Wednesday, August 31, 2016


I have only the vaguest memory of watching ACROSS THE PACIFIC (1942) on late night television many, many years ago. I watched it again the other day, remembering nothing from that first viewing, so the whole thing was new to me. This two-fisted WWII spy thriller, produced by Warner Brothers, reunites director John Huston with stars Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet, all of whom at worked together on Huston's debut (and masterpiece) THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). In fact, ACROSS was the first film Huston directed after FALCON.

The action in the film takes place in November, 1941 (before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor).  Bogart stars as Captain Rick Leland who is court-martialed (by John (Perry White on ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) Hamilton, no less) from the U.S. Coast Guard Artillery at the beginning of the film. Leland tries to enlist with the Canadian Army but he's turned down. He decides to become a solider of fortune and sell his talents to the highest bidder, which just happens to be Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. To get to China, Leland books passage on a Japanese freighter where he meets fellow Americans Alberta Marlow (Astor) and Dr. Lorenz (Greenstreet). These people are clearly hiding something as is the entire crew of the ship which sets sail for the Pacific via the Panama Canal.

During a stop in New York City, it's revealed that Leland's court-martial is a fake. It's a cover to get him on board the ship to discover and stop whatever nefarious plan of sabotage is being cooked up. The ship eventually reaches the Panama Canal zone where Leland finds out that Dr. Lorenz has plans to blow up one of the locks of the canal using a small plane piloted by a Japanese suicide pilot/bomber. Of course, Leland foils the scheme in an exciting, action packed climax.

About that climactic action sequence. The story is that Huston had directed all of the film up that point in the story when he left the production to serve in the military. Director Vincent Sherman stepped in and finished the film without the shooting script (which Huston took with him). Huston explained to Sherman, "Bogie will know how to get out."

There are several things worth noting about ACROSS THE PACIFIC. First, despite the title, no one ever gets to the Pacific Ocean, much less across it as the film ends in Panama. The montage sequences were edited by future director Don Siegel (a job he also performed on CASABLANCA (1943)), while the special effects are the handiwork of Byron Haskin, who went on to work with producer George Pal as director of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). The trio of Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet are all terrific. Every time I see Greenstreet on screen, with his rotund jocularity masking depths of hidden menace, I always picture him as playing a Marvel Comics super-villain like The Kingpin or The Owl. Astor is lovely, Bogart is Bogart and the whole thing is a heck of a lot of fun.

Thumbs up.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


The other day, I re-read SUB-MARINER #16, published by Marvel Comics in August, 1969. I was thirteen-years-old when I read this for the first time. I enjoy going through my long boxes and re-visiting some of these old comic book friends. It's a real blast from the past and I get much more enjoyment out of  a nearly 50 year old comic book than I do from much of what's currently published. The story, THE SEA THAT TIME FORGOT is a good one. It's by the team of Roy Thomas (my all-time favorite comic book writer), Marie Severin and Joe Gaudioso. Check out that Atlantean craft depicted in the left and middle panels above. Look familiar?

Of course, it's the fabled Flying Sub from the ABC-TV series VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. Who knew Namor and Admiral Nelson had the same team of designers and engineers? 

Friday, August 26, 2016


Judy and I are big fans of the series INSIDE MAN with Morgan Spurlock that airs on CNN. The show recently ran it's second season of episodes in which Spurlock investigates a given subject, profession, culture, etc. He's covered everything from NASA, to professional video game players to the toxins in our everyday environment to just what the heck is a bit coin anyway? Each episode is engaging, compelling, sometimes humorous and always interesting. Spurlock has a great on-camera presence and a relaxed (but far from sloppy) style of reporting. He comes across as a regular guy with an enormous sense of  curiosity. By the way, Spurlock first gained widespread attention through his award-winning documentary film SUPER SIZE ME  (2004) which recounts his quest to eat all three daily meals for an entire month only at McDonald's restaurants. The results almost killed him but it's one hell of an incredible story and a film that I highly recommend.

The other night, Judy and I were watching an episode of INSIDE MAN in which Spurlock journeyed to California's Silicon Valley to investigate the business of start ups. What makes a good start up company, why do some fail, while others succeed? Who are the gurus and angel investors behind the scenes that make all of this work? And most importantly, does Spurlock's own pitch for his start up website have what it takes to succeed?

Spurlock reveals himself in this episode to be an uber nerd, a collector of action figures, comic books, horror movie ephemera and other geek culture artifacts. His idea was to create a website in which collectors of all sorts of things could come together to share their various interests. It's like a virtual "show and tell" where you get to post images of the treasures in your collection for likes and comments from other collectors while you do the same. The site combines aspects of  eBay and Facebook with a buy, sell and trade function promised to go live in September.

