Friday, April 30, 2010

The Phantom Planet (1961)

When I picked Triffids at the library, I saw The Phantom Planet. Wow, I thought. That looks bad. So, I got it. IMDB tends to agree. It's rated 2.7.

When I requested Tarantula, I got a five disk set of classic Universal movies. I wanted to watch all of them first, but the set disappeared one night and I ended up watching Triffids and this ahead of schedule. It has reappeared but I've only managed to see three of the five and I owe four bucks so far. And tomorrow I go camping. Anyhoooooo ...

A rocket ship with a crew of two is "on patrol" around the moon when it crashes on a mystery asteroid that appears out of nowhere. Moonbase whatever sends out a second rocket to investigate, when it too crashes into this so called "phantom planet". So they send another rocket out, this time piloted by hotshot Frank Chapman (Dean Fredericks). No way he will crash.

So, Captain Frank crashes into this asteroid, only he doesn't die like the rest. He goes for a space walk and finds it peopled by tiny little extras in hospital shirts. He's delirious from the crash and whatnot, so he falls over and his helmet opens. This causes him to shrink to extra size by a process called "contrived explanation". The tiny people take him prisoner.

He is convicted and sentenced to being a free citizen of Rheton and encouraged to choose a hottie as a bride. This does not sit well with Captain Frank! He acts all passive-aggressive for a while, but eventually he befriends the six people in the movie (minus extras) and helps in their war with the Solarites.

This movie had a few things going for it. The sets were fairly good looking, and the acting and script weren't THAT bad. But I am certain this 82 minute movie could have been edited down to about 60 and been a much better film. This is the slowest pace action film I have EVER seen! But what makes a great sci-fi movie, what makes it stick with us, is it's ability to touch a nerve. To tap into the hopes and fears of a generation without dealing with them directly. Phantom Planet had none of this. It was simply a space adventure film. It was directed by a band leader and actor, and it shows.

Had this movie come out in 1938, I think it would have been a hit. But it came out in the sixties, so it was forgotten. Still, I'm glad I watched it, even if I dozed for a moment or two. AMRU 3. I liked it a bit better than most IMDB voters.

By the way, the Solarite prisoner was played by Richard Kiel in a costume.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Day of the Triffids (1962)

"And I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills ..."

Oh, they spit poison AND kill. I get it now. Actually, o'll Janette didn't do all that much fighting. She just screamed while her alcoholic, passive-aggressive husband did all the heavy lifting. Ninth of eleven movies referenced in Science Fiction/Double Feature. Seven down, four to go.

Impressive meteor shower captivates the world. Only, two things. First, everyone one who watched it wakes up blind the following day. Secondly, plants spring up and start eating people. Oddly, it's the blindness they are most disturbed about.

A sailor with bandages on his eyes survives with sight, but wakes to a society that is all but shut down. No transportation, no communication, people panicking in the streets. He finds a sighted orphan girl (who I had to check to make sure wasn't the "hot" Janette) and brings her on his quest to find out what is going on.

A side story is of Janette and her angry husband, alone on a lighthouse doing some sort of research. They are too busy bickering to watch the light show, so they remain sighted. But some spores take root on their island paradise and Janette screams a lot. I understand that the movie was too short, so the whole lighthouse segment was added later. Janette Scott and husband Kieron Moore were "by special arrangement."

Poor video quality, slow pace, silly looking monsters, and little suspense. This movie could have been done better, but what can you expect from a bunch of Brits. Still, I'm glad I watched it. AMRU 3. One scary thought was of the people in an airplane. Everybody is blind and nobody at the tower to talk them down. Good thing only one airplane was in the air.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Mole People (1956)

The next film is called The Mole People, but it's not really about them. It's about some archaeologists doing field research in the remote village of "Asia". When they learn of ancient artifacts found high up on a mountain plateau, they climb to the top and find the ruins of a long lost Sumerian civilization.

When one in their group falls into a deep hole, they repel down to take a look. After a predictable cave in, they find themselves trapped and at the mercy of ... ancient Sumerians. There are mole people, but they play a much smaller role than what the title would imply. They are simple mushroom farmers fully content with their lot in life. Fully.

The ancient Sumerians mistake the archaeologists for prophets of Ishtar because they they harness the secret power of the "flashlight". They would have been heralded as gods had they also known the power of the "cigarette lighter".

