Saturday, January 30, 2016
Friday, January 29, 2016
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Friday, January 22, 2016
Sunday, January 17, 2016
Saturday, January 16, 2016
Saturday, January 9, 2016
Friday, January 8, 2016
I became a "Marvel Zombie" in September, 1966. I was in the fifth grade at Brykerwoods Elementary School. There was a new kid in our class that year by the name of John Leeds. One day I noticed that he had the names of all of the Marvel Comics superheroes written on the borders of his brown paper ButterKrust bread book covers. I had read enough Marvel comics over the prior couple of years to have a working knowledge of the characters even though I didn't buy any of the titles on a regular basis.
"I know who those guys are," I said to him one day."They're all Marvel Comics characters."
"Yeah," he replied. "I collect them all."
And with that, a friendship was born along with a comic book collecting hobby that has stood me well for these now fifty years. I decided that I wanted to emulate John and start buying and collecting every Marvel title that was currently being published. That wasn't that hard to do at the time. Marvel's output was limited to a handful of books in 1966: FANTASTIC FOUR, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, AVENGERS, THOR, DAREDEVIL, X-MEN, TALES OF SUSPENSE (Iron Man and Captain America), TALES TO ASTONISH (Sub-Mariner and Hulk), STRANGE TALES (Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr. Strange), SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS, plus westerns RAWHIDE KID, TWO-GUN KID and KID COLT OUTLAW along with reprint giant-size mags MARVEL TALES, FANTASY MASTERPIECES and MARVEL COLLECTOR'S ITEM CLASSICS. On the horizon were such late '60s touchstones as NOT BRAND ECHH, CAPTAIN MARVEL, THE SILVER SURFER and the awarding of individual books to Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Subby, S.H.I.E.L.D and Dr. Strange. While I can't claim to have been there at the very beginning of the "Marvel Age", I got on board the bandwagon at a great time in the company's history.
Of course, almost every one of these comics were written at the time by the one and only Stan Lee. Roy Thomas was just beginning his run on AVENGERS and a couple of other books but Stan was still the Man. While I now consider Roy Thomas my all-time favorite comic book writer, there's no denying that Stan Lee will always hold a special place in my heart. He was Marvel Comics for those of us lucky to be caught up in Marvelmania in the 1960s and the characters he co-created and the stories he wrote stand among the greatest in the history of the medium. When I was ten years old, I loved Stan Lee. I'll be sixty in a couple of months and I still love the guy. In fact, I loved Stan so much that one of my earliest career ambitions was to move to New York City and become a writer for Marvel Comics. Never happened of course but I know I wasn't the only True Believer to harbor that fantasy, a dream that several fans actually acted upon, making the leap from readers to creators and bringing fresh and new ideas, concepts and wonderment to the four color pages.
For some reason, my brother didn't care much for Stan Lee. He wasn't a comic book reader at all but he knew that I was crazy about the guy, always talking about how great he was and how cool Marvel Comics were. He used to pester me mercilessly by telling me that there was no such guy as "Stan Lee", that it was just a name they (Marvel), made up. I knew better. One day there was a letter of comment in CAPTAIN AMERICA from a reader in Brenham, Texas, where my brother attended junior college. I cut the page out (d'oh!) and mailed it to him with a note admonishing him to look the letter writer up, that here was someone else who enjoyed Marvel Comics and fully believed in the gospel of Stan Lee. He finally had to admit that I was right.
One of the gifts Judy gave me this past Christmas was a copy of the new hardcover graphic novel, AMAZING FANTASTIC INCREDIBLE: A MARVELOUS MEMOIR by Stan Lee, Peter David and Colleen Doran. I read it this morning and while there's nothing new in it, I have to admit that I got a kick out of it. Stan recounts his life story (written by David with very nice art by Doran). In the course of the book Stan tells us repeatedly of his love for his wife Joan, gives credit where credit is due to co-creators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, admits that his memory isn't 100%, drops the names of several heavy hitters he's met over the years, gives a brief synopsis of the "Marvel" method of writing comics, explains how he created most of the initial Marvel superheroes, talks about the work he's done post-Marvel and his many cameo appearances in the Marvel movies.
