Thursday, March 9, 2017

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 6

Sci-Fi

Invaders From Mars (1986): I loved this movie as a kid, renting it several times from the local video store. A remake of the beloved 1953 classic, the ’86 “Invaders” hasn’t aged nearly as well; ironically, it’s now almost as old as the original source film was at the time, yet whereas people still recall the ’53 original, the ’86 remake is mostly forgotten. One can see why this is; whereas the original played it mostly straight, the remake goes more for camp, though unevenly so. You’ll have parts of the movie where the main kid is supposed to be scared and runs away screaming, but he’ll be windmilling his arms like he’s in a Three Stooges short and the alien monster looks like something Sid and Marty Krofft created. And speaking of the kid – well, what sinks the ’86 “Invaders” straightaway is the casting of the main kid actor, 12-year-old Hunter Carson. To put it politely, the kid sucks. I mean, his acting is epically bad, and could almost be studied as bad acting taken to an art form. Turns out he was the son of actress Karen Black, who co-stars in the film as the only adult who believes David’s story that Martians have landed nearby (the film takes place solely within Smalltown, California) and are slowly taking over the population.

But the Cold War mindset of the previous film is replaced with more of the vibe of a kid’s movie; Carson, unfortunately, is our sole guide through the film, and thus his horror is intended to be our horror as he watches first his parents and then the other members of his small community turn into mind-controlled Martian underlings. The first hour is quite tedious, and played a whole lot better when I too was just a 12-year-old kid. Watching it now, one can’t help but notice how shoddy the whole thing is, however it would appear that at least some of the actors realized the film was going for a campy vibe. The special effects too look pretty goofy – modern fans try to explain this away by saying the filmmakers intentionally went for bad SFX, so as to pay tribute to the crude effects of the original, but I don’t buy that. No, the monsters look like they just walked out of one of those Sid and Marty productions…which is to say they look friggin’ GREAT!

Because seriously, who wants realism when it comes to alien monsters? These things – and it takes way too damn long to see them – are bulky, bipedal creatures with gaping mouths (memorably, they eat one of the characters…that is, after the character has conveniently fallen into the monster’s mouth) and gnarled, rubbery skin. The Martian leader is a weird brain-type thing whose face reminds me of the mutant leader Kuato in “Total Recall;” in fact I recall this creature being the first thing I thought of when I saw that awesome Arnold flick a few years later. The last half hour is probably the highlight; with realism tossed out the window by this point, it devolves into a long-running action scene of a Marine squad blowing away several of those Martian beasts. The movie retains the dream finale of the original – in fact, one could argue that the surreal, nightmarish quality of the entire film was intentionally done by director Tobe Hooper, right down to the bad, cartoonish acting – but unfortunately the producers put on their “artiste” britches and tried to go for a psych-out climax which only ruins whatever little goodwill they’d earned.

The Tenth Victim (1965): Encapsulating everything that is great about ‘60s Italian movies, “The Tenth Victim” is based on Robert Sheckley’s novel. The movie takes place in an ultramod 21st century in which killing has been legalized, but only if you are a hunter or a runner. Predating such darkly comic action movies as “Robocop” and “The Running Man,” this film is almost surreal in its black humor. It had a pretty nice budget, too, which is obvious. Ursula “Good LORD!” Andress stars as the top killer of the day; you know you’re in ‘60s Italian movie heaven when, within the first five minutes, she’s already stripped down to a sort of aluminum foil bikini and is doing a sensuous dance for a roomful of people. A scene that’s capped off with a crazed ending that was blatantly lifted by Mike Myers in the “Austin Powers” movies.

Her titular tenth victim is Marcello, a top Italian hunter who is operating as a runner for the first time. He is blas√© and aloof and world-weary, etc, but the actor pulls it off with panache. The film is filled with weird touches of humor and the dialog, despite being dubbed in English, is well-performed, intelligent, and often very funny. Ursula Andress though is the star of the show, wearing an assortment of body-clinging ultramod clothes, though nothing beats that crazy bikini in the opening sequence. There isn’t much action per se, just a few random shootouts, but it’s all played on a comedy angle – not a slapstick sort of comedy, but more so just very dark and surreal. And it all looks great on the Blu Ray I viewed.

