a professor couldn't be scouse, cockney, or something like that.

Finally, there was one character who was excised from the film entirely! Apparently the daughter of a kidnapped scientist from the beginning shows up here and there to either fight with or against the League. I'm not about the hows and whys, but I guess it was decided early on during production that this character was a superfluous addition in an already packed cast, so she was removed, probably for the best. That didn't stop her from appearing in promotional material though! I seem to recall seeing her in the first trailers.

The acting is good all-round, with each performer bringing something different to the table. Despite reportedly having no idea what was going on in the script (which is odd considering the plot's not that complicated, and these are all famous literary characters he would've read about in his boyhood), Sean Connery delivers a fine performance, while Naseeruddin Shah and Peta Wilson excel as Captain Nemo and Mina Harker, respectively. Tony Curran delivers a great auditory performance, rarely using his face to get emotions and reactions across. Jason Flemyng has to work double duty in his tole, and he does well. To boot, he also has to play Jekyll a bit like a desperate junkie early on, then more in control and self-assured later on. A lot to work with, but he succeeds. Stuart Townsend plays a real asshole very well, while Shane West is good, making the most of a role that some feel was unnecessary. There's some overacting here and there, mainly in the Venice segment. Some of it makes sense given a...certain character shift, but other parts are just a bit overdone.

A lot of the CGI is really quite good, especially for the early 2000s! There's a good mix between digital and practical effects. Some shots look a bit blurry, but most of those are underwater shots, so it makes sense. Others just look a tad ropey though. The Invisible Man is realized really well! At first the movie seemed to get lazy by going from the 'partially invisible with shaving cream' look to just the actor's normal face caked in make-up. It's not like it doesn't make sense, but in the wrong hands it could come across as a cheap get-around. Thankfully the movie never abuses this, and there are many really effective moments regarding invisibility, even something as simple as Skinner taking his hat off. One thing of note is the burn effects near the end. Methinks the design crew got a liiitle bit overzealous with the make-up in that scene. It's like they wanted to have enough scarring so we'd notice an invisible man is burnt, but went a wee bit too far, and gave him a crazy amount of scarring that should be disfiguring and fatal!

The locations we see here are great, from the veldts of Africa to the frozen wastes of Mongolia, the canal streets of Venice to the vast but beautiful emptiness of the ocean. The Nautilus is a neat set too. Basically the team's HQ, it's a submarine with a very Victorian aesthetic, almost steampunk, and the two styles make for a neat combo. The cold industrial factories in the climax make for an effective final setting.

To finish the review, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has its flaws here and there, but nothing major, and for the most part it's a really enjoyable romp, with lots to recommend.


Now, getting into different territory. Over the years, I could never really find out a reason for why people hated this movie so much. Some of the complaints I read really sounded like these people were reaching for things to complain about, like bitching about the target practice scene for not making any sense by having the Nautilus still for a while despite needing to race to Italy, even though it's established that it's stopped to recharge with solar energy, or a recent Cracked article that seriously complained that it 'reduces Moore's strong, confident, and reserved Mina Harker in a vampire', as if her being a vampire somehow automatically reduced any of those qualities, and ignoring that the movie plum doesn't strip Mina of any of those. Eventually I just figured 'Oh, there must be something intrinsically wrong with the film in comparison to the graphic novel, so maybe I'll understand when I read it.'. Well, I've since read the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel, and boy is it a doozy!

Looking at this comic on its own merits, it's pure garbage. The art is sometimes good in a stylised way, but often just plain awful. The story is nonstop action with no substance, barely any story, and very little in the way of characterisation (more on that later). One big problem with the writing is that it just does not stop with the literary references! There's practically one every couple of pages and it gets tired really quickly, especially the really forced ones. It's also full of casual racism and sexism, too, and I don't care if it's intentionally reflective of the period or not, it's still uncomfortable to read, especially in what's meant to be a fun high concept pastiche. As for that term, high concept, it's a tricky thing to live up to, as the wrong step can propel your story from the stratosphere of awesomeness to just being plain stupid. This comic falls very much in that latter category.

As for the movie's accuracy to the source material, it is and isn't. Firstly, a lot of the plot holes, inconsistencies, and general idiocy of the book have been removed. While the details themselves are different, the story beats are relatively unchanged. Quatermain is reluctantly recruited, he meets the other League members during the mission briefing, and the team goes to Paris to capture Mr. Hyde. They then go to an old city in order to carry out their first mission, but it turns out the point of said mission is a ruse by their handlers, and they've inadvertently given them the ability to enact their master plan. The reveal of who the villain really is also remains.

Missing elements like Fu Manchu and Limehouse were purely superficial anyway, so alterations don't bug me that much. Another part of the book I didn't miss was when the team goes to recruit the Invisible Man at a girls boarding school shaped like a giant ass being spanked, where we're 'treated' to a Polyanna rape joke. No, I'm not actually kidding about any of that.

I spoke before of how the adaptation fixed a lot of the book's problems. Let's start with the big one-The villain's master plan. In the movie, it's to kickstart a World War in order to sell his advanced weapon tech to all sides, and to steal the genetic info and science of the League, to create unstoppable supersoldiers. That makes sense. The book's villainous plan though is to use Cavorite to create...GASP...a flying machine! 1898, as if flying machines didn't already bloody exist. The villain's ultimate plan by the way is just to bomb London in order to kill a criminal rival, and that's literally it. He has no other motivation. The heroes also completely fail to stop it, by the way, only winning when half of London's up in smoke. What monumentally shitty protagonists! There's not much reason to root for them when they can't even do one thing right in their whole darn book.

