Thursday, July 30, 2015

PUSH


Here's a question for you. When is an X-MEN movie, not an X-MEN movie? When it's called PUSH, a 2009 sf/action film that finds a group of super-powered young people on the run from various factions in Hong Kong.

There are no code names. No spandex costumes. But these young mutants have many of the same powers you find in almost any iteration of the X-Men past, present or future. There are Watchers who have the ability to foresee the future to varying degrees. Movers are powerful telekinetics while Pushers have the ability to implant memories, thoughts and emotions into the minds of other people. Bleeders can emit high-pitched sonic vibrations (Banshee, anyone?) that cause ruptures in a target's blood vessels. Sniffs are highly developed psychometrics who can track the location of people or objects over varying degrees. Shifters can temporarily alter the appearance of an object by manipulating patterns of light. Wipers are skilled at either temporarily or permanently erasing memories while Shadows are trained to block the visions of other mutants, such as Sniffs, by diverting the attention of the target radius so that they flicker through different locations other than the subject's actual whereabouts. And finally, Stitchers are psychic healers trained to quickly reconstruct cells to their previous or healthy state.

Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning and Camilla Belle (along with various other mutants they encounter)  are the young mutants on the run. Their parents, who had similar super powers, were recruited by a shadowy U.S. government organization known as The Division to be used as weapons in the Cold War Their offspring, who inherited the powers, are also under the thumb of the government until they escape and go on the run in Hong Kong. They must keep one step ahead of Division agents, some of whom also have super powers and a group of super powered Hong Kong mutants (think The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants).

PUSH was filmed entirely on location in Hong Kong and Peter Sova's cinematography makes the metropolis look and feel like a city on another planet. Director Paul McGuigan keeps things moving at a good pace and there are several well staged Hong Kong style action sequences throughout the film. The ending is left wide open for a sequel but it doesn't appear as if the film did well enough at the box-office to warrant a PUSH 2.

Chris Evans has made a career out of playing super powered comic book characters. He played Johnny Storm, the Human Torch in FANTASTIC FOUR (2005) and FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER (2007). He was in THE LOSERS (2010), which was based on a DC/Vertigo comic book. And he's played Steve Rogers/Captain America in four films to date: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011), THE AVENGERS (2012), CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) with CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR set for release next year. Oh, and let's not forget SNOWPIERCER (2013) , which was based on a graphic novel.

PUSH isn't a great film but it was entertaining and it made for a good way to pass the time on a recent vacation day afternoon. If you're a fan of the X-Men and Hong Kong cinema, you'll probably enjoy it.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN


My buddy Craig Kanne recently gave me all six issues of BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN, a 2012 mini-series by Darwyn Cooke. Thanks a million Craig, because I really enjoyed this one.

There was quite a kerfuffle a few years back when DC Comics announced that they would publish a series of mini-series focusing on the characters created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in the now classic, legendary WATCHMEN series from the 1980s. The goal of these mini-series was to explore the characters and their world in greater detail before (as the title states) the events depicted in WATCHMEN. Some people thought this was a violation of a sacred trust, that the mere idea of this series would besmirch the reputation of WATCHMEN. Others took a "wait and see" attitude and opted to actually read the various series before passing judgment.

I haven't read the other series that comprise BEFORE WATCHMEN, but MINUTEMEN is outstanding. Darwyn Cooke is one of my favorite contemporary comic book creators. His style is deceptively simple and I've loved his work on such titles as DC: NEW FRONTIER, CATWOMAN: SELINA'S  BIG SCORE and the Parker graphic novels (based on the crime novels by Richard Stark).

I mean this next statement as the highest possible praise: if  James Ellroy wrote comic books, they would probably look and read like MINUTEMEN. The series spans the years 1939 to 1962, a time period in American history that Ellroy has mined for much of his work and Cooke captures Ellroy's sense of tarnished, flawed people trying to do good while struggling with their own various inner demons. Cooke also gets what Moore established in WATCHMEN, the thesis that anyone who puts on a costume, adopts a name and goes out and fights crime, is one seriously fucked up individual, even if they are on the side of good.

The Minutemen are the Justice Society of America to the Watchmen's Justice League of America. This is a team of super-heroes who come together in the "Golden Age" to fight crime only to see their efforts fail before the group finally disbands and goes their separate ways. The narrator is Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, who has written a "tell all" book about the Minutemen in the early 1960s We see the various Minute Men and Women through his eyes and they are an interesting group of characters. One is a lesbian, two are homosexuals, one is in it only for the publicity, one is a stone cold psychopath who leaves the group to become a government operative, one is a corporate shill and one falls into a spiral of drug and booze addiction. Mason, a beat cop by day (which echoes Jack Kirby's super-hero creation The Guardian/policeman Jim Harper in THE NEWSBOY LEGION series), as Nite Owl, is determined to capture a serial killer of children but his quest takes a dramatic turn in the final issue.

I won't reveal any more about this remarkable series. Read it for yourself and discover the rich character development, superb sense of place and time and a truly gripping, suspenseful super hero/crime story. BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN is a four star winner in my book. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

"PRINT THE LEGEND"

"That's my steak, Valance."

Although it often ran on television in the 1960s and '70s, I didn't see John Ford's masterpiece, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) until I was in college. I don't remember the exact year (sometime between 1974 and 1979) but I do recall that I saw it with my good, life long friend Terry Porter at the Texas Union theater on the University of Texas campus. I thought the film was great that first time I saw it and after watching it again the other night for the umpteenth time, I still think it's a truly great film.

