Monday, September 25, 2017

Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

It’s hard to say how aliens would regard us, if they had any regard for us at all.  When three aliens land on Earth, it’s for the sole purpose of finding a breeding ground for gargons, a delicacy on their home planet.  Thor doesn’t seem to hold Earth creatures in high regard.  When a dog approaches the ship, Thor kills poor little Sparky without so much as a second thought.  Derek, on the other hand, is more empathetic.  He finds Sparky’s tag and realizes that they may have just killed someone’s pet.  At the very least, this was a living being.  What right do they have to make this home to their food supply?  It may not even matter, because the gargon doesn’t seem to be doing well.

Thor very firmly points out that they are the supreme race.  Earth inhabitants are inferior, no matter how advanced we may be, and we can die like the inferior scum we are for all Thor cares.  You see, Thor and Derek come from a planet that doesn’t have concepts like family and friendships.  Yes, they have parents, but children don’t know who their relatives are.  The only reason Derek even brings this up is that he has this book about olden times when their race did have such concepts.

This angers Thor, who tells Derek that he’ll be put to death upon their return.  Thor contacts command, who tells him that Derek is the Leader’s son and is next in line to take over.  He’s to be brought back alive.  One gargan will be left behind, as per procedure, and Thor will chase after Derek, killing him only if necessary.  The remaining crew will take the ship back and return after a set period of time.

Derek wanders into town with Sparky’s tag and eventually finds place that Sparky called home.  He’s greeted by Betty Morgan.  She lives with her grandfather.  They initially assume that he’s interested in being a boarder, as they have a room to let.  Derek neglects to tell her about Sparky.

Betty was getting ready for a date with her boyfriend, Joe Rogers, but he has to cancel at the last minute.  He’s a reporter and has to cover a story about some reports of a flying saucer.  So, Derek goes with Betty instead.  Derek eventually shows the tag to Betty, which makes Betty want to see the remains of her dog just to be sure.

Thor is eventually able to track down Derek because of a gas-station attendant that recognizes the uniform.  After getting the address that Derek went to, Thor ends up killing the attendant for his trouble.  He also kills the guy that was kind enough to give him a ride into town.  (Thor’s instructions did include killing any witnesses.)

Derek falls in love with Betty.  He desperately wants to stay on Earth with her, but he comes to realize that it may not be possible.  He and Thor go back to the landing site where the Leader emerges from the spacecraft.  Derek is allowed to bring the ships in to land, which he does at full speed, thus causing an explosion.  He saves Earth and its inhabitants, who may never know what happened.

So, you may be wondering how I came across this gem of a movie.  Years ago, I was in the habit of buying these packs of movies.  This particular one was ten movies spread across three discs by St. Clair Vision.  What I would later come to realize was that these were all public-domain movies.  They were packaged by theme, with this set being sci-fi movies.  (Another one is a set of Alfred Hitchcock movies.)

The movie was released in 1959.  I’m not sure how the movie ranks among other movies of that year, but it looks like filmmaking has come a long way.  Take Thor’s death ray.  It’s supposed to work by vaporizing the fleshy parts of a living being, leaving only the skeleton.  We don’t actually see the effect on the target.  Instead, we see the target before cutting to Thor holding the ray gun.  When Thor uses the gun, there’s a bright light that looks like a reflection from a small mirror.  We then cut back to the skeleton of the target.

If you’ve ever seen a skeleton up close, you’ll know that the bones aren’t directly attached to each other.  There’s connecting tissue keeping the bones in place.  If everything else is removed, you’ll end up with a pile of bones.  It probably won’t look complete.  Sparky, I could see, as he may have been knocked on his side.  However, any human skeleton would probably scatter, especially if they were standing upright.

There’s also the issue of how a gargon was able to grow so large.  When the aliens first landed, it looked like you’re average lobster silhouette.  After a day or two, it had grown to something huge.  It had supposedly done this on the nutrients in the air.  How is that possible in such a short period of time?

Speaking of which, it’s almost impressive how they managed to make the gargon at all.  In the first scene, it looks like they may have used a real lobster or possibly a rubber mockup of one.  By the end of the movie, it looked like they were superimposing a shadow over regular footage.  It was somewhat fake looking by today’s standards.  It’s forgivable considering the age.

It’s not an overly complicated plot.  If you’re looking for hidden meaning, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  The characters aren’t particularly well developed.  Betty is a normal potential love interest.  Grandpa is a generic grandfather-type character.

