Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Brute Man (1946) – MST3K Review


Summary:
This episode starts with a short film entitled The Chicken of Tomorrow. No this has nothing to do with the television series Robot Chicken, instead it is a documentary about the poultry business. Watch and learn about what it takes to breed a better chicken, to get the most eggs from your hen and all the modern advances that make chicken farming such a popular and profitable career option.

The Brute Man is a black and white thriller that follows The Creeper (Rondo Hatton) as he creeps, and stalks and kills! His real name is Hal Moffet and before he was a cold blooded killer he was the captain of the college football team and in love with the popular blonde in the school. But a moment of jealousy and anger end up with Moffet being doused with a chemical that mutates his face and body. Now he’s angry about his disfigurement and hunts down those that were responsible.

The whole city is in a panic because of The Creeper, and the police almost catch him. During a chase, he dodges into the apartment of a lovely blind woman named Helen (Jane Adams). Because she can’t see his face, she doesn’t fear Moffet. Suddenly The Creeper wonders if he can maybe do some good in his own way, and help Helen. But revenge is calling and eventually The Brute Man may end up destroying Helen as well as himself.

Movie Review:

Mike and bots witness hot incubator action!
What can you say about The Chicken of Tomorrow that isn’t covered by its ostentatious title? Made in 1948 the film promises a thrill a minute as it delves into the world of poultry raising. It proceeds just about how you’d expect for a documentary of that era. It covers the life of the chicken of tomorrow from the egg to the auction house. It discuses some of the innovations of machinery and techniques that make the “old hen house” seem like a distant relic. Highlights include “special photography” used to show the developing chick in an egg, and a scene where a chicken talks like Mae West.

Probably the biggest oddity in the film is that it keeps coming back to the “automotive industry and the quality petroleum products” that help fuel the poultry business. You begin to wonder just who sponsored this film, especially when the Texico fill-up station is featured so prominently.

The Creeper gets in touch with his softer side.
The Brute Man is a bit of noire horror fluff that never really takes off. In some ways it seems like a vehicle for Rondo Hatton to expand his acting from a simple monster into a more rounded type of character. On the flip side it’s just another film that tries to exploit Rondo’s looks to make him a villain.

Normally this type of thing isn’t a huge surprise, but Rondo Hatton is a special case. He was suffering from an illness called acromegaly. This disease affects the pituitary gland and causes external features to grow abnormally. It is a painful and potentially deadly disease. This was Hatton’s last film and he died due to complications from the disease. With all that in mind, it makes it a little hard to enjoy the film on any level.

Looking past that, the film itself just isn’t very good. The Brute Man clocks in at under an hour, but for some reason it is packed with padding sequences. It can’t decide if it wants The Creeper to be the main character, or maybe the two bumbling cops pursuing him, or maybe the folks he’s trying to kill. By constantly switching perspectives the viewer the pacing ends up feeling pretty choppy. The police scenes are the worst; they slow the action down to a crawl, and don’t amount to much. All we figure out is that these two bozos don’t know how to catch the creeper.

The script has Helen play blind as also kinda dumb.
But the scenes with Hatton aren’t so hot either. Hatton was obviously in pain during the filming of the movie, and he is moving very slowly. This means that the camera is moving slowly, even during chase scenes. The director must have decided to go “extra noire” because many of the scenes are filmed at night. Between that and the age of the print, the screen becomes a mix of dark grey blobs moving on darker grey blobs with some black patches to add dimension. It ends up looking like an eye test from Hades.

But the real topper is the whole fire escape scene… or should I say scenes. The creeper escapes into an alleyway three different times. We get to see him climb up the fire escape, in darkness each time. It’s not exciting, or interesting, or much of anything really. I’m just really puzzled why the director felt that seeing this scene more than once would add anything to the movie, other than pad the running time.

There are a few good moments in The Brute Man. The scenes where the Creeper interacts with the blind Helen are actually handled well. Adams does a good job in the part (even if her dialogue is a bit silly at times). Hatton does a good job too, showing a more compassionate side to his character. I get the feeling he liked trying something a bit different than his typical maniacal killer role. It’s also interesting to see this element as a basis for a similar relationship in the films Manhunter and Red Dragon.

The craggy grocer provides the best unintentional laughs.
Then there are the scenes with the angry grocer and his young clerk. The grocer is so over the top in his crotchety nature that you can’t help but laugh. It is almost like you are watching a completely different movie, some odd coming of age comedy. Of course these characters have very little to do with the plot. It ends up turning into a pointless padding scene. But at least hey provide some amusement.

The movie finally creeps to its finish and you’re left feeling kinda bored and kinda sad that this was Hatton’s final film. His memory has been preserved and he has inspired quite a few villains in future films (check out the henchman in The Rocketeer for a Creeper look-alike). It’s a good thing we have Mike and bots on hand to provide some laughs.

