Category Archives: ★

The Explosive Generation (1961, Buzz Kulik)

The Explosive Generation has expert plotting. Joseph Landon’s script; it’s expertly plotted. Even when it high tails it away from the “hook,” it’s still expertly plotted. The film goes from being about teenagers trying to frankly and openly discuss sex in teacher William Shatner’s classroom to being about student protest. The protagonist goes from being good girl Patty McCormack to her initially a jerk boyfriend, Lee Kinsolving.

McCormack is all right.

Kinsolving is horrific. He tries really, really hard too. The movie’s eighty-nine minutes and at least three of the runtime just has to be Kinsolving’s dynamic thinking expressions. He’s always so perplexed.

Maybe if director Kulik helped with the performances, but he doesn’t have time for the actors. He’s too busy butchering everything else.

Explosive Generation is an ugly, cheap picture. Floyd Crosby’s photography is bad. Hal Borne’s music is bad. Kulik’s composition and sense of timing are a nightmare. When the film does have its moments, it’s a shock; those moments succeed just because Landon’s plotting is so strong and his flat expository dialogue just happens to sync with the actor performing it.

Those actors are usually Shatner (though his performance falls apart as he becomes an unwilling martyr), McCormack, maybe Suzi Carnell–more on her in a bit–and sometimes Edward Platt. Oh, and sometimes single dad Stephen Dunne, who just wants to look cool to son Billy Gray. Gray’s never good but he’s a lot better than Kinsolving.

Again, who knows how it would’ve gone if the direction were a micron better. The film’s got some bad sets for home interiors, but the location exteriors are fine and it does shoot in a high school. Or some kind of school. Composition and lighting can do wonders. Kulik and photographer Crosby exhibit a striking inability to do wonders.

When the movie starts, it’s about teens McCormack, Kinsolving, Carnell, and Gray having a sleepover at Gray’s dad’s beach house. After some terribly cut together and scored opening titles–everyone involved in Explosive’s post-production seems to think having bland boppy “jazz” is going to make the film seem edgy. It leads to opening titles setting a bad tone. But then it’s Carnell talking McCormack into spending the night. Gray bullies and teases McCormack to get her to stay (for Kinsolving’s sake).

Well, then the movie cuts to the next morning and McCormack seems upset but Carnell’s having a full breakdown. Explosive drops Carnell as a character about ten minutes later, though it later blames her for snitching. It’s weird and about the only weak plotting decision Landon makes.

At some point, the movie becomes about Kinsolving trying to save Shatner’s job for him and discovering even though the school’s full of bland, upper middle class Southern California white kids, they have the right to intellectual curiosity.

The film entirely cops out on resolving the issues with the controlling parents. McCormack’s dad, Arch Johnson, gets to do a big meltdown and then disappears. Virginia Field, as mom, does something similar but then returns as a deus ex machina, because it turns out she’s just a person too.

Landon plots well. He doesn’t write well. Explosive Generation shows just how big wide the gap is between the two. The film has a great set piece at the end, which Kulik couldn’t direct even if he had the budget to stage it, but it’s a fantastic idea. The film’s got a few of them. Ideas but no potential because it’s so poorly made.

Crosby’s cinematography is so bad, so flat, one wishes for a computer colorized version just to break up the same shade of school hallway gray. It infests the pallette.

Despite being an audiovisual blight on the medium of film, The Explosive Generation is a heavily qualified “success.” So qualified it needs quotation marks, in fact. But thanks to Landon’s plotting, Shatner and McCormack’s likability, and its earnestess, the film compells.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Buzz Kulik; written by Joseph Landon; director of photography, Floyd Crosby; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Hal Borne; produced by Stanley Colbert; released by United Artists.

