Couch Zone Movie Club…featuring the greatest Space film that does not feature R2-D2 or Khan
June 13th, 2017 by Dazza
Hi, there I’m Dazza from the UK. The UK is where we had an election recently where the guy who came in second and over 50 seats behind the one in first place is telling people he should be in charge. Think that’s weird? How about this one, a party that won only ten seats all tucked away in one corner of the UK is effectively having the biggest influence on who will ultimately lead the country and to top up all this ten seat wonder party are a bunch of backward thinking, homophobic, right wing bigots and God knows what deal is going to be made to get their support!
If this is democracy you can shove it!
Well thank the Lord for the sanctuary that is movies. a place where one can immerse them self in all that is wonderful and thus I give you another quartet of goodness in my movie club.
Same rules as always I pick four films that in one way or another have brought smiles to spiritual aura (and boy is such chicken soup for the soul sorely needed). One film will be black and white, one in a foreign language, one from the last years and the headliner will be something of a cult of classic nature.
Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
Of all the films I’ve revisited as part of Couch Zone Movie Club none have given me as much pleasure as showering myself in the nostalgic goodness that is Battle Beyond The Stars. It’s an unashamed Star Wars Ripoff, produced by the God of low budget, independent B-Movies, Roger Corman. But it transcends it’s knockoff origins with a film that is sheer fun, fast paced and has moments of surprisingly, genuine heart.
I first saw Battle Beyond The Stars when I was about seven, and as a Science Fiction freak any time a movie came out set in space I would skip school and go into Barnsley town centre to watch it at the cinema. This may sound rebellious and daring for a seven year old, though less so when you consider I actually went with my mum who herself had always hated the concept of school and was more than happy to aid in my nerd fuelled truancy.
As we sat there in a near deserted theatre (because everyone was in school) my eyes widened at the glorious slow build to the opening credits, the screen flying through a series of shimmering circles accompanied by gentle, echoes of a cosmic flavoured trumpet music. The frequency of the circles and music build rapidly, rushing at the screen until with a roaring explosion of an orchestra we leap into a form of hyper speed and a rousing, triumphant score welcomes the oh so 80’s credit lettering.
It’s a cheesy, over the top tune, an amalgamation of the Star Wars theme and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but it’s also splendid and fun and sets the mood perfectly. The score throughout is wonderfully catchy, especially in those moments where it pays homage to it’s wild west influences.
Battle Beyond The Stars begins with the peaceful farmers of the planet Akir who come under assault from the Malmori lead by the evil Zador who is played with relish by regular baddie, John Saxon. With demanding the Akir’s harvest and servitude, it falls to young Shad (played by Richard Thomas aka John Boy from The Waltons) to take their only spacecraft (with a sassy AI unit called Nell) to search for recruits to help defend their planet.
Despite having little to offer as payment Shad manages to assemble a rag tag group of aliens and scoundrels for the coming battle, with a variety of motivations and reasons for joining the struggle.
And if this sounds familiar, yes it is essentially the Magnificent Seven in space. The coalition fleet is even made up of seven ships. Oh and incidentally for any of you sticklers out there going “Erm, Dazza I think you’ll find it’s actually a remake of Seven Samurai, since that was the original source material,” I just want to say “sod off you pompous gits!” I’m calling this a remake of Magnificent Seven because it’s clear that is the film that directly inspired this, I’m seriously doubting Roger Corman and his crew had Seven Samurai in mind when they put this film together. It’s even got Robert Vaughan in it playing “Gelt” a faded, paranoid mercenary forced to hide in shadows who is practically the same character from Magnificent Seven.
Part of the charm of Battle Beyond the Stars is the colourful characters that make up the heroes of Akir. Aside from Gelt there is Shad’s first recruit and eventual love interest Nanelia a young tech wizard who’s lived her entire life on her father’s space station, the reptilian Cayman who originally captures Nanelia with the intention of selling her into slavery but joins when he finds the fight is against Sador who slaughtered his species to extinction. There’s Nestor, a group of five alien clones who wander the Galaxy looking for new experiences to alleviate the boredom of living with a single consciousnesses.
