Wednesday 20 November 2019

Blue Thunder (1983)

Blue Thunder is a 1983 action techno-thriller directed by John Badham that suffered greatly from being constantly tweaked and rewritten. It’s still a lot of fun and it’s better than its rather dubious reputation would suggest.

Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is an LAPD helicopter pilot with a tendency to get himself into trouble. He’d been in Vietnam and he’s never been quite stable ever since. He’s not crazy, just inclined to lose his cool at times. He and his observer, Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern), are pretty disturbed by an attempted rape case they were involved in (they were spotting from the air for the cops on the ground). What disturbed them was that it was obviously not an attempted rape at all. Something was certainly going on and a woman ended up in hospital with gunshot wounds but the official version does not tally with what they saw. And it’s been made clear to them that they should just forget about the case.

Then Frank and Lymangood get what seems to be a great opportunity. They’re selected to crew a new experimental police helicopter, known as Blue Thunder. It’s more like a military helicopter gunship than a police chopper. Frank is not entirely happy about this. Having been in Nam he’s understandably a bit sceptical about the government and the military and he has just a bit of a bad feeling about Blue Thunder.

He has even more of a bad feeling when he discovers that a certain Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell) is involved in the project. Frank served with Cochrane in Vietnam and they hate each other. Frank figures that anything that Cochrane is involved in is something to be suspicious of.

Apart from an absurd array of heavy weaponry Blue Thunder carries all sorts of surveillance equipment, giving it the kind of capability that might appeal to the Feds but is perhaps not entirely appropriate for a police force. Everything about Blue Thunder seems to be calculated to give the cops capabilities that could very easily be abused, and when you give law enforcement agencies the opportunity to abuse their powers experience suggests that those powers will in fact be abused.

Frank’s fears turn out to be well grounded but as he discovers more he realises that maybe he’s discovered too much for his own safety. And maybe too much for other people’s safety as well.

It all leads up to some spectacular action sequences and some very cool aerial combat scenes.

One of the reasons that this movie is often viewed in a negative light is that the original concept (by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon Don Jakoby) was quite different and a lot of people think that original concept had a lot more potential. There’s probably some truth to that. The political overtones could have been more fully developed. On the other hand the movie does make its main political point effectively enough, and that point is much more relevant today than it was in 1983. Today we really do have government agencies with frightening surveillance capabilities at their disposal and we have much more militarised police forces than was the case in the early 80s.

The script does show signs of having been fiddled with obsessively. Some of the dialogue is clumsy (there was a writers’ strike at the time so director Badham had to write some of the dialogue himself). The characters don’t have a lot of depth. The plot has some contrived moments. It can get rather silly and cartoonish.

In the original conception Frank Murphy was a much darker character, a genuine out-of-control crazy. Murphy’s craziness was toned way down and the Colonel Cochrane character added as the chief villain. I think this change may actually have been a positive one. Having Murphy as a hero (even a flawed hero) at least gives us someone to care about and avoids too much of an emphasis on 1970s nihilism.

Roy Scheider is OK as Murphy. He’s sympathetic but we’re never entirely sure he knows what he’s doing. Malcolm McDowell plays Cochrane as an over-the-top melodrama villain but that’s why he was cast - he was very good at that sort of thing. Warren Oates is terrific as Murphy’s long-suffering boss and Candy Clark goes close to stealing the picture as Murphy’s ditzy girlfriend.

This was 1983 so there’s no CGI. The action sequences, including most of the aerial sequences, were done for real with real helicopters. It has to be said that as a result those sequences look a hell of a lot better than they would have done had they been achieved with CGI. The stunts are spectacular and all the action stuff stands up extremely well today.

The Blu-Ray special edition offers a very good anamorphic transfer and is packed with tempting extras.

Blue Thunder was successful enough to spawn a spin-off TV series which flopped badly. It also very obviously inspired the excellent Airwolf TV series.

As a politically tinged techno-thriller Blue Thunder might not have realised its full potential but mostly it works. As an adrenaline-charged fun action movie it works superbly. Highly recommended.

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.