Sunday, October 22, 2017

Fireball XL-5: “Robert to the Rescue” (AP Films, Associated Television, Independent Television Company, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” films (http://sdvsf.org/) were of particular interest to me because they featured the work of puppet auteur Gerry Anderson, who was born April 14, 1929 in London and created a number of cheap TV series for Britain’s commercial channel with science-fictional themes: Thunderbirds, Supercar, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterians (which sounds like the name of a rock band!) and Fireball XL-5. The Anderson movies were filmed in a process he called “Supermarionation,” which simply meant that the lead roles were all played by puppets and voiced by human actors who dubbed in the dialogue later. Our program last night began with Superthunderstingcar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riMHp28_cqw), a bizarre spoof of Anderson’s films created by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (Dudley Moore you’ve probably heard of; Peter Cook was his sidekick and they were both members of Beyond the Fringe, the late-1950’s/early-1960’s British comedy troupe that was basically Monty Python before Monty Python), featuring great gags — in one of which Lady Penelope, a running character in Anderson’s Thunderbirds series, asks her butler why he speaks in such a ridiculous accent. “I’m just doing the Americans’ idea of a lower-class British accent,” he replies. There was also a nice bit in which the villains triumph at the end, and when the principal villain’s sidekick reminds him that they were supposed to lose, he answers, “I keep forgetting to read the ends of the scripts.” 

The works of Anderson’s own which were shown included a Fireball XL-5 episode called “Robert to the Rescue.” originally aired March 17, 1963 — Robert is the robot crew member (though since they’re all puppets he’s not appreciably less human-acting and –appearing than the rest of the cast; he’s distinguished mainly by being made of what look like upended clear toy beach buckets and speaking in an incomprehensible monotone) and he takes the lead in saving the (more or less) human crew members of the interplanetary spaceship Fireball XL-5 from the inhabitants of a hollow metal planet which hides in the solar system and whose population is so concerned about keeping their existence secret they will either kill anyone who stumbles onto them or use a transformation machine to erase all their memories and incorporate them as members of their own people. It’s one of those movies that’s cheery in its own obvious ineptitude — it was obviously made for children and I’m lucky that I first saw Fireball XL-5 when I was a child, when the independent TV station Channel 2 in the Bay Area ran them back to back on weekday afternoons with another one of Anderson’s cheap puppet series, Supercar. I also vividly remembered the theme songs for both shows — the one for Supercar sang the praises of the title vehicle (“It travels on land and under the sea/It can journey anywhere/Supercar!”) but the one for Fireball XL-5 was actually a soft-rock ballad crooned by one Don Spencer that made traveling through the universe on the titular spaceship sound like just another teenage date option: “I’d like to be a spaceman/The fastest man alive/I’d travel through the universe/On Fireball XL-5.” (He was basically a soft-rock singer in the mold of Frankie Avalon, who did a similarly dumb but campy song at the opening of the 1961 sci-fi non-epic film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.) This is dumb entertainment and if your age is above single digits you’re not going to take a moment of it seriously, but it’s still a lot of fun.

Thunderbirds Are GO! (Associated Television Overseas Limited, Century 21 Television, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In addition to the Fireball XL-5 episode and the spoof Superthunderstingcar, last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening (http://sdvsf.org/) contained two full-length movies, also by British producer Gerry Anderson in partnership with his wife Sylvia. The first “feature” on last night’s program was Thunderbirds Are Go!, a 1966 attempt by Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia (a collaborator through all of these as well as voice for the heroine — though she was born in South London two years before her husband she did her voice work in an affected pseudo-Eastern European accent that made her sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor with a head cold) to take one of their cheap, tacky black-and-white TV show and build an entire feature film in color (or “colour,” as the Brits would say) around it. The Thunderbirds are part of an international space rescue team headed by John Tracy (Ray Barrett) and there are five members of it: Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley), Gordon Tracy (David Graham), Scott Tracy (Shane Rimmer), Virgil Tracy (Jeremy Wilkin) and the Sad Sack of the bunch, Alan Tracy (Matt Zimmerman). At first I was wondering if the Thunderbirds were like the Ramones — you had to take the last name “Tracy” to join — but it soon turned out that we were supposed to believe that all the Thunderbirds were John Tracy’s biological (or manufactured) offspring. The show begins with the launch attempt of a new spacecraft called “Zero-X,” which is supposed to be the first human-piloted vehicle to land on Mars, only a sinister stowaway gets caught in the gears joining its various stages (Gerry Anderson did some really cool bits of animation showing the various parts of the ship being driven down runways before they are joined together for the launch — which, as in Fireball XL-5, he showed as being horizontal, like a normal airplane takeoff, rather than vertical like a real rocket launch) and the rocket is unable to lift off — instead it drives into the sea, the humans on board manage to eject themselves in a yellow capsule, but the ship itself blows up underwater. Two years later the space agency that launched the Zero-X, or tried to, are ready to try again — only they’re concerned about another sabotage attempt, so they call in the Thunderbirds. John Tracy tells them that they’ve never provided security for a launch before it happened — their only purpose up until now has been to rescue people in space after a spacecraft failed — but he reluctantly agrees to take on the assignment. There’s an awful lot of pseudo-military palaver — Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who co-wrote the script, seemed in love with dialogue containing terms like “Roger” and explaining in depth what the procedures would be for launching the second Zero-X (they didn’t change the name to Zero-X-2 or something, probably because the Andersons wanted to reuse the exact same animated model footage of the first launch to represent the second).

