Wednesday, June 25, 2014

“Books! That's what started this whole apocalypse!”

Oh Italy. Italy, Italy, Italy. Home of so many low-budget B-movie knock-offs of popular genre films. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior came out in 1981, and I nuovi barari AKA The New Barbarians AKA Warriors of the Wasteland followed soon after in 1983.

So there's this murderous gang of dudes driving around in dune buggies and bikes rampaging across the wasteland. They have big hair, even bigger shoulder pads, and follow a madman who blames humanity for bringing about the apocalypse. For that, their leader, the unimaginatively named One (George Eastman), has decided that Mankind must die. He's assisted by Shadow (Ennio Giorlami as “Thomas Moore”) who has a silly blonde mohawk wig, and Mako (Massimo Vanni), who has an even larger black mohawk wig. And the whole death cult wear white jumpsuits with HUGE shoulder pads.

Standing (well, driving) in their way is Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete as “Timothy Brent”), a wanderer and scavenger, he's also not interested in killing all of humanity. He is interested in killing One's Templars, so he's our hero. He's got a tricked out car with a giant plastic bubble installed on the roof. I don't know why. He rescues Alma (Anna Kanakis) a random wastelander, from the Templars, and looks for medical attention to her. They're rescued from Templars by Nadir, who is easily the best character in the movie. Nadir is ex-football star and B-movie star extraordinaire Fred Williamson, armed with a bow, gold armor, a gold circlet, and a shit-eating grin. He's not a great actor, but he's an enthusiastic one, and seems to be aware of exactly the kind of movie he's in and is happy to cash the paycheck.

The three find a community of peaceful not-Quakers who are led by Father Moses (Nenantino Venantini) and believe in something called god. They also believe in the Signal, which is some kind of radio transmission coming from somewhere in the wasteland and indicates hope that there might be someplace in the world that isn't a rocky quarry.

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari, the movie is obviously a low budget cheapie. Filmed primarily in a gravel pit and a country road. There is one car, a handful of motorcycles and a couple dune buggies with ridiculous metal plates bolted on. A lot of mannequins get shot and blown up. Scorpion and Alma make love in a transparent inflatable tent. As I mentioned, the Templars have absurd costumes with giant shoulder pads and giant hair. For the final battle, Scorpion wears an articulated, transparent plastic cuirasse over his bare torso because...its bulletproof? And yet the movie moves at a rapid clip and doesn't bog down much in exposition before heading to the next ridiculous scene. That makes it noteworthy.

What's more noteworthy, but for different reasons, is the incredibly awkward scene where, oh yeah....



After capturing Scorpion, One sodomizes him before the rest of the Templars. Now, you don't see any penetration, but it happens. Its weird, uncomfortable, and comes out of nowhere. What's stranger is that its also the scene that makes the most out of actual direction and cinematography to create an unpleasant atmosphere. There's multiple colored lights in the background, heavy use of shadows, and rapid cuts to extreme close ups of various people. Its the one scene of the film that artistically “goes for it,” and its the sodomizing scene. That is bizarre.


Written by Tito Carpi (of several Sartana movies and various other Spaghetti-Exploitation films), Enzo G. Castellari and Antonio Visone. The plot is lazy but functional, aping standard post-apocalyptic struggle-to-survive stories and conventions.

Then there's the whole “the Templars are genocidal, homosexual atheists” thing. I will say that's not something I've ever really seen before in a movie, so, uh, points for originality. They contrast with the peaceful, god-fearing, heterosexual settlers, but I'm not really sure there's an actual message to that. The caravan people are a stock element fresh out of Westerns, and their faith is alien to Scorpion and Nadir, who side with them because they're not murderous maniacs like the Templars. I honestly think the Templars' “mission statement” was something quickly slapped together to provide them with easy villainous motivation and that's it.

Music by Claudio Simonetti. Its the standard low-budget 80s fare. Synths, guitars, the usual. The guns (which are regular guns) have pew pew noises. Everyone is dubbed over. All of the cars have this phony engine drone dubbed over them, because THE FUTURE.