AMAZING covers a lot of ground but it still just hits the high points of this incredible man and his career. He truly is one of the giants of not only comic books but pop culture with a career that now encompasses both the 20th and 21st centuries. I've never had a chance to meet him but I'd love to do so if only to shake his hand and tell him how much his work means to me. Oh, and get his signature on my copy of AMAZING FANTASY #15. Will it happen? Who knows.
If you love comics, especially Marvel Comics, this is a must read. It's a fun stroll down memory lane by the one and only Stan "The Man" Lee.
Once upon a time, I used to see almost every new Woody Allen film as they were released in the theaters. I've stopped doing that. Not because I no longer like Allen's work. On the contrary, he's one of my favorite filmmakers. I simply go to fewer and fewer first run theatrically released films each year. In 2015, I went to the movies a grand total of four times. Oh, I saw a bunch of movies but I only went to the theaters four times.
The last Allen film I saw in the theater was HOLLYWOOD ENDING in 2002. I've seen three of the films he's made since then: ANYTHING ELSE (2003), MELINDA AND MELINDA (2004) and WHATEVER WORKS (2009), all of them on DVD. I have a lot of catching up to do.
I watched BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994) for the second time yesterday. I saw this one when it was first released but that was more than twenty years ago and I didn't recall much about the film. It's an absolute delight.
The year is 1928. John Cusack stars as playwright David Shayne who finds that he has to rely on a mobster, Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) to finance his new play, God of Our Fathers. He considers himself a sell out but at least his work will be staged. But the money comes with a condition. Shayne must use the mobster's girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly) in the production. She can't act worth a damn but Shayne's stuck with her.
He's also stuck with Olive's bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who becomes David's dramaturge and works with him to sharpen the dialogue and structure of the play, vastly improving the material in the process. The cast of the play includes the over-the-top diva Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), in a show-stealing (and Oscar winning) performance.The show, as they say, must go on and so it does but there's some third act reversals that complicate things.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY is a hilarious mix of theater types and gangsters with both groups peopled with offbeat, eccentric characters. Allen directs everything in long, single takes, all shot from either medium or long distance. He moves his camera around when necessary but uses no closeups in the film. The screenplay, by Allen and McGrath, is a scream with several terrific one-liners. The cinematography by Carlo DiPalma has a rich, burnished hue that lends everything a slightly amber glow and the production design by Santo Loquasto and Susan Bode, bring the '20s to rich and vivid life.
BULLETS received seven Academy Award nominations: Best Director (Allen), Best Original Screenplay (Allen and McGrath), Best Supporting Actress (Wiest, winner), Best Supporting Actress (Tilly), Best Supporting Actor (Palminteri), Best Production Design (Loquasto and Bode) and Best Costume Design (Jeffrey Kurland). Only Wiest won, the second time she scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in an Allen film (the previous was for HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)). BULLETS OVER BROADWAY was turned into a Broadway musical in 2014.
BULLETS is a gem of a film. Highly recommended.
Thursday, January 7, 2016
MARVEL UNIVERSE was a short lived (7 issues) series published by Marvel Comics in 1998. It was similar in concept to DC's LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE series which ran for 41 issues (along with some specials) from 1998 to 2001. Both series had the same idea, that was, to explore the rich and varied histories of their respective comic book universes.
MARVEL UNIVERSE started with a bang. A three part INVADERS story written by Roger Stern with artwork by Steve Epting and Al Williamson. Have I mentioned that I'm a sucker for super-hero stories set in WWII? The original 1970s INVADERS series is one of my all time favorite comic books (written by my all time favorite comic book writer, Roy Thomas). CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER is still my favorite of all of the Marvel Comics movies produced to date. So naturally, I was drawn to this series when it was originally published.
I had forgotten about MARVEL UNIVERSE until the other day when I stumbled across a trade paperback collecting the entire series at Half Price Books. Sold. I re-read it this morning and loved every page of it.
THE INVADERS story stars the original Big Three of Timely Comics: The Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner and Captain America. They're joined by The Whizzer in corker of a story that involves Baron Strucker's attempts to gain a nuclear weapon for his war time Hydra organization. This story is full of Marvel history. We get cameos by the Red Skull, Captain Simon Savage, Thor, Dr. Doom and a way-cool dragon shaped super submarine from a Golden Age issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA.
