Sunday, August 31, 2014

CITY LIGHTS


"Yes, I can see now."

Judy and I watched CITY LIGHTS (1931) the other night. It was the first viewing of this classic film for both of us. We thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't know how I've managed to live this long without seeing this highly regarded film. But it certainly lives up to it's reputation as a masterpiece and one of Charlie Chaplin's greatest films.

Although filmed in the early years of the sound era, CITY LIGHTS is basically a silent film. There is a score (composed by Chaplin) and sound effects but all of the dialogue is on inter title cards. The film is referred to as a "romance in pantomime" in the opening credits and it's as if Chaplin was refusing to abandon the media that made him an immortal.

Chaplin (who also wrote, produced and directed the film) stars as the beloved Tramp. Here he falls in love with a beautiful blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). She thinks he's a millionaire and he goes to great lengths to maintain that persona and help the girl. The Tramp is befriended by an actual millionaire but they're buddies only when the rich man is drunk. When he's sober, he kicks the Tramp out. Forced to raise money for his love, the Tramp takes jobs shoveling manure (there's a great sight gag involving an elephant) and as a boxer (a delightfully choreographed fight sequence).

But things take a turn for the worse when the Tramp is arrested for stealing money from the millionaire. He's innocent of course but he goes to jail anyway. While he's away, the blind girl has an operation to restore her sight and goes to work in a nice flower shop. When the Tramp is finally released from prison, he meets the flower girl once more and she realizes that not only is she seeing his physical appearance for the first time, she's also finally seeing his inner beauty as well. It's a terrific ending, one that's guaranteed to put a little lump in your throat to go along with the laughs provided in the rest of the film.

Yes, CITY LIGHTS is as good as I've always heard it was. It certainly deserves it's reputation as one of the all time greats. But I still think that Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL (1927) is the greatest silent comedy film ever made.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL


"I'm gonna ram the name of Shields down their throats!"

Judy and I watched THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) last night and loved it. I first saw it many years ago with my movie buddy Kelly Greene. It was one of the first films we watched together and we both enjoyed it. The line of dialogue quoted above (and spoken by Kirk Douglas in the film), has stayed with both of us over the years. In fact, when Kelly was making his outstanding film ATTACK OF THE BAT MONSTERS, we often joked that he was going to "ram the name of Greene down their throats!"

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, like SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), takes a look behind the scenes of  show business (in this case, a Hollywood movie studio) and reveals some of the darker truths about the film industry. Masterfully directed by Vincente Minnelli, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL features a great cast, a terrific screenplay by Charles Schnee (based on the novel Tribute to a Badman by George Bradshaw) and a memorable score by David Rashkin. It's darker than the standard Minnelli fare of musicals and comedies and a few scenes in the film (especially the ones between Douglas and Lana Turner), have a whiff of noir.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is the story of boy wonder film producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas), whose father was one of the early giants of the motion picture business. Shields is determined to make a name for himself in Hollywood and he does so by utilizing the talents of three people: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Turner) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). All three are contacted by Shields at the beginning of the film and asked to meet in the offices of producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon). From there, the film is broken into three separate story lines with each character narrating their own tale about their experiences with Shields.

In each flashback, Shields is revealed to be a complex man. One minute you like him, the very next second you hate him. He does right by all three characters at first before turning on each one in the end. But, as producer Pebbel points out, all three got their start thanks to Shields and all three went on to have successful careers after their associations with Shields came to their respective ends. The last shot of the film implies that the trio will overcome their deep-seated animosity towards Shields and work with him one more time.

There are lots of inside Hollywood references in the film. Shields himself can be seen as an amalgamation of David O. Selznick and Orson Welles. When Shields and Amiel are set up by Pebbel to produce a grade-B horror film called THE CAT MAN, they decide to ditch the men in cat monster suits and focus more on what's not seen on the screen. This is a direct reference to RKO producer Val Lewton and his classic horror film THE CAT PEOPLE (1942). Leo G. Carroll and Kathleen Freeman appear to be analogues for Alfred Hitchcock and his wife/assistant Alma. Georgia Lorrison is the daughter of a "great profile" actor like John Barrymore whose daughter Diana's film career was launched the same year as her father's death. Screenwriter Bartlow may have been based on writer Paul Eliot Green, who wrote The Cabin in the Cotton.  

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL received six Academy Award nominations including Best Actor (Douglas), Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame, winner), Best Black and White Art Direction (winner), Best Black and White Cinematography (winner), Best Black and White Costume Design (winner) and Best Adapted Screenplay (winner).

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a first rate film. It's well written, directed and acted and enormously entertaining. It's head and shoulders above the similarly themed Minnelli/Douglas collaboration TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (1962) (which I reviewed here late last year).  Oh, and it features the smoking hot Elaine Stewart in a small role. Highest recommendation.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

JUST CAUSE


I stumbled across a used DVD of JUST CAUSE (1995) a few weeks back when Judy and I hit a local thrift store to do some bargain hunting. For 99 cents, I figured, hey, why not? I ponied up the money for only one reason: Sean Connery. I figured that anything with Connery in it is worth seeing at least once and besides, the price was definitely right for ol' skinflint Frank.

Based on the novel of the same name by John Katzenbach (which I have not read), JUST CAUSE is the story of Paul Armstrong (Connery), a Harvard law professor and strong anti-death penalty advocate. After a public appearance in a small Southern town, Armstrong is persuaded by the mother of Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood), to look into her son's murder trial, conviction and subsequent death penalty. She swears he's innocent.

Armstrong is at first reluctant to take the case but once he starts digging around in the Florida town where the murder was committed (the victim was a young white girl), he comes to believe that his client, a well-spoken, highly intelligent young black man, is innocent. Armstrong soon uncovers evidence which indicates that insane serial killer and fellow death row inmate Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris), actually committed the crime. A new trial is held and Bobby Earl is found not guilty. He's released from prison while Sullivan is soon executed.