In fact (and get ready for this), I think it's John Ford's best film. Better than any of the four films for which he won Best Director Academy Awards: THE INFORMER (1935), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) and THE QUIET MAN (1952). I've never seen THE INFORMER, but I've seen the other three. GRAPES is a classic, as is THE QUIET MAN but I hope to never suffer through a viewing of HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY ever again in this lifetime.

I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for STAGECOACH (1939) and THE SEARCHERS (1956) but in general (and here's some more film heresy for you), I find a lot of John Ford's films to be vastly overrated. He's an inconsistent filmmaker in my opinion, turning out just as many mediocre films (DONOVAN'S REEF (1963) anyone?) as good ones. Granted, I haven't seen every John Ford film but of the ones I have seen, I rank LIBERTY VALANCE at the top.

The first on-screen pairing of cinematic giants John Wayne and James Stewart, is an elegiac, sentimental, politically themed ode to the end of the wild west and the unstoppable tide of civilization, symbolized by statehood for an American territory and the coming of the railroad. Stewart is Ransom Stoddard, a naive, idealistic lawyer who's come west to set up his practice in the town of Shinbone. Before he gets there, he runs afoul of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his gang during a stagecoach robbery. Was there ever a better band of bad guys in any western than the unholy trio of Marvin, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin?

Robbed and beaten, Stoddard vows to bring Valance to justice using the law. He soon finds out that cowardly, obese  Marshall Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) doesn't have the guts to arrest Valance. He also finds that there's only one man in the territory tough enough to stand up to Valance and his gang. That's rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne), who admonishes Stoddard (Doniphon calls him "pilgrim") to learn how to use a gun.

Thus begins the battle between the forces of civilization, of law and order and of justice against gunslingers and outlaws and only one way of life can survive. Caught between Stoddard and Doniphon is Hallie (the oh-so-lovely Vera Miles), a cafe waitress whom Stoddard teaches to read, which goes against the wishes of her "man" Doniphon.

Violence simmers, stews and comes to a boil when Valance and his men brutally beat newspaper publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O'Brien) and vandalize the newspaper office. Stoddard has had enough and he faces Valance on a dark street in a deadly shootout. Valance is killed but it's not until later in the film that we learn the true identity of the man who shot Liberty Valance. When that happens, these famous words are spoken: "This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Shot in black and white and largely on sound stages and studio back lots, LIBERTY VALANCE has a cramped, claustrophobic look and feel that's light years removed from the breathtaking Monument Valley vistas Ford employed in THE SEARCHERS. In fact, the sets and cinematography used in VALANCE echo the look of numerous television westerns of the time. Many of the scenes take place indoors and there's very little physical action to speak of. Indeed, Ford subverts genre expectations by having the climactic shootout take place, not at the end of the film as in most westerns but at the end of the second act.

The screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck (based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson), is terrific with tons of memorable, quotable dialogue. The cast is uniformly brilliant with Woody Strode a stand out as Pompey, Doniphon's right hand man. Strode would later appear in two other classic western films, Richard Brook's THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) and Sergio Leone's masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN TsHE WEST (1969). As noted, LIBERTY VALANCE marked the first time Wayne and Stewart appeared together in a film. They were both in HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962) (the Civil War segment was directed by Ford) but they had no scenes together in that epic. They worked together again in Don Siegel's THE SHOOTIST (1976), which was Wayne's last film.

I don't know how many times I've seen THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The other night was merely the most recent viewing. I'm sure I'll watch it again and again in the future. I think it's a truly great, classic American film. Highest recommendation.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE


My buddy Craig Kanne and I had the pleasure of watching IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) a few days ago. Unfortunately, we did not see it in the 3-D format in which it was originally released. We had to settle for a measly two dimensions but they worked just fine for this classic science fiction film.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE concerns the crash landing of an alien space craft in the American southwestern desert. Astronomer John Putnam (genre icon Richard Carlson) and his girl friend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) witness the crash and go to investigate, expecting to find a meteor. Instead, Putnam discovers the immense spherical alien craft and one of its' one-eyed occupants. Unfortunately, a landslide buries the space ship under tons of rock and no one will believe Putnam's story about aliens from outer space.

The twist here is that the aliens are not here to menace the earth (unlike countless other 1950s sf films). They're not entirely benign either but they simply don't want to be here on earth. They were on their way to another planet when their craft crashed and they just want to repair the ship and be on their way. They really don't want to have anything to do with humans at this point in time.

But the aliens must take over the consciousness of various humans and create zombie-like duplicates to do the repair work. Again, their intentions are misinterpreted but things finally work out and once the ship is repaired, the aliens and their advanced technology blast off to who knows where while Putnam optimistically predicts that they will one day return to earth on purpose.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is an intelligent and earnestly mounted film that provides much food for thought, especially in its' treatment of the aliens and their relationships (or lack thereof) with humans. That's largely thanks to the screenplay by Harry Essex and Ray Bradbury. Essex gets the main credit but there's much evidence to support the widely held belief that Bradbury contributed more to the script than Essex. The whole tone of the story feels Bradburyesque and some of the dialogue has the ring of poetry that so often infused Bradbury's prose.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is an important genre touchstone for a variety of reasons. It was the first science fiction film to be produced by Universal-International. It was the first American science fiction to use the desert landscape of the Southwest as a setting. It was the first science fiction film to star Richard Carlson, who went on to become a genre icon. And it was the first science fiction film to be directed by genre auteur Jack Arnold who went on to direct THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), TARANTULA (1955), THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN ( 1957), THE SPACE CHILDREN (1958) and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS (1958).

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is essential viewing for anyone who is a fan of 1950s science fiction films. Craig and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and you will too. Highly recommended.


