Thursday, January 22, 2015

"I SAID NOTHING"


PERSUADER (2003), the seventh Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child, opens with a bang, a dare-you-to-stop-reading scene involving an attempted kidnapping and gun battle that finds Reacher (all 6 foot, 5 inches, 250 pounds of him) rescuing the would-be-kidnap-victim (a crime lord's son), killing a cop and fleeing with the young man in tow.

But it's a sequence worthy of the best MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE episode you've ever seen as all is not what it seems.It's all part of an elaborate ruse designed to get Reacher within the fortress-like home of Beck, a rug merchant who is secretly an international arms dealer. Beck's boss is Quinn, a figure from Reacher's past. And for Reacher, this one's personal.

Reacher finds himself a prisoner in the house, a heavily guarded structure situated on the rocky, windswept Maine coast. But no prison can hold Reacher for long. He escapes to gather information and kill some bad guys, then returns to get closer to Beck and finally Quinn himself in an explosive showdown.

There's plenty of mayhem and violence here including several fights involving guns and fists. The plot moves swiftly and surely with flashback scenes skillfully inserted into the present day narrative. Reacher is really up against some tough characters in this one but you know he's going to win. And the scene in which Reacher enters a roomful of villains with a Persuader model shot gun in each hand and quips "remember me?" to the main villain is right out of the best Clint Eastwood action film ever made. 

PERSUADER is the twelfth Reacher novel I've read and it's every bit as good as all of the others. For the record, I've read: KILLING FLOOR (1997), DIE TRYING (1998), TRIPWIRE (1999), RUNNING BLIND (2000), WITHOUT FAIL (2002), THE ENEMY (2004), ONE SHOT (2005), THE HARD WAY (2006), BAD LUCK AND TROUBLE (2007), NOTHING TO LOSE (2008) and GONE TOMORROW (2009). The twentieth Jack Reacher novel, MAKE ME, is scheduled to be published later this year. As long as Lee Child keeps writing these addictive page-turners, I'll keep buying and reading them.

For those you not familiar with one of the greatest action heroes in modern pulp fiction, Jack Reacher is an ex-MP, a homeless (by choice) adventurer who finds intrigue and danger wherever he goes. He's part Clint Eastwood, part Sherlock Holmes and if you haven't read these books, you need to start doing so. Immediately

 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR FIRST GORN


I watched ARENA, a first season episode of the original STAR TREK television series last night. I recorded the episode off of MeTV (one of my favorite cable TV channels!). I've seen the episode several times but it's been long enough since I saw it last to make this viewing fresh and fun to watch.

Not as much fun to watch, however, as it was the first time I saw it. That's because ARENA was the first episode of STAR TREK I ever saw. Coincidentally, I saw this episode on January 19th, 1967, the date of its' original broadcast, which is almost exactly 48 years ago. My how time flies.

The most important thing about seeing ARENA on that long ago night was where and how I saw it. I was at my maternal grandparents house that night for a visit. I was aware that there was a new science fiction show on NBC called STAR TREK but I was also aware that neither of the two (yes, two!) local Austin television stations, KTBC and KHFI (later KTVV and now KXAN) were broadcasting the series either "live" or tape delayed. I could only imagine what wonders I was missing.

However, the NBC affiliate in San Antonio was carrying STAR TREK. No, my grandparents didn't live in San Antonio. In fact, they lived just a few blocks down the street from us. But they did have two very crucial elements that enabled me to boldly go where no man has gone that night.

The first was a Zenith color television (the quality goes in before the name goes on was the slogan as I recall). This was a mammoth console affair with a giant, green tinted glass picture tube and dials that you had to turn by hand as there was no remote control in 1967. This meant that I not only got to see STAR TREK, but I got to see it "in living color" as all shows broadcast on NBC were at the time.

The other thing that made seeing STAR TREK possible was a giant radio/television antenna/tower that my uncle had erected on the side of my grandparent's house. This allowed radio communications from their business to home "base" and to any and all vehicles equipped with mobile radio devices. KCN-492 where are you? It also meant my grandparents could pick up television signals from far off San Antonio. This was "cable" television in 1967. There was no home owners association in my grandparents neighborhood then or now but I can only imagine what their neighbors in Pemberton (an upscale Austin neighborhood) must have thought of that giant antenna contraption.

So it was that I got to see ARENA, my first STAR TREK episode ever at my grandparents that night. STAR TREK would be halfway through it's second season before I saw another episode. That's when KHFI finally starting showing TREK but not on it's regularly scheduled day and time. Did I care? Hell no. As long as I could see this ultra cool new television series at home on our own Zenith color television set I was happy.

