The China Syndrome (1979)

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I know the vibration was not normal. A lot of films depend on luck to make a success – and a matter of days after this was released there was a major incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. So a story about an accident in a nuclear plant that is filmed by a TV crew that usually does soft news and how that impacts on the news cycle, the plant supervisor and potentially the wider environment, saw reality and cinema converge in the most immediate fashion.  Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) has nice hair and does a great job covering idiotic stuff to put at the end of the evening show in LA but wants to cover more serious stories. Cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) and soundman Hector (Daniel Valdez) accompany her to a local nuclear plant where they witness a shudder that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) says should not have happened and he quarrels with colleague Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) about safety when the reactor is going to be cranked up. The film is stopped from being broadcast and the news crew try to protect Jack when he holes up in a motel so they can get an exclusive story. His bosses are on a mission to stop him from going public at an environmental hearing and are prepared to leave no murder attempt unturned … Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and director James Bridges, this was produced by Michael Douglas, who has always recognised a zeitgeist when he’s met one. This is as much an indictment of the politics of news production as it is about the propaganda behind the supposed safety of nuclear energy. Nobody comes out of this looking good. Excellent, tense storytelling, all the more extraordinary for a total lack of music other than Stephen Bishop’s theme song: the shudder of the reactor is terrifying enough and the acting from Fonda and Lemmon is superb, embodying their emblematic images as frustrated feminist activist and sympathetic conscientious objector – and in that order!

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Crack in the World (1965)

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We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right. So when geothermal scientist Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) figures that deep-mining magma in the earth’s core which resulted in a fissure in the earth can be remedied – with a nuclear device! you know you’re in for an epic disaster. His colleague Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore) can’t dissuade him from this mega end of days move and their quarrel is emphasised by the woman they have in common Maggie (Janette Scott). She was involved with Ted before she married Stephen, who is concealing the fact that he’s about to die. That gives her desire to have his child an edge to this cracking drama when the two guys knock their very cerebral heads together about what to do. Very impressive staging, shooting and effects lend this tightly constructed doomsday scenario a lot of believability and style. Spain stands in for Tanganyika in a screenplay by Jon Manchip White and Julian Zimet. Directed by Andrew Marton.

Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

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The second of Guy Hamilton’s outings as director (he did four altogether) this is James Bond verging on self-parody and hugely entertaining it is too. Sean Connery returns looking the worse for middle age. At the heart of it is some strange goings-on in the diamond market leading our favourite spy to Amsterdam (via Hovercraft!) where he encounters the smuggler Tiffany Case (Jill St John, the first American Bond girl). It seems evil criminal mastermind Blofeld (Charles Gray) is up to his old tricks, this time stocking up to use a killer satellite. Touching on real-life themes of nuclear weaponry, strong women (look at those bodyguards! Never mind Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole!), cloning and plastic surgery, the American obsession with death (pace Jessica Mitford and Evelyn Waugh) leading to some hilarious (kinda – unless you’re keen to be in a coffin) scenes in a mortuary and great use of Las Vegas locations, this is also the one with those fabulously fey henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd ( Bruce Glover  and  Putter Smith) and there’s an ending straight out of Road Runner. As close to a cartoon as Bond would ever get,  you’ll have forgotten that Bond is out to avenge the murder of his wife (in OHMSS) in the first few minutes: this is simply great entertainment. And what about that song! Adapted from Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

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Adapted by Nelson Gidding from Michael Crichton’s bestseller, this posits the idea that a satellite that has landed in Piedmont New Mexico was carrying an alien pathogen capable of causing mass casualties – everyone in the tiny township is dead. The scientists from Project Scoop are called in and find two people touched but still alive – a baby and an old man, who they remove to a lab. The researchers have to be decontaminated and then it’s a matter of identifying whether it is in fact an alien bacterium that is being launched on the earth’s population and it’s a race against time before a solution is found … Where you stand on this film’s success depends on your tolerance for old technology albeit with great effects for the era, devised by Douglas Trumbull who’d made his name doing 2001. The other issue is the uninteresting nature of the leads – perhaps casting Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne and Kate Reid (a man in the source novel) was to ensure that your attention was focused on the story so that the issues of government readiness for such a potential catastrophe or alien invasion, secret projects (the left hand scientist doesn’t know what the right hand scientist is working on) and the nature of the storytelling itself are foregrounded. It’s told documentary fashion, with several interesting split screen effects and a ticker telling us what happens each day. Each specialist brings something different to the Wildfire project with their foibles and strengths exposed as things become exponentially problematic and the clock is ticking on the nuclear device should there be a containment breach – and everyone now knows that whatever this is it’s airborne and is too big to be a virus. Robert Wise directed a film that is very much a product of its time but with some astute lessons about how to deal with foreign invasions, germ warfare and what to do when your chief researcher experiences absence epilepsy and makes the wrong finding.The kind of film that makes you want to go back to the books to look at how pH range functions.

Defence of the Realm (1986)

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We love a good paranoid conspiracy film and if it’s got journalists so much the better. This British effort is hardly first rank and there’s no Alan J. Pakula behind the camera but it’s a pretty decent affair. Gabriel Byrne is journo Nick Mullen who investigates the resignation of politician Dennis Markham (Ian Bannen).  When his co-investigator Vernon Bayliss (Denholm Elliott) dies from an alleged heart attack he uncovers a plot between the British and American governments to do with nuclear power and a secret air base.  Markham’s assistant Nina Beckman (Greta Scacchi) may know more about the situation than she’s letting on and Mullen’s reporting is being censored by his superiors …  Writer Martin Stellman is better known for his work on Quadrophenia (The Interpreter is his most recent credit) but this is efficient stuff, well dramatised and solidly directed by David Drury. Byrne claimed he was upstaged by co-star Elliott and you know, he’s not entirely wrong.