Spurlock hones his pitch and delivers it to a variety of investors, one of which agrees to buy 10% of the company for $500,000. As Spurlock says on camera, "that just happened." The result is that Clect is now up and running and waiting for collectors to get involved and make the site grow and develop.

I registered as a Clect member the morning after I saw the show. The site is easy to navigate and user friendly. The idea is simple and cool. Each collector creates various "Cards" which are images of individual items in his or her collection. You identify what the item is and tell a little bit about it and then post it into a "Pack" that you also create. Your Pack contains Cards of a similar nature. For instance, I've created two Packs, one for my pulp magazines, the other for my men's adventure magazines. I have followers and likes already and I plan to continue to add to my Packs and create others as time goes by. Also, once the buy-sell-trade function goes live, I hope I can make some deals with fellow collectors.

Clect is a great idea that deserves support from all collectors of geek/nerd material in order to succeed. It doesn't cost you a dime to join and you have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something that may eventually turn out to be really big.

Go to and check out my Packs. Sign up while you're there and join in the fun. Tell 'em I sent you!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


Poker played a part in four major Hollywood films in the 1960s. Beginning in 1965 with THE CINCINNATI KID, each year brought a film that featured the game of poker as either a major plot point or as a memorable scene. Consider A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (1966), a terrific western "sting" film, COOL HAND LUKE (1967) with the classic line, "sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand" and 5 CARD STUD (1968) which starts with a deadly poker game.

Dean Martin stars as professional gambler and card player Van Morgan. A man is caught cheating at a poker game and all of the other players, including ringleader Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), want to lynch the cheater. Morgan tries to stop the hanging but he's knocked out by Evers. Disgusted with the town of Rincon, Morgan leaves for Denver. In his absence, gold is found outside of Rincon which leads to a boom. Among the new residents of the town are Reverend Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) and barber shop/whore house proprietor Lily Langford (Inger Stevens).

The men involved in the lynching are murdered one by one which brings Morgan back to town to investigate. Spoiler warning: Rudd is the killer, the brother of the hanged man. He's out for revenge and the victims are identified to him by Evers. Morgan is the last man standing which leads to a shootout between him and the deadly pastor.

Martin barely takes things seriously here. While not on the level of his performances in the Matt Helm films, Martin swaggers through the film with a shit-eating grin on his face most of the time. He delivers a few one-liners with a smile and a twinkle in his eye and let's us know that everything is going to turn out right because, hey, he's Dean Martin. Mitchum's character and performance plays heavily on his classic film noir, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955). All he needs is the words "love" and "hate" tattooed on his knuckles. For eye candy, there's the always gorgeous Inger Stevens (who ends up with Martin at the end) and the very lovely Katherine Justice as Roddy McDowall's sister. Add in supporting players Yaphet Kotto, Denver Pyle, John Anderson and Whit Bissell and you've got a fun, entertaining western

Director Henry Hathaway had a long career making a name for himself in both film noir and westerns. His noirs include THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), THE DARK CORNER (1946), KISS OF DEATH (1947), 13 RUE MADELEINE (1947), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948), FOURTEEN HOURS (1951) and NIAGARA (1953). Hathaway westerns include RAWHIDE (1951), FROM HELL TO TEXAS (1958), NORTH TO ALASKA (1960), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (1965), NEVADA SMITH (1966), TRUE GRIT (1969) and SHOOT OUT (1971). Hathaway never achieved the rarefied air of contemporaries Howard Hawks and John Ford but he made solid, durable films that still stand up today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


The first popular history book by Erik Larson that I read was THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (2003). This page-turner real life thriller combined the story of the 1893 Chicago's World Fair with the crimes of one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. It was an absolutely riveting, can't-put-it-down read and to this day remains both my favorite Larson book and one of my all time favorite books of any kind. After DEVIL, I was hooked and I quickly sought out Larson's previous book, ISAAC'S STORM (2000), which told the incredible story of the great Galveston hurricane of 1900, which is still to this day, the greatest natural disaster in American history. 

When THUNDERSTRUCK was released in 2006, I quickly purchased it and read it. It's a fascinating tale, another story in which Larson weaves two parallel narratives together (as he did in DEVIL). This time it's Marconi's invention of the wireless and it's use in tracking and catching a murderer fleeing from London to New York by means of a trans-Atlantic steamer. He followed this thriller of invention and manhunt with IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS (2011), a compelling account of the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the 1930s. He's a veritable sheep among the wolves as Chancellor Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) party come to power and begin their reign of terror. All four of these books are highly recommended. You think you don't like reading history? You've just never read someone like Larson who expertly locates the story in history and brings the past to vivid, detailed and thrilling life. 

