Saturday, February 18, 2017

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN


ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (1948) is a classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Produced at Warner Brothers, the studio where Flynn made so many great films, DON JUAN is a rollicking, slightly tongue-in-cheek costumer which finds Flynn playing the legendary Spanish lover, a rake who pursues lovely young women all across Europe. He's aided in his escapades by stalwart companion Leporello (long time Flynn co-star and real life friend Alan Hale).

The action begins in England where Don Juan is mistaken as the Spanish suitor to a British princess. He and Leporello escape (using recycled footage from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)) and, armed with a letter of recommendation from Count de Polan (Robert Warwick), they return to Spain to serve in the court of Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors).

Don Juan finds his true love in the form of the lovely queen but there's intrigue and menace afoot as Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas, in a Loki-esque look and performance), plots against the queen and her ineffectual husband, King Phillip III (Romney Brent). The Duke is aided by several henchmen, among them a young Raymond Burr as Captain Alvarez.

Don Juan faces many obstacles in exposing and overcoming the Duke's nefarious schemes and the narrative climaxes with a rousing sword fight between Don Juan and the Duke on an enormous staircase set.

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN doesn't reach the heights of Flynn's greatest film, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, but it's a marvelously entertaining film nonetheless. The Technicolor cinematography by Elwood Bredell, drenches the screen in vivid hues, toned down only slightly from the first eye-popping three-strip Technicolor of earlier years. Legendary composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who scored ROBIN HOOD), was originally set to provide the music here but he retired from film scoring by the time the film went into production and was replaced by Max Steiner, who delivers a terrific score. The costumes and sets are gorgeous and the performances are all good. Director Vincent Sherman keeps things moving at a good clip and Flynn hadn't yet started his long, slow slide into dissolution and debauchery that ultimately sank his career. He's not at the top of his form but he still delivers the goods.

If you're looking for accurate history, go read a book. If you want an exciting, funny and beautiful to look at, old fashioned swashbuckler starring one of the greatest action heroes of the cinema, check out ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Recommended.


NOCHE ROJA


Vertigo, DC Comics' edgier, "alt/indie" imprint, launched an ambitious albeit short-lived publishing experiment in 2009 with the debut of Vertigo Crime, a series of original black and white noir crime graphic novels, pitched at an adult readership. There were 13 books published from 2009 to 2011. I read my first one the other day.

NOCHE ROJA (RED NIGHT) by Simon Oliver and Jason Latour is a tale of crime and corruption along the United States/Mexico border. Young girls are being raped and murdered and Jack Cohen, an ex-cop (with a dark past) turned private detective, starts an investigation at the behest of a social worker. The victims are all workers at local maquiladoras but what's the real connection?

With plenty of plot twists and turns, a surfeit of sex and violence NOCHE ROJA is definitely not for kids. I give Oliver's story three stars but my biggest problem with this work is the artwork by Jason Latour. Latour's style is heavily influenced by manga (have I mentioned lately how much I hate manga?). It's cartoony, loose and sketchy. As if that wasn't bad enough, the pages are drenched in black ink. It's like Latour channeled the ghost of Vince Colletta's ink pot and spilled every drop on his drawing board. Yes, noir means black but come on guys, don't take it quite so literally. There are panels and pages in which it's impossible to tell what you're looking at because it's so damn black. A little light wouldn't have ruined the story because it's plenty dark to begin with. I'm not advocating complete sweetness and light, just a little more clarity please. Because of the constant murkiness, I have to give the artwork one and a half stars.

I don't know what the other entries in the Vertigo Crime series are like but as a big fan of noir crime fiction, I'm willing to give them a chance. After all, they can't all be this black, can they?



Monday, February 13, 2017

THE RANGER


THE RANGER (2011), is the second novel I've read in the last year by mystery/crime writer Ace Atkins. The first, WHITE SHADOW, was a historical crime novel set in Tampa, Florida in the 1950s and in it, Atkins did for Tampa what James Ellroy has done for Los Angeles in his own series of historical noirs. WHITE SHADOW is a first rate novel as is THE RANGER.

An Edgar Award Nominee, THE RANGER is the first book in the Quinn Colson series. Colson is an Army Ranger back home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Home is Tibbehah County, Mississippi. What brings Colson back is the death of his uncle, the county sheriff, who apparently took his own life. But things don't quite add up. There's evidence pointing to foul play and as Colson starts digging further into his family's past, he uncovers secrets that were better left hidden.

He's aided in his search by Deputy Sheriff Lillie Virgil. She's just about the only honest person in the whole damn county, one of the few people, along with the one-armed vet Boom, that Colson can count on as his quest uncovers a nest of corruption and vice that seems to have touched almost everyone in the county. There's a shady real estate deal, meth heads, white supremacists, crooked politicians, a twisted preacher, a lecherous old man, strippers, prostitutes ("lot lizards") at the local truck stop, the Memphis Mob, an old girl friend, and an innocent, pregnant teenager who falls in with the wrong crowd.

