SF & Fantasy films

THIS ISLAND EARTH. Universal International, 1955. Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason, Lance Fuller, Robert Nichols. Based on the book by Raymond F. Jones (Shasta, hardcover, 1952), a fixup novel comprised of stories appearing in three separate issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories, 1949-50. Director: Joseph M. Newman.

   There is an old saying that you can’t go home again, and I know it’s true, as this movie proves. When I saw this movie the first time, I was 13 years old, and I thought it was the best science fiction movie I’d ever seen. It was in color, first of all, and all of the gadgets in the movie simply knocked my socks off.

   Forbidden Planet came along the very next year, but while that one was also in color and had Robby the Robot and even better special effects, I still liked This Island Earth better. Why? Two scenes have stood out over all these past 60 years. The two scientists building a communications device called the interlocutor from scratch using blueprints and parts send by mail from an anonymous source.

   I tried doing the same thing in my basement at home, but some of the parts must have gotten lost in the mail.

   The other scene I remember is Jeff Morrow and Faith Domergue standing in clear vertical tubes designed as either compression or decompression devices so as to condition them for either space travel or life on the aliens’ planet on their way to the latter to save their civilization. I’ve always been a little vague about the details, but details don’t matter, when you see the two Earthlings in skeletal form as the tubes do what ever is is they did.

   What I didn’t remember — and how could I forget? — is the weird ugly mutated monster that threatens the pair as they make their way back to Earth having failed their mission. A convenient form of amnesia, I guess.

   Nor do I remember when I was 13 wondering why it was the aliens who had so much power and could do many wondrous things on Earth needed all those scientists from Earth to help them fight their battles with other aliens back home.

   I don’t think that Faith Domergue impersonated a atomic scientist very well, but she certainly wore her tight fitting space uniform quite nicely, long before Racquel Welch did in Fantastic Voyage. This Island Earth was there first in a number of ways, but once the group of four left the planet Earth for Metaluna, the story seems to lose its way. Some nice memories were lost along the way as well. I was disappointed.


JIN ROH, THE WOLF BRIGADE. Japan, 1999. Voices (in the English version): Michael Dobson, Moneca Stori, Colin Murdock, Maggie Blue O’Hara. [From Wikipedia: “The film is the third adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s ‘Kerberos saga’ manga, Kerberos Panzer Cop, after the two live-action films: The Red Spectacles and StrayDog: Kerberos Panzer Cops released in 1987 and 1991 in Japanese theaters.”] Directed by Hiroyuki Okiyura.

   Japanese anime can be as stylized and foreign to Western audiences as Kabuki theater or Chinese Opera in some cases, and tied in with the cultural differences, it can be a hurdle for older viewers in the US who didn’t grow up with it to follow, but it is also a universal storytelling medium that doesn’t always need language to tell its stories, and a well-told story is a well told story regardless of medium.

   Jin Roh, the Wolf Brigade is set in an alternate Post-War setting where Japan is beset by native terrorists and protected by Special Units of Police trained as jin roh “human wolves.” There are developing tensions between the special units and the regular police and they are as much at each other’s throats as the terrorists.

   When jin roh Kazuki Fuse (pronounced Fu-say) hesitates to kill a young female courier who then triggers a deadly explosion, it gives the police something to use against the special units, and they act quickly to discipline Fuse, sending him back to training under an officer whose son is with the regular police. Then Fuse, still suffering flashbacks to that night and guilt-filled hallucinations, meets and falls for the dead girl’s sister, who bears her an uncanny resemblance.

   Done in realistic style animation, the story is a strong mix of noir, action, and Le Carre style intrigue, where nothing and no one is quite telling the truth, and loyalties shift on treacherous moral sands.

   This is as grim and dark as any live action film, as morally complex, and as unrelenting. It is also beautifully told, with strong elements visually and easily identifiable characters whose animated faces reveal their character as well as many actors.

   Unlike most anime, other than the set-up there is little in the way of science fiction or fantasy elements here, rather a powerful dystopian future, handsomely rendered and deftly told with as many twists as any thriller.

   The film was submitted for an Academy Award in animation, but wasn’t qualified because it first played on Japanese television. It is not a story you will easily forget once seen.

         Sunday, February 15.

