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Star Trek: Balance of Terror (1966)
THE ENEMY BELOW Retread . . .
This episode is one of those rare ship-to-ship duels a lot of people would have preferred to see more of in STAR TREK -- and it is probably the best one if what you are looking for is action and a kind of dogfight. But Real movie fans over the age of -- well, 50, maybe -- will recognize it immediately as Gene Roddenberry's answer to the Robert Mitchum/Curd Jurgens 1957 minor classic of World War II, THE ENEMY BELOW, with the Romulan ship being the U-boat and the Enterprise the American destroyer escort. The writers could have easily had a copy of the earlier effort's script in their hand while they wrote this. No other submarine movie was focused for its entire plot on a one-to-one cat-and-mouse face-off between one submarine and one surface warfare ship, captain to captain. Even all those references to "the praetor" jump out at you -- particularly in the dialog and bearing of the Romulan second-in-command -- as references to a better-known figure once known as "Der Fuhrer", as related in classic world-war-two-moviese. This episode shows that George Lucas (STAR WARS, etc.) had nothing on the STAR TREK production team when it came to shameless copying of an earlier successful entertainment formula (and even if this irritated well-regarded STAR TREK contributor Harlan Ellison).
Thus, while in one sense it is one of the better episodes, I gave it only a seven-star rating as somewhat lacking in originality. Rather than getting as absorbed in the story as I was supposed to be, I instead found myself dweliing on correlating the analogies -- the random phaser-firing patterns for depth-charging, the dust-generating near-hits on the Romulan ship for the effects of same, and so forth and so on. This took the edge off of something that could have been more gripping had it not been so obvious and predictable a copy.
Outrageous Fortune (1987)
Decent comedy worth seeing
For years there was a video store I would go into and this movie was placed there in some way so that I kept seeing it every time, yet for some reason, it never spoke to me. Maybe it was the cover art (and it didn't help that the VHS case had seen better days, with just the wrong amount of dirty scratches in the wrong places, or that the insert looked faded), or maybe it was that this was before I started watching reruns of CHEERS, or maybe it was a lukewarm Rogert-Ebert-quality review I saw somewhere, or whatever, but I never rented it. However, here today, practically 30 years later, I finally took the opportunity to watch an original uncut copy of the movie I ran across on-line, and I was not disappointed.
Here, Shelly Long reprises her role as Diane Chambers, except that her name is Lauren, and she is not an aspiring writer in Boston, but an aspiring actress in New York City (and parts West), and she can say f---, f------g, assh*le, and also do a fair Marisa Tomei from MY COUSIN VINNIE (even if only sporadically). Bette Midler (as others have noted) is just Bette Midler, meaning the 1980's answer to Mae West (or maybe Renee Zellweger), complete with earrings of hand grenade proportions. The two of them become unlikely allies in a quest to find their common boyfriend, who has gone mysteriously missing following an apparent misadventure. This movie also includes a rare semi-cameo appearance by George Carlin as a cross between Sherlock Holmes, Yosemite Sam, and just George Carlin, Stand-Up Man Extraordinaire, in the guise of just the sort of hippy-dippy character he essayed so well on the comedy stage. The villain is played by actor Peter Coyote, who fully lives up to his name as an example of desert vermin writ large.
Some have said this is "screwball" comedy (a 1930's/40's genre) but really it reminds me more of a "madcap" comedy of the early 1960's, with that genre's looser plots and virtually obligatory scene involving the launching of virtually countless thousands of dollars in cash into a crowd (and not just once, but twice in the same movie!) The climactic sequence devolves into a kind of chase sequence, and as others on IMDb have noted, here the movie slips a little as that sequence is not as artfully crafted as the more famous ones in the history of the movies. It seems as though something was missing as far as building the tension necessary for an ideal chase scene (probably, as much as anything else, a heightened sense of Menace). Still, its basic premise is as well-conceived as probably anything ("Reckoning At Four Fingers Rocks!"), and it still pays off even though it is not as executed perhaps as well it might have been. The epilogue at the end also seemed a somewhat jarring non sequitur that is somewhat anti-climactic as well. Still, this movie is a perfectly decent comedy well-worth seeing if you are in video hell some evening or rainy Saturday afternoon looking for something to watch.