There's beau coup bloodshed and violence and Colson kicks some major ass before all is said and done. Some of the carnage is the result of firearms, some courtesy of a bow and arrow. The book ends on a perfect set up with Colson being asked to run for the suddenly vacant position of sheriff. Swiftly paced, with nary a wasted word, Atkins gets everything right: the landscape, the people, the dialect. There's a strong, vivid sense of place and all of the characters are well drawn, especially the bad guys, of which there are many. The action, when it comes, is brutal and nasty and Atkins doesn't pull any punches. The book reminded me strongly of Phil Karlson's classic '70s exploitation action film, WALKING TALL.

Quinn Colson is a tough as nails action hero out to clean up the New South. I'm definitely going along for the ride.


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Saturday, February 11, 2017

20,000 YEARS IN SING SING


When I was a kid, anytime I saw a reference to the film 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), I was confused. What crime could someone commit that would get them that many years in prison? No one could possibly live that long. And there was no way Sing Sing prison (in upstate New York) had been around that long. What gives?

What gives is cleverly explained during the title sequence of this crackerjack prison drama that I watched for the first time the other evening. The film opens with a montage of prisoners walking through the halls and yards of Sing Sing. Each man has a number super imposed upon his chest, a number signifying how long his sentence is. There are hundreds of men, each with a number, which if added up, would amount to 20,000 years.

Spencer Tracy stars as tough guy Tommy Connors who gets 30 years in prison for robbery and assault. He has a chance to escape but doesn't take it. When Tommy's girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis), is injured in an automobile accident, the liberal/progressive warden Paul Long (Arthur Byron), grants Tommy 24 hours to leave the prison to see Fay on the condition that he must return when his time is up.

Fay has been injured by one of Tommy's associates, a mobster named Joe Finn (Louis Calhern). Finn tries to finish Fay off but Tommy intervenes and the two fight. Fay shoots and kills Finn but Tommy takes the rap for her. He returns to prison where he's tried and convicted and sentenced to death. He goes to the electric chair knowing that he was ultimately a stand-up guy who kept his word to the warden who always treated him fairly.

20,000 YEARS is a rock solid template for almost every prison picture that followed. All of the genre tropes are here including a bravura escape attempt set piece that's well staged. At this stage in their respective careers, Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis had both yet to become SPENCER TRACY and BETTE DAVIS. They were not yet stars with well developed screen personas but they were both extremely capable actors able to play any role they were assigned. Tracy is very good as is Davis, who appears here during the fifteen minutes of her career when she was actually pretty. Joan Crawford had the same amount of time for onscreen beauty.

Kudos must go to screenwriters Courtney Terrett and Robert Lord who adapted the book by real-life prison warden Lewis E. Lawes. The script is tight and compact and moves swiftly during the 78 minutes of running time. The real standout here is director Michael Curtiz, one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. His filmography is loaded with good to great films including such varied classics as DOCTOR X (1932), THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), DODGE CITY (1939), CASABLANCA (1942), YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954).

Highly recommended.

THE SHADOW: THE SILENT DEATH


First published in April, 1933, THE SILENT DEATH was the 27th Shadow adventure and it's a good one. A mad scientist, Folcroft Urlich, plots to kill a succession of wealthy men by various means, ingenious killing devices that Urlich describes as "silent death". He's foiled by The Shadow in all but one of his attempts, a fiendishly clever death trap that claims two victims. But The Shadow gains valuable information from one of the victims before his final breath, info that leads the crime fighter to Urlich's hidden laboratory on Long Island.

Urlich's redoubt is a fantastic, pyramidal type structure, with the three levels rounded rather than angular. Within the fortress is a laboratory and a sunken pit which houses a gigantic device that has the capability of electrocuting everyone within the building and those without inside a prescribed perimeter. A mad scientist! A fantastic laboratory! An immense death machine! These are the elements that make pulp fiction so much fun.

The edition I read (finished it last night) was published in March1978. Once again, artist extraordinaire Jim Steranko does the honors on the cover art and this time, the image is not entirely inaccurate. There is a giant test tube of death in the story, two of them in fact, but rather than containing a damsel in distress, the tubes imprison two of The Shadow's agents: Clyde Burke and Cliff Marsland. But hey, Steranko's image captures the spirit if not the letter of the yarn and that's fine by me.

This one's a winner!



Sunday, February 5, 2017

PHANTOM LADY


Gorgeous cover art by Adam Hughes graces this slim trade paperback from 1994 that reprints seven vintage Phantom Lady comics stories from the Golden Age. The stories are all credited to "Gregory Page" and all feature wonderful artwork by Matt Baker.

Phantom Lady starred in her own title in the late 1940s and also appeared in ALL TOP COMICS. She was a shapely crime fighter with no super powers. Instead, she battled evil in a skimpy outfit using her trusty "black light" projector, a flashlight like device that instead of emitting regular, white light, gave off rays of utter blackness. In real life, Phantom Lady was actually Sandra Knight, daughter of a United States Senator. Her boyfriend was Don Borden, a square jawed but clueless young chap who could not discern that his girlfriend and Phantom Lady were one and the same, despite that fact that PL did not wear a mask or try to change her appearance in any way.

