Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
The Burka Compromise

With more and more European nations and American communities resisting the spread of the Muslim burka (and similar garb) for a host of reasons, I have looked to the wisdom of the past to find a middle-ground.

No hair or face is visible to arouse evil, lustful thoughts in men or to make the woman seem "immodest," yet its revealing enough that terrorists with a love of cross-dressing can't pass themselves off as a hapless woman just going about the business of Serving Man.

It may not completely address the concerns raised by thoughtful commentators here and here, but it's something.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Big revenge becomes small stuff

The Devil-Doll (aka "The Witch of Timbucktoo") (1936)
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan, Rafaela Ottiano, and Frank Lawton
Director: Tod Browning
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Honest banker Paul Lavond (Barrymore) is sentenced to life in the hellish prison of Devil's Island after his business associates frame him for a robbery and murder they committed. However, after 17 years, he escapes with a mad scientist who was working on a method to reduce humans to a height of mere inches (all for the good of humanity, of course). The scientist may have been mad, but his methods worked--they not only reduced humans to doll-sizes, but they make them controllable via mental telepathy. Consumed with hatred for those who framed him, and a wish to restore the wealth that was denied him to his now-grown daughter (O'Sullivan), he takes the scientist's methods to Paris and embarks on a bizarre campaign of terror and vengeance.

"The Devil-Doll" is a film with an exceedingly goofy concept at its core, but the cast is so spectacular and the effects so well done--they hold up in most instances even today--that it really doesn't matter. Barrymore and every other actor in the film give such straight performances that telepathically controlled, tiny assassins seem perfectly reasonable. (The one exception is Ottiano, who plays the widower of the inventor of the "dollification" process... and since she's even nuttier than her husband, it's okay for her to be waaaay over the top.)

This is a film that's well-shot, well-acted, and that holds up well nearly 75 years years after its release.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

'Essential Ghost Rider Vol. 1' is interesting
if inconsistent superheroic horror

Essential Ghost Rider, Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics, 2005)
Writers: Gary Friedrich, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman,
Artists: Mike Ploog, Jim Mooney, Tom Sutton, Herb Trimpe, Frank Robbins, John Byrne,
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

"Essential Ghost Rider Vol 1" reprints 500+ pages of the earliest tales of one of most bizarre Marvel horror characters. The series focuses on Johnny Blaze, a young motorcycle daredevil who sold his soul to the devil so that his adopted father wouldn't of a deadly disease. Johnny didn't think of the saying "the devil is in the details," so when his adopted father died anyway (just not of the disease), he tried to renege on his deal with Satan. Only the love of his pure-hearted stepsister saved him from being carried off to Hell. She couldn't prevent him from being cursed, and when the sun goes down (or when there is evil afoot, or when he is in danger... the curse keeps changing), Johnny is transformed into the Ghost Rider--a being with a flaming skull who rides a bike made from pure Hellfire.

Some things should remain childhood memories. The stories in "Essential Ghost Rider Vol 1", a book I look with great anticipation because I had such fond memories. In particularly, I remembered Ghost Rider fighting a WW I ghost biplane, and I remembered him fighting an Indian witch who had sold her soul to Satan like he had.

In some respects, the stories here match my childhood recollection. If taken on their own, each of Ghost Rider's adventures--most of which spanned two or three individual issues when first published--feature a curious mix of mystical gobbledygook, horror tropes, and superheroics. Out of all of Marvel's horror characters, the Ghost Rider is the most superhero-like, with Son of Satan--whose debut is also featured in this volume--coming in a close second.

However, when the stories are collected like they are here, a fatal editorial sloppiness becomes apparent, most obviously in the constant redefining of Johnny Blaze's curse and the repeated lapses in continuity as writers come and go on the series. The number of contradictions and "reinventions" that we see in the series are inexcusable over a mere 30 or so individual issues.

There's also an issue with the stories not aging well. They were products of the 1970s, and this is painfully evident in some of the stories, many of the characters, and much of the art. (The heavy 1970s feel is a blessing when it comes to the Witch Woman, though... she fills a pair of hotpants like no minon of Satan ever will again ).

Speaking of the art, it is the exceptional quality of the work produced by Ploog, Mooney and Sutton (the latter of which make for a surprisingly effective team) who save the book from getting a Four Tomato rating. Ploog's work is particularly excellent--not quite up to the level of his "Monster of Frankenstein" run but it's still very good. Mooney's run on the book brings out the superhero aspects of the title clearly, while Sutton helps bring out the macabre as he does on virtually every title he ever worked on.

My mild disappointment with this book may be that I approached the book with an attitude tainted by fond childhood memories instead of a neutral eye. However, the "Ghost Rider" series actually got better as it wore on, something which future volumes of this series have borne out, so maybe my negativity isn't all nostalgia. So far, Marvel Comics has released three volumes in this series, and I hope they will collect them all with the release of a fourth. (I hope to eventually post reviews of them all.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

United States threatened by Chinese brainwashing plot!

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Janet Leigh, Laurence Harvey, Leslie Parrish, and Henry Silva
Director: John Frankenheimer
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A Korean War vet (Sinatra) fights off brainwashing and becomes the only man who can stop a far-reaching plot by the Chinese to place their handpicked agent in the highest elected office of the United States--the Presidency.

"The Manchurian Candidate" is one of those movies that truly is a classic. Not only is it spectacular film--with a suspenseful script, great camera work and even greater acting by everyone who appears on screen. Although over two hours in lenght, the film doesn't contain a dull moment, and you will absolutely grow to hate Angela Lansbury's evil, power-at-any-cost bitch of a political femme fatale.

While some of the details may date this movie, the characters and storyline remain as fresh and relevant-seeming today as they were in 1962. While I find the entire film engrossing, with one tiny exception, I find it particularly interesting that while I felt sympathy for Alexander Sebastian in "Notorious" (review here), I have nothing but contempt and disgust for Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in this film. Both characters are men who are dominated by evil mothers with similar goals in mind. Perhaps the difference is that there seems to be a spark of decency in Sebastian, while Iselin is nothing but a perverted puppet of his twisted mother. Maybe it's the way we see Sebastian's heart break when he discovers that he has been betrayed by the woman he loves, and we have no similar moment to make Iselin less gross.

Speaking women and love, the romantic element of this film is the one part of it that I simply couldn't buy. As much as I thought both Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh were great in their parts (as good as any in their careers, not to mention unique), the Insta-Romance that sprang up between them when they met on the train just didn't ring true to me. I kept expected her to be revealed as a spy of some sort--that the romantic attraction was part of the brainwashing, or that she was perhaps an American agent of some sort. Neither came to pass in the film. I suppose this is another similarity I see between this film and Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious"... the film's hero and heroine have a forced romance Just Because.

With the exception of the romance misstep, "The Manchurian Candidate" is a fabulous political thriller that I think fans of the genre definitely need to see.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Vincent Price is 'The Last Man on Earth'

The Last Man on Earth (aka "The Night Creatures", "Wind of Death", and "Night People") (1964)
Starring: Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli and Giacomo Rossi-Stuart
Director: Sidney Salkow (or Ubaldo Ragona, depending on the source)
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Dr. Robert Morgan (Price) spends three lonely years battling undead monsters after a mysterious plague that kills most people while causing others to rise as vampires sweeps the world. He starts to uncover signs that someone else is battling the vampires, and soon afterwards he meets Ruth (Bettoia), a fellow survivor. But is Ruth what she seems, or are the vampires getting smarter and is she part of an elaborate trap?

"The Last Man on Earth" is a fantastic horror film. It is creepy up to the very last moment, and it creates its sense of horror, dread, and even sorrow without resorting to gory violence or even obscenity.

Price is excellent in a rare part as someone who is a thoroughly sympathetic character who does everything in the film with the very best of intentions. The supporting cast are okay, but they are really just there for Price to play off.