I’d say it’s mostly suitable for children.  I think the only objectionable part would be that Thor kills a dog and several people.  As I said, you don’t actually see the death, but it’s fairly obvious that it happened.  The gargon wasn’t that scary to me and was shown only briefly.  It’s kind of difficult to judge how a small child might interpret it.  I suppose there are worse ways to spend 85 minutes.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962)

Dr. Bill Cortner is a mad scientist. Why would I call him mad? He’s madly in love with his fiancée, Jan Compton. Oh, and he does unethical medical experiments with body parts obtained by questionable means. One weekend, Bill and Jan are on their way to a country house owned by his father. Being the reckless driver that he is, he gets into an accident that decapitates Jan.
Normally, that would be the end of it, but Bill has this serum he’s been working on that will allow any body to accept any transplant. He’s able to take Jan’s head to the house where his friend, Kurt, has some new body parts waiting. They rush down to the lab and manage to revive Jan’s head. She immediately hates Bill for doing this and wishes to just die. Alas, Bill won’t have any of it. He has at most 50 hours to find Jan a new body. Oh, and he should probably mention the horrible monster in the closet.
So, he sets off checking out various clubs and whatnot. At a beauty contest, he gets the idea to use the body of a model named Doris Powell. Doris doesn’t go out much as she has this hideous disfigurement from a previous boyfriend. And by hideous, she means a relatively small scar on her face that’s well hidden by her long hair.
It’s actually perfect for Bill’s needs. He can use it to lure Doris back to the laboratory and the scar is on a part of her body that he doesn’t need. The problem is that Jan uses the horrible monster in the closet to kill Kurt. When Bill gets back, he covers the body only to meet a similar fate. The monster escapes with Doris’s unconscious body, leaving Bill, Kurt and Jan in a burning building.
Oh, where to begin with this movie?
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, sometimes called The Head That Wouldn’t Die, was released in 1963. It’s hard to believe that we’re talking more than 50 years ago, but there it is. I’ve often wondered if audiences of that era were less demanding or if filmmakers just didn’t bother. I am getting this movie from a set of public-domain movies, so I’m not dealing with the best of the best. I’ll admit to that much. However, this is a pretty bad movie.
Just to be clear, I was born in 1976. There is some historical context lost on me. I’ve always known transplants being relatively safe. To hear a doctor brag about being able to perform transplants isn’t that amazing. I’m not familiar enough with medical history to know when this became the case. I know early transplants were problematic and patients would sometimes live for days or weeks afterwards.
To be fair, though, Bill’s breakthrough is a serum that would eliminate rejection of a donor’s body parts. The plot device allows Bill to save Jan and for the monster in the closet to exist at all. This brings me to another point. How is Jan able to survive? Bill has a time limit, which I’m assuming has something to do with Jan needing to eventually eat. However, without lungs, she can’t breath. She also shouldn’t be able to talk, for that matter.
Then, there’s Doris. I don’t think this character would fly in one of today’s movies. She has a minor scar that’s easily hidden, yet she doesn’t go out much. She’s vain enough to want it removed. If this movie had been made today, we’d need the scar to cover her entire face. Also, Doris apparently hates men only because it was a man who had given her a scar in the first place. Seriously? There might be something that I’m missing there. Being a man hater might have meant something different in the 1960s. That’s something that probably would have been left out entirely in a modern production.
Also, the acting seemed very strange to me. It wasn’t quite stiff and it wasn’t quite overly dramatic. It was almost like something you’d expect from a Saturday Night Live spoof of the movie. I know it’s not fair to apply modern acting standards to movies from other eras. I only mention it because most younger viewers will probably be turned off by it.
I’m not even sure this is a bad thing. This movie doesn’t have too many redeeming qualities. If you’re looking for a movie to pick apart, this is a good one. If you’re a fan of classic sci-fi movies, this might be worth a shot. If you buy a pack of 50 public-domain movies, don’t be surprised if this one is among them.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Blackmail (1929)

