Friday, April 18, 2014

"I JUST READ BOOKS"

I recently read somewhere that when Robert Redford was offered a part in this year's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER, he read the script and replied, "this reminds me of THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR." He was right. Both films feature secret agencies within secret agencies. In CAPTAIN AMERICA, it's HYDRA within S.H.I.E.L.D.. In CONDOR, it's a rogue cell within the CIA.

I remember seeing THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) on first release at the old Capital Plaza Cinema (when it was still just a one-screen theater). I was in college at the time and I enjoyed the film. I watched it again the other day for the first time in thirty-nine years and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it still holds up very well as an intelligent suspense film that resonates with 1970s paranoia.

Redford stars a "reader" for the CIA. He and his team are tasked with reading everything they can get their hands on: books (fiction and non-fiction), newspapers, magazines, etc. They search for anything that might be coded information about actual or proposed CIA operations. Redford discovers something and submits a report to his superiors. That report sends up a red flag and every one in Redford's small office is soon murdered in a lunch-time attack. Redford, who was literally out for lunch at the time, survives and must go on the run to find out what's going on.

He very quickly discovers that he can trust no one. Mysterious agent Cliff Robertson may or may not be telling him the truth, there's a deadly assassin (Max Von Sydow) on his trail and Redford's only ally is single woman Faye Dunaway, who first resists and fears him but soon comes to sympathize with him which leads to a night of love making.

For a guy who "just reads book" and wasn't trained as a field agent, Redford proves remarkably adept at staying one step ahead of his pursuers. He uses his wits and innate intelligence to navigate the suddenly deadly streets of New York City and eventually discovers the truth about what led to the mass murders. The ending of the film is appropriately ambiguous and leaves the viewer wondering if The New York Times will print the story Redford has given them.

While watching the film, I was struck by how well director Sydney Pollack orchestrates everything. There's only one fight scene in the entire film but there is plenty of suspense and danger. If this movie was remade for today's audiences it would star some peach-fuzzed nobody in the lead role and would be wall-to-wall kinetic action scenes with beau coup fight scenes, car and foot chases, gun battles and explosions. Lots of explosions.

Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack were an unbeatable combination of actor and director. They made six films together: JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972), THE WAY WE WERE (1973), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979), the multiple Oscar winner OUT OF AFRICA (1985) and HAVANA (1990).

Oddly enough, the four main stars in CONDOR would all later appear in films based on comic books. Max Von Sydow appeared in both FLASH GORDON (1980) and JUDGE DREDD (1995), Faye Dunaway was in SUPERGIRL (1984), Cliff Robertson played Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN (2002) and of course Redford is in the current CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"...BY ANY OTHER NAME..."

I watched THE COSMIC MONSTER last night, a 1958 British science fiction film that I had recently recorded off of TCM. At least, that's the title that was on my DVR and on the print of the film that I saw. But this schizo movie has more personalities than Sybil, having been released in both the U.K. and the U.S. as COSMIC MONSTERS, THE CRAWLING TERROR, THE COSMIC MONSTER and THE CRAWLING HORROR. Whatever you want to call it, it's a stinker.

In addition to having various titles, COSMIC MONSTER has a number of plot elements, none of which are ever fully developed into a satisfying narrative. I will admit that I nodded off a couple of times watching this snoozer but here's what I was able to make out of this mess while I was awake.

A British scientist and his American assistant (Forrest Tucker), are conducting some sort of experiment involving magnetic fields. They inadvertently cause a series of strange, world wide phenomena to occur including freak storms and UFO sightings (!). Turns out they've burned a hole in the ionosphere allowing those oh-so-pesky cosmic rays (and we all remember what those things did to humans in the first issue of FANTASTIC FOUR) to bombard the earth. A mysterious vagrant gets half of his face burned by the radiation and goes on a killing spree. Is this the titular "cosmic monster"? Maybe. Maybe not.

At the same time, a mysterious Mr. Smith (Martin Benson) shows up in the British countryside. It's quite obvious that he's an alien and is somehow related to those UFO sightings. Again, is he the "cosmic monster"? "Probably not as, only minutes later, yet another plot development is thrown in, this time involving insects that have been mutated to giant size, well, pretty big, okay, about the size of a large dog, by the cosmic radiation.

