Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Flying Saucer, The (1950)

Directed by:
Mikel Conrad

The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World and When Worlds Collide (all released in 1951) are three of the hit films usually credited for kick-starting the sci-fi craze that dominated much of 1950s genre cinema. But beating all of them to cinemas by more than a year was this independently-produced film, which also predates the few other sci-fi offerings of its own year by a number of months (it was filmed back in the summer of 1949). In fact, this is believed to be the very first American feature film ever to involve flying saucers and was clearly made in response to a then-recent surge in reported UFO sightings that were dominating newspaper headlines. It may also be the first of such sci-fi films to infuse elements of the Red Scare into the plot, though unlike later films that hid their true agenda behind metaphor, this one just comes right out and blatantly says it in the very first scene. Unlike most of the later films, it doesn't involve extraterrestrials at all and the saucer featured here is a man-made creation. Aside from being a footnote and reference point for film historians, The Flying Saucer has been mostly forgotten by audiences for good reason: it's flat, cheap, slow-moving, padded with filler and often incredibly boring. Forget about flying saucers, this actually seems more like a travelogue promo for Alaskan tourism.






In Washington D.C., CIA agent Hank Thorn (Russell Hicks) drafts Mike Trent (director Conrad, who also wrote and produced) for a covert mission in Alaska, where there have been recent sightings of flying saucers. The film never really says what qualifications Mike has for such a mission, aside from the fact he's a famous millionaire Playboy and polo player originally from Alaska. Regardless, our government thinks this drunk, chain-smoking, womanizing smart ass is the right man for the job of discovering the secrets of the flying saucers before the Russians do and use them to drop A-Bombs on all of the major American cities. Hank concocts a fake story about Mike suffering from a nervous breakdown to throw off the press, set him up with blonde "nurse" Vee Langley (Pat Garrison), who's actually a secret agent, fly the two of them to Seattle and from there they are off to Alaska on a boat.






Upon arrival, Mike and Vee go to their hunting lodge and meet up with the French caretaker Hans (Hantz von Teuffen). Not one to expose their true intention for being there, Mike immediately asks the stranger, "You seen any Russian spies around here recently?" Things are quiet for awhile as Mike and Vee soak up the scenery, go on hikes, go swimming, go on boat rides, encounter wildlife ("I just saw a bear! They're dangerous, aren't they?") and get better acquainted in a romantic sense, but one evening they are disturbed by strange, loud sounds in the sky. A man truly serious about his work, Mike promptly heads into Juneau, goes on a pub crawl and gets wasted drinking rye. What does this have to do with flying saucers, you ask? Well, absolutely nothing, but it sure does help to eat up the minutes, doesn't it? 






It's eventually revealed that reclusive scientist Dr. Carl Lawton (Roy Engel) has finished his saucer prototype and has it hidden somewhere in the mountain ice caps with plans on selling the invention to the U.S. military for 10 million dollars. His assistant Mr. Turner (Denver Pyle) betrays him and goes to some Russian KGB agents stationed in Alaska led by Colonel Marikoff (Lester Sharpe) and his right hand man Alex Muller (Earle Lyon). The Russians are all played by American actors and none of them even attempt any kind of accent. The Frenchman is also in cahoots with the Russians but all of his attempts to kill Mike and Vee are botched in one way or another. There are a few poorly-choreographed and unexciting action scenes and lots of time is spent on travelogue footage. The utterly predictable finale takes place in some ice caves beneath a glacier.






Aside from decent location filming, some beautiful scenery and perhaps being a first of its type, this isn't a good film. It's dull, the acting is mediocre at best and it's filled with pointless, drawn-out scenes that exist solely to pad out the slim story line. Most disappointing of all is that there are just two scenes of the flying saucers in the air; both of which are over in a matter of seconds.

1/2

Le laboratoire de l'angoisse (1971)

... aka: Laboratory of Anguish, The
... aka: Laboratory of Fear

Directed by:
Patrice Leconte

Leconte first picked up a camera at the age of 15. By his early 20s, he was working as a cartoonist and attending the famous state run film school Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (Institute for Advanced Film Studies), which would later be renamed La Fémis and boasted many alumni who'd later make their mark in film including Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Claire Denis, Volker Schlöndorff, Jean-Jacques Annaud and Costa Gavras. After completing a number of shorts, Lcconte made his feature film debut with the comedy Les vécés étaient fermés de l'intérieur, which wasn't well received by either audiences or critics. Leconte's follow-up films, however, were hits and he'd go on to become a top comedy director in his home country. Unfortunately, his films were seldom released outside of France and none really got him much in the way of critical respectability. The tide started turning with Tandem, which was not only financially successful in France but also received six César Awards, including Best Film and Best Director. Lcconte broke away from comedy with his next feature, Monsieur Hire (1989), and the results were career-changing. Not only did the film win widespread critical acclaim and numerous prestigious awards, but it also put the director on the radar outside of France and won him a much-wider international audience that he enjoys to this day.

Le laboratoire de l'angoisse was one of Leconte's very early shorts; his second if IMDb is to be trusted. It's also his only film with a horror label, though it's primarily a dark comedy. The song "The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid" (aka “The Snake Charmer Song” and “The Girls of France”) plays over the opening credits and then we get a disclaimer telling us that “Chemical and biochemical realism was not the primary concern of this film.”






The setting is the National Research Center of the IMPC, where all of the best graduates of the nation's chemistry schools go to work. The pretty Clara (Marianne di Vettimo), the sole female employed there, proves to be one of the most dedicated and hardest working scientists in the place and is always there late into the night after everyone else has left. As she's working on obtaining a deposit of silver oxide from lead chloride; a slow process that requires lots of patience and many different chemicals, klutzy night janitor Antoine (Michel Such) sets about trying to woo her. He plays her a Lebanese flute, jumps up on the table, breaks flasks, brings her cold chicken to eat and does various other things to try to get her attention. She's so busy with her work that she barely pays any attention to him even when he confesses his undying love for her.






By the film's end, Antoine manages to accidentally mangle himself up pretty good with various chemicals as he nervously pursues the completely disinterested girl. His hand smokes as he spills sulfuric acid, arthycylic acid and mercury on it. After Clara successfully completes her experiment and he thinks he stands a chance, he has a nasty encounter with some chemical called carburet tritonytrate that leads up to a gory visual gag. This is OK but not particularly clever or inventive and the laughs are mild at best. It runs 11 minutes and is available on a Region 3 DVD called Their First Films distributed by Alto Media. The set also includes early shorts from other well-known French directors like Mourice Pialat, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Jean-Pierre Melville.

★★
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