So, what about ARENA almost 50 years later? It holds up very well. Kirk and the Gorn engage in a fight to the almost death in an episode based on the short story of the same name by veteran science fiction writer Fredric Brown. The episode I watched last night features new CGI special effects shots which enhance the overall look of the show without taking away from the narrative.

So thumbs up for ARENA in both 1967 and 2015. And thanks to my grandparents for giving me the opportunity to see what has become a touchstone of American popular culture for the very first time. I've never forgotten it.

 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

BATMAN '66 VOL. 1


Indulge me, if you will, in a little game of "what if?"

Back in the 1960s, Dell and Gold Key Comics published many comic books based on then popular movies and television series. There was a wide variety of material adapted into comics form. Some of the comic book series based on television shows ran for many issues, others were short lived and of course, all of the comic book versions of films were one shots. I have many of these comics in my collection and I'm always looking to add more. While some are semi-faithful to the original source material, others take more than a few liberties (see Gold Key's STAR TREK series). The bottom line is they're all fun. These comics appeal to comic book fans, film buffs and TV show addicts. And if you're like me, I fall into all three of those categories.

One of the odd things I've thought about over the years (among a plethora of other odd things), is this: what if, during the 1960s, when the ABC-TV series BATMAN was at the height of its' popularity, Dell or Gold Key Comics had published a tie-in comic book based on the immensely popular television series? Oh, of course, we all know that it could never have happened. DC Comics owned the characters and they were already cashing in on the popularity of the television caped crusader in such titles as BATMAN, DETECTIVE, WORLD'S FINEST, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA and THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD (my favorite!). Batman was everywhere in the DC comics of the era and at times it seemed that the character was in real danger of overexposure.

 But what if a BATMAN TV comic had been published by Dell and/or Gold Key? What would the stories have been like? What artist would have been assigned to the title? Even money says it would have probably been illustrated by Jack Sparling, a lower tier artist whose godawful work graced a multitude of comics from a variety of publishers in the 1960s. But imagine what a Gold Key BATMAN comic would have looked like if it was drawn by the great Dan Spiegle or, even better, the legendary Russ Manning? I can only dream.

Recently DC Comics began publishing an ongoing BATMAN '66 comic book series that features stories and artwork based on the visual style of the classic television show and featuring likenesses of the actors and actresses that appeared on the show. I received a trade paperback collection of BATMAN '66 Volume 1 for this past Christmas and I just finished reading it this afternoon.

It's a ton of fun! All of the stories are by Jeff Parker with artwork provided by a diverse line-up of artists including Jonathan Case, Ty Templeton, Joe Quinones, Sandy Jarrell, Ruben Procopio and Colleen Coover. All of these artists have an appropriately "cartoony" style that perfectly fits the stories. Batman and Robin face off against The Riddler, Catwoman, The Penguin, Mister Freeze, Chandell, Lorelei Circe, The Joker, Egghead, The Mad Hatter, The Clock King and The Sandman while Batgirl solos against Catwoman. Everything is done in the tone and style of the '60s television series and for the half hour it took me to read this volume, it was 1966 again.

And that's a good thing.

 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A DAY AT THE RACES


A DAY AT THE RACES (1937), the Marx Brothers seventh film and their second at MGM, does one thing exceedingly well. It makes me realize how absolutely drop dead brilliant DUCK SOUP (1933), which the brothers made at Paramount, is in comparison to the films they made at MGM. Oh sure, the MGM films had bigger budgets and better production values. They had that MGM gloss. They also were extremely profitable for the studio.

A DAY AT THE RACES does some things right. There's no Zeppo or Gummo but there is the unofficial fourth Marx brother (or is that sister?), Margaret Dumont (Margo?). There's a very funny scene between Groucho and Chico in which Chico sells Groucho a succession of books needed to bet on the horses. There's an action packed horse race at the end of the film and a good measure of laughs throughout the rest of the film.

It's not a bad movie. I've watched it several times and I always get some chuckles from it. I watched it again the other night and I'm glad I had it recorded so I could skip the worst parts of the movie. And if you're a Marx Brothers fan, you know what those are.

Elaborate musical numbers were used in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and, while they slow down the narrative momentum, they at least make sense in a film with an opera setting. In A DAY AT THE RACES, the musical numbers (here even bigger and longer in duration) are shoehorned into the plot and bring everything to a screeching halt. We get to hear Allan Jones sing, see a water ballet, listen to Chico play the piano and Harpo strum the harp and it's all incredibly boring. I fast forwarded through this part of the film, something audiences in a movie theater obviously cannot do. Here's a tip: if you see this film in a theater, as soon as the musical number segment starts, take a bathroom break and go get some popcorn and soda. You won't miss anything that's important to the story. I guarantee it.