Episode Review:  
Never before has film captures the grandeur of chickens.
This was the second episode of the extremely short season seven. So this means you’ve got riffers at the top of their game and writing crew to match. For the most part every episode in season seven is a winner, but there is always an exception to the rule. Unfortunately the Brute Man is that exception.

But first you have The Chicken of Tomorrow. Since this appeared to be the last short film the crew was ever going to tackle (their future on Sci-fi Channel was not yet assured) I get the feeling they just went from broke on this one. And boy did it pay off. This has to be one of the funniest shorts they did. Although I admit the first time I watched it, I was so puzzled by the bizarre short that I missed most of the riffing.

This little movie moves quickly and is constantly providing something new for the boys to work with. From scenes with hundreds of little chicks running around in straw to the final moments where an auctioneer who looks like Ross Perot starts shouting at the screen, you’ve got a gold mine of riffing.

Autos and petroleum get name dropped a lot in this odd
short.
When the title is revealed Tom quips, “The Chicken of Tomorrow in a deadly battle against the chicken of today”. During a scene where we see a chick hatching from an egg Mike says, “I hate it when people tape their own deliveries”. They are agog when the chicken talks like Mae West, I think it provided some serious nightmare fuel for them. They also have a blast with the voice over. The man keeps pausing in almost Shatner-esque ways. This allows the boys to add all kinds of dialogue. One of my favorites is when the voice says, “Wait a minute, you may ask yourself,” and Crow adds, “Why am I watching this?”

Well one of the reasons is to learn how clean eggs fetch a better price at market than dirty eggs. So Crow declares, “Lick your eggs clean, or have a friend lick them.” I’m sad to say that this line has become a catchphrase around our house whenever someone mentions cleaning anything. In the end Mike declares, “Eggs are complicated. They should cost 100 dollars each!” Well I wouldn’t go that far, but the riffing for The Chicken of Tomorrow is worth its weight in gold… or maybe chicken nuggets.

Why doesn't she have a problem with him sneaking
into her apartment three different times?
As for the feature film, well the movie does it’s best to scuttle the riffing. Between the slow pacing and the dark grey on black scenes there just isn’t much for the boys to work with. And yet, they come to the table with plenty of riffs and fire them in rapid succession. In previous slogfests like The Beast of Yucca Flats, Starfighters or Racket Girls this ends up creating it’s own momentum and can help the whole affair. But as valiantly as the boys try the movie is just to dower to really click.

A lot of jokes are based off of Hatton’s appearance. I’m not sure if the writing crew didn’t know about his illness, or if they decided they couldn’t riff The Brute Man without commenting on it. Hell, they did a similar thing whenever they tackled a movie with Richard Kael (like Eegah). But for some reason, it just seems in bad taste in Hatton’s case. I think it is because he is obviously in pain, moving so slowly and carefully through the film. I can’t say that some of the jokes didn’t make me chuckle like when Mike wonders if Moffet and his buddies went “bobbing for anvils” to get their faces that way. Crow comments that his profile looks like an Easter Island statue, and then later calls him Big Head Todd is the Monster.

Other times they just have fun with the fact that everyone in the movie keeps calling him The Creeper. When Hatton reaches his hideout and leans against a wall Mike quips, “What a day, I’m all creeped out.” I also like when Mike speaks for Helen with, “Creeper… may I call you Creep?” When our anti-hero is wandering around the bustling streets, with the cops supposedly out in force looking for him, Mike and the bots keep making the locals call out, “Top of the morning to you Creeper, old boy”, or “Have a murder filled day Creeper.” Or just, “Hey Creeper!” Mike declares that the movie would have moved a lot faster if they had called him The Jaguar instead.

Before Moffet was mutated into the Creeper, he was
a regular college joe.
They also try their best when The Brute Man gets visually dark. Often they try to guess what is going on, coming up with hilariously outrageous things. They speculate on what the director was trying to accomplish with the repetition of the fire escape scenes. In the end Tom wonders if the film “takes place in Alaska and filmed in winter… since there is never any sun!”

But the sequence that is the highlight of the show is the amazingly cranky performance by the old grocer berating his young clerk. Much like the bizarrely annoyed psychic in Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders this old fellow rants and raves at his young employee for no reason at all. Mike and the bots have a field day with this surly man and provide all kinds of additional dialogue for him. The old guy even captures the spot in the end of show stinger. 



My favorite riff comes from Crow who reflects on how Moffet becomes deformed because of an accident in chemistry class. “You know, none of this would have happened if Chemistry wasn’t a required course.” True enough my gold friend, true enough.

The episode starts with Tom Servo on the phone with his real estate agent and buying a duplex. Mike thinks this is going to end in tears. Back at the mad scientists’ lair, Dr. Forrester discovers that his mother Pearl is going out on a date with a sleazy guy named Sandy (played with verve by Paul Chaplin). Before Pearl goes, she puts Crow (who she is still calling Art) in charge of everyone – even Dr. Forrester. Of course the irony there is that Trace Beaulieu was playing both parts. At the first break, Tom is inspired by The Chicken of Tomorrow to encase himself in a giant egg. Mike knocks it over (the oaf!) and it’s a real mess. At the next break Mike tries to call his old girlfriend for help. But her little boy answers the phone and it all goes downhill from there. When we catch up with the boys again, Crow is inspired by the fact that one of actors looks kinda like Thomas Dewey. So he creates a song… Tom and Mike aren’t impressed. The episode ends with Tom attempting to be a landlord for his duplex and failing miserably. It does end in tears. Meanwhile Dr. Forrester turns the sleazy Sandy into a chicken of tomorrow.

Tom Servo may become, the Robot of Tomorrow!

For me this ends up being an average episode. The riffing of The Brute Man is solid, but the film itself just doesn’t lend itself too well to the whole process. However it is well worth checking out The Chicken of Tomorrow riffing.

I give it three Mae West talking chickens out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXII

Monday, July 22, 2013

Top Ten - Science Fiction Film Endings


Well John Kenneth Muir is at it again, asking for reader opinions on the top 10 greatest endings in Science Fiction film history. The responses were interesting and seemed to have a certain slant toward John Carpenter of all people! Check out the results here.

I had to throw in my 2 cents, but this one was a bit tougher to decide on. Unlike my lists for greatest science fiction characters in film or greatest science fiction films, I found I had to mull this one over a bit. I also didn’t have a favorite versus greatest list situation this time. Because let’s face it, a great ending is a great ending. I did have to throw some anime for good measure.

So here is my list with some accompanying remarks:

10. Galaxy Quest – 1999
The ultimate in fan wish fulfillment makes this one of my favorite endings to a movie. Not only does the goofy super-fan get to help his heroes save the day, but those same heroes crash land in the middle of a huge sci-fi convention, in a working spaceship, and then defeat the villain once and for all. It’s the perfect ending to one of the best sci-fi comedies I’ve ever seen.

9. The End of Evangelion  - 1997
While you could consider this entire film to be the ending of the series, the final minutes make a huge impact on the viewer. Shinji Ikari literally destroys the world and remakes it to suit him. Since he is a depressive, shattered human being, his ideal world is desolate except for an ocean of blood, crucified Evangelions and a girl who says she loathes him. Director Hideaki Anno creates some of his most vivid imagery in this film but that final scene is both horrifying and sad as all hell.

8. Close Encounters of a Third Kind – 1977
We achieve contact with an alien life form, and all the wonder and amazement that it entails unspools before the viewer. Spielberg creates a dazzling visual display of light and darkness, and John Williams amazing score for the film comes to its climax. An amazing ending to a tough journey, and yet it implies that Roy Neary’s journey has just begun.

7. Back to the Future – 1985
Zemeckis stages one of the most fun and exciting set pieces of the 1980s, as Marty attempts to catch lightning and get back to 1985. But then the actual ending is wonderfully perfect as Marty returns to a home that is even better than before, because of his “tampering with the space time continuum”. It all ends with one of my favorite quotes to end a film, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need… roads.” I grin every time.

6. The Empire Strikes Back  - 1980
I don’t think anyone viewing this film for the first time expected this ending. Luke defeated and maimed, Han Solo captured, Darth Vader victorious. The heroes barely escape with their lives. The final word in the film is literally “Ow!” Ouch indeed! But for all the trial, the movie ends with a glimmer of hope, with new allies, Luke restored and with friends. John Williams even sums up the scene with a glorious crescendo of Han and Leia’s theme – hinting that Solo will return. An excellent finale and my favorite of the series.

5. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – 1982
The bold step to kill Spock and cripple the crew of the Enterprise is still effective to this day. For anyone who grew up with the characters, the final scenes in the film are some of the best in the history of the franchise. As painful as the death scene is, the blow is cushioned by a wonderful epilogue scene where Kirk reflects, a planet is born and then Spock says the final lines… “To boldly go where no man has gone… before.” Perfect.

After an extended philosophical exploration, Major Kusanagi and Project 2501 decide to merge. This cyborg/synthetic mind combination awakens in a new child like body. But the body is nothing more than a shell, because the voice is Kusanagi’s, with hints of 2501 within. As she steps out onto the cliff overlooking the city below her, the new being’s eyes seem to light up with the wonder of new possibilities. “The net is vast, and infinite.” We have a woman who’s an efficient killing machine fused with a being created “in the vast sea of information”. It is impossible to know what she is going to do next… and that is why I always get the shivers when she says that final line. I suspect the world is in for a rude awakening.

3. Blade Runner -1982
Deckard’s encounter with Batty has left his broken and reflective. But it also opened his eyes. He races home to get Rachael and escape into the world – perhaps to be hunted by another Blade Runner. As they leave he see the unicorn origami, and it just adds that final question mark to the character of Deckard. Then the elevator doors shut and Vangelis kicks our 1980s asses. Great stuff.

