Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010

Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen died in Florida on Nov. 28, 2010. He was 84.

Nielsen's career stretched back to 1950. The Saskatchewan native worked extensively in television and film. The wacky comedy, Airplane!, released in 1980, gave a huge boost to the second half of his career.

The television series, Police Squad!, from the same creative time, followed in 1982. It only lasted six episodes. The show's brief, and very funny, run can be enjoyed on DVD. Buy it. The first Naked Gun movie, from 1988, is the best. Don't bother with the sequels.

Even after those comedic turns, Nielsen still delivered a powerful dramatic performance in 1986 with Nuts starring Barbara Streisand.

Nielsen also starred in one of the great all-time science fiction films, Forbidden Planet, released in 1956. The movie adapted Shakespeare's The Tempest and set it in outer space. There's a two-disc special edition marking the film's 50th anniversary.

They Came From Beyond Space and should have stayed there

There are worse films than They Came From Beyond Space. But stupider?

The aliens in this 1967 British film crow about being the "highest life order in the cosmos."


Then why do their plans keep getting mucked up by astrophysicist Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton) and his buddy, Farge (Zia Mohyeddin)? Farge may be one filmdom's few heroes who save the day wearing a cardigan and a tie.

Warning signs appear early in They Came From Beyond Space. The musical score, composed by James Stevens, is atrocious, not to mention irritating. The first special effect about five minutes in is laughable. They don't get better.

Meteors land in a farmer's field. Temple is forbidden to check out the scene because of a recent automobile collision that left him badly injured. Not that you can tell by how he beats up aliens later on in the film.

The alien race takes over the minds of really smart, well smart by Earth's standards, scientists including Temple's squeeze Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne). Temple can't be touched because doctors put a silver plate in his head after a serious automobile collision. We never see the aliens try and figure out how they can get to Temple before he ruins their mission to Earth.

The plot is hard to describe because it's hard to understand. The aliens made the mistake of evolving too far. Living without bodies isn't working for them. What happened to their superior intellect?

They unleash a supposed plague that wipes out at least 10 people. A large budget does not appear to be part of They Came From Beyond Space's production. These folks are brought to the moon. They are slaves. Doing what? Not sure.

Aliens sometimes use ray guns that quite effectively stop Temple. Their superior intellect results in their handing machine guns to their security guards which never hit Temple. The ray gun always hits Temple. Do the math, people.

Poor special effects can be forgiven if there's an interesting story. Sometimes laughable dialogue can be excused if there's a sign of intelligent filmmaking happening. When Temple goes to the crash site and sees Lee, now under the control of the alien race, he tells her, "I wanted to find out what was happening. I also happen to be in love with you." Yikes. Their chemistry is non-existent.

The menu for the St. Clair Vision copy I watched lists They Came From Beyond Space as a sci-fi classic. That's just wrong. It's terrible. This was one of three (!) films Freddie Francis directed in 1967. Torture Garden and The Deadly Bees were the others. Fourteen years later, he was the director of photography for the critically acclaimed The French Lieutenant's Woman with Meryl Streep. How's that for range? He died in 2007 at age 89.

Hutton, who also appeared in Trog, The Slime People and The Man Without a Body, made his last film in 1975. He died in 1994.

Jayne's career ran from 1949 to 1985. Her other credits included The Black Widow and A Woman of Mystery. She died in 2006. She was 74.

Hutton's buddy, Zia Mohyeddin, also appeared in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. This is a big step down for him.

Not bad enough to qualify as entertaining schlock, They Came From Beyond Space is just a waste of time. Viewer beware.

Rating 3/10

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much: chills and laughs combine for great thriller

Director Alfred Hitchcock does an awful lot with this film's brief 75-minute running time.

There's about a dozen shots that either just look great or build suspense. This is a great early film from the British filmmaker's first decade of moviemaking and is highly recommended.

Lawrence and Jill (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), are in Switzerland on vacation.

When a friend is shot when dancing, he shares a secret with Jill in his dying moments. He's an agent with the British government and has learned about a plot to kill a European diplomat about to visit England.

Realizing Lawrence and Jill know about the assassination plot, the conspirators kidnap Betty.
She will be killed, they are told, if they reveal what they know to authorities. British investigators warn the couple if they don't talk, the politician's death could trigger violence on a scale equivalent to the First World War.

Lawrence and Betty's uncle, Clive (Hugh Wakefield), decide to find Betty on their own.
There's a couple of great shots in the office of dentist George Barber (Henry Oscar). Is Barber part of the plot? Does he mean to harm Lawrence? Two early, great shots take place in his office.