He's done it again with DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA (2015) which I finished reading the other day. By the way, I've read all five of Larson's books aloud to my beautiful wife Judy and she's enjoyed them as much as I have. As the title indicates, DEAD WAKE recounts the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in May, 1915 by a German U boat. Larson takes his time setting the stage for this epic maritime tragedy. He tells the story of the ship itself and the Cunard line and paints portraits of its' captain, William Turner, key crew members and various passengers rich and poor (some survive, some don't). We learn much about the German navy during World War I and it's campaign of submarine warfare. Larson takes us aboard U-20, sharing sweaty, suffocating space with commander Schwieger and his men. We go into the mysterious Room 40, the nerve center of British naval intelligence where German messages are decoded and where young Winston Churchill must decide how to use this vital information. Finally, we get a look into the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, recently widowed and struggling mightily to keep the United States neutral and out of the ongoing global conflict. He's smitten and lovestruck by a young woman and we watch as this budding romance and relationship takes shape. All of these elements are painstakingly recounted and drawn. They are all pieces on an immense oceanic chessboard in which moves of life and death are played out. 

We know from the very beginning that the Lusitania is doomed but Larson expertly manages to generate a fair amount of suspense by introducing us to various people, making us care about them and then wondering if they will survive the sinking or not. The cat and mouse game between the immense liner and the sub has all of the elements of a thriller. When the deadly torpedo finds it's target, Larson begins an almost minute-by-minute account of the sinking (it took 18 minutes to sink) by placing us on board along with the increasingly terrified passengers and untrained crew. It's riveting and heart stopping. 

Larson does a great job of recounting the aftermath of the sinking and its effect on America, Great Britain and WWI. There is some evidence to support the theory that the Lusitania was deliberately allowed to be targeted and sunk by the Germans in the hope that it would spur the US into joining the war on the side of the Allied powers. Like most people, I mistakenly believed that that's what happened. The Lusitania sank,, the United States declared war and immediately starting sending troops to Europe. The United States did finally join the war but it was two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. 

DEAD WAKE combines the elements of a wartime spy thriller, a horrifying maritime disaster and loss of life, a rich and complex cast of characters and a rock solid sense of you-are-there details and immediacy. If you have never read any of Larson's books, you're really missing out on something. He's one of the best writers of popular history currently working. All of his books are highly recommended and I cannot wait to see what his next book will be. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016


The five western films director Anthony Mann made with James Stewart in the 1950s rank among some of the best of the genre. The combination of Mann and Stewart was right up there with the teams of John Ford and John Wayne and Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott when it came to making superlative western films during that decade.

Mann and Stewart began their collaborations with WINCHESTER '73 (1950), followed by BEND OF THE RIVER (1952), THE NAKED SPUR (1953), THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955). Mann, who helmed several classic films noir including T-MEN (1947), RAILROADED! (1947), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), RAW DEAL (1948) and SIDE STREET (1950), brought some of that noir sensibility to his westerns. Even though they take place in the great outdoors instead of urban jungles, Mann's protagonists, as portrayed by Stewart in these films, are flawed, desperate men with dark secrets, haunted pasts and violent streaks that lurk just under the surface.

Such is the case in BEND OF THE RIVER which I watched for the second time yesterday afternoon. Stewart stars as Glyn McLyntock, a former border raider during the Civil War who is in charge of a small wagon train headed for Oregon. The members of the party are unaware of his past and he's seeking a measure of redemption by helping them out. He saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a hanging and Cole later saves McLyntock from an Indian attack. Trouble is Cole was also a Missouri raider and knows the truth about McLyntock.

They party encounters many hardships and trials along the way but Stewart is always on the side of the angels, no matter how tempting it is to give in to his old ways. The supporting cast is superb and includes veteran character actor Jay C. Flippen as the leader of the wagon train, the gorgeous Julie (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) Adams as his daughter, Lori (REVENGE OF THE CREATURE) Nelson as her sister, Frances (Aunt Bee!) Bauvier, Harry (DRAGNET, M*A*S*H) Morgan and Rock Hudson as a riverboat gambler.

Filmed on location in Oregon in Sandy River, Mount Hood and Timberline, BEND OF THE RIVER features beautiful Technicolor cinematography by Irving Glassberg. The screenplay by Borden Chase (from a novel by Bill Gulick), is solid as is the score by Universal Studios maestro Hans J Salter. Everything is expertly orchestrated by director Mann. He keeps things moving at a brisk clip with well mounted action scenes and quieter dialogue scenes that thrum with buried tension.

I highly recommend BEND OF THE RIVER along with all of the other Mann-Stewart westerns. They're some of the best the genre has to offer.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


"Murder was easy. The tricky part was getting away with it."

