Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Remembering when these characters were in comic books worth reading....

Ghost Rider racing Batgirl, by Bud Budiansky
Ghost Rider, by Dave Simon
The Batman Family, by Alan Davis
Dr. Doom & Catwoman: Caught in the Act,
by John Byrne
Batgirl & Spider-Woman, by John Byrne





The Batman Family, by John Byrne

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hitchcock silent movie is light and bubbly,
like name-sake

Champagne (1928)
Starring: Betty Balfour, Gordon Harker, Jean Bradin, and Ferdinand von Alten
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A headstrong, spoiled heiress (Balfour) violates the wishes of her Wall Street-tycoon father (Harker) and runs off to Paris to be with the man she wishes to marry (Bradin). When her father later tracks her down, he brings the bad news that the market crash had cost them both their fortunes. When her paramour appears to turn his back on her once she is poor, the girl decides that she will earn money to support both her and her father. But will her dangerous combination of over-exuberance and naivete lead her to disgrace--or possibly worse at the hands of a vaguely sinister mustachioed man who keeps entering her life (Von Alten)?



"Champagne" is a fun little comedy with a central character that is either too unfamiliar with how miserable life can get, or too full of energy, to let down-turns deter her from being happy and trying to make a go at whatever she sets her mind to. Watching Betty Balfour's Poor Little Rich Girl earnestly bumbling her way through an attempt at making a living is both funny and charming, and this character makes an otherwise fairly uneventful story and film lots of fun to watch.

Another very entertaining aspect of the film are simply the performances of some of the actors. Ferdinand von Alten as the mysterious stranger who may or may not be a danger to our heroine is particularly fascinating, because while he does all the scowling and gesturing of your standard melodramatic silent movie villain, there's something about the way he carries himself and some of his actions that makes the viewer wonder exactly what he is about as the film unfolds. (And this "who is that guy, and what is he after?" is set up very nicely with a bit of business near the beginning where both he and the girl receive telegrams while on-board a trans-Atlantic liner. He is visibly annoyed by whatever his telegram says, but we don't learn what the message was until much later. But we can see that his interest in the girl seemed to increase after they both got their telegrams. It's a nice mystery that remains in play until nearly the very end of the film.)

It is easy to observe that Alfred Hitchcock went on to make many movies far better than this one, but not many comedies as fun as this. Fans of Hitchcock should check it out--especially if you see it in some of those low-cost DVD budget packs along with some of his other early films--as contains a number of interesting visual flourishes. I hope the version you end up watching has a better music track than the one I viewed... my copy has randomly selected classical marches and waltzes that are very inappropriate and mood-destroying on more than one occasion. However, once I muted the TV and put on Mike Oldfield's "Ommadawn" and "Five Miles Out," I had a soundtrack that worked much better.

Another reason to watch the film, particularly for those of you who may be politically minded and prone to buy into some of the oh-so-clever and edgy caricatures that left-leaning politicians and pundits are drawing of certain American politicians and business people, is for a look into exactly how old and tired that caricature is. Hitchcock uses the Shifty, Manipulative Wall Street Tycoon stereotype in this nearly 85 year old film... and it had been around for a few decades even then. And if you still don't recognize how lame it is to be trotting out that old horse at this late date, maybe you can at least learn from a guy who used it in a creative and intelligent fashion and one-up the cleverness of the not-so-terribly-clever who keep reposting the same captioned photos to Facebook over and over with something that's truly witty. (Seriously. I wouldn't mind the hoary old class-warfare tropes of the 1920s and 1930s if someone would be clever about it. Please... someone save my Facebook account from drowning in banal and rehashed cliches.)



Tuesday, June 19, 2012

'Dead Man's Eyes' starts lame but gets better

Inner Sanctum: Dead Man's Eyes (1944)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Paul Kelley, Acquanetta, Jean Parker, Edward Fielding, and Thomas Gomez
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

David (Chaney) is blinded when he mistakenly puts acid in his eyes instead of eye-wash. When his elderly future father-in-law (Fielding) is murdered after willing David his eyes for transplant, he becomes a prime suspect with lots of motive and no alibi beyond being blind.



Successful crime dramas, thrillers, and horror films usually work because they foreshadow what's coming, be it the obnoxious rich uncle delcaring, "you'll get my fortune over my dead body!" or the weird gypsy woman warning the characters not to go into the woods after midnight. Lack of foreshadowing makes the mystery or horror film feel forced and slipshod, and the wrong kind of foreshadowing makes viewers roll their eyes.