So, our fearless heroes remain a house guests of the ancients while spending time searching for an exit and pondering what to do with this hot slave girl they gave him. I had a few hints. Alfred the Butler becomes suspicious and plots to steal flashy.

A few things struck me about this movie. First, the dramatic underground fight scenes would have been much more dramatic if I could actually see them. I don't thing the blame lies with my copy. The overall quality was very good. Another was that the movie would have benefited from a slightly faster pace.

On the plus side, it was cool to see Hugh Beaumont as one of the archaeologists. He would later star in The Curse of the Beaver Child (1957). Also interesting is that two actors from Tarantula return. John Agar is once again our star, and Nestor Paiva is his sidekick. Now, I'm no technical climbing expert, but the technique displayed did look about right. And while all B movies that deal with science or history get beaten up for all of the stuff they get wrong, I felt Mole People failed less than I expected. Say what you will about low expectations, but I was quite impressed.

It held my interest and I'm glad I watched it. Well acted, well written, and excepting the sometimes painfully slow pace, well made. One additional thing to quibble about: the final scene was absolutely stupid. AMRU 3.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tarantula (1955)

"I knew Leo G. Carroll was over a barrel when Tarantula took to the hills" Thing is, Leo himself didn't know (the) tarantula took to the hills until the very end. Eighth of eleven movies referenced in Science Fiction/Double Feature. Six down, five to go. And one is waiting for me at the library.

John Agar is Dr. Matt Hastings, country doctor. He becomes curious what professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) is doing in his research laboratory twenty miles from town in the middle of the dessert when his colleague is found dead with an advanced case of Acromegaly, a ridiculous sounding made up disease ... oh, it's real? Well, how about that.

Anyhow, Deemer goes back to his lab of oversized rabbits, guinea pigs, and spiders, when another unmentioned colleague with advanced stages of acromegaly attacks and injects him with the "nutrient". During the scuffle, the lab is damaged in a fire and the spider cage is broken open, allowing (the) tarantula to take to the proverbial hills. Hastings, country doctor and amateur sleuth, gets the opportunity to investigate when hot young lab assistant (named Steve) arrives for her first scientifical job. Dr. Hastings, country doctor, amateur sleuth, and babe hound, likes very much.

Universal knew how to make a B movie back in the day. Solid script and acting, and the special effects were great for the day. In contrast to Killers from Space, made the year earlier, the oversized animals in Tarantula look real. In Killers, it they looked ridiculous. Peter Graves, may he rest in peace, and may he never be judged by that piece of crap movie. Tarantula totally delivered. It had atmosphere, suspense, and a good story. I'm not saying I'm surprised it didn't get nominated for any awards. It is what it is, and it totally delivered. My boys weren't watching but I think they would all have liked it. Director Jack Arnold was the master. AMRU 3.5.

Oh, and body count for the tarantula is six. Look for a quick scene near the end with a young Clint Eastwood.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Detour (1945)

My buddy Leo recommended Detour as a good noir film and a great example of making a good movie on a very low budget. Roger Ebert said of this movie ".. shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer...", yet goes on to call it "an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir." Yes, this low budget, poorly made piece of trash is a film classic. Go figure.

Al (Tom Neal) is a grumpy night club musician engaged to marry singer Sue (Claudia Drake), when she tells him instead she is going to go make it big in Hollywood. He stays behind to be all grumpy. When he gets a ten dollar tip, he decides he will sell his stuff and hitchhike across country to be with her.

Out of cash and losing hope, he is picked up by Charles Haskell, who befriends him. His luck turns bad and his trip takes, ahem, a detour.

I won't spoil anything, but the story takes a number of twists and turns. Neal narrates the story in flashback and what Ebert said about ham-handed is dead on. The acting was bad, the script was weak, and the lack of budget was plainly visible on the screen. This is a perfect example of making a bad movie that turns out to be a fairly good movie. And, I don't mean that like how Plan 9 became a "good" movie. Plan 9 is good because how bad it is. Detour is good despite how bad it is.

As far as what I said about the low budget being plainly visible, most of the movie was in either a hotel room or in the director's personal car in front of a rear projection screen. Most of the other shots were done in empty rooms or public places. One scene is done in almost complete fog, another is at a "night club" where we see the singer, a microphone, an the silhouette of three horns players behind her. That's it. I think film development might have been the biggest expense.

