Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

WHEN MARRIAGES GO (MURDEROUSLY) BAD

WHEN MARRIAGES GO (MURDEROUSLY) BAD

Everyone hopes that a wedding is just the beginning of a lifetime of caring, companionship and happiness, but, sadly, it doesn't always work out that way, especially if you've had the misfortune to marry a sociopath. This theme has been explored on such true-crime cable shows as Scorned: Love Kills!, and this week Great Old Movies examines telefilms that also look into really bad marriages. Most of these films are based on true stories, but a couple are fictional.

If there's any lesson to be learned from these dramas, it's to be very, very careful who you get hitched to!

MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES

Katherine Ross and Barry Bostwick
MURDER BY NATURAL CAUSES (1979 telefilm). Director: Robert Day.

Arthur Sinclair (Hal Holbrook) is a famous "mentalist" who claims psychic powers that may or may not be real. His younger wife, Alison (Katharine Ross), is having an affair with the struggling actor, Gil Weston (Barry Bostwick), and she urges him to help her carry out a plot to kill Arthur. Of course nothing runs smoothly, but there are other players in the drama who may have their own schemes at work ... Murder By Natural Causes has a typically twisty and satisfying plot by Richard Levinson and William Link, and boasts top performances by Holbook and Bostwick, who really score in a cat and mouse sequence inside Arthur's imposing mansion. Ross [Games] and Richard Anderson [The Night Strangler], who plays the Sinclairs' lawyer, are competent and effective but a cut below the other two. In addition to many other mystery scripts, Levinson and Link also wrote That Certain Summer, which also starred Holbrook.

Verdict: This pic won't make you "mental." ***.

DEADLY INTENTIONS

Michael Biehn and Madolyn Smith Osborne
DEADLY INTENTIONS (1985 telefilm/mini-series). Director: Noel Black.

Charles Raynor (Michael Biehn) is an aspiring doctor who boards with the Livanos family and has a rather neurotic adoptive mother (Cloris Leachman). Charles falls in love with Katherine Livanos (Madolyn Smith Osborne) and the two move to a new town where he gets a job at a hospital. Katherine discovers that her new husband is rather peculiar, giving her lists of things to do each day, treating her like a child, and deliberately frightening her as he takes photos of her distress. When he gives her medicine for their baby boy, and Katherine discovers from a pharmacist (Robert Clarke in a bit) that the stuff could have killed the child, she makes up her mind to get out. This leads to an incredibly suspenseful and scary sequence that ends part one. Part two, while still entertaining, and which details events that occurred after the Raynor's divorce and Charles' plot to murder his wife, should have been compacted to about half an hour. In any case Deadly Intentions, based on a true crime book written by the prosecutor in the attempted murder trial, is quite absorbing, and features two terrific lead performances. With his crazy eyes one could suggest that Biehn [Aliens] is halfway there with his part, but he really does give an outstanding and marvelously intense performance that deserved an Emmy (I don't think he was even nominated). Cloris Leachman, Kevin McCarthy as a defense lawyer, and Cliff De Young [Dr. Giggles] as the prosecutor are also notable. Noel Black also directed the theatrical film Pretty Poison. Followed by Deadly Intentions ... Again?

Verdict: Watch out for those eyes. ***.


SHE WAS MARKED FOR MURDER

Stefanie Powers and Hunt Block 
SHE WAS MARKED FOR MURDER (1988 telefilm). Directors: Charles and Chris Thomson.

Elena Forrester (Stefanie Powers of Crescendo) is the widowed publisher of a women's lifestyle magazine. Her assistant, Claire (Debrah Farentino), suggests it's time for Elena to start dating again, and she hooks up with a younger man named  Eric Chandler (Hunt Block). The two surprise everyone by getting hitched after just a short period. But before you can say Suspicion, Elena starts discovering alarming things about the husband she barely knows. The generic title should give you a clue as to what's going on. Powers, Block and Farentino all give good performances and there is also nice work from Lloyd Bridges [Deadly Dream] as an old friend of Elena's who is carrying a torch for her. Polly Bergen [Death Cruise] adds some spice as a TV talk show host who hopes to get Elena on camera. The movie is smooth and entertaining just as long as you don't expect any real surprises.

Verdict: Older, wealthy woman and younger man with no visible means of support is always a recipe for disaster. **1/2.

LOVE, LIES AND MURDER

Clancy Brown
LOVE, LIES AND MURDER (1991 telefilm/mini-series). Director: Robert Markowitz.

David Brown (Clancy Brown) tells the police that his wife, Linda, was shot but can't bring himself to check on her in the bedroom. He then tells them that his 14-year-old daughter, Cinnamon (Moira Kelly), murdered Linda, who was her stepmother. Linda's younger sister, Patti (Sheryl Lee of Twin Peaks), was also in the house. Although the cops feel that there are things about the story that don't add up, Cinnamon confesses after a suicide attempt, and is incarcerated. But while David and Patti live large on Linda's huge insurance payout, Cinnamon decides to open up to the police, and a diabolical scheme unfolds ... Love, Lies, and Murder is based on a true case (which was also the subject of two books), and features some fine performances by the leads, with especially good work from Kelly and Lee. If there's any problem with the movie it is that we don't get to know the victim very well, and the other characters are defined more by what has happened to them than anything else. Cynthia Nixon has a small early role as a friend of Patti's. Clancy Brown does a lot of voice work for animated shows such as Justice League where he played Lex Luthor.

Verdict: Absorbing and shocking true crime story. ***.

DEADLY INTENTIONS ... AGAIN?

Joanna Kerns and Harry Hamlin
DEADLY INTENTIONS ... AGAIN? (1991 telefilm). Director: James Steven Sadwith.

In this sequel to Deadly Intentions, Charles Raynor (now played by Harry Hamlin) has gotten out of prison after being convicted of trying to murder his first wife. His second wife, Sally (Joanna Kerns) has always believed in his innocence, but she becomes suspicious of his actions, as well as of a chained up case that he keeps in the trunk of his car. Sally finally comes to the conclusion that not only is Raynor guilty of the crime he was convicted of, but he is still planning to get even with his wife, not to mention the prosecutor whose book was turned into the Deadly Intentions telefilm. Will Sally be able to notify the authorities before her time runs out? Deadly Intentions ... Again? is an entertaining TV flick, but Hamlin [Clash of the Titans], although more than competent, can't hold a candle to Michael Biehn, who played the role in the earlier film. The always-amiable Hamlin rarely if ever seems seriously threatening. Kerns is excellent, however, as are Eileen Brennan [Jeepers Creepers], who is even better as Raynor's mother than Cloris Leachman was; and Fairuza Balk, who plays Raynor's troubled stepdaughter. More fictionalized than the original film.

Verdict: You just can't keep a good sociopath down. ***.

THE DANGER OF LOVE: THE CAROLYN WARMUS STORY

Illicit Lovers: Joe Penny and Jenny Robertson
THE DANGER OF LOVE: THE CAROLYN WARMUS STORY (1992 telefilm). Director: Joyce Chopra.

Teacher Michael Carlin (Joe Penny) is married to Mary Ann (Deborah Benson) but is drawn to a co-worker, the wealthy Carolyn Warmus (Jenny Robertson), who is used to always getting what she wants. Although Michael tries more than once to break things off, Carolyn just won't take no for an answer. One evening Michael meets Carolyn for drinks, and comes home to find his wife shot to death, almost execution style. As far as Detective Pollina (Joseph Bologna) is concerned, Michael is the number one suspect, but first he has to take a hard, cold look at the man's mistress ... The Danger of Love is based on the true story of the notorious Warmus, and is bolstered by excellent performances from the two leads, especially Robertson. Richard Lewis also has a good turn as Michael's friend, a lawyer named Edward. The screenplay is perhaps too kind to Michael, who in real life was probably not as sympathetic as Joe Penny portrays him.

Verdict: Even smart blonds can be dumb. ***.

FINAL APPEAL

Brian Dennehy
FINAL APPEAL (1993 telefilm). Director: Eric Till.

Christine Biondi (JoBeth Williams of Poltergeist) is accused of murdering her husband, Ed (Tom Mason), and taking a shot at his skank nurse mistress, Delores (Ashley Crow). She claims the shootings were in self-defense, but an ambitious prosecutor (is there any other kind in these movies?)  named Dana Cartier (Lindsay Crouse) wants to hang her. A bigger problem for Christine is that her lawyer is her alcoholic brother, Perry (Brian Dennehy of Righteous Kill), who seems too tired to make an "objection" when his sister's life is on the line. But with the help of a sympathetic cop, Detective Ayers (Eddie Jones), who knows there was a cover-up in the investigation, Perry may yet win the day. Final Appeal's main strength is in the incredibly sharp performances by Williams and Dennehy, and virtually everyone else in the cast, including the talented youngster who plays Christine's young son, Zach (Keegan MacIntosh). Although this is supposedly based on a true story, some elements seem strictly fictional, such as Perry, whose license has been suspended, getting it back temporarily so that he can defend his sister. The production has to be taken with a large grain of salt, but it is absorbing and full of interesting developments.

Verdict: Well-done "true" crime drama with outstanding performances. ***.

TEXAS JUSTICE

Peter Strauss
TEXAS JUSTICE (1995 telefilm). Director: Dick Lowry.

Wealthy Thomas Cullen Davis (Peter Strauss) has a messy divorce from his wife, Priscilla (Heather Locklear), who is no angel herself. But when a gunmen enters the Davis mansion where she now resides, her boyfriend and daughter are shot to death, and she escapes with her life. During a trial Priscilla swears that Thomas was the perpetrator, and when he gets off, she's afraid that he's not quite through with her yet ... Texas Justice is based on a true story, and the developments are appalling. Strauss makes a compelling leading man, and there's nice work from Locklear [Looney Tunes: Back in Action] as well, with excellent support from Dennis Franz as Davis' lawyer "Racehorse" Haynes, The second half of the movie/mini-series is not as good as the first, and could have been been truncated, but this basically makes an entertaining true-crime story, and it certainly shows how the legal system can be very cleverly manipulated by highly skilled defense attorneys. Strauss did the narration for a new release of the classic French children's film White Mane.

Verdict: Apparently the rich can get away with murder. **1/2.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

THOSE COOL COMIC BOOK HEROES!

Superman vs Nuclear Man from Superman IV
THOSE COOL COMIC BOOK HEROES! 

This week Great Old Movies looks at films that star famous super-heroes such as Superman and Batman. We first look at comic book heroes whose exploits were adapted for cliffhanger serials (such as Blackhawk and Spy Smasher), then jump to films of the seventies and more recent flicks such as Wonder Woman. We've also got a section on animated features, most of which star Batman or Superman. In other words, we've got more super-powered and/or heroic (or villainous) characters than you can shake a stick at! Enjoy!

NOTE: All of the heroic characters covered this week originally appeared in comic books with the exception of Captain Midnight, whose exploits were first charted on the radio and in the serial before he got his own successful comic book series. 


CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT

Dave O'Brien as Captain Midnight
CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT (15 chapter Columbia serial/1942). Director: James W. Horne.

Captain Albright (Dave O'Brien) also uses the costumed and masked identity of Captain Midnight, although everyone seems to know the two are the same. He is aided by his buddies, Ichabod or "Icky" (Guy Wilkerson) and the spunky Chuck (Sam Edwards). A scientist named John Edwards (Bryant Washburn) has invented a special range-finder weapon that he hopes to sell to Washington, but the nefarious Ivan Shark (James Craven) and his gang want to get their hands on it first. Captain Midnight and his own gang, including Major Steele (Joseph W. Girard) and Edwards' daughter, Joyce (Dorothy Short), have their hands full trying to stay alive, outwit Shark and either keep the invention out of Shark's hands or get it back once he's stolen it. Shark also has a daughter named Fury (Luana Walters of Shadow of Chinatown), who helps her father and bosses around his henchmen.

There are some terrific cliffhangers in this serial. In chapter three Midnight finds himself trapped on a plane without a parachute and a cockpit rapidly filling with deadly gas. Midnight is nearly cut in half by a buzz saw in chapter four, and most of the supporting players are nearly crushed by moving walls with electrical charges in chapter fifteen. There is an excellent business with a water tank death trap in a cage inside Shark's HQ in chapter six, and even wilder is a fire pit in chapter ten in which Midnight is trapped on a revolving platform above the flames even as a huge block descends from above. Fury and Joyce have a brief tussle in chapter five. O'Brien is fine in the lead and the others are okay, but James Craven [The Purple Monster Strikes] really steals the show with his portrayal of the nasty and determined Ivan Shark, who is also a master of disguise, causing lots of problems because of it throughout the serial. Lee Zahler's music is right on target. O'Brien and Short appeared together in Spooks Run Wild.

Captain Midnight was adapted from a popular radio show (it became a TV series in the fifties). When this serial became equally successful, it was decided to turn it into a comic book -- in which the character can fly without a plane, unlike the serial -- which was published by Fawcett and lasted nearly seventy issues.

Verdict: Humor, frenetic action, and a fast pace add up to one very entertaining serial. ***.

SPY SMASHER

Kane Richmond
SPY SMASHER (12 chapter Republic serial/1942). Director: William Witney.

Jack Armstrong (Kane Richmond) discovers that his identical twin brother, Alan, is secretly the heroic Spy Smasher. The nefarious Nazi Mask (Hans Schumm) wants to flood the U.S. with counterfeit currency, and that's just one of his schemes, which keep SS hopping through this serial's 12 action-packed chapters. The Mask has a "batplane" which can rise straight up into the stratosphere, and an electric ray gun that can knock airplanes out of the sky. Spy Smasher, which was based on the very popular Fawcett comic book, is full of exciting cliffhangers: SS in a mining car loaded with grenades with a fiery conflagration ahead of him and a steel door in front (1); a torpedo room that floods with water (3); a descending frieght elevator that nearly squashes our hero (5); a conveyor belt with rapidly spinning and deadly blades (6); another mining car that heads directly for a fiery doorway; and others. Our hero appears to die in the penultimate chapter, and someone in his uniform is indeed dead. The serial is full of furious fisticuffs and superior stunt work, and the locations are wisely chosen.

Kane Richmond [Stage Struck] makes just about the perfect serial hero: square-jawed, handsome, imposing, and looking great in his uniform instead of silly. He strikes just the right note as both Jack and Alan. Marguerite Chapman [Man Bait] hasn't that much to do as the nominal heroine/love interest, but Tristram Coffin [Up in the Air], as usual, is notable as a cameraman and quisling secretly working for the Mask. Hans Schumm may not go down in history as one of the more memorable serial villains, but he's effective enough in the part. The music is attributed to Mort Glickman, who bowdlerizes Beethoven's 5th symphony to create some rousing and classy theme music.





Verdict: One of the best of the Republic super-action serials. ***

BLACKHAWK

Kirk Alyn and Carol Forman
BLACKHAWK (aka Blackhawk, Fearless Champion of Freedom/15 chapter Columbia serial/1952). Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet; Fred F. Sears.

Having already played Superman twice, Kirk Alyn  was the perfect choice to play another DC Comics hero (albeit without actual super-powers), Blackhawk, who headed a team of international freedom fighters. The Blackhawk comic, beautifully drawn by Reed Crandell (who gets credit in the serial), and created by Will Eisner (who does not), had been published since the early 1940's. There were some changes made from the comic: the Chinese cook Chop Chop (Weaver Levy) was less caricatured, and Andre (Larry Stewart) was no longer French. Stanislaus, portrayed as a gruff, gray-haired middle-aged man in the comics, has an evil twin in the serial, and is played by Rick Vallin, The villainess is hard-as-nails Laska (Carol Forman), who is given an unflattering hairstyle and is in no way as glamorous as she was in other serials, such as her headliner The Black Widow. She reports to an unseen (but hardly unknown) "Leader," who keeps asking her to give more, more -- including her life -- to the "party." Laska's main henchman is Aller, played by serial regular Marshall Reed [Gunfighters of the Northwest]. When handsome Aller tires to get familiar with Laska -- "nice drivin', baby," he tells her -- she snaps, "The name is Laska!" Blackhawk is full of exciting cliffhangers, even if none of them are resolved in a clever manner -- Blackhawk simply rolls out of the way of several oil drums, or jumps out of a hay wagon that has caught on fire. In other sequences Stan is tied to a pole with a plane's propeller rushing towards him; Blackhawk's car is pushed onto the tracks just as a train arrives; fiery derricks topple like tenpins; a cartoon "flying saucer" hits our hero's plane; and Blackhawk's parachute fails to open so he has to ride piggyback on the shoulders of one of his comrades. Laska and her gang have several headquarters, all of which look exactly the same. Noting this, Blackhawk wonders about it and says, "they must have a reason for that." although it's never determined what it is (the budget was the reason, of course). Michael Fox plays one of Laska's confederates, and William Fawcett [Batman and Robin] is a scientist who has created a destructive ray machine. A lot of the action has to do with the theft and retrieval of "element X." Plenty of exciting fisticuffs in this.

Verdict: Blackhawk is a lot of fun. ***.

SUPERMAN II: THE RICHARD DONNER CUT

Ursa and General Zod blow the hell out of Grand Central
SUPERMAN II (1980). The Richard Donner Cut.

Richard Donner, who directed the first Superman, did a lot of work on the sequel -- the two were filmed concurrently, actually -- before being fired. Some of his work was redone by the director of record, Richard Lester. This cut assembles the version as it might have looked in theaters if Donner had not been dismissed.

At the end of Superman, the Man of Steel (Christopher Reeve) stops Lex Luthor's missile from wiping out California, but he doesn't realize that the explosion of this same missile in outer space has freed three notorious and vicious Kryptonian villains from their prison, the Phantom Zone. Hulking Non (Jack O'Halloran), bitchy Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and imperious General Zod (Terence Stamp) make their way to earth where they find they have developed the same powers as Superman. Before long they have invaded the White House where the not-so-good general forces the president (E. G. Marshall) to his knees. "Oh, God," says the president. "Zod," corrects the general. Where is the man of steel? Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) has finally figured out his secret identity and the two make love in his Arctic Fortress of Solitude. Then Superman decides to quit being the Man of Steel, always off saving the world, so that he can spend his life with Lois; he uses Kryptonian technology to do this. (This begs the question: since it was Superman that Lois fell in love with and not Clark Kent, would she really want him just as an ordinary human?) Too late, he discovers what has happened in Washington D.C., and makes his way back to his fortress as an ordinary man ... what a guy -- he doesn't even wear gloves! Conveniently, he is able to get his powers back.

The centerpiece of the film in any version is the battle between the revivified Superman and the three villains in New York City (rechristened "Metropolis," of course). Beautifully shot, edited, and choreographed, this sequence remains one of the best superhuman battle scenes in any comic book movie. (Today's super-hero films often present very sloppy and poorly articulated battle sequences.) A special highlight is when the bad guys use their super breath to literally blow dozens of pedestrians -- who are after their blood after they seem to have killed the Man of Steel -- down the streets near Grand Central Station. Buses are thrown, towers are toppled, Zod and his colleagues bounce Superman around and vice versa, and the special effects throughout are still outstanding.

This version (and probably the theatrical version as well) of Superman II has its problems, mostly having to do with Gene Hackman and his cohorts, played by Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. The movie is "adult" enough to show Lois and Superman in bed (although this is by no means a sex scene), so why does it have such stupid humor as Perrine flushing a toilet in the Fortress of Solitude? These campy characters never fit comfortably into this or even the original movie anyway. Hackman gives a perfectly good comic portrayal, but his presence is not required. The sequences with him are tedious, and there is dialogue in the film that betrays a dated seventies sensibility. Continued from the first film, the whole business with Superman's dead father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) somehow counseling his son, raises more questions than it answers. Anti-climactic and twenty minutes too long (even it it's shorter than the theatrical version), Superman II is nevertheless a very worthwhile comic book flick. Reeve and Kidder are fine but the picture is nearly stolen by Terence Stamp, who makes a rather sexy and very sinister General Zod -- it's a terrific performance. And he is nearly matched by Sarah Douglas as the strutting, sexy, and highly anti-social Ursa. John Williams contributes his usual effective scoring, and Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography is first-rate. As in the first film, Superman reverses time again, so that Lois no longer knows his secret identity (this was done differently in the theatrical version, I believe), but that insures that events that no longer could have happened are referred to afterward -- confusing, as usual. Followed by Superman III.

Verdict: Worth it for the Times Square battle if nothing else. ***.

SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE

Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve take flight
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987). Director: Sidney J. Furie. (Based on a story by Christopher Reeve).

The Daily Planet, where Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder of Black Christmas) work as reporters, becomes the casualty of a hostile takeover by a sleazy tabloid king (Sam Wanamaker) and his pretty daughter, Lacy (Mariel Hemingway of Manhattan). In a more significant development, a young boy writes to Superman that he should make the world safe by getting rid of all nuclear missiles. The Man of Steel complies, sending the missiles hurtling into the sun, but then has to face a solar-spawned nightmare in the form of Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow), created by the nefarious Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman of The Firm) and his zany nephew, Lenny (Jon Cryer). Upon its initial release, Superman IV was excoriated by fans and critics alike, but it's always been a fun, entertaining movie that truly resembles an eighties (or perhaps a seventies) Superman comic book. Hackman and Cryer dumb down the story, yes, but are not too intrusive, Kidder and Reeve are fine, as always, and Mariel Hemingway scores as Lacy, the "rich bitch" who turns out to have both a brain and a heart. Mark Pillow certainly looks menacing and turns in some highly effective pantomiming as Superman's nuclear adversary. One amusing sequence has Clark/Superman using his speed powers to date Lois and Lacey at the same time. But the highlight of the film is the protracted battle between Superman and Nuclear Man (as well as the magical sequence when Superman takes Lois for a flight). The film's special effects work came in for criticism, which I have always found perplexing, as I find the numerous process shots in the film to be seamlessly done and very striking. Superman once again reveals his true identity to Lois, and once again he hypnotizes her into forgetting it (this is a fine romance!) There are signs of post-production tampering, as the continuity is confusing, and it's never made clear exactly why Nuclear Man kidnaps Lacy at one point. John Williams' score is excellent and there is top-notch cinematography from Ernest Day, including one especially good shot when Nuclear Man spirals his way down into an active volcano. Although this, like the previous films, is supposed to take place in "Metropolis," this is clearly New York City.

Verdict: Great battle and a lot of comic book style fun. ***.

BATMAN FOREVER

Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones
BATMAN FOREVER (1995). Director: Joel Schumacher.

"Why can't you just die!" -- Two-Face.

Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer of Kill Me Again), who is secretly Batman, has his hands full with the combined threat of former employee Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey), who has reinvented himself as the Riddler and marketed a mind-sapping "box" for public consumption, and former D.A. Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones of Eyes of Laura Mars). now the notorious Two-Face. A further complication is the seductive psychiatrist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman of Birth), who gets excited by first Batman and then his wealthy alter ego. Batman Forever also introduces Dick Grayson (Chris O'Donnell), an acrobat whose family is killed by Two-Face and who becomes Robin. Kilmer is fine as the Gotham Knight, but the picture is pretty much stinked up by the campy approach personified by Jones and especially an over-the-top, epicene, and really irritating Carrey, who not only appears to be channeling Carol Burnett, but who seems determined to turn this in to a Dumb Jim Carrey Project at any cost -- Frank Gorshin was actually better in the role. Kidman is okay as a kind of kewpie doll shrink -- "I'll bring the wine, you bring your scarred psyche," she tells Batman --  and O'Donnell is more than okay as an older "boy" partner; he was actually 25 at the time. Michael Gough, as usual, makes an excellent Alfred. At times the movie is as silly as any episode of the old TV series and aside from some striking scenic design and a brief bit of excitement as the very end, has few redeeming features. The action sequences are not well-handled, Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography is too often murky and cluttered, and Elliot Goldenthal's musical score is effective but highly derivative. Followed by Batman and Robin.

Verdict: Seems like it's six hours long. **.

WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) on the battlefield
WONDER WOMAN (2017). Director: Patty Jenkins.

During WW1, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) of British Intelligence, winds up on the island of Themiscrya, where he is pursued by Germans and encounters Princess Diana (Gal Gadot of Batman V Superman) and a horde of warrior-like Amazons. Against her mother Hyppolyta's (Connie Nielsen) wishes, Diana decides to take off on a boat with Trevor and do what she can to stop Ares (David Thewlis), whom she believes is responsible for the current miserable state of the world. Never mind that it's hard to believe that an officer in British Intelligence would want to just take this strange gal with him on a secret mission, but Diana proves her mettle when she puts on her costume and reveals astonishing super-powers. Aside from Ares, Diana's adversaries include General Ludendoirff (Danny Huston of Hitchcock), and the disfigured Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), a specialist in poison whose latest gas can seep through gas masks. As played by the talented Gal Gadot, this Wonder Woman (although she's never referred to as such), is an impressive heroine who combines strength and courage with compassion, and as such is a noble and inspiring figure. But the film itself is slow and unconvincing at times, with sporadic bursts of excitement and light show-battles that we've all seen before. The music (Rupert Gregson-Williams) helps and there is outstanding cinematography (especially in the Themiscrya sequences) by Matthew Jensen. Chris Pine is only adequate as Steve Trevor, who was as American as apple pie in the comic books. Robin Wright of House of Cards makes a notable Antiope, but she isn't around for very long. (If you're wondering why Adolf Hitler doesn't get into the action, remember this is World War One, not World War Two.)

Wonder Woman first appeared in comics in the forties. To explain away inconsistencies, it was decided that the Wonder Woman of WW2 (not WW1 as in this movie) was the "Earth-1" version and the Wonder Woman of modern times was from "Earth-2." Apparently the Wonder Woman of this movie is the same person and is simply immortal.

Verdict: Gadot is impressive; the movie less so. **1/2.

ANIMATED HEROES


Here's a round-up of several animated super-hero features:

Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam (2010). This DVD compilation of short films features Superman and Captain Marvel battling the sinister Black Adam and also shows how homeless youth Billy Batson became the great Captain Marvel. A Spectre story has the ghostly detective Jim Corrigan solving the murder of a Hollywood producer and providing a very final solution. Green Arrow, with the help of Black Canary (to whom he successfully proposes), saves the life of a young princess targeted by both the bow-slinging assassin Merlyn and the dizziness-inducing Count Vertigo. In perhaps the best story, written by Joe E. Landsale, disfigured western anti-hero Jonah Hex looks for a missing friend and discovers a murderous hooker who is left to a dark but satisfying fate -- it comes off like an EC horror story. All of these stories feature excellent animation, drawing, and direction, with good scoring as well. The big surprise is that a number of name actors do the voice work: Gary Cole, Alyssa Milano, Thomas Jane, Malcolm McDowall, and even James Garner [!] as the old wizard, Shazam. Once upon a time actors used to resort to dinner theater -- now they do voice characterizations for classy cartoons instead! ***.

Son of Batman (2014). Director: Ethan Spaulding. Batman discovers that he has a son, Damian, by his friendly enemy Talia al Ghul. Damian spent ten years with the League of Assassins run by Talia's father and is like no ten-year-old you ever saw. When Ras al Ghul is murdered by the mercenary Deathstoke, Damian vows to kill him. Meanwhile Kirk Langstrom has been importuned to help Deathstroke create mutated warriors that resemble bats. Nightwing and Killer Croc also get into the action. Written by Joe R. Landsdale, this emerges as a very classy cartoon, very well-directed and beautifully drawn. ***1/2.


Amanda Waller of Batman: Assault on Arkham
Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014). Directors: Jay Oliva; Ethan Spaulding. Cold-blooded Amanda Waller, who runs Task Force X of the Suicide Squad, a group of conscripted criminals whose heads are implanted with bombs in case they disobey her, has the group infiltrate Arkham Asylum to kill the Riddler, who knows too much about them. Her team consists of Harley Quinn, Deadshot, King Shark,  KGBeast (who is quickly killed by Waller), Killer Frost, Captain Boomerang, and Black Spider. Batman not only has to contend with this task force, but with the fact that the imprisoned Joker has hid a dirty bomb that could kill millions somewhere in Gotham. While one could argue that this is more a Suicide Squad movie than a Batman flick, Assault on Arkham is well-done, exciting and suspenseful. CCH Pounder makes a great Waller, and the other voice characterizations are also on the money. ***.

Batman vs. Robin (2015). Director: Jay Oliva. Very young Damian Wayne is now living with his father, Bruce Wayne -- who is not exactly Father of the Year --  and going out on dangerous adventures with Batman as the new Robin. Damian is rebellious and disagrees with his father's code against killing. He falls under the influence of a murderous vigilante named Talon, who belongs to a secretive group of the wealthy known as the Court of Owls. Will Talon's persuasiveness cause Damian to give in to his dark side? Like recent Batman comics, Batman vs. Robin is dark and has some interesting psychological aspects to it. Written by J. M. DeMatteis. ***.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015). Director: Sam Liu. Instead of the regular Justice League, this movie presents an alternate universe (and less interesting) version of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who are criticized for their overly violent methods in dealing with criminals. Then they find they are being framed for the murders of scientists such as Ray Palmer (Will Magnus also figures in the plot).The robotic villains are uninteresting and the movie is more gruesome than it needs to be. Instead of an Amazon, this Wonder Woman comes from New Genesis, home of the "New Gods." Superman is the son of General Zod, and Batman is a vampire. Ultimately, this is just mediocre. Benjamin Bratt sounds completely different as Superman than he does as his normal self. **1/2.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016). Director: Rick Morales. Someone had the idea of making a full-length animated feature of the old Batman TV show of the sixties, and using the voices of Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar to play Batman, Robin, and Catwoman. The femme fatale and her uncertain partners, Riddler, Joker, and Penguin, do their best to stymie or kill the heroes and get away with the loot. Batman is turned evil with a potion created by Catwoman, and a machine spits out duplicates of the Caped Crusader who do his nasty bidding. The movie is ... cute, but forgettable. The animation is fluid, however, and the movie looks good. **1/2.

Batman: Bad Blood (2016). Director: Jay Oliva. When Batman is seemingly killed, Dick Grayson takes over as the Caped Crusader with the help/hindrance of little Damian Wayne (or Robin), and the assistance of Batwoman, Batwing, and Alfred. Meanwhile, Damian's mother, Talia al Ghul, and the League of Shadows, enact a deadly plot to take over the world. Talia is surprisingly malevolent in this, more like her father, and proves she has little maternal love for her child. The movie does not decline to deal with Batwoman's gay sexuality, which is handled positively. With fluid and exciting visuals, a good musical score, and a host of creditable voice actors, this adds up to a very entertaining animated Bat-flick. ***

The Joker from Batman: The Killing Joke
Batman: The Killing Joke (2016). Director: Sam Liu. In this disappointing adaptation of a classic graphic novel, we are presented with a possible origin for the Joker, who was once an unsuccessful comic whose life took a tragic turn, but too much time in this film is taken up with the lame character of Batgirl. Unconvincing sequences include Batgirl and Batman suddenly having sex (not graphically portrayed) on a rooftop, and The Joker getting Batman to laugh out loud with a joke that isn't even that funny. Much of the story takes place in an abandoned amusement park where the Joker tortures Commissioner Gordon. As usual, Kevin Conroy makes a perfect Batman/Bruce Wayne, and Mark Hamill is splendid as the Joker. It's strange that this was given an "R" rating when it doesn't seem that different from other DC animated features that are generally rated PG-13. **1/2.

Justice League Dark (2017). Director: Jay Olivia. When the Justice League comes up against a magical menace that causes innocent people to murder friends and family, Batman gathers together a team that can deal with the supernatural aspects of the case: John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Jason Blood (aka the Demon Etrigan), with some extra help from Swamp Thing. The main villain at first appears to be old-time JLA foe  Felix Faust, but there are even more sinister forces at work. The movie is well-directed and exciting, with excellent voice characterizations. The actors include everyone from Jason O'Mara and Jerry O'Connell to Alfred Molina. Based on a short-lived DC Comic book. In this movie Jason Blood and the Demon are at last separated and the centuries-old Blood (a knight at Camelot) passes on. ***.

Teen Titans: Thee Judas Contract (2017). Director: Sam Liu. Based on a storyline that appeared in the New Teen Titans comic book in the 90's, this has new member Terra (Christina Ricci), joining the group at the direction of villainous Deathstroke, who is in the employ of Brother Blood. Blood, who appeared in New Teen Titans, but was not part of this particular storyline, is well-voiced by Gregg Henry. This animated feature has its fun and exciting moments, but in no way does it compare to the original comic book stories. **1/2.