Sunday, January 14, 2018

ASTOUNDING DAYS


I've been on a science fiction reading kick over the last month or so, specifically the science fiction of British Grand Master Arthur C. Clarke. I started this adventure by re-reading 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). My first reading of this seminal book was in the fall of 1968. I was in the seventh grade at O. Henry Junior High School. I had seen the movie 2001 that summer with my buddy Blake Brown at the old Americana Theater (now an Austin public library). The movie had, to use the then current lexicon, "blown my mind", but the trouble was, I really didn't understand what it was all about. I bought the book and read it, then went back to the theater for a second viewing, an experience that was even more "mind blowing" since I had a much firmer grasp on what was going on.

Re-reading 2001 was like visiting an old friend. Written at the same time that Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick were working on the screenplay for the monumental film, the novel matches the film extremely well in most regards. There are scenes in the book that aren't in the movie and vice versa and even the scenes that appear in both aren't always exactly the same. Nonetheless, it's a solid novel, told in Clarke's clean, crisp prose.

THE MAKING OF 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, a trade paperback published in 2000, was next on my list. This is a collection of articles, essays, reviews and interviews that approach the film from several angles over the course of it's pre-production, production, release and place in cinematic history. All of the pieces are informative and entertaining and give a rounded perspective on the making of this landmark film. I must confess that I skipped over one of the reviews because it was written in such high falutin' "semiotic" nonsense that I couldn't begin to understand it.

Next, I re-read CHILDHOOD'S END (1953), which holds up remarkably well after more than 60 years. Arguably Clarke's greatest novel, I first read this one when I was in either junior high or high school (I forget which exactly but it was back there in my public schooling years). I loved the book then but reading it as an adult was an entirely different experience. The book starts with the appearance of immense alien star ships in the skies above several major world cities. The spacecraft belong to the Overlords, a benevolent, albeit mysterious alien race, which places the earth into a sort of protective custody. There are several surprises in store as the narrative progresses including the revelation of what the Overlords look like, their real mission, a voyage to their home planet by a human stowed away on one of their ships, cosmic vistas of unimaginable reach, power and scope and a sobering coda which provides several meanings to the words "childhood's end." CHILDHOOD'S END is a true science fiction masterpiece, a classic work of speculative fiction that should be on every one's must-read list whether you're a science fiction fan or not.

Finally, I read ASTOUNDING DAYS (1990). Sub-titled "A Science Fictional Autobiography", Clarke acts as tour guide through the history of the legendary and influential pulp sf magazine ASTOUNDING while at the same time providing us with his own abbreviated auto-biography. Clarke was a reader of ASTOUNDING from the beginning and the book details the magazine through the editorships of three key players in science fiction history: Harry Bates, F. Orlin Tremaine and the immortal John W. Campbell. Clarke will examine an issue, making note of a particular story (or stories) in each, which leads to a brief summary of that writer's career and work, the science involved in the story and how accurate or inaccurate it is and a reminiscence of when he first read the issue and where he was in his long career as a writer of science fiction and science fact. Written in a breezy, informal style, ASTOUNDING DAYS, gives a nice picture of both the man and the magazine and is full of mentions of stories and novels that I'm now anxious to track down and read.

Thumbs up on all four of these books with CHILDHOOD'S END a stand out as the must read of the group. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

STEED AND MRS. PEEL: THE SECRET HISTORY OF SPACE


"Mrs. Peel, We're Needed"

I flat out love THE AVENGERS, the 1960s British television series about two of the greatest spy/crime fighters of the 20th century: John Steed and Emma Peel. As portrayed by Patrick Macnee and the criminally beautiful Diana Rigg, Steed and Mrs. Peel made the perfect pair of adventurers. The series was brilliantly written, with scripts mixing espionage, science fiction, death traps, martial arts, wicked humor and a delightfully effervescent chemistry between the two leads. Steed was suave, assured, debonair and always the gentleman (though far from a wimp). Mrs. Peel, decked out in various leather catsuits, was supremely capable, smart as a whip, quick with a quip and could hold her own in hand-to-hand combat with any foe. In short, THE AVENGERS was a true original, an utterly delightful slice of '60s pop culture and one of the best of the endless parade of spy/secret agent properties that blossomed in the wake of the worldwide success of James Bond.

BOOM! Studios has recently produced an ongoing STEED AND MRS. PEEL comic book series. I recently purchased the second trade paperback collection (published in 2013) of issues #4-7. Subtitled "The Secret History of Space", the volume finds Steed and Peel involved in a bizarre black and white ball for starters, an encounter that leads into a wonderfully outre two-parter in which they discover (literally) how "time flies". The final tale involves an epidemic of suicides in a small Welsh mining community.

All of the material by scripter Caleb Monroe perfectly captures the spirit and essence of the television series. The artwork, by Yasmin Liang, is serviceable enough but a bit cartoony. Nonetheless, the storytelling is clear and clean and the likenesses are, for the most part, spot on.

