Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movie Buff: Classic Cinema

I thought I'd do a short little post on some golden (or at least silver age) movies I've seen of late. First, if you want an in-depth review of something more recent, check out Undiscover This for a fairly good review of The Social Network, followed by some truly excellent, excellent commentary. And now my reviews:

Ice Station Zebra. John Sturges' 1968 Cold War flick, in which an American submarine races to retrieve a spy satellite's film from the titular station where it crashes. Starring Patrick McGoohan as the British special ops leader, Ernest Borgnine as his right hand man Russian defector, and Rock Hudson as the submarine commander and Guy With a Really Cool Name. The second half is pretty good, especially the tense confrontation between Borgnine and the leader of the marine team, but the first half, in which the submarine slowly, slowly reaches the station, isn't nearly as exciting as the music score tries to tell you it is.

A Boy and His Dog. The 1975 post-apocalypse film directed by L. Q. Jones and starring a young Don Johnson of Nash Bridges and Miami Vice fame. Also starring Tim McIntire as the voice of the adorable dog. Without giving anything too much away, the general plot is that in the wake of a world ravaged by World War IV, the boy encourages his telepathic dog to find him a woman to, well, rape, but ends up with more than he bargains for when he winds up in an underground colony best described as a parody of a parody of Americana. Yeah, it's pretty weird. The dog is one of the great things about the film, reaching just the right level of sardonic humor.
I like the inversions of social order at work in the film. For example, the dog is elevated to the importance of human, while in the colony, "gone to the farm" is no longer a euphemism for pets that are no longer with us, but for people sentenced to death for breaking the society's fascist laws. Not that they carry the euphemism very far--they basically announce the sentence, and then a robotic hillbilly walks up and crushes the offender's neck with its bare hands. No, really. The movie is based on the short story of the same name by Harlan Ellison, and while the movie is definitely the best out of this set, I prefer the story. While I appreciate the truly insane expansions the film indulges in, the story had a much more powerful ending, while containing pretty much the same actual events.

Okay, the next two require a bit of explanation. I'm currently in a disagreement with one of my roommates. He says that Leslie Nielson's best movies were the Naked Gun films, whereas I prefer Wrongfully Accused. (Blasphemy, I know. But I'm sticking to it.) In my mind, the only way to determine which of us is right is to watch every movie Nielson has been in that's available. Problem: according to imdb, he's had 238 roles. Even removing the TV roles, that's a lot of film. I can't even find some of the more obscure ones, but I'm trying to view what I can.

I'm also doing it in chronological order, which means that I start with his early work as a handsome leading man. As someone who was introduced to Nielsen through the Due South TV show wherein he played an flatulent over the hill Mountie, the idea of him as the chisel-jawed hero is somewhat jarring. That's probably why I've only made it through two such films so far. And here they are:

Forbidden Planet. The 1956 sci-fi "classic" directed by Fred J. Wilcox. Commander J. J Adams (played by Nielsen) brings his crew to visit the colony of Altair IV, but upon landing, find the only inhabitants are Dr. Morbius and his daughter, Altaira. And a robot named Robbie. Morbius continually warns the commander to leave the planet, but the commander would rather get to know Morbius' daughter--and of course, terrible things start to happen to the crew. There's a clear Shakespearean Tempest theme going on, with Morbius and Altaira playing the roles of Prospero and Miranda, and even a subplot where Robbie gets the ship's cook extremely drunk on synthetically created alcohol. And the special effects reach that pinnacle of hilariously bad in retrospect that only old sci-fi films can reach. Also: Robbie is awesome. But despite these elements, the film really drags in places. And when your 98 minute film drags, there's a problem. Nielsen's fine in it, though he really doesn't stretch himself beyond the "stalwart star captain" prototype.

The Reluctant Astronaut. The 1967 comedy starring Don Knotts as Roy Flemming. Roy, a man who makes a living manning a space simulator for children at the county fair, is entered into the space program by his father. The only problem is--he's afraid of heights! Actually, the problem is that his father accidentally entered him into NASA's janitorial staff, and much of the film consists of him trying to keep up the astronaut charade for his friends and family back home. Leslie Nielsen plays the square-jawed astronaut that befriends him. The plot thickens when NASA receives word that the Russians are sending an ordinary man into space in order to demonstrate the efficiency of their automated system, and suddenly Flemming is flying high. While the movie definitely aged better than Forbidden Planet (and Ice Station Zebra, for that matter), most of the comedy comes from Don Knotts being Don Knotts rather than any really jokes. I suppose the space-related stuff would have been more interesting to the audience at the time, but if you want space-related comedy, The Simpsons did the "average man in space" better (though admittedly this movie is a clear influence), and more recently, Community did the space sim better.

That's it for now. The next Nielsen movies on the docket: Poseidon Adventure, and Day of the Animals.

Later Days.

No comments: