Sunday, January 20, 2013

Raw Panic


One of the coolest robots of the 1950s takes center stage in TARGET EARTH, a talky sci-fi movie produced by Herman Cohen, who would go on to I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, KONGA, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, and TROG, among many other genre favorites. Paul Fairman’s 1953 story “Deadly City,” published in IF: WORLDS OF SCIENCE FICTION, is the inspiration for Cohen’s film, which marks the directorial debut of journeyman editor Sherman A. Rose. Four strangers roam a large city empty of people. Electricity is out, and abandoned automobiles won’t start. They figure they must have been left behind after a government evacuation, but why did everyone go?

The survivors’ first clue is a big, white, clunky robot that shoots an awesome death ray out of its “face.” It’s obvious Cohen had only enough money to build one suit, so it had to represent an entire Venusian invasion force by itself. Some of the dialogue (screenplay credit goes to KILLERS FROM SPACE’s William Raynor, ROBOT MONSTER’s Wyott Ordung, and James Nicholson, the co-founder of American International Pictures) is hilarious. Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) as survivor Frank Brooks is much calmer in the face of invaders from outer space than most people would be. He immediately figures out the enemy must be Venusian, because “as far as I know, it’s the only planet that might be capable of supporting human life.” He learned that in “college” from his roommate who read science fiction.

Shot in seven days on a $85,000 budget, TARGET EARTH works in spurts. Rose’s opening shot, a slow pan across a lonely apartment to reveal Kathleen Crowley’s Nora zonked out on sleeping pills, provides a brooding atmosphere, and scenes of Crowley running around empty streets (shot in Los Angeles early on Sunday mornings) are eerie. However, TARGET EARTH bogs down in uninteresting (aside from the humorous dialogue) conversations between robot attacks, which don’t happen often enough, and the senseless third-act arrival of a crazed gunman (Robert Roark) proves the writers were running out of ideas.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

War. What Is It Good For?


Here's a television rarity available on DVD and well worth your time. THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL may be about the Civil War, but its themes remain relevant today. Although it's nearly two-and-a-half hours of middle-aged white men talking in a room, the great performances, thought-provoking teleplay, and socially relevant themes of war and humanity (My Lai was fresh in the public's mind when THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL first aired on PBS in May 1970) make this a deeply affecting drama not to be missed.

George C. Scott played the role of the prosecuting Judge Advocate in the 1959 Broadway presentation of Saul Levitt's play. Eleven years later, he directed it for PBS with an all-star cast of imposing television actors at the height of their game.

Swiss-born Henry Wirz (Richard Basehart) is on trial in 1865 for atrocities that occurred while he was the ruling commandant of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia. More than 40,000 Union prisoners were crowded into an area meant to hold less than half that, and were not provided adequate food, water, shelter or medical care. Prisoners were forced to drink from the same swampy stream that their bodily waste was emptied into. They slept year round on bare ground without a roof over their heads. Food was so scarce that some of the men resorted to cannibalism.

William Shatner, one year after STAR TREK left the air, has the plum role of Lt. Col. Chipman, the prosecutor obsessed with making Wirz pay for his alleged abuse. Jack Cassidy, who was nominated for an Emmy (ANDERSONVILLE won three, including Levitt's teleplay and for Outstanding Single Program), is equally good as Wirz' defense attorney, who alleges that his client was merely following the orders of his superiors and cannot be held responsible for the thousands of deaths that occurred as a result of them.

While much of the dialogue is taken directly from the transcripts of the real Wirz' trial, Levitt takes a few dramatic liberties, putting Wirz on the stand to tell his story and adding an extra theme of moral responsibility into the mix. More specifically, should Wirz have done the "right" thing and disobeyed his orders at the risk of a possible court martial and even death?

At nearly 140 minutes, Scott takes his time telling his story and gives his marvelous cast plenty of opportunity to wrap themselves around their meaty roles. Like Scott, none of the cast is known for being particularly subtle (Cameron Mitchell, taking a welcome respite from exploitation movies, portrays General Wallace, the presiding judge), but their theatrical backgrounds are entirely appropriate for this talky drama set entirely within the courtroom. Those who consider Shatner a "bad" actor because of his flair for the dramatic may be surprised to learn how good he can be under the right circumstances, as his unique performing style is perfectly massaged by director Scott to carry the show.

THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL was produced on videotape under PBS' HOLLYWOOD TELEVISION THEATRE banner. The wonderful supporting cast includes Buddy Ebsen as the Andersonville camp's country doctor, Albert Salmi, John Anderson, Whit Bissell, Martin Sheen, Harry Townes, Lou Frizzell (who acted with Scott in the original Broadway production) and Michael Burns. Many of the actors appear only in wordless cameos, but manage to give the production some extra dramatic weight: Ford Rainey, Kenneth Tobey, Bert Freed, Alan Hale, Ian Wolfe, Woodrow Parfrey, and Dick Miller. Mundell Lowe provides the sparse musical score.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Raging Right Under Your Feet!

BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH was the last film by veteran British-based director Montgomery Tully, who was in his sixties when he directed this absurd poke of pulp science fiction. It played the bottom of an MGM double bill with THE YOUNG RUNAWAYS when released in the U.S. in 1968. Right from the first scene, with a Las Vegas patrol cop speaking with an English accent and faulty rear projection featuring backwards lettering on the signs, you know BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH is laughable fun.

Naval Commander Jonathan Shaw (Kerwin Mathews, previously the star of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) investigates when his good friend Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) is institutionalized after being found crawling the streets of Las Vegas and ranting about people moving about underground like ants. Shaw follows his nose to an Oregon mine, where he discovers fresh, smooth tunnels stretching hundreds of miles. Communist Chinese led by fanatical warlord Chan Lu (a hilariously miscast Martin Benson), who keeps a pet falcon in his underground lair, dug the tunnels all the way from China and are using them to transport atomic bombs intended for America’s destruction.

Yep, it’s a typical Nick Carter plot presented by Tully (THE TERRORNAUTS) and writer Charles Vetter (FIRST MAN INTO SPACE) in colorful fashion with lots of imaginative if barely plausible ideas. BATTLE doesn’t take itself too seriously (the Vegas-based mental hospital has slot machines for the patients) and suggests a Bond influence. Its low budget is obvious from the MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. whip pans to branch scenes and Ken Jones’ aggressively jazzy score, but the bright colors and rat-a-tat action sequences provide giddy fun. Vivienne Ventura joins the story in Act Three as a sexy geologist who doesn’t know what lava is.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

346 Movies


346. That's the number of movies I watched in 2012. That’s well below my all-time record of 588 in 2004, and quite a bit below last year’s total of 474. I don’t have any explanation for the decrease.

Of the 346 movies I saw, I watched 192 of them for the first time. Here are my rules. As far as the count goes, only feature films count, no matter whether I saw them in a theater, DVD, VHS, Netflix, or on TV. For the first time, I watched complete features on YouTube and as AVI files on my computer, using the Xbox 360’s Windows Media Center app to stream from my desktop to my TV.

• TV shows don't count, unless they were presented in a format resembling a feature film (for instance, the pilot episodes of MAN FROM ATLANTIS, which aired as full-length made-for-TV movies)
• Made-for-TV movies count
• Documentaries count
• I didn't count short subjects or feature-length making-of documentaries included as DVD extras
• Movie serials and TV miniseries count as one long feature
• Multiple viewings each count as a separate movie

These are my rules. Your mileage may vary.

AVI: 4
DVD: 190
HDTV: 62
Theater: 24
TV: 8
Blu-ray: 32
VHS: 2
Netflix Instant Streaming: 15
YouTube: 9

First film of 2012: INTRUDER (1989)
Last film of 2012: THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK

From the 1930s: 4 (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, SH! THE OCTOPUS, THE PATIENT IN ROOM 18, MYSTERY HOUSE)
1940s: 22
1950s: 24
1960s: 42
1970s: 89
1980s: 67
1990s: 56
2000–2011: 22
2012: 20

Genres:
Action/Adventure: 116
Comedy: 47
Crime Drama: 23
Documentary: 5
Drama: 20
Horror: 40
Mystery: 23
Science Fiction: 35
Thriller: 26
Western: 11

Countries of origin:
Canada: 4
Great Britain: 11
Hong Kong: 8
Indonesia: 2
Italy: 7
Japan: 5
Philippines: 2
South Africa: 2
Spain: 2
Turkey: 1
United States of America: 302

Even though I stopped going to theaters regularly years ago, I still managed to see 20 2012 releases, mostly on cable or on Blu-ray. I saw only a handful of them theatrically: HAYWIRE, THE RAID: REDEMPTION, THE AVENGERS, PROMETHEUS, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.

