Tuesday, December 29, 2015

THE SHADOW'S SHADOW


THE SHADOW'S SHADOW, first published in February, 1933, was the 23rd adventure of the Master of Darkness. I finished reading the Pyramid Books reprint (from July, 1977) the other evening and it's another corker.

Master villain and international criminal Felix Zubian and wealthy man-about-town Douglas Carleton, plot to steal millions in diamonds. They know the only thing standing against them is The Shadow so they decide to take the fight to mysterious crime-fighter. Zubian and Carleton are aided in their fight against The Shadow by tough talking gangster Gats Hackett who refers to his two huge revolvers as "smoke wagons". Only in the pulps! The villains discover and capture two of The Shadow's agents, Harry Vincent and Rutledge Mann and through careful observation, deduce that The Shadow is really Lamont Cranston.

But The Shadow is, as always, a step ahead of the crooks He ditches the Cranston persona and becomes Henry Arnaud. There are several gun battles (with high body counts) before the final showdown in which all of the villains are slain and Zubian, before he dies, catches a glimpse of The Shadow's real face, which is neither Cranston nor Arnaud. What is the true face of The Shadow? Author Walter Gibson's not telling.

With a terrific cover by the legendary Jim Steranko, THE SHADOW'S SHADOW is pure pulp pleasure. Recommended.



Sunday, December 27, 2015

BROTHERS KEEPERS


Even though it was published by Mysterious Press (a Warner Books imprint), BROTHERS KEEPERS by Donald E. Westlake doesn't qualify as a mystery in my book. Oh sure, a little bit of  deductive reasoning takes place and crimes (electronic eavesdropping, theft and arson) are committed, but basically this is a comic romp of a novel involving a New York City monastery and the monks who live there as they attempt to save their home from being sold and demolished to make room for a major new development.

Brother Benedict of the Crispinite Order is the narrator of this breezy tale. The order is devoted to thoughts of God and travel. The monks aren't necessarily opposed to travel but they don't engage in it to any degree as they are a fairly self-sufficient little group. But when a big developer threatens to buy the property and demolish it, Brother Benedict is forced to venture outside of the monastery in an attempt to save his home.

His travels take him first to the Long Island home of the developer where he comes under the spell of the developer's lovely daughter, Elaine. Elaine indicates a willingness to help Brother Benedict save the monastery but before he can pursue that avenue, the monks discover that their original copy of the lease has been stolen. When they attempt to reproduce the lease (using an illuminated manuscript), that document is put to the torch by the developer's son posing as a monk. Brother Benedict is forced to fly to Puerto Rico to confront Elaine and ask for her help. Of course, he falls for her and must make a very difficult decision: should he abandon his brothers and the monastery for the woman he loves or renounce Elaine and return to where he is safe and secure and stay with his brothers no matter what?

The third act introduction of a travel agent who wants to join the order puts a new twist on things and the climax finds all of the brothers boarding a bus to the developer's home on New Year's Eve for a final showdown.

BROTHERS KEEPERS was first published in 1975. It was reprinted under the Mysterious Press imprint in 1993. These brothers are more Marx than Crispinite and Westlake keeps things moving at a good clip. Mystery? No. Crime novel? Nope. Fun? You bet. Recommended.

Friday, December 18, 2015

AN ISLAND CALLED MOREAU


British writer H.G. Wells, one of the grandfathers of literary science fiction, published THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU in 1896. I'm ashamed to admit, I've never read the book but I do have a copy on a shelf in my man cave and I hope to get around to finally reading it in 2016. Keep watching to see if I make good on that goal.

The book has served as the source material for three different film versions over the years. The first (and best) version was THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1933), an atmospheric shocker starring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1977) with Burt Lancaster and Michael York, is a serviceable enough film that has it's moments. And then there's 1996's utterly outre ISLAND OF LOST SOULS with Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. This mess, directed by veteran filmmaker John Frankenheimer, has to be seen to be believed. And contrary to popular belief, the morbidly obese Brando does not play Moreau, he plays the island. I've seen all three films and own a copy of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS on the Criterion Collection label.

All of which brings me to AN ISLAND CALLED MOREAU, a 1981 novel by British science fiction writer Brian W. Aldiss which I recently read and enjoyed. The year is 1996. A world war is brewing. A shuttle craft returning from a diplomatic meeting on the moon crashes into the Pacific Ocean. The only survivor of the wreck is United States Undersecretary of State Calvert Roberts, who drifts in a makeshift raft for several days before finally being rescued.

His rescuers are an odd pair. One is a gruff bearded man. The other appears more animal than man. They take Roberts to a small island with a gigantic M carved into a cliff face. There Roberts finds more man (and woman)-animals and the mysterious Mortimer Dart, a crippled and deformed wheelchair ridden man who uses a multi-armed suit of high tech armor to walk about the island.

It turns out that everything Wells wrote about was true. There really was a Dr. Moreau (real name, McMoreau) and he really did experiment on men and animals to create hybrid beasts. Dart is following in that tradition, a horrifying revelation that Roberts must try to stop. But as things progress, more and more secrets about the island and the work taking place there are revealed. These revelations turn everything Roberts thinks he knows about his government upside down.

AN ISLAND CALLED MOREAU is a  good, fast paced, science fiction adventure story. It mixes excitement and narrative pace with thought provoking ideas and concepts. There is action, plenty of bizarre characters (human and otherwise), and a real sense of science put to an extreme use in war time.

Recommended.
  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"THIS CAVE DON'T GO TO AINTRY, GIRL"


I watched THE DESCENT (2005), the other day for the first time. This British horror film has many similarities to John Boorman's brilliant classic DELIVERANCE (1972). Here, instead of four men, it's six women. Instead of white-water rafting down a raging river, it's spelunking in an unexplored cave. A broken leg with protruding bone? Check for both. But instead of corn-holin' hillbillies, the women here must face off against a horde of Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, or, if you prefer C.H.U.D. (hands up if you remember that 1984 shlock fest).

The six women exist only to be slaughtered so don't look for any thing remotely resembling character development. The ostensible main character is Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), who survives a horrific automobile accident early in the film, an accident that leaves her husband and daughter both dead and Sarah severely unhinged. Flash forward to a year later and Sarah and her buds embark on a spelunking trip somewhere in the Appalachians. The trouble is, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the most experienced spelunker of the group, doesn't tell the others that the cave has never been explored. She wants to claim the victory of exploring it and naming it for herself.

As if the sheer, claustrophobic terror of being in a very dark, very small space deep underground (sequences which are effectively staged, by the way), wasn't enough, it's not long before the women encounter the blind, fish-belly white, hairless cannibal creatures and all hell breaks loose. We're talking a beheading, a throat impalement with a climbing hammer, one woman eaten alive in a tunnel, etc, etc. The brutality, violence and gore is unrelenting during the last third of the film and you begin to wonder if any of these women will survive. Finally, Sarah escapes back to the surface and away from the cave. Or does she?

Exteriors for the film were shot in the U.K. while all of the cave scenes were shot on sets built at Pinewood Studios in Great Britain. The sets are extremely convincing, as are the cannibals. But it's extremely difficult to tell what's going on in some of the fight scenes due to both limited lighting and helter skelter editing. Neil Marshall does double duty as writer and director. His direction is good but his screenplay is strictly by-the-numbers. Marshall's next film after THE DESCENT was DOOMSDAY (2008), a schizoid mash-up of a film that starts out as an ALIENS rip-off which suddenly and inexplicably morphs into a ROAD WARRIOR pastiche midway through the film. It sounds crazy but it works.

THE DESCENT is technically well made but I can only recommend this one to die-hard horror film fans. The cardboard characters, cookie-cutter plot and over-the-top gore really put me off.


Friday, December 11, 2015

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST: WHISTLES AND BELLS AND BIG LOO


Christmas, 1963. I was seven years old on that Christmas morning when I found this big guy waiting for me under the tree. Big Loo, the giant moon robot by Marx toys, was one of my all-time favorite toys when I was a kid. This beauty truly lived up to his name. Loo stood three feet tall, one foot wide and nine inches deep and retailed for the then exorbitant price of $9.99. He was a virtual one man army robot who could do almost everything. You think I'm kidding? How about these features:

He had a sight scope with cross hairs in his forehead. Two battery operated flashing red eyes. A hand cranked mechanical voice box with several different recorded phrases. Two rubber tipped drafts fired from his chest plate. A water squirter sprayed out of his navel. His L-shaped left arm fired four red "ping pong" balls. The right arm was hinged at the shoulder, could rotate 360 degrees and pick things up with his pincer claw of a right hand. Even his feet were weaponized, with a small spring-loaded missile launcher embedded in the left foot. Also included in Big Loo's arsenal were a compass, a whistle, a bell, and a Morse code clicker. He rolled on wheels and was jointed at the waist allowing him to bend down. He was the perfect robot toy and I loved him.

That is, until I didn't. Years later, my buddy Terry Porter and I were reenacting television's ALL STAR WRESTLING show in the hallway of my home. We were rolling and tussling on the floor and somehow I got the notion to grab Loo and start hitting Terry with him. Not hard, mind you, just hard enough to do complete and permanent damage to the old guy. Yep, I busted Big Loo over my best friend's head.

A few years ago, Judy and I toured Geppi's Pop Culture museum in Baltimore, Maryland (a must see for comic book and pop culture fans). In the room displaying vintage toys was Big Loo, placed high up on a display shelf, with a commanding view of the entire room. I squealed like a little girl when I saw him. I pointed and gasped, "It's Big Loo!" Judy, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. I filled her in on my childhood friend and his ignominious fate.

To this day, I wish I still had the goofy looking guy. But toy dealers are asking a king's ransom for the toy alone, more for the toy and the box. Still, I have my memories of that long ago Christmas morning when Big Loo was waiting under the tree for me to take him into my heart.

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTES 4


Welsh actress Catherine Zeta Jones was the "bad girl" in THE PHANTOM (1996), which I recall seeing when it came out but she really caught my eye in THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998). I literally could not take my eyes off of her every time she appeared on the screen. I thought she had to be a Latina actress but I was shocked to find out she was from Wales. She was hands down the best thing about MASK OF ZORRO.

I've only seen a couple of her other films, ENTRAPMENT (1999), a so-so caper film made watchable by the pairing of Zeta Jones and the legendary Sean Connery and AMERICA'S SWEETHEARTS (2001), a middling romantic comedy that Judy and I rented one night.

After my first exposure to her, I immediately cast her in my imaginary WONDER WOMAN film as Princess Diana with the still breathtaking Lynda Carter as her mother, Queen Hippolyta. Sadly, that onscreen team-up will never happen but a guy can dream can't he?

By the way, my closest brush with Catherine Zeta Jones came when I met "Zorro" himself, Antonio Banderas. He was shopping in the store one afternoon while his wife, Melanie Griffiths was shooting a film at a nearby location. Every female employee was going nuts over having him on the premises. I told them to just leave the guy alone. Later, I was walking the floor and our paths crossed. I just asked him if there was anything I could help him with. He said no and I went back to my office where I immediately called Judy with the news that "I"m bigger than Zorro!" She had no idea what I was talking about until I explained that I had met Banderas in the store. He's a little guy. I'm no giant and I certainly weigh less now than I did then but I'm pretty sure I could have taken him sixteen years ago.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS


I've got to give credit where credit is due. I recently received as an early Christmas gift, a package of DVDs from my old buddy Gary Banks (thanks Gary!). Most of the DVDs were "burned" copies but one was the real deal, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971) in an attractive package on the Blue Underground label. I'd never seen this one until I sat down and watched it this afternoon.

This is a Euro-horror-art film about lesbian vampires with overtones of sadism. The kinko-meter is turned up to 11 on this stylish, nicely shot film. Delphine Seyrig stars as Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a beautiful woman made immortal by both bathing in and drinking the blood of virgins. She crosses paths with a newlywed couple, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) at a deserted Belgian hotel. Bathory is accompanied by her "secretary" Ilona (Andrea Rau) and the four characters soon engage in a game of seduction and death. Bathory and Ilona are, of course, lesbian vampires. Bathory sets her sights on Valerie while Ilona goes after Stefan. But Stefan is revealed to be a sadist with a bizarre "mother".

The action of the film takes place in a variety of curiously de-populated European locales. Besides the four principal characters, the only other key people to appear in the film are the concierge at the hotel and a retired detective who keeps showing up in the oddest places. The stark, isolated landscapes and interiors work in favor of the narrative and give the film a haunted, dreamlike quality.

Competently directed by Harry Kumel, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS is a Belgium/France/West Germany co-production that clearly took advantage of the sexually liberated international cinema of the 1970s. The three women are all attractive and there's plenty of nudity (male and female) to go along with the surprising little (given the subject matter) on-screen bloodshed and violence. If you're a fan of vampire films or 1970s European horror cinema, check out DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. Thumbs up.


MAYFLOWER


I finished reading MAYFLOWER: A STORY OF COURAGE, COMMUNITY AND WAR (2006) by Nathaniel Philbrick the other evening. It's the second Philbrick penned history book I've read this year. Back in the spring, I read and thoroughly enjoyed SEA OF GLORY (2001). It was a terrific read, full of fascinating characters and epic adventure. MAYFLOWER contains many of those same elements: bigger than life characters (both English and Native American), grand adventure and a reminder that what I thought I knew about the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony and the First Thanksgiving, as I was taught in school, is not entirely correct.

Philbrick's narrative begins in England where the Pilgrims yearn to practice their religion freely. They are oppressed by the British monarchy and flee to the Netherlands where they find a modicum of religious freedom. But it is ultimately in the New World where true freedom awaits them. The voyage is perilous and the landing, while successful, doesn't bode well. They are ashore in a savage, unknown land with no pre-established resources of shelter, food or arms to comfort them. The Pilgrims must make do on their own.

Well, not entirely on their own. They do form an alliance with the powerful and influential Indian sachem Massasoit, who convinces his people to work with the Pilgrims to their mutual advantage. That first year was a brutal one. The winter was one of the coldest on record and many of the Pilgrims did not survive. When it came time for the first Thanksgiving (which did indeed take place), it was vastly different than the stories we were told in grade school.

Over the years, Massasoit and other Indian sachems and the Pilgrims forged a more-or-less peaceful co-existence. The Pilgrim leaders knew they needed the Indians assistance to survive and the Indians knew it was better to work with the English rather than against them. Not all Indians subscribed to this compromise however and such stalwarts as Captain Miles Standish led his men against more than one hostile tribe of Indians.

Peace was finally reached and as the years went by, the number of Pilgrims increased, as did the number of English settlers in New England. Fifty years after that first landing in 1620, the sons and daughters of the Pilgrims went to bloody war with King Philip, the son of Massasoit. Philip gathered a confederation of various Indian tribes under his command and convinced them that they must destroy the English settlers and their colonies once and for all. In 1675, what has come to be know as King Philip's War took place, a conflict that, in terms of the percentage of the population lost on both sides, ranks as the bloodiest in American history.

Philbrick tells the story of the war with cinematic sweep and vigor. The Great Swamp Fight is a standout part of the narrative. The Indians had constructed a massive, rough hewn fortress in the middle of a swamp. It's the dead of winter when a party of Englishmen, led by Benjamin Church, come across the fort. A terrific battle ensued which resulted in numerous casualties to the Indians. The fort and all survivors within it was ultimately put to the torch. The battle in the desolate, frozen swamp in a structure that was nothing like the traditional English fort, reminds me of something out of a Robert E. Howard story. Except it's all true.

MAYFLOWER is the story of the Pilgrims, the Indians and the tumultuous history between them over the course of fifty-some odd years. The gains that were made by the original players in the saga are wiped out years later when the English exert their military superiority to vanquish the Indians. It was only in later years that the mythology and legends of the Mayflower, Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and Thanksgiving were created. While those legends and myths are held dear by all Americans, the truth is vastly different and much more interesting.

If you like American history and want to find out what they didn't teach you in school, read MAYFLOWER. I give it my highest recommendation.


Friday, December 4, 2015

MEMORY


Well, that was certainly depressing.

