Friday, August 31, 2012

GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN


I have two words to describe GHOSTS OF MANHATTAN by British science-fiction writer George Mann: PURE PULP! I finished reading this page-turner yesterday evening and I absolutely loved it!

The story is set in New York City in 1926 but this is not the New York City we all know and love. This is an alternate universe NYC, a world where the United States and Great Britain are bitter enemies (following World War I) and are engaged in a Cold War. It's a world of steam powered automobiles and holographic projection devices instead of telephones. Immense dirigibles float above the city along with rocket launched biplanes.

Into this brave new world strides The Ghost, a mysterious masked vigilante armed with sophisticated weaponry including a device that spews explosive razor sharp pellets and mini-rocket boosters strapped to his boots that allow limited flight. The Ghost is really Gabriel Cross, a WWI veteran who witnessed something unspeakable and otherworldly during the course of the conflict in Europe. He lives a double life, debauched playboy by day, grim man hunter by night. He fights a one-man war against the forces of evil but this time out, he needs some help.

The Ghost and police inspector Felix Donovan team-up to tackle The Roman, a mysterious mob boss who is leaving a trail of murdered businessmen across Manhattan. The Roman also has his sights set on Celeste Parker, the beautiful night-club jazz singer who has stolen Cross's heart. The Roman uses giant golems (part moss, part mechanical) along with his army of thugs in his reign of terror. An ancient marble wheel with weird inscriptions carved into the surface plays a part in the quest and everything comes to a shattering climax in a showdown with a Lovecraftian monster from beyond.

Mann keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There's an action set piece in almost every chapter but there's also characterization of the main players. The action ranges from shootouts and car chases to a spectacular biplane dogfight which takes place among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

The last pages of the book lead directly into the next Ghost adventure, GHOSTS OF WAR. I haven't read it yet but you can bet I will do so as fast as possible.

If you love pulp adventure in the tradition of The Shadow and The Spider, this one's for you. The Ghost is a terrific character, his world is well-realized and the action is furious and bloody. I cannot recommend this one highly enough. Four stars and both thumbs up. Don't miss this one!

DER GOLEM-JAPANESE STYLE



My buddy Kelly Greene and I enjoyed watching a couple of Japanese films yesterday afternoon. The films, DAIMAJIN and RETURN OF DAIMAJIN were both made in 1966 along with a third Daimajin film.

The trilogy is a weird mash-up of two sub-genres of films that the Japanese film industry excelled at: the samurai film and the giant monster movie. In both films, innocent villagers are enslaved by evil warlords and forced to perform back breaking labor before being rescued by Majin, a giant stone statue of a samurai warrior that comes to lumbering life in the last reel and saves the day.

The giant monster material is held back until the very end of both films but the action is well worth the wait. Using a combination of a man in a rubber suit, mechanical puppets/statues, rear-screen projection, miniature sets and other special effects, these sequences are extremely impressive. Majin is not the comic hero that Godzilla eventually became. He's a grim, implacable force of nature that will not stop until all of the bad guys and the chief villain are utterly destroyed.

The production values are first rate, there's lots of beautiful scenery of Japanese mountains and forests and the sets, costumes and weapons are authentic looking. The first film is the better of the two with it's focus on an exiled prince and princess trying to regain their kingdom. In the second film, four young boys set off to pray to the Majin for help in rescuing their fathers and brothers who are woodcutters forced to toil in a sulfur mine.

We'll definitely seek out the third film which is also confusingly named RETURN OF DAIMAJIN in the United States. It's an offbeat concept that works surprisingly well and just goes to prove that no matter how many films I've seen, there's still more stuff out there that I don't know about and haven't seen. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

SNEAKING A PEEK AT THE OMEGA MAN



When I was growing up, the two downtown Austin movie theaters, the Paramount and the State, had an unusual tradition that I've often wondered about and one which I often benefited from

On Sunday evenings, the theaters would hold a special "sneak preview" of whatever film was scheduled to open the following Friday. It would be a one time only showing on Sunday night and you could come for the regular feature and stay for the "sneak" for the price of one ticket. I don't know if the theaters kept these prints until the films officially opened on the following Friday or if they shipped them to other theaters in other cities and towns for showings Monday through Thursday. I can't imagine that any theater would sit on a print of a film for several days, effectively taking it out of circulation when it could have been generating revenue for some other theater somewhere. If anyone reading this (I'm looking at you, John Stewart) can shed some light on this practice, I'd really appreciate it.

One of the films that I recall seeing as a "sneak" at the Paramount was THE OMEGA MAN (1971). I was in high school at the time and I was mightily impressed by this science fiction film with Charlton Heston in the title role. I watched the film again yesterday for the first time in years and I must confess that my impression of the film has changed over the last forty plus years.

The screenplay is very loosely based on the classic modern horror novel I AM LEGEND by genre legend Richard Matheson. The material was originally filmed as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH in 1964. That version is a black & white Italian film starring the always fun to watch Vincent Price in the title role. The material was also remade again a few years ago under the title I AM LEGEND with Will Smith in the lead.

In the original novel, the hero, Neville, is beset by vampires who only come out at night. OMEGA MAN has Neville under attack from the survivors of a deadly strain of biological weaponry that was unleashed in an apocalyptic war that wiped out most of civilization. The survivors only come out at night (they cannot tolerate sunlight or other bright light sources) but they're more zombie like than vampiric. Actually, they're more like Luddites than anything else. Their leader, Mathias (Anthony Zerbe), was a television news commentator before the war and he's convinced that his followers ("The Family") must eradicate all traces of the old world because technology, science and medicine were the sources of the deadly plague. They're slightly infected and slowly dying and all quite mad.

Neville (Heston) was a doctor at the time of the war and he is shown in flashbacks working feverishly to develop an antidote to the  disease. He injects himself with the serum and becomes immune to the plague. This makes him public enemy number one to the "family".

Neville prowls the deserted streets of Los Angeles by day (a combination of scenes shot on real locations on Sundays and on the Warner Brothers back lot) and takes refuge in his fortified townhouse by night where he is constantly besieged by the "family." Neville raids stores for necessary supplies (food, clothing, automobiles, weapons) and treats himself to repeated showings of WOODSTOCK at an empty movie house.

The main conflict is between Neville and the "family" until a third element is introduced: a small group of humans that are mostly untouched by the plague. Neville finds love in the form of Lisa (Rosalind Cash), an attractive young woman whose little brother is partially infected. Neville develops an antidote from his own blood and saves the young man from a deadly fate. Once cured, Neville plans to develop additional serums from the blood of both himself and the boy. With the regular humans safe from the disease, the group plans to leave the city and the "family" behind and start life anew somewhere else. Things don't go as planned.

Veteran television director Boris Sagal directs with a heavy hand and the film at times looks like something made for television right down to the generic (and truly awful) '70s TV cop show musical score. It's really annoying. The screenplay strains itself by lifting twin weights composed of oh-so-hip and cutting edge relevancy and belabored Biblical analogies. The group of normal humans refer to starting over in a new "Eden" and it's Neville's blood which provides the potential salvation for them all. And in case we still don't get it, Neville's climactic death scene finds him posed in the position Christ assumed upon the cross.

Heston is serviceable enough in the role of Neville. He spends a lot of time in the first act of the film talking to himself and flashing some truly enormous, horse like teeth. Cash is pretty and likeable but she's hampered by the script's insistence on playing the then relevant "black power" race card. She looks like she belongs in a blaxploitation film, not this one.

THE OMEGA MAN is one of three classic science fiction films that Heston made over the course of several years, the other two being PLANET OF THE APES and SOYLENT GREEN. OMEGA is worth seeing at least once if only to remind us all of how bad things would have been if the world had really ended in 1975. If you were lucky enough to somehow survive that horrific fate, you would have been forced to rely on 8 track tapes (as Heston does) for your musical listening pleasure.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

GAZING INTO THE ABYSS



I've been in a James Cameron film watching mode the last few days. It started with seeing THE TERMINATOR at the Paramount a few days ago. I followed that up with a screening at home of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY and yesterday I watched THE ABYSS. I'm done for now as THE ABYSS was the last Cameron movie I own on DVD.