This is a movie that's well worth the time it'll take you to see it... and it's a movie that all those oh-so-clever filmmakers out there who are churning out horror and suspense films with lame (and even movie-destroying) twist endings need to see. "The Last Man on Earth" offers a twist and then a twist on that twist, and both make the movie a stronger story.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Is that the smallest continent on Earth?

Lost Continent (1951)
Starring: Cesar Romero, Chick Chandler, John Hoyt, Sid Melton, Whit Bissel and Hugh Beaumont
Director: Sam Newfield
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When an experimental missile goes out of control and crashes on an uncharted island, Air Force Major Joe Nolan (Romero) leads an expedition to recover the guidance system and figure out what went wrong. But when the same mysterious rays that caused the missile to go of course also brings down the expedition's plane, Nolan and his team must travel through miles of wilderness, scale a mountain... and find themselves confronted with dinosaurs and other life that has died out millions of years ago elsewhere on the planet. But what is more deadly--the pre-historic creatures, or the man Nolan suspects of being an enemy agent (Hoyt) and of trying to pick off expedition members one by one.

"Lost Continent" is a film with very little to recommend it. It's got a slow-moving story that's made even more slow-moving by what seems like a never-ending sequence of the characters climbing a mountain; I used to think the driving scenes that are popular padding in crappy movies were boring, but scenes of guys pretending to be scaling a mountain on an obvious set are even worse.

Those climbing scenes are doubly-boring when the attempts at generating suspense come from extreme illogic in character behavior and actions. For example, one character is injured early in the expedition, but do the supposedly experienced leader Major Nolan leave him behind in the care of the buxom and friendly young native lass played by a cameo-ing Acquanetta near the end of her brief acting career? Nope, they drag him along on a difficult climb for no reason whatsoever other than to have his injury give rise to him slipping and falling... and ultimately to give grounds to suspect the Russian defector as a double-agent trying to sabotage the mission. It's what "The Eiger Sanction" (review here) might have been like if it had been made by morons.

Then there's the stop-motion animation that gives life to the dinosaurs that menace our heroes. Even allowing for the facts that this is a movie from 1951 and that it was more stock footage like the exterior scenes of the air force base the missile was launched from. However, after taking a quick look at the silent movie version of "The Lose World," where I assumed the dinosaurs had been picked up from, I concluded that the animation was original... just so bad that it made one think it had to state from the early decades of filmmaking. Further, these dinosaurs don't appear until about 3/4th of the way into the film, despite the fact they were a main selling point of the picture.

At every turn, this is a movie that lets the viewer down. Heck, even the promo still I used to illustrate this article has nothing to do with anything that happens in the movie. Acquanetta is never menaced by any flying creatures, as she never sets foot outside the village set.

The Rating of Three I'm giving this film is so low that it borders on a Two. I'm only being as generous as I am, because the actors are actually pretty decent given what they're working with. Plus, Cesar Romero is particularly good as the American officer who knows to be suspicious of a possible enemy agent, but who is intelligent enough not to jump to judgement until he is 100 percent certain that he is right. I always appreciate a movie that features portrayals of military officers as I have known them, not the frothing-at-the-mouth paranoid psychopaths that are so often presented in Hollywood flicks. (Of course, another reason for the portrayal of Major Nolan may be a statement on the part of the filmmakers about the Red Scare that was running through American pop culture and politics at the time this movie was made. While there were reasons to be wary, there were more reasons to be certain before accusing, could be what the movie was trying to say.)

Those few good elements can't make up for the fact that this is a movie that at every turn delivers less than it should. Heck, even the name promises more than the movie delivers. Instead of a lost continent, it presents a mountain valley on an uncharted island.

Friday, June 18, 2010

'Daughters of the Dragon' is disappointing

Daughters of the Dragon: Deadly Hands Special (Marvel Comics, 2006)
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: Marshall Rogers and Bob McLeod
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

As a kid, I loved "Iron Fist" and I found the references to adventures had by supporting characters Misty Knight and Colleen Wing to be particularly intriguing. The bionic cop and the girl samurai had a detective agency called Nightwing Restorations, and they had adventures in a magazine that I only ever saw in the footnotes that Marvel littered across the pages of their comics.

