Monday, May 26, 2014

"HE'S A REAL NOWHERE MAN"

I read NOWHERE MEN VOLUME ONE: FATES WORSE THAN DEATH yesterday. This Image trade paperback reprints issues #1-6 of the ongoing comic book series NOWHERE MEN by Eric Stephenson and Nate Bellegarde. I was impressed by what I read.

The concept, in simplest terms is, "what if the Beatles were the Fantastic Four", but NOWHERE MEN is richer and far more complex than that premise. Still there are obvious analogs to both the Fab Four (the four main scientists in the story are seen as "rock stars" by the general public) and Reed Richards and the gang. NOWHERE MEN also owes a huge debt of gratitude to WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the sense of how the story is told and the very design of the material. The narrative of this first six-issue arc is fragmented in both space and time, a non-linear story that flashes backwards and forwards and takes place among several different places on and off the planet. Chunks of the back story are provided by faux magazine covers, interviews, book chapters, ads and other ephemera that bring World Corp. to life (right down to it's retro Warner Communications style logo).

Author Eric Stephenson is doing something bold and ambitious here with his story of four scientists and the world they give birth to. But not every technological advancement is benign and beneficial and the twelve people on a secret mission aboard the International Space Station are exposed to something that bestows different super powers on each one. The story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. There are still mysteries to be explored and answers to be provided but this first volume sets things up quite nicely.

The artwork by Nate Bellegarde has strong overtones of Geof (HARDBOILED) Darrow in some scenes and I spied at least two homages to the great Jack "King" Kirby but Bellegarde is his own man and his artwork is always in service to the intriguing "what-is-going-on-here" script by Stephenson.

I picked up this first volume of NOWHERE MEN in a trade with a fellow comic book collector. I knew nothing about this title going in but I enjoyed it immensely and will seek out future trade editions of this daring and challenging new comic book series. Thumbs up. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

GHOST RIDER CALLED. HE WANTS HIS JACKET BACK.

I sat down and read FIVE GHOSTS VOLUME ONE: THE HAUNTING OF FABIAN GRAY this afternoon. This Image trade paperback collects the first five issues of the ongoing series, FIVE GHOSTS by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham. I must confess, I'm not familiar with either of these creators. I got the book in a trade with a fellow comic book collector and figured, what the hell, I'll read it before I put it up for sale on eBay.

Fabian Gray is a man possessed by five ghosts (isn't it neat how they work the title of the series into the dialogue?). The ghosts are literary in nature and come from the infinite source of all of mankind's dreams, a place where all of our stories are made manifest. The ghosts reside in a Dreamstone gem that is attached to Fabian's chest (any one remember the old Bloodstone character from Marvel Comics back in the '70s?). Three of the ghosts are clearly identified (but never outright named due to copyright and royalty issues, I suppose) as Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. The other two are a wizard/magician (Merlin?) and a ronin/samurai.

Fabian Gray's wardrobe consists of Johnny (Ghost Rider) Blaze's original leather biker jacket. He has a bespectacled companion named Sebastian and his first story arc concerns his quest to free his sister from a coma induced by exposure to the Dreamstone. He encounters an oriental mystic in Shangri-La no less and the villain of the piece gives his name as Iago (from Shakespeare's OTHELLO). Oh, and H.P. Lovecraft himself along with two unidentified men (one of whom is a corpse like Nazi) appear in the final two page teaser.

There's not much story here as it's all set up for the ongoing series. We get bits and pieces of Fabian's origin and some secrets of the Dreamstone but it's clear that there are larger and darker forces at work pulling the strings. Those plot threads are (hopefully) developed and resolved in future issues of FIVE GHOSTS.

While the story didn't impress me,Chris Mooneyham's artwork was, for the most part, good (except for one two page spread whose layout and panel/caption flow was impossible to figure out for me). The artwork has subtle hints of John Buscema and Walt Simonson and not-so-subtle hints of Klaus Janson and Dennis Cowan. If you're going to swipe, swipe from the best.

FIVE GHOSTS isn't a hot mess but it's nothing to get excited about either.

GODZILLA MEMORIES

I haven't made it to the theater to see the new GODZILLA film yet but I hope to do so soon. When I do, I'll post a review here. In the meantime, I'd like to share some of my memories of the Big G and some thoughts on the original film (which I watched again the other day).

My first exposure to Godzilla came with the release of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA which was ballyhooed in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS. Although the film played here in Austin, I never saw it until last year (there's a post about the film here on my blog). I did however purchase and build the Godzilla Aurora plastic model kit (along with the King Kong model kit). Both kits were larger (and more expensive) than the regular Aurora monster models but they were definitely worth the price.