Other things the movie fixed are as follow. The reason for Quatermain's inclusion in the League makes way more sense in the movie, unlike in the book, where they recruited an elderly and frail opium addict for no other reason than he's a famous literary character that the reader will know of. Mina Harker's boosted skillset means her inclusion on the team makes sense. The Nautilus is barely utilised in the comic, making its presence borderline unnecessary, whereas it's a lot more prominent in the movie (not sure how it was able to fit in Venice's canals though!).

Ok, let's move onto the book's cast. Allan Quatermain's character is that he's a next-to-useless opium addict who has a gun. Captain Nemo's only character is that he has a gun. Mr Hyde loves rape. The Invisible Man loves rape. Mina Harker is a schoolteacher with no combat skills inexplicably given the position of team leader, and exists only to stand around doing absolutely nothing, and get molested. You can see why I prefer the film versions! Not only are they much more well-rounded, but the movie's Allan Quatermain for example is way more faithful to the books he comes from, unlike the completely unrecognizable one from the comics, who feels not one iota like Allan Quatermain.

One villain in the book who I mentioned above is Fu Manchu, who isn't in the film, but I'm hardly going to cry foul over that when the graphic novel itself didn't have the rights to Fu Manchu! It was always referring to him as the Devil Doctor or other such workarounds, and never by name. That's hardly a good shield for a lawsuit, and frankly the book has it coming if it's going to be that blatantly disrespectful about copyright. It's made all the more pointless as he says and does literally nothing in the book, just standing around for a couple of panels, completely failing to live up to how terrifying people say he is.

Fans of the book that hate the movie also whine about how sacreligious is is that Campion Bond isn't in it, despite him being a superfluous character in the book that says and does fuck all. It was a good call on the film's part to excise him entirely and just have the team refer to M himself. Plus, that way the betrayal is felt more since the team actually knows their boss, as do we, unlike the book, where we don't see the true villain until the last third.

The sequels are all equally stupid, too, with Moore getting increasingly oversaturative (not a word, should be) and bizarre with the literary/pop culture allusions, such as Billy Bunter, Barney Fife, Thomas the Tank Engine, Mother Goose, the Golliwogs, Noddy, Babar, Wind in the Willows, etc, as well as bloody cheeky about it too (like having a character named Jimmy Bond, who's totally not meant to be James Bond, so please don't sue us, MGM!). All of this culminates in Harry Potter as an antichrist that shoots lightning from his cock. To finish, how the hell anyone can regard the League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics as mature and deep storytelling is beyond me, as is how they can hate the movie so much, despite it legit not being bad, and actually fixing many of the source material's problems! 'Ugh' is my final word on the comics...

Sooo, now that I've gotten all of that of my chest, I heartily recommend that you avoid the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics like the goddamn plague, and that you instead check out the movie, which I promise to be a super fun time, and at the very least a fun distraction for a couple of hours...

Elvira's Haunted Hills (2001)

After an all-too-long gap of 13 years, Cassandra Peterson finally returned to the big screen with her 2001 effort Elvira's Haunted Hills

Burleque performer Elvira and her maid Zou Zou are travelling to gay Paris by way of the Cartpathian mountains in Romania, and are waylaid from their journey when the would-be charmer Doctor Bradley takes them to Castle Hellsubus, a spooky place with an even spookier history. The cursed family who dwell within the walls are resigned to letting their tainted lineage die with them, but Elvira's uncanny resemblance to Lord Vladimere's late wife Elura sends him into a frenzy...

Based on what I'd read from trusted sources, I wasn't really looking forward to watching Elvira's Haunted Hills, and I skipped it for a few years. Then, after ages of not thinking about it, I remembered the movie and felt kinda bad for avoiding it for so long, so I immediately sought it out, and got a copy!...As it turns out, my previous assumption was entirely correct. That's not to say the movie is bad by any means, but it's not all that great, and come the end, I thought to myself "Yeah, I don't really mind that it took me so long to get to this".

Elvira's Haunted Hills is a parody/homage of the Roger Corman Poe cycle of films, and it takes pretty much all of its inspiration from The Fall of the House of Usher, and Tomb of Ligeia, with only brief splashes of stuff like The Raven or Pit and the Pendulum influencing often minor aesthetic choices (like the opening credits, for example). My problem with the portrayal of these is that it feels quite superficial. Haunted Hills doesn't really do anything new with the material, just telling it how the old movies did, but with more jokes here and there. I kinda wish they would've used these concepts as a springboard to be more imaginative and unique. I also feel that adapting House of Usher in anything that's not a short film isn't the best of ideas, as it's not a long story by any means, and dragging it out over 90 minutes can be a recipe for boredom.

Because there's not a whole lot of story on the film's bones, the pacing is a little slow at times. The climax is a bit hurried, and not perfect, but it still has its positives. Pretty much everything comes together how you'd expect (despite a couple of depressing turns), and there's a neat pendulum slicing too! Other parts ended up feeling superfluous though, and didn't really culminate in a satisfactory way.

Another problem I had is the amount of time that goes by between appearances of certain characters.   It takes nearly a third of the movie before the hunky stablehand Adrian shows up, then he disappears for a while, and similar for Vladimere, who only gets two very tiny scenes before we properly see him, in the cemetery scene.

The humour in Elvira's Haunted Hills is quite mixed. It has its moments, and some parts really made me laugh (my favourite being the musical number), but plenty of jokes either don't really hit the mark, or are just a bit mediocre. The film is by no means unfunny, but it's not hilarious, either. It really is best to not go into this movie expecting it to be on par with Mistress of the Dark, as it simply doesn't even compare.

Cassandra Peterson is absolutely wonderful as Elvira, as usual, and age hasn't slowed her down one bit, nor dulled her beauty. The rest of the acting is all fine. Richard O'Brien is mostly pretty good. He plays the role of a tormented yet secretly demented aristocrat well, but one scene in particular was a little too over the top. Thankfully he doesn't act like that the whole time. Scott Adkinson is fun as Dr. Bradley, and while at first I didn't much care for his sudden character switch late in the game, Adkinson excels in both parts to his role. Gabriel Andronache looks perfect as a Fabio-type romantic hunk, and the phoney dubbing is quite possibly the funniest joke in the whole movie! The rest of the cast, from Mary Jo Smith to Mary Scheer and more, are all fine.

The cinematography and direction in Elvira's Haunted Hills look fantastic, as do the sets and locations! It's filmed all on location in Romania, which can sometimes look unconvincing if a movie is trying to act as though it's set in the U.S. of A., but in this case is extremely fortuitous, as this is a classic horror throwback that's actually set in Eastern Europe. The mountainous green scenery, and castle fit perfectly with what the film is trying to accomplish!

The music here is ok. The main theme wasn't that great (and is repeated a bit), but other tunes are nicer. One moment that got a laugh from me was when a sample of The Vampire Lovers is used!

A couple of random things to point out. In some points, Richard O'Brien kinda resembles William Morgan Sheppard from Elvira, Mistress of the Dark! And there's another amusing moment during the hypnosis scene, where Bradley says "Trust me, I'm a doctor.". First, his delivery is hilarious, and secondly, I wonder if that was an intentional in-joke to O'Brien in Shock Treatment as well as just a funny line.

Elvira's Haunted Hills is the very definition of a mixed bag. It has aspects to it that are good, while others aren't so much, but in the end, it's still worth watching, and I certainly respect the hell out of the movie, regardless of how I felt about it! And let's put it this way, this film is nowhere near as bad as some of the movies Elvira's spotlighted on Movie Macabre!...

Cu Mâinile Curate (1972) and Ultimul Cartuş (1973)

Sergiu Nicolaescu was a noted Romanian director who worked from the 1960s up until his death in 2013. He dabbled in various genres, from comedies, to historicals, and crime. Today I'll be looking at two of his movies from the 1970s...

Cu Mâinile Curate (With Clean Hands)

Mihai Roman is a former rugby player, former prison camp occupant, and current agent of the Communist party of Romania. Following the war, he's given the position of Commissioner in the police force, in order to help bring some order back to the chaos that's filled the streets ever since the end of hostilities. Partnered with the trigger-happy Tudor Miclovan, Roman investigates a fellow policeman's murder, leading him to a plot by the criminal known only as Semaca...

Cu Mâinile Curate is a 1940s style noir by way of the 70s. The plot is standard stuff, and not the best, but it's pretty serviceable, and acts as basically an excuse for violent police standoffs, and explosions.

Mihai Roman is your typical reluctant hero. Quick to brood, sworn to do his duty, and having a bad habit of getting his friends killed. He's an ok lead, but not very interesting.

Tudor Miclovan is described as a womaniser, and a dandy (or 'mallaganbisdolla' in Romanian), but I didn't really see it, nor any visible prowess with the ladies. He seems more like a psychopath, more than happy to gun people down in cold blood, while grinning like a madman. One scene I didn't really get was where Miclovan shakes down a bunch of crims for their money, criticizing them for being so greedy when others are starving...then he gathers all the money up and sets it alight! Dickhead. Having been accidentally spoiled regarding what becomes of him, I was actually quite looking forward to his fate!

Patulea is a waste of a good character arc. A former torturer of Roman in a prison camp and now his seemingly reformed boss on the police force, there's understandably bad blood between the too, but the writing seems to be painting a more complex picture. Unfortunately it quickly abandons this and reduces him to a one-dimensional baddie who gets unceremoniously axed off less than halfway though. I did at least like how this direction really allowed previous simple acquaintances Roman and Miclovan to team up in a believable way.

She's only in the movie for about a minute, but I liked Charlotte the prostitute. She takes things in stride, and doesn't let her client being help up by the police at gunpoint ruin her sunny disposition.

On the action front, Cu Mâinile Curate is hilarious! Hundreds of shots are fired, cars blow up and/or flip over at the slightest provocation, tanks are used for simple bank robberies, and trains are guided off-track for precise assassinations, it's ridiculous! It seems by the end that half of Romania's population has been caught in the crossfire.

The music is pretty good! There are a few tunes that really get you in the mood for a swingin' 70s cop flick! One musical number is ok, albeit hilariously dubbed over. Richard Oschanitzky did a great job with the sometimes jazzy soundtrack. The final confrontation is disappointingly devoid of music though.