It’s usually difficult for me to say that I like a director. With some, their work tends to be similar enough that I can expect certain things from the movie. In other cases, their work may be so varied that it’s hard to tell much of anything about a movie of theirs. Alfred Hitchcock is difficult to pin down for a variety of reasons. I know a few of his works, like North by Northwest. The problem is that his work dates back to the 1920s. His earlier works were made in Great Britain and developed with what was then new technology. While Blackmail was being shot, sound became available for movies. Thus, Blackmail became Hitchcock’s first movie with sound.
The movie starts with Detective Frank Webber and Alice White going on a date. After arguing about what to do afterward, he storms out, leaving her to meet Mr. Crewe. While walking Alice home, Crewe talks Alice into going up to his studio. The two have fun until Crewe tries to kiss Alice. She refuses; he persists and tries to rape Alice, who kills him with a bread knife. She then collects any evidence of her being there and leaves.
Even though it was self defense, she walks around town all night before going home. The next morning, Frank is assigned to the murder of Crewe. He soon realizes that his girlfriend is the prime suspect. He hides what evidence she left behind and goes to confront Alice. After a few minutes, a man named Tracy arrives. He, too, can implicate Alice.
Tracy plays coy. He hints that he might want something, but draws it out for as long as he can. When Tracy realizes that he might not have the upper hand, he runs. After a chase, Tracy ends up taking the fall in more ways than one. Alice feels guilty, but Frank talks her out of confessing, as there’s no need.
The movie is almost 90 years old. I’d say it’s hard to believe, but it’s not really. If you’re coming off TV shows like CSI and Law & Order, Blackmail will seem very simple. Frank and Tracy each have a piece of evidence implicating Alice. Since both pieces of evidence were taken from the scene, I’m not sure how valuable they’ll be. It’s even stated that it would primarily be Tracy’s word against Alice’s. Still, I’m used to seeing the police and prosecutors having to worry about testing and whatnot.
Even the plot seemed a little thin. Frank and Alice’s date seemed a little drawn out. Even Alice’s time with Crewe seemed to take a little too long. The movie is 89 minutes; I spent a lot of those minutes wondering when the action would begin. Most of it is that I’m used to 2-hour movies that are heavy on dialogue and action. Since this was planned as a silent film, the writing style was considerably different.
If you’re looking for a first Hitchcock movie to watch, I’m not sure that this would be a good place to start, especially for a younger viewer. I think it would be too distracting comparing Blackmail to a modern movie. There was one scene where Alice and Crewe were walking up stairs. It seemed fairly obvious that it was a set designed solely for that shot. It’s strange to think how far technology has come, both forensically and theatrically.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Sometimes, leaving well enough alone can be a good thing.  The first Matrix movie could very well have been it and it would have been a great movie.  We have this revelation that humanity is really living in a simulated world.  A small band of people are fighting the machines that keep us enslaved.  Instead, it served as the basis for two movie sequels.  Instead of being all philosophical like the first movie, both sequels skewed towards action.

Matrix Revolutions picks up where Matrix Reloaded left off.  Neo is trapped in the computer world.  Agent Smith has found his way into the real world.  Also, the machines have sent sentinels to attack Zion, the city of humans freed from the Matrix.  If they can’t be defeated, Zion will be destroyed in a matter of days.

Normally, I’d go into plot review, but the bulk of the movie is the humans fighting the machines, this time in a more literal sense.  The movie begins with Neo having to be rescued from his disembodiment.  The machines are attacking the city, which is fighting back with guns.  Meanwhile, Agent Smith has taken over everyone in the Matrix.  The movie ends with Neo fighting Smith to the death and Zion being saved.  The machines will have to do without humans as a power source.

The first movie was a tough act to follow.  It had this big reveal that what the characters experience isn’t reality.  It’s a simulation that everyone’s immersed in since birth.  There really aren’t too many places you can go with that.  Matrix Reloaded did mention that this wasn’t the first attempt at it and that it’s been going on much longer than initially assumed.  Here, it’s more like, “Ok.  Let’s wrap things up.”

I’m not sure if the sequels were planned.  There was a four-year gap between the first and second movies being released with the second and third movies being released the same year.  It’s a pattern similar to the Back to the Future franchise, where the sequels weren’t planned, yet ended up being good.  For me, the Back to the Future franchise was due mostly to good writing and the right concept that had talented people behind it.  That kind of formula is difficult to replicate.

Here, it’s like some planning went in to it, but not very much.  It looks like one story that was split into three with only the first movie retaining any real substance or quality.  The second move got a little bit with the third movie there just to round it out.  Also, it’s very uneven.  It’s almost like three versions of the same story that were somehow reworked into a passable storyline.

