Kids, teens, a jester and a maid: movies

INVADERS FROM MARS (1954) is one of the landmark Kids And Aliens films as the young protagonist discovers his parents, the police and the little girl he plays with have all been taken over by a sinister Martian ship. What makes it memorable is less the story than the striking visuals by William Cameron Menzies: everything is a little distorted and “off” for reasons that eventually become clear. Leif Erickson as the boy’s father gives a striking performance swinging from kindly, patient father to an abusive brute, though it doesn’t make much sense (everyone else is reduced to pod people-class emotionlessness so why is he so vicious?). Well worth seeing. “Could you disprove, for example that the Martians have bred a race of synthetic humanoids to save themselves from extinction?”

The same cannot be said for Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake, INVADERS FROM MARS which follows the plot outline but misses the magic. Instead of Menzies’ eerie set designs, we get impressive but unimaginative F/X; instead of the dreamlike tone of the film, we get a somewhat more realistic story that lacks any power to move me. “You saw the bandages on the back of their neck!”

THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958) makes me think that family is a running element in Kids And Aliens films (Spielberg said that was the emotional heart of E.T. too). The core family in the film has been shaken by Dad uprooting them to move to an isolated military research station on the California coast where he’s working, uneasily, on a new nuclear super-weapon; the two boys think it looks like fun but Mom is decidedly unhappy. A neighboring family is worse off, as stepfather Russell Johnson is an abusive drunk. Enter an alien space brain that starts manipulating the kids and using them as conduits for its psi-power, wielding them against the project. As it turns out the alien’s a good guy (deactivating this and similar projects around the world will avert WW III), that makes this the anti-Village of the Damned, with the seemingly dangerous kids actually working on our side. Not well executed, but it has its moments. “What is this thing that’s come into our lives?”

PAJAMA PARTY (1964) was the first of AIP’s Beach Party movies not to star Frankie Avalon opposite Annette Funicello, with the male lead role going to the extremely bland Tommy Kirk. As the Martian spy Go-Go, Tommy’s mission is to study the American teenager before the Martians invade out of fear our crazy teens will inflict their behavior on the rest of the Solar System once we make it into space; this entangles him with Funicello and her swingin’ friends, dotty heiress Elsa Lanchester, and Jesse White whose mob is plotting to rip off Lanchester’s fortune. I like the Beach Party films but this one doesn’t work for me, and Buster Keaton in redface as White’s Native American sidekick has really not aged well. With Don Rickles and Dorothy Lamour in bit parts. “Show me a crazy teenager and in ten years I’ll show you a crazy adult.”

TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) makes Pajama Party look like Rebel Without a Cause. A young ET from the Supreme Race rebels against their cold, emotionless ways and runs off during a stop on Earth, meets an Earth teenager and falls in love. Then he discovers his people are planning to use Earth to graze their monstrous space-livestock and sets out to stop them. Stiff dialogue, wooden characters and being teenagers hardly makes a difference to anything. “It had a life — and that life you had to take to satisfy your endless hunger for killing!”

JOAN THE WOMAN (1917) was Cecil B. DeMille’s epic of the Maid of Orleans, here a Simple Country Lass played by opera singer Geraldine Farrar (well-known enough that a lot of critics balked at her in the film, and found her earthy for the innocent virgin she’s portraying). Inspired by God she frees her country from the English only to have king and church both betray her, as does the Englishman she loves. This is embedded in a frame of a WW I English soldier inspired to make the Supreme Sacrifice to redeem himself for his past life as Joan’s lover/betrayer. Shows DeMille had the touch even then, but at two hours this could have stood some cutting. “If every sword in France were broken, if every man were dead, there is still the God of Justice to free us from thy yoke!”

FAST & FURIOUS (2009) reunites Vin Diesel, Paul Walker (now improbably upgraded from cop to G-Man) and Jordana Brewster to get revenge (or in the case of Brewster, wring her hands over the crazy risks the men are taking) for the murder of Diesel’s sister Michelle Rodriguez by a drug kingpin. This was actually less engaging than the second film, with less visual flash and a more conventional action film plot; Gal Godot plays a race organizer and a Japanese character from Tokyo Drift gets retconned into the series in the opening flashback. “Are you one of those boys who prefers cars to women?”

It’s been many years since I’ve seen Danny Kaye in THE COURT JESTER (1955) but the film has lost none of its charm. The Robin Hood-esque Black Fox has dedicated himself to removing usurper Cecil Parker from the English throne; Danny Kaye is a carnie who yearns to fight instead of just entertaining the Fox’s men. Opportunity arises when he gets to replace jester Giacamo (John Carradine) and slip into the castle alongside Glynis Johns (one of the Fox’s fighters) but things are complicated — like the fact Giacamo is an assassin hired by scheming Basil Rathbone to eliminate his rivals on the king’s council. With Angela Lansbury as a princess and Mildred Natwick as a witch, this is an absolute delight with Kaye at his flamboyant, comedic best. “Like you said — flowers to their widows.”

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