This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Agony Booth review: Batman (1966-1968)

With the recent passing of Adam West, this article looks at the classic TV series that became his legacy.
The recent passing of Adam West (and in such close proximity to that of Sir Roger Moore!) has already led to a beautiful tribute to him being written on this site by one of my colleagues. So I’d like to take this opportunity to look back at the Batman TV series which aired on ABC from 1966-1968 and became West’s legacy. Specifically, I’ll look at five aspects that made the show, and by extension West, so endearing to millions.

1. The theme music

Despite the later films from Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan, I doubt there’s anybody that can think about music relating to Batman without hearing this show’s theme song in their minds, even for a brief moment. My oldest niece has even chanted it in the past.

Neal Hefti’s “Batman Theme” instantly told audiences at the beginning of each episode of the series that they were in for a fun time. The animated title sequences which accompanied the music added to the fun. It’s no surprise that this theme song has been endlessly parodied in the decades since.

2. The villains

Of all the superheroes (whether from Marvel Comics, Dark Horse, or the Caped Crusader’s own DC Comics), Batman has always had the best rogues gallery. One advantage that a TV series often has over a movie series is that it can take its time developing numerous characters. The series understood that and took full advantage of its format to give us plenty of Batman’s adversaries in all their flamboyant glory. Both Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith, to this day, remain the definitive takes on the Riddler and the Penguin, respectively. This is because, unlike the subsequent movies with Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Danny DeVito’s Penguin, the series allowed Gorshin and Meredith enough time to truly create these characters.

Then there was the Joker, played in the series by Cesar Romero. While Jack Nicholson and later Heath Ledger would become acclaimed for their takes on this character, Romero was the first to prove that a criminal wearing clown makeup could indeed pose a threat that only a superhero could deal with.

In addition, this series gave us not one, but three actresses playing Catwoman: Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriwether. All three were memorable in the role, showing great chemistry with West.

Newmar played Catwoman the most (in the show’s first two seasons), which is why she’s arguably the most remembered of the three actresses to play the role. But Kitt (who played Catwoman in the third season) and Meriwether (who played the role in the the 1966 theatrical film which premiered in between the show’s first two seasons) managed to be memorable in the role as well. Kitt’s Catwoman managed to break racial boundaries on TV at the same time that Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura was doing the same on Star Trek. While Meriwether only played the character in the movie, she did return in two subsequent episodes playing another character who, like Catwoman, was a love interest for Bruce Wayne. All three actresses did memorable work with the role because, unlike the Catwomen played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Anne Hathaway, or Halle Berry, they were never overshadowed by confusing plot lines or less interesting villains.

Like many later Batman films, this series often had some of its villains team up against our hero. Indeed, the 1966 theatrical film had Batman fighting the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman. The good news is these villainous team ups were always fun, with each bad guy having their chance in the spotlight.

There were also Bat-villains that were made specifically for the series. Of these, my favorite is Egghead, played by Vincent Price. The character was a bald-headed mastermind with a penchant for placing the prefix “egg” on any words he could (such as “egg-xactly”, “egg-xchange”, “egg-xplitives”, and “egg-xquisite”). Price had already become a legend by the time this series premiered, hence he was already known for his on-screen villainy. His genius in playing bad guys was, in part, due to how he was clearly having the time of his life whenever he was acting villainous on screen. Egghead was certainly one of the finest examples of that, making Price a perfect fit for this series.

3. The cliffhangers

For the first two seasons of the series, Batman aired two episodes on consecutive nights each week. The first episode would always end with Batman and Robin being captured and about to be done away with by the Bat-villain of the week. An announcer (Batman series creator William Dozier, who wasn’t credited for the narration) would then wonder if this would be the end of the Dynamic Duo before advising viewers to tune into the next episode, “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”

Yes, the desperate situation would be resolved within the first five minutes of the next episode, but this method succeeded in making the audience want to see that next episode.

Cliffhanger serials had been a staple of cinema throughout the 1920s-’50s, before the rise of television basically brought them to an end. There were even Batman serials in the 1940s. But while TV shows even in the ’60s occasionally had two-part episodes, none during that period could generate the wonderful sense of anticipation that Batman did for the next installment. Looking back today, one could argue that Batman doing this would pave the way for cliffhangers on future series, such as Dallas and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The show would air only once a week during its final season, with mainly self-contained stories. But the episodes would end with a tag announcing the villain Batman would lock horns with the following week, once again whetting our appetites for the next installment.

4. Robin

While some comic fans hate the fact that Batman’s sidekick even exists, there’s no doubt that this character became Watson to Batman’s Holmes. As played by Burt Ward, Dick Grayson/Robin was a nice compliment to West’s Batman/Bruce Wayne. Some may hate how often he said, “Holy (insert word), Batman!” Heck, Batman Forever even parodied this. But I must admit, I did have fun trying to figure out how many times Robin could express astonishment in that way (turns out it was a lot, and happened in pretty much every episode).

That aside, West and Ward never failed to show great teamwork during the show’s run, making the POWs! and OOOFs! that would appear on screen when our heroes fought bad guys endearing rather than insufferable. This helped make the show truly a comic book come to life.

Even when the show added Batgirl/Barbara Gordon (Yvonne Craig) in its third season to revive ratings, Ward’s chemistry with West remained strong. They made the show’s simplistic morality as effective to kids as any after-school special. Heck, I’d say even more so, because what kid wouldn’t want to watch an after-school special with superheroes as the main characters?

ABC cancelled the series after three seasons and 120 episodes because of poor ratings. But NBC was willing to pick up the show for a fourth year. Tragically, the sets for the show had already been torn down before that deal was finalized.

5. Batman

None of the four strong previous points would have made this show a success had it not had a strong anchor in the lead role. West never failed in making Batman heroic and noble. While some may argue that later Batmans had cooler-looking Bat-suits, West’s Bat-attire was the textbook example of how to look super-heroic. His Batman was a perfect reflection of the optimistic spirit of the ’60s, as well as how Batman was presented in the comics at that time. The character himself became more lighthearted during the 1950s and ’60s, mainly because of concerns that superhero comics would be blamed for the corruption of America’s youth and come to the same premature end as grisly comics such as The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt. So, whether you liked West’s Batman or not, you can’t say he wasn’t being true to the character as the comics portrayed him at the time.

While later Batmans were noted for being “darker” (in other words, less family-friendly), West managed to bring fun to the role by embracing how campy the proceedings were. While we may poke fun at some of the dialogue, West read those lines like nobody’s business (besides, I’m sure there are some people who would love to have Shark Repellent Bat-Spray at their disposal). His charisma made people actually want to play Batman themselves, something that none of the previous or subsequent Bat-actors managed to duplicate. In fact, the only one who came close was Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Caped Crusader on Batman: The Animated Series, which aired on Fox from 1992-1995.

West himself would voice a character on that series. In addition, he voiced Batman on several animated shows. This illustrates how, despite initial attempts to move past his superhero role, West would eventually embrace his legacy as Batman. This was proven when he and Ward played both themselves and their TV personas in the 2003 TV movie Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt. Gorshin, Newmar, and Meriwether also appeared in the film, which revolves around the heroes’ attempt to retrieve the Batmobile they used on their show after it gets stolen. The film itself is a wonderful look at how not only the title characters, but the whole cast could laugh at and embrace who they were.

As a result, West would continue to entertain and inspire millions.

Farewell, old chum! You shall be missed, and thanks for giving the world such great entertainment.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Sir Roger Moore: 1927-2017

This Agony Booth article is an affectionate look at Sir Roger and his legacy.
I was originally preparing to review Licence to Kill, the 16th (official) James Bond film and probably the most controversial entry in the entire series. However, the recent passing of Sir Roger Moore prompted me to change my plans.

In terms of the Bond films, I was introduced to the 007s of both Moore and Sir Sean Connery simultaneously. I remember seeing Moore’s Bond entries on the big screen while also getting myself acquainted with Connery’s whenever they aired on TV. As a result, I was able to understand why Connery is praised as the definitive Bond in many quarters, but also still develop an affinity for Moore’s.

Moore was actually one of the initial actors sought for the role when Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli began the Bond series with Dr. No. But Moore was prevented from slipping into Bond’s tuxedo at that point because he was already signed on to do the TV series The Saint. When Connery sat out making the sixth Bond entry, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moore’s name was again brought up, but his TV schedule kept him from signing on. Television again kept Moore from agreeing to play Bond again for the follow-up Diamonds are Forever, because he agreed to star in the TV series The Persuaders, which Moore helped develop.

The fact that Moore was an early contender for the role from the beginning made it seem inevitable that he would finally be able to play 007 in the eighth Bond film, Live and Let Die.

Unlike George Lazenby (who played Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Moore was willing to play Bond for several movies. This allowed audiences to accept Live and Let Die on its own terms, while On Her Majesty’s, for a time, was dismissed by some because of the behind the scenes drama of that picture (check out the way ABC basically butchered the picture when it originally aired on TV, and you’ll see what I mean). While comparisons to Connery’s Bond were naturally inevitable, the success of Live and Let Die was the first true example of people willing to accept a new 007.

As with Connery’s reign as 007, Moore’s third outing in the role is often cited as the height of his tenure. Like Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me perfectly balances the use of state of the art gadgetry with moments of genuine suspense. The villains, music, and theme songs of both films are also exceptional. While Spy bears no resemblance to Fleming’s novel of the same name (in fairness, this was due to Fleming’s wish that only the title be used when it came to making a movie of that specific book), both films are true to the character.

As I mentioned earlier, Licence to Kill is probably the most controversial Bond picture. While that’s a discussion for another time, in recent years, I’ve found myself wondering if the word “controversial” could also be applied to Moore’s Bond. Yes, all seven of his Bond movies were financially successful; however, there have always been 007 fans, even in those pre-Internet days when his tenure of Bond began, who have expressed their displeasure with his Bond films, specifically with the lighter touch he brought to the role. Some have also shamelessly pointed out Moore’s age, as he remains the oldest actor to strap on Bond’s Walther PPK (he was 47 when making Live and Let Die).

In regards to the rants about being more light-hearted: while I agree that giving the villainous Jaws a girlfriend in Moonraker was stupid, Moore himself retained his 007-suaveness throughout his films. One of my favorite moments of his films is in Octopussy, Moore’s sixth Bond picture, in which 007 must disguise himself as a clown in order to stop an A-bomb from destroying a circus full of people. The idea of Bond dressed as a clown by itself sounds ridiculous. However, Moore’s terrific job at projecting both anger and fear helped make this scene a truly suspenseful moment.

I must also point out a memorable moment in Moore’s fifth Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only. In this film, Moore manages to shoot the assassin Locque (Michael Gothard) before Locque runs him down with his car. The gunshot hits Locque in the shoulder, causing him to lose control of his vehicle, which ends up precariously hanging over a cliff. Bond calmly walks over to the car containing the helpless Locque and reminds the assassin that he murdered one of his colleagues, before sending Locque to his death by kicking the car over the cliff. Moore had reservations about his Bond performing such an act, but Eyes director John Glen convinced him that this would be a wonderful, intense moment—a moment which showed that, like Connery, Moore could play Bond as ruthless as well as charming.

One of my colleagues wrote a nice review of the second Bond film From Russia With Love a while back. That review correctly points out that Robert Shaw’s Grant was such a great character because Shaw himself matched Connery when it came to the intensity he could bring to the role. A nice parallel in the case of Moore’s Bond is Sir Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga, the title character in Moore’s second Bond flick, The Man with the Golden Gun. As with Connery and Shaw, Moore and Lee share wonderful scenes and exchanges of dialogue. Moore even gets one of his best lines in that film with, “When I kill, it’s under specific orders from my government… and those I kill are themselves killers!” As a result, I actually want to laugh when I hear people criticize Sir Roger’s Bond for being “too silly”.

The age issue was inevitable, considering that Hollywood has always been notorious for its ageism. Heck, people poked fun at Connery’s age when he agreed to reprise Bond for the pointless Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again. As the 1980s got underway, Moore made news for his attempts to exit the Bond franchise. The fact that Cubby Broccoli managed to get the actor to sign for his last three Bond pics shows that the producer had great trust in Moore’s star power, regardless of his age. Moore even did some of his own stunts in the aforementioned Octopussy.

Putting aside the fact that Connery’s 007 was known for his witticisms, Fleming’s Bond stories themselves are basically exaggerated, romanticized versions of Fleming’s own career in British Intelligence. While the books themselves may not have as many witty lines as the movies, both succeed in generating elegance as well as intrigue. I’ve even read interviews with several real-life intelligence operatives over the years stating that Bond makes their profession out to be a lot more exciting than it actually is.

Also, considering how the Bond films would get bigger budgets with each outing (unlike other film series), having Bond actually go into space in Moonraker was only a matter of time, if you ask me. While I’m happy that the subsequent entries were literally more down to earth, taking Bond to the stars seemed to me a nice one-time gimmick (some may say timely, considering that the American space program was running strong at the time).

Hence, Moore’s Bond is, overall, not much more of a deviation from the Bond books than Connery’s. In addition, while a movie should certainly adhere to the source material it claims to be based on, deviations can also be beneficial. I’ve read all of Fleming’s Bond books more than once and I’ll no doubt do so again, as they’re entertaining. But I find that Moore (and Connery) brought a carefree aspect to the character that wasn’t present in the books. and this aspect helped the movies become successful.

Sir Roger ended his 12-year Bond career with A View to a Kill. While that film has its critics, it also has a great title song by Duran Duran, terrific villains played by Christopher Walken and Grace Jones, as well as a nice role for Patrick Macnee, who repeats the chemistry he had with Moore when they respectively played Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes in New York.

While Moore’s post-Bond career never received the acclaim that Connery’s did, he managed to get some good films under his belt. My favorite of these is perhaps The Wild Geese, with Moore, Richard Burton, and Richard Harris making a great team as the title mercenaries who find themselves trapped behind enemy lines thanks to the very person who hired them.

But Moore became most proud of his work with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. With the encouragement of his friend Audrey Hepburn, Moore joined the organization in the early 1990s and traveled the world helping children living in poverty get the chance at a better life. He also fought for animal rights by working with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), even narrating a video for the organization.

Moore’s charity work would make an even bigger impact than his acting work, which is why he was knighted in 2003.

He even found a way to interconnect his acting fame with his charity work by hosting an auction of James Bond memorabilia in 2012. The proceeds from this auction raised nearly $1 million for UNICEF. This led to Moore receiving the organization’s first UK Lifetime Achievement Award.

Whether you like his work as Bond or not, there’s no doubt that Moore helped ensure that 007 wouldn’t just be a fad of the 1960s. The fact that he would end up making the same number of Bond movies as Connery (seven) certainly says something.

Moore’s subsequent work would also prove that he wasn’t just an actor, but a true humanitarian as well.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Agony Booth review: Jaws: The Revenge vs. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

This article looks at the respective fourth entries in the Jaws and Superman series, which, like their immediate predecessors, were released the same year.

As I noted in a previous article, both Jaws 3-D and Superman III were not only released in the same year but marked, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the end for the series they were part of.

However, both series ended up being given one more shot to get back into their fans’ good graces. In addition, like their immediate predecessors, the respective fourth entries in the Jaws and Superman franchises were both released in the same year. But while 1987 also gave us classics such as The Princess Bride, RoboCop, and Spaceballs, both Jaws: The Revenge and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ended up being anything but classic.

So, which is worse? Let’s find out.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

I once noted that I Still Know What You Did Last Summer has a ridiculous title. This film, on the other hand, has a ridiculous tagline: This time, it’s personal!

After the trip to SeaWorld in Jaws 3-D, this film brings us back to Amity. We see not only the two Brody sons again (who are played by different actors) in different professions now (yes, this film ignores its immediate predecessor, not that I blame it), but also their mom Ellen (Lorraine Gary, reprising her role from the first two Jaws pictures). The Brody paterfamilias Martin has died because the late, great Roy Scheider was smart enough to leave well enough alone when it came to his most famous role.

Michael (now played by The Last Starfighter himself, Lance Guest) is a marine biologist with a wife and daughter. His little brother Sean (Mitchell Anderson) lives with his mom and his fiancĂ©e, making ends meet by following in his old man’s footsteps as the police chief.

As Christmas approaches, contrivance leads to Sean going out to sea to clear a log from a buoy. The shark of this movie then appears and kills him.

It’s at this point that the absurdity of the film’s tagline begins to emerge. Ellen is convinced that the shark deliberately targeted Sean. For the rest of the film, she continuously refers to the beast as if it was some sort of Jason-esque serial killer. Ellen even blames it for inducing the heart attack that apparently killed her husband, even though he was the one who killed the sharks of the first two movies.

Despite the fact that his mom clearly needs therapy, Michael talks her into joining him and his family down in the Bahamas. While there, Ellen becomes smitten with a carefree pilot named Hoagie (Michael Caine). But wouldn’t you know it, that same damn shark has managed to find its way down south and attempts to pick off the rest of the Brody clan.

This leads to Ellen finally taking a boat herself to go mano a mano with the shark along with Michael, Hoagie, and Michael’s coworker Jake (Mario Van Peebles). The stupidity that follows has to be seen to be believed. The famous blooper of Hoagie emerging bone dry from the ocean is only a blip compared to the headache of how the heroes manage to finally destroy this shark before the film ends with Ellen and Hoagie flying off together. Some cuts of this film even have Jake becoming shark food, while others don’t.

In his review of the Star Trek: Voyager episode “The Cloud”, YouTuber SF Debris mentions that the reason the shark targets the Brodys in this movie, according to the book’s novelization, is because of a voodoo curse. He calls this a “voodoo shark”, referring to something stupid that can only be explained away by something just as stupid, comparing it to Voyager being able to use its holodecks because its power is incompatible with the ship’s other systems (hence, giving the regulars an excuse to play on the damn things even though they’re supposed to be struggling to survive).