If this was an American science fiction film, you'd expect stalwart scientist Forrest Tucker to cobble up some method of defeating the big bugs but he does nothing. He's the most ineffectual scientific man of action I've ever seen in a '50s sci-fi film. Instead, it's up to Mr. Smith, the alien, to blast the bugs with a ray gun, deliver a lecture to humans about messing around with things unknown and then leave in his space ship. That's the end of the film because, remember kids, when the monster is dead, the movie is over.

COSMIC MONSTER borrows liberally from both 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (a far superior film) and 1957's THE BEGINNING OF THE END (not a very good movie but a masterpiece compared to COSMIC MONSTER). Six-foot, four inch Forrest Tucker is horribly and hopelessly miscast here. He's unbelievable as both a scientist and a love interest for co-star Gaby Andre (who is badly dubbed). Tucker made three British sf films over the course of two years, this one, THE TROLLENBERG TERROR aka THE CRAWLING EYE (1958) and the Hammer Films production of THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957), which is far and away the best of the three. Tucker is best known for his starring role on the ABC-TV sitcom F-TROOP, which ran from 1965 to 1967.

And is just me or does Forrest Tucker





look like this guy?




Bandleader Phil Harris

Monday, April 7, 2014

THE ENEMY


"I said nothing."


I finished reading THE ENEMY by Lee Child last night. It's the eighth Jack Reacher novel and I'm slowly but surely working my through all of these terrific novels. I've read eleven Reacher adventures so far and I've enjoyed each and every one of them.

THE ENEMY takes place in 1990, during Reacher's career as a military police special investigator in the U.S. Army. It's New Year's Day, 1990 and an Army general is found dead in a seedy motel room. His briefcase and contents, the agenda for a secret meeting of the general and two other top ranking officers, is missing. Before you know it, the general's wife is found dead in her home. Next, a special forces member is murdered on the base where Reacher has been suddenly and mysteriously re-assigned, followed by the murder of a special forces officer in another city. What is the thread that ties these deaths together? Reacher, along with the very able (and attractive) Lt. Summer race against the clock to solve the crimes. Their investigation takes them from the east coast of the U.S. to Germany and back and then to an explosive climax in the California desert where Reacher squares off against one of the murderers. Oh, yeah, and a tank battalion.

Reacher, all six-feet five inches and 250 pounds of him, narrates this untold tale of his Army days. It's standard Reacher stuff. He's as tough and taciturn as Clint Eastwood and he has the deductive abilities of Sherlock Holmes. THE ENEMY is a straight ahead murder mystery involving a military coup that will keep you turning the pages as only Lee Child can. If you've never read a Reacher novel, THE ENEMY is a good place to start as it provides a lot of detail about Reacher, his family and his career in the military.

Highly recommended. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING

I finished reading (for the second time) A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING (1964) the other day. It's the third Travis McGee novel by the late, great John D. MacDonald and it's a splendid yarn.

This one finds McGee out west instead of his home turf of Florida where he meets Mona Yeoman, a blond beauty who wants to hire McGee to help her get the inheritance money left to her by her father back from her several years older (and friend of her late father) husband, Jass. McGee doesn't much care for Mona and he thinks something fishy is going on but before he can agree or disagree to help her, she's shot dead by a sniper hidden in the rocks of the vast desert wasteland.

All of that happens in the first chapter and it's one helluva narrative hook, both for the reader and McGee. Even though Mona is dead and McGee is a witness to her murder, someone goes to great lengths to make it look like she's run off with her lover, college professor John Webb. McGee soon meets Webb's sister, Isobel, a sexually repressed virgin, who becomes his partner in this adventure.

There are many twists and turns and several more deaths before everything comes to a thrilling climax in which McGee and Isobel are stalked at night in the high desert country by the killers. In the aftermath of their ordeal, McGee once again uses his "magic dick" to deflower the young virgin and thaw her chilly attitude towards men.

A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING has a terrific sense of place. Fish-out-of-water McGee is at a disadvantage away from his Florida home but he manages to come out on top of his adversaries. With colorful, well-drawn characters, great dialogue, a terrific mystery and an exciting finish, A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING is a winner in my book. Thumbs up. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) remains my all-time favorite Marvel movie. I loved the combination of a super hero action film with a WWII movie. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which I saw this morning, is another mixing of cinematic genres, this time placing the slam bang super hero fisticuffs smack dab in the middle of a modern spy film. The results are spectacular.

Before I get to a brief rundown of the film, here's how I scored the trailers I saw before today's feature.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: I'm in.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: sign me up.

LUCY: Maybe. Looks interesting.

MALEFICENT: Pass.

CAPT AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is two-hours plus of prime Marvel Universe  goodness. There's a lot going on in this movie including: Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Nick Fury, Sam Wilson/The Falcon, Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Maria Hill, Jasper Sitwell, Batroc (yes, Batroc!), Armin Zola, S.H.I.E.L.D, HYDRA, not one, not two, but three helicarriers, a Stephen Strange name drop, blistering action scenes, a lot of info dump dialogue, a labyrinthine plot full of secrets, moves and counter-moves, a lot of screen time in which Steve Rogers is not in uniform (as Tony Stark was not in armor throughout much of IRON MAN 3), a very puffy and bloated looking Gary Shandling (both Redford and Jenny Agutter (who has a small part in the film) have aged better), Peggy Carter, Sharon Carter/Agent 13, a James Bond style credit sequence and the now common teaser scene which ups the ante for the Marvel movie universe even more.

Remember how at the end of AVENGERS, there was a collective gasp of "Holy Shit! It's Thanos!" Remember how at the end of THOR: THE DARK WORLD, there was a collective gasp of "Holy Shit! It's the Collector!" Get ready folks because at the end of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, there was a collective gasp of "Holy Shit! It's ***** ******** and *********** and ******* *****! What this means for the upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON movie to be released next year remains to be seen but I can't wait to see how it all plays out.

I know I've said this before but I cannot emphasize this enough. In 1966, when I was ten years old, I was a regular reader of the Marvel comic book title TALES OF SUSPENSE featuring Iron Man and Captain America. Cap didn't get his own title until 1968 but I loved the character from the first time I saw him on the printed page. The work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the stories they told in ten pages per month of the Star Spangled Avenger were some of my favorite comic books (then and now). The very idea of being able to go to a movie theater and see a full length, live-action (non-camp) major motion picture of CAPTAIN AMERICA was the stuff that dreams were made of. All we had was BATMAN (both the weekly television series and the 1966 feature film).

Never in my wildest fantasies did I imagine that I would one day see a film like this in which so many elements of my beloved Marvel Universe would be brought to vivid and dynamic life on the big screen.This movie made me feel like a ten-year old kid again and for that, I give it a big thumbs up.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER. Recommended.

Monday, March 31, 2014

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW

I'm now 0 for 3 when it comes to Roland Emmerich films. I hated INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) and GODZILLA (1998) and I don't have much good to say about THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004), which I watched the other day. I think Roland Emmerich is the illegitimate love child of Irwin Allen and some Hollywood bimbo as he has continually displayed a fetish for disaster porn in most of his films.

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW use some extremely questionable science to plunge the entire world into another ice age. Tornadoes destroy Los Angeles and three massive polar vertices (where have we heard that term before?) threaten North America, Europe and Russia respectively. It all has something to do with a sudden warming of the North Atlantic current which paleoclimatologist Dennis Quaid tries to warn the world about early in the film. Turns out his predictions were right about the results but wrong about how long it would take to turn the world into a giant deep freeze. Instead of centuries of geologic time, or many years, or several decades, or months, or weeks, or days, everything goes to hell in a hand basket in a matter of hours!

Quaid's pleas fall on deaf ears at the White House where a very Dick Cheyneyesque vice president poo-poos Quaid's data and delays the call for an immediate evacuation from the northern United States. Of course, at the end of the film, when half of the planet is covered in ice, the Cheyney clone (who has now become the U.S. President) addresses the world and admits that he was wrong. Take that global warming deniers!

