Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Early spy thriller from Alfred Hitchcock disappoints

Secret Agent (1936)
Starring: John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Young
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

British Intelligence fakes the death of author Edgar Brodie (Gielgud) so he can be sent to Switzerland on a mission to find and assassinate a German spy at the height of World War I. He is assisted by the coldhearted General (Lorre) and the gung-ho newbie spy Elsa (Carroll), and together they find the rewards of being spies are hardly ever worth the dangers and damage to conscience and morals the work demands.

"Secret Agent" is a mess of a movie. It's got some fine actors performing great characters; it's captures the moral ambiguity of patriotism and duty to country when it is performed in the shadowy world of secret intelligence work; and it has several thrilling and/or incredibly well-staged sequences--with the meeting at the church, the mountain hike, and the chocolate factory chase being foremost among these. What the film doesn't have is a coherent script. Its many great elements never quite come together, we never quite get a sense that anything in the film really matters, much of it doesn't make any sense--starting with Brodie's recruitment by British Intelligence, which means the entire movie is standing on a trembling foundation--and to say the ending feels rushed is a massive understatement.

This is the first Hitchcock film I've seen that actually disappointed me. I'm sure there will be others, but I was surprised at how weak this one is overall, given the relative high regard others seem to hold it in. Out of the Hitchcock films I've seen, this is the first one I feel I should recommend viewers to stay away from.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Karloff has a secret behind "The Strange Door"

The Strange Door (1951)
Starring: Charles Laughton, Richard Stapley, Sally Forrest, William Cottrell, Boris Karloff and Michael Pate
Director: Joseph Pevney
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

An evil, demented nobleman (Laughton) sets about forcing the basest rogue he can find (Stapley) to marry his innocent young niece (Forrest) as the culmination of a 20-year revenge plot against his brother. But he has misjudged the true character of the intended brides groom, and the young man soon teams up with one of the servants (Karloff) to secure the girl's safety and freedom.

This Univesal Studios production has the tone and feel of the gothic horror flicks that Hammer Films would start doing so well throughout the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. It compares favorably to Hammer's lesser efforts, but it is pales in comparison to Hammer's greatest gothic chillers, or even movies starring Charles Laughton in similar roles (such as the 1930s Hitchcock film "Jamacia Inn").

Speaking of Laughton, he is the most outstanding member of a cast that gives performances that bring to mind an excellently mounted stage performance. Usually, when I say that the actors in a film come across like they are performing in a theater, I mean it negatively; not so here. For the most part, the performances are of a style that the world "melodrama" was created to describe and they they bring this story and its characters to a sort of life that more restrained performances would have failed to do. Only Richard Stapley is a bit much, with delivery that clearly signals he is the Hero of the piece but that is so extreme that he comes across like a Dudley Doright charicature rather than a character--it's too much of a good thing.

But this is Laughton's movie in every sense. He steals every scene he is in, and he even manages to infuse a tiny bit of sympathetic humanity into a truly monstrous character. (We start out feeling that there's somethinng wrong and creepy about Sire Alain de Maletroit, and we come to be repulsed by him, yet Laughton still manages to shade his performance just enough to mae the audience feel a twinge of hope that he may yet redeem himself before it's too late for everyone. It's an excellent performance.

Boris Karloff makes his usual solid contribution to the film, but he doesn't have much to do except to serve as a dark comic relief and the guy who may or may not save the day in the end. (Although, frankly, given the nature of the story, there's never any real doubt as to how it's going to turn out.)

"The Strange Door" is one of five obscure movies that Karloff made for Universal during the 30s, 40s, and '50s that are included in "The Boris Karloff Collection." While none of the films will ever be ranked among the great cinematic works of all time, they're decent enough and well worth a look by lovers of old-time movies.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Forgotten Comics: Electric Girl

Electric Girl, Vols. 1-3 (Published by AiT/PlanetLAR)
Story and Art: By Michael Brennan
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Here's another excellent series that fell by the wayside, because there is no room in the greater marketplace for comics that feature anything but superheroes beating the crap out of each other and/or profanity. (This review was originally written in 2005. At the time, I was holding out hope Brennan would do more Electric Girl stories. I hoped in vain.)