I saw THE ABYSS on first release at the old Arbor Theater Four. If I recall correctly, the film was in 70mm and THX. I saw the extended, director's cut version of the film at the Paramount many summers ago, long before I began working for the theater.

The film is long and incredibly ambitious. The effects were cutting edge and utilized a brief CGI sequence involving animated, solid water. I remember that when I saw that effect I thought to myself that if an Aquaman movie is ever made, here's the way to display Mera's ability to shape and direct water as a weapon. I'm still waiting for that Aquaman movie. I'm not holding my breath.

The underwater sequences in the film are impressive and the film acts as a dry run (pardon the expression) for Cameron's later undersea quests involving the wreckage of the Titanic. The effects are a convincing mixture of full scale sets, miniatures and scale models. There are sequences that recall scenes from Cameron's ALIENS (the use of industrial, working equipment for action set pieces) and scenes that prefigure AVATAR (benevolent aliens).

The story concerns an underwater oil drilling platform manned by Ed Harris and his crew. When an American submarine is buzzed and sent to the bottom by an unidentified underwater bogie, a team of Navy Seals (led by Michael Biehn) along with the designer of the rig (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are sent down to the rig and put in charge of a rescue and recovery operation. Complicating matters on the surface are an immense tropical storm and rising geo-political tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Coffey (Biehn) the leader of the Seal team, begins to suffer from paranoia induced by the descent to the bottom and he recovers a nuclear warhead from the submarine which he plans to use against whatever sunk the American vessel.

Things escalate from bad to worse in a series of events that ratchet up the tension and suspense. The crew is trapped at the bottom of the sea with a madman and an armed nuclear weapon. There are several intensely claustrophobic moments before Harris begins his descent into the abyss to disarm the warhead and discover the truth about what lies in wait at the bottom of the sea.

The last third of the film plays like a cross between CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. The aliens that are revealed to be behind all of the mysterious goings on are definitely benevolent but powerful enough to cause planetary destruction if mankind does not stop fighting amongst itself in needless global conflicts.

Product placement includes Captain Crunch cereal and Coca-Cola soft drinks.

THE ABYSS is a fascinating film. The effects are the star but there's real human drama in the relationship between Harris and Mastrantonio. Cameron raised the film making bar with this one and has kept raising it throughout his career. This one's definitely worth seeing.

Monday, August 27, 2012

OPENING THE POD BAY DOORS OF MY MIND



In the summer of 1968 my mother, brother, sister and I, took a long road trip vacation all the way to Miami Beach and back. One of the things I remember most about the trip was sitting in the back seat with a stack of Marvel comics by my side. Earlier that spring, Marvel had broken up the two-in-one titles TALES OF SUSPENSE, TALES TO ASTONISH and STRANGE TALES and had given brand new titles to such stalwarts as Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, Dr. Strange and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. In addition, the Silver Surfer had his own giant-size title with a twenty-five cent cover price. There were some great annuals that summer and it was definitely a good time to be a card carrying Marvel maniac (which I was).

In addition to my beloved Marvel comics, I spent a great deal of time reading BRAK THE BARBARIAN by John Jakes. This paperback sword-and-sorcery novel (my first exposure to the genre), sported a terrific cover by the great Frank Frazetta. I loved it.

In between my comics and fantasy novel, I would occassionally look out of the car windows and see billboards advertising a new science fiction film, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The American south seemed to be full of these giant billboards promoting this groundbreaking new film. I had no clue what this was all about. I knew nothing about Kubrick or his new film. But I sure wanted to know more about it. The billboards made it look like this was something special, an "event" film of the highest magnitude.

It was late summer when 2001 finally made it's way to the big screen of the old Americana Theatre on Hancock Drive (the building is now home to a branch of the Austin Public Library). The Americana was Austin's premiere movie theater at the time and 2001 was booked as a special "roadshow" engagement which meant higher ticket prices and reserved seating. I had to see this movie.

I saved up my money and one day I went to see 2001 along with my buddy Blake Brown. Blake was a big science fiction fan and he had read a lot of books by Arthur C. Clarke, the legendary British science fiction author who co-wrote the screenplay with Stanley Kubrick. Clarke's short story, "The Sentinel" was a basis for part of the film. I remember purchasing a souvenir booklet about the film at the concession stand. The book was loaded with full-color stills from the film and oh, do I wish I still had that piece of memorabilia.

The movie was simply spectacular. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The special effects were incredible and gave a real sense of what interplanetary space travel might be like in the year 2001. The "light-show" finale was as dazzling as it was puzzling and we left the theater scratching our twelve-year-old heads in wonder and amazement. What the hell did we just see? What did it all mean?

We had no clue. We offered possible theories to explain the meaning of the film and argued and debated and discussed the movie on the entire ride home. I was determined to crack the code of this enigmatic movie. I bought a copy of Clarke's novel, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The book was an elaboration of the screenplay and did much to fill in holes in the narrative and explain some of the more metaphysical aspects of the film. Armed with this new information, I returned to the theater to see 2001 once more. This time I got it (more or less). It would take me years and multiple subsequent viewings to fully comprehend the majesty and mystery of 2001.

I remained somewhat obssessed with 2001 for the rest of 1968. I bought a papberback book entitled THE MAKING OF KUBRICK'S 2001 edited by Jerome Agel (which I still have!). The book included 96 pages of photos and even though some of the technical film making jargon was over my head, I plowed through the book, determined to learn more about this incredible, revolutionary film.

Aurora Plastics, the maker of those legendary Universal Monster model kits of the '60s, released two all plastic assembly kits based on vehicles from the film. One was the Pan-Am space clipper that ferrys Dr. Floyd from the Earth to the giant, revolving space station. The other was the "moon bus" transport vehicle that carries Dr. Floyd and other scientists from the moon base to the excavation site of the monolith. I bought both and assembled both kits. Unfortunately, they met their demise at some point in a fiery conflagration that involved lighter fluid, Black Cat firecrackers and matches. I think all of my model kits eventually suffered this fate.

For Christmas that year, I received as a gift the soundtrack album of the film (which I still have framed and hanging on the wall of my "man cave"). I listened to the record repeatedly and while I didn't care for some of the tracks, I adored the thundering crescendo of ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA which opens and closes the film (it became the movie's "theme" song) and to this day, I cannot listen to THE BLUE DANUBE without seeing waltzing spacecraft in my mind's eye.

In the mid 1970s, Jack Kirby returned to Marvel Comics and one of the projects he worked on was an adaptation of the film which was originally published in the giant, over-size "treasury" format. I love Jack Kirby's work (he's my all-time favorite comic book artist) but I don't believe he was the right choice (from an artistic standpoint) to adapt Kubrick's film. To be honest, I can't think of anyone in comics at the time who could have done it. But hey, it's Jack Kirby, and any Kirby is better than none and the book is worth reading.

Kirby later did a regular comic book series, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, which played with ideas, concepts and themes from the film. The series eventually came to focus on Machine Man, a runaway robot in the future and the book's title was changed to MACHINE MAN for the rest of its' run. None of this material has been collected and reprinted to date and that's a shame. I suspect licensing rights have something to do with this and I hope that those issues get ironed out at some point so we can enjoy Kirby's 2001 saga in one volume.

When I first saw 2001 on that long ago late summer afternoon, I could only imagine what the real world of 2001 would look like should I live long enough to experience it. I would be forty-five years old by that time and at the age of twelve, that was so far into the future as to be practically unthinkable.

Of course, we're now long since past the year 2001 and the world we live in isn't the world of the film. The future happened in ways we couldn't have predicted forty-four years ago and the future continues to rush headlong at us at faster than light speed.

I would have liked to have lived in the future world depicted in the film and who knows, maybe in some alternate reality things played out just that way. Things may never be the way they are in the movie but we still have the film to cherish and watch over and over again and remember the way the future might have been.

