Friday, May 29, 2015

WORLD WITHOUT END

It's no exaggeration to say that the poster art (by Reynold Brown) pictured above is far and away the single best thing about WORLD WITHOUT END (1956), a soporific science fiction film that I watched this afternoon.

A flight to Mars with a crew of four runs into an unexplained time warp in deep space. Their ship is deposited on an unknown planet which is clearly not Mars. As the crew explores the countryside, they discover that they are on Earth in the far future. It's a world of giant, cave-dwelling spiders, and savage, cyclopean cavemen. Normal humans exist in an underground society where the men are weak and slightly effeminate and all of the women are hot. Smoking hot. It's a neat inversion of the future Earth found in THE TIME MACHINE (1960), where the tame, timid humans lived on the surface and were menaced by the bestial underground living Morlocks.

The men realize that they cannot return to their own time so they try to rally the humans to return to the surface and reestablish their society there where it can grow and thrive. They meet with resistance but eventually win them over. The crew (along with a cute young woman), return to the surface, do battle with the cavemen and defeat them, thus allowing the humans to return to the surface and begin rebuilding civilization.

Leadenly paced, with long passages of nothing but bad, stilted and wooden expository dialogue, WORLD WITHOUT END is a snoozer. I know I nodded off a couple of times. The art direction is decent but the underground sets all have the same geometric designs and tons of mid-century modern furniture. The color cinematography is vivid and lush but director Edward Bernds doesn't use the CinemaScope format to its' full advantage.

Bernds had an interesting career as a director. He helmed many of the Three Stooges two-reelers at Columbia before moving into feature films. His other genre efforts include QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958), RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) and VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961).

The crew of the space ship includes genre veterans Hugh Marlowe and Rod Taylor. Marlowe appeared in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956), both of which are superior to WORLD WITHOUT END. Taylor still has a bit of an Aussie accent here and would of course go on to star in George Pal's masterpiece THE TIME MACHINE (1960).

While watching WORLD I couldn't help but wonder what all involved thought about what they were doing while the film was in production. They had to know the material was pretty dreadful but everyone was drawing a paycheck for their work and for all involved both in front of and behind the camera, that's what really mattered.

WORLD WITHOUT END is worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of 1950s science fiction films. Just don't expect much.
 

AIR FORCE


I remember seeing Howard Hawks's AIR FORCE (1943) during the summer of 1977. It played on the UT campus, back when numerous auditoriums around the forty acres featured regular screenings of classic films. I loved it when I first saw it and I enjoyed watching it again yesterday.

The story focuses on the crew of the Mary-Ann, a B-17 bomber on route (with other bombers) from San Francisco to Honolulu. Hawks takes his time to introduce each crew member and establish their respective personalities. The crew is composed of Harry Carey, Charles Drake, John Ridgely, Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, John Garfield, James Brown and George Tobias. But it's only after the plane is in flight do we learn the date of this fateful voyage: December 7th, 1941.

The plane lands at Pearl Harbor, refuels and takes off for Wake Island, which has also been hit by the Japanese. They barely have time to resupply before they're forced to take off again, this time for Clark Field in Manila. They arrive to find the base under siege and short of planes. They gear up and take to the skies along with a ragtag squadron of fighters. The Mary-Ann suffers major damage and the crew abandons ship, except for the mortally wounded captain and gunner Garfield who somehow manages to land the plane in one piece.

There's a dramatic death-bed scene where the men say their goodbyes to the captain. Then they all decide to rebuild the Mary-Ann, using parts scrounged from other planes. It's a sequence reminiscent of FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX as the men put together a makeshift aircraft. But they succeed, the Mary-Ann once Aggi takes flight and discovers a massive Japanese naval armada. They call in the reinforcements (other bombers and fighters) and lead the successful attack on the Japanese fleet.

AIR FORCE is a terrific piece of wartime propaganda. Made while the war was still being fought, it's an old-fashioned, flag-waving tribute to the men of the United States armed forces in combat around the world. Beautifully shot by James Wong Howe, AIR FORCE features claustrophobic scenes on the plane, convincing model work and a judicious use of stock footage. Hawks focuses on the men and their relationships, how they react under stress and fear. Hawks understood the unique fraternity of men in perilous situations and managed to bring these individuals to vivid life.

