Thursday, June 19, 2014

Culture Shock 06.19.14: 'Deadlier Than the Male' is an underrated classic of the spy craze

Elke Sommer, left, and Sylva Koscina are "Deadlier Than the Male."
When you've seen as many films as I have, the overlooked jewels become increasingly rare. Seams run dry. But still, on occasion, you stumble across a movie that leaves you wondering how you haven't seen it before.

"Deadlier Than the Male" is just such a movie, and I'm kicking myself for only now getting to it.

One of a flood of movies released during the James Bond-inspired spy craze, "Deadlier Than the Male" (1967) gets lost among its better-known contemporaries. Dean Martin's Matt Helm films and James Coburn's "Our Man Flint" receive far more repeat airplay. Sometimes, sadly, even Turner Classic Movies falls down on the job.

Yet unlike those straight-up parodies of Sean Connery's 007 outings, "Deadlier Than the Male" could almost be a Bond film. It opens with an airborne assassination that would easily be ranked among the best pre-credit set pieces of the Bond series.

Hen's Tooth Video released "Deadlier Than the Male" on DVD, but an upgrade on that decade-old pressing is in order. Hen's Tooth's disc is widescreen but non-anamorphic. That said, it's still colorfully vivid on my HDTV, even in zoom mode.

Richard Johnson (1963's "The Haunting") stars as Hugh Drummond — like Bond, a character with literary origins, in this case H.C. McNeile's 1920s gentleman hero "Bulldog" Drummond. Updated for the swinging '60s, Johnson's Drummond is an insurance investigator assigned to look into some very expensive and deadly "accidents."

The trail leads to a scheme to eliminate stubborn businessmen who stand in the way of — well, that would be telling. Let's just say someone has a rather aggressive idea of a "hostile" takeover.

Johnson turned down the role of James Bond, not wanting to commit to a long-term contract. His loss was Connery's gain — and ours. But "Deadlier Than the Male" gives us an idea what kind of 007 Johnson would have made. With his slighter build, less-rugged appearance and greater refinement, Johnson comes across as a Pierce Brosnan-type Bond in a Connery-type Bond movie. The approach works surprisingly well, hinting that the problem with the Brosnan-era 007 movies was never Brosnan.

Yet's Johnson's charming, unflappable Drummond is destined to be overshadowed.

The "deadlier than the male" assassins referenced in the title (and the catchy title tune by the Walker Brothers) take the shapely forms of Irma Eckman, played by Elke Sommer ("A Shot in the Dark") and Sylva Koscina ("Hercules," "Hercules Unchained"). When the two emerge bikini-clad from the Mediterranean to carry out a spear-gun assassination, it's Ursula Andress times two. Calling Dr. Yes.

Sommer's trademark "Teutonic temptress" — really, even her Internet Movie Database bio calls her that — is more than a match for any man, except maybe Bulldog Drummond. But as captivating a screen presence as she is, even she is outdone by Koscina, who would also be her co-star in Mario Bava's ghostly 1972 masterpiece "Lisa and the Devil." Koscina's playfully sadistic Penelope steals the show, especially when she's called upon to torture Drummond's clueless nephew (Steve Carlson) for information, or when she's "borrowing" from Irma's wardrobe. With their banter and bickering, Penelope and Irma are like a couple of mismatched college roommates, which adds humor without quite falling into camp — as befell the Bond series starting with "Diamonds are Forever."

Rounding out the cast is underrated British character actor Nigel Green, perhaps best remembered as Hercules in 1963's "Jason and the Argonauts." Indeed, there's a lot of under-appreciated talent here, in front of and behind the camera. "Deadlier Than the Male" boasts a story by Hammer veteran Jimmy Sangster ("Horror of Dracula"), gorgeous cinematography by Ernest Steward (the "Carry On" films) and a swinging spy-fi score by Malcolm Lockyer (1965's "Dr. Who and the Daleks").

If some company wants to revisit "Deadlier Than the Male" for a much-needed Blu-ray upgrade, throwing in a bonus CD of the score wouldn't make any enemies.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Culture Shock 06.12.14: 'I, Frankenstein' never comes to life

Like its main character, "I, Frankenstein" is a patchwork. The difference is while Frankenstein's monster is stitched together with corpses retrieved from the morgue, "I, Frankenstein" is cobbled together from dead movies.

"I, Frankenstein" is "Frankenstein" meets "Highlander II: The Quickening" meets "The Matrix" meets "The Prophecy." As its poster helpfully warns, it's from the producers of "Underworld," so there's quite a bit of that, too. The result — directed by Stuart Beattie from a screenplay he co-wrote — is a shambling wreck, with its constituent parts pulling in different directions.

Frankenstein's monster — a one-note Aaron Eckhart, who seems as bored as I was — doesn't know who he is, philosophically speaking. And "I, Frankenstein" (now on Blu-ray and DVD) doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. The former is expected when it comes to Frankenstein tales, but the latter is disastrous. Yet one thing is sure: "I, Frankenstein" doesn't think much of its audience.

It opens with the monster relating his life story in a tedious monotone. It's a story most of us learned in childhood, but this is a movie that assumes no prior knowledge. Prior knowledge probably just gets in the way.

"I, Frankenstein" picks up where Mary Shelley's novel ends. Victor Frankenstein and his monster have chased one another to the arctic wastes. Now Victor is dead from exposure, and the monster is left to wander until he, too, dies. Only he doesn't. Instead, the monster takes Victor's body back to the Frankensteins' ancestral home and is busy burying it when he is unexpectedly attacked.

The monster's attackers, as it happens, are demons. So now he is caught in the middle of a centuries-old war between demons and gargoyles. That's right: gargoyles, not angels, because angels would be too cliché. But these gargoyles are a lot like angels, especially when in their human form, which they are most of the time to save on the effects budget.

The gargoyles' queen, Leonore (Miranda Otto of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy), names the monster Adam, because apparently that's not too cliché.

Now you might think Adam, consumed with questions about his creation and all that, would take advantage of being in the presence of an angel — sorry — gargoyle queen with a direct line to God. But then you'd be confusing "I, Frankenstein" with a good movie, or at least one that follows its own logic. Instead, Adam leaves, goes as far away from civilization as possible and presumably hones his fighting skills so, 200 years later in the present day, he can walk the streets of an unnamed metropolis and kill demons, which amounts to "descending" them back to hell.

In the end, there can be only one — sorry, wrong movie.

Meanwhile, the demons, led by Prince Naberius (Bill Nighy, playing roughly the same role he did in "Underworld") have determined the soulless, man-created Adam is the key to finally winning their war against the angels — I mean gargoyles.

There's also a scientist (Yvonne Strahovski) who is trying to recreate Dr. Frankenstein's experiments. But none of that really matters. Mainly, "I, Frankenstein" is a movie in which Frankenstein's monster beats up a lot of CGI demons who beat up a lot of CGI gargoyles. Occasionally, for a change of pace, the monster beats up some gargoyles, too. He's not a people person.

Like "Underworld," "I, Frankenstein" tries to turn a Gothic horror character into an action hero. Also like "Underworld," it fails utterly. Just as the vampires in "Underworld" are too busy with their gun fights and wire-fu to behave like vampires, Adam doesn't do much you'd expect of a reanimated corpse. He's far too preoccupied with hitting things with his Franken-fu.

"I, Frankenstein" is Hollywood's latest attempt to remove anything monstrous from our monsters,  turning them into superheroes who brood even more than Batman.

First it was vampires, then werewolves and now Dr. Frankenstein's creation. All of our monsters have been domesticated.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Culture Shock 06.05.14: Influential Japanese anime 'Space Adventure Cobra' comes to US

With an overly literal title like "Space Adventure Cobra," you know it has to be translated from Japanese.

Like "Super Dimension Fortress Macross" (aka "Robotech"), "Beast King GoLion" ("Voltron"), "Space Battleship Yamato" ("Starblazers") and "Science Ninja Team Gatchaman" ("Battle of the Planets"), "Space Adventure Cobra" hails from the golden age of Japanese animation. But unlike them, it didn't make the trip to America in the late 1970s and early '80s. It was something we first-generation anime fans could only read about, unless we were lucky enough to score bootleg VHS tapes that some other fan had subtitled. So it never got an Americanized title like "Sailor Moon" (known in Japan as "Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon").

One fan was alt rocker Matthew Sweet, whose music video for his breakout 1991 hit "Girlfriend" is mostly footage from the 1982 "Space Adventure Cobra" movie.

Back then we knew only that "Space Adventure Cobra" was about a pirate named Cobra who had adventures in space, and that it looked pretty cool. Turns out both are true.

The "Cobra" movie finally hit VHS in 1998 and was released on DVD just two years ago.

Now American anime fans can finally see the 31-episode TV series, too. Right Stuf, one of America's most venerable anime distributors, has released "Space Adventure Cobra" in two DVD box sets, which retail for roughly $40 each. Complete episodes are also online at Right Stuf's YouTube channel,

Set in the far future, the series starts by borrowing from Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," which later became the 1990 movie "Total Recall."

A bored office worker can't afford a vacation, so he instead opts to have one implanted in his brain, so he can remember it as if it really happened. Instead, the implantation process awakens repressed memories: The office worker is really Cobra, a legendary space pirate who five years earlier changed his face, wiped his memory and went into hiding from the sinister Pirate Guild.

Now that Cobra remembers who he is, he decides to hit the spaceways again, even if that means avoiding both the Guild, which still wants him either to join or die, and the Galactic Patrol.

So, along with Lady, his android partner, Cobra sets out in his starship to have adventures, which, oddly enough, don't involve any real piracy, although he isn't averse to a heist or two for a good cause.

Cobra is the prototype for the heroes and anti-heroes who would come along later in "Cowboy Bebop," "Trigun" and "Outlaw Star."

His first adventure, which in heavily altered form is also the basis for the 1982 movie, involves a beautiful bounty hunter named Jane, her two twin sisters and a map to their father's hidden treasure.

Naturally, Cobra isn't the only pirate on the trail. The Pirate Guild's most dangerous member, the cold, calculating Crystal Bowie, is after it, too.

How to describe Crystal Bowie? Imagine a homicidal robot encased in a clear, laser-proof shell. Now imagine that robot is named after David Bowie.

Cobra's life of adventure is pure wish fulfillment. He has the best ship. He's surrounded by beautiful women. And concealed in his left arm is the "psycho-gun," a deadly weapon that never misses its target. How did he get such a magical device? It's not important. But it is enough to make you wonder if maybe this whole Cobra thing is really just the bored office worker's virtual vacation after all.

Even though it's 30 years old, "Space Adventure Cobra" holds up well compared to a lot of other animation from the same period. That's mostly because of the series' lush, airbrushed style. Almost any random frame of "Space Adventure Cobra" would look great painted on the side of a van — the sort of van on which you don't come a knockin' when it's a rockin'.

That's apt, because that's exactly the sort of van Cobra would drive if he didn't have a spaceship.