Those old billboards were right. 2001 was something special.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

TRIVIA QUESTION ANSWER


In case you're wondering, the two Best Picture of the Year Oscar winners that were shot in Texas are TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

Friday, August 24, 2012

COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT TO LIVE...AGAIN



After seeing THE TERMINATOR last weekend at the Paramount, I had a hankering to watch TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY again. I did so this afternoon.

I hadn't seen T2 since it first came out in the summer of 1991. It's hard to believe that it's been twenty-one years since I saw this film as a first run feature at the old Lincoln Village cinema (which was a state-of-the-art theater in the day). T2 is an amped up version of the first film, this time with two unstoppable Terminators, one good (Schwarzenegger) and one bad, the T-1000 model played by Robert Patrick. Linda Hamilton reprises her role as Sarah Connor and Edward Furlong makes his screen debut as John Connor, the young man upon which the entire narrative hinges.

T2 is a long movie but it's never dull. The action set pieces are more elaborately staged and more frequent than those in the first film. Director James Cameron had a bigger budget to work with this time and with the smash science fiction action films ALIENS and THE ABYSS under his belt, his direction and orchestration of action is more assured in T2 than in the first film.

But the real star of this film is the groundbreaking special effects. T2 was one of the first films to make extensive use of the then new technology of CGI. The effects are used to bring the T-1000 to life (and death) in mind boggling ways. The robot is supposedly composed of shape-shifting liquid metal and the silver skinned android morphs through some incredible shapes and sizes. It was simply breathtaking in 1991 and it holds up well today even though the CGI technology has vastly improved.

When I saw those special effects for the first time I remember thinking, "okay, they can do anything in a film now, it's just a matter of money and time". With effects like those seen in T2, I imagined potential future films based on such DC Comics characters as the Metal Men, Metamorpho and Plastic Man (all of whom are shape shifters). I thought the metallic Terminator was a perfect template for Marvel's Silver Surfer and at the end of the film, when the T-1000 starts absorbing various surface textures, I thought "if there's ever a Thor movie, they could use these effects for the Absorbing Man." Well so far, we've seen both the Surfer and Thor on the big screen but the others remain (for now) in the realm of unwrought things.

Arnold utters three classic catch phrases: a reprise of "come with me if you want to live" from the first film, another "I'll be back" and "hasta la vista baby." Oh, and the product placement for Pepsi is almost wall-to-wall in this film. I half expected the T-1000 to morph into a Pepsi soda machine at some point.

TERMINATOR 2 is bigger, louder and faster than the original. There's a small armory worth of weapons used in the film and things blow up real good. Arnold brings a touch of humanity to his Terminator character at the end of the film and you really don't want to think too hard about the whole time travel/time paradox can of worms. Even though Sarah and John are still alive at the end of the film, their future still seems locked in stone if for no other reason than that Kyle Reese must be born at some point in time in order to return to the past and father John Connor because his birth sure wasn't an an immaculate conception.

I enjoyed T2 immensely but if I had to choose, I'd go with the original TERMINATOR film as the best. You just can't beat Arnold as an unemotional, unstoppable killer robot.

WHIPLASH RIVER



I finished reading WHIPLASH RIVER by Lou Berney yesterday evening. WHIPLASH is a sequel to Berney's first crime novel, GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, which I haven't read yet but certainly plan to.

WHIPLASH continues the adventures of Shake Bouchon, a getaway driver who has done time in prison and retired from the criminal life in Belize where he owns a beachfront restaurant. Trouble is, he owes money to the local drug kingpin, Baby Jesus. Shake doesn't have the cash to pay his debts but that soon becomes the least of his troubles when a masked gunman comes into the restaurant one night and shoots the place up in an attempt to kill an older man dining there.

Before you know it, Shake's restaurant is blown up and Shake and Quinn, the mysterious older man (who has a quite colorful and checkered past), are on the run from Baby Jesus, a hit team comprised of two Bonnie and Clyde wannabes, a female FBI agent and other shadowy and deadly forces.

Shake and Quinn escape and while on the run, Quinn convinces Shake to get involved in an elaborate heist in Cairo involving a priceless historical document (the original draft of a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt). To effectively stage the con, they recruit Gina, Shake's ex-girlfriend who has also retired from a life of crime, if only temporarily.

Shake, Quinn and Gina travel to Cairo where they put an ingenious confidence game into action. Their pursuers also follow them to Egypt and the plot takes many unexpected twists and turns before the surprise ending which sets things up nicely for more adventures with this trio.

Author Berney channels the great Elmore Leonard in this fast-paced and funny crime novel. The dialogue is sharp, the characters quirky and the con well planned and executed. This is a good one and Berney is an author to watch. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

THIS IS CNN


CNN is my main source for television news on a national and international level. I have it on in the morning while I'm getting dressed and I watch it when I'm at the gym in the afternoons. I'll tune in once more right at bedtime to catch up on any breaking news story.

CNN, like all other cable news channels, has 24 hours to fill 365 days a year. News doesn't take a day off. It's a tremendous challenge and a drain on resources. From early morning to prime time CNN does a good job of providing live news coverage. But if you tune in from nine o'clock to midnight on a week night, the news you're getting is not new. Here's why.

The week night line-up is ERIN BURNETT: OUT FRONT from 6:00 to 7:00, ANDERSON COOPER 360 from 7:00 to 8:00, PIERS MORGAN (an interview show, not a hard news show) from 8:00 to 9:00. Then at 9, it's the re-run of the earlier ANDERSON COOPER, at 10 the rerun of the earlier ERIN BURNETT and at 11 the rerun of PIERS MORGAN.

I fully understand that some nights are slow news nights and there's not that much news to report. For breaking news of that type, CNN does have the HEADLINE NEWS channel and there are other cable news outlets. I also understand that CNN is hemorrhaging viewers and money as more and more people turn to either other cable channels or get their news from other sources, primarily online news websites. CNN has to do something to try and stop the bleeding and it makes sense from a business standpoint not to spend the money to fill those last three hours every night with brand new, live content. But still, I expect a 24 hour news channel to be just that.

All of this reminds me of when I worked in local television news. There were many nights when nothing of note occurred between our six and ten o'clock newscasts. In fact, the ten o'clock show was usually much the same as the earlier one, with a few new wire stories added and the order of our local stories shuffled up. We tried to have a fresh lead whenever possible. On many nights, we had the show ready to go by nine o'clock (or earlier) and we spent that last hour in the newsroom watching TV and simultaneously waiting for something to happen and kinda secretly hoping nothing did.

We did not have any live remote capabilities in the late '70s. Our nighttime news crew consisted of our anchor, our producer (me) and maybe one reporter who had already finished his/her packaged story and left before we went on the air. We often joked that we should just record the newscast at nine and go home early. We figured the viewers wouldn't know the difference. But we always knew that the first time we tried a stunt like that would be on the night that the Texas state capitol building would blow up and we'd look awfully damned foolish if we didn't lead with that story.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

TOY HUNTER/FARMER/GATHERER



I watched an episode of THE TOY HUNTER on the Travel Channel the other night. You may have seen this show. Jordan, a toy dealer goes to people's homes and finds cool vintage toys that he then buys and sells at collector's shows and/or on his website.

I enjoy seeing what Jordan finds but, like most other "reality" shows, I can't help but feel that the whole thing is if not technically "faked", it's at least set-up to achieve pre-determined results. I believe that before he sets foot in any toy collector's home to search for treasures, an in-depth conversation has already occurred between the collector and Jordan and the show's producers. They know exactly what they're going to eventually "find" and they've more than likely already agreed upon a final selling price. After all, if Jordan doesn't find any cool toys to buy, you don't have a television show.

I can overlook all of that because I'm genuinely interested in seeing the toys he finds. A lot of the stuff is vintage items from the '70s and '80s. I can admire and respect some of those toys but I certainly don't have an emotional attachment to toys from that era (I was in high school and college in the '70s and a college graduate in the '80s and I certainly wasn't buying toys in those years).

What amazed me in the episode the other night was that Jordan "found" some Major Matt Mason figures that looked to be in pretty decent shape and he passed on them, saying his clients weren't interested in toys from that era.