There’s also another character, who’s pretty peripheral to the action even though she’s by far the coolest person in the film — and she drives by far the coolest car: she’s Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Sylvia Anderson) and her car is called the FAB 1 (we’re not told what the initials FAB stand for, if anything, but this film was made at the height of “Swinging London” and the word “fab” — short for “fabulous,” and meaning, well, fabulous — was a popular slang term). It’s a pink Rolls-Royce convertible with six wheels — two pair of wheels in the front and one in the back — and it has many special capabilities, including being able to go underwater and also to fly and fire rockets at enemy aircraft. (At the time this film was made there actually was a car being manufactured called the Amphicar — it couldn’t submerge or fly, but if you had one you were supposed to be able to drive it into the water and use it as a powerboat. The commercials for it showed their test driver doing just that.) She actually has a butler drive it for her — these were the characters Peter Cook and Dudley Moore so devastatingly caricatured in their spoof Superthunderstingcar — and at one point she offers Alan Tracy a date to go with her in the car and attend the “Swinging Star” nightclub, where they see a band perform a song of that title. The band is billed as “Cliff Richard, Jr., and The Shadows,” and the actual performer is Cliff Richard, Sr. and the real Shadows (though by the time this film was made their lead guitarist, Jet Harris — the only member of the band the Beatles ever admitted to liking; George Harrison recalled how he tried to learn Harris’s guitar introduction to the song “Move It” but never could until he saw them on TV and was able to watch how Harris’s fingers moved as he played the lick — had left to pursue a solo career). Cliff Richard was the most popular British rock star of the 1950’s, though in his one attempt at a U.S. tour he bombed completely, and like a lot of the people who followed in the wake of Elvis he was a decent crooner with a nice, respectable voice; later he became a born-again Christian and hooked up with Billy Graham to make an “inspirational” film called Two a Penny, a worldwide flop. His song here — he just sang one, though there are several other bits of the instrumental score played by his backup band, the Shadows — is decent enough pop but hardly what was “happening” on either side of the Atlantic in 1966. The “Shooting Star” sequence actually represents Alan Tracy’s dream, since at the last minute his dad forbids him to go on an actual date and he has to stay at home in bed — but it’s also by far the most entertaining part of the film.

Eventually the “Zero-X” 2.0 takes off and this time makes it to Mars but goes awry and crashes on its way back to Earth — and of course the Thunderbirds have to come to the rescue. I don’t always agree with the reviews that come up when you look up a film on imdb.com, but the one that materialized when I looked up this one (by “bob the moo” from the U.K.) was right on and pinpointed the biggest failing of this movie: it basically seems like a 26-minute Thunderbirds TV show padded out to a 90-minute running time. After it ends we see the leader of the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines — and quite frankly, after 90 minutes of watching jerky puppets it’s a relief to see an actual live human appear on screen in this film! — and then the camera pulls back to show the entire band playing the “Thunderbirds Are Go” march, and the band members use their bodies to form the words “THE END” as the film, well, ends. Then there are a number of what imdb.com would call “Crazy Credits” that, while maybe not as funny as the one at the end of The Asylum’s 2005 production of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (“Why are you still reading this? Go back to the video store and rent another Asylum film. You know you want to”), have their own dorky appeal: “The producers gratefully acknowledge the co-operation of: Space Colonel Harris of the Martian Exploration Center Cape Johnson; Jim Glenn, President of the New World Aircraft Corporation, Designers and Manufacturers of the Zero X; Commander Casey; [and] Commander in Chief Glenn Field, without whose help this motion picture would not have been possible” (those are all names of characters who appear in the film rather than any real-life people who helped make it), “Martian Sequences filmed by Century 21 Space Location Unit,” and my favorite, “None of the characters appearing in this photoplay intentionally resemble any persons living or dead ... SINCE THEY DO NOT YET EXIST!”

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (Century 21 Television, 1969)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Fortunately the last film on the program, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, though also a Gerry and Sylvia Anderson production, at least featured a live-action cast of real humans, albeit not especially prominent actors. The star is Roy Thinnes, playing American astronaut Col. Glenn Ross (apparently the Andersons liked to recycle the names of America’s actual astronauts for their fictional ones), who’s brought on a mission sent by the EUROSEC — European Space Exploration Council — to explore a new planet supposedly just discovered by astronomers. They have found that the new planet is the same distance from the sun as Earth, follows the same orbit and has similar day-and-night rotation patterns, but it’s never been observed before because it’s always exactly 180 degrees away from the Earth’s orbit and is therefore invariably exactly opposite from Earth in space. They want the U.S. to contribute $1 billion towards this project, and of course the lure they use to get the money out of the American government is the prospect that a sinister secret power is going to get to the new planet first, claim it for their own and use it either to extract its resources or mount an attack on Earth. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was made in 1969, one year after the release of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which revolutionized the dramatization of space travel on film and, among other things, raised the bar on the actual depiction of spacecraft.