Eurowar: 

Churchill’s Leopards (1970): For the most part this is a static and uninspired “Dirty Dozen” rip-off, one with a strange twin brother twist. Bland Richard Harrison stars as a German officer (killed in the opening minutes) and also as his twin brother, a British soldier who impersonates him through the movie. Harrison is the vanguard for a squad of British commandos who will parachute in to the occupied French countryside and blow up a dam. Klaus Kinski chews scenery as ever in yet another variation of the sadistic Gestapo bastard he normally played – ironic given that Kinski was jailed in his native Germany during the war years for refusing to become a Nazi. As ever the Italians remember to sex it up, thus we have three incredible Eurobabes: one, a mute hotstuff who seduces the German Harrison twin and indeed kills him while they’re having sex; a vixenish Spanish beauty who is just jaw-droppingly gorgeous and who hooks up with the good British Harrison twin; and finally veteran actress Helga Line, who as usual plays a duplicitous wench.

Otherwise the movie sort of drifts along…Harrison poses as his brother and fools the Germans while working with the British commandos, while meanwhile Kinski becomes suspicious. Midway through we have a tense scene where Harrison’s sultry partisan babe is almost gunned down by Kinski along with a bunch of other natives, but she’s saved in the nick of time – but not by Harrison, who just stands there. Things finally pick up in the final quarter, with a climactic battle along the dam; here we even get some underwater action, as two of the Brits are frogmen who plant the explosives. We also get some phenomenally amateurish “special effects” in the dam explosion, which is clearly a model. Otherwise “Churchill’s Leopards” is not the best exampe of the Eurowar genre, but it is boosted by three incredible Eurobabes.

Dirty Heroes (1967): One of the first and definitely the biggest of the “Dirty Dozen” rip-offs made in Italy, “Dirty Heroes” covers all the war movie bases: it’s a gripping wartime drama with intrigue, a prisoner of war flick, a suicide commando squad flick, and even a heist flick. In fact it has so much that one wishes they’d just focused on one storyline. It certainly had a nice budget, though, and it’s two-hour length puts it in the realm of Hollywood’s WWII productions of the day. The heist stuff takes center stage; hero Sesame is an American con from Chicago who, in complete deus ex machina, runs into his old crime pals in Occupied Europe. One of them’s even posing as a Nazi guard in the POW camp Sesame happens to be in at the opening of the movie! Using the gorgeous Daniela Biancha (“From Russia With Love”), who happens to be married to a German general (played by another Bond film actor, Curd Jurgens, later to play the villain in “The Spy Who Loved Me”).

Too many subplots and “gripping drama” detract from the film, but it features a great underwater sequence where Sesame and pals don frogman gear and swim in the canals beneath Amsterdam. Also on hand is yet another Bond actor, Adolfo “Thunderball” Celli, here playing a Dutch resistance leader who works with Sesame to steal back a bunch of Dutch diamonds from the Nazis. The film climaxes with a big action scene that again tosses reality out the window as our handful of heroes stave off an SS force with just a few submachine guns. But even this peters out into more drama subplots; there’s even a budding romance subplot between Sesame and Daniela Bianchi’s character. Overall “Dirty Heroes” certainly has a nice budget and looks good, and could hold its own with a Hollywood war movie of the day, but I prefer the more streamlined “men on a mission” storylines more common of EuroWar.

Five For Hell (1969) – My favorite example of an Italian “Dirty Dozen” ripoff yet, “Five For Hell” is basically a violent cartoon. Our titular five heroes are American GIs who must retrieve documents from the Nazis deep in Italy. They’re the typical oddball squad: an acrobat (who looks uncannily like Michael Biehn, from “The Terminator”), a hulking stooge, an Italian-American safecracker, and a cowardly demo expert. Their leader is a gun-chewing stoic badass given to hurling baseballs with such deadly accuracy that he can kill men with them. Heading up the Nazis is scenery-chewing Klaus Kinski, who delivers his lines with relish, even dubbing his own voice. British babe Margaret Lee appears as Helga, a Nazi clerical worker who in reality works for the partisans. She’s ruthless, too; when she reveals to a comrade that his cover’s been blown, she whips out a gun and blows him away!