Friday, July 24, 2015

THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS


I like westerns. I love dinosaurs. The combination of cowboys and dinosaurs is so primal, so cool, that I love Ray Harryhausen's THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969). It's not the greatest Harryhausen film but it does provide a fair measure of sense of wonder and is definitely worth checking out.

I recently finished reading THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS by science fiction author Mike Resnick. It's labeled a Weird West Tale. What it is is a steam punk flavored mash up of real figures from American history (specifically, the late 19th century) and dinosaurs. On paper it looks good. Theoretically, it should work. But I'm here to tell you that THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS is no THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. Hell, it's not even as good as the worst issue of TUROK, SON OF STONE you've ever read.

The story begins with legendary tubercular gunfighter Doc Holliday on his death bed. Fabled Apache medicine man Geronimo appears before him in a sanatorium and grants Holliday an additional year of life. In return, Holliday must stop two paleontologists from desecrating sacred Indian burial grounds in their mad quest to dig up as many dinosaur fossils as possible. If the men aren't stopped, a Comanche medicine man named Tall Bear will use his magical powers to unleash real live, flesh and blood dinosaurs upon the men and their respective camps.

Holliday is joined in his quest by a veritable who's who of  real people from late 19th century American history. Who's in this book? A better question would be who's not, as Resnick loads up his cast of supporting players with entirely too many people. In addition to Holliday there's Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Alva Edison, Ned Buntline, Geronimo, Edward Drinker Cope (a paleontologist), Othniel Charles Marsh (the other paleontologist), Cole Younger, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and boxer John L. Sullivan. Oh, and Kate Elder and Bat Masterson are name dropped more than once.

Resnick crams his story so full of these characters that there's very little room left for the dinosaurs, who don't appear until the midpoint of the book. The plot is driven entirely by dialogue and there's a lot of it, most of it repetitious and of the info dump variety. The narrative advances in fits and starts with Resnick more inclined to show off how much he knows about these historic personages than to actually tell an engaging tale. Oh, and for a story that takes place in the colorful wild west of old, there's very little in the way of descriptions of locale and landscapes. A real sense of place is sorely missing as details regarding the countryside are sketchy and sparse at best.

The copy I read of THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS was an uncorrected advance reading copy. As such, I expect a fair amount of misspelled words and grammatical errors, mistakes which will hopefully be corrected when the book is finally typeset for good and sent to press. But there's an egregious lapse in the narrative that I hope an editor eventually caught and corrected.

 In one scene, Edison and Buntline are attacked in their tent by a pair of what appear to be raptors, an encounter that occurs "off camera" and one which we only learn about it until after the fact. Both men are severely injured, with large wounds to their bodies and a great deal of blood loss. They are quickly attended to in a make-shift fashion. A few pages later, when next we encounter Edison and Buntline, no mention whatsoever is made of their injuries from the dinosaur attack The raptors are never seen or mentioned again either and it's as if the whole thing never happened.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS is, of course, not meant to be taken seriously. It's not exactly a comedy but Resnick certainly keeps the tone light. But frankly, the whole thing just didn't work for me. I kept wondering what famous character from American history was going to show up next and if Holliday and Roosevelt were ever going to do something about the dinosaurs at large. To it's credit, it's the first steam punk novel I've read that didn't have a zeppelin/dirigible/airship in it. So there's that. But in the end, THE DOCTOR AND THE DINOSAURS runs out of steam (sorry), well before the end of the book.

Thumbs down.



Saturday, July 18, 2015

THE SCAR

Now this my friends, this is a film noir.

While I was on vacation, my buddy Kelly Greene and I watched THE LIMPING MAN (1953), a British film noir that was on a film noir double feature DVD I've had on my shelf for several years. I reviewed LIMPING here a while back and both Kelly and I found it to be disappointing thanks to its' "it-was-all-a-dream" ending. The other day, I sat down and watched the other film on the DVD, THE SCAR (1948). I loved it!

THE SCAR is the British title of an American film noir entitled HOLLOW TRIUMPH. It was distributed by Eagle-Lion films and looks to have been made on a low budget. Lead actor Paul (CASABLANCA) Henreid also served as producer of the film and he made a wise decision to hire ace cinematographer John Alton to shoot the film. Alton was a master of light and shadows and even though the transfer I watched wasn't of the highest quality, Alton's expressive chiaroscuro work still stands out and adds a great deal to this story of implacable doom.

Henried stars as John Muller, a convict paroled from prison at the beginning of the film. The warden sets him with a job on the outside, hoping he'll go straight. But Muller quickly falls back in with his old gang led by running buddy Marcy (Herbert Rudley). Muller plots a casino heist that goes bad leaving his fellow crooks dead and himself on the run.

In the kind of coincidence that can only be found in pulp fiction, Muller discovers that he's a dead ringer for Dr. Bartok, a noted psychoanalyst. Muller makes time with Evelyn, the doctor's secretary (played by the oh-so-gorgeous genre icon Joan Bennett). Muller decides to kill the doctor and take his place using his knowledge of psychiatry to get by in his role playing. Trouble is, Bartok has a vivid scar on his face which forces Muller to give himself an identical scar. But because of a flipped photographic negative, Muller scars the wrong side of his face. 

Sure that his mistake will trip him up, Muller proceeds with his plan. He kills the doctor and takes his place but only Evelyn catches on to the masquerade and covers for him when Muller's brother comes to Dr. Bartok searching for his fugitive brother. He tells Bartok that the man who ran the casino and who has been pursuing Muller has been arrested and Muller is no longer in any danger.

Evelyn decides she's had enough and books passage on a ship bound for Hawaii. Bartok/Muller tells her he'll meet her on board and travel with her after he ties up a few loose ends. When he arrives at the pier, he's met by two gun men from another casino where the real Dr. Bartok had run up a sizable gambling debt which they've come to collect.

Things do not end well.

THE SCAR is a classic example of the film noir trope of one wrong act leading to another and another and another, finally culminating in death. THE SCAR is a one-way, express ticket to hell and it's beautifully made and acted. Sure, it piles coincidence upon coincidence but that just adds to the tightening of the noose around Muller's neck. Henried is quite good in the lead role while Bennett brings her unique combination of beauty and brass to her role. THE SCAR may be a minor film noir but it's a good one. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE


Once upon a time, Batman and Superman were the best of buddies. I've got a stack of back issues of WORLD'S FINEST COMICS that provides testament to their friendship. But in the upcoming BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, the two superheroes are set to square off against each other in a cinematic slugfest that I'm dying to see.

I know I'm coming to this a bit late. After all the new trailer for the film was released on Saturday (at Comic Con, of course) and I'm sure that millions of fan boys and girls have already watched it and commented upon it. But I want to get my two cents in while my thoughts are still fresh. Oh, and I've only watched the trailer twice.

My overall impression is that it looks great. After MAN OF STEEL (a profound disappointment of a film), Superman was as much a savior to humanity as a menace to the entire world. Batman is the only logical super hero who has the means and resources (and determination) to find a way to neutralize Superman. That's clearly what transpires in the film, with an older Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) coming out of retirement to don the bat costume once more. And what a costume it is! It appears to have been taken directly from the classic DARK KNIGHT RETURNS graphic novel by Frank Miller. It's a bat suit of armor and those glowing eyes are just too damn cool.

So, Superman and Batman will do battle in the film. I'm not sure just how Wonder Woman (who looks hot in the trailer) and Aquaman (if he's in the trailer I missed him) will figure into all of this but my guess is that a huge threat to earth (Brainiac? Darkseid?)  will appear near the end of the film and Superman and Batman will realize that they'll have to work together (along with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the rest of what will become the Justice League of America) to defeat this menace. That's not great detective work on my part by the way. It's the only logical way this storyline can proceed.

As I said, I'm generally stoked for this one but there are a few things in the trailer that I didn't care for. For starters, the music is simply god awful. I pray that the actual score of the film is better than this Mormon Tabernacle/Mannheim Steamroller on steroids sonic mash-up that seems to be used in almost every sf/action film trailer of the last five years or so. It's horrible, clich├ęd and annoying as hell. Boy, would I love to hear John Williams score this film! Not gonna happen but it sure would be sweet.

Not sure what the final budget is for this film but surely somewhere in all of those millions of dollars the production company can spring for a tube of Poligrip for Holly Hunter. Her voice over sure sounds like something is slipping in her mouth. Fix it please.

Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is a total dick in the trailer. He's far too young and flippant to be a ruthless criminal billionaire/scientist. Maybe he changes in the film but so far, he looks to be a weak spot.

And what the hell is going on with Ma Kent (Diane Lane), telling Clark/Kal that he doesn't owe the world a thing? Really? Whatever happened to Glenn Ford saying, "you are here for a reason and it's not to score touchdowns." And don't get me started on how Clark could have easily saved Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) from his death by tornado in MAN OF STEEL. That was only one of several major flaws in that film.

This one is definitely a dark, grim and gritty looking film and I still dearly wish Superman's costume could be redesigned back to the classic look with brighter shades of the primary colors of red, blue and yellow, the way he looked when Christopher Reeve played him, rather than the dark and drab look he currently sports. But this is the hand we've been dealt and despite my quibbles listed above, I'm totally fired up for this one. 

 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

AUTO FOCUS


I watched AUTO FOCUS (2002) yesterday for the first time. I remember reading good things about this film when it was released but, like so many films over the last decade or so, I just never got around to seeing it. When I found a DVD of the film at a local public library sale (three DVDs for a buck), I figured, what have I got to lose?

AUTO FOCUS is the story of the life and death (murder actually, by person or persons unknown) of actor Bob Crane, who played the lead role in the hit CBS TV sit-com HOGAN'S HEROES which ran for six seasons. The film opens in 1964 with Crane (brilliantly played here by Greg Kinnear), working as a disc jockey at a Los Angeles radio station. When Crane gets the part of Hogan, he begins to fill his nights by playing drums in strip clubs. Crane, a family man with a beautiful wife and three adorable kids, had a severe problem that only got worse over the course of his tragic life. He was a sex addict, bedding any and all young women who crossed his path. To make matters worse, he was an amateur photographer who took photographs of his partners and their sexual shenanigans.

Crane is soon aided and abetted in his sexual adventures by one John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe at his creepiest). Carpenter works in the fledgling video recording business and he supplies Crane with one of the first home video cameras and recorders, an immense reel-to-reel monstrosity. Before long, Crane and Carpenter are having sex with various women on a nightly basis and documenting everything to watch (and get off on) later.

Crane's marriage comes to an end but he takes up with actress Patricia Olson (who played Colonel Klink's secretary on HEROES). They wed and have a son but with HOGAN'S HEROES having run it's course, Crane finds himself out of work and hard to hire. He begins doing dinner theater and constantly begs his agent, Lenny (Ron Liebman) to get him work. He's cast in a Disney film, SUPER DAD, which bombs and when the studio finds out about Crane's sexual addiction, he's blackballed from working at that studio.