Hitchcock repeatedly cuts away from scenes where a character's fate, usually Betty's, is being discussed. This jars the audience and keeps them off-base. Hitchcock makes great use of silence too to build suspense or create a sense something particularly nasty is about to happen.

Hitchcock was known for having a standout scene or two in each film, such as Janet Leigh's demise in the shower in Psycho or Cary Grant being chased by a crop-dusting plane in North By Northwest.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Betty is pursued on a roof when she tries to escape. Silence is used here again to great effect.

Peter Lorre (Abbott) is the ringleader of the conspirators in his first English-language film. He drifts between menacing, check out his facial scar and hair, and charming. He gets some great lines too. The diplomat is to be killed during a concert's climatic moment at a major English venue. The assassin is told no one will hear his gunshot. "I think the composer would have appreciated that," Abbott says.

British police are portrayed as bumbling, unaware and unorganized in The Man Who Knew Too Much, a theme Hitchcock would repeat in other films. During a final confrontation with the conspirators, police must wait for weapons to arrive before they can return fire.

The first five minutes of The Man Who Knew Too Much were daunting. It was difficult to make out what the actors were saying. That, thankfully, stopped early on. If you can spot Hitchcock's cameo, well done! I had to rely on a cameo feature included in the Madacy release I watched.

This film, released in 1934, would be remade by Hitchcock in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day. It's been a few years since I watched the second film, but the original The Man Who Knew Too Much is solid viewing.

As of this writing, Nova Pilbeam is still alive. She turned 91 on Nov. 15, 2010. Pilbeam, who also appeared in Hitchcock's Young and Innocent, made her last film (The Three Weird Sisters) in 1948.

Screenwriter Charles Bennett worked on several other scripts for Hitchcock including Foreign Correspondent, Sabotage and Secret Agent.

Rating for The Man Who Knew Too Much: 9/10

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Quiet Earth makes some noise

Vincent Price wakes up to another day fighting the undead.

Bruno Lawrence starts his morning discovering everyone else is gone.

My blog began with a review of the last man on earth vincent price.

Twenty-one years after that Italian release hit the screens, The Quiet Earth from New Zealand was released in 1985. How fitting it's my second review.

It's neat to compare how the two films handle the same scenario. What does the last man on Earth do?

Price's character, Robert Morgan, has battled vampires/zombies since a plague wiped out mankind.

Zac Hobson (Lawrence) can't find anybody as he prepares to start another day as a government research scientist. He fills up his car at the gas station, but there's no attendant. A kettle boils. There's a magazine on the washroom floor.

Hobson finds abandoned vehicles on the streets, but no humans.

He visits a home, presumably of someone he knows, and discovers a breakfast tray in a bed, but no residents.

"Hello, is anybody out there?" he pleads over a transport's CB radio.

A hint of Price's Morgan going mad was suggested after three years of battling the undead. Hobson begins his descent into insanity a week after the rest of the world disappears.

While Morgan had nothing to do with humanity's demise, Hobson knows he played a role in wiping out mankind.

His research department, and many others, were working together on Project Flashlight. There's a few details given about this operation, including the powering of jet planes without needing to refuel.

There's a neat plot development about Hobson's reaction to the project in the film's final third.

The Quiet Earth, just like The Last Man on Earth, adds another character or two as the film progresses. You might think a handful of surviving humans could get along when the rest of mankind is gone. You'd be wrong.

Hobson learns Project Flashlight could be responsible for another disaster. Maori trucker Api (Pete Smith) takes a fancy to Joanne (Alison Routledge), who was first to meet with Hobson and begin a romantic relationship.

There's several references to characters thinking they are now the Almighty. Hobson destroys a church's crucifix with several shotgun blasts and proclaims, "Now I am God."

What Hobson, Api and Joanne have in common adds an interesting twist in the film's final 30 minutes. Are they dreaming? Have they entered a parallel universe? "The end of the world is just the beginning," suggests the film's trailer.

The Quiet Earth ends with a powerful image of Hobson on a beach. Keep watching through the credits for a final image of the scientist reacting to what he has helped create.

The Quiet Earth earned eight New Zealand Academy Awards including best film, actor, director and screenplay. Director Geoff Murphy's later credits included Freejack with the unlikely pairing of Mick Jagger and Emilio Estevez and Young Guns II.

Lawrence (Smash Palace, Warlords of the 21st Century) died of lung cancer in 1995. He was 54. Routledge has only appeared in a handful of films in the last 25 years. The Last Man on Earth was Smith's film debut. His other credits include Once Were Warriors and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Hollywood take note. The Quiet Earth cost about $1 million to make. Big dollars and plenty of explosions does not always equal a critically-praised film that, gasp, makes audiences think.

Rating: 7/10