The Verdict

Warriors of the Wasteland is an awful movie, yet a bizarrely watchable one. It moves quickly, is full of (idiotic) action scenes and car chases, and it lends itself to mockery so well. I wouldn't say its incompetently made, more lazy and cheap. A simple cash in that aspires to little more. Come for the giant shoulder pads, but stay for Fred Williamson, who appears to be the only actor having fun in the film. Oh, but what fun he has. 

Why? No reason.

Monday, June 16, 2014

“I'm your home now, kid.”

I had heard about 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars for some time as one of many, many 80s Star Wars imitators. Which is fine, that's a legitimate genre as far as I'm concerned, and one I can approve of. What sold me on this movie as something worth seeing was that it was the movie that got James Cameron (and a number of other talented film people) a start in Hollywood. He did this by designing a spaceship that looks like a set of Fallopian tubes with a pair of boobs attached.

Because this is a Roger Corman production and Cameron accurately guessed that it was a design that Corman would give a green light to. That's why.

It's The Magnificent Seven/The Seven Samurai in space. Literally, figuratively, and actually. Evil empire comes to peaceful farming planet (named Akir, no less, as a nod to Akira Kurosawa), demands they surrender and bullies them. Naive farm boy heads off in search for help to fend off the bad guys. That's pretty much it, except instead of Steve McQueen, it's got a talking spaceship with boobs.

Shad: Richard Thomas (most notably John-Boy on The Waltons) is our hero. A Wide-eyed, naïve idealist, he's still got the stones to volunteer to venture off into space without a plan of action to desperately seek help. Despite this, he can't really shake off his people's peaceful nature, so he's kind of a weenie and I'm not really sold on Thomas' performance.

Nanelia: Darlanne Fluegel lives on a space station that Shad reaches. She's a talented engineer and the station is populated by robots and her crazy old dad, Dr. Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) who's a head in a jar and wants Shad to settle down with his daughter and populate the space station. Shad's like “You're really pretty but I've gotta go do this thing for my planet,” so he leaves and she follows him in her own spaceship and eventually meets up with him and becomes his love interest.

Cowboy: George Peppard (The original Hannibal Smith from The A-Team) is a literal space trucker from Earth. Shad finds him under attack by space pirates, bails him out, and cuts a deal with him. Cowboy will deliver his shipment of weapons to Akir to help them out (It helps that the planet he was originally delivering them to got blown up by the bad guys). Cowboy is a droll, easygoing, swaggering cowboy, and definitely stands out from the rest of the cast.

Gelt: Robert Vaughn (from The Magnificen Seven) plays a ruthless gunslinger assassin who's so deadly and infamous that he's wanted across the galaxy and has to hole up in a run-down, abandoned Space Vegas. Shad recruits him by offering him a meal and a place to hide. Gelt's odd because Vaughn is essentially playing the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, but it feels a bit phoned in.

Cayman: Morgan Woodward plays a reptilian alien from the Lambda Zone. He's a slaver and mercenary, and he captures Nanelia with the intention of selling her for food. Until he learns that she's gathering people to taken on Sador, who exterminated the rest of his race. Cayman wants revenge, and has a running crew that includes two short aliens called Kelvin. They communicate in waves of heat and don't have ears. Cayman keeps them around because he's cold-blooded.

Nestor: Nestor is a hive mind, and is portrayed by several actors. Most notably Earl “The Zombie Pirate LeChuck” Boen is the lead Nestor. Nestor signs up for the mission because its bored.

St. Exmin: The extremely well-endowed Sybil Danning plays a Valkyrie warrior who lusts for battle and has a tight-fitting costume, I mean ship. She tracks down Shad and wants to join up with him because she longs for glorious battle. He mostly ignores her, despite her being a good fighter, and she obsessively follows him back to Akir and he finally relents and lets her join the group. She's the only one Shad treats like garbage, so obviously she wants to bang him and make a real man out of him, and he's completely not interested in her and repulsed by her violent ways. He does eventually give her some respect at least.

