Movie Reviews 450 – La Femme Nikita (1990)

September 18, 2020

Most North American audiences were first introduced to the Nikita story by the American adaptation, Point of No Return which is a pretty decent film in its own right. Other incarnations include two acclaimed television series, one from right here in Canada. But the original French film La Femme Nikita by director Luc Besson is, as is usually the case, far superior and well worth seeking out.

To those unfamiliar with the story, Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is a rebellious young woman who gets into serious trouble with the law but instead of merely being incarcerated for her crimes she is enlisted into a covert government organization and is trained to be a super agent with emphasis on killing skills. As a mock funeral has already been held, so as far as the world knows she is already dead, so her choices are to either agree to the recruitment or to be ‘disposed of’ for real. Not much of a choice really.

At first a captive in a semi office-prison facility under the watchful eye of her mentor and recruiter Bob (Tchéky Karyo) she shows great potential in all areas of her training such as hand-to-hand combat and firearms. But her rebellious spirit has not been abandoned completely much to the consternation of some of her instructors and the leader of the organization. She does find a friend in the grooming and etiquette teacher Amande (Jeanne Moreau) who transforms that ragged punk youth into an elegant beauty,  which can be her greatest weapon under some circumstances.

Invited to a ‘dinner date’ by Bob who has clearly fallen for her, she is led to believe that it will be nothing more than a private affair within the cafeteria until Bob surprisingly not only leads her out of the facility but escorts her to the fanciest posh restaurant in Paris. Only there she learns that romance was not the reason for this trip, and in fact she is about to start the first of many missions in her new career.

Now given the latitude to live by herself, her tumultuous clandestine operations become more complicated when she falls for Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade) a grocery store clerk. Accepting tickets for Venice as a gift from ‘uncle’ Bob results in yet more complications for a mission, one that goes terribly wrong and requiring calling in  Victor “The Cleaner” (Jean Reno). But the cleaner wants more than just to scrub the operation and the resulting melee will be unlike any mission she has been on before.

On the face of it, La Femme Nikita (also released in some instances simply as Nikita) is nearly non-stop John Woo style action that has dizzying mood shifts to go along with Nikita’s Jekyll/Hide transformations as she is called to duty. But it also offers tender moments setting up the Nikita/Bob/Marco love triangle to the point that you forget this is an action film at all, even if only for a few moments. When Jean Reno barges on screen, the very manner of his entrance is enough to signal that the film is now on an altogether different trajectory from a both bullet count and laughs perspective. I suspect that Victor “The Cleaner” was the inspiration for Harvey Keitel’s “Cleaner” character Mr. Wolf in Pulp Fiction, although they are dissimilar in many ways, indicative of how Quentin Tarantino adopts characters but makes them his own.

The film sidesteps any discussion regarding the ethics of a government agency that skirts it’s own laws and that enlists deadly mercenaries to deal with troublesome individuals, albeit seemingly deserving of their fates. Nikita’s issue with her involvement is purely from a point of view of freedom and having paid one’s dues. Even finding love in the complicated manner that she does, comes second to being free.

Unless you abhor some of the over the top action sequences, it’s hard for anyone not to love this film. And anyone who can enjoy a Jean Reno performance (if it were even possible not to) will have reason enough to watch this by his presence alone.

Movie Reviews 449 – The Legend (1993)

September 11, 2020

I had to navigate the filmography of the many Jet Li films with the word “Legend” in the title to figure out which of the many movie series’ The Legend fits into. Which is kind of fitting since Li himself is hard to peg in the pantheon of “Legendary” cinematic martial artists. Arguably, among the three heavyweights, Li never had the physical acumen of Bruce Lee, nor the comedic chops (see what I did there?) of Jackie Chan. But when it comes to actual acting skills and range, Li easily tops both among these predecessor wuxia warriors.

As in many martial arts films, the theme of supremacy over challenged opponents is front and centre but surprisingly Li not only shares the limelight but is in some ways outshone by women combatants which figure just as prominently here. While Li is undoubtedly the superior fighter throughout, it is his mother played by longtime martial arts mistress Josephine Siao that stands firmly next in line followed closely by her sometime nemesis in this film, Siu-wan (Sibelle Hu).

The plot intertwines two families, that of Fong Sai-yuk (Li) and that of Ting-ting Lui (Michelle Reis), the girl he falls in love with. Ting-ting’s dad, affectionately called “Tiger” Lui (Chen Sung-young), is something of a village bully who hopes to buy up all the land but at the same time wants to maintain a humble image to others. The Fong family is a particular irritant to him as Sai-yuk’s father is one of the few holdouts refusing to sell. When Lui offers up his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can defeat his wife(!) Siu-wan, the prospective men are quickly disposed of until Sai-yuk hears of the challenge and starts fighting her in a battle where the first opponent to touch the ground fails. But when Ting-ting flees right in the midst of the fighting, she is secretly substituted for a servant and upon noticing this Sai-yuk purposely loses. This results in Sai-yuk’s hooded mother (Siao) fighting Siu-wan in the same aerial manner, the latter thinking it is his brother and developing a spirited kinship as she fights.

It gets a little convoluted but the two families end up pitted against a mean governor acting on the behalf of the emperor and who is trying to get his hands on a list of the members of a secretive Red Flower Brotherhood fighting for justice.

While this is very much a comedy there are many touching moments and not only between the two young lovers which are hardly the most prevalent. The two elder women end up forming a tight bond that ends in a tearful dying moment. Sai-yuk’s mother swoons to any and all poetry which is played both for laughs and more poignant and intimate scenes. There are some running gags, Lui always trying to remain humble being one, but at the same time the film is distressingly sombre and violent.

But this is a martial arts film and in that regard there are plenty of nifty action sequences, again some on the lighter side, some with deadly consequences. The opening sequence had me worried as it was not only disjointed but also has some appallingly cheap special effects but those that turned out to be nothing but a silly dream sequence and thus purposely created for that effect.

Alternately titled simply as Fong Sai-yuk, there are conflicting views on whether the wuxia character was a real person living sometime during the Qing dynasty or whether he was just a fictional character. There was even a Fong Sai-yuk television series at one point but I’m unable to ascertain if that was a spinoff from these movies or a take on ‘the legend’.

All in all another great Jet Li film and another to add to the list of movies such as Fearless and Unleashed where he is much more than simply a fine fighter. Looking forward to finding The Legend 2 (A.K.A The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk 2) sometime soon as it seems to be equally acclaimed.

Movie Reviews 448 – It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

September 4, 2020

Movies that feature a true ‘all star’ cast are nothing new, but when it comes to unadulterated comedies, the pickings are pretty slim. Ironically one of the best is also one of the earliest, featuring a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood and television talent at the time. Not only does It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World have a legendary leading cast, but it has a script that is just as inspiring.

It all begins on a desolate desert highway with a speeding car weaving through the few vehicles and then plunging down an embankment and crashing among the rocks below. The vehicles stop and the occupants descend to find a dying old man (“The Schnoz” himself, Jimmy Durante) who tells them of a fortune, the spoils of robbery fifteen years prior, hidden below a “Big W” in a seaside park in a town called Santa Rosita some 200 miles away. Before the authorities arrive the man kicks the proverbial bucket (literally and figuratively) leaving the witnesses to question what they heard. Fearing that telling the cops will needlessly detain them for further questioning, they reluctantly agree to withhold the part of the money when questioned by detectives who soon arrive on the scene.

But no sooner are they back on the road that they start jockeying for the lead, evidently all having bought into the dying man’s tale. After a quick stop to discuss the matter in the hopes that an amicable agreement can be made regarding distribution of the money should they find it, the groups soon split up, opting for a ‘winner takes all’ approach. Thus begins a greed fueled, no holds barred, multi-state chase on land, air and unintentionally in a river.

