Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

I cannot confirm whether he's actually wearing tennis shoes

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" (Disney, 1969). Dean Higgins of Medfield College (Joe Flynn) has a bit of a money problem.

It's actually unknown whether the college is low on funds or if Higgins is just a skinflint.

So when the much more likable Professor Quigley (William Schallart) comes by proposing the college purchase a computer for its highly dubious student body led by the plucky (yet dense) Dexter Riley (a young Kurt Russell), well that's just ridiculous!
Pictured: The only altruistic adult in the film.

Dexter Riley isn't just likeable, he's a monster.

Undeterred, Dexter uses his inside connection to local businessman and secret criminal A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero, who some might recognize as the first actor to take up the mantle of Batman villain "The Joker") to convince him to donate the $10,000.00 computer to the college… Which Arno does, after withholding his annual Medfield endowment of $20,000.00, much to the chagrin of Dean Higgins.
"But what if... I didn't shave my mustache before putting on white makeup?"

After installing the room-sized computer and giving a brief demonstration of its capabilities, Professor Quigley is mortified when it almost immediately breaks down (as they tend to do). While trying to repair the machine, Dexter is zapped, causing the computer to bond with his mind, creating a human capable of almost infinite learning potential.
Pictured: Actual X-ray from the film, in case you were curious how serious it is.

With his new super-brain, Dexter becomes a national celebrity that everyone wants a piece of. Will he remember who his friends are, or will he fall prey to the newfound confidence his abilities bring?

Some details:

This is the first film in Disney's oft-forgot trilogy of Dexter Riley films (the other two are 1972's "Now You See Him, Now You Don't" and 1975's "The Strongest Man in the World"), and sets the tone for each of these goofy and lighthearted family friendly college films. There's no strong language, no nudity, and the only real adult themes explored are A.J. Arno's heavy-handed criminal underpinnings which are, expectedly, played for laughs.

Also, one scene of VERY distracted driving with no consequences. Dexter is a monster.

Problems, or just modern context?

Now, the obvious question is, had it aged well? And the obvious answer is, well… No. Most kids today cannot fathom having to switch a home computer on and off just to change programs (like we did back in my day) let alone that a computer with such limited functionality would cost the equivalent of a used Miata and take up an entire room. Of course, this too can be charming in and of itself, but the real appeal of this film are the incredibly silly character performances by the likes of Joe Flynn as Dean Higgins and his rival, state college Dean Collingsgood played with villainous aplomb by Alan Hewitt.

He's depicted as the bad guy, but Collingsgood is really just a more successful version of Dean Higgins.

The dopey college students provide a lot of the laughs, and there's a fair amount of slapstick and minor action sequences (including a memorable dune buggy chase near the end of the film).
Despite the goofy nature of this film, these stunts look awfully dangerous.

Side note:

If you see a particularly weird-looking kid in Dexter's friend group with an odd straight but not-quite-bowl-cut hairdo, that's an early and rare live-action appearance of Frank Welker, who many people will know as the modern voice of Scooby-Doo and Fred Jones from "Scooby-Doo" cartoons, Megatron and Soundwave from the original "Transformers" cartoon, Curious George, various "Gremlins," and any of the other nearly 900 voice and acting credits he has on IMDB.

"Jeepers, gang!"

Basically, if you've seen a movie, played a video game, or watched TV in the last 50 or so years, you've either seen or heard him at some point. Just worth noting.
"Ruh-roh, Raggy!"

My thoughts:

I like this film, but primarily because it falls into that time in my life when we would have movie days at my elementary schools, when the teachers would herd us into the cafeteria/gymnasium/auditorium room and show us a film that they ordered with the school's limited budget on an old reel-to-reel projector. They were always films like this (and indeed this exact film), which were old back when I was going to school but still felt fresh in our young minds. Its actual modern entertainment value is wholly debatable, and may not play with today's more sophisticated and special-effects hungry children.

Where can you see it?

"The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" is currently streaming on Disney+. Its sequel, "Now You See Him, Now You Don't" is not, however, but it's sequel, "The Strongest Man in the World," (oddly) is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Island at the Top of the World

Exploring the frozen Arctic before it's gone

(Please note that this is a previous review from June 2022)

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Island at the Top of the World" (Disney, 1974). When Professor Ivarsson (David Hartman) is shanghaied by eccentric Sir Anthony Ross (Donald Sinden) for a desperate mission to find and save his son, he couldn't foresee the incredible adventure that lay before him; airships, lost islands, poodles, Viking warriors and more await in this family friendly adventure!

High seas adventure... In the air!

Let's get to it:

So, here are some of my thoughts on this film: First, I'm not sure whether it's the print that they used for the transfer or the photography techniques employed during filming, but this production looks terrible. There hasn't been any digital restoration as near as I can tell, as film artifacts and what appears to be burn-in or schmutz on the transfer equipment are persistent throughout.

Also: Puppies!

Second, Disney used the same film techniques that they had been using for decades when they made this. Green screen backgrounds, models, elaborate soundstage sets, stock footage, and plenty of on-location shots compose this film.
Those foreground Vikings look so "there" (just kidding).

