Saturday, March 28, 2015

CHASING AMY


A long time ago, I read an interview with Kevin Smith in an issue of WIZARD magazine. In the interview, Smith made several disparaging remarks about Jack "King" Kirby. Longtime readers of this blog know that Kirby is my all-time favorite comic book artist. I took umbrage at what Smith said and vowed to never see or read anything with his name on it.

As Batman once said, "things change."

I've watched and, for the most part, enjoyed many episodes of COMIC BOOK MEN, the show that stars Smith and his comic shop buddies on AMC. And I did finally see one of his films, the god-awful COP OUT (2010), a staggeringly routine cop-buddy comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. I'm still not overly impressed with Smith but I no longer hold a petty (and utterly pointless) grudge against him.

Still, I haven't been exposed to the work that more or less put him on the cinematic map. That is, until yesterday, when I watched CHASING AMY (1997), Smith's third film after his smash hit debut CLERKS (1994) and MALLRATS (1995). CHASING AMY, the third film in what's referred to as the "Jersey trilogy", is a romantic comedy in which comic book artist Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck, (DAREDEVIL (2003), Superman in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) and soon to be Batman in BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)) meets and falls in love with another comic book artist, Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). But there's a catch. She's a lesbian.

The two soon become friends but it's obvious that Holden is deeply in love with Alyssa, much to the chagrin of his comic book co-creator and life long friend Banky Edwards (Jason Lee). Holden finally admits his feelings to Alyssa and, after first denying him, Alyssa admits her feelings for him. They sleep together and begin a passionate relationship, only to have an incident from Alyssa's past create a major problem for Holden.

CHASING AMY plays heavily on the adolescent male fantasy of being the one guy who could make an attractive gay woman change her sexual preferences and make love to a man. The language is unbelievably coarse, vulgar and crude but it's the way young men talk and that's something that Smith gets right. And credit to Smith for avoiding a Hollywood style happy ending with a bittersweet final scene.

But the trouble here is Smith himself. Like that other boy wonder of '90s cinema, Quentin Tarantino, Smith is in love with his own words. CHASING AMY suffers from being incredibly over-written. Dialogue is the only thing propelling the narrative here and there's a lot of it. Some of it is genuinely funny, some of it is very moving, especially the lines given to Adams, who delivers the best performance in the film. But much of what the characters say sounds like lines written by a screenwriter. The dialogue sounds contrived in some scenes and it's simply not the way people talk in real life.

Like Tarantino, Smith is a virtual one man band, serving as writer, director and actor here. There's no one to tell him (or QT) to cut something here, add something there, this scene works, this scene doesn't. He's in complete creative control and while his intentions may be good, what he puts on the screen could benefit greatly from a critical assessment given by another pair of eyes (or two).

CHASING AMY is also one of the most visually static films I've ever seen. Smith frames everything in a locked down, medium shot and, rather than moving his camera, he simply cuts from first character to second character back to first character over and over again. It's like watching a tennis match. I hate tennis.

When Smith does finally move his camera, the results are liberating, thrilling and refreshing. At first I thought the rigid, formal compositions, medium focal length and locked down camera was a deliberate attempt to replicate the old 9-panel static grid of a comic book page (since this film is about comic book creators). But I soon realized what was really going on.

Smith was operating on a very limited budget ($250,000), with probably a small crew and a limited amount of time in which to make the film. In order to operate at maximum efficiency he chose to do one camera set up at a time, get all of those scenes shot and then switch to another set up, shoot all of those scenes, and move on. Camera set ups take time and money. I know. I've been on a film set and seen how long it takes to set up just a few short shots. So, Smith's visual choices are as much economic as they are artistic, at least, in my opinion.

Smith also gives himself the key moment in the film in which he explains the meaning of "chasing Amy", since there's no character by that name in the film. Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) are a stoner Greek chorus (okay, duet) who show up in a third act meeting with Holden. It's Bob who breaks his silence and reveals the secret. It's semi-profound and the rest of the film turns on what he tells Holden but I can't help but believe that the information could have been given by some other character rather than Silent Bob. It seems incredibly self-indulgent on Smith's part.

