Monday, 11 November 2019

The Wild, Wild Planet (1966)

The Wild, Wild Planet (originally released in Italy as I criminalia della galassia  or Criminals of the Galaxy) is a 1966 Italian science fiction movie. If you’re not familiar with 1960s Italian science fiction movies then you should take immediate steps to rectify that omission and this is a pretty good place to start.

If you are familiar with Italian cinematic science fiction then you will already have a fair idea of what to expect - this is a shiny plastic and chrome vision of the future with flying cars and a huge rotating space station (called Gamma One) and rockets shuttling back and forth between the planets. This was the 1960s, so everything in the future was going to actually work. Everything in the future was going to be very cool. The men would be handsome and, more importantly of all, the women were all going to be gorgeous.

It’s not actually explicitly stated but this is a future of very advanced biotechnology so it’s possible that the women just stay young and beautiful forever. Or maybe the producers just wanted lots of hot women in the movie.

This is not Star Trek however, where sordid details like politics and business never intrude. This is a future in which real power seems to be in the hands of giant corporations. They’re not just transnational corporations, they’re transplanetary corporation. And it seems that the big money is in post-humanism - which means there’s a huge market in replacement organs. One of these corporations, CBM, has plans to grow artificial organs.

This kind of medical technology raises obvious ethical questions but CBM doesn’t seem too worried about such things. In fact CBM isn’t the least bit concerned about ethics and as will discover their chief scientist is both evil and insane.

So in some ways this movie actually does a better job of predicting the future than most British and American TV and movie sci-fi of its era.

The future might be cool but it’s not trouble-free. People are disappearing. Lots of people. And in increasing numbers. There’s a suspicion that these disappearances might be connected with flocks of girls hanging around the city. The people who have disappeared may have been kidnapped by the girl. There’s also a weird sinister guy in sunglasses who keeps popping up and then vanishing.

There are some macabre touches. Like miniature people. And people with too many arms.

Commander Mike Halstead of Space Command thinks there’s a connection with the mysterious planet Delphus. Which is a bit of a worry since his girlfriend Lieutenant Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) has accepted an invitation from Mr Nurmi to take a vacation on Delphus. Mr Nurmi works for CBM.

There are no space battles but there are spaceships and they look the way people in the 60s knew spaceships should look. This is the future that we never got and it looks much better than the future we actually did get. The evil robot girls are a nice touch. I’m not sure that they’re actually robots but they do seem to be an artificial maybe semi-organic life form which is actually more interesting. And the evil artificial guys are actually quite spooky.

There is some action, and even some definite hints of horror (the bad guys are up to some pretty nefarious tricks and the results are not pretty). Margheriti had spent the preceding couple of years making gothic horror movies so he had a sound understanding of creepiness.

The acting is adequate for the type of movie this is. In other words it’s enjoyably terrible. Look out for Franco Nero in a small rôle.

I’ve never understood why producer-director Antonio Margheriti doesn’t have a bigger following among cult movie fans. OK, he was no Mario Bava and you aren’t going to get the kind of visual genius that Bava could provide. But by the standards of European low-budget/exploitation film-makers Margheriti was quite competent and he had a very clear understanding of what sells - his horror movies (like The Long Hair of Death starring Barbara Steele) have some reasonable chills and some hints of sleaze and his science fiction movies have glamour and a certain amount of enjoyably cheesy style. His movies are undemanding fun. He went on to make three more Gamma One movies.

While the very low budget is evident the special effects and miniatures work is generally at least witty and fun even when it’s ludicrously unconvincing. Antonio Margheriti had a background in those areas and obviously loved using miniatures. It might be a cheap movie but it’s colourful and filled to overflowing with 60s visual style. The production design is original and impressive.

The plot is goofy and outlandish and basically crazy but it does make a kind of sense, and this is after all a mad scientist movie so the craziness is a feature rather than a bug.

The Warner Archive release offers a very nice anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in colour and widescreen). The colours look pretty good. There are of course no extras.

