Friday, February 12, 2016

SPACEBALLS


Producer, writer and director Mel Brooks never met a film genre he couldn't parody. Beginning with the groundbreaking and, you'll forgive the expression, "trail blazing" BLAZING SADDLES in 1974, Brooks delivered a series of films each aimed at a specific type of movie. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) was a loving and hilarious homage to the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s, SILENT MOVIE (1976), was, what else, a delightful spoof of silent films (only one word is spoken in the entire film), HIGH ANXIETY (1977) lampoons most of the Alfred Hitchcock filmography while HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (1981) was a send up of various historical epics.

And then there was SPACEBALLS (1987), which riffed on George Lucas's STAR WARS films with potshots at such other durable cinematic science fiction franchises as STAR TREK, ALIEN and PLANET OF THE APES.

The trouble is, subtle is not a word to be found in Mel Brooks's vocabulary. SPACEBALLS is the kind of film where, when someone gives an order to "comb the desert", you just know that the next scene will be of men armed with giant black plastic combs (including one for "Afro" hair styles) literally coming the sands. It's not a question of seeing the gags coming in this film. You see them coming all right. You also see them slow down and signal for a turn. Oh, and that "jamming the radar" bit? It was funnier the first time in AIRPLANE! (1980).

Still, SPACEBALLS does have it's moments. Brooks breaks the fourth wall several times, indulges in a self-referential scene in which all of his previous films just happen to be on hand (on VHS cassette tapes no less!), and he savages the endless stream of tie-in merchandising that every blockbuster film engenders. Ethnic jokes and sight gags abound, along with potty humor and spit takes. Oh, yes, spit takes.

Brooks plays a dual role as President Skroob and "Yogurt", the ancient, wizened alien wise man. Think "Yogurt" is funny? You'll love "Pizza the Hutt". Yeah, it's that sophisticated.

Maybe if I had seen this in the theater with an audience when it first came out I would have laughed more. After all,laughter is contagious. Instead, I watched it on DVD by myself last week and found only chuckled a couple of times. It's nowhere near as funny as either BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (in my mind Brooks' s best films), but you have to give him credit for trying.

If you enjoyed the movie parodies drawn by Mort Drucker in old issues of MAD Magazine, you'll enjoy SPACEBALLS. The gags are hit and miss but they never stop coming.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

ASK NOT


Just finished reading ASK NOT (2013) by Max Allan Collins this afternoon. Who cares about watching the Super Bowl when you've got a can't-put-it-down thriller like this one in your hands?

ASK NOT is the fifteenth entry in Collins's Nathan Heller series. Heller is a fictional private detective who, over the course of his career (which began in the 1930s), finds himself involved in some of the most famous crimes and unsolved mysteries of the 20th century. Think of the Heller books as The History Channel meets film noir as Collins combines fictional characters with painstaking research to present a fascinating "secret history" of America.

The Heller books began with TRUE DETECTIVE in 1983 and are still going strong (as is Heller). I haven't read all of these books but I have read (and highly recommend) the following: TRUE DETECTIVE (1983), TRUE CRIME (1984), THE MILLION DOLLAR WOUND (1986), BLOOD AND THUNDER (1995), FLYING BLIND (1998), MAJIC MAN (1999), CHICAGO CONFIDENTIAL (2002) and BYE, BYE BABY (2011).

 As the title and cover art indicate, ASK NOT is about the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963. The story begins with a Beatles concert in Chicago which Heller and his teenage son Sam attend. After the show, Nate and Sam are almost run down by a car driven by a vaguely familiar Cuban. Before you know it, Heller is in Dallas investigating a series of mysterious "suicides"of various people with ties to President Lyndon Johnson. It appears that one Mac Wallace is acting as a hit man for LBJ. Wallace (a real character) has a back story that involves a 1950s shooting at Austin's famous Butler Park Pitch and Putt golf course. Heller temporarily puts the kibosh on Wallace (don't worry, we're not done with this psycho) and begins helping his columnist friend (and sometime lover) Flo Kilgore investigate another series of mysterious deaths involving witnesses to the Kennedy assassination. Heller and Flo meet a veritable who's who of Kennedy assassination players from the girls at Jack Ruby's Carousel Club to Ruby himself (in a Dallas jail). When Flo dies under mysterious circumstances, Heller fears he may be another loose end in need of tying off. He journeys to New Orleans, meets uber freak David Ferrie, encounters Wallace again, talks to Louisiana crime kingpin Carlos Marcello and ends with a brief conversation with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

