Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Story Slam: My People

My latest Story Slam piece relating the tale of how I ended up leading a trip of the Society of Black Engineers to NASA and then finding my way into a bad movie group.



The picture in question:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

179. Morons From Outer Space

179. Morons From Outer Space (1985)
Director: Mike Hodges
Writers: Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith
From: Sci-Fi Invasion

A trio of interstellar idiots crash on Earth, causing chaos before becoming superstars, but the fourth member of their group, stranded in space, is trying to return to his friends.

A mid-80’s British sci-fi comedy written by the sketch comedy duo Smith and Jones which is maybe enough of a description to tell you everything about the movie. While there is nominally a plot and characters, they’re largely present to allow for a series of loosely-related sketches. Think of The Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy or the films of Monty Python and you’ll have a sense of what to expect, but don’t expect greatness.

We open on a Star Wars-esque shot of the underside of a spaceship filling the screen followed by a long chain towing a small camper. And when I say “long,” I mean a shot that lasts the better part of a minute before we get the camper. That’s the payoff. Here’s this massive, screen-filling ship bringing along something behind it and that thing is… is… is… is still not on screen. Oh. It’s a camper.

The quartet of aliens are general idiots and their ship has blown a fuse preventing them from having any fun. Bernard, the “come on, cheer up” guy in the group, steps outside to play “space ball,” aka low-gravity soccer. The drunk idiot onboard uncouples their ship and flies to Earth where they crash, leaving Bernard stranded at the… base? Dock? Hotel? It wasn’t clear.

The government and military get involved immediately, but they’re either brutishly stupid or stupidly insane, which was refreshing. It reminded me how everything went downhill in the 90’s with cop dramas and Presidents punching terrorists off planes. Now people think figures of authority somehow deserve power instead of ridicule. In the 70’s and 80’s, in Britain more than the US, we recognized “leaders” were too stupid to be allowed access to meaningful work—that’s why you made them politicians.

Anyway, Graham, a put-upon newsroom assistant literally stumbles his way into the meeting with the aliens and then… not much. I mean, a lot happens, there are a lot of gags, but nothing of consequence. The aliens are basically mindless tourists so there’s no information to be gained from them. The American ambassador decides they’re hiding their true forms and decides to kill them, but Graham helps them escape. They become celebrities because of this and Graham becomes their manager, half chaffing at their stereotypical celebrity excess and idiocy, half trying to exploit them for his own gain.

Meanwhile, Bernard ends up getting rescued then immediately jettisoned, crashing in the US. He gets institutionalized, escapes, finds out the other three are in England and famous, and works on meeting them.

The reunion comes at the aliens’ New York show, their first in the US, where the trio perform, have an on-stage argument then leave. Bernard has snuck into their dressing room and asks to join them, but is rebuffed. Then an alien ship arrives, the trio address the man who walks out of it, and he turns out to be from the rental agency that they got their ship from. Since the ship has been wrecked, he says they’ll have to come with him. They leave, stranding Bernard once again. Graham knows who Bernard is, though, and the movie closes with him putting his arm around Bernard and discussing plans to make him a star.

The movie is competently done—written by the comedy duo Smith and Jones whose show Alas Smith and Jones seems clever enough and it’s directed by Mike Hodges who did Get Carter and Flash Gordon. It’s not a bad movie, it just never comes together to be what it could. It’s too focused on quick gags to let the characters develop—Graham barely has a line through the first half and then becomes the main character in the second. Suddenly he has an arc that moves from compassion to exploitation very quickly. However, the movie is also too scattered in its plots to let the gags build to something big. There’s the government response to the aliens, the aliens as celebrities, and Bernard trying to get back home after crashing on Earth. It’s too much.

Which is a shame because I laughed out loud several times during the movie and thought it had a real cleverness and wit. This isn’t like the Marimark films that have moments showing what they could be doing, but end up doing a Marimark film anyway, this is a case of lots of good ingredients just not working together. The movie’s fine if you’re looking for something to have running in the background or that you don’t want to give 100% of your attention to—you won’t miss any plot points—but it’s not quite cohesive enough for me to recommend you actively try to find it.

Friday, June 09, 2017

178. Man in the Attic

178. Man in the Attic (1953)
Director: Hugo Fregonese
Writers: Robert Pressnell Jr. and Barré Lyndon from the novel The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes
From: Chilling
Watch: archive.org

As Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of London, a strange Mr. Slade rents a room from Mr. and Mrs. Harley and becomes interested in their actress niece, much to Mrs. Harley’s concern.

Not to be confused with Hider in the House, this focuses on someone who may be Jack the Ripper moving into an attic in Victorian London. That the man is played by Jack Palance is what gives the movie the little edge it has.