The Wild, Wild Planet is not by any objective standards a great or even a good movie but as a silly outrageous popcorn movie with a lot of 60s style it’s gloriously entertaining if you’re in the right mood. And as it happens I’m always in the right mood for this type of movie! So I’m not going to apologise for giving it a highly recommended rating.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

It’s many years since I’ve seen an Elvis Presley movie but since I like his music and since his movies certainly qualify as cult movies I thought it was about time I checked out a few of them. Jailhouse Rock, released by MGM in 1957, was his third movie. His first two movies had been hits but Jailhouse Rock is definitely a bit more ambitious. It features great songs and it makes an attempt to be at least somewhat gritty.

The character he plays, Vince Everett, is a nice guy but he’s impulsive and he has a temper. He gets into a bar fight. He’s trying to defend the honour of a lady (who probably isn’t much of a lady) but he gets carried away and the guys dies and he finds himself serving a prison sentence for manslaughter.

His cell mate is a broken-down country singer named Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) who is the prison entrepreneur. If there’s a way of making money in prison Hunk knows it. Hunk teaches Vince that if you don’t have money in this world you’re nothing but he also gets Vince interested in the idea that you can actually earn a living as a singer.

After being released Vince meets music industry insider Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler). His first attempt at stardom fails but Vince is not a guy who gives up easily. They start their own record company and pretty soon Vince is the biggest sensation in the music business. He’s on the way to fame and fortune but he’s also in danger of losing his basic decency. Too much fame and fortune too soon can be a dangerous drug. And the inevitable romance between Vince and Peggy seems destined to crash and burn.

This is of course a musical and it pretty much follows the long-established template for movie musicals. It borrows elements from the classic backstage musicals and it’s your basic rags-to-riches story wherein the star makes it to the top but then they’re going to have to learn that there’s more to life than money and fame. Musicals don’t require complicated plots and the plot in this movie is more than adequate for the purpose.

As an actor Presley is actually not that bad. In Hollywood he quickly gained a reputation for professionalism and for being, by Hollywood standards, a remarkably polite and easy-going guy. He refused to take acting lessons but he took acting quite seriously. What’s interesting is that he really is acting here, he’s not playing himself. Vince is not at all like Elvis. He’s surly and rude and bad-tempered and he tramples over other people’s feelings. It’s not that Vince is a bad guy. He would never actually cheat anybody. He won't even cheat Hunk even though Hunk tries to cheat him. There’s a lot of good in Vince. He just needs to grow up and he needs to think before he acts.

This was the era of the brooding self-pitying new style of star like Marlon Brando and James Dean who were seen by Hollywood as the key to attracting a younger audience. The performances of Brando in movies like The Wild One and Dean in Rebel Without a Cause now seem embarrassing but Presley’s performance stands up quite well. He didn’t know anything about Method Acting techniques. He just followed his instincts and as a result his performance comes across as more natural and less contrived. He wasn’t a great actor by any means but in a rôle like this he’s fine.

Judy Tyler is the perfect leading lady for Elvis. As Peggy she’s strong-willed but feminine and while she’s not going to let Vince walk all over her she’s not going to give up on him either. Tragically Tyler was killed in a car accident at the age of 24 shortly after shooting of the film was completed.

It helps if a musical has good songs and that’s where Jailhouse Rock really scores.

The tricky part for Elvis was that Vince, when he’s first trying to get a break in the music industry, is really not very good so in the early songs he has to come across as a mediocre singer and it’s not easy for a great singer to sound mediocre. He does this pretty well. He manages to make those early songs sound slightly lifeless. Of course Vince soon learns what he’s doing wrong as a singer and then Elvis gets to give us some truly great local performances.

The Jailhouse Rock number was Hollywood’s first ever attempt at a rock’n’roll big production number in the classic movie musical style and it’s great. Elvis rejected the initial choreography explaining that he just couldn’t do that type of dancing so the choreographer then built the whole routine around the type of dancing that Elvis could do. The results are superb. The (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care production number is in a different style but it’s just as good.

