Saturday, 24 August 2013

Star crash television… Starcrash (1978)

When is a film so bad that it’s just bad? There are always redeeming features in any film and this Star Wars cash-in of mid-European origin is a riot of bad disco outfits and not so-special effects and yet… it has one rare and precious thing: a soundtrack by John Barry.

It also has Christopher Plummer stuck between career heights and the sustained renaissance that he still enjoys as well as the quintessential 70s go-go-to-glamour girl Caroline Munro who expresses emotion chiefly through the power of costume… and very impressively too.

Caroline Munro
Written and directed by one Luigi Cozzi – also known as Lewis Coates – who wrote and directed a number of genre demi-classics including Hercules 1 & 2 with Lou Ferrigno, and Nosferatu in Venice with Klaus Kinski. Obviously a man with adventure and ambition in his heart.

The production suffered from erratic funding and support from the industry and so what we have is perhaps not quite as Cozzi intended. It stops short of disaster and is redeemed by its earnest quirks as well as Barry’s soundtrack.

Special effects!
 Needless to say, the plot is convoluted and, at times, riddled with non-sequential logic…

The film opens with a space ship in pursuit of a mysterious Count Zarth Arn which is attacked by a strange red ray causing the crew to self-destruct: a warning of the evil abroad in this space.

Judd Hamilton and Caroline Munro
Munro plays Stella Star an under-dressed astral adventurer who just happens to be the best astro-pilot in known space. She flies with Akton (Marjoe Gortner) her navigator and close accomplice who just happens to have some mysterious special abilities…

Returning from another successful venture, they are chased by the inter-stellar law enforcement: obligatory odd-ball robot Elle (Judd Hamilton) and his boss Thor: Chief of the Imperial State Police (Robert Tessier). Stella easily out flies them but they encounter a starship escape pod and in helping the survivor are slowed down enough to get caught by Thor.

Regulation prison-wear
Sent to a prison planet Stella naturally escapes, in spite of being limited to the scantiest of prison costumes. She enlists the help of several prisoners and blasts her way onto the planet’s surface where she encounters a rather impressive spaceship. The effects aren’t up to George Lucas or Gerry Anderson but they’re good-enough and have their own quirky charm…seriously!

Caroline Munro, Robert Tessier and Marjoe Gortner
On board she finds Thor and Elle who have been sent not to trap her but to whisk her away to meet The Emperor (Plummer) for a special mission. Turns out that the survivor they found had been on a mission which also involved his only son. Stella and Akton are tasked with locating the crashed escape pods in the hope of finding Prince Simon (an early version of David Hasselhoff) alive.

Joe Spinell
On their mission they know that Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) will have set many traps. Zarth Arn is a mad renegade, who is hell-bent on dethroning the Emperor and proclaiming himself supreme ruler of the universe. Just because he can, I suppose…

With Thor and the not-annoying- in-any-way-at-all, Elle, they fly off to the remotest corner of the universe to play hunt the thimble.

Nadia Cassini and her angry amazons
On the first planet they encounter a race of be-bikini-d amazons, ruled by the mercilessly beautiful Corelia (Nadia Cassini). Elle is seemingly destroyed but recovers just in time to prevent Stella being executed by the beautifully-merciless allies of Zarth Arn.

Robot rescue
Finding the escape pod devoid of life they move onto the next world, this time a barren world of extreme temperatures. Thor reveals his true colours and shoots Akton before locking Stella and Elle out on the planet’s surface as the temperature begins to drop way below freezing.

Frozen planet...
Luckily… Elle is able to keep Stella in suspended animation by lowering her body temperature. As the sun comes back up, Akton also rises and revealing some force-like super powers, despatches Thor and then re-energises Stella back to health.

Chilled Stella
They take off for the third and final planet and encounter a wild race of cave men who succeed where the amazons failed in knocking Elle to bits. Her protector gone all looks lost for Stella until a mysterious stranger fends off the primitives using a mask emitting light beams (naturally). He is Simon (yep) and it looks like mission accomplished save for the untimely arrival of Zarth Arn who, it transpires, had rather expected Stella to succeed and to lead him to the Prince…

A bad bunch...
This planet also hosts Zart Arn’s ultimate weapon, the one that destroyed Simon’s ship and one he hopes to use in defeating the Emperor and… everyone else basically.

He leaves our heroes to be disposed of by two stop-motion mechanoids resembling Ray Harryhausen cast-offs but they are unable to over-power Akton though as he wields what looks suspiciously like a light saber. Mortally wounded he sends his friends to safety whilst he plans to destroy the battle-planet.

There’s a big bang and Stella and Simon make their way to the Emperor’s ship… all is set for a climactic show-down with the usurper and his men that bears a strong similarity to Flash Gordon a few year’s later: men propelled through space in torpedoes as Barry’s soundtrack goes into interstellar overdive…

It’s entertainingly confusing but you can be sure that good will out and Stella will get her Prince in the end.

It’s childish and under-funded but not unpleasant combining a host of crowd-pleasing cliches. Miss Munro actually does really well and is believably swash-buckling: maybe we shouldn’t complain about a strong female heroine from this period? Yes she’s beautiful but she can also act and does her best to infuse the plastic sets with emotion.

Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff
Christopher Plummer dashes off “benign galactic ruler” without too much fuss, whilst Joe Spinell does the same with “insane megalomaniac somehow able to organise a large armed force…”. Marjoe Gortner is actorly-edgy as Akton (a feature of US TV movies he is also a revivalist) whilst David Hasselhoff plays his younger self convincingly well.

70's future-scapes: scantily-clad women and space-ships
There are some genuinely impressive visuals and planet-scapes resembling the classic pulp sci-fi cover art of the period, of which I am fully appreciative as a former subscriber to Science Fiction Monthly... check out the site for more details. The dreams we had in 1975!

The soundtrack is the star though and is available from eMusic as well as Amazon as is the DVD of course.

Dusty verdict: Leave your cynicism at the door and just stop being so demanding.

Using necessary Force
View from the bridge
Guess which ones the Good Ship and which one's the Bad Ship...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Dynamic Dyan… Such Good Friends (1971)

Dyan Cannon gives such a strong showing in this film that it’s hard to credit some of the negative critical reaction at the time. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider her famously roller-coaster relationship with Director Otto Preminger – they vowed never to work together after this film but it certainly bought out the best in this under-rated actress.

Based on the novel by Lois Gould and adapted by Elaine May under the pseudonym Esther Dale, the narrative does occasionally feel uneven lurching between the interior monologue of lead character Julie Messinger (Cannon) and exterior drama. But this lends a period charm and one that is underpinned by a cutting edge of cynicism and casual cruelty from the characters.

Dyan Cannon and Laurence Luckinbill
Remembering that this story is all supposed to be in Julie’s head, it’s easier to understand these fluctuations. After all, who hasn’t imagined Burgess Meredith dancing in the nude at a New York publisher’s party?

It’s still a film which challenges narrative assumptions and which isn’t quite as pleasant as you keep on expecting it to be: bad things are happening and no amount of New York sophistication can mask the cruelty of friends…

Brave, brave performance from Burgess Meredith...
Julie is the busy mom of two boys, she has a nanny and a domineering mother and seems rushed off her feet and yet unfulfilled. En route to a celebration of her Art Director husband Richard’s (Laurence Luckinbill) children’s novel, she decides to wear a daring see through top – and yet is shocked by his eye-bulging response. She smiles in the cab as she fantasises about a sexual encounter but is still concerned to be a supportive wife to Richard.

Day dreaming
Richard is cynical and he drinks too much, possibly bored by the celebration of his success. The next day he is due a routine operation to remove a mole on his neck. He can’t eat but watches his closest friends  enjoy themselves in the after party-party.

His photographer Cal (Ken Howard) is the cook here providing for Richard and Julie and their friends, Cal’s model girlfriend Miranda (the lovely Jennifer O'Neill) and Marian (Elaine Joyce) and her husband, Doctor Timmy Spector (James Coco) who is to oversee the operation.

All crack wise and make light and, the Messingers retire to bed with Richard joking about the outlandish possibility that he might not make it through the operation.

Just a routine procedure...
But…and there has to be a but, things don’t go well, Richard has an artery “nicked” during the procedure and the blood transfusion required causes a disastrous reaction in his kidney…

Timmy is calm, reassuring Julie that these things happen and that all will be well. Julie ignores the suggestion that she should sue, and goes about recruiting their friends to donate the 20 pints of blood to repay the blood bank for the withdrawals made to re-invigorate her husband.

The blood donors
Hope still dominates as Julie carries on her life but each hospital visit brings new complications and a brutal satire on medical arrogance.

Julie talks to Richard’s now comatose self and Miranda helps to comfort their children – she’s a natural… Julie has flashbacks of their early courtship and marriage: how did they get here?

Julie’s worries begin to dominate and Cannon really excels here as the world of the well recedes into the distance…

But life is not as uncomplicated as that and a visit from Cal reveals that Richard and Miranda had been two-timing them both for over a year. Julie is angry at Cal for revealing this but still goes to confront Miranda as she rehearses a pretentious open air Shakespeare…

Dyan Cannon and Jennifer O'Neill
Then she finds a notebook after a search for Richard’s insurance papers and the realisation dawns that Richard had been playing away more regularly and broadly than anyone had suspected… many of their female friends are listed in the diary along with nature of the act involved and its frequency. No wonder he was so tired all of the time.

The penny drops...
The extent of Richard’s betrayal is now so great we struggle to think that Julie can ever forgive him or any of his many “friends”. But she pulls back from revealing his double-dealings to Miranda – although Cal does the honours there – and resolves on her own future.

Cold blood
In the end, authenticity is the thing that counts and the trappings of civilised intellectualism are no guarantee of lasting marriage. Whether Richard lives or dies, Julie has her own choice to make just as she always has.

Dyan Cannon
Dusty verdict: a great performance form Dyan Cannon and an entertaining call to do your business when you are still able and with the right people.

Such Good Friends is available now on DVD after decades of semi-obscurity and I’d agree with Roger Ebert that it has integrity and packs a punch. Not quite Catch 22 but a clear message that there is no such thing when it comes to relationships…

The doctor's Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
Julie had had other options...
Julie sets herself free...