Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Earth II (1971)

Sometime in the near future, the United States launches an orbital space station. But this one is a little different: it's supposed to be a wholly independent nation in space. The president of the US then goes on TV and asks for the public to vote on whether or not the station should be granted independence. To do this, all they have to do is turn on any lights in the evening they normally wouldn't and a satellite will compute the tally. Well, they didn't have on-line surveys back in those days. The public votes over 70 % in favor and the station is granted its sovereignty. However, sinister forces are underway to prevent the station from living up to the dream.
Forgotten by most people today, Earth II was a good attempt at creating a realistic SF TV show. The producers worked out the concept with such futurists as Buckminister Fuller and it shows. There's even a "dymaxion map" in mission control at the beginning. Unfortunately, the show's plot also hinged on the Communist Chinese government orbiting a nuclear weapon. They could do this because mainland China wasn't a member of the UN and didn't have to abide by treaties against nuclear weapons in space when the film was made. One month before the movie's premire, China was accepted into the UN, which made much of the plot absurd. Bad timing.
Earth II is presented as an ideal society, but not a Utopian one. Anthony Franciosa plays a new immagrent to the station who wants to use the Chinese nuclear weapon they discover orbiting near the station as a guarentee against terrestial interference. All the citizens of Earth II take part in voting during a televised debate where the panel is chosen at random.
The technology may seem a little dated to people used to all the post-Star Wars stuff, but it was quite good for it's time. There's a lifting body shuttle which anticipated the current space shuttle. Most of the "space" footage looks good as well.
One movie from the golden age of space travel.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

RED BELT (2008)

Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a martial arts instructor in a big US city. He teaches Brazilian style Jujitsu. He has a unique method of teaching: he puts his advanced students into a tournament where one of them is handicaped in some form (arm tied back, etc.). He's also married to a talented Brazilian woman (Alice Braga) who is constantly berating him about their lack of funds. You see, Terry's school runs out of a store front and is always short on funds.
One night Terry is visting his successful brother-in-law's bar when a movie star (Tim Allen) walks in on his own. Some of the other patrons try to pick a fight with the movie star, forcing Terry to intervene. So impressed is the star with Terry, he invites him to his Hollywood mansion for dinner. But what would seem to be a golden opportunity turns into a sham when Terry's tournament method is stolen by an employee of the star. Terry watches in horror as his style is appropiated for a pay-per-view TV show. With his life and marraige going to pieces, he's forced to defend the very belief system which gives him meaning.
Most Hollywood movies about martial arts are crap. Well, most martial arts movies are crap period. As someone who's pursued a martial art for years, I can tell you the highs and lows do not make for a good film narriative. There are very few magic thrusts which bring forth justice. Red Belt, on the other hand, gets the story right. Written by playwright David Mamet, it may be the best film every made about martial arts. Do see this one if you get the chance.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

LA 2017 (1971)

One of Maestro Spielberg's first films. This was produced as an episode of the TV series NAME OF THE GAME, but later released to some markets as a stand-alone film. With a script written by SF writer Philip Wylie, Stevie went full throttle into the future. I first caught this on it's initial TV showing and the memory of the hideous world of tomorrow stayed with me for a long time. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am able to see it again.
After leaving an ecological conference, magazine editor Glen Howard (Gene Berry)has a car accident. He's awoke by two men wearing breathing equipment who slap another mask on him. Next, they toss him into a sealed ambulance and take him to the underground city of Los Angeles. Seems that in 1989 an abundance of dead seaweed floating on the oceans began releasing enough toxic gas to kill off most of the population. the dead seawood was caused by ocean pollution. Those who did make it to the safety of underground shelters were upper-level corporate types and their employees. So now the hidden city of LA is governed by a vice-president who reports to the chairman of the board of directors. Upper level management live in secure apartments while the lower shlubs get assigned to dig new tunnels. And a private police force ensures that things never get out of hand.
The new national order wants Howard to become the editior of a propaganda sheet. He wants to find the underground's Underground. And by the end of the film, you wonder if it was all a dream.
There are a number of sequences in this production which really stand out. You can see the talent who would give us Jaws. The film keeps cutting to the odd monitor watcher and flunkies who crack jokes to each other which make no sense at all, but seem to have some kind of internal humor. And there is the hippie bar which features a band of bell-bottomed octogenarians burning up the stage with electric blues.
You don't see too much of the underground world other than a few corridors. Since a certain other Hollywood wunderkid was producing his own film about subterranean dwellers of the future, you have to puzzle where was the chicken and where was the egg. Also, the entire scenario of the apocolypse is a little hard to take, but screenwriter Wylie was on an eco-kick in those days. He did come up with some good end-of-the world ideas.
Recommended if you can find it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Terror From The Year 5000

Here's a good idea which never manages to lift off the ground. Two scientists, one elderly, one young, are attempting to contact the future with some kind of electronic device. They have to conduct their experiments on a remote Florida island since the energy it generates messes up all the local radio and TV signals. They start trading with someone in the future. When one of the statues they send out to a museum to be examined turns out radioactive, a curator decides to make a trip down to the island to find out what they are up to.
In spite of all the Mystery Science Theater rips on this movie, it's actually pretty decent. Working on his own, the younger scientist nearly gets killed when a hand reaches out of the time machine chamber. Those of us a certain age who first watched this movie on TV will remember that scene.
Another scene has the curator sending a fraternity medallion with Greek letters on it into the future. The one the poeople from the future trade has Greek writing on it which translates as "Save us".
Finally, the hideous mutant woman from the future shows up to grab some pre-nuclear holocaust male genes. You know she's from the future because she wears a suit with sequins all over it. She also steals the face of a nurse sent to the island and attempts to hypnotize the younger scientist into going with her into the future.
Not a dud of a movie, but not great classic. Salome Jens, who would later go on to have many roles on TV, plays the future woman. I don't thing too many other of the actors went on to other films.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Shining spoof

Ok this is just messed-up.

Paddle to the Sea (1966)

One of my fondest memories of elementary school was the occasional 16mm film the teacher would show the class. When I was in 4th grade and all of eight years old, we would have a special "language arts" class once a week. It often involved showing movies. One day we were shown Paddle to the Sea.
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, who kept unleashing all those unwatchable art films, this is an amazing short little film about a wooden Indian in a wooden canoe making it's way to the ocean. From a 1941 children's book by author and illustrator Holling C. Holling (which you can go here to read the book on-line), it begins with a light house keeper finding the small toy canoe on a beach. Next, you are shown a young boy carving the canoe and setting it on a snow covered bank. When the snow melts in the spring, the canoe falls into a stream and begins it's journey.
The hand-carved indian in the canoe is the only real actor in the film. There is narration, which comes from the text of the book.
I can't praise this film enough. It's worth an entire season of Afterschool Specials.
It can also be viewed on Youtube by going here.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Satan Bug (1965)

(Opening Credits)

Here's another movie which sticks in my mind more for the ad campaign than any thing else. When it first hit my hometown of Dayton, Ohio the promotion of it figured heavily on a flyer which portrayed a man getting fried on an electric fence. Just the sort of thing to grab the attention of an impressionable seven-year-old kid. I never did see the movie on its original release; my parents had no intention of going. So years later, I was able to watch it on TV. And then it turned up on various video releases over the years.

Based on a novel by Alistair MacLean and from a script by James Clavell, this movie is a very good thriller which shows the influence of the times. In an isolated, fool-proof government biological warefare lab, someone breaks in, kills a scientist, and makes off with samples of germs, one of which has the potential to kill every living thing on the planet. Investigator Lee Barrett (George Maharis) is recruited by the government to track-down the missing samples before the theives, who are now threatening to use them, can unleash Armageddon on the world. Who stole the bugs? Religious extremists? The communists? Random nuts?

The look and feel of the movie reflects the year it was made. When one of the lesser toxic agents is used as a demonstration on a Florida Key, the investigators review the horror in silence by a 16mm film projector. All the government agents wear suits, ties and pork pie hats. When Barrett tries to track a suspect down to Palm Springs, California, it's shown to be an isolated desert town. Now, it's part of the urban sprawl.