ASK NOT, though a work of fiction, makes a compelling case for a conspiracy to kill Kennedy involving the mob, Cuban exiles, the CIA and a cabal comprised of LBJ and Texas oil men (and their money). It's all extremely plausible and highly entertaining. Even though much of the book is composed of Heller and and Kilgore interviewing various witnesses, Collins keeps things moving at a good clip. Heller, as usual, finds time to bed a lovely stripper (excuse me, exotic dancer) named Jada and also as always, Collins plays close attention to a multitude of period details, all of which give the Heller books a "you-are-there" sense of verisimilitude.

It's fair to say that hundreds of books have been written about the Kennedy assassination in the fifty plus years since the event took place. And it's safe to say that more will certainly be forthcoming. It's a subject that is endlessly fascinating and it's one about which we'll probably never have the definitive once-and-for-all "truth." Even though it's fiction, ASK NOT, is worthy to stand on the shelf alongside the best of the Kennedy assassination books.

Highly recommended.




Sunday, January 31, 2016

ANDY AND DON


I don't recall if I've mentioned it here before (I probably have), but THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW (1960-1968) is my all-time favorite television series. I have many GRIFFITH items in the ol' man cave to reflect. Tin signs. Signed and framed b&w stills. A table tent card for a show at Caesars Palace starring Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Jerry Van Dyke. I've taught Sunday School lessons based on episodes of the show. I have Seasons 2-5 on DVD.  I still need to get Season 1. There's an ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW TRIVIA GAME on the shelf beneath my television. I have THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET, GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, THE LOVE GOD? and A FACE IN THE CROWD on DVD. Heck, I even had a bonafide 1963 Ford Galaxie 500 customized to look like the Mayberry Sheriff's car once. But that's another story. A long one.

And of course I have books.

Lots of books.

 Here's what's currently on the Mayberry shelf in my library: BOUND FOR THE PROMISED LAND by Andy Griffith, I'M PROUD TO CALL YOU MY FRIEND: A COLLECTION OF SPECIAL MOMENTS OF FRIENDSHIP FROM THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, ACT LIKE SOMEBODY: SPECIAL MOMENTS OF PARENTING FROM THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, AUNT BEE'S MEALTIME IN MAYBERRY: RECIPES AND MEMORIES FROM AMERICA'S FRIENDLIEST TOWN by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, BARNEY FIFE'S GUIDE TO LIFE, LOVE AND SELF-DEFENSE by Len and John Oszustowicz, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW by Richard Kelly, THE WAY BACK TO MAYBERRY: LESSONS FROM A SIMPLER TIME by Joey Fann, MAYBERRY 101: BEHIND THE SCENES OF A TV CLASSIC by Neal Brower, BARNEY FIFE AND OTHER CHARACTERS I HAVE KNOWN by Don Knotts, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW BOOK by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, THE DEFINITIVE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW REFERENCE: EPISODE-BY-EPISODE, WITH CAST AND PRODUCTION BIOGRAPHIES AND A GUIDE TO COLLECTIBLES by Dale Robinson and David Frenandes, MAYBERRY MEMORIES: THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW PHOTO ALBUM by Ken Beck and Jim Clark, THE INCREDIBLE MR. DON KNOTTS: AN EYE-POPPING LOOK AT HIS MOVIES by Stephen Cox and Kevin Marhanka, and THE OFFICIAL ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW SCRAPBOOK by Lee Pfeiffer.

That's a lot of information on the show and the two men who made it a classic, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts. I'm proud to add another volume to the Mayberry shelf, ANDY AND DON: THE MAKING OF A FRIENDSHIP AND A CLASSIC AMERICAN TV SHOW by Daniel de Vise. My beloved wife Judy (who loves the show as much as I do), gave me this terrific book this past Christmas. I recently finished reading it and I'm here to tell you, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's a dual biography of both Griffith and Knotts, covering their entire lives and careers. The men were truly best friends and while each did outstanding work on their own, they were both at their absolute best when they were working together. They had many things in common off screen. Both came from small towns in the East. Both had unique obstacles to overcome in their childhoods. Knotts suffered from a variety of ailments both real and imagined his entire life while Griffith was prone to sometimes violent outbursts of temper. Both men had extra-marital affairs. Griffith had an off screen fling with co-star Aneta Corseaut (Helen Crump). Both were married three times with both marrying much younger women as their third and final wives. Knotts had a lucrative film career post THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW while Griffith could never get traction, starring in a series of failed television series and one-shot movies of the week. But he came into his own with MATLOCK, a series that enabled him to hire many of his old Mayberry co-stars, including Knotts.