Recommended.
 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

APRIL EVIL


I know I read John D. MacDonald's APRIL EVIL (1956) for the first time back in the 1980s. I re-read it recently while recuperating from hernia surgery. It's as good as I remember it.

The plot is basic caper material. A rich old eccentric keeps a million dollars in cash in a vault in his two-story, stone house in the small town of Flamingo, on Florida's gulf coast. A gang of professional crooks, Harry Mullin, Sal, The Ace and Ronnie (the last, a hired killer), come to town to plot the robbery. At the same time, the simmering greed and corruption of the old man's heirs, Dil and Lorena, comes to the surface and they decide to try and con the old man out of his money. And a nosy kid who lives next door to the house the crooks have rented, learns the truth about his new neighbors.

All of the characters are well drawn as is the sense of time and place. My only complaint, and it's a slight one, is that after so much build up, the actual heist is over fairly quickly and so is the book. Still, this is one lean, mean, tough little piece of vintage pulp crime fiction. It would have made a helluva good movie in the 1950s. Recommended.

 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

THE MOONSHINE WAR


I finished reading Elmore Leonard's THE MOONSHINE WAR (1969) the other day. I have a vague memory of reading this one back in the 1980s but I had forgotten enough of the story to make this a brand new reading experience.

Set in 1931, THE MOONSHINE WAR is a transitional novel in Leonard's body of work, falling neatly between his earlier, fine western novels and the rest of his contemporary crime thrillers. Moonshiner Son Martin is sitting on top of a fortune worth of illegal white lightning in the back hills of Kentucky. The booze was distilled by his late father and only Son and his hired hand, Aaron, know the location of the hidden barrels of whiskey.

Along comes federal Prohibition agent Frank Long, a WWI buddy of Son's. Long is looking to find the hidden treasure but Son won't co-operate. Long decides he needs help so he calls in bootlegger and criminal genius Dr. Taulbee. Taulbee brings along his psychotic hired gun Dual Meaders and his young prostitute Miley Mitchell. Taulbee decides Son needs some extra persuasion so he recruits a small army of thugs to put pressure on Son's neighbors, all of whom operate stills of their own. When that fails, the bad guys resort to murder before things come to a (literally) explosive climax.

THE MOONSHINE WAR is a tightly constructed little crime thriller that moves along at a nice pace. The characters are all well drawn, as is the time and place and the dialogue is first rate. It may not be Leonard's best but it's a good one.

There was a movie version of THE MOONSHINE WAR released in 1970. I've never seen the film but the cast includes Alan Alda as Son Martin, Patrick McGoohan as Frank Long, Richard Widmark as Dr. Taulbee and Will Geer as Sheriff Baylor. When I was reading the book, I cast the characters in my mind as follows: Charles Bronson as Son, Dennis Weaver as Frank, Strother Martin as Dr. Taulbee, Bruce Dern as Dual Meaders and Woody Strode as Aaron. 

Recommended.

 

Friday, May 15, 2015

"HE LIVES NOW ONLY IN MY MEMORY"


Haven't had a chance to see the new MAD MAX: FURY ROAD yet but I hope to do so soon. The buzz about it is good and the trailers look awesome. But before I venture off to the local cinema, I thought I'd spend some time this afternoon revisiting an earlier MAX film: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981).

I first saw THE ROAD WARRIOR when it was released in 1981 at the old Highland Mall Twin Cinema. I didn't see the first film, MAD MAX in the theaters when it was released, but I do recall seeing ads for it when it was out. Just never made it to the theater where it was showing (the old Northcross Six, if I recall correctly). I finally saw MAD MAX on either HBO or Cinemax, back when those two movie channels actually showed movies, and was a bit underwhelmed by the film. It was an okay, low budget actioner but I didn't think it was anything spectacular.

THE ROAD WARRIOR, on the other hand, blew me away. I saw it twice at the theater and a couple of more times on home video but I hadn't seen it in at least thirty-four years until this afternoon. It still holds up as one hyper-kinetic, adrenaline fueled piece of filmmaking. And it looks fantastic on Blu-ray. 