Just finished reading THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES by Lawrence Block. This original crime novel was first published last year by the ever reliable Hard Case Crime (my favorite contemporary publisher) and it sports a nifty cover by the late Glen Orbik.

Ex NYPD detective Doak Miller now works as a private detective in a small town in Florida. Now and then he does odd jobs for the local county sheriff. The sheriff, Bill Radburn, hires Miller to pose as a hit man in order to find out more information about a woman who has hinted that she wants to hire someone to kill her husband. The woman, Lisa Yarrow, is the titular girl with the deep blue eyes and when Miller meets her, he falls for her. Hard.

He quickly clears her of any suspicion and the two begin a torrid affair. Lisa's not the only woman that Doak is fooling around with. There's Barb, a real estate agent with a nice ass whom Miller introduces to the pleasures of anal sex. There's a pregnant milf that Miller enjoys an afternoon tryst with. But it's Lisa who has his heart. She's his fantasy girl. She's the woman he'll commit murder for. Because, why not, he's already killed one man.

While Miller plots his perfect crime, he watches several classic film noirs on TCM: DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, IN A LONELY PLACE. In all of these films, people who commit murder and think they've plotted the "perfect crime" are doomed. And Block sets us up to expect the inevitable twist in the final chapters. Lisa will of course be a femme fatale, a treacherous woman who has set up a sap to take the fall for the gruesome murder of her husband. Of course Miller will be caught. Of course he won't get away with.

Oh, there's a twist all right.

THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES is fast paced thriller that I devoured in the course of a couple of days. Be warned, it is definitely for adult readers. There is graphic sex and lots of it. But we're in the hands of a true master here. Block executes a perfect magic act of misdirection. He sets you up to expect one thing and then pulls the rug out from under you and gives you something else entirely.

Thumbs up.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


You think covers don't sell books? Show me a book with a futuristic, swastika bedecked Nazi helicopter on the cover and you're making me buy it. I'm a sucker for WWII stuff. I'm also a sucker for alternate history stuff. You want to sell me a book that combines both of these genres? Let me get my wallet.

I stumbled across FINAL IMPACT (2008) by John Birmingham on the shelf of the Georgetown Public Library's Second-Hand Prose used bookstore. They wanted a buck for it. Sold. Trouble was, it was the third and final book in a trilogy and I couldn't read it without having first read the first and second books in the Axis of Time series. In this day and age of eBay, acquiring those books, WEAPONS OF CHOICE


was no problem. I found used copies of both, bought 'em and have spent most of this summer plowing through this massive WWII alternate history epic. I finished FINAL IMPACT yesterday and I thoroughly loved the series.

As a rule, I don't read series like this. I don't like to be locked into reading something that, if it's successful, may never end. As an example, DUNE by Frank Herbert, was originally published in 1965. That's more than 50 years ago. They're still publishing DUNE novels. I think the latest was NOSE PICKERS OF DUNE. I like to read books that allow me to get in and get out relatively quickly. Oh sure, I do read series but things like the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child or John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee adventures, don't require you to read every one of them in a strict order. A trilogy, like Axis of Time, is designed to be told over the course of three books (even though the ending sets things up nicely for a yet to be written sequel). Three books I can commit to, especially if the story is well told. This one is.

The concept is simple. In the year 2021, a multinational naval task force is operating in the South Pacific. It's a fleet of ships from many nations, the majority from the U.S., all sporting state-of-the-art technology and weapons systems. A research ship conducting top secret experiments accidentally opens a wormhole in time which transports the modern ships back in time to 1942 at the beginning of the battle for Midway. A huge naval battle ensues before the contemporary navy realizes the men, women and ships from the future are on their side. Of course, the presence of futuristic weapons and technology changes the course of the battle. Oh, and not all of the transported ships land in the same place. Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Russia all retrieve 21st century ships. Thus, the balance of power is radically shifted and World War II as we know it never happens.

What's different? The rescue of Allied prisoners of war from the Japanese camp at Cabanatuan takes place in 1942, rather than 1945. The Japanese invade Australia where they are eventually defeated. The Japanese also launch another assault on Hawaii, briefly occupying the islands before being repulsed. Nazi Germany launches an attack on Great Britain across the English Channel. They are defeated. Russia, meanwhile has sued for a temporary cease fire against Germany and sits out much of the war, only to reenter the fray in a major way in the third book. The Russians have atomic weapons and they're not afraid to use them. The U.S. also uses A-bombs, while Nazi Germany unleashes nerve gas and chemical weapons. At the end, the world is a vastly different place than it was in the real war. Although hostilities have ceased, the threat of another war looms on the horizon.