Them! (1954)

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There’s been a series of mysterious deaths out in the desert. When little Sandy Descher is found wandering catatonic and clutching her doll all she can do when they put formic acid under her nose is scream, Them! And run in terror. Radioactivity has caused a mutation in the ant population and now they’re gigantic and killing people! This was the best giant bug movie and it’s pretty great, with James Whitmore as the brave cop on their trail, James Arness as an FBI agent and Edmund Gwenn as the venerable scientist tracing the effects of atomic explosions and his clever daughter, fellow scientist Joan Weldon coming face to face with the unleashed beasts. Time is running out and they need to get the army to help them kill the queens in their nest … which necessitates a chase through the storm drains of Los Angeles. Brilliant sci fi from a story by George Worthing Yates (who would write a lot more in the Fifties), developed into a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes and directed by Gordon Douglas. There are good effects and a fantastically exciting score by Bronislau Kaper, adding enormously to the thrills.

The Missing Scientists (1955)

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Two atomic scientists go missing at the height of the Cold War in this low budget propaganda piece. Jackie Collins (the same!) calls in about her hubby Manfredi and there’s a pretty indecipherable cat and mouse narrative as the defecting scientists try to get to the East and a US commissioner attempts to stop them. I couldn’t believe I was looking at Irene Papas (photographed here) playing Kurt Kreuger’s girlfriend, as she looks totally different from her famous roles in films like The Guns of Navarone. Made by Steve Sekely, a writer/director/producer from Budapest who had  a long career starting in Europe but then spent years in the US and the UK, where he made the brilliant Day of the Triffids in 1962. Low on thrills, sense and most everything else. A curiosity.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Poor Tom Cruise. He is one hell of an actor and in what is still probably his greatest performance in Born of the Fourth of July he found himself in a wheelchair-off against Daniel Day-Lewis. (Don’t try to tell me DDL has never given a crap performance – I’ve seen Nine, for Pete’s sake.) Mind you, he came back a decade later with a stunner of abject nastiness in Magnolia. So that’s the Oscar noms taken care of for now. But he is one hell of an auteur – as star and producer he has hooked up with some of the smartest people around, which means he’s pretty smart too. And he knows how to indulge what used to be called the cinema of attractions in any analysis of the early days of the business:  thrill a minute, sensation-building, audience-pleasing. He is a properly savvy star with charisma to burn and I love pretty much everything he does. In the fourth installment of the TV reboot, he makes the best episode since the first one (IMHO) and starts by breaking out of a prison in Moscow, gets blamed for blowing up the Kremlin when a competitor rides the coat-tails of his op and then the Secretary of the IMF (and I don’t mean Christine Lagarde) gets offed in front of him … so he’s disavowed.  It all gets nuclear and since Cruise is famous for doing most of his own stunts those of us who have vertigo have to avert our eyes when he tackles the Burj Khalifa. Gosh it’s terrific.  The way the team is pulled together (Paula Patton, great, Simon Pegg, a bit WTF?, Jeremy Renner, fairly suspect) is efficient, the trickery is marvellous and Brad Bird directs in super kinetic style as you’d expect from a man made in animation.The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec is a marvel of economy and they provide really good performing opportunities for both of the main women (Lea Seydoux is one hell of a villain). I love this series and what is even better for us is that episode 5 is probably the best of the lot with a truly promising ending to an endlessly Bond-like scenario … If you’re interested in reading about Cruise as action hero I’ve written a series of articles about his collaborations with screenwriting legend Robert Towne for Creative Screenwriting magazine. They can be found starting here:  http://creativescreenwriting.com/mission-impossible-surprising-depths.

Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986)

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This is the film made by the the notorious Troma outfit after Toxic Avenger (1985) put them on the map. A sort of comedy horror eco splatter parody it’s dismal but some people get a kick out of it. There’s a spill at Tromaville nuclear plant and an employee sells drugs to the kids in the local high school and suddenly they’re foaming green stuff at the mouth and the girls who have underage sex have miscarriages that look like Alien complete with tendrils and teeth. The only redeeming feature is The Smithereens singing Much Too Much at the indoor beach partyCritic Anne Billson said of this that the fact that it has no redeeming qualities whatsoever lends it a certain cachet. I rest your case.

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

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One of those creature feature titles you think will be far more exciting than they prove to be. However on the day that I finally saw The Hateful Eight it was interesting to see Daisy Domergue’s namesake, Faith, a small-featured brunette with an attractive lisp acting her ass off opposite not just a huge octopus but Kenneth Tobey, the older guy in my beloved Whirlybirds (Craig Hill died and I wrote about him before). The film was produced as a vehicle for the effects of Ray Harryhausen and it was developed from a script by George Worthing Yates and directed by Robert Gordon, capitalising on nuclear fears when Tobey’s sub detects a massive sonar return and life beneath the ocean wave is disturbed. Domergue and Donald Curtis are the marine biologists called in to inspect the area. The fishermen who report a giant sea creature are sent to psychiatrists but a giant suction cup print on a beach forces re-evaluation and watch out San Francisco!… Serious-minded monster movie with great underwater scenes that would have been fabulous in colour! Released in a double feature with Creature With the Atom Brain. Wow.