I recall describing the film when I first saw it as "Jack Kirby meets VANISHING POINT" (and extra points if you get both of those references). Australian director George Miller tells what is essentially an American Western film set in the future in the Australian outback. A world wide conflict has reduced humanity to warring tribes and oil is one scarce and precious commodity. Max (a very young Mel Gibson), survives on the roads against marauding gangs on motorcycles and vehicles that look like they came from some dark and twisted version of the old cartoon series WACKY RACES. What Max needs is fuel and he finds it in a besieged refinery compound in the middle of nowhere. The people in the compound are constantly harassed by the marauders and yearn to escape with their precious oil to a more civilized (a relative term of course), outpost. Max, who only wants enough gas to get him on down the road, falls in with the group, realizing that he's their only hope of salvation.

Max agrees to drive an 18-wheeled oil tanker out of the compound and thus begins the astonishing, climatic chase across the desert. It's a thirteen minute long set piece of sustained vehicular carnage and edge-of-your-seat thrills which ranks as one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed. And when the chase is over, so is the movie.

I have still never seen the third Mad Max film, BEYOND THUNDERDOME. Maybe I will one of these days. But I can't imagine it's as good as THE ROAD WARRIOR This is stripped down, pedal to the metal action film making at it's finest, an amazingly durable touchstone of '80s science fiction cinema. Highly recommended.

P.S.: There's only one thing that could make this movie better:






 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

THE AGE OF RA


I finished reading THE AGE OF RA by British science fiction author James Lovegrove the other day. It's the third book of his "Godpunk" series that I've read. "Godpunk" is a series in concept only as each novel is a stand alone in which various ancient religions and pantheons play a major part in the narratives. The first of these that I read, AGE OF AZTEC, I loved. It had a pulp fiction/comic book character as the protagonist up against Aztec deities returning to earth. It was fast paced and action packed.

The  second "Godpunk" book I read was AGE OF VOODOO, which was a B horror/action movie on steroids. It started off slow with way too much talk and exposition but kicked into high gear in the second half of the book.

AGE OF RA starts out strong then quickly stalls, never actually managing to get back into first gear for the duration of the book. It's an intriguing premise. The entire world worships various gods of the ancient Egyptian pantheon with countries pledging their allegiance to their respective gods and goddesses. Every nation is tied to a god except for Freegypt, which refuses to worship any of the gods. David Westwynter, a British soldier, finds his way into Freegypt after his squad of paratroopers are ambushed and killed with Westwynter left for dead. In Freegypt he meets a beautiful woman, Zafirah and a mysterious, masked figure known only as The Lightbringer. The Lightbringer has more than one secret up his sleeve but his primary mission is to lead the forces of Freegypt against neighboring nation states in an attempt to topple the stranglehold the gods have on the world. It's a doomed gambit but all is not what it seems.

To say anymore would be to ruin a couple of major plot twists that radically effect the course of events. AGE OF RA is not a bad book. It's a compelling concept that deals with issues of fraternity, faith and belief. There are some well written battle scenes but the book lacks the propulsive narrative drive that AZTEC and VOODOO had. I kept reading but I wasn't turning the pages as quickly as I did with Lovegrove's other books. AGE OF RA is certainly worth reading but if you haven't sampled any of the "Godpunk" novels, start with AGE OF AZTEC like I did. It's the best of the three I've read so far.

You know what would have made AGE OF RA a real winner in my book? An appearance by this lady:


I know, this is a book I'm talking about, not a movie but hey, Ann-Margret is like bacon. She makes everything better.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

ATOMIC TREASURES

Years ago, comic book artist Gil Kane did an in store appearance at a comic book shop in the old Northcross Mall. I don't remember the name of the shop. I really wanted to meet Gil Kane for a second time but his appearance conflicted with my work schedule. I brought some Silver Age issues of THE ATOM (with Kane art) from my collection and left them with the young lady who managed the shop (I believe her name was Sabrina, if I recall correctly). She had Gil Kane sign them (in silver ink no less!) and here they are.

THE ATOM #18 May 1965


 THE ATOM #30 May 1967


THE ATOM #31 July 1967



THE ATOM #36 May 1968




THE ATOM #37 July 1968