I finished reading MEMORY by Donald E. Westlake this morning. I know this sounds strange coming from someone who loves film noir and hard boiled crime and mystery fiction, but this may be one of the most relentlessly grim books I've ever read. The story centers around Paul Cole, a young actor appearing in a roadshow production in a small mid-western town. Cole makes the mistake of sleeping with a married woman after a performance. He's attacked by the woman's husband (a tableau depicted on the cover of the book). Paul is struck in the head with a chair and wakes up later in a hospital with his memory severely impaired.The touring company has left town leaving Cole behind. He's soon forced to leave town by a hard nosed detective and thus begins his odyssey to find himself and his previous life.

Cole knows he has an apartment in New York City but before he can return there, he needs money. He finds work in a tannery in a small town. He takes a room with a kindly older couple. He dates a mousy young woman named Edna. Things are going fairly well for him but he's determined to save enough money to return to New York. When he does, he leaves town only to find that things in New York are even worse.

His old acquaintances know him but his memories of them are dim. He returns to his apartment and begins to live a hermetic existence. His agent tries to seduce him (to no avail) and even sends him on an acting job where he's has one line in a courtroom scene on a television soap opera. Cole fails as an actor and takes work as a furniture mover. He finally decides to return to the small town where he was happy with Edna. The trouble is, he can't remember the name of the town. He eventually returns to the town where his troubles all began but of course, it's not the town he wants.

Throughout the book, Cole is constantly writing notes to himself to help him remember the things he's supposed to do, where's he 's supposed to go and when. He follows some of these reminders while others go unheeded. You want him to succeed but his struggle is so immense, so overwhelming that for every one step forward he takes, he moves two or three back.

Westlake relates Paul's ordeal in granular detail. He painstakingly shows us how Paul's memory works (or doesn't). As a character study, MEMORY is first rate. But it's not a true mystery/crime novel. Sure, a crime (assault) launches the narrative and there is a mystery of sorts (just what does the square shiny plate of metal mean?) but Westlake's concern here is examining the broken memory of a man who is desperately trying to reclaim a life that is totally alien to him.

MEMORY was originally written in 1963 but never published. The manuscript was found in Westlake's possessions after he died in 2008. Hard Case Crime (my favorite publisher), published the work for the first time in 2010. It's an utterly compelling story with an extremely well drawn main character facing an insurmountable obstacle. MEMORY is definitely a change of pace from Westlake's other work but it's worth reading to see what this future MWA Grandmaster was capable of producing early in his career.

But reader beware. It's dark. Really dark.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST


From now up until Christmas Day, I'm going to try to post items here about some of the great toys (and other gifts), I got for Christmas when I was a kid. I was lucky enough to grow up in the 1960s which was, in many ways, a true golden age of toys. Let's start with one of the biggest Bond toys of all.

The James Bond 007 Road Race was released in time for Christmas, 1965. It was sold through Sears and it cost plenty. It came in a huge box and consisted of six pre-formed sections containing roadways and landscapes. You snapped the sections together to create a nifty race track. Two slot car type vehicles were included for your racing pleasure: a red Ford Mustang and the classic, iconic Aston Martin DB-5 (which is still the coolest car ever made). Plug this sucker in and let the races begin. Watch out for that oil slick! And the death-defying jump from the mountain top across open space! You could make your car switch lanes if you were skilled enough. It promised, and delivered, hours of fun.

I really, really, really wanted this one from the day I first saw it advertised in the Sears Wish Book Catalog (hands up if you remember that massive tome of treasures). The road race set was huge and expensive but Santa (my mother and grandparents) were good to me that year because this baby was waiting under the tree on Christmas morning. I had to set it up in my parents' bedroom because it required both easy access to an electrical outlet and a fair amount of empty floor space to set it up on. The transformer used to get pretty hot and stinky with that godawful electric smell after a few minutes of racing and I had to unplug everything and let it cool down for a while before resuming my James Bond road race adventure.

GOLDFINGER, the film this set was based on, was the first James Bond film I ever saw. It's still my favorite Bond film of them all. This toy was a terrific way to relive the action and thrills I had seen on the big screen a few months earlier that year. I don't recall exactly what happened to this prized possession. Destroyed? Thrown away? Sold in a yard sale? I only know two things.

It didn't survive my childhood.

And boy, do I wish it had.


Friday, November 27, 2015

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTES 3


British actress Caroline Munro appeared in several 1970s genre films including THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971), THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973 and pictured above), CAPTAIN KRONOS-VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974, one of my personal favorite Hammer horror films), AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976) and as Bond bad girl Naomi in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). Note: I saw all of these films in Austin area movie theaters when they were first released. Ms. Munro added a great deal of visual interest to the films she appeared in. They may not have all been masterpieces but they are all unforgettable thanks to her inimitable presence.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

MY FAVORITE BRUNETTES 2


The lovely Lynda Carter starred as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in the television series WONDER WOMAN from 1975 to 1979. The show ran for three seasons. The first one, on ABC, was set during WWII. When ABC didn't renew the series, it moved to CBS and the stories were fast-forwarded to the present day.

Carter was perfection as the Amazing Amazon. Next to Christopher Reeve as Superman, she's the best actor to comic book superhero casting ever. If there's any justice in this crazy world, she'll appear as Queen Hippolyta at some point in the upcoming DC movies featuring Wonder Woman.

Lynda Carter is truly one for the ages.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

HANCOCK


Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (among others), hit upon a fresh, original take on comic book super-heroes when they first started building what would become the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s. The characters that they created were humans first, heroes second. As such, they all had problems of one sort or another. Resentment, anger, jealousy, anxiety, relationship worries, familial responsibilities, damaged hearts, physical handicaps, you name it, the early Marvel super-hero characters had to deal with all of these issues and other types of neuroses. They were all deeply flawed people which served to brilliantly underscore their spectacular achievements as heroes with a heavy dose of irony. As Spider-Man, Peter Parker could save the day against Dr. Octopus. As "puny" Parker, he couldn't catch a break with girls.

HANCOCK (2008) leans heavily on the flawed super-hero trope pioneered by Stan and Jack and other creators. The film opens cold, with Hancock (Will Smith) already established as a Los Angeles based super-hero. He's super strong, invulnerable and can fly but he eschews a costume or alter-ego of any sort. He's simply "Hancock". He's also an asshole.

Hancock has a serious drinking problem. He's angry and isolated from the general public even though he regularly saves the day. The trouble is he does a tremendous amount of property damage in the process which has resulted in several warrants for his arrest being issued. Alone, the only one of his kind in existence, the troubled super-hero takes refuge in the bottle and hides out in, not a Batcave or Fortress of Solitude, but two mobile homes butted together on a hill top overlooking the Los Angeles basin. He's Luke Cage without a costume and a very bad attitude. His drinking problem also echoes the classic "Demon In A Bottle" sequence in which Tony (Iron Man) Stark, wrestled with booze.

Hancock saves public relations pitchman Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from dying in a train wreck. Ray sees an opportunity with Hancock, a chance to both redeem the fallen hero and make a name for himself as a PR wizard. Ray convinces Hancock to willingly go to jail. He reasons that the longer Hancock stays behind bars, the more the public will miss him and realize that they've taken him for granted. When something truly bad happens again (and the crime rate does escalate in his absence), Hancock will emerge from prison to save the day. Oh, and he'll be sporting a genuine super-hero costume (a blue spandex number with yellow pinstripes that looks like it was borrowed from an X-MEN film).

Sure enough, a major bank robbery goes down, with hostages and a running gun battle with LAPD. Hancock soars into action (accompanied by a score which sounds remarkably like John Williams' classic SUPERMAN fanfare). He saves the day and all is well.

Except it isn't. Because there's something funny going on between Hancock and Ray's wife,
Mary (the take-your-breath-away gorgeous Charlize Theron). She has displayed hostility towards Hancock from the very beginning of the film, a hostility which is finally explained in a not-quite-satisfying third act.

HANCOCK has moments of thrilling super-hero action, all of them brought to vivid life by outstanding special effects. There are also some extremely funny moments in the film, the standout being a scene that takes place during Hancock's first day in prison. I laughed so hard at this one I think I scared my dog. All three leads are solid but I think the screenplay by Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo could have used one more rewrite, especially in that third act.

Overall, I enjoyed the film. It was fresh, different and unique. Not being based on any existing comic book property, the creators had full reign to take the characters and the story in any direction they desired. All of that worked for me and I would be tempted to give this one three out of four stars except for one thing.