Virginia the Electric Girl and friends, by Michael Brennan
The "Electric Girl" graphic novels present cartoonist Michael Brennan's quirky series about Virginia and her constant companion Oogleoog. Virginia is the title character, so named because she has the strange ability of emitting electric shocks whenever she feels like it. Oogleoog is a gremlin, invisible to all but Virginia and animals... and, like gremlins are supposed to, he is constantly causing trouble. The stories, ranging from six to fourteen pages in length, skip around in Virginia's life, covering a period from her being five or six to her college years.

"Electric Girl" takes place in a world that could very well be the one just outside your window--well, if that world contained robots who befriend electricity-conducting girls, talking dogs, and invisible gremlins with kind hearts--and the people who inhabit it are believable and probably very much like the people that you and I know.

The stories are light on sinister personages who are trying to capture her and use her powers for evil, or mysterious crime-fighters trying to recruit her for the cause of justice. In fact, the two stories that *do* deal with Virginia as "crime-fighter" or "superhero" end as one would expect them to end if she was a real girl. (No, not with her being tossed in jail, but I'm pretty sure she was grounded for a long time after one of the stories.)

What is most pleasurable about the "Electric Girl" comics is that Virginia is not some angsty outcast with parents who fear her strange powers. Some of the very best stories are about the small problems that can arise from a child and parents trying to cope with Virginia's unique abilities, but they are handled with humor and heart, not teeth-gritting and random mayhem.

The graphic novels contain mostly reprints from the ten-issue "Electric Girl" series, but Vol. 3 contains a significant amount of material that has never seen print before.

Any one of these books is worth its price tag. Brennan's unique art style is a joy to behold, his characters are all likable, and his "comedic timing" on the page is flawless.

For a little more about Virginia the Electric Girl, click here to visit a page at my website where I adapt her and Oogleoog to the classic "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" roleplaying game system.

You can also visit the office Electric Girl website by clicking here. There are a dozen or so "Electric Girl" stories that are available to be read online there.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Too much bloat weakens 'A Cause for Alarm!'

Cause for Alarm! (1951)
Starring: Loretta Young, Barry Sullivan, Bruce Cowling and Irving Bacon
Director: Tay Garnett
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A delusional, bed-ridden man (Sullivan) writes a letter to the district attorney's office in which he claims his wife (Young) and doctor (Cowling) are plotting to kill him. As he reveals this to his wife, his weak heart gives out. She has just given the letter to the mailman, and she launches into a frantic series of attempts to recover it, before she ends up being framed by a dead man for a murder she didn't commit.

"Cause for Alarm!" could be an exciting--and even thrilling--little movie, but it is about 15 minutes too long. It drags a bit in the beginning and it sags in the middle. It needed to be more concentrated in order to fully capture the dread of the main character and to drive home the sense of ever-closer doom that is closing in on her as more and more people seem to grow suspicious of her, and she fails in her attempts to retrieve the letter.

The acting in the film is good all around (even if Young's constant hysterics get a bit tiring) and the technical aspects of the film are very well-done, particularly the lighting of the film's climactic scenes. The only problem with the film is its bloated, drawn-out script.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Karloff plays dual role in 'The Black Room'

The Black Room (1935)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Thurston Hall, Marian Marsh, and Robert Allen
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The much-hated, psychopathic Baron Gregor de Bergmann (Karloff) summons his respected, kindhearted twin brother Anton (also Karloff) back to their ancenstral lands following Anton's ten-year absence. Gregor announces that he intends to step down and elevate Anton to the position of Baron, thus restoring faith in the noble family... and hopefully avoiding a prophecy that stated Anton would someday murder Gregor. However, the evil twin has ulterior motives, including designs on the innocent noble-woman Thea (Marsh).

