Monday, April 10, 2017

7 Days in May | Brenda Starr and Operation Kid Brother

Brenda Starr (1992)

This movie came up on an episode of Nerd Lunch that I was on last year and it got me curious to see it. I remember when it came out, but I'd skipped it because a) it was during that whole glut of disappointing, early '90s comics/pulp movies, and b) I've never cared anything about the comic strip it's based on anyway. But then I learned that the plot involves Brenda Starr's getting in an argument with the cartoonist who draws her, so she disappears from the strip and he has to enter Cool World or whatever to bring her back. As low as that put my expectations, there was no way I could be disappointed. I figured I could at least watch a little and turn it off partway if it was unbearable.

Shockingly, I love every minute of the thing.

I've never read Brenda Starr, so I don't know what kind of tone it had, but certainly there are some outlandish things about the concept of a glamorous, adventure-having reporter. What's great about the movie is that it neither downplays nor ridicules those elements. It celebrates them and holds them up as sources of pure joy. Brooke Shields is amazing in the role as an absolutely perfect fashionista. And so is Timothy Dalton as the dashing, eye-patched Basil St John. Eddie Albert from Green Acres is basically playing Chief O'Hara in an early scene, but the real scene-stealers are Jeffrey Tambor and June Gable (Joey's manager Estelle on Friends) as a couple of KGB agents. The movie is funny and I laughed out loud many, many times. I kept waiting for the movie to turn on me, but it never did. Even the weird cartoonist-entering-his-work plot makes a kind of sense as a story about a passionless, mercenary artist who discovers the joy in what he's doing and falls in love with his subject.

The movie's not available on streaming, but I found a cheap DVD and blind-bought it. I'm glad I did, because I'll be watching this over and over again.

Operation Kid Brother (1967)

I stumbled across this one a couple of years ago when I was doing that whole James Bond series here on the blog, but just now got around to watching it. It presents itself as a parody of Bond movies, but I don't know if it really is. No more so than You Only Live Twice was anyway, which came out the same year.

This one stars Sean Connery's younger brother Neil as a gifted plastic surgeon who's also the younger brother of a famous secret agent. The movie is goofy about how much it wants to suggest ties to Bond continuity, so the main character is actually named Neil Connery even though it's clear that his older brother is supposed to be James Bond. And the two government representatives who recruit Neil are played by Bernard Lee and Lois Maxwell, who are still clearly playing M and Moneypenny, even though their names are now Commander Cunningham and... well... Maxwell (Max, for short).

There are bunch of other Bond alumni reprising similar roles, too. Anthony Dawson is the head of the evil organization Thanatos, for example. Dawson is most recognizable as Professor Dent in Dr. No, but he also played the faceless Blofeld in From Russia With Love and Thunderball. His number two in Thanatos is played by Adolfo Celi, who was SPECTRE's Number Two in Thunderball. And From Russia With Love's Daniela Bianchi is again an enemy agent who falls for the hero and switches teams.

Neil Connery the character is an amazing man who's not just the world's top plastic surgeon. He also has super-hypnotism powers and is an expert archer and hand-to-hand fighter. My only disappointment with him is that Neil Connery the actor was sick when it was time to dub his lines, so the character has a bland voice with no trace of a Scot accent.

Operation Kid Brother isn't a great movie. It learned some of the wrong lessons from Thunderball, so several sequences are pointlessly overlong. And none of the bit actors are very good. But it's such a weird, fun little movie that I had a great time with it anyway. And it also gives us Ennio Morricone's (working with Bruno Nicolai) version of a Bond score. Well worth checking out for Bond fans.

Return to the Lost World (1992)

I actually watched this last week and forgot to mention it. There aren't really any surprises in this sequel to the Lost World adaptation from the same year. That movie ends by unsubtly foreshadowing how the gang's going to get back together and then they do exactly that in the second movie. And because part of the first one's formula was Professor Challenger and his rival's overcoming their differences, Return opens with them feuding again so that they can repeat the same beats in their relationship.

The special effects aren't any better this time around, either, but I did enjoy Return just slightly more than its predecessor, simply because I wasn't comparing it to Arthur Conan Doyle's novel anymore. Not enough to make me recommend it, but at least I was able to stay more-or-less engaged.