The scenes in the film that actually deal with comic books, conventions, meeting with studio executives (a Matt Damon cameo), working at the drawing board, inane arguments about Archie's real sexual preferences, a gay black comic book creator, Hooper X (Dwight Ewell) exhibiting a rabid, "hate honky" persona in public and when interacting with a young fan, are good and ring true. I would have liked to have seen an entire movie focused more on the world of comic books than a straight/gay love story.

There are those who say that CHASING AMY is one of Smith's best films. It's the film in which he showed some maturity and depth and began to rely less on dick and fart humor (although there's plenty of that on display here). That may be so to those who have seen all of Smith's films and are more familiar with his body of work than I am.

CHASING AMY is not a bad movie. It's an honest effort to show how messy and painful love can be between two people be they straight, gay or whatever. I give Smith credit for trying something different and making the best film he could at the time given the resources he had to work with. CHASING AMY is an uneven, sometimes awkward film. But it's compelling, funny and interesting and definitely worth seeing at least once.

 

Friday, March 27, 2015

THE BLUE GARDENIA


I watched THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953) for the first time last night. It's a minor film noir directed by Fritz Lang at Warner Brothers on a very limited budget and in a relatively short period of time. The film had a twenty day shooting schedule but Lang's direction, a good cast, a tight script (by Charles Hoffman from a story by Vera (LAURA) Caspary) and moody cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca all add up to a solid, respectable effort.

Anne Baxter is Norah Larkin, a telephone operator in Los Angeles who shares an apartment with two other operators (Ann Sothern and Jeff Donnell (yes, that's a woman)). On her birthday, Norah opens a "Dear Jane" letter from her G.I. sweetheart. Soon afterwards, the devastated woman receives a phone call from artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr), who thinks he's calling for Sothern. She agrees to meet him at The Blue Gardenia nightclub where Nat King Cole sings the title song.

After too many drinks, Prebble takes Norah back to his apartment where he intends to seduce her. The seduction quickly turns to sexual assault and Norah defends herself by striking Prebble with a fireplace poker. She then passes out. When she comes to, she doesn't remember what happened and she leaves the apartment and staggers home. The next morning, Prebble's body is discovered and police homicide detective Sam Haynes (George (ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) Reeves) is in charge of the investigation. Snooping around for a scoop is newspaper columnist Casey Mayo (Richard (THE GODFATHER) Conte).

Norah cannot recall what happened but the newspapers quickly dub the mysterious murderess The Blue Gardenia, in reference to the scant clues available. Mayo writes a letter to the killer in his paper offering legal counsel if the murderer will come forward and give his paper the exclusive rights to the story. Norah and Casey eventually meet, he falls for her and thinks she's fronting for the real killer. When he finds out otherwise, he goes ahead with the set-up, thinking he has a duty to help catch a killer.

Of course, the real killer is revealed in the third act and things end on a happy note. Lang's depiction of a cynical media exploiting crime and murder for profit fits nicely with two of his other films WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956) and BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956). There are a couple of scenes that have a real noir feel to them: Prebble's murder in his apartment while rain is falling outside and Norah's first meeting with Casey in a strangely deserted newspaper city room. I can't believe that a major metropolitan newspaper would ever be dark and completely empty, even in the middle of the night but it does make for an effective sequence.

THE BLUE GARDENIA is a good if unspectacular film noir. Lang definitely made better noirs but it's certainly worth seeing at least once.

 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE


Another Jet Li movie this time around. It's THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (2011), which does much to wipe the bad taste left in my mouth from watching Li's THE ONE (2000). This Chinese fantasia was previously known as IT'S LOVE and MADAME WHITE SNAKE before being released in the U.S, as THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE.

It's a lavish, lush, beautifully shot fantasy/martial arts film that features state-of-the-art CGI effects, great fight scenes, superb wire work, and some very good miniatures. It's essentially a love story in which two snake women (the drop dead gorgeous pair of Eva Huang and Charlene Choi), take human form and mingle with humans. Huang falls in love with a herbalist healer (Raymond Lam) while Choi flirts with Neng Ren (Wen Zhang), an acolyte to the demon hunting monk Abott Fahai (Jet Li). The monk is sworn to destroy all demons no matter when and where they're found and that includes snake women (no matter how luscious they are in human form). This of course leads to much conflict before finally climaxing in an assault on the pagoda where defeated demons are imprisoned and where the snake women must be confined.

