Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Jungle Goddess (1948) – MST3K Review

This episode explodes on the screen with the first episode of a serial called The Phantom Creeps. In it, Bela Lugosi is the deranged scientist Dr. Zorka. Because of his goofy last name, he is out to make all kinds of crazy inventions, including exploding spiders, invisibility belts and one of the strangest looking robots in cinema history. The plot for this episode introduces Zorka as he tries to convince folks that a) he isn’t crazy and b) his inventions are valuable. He fails at both, and of course goes on the rampage. He is able to convince people he is dead, and then starts his homegrown terrorism project. It all ends with a cliffhanger as our heroes attempt to escape a plummeting plane after an exploding spider takes out the pilot. Yeah read that sentence again and try to imagine it on a shoestring budget.

Jungle Goddess starts in deepest darkest Africa (on a back lot somewhere) where sleazy bush pilot Bob (Ralph Byrd) and his straight-laced partner Mike (George Reeves) are just scraping by. Bob comes across a news report that declares a huge reward for finding the missing heiress Greta Vanderhorn (Wanda McKay). The two decide to search for the missing lass, and eventually find her... and a whole heap of trouble.

Because this is a movie of it’s time, the (black) natives of the jungle found (white) Greta and believed she was a goddess from the sky. She rules over them all, but is about ready to head back to civilization thank you very much. Bob discovers the village is situated on a huge deposit of a radioactive element – and he sees dollar signs. But his trigger-happy nature gets everyone in trouble with the natives. Can the Jungle Goddess escape with her newfound friends?

Movie Review:

Behold Bela's goofy beard and goofier robot.
Time for another serial, this time from Universal back in 1939.  The Phantom Creeps features Bela Lugosi being Bela Lugosi. It’s got crazy inventions, amazing coincidences and character motives and actions that don’t make a lick of sense. But it’s got that breezy feel that most serials have. They are only there to entertain you, get you excited about the cliffhanger and make you want to come back for the next installment.

This is the first episode, so it’s a bit exposition heavy. Dr. Zorka shows off all his inventions, even perfecting the invisibility belt in front of us. His lab is full of secret passages and hidden doors. In addition to interacting with his inventions, we also get to see him attempt to convince his wife and a potential financial backer about the usefulness of his work. The dialogue here is very silly and overblown, offering plenty of laughs by itself.

Two sequences in The Phantom Creeps stand out as completely hilarious. The first is where Zorka fakes his own death. So many things need to happen for this plan to work – and guess what? They all fall into place. It’s so ridiculous, the only response is laughter. The other classic serial moment is when the exploding spider takes out the pilot and causes the plane to spiral out of control to its doom. The visuals involving the invisible belt, the little spider, the feeble explosion and then all the ridiculous dialogue from the heroes are great stuff.

A scene that inspired the film "Arachnophobia"?
Although Bela gets top billing for his scenery chewing skill, the real starts of the serial are the inventions. First is the awkward, huge headed robot. He lumbers about, with that bizarre expression on his face. Zorka keeps claiming how useful it is and basically all it does in this episode is wander around. Then you have the belt that renders you invisible, which is really more blurry or cloudy than anything else. But the supporting cast keeps saying how they can’t see anyone wearing belt, so it must work. Last but hardly least are the exploding spiders. These little puppets move very realistically, you know, if you have your eyes closed. Their sole purpose is to be dragged along by a string to where a disc is hidden. Upon contact with the disc – BOOM! Surprisingly, a similar tactic was used by the villain of the 1980s futuristic action flick called Runaway with Tom Selleck. But in that film, the spiders were metal robots. Here, they’re just goofy spider puppets.

The Phantom Creeps is exactly what it needs to be, a crazy blast of serial entertainment. It’s pacing is a bit bizarre, but I chalk that up to the fact that it is the first episode, and there is plot and character stuff that needs to be revealed. But of the three serial adventures MST3K tackled, it seems the least thought out. Both Radar Men from the Moon and The Undersea Kingdom felt a little more coherent.

Lucky for us, Jungle Goddess is coherent. Unluckily for us, it’s also boring as all heck. In many ways it resembles the flick Queen of the Amazons. The plots are similar, the budgets both look pretty sparse and the use of stock footage is pretty rampant. What makes this film a little better is George Reeves and Wanda McKay. They both put in a fine effort and elevate the film from a painfully bad to just plain dull.

I thought Superman didn't need a plane to fly.
It’s the pacing that’s the killer here. The movie takes its time doing anything. The opening scenes involving Bob and Mike discussing their financial situation and the plan to go after Greta seems to take forever. Equally slow is the search through the jungle to find the wreckage of Greta’s plane, and then the long escape scene that makes up the “exciting” finale. Director Lewis D. Collins just can’t keep things moving briskly or with any interest. Now Collins is one of those directors who could crank out the low budget films (kind of like Sam Newfield of Lost Continent and I Accuse My Parents fame). In 1944 alone he directed 12 movies, including the intriguingly named Raiders of the Ghost City. So I’m guessing that sometimes he’d just run out of steam on some of these projects.