WOMEN WHO RATE A 10. NBC, Special. 60 minutes. Or, Steve Lewis pigs out. Oink, oink.

         Tuesday, February 17.

THE BLACK HOLE.. Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1979. Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine. Director: Gary Nelson. [Watched on HBO.]

   I watched this with Jonathan, who is six now, and since I explained it all to him during the show (“Why are they doing that, Dad?” “I don’t know, Jon, let’s wait an see.”), I’m not going to repeat myself.

   Actually, to be fair, some of it Jon explained to me. He’s pretty sharp. It’s a fine movie for kids hooked on Star Wars. (You can call this ‘sci-fi’ if you want to.)

   Rated PG, probably for the one or two cuss words, and one rather violent death scene.

MYSTERY! PBS, series. Tonight was the first of the second season run of Rumpole. The title was “Rumpole and the Man of God.” Leo McKern (Horace Rumpole), Rosemary Leach, Derek Farr, Bill Fraser, Peggy Thorpe-Bates (Hilda Rumpole), Moray Watson, Peter Bowles. Writer: John Mortimer. Director: Brian Farnham.

   I didn’t see any of the ones they showed last year. I don’t remember why, and I’m sorry I didn’t.

   Rumpole is sour, full of bombast, and when necessary, resigned to taking his lumps. I quickly tired of his long-suffering attitude toward his wife Hilda (“She who must be obeyed,”), but otherwise I enjoyed the show immensely. British character actors are the best in the world. I thought Derek Farr as the misunderstood, absentminded vicar accused of stealing the three shirts was superb.

   There are five more of these to come. I’m going to try to not miss any of them.

   This past Father’s Day, Jon and I went to see a 16mm screening of The Green Slime at the New Beverly in Los Angeles. Apparently, the print, which was somewhat red and faded, is part of Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection. Although the title suggests otherwise, it’s a thoroughly entertaining science fiction film, and we both enjoyed it. The movie’s theme song is a fun piece of schlocky 60s psychedelic rock written by Charles Fox and produced, arranged and performed by surf music pioneer Richard Delvy. You can listen to it here:

BLACK RAINBOW. Miramax, 1989. Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce. Screenwriter-director: Mike Hodges.

   A father and daughter pair make a meager living traveling from town to town setting up shows in local churches as clairvoyants and preying on their audiences’ desires to make contact with loved ones on the other side. Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette) is very effective at this. Dressed all n white, she is able to assure everyone who has lost someone close to them that they are happy where they are now and that all is well with them.

   It is all a fraud, of course.

   Until, that is, the spirits she is in contact with begin not to be dead yet. Even more, in her visions, she can even see (and can describe in detail) the manner of their passing, including as it turns out, the murder of a would-be whistle blower at a nearby chemical plant. Even more, she claims she saw who the hitman is.

   When a local reporter (Tom Hulce) gets wind of this, skeptical as he is, the story gets into the newspaper, and thinking there just might be something to it, the owner of the plant puts his hitman back to work again.

   The story of Martha, the reporter, and her alcoholic father (Jason Robards) is all that’s of interest here. The outside criminal element that Martha accidentally eavesdrops upon, that’s pretty much by the numbers. Martha, a lovely young woman in her early 20s (I’m guessing) is not the virginal gateway to the other end of the rainbow as her role is in church. Far from it, as the reporter soon learns. And besides these new abilities, she is now also beginning to realize how much her father stole her life from her.

   Forget the hit man, and keep your eyes on Rosanna Arquette’s performance. I found it mesmerizing, especially toward the end when she chastises her audience for being relying on their belief in the happiness that awaits them once they’re gone. If we knew for sure that life is lived only once, she suggests, perhaps we’d try to be better people while we’re here. The ending is quite remarkable, too, as the film verges even further into the supernatural and the unknown.

   Is this film a diamond in the rough? No, not really, but you may find it parts of it as fascinating to watch as I did.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN. Universal Pictures, 1940. Virginia Bruce, John Barrymore, John Howard, Charlie Ruggles, Oscar Homolka, Donald MacBride, Margaret Hamilton, Shemp Howard, Anne Nagel. Director: A. Edward Sutherland.

   This may be the only movie made by a major studio in the 1940s in which the leading lady spends most of her time on the screen totally nude. She even kisses the leading man in the same condition. We can’t see her, of course, but we’ve got imaginations, don’t we?

   This movie is also (slightly less) famous for that noteworthy line, “You know, if women were invisible, life would be much less complicated.” It’s also the funniest movie I’ve seen in ages. If ever this shows up again on your favorite cable station, don’t miss it.

— Reprinted from Movie.File.8, January 1990.


THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1973. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, John Dehner. Screenwriter: Buck Henry, based on the novel by Robert Merle. Director: Mike Nichols.

   The first thing you need to know about this movie is that, in it, George C. Scott talks to dolphins. And the dolphins, at least one of them, talks back with loving affection, telling him how much he loves him. Now if you can suspend disbelief on this rather fantastic matter, you may also be able to suspend disbelief regarding the movie poster’s famous tagline and how it gives away the whole plot: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States!”

   Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Day of the Dolphin must be a fun, quirky action-adventure movie with an over the top performance from Scott. It has to be, right? Wrong. Inexplicably, director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) decided to play it straight, taking the source material deeply seriously, embellishing it with cinematic artistry and artifice.

   All of which makes this movie one of the oddest motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Technically, it’s extremely well filmed. And Scott was a trooper, giving a stellar performance as a marine biologist who has unknowingly been working for a shadowy group within the government that hopes to assassinate the president.

   But it all comes back to Alpha. That’s the name of the prized talking dolphin. Actually, it’s “Fa” for short. As in Al-Fa. You see “Fa loves Pa.” Or so he says in a squeaky voice. The viewer is supposed to take this all seriously. Maybe you can. I couldn’t. But that didn’t stop me from watching The Day of the Dolphin to the very end.

   It’s got sheer chutzpah for even existing, this strange little neglected film that concludes on a most somber note with the protagonists quietly waiting for their deaths at the hands of powerful hidden forces in the government. For a movie with talking animals, this one is a downer.

   Final note: interesting factoid, originally Roman Polanski was set to direct this film and was in London working on pre-production when he learned that Sharon Tate had been murdered in Los Angeles by the Manson Family.

DÉJÀ VU. Touchstone Pictures, 2006. Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Adam Goldberg, Elden Henson, Erika Alexander, Bruce Greenwood. Director: Tony Scott.

   This is a movie that begins with a bang, no doubt about it, with a ferry filled with enlisted naval men and their families being blown up and destroyed by a terrorist in New Orleans. Asked by the FBI for his assistance on the case is a crack ATF agent named Doug Carlin (Denzell Washington). What strikes him as strange is that when he finds the partially burned body of a young woman who has floated ashore is that she died before the explosion.

   Intrigued, he also learns that the team he is working with has access to a new satellite surveillance capability of tracking anyone almost anywhere. The catch is that what can be seen is limited to viewing events that have already taken place, an always consistent four days ago. Carlin suggests that they not spend their time looking at the ferry in the past, but focus instead on the young woman’s life.

   What he does not known, and as it turns out [SEMI-SPOILER ALERT] that what they are viewing is the actual past (abruptly switching gears and making this a science fiction movie rather than the run-of-he-mill action thriller it has been up to this point) and soon enough all kinds of time-travel paradoxes come into play, enough, I would imagine, to make an ordinary viewer’s head spin.

   I’ve been reading this kind of stuff for over 60 years, and while some of what happens goes down very, very well, there are two gaps in the continuity of things that — and I hate to say it — pretty much spoiled the final thirty minutes or so for me. As I understand it, and this may be entirely hearsay, the screenwriters spent several years making sure that all of the bugs were out, and the director decided to skip some of their work in favor of a large car chase somewhere close to the end of the movie instead.

   If so, it’s too bad. Denzell Washington is as good as he always is, but if this movie isn’t as good as it could have been, and it isn’t, it’s not through any fault of his.


BEAUTY AND THE DEVIL. Franco London Films / Les Films Corona, France, 1950. Original title: La beauté du diable. Michel Simon, Gerard Philipe, Nicole Besnard. Written and directed by Rene Clair.

   It’s not often a genuine masterpiece sneaks up on me anymore. I mean, with all that’s written about movies these days, the fame of any good film — and that of lesser ones as well — generally precedes it, and a really great movie these days carries about as much surprise as sunrise at dawn.

