Thursday, July 31, 2014

KILLER ELITE

Okay, I'll admit it. I was wrong.

When I first heard about the 2011 action film, KILLER ELITE, I immediately (and mistakenly, as it turns out) assumed that it had to be a remake of THE KILLER ELITE, a 1975 Sam Peckinpah film starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. With that misconception solidly in place, I cavalierly dismissed the film without ever really knowing anything about it.

I know about it now after watching it the other day. The film is loosely based on a true story that was told in the book, The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes. It seems that back in 1980, a small war was fought in the nation of Oman between that country's forces and the elite British special forces unit, the SAS. It also appears that this conflict was not widely reported to the world at large.

Casualties in the war included several sons of Sheikh Amr, who, in 1981, now wants to extract revenge for their deaths. To do so, he lures ace mercenary Hunter (Robert DeNiro) into a trap and forces his partner, Danny Bryce (Jason Statham) to go after the men who killed his sons in exchange for Hunter's freedom. Danny, along with the other members of his mercenary outfit Davies (Dominic Purcell) and Meier (Aden Young), set out to track and kill the SAS soldiers responsible for the deaths. Oh yeah, the deaths have to be engineered to look like accidents.

Danny and his men are successful but they soon come afoul of SAS member Spike Logan (Clive Owen), a man who is in service to a secret, shadowy organization comprised of wealthy and influential British businessmen and politicians. Turns out they were the ones behind the Oman war and they're still manipulating things on a global scale in pursuit of real power and treasure: oil. Danny and Spike wage an ongoing battle before realizing that they've both been played.

With nice location photography (Oman, London, Paris) and well staged car chases and shootouts, KILLER ELITE acquits itself quite nicely as a solid action film. There's enough twists and turns in the screenplay by Matt Sherring to keep you guessing and director Gary McKendry keeps things moving at a brisk pace.

Robert DeNiro is solid as the grizzled, veteran mercenary but the real stars of KILLER ELITE are Statham and Owen. Both men are very good at what they do and both have their own motivations for being professional killers. They give as good as they get in several kinetic fight scenes that are a joy to watch.

Yep, I was wrong about KILLER ELITE. It's not a remake at all (despite the unfortunate similarities of the titles) but an original, well-crafted 21st century action/espionage thriller. Thumbs up.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

RAT RACE

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat. RAT RACE (2001), is light years away from being a great movie. I know that. You know that. But damn it, it is one funny movie. At least, in my opinion.

Back before we were married, Judy and I used to have a weekly movie rental night. I'd pick up a DVD at Blockbuster (remember them?) on my way to her house where she'd have hot buttered popcorn and a cold Dr. Pepper waiting for me. I usually rented comedies since Judy does not tolerate anything too intense or violent. That's fine. I'll save the harder stuff for solo viewings.

One night I picked up a copy of RAT RACE, read the information on the box and thought, "what the hell, this sounds like it might be fun, I'll give it a try." The film has a good pedigree. It's produced and directed by Jerry Zucker, whose comedy credentials include serving as either writer, producer or director on KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977), AIRPLANE! (1980), TOP SECRET! (1984), RUTHLESS PEOPLE (1986), NAKED GUN (1998), NAKED GUN 2 1/2 (1991) and NAKED GUN 33 1/3 THE SMELL OF FEAR (1994). I've seen almost every one of those films and hold AIRPLANE! and NAKED GUN in my personal comedy film hall of fame. 

The cast is also solid. John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Seth Green, Jon Lovitz, Kathy Najimy, Dave Thomas and Wayne Knight are all fine comic performers. The screenplay by Andy Breckman isn't the most original story you'll ever see however. The film is basically a riff on the classic formula first seen in Stanley Kramer's epic masterpiece IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) (one of my all time favorite films, by the way). In RAT RACE, eccentric billionaire and Las Vegas casino/hotel owner John Cleese and his rich gambling buddies place bets on which one of a desperate group of people will reach Silver City, New Mexico first and claim the two million dollars in cash that is secured in a train station locker. 

The chase is on as the main stars race from Las Vegas to Silver City by any means possible. There are some impressive physical stunts and inspired sight gags along the way, along with several memorable and quotable scenes. Among the highlights: the Klaus Barbie Museum, "Dad, I'm prairie doggin'!", YOU...SHOULD...HAVE...BOUGHT....A....SQUIRREL, "Look, there's a drifter, let's keel him!" and a bus load of "crazy Lucy bitches". 

Judy and I liked RAT RACE so much the first time we saw it that I went out and bought a copy of it the next day. We've watched it twice since then, the most recent being just a week or so ago when we screened the film for our house guest Holly. She loved it.

It's no classic, but RAT RACE still makes me laugh like a jackass whenever I watch it. Recommended.



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

KINGS OF CRIME

I finished reading KINGS OF CRIME last night. Originally published in December, 1932, the story was the 20th adventure of the mysterious crime fighter known as The Shadow. I've been reading Shadow pulp reprints aloud at dinnertime to my lovely wife Judy for the last several years and we both get a big kick out of them. The edition I read (pictured above) is the reprint published by Pyramid Books in the early 1970s. Dig that terrific Jim Steranko cover art!

KINGS OF CRIME finds The Shadow operating in Seaview City (an analog for Atlantic City), instead of his usual hunting grounds of New York City. There are two factions warring for control of the coastal resort community. One is the public safety committee comprised of the mayor, the police chief and other prominent businessmen. They want to keep Seaview City free of crime in general and the influence of one group in particular: the Kings of Crime.

