Thursday, May 31, 2012

STONER AGE

A pal recently sent me a superb collection of Turok, Son of Stone, my comic book of choice as a kid. What a blast to revisit the tales of Turok and his young friend Andar, indigenous Americans who wander into a vast “Lost Valley” of dinosaurs and pronoun-challenged cavemen. Among the delights was…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this two-headed horror on the cover of issue #62 (July 1968)…


…which, it turns out, was an hallucination by Andar, who was tripping under the influence of some local flora—a bit of none-too-subtle anti-drug propaganda. As I recall, I found it a bit of cheat as a kid that the promised monster was just an illusion. Sure is a cool painting, though.

The collected Gold Key Turok adventures are being re-published in hardcover “Archive” editions by Dark Horse comics. Volume #10, which contains this issue and a couple of the other first comics I ever bought, is out this month.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

HUMP DAY CLASSICS

If it isn’t already, you may want to make Wednesday your official movie night in June and July. More than 100 locations of Cinemark Theatres around the country will host a Summer Classics series, in conjunction with Warner Bros., Wednesdays from June 6 to July 25, with shows at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. It’s a diverse batch of movies, all worth seeing, or re-seeing. Here’s a schedule:


June 6: The Exorcist (1973): In terms of shock, this highly influential horror favorite, based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, has long since been left in the dust by the ghastliness of contemporary scare films. But the acting, atmosphere and suspense, and the deft direction of William Friedkin, still hold up.

June 13: Citizen Kane (1941): This one’s always mentioned on lists of the greatest movies ever made, and not without reason. Directed, produced and co-written (with Herman Mankiewicz) by Orson Welles, this thinly-veiled, brilliantly-structured fictionalization of the life of William Randolph Hearst can suck you in like a great novel.


June 20: Cool Hand Luke (1967): "What we’ve got here…is failure to communicate.” So, unforgettably, says Strother Martin of his difficulties with Paul Newman, as the intractable title character of this prison yarn. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, this was one of Newman’s signature vehicles.




June 27: The Searchers (1956): After Stagecoach, this visually beautiful, complex western, about the search for a girl abducted by the Comanche, is probably the most admired of the collaborations between John Ford and John Wayne. Jeffery Hunter and Natalie Wood also star, and Henry Brandon is memorable as the Comanche Scar.

July 4: That’s Entertainment (1974): This compilation of excerpts from vintage MGM musicals is, indeed, entertainment. But you have to wonder—on the Fourth of July, shouldn’t Warner Bros. have shown Yankee Doodle Dandy?

July 11: A Clockwork Orange (1971): Stanley Kubrick’s “ultra-violent” exploration of the limits of free will, based on the futuristic novel by Anthony Burgess, isn’t for kids or the easily sickened. But both the filmmaking and Malcolm McDowell’s performance still pack a punch. Beethoven may never sound the same to you again.


July 18: North By Northwest (1959): One of the most fun of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, this tongue-in-cheek thriller features Cary Grant as a sophisticated New York executive mistaken by murderous spies for their target. It’s best known for the scene in which Grant is strafed by a cropduster, and for the final chase across the face of Mt. Rushmore.


July 25: Cabaret (1972): Bob Fosse re-invented the movie musical with his amazing adaptation of the Kander and Ebb Broadway hit. Liza Minelli and Michael York star, and Joel Grey is unforgettable as the spectral Master of Ceremonies.

The films will be shown here in the Valley at Cinemark 16 in Mesa; in my hometown of Erie they’ll play at Tinseltown USA. For other participating locations, check here.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

ALIEN-NATION

Men In Black 3 opens tomorrow, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …here’s a specimen of the resident aliens that the title characters are tasked with controlling, and keeping secret:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

MEMORIALS

Although I never served in the military—and, like Samuel Johnson, think of myself meanly for it—I enjoy war movies of all kinds, from the jingoistic to the pacifistic, whether I agree with their politics or not. But for Memorial Day viewing next weekend, it seems appropriate to recommend some films that emphasize the terrible human toll of war. Here are a few suggestions:

Revolutionary War: 1776 (1972): For some reason there haven’t been too many movies made about the American Revolution, and fewer still are any good. 1776 isn’t a war movie, it’s a musical about the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence. I include it here because, about midpoint, a young soldier played by Stephen Nathan beautifully sings a heartbreaking ballad called “Momma Look Sharp” which reminds us of the cost, in young men, of what these old men were arguing about.