Patricia eventually files for divorce and Crane spirals down a rabbit hole of sex and desperation. Having hit bottom, he decides he must get his life back together, stop his sexual escapades and cut off his enabling relationship with Carpenter. Carpenter doesn't take this news well. On the morning of June 29th, 1978, someone (the film is careful not to show the identity of the killer), bludgeons Crane to death with a camera tripod as he slept in his bed in a rented apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The film ends there but supplemental material on the DVD goes further into the Crane murder case. Carpenter, although a chief suspect at the time of the murder was never arrested and charged with the crime. Evidence was mishandled and some crucial pieces went missing. In the days before DNA testing, the prosecutor could only identity blood stains found in Carpenter's car as being the same blood type as Crane's. With only circumstantial evidence to go on, the county attorney refused to bring the case to trial. Ten years later, the case was reopened and Carpenter was finally formally charged but with no new evidence to present in court, he was eventually acquitted and the Bob Crane murder case remains officially unsolved to this day.

AUTO FOCUS features spot on art direction and gorgeous cinematography by Jeffrey Greeley and Fred Murphy. The period details are perfect and everything is bright and sunny in the first half of the film which takes place in the pop 1960s. As the film moves into the 1970s, the look of the film darkens and the camera work becomes more jittery, nervous and anxious. Director Paul Schrader knows a thing or two about men obsessed with sex (and other things). Schrader's  screenplays for Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976) and AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980) both touch on this thematic concern. Schrader does a great job here taking Crane, Carpenter and the audience down a very dark and twisted rabbit hole. The script, by Michael Gerbosi (adapted from the book THE MURDER OF BOB CRANE by Robert Graysmith) is also first rate.

AUTO FOCUS is sexually explicit and is definitely not for children. It's a dark and disturbing film but it's also extremely compelling and watchable. For those of us who grew up watching HOGAN'S HEROES, it's hard to believe that the beloved Colonel Hogan led such a twisted double life. After seeing this film, I doubt I'll ever watch an episode of HOGAN'S HEROES in the same way again. Thumbs up.

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


I'm jumping up and down with joy in the man cave this morning, just like Navin R. Johnson in THE JERK, over what arrived in my mailbox yesterday. It's the new 2015-2016 edition (#45 for those of you keeping track)  of THE OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE. Judy pre-ordered this one for me back in the spring (isn't she a great wife?) and I've been waiting for San Diego Comic Con weekend for the release of this new, mammoth volume. Used to be, the OPG came out in the spring but the release date moved back several years ago to coincide with Comic Con, which makes perfect sense.

For several years now, the OPG has sported different covers on each edition. I picked the one shown above in a heartbeat. It features one of my favorite comic book/action figure heroes drawn by Paul Gulacy, one of my favorite comic book artists. I love the James Bond movie poster feel of this work.

I make good use of each annual edition of the OPG. There are great articles to be read, comprehensive market reports, full color images of classic comic book covers and of course, pages of price guide info. The OPG is an essential, must have item for every comic book collector.

 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP


RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP (1958) is yet another film that I have a partial memory of from seeing it on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES at a very young age in the early 1960s. The only thing I remember about that broadcast is a scene in which a torpedo rolls out of its' launching berth in a submarine and lands on top of a screaming sailor, crushing him to death. That scene made quite a memorable impression on me at the time but for years, it was the only thing about the film that I could recall.

I watched the movie again the other day and it holds up quite well. It's a game of "quien mas macho?" between two of the manliest men that ever graced the silver screen: Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. They square off aboard a submarine loaded with testosterone in this Robert Wise directed WWII actioner which is very loosely based on the book of the same name by Commander Edward L. Beach, Jr.

Gable was near the end of his career (and life) when he made RUN SILENT. He only made four films after this one, including his final movie, THE MISFITS in 1961. Lancaster's star was on the rise at the time and the film was produced by his production company.

At the beginning of the film, Gable is in command of a U.S. submarine that is sunk by the Japanese. He and most of his crew survive but he's relegated to desk duty. Lancaster is an up and coming Naval officer who finally gets command of his own sub, only to have Gable replace him as skipper at the last moment, with Lancaster demoted to first officer. He goes along with it and follows orders but he and the crew soon begin to doubt Gable's ability to command. He puts the ship and the men through endless drills focusing on diving and launching torpedoes in shorter and shorter periods of time but when the sub encounters a Japanese ship, he orders the crew to stand down and back off.

Gable's endless drilling is finally put to good use when the sub encounters a killer Japanese submarine in the same waters where Gable's previous sub was sunk. They use his battle tactics to destroy both Japanese surface ships as well as the submarine after a tense cat and mouse game where both subs "run silent, run deep." At the end of the film, everyone has new respect for skipper Gable who meets his death during the battle.

In addition to Gable and Lancaster, the film features supporting actors Brad (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) Dexter, Jack Warden and, in his movie debut, comedian Don Rickles. A digression: Judy and I have seen Don Rickles perform live twice. Once, at the legendary (and now gone) Stardust hotel and casino in Las Vegas and the second time, at Austin's Paramount Theatre. He's one of my favorite comedians of all time and even though he did essentially the same show both times we saw him, I loved every minute of both performances. I laughed like a jackass.

RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP isn't the greatest war movie ever made but it's certainly worth seeing once if only to bask in the bigger-than-life, macho, tough guy screen personas of Gable and Lancaster. Thumbs up.

 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

THE LIMPING MAN


My buddy Kelly Greene and I started our film noir double feature yesterday with this one, THE LIMPING MAN, a 1953 British crime thriller starring American actor Lloyd Bridges. We clearly saved the best for last as the second film we watched, THE BLACK ANGEL (1946) was the better of the two.

LIMPING starts with American Bridges returning to London six years after the end of WWII. He hopes to reconnect with a woman he met there during the war. As passengers deplane and file across the runway, the man in line behind Bridges is shot and killed by a sniper, a mysterious "limping man" who has a rifle built into his cane.

When Bridges is eventually cleared by Scotland Yard, he goes to meet Pauline French (Moira Lister). He's still madly in love with her but she's a bit standoffish and wishes that he hadn't come to London. As things progress, it turns out that Pauline was involved in a smuggling ring with the man who was shot at the airport. She has letters to prove her complicity, letters which are now in the hands of a vicious blackmailer, Helene Castle (Helene Cordet). Bridges tries to help Pauline, find out the identity of the limping man and recover the incriminating letters. There's a surprise plot twist in the third act and things come to a head when Bridges battles the Limping Man in the balcony of a London theater. The Limping Man appears to have the advantage over Bridges when something inexplicable happens.

SPOILER WARNING: Bridges wakes up and he's back on the airplane from the beginning of the plane. He's been dreaming all of this. The man seated behind him and poking him with a rolled up magazine to wake Bridges up, is the actor who played the killer, the Limping Man. The pilot and co-pilot of the plane are the Scotland Yard inspectors while the flight attendant is the blackmailer, Helene. When Bridges deplanes, Pauline is waiting for him with open arms.

Neither of us could figure out why the cheat, "it-was-all-a-dream" ending was necessary when, with a little bit of work, the screenplay as written could have ended on a positive note. There's clearly no viable reason to use the dream ending and it mars what was otherwise a modest little B movie crime thriller. Granted, THE LIMPING MAN still wouldn't have been a great film with a more traditional ending but the dream nonsense makes me give this one a thumbs down.

 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

THE BLACK ANGEL


My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched THE BLACK ANGEL (1946) this afternoon. It's a terrific little film noir that neither one of us had ever seen before.

Dan Duryea stars as Martin Blair, a drunken songwriter who tries to see his estranged wife Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) in her penthouse apartment one night. He wrote the song that made her a recording star but she'll have nothing to do with him. He can't gain access to the apartment house but he sees sinister nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) go in. Later, an unknown man (Hobart Cavanaugh) who was having an affair with Mavis enters the only to find her dead, strangled with her monogrammed scarf. He of course leaves a trail of evidence, is eventually arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

The trouble is, he's innocent and his beloved wife, Catherine (June Vincent) believes him and wants to save him from the gas chamber even though he was cheating on her. The police offer no help but she eventually hooks up with Blair who also wants to solve the murder of his ex-wife. They team up and follow a trail that leads to Lorre's nightclub where the two get a job as a piano player and lounge singer in order to find evidence in Lorre's possession. Duryea sobers up and begins to fall for Vincent. There's a suspenseful scene in the nightclub in which Vincent dares all to gain access to Lorre's inner sanctum but they soon discover they have the wrong man.

With her husband only hours away from execution, Vincent goes to visit him one last time in prison. While she's away, Duryea falls off of the wagon, having been spurned by Vincent when he declared his love for her. He eventually discovers the true identity of the murderer in a shocking, didn't-see-it-coming final twist.

THE BLACK ANGEL was originally a novel by the legendary Cornell Woolrich. Screenwriter Roy Chanslor does a good job of adapting the material while director Roy William Neill (who also produced the film), does a fine job of putting the solid cast through a never ending series of twists, turns and reversals of fortune. THE BLACK ANGEL was the last film Neill directed. He had previously helmed several of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce SHERLOCK HOLMES films at Universal as well as the first monster team-up film FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943).

THE BLACK ANGEL is a first rate film noir that you will enjoy whether you're an aficionado of the genre or just a lover of good movies. Highly recommended.

INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE PRESIDENCY


I finished reading INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE PRESIDENCY (2012) by Mark K. Updegrove last night. It took me a while to work through this one for two reasons. One, I started reading it prior to my recent surgery and my recovery from that took much longer than expected, thus limiting my reading time for this book The other reason is that this is one of those books that I read aloud in it's entirety to my lovely wife Judy. Our tradition is that I read aloud to her while she cooks our dinner, then we eat and I clean up the kitchen upwards. It's a nice division of labor and it allows us to enjoy many great books together.

INDOMITABLE WILL, as the title indicates, covers President Johnson's years in the White House, from the moment he was thrust into the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November, 1963, through his election to the office in 1964 to his final decision not to run again in 1968 and the final passing of power to President Richard Nixon in 1969.

Updegrove tells the story primarily through the voices of the people closest to Johnson in his administration as well as Lady Bird and LBJ himself. There are several transcriptions of recorded phone conversations between LBJ and cabinet members, congressmen, staff members and others. It all makes for some fascinating insight into this incredibly complex man whom many consider to be the consummate politician of the 20th century.

LBJ introduced dozens of major pieces of legislation that were eventually passed by Congress and signed into law. His domestic accomplishments are staggering in their depth and breadth. The laws that he helped bring into being rung profound and permanent changes in American society. His Great Society program included many pieces of legislation that affected millions of Americans in largely positive ways.

But LBJ's downfall was the war in Vietnam. As much as he accomplished domestically, he was mired in a "no-way-out" situation in Southeast Asia that carried a tremendous cost of blood and treasure. If he had somehow managed to find the oh-so-elusive "peace with honor" and end the conflict in Vietnam, maybe he would have run for a second term in office. But the truth is that his health was already failing him and he most likely wouldn't have survived a second term.

Love him or hate him, Lyndon Johnson is a fascinating, complex figure in America history. His legacy divides clearly into two arenas: the great things he accomplished domestically and the costly tragedy of the war in Vietnam. It's been said more than once by other historians that Johnson, both the man and his administration, carry an air of Shakespearean tragedy. I agree with that assessment. Judy and I both thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and I look forward to reading more about LBJ in the future. INDOMITABLE WILL is highly recommended.

As Paul Harvey used to say, this next is partly personal. One of my mother's best friends was Liz Carpenter who was Lady Bird's press secretary. My mom and Liz grew up together and remained fast friends through out their lives despite the fact that Liz was a yellow dog Democrat and my mother was a rock-ribbed Republican. When our family took a trip to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1964, Liz arranged for us to have a private tour of the White House which included a visit to the Oval Office. I got to sit in the presidents' desk chair. Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, President Johnson met us and posed for a photograph with the Campbell family. My mother and father were no fans of LBJ. They supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Still, you have to put personal politics aside when you're standing outside the White House with the President of the United States. The office demands respect regardless of what you think of the man occupying it.

One of the blessings of my life was that, thanks to my mother, I got to know Liz Carpenter quite well over the years. I visited her at her Westlake Hills home quite often, interviewed her for a story when I was freelancing for a local magazine, escorted her to several book related events and always enjoyed being with her and listening to all of the great stories she had to share. She was witness to an incredible amount of American history and she was always kind, gracious, warm and friendly whenever we spent time together. When my mother passed away in 2003, Liz came to the funeral service and we spoke together for several minutes. That may have been the last time we spoke.  I truly treasure those memories and give thanks to my mother for having the good sense to make Liz Carpenter a lifelong friend for both of us.

 

Monday, July 6, 2015

THE TIME MACHINE


My earliest memory (and it's only a partial, fragmented one at best) of seeing THE TIME MACHINE (1960) was on NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES. I don't know the year of the broadcast but I do remember that I was at my grandparents' house that night. The television was on and tuned to the channel showing the movie. The only thing I remember seeing was the atomic attack on London in the year 1966. I don't recall anything else about the film before or after. It's entirely possible we had tuned in late and missed the beginning of the film and it's also possible that with a bedtime looming, the television was turned off before the film was over and I was taken home by my parents.

I do strongly remember seeing stills from the film in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND in the 1960s. Every so often, Forry would run a still of Rod Taylor duking it out with the Moorlocks in their underground cavern. I was totally mesmerized by those images. This film looked so cool and held such great promise. I had to see it.

I also recall checking out a paperback copy of H.G. Wells' THE TIME MACHINE from our elementary school library. This wasn't an abridged, kid friendly version. This was the real McCoy, complete with, if memory serves, a cover painting by Richard Powers. I didn't read the book in the two weeks that I had it. I returned it to the school library and never tried to read it again while in public schools. I did read the novel for a class I took in college and I've since re-read it as an adult.

But the film remained an elusive goal for me. I honestly don't recall where and when I finally saw the film in it's entirety for the first time. Television? Home video? I'm sorry but I just can't recall. I do know that I saw the film at the Paramount Theater several years ago because I wrote the notes for the George Pal/H.G. Wells double feature of WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TIME MACHINE. Seeing both of those films on the big screen was a real treat.

I recently acquired a Blu-ray copy of the film and Judy and I sat down and watched it this past Saturday night (an appropriate night, given my history with the film). Judy had never seen it but she really got into it and enjoyed it. I loved it too.

Rod Taylor stars as George (it's never stated that he's H.G. Wells but the nameplate on the time machine is a strong clue to his identity), inventor of a time machine that is capable of traveling forward and backwards in time. His friends, Alan (MISTER ED) Young, Whit (TIME TUNNEL) Bissell, Sebastian (FAMILY AFFAIR)  Cabot and Tom (VERTIGO) Helmore doubt his theory even after he demonstrates his accomplishment by sending a small model of the machine into the fourth dimension. He asks the men to return for dinner in a week and after they've all left, he gets into the full scale machine and begins his voyage into the future.

There are stops along the way in 1917, 1940 and 1966 and in each year he finds the world at war. He finally rockets to the year 802,701 where he finds civilization divided into the passive, cattle like surface dwelling Eloi and the savage, underground cannibals the Morlocks. He saves Weena (Yvette Mimieux) from drowning and she in turn helps him understand the status quo of this strange new society.

When the time machine is stolen and locked away by the Morlocks, George must venture into the underground caverns to reclaim it. He battles Morlocks and the Eloi eventually join in the fight. He finally gets to the machine and returns to the year 1900 where he tells his amazing story to his skeptical friends. After they leave, George gets back in his machine and returns to the future to help Weena and the Eloi rebuild their civilization.

Director George Pal takes his time setting up the narrative with an opening sequence that sets everything up very nicely. There's an earnestness and sincerity at play here in both the screenplay by David Duncan, the performances of the actors and in Pal's direction. Time travel is visualized through a variety of special effects techniques including stop motion animation, time lapse photography, miniatures and matte painting. The film won an Oscar for Best Special Effects and one can only wonder how much more sophisticated the effects could have been if Pal had had a larger budget to work with (the film was budgeted at $750,000). Look quickly during the 1966 scene and you'll see a re-cycled uniform from FORBIDDEN PLANET, while another prop from that film, the giant clear star globe/map, appears later in the film in the chamber of the "talking rings."

THE TIME MACHINE is a wonderful film. It's full of the sense of wonder that one finds in the best science fiction material. Taylor makes a great square-jawed hero, Mimieux (who was only 17 at the time and making her film debut) is fetching, and the Morlocks menacing. But the real star of this film is the incredible Time Machine itself. It's one of the most iconic devices/vehicles ever designed in the science fiction cinema. When the full scale device appeared for the first time on screen, Judy remarked "it's steam punk!" Indeed, it is.

Judy and I both thoroughly enjoyed watching THE TIME MACHINE, which looks spectacular in the Blu-ray format.  Highly recommended.

