Friday, May 17, 2019

CYBORG

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Martin Caidin wrote a novel entitled CYBORG in 1972. It was the basis for the long running ABC-TV series THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. 

This film has nothing to do with Caidin's work.

When Marv Wolfman and George Perez rebooted THE TEEN TITANS for DC Comics in 1980, Cyborg, a young man half machine/half human, was part of the revamped lineup. Cyborg is now a member of the Justice League of America in both DC Comics and the DC Cinematic Universe.

 This film isn't about him.

Nope, CYBORG is a 1989 post-apocalyptic science fiction action film starring Belgian meat head Jean-Claude Van Damme. But here's the twist. He's not the cyborg of the title. That honor belongs to a young woman named Pearl Prophet (Dayle Haddon). She's part human, part computer and she contains within her memory banks a cure for the dreaded plague known as the living death that has decimated the world. She's on her way to Atlanta with the information when she is captured by a band of pirates. It's up to Van Damme to come to her rescue. He's a reluctant hero known as a "Slinger". Van Damme is haunted by his past but he eventually channels all of that pent up rage and fury into saving Pearl and thus, civilization.

Writer/director Albert Pyun steals from other genre films with an almost gleeful abandon. There are nods to THE TERMINATOR, the MAD MAX films (in particular the pirates' wardrobes and hairstyles (mullets!) minus the vehicular mayhem), CONAN THE BARBARIAN (at one point Van Damme is crucified and left for dead), and above all countless westerns including THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and THE SEARCHERS. And composer Kevin Bassinson even lifts some motifs from Jerry Goldsmith's score for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. 

Van Damme is a passable enough action hero. He specializes in spin kicks, moves which would have made him the perfect choice to play Batroc the Leaper if a decent CAPTAIN AMERICA film had ever materialized in the '90s. But the fight scenes are clumsily choreographed, depending heavily on sound effects to sell the action.

CYBORG is one of countless low budget genre/exploitation films released by Cannon Films from 1967 to 1994. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus kept all four eyes focused on the bottom line for all of their pictures which resulted in cheap and disposable but nevertheless financially profitable fare. 

Low budget? You bet. 

Derivative? Sure.

 Bad acting? You call this acting? 

CYBORG checks all of those boxes but I absolutely must give this craptastic piece of cinematic junk props for the names of the characters. Try these on for size.

Van Damme's character is named Gibson Rickenbacker. The pirate chieftain is named Fender Tremolo. There's a Marshall Strat, a Furman Vux  and a Brick Bardo. 

What, no Hugh G. Rection?

If you were of a certain age in the 1980s, CYBORG probably delivers some nostalgic giggles and shits. For the rest of us, it's simply a terrible film.

 



Thursday, May 16, 2019

MURDER, MY SWEET

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I saw MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) for the first time when I was attending the University of Texas in the late 1970s. The film's director, Edward Dmytryk, was an "artist in residence" for a semester, teaching a film class and hosting screenings of his films. That's where and how I first saw it . 

I watched it again the other night after more than 40 years. I'd forgotten most of the plot so it was like seeing it for the first time. Adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler by screenwriter John Paxton,  MURDER is a tough little film noir featuring a great cast, a complex plot and hard boiled shenanigans galore.

Dick Powell, playing against his usual song and dance type, acquits himself quite favorably as Chandler's hard bitten private eye Philip Marlowe. He doesn't define the role as Humphrey Bogart did a couple of years later in Howard Hawks's THE BIG SLEEP (1946) but he's surprisingly good. Marlowe is hired by punch drunk meat head Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his missing girlfriend, a mysterious B-girl known only as "Velma". But when Marlowe gets a lead on the woman, a second case is dropped into his lap by homosexual go-between Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) who wants Marlowe's help in paying off a thief in return for a purloined (and highly valuable) jade necklace. 

The pay off goes awry, of course, with Marlowe knocked unconscious and Marriott bludgeoned to death. The trail leads to the woman whose jewelry was stolen, the smoking hot Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor), her extremely attractive step-daughter, Ann (Anne Shirley), her elderly husband, Luewen (Miles Mander) and the oh-so-sinister Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger).

The two cases eventually converge but not before a closet full of Grayle family skeletons have been opened, their contents strewn all over the richly appointed landscape of the Grayle manor. Before it's all over, Marlowe experiences a drug induced hallucination (a sequence more at home in a Val Lewton RKO horror film) before finally figuring everything out in an explosive climax. 

MURDER, MY SWEET is a first rate film noir that features one of the greatest characters in American crime fiction. All involved do a superlative job in bringing this sordid mystery story to life and the film is well worth seeing by all film noir buffs as well as general audiences who like a good detective story.