The plot is so uninspired in Jungle Goddess that I can’t really blame him. To our eyes, the whole concept of the white woman ruling over the black tribe is pretty offensive. But back in 1948 I’m guessing it didn’t do much more than raise an eyebrow or two. Besides with the tagline: “TEMPTRESS… of 1000 untamed men! RULER… of a savage empire!”, well I think we all know what was being promoted here – stock footage!

Yes all the low budget jungle film tropes rear their ugly heads. Lots and lots of stock footage is used. Most of it awkwardly edited into shots in some of the least convincing ways possible. You get some really bad jungle sets (very similar to the ones used in Lost Continent). Then you get the “natives” who are all pretty embarrassing to watch. The worst is Wanama played by single named Armida. The only reason she’s the worst is because she is a Hispanic actress in blackface speaking in broken English.

"Wait a minute, I thought Weissmuller was in this flick."
But surely Jungle Goddess must have some kind of action or adventure, right? Yeah, well, most of the action is Bob and Mike getting into arguments that lead to fisticuffs. The finale with the whole village chasing Greta, Mike and Bob is rendered extremely dull by scene after scene of them running or walking through the same patch of jungle set. A scene of stock footage animals is inserted every once in a while so Bob can shoot at something. But all told, the action is pretty limited and thrill free.

This leaves the acting. As I mentioned Reeves isn’t bad as the straight arrow Mike. He’s earnest and brave, everything you want in an adventure hero. But you get the feeling that a guy like this would have ditched Bob pretty darn quick. Byrd turns Bob into a conniving, greedy, jerk with an itchy trigger finger. This guy is more than willing to sell his “friend” out to angry natives, kill anyone who gets in his way and generally behave like an ass. He’s actually the true villain of the film, which is saying something especially when you see how anyone of color is portrayed in the film.

McKay is actually pretty alluring as Jungle Goddess Greta. Her interaction with Reeves actually has a bit of chemistry to it. So when they team up about halfway through the film, it works pretty well. Still she is given some pretty horrid dialogue, and you get the feeling that she is playing a role for a woman who is a bit younger than she was.

As poor as the pacing is, there are some good things about the movie. It actually has some interesting noire style lighting in a few scenes. Some of the stock footage is fun to watch. Byrd starts chewing the scenery at the end, and makes it a bit more entertaining. But all in all, it makes me realize how good the assorted Tarzan movies were. Even something as weak as Tarzan Escapes was better than this movie. But was the film enough to provide solid riffing fodder for Joel and the bots?

Episode Review:  
Even the robot is working for the weekend.
In many ways this is a standard episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s got a fun short, a goofy movie and some entertaining host segments. But nothing about it really stands out to make it really memorable.

As is often the case the short, The Phantom Creeps provides the most memorable laughs. But because this installment is a bit exposition heavy, it’s not quite as good as some of the stuff later on. Joel and bots have the most fun with the silly beard that Bela wears in the beginning of the episode and then with all his inventions. When Zorka puts on the invisible belt for a test run, it malfunctions and causes him to stagger around in agony. Joel quips, “Oh man, just a little issue with the four alarm chili.” Once Zorka gets it working and becomes a moving blur Tom says, “That’s a pretty good impression of Patrick Swayze.” This episode aired in 1990, so the movie Ghost made this a very current riff. But it’s the bigheaded robot that brings one most of the funniest moments. After Zorka makes a huge production about the robot, as the door slides open Crow says, “What’s the big deal? It’s s a big metal Richard Kiel.” This was before they all got to see Kiel’s tongue slopping up shaving cream in Eegah.

The pacing of The Jungle Goddess is what keeps the riffing from really taking off. This being a Season 2 episode (and an early one at that), the team hadn’t quite got the hang of really unleashing on slow moving targets. The riffs come along at a steady but slow pace. But there are some good ones in there.

Our heroes see the end of the jungle back lot. 
George Reeves is of course going to open up a bunch of Superman related jokes. When Mike first walks into the bar to talk to Bob, Joel asks, “Hey, seen my blue underwear. It’s got a big “S” on it.” Later when Mike and Bob end up in another fistfight, the boys wonder how Superman can be beaten by a mere mortal, and where Bob is hiding the kryptonite.