 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES


In 1976, Marvel Comics published the oversized comic book pictured above. It's the MARVEL TREASURY SPECIAL CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES. As the cover blurb proclaims, it's "A Jack Kirby King-Size Spectacular". And indeed it was. Jack Kirby wrote and drew the entire story, an epic in which Captain America is sent throughout time, both past and future by the mysterious Mr. Buda in a journey to discover the real meaning of America.

I remember buying and reading this one when it came out. Sadly, I no longer have a copy of the original, treasury size comic. Those things are extremely difficult to store! But I do have the next best thing, a 2005 trade paperback that reprints the story in its entirety along with some other classic 1970s Captain America comics by Jack Kirby. To celebrate the Fourth of July, I sat down and read the Bicentennial Battles story this morning and loved every page of it.

Regular readers of this blog know that Jack Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist. He's in rare form here. Some people think Kirby's mid '70s work at Marvel (to which he returned after a brilliant stint at DC earlier in the decade) is not as strong as his earlier stuff. The fact that Kirby was writing and drawing all of his comics was viewed by some as a detriment. Kirby, they argued, just wasn't a good wordsmith. He was better, in some people's opinion, when someone like Stan Lee was doing the actual writing, leaving Kirby to focus on the drawing and storytelling.

While Kirby's writing isn't the greatest, his voice is sincere, unique and distinctive. It has a ring of honesty to it, a yearning desire to communicate to and connect with the reader. There's some pretty nice turns of phrase in this story including this one:

"That's America! A place of stubborn confidence-where both young and old can hope and dream, and wade through disappointment, despair and the crunch of events-with the chance of making life meaningful."

Preachy? Maybe? Patriotic? You betcha. I bought it hook, line and sinker.

Kirby is aided in his artwork by a trio of ink slingers: Herb Trimpe, John Romita and Barry Windsor Smith. I spotted Romita's work in the sequence set during the great Chicago fire of 1871. But it's Windsor Smith's work that beautifully complements Kirby's pencils in the opening sequence which takes place during WWII. It's short (and the color of Bucky's leggings change from panel to panel from red to blue and back to red), but it's gorgeous work. I would have loved to have seen a full length WWII Cap and Bucky adventure written and drawn by the team of Kirby and Smith.

In short, CAPTAIN AMERICA'S BICENTENNIAL BATTLES was a fun trip down memory lane and a great way to celebrate the Fourth. Check it out if you get a chance. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 3, 2015

99 RIVER STREET


I watched 99 RIVER STREET (1953) the other night (recorded from TCM). I'd never seen this minor noir before. It's a good little crime thriller that, in my opinion, is only partially a film noir due to a happy ending. It's still worth seeing if you're a film noir aficionado (like me).

John Payne stars as an ex-boxer who now works as a cab driver. His shrewish wife (Peggie Castle) constantly nags him for bigger and better things. Turns out she's two-timing Payne with a professional thief played by Brad (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) Dexter. Dexter's just pulled a diamond heist but he can't unload the gems due to complications. He decides to murder Castle and frame Payne for her death.

Payne finds himself on the run from both the cops and the crooks. He's aided in his quest by would-be Broadway actress Evelyn Keyes. Together, they win the day, but not before they find themselves in some tense and potentially deadly situations.

99 RIVER STREET was directed by Phil Karlson who also helmed such film noir/crime thriller standouts as KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), 5 AGAINST THE HOUSE (1955), and THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955). Later in his career he made two of the Dean Martin Matt Helm films, THE SILENCERS (1966) and THE WRECKING CREW (1969) and the original cult classic WALKING TALL (1973).

99 RIVER STREET is a tight little B film. The direction is solid and the screenplay, by Robert Smith, is good. The cast, although comprised of lesser known performers, give it their best. It's no masterpiece but it's certainly worth seeing at least once.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: AMERICA FIRST


I've always been a sucker for Captain America stories that are set in WWII. That's why CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is my favorite of all of the Marvel films produced so far. One of my all time favorite comic books series is Marvel's THE INVADERS from the 1970s which featured Timely Comics Big Three (and a few others) Captain America, the Human Torch and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner in action against the Axis powers. I dream of the day in which Marvel Studios produces an INVADERS film for theaters. It probably won't happen but hey, who ever thought we'd be seeing movies about The Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man for crying out loud? And I can hope because there's an Easter Egg in FIRST AVENGER of the Human Torch at the World's Fair. I can dream can't I?

Which leads me to this review of the book pictured above. I got this 2010 hardcover book in a recent trade with my comic book buddy Blake Long (hi Blake!) The volume reprints three stand alone Captain America stories, all of which are set in the past (two in WWII, one in the '50s).

The first story, OPERATION: ZERO POINT finds Cap battling Nazi flying saucers (among other threats) in a story written by Daniel & Charles Knauf and illustrated by Mitch Breitweiser. Both art and story are good. 

Next, it's PRISONERS OF DUTY, a tale in which Steve Rogers is captured and imprisoned with other American soldiers in a Nazi held castle from which escape is impossible. Of course, Rogers leads a daring escape in a story written by Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel and illustrated by Agustin Padilla. The story is a good one but Padilla's artwork is poor and amateurish. Better artwork would have really made this story sing.

The final story is the best of the bunch. AMERICA FIRST!, written and illustrated by the legendary Howard Chaykin (one of my favorite contemporary comic book artists) is set in the 1950s and deals with a replacement Captain America who fights Communists both at home and abroad. The usual Chaykin tropes are here: period dress and cars, slinky femme fatales, radical politics and lots of action.

I can recommend CAPTAIN AMERICA: AMERICA FIRST. The stories are all well written and the art is good on two of  the three tales. Thumbs up.