All in all, STEED AND MRS. PEEL: THE SECRET HISTORY OF SPACE, is a fun return to the world of two beloved characters. It's done with respect and admiration and a ton of charm. Thumbs up.



Tuesday, January 2, 2018

SWORD WOMAN



I haven't read any vintage Robert E. Howard material in quite awhile so what better way to start the new year than by tearing through this paperback volume of historical adventure stories. SWORD WOMAN (1979) with a cover by Ken Kelly and an introduction by the legendary Leigh Brackett (who knew a thing or two about heroic fantasy), is a mixed bag of stories with three tales spotlighting the exploits of Dark Agnes, the titular Sword Woman, while the remaining two entries are merely fragments of unfinished manuscripts, both of which provide tantalizing glimpses of what-could-have-been.

Dark Agnes begins her life as a peasant girl in medieval France. She's beaten and abused by her farmer father and when he arranges her wedding to an equally abusive lout, young Agnes rebels, slays her groom and escapes into the forest. She soon becomes a fearsome, sword wielding warrior woman whose adventures are told in three classic tales of pulp adventure: SWORD WOMAN, BLADES FOR FRANCE and MISTRESS OF DEATH. Only MISTRESS contains any supernatural elements (Howard's original manuscript was finished by Gerald W. Page) while all three tales feature plenty of sword play and derring-do. Dark Agnes was, of course, later reimagined by writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor Smith as Red Sonja in the pages of Marvel Comics' CONAN THE BARBARIAN.

The fragments are THE KING'S SERVICE and THE SHADOW OF THE HUN. In SERVICE, a Viking long ship arrives in a mythical Indian city where Celtic warrior Donn Othna joins forces with the mysterious Constantius, ruler of both the city and all women who come under his spell. SHADOW finds another Celtic freebooter, Turlogh O'Brien falling in with a rag tag army of Slavs against the superior forces of Turkish warlord  Khogar Khan.

The material in SWORD WOMAN is far from Howard's best work but even lesser Howard material is better than many other author's best work. The man could flat out tell a story like few other pulp wordsmiths then or now. These stories ring with the sounds of striking swords and are full to bursting with the romance of time lost lands and kingdoms to be won (or lost) by the strong sword arms of daring men and women. Thumbs up.


Monday, January 1, 2018

DON'T OPEN THE DOOR!


Ladies and gentlemen, we have a strong entry, if not the actual winner of, the 2018 sweepstakes for worst film of the year. This new year is still only hours old but it's hard to imagine that I'll see any other film in the coming twelve months  that could possibly approach this film's level of sheer awfulness.

DON'T OPEN THE DOOR! (1975), should instead be entitled DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE as it is by phone call that most of the "horror'" in this turkey takes place. Better yet, let's call it DON'T WATCH THIS MOVIE! and you'll have me to thank for taking one for the team.

The film starts with a creepy East Texas judge (Gene Ross), who, inexplicably, lives in a detached railroad car parked in downtown Jefferson, badgering his abused wife into calling young Amanda Post (Susan Bracken) and demanding that she return to town to see about her sick grandmother. Flashback to 1962, 13 years earlier, when Amanda's mother is murdered by a knife wielding intruder while young Amanda appears to be molested by the killer. Now a grown woman, Amanda arrives at her grandmother's massive old mansion to find it populated by her dying grandmother and Judge Semple, the suspect Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell) and a decidedly weird museum curator, Claude Kearn (Larry O'Dwyer). Judge Semple and Claude both want the house for their own reasons and it quickly becomes obvious that one of these creeps is secretly hiding out somewhere in the house, constantly calling Amanda on the phone and making whispered, sexually suggestive threats and demands to her. Who could this insane pervert be? It's not hard to figure out, given that the caller is shown wearing wire-rimmed glasses and only one of these doofuses wear glasses.

Sure enough, Claude (raise your hand if you had him in the office pool), is revealed to be the killer when he, for no apparent reason, dispatches Dr. Crawther with a hammer to the head in the museum one night. Oh yeah, Claude's dressed like a doll during this scene. The judge is the next to be killed and then Amanda, driven crazy by Claude's taunting, takes a club to the head of good-guy doctor Nick (Hugh Feagin). Having killed the only person who might have saved her, Amanda is left alone in the house with the lunatic Claude. She's shown laughing hysterically while a telephone dominates the foreground before the film mercifully fades to black.

WTF?

The screenplay, by Frank Schaefer and Kerry Newcomb, is about as solid as a loaf of bread and S.F. Brownrigg's direction is made up of far too many tight close ups and inept crane shots. The whole production looks terrible, with a washed out, grainy look and scenes that alternate between over and under exposed. It's no exaggeration to say that I've seen better production values in a porno movie.