The idea of a giant monster threatening a city grabbed my young imagination and never really let go. I can recall sitting in the stands at House Park to watch my brother play football for Austin High and gazing southward to where the two story Pease Elementary School building stood on the hilltop horizon. In my mind, I'd see either Godzilla rear up behind the structure, dwarfing it in his fierce immensity. The people in the stands would flee in terror and total chaos would erupt. That fantasy was ten times better than anything actually taking place on the football field.

I remember writing a short story about Godzilla when I was in elementary school. I had him rising up from the depths of Austin's Town Lake at the intersection of Congress Avenue and First Street. His first victim was the old Tamale House restaurant that stood at that street corner for many years. From there, Godzilla made his way up Congress Avenue towards the Texas State Capital. He wreaked havoc up and down the avenue but I don't recall how I ended the story. I think it was just a catalog of total destruction.

The first comic book conventions to be held in Austin took place in the mid '70s at the old Gondolier Hotel at the intersection of Riverside Drive and IH 35. Jay Knowles was the mastermind behind the events and I volunteered to help out in any way that was needed in order to be able to attend every minute of these affairs. One year, someone brought a homemade Godzilla costume to the con. It was a huge foam rubber contraption that was extremely well built for an amateur effort. They needed someone to wear it and I was chosen. I stripped down to my tighty-whiteys and climbed in. The back was Velcroed shut along the fins and there was a tiny screen in the costume's neck that I could see out of . Someone had to lead me by the hand through the halls of the hotel as the costume was bulky, cumbersome and awkward. And did I mention hot? I posed at a dealer's table with my buddy Bob Parker for a gag photo. I'm handing him a dollar bill and he's handing me a comic book. The photo ran in The Daily Texan the next day. When I got back to my hotel room and got out of the costume I was drenched in sweat and the costume smelled like only sweat soaked foam rubber can. But for a few minutes that day, I was Godzilla.

I watched the original GOJIRA (1954) the other day. I have the Criterion Collection edition of the film and you know what a great job that company does with their DVD releases. I watched it in the original Japanese language version with English subtitles (which is the way I prefer to see all foreign films, I hate dubbed movies). Even though I've seen this film several times, I enjoyed it. What strikes me most about this movie is how unrelentingly dark, grim and scary it is. There's no comic relief, no humor, no laughs of any kind. This is serious, life-and-death stuff.

I was also struck by how much the laboratory where the Oxygen Destroyer is developed looks like something out of a Universal horror film. The equipment and stone walls look like they belong to Earth Universal rather than mid-century Japan. It's also interesting that a weapon of mass destruction is the only way to defeat another weapon of mass destruction. Here's a country that experienced the devastation of not one, but two, atomic attacks and less than then years later, they're exploring the morality of producing another super weapon of their own to defeat a larger threat.

The effects in GOJIRA are amazingly complex for the time and are extremely effective. Using a combination of miniatures, men in suits and matte paintings, the filmmakers make Godzilla a real, living-breathing threat. I love how when tanks fire upon the big G, you can see small fires momentarily erupt on the surface of the suit. There's a terrific, propulsive musical score and let's not forget that immortal, iconic roar which says "Godzilla" almost better than anything else.

GOJIRA is both a great monster movie and a great movie, period. It's a daring piece of film making that uses a radioactive, fire-breathing dinosaur to represent the very real terrors of the Atomic Age and it does so in a sober, straight-forward manner. I hope the new version does something similar but in the event that it doesn't, there's always the original to revisit and cherish time and again.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES

I finished reading SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES by James Lovegrove the other day. This 2013 trade paperback from Titan Books is the third in their new series of Sherlock Holmes novels. I read the first two, SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE BREATH OF GOD and SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE ARMY OF DR. MOREAU (both by Guy Adams) last year and reviewed them both here on my blog. NIGHTMARES author Lovegrove also wrote AGE OF AZTEC, a book I gave a rave review of earlier this year on this blog.

I enjoyed STUFF OF NIGHTMARES immensely. The story is narrated by Dr. Watson (as every Sherlock Holmes story should be) and features drop ins by three of the major supporting players in the canon: Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, Sherlock's older, corpulent brother Mycroft and the nefarious Professor Moriarty who shows up at one point in a night black coach which is loaded with diabolical death traps.

A series of terrorist bombings are rocking the city of London but no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the acts. At the same time, a mysterious vigilante figure has been seen in the East End attacking criminals on a regular basis. Baron Cauchemar (French for "nightmare"), in his weaponized and steam driven suit of armor is a Victorian era Iron Man mixed with equal parts Batman. His underground headquarters bristles with weapons and vehicles that are far ahead of their time and Cauchemar uses these technological wonders in his one man war against crime.

