Wednesday, September 10, 2014

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT


Let's face it. Quatermass is a dick.

 At least, he is as portrayed by American actor Brian Donlevy in the British science fiction film THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) (released in the U.S as THE CREEPING UNKNOWN).

The first Quatermass adventure was was originally written by Nigel Kneale as a six-part serial that was broadcast on BBC-TV in 1953. The "mini-series" proved to be enormously successful and the material was developed into a film by Val Guest (director/writer) and Richard Landau (writer). The film is an important "first" for two reasons. It's the first science fiction/fantasy/horror film to be produced by the legendary Hammer Studios and thus qualifies as the first official Hammer horror film. It's also the fist in a trilogy of films that include QUATERMASS 2 (1957) (released in the U.S. as ENEMY FROM SPACE (or "Enema From Space" as we referred to it when we were kids)) and QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) (known in the states as FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH). All three films are highly recommended but let's look at the first entry (which I watched again the other day with my movie buddy Kelly Greene) a bit more closely.

Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) is a brilliant scientist who has financed, built and launched his own private rocket ship. The ship, carrying a crew of three men, crash lands back on earth outside of London at the beginning of the film. Emergency crews quickly respond. One spaceman emerges from the ship in a near catatonic state. When Quatermass and others enter the ship, they find no sign of the other two crewmen, only their empty space suits.

It soon develops that the sole survivor has become infected with an alien entity which causes him to consume the life forces of other living things (people, animals, plants) in order to sustain itself. After ingesting a variety of life forms, the space man transforms into a gigantic, one-eyed, multi-tentacled monstrosity which takes up residence inside Westminster Abbey. It's there that the creature is destroyed after which Quatermass strides off into the night determined to build another rocket ship and send men back into space. We see him do this in a brief scene that fades out at the end of the film.

Although he helps save the day, Quatermass is also responsible for putting the citizens of London in jeopardy in the first place. After all, it was his space ship and his crew who encountered the alien. The trouble is, Quatermass treats all of this a minor inconvenience that must be overcome quickly so he can get on with the business of science.

Donlevy's portrayal of the character makes Quatermass come across as rude, brusque, belligerent, impatient, arrogant, and selfish. He's far from likable and not the least bit sympathetic. He's like a dark Reed Richards, a man so obsessed with exploring the unknown that he completely disregards the consequences that may occur as a result of his recklessness. In short, he's a dick.

THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT succeeds despite Donlevy's unsympathetic portrayal of the title character. The story is compelling enough to overcome the decision to have an American actor play a British scientist with a gargantuan ego and immeasurable hubris. The black and white photography is crisp and atmospheric with many scenes shot on location on the streets of London and the surrounding countryside. The special effects are serviceable and there's a real sense of the uncanny at work here. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 8, 2014

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION


I bought this one at Half Price Books on Saturday and read it in one sitting later that afternoon. Gotta admit, I've got mixed feelings about THE SHADOW VOLUME 2: REVOLUTION.

Let's start with the good stuff. Cover art by Alex Ross is always a plus. How many covers has he done for Dynamite over the last few years? Glad to see they're keeping him busy as he is, in my opinion, the best comic book cover artist currently working.

The folks at Dynamite are smart enough to recognize that The Shadow works best when the material is kept as a period piece. The Shadow belongs to the '30s & '40s, not the 21st century. So, kudos there for the '30s setting.

Now comes the not so good. For some reason, it's been decided that the "power to cloud men's minds" that The Shadow employed on the radio program of the same name is an actual, bonafide super power of some sort. It's also a power that The Shadow is capable of losing. I don't like this. Clouding men's minds worked well on the radio, a medium in which the listener's imagination had to fill in the gaps and make the stories come fully alive. Here, The Shadow is like Obi Wan-Kenobi whispering "these aren't the droids you're looking for."

I'm beginning to think that it's an editorial mandate at Dynamite that the interior art in all of their comics be inferior to the cover art. In addition to the work of Alex Ross, this volume has a cover gallery of alternative and variant covers of the six issues reprinted within and the artwork on all of them is uniformly superior to the actual story art.

And we get a mixed bag of stories to boot. The title arc, "Revolution" is a four-parter in which The Shadow finds himself in the middle of the Spanish Civil War where he teams up with no less a historic personage than George Orwell to do battle against the insane El Rey and his vicious, female second-in-command, The Black Sparrow. The script is by Victor Gischler, with art by Aaron Campbell. The story is so-so and the art is serviceable if unspectacular and rather generic.

"Revolution" is book-ended by two done-in-one, stand alone stories, each of which are better than the longer main feature. The first story is again scripted by Victor Gischler with much better art by Jack Herbert. It's the best looking story in the whole package. The final story is another Gischler script with passable art by Giovanni Timpano.