Author de Vise has a unique perspective on one of his subjects. His wife's sister is Don Knotts' third wife, making him Knotts' brother-in-law. Unfortunately, de Vise didn't begin this project until both Griffith and Knotts had passed but he does a remarkable job of assembling their stories using previously published material and sources.

What comes across in ANDY AND DON is the deep and abiding love these two men had for each other. And that affection clearly shows in everything they ever did together. Andy Griffith and Don Knotts were only human. They had their faults and foibles like all of us. They weren't perfect.

But they created two characters that embody our better selves. Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife are immortals thanks to the love, talent and devotion of these two men. Thanks to Daniel de Vise for telling this story so well.

And thanks to Andy and Don.

I love you guys.



Saturday, January 30, 2016

BREAKOUT


Here's a cool idea for a mid '70s action flick. Take an innocent American man, frame him for murder and toss him into a Mexican prison with no hope of escape. The only way to get him out is via a helicopter landing in the prison yard. Cool, huh? You know what's even cooler? Having Charles Bronson fly the helicopter.

That's the sum-it-up-in-one synopsis of BREAKOUT (1975), a Charles Bronson action movie that I watched again yesterday for the first time in forty years. I remember seeing this one at the old Aquarius Theaters 4 on Pleasant Valley Road in Austin when I was in college. Heck, back in the '70s, if there was a new Chuck Bronson movie playing at any theater in town, I was usually there on opening night. Bronson ranks second (behind Clint Eastwood), as my favorite action film star of the 1970s (although his career started in the '50s and ran into the '80s). Bronson was in his box office prime in the 1970s. Previously, he had distinguished himself in several classic ensemble cast films: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) and THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and he had a star making performance in Sergio Leone's masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST(1968).

But the thing about BREAKOUT is that, appearances to the contrary, it's not a typical Bronson action film. The action is minimal, there's an almost comedic air in some scenes and Bronson, though the hero of the piece through and through, isn't some invincible, bad-ass superman. Instead, he's a good ol'boy Texas bush pilot who undertakes the dicey proposition of busting Robert Duvall out of a Mexican prison for one reason alone: money. Oh, and let's not forget that Duvall's wife, the beautiful Jill Ireland (who was Mrs. Charles Bronson at the time) adds a little something to the deal. But, the screenplay by Eliot Asinof and Elliott Baker, constantly subverts our expectations. You keep expecting Bronson and Ireland to get it on while hubby's behind bars, but they never so much as kiss.

BREAKOUT is what you see, what you get. There's no subtext here. It's just straight narrative and it's a pretty thin one at that. For instance, Duvall is framed  for murder by his business man grandfather (John Huston) at the beginning of the film but damned if I could ever figure out why it was so important to throw his ass into a Mexican prison. Oh and John Huston? He's in a total of three scenes (none of them with Bronson). It's apparent he shot all of his stuff in one day, tops. I wonder if the producers (Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler) couldn't afford him for a longer period of time or if Huston's health or other projects limited his availability.

Bronson attempts to free Duvall several times, all to no avail, before hitting on the helicopter scheme. One botched plan involves his partner, Hawk (a very young and skinny Randy Quaid), in drag. Quaid gets beaten up by jailers for his troubles. Bronson eventually persuades his old girlfriend, Myrna (Sheree North), to help with the helicopter caper. As part of this plan, we're treated to a scene in a Mexican motel room with Bronson and North wherein North strips down to a black lace bra, black lace panties, black garter belt and black stockings. This doesn't exactly advance the plot but it's sure fun to watch the lovely Ms. North disrobe. The trouble with the helicopter rescue is that Bronson, while adept with an airplane, can barely fly a chopper, which adds to the suspense and excitement of the rescue.

The most memorable scene in the film, which I vividly recall from forty years ago, is bad guy Paul (ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964)) Mantee getting cut in half by the propellers of a plane during a nighttime fist fight with Bronson on a runway. It's quick and effective and elicited quite a response from the audience back in '75.