But Cauchemar's exploits are merely a test run for his battle with the real villain of the piece, a French madman who wants to restore France to it's rightful place as an imperial power. Holmes, Watson and Cauchemar team-up in a race against time to thwart the fiend.

The climax finds the Queen's royal train thundering towards Balmoral with a giant, super-sized locomotive in hot pursuit. Our gallant trio pursues the train from above using a dirigible of Cauchemar's design. There's a giant gun mounted on the train which shoots the airship down but all three survive (of course), which sets up the climax in which the locomotive engine, well, "transforms" into a gigantic human figure. Baron Cauchemar, Holmes and Watson do battle against the mechanical leviathan but the appearance of a steam punk "Transformer" is almost too much to take.

I know that a willing suspension of disbelief must be employed when reading one of these yarns. After all, the writers have to keep coming up with foes that will well and truly test the mettle of Holmes and Watson. I bought the idea of a steam punk armored avenger in this story but a transforming locomotive engine? That's pretty wild stuff.

 In the original Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the only truly superhuman and fantastic element was Holmes himself and his powers of observation and deduction. He never fought anything truly supernatural, paranormal or superhuman. Those stories are all terrific and they're all still around for us to enjoy and savor over and over again. I guess a new century requires new challenges for Holmes and Watson and even though STUFF OF NIGHTMARES almost-but-not-quite goes "off the rails", it's still a helluva read. Lovegrove is a terrific writer and he keeps things moving at a breathless pace with a story that contains ingenious deathtraps, shootouts, chases and fight scenes all told with a marvelously cinematic scope and vigor.

Bottom line: SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES is a winner in my book. Willingly suspend your disbelief and give it a read. You won't regret it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A FEVER IN THE BLOOD

I watched A FEVER IN THE BLOOD (1961) for the first time last night. I had recorded it off of TCM and while I enjoyed the film, while I was watching I kept thinking  how many television actors appear in this film. Here's the lineup:

Efrem (THE F.B.I.) Zimbalist Jr., Angie (POLICE WOMAN) Dickinson, Jack (MAVERICK) Kelly, Robert (THE TIME TUNNEL) Colbert, Carol (ALL IN THE FAMILY) O'Connor, Parley (Mayor Stoner on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) Baer and Jesse (the Maytag repairman) White are all in this film.

The story is a mash-up of two film genres: the courtroom and political dramas. Zimbalist stars as a judge presiding over a sensational murder trial. Jack Kelly is the district attorney prosecuting the case. The defendant is the nephew of a former governor and he's accused of murdering his wife. The audience knows he's innocent because we see the murder take place in the opening scene of the film. The real killer is Robert Colbert. But much hinges on the outcome of the trial because both Zimbalist and Kelly have political ambitions outside of the courtroom. They both want to run for governor but so does U.S. Senator Don Ameche.

All three men clash during the course of the trial and it looks like an innocent man is about to be convicted, a verdict that will certainly add momentum to Kelly's candidacy as a vigorous prosecutor. Zimbalist is the one honest man in the whole affair and he still carries a torch for Ameche's wife, the lovely Angie Dickinson. Baer and White are flunkies for Kelly while O'Connor is a newspaper publisher backing Zimbalist.

Director Vincent Sherman keeps things moving at a steady pace and gives the film several nice moments. The presence of so many television actors and the back lot look of the film make A FEVER IN THE BLOOD feel like something that might have been made for television in the early '60s but several of the plot elements were far too raw and provocative for television in those days. Some consider this film a late noir or neo-noir but I must respectfully disagree with that assessment. It's a compelling and interesting film but I don't see any noir elements in the story. A FEVER IN THE BLOOD is a good, solid little movie that's worth seeing at least once.

Friday, May 9, 2014

TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH AND OTHERS

Usually, I post a review of a film here on my blog almost immediately after seeing it, whether in the theater or at home. But I've watched several films over the last few months that, for one reason or another, I never got around to blogging about. I've kept a list of these films and I thought I'd try to cover them in just a few brief paragraphs, rather than full scale reviews. This is not a knock against any of these films as almost all of them have a great deal of merit. Rather, I'd like to post my thoughts on them before I forget entirely what my reactions to the films were. So here goes, in order of year of release.

TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (1949). I recall watching the 1960s television series of the same name (a Quinn Martin production) but I'd never seen the film it was based on until a few months ago. Gregory Peck (one of my favorite actors) gives a tremendous performance as the commander of a bomber squadron based in England in World War II. The burden of command weighs heavy upon his shoulders and he suffers a mental breakdown at the end of the film. TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH is, ironically, one of the most claustrophobic films about the WWII air war I've ever seen. Much of the action takes place in buildings on the ground and the big flight sequence occurs late in the film. Still, it's a very good movie. Thumbs up.

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964). I watched this one again around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in the U.S. which was celebrated earlier this year. I saw HARD DAY'S NIGHT in the theater when it was originally released and didn't much care for it. Eight-year-old Frank just didn't get it. Watching it in 2014, it seems both remarkably prescient (prefiguring the era of music videos) and oh-so-much a product of it's day. Part rock and roll documentary, part Marx Brothers movie, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT is and was light years removed from the Elvis Presley film VIVA LAS VEGAS, which was released the same year. Still, VIVA LAS VEGAS had one thing going for it that HARD DAY'S NIGHT did not: Ann-Margret.

TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970). I tried to watch this one as close to December 7th as possible. I saw it when it was first released at the old Americana Theatre and hadn't seen it in it's entirety in the years since. A very sober, measured film, TORA! TORA! TORA! sticks to the known facts about the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. There are no romantic subplots to get in the way. Co-produced with a Japanese film company, all of the scenes involving the Imperial Japanese Navy are filmed with Japanese actors speaking Japanese (with English sub-titles). The film takes it time in building up to the attack which occurs after the intermission (remember when epic films had those?). The attack sequence is well-mounted with real planes, ships and men (CGI wasn't even a fantasy in 1970). TORA! TORA! TORA! is a remarkably bloodless war film however. It's a clean and somewhat sanitized recounting of the events of that day but it's very well done and extremely compelling. I believe that this film should be required viewing in every American history class in every high school in the United States. If kids would sit still long enough to watch it, they might actually learn something. And no, I'm not wholeheartedly recommending films over history books but I think this film could inspire some curious young minds to do some further research into WWII.

THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975). Believe or not, I never saw this one until I watched it one night before Christmas. The term "Stepford Wives" has entered into the popular vernacular and everyone knows what the words mean even if they haven't seen the film (or read the Ira Levin novel) about the too-perfect wives in the small town of Stepford. Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss make an appealing duo of leading ladies who team-up to discover just what the hell is going on in their town. I'll say this much for author Levin: he likes to put his heroines into real, true jeopardy. As in ROSEMARY'S BABY (both the Levin novel and Roman Polanski film), things do not end well for the women characters in his stories. What's great about STEPFORD WIVES is that we're never told the precise details of what's going on. Much is left to our imaginations and we're pulling for Ross to upset the apple cart up to the last few minutes of the film. Both ROSEMARY'S BABY and STEPFORD WIVES end on truly chilling notes. STEPFORD WIVES is a first rate, slow build horror/science fiction film that has stood the test of time. Recommended.

CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989). I saw this Woody Allen film on first release at the old Arbor Cinema Four (remember when that theater was state-of-the-art?). Watching again a few weeks back I was struck by the weird tonal shifts in the film and wasn't sure exactly how to react to the story that Allen told. On the one hand, there's some hysterically funny lines here but they are few and far between as the main storyline deals with the murder of a man's mistress. Martin Landau is great as the troubled, married opthamologist (seeing, eyes, blindness, vision, are all thematic concerns of the film) who finds it difficult to extricate himself from his affair with a clinging, needy woman (Angelica Huston). He eventually goes so far as to arrange (through his brother, Jerry Orbach) the woman's murder. Although he's stricken with guilt, he gets away with it. Meanwhile, Woody Allen is a documentary filmmaker who finds himself saddled with  making a film about his obnoxious, television producer brother-in-law (Alan Alda). Allen falls in love with production assistant Mia Farrow and yearns to make his own film about an aged Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor. But the man suddenly commits suicide, Farrow takes up with Alda and Allen, who has done nothing wrong, is left with a broken heart and a lot of painful questions. Meanwhile, Landau, has put the murder behind him and gone on with his successful life and medical practice. Allen's screenplay wrestles with the capriciousness of the universe, the fact that all bad deeds don't go punished, that some times very bad things happen to very good people. It's a somewhat bitter pill to swallow but Allen's one-liners help the medicine go down a little easier. Still, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS is a disturbing, dark and thought provoking work.