Also seen theatrically:
Double bill of THE FISTS OF THE WHITE LOTUS and MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE at the Portage Theater in Chicago on worn but beautiful 35mm prints
BLACK CHRISTMAS at the New Art in Champaign, Illinois in 35mm

Most in one month:
January: 44
Least in one month:
October: 9

Films I saw more than once in 2012:
THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS
THE GREEN SLIME
ZOMBIE NIGHTMARE

The most films in any one 24-hour period:
15, when I attended Northwestern University's annual B-Fest January 27–28

The Best Films I Saw for the First Time in 2012:
THE EXPENDABLES 2
YESTERDAY’S ENEMY
DEADLY PREY
MONEYBALL
THE HUNTED (1995)
DEATH IN SMALL DOSES
THE HYPNOTIC EYE
THE RAID: REDEMPTION
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL
THE FISTS OF THE WHITE LOTUS
CONTAMINATION
CALL NORTHSIDE 777
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Some sequels:
AMERICAN NINJA 4: THE ANNHILATION
BEST OF THE BEST 3: NO TURNING BACK
CRITTERS, CRITTERS 2, CRITTERS 3, and CRITTERS 4
CYBERTRACKER and CYBERTRACKER 2
THE DELTA FORCE and DELTA FORCE 2: THE COLOMBIAN CONNECTION (in hi-def)
THE EXPENDABLES 2
FINAL DESTINATION 5
PREDATOR 2
PSYCHO III
PUPPET MASTER II
ROBOCOP 2 and ROBOCOP 3
SILK 2
A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS

5 Stars:
ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN
ABOVE THE LAW
CADDYSHACK
THE CAPE CANAVERAL MONSTERS
DEADLY PREY
EUROTRIP
THE EXPENDABLES 2
FORTRESS
THE MARCUS-NELSON MURDERS
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE
RITUALS
ROAD HOUSE
SAMURAI COP
SH! THE OCTOPUS
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT
THE STABILIZER
STUNT ROCK
UNDER SIEGE
YESTERDAY’S ENEMY

1 Star:
THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE
THE BEAUTIFUL, THE BLOODY, AND THE BARE
FUTURE KICK
LASER MOON
MURDER AT THE WORLD SERIES
THE NIGHT OF THE CAT
NOBODY’S PERFEKT
PUPPETMASTER
RACQUET
ROAD OF DEATH
SIDESHOW
SPY SQUAD
STEEL SHARKS
STREET OF SHADOWS
TIFFANY JONES
TIM AND ERIC’S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE
TO CATCH A YETI

Recent Direct-to-Video or Barely Released Films You Haven’t Heard Of, But You Should See:
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
THE RAID: REDEMPTION
THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL
ABOMINABLE

Beach Party movies:
BEACH PARTY
MUSCLE BEACH PARTY
BIKINI BEACH
BEACH BLANKET BINGO
SKI PARTY
PAJAMA PARTY
HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI
DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE
THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI

Most Films by Director:
William Asher: 5
Andrew Davis: 4
Cirio H. Santiago: 4
Andrew L. Stone: 3
Fred Olen Ray: 3
Joseph Sargent: 3
Lew Landers: 3
Reginald Le Borg: 3
Sam Newfield: 3

Most Films by Star:
Frankie Avalon: 6
Annette Funicello: 6
Lon Chaney Jr.: 6
Arnold Schwarzenegger: 5
Chuck Norris: 5
Andy Griffith: 4
David Janssen: 4
Lloyd Bridges: 4
Robert Forster: 4
Steven Seagal: 4
Cameron Mitchell: 3
Christopher George: 3
Don “The Dragon” Wilson: 3
Jean-Claude Van Damme: 3
Leo Fong: 3
Nicholas Hammond: 3
Robert Culp: 3

Bowery Boys movies:
GHOST CHASERS
HOLD THAT LINE

Tarzan movies:
TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI
TARZAN’S HIDDEN JUNGLE

They Exist, and I Watched Them:
ANGEL OF H.E.A.T.
THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES
B.A.D. CATS
THE BEAUTIFUL, THE BLOODY, AND THE CARE
CALLING DR. DEATH
CHILDREN OF THE LOTUS EATERS
CODE 7 VICTIM 5!
DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS
THE DRAGON VS. NEEDLES OF DEATH
THE GONG SHOW MOVIE
THE SECRET SEX LIVES OF ROMEO AND JULIET
SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA
THERE’S A NOOSE WAITING FOR YOU…TRINITY!
TRUCKIN’ BUDDY MCCOY
WEREWOLF IN A GIRLS’ DORMITORY
WOLFGUY: ENRAGED WOLFMAN
ZAPPERS BLADE OF VENGEANCE
ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU

My Top Five of 2012:
THE EXPENDABLES 2
THE RAID: REDEMPTION
THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
HAYWIRE
THE AVENGERS

My Bottom Five of 2012:
TIM AND ERIC’S BILLION DOLLAR MOVIE
NATURE CALLS
GONE
MAN ON A LEDGE
JOHN CARTER

How many movies did you watch this year?