Civil War: Glory (1989): Directed by Edward Zwick, this story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a union regiment of freed slaves, has terrifying battle sequences, magnificent acting by Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick, among others, and a tragic ending that somehow doesn’t belie the title.

World War One: Johnny Got His Gun (1971): In this version of Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 novel, adapted and directed by the author, Timothy Bottoms plays an American casualty who has lost his arms, legs and face in battle, but who still has all his mental faculties. It’s a horrifying story, yet it’s leavened, in the soldier’s flashbacks and fantasies, by a lot of weird humor and some fine acting, especially by Jason Robards as the narrator’s father.

World War Two: Saving Private Ryan (1998): Taken in its entirety, Stephen Spielberg’s epic may have been slightly overrated at the time of its release; the script is bland and clich├ęd in stretches. Yet the first twenty minutes or so—the D-Day sequence—is as viscerally grueling a depiction of the hell of battle as any I can remember.

Korea: Battle Circus (1953): This too-little-known film doesn’t appear to have made it to DVD yet, but it’s worth seeking out on VHS. Humphrey Bogart plays a surgeon with a M*A*S*H unit who falls for nurse June Allyson. The romance plays out against a low-key depiction of the struggle to save young men from becoming memorial day honorees.

Vietnam: Go Tell the Spartans (1978): Burt Lancaster is in top form in this tight, unsentimental drama about the very early days of the conflict. Directed by Ted Post, the film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, but it deserves to be.

Grenada: Heartbreak Ridge (1986): OK, this one isn’t very convincing or solemn, but this corny ‘80s rouser has an amusing performance by Clint Eastwood (who also directed) as a tough Marine sergeant.

Gulf War: Three Kings (1991): David O. Russell’s excellent, jaundiced tale of a gang of American soldiers hoping to steal a cache of Saddam Hussein’s gold includes a superb scene in which George Clooney explains to a younger soldier what bullets actually do to human bodies. It should be required viewing, both for schoolboys and politicians.

Afghanistan: Restrepo (2010): You won’t soon forget this documentary, by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, made mostly while they were embedded with an infantry platoon in the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan. It’s a powerful look inside this interminable—and for most of us in the US, invisible—war.


RIP to pop-music royalty: First, to Donna Summer, the beautiful Queen of Disco, passed on too young at 63…


…and also to jazzman Chuck Brown, departed at 75, who in addition to being the King of Go-Go also collaborated with my pal Dan Cassidy’s phenomenal sister Eva Cassidy…

Thursday, May 17, 2012

HOWL IN THE FAMILY

With Dark Shadows now in theaters, why not one more…

Monster-of-the-Week: …from the original ABC show: Quentin Collins, the dashing young rogue played David Selby in thick, lupine sideburns, and also, just a minor detail, nothing really, a werewolf…



The character isn’t included in Burton’s film, though Selby has a cameo, but perhaps if there’s a sequel it could feature this hairy cousin of Barnabas?

Selby, by the way, is still acting, handsome and patrician-looking as ever, recently seen as the lawyer representing the Winklevoss brothers in The Social Network.

Friday, May 11, 2012

SHADOW PLAYFUL

As Barnabas Collins in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, Johnny Depp comports himself like a Gothic popinjay. He carries himself proudly erect, and speaks with orotund, self-dramatizing verbosity and sweeping gesture, whether anyone else is around to hear him or not. The performance is a near-tour de force of comic, cosmically wounded dignity.


Being a vampire, he must occasionally feast on the blood of the living, but he does so reluctantly, first offering his victims polite regrets. His great wish, other than to be reunited with his lost love Josette, is to restore his family’s Maine fish cannery. He’s a bit of a pussycat, as undead revenants go.

