Red Dawn (1984)

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My father turned me in. Oh God, they do things you can’t imagine. When Soviet soldiers invade Calumet, a small Colorado town, sending Nicaraguan and Cuban paratroopers into the local high school football field, brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) escape with friends (C. Thomas Howell, Darren Dalton) to the forest where they call themselves Wolverines after their school mascot. With their father Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) a prisoner of the invading army, the children decide to fight against the Soviets. As the country comes under increasing attack and bitter winter closes in, the group teams up with Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) to take back their town but how long can they hold out as they discover they are behind battle lines in occupied America? … West Coast. East Coast. Down here is Mexico. First wave of the attack came in disguised as commercial charter flights same way they did in Afghanistan in ’80. Only they were crack Airborne outfits. Now they took these passes in the Rockies. What a film to watch in the week that Vladimir Putin declared liberalism dead. From a story by Kevin Reynolds, auteur John Milius bootkicks the US into surreality positing a Soviet landgrab when we all know they’d nuke the country to high heaven before that would happen. So far, so ridick, as what was supposed to be a small arty antiwar outing becomes a teenage Rambo with Milius toying with the original material assisted by General Alexander Haig, on MGM’s board of directors at the time, dreaming up a what-if scenario evolving from Mexico’s left wing sympathy splitting the US in half as Hitler’s plan for invasion is reworked.  It starts with a history class in Genghis Khan’s warring tactics and within 5 minutes of explaining his stratagems the Russian helicopters are on the ground.  Soon Alexander Nevsky is playing for free at the local cinema and William Smith is in town marshalling the Russkies (in reality he’d been a Russian Intercept interrogator for the CIA). When the drive-in becomes a re-education centre, it’s a nod to the potential for camp classic status as an ‘ironic’ acknowledgement of its own silliness but also reminds us a lot of WW2. Given that this was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating for its violence, it occupies a certain stratum of cultdom and not merely for an alt history:  here are some of the era’s top teen icons (half of The Outsiders!) shooting the hell out of everything in sight. What joy there is in seeing Lea Thompson manning a sub-machine gun and Swayze romancing Jennifer Grey long before Dirty Dancing. With astounding cinematography by Ric Waite and Frederick Elmes and an operatic score from the great Basil Poledouris, this is a salutary lesson in survivalism and resistance. Milius would describe it as “a Close Encounters with Cold War Russians”. Children did this

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A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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Even these days it isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think. Divorced Dr Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his smalltown practice in California after being away for a couple of weeks at a medical conference. Seems like half the population has been complaining of a mysterious feeling and then not returning, claiming to be better. And the other half says family members aren’t themselves – they’re impostors, lacking nothing except emotion. When his ex Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) returns from England after her own failed marriage they visit mystery writer Jack Bellicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) because his double is lying on the billiards table and frankly it freaks them out. Becky’s father is a little strange too and as for the local psychiatrist…. Soon it appears the whole town is being taken over by alien seed pods now being actively cultivated to make everyone the same. Whether you take this as ‘straight’ sci fi or horror (as if that were ever a thing), a political allegory (it works for  communism or fascism) or a warning about the homogeneity and groupthink of Fifties culture or even a comment on the brainwashing techniques used during the Korean War, this is brilliant cinema. From the sly innuendo of McCarthy getting back together with his ex, to the satirical thrusts at a humdrum life, this hasn’t aged a day. The scene when Teddy sees Jack’s double open his eyes while Jack is asleep is really thrilling. And as for the pods throbbing in the greenhouse! Adapted by Daniel Mainwaring from sci fi legend Jack Finney’s Colliers serial (later a novel) it was directed by Don Siegel. Whit Bisssell is the Dr in the concluding scenes and Sam Peckinpah plays Charlie the meter reader – he was director Siegel’s dialogue coach on this and four other of his Fifties films. The prologue and epilogue were added because the studio got cold feet over the pessimistic content –  but you will never forget the sight of McCarthy shouting at the trucks on the highway, and this was its original ending. Nevertheless, this is extraordinary, urgent and fiercely exciting, simply one of the best films ever made.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

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John Goodman has always terrified me. I find him about as funny as a funeral. So it’s not much of a surprise that when Mary Elizabeth Winstead comes to after a car crash that she finds herself chained to a wall in a survivalist’s bunker – and he’s the main man. This unofficial followup  to Cloverfield is a different kind of monster B, with the connection only clarified 80 minutes into its running time, at which point Goodman has dispatched the other unfortunate captive and MEW goes outside to find … a new kind of world order. Damien Chazelle gets a writing credit on a story originated by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken, and it’s directed by Dan Trachtenberg. A Bad Robot Production. Sigh.

1941 (1979)

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Many critics thought this was a total disaster – and not just because it’s about a near-disaster. Steven Spielberg collaborated with the writing Bobs, Gale and Zemeckis (with an assist from John Milius) in a brash, bawdy, out-and-out madcap comic actioner about what nearly went down in 1942 and other more or less contemporaneous incidents – a Japanese invasion of California  including the Great Los Angeles Air Raid, a bombardment of Ellwood oil refinery in Santa Barbara, the Zoot Suit Riots and the US Army putting an anti-aircraft carrier in someone’s back yard (though that went down in Maine.) For those looking for auteurist elements, well that Jap submarine comes across a lone woman swimmer along the Californian coastline … Spielberg sending up (literally, as it happens) the opening scene of Jaws with Susan Backlinie gamely returning to the affray (and Lorraine Gary showing up in the ensemble). We meet a tank crew led by Dan Aykroyd (including Treat Williams, John Candy and Mickey Rourke), a crazy Air Forces pilot ‘Wild Bill’ Kelso (who else but John Belushi), Toshiro Mifune in charge of the submarine hoping to land in Hollywood, Slim Pickens in a neat reference to his role in Dr Strangelove, Bobby DiCicco entering a dance contest in a zoot suit, secretary Nancy Allen is aroused by airplanes and attracts Captain Tim Matheson, while Major General Robert Stack tries to calm the public about imminent attack and is consoled by a screening of Dumbo. There’s more. A lot more! A mixed bag of take it or leave it humour is balanced by incredibly staged setpieces – watch that ferris wheel roll off the pier! See Ned Beatty’s house collapse! – straight from silent movies. Spielberg is better with more tonally consistent humour intrinsic to character and story as we see in the Indiana Jones films or Catch Me If You Can but you can’t deny the spectacular fun here which probably led to the expanded (146m) version becoming a cult item. William Fraker’s cinematography is a thing of wonder while fans of the era’s movies will enjoy the likes of Warren Oates, Perry Lang and Bobs regular Eddie Deezen.

Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956)

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Two hours into their honeymoon, rocket scientist Hugh Marlowe (one of my favourite leading men) and wife Joan Taylor, experience a flying saucer. That’s not a euphemism. The earth is under attack from mistranslated aliens in one of the era’s best sci fis, cowritten by blacklistee Bernard Gordon, George Worthing Yates and Curt Siodmak from the book Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Major Donald E. Keyhoe (retired from the Marine Corps) and directed by Fred F. Sears. Good effects – particularly at the conclusion and a great sense of urgency! – so it’s a pity it was shot in monochrome.