From what I could tell, the acting was decent enough. Some of them were overdoing it a bit, but it all seemed fine, I guess. A lot of the actors reminded me of other people. Alexander Dobrescu of Patrick Macnee, Sergiu Nicolaescu as Guilano Gemma, and Ilarion Ciobanu of someone I couldn't place. Maybe Sam Neill? Richard Gere? An old teacher from school? I dunno.

There are some pretty flashy effects on display here, and they certainly lend something to the production, ensuring it doesn't look cheap. The film isn't really trying for a 1940s look, but maybe 1970s Romania doesn't look too different than it did 30 years prior? I didn't notice anything too egregious, like modern day appliances, though it's certainly possible there are if you look close enough.

While we're still talking aesthetics, in my brief search I wasn't able to find pictures of the original Romanian posters for these movies online, but I did find Czech ones, and as we all know, both the Poles and the Czechs are highly regarded for their surreal, minimalistic, and often fucked-up poster design! So it was definitely a neat find then.

Cu Mâinile Curate is a decent crime movie, but quite silly at times. While this makes it more enjoyable than it otherwise would've been, it also drags it down a bit. Still though, as far as B crime pictures go, it's not bad...

Ultimul Cartuş (The Last Bullet)

Following the events of the previous movie, the crime lord Semaca has been found not guilty of all charges, and is released, immediately using his newfound freedom to hatch a nefarious plan to destabilize the Communist party. It's up to the determined Commissioner Roman to find evidence of wrongdoing, and put a stop to it, in order to save his government, and avenge his partner...

The plot to Ultimul Cartuş is quite interesting, but the execution is boring! It doesn't feel like there's a good reason for it to exist.

The film definitely lacks focus, and jumps from one thing to the next without really leading up to or resolving them in a satisfying manner, throwing in some gunfights every now and then in an attempt to spice things up.  First there's a protest turned violent, then Roman just so happens to get a tip about illicit arms that leads him to Semaca's brother, Roman is later arrested by National Security for improper work, then without warning he's is suddenly undercover as a priest in a mountaintop village searching for a guy I'm pretty sure we hadn't heard of up until this point. It's all over the place!

The absence of the more charismatic Miclovan really goes to show how dull the milquetoast Ciobanu is when on his own. Nicolaescu's character might not have been likeable, but he was interesting enough to keep your attention. Roman isn't. Ilie makes for a pretty unhelpful sidekick for the majority of the running time, but becomes hugely proactive in the climax, actually getting to be behind the wheel in the dramatic car chase! On that note, I kept waiting for Roman to accidentally shoot him and crash the car, given the way he kept gesticulating while holding his gun! Also, given Roman got his brother killed last movie, I was wondering if Ilie was going to die as well. This whole family wiped out all because they had to serve as dramatic motivation for the brooding protagonist! He makes it out ok though, which is good.

The villains are a dull bunch too. Semaca barely appears, and is even briefly replaced by a never-before-mentioned brother, who only gets one scene himself before never being seen again until the end. I was also unclear on what Semaca's motives even were. He wants to destabilize the government because...umm?

Prior to watching these two films, I read a review on IMDb that mentioned how they're basically one movie cut in half. I'd say not really, sort-of. Ultimul Cartuş does feel like a separate story to me, continuing where the last one left off, rather than seeming like someone took a hatchet to one single product. This is appreciated, as I would've been fuming if Cu Mâinile Curate had reached the second act, then just abruptly stopped. One criticism I do have though is that perhaps more focus could've been given to Patulea as the lead villain in that first entry, with the big bad above him Semaca waiting in the wings for the sequel, where he'd take centre stage.

I was unsatisfied with the ending. Under different circumstances, it could've really worked, but the way things play out, it felt antithetical to Roman's character, especially in a situation where doing things his way got him everything he wanted with a nice little bow to boot.

Between the botched attempts on his life, the silly disguises, chase scenes, and the 70s score, this at times feels like a Pink Panther movie! A bad one, though. A post-Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie, though that might be too harsh on Ultimul Cartuş. There is one intentionally funny moment that did make me laugh, when Ilie is racing after the criminals, and asks Roman if he can shoot the tires out, to which he responds with "You think we're in the movies?". Another funny little out-of-universe note is that both cars in this chase are identical.

If you know enough about the subtleties of the Romanian condition in the 1970s, and if you squint, Cu Mâinile Curate could be seen as somewhat critical of the Communist regime, and at first it seems like Ultimul Cartuş was more of the same, thanks to a pretty brutal protest scene early on. I kinda take umbrage though with the reveal that it was really criminals posing as the police behind it, seeing as how violently crushing protests was one of the staples of the Communist regime(s) in Eastern Europe.

The direction by Nicolaescu is once again good, even though the movie isn't, and there are still some very well framed shots! The action sequences are ok, but a bit unengaging. Part of this is down to the lack of music (thrilling or otherwise), and to the lacklustre script. What particularly bugged me is that we open with a recap of last movie's climax (with some neat credit freeze frames), and this is immediately followed by another big gunfight, that lasts over 5 minutes! It at least looks really cool in places.

The acting's ok, but no performances really impressed me, and Ilarion Ciobanu isn't that compelling, as I mentioned before. There's some quite bad acting in a pretty hilarious interrogation scene. Let's just say that I don't quite believe Roman was actually banging those crims' heads together.