Recommended.



Sunday, May 5, 2019

THE STRANGER

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I have a vague memory of seeing Orson Welles's 1946 film noir THE STRANGER at one of the first Austin Comic Book Conventions way back in the 1970s (and remind me to post a longer article here in the near future about those halcyon days and events). If I recall correctly, someone (possibly a gentleman named Bob Magnuson), had a 16mm print of the film which he screened at the convention. I had recently discovered the cinema of Orson Welles, thanks to a transformative viewing of CITIZEN KANE (1941) in the film history class I took my freshman year at the University of Texas. I was mad for anything Welles and I wasn't about to miss the opportunity to see one of his films.

I revisited THE STRANGER yesterday for the first time in easily over forty years and I enjoyed every frame of it. While it doesn't achieve the heights of KANE (hell, what film, by any director, could do that?), nor the baroque brilliance of his later TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), Welles delivers the goods with deft hands, proving that he could shoot a film under both schedule and budget. 

That's not to say that the film is devoid of any Wellesian touches. There's plenty of chiaroscuro cinematography, impressive crane shots, claustrophobic sets with ceilings, and a well staged climax that, even though it's easy to anticipate the outcome (which is foreshadowed during the opening credits), still manages to thrill. 

Welles stars as a former Nazi war criminal who has taken up residence in a small New England town. He's taken a job as a college history professor and is about to marry the fetching Loretta Young, (the daughter of a Supreme Court justice), a move which will further cement his reputation as a solid citizen. 

But war crimes inspector Edward G. Robinson is on his trail. He'arranges the release of  a fellow Nazi from prison in Europe hoping that the fugitive will ultimately lead him to Welles. When Welles and the man meet, Welles kills him and heads for his wedding ceremony. Cold blooded killer indeed.

Robinson eventually suspects Welles and sets about to gather the necessary evidence while Young, who truly loves Welles, finds herself in increasing peril as the veneer of a civilized gentleman is stripped from Welles exposing the true evil that lives within.

THE STRANGER is a nice little film noir/spy thriller with a terrific cast and a satisfying screenplay that slowly ratchets up the tension until the explosive clock tower finale. Not the greatest film in the Welles filmography but very far away from being the worst. 

Recommended.



Friday, May 3, 2019

NIGHT OF CAMP DAVID

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When I first started this blog, when dinosaurs ruled the earth way back in 2012, I had several unwritten rules that I have tried to follow when posting here. First, no religion. Second, no politics. Third, no griping about my job. And fourth, I have always tried to never say anything bad about someone who is still alive. 

This post marks the first time I've deliberately broken any of those rules but because of the subject matter at hand, I'm afraid a departure from the norm is necessary. 

So if rules are going to be broken, it's in for a penny, in for a pound. I'm still not going to gripe about my job (I'll post plenty after I retire) but it's time to go on the record about a few things. First, I am a Christian. Judy and I are proud members of First Presbyterian Church in Elgin, Texas. Judy has been a member for many years. I didn't officially join until 2017 and I'm currently in the middle of a three year term as a church elder. Second, I'm a registered Democrat who voted for Barack Obama twice, Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary and Hilary Clinton in the last presidential election. 

Your mileage on these things my vary and if this confession causes any one to cease reading this blog, so be it. I'm not going to preach or try to convert anyone to my point of view but I am going to state for the record that I believe our country is in the hands of a madman. 

That belief is held by others, including some of the fine folks at Knopf Doubleday who reprinted Fletcher Knebel's 1965 political thriller NIGHT OF CAMP DAVID last fall. After all, the central conceit of the book is plainly stated on the cover: "What would happen if the President of the U.S.A went stark-raving mad?" What was the stuff of fantasy, fodder for a paperback thriller in 1965, is now, in the minds of many, myself included, a cold hard fact in 2019. 

When Donald Trump was sworn in, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to give him a chance to see what he could do because, after all, he was the duly elected president. That chance totally evaporated the very next day when he spouted lies about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, lies he forced poor Sean Spicer to reiterate in his first press conference. 

And it's been downhill ever since. 

NIGHT OF CAMP DAVID is a book that caught my eye when I was a young and adventurous reader in junior high school in the early '70s. I bought a copy, started reading it and quickly lost interest in it. Why? Because it was simply too "adult" for my reading abilities at the time. Oh, it wasn't a dirty book in the least. It just dealt with characters and situations that were slightly more mature than the usual pulp fiction that I was reading at the time. My literary eyes were bigger than my literary stomach, if I can mix metaphors. NIGHT became one of those books, like Martin Caidin's MAROONED (which was published in paperback by Bantam at roughly the same time), that I would have to wait many, many years to finally read and appreciate. 