I damn sure am.

For those of you who came in late, Major Matt Mason was manufactured by Mattel Toy Company circa 1968-1969. Advertised as "Mattel's Man in Space", Mason was an attempt to cash in on the then red-hot NASA space program and the first manned landing on the moon in 1969. Mason and his buddies looked like regular astronauts and their space-suits and gear was only slightly unrealistic. I remember he had a flying sled, a crawling vehicle with front "wheels" of five exposed spokes and a multi-tiered moon base play set.

The second wave of Mason toys introduced Callisto, an alien villain with a ray-gun like weapon that shot a retractable line of colored string as a "death ray."

The figures of Mason and his men were much smaller than the contemporary G.I. Joe and Captain Action figures. Mason was only a few inches tall and he was made entirely out of rubber molded over a bendable wire armature. He didn't have the ball-and-socket flexibility of G.I. Joe or Captain Action but he was poseable and his suit was fairly well detailed and included a detachable helmet.

There was a pretty aggressive advertising campaign for Mason in the pages of DC Comics titles over the course of those years. The full color, illustrated ads featured Mason, his gear, vehicles and station, all of which were highly desirable in my eyes.

I was in junior high school at the time and was rapidly approaching that cusp of life after which it would no longer be respectable or cool to buy and play with toys such as Major Matt Mason. I did buy a Mason figure, his space sled, the all-terrain crawler vehicle and a Callisto figure. I never got his space station and lord only knows what happened to all of my Mason toys. I suspect lighter fluid and matches played a major part in their demise.

Other than the toys themselves, the only other Mason item from those years that I'm aware of is a Big-Little Book published by Whitman. It's a small, thick, square-shaped book that contains a black-and-white illustration on one page and a page of story text on the opposite page. It's the only piece of Major Matt Mason memorabilia that I own but I'd love to get my hands on some of the toys (provided they don't cost a kings' ransom).

Hey, Jordan, Toy Hunter guy. Are you listening? Next time you run across some Major Matt Mason stuff, buy it. There's an old guy in central Texas that wants them.

TRIVIA ANSWERS AND QUESTIONS


Prior to SCHINDLER'S LIST, the last Best Picture of the Year Oscar winner was Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley McLaine and Fred MacMurray. It's a terrific film and if you've never seen it, you should do so immediately.

The first Best Picture of the Year Oscar winner that had footage shot in Texas was also the first Best Picture of the Year winner, WINGS. This silent WWI aerial epic has my highest recommendation.

Two other Best Picture of the Year winners were shot in Texas. Can you name them? I'll make it easy for you. It's not GIANT, THE ALAMO, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, TENDER MERCIES or PLACES IN THE HEART.  All of these films were nominated for Best Picture but none of them won the award.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

THIS IS THE POWER OF ROME



SPARTACUS plays in 70mm tonight and tomorrow night at the Paramount Theatre. Show times are 7:30 for both nights. This is a terrific film, one of my all-time favorites and it's sure to be even more spectacular in the 70mm format. If you've never seen a film in 70mm, get down to the Paramount this week and check out one of these films: SPARTACUS, THE LAST ACTION HERO, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. The Paramount is the only theater in town equipped to show films in the 70mm format and no one knows how much longer that will be case with the rise of digital projection. More info can be found at www.austintheatre.org. If you can't make it to SPARTACUS, here are my notes to enjoy.

The “sword and sandal” genre of films had a humble beginning in the late 1950s when American strongman Steve Reeves starred in the Italian production of Hercules (1959). This badly dubbed, low-budget actioner sported the magnificent physique of Reeves, lush color cinematography, beautiful women, so-so special effects and some pretty good action sequences. It was an international success, opening the floodgates for a veritable deluge of similar films featuring Hercules, Goliath, Machiste and assorted other mythical strongmen. The vast majority of these films are bad but vastly enjoyable for what they are: micro-budget fantasies with a heavy emphasis on muscles. The cycle ran for several years before finally dying out in the mid-‘60s.

But “sword and sandal” films, with their weird mash-ups of Greek and Roman myths and history, weren’t relegated to Grade Z Italian films. Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s magnum opus, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is still far and away the best of the fantasy oriented s&s films and Hollywood produced its’ share of big budget, historical epics set in ancient times. While not technically “sword and sandal” films, such works as Ben-Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and El Cid (1961), are all grand scale epics which contain some s&s elements.

The genre eventually died out, only to be revived by director Ridley Scott with his Academy Award winning Gladiator (2000), which won six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects and Best Sound. Gladiator, chock full of CGI effects, impressive battle sequences and numerous fights to the death in the gladiatorial arena was a digital bread and circus for modern audiences. The success of the film has led to several other ancient spectacles over the last dozen years including: Troy (2004), Alexander (2004) and 300 (2006), among others. All of these films, given the spit and polish of modern film technology, look great but none of them are fit to hold the cestus of another earlier work which defined the genre and to which they all owe a tremendous debt.

We speak of course of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Originally planned to be directed by Anthony Mann, producer Kirk Douglas fired Mann after a few days of shooting and replaced him with Kubrick, with whom he had worked on Paths of Glory (1957). Although Kubrick himself was disappointed in this saga about the legendary hero (superbly played by Douglas), who led a slave revolt against Rome in 71 B.C., it has come to be regarded as the best of the “s&s” historical epics.

At first glance, Spartacus appears to be an atypical Kubrick film as it is shot in a straight-forward, studio style (indeed, many scenes were filmed on Universal Studios’ back lot) and as such, contains very little of Kubrick’s signature visual flourishes. But from a thematic standpoint, the film fits neatly into the Kubrick oeuvre as it deals with the dehumanization of man (slaves) at the hands of a cold, unfeeling machine (Imperial Rome).

At the beating heart of the film is a spirited, emotionally charged performance by Kirk Douglas, a superlative supporting cast headed by Jean Simmons as the slave girl Varinia (Spartacus’s true love) and Laurence Olivier as the Roman schemer Crassus (Spartacus’s mortal enemy). There are outstanding battle sequences shot on real locations with literally thousands of extras, a strong sense of time and place and a heavy emphasis on sex. This is one of the few epic films in which even the dialogue scenes are fascinating to watch. The palace bath chats between Olivier, John Gavin (Julius Caesar), Charles Laughton and other shrewd Roman politicos are interesting not only because they reveal political motives for wanting Spartacus and his memory destroyed but also because there are strong intimations of homosexuality, especially in the restored sequence with Olivier (whose dialogue was dubbed by Anthony Hopkins) and Tony Curtis.

But the film’s major distinction is the screenplay, adapted from Howard Fast’s novel by Dalton Trumbo (his first work after being blacklisted in Hollywood for several years). The script has a genuine revolutionary spirit that is reflected in Spartacus’s many stirring speeches to his army of followers. Trumbo also establishes, through the words and deeds of Crassus, the true nature of a fascist. Other highlights include Spartacus being forced by his Roman captors to a fight to the death with a fellow slave (Strode), Laughton and slave dealer Peter Ustinov having a gluttonous meal together, Simmons’ nude swim, the fireballs being launched at the start of the start of the enormous battle sequence and the scene in which the Romans try to determine which of the captured rebels is the real and true Spartacus while each man proudly proclaims, “I’m Spartacus!”

Spartacus received six Academy Award nominations including: Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov, winner), Best Color Cinematography (winner), Best Color Costume Design (winner), Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration (winner), Best Editing and Best Score.

After its’ initial release, Spartacus suffered severe cuts and overall dismal treatment over the years. In 1991, a fully restored version was released which brought the film back to glorious life. The Paramount Theatre is proud to present this restored version of Spartacus in the grandeur of 70mm. If you’ve only seen this film on television or DVD, you haven’t really seen it. This format truly brings to life “the power of Rome.”




USELESS OSCAR TRIVIA QUESTIONS WALK AMONG US



Prior to SCHINDLER'S LIST, what was the last Best Picture of the Year winner to be filmed in black and white?

And what was the first Best Picture of the Year winner to contain footage shot in Texas?