In these ten pagers, Phantom Lady sports her classic red and blue outfit. She later changed to a yellow and green get-up. When the rights to Phantom Lady were acquired by DC Comics in the early 1970s, she became a member of The Freedom Fighters, a team of Golden Age super heroes who lived on an earth where the Nazis won WWII.

These stories aren't masterpieces but they're all good, breezy fun with really solid artwork by the great Matt Baker.


BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE


Watching the 182 minute long extended cut of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), is a bit like going into a Whataburger and ordering a triple meat burger with bacon and cheese, a large order of fries, a giant size Dr. Pepper and a large chocolate shake for the road. At first, all that food looks and sounds really, really good but about halfway through your meal, you realize that it is entirely too much food for one human being. You neither want nor like what you're consuming.

I never saw this one in the theater last year because, as regular reader will recall, I no longer see movies in the theater. But when I ran across a Blu-ray edition of BVS at Half Price Books the other day, I decided I'd go for it.

I watched it this afternoon and the extended version is a real butt numb-er. It goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on. I don't know how it compares to the theatrical release so I can't say if it's an improvement or not. But if this 3 hour plus behemoth is better in any way, it's still one hot mess of a movie.

I won't reiterate the plot here because I'm sure most of you have already seen it but I will comment on a few things that bothered me. Only a few? And, to be fair, some stuff I liked.

Jimmy Olsen is a CIA agent? WTF? But don't worry about this plot point, because he's dead. There goes the Jimmy Olsen spin-off film.

Jeremy Irons is a good Alfred. I've always liked him as an actor and he's good here. Also liked the ultra-modern lakeside Wayne Manor (Manor-ette?) But who was the woman in bed with Bruce and what happened to her? She's clearly there and then she's not and no word is ever said about her.

No problem with Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman. The opening sequence of the film had a 9/11 resonance, reminding us that a real hero runs towards the danger, not away from it.

Hated, hated, hated Jesse Eisenberg as the tourettes afflicted Lex Luthor. What a bunch of crap. An annoying performance by an utterly annoying actor. When, oh when, are filmmakers ever going to get Luthor right?

The Hans Zimmer score was horrendous. Enough with the damn heavenly chorus/chanting choir vocals shit. That musical cliche is used in everything these days and it's terrible. Also hated the way the score changed to an electric guitar rock sound when Wonder Woman finally appeared in her warrior get up.

Liked Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Ditto Diane Lane as Martha Kent.

Poor Holly Hunter as Senator Fisk sounds like her dentures are slipping. Either that or she's had a slight stroke.

Henry Cavill is okay as Superman/Clark Kent. He's physically better than Brandon Routh but nowhere near as good as Christopher Reeve. Hate the muted colors on the suit but dig the long, flowing cape, upon which there should be a yellow "S".

Superman and Batman don't kill. But hey, that ideal got tossed out a few movies back. Between this one and MAN OF STEEL, you have to wonder what the body count caused by both Superman and Batman adds up to, to say nothing of the property damage.

Gotham is just across the bay from Metropolis? When did that happen? And what happened to the Gotham City PD and Commissioner Gordon? There's still a bat signal atop a derelict building in Gotham City. Is this supposed to be GCPD headquarters?

Gal Gadot makes a terrific Wonder Woman. She's one of the best things about the movie. Her upcoming solo film looks promising.

Liked the Bat-armor with it's echoes of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. But how come, after fighting Superman and having the armor seriously damaged and torn, Bruce has time to put on his regular (and cool looking) Batman suit before flying off in the Bat Plane to rescue Martha Kent? Isn't it a race against time to save her life?

Seriously, Superman and Batman quit beating the shit out of each other because their mothers have the same name?

Doomsday was well realized as a CGI special effect but the big showdown between this now Kryptonian monster and the big three was over long and tiresome. Plus, it was hard to tell exactly what was going on in some shots.

What's with the dream sequence Bruce has while waiting for the files to download? The giant Omega letter in the sand and the appearance of what appear to be para-demons hints at Darkseid being the big baddie in the Justice League film.

So Superman is dead. Again. We know how that will turn out so his "death" has little or no meaning here, despite taking up gobs of screen time.

When is Batman going to be shown as the world's greatest detective rather than a lunatic with fancy toys who dresses up like a bat and beats the shit out of bad guys? And Superman is no dummy either. But here, they're both played like tools by Luthor without either one of them giving any real thoughtful analysis to what might be behind all of this confused and confusing chicanery. Violence is the answer here, not brains.

The special effects are impressive but why does so much of the movie have to take place at night and in the rain? This mess is dark enough already.

Bottom line is, I just don't care for this iteration of these two characters. I like Batman alright but this version of Superman sucks. He's way too brooding and emo, conflicted with angst and other psychological bullshit. He's more menace than hero, a flaw which Luthor takes full advantage of. I want to see a happier, sunnier Man of Steel, one who says that he's "a friend" and that he's here to fight for "truth, justice and the American Way" and you believe him.

I really like it when these two characters look like this





 Someday, hopefully, someone will make a movie about these guys.