Filmed entirely on location in Jefferson, Texas, DON'T OPEN THE DOOR! smacks of a local production backed by business people in the city as an investment opportunity. Cheap to make, it was sure to earn back it's cost and turn a slight profit on the drive-in and grind house circuit where the film was exhibited. The cast appears to have been selected from the local community theater and every one who appears on camera is absolutely terrible. DON'T OPEN THE DOOR! could have provided some cheap, sleazy thrills but the amateur, hey-kids-let's-make-a-movie-in-the-old-house-downtown feel to the film makes it a sad waste of time.


CONAN: THE SPEAR AND OTHER STORIES


Timothy Truman is one helluva comic book artist. In fact, he's one of my favorites. He's also one helluva comic book writer as his stint as scribe on Dark Horse Comics CONAN series proved. Truman joins original Conan comic book chronicler Roy Thomas and previous Dark Horse Conan writer Kurt Busiek, as three of the best contemporary writers of Robert E. Howard's immortal character.

CONAN: THE SPEAR AND OTHER STORIES (2010), which I picked up for half price recently at Austin Books and Comics Side Kicks store, is a handsome volume of stand alone Truman Conan stories that serve to fill in the gaps in some of REH's original Conan stories. Lushly illustrated by Paul Lee, these stories explore some of the narrative threads that Howard either introduced and then dropped or merely mentioned in passing. Some of the stories take place during Conan's reign as king of Aquilonia, while others occur during his earlier years. There's a wickedly funny story about two wizards while the standout is a two part epic that touches upon King Kull, Brule the spear slayer and the vile Serpent Men.

All told, CONAN: THE SPEAR AND OTHER STORIES is a fine collection of Conan tales by one of the best to ever put pen to paper. Thumbs up.


ACTION IN ARABIA


The mistitled ACTION IN ARABIA (1944) is a serviceable enough B spy thriller from RKO. A better title would have been DANGER IN DAMASCUS as that's where all of the action and intrigue takes place in this routine but entertaining little adventure film.

The great George Sanders stars as foreign correspondent Michael Gordon who arrives in Damascus in search of a story. He finds one when his traveling companion and fellow reporter William Chalmers (Robert Anderson) is murdered. Gordon, with the help of U.S. State Department agent Matthew Reed (Robert (KING KONG) Armstrong) uncovers a Nazi plot to unite various Arab tribes and factions in a plot against the Suez Canal.

The leader of the Nazis is hotelier Eric Latimer (Alan (BATMAN) Napier), while John (ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) Hamilton) appears as a State Department official. The lovely Virginia Bruce is the woman caught in the middle of the plot which climaxes with some wild airplane stunt flying. Shot on the RKO back lot and on locations in Southern California, ACTION IN ARABIA is a pleasant enough way to spend 75 minutes.

 I can't help but wonder though if, years later, when Sanders appeared on BATMAN as Mister Freeze (one of three actors to play the role, the others being Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach), he and Alan (Alfred) Napier traded reminiscences about this film. 



Sunday, December 31, 2017

THE MAN WITH NO NAME: SINNERS AND SAINTS


Sergio Leone's magnificent trilogy A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), all starring Clint Eastwood as "The Man With No Name", are three of my all time favorite movies. They made an international star out of Eastwood, who, prior to appearing in these films, was known for playing Rowdy Yates on television's RAWHIDE. The three films, with their breathtaking visuals, unforgettable music by Ennio Morricone, copious amounts of violence, a wicked sense of humor and a totally amoral anti-hero as the protagonist, set the template for the train load of so-called "Spaghetti Westerns" that followed.These films, produced by Italian studios with the occasional American actor, were wildly popular for the next decade or so before finally sputtering out in the 1970s. But the best of the genre remain Leone's trilogy and his stand alone masterpiece ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

Dynamite Entertainment published a six issue mini-series in 2009 starring The Man With No Name. A collected trade paperback edition soon followed and I picked up a copy of the book yesterday for half cover price at Austin Books' Side Kicks store. The story, by Christos Gage, picks up where THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY left off and finds our hero on his own and carrying the $100, 000.00 in gold that was dug up at the end of GB&U. There are murderous groups of both Union and Confederate soldiers after him and while on the run, he finds himself the appointed savior of a besieged mission housing a battered group of priests and wounded deserters from both armies. Seems there's a treasure in the mission that both the Union and CSA renegades want and it's up to the Man With No Name and a priest (who turns out to be Tuco's brother), to turn the tide.

There's plenty of fast action, gun play (pistols, rifles and Gatling guns), dynamite explosions and laconic dialogue in this romp of a western adventure. Gage's script captures the feel and essence of Leone's cinematic universe quite well while the artwork by Wellington Dias is solid, if unspectacular. One thing is clear however. Dynamite obviously couldn't afford to pay to use an exact likeness of Clint Eastwood so the Man With No Name's face is kept in shadows throughout the story. It's no big deal, since we all know that the character is Eastwood. The only thing missing here is an Ennio Morricone score.

Thumbs up for this new adventure of an iconic Western hero.