Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)

The Plot and Such: A dark older man (Bela Lugosi) lives awkwardly in California, where he’s mourning the death of his wife. Then he dies. Aliens resurrect him and his wife, along with a police officer the man and his wife murdered. Somehow in doing this the aliens plan to stop humans from building a bomb that would threaten the entire universe. All this activity captures the attention of the locals in Hollywood and the brass in D.C., and they try to fight off the aliens. Or something. Ed Wood directs.

There was no way for me to view Plan 9 from Outer Space cold; to say that its reputation preceded it is an understatement. My preconception of the film came purely from word of mouth–I had not read much about it. (And I’d seen parts of it before, but apparently found them semi-forgettable.)

So, what did I get out of the “worst movie ever made?” Well, it’s delightful. It’s hard to believe that the filmmakers truly thought they were fooling anybody with their sets, “effects,” editing, etc. It’s all very cheaply done, but once you accept that, there’s a real charm to it. Viewed from that perspective, every incongruity is a feature, not a bug. Bela Lugosi is just plain adorable. I feel so bad for him not because his character’s wife died, but because he seems so out of place in Southern California and because I want to let him just have out with a laugh already. I find myself drawing a parallel between the narrator here and the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Just try to tell me there’s not a camp connection going on. And where did they find this guy, exactly? He’s a preacher and a salesman (perhaps many preachers are salesmen and vice versa, anyway). I’m not buying what he’s selling (I’m buying something else), but I love hearing him out–appreciate the effort!

To me, Plan 9 from Outer Space bears the unmistakable stamp of 1950s television. There may be technical elements that make that statement a no-brainer to those more expert than I–film stock or lighting, perhaps, in addition to the obviously bargain basement budget.

The problem, I suppose, with films like this is that if you don’t have some friends to watch them with or a nice bottle of something… if you’re not able to add something to the experience, the novelty can wear off a tad. Put more simply, if you’re watching this alone and sober, you’ll probably be content to tune out after about the first 30 minutes. By then you’ll have witnessed and heard the bad dialogue and sets, the ridiculous props and “effects,” the narrator (I think I would have liked it more if he’d kept on narrating consistently throughout the film), the silly acting, the preposterous and blatant plot exposition, a drop of bland romance, and the sci-fi/vampire/grave robbing/good ol’ U.S. Army combo. You’ll have seen more than a few grave side scenes… funerals, burials, etc. etc. and aliens who look and talk exactly like humans. Interesting that the aliens seem far more on top of things than the humans do. Alas, for everything Plan 9 from Outer Space jams in, it still feels slow and seems to last too long.

I leave you with this: The creepiest dude in the film is neither Lugosi nor Vampira. It’s that other guy, Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson), who they attacked and turned to a vampire and who then rose up out of his grave at about the 33 minute mark. It’s like sweet old Dick Elliot has turned into a zombie! Youth is wasted on the wrong people indeed!

Alsino and the Condor (1983)


The Plot and Such: Alsino (Alan Esquivel) is a young adolescent boy who lives with his grandmother in Nicaragua. He is first exposed to drink and sex in the context of the Contra War raging around him. He connects with a U.S. advisor (Dean Stockwell) who takes him on a chopper ride. Seeing the brutal realities of the fighting, Alsino joins the rebels.

Alsino and the Condor got me thinking of a documentary about U.S. Army boot camp that I watched in a sociology class in high school. The psychological warping of military service knows no national boundaries.

Alsino and the Condor is uneven but affecting. It’s heavy on symbolism and the absurdities of war, and that the film itself is rather messy and confused at times mirrors that content. In one remarkable shot, the upturned faces of newly-massacred civilians rise just above the surface of a shimmering river. That shot could have been gorgeous, but Nicaragua in the early 80s was a rough place, and this is not a particularly attractive film; as is, the shot caught my attention. Reynaldo Miravalles gives a good performance as Don Nazario. The subtitles on the version I saw were sketchy in parts, and the score is distracting. Still, despite its many shortcomings, I’m glad I watched it.

Side note: This is the film Dean Stockwell ended up doing in place of Dennis Hopper, who had flipped out and had to go into rehab. Hopper told the story different ways, but it always involved him believing World War III had begun, walking naked into the jungle, ending up in Mexican jails, and going out on the wing of an airplane.

A Hard Day’s Night

Note: Everything having anything to do with The Beatles has been and will continue to be combed through hair-by-hair and painstakingly studied under a microscope, so it’s fair to say that in some ways this post is more about me than it is about the film. I don’t claim to be an expert.