The books do a great job of mixing real people with well drawn fictional characters. All of the major players from history are here: FDR, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, MacArthur, Patton, Hitler, Himmler, Stalin, Beria, Churchill, Yamamoto, Spruance, J. Edgar Hoover and others all appear in the books. In a clever twist, Great Britain's Prince Harry is part of the displaced 21st century troops. He quickly goes to battle for his country in WWII. There is initial resistance to the people from the future. After all, there are men and women in positions of command (the one submarine that made it through is skippered by a woman) as well as various nationalities represented. This comes as a shock to the largely sexist, racist and xenophobic people of 1942. Two 21c people, a black woman and a Japanese man, are murdered in the first book but the killer isn't revealed until the end of the third book. There's a gutsy female reporter from the future who embeds with various forces to cover battles in various theaters. A research and development area known as The Zone is set up outside of Los Angeles to incorporate future technology into weapons systems, armaments, vehicles and other military, as well as civilian, purposes.

Birmingham does a great job juggling a very large cast of characters and moving the action literally around the world. There are battles in the South Pacific, Europe and Russia. There are also quieter moments in which the 21st century warriors contemplate the world they've lost and the world they're building. One interesting touch: one of the vessels sent back in time is a gigantic aircraft carrier named The Hillary Clinton. It was named for President Clinton. Prophetic? Time will tell.

The Axis of Time series reminds me of the 1980 film, THE FINAL COUNTDOWN.

In that film, only one modern day carrier was sent back in time to just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Axis of Time operates on a much wider scale and it's a page turner from beginning to end. If you like WWII, if you like alternate history, you'll like this series. Thumbs up.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Judy and I watched ALL THE WAY (2016) the other night and it is hands down, one of the best films I've seen so far this year. Produced by HBO films and adapted from the play by Robert Schenkkan, , ALL THE WAY was first broadcast on May 21st of this year. The film covers President Lyndon Johnson's first year in office, beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy in November, 1963, through election day 1964. Bryan Cranston (who reprises his role from the play's 2014 Broadway production) delivers the performance of a lifetime as LBJ. He looks, sounds and moves like Johnson and he fully brings to life this incredible, remarkable man who was, perhaps, the greatest pure politician to ever occupy the Oval Office.  

Cranston dominates the film but he gets a lot of great support from a sterling cast. Melissa Leo is terrific as Lady Bird, Bradley Whitford nails Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Anthony Mackie is solid as Dr. Martin Luther King, Stephen Root is good as J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Langella almost steals the show as Senator Richard Russell, Jr.

The narrative focuses on the political battles that LBJ fought during his first year in getting the Civil Rights Act passed. It's a game of cajoling, arm twisting, intimidation, and sheer force of will. Johnson lectures Humphrey while seated on the toilet in one scene. Compromises are made, power is lost by the Dixiecrats and no sooner does the bill become law than Johnson must face Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Most of the action takes place within the White House, the Capitol and other Washington locales, but Schenkkan and director Jay Roach do a great job of opening up the action and depicting scenes in Mississippi and Johnson's Texas ranch. You never feel like you're watching merely a filmed stage play.

ALL THE WAY draws heavily on archival material to correctly reproduce conversations, meetings, photographs, clothing, cars, etc. It's accurate in all details and this attention to accuracy adds greatly to the film. Last year Judy and I read INDOMITABLE WILL: LBJ IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Mark Updegrove (director of the LBJ Library here in Austin). Much of what's in the ALL THE  WAY script was in that book.

Part history lesson, part character study of a very complex man, ALL THE WAY is first rate from beginning to end. It's enormously engrossing, gripping, and, at times, funny. It has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Television Movie as well as acting nominations for Cranston and Leo. It deserves to win them all in my book.

You may be sick and tired of politics in this contentious election year but if you're at all interested in both American history and well crafted drama, you owe it to yourself to watch ALL THE WAY. Highest recommendation.

Now, a personal note. One of my mother's best friends while growing up in Austin was Liz Carpenter. Carpenter, who begin her career as a journalist, eventually went to work for Lyndon Johnson when he was in Congress and finally wound up as Lady Bird's press secretary durng the White House years. My family took a trip to Washington in the summer of 1964 and Liz arranged for us to have a private tour of the Oval Office and a photo op with President Johnson. That's me front left. Note the short pants legs. I think I was expecting a flood that day.

The irony of this photograph is that both of my parents were rock solid Republicans. They did not like LBJ. My father had a huge Goldwater campaign sign attached to the roof of his car. It looked like a green and yellow shark fin. My mother, to her dying day, believed that Johnson engineered the death of JFK in order to achieve the presidency. But still, my mother and Liz Carpenter remained friends until the end. I got to know Liz over the years and had the honor of interviewing her for a profile story I did for DISCOVER AUSTIN magazine back in the 1990s. Liz attended my mother's funeral service and if I recall correctly, that was the last time I visited with her before her death. 