THE HANGOVER 3 (2013). What can I say? This whole series is a guilty pleasure for me. I loved the first film but I  found the second one too close to the first to be entirely enjoyable despite some very funny moments. The third and final entry in the series jettisons the structure of the first two films but does return "the wolf pack" back to where it all began, Las Vegas. This time they're on a mission in service to crime lord John Goodman and while there's plenty of funny stuff on display, you get the feeling that THE HANGOVER brand has gone to the well one time too many. If you have any desire to see these films, stick with the first and best one. The others are for die-hard fans only. 


Friday, May 2, 2014

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2

I saw AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 this morning and I must confess that I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's not as good as the first Spider-Man film to have the number 2 in the title but on the other hand, it's still way better than SPIDER-MAN 3.

Like almost every film made these days, ASM2 is entirely too long. Waaaaay, too long. And hey, what ever happened to the classic three-act dramatic structure that every good film is supposed to have? Again, like most modern films, ASM2 isn't over when the monster (or super villain) is dead. Nope, we've got another super villain to contend with, a major plot development and a brief appearance by yet another super villain in (literally) the last five minutes of the film. Oh and the post credit teaser sequence? It's a teaser for X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, which opens later this month. That's a pretty neat trick considering that ASM2 was produced and released by Sony/Columbia while the X-MEN franchise belongs to 20th Century Fox.

ASM 2 plays like two giant size special issues of the long running comic book series. One issue would sport the cover blurbs "All Action!" and "In this issue, ******* ****!". The other would feature the blurb "Special All-Talking Issue! Not an action scene in sight!" That's the way the script plays out here. We're treated to some hyper kinetic action sequences that resemble video games more than anything else leavened with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of dialogue. Spider-Man in costume is absent from the story for huge chunks of screen time while Peter, Gwen, Aunt May, Harry Osborn and Max Dillon (Electro) each get numerous scenes of plot development.

Still missing in action from this version of the franchise is the character of J. Jonah Jameson. Oh, the Daily Bugle is a small part of the film, JJJ is mentioned and we see his name on an email but there are no scenes set in the Bugle offices and neither JJJ himself or any of the Bugle supporting characters, make an appearance. I felt this was a mistake in the first ASM film (2012) and it's a mistake here. The Daily Bugle, JJJ and the newsroom staff are vital, important elements to the Spider-Man mythos and to leave them out of a Spider-Man movie is like having a Superman film where Clark Kent doesn't go to work at the Daily Planet until the last scene of the film. Wait. We got that one last year.

Another quibble is how almost every character (good and bad) in both of these films has some connection to LexCorps, oops, Oscorp. Peter's dad worked there, Gwen Stacy works there, Dr. Curt Connors worked there, Max Dillon works there, Harry Osborn inherits the business when his dad, Norman, dies in the film and the armament for the Rhino is supplied by Oscorp. That's just a bit too much for me. And it looks like the villains in the next Spider-Man film will be armored by Oscorp as well as we get glimpses of Dr. Octopus's arms and the Vulture's wings.

Oh, and about the Rhino. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for this character because when I first started regularly buying and reading the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN comic book way back in 1966, it was at the time when this rampaging brute made his first appearance. I hope that Paul Giamatti, who plays the Rhino in the film, has got a great agent and that that agent negotiated him a two picture deal for playing the character because the Rhino is criminally underused here. And if Giamatti didn't get a two picture deal, I hope that his agent at least got him a nice paycheck for his approximately five minutes of screen time.

Notice how I haven't mentioned the 800 lb elephant in the room? You know, does Gwen live or die? I'm not telling but I'm sure you can find out (if you must know before seeing the film) on many other websites (Hey! Did you see what I just did? Websites? Spider-Man?) I will say that another female character is introduced in the film who may or may not play a part in the next installment and it's not who you think. ***** *** anyone? Maybe.

I have to give thumbs down to the intrusive and all-over-the-map score by Hans Zimmer. Is there a worse film composer working today? Please, somebody, make him stop. Speaking of music, thumbs up for making the score of the old SPIDER-MAN animated television series Peter's ring tone.

I liked the fact that Aunt May (as played by Sally Field), isn't a helpless, frail, sick woman in these films. She shows real spunk by going back out into the workforce and doing good work in order to bring some extra money into the Parker household.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 isn't a bad film. I was never bored and I thought the fight and action scenes were thrilling. Emma Stone is a perfect Gwen Stacy, Andrew Garfield is fine as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, the villains are suitably evil (if radically re imagined from their original looks in the comic books) and everything sets up nicely for the next film.

I just wish the script had been tightened up and polished one more time before everything went before the cameras. There's a good twenty-minutes of fat that needs to be trimmed here. I didn't enjoy ASM 2 as much as I did CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER but I had a good time watching it nonetheless. I'd give it a B. If you're a fan of the webslinger, it's worth seeing.