I give this one a B. I love The Shadow and I'm always happy to read new material featuring the character. I love the fact that it retains the '30s milieu of the pulp classics. The covers are all nice but the stuff behind those covers could have been better.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

GOD SAVE THE MARK


After recently reading and thoroughly enjoying two Parker novels by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), I decided to read a book written under Westlake's real name. I've had a paperback copy of GOD SAVE THE MARK (1967) sitting on my shelf for years so I decided to start with that one.

There's a blurb on the cover that reads "Winner of the Mystery Writers of America 'Edgar' Award". I wasn't sure if this referred to the novel itself or to author Westlake. Turns out, the novel did indeed win the Best Novel of the Year Edgar Award in 1968. The other nominees that year were A PARADE OF COCKEYED CREATURES by George Baxt, FLYING FINISH by Dick Francis, LEMON IN THE BASKET by Charlotte Armstrong, ROSEMARY'S BABY by Ira Levin (much more of a horror novel than a mystery) and THE GIFT SHOP by Charlotte Armstrong. I haven't read any of those but I must confess, I found it hard to believe that GOD SAVE THE MARK was chosen as the best novel for that year.

Oh, it's not a bad little book at all. It's the story of one Fred Fitch, a man who is a perpetual mark for any and all con games, large and small. He's been conned so many times that his best friend is Jack Reilly, a detective in the NYPD bunco unit. A legendary conman has been murdered and he's left a small fortune to his nephew, our hero, Fred Fitch. Fred didn't even know he had an Uncle Matt but as soon as he's named the heir of the fortune, a colorful cast of characters start popping up out of the woodwork. They all want to get their hands on Fred's new found gains and Fred desperately tries to stay one step ahead of them and figure out just who is conning who,

It's fast paced, breezy and fun. Fred narrates the tale and he has some great comic asides. If this had been made into a film at the time it was published, I can easily see Jack Lemmon starring as Fred. The trouble is, it's not much of a mystery. It was fairly easy to figure out that all is not what it seems, even if I wasn't exactly sure how it all fit together. I will admit that the solution to the two murders in the story did come as a bit of a surprise. So there's no great detective work and we don't get any insight into the behind-the-scenes art of the con since everything is told from Fred's point of view.

GOD SAVE THE MARK isn't as good as the two Richard Stark/Parker books I've recently read. I've read a couple of other Westlake novels, 361 and THE COMEDY IS FINISHED, both published by Hard Case Crime. Those two are also vastly different from GOD SAVE THE MARK. That was the genius of Westlake/Stark. He could write a variety of types of crime/mystery novels in several different styles and tones. He was very good at what he did and I'm going to continue reading his books (both as Westlake and as Stark).

Saturday, September 6, 2014

16 BLOCKS

I watched 16 BLOCKS (2006) yesterday. It's a serviceable, generic cop action film. Nothing spectacular but it's nicely done.

Bruce Willis stars as a middle-aged, alcoholic New York City police detective. He's got a bad leg, he's burned out and all he wants to do is go home and sleep off his hangover. Instead, he's assigned to escort a prisoner (Mos Def) 16 blocks uptown where a grand jury awaits his testimony. Mos Def is going to drop the dime on a crooked cop (David Morse) and the crooked cop and his crooked buddies don't want that to happen. So they set out to stop Willis from getting his charge to the courthouse. I have to wonder why they'd go to so much conspicuous trouble when they surely could have arranged to have Mos Def killed while he was still in custody at the precinct house.

There's all sorts of vehicular mayhem, gun battles and foot chases throughout New York City as Willis becomes determined to deliver Mos Def safe and sound even though it seems that almost the entire NYPD is against him. Along the way, the two men learn much about each other and develop mutual respect. Does Willis succeed? What do you think?

16 BLOCKS is an action movie leavened with a character study of two men (one a career cop, one a career crook) both in need of redemption. Director Richard Donner keeps things moving at a brisk pace and the location shooting in New York City and Toronto give the film a gritty, realistic urban vibe.

It's not a great film but I enjoyed it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

THE H MAN


I watched THE H MAN (1958) with my buddy Kelly Greene the other day. It's a Japanese science fiction film directed by genre master Ishiro Honda. Known in Japan as BEAUTY AND LIQUID MEN, the film was released in the United States by Columbia as THE H MAN.

The story concerns some sailors who are exposed to atomic radiation following the detonation of a hydrogen bomb. The fallout turns the men into a weirdly glowing green jelly like substance. In short, THE H MAN is the Japanese version of the American film, THE BLOB (1958). The ship bearing the men arrives in Tokyo bay and the H men venture into the city, dissolving various gangsters before finally being put to the torch in the sewers.