The Kings of Crime is a gang made up of five criminals, each in charge of a special brand of wrongdoing. There's the drug kingpin, the gambling czar, the blackmail master, etc. The catch is that one man is a member of both groups. That's right, the chief of the Kings of Crime is also a member of the public safety committee and he's working behind the scenes to make sure crime triumphs.

KINGS OF CRIME is really the story of Herbert Carpenter, the blackmail expert. When one of his schemes goes wrong, he's set up to take the fall for the gang and is sent to prison. He engineers a daring escape and returns to Seaview City to extract his revenge upon the Kings of Crime. But he crosses paths with The Shadow, who uses Carpenter as a de facto agent.

The identity of the criminal mastermind is finally revealed (it's not hard to figure out) in the explosive climax which features The Shadow acting as a sniper (who knew he could handle a rifle grenade launcher as well as those twin death-spitting .45s?) before making an escape in his auto gyro (pilot unknown).

It's interesting to see The Shadow operate out of his usual element and without the aid of any of his regular agents. He uses the Lamont Cranston persona (and another disguise) throughout the book but the story's real star and hero is Herbert Carpenter, the blackmailer who earns his redemption by fighting alongside The Shadow to destroy the Kings of Crime.

KINGS OF CRIME is a fast paced pulp adventure that is full of twists and turns along with bloody gunfights, chases and narrow escapes. Thumbs up.

Monday, July 28, 2014

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS

Back when I was in high school in the early 1970s, KTBC-Channel 7, a local television station, bought a package of Columbia Studios films to show in prime time on Wednesday nights. Films in this package included BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE (1958) and THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) (which was produced by Great Britain's Hammer Studios but theatrically released in the U.S. by Columbia). I watched both of these films for the first time when they were broadcast and enjoyed them both but I can only recall watching one other film from this package. And it's a doozy.

I don't know if I finished my homework first and then watched the movie, or, if I did my homework during the commercials or, if I just said "oh, to hell with my homework, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS is on TV tonight and I'm watching it!" I suspect it might have been that last option. Regardless, I watched the film on the portable black-and-white television set I had in my bedroom at the time and I loved every minute of it.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) was rushed into production to cash in on the then current flying saucer craze. Fred F. Sears directed the screenplay (by Curt Siodmak, George Worthing Yates and Bernard Gordon) that was "suggested" by the book FLYING SAUCERS FROM OUTER SPACE by Major Donald Keyhoe. But all of that really doesn't matter. What matters is that the special effects are by Ray Harryhausen.

In EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (and how's that for a matter-of-fact film title?), Harryhausen turned his stop-motion animation wizardry to the task of animating inanimate objects (in this case, flying saucers), rather that the creatures he had previously brought to life in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955). In addition to the flying saucers, Harryhausen animated several Washington D.C. landmarks (the Washington Monument, the Supreme Court building and the U.S. Capitol) as they're destroyed by the rampaging saucers. By the way, I saw some of the original models of the flying saucers and the Washington buildings when I visited the legendary Ackermansion museum home of the late, great Forrest J. Ackerman in 1994.

In the film, Hugh (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) Marlowe and the lovely Joan Taylor, play a newly married couple. Marlowe's a scientist and Taylor's dad, the venerable Morris Ankrum, is a U.S. army general. Shades of General Thunderbolt Ross, Bruce Banner and Betsy Ross from Marvel's INCREDIBLE HULK comic book series which debuted several years later. But here, it's not Marlowe who turns into a monster but Ankrum, who becomes a zombie at the hands of the aliens.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS features an attack by the saucers early in the film, then a long, talky dead period in which the people of earth are given way too much time to construct a counter-weapon against the aliens (some scenes in this stretch of the movie echo similar sequences in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)). Marlowe comes up with an effective weapon to use against the aliens in the last reel which features the saucers' attack on Washington D.C. in what passes for "destruction porn" circa the mid-50s.

I recently purchased the blu ray edition of the film which features the original version of EARTH in pristine black and white. That's the version I watched the other day. There's also a digitally colorized version of the film. I watched a few minutes of it, just to see what the color looked like. I must confess, it's remarkably well done, far better than those godawful colorized films of the 1990s. And Ray Harryhausen himself approved of this colorized edition. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me. You can watch either version on this disc (along with a bunch of other special features) but the purist in me prefers the original b&w version.

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS isn't a great film and it's certainly not Harryhausen's finest work. That was yet to come. But it's a sturdy example of 1950s science fiction cinema and I got a kick out of watching it again the other day.

 And I didn't even have to ditch my homework to do so.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

THE NEW PRICE GUIDE IS HERE! THE NEW PRICE GUIDE IS HERE!

I can't help but feel a little like Navin R. Johnson on the mid-summer day each year when the new Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide arrives in my mailbox. The OPG used to be released every spring but in recent years the release date has moved to coincide with the San Diego Comic Con.

I got my brand new copy yesterday, thanks to a pre-order by my lovely wife, Judy. A great Batman cover homage to The Saturday Evening Post magazine of days gone-by, tons of informative articles and page after page of useful reference material for the next twelve months. Thanks honey!

Friday, July 25, 2014

THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST

It's funny what you remember about certain films. Take THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST (1968) for instance.