The camera moves in every shot.

 EVERY SHOT.

Whether it's to the right, the left, up, down, in or out, the camera is constantly drifting no matter what it's filming. Action sequence or just two people talking, the camera moves and moves and moves and moves. It's an incredibly distracting affectation, one that literally pulls me right out of the fantasy on screen and into the realm of oh-this-is-just-a-movie. Why is the camera moving? Is it to create tension? Induce motion sickness in viewers? Did both director Peter Berg and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler think this would improve the film in some way? Did they not trust the material? This constant movement is as annoying as those oh-so-obnoxious lens flares in every film J.J. Abrams makes. In fact, rumor has it that the upcoming STAR WARS film is going to undergo a name change before release next month to STAR WARS: THE LENS FLARES AWAKEN.

Seriously. Peter Berg. Tobias A. Schiessler. Stop it. Enough with the moving camera already. Don't do it again. Please. Because of this hysterical "look at me, I'm directing!" visual tourette, I have to knock a full star off of HANCOCK's rating. With a locked down camera, it's a three star film. With a helplessly adrift camera, it's a two star movie.

 And that's being generous.


MY FAVORITE BRUNETTES


This the first entry in what I hope will be a semi-regular feature here on the ol' blog, a little something I call "My Favorite Brunettes." (with apologies to the 1947 Bob Hope film).

Let's begin with Dianna Rigg who captured my heart as Emma Peel on the British cult spy television series THE AVENGERS. Rigg was only on the series for three years, from 1965 to 1968, but she created one of the greatest and strongest pop culture heroines of the 1960s. Smart, athletic and beautiful, Emma Peel is one for the ages.

Rigg was also superb as Tracy, the woman who won James Bonds' heart in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), one of the best Bond films of all time. She held her own against co-stars Telly Savalas and Oliver Reed in the neo-steampunk comic adventure THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU (1969) and was Vincent Price's partner in peril in the delicious black comedy THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973).

Sunday, November 15, 2015

COUNTDOWN



COUNTDOWN (1968) is a semi-science fiction film that I have been vaguely aware of over the years. I know I never saw it when it was released, in fact, I don't recall that the film ever played in any Austin area movie theaters. When I found a copy for two bucks at the thrift store the other day, I knew that here was a chance to fill in a gap in my science fiction film viewing.

COUNTDOWN concerns the efforts of NASA to launch a one-man space flight to the moon. It seems the Russians are about to launch a three-man moon shot before the Apollo program is ready to do the same. The idea is to send a survival hut to the moon ahead of the manned launch.  The astronaut who pilots the modified Gemini space capsule to the moon, will then take shelter in the hut and stay there until a subsequent Apollo mission can land and retrieve him.

The project, dubbed the Pilgrim Program, is the brainchild of astronaut Chiz Stewart (Robert Duvall), who wants nothing more than to pilot the craft he designed on the mission he concocted. But NASA top brass refuse to let him go, since Chiz is a military officer and it's determined that a civilian should be the first American on the moon. The assignment is given to Lee Stegler (James Caan), a scientist and rookie astronaut. Chiz is assigned as the mission director and he and Lee continually butt heads during the ramped up training program.

Lee is finally launched on his way to the moon. He lands and sets out to find the survival hut. He finds a surprise on his journey and, with his oxygen supply dwindling, it becomes a race against time for him to find the hut. Does he make it? I'm not telling.

COUNTDOWN is based on the novel THE PILGRIM PROJECT by Hank Searls. The screenplay, by Loring Mandel, is pretty routine stuff. The really interesting things about COUNTDOWN are to be found in the cast and production crew. The film is directed by, believe it or not, Robert Altman. But none of Altman's stylistic quirks are on display here. The movie is directed in a straight-forward, matter-of-fact style that is frankly, pedestrian and boring. The film was produced by none other than William Conrad, who would later star as the rotund title character in the CANNON TV detective series.

Caan and Duvall are both good but neither was a star at this point in their careers. The supporting cast is made up largely of faces seen primarily on television including the lovely Joanna Moore (Nurse Peggy on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) as Caan's wife, Charles Aidman as the chief flight surgeon, Steve Ihnat as a NASA top exec and Ted Knight as a NASA public information official. The whole production has the flat, static look of a made-for-television film. There's lots of stock footage and the final sequences on the moon feature some fairly good special effects. But the narrative lacks any real suspense or tension. Better films in this genre include THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT (1967),,MAROONED (1969), THE RIGHT STUFF (1983),  APOLLO 13 (1995) and GRAVITY (2013). Sad to say, I can't really recommend COUNTDOWN to anyone who is not a die hard genre fan.

Despite it's B-movie status, COUNTDOWN earned a comic book adaptation, published by Dell Comics. I have a copy of the comic book in my collection. It has a nice photo cover, as you can see, with make-your-eyes-bleed interior artwork by Jack Sparling.





Friday, November 13, 2015

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS


We lived in Fort Worth, Texas for two years in the early 1960s. It was a temporary relocation for my dad's job. I attended kindergarten and first grade at Westcliff Elementary School. But the thing I remember the most about those years in Fort Worth were the entertainments I was exposed to for the very first time in my young life. I saw and experienced things that made an indelible impression on me, things that, in many ways, shaped my life forever and always.

When I got home from school every afternoon I watched a program called SLAM BANG THEATER on KTVT Channel 11. This was a local kids' show, hosted by a fright wigged character named "Icky Twerp". One of the staples of  SLAM BANG were Three Stooges shorts. I saw Moe, Larry and Curly for the first time and loved them. I still do. After SLAM BANG, Channel 11 ran episodes of THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN. Again, this was my first exposure to the Man of Steel (I had yet to even see, much less own and read a real Superman comic book) and it was love at first sight. I love that show to this day and Superman still ranks as my all-time favorite super-hero.

On Friday nights at 10:30 p.m., Channel 11 ran horror/science movies on a program entitled NIGHTMARE. Like hundreds of similar shows on television stations across the nation in the 1960s, NIGHTMARE had a host, this one named "Gorgon". Both "Gorgon" and "Icky Twerp", of SLAM BANG, were played by a gentleman named Bill Camfield. He was one helluva busy guy!

I remember staying up late with my dad a couple of times to watch THEM! (1954) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953). These films, along with a telecast of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES, were my very first exposure to the cinema of the fantastic and you better believe that that needle went in hard and deep.

The very first science fiction film I saw in a theater was THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1962). It played on a double bill with TARZAN GOES TO INDIA (1962) at the, if I recall correctly, Camp Bowie Theater. I was permitted to attend this double feature with some of the kids from the neighborhood. Someone's mom or dad accompanied us. TARZAN thrilled me. TRIFFIDS petrified me.

Cut to a few years later. We'd moved back to Austin where my dad assumed his new position as general manager of the newly minted Hancock Shopping Center. I used to go to his office regularly after school and he allowed me to pretty much have the run of the entire center. There was a two-story Dillards department store back then and on the second floor, there was a small book department. It was there that I discovered the paperback copy of THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS pictured above. I vividly recalled how much the film had frightened me but nonetheless, I sure wanted to read this book. The cover art was fantastic and I was a fairly advanced reader at a young age (I was probably eight years old at the time). My dad bought the book for me but alas, my young eyes were bigger than my literary stomach was at the time. I never read the book.

I don't know what ever became of that original copy. It's long gone. But at some point over the years, I acquired another copy of that oh-so-seductive looking science fiction paperback book. The other day, I watched CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (and blogged about it). The film was a semi-sequel to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, which was based on the novel, THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS by British author John Wyndam. I checked the science fiction shelves in the man cave and found that the only book I had by Wyndham was THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1951). I decided that, after fifty years, it was time I finally read this acknowledged sf classic.

I finished reading the book yesterday and I must say, it is vastly different from the film. If anything, it's even scarier in its' depiction of a world gone almost totally blind due to a vast, worldwide meteor shower which caused everyone who looked directly at it to be blinded overnight. Waking up in a hospital ward, his eyes bandaged from an accident, our hero Bill Masen, finds himself one of a handful of sighted survivors in a London plunged into chaos and upheaval as blind people stagger helplessly through the streets.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the triffids are also moving about. These enormous, ambulatory plants (created in a laboratory prior to the meteor shower and, ironically, the instrument of Bill's bandaged eyes) possess whip-like, toxin coated stingers that lash out at humans causing severe injuries and death.

Bill soon finds a lovely young woman, Josella, who is also sighted. Together they try to survive and escape from London, searching for other sighted people. They meet several different factions, some espousing mutual co-operation, others forcing a kind of slave labor in order to care for both the sighted and the blind. At one point, Bill and Josella become separated and Bill, along with a no-nonsense companion named Coker, set out to find her. Along the way, Bill rescues Susan, a young sighted girl, whose brother has been killed by the triffids. Bill and Susan eventually find Josella and several bind people in a remote farm house where they set about making a new life for themselves. The have to continually guard against the triffids who appear to have the ability to hear as well as move.

Several years pass before the small group is contacted by an emissary from another colony established on an island just off the British coast. Bill and the others make plans to join this new colony but before they can depart, they are waylaid by gun-toting "soldiers" who demand that they work for the feudal government the men have created.

The climax is a bit rushed and the story ends on an abrupt, albeit hopeful, note. THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. is a terrific post-apocalyptic novel which posits a terrifying new world. The narrative, told by Bill, is gripping and thought provoking, detailing what an average man and woman must do to survive and begin to rebuild a shattered society. It's grim stuff that taps directly into the post war anxieties of the Cold War and the nascent atomic age. Add in the brilliantly conceived triffids and you have a genuine science fiction classic.

It took me a long time to finally read this unsettling and disturbing work but I'm glad I did. It's not everyone's cup of tea but it is very well done. Highly recommended.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

BEDLAM


I watched BEDLAM (1946) as my Halloween horror movie for this year. BEDLAM was one of several low-budget horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO during the '40s. They are all good and worth seeking out.

BEDLAM is not so much a horror film as it is a historical costume drama about social justice and reformation. There's no supernatural element whatsoever but there is a monster, a very human one. Boris Karloff stars as Master George Sims, the man in charge of St.Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum in 1761 London. Bow legged and black bewigged, Sims oozes malevolence. Not only does he mistreat the poor souls in his care but he actually charges the moneyed class for tours of the asylum. His exploitation of the mentally ill carries a whiff of Tod Browning's macabre masterpiece FREAKS (1932).

Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is the heroine of the piece. She begins as a paid companion to the corpulent and corrupt Lord Mortimer (Billy House) but she slowly has her eyes opened to the horrors of the asylum by steadfast, Quaker stone-mason Hannay (Richard Fraser). Nell lobbies for reform, enlisting Whig politician John Wilkes (Leyland Hodgson) for help. But she's brought up on false charges and imprisoned in Bedlam where she learns the truth about some of the inmates and faces Master Sims' ultimate cure for insanity.

Producer Lewton and director Mark Robson used William Hogarth's artwork A Rake's Progress as source material for the screenplay which they co-wrote. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is approprately atmospheric. With a running time of 79 minutes, BEDLAM tells a tightly constructed tale that is highlighted by a superb performance by Karloff. Note: one of the inmates is played by Robert Clarke, who went on to star in the low-budget genre classic THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON (1959). I almost met Robert Clarke once years ago but that's a story for another time.

BEDLAM isn't your typical horror film but it's well worth seeing if you're a fan of Karloff or the films of Val Lewton. It would work well on a triple bill alongside Sam Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) and Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975). Recommended.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

THE CUTIE


Every legend has a beginning. For Grand Master mystery writer Donald E. Westlake, THE CUTIE (1960) was his first novel published under his own name. However, the book was originally published under two different titles, THE MERCENARIES and THE SMASHERS. It wasn't until Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher), reissued the novel in 2009 that Westlake's preferred original title, THE CUTIE, was restored. I finished reading this one yesterday evening and it certainly doesn't read like it was written by someone at the beginning of his career. Westlake was that good right out of the gate.

Billy Billy Cantell, a two bit junkie with mob connections, gets framed for the murder of gold digger Mavis St. Paul. He turns to Clay, a soldier/hitman in the employ of mob kingpin Ed Ganolese, for help. But before Clay can help the little weasel, the cops come calling and Billy Billy disappears.

Clay must play detective to find Billy Billy and clear him of the murder which is bringing heat on the organization. But before Clay can find him, another woman is murdered, Billy Billy is found dead and someone tries to kill Clay more than once. There are a few more twists and turns in the story before Clay finally deduces the identity of the real killer (I figured it out before he did) and dishes out mob justice (a shot to the head) to the guilty party. But the ending of the book finds Clay in a trap from which there may be no escape.

THE CUTIE is a good, tough crime/mystery novel. Westlake takes a chance by having a mob button man as a protagonist. Clay operates in a New York City full of vice and crime, a world populated by gangsters, drug users, crooked cops and beautiful women. It's the kind of "quick and dirty" crime novel I really enjoy. The more I read of Westlake's extraordinary body of work, the more I like the guy. He's quickly becoming one of my favorites. Recommended.


Friday, October 30, 2015

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED


I watched CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964) for the first time this afternoon and really enjoyed it.The film recently ran on TCM and I recorded it for a rainy day viewing, which turned out to be today. I've seen and enjoyed the previous film, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) several times before. But CHILDREN, despite some thematic similarities, is not so much a sequel as a completely different take on the concept of hyper intelligent mutant children (shades of X-MEN!)

Six children, all from different countries, exhibit both extraordinary, off -the-charts IQs, along with telepathic powers and a shared, hive mind. The children are from the UK, the US, Nigeria, India, China and the USSR. Science, of course, in the form of psychologist Tom Lewellin (Ian Hendry) and geneticist David Neville (Alan Badel) want to study the youngsters while British intelligence officer Colin Webster (Alfred Burke) wants to take them all into protected custody and eventually destroy them. The children are clearly seen as a threat to the worldwide balance of power, a weapon which no country should be allowed to possess.

But the children have, you'll pardon the expression, a mind of their own. They take up residence in a ruined church where they set up their own little community. They turn violent only when violence is used against them. Government agents and other men are killed by the children when they attack the church and one of the children is killed. Goaded into action and in an effort to protect themselves from further assaults, the children all visit their respective embassies and cause ambassadors and other officials to kill each other.

Things finally come to a head when the British government decides enough is enough and order a heavily armed assault on the church. The children display a surprise trump card which puts them in an entirely new light but it's too late as disaster befalls them in the climax of the film.

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED is a thoughtful, compelling little science fiction film that plays more like a Cold War thriller than hard SF. The stark black and white cinematography by David Boulton gives the film a noir atmosphere while the direction by Anton Leader and the screenplay by John Briley are both solid.

Once curious note. Much of the exterior action in the film takes place on the inexplicably deserted streets of London. It doesn't matter if it's day or night, there are no other vehicles or people to be seen in any of the exterior shots. It's as if the apocalypse as already happened and no one, the scientists and military brass or the children, are aware of it.

CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED is a good little science fiction film that stands on it's own merits. Recommended.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

NARROW MARGIN (NO, NOT THAT ONE, THE OTHER ONE)


This past summer, my buddy Kelly Greene and I watched and enjoyed THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), a first rate film noir  directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor. I reviewed the film here on my blog and remarked at the time that there was a 1990 remake of the film that I had not seen.

Well, I've seen it now and I'm here to tell you that director Peter Hyams is no Richard Fleischer and Anne Archer, although attractive, is no Marie Windsor. And Gene Hackman, who is one of my favorite actors, can't match the square-jawed, blunt toughness of Charles McGraw. In short, the 1990 version is a pale reflection of the original 1952 masterpiece.

The new version has Carol Hunnicut (Archer), witnessing a murder at the beginning of the film. Instead of going to the police, she flees Los Angeles for a remote cabin in Canada. Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Hackman), learns that Carol is a witness to the crime and journeys to Canada, along with police detective Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh), to find her and bring her back to testify.

Things go wrong, of course. Benti is killed and Caulfield and Carol are forced to go on the run from a pair of killers. Their only way out is by train. They board a westbound liner (as do the hit men) and thus begins an on board game of cat and mouse while the train speeds through the Canadian wilderness.

Unlike the original version, there's no major plot twist involving a woman on the train, although there is a secondary plot twist involving another woman on the train. I don't want to say anything more for those who haven't seen either version but suffice it to say, the plot twist is a major narrative development in the original, while in the remake it just seems to be a cheap, third act "gotcha."

The big, climatic action set piece finds Caulfield and Carol battling bad guys on the roof of the train. It's well staged but you can spot the stunt doubles in the long shots. Speaking of action, earlier in the film, Caulfield and Carol try to escape the killers by driving a jeep off road and through the forest. Look closely for the "now it's broken, now it's not" windshield which comes and goes throughout the sequence.

If you've never seen the original, the 1990 version is a serviceable, minor thriller. The leads are good, the scenery is breathtaking and the action scenes are well staged. But it can't hold a candle to the original in terms of hard boiled dialogue, gritty, tough characters, a claustrophobic atmosphere and a "didn't see it coming" plot twist.

If you must watch a movie entitled NARROW MARGIN, stick with the 1952 version.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

WORLD WITHOUT STARS


I finished reading WORLD WITHOUT STARS (1966) by Poul Anderson the other day. This slim (125 pages) little Ace paperback is the kind of stuff I used to read all of the time when I was a kid. Books like this were everywhere back in the '60s and '70s.

Behind a nice Kelly Freas cover painting, WORLD WITHOUT STARS (first serialized in ANALOG as THE ANCIENT GODS), is pretty standard, interplanetary action/adventure fare. The crew of the star ship Meteor crash lands on a planet that exists in the space between galaxies so that, instead of a sun and moon in the planet's sky, there is only one huge galaxy. The astronauts quickly set about to make repairs on their ship but they soon encounter two different species of intelligent alien life who are at war with each other. The men try to negotiate their way out of their predicament at first but when that fails, they resort to weapons. The conflict is resolved, repairs are made and the ship returns to Earth for a lovely coda that contains this verse:

"Sleep well once again if you woke in your darkness, sleep knowin' you are my delight
As long as the stars wheel the years down the heavens, as long as the lilies bloom white,
My darlin', I kiss you goodnight."

WORLD WITHOUT STARS is a good, fast read. It's no masterpiece or classic work of science fiction but it's a durable, tightly crafted novel with a story that, if written for today's marketplace, would be expanded and padded out to encompass three or more thousand-plus page volumes. They don't write 'em like this anymore.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

CORRUPTION


I watched CORRUPTION (1968) for the first time last night (thanks to a recent showing on TCM which I recorded). I was not familiar with this British horror film even though it stars genre icon Peter Cushing. The film didn't come from either Hammer or Amicus, the two major horror film producing British studios of the time.

Produced by Peter Newbrook and directed by Robert Hartford-Davis (from a screenplay by Derek Ford and Donald Ford), CORRUPTION borrows heavily from Georges Franju's horror masterpiece EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960). However, it's nowhere near as good as that classic shocker.

Peter Cushing stars a plastic surgeon Sir John Rowan. He's engaged to Lynn (the incredibly lovely Sue Lloyd), a young fashion model in the swinging London of the late '60s. And here's the first disconnect in the film. Cushing is a fine actor but at this stage in his career, he's simply not credible as the fiance of this much younger woman.

Lynn's face is horribly disfigured in an accident at a party. Sir John becomes obsessed with restoring her beauty. He steals the pituitary gland from the body of a young woman in the hospital morgue, creates a serum from the gland and injects the concoction into Lynn's scars. The treatment works but it's only temporary. Sir John realizes that the glands must come from a freshly dead woman and he sets out to acquire the needed organs by murdering (and beheading) a prostitute. Again, the results don't last and Sir John and Lynn retire to their cottage on the coast of Dover where they plot to murder a young runaway (Wendy Varnals). When that scheme fails, Sir John is forced to kill an unknown woman on a train and bring her head home for storage in the refrigerator. Things take a turn for the worse when the runaway girl's criminal gang shows up at the cottage and start to terrorize Sir John and Lynn. The climax involves an out of control laser beam in a makeshift operating room in which all of the players meet their violent, brutal ends.

Cushing, as always, is very good as the obsessed surgeon driven to commit heinous crimes for the woman he loves. Lloyd is also good as a vain, prideful woman who will stop at nothing to acquire her lost beauty. But that's about all that CORRUPTION has going for it. The cinematography by Peter Newbrook is flat and unimaginative while the music score, by Bill McGuffie, is a discordant and totally inappropriate mess of jazz and light rock that comes and goes at odd times during the film.

CORRUPTION isn't a bad little horror film but it's certainly not the genre classic that EYES WITHOUT A FACE is. It's a third tier piece of '60s British horror, behind Hammer and Amicus, but worth a look if you're a genre fan or an admirer of the great Peter Cushing.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

GRAY FIST


I finished reading GRAY FIST the other evening. Originally published in THE SHADOW Magazine for February 15th, 1934, it was the forty-eighth adventure of The Shadow. The edition I read, pictured above, was published by Pyramid books in the mid 1970s. Love that Jim Steranko cover!

This one finds the Shadow in a duel to the death with the mysterious super fiend Gray Fist, a master criminal who wears attire that is similar to the Shadow's crime fighting togs, except the Fist favors an all gray color scheme. Gray Fist holds sway over a group of successful New York City businessmen along with a small army of thugs and hoods. There's a higher than usual body count in this one as The Shadow guns down hordes of mobsters several times during the course of the story. The climax takes place in a hidden lair in Chinatown where the Shadow and Grey Fist face off for the first and final time.

There's a heavier emphasis on narration than usual in this story. Many previous Shadow pulps have featured a lot of dialogue to advance the plot but not so here. The focus is on action, action, action and Walter Gibson keeps things moving at a brisk pace.

We also get two villains in this story. In the last part of the book, The Shadow takes refuge in Chinatown in the lair of Yat Soon, the leader of the tongs. In any other Shadow adventure, the Shadow and Yat Soon would be adversaries but here they form an uneasy alliance in order to defeat their common foe, Gray Fist.

With tons of gun play, lots of action and two bad guys, GRAY FIST ranks as one of the best Shadow adventures. However, I do have a couple of minor quibbles. The body of murdered importer Worth Varden is found, knife in heart, inside the Shadow's sanctum sanctorum with no explanation ever given as to how Gray Fist discovered the Shadow's secret hideout and, by extension, what else the fiend knows about the Shadow. Also, we never learn just what exactly Gray Fist is up to. We are constantly told that he's a "super fiend" and he certainly exerts a great deal of power and influence over both businessmen and mobsters but the exact details of his nefarious plan are never revealed.

Still, those are minor beefs for what is otherwise a top notch Shadow thriller.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

THE LAST BOY SCOUT


I didn't expect much from THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991). Just look at the people involved. With stars Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans, a screenplay by Shane (LETHAL WEAPON) Black and direction by Tony (TOP GUN) Scott, the film practically screams generic, formulaic early '90s action/buddy film. But the movie goes completely off of the rails in the opening sequence and continues to spin wildly out of control for the rest of it's 105 minutes running time.

Consider this. The opening sequence takes place during a professional football game played at night. While Bill Medley sings "Friday Night's A Great Night For Football", a running back for the L.A. Stallions is carrying the ball and headed for the end zone. But he suddenly and inexplicably stops, draws an automatic pistol from somewhere within his uniform, shoots and kills an opposing would-be tackler and then puts the gun to his own head and pulls the trigger. Huh?

Cut to down on his luck Los Angeles private detective (and former Secret Service agent)  Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis). Joe takes a job as bodyguard for a stripper named Cory (the lovely Halle Berry). While at the club, he meets James "Jimmy" Alexander Dix (Damon Wayans), a former professional football quarterback who was banned from the league on gambling charges and allegations of drug abuse. Joe and Jimmy form an uneasy alliance but they fail to prevent Cory from being killed in a gun battle that takes place outside of the strip club. It's a nicely staged action set piece except for one thing. In one scene it's raining. Hard. In the next scene, it's bone dry. Then it's pouring again. Then it's dry again.

Joe and Jimmy try to find out why Cory was killed and their investigation leads them to Sheldon Marcone (Noble Willingham), a corrupt football team owner who is trying to buy off members of a Senate committee investigating gambling in professional sports. Marcone has some very bad guys working for him and Jimmy and Joe cross paths with them several times in gun battles and car chases that are liberally laced with one-liners.