Bob’s trigger-happy jerkiness causes a bunch of jokes. When a native pops up from a bush and Bob blows the poor guy away Joel says, “Hope that’s an acceptable greeting.” Uh, yeah, not quite. During the finale as the white folk attempt to escape the natives, we keep seeing stock footage of animals. Tom riffs, “Hey Bob, there’s a living thing. Why don’t you swing into high and kill it!”.

Even the Jungle Goddess herself isn’t immune to the riffing. In fact she is the source of a running joke for the entire series. When Greta is talking with Mike about how homesick she is, she says, “I sure could go for a hamburger sammich and some French-fried potatoes.” The writers at MST3K picked up on that and it would pop up in other episodes, whenever hamburgers or fries were on the screen. It even plays a key role in one of the host segments for I Accuse My Parents. Later when Greta and Mike plot their escape, Greta says, “Obey my every command, no matter how strange.” Joel just sighs and says, “Oh wow…”

Joel Robinson is... The Jungle Goddess!
The host segments provide a mix of entertaining and kinda odd. The episode starts with Joel and the bots playing hide and seek – existentially. For the invention exchange, Joel creates a radio-controlled circular saw. Because the farther you are away from power tools the safer you are. It ends up with Joel in pain. The mad scientists put Dr. Forrester’s head on the end of the saxophone and Frank plays him… it… the thing. It’s really bizarre. At the first break Joel and bots make their own infomercial for The Phantom Creeps exploding spiders. This is a fun little sketch that keeps you chuckling the whole time. For the next break Joel explains the use of gobos to the bots. These are used to create the “binocular vision” we see in the film. This sketch goes on way too long with little payoff. The same goes for the next segment that has white imperialist jerks visit the Satellite and threaten to shoot everyone on board – except Joel, because he’s white. Yeah it’s a bit preachy. After the movie ends Joel and bots imagine the life of Mike and Greta back in the states in the form of a 50’s sitcom in the vein of I Love Lucy. It’s all very silly but provides a few chuckles  (and a few more Superman jokes).

In the end you get an average episode. The riffing is above average for the short and average for the film. Not bad for a lazy Sunday, but not one I reach for very often.

I give it 3 hamburger sammiches out of five.

This episode is available on DAP.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Movie Music Musings: Favorite Composers - Michael Giacchino

Michael Giacchino

In the previous installment of my Favorite Composers series I covered the work of Bernard Herrmann. He was the originator of many of the musical tropes still used in films today. Going through the samples I provided it like cruising through a listing for Turner Classic Movies. So you might be wondering, “Doesn’t he like any modern film scores?”

I certainly do. But the type of colorful and emotive film scores that I enjoy just aren’t in demand right now. But there is one composer whose work is both colorful and emotive and he’s managed to score some great assignments. He’s fused old and new scoring techniques together and created some of the most memorable and exciting movie music of the past few years.

Michael Giacchino started out creating music for video games and television series. Some of his most popular music comes from the original set of Medal of Honor video games. These games were set during World War II, and featured protagonists battling Nazis and taking part in several key battles. For this series, Giacchino based his sound on John Williams’ work from the Indiana Jones series and worked in some of the more somber stylings similar to what is heard in JFK. The result was a series of four scores that many folks still find to be Giacchino’s best work. Here is a track from the third Medal of Honor game that showcases his action music and the some of the Williams influence on the score.

Giacchino went on to work with director J.J. Abrams on his two television series, Alias and Lost. He created a very specific sound for both series, and his work on Lost has garnered him plenty of acclaim. In fact much of the style he honed for that series has turned up in his later soundtracks. Here is his theme for Life and Death from Lost.

But the scores that brought Giacchino to my attention were for Pixar films. He created a jazzy energetic score for The Incredibles, fusing a full blown 1960s spy style to the whole thing. Yes there’s more than a hint of John Barry’s style in this score, especially from the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The whole score is bursting with energy and fun, including some of Giacchino’s most exciting action music. Here's a jazzy piece used during a montage in the film.

That is what I love most about Giacchino. Nearly all his scores have an amazing amount of joyful energy to them. Whether he’s doing a single track for the end credits to Cloverfield or taking an old 1930 style tune and turning it into full blown action music in Up, you get a sense that Giacchino is having plenty of fun with the whole score. And speaking of Up, his excellent scoring of the Married Life montage was probably responsible for his Academy Award win.