Turns out that Fletcher Knebel was remarkably prescient way back in 1965. First, he gives us a president that is suffering from paranoid delusions ("they" and "them" are out to get him), has grandiose plans for restructuring global alliances (he wants to form a union between the U.S, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland with himself at the head and vows to use force to make the rest of Europe join in), sees no problem with ordering the F.B.I. to illegally wiretap and record every phone call in the United States and, to top it off, has a meeting scheduled with the Russian president in which he could spill the beans about his mad plans.  

SPOILER ALERT Second, he gives us a president that resigns the office. Remember, this was almost a decade before Richard Nixon was forced to resign. And third, just for good measure, he uncannily has a Supreme Court Justice named Cavanaugh as one of the supporting players. 

The story centers around Senator Jim MacVeagh of Iowa who is picked by President Mark Hollenbach to be his running mate when he runs for re-election. The current vice president became involved in a real estate scandal and is going to be removed from the ticket. Mac Veagh is thrilled at first but as Hollenbach takes the young lawmaker into his confidence, the cracks in the presidential facade begin to show. 

MacVeagh desperately tries to find corroborating evidence to prove his theory that Hollenbach has gone mad. His investigation draws the attention of the F.B,I and the Secret Service who suspect MacVeagh poses a threat to the president. MacVeagh is even thought to be unbalanced himself. But eventually he finds a consortium of allies including the Secretary of Defense, the Speaker of the House, the chairman of the Democratic Committee, a powerful Washington attorney, the aforementioned Supreme Court Justice, the president's personal physician and others. But the trouble is, even if Hollenbach is crazy, what can they do about it? As their late night meeting continues to spiral towards the unthinkable, enter President Hollenbach for a final chapter showdown. 

NIGHT OF CAMP DAVID is, of course, fiction. But it's a compelling story well told and offers plenty of food for thought about the current state of our nation and the Constitutional crisis that we find ourselves in. Knebel offers a solution to the problem in the pages of his book.

 Alas, no such solution appears to be at hand in the real world. 

Recommended. 



Monday, April 22, 2019

DOC SAVAGE: THE RING OF FIRE

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 I read this handsome trade paperback over the Easter weekend. DOC SAVAGE: THE RING OF FIRE is a 2017 four-issue mini-series published by Dynamite. Dynamite is the comic book company that often publishes comic books with fantastic cover art and poor to barely acceptable interior artwork. This time, Dynamite gets it right with the story by David Avallone and artwork by Dave Acosta being entirely solid and satisfactory. No selling the sizzle and not the steak here.

RING OF FIRE finds Doc assigned by none other than FDR himself to investigate a series of mysterious volcanic eruptions around the South Pacific Ocean, eruptions that menace US naval operations in the area. Doc and his men travel to the region via airplane and the redoubtable Helldiver submarine. Oh, and unknown to Doc, his cousin Pat also journeys to the Pacific in search of her missing friend, Amelia Earhart.

Once there, Doc discovers that the eruptions are being caused by a device of his design, a device stolen and turned against the free world by Doc's greatest nemesis John Sunlight. Things come to an explosive climax in the last issue which provides a poetic ending to this super saga. 

No complaints here. RING OF FIRE is a first rate Doc comic book series that should please all Man of Bronze fans. Thumbs up.



Tuesday, April 16, 2019

NOBODY LIVES FOREVER

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"A third of something is better than all of nothing."

John Garfield stars as seasoned con man Nick Blake in director Jean Negulesco's 1946 film noir NOBODY LIVES FOREVER. The screenplay, by genre veteran W.R. Burnett, is by-the-numbers but still manages to provide interest and excitement in this post war crime thriller.

The film opens with Nick's release from a military hospital. He's met by his old crony, Al (George (BEWITCHED) Tobias) who is anxious to pick up the con game where the two were forced to leave off because of the war. Nick wants none of his old life. He plans to reunite with his girl, Toni Blackburn (the smoldering Faye Emerson) who was supposed to have invested Nick's cash savings into a business. Turns out she's thrown Nick over for slick night club owner Chet King (Robert (THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) Shayne). Disgusted, Nick and Al leave New York and head for California for a fresh start. 

In Los Angeles, Nick meets up with veteran con man Pop Gruber (Walter (THE REAL McCOY'S) Brennan). Seems Pop has been contacted by con artist wannabe Doc Ganson (George (CITIZEN KANE) Coulouris) who needs a stake of cash to run a major con job. Doc wants Nick's money to front an operation to take a wealthy widow, Gladys Halvorsen (the smoking hot Geraldine Fitzgerald) for a huge sum. Nick agrees to the operation but only if he's allowed to run the con his way. 