Nell: Lynn Carlin voices the sentient spaceship that takes Shad on his journey of recruitment. She's a gung-ho gal eager to be taken out of mothballs for an adventure. She also provides Shad with motherly advice and is constantly cajoling him to grow a pair and fight back against the villains. Nell's fun.

Emperor Sador of the Malmori: John Saxon is no stranger to hamming in B movies, and he's in full swing here. Sador is a cruel tyrant with an obsession with conquering anything he can and living forever. He does the first by flying his bigass spaceship around and telling planets they belong to him now and shooting lasers at the populace just to prove he can. He does the second by replacing his old body parts with new ones. A subordinate does something wrong? Sador's got a new foot. That sort of thing. He's a cartoonish villain, but that's what this kind of movie needs, and Saxon's fun to watch in it. Oh yeah, and he's got a weird mark/scar/tattoo over one eye, sort of like Sub-Zero had in Mortal Kombat 3.

Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, who worked a lot in animation as an animator and director (he was co-director of The Snowman Christmas short. You know, the famous one, with the kid and the snowman flying around and stuff?) Anyway, Battle Beyond the Stars feels like the most lavish Corman production I've ever seen, which almost might be damning it with faint praise. It cost $2 million to make, so there's A LOT rough around the edges in terms of costumes and visual effects, but that was a lot of money for a Corman film.

While the effects are clearly a step down from what was being done in Star Wars, there are a lot of them: alien costumes, sets, models, lasers, explosions, rear projection stuff. It was all done on the cheap, but involved a lot of young talent (like James Cameron) that was out to prove itself, and it shows. The filmmakers managed to pull off a lot of with not a lot of resources, and it looks okay. Not great, certainly, but competent, where it would have been easy for it to look terrible.

Story by John Sayles & Anne Dyer, screenplay by John Sayles (who is still a working screenwriter whose credits include The Howling). The plot is beyond derivative in this, directly lifting its main beats from The Magnificent Seven. Character work is also a little iffy. Shad is a putz, but he's not a tremendously likable one. He's a nice kid who's trying to do right, but he passes naïve and goes straight into dense. Nell is kind of the only character with real three dimensionality, and she's a spaceship with boobs.

Shallow characters and plot aside, the script features a lot of interesting Sci-Fi ideas that haven't been done to death in space opera. The Kelvin are a fantastic concept. They can't speak or hear, but communicate in heatwaves. That's weird. That's alien. And it leads to a fun visual gag where the two of them are being used as a campfire. The hyper intelligent, hyper advanced Nestor is is this weird, benevolent thing and oddly enough a source of a lot of humor.

Whenever the movie lets the weirdness through, it benefits, because those touches are what set it aside from just being The Magnificent Seven in space (Though like its inspiration, it does end on a melancholy note which really doesn't sit with the whimsical adventure themes of ADVENTURE! earlier in the film).

This was James Horner's first real soundtrack gig, and like the production crew, he was out to prove something. The score is raucous, sweeping, bombastic, and perfect space opera fare. Yes, Horner has a reputation for recycling a lot of his own material, but the Battle Beyond the Stars music just oozes fun, and its hard not to like his work.

Battle Beyond the Stars is a competently and enthusiastically made B-level Sci-Fi space opera. Not earthshaking, profound, or deeply intelligent, it is charming as hell, and an interesting starting point for a lot of people who would go on to do bigger and better things. It's got lasers and space battles and explosions and aliens and Sybil Danning's boobs trying to pop out of her costumes. It's a lot of fun and totally recommended, even if the ending is kind of a downer because the source material demands it.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

“What exactly is an interocitor?”

1955's This Island Earth is famous/infamous for being the subject of MST3K: The Movie. Which is fair. It is a dated 50's Sci-Fi movie, after all. It was also a hit in its day, and one of the better regarded Sci-Fi movies from that era. Let's pretend that I haven't seen MST3K: The Movie umpteen times and look at this for its own merits.