Monday, August 20, 2012

ANOTHER USELESS OSCAR TRIVIA QUESTION


American movies gained a letter rating system in 1968 and the first such alphabet soup grouping was as follows: G, M, R and X.

"G" was for General audiences, anyone and everyone could see a film rated "G". Few films had this designation, outside of Disney features, as a "G" rating was considered a kiss of death commercially.

"M" meant that the film was for "Mature" audiences. Tickets for these films were also sold to any one who ponied up the admission price at the box office. "M" later became "PG", which stood for "Parental Guidance suggested". When INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM was released with a PG rating, some groups complained that the violence was a bit too intense for younger audience members and the rating "PG-13" came into being.

Films rated "R" required an accompanying adult for viewers under 17, while an "X" rating meant
that absolutely no one under 18 was allowed to see the film (LAST TANGO IN PARIS anyone?) This rating has since been changed to "NC-17" but you rarely see it anymore as it too is considered box-office poison. The makers of some films that contain extreme content (sex and/or violence) release their product without a rating but that's still a dicey proposition.

Keep in mind that under this system, an "X" rating is not the same as a Triple-XXX rating that was and is routinely found on hardcore porn films.

In the history of the Academy Awards, only two films that were originally rated "X" on first release, earned Best Picture of the Year Oscar nominations. One of these films actually won the award. Can you name them?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT TO LIVE



A man dressed entirely in black and wearing sunglasses (even though it's night) enters a Los Angeles police station. He's carrying multiple automatic weapons. He begins to calmly and methodically shoot everyone he sees. Return fire is ineffectual. In the end, everyone in the building is dead except for two people, a man and a woman, who have escaped. The shooter pursues them.

Is this some new whacked out shooter episode ripped from the headlines of CNN?

No. It's a scene that occurs about midway through THE TERMINATOR (1984), which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Paramount Theatre yesterday afternoon. The scene described above seems somehow spookily prescient seen from the viewpoint of 2012. What I neglected to mention about the scene is that the man, Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes a spectacular entrance into the police station: he drives a police cruiser through the front door and into the sergeant's desk, killing the man seated there. This is moments after he utters, for the first time in film history, the line of dialogue that he's become forever famous for: "I'll be back."

THE TERMINATOR came out of nowhere in 1984. I remember seeing it as a first run film at the old (and horrible) Northcross Mall theaters. I knew who Arnold was, of course, from seeing CONAN THE BARBARIAN but I had no idea who this guy James Cameron was. By the time the movie was over, I definitely knew that he was a filmmaker to watch. And in those dim, dark days before CGI special effects, the late and legendary Stan Winston brought the Terminator to vivid life using a combination of stop-motion animation and full-size puppetry. It works beautifully.

THE TERMINATOR is a non-stop, pedal-to-the-metal chase movie, with a few quiet moments to allow the audience to catch it's breath and for the characters to provide much needed and quite useful amounts of expository dialogue. It's a cheap and fast B-movie but it's smart and a ton of fun to watch. It also reminds modern audiences of just how god-awful things were in the '80s: the hair, the clothes, and especially the music are enough to make you puke. But that's the way things were back then and THE TERMINATOR serves as a perfect time capsule for an underwhelming decade.

Schwarzenegger was never better than here. Playing an unstoppable killer robot with no emotions and little dialogue was inspired casting. It was the role he was born to play. Michael Biehn and Linda Hamilton are appealing as Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor respectively, the man and woman on the run from the Terminator.

The film has three climaxes (two false, one real) before the monster is finally killed in the final reel. And don't think too hard about the can of worms time paradox this scenario opens up. It'll make your head hurt. Just as in the PLANET OF THE APES series, there's two ways to explain all this messing around with the time stream. One, is that time is cyclical and happens in an exact way and loops back upon itself when anyone travels into the past and everything proceeds again from that point. Or, when the past is tampered with in any way, it creates another timeline, a parallel, alternate line of events in which things play out differently because of what has been changed.

The title of this piece is a line of dialogue from the film but it is not something said by Schwarzenegger. Biehn says it, not Arnold. The Austrian Oak may have said this line in other films that he starred in but here, those words come out of someone else's mouth for the first time.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

TERMINATOR/A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

I'm going to introduce the double feature of THE TERMINATOR/A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at the Paramount at 2:00 this afternoon. Come on down and see two great, classic science fiction films. More info at www.austintheatre.org

GORILLA MY DREAMS



I had a blast watching the original PLANET OF THE APES on the big screen at the Paramount last night. Charlton Heston was a honey-baked ham of an actor but he's great in this genre classic. Here are my thoughts and memories of this durable film and the industry it spawned.

The first time I heard about a movie called PLANET OF THE APES was seeing the one-sheet poster in the lobby of the State Theater on Congress Avenue. The year was either 1967 or 1968. There was no Internet then, no readily available source for news and information about upcoming movies. Our one source for the straight dope on new "monster" movies was FAMOUS MONSTERS. I do recall that Forry Ackerman ran some articles about the film (although the original film wasn't cover featured, that honor fell to BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES). But I remember that these articles, which focused mainly on the amazing make-up by John Chambers, ran after I had already seen the film.

I saw PLANET OF THE APES as a first run film at the State Theater. It blew my mind. I never saw that ending coming. It stayed with me for days. I decided to read the novel (originally published as MONKEY PLANET) by Pierre Boulle. I struggled my way through most of it but it was so totally different than the movie (and slightly over my seventh-grade reading ability), that I didn't enjoy it. I have a copy of it on my shelf and one of these I'm going to tackle it again and read it from an adult perspective.

Oddly enough, there never was a comic book adaptation of PLANET OF THE APES published when the film was new. Dell and Gold Key Comics both did regular comic book adaptations of films and they were usually pretty good. Gold Key did publish a comic book version of BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and that issue is a highly-prized collector's item, especially if it still contains the poster that was originally included within the comic.

Marvel Comics acquired the rights to publish a POTA black-and-white magazine in the mid-'70s. This magazine, which sported gorgeous painted covers, ran an original story set on the Planet of the Apes in the front of the book, several articles about the films and graphic adaptations of the original films. Finally, a comic book version of the original POTA, with art by one of my favorite comic book artists, George Tuska.

Of course, we can't forget KAMANDI, THE LAST BOY ON EARTH,  the post-disaster science fiction comic book series that Jack Kirby produced for DC Comics. It's a terrific series, full of high adventure and wild concepts and it was clearly inspired by the success of the POTA films (see the cover of the first issue!). Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist and I love everything he did. KAMANDI, which is currently being published in handsome hardcover collections, is highly recommended.

Meanwhile, back at the movies. The POTA cinematic franchise continued with BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. I saw this one at the old Fox Theater on Airport Blvd the summer it was released. I was in junior high at the time and it was a big deal, a highly anticipated movie event which should have written an end to the series (the planet is destroyed at the end of the movie). But the box office take was too good to stop making monkey movies and a third film, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES was produced.

In this one, Zira and Cornelius escape the destruction of the planet at the end of BENEATH in a spaceship that takes them back to present day earth where their child, Baby Milo, becomes the progenitor of the whole intelligent ape species. Just thinking about this time paradox makes my head hurt. I didn't see ESCAPE at the theater. Instead, I caught it one Friday night on the CBS LATE MOVIE.

Two more films followed, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. My interest in POTA had pretty much died by the time these lesser efforts were released and to this day, I've never seen these films in their entirety. I do recall that all five APES films used to run in dusk-to-dawn marathons at drive-in theaters (remember them?) around town. They were promoted with the tag line "Go Ape!" but I never worked up the enthusiasm to sit through them all.

There was an animated POTA Saturday morning cartoon series that ran on NBC for one season and I remember seeing a few episodes. And there was a prime time POTA series on Friday nights on CBS but I don't think I ever watched it. POTA also spawned model kits, action figures and other toys (which are highly prized by fans) but I never bought any of them.

My closest brush with POTA fame and fortune came at one of the first comic book conventions held in Austin in the late '70s. These conventions were the brainchild of Jay Knowles, who owned and operated the first back-issue comic book shop in Austin, the legendary N.E. Mercantile Company. The store was housed in a small building on North Lamar right next door to the fabled Terminex Bug building (it was across the street from the Tavern at 12th at Lamar).