If you’re looking into the Matrix movies, you could easily skip the second and third movies without missing anything.  Both movies are around two hours and at least have the possibility of being entertaining, but I wouldn’t necessarily rush to rent them.  If you never got around to watching them, it wouldn’t be a loss, either.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Kaze tachinu/The Wind Rises (2013)

When my brother came back into town recently, he gave me a few movies to rent.  Knowing that he and I both like Studio Ghibli movies, I also rented The Wind Rises.  It turns out he had already seen it.  I still ended up watching it, but he warned me that it was a little more political than he would have liked.  I’m not entirely sure that political is the word I’d use.

The movie is about Jirô Horikoshi.  As a young boy, he wants to be a pilot.  The only problem is that his nearsightedness precludes him from doing so.  So, Jirô does the next best thing; he studies so that he can design planes rather than fly them.  He reads about Count Giovanni Battista Caproni and subsequently has dreams about him and his designs.

Jirô graduates and goes to work for Mitsubishi.  He’s torn because he wants to design aircraft but knows that they’re being used for war, as Mitsubishi’s contracts (and Jirô’s projects) are for the Imperial Army and the Imperial Navy.  This is something he discusses with Count Caproni in his dreams.  There’s also the issue of Japan being 20 years behind Germany technologically.  It’s something that he and a friend discuss regularly.  Jirô has the chance to study German designs and it does help, but there’s still the gap.

I think this may be what my brother was talking about.  Jiro seems to lament that his country is so far behind.  There are several scenes where he talks about it.  Jirô did eventually go on to design several aircraft that, while not perfect, were used by the Japanese military.  However, the Japanese military is shown moving planes to the test site with beasts of burden.  The Japanese planes are made primarily of wood rather than metal and alloys.

I’m not sure how much of this is accurate.  Apparently, the account of Jirô’s life is somewhat fictionalized.  The use of animals for transporting the plane and the use of wood could have been true or they could have been hyperbolic.  I don’t know enough about Japanese history to be certain.  At the very least, it would seem that Japan has a bit of an inferiority complex.

I also found it odd that Jirô’s sister seemed to be angry all the time.  Mostly, it’s Jirô’s fault for not meeting up with her on time, but she didn’t seem to calm down.  I’m not sure if I was missing something.  It may be to contrast with Jirô’s always being calm.

It’s interesting to note that Miyazaki’s father manufactured parts for planes, which explains why so many Studio Ghibli films involve aviation.  It also explains why you may catch Miyazaki’s name on an airplane in one of his movies.  In fact, Miyazaki Airplane manufactured parts for the Mitsubishi A6M "Zero", one of the planes that Jirô designed.

I get that I’m probably missing a certain amount from a cultural perspective.  Still, it’s a great movie.  If you’ve seen any Studio Ghibli movies, you know that the animation is excellent.  I’ve heard that there’s a rule that animators keep the use of computers to a minimum and this is no exception.  There is a bit of war shown, even though it focuses on the design aspect of the plane.  There is some imagery that won’t be appropriate for small children and there are some subjects that they won’t understand.  The movie is rated PG-13, which seems about right.  Most teenagers and above should be able to handle the subject matter.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Moon (2009)

Colonizing the moon or another planet won’t be easy.  Any building will probably be designed for function rather than comfort.  You won’t be able to go outside due to lack of atmosphere.  If you’re among the first group to go, there won’t be many others going with you, so you’ll have a limited number of other people to interact with, if you have anyone else at all.

You don’t have to tell Sam Bell that, though.  He’s finishing up a three-year contract on the moon.  Two more weeks of monitoring a mining operation and he gets to go home.  His only companion is an artificial intelligence named GERTY.  Life is pretty boring for Sam.  The only ting of interest, in fact, is when something goes wrong.  For instance, he can’t communicate directly with Earth in anything resembling real time.  (This is due to an equipment failure.)

Things tend to get complicated when Sam notices people on the station.  Is he dreaming?  Are they hallucinations?  Either way, he gets distracted.  He wakes up with GERTY tending to him.  GERTY seems to be communicating with Earth, which should be impossible.  Answers are hard to come by as GERTY won’t let Sam out of the confines of the base.  It’s not clear why until Sam finds a reason to leave the base.

There’s that saying that you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.  It’s bad enough that Sam has to spend three years without human company.  That’s enough to make anyone a little unbalanced.  However, as time goes by, he has more reason to believe that it’s not paranoia.

Take the fact that Sam’s job is to spend his entire three years alone.  You’d think that they’d send up a few other people just in case the AI isn’t enough.  It could be that Sam works for a really cheap company.  It could also be that people willing to work on the lunar surface are hard to come by, no matter how much you paid them.  It’s also possible that something more nefarious is going on.  (At the very least, is it morally right to isolate someone for that long, even if they agree to it?)