Let's talk about Tom Neal. His angry and violent behavior led him to be essentially blackballed in Hollywood. His roles became smaller and smaller. When he killed his third wife, his career was over. He served six years. He died of heart failure at age 58. His son, Tom Neal Jr, has one acting credit, the forgettable 1992 remake of Detour.

I liked the movie, even though the film quality was rather bad. It falls very close to being a story about everything going wrong for someone, but it does say something about what happens when bad decisions are combined with bad luck. My kids were only momentarily interested, but it held mine. AMRU 3.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Veterans returning from World War II faced difficulties adjusting back to normal life. Huh. All this time I thought only 'nam vets had that problem.

This story documents three returning vets, a crippled young sailor unsure how his handicap will be received by his family and girlfriend, an older flier who seems to not have many skills apart from bombing, and an older Sargent who barely recognizes his own kids. The three meet when they share a transport plane home.

Homer Parrish is a sailor who's hands were burned off in a fire during WWII while doing a training exercise. He was played by Harold Russell, who's hands were burned off in a fire during WWII while doing a training exercise. Funny how life imitates art ... or is the other way around? Despite not being able to act, Russell won two awards for the same role.

Homer has two hooks for hands and gets very upset when everyone looks at him funny. Cathy O'Donnell, his equal as an actor, plays girlfriend Wilma. Hoagy Carmichael plays his uncle Butch. Homer copes by getting blind, stinking drunk.

Dana Andrews is officer war hero Fred Derry. He was a big shot in the war but now learns he has no marketable skills on the outside. To make matters worse, the hoochie mama wife of his (Virginia Mayo, who went on to marry Cody Jarrett) doesn't see the point in being married to a war hero if she can't parade him around town every night of the week. Ah, trouble in paradise. Derry copes by getting blind, stinking drunk and making passes at girls much to young for him.

Fredric March is Sargent Al Stephenson, banker. He returns to the bank to learn that his new job is to deny loans to servicemen. He has two children, the forgettable Rob and the hot Peggy (Teresa Wright). His wife is played by Myrna Loy, who earned the nickname The Perfect Wife because of this role. In real life Myrna was married and divorced four times and never had children. Myrna had top billing because she was considered the greatest female actor of all time. Al copes by getting blind, stinking drunk.

This movie reminds me a little of Cavalcade (1933) in that the subject matter touched a nerve with the audience. But unlike Cavalcade, The Best Years of Our Lives stands up to the test of time. The acting was better, the script was better, the subject matter was better, it was all around better storytelling. Seldom in old movies do you see an unflinching treatment with something like a disabled veteran. Russell's handicap was in no way glossed over.

Also touched on is the controversy of using atomic weapons and conspiracy theories about the war. They had the luxury to touch on these topics as the movie was over two hours 45 in length. For scheduling reasons I had to watch it in two separate segments a day apart, but the movie never dragged. In addition to Best Picture, it also won the academy award for best actor, supporting actor, director, editing, music, and writing. It was also nominated for best sound. I give it an AMRU of 3.5.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

I picked up this movie for two reasons. One was because it was made by Akira Kurosawa, the second because it was recommended by my good buddy Leo. His recommendation alone wasn't the key. He's been hit or miss so far. It was because he claimed this was a primary influence for Star Wars. Being a Star Wars geek from way back, I had to take a look.

Two inept peasants are trying desperately to profit on an ongoing war. They narrowly escape death, but are still broke. Then they discover two things. Gold hidden inside sticks, and a Samurai who they don't trust. The three come to a tenuous alliance to help get the gold out of the war zone and to split it. What the two peasants don't know, is that the Samurai is also smuggling out the Princess of the conquered nation.

What follows is a comic adventure. Toshiro Mifume plays the domineering Samurai. Perhaps you remember him as the drunk from Seven Samurai. The peasants constantly bicker and never truly understand what's going on around them. Samurai Makabe doesn't trust them beyond trusting their greed.

Fun, interesting, and watchable for my sons, but not the Tour de Force that Seven Samurai was. My Star Wars crazy boys couldn't see Star Wars in the story (one guessed the Samurai was supposed to be Han Solo), but the truth is that the only influence was that the story was told through the eyes of the two lowest characters. All other similarities are purely coincidental.

AMRU 3.5.