Starring Patty McCormack (Janet Sommers), Lee Kinsolving (Dan Carlyle), Billy Gray (Bobby Herman Jr.), William Shatner (Peter Gifford), Suzi Carnell (Marge Ryker), Edward Platt (Mr. Morton), Stephen Dunne (Bobby Herman Sr.), Phillip Terry (Mr. Carlyle), Arch Johnson (Mr. George Sommers), Jan Norris (Terry), Beau Bridges (Mark), and Virginia Field (Mrs. Katie Sommers).


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Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, William Witney and John English)

About seventy percent of Adventures of Captain Marvel is narratively useless. Nothing occurring in chapters two through ten has an effect on how the story actually turns out. The serial has a great first chapter involving a tomb robbing archeological expedition in Thailand. Radio journalist Frank Coghlan Jr. is along, presumably to do a story but mostly just to do grunt work. He refuses to participate in the most egregious tomb robbing. Good move as native tribes (on horseback on the great Thailand tundra) attack the expedition.

Turns out only Coghlan can save them; an old wizard has just given him the magic word and now Coghlan can “Shazam” himself into a superhero. Tom Tyler plays the superhero, Captain Marvel. It’s unclear why, if he’s the defender of Thai relics, he’s a white guy. It’s also unclear why his name is Captain Marvel instead of something Thai.

Adventures of Captain Marvel raises a lot of questions about its superhero, in particular why Coghlan so rarely uses the magic word–is it budget or the screenwriters or some kind of screen time obligation to Coghlan. The five screenwriters have very little interest in the superhero story. It’s essential so Tyler can have big action sequences, but there’s no time spent on Tyler’s “character.”

It turns out to be the right move, as Tyler’s acting is far more effective when he’s viciously superheroing than when he’s speaking.

Back to the narrative relevancy imbalance. If every chapter of Captain Marvel were great, it wouldn’t matter. Then the narrative moves back to the United States in the second chapter and drags things down so much, the only way for Captain Marvel to end is to take the action back to Thailand. Sure, the cast is smaller–because Captain Marvel has become a “masked villain you work with” thriller and has been shedding suspects–but no one’s bringing anything new on the return. It’s not like Coghlan’s a better superhero now. Or they have any idea how the masked villain, The Scorpion, operates. Everyone’s the same, there are just less everyones.

If Adventures of Captain Marvel had a good finish, maybe the time it wasted getting to that finish wouldn’t matter so much. But it doesn’t have a good finish. While the serial doesn’t get cheap in the middle portion, it does get a lot less grandiose. Especially considering the big scale of the first and final chapters. Most of the action in the middle section takes place in expedition leader Robert Strange’s house. There he meets with the expedition as the unknown Scorpion kills them off, one-by-one. Coghlan is just hanging around, saving the day (either himself or Tyler), and getting crap about it from Strange and company. The only people concerned about the safety of the expedition members are Coghlan, Louise Currie, and William ‘Billy’ Benedict. Currie is Strange’s secretary, Benedict is some kind of gopher for the expedition. Coghlan, Currie, and Benedict are pals. It’s this odd win for Captain Marvel how well the trio works together.

Shame Coghlan doesn’t tell Currie or Benedict about his superhero side. It leads to some really strange scenes with Tyler interacting with Currie or Benedict. Well, usually Tyler’s saving Currie. The serial will occasionally–and literally–tell Currie to sit out the action, but otherwise she’s just ending up in trouble. Sometimes it’s Coghlan who saves her, sometimes it’s Tyler. If it’s Tyler and he has time, he’ll turn back to Coghlan so… Coghlan can take the credit for the superheroics. The reasoning behind when and why Coghlan says the magic word–and how he doesn’t seem to realize it’d be better to fly as Captain Marvel than to take your plane–it perplexes to say the least.

Or it would perplex, if it didn’t just seem like disinterest from the screenwriters. It doesn’t matter though, because Adventures of Captain Marvel is all about its special effects and action sequences and they usually deliver. The special effects always deliver, the stunt work always delivers, the action delivers just so long as it isn’t too close to the cliffhanger edge. Adventures of Captain Marvel has got some weak cliffhangers. Especially since they often involve Tyler doing something stupid and being in danger for it.

