Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Title frame from the trailer for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (dir. Byron Haskin, 1964).

A monkey and Paul Mantee.

Victor Lundin and Paul Mantee.

Best thought of as a pretext for the engaging display of a series of vivid matte shots with bits of live-action motion thrown in here and there as seasoning. It's almost exhilarating to witness what look like the extreme lengths the filmmakers went to in order to ensure that the special effects not look convincing. Haskin even recycles the spaceship design from his War of the Worlds: these alien crafts "dart around" by means of a rapid succession of still cartoon shots. I fumble to articulate a schema according to which such minimalistic spectacularity is an extension of the movie's general ideological blandness, the way the whole thing might as well have been a Soviet production.

Beyond that, the monkey is a nice touch (though it has surprisingly little personality), and there is a charm to the perpetually clean-crewcutness of Mantee as the Crusoe figure, matched by the Friday figure Lundin's perfectly neat pageboy do. It seems hair never grows on Mars. Adam West makes a brief appearance, two years before becoming TV's Batman.

Oh, and how many other movies can you think of that are "based on" a novel (Defoe is even given partial writing credit), but the novel in question is mentioned explicitly by one of the characters? There seems to be some violation of fictive logic there.


Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons

Akihiro Tomikawa as Daigoro in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons.

I was just barely following the plot in this, the fifth of the six Lone Wolf and Cub films. Ogami Itto has to assassinate an abbot delivering a scroll, intercept the scroll, and make sure it gets to a certain person, except that person may or may not be the right person, and in addition he has to kill some more people, something something something. Early on there is an entirely detachable episode in which little Daigoro gets involved in a pickpocket's escape, and has to be flogged publicly in an attempt to shame the pickpocket into confessing--while his father watches impassively from the crowd! Daigoro's a tough little junior assassin, and takes it like a man.


The DVD "extras" feature has trailers for several other samurai films, including Lady Snowblood (1973), which looks like a must-see. Check out the inventive subtitling here:


Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril

The hands of Tomisaburo Wakayama and Akihiro Tomikawa in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (dir. Buichi Saito, 1972).

As exciting and visually striking as they are, these movies sort of run together after a while. What sets this one apart is the assassin who defeats her enemies by flashing her tattooed breasts at them. That and the little song about raindrops that plays when Daigoro goes off wandering.

Two more to go.


10,000 BC

CGI elephant chasing guy with dreadlocks in 10,000 BC (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2008).

Did you know that some people are upset because of the "BC" in this film's title? Excuse me, some people, may I laugh at you? In the world of this film--a world where people can talk to tigers (I mean, I guess people can talk to tigers in our world too, but in this movie, the tigers understand), where old medicine women can tell the future and telepathically heal arrow wounds, and where seven-foot-tall malevolent albinos enlist not only human slaves but wooly mammoths to build huge golden-tipped pyramids--I think it's fair to entertain more than just the possibility that the as-yet-unborn Jesus Christ is a legitimate holy savior worthy of having all the years subsequent to his birth named after him; in this world, he could very well be an electric-banjo-playing international porn star who's able to shoot laser beams from his tongue.

I think what I like best about 10,000 BC is that the three main characters are named D'Leh, Evolet, and Tic'Tic. Their language must be derived from backwards Journey lyrics or something. For the audience, of course, it's English, which is fine; but why, when people in movies are supposed to be speaking another language, are they given those stupid accents? They don't have accents when they speak however they "actually" speak in their language, do they? So why should they have accents in "translation"? And why is it so important that the English used to represent their speech never contain any contractions? And I'm sorry--did I really hear someone say "many moons"?


The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

John Pearce and Robert Duvall as Frank and Jesse James in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1972).

The biggest problem with this movie is its inability to tell the difference between satire and farce. For a certain sensibility, that's also part of what makes it interesting. The gee-whiz voiceover that begins the film gushes enthusiastically about the heroic qualities of Jesse James and his fellow outlaws, and what follows for the rest of the film is designed to show us, in incrementally stronger doses, what a load of horseshit all that is. But then there are bizarrely "comic" sequences like the Northfield baseball game, or more generally, the entire treatment of Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson. Cole is "the guy you like." He's curious, compassionate, good-natured--basically, a teddy bear. He shows the kids the bullet holes in his protective leather vest, and he fixes the calliope guy's calliope (much to his later regret). Jesse (Robert Duvall), by contrast, is a slobbering fiend, a cracker zealot, a murderous big bad wolf. But this contrast doesn't go anywhere, so we're left in a divided state of attention that finally seems beside the point. One could argue that there's some kind of irony in the realization that, at a crucial climactic moment, Jesse makes a decision that turns out to be strategically "right," whereas Cole's humanitarian instincts prove to be ill-considered. Sort of like the central argument between Mr. Cooper and Ben in Night of the Living Dead. This film, however, doesn't deliver its nihilism with the same brutal confidence as Romero's.