2. Planet of the Apes – 1968
Oh the rich rich irony of those final minutes. It does not surprise me in the least that Rod Serling worked on this screenplay, because his Twilight Zone series was filled with moments like this. But the build up and execution of the scene give it additional power. Of particular note is Jerry Goldsmith’s innovative and amazing musical score. In those final moments he builds tension and atmosphere very subtly, we subconsciously are waiting for something to happen. But when the moment arrives, he wisely lets the scene play out without any music at all. This masterstroke makes the moment have an even greater impact. I’ll say it again, Goldsmith was a master of film scoring.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey - 1968
Love it or hate it, the ending has had a huge impact on so many different films in so many different genre’s it is impossible to ignore. The mind blowing stargate sequence is both unsetting and numbing in it’s own way. But those final scenes of “the Infinite” are an amazing surreal and yet visual exploration of the concept of first contact. Something truly alien coming in touch with our consciousness, how could our minds even comprehend it? The style and execution of these scenes are nothing short of spectacular. That is why it’s my number one pick.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Angels' Revenge (1979) - MST3K Review


Summary:

Teacher April Thomas (Jacqueline Cole) has had enough. The neighborhood kids are getting hooked on drugs and the cops won’t do anything about it. So she pulls together an elite force of seven sexy ladies to fight crime and look hot while doing it. They include singer Michelle Wilson (Susan Kiger) who’s little brother is hooked on drugs. Marital arts teacher Kako Umaro (Lieu Chinh) and stuntwoman Terry Grant (Sylvia Anderson) join the team. Then there’s a cop Elaine Brenner (Robin Greer) and her super model friend, Maria (Noela Velasco). Rounding out the group is spunky teen Trish (Liza Greer).

But they’ve got their hands full dealing with the villainous Mike Farrell (Jack Palance) who is running the show for the evil Burke (Peter Lawford). They’ve got the money and the muscle to shut these gals down. But nothing doing! Because they are going to be out spandexed, out jiggled, out discoed and even out acted by these gals. Nothing can stand in the way of the Angels’ Revenge.

Movie Review:

"Remember when everyone had this poster, except it
was only one of them, and it was Farrah Fawcett?"
Angels’ Revenge (or 7 From Heaven or Angels’ Brigade) is an odd movie. On the one hand it is the story of a group of women vigilantes who are out to stop crime lords Jack Palance and Peter Lawford from selling drugs to kids. It’s got action, jiggling cleavage and a dash of brutality. On the other hand, it’s a wacky story of a group of girls looking hot and fighting silly and stupid drug dealers. It’s got cartoon sound effects and cameos by comedic stars like Pat Buttram, Alan Hale Jr. Jim Backus and Arthur Godfrey.

It would take a deft hand to combine these two types of films. Someone like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez could create something that would be perfect for their Grindhouse concept. In fact, Tarantino has Uma Thurman mention a very similar concept in Pulp Fiction – a television pilot for Fox Force Five.

Drugs compliments of Palance and Lawford.
Unfortunately deft is not a word you would use to describe Angels’ Revenge. It almost feels that when the movie was started, a more action-oriented tone was picked. But about halfway through they decided to switch tactics and make the film lighter.  But the humor is so obvious and blatant that it nearly reaches parody levels. The film is obviously inspired by Charlie’s Angels, but as a parody of the television series it just doesn’t work.

Palance and Lawford play the whole thing very straight. Lawford is the scowling mob boss obsessed with maintaining control. Palance is his right hand man who has no problem killing in cold blood, or watching as one of his pushers beats up a young kid. In fact the scenes with the drug dealers talking with each other and doing business could all come from a late 70s action film. The other scenes that seem serious deal with singer Michelle Wilson and her singing career. Hale Jr. plays her enthusiastic manager. While he’s jovial in the part, it’s not a comedic role. Godfriey plays himself, encouraging Wilson on her career. While the disco-tastic number, “Shine Your Love” is a perfect slice of 70s cheese, it is not a parody performance at all.

The Angels even have their own souped up attack van!
However the other 70% of Angels’ Revenge is played for laughs. You’ve got the comic relief character of Trish, who just wants to be part of the gang, but is to young to really help (until the script allows her to find the gangers hideout at the end). The teacher April can never find a thing in her purse, so of course she always puts the most important items into the bottomless bag. Her imitation of Olive Oyl from Popeye drives my wife up the wall. Maria the airheaded model is pretty much around to make dumb comments and shake her cleavage. Even kung-fu Kako seems to be in the movie to show how hilarious it is to have a girl doing martial arts. Yeah movie, tell that to Michelle Yeoh.

The odd flip-flop of tone carries over to the action scenes. The raid on the drug processing shacks is filled with explosions, gunfire, and evil drug dealers getting killed. It also includes a really stupid outhouse joke, but for the most part it’s played for thrills. The final battle against Lawford at his mansion home is also pretty brutal, including the attempted drowning of one of the girls and Palance’s character begin mauled by deranged dogs. There’s still humor injected into the scene with Kako being so fearsome with her blade that the dogs run away in terror. (As a side note this mansion also appears in the 70s sci-fi flick The Brain Machine).