As stupid as the novelization’s explanation sounds, no explanation for this plot point could have given Jaws: The Revenge a chance to be watchable, let alone good.

This movie also became an example of nepotism, as Lorraine Gary, who was married to Universal’s then-President Sid Sheinberg, becomes the central focus here. In fairness, Gary herself stated that she agreed to play Ellen for a third time because of the money she was offered.

Caine’s appearance here proves that even legends have bills to pay, as we all do. Ironically, he won his first Oscar (for Hannah and Her Sisters) during the production of this movie. Happily, this film wouldn’t keep him from winning a second Oscar over a decade later (for The Cider House Rules) and being knighted not long after that.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Christopher Reeve’s fourth and final outing as the Man of Steel is certainly more political-minded than its predecessors (more on that in a moment).

Needless to say, our hero is depressed over how the arms race is going (ironically, this film was released the same year Reagan and Gorbachev signed the historic INF treaty, which banned medium-ranged nuclear missiles) and decides to singlehandedly rid the world of all its nukes. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), having just broken out of prison thanks to his nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer) gets wind of this and creates a nuclear powered supervillain called Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow). What follows is basically a rehash of Superman fighting Zod and his minions in Superman II. Naturally, Superman defeats Nuclear Man (by dumping his atomic-powered ass into a power plant reactor, of all things), sends Luthor back to prison, yadda yadda yadda.

After the disappointment of Superman III, Reeve was content with never donning the famous tights and cape again. While he sought other roles, producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the rights to the series in 1986 to Cannon Films, which made its name during that decade making mostly action flicks.

Considering that the Salkinds took the series into a direction fans weren’t happy with, the chance of new blood in the franchise might have given people hope that it could be restored to greatness. Alas, Cannon was beginning to reach the end of its lucrative run as the ’80s drew to a close.

In his autobiography Still Me, Reeve states that Cannon didn’t give this project priority because of budget cuts the studio made. But even budget cuts can’t excuse a poor script, and as sad as this sounds, part of the blame for that script must go to Reeve. He was enticed into reprising his most famous role for a fourth time when he was promised he could have a hand in script development (the screenplay itself was written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal). In addition, Cannon promised to finance any non-Superman film of his choice. The good news is that film was Street Smart, which earned Reeve’s co-star Morgan Freeman his first Oscar nomination.

But while Reeve, who was liberal with a capital L, was a wonderful actor, his writing (at least in the case of this movie) proved to be less than stellar. I don’t want to say that politics in a Superman story couldn’t have worked, but it was handled in the wrong way here. Many have made comparisons between Superman and Jesus Christ. I had no issue with such comparisons in the original movie because they weren’t drilled into our heads. Here, however, it’s a much different case in regards to the way Superman decides to disarm the world with absolutely no response but thunderous cheers by all the countries of the world. Having a film lean closer to one side of the political fence is one thing, but this film does it in such a simplistic manner that the final product is just as mindless as many of the other films Cannon put out.

There are also other scenes, such as Nuclear Man capturing newspaper mogul Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway) for no reason and flying her into space, without a space suit! Even dumber is Clark once again revealing he’s Superman to Lois (Margot Kidder) and later kissing her to wipe her memory of it—again!

Put all this nonsense together, and it’s not surprising that Superman IV was even less successful than its immediate predecessor.

Reeve himself continued acting, with perhaps his most memorable role in his post-Superman years being the period piece The Remains of the Day. He then became a real-life superhero following his horse riding accident in 1995, which rendered him paralyzed. Reeve would later use the incident to assist in research to help others with spinal injuries, a crusade he remained dedicated to until his passing in 2004.

Like Caine, Hackman would emerge from this fiasco to win a second Oscar (in Hackman’s case, for Unforgiven).

Which is worse?

Both of these films officially killed their respective series. But, as Reeve wasn’t the first actor to play the Man of Steel, there have been other actors who have donned the cape since then. Movie-wise, we saw the Man of Steel again in Superman Returns (played by Brandon Routh) and later in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (played by Henry Cavill). But like Superman IV, none of these films have managed to achieve the greatness of the original Superman.

We have yet to see a fifth Jaws movie, but we have seen a number of Jaws-esque movies since 1987, such as Deep Blue Sea, the Shark Attack films, and even a remake of Piranha, which had a sequel of its own. So I guess we can say “close enough” there.

As with the third entries of these series, Jaws: The Revenge must be christened the worse of the two. This is because, like the aforementioned I Still Know…, it’s just one scene of stupidity after another. In addition, while certainly flawed, Superman IV still has heart to it (Kidder even has a bigger part this time around); heart that was sorely lacking in all subsequent Superman movies.