In 1965 both my father and his mother (my paternal grandmother) passed away. This left my Grampa Campbell alone in Austin. He was originally from Euclid, Ohio and while he and my grandmother had lived in Austin for many years and had many good friends through their church, he was nonetheless a recent widower and a man who had lost his second son (my father's adopted brother was killed in WWII). My father's sister, Mary Lou, and her family lived in far off Rainelle, West Virginia. Shortly after the deaths of my father and grandmother, Grampa Campbell sold his house and moved in with my us. He didn't stay very long (he eventually moved to West Virginia to live with Aunt Lou and Uncle Dan) and I don't remember a lot of specific things about his stay except for this one thing that has stayed with me forever.

It seems that Grampa had a lady friend of sorts. I don't recall the woman's name but I believe she lived in the Rebbeca Baines Johnson Retirement Center on Town Lake in downtown Austin. One afternoon, Grampa rode the bus downtown, picked up his "date" and then the two of them rode the bus over to either the Paramount or State Theater to see a matinee movie. The movie was THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, starring Don Knotts. I remember him telling me about it when he got home that evening. He said it was silly (he was right) but I suspect he had a good time at the picture show. Funny thing, I never got around to seeing SHAKIEST GUN on first release, even though I was a big fan of Don Knotts.

I've seen the film a couple of times now in the years since and every time I watch it, I can't help but think about my grandfather seeing this picture with his "lady friend". That memory always makes me smile and it makes me like the film that much more.

SHAKIEST GUN is one of five films that Knotts made at Universal Studios after his departure from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. The films were THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966), THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT (1967), THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST (1968), THE LOVE GOD? (1969) and HOW TO FRAME A FIGG (1971). I have the first four films on DVD in a Don Knotts collection box set and Judy and I have watched them all at least once.

We watched SHAKIEST GUN again the other evening with our house guest Holly. Knotts plays a dentist from Philadelphia out to make his way in the wild west. He runs across the oh-so-lovely Barbara Rhoades, a ex-outlaw who is now working for the U.S. government to discover who is selling rifles to the native Americans. There are plenty of sight gags and slapstick humor along with some pretty good one-liners. The supporting cast is peppered with veteran television and movie bit players like Dub Taylor, Hope Summers, Jackie Coogan, William Christopher, Pat Morita and Carl Ballantine. The film cost a million dollars to produce and was shot in less than a month on the back lot of Universal Studios and some California locations.

It's not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. But I have always liked watching Knotts do his stuff. He's one of my favorite comic actors and he was very good at what he did. Silly? Yes, my grampa and I both agree on this but it's a fun little movie that holds a special place in my heart.


Monday, July 21, 2014

THE BRASS CUPCAKE

I know I've read THE BRASS CUPCAKE before. It's John D. MacDonald's first novel, originally published in 1950 and recently reissued by Random House in a handsome trade paperback edition. I'm sure I read it sometime back in the 1980s when I read for the first time almost everything MacDonald ever wrote. But I until I re-read it the other day, I couldn't have told you for the life of me what the book was about.

THE BRASS CUPCAKE is a hard-boiled crime novel that would have made a perfect early '50s film noir. The action takes place in Florence City, Florida, a town steeped in corruption. Our hero is one Cliff Bartells, an ex-cop who got booted off of the force for being too straight and narrow (he refused to take a bribe). Cliff works as an insurance investigator and he's got a doozy of a case on his hands.

An old woman is the victim of a jewel robbery gone bad. The women ends up dead and a small fortune in jewels are missing. Cliff's company (who carries the policy on the jewels), wants to pay off the thieves and buy back the jewels for a fraction of their real value. Then there's the dead woman's niece, the luscious Melody Chance, the sole beneficiary of the dead woman's estate, who stands to inherit a great deal of money. Melody has a would-be suitor, Furness Trumbull, who's named in a codicil to the will, who could also benefit, should he and Melody become husband and wife.

Melody wants nothing to do with Furness but sparks fly between her and Cliff (naturally). Meanwhile, Cliff has to deal with the mob boss who runs the town, the husband and wife servants of the dead woman, several crooked and vicious cops and his old partner on the force (the only honest cop in Florence City). Cliff comes up with a daring plan to retrieve the jewels and expose the corruption at police headquarters and city hall . I won't give the details of how things play out except to say that Cliff's plan involves the 1950s science fiction tropes of radioactivity and a Geiger counter.

THE BRASS CUPCAKE isn't the best novel that John D. MacDonald ever wrote but it's an extremely entertaining read that moves at a fast pace. There's plenty of action, some tastefully recounted sex scenes, a believable plot, a good sense of place, and colorfully drawn supporting players (good and bad). I can see Charles McGraw as Cliff in the movie version with maybe Gloria Grahame as Melody. Recommended for fans of MacDonald and hard-boiled, mid-century crime novels.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

THE PERFECT PAT

Judy and I and our out-of-town guest Holly watched THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST the other night. It's a 1968 Don Knotts comedy in which the always nervous Knotts co-stars with the ever so lovely Barbara Rhoades. While watching the film, it struck me that this actress might have been the perfect Pat Savage.

Long time readers of this blog will recall the series of posts I ran last year in which I played casting director for an imaginary, 1960s  Doc Savage movie. At one point, such a production was actually under consideration with Chuck (THE RIFLEMAN) Connors set to play the Man of Bronze. That tidbit of information led me to offer various casting choices for Doc's supporting cast of characters Monk, Ham, Renny, Long Tom, Johnny and Doc's cousin, Patricia Savage. I listed several actresses that might have made a good Pat but when I saw Barbara Rhoades in SHAKIEST GUN, I thought, "wow, that's Pat!"

Miss Rhoades stood five foot, ten inches tall, which certainly gave her the height to play against Chuck Connors. She had the requisite reddish/bronze colored hair and she was certainly easy on the eyes. I think she would have been great in a movie that can only exist in our collective imaginations.

What do you think fellow Doc aficionados?

Friday, July 18, 2014

THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD

I recently bought the bluray edition of THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958), the first film with stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen to be filmed in color. It's second only to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) as my favorite Harryhausen film. I haven't gotten around to watching the bluray yet but when I do, I'll post an in depth review here.

But buying the bluray of 7TH VOYAGE sent me digging through my long boxes in search of a buried treasure. I have a copy of the comic book version of 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (pictured above). I dug it out and read it this afternoon. It was published in 1958 by Dell Comics and it's number 944 in their long running Four Color series. The comic, as did almost all of the movie and TV comic book adaptations
of the day, features a color photo from the film. It's not a bad picture but it raises the first of several questions I have about this comic book.

First, why choose such a generic shot from the film instead of a still that featured the cyclops, the roc, the dragon or the sword fighting skeleton? I don't know how well this issue sold but I can't help but believe that sales would have been higher with a full color photo of Sinbad and that skeleton on the cover. That would have really grabbed some young eyeballs! Not mine, unfortunately, as I was only two-years-old at the time.

The inside front cover features five black-and-white stills from the film, but again, not one of the photos features any of Harryhausen's creations. You look at those stills and you get the impression that 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is just a generic adventure film set in an exotic land in days gone by.

The adaptation itself is beautiful to look at thanks to the superlative artwork of John Buscema who is one of my all time favorite comic book artists. Buscema does a masterful job of illustrating the adventure but it's not exactly a complete and accurate version of the film. I understand that changes have to be made, primarily due to page counts and the comic does hit the high points of the film fairly faithfully. There is a giant cyclops, although Buscema gives him regular legs rather than the goat-like limbs of Harryhausen's creature. There's a fire-breathing dragon but it doesn't look quite like the monster in the film. There's a giant roc but again, it's not quite the same.

Most egregious of all, there's no sword-fighting skeleton! One of the most spectacular cinematic set-pieces ever filmed doesn't make the transition from screen to comic book page. That's a real shame. I can't help but wonder what the reasons were behind these changes. I'd love to know and if any reader of this blog has some insight into this matter, please share that information with us. I'd also like to hear from any readers out there who had the experience of seeing the film on first run and buying and reading this comic. What did you think? What about folks who bought and read the comic but never saw the film? Let us know.

The most important thing about this comic book is that it's one of the few (if not the only) tie-in product made for the film. To the best of my knowledge, there was no paperback novelization of the film and there were certainly no toys or action figures produced as that merchandising trend was still years in the future. If you saw 7TH VOYAGE as a kid and wanted to have something to remember the film by until it was re-released or shown on television, this comic book was the only thing available.

It might not be a letter perfect adaptation of the film but it's a John Buscema drawn comic book of a Ray Harryhausen movie.

And that's pretty damn good.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LET THAT BE YOUR LAST COMPASS

I recently watched LET THAT BE YOUR LAST BATTLEFIELD,  a third season episode of the original STAR TREK series.

 The show was circling the drain by this point in its' run. In this episode, you've got two magnificent hams chewing up every available inch of the scenery. Shatner, as in almost every other third season episode, seems virtually out of control. He's not so much playing the part of Captain Kirk as he's doing William Shatner's catalog of acting tics and gestures.

And guest star Frank Gorshin gives as good as he gets. His part as the half black-skinned, half white-skinned Commissioner Bele is part Gorshin, part The Riddler with a little bit of Kirk Douglas thrown in. I guess the director of the episode was so desperate to get usable footage in the can that he just said, "cut, print, that's fine, let's go to the next shot" after each over-the-top line reading from Shatner and Gorshin.

Of course, the biggest  problem here lies in the script, which strains mightily to be relevant in this "torn-from-the-headlines" tale of racial relations set in the 23rd century. But the worst moment in the entire episode comes when Kirk refers to a planet as being "in the southern quadrant of the galaxy."

Um, no, Captain, I don't think so. I never attended Starfleet Academy. I never beat the Kobyashi Maru (by cheating). I've never been in command of a Federation starship.

 But I'm pretty damn sure that there's no north, south, east or west in outer space.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

WELCOME TO MARS

I finished reading WELCOME TO MARS: POLITICS, POP CULTURE, AND WEIRD SCIENCE IN 1950S AMERICA by Ken Hollings (North Atlantic Books, 2014) yesterday. It's a Whitman Sampler box of 1950s pop culture and I've got mixed feelings about what I read.

The book covers the years 1947 to 1959 and it is Hollings' thesis that it was during these years that the "future" arrived. Hollings devotes a chapter to each year and he writes in a breezy, informative (but strangely present tense) style.

Each year is chock full of important events that shaped both America and the world. Subjects covered throughout the book include the ongoing UFO/Flying Saucer phenomenon that began in 1947, science fiction pulp magazines, science fiction films, the rise of the suburbs, the CIA's experiments in mind control and psychotropic drugs (including LSD), the nascent space program, Sputnik, Disneyland, the dawn of television, the streamlining of American made automobiles, the proliferation of new household appliances, psychotherapy, crack-pot cults, comic book censorship and on and on.