Last night, we all went to the seven o’clock showing of the recently restored A Hard Day’s Night at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. I’d seen it a few times before–once in probably 7th grade, when along with my friend Nora I was a latter-day Beatlemaniac, and then a few more times over the years–always on video. Never having seen the film in the theater before, I was just happy to finally see it on the big screen–restoration or no.

This viewing reaffirmed some of my longstanding opinions.

#1: My regard for Ringo. Nora’s favorite was George. That was a solid choice. John (whose talents and intellect I probably respect the most) and Paul (who is really nothing special at all on film) were too obvious. But I was honestly drawn to Ringo. Particularly in those early days, he was sort of cute and funny and unintimidating. A Hard Day’s Night shows him as the life of the party (love that scene–anyone who dances like that automatically gets my respect), and also as a sensitive, simple sort of person–a bit goofy, not at all infallible, able to comfortably connect with a wandering youth (whose wild freedom he no doubt envies). From an outsider’s viewpoint, the fame seems to have affected him–who he was as a person–the least of the four. He really was Richard Lester’s pick as the most story-worthy and perhaps even the best actor of the bunch (see Help!, in which Ringo is also at the center of things). His natural charm and humor translate well on screen.

#2: My love for the song “If I Fell.” Of all the remastered music in the film, this is the song that stands out for me–again. This sort of links up with my respect for George Martin (who, bless him, is still alive, in case anyone was wondering). It’s a lovely song, and his production work really makes it more than the sum of its parts.

Not sure that clip even quite does it justice. Last night in the theater, for the duration of that song, I was transported. </gush>

But beyond all that I sort of knew before, there was more. I always knew what the film was–what it was about on a surface level and maybe a little deeper if a viewer wanted to go there. But seeing it in the theater and with the benefit of the restoration (and maybe the benefit of my own experiences since the last time I saw it) yielded for me an increased appreciation of the sort of theme of the film. At the end, when they’re playing for the theater full of frenzied, mostly female teenagers, the shots from behind, where we see the crazed audience through the spaces between Ringo and his drum kit, are poetic. The slow tracking shot effectively contrasts the relative steadiness of their performance on stage with the hysteria looking back at them. So much of Beatlemania was wanting more of them, looking at them, asking things of them. Here we get their perspective–the absurdity of the interviews and the charm and good humor with which they approached them (at least, in those days), the many levels of their entrapment. The film is nearly all fun, all humorous, but underlying it there’s that constant need to get away. The film starts with them running, and ends with them flying and leaving a trail of promotional photographs–their image–in their wake. That the last song they play is “She Loves You” seems a very deliberate, meaningful choice. “She loves you”–all these crazy girls are mad for you and force you to be closed up in cars and hotels and to wear disguises and have scarcely a minute to yourself, whatever that would look like (you hardly know anymore)–“and you know you should be glad.” Right?

30 Posts About Movies #10, Directors: Frank Borzage and Bryan Forbes

Post #10: Your Favorite Director (Part II)

In this installment, I’m going with two directors who’ve caught my eye (and who happen to come up next alphabetically), though I still really need to see more of their work. The first of these two is Frank Borzage. I know and like him for his anti-Nazi films with Margaret Sullavan–Three Comrades (1938) and my favorite, The Mortal Storm (1940). The films depict the rise of Nazism challenging old friendships and loyalties. An American director making pointedly anti-Nazi films so long before the U.S. actually entered the war was a big deal. His parents had emigrated from Austria-Hungary (now Italy) to Hazleton, Pennsylvania in the early 1880s and his father worked as a coal miner. They moved to Salt Lake City, where Frank was born. He started out in Hollywood as an actor in the 1910s and directed his first film in 1915. There is a moral certitude in his films that probably seems outdated to some modern viewers, but it’s the romance–and especially the sensitivity with which his films depict relationships and human emotion, that distinguishes them.

Like Borzage, British director Bryan Forbes takes chances with material in the excellent The L-Shaped Room (1962) and Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Forbes died almost exactly a year ago, on May 8, 2013. Described as a renaissance man, in addition to directing Forbes was a screenwriter, producer, actor, and novelist. He directed The Stepford Wives (1975) and wrote and directed the aforementioned Seance and Whistle Down the Wind (1961)–which I really need to see as it is frequently mentioned in conversations about Rapture. He also wrote screenplays for other directors, including The League of Gentleman (1959). From 1969 to 1971, he was chief of production and managing director at Associated British Picture Corporation and oversaw production of several films, including The Go-Between (1971), an adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s excellent novel of the same name with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates (the film is good, the book is even better).

Seance on a Wet Afternoon tells the story of a troubled medium, Myra, who plots with her feeble husband, Billy, to kidnap a child so that she can claim to use her psychic abilities to find the child. It sounds a bit far-fetched, but Forbes’ film is so moody, and Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough give amazing performances as the desperate Myra, who hasn’t been right since she lost her only child, Arthur, and Billy, who will do anything in his love and sympathy for his fragile wife.

