Sunday, May 28, 2006

Ape Madness- Battle for the Planet

Unlike a lot of kids born in the 1960’s I was not a fan of the PLANET OF THE APES movies as a tyke. I was well into my teens before I finally saw the classic first film but since then I’ve been a true believer. Because of my latecomer status I missed the Apes craze of the early 70’s and all the amazing toys, games and comics that came out in those fun times. By the time I caught up with the original five movies I wasn’t even aware of the correct order they were made in and had to consult the Leonard Maltin Movie Guide to dope things out. My how times have changed.

For my birthday this year my beloved girlfriend bought me the Ultimate Planet of the Apes DVD Collection. Housed inside a plastic reproduction of Caesar (the character played by Roddy McDowell in the 4th and 5th films) are 14 discs comprising every single Apes film and TV episode ever made. That I asked (nay, begged) for this chunk of video overkill should demonstrate that I am indeed a fan of these movies. Some might even say too much of a fan but I will ignore these maladjusted troublemakers. They’ll be the first against the wall when the apes come! The big news about this set for most was that the long bootlegged and extremely rare Ape animated series from 1976 was to be included. That was good news, don’t get me wrong. But the best news for me was that the longer version of BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES was to be included! Unlike the first four movies there is an alternate version put together for TV syndication that is 10 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. This version has never been released on video in any format so this made the purchase of the big Ape head an eventuality, not a possibility. And now that I have seen the extra footage I can say that it does make the film a notch or two better. It doesn’t make it great but it gives gravitas to scenes that lacked......well. They lacked a lot. And this version doesn’t correct the missteps of the script so much as make the direction it chooses more palatable.

For me, one of the strongest draws of the POTA series is that it’s a post-apocalyptic story and a good one. I love these kinds of tales and enjoy them so much that I tend to like even the worst of the sub-genre. My love of post-apocalyptic movies makes it easier to understand why I have little desire to revisit the most critically lauded of the four sequels ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES as it transfers the ape characters to modern day Earth. While this second sequel is a good movie it just doesn’t hold the appeal of the others- at least for me. I want to see war scarred cities, and desolate landscapes where mutants and mute humans fight for possession of a crumbling planet! A bunch of bureaucrats holding meetings about what it means that they’ve found some talking apes in a space capsule somehow just doesn’t grab my imagination. So, it is that I find the fourth and fifth films in the series more entertaining than the third. Even diehard Ape fans will admit that BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is the worst of them all and I agree. But I still have a lot of love for it as it offers up a fairly decent ending to the series and almost points the way toward the first film.
Sort of.
Well, not really.
Ya see- the problem with trying to get the time line of the Ape movies straight is that the series folds back on itself. Not content to push humans forward in time in the first two and Apes backward in time in the third the filmmakers felt the need to show us the start of the events that lead to Apes being the dominant species. But by having the events that lead to the end of human dominance kick started by the child of time traveling apes changes the story laid out in the original film. So events that should have taken centuries are collapsed down to decades leaving a rushed feeling hanging over the last two films. That the movies WERE done in a rushed fashion and with increasingly smaller budgets explains this fault, but it doesn’t make it any easier to love them. That’s where nuts like me come in!

BATTLE ‘s biggest problem in my opinion isn’t budget or a rushed production schedule. It’s the decision to make the film as kid friendly as possible. The year before the 4th movie with its violent uprising of ape against human oppressors got a PG rating even after a re-shoot of the ending to tone down the harsh speech McDowell gives to his fellow rebels. 20th Century Fox was not about to let high minded ideas get in the way of profitability and so the 5th movie is back to the series’ normal G rating. But even with all its flaws, limitations, clumsy direction and awkward dialog there are still great moments. The scene at the armory when Caesar and his companions must justify their need for weapons is written and played beautifully. If only all the dialog in the movie felt as smart and well crafted as this BATTLE would be judged much better.

Still, I really enjoy this movie and finally seeing the longer version makes that easier. It is not perfect (or even close) but it’s an Ape load of fun!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Wherefore Art Thou, CALTIKI ?

Why, in the name of all that is good and right in the world is there no DVD of this film available? I've done some checking around and it is not posible to get this sweet little monster film anywhere. Co-directed by Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava this one should have already been snatched up by some fine DVD company for Region 1 release. But there isn't even a cheap bootleg out there that I can find. I have a decade old bootleg VHS tape that has really seen better days and I'd like to buy a better copy. Please!

Come on Blue Underground, Shriek Show or any one else! Let's move Caltiki onto a fine sliver platter for all to see. He deserves it and you know it!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Summer 2006- Your mission......

The 2006 summer movie season has now begun with the early May release of the action movie MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3 and the slightly retro disaster epic POSEIDON. Of the two POSEIDON is the better film if only because it doesn’t have the third act slide into cartoonish unbelievability that MI3 revels in. Mr. Cruise does a good job of selling everything that happens to his character but the second instance of laying in the road to pass underneath an automobile was asking a bit too much. As was the ‘resurrection’ scene as well. And just what the hell was the villain up to in this movie any way? Oh well. None of the MI films have been very good so although this one is better overall than the first two, that alone doesn’t make it wonderful. But it is a solid summer blockbuster. Your memories of it will self-destruct by the time you take that post movie trip to the restroom.

