Then Playing — Hannie Caulder; War of the Planets; Top Gun: Maverick

Hannie Caulder (Burt Kennedy, 1971). Raquel Welch stars in this Western as Hannie Caulder, a woman who is widowed and raped by three bank robbing brothers fleeing their latest stick up (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin, Western movie Hall of Famers all, play the nefarious siblings). Hannie sets out to exact revenge and seeks tutelage in her gunslinging skills from a bounty hunter (Robert Culp) who fortuitously comes by her ranch. Director Burt Kennedy definitely knew his way around a Western, and he gives Hannie Caulder a solid grounding in the classic strictures of the genre while bring just enough of the era’s deconstructive tendencies to the storytelling. Welch had a hand in producing the film and acquits herself nicely as she stretches her acting range beyond what was usually afforded her in the sex-symbol sandbox. Even the one seemingly gratuitous shot, involving Hannie soaking in a tub to coax along some new shrink-to-fit pants, sets up some story beats to come, including a pretty good gag in a saloon. Culp is terrific, interweaving strands of warmth and cantankerous exasperation as only he could.

War of the Planets (Antonio Margheriti, 1966). This exceedingly chintzy science fiction flick from Italian B-movie maestro Antonio Margheriti can’t reasonably be called good, even using the most generous definition of the word, but I was certainly tickled by it. In an indeterminate future, a group of spacefarers investigate strange happenings involving negative radiation readings and other perplexing data. They eventually discover that interstellar beings are drawing susceptible Earthlings into Borg-like mental slavery for a sketchy plan to bring the whole universe into their numbed collective. The acting is barely serviceable, the effects are at visible-string levels, and the storytelling proceeds with a guilelessness that’s more amateurish than charming. Margheriti evidently mucked around with the same basic elements in the earlier Wild, Wild Planet and the later War Between the Planets and Snow Devils (also known as Death Comes From The Planet Aytin). I find that Corman-esque conviction to cranking out product (with heavy recycling of sets and costumes, I presume) to be oddly admirable.

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022). Some thirty-five years after picking up the nickname, Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is still up to his maverick ways. That’s the urgent, anxious assertion of Top Gun: Maverick, the belated sequel to the similarly titled 1986 movie, directed by Tony Scott, that cemented Cruise as a big ol’ movie star. Maverick is back at the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor school where he was once a nearly untamable student, though now he’s been grudgingly dispatched there to teach by superior officers who generally frown upon his rebellious ways but acknowledge he might be the only one who can prep a group of talented, green pilots to take on a mission that seems downright impossible. Cribbing shamelessly from Star Wars, the film supposes that the naval airmen (and one woman, played by Monica Barbaro) need to fly low through chute-like terrain and precisely drop a bomb into a small target. There’s even a loose equivalent of disregarding fancy technology to instead use the Force, although Maverick urging “Don’t think” could be the moviemakers trying to Jedi mind trick the audience into being satisfied with the thin characterizations, witless dialogue, and narrative scrubbed clean of insight or nuance. Admirable as it is that Cruise and his costars actually piled into cockpits for the action sequences, Joseph Kosinski’s directing is rote, offering little sense of where the zipping aircraft are in relation to each other at any given time.

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