   I can’t even say now what prompted me to pick up this little treasure (on an old VHS with slightly-faded subtitles) but I was only a few minutes into it when I saw this was a work of what academics refer to as “lotsa class.”

   It’s an easier film to watch than to describe. Michel Simon starts out playing Faust, and Gerard Philipe is Mephistopheles, dressed as a young student who mockingly follows the old Professor Faust. He tries to bargain for Faust’s soul, but rebuffed, he makes a counter-offer: he gives him Youth free of charge and departs, telling the handsome young man (now named Henri, and played by Philipe) that if he wants to do any traffic in souls, just ask.

   And Henri quickly discovers that with youth comes health, vigor, love… and poverty. Well at least it’s so with Henri, and now that I look back on it, so it was for me and my friends in college. His education of no use, Henri fails at common work and finds himself ground down and down… and Mephistopheles, now in the form of Faust, played by Michel Simon, keeps dangling temptation….

   And from here on the plot takes dizzying twists and turns that kept me surprised and delighted, every move highlighted with engaging, often hilarious antics from Simon as Faust/Mephistopheles as the tale careens to a final audacious and immensely satisfying flourish.

   To jog your memory (if needed) Michel Simon was a big star of early French Cinema and an exceptional actor; a plump but graceful performer in the W.C. Fields style, which lend his performance a depth and lightness that must be seen to appreciate — my words just won’t do . Simon’s fortunes declined after a stroke and he ended up in the title role of The Head (critics described his performance as “detached”) but he rebounded as the gruff engineer in The Train and in The Two of Us.

   Director Rene Clair has a rep, but the only film of his I ever liked a lot (till now) was And Then There Were None. This, though, is The Goods: Brilliant writing, thoughtful & complex variation on the Faust story, and entertaining thesping from Philipe and especially Michel Simon. Catch it if you can!


THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. American International Pictures, 1977. Burt Lancaster (Dr. Paul Moreau), Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells. Director: Don Taylor.

   Burt Lancaster puts in a superb performance as the Dr. Moreau in this 1977 cinematic adaptation of the extraordinarily influential H.G. Wells novella about a mad scientist turning animals into men on a remote Pacific island.

   Unlike Charles Laughton in the pre-code sleazefest Islands of Lost Souls (1932), who never seemed to be a comfortable fit for the role, Lancaster portrays Moreau as a vaguely sympathetic antihero who genuinely wants to do good for the work, but who gradually transforms into a bestial, hateful figure. Lancaster had a way of just using his eyes to convey emotion and he does it wonderfully here. His Moreau is a great movie villain. Why? Because he has reasons for doing what he is doing and, more importantly, deep down he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

   That’s not to say that Michael York, whose performance I absolutely loved as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1973), isn’t good in this film as well. He portrays Braddock, the shipwreck survivor who washes up on Moreau’s island, totally unaware of what he is about to encounter. But there’s something a little too innocent about the Braddock character. He’s nowhere near as formidable a figure as Moreau.

   Which leads me to the film’s plot. In many ways, if one were to view Braddock (York) as the protagonist, the movie would be a meandering mess. This is mainly because, for most of the movie, it’s not clear exactly what Braddock wants. To escape the island? Unlike in Island of Lost Souls where the shipwrecked man was truly trapped on the island, Braddock actually still has his rowboat. It’s a little worse for wear, but he’s safely hidden it on the island.

   So escaping is not what he wants. Is it that he wants to discover what Moreau is up to? Well, it doesn’t take him long to do so and Moreau is more than willing to fill in the blanks. It’s only toward the tail end of the movie that he actually wants something – to escape from Moreau’s captivity after the mad doctor performed a sick experiment on him – but that’s too little too late.

   What makes the movie work is not York’s character, but Lancaster’s. The Island of Dr. Moreau is truly the story of Dr. Moreau, about his ambitions and his downfall. In that sense, the film is as much as horror story as a tragedy. And that’s where Lancaster’s stellar performance comes in. Portraying Moreau as a man capable of great things, but who succumbs to his own bestial nature, is what makes this adaptation, despite its numerous flaws, a chilling portrait of a scientist who defies the laws of nature and pays the ultimate price for it.

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