While Cu Mâinile Curate didn't give an exact date, you can infer it must take place in the late 1940s or early 50s. Ultimul Cartuş gives a more specific date of December 1945, which is less than believable, looking at how fine everything looks. If this was set only mere months after the end of World War 2, I imagine things would be looking a lot more run-down and dilapidated. Also, something tells me disco g-strings prrrobably weren't a thing over there in 1945, but who knows what wonders Romania holds.

I'm willing to bet the composer from Cu Mâinile Curate didn't return for this, because the amount of reused music is frustrating. Some of the tracks resused in moderation work well enough, like the ending theme, but others are just repeated again and again!

Overall, Ultimul Cartuş isn't really worth a watch, and if you wanna check out some Romanian crime cinema, there are other better places you could look...

Before I go, there's a confusing matter of chronology to discuss. The Commissioner Roman movies continued as the 70s went on, but a disagreement saw the series splinter into two different directions. Due to audience demand and perhaps his own affinity for the character, Nicolaescu wanted to resurrect the character of Miclovan, but the writer of the Roman films, Titus Popovici, preferred that he stay dead. This led to a dissatisfied Nicolaescu leaving the series and starting his own, starring himself in a role that's Miclovan in all but name, now christened Moldovan.

There are still three more entries left in the Commissioner Roman series, and four more in the Moldovan set, but I'll look at them at a later date. For now I just wanted to review the first two as an introduction, before the divergence happens. It was definitely interesting checking them out, and I look forward to seeing what else classic Romanian cinema has to offer...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976)

...Roger Moore played Sherlock Holmes?! Now this I have to see! He certainly had a fulfilling career if he was able to/had the chance to play at least three of Britain's most iconic characters!

In his homely den in Londontown, the great Sherlock Holmes receives a yearly treat-Play tickets from America, sent by Irene Adler, The Woman. This year, however, they've been torn up, alerting Holmes to possible danger. Accompanied by the ever faithful Dr. Watson, he heads to America, and finds that Irene's young son has been kidnapped by the evil Professor Moriarty, who had promised Holmes only a few days prior that he was going to pull of the crime of the century, and all centuries to come, and there'd be nothing Holmes could do to stop it...

Sherlock Holmes in New York is a decent enough movie. Not without issues, but you could do a lot worse. It's at least not three goshdamn hours, that's for one!

I liked how the kidnapping is solved, with the deductions it feels suitably Holmesian.   I do wish it would've been resolved just a tad sooner though, so Holmes doesn't start his investigation proper into the gold theft after the hour mark. As for the theft itself, how it's accomplished stretches credulity a bit, but it's pretty clever, and the foreshadowing isn't bad.

There are some incredibly stupid aspects to the plot, such as Moriarty's plan hinging on the rulers of nations everywhere letting him becoming ruler of the world because he has all their gold.

The ending I found to be disappointing. The callback to the start is nice, but the final confrontation is pretty lame, and the whole scene ends up being infuriatingly pointless, as Moriarty escapes again, meaning nothing was accomplished, and he could easily kidnap/kill Scott once again. Also annoying is that once again we have a movie about characters trying to stop a world war pre-WW1. I hate stories like this, because unless they're in an alternate universe where, say, World War 1 didn't happen, they feel incredibly pointless, as the characters go all this trouble to prevent a catastrophic global war only for it to happen anyway a few years later. Thankfully, if nothing else, the movie DOES know how heavy gold is!

The movie's portrayal of Holmes is kind of an emotional one. He's rarely calm and collected, and too quick to speak or act. There's a scene early on when the theatre director tells him Irene's address, adding at the end a "but..."-"No buts. Come on, Watson!", and Holmes just bolts out. What if the 'but...' had been "XX is her address, but it was demolished, and she now resides in YY". It pays to listen, Sherlock! There are also annoying instances of Holmes continuously interrupting people with his questions while they're already in the middle of answering them.

On top of all that, he's an impatient idiot in moments like when a criminal is coming to give instructions to Irene, and he yells at them to stop while at the top of a staircase, giving them ample time to escape. And there's his idiocy when he locates Moriarty's hideout. He's so loud and spends so much time haranguing the random henchmen leaving the hideout that it draws the attention of the professor inside, giving him ample time to escape, and re-kidnap Irene's son.

Lastly, there's a random and bizarre reveal that his real name is actually William Sherlock Scott Holmes. Huh? What's the point of drastically altering continuity, and for something so mundane, too? It kinda comes into play regarding Irene's son, but it doesn't really warrant that.

This movie will no doubt infuriate Irene Adler fans, as it treats her pretty poorly. Her only role in this film is to be vulnerable, constantly pleading, fainting, and crying. Once her son is rescued, she has even less to do.

Roger Moore is a weird choice for Sherlock Holmes, and while the writing lets him down, he actually fits quite well in the role! At a few points he dons disguises. The first is pretty rubbish, but the following ones are actually somewhat effective, if not exactly subtle.

Patrick Macnee is your typical Nigel Bruce type Watson, a living embodiment of 'I say!'. It's definitely amusing seeing John Steed of The Avengers in a more buffoonish sidekick related role. On that note, as much as people give Bruce's portrayal crap for being a 'bumbling idiot', he was always a worthy companion to Holmes, and smart in his own right (those movies never forgetting he's a doctor). The one here though is a bit dimmer, like not understanding the concept of time zones. He gets his moments to shine though, at least.