Combined with the degraded filmstock, this movie seems like something from an earlier period than when it was actually filmed.
It seriously looks like something from the 1950s sometimes.

I have to say that I love the acting in this film. We have the straight-laced and deep-voiced David Hartman as a rather unconventional heroic lead, the always delightfully hammy Donald Sinden barking orders at his crew, and my personal favorite, Jacques Marin as the highly energetic airship captain, Brieux.

My personal favorite character.

This film is also noteworthy as one of the earliest silver screen appearances of the always delightful Mako playing the Inuit guide, Oomiak.
"Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape shifting master of darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil!"

Definitely not for everyone.

Is it a good movie? Not especially. It's ugly to the point of being repulsive (the color palette is very off-putting).

Granted, this scene is meant to be off-putting, but does it have to be PURPLE?

There isn't a lot of action, but it's more of an adventure film than an action movie. I do like the effort put into making the old Norse language and sets seem legitimate.
Much of the film is spent traveling to mediocre matte paintings.

Also, they don't do the Star Trek/Doctor Who thing of making all of the other cultures speak perfect English, which I always admire (it's also a good way for the English-speaking characters to pass exposition amongst themselves).
"They're saying that they're capturing us!"

I expected that this would be a terrible joke film, but honestly it isn't bad enough to be a joke, but also not good enough to be very memorable, leaving it in an odd cinematic purgatory.
There's actually a bit of effort put into some of it, but it's still limited by the time it was made.

If you remember seeing it, it's worth checking out again. If you haven't, it is a mildly entertaining glimpse into a transitional period in cinematic history (the "before and after" of Star Wars).

"You don't need to see our identification, fellah!"

Where can you see it?

"The Island at the Top of the World" is currently streaming on Disney+

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Unidentified Flying Oddball

Not exactly a Disney classic, but worth a view


Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Unidentified Flying Oddball" (Disney, 1979). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is getting ready to launch Project Stardust, a brand new ionic-drive space ship with the ability to travel the speed of light, bringing a new era to space exploration.

For something that seems "NASA official," this seems really outdated.

There's just one problem: The senatorial oversight forbids the manned probe from being manned by a human being. To this end, they enlist engineer Tom Trimble (played by the equally alliterative Dennis Dugan) to create a solution in the form of an android doppelganger of Trimble named "Hermes" (also played by Dugan).
Hermes, the paranoid android.

Hermes becomes sentient right before the launch and has an existential crisis about not being able to ever come back to Earth. When Tom comes aboard Stardust to talk to Hermes a bolt of lightning from an oncoming storm causes the ship to launch, damaging Hermes and causing Tom to be the first human being to travel faster than light.
Also the first to go the speed of plaid.

When the probe lands back on Earth, Tom discovers that he has traveled back in time and space to ancient England, where he meets the naïve wench Alisande (Sheila White) and her gander, "Father," that Alisande believes is her father transformed under a curse.
One of the few stringless shots. Still not great.

Cute animals always add to the charm, even though we know today that all geese are evil.

The trio are quickly captured by the aggressive Sir Mordred (Jim Dale) and taken to the court of Camelot to meet King Arthur (Kenneth More in his final role).
Character's original name: Sir Evil of Jerkingwood.

Assume that this takes place before the fall of Arthur, as it's unusual to see a cast this old playing knights.

Using his pluck and amazing space-age gizmos, Tom quickly wins over the king and makes enemies of Mordred and the wizard Merlin (Ron Moody).
Original character name: Baddie McSinister.

When Tom happens upon a plot to subvert the king and steal his land, he quickly rallies to the rescue with the help of Hermes, Alisande, and squire Clarence (Rodney Bewes). Can Tom battle the insurrectionists and repair the Stardust to find his way home?
Does this pile of bodies answer your question?

The edges, sanded off

This 1979 comedy is a very loose adaptation of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" by Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens. Most of the cast of characters is different, the story uses humor and goofy solutions to problems that are solved rather violently and heavy-handed in the book, and the more mystical elements of the novel are ignored completely in favor of scientific reality.

Oh, and completely fantastical LASER guns.

Filmed on location in Northumberland, England, it features beautiful outdoor sets on the English countryside as well as spacious indoor locations. The score is typical low-budget Disney for the time in that it's barely memorable (a particular disappointment since the film goes out of its way to name drop Fleetwood Mac and The Rolling Stones), but it's pretty benign. It's a G-rated film, and pretty deserving of it: There are no obvious on-screen deaths despite numerous scenes of swordplay and a rather robust battle scene at the end of the film, and even though there are scenes of destruction and threats of violent death they are usually pre-disarmed by Tom's scientific know-how, so don't be afraid to watch this with young children.

LASER guns? Mirrors.

Swordfight to the death? Magnets.

Burning at the stake? Heatproof spacesuit.