The film is still saturated with an idiot vitality that makes it well worth watching. Duvall is blood-curdling, especially from the moment when he says "She's a Yankee too" to the end of the film. The Northfield scenes are very colorfully and interestingly shot (they were actually filmed in Jacksonville, Oregon, a few miles away from me). When a big steam-engine proto-automobile thing comes chugging down the main street like a dinosaur, Cole's mouth drops ("Now, that's a wonderment"), and the other outlaws take a step back, momentarily frozen in terror. A pretty Scandinavian whore sings a beautiful song in the town brothel. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small role (too small) as a bank employee. And there's some good dialogue. A couple of the outlaws are arguing over whether a ring around the moon means it's going to rain, and one says that don't mean anything, it's just an old wives' tale, and the other says it don't have to mean anything if it's true.


The Prisoner of Shark Island

Warner Baxter and (barely visible, on the right) Ernest Whitman in The Prisoner of Shark Island (dir. John Ford, 1936).

John Carradine.

Frank McGlynn Sr.

The story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, wrongly accused of complicity in the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Ford's immersion in the milieu of silent film is still very evident here, not only in the mechanics of blocking and framing and such, but in his Griffith-like treatment of the north vs. south theme, complete with repeated scenes in which negroes are depicted as alternately childlike and animalistic. Although, supposedly, Ford actually toned down the racism of Nunnally Johnson's screenplay quite a bit during shooting. Ernest Whitman does manage to infuse the character of ex-slave "Buck" (what else?) with some dignity, despite being required to jump up and down every so often and shout "Ah do declare." (Whitman played "Pinkie" in Jesse James, also scripted by Johnson: "A darkie named Pinkie on a mule named Stinkie.")

Aside from all that, and in spite of the usual historical distortions, it's a compelling story about government manipulation of due legal process, complete with chilling analogues to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Especially freaky are the pointed hoods placed over the heads of the accused conspirators during the "trial" scene.


Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter

John Lupton and Cal Bolder in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (dir. William Beaudine, 1966).

Narda Onyx experiencing perverse electrical pleasures ordinary persons can't even dream of.

Estelita Rodriguez taking careful aim.

This rendition of the Jesse James legend includes some notable episodes of the outlaw's life that are omitted by most other films, such as the time Jesse's muscle-builder friend had his real brain removed by a lady mad scientist and replaced with an "artificial brain." The great William "One-Shot" Beaudine's last film (you may remember that I reviewed his modern cattle-rustling yarn Tough Assignment here a while back). The Joe Bob Briggs commentary on the DVD is a blast (and contains some substantive info on Beaudine's career, the actors, etc.).

A minor point, perhaps, but I want to say in response to all those critics who have complained that the Maria Frankenstein character is not actually Frankenstein's daughter, as the title proclaims, but his granddaughter: think about it. Frankenstein's son is a Frankenstein too, thereby making the son's daughter Frankenstein's daughter. No problem.


The Bank Job

Jason Statham, Stephen Campbell Moore, James Faulkner, Alki David, and Daniel Mays in The Bank Job (dir. Roger Donaldson, 2008).

Roger Donaldson would probably have been more at home, and more frequently successful, in the old Hollywood. He makes highly conventional, story-driven movies according to formula, and is often very resourceful within those limitations. The Bank Job showcases his talents to their best advantage. Casting Jason Statham strictly according to type, for example, is hardly imaginative, but it's practical, and gets a certain dimension of audience expectation securely in place and therefore out of the way. Donaldson also has the restraint (or lack of range?) to avoid milking the early seventies English setting for its retro-groovy factor: this is not a hip ironic heist film, it's just a heist film. And as such, it's got the right moves. There's the inexhaustible Rififi-esque routine of painstakingly tunneling into the vault area, the mazy network of double- and triple-crosses, the brotherhood of thieves and their fragile code of honor.... And nothing new beyond that. This is just solid, workmanlike genre fodder. And if there were crime movies this solid and workmanlike at the theater every week, I'd be in heaven.