Tyler does a lot of stupid things. Coghlan does them too but those are more grand gestures. Coghlan full of daring do and lets it cloud his rational judgement. Tyler will just do something completely idiotic, usually something where his superpowers could easily resolve it, and then get slapped down. He’s not slapped down as character development, just to end of the chapter. Tyler is–and not in a bad way–a golem in Captain Marvel. None of Coghlan’s exuberance or personality “carries” to Tyler after the magic word. When Tyler finally does get to say something, it’s a shock. It’s a few chapters in and, until then, it wasn’t even clear Tyler would talk other than to say the magic word.

Tyler’s likable though. The bad guys are bad in Adventures of Captain Marvel and there’s a visceral thrill to bulletproof Tyler tossing a bad guy in the air. William Nobles’s photography is good enough it only looks like a dummy every throw. Everyone works hard to integrate the special effects (including superhero stunts). The serial showcases them, careful never to let the “reality” come through too much. Flying Captain Marvel is a dummy on wires himself, which both is and isn’t obvious when watching. Empirically it’s obvious, but during one of the Adventures? Empirical doesn’t matter so much. Raw technical expertise wins out.

There’s some good acting throughout. George Pembroke as one of the suspects. Kenne Duncan is the Scorpion’s top henchmen stateside and he’s a good bad guy. Not a great part, but Duncan brings presence. Currie is fine. She has very little to do and the occasional bad scene, but she’s fine. Benedict has less to do than Currie but gets to be more active in those scenes. He’s fun.

And Coghlan’s a solid lead. He’s not great, but he’s solid.

If Captain Marvel were just Coghlan carrying it until Tyler shows up and then the special effects take over, it might be able to work up enough momentum to get through. Even with the closed loop narrative. But it’s not just Coghlan. It’s the scheming Scorpion and the petty expedition members and so on. Somehow–regardless not just of billing, but also screen time–it feels like Coghlan and Tyler have the least to do in Captain Marvel. Once the action beat is over, Tyler says the magic word and disappears into Coghlan and Coghlan disappears into the background.

It’s unfortunate Captain Marvel doesn’t work out. It’s not disappointing as its clear a few chapters in the serial isn’t coming together.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John English and William Witney; screenplay by Ronald Davidson, Norman S. Hall, Arch Heath, Joseph F. Poland, and Sol Shor, based on the Fawcett comic book by C.C. Beck and Bill Parker; director of photography, William Nobles; edited by William P. Thompson and Edward Todd; music by Cy Feuer; released by Republic Pictures.

Starring Frank Coghlan Jr. (Billy Batson), Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel), William ‘Billy’ Benedict (Whitey Murphy), Louise Currie (Betty Wallace), Robert Strange (John Malcolm), Harry Worth (Prof. Luther Bentley), Bryant Washburn (Henry Carlyle), John Davidson (Tal Chotali), George Pembroke (Dr. Stephen Lang), George Lynn (Prof. Dwight Fisher), Reed Hadley (Rahman Bar), Jack Mulhall (James Howell), and Nigel De Brulier (Shazam).


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Sister Street Fighter (1974, Yamaguchi Kazuhiko)

Sister Street Fighter should be campy. With the constant horns in Kikuchi Shunsuke’s score, lead Shiomi Etsuko’s colorful outfit, villain Amatsu Bin doing an Elvis impersonation, the countless and intentionally weird martial arts villains… it ought to be campy. But it’s not, because somehow Sister Street Fighter manages to keep its melodrama sincere.

Lead Shiomi is a Hong Kong martial arts champion who goes to Japan to search for her missing brother. He too is a martial arts champion, but like many good martial arts champions, he’s also a secret drug agent. Shiomi isn’t just a concerned sister or martial arts champion, she’s got the assignment of finding him. It’s unclear if she regularly works as a secret agent or just this one time.