End of story, right? Whoa, hold on there Tex. Not so fast. I can see by the old clock on the wall that we've still got about thirty minutes of running time left which means it's time for a major plot twist in the third act. I won't say what it is, but it's a fairly good one (if a bit contrived).

As I said, you watch a routine, generic thriller like JUST CAUSE just to see the great Sean Connery in the twilight of his film career. Is it his best work? Far from it. But any Connery is better than none. Ed Harris does his best Hannibal Lecter impersonation but instead of the silky menace exuded by Anthony Hopkins, Harris turns everything up to 11. It's showy, flashy and theatrical and not entirely convincing. The supporting cast is good, with Laurence Fishburne as the small town police chief who butts heads with Connery before they finally have to work together to bring a killer to justice.

Bottom line: not  a great film but not a terrible one either. I think I got my 99 cents worth.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST


Okay, I'll admit it. My tastes in film weren't entirely formed when I was twelve-years old (as I alluded to in my previous post about EMPIRE magazine's list of 301 best films). At least not entirely. Besides, since THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST was released in late 1967, that means I probably saw it for the first time in early 1968. I would have been eleven. And as we all know, eleven-year-old kids don't know anything about films.

That's because when I first saw THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST (1967), I thought it was one of the funniest movies I'd ever seen. When I watched it again the other day (for the first time since 1968), I didn't laugh once. I don't think I even smiled or grinned. I know I nodded off (very briefly) a couple of times.

The film is oh-so-very much a product of its' time, the "swinging sixties". It's a "hip" political satire/spy film spoof/science fiction send-up with plenty of sex, drugs, rock and roll, a liberal use of the "N" word in one scene, and the CEA and the FBR (stand-ins for the CIA and FBI, respectively). Oh, and a master villain that is revealed to be a major corporate power.

James Coburn, fresh from his two starring turns as secret agent extraordinaire Derek Flint in OUR MAN FLINT (1966) and IN LIKE FLINT (1967) (both of which are superior to ANALYST), stars as New York City psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Schaefer. He's recruited by one of his patients, CEA (Central Enquiries Agency) agent Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) to be the analyst for the president of the United States. It seems that the most powerful man in the world has no one to talk to and relieve the stress of the burdens he carries. Pint size FBR (Federal Bureau of Regulation) chief Henry Lux (Walter Burke), is against the move but Sidney gets the job anyway.

After several therapy sessions with the president (who is never shown, we only see Sidney going into and out of a room in the White House) and being on call 24/7, Sidney suffers a breakdown because there's no one he can talk to about what he knows.

He goes on the run from the White House, first hiding out with a family in suburban New Jersey before falling in with a rock band. Meanwhile, assassins from every major (and minor) power in the world are after him. He eventually falls into the clutches of Russian agent Kropotkin (Severn Darden) but the two become friends after Sidney psycho-analyzes him.

In the film's third act, Sidney gets captured by the real villains of the piece and it's up to Kropotkin and Masters to storm the headquarters of this evil organization (oh, all right, already, it's The Phone Company, okay?) and rescue him.

In one bit of remarkably prescient plotting, The Phone Company's master plan is revealed to be the implanting of a micro-chip directly into the brain of every American so that people can call someone by just thinking about it. This was decades before today's cell/smart phones and nano-technology. This was also before The Phone Company was broken up and went from "Big Bell" to many smaller, "Baby Bells."

The end, except that in the last shot, we see TPC still conducting surveillance on Sidney, Kropotkin, Masters and Sidney's girlfriend Nan (Joan Delaney).

THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST was written and directed by Theodore Flicker, so he only has himself to blame for this turkey. The film bombed at the box office on first release but subsequent showings on television has granted ANALYST some degree of cult cachet.

What can I say? I loved this mess when I was eleven but now, at the age of fifty-eight, not so much. It's worth seeing once if you're a James Coburn fan (I've always liked the guy) or  if you want to remember what the late '60s were like. If you weren't around back then, watch it to get a glimpse of a truly lost world. Your mileage may vary regarding laughs but my needle pegged towards empty.

Monday, August 25, 2014

FLASHFIRE


Now this, my friends, this is what I'm talking about.

FLASHFIRE (2000) by Richard Stark, was just what I needed to get the still-lingering bad taste of Michael Crichton's bloated THE VENOM BUSINESS out of my mouth. FLASHFIRE is a stripped down, lean and mean, pedal to the metal crime story that is next to impossible to put down.

It's the nineteenth adventure of Parker, the super crook created in 1962  by mystery author Donald Westlake writing under the pen name Richard Stark. The first in the series, THE HUNTER, which I've read, was adapted for film twice, first by John Boorman in the brilliant POINT BLANK (1967) with Lee Marvin as "Walker" and later in 1999 as PAYBACK, with Mel Gibson in the lead. I've seen both films and I prefer POINT BLANK. When I read a Parker story, I can't help but picture him in my mind as looking and sounding like the great Lee Marvin. Oh, and Darwyn Cooke, who is a masterful comic book artist, did a graphic novel adaptation of THE HUNTER a few years back which I highly recommend.

In FLASHFIRE, Parker works with three other men to pull a bank job at the beginning of the book. They get and get away with a sizable amount of cash but the three thieves tell Parker that they need his share of the loot to finance their next big caper, a jewelry heist in Palm Beach, Florida. Withholding money from Parker is their first mistake. Leaving him alive is their second.

Parker is soon on their trail across the American South, pulling various jobs of his own and working a complicated scheme to set up a new identity and a ready source of funds. Oh, and he has to kill some other bad guys along the way, deaths that will have repercussions later in the book. Parker arrives in Palm Beach and soon finds himself teamed-up with Leslie, an avaricious real estate agent who sees the mysterious "Mr. Parmitt" as her meal ticket out of a life of drudgery.

Parker is forced to rely on the amateur to help in his plan to get revenge on the three crooks who double crossed him. The partnership is sometimes good, sometimes bad. There's also a deputy sheriff nosing around that knows something is just not right but he can't put all of the pieces together.Things come to a violent head (as they always do in a Parker novel) and there are a couple of very satisfying plot twists and turns before everything is finally over. 