The initial crazed group of participants are as varied as can be. Two young men, Benji (Buddy Hackett) and Ding (Mickey Rooney) heading out to Vegas for some fun. The Crumps, Melville (Sid Caesar) and Monica (Edie Adams) as a couple on their second honeymoon. Lennie (Jonathan Winters), a lone truck driver hauling furniture and finally Russel (Milton Berle) and Emeline (Dorothy Provine) Finch seeking some rest after his recent breakdown but inexplicably hauling his ever yapping, loudmouth mother-in-law (Ethel Merman).

Unbeknownst to this medley of money mad moochers is the fact that they have been under the constant watchful eye of the authorities under the guidance of the Captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) who was the detective on the case at the outset, and now looking for redemption. Adamant that the treasure remained hidden in his town of Santa Rosita all these years and now hoping to retire with the closure to the case as the final feather in his cap, his plans crumble before his very eyes as he faces one crisis after another.

They don’t make them like this anymore. While some slapstick certainly comes into play this comedy relies on insane characters at their worst, betraying one another, creating new allegiances as they cross paths and getting into the craziest of situations. To sweeten the pot the film has an ever growing list of other equally absurd characters joining them in swelling ranks for the mystical treasure. We get to enjoy gap toothed Terry-Thomas, Phil Silvers of Sgt. Bilko fame, Gilligan’s Island millionaire Jim Backus, and with a memorable dance scene that puts Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to shame, Dick Shawn as a hyperactive beatnik beach bum and his silent cohort dancer Barrie Chase.

If that weren’t enough there are brief cameos from a number of other legendary comic stars including Norman Fell, Columbo’s Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, Jack Benny, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton (sadly in a ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ moment), to name just a few, and most fittingly The Three Stooges in one of their last appearances. There are plenty of other recognizable faces (and voices such as Selma Diamond’s if you listen carefully) and spotting them all is part of the fun.

There is no shortage of favorite scenes and this film replete with explosions, stunt driving, and more crashes than a demolition derby. All two hours and forty minutes (not including the audio intermission) is capped by one of the most jaw dropping finales where the entire cast are finally reunited at their target only to have one more surprise in store for them.

The poster artwork by famed MAD magazine artist Jack Davis is not an exaggeration of the frenzy in this film and fittingly MAD counter parodied with a pocket sized paperback edition appropriately titled It’s a World, World, World, World MAD.

Frustratingly, my MGM DVD menu teased special features on the reverse of the disc but it was a single sided DVD (legitimate!) and the box makes no mention of additional features. I suspect that there was a Special Edition variant release at the same time but MGM did not bother making different discs with the feature on it.

In these trying times when it seems like the world has indeed gone mad, it’s nice to know that there was a time when a “mad world” was just a playful notion. Thankfully, we can return to those times, at least for two hours and forty minutes. Not including intermission.

I never get tired of watching this one.

Movie Reviews 447 – This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967)

August 28, 2020

I was thrilled to finally get my hands on one of the late Josė Mojica Marin‘s films. Better known by his alter ego “Coffin Joe” or Zé do Caixão, the character he portrays in his films, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse is the second installment of a trilogy by the legendary Brazilian cult creator who perpetuated the mystique with his signature naturally long fingernails (there was a arcane reason for those), top hat and ghoulish cape.

It took more than forty years to complete the trilogy ending with Embodiment of Evil (2008) his very last feature film, and this one immediately follows the events in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), the first film. I have not seen either of those others but this film has enough context from the first to make that unnecessary. The entire series centers on undertaker Zé’s quest to find the perfect woman to conceive his child that will be immortal and perpetuate his bloodline, one that he considered sacred and superior to all others.

