Fall Movie #1 – Atragon (Ishiro Honda, 1963): This is a science fiction film from the man who directed the original “Godzilla” as well as many other “tokusatsu” (‘special effects films”) and “kaiju” (“monster”) films. He also collaborated with Akira Kurosawa on several projects. This film, like many of its type, features model work and monsters to tell a story that has some interesting ideas behind it – in this case the dangers of blind patriotism and aggressive nationalism. We have the sunken Empire of Mu which comes out of hiding the threaten the world. We have a renegade WWII era submarine captain who has built a super sub (it flies and has a “freeze-ray”) with the goal of restoring the Japanese Empire. One will be brought in contact with the other. A fairly extraneous monster was also put into the mix, seemingly because the studio thought any science fiction-y movie needed one. This suffers from the problems and weaknesses you always see in these movies, but it has some interesting ideas and some cool models.
Fall Movie #2 – Journey to the Seventh Planet (Sid Pink, 1962): The seventh planet is Uranus, so we get lines here like “We’re going to explore Uranus. It’s our mission!” Which, if you pronounce them right, justify the entire 77 minute running time of this AIP gem. We have stalwart (white, male) astronauts, we have a giant tarantula, we have a one-eyed rat/lizard monster (50’s and 60’s monsters frequently seemed to suffer from the “one-eye” thing – which inevitably lead to the “getting blinded by the heroes” thing), and we have bosom-y women in underwear (the product of the imaginations of our astronauts). The guy who directed (and produced) this, Sid Pink, is notable for being considered the “father of the feature-length 3D movie” (he released “Bwana Devil” in 1952 which started the whole 3D movie craze in the 50s) and he also cast a young Dustin Hoffman in his first film “Madigan’s Millions” (which wasn’t released until 1969 – so two years after “The Graduate”). When you watch it – as I’m sure you will – stick around for the “Journey to the Seventh Planet” love theme over the closing credits. It’s just art… art…
Fall Movie #3 (French Fridays) – Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965): This one I’m going to be thinking about for some time to come. The dystopian science-fiction elements were interesting and I want to look into the extent to which this film inspired elements of Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball” (1975 – absolutely ignore the misbegotten insult that was released as a “remake” in 2002). The cinematography made areas of contemporary Paris seem chilling. I was also struck by the use of the classic American film noir detective hero (yes, Lemmy Caution is a “spy” – but Eddie Constantine was playing Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade) as a foil to play against institutional society. These elements are commonly discussed in relation to the film, but I was more impressed by other things. This is one of the most blatant statements about the commoditization of women’s sexuality that I’ve ever seen in a film – from the serial-number bedecked “seductresses” who are there like furniture for men’s use to a nude woman kneeling in a glass box in an office building for no reason except decoration (and a decoration which elicits as much of a reaction from passersby as a plastic fern). The theme is explicit – yet not a line of dialogue is devoted to it. Another thing that struck me was the semiotic nature of the film – things like the use of language to control thought and action and a deliberate divorce of common gestures and expre4ssions from their usual meaning. Watching Anna Karina repeatedly saying yes (or no) and deliberately shaking (or nodding) her head in reversal was oddly disconcerting. I’m really overwhelmed by this movie. Now I feel like watching lots of episodes of “The Prisoner.”
Fall Movie #4 – Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012): Let me begin by saying that I’ve never read the book, so my comments don’t touch on it at all. This movie is visually stunning. I can’t speak to the 3D aspects, because I cannot see them, but even without that the cinematography and the use of CGI created beautiful and memorable moments. The use of CGI and live action with the animals created particularly moving scenes. The performances were wonderful and Lee seems gifted at working with actors. Here we see the deeply human moments that made “Brokeback Mountain” such a great film. To me, the movie fails in one place – the religiosity. I just didn’t buy it. The actors playing Pi did a great job of showing that the character experienced something deeply religious to him – but I saw that rather than felt it. Where Pi saw the hand of God, I saw, at best, the functioning of chance and, at worst, contrived plot points driving me to a pre-ordained set of conclusions. I’d rather believe Pi was deliberately telling an allegorical tale – it almost seems less manipulative. I’m happy I saw it. It was beautiful to watch. I didn’t love it.