The film opens with two cops walking the beat, talking about the hunt for Jack the Ripper. He’s killed twice and they’re trying to find him before he kills again, which immediately seems unlikely. Not that they’d try to find and stop him, but that they’d think they have a serial killer situation after only two deaths. There’s not yet enough to determine a pattern.

The cops walk a drunk woman home, but she slips back out and gets murdered by the Ripper. Immediately thereafter, Jack Palance, as Mr. Slade, comes to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Harley. They’re down-on-their luck bourgeoisie renting out some rooms for extra money. Slade takes the rooms and asks for access to the attic as well so he may conduct his “experiments.” Mrs. Harley is immediately suspicious of his behavior.

And this really should be the movie—the tension of Mrs. Harley suspecting Slade is the Ripper, finding evidence, having it challenged, and ultimately having a confrontation with horrible consequences for one of the two. Yes, it’s formulaic, but not without its pleasures and at least you can say what kind of film it is. This movie doesn’t do that.

Instead, it has that plot, to a degree, but also has a plot involving Mrs. Harley’s niece Lily, an actress who’s about to have her big break. Mr. Slade doesn’t like actresses which now suggests the other potential plot—that he’s the killer and coming ever closer to killing Lily. That doesn’t happen either, though, at least not completely, because there’s the third plot element.

The chief inspector in the Ripper case is Inspector Warwick. The Ripper’s fourth victim last spoke to Lily before she died so Warwick goes to talk to Lily and immediately becomes infatuated. Thus we get a bit of a love triangle between Warwick, Lily, and Slade, with Warwick and Slade having what’s supposed to be a psychological battle over whether Warwick will ever capture the Ripper.

So nothing really comes to anything because the movie never decides which plot it wants to follow. Since it tries to be all three, but never makes much of an effort to be any one of them, it just meanders without any urgency. It’s a Jack the Ripper movie without any tension, mystery, or doubt, so what’s the point?

Slade eventually reveals to Lily that he hates actresses because his mother was one, but was unfaithful to his father because she was beautiful enough to get away with it—she could have any man she wanted. This is similar to the line that MRAs take about women in general so it was interesting, in a way, to hear it coming out of Jack the Ripper (oh yeah, spoiler, he’s the Ripper, but the movie doesn’t put much effort into making you think he’s not). At the same time, it seems to be a moment where the movie wants you to sympathize with him—he didn’t want to commit these murders, he was forced by his slatternly mother. At the end, when he finally tries to kill Lily, it’s because he’s jealous of all the men leering at her from the audience at her show, so it seems to be criticizing his position while also endorsing it. Earlier it also has Mrs. Harley being shocked that Lily seems to be flirting with the Prince of Wales from the stage—shocked that she’s using her beauty and sexuality to try to improve her position precisely the way Slade criticized his mother for doing.

What I’m saying is the movie dips its toe into a weird space of seemingly justifying Jack the Ripper’s murders because of slutty-slut-sluts. Sympathy for the serial killer is always a difficult stance to take, but would be a badass title to a metal song.

As with a lot of these movies where I start to get sidelined by the politics, the movie itself doesn’t rise to the level of meriting a political or feminist analysis. That element sticks out as a bit of a, “Wait, what?” moment in an otherwise not-quite-meandering movie. While there’s no energy to the film, it doesn’t drag either, and literally sputters out at the end: Slade is finally revealed, chased by Warwick to a river where Slade simply walks in until he vanishes below the surface. Warwick and the police try to find Slade, but he never resurfaces. So that’s the big dramatic ending that lacks any sense of drama or ending.

I also want to note that the movie is only about 80 minutes long, but has three musical breaks. So it’s short, has nothing much happening, and still felt the need to pump the brakes three times during just to reduce all that tension.

So it’s not a recommend, although saying that implies more passion than the movie’s worth. There’s nice black-and-white cinematography and it’s kind of fun to see a simple studio flick from the 50’s, but there’s nothing compelling about it. On the other hand, it is in the public domain and there’s a copy on archive.org here. It’s riffable enough—I’m sure there are plenty of Jack Palance jokes folks could make—and could be used for a simple editing project, so that’s not nothing. It’s not, though, as a movie, much else.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

176-177. Alfonso Brescia's Italian Star Wars

Jump to 176. War of the Robots (1978)
Jump to 177. Star Odyssey (1979)

*. Cosmos: War of the Planets aka Anno zero - Guerra nello spazio (1977)
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Writers: Alfonso Brescia and Aldo Crudo
From: Science Fiction PD Project
Watch: archive.org

A spaceship makes an emergency landing on a planet after intercepting a mysterious signal only to find the planet ruled by a robotic monster.