Hollings covers a lot of ground but because of his year-by-year format, he only hits the high points of each year. There's no formal narrative arc to tie all of these things together. He makes the case that all of these things were important to the development of the "future" but each chapter only left me wanting more information. Indeed, almost everything Hollings writes about in WELCOME TO MARS is a worthy subject of a well-researched, more in depth and rigorously focused book. Many such books have already been written and more are sure to be forthcoming. Every chapter contains some nugget of information that made me think, "Hey, I'd like to read an entire book about that!" Unfortunately, WELCOME TO MARS isn't that book.

But let's not fault Hollings' work for what it isn't and clearly wasn't intended to be. The book is certainly worth reading. It will make you realize what a truly remarkable era the post war years were and if you're a member of the Baby Boomer generation (like me), you'll enjoy this walk down memory lane. WELCOME TO MARS is a nice appetizer that should make you hungry for a more satisfying main course of your choice. Dig in. There's plenty to choose from.

Friday, July 11, 2014

SCARECROW

SCARECROW (1973), which I watched the other day with my buddy Kelly Greene, is one of a series of small budget, almost independent pictures that were produced in the late '60s and early '70s. It's a road picture about two mismatched drifters pursuing an impossible dream. It's a naturalistic film, shot entirely on location but it's a character study with no real plot to speak of and it ends on an abrupt, depressing note.

Clearly the people involved in this project had other such similar films in mind when they made SCARECROW. It's influences and antecedents include OF MICE AND MEN, EASY RIDER, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, FIVE EASY PIECES, TWO LANE BLACKTOP, THE LAST DETAIL and other similar films of the era. Almost all of those films featured strong actors in meaty character roles in films that were shot on location (keeping production costs down). The leads in these films (SCARECROW included), are almost all losers, disenfranchised and dispossessed anti-heroes at odds with modern life and society. And almost all of these films (SCARECROW included) are incredibly depressing.

There's a helluva lot of great talent involved in SCARECROW. For starters, you've got Gene Hackman and Al Pacino in the leads. Both actors were red hot at this point in their respective careers. Consider this: Hackman had already received two Best Supporting Actor nominations (one for BONNIE & CLYDE (1967), the other for I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER (1970) ) and had won a Best Actor Oscar for THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971). Al Pacino had a Best Supporting Actor nomination in his pocket for his work in THE GODFATHER (1973). Both men go to town with their characters but I found Hackman's performance as Max, an ex con with anger management issues who dreams of opening a car wash in Pittsburgh, to be the better of the two. I thought Pacino, as Lion, an ex-sailor who wants to see his child for the first time, over-acted and mugged in too many scenes.

Director Jerry Schatzberg had previously directed Pacino in THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971) (there's another depressing '70s film for you). His direction here consists of incredibly long takes in which he's afraid to cut from either of the stars. These long, wordy scenes tend to become a drag on what little forward momentum the narrative has. Some judicial cuts here and there to tighten things up would have helped but I suspect both Hackman and Pacino wanted all of their scenes kept intact. The film is beautifully shot by Vilmos Zsigmond who scored a Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination for MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971) and won a Best Cinematography Oscar for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). His other films of the period include DELIVERANCE (1972), THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1973).

So with that kind of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you'd expect SCARECROW to be better than it is. It's not a bad film if you enjoy watching wonderfully photographed character studies of two of life's losers.But if you're looking for a film with a plot and a real story to tell, you won't find it here.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

SIDE STREET

Film Noir rule #17: if you're an otherwise innocent man who suddenly decides to steal a large sum of money, make sure you don't steal the money from blackmailers and murderers.

That's a lesson that Farley Granger learns the hard way in SIDE STREET (1950),  a terrific little film noir that I watched this afternoon with my buddy Kelly Greene. Granger plays a part-time mail carrier with a pregnant wife. He yearns to give her and his about-to-be-born child a better life. When he delivers mail to a law office, he discovers that $200 in cash is kept in a filing cabinet. On his next delivery to the office, he finds the place empty and decides to steal the money. But unknown to Granger, he's not making off with just $200. No, he's now in possession of $30,000, money that was gained through a blackmail scheme which ended up with the lovely bait in the trap floating face down in the East River.

Granger is forced to go on the run through the streets of New York to try and recover the cash which is appropriated by the bartender he gave the money to for safekeeping. The bartender ends up dead and poor Granger is wanted for murder. He desperately tries to clear his name but the bad guys are on his tail and they'll kill anyone who gets in their way.

A great deal of SIDE STREET was shot in New York City and the location work adds a great deal of atmosphere to the film. The film's climax features a terrific early Sunday morning car chase through the deserted streets of lower Manhattan that is brilliantly staged.

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell (who plays his sympathetic wife) had previously starred together in the 1948 film noir THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. SIDE STREET features a great supporting cast that includes sultry Jean Hagen as a doomed nightclub singer, Whit Bissell as a bank teller and noir icon Charles McGraw as a police detective. Director Anthony Mann shoots many of his interior scenes from an extreme low angle which serves to visually emphasize how trapped Granger is.  Mann's previous film was BORDER INCIDENT (1949), another great noir and he followed up SIDE STREET with WINCHESTER '73 (1950), the first of his noir westerns with James Stewart.

SIDE STREET shows what happens when an innocent man yields to temptation and finds his life turned into a living nightmare. It's a classic film noir trope that is executed with consummate skill. Highly recommended.