The action climaxes at another night football game where a sniper is set to shoot corrupt Senator Calvin Baynard (Chelcie Ross). It's a race against the clock for Jimmy and Joe to get to the stadium and prevent the killing. And here's another way in which the film drops the ball (no pun intended). Daytime aerial establishing shots clearly show the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But when Jimmy and Joe emerge into the stadium, it's suddenly night and worse, they're not in the L.A. Coliseum. They're in a completely different football stadium, one which has luxury boxes, a feature not found at the Coliseum.

Perhaps I shouldn't quibble over such glaring continuity errors in what is essentially a mindless, popcorn action flick. It certainly doesn't take itself seriously so why should I? THE LAST BOY SCOUT isn't an entirely bad film but it's far from being an action film classic.  I will admit to being moderately entertained, but it's nothing I would ever want to see again.


Friday, October 9, 2015

RAISING ARIZONA

"Boy, you got a panty on your head."

For whatever reasons, I missed seeing RAISING ARIZONA when it was released in 1987. I remember that the film had great buzz at the time and I had seen and thoroughly enjoyed the Coen brothers' debut film, the masterful, shot-in-Austin neo noir, BLOOD SIMPLE (1984). But I just never got around to seeing RAISING.

The first time I saw the film was several years ago, when Judy and I were dating. We used to have a regular movie night at her house and one of the films I rented at Blockbuster (remember them?) for us to watch one evening was RAISING ARIZONA. We enjoyed it then and we enjoyed it again the other night when we watched it again for our Friday Night Thrift Store Theater movie.

This cockeyed, whiz bang comedy starts strong and never lets up. It's the story of hard luck, minor criminal Hi McDunnough (played with hang dog sincerity by Nicolas Cage) and the love of his life, police officer, "Ed" (Holly Hunter). After consistently being arrested by Ed and subsequently sent to prison several times, Hi and Ed finally tie the knot and settle down in a trailer somewhere in the desert. Ed desperately wants to start a family but she's incapable of bearing a child. Thus, the pair hatch a scheme to kidnap one of the five Arizona Quints, figuring the family of furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson), won't miss one. They snatch the child, dub him Nathan Junior and start their new life together as a loving, family unit.

But things quickly accelerate into crazy town. Hi and Ed are visited by a pair of escaped inmates Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe), whom Hi knew in prison. The brothers' take up residence with Hi and Ed. When the cons find out the true identity of Nathan Junior, they abscond with the infant and take him with them on their way to rob a bank.

Meanwhile, Nathan Arizona has hired a bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls (Randall "Tex" Cobb), to track down and retrieve his missing child. Smalls is a scowling, growling, heavily armed man mountain on a motorcycle who embarks on his quest with a vengeance.

All of these narrative elements collide in a dizzy third act that brilliantly combines the visual style of Sergio Leone with the madcap pacing, rhythm, sight gags and physical humor found in the Warner Brothers cartoons directed by Tex Avery. The Coen brothers direction and screenplay are both assured and confident in depicting these lovable losers and the over-the-top, crazy-quilt universe in which they reside. A great deal of credit must be given to the camera work of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld who gives many interior spaces a slightly larger-than-life look and feel. RAISING ARIZONA is a bonafide comedy classic, a very funny film which has stood up quite well since 1987. It ranks number 31 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs list.

I haven't seen every film the Coen brothers have made but here's a list of what I have seen, broken down by the good, the bad and the incomplete.

The good: BLOOD SIMPLE (1984), MILLER'S CROSSING (1990), FARGO (1996), O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007).

The bad: BARTON FINK (1991) and THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). I hate LEBOWSKI. This fresh-out-of-the-box cult classic is one of the most overrated films of the last twenty years. I found it a confused mess of a movie with characters that I couldn't stand. If you like it (as many do), that's fine. It's just not my cup of tea.

The incomplete: THE LADYKILLERS (2004). A bizarre remake of a classic British comedy is uneven at best. Tom Hanks delivers a totally bizarre performance but he's offset by some truly funny moments courtesy of J.K. Simmons.

If you've never seen RAISING ARIZONA, I highly recommend that you do so. If you've seen it before, it's well worth a repeat viewing. This one's a comic gem.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

DEATH WISH

I remember seeing DEATH WISH (1974) when it was first released during the summer after I graduated from high school. Charles Bronson was, and still is, one of my favorite actors, and over the course of his film career, I made an effort to see as many of his films as possible. Next to Clint Eastwood, he was my favorite action star of the 1970s. I watched DEATH WISH, one of Bronson's biggest commercial hits and also, one of his most controversial films, again the other day for the first time in over forty years. In fact, I turned off one death wish (UT vs. TCU) to watch another one.

New York City architect Paul Kersey (Bronson), is a peaceful, law abiding citizen. But one day his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) and daughter Carol (Kathleen Tolan) are attacked in their apartment by a trio of vicious thugs (one of whom is a very young Jeff Goldblum). Joanna dies, while Carol survives her assault only to gradually withdraw into a comatose, vegetative state.

Kersey is frustrated that the police offer little if any hope of ever finding and prosecuting the men who committed the attack. When Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin) a commercial real estate developer partner, gives Kersey a vintage six-shooter as a gift, Kersey gets the idea to walk the mean streets of mid '70s New York City and start meting out his own justice, vigilante style.

Kersey is shocked and horrified after his first killing but when he gets away with it, he continues on his crusade because, after all, the city is full to bursting with criminal lowlifes who, of course, in Kersey's mind, deserve killing. The irony is that Kersey never does find and kill the actual men responsible for the attack on his family. He targets random thugs and muggers, killing them all quickly and surely.

NYPD takes a dim view of these vigilante killings. Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads the investigation and eventually discovers that Kersey is the killer. However, Ochoa is handcuffed by the police commissioner and district attorney in his attempt to bring Kersey to justice. The fact is that the crime rate in New York has dropped due to Kersey's actions and the powers that be fear that arresting and prosecuting Kersey will make him a martyr. They instruct Ochoa to pressure Kersey into leaving New York. He does and journeys to Chicago (another major American city with an urban crime problem) where it is presumed that Kersey will continue on his crusade of vigilante justice.

DEATH WISH, directed by Michael Winner with a script by Wendell Mayes (based on Brian Garfield's novel), is a classic '70s urban crime film. It has the gritty look and feel of the city in that era and the film did much to reinforce the image of New York City as a crime ridden metropolis. Bronson is solid as always as a peaceful man slowly discovering and channeling his inner rage into learning how to kill with quick dispatch and a modicum of remorse. DEATH WISH isn't an action packed thriller, especially by today's standards. Instead, it's a troubling, thought provoking work that finds us rooting for a cold blooded killer because, after all, he's only killing other criminals.

DEATH WISH spawned five sequels: DEATH WISH II (1982), DEATH WISH 3 (1985), DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN (1987), DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH (1994) and DEATH SENTENCE (2007). These films continued to up the ante with Kersey facing even more vile and vicious killers with a variety of higher caliber weapons and bigger and bolder action set pieces.

But none of the subsequent films in the franchise hit the hot button of '70s paranoia and fear as well as the original did. Thumbs up.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY


"Somebody owes me money" - George C. Scott in THE HUSTLER (1962)

Yeah, Scott may have said it first but that didn't stop the late, great Donald E. Westlake from using that phrase as the title for his 1969 comic crime novel. I finished reading this fast paced, breezy romp of a mystery this afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed it. The edition I read was reprinted by Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher) in June, 2008.

Chet Conway is a New York City taxi driver with a slight gambling problem. One day, a fare doesn't give him a monetary tip. Instead, the passenger gives him a tip on a horse, a tip which pays off big to the tune of nine hundred and thirty dollars. When Chet goes to collect his winnings from his bookie, he finds the bookie shot dead and Chet fingered as the most likely suspect in the killing.

Before you know it, Chet is on the run from not one but two rival gangs of mobsters, the police and Abbie, the dead bookie's blackjack dealer sister from Las Vegas who has hit town aiming to avenger her brother's murder by killing Chet.

Chet and Abbie quickly make peace but they're still in a jam. They need to find out who killed the bookie and who tried to kill Chet in order to get the mob and the cops off of their backs. There's oodles of comic dialogue and a well executed chase sequence before the action climaxes in a poker game in which one of the players is guilty of the crime.