A period melodrama that has some fairly shocking twists and turns for a film made in 1935, "The Black Room" is a stylish, well-acted and well-filmed movie with impressive sets and costumes. Karloff in particular shines in the dual role of twin brothers--one good and one evil--and his performance is particularly impressive when one takes to impersonating the other, and he switches back and forth between the two characters.

If you enjoy the Roger Corman-produced/directed Poe adapations from the 1960s, you'll love "The Black Room." Although rarely mentioned, it's definately one of the best films Boris Karloff appeared in, and it features one of his best performances, so it's a Must See for Karloff fans.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

'Little White Mouse' deserved more attention

Little White Mouse Omnibus Edition (Cafe Digital, 2006)
Story: Paul Sizer
Art: Paul Sizer, with pin-ups and shorts (dream sequences and flashbacks) by various others
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

It's a commentary on the sad state of the comic book market that an excellent series like "Little White Mouse" went through two publishers, neither of which completed projected plans, and that the creator self-published the collected edition of the series in the end. It's a sad commentary that most of you reading these words, even those among you who are regular comic book and graphic novel readers, haven't heard of "Little White Mouse", one of the finest sci-fi comic books series to be published in the past couple of decades.

"Little White Mouse" is, on the surface, the story of sixteen year-old Loo, a girl who is stranded on a remote mining satellite that is running on automatic after the crew all died in a mysterious accident. As you read the stories of her struggles to survive and eventually get rescued, the scope expands to examine the impact Loo's presumed death is having on her family and friends, and it continues to widen until we start seeing glimpses of the politics and cut-throat inter-stellar business environment of the far future in which the story takes place. There even ends up being a little time travel aspect introduced (and, as I've said in other reviews, I love time-travel stories!) and ends up supplying one of the most interesting and poignient plot-twists in the book. But, ultimately, the main thrust of the story is about love, family, and how it keeps us together and helps us survive.

Sizer has a real talent for creating likable, believable, and distinctive characters. Like all good comics writers, you can tell his characters apart because their dialogue sounds different--and in some cases, he makes a character so distinct that one can almost hear their voices while reading... Loo, Pasqual (a mysterious "ghost" who is marooned on the satellite with her) and "Filthy Jake" Armani (Loo's friend and protector, whose rough exterior hides a loyal soul and generous heart) are particuarly well-written.

On the art-front, Sizer's style is distinctive, but a little rough around the edges and a bit inconsistent quality-wise. As with most young artists, you can see his style evolve and change as the series progresses, and by the second half of the book, the quality of the art stabilizes and remains fairly high. (The first five pages of the book, a "prologue" thatI think was drawn just for the omnibus edition, are of even higher quality that the end of Loo's adventure, so Sizer is clearly still growing and developing as an artist. And I think he's a talent to watch for as the years unfold.)

There are very few comics where I buy every edition. With "Little White Mouse", I purchased the individual issues (some of them from Sizer directly when I met him at a convention, somewhere... Chicago, I think. I did too many shows that summer to know for sure) as they came out from Caliber and Blue Line Pro; I purchased the collected editions that came out from Blue Line Pro; I tried (and failed) to get my hands on the "Retro-Mix Special"--my comic shop guy told me it didn't exist, yet it's in the omnibus, so he was wrong; and I ordered the "Little White Mouse Omnibus" as soon as I heard it was available. Once I got it, I read the story of Loo all over again, for the third time for parts of it.

And it's as good as the first time I read the early issues in that hotel room in Chicago (or Milwaukee or Salt Lake City... where ever I was).

If you like comic books, or if you just like a well-done sci-fi story, I cannot recommend "Little White Mouse" highly enough. The same goes if you know a girl who likes "manga." Give her something good to read.

I also encourage you to visit Paul Sizer's website by clicking here. It's got a great gallery section devoted to "Little White Mouse," as well as all sorts of information on Sizer's more recent, critically acclaimed projects.