But wait! There's more! The second (and alas, final) story arc in MARVEL UNIVERSE was the delightful MONSTER HUNTERS, a team comprised of Dr. Druid, Ulysses Bloodstone, Wakandan warrior woman Zawadi and the mysterious government agent Jake Curtiss. Before this four issue romp is over, we discover the link between all of those late '50s, early '60s giant monster stories produced by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Steve Ditko and Kirby's 1970s series THE ETERNALS. Oh, and the secret origin of the Mole Man too! The story is again by Roger Stern with artwork by Mike Manley who makes everything look like a Saturday morning cartoon drawn by Jack Kirby. And yes, that's a very good thing.
It's too bad that MARVEL UNIVERSE didn't find enough of an audience in the late 1990s as writer Stern and editor Tom Brevoort had many other story ideas on the drawing board. Sadly, it was not to be but the two story arcs that were published were winners in my book. Thumbs up.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
I was watching an old TWILIGHT ZONE episode the other night when I had a bizarre thought. The episode was from the second season. A PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS originally aired on February 3rd, 1961. Written by the recently deceased George Clayton Johnson, the episode starred a pre-BEWITCHED Dick York as a bank employee who gains the ability to read people's minds when a coin he tosses lands on its' side.
Here's where my mind took off. THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, the first live-action comic book superhero television series ran from 1952 to 1958. There were no other such shows until January, 1966 (fifty years ago this month!) when BATMAN debuted on ABC. What if some enterprising television producer was seeking to fill the eight year gap between ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and BATMAN by acquiring the rights to a then dormant comic book character say, oh, Plastic Man? And what if said producer decided to cast York in the lead role?
That's right folks. I think Dick York would have made a perfect lead for a 1960s PLASTIC MAN television show. And what about this guy, his lovable sidekick Woozy Winks?
You know who would have made a good Woozy?
Former third Stooge Joe Besser.
There you have it. My dream cast for a never realized 1960s PLASTIC MAN television show. Of course, I have no idea how the special effects would have been handled. I'm sure they would have thought of something cheap and crappy but I still think it would have been fun to watch York and Besser every week.
Monday, January 4, 2016
It's curious that a movie set in France during the reign of King Louis XIV should star only one French actor. Of the five main characters in THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998), only Gerard Depardieu as Porthos, is French. The rest of the cast? Leonardo DiCaprio in a dual role is an American, Gabriel Byrne as D'Artagnan is Irish, Jeremy Irons as Aramis is British and John Malkovich as Athos, is also American.
Still, it's a stellar cast in a handsome production of the Alexandre Dumas novel. Written and directed by Randall Wallace, the film finds the legendary Three Musketeers (actually, four) in retirement, their glory days behind them. Only D'Artagnan remains in service to the boy king (DiCaprio). But a mysterious man in an iron mask threatens to topple the crown and reveal long hidden secrets.
My main quibble with the film is that it takes more than half of the running time of 132 minutes to finally buckle some swash (or swash some buckle). No real sword fight occurs on screen for one helluva long time. Oh sure, there's political intrigue, broad comedy, romance and some dashes of derring do here and there but for a film starring one of the most famous sword fighting quartets in literature, I was expecting some swords to be drawn and crossed a lot earlier in the film.
While not as good as Richard Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974) for sheer exuberance and bravado, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK is a solid costume drama with first rate production values, beautiful cinematography by Peter Suschitzky and a rousing score by Nick Glennie-Smith. Worth seeing.
Sunday, January 3, 2016
Man: "He really is one of our most indulgent filmmakers."
Alvy Singer: "The key word here is indulgent."- Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL (1977)
If you're a Quentin Tarantino fan you might want to stop reading this right now because chances are, you're not going to like what I have to say here. Go on. We'll wait for you to leave.
Are they gone? Good. Let's get down to it.
I must confess that I've only seen three Quentin Tarrantino films: PULP FICTION (1994), DEATH PROOF (2007) and, most recently, RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). Like millions of moviegoers, I fell for the hype when PULP FICTION was released. Everything I read about the film convinced me that this film and director were the second coming of CITIZEN KANE and Orson Welles, respectively.
PULP FICTION, for all of it's non-linear storytelling, good cast and outasite vintage rock and pop tunes, was, in my opinion, a vastly overrated piece of work. There's no real story of any kind here. There's no main protagonist. There are a couple of down-the-rabbit-hole sequences (the pocket watch story and the fresh-from-the-roadshow-cast of DELIVERANCE basement dwelling Gimp) that have absolutely nothing to do with what passes for a plot. The watch story is mildly amusing while the whole Gimp sequence made me squirm and wonder what the hell I had gotten myself into.