The Blu-Ray release is excellent. The black-and-white cinematography looks terrific and there are a couple of worthwhile extras including an audio commentary.

This is not a big-budget blockbuster but neither is it a low-budget affair. Production values are quite high. Having Elvis as the star in 1957 was pretty much a guarantee of box-office success (and it did extremely well) so it was obviously considered worthwhile to spend some real money on the production. It’s well made and the acting performances (Including Elvis’s) are a cut above B-movie standards.

Jailhouse Rock combines all the virtues of the traditional Hollywood musical with the energy of rock’n’roll and the charisma of Elvis. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (the 1974 version directed by Joseph Sargent not the remake) is a good lesson in what film-making is all about. You don’t need an original idea. It’s the execution that matters. And this is a superbly executed suspense thriller movie.

The basic plot is a stock-standard hijack/hostage suspense thriller but it’s made a lot more interesting by having a New York City subway train rather an aircraft as the hijackers’ target.

Four men calling themselves Mr Blue, Mr Green, Mr Brown and Mr Grey hijack the subway train that leaves Pelham at 1.23pm, hence the film’s title. They demand one million dollars to be paid within one hour. If the money is not paid they will start killing the seventeen hostages one by one. Dealing with a hostage situation is difficult enough at the best of times but when it’s a subway car stopped in a tunnel it’s almost impossible. There is no way of approaching the car without being seen and no way for snipers to get clear shots to pick off the hijackers.

The city bows to the inevitable and agrees to pay the money. But Mr Blue has given them just one hour to make the decision and deliver the money which sets up a thrilling race against time.

The man who has to deal with this mess is Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the Transit Police. It’s not the sort of situation a transit cop expects to have to face. Garber is no super-cop and he makes a few mistakes but he’s unflappable and he’s dogged.

Garber’s immediate problem is to save the hostages but even if the money gets paid he still also has to catch the bad guys. To do that he has to figure out what their escape plan is. Escaping from a subway car in a tunnel seems impossible but the gang must have such an escape plan and since everything the gang has done has been planned and carried out with precision it’s reasonable to assume that the escape plan is just as well planned. Garber doesn’t do anything particularly brilliant. He just follows things to logical conclusions.

There’s actually not a huge amount of violence in this movie which makes the violent moments all the more effective.

This is a very very New York movie. This is new York in the 70s, for better or worse. But it feels very very real.

Peter Stone’s excellent screenplay throws in some good twists at the end but mostly the tension comes from the reactions of the characters to the stresses they’re under.

Director Joseph Sargent worked mainly in television and on TV movies. He made a few feature films including the brilliant science fiction thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a suspense film rather than an action film, and the suspense is maintained at the highest pitch throughout. Sargent is in complete control.

Special mention must be made of Owen Roizman’s gritty cinematography (he also did the cinematography for The French Connection so he certainly knew how to get a New York feel).

The casting is nothing short of inspired. Everything about this movie is so New York that it was a very nice touch to have the chief villain be an Englishman played by an English actor. Robert Shaw plays Mr Blue as a man who seems to have everything, including his emotions, under tight control but there’s obviously a lot of rage bubbling just under the surface and liable to break out at any moment.

Casting Walter Matthau as Garber was a masterstroke. He’s the last guy you’d expect to find playing a cop which is why his performance works. He seems like a real workaday cop rather than a movie cop.

Hector Elizondo is nicely chilling as Mr Grey, a guy who is just a bit too eager to kill people. Martin Balsam is solid as Mr Brown, a subway train driver fired by the Transit Authority who is basically a defeated little man who thinks he’s finally going to make it big.

There’s a lot of humour mixed in with the suspense. Much of it would be considered very political incorrect today but actually it’s quite good-natured, and it’s funny. It’s kept within limits, the emphasis being on the suspense thriller elements.