Monday, August 8, 2016


I watched THE CARIBOO TRAIL (1950) the other day. It's not a great film by any stretch but it was a good way to pass the time on a blistering hot summer afternoon. CARIBOO is similar to CANADIAN PACIFIC (1949), which I previously reviewed here. Both films star Randolph Scott, both were filmed on location in Canada, both were helmed by journeyman director Edwin L. Marin and both were shot in Cinecolor.

Scott stars as Jim Redfern, a man determined to start a cattle ranch in Canada. He encounters a series of obstacles including hostile Indians and villainous Frank Walsh (Victor Jory), who owns most of the territory. Redfern is aided by crusty and grizzled gold prospector Oscar Winters (the inimitable Gabby Hayes in his last film appearance) and beautiful, independent saloon owner Frances Harrison (Karin Booth). Redfern's former partner, Mike Evans (Bill Williams), loses an arm in the first act. He blames Redfern and sides with Walsh before having a change of heart in the third act in which he redeems himself.

The locations are gorgeous but once again, there's an abrupt and unsettling visual disconnect when the action shifts from the great outdoors to faux outdoor sets on a sound stage. With a running time of 81 minutes and a script by Western veteran Frank Gruber, CARIBOO TRAIL is a routine, formula Western. It's not a classic but it's fun to watch.

Thursday, August 4, 2016


Was Ron Howard's A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001) really that much better than the other films that were nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award that year? The competition included GOSFORD PARK, IN THE BEDROOM, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and MOULIN ROUGE!. I must confess that I haven't seen any of those four contenders but I did watch A BEAUTIFUL MIND for the first time the other evening and I found it to be an exceptionally fine film, one entirely worthy of the honor of Best Picture of the Year.

The film tells the story of mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), a brilliant man with profound mental problems. The film begins at Princeton University in 1947 and follows Nash's life and career up until he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994. That doesn't sound like exciting stuff but Akiva Goldsman's screenplay (adapted from the book by Sylvia Nasar) slowly builds a layered portrait of a very disturbed, complex individual, evoking both the audience's sympathies and a fair measure of suspense.

Things start to go off of the track when post graduate Nash is recruited by a mysterious, shadowy CIA agent William Parcher (Ed Harris), to engage in an elaborate, top secret code breaking assignment. He can't tell his wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), nor his old college roommate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany) and his niece Marcee (Vivien Cardone). But things just don't add up during the course of his assignment. There's gun play and a nighttime chase, followed by constant surveillance of Nash. His paranoia becomes all consuming. Something is clearly, desperately wrong.

Director Ron Howard does a terrific job during this first act of the film, conducting a sleight of hand act of cinematic misdirection worthy of that displayed by M. Night Shyamalan in THE SIXTH SENSE (1999). When the truth is revealed, it's a forehead-slapping, "of course" moment for the audience.

But Nash's troubles are just beginning as he undergoes treatment for his paranoid schizophrenia. The treatment appears to be successful but Nash emerges a heavily medicated shadow of his former self, unable to perform the mathematical work that he lives for. He stops taking his meds and relapses, placing his wife and infant son in danger. But he learns to deal with his demons and eventually returns to Princeton where he audits classes and slowly begins to work with students again. He is eventually recognized as a brilliant scholar with all of the attendant accolades.

Russell Crowe delivers a brilliant performance as the troubled Nash. The take-your-breath-away-beautiful Jennifer Connelly is equally good as Alicia, who truly loves Nash and stands by him through thick and thin. The supporting cast is solid with stand out performances from Harris, Bettany and veteran Christopher Plummer. The film, which spans the years from 1947 to 1994, gets all of the respective period details right. Both the cinematography, by Roger Deakin and the score, by James Horner are first rate. In short, A BEAUTIFUL MIND is a compelling, engrossing biopic that is spellbinding from beginning to end.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND was nominated for eight Academy Awards including: Best Picture (winner), Best Director (winner), Best Actor (Crowe), Best Supporting Actress (Connelly, winner), Best Adapted Screenplay (winner), Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Best Original Score.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


"Things change"- Batman (Michael Keaton) in BATMAN RETURNS (1992).

Common wisdom holds that the first iteration of the BATMAN film franchise in the late 20th century can be cleanly divided into two distinct bodies of work. The good films, the ones directed by Tim Burton, BATMAN (1989) and BATMAN RETURNS (1992) and the bad films, the ones directed by Joel Schumacher, BATMAN FOREVER (1995) and BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997). After watching BATMAN RETURNS last night for the first time in twenty-four years, I'm here to tell you that this hot mess of a movie was the beginning of the end of the Batman film franchise.

