Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Quick Look: TIDALWAVE (1975 - color)


   TIDAL WAVE was one of a few Japanese disaster movies that were imported into the United States. Happily, this one even had more footage shot State-side with Lorne Greene, very recently of the film EARTHQUAKE. In TIDAL WAVE, the planet's core suddenly (and without explanation) expands, and this causes upheaval for the island nation of Japan. Earthquakes cause massive fires and volcanoes, but that's only the beginning of the trouble! It is soon learned that Japan is on the verge of sinking into the sea. There begins the logistical and political challenge of dispersing the Japanese people across the globe as their land crumbles into the ocean around them. Sadly, the film is pretty obscure. The only print that can be tracked down via the internet was recorded from television many years ago. The theme of the film, meanwhile, has been explored a number of times in Japanese movies since. One parody even reversed the theme and depicted a scenario in which all other land had sunk into the sea and Japan was forced to cope with refugees from all over the world!

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Quick Look: THE KILLER SHREWS (1957)


   Here's one a lot better than it's reputation would have you think. A small group of people are trapped in a house on a tiny island by an escaped experiment gone wrong: giant ravenous shrews! Much poo-pooing of the film comes from the fact that the shrews are played by dogs* (matched well to a puppet head used for inserts). The way people harp on that, they must've wanted cows or something to play the shrews... I've never understood the hang-up. Anyway, the film is well-written and tense. James Best stars. (One of the last things Mr. Best did was a belated sequel film for the video market.) Ken Curtis plays the heavy. Though a regional production (Texas, the other California) THE KILLER SHREWS was professionally made. Played on double bill with the same production crew's THE GIANT GILA MONSTER.

[*Dogs would again play rodents in the 80's flick THE DEADLY EYES, in which over-sized and ravenous rats swarm a city. Has it's moments, but has it's idiocies as well.)

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Quick Look: VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (1960)


   One of Jerry Lewis' earlier solo films was a charming comedy called VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET. In the film, Jerry plays a rebellious Martian who wants to study Earth up close. He gets his chance when he's stranded in a typical American small town gripped by flying saucer fever. Fun little adventure pokes fun at small-town politics moreso than science fiction conventions. The climax seems rather abrupt as I recall, and as a kid I was under the impression that I'd never finished the movie! Very obscure, and this is a movie you'd think would be one of Jerry's more visible offerings. May've been issued on VHS at one point, but last I checked it was still unreleased on DVD. The only print I have access to is a Super 8 print, which for some inexplicable reason was printed on color film stock! What's worse, the color turned so the black and white movie is now red!

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Quick Look: FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS (1962 - color)

    Soviet space operas proved popular with American distributors because they tended to be quite lavish since they were pride pieces for the State. Overlooking the starving masses communist countries exploited in the production of these films, this meant impressive visuals could be picked up for a song and be distributed by even the smallest American releasing company. East Germany produced one of the most lavish space operas ever seen, in part to celebrate it's first decade. In the 50's, a science fiction writer penned the book on which this gigantic film would be based. Reportedly, the author inserted some pro-commie text only to assure the book would be released by the State. It was this material which secured the book as the foundation for the movie, though such material was said to be toned way down for the film version. It was a massive production, boasting some of the most amazing sets and special effects ever afforded a science fiction movie of the vintage. An international cast was hired, photographed in rich color and wide scope. American distributor Crown international secured the film for US distribution (paired with VARAN, THE UNBELIEVABLE) in 1962. As you might imagine, our version is less political. The film's East German lead was changed to an American, and the film's Soviet scientist became French. As well, the mammoth runtime was reportedly whittled down to a more audience friendly 78 or so minutes. The result is a pretty spectacular and even imaginative multi-ethnic space opera boasting some of the wildest designs and concepts ever put on film effectively. In the film, set in 1986, a "spool" is discovered inside a rock. This is the magnetic log of a Venusian spacecraft which exploded over Russia about a hundred years previous -what we assumed to be a meteor in that infamous explosion. A collective of scientists urge their governments to jointly build a fantastic rocket which will send them to Venus to investigate, and we're off and running. The major star of the film is Japanese actress Yoko Tani. Her rather interesting career found her a rising star in international cinema but getting little attention in Japan. Ironically, after having her eyes fixed to appear less Oriental, she became a popular Japanese television star! FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS became one of Crown International's biggest hits, though it obviously suffered from being cropped for subsequent television and later video releases. In 1998, Wade Williams released a beautiful scope transfer on home video. It's worth seeking out.






Yoko Tani

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Oddball Film Report: HIRED TO KILL (1990)

Note: this review was originally written for www.jabootu.net, and it has been published here first by the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.

HIRED TO KILL (1990 - color)
"A mercenary and some lady commandos go undercover as a fashion designer and his models, aiming to heat up a revolution on a small island nation."

   Going into HIRED TO KILL, I wasn't expecting THE DELTA FORCE or anything. I wasn't even expecting THE PANTHER SQUAD, for that matter, because the video box looked like it was trying to pass itself off as an Andy Sidraris movie. This is education, as it demonstrates that Sidaris had a successful formula, even though he didn't do it very well.