American scientist assembles a mysterious piece of technology. A mysterious man Skype calls him through said device and recruits him into a mysterious science think tank project, he is transported by a mysterious automated plane to mysterious Georgia, where everyone acts mysteriously. Surprise! His benefactor is an alien scientist who's outsourcing nuclear research in the hope of saving his planet from destruction. Then they go to space.

Dr. Cal Meacham: The awesomely named Rex Reason is our manly-voiced, square-jawed 50's Science Hero. Handsome, a leading physiscist in the field of atomic energy, and able to own and operate a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star/F-94 Starfire (not sure if its the trainer or fighter) for his own private use. Aside from building the interocitor and piecing together that its no ordinary think tank that he joins, he doesn't really DO much besides bear witness to strange events and then get all grumpy and uncooperative on Metaluna. Maybe its because he got third billing?

Dr. Ruth Adams: Faith Domergue is the pretty young physicist who is second best at atomic research (behind Meacham). She and Cal have some history together and their romance rekindles as they get drawn into the web of mystery. Unfortunately, once they get to space, she turns into a standard 50's leading lady, where most of what she does is scream, fearfully grab onto Cal for support, and get chased around by alien monsters. Such were the times.

Exeter: Jeff Morrow plays the actual hero of the movie because he actually does proactive things. Exeter is a brilliant scientist from the planet Metaluna (a world of big foreheads and white hair). In charge of researching ways to create atomic energy, he sends instructions and parts for an interocitor to prospective scientists as a test. If they can assemble it, he calls them up and recruits them. He does this because Metaluna is under attack by a hostile alien race called the Zagons (we never see any actual Zagons) who are bombarding Metaluna's planetary shields. Exeter is benevolent, charming, and a solid guy. Only problem is the rest of the Metalunans (including his assistant Brack and his boss the Monitor) aren't, and are happy to use mind control to ensure cooperation. He's a man torn beteween his duty to his planet, and his fondness for humans, and is by far the most interesting character.

The Metaluna MuTant: God I love this guy. A giant bug monster, the product of selective breeding and genetic engineering by Metalunans to create a servitor creature out of insects. “He” only shows up near the end of the movie as an obstacle to our heroes as they flee Metaluna. He's blue, he's red, he's got crab claws, and he's got a big ol' noggin. It's a fantastic design, hampered only by limitations of the costume, such as giving him baggy pants, and that giant head probably didn't do the actor's center of gravity any favors.

And according to Wikipedia, that bastion of accurate information, there's Coleman Francis in a small role in the film. Francis is infamous for directing a trilogy of incompetent films that include The Beast of Yucca Flats, but that's a tale for another time.

Directed by Joseph M. Newman and Jack Arnold (for reshoots). The first thing that pops out is the Technicolor. It's vibrant and beautiful. The second thing that pops out is the special effects. Those are, generally speaking, less beautiful. Rear projection stuff, flying saucer models, the rubber forehead Metalunans, the MuTant, that sort of thing. It all works, but its also got “1950's Special Effects with a modest budget” written all over it. It all never *quite* looks as good as the visual design wants it to look. The technology, Metaluna's alien landscape, all of these are pretty great, actually. Still, the effects are serviceable, and to laugh them off outright is blaming the past for being the past. For 2014, the effects are hokey. For 1955, they're one of the better examples.

Screenplay by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan, and based on “The Alien Machine” by Raymond F. Jones. The dialogue can be frequently hokey, but its serviceable. The first part of the movie feels more like a thriller with the constant air of mystery that is only spoiled by the knowledge that this is a sci-fi movie, and by Exeter and company's giant inhuman foreheads.

What's more interesting (from a Sci-Fi standpoint) are the ideas. The interocitor is a goofy piece of technology, but nowadays we can literally make video calls over a computer and webcam anywhere in the world (and into orbit). We all have interocitors. It is an everyday thing now. We. All. Have. Interocitors. They just can't shoot deadly beams of energy yet, but its my understanding that Google is working on that problem. There's other neat stuff too, like how Metaluna uses atomic energy to power its planetary shield, and so on. Some really out there concepts. Questionable scientifically, but leading to fun ideas in a visual medium. Also, then ending's a downer.