The whole thing with the briefcase is a direct steal, oh, I'm sorry, homage to Robert Aldrich's infinitely better film noir masterpiece KISS ME DEADLY (1955). I'll grant that there are some wicked dance moves in the Jack Rabbit Slim sequence and Tarantino does have a flair for staging brutal, realistic action scenes. But what PULP FICTION has more of than anything else is dialogue. Tons of dialogue. Page after page of dialogue. These characters don't need guns to kill people. They can talk them to death. The incessant chatter goes on and on and on and you know what? It's just not that good. It's nowhere near as clever as QT wants us to think it is because the dialogue isn't about establishing and creating believable characters and advancing the story. No, it's all about Tarantino shouting from the roof-tops: "Look at Me! Look at Me! I'm a Writer! I'm a Director! I know a lot of useless pop culture and movie trivia and I'm going to cram as much of it as I can into this screenplay because there's no one to tell me no!"
Or words to that effect.
I didn't much care for PULP FICTION, despite the cult status it has gone on to achieve. I decided Tarantino just wasn't my cup of tea. I avoided his work until 2007 when QT and Robert Rodriquez teamed up for GRINDHOUSE. Again, everything I read about this old-fashioned B-movie double feature sounded intriguing so I decided to give it a shot. I thoroughly enjoyed Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR, the first half of the double bill. I loved the fake trailers. I was actually looking forward to the filmed (partly) in Austin Tarantino movie, DEATH PROOF.
Here's what happens in DEATH PROOF. A bunch of women meet in a cafe (the now demolished Omelettry on Burnet Road) for breakfast. They sit around and talk. For a long time. Then they get in a car and drive around Austin. They talk some more. A lot. They end the day at the Chili Parlor on Lavaca where they meet psycho killer Kurt Russell. He indulges in dialogue that once again exists only to showcase QT's immense wealth of pop culture trivia. The women are killed in a homicidal auto accident. Cut to Southern California and a new group of women. They talk. A lot. Russell shows up again and after about 45 minutes of talk, an extremely well staged car chase sequence takes place. The stunts and action are all first rate but my clothes had gone out of style in the time it took Tarantino to finally get around to something of interest. I swear, I came this close (holds up thumb and finger with very little space between them) to walking out of this turkey.
So, I decided that's it. I'm done. No more Tarantino for me. But wait, I'm a glutton for punishment because I recently decided to give him one more chance. I had never seen his debut film, RESERVOIR DOGS and the used copy at the thrift store was only a buck and I decided what the hell, why not give this one a shot? After all, the premise, a heist gone wrong, sounded promising.
Good Lord what an abomination DOGS is. Extreme violence. Extreme profanity (why do white guys get to casually drop the "N" bomb in Tarantino's films?) Extreme fracturing of space and time. And last but not least, extreme talking. Talking. Talking. Talking. Cool soundtrack though.
Tarnatino thinks he's being cool by using a broken narrative (flash forwards and flash backs) to tell the story of a heist gone wrong. Trouble is, by breaking up the standard tropes of this sub genre he effectively eliminates any element of suspense. We know from the get-go that things go wrong but why should we care about these characters when we've just met them in a long and talky cafe sequence at the beginning of the film. Oh, and the fact that one of the men is an undercover cop comes as just as big a surprise to the audience as it does to the bad guys. But by the time that little plot point was revealed, I was far past giving a damn about the whole thing. I just wanted the sadistic violence and endless talking to stop. Please stop.
As you can no doubt guess, I won't be seeing THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Everything I've read about this film makes me think that every frame of this film is permeated with the stench of pretension. Shot in 70mm. A three-hour running time. An overture. An intermission. A title card announcing it as the "eighth Quentin Tarantino film." All of that's fine if you're David Lean and you're delivering LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). But when you're QT and you're asking people to sit for three hours and watch eight people sit in a snow bound cabin and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk.....well, you get the point.
Saturday, January 2, 2016
I gave myself a copy of QUARRY by Max Allan Collins for Christmas last week. Originally published back in 1976, Hard Case Crime (have I mentioned that this company is my favorite publisher?), is in the process of reprinting all of the original Quarry novels with stunning new cover art by the legendary Robert McGinnis. This is the first in the series and it's a good one.