One of Giacchino's skills is his ability to take existing themes and turn them into new and exciting variations. He's done this on a number of movies including Speed Racer, Land of the Lost, Mission: Impossible III and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. But some of his most interesting adaptation was for his work on the 2009 version of Star Trek. He not only created an excellent series of new themes for Kirk, Nero and Spock, but managed to work the original theme from the ‘60s television series into the end titles. It’s a lengthy piece, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Now, Giacchino has worked in a few different genres including horror with Let Me In and romantic comedy with The Family Stone. But I really love his jazzy stuff. The way he uses the classic Mission Impossible theme in Mission Impossible III and ramps up the action music along with it is impressive. He tackles all kinds of jazzy styles in his work for Ratatouille. But one of my favorite scores by Giacchino is the fast and furious Speed Racer. I love how he takes the classic theme from the old cartoon and turns it into an anthem, an action set piece, and a driving underscore depending on what the scene calls for. But the most amazing and hilarious use of the piece is during the triumphant conclusion where Giacchino brings in the heavenly choir to sing the praises of Speed Racer. Glorious stuff indeed. 

Giacchino continues to have a good relationship with directors Brad Bird and J.J. Abrams. So as long as these two directors continue to make films, we'll continue to enjoy Giacchino's fun and vibrant music. And with Abrams directing the upcoming Star Wars film, it could mean a full blown William's meets Giacchino match up. It might sound something like this, from John Carter.

Next time we'll talk about my all time favorite film composer. While he isn't as well known to the general public as some of his contemporaries, he created some immediately recognizable themes, styles, and musical cliches of his own. His influence on the world of film scoring is considerable and he worked successfully in nearly every genre. In my opinion, when you want to hear the best in movie music, you don't need to look any further than Jerry Goldsmith.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gunsmith Cats (1995)

In 1991 Kenichi Sonoda created a comic book (manga) series about a pair of female bounty hunters. The tall one was a gun fanatic. The short one was a explosives nut. They lived in Chicago and kicked all kinds of butt. In a few years, the manga was popular enough to spawn a radio drama and an Original Animated Video (OAV) series. It was also series that brought me into anime fandom.

Rally Vincent (Amanda Winn Lee) and “Minnie” May Hopkins (Kimberly Yates) are doing what they do best, capture wanted criminals on the Chicago streets for some sweet bounty hunting action and money. Their pal, Becky Farrah (Tiffany Grant) acts as their info broker. She has the scoop on everyone in the city and will fork it over, for a price.

Things start off simple enough, when Rally and Minnie May capture a dangerous drug runner. But sleazy ATF agent Bill Collins (Rob Mungle) reveals that the goon was only the tip of the iceberg to a huge gun running case he’s working on. He convinces the gals (essentially by veiled threats and entrapment) to give him a hand at busting the whole ring. Of course things go very badly. There are shoot outs, home invasion, a car chase, abduction, conspiracy, corruption and even a crazy ex-KGB assassin mixed up in the whole mess. Can the Gunsmith Cats survive their latest adventure?

Good Points:
  • Excellent detail in the guns, cars and city of Chicago
  • A dub script filled with humor and snappy dialogue
  • Features three top notch action set pieces

Bad Points:
  • The animation quality dips a bit with each episode
  • Some suspect voice acting by the English cast
  • A bit lighter and sillier than the original manga

Gunsmith Cats is the type of anime series you don’t see anymore: the straight up action comedy. Likable leads, well-written dialogue and some great action scenes make this well worth seeking out. Sadly only three half hour episodes were produced, but you get what is essentially a 90-minute throwback to action flicks of the 70s and 80s. Also makes a great introduction to anime in general.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Rally and Minnie May make their first appearance
I better offer another disclaimer here. Gunsmith Cats is a hugely nostalgic series for me. I’ll write a whole blog about its role as my introduction to anime and the world of Japanese culture and comics. But I figure I have to say this ahead of time, so that you know this review will probably be colored by a bias. I’ll do my best to keep it grounded.

Luckily Gunsmith Cats is really a well-produced series (for the most part). One of the things that made the manga series stand out from the crowd when it came out in 1991 was the fact that Sonoda was a huge gun and car fanatic. The manga has tons of detailed views of the guns, bullets and cars. In addition, he did a lot of research on the city of Chicago, and many of the backgrounds and buildings are drawn directly from photos and films he viewed. In 1995, when the animation crew started work on the series, they followed his lead. Extensive research was done on all the weapons and vehicles in the show.

Welcome to Chicago
They even mimic Sonoda’s style of showing off the detail. The pre-credit scene has Rally holding her trademark CZ-75 and checking the safety at the perfect angle to show off the detail. The animation crew took a step further, travelling to Chicago and taking hours of footage to capture the look and feel of the city. This ends up grounding Gunsmith Cats as a very American looking anime as far as setting goes. Later anime that featured American cities would never go to such lengths. Relying on establishing shots of famous structures to create a sense of place.

Finally the sound crew was also invited along, and recorded all the weapons and cars used in the series for maximum accuracy. So, yes they actually found a 1967 Shelby Mustang Cobra in working order, and recorded it at racing speed for the exciting car chase in episode two. That is dedication!