There’s plentiful action as the heroes make their way through Italy, leading up to a break-in/heist in the villa the Germans have taken over – Margaret Lee’s job is to screw Kinski so he doesn’t notice the intruder alarm’s going off. The movie climaxes with a several-minute action scene which sees plentiful submachine gun fire, almost prefiguring Arnold’s “Commando” as the heroes leap across the beautiful villa grounds, gunning down hordes of Nazis. The acrobat even gets in a few flying flips while shooting his grease gun. “Five For Hell” is a stellar example of the Euro War genre, and it’s even more entertaining than “The Dirty Dozen.”

Ice Station Zebra (1968): This isn’t Eurowar, but what the heck; it’s a big, hugely-budgeted Cold War flop that’s most remembered as being one of Howard Hughes’s obsessions (he supposedly wore out several copies of the film, sent to him directly from MGM, watching them over and over). For whatever reason MGM took a simple suspense-action tale from novelist Alistair MacLean and blew it up to roadshow proportions, a la “Ben Hur.” The pacing is as glacial as the ice captain Rock Hudson navigates his nuclear sub through; also along for the ride are Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan as a shady government operative, a grim-faced Jim Brown, and a scenery-chewing Ernest Borgnine. The first hour and a half concerns itself with the ponderous voyage of the sub as it heads for the titular ice station, which has gone incommunicado and supposedly has suffered some mysterious misfortunes. 

After the intermission we get to the north pole, which was created on a sound stage, and infamously so – despite the huge budget spent on the set, with swirling snow and big mountains of ice and heavy-duty winter gear for the characters, the breath of the actors isn’t even visible! Despite the fact that it’s well below freezing here. And yet this artificial look adds a surreal layer to the film; in this regard the movie harkens back to the studio-bound sets of Hollywood’s golden age. The whole film seems to be made on the idea that “something might possibly happen!”, but it’s really just endless delays and stalling. Even the final confrontation with the Russian paratroopers peters out into more dialog, with the eventual action scene relegated to some chaotic shooting and none of the marines or paratroopers getting killed. The costumes are cool, though, and despite the lack of thrills I prefer the second half to the first, with cool model work for the Russian jets (which despite it all look like toys – but still better than CGI!). Personally I like to imagine Hughes watched the film so many times because he was delivering his own MST3K-style riffs.

Probability Zero (1969): After the success of “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967 the Italians turned from Eurospy to Eurowar, aka Spaghetti War, WWII films which featured oddball squads on suicide missions behind enemy lines. This is one of the best I’ve seen, shot on location in Norway and featuring a plethora of WWII action. Henry “I’m playing a good guy for once” Silva stars as Duke, a badass American commando whose mission is to retrieve top-secret radar technology from a crashed fighter plane which has been captured by the Nazis and hidden away in an impenetrable fortress. Allied Intelligence gives Duke’s plan to recapture the radar a “probability zero” chance of success. But what the hell, let’s try it anyway. Off Duke goes to put together his oddball squad, from a mountaineer plagued by cowardice to an Italian POW.

Character depth is minimal, with the less-than-90-minute runtime given more to suspense and action. And there’s a fair bit of variety to the action, from a fight on a boat to even an underwater sequence – whereas the majority of these Spaghetti War movies occur in the desert, this one makes the most of its Norway setting with a sequence where Duke’s team suits up in frogman gear and infiltrates the German base underwater. There’s also a Eurobabe in attendance, a blonde who plays a member of the Norwegian resistance. Her assignment is to screw the commander of the German base while Duke’s team is carrying out its mission. In true “Dirty Dozen” style the finale features a lot of fireworks, with lots of good guys buying it alongside the Nazis. While it could’ve used a little more depth, “Probability Zero” is still a fun and short example of Eurowar done right – and it’s everything Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” should’ve been.

3 comments:

Johny Malone said...

The eurowar has a strong espionage component. It's almost a derivative of the spy cinema.

Unknown said...

I gotta disagree profoundly with your critique of Invaders From Mars. One of my favorite flicks as a kid, still one of my faves today. How, how, how can you not love Louise freakin' Fletcher eating a frog??? Sure, it's a B movie, but B doesn't always equal bad...

halojones-fan said...

How would you say Eurowar compares to Eurospy? The spy movies seem to go very strongly in their own direction (as compared to James Bond source material), do you think the war movies do that too or are they more closely held to Dirty Dozen or Guns Of Navaronne?