Oh, and skip the second musical number too. It's the one staged in a barn with an ensemble of black singers, musicians and dancers. It's all slightly racist, comes out of nowhere, does nothing for the story and ends shamefully with Groucho, Chico and Harpo in black face. Ugh.

If you're a Marx Brothers fan, you know all about these shortcomings of their MGM films. If you're new to the Marx Brothers, A DAY AT THE RACES is a film you must see at some point. It's worth seeing but keep your finger on that fast forward button if you're watching a recorded version of the film.

 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

CAP AND THE KING

Cover for Captain America Annual (Marvel, 1971 series) #3

I recently scored a nice condition copy of CAPTAIN AMERICA ANNUAL #3 (1976) in a trade with fellow comic book collector Blake Long (Thanks Blake!). This king-size issue came out in the summer of 1976 and features a cover, story art and script by Jack "King" Kirby. Regular readers of this blog know that Jack Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist. I think he's the greatest comic book artist that ever lived (your mileage may vary).

I'm sure I read this one when it came out but I didn't currently have it in my collection so I gladly traded for it. I sat down and read it the other day and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not top-tier Kirby but Jack Kirby, even at this point of his career, was still better than almost anyone else working in comics at the time.

Kirby returned to Marvel Comics in the mid-'70s after his groundbreaking sojourn at DC where he created such terrific comics as FOREVER PEOPLE, MISTER MIRACLE, NEW GODS, KAMANDI and OMAC. He also did a brilliant run on the pre-existing title, SUPERMAN'S PAL JIMMY OLSEN. When he returned to the House of Ideas, former creative partner Stan Lee was ensconced as publisher and a slew of editors were responsible for a number of various titles. Kirby was given control of CAPTAIN AMERICA (a character he co-created with Joe Simon way back in 1941), BLACK PANTHER (a character he co-created with Stan Lee in 1965), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (based on the Stanley Kubrick film and a title which morphed into MACHINE MAN) and THE ETERNALS (a new title loosely based on Eric Von Daniken's CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, but pure Kirby magic). These titles were only tangentially related to the larger Marvel Universe as Kirby had new ground to break, new territories to explore.

In the Annual, Cap goes up against a menace from a black star with only a brave, plucky farmer as an ally. A strange vessel has landed on the farmer's property and he calls Cap (who is nearby giving a lecture on UFOs) to investigate. They find a young alien named The Captive who is being hunted by a fleet of star ships from a distant galaxy. Cap and the farmer naturally try to protect the alien from harm but all is not what it seems.

What follows is pure Kirby. Action, fight scenes, ideas, concepts, characters and a hint of enough back story material to launch an entire new series based on the alien races on display here. The inks, by Frank Giacoia and John Verpoorten are solid but not quite as good as Kirby's two best inkers: Mike Royer and Joe Sinnott. Hell, Joe Sinnott inking can make any one's pencils look great. When he worked with Kirby the results were gorgeous.

Annuals like this one used to be a regular staple of both Marvel and DC comics. For many years, the stories were stand alone affairs, often as not separate from current continuity. Then at some point, the annuals became a staging ground for massive multi-issue epics with story lines running through dozens of issues over the course of a long, hot summer.

I liked them better when they were like this one. I especially liked them when they were written and drawn by Jack Kirby.

 'Nuff said.

Friday, January 9, 2015

CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE


The answer to the trivia question I posed a couple of days ago is CITIZEN KANE (1941). At least, that's the film I had in mind when I posed the question. My good buddy and fellow film buff Kelly Greene had the right answer. We see a credit for the Mercury Players and Orson Welles, the title (seen above) and then a closeup of the Kane family crest on the gates of Xanadu. It's yet another way that KANE was a truly revolutionary, innovative and game changing piece of cinema.

However, I must acknowledge that there may be other films that predate CITIZEN KANE that lack a full title/credit sequence. One reader of this blog, "hcasner", answered with OF MICE AND MEN (1939). I must confess that I have only seen that film once and that was many years ago. I do not recall the title/credit sequence (or lack thereof) in that film. But if it is indeed missing a formal opening title/credit sequence, then we have another winner. I salute "hcasner"'s film history knowledge. I suspect that it's entirely possible there are other films that predate OF MICE AND MEN that subverted the usual opening title/credit sequence. I would love to hear from my readers as to what those films are.




 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE (OR NOT)


Hey kids, it's the first movie trivia time question of the new year!

What was the first Hollywood film, produced and released by a major studio, that did not have a traditional opening credit sequence? You know, title and full cast and crew names on screen before the actual narrative begins. I have a certain film in mind as the answer but there may be another film that has this one beat. In the film I'm thinking of, a credit for the director and the production company appears first, followed by the title and then the action starts. And that's all the clues I'm giving you.

Anyone?