John Huston is bizarrely awful! It's quite shocking. Maybe he was completely hammered during the shoot. Charlotte Rampling is good as Irene Adler, though kinda wasted. Both the character, and Rampling deserve better. A lot of the supporting/minor cast either attempt not-so-good American accents, or they don't even try. It's great seeing David Huddleston here, and he's decently exuberant. Gig Young is also present, sporting a goatee so menacing that I was instantly convinced his character was to evil, though not so. Finally, there's a brief appearance by Jackie Coogan! I didn't recognize him at first but knew the voice.

While I'm not exactly clamouring for more Holmes stories set in the U.S., the location here makes enough sense, and isn't too bad. The film recreates turn of the century New York quite well, and it doesn't look too set-bound either, which is a great plus for a TV production.

Sherlock Holmes in New York is by no means a bad film, but as a Holmes vehicle it doesn't impress much. Still though, it's worth a watch if you're a Holmes fan, and if you want to see Roger Moore in the noteworthy role...

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), and The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot (1965)

...Why did I watch this?! This is what you get for not listening to Justine Ehlers, people! She warned me this was the absolute worst movie she'd even seen Vincent Price in, but I was foolish and did not listen...

After striking out on a date, bumbling secret agent Craig Gamble is met by a strange woman named Diane, who takes an odd interest in him when she mistakenly believes him to be one Todd Armstrong, bearer of many lucrative stocks and assets. It turns out Diane is a robot, being controlled by the diabolical Dr. Goldfoot. When he learns of the error in identity, he recalls his henchwoman back, but the smitten Craig tries keeping up with her, inadvertently taking her hand off in the process. He soon realizes what's happening, and when his best efforts to report the sinister goings-on to his boss (and uncle) fail, Craig decides to take matters into his own hands, and when he warns Todd of the danger, they band up to thwart Goldfoot's plans...

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine was quite a disappointment! Given it's cult following, and its leading man, I was prepared to have a good time even if the movie wasn't necessarily good per se, but it was just mostly unenjoyable.

The sort-of titular robotic women are sorely underused, barely factoring into the action after the first half, and not getting that much to do even in that first 45 minutes except for Diane, and all she does is try and get someone to sign documents! They're completely wasted, and even more frustrating is that Diane seemed to be getting a character arc, but then she just vanishes in the last half hour, along with every other girl-bot.

The last third is where the movie starts getting a bit more fun, since the leads are slap-bang in enemy territory, but then it hits a lull again. We get an extended scene of Dr. Goldfoot showing off various torture devices, a homage of Pit and the Pendulum, and everything culminates in a 10+ minute chase scene that goes on for FAR too long, and didn't make me laugh once, save for the end, where the final crash with Dr. Goldfoot and Igor looks crazy fatal! And they survive it?

The comedy is just weak. So much of it feels like it was written by an immature kid who doesn't have a full grasp on comedy. There are some laughs to be had, legitimately, and at the movie's expense. I especially liked the line from Price "Here's to your health. May you still have it tomorrow.".

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine looks quite cheap, which is strange since it had a budget of a million bucks, higher than many other AIP pictures. It feels like large swaths of it are shot on pre-existing sets, using pre-existing props, as if AIP is recycling the production out of half a dozen prior ones. I'm pretty sure that one set (Dr. Goldfoot's house) is from Ghost in the Invisible Bikini!...But then again, when I did some research, I realized Bikini Machine predates that movie by a year, so I suppose I'll let it slide. What did impress me was the fun claymation opening credits! I dig the Beach Party series and its derivatives for having intros like these.

At first, Vincent Price is let down by the script and direction, but come the final third he's able to bite into his role more as it gets meatier. I enjoyed his tour of terrors. Even if it's a somewhat self indulgent move on the film's part, it gives Price a chance to have some fun, so that's worth something at least.

Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman are pretty much interchangeable, to the point where I had trouble telling them apart later on, since they wear the same clothes, act the same, have the same hair colour, and Avalon's curls get soaked flat at one point, making it nearly impossible to distinguish who's who! They perform decently overall, but are a bit annoying sometimes, again, thanks to the writing and direction. Fred Clark is amusing here and there, but not other times. The robotic women don't get much to do but stand around. Only Susan Hart as Diane, and a cameoing Alberta Nelson get anything of note to do, but even then, one of them appears for a grand total of half a minute, and the other vanishes nearly half an hour before the end!

There are also nonsensical, unfunny, and unsubtle cameos from Annette Funicello and Harvey Lembeck, which is a real shame. I'm kinda annoyed that I spent the entire movie up to that point looking out with eagle eyes for his cameo, thinking it'd be a real blink and you'll miss it moment, then realizing I'd spent all that energy for nothing, as there's NO way you'll miss it!

The soundtrack, far better than the rest of the movie, is pretty swingin' especially the catchy title song by The Supremes. Less so for the number by Sam and the Ape Men, which didn't appeal to me much. One interesting fact is that Dr. Goldfoot was originally intended to be a musical! Sources vary on whether or not these scenes were actually shot, but Price was apparently disappointed at their exclusion. Can't say I blame him! That would've been a delight!

Teased at the end of this is The Girl in the Glass Bikini, and we even see a theatre marquee sign with its name on it, yet the movie never came to be, instead materializing into The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, sans Annette Funicello. Another bit of Beach Party trivia is that both Avalon and Hickman share the same character names as their roles in in Ski Party, albeit swapped around, because 'Oops', I guess.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is a pretty painful watch. It has a few redeeming qualities, most notably and obviously Vincent Price, who's the reason you'll inevitably watch this film if you're a fan of his. Despite these though, I don't recommend it! Keep away, I warn you!...

Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs

The nefarious Dr. Goldfoot is back, and targeting NATO generals with his explosive and explosive girl bombs. Young secret agent Bill Dexter realizes what's up and decides to investigate, against the wishes of his former superiors, who are happy to see the unpredictable and unreliable Dexter off the bench. Accidentally enlisting the help of two bumbling Italian security guards, and his boss's secretary Rosanna. Together, the unlikely foursome must stop Dr. Goldfoot before he can start World War III...

Because I apparently wasn't punished enough, I sat myself through the 1966 follow-up Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. Ummmm, ok, what are some positive things to start off with. Well, it's quite well directed, and the set design is neat!  Plus...uh...Oh god, this is even worse than the first one!

Right off the bat, this has a very different feel from Bikini Machine. There's good reason for that, as the project was outsourced to Italy, where famed horror director Mario Bava took the helm.

The story isn't good at all. The concept of girl bombs is neat, if a bit darker than the Dr. Goldfoot universe really should be, but the plot just ambles along at first with not much happening until everything collapses into a long chase sequence. At certain points the movie just gives up and has Dr. Goldfoot explain his evil plan directly to the audience. While it could be annoying that the exposition is gotten across so unnaturally, I actually appreciate this, as having Price interact directly with is is lovely!

Whereas the first movie's comedy was just weak and embarrassing, Girl Bombs' humour is just bad. I'm not sure what the difference between weak and bad comedy is. It's one of those intangible things, like comparing an unfunny movie to one that simply didn't make you laugh. Not all the humour here is on the rotten side though. I liked when Goldfoot is trying to radio a henchman to follow a target, but due to technical issues, he eventually just gives up and yells "Follow him!".

There's a moment or two where they just flat-out repeat the same joke. I also disliked how Ciccio and Franco were constantly going on about 'chinaman'. It continuously reminded me of The Big Lebowski. I did like hearing the word 'occidental' used for a change though! How often do you ever hear that instead of just 'white' or 'caucasian'?

As in the last movie, Dr. Goldfoot's entire plan seems threatened by a simple chase scene, and this one is worse than the last! The locale is much better, being in Roma, but it devolves rapidly the second everyone steps foot in the carnival. It starts off bad, and it ends up just plain weird! Like a Benny Hill skit if it wasn't funny, from sped-up chases to silent film inspiration, among other things. Then there's the ending, which is just depressing on multiple levels, nor makes a lot of sense.

Girl Bombs has a reverse problem to the first movie. Whereas in that one, we don't see much of the titular Doctor for the first 10 or so minutes, and plenty of Frankie Avalon, in Girl Bombs we see plenty of Price to start with, but only short and fleeting scenes with Fabian.

The sexuality on display is also an improvement, feeling less like a G-rated movie's attempts at showing off titillating material, and more what you'd expect from Mario Bava, even if he is 'constrained' by it not being an R picture.

The acting here isn't that great. A big problem is the dubbing! The majority of the actors are Italian and clearly speaking it, and not only are the people dubbing them over not that good actors, they also make unnatural pauses to try and sync up to when the original performer's mouths are moving. Even the actors who are speaking English sound a bit weird, as the sound of their dialogue feels off with the scenes they're used in, perhaps due to the original soundtrack being purportedly lost.

Once again, Vincent Price is the MVP, and this time he's fun all the way through! Not surprising, as while the writing still sucks, having a skilled director like Mario Bava is an improvement. There really is no telling how a performance from a good actor will turn out with a bad director present. Price actually gets a dual role here, albeit a brief one. It seems like a pointless addition since the general he plays is present for a grand total of one minute before being reduced to ash. I'd also heard Price plays yet another role, this time in drag! In actuality, it's Goldfoot himself who's masquerading as a woman, and it's either amusing, or painful. I don't know which yet.

Fabian really doesn't impress as Bill Dexter, but that's hardly his fault. He probably would've fared better in a good movie. Between Price, and the two Italian comedians I'll get into below, he's actually fighting for screentime! Regarding his character, he actually feels like a spy this time, working for an actual spy organization, unlike the bumbling young nephew of the first film. He's also a sexually harassing jerk during the first half, which made the character pretty intolerable until I realized that might be intentional, as a parody of James Bond, showing what a real life lothario secret agent would actually be like, and what kind of reactions they'd get from the women they make passes at.

The jury's still out on whether or not Fabian is playing Avalon's character from the first film. Different actor, of course, and he has a different name, but the narration at the beginning (which would be a shameless attempt at padding for an otherwise 79 minute long film if not for Vincent Price's delectable recap) seems to imply he's the same character, blending the two heroes from the first movie together.

Ciccio Ingrassia and Franco Franchi (playing self-titled characters) are incredibly annoying, and I'm referring to both the dub actors AND the original Italian ones on-screen! Ciccio is a bit better, but Franco is mostly insufferable. Finally, Laura Antonelli is ok, looking great! There's an amusing (and horrid) behind-the-scenes tidbit involving her-Samuel Z Arkoff reportedly blamed her refusal to get naked as the reason for the movie's failure. Excuse me...HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah bloody right!

Finally, how do the girl-bots far this time round? Much better, to start with! They get plenty to do, but after a certain point they're phased out, with the half hour chase scene completely taking focus away.

