Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

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Prisioners of the Lost Universe 1982 ***

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Terry Marcel is an unheralded figure, but his unique comic book sensibilities seemed probably out of step with both the 70’s and 80’s. He went from first and second AD on projects as diverse as Straw Dogs and Pink Panther films to taking the directorial reigns on cult classic Hawk the Slayer and comic-strip revival Jane and the Lost City. He’s got a certain swashbuckling style that was never matched by his budgets; together with producer and musical maestro Harry Robertson, they wrote the script for Prisoners of the Universe, a very 1982 project involving time-travelling portals; HG Wells’ The Time Machine, or at least George Pal’s version, seems to be a jumping-off point. And what a jump; Battlestar Galactica’s Richard Hatch is Dan, a man in a truck involved in a highway crash with Carrie (Kay Lenz) during a series of earth tremors. She visits the home of Dr Hartmann (Kenneth Hendel) a scientist who has constructed a portal to another dimension, and doesn’t see any reason by an earthquake might hinder his experiment, The three of them are transported a lost universe that looks exactly like a South African scrubland with some trees with paper plates attached, ruled with an iron fist by Kleel (John Saxon), who makes General Zod look like a social worker. There’s a giant who looks a lot like the late Greek singer Demis Roussos, talking geese, a midget thief and a number of the oddities which marked Hawk the Slayer, plus the kind of chat that grabs the attention; ‘This may only work on snakes who like music’ and ‘What am I supposed to do with a mad scientist for an hour?’ both rack up the points on the bad dialogue scoreboard in the first five minutes. Saxon, looking like Sean Connery’s stunt double and enjoying himself as usual, is something of a blast here, with plentiful catch-phrases and uncertain horse-manship; the actor had his fans in the US, but in the UK, John Saxon’s popularity dictates that his face appears on coins and stamps, and lucrative government grants are available to film theorists who can prove they’ve seen over fifty of his films. That’s not actually true, but it should be; meanwhile in a parallel universe that looks at lot like ours, Marcel’s daughter Rosie wrote the screenplay for Fifty Shades of Grey; fans of bad movie dialogue can connect the dots themselves.

The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957 ****

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Sci-fi gets a bad name; good sci-fi blows the mind; The Incredible Shrinking Man’s title suggests schlock, but Jack Arnold’s film is anything but. With a Richard Matheson script, it traces the law of diminishing returns as it applies in literal terms to Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams), a businessman who is enveloped in a radioactive cloud while on vacation. He begins to shrink, his clothes don’t fit but his wife Louise agrees to stick with him. He loses his job, his brother sells his story to the press, he becomes friends with a local dwarf; radioactivity seems like a one-way trip to Skid Row. But things get worse when Carey moves into a dolls house, and is terrorised by a cat and eventually a spider, which he battles after falling into the basement. The Incredible Shrinking Man was the kind of film the BBC would cheerfully show as family viewing after the 6pm news and local round up, back in the late 70’s, when anything sci-fi was thought to have audience appeal. Many tiny minds must have been expanded by the decidedly adult ending, in which Carey’s strength is reduced to a sub-atomic level, but he retains his consciousness and somehow accepts his place in the universe in a way that might have pleased Albert Camus. Simple storytelling, vivid effects and a disturbing premise which is followed through to the bitter end; Arnold and Matheson are cult figures now, and The Incredible Shrinking Man is reason enough for their canonisation.

Thor: Ragnorok 2016 ****

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The regular reader of this blog will recognise that there’s few franchise films; no Avengers, just a few superhero films, no James Bond, a couple of Star Wars spin-offs; what we’re looking for is unknown or known but underrated films that are worth bring to people’s attention. That’s not so say we’re immune to the charms of a good superhero movie, with Sam Raimi’s original Spiderman and Iron Man 3 coming to mind as good examples of the form. Taika Waititi has made such a good name for himself as the director of Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do In The Shadows, that it seemed inevitable that he would add value to the standard Marvel package, and so it proved with Thor: Ragnorok, a great-looking, funny and consistently amusing package that puts most Marvel entries to shame. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stranded on a distant planet with only the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) for company. It seems like they’re destined to battle it out in the ring as the playthings of Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), but Valkerie (Tessa Thompson) is on hand to help them out and to raise an army to fight the forces of Hela (Cate Blanchett). There’s also well-timed cameos from Matt Damon, Anthony Hopkins, Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), always the MVP of the Thor franchise. Waititi gets comedy, and the dialogue has plenty of funny moments, but he also conjures up a thunderous score and some real hallucinogenic visuals in the style of 1980’s Flash Gordon. You don’t have to be following the on-going plotlines to enjoy Thor; Ragnorok; it’s a good example of a comic-book movie that’s not just for fanboys.