The first few conventions were held at the old Gondolier Hotel (Riverside and IH-35). I volunteered to work at the cons and I had a great time. A featured guest one year was a stunt man (and forgive me, I don't recall the gentleman's name), who had worked in POTA as a gorilla solider. He still had the long sleeved tunic, the leather vest, the bandolier, the pants, the two-toed boots and braided leather whip that he used in the film and he brought them with him to the convention. He also had a mass produced POTA gorilla full-head mask.

I forget whose idea it was but at some point it was decided that I should don this get up and wander around the hotel giving guests ape attitude as a swaggering gorilla enforcer. Believe it or not, the clothes all fit me then and the stunt man blackened up the areas around my eyes and my neck and slipped the mask over my head. I must confess, I made a pretty good gorilla and for a brief time, I wore a costume that was actually used in the film.

I recall hanging out with the stunt man by the pool later, drinking beer and listening to  stories about his career. If anyone reading this can recall this gentleman's name (I seem to remember that he was later killed while performing a stunt in a film), please let me know. He deserves to be properly remembered.

The gorilla suit wasn't my only brush with playing dress-up at one of those comic book conventions. At the next year's con, I was coerced into wearing a full-body Godzilla suit that someone had made out of foam rubber. I had to strip down to my tighty-whiteys to get into the thing, which was like wearing a full body sauna. I had to have help walking around the convention (I could hardly see anything out of a small slit in the neck) and by the time I got out, I was soaking wet with sweat. I don't know who wore the suit after me but I sure hope they gave it a good hosing down.

Friday, August 17, 2012

STEVEN SPIELBERG TRIVIA TEXAS STYLE


Steven Spielberg shot one movie in its' entirety within the great state of Texas. He also shot one scene (and one scene only) in Texas for another movie. Can anyone name these two films?

OF APES AND PODS



I'm going to introduce the double feature of PLANET OF THE APES/INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS tonight at 7:00 at the Paramount. Come on down and enjoy two classic science fiction films. If you can't make it, here are my notes for the films for you to enjoy.

At first glance, the two films on display here have little in common other than, of course, being classic works of cinematic science fiction. But the commonalities are there. They were both based on bestselling novels which give the films a solid and literate grounding. The respective films both spawned remakes and sequels and reboots on into the 21st century. And they both address social concerns of the day. All of these elements and more combine to make them genre touchstones and cinematic landmarks.

Don Siegel’s adaptation of Jack Finney’s classic novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is one of the best and best known science fiction films of the 1950s. Kevin McCarthy plays a doctor, who, upon his return from a medical convention, finds his hometown disturbingly different and quickly discovers the cause: an invasion of parasitic aliens (in the form of giant pods) that have the power to replace humans with soulless replicas. Shot in a sober visual style that becomes more energetic as the film progresses, and using real locations for the fictional California town of Santa Mira, the first half of the film creates a strong sense of unease that turns to outright terror in the second half as the good citizens of Santa Mira start to send the pods across the country.

At the heart of the film is the terrible mystery of the process of the take-over, which is marvelously realized in a scene where McCarthy and his girlfriend (Wynter) are shown by Belice (Donovan) and his wife the blank pod that will become him, if he goes to sleep. McCarthy’s instinctive reaction to this vision of “otherness” is simple and straightforward: kill it with a pitchfork. But the pod can’t move and it’s beginning to look human, which adds to the effectiveness of the sequence.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers ranks as one of Siegel’s best films, despite studio interference. Against his wishes, in order to make the film more positive, a prologue and epilogue were added and much of the humorous dialogue of the first half of the film (some of which was written by Sam Peckinpah) was excised. These alterations, however, don’t diminish the power of Siegel’s own ending, with McCarthy staring wild-eyed into the camera and shouting “You’re next!” as cars and trucks with blank-faced drivers whiz by, taking no notice of his warning. Some critics have termed the film a sly indictment of ‘50s McCarthyism (the notorious Senator Joe, not actor Kevin).

Invasion of the Body Snatchers has, remarkably, been remade three times, first as Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, then as Body Snatchers in 1994 and in 2007 as simply Invasion. Perhaps at some future date we’ll be treated to yet another iteration entitled Snatchers. But no matter how many more versions of this story are filmed, it will be difficult to top the shock and suspense of the first film, which stands as a genre masterpiece.

Released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes combined thought-provoking social commentary with action and adventure to produce a terrific film. In the far future, a spaceship carrying three astronauts from earth, crash lands on a distant planet. The lone survivor, Taylor (Heston), soon discovers that the humans on the planet exist in a primitive, wild, non-verbal state while the real rulers of the world are intelligent apes, specifically gorillas (army/police), chimpanzees (doctors/scientists) and orangutans (priests/philosophers). This clash of cultures provides great drama and genre catch phrases: “Take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape!”

Taylor finds sympathy from Zira (Hunter) and Cornelius (McDowall) who recognize that this human who can speak and think is something special and different. Against the wishes of Dr. Zaius (Evans) the trio set out to explore the “forbidden zone” where they discover the truth about the planet of the apes in one of the greatest final shots in film history.

Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Rod Serling adapted Pierre Boulle’s novel giving the script a decidedly Twilight Zone feel and director Franklin J. Schaffner skillfully orchestrates the action. The make-up by John Chambers earned a special Academy Award and the film was nominated for two other Oscars: Best Score and Best Costume Design.

The film became a cultural touchstone launching four sequels: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). There was also a Saturday morning animated series and a prime time network television series on CBS in 1974. At the height of “ape-mania” there were POTA toys, action figures, model kits, comic books and other paraphernalia. Tim Burton remade Planet of the Apes in 2001 but the film was a resounding failure despite the preponderance of CGI effects. It wasn’t until last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes that new blood was pumped into the franchise. The film was a critical and commercial success and promises more installments to come in this movie franchise that simply will not die.

And it shouldn’t. Planet of the Apes is a remarkably imaginative concept and the idea has been for the most part well-executed over the years. Still, the first film remains the best of the bunch, a genre classic that shocked and amazed audiences in 1968 and still has the power to do so in 2012.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

FORBIDDEN MEMORIES



I just got word that tonight's double feature of FORBIDDEN PLANET/METROPOLIS at the Stateside has been cancelled due to problems with the digital projector. I've been informed that an effort is being made to reschedule the films but nothing is confirmed at this time.

So, since I won't be introducing these films tonight (and fans won't be seeing them), here's the next best thing: my notes on FORBIDDEN PLANET and a couple of stories about my experiences with that film.

Seen in retrospect, “Forbidden Planet” looks for all the world like a blueprint for Gene Roddenberry’s classic “Star Trek” television series. There’s a futuristic spacecraft, cruiser C-57D, which belongs to the United Planets. The captain and crew wear distinctive uniforms, carry communicators on their belts and use ray-guns as the sidearm of choice. Upon landing on the planet Altair IV, they encounter a mad scientist, Morbeus (Pidgeon) and his beautiful daughter, Alta (Francis) and their faithful robot companion Robby. And something else, something…deadly.

Produced in wide-screen Technicolor by MGM, “Forbidden Planet” was the first science fiction film to depict an interstellar journey outside of our solar system. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” all of the action occurs on a series of spectacularly designed sound stages including the cycloramic background depicting the planetary landscape and the jaw-dropping vistas of the immense and utterly alien Krell machinery.

Other impressive visual effects include the immortal Robby the Robot (another genre icon), the Id Monster (vividly brought to life by animation provided by the Walt Disney Studios) and Ann Francis as Alta. The electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron is one of the first synthesized soundtracks ever recorded and adds immensely to the otherworldly and alien feel of the film. Veteran actor Walter Pidgeon delivers a memorable performance as Morbeus while the remainder of the cast is composed of young actors, most of whom would gain fame on various television shows in the 1960s.