I kept thinking that somehow good ol' Dennis Quaid was going to come up with something that would save the day but no, we're all doomed. Instead of saving the world, Quaid sets out to save his son (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has followed his dad's advice and is actually managing to survive (along with a handful of other people) in the frozen wasteland that is now New York City. Nonetheless Quaid dutifully sets out on a rescue mission by walking (!) from Washington D.C to New York City in the worst blizzard ever. We're talking a polar apocalypse but Quaid just keeps plugging away and somehow makes it and manages to find his son (who, along with his buddies, have fought wolves among other dangers) and other survivors in the city.

The special effects are extremely well done and convincing but the wide scale destruction of major American cities becomes a bit tedious after awhile. And in typical disaster movie formula, characters are required to do stupid things that put themselves in even greater jeopardy than the circumstances allow.

I'll give DAY AFTER TOMORROW props on one thing. Since the film was released ten years ago, we have seen extreme weather events across the world, from droughts, to Super Storm Sandy, to the monster typhoon in the South Pacific to the polar vertices of this past winter. I do believe in global warming. I do believe in climate change. I just don't believe it can happen as fast as it does in this film.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

CAPE FEAR

The other day I finished reading (for the second time), John D. MacDonald's novel, CAPE FEAR. Originally published in 1958 as THE EXECUTIONERS, the novel now officially bears the title of the two films that were later made from the material. But there are differences between page and screen and, as is almost always the case, it's the book that is the best.

The novel, thanks both to the movies and the talent of John D. MacDonald, ranks as one of his most popular and best-selling stand-alone crime thrillers. The story centers on Sam Bowden, a small town attorney with a wife and three children (two boys and a girl). Years ago, when Bowden was in the army during WWII, he testified against Max Cady in a criminal trial. Bowden was the only eyewitness to Cady's rape of an Australian girl. Cady was sent off to Leavenworth and Bowden returned to civilian life to raise his family and pursue his career.

But when Cady is released from prison, he tracks Bowden down and begins to threaten the entire Bowden family. Cady, a stone cold psychopath, is also very smart, clever and cunning. He keeps just this side of the law and is careful not to do anything that will get him arrested again. Bowden is terrified by the threat but he's a man totally devoted to the legal system and is determined to fight Cady with the law. But when Cady poisons the family dog and later shoots the oldest Bowden boy in the arm, the stakes are raised and the threat is escalated. Bowden has run out of legal options and must now take matters into his own hands to protect his family.

MacDonald does a great job of slowly but steadily building the suspense throughout the novel. He puts Sam Bowden into a moral box and let's us watch how he gets out of it. Cady is kept largely off of the pages. He has a few scenes here and there but he's relegated to the shadows where he plots his next move in the tense game of cat and mouse. Cady is like the great white shark in JAWS. You know he's out there, lurking just under the surface. You don't know when he'll strike but you know that when he does, it will be brutal and savage.

Bowden and his wife, Carol, eventually set a trap for Cady and Bowden does manage to shoot and kill the monster and end the threat to his family. His killing of the man is justified because Cady breaks into the Bowden home and attempts to rape and kill Carol. But it's the law of the jungle that has prevailed, a savage justice far removed from the black and white world of the legal system.

The differences between the book and the films are many. The films locate the action to Cape Fear, a coastal community in North Carolina. The book has the action in a land locked, Midwestern setting. The Bowdens have a houseboat  upon which the climactic battles take place in both films but in the book, the finale takes place inside the the Bowden home (although they do own a boat that figures in the story). In the films, the Bowden's only have one child, Nancy, their teenage daughter. In both films, she is object of sexual attraction for Cady. Not so in the book as there it's oldest son Jamie who is harmed by Cady.

While the films have their respective good and bad points, ultimately we're left with the original source material to judge and evaluate. CAPE FEAR is a wire taut tale of suspense and a psychological study of just how far one man is willing to go to protect himself and his family. MacDonald did a masterful job with this novel. It is a tribute to the man and his skill to say that the book is just as fresh and exciting as it was when it was originally published fifty-six years ago. Highest recommendation.