Sunday, August 2, 2015

"SERPENTINE! SERPENTINE!"


The other night, while Judy was preparing our dinner, she made some crazy, funny little move in the kitchen and called out "Serpentine! Serpentine!"

We both laughed and then she said, "what movie was that from?"

"The IN-LAWS, with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin," I replied.

"That was a funny movie," she said. "If you ever get a chance to get a copy of that, do it. I'd love to see it again.

Duly noted and filed. A couple of days later, I was in one of the thrift stores that I frequent looking for bargain DVDs. Imagine my surprise to find a used copy of THE IN-LAWS on the shelf! For two bucks, I couldn't go wrong. I bought the DVD and when I got home that evening, I told Judy that we were going to have a movie night on Friday but that the film we would be viewing was going to be a surprise.

Sure enough, I genuinely surprised her when I produced the IN-LAWS DVD on Friday evening. She popped some popcorn in the microwave and we sat down to enjoy the film.

For the life of me, I can't remember where I saw this film for the first time. I don't recall going to the theater to see it in 1979. I might have. But I also think I may have seen it on either HBO or Cinemax, back when those two cable channels ran movies and pretty much only movies. Either way, I had seen it way back when (as had Judy) and we both enjoyed it. We enjoyed it again the other night.

The film stars Peter Falk and Alan Arkin as about to be in-laws. Falk's son is set to wed Arkin's daughter but not before Falk, a crazed "is-he-or-isn't-he?" CIA agent embroils button-down, conservative (and well-to-do) dentist Arkin in a madcap scheme involving currency engraving plates stolen from the U.S. Treasury and a visit to a third world banana republic led by a corrupt and bat shit crazy dictator.

Director Arthur Hiller does a good job with Andrew Bergman's screenplay and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There are occasional lapses in continuity, especially at the beginning of the film where an armored car is hijacked in what is clearly Los Angeles, only to have one of the bandits subsequently enter a building and emerge upon a rooftop in Washington, D.C. (!).

That's a minor quibble because the real joy here is watching the performances by Arkin and Falk, especially Falk, who steals the show as the unhinged, make-it-up-as-you-go-along CIA operative. There are several truly funny set pieces with the duo, including the famous "serpentine, serpentine" scene and Senor Pepe is an absolutely inspired bit of lunacy. 

THE IN-LAWS isn't the funniest movie I've ever seen but Judy and I both got a lot of laughs out of watching it again. The film was remade in 2003 with Michael Douglas, Albert Brooks and Candice Bergen. I've not seen that version but I can't imagine it's an improvement on the sheer madness that is the original. Worth seeing. 



Saturday, August 1, 2015

THE SHADOW: THE CREEPING DEATH


I finished reading THE CREEPING DEATH last night. Originally published on January 15th, 1933, it's the 22nd Shadow pulp adventure. The paperback edition I read, which is pictured above, was published by Pyramid Books in May, 1977. The terrific cover is by the legendary comic book artist Jim Steranko.

I've read quite a few Shadow novels over the last few years and each and every one of them I've read aloud to my lovely wife Judy. I read while she cooks our suppers and then I clean up the kitchen after we eat. When we take any long car trips, she drives and I read aloud. We've been able to enjoy dozens of books this way. It may take a little longer to read something aloud but the pleasure we both get from the experience is well worth the effort. Besides, when I read a Shadow yarn, I get to practice my sinister Shadow voice and laugh.

THE CREEPING DEATH finds The Shadow up against an insane inventor who means to rule the world by flooding various countries economies with fake gold, a substance that he can create in his laboratory. He means to eventually own all of the real gold in the world, and replace it with the fake stuff. Sounds like a certain Bond villain, doesn't it? Lucien Partridge is the gents' name and he has operatives working in various countries to pass the counterfeit bullion. But dead men tell no tales and Partridge has begun doing away with his associates by using the Creeping Death. It's a deadly, slow acting toxin that Partridge wears on his lab gloves. When he shakes hands with someone, they are doomed to die an agonizing death  in a matter of hours.

Of course, The Shadow investigates the murders and finds the trail leading to Partridge's heavily guarded upstate mansion. He's aided by secret service agent Vic Marquette, whom the Shadow must rescue from certain death more than once. Things come to an explosive climax when Partridge's hideout is bombed and a small army of gunmen invade the grounds where a deadly gunfight erupts with the Shadow and Marquette caught in the middle. There's a struggle to the death above a sheer cliff between the Shadow and Partridge and only one survives. Guess who?

THE CREEPING DEATH is a fast paced, action packed Shadow adventure that features a unique method of murder, a mad genius and plenty of gun play. That's pretty much what you expect from a pulp thriller and this one definitely delivers the goods. Judy and I both enjoyed it and if you're a pulp fan, you will too.