Crazed Russian assassin? Is this an 80s action flick?
On top of all this is director Takeshi Mori’s desire to keep Sonoda’s visual style intact as far as action scenes go. The whole series plays out like a 70s or 80s action flick. Camera angles and editing will remind the viewer of Miami Vice or even The Blues Brothers. Sure there’s the typical anime style appearing every once in a while, but nearly all the visual style is inspired by Hollywood.

As far as character design goes, Sonoda was brought in for the first episode to adapt his trademark look (decidedly 1980s in style) for the OAV series. The result is a bit of a hybrid. The hair and physical features are certainly Sonoda. But the eyes and face appear much more like the AIC style made popular by Tenchi Muyo. It works well enough in the first episode. However, episode two and three end up going completely AIC in style, even simplifying the hair styles and bringing things closer in line with anime at the time. I’m thinking this was a cost saving measure. Episode two has an excellent and well-animated car chase in it, and the detail in the museum is the third episode is impressive. I’m guessing to keep the animation budget from exploding; Sonoda’s character designs got simplified.

Rally doesn't appreciate home invasion
I’ve already mentioned the realistic sound effects. The music is a bit surprising though. The score is primarily jazz and blues in style. The opening credits explode to a wonderful jazzy “Gunsmith Cats” theme synched to some fun and colorful animation. The end credits are a bluesy adaptation of the same theme that sounds like an improve session. One of the musical highlights is during the car chase, when a jazzy piece is used as Rally and Minnie May time the battle with the Russian assassin Radinov (Marcy Rae) to the music’s rhythm. Composer Peter Erskine’s score makes this OAV a very unique beast musically, something we wouldn’t see again until Yoko Kanno wrote here similarly jazzy, blues influenced score to Cowboy Bebop.

This is a 1990s dub script. That means that it came a time when dub writers were less concerned about really nailing the exact translation of a script as they were to staying true to the spirit of the script. Sometimes this ended up creating a very different experience in the anime and sometimes muddling the script a bit. It could be a detriment in serious anime (the dub script to Ghost in the Shell has been accused of this). But in comedies it was usually for the best. El Hazard was an example of a dub script that worked much better for American viewers than the sub script. Gunsmith Cats is another example. Matt Greenfield injects playful banter, snarky one liners and even a running verbal joke or two into the whole thing. It sounds like a script penned by someone who worked on Beverly Hills Cop or Midnight Run. The interplay between Rally, Minnie May and Becky is great stuff. But the ATF agent, Bill Collins gets some of the best lines with pithy observations and some great self-deprecating humor. The series even gets in those cliché but necessary lines that every action flick needs. Stuff like “That’s dirty pool. Now I’m pissed!” and “I’ve got one more thing to deal with… or should I say two things” (Radinov talking about her job to take out the bounty hunting duo). There’s just a spirit of fun in the dialogue, and with the right actors it just clicks.

Agent Bill Collins - Sleaze with a capital "S"
This is one of the very first English dubs for the North American distribution company ADV. These early dubs had nearly all the same cast members in them, and seemed to vary in quality. Gunsmith Cats is one of the better ones. The cast is completely on board with the script and knew just how to play it. Amanda Winn Lee as Rally and Kimberly Yates as Minnie May nail all the banter scenes, sounding just like room mates and partners who are friends, but know all of the other persons buttons to push. Yates nails Minnie May’s cute but devilish personality. Her wicked chuckle as she’s about to commit some breaking and entering is classic. Lee nails the tough girl with the heart of gold for Rally. In the first episode she is at her best when interacting with Agent Collins. Her bantering with the agent during the gunfight finale is handled perfectly. Lee only gets a bit over the top when Rally starts really feeling the pressure in the second and third episode. Reading the manga, you never got the feeling that Rally would let her guard down too often, or appear less than cool and in control. But there are a few times when Lee sounds a bit too nervous or frightened.

Rounding out the main cast is Marcy Ray as the Russian assassin and Rob Mungle as Agent Collins. She lays on the Russian accent very thick, but it is completely keeping in line with the 1980s action movie style. She does a great job playing the cold killer who loses all control when Rally bests her. After that, the hatred comes through loud and clear, barely under control until she’s screaming in pure rage during the finale. Yeah it’s over the top, but it fits the show (and is very close to the Japanese version).  Mungle just lets the smarm come out in his voice. His interaction with Rally is very funny, as he tries to impress and hit on her all at once. He gets a bit overblown in a few places, but for the most part it is a good performance.