Recently, I rediscovered both "Iron Fist" and Nightwing Restorations when Marvel released the massive anthology "Essential Iron Fist." And, to my delight, I discovered a somewhat slimmer reprint volume--a collection of those referenced adventures of the "Daughters of the Dragon" in Hong Kong!

Well, I waited almost 30 years to be underwhelmed. The art by a still-developing Marshall Rogers is not bad, but it's not all that good either, and the Claremont stories are dull and uninteresting. Worse, they're something of a retread from the storyline in Iron Fist where Colleen is brainwashed. When he did it with the Colleen Wing character the first time, it was part of an excellent storyline that transformed both her and the character of Danny Rand in positive ways story-wise, but the similar abuse heaped on the character in "Daughters of the Dragon" is just bad and pointless.

(What was it with Claremont and mentally raping strong female characters? He ruined Ms. Marvel, Psylocke, and probably several others over the years by doing this.)

I wanted to like these tales, because I think both Misty and Colleen are incredibly cool characters... but these tales just aren't all that good. They're better than the modern appearances of the characters (in a 2006 mini-series last I was aware), but still disappointing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
The Illustrations of Al Williamson

Al Williamson, who dazzled sci-fi fans with his artwork for "Flash Gordon," "Star Wars," and many, many other famous properties died on June 16 after a long illness.

Although Mr. Williamson is no longer with us, his art remains for us to marvel at. Here are some samples of his work, taken from various sources and times in a career that spanned five decades. Click on the images for larger versions.

Nancy Drew reports on murder and danger

Nancy Drew - Reporter (1939)
Starring: Bonita Granville, Frank Thomas Jr., Mary Lee, Dickie Jones, Thomas Jackson and John Litel
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

While trying to win an opportunity to have an article published in the local paper, teenaged detective Nancy Drew (Granville) decides a woman on trial for murder is innocent and sets about finding the one piece of evidence that will prove her so. Unfortunately, the real killers are looking for it, too.

"Nancy Drew - Reporter" is the sort of the film that probably appealed to 9-year-olds in 1939--and the presence a pair of trouble-making little kids making life hard for the teenaged protagonists of the story makes sure there's someone there they can relate to--but there's not much for adults to enjoy here. I'm not sure there's even alot for modern kids to enjoy.

The biggest problem is that the mystery being solved here is pretty much explained in the first few minutes, solved halfway through the movie, and ultimately resolved through dumb luck rather than detective work. The film is more concerned about presenting screwball comedic hi-jinx than a sensible detective story and it feels like there was a generic kids' comedy script sitting around that minor modifications was made to in order to make a Nancy Drew film.

You may get some chuckles out the antics here, but I think this is a film you can pass on. (It's only worth getting if you acquire it as part of the Nancy Drew four-movie set that contains all the films produced by Warner Bros. in the 1930s. I'm currently working my through the set... and I hope the next two are better than this one!)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Picture Perfect Special:
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle

It's 45 years ago this year that Irish McCalla (whom some call statuesque and others curvacious) donned a leopard skin bikini and starred in the syndicated television series "Sheena: Queen of the Jungle".

The creation of comic book industry pioneers Will Eisner and Jerry Eiger, Sheena was the female character to star in her own comic book, appearing in the summer of 1938 and beating Wonder Woman to market by several months. She was featured regularly in comics until the mid-1950s when her title was cancelled just before she made the jump to television. Her latest comic book incarnation is from Devil's Due Publishing.

As for the television series, McCalla stated in interviews that she wasn't hired for her acting talents but rather for her athleticism and ability to "swing from vines." (And, of course, her ability to fill a leopard skin bikini.)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

With Paula, it truly is a glandular problem

Captive Wild Woman (1943)
Starring: John Carradine, Milburn Stone, Lloyd Carrigan, Acquanetta, Evelyn Ankers, Fay Helm, and Ray Corrigan
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A mad genius (Carradine) proves the correctness of his cutting-edge theories in glandular functions by transforming a gorilla into a shapely young woman he names Paula (Acquanetta). Tragedy and death ensue.