Not the Most Successful Conception In Film History . . .
Not your usual sort of movie, it is interesting to think that had it been more successful, this might have been a pioneer of a whole new genre. Not quite documentary but not much of a drama, either, it derives from a venerable form of literature, the dialog, where ideas are expressed by having essentially allegorical characters discuss the subject matter. This movie takes this to the next level, by having the receiving characters, a politician and a poet, trying to translate the scientific ideas expressed by a physicist into something they might use in their own lives. Unfortunately, it was not taken far enough, to the point where there is enough dramatic content to rope in the audience and deliver an emotional experience, the normal goal of any movie.
Lacking the distinct dramatic direction typical of movies in general, it is only mildly interesting. While Liv Ullman is remarkably believable as the essentially screechy scientist she portrays here (if you have known such people), and Sam Waterston, who is evidently supposed to be one of the "seven dwarfs" (or were there eight, after all?) of the Democratic Party in the 1988 US presidential election cycle, is well-cast as a fairly stereotype Hollywood fantasy politician (an idealist caught up by a reality, a figure vastly more common on screen than in any hall of real-life government you'll ever see), there is no compelling drama that arises from their interaction, and neither does the ex-patriot political-speechwriter-turned-poet-now-living-in-Paris (a pure writer's fantasy, surely) produce it, either. While the actors definitely do a creditable job of portraying ordinary people you may encounter in real life (even at these rarefied levels of ordinariness), probably the main problem here is that they are TOO ordinary, so realistic that they lack any larger-than-life quality at all (it's no wonder Waterston's character didn't get the presidential nomination), and ultimately fail as compelling dramatic portrayals. They don't even develop any particularly good chemistry between them as people, which might easily have saved this effort on an emotional level. Instead, probably the most dramatic thing about them is that all three are on the emotional rocks at this stage of their lives, stuck at depressed dead-ends at least for the moment, and this conversation they share here doesn't change that; it's just an intellectually-oriented conversation between people who meet as strangers and part only as acquaintances, each with enough ego to not necessarily be overwhelmed by the others' ideas, or to act on them, an experience far too common in life among thinking people to be at all remarkable. Moreover, the ideas expressed would be more effectively related in writing or even in conventional documentary narrative format than by the dilute dramatic format adopted here. In lieu of a palpable dramatic thread connecting all this together, the thing which might have made it successful as a movie, it seems like a collection of disconnected ideas that might be very true-to-life in many ways, but not a story such as one tells for entertainment in the normal sense of storytelling.
Likewise, the choice of setting is never particularly woven into the theme or the presentation, either. In fact, after making a five-hour drive from Paris to be at the famed isle of Mont Saint-Michel, Waterston can't ever seem to find anything else to say about it except to repeatedly remind everybody that it is medieval, using a tone not entirely devoid of ridicule, as though the location were silly in its irrelevance to modern life (a sentiment which seems to be echoed by Liv Ullman's college-aged daughter). For all that, the movie could just as easily have been set in Yellowstone National Park, or the Grand Canyon, or a Polynesian island -- or any bar on any airport concourse anywhere in the world in between changing flights. The various shots of the island's attractions are generally just incidental, without any especially impressive photography, and worse still, the editing plays fast and loose with the locations. A wholly fictitious clock tower is inserted into the abbey church that forms the centerpiece of the island monument (although there is one way, way down below in the village chapel located elsewhere on the island) as well as a nonexistent organ (ignoring the actual pipe organ in the main church). In another instance, a single sentence in a Liv Ullman speech is actually delivered in two completely disparate great halls before she gets to the period, and in another what is supposed to be the characters leaving her house actually shows them leaving the courtyard of the "Museo Historique" (not to mention that it doesn't resemble the purported entrance they used to get in originally). Elsewhere Sam Waterston and his poet pal are shown going into the abbey church through a door that is certainly NOT the door of the abbey church (as anybody with Google Earth can verify on their home computer). A cynical person might easily conclude that the only reason the movie was shot where it was was to get the producers an all-expense-paid trip to one of civilization's greatest landmarks on their investors' nickle.