The Sounds
Music by uncredited Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein. That is a solid pedigree of Sci-Fi music, and it shows. Well, not “shows,” you can't see the soundtrack, but you know what I mean. Its not JUST Theremin. Bombastic orchestral tracks accompany the Theremin, though its hard not to go NORMAL VIEW! NORMAL VIEW! NORMAL VIEEEEEWWWWWWWWW!! at the right moment.

The Verdict

This Island Earth is not an outright bad movie, which is a shame, since MST3K gives it that rap. Within the context of its time, it is considerably better than many of its contemporaries. It moves at a sharp clip, is competently shot, has a good visual style, and its not just people in lab coats sitting around a set and talking for 40 minutes.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

“I'll file a report tomorrow.”

The archetype of the buddy cop action flick and Eddie Murphy's big screen debut and from the director of The Warriors. Yeah, sure, I'll watch 1982's 48 Hrs.

San Francisco Detective Jack Cates (Nick Nolte) is having a bad day. Violent criminal Albert Ganz (James Remar, Ajax from The Warriors) escapes from a chain gang with the help of Billy Bear (Sonny Landham, Billy from Predator) and the two go on a crime spree, killing a few cops with Cates' own gun, oh, and he had an argument with his girlfriend Elaine (Anette O'Toole). More than just being two crooks on a tear, Ganz and Bear are finding their old gang members, and killing them, except Luther (David Patrick Kelly, a different Luther from The Warriors), whom they bully into helping them look for something. Cates wants to get revenge for the dead cops and one of Ganz' former buddies, Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy), is the only real lead he has left. Problem is, Hammond's in jail. So Cates secures a temporary parole for Hammond, leaving the two with only 48 Hours (DUN DUN DUN!) to stop Ganz.

Directed by Walter Hill, a man who is no stranger to action movies. He made The Warriors, and the Warriors is fantastic. He even reused several actors from The Warriors (Remar, Landham and Kelly). Anyway, this is a well constructed action movie. Grittier than I expected, regarding the tone. The gritty streets of San Francisco and the early 80s neon nights is a part of that, but the action goes for a more brutal realism (not Verhoeven-level squibs) and the two main characters (Cates in particular) get beaten up quite a lot and get outwitted at numerous points. Lots of great physical effects, lots of fisticuffs, and not a whole lot of humor. 

Considering this was Eddie Murphy's breakout movie, I expected more yuks. Most of the comic relief comes from Murphy himself, and he does a fine job because he's not just a comic relief character. As a screen debut, its quite good because it shows the ability to do the comedy he's well known for while also reaching into more serious territory.

It does have an angry police captain though, so there's some comedy there too.

Written by Roger Spottiswoode and Walter Hill & Larry Gross and Steven E. de Souza. While the movie goes for a gritty tone for the setting and events, the villains end up being...cartoonish. Ganz is a psycopath who would rather watch cartoons than bang a hooker. Billy Bear is little more than a henchman who happens to be Native American. The real character work comes with the interactions between Cates and Hammond. The two can't be more different. Cates is a grizzled, gruff, trainwreck of a human being who is still an honest cop. Hammond is a slick, fast-talking, stylish conman who's always trying to keep secrets and play an angle. Naturally the two hate each other, but learn to grudgingly respect each other. Considering the year (1982), its amazing how fertile the Buddy-Cop movie becomes down the road (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard with a Vengeance, most things Shane Black is involved in), but it kind of originated here.

Music by James Horner. Steel drums, just like in Commando! Okay, not to the same extent as Commando, but they do show up. The James Horner score is quite good, but doesn't quite reach iconic status.


48 Hrs. is good. The action scenes are well done, the pace moves brusquely, and the solid character work between Nolte and Murphy really invests you in what's going on. I now understand the reason why its the archetype of buddy cop movies. Recommended.