The Gunsmith Cats (and Becky) make a discovery
The only real downside to the dub (aside from Lee’s more extreme moments) are some of the gasps, back breaths and incidental vocals. Sounds odd, I know, but it actually takes a bit of talent to pull these little sounds off well. Japanese voice actors are very good at it. And most of the English cast would become very good at it a few years later. But in these early dubs, some of that kind of things sounds really… well no way to dance around it – orgasmic. One scene stands out, when Rally, Minnie May and Becky discover one of Radinov’s knives embedded in the hood of Rally’s Shelby Cobra. This sinister moment ends the pre-credit scene for episode three with a bang. Unfortunately the gasping, huffing, moaning and groaning the actresses do in those 30 seconds sounds so perverse you can’t help but laugh. Comparing it to the Japanese sequence, you can see what was being attempted: a non-verbal representation of surprise, shock and horror from three women. But man, in English, you wonder if some kind of lesbian orgy kicked off in the recording booth.

I’ve touched a bit on the direction already, especially concerning the action scenes. I really love the pre-credit moments for each of the three episodes. They are perfect and lead right into the exciting opening credits. It’s a combination of the Japanese direction, and the English dialogue that makes them so perfect.

Creative use of split screen during the warehouse battle
The pacing on the first two episodes is top notch. The story flies along, toward the climactic action scene. The series is plot centric, so most of the characterization is lean and mean, coming from dialogue and action. Editing is crisp, but not confusing at all. There are a few mini action scenes in the first two episodes. These tend to be a bit more humorous and fun than the finale set pieces. The best of the smaller scenes is when burglars attempt to rob Rally and Minnie May and find a house full of guns, as well as two women armed to the teeth and more than happy to use deadly force.

But it’s the set pieces that still impress me. The warehouse firefight in episode one is pure 1980s action movie material. It’s got the one-liners. It’s got the two heroes versus an army of thugs. It’s got clever solutions to tricky problems. It’s got Rally’s blouse strategically tearing (that’s directly from the manga actually). It’s got the cliché line “This isn’t over… it isn’t over by a long shot!” It’s got an explosive finale.

One of the best animated car chases
The car chase in episode two is equally impressive and remains one of the best-animated car chases I’ve seen. Keep in mind, this whole series was made before computer animation really started to make animating action scenes easier. It also skips all the usual anime cheats of freezing the frame, panning over static shots or having the background go abstract to save on money. Gunsmith Cats shows the car driving scenes with clarity. The most impressive sequence when Radinov uses her shotgun to blow out the tires of big rig and causing it to spin out of control and nearly smash Rally’s Shelby Cobra.

The final episode is where things drop a bit in pacing. The climax is Rally vs. Radinov in a museum that’s undergoing renovation. It’s a classic cat and mouse duel. On it’s own it works fine, slowly building tension as each woman attempts to out maneuver the other. But the rest of the episode is also a slow build. Radinov and her employer attempt to wrap up loose ends, Agent Collins is pulled from the case and a trap is set for the Gunsmith Cats. It gets a bit too plot heavy and slows down the momentum a bit. It’s more obvious if you’ve just watched the faster paced episodes leading up to it. But on it’s own, it works fine.

Minnie May carries a wide assortment of bombs
One other minor quibble is the use of the explosives in the series. Minnie May has all kinds of grenades, C4, dynamite… you name it. But each time she uses one of her weapons, the victims end up blackened and dazed – like Wile E. Coyote from a Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s really bizarre, especially since Rally maims plenty of people with her gun, and Radinov is absolutely brutal in her assassinations. It’s an odd choice, and I’m not sure if some attempt was made to reduce the bloodletting (anime still had a very violent and sexual reputation at this point). Or if they were aiming for a younger audience. It’s especially odd when you read the manga and see that Minnie May’s explosions often kill and disfigure people. It becomes a plot point several times, creating vendettas against “that little blonde bomb freak”.

Obviously I think Gunsmith Cats is wonderfully entertaining. I always enjoy the hell out of it each time I see it. But I’ve run into folks who don’t enjoy it as much as I do. They find it average at best. Usually this comes from the fact that they don’t like English dubs and only watched it in Japanese. The Japanese dialogue is functional, but lacks the spark of the English dub script. In Japanese the series is just a simple action romp with two pretty heroines. But the English script turns it into an homage to the action films of the 1970s and 80s. This is much closer to what Sonoda does in his manga series. Which winks at its audience as often as it gets serious. I’ve also run into folks who don’t have the same fond memories of the movies and television shows that Gunsmith Cats is inspired by. I’ll point out the little nods to those shows and they remain unimpressed. For folks like that, the show just isn’t going to click.

