Summer Movie #91 – Galaxy of Terror (Bruce D. Clark, 1981): It is called “Galaxy of Terror” and it was produced by Roger Corman. I think we can all see where this is going. This rather blatant “Alien” rip-off is a somewhat famous for several reasons. A young man named James Cameron was the Second Unit director and one of the production designers (this was his second film working for Corman). It starred Edward Albert, Erin Moran (who was still appearing on “Happy Days” at the time and was about to do “Joanie Loves Chachi”), Ray Walston, Grace Zabriskie, and a pre-“Freddy Krueger” Robert Englund. Despite all this, though, the movie is probably most infamous for a scene that originally earned it an “X”-rating where a worm monster rapes a busty crewwoman (played by Taaffe O’Connell – yes that is spelled correctly) who goes from terror to ecstasy before dying of an orgasm. According to the interwebs, this scene (which began in the script as the woman is attacked by the monster, “accidentally” rendered topless, and then devoured) was greatly changed at the insistence of Corman, who had promised both a sex scene and full frontal nudity to the backers. Being Corman, he decided to just combine that into the existing scene. When the director and actress both refused (she was willing to do the moaning and faces of ecstasy, but not the full nudity), Corman directed the scene himself, using a body-double, and then edited the results into the existing attack footage. The results earned an “X” rating and then had to be re-edited. This was film-making in the Corman School. The whole thing (even the parts without disturbing sexual connotations) is really awful. I wish MST3K could have done this one.
Summer Movie #92 – Papillon (Franklin J Schaffner, 1973): I saw this mentioned in the film “Trumbo” because he wrote the screenplay and had added it to my Netflix queue because it is one of the “classics” that I’ve never seen. Then, unable to sleep last night, I turned on TCM, and there it was – serendipity. This is one of the classic escape movies, although most of it is about failure to escape. It is a classic big picture from one of the great big movie directors (“Planet of the Apes” & “Patton” among others). Beautiful Technicolor cinematography and a score by Jerry Goldsmith contribute to a good movie. Not a great one, though – at least for me. I was just never that taken with Steve McQueen’s performance here. I thought Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of weakness and guilt was far more interesting. Still, this is very worth watching.
Summer Movie #93 – Slaughterhouse Five (George Roy Hill, 1972): This has been on my “I ought to see this” list ever since I saw a short write-up about it in a book on science fiction movies that I had when I was a teenager. It is an interesting movie adaptation of the famous novel. Through a jumping narrative and interesting visuals we see a reflection on how the events of our lives fit together, we see death represented as a hostile psychotic tracking us through time to wreak vengeance for nothing, and, probably most significantly, we see the stupidity and waste of war. None of this is done with a lot of preaching or explanation. The audience is largely allowed to draw their own conclusions. Well worth seeing.
Summer Movie #94 – Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004): Another movie with time as a central conceit, which I didn’t really think about until I was watching it. This movie takes one of the most fantastic concepts in science fiction – time travel – and treats it like the development of the PC. A couple of smart guys in their garage figure out how to do it – by accident. It feels very real – especially given that Carruth (who wrote and directed – as well as several other tasks) has a background in mathematics and decided not to explain any of what the characters are talking about on a technical level. The result – added to the hand-held camera work and grainy look of the film – gives a cinema verite feel to it. Carruth evidently produced this for $7000.00 While it certainly has a low-budget vibe to it, the movie looks more expensive than that. Much like his follow-up film, “Upstream Color,” Carruth doesn’t make the science fiction element the central part of the movie – rather, it is the destruction of the friendship between the two discoverers. This is almost like a SF “Treasure of Sierra Madre” in that the success these two find brings out their moral weaknesses. On another level, this movie also has the best examination of time travel and multiple lines of causality I’ve seen or read. If this seems disjointed, it is because this movie is very hard to follow, very evocative rather than descriptive, and so after just one viewing I can’t be entirely clear. This is a fascinating and intellectually challenging film. I’m looking forward to a second viewing.
Summer Movie #95 – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Kenneth Bowser, 2003): This documentary is based on a book of the same title by Peter Biskind (which I want to read now). The major theme is not original – how a director-centered environment became prominent in Hollywood after the failure of the traditional studios in the 1960s and the unexpected successes of films like “Bonnie and Clyde” & “Easy Rider.” How this opened the door for a new generation of film-makers (Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdonavich, Copolla, Scorsese, etc…) and how this new group had unparalleled successes with movies like “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist.” Then how these director’s excesses and failures in the mid-70s and how those things changed the attitude of the studios against the new environment. Finally how out of this came Spielberg and Lucas and the “New Hollywood.” This documentary does us the courtesy of not going into a re-hash of 1960s and 1970s political and cultural history and just takes that as a given. Instead it does a good job of following the different threads that were coming together in 1969 and then charts this whole thing using a lot of interviews that are done well. The story basically starts with “Bonnie and Clyde” and ends with “Raging Bull”. This gives a lot of insight into this period of American film.