The film begins with Zé returning to his home shantytown after having been found innocent of a string of murders due to a lack of evidence. Shunned by almost everyone except a few women who find his rebellious nature appealing, Zé with the help of his trusted scar-faced, hunchback servant Bruno quickly returns to the task of finding suitable mates. They quickly manage to lure six prospective women to his home and begin subjecting them to tests of obedience, fortitude and courage. One in particular, Marcia appears to be a standout, but when the others are shackled in a pit with poisonous snakes, even she balks hearing their dying cries.

With none of the girls satisfying his prerequisites Zé then turns to Laura the daughter of a Colonel who wields the real power in town and is Zé’s main adversary. Despite knowing about all his crimes, Laura professes and even proves her total devotion to Zé, scurrying to him during the middle of a feast celebrating her imminent engagement no less. But Zé learns that he has inadvertently murdered an unborn child. There is nothing more revered to him than the sanctity of a young life and upon learning of his accidental act, he descends into a state of pain and misery culminating in a nightmarish dream of being brought to hell. Upon waking up his ruse has unravelled and must once again face the justice being meted by an unruly mob.

Don’t let the fact that this was largely a low budget labour of love filmed by Coffin Joe and mostly  friends as actors. The film does suffer from a few long winded existential speeches by Zé that touch upon morality, justice and his “Immortality of blood” theology. But those moments aside this is a captivating film with some brilliantly filmed sequences. Filmed in black and white, Coffin Joe chose to film the hell segment in  gloriously nightmarish vibrant colors that would make Dante proud. The plot is quite complex with Zé being cursed at one point, Marcia manipulating a character that looks like a circus strongman, and an attempt to frame Laura’s brother. On the more salacious side, the abducted women are seductive with just a hint of nudity, while the horror is bolstered by a variety of scenes with spiders, maggots, snakes and mice. But as silly as some of it sounds, the film presents a surprisingly entertaining and solid story.

Rue Morgue issue 85

For most of his career Coffin Joe languished in obscurity because his movies were considered subversive by the conservative military dictatorship that ruled Brazil and kept his films from being exposed both at home and abroad. Thankfully they eventually got foreign DVD releases during the eighties which immediately catapulted him into the limelight and earned him the horror cult icon status he richly deserved and which he was able to relish before his passing.

My DVD by Fantoma Films only contained one short interview with Coffin Joe and a few stills as  extra features on the disc, but that was made up by the inclusion of a really nice “DVD sized” mini-comic inside with a nice Zombie story.  One last shout out I’d like to make here is to Rue Morgue magazine in which they featured Coffin Joe in their December 2008 issue. It was my introduction to him and if you can’t track down any of his films I would urge you to track down that issue for a comprehensive overview of his career.

Movie Reviews 446 – Stalag 17 (1953)

August 21, 2020

Stalag 17 has always been one of my favourite WWII movies and a film that was on my DVD search list for a long time. As luck would have it, when I recently acquired an entire box full of free DVDs whose actual contents were a mystery, there it was at the very bottom. Score!

Now the first thing about the title is that it would sound awfully familiar to anyone who used to watch the old Hogan’s Heroes sitcom which took place in Stalag 13, “Stalag” being the German term for prisoner-of-war camps. While there are a few similarities including a doltish sergeant Schultz as a character, the similarities pretty much end there.

Another one of director Billy Wilder’s acclaimed films, this comedy drama sometimes gets short shrift only because he was such a prolific and successful director. And with a competing roster that includes Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Witness for the Prosecution , The Apartment, Ace in the Hole , and Sunset Boulevard, who can you blame?

William Holden, being no stranger to playing a POWs as he did in The Bridge on the River Kwai, won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing J.J. Sefton, one of the inmates in Stalag 17. Ostracized not only because he trades with the German guards for favours, but also because he runs a bunch of schemes such as mice races earning him cigarettes and dough from the other inmates.