Stripes (1981)

Continuing from last week's watching of Airplane! and Caddyshack, we showed David a couple of more '80s comedies. He's a big Bill Murray fan, so Stripes was a necessity, even though it's not my favorite. There are some great gags, but I always lose interest after the characters graduate basic training. The movie should have ended there and lost the whole, tacked on, weaponized RV plot.

That would have given more time to sell the animosity between Murray's character and the drill sergeant, which is pretty loosely sketched out. Sometimes they seem to admire each other and other times they hate each other, but it's all as the plot dictates, not because it feels like a real relationship.

Big (1988)

Diane's birthday was this week and she requested that we watch Big. It's been a long time since I've seen it and I'd forgotten how much of a revelation Tom Hanks' performance was. This was the moment when we all started realizing that he was capable of much more than Bachelor Party and Volunteers (as much as I like those movies). He's really phenomenal in this, especially in the early scenes where his character is afraid and still getting used to his grown-up body.

It's a little weird that Elizabeth Perkins isn't more weirded out than she is when she finds out she's been sleeping with a 13-year-old, but that bit of creepiness aside, Big holds up as a lovely, touching movie.

Zorro (1957-61)

Almost done with Season 1 and things are getting pretty bleak for our hero. He manages to pull out some kind of victory each week, but they're smaller and smaller as the Eagle gains more and more power, even taking over Don Diego's home. Can't wait for the season finale.

Opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Since I finished the Young Indiana Jones episodes with 10-year-old Indy, I took a break from the show this week to watch the prelude section of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So now Indy has his hat and his scar and I'm ready to watch him go to war in the rest of the TV series.

It was jarring to see the character in such an action-packed adventure after the educational journeys of the TV show. And I wonder what kind of tone the Teenage Indy episodes will take. I remember plot details, but not so much the overall feel.

Underground (2016-present)

We finished Season 1 and Oh My God. I'm loving this show.

Last week, I was concerned that the show was going to drag out the drama around some secrets in a relationship that I otherwise really like. But instead, it ripped that Band-Aid right off and forced the characters to deal with the repercussions. Or at least to start dealing with the repercussions. I have no doubt that it's going to come back to bite them, but at least there's no prolonged lying and delaying the inevitable. Excellent work, show.

More than that, though, I love how the final episode of the season pulled out some awesome twists while wrapping up some plots and teasing the direction of the show in Season 2. The new season is in progress as I'm writing this, but I've got the episodes so far queued up on my TiVo and ready to go.

The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley

Watching the Disney Zorro TV show got me curious to finally read the original story and it's a good one. The 1920 Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks closely follows the novel's plot, so there weren't a lot of surprises in the novel, but there are some.

For one thing, Zorro's mask isn't the kind that's traditionally associated with the character. Fairbanks' mask influenced the popular image, but the mask in the novel is like the one on the cover above. It covers Zorro's (or Señor Zorro, as he's always called) entire face so that he has to lift it in order to eat, drink, or kiss. I'm not a fan, but I'm curious to see if McCulley changed it in the stories he wrote after the Fairbanks movie.

An even bigger surprise was that McCulley keeps his readers in the dark about Zorro's secret identity until the very end. Don Diego is all in the novel, but the reveal that he is also Zorro is meant to be as much of a shock to the audience as to the other characters in the book. That's as impossible for modern readers as keeping the Vader-Luke relationship a secret is for first time Empire viewers, but it's still cool to imagine how the original readers must have reacted.

Related to that, it was also news to me that The Curse of Capistrano is a complete novel with a definite ending and no set up for sequels. McCulley ends the book with Zorro's enemies defeated and his identity revealed, since it's no longer needed. But since the success of the Fairbanks film created a demand for more Zorro stories, I'm curious to see how (or even if) McCulley dealt with that in future installments.

Jam of the Week: "Carter & Cash" by Tor Miller

I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it, just because of it's light beat and playful melody, but I didn't immediately understand the reference in the title. It was calling to mind Tango & Cash, which led me down the completely wrong trail. And then I realized that it was holding up June Carter and Johnny Cash as an example of enduring, faithful love and I fell for the song even harder.

1 comment:

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

Sounds like we're on the same page this week. I'd heard of the Brenda Starr movie but nothing made it stand out until you listed all these great character actors!

Big likewise creeped me out with the implication that "he's still 13!" The best part is easily Tom Hanks. There's been no shortage of magical age-change comedies since Big and it all rests on a good performance to sell it.


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