Shiomi’s a likable lead. Sister Street Fighter never goes out of its way to require anything like acting from its cast; likable’s about as high as you can get. Especially since Shiomi gets the more tedious half of the movie. The other half is all of Amatsu’s villainy, which gets pretty awful, or something with his goons. Even though the goons are sort of played for laughs and aren’t especially good at being eccentric martial arts villains, the film always takes them seriously. Somehow staying straightfaced through the absurdities does more for pacing than Shiomi’s dramatically inert search for her brother.

In Japan, Shiomi gets herself a bunch of friends and allies, including Sonny Chiba in an extended cameo. Chiba himself had a Street Fighter franchise, but playing a different character (with Shiomi appearing in the final entry, not as the same character as here). There’s no baton-passing to Shiomi, just the relatively effective too slight mentorship. Chiba’s a karate man, Shiomi’s a karate woman, they believe in the good karate schools. They’re pals and they’ve got the most star power in the picture.

Sadly, they barely get any time together.

Amatsu’s an okay villain. He’s an evil jackass, walking around with his sunglasses on all the time and his Elvis capes. Ishibashi Masashi is Amatsu’s overconfident henchman who can’t deal with Shiomi beating him up. Ishibashi’s all right too.

As for the eccentric villains, none of them stand out good or bad. Director Yamaguchi shoots all the fight scenes in long shot with very few cuts. It’s about seeing the fight progress. The fight choreography isn’t great, but what it does well, Yamaguchi knows how to showcase.

He also knows how to do the ultraviolence quite well. Sister Street Fighter is often bloodless, but only because they’re saving all the gore for the finale. It should’ve been peppered throughout, especially given Shiomi’s plot is so bland and it could use all the help.

Most of the film involves Shiomi at Amatsu’s estate, which is a mix of Bond villain, bikini bimbos, and dungeons. Lots and lots of dungeons, but with tech. Shiomi has to break in after the second or third time everyone thinks she’s dead. Sister Street Fighter is short but repetitive. Unfortunately it’s not to reinforce information gathering, but because the writers don’t have any other ideas. So why not just do this one thing again. And then again.

But the scenes with Shiomi on the estate take up a lot of runtime. It’s got a great pace. It doesn’t have the best direction in the film, but it definitely moves the best.

In the end, Sister Street Fighter doesn’t succeed, it just doesn’t fail. It’s like it isn’t even ambitious enough to fail.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Yamaguchi Kazuhiko; written by Kakefuda Masahiro and Suzuki Noribumi; director of photography, Nakajima Yoshio; edited by Tanaka Osamu; music by Kikuchi Shunsuke; production designer, Nakamura Shuichiro; produced by Takamura Kenji and Yoshimine Kineo; released by Toei Company.

Starring Etsuko Shiomi (Li Koryu), Emi Hayakawa (Emi), Sanae Ôhori (Shinobu Kojo), Xiu-Rong Xie (Fanshin), Hiroshi Kondô (Li Gyokudo), Tatsuya Nanjô (Jiro), Nami Tachibana (Reiko), Hiroshi Miyauchi (Li Mansei), Bin Amatsu (Shigetomi Kakuzaki), Masashi Ishibashi (Kazunao Inubashiri), and Sonny Chiba (Hibiki).


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Dressed to Kill (1980, Brian De Palma)

Dressed to Kill has oodles of style. It doesn’t have a lot else going for it–a lot of the acting, sure, but the acting never pays off for anyone–but it does have style. Director De Palma and cinematographer Ralf D. Bode create an ethereal New York for the action to play out in.

The film opens with sexually dissatisfied housewife Angie Dickinson fantasizing about, well, something more satisfying. De Palma’s got Pino Donaggio music and Donaggio music can get away with a lot but even it can make a smutty shower scene play. The film then introduces Keith Gordon as Dickinson’s technology nerd teenage son before bringing in top-billed Michael Caine. He’s Dickinson’s therapist. She goes to therapy before she goes to the museum to pick up a man.

After picking up the man, which isn’t a good pickup sequence at all, but is a fantastically executed bit of filmmaking. Dickinson’s walking around the museum, everything’s silent, and it’s just great. Bode, De Palma, editor Gerald B. Greenberg, it’s awesome.

When she wakes up at the man’s apartment, Dickinson finds herself involved in a bloody homicide. Nancy Allen comes into the film at this point to also witness the murder, setting off Allen’s story line. The killer is after her, it turns out, eventually leading to her teaming up with Gordon.

Caine’s in it because he’s pretty sure the killer is another one of his patients, though he doesn’t want to give that information to cop Dennis Franz. Franz, meanwhile, is trying to get Allen to help on the case. She’s a sex worker and he’s sort of blackmailing her? Franz is a creep. When De Palma tries to do a denouement redemption of Franz, it’s one of Dressed’s worst moments. De Palma’s script is occasionally jaw-dropping in its pure stupidity, but the redemption of Franz is something else. Especially given it comes through the big “explanation” scene (out of Psycho, natch, with that museum pickup being out of Vertigo) where De Palma manages to be–at least what appears to be–unintentionally transphobic.

One of Dressed’s big plot twists–it’s got at least two, maybe three depending on how you want to count the minor ones (because then there are plenty of minor “twists”)–involves a transsexual person. Dressed to Kill is exploitation. It’s gorgeous, it’s got sometimes A list stars, but it’s exploitation. Yet when De Palma brings in gender dysphoria, it doesn’t seem like he’s using it as a punchline. Because he butchers what he’s doing with it, bringing in multiple personalities and whatnot. The script is really, really stupid. It’s hard to explain how unintentionally stupid Dressed to Kill can get.

And not when De Palma’s intending it either. He has quite a few split screen shots in the film, which works in maybe two cases, but never with Dickinson. Dickinson has the split screen shots to remember something sexual or somehow related to sex. Given how little material De Palma actually gives Dickinson to work with in the script, her performance is incredibly impressive.

But De Palma doesn’t direct the actors poorly. He often directs them quite well. Everyone gets good direction. Even Dennis Franz. It’s just Franz is one step too far. Dressed to Kill’s fairytale New York City clashes with Franz’s lounge lizard detective.

Allen’s decent throughout, occasionally downright excellent. Dickinson’s good. The script does her no favors and neither does Greenberg’s editing (everything else he can edit, but not Dickinson’s reaction and pensive close-ups), but she’s good. Caine’s fine. De Palma doesn’t really give him a lot to do. He meanders through the film.

Gordon’s good. He’s really likable. The likable part is more important. Once he and Allen are hanging out, there’s this strange lack of sexual energy, like only the adults in De Palma movies get to be sex-crazed. And they’re mostly all sex-crazed and De Palma wants to talk about it. A De Palma scripted interchange between a sex worker and a therapist is simultaneously cringe-inducing and mesmerizing.

Dressed to Kill is, overall, cringe-inducing and mesmerizing. It looks beautiful. It sounds beautiful. It’s just vapid. Sometime in the second act, it seems like it might get a little less vapid.

It doesn’t. But it still moves pretty well. There’s an unfortunate false ending, coming after some of the biggest third act problems, but the quality of the filmmaking–and Allen’s performance–gets it through. And brings up the film a bit.

A bit is a lot for Dressed to Kill.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Ralf D. Bode; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg; music by Pino Donaggio; produced by George Litto; released by Filmways Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Doctor Robert Elliott), Angie Dickinson (Kate Miller), Nancy Allen (Liz Blake), Keith Gordon (Peter Miller), Dennis Franz (Detective Marino), and David Margulies (Dr. Levy).


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