Teen Trish ends up saving the day, and looking cute
all at the same time.
Then you’ve got the other “action” scenes. There is a covert operation on the beach. Not only does this get our seven lovelies into bathing suits, but it also allows them to seduce two knuckleheads using their wiles. But when their cover is blown, a really silly fight breaks out. This includes sound effects straight out of Looney Tunes. The other sequence involves Jim Backus doing his shtick and is so goofy that you can’t take anything else in the film seriously.

The music is really something else. Instead of going for your typical wacka-jo-wacka guitar that seemed all the rage in these films (see Mitchell for a perfect example), the team goes for something with a bit more classical feel. There’s moments where you can swear the music was based on “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. Then you have a section that sounds like Ravell’s “Bolero”. These pieces stand out mostly because they sound so out of place and kinda cheesy.

And then there’s the whole “Shine Your Love” sequence. I’ll let that speak for itself.



So maybe I’m reading too much into Angels’ Revenge. After all, it is just a low budget take on Charlie’s Angels, right? It’s got the bouncing cleavage covered. It’s got some token lines about girl power in there. It’s got action, bad guys and a heroic ending. So really I should just relax and enjoy the jiggly ride, right?

For the most part I agree. This was never meant to be great art, or anything more than some silly entertainment that guys will enjoy. Yeah it doesn’t’ paint the gals in the best light (ironic considering how much the girl power theme is touted), but it is an exploitation flick, and it was made in the 1970s. Mike and the bots are up to the task, even if it means sitting through the painful Jim Backus scenes.

Episode Review:  

These women will all bounce and behave.
This episode came near the end of season six of the series, and that means that boys were firing on all cylinders at this point. Mike, Trace and Kevin had reached their pinnacle of riffing delivery by this point and combined with the right movie and the writing team at the top of their game, you can expect one hell of an episode. Angels’ Revenge delivers in so many ways.

Everything in this movie is up for grabs, from the opening credits using their odd “parallelogram vision”, to the clothes, to the music to the acting (or lack of it). Even when scenes get bogged down in talky moments (luckily not too frequent in this film), the boys have a target rich environment commenting on the cars, fashions or slang of the day. And since this is Comedy Central era episode, the riffing is still pretty good natured, and never gets too nasty.

Angels’ Revenge is filled with classic riffing moments. During an extended flashback that opens the film (in which teacher April tells us how she got involved with her posse), the girls are all posing in a field wearing their spandex and stumbling over their lines. Crow comments, “I keep waiting for Johnny Wad to show up.” Later as Michelle climbs a ladder to surprise a guard, the camera is placed directly below her, so we won’t miss a minute of her butt in action. Tom despairs with “Oh man, they’re giving away the plot!” About halfway through the film after all the cleavage and jigging, Crow finally shouts, “Ok, I’m giving in. I’m looking at the breasts!”

Mr. Buttram unleashes a torrent of homespun chestnuts.
I'll try to avoid using the words chest and nuts in this
review again.
Not all the jokes are based on the girls. Jack Palance is doing his typical craggy acting style and obviously there for the paycheck. The boys have a field day with him playing the enforcer and adding their own lines to his grumpy dialogue. They even do a call back to his previous appearance on the show in Outlaw. As a kid makes off with some drugs, the pusher chases after him. Jack shifts into high gear – which turns out to be a half interested jog. Tom growls, “Jack isn’t being paid enough to run.”

Nearly all the guest stars in the movie get some prime riffing. Of course Alan Hale Jr. is perfect for a few “Little Buddy” references. Pat Buttram keeps using barnyard slang, so the boys come up with some creative terms of their own. But the king of shame in Angels’ Revenge is poor Jim Backus. His scenes are really, really unfunny, and pretty painful to watch. His over the top portrayal of a right wing militant, combined with the poor acting by our heroine, and the comic relief militiamen form a perfect storm or un-funny. But the boys go to town, with Tom finally saying, “I’m just going to look away until the funny part ends”.

Mike Nelson is Lorenzo Lamas!
The host segments are quite a bit of fun too. Things start off with Crow realizing that he has amnesia. He can’t remember anything, or actually he can remember a bunch of stuff, including that he actually has Ambrosia. Then the mad scientists reveal that the ratings for the show are down, so they need to do something to increase interest quickly. They dress like their favorite relief pitchers from the 1970s. Then they use a food additive to turn Mike and bots into the cast of the 1990s series Renegade (with Lorenzo Lamas). Biker Mike is pretty hilarious. At the first break Crow shares a script for his new blacksploitation film. Mike doesn’t think he has enough funk to pull off the part. At the next break Mike does his Fonzy impression. The bots respond with a cannon aimed at him. Later Aaron Spelling’s house drifts by the satellite, because it is so huge, you see. After the movie ends Tom unveils his Shame-o-meter. It measures waves of shame from a performance in units of Lawfords, up to Giga-Lawfords. They use it on clips from the movie, and the Shame-o-meter nearly explodes. But it finally does go crazy when the Mads appear one last time dressed as Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King – because they “like to be topical and current”.