Quarry is, like Lawrence Block's character Keller, a professional killer. Plain and simple. He does it for the money but unlike Keller, he doesn't collect stamps. Collins does a great job of making us root for a protagonist with a tremendous amount of blood on his hands, past, present and future.
QUARRY starts with a bang with a hit in the men's room of an airport. The target's a drug runner, something which Quarry doesn't agree with and he threatens his agent, The Broker, to quit the business if he ever gets involved in another drug related assignment. The Broker sends Quarry to a small Midwestern town where the target is an unassuming milquetoast of a solitary man. Quarry and his stakeout partner, Boyd, watch the intended victim and Quarry does the job in his usual efficient manner.
But this being a hard boiled crime novel, something goes wrong. Boyd is killed, Quarry is attacked and the money for the job is stolen. Quarry breaks the rules and stays in the town and plays amateur detective in an attempt to find out who actually hired him for the job and who has his money. He uncovers (ahem) a comely former Playboy bunny and a well-to-do family with plenty of skeletons in the closet. The showdown takes place, appropriately enough, in a quarry and in the rain, which prefigures the climax of Collins's graphic novel, THE ROAD TO PERDITION (the rain part, not the quarry setting).
With a dare-you-to-stop-reading narrative pace, Collins had me turning the pages as fast as I could. I've read his other Quarry books and they're all good and well worth reading. It's nice to finally be able to see how this whole thing got started. Down and dirty, gritty and tough, QUARRY is a big thumbs up winner. Recommended.
Friday, January 1, 2016
I watched CAT PEOPLE (1942) awhile back but I've just been too busy lately to sit down and write about it. The new year offers an opportunity to play catch up with this and other films I saw in 2015 but haven't written about so let's see if I can clear off some of these notes and papers on my desk starting today.
CAT PEOPLE, produced by Val Lewton at RKO is quite simply one of the best horror films ever made. Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur got a terrific amount of bang for their buck with this low budget ($134,000), atmospheric masterpiece. Saddled with a shoestring budget and a corny title, Lewton and Tourneur along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, delivered a slick, beautifully crafted meditation on sexual anxieties and the power of myth.
Irena Dubrovna (the lovely Simone Simon), believes she's a member of an ancient race of cat people. These people become cats when they are sexually aroused, or so the legend goes. Irena falls in love with architect Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and as her love and sexual desires become more intense, so too do her fears of turning into a killer beast. She seeks help from psychiatrist Dr. Judd (the urbane Tom Conway, who would have made a terrific Ham in a 1942 DOC SAVAGE film), who uses hypnosis to probe her fears. Is Irena really capable of transforming into a cat or is it all just in her head, a very dark and disturbing neurosis that threatens her marriage?
Two sequences in the film are standouts and masterfully demonstrate what can be done to create terror with just shadows and sounds. The first is when Alice (the also lovely Jane Randolph), a co-worker of Oliver's, walks along a sidewalk at night, convinced she's being followed by something. The abrupt hiss of air brakes on a bus (which sounds remarkably like the screech of a cat) at the end of the sequence makes me jump every time I see the film even though I know it's coming.
But the most memorable scene by far is the swimming pool sequence in which Alice swims alone at night in an indoor pool. There's something else in the room with her, something not human. Again, we never see anything, just shadows on the wall and strange sounds but Lewton, Tourneur and Musuraca orchestrate everything so brilliantly, the viewer fills in the spaces in his or her own mind, creating something far more terrifying than anything that could be put on the screen at the time.
With a running time of 73 minutes, CAT PEOPLE is a tight, well constructed film that is rich in both psychological and sexual themes and horror. The cast is good with Simon a stand out as the haunted and doomed Irena. A sequel, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE was produced in 1944. Producer Val Lewton reunited stars Simone Simon, Kent Smith and Jane Randolph and turned the directing duties over to the team of Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch for the film which deals more with childhood fantasies than outright horror. And let's not forget the 1982 remake, directed by Paul Schrader with Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell. Kinski is one helluva sexy cat woman in the film which is loaded with explicit sex and violence. It's a visually stunning film but it's nowhere near as good as the original.
CAT PEOPLE is a bonafide classic horror film. Highest recommendation.