STARSHIP TROOPERS

I watched SPACE NAZIS (oops, I mean STARSHIP TROOPERS) for the second time the other day. I saw this one when it was first released in 1997. I enjoyed it then and my opinion of the film didn't change after a second viewing.

The film is very loosely based on the classic science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein. I guess I should turn in my sf geek credentials because I've never read the book. I have a copy of it on my shelf and will get around to it one of these days. Maybe sooner than later. Since I've not read the book, I can't compare the film to the source material. As a movie, Paul Verhoeven's military science fiction adventure tells a compelling story of young recruits thrown into an interplanetary war with an alien race.

Casper Van Dien stars as Johnny Rico, a square jawed, blond Aryan type who graduates from high school in Buenos Aires and enlists in the mobile infantry. He joins up because his girlfriend, Carmen (Denise Richards) and buddy Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) have also signed up. Carmen ends up a pilot while Carl finds himself in military intelligence. Another classmate, Dizzy (Dina Meyer), ends up in the co-ed infantry. She has the hots for Johnny but Johnny only has eyes for Carmen until he gets a "Dear John" video from her.

The film plays out like a standard war picture. The first half is focused on the young characters and their experiences in basic training. Clancy Brown is a drill sergeant while genre vet Michael Ironside is a tough, veteran lieutenant who has already been wounded in battle against the bugs.

The plot kicks into high gear when the troopers finally land on the homeworld of the vicious bugs. There are some terrific (and brutally graphic)  battle sequences with hordes of CGI creatures. Lives are lost and heroes are made on the battlefield before the human troopers finally gain a tactical advantage against the bugs.

 Two things set STARSHIP TROOPERS apart from your standard sf/action fare. One is the not-so-subtle satirical tone that Verhoeven uses when depicting the world government. Recruitment messages, news broadcasts and other elements are used throughout the film to flesh out the back story.

But the most obvious thing about STARSHIP TROOPERS is the look of the military. Uniforms are drab gray and black, caps resemble those of German troops from WWII and when Military Intelligence officer Carl re-appears late in the film, he's in full-blown SS regalia. Verhoeven's take seems to be that only a totally fascist military has the will, the training and the discipline to defend humanity from a completely non-human threat, while service in the military earns veterans the right to vote in this brave new world.

STARSHIP TROOPERS has a bright, clean look throughout. Whether on Earth, outer space or on an alien world (Wyoming and North Dakota locations), everything is sharply defined by crisp cinematography. There's a great militaristic score by Basil Poledouris, the young leads are all attractive, the special effects impressive and the action sequences are well staged.

Of course, once I finally get around to reading Heinlein's novel my opinion of the film version of STARSHIP TROOPERS may change but for now, I'm giving this one a thumbs up.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

AVP

There's a throwaway, look-quick-or-you'll-miss-it scene early in AVP  (2004) (Alien vs. Predator, in case you didn't know), that sets the tone for what we're about to watch. The scene takes place in a tracking outpost where various scientific types are watching several monitors and screens. Most of the watched screens contain hard data of some kind: maps, numbers, text, etc. But one screen is showing a black-and-white film. That film is FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943), which was the first monster movie to feature two previously established franchise creatures, both of whom were owned by Universal studios.

That's the case with AVP, in which two hugely profitable cinematic monster franchises, both owned by 20th Century Fox studios, meet for the first time. That's right, it's Alien (or in this case Aliens) and Predator (ditto, Predators). AVP is an old-fashioned monster vs. monster smack down with a small band of hapless humans caught in the crossfire.

The action takes place in an ancient and enormous pyramid found buried deep beneath the ice on an island off of the coast of Antarctica. The pyramid shows similarities with those found in Mexico, Egypt and Cambodia but how can that be? A scientific expedition has been assembled by Charles Bishop Weyland, a billionaire technology guru. Bishop is played by ALIENS veteran Lance Henriksen and it says something about the budget for AVP that he's the only recognizable name in a cast chock full of nobodies. Sanaa Lathan, anyone? Raoul Bova? 

Once inside the pyramid, the team inadvertently triggers a series of ancient mechanisms which trap the explorers, cause an enormous Alien queen to awaken and start giving birth and alert a team of Predators that their ancient happy hunting ground is open for business again after one hundred years. Oh, and all of those sliding stone walls, trap doors, and pivoting slabs serve as a visual nod to another popular film franchise. They're straight out of INDIANA JONES. 

The Predators come to hunt and kill the Aliens, all but one of the humans is left alive and it's up to her (in a nod to Sigourney Weaver in both ALIEN and ALIENS) to defeat the rampaging Alien queen. 

AVP delivers what it promises. It's a straight ahead B monster movie, with two classic monster species instead of one. The special effects are well done and the action is fast and furious. The original films of the respective franchises are still the best but AVP makes an interesting footnote to both of the series. If you loved FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, you'll enjoy AVP.There are worse ways to spend a summer afternoon than watching a bunch of monsters kill each other. 


Sunday, July 6, 2014

BAD BLONDE

There's truth in the advertising for the British film noir BAD BLONDE (1953). The film does indeed star a blonde, Barbara Payton, and she is a bad girl, although it's not clear if the appellation refers to her onscreen persona or her real life and tragic career.

This is another B noir produced by Hammer studios. It's pretty standard, routine stuff. A young boxer (Tony Wright) falls for the wife (Payton) of his manager (Frederick Valk). They conspire to kill the older man with Wright doing most of the dirty work. But when a guilt stricken Wright threatens to go to the police, Payton poisons him. Yep, she's bad all right.

