Sunday, March 22, 2015

THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE


Another Jet Li movie this time around. It's THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (2011), which does much to wipe the bad taste left in my mouth from watching Li's THE ONE (2000). This Chinese fantasia was previously known as IT'S LOVE and MADAME WHITE SNAKE before being released in the U.S, as THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE.

It's a lavish, lush, beautifully shot fantasy/martial arts film that features state-of-the-art CGI effects, great fight scenes, superb wire work, and some very good miniatures. It's essentially a love story in which two snake women (the drop dead gorgeous pair of Eva Huang and Charlene Choi), take human form and mingle with humans. Huang falls in love with a herbalist healer (Raymond Lam) while Choi flirts with Neng Ren (Wen Zhang), an acolyte to the demon hunting monk Abott Fahai (Jet Li). The monk is sworn to destroy all demons no matter when and where they're found and that includes snake women (no matter how luscious they are in human form). This of course leads to much conflict before finally climaxing in an assault on the pagoda where defeated demons are imprisoned and where the snake women must be confined.

Directed by Tony Ching, THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE is a terrific example of the kind of fantasy films that Chinese filmmakers excel at. It's got great action, exotic locations, some moments of humor, fierce martial arts battles, mind boggling special effects, and at it's heart, a tender, moving love story. Highly recommended.

 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I'M CAPTAIN KIRK!!!!!!!


THE ENEMY WITHIN was the fifth episode of the original STAR TREK television series to be broadcast. The date was October 6th, 1966. It's the one where, thanks to a transporter malfunction, Captain Kirk is split into two separate beings, a good Kirk and a bad Kirk. While two Kirks on the Enterprise are trouble enough, there's a landing party on the planet surface who are about to freeze to death thanks to said transporter malfunction. What, Starfleet didn't have shuttle craft at this point in time? Kirk and Spock forgot about them?

At the pre-production meeting, the cast and production crew were sitting around a table at the Desilu/Paramount Studios offices for a read through of the Richard Matheson script. 

What a producer said:

"We've got a tight budget on this week's episode. No guest stars and we'll use the existing planet set. Bill, you get to do double duty. You're playing good Kirk, bad Kirk. We'll need you to really give it some depth when you're playing the bad Kirk. Oh, and by the way, when you're bad Kirk you're going to be wearing eyeliner, just to give you a more sinister look."

What Shatner heard :

"Turn it up to eleven."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

GREEN EYES


I finished reading GREEN EYES by Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson) the other night. The version I read is pictured above. It's the Pyramid paperback published in the early '70s with a terrific cover painting by the great Jim Steranko.

GREEN EYES was originally published on October 1st, 1932. It was the fifteenth Shadow novel and it shows that Gibson was still working out the details of the Shadow mythos. In this one, the murder of a federal agent on a train leads The Shadow and G-Man Cleve Burke to San Francisco's Chinatown to investigate the mysterious secret society Wu Fan. Led by the sinister Ling Soo, the Wu Fan is a front for a criminal operation, whose mastermind, Green Eyes, pulls all of the strings.

Unlike other Shadow adventures, this one takes place almost entirely in San Francisco and none of the Shadow's usual agents and operatives appear. The Chinese villains are straight out of the horribly racist "Yellow Peril" variety that was found in much of the pulp fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century. It's politically incorrect but you have to put this story into context and recognize when it was written.

If you can overlook that, GREEN EYES is a good pulp thriller. There are multiple disguises, secret passageways and gun battles. The Shadow acquits himself as an escape artist to rival Houdini, freeing himself from a fiendish deathtrap before engaging in a fierce, final shootout aboard a Chinese junk anchored in San Francisco Bay.

Recommended for fans of pulp fiction.

 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THRICE TOLD TALES


Now that I no longer buy or read contemporary comic books of any stripe, I have the pleasure of digging through 18 (yes, that's right, 18) long boxes full of comic books. These contain books that I've read and want to read again, books that I've never read but want to and books that I look at and wonder, "where did this come from?" I swear, there are comics in my collection that I have no memory of either buying or trading for and I look at some books and think "what was I thinking?"

The flip side of that, of course, is the thrill of stumbling across a book that I forgot I have. That "I didn't know I had this!" feeling is a good one, let me tell you. I'm in the process of sorting out these long boxes of comics into books I want to read and keep, books I want to read and trade and books I don't want to read but will gladly trade to a fellow comic book collector or sell on eBay. By the way, if you're reading this, collect comic books and would like to trade comics with me, send me an email at clarksavage@att.net and I'll send you my trade list. Always happy to have new comic book trading partners.