Fall Movie #5 – Apollo 18 (Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego, 2011): There is one sin a survival horror film cannot commit and survive and that is to be dull. Boring. This movie tries to combine some existing Moon landing conspiracies to create one of its own. The result is a “found-footage” version of “Alien” with the US Government playing the role that The Company played in Scott’s vastly superior film. The only real successes of the movie are production design and cinematography. They do a decent job of making this look like footage from the space program in the 1970s. The rest is a mess. A conspiracy film has to be at least a bit credible to work – this one is murky and pointless. Peter Hyams did a much better job in his 1978 film “Capricorn One” (about a faked Mars landing) and that wasn’t an exceptionally good movie (decent fun, though). A good survival horror movie – like “Alien” – requires believability (on a certain level) and real suspense grounded in concern for the characters. This isn’t believable. Of course the horror elements were going to be fantastical – they are supposed to be – but the spaceflight stuff was real. Rooting the film in the Apollo program means playing by those rules and this movie doesn’t. The astronauts stay on the moon way too long before air runs out. They go on extra EVAs. At one point, one of the characters is demanding a “rescue” (the evil government is going to “abandon” him). How? With what? This might have been alright if we actually ever got invested in the characters, but we don’t. Harry Dean Stanton’s character in “Alien” had almost no lines, but you care when he died (same with the rest of the crew). The three characters in this movie are such stereotypical examples of “The Right Stuff” that they never come alive at all. The actors are believable enough as the heroic looking enigmas that the Apollo astronauts were at the time, but that isn’t a recipe for making us feel much when they are in trouble. It isn’t that they don’t try to insert the human touches that worked in Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”, it is that they failed. Finally, all of the post “Alien” SF/Horror movie clichés show up here. There isn’t a single surprise. This is almost a textbook on what goes wrong with most science fiction and horror films today. Avoid this. Watch “Alien.” Watch “Capricorn One.” Watch “Apollo 13.” Just don’t watch this.
Fall Movie #6 – Mama Africa (Mika Kaurismaki, 2011): This documentary celebrates the life and career of Miriam Makeba through interviews, stock footage and concert footage. Her music is, appropriately, the strongest element in the film. Her life as a musician and a political activist is well-chronicled, but we also see some of the major events in her personal life through the eyes of those around her. There is no attempt at analysis or criticism here – this is, again, a celebration. Technically it is a good, but not great documentary. There are a few points where some things like the sound mix seemed a bit off to me – but those are minor quibbles. This is a good biography and well worth the viewing.
Fall Movie #7 – The Angry Red Planet (Ib Melchior, 1959): Another in my late summer of “B” movies – this one from the same team that brought us “Journey to the Seventh Planet.” I saw this on my 12-inch black and White portable TV when I was a kid. They used to show old sci-fi and horror movies along with TV shows like “The Invaders” all night Friday nights on one of the local channels and I tried to see them all. This creeped me out then – not so much now. The movie was shot in ten days for a budget of $200,000 and used a special effects process the combined live action and hand-drawn scenes. It doesn’t work, but the film does boast this odd visual effect in all the Mars scenes made by double exposure and a red gel that makes it look distinctive, if not particularly good. Mind you, warts and all, I love this stuff. We have the manly commander played by Gerald Mohr (an actor that James Garner was rather complementary toward in his autobiography – you couldn’t see why here), we have The Scientist, The Hot Girl Scientist, and The Comic-Relief Guy From Brooklyn Who Will Die. Better yet, we have a great rat-bat-crab-something monster and a giant amoeba with a big spinning eye (not rotating – this thing looks like a fast-moving radar antenna). It ends with a Dire Warning “Do Not Return to Mars!” Then the credit and one of the worst sound-editing moments I’ve ever encountered. It almost seems like someone spliced in a different sound track as the credits rolled, but didn’t bother to actually listen to it before during or after having done so. It is light, pop-y, and is mildly reminiscent of the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme music – which is an odd fit with the Dire Warning. Lovely cheese – but no one is going to make a Criterion disc out of this one.