While Leslie Nielsen may be better known to modern audiences for the tomfoolery of the “Naked Gun” films and others, please bear in mind that his appearance here is not intended to provoke laughter. While there is plenty of comic relief in the film, mostly courtesy of Robby and Earl Holliman, this is not some cheap-jack production to be held up for ridicule by those who admire “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” “Forbidden Planet” is a genre classic, a colorful, widescreen extravaganza full of that “golly-gee-whiz” sense of wonder, that, if you’ll let it, will make you feel like an awestruck kid of ten again.

The first time I saw FORBIDDEN PLANET was on the big screen at the Paramount Theatre. No, it wasn't on first release (I'm old, but I'm not quite that old). It was the summer of 1977 as I recall. The Paramont had shut its' doors as a first run movie theatre in 1974 (the year I graduated from Austin High). The last first run movie I saw there was THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

The extensive restoration and renovation work on the theatre had yet to occur but in order to raise funds for that effort, the Paramount would occassionally show vintage films. It was far removed from the well-run and fully programmed Summer Classic Film Series we all know and love but nonetheless, it was a chance to see some good old movies on the big screen.

STAR WARS had been released earlier that summer. I loved it and saw it several times at the old Capitol Plaza Cinema. I had never seen FORBIDDEN PLANET but its' reputation as a genre landmark was well known and I knew that it was something I needed to see. 

In many ways, that first viewing of FORBIDDEN PLANET was as revelatory and transformative as the first time I saw STAR WARS, just a few weeks earlier. I was totally blown away by the special effects (remarkably sophisticated for 1956), the story, the sets, Anne Francis and Robby the Robot. What a terrrific film! It quickly became one of my all-time favorites and I've seen it many times since over the years, both at the Paramount and at home. I never get tired of it.

I attended the first Wizard World Austin comic book convention in the fall of 2010. One of the featured guests was Richard Anderson who, in addition to appearing as Oscar Goldman on both THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN on television, was in FORBIDDEN PLANET.

I was walking around the dealer's room when I spotted Mr. Anderson. He was sitting by himself at his booth where he had stacks of photos to sign and sell. There was no one around him at the time so I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, "Mr. Anderson, it's a pleasure to meet you. Forbidden Planet is one of my all-time favorite movies. Thanks for the memories."

He shook my hand and thanked me. "I hear that a lot from guys your age," he replied. And then, totally unprompted, he started telling me an anecdote about the film (which I believe he's probably told many, many times).

"You know, when we first started shooting the film at the MGM studios, we all thought we were just doing another B-movie, since most science fiction films at the time were low budget affairs. But after the first week, the studio heads saw the dailies and were so impressed with what they saw that they told the producer to increase the budget and lengthen the shooting schedule. They were confident that they had a hit. And they did."

I'm not quite sure I totally believe that story. MGM was the crown jewel of movie studios and they didn't throw money around lightly nor go into any production in a half-assed manner. By the time the cameras were rolling, they pretty much knew exactly what they had and the best way to get it onto the screen. They wouldn't greenlight a sizable budget for a major science fiction film and then change it so soon after production started.

But then again, what do I know? I've just read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies. Mr. Anderson was there. He set foot upon the surface of Altair IV, not me. He should know.

That's his story and out of respect for a very dear and kind man, I'm sticking with it.
FORBIDDEN PLANET/METROPOLIS

I'm going to introduce the double feature of FORBIDDEN PLANET and METROPOLIS (the 1980s Giorgio Moroder version) at Stateside at the Paramount tonight at 7:15. Come on down and check out these two classic science fiction films.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE PROWLER



Just as there is "no crying in baseball", there is no perfect crime in film noir. That's what Van Heflin learns the hard way in THE PROWLER (1951) which I watched last night.

A woman (Evelyn Keyes) sees a prowler outside her Los Angeles home and calls the police. Two uniformed officers arrive to investigate. One of them is Heflin who, right from the start, you can tell is a bubble off plumb. The woman is home alone every night while her husband works as a disc jockey for an all-night radio program. Heflin likes what he sees in the attractive blond and he pays a follow up visit without his partner.

He quickly comes on to Keyes and although she at first refuses his advances, she ultimately gives in. They begin an illicit and torrid affair but the husband soon starts to suspect and quits his job to stay home with his wife. What to do?

Playing on the fact of the previous prowler call, Heflin stages a break-in at the house, knowing the husband will investigate. He does and Heflin guns him down but arranges things to look like an accidental homicide. At the following police inquest, Heflin is acquitted of any wrong doing and the path to the new widow Keyes is now open to him.

Keyes believes his innocence and the two marry and move to Las Vegas where they buy a motor court. But she has some unexpected news for Heflin that causes his carefully laid plans to suddenly start to fatally unwind.

From the streets of Los Angeles to a dramatic climax in the high desert, THE PROWLER is a spare, taut little masterpiece. Joseph Losey directed the film from a screenplay (uncredited) by Dalton Trumbo. Oddly enough, both men were later blacklisted in the Hollywood witch-hunts of the '50s. Losey moved to England and made films there for the rest of his career. He never returned to the United States. Trumbo was out of official screenwriting work for many years although he did write material that was submitted under other names. It would be years before a screenplay credit with his name would appear on a Hollywood film.

THE PROWLER has been championed by James Ellroy, the dean of hard boiled American crime fiction and the film has undergone a complete digital restoration courtesy of the UCLA film school.

I had never seen this film, much less even heard of it, until I chanced to see the listing for it on Turner Classic Movies. It sounded interesting so I recorded it and watched it last night. I'm glad I did. It's a top-notch noir and highly recommended. Check it out.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL





Tonight is the last night to catch this classic 1950s science-fiction double feature at the Paramount Theatre. If you can't make it to the show, here are my film notes to enjoy.

The 1950s were the one, true Golden Age of American science fiction films. More films in this genre were produced during this time period than any before or since. And with good reason. Science fiction cinema was the perfect tabula rasa upon which to project the zeitgeist of the era. The heady optimism of the nascent space race was reflected in such films as Destination Moon (1950), Flight to Mars (1951) and Rocketship X-M (1950), among others.

But it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Fear and paranoia of various kinds informed a number of other films. The newly harnessed power of the atom, while capable of providing good in the form of energy, could also result in death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, as was recently witnessed first-hand in the 1945 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. And it was the atom run wild that created so many memorable giant beasts in such classics as Them! (1954), The Beginning of the End (1957), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957) and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), among many others.

America was involved in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and the fear of being invaded, either by forces from without or from within was shown in The War of the Worlds (1953), Invaders From Mars (1953), The Thing (From Another World) (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). To be sure, there were countless cheap, exploitative films produced during this time as well. But even when hampered by budgetary restrictions, some of them at least tried to address these issues (and others) in a sub-textual way without interfering with what really sold tickets: spaceships, flying saucers, alien beings and mutated monsters. Two of the all-time best science fiction films of the 1950s are on display here.

Though it lacks any CGI special effects (which the execrable 2008 remake was chock full of), Robert Wise’s masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still ranks as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Soberly, almost solemnly, it depicts the arrival of an alien dignitary, the enigmatic Klaatu (Rennie), who has come to earth along with his implacable giant robot Gort (Martin), to deliver a message. Klaatu calls the world’s leaders to Washington, D.C. (where his saucer has landed), but while they squabble amongst themselves, he goes about the human race incognito to discover why humans can’t hear the truth. He is aided in his quest by a young widow (Neal) and her son (Gray), both of whom come to have real feelings for the alien.

Wise orchestrates the action in a very realistic manner and the special effects are effective and convincing. Michael Rennie, in one of the most iconic performances in the genre, is superb as the Christ-like alien who dies and returns to life before ascending back into the heavens from whence he came. Gort is suitably menacing and the eerie score by maestro Bernard Herrmann is unforgettable. And finally, the message of the film, live in peace or face utter annihilation, is as resonant now as it was then. Science fiction films rarely get any better than this intelligent and literate classic. Gort, Klaatu Barada Nikto!