FLASHFIRE is a terrific crime thriller written by a genre master at the peak of his career. Stark (or Westlake, if you prefer), writes in an economical, stripped down prose style that keeps you turning pages. He also seems to know way too much about how professional criminals operate (and I don't really want to know how he gained that information). He also makes us root for a bad guy. We want Parker to succeed in his quest and, true to form, he does. Once Parker sets his mind on something, there's no stopping him.

FLASHFIRE was the basis of the recent film, PARKER (2013) with Jason Statham in the title role. I've not seen it but I will definitely check it out the first chance I get. In the meantime, it's off to BACKFLASH (another Parker caper) for me. Highest recommendation.




Friday, August 22, 2014

SHOCK


Despite the title and the fact that the film stars Vincent Price, SHOCK (1946) is not a horror film. It's a nifty little film noir that I watched a while back with my buddy Kelly Greene.

Vincent Price was under contract at 20th Century Fox in the late 1940s. He appeared in bit parts and supporting roles in a number of films including the noir masterpiece LAURA (1944). The studio heads at Fox apparently decided to see how Price could do in a leading role and thus, he was cast in SHOCK, in which he received top billing.

Price plays Dr. Cross, a psychiatrist who murders his wife in order to be with his nurse, Elaine (Lynn Bari, as a lovely femme fatale). Trouble is, the murder is witnessed by Janet (Anabel Shaw), a young woman in the adjacent hotel room. Young Janet is awaiting the arrival home of her war veteran husband, Paul (Frank Latimore). But the sight of the murder sends Janet into a state of catatonic shock. This is a neat bit of role reversal. In many post war noirs, it's the men who come home shell shocked and psychologically damaged. Here, veteran Paul seems pretty well adjusted, while his poor wife is the one suffering.

Janet is put into the care of Dr. Cross, which works to his advantage. He figures if he can keep her doped up at his sanitarium, the only witness to his crime can never testify against him. But during the course of one stormy night, Janet comes out of her trance like state and remembers everything. Still, Cross can discredit her story as the ravings of a disturbed young woman who has undergone tremendous psychological stress.

But things start to unravel when O'Neill (Reed Hadley), an investigator from the D.A.'s office starts poking around the circumstances surrounding the death of Mrs. Cross while another psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey (Charles Trowbridge), begins to question Cross's prescribed treatment of shock therapy for Janet.

Although a murderer, Price comes across as a fairly sympathetic character who is urged against his will to act against Janet by Elaine, who is the real villain of the piece. It would be several more years before Price became typecast as a horror star (and he was one of the all-time best in my book). With competent direction by Alfred L. Werker from a screenplay by Eugene Ling and Martin Berkeley (and a story by Albert DeMond), SHOCK is a neat little thriller that has a great premise, a solid cast and a couple of surprises along the way. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

ALL THESE CONDEMNED

I finished reading ALL THESE CONDEMNED by John D. MacDonald this afternoon. I know I first read this novel (originally published in 1954 and reprinted this year in a handsome trade paperback edition by Random House) some thirty plus years ago but I didn't remember anything about it.

In ALL THESE CONDEMNED, MacDonald tries his hand at the traditional, formal murder mystery. Eight people are spending the weekend at the lakeside home of cosmetics magnate Wilma Ferris. All of the people, three women and five men, are employed in some capacity by Ferris. She has mistreated and abused every one of them and is about to fire some of them. Every one of them has a reason and a motive for wanting to see her dead.

MacDonald opens the story with the recovery of Wilma's dead body from the lake. It appears she drowned but a closer inspection of the body reveals evidence of foul play. What was at first believed to be a tragic accident is now under investigation as a murder. Who did it? Was it the television comedienne whose show was sponsored by Ferris's company? The crafty PR man? The stuffed shirt from the advertising agency? The business manager who knows how over exposed the company really is? The muscle bound "artist"?  Or the mousy wife of one Ferris's managers, a woman who worships Wilma when everyone else hates her guts?

MacDonald turns the traditional mystery novel on it's head by having each character narrate two chapters apiece during the course of the novel. One chapter each is told from the point of view of the character before the murder occurred with the other chapters relating the action after the murder. A couple of characters are fairly quickly eliminated as suspects but there are plenty of possibilities to consider before the penultimate chapter in which the killer is revealed.

ALL THESE CONDEMNED combines the jigsaw puzzle aspect of the traditional drawing room mystery (without the presence of a detective to solve the crime) with liberal doses of MacDonald's world view and cynical, mid-century philosophies. The characters are all strongly developed and there's a bit of a surprise at the end. If you're a MacDonald fan, you need to read this book. If you're not a fan of this terrific writer, read ALL THESE CONDEMNED and become one. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

THE VENOM BUSINESS


There's a little more than four months left in the year 2014 but it's safe to say that as of today, August 19th, my nomination for the worst book I've read this year goes to THE VENOM BUSINESS by Michael Crichton. It's one of his earliest books, first published in 1970 when Crichton was just learning the business and publishing under the name "John Lange". All of the Crichton/Lange books have been reissued in handsome trade paperback editions by Hard Case Crime but despite the provocative cover art pictured above, this is a stinker through and through.

It's an over plotted, over written mess of a "thriller" that ironically enough, starts out fairly promisingly but very soon takes a turn for the worse. Crichton spins this yarn over the course of 384 pages, which is easily one hundred pages too many. One is left to wonder if this is Crichton's first draft or if any editor (then or now) ever touched this manuscript. It's clumsy, the characters are cliched, the women are all beautiful and interchangeable, the plot takes forever to take shape, the hero is competent at first but then suddenly turns stupid, everyone in the book drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks (I think they all attended the Nick and Nora Charles School for Advanced Alcoholics), every main character is secretly plotting against every other main character and the whole thing is just one great, huge, crashing, epic bore.

