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.