An unnumbered entry with a link to the PD Project archive? What’s going on? Well, I saw that the next movie was Alfonso Brescia’s War of the Robots, the third in his series of four (some sources say five) Star Wars rip-offs. So I decided to do a master post with the entire series, going back to the first one which I originally watched nine years ago (how is this my life?). Here’s what I wrote then:

The movie is trying to be a high-tech John Henry tale. The hero, Capt. Hamilton, resents having his life and actions dictated by machines. He thinks humans are innately and eternally superior. However the world he lives in is governed by a supercomputer and every act, even sex, is performed via machine. Think Woody Allen's Sleeper but in earnest.

So naturally the planet they land on used to be home to a great civilization that eventually let robots do everything for them—including designing and building new robots. Robots revolted, destroyed the society and now have their eyes on Earth.

Overall not a bad idea—hell, it was great in 2001—but it's so poorly done. The movie drags along, beats you over the head with its at best muddy anti-technology ideology (how do we travel to space without it?) and, like the malevolent computer intelligence, refuses to die. The amazing thing is there are some remarkably rough jump cuts in the film. The original version may have been longer. Yikes.

Upon rewatching, I don’t have much to add except that it’s worse than my previous description implied. All these movies are exhaustingly dull. They’re an odd mix of Star Wars epic space opera and 2001 meditative sci-fi: they have stupid action and silly ideas done really slowly. The space battles are drawn out by orders being given to individual crew to prep this, adjust that, calibrate the other thing. I don’t need the mechanics of shooty-splodey and there are no ideas in these movies to meditate over. So it's just dull.

However, I will expand on the “rough jump cuts.” All the connective tissue in this movie is missing. The who and why of anything is never clear. I can’t name the characters, can’t describe their motivations, or explain what their mission was, and I’ve seen this twice now while taking notes.

This movie is followed by Battle of the Stars which I’ll say very little about because I haven’t seen it.

Not for lack of trying. All these movies are public domain and available all over the Internet, derisively referred to as “Italian Star Wars” (here included). However, this movie is particularly rare. Trash Film Guru’s post about it details both the confusions surrounding the film and the difficulty in finding it, but I’ll give just a quick summary here:

This was shot back-to-back with Cosmos using much of the same cast and sets. It was just random chance that Cosmos was released first. Because of their similarity, many people ignored Battle of the Stars because they thought they were the same movie which has made copies very scarce. It’s so rarely seen, in fact, that it’s the only one of these four movies without a Wikipedia page and its IMDB page is filled with reviews for Cosmos instead.

I’d love to get my hands on a copy to upload to archive.org. Plus, I think there’s a fun editing project that could be done with all these movies.

176. War of the Robots aka La guerra dei robot (1978)
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Writers: Alfonso Brescia and Aldo Crudo
From: Chilling; Sci-Fi Invasion
Watch: archive.org

A scientist working on artificial life and his assistant are kidnapped by an alien race intent on immortality. A rescue crew from Earth has 8 days to save them and return before the scientist's experiment explodes, leveling a city and killing thousands.

"Is it because I have cabbage for a head?"
This is when the movies get strange and the “Italian Star Wars” comments make sense. The Prof and his lovely assistant (I’m not looking up anyone’s names for this crap) get kidnapped by Prince-Valiant-looking robots and I had my one moment of real pleasure in imaging this was a Kids in the Hall bit directed by and starring Bruce McCulloch. Then there were three more hours of movies to watch.

Lovely assistant’s boyfriend leads a ship to track down the aliens since the Professor’s nuclear reactor will go critical in 8 ½ days and only the Professor can disable it. They stop to fix a satellite, basically repeating a sequence from Cosmos, fight the aliens, land on an asteroid, get captured, and find the Professor controlling the robots with the supercomputer that was destroyed at the end of Cosmos. He’s the villain now! And lovely assistant is the Empress of the aliens. Empress betrays the aliens, gets everyone out, but turns out she’s actually a traitor, big space battle, Earth wins, town saved, no one could possibly care.

During the movie, the robots start attacking the humans with really crappy lightsabers, and this is where the Star Wars comparisons become clearer. Honestly, the first movie felt a little more like it was ripping off Battlestar Galactica, but whatever. It’s so cheesy, so poorly done. There’s a love-triangle where one of the crew is in love with the Empress’ boyfriend and the joke is he’s literally the only person who doesn’t know. They even pick up an alien from a species that’s been oppressed by the robots and he comments on it. At the end, she’s the one who saves the day. In fact, the boyfriend who’s coded as the “hero” doesn’t do much at all. All the heroic actions are taken by the two women and the alien and I don’t really need to reiterate my lack of patience for films focusing on useless white guys, do I? My apartment has a mirror in the kitchen. I see a useless white guy in action every time I make breakfast. Focus on characters who do shit.

177. Star Odyssey aka Sette uomini d'oro nello spazio (1979)
Director: Alfonso Brescia
Writers: Alfonso Brescia, Massimo Lo Jacono, and Giacomo Mazzocchi
From: Cult Cinema
Watch: archive.org

An alien comes to Earth planning to enslave all humans. It’s up to a scientist and his band of ragtag thieves and scammers to develop the solution to save the planet.

The waffles have come for revenge!
David Hasselhoff wearing oatmeal is leading an army of the robots from War of the Robots to gather humans from Earth to sell as slaves. As his ship approaches, monitoring stations on Earth go crazy since this is their first contact with an alien species. That doesn’t matter for the movie, I just want to mention it for later.

The alien ship is made from an impenetrable substance so a genius scientist convinces his neice’s showboating space officer boyfriend to break a pair of his friends out of prison. This “convincing,” by the way, is done via hypnosis. Later, a scammer who’s going to help the officer uses his psychic powers to manipulate small objects and dominate someone’s mind. Yep, we’re into “use the Force” territory and 100% fake Star Wars.

A good three-quarters of this movie is “getting the band back together,” except we don’t know who the bad is, how they work together, or why each of them is being selected. So it’s basically an hour of a bunch of nobodies reaching out to yahoos for reasons, maybe.

The original Covfefe.
They also have a pair of suicidal robots that look like Howard the Cyberduck and his girlfriend. They agreed to a suicide pact, but forgot why. At the end of the movie, they remember they wanted to kill themselves because they couldn’t fuck. The scientist offers them a happy ending by promising to make them genitals so they can screw like anyone else.

Were these pornos? This feels like a porno. The acting gets worse from film to film until we arrive at this one that feels like it’s supposed to be a farce, that’s it’s supposed to be the goofy bits between people getting down to fucking, but all the fucking’s been cut. That math doesn’t work, though, because this movie is nearly 100 minutes long. What got cut?

And I’m not going into the plot in detail because it doesn’t make sense. All the shots are out of order. So the alien is approaching Earth, the scientist is getting his plan ready, the scammer is brought in to help in the prison break, and then it flashes back to the alien bidding for the Earth in an interplanetary auction, the scammer in the scene preceding the one where the niece recruited him for the job, both of these intercut with the niece at a wrestling match between a scrawny guy and a robot.

In the end, the escaped prisoners find the solution, big space battle where aliens are driven back, heroes who created awkward love triangles die to simplify the relationships afterwards, and the escaped prisoners follow Breakfasthoff back to the auction house where they sell Earth off again, the prisoners getting a 50% cut. Which is a big, “What?” to end the movie on.

As I mentioned, this uses the same robots as the previous movie. Hoff and oats with syrup’s ship is also the same as the ones used by the heroes in the previous films. I wanted to note that this movie features Earth’s first contact with aliens because it really feels like the movies go in reverse order, that you could watch them 4, 3, 2, 1 and see an epic about Earth’s space program developing over time to ultimately combat the evil supercomputer that’s been angling for galactic conquest the whole time. It’d make a hell of a lot more sense that any one of these movies do on their own.

In fact, because there’s so much overlap in sets and costumes, it’d be really easy to cut up all these films and make something new that makes sense and looks like one coherent thing. You could even redub it since the original dubbing is so bad.

These movies are trash. Watching them literally wore me out. They’re highly mockable because they’re so silly, but I’d say Star Odyssey might be so bad that even watching it to make fun of it would be a challenge. As I suggested, there are editing projects you could put together using these movies and, luckily, they're all public domain. I didn’t realize this when I set out to watch all of these, but I already uploaded Cosmos way back when. It’s the 2nd most downloaded movie I’ve posted after Bloody Pit of Horror and beats the 3rd most, The Phantom Planet, by just over 50,000 downloads. I’ve added an MPEG-2 of War of the Robots to archive.org here and would have added one of Star Odyssey, but Mill Creek decided to rub themselves all over the crusty deliciousness of Spam-and-eggs-and-Hoff by squirting their logo onto my copy. Fortunately, someone else posted one to archive.org here. If you're particularly masochistic, you can watch them all, but I'd recommend doing so only after several tall glasses of water.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Story Slam: Battle Scars

A new Story Slam piece, this time about my first reporting gig for Rustbelt Radio in Pittsburgh. I was covering the protest of the third anniversary of the Iraq War, an event that was, maybe unsurprisingly, framed by the specter of state violence.