The more one watches horror and sci-fi films from the 1940s, the more obvious it is why Universal's attempt to recapture the magical horror profits that carried them through the depression in the 1930s failed. Too many of the films from this "revival period" are no different than the sort of nonsense that was issuing forth from small studios like Monogram and PRC; instead of living up to greatness of "The Mummy" and "The Invisible Man," Universal production executives and directors instead lowered themselves to the level of those who had followed on their coattails.

When compared to the classics of the 1930s, or even "Ghost of Frankenstein" and "The Wolfman" from the 1940s--something the modern-day Universal marketeers are encouraging us to do by including this film is DVD multipack titled "Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive"--this movie falls woefully short. It's more in the league of low-budget efforts like "The Devil Bat" or "The Monster Maker," just to pick two movies about mad scientists at random. That is a serious step down from the great horror shows of the 1930s.

While disappointing when considered in the light of the cinematic greatness that Universal had once brought to the world, "Captive Wild Woman" is well-acted and well-filmed, with a fast pace to carry us quickly through the story. While Carradine is no Bela Lugosi or Lionel Atwill, he does a decent enough job as the mad doctor at the heart of the story, and the exotic beauty of Acquanetta makes the movie more enjoyable as well. This is not a "classic" in any sense other than it's an old movie, but it's worth checking out if you like the fantastic pulp-fiction science of the early sci-fi and horror flicks.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Drummond's wedding derailed by murder

Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938)
Starring: John Howard, Louise Campbell, E.E. Clive, Reginald Denny, John Barrymore, Porter Hall, Matthew Boulton, and Halliwell Hobbes
Director: James Hogan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

&Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond (Howard) once again courts danger (and misses his wedding date) when a security guard at his wedding reception is murdered, and he sets off in pursuit of the theif (Boulton) who stole a synthetic diamond that was among the wedding gifts. As a larger plot comes to light, and he and his manservant Tenny (Clive) run afoul the villains, his bride-to-be, Phyllis (Campbell), and his friend Algy (Denny) set out to find and rescue him. But will they make matters better or worse?

"Bulldog Drummond's Peril" is one of the best entries in the series. Fine acting, an engaging story, and attention paid to the events of previous films, it is certain to draw you in. (The fact that it pays attention to series continuity--the previous film ended with Hugh and Phyllis on their way to Switzerland to get married, and this one opens at the wedding reception a day or two before the wedding--makes it all the more enjoyable. If only more of the writers and producers of movie series in the '30s and '40s could have been bothered with such details....)

The film is part mystery, part adventure tale, and its convoluted plots twists back and forth as Drummond tries to catch a killer and unravel the many deceptions that are piled upon one another. And if the plot wasn't enough to keep the viewer interested, (There are two seperate groups of bad guys after the same goal but for different reasons, and they are alternatively cooperating and crossing each other, frustrating Drummond's efforts to get to the bottom of what is really going on.)

Although there isn't as much amusing banter in this film as in the three previous entries in the series--things are a little grimmer here, as one of Drummond's quarries is a respected business man and one of the peerage, (so Scotland Yard won't get involved without solid evidence of serious wrongdoing) and the laboratory of Algy's father-in-law is bombed--most of the returning castmembers give their best performaances of the series yet.

The villians of this installment are also superior both in writing and in the actors who portray them. In the previous two installments of the series, the bad guys were either a little too frivilous (in "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back") or too bland (in "Bulldog Drummond's Revenge"), but here they are perfectly slimey (the devious, arrogant British lord played by Matthew Boulton) or sinister (the sociopatic American scientist played by Porter Hall).

The film also provides an interesting expansion of the Drummond Universe in the revelation that Tenny is far, far more than just a clever gentleman's gentleman. He is himself something of an adventurer and a rogue with his own network of informants that he can tap into when he or Drummond needs it.