THE H MAN is a weird mash up of a standard science fiction thriller with a hard boiled crime film. Much of the action takes place in the police station and at a nightclub (a visually spectacular one, I might add) that is run by gangsters and drug smugglers. There's a pretty young nightclub singer, a nerdy scientist who has figured out the secret of the H men, clueless cops and vicious gangsters.

The trouble is, it takes forever to wade through the crime elements of the plot and get to the H men, who don't make an onscreen appearance until more than thirty minutes into the film. If I had tried to watch this one on television when I was a kid, I would have turned it off before I ever got around to the H men sequence. It would have struck me as boring and talky and hey, where the hell is the monster?

Despite the narrative flaws, THE H MAN  is beautifully shot in color and Toho-Scope (the Japanese version of CinemaScope). Director Honda (who helmed the masterpiece GOJIRA (1954)), made THE H MAN in between THE MYSTERIANS (1957) and VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE (1958). He was a busy man in the late '50s.

I'll give THE H MAN credit for trying to be something different. It's not a bad movie at all and I did enjoy watching it. But it's not as exciting and fun as any of the other Japanese kaiju films. Chalk up THE H MAN as a noble effort and a film worth seeing once if you're a fan of the Japanese cinema of the fantastic.


 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

PARKER


How's this for serendipity? I finished reading FLASHFIRE, a Parker novel by Richard Stark a couple of weeks ago. I loved it and posted a very positive review of the book here on my blog. I mentioned in the post that the novel had been adapted into the film PARKER (2013) and that I would be on the lookout for it.

I  was in Walmart the other day, browsing through a giant bin of Blu-Ray DVDs and what did I find? Yep, you guessed it, PARKER. I bought it and watched it yesterday.

Overall, the film was a fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. Oh, sure, things are changed a bit. There are characters in the film that weren't in the book (including an ancient looking Nick Nolte as Parker's mentor). Nolte, who would have been a not-bad choice to play Parker in a film forty years ago, has a few scenes with star Jason Statham early in the film and then disappears entirely from the rest of the movie.

Jason Statham makes a serviceable Parker. He's big, well-built and tough with rugged good looks. But he's got an accent which Parker doesn't have in the books. He's not my ideal version of Parker. That remains the great Lee Marvin, who played the Parker analogue "Walker" in John Boorman's magnificent POINT BLANK (1967). But since Marvin is long gone, Statham will fill the part nicely for the 21st century.

Jennifer Lopez is an interesting choice to play Leslie, the greedy real estate agent who becomes Parker's partner-in-crime. In the book, Leslie wasn't a Hispanic woman but Lopez does a good job bringing a deft touch of light comedy to the role and she's certainly easy on the eyes.

Parts of the film (scenes and dialogue) are lifted verbatim from the book. The heist at the beginning of the film is staged at the Ohio State Fair and is on a much larger scale than the robbery that opens the book.

Still, the screenplay follows the general gist of the novel fairly well. Characters and scenes are compressed and changed slightly to make everything more connected than it is in the book. And the violence is off the charts. There are several brutal fight scenes and gun battles but that's what we've come to expect from a modern action film.

Director Taylor Hackford does a good job of keeping things moving. PARKER is a gritty crime film that unfortunately bombed at the box office. It was released early in the year which is a traditional dumping ground for films that studios don't have much hope for. The fact that it underperformed at the box office means it's unlikely we'll see another Parker adventure with Statham in the lead. That's a pity because I'd certainly love to see another one.

If you've read FLASHFIRE, you'll enjoy watching PARKER and playing the inevitable book-to-film comparison game. As always, the book is better but if you're a fan of the series, you'll enjoy the film.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

BACKFLASH


Today's short essay topic: describe how you would plan and execute a robbery of a casino ship in the middle of the Hudson river. You've got to get and getaway with over $300,000 in cold, hard cash. Oh, and security measures will not allow any guns to be brought on board. Ready? Go.

That's the  problem facing super thief Parker in BACKFLASH (1999), number 18 in the series of crime novels by Richard  Stark (in reality Donald Westlake). I finished reading this one yesterday evening. It's one of those books where once I got to a certain point in the narrative, I absolutely could not stop reading. I inhaled the last one hundred pages in one sitting and believe me, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.

 The book is divided into three acts. The first focuses on the planning of the heist and the recruitment of the players in the caper. The middle third is the actual execution of the robbery. It's an ingenious plan involving a fake politician and his two bodyguards, an invalid girl in a wheelchair and her chauffeur. The final act is the getaway which, in the tradition of all great caper stories, goes wrong when various outside players decide to cut themselves in for a piece of the action. It's up to Parker to tie up all of these loose ends and as he does so the body count starts mounting.

BACKFLASH is wonderfully entertaining, a fast paced, gritty crime thriller in which we're solidly on the side of the bad guys. We want Parker and his gang to be successful and get away with the money but Stark has to put them through the wringer before it's all over. Highest recommendation.