Set in Texas and Mexico, BREAKOUT was actually filmed in Spain and France. Lucien Ballard's cinematography is crisp and sharp and the score by Jerry Goldsmith is serviceable. In the opening scene, I swear Goldsmith uses a little clacking castanet riff that he would later recycle as part of the Klingon war bird motif in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979).

BREAKDOWN is far from a great movie. It's also far from Bronson's best film but I don't care. I like Bronson and I enjoyed spending 96 minutes with him again.


Friday, January 29, 2016

HARLAN ELLISON'S 7 AGAINST CHAOS


Any new work by Harlan Ellison is cause for joy here in the ol' man cave. Ellison is not only my all-time favorite science fiction writer (a pigeon-holing he detests), but one of my all-time favorite writers, period. I must confess that it was through his science fiction writing that I first discovered his work (and there's a longer piece coming about that experience) so that's how I thought of him at first. He is, of course, much, much more than a mere sf writer.

That said, his latest project, HARLAN ELLISON'S 7 AGAINST CHAOS (DC Comics, 2013) is an original graphic novel (beautifully illustrated by Paul Chadwick) that is pure, mind-bending science fiction. I was aware of this book back when it was first published but it never crossed my path. I knew it was out there but I didn't make an attempt to seek it out. Too many other things to read, doncha know? When I stumbled across a brand new condition copy recently at Half Price Books, I snatched it up immediately.

I sat down and read it today and boy, it's a doozy. To call this a science fiction version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, is to not do justice to either this magnificent work or the legendary film. Yes, there are seven heroes at work here but their personalities, milieu and mission are vastly different than anything I've ever encountered in film or fiction before.

A mysterious robed man seeks out various individuals during the first part of the story. These include Urr, the renegade robot, Mourna, the seven-foot Amazon with claws for hands, Tantalus, the insect-man, Ayleen, Venusian noblewoman whose fire power threatens to consume her, Hoorn, the cat burglar with no face and Kenrus, the disgraced technologist who's as paranoid as he is brilliant.

Once all of these players have been assembled, the robed man reveals himself to be Roark, a military leader thought to be dead. Roark tells his team of a dire threat to reality itself, a threat that only these seven can hope to overcome. Doing so involves traveling through a black hole back to a primordial earth where they confront Erissa, a lizard king with plans to reset the timeline so that reptiles become the dominant species rather than mammals. But the possibility exists to create two timelines, one for reptiles, one for mammals. I won't spoil the ending except to say that it's a classic "lady or the tiger?" situation.

There's more here, much more but I'll leave it to you to discover the various quotidian pleasures to be enjoyed within these pages. Ellison does a good job with both believable, sympathetic characters and high concepts involving space, time and reality. Chadwick's art is uniformly good throughout and there are some pages in which he appears to be channeling the spirit of the great Jack Kirby.

Ellison name drops "Kersh" at one point, perhaps a reference to the late Gerald Kersh, a writer Ellison in known to hold in high esteem. And there's a nifty little shout out to something called the "Carlson's jangle paradox", a sly reference to George Carlson's golden age comic book series JINGLE JANGLE COMICS, which Ellison has sung the praises of many times.

If you want an original graphic novel by one of the greatest American writers of both the 20th and 21st centuries, if you want terrific artwork and storytelling, if you want a science fiction adventure on a grand scale, do yourself a favor and get a copy of HARLAN ELLISON'S 7 AGAINST CHAOS. Oh, and set aside a pretty good chunk of time to read it. You'll want to savor this one.

Highest recommendation.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

ENEMY AT THE GATES


The Battle of Stalingrad, in which the German army besieged the vital Russian river port city lasted from August, 1942 to February 1943. It is widely regarded as the single longest and bloodiest battle in the history of  not just WWII, but all warfare. The battle took an enormous casualty count. The Germans lost 850,000 (killed, wounded or captured) while the Russians suffered over one million killed, wounded or missing. The fighting was incredibly fierce with most of it taking place within the city of Stalingrad itself. Almost every able bodied young Russian man was pressed into military service along with some Russian women. Russian soldiers, only half of them armed, were commanded to charge German lines under deadly fire. If any Russians retreated, they were shot by their own men. Commanding officers who led these failed charges were shot, either by firing squad or their own hand. It was literally hell on earth. But as costly as the fight was for both sides, the Russians eventually won, a victory which turned the tide of the war in Europe.