It's not that the film doesn't have some merits. To begin with, it looks fantastic. The cinematography by Stefan Czapsky is stunning while the full size sets, miniatures, models, matte paintings, and early digital sfx are all imaginatively conceived and brilliantly executed. The film succeeds in making Gotham City appear to exist in a never-never land of comic book visuals and great, heaping servings of German Expressionism. The cityscapes more accurately resemble Metropolis (Fritz Lang's, not Clark Kents') while the massive, oppressive architecture looms over everyone, blocking out the dim, winter sunlight in the few daytime scenes in the film. It's a dark setting for the Dark Knight and kudos to everyone involved in the production design and art direction of the film.

Director Tim Burton uses the film to showcase his love of and knowledge of classic films (especially horror) with visual homages liberally sprinkled throughout the film, The opening shot of the Cobblepot mansion's massive, initialed gates echoes the same shot in Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE (1941). The cavernous interiors of Wayne Manor, which dwarf both Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Alfred (Michael Gough), resemble the baroque sets of KANE also, as well as those of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Danny DeVito), shuffles through a Gotham graveyard in a cloak and beaver top hat that recalls the look of Lon Chaney in LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927). At a masquerade ball, a skull-faced, gown wearing figure is seen on a staircase in the background, a direct reference to a similar figure in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Two women fall from great heights in scenes that acknowledge Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1958), while Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), lies in the snow after her fall in a position similar to that of Tippi Hedren's following the attic bird attack in THE BIRDS (1963). And one of the main characters, Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), is named for the German actor who starred in the legendary silent vampire film, NOSFERATU (1922).  These are all of the references I caught. Your mileage may vary.

Oh, and one final nice thing to say about the film before we begin the dissection of the corpse: Michelle Pfeiffer is hot.

BATMAN RETURNS goes off of the rails before the film even starts. It's that title. Batman returns? From where? Where's he been? Did he stop fighting crime after the events portrayed in BATMAN? Is this his first foray against super villains since then? The film could have used a more evocative title.

Burton starts things off by focusing on the Penguin, a hideously deformed infant who is placed in a basket by his parents and sent into the Gotham sewers, never to be seen again. This exile recalls both Moses and Superman. The basket is eventually found by, wait for it, a mess of penguins and it's inferred that the birds raised the baby. Shades of Tarzan!

After spending entirely too much time with the Penguin, Burton next focuses on insane businessman Shreck and his secretary, Selina Kyle who eventually becomes Catwoman in a dodgy origin sequence. The first act of the film is given over entirely to the bad guys, the freaks and outcasts that Burton so dearly loves. Batman barely makes an appearance in his own film. And when the Caped Crusader does finally make the scene, he often appears confused and befuddled, puzzled by all of the mysterious goings on around him. The Batman is supposed to be the worlds' greatest detective (a skill that has yet to be fully utilized in any of the Batman films) but here he's a bit slow on the uptake. He's also reactive instead of proactive. In short, he seems tentative and unsure of himself. 

About that Catwoman origin. How is it that one woman, Selina, can fall from a great height and come back to life while another woman, The Ice Princess (Cristi Conaway) can take a similar fall and wind up dead? Did the cats around her body have something to do with Selina's resurrection? It's not made clear in the script by Daniel Waters. 

Oh, and just how well built is the Batmobile? The protective armor gets hacked by a gang of murderous clowns in order to place a bomb on the vehicle's undercarriage. Later, when the Batmobile is being driven by the Penguin by remote control, Batman punches a hole in the floorboard of the car in order to retrieve the ticking bomb. Can any human being punch a hole in the floorboard of a car? And wouldn't the Batmobile be heavily armored all over?

Why is Christopher Walken in this movie? What is his purpose? His performance is the usual annoying Walken shtick but he brings nothing to the proceedings that are already cramped with the presence of two major Bat-foes. And just what is the plot of this furshlugginer mess? Is it the Penguin's quest to find his parents and his true identity? Did that. Is it a plot to have the Penguin run for mayor of Gotham, a scheme that involves framing Batman for the murder of the Ice Princess? No, wait, it's the Penguin's plan to kidnap all of the first born sons of Gotham's rich and powerful (another Biblical allusion). No, that's not it. It's unleashing a bunch of remote controlled penguins with missiles strapped to their backs to attack the city. Yeah, that's it. 

As in BATMAN, Batman once again reveals his secret identity to a woman he loves. Here, he rips off a clearly soft rubber cowl to show Selina his face, a face that is miraculously devoid of the "raccoon eyes" black make-up he had on when the cowl was in place. And just how many cool vehicles can Batman build and destroy? First it was the Bat-Wing in BATMAN. Here, it's the Bat-boat that gets trashed. 

Danny Elfman's annoying score never stops. Aside from the Batman motif from the first film (a theme I like), the music sounds like a broken hurdy-gurdy that just won't stop. It gives the film the feel of a twisted carnival, which, I suppose, was the intent, but a little sure goes a long way. 

