Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Recommendations: What I've Been Watching, and So Should You! Well ... Maybe. Or Not.

The directorial debut of F/X wizard Douglas Trumbull, the outer-space fable Silent Running (1972) concerns a future Earth where the only foliage and (non-human) fauna left in the entire galaxy is sequestered in a caravan of space greenhouses. And this being the dystopian 1970s, the orders soon come to abandon the project and nuke the cargo. Here, astronaut-gardener Bruce Dern cracks up, kills his shipmates, and with the help of his two trusty (and adorable) drone robots, efforts to keep these precious bio-spheres ticking. Conservation is the main thrust of this tale about the last Eden, but when all is said in done the true message, sadly, is perhaps Mother Earth would be much better off if mankind was removed from the equation altogether. Hea-veeee.

Poor Humphrey Bogart. First he loses out as my favorite Philip Marlowe to Dick Powell, and now Warren William dethrones him as my favorite Sam Spade. Yeah, forget this Ted Shane nonsense as Satan Met a Lady (1936) is William Dieterle's thinly veiled take on The Maltese Falcon. Here, William plays Shane/Spade as a delightfully smarmy cad who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone -- except for the wily femme fatale, as several parties step over a succession of dead bodies while trying to get their hands on a bedazzled horn. And as magnificent as Bette Davis is in this thing, heavens to Murgatroyd, but, I'm kinda crushing on Marie Wilson right now.

They say a creature feature is only as good as its monster. Well, if things work both ways, with Gorgo (1961), the movie surrounding her should probably have been a little bit better. BUT! It's good enough, with passable melodrama, outstanding kaiju chaos, all in glorious British technicolor. I also adore the fact that the happy ending is basically owed to director Eugène Lourié's daughter being so upset over her dad killing off the 'lovely' monster in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I'll also add a wish that all DVD and BluRay releases were as extravagant and well-executed as this VCI disc.

Speaking of that Rhedosaurus, before they teamed up to produce The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, producers Jack Dietz and Hal Chester collaborated on a different kind of exploitation piece, Models Inc. (1952), where ball-breaking grifter Coleen Grey, after bleeding her last consort dry, sets her hooks deep into the head of a modeling agency (John Howard), which culminates in a whirlwind romance and marriage. Meantime, her old partner (Howard Duff), recently paroled for a crime he took the fall for to keep her on the loose, catches up with her; and together, they snog on the side and set up a racket by funneling several of the dupe's stable of beauties into a seedy *ahem* 'photographic gallery' and escort service, resulting in the death of a model at a drunken 'swimsuit convention.' This effectively derails any legitimacy of t'woo wuv that might have been brewing between Grey and Howard, even though the movie goes the extra mile to pound some sympathy into Grey's character that she simply does not deserve. An entertaining enough spin on the old road to ruin trope, helped immensely by the cast, which had me sticking it out to the bitter end even though the streaming print was horrid and the sound completely out of synch.

On the subject of the imminent fall of mankind, cinematically speaking, World War Z (2013) is less your average zombie flick and more of a disaster movie homage to Irwin Allen (-- minus the celebrity cameos and the insufferable "I told you so, but you wouldn't listen" protagonist), as the film hits the fan from the get go with civilization pushed to the brink by an outbreak of rabid ghouls. And like Allen, director Marc Forster tries to personalize, humanize and ground this tale of mass-extinction by showing it through the eyes of our globe-trotting hero, doing his best to find a solution and save the planet as all his tools and companions are stripped away, by keeping him firmly tethered to his family. There p'rolly could have been a few more nods to the source novel, but debriefings make for lousy cinema. As for the changes, well, I can live with them -- and I especially liked the salvation through camouflage angle because, surely, if one can accept a reanimated corpse one can also accept it being picky on what it eats. I had feared the worst going in and wound up pleasantly surprised. Take that for what it's worth and go forth.