Fall Movie #8 – Solomon Kane (Michael J. Bassett, 2009): This is a sword-and-sorcery film based on a character created by Robert E. Howard, who also created Conan the Barbarian. Kane (in the movie) is a former pirate who is trying to atone for his violent past and winds up fighting evil. The movie is pretty dark in tone, due to the story and the cinematography. Overall it works. There really isn’t anything new or surprising here and some of it borders on the cliché. Still, in a film genre that is often embarrassing to watch, this movie is solidly made. The stunt and sword-work is good, the production design is decent, the editing is competent, and the performances are not bad. It seems as if all science fiction or fantasy movies need an appearance by John Rhys-Davies, Alan Rickman, Malcolm McDowell, or one of those guys. This one has Max von Sydow. I think two things move this film from mediocre to good, in my estimation anyway. First, James Purefoy’s performance as Kane is excellent. He seems to be making a career of raising the level of historical dramas and he doesn’t disappoint here. He takes a character which could be seen as just moody and shows some real pain which gives some real depth. There are some bits of dialogue that could have just landed with a thud but he manages to pull them off. Second, although there was a bit too much use of the rain machines, this film is well shot. Some of the exterior shots, seemingly done during the “magic hour” when the light is just perfect, were quite beautiful. I’m not sure this movie will work for anyone who isn’t a fan of the genre but if you are, give it a look.
Fall Movie #9 – The Wild, Wild Planet (Antonio Margheriti [as Anthony Dawson], 1965): This is an Italian science fiction film. Just ponder that. It stars Tony Russel, an American actor who did a lot of low-budget Italian movies (he is also one of many actors who turned down the lead in “A Fistful of Dollars”) and features a young Franco Nero in all his awesomeness. The story is about a creepy mad scientist who is shrinking people and fusing their parts together to make a master race, or something. Some obvious work went into the production design for this, including some elaborate models. The models are then poorly handled (think of a rotating space station that is wobbling on its almost visible string while in the foreground we see an astronaut floating around on a COMPLETELY visible string) and horrifically shot. The guys who did this would have been drummed out of Japan’s Toho studios and required to commit seppuku to atone. The acting goes from barely passable to just bad. The director… well… suffice to say that Quentin Tarantino named one of the characters in “Inglorious Basterds” after him. This movie is just so gloriously bad. I loved it.
Fall Movie #10 – Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978): I watched this when I woke up at about 4 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I’d been thinking about watching it ever since I saw “Apollo 18” awhile back. I got the DVD (along with a pile of others) when I went with my friends Jon and Dana to scavenge the remains of a nearby Hollywood Video a couple of years ago. I first saw the movie on HBO not long after it came out (I was fifteen) and just loved it – I’m not sure how many times I watched it back then. I even owned the novelization. So, I’ve got some history with this, but I’ve not seen it in about 25 years. It held up pretty well. The story is a fairly typical 1970s government conspiracy thriller, but this time about faking a Mars landing. Hal Holbrook turns in one of his usual skilled performances as the villain. The three crew members (who are forced into the conspiracy and then have to run for their lives) are played by a wonderful combination of James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and… O.J. Simpson. Elliot Gould plays the requisite investigative reporter. Hyams also added in a 70s all-star cast of supporting characters (Brenda Vaccaro, Karen Black, David Huddleston, David Boyle, even a cameo by Telly Savalas, and more…) to round out the film. The production design is good; especially the Mars set which features an actual prototype Lunar Lander on loan from NASA. Despite some cliché moments and a somewhat forced happy ending, this is a good thriller and features a nice chase through the desert. Two helicopters pursue the fleeing crewmen and become almost like characters themselves due to the way they are shot and edited into the scenes. This is well worth the watching.