Emblematic of the era (not necessarily for the better)

This was made by Disney at a time when the studio was consistently churning out theatrical duds. The upside is that we can enjoy their goofiness now, but at the time these films weren't money-makers. The special effects were not state-of-the-art even at the time, and have aged pretty badly since then, so don't expect to be dazzled with amazing visuals. In particular, any scene involving flying objects (and there are a few) has pretty obvious strings.

You can even sort of see the strings in this still image.

The jokes aren't exactly high comedy, but they're worth a chuckle or two and very appropriate for younger audiences (there's several scenes where an adult magazine is passed between characters, but it's not dwelled upon.

My thoughts:

I love this film: It's silly, it's utterly toothless, but it's not boring and it's just cheesy enough to make it worth a watch.

Not convinced? Look at this "Headless" astronaut.

Where can you see it?

"Unidentified Flying Oddball" is currently streaming on Disney+.


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

Paul Newman's favorite role, for your consideration

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (First Artists, 1972). Roy Bean (Paul Newman) isn't a bad man by his own account, despite being a wanted criminal on the lam. When he stops in the wastelands of Texas for a drink at a run-down brothel, he recounts his most recent successful criminal enterprise, which the patrons respond to by beating him within an inch of his life, robbing him, putting a noose around his neck and letting his horse drag him into the desert.

Honestly, what did he think would happen?

Unfortunately for them, the rope breaks. Looked after by a local girl, Roy Bean asks for his gun, which she brings to him. After unleashing his fury upon those who wronged him, the newly reborn Bean decides that he's going to bring law and order to the west… At the end of a rope.
The lounge arm of the law.

The rest of the film follows "Judge" Roy Bean as he uses his loose interpretation of the law to bring justice to the streets of the town of Vinegaroon, all the while amassing a personal fortune for himself and his marshals ("reformed" criminals that he deputizes) as well as a large graveyard outside of town.

The marshals and their "justly" gotten gains.

Soon, Vinegaroon is prospering, a safe haven for law-abiding citizens and a scourge criminals across the west, all while he professes his love to his never-seen amore, stage performer Miss Lilly Langtry (Ava Gardner).
Bean's real love, Lilly Langtry.

We watch as various characters speak of their interactions with Roy Bean. We see him dispense justice, fall in love, adopt a bear, experience tragedy and loss, and come back in heroic fashion.
Falling in love... with a bear.

Some background on the film

This long-forgotten western was written by prominent screenwriter John Milius and directed by Hollywood legend John Huston (who also has a cameo in the film as "Grizzly" Adams). It's a peculiar blend of goofy hayseed sensibilities, old west gunplay, and gallows humor.

Literal. Gallows. Humor.

It's a highly fictionalized version of the life of real Justice of the Peace Roy Bean, who was the original progenitor of the "hanging judge" stereotype. I need to stress that most of this film's narrative is manufactured, particularly the invention of antagonist Frank Gass (Roddy McDowall), whose name is a both an obvious metaphor for the Texas oil industry as well as a well-hidden verbal joke (after Bean's there is Gass).
"What are you trying to pass, Gass?"

A diamond in the rough

From a technical aspect, this film is a bit lacking, but it's really just a hallmark of lower budget films of the time. The lighting is off in many scenes, resulting in dark foregrounds in front of backlighting, and it's obviously not a stylistic choice.

Backlit shots; not necessarily a style.

The audio is uneven, and is quite quiet in certain spots, much of it on-set recording rather than ADR. There's not a lot of action, and the dialog isn't especially punchy, but if you pay attention it's very rewarding and provides a lot of character.

A bit adult in tone

Please note that this is a hard PG film. There's a lot of death, but not a lot of blood and gore. There isn't a lot of swearing, but there are a few derogatory racial slurs without much minority representation. While this is typical "of the time," I'm just throwing it out there so that if you're interested it doesn't catch you off guard.

This scene uses the "N" word multiple times.

My thoughts

I love this movie, and I'm not alone: This was allegedly Paul Newman's favorite role. Roy Bean is a complex antihero, but he's also trying to be just and right. He's flawed but trying to be pious and the conflict therein is a joy to watch.

You get to see the town rise and fall with Bean.

There's a lot of cameos from various 70s character actors of the time, sometimes playing allies, but usually playing the victims of Roy Bean's judgement.
I honestly didn't recognize Stacey "Mike Hammer" Keach as "Bad Bob"

There's genuine love that develops between Bean and his ward Maria Elena (Victoria Principal) and their pet bear.
The bear is a delight in every scene.

There are a few genuine moments in this film that I will not hesitate to admit make me cry. The passing of Roy Bean into legend is heartfelt and the "heroes' last stand" moment near the end of the film is fantastic, even if it has very little to do with the actual man the movie is based on.
Humor and tragedy go hand-in-hand.

Where can you find it?

"The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" is streaming on… nothing. Well… It's available on VHS (where I first watched it), on DVD and even on Blu-ray, but you'd be hard pressed to find it in stores. I found it for rent and purchase on Amazon Prime, but honestly I don't see much benefit in getting it in high-definition (the audio is mono anyway). If you're interested, watch it any way you can.