Thursday, July 30, 2015

PUSH


Here's a question for you. When is an X-MEN movie, not an X-MEN movie? When it's called PUSH, a 2009 sf/action film that finds a group of super-powered young people on the run from various factions in Hong Kong.

There are no code names. No spandex costumes. But these young mutants have many of the same powers you find in almost any iteration of the X-Men past, present or future. There are Watchers who have the ability to foresee the future to varying degrees. Movers are powerful telekinetics while Pushers have the ability to implant memories, thoughts and emotions into the minds of other people. Bleeders can emit high-pitched sonic vibrations (Banshee, anyone?) that cause ruptures in a target's blood vessels. Sniffs are highly developed psychometrics who can track the location of people or objects over varying degrees. Shifters can temporarily alter the appearance of an object by manipulating patterns of light. Wipers are skilled at either temporarily or permanently erasing memories while Shadows are trained to block the visions of other mutants, such as Sniffs, by diverting the attention of the target radius so that they flicker through different locations other than the subject's actual whereabouts. And finally, Stitchers are psychic healers trained to quickly reconstruct cells to their previous or healthy state.

Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning and Camilla Belle (along with various other mutants they encounter)  are the young mutants on the run. Their parents, who had similar super powers, were recruited by a shadowy U.S. government organization known as The Division to be used as weapons in the Cold War Their offspring, who inherited the powers, are also under the thumb of the government until they escape and go on the run in Hong Kong. They must keep one step ahead of Division agents, some of whom also have super powers and a group of super powered Hong Kong mutants (think The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants).

PUSH was filmed entirely on location in Hong Kong and Peter Sova's cinematography makes the metropolis look and feel like a city on another planet. Director Paul McGuigan keeps things moving at a good pace and there are several well staged Hong Kong style action sequences throughout the film. The ending is left wide open for a sequel but it doesn't appear as if the film did well enough at the box-office to warrant a PUSH 2.

Chris Evans has made a career out of playing super powered comic book characters. He played Johnny Storm, the Human Torch in FANTASTIC FOUR (2005) and FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER (2007). He was in THE LOSERS (2010), which was based on a DC/Vertigo comic book. And he's played Steve Rogers/Captain America in four films to date: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011), THE AVENGERS (2012), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) with CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR set for release next year. Oh, and let's not forget SNOWPIERCER (2013) , which was based on a graphic novel.

PUSH isn't a great film but it was entertaining and it made for a good way to pass the time on a recent vacation day afternoon. If you're a fan of the X-Men and Hong Kong cinema, you'll probably enjoy it.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN


My buddy Craig Kanne recently gave me all six issues of BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN, a 2012 mini-series by Darwyn Cooke. Thanks a million Craig, because I really enjoyed this one.

There was quite a kerfuffle a few years back when DC Comics announced that they would publish a series of mini-series focusing on the characters created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the now classic, legendary WATCHMEN series from the 1980s. The goal of these mini-series was to explore the characters and their world in greater detail before (as the title states) the events depicted in WATCHMEN. Some people thought this was a violation of a sacred trust, that the mere idea of this series would besmirch the reputation of WATCHMEN. Others took a "wait and see" attitude and opted to actually read the various series before passing judgment.

I haven't read the other series that comprise BEFORE WATCHMEN, but MINUTEMEN is outstanding. Darwyn Cooke is one of my favorite contemporary comic book creators. His style is deceptively simple and I've loved his work on such titles as DC: NEW FRONTIER, CATWOMAN: SELINA'S  BIG SCORE and the Parker graphic novels (based on the crime novels by Richard Stark).

I mean this next statement as the highest possible praise: if  James Ellroy wrote comic books, they would probably look and read like MINUTEMEN. The series spans the years 1939 to 1962, a time period in American history that Ellroy has mined for much of his work and Cooke captures Ellroy's sense of tarnished, flawed people trying to do good while struggling with their own various inner demons. Cooke also gets what Moore established in WATCHMEN, the thesis that anyone who puts on a costume, adopts a name and goes out and fights crime, is one seriously fucked up individual, even if they are on the side of good.

The Minutemen are the Justice Society of America to the Watchmen's Justice League of America. This is a team of super-heroes who come together in the "Golden Age" to fight crime only to see their efforts fail before the group finally disbands and goes their separate ways. The narrator is Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, who has written a "tell all" book about the Minutemen in the early 1960s We see the various Minute Men and Women through his eyes and they are an interesting group of characters. One is a lesbian, two are homosexuals, one is in it only for the publicity, one is a stone cold psychopath who leaves the group to become a government operative, one is a corporate shill and one falls into a spiral of drug and booze addiction. Mason, a beat cop by day (which echoes Jack Kirby's super-hero creation The Guardian/policeman Jim Harper in THE NEWSBOY LEGION series), as Nite Owl, is determined to capture a serial killer of children but his quest takes a dramatic turn in the final issue.