You can watch the entire film on Vimeo.

Seance is marvelous, but I think The L-Shaped Room is my favorite. In it, Jane Fosset (Leslie Caron), a young French woman, unmarried and pregnant, takes a room (yes, L-shaped) in a boarding house in London.

She becomes friends with fellow boarders Johnny (Brock Peters), a jazz musician, and Toby (Tom Bell), a frustrated writer. Not wanting to marry the baby’s father, Jane goes to a doctor to investigate her options. When the doctor assumes that she either wants to marry or have an abortion, she determines to have the baby. She and Toby fall in love, but she’s afraid to tell him that she’s pregnant.

The L-Shaped Room is friggin’ fantastic. I want to go watch it again right now. It’s heartbreakingly real. Aside from dealing with unwed motherhood and interracial relationships, it features a mature lesbian and a jazz club, it’s terribly British, AND it gave us this.

If that doesn’t ring any bells, go back through your Smiths albums again.

30 Posts About Movies #10, Directors: Woody Allen and Hal Ashby

Post #10:  Your Favorite Director

If it seems like it’s been a while since I did one of these “30 Posts About Movies” entries, that’s because this is another *impossible* one.  It would be easier to do 30 posts about directors, but instead of either, I’ll just use this series of posts to babble on about some directors I like.

I don’t always think of films in terms of who directed them, and it’s rare that I’ve seen everything–or even almost everything–that a particular director has done.  I think just given my age and my tastes the exception to that rule might be Wes Anderson.  He’s the kind of director who puts a very distinct personal stamp on his films.  Other directors, who may be quite good, don’t necessarily have the same distinctive personal stamp that calls attention to itself in most or all of their films.

First off (since I’m just going to go through these alphabetically), I’ll mention a director who falls in the former category, Woody Allen. I know some people have a hard time appreciating his films given his personal transgressions. I’m throwing those aside in my assessment of him as an artist. He may be a loathsome human being–I’m not sure, but he’s made some good movies. I’ve written about some of them before, including Radio Days (1987) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984). I like both his comedies and his dramas.

Interiors (1978)

I think Interiors is underrated. Geraldine Page is amazing in it, and watching this clip I’m realizing that E.G. Marshall plays the district attorney in Compulsion (1959).

Some of Allen’s best films, like Annie Hall (1977) really blend comedy and drama. He is also a master of the mockumentary, and his crowning achievement in that genre is Zelig.

Zelig (1983)

Hal Ashby, on the other hand, is the latter sort of director for me.  His films don’t quite scream “directed by Hal Ashby!”  I include him among my favorite directors because he did Being There (1979), Harold and Maude (1971), and perhaps the best of the lot, The Last Detail (1973).  It’s impossible to share a clip from The Last Detail that isn’t soaking in profanity (and, honestly, this is The Last Detail, so I wouldn’t want to).  It’s the Navy, and it’s foul.  Miraculously, Columbia managed it in the film’s trailer.  I think they found the sum total of scenes with the least profanity in the whole movie and slapped them together in chronological order.

The Last Detail (1973) Trailer

In the Last Detail we get Bad-Ass Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mule (Mulhall, played by Otis Young) escorting a poor S.O.B. (Meadows, played by Randy Quaid) to a military prison in Portsmouth, NH where he has to serve eight years–for stealing forty bucks. Carol Kane and Gilda Radner also appear in small roles.

The underlying darkness of the new American cinema of the 70s is all over this movie–and the response in the face of that darkness is a big piece of what’s so great about The Last Detail. Sure, Nicholson was in that phase in the 70s and early 80s when he could do no wrong, but Ashby still gets my props for this one.

The Last Detail (1973)

Rapture (Again)

It’s not just me!

Rapture (1965) Eureka package

Just announced: Another release for Rapture, via Eureka Classics in the UK. This time around it’s dual format (blu-ray and DVD) and presumably not so limited as the Twilight Time release.  It includes additional commentary and a new booklet, natch.  If only they’d included some of the unreleased scenes!

WARNING: In my opinion, the video clip that accompanies that announcement constitutes a pretty significant spoiler.


Scarecrow (1973)

The Plot and Such: Max (Gene Hackman), an ex-con with a short fuse, and Lion (Al Pacino), an ex-sailor who is estranged from his wife and their child (whom he has never met), cross paths in their driftings in California. Reluctantly at first, they team up and decide to head to Pittsburgh, where they plan to open a car wash together. Along the way they stop to visit Max’s sister in Denver. There they relax with food, drink, and women. They go out, things get out of hand, and they end up on a prison farm for a month. Each according to his disposition, they react to this setback in ways that, for a time, alienate them from each other. When Lion encounters trouble, though, Max is drawn back to defend him. Upon their release, they continue on to Detroit, where Lion goes to see his wife and child (and darn if the kid doesn’t look just like Pacino). The meeting has heavy consequences for both men.