In sum, if you are interested in "systems theory", or any other discussions of deficiencies in thinking in the contemporary world, there are surely more effective vehicles that will do the subject matter more justice with more comprehension and in less time, for the quantity of content dispensed. To anybody genuinely familiar with western democracy, Sam Waterston's conundrums about government will seem not only unoriginal, but trite. And if you are watching this to see Le Mont Saint-Michel, it is not particularly better than any number of tourist-oriented videos available on-line, and is much longer and more tedious than the longest of those. And for "intellectual conversation format" drama, Steve Allen (the comedian!) did a better job in his short-lived 1970's PBS series MEETING OF MINDS, because unlike here he never forgot that effective drama actually has to have some drama in it.
Flight of the Intruder (1991)
The basis for the story
One thing practically nobody posting on this movie is getting is the basis for the plot. Most reviewers are content to just mention that it was based on a novel and let it go at that. What I am not seeing is anybody explaining what the basis for the story was in the first place. One particularly unfortunate reviewer actually goes so far as to get it completely backward and blame the decision-making of "the American military" for the situation that leads to the pilots' frustration that in turn leads to the main line of action.
My own father was an American naval aviator during the Vietnam War and when I saw this movie it was like it had been written just for him. The entire time I was growing up (at least until Vietnam was finally over) I heard over and over again at home how our pilots were sent out to risk their lives to bomb what my father called "paths in the jungle" in preference to serious targets like downtown Hanoi. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that I would never have had to work a day in my life. Over and over again he and his naval aviator buddies would go on about how we won World War II because we bombed real targets like enemy cities but how in Vietnam the aviators were limited by the political leadership in Washington to unprofitable secondary targets in the jungle instead. As my father used to put it, "if you bomb a clearing in the jungle what do you get? A bigger clearing in the jungle!" This was part of a broader skein where American military officers of all branches were complaining that Washington was making them fight the war "with one hand tied behind us!" Later, when I was in high school, it was taught that the bombing targets were actually selected personally by the president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, and other civilian national security office-holders over lunch at the White House. It is no wonder that as a little kid I could not be blamed if I had thought Johnson's full name was "That A**hole Johnson" and McNamara's "That A**hole McNamara". Unless I watched Huntley-Brinkley (i.e., the NBC Nightly News), I rarely seemed to hear their names mentioned any other way at home.
But the policy was in fact adopted for reasons of grand strategy which ultimately hearkened back to the Korean War more than a decade earlier. Specifically, there was a serious concern that if we did attempt a "full-scale invasion" of North Vietnam or even a serious bombing campaign there that the Chinese or Russia might intervene directly with their own uniformed forces, because that had actually happened very unnervingly in Korea, thereby raising the specter of Vietnam "escalating" into World War III. Eventually the idea of increased meaningful bombing in the North also became a lightning rod for the anti-war "pacifist" protester crowd as well, only amplifying their vociferous (actually, loud, obnoxious, and even violent) complaints with increasing purely domestic political effects. Thus, without either an invasion of the North by ground troops or a traditional strategic bombing campaign of the sort that was carried out in World War II, the war dragged on for years interminably with no profit to the effort in sight except for the undertakers.
In this story the novel's author Stephen Coonts was well-aware of all this and wrote a kind of fantasy that addressed it, conceiving of rogue pilots (which, sorry for you video-gamers and other fantasy-oriented types, do not really exist in real life) who for once do the "right thing" in spite of dire personal consequences take the war "downtown" without orders and in contravention of American national policy. It was the war every naval aviator and so many others throughout the American armed forces really wanted to see, but was rarely engaged in at any point during the conflict. Yet even so, Coonts limits the target to an artillery park, i.e., a purely military target with no North Vietnamese purely civilian casualty exposure contemplated.
I hope this makes the context for this movie clearer to everybody. I will add that while the execution of the story isn't the best possible (I agree that the acting was often too clichéd or histrionic and that Danny Glover came off as a caricature of a clichéd drill instructor than a realistic angry Carrier Air Group commander; even his Steelcase desk was too modern for Vietnam), it is better than the 5.7 average rating prevailing at the time of my post, and I accordingly gave it a 7. It is, after all, only a movie, but one that if properly understood, sheds some light on the history of an era and a conflict that so fortunately is mostly behind us.
Mystery Submarine (1950)
Better than you would expect
*** This review contains spoilers *** This movie shows just how much you could do in 1950 with but a small budget, some ingenuity in the writing, and, as film-makers of the day used to say, "the cooperation of the United States Navy".
The premise is that a German U-boat has escaped the general German surrender at the end of World War Two five years earlier and is practicing piracy out of a hidden improvised base somewhere in South America. Its stereotypically haughty, autocratic (not to mention, aristocratic) and diabolical Nazi German commander has a plan, though, to retire from this career that must sooner or later come to an end (the boat hasn't had a proper overhaul in six years!), deciding to use his boat for one last foray to effect the kidnap of an ailing European scientist of value to the security of The Free World so he can sell him to an undisclosed (but clearly, Soviet-aligned Communist) enemy for a fortune in cash. The United States seeks to find and recover the scientist by use of a program secret agents operating undercover in South America.
Thus the movie seeks to cross the emerging "G-Man" Cold War counter-espionage genre with a submarine movie and concomitant action at sea (with the obligatory boy-spy-meets-tainted-girl-with-a-foreign-accent angle)and that's about what you get here. The action uses very little in the way of special effects, relying instead upon actual action footage of U.S. naval vessels, aircraft, and exploding ordnance. The submarine angle is surprisingly well-done for a B-movie and (speaking as a former submariner) was clearly decently technically advised. The loan of a veteran American World War Two Fleet Submarine to portray the U-boat in all the interior and the vast majority of exterior shots is jarring to the cognoscenti, however (as is perhaps the terminology, which is about 100% U.S. Navy standard submarine procedure), a substitution not unlike casting Elizabeth Taylor in the Marilyn Monroe part in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, on the theory that one rising young starlet is as good as another.
The actress in the lead, Marta Toren, similarly, was billed in her day as "the next Ingrid Bergman", and in that regard it is not hard to see why. Brunette and European, one wonders if she might not have learned her acting by actively studying Bergman films hour after hour on end, so similar are her mannerisms and even her vocalizations in many places. The male lead looks like he might have been billed as "another Robert Mitchum" except that he has nowhere near the presence of Bob. The remaining figures are pretty typical examples of classic European types and B-movie bureaucrats you used to see in movies and television of that era. The musical score is likewise very generic for the period. The one bit that really impressed me was how the story wraps up at the end with a surprising bit of ingenious writing in lieu of what seemed would be another inevitable potentially complicated and expensive action sequence (or at least uninteresting 1950's two-minute shoot-out of some kind), and with the writer actually having the villain declare out loud at the denouement, "how ingenious!"
I guess the movie's main failing is that it seems a bit contrived as well as a bit slow even though it really shouldn't be. Overall, this wouldn't be a half bad made-for-TV-movie if there had been any such thing in 1950, and so I give it a "6" -- not must-see, but competent and tolerable.
Top of the World (1955)
Some fun for aviation enthusiasts
This movie is a classic 1950's-style gawdawful, low budget (very low budget) love-triangle-in-uniform melodrama with a very grade B script and even worse directing (it should should have gotten the Anti-Oscar for Most Indifferent Director, which is why I gave it only a 5). The romantic lead, Dale Robertson, looks like he had been groomed to be the TV stand-in for Clark Gable, which while that might seem obvious, does not mean it was done well. The better-known Evelyn Keyes plays the Woman With A Past. Parts small enough to be cameos fall to Paul Fix and the now very late William Schallert (R.I.P.), but since neither were really famous yet you can't really call them cameos. As the late Joan Rivers might have put it, my overall reaction was, please, gag me with a spoon.
There is a little bit there for aviation enthusiasts, though (which is why I watched it), due to some near-stock footage of some unusual and even rarely-seen aircraft in flight, beginning with a classic Cessna 195 on skis in rare Air Force Rescue livery and including an entire formation of B-17 Flying Fortresses also in Air Rescue mode, various C-47 (Douglas DC-3) aircraft on skis, another C-47 towing and retrieving a Word-War-II-style invasion glider, and rare footage of the bizarre F-82 Twin Mustang in action. The movie ends with a purely gratuitous flyover of a full formation of B-36 Peacemaker thermonuclear strategic bombers (purely gratuitous because they have absolutely nothing to do with the plot, per se, however appropriate they might be to the theme) and begins with a number of equally gratuitous jet fighter flyovers (complete with exciting jet-flyover sounds) because in 1955, that was still near the cutting edge of cool. Fun for plane spotters and instructive for film students to see a textbook example of 1950's very-low-budget melodramatic schmaltz.