A lot of thought went into the design of the secret research laboratory. Each room is sealed with automatic doors activated by foot pedals. Even the refrigerator where the samples were stored has to be unlocked with a special key. The lab itself is shown to be in the desert and surrounded by two fences, each electrified and with guard dogs running in between. All of this makes for some interesting discussion at the beginning of the film as to how the thieves break into the lab.

An excellent film from the days of "Bond. James Bond".

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Modulations trailer

Modulations (1998)

This is one of the best documentaries I have ever wittnessed on electronic music. Produced in 1998, it covers a variety of pioneers and pursuants in the "Techno" music genre. You learn where the term "house music" originated, how John Cage in the 1930's predicted mix-ups, and what is the optimal beat for a good dance party. Even if you've never had the least bit of interest in drum synthesizers, you'll find yourself taking notes while listening to the enthused experts. Because this is the key to a good non-fiction book or doccumentary film: people who are generally excited about what they are talking about.
The film doesn't stick to a straight timeline or any linear narriative. At one moment you'll be listening to a British DJ telling you how ambient Techno came about as a result of the decline of raves, then you'll be shot back in time to Kraftwerk humming away in the 1970's. There's even a long interview with Robert Moog, who invented the synthisizer which bore his name. The one thesis which keeps coming up is how the music is driven by technical developments. Cheap effects machines were purchased by club DJ's who worked them into their own albums.
Modulations does keep going by to a few gadflys for commentary. In particular, we get to see Genesis P-Orridge in a stiff wig spouting on and on about the relationship between man and machine. Since he's ridden the wave of countless musical trends over the past 30 years, who would know better?
A movie every fan of digitally enhanced sound should check out.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Two Andys: SAVAGES and PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS (both 1974)

Everyone my age remembers Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor on the old Mayberry TV show. A gunless sheriff beloved by all in a small southern town (which, interestingly enough, contained no black people) who solved all kinds of problems while trying to raise a young boy on his own. The whistling theme song has burned itself into a lot of brains. And there was the later, elder Griffth who stared as the lawyer Matlock in a TV show of the same name. But in the early 70's Sheriff Andy starred in two made-for-TV movies that took him in a different direction: a psychopathic manipulator with power and money. In some ways, these roles were a return to the earlier one he'd played as the sinister as "Lonesome" Rhodes in A Face in the Crowd (1957).
Both movies were released in 1974. The first, Savages had Griffith playing a handicapped lawyer who hires a local kid as a hunting guide. The second, Pray for the Wildcats, had him dirt biking across Baja Calfornia with William Shatner, Marjoe Gortner, and Robert Reed. Both movies shocked a lot of people when they first hit the little screen. Imagine a family turning on the movie of the week expecting more down home country witticisms and instead seeing a leering lunatic.
Savages was based-off the 1973 novel Death Watch by Rob White. In the movie Andy Griffth plays lawyer Horton Maddock who is desperate to get into the desert to hunt bighorn sheep. The young guide he hires, Ben Campbell, is played by Sam Bottoms. Although Maddock has a little bit of trouble getting around, he is quick to inform Ben that he's made a fortune by using his mind. He's always smartly dressed in khaki bush clothes and sports a painted grin whenever addressing someone. Several days into the hunt, Maddock accidentally shoots an old prospector who just happens to be Ben's friend. Maddock wants them to bury the body and pretend it never happened. He's afraid if word got out he shot someone it would jeopardize his legal career. Ben refuses and makes plans to take the body back to town, even turning down a cash bribe. But suddenly Maddock conceives a plan to blame the death on Ben and sends his young guide out into the desert alone with barely any clothes to die of dehydration. It then becomes a game of the hunter and the hunted as Ben uses his survival skills against Maddock.
Savages is actually a good adaptation of the Rob White book. Although the dead prospector is introduced in the movie as Ben's friend and mentor, while in the book he's just a random old man who happened to get in the way of Maddock's target. The description of Ben's survival methods are far more explicit in the book, but this is a minor point. There is only so much you can do with a 74 minute film.
Pray for the Wildcats also had Andy Griffith in a sinister role. It's famous for having a bunch of TV actors in parts for which they were not usually found. Sam Farragut (Andy Griffith), William Summerfield (William Shatner), Paul Mcllvian (Robert Reed), and Terry Maxon (Marjoe Gortner) are four buddies who spend the weekends motorcycling around the back country on their dirt bikes. William, Paul, and Terry all work at the same advertising agency and they are trying to get Sam, a manufacturer, to sign on with them. William is having an affair with Paul's wife (Angie Dickinson) and is being pushed out the door from his executive position. Terry is a rising star who's just learned his girlfriend is pregnant. And Sam won't close the deal with the agency until the other three agree to take a cross-country motorcycle ride through Baja California. They all agree to spend a week on the road, first getting photographed in their monogrammed "Wildcat" leather jackets.
But the trip turns bad when Sam, the self-anointed leader of the group, takes too much fancy to a hippy chick at a Cantina. William manages to pull him out of a fight, but Sam has decided he's going to have that girl one way or another. And Terry is willing to do just about anything to get Sam's favor. Paul? He just wants to go home and back to ignoring his wife.
Both movies were a major shift in how the viewing public saw Andy Griffith. While he plays a cold and methodical killer in Savages, he's the drooling potential rapist in Wildcats. He's great in both roles. There's just enough down-home country boy in each character to make you think of The Killer Inside Me. Both movies are highly recommended, although they are hard to find these days.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