To be fair, Crichton was young and just starting out and was still learning the craft of writing. The trouble was, he never got that much better in my opinion. Oh, he was a great story teller, full of terrific high concept ideas that seemed ready made to make the leap from page to screen. Crichton became an enormously popular, successful and wealthy author but dammit, he just never was that good of a writer. He could keep me turning pages, no doubt, but all the time, a voice in my head was constantly reminding me that this stuff isn't very well written.

Which begs the question, does popular, escapist fiction have to be high art and great literature? Of course not and I'm certainly guilty of enjoying other books by other writers who were on a par (or less) with the later works of Michael Crichton. But there are so many guys out there who bring something more to the page other than plot, guys like Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, that make me wish every thriller writer would learn from them.

If you're a die-hard Michael Crichton fan and are determined to read everything he ever wrote, go ahead and give THE VENOM BUSINESS a try. Just be warned, you might not like what you read. Everyone else, cross against the light to avoid this one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

SANDS OF THE KALAHARI

SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, a 1965 British adventure film, was one of those movies I always wanted to see when I was a kid but somehow never did. Just look at that poster art! It looks like the cover of one of the greatest "men's sweat" adventure magazines ever published. I can see this story being hyped as "Baboons Bit My Butt!" (in the tradition of the legendary "Weasels Ripped My Flesh!"). Alas, it's yet another example of selling the sizzle and not the steak as I found out when I sat down and finally watched this film for the first time yesterday afternoon.

The film begins in a way that is remarkably similar to the opening of Robert Aldrich's masterpiece, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX (1965). A chartered twin engine aircraft is carrying passengers across the African desert when the plane encounters an immense swarm of locusts. The plane crashes and the survivors (Stuart Whitman, Stanley Baker, Susannah York, Harry Andrews, Theodore Bikel and Nigel Davenport) are left stranded in the desert, hundreds of miles from civilization. But instead of rebuilding their plane and flying out of the desert (which they can't do because the craft explodes after landing), they are left to survive by any means necessary.

They soon find food, water and shelter in a cave but a nearby tribe of baboons gives big-game hunter Whitman cause for concern. He's determined to survive at all costs and that means eliminating any and all competition for food and water, be it baboon or fellow human. Davenport sets off to find help, Whitman forces Bikel at gunpoint to do the same and he kills Andrews when he refuses to leave the camp. That leaves just Whitman, Baker and York in a tense struggle to the death for survival and superiority.

Shot on location in Africa by director Cy Enfield (who made the marvelous African adventure film ZULU (1963)) SANDS is a good looking film with a fairly compelling storyline that still somehow misses the mark. The showdown with the baboons (one of the major selling points of the film), doesn't occur until the very end of the film, which is a bit of a letdown. The cast is good but Whitman, who is the real threat, is not a strong enough actor to carry as much of the narrative load as is required by the screenplay. Apparently, the producers of the film originally wanted Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor for the leads but Burton demanded too much money. George Peppard was cast in the Whitman role but left to make THE BLUE MAX before production began. Whitman, a serviceable action hero type in other films and television shows, was hired as his replacement. It's fun to see future SUPERMAN co-stars Susannah York and Harry Andrews together. I wonder if they compared notes about that "baboon movie" when they were on the Krypton set at Pinewood Studios?

SANDS OF THE KALAHARI is not a bad little movie. But it suffers in comparison to FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX and ZULU, both of which are better films. It's worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of "men's sweat" material.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

EMPIRE STRIKES OUT (OR DOES IT?)


EMPIRE, a British film magazine, ran a list of the 301 greatest movies of all time in their July, 2014 issue. 301? Keep in mind that this behemoth of a list is the result of a reader's poll. It does not represent the viewpoints of professional film critics, reviewers and scholars. The poll is an expression of their readership's tastes in film and is not necessarily endorsed, approved or sanctioned by the editorial staff of the magazine. Every movie that made this massive list is someone's favorite film and that's all well and good but I still think 301 films is 201 films too many.

However, the poll tells us much more about said readership than it does about the 301 films listed. Judging from the films selected (especially the film occupying the number one slot), I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the readers who responded to this poll were almost entirely male. And I'll go a step further and suggest that those men are almost all entirely under the age of fifty with the average age of the typical poll respondent clocking in at forty-six years of age (give or take or year).

How do I know this? It's purely conjecture on my part but I don't believe I'm too far off on this hypothesis. Consider: the number one film in this poll is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which was released in 1980. Let's assume that the majority of EMPIRE readers probably saw this film on first release at their local cinemas. They were most likely between the ages of 10-12. As such, it instantly imprinted itself onto their pre-adolescent psyches as the greatest film they had ever seen, better even than STAR WARS, which came out three years earlier in 1977. The readers would have been 7-9 years old then. While few people are sophisticated film watchers at the age of twelve, their tastes and likes in film are pretty well formed. In other words, they know what they've seen and they know what they've liked and disliked.

For instance, I was twelve years old in 1968. If I had somehow managed to be polled by a film magazine that year, I would have listed my favorite films as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, GOLDFINGER, THE GREAT ESCAPE, IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, THE DIRTY DOZEN, FANTASTIC VOYAGE, PLANET OF THE APES, COOL HAND LUKE, BULLITT and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Last year, at the age of 57, I compiled my own list of top 100 films and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY came in at number nine. Obviously, my tastes have changed since I was twelve years old but not to a very large extent. I still love all of the other films listed above and many of them made my list of top 100 films.

Making a list of 100 films is hard work. I know. I did it. And I set some guidelines for my list including no musicals (I don't care for them) and no films made in the 21st century (it's far too early to tell which films will stand the test of time). My top ten films: CITIZEN KANE, THE GODFATHER, CASABLANCA, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, VERTIGO, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, SEVEN SAMURAI, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SUNSET BLVD.