Appointment in London (1953)
I am surprised I haven't run across this one before discovering it recently on-line. What most of the other reviews have said is true. The bombing sequence at the end of the movie has a documentary quality to it readily evoking MEMPHIS BELLE -- not the disappointing 1990 movie, but the 1944, William-Wyler-directed wartime documentary released by the United States Army Air Forces during the war itself. It is also a highly detailed treatment that illuminates the RAF's night-time area bombing tactics far beyond else ever dramatized. By the same token, the entire rest of the film tends to be a straightforward representation of what it was like for participants in that phase of the war, remarkable as a movie for its minimization of histrionics. It deserves at least a bare minimum of a 7 on IMDb.
The Thing from Another World (1951)
This is a great movie (in the sense of how much fun it is, at least) which really deserves better than the 7.3 average rating it is getting at the time of this writing.
Released in 1951 - the same year as NBC broadcast the first documentary television series in history, its epic about how Americans practically single-handedly won World War II, VICTORY AT SEA - it shows as well as the TV series does what Americans thought of themselves at that time: the widespread feeling (still not entirely gone to this very day) that American toughness, ingenuity, and can-do spirit will win through and conquer all every time. The tone of the two is practically identical: there will be setbacks and losses, and even moments of uncertainty, but Americans are winners and ultimately winning is what we do (a mentality which contributed in no small way to the eventual success of the starship ENTERPRISE under its "I-don't-believe-in-the-no-win-situation" captain some years later). The result is that the question of whether "The Thing" can be dispatched before it becomes a Real problem actually takes a back seat to the question of whether it SHOULD be dispatched (show me another "monster movie" which does that!)
So it is small wonder the conflict here is resolved by average front-line airmen (those most glamorous of servicemen) of the United States armed forces (I would have thought Air Force, except that the script keeps saying "Army") relying on their own resources and their own initiative in spite of contradictory instructions from "the brass" back in the "rear area", an effect intensified by the use of competent, appealing but decidedly B-grade actors (there are no A-list actors, even character actors, in the piece) -- just "regular guys" pulling together with bravery, journeyman expertize, and teamwork to get the job done. As such it is replete with the prosaic "barracks" banter and humor that optimize that kind of thing, with the writers clearly striving to capture the atmosphere of small-unit military life. But lest the thing turn into too much of a war movie, here the civilian veteran war correspondent and the obligatory "love interest" roll up their sleeves and jump in, whether it is shoring up doors or reminding everybody that what you do with vegetables is to boil (or stew, or bake) them, all while keeping a pot of hot coffee on 24/7 (the liquid, after aviation gasoline and bunker oil, that won World War II).
Howard Hawks (THE BIG SLEEP, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO, HIS GIRL Friday, BRINGING UP BABY, and on and on and on) is credited as the producer of this effort, and is said to be an uncredited director as well, and his personal touch is all over the film. Not only is the romantic interest one of his favorite looks for a 1940's hottie, but his favorite trick of having his actors talk over each other is never so utilized as in this one. In this case the technique tends to point up the ensemble nature of the effort, something he also did successfully in more highly artistically regarded (albeit, probably not without some snobbery) films like RED RIVER or HATARI. Among other things, THE THING is one of those movies, like for instance, RED RIVER, FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, or THE GREAT ESCAPE, about a group of guys (albeit with the much-appreciated addition of one "pin-up girl") who all pull together, each with his unique personality and personal contributions, to resolve the problem facing the group in the end. A final observation I would add is that the pacing of this movie is like lightning, comparing very favorably with movies 65 years more recent.