Ray Harryhausen is the only special effects technician in the history of film to rightly be called an auteur. Harryhausen’s science fiction and fantasy films all bore the stamp of his signature work: eye-popping, jaw-dropping stop-motion animation. Forget computers. Harryhausen did it the hard (and best) way: by hand. Every one of his miniature models were uniquely and elaborately designed to move. Using an armature of wire and meta, with ball and socket joints and a covering of rubber or fur, Harryhausen’s creations came to life under his expert, skilled hands as living, breathing, moving, real flesh and blood, three-dimensional characters. And that’s what his creatures were, characters, not just special effects. Each one had a personality and distinctive mannerisms that made them all unforgettable.

Stop-motion animation is a painstaking process designed to try men’s souls and sanity. Each model is moved in minimal, micrometer measured increments. After each movement, one single frame of film is shot. Then the models are moved once again, ever so slightly and, again, a frame of film is exposed. When you consider that twenty-four frames of film equal one second of running time, you begin to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the task at hand. Once the models were put through their movements, the film was then composited into previously filmed scenes of live action with human actors. Matching the movements of monsters and men took almost preternatural skill, but Harryhausen appears to have it in is DNA. Working from illustrated storyboards done in pre-production, he knew exactly what each animated sequence should look like. The results were a seamless blend of action, producing some of the greatest and most enduring images in the cinema of the fantastic.

Harryhausen worked with legendary stop-motion artist Willis O’Brien on Mighty Joe Young in 1949 before embarking on his first solo effort for Warner Brothers in 1953. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was loosely based on the short story “The Fog Horn” by Harryhausen’s boyhood pal, Ray Bradbury. Both men shared an intense passion for all things dinosaur and that love is clearly on display in this film. An atomic blast (what else) thaws out and reawakens a prehistoric monster dubbed a rhedosaurus. The monster, superbly animated by Harryhausen, makes its’ way down the east coast of the United States and begins wreaking havoc in New York City. The beast is finally destroyed in a spectacular, fiery climax at Coney Island amusement park.

It’s a simple story but it’s extremely engaging. Genre icon Kenneth Tobey (The Thing, It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) is on hand and future bad guy Lee Van Cleef is the sharpshooter who figures in the beast’s demise. Harryhausen moved to Columbia Pictures for the next phase of his career where he made three more ‘50s science fiction landmarks: It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

Monday, August 13, 2012

THE GOOD WAR ARTIST



Back in the '40s,'50s and '60s, Carl Barks drew hundreds of stories featuring Donald Duck, his three nephews and Uncle Scrooge McDuck for various comic books published by Dell and Gold Key. He was a superlative artist but those comics didn't run creator credits for writers, artists, inkers, letterers and colorists like today's books do. Most of us kids who read those comics didn't know who Barks was by name, but we knew his work by sight. He was quite simply "the good duck artist."

Joe Kubert didn't create his brilliant comic book art anonymously over his astonishingly long and remarkably rich career. He signed both his cover and interior art in many instances and his style was unmistakable. And for this child of the '60s, Joe Kubert was "the good war artist."

If Joe Kubert had only ever illustrated the long-running Sgt. Rock series that ran in DC Comics' OUR ARMY AT WAR, his place in comic book history would be assured. The Sgt. Rock series, written by Robert Kanigher and beautifully illustrated by Kubert, is top-flight work depicting men achieving heroic and noble deeds amid the horrors, the stress, the insanity of war. Sometimes just surviving was enough. Sgt. Rock and his men in Easy Company never stopped fighting the good fight. Rock fearlessly led his men into danger and even though the ultimate price was sometimes paid by one of his troops, Rock somehow was still standing when the battle was done.

But Joe Kubert was far more than Sgt. Rock. Over the course of a career that began when he was a teenager in the late '40s, Kubert worked for a variety of publishers before finding a permanent home at DC Comics where, in addition to Rock, he pencilled such first rate series as The Viking Prince, Enemy Ace, Hawkman, Firehair, Ragman, Tor and more.

Kubert's Enemy Ace series (which began as a backup in OUR ARMY AT WAR, was then tried out in SHOWCASE and finally earned a home in STAR-SPANGLED WAR STORIES) was groundbreaking, daring and revolutionary. Who would dare show WWI through the eyes of an enemy combatant? Kanigher and Kubert, that's who in a spectacular series that captured the balletic aerial combat of biplanes in the skies and the grim reality of No Man's Land on the ground. A German ace seemed an unlikely hero for a war comic but Kanigher and Kubert invested Hans Von Hammer with an air of nobility, pride, courage and fierce grace. All of the Enemy Ace stories are outstanding and well worth checking out.

When legendary editor Julius Schwartz was re-imagining the Golden Age DC heroes for the new Silver Age (a name which did not exist at the time) of comics, he tapped Joe Kubert to breathe new life into Hawkman. In the old days, Carter and Shiera Hall were archaeologists who fought crime as Hawkman and Hawkgirl. In the new iteration, Katar and Shayera Hol were alien police officers, sent to earth from the planet Thanagar, to observe our law enforcement system. Kubert gave us a firmly muscled, lean fighting man in Katar and a smoking hot redhead in Shayera. The duo took to the skies, armed with ancient weaponry, to fight a variety of menaces. The series mixed superhero action with science fiction tropes and Kubert brought it all to vivid, gorgeous life. The new Hawkman series ran as a try-out in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD before eventually earning its' wings (sorry) and moving into HAWKMAN in 1964. When Katar and Shayera got their own book, the art chores were handled by Murphy Anderson, a very, very good artist but one whose style was vastly different from Kubert's.

Kubert's other magnum opus was TARZAN. When DC acquired the rights to publish the adventures of Tarzan and his son Korak (along with other heroes) from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate in the early '70s (the series had previously been published by Dell and Gold Key), Kubert was put in charge of the Ape Man as writer/artist/editor. He faithfully adapted several of the ERB novels into comics form and his work ranks as some of the best interpretations of the character ever put on paper.

Kubert's art was at times sketchy and slightly unfinished looking. He often used silhouettes of figures in the foreground with more fully rendered backgrounds. But he was a consummate storyteller and he drew characters that were lean, sinewy, wiry and tough. His men were well muscled and powerful looking without being muscle bound, steroidal superheroes. Kubert could also draw beautiful women and any comic book with Joe Kubert artwork is worth reading.

The amazing thing about Joe Kubert was that he kept working right up until the end of his life with no drop off whatsoever in terms of quality and style. He was as good last year as he was twenty, thirty, forty years ago. Joe Kubert was one of the greatest comic book artists of all time.

And now he is gone. And with his passing yet another part of my childhood goes with him.

But weep not for this fine soul. Joe Kubert lived a long and incredibly productive life and almost all of his work is still in print and readily available to be enjoyed, savored and thrilled to time and time again. Rest in peace and go with God my good man. I will miss you but I will always treasure your work and the wonderful times I've had in my life while reading comic books drawn by "the good war artist".

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A VERY WORTHY CAUSE

I'm selling tickets to the annual pancake breakfast and silent auction fundraiser to benefit the Texas Baptist Children's Home. The event is sponsored by the Round Rock Noon Kiwanis Club, of which I am a proud member. The breakfast will take place at the TBCH on Saturday, September 29th from 7:00 a.m. to noon. Tickets are only $5.00 and all proceeds benefit TBCH. If you'd like to purchase a ticket from me, send me an email at docsavag@austin.rr.com and I'll give you more information.

My father and my grandfather were both active in Kiwanis and I'm proud to carry on that tradition as a third generation Kiwanian. In addition to the Texas Baptist Children's Home, the Round Rock Noon Kiwanis Club supports the YMCA of Williamson County, the Williamson County Health Department, the Alzheimer's Association, Books for Kids, Capital Idea, the Starry Project, the Linus Project, Round Rock Family Night, Round Rock High School Scholarship, Stony Point High School Scholarship, the Agape Pregnancy Center and Park for All Abilities.

I hope everyone who reads my blog will consider buying a ticket even if you can't make it to the breakfast. The money goes to a very worthwhile cause and I won't ask my dear readers to support a fundraising event like this again until next year's breakfast.

Thanks!