Lists of "best" and "greatest" films by their very existence are arbitrary things. Your list is different from mine and my list is different than the list of EMPIRE readers. But different doesn't always mean wrong. I do believe that 301 is a ridiculous number to list because after one hundred films things start to get pretty desperate in my opinion. At that point, it's not so much a determination of quality film making as it is popularity and "oh-yeah-that-was-a-pretty-good-one" criteria. I also think there are entirely too many 21st century films on the EMPIRE list (including several films that were released last year).

But I don't begrudge the forty-something (and younger) men who took the time to respond to the poll their choice of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as the greatest film of all time. As I said, that selection says far more about them than it does about the respective merits of the film itself (it's a great film but I don't believe it's better than STAR WARS).

After all, when I was twelve, I thought JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS was the greatest movie ever made. In some ways, I still do.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A FEAST UNKNOWN

Today I finished reading (for the second time in more than thirty years), A FEAST UNKNOWN, a 1969 science fiction novel by Philip Jose Farmer. The book was reprinted along with several other Farmer titles in 2012 by Titan Books in handsome trade paperback editions.

A FEAST UNKNOWN is a pulp fan's wildest dream come true. It's the story of a fight between Tarzan and Doc Savage, two of the greatest pulp adventure heroes of all time. Except, since this is an unauthorized pastiche, in Farmer's novel the characters go by the names of Lord Grandrith and Doc Caliban. A rose by any other name....

Farmer spins an exciting, fast paced adventure yarn which starts with an attack on Grandrith's Kenyan plantation and quickly escalates from there. There's a chase across Africa, a visit to the fabled city (what's left of it) of Opar (here called Ophir), and an ancient secret ceremony in the hidden mountain stronghold of The Nine, a mysterious organization of immortal beings that includes (among others), Odin. Both Grandrith and Caliban are in service to The Nine which has given both men a mysterious elixir that has prolonged their lifespans indefinitely. And that's just for starters.

Grandrith and Trish Wilde (aka Pat Savage) soon find themselves headed from Africa to England to rescue Clio (Jane) from the clutches of a mad Albanian and a final showdown to the death between Grandrith and Caliban. Oh, and along the way, Grandrith discovers that he and Caliban are brothers and that their father was none other than Jack the Ripper.

Farmer complicates this headlong narrative by having both Grandrith and Caliban stricken with a strange mental/physical aberration (a side effect of the elixir which grants them both near eternal life). Both men become sexually aroused at the thought of killing an enemy in battle and both men achieve orgasms when they take the life of another.

That's right folks, this is a pulp novel with plenty of blood and thunder, just like the good old days but with a new element added: sex. The sex in A FEAST UNKNOWN is not of the casual nature either. It's turned up to 11. We're talking erections, orgasms, sodomy, rape, the eating of testes and clitorises, bestiality, incest, coprophagia and more. There's as much (or more) ejaculate spilled as blood. And the scene in which Grandrith and Caliban duel each other with saber like crossed erections at full mast, is something I'll never forget.

The inclusion of such explicit sexual content in a science fiction novel raised quite a few eyebrows when A FEAST UNKNOWN was first published in the late 1960s. It still does. It's over the top. It's shocking. And, in places, it's pretty damned funny. Is it obscene? Pornographic? You bet it is, so, a warning to potential readers, this is definitely X-rated, adults only material.

But the sexual content sheds new psychological insight into these revered and venerable pulp heroes. Farmer writes Grandrith as a human being raised by wild animals would really behave. None of this noble savage crap. And he allows Caliban to come to terms with the enormous stress and strain of his repressed sexuality in ways that Doc Savage would never have approved of.

If you're a fan of the pulps who has ever wanted to see these characters in a new, adult way, A FEAST UNKNOWN comes highly recommended. It's certainly not going to appeal to everyone but open minded pulp aficionados should find it enjoyable. I thought it was one helluva read.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

ONE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE

I finished reading ONE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE yesterday afternoon. Originally published in 1966 and recently reprinted by Random House in a handsome trade paperback edition, it's the eighth Travis McGee adventure written by the late, great John D. MacDonald. It's the fourth McGee novel I've re-read this year (after THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY, NIGHTMARE IN PINK and A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING). Like those books (and many other MacDonald titles), I read YELLOW EYE for the first time about thirty years ago. I remember having read it but I didn't recall the particulars of the story.

In this one, McGee gets called to Chicago (a city he doesn't much care for) to aid his old friend Gloria Geis. It seems her late husband, the successful and wealthy Dr. Fortner Geis, converted almost all of his assets to cash before he died of a terminal disease. The trouble is, that cash, in the amount of six hundred thousand dollars, can't be found. It appears that someone put the squeeze on the good doctor. But who, for what reason and where is the money now?

McGee's investigation uncovers some dark family secrets before he finally stumbles upon the truth of what really happened. Oh and he manages to defrost a frigid, sexually repressed young woman with a few waves of his patented "magic dick". After tying up loose ends in Chicago, McGee returns to Florida with the young lady in tow but there's yet one last twist of the narrative knot to come.

ONE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE features a couple of very bad characters as the villains behind the scheme but there's not much action to speak of until the very end of the book and when it comes, it's worth the wait. But before that, MacDonald gives us another cast of well drawn characters, makes McGee and us look one way when what's really going on is right over here and tons of McGee's unique perspective on the modern world. Thumbs up.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

GRAND CENTRAL MURDER

The one-sheet (above) for GRAND CENTRAL MURDER (1942) (which I watched yesterday with my buddy Kelly Greene) makes the claim that the film is "screamingly funny" and "screamingly thrilling." That's a lie. It's neither.

What this MGM B-movie (it was made in 22 days) is, is a comedy murder mystery that simply doesn't work. It's not funny at all. The "comedy" bits consist of overacting and mugging by Sam Levene who plays a soda-pop addicted and incompetent police detective. He's gathered a cast of suspects to investigate the murder of gorgeous Broadway diva/gold digger  Patricia Dane. Included in this assemblage is Van Heflin, a young, smarter-than-the-police (you know he's bright, he smokes a pipe) private detective and his lovely wife Virginia Grey. Next to the very young and overly animated Van Heflin, Patricia Dane and Virginia Grey are the best things about this dreary film. They were both very attractive ladies.

The questioning continues, interspersed with flashbacks. At one point, director S. Sylvan Simon seems to have suddenly decided that all of this talk was pretty damn boring and a fist fight between Heflin and suspect Tom Conway was called for in order to liven things up. It doesn't work. All of the suspects are finally gathered in the private rail car where the murder occurred and Heflin reveals the killer. Yawn.

There are many other films out there that meld mystery and comedy much more successfully than is done in GRAND CENTRAL MURDER. If you're a die-hard MGM devotee or a fan of any of the players, you might enjoy this one. Otherwise, GRAND CENTRAL MURDER gets a thumbs down.

Friday, August 8, 2014

INSOMNIA

I haven't seen every film directed by Christopher Nolan but I can tell you that I've enjoyed each and every one of his films that I have seen. I've yet to see his debut feature, FOLLOWING (1998) and THE PRESTIGE (2006) and like many other film fans, I'm anxiously awaiting the release of INTERSTELLAR later this year.

I saw MEMENTO (2000) when it was first released and I was mightily impressed by this clever neo-noir's innovative told-backwards narrative structure. It was a fascinating, difficult to pull off feat of storytelling but Nolan handled it extremely well. I thoroughly enjoyed all three films in his Batman trilogy: BATMAN BEGINS (2005), THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012). A buddy of mine thinks that Nolan's films "ruined" Batman. They didn't. If any filmmaker "ruined" Batman, it was Joel Schumacher, director of the abominable BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN. But we just celebrated the 75th birthday of Batman and the caped crusader appears to be very much alive and well in a multitude of media. He's pretty durable for a seventy-five-year-old. Nolan's INCEPTION (2010), is one of the ten best films I've seen so far in this 14 and 1/2 year old 21st century.

I finally got around to watching INSOMNIA (2002) the other day, which comes between MEMENTO and BATMAN BEGINS, in the Nolan filmography. It's another very good neo-noir that starts out as a straight murder mystery and then takes a turn into something far more complex.

Al Pacino stars as a celebrated LAPD homicide detective sent to Alaska (along with his partner) to investigate the brutal murder of a teenage girl. The heat is on back in LA as both men are being investigated by Internal Affairs. Once in Alaska, Pacino is teamed up with a young police woman (Hilary Swank), who has studied every case in Pacino's career. Pacino and the local cops soon corner a suspect in a deserted cabin in the woods but the suspect escapes and, in the ensuing pursuit in a very heavy fog, Pacino winds up accidentally shooting and killing his partner. This is a good thing for Pacino, as his partner was about to sing to IA. Pacino figures he can manipulate the evidence in the shooting and make it look like the suspect shot his partner leaving him free and clear to continue his murder investigation.

But Swank is assigned to investigate the shooting and the facts just don't add up. Meanwhile, Pacino is contacted by the killer (Robin Williams), who knows he killed his partner. A tense game of cat and mouse begins between the two men. They are both guilty of killing but both men see a way out of their respective predicaments by working together. Williams will keep quiet about the death of Pacino's partner if Pacino will help Williams frame a patsy for the girl's murder.

To complicate the issue, Pacino is haunted by memories of a past homicide investigation and he's stressed out by lack of sleep. He can't adjust to the perpetual daylight in Alaska and his sleep deprivation leads to hallucinations, lapses of judgement and a suffocating increase in guilt, remorse and regret.

Nolan puts this cast through a twisty thriller highlighted by gorgeous location photography and two strong performances from Pacino and Williams. Pacino can sometimes be a bit hammy in my opinion but he's good here as a man slowly going insane under the immense mental and physical strains he's experiencing. He makes a great noir protagonist: seriously flawed but desperately trying to do the right thing. Williams dials the mugging down to zero and plays his soft spoken mystery writer turned killer as a calm, cool and collected regular guy which only adds to the creepiness factor.

Will both men get away with their crimes? Will Pacino purge himself of his guilt? Will he ever get a good night's sleep? Those questions (and more) are answered in the climax of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed INSOMNIA. It's yet another Christopher Nolan film that's a winner in my book.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

MARVEL SUPER-HEROES, a 1960s comic book published by, who else, Marvel Comics, had an interesting run. The title began in 1966 as FANTASY MASTERPIECES,  a regular size monthly comic book that reprinted horror, science fiction and fantasy stories from Marvel's past. Then with issue number three, the title became a giant-size comic book with Golden Age Captain America reprints in the front of the book, backed up by the usual horror/sf/fantasy fare. Over the next few issues. the reprinted Golden Age material expanded to include stories starring Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and the All Winners Squad. The title was a gold mine (you should pardon the expression) of vintage material that I (and many other Marvelites) were seeing for the very first time.

Then, with issue number twelve, the title changed its' name to MARVEL SUPER-HEROES. The lead feature was a brand new character, the Kree spaceman Captain Mar-Vel who went by the name Captain Marvel. The Golden Age material was still there, but was now relegated to the back of the book. After two issues, Captain Marvel was spun off into his own title and the lead spot in MARVEL SUPER-HEROES became a place to spotlight existing Marvel characters and introduce new features. Number fourteen featured a new Spider-Man story, number fifteen starred Medusa of the Inhumans, the WWI aviator avenger the Phantom Eagle flew for the first time in number sixteen and the new origin of the recently revamped Black Knight was revealed in number seventeen.

Issue number eighteen, pictured above, has a cover date of January 1969, which means I bought it sometime in the fall of 1968. I was twelve years-old. It was the first appearance of a new science fiction based team of super-heroes named The Guardians of the Galaxy. With artwork by Gene Colan (one of my all-time favorite comic book artists), this issue of MSH introduced us to (from left to right), Vance Astro, Charlie-27, Martinex and Yondru. These four characters were the original incarnation of the Guardians and they remain my favorite iteration of the team. Over the years, the Guardians have gone through multiple revivals and re-boots and the line-up of the team has changed accordingly. It's the most recent line-up (Starlord, Gamora, Drax, Groot and Rocket Raccoon) that are on display in the new Marvel/Disney film, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, which I saw yesterday.