POSEIDON is worth more comment. This being a remake it falls prey to the usual ‘which is better ‘debate which often misses the point. There are always those that will claim the original is better just because it was first or out of a sense of nostalgia. But this new film has plenty of elements that make it a fine contender for the small group of worthwhile recent retoolings. I’ll say up front that I’ve never been a big fan of the 1972 film THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. I don’t think it’s aggressively bad but its cheesy silliness is a bit too much for me. The film was overlong, overwrought and often overacted. Indeed I suspect that the phrase ‘going for the Oscar’ may have its origins in the original film. The remake corrects most of these problems but it still only manages to be a pretty good film and it’s far from perfect. I just don’t think greatness is possible with this story. The actors do a fine job for the most part with only Kevin Dillon being problematic. His character seems to have been air lifted in from an Adam Sandler movie and his demise is the movie’s one truly silly/stupid moment. It’s as if the hand of God decided to smack the twit down. Sadly, this jerk-wad character is one of the few to evoke any real emotions in the audience. Most of the other people are just chalk outlines where a real person might have been if the film was really interested in doing more than being a spectacle.

Bucking the trend of the past few years POSEIDON clocks in at less than 2 hours, which was quite a shock. I fully expected a 140 minute running time at the bare minimum but it seems the thinking must have gone to lean & mean for which I am thankful. The film does exhibit another recent Hollywood problem though- the dreaded PG-13-itis. That is to say, it shies away from the more harsh or violent elements of the action to keep from getting the box office smothering R rating. This is most evident in some of the bigger scenes of death and carnage when shots of mayhem end just before some grotesque bit of bodily devastation happens. This leads to some storytelling sloppiness when on a couple of occasions this trimming makes the events onscreen more obscure than they should be. At one point my girlfriend asked me in a hushed voice if all of a group of people had been killed and I had to confess that I couldn’t be certain. I’m sure that a slightly longer version (labeled unrated) will pop up on DVD in the near future with a little extra blood and gore for those interested.

Among some of the smart modern upgrades on view is a logical reason for the fellow leading the survivors to the bottom of the ship. He’s an ex-Navy man aware of way out through the propulsion shafts. Kurt Russell's character is an ex-fireman so his skills come in handy as well. I was glad there is no self-doubting priest here to make that awkward struggle with his faith. Not even Gene Hackman made that character palatable in the original. Also, the gay character is obviously gay instead of it just being implied as it was in the original. I’m sure there are still folks who saw the ‘72 film wondering what the deal with Red Buttons is.

Of course, this being a disaster film there are moments that strain credulity especially with the length of time some people are underwater. And there came a time when I actually wanted to scream ‘Just let the kid drown, dammit!’ But the film is really not bad at all. The CGI effects were quite good especially when the wave first strikes the ship, and the film never overstays its welcome deftly moving from one tense set-piece to the next. These two things alone make it a step up from many of the summer movies of last year. So- not a great start to the Summer season of big movie fun but not terrible. And I saw some nice trailers......

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Assignment: Boredom!

One of the great strengths of Science Fiction as a genre is that it allows for a multitude of types of stories. This is not always recognized by the masses because in the age of the blockbuster we’ve been conditioned to think of Science Fiction as primarily one thing. Because of the overwhelming success of the STAR WARS movies the film industry generally only utilizes Sci-Fi as a shell to make over-sized action movies. Luckily for me, on occasion other kinds of SF stories sometimes slide out of Hollywood.

There have been attempts to make intelligent science fiction films throughout the history of cinema. Long before Kubrick & Clarke crafted 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY movies like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and FORBIDDEN PLANET showed that the genre could support tales deeper than rampaging giant insects or Ming the Merciless surrogates. In the past 30 years some great science fiction films have been made that so little resemble Mr. Lucas’ Republic serial myth as to be unrecognizable as the same type of movie. Films such as the melancholy love story SOLARIS, the religious allegory THE TRUMAN SHOW, the emotional drama about the human will GATTACA, the horrendously dark dystopia BRAZIL and even the social satire about class structure THEY LIVE show filmmakers using the genre to do more than display cool things blowing up.

Unfortunately one of the pitfalls of making a thoughtful science fiction film is that you can commit the cardinal sin that any other thoughtful film can- you can make a boring movie. Such is the sad fate of ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE (a.k.a. THE SPACE MEN). Made in Italy in 1960 by first time director Anthony Margeretti it’s a plodding exercise in tedium that has only a few things to recommend it. The film tries hard to be a thinking man’s tale about the future of space travel but only manages to be cliched and very predictable. The story concerns a 22nd century journalist newly arrived on an orbiting space station. This guy is a bit of a jerk and when he meets his equally jerky commanding officer they (surprise) don’t get along. The reporter pushes his way into things but through dumb luck is in the right place at the right time to rescue a man in a space accident. When the person he saves turns out to be a woman (cue leering glances) he, of course, falls in love only to discover he’s now in a triangle with the stiff necked commander. Then our nosy reporter finds out about a secret mission to Mars and uses his contacts back home to force his way onto the crew. En route the mission is revealed to be an operation to stop a dangerous space ship from crashing into Earth and destroying the entire planet. All of this happens in only 73 minute but a longer 73 minutes you'll be hard pressed to locate. Showing little of the flair for the genre he would demonstrate later in WILD WILD PLANET and WAR OF THE PLANETS Margeretti directs as if every scene needed to be dragged out as long as possible. Pointless, badly written dialog scenes go on forever with cardboard characters mouthing techno babble or idiotic grade school level love speak. My eyes glazed over several times forcing me to back up a minute or two to see if I missed anything vital. I never did.