Girl Bombs' soundtrack is quite good, reminiscent of 1967's Casino Royale.  I didn't much care for the song at the end, which wasn't half as good as the Supremes tune from the previous film. The dance number it plays over during the credits is kinda impressive though in the sheer number of performers present.

This is definitely better looking than its predecessor, partially because there are more lush outdoorsy locations thanks to shooting on location in Italy, and because the set and prop design is markedly improved, not giving off the impression of rented material. Even unimportant areas have pretty architecture sometimes. The direction is neat at times, standard at others. This was most likely just a paycheck job for Bava. If it was, it paid off big time, if what I've read about this being his most commercially successful movie in his home country are true!

In a lot of ways, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs is a better over Bikini Machine, but overall, I may have to say that it's worse! Far, far worse! It's an awful film with very little of what charm the original had, which should say all I need to to ward you away!...

The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot

The no-good Dr. Goldfoot and his henchman Hugo plan to kidnap an important asset to the Pentagon-A doofy young man named Malcom who acts as a living repository of confidential information once hooked up to a special machine. Goldfoot sends Hugo and the girl-bot Diane out to lure Malcom back to their lair, but Agent 00 1/2 is already on the case, and is set to protect his young charge with his life. But will things change when he falls in love with the beautiful Diane?...

I originally thought the half-hour TV special The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot was from 1969, and chronologically the third and final Dr. Goldfoot 'movie' (thus letting the series end on a potentially higher note than Girl Bombs), but it actually came out the same year as the first. It's like a companion piece, with many of the same (or similar in the case of Aron Kincaid and Tommy Kirk) actors and characters.

As a musical, it gets a bit lazy. Out of the 4 songs, one is the recycled Supremes track from Bikini Machine (albeit sung by someone not as good here), and another is an instrumental. That only leaves two actual songs original to this production. You're no doubt eager to know if Vincent Price sings in said remaining two numbers, because really that's what would make this special worth watching, even if it did suck. The answer is, infuriatingly, no. Price doesn't get to sing at all! He must've been really disappointed after not being allowed to in the original movie either!

Weird Wild World is a bit slow to start, as the Shindig announcer takes his sweet ass time introducing the special, and continues by reading the credits out, talking over the music! Then once he finally shuts his yap, we're then bombarded with a minute and a half commercial for facial wipes. So in other words, it's really 3 minutes in when the special finally starts proper.  Regarding the commercials, I learnt from them that facial wipes are the only way to clean, listerine will cure colds, and women will do anything for deodorant. The things we learn from TV...

I dug how the plot really pits Goldfoot and the secret agent against each-other, with both parties actively going after the other. Also much appreciated is that it features Diane's missing character arc from Bikini Machine! There she just sort of vanishes, but here she ends up getting her previously foreshadowed chance to switch sides and turn on the bad doctor. Not that she has much reason to here, but eh, I'll take what I can get. The ending's pretty brief, and the final twist reveal doesn't make a whole lots of sense. It also doesn't help that you don't even have time to register the short as having finished when you're hit with another ad for listerine! That's 4 ads total in 29 minutes! As for the ending credits, we get a reprise of the Bikini Machine theme, but before you can ponder on how it's not being interrupted this time, it suddenly is, just to announce the cast list we can already read!

The humour mostly falls flat, but I loved Lembeck's nightclub joke. Other lines are worth a chuckle.

The general look of Weird Wild World is cheap, but as this is a TV program, that's more forgivable than it is for the movie. The 'park' set was really unconvincing though. Really the biggest issue with its looks is the black-and-white, which is a hindrance for something as colourful as Dr. Goldfoot. Another slightly irksome aspect is that there are no bikinis present, presumably because they were too 'sinful' for public television. Some of the choreography is kinda embarrassing (the Harvey Lembeck number, though he might be doing it intentionally?), but it's decent at other times, like the floor show.

Vincent Price is a delight as usual, and he makes the most of the short running time. For all his talk of being such a young secret agent, Aron Kincaid actually looks old enough for the role, unlike Frankie Avalon in Bikini Machine. He plays the role well, bearing a straight-laced demeanour, while saying and doing somewhat ridiculous things. Susan Hart is better here than in the Goldfoot movie, perhaps because she's not forced to do silly accents this time. She's got great concentration too, able to stay frozen during quite a long take! Also, err, pointy! The two share a duet, and it's quite a good song! As for their respective singing skills, Aron Kincaid can sing. Susan Hart cannot. Not at first anyway, but I think she eventually holds the tune well enough? I dunno, I'm not confident with my ear for music all the time.

Harvey Lembeck's Hugo is much better than Jack Mullaney's Igor. I didn't think much of his musical number though. It's not so much that he sings badly, rather he doesn't sing at all. He's more sing-speaking, if that makes any sense. Tommy Kirk didn't impress at first, but he fares ok.

With its great title, and relatively compact tale of mad science vs virtuous secret agents, The Weird Wild Word of Dr. Goldfoot isn't awful. It's hardly good, but not bad, and it's got enough ok to good qualities to not annoy the crap out of me.. And with that, my look at this franchise is finally over! What a trial it's been! At least I've come out the other end having marked off three more entries on Vincent Price's filmography, and I discovered my next fun and obscure b-movie song. As for you at home, don't watch these movies! Except for Weird Wild World. You can watch that. And if you're a completionist, you really should watch these for Price, but still, stay away!...