The Blu-Ray release is bare-bones but looks great.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a meticulously crafted and very effective thriller with a clever low-key battle of wits, and nerves, between Lieutenant Garber and Mr Blue being a major bonus. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 science fiction anime movie that is very much in the cyberpunk mould. You can think of it perhaps as a Japanese Blade Runner, with the same obsession about what it means to be human in a near-future society in which the lines between people and machines have become very blurred indeed. It has to be said that this movie is quite cerebral. If you’re expecting a straightforward science fiction action movie then this ain’t it. This is high-concept ideas-based science fiction with a goodly amount of philosophical speculation, although there is plenty of action and plenty of violence as well. It’s the sort of combination that scares Hollywood to death but doesn’t faze the Japanese at all.

The story of the Ghost in the Shell franchise is a bit complicated. It started as a manga by Masamune Shirow. The original Ghost in the Shell movie (which is what this review is about) followed in 1995. It was directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Itô. A few years later this was followed by the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series. The TV series does not follow on directly from the movie however and appears to take place in a different timeline. Then there was a second series of the TV series, and then the Solid State Society movie. Then in 2004 Mamoru Oshii made a sequel to the original movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. And I think there are some other iterations as well that I’ve overlooked.

The central character of the movie is Major Motoko Kusanagi. She works for Section 9, a kind of counter-terrorism counter-intelligence agency. When the government wants something done that can’t be done by strictly legal means and they want plausible deniability they call on Section 9.

Major Kusanagi is not exactly human. She’s a cyborg. In the Ghost in the Shell universe a cyborg is a human whose brain has been enhanced. The cyberbrain is partly human and partly computer. In many cases cyborgs have bodies that are also artificial. These cyborgs are not machines as such but the extent to which they are still human is perhaps debatable. That’s particularly so in Major Kusanagi’s case. She was once entirely human but now there’s nothing human left of her but her ghost. The ghost is not quite a soul but it is the product of a person’s memories and experiences. It’s what makes a human being a human being. You can call it a soul. Major Kusanagi still has that.

The ghost is what makes one human. Everything else is referred to as the shell.

In a world of cyborgs and cyberbrains there are going to be people who are going to try to hack into people’s cyberbrains. They may even implant false memories. So even a person’s ghost may not be as secure as one might like it to be.

The world of Ghost in the Shell is a troubled place. Terrorism is an ever-present threat. Espionage and white-collar crime are very high-tech enterprises. In the movie the Japanese Government has a problem with its relation to a certain foreign government, part of the problem being that the foreign country in question now has a new government and the leader of the old government wants political asylum in Japan. And there’s the problem of the Puppet Master, a kind of super-hacker. He’s gained that name because when he hacks someone’s cyberbrain they really do become nothing more than puppets.

More worrying is that escaped shell. It’s just a shell. There’s no ghost. Or is there? If there is a ghost in the shell where did it come from?

Section 9’s problem is how to proceed. They’re not sure they can trust Section 6. Or the diplomats. They’re not sure they can trust anybody. And Motoko Kusanagi is behaving strangely. It’s as if she’s not sure how real she is. Or how human. And she seems dangerously obsessed with the idea of the ghost in that shell.

This is a Japanese movie with a distinctively different approach to action scenes compared to American movies. The action sequences are not merely stylised but rather poetic, and at the same time often extremely violent.

The cyberpunk aesthetic is very strong. This movie though is closer to literary cyberpunk than to American movies with a cyberpunk influence. Can a machine be alive? Can a cyborg remain human? These issues are complex and they’re treated as complex issues without easy answers. These are also issues that other anime productions have grappled with, the most notable being the extraordinary and superb TV series Serial Experiments Lain.

The animation is what you expect from a big-budget 1990s Japanese production. Very stylish and with a heady mix of poetry and violence.