Sefton’s troubles begin when two escapees are shot the minute they make their break, a sure sign that the Germans were tipped off and laying suspicions that Sefton may have been responsible. When two new prisoners arrive after blowing up a German ammunition train and one of them is soon summed by the Commandant, Colonel von Scherbach (marvelously played by renown director Otto Preminger), only those sharing Sefton’s barracks could have spilled the fact that the new prisoners were involved in the sabotage. Now convinced that Sefton is the stoolie the former mere antagonism by his fellow captives turns to violence with a vicious beating and the confiscation of his lucrative personal goods chest. Not only is Sefton now a complete pariah, but what bothers him most is that there is a traitor among his fellow cabin inmates who no longer has to fear suspicion given that a convenient, yet innocent, scapegoat has already been identified. Even once Sefton does figure out which of his mates is the turncoat he realizes that merely outing the enemy in their midst would only be a temporary setback for them. Sefton must use his conniving mind for his greatest scheme of all if he is to come out on top this time.

Wilder brilliantly lays out a hilarious comedy while not sacrificing a moment of drama with many characters playing equally in both dispositions. Among the comedic elements, front and center are Harry “Sugar Lips” Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) the former goading the latter who fantasizes romancing famed war pin-up Betty Grable. Other amusing characters include a prisoner unquestioning his wife’s highly questionable letters, while on the darker side we have a shell-shocked prisoner who no longer speaks and only finds solace playing his prized ocarina.

Fans of the original Mission Impossible series will take note of a young Peter Graves as the designated Security Officer, and future director Don Taylor among the POWs.

Watch this for the drama or watch it for the comedy, either way you will be entertained with a brilliant screenplay that straddles the dichotomy right down to the very last words.

Swords of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs (1934)

August 18, 2020

I can’t quite recall when was the last time I read an installment of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series – officially called the Barsoom series – but it has been many years, perhaps as many as twenty as far as I can guess.  But I did indeed enjoy them in those days and it was only a matter of time before I returned to read this next one, Swords of Mars, sure that I would enjoy it as much as the others.

But something has changed and I don’t think it had anything to do with a change in what the author wrote as much as it is my ingestion of the material. Burroughs, more recognized as the creator of Tarzan and for which he wrote twenty-four books, was a quintessential pulp action writer. His Mars series, and the magazine serializations in which many were originally released, were published between 1912 and 1942 and targeted young men as their primary audience. Reading them today the misogynistic and racist attitudes sorely stand out.

In Swords of Mars, like the rest of this series, our Earth born swashbuckling protagonist John Carter is either duelling wits with some inferior antagonist (usually a highly ranked warlord) or duelling in actual battle. The tempo is near nonstop action broken only by periods of him contemplating his next move towards his ultimate goal, which in this case is rescuing his beloved princess Dejah Thoris – a recurring plot in many of the Mars stories.

Not that the specifics matter all that much but in this case Dejah Thoris has been kidnapped from her home kingdom of Helium and John Carter chases the trail to neighbouring Zodanga where, undercover,  he must deal with assassins only to learn that she has already been taken to Thuria (Mars’ moon Phobos). In order to continue with his quest he must commandeer a prototype spaceship whose controls are telepathically driven, only to arrive on Thuria to be enslaved by a race that are invisible to men. With the help of a dual-mouthed cellmate having chameleon-like pigment capabilities and an accommodating queen (a slave herself) John must undertake a bold escape plan whose success relies on former foes responsible for Dejah’s capture in the first place.

With his superior strength, intellect and a lot of very fortuitous events (defying logic if you were to be critical), John Carter methodically, always one step away from a sure death does away with callous traitors, bodyguards, armies armed to the teeth and a few dimwitted jailers. For those unacquainted, the Barsoomian adventures take place in a technological landscape in which sail ships flying are as commonplace as cars and while most of the automation and machinery are crude, other facets are near magical.

I must say that with one exception this novel is lacking in other imaginative races unlike the multicolored Martian ones typical in other John Carter stories. With mainly ‘red’ Martians like Thoris herself, I was disappointed that my favorite green, quad-armed Tars Tarkas, John’s best friend, did not make an appearance here. But like many of those stories, the plot is full of strangely named, sometimes confusing, mostly cardboard characters whose monikers include Jat Or, Ur Jan, Rapas “the rat” Ulsio, Fal Silva and Umka.