No longer could you just take a cigar or saucer shape, have it jerk around or revolve on screen, and call it a spaceship: thanks to Kubrick, Douglas Trumbull and their effects crew (and Gene Roddenberry and his effects people on the original Star Trek TV show before them), you had to design a contraption that looked like, given the right motive power, it could actually fly in space. Both the models of the spaceship exteriors and the sets of their interiors are very Kubrickian and are done with an attention to detail far beyond what we got in the sci-fi films of the 1950’s (though, surprisingly, the terrestrial models of what the future Earth is supposed to look like are almost as tacky as the ones in the Andersons’ puppet films that preceded this one), and there are other 2001 quotes, including the reflections of the lights of the spaceship’s controls on the visors of the astronauts’ spacesuits, the decision to put the astronauts into chemically induced hibernation for the three weeks it will take them to get to the new planet and the three weeks it will take them to get home, and even the psychedelic images the Andersons and their director, Robert Parrish, have the astronauts see while they’re in hibernation (it looks as if the mix of drugs used to put them under contained LSD). The film takes up about half its 101-minute running time detailing the extensive training Col. Ross and his co-astronaut, British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry), have to go through to prepare for the mission, and also the soap-operaish complications of Col. Ross’s love life: he’s married but his wife Sharon (Lynn Loring) is clearly tired of him, especially his long absences while he’s in space, and he’s clearly being cruised by Lisa Hartmann (Loni von Friedel), assistant to the Eurosec director Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark). Both women are wearing oddball dresses with so little holding them together one wonders how they stay on, and there’s an early scene in which Sharon, having just come out of the shower and not yet having dressed, confronts her husband over yet another spaceflight and he responds by slapping her across the face. (Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is one of those movies that got a “G” rating when it came out but probably would be rated more toughly — PG or even PG-13 — today.)

Once the rocket finally launches (after a lot of those shots Gerry Anderson so loved of various components of it being driven across the spaceport to be assembled on the launching pad) we heave a sigh of relief that all that tiresome exposition is over and we can finally get to the meat of the sort of sci-fi action we came for — only the astronauts return three weeks after they launched instead of the six weeks that would have been needed to complete the mission, and Webb and his colleagues at Mission Control accuse Col. Ross of having aborted the mission and come home early. He swears he didn’t, and eventually he stumbles on the truth when he sees a cologne bottle in his bathroom — only the label is printed backwards and reads like a mirror image of the writing he’s used to. Eventually the Andersons and their collaborator on the script, Donald James, explain that Col. Ross actually landed on the parallel Earth while his counterpart, an identical double, landed on the Earth from which Col. Ross left. Everything on the parallel Earth is the same as on our Earth — down to the events duplicating themselves exactly as they happen on the Earth we know (so don’t get your hopes up for the existence of a parallel U.S.A. of which Hillary Clinton is President!) — except that everything on one Earth is a mirror image of what it is on the other: people shake hands with their left hands, they wear their name tags and military patches on the other side, and presumably their hearts are on the right sides of their bodies. There’s one glitch; though at one point Col. Ross complains that a car that was approaching him was driving on the wrong side of the road, the car that nearly hit him head-on was still set up for the British system of driving on the left (if everything on the new Earth was the mirror image of the old one, the Brits would be driving on the right and we would be driving on the left — I once met a British tourist who said he didn’t want to drive in the U.S. because it would have been too much of an adjustment for him to learn to drive on the other side of the road!).

As all this comes out, relations between Col. Ross and the people at Eurosec (his fellow astronaut John Kane was badly burned when his ship crash-landed and, though he spends several days encased in a clear plastic breathing chamber, he ultimately dies of his burns) deteriorate, and ultimately a crash takes out Eurosec’s entire supply of rocket fuel and all the humans involved — except Jason Webb, who ends up in a wheelchair in a mental institution, babbling away about a cooperative European space program that he used to head, since the reaction of the various governments that spent billions on this useless program has been to cover it up and pretend it never existed at all. It’s the most nihilistic ending I can think of in a science-fiction movie to that time — I suspect only X-Men: Apocalypse comes close among more recent movies — though it also seems to have been written as an excuse for the Andersons to blow up all those pretty (but singularly unconvincing) little models they had built to represent the headquarters of Eurosec and the rest of what parts of their future Earth they chose to show. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is the sort of frustrating bad movie that could have been good if its creators had been more alive to the possibilities of their central premise; there’ve been other movies about duplicate Earths but they’ve usually had at least some level of suspense as the astronaut who ended up on a different Earth notices subtle discontinuities — like the one shown on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that, though generally tacky, had a nice moment like the fact that the astronaut first realizes there’s something wrong when he makes a joke about Paul Revere and the people treating him in the parallel Earth’s hospital don’t know who that was.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (The Asylum, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Mars Movie Screening” in Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) consisted of two films more or less based on H. G. Wells’ classic and much-adapted science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds, which as you probably know deals with an invasion of Earth by Martians with high-tech killing machines and heat rays. The Martians, who are far more advanced technologically than we are, turn Earth into a gutted, smoking ruin and then start importing their own plant life to make our environment resemble theirs — only it turns out that they’re laid low not by any of the puny, ineffective attempts of Earth people to fight back, but by being infected and killed off en masse by Earth germs to which Martian immune systems offered no resistance. The most famous adaptations of The War of the Worlds are the Orson Welles radio broadcast from 1938 (in which, by staging the show as a “news” broadcast as if the invasion were actually happening, he inadvertently caused a panic among people who tuned in and thought the invasion was actually happening), the 1953 Paramount film directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry as Wells’ original scientist protagonist, and the big-budget 2005 remake directed by Steven Spielberg and starting Tom Cruise, though Spielberg and his writers, Josh Friedman and David Koepp, demoted his character from a scientist to an ordinary working stiff looking for his estranged wife and their daughter among the ruins of a Mars-conquered and –occupied Earth. 