Men In Black: International 2019 ***

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‘We are the men in black,’ says Chris Hemsworth’s Agent H during the climax of F Gary Gray’s unloved romp; given that he’s not referring to men, and they’re not dressed in black, it’s something of a stretch to agree. Perhaps Girls in Black didn’t test well, or Woman in Black was already taken, but the main character here is clearly Agent M Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson), who is seen as a child who becomes obsessed with the men in black after an alien encounter, and seeks employment as one. If audiences found female Ghostbusters too hard to get their heads around, then female Men In Black was surely too much of a jump, particularly when the PC step is taken so half-heartedly. And yet, the Men in Black films have, for this reviewer, been uniformly awful, and so this reboot/rehash/retread is, by dint of Hemsworth and Thompson’s chemistry, easily the most palatable of the series. There’s still vestiges of Barry Sonnenfield’s clever designs here, notably a car that also functions as a weapons rack. And casting two of the leads from Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnorok import some genuine humour to this predictable story of agents saving the world from aliens, this time in the surprising form of many-armed arms dealer Riza (Rebecca Ferguson) who hams it up nicely. Some nice gags, like the name of Riza’s Fortified Fortress of For Sure Death, hit the spot, and Hemsworth and Thompson are far better than Smith or Jones ever were. If may be the faintest of faint praise, but this International venture is the best of the MiB franchise to date.

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun 1969 ****

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The late 1960’s saw the Twilight Zone twists of the popular tv show translate to the big screen; high concept sci-fi, from 2001 to Planet of the Apes was a big deal, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson made their pitch with Doppleganger aka Journey To The Far Side of the Sun. The idea is great; a mirror image of Earth is discovered on the other wise of the sun, and astronaut Colonel Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes) is dispatched by the European Space Exploration Council to investigate. He realises on arrival that in the mirror image world, the other Colonel Glenn Ross has just left, and resolves to return to Earth. Journey To The Far Side of the Sun has an incredibly downbeat ending, but it’s a lot of fun getting to that point, especially when Ross wakes up in the world where everything is exactly a mirror image. When shown on UK TV, some enterprising talent decided that the mirror image scenes must have been wrongly processed and reversed them for broadcast, making Robert Parish’s film something of a conundrum for the unwary. Whichever way you look at it, the support from Herbert Lom, Patrick Wymark, George Sewell and Ian Hendry is impeccable.

https://trakt.tv/movies/journey-to-the-far-side-of-the-sun-1969

Logan’s Run 1976 ***

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George Pal left the Logan’s Run project because he thought it was too late to cash in on the wave of sci-fi in the late 1960’s and early 70’s; the arrival of Star Wars a year later proved him wrong. But for 1976, Logan’s Run has quite a bit going for it for genre aficionados; there are a few scenes where the look of the film is very much Death Star chic. Michael York plays Logan, and unfortunately the nature of his run is rather less exciting than the poster suggest; Logan rarely runs, rarely even walks quickly; Logan’s Long Stand Around Listing To Exposition captures the mood better, notably a dull climax which involves getting to Washington DC listening to Peter Ustinov’s tedious Old Man character waffle on about cats and T.S. Elliot. To get to this point, Logan 5 is introduced as a Sandman, charged with hunting down those who seek to escape the law of the year 2274, where they have a ban on age; at 30, everyone has to go to the Carousel for rebirth, or face being hunted down. Logan meets agitator Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) and goes on the run, but although some of the sets and miniatures are pretty cool, there’s a lack of visual cohesion that leads to a lack of energy. The emphases on sex is rather misplaced, with several orgies, and the characters frequently stripping down in a way that belies the family friendly nature of the sci-fi adventure concept. Farrah Fawcett has a couple of scenes, and Roscoe Lee Browne has a short by memorable scene as a killer robot called Box. There’s not enough of this kind of danger in Logan’s Run, but despite some awful dialogue, Michael Anderson’s still a curiosity piece for fans of retro 70’s style.