The girls are in catgirl mode during the opening credits

With that said, Gunsmith Cats isn’t artistic or groundbreaking. It’s a lot of fun, like a good 90-minute action movie. And that is all it really aspires to be. But placed along other shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Revolutionary Girl Utena, it looks conventional and a little shallow. No one is going to say, “Wow, Gunsmith Cats really makes you think.” But when it comes to a show that wears it’s love of the action flick on it’s sleeve, and wants to show you a good time in Chicago – well I recommend Rally and Minnie May as your perfect guides.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Anime Juke Box - Gunsmith Cats Opening Credits - Gunsmith Cats

Here's the jazzy opening credits to Gunsmith Cats. This is also the clean version of the opening credit animation. Clean as in, no actual credits on the screen. I love how the animation has a neat retro feel, combined with some of the styling right out of Kenichi Sonoda's graphic novels. 

If this style of opening credits looks familiar, well three years later the creators of Cowboy Bebop took a similar approach with their opening credits. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tarzan and the Amazons (1945)

MGM closed out its Tarzan franchise with Tarzan’s New York Adventure. But such a moneymaking concept couldn’t be left along for long. RKO wanted a piece of the jungle pie and even managed to get Weissmuller and John Sheffield to come back. Unfortunately O’Sullivan was done with the series, so it was time for a new actress as Jane. RKO was looking to restart the franchise, would they go back to the adventure style roots, or keep it family friendly?

The jungle is abuzz because Jane (Brenda Joyce) is on her way back from Europe. Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) hurry to meet her and her new archeologist pals lead by Sir Guy Henderson (Henry Stephenson). Along the way, they save a lovely woman named Athena (Shirley O’Hara) from certain death by leopards. Turns out she’s an Amazon – and Tarzan isn’t surprised to see her!

We can all blame Cheetah the chimp for revealing the secret of the Amazon kingdom to the archeologists. These guys want to meet them but Tarzan refuses to show them the hidden land. He wants to keep the hot babes to himself! Well that and the simple fact that the Amazons kill anyone who enters their kingdom (except for Tarzan of course). But the explorers get gold fever and are convinced the Amazons have a huge treasure trove. So they enlist the help of Boy, and soon it all goes to hell. Will the safari survive or will they meet their fate at the hands of Tarzan and the Amazons?

Good Points:
  • Amazons! Need I say more?
  • A full musical score helps the action
  • Tarzan and Boy have some good moments 

Bad Points:
  • Once the safari shows up, the plot gets stale
  • Suffers from padding
  • The action is pretty toned down

This is certainly a weaker entry, but not a bad movie. While the Amazons are the highlight, they don’t do too much. The new Jane is a let down, and the stale plot dealing with the safari suffering from gold fever (just like Tarzan’s Secret Treasure) is tiresome. But some of the action and Tarzan and Boy moments make up for it.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals:  3
Sound:  3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  3

In Depth Review
Athena the Amazon or Wonder Woman 1945?
RKO reduced the budget for their Tarzan films and the result was something a little less grand than what we saw in the MGM days. There was still some fun to be had and Weissmuller was still game to play the role. The result is a movie that could have been entertaining, but ends up missing the mark due to a lot of little things.

The basic plot to Tarzan and the Amazons is OK, but for the first quarter I thought it was going to be more about Tarzan and his family encountering and dealing with the Amazons. Instead the tired old “white men safari” shows up again and with it all the same plot points we’ve seen before. Once certain members of the safari get gold fever, we know exactly how this will play out. Any thrills the film attempts to generate when these clowns are captured and then picked off are weak at best. No, we are more concerned about Boy, who gets into the mess because Tarzan is hiding things from him.

This was the most interesting part of the film. We can see that Tarzan knows about the Amazons, but he refuses to tell Boy or Jane about them. Does Tarzan have a little something going with a kingdom ruled by hot women? No, he’s as loyal as you could wish for. But he knows that anyone that enters the kingdom is doomed to death, because of the Amazon’s religious beliefs. So he wants to keep his family safe. But because he wont’ say anything at all about it, Boy becomes more and more curious about this hidden kingdom.

Boy's been blinded by science.
When the safari shows up with their scientific equipment and gadgets, Boy is fascinated. But Tarzan writes all that off as pointless. This drives a deeper wedge between the two. Tarzan’s stubbornness pushes Boy to help his new friends find the Kingdom. And of course that dooms all of them.

This dynamic tension between Boy, who is now a pre-teen. and the stoic father is actually handled well. Boy is curious about the world. The new sciences are fascinating to him. Then there’s a kingdom populated by warrior women that his father obviously knows all about, but has never spoken of before. Boy is hurt by what he perceives as Tarzan’s lack of trust, and enticed by new wonders that are forbidden. Of course the tension is resolved by the end of the short film, but I like how they tried to do something a little different with the relationship of Boy and Tarzan.

Unfortunately the new dynamic between Jane and Tarzan is the real let down. I don’t want to blame Brenda Joyce. She plays the part as well as you’d expect and looks good in her jungle garb. It’s a bit odd to see a blonde Jane (and no comment about it from Tarzan or Boy). But it’s not the physical differences that are the issue.