But the most memorable characters are “Cowboy” a space rig hauler who agrees to help with training the people of Akir out of gratitiude to Shad for saving his life, but is drawn into the conflict deeper than he wanted. Cowboy (the only character from Earth) is played with typical charisma by George Peppard, who appears to be having an absolute ball in the role, although if stories of his difficult and pompous personality are to be believed he probably thought the whole thing beneath him. That said this role gave him much needed work as it was several years before The A-Team and his career was on the skids. He even managed to blow the chance at being Blake Carrington on Dynasty by being an arsehole on set.
Rounding off the group is the incredibly easy on the eye Saint Exmin played by B-Movie queen Sybil Danning, in one of the hottest costumes in Sci-Fi at the time (Princess Leia Slavegirl was a few years away.) Exmin comes from a warrior race the Valkyrie and is seeking to make her reputation in battle and her love of fighting is something that causes conflict with her and the pacifist Shad.
Special effects wise the film may look dated as it’s no obviously no Star Wars, however considering the Roger Corman budget they look a lot better than they have any right to. They’re helped by some great and diverse designs for the spacecraft, from the Star Destroyer rip off of Sador’s battlecruiser (equipped with a Death Star like superweapon in the Stella Converter) to the UFO design of Nestor’s craft, the Cylon like fighter of Gelt and the feminine curves of Nell (complete with the not too subtle breasts).
Corman got his money’s worth out of them using them as stock footage for a number of other projects (most notably the no way near as great Space Raiders in 1983). Where the effects really excelled are in some well crafted action scenes, such as when Exmin leads two fighters behind an asteroid and into an ambush with Shad and Gelt. And the battles themselves are epic, with the battle in space running concurrently with a ground assault that sees Cowboy leading a defence of the Akir’s village which turns into a long back and forth action packed war.
Naturally not everyone is making it to the final credits and as the heroes fall one by one in the final desperate last stand against the Malmori there are some truly moving moments. Like Cowboy sombrely playing his Harmonica as his ship plummets to the planet’s surface or Saint Exmin’s ship exploding in a barrage of fireworks as all Valkyrie are expected to have a “beautiful ending.” Even the scene of damaged AI Nell malfunctioning and confused as her memory circuits fail her is strangely poignant.
Battle Beyond the Stars was naturally met with apathy from critics who derided it’s heavily “Borrowed” influences and seen as a clear cash in on the Star Wars craze. But the film get’s so much right that I have a deep love for this film. That heart pounding score, the action packed set pieces, the ship and costume designs, the solid, fast paced narrative, even the acting is solid.
It’s the jewel in the catalogue of Roger Corman and a B-Movie that embraces it’s low budget film making and excels by making every shot count.
All About Eve (1950)
One of the reasons I have a black and white section in these articles is to give me the chance to highlight films that while they may be Hollywood Classics are in danger of slipping from the consciousness of film fans. In this day and age of streaming and having the choice of thousands of films on demand, I wonder how many films can actually survive to be watched by generations to come.
When I was first exploring my love of films I had only access to a few television channels and so if I fancied an afternoon or evening settled in front of the telly I had to make do with what they gave me. Even on the emergence of a dedicated film channel on the Sky Network in my late teens I was restricted to it’s programming schedule and the small library they had meant the mornings and daytime were always filled with films from the Golden Era. Which was to my benefit as I saw many films I never would have thought about seeking out.
Like the wonderful All About Eve which will forever remain in my top ten favourite films of all time.
It’s the story of Eve, a seemingly innocent and nervous girl who’s reason for living is the theatre and in particular the old school actress Margo Channing who Eve it appears idolises. After meeting her after one of the performances of her latest play Margo takes Eve under her wing and employs her as an assistant. However Margo grows suspicious of Eve who has an agenda to advance her own acting career at the older actresses expense, manipulating the relationships with her director boyfriend Bill and her best friend Karen and her writer husband Lloyd to her own ends.
The evolution of Eve is played beautifully by Anne Baxter, her transformation from shy, starstruck idoliser to the schemer intent on having the torch wretched from Margot for herself is a subtle shift and a layered performance of almost multiple personalities. But it’s Bette David stealing the film as Margot, the catty battleship, oozing bitterness at having to defend her career and standing against the upstart and lashing out with a series of biting one liners throughout.
“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” she proclaims as tensions rise between her and Eve and she begins to get drunk at party she’s throwing. It’s a moment you just want to fistbump the old broad.
