Thursday, May 30, 2019

Nautical Month Quick Picks and Pans

Captain Blood (1935) Errol Flynn kills it in the star-making title role of Michael Curtiz’s swashbuckling epic, based on the book by Rafael Sabatini. After he treats a patient from the wrong side, the young, brilliant Dr. Blood is sentenced to ten years as a slave on a British Colony in Port Royal, Jamaica. He stages a revolt with his fellow slaves, setting out for the high seas as a pirate. Blood establishes his own code of honor, fighting tyranny where he finds it (and amassing a fortune on the side). Olivia de Havilland co-stars as his plucky, capricious love interest, Arabella, the daughter of a slave-owner (Lionel Atwill). Basil Rathbone also enjoys a short, but prominent role as Blood’s rival, the French pirate Levasseur. Thanks to a charismatic performance by Flynn, and more swashbuckling hijinks than you can shake a sword at, Captain Blood is a constant delight.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Amphibian Man (aka: Chelovek-Amfibiya) (1962) This charming Soviet-era science fiction/fantasy was based on a novel by Aleksandr Belyaev, and filmed on location on the Crimean Coast and on a Leningrad sound stage. Vladimir Korenev stars as Ichtyandr Salvator, a young man with the ability to breathe underwater (his goofy, silvery outfit only adds to the film’s considerable appeal). His scientist father (Nikolai Simonov) saved him from a fatal respiratory ailment by replacing his lungs with shark gills (don’t ask about the science behind it). He retains the ability to walk on land, but remains rooted in the sea. He becomes infatuated with a young woman (Anastasiya Vertinskaya) when he saves her from a shark. She’s engaged to a cruel business owner who exploits his workers and alienates his future father in law. Things come to a head when her fiancé captures Ichtyandr as his personal slave to gather pearls. Amphibian Man is a modern fable, with its romantic subplot and theme about a protagonist living in two worlds. Catch it if you can.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969) It was a blast to the past to re-discover a movie vaguely remembered from my childhood. Like most trips down memory lane, however, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. In a prequel of sorts to the events in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the MGM film cribs many of the same plot points from Disney’s 1954 film, including: Nemo’s men rescuing shipwreck survivors, plots to sabotage Nemo’s underwater operation, and a massive beast. Unfortunately, compared to the lavish Disney production, it all looks like sloppy seconds, marred by uneven effects and mediocre dry-for-wet scenes. To its credit, this version features some nice sets, and the Nautilus design looks suitably Victorian. Chuck Connors stars as a Civil War era U.S. senator, who joins a handful of survivors on an accidental visit to Nemo’s advanced underwater city. Robert Ryan doesn’t quite fit the bill as Captain Nemo. His genteel portrayal of the renegade captain lacks the brooding gravitas of James Mason’s performance. Co-star Luciana Paluzzi is under-utilized as Mala, a resident schoolteacher. Part of the conflict is centered around who will stay and who will leave, but considering the current state of affairs (Civil War-era or present day), it seems an enticing prospect.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Warner Archive)

Kon-Tiki (2012) Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg chronicle Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl’s (Pål Sverre Hagen) famous 1947 expedition to support his theory about the migration of Peruvians to Polynesia. We have a seat, along with Heyerdahl’s team, as they travail the perilous 101-day, 5,000-mile voyage on a raft constructed of balsa wood. Although it’s well-shot and competently made, it feels a little like a TV docudrama. I found it difficult to keep the character names straight, and many details seemed to be glossed over. If nothing else, it might encourage you to read Heyerdahl’s book, or see the 1951 documentary about the expedition.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix

White Squall (1996) With all due apologies to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, director Ridley Scott’s White Squall is all sound and fury, signifying very little. A group of “teenage” boys (the actors were in their early 20s) set out on a life-changing one-year voyage on the sailing ship Albatross, which will push them to their limits. Many of the young characters blend together as caricatures, rather than flesh-and-blood individuals: the “dumb” kid, the spoiled rich kid, the phobic kid, etc. One of the film’s problems is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be (Is it a disaster movie? An inspirational piece? Or is it a boy’s adventure?). Much like the sailing ship, wandering from port to port, the plot meanders, as you wait for the movie to get to the point. It’s well shot, and the climactic stormy scene is appropriately harrowing, but the rest of the film is a slog to get through. And just when you think it’s over, there’s the requisite tacked-on trial scene, leading to an unsatisfying conclusion with a predictably hollow “all for one and one for all” ethos. Fans of Scott or star Jeff Bridges might be tempted to take a look, but most others should steer clear. Animal lovers take note: There’s a disturbing scene involving the death of a dolphin. It’s a random, violent act that further detracts from the story and undermines any sympathy for the character involved.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Rift (aka: Endless Descent) (1990) How low can you go? Pretty low, if you’re director Juan Piquer Simon (Pieces, Slugs). Compared to other similarly themed underwater peril films of the late ‘80s, this flick arrived late to the party. The $1.3 million budget probably wouldn’t cover the cost of the effects for the famed “water weenie” sequence in James Cameron’s The Abyss. It’s not the low budget, however, but the lackluster feel of the production that ultimately sinks the movie. Too many scenes seem to have been cut and pasted from other genre films, and the lead, played by Jack Scalia, has about as much charisma as a sea cucumber. 

The crew of deep-sea submersible Siren II, including its principal designer, Wick Hayes (Scalia), set out on a mission to locate the missing Siren I. R. Lee Ermey turns out an uncharacteristically mild performance as Captain Phillips, which left me wanting a tirade or two. Ray Wise adds a little spice as shifty crewman Robbins, but it’s not enough to elevate this soggy mess. The filmmakers bank on the audience’s collective ignorance about deep sea exploration, throwing science fact out the porthole. When the Siren II reaches 22,000 feet, one of the crew members disembarks in scuba equipment. In a later scene, it’s mentioned that the ocean floor is 45,000 feet, despite the fact that the Marianas Trench, the ocean’s deepest known spot, is somewhere in the neighborhood of 36,000 feet. The film’s underwater scenes, its raison dêtre, are unconvincing and bereft of tension. If you’re looking for excitement, you’d be better served watching a toy submarine filled with baking soda. 

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Latitude Zero

(1969) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Ted Sherdeman; Story by Ted Sherdeman; Starring: Joseph Cotten, Cesar Romero, Akira Takarada, Masumi Okada, Richard Jaeckel, Patricia Medina and Linda Haynes; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

Dr. Okada (Tetsu Nakamura): “You’re a monster!”

Dr. Malic (Cesar Romero): “No, I’m a genius. If you continue to be obstinate, Dr. Okada, you’ll force me to get the formula in my own way, by surgically removing your brain and dissecting its memory bank.”

Dr. Okada: “That’s impossible.”

Dr. Malic: “Not for me. You have 12 hours.”

It’s an honor and privilege to participate in the latest round of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the blogging triple threat, Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows & Satin. Be sure to check out all the wonderful entries, exploring why it’s so good to be bad.

Some movies are destined to become classics (insert your favorite title here) because of timeless themes, relatable characters, or indelible images. Others, by accident or design, become lost to time. Latitude Zero falls into neither of these categories. It endures, residing in an undervalued but vital category of film, as cinematic junk food. Sometimes we only want a fun way to spend 90 or so minutes, no hidden messages, no strings attached.

On the surface, Latitude Zero looks like a direct descendent from Honda’s Atragon (1963), with similar story elements, including a super sub and an undersea kingdom. The film’s roots go back another couple of decades, however, from a 1941 American radio serial by screenwriter Ted Sherdeman. The film was shot entirely in English from an English-language script by Sherdeman, with a combination of Japanese and American actors. Friction between American producer Warren Lewis and the Japanese crew led to some oil and water dynamics on the set. According to Honda biographers Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, Lewis initially assumed that the Japanese filmmakers were incompetent, insisting on Honda shooting with three cameras, instead of one, which was typical for Japanese productions. Only after Honda demonstrated how it was more efficient to work with one camera, did Lewis relent and allow the director to shoot the film as he intended.

* On a side note, it’s interesting to point out that Latitude Zero wasn’t the only movie from 1969 to feature an advanced underwater civilization. Compared to the lunacy on display in Honda’s film, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (reviewed in an upcoming post) is downright conventional.