There is a certain efficiency to the movie.  You have two main characters, Sam and GERTY, who make the bulk of the story.  There’s even a minimal number of secondary characters.  The only other movie that comes to mind as being similar is Timecrimes.  It’s possible to tell a story well with very few characters and sets.  In fact, I could say that Moon used too many sets.  Having more of the movie take place in the lunar base could have added to the sense of claustrophobia that Sam would have felt.

Most of my issues are technical, though, and are to be expected.  The first one that I noticed was in saying dark side of the moon.  The moon has phases from our perspective, meaning that the dark side rotates.  I know I’m not the first to point out that it should properly be referred to as the far side of the moon, as the moon is tidally locked.  The other issue is lunar gravity.  I could see the structures having artificial gravity, but it seemed like Sam experienced normal gravity outside the base.  I’ll admit that both of these are relatively minor points.

The movie is 97 minutes, which seems about the right time.  It doesn’t feel rushed at all, nor does it seem like there’s a lot of filler.  There are a few cases where I was able to see things coming.  If you watch movies and television enough, you’ll be able to catch some of the foreshadowing.  I didn’t see many of the big plot twists coming, though.  How much you enjoy the movie will probably depend on how much you can let stuff like that go.  If you know someone who likes to ask questions during the movie, don’t watch this one with them.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Get Shorty (1995)

I usually know what to make of a movie’s plot.  I may not always like it or completely understand it, but I have some sense of where the writer is coming from.  Get Shorty is an unusual movie in that I’m not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be about.  Is it just a comedy?  Is it some sort of satire?  Is it supposed to be some sort of indictment of the movie industry or an in joke?  What’s the story?

It starts with Chili Palmer in Miami.  He’s a loan shark who works for someone out of New York until he dies.  Suddenly, Chili finds himself working for Ray ‘Bones’ Barboni.  Ray means business.  He wants Chili to collect on a debt owed by a dry cleaner.  Chili points out that the dry cleaner in question is dead.  That’s not Ray’s problem, considering that he had a wife who’s very much alive.

The wife reveals to Chili that her husband is very much alive in Las Vegas  Chili manages to collect the money and pick up a side job in California.  So, Chili travels to Hollywood to meet a producer named Harry Zimm.  Harry has problems of his own.  Chili’s job came from a casino that Harry owes money to.  On top of that, Harry blew $20,000 of his investor’s money.  Chili and Harry become fast friends, but they still have to worry about the investor, Bo Catlett.

Part of my problem may be that the story is a little complicated.  The movie goes from East Coast to West Coast very quickly.  If you blink, you might miss a few important details like I did.  There are also a lot of subplots going on.  Chili has Ray to worry about.  Harry has Bo to worry about.  Bo has a drug dealer named Mr. Escobar to worry about as well as the DEA.  All the while, Chili and Harry want to make their own movie based on the movie’s events so far.  They just have to convince Martin Weir to star in it.  I can’t blame you if you get a little confused by it.

There do seem to be a few jabs at actors and writers.  I’m not sure how much of this I’m supposed to get.  Selling the story within the story allows the characters to comment on the story-making process.  Martin talks of getting inside a character’s head, although he doesn’t seem to be that good at it.  (It’s not that he’s a bad person.  He just seems to lack empathy.)   Since most of us aren’t privy to how a movie is made, I don’t know how much of the conversations went above my head.

I also wonder how much of it is dated.  One of the running gags was Chili getting a minivan from the rental agency and having to make the best of it.  The movie came out when minivans were a big thing.  Now, it’s SUVs.  I’m not sure if the joke would play out the same way.  (I suppose it’s better than a station wagon.)

It’s interesting to hear some dialogue about Miami in the beginning of the movie.  I would like to point out that when Chili mentions Biscayne Boulevard and Federal Highway, he’s actually talking about two different stretches of US-1.  In Miami-Dade County, US-1 is called Biscayne from Downtown north.  When you reach the Broward County line, it becomes Federal Highway.  Just a little bit of trivia there.

I’m not really sure who the movie is going to appeal to.  There is a certain off-beat element to the story.  I remember liking the movie years ago when I first saw it.  I don’t remember how I felt about it specifically.  I just remember a few scenes.  Having watched it again, it was still entertaining.  I’d probably wait a while before watching it again.