Directed by Tony Ching, THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE is a terrific example of the kind of fantasy films that Chinese filmmakers excel at. It's got great action, exotic locations, some moments of humor, fierce martial arts battles, mind boggling special effects, and at it's heart, a tender, moving love story. Highly recommended.

 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I'M CAPTAIN KIRK!!!!!!!


THE ENEMY WITHIN was the fifth episode of the original STAR TREK television series to be broadcast. The date was October 6th, 1966. It's the one where, thanks to a transporter malfunction, Captain Kirk is split into two separate beings, a good Kirk and a bad Kirk. While two Kirks on the Enterprise are trouble enough, there's a landing party on the planet surface who are about to freeze to death thanks to said transporter malfunction. What, Starfleet didn't have shuttle craft at this point in time? Kirk and Spock forgot about them?

At the pre-production meeting, the cast and production crew were sitting around a table at the Desilu/Paramount Studios offices for a read through of the Richard Matheson script. 

What a producer said:

"We've got a tight budget on this week's episode. No guest stars and we'll use the existing planet set. Bill, you get to do double duty. You're playing good Kirk, bad Kirk. We'll need you to really give it some depth when you're playing the bad Kirk. Oh, and by the way, when you're bad Kirk you're going to be wearing eyeliner, just to give you a more sinister look."

What Shatner heard :

"Turn it up to eleven."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

GREEN EYES


I finished reading GREEN EYES by Maxwell Grant (Walter Gibson) the other night. The version I read is pictured above. It's the Pyramid paperback published in the early '70s with a terrific cover painting by the great Jim Steranko.

GREEN EYES was originally published on October 1st, 1932. It was the fifteenth Shadow novel and it shows that Gibson was still working out the details of the Shadow mythos. In this one, the murder of a federal agent on a train leads The Shadow and G-Man Cleve Burke to San Francisco's Chinatown to investigate the mysterious secret society Wu Fan. Led by the sinister Ling Soo, the Wu Fan is a front for a criminal operation, whose mastermind, Green Eyes, pulls all of the strings.

Unlike other Shadow adventures, this one takes place almost entirely in San Francisco and none of the Shadow's usual agents and operatives appear. The Chinese villains are straight out of the horribly racist "Yellow Peril" variety that was found in much of the pulp fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century. It's politically incorrect but you have to put this story into context and recognize when it was written.

If you can overlook that, GREEN EYES is a good pulp thriller. There are multiple disguises, secret passageways and gun battles. The Shadow acquits himself as an escape artist to rival Houdini, freeing himself from a fiendish deathtrap before engaging in a fierce, final shootout aboard a Chinese junk anchored in San Francisco Bay.

Recommended for fans of pulp fiction.

 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THRICE TOLD TALES


Now that I no longer buy or read contemporary comic books of any stripe, I have the pleasure of digging through 18 (yes, that's right, 18) long boxes full of comic books. These contain books that I've read and want to read again, books that I've never read but want to and books that I look at and wonder, "where did this come from?" I swear, there are comics in my collection that I have no memory of either buying or trading for and I look at some books and think "what was I thinking?"

The flip side of that, of course, is the thrill of stumbling across a book that I forgot I have. That "I didn't know I had this!" feeling is a good one, let me tell you. I'm in the process of sorting out these long boxes of comics into books I want to read and keep, books I want to read and trade and books I don't want to read but will gladly trade to a fellow comic book collector or sell on eBay. By the way, if you're reading this, collect comic books and would like to trade comics with me, send me an email at clarksavage@att.net and I'll send you my trade list. Always happy to have new comic book trading partners.

The other day I came across a reprint of CRIME SUSPENSTORIES #1 published by EC Comics in 1950. That's the cover by Johnny Craig pictured above. I hadn't read an EC comic in a very long time and I thought I'd treat myself to this one. CRIME SUSPENSTORIES was, as the title says, full of crime stories all of which feature those oh-so-clever twist endings that became an EC trademark. It's a collection of film noir on paper and it's a great comic book title.

This first issue features stories illustrated by Johnny Craig, Wally Wood, Graham Ingels and Harvey Kurtzman. The first story, MURDER MAY BOOMERANG (drawn by Craig) is the story of a young man and his father. The father works hard to support the son and when the son achieves success, the two spend a great deal of spare time together. While on a hunting trip, the father is brutally beaten by an escaped convict while the son is away from their cabin. The son takes the father to find his assailant. They find a man in hunting clothes walking along the road. "That's him!" proclaims the father and the son proceeds to kill the man in an act of revenge. Later, they drive by the police station where another man in hunting clothes is seen. "That's him!" says the father and the son realizes, with horror, what he's done.

It's a terrific little tale but it seemed familiar to me. I recall seeing an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS  a few years ago that had an extremely similar premise. Some research confirmed what I recalled. The very first episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS to be broadcast was REVENGE, which aired October 2nd, 1955. The episode was directed by Hitchcock and starred Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles. In the story, Miles is a stay-at-home wife who is assaulted and raped one day while her husband Meeker is at work. Enraged, Meeker puts Miles in the car and starts driving around the neighborhood trying to find his wife's assailant. She identifies a man, Meeker kills him and they drive on. Then Miles points to another man and says, "That's him!"

The teleplay was written by Francis Cockrell from a story by Samuel Blas. Blas, it turns out, published his original story, REVENGE in COLLIER'S WEEKLY for January 11th, 1947. So, rather than Hitchcock stealing from EC as it originally appeared to me, EC may have "borrowed" from Blas as his story was published three years prior to the first issue of CRIME SUSPENSTORIES.

I'd love to hear from readers who know more about EC Comics than I do. Did the writer (Kurtzman, Feldman?) of MURDER MAY BOOMERANG, ever admit to swiping the story? Was it just a coincidence, an innocent case of lightning striking twice or was it something more intentional? Was Blas ever aware of the comic book story? And if so, what was his response to it?

I don't have the answers but I'm curious to find out. Readers, can you help?

 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

THE ONE

If one Jet Li is good, then two of  'em must be dynamite, right? That's probably what the producers of THE ONE (2001) must have thought when putting together this mess of a B movie that's part martial arts slug fest, part science fiction thriller.

Unfortunately, it's neither a decent martial arts movie, nor a good science fiction film. Jet Li stars in a dual role, one character good, the other bad. Geez, that old trope again? The twist is that there are actually 125 different iterations of Jet Li in the multiverse, an infinity of parallel universes. Only 125 versions of one guy in a literal infinity of universes? Seems kind of limited to me.

The bad Jet Li has discovered a way to travel from universe to universe. Within in each respective universe, he finds and kills the Jet Li of that universe. With each succeeding death, the bad Jet Li grows stronger. He's killed 123 other Jet Li's (the last one being in a universe where Al Gore was elected president). Now, he's in our universe and he's out to kill our good guy version of Jet Li, who is a deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.

Hot in pursuit of the bad Jet Li are two multiverse patrolling cops (Jason Statham and Delroy Lindo), who are trying to apprehend him and banish him to a remote, hellish prison planet in yet another universe.

Of course, the two Jet Li's meet and fight repeatedly, finally squaring off in a knock down, drag out fight in a seemingly abandoned power plant. The digital effects are seamlessly done allowing two identical (except for their clothes) Jet Li's to appear in the same scenes and battle one another.

All of this is accented by an absolutely dreadful musical score by Trevor Rabin. Every time an action scene is about to begin, the soundtrack suddenly starts blaring really bad heavy metal rock and roll. It's as tired an audio cliche (the eighties called, they want their crappy music back) as the whole idea of good guy/bad guy twins.

The special effects are good. You never spot any seams in scenes where both Jet Li's appear together. But the trouble is, two Jet Li's just aren't as good as one Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. Give me the good old stuff any day over this claptrap.

Thumbs down.