   Sidaris made movies that were pretty blunt about what they were, which is to say economical action movies mixing fiery explosions with gratuitous nudity. Big guys with big guns would mix it up with busty gals who carried big guns, and blow up a few bad guys. At least once per picture, often two or three times, the girls would strip down for a shower or the occasional hot tub scene. With this reliable exposure of female skin (though it weirdly became increasingly fleeting as the cycle grew older), the films of Mr. Sidaris became staples of the video rental era. What always struck me was, given the simplicity of Mr. Sidaris' formula, how poorly he did it! Andy's movies always ran too long and thought themselves more amusing than they were. Seeing a film trying to front as a Sidaris-a-like sounds okay on the surface, since they might do a better job with the same materials. The problem was, I had seen a film from our director already, one Nico Mastorakis, and it was a chore to sit through. So much so that as result I had a bit more respect for the Sidaris cannon!

   The film I had seen was a limp espionage/college comedy called SKYHIGH. I found  myself leaning on the fast forward button, a pretty rare occurrence in my house. The plot detailed a trio of unlikable students on vacation to the Mediterranean who find themselves in possession of a mind-control cassette tape sought by enemy spies. It was a lifeless affair that had me running screaming for the nearest Matt Helm movie I could get my hands on (the Tony Franciosa pilot movie included). That SKYHIGH wasn't Nico's first film is embarrassing, and I soon learned just how well Sidaris made his movies (we're grading on a curve here). Needless to say, this did not bode well for the film I was about to watch.

   This is my fourth female commando movie, and interestingly it reworks a lot of elements from HUSTLER SQUAD, which actually wasn't a bad movie (and I've given it a full review previously, for those interested). HUSTLER SQUAD involved a plot to use women posing as concubines to infiltrate an island cathouse where top Japanese brass would visit during WW2. This was to help Filipino rebels. The operation was under command of a Colonel who really wasn't keen on the idea of using women as commandos, but came to respect them.

   HIRED TO KILL involves a plot to use female commandos posing as fashion models to infiltrate and overthrow a dictator's ruthless island government and help some rebels take control. This operation is under control of a mercenary who doesn't like working with women, but comes to respect them. I suppose there're only so many plots you can dream up for a female commando story, but the first half here was weirdly similar to the earlier film.

   Both involve suicide missions requiring female agents working in tropical surroundings, both feature the male hero and his immediate underling -female- enlisting volunteers from various seedy locales, including prison. Both films feature a squad member who is over-sexed, one who was traumatized by being raped, one hiding from authorities, and one who killed her lover. In both films, the girls are placed under command of a man who doesn't like the assignment and then the ladies engage in intensive training. The similarities were so strong in the first half, I wondered if HIRED TO KILL weren't an unofficial remake of HUSTLER SQUAD....

   Much to my relief, HIRED TO KILL starts like an actual movie, with a decent 'action-movie' title sequence of transparent blue wording on a stark black background, with a driving piece of surprisingly decent 'action-movie' music. This was so well-done, it got my hopes up that maybe this would be closer to THE DELTA FORCE than it had any right to be (yeah, right). Certainly the cast being headed by George Kennedy, Oliver Reed, and Jose Ferrer meant it could go in either direction. It ultimately was a lot better than I expected, pretty decent for this kind of thing, really. Fortunately, somewhere in there, Nico figured out how to make a movie (taking on a co-director probably helped too)!

   With the credits finished, I immediately sank back into a state of dread. The first thing we see is a private yacht at dock. This (along with the inevitable cowhide briefcase, cross-dressers, and model helicopters) was an Andy Sidaris staple. At once, I recalled my favorite of the Sidaris line, MIAMI EXPRESS. "Cody Abilene just got another case" I said to myself...

   Cutting inside the craft, we see a man trying to sleep as the telephone is ringing. Pulling a huge revolver (another Sidaris trademark, as his films always featured a guy who carried around a .44 magnum -although they could never hit anything), the guy shoots his telephone. Har har, I suppose. Our sleepy hero, Ryan, is still roused, however, by what appears to be a CIA agent. A man named Thomas wants to see him.

   Fortunately, from here on, the film improves quite a bit. Thomas is played by George Kennedy, and he gives a much more lively performance than I expected. Considering he more or less sleep-walked through COUNTERFORCE and the dreary ALIEN-knock-off THE TERROR WITHIN, I wasn't expecting this to be much higher on his list of fine performances. Much to my delight, this proved a refreshing reminder of why Kennedy is one of my favorites. Weirdly, it may be one of his best performances of this period! He also looks trimmer than usual, or at least moreso than he did playing Ed Hockin.

   Thomas represents a mysterious corporate/government entity, to which the CIA are mere lackeys, looking to overthrow a tiny island's ruthless dictator, Bartos (Oliver Reed, rendered practically unrecognizable by his bushy handlebar mustache and Latin accent). Ryan is the best man for the job, but security is so tight that a squad of men will never get in. The solution is to send in a squad of female agents, under Ryan's command. They'll cover as a fashion designer and his top models. Funny how you'll play along when you're actually watching the film, only to later fully realize how comical a film's premise can be!