"Jim Backus' performance reaches Giga-Lawford levels
of shame."

Mike declares “This movie is a shrine to twelve year old boys!” and I’m hard-pressed to disagree with him. But it also makes for one of the funniest episodes of season six and certainly in my top twenty list for all time best episodes of the series. If you enjoy a heaping helping of 70s cheesiness and don’t mind a large dose of cleavage, than you’ll get a kick out of this film.

I give it five souped up attack vans, out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater Volume 1.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Licence to Kill (1989)


Introduction:

With Timothy Dalton firmly in the role of James Bond, the screenwriters knew what kind of stories they could work on. The Living Daylights had returned the thrills back to the franchise, and Dalton was obviously up for something a little darker. So inspired by some action movies of the day, the crew took a chance with a story that was a little out of the normal frame for a James Bond flick. How did the gamble work out?


Summary:

British secret agent James Bond (Timothy Dalton) is trying to get his old pal Felix Leiter (David Hedison) to the church on time for his wedding to the lovely Della (Priscilla Barnes). But things don’t go as planned when they take a quick detour to catch the international drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi). After nabbing the baddie and tying the knot, Felix is ready for a nice honeymoon.

That’s when Sanchez escapes, kills Della and horribly maims Felix. The authorities in the US have their hands tied. Sanchez is untouchable in his base of operations in Isthmus City. But Bond is angry and is determined to avenge the Leiters. M (Robert Brown) tries to rein him in, but nothing doing. Bond joins forces with the lovely Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and Q (Desmond Llewelyn) to bring Sanchez down. But does Bond have a hope in hell with his Licence to Kill revoked and an army standing between him and the target?

Good Points:
  • Dalton is excellent in a script tailored to his strengths
  • Davi makes a great villain
  • The truck chase is one of the best in the entire franchise


Bad Points:
  • May stray too far from traditional Bond stories and tone for some
  • The lack of obvious humor will leave some viewers cold
  • That title song is one of the least impressive of the bunch


Overall:

I enjoy this film every time revisit it. No it isn’t like any of the other Bond films in the original continuity, but it is that unique feel and tone that makes it a great watch. The action scenes are solid, the thrills are genuine, and the acting between Dalton and Davi crackles. Ends the 1980s Bond flicks on a high note.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Licence revoked? Really M, is that the best you can do?
For the longest time, this was one of the most controversial of the James Bond films. You found some folks who loved it and other who hated it. Perhaps loathed even more than The Man With the Golden Gun or A View to a Kill, Licence to Kill was often called the film that nearly sunk the James Bond franchise. Most people point to the huge six year gap between this film and Goldeneye as proof, but in the end, I just think they want to dump on a film that doesn’t deserve it’s poor reputation.

Licence to Kill is a top-notch thriller with some great action and solid acting by the leads. It’s got its flaws, and it never quite reaches the pinnacle of the Bond series. However, it was a excellent attempt to take James Bond into a new direction, something that wouldn’t happen until 2006 with Casino Royale.

One of several impressive stunt sequences in the film.
Like all the Bond films directed by John Glen, Licence to Kill goes for a realistic look, perhaps even more so than the previous film. It feels a bit more like For Your Eyes Only with very few gadgets being utilized (even though the film features Q in his largest role ever). The location shooting occurs in and around the United States, with key scenes occurring in the Florida Keyes, Mexico City (standing in for the fictional Isthmus City) and additional shooting in and around Mexico. The sets, while impressive at times, lack that flashy grandeur that most folks associate with Bond. But the finale scenes that occur around the religious compound and then on the winding highway leading away from it create some of the most spectacular location shooting of the Bond films of the 1980s.

Of key importance are the action scenes. Glen brought a real sense of explosive action to the James Bond flicks, and he doesn’t skimp in this film. The pre-credit sequence that involves a mid-air hijack is a real hoot. Then there’s Bond’s daring escape from the ship, the Wavecrest, which has him underwater, and then skiing behind a plane without any water-skis. But the winner is the incredible truck chase sequence. Sure, it feels a bit like a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it manages to do some very unique things with the tanker trucks, and pulls off some stunts that I have never seen duplicated before or since. It leads to a wonderful finale that pits Bond against Sanchez, literally mano a mano.

To keep up with the top-notch action scenes you need some top quality sound. You get it with plenty of booming explosions and ricocheting bullets. There’s also quite a bit of underwater action in the film, which causes its own set of sound challenges. Lots of use of silence, bubbles and splashing keep us tied to the thrills.