The only true weak point in the film, it John Barrymore's portrayal of Colonel Nielsen, Drummond's friend at Scotland Yard. In the previous three movies, Nielsen came across as consistenly irrirated with Drummond, but stll fairly professional, friendly, and even a little fatherly at times. Here, he comes across as an ignorant, bellowing jerk and almost slides into the "incompetent police inspector" stereotype that was so typical in films of this type. (He does get one of the films funniest lines, though right at the end where he effectively turns the tables of joking on Drummond.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Memo to Muslim Terrorists

Now that it's safe for you to venture back onto to web to surf for child porn and messages from your mullahs (what with "Everyone Draw Mohammed Day" well behind us), I thought I'd offer this as a friendly warning to you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Adam Warren presents great superhero funnies

Empowered Vols. 1 & 2 (Dark Horse, 2007)
Story and Art: Adam Warren
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

"Empowered" is a series of graphic novels featuring stories of varying length that revolve around the young, sexy superheroine Empowered. She gains her power from an alien "supersuit" that, while bullet-proof and capable of letting her shoot energy beams from her hands, it is also fragile in the extreme when it comes to sharp objects. Any possible chance, it tears, and each tear robs Empowered of some of her powers, until she is just a normal woman again. And a woman who is naked aside from scraps of skin-clinging clothing at that.

To make matters worse for Empowered, she is very insecure about her body, yet her skintight supersuit reveals everything about it, and she can't cover up for the suit to function--she can't even wear a cape to cover what she considers to be her big butt. Even more embarrassing, Empowered continues to get captured and tied up by even the lamest of villains, so her teammates in the Superhomies must sped nearly as much rescuing her as they do fighting crime.

The first two volumes in the "Empowered" series dishes out commentary and spoofs of conventions in the superhero genre, of the conventions and storytelling styles of Japanese comics, observations about society, advertising messages, the comic book business and comic book readers, personal insecurities and triumphs, love, life in general, and a whole lot more. It's downright amazing how much writer/artist Adam Warren manages to cram onto each page of these books. Even the "superheroes have to deal with real-life issues" material is well done, which was the biggest and most pleasurable surprise in the books for me, as I haven't really liked most of that type of material that's been generated in recent years. For a while, I've been of the opinion that the only writers who could do thse stories well were Steve Gerber, Cary Bates, and Archie Goodwin (three old timers who are either no longer with us or barely working in comics anymore), but Adam Warren proved that there are some current creators who can match their talent for binging the mundane to bear in their stories.

As might be expected in a superhero spoof about a stacked heroine who gets her clothes torn off and is tied up on a regular basis, there are a number of sexual related jokes and a high level of sexual content, particularly in Vol. 1. This means these books are meant for adults, and then only adults that aren't offended by drawings of and stories involving adults having sexual relations. (And I do mean these books are for adults. These books are a cut above the usual "mature" comics, as aptly illustrated by the fact that the Vol. 2 has far less sexually charged content than Vol. 1, yet it is just as funny and perhaps even more interesting because more time is spent on character development. (Vol. 1 was very episodic in nature, with very little carry-over from chapter to chapter. Vol. 2 developes a couple of running plotlines, some of which are continued in Vol. 3.)

The stories in these books also work because every character within them has something about them that's likable or that the readers can relate to, sympathize with, or chuckle at. While these often relate to secret insecurities possessed by the characters, the characters just as often become likable because they are revealed to be goodhearted, despite appearances. Even the neigh-omnipotent comsic entity that lives imprisoned and now-powerless in an alien device on Empowered's coffee table has a degree of twisted charm and outsider nature that makes him sympathetic to the reader.

The heart of the tales is the friendships shared by Empowered boyfriend Thugboy (a con-artist and killer who used to prey primarily on supervillains, but who is now retired, reformed, and attending open-bar parties hosted by the Superhomies whenever he can) and her best friend Ninjette (a ninja-for-hire with a drinking problem). Watching the ups and downs of their relationship with each other is what really makes these books worthwhile.