The novel interestingly begins on Earth with John telling the tale to someone else, but oddly does not end with any notion of him telling it as a story, so it is a one sided ‘wrapper’ if you will. I also found that the last chapter was rushed where entire encounters with other characters are summarized in just a few sentences which I suspect were planned to be fleshed out as another episode of the serialization.

I have to admit that I did not enjoy this one as much as some of the earlier novels in the series, in particular The Chessmen of Mars. As I mentioned, perhaps it is due to me being older, wiser and more discriminating, but it is still pure escapist, fanciful, action packed adventure and at times Burroughs still manages to throw out some well crafted words where characters speak in nuanced sentences, saying one thing, but meaning another.  I will eventually read the next installment, Synthetic Men of Mars, at some point – hopefully not in another 20 years – as I have the entire set illustrated by Gino D’Achille cover art as shown here, which alone makes them worth picking off my shelves from time to time.

Gino D’achille Mars Covers

Movie Reviews 445 – The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

August 14, 2020

Roman Polanski is one one those polarising (no pun intended) people who is equally celebrated as an artistic genius and reviled as an accused child rapist. That being said, any time his name comes up it is just as likely that neither his accomplishments nor his deplorable past be the first thing that spring to mind, but an episode in his life that he has been indelibly associated with despite not even being present when it took place.

The event in question of course is the brutal slaying of his wife Sharon Tate, then eight and a half months pregnant with their child at the time, at the hands of Charles Manson’s cult in the first of a two night killing spree in which five people were murdered in early August of 1969. Most accurately filmed in the docu-drama Helter Skelter, and most recently turned on its head in a parody, alternate sequence of events in Quentin Tarantino’s masterful Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the shocking Tate-Labianca murders remain a historical defining milestone of human heinousness.

Directed by Polanski and starring both he and Tate, The Fearless Vampire Killers was the couples single professional collaboration, and with perhaps the exception of Valley of the Dolls, Tate’s most noted role. Dark associations aside, this movie is something of a standout in Polanski oeuvres as it is a comedy and a far cry from the drama that has been a staple of his illustrious career.

Featuring great cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, a vibrant color palette and assortment of odd looking almost caricature-like characters (I’m including the diminutive, barbed nose Polanski in that group), the film is a treat to watch, at least from a visual perspective. But the plot is a piecemeal of horror and vampire clichés and the comedy, bordering on slapstick at times, isn’t very funny.

A Van Helsing stand-in, Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) travels to Transylvania with his bumbling trusted assistant Alfred (Polanski) hoping to prove his discounted theories on the existence of vampires. After nearly freezing and being rescued and brought to a local pub, they notice the abundance of garlic strings, but any mention of nearby castles or ethereal spirits are rebuffed by the townsfolk. Only when the Innkeeper’s daughter Sarah (Tate) is whisked away in the middle of the night do Abronsius and Alfred have the opportunity to make their way to the mountaintop castle lair of Count von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne) to rescue the dear girl and hopefully put an end to the local scourge.

The film consists of a lot of slinking around the castle, late night snowy sleigh rides, a hunchback to contend with, and last be not least a glorious midnight ball of coiffed and pasty vampires. And while the film has a PG rating there are a number of ‘booby’ close calls. One thing I really love is the theme music which is a catchy chant with a touch of harpsichord.

I suspect that Polanski purists may not revere this film when comparing it to the many great films he has given us over the years. There’s no comparing it to Chinatown, The Pianist, Repulsion, his one other pure horror, the acclaimed Rosemary’s Baby, which he made the very next year, or even The Tenant. Truth be told, most of the attention it does get is due to the historical aspect of Tate’s inclusion. And yet there is still something about it that draws me to rewatch it on occasion. If nothing else, it is unique in many ways.