Summer Movie #96 – Behind the Planet of the Apes (Kevin Burns & David Comtois, 1998): This documentary was shown on AMC as part of their celebration of the 30th anniversary of the original. I caught the last half of it, but not the first hour. My good friend Dana loaned me the DVD awhile back but I just now got around to watching it. The documentary has a lot of interviews and spends most of its time on the first film, but then does a good job of chronicling the story of the four sequels and the TV series (both the live action and the animated). Some interesting (to me, anyway) details emerge – how the “ape” actors in the first movie tended to congregate by “species” while not filming, some of the set and visual design stuff, the presence of a couple of actors I hadn’t realized or remembered were there (Sal Mineo in “Escape” and Mark Lenard in the TV series), and most notably that the ending of the first movie was originally part of one of Rod Serling’s treatments of the script (that shocking reveal of a buried Statue of Liberty and the harrowing implications of one shot – that is just pure Serling). Probably the biggest weakness of this documentary is understandable – it is a bit too celebratory. While acknowledging the declining budgets and their effects on the franchise, the documentary glosses over the growing weaknesses of the sequels – especially “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” Still, there is a lot here about a chapter of Hollywood history that might not appeal to “students of film” but that has had a huge impact on what Hollywood has become. I’ve watched two documentaries recently on 1970s American cinema and neither mentioned this franchise at all – but both ended with the rise of the “Blockbuster”. These documentaries both point out that Spielberg and Lucas had roots in the “New Hollywood”– but then treat the sorts of films they went on to make as if they just spring out of nowhere. There was an existing tradition of big budget effects films before those two guys arrived. The “Planet of the Apes” movies, along with things like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyessy” & “A Clockwork Orange” and other big effects movies like “Silent Running” and “Soylent Green” – and let us not forget “The Exorcist” – meant that Hollywood wasn’t in uncharted territory when it put money behind Spielberg and his ultimately malfunctioning (thank heavens) mechanical shark or Lucas’s vision of space battles and heroism. It certainly is no accident that the studio that had released the “Planet of the Apes” was the one to release “Star Wars.” This strain of films – and the merchandising of the “Apes” franchise in particular, really point the way toward the Hollywood of the “Blockbuster” era we’re still seeing today.
Summer Movie #97 – Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969): Another seminal American film I’m just now getting around to seeing. I went into this already knowing a lot about its position in the genre of road pictures, the counterculture, the rise of the “New Hollywood”, etc… I knew about the ending and the central concept of freedom and the repressive nature of society, yadda, yadda. Frankly, I also bring to this the experiences of having been born into the working middle-class and having really come of age in an era when the “counter-culture” and been thoroughly coopted by corporate America – and thus I’m a bit contemptuous of all that. Hence, I’ve kind of avoided this movie. What I was really surprised by is that one can take some much more subtle shades of meaning from this than the typical interpretation of it as this celebration of the counter-culture. In many ways, the two “heroes” (Billy – Hopper and Wyatt – Peter Fonda) aren’t really the “free men” the George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) character talks about. They succeed by buying low and selling high – it might be cocaine they are selling, but they are still merchants. Before his death, Hanson talks about the threat true freedom poses to those “bought and sold in the market.” Yet the first thing that Wyatt and Billy do upon hitting New Orleans is “buy” two women (Karen Black and Toni Basil as prostitutes). There is a tension there, to me. Then they wander Mardi Gras (scenes more famous for how they were shot than for their content) and then drop acid and experience a “bad trip”. Intended or not, there is an indictment here of their hypocrisy. Contrast their course with the earlier experiences on a ranch and in a commune and the emptiness of the course they’ve chose become clearer. Also striking is the idea that Wyatt, at least, knows he is making a mistake by continuing to follow what is, in essence, a drug culture version of the “American Dream” –something he confirms in his dialogue with Billy about having “blown it” the night before their deaths. This film was much less simple than I had been led to expect, and was therefore much more rewarding.
Summer Film #98 – Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000): Before there was ever a “Hunger Games” (movie or novels) there was this. In a dystopian Japan, high school classes are chosen at random (possibly) and dropped on an island to fight to the death. Like the “Hunger Games” there is an elaborate set-up to ensure that only one can survive. Unlike the “Hunger Games” there is no training or preparation – the students are just kidnapped by the military given supplies and a weapon each, and told the rules. The result is vastly superior to the later American blockbuster. The film takes all of the normal angst and hormonal overcharge of a group of 15-year-olds and then makes it lethal. Many reviews seem to stress the hyper-violent nature of the film – and that is accurate – but it is also very real. Friendship, betrayal, jealousy, despair, courage – all are on display here, written in bright red blood. This is a brilliant movie and far more worth seeing than that other one.
Summer Movie #99 – First Man in Space [aka Satellite of Blood] (Robert Day, 1959): Cocky test pilot flies rocket plane over objections of more level-headed brother (Marshall Thompson); pushes beyond flight plan to become “first man in space”; plane breaks up and crashes; exposure to radioactive dust preserves cocky test pilot, but turns him into a scorched blood-drinking monster; wackiness ensues. Like “The Atomic Submarine” which I watched a week or so ago, this is part of the Criterion collection available streaming on HuluPlus. Like that other movie, I get why Criterion released this. While not a superior movie, it is a good example of the space/radiation/monster “B” movies of the 50’s and 60’s. The script and acting here are a bit above average for these and it uses stock footage and models fairly well. Even the creature make-up looks a bit less ridiculous than the norm. It is a good genre “B” movie – and I enjoy genre “B’ movies.
Summer Movie #100 – The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938): I barely managed to get this in before the “Breaking Bad” premiere. Altogether, I could have ended the summer in a worse fashion than with a Hitchcock film. This is one of his last British films and is probably the best known of them. It is yet another that has been on my “to see” list for a long time. The central idea – a person vanishes, only one other person seems to remember them, a lot of other people deny the vanished person was ever there – has been used in many other thrillers. This movie is nicely plotted and paced and features a lot of comic touches and great character bits – including the creation of two ultimate Englishmen (and cricket fanatics) named Charters and Caldicott who would show up in some other films not directed by Hitchcock. Probably the most interesting thing about the movie is that when the victim (Miss Froy – who turns out to be a British agent) disappears and the people on the train deny having seen her, we discover that their reasons for lying are all individual rather than everyone being connected to the kidnapping. This is a nice example of creating good characters even if they are not central to the plot. Of course, doing so also enhances the mystery by making it unclear to the audience who the real players are until it is time to reveal all. This is just a great example of early Hitchcock and well worth seeing.