The other day I came across a reprint of CRIME SUSPENSTORIES #1 published by EC Comics in 1950. That's the cover by Johnny Craig pictured above. I hadn't read an EC comic in a very long time and I thought I'd treat myself to this one. CRIME SUSPENSTORIES was, as the title says, full of crime stories all of which feature those oh-so-clever twist endings that became an EC trademark. It's a collection of film noir on paper and it's a great comic book title.

This first issue features stories illustrated by Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, Graham Ingels and Harvey Kurtzman. The first story, MURDER MAY BOOMERANG (drawn by Craig) is the story of a young man and his father. The father works hard to support the son and when the son achieves success, the two spend a great deal of spare time together. While on a hunting trip, the father is brutally beaten by an escaped convict while the son is away from their cabin. The son takes the father to find his assailant. They find a man in hunting clothes walking along the road. "That's him!" proclaims the father and the son proceeds to kill the man in an act of revenge. Later, they drive by the police station where another man in hunting clothes is seen. "That's him!" says the father and the son realizes, with horror, what he's done.

It's a terrific little tale but it seemed familiar to me. I recall seeing an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS  a few years ago that had an extremely similar premise. Some research confirmed what I recalled. The very first episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS to be broadcast was REVENGE, which aired October 2nd, 1955. The episode was directed by Hitchcock and starred Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles. In the story, Miles is a stay-at-home wife who is assaulted and raped one day while her husband Meeker is at work. Enraged, Meeker puts Miles in the car and starts driving around the neighborhood trying to find his wife's assailant. She identifies a man, Meeker kills him and they drive on. Then Miles points to another man and says, "That's him!"

The teleplay was written by Francis Cockrell from a story by Samuel Blas. Blas, it turns out, published his original story, REVENGE in COLLIER'S WEEKLY for January 11th, 1947. So, rather than Hitchcock stealing from EC as it originally appeared to me, EC may have "borrowed" from Blas as his story was published three years prior to the first issue of CRIME SUSPENSTORIES.

I'd love to hear from readers who know more about EC Comics than I do. Did the writer (Kurtzman, Feldman?) of MURDER MAY BOOMERANG, ever admit to swiping the story? Was it just a coincidence, an innocent case of lightning striking twice or was it something more intentional? Was Blas ever aware of the comic book story? And if so, what was his response to it?

I don't have the answers but I'm curious to find out. Readers, can you help?

 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

THE ONE

If one Jet Li is good, then two of  'em must be dynamite, right? That's probably what the producers of THE ONE (2001) must have thought when putting together this mess of a B movie that's part martial arts slug fest, part science fiction thriller.

Unfortunately, it's neither a decent martial arts movie, nor a good science fiction film. Jet Li stars in a dual role, one character good, the other bad. Geez, that old trope again? The twist is that there are actually 125 different iterations of Jet Li in the multiverse, an infinity of parallel universes. Only 125 versions of one guy in a literal infinity of universes? Seems kind of limited to me.

The bad Jet Li has discovered a way to travel from universe to universe. Within in each respective universe, he finds and kills the Jet Li of that universe. With each succeeding death, the bad Jet Li grows stronger. He's killed 123 other Jet Li's (the last one being in a universe where Al Gore was elected president). Now, he's in our universe and he's out to kill our good guy version of Jet Li, who is a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.

Hot in pursuit of the bad Jet Li are two multiverse patrolling cops (Jason Statham and Delroy Lindo), who are trying to apprehend him and banish him to a remote, hellish prison planet in yet another universe.

Of course, the two Jet Li's meet and fight repeatedly, finally squaring off in a knock down, drag out fight in a seemingly abandoned power plant. The digital effects are seamlessly done allowing two identical (except for their clothes) Jet Li's to appear in the same scenes and battle one another.

All of this is accented by an absolutely dreadful musical score by Trevor Rabin. Every time an action scene is about to begin, the soundtrack suddenly starts blaring really bad heavy metal rock and roll. It's as tired an audio cliche (the eighties called, they want their crappy music back) as the whole idea of good guy/bad guy twins.

The special effects are good. You never spot any seams in scenes where both Jet Li's appear together. But the trouble is, two Jet Li's just aren't as good as one Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. Give me the good old stuff any day over this claptrap.

Thumbs down.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

AGE OF VOODOO


In 1978, Warren Publications launched 1984 (later entitled 1994), a black-and-white science fiction comic magazine that ran for 29 issues. One of the recurring series in the magazine was REX HAVOC AND THE ASS-KICKERS OF THE FANTASTIC. There were only four REX stories published but I fondly recall the humorous and outrageous adventures of Rex and his band as they fought various monsters around the world.