I've been enjoying Adam Warren's writing and artwork for years, but "Empowered" is his best work yet. Artwise and storywise, it's top-notch stuff, and I think it's a series that should be read by lovers of superhero comics and Japanese-style comics alike. Warren states through Empowered in one of the many hilarious fourth-wall chapter introductions that there's little crossover between "manga" fans and superhero fans. These books will, hopefully, become a common ground for both camps to stand on. They should be read by every adult comics fan with a sense of humor.

If you like traditional, paper-based roleplaying games (specifically, the classic "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" game, click here to see how Ninjette looks in that system.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Carniverous plant life has never been funnier

Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Starring: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Tammy Windsor, Toby Michaels, and Jack Nicholson
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the nebbish flowershop employee Seymore (Haze) creates a brand-new kind of plant as an expression of his love for fellow employee Audrey (Joseph), their boss Mushnik (Welles) is delighted that business starts booming after curious passer-bys stop in to see the plant. However, it soon becomes apparent that Seymore has created a monster--a talking plant with telepathic powers and a taste for human flesh!

"The Little Shop of Horrors" is a bizarre, chaotic, strange, and thorougly entertaining comedy. The jokes, nonsensical situations, and oddball characters keep coming non-stop, and along the way, Corman and crew mananges to parody cop dramas, monster movies, romance films, and even swashbuckler movies. The film unfolds almost like a dream, so random are some of the characters and dialogue exchanges, yet it all comes together in a film that exudes a great surreal atmosphere.

This may look like the low-budget movie that it is, but it was made with a crew that understood the limitations they were working under. It's also blessed with a fun script, and a cast of entergitic actors with fine comedic timing--I particularly love the three leads (Haze, Welles, and Joseph), Miller (as the "flower eater"), and the two girls buying flowers for a parade float. This is one of Corman's very best, and I think it's a flm worth seeing for anyone who loves kooky comedies... because this is one of the kookiest!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nancy Drew is on the case!

Nancy Drew - Detective (1938)
Starring: Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas, and John Litel
Director: William Clemens
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a wealthy old lady vanishes immediately after pledging to give a $250,000 gift to pay for a new pool for the all-girl school attended by teenager Nancy Drew (Granville), only Nancy believes that foul play may be involved. Roping neighbor and friend Ted Nickerson (Thomas) into helping her, she sets out to solve a mystery that ultimately brings her face-to-face with a band of dangerous crooks.

"Nancy Drew - Detective" is a fast-paced mystery/comedy that full of Girl Power 1930s style, with Nancy disregarding much of the rules of the chauvanistic society she lives in while running circles around adults, chasing down crooks in her sportscar and having adventures of the sorts that makes it easy to see why the "Nancy Drew" books became an immediate hit upon their debut in 1930. (While Nancy is smart and headstrong, she's also popular with her friends at school and she's always perfectly dressed.)

I haven't read any of the books myself, but someone who has told me that the Nancy Drew in print is far more composed and levelheaded than the one in the movie. I'll take her word for it,but the antics in this film reminded me of the juvenile detective fiction I read as a kid, specifically a series called "The Two Detectives". In those books, a pair of friends constantly got into the sort of scrapes that Nancy is in here, and they even relied on diguises and other bluffs like Nancy does. (Without ruining the film, I think I can reveal that Nancy and Ted infiltrate a private sanitarium, with Nancy in a black dress and veil and Ted disguised as a femal nurse. It gets really funny when he gets hit on by a lonely gangsters!)

Bonita Granville plays a cute and funny Nancy Drew, and she makes a great pair with Frankie Thomas, who plays Nancy's long-suffering pal Ted, who, it seems based on this film, is actually a cut above the usual sidekicks in film from this era. You can actually see why he and Nancy are friends... they are both very smart and they are both interested in seening the right thing done. (Although, Ted does seem to have a little more common sense than Nancy, even if goes out the window when she cooks up some crazy idea.) The rest of the cast is decent, but Granville and Thomas are the stars of the film in every sense.