And featuring Wayne Newton. Yes. Wayne. Newton.
With the exit of John Barry from the musical side of the James Bond franchise, the producers were on the look out to alter the musical make up of the series a bit. Since the film was very much inspired by the current crop of late 80s action flicks, they turned to the man who created the scores for two of the most popular films of the genre. Michael Kamen had scored both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. He took his action sound, one that is functional and exciting, and combined it with Monty Norman’s James Bond theme. He added a Spanish guitar to add color (and playing the Bond theme a number of times). He also created a lovely piano love theme for the character of Pam. The final result is a musical score that works fine in the film, but doesn’t really stand out, or grab your attention like Barry did or Arnold would in the 1990s films.

Gladys Knight performs the title song for Licence to Kill. It has a very late 80s adult contemporary feel to it. It’s an interesting choice, one that pulls away from the poppy sounds of Duran Duran and a-Ha. But the song is too leisurely and sedate to really work with the film. I’m surprised they didn’t go for a more Latin sounding tune to match the locale of the film. For the end title theme, Patty LaBelle sings, “if You Asked Me to”. It is a decent enough song, but one that would be made famous by Celine Dion a few years later. Kamen was brought in late on the film, so he had no input on the sound of either of the tunes. But he had worked (and would work) with pop and rock artists on projects, so it wouldn’t have been new territory for him. It’s a shame we didn’t get to hear what he could have come up with.

Bond and weddings just never work out.
For me the movie works because of the excellent work by Dalton and Davi. Both men have interesting characters to explore. Both men get some great scenes together. And both men change as the movie progresses. Prior to the Daniel Craig era, Licence to Kill was the only Bond film to really explore who James Bond was (although a fair argument could be made for Dr. No or On Her Majesty’sSecret Service). One of my favorite moments from Dalton is when Della tells James that he needs to settle down with a nice girl. Dalton allows a painful memory shoot across his eyes for a couple seconds and then offers a thin smile. After Bond leaves, Felix explains that Bond was married once, a long time ago. It’s a great bit of subtle acting by Dalton, and it shows one end of the range he takes the character through.

The script allows us to see many sides to Bond. Obviously the first scenes show him at ease with his friends, and enjoying the wedding. But once Sanchez escapes and unleashes his vengeance, we see a side of the character we’d never seen before. James Bond loses control. The rage, frustration and boiling anger are simmering just below the surface for the first half of the film. Dalton is actually pretty intimidating in these scenes, and it makes perfect sense that M revokes his Licence to Kill. It isn’t until Bond sees the impact of his relentless and thoughtless pursuit that he is able to channel that anger. Suddenly the cool professional is back, and Bond is back in control (for the most part). He’s still very angry, but Dalton shows that the reins are clearly back on and the focus is on getting to and destroying Sanchez.

Sanchez is so confident that he confronts Bond in a
pink shirt.
Davi plays the flip side to Bond. He’s a man in complete control at all times. He is confident with his money, power and loyalty of his team. Even his capture is treated as nothing more than a temporary distraction. But as Bond begins to undermine the team, and cause Sanchez to question the loyalty of his crew, the cracks start to show. Davi plays it all perfectly, supremely confidant as the movie opens. But like Bond, he can run hot, and as his rage begins to take hold, Davi allows the cold fury show. By the end of the film, Sanchez’ world is literally in flames, he can’t trust anyone and Bond is moving closer and closer for kill. Davi never goes over the top, but his desperation is played in his eyes and in his carriage. The confidence is gone, but in its place is the ruthlessness of a cornered animal.

"But James I have no idea what the point of my
character is?"
The rest of the cast does a solid job. The two ladies in the film offer a mixed bag of sorts. Talisa Soto’s performance used to really annoy me. Lupe is essentially Sanchez’s woman. Of course she meets Bond, falls for him, and then helps him out a few times. Soto seems a bit too na├»ve or dim at times. Her falling for James seems to come out of nowhere. But watching the film this time, I think it may be more of an editing issue. I think a few scenes were cut developing her character a bit more, and it makes her performance look off. Carey Lowell has the more interesting part. She’s tough, she’s lovely and she can take care of herself. Her attraction to Bond is obvious and their relationship works a lot better. She ties with my favorite Bond girl from the 1980s (between her and Melina Havelock from For Your Eyes Only).

Q and Pam doubt the veracity of your claim.
Licence to Kill gives us the final hurrah for two of the London cast members. This is the last time Robert Brown would tackle M. He was always a bit non-descript in the role for my tastes, but he never hurt the films. Then there’s Caroline Bliss as Moneypenny. Bliss has a short scene and doesn’t make much of an impression. Q on the other hand gets quite a bit of screen time, when he arrives with gadgets in hand and ready to help. He has come great interplay with Bond and Bouvier and brings a bit of lightness to the darker portions of the film.