I thought of REX HAVOC often while I read AGE OF VOODOO (2013) by British SF author James Lovegrove. The story features a team of Navy Seals dubbed Team Thirteen, a group of five people (four men, one woman) who are assigned to eradicate monsters of all kinds across the globe. In VOODOO, they're joined by Lex Dove, a retired assassin who spent years killing people on behalf of the British government. It will take everything Team Thirteen, Dove and his friends Wilberforce and voodoo expert Albertine can muster to defeat the plans of a mad scientist and an insane voodoo priest.

The evil duo have taken up residence on Anger Reef, a flyspeck of an island in the Caribbean, where the two men conduct experiments to create super soldiers using a combination of science and sorcery. The results are an army of zombies (well, not really an army, more like a platoon, or a squad but really, isn't it cooler to say "army of zombies"?) . Oh, and buried deep beneath Anger Reef is a nuclear warhead, a cold war relic that the mad priest plans to detonate in an attempt to defy God.

AGE OF VOODOO is a B horror movie on paper. It's James Bond meets Stephen King and as such is highly entertaining. I have a couple of beefs however. The entire first half of the book is all set-up with lots and lots of "info dumps". There's dollops of action here and there but the players don't reach Anger Reef and kick things into high gear until well after the half way mark of the book. And in keeping with the grand tradition of James Bond inspired stories, Dove is of course eventually captured by the bad guys who proceed not to kill him but to explain their plans in great detail. Finally, there are tons of typos in the text, something a good copy editor could have caught and fixed. Do they still have copy editors?

AGE OF VOODOO is one of Lovegrove's GODPUNK series of SF novels. The books are stand alone adventures which each feature some kind of religion or pantheon of ancient gods. I read AGE OF AZTEC a year or so back and loved it. VOODOO isn't as good as AZTEC. It takes a long time to get going but once it does, it's a non-stop thrill ride to the finish. Thumbs up.

 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE


I'm a bit punch drunk myself after watching PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002) the other day. It's an odd, weird film that I neither loved nor hated. It claims to be a "romantic comedy" but it's the kind of romantic comedy that you would find in the movie houses on Bizarro World.

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film has tons of visual style to spare thanks to some stunning cinematography by Robert Elswit.  Many scenes are shot against stark, harshly lit white backgrounds which accentuate the isolation and broken mental state of Barry (Adam Sandler) a disturbed young man who owns a company that markets themed toilet plungers. He wears the same blue suit and red tie (a wardrobe borrowed from Clark Kent) throughout the film. Barry is given to sudden bursts of anger and while he's basically a nice guy, he's also a bubble or two off of plumb.

The story begins in a weirdly unpopulated section of Los Angeles. Early one morning, Barry witnesses a car accident outside of his warehouse office, followed by a taxi cab pulling up to the curb to allow an unseen passenger to deposit a broken portable stand up organ on the sidewalk. The car accident is never explained or referred to again. The organ, of course, will figure through out the course of the film.

Barry, lonely, frustrated and seeking professional help of some kind, turns to a phone sex outfit for release. He paces back and forth in his barely furnished apartment, talking on the phone to a woman with a sexy voice and dirty talk. Anderson keeps his camera moving constantly around the cramped space of the apartment during the conversation. More than once, he frames a scene so Barry is on the extreme right edge of the frame, then, Anderson will move the camera within the scene to place Barry at the extreme left side of the frame. These unsettling camera movements reflect Barry's off kilter mental state as he talks to the woman.

The next day, the phone sex woman calls Barry back trying to shake him down for money. He goes to work where he meets one of his sisters, Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and her friend, Lena (Emily Watson). The phone sex woman keeps calling while Barry, Lena and Elizabeth try to have a conversation. All of this is underscored by a discordant musical score by Jon Brion that's full of odd wheezes, grunts, sighs and thumps. The music sounds like it's coming from a broken down calliope operated by a monkey on crack. It's bizarre and off putting and it makes us feel as uncomfortable as Barry is while he juggles two escalating situations at once.

Lena and Barry finally connect in an stop and go manner while Barry is menaced by Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the man behind the phone sex operation that he runs out of the back of a mattress store in Utah.

Adam Sandler acquits himself well as a serious actor as Barry. His performance here is very good. Emily Watson is adorable as Lena but you have to wonder how broken this woman must be to find solace in someone like Barry. Maybe that's the point, that these two people, now matter how psychologically damaged they might be, find a kindred spirit in each other, someone who understands, who is willing to love them and through loving offer redemption and hope.

PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE is different, offbeat and not altogether successful. There are moments of humor and things end on a note of tentative happiness but you have to wonder about the long term chances of success at a relationship between these two characters. As I said, I didn't love it and I didn't hate it. It's admirable in its' audacity and I found it a compelling, interesting film that's worth seeing at least once.