Ghost in the Shell is intelligent thoughtful science fiction, in fact one of the very best science fiction movies of the 90s. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Carry On Cruising (1962)

Carry On Cruising was the sixth of the Carry On movies and the first to be shot in colour. A couple of regular Carry On cast members are missing from this one. Charles Hawtrey had demanded top billing and dropped out of the production when producer Peter Rogers refused his request. The official explanation for the absence of Joan Sims was that she was ill but in fact it seems there was a minor scandal over her personal life and she was dropped from the cast.

Which left Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor as the only Carry On regulars in the film. Lance Percival took over Charles Hawtrey’s rôle while Dilys Lane replaced Joan Sims as ditzy blonde bombshell Flo Castle. Look out for Willoughby Goddard, Ed Deveraux, Ronnie Stevens and Anton Rogers in smaller parts, plus Liz Fraser as Flo’s friend Glad Trimble and Esma Cannon as the dotty Bridget Madderley.

They almost had to do without Kenneth Williams as well but he was persuaded to sign on by the promise of location shooting in exotic locales and a luxury cruise. In fact the only location shooting was done at Tilbury Docks and everything else was shot in the studio (although some footage of the P&O-Orient liner Oronsay was also used).

The basic premise is that Captain Wellington Crowther (Sid James), master of the cruise ship  Happy Wanderer, is appalled to find new faces among his crew. This upsets him a good deal. He is not a man who approves of change. He is convinced that the newcomers will be nothing but trouble, and of course he’s quite correct.

The newcomers to the crew, First Officer Marjoribanks (Kenneth Williams), Ship’s Surgeon Dr Bin (Kenneth Connor), chef Wilfred Hales (Lance Percival), steward Tom Tree (Cyril Chamberlain) and barman Sam Turner (Jimmy Thompson) go out of their way to impress the captain, with predictably disastrous results.

Flo Castle’s hunt for a husband causes further chaos.

Sid James plays it surprisingly straight as the captain which works since Captain Crowther is the one man who actually knows what he’s doing and is surrounded by well-meaning bunglers.

For a movie made entirely on a sound stage and on a modest budget Carry On Cruising looks quite impressive. The sets are extremely good. It doesn’t actually look cheap.

There’s no real effort to convince the viewer that the ship is actually moving and afloat (and there’s actually a gag about this in the movie) but that really doesn’t matter.

This was 1962 so the sexual innuendos, although plentiful, are somewhat restrained compared to later films in the series. There’s also not quite as much visual humour as in the later films. Fortunately the verbal humour is sharp and it’s more than sufficient.

This was Normal Hudis’s last Carry On screenplay before Talbot Rothwell took over the writing duties.

There’s a remarkably good-natured feel to this movie. Some of the characters may be bumbling incompetents but they’re very likeable. While Captain Crowther likes to give the impression of being a martinet he’s really quite amiable underneath. He doesn’t hate his crew, he just wants the cruise to go off smoothly and the passengers to stay happy. He actually likes the passengers.

The ITV Studios DVD (part of their Carry On Ultimate Collection boxed set) offers a reasonably good letterboxed transfer. The extras include an excellent audio commentary featuring Dilys Laye and Lance Percival.

Carry On Cruising is harmless fun and it’s recommended.

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Psycho Lover (1970)

The Psycho Lover comes to us from Something Weird Video (on a double-feature DVD that also includes Heat of Madness which I haven’t yet had time to watch) so we’re probably expecting a rather scuzzy sexploitation flick. Which it is and it isn’t. It is a sexploitation movie and it does feature quite a bit of nudity and some pretty intense violence. But of course the great thing about sexploitation films was that as long as you included those commercially necessary elements you could pretty much do whatever you wanted. And what writer-director-producer Robert Vincent O'Neil apparently wanted to do was to make a tense serious psycho-sexual thriller. He didn’t entirely succeed but it’s not a bad attempt.