Scarecrows seem to have been the theme of the season for me earlier this year. As I reported extensively here on Shy Turnip, I saw and fell in love with Rapture (1965), a movie in which a scarecrow has different but equal symbolic importance. That movie got into my head, and then I watched Scarecrow, and now it’s in there, too.

Scarecrow is both grim and beautiful in its examination of what we do to get through life, the ways in which we protect ourselves, and the bonds we develop–sometimes, if we’re lucky–with other people.

The quality of the cast is excellent overall. Eileen Brennan’s relatively brief but very revealing (double entendre intended) performance warrants the high billing. Ann Wedgeworth, who I knew as Lana on Three’s Company, demands a second look. Gene Hackman is at the height of his powers. He’d just come off of his performance in The Poseidon Adventure and would next star in the incomparable The Conversation. But it’s Al Pacino’s performance that gets me thinking about the craft of acting and how each person performs for others, and sometimes for him or herself.

This is an underappreciated film. If you have a taste for 1970s American cinema and you haven’t seen it, you are in for a treat.

And, for the love of God, there are plans for a sequel.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

The Plot and Such: J.R. is a young Italian-American Catholic who hangs out and messes around on the streets of his New York neighborhood with his buddies and generally stays pretty close to his mama and his church. He meets a pretty, artistic young woman on the Staten Island ferry, and they become involved. When their relationship intensifies, J.R. insists that they not go too far physically; he wants her to be pure when they get married. When the girl reveals to J.R. that she was raped by a former boyfriend, J.R. is repulsed. When he comes back to her and tells he that he forgives her, she tells him it would never work and sends him away. He turns to the church, but finds little solace.

There’s sooo much potential here–Martin Scorsese and Harvey Keitel each doing his first film, with a lot of style that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The experimental editing and the use of religious symbols is well intentioned, but heavy handed at times. Visually, it has some beautiful moments–the influence of the new European films of the 50s and 60s is apparent, but with a definite New York Italian-American spin. The film was pieced together and it shows; it’s one of Scorsese’s student films with the addition of a more substantial romance plot (perhaps the best part from my perspective, but maybe not for Scorsese aficionados) and a gratuitous sex scene that was added on to secure a distribution deal. Though the film is not entirely successful, it is an absolutely worthwhile view for it’s window into the early days of Keitel and Scorsese, and for a nice little black and white mid-60s urban film.

The segment that opens the film (and this post) is one of my favorite bits of the movie. It definitely grabbed my attention. This next short video gives some good information on the production, and offers one of the better selections of clips from the film available on the web.


The Plot and Such: Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) is a prostitute. She lies, and she consorts with druggies, pimps, and businessmen cheating on their wives. Somebody is murdering Bree’s call-girl colleagues, and detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) wants to find out who.

I’m sure I watched Klute a long time ago, but when I recently watched it again, I found it much better than I remembered. I’m usually pretty unimpressed with Jane Fonda, but here she’s almost (almost) uniformly great, and she earned an Oscar for her work. This is one of the better Donald Sutherland performances I’ve seen, too. Credit, perhaps, should go to Alan J. Pakula for getting these performances and for creating this tension. I thought Fonda and Sutherland had real chemistry at points. The scene where they’re buying fruit (take a look below–as with anything, it’s even more effective in context) is great–good acting, good direction, good camera work. I found the film genuinely suspenseful, too; that aspect builds nicely. Thumbs up also for the score (again, in context) and for the brief appearance of Jean Stapleton. I anticipate watching this one again in the future.

Evening Primrose

The Plot and Such:  In this made-for-tv version of the Stephen Sondheim musical, a young poet (Anthony Perkins) hides in a department store after hours and decides to live there, only to discover a miniature society of people already living there.  He falls in love with their young maid, Ella (Charmian Carr).  The society forbids their relationship, and he tries to give her the courage to leave with him.

I’m not a huge fan of musical theater, but I am a fan of Anthony Perkins, and the idea of this story–a poet decides to live in a department store and discovers a group of people already living there–appealed to me. For as much as such a thing is possible in musical theater, Perkins turns in a believable performance in a fairly unbelievable situation. In case it’s not obvious, he was really pigeon-holed after Psycho. Upon sight (though not in the clip below) you will recognize Charmian Carr as the actress who plays Liesl in The Sound of Music. Her Ella is a lot like her Liesl, but that serves the story well enough.