A Fish Called Wanda
and The Fisher King,
and a few more films

First Man into Space (1958)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

#267  [archive]
MAR. 27, 2024

Sci-fi flicks from the '50s are cool. Atomic energy and weaponry was new and scary, radioactivity could make things huge or tiny or monstrous, and space felt like a realistic destination. Amazing new technology was emerging — credit cards, diet soft drinks, music synthesizers, power steering, transistor radios, TV dinners. Anything was possible with Hollywood special effects, which made the 1950s the golden age of science fiction films. 

First Man into Space, though, has no monsters or alien invaders. It's about a test pilot who wants to take bigger chances and go higher into the atmosphere, to the edge of space itself. His commanding officer wants the same thing, but wants it step-by-step and without taking big chances. The pilot, being cocky and gung ho, ignores radio commands and pushes his winged rocket-ship higher than it's supposed to go.

So here's a serious drama about man's quest for science and the limits of risk, from a 1950s perspective. It's a think piece, not a monster movie, so I adjusted my expectations. Hey, not every sci-fi needs action, adventure, aliens, etc. 

But wait, I was wrong. At about exactly the halfway point, there's suddenly a monster! Yippee!

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

First Spaceship on Venus (1959)
a/k/a The Astronauts
a/k/a Planet of the Dead
a/k/a The Silent Star
a/k/a Spaceship Venus Does Not Reply
Streaming free at YouTube

In 1908, a huge meteor rocked a remote corner of Russia. That's history. It's called the Tunguska event.

The movie's fiction begins 50 years after Tunguska, when an unearthly rock is discovered miles from where the meteor struck. Eggheads figure out that it's a remnant of Tunguska, and inside the rock there's a magnetic data-storage spool. When part of the spool's data is decoded, it's a flight data recorder, proving that whatever hit Tunguska was actually a vessel from Venus. So of course, Earthers start planning a mission to Venus to say howdy.

The movie is in wide-screen Technicolor with state-of-the-1950s special effects. The spaceship looks like a giant spinning jack (does anyone remember spinning jacks?). A brief, playful bit about zero-gravity is well-staged, and the eye-popping landscape and skyscrapers of the planet Venus are well above the era's sci-fi standard.

First Spaceship on Venus was the first big-budget sci-fi made by commies behind the Iron Curtain, and it's based on the novel The Astronauts by Polish literary giant Stanisław Lem.

In the process of being imported to America, though, the movie lost fifteen minutes and was dubbed into English, and the dubbing is quite bad. It sounds like the voice actors received minimal or no direction, and certainly no coffee. Were they as bored as I was?

Wikipedia tells me the film was restored and released in 2010, under its original name, Milcząca Gwiazda, or The Silent Star, with English subtitles instead of dubbing. It's on my wish list, but I've been unable to find it without buying it, and I ain't buying it.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
Streaming free at Tubi

"Avoid the green ones. They're not ripe yet."

This is a wacky comedy of the kind they don't often make any more. It's right up there with The Lavender Hill Mob, or the 1930s screwball comedies of Cary Grant — jammed with colorful characters in a convoluted storyline full of tight situations and genuine laughs.

A gang of four — George, Ken, Otto, and Wanda — pulls a jewelry heist, which goes splendidly. Wanda and Otto, while pretending to be siblings, are actually lovers, and they immediately call the cops and doublecross George by ratting him out. But George has already doublecrossed them — he was supposed to leave the heist's takings in his safe, but hid it elsewhere instead. Where? Being in jail now, George is unlikely to tell, so Wanda decides to seduce his lawyer, to see if she can weasel some info from him.

The lawyer is John Cleese, playing England's most repressed Englishman in a powdered wig. Wanda is Jamie Lee Curtis, always lying, scheming, and up to something. Ken is Michael Palin, with quite a stutter and a passion for animal rights and Wanda. Otto is Kevin Klein, a dull-witted cro-magnon who fancies himself intellectual.