There is just not much that’s interesting about ASSIGNMENT: OUTER SPACE. There are some well-done miniatures and a few of the special effects are neat. I especially liked the all too brief looks at the misty surface of Mars’ moon Phobos during an attempted rescue. Also, the look of the interiors of the space craft are well done with a futuristic but functional design that rings true even if science in the intervening 46 years has made many of the devices obsolete. The film has a quaint look that occasionally touched this old SF fan boy’s heart. But man! That story is dull dull dull! I guess I shouldn't complain too loudly though. I only paid about 27 cents for a copy on DVD!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Lady Terminator

When you throw a movie called LADY TERMINATOR into the DVD player there are several things you do not expect. Good acting, smart scripting or simple coherency are all things that you would be foolish to demand from a film with such a title. Add in the fact that it was made cheaply in Indonesia and you have a recipe for an alternative classic. That is to say- a film so heinously bad that it swallows its own tail and become great for all the wrong reasons.
One of the few things I did expect from this movie was some sort of (obviously female) killer cyborg tearing across a city in search of something. But did I get a cyborg? Hell no! What we have instead is a hot chick possessed by the spirit of a Witch on the hunt for vengeance. Maybe I should start from the beginning.

Our tale starts about 100 years ago when the South Sea Queen held sway over the land going through husbands at an astonishing rate. The down side to this arrangement is that she kills every man that doesn’t satisfy her sexually by removing his genitalia to put this...with HER genitalia. Seems she can clamp down pretty hard and it looks like a nasty and bloody way to die. Emphasis on the bloody. Finally a man comes (he, he) along that discharges his duty well enough to survive her lustful desires. This clever fellow then craftily removes the Witches powers by pulling what looks like a snake out of to put this carefully....HER nether regions. This of course angers the lustful lady to no end so she vows to return in a 100 years to take revenge on this guy’s descendants. She then disappears and has the sea swallow her castle. End of prelude.

Of course the first thing I thought was ‘Why doesn’t she just kick this guy’s butt right now and end this mess?’ She should have taken that snake thing (that has now turned into a strange glass knife) back and smacked that jumped up cabana boy around. She's the South Sea Queen dammit! She should get medieval on his ass! But instead we cut to the present day (1988 for those wondering) and meet our cast of bland modern characters. There’s Caucasian cop Max from the United States who's still mourning his murdered wife; the hot Caucasian anthropologist Tania researching the South Sea Queen legend; and the female Indonesian disco singer Erica who happens to be the descendant of...well, you already know, don’t you? The anthropologist takes a boat out to search for the submerged castle and (surprise!) is mystically possessed by that evil Queen who then returns to the mainland to immediately start screwing and killing hapless drunken men. She (somehow) tracks down Erica, pulls out an endless series of guns and tries to blow her away. Luckily for the poor innocent diva girl, bland cop Max is present and saves her. He doesn’t save any of the hundreds of other folks that get mown down by an impossible number of bullets but he manages to keep little disco darling alive. Beginning with this first gun battle the film becomes an almost scene for scene copy of James Cameron’s first TERMINATOR film. I was already having a blast with this bizarre film when this started and each stolen sequence only made me happier. By the time they repeated the carve-out-the-eyeball-over-the-sink scene I was in heaven. This is the way rip-off cinema is supposed to be- completely over the top and unafraid of plagiarism lawsuits! I’m not sure why the filmmakers felt the need to fill two of the main three roles with (bad) actors from the US unless it was to make it easier to sell overseas. I don’t even know if this thing played theatrically in the states. At least the anthropologist chick (Barbara Anne Constable) is easy on the eyes and not above supplying gratuitous nudity. I’m hoping the actor playing Max went back to bagging groceries when this was over.

Adapting James Cameron’s first TERMINATOR film to meet the needs of Indonesian myths is indeed a strange mix but if you can lock your brain in party mode there's a lot of fun here. The movie is dumb, filled with terrible dialog and is often just plain ridiculous but it is all these things in a completely charming (albeit R rated) way. Once the mullet haired ex-army buddy shows up with a tank I knew I had found a classic. This is the kind of film I love watching with like-minded friends as we play ‘spot the absurdity’. LADY TERMINATOR provides plenty of absurdity and it's one of my new favorite bad movies. I can’t wait to share its twisted pleasures with the world. Bid thanks to Mondo Macabro for putting this slice of cheesy joy out on DVD.