I must confess that I never thought I would see a GUARDIANS movie of any kind, no matter what line-up was featured. These characters were all strictly B or C listers. Interesting, yes, but lacking the star power and name recognition of Captain America, Spider-Man and Iron Man.

But watching GUARDIANS on the big screen yesterday (in very good 3-D to boot), I was once again that twelve-year old kid who fell in love with the characters way back in 1968. GUARDIANS is pure fun, full of laughs, '80s pop culture references, dazzling chases and battles, jaw-dropping special effects, and a team of losers, misfits and outcasts that bicker and snipe at each other before uniting to become true heroes.

The first part of the film introduces the players (good and bad) and sets up the situation. The five Guardians to be eventually find themselves in a deep-space prison. They escape (of course) and set off to save the universe with plenty of obstacles in the way.

Only one of the original comic book Guardians makes an appearance here. It's Yondru (Michael Rooker) and he's changed considerably. Here, he's the leader of an intergalactic band of pirates named The Ravagers. He's sports blue skin, a modified Mohawk and a flying arrow that he controls by whistling. Other Marvel characters fill out the cast including Ronan the Accuser, the Nova Corps, Nova Prime, Nebula, the Collector and Thanos. And was that a Celestial from Jack Kirby's THE ETERNALS in one shot? Oh, and the after the credits scene has to be seen to be believed.

If you're looking for a serious, sober minded science fiction film you're probably going to have to wait until later this year when Christopher Nolan's INTERSTELLAR is released. But if you're in the mood for a rollicking, fast paced, action packed, funny and FUN movie, go see THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Twelve-year-old Frank loved it.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

CLOVERFIELD

The first modern "found footage" horror film was THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999). Since then, there have been dozens of these types of film produced including PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007), REC (2007), QUARANTINE (2008) and CHRONICLE (2012). It's easy to see why so many of these "found footage" films have been produced in the last few years. They're relatively cheap to produce, they don't require the presence of big name actors and special effects can be relatively minimal. These low budget horror/science fiction/fantasy films have become their own sub-genre and the format/gimmick has yet to run its' course.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was accompanied by a boatload of online buzz when it was first released back in the infancy of the digital age. Internet chatter had some people convinced that the film was real (it wasn't). The hype positioned BWP as one of the scariest movies ever made (it's not). I saw the film in the theater on first release. I didn't like it. I thought the idea/concept was clever and fairly well executed but I hated the three characters and really didn't care what happened to them. Plus, the "plot" of the film depended upon them behaving stupidly instead of logically in order to place them into increasing jeopardy. And the last shot of the film elicited a "WTF?" from me as I was unsure about exactly what I was seeing and what it was supposed to mean.

Nonetheless, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, produced on a budget between $500,000 and $750,000, made $248,639,099. The handwriting was on the wall. "Found footage"films could be money in the bank for entry level filmmakers. 

CLOVERFIELD, a found footage science fiction film produced by J.J, Abrams (director of STAR TREK, SUPER 8, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and the upcoming STAR WARS: EPISODE 7) had a considerably larger budget than BLAIR WITCH but it still operates on the same gimmick. I watched the film for the first time yesterday and I really enjoyed it. 

CLOVERFIELD is an Americanized Godzilla movie with a gigantic, bipedal (non-saurian) monster attacking New York City. But the conceit of the film is that we see the attack solely from the point of view of one person's hand held digital camera. The film starts at a going-away party in a lower Manhattan loft attended by a bunch of twenty-somethings. This sequence is necessary to set everything up and introduce the major players but once again, I didn't like any of these kids and I thought the scene went on way too long. I kept wanting the story to get to the monster and it does sooner rather than later. Once the attack begins, everything plays out in real time and the action and suspense never lets up as four young people run through the streets of New York trying to avoid the monster and save one of their friends who is trapped in her apartment near Central Park.

As in BLAIR WITCH, CLOVERFIELD depends upon its' characters behaving stupidly in order to advance the story. And once again, I didn't particularly like any of the young people. What I did like were the special effects and action sequences which are very convincing. There are no cutaways to other characters and story lines. We know practically nothing about the monster. Where did it come from? What is it? Is it really dead at the end of the film? This sense of not-knowing adds to the suspense and reality of the situation.

CLOVERFIELD resonates with images from 9-11. Director Matt Reeves (who helmed this summer's DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) does a masterful job of making everything flow smoothly. The special effects are first rate. Three quarters of the film was shot on back lots and in sound stages in California. The crew spent only one week on location in New York City. But everything fits together nicely and I was convinced that these characters were really in a Manhattan under attack by a gigantic monster.

Once you get past the loft scene, CLOVERFIELD is a pedal-to-the-medal science fiction thriller. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Thumbs up!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

THE MAN FROM MARS

I finished reading THE MAN FROM MARS: RAY PALMER'S AMAZING PULP JOURNEY by Fred Nadis yesterday evening. The book was published last year and is now available in trade paperback.

Ray Palmer was short in stature and hunchbacked due to an accident in childhood followed by a bout with a crippling disease. But his physical infirmities didn't stop Palmer, or RAP as he came to be known, from becoming editor of the venerable science fiction pulp magazine AMAZING STORIES. But that's just the start of this "amazing" story.

While editor of AMAZING, RAP was contacted by Richard Shaver, a man with a past history of mental illness. Shaver claimed that there was a race of ancient aliens living under the surface of the earth. These aliens were the original inhabitants of the lost lands of Lemuria and Atlantis and they were divided into two factions, one good, one evil. The aliens used their advanced technology to influence the affairs of men and were still doing so in the 1940s.