Cleese, Curtis, and Palin are as good as they always are (and Cleese co-wrote the script) but most of the comedy revolves around Kline's character. He is stupid, cruel, ill-mannered, ill-tempered, jealous, vain, and violent, yet you have to kinda like the guy, and indeed, Klein is adorable. He won the Oscar for it, and stole my heart.

A Fish Called Wanda has oodles of inappropriate and mean-spirited humor — Otto is always mocking Ken's stutter, killing and even eating pets, etc. It's two hours of double-crossing and triple-crossing, and maybe it's also an affectionate look at the difference between Brits (Cleese & Palin) and Americans (Curtis & Klein).

And it is far, far funnier than my description of it, but I refuse to retell any of the movie's jokes.

Directed by Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob).

Cleese's character is named Archie Leach, the unlikely name Cary Grant was born with, which nobody in the film even mentions.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

A Fish in the Bathtub (1998)
Streaming free at Tubi

Sam (Jerry Stiller) is always angry, has to have his way, and treats his wife Molly (Anne Meara) poorly. This is funny at first, then beyond comedy and into cringe, until he's so insufferable it's not funny.

It isn't often you watch a movie about a quarreling couple and hope they'll get a divorce and never see each other again, but this is that movie.

One way Sam's craziness manifests is that he buys a fish that's bigger than my forearms, and keeps it in the bathtub. The movie doesn't explain how or where Sam bathes, and we never see him cleaning the water, but that's OK — the titular fish is just a bait-and-switch, and isn't in the movie more than a few minutes.

Maybe they were before your time, but Stiller & Meara were a major comedy team in the '60s and '70s. They appeared on variety shows, briefly had their own sitcom, and they were always funny. This is Stiller & Meara, and that's enough to recommend A Fish in the Bathtub. 

It's a wisp of a movie, though, especially when the bickering stars are off-screen for the boring subplots involving Mark Ruffalo and Jane Adams.

Directed by Joan Micklin Silver (Chilly Scenes of Winter). 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Fisher King (1991)

"You’re not so invisible. You want a personality? Try this on for size: you can be a real bitch sometimes."

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a radio shock jock in New York City, funny but also callous and cruel on the air. Think Howard Stern.

One day, talking to a caller on his show, Jack makes a flippant remark that yuppies "must be stopped. It's us or them." The caller takes this too seriously, heads for a yuppie bar, and shoots up the place. "Seven people were killed," says a newscast, "before he turned the gun on himself and shot a hole in his head."

Well, there goes Jack's career. He's the radio star who inspired mass murder, so he's unemployable, full of self-loathing and deeply depressed. He'd be on the street if not for his long-suffering girlfriend (played splendidly by Mercedes Ruehl).

Three years later, Jack wanders out one night, a little drunk and dressed sloppy, and he's mistaken for a homeless man... by two people whose hobby is burning the homeless to death. (Director Terry Gilliam is British, but understands America well).

Luckily for Jack, an eccentric street character named Parry (Robin Williams) comes to his rescue. Parry is loopy, delirious, and has a crush on lovely Lydia (Amanda Plummer)...

Gilliam gives The Fisher King many magical and phantasmagorical moments. It is psychologically dark, but with wondrous imagination, romance, and humanity. It's been on my list of favorites since the day it opened in 1991, but let's admit that it's somewhat dated. The plot revolves around talk radio and a video store, two things that aren't now what they were then. Even the word 'yuppie' is from another era.

Seeing homelessness every time I step out the door of my house, I gently take issue with Gilliam's world where street people can be rescued and mental illness cured by singing the Frank Sinatra song, "How About You?" It's intended to be inspirational, and it is, but that song is sung about half a dozen times here, and becomes tedious.

Overall, though, The Fisher King is a beautiful fairy tale. And there's a scene at Grand Central Station that's among the most marvelous in movie history.

Written by Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra, The Horse Whisperer), with an effective score by George Fenton (Groundhog Day, The Lady in the Van, Shadowlands).

Ms Ruehl won the Oscar for this, and deserved it. Mr Williams was also nominated, but lost to Anthony Hopkins' hammy Hannibal Lecter in the always-overrated Silence of the Lambs.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

F.I.S.T. (1978)
Fist of Fury
Five Came Back

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
Not much pisses me off more than 'movie reviews' that describe the plot, paragraph after paragraph. My pledge to you: I'll only give the basics of a movie's premise, with no spoilers after that.  
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
← PREVIOUS          NEXT →


  1. Yikes, I forgot about that arson/homicide angle in The Fisher King. About two years ago a lovely man in Chicago named The Walking Man was attacked in exactly this way when he was asleep under a bridge. He died after man no doubt agonizing months in the hospital from the burn wounds. It wasn't even the first time that this utterly harmless man who nobody even saw speak to anyone was viciously attacked while sleeping on the street.

    We always talk about the dangers faced by the homeless but how often are we talking about the fact that we've demonized them to the point that psychopaths feel it's some twisted version of The Hunger Games? If I were to remake The Fisher King that would probably be the crux of the story: a right-wing demagogue on the radio ranting about homeless crime and urging involuntary incarceration for vagrancy or mopery (one of the old police tricks that allowed them to arrest anyone for anything) leads to the disgusting assault on a person like this. And then his life spirals down until he's facing it too. The magical stuff, eh.

    1. I do not understand the people who so fervently hate the homeless. I also do not understand the people who don't care about the homeless, the addicts, the sick and dying who huddle wherever they can come out of the rain. There's so much I don't understand, as people see other people doing worse, and kick them further down.

      Whoa. Remakes usually suck broken glass, but your synopsis sounds terrific. It's Jack's journey from laughing at and hating the homeless to being among them. All due respect to Mr Gilliam, but that's better than the original. Make it subtle and well-written enough, and I wonder if it could graft 'empathy' onto right-wingers' souls?

      Ah, fuck me I'm an idiot. Like right-wingers have souls.

  2. As always, you make me look forward to Mondays that never happen on Mondays.

    Brooklyn sounds great, and sounds instantly like Steely Dan, but I repeat myself.

    > In 2022, indie singer-songwriter Aimee Mann was set to support Steely Dan on tour, but due to complications with management, the partnership never came to fruition. Mann took to Twitter to express her disappointment, but also posed a question to Fagen: What exactly is "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)" about? Fagen responded with a lengthy e-mail recounting the early days of Steely Dan when he and Becker were living in Brooklyn and dreaming of creating a truly great band.
    > "Brooklyn was about his downstairs neighbor," Mann told Uncut magazine. "This loud mouth, entitled guy. From a cynical viewpoint, they listed all these prizes they felt like this guy thought he was entitled. What would it take to make this asshole happy?"
    > "But on some level you can tell they're also talking about themselves," she added. "What are the riches and prizes that I maybe don't feel entitled to, but would like to feel entitled to?"
    > "There's this one chord change that goes to the minor that's really heartbreaking," she concluded. "It sounds like a break in the mask. That's what makes them so interesting: the damage that you can hear underneath the cynicism."

    Mr Friedman is lying when he says that's his only love song. He's got The Bridge That Wouldn't Burn, but I love Marilyn and Joe too. I need more Kinky Friedman in my rarely listened-to collection!

    Never pondered "Concrete and Clay" before but damn that's a beautiful song, or maybe I'm just in a sappy mood this morning …

    Always wondered about that song by the Turtles, especially, "groovy go to a movie" and "pride and joy et cetera", but finally your link explains all:

    > "Elenore" was created as a parody of The Turtles' previous hit, "Happy Together," in response to their record label, White Whale, pressuring them for another similar hit. The band intentionally crafted "Elenore" with clichéd lyrics and changed chords as an "anti-love letter" to their record label. However, the record company failed to see the joke and released the song, which became a hit due to its catchy sound and upbeat production.

    The lyrics of "How High the Moon" don't do much for me, probably because my parents played the album a lot, but jeez the sound is perfection.

    I like the GoGo's, especially their "La La Land" many years before that movie. But "one of the very first all-female rock bands"? The International Sweethearts of Rhythm would like a word.

  3. I'm a fan of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and if you want to include jump jazz in rock, then there were dozens of all-female groups before and during WWII, the most famous of which, the Andrews Sisters, topped the charts. The resurgence of all-female music in rock was initiated, in part, by the Go-Gos, but everybody has precursors. I appreciate your comment.


  4. How High the Moon was a jazz standard which Les speeded up so he could show off on the fretboard. He was a bit of a showoff and a bit of an asshole, but he played the guitar with a permanently broken arm that was fixed in place by surgeons. The SOB could just plain play, and so could Mary.


  5. Fitzcarraldo and Fitzwillie! A double feature for the ages!

  6. Trying to leave a comment without disrupting a discussion, and I can't find a place, so the place is here.

    John Glenn flew three orbits on my 12th birthday. Humankind landed on the Moon when I was 19.

    I was 27 when Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched. I'm now 74 and the Voyager Support Team (excluding the launch team and the tracking team) has shrunk from 1,200 to 11. The craft have been running on fumes for a couple of years and are almost out of energy, 47 years after launch.

    Maybe you had to see the first couple of space shots to become a junkie, but I encourage you to watch the 90 minute doc on the Voyager support team called "It's Quieter in the Twilight". I know Trump is running for President and that we seem to care less and less about people who need us more and more. As a glimpse at commitment, this doc ain't bad. It's free on TUBI.


    1. My pop worked on the Apollo program, and talked a lot about it, so that's where my enthusiasm come from. I was sick on moonwalk day, but he rolled a TV into my bedroom and we watched one small step together.

      I hadn't asked him to do that, but jeez I'm glad he did.

    2. If you've not seen it, the doc For All Mankind is one of the best ever

    3. Saw it many, many years ago in nearly another lifetime, but I'd love to see it again so it's going on the list.

    4. We regress in almost every way, from dirty water to wars and rumors of wars, but I hope if that doc were made today it would be "humankind". Sally Ride was a hero in most every way and there's now a female space station commander.

      (Check out how Ms Ride busted the Challenger coverup at NASA.)


    5. Haven't been able to find much detail on the Ride thing, but it's mentioned here.

    6. Yeah, the whole thing is there. Sally had a pretty good position at NASA, but she knew the truth needed to come out and that likely she was the only one on the Rogers Commission who would do so. Feynman was the only member of the Commission who had absolutely no irons in the fire. Nobody could make his life worse if he told the truth, and the truth had to be told. So Sally conspired with General Kutyna to get the information to Feynman. In one of Feynman's books-- I've read all the popular ones -- he describes becoming aware that the General was coaching him on where to look for details. He decided to let himself be used in the interest of saving lives in the future and of holding executives at NASA accountable for an avoidable catastrophe that killed seven talented Americans. Feynman, a showman to the end, dying of cancer, put on a remarkable show on live TV that demonstrated the fault that Sally knew was there. Feynman drove home the point that a combination of a design fault and high level political decisions inside NASA killed the astronauts. I'm summarizing because it's kind of a convoluted story. The entire space shuttle propulsion system was an accident waiting for a cool morning to kill whoever was riding atop it. Feynman and Ride and, to a large extent, Kutyna (the only one of the three left alive) should have received awards for saving future lives. Instead, Feynman's writeup got moved to an appendix. But they couldn't silence his national TV demonstration and, as a result, the launch rules were permanently changed.


    7. Sounds like a story that would make a great movie, honestly. For knowing what happened, you're assigned to write the script. Bring in Scarlett Johansson as a love interest (for Ms Ride, natch) and I'll direct.

      Now all we need is the funding and the Oscars.

  7. I do appreciate the classics, but the genre distinctions are blurry. Jazz, soul, R&B, swing, big band... if it's *alive*, it's all rock'n'roll to me.

    1. Yup, and in literature the same: detective, mystery, science fiction, historical, western, slasher, romance, bromance, etc: it's all fiction.



🚨🚨 BY THE WAY... 🚨🚨
The site's software sometimes swallows comments. If it eats yours, send an email and I'll get it posted.