Movie Reviews 444 – I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)

August 6, 2020

Marriage is one of those long term commitments that you really have to consider wisely and make sure you have chosen a lifelong soulmate, a person you know from the inside out. But sometimes even the most arduous scrutiny can be thwarted when, for example, your groom to be is abducted and replaced by an alien entity the night before the nuptials.

Such is the case when newlywed Marge (Gloria Talbott) notices something has changed in Bill (Tom Tryon) the moment they tie the knot. While outward appearances have not changed, gone is his easy going demeanor as well as his passion for her. Instead she finds that her husband is now distant, quick-tempered and worst of all, reluctant to engage physical affection. There are other things too, like his fascination with storms and how dogs seem to take an immediate dislike to him. But her concerns are dismissed by those she tries to reach out to.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space is a poor man’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with less sophistication in a script that isn’t as taut, less frantic pacing and not nearly as visionary or novel in concept. However it has a few things that make it worth the watch. The story is a little more layered in the ‘aliens want to colonize Earth’ department with a conceptual twist that would later be swiped and reversed in Mars Needs Women. And while there isn’t a lot of it, the budget special effects work well and add a nice touch of genuine horror to the science fiction centric plot. In place of oozing pods we have a cool enveloping smoke sequence when humans are ‘assimilated’ by the aliens. The film also makes good use of ‘negative film’ when the aliens are portrayed, a technique that will be used often in later years and one that fans of the original Outer Limits television series will be all too familiar with. But by far the standout special effects are the glimpses of the alien ‘faces’ overlaying their human subjects whenever there is a lighting strike. The design of those faces and the aliens as a whole, with crisscrossing masses of musculature, is downright freaky.

With decent performances by the cast, especially the principals, there is enough mystery and intrigue in determining who are the ‘converted’ humans that are now aliens, Andromedans to be exact.. That said, the logic does fail completely in some scenes, notably one where a fellow ‘assimilated’ alien visits Bill who feigns ignorance when directly told to report to ‘the ship’ given other facts about the aliens dictate that he should have known immediately.

The ending is posse predictable but with a twinge of sympathy for the aliens, but as a whole the film is decent  nostalgic popcorn sci-fi horror fare.

Movie Reviews 443 – Under the Rainbow (1981)

July 31, 2020

Under the Rainbow is one of the oddest and most un-PC films I’ve ever watched on the big screen as a teen, but for reasons that confound me I never forgot about it and had to see it again, if for no other reason than to confirm it wasn’t something I just dreamed up. I recall a lazy afternoon where a friend and I were scouring the “Now Playing” section of the local newspaper – that’s how we did it in those pre-computer, pre-Internet days – and deciding to go see it as there was nothing else of interest we hadn’t already seen. So this was already a non-standard movie going affair from the start. The only notable attraction in the film ad was that it starred Carrie Fisher, still riding high on her Star Wars notoriety. It also listed Chevy Chase but even then that was no draw for myself as I already loathed him as a comedian whose only track record was being the former SNL news anchorman. I hadn’t heard hide nor hair about it since then. One of those films shuffled under the rugs.

The title is a play on Over the Rainbow, the theme song of The Wizard of Oz movie and it is the behind the scenes filming of that film that is the setting for this comedy. To be precise, it is largely focused on the 150 ‘vertically challenged’ actors that were hired to portray the diminutive “Munchkins” in The Wizard of Oz. If legend and gossip are to be believed, those hired Munchkins, holed up in a hotel for months on end as the gruelling shooting for Oz wore on, were a drunken hoard of sex crazed maniacs that partied throughout the night and consistently got into trouble both on and off the set. In fact, a chaperone of sorts was hired to control and contain them lest their antics hold up shooting even longer.