Blonde Jane frets with her European explorer friends
The writers of Tarzan and the Amazons just didn’t get the character of Jane, or didn’t care and wrote her as a typical suburban mother. This is not a woman who had survived in the jungle for years, faced death countless times and formed a strong and loving bond with her husband. This Jane is helpless during a crisis. When an alligator attacks Boy, she frets and watches as Tarzan springs into action. Jane in the previous films would have jumped into the water to help her son or Tarzan (most likely both). This transformation continues through the rest of the movie. She ends up wandering around like a third wheel as the men (and Boy) actually engage in the plot. It’s surprising and disappointing. You could say that Jane lost her edge while she was away in Europe. But there is a line tossed about how she was helping with the war effort. To think that she got softer after helping during World War II, well that’s just ludicrous.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe the writers just didn’t care and were writing in default “mother” character mode. Joyce does a decent job, but the chemistry that made O’Sullivan and Weissmuller click so well is not present. Here, Jane is just a plot point and a pretty face.

"When Amazons Attack!" next on Spike.
When you’ve got Amazons swarming all over the place, do you need another pretty face? But seriously, this was another missed opportunity. The Amazons could easily be replaced with any tribe you want and the plot wouldn’t change. I was hoping for something a bit unique with the idea of a kingdom controlled by warrior women. But it’s really just an excuse to have women run around in short leopard print skirts and shoot arrows at stupid safari guys. I don’t have a problem with that, but I was hoping for a little more creativity. The movie She did more with the concept a kingdom ruled by women, and it was made nearly a decade earlier.

Finally there’s the simple fact that Tarzan ends up getting sidelined in his movie. For the first half, he’s involved with Boy and Jane getting the family together again. But once the scientists show up the focus shifts to Boy. Tarzan is off screen for much of the film, and when he finally does show up, he spends most of the time running in the jungle. There’s actually very little jungle action and adventure here. The chase scene with the Amazons doesn’t involve him. And even his race against time, to save Boy from becoming a sacrifice to the Amazon god, is pretty lifeless.

Tarzan: friend to all Amazons.
Sounds like I’m coming down hard on Tarzan and the Amazons, but its got some good points too. I already mentioned the scenes with Boy and Tarzan, but I also appreciated that they toned down Cheetah’s role in this one. She’s still goofing off and getting in trouble, but she wasn’t in nearly every scene like Tarzan’s New York Adventure.  The Amazon city looked pretty cool for a low budget film. The sequence where Tarzan saves Athena was funny, only because of the awesome stunt plush used when Tarzan attacks a panther with his knife.  Even the final chase with the Amazons is handled well, and has some interesting elements to it.

But this is one of those movies that if you ask me about it a couple months from now, I won’t remember much about it, other than the funny plush panther scene. It passes time and his harmless enough, but lacks the elements that made the MGM films solid entertainment. At least it was better than Queen of the Amazons.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Lisa and the Devil (1974)

Due to an unfortunate mishap, I viewed and watched a horrible hacked and re-edited version of this film. It was called House of Exorcism and it was bad. But there was enough intriguing elements to that mess of a film that I figured I should check out the original version. Rumor has it, that this even director Mario Bava was displeased with the hacked up version. So the original should be good… I hope. But the devil is involved, so it could be bad in a whole new and exciting way!


Lisa (Elke Sommer) is enjoying some touristy fun in Toledo, Spain when she runs across a very strange man with a mannequin. She is separated from her tour group and is picked up by a strange couple driving a car right out of The Great Gatsby. The car is on its last legs, and stops in front of a creepy mansion. Inside is a handsome but unstable young man Max (Alessio Orano) and his mother the Countess (Alida Valli).

Soon evil doings are afoot. People get killed, creepy dolls are manipulated, rotting corpses are revealed and most of the gals end up topless. Behind it all is a mysterious butler Leandro (Telly Savalas). Is he the sinister mastermind behind this dreamlike world, or has Lisa lost her mind? The tale of Lisa and Devil offers more questions than answers.

Good Points:

  • Combines gothic horror and surreal really well
  • Some good creepy moments
  • Better than House of Exorcism
Bad Points:

  • Parts of this movie don’t make a lick of sense
  • Some pretty bad dubbing
  • Very slow paced
Bava’s vision was to make a surreal gothic horror flick, and he mostly succeeds. The major issue is the extremely show pacing. Some of these build a creepy atmosphere, but other sequences seem like padding. Still there is some creepy stuffing going on here, even if it all doesn’t make much sense in the end. Not bad for an evening of gothic horror. Just don’t think about it too much while you’re watching.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.