Aside from the robot dog -- that stupid, stupid, robot dog, almost everything else about Saga of a Star World, the pilot for Battlestar Galactica (1978), holds up remarkably well -- hats off to the cast, who really bring these characters to life, and to John Dykstra and the co. The Cylons truly were a great and menacing presence. Had completely forgotten about the initial love triangle between Starbuck, Athena and Cassiopeia. And, oh yeah, Ray Milland was in this, too. I know the series quickly went off the rails due to the abuse of recycled F/X footage and borrowed plots, but this revisit has got me itching to go through the whole saga again.

If you tune into FM (1978), this tale of Q-SKY disc-jockeys versus corporate suits over how to divide airtime between music and advertising boils down to little more than Animal House in a radio station -- or an expanded episode of WKRP. A killer soundtrack and solid performances (--including Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, and the late Eileen Brennan, whose character is fed up with her nightly ego-trips and obsessed fans) overcompensate for the faint smell of bullshit emanating from some of the over-cooked dialogue and familiar situations. Still, oddly prophetic in this day of satellite radio and canned muzak stations. I still dig it, but your wattage may vary.

Though the whole cavalry prologue and Josey Wales subplot still needs to go, once he gets to Mars, John Carter (2012) is completely amazeballs and held up just fine on second viewing. Never understood why Disney threw this one under the bus or the hate for it. Does justice to Burrough's cosmic whiz-bangery of the highest order. Forget what you've heard and give it a (first or second) chance.

A highly effective proto-slasher that also presciently predates the likes of Humongous and Anthropophagus,Tower of Evil (1974) kicks off with a couple of sailors who find the remnants of a brutal massacre on an isolated island/lighthouse station. From there, we join the follow up expedition to find out what exactly happened, which only leads to more bloodshed. Ancient ritual macguffins, graphic dispatches, and a ton of equal-opportunity nudity abound but the middle definitely drags after a fantastic opening, the non-linear structure is a bit discombobulating, and the twist at the end was probably one twist too many. Still, I found lots to like. As always, my enthusiasm tends to get people killed on occasion. Well, a lot, actually. So, watch it but wear a helmet, maybe?

Renown for a performance by James Brown, which truly is amazing, one tends to overlook all the other acts who tear it up in The T.A.M.I. Show (1964), the first of two fantastic concert movies courtesy of American International Pictures, filmed during the Teenage Awards Music International festival hosted by Jan & Dean. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Beach Boys, the Supremes, and the Rolling Stones to name but a few. But I think my absolute favorite part was the closing moments when the entire bill flash mobs the stage to polish off the Stones' 'It's Alright.' YouTube it as soon possible, folks, and watch as Mick Jagger and Diana Ross bump 'n' grind together.

All over the place talent wise, but, it doesn't matter because all the music in The Big T.N.T. Show (1965) is just great if a tad bit eclectic in this follow up concert movie from AIP. Special shout-outs to Bo Diddley and Ike and Tina Turner, who brought the house down. Also big shout out to The Big T.N.T. Show dancers, who worked their asses off in this thing. Saw things I'd never thought I'd see, including David McCallum directing an orchestra to rousing cover of 'Satisfaction' or Joan Baez covering the Righteous Brothers or Roger Miller sandwiched between The Byrds and Donovan. Also strange to think that all the young folks in the audience are in their 70s by now. Weird. Beyond that, good times and great tunes. 

At first glance, Cover Girl Models (1975) and Fly Me (1973) kinda cover the same ground; they just take different routes to get there. We've got spies, espionage and smuggling (microfilm / drugs, human trafficking) and a trio of girls (models / stewardesses) completely in over their heads; and neither made a whole lot of sense if you thought about them too long. The difference? Cover Girl Models is great as a study in tedium, making it a complete waste of time. However, even though it was plagued by the same drastic tonal inconsistencies that plagued New World's Filipino output of this era, and blew a golden opportunity of a having a kung-fu yenta save the day, I kinda dug Fly Me. Was pleasantly surprised to find both films in their original aspect ratios as part of The Lethal Ladies collection on one those delightful Roger Corman Shout Factory discs (along with The Arena, which I'm saving for an expanded write-up). Fair warning: these prints are as is -- and Fly Me was beaten to an absolute pulp; but I found that oddly charming in a sleazy kind of way, just like the movie. 


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