Luther Heggs (Don Knotts) works as a typesetter at a small town newspaper in Kansas. One night he witnesses what he thinks is murder and swiftly pulls his gigantic Edsel over to photograph what he assumes is a crime scene. He's the graduate of a correspondence journalism school, so this is Luther's big chance. However, it turns out not to have been a crime at all, making Luther the laughing stock of his small town. But it's also the eve of a famous murder which occurred in the same town. The newspaper editor suddenly hits on a great idea: have Luther spend the night in the murder mansion and "write" about the experience.
A hilarious movie from start to finish, this is one of the last Hollywood looks at rural America with being condescending. Rural shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction were all the rage up till 1971 when the advertisers wanted TV to start selling to the urban money crowd. GAMC was also a staple of the "family" circuit and plenty of people my age first saw it at a Drive-In with their parents.
It's also famous for staring a plethora of TV actors: Dick Sargent, Charles Lane, etc.
Strange that the ultimate anti-rural America movie, In Cold Blood, hit the screens the following year.
One amusing moment happened while I was watching this movie. Luther was in his shop setting the type for the paper where he worked. Somebody came into the room and asked me what in the world he was doing. They had no idea newspapers existed before computer word processing. Hard to believe, but there was a time when people were paid to take metal letters and make-up the copy for printing.
Go here for the ultimate Ghost and Mr. Chicken fan guide.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Psychopathia Sexualis (2006)

Every since Woody Allen filmed Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex people have been trying to develop classic works on human sexuality for the screen. With the recent film and biographies on sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, it was inevitable someone would attempt adapting another book.
The final edition of Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in 1902 was 617 pages long and contained 238 case studies. A progressive thinker (for his time) on psychiatric treatment, Krafft-Ebing was a major influence on both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Psychopathia Sexualis was one of the first text books to take a serious and scientific study of alternative human sexuality. Many of the terms used in his book remain with us today.
The movie version, released to DVD this year, consists of a series of dramatized scenes from the cases in the book. Linking them together is narration by a medical doctor who we soon see to be a manipulator. Corset fans will enjoy one scenario where a man hires two women to work him over. All of the action takes place during the Victorian era.
Bret Wood had previously shown his ability with the documentary Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (2003). His eerie style adapts very well to Psychopathia Sexualis. The colors are vibrant through the entire movie. However, much of the sexuality portrayed was toned down to give it an “R” rating.
The DVD also includes several short films set in the same time period.

Moon Child (1974)

I wish there was more information on this movie. From what I can tell, director writer Alan Gadney made this one film and never did another. Most of the actors were TV preformers from the early 1970's including such names as Victor Buono and John Carradine. Though to be a lost film, it has been showing up on VHS over the past ten years. I will give it a first: the only movie I can think of which begins and ends with a quote from Edgar Cayce.
The plot: a young artist encounters an elderly man (Carradine) while painting a picture of an old Spanish mission. The old man encourages him to visit the mission, which has now been transformed into an elegant hotel. In the hotel he meets a variety of strange people, each of whom seem to know something about his past. It all has to do with a crime committed centuries ago which is about to cycle through the ages once again.
Too low budget and scary for the art house crowd, too artsy for the gore hounds, this is still a good example of the kind of film cinema graduates would attempt in the early 70's. A lot of colleges were just sending out film school kids into the world in this time and some of them were making a stab at fame. There would be those in the mold of George Lucas who would find success, and others, such as the obscure director of Moon Child, who would make one film and vanish into history.
Pop this one in after viewing The Idaho Transfer.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Power (1968)