One of the main complaints I see about this film is that it does not feel like a James Bond film. I can understand why some viewers feel this way. It was obviously inspired more by Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Miami Vice than any of the traditional spy films. One of the main elements of those series is that the main hero is not infallible. I think that is one of the reasons some folks just don’t like this movie. James Bond makes mistakes, gets beaten up and actually ends up dirty and bloody by the end. But that is the point of the story, to show that Bond cannot loose his cool if he is to succeed in his work. Dalton’s performance helps underline this element of the script.

The truck chase if filled with exciting and impressive
stunt work.
One thing I think that folks also miss is that even though Q has a larger role in the film, gadgets do not save the day. In fact, most of the gadgets end up hindering Bond or being useless. The final third of Licence to Kill actually has Bond unarmed and without his gadgets. Instead he relies on his wits, his natural charm, and his friends to help take down Sanchez. He keeps pushing Sanchez's buttons until the man get sloppy and starts making mistakes. The final confrontation occurs between an unarmed and bloody James Bond, and an enraged Sanchez wielding a machete. It’s a deconstruction of the James Bond myth in many ways.

In 1989 folks weren’t ready for that. A lot of Bond fans still lamented that Pierce Brosnan didn’t’ get the role. The shadow of Roger Moore’s lighter approach to the character loomed large over the franchise. And while the script was intriguing, it was too bloated with other elements that weren’t needed. Removing the subplot with the Chinese agents, the cover operation using the religious cult and even the character of Lupe could have brought the running time down on this movie, and turned it into a lean mean ass kicking machine. Instead, the film drags a bit in places and feels like it is spinning its wheels.

Pam revokes Newton's licence to sing.
On top of all that the film ran into some production problems including a name change. Originally this film was title Licence Revoked, but there was fear that the title would confuse some American audience members. The switch in title forced the marketing team to have to come up with new material on the fly and the film ended up with one of the worst marketing campaigns in a year jam packed with huge movies including: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future: Part 2 and Star Trek V.

It’s a shame really, because the movie ended up being one of the worst performing Bond films, and it really didn’t deserve that title. Dalton was often blamed for the poor performance of the film, and folks seemed quick to dismiss his two films once Goldeneye hit.

Timothy Dalton had a rough time with "true" Bond fans.
But time has shown his films were some of the best.
Licence to Kill finally got some more respect around the release of Die Another Day. By this time the poor scripts of the Brosnan era were taking their toll, and people were looking at the older films. Suddenly Dalton’s films seemed like a breath of fresh air, and Licence to Kill in particular seemed to be something unique and entertaining in the franchise. It’s not hard to see its impact on the Daniel Craig era, especially in elements of both Quantum of Solace and Skyfall. So I say, if you haven’t seen the film in a while, revisit it, and see how Dalton’s performance really holds up, and how a dangerous thrilling James Bond adventure can be just as entertaining as a light, over the top romp with a megalomaniac.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Score Sample - 007 Takes the Lektor - John Barry

While the James Bond theme by Monty Norman is considered one of the most familiar pieces of film music out there, did you know that John Barry attempted to different James Bond themes during the 1960s? Neither one really captured the imagination like the classic tune, but they are both really good. The first attempt was for the film From Russia With Love, where he composed what he called his "007 Theme". You can hear it used in this track "007 takes the Lektor", but Barry used it a in a couple of other Bond films including You Only Live Twice and Moonraker.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Trial (1962)


Introduction:

I first heard about this film in a book I have dealing with the movies of David Lynch. Lynch mentions it as a film that influenced his visual style as well as his interest in creating a particular mood in his films. Orson Welles directed the film so you know it’s going to at least look good, but can you really adapt a story by Franz Kafka into a motion picture?

Summary:

Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is going to have a bad day. He awakens to find himself under arrest for an unstated crime. Josef then attempts to find out what crime he’s committed, who accused him, or what the hell he’s supposed to do next. But instead of answers, he only finds more questions. Each new encounter fills him with a new level of dread. It becomes very apparent that no matter what he does, or who he talks to, his life is in danger.

Finally he meets with the famous advocate Hastler (Orson Welles) who hints that he may be able to save him, but at a price. Is this just another ruse, a new level to the unknown game, or is this Josef’s only chance at salvation. In the end The Trial may reveal that the crime Josef committed, was being ignorant of the crime in the first place.

Good Points:
  • Amazing visuals create an oppressive and disturbing atmosphere
  • Anthony Perkins does a great job in a difficult role
  • Leaves the viewer feeling like they are just missing the point

Bad Points:
  • Slowly paced and methodical in execution
  • The narrative is never clear
  • Leaves the viewer feeling like they are just missing the point

Overall:

Dark, paranoid and oppressive, the film succeeds in capturing the feeling a Kafka’s work. While the film never delves into true surreal cinema, it constantly keeps the viewer from knowing exactly what is going on, or why an event happens. Much like Josef we are in a dark wonderland that refuses to let us go. Its a wonderful exercise in creating a nightmarish atmosphere. But this will intrigue some viewers and alienate others.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.