Enter The Asylum, a production company that has made it a specialty of ripping off a story — either one based on a public-domain property like The War of the Worlds or an easily “appropriated” plot gimmick, like humans fighting ghosts or doing street races in fast cars — that a major studio is about to release a big movie about and rushing their own version into production, hopefully beating the major-studio version into theatres or at least onto DVD’s. We’d encountered The Asylum at a previous Mars film screening via A Princess of Mars, the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories they rushed out just ahead of the big Disney version, John Carter, which flopped big-time (though the Disney John Carter, albeit flawed, is a quite entertaining sci-fi action film in the modern manner and considerably superior to its Asylum would-be clone). This time, surprise, the comparison was closer, though the Asylum War of the Worlds — actually released as H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to distinguish it, more or less, from the Spielberg/Cruise version — still isn’t a very good movie. (Neither was the Spielberg, for that matter: though it incorporated a few elements from the Wells novel previous filmmakers hadn’t used, it was unnecessarily gross and had some risible moments as well as bits of the Spielberg sentimentality that has a way of creeping into even his most “serious” projects.) The Asylum War of the Worlds was the brainchild of one David Michael Latt, who produced and directed it as well as co-writing the script with Carlos De Los Rios. To their credit, Latt and De Los Rios stuck a lot closer to what H. G. Wells wrote than Josh Friedman and David Koepp did: they kept not only the basic premise of a Martian high-tech invasion of Earth and such details as Wells’ description of the Martian war machines as half-mechanical and half-organic, blurring the distinction between life form and machine (the Spielberg version did that as well but none of the previous adapters, at least the ones I know about, did), they also kept the central character a scientist and gave him long, tendentious debates with a military officer and a minister just as H. G. Wells had. They even named the central character “George Herbert” — a tribute to Wells since the H. G. in his name stood for “Herbert George” — and they cast C. Thomas Howell, a considerably less annoying actor than Tom Cruise, to play him. 

That’s the good news; the bad news is they had a surprisingly low special-effects budget to play with, which vouchsafed us very few glimpses of the Martian war machines in action. (They also designed the Martian electro-organic devices with six legs instead of the three that Wells specified and the Haskin and Spielberg versions went with.) Most of Katt’s War of the Worlds is just three people — Howell as George Herbert, Andy Lauer as Sgt. Kerry Williams and Rhett Giles as Victor, the minister — hiding out in closets, rooms and in one case what looks like an outhouse, and talking, talking, talking to each other in didactic ways that would have made H. G. Wells proud (Wells never seems to have set pen to paper without having some didactic purpose in mind) but, especially delivered by the caliber (or lack thereof) of actors The Asylum could afford, just seemed dull: My Dinner with André while Mars Invades the Earth. The most interesting character in the film is Lieutenant Samuelson (William Busey), a heavy-set military commander with orange hair who takes advantage of the Martian invasion to set himself up as a petty fascist dictator (or try to) on the ground that only harsh martial law will enable humanity to marshal its forces to defeat the Martian invaders — given that the U.S. President is currently a would-be fascist dictator with orange hair this plot element seems more au courant than it would have if I’d seen this film in 2005, but even without the Trump parallels the character seems like the most interesting figure in the dramatis personae. (Then again, often in these sorts of stories the villains are far more interesting than the heroes.)  

H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is disappointing in a singular way: in a sense it’s both a Good Bad Movie and a Bad Good Movie — at once a film that treads on camp without quite falling into it and making itself unwittingly entertaining, and a film that goes for High Seriousness and falls embarrassingly short of its goal. About the one interesting change Latt and De Los Rios made in the story is that, instead of merely encountering Earth’s germs and dying from them by happenstance, the Martian invaders are deliberately injected with a rabies serum by George Herbert (how on earth did he get it? He’s an astronomer, not a medical researcher!), infecting one Martian who spreads it to their fellows and thereby stops the invasion. (Do the Martians regularly bite each other? Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought you had to be bitten by a rabid animal — either that or eat one — to get rabies.) It ends predictably sappily, with George Herbert reunited with the wife, Felicity (Tinarie van Wyck Loots), and son, Alex (Dashiell Howell), he’d sent on to Washington, D.C. for a vacation, intending to meet them the next day. They’d promised to meet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and indeed they do — even though there’s no explanation for how they ultimately found each other and the U.S. capital is a smoldering ruin and the Lincoln Memorial had been so totally blown to pieces that there was only one of its steps remaining. As one of the other attendees at the screening said, this is the sort of movie that seems twice as long as it actually is, and the most entertaining part of the film for most of the people there — at least all the straight guys in the audience, which was everybody except one young woman and me, thought so — was the brief glimpse of a bare-breasted woman early on in the action.

War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave (The Asylum, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In 2008, three years after their own War of the Worlds as well as the release of the Spielberg version (which did O.K. at the box office but was not the huge blockbuster hit Spielberg and the studio backing him, Paramount, were hoping for), The Asylum trotted out the property again for a sequel called War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave. This takes place two years after its predecessor, though the only characters who cross over are George Herbert (C. Thomas Howell, who also directed this time, from a script by the first film’s auteur, David Michael Latt, with Eric Forsberg from a story by Sam Bevilacqua) and his son Alex (Dashiell Howell — gee, I wonder how he got the part!). We’re told that George’s wife/Alex’s mother Felicity died somewhere between the two films, though we aren’t told how (she obviously made it through the Martian invasion since she was in the final scenes of the first film); I joked that the actress who played her in film one must have wanted too much money for the sequel, and someone else in our audience said, “Or she had too much self-respect to do it again.” Though imdb.com claims War of the Worlds 2 had only half the budget of its predecessor ($500,000 as opposed to $1 million), it actually looked like a more elaborate production: though the Martian machines/life forms are down to their original three legs from the six they had in Asylum’s first go-round with this premise, there are quite a few more of them on screen, as well as whole fleets of Martian spaceships that pour our of a wormhole conveniently located between Mars and Earth. This is offered mainly as an explanation for how the Martians (unlike their counterparts in H. G. Wells’ original novel and the other adaptations of it) were able to arrive on Earth suddenly, without warning, and without Earth’s astronomers noting that they were on their way. It also allows the people on Earth, organized as a so-called “Free Earth” force, to retrofit existing U.S. Air Force fighter planes to travel through space and take out the Martian mothership — yes, as in the movie Independence Day (itself spotted by critics when it came out as a War of the Worlds knockoff), the aliens are directing their invasion from a large spacecraft that in turn sends smaller ones on the missions needed to do the invasion. 

One plot gimmick this time is that the Martians prepare for a second invasion in part by kidnapping Earth children so they can draw their blood and figure out how to develop their own antibodies to the common Earth germs that killed them the first time around, and wouldn’t you know it, George Herbert’s son Alex (ya remember Alex?) is one of the ones they grab. There are also two long and infuriatingly gross scenes of George and various other Earthlings inside the Martian machines, where they’re constantly under the threat of Martian stomach acids spurting out and attempting to digest them. This particular bit of grossness was actually the contribution of Josh Friedman and David Koepp, writers on the Steven Spielberg version, who not only had their principals (or some of them) spend time inside a Martian stomach but figure out how to get excreted from it while still intact. It doesn’t help that through the wormhole George Herbert and an annoying Black sidekick, Pete (Christopher Reid), have been transported into a town that looks like Earth but is actually a replica created by Martians on the surface of their planet for reasons Latt and Forsberg really don’t explain (aside from the possibility that one of them read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and decided to rip off yet another legendary sci-fi master), or that there are two women in the dramatis personae. One is Victoria Reed (Kim Little, who according to one of the people at last night’s screening got the job because she’s the wife of one of the producers — apparently her lack of acting ability wasn’t enough of an attribute for the role), a scientist with the Free Earth Force who figures out how to get ordinary terrestrial aircraft to go through space. The other is Sissy (Danna Brady), fellow inmate of George’s and Pete’s inside a Martian digestive system, who warns them as they walk through the Martian intestines, “Don’t touch the walls!” (as if the “floor” wouldn’t be made of the same toxic stuff as the walls?), and who figures out that the wormhole between Mars and Earth has a sort-of analogue, represented by a glowing multicolored ball-like blob inside the Martians’ stomach, that allows anyone who’s been swallowed by a Martian to escape easily and beam back down to the surface of Mars. In case you were wondering or hoping that one of them might serve as an alternative romantic interest for George Herbert now that he’s become a widower, no such luck. 

The big problem with War of the Worlds 2 is that the author of its original story, Steve Bevilacqua, is no match for H. G. Wells as a story constructionist, let alone as an author of imagination, and he and the people who adapted his “original” outline (heavily, shall we say, “influenced” by Roland Emmerich’s script for Independence Day), David Michael Latt and Eric Forsberg, did some awfully jarring cuts between the four main locations (Earth’s surface, Mars’ surface, the innards of the Martian bio-robot and the F-14 that transports the Earth characters to Mars and back). Yes, this is one of those movies that makes such wrenching cuts from one plot thread to another you worry about getting whiplash and sometimes find yourselves asking, “Where are we? When are we?” In some ways War of the Worlds 2 is better than the previous film in the sequence — there’s more action and less claustrophobia — but it makes far less sense as a story. It’s also handicapped by C. Thomas Howell’s direction: like a lot of better known actor-directors (like Stroheim, Welles, Redford and Eastwood) he gets reasonably subtle and understated performances from his cast members (aside from Christopher Reid’s updated version of the Stepin Fetchit schtick and Kim Little’s “what’s acting?” impassivity), but he lacks the flair for suspense and horror Latt showed in his direction of the earlier film and War of the Worlds 2 pretty much just lurches to a close. When I looked it up on imdb.com the user review that popped up was from someone who watched it thinking it was a sequel to the Spielberg War of the Worlds and was sorely disappointed: “Two seconds into the movie i realized that...well...that it wasn’t a Spielberg sequel. So all you people expecting to see a good movie, be warned you’re going to regret watching it. It’s 85 minutes of your life you are never getting back.” It’s not quite that bad, but, even more than the first version, it’s perched on an uncomfortable place on the continuum between good movies and bad ones: not inept enough to be enjoyable as camp, but not good enough to be taken seriously as genuine entertainment either.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Men of America (RKO, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Men of America was a 57-minute RKO vehicle for William Boyd, later Hopalong Cassidy in the long-running series which began at Paramount and ended at United Artists. Here he plays “Jim Parker” in a film set in the year it was made, 1932, though with two prologue sequences featuring Smokey Joe Miller (Charles “Chic” Sale, the second lead) warding off Indians and saving cattle trains (done with quite effective use of stock footage from older, more lavishly budgeted productions — it’s a testimony to the quality of the RKO effects department that the stock footage is not obvious and only the relative unambitiousness of this film gives away the fact that it’s been used) before he settles into a charmingly rustic dotage in the small town of “Paradise Valley” in northern California. Boyd’s character is a World War I veteran desperately trying to make a living as a farmer in the area and flirting with Smokey Joe’s granddaughter Annabelle (Dorothy Wilson, a subtle and genuinely charming performer who could have become a major star with a few more breaks), who clerks in the general store Smokey Joe owns. There’s also a tight-knit community in the area with a wide assortment of ethnic types: Native American “Indian Tom” (Alphonz Ethier), Italian vintner Tony Garboni (Henry Armetta), Ole Jensen (Fred Lindstrom) et al. Trouble comes to paradise (valley) in the form of Cicero (played by Ralph Ince, who also directed), an escapee from Leavenworth, and his gang, who first steal gasoline and food from Smokey Joe’s store and then turn out to be hiding out in the mountain until they can figure out a way to “break” the 50 thousand-dollar bills that are the only money they got in their most recent bank robbery. Just when you think this film is going to anticipate The Petrified Forest by three years, instead of holing up inside Smokey Joe’s store and holding the principals hostage, the gangsters return to their redoubt in Box Canyon after having shot Tony Garboni for having refused to help them pass their stolen money. (Henry Armetta gets a surprising dying-words speech in which he upbraids the mob’s Italian member for giving all Italian-Americans a bad name.)

Thanks to a misunderstanding, Garboni’s seven-year-old son fingers Jim Parker as his father’s murderer, so our poor hero finds himself pursued by both the townspeople (who are threatening to lynch him) and the gangsters (since he’s the only one — aside from Smokey Joe, and he seems to have forgotten all about them! — who’s seen them and knows of their existence). Parker saunters into the schoolhouse where the townspeople are debating his own lynching — exhibiting the kind of self-assured swagger that would later become John Wayne’s trademark — and in nothing flat he manages to convince them that the gangsters exist and they, not he, killed Garboni. (The speed with which he talks them out of lynching him is frankly unbelievable, but let’s be realistic here; it’s only a 57-minute movie.) This sets up a vertiginous shoot-out climax in the mountains in which Parker manages to take out the gang’s machine-gun shooter and later to kill Cicero in a great feat of sharpshooting even though the baddie is holding Annabelle hostage (a bit of business Alfred Hitchcock repeated two years later as the climax of the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). The title promises a greater movie than it delivers — one would have expected an expansive, expensive Richard Dix vehicle along the lines of Cimarron and The Conquerors — and director Ince’s pacing is rather stodgy until the climax, while the story is no great shakes either (it was written by Humphrey Pearson and Henry McCarty, and adapted into a screenplay by Samuel Ornitz — later a major writer — and Jack Jungmeyer), but Men of America is the sort of movie with reliable audience appeal, good of its kind (apparently William Boyd took over the direction himself in the scenes in which Ralph Ince appeared — interestingly they’re never on screen at the same time!) and benefiting from beautiful photography by J. Roy Hunt, who was no doubt helped by the fact that virtually all of it took place outdoors and therefore he didn’t have to worry about lights! — 10/27/04

•••••

I figured I could squeeze in at least a “B” movie last night before Charles and I crashed, and I found it in one of my later recordings off Turner Classic Movies: Men of America, an hour-long RKO “B” modern-day Western from 1932 starring William Boyd as Joe Parker, a rancher who’s unjustly suspected of murdering a local farmer. The film starts with a charming montage of “Smokey Joe” Miller (Charles “Chic” Sale, an important character star of the time in radio and on bookshelves as well as in films: he did a surprisingly restrained performance as Abraham Lincoln in a 1935 MGM short about the Gettysburg Address called The Perfect Tribute, but most of his other appearances, including this one, are just annoying), first in 1887 Arizona (where he’s shooting at cattle rustlers), then in 1899 California (where he’s shooting at bandits), then in 1932 (where he’s running a gas station and blacksmith shop — thereby servicing both horse and car owners — and popping popcorn over the open fire of his furnace). All this tales place in the idyllic farming town writers Henry McCarty, Humphrey Pearson, Sam Ornitz and Jack Jungmeyer all too obviously named “Paradise Valley,” only it gets invaded by a bunch of big-city bank robbers in a fancy car. The gang is headed by Caesar (Ralph Ince, who’s also credited with directing the film, though according to imdb.com William Boyd co-directed, taking over behind the cameras for all the scenes Ralph Ince was in), who’s pissed off because all they brought back from the bank robbery was 50 $1,000 bills, way too big to risk spending and thereby bringing the law down on them. They hide out in a deserted canyon near Paradise Valley and get the windshield of their car shot at by Smokey Joe, who probably would have bit the big one then and there had not shining Western hero Jim Parker come along, noticed that the gangsters had Thompson submachine guns (the famous “Tommy gun”) and therefore Smokey Joe was hopelessly under-armed.

Nothing much happens in this movie except that the gangsters steal from the locals and ultimately shoot down and kill the head of an Italian-American farming family, Tony Garboni (played by another habitually annoying character actor, Henry Armetta). Thanks to testimony from Garboni’s son, who saw his dad and Parker having an argument and noticed that Parker was carrying a gun, the townspeople organize a vigilante posse aimed at either arresting Parker or lynching him — but they’re talked out of it in nothing flat by Parker himself, who persuades Garboni figlio that he couldn’t possibly have murdered the kid’s dad and re-organizes the townspeople to go after the real crooks. Only the real crooks have kidnapped Parker’s girlfriend Anne (Dorothy Wilson, a potentially good actress way overqualified for this damsel-in-distress role) and intend to take her with them as a hostage while they make their getaway. There’s a surprisingly violent (for a 1932 movie; apparently the relative freedom of loose Production Code enforcement in the so-called “pre-Code” era went to violence as well as sex!) shoot-out in which both most of the gangsters and a few of the townspeople bite the big one, and the climax eerily anticipates the ending of the first version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much two years later: with his unparalleled skills as a marksman, Jim Parker has to pick off Caesar without hurting his girlfriend, whom Caesar is holding hostage. The problem with Men of America — aside from the gap between its grandiloquent title and its prosaic reality (in 1932 one would have expected an RKO film called Men of America to be an epic multi-generational saga starring Richard Dix, along the lines of Cimarron and The Conquerors) — is that so many of its basic dramatic tropes were done much better in later films: The Petrified Forest, High Sierra and others. Indeed, the whole Western-town-menaced-by-gangsters schtick was what Mel Brooks and his writing committee were making fun of in Blazing Saddles.

It’s a decently done film but hampered by an odd slowness one doesn’t expect to find in an hour-long “B” — it’s not until 45 minutes in that we see anyone get killed (though we hear that one of the bank robbers was shot and killed during the robbery by a bank security guard, and that the dead gang member was the one who was carrying the bag full of low-denomination bills, which is why the gang left the bank only with those peskily difficult-to-pass $1,000’s) and the members of the writing committee really have to race through the last 15 minutes of the film to make the good guys triumph and resolve all their plot strands within an hour’s total running time. Men of America’s acting ranges from the unfulfilled promise of Dorothy Wilson’s spunky performace as the heroine to serviceable (William Boyd, who was still pretty enough to get away with this sort of part — later, after RKO fired him in a case of mistaken identity because another actor named William Boyd had been arrested for alcohol and drug possession; the good William Boyd sued the bad William Boyd and won a judgment that the bad one thenceforth had to bill himself as William “Stage” Boyd so the good Boyd wouldn’t be blamed for the bad Boyd’s defalcations: alas, the bad Boyd made only one movie under his “Stage” moniker, the 1935 serial The Lost City, before his bad habits caught up to him and he died young) to irritating (Sale and Armetta). Its best aspects are the spectacular real-life (albeit movie-familiar) Western locations and the gorgeous cinematography of them by J. Roy Hunt (veteran RKO director of photography and the man who would shoot a lot of their classic noirs in the 1940’s), and also some stirring strains from scores Max Steiner had originally composed for other RKO movies, but overall Men of America is an odd little disappointment, blazing a few trails other filmmakers did considerably more with in later movies. — 10/20/17

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Man of the Year (Conspiração Filmes, Warner Bros. Brasil, Estúdios Mega, Brasil Telecom, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Saturday, October 14 Charles and I screened an interesting Brazilian movie from 2003 called The Man of the Year, which came out through an intriguing outfit called filmmovement.com, which among other things runs a film-of-the-month club in which they send members a new DVD of a foreign-made or American independent movie. This one turned up in a library sale and the blurb on the DVD cover compared the movie to the nihilistic Brazilian masterpiece City of God, but the two films really have little in common except they’re both set in (or around) Rio de Janeiro and deal with crime. Directed by José Henrique Fonseca from a script by Rubem Fonseca (the director’s father) based on a novel called O Matador by Patricia Melo, the film begins as a sort of black comedy and ends up being a surprisingly successful reworking of both classic U.S. gangster films from the early 1930’s (notably Little Caesar) and some of the most recent efforts in the same genre (the later reels of The Man of the Year owe quite a lot to the 1983 quasi-remake of Scarface). The central character is a Brazilian nobody named Máiquel Jorge (Murilo Benecios), who just before the film begins made a bet on a soccer game with a friend named Robinson (Perfeito Fortuna) in which he promised that if his team lost Máiquel would have his black hair dyed blond. (There’s no indication of what Robinson would have had to do if Máiquel’s team had won.) He goes through with it and immediately falls in love — or at least lust — with the hairdresser who does his dye job, Cledir (Cláudia Abreu, the director’s wife and virtually the only person in the cast I’d ever heard of before), and he asks her out on a date. Only before they get together he stops at the bar where both he and Robinson hang out, wanting to meet Robinson and show him he went through with the bet. Robinson isn’t there, but a nasty character named Suel (Wagner Moura) is. Suel takes an instant dislike to Our Hero and calls him a “fag,” and Máiquel calls him outside the bar for a fight. The next day Máiquel grabs a gun and hunts down Suel, shooting and killing him — Fonseca filho shoots the actual murder in a rather odd, gauzy style that at first made me wonder if this was just supposed to be Máiquel’s dream, but no-o-o-o-o, it’s a real story event. 

Máiquel, who’s never done anything even remotely illegal before, is scared shitless that he’ll be arrested for the murder; instead, everyone in the neighborhood comes up to him and congratulates him for eliminating such an awful person as Suel, and to Máiquel’s astonishment even two police officers, instead of apprehending him, shake his hand and congratulate him for ridding the neighborhood of a particularly nasty crook. Máiquel finds that killing Suel has made him a hero among his peers, and he starts a relationship with Cledir that’s somewhat hampered when the late Suel’s 15-year-old girlfriend Erica (Nátalia Lage) turns up on the doorstep of Máiquel’s apartment and insists that now that he’s killed her boyfriend, it’s his moral duty to take her in and give her room and board. Also one of the neighbors brings over a piglet with the intent that Máiquel will keep it for a while, fatten it up and then make a big celebratory meal out of it. Instead Máiquel decides to make it a pet, naming it “Bill” after U.S. President Bill Clinton, who happened to visit Brazil around this time and get himself photographed on Brazilian TV. He has a bit of a problem with Bill’s (the pig) penchant for chewing up his sneakers, but for the most part he has a pretty good life going except when he has to chase out Erica so he and Cledir can have sex. Máiquel’s next problem comes when he gets a toothache and can’t afford a dentist; he finds one named Dr. Carvalho (Jorge Dória) who, having heard of Máiquel’s reputation fro killing Suel, says he’ll treat Máiquel for free — if Máiquel will kill the person Dr. Carvalho believes dishonored his daughter by raping her. (Later we meet the daughter and, predictably, she turns out to be the sort of person who will do it with just about anybody — though Máiquel at least has the good sense to stay out of her clutches.) Máiquel not only commits the murder but takes over the job at a pet store the victim was working before he was killed. Carvalho then invites Máiquel to meet with two of his 1-percenter friends, and the three basically hire Máiquel to knock off anyone they deem too evil, crooked or just plain inconvenient to live. 

Eventually Máiquel and the gang he puts together to accomplish these murders, backed by Carvalho and his friends, form what’s ostensibly an above-ground “private security” company but is really an old-style “protection” racket, and the company is so sensationally successful that the Rio Chamber of Commerce names Máiquel its entrepreneur of the year and a song about him, “O Matador” (obviously comparing him to a bullfighter), becomes a hit. Only if we’ve seen enough gangster movies in the past we know something is going to derail Máiquel from his ill-gotten success, and that something is his wife Cledir, whom he married after he got her pregnant — and he moved in with Cledir and her parents while still keeping his old apartment as a love-nest with Erica. Cledir asked Máiquel if she could keep Bill the pig, and one evening Máiquel returns home to find that Cledir has open-roasted his pet and put an apple in its mouth to serve it. A furious Máiquel attacks Cledir and bashes her head against the wall, accidentally killing her. Then he buries the body in the backyard of one of his confederates. He tries to console himself with Erica, but in the meantime Erica has been converted by a minister running the Brazilian equivalent of a mega-church and spouts Biblical verses all day and talks about entering a convent. (Yeah, right.) Ultimately Máiquel falls when the man whose backyard he’s buried Cledir’s body in gets busted by the police for having two kilos of cocaine in his car. The cops dig up the man’s backyard searching for more drugs, find Cledir’s body, put two and two together and go out to arrest Máiquel — only in the meantime Máiquel has figured out what’s going on and decides to make his escape by simply dyeing his hair back to its natural black shade, thinking that the cops are going to be looking for a blond. The End.

Charles was upset by the ending, not only by a factual glitch (Máiquel handles the black hair dye with bare hands — the dye would turn your skin at least temporarily black as well, which is why all kits for dyeing hair darker contain disposable gloves and any cosmetologist dyeing someone’s hair would use gloves) but also because one expects a story like this to end with the cathartic death of the gangster à la Little Caesar and both Scarfaces. I wondered if I could have thought of a better ending, and my idea would have been to rip off the 1950 film The Gunfighter: Máiquel is killed by a younger, hungrier punk who wants to steal his bad-ass “rep,” and the young man who killed Máiquel would in turn be hailed as a hero and follow a similar story arc until his own demise at the hands of a still younger gangster who wanted to hijack his rep, and so on … Nonetheless, The Man of the Year is a refreshing film, even though it’s a souvenir of a society in which all the conventional moral rules have broken down, lawbreaking (at least some lawbreaking) is celebrated and both the police and the public at large have accepted the idea that it takes some amount of extra-legal violence to protect people against other forms of extra-legal violence. It’s a genuinely amusing black comedy for the first half and a grim Scarface-like (either one) tale of a psycho gangster getting his comeuppance in the second, and it’s got at least one intriguing credit: the music is by Dado Villa-Lobos, whose imdb page identifies him as “guitar player for Legião Urbano, one of the most important Brazilian rock bands,” but does not say whether or not he’s related to the great Brazilian classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. I quite enjoyed The Man of the Year and can only wonder how many other oddball gems there are in Film Movement’s catalogs!