Dr Kenneth Alden (Lawrence Montaigne) is a psychiatrist and he’s been called in by Homicide cop Lieutenant Morlock (John Vincent) to see if he can make sense of a rather frustrating case involving a series of brutal rape-murders. They have a suspect, a young man named Marco (Frank Cuva), and the suspect has confessed but then later he repudiated the confession. He now claims that he merely dreamt about the murders. The police have no physical evidence to link Marco with the murders, and worse still Marco has alibis for a couple of the slayings and at least one of the alibis seems solid.

What’s really frustrating abut the case is that Morlock is convinced Marco is guilty. His confessions revealed knowledge of the circumstances of the murders that he could not have had without being involved.

Dr Alden not only interviews Marco, he takes him on as a patient. And having done this he then decides that he is constrained by the ethical rules of doctor-patient confidentiality. So while Dr Alden finds out a lot more about what’s going on in Marco’s obviously disturbed mind he doesn’t feel obliged to pass on such information to the cops. Marco tells the good doctor all about his dreams and all about the voice he hears in his dreams, the voice that tells him to kill women. Marco is sure that these are just dreams. Dr Alden has his own views on that subject.

Dr Alden’s own private life is causing him a bit of stress. He has a hot young girlfriend named Stacy (Elizabeth Plumb) and he and Stacy are madly in love. That’s all good. Unfortunately Dr Aden also has a wife. That’s not so good. Mrs Alden (Joanne Meredith) knows all about her husband and his girlfriend. She’s not happy about it but the one thing she is determined on is that she is not going to give her husband the divorce he wants.

The murders continue. Marco’s therapy continues. And Kenneth Alden’s affair with Stacy continues as well. Stacy watches a lot of movies on late-night TV. She tells Kenneth about a really great movie she just saw. It was called The Manchurian Candidate. Kenneth looks very thoughtful. By this stage you should have a pretty fair idea what’s going to happen next.

Unfortunately the unfolding of the plot is interrupted by romantic interludes between Stacy and Dr Alden. They’re the sorts of romantic interludes you tend to get in movies of this era (and not just low-budget or exploitation movies) - the two of them wandering hand-in-hand through fields of flowers accompanied by some incredibly soppy and cringe-inducing soft rock music, that sort of thing.

The build-up to the climax is done reasonably well and while you’re going to be pretty sure you know how it’s going to play out there is one weird little twist you might not see coming.

This is a movie very much in the giallo mould. It even has the bold use of colour that you get in giallos. While it’s not in the same league as the best movies in that genre it compares not unfavourably with many of the second-rank giallos. If only Robert Vincent O’Neil had had the foresight to make this movie under an Italian pseudonym it would now have a cult following. The psychedelic dream sequences include a couple of effectively disturbing images.

In fact there are quite a few disturbing moments in this film. Despite the absence of any actual gore the murders are quite confronting and uncomfortably intense. And they’re shot with a certain degree of skill.

The chief problem with this movie is one that afflicts a lot of low-budget movies - the pacing. Apart from that and those embarrassing romantic interludes it’s a surprisingly well-constructed and well-executed thriller.

Mention must be made of Dr Alden’s car - it looks like something out of a 50s sci-fi movie. I have no idea why he drives such an insane car but it does give the movie another touch of interesting oddness.

As so often Something Weird have managed to come up with a remarkably good transfer of a very obscure movie. It’s full frame but that appears to be the correct aspect ratio. The colours look vibrant which is fortunate since it’s a movie that uses colour quite flamboyantly to create mood.

The Psycho Lover should appeal to fans of both sexploitation roughies and giallos. It’s one of those pleasant surprises that Something Weird occasionally comes up with. Highly recommended.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Mission: Impossible (1996)

I've posted a review of Brian de Palma's unexpectedly good 1996 Mission: Impossible movie over on Cult TV Lounge. The most surprising and pleasing thing about it is that it retains at least some of the flavour of the original 1960s television series.

Of course it helps if you like Tom Cruise (and I personally find him to be just about the least objectionable of modern Hollywood stars).

Here's the link to the review of the movie.