   So yes, this is basically Charlie's Angels writ large.

   There's not really enough of a plot to go into, as this is all stuff we've seen in a dozen other films (although it's handled well, relatively). Our commandos fight among themselves before coming together as a unit and shooting a bunch of bad guys holding Jose Ferrer hostage in an old castle. One of their number is a plant, sent in to make sure Ryan and his crew don't fully succeed. It's all pretty basic stuff. 

   The film does unexpectedly kill off Ryan's potential romantic interest half way through, however, so that was unexpected (though it probably shouldn't have been so shocking, since this also happened in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, PART 2). Even more unexpected was that he would quickly develop a relationship with the girl he most recently met!

   The film was mostly a showcase piece for Brian Thompson, who plays Ryan, in the hopes of building him up to be the next big action star. While not a bad actor, and certainly built well, the ugly Thompson really doesn't have the looks, or chops, to be a leading man. He's made more to play heavies, and he's played quite a few of them. He probably got the most attention on the big screen by playing the Night Slasher in the popular Stallone film COBRA. On TV he's been pretty busy, maybe most remembered as the 'Alien Bounty Hunter' from several episodes of the long-running The X Files.

   Not particularly smooth, Thompson does what he can. He has a few good scenes, such as a moment toward the climax where he mentally questions his orders to kill someone.

   Another good scene has the paranoid Bartos trying to catch Ryan with his guard down. Ryan is posing as a homosexual fashion designer (I know, just go with it), and Bartos posits his theory that man requires sex with a woman to give his life something soft he can cherish, or some such. While explaining this, he undresses his moll* who is actually an undercover rebel agent and caresses her breasts. Ryan pretends he doesn't find her all that attractive and Bartos makes her leave before walking over to Ryan. Thinking he has the drop on Ryan, Bartos grabs Ryan's crotch to check his arousal at the previous display. Caught, Ryan kisses Bartos and pretends to come on to him. Bartos has Ryan escorted from the room. Admittedly, Bartos wiping his mouth while stammering at this unexpected move struck me as pretty funny.

(* This again raises the nudity issue. This young woman has two scenes where her breasts are flashed, but otherwise the film has only a little cheesecake via swimwear. It's a genre noted for it's gratuitous nudity, but I manage to keep drawing films that don't feel compelled to play that card. What're the odds?)

   He's probably at his worst in a scene where he argues with the rebel girl about the merits of each other's respective jobs/lifestyles. This is supposed to be a fight that results in a sexual encounter. The problem is that Thompson lacks any sort of smoothness for this sort of thing. He comes across as a brutish thug, and the resultant sex scene plays more like a rape. His holding the girl down by the throat during their congress probably didn't help counter this vibe.

   In the end, though, not a bad action movie if you're looking for a way to kill an hour and a half. It's better than most of your cheap made-for-video fare, actually getting a theatrical release from Paramount, although it's still a B picture. The ending isn't bad, either*. Not gangbusters stuff, but a bit better than I was expecting.

(SPOILER - *Actually, it's quite endearing for not just killing off it's bad guy when the good guys are given a clear shot. Instead, they leave the unarmed dictator to the rebels who surround him.

And then there's the actual finish. Earlier in the film, Ryan made it clear to Thomas that if he got double-crossed, Thomas would die. Thomas jokes that Ryan will be back in time to help him celebrate his birthday. Naturally, Ryan gets double-crossed and the film ends with Thomas arriving home to find Ryan and the girls singing "Happy Birthday" before Ryan cocks his pistol and wishes Thomas well. We then cut to black.)


Monday, July 30, 2018

A Quick Look: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1952)


    Reportedly planned as a straight sequel to THE INVISIBLE MAN before someone decided it would be a good vehicle for Bud and Lou, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN was a terrific send-up of murder mysteries and sports pictures. Arthur Franz plays the new Invisible Man, a boxer framed for murder before he takes an injection of the re-developed formula of Dr. Griffin. Bumbling detectives Bud and Lou find themselves hired by Franz to find the real killer. Naturally, this ultimately leads to Lou in the boxing ring! Another score for Universal, the film combines several genres effectively and evenly. Crime stories are a natural for invisible men, and the theme was used several times. Some of the more straightforward examples include THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN and THE HUMAN VAPOR.

Friday, July 27, 2018

A Quick Look: YOURS, MINE, AND OURS (1968 - color)


   Another film in which Hollywood greats have more kids than they know what to do with, YOURS, MINE, AND OURS was a big hit with family audiences and comedy fans. Setting the stage for television's The Brady Bunch, the film finds widowed Lucille Ball falling for career Navy man Henry Fonda, each afraid to tell the other that they have numerous children from previous marriages. Navy know-how and motherly love combine to take charge of a household of over a dozen! It's domestic comedy done epic scale! This film came along near the end of Lucy's full-time career, and it's a high note. Fonda would have a few more shining achievements, but after this largely settled for character parts in films like MIDWAY and METEOR. YOURS, MINE, AND OURS, as well as the earlier CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, was recently remade.