Latitude Zero features more characters with “doctor” in their respective titles than a medical drama. Two deep sea researchers, Drs. Ken Tashiro and Jules Masson (Akira Takarada and Masumi Okada) and Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel), an American journalist, descend in a bathysphere in the South Pacific. Their mission to observe and record the “Cromwell Current” (which could potentially be utilized by submarines as a means to increase speed) is jeopardized after a volcano erupts. They’re rescued by Captain Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotten) and his submarine Alpha, which whisks them to Latitude Zero, a futuristic undersea city hidden from the prying eyes of world governments. We learn that the utopian society has perpetrated an ongoing conspiracy, in which some of the world’s best scientists have faked their own deaths to join Latitude Zero’s team of researchers. Things heat up when McKenzie’s archnemesis Dr. Malic (Cesar Romero) kidnaps Dr. Okada (Tetsu Nakamura), a Japanese scientist bound for Latitude Zero.

If Cotten seemed to be phoning in his performance, Romero was in top, hammy form as Malic.* Fresh off his stint as the Joker on the Batman TV series, Romero is at his sneering best as the mad scientist with a taste for revenge. Along with his diabolical companion Lucretia (played by Cotten’s real-life wife, Patricia Medina), he plots McKenzie’s demise and the destruction of the Alpha. What’s his beef? No idea (He’s evil, get it? Evil!). He resides in his remote island fortress, Blood Rock, protected by an army of mutant rats and bat people. Of course, every villain worth his sea salt has to have a good henchman (in this case, henchwoman), and Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki) proves to be up to the task, with her black leather dress and riding crop. She commands the sleek attack submarine The Black Shark (well, it’s more of a dark gray), barking orders such as, “Top speed. Ram it!” Malic’s crowning achievement is a beast of his own creation – after grafting the wings of a condor onto a lion (okay, a man in a lion suit), he implants the brain of Kroiga into the lion, and increases its size three-fold. For some reason, Malic believes the creature will obey his commands, which seems dubious, considering this was the same henchwoman he betrayed in a previous scene.

* Fun Fact: Cotten and Romero’s respective salaries for the film were $100,000 and $50,000, not an insubstantial percentage of the $1 million budget.

Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow in this super-advanced society is the gallery of atrocious fashions on display. McKenzie is one of the biggest offenders, sporting an open-front white tunic with gold trim and a lime green ascot. McKenzie defends his surgeon Dr. Anne Barton’s (Linda Haynes) appearance to the disbelieving journalist, “Mr. Lawton, what’s a doctor supposed to look like?” It’s too bad his comment and the film’s quasi-progressive stance are undermined by her outfit. With her bikini top, miniskirt and thigh-high go-go boots, Dr. Barton would be more at home dancing in a cage than working in an operating theater. Then again, that’s how they roll in Latitude Zero.   

Maintaining a healthy suspension of disbelief is the key to enjoying Latitude Zero. Because of the advanced state of medicine in the underwater civilization, living to a hyper-advanced age is the norm. McKenzie and Malic, we discover, are 204 and 203, respectively, and the submarine Alpha was constructed in 1805.* Suspension of disbelief only takes you so far, with a plot contrivance that sounds like it was cooked up by a seven-year-old on a playground. Before McKenzie launches his assault on Malic’s lair, our would-be heroes bathe in a “bath of immunity,” which renders them invulnerable for 24 hours. Add to this heat-resistant gold/platinum suits (that are somehow light and flexible) and gloves with flamethrowers and lasers, and you’ve pretty much eliminated any suspense about whether or not they’d make it out alive. I almost expected Malic to whine, “No fair!” And who’d blame him?

* Effects master Eiji Tsubaraya’s space-age submarine designs are cool, but the filmmakers missed an opportunity to depict some Jules Verne-esque retro-futurism.

The Wizard of Oz-style ending is just icing on a bizarre cake that will probably leave you looking for the Scarecrow and Tin Man (Hey, they already have a lion, the bat people vaguely resemble flying monkeys, and Lucretia is sort of witchy, so why not?). There are so many odd plot elements that come out of left field, that it’s easy to see how this would have worked as a television series, complete with cliffhangers. If good acting, believable story and universal themes are your thing, then steer far away. But as Willy Wonka once proclaimed, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.” Who can argue with that?

Source for this review: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun