Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Latitude Zero

A couple of months ago, I was trolling the Netflix site looking for movies to add to my queue when I came across a film I'd never heard of but thought for sure I should have known of it. The movie was Latitude Zero, a Toho production from 1969 directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda directed a truckload of Japanese monster movies, most of which I watched on Saturday or Sunday afternoons as a kid, so I was surprised that I had never heard of this one. I put it in my Netflix queue and it arrived last Friday, just in time for my weekend viewing.

The movie starts with a couple of marine biologists and an American photojournalist (Richard Jaekel) exploring the South Pacific ocean in a bathosphere. An eruption from a shaky faultline sends the bathosphere tumbling into an abyss. The men are rescued by scuba divers and taken to a futuristic submarine with jet engines. On board, they meet the mysterious Captain McKenzie, played by the ruggedly macho Joseph Cotton. Now, Mr. Cotton was always a bit effeminate, but here he comes off like a contestant from Project Runway with his open-chested, poofy shirt with gold lame' trim and striking green ascot.

Captain McKenzie explains that he is over 200 years old and that he built his submarine, The Alpha, 164 years ago, making improvements over the years. Before the dazed rescuees can process this information, the Alpha is attacked by a vicious looking sub complete with shark fins. This is the attack sub of McKenzie's arch-rival, Malick (Cesar Romero). Fresh off his turn as the Joker in the Batman TV show, Romero plays the evil Malick with gutteral laughs and an impatient swagger denoting a true sociopath. This guy would run over a box of kittens because he was late for a seal bashing contest.

McKenzie and Malick were once boyhood friends, but Makick had dreams of conquering the world, so he built a small island fortress where he plots evil with a middle-aged floosie named Lucretia, who looks like a cross between Della Street and Mrs. Roper. Also assisting him is an army of extras in furry brown costumes with bat masks and ungainly wings. With a staff like that, I can't imagine why he hasn't conquered the world by now.

Anyway, the Alpha manages to outfox the shark sub and returns to the domed city where McKenzie lives, 15 miles below the surface. The city is populated by scientists from all over the world who were plucked from their ordinary lives on the surface to build a scientific utopia under water. After showing his new friends the World's Fair-type wonders of the city, McKenzie takes them to their new living quarters in an apartment building gaily decorated with spotches of pink and lavender (McKenzie's personal design, I would imagine).

Forty-five minutes in, the story finally gets moving when Malick kidnaps a Japanese scientist who is on his way to the domed city. He apparently has invented an anti-radiation serum, and he is seeking asylum from all the nuclear-powered nations who want the serum so they can unleash atomic war while keeping their own people safe from radiation poisoning. Malick wants that serum for his own purposes, and demonstrates his evilness by subjecting the scientist and his lovely daughter to displays of grotesque organ transplants. Romero really relishes his performance as he takes the brain out of his attack sub commander's head and places it in the body of a lion, then cuts the wings off a huge bird and attaches those to the lion as well. Finally, he grabs a syringe with his blood-soaked hands and injects the beast with a growth serum, creating a do-it-yourself griffin. Yes, the whole sequence is as bizarre as it sounds! And it begs the question, if you can come up with a growth serum, why can't you also invent your own anti-radiation serum? Oh, that's right, then we wouldn't have a story!

Meanwhile, McKenzie gets wind of the kidnapping and prepares a commando crew to rescue the Japanese scientist. Along with his new pals, he enlists for the mission his sub pilot Kroiga and Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes, who's clearly a student of the Ricky Nelson method of acting). After dressing his crew is stylish gold lame' jump suits and matching skullcaps, they voyage to Malick's island hideout where an all-out battle is launched. Boulders tumble, lasers fire, bat wings flutter, and griffin fur flies! I guess you can imagine who wins. Afterward, McKenzie takes his pals on a long ocean voyage to Fire Island (just kidding). Actually, they try to work in a strange "maybe it was a dream, maybe it wasn't" twist that doesn't quite work, IMO.

Still, I love crazy Japanese camp like this and can't believe I've never heard or seen this movie before. According to imdb.com, "When the television syndication contracts had expired this film became unavailable, reportedly due to a dispute over the rights." So I guess it's been hiding for many years and only recently made it to DVD. It's a shame it was off the radar for so long because it is definitely one of the better made movies from the Toho studios. Best of all, even though it's a Japanese production with a half-Japanese/half-American cast, the whole film is in English. No goofy dubbing with bad lip synch. An extremely fun and watchable movie... if you're in to bat people and flying griffins.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Saturday Morning Preview Shows

I know I babbled on about this last year, but I can't help but start to feel nostalgic when we reach the first Friday after Labor Day. I'm speaking about those Saturday Morning Preview shows each network (there were only three back then) would air on the first Friday evening after Labor Day. The shows were designed to promote the new Saturday morning line up premiering the next day and would usually feature stars popular with the kiddie/pre-teen crowd. In our 24/7 cartoon world of today, where kids can watch cartoons or youth-oriented programs whenever they get near a TV, such programs are alien concepts. The few cartoons shown on Saturday morning now are merely reruns of programs already aired on cable channels like Nickelodeon or Disney. Back in the 70s, though, the only new programming kids had available to them was on Saturday morning, and the Saturday after Labor Day was always the launch date for the new season. Since I went back to school that week, it was always nice to know that I had the Friday night preview show to look forward to after those stomach churning first few days of new teachers, new classmates, and new classes.