One of the last films produced by George Pal, this movie holds up quite well as it makes the transition from book to movie. The book was written in the 1950's by Frank Robinson, but has remained in print over the years. Music by the great Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa. Stars George Hamilton, Suzanne Pleshette, Arthur O' Connell, and Michael Rennie.
Professor George Tanner (Hamilton) is part of a government funded research team studying the effects of human endurance. One of the members of the team (O'Connell) suddenly puts forth the proposition that a super human, someone of extraordinary abilities and intelligence has infiltrated the team. After laughing him off, Tanner suddenly finds himself in the cross-hairs of a police investigation after someone on the team is killed under strange circumstances. His entire background is also called into question as no one on his resume can remember who he is or where he came from. With only one other member of the team believing in him (Pleshette), Tanner has to investigate by himself who is after him and why. The only thing he has to lead him is a mysterious note left by the first victim with the name "Adam Hart" written on it.
For reasons I can't understand, this film still hasn't been released to DVD. It's a tight thriller which preserves the final twist of the book's ending. All of the actors are more than capable in their roles, and the film is a great reminder of what Hollywood could still turnout in the 1960's.

A Gun For Jennifer (1996)

A lot of movies have thrived on their reputation, but once you see the final product it can be a bit of a let-down. Before the age of the Net I would travel all over the place just to see some obscure art house flick only to find it not worth the hype. Most of the time. I will never get back the wasted 2 hours I spent on Diva, but there are worse things I could've done.
A Gun For Jennifer is one of those cult movies a lot of people have heard about, but few have actually seen. It's back story is almost better than the movie plot. One of the principal financiers of the film turned out to have been embezzling money from his international company. The FBI impounded the movie, finally releasing the unedited print when they realized filmmaker Deborah Twiss was innocent.
Lensed in grainy 16mm film, Jennifer has the look and feel of a Drive-In movie, but was made ten years after most of the grindhouses had closed. The plot, a band of dancers decide to form a militia to kill rapists, is straight out of roughy central.
In 1997 director Twiss was asked about the movie's plot and had this to say:

"We took the position what if you had a collection of 5 or 6 very damaged, angry women who because of the way they were brought up, the things that happened to them throughout their lives, to just show this really radical, almost terrorist cult behaviour. That's basically how we looked at it. We didn't moralize it, just here are these women, this is what they have been through and this is why they're behaving the way they are. We wanted to show that we weren't behind vigilantism, we showed that violence has terrible consequences. The wrong people die, you live by the gun you die by the gun." ( A Gun For Jennifer: Interview)

This is a grim movie. Don't watch it if you're expecting Thelma and Louise.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fear of Darkness, Phase II

In 1982, I decided to become a magazine publisher. I'd already run a film society for the past year, so I figured why not a magazine? Inspired by such cool journals as Magic Lantern, Sleazoid Express, Fangoria, it seemed that I could do it too. I had contacts all over the country, a devouted group of friends who came to my 16mm film showings in Columbus, Ohio, and a steady job. What could go wrong? All I needed was a title for it.
While pondering the title, I was listening to a tape I'd made of a local punk band. It's been a long time and I can't even remember the name of the band. Suddenly, the song "Fear of Darkness" came blasting out of my stereo and I had the name for the magazine. So the magazine Fear of Darkness was born.
Two years later, after several format changes, after deciding that I didn't like supporting printers, I called it quits. I boxed up everything I had and shipped it to a friend in another state who'd agreed to take over the publishing. And that was the last anyone ever heard of Fear of Darkness. I did manage to get some mention nationally, The Catalogue of Cool listed FOD as one of "coolest" magazines in the nation. But all that mention never translated into financial success.
So I've decided to do it again in blog format.If nothing else, the cost will be lower.