There is practically no point in comparing this to the John Carpenter "remake" of decades later. The two are entirely different movies altogether, sharing nothing at all but the same plot premise. Given that means that a small group of people are isolated from all outside help to be terrorized by an other-worldly force of practically unprecedented malevolence, it is classic Carpenter material, something that occurred to me on a viewing many years ago before I even knew that John Carpenter had in fact done something with it. But beyond the basic settup, the two movies have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The 1951 THING is an essentially upbeat, action-oriented guy movie, whatever its eerier or spookier undertones, a reflection of good old-fashioned American expansive everyman self-confidence, and no pure horror movie. As such, it is one of my favorite movies.
Invasion, U.S.A. (1952)
Arrrgghhh . . .
This is a hyper-low budget stock footage film festival which profits heavily from the battle for Okinawa in World War II, among others things. Add to that one yellow cab and several local-TV-station-studio-quality soundstage sets and you are there. Surely it is proof that it is possible to make a feature film for less than about $50 (albeit in 1952 dollars). The screenplay isn't much past the 4th-grade level and it is hard to imagine how it could be taken seriously as a movie by any adult outside of the sub-zero IQ set that now dominate a certain American political party today. It's so bad it's not even funny. Best seen only to see what kind of crap Hollywood was capable of selling in 1952. The sole highlight is getting to see the venerable William Schallert in one of his earliest film appearances.
Battle of Britain (1969)
If you are looking for AIR COMBAT ACTION, THIS is the movie you want to see
The usual problem with war movies (and television as well) that are supposed to be about air combat is that the action sequences you really tuned in to see routinely take a back seat a preponderance of typically hokey ground-based melodrama. If that kind of thing disappoints you, then THIS is the movie you want to watch.
The makers of this film "got it", turning the usual paradigm around 180 degrees. In THE BATTLE OF Britain, the action comes FIRST, literally from the opening frame, and man, is there ever action. No one has ever come even remotely close to making a movie so packed with air combat action, and best of all, has done it so well. For viewers used to old 1940's vintage airwar movies with their usual panoply of obvious miniature models, soundstage rear-projection shots, and clearly artificial early special effects, you are in for a real treat. Never, not even in TORA, TORA, TORA (much less the comparatively sugar-coated MEMPHIS BELL), have such a collection of vintage aircraft been brought together to reenact aerial combat for video. Nothing else has really ever even come close. There is no CGI here, and whatever miniatures or animation were necessary in some spots the fact is that the innumerable aerial combat sequences are completely dominated by actual period aircraft in flight -- dozens and dozens of period aircraft in actual dogfights and other combat flight maneuvers. One gets the impression that half the film's budget could have spent on aviation fuel alone. And with that material to work with, neither do the cinematographers or the sound effects people or even the music department disappoint (and for my money, the British theme is the best piece of music ever composed to glorify flying). Not only is the movie jam-packed from end to end with essentially authentic aircraft in flight, but the photography makes the most out of it, with countless exciting, full-color shots of carefully choreographed combat sequences.
Moreover, if you are already familiar with the storyline -- i.e., if you know your history of the early years of World War II -- then the narration is fairly brilliant in its rapid-paced, economical, nuanced approach to hitting all the high points of the war generally at that time and the Battle of Britain in particular. In that sense, I would give very high marks to the screenplay. Unfortunately, however, if you DON'T know your history of these events, no one but the quickest thinkers are likely to catch on to so much of what's going on here, and if the movie has a significant failing, that is it. The plot, such as it is, can be quite a muddle to the uninitiated. And while some reviewers were unimpressed with the ground-side melodrama here, I think that is at most a secondary complaint, and I personally did not find that oppressive in the least, but rather, appropriate to the subject matter and sufficiently subdued that it never threatens to dominate the movie. To the contrary, at least it gives the non-history buff something readily understandable and it also includes some humorous anecdotes as well.
One thing I used to think about this movie is that nothing like this would ever be made again, and yet, here recently (as of January 2016) it has come out that some one is putting together a remake. God knows what it might look like. The original features such a great cast of English heroic actors (Sir Lawrence Olivier, Robert Shaw, Trevor Howard, Michael Caine, Kenneth More, etc., etc.) that it is hard to see how anyone can equal much less top that today, and one anticipates that whatever CGI they decide to use won't equal using real airplanes, either. Well, at least we still have a high-quality DVD of this. lol.