Palmer took Shaver's rough narrative (which Shaver claimed was true) and reworked it into a serviceable pulp yarn that he presented as maybe true, maybe not. With that the infamous Shaver Mystery was born as Palmer and Shaver began collaborating on a series of stories that revealed more information about these underground aliens. Nadis raises the question: did Palmer really believe Shaver's wild ramblings or was he just a canny promoter who recognized that this material would  increase circulation and readership of his magazine? Although the two men eventually became friends, you can't help but come away from this narrative thinking that RAP exploited Shaver for Palmer's own benefit.

But the Shaver Mystery eventually ran its' course and RAP left AMAZING to begin publishing a series of "true" magazines (such as FATE) devoted to flying saucers and the paranormal.  Palmer spent the rest of his professional life courting people involved in these fringe subjects, always looking for the next Shaver, someone with a wild and compelling story to tell that Palmer could present as maybe true, maybe not.

RAP encountered many colorful people and published lots of unusual material. Towards the end of his life, Palmer latched onto the many different "hollow earth" theories that were floating around at the time but this material proved too little, too late to save RAP's small publishing empire. In addition to science fiction and bizarre "true" stories, Palmer also had a brief fling as a publisher of soft core pornography. Many of these paperback originals were penned by science fiction authors working under pseudonyms.

In the 1960s, Palmer took a stand against the Vietnam War, embraced the youth/hippie culture (but was against drugs such as LSD), became a staunch right-winger (supporting Barry Goldwater and George Wallace in their presidential runs) and eventually came to believe in various extremist conspiracy theories before his death in 1977.

Science fiction fandom is split regarding the legacy of Ray Palmer. Some die hard purists believe that he ruined science fiction (he didn't), while others went along with him on his exploration (and exploitation) of the mysteries of the unknown world. Palmer had an innate curiosity about everything and he was smart enough to recognize what was commercial material and what would spark dialogues between himself and his readers.

And let's not forget that the real Ray Palmer gave Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox his consent to use his name for the revamped, Silver Age Atom super-hero character published by DC Comics in the 1960s. Editor Schwartz and writer Fox both knew Palmer from their days in the pulps.

Fred Nadis does a serviceable job of presenting the life and work of Ray Palmer but I do have a few minor quibbles. It's H. Rider Haggard not L. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian) wouldn't have anything to say about the pulps in 1938 because he died by his own hand in 1936 and the Atlas Comics (later Marvel Comics) anthology title JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY was one of dozens of horror/science fiction/fantasy comics that were on the newsstands in the late 1950s, all of which were a response to what other publishers were producing and not, as Nadis posits, a result of anything Ray Palmer did.

But those are minor points that a good copy editor could have easily fixed. THE MAN FROM MARS is a fast, breezy, informative read. I have heard about Ray Palmer for years but I didn't know anything about him. He was a fascinating man, full of contradictions and paradoxes. THE MAN FROM MARS is recommended for anyone with an interest in the unusual and the bizarre and is must reading for all science fiction fans.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

ALICE

I watched ALICE (1990) for the second time the other day. I saw this Woody Allen romantic comedy on first release. There was a time in my life when I didn't miss a Woody Allen film. Every year, Allen would release a film and every year, I'd go to the theater and see it. Somewhere along the way, I stopped going to the theater to see first run Woody Allen films. Haven't seen one in several years. I know I'm missing some fine work and I'm sure I'll eventually catch up but the fact remains that at some point in my movie going life, seeing every new Woody Allen film as they came out ceased to be a priority for me.

ALICE isn't a bad little movie but it's certainly not one of Woody's best. This slight romantic comedy traffics heavily in magic realism in the story of Alice (Mia Farrow), a repressed woman who's married to a rich and successful New York City businessman (William Hurt). Alice leads a charmed and pampered life, full of shopping trips, massages and lunch dates with her girl friends. But something is missing from her life. Alice is possessed of a nameless ache and a yearning for something more out of life.

She visits a Chinatown herbalist (Keye Luke), who gives her a variety of alternative medicines (along with some hypno-therapy). Before you know it, Alice becomes invisible, she turns into an oversexed vamp, she sees and talks to the ghost of her dead first lover (Alec Baldwin) and even flies through the skies above Manhattan with him.

Alice begins to come out of her shell with the help of the doctor and she soon discovers that she's attracted to a handsome jazz musician (Joe Mantegna), whose child attends the same private school that Alice's children go to. Before you know it, the newly liberated Alice is having an affair with Joe. She enjoys it but she's also consumed by Catholic guilt. On one of her invisible adventures, she spies upon her husband in his office following a Christmas party and discovers that he is cheating on her. 

Devastated by this realization, Alice abandons both her lover and her husband, leaves New York and heads to India to work alongside Sister Theresa. She then returns to Manhattan a changed, contented and a fully realized woman.

Throughout the film, Alice wears a variety of over sized hats that make her look like a grown up version of the storybook character Madeline. She also wears red in many scenes, perhaps a visual cue of her adultery, expressed in scarlet hues (but no letters). 

ALICE was originally filmed in 1989 as THE MAGICAL HERBS OF DR. YANG. But Allen, always the perfectionist, fussed and obsessed over many details and went back and re shot much of the material before finally releasing it in 1990. His screenplay garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

What bothers me about ALICE, indeed, what bothers me about many of Allen's film, is his apparent obsession with adultery. The subject serves as a major plot element in many of his films including HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY, SEPTEMBER and others. It's a chief thematic concern that runs throughout his body of work but he often portrays it as an act which has little or no consequences, with several of his characters cheating on their spouses in his films and getting away with it. I'm not sure what kind of punishment I want to see meted out to those people or even if they do deserve punishment. After all, they're only human and humans make mistakes. But something about Allen's almost cavalier attitude towards adultery just doesn't sit right with me.

I still like Woody Allen and the majority of his films. I think he's one of the greatest filmmakers of the last fifty years. With as long a career as he's had (and continues to have), he can get away with a lesser film every once in awhile. ALICE is certainly one of those lesser works. It's entertaining and worth seeing at least once if you're an Allen fan but it's definitely not masterpiece material.