Which means it's Nick that cozies up to the attractive widow and, wouldn't you know it, ends up falling in love with her. The screws tighten when old flame Toni shows up in L.A. and blows Nick's cover while at the same time the desperate, greedy Doc decides to take matters into his own hands by kidnapping Gladys. 

The action comes to a violent climax on a fog shrouded pier where Nick, Al and Pop face off against Doc and his gang. 

Sure it's routine stuff but it's extremely pleasurable routine stuff. It's a treat to watch such a talented cast at work under the direction of an accomplished director with a tight screenplay and an ace cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, to provide the necessary shadows. 

A minor noir but nonetheless a first rate one, NOBODY LIVES FOREVER is definitely worth seeing for genre aficionados. Recommended.



Thursday, April 4, 2019

THE BLACK STAR PASSES

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Boy, science fiction sure was different in1930. 

After reading (and loving)  ASTOUNDING (2018) by Alec Nevala-Lee (see my review elsewhere on this blog), I decided to sample some early science fiction by the legendary John W. Campbell Jr., who started his career as an sf writer before becoming the genre shaping editor of ASTOUNDING/ANALOG.

 THE BLACK STAR PASSES is a collection of three novellas all linked by a recurring cast of characters, a team of scientists so brilliant that it's like having the Fantastic Four comprised entirely of Reeds. These men aren't just smart, they're super-smart, not just the smartest guys in the room but the smartest guys on the whole damn planet (and perhaps in space itself). These men are so smart that they have no need of such things as a personality, or any of the various character traits that make us human and they certainly have no need of women as there are absolutely no female characters (human or alien) in the book. Thinking on a grand enough scale to save the solar system is strictly man's work in these tales. 

The first entry, PIRACY PREFERRED, prefigures the type of scientific menace that Doc Savage would later clash with in his pulp adventures. Here, a master criminal known as The Pirate, is robbing trans-continental airplanes in mid-air using an ingenious mixture of knock-out gas and invisibility. He's not really a bad guy. It turns out that he's simply schizophrenic, a condition which is soon cured (shades of Doc's Crime College!) and once cured, the reformed villain joins his former foes for their next adventure. 

SOLARITE is the name of the spaceship that these four men build in an incredibly short period of time and launch on a voyage to Venus. Once there, they find the planet divided by a civil war between the northern and southern hemispheres. The peaceful northerners are about to be decimated by their vicious (and technologically superior) southern foes but the intrepid earth men step in and save the day, especially after learning that the Kaxorians have picked Earth as their next target. Campbell refers to the natives of Venus as "Venerians" rather than "Venusians" (not that it really matters, I suppose since we all know there's no life by any name on the planet). He also refers to the earth men as "Terrestrians" rather than "Terrans". 

All of this simply sets the stage for the grandiose final entry, the titular BLACK STAR PASSES in which Earth and Venus join forces for an interstellar war against invaders from a dying solar system whose sun has gone black (why it didn't become a black hole is beyond me but I suspect that such a concept might have been unknown in 1930). Our four super scientists take center stage for the first part of the yarn, helping to fend off the first invasion and then exploring the downed alien vessels for a means to victory in round two. 

But all characters, human and alien, disappear for said round as Campbell orchestrates an immense battle in outer space that prefigures George Lucas's STAR WARS by almost fifty years. It's a dazzling, action packed piece of space opera but it's also strangely sterile and uninvolving due to the absence of any characters. It's all super science, with gigantic carrier vessels launching smaller, faster one man fighter vehicles. Some pilots use their fighters as dive bombers, pointing them at the immense alien vessels and then hitting the ejector seat button. They don't wear parachutes because such devices would be useless in the vacuum of space, Instead, the ejected pilots merely float helplessly in space hoping that a larger rescue ship will pick them up before their air tanks run out. Or not. 

Throughout all three stories I kept imagining what this material would have looked like if it had been illustrated by Jack Kirby at the height of his career. Picture any one of the many double page spreads of fantastic machinery that The King excelled at drawing and you have some sense of what the imagery of BLACK STAR is like.

Pure pulp on every page, THE BLACK STAR PASSES is a rock-'em, sock-'em early science fiction adventure that I'm sure was a page-turner of a thriller for the far less sophisticated reading audiences of 1930. Reading it today, it still has the ability to amaze and excite despite its shortcomings.

 Worth reading for genre aficionados or anyone interested in early, pre-Golden Age science fiction.