Westlake was a master of this type of light hearted, fast paced, and utterly beguiling comic mystery. It's not as hard boiled and tough as the Parker novels he wrote under the name Richard Stark. But if you're looking for a fast, fun read, check out SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY. You'll be glad you did.



Saturday, October 3, 2015

VICKI


VICKI (1953) is the second movie my buddy Kelly Greene and I watched the other day as part of our film noir double feature afternoon. Like most of our double feature screenings, one of the movies is usually really good, while the other is only so so. In this case, TENSION (1949) was the better of the two.

VICKI plays like a warmed over, wannabe version of Otto Preminger's film noir masterpiece LAURA (1944) but it's actually based on the Steve Fisher novel, I WAKE UP SCREAMING, which was made as a film under that same title in 1941. The story revolves around the murder of "it" girl, Vicki Lynn (Jean Peters)  and the attempt by obsessed police detective Lt. Ed Cornell (Richard Boone) to solve the crime.

Cornell, like Dana Andrews in LAURA, was in love with the murdered woman but here he knew her when she was still alive whereas Andrews falls in love with Laura after she was murdered. Cornell is determined to prove that Vicki's publicity agent Steve Christopher (Elliott Reid) committed the murder and the evidence, though circumstantial, certainly points in his direction. But Cornell is so hell bent on nailing Christopher that you start to believe that perhaps he is the real killer.

VICKI is not a bad film noir at all. It just suffers from a "seen it before" familiarity. Richard Boone is very good as the crazy cop while Jeanne Crain and Jean Peters are both lovely to look at. VICKI is far from being a first rate film noir but it's certainly worth seeing at least once if you're a fan of the genre.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

THE DEMOLISHED MAN


I finished reading Alfred Bester's debut science fiction novel THE DEMOLISHED MAN (1953) the other day. I raced through this one at a wicked pace. Of the three vintage science fiction novels I've recently read, including THE NAKED SUN by Isaac Asimov and TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson, this one is far and away the best. Bester was, in my opinion, the best writer of the three and his groundbreaking first novel is both an award winner and a certifiable genre classic.

Originally published in three parts beginning in the January 1952 issue of GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, Bester published the novel in 1953. Bester wanted to title the novel DEMOLITION! but GALAXY editor H.L. Gold talked him out of it. THE DEMOLISHED MAN was the first winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year in 1953.

Like Asimov's NAKED SUN, THE DEMOLISHED MAN is a science fiction/detective novel. In the 24th century, Ben Reich, a wealthy businessman and owner of the immense Monarch Company fears a take-over of his interests by rival businessman Craye D'Courtney. To forestall the take over, Reich plots to murder D'Courtney. But how do you commit a murder in a world in which a percentage of the population are "Espers", that is, mind readers, or "peepers" as they're called in the language of the day. Peepers are classed according to their abilities on a scale from 1 to 3 with Class 1 being the highest.

Reich enlists a Class 1 peeper, Augustus Tate, to run interference for him and to protect him from Police Prefect Lincoln Powell, who is also a Class 1 peeper. Reich commits the audacious crime and soon finds himself on the run with Powell dogging his every move. Reich and Powell engage in an intricate and breathlessly plotted game of cat and mouse, with action occurring in both the physical world as well as the mental. Should Powell finally gather the evidence to convict Reich, Reich faces the horrifying fate of demolition, the details of which are vividly displayed in the books' final chapters.

It's an intriguing concept and Bester executes it beautifully. He plays with language and, in some sections, the way words are laid out on the page to approximate what it's like inside peepers' minds. He creates a fully realized future world populated by a variety of colorful characters, some good, some bad. But he never forgets that he's telling a thrilling, suspenseful detective story.  I won't say much more about this terrific book except to say that I loved it. If you're a science fiction fan, THE DEMOLISHED MAN is a must read. If you're a genre novice, this is an excellent place to start.

Highly recommended.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

TENSION


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched TENSION (1949) yesterday. It was the first time for both of us to experience this wire taut film noir.

Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart) is a milquetoast pharmacist with a very bad wife, Claire (Audrey Totter). She's the classic film noir femme fatale, a woman who openly and flagrantly cheats on her husband. Claire takes up with wealthy businessman Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).  The cuckolded Quimby decides to murder Deager but in order to do so, he creates a false identity, "Paul Southern". His plan is to kill Deager as Southern and then have the non-existent Southern disappear forever.

To pull off the deceit, Quimby gets contact lenses to replace his wire rim glasses (shades of Clark Kent!). He rents an apartment under the Southern name, explaining that he's a traveling salesman and will only use the apartment on the weekends. But he meets an attractive neighbor, Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse) and they start to fall in love.

Quimby goes to Daeger's beach house at night to kill him but finds he cannot do it. He decides that living with the rotten and corrupt Claire is punishment enough for the man. Relieved of his anger, and free of his cheating wife, Quimby is ready to start a new life with Mary.

But someone does kill Daeger and all of the evidence points towards "Paul Southern". Enter a pair of police detectives, Lt. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) and Lt. Edgar Gonsales (William Conrad). They can't find Southern or the murder weapon but an unexpected turn of events points the finger of suspicion at Quimby. Bonnabel starts romancing Claire in order to try and get the goods on her husband. The cops aren't totally crooked but they do use some questionable tactics to solve the case.

TENSION is a first rate film noir. It's a classic exercise in suspense where a man finds himself hopelessly trapped in a spiraling series of circumstances, many of which are of his own creation. Basehart is good as the mild mannered Quimby while Totter drips venom in every scene. She's a very, very bad girl. Charisse is solid as is Sullivan but I got the biggest kick out of watching Conrad. He was always one of my favorite actors, whether playing good guys or bad.

Directed by John Berry from a screenplay by Allen Rivkin (based on a story by John D. Klorer), TENSION moves along at a good clip. The cinematography by Harry Stradling is appropriately moody and atmospheric and there are several scenes shot on location in Los Angles that really add to the realism of the film.

If you're a film noir fan, check out TENSION. I guarantee you'l enjoy it. Thumbs up.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TAU ZERO


I finished reading Poul Anderson's science fiction novel TAU ZERO (1970), the other day. It was the first time I'd read this one and I enjoyed it. Originally published as a short story "To Outlive Eternity" in GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION in 1967, Anderson expanded his story into novel form in 1970. The book received a Hugo Award Nomination for Best Novel in 1971.

The story concerns the star ship Leonora Christine, a massive vessel designed to carry a crew of fifty people (twenty-five men and twenty-five women), to a planet in a distant star system. The plan is for the ship to steadily accelerate it's rate of speed during the first part of the voyage and then begin to gradually decelerate for the second part. But when the ship passes through a nebulina (a cloud of dust and gas)  before reaching the halfway point, the crew discovers that they cannot repair the decelerator, nor can they turn off the accelerator.

The result is that the ship becomes a "Flying Dutchman" of space and time as it journeys deeper into the universe at an ever increasing rate of speed. The ship eventually move out into a starless void where the crew discovers that the universe has reached it's limit and is now beginning to collapse back into an immense block of proto matter which is set to explode in another "big bang" event, effectively creating a new universe. Will the ship and crew survive this journey beyond space and time?

Anderson focuses the story on a few members of the crew but his main protagonist is Charles Reymont, the Ship's Constable. He's cold, distant, unemotional and runs the ship with a firm but fair hand. He eventually becomes the de-facto leader of the crew when the ship's captain, Lars Telander, proves incapable of leading. Reymont is in love with Ingrid Lindgren, the Ship's First Officer but during the voyage, she rejects Reymont and takes up Boris Federoff, the Ship's Chief Engineer. Reymont then begins a relationship with Chi-Yuen Ai-Ling, a planetologist.

All of this partner switching could easily devolve into soap opera but Anderson deftly balances the immense psychological stresses and strains the crew undergoes with the hard science of the star ship's propulsion system and the sheer wonder, awe and mystery of the universe as it lives, dies and lives again.

TAU ZERO is a good, solid novel. It's regarded by many as a quintessential example of hard science ficiton with the plot driven by technology as much as characters. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading other Poul Anderson science fiction novels. Thumbs up.