When I made my post last year, I couldn't find any video examples of the preview shows I watched when I was a kid. There are a few examples of the shows from the 80s when VCRs became available, but I wasn't watching cartoons any longer by that time, so I get no nostalgic kick from them. Today, though, I found a clip from the 1978 ABC preview show featuring Kristy and Jimmy MacNichol. The clip showcases Donny Osmond mostly, but it gives you an idea of what these Friday preview shows were like:

I know, it seems pretty lame now, but to a kid in the 70s, it was fun to see the networks put this much effort into kids shows. I remember this episode in particular because, afterward, ABC aired At the Earth's Core. This is one of my guilty pleasures and at the time, I was reading every Edgar Rice Burroughs book I could get my hands on, so I was in hog heaven that night. Here's a little taste of the movie:

Come to think of it, if I had to watch these two programs in one night now, I'd probably consider it torture. Ah, to be young and without taste!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Where Did the Summer Go?!!

Another summer is winding down and once again I'm wondering where the time went. I seldom wonder where the winter goes; I'm just glad it's going. With summer, though, there is a child-like sense of anticipation as Memorial Day approaches and a sense of melancholy as Labor Day disappears (although my wife would disagree with that). Anyway, the sunny, sweaty months have past and I've barely touched this blog. Frankly, I just haven't been much into the past-times that I usually discuss here: action figures, childhood toys, and model building. My preoccupation with various writing projects have left me with little interest in customizing, and my limited resources have not allowed me to indulge in frantic eBay bidding. I did pick up a few things during the summer that I guess I should mention.

After being completely knocked over by the Iron Man movie, I picked up a 12" Iron Man action figure during a trip to Target. This is not the really cool one with the removable mask, but it still has some nice features like the variety of jet exhaust noises it makes as you pretend to fly him through the air and the orange plastic blobs that he can shoot from a rocket launcher in his sleeve. The figure is also really sturdy and a nice rendering of the movie version of the suit. Once upon a time, I plotted to make a Captain Action-style costume of a 60s version Iron Man, but I could never get around how to construct a proper mask. I've made masks from Poly-vinyl clay before, like my Hawkman and Dr. Fate customs, but I was intimidated by Iron Man for some reason. I may get around to it sometime.

Another action figure I picked up during that same Target trip was a talking Indiana Jones. Indy was another character I long hoped to make a custom figure of, but other projects took precedence. Since the latest movie initiated a series of 12" figures, I decided to just buy one of the ready made dolls and scratch that character off my list. I bought the talking version mainly because I liked the head sculpt better than the non-talking version, and the talking one came with more accessories. It still doesn't look much Harrison Ford, however, and the talking feature is a bit creepy.

When you stick your finger in his stomach, his mouth opens in an expression of sheer agony. Then the recorded sayings are played, all lifted from previous Indiana Jones movies (e.g., "Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?"). If the mouth moved up and down like a ventriloquist dummy, the effect might work, but because the mouth just hangs open in that painful look of indigestion, Indy appears to be possessed by some ancient Mayan god who is talking through him.

"Burritos! Why did it have to be burritos?!!"

My wife Kathy and I have become hooked on the new Dr. Who series, especially since David Tennant took over the role. One day, Kathy surprised me with a David Tennant-version Dr. Who action figure. I had seen the smaller, molded plastic versions on eBay, but this is a 12" figure with cloth clothing. The accessories are pretty skimpy with just the sonic screwdriver, but the tight-fitting suit is spot on. I'm in the process of designing a 1/6th scale TARDIS to go with the figure, but I have to find some time to use my brother's workshop to put it together.

Finally, I was sad to see that my local hobby shop closed this summer. When I was single and living in Dundalk, one of the few advantages of living in my neighborhood was being able to walk to this nifty hobby shop to pick up models and model-building supplies whenever I needed them. Just before I got married, I moved to a house in Towson and was relieved to discover a similar hobby shop within walking distance. If I happened to be working on a model or action figure and discovered I needed glue or a particular color of paint, I could just wander down to the hobby shop and pick it up. Well, the owners decided to retire and I will now have to get in the car and expel carbon gases into the atmosphere to get to my nearest hobby store. Before the store closed, I went in to see what they had on sale. Sadly, all the model kits I was interested in had already been sold, so I settled for a kit of the U.S.A.F. Bell X-1 Rocket. I'm not really interested in building it as a complete model, but I thought I would use it for parts on some other custom project (whatever that may be).

As I bought the kit, I had hoped to find some pithy thing to say to the owners on my final visit to the store. The woman at the register thanked me for my years of patronage, and I thanked them as well and left. No big speech or teary farewell. I wish I wasn't so afraid of expressing my feelings in such moments. I always let them slip away and regret it later. I will miss that little shop, though.

Well, that was my summer. I hope to get more into the swing of things in the coming months and post more frequently. The crisp Fall weather always gives me a jolt of adrenalin, so I'm eager to make use of it.