This film is greedy with great performances. Aside from the main cast there is the always incredible George Sanders who eats up the rich dialogue afforded to his character of devious theatre critic Addison DeWitt, who also acts as narrator and is the one character that can match Eve for wits.
Also a delight is the small role of Margot’s maid Birdie played by Thelma Ritter, the one person who sees through Eve from the start and also delivers cutting, humorous remarks. Early on when Eve tells her life story of woes she reduces the room to tears, except for Birdie who responds to the tale: “Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear.”
The film is a feast of quotable lines. However one of the most memorable appearances is also one of it’s most bizzarre, a cameo of a then unknown Marlyin Monroe. Monroe plays surprise, surprise an aspiring, air headed actress being paraded at the party by Addison DeWitt, out of her depth in mingling with the others but having the presence, looks and charm that steals attention. The role is only small but her open intentions to use her looks for her acting career plays off well against the underhand, tactile strategy of Eve.
All About Eve is a wonderful classic that deserves to stay in the minds of film fans in the same way as Casablanca. It’s legacy is that it has inspired many films and television shows with the idea of a younger hungry apprentice working their way to usurp the legendary veteran.
You can even credit it with Showgirls.
The Killer (1989)
Every time you’re watching a modern action film, you’re watching a bit of The Killer.
It may have not been the first of John Woo’s Heroic Bloodshed style (it came after the first two A Better Tomorrow films) but it’s the one that perfected the genre with it’s protagonist seeking redemption and the stylish shootouts choreographed with almost ballet like grace. The themes of loyalty, honour and brotherhood are thick throughout the violence, along with a fair share of religious imagery with the Church acting as hitman Ah Jong’s base and the final bloody gun battle.
When I first saw The Killer, it was a sadly dubbed into English video rental. And despite the dubbing voices being horrendous (as most English dubbing on Foreign language films is) I fell in love with this film, with lead man Chow Yun Fat and with Hong Kong movies in general.
In The Killer, Chow Yun Fat is an expert loner hitman who in the middle of a job accidentally blinds a young cabaret singer Jennie. Wracked with guilt he befriends and acts as a guardian to the young woman and although the experience seems to put him off killing he decides to embark on one final job to kill a corrupt politician so he can pay for an operation in America that can bring her sight back.
However his employers double cross and attempt to kill him after the hit, forcing him and the girl on the run. He’s also pursued by a Police Detective played by Danny Lee who attempts to befriend Jennie in order to get to the Killer but eventually the two end up teaming together to battle the larger threat of the gang.
When I first watched The Killer it was one of the biggest changing experiences on the way I watched and devoured films. Before The Killer I rarely sought out foreign movies (Das Boot and Akira were the only subtitled movies I can remember going out went out of my way to watch), but after I realised there was an exciting, fresh world of differing cinema styles beyond the bland, samey Western action films I was used to. I would go on to devour and experiment with foreign films (always with subtitles) and it all began here.
The first time I watched The Killer I was so blown away by the first five minutes I immediately rewound the tape and had to watch it again. The shot of Chow walking in slow motion through the restaurant, the romantic song of Jennie playing and him taking it in, never making eye contact with her as he passes the stage but the contemplation on his face making it clear the music is touching him somehow.
Then as he reaches the door to the room where his target is, the music disappears and there’s silence as he settles into the violence. The opening shots stunned me as he knocks on the door, shoots the first guard who comes to open it and jumps backwards against his falling body to hide himself as the guards rush past him to the door allowing him to shoot them in the back (It’s hard to describe but it’s majestic and imaginatively done). My wonder for the scene never ceased as Chow shot his way through the badguys their bodies thrown into violent spasms, blood spraying with every shot that hit from his two guns. Oh the two guns, it was such a simple concept buy by God did it look awesome.
And then just a tiny moment in the battle, Chow suddenly face to face with a shotgun wielding guard and seeing a gun on a table kicks the table to propel the gun into the air and catches it to shoot the guard. Soulless cynics may find it contrived but I loved it with a passion and the “wows” for me would not stop for the rest of the movie. All the way through to the end and that tragic, exhausting final showdown in the Church which took around 30 days to film.
The Killer put a shot into the arm of action movies, with it ‘s fast paced, high octane action. The genre and all that came after it owe a debt to The Killer. And looking back my own love of movies owes it something too.
Shoot Em Up (2007)
Imagine a film where the leading woman gives a guy a blowjob so she can earn money to buy a bullet proof vest for a baby.