Like the foreshadowing in "Dead Man's Eyes". The main character, David, lives and works in a small studio apartment. It is so small, in fact, that it has only one sink that serves as both kitchen, bathroom, and the place to his brushes. Above the sink is a shelf... where David keeps the eye-wash he uses daily right next to the acid he uses to clean his brushes. And he keeps these two liquids in identical bottles. Right next to each other.

I'm sure you can see the coming disaster that's invariable going to strike, especially given the title of the movie. And, sure enough, one day, David grabs the wrong bottle (maybe by accident, but most likely not, given his model is a South American psycho who is insanely jealous of David's fiancee and madly possessive of him) and pours acid in his eyes instead of eye-wash.

I almost shut the DVD off at that point, because I wasn't in the mood for wasting my time on fodder for Movies You Should [Die Before You] See but wanted to be entertained by something good. And this film was not looking promising.

I'm glad I stuck with it, though. because once it got past the monumentally stupid set-up, it turned into quite the thrilling little mystery, with a nice array of suspects and enough plot twists to keep suspicion on almost everyone up to the end--including the main character, David.

The film is also fun, because of the many strong performances. Acquanetta is great as David's crazy model, and she's also the easy suspect for all the nefarious going-ons in the film. And if the movie had stayed as weak as it began, she would have been the only suspect. But Lon Chaney Jr. also gives a fine performance, one that gives viewers the idea that there's something a little off with his character. The other actors are excellent in their parts too, and, supported by a clever script, they turn what started out as a disaster into a fun viewing experience.

"Dead Man's Eyes" is the third of six movies in the "Inner Sanctum" series. Like the two previous ones, Lon Chaney Jr. gives an excellent performance. It might well be that these films feature Chaney at his best. If you liked him as the reluctant wolfman in Universal Pictures' monster-mash films, you absolutely need to check him out in these pictures.



Sunday, June 10, 2012

'Lost in the Stratosphere' is light but fulfilling

Lost in the Stratosphere (1934)
Starring: William Cagney, Edward Nugent, June Collyer, Frank McGwynn, and Hattie McDaniel
Director: Melvin W. Brown
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two best friends and daredevil military pilots, playboy Lt. Tom "Soapy" Cooper (Cagney) and Lt. Richard "Woody" Wood (Nugent) see their friendly rivalry turn nasty when Tom unknowingly goes on a date with Wood's fiancee (Collyer) and subsequently steals her away when they fall in love. But when they are tapped for a dangerous test flight that will take them into the strasophere, they must set aside their grudges if they are to survive.



For about half of its running time, "Lost in the Stratosphere" is a fairly straightforward romantic comedy/buddy picture, with Soapy and Woody trying to outdo each other with bravery in the air, and by pranking each other on the ground. It's all fun and games, even if Soapy is something of a jerk and Woody is a bit of a dish-rag, until a girl they both truly love comes between them, Woody feels betrayed, and the film spends some time in melodrama territory. And finally, it becomes something of an action film in the third act, with Soapy and Woody struggling to save their lives in an experimental balloon.

This film belongs to William Cagney and Eddie Nugent in every sense. Not only are they equal co-stars, even if Cagney gets a little more scree time, but they are also the only performers who give truly colorful performances. June Collyer is her usual beautiful self, but she is really little more than window-dressing and her character has little definition beyond a vague sense that she was always a little too much woman (or maybe a little too much tomboy) for Woody to handle, even if she had never met Soapy. Aside from the characters portrayed by Cagney, Nugent, and Collyer, none of the others in the film rise above the level of stock figures. This isn't necessarily a negative, as it gives room for Soapy to be redeemed somewhat from pure jerkhood, but it would have been nice to see a little more of Collyer and her character.

One thing that works better in this film than many other flicks that are supposedly about pilots and high-flying action but end up being earthbound due to their low budgets, is that this film delivers just enough hint of aerial excitement to satisfy. Through the effective use of special effect model shots at the films beginning, and effective use of stock footage toward the end, as well as some nicely done sets, lovers of the old-time "men in their flying machines" will walk away from the movie just as happy as those who came for the old-timey buddy pic rom-com action.

Check it out. It's another fun little item that's laying neglected in Hollywood's ash-heap of history.




Saturday, June 9, 2012

Robert E. Howard, 1930 - 1936

On June 11, 1936, writer Robert E. Howard took his own life in a fit of despair.












The preceding story was by Roy Thomas and Sandy Plunkett and it originally appeareed in "Epic Illustrated" #34. The scans were posted by Joe Bloke on his excellent Grantbridge Street & Other Misadventures blog, from where I grabbed them without so much as a "how do you do?".

Robert E. Howard has been one of my favorite writers since the early 1990s, when I first discovered his "King Kull" stories. I had been a fan of the "Conan the Barbarian" comic book from Marvel for years before that, and I'd tried reading some of the Conan paperbacks--where De Camp or Carter or someone revised and rewrote his stories but found I preferred the comics over the fiction. (Interestingly, the reverse was true when it came to King Kull.)

But the Kull stories, I loved. I later added "Solomon Kane" to that list and as the web came into its own, I soon discovered that Howard was not only more than Conan, he was more than fantasy fiction... he wrote lots of horror stories, adventure stories, and wild comedy stories.

Steve Costigan. Black Vulmea. Skull-Face. El Borak. Steve Harrison. Breckinridge Elkins. Cormac FitzGeoffrey. Bran Mak Morn. Red Sonya. And dozens more crusader knights, pirates, and hard-bitten men of action--fighting, and sometimes losing, against impossible odds. If you like action, you should like Robert E. Howard, because his stories are crammed with it from beginning to end.

Since reviving NUELOW Games last year, I have been putting together little anthologies of Howard's fiction, focusing on his mostly forgotten works... including some that he counted among his personal favorites. It's my small attempt to call more attention to his many non-Conan writings. It's also my way of sharing my love for the body of work he left behind when he chose to leave this world so early in his life.

At the moment, NUELOW Games' anthologies are available at DriveThruFiction.com (as well as RPGNow.com and DriveThruRPG.com where the entire NUELOW Games line of products can be had) and only in PDF format. This format works on just about any laptop or desktop computer, as well as most Kindle models, iPads, and iPod Touch.

For a broad sampling of what Howard's non-Conan work is like, check out "Oriental Stories, Vol. 2." The book contains a sample of just about everything he wrote, except the playful first person style used in the Steve Costigan and Breckinridge Elkins stories.

If you like low fantasy or historical fiction, "The Deadly Sword of Cormac" and "Oriental Stories" is for you.

If you're in the mood for straight-on, Yellow Peril-style pulp fiction, "Skull-Face" is a novelette you'll enjoy.

If you like hardboiled detective tales (with a touch of horror), check out "Names in the Black Book".

If you want horror with a Southwestern flavor, "Shadows Over Texas" is the book for you.

If you like werewolves, "White Fell and Other Stories" is a must-read.

And if it's comedy or stories about boxing you want, "Fists of Foolishness" and "Shanghaied Mitts" are were you should look. (These books also include a roleplaying game and a solo adventure, respectively. The publisher is NUELOW Games after all.)

There are further comedic antics, centering on Howard's dimwitted western hero Breckinridge Elkins in "Bath-time on Bear Creek," "The Misadventures of Breckinridge Elkins," and "Breckinridge Elkins Rides Again."

Finally, if you want pulse-pounding adventure "Oriental Stories 3: A Texan in Afghanistan," stories featuring Howard's last great series character, El Borak, will fit your needs exactly.

When reading the stories in "Shanghaied Mitts", "Shadows Over Texas", "Oriental Stories" and "Oriental Stories, Vol. 2", I can't help but mourn for what might have been. Howard too his life just as he was on the verge of leaving commericial hackery like Conan the Cimmerian behind and pursue his true literary passions. In the final five years of his life, which amounts to the second half of his professional career, Howard not only kept improving as a writer, but he discovered the types of stories he was most comfortable writing--stories of action and adventure that were grounded in this world and real history rather than made up universes.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The art of Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, one of the greatest writers to ever work in the English language, died on Tuesday. In honor of the literary legacy he left us, here is a small gallery of drawings inspired by his work.

By Craig Ashforth ("The Lake")

By Rachel Idzerda ("Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed")

By Craig Ashforth ("The Dragon")

By Dave McKean ("Skeletons")