Barbara Payton had a short film career. She starred in a total of 15 films between 1949 and 1963 but her off screen escapades attracted far more attention than any of her film appearances. She had multiple lovers and husbands, dallied with drugs, alcohol and prostitution and had more than one run in of her own with the law. She died in 1967 at the age of 40, a tragic, self destructive, washed up and forgotten former star. Pity. She was an attractive woman and a fairly competent actress. She's far and away the best thing about BAD BLONDE (by the way, that's the U.S. title of the film, in Great Britain it was entitled THE FLANAGAN BOY and who would pay to see a picture with that title?). But other than Ms. Payton, there's really not much to see here. Move along kids, the show's over.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

MAN BAIT

With a title like MAN BAIT (and the one sheet pictured above), one would expect this 1952 film noir from Britain's Hammer Studios to be much more lurid and sleazy that it actually is. It's not a bad little crime film, just a somewhat restrained and proper one. Of course, when it was originally released in Great Britain the film was titled THE LAST PAGE. Blame the U.S. distributor for the misleading and sensationalistic new title. Once again, a case of selling the sizzle, not the steak.

George Brent stars as a bookstore manager who is being blackmailed by one of his employees, the sultry Diana Dors (who was being touted as the British Marilyn Monroe at the time) and a newly paroled convict played by Peter Reynolds. When Reynolds kills Dors, he plants her body in a box of books that are delivered to Brent's house. When Brent discovers the corpse he goes on the run (actually, more like a brisk walk) to avoid the police and clear his name. He's aided in his quest by his stalwart secretary, the beautiful Marguerite Chapman. Chapman has carried a torch for the married Brent since the days of WWII and now that his invalid wife has died (a result of the blackmailer's schemes), she can finally confess her love for Brent. She does so by tracking down Reynolds herself before she's imperiled by the killer in a raging fire in an apartment.

MAN BAIT was directed by Terence Fisher who went on to become the studios' top director for horror films. It's fun to see what Hammer Studios was doing before they struck box office gold with their series of color, Gothic horror films that launched in 1957 with THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. MAN BAIT is worth seeing once for both Hammer and film noir fans.

THE WRONG QUARRY

"It bobbed and pulsed and stared at her like a creature in a Ray Harryhausen movie."

I spent part of the 4th of July reading (and finishing) THE WRONG QUARRY by Max Allan Collins. It's another terrific trade paperback from Hard Case Crime, which is my current favorite publisher.
Quarry is a professional hit man who has starred in several novels by Collins including THE FIRST QUARRY, QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE, THE LAST QUARRY and QUARRY'S EX. All of those titles have been published by Hard Case Crime and I've read 'em all.

In this one, which takes place in the early 1980s, Quarry operates as a freelance killer. He's in possession of files belonging to the now departed Broker (whom Quarry killed in a previous adventure). The Broker was a mysterious middleman who assigned Quarry and other assassins their assignments. Quarry's m.o. is to pick a killer from the Broker's files, follow him (or her) to their current target, intercept the killer and kill them, then retrieve payment from the intended victim to find out who ordered the hit and kill that person also.

In THE WRONG QUARRY, he trails a hit man to the small town of Stockwell, Missouri. He soon discovers that the man is part of a two man team sent to dispatch one Roger Vale, a gay man who runs a dance studio in town. Many of his pupils are teenage girls and one of his star students, Candy Stockwell, has gone missing and is presumed dead (although no body has been found). Someone in the town thinks Vale killed Candy and that person hired the two man team to kill the dance instructor.

Quarry quickly dispatches the two killers and gets Vale to pony up the fee needed for Quarry to find the person behind the hit. Quarry's investigation leads him to the town's wealthiest citizen but before Quarry can drop the hammer, evidence is discovered that makes him realize he's after the wrong quarry.

THE WRONG QUARRY is a fast paced read and tons of pulpy, hard boiled fun. Collins has Quarry tell us the story in first person and his narrative is peppered with many quips and asides to the reader. There's brutal violence and some steamy sex scenes and even though Quarry is a killer, we're pulling for him to succeed in his quest to eradicate other, more heinous murderers. Thumbs up.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

HANDS OF THE RIPPER

I watched HANDS OF THE RIPPER (1971) for the first time last night (I recorded it off of TCM). It's a Hammer film without any of the usual Hammer stock company actors. It's not a bad little film nor is it a great film waiting to be rediscovered and reevaluated. It is what it is, a straight-forward little Hammer horror film that has the requisite amounts of attractive women, heaving bosoms and crimson blood.

At the beginning of the film, Jack the Ripper himself murders his wife while his young daughter watches. She's traumatized by the event and years later, when she' s an attractive young woman named Anna (Angharad Rees) she finds work with a fake medium. Following a seance, Anna is accidentally put into a hypnotic trance. While in the trance,. the dormant personality (some say spirit) of her dear old dad Jack, comes forward and "possesses" the girl, causing her to commit murder.

Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter), a Freudian psychiatrist, takes an interest in Anna's case and he paroles her from jail and takes her to his home. There, she's given room and board in return for letting him psycho-analyze her in attempt to find out what makes her kill.

But things, of course, go wrong. Anna continues to kill, the bodies mount up and the narrative comes to a climax inside St. Paul's Cathedral in London. And remember folks, when the monster's dead, the movie's over.

HANDS OF THE RIPPER is competently directed by Peter Sasdy, from a serviceable screenplay by L.W. Davidson and Edward Spencer Shew. While I was watching it, I was reminded of just how much I love a good old fashioned Gothic horror film, the type of film that Hammer Studios excelled at making. HANDS OF THE RIPPER isn't first rate Hammer but it's definitely worth seeing for fans of the genre.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW

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Legendary film director Stanley Kubrick had the audacity to make DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB in 1964, just a couple of years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kubrick's poked fun at the blackest of subject matters, nuclear war, in a brilliant and very funny film that is now widely regarded as a classic, a masterpiece of Cold War black comedy.

In 1971, film writer/producer Gene Roddenberry (yes, that Gene Roddenberry) and director Roger Vadim, made PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy about, among other things, statutory rape and serial murder. I guess they figured, hey, Stan got away with making fun of a touchy subject in STRANGELOVE, so why can't we do the same?

The difference is, of course, that DR. STRANGELOVE is a truly great film while PRETTY MAIDS, which I watched last night for the first time in forty-three years, isn't. And I don't care that Quentin Tarantino named PRETTY MAIDS as one of his Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time in Sight & Sound magazine in 2012. QT is entitled to his opinion and so am I. I say PRETTY MAIDS is one bad, cheap looking, morally reprehensible, not-very-funny, totally icky film. And that's despite the presence of many very beautiful women.

I saw PRETTY MAIDS at the old Fox Theater on Airport Blvd. in Austin when it was first released in 1971. I think I saw it with my brother. It was a hard R rated film and it set my fifteen-year-old hormones to boiling. Set in a California high school (I was just beginning my high school years), PRETTY MAIDS is the story of Michael "Tiger" McDrew, a guidance counselor and football coach, who has some extremely progressive views on the state of high school education. Tiger is played by a shaggy haired Rock Hudson, who also sports a vintage porn star mustache. Although Tiger is married to the beautiful Barbara Leigh (they have an adorable daughter), Tiger can't keep the pony in the barn and the guidance sessions he provides to a series of beautiful high school girls involve more than just conversation. In short, he's screwing practically everything in a skirt at Oceanfront High School.

The action begins when young Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson), finds the body of a dead girl in the boy's bathroom. He's gone there to relieve himself from the perpetual boner he sports throughout the film, a boner caused in no small degree by substitute teacher Betty Smith (the gorgeous Angie Dickinson).

A police investigation is soon underway involving detective Sam Surcher (I'm not making these names up), who's played in pre-KOJAK mode by Telly Savalas. He's aided in his investigation by fellow cops James (STAR TREK) Doohan and William (STAR TREK: SQUIRE OF GOTHOS) Campbell. Local police chief John Poldaski (Keenan Wynn, a STRANGELOVE cast member), is a buffoon as is school principal Mr. Proffer (Roddy McDowall).

The police try to figure out who killed the pretty young cheerleader (and it's not hard to figure out who the killer is folks) and Dickinson throws herself at Hudson only to be rebuffed and pointed in the direction of young Ponce, he of the eternal erection. While Hudson is busy having sex with multiple female students (all of which are under age, which constitutes serial statutory rape), Dickinson seduces the hapless Ponce (another case of statutory rape) and more bodies of dead girls start showing up in the darnedest places.

PRETTY MAIDS trades heavily on the fantasies of every young man who ever attended high school: the idea of having sex with a drop dead gorgeous, older teacher, an experienced, sexually voracious woman who would teach her students a thing or two. Cougar, anyone?

Among the fetching young ladies is Joanna Cameron, who would later star on Saturday morning television as Mighty Isis. All of the female students are attractive. They almost all sport long, straight, parted-in-the-middle hair, a style that was quite popular at the time.

But the eye candy can't disguise the fact that the film is cheap and slightly grimy looking. The dialogue sounds like it was almost entirely looped in post-production, Vadim's direction is artless and bland and while both Hudson and Dickinson do their best with the poor material they're given, it's neither performers' finest hour. Watching the tall, dark and handsome Hudson play a decidedly heterosexual predator made me wonder how many people (if any) involved in the production of PRETTY MAIDS, knew that Hudson was gay. He had yet to come out in 1971 but surely there were some people in Hollywood who were aware of his sexual orientation at the time of the film.

My guess is that Gene Roddenberry had some time and money on his hands after the cancellation of STAR TREK and decided to write a screenplay based on the PRETTY MAIDS novel by Francis Pollini. Roddenberry also served as producer of the film. He hired Vadim to direct and threw some work to his old TREK buddies Doohan, Campbell and costume designer William Ware Theiss. PLAYBOY magazine gave the film a nine-page pictorial in the April 1971 issue and I'm sure that exposure of the various women in the film certainly helped sell tickets.

I'm not a prude and I'll confess that I found the film hysterically funny when I first saw it. But watching it as a fifty-eight year old man, left me feeling uncomfortable and a bit dirty. And I could only wonder what in the hell Gene Roddenberry thought when he was making the film. What was the target audience for this film besides horny fifteen-year-old kids like me? Was he trying to lampoon the "anything goes" sexual freedoms of the early '70s? Was it a comment on permissiveness without consequences? If so, the dead women certainly pay a heavy price, while the killer escapes. What does that say? As a comedy, black or otherwise, it just isn't that funny. And as a 1970s T&A sexploitation film, PRETTY MAIDS isn't nearly as much fun to watch as the contemporaneous drive-in fodder of the day that featured nurses, stewardesses and women in prison. Angie Dickinson and a bevy of young beauties aren't enough to redeem this one. Thumbs down.