That alone should have guaranteed Shoot Em Up a $100 million dollar opening weekend. But it didn’t, it was a cruel under performer at the box office flop raking in only 26 million against it’s 39 million budget. That it wasn’t a massive success is a tragedy because not only is Shoot Em Up an amazing, batshit crazy, enjoyable, funny ride and deserved better but the project was an impassioned project of love for writer and director Michael Davis and it should have catapulted him up the Hollywood chain with studios banging on his door.
In action maestro John Woo’s Hard Boiled there is a scene where Chow Yun Fat shoots his way out of a hospital with a baby on one arm. Michael Davis came up with one better, an entire film where our hero the enigmatically named “Mr Smith” delivers a baby of a stranger who runs past him on a street and spends the rest of the movie protecting the newborn from an army of assassins sent to kill the little un.
Mr Smith is played by Clive Owen, a dynamic choice for portraying a grimly cool, seething loner. Opposing him leading the hunters is Paul Giamatti, a fat, dirty slug of a man, his only power is with the gun he shoots and as Mr Smith refers to him “a Pussy with a gun.” The feud between them has been likened to the never ending battle between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, especially with Smith’s appetite for eating carrots which was designed as a way to attribute his excellent eye sight in never missing a shot.
Brought into the conflict is the aforementioned leading lady Donna played by the absolutely stunning Monica Bellucci, a hooker who having lost a child he brings in to be able to feed the baby. The trio fight their way through action scene after action scene, with a blistering sound track of rock and heavy metal (We get to hear Motorhead’s Ace of Spades in it’s entirety as Smith blasts his way through a disused hotel.) including one wild scene where Smith and Donna are attacked while having sex and Smith shoots the intruders with the two still locked together.
Seriously if you’re not sold on this film with these scenes I’m describing you’re on the wrong website.
If you’ve not guessed already Shoot em Up is the most over the top, outrageous action film I’ve ever seen. Smith dispatches badguy after badguy, never seeming to miss a shot (sometimes he actually uses carrots to deadly effect) and I’m told his final tally of kills is around 114 in an 84 minute runtime. He’s so effective that Hertz at one point cries incredulously “My God! Do we really suck, or is this guy really that good?”
Incredibly the ease of him dispatching so many villains never gets tiring due to the amazingly inventive ways Smith finds to put them to death. Whether it’s rigging Home Alone style traps for his pursuers or shooting a filing cabinet so the top drawer hits an assassin in the head, there are an insane amount of inventive ways Smith finds to use a gun. It’s a cartoonish violence and to show producers his vision Davis made a animated short film detailing his craziest ideas for the action scenes,
The film is also funny as hell. Such as the scene where Smith shoots out letters on a billboard to spell out “Fuck U” while Hertz shoots out more letters to reply “Fuck U Too”. In order to make this scene work a brainstorming session had to be held to find the most plausible sign to start from with Faulk Truck & Tool” been the final choice.
The concept of gun fetishism is also taken to new heights with the leader of the bodyguards of the baby hinted to having a perverted use for his gun silencer, always seeming to be cleaning it after coming out of the bathroom.
Shoot em Up is everything a modern action film should be. Loud, frantic, over the top, sexy, fast paced, bloody and above all riotously good fun. Though not a cinema hit the film has enjoyed a growing cult following and is not just worth checking out it is essentially watching.
And the next time you’re complaining that everything at the cinema is a reboot or a sequel, ask yourself if you went to see this fun and original movie? Because great, entertaining, fresh new movies are out there, but you gotta go see em for studios to know you want them.
Here’s an idea, the next time you see a franchise movie or reboot that sucks, don’t take to the internet or message boards to bitch endlessly about it, instead find a movie you do like that others may not have seen and spread the word on that instead.
Just because our political leaders are savages doesn’t mean we can’t spread positives.
That’s all folks.
Next time on Couch Zone Movie Club I’ll be doing something a little different. I’ll be talking about four movies that for one reason or another I hate and want people to avoid…so next time I’ll be featuring a Pompous, up his own arse officer POW who happily collaborates with his captors, a guy has an affair with two foul mouthed, rough slappers, a film that manages to be boring despite having Ryan Gosling robbing banks on a motorbike and a film that I find so reprehensible it was ever made at all I flat out refuse to even watch it.
till next time