Friday, November 25, 2016

121. Battle Beyond the Sun and 122. Jive Turkey

Jump to Jive Turkey (1974)

121. Battle Beyond the Sun aka The Sky Calls (1959)
Directors: Mikhail Karzhukov, Aleksandr Kozyr, and Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: Mikhail Karzhukov, Evgeniy Pomeshchikov, and Aleksey Sazonov
From: Sci-Fi Invasion

After the Great Atomic War, the two major world powers are racing to be the first ones to land on Mars. Their missions, though, encounter unexpected problems.

We should probably start by noting this was originally a Russian film with both the expected Soviets vs. Americans angle and a legitimately hard sci-fi aspect. Roger Corman bought the rights to the American version and handed it over to Francis Ford Coppola to make it more America-friendly. This meant 1: removing the politics and 2: adding space monsters. The end result, unsurprisingly, is a bit of a mish-mash.

The opening is narration so long that it continues over the first actual scene of the movie. The narrator is blathering on about the space program while we see footage of models of space vessel prototypes. Then the movie starts with characters talking about something, but we never hear it because the narrator isn’t done yet. I was hoping the majority of the film would be narrated a la The Creeping Terror, but no luck. We do get the backstory, though, of the Great Atomic War that wiped all the nations out. Now it’s the villainous Northern Hemisphere vs. the curiously pale Southern Hemisphere in the far off future year of 1997.

The South’s secret Mars mission is docked on the space station when they get a distress call from a Northern ship requesting permission to land and make repairs. They accept their Northern neighbors as guests, but the North figures out what the South’s mission is and leaves early hoping to beat the South to Mars, despite receiving direct orders not to.

Their ship fails en route and starts drifting into the sun and the Southern ship picks up the North’s distress signal. The South save the Northern crew, but use up all their fuel doing so. They land on an asteroid and try to send a message back to the base.

The base sends a fuel rocket that crashes before it can reach them and then another, this time with a pilot. He lands on the asteroid and, while looking for the stranded crew, sees two alien monsters fighting—the element Coppola added. According to Wikipedia, “Coppola's idea was that one monster would look like a penis and the other a vagina.” I’d include a screenshot, but they all came out too dark. However, it’s clearly visible when watching the movie and, if you were told beforehand, as you have been now, you can see it. The more I learn about Coppola, the more I keep saying, “and he made The Godfather” with curious incredulity.

Whatever. Astronaut dies but signals the crew as he does, and they all return home to a hero’s welcome even though they didn’t complete their mission. The narrator returns to say it’s bravery like theirs that will end up moving science forward and yadda yadda yadda. END.

Truth be told, this movie wiped me out several times. I kept falling asleep, rewinding, and falling back asleep. It’s kind of fun in its translation errors—the villains don’t work as villains unless you think of them as the conniving enemies and the heroes as the noble us, “enemies” and “us” being, as always, relative terms, and even then that just ups the camp factor.

The original Russian version, according to Wikipedia, was in fact a long dream sequence and so faced its own narrative problems. The biggest issue is that it’s still a little too close to pure sci-fi: rather than a character or plot being central to the story, the “What if” question is central, here being “How could a mission to Mars go wrong?” Interesting enough, but nothing here carries dramatic weight so the movie just putters along for most of its running time.

There is fun to be had: it’s easily mockable and I’d love to see someone do an entirely new dub in the style of Dr. Chuck Tingle. The movie’s in the public domain and I’ve added an MPEG-2 copy to here. That’s probably the best way to think of it—not so much as a piece of entertainment, but as raw material for other projects.

122. Jive Turkey aka Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes(1974)
Director: Bill Brame
Writers: Fredricka DeCosta from a story by Howard Ransom and Elizabeth Ransom
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In

In 1956, Pasha, head of the numbers racket in his African-American neighborhood, is facing pressure from the Italian mob to hand over control of his empire. He’s been told a hit’s been placed on him and that he has a traitor in his organization. Pasha needs to shore up his power before it’s too late.

An unintentional Turkey Day reference to celebrate Thanksgiving. The movie follows crime boss Pasha over the course of several days as he runs his empire. You’d think there’d be some dramatic tension or a looming threat, but there really isn’t despite movie’s nods to some.

We open with Pasha meeting mafia crime boss Tony. The two grew up together and entered their respective fields at the same time. The mafia handles drugs, Pasha handles the numbers game, and each stays out of the other’s racket. Only the drug profits are drying up and the mob wants a cut of Pasha’s numbers game. Pasha refuses, but is told by Tony, because they go back so far, that someone’s put a hit on Pasha and there’s a traitor in his organization.

Meanwhile, the mayor is up for reelection and he wants an easy moral target to focus public outrage on to help his campaign. He chooses the numbers game, sets the cops on a mission to take down Pasha, and never comes up in the movie again.

The third plot line comes up when local kid Nathan shows up in Pasha’s office demanding his winnings for hitting the numbers and Pasha starts grooming Nathan to be part of his empire by asking one of his top numbers men, Sweetman, too keep an eye on him.

The movie plays out from there without much action or consequence. There’s a bit of the feel of a picaresque of Pasha checking in with every part of the community and his empire, there’s a sense of him preparing his replacement by having a specific numbers man follow him from place to place, and of course the cat-and-mouse of both the cops and the mob trying to take him out. None of it carries any weight, though.

Pasha has someone on the inside of the police, warning him about upcoming raids so he’s never caught flat-footed, and the mob’s efforts to kill him never feel like they’re a primary concern for any of the characters. Even the presence of the mole doesn’t get much attention until the very end of the film where he's revealed by Pasha having him executed.

The Nathan plotline feels like it’s the one that’s supposed to have some moral resonance—he’s a young man single-handedly raising his younger siblings, promising that he’s going to get them out of the neighborhood. Then he’s killed by the mob. I’d feel worse about his death if the actor weren’t so terrible. All the acting, outside of Pasha and Tony really, is hilariously awful.

Anyway, Nathan’s death enrages Pasha and he has a final one-on-one with Tony. Tony admits that he’s always hated Pasha because he was so "uppity" and "refused to know his place." They play a rigged game of Russian Roulette (Tony has sabotaged the gun so it won’t fire), and then Pasha beats him to death.

The movie ends with Pasha preparing to flee the country, but saying goodbye to friends in one of his nightclubs. He also reveals that he’s known who the mole is the entire time and has him killed. Final shot is Pasha laughing.

So not a lot going on in this movie, or, at least, not a lot that has consequence within the movie itself. I didn’t even mention Serena, the psychopathic hitwoman that works for Pasha and brutally murders his enemies. Secret twist: she’s a transvestite and was a man the whole time. Her final scene is getting a light from a car full of mobsters waiting to kill her, but they don’t recognize her without her make-up.

There are some camp pleasures here. It’s a pretty generic blaxploitation film so you can laugh at the clich├ęs: the man trying to get out of the game, “drugs in the community,” and of course the music whose lyrics I cannot quote here. The acting, as I said, is really bad, such that every dramatic moment becomes a joke. Finally, there are the grim gags that were probably pretty grim even back then, like the black lawyer responding to Pasha’s demands that he get one of Pasha’s men out of prison immediately. “They wouldn’t kill him! This is 1956.” Oof.

Overall, it’s all right--not awful, not great. It made me appreciate Black Dynamite that much more, honestly, which isn’t nothing. I’m not sure about its copyright status. There’s a copyright logo at the end of the film that looks legit, but there’s a Mill Creek Bug throughout, which they only seem to do on PD films. A light Googling will find it for you regardless, so you can decide if it’s to your tastes or not.

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