This brings us to Under the Rainbow where that exasperated chaperone Annie (Fisher) shepherds the ‘little people’ into the Culver Hotel just across the studio where OZ is being filmed. There are only two other groups staying in the hotel. The first are a bus full of temporarily stranded Japanese tourists, all men wearing traditional white suits, a point that will be significant later. The second group is a travelling Austrian Duke (Joseph Maher) and his wife (Eve Arden) under the protective custody of U.S. Secret Service agent Thorpe (Chase), given worries of an assassin on the duke’s trail and the impending breakout of World War II.

Together these three groups will the intricately intertwined when Otto, a Lilliputian Nazi secret agent (Billy Barty), is scheduled to hand over U.S. invasion plans to a Japanese counter-agent (Mako) in the very same hotel. Otto is told to make contact with a white suited Japanese man, while the other is to look for a midget (their term, not mine). While both evil agents try to sort out which of the myriad other hotel guests are their supposed contacts, agent Thorpe fumbles at protecting his monarch charge while a real assassin hopelessly navigates the boisterous and meddlesome hotel invasion.

Yes, there are a lot of contrived and hokey wee folks slapstick, lame jokes, and even and oft scantily clad Fisher whose wardrobe is right up there with her golden bikini from The Empire Strike Back. Chevy Chase is … well Chevy Chase. And the film has one of those silly grand finale chase scenes where everyone heads from the hotel to the Oz film set to wreak havoc not only on OZ but Gone With the Wind.

But the film does have some genuinely funny scenes, a neat ‘wrap-around’ story with a short actor hoping for a Hollywood gig which kinda works, a recurring gag regarding the Duke’s wife’s dog ‘Strudel’, and some nice weaving of words in multilayered script.that play on the overlapping plot points.

Definitely an anachronistic oddity, and probably not for everyone, but sometimes this is exactly the kind of movie one needs for a change.

Movie Reviews 442 – Green Room (2015)

July 17, 2020

While Sam Peckinpah can lay claim as the progenitor of ultra violence in films, writer director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room proves once again that there are still innovative creators willing to push some of those boundaries further while maintaining a high standard of storytelling as a framework and not just relying on blood and gore as the main draw.

A group of punk rock musicians have an unfortunate streak of botched concerts planned by a promoter who, in a last ditch effort to find them at least one decent gig, refers them to a cousin of his willing to host them in a remote Oregon bar. With an understated warning that his cousin hangs with a ‘rough crowd’ the band heads out hoping to recoup at least enough money to buy some real food and eliminate the need to siphon gas from parked vehicles as they have been doing to get this far.

After a few quick introductions upon arrival and setting up their equipment the band takes to the stage and play, unfazed by the discordant audience, even taunting them with a playlist that includes the lyrics “Nazi punks! Nazi punks! Fuck’em!”. With their performance completed, they gladly collect their pay and start packing the van for whatever comes next. That is until one of the band members, Sam (Alia Shawkat), forgets her phone in their dressing room and Pat (Anton Yelchin) goes back to retrieve it only to stumble upon the body of a young girl in the room full of anxious looking skinheads.

The band is quickly rounded up back into the room and held at gunpoint until it can be decided what to do with the witnesses which include the despondent friend of the deceased (Imogen Poots). While the band pleads for their release promising to keep their noses out of the affair, the burly group confer among themselves as to their next steps and summon Darcy (Patrick Stewart) their evident leader. But with a bit of luck (and a lot of violence) the band regains control within the room, but are locked in. Thus begins a cat and mouse game of wits, proposals, counter-proposals, weapon exchanges, and … more violence.

With violence on par with Straw Dogs, the dire situation of the barricaded victims is further exacerbated by other things they find within their environs. Led by the geriatric leader figure Darcy, their captors are both a cult and a criminal organization, the hierarchy of which is based on the colour of the laces on their Doc Martens. With total command of his often dimwitted followers, Darcy is sharp as a knife, a meticulous planner and always it seems, one step ahead of the band.

Great suspense, excellent acting throughout and another example of the great loss it was to lose Yelchin, an actor who already made a huge mark at such a young age and was destined for so much more until his untimely, and nonsensical demise.