That's a pretty large canvas on which to paint a major motion picture. Writer/director Jean-Jacques does a good job of narrowing the focus of the battle down to a mere handful of people in ENEMY AT THE GATES (2001), a very good war film that I watched for the first time the other day. It's always a treat to see a WWII film that focuses on some other  aspect of the war rather than Americans or British against the Germans or Japanese. Other films in this category include Sam Peckinpah's CROSS OF IRON (1977) , Wolfgang Petersen's masterpiece DAS BOOT (1981) and Clint Eastwood's LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006).

Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), is one of those young Russian men thrown into the maelstrom of Stalingrad. He's an expert marksman and distinguishes himself as a sniper by killing several German officers on his first day in combat. This feat is witnessed by Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), a propaganda officer who recognizes the value in promoting Vasily as a bonafide Russian hero.

Under the command of Nikita Khrushchev (Bob Hoskins), Vasily begins toting up an impressive number of kills, all of which are publicized by Danilov. The German high command wants none of this. They send in Major Erwin Konig (Ed Harris), their own master sniper, to take out Vasily.

Thus begins a tense game of cat and mouse enacted amid the total devastation of Stalingrad. There's a woman (of course), a plucky Russian named Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz), whom both Danilov and Vasily are in love with. Tania only has eyes for Vasily though as does young Sasha (Gabriel Thomson), a resourceful Russian boy who appears to sell out to the Germans only to be revealed as a double agent.

Annaud begins his film much like Steven Spielberg did SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), by throwing both characters and audience immediately into the swirling chaos of combat. The cinematography by Robert Fraisse paints everything in somber shades of gray. There's very little sunlight in this film, even in scenes set in daytime. The action scenes are well staged and the effects (both practical and CGI) are used to good effect. James Horner's score is good but I swear I heard echoes of his work on STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) in the short trumpet trill heard throughout the movie.

Of course all of the actors speak English rather than Russian or German. Some of them even speak English with a British accent. That's a minor quibble but I always like it when other languages are spoken in WWII films and subtitles are utilized. ENEMY AT THE GATES is a sobering look at the price of heroism during a time when an entire city had no choice but to stand up and fight or be totally destroyed. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 22, 2016

THE CURRENTS OF SPACE


I finished reading THE CURRENTS OF SPACE (1952) by Isaac Asimov the other day. As the cover blurb from the New York Times says it's "a merry tangle of interplanetary politics." Couldn't have said it better myself.

Asimov's tale is part spy novel, part mystery. Rik, a Spatio-Analyst, discovers something dire that spells doom for the planet Florinia. But before he can reveal his findings, he's captured and psycho-probed, erasing his memory. Cut to one year later. Rik, now a worker in the kyrt mill begins to slowly recover his memory. The more he remembers, the more of a threat he is to the powers that be. Thus begins an extended chase as Rik, his woman friend Lona and Townman Terens go on the run to remain one step ahead of the authorities while Rik's memories keep returning.

About that kyrt mill. Kyrt is a substance grown only on Florinia. It is used, like cotton, for clothing, but it has a variety of other uses. Since it's only grown on one planet, it has enormous value to the galaxy at large (ala spice in Frank Herbert's DUNE) and especially to the planet Sark which rules Florinia. The Squires of Sark want to maintain control over the planet and the kyrt trade but the galactic Trantor empire is aware of what's going on between the planets and  becomes involved in diplomatic negotiations.

Everything comes to a somewhat rushed and abrupt end. We find out Rik's secret and the identity of the person who psycho-probed him but it's not an entirely satisfying ending as some characters are simply abandoned from the narrative and things are wrapped up rather too neatly.

CURRENTS OF SPACE is the third Asimov novel I've read in the last couple of years along with THE END OF ETERNITY and THE NAKED SUN. I found all three books readable and enjoyable but I must be honest here and risk blasphemy, I don't think Asimov was that great a writer. He was far from incompetent and he does spin a good yarn but I have yet to come away from one of his books thinking "Wow! That was great!". Of course, CURRENTS was written more than 60 years ago, fairly early in Asimov's writing career. I know he's widely considered one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time but in my opinion he's good but not great. Still, CURRENTS OF SPACE is well worth reading if you're a science fiction fan. Hell, if you're reading this and you're a science fiction fan, you've probably already read it.