Dead Calm

Billy Zane in Dead Calm (Dir. Phillip Noyce, 1989).

In my discussion of James Foley's adaptation of Jim Thompson's After Dark, My Sweet a few posts back, I talked about how being too faithful to a novel can be bad for a film. Phillip Noyce's treatment of Charles Williams's 1963 Dead Calm takes many more liberties with its source, some successful and others not so much. The basic plot remains intact: a man (Sam Neill) and his wife (Nicole Kidman) sailing alone on their yacht (the Saracen) in the middle of the ocean pick up a man (Billy Zane) leaving his own ship (the Orpheus) on a small dinghy. The ship is filling up with water, he tells them, and furthermore everyone else on it is dead from food poisoning. While the apparently distraught man in resting in the cabin, Neill's character (John) takes the dinghy over to the other ship and finds that things are not quite as Zane's character (Hughie) has made them out to be. While he's gone, Hughie overpowers Kidman's character (Rae) and takes over her and John's yacht. For most of the rest of the film, John must try to keep the floundering Orpheus afloat, and Rae must try to figure out a way to overpower her abductor and get back to John.

Most of the changes from the book can't be discussed in depth without giving away crucial turns of plot, but there are two which are especially striking: one concerning the number of major characters, and one concerning the extent of Hughie's sociopathy. With regard to the latter, let's just say that whereas in the book Hughie is a troubled and potentially dangerous young man, in the film he's a murderous psycho. The problem is that although we see graphic evidence of his lethality, Hughie is still written pretty much the same way he is in the novel: it never quite makes sense that he is supposed to be a total monster, especially as the interaction between him and Rae depends on us accepting a certain naively trusting quality in his personality that feels out of sync with the aforementioned changes in his character. It's not hard to see why the filmmakers would want to make these changes: the Hughie of the book is just not that scary in and of himself. Aside from the obvious race against time with the sinking boat and all, the tension comes from the relationship between Hughie and the other characters who don't make it all the way into the film. This leaves Noyce nothing to work with but standard mad-killer suspense tactics, and as I've said, Hughie still seems more like a spoiled, unstable kid making a big mess of things than a true cold-blooded slasher. These uneven elements lead the story into all the predictable cliches of the genre, which is too bad, because the movie has an overall feel that really works at times.

Here, then, in abandoning crucial story elements from the book, Dead Calm may seem to make the opposite mistake from the one made by After Dark, My Sweet; but from another perspective, the mistake is the same: that of retaining elements from the book that it can't make work cinematically. Billy Zane makes a very good Hughie, but he's playing the Hughie of the novel, not the Hughie they forgot to write for the film.

Someday maybe someone will release however much was completed of Orson Welles' late sixties version with Laurence Harvey and Jeanne Moreau, The Deep (no relation to the Peter Benchley novel/ Peter Yates movie), before Harvey died near the end of shooting.


The True Story of Jesse James

Robert Wagner in The True Story of Jesse James (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1957).

An engaging enough remake of King's 1939 Jesse James. Not only is it based on Nunnally Johnson's original screenplay, but some of the shots from the earlier film are directly recreated, such as the bandits scurrying across the top of the train at night with its interior all lit up, or the horses leaping off the cliff into the water (I just don't like to see that).

Wagner tries to give James an ambivalent, dangerous edge, but he's even more fundamentally clean-cut than Tyrone Power. Jeffrey Hunter is almost too believable as his brother Frank--that is, sometimes I had to strain to tell them apart. Other admirable cast members include Agnes Moorehead, Hope Lange, John Carradine (who played Robert Ford in the 1939 film, here a preacher), Frank Gorshin, and Alan Hale, Jr. Despite all this talent, and despite a story that combines generic elements of two of Ray's best films--They Live By Night and Johnny Guitar--Ray only infuses it with his distinctive directorial aura here and there, in an isolated shot or exchange. The lead-up to the inevitable "picture-straightening" scene is a beautiful superimposition of 50s suburbia onto the western past, complete with picket fence and children playing outlaw in the front yard. This too, however, was already set in place by King's film.