It’s hard to say to whom this Dark Shadows is being marketed. The film is a parody, a pretty broad one, of the Gothic-horror soap opera (ABC, 1966-1971) on which it’s based. Created by Dan Curtis and writer Art Wallace, the show began as tempestuous bosom-heaving romance, perhaps in the vein of Barbara Cartland, but faced with sinking ratings, the writers began to experiment with ghosts and other supernatural elements about six months in, and eventually they threw a Hail Mary in the form of Barnabas, a forlorn vampire played by an obscure Canadian stage actor named Jonathan Frid.

He was a hit, and so the show threw caution to the wind—witches, werewolves and any other gruesome menace became fair game. Two movie spin-offs, House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971) were produced, along with dozens of tie-in novels, comic books, toys, puzzles, etc. I was too much of a wussy, at six or seven, to watch the show for more than a few wide-eyed minutes during its original run, but I got hooked on it in junior high, when it ran in syndication. Even by soap standards, it seemed to have a high incidence of blown lines, crew members caught on camera, actors struggling not to crack up, but somehow this didn’t defeat the show’s spooky yet oddly bracing atmosphere.

The Burton film’s script, credited to Seth Grahame-Smith of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, takes scraps of plot from the old show and stitches them together, but there’s almost no serious attempt at spookiness. A friend of mine said that the ads make the movie look like a sketch from The Carol Burnett Show.

Many fans of the original series are likely to be disappointed—if not outraged—by such an approach, while non-fans and younger viewers are unlikely to be too interested in a comedic version of an old TV show that they may never have heard of in the first place. Overall, the film seems poised to be vaporized by The Avengers’ second weekend like a vampire by a ray of sunlight.

A small pity if so, because while Dark Shadows is hardly high art, it’s sort of an endearing trifle. As always with Burton, it’s a beautiful movie to look at, with a whimsical, Edward-Gorey-ish look (the production designer is Rick Hienrichs) and a ridiculously attractive cast.

My friend’s take on the movie’s attitude was about right—it plays like a string of Carol Burnett sketches, with a bit more polish to the jokes and a lot more polish to the production. The target of the parody isn’t Gothic melodrama but ‘70s kitsch culture, with the 18th-Century sensibilities of the resurrected Barnabas bounced off of hippies and television and lava lamps and fast food signage and Steve Miller’s “The Joker” (of which Barnabas approves—unsurprisingly, since as played by Depp he most certainly speaks of the Pompatus of Love).

Depp is a hoot, but he isn’t alone. The high-ticket cast is fine form: Michelle Pfeiffer in Joan Bennett’s old role of matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Chloe Moretz as wild child Carolyn Stoddard, the waiflike Australian Bella Heathcote as Victoria Winters, Jackie Earle Haley as drunken handyman Willie Loomis, and the always-excellent Helena Bonham Carter as the shady shrink Dr. Hoffman. Alice Cooper and Christopher Lee turn up in guest roles.

The movie is close to stolen, however, by the French actress Eva Green as Angelique Bouchard, the witch who cursed Barnabas with vampirism when he didn’t return her love, and who’s still around in the 20th Century, running a rival fish cannery and looking intolerably chic. Green (she played Vesper Lynd in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale) makes Angelique’s spite a lively aphrodisiac; she has a crazy-eyed smile that’s both alluring and terrifying, and her skin’s tendency, in moments of stress, to crack like the shell of a hard-boiled egg is rather captivating, too.


Burton and Grahame-Smith probably try to touch too many bases from the series—the movie is cluttered, and it goes on at least twenty minutes too long. But overall, it’s a goofy pleasure. Like the old show, it’s an enjoyable waste of time. Unlike the old show, it can be experienced in one sitting, and its laughs are intentional.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

WATERWILD

RIP to the great illustrator and poet Maurice Sendak, of Pierre and Chicken Soup With Rice fame, passed on at 83. In his honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge this cool sea monster from Sendak's masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are...