I won't reveal any more about this remarkable series. Read it for yourself and discover the rich character development, superb sense of place and time and a truly gripping, suspenseful super hero/crime story. BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN is a four star winner in my book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"PRINT THE LEGEND"

"That's my steak, Valance."

Although it often ran on television in the 1960s and '70s, I didn't see John Ford's masterpiece, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) until I was in college. I don't remember the exact year (sometime between 1974 and 1979) but I do recall that I saw it with my good, life long friend Terry Porter at the Texas Union theater on the University of Texas campus. I thought the film was great that first time I saw it and after watching it again the other night for the umpteenth time, I still think it's a truly great film.

In fact (and get ready for this), I think it's John Ford's best film. Better than any of the four films for which he won Best Director Academy Awards: THE INFORMER (1935), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) and THE QUIET MAN (1952). I've never seen THE INFORMER, but I've seen the other three. GRAPES is a classic, as is THE QUIET MAN but I hope to never suffer through a viewing of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY ever again in this lifetime.

I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for STAGECOACH (1939) and THE SEARCHERS (1956) but in general (and here's some more film heresy for you), I find a lot of John Ford's films to be vastly overrated. He's an inconsistent filmmaker in my opinion, turning out just as many mediocre films (DONOVAN'S REEF (1963) anyone?) as good ones. Granted, I haven't seen every John Ford film but of the ones I have seen, I rank LIBERTY VALANCE at the top.

The first on-screen pairing of cinematic giants John Wayne and James Stewart, is an elegiac, sentimental, politically themed ode to the end of the wild west and the unstoppable tide of civilization, symbolized by statehood for an American territory and the coming of the railroad. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a naive, idealistic lawyer who's come west to set up his practice in the town of Shinbone. Before he gets there, he runs afoul of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang during a stagecoach robbery. Was there ever a better band of bad guys in any western than the unholy trio of Marvin, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin?

Robbed and beaten, Stoddard vows to bring Valance to justice using the law. He soon finds out that cowardly, obese  Marshall Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) doesn't have the guts to arrest Valance. He also finds that there's only one man in the territory tough enough to stand up to Valance and his gang. That's rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne), who admonishes Stoddard (Doniphon calls him "pilgrim") to learn how to use a gun.

Thus begins the battle between the forces of civilization, of law and order and of justice against gunslingers and outlaws and only one way of life can survive. Caught between Stoddard and Doniphon is Hallie (the oh-so-lovely Vera Miles), a cafe waitress whom Stoddard teaches to read, which goes against the wishes of her "man" Doniphon.

Violence simmers, stews and comes to a boil when Valance and his men brutally beat newspaper publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) and vandalize the newspaper office. Stoddard has had enough and he faces Valance on a dark street in a deadly shootout. Valance is killed but it's not until later in the film that we learn the true identity of the man who shot Liberty Valance. When that happens, these famous words are spoken: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Shot in black and white and largely on sound stages and studio back lots, LIBERTY VALANCE has a cramped, claustrophobic look and feel that's light years removed from the breathtaking Monument Valley vistas Ford employed in THE SEARCHERS. In fact, the sets and cinematography used in VALANCE echo the look of numerous television westerns of the time. Many of the scenes take place indoors and there's very little physical action to speak of. Indeed, Ford subverts genre expectations by having the climactic shootout take place, not at the end of the film as in most westerns but at the end of the second act.

The screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson), is terrific with tons of memorable, quotable dialogue. The cast is uniformly brilliant with Woody Strode a stand out as Pompey, Doniphon's right hand man. Strode would later appear in two other classic western films, Richard Brook's THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) and Sergio Leone's masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN TsHE WEST (1969). As noted, LIBERTY VALANCE marked the first time Wayne and Stewart appeared together in a film. They were both in HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962) (the Civil War segment was directed by Ford) but they had no scenes together in that epic. They worked together again in Don Siegel's THE SHOOTIST (1976), which was Wayne's last film.

I don't know how many times I've seen THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The other night was merely the most recent viewing. I'm sure I'll watch it again and again in the future. I think it's a truly great, classic American film. Highest recommendation.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE


My buddy Craig Kanne and I had the pleasure of watching IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) a few days ago. Unfortunately, we did not see it in the 3-D format in which it was originally released. We had to settle for a measly two dimensions but they worked just fine for this classic science fiction film.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE concerns the crash landing of an alien space craft in the American southwestern desert. Astronomer John Putnam (genre icon Richard Carlson) and his girl friend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) witness the crash and go to investigate, expecting to find a meteor. Instead, Putnam discovers the immense spherical alien craft and one of its' one-eyed occupants. Unfortunately, a landslide buries the space ship under tons of rock and no one will believe Putnam's story about aliens from outer space.

The twist here is that the aliens are not here to menace the earth (unlike countless other 1950s sf films). They're not entirely benign either but they simply don't want to be here on earth. They were on their way to another planet when their craft crashed and they just want to repair the ship and be on their way. They really don't want to have anything to do with humans at this point in time.

But the aliens must take over the consciousness of various humans and create zombie-like duplicates to do the repair work. Again, their intentions are misinterpreted but things finally work out and once the ship is repaired, the aliens and their advanced technology blast off to who knows where while Putnam optimistically predicts that they will one day return to earth on purpose.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is an intelligent and earnestly mounted film that provides much food for thought, especially in its' treatment of the aliens and their relationships (or lack thereof) with humans. That's largely thanks to the screenplay by Harry Essex and Ray Bradbury. Essex gets the main credit but there's much evidence to support the widely held belief that Bradbury contributed more to the script than Essex. The whole tone of the story feels Bradburyesque and some of the dialogue has the ring of poetry that so often infused Bradbury's prose.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is an important genre touchstone for a variety of reasons. It was the first science fiction film to be produced by Universal-International. It was the first American science fiction to use the desert landscape of the Southwest as a setting. It was the first science fiction film to star Richard Carlson, who went on to become a genre icon. And it was the first science fiction film to be directed by genre auteur Jack Arnold who went on to direct THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), TARANTULA (1955), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN ( 1957), THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958).

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is essential viewing for anyone who is a fan of 1950s science fiction films. Craig and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and you will too. Highly recommended.


Friday, July 24, 2015

THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS


I like westerns. I love dinosaurs. The combination of cowboys and dinosaurs is so primal, so cool, that I love Ray Harryhausen's THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). It's not the greatest Harryhausen film but it does provide a fair measure of sense of wonder and is definitely worth checking out.

I recently finished reading THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS by science fiction author Mike Resnick. It's labeled a Weird West Tale. What it is is a steam punk flavored mash up of real figures from American history (specifically, the late 19th century) and dinosaurs. On paper it looks good. Theoretically, it should work. But I'm here to tell you that THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS is no THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. Hell, it's not even as good as the worst issue of TUROK, SON OF STONE you've ever read.

The story begins with legendary tubercular gunfighter Doc Holliday on his death bed. Fabled Apache medicine man Geronimo appears before him in a sanatorium and grants Holliday an additional year of life. In return, Holliday must stop two paleontologists from desecrating sacred Indian burial grounds in their mad quest to dig up as many dinosaur fossils as possible. If the men aren't stopped, a Comanche medicine man named Tall Bear will use his magical powers to unleash real live, flesh and blood dinosaurs upon the men and their respective camps.

Holliday is joined in his quest by a veritable who's who of  real people from late 19th century American history. Who's in this book? A better question would be who's not, as Resnick loads up his cast of supporting players with entirely too many people. In addition to Holliday there's Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Alva Edison, Ned Buntline, Geronimo, Edward Drinker Cope (a paleontologist), Othniel Charles Marsh (the other paleontologist), Cole Younger, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and boxer John L. Sullivan. Oh, and Kate Elder and Bat Masterson are name dropped more than once.

Resnick crams his story so full of these characters that there's very little room left for the dinosaurs, who don't appear until the midpoint of the book. The plot is driven entirely by dialogue and there's a lot of it, most of it repetitious and of the info dump variety. The narrative advances in fits and starts with Resnick more inclined to show off how much he knows about these historic personages than to actually tell an engaging tale. Oh, and for a story that takes place in the colorful wild west of old, there's very little in the way of descriptions of locale and landscapes. A real sense of place is sorely missing as details regarding the countryside are sketchy and sparse at best.

The copy I read of THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS was an uncorrected advance reading copy. As such, I expect a fair amount of misspelled words and grammatical errors, mistakes which will hopefully be corrected when the book is finally typeset for good and sent to press. But there's an egregious lapse in the narrative that I hope an editor eventually caught and corrected.

 In one scene, Edison and Buntline are attacked in their tent by a pair of what appear to be raptors, an encounter that occurs "off camera" and one which we only learn about it until after the fact. Both men are severely injured, with large wounds to their bodies and a great deal of blood loss. They are quickly attended to in a make-shift fashion. A few pages later, when next we encounter Edison and Buntline, no mention whatsoever is made of their injuries from the dinosaur attack The raptors are never seen or mentioned again either and it's as if the whole thing never happened.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS is, of course, not meant to be taken seriously. It's not exactly a comedy but Resnick certainly keeps the tone light. But frankly, the whole thing just didn't work for me. I kept wondering what famous character from American history was going to show up next and if Holliday and Roosevelt were ever going to do something about the dinosaurs at large. To it's credit, it's the first steam punk novel I've read that didn't have a zeppelin/dirigible/airship in it. So there's that. But in the end, THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS runs out of steam (sorry), well before the end of the book.

Thumbs down.