In short, BATMAN RETURNS is an over-stuffed, confusing mess of a film. It's great fun to look at and play spot the film references but the eye-candy can't overcome a near incoherent screenplay. It's a bad movie. But the sad thing is, it looks great compared to what came next in the two Joel Schumacher Batman films.

Monday, August 1, 2016


The late Harvey Pekar (he died in 2010 at the age of 70), was by some accounts, a true, original American artist. Often dubbed "the poet laureate of Cleveland", Pekar gained a fair measure of fame and attention when he began publishing his celebrated autobiographical underground comic book AMERICAN SPLENDOR in 1976. The series ran sporadically until 2008.
What was it about?

As the old bromide has it, "write what you know." Pekar, despite a deep and intense knowledge of vintage American jazz records and comic books (both above and under ground), only knew one thing really well: himself. And that's what AMERICAN SPLENDOR was all about. Harvey Pekar. It's all Harvey in every issue. On every page. In every panel. In every word, which Pekar wrote. The stories were illustrated by a variety of artists, the most famous being the legendary Robert Crumb (a close friend of Pekar's and one of my favorite underground artists). But really, that's all SPLENDOR was. All Harvey. All the time.

If Pekar had accomplished something monumental and worthwhile in his 70 years on earth, say a cure for cancer or AIDS, feeding and sheltering the homeless, some society changing technological breakthrough (not that all lives have to nor can be lived on such a grand scale), a comic book about his life and times might have provided some interest and insight. But no, Pekar only achieved celebrity by writing about what a miserable schlub he was, a loser stuck in a dead-end, soul-numbing job (he was a file clerk at the VA), a man constantly pissed off about something, a lonely outcast incapable of finding any degree of happiness. Pekar's life was a bleak wasteland of aggressively neurotic navel gazing, an endless looking in. The resulting portrait, in words and pictures, is of a man who was incapable of getting out of his own way and doing something, anything, productive. He was clearly desperately in need of therapy of some kind and I can't help but wonder how much his life could have improved had he only gotten on the right medication. Speaking as someone who takes a daily anti-depressant, I know full well the benefits of the proper meds.

Instead Pekar channeled his frustration, his rage, his inchoate anger at the world and those around him into his work. He laid out the pages of his scripts, with each panel containing dialogue and captions and stick figures to guide the artists. AMERICAN SPLENDOR, surprisingly, eventually became quite a sensation in the 1980s, with Pekar attracting the attention of a producer of LATE NIGHT with David Letterman. This led to Pekar becoming a semi-regular on the show where he was incapable of relaxing and enjoying the experience and the exposure, unable to understand (or refusing to do so), that Letterman liked him and was on his side. One night, Pekar had had enough and he went into a scathing profanity laced rant against Letterman, NBC, corporate America, television, the audience, etc. Thus endeth Pekar's television appearances.

But a different medium, film, came calling in the form of the 2003 film AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Part documentary (Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner who is an almost equal to Harvey in terms of neuroses, appear throughout the film), part dramatization of Pekar's life and career, the film stars Paul Giamatti in a tour de force performance as Pekar. Hope Davis is also very good as Joyce but Giamatti is absolutely incredible. He brings Pekar to living, breathing, seething life. It's a remarkable performance in a film that I found surprisingly engaging and funny. Produced  by HBO films, SPLENDOR was written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They do a great job of bringing Pekar's comic book stories to life and providing some insight into what made Pekar click.

A confession. I've never bought a single issue of AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Never read any of the stories contained therein. I suppose that makes me unqualified to comment on the work. If you feel that way, so be it. I know that the few times I paged through the comic in the comic shop, it simply didn't appeal to me. I didn't relish the thought of spending time reading about someone who is perpetually pissed off at the world and refuses to do anything to change his situation. That's the definition of a loser in my book. But the film, which recently ran on HBO, piqued my curiosity and I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did and while I enjoyed the movie, it did not in any way make me reconsider my refusal to read AMERICAN SPLENDOR. I've had my one dose of Pekar and it's enough for me. That itch has been scratched.

But what struck me while watching the film and thinking about Pekar is how we've become a nation of Pekars through social media. Facebook and the like allows us to put ourselves out there for any and all to see and read 24/7, and with no filter whatsoever. We don't have to be able to write coherently or spell correctly. We don't need an artist to interpret our words. We provide the pictures of what we love (food, pets, family, etc.) and what we hate (Clinton, Trump, hipsters, etc.). Facebook is like having your own comic book starring you and written by you.

I'd like to think this would somehow make Pekar happy but I really doubt it. It would probably just piss him off more and lead to another rant.

And another.

 And another.