As I recall, this guy was ommitted from the misfired 2009 film version by Spike Jonze. He was, however, made into a Hallmark Christmas ornament...

Monday, May 7, 2012

GOOBER PEACE

RIP to George Lindsey, best known as Goober on The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry RFD and Hee Haw, passed on at 83.


Lindsey also appeared in films like Ensign Pulver and Cannonball Run II, and on episodes of Gunsmoke, M*A*S*H, Fantasy Island and, for a change of pace, as the nasty racist deputy in the Twilight Zone episode I Am the Night—Color Me Black. But many of us will revere him for his ace Cary Grant impression: Judy Judy Judy Judy Judy!

Friday, May 4, 2012

NOT-SO-GREAT GATSBY

Attention old-movie freaks within an easy drive of southern California: Next weekend, May 10 through 13, marks the 12th annual edition of my favorite film festival in the country: The Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, at the Camelot Theatres on Baristo in Palm Springs.


As usual this year’s schedule includes a variety of hard-to-catch crime films of the mid-20th century, such as 1948’s I Love Trouble with Franchot Tone, 1954’s Shield for Murder with Edmond O’Brien and 1960’s Key Witness with Dennis Hopper. Also on the bill this year are such more familiar selections as The Big Heat and the rip-roaring 1947 Joan Crawford fave Possessed. Scheduled as special guests this year are vets like Richard Erdman, William Schallert, Patricia Crowley and Kathleen Hughes, as well as Alan Ladd’s son David and Glenn Ford’s son Peter.

But maybe the most interesting curio on the schedule this year is Paramount’s obscure 1949 version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with Alan Ladd in the title role.



I had long wanted to see this film, and not long ago I was shown a bootleg copy (appropriately enough) and learned that while it’s a rarely-shown movie, it’s no lost classic. Despite a fantastic cast—Macdonald Carey as Nick, Betty Field as Daisy, Barry Sullivan as Tom, Ruth Hussey as Jordan, Shelley Winters as Myrtle, and Henry Hull, Elisha Cook, Jr., Howard Da Silva and Ed Begley among the supporting players—this version is laughably pedestrian.

Based in part on a stage adaptation by Owen Davis, this Gatsby suffers from banal dialogue and a perplexing absence of the novel’s intrigue and mystery. We’re shown Gatsby’s occupation in the opening minutes—there’s even a shoot-out, in which Ladd’s Gatsby participates with hilarious half-heartedness and distaste—and the motivation behind the crazy opulence of his lifestyle is revealed early, too. Good as the cast is, some of them are not well-served by the material: Betty Field, so touching in Of Mice and Men, is particularly excruciating here.


Terrible as the movie is, though, it’s worth seeing if you get the chance. Even in this crude and clumsy retelling, the story, with its adolescent fantasy of romantic gesture blended with its blunt awareness that money trumps romance, has its appeal, and the stripping-away of Fitzgerald’s graceful language throws a striking light on the illusory nature of genre divisions in general.

At first Gatsby struck me as a stretch for inclusion in a noir festival. But then I tried to consider the story aside from its reputation as a highbrow literary classic—infidelity and obsessive love, gangsters and bootleggers, a hit-and-run, a cover-up, a man manipulated into murder, and above all a guy brought low because he’s a sucker for a dame. How much more "noir-y" did I want it to be?

That Gatsby isn’t seen in terms of the genre is, of course, partly because of Fitzgerald’s elegant style, the opposite of the hard-boiled argot that is associated (incorrectly, for the most part) with noir writing. But it’s also because of hard-wired literary predjudice—Gatsby is seen (rightly) as top-notch American literature, while novels critically defined as “noir” are frequently seen, by definition, as not quite literature at all. This attitude may be changing, but it hasn’t changed yet.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

HOLLOW VICTORY

RIP to the very beautiful Patricia Medina, departed at 92.


In her honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character of one of her less celebrated vehicles, The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)…



You can see the jerkily-animated but rather wonderful finale of this otherwise boring movie here.