For a fast-paced, lighthearted mystery film that you can sit down and enoy with the young girls in the house, I recommend checking out "Nancy Drew - Detective." Yes, it might be 70 years since the film was released, but the pacing, the jokes, and the overall story still entertains today. (If they're fans of the books, you can even talk to them about how long the character has been around, and perhaps even encourage them to write their own Nancy Drew stories, with their own take on the character. That's what the people who made the movie did, so why can't they?)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hollywood couple dreams up tales in 'Charade'

Charade (1953)
Starring: James Mason and Pamela Mason
Director: Roy Kellino
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This "Charade" is a black-and-white anthology film starring James Mason and his wife Pamela,and it predates the more famous "Charade" (with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn) by a decade. It draws its title from the set-up and linking device for the three stories--James dreams of being a film producer instead of just an actor, and together with his wife imagines what the movies he might produce would be like.

The three tales in the film share a common thread of love and how it might enrich or destroy a life. The first story is a little chiller about a failed artist who developes a fatal attraction for a man she knows to be a murderer, the second one is a melodrama about a man of honor who is tricked into a duel by a dishonorable man who once had designs on his fiance, while the closer is a light-hearted little story about a man blessed with infallable luck who goes looking for that one thing that's missing in his life and discovers it may or may not be love. (The first of the three stories even bears a small resemblence to the more famous "Charade", in that it takes place inside a shabby rooming house and focuses on a woman who is attracted to a potentially dangerous man.)

All three stories are well written, well staged, and expertly acted, with James and Pamela playing the leads in each one. The third, comedic story is a bit of a head-scratcher, but it's fun and entertaining nonetheless. The framing sequences add to the overall fun of the film, with the moment where what seemed to be James and Pamela's sitting room suddenly gives way to a partially struck sound-stage when James starts dreaming about the movies he's going to produce.

James Mason's talent as actor are clearly on display in this film, particularly between the first and second stories, where he goes from a character of quiet menace to one of stiff-necked, hidebound honor. and gives an excellent performance in each role.

"Charade" is definately a movie that isn't seen nearly enough. I recommend tracking down a copy and taking a look for yourself.

(That link is not a mistake. As far as I know, the 1953 "Charade" is only available as a bonus feature on that particular DVD edition of the better known film from 1963 of the same title. Click here to read my review of this Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant thriller at Watching the Detectives.)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Gum In My Hair

Milla Jovovich stars in "Gum In My Hair," the new action-thriller written and directed by Steve Miller. Coming soon to a drive-in movie theater near you!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Emerging from the city's shadows: John Law

Will Eisner's John Law: Dead Man Walking (IDW, 2004)
Story and Art: Gary Chaloner and Will Eisner
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

"Dead Man Walking" is an 80-page anthology that serves as a reintroduction to a classic Will Eisner character who never really saw publication until 1983, but whose creation led to a couple of the most celebrated stories in Esiner's famous 'The Spirit' series. The volume contains three all-new tales by Chaloner; the fully restored original John Law tales from the 1940s, by Eisner; and a short, but informative, essay about the character's publication history.

The original John Law tales, which make up the last 25 pages of the book, that are spectacular displays of when Will Eisner was at his finest. The art is fluid, with the action and motion in the panels virtually leaping off the page, and the stories are solid noir crime tales with quirky characters and femme fetales that could only have sprung from Eisner's mind and pen. They're great reading, and anyone who's admired Eisner's graphic novels or his Spirit work should read these tales, too.

The bulk of the book consists of Chaloner's new John Law stories, which capture the flavor and tone of Eisner's Law stories, as well as the elements that made the Spirit stories so fantastic. Chaloner also captures Eisner's writing style with quite a bit of flair. He does these things, however, without aping Eisner, but instead retains a style of his own. In fact, Chaloner's tales are a little darker than Eisner's, and while they definately set in a film-noir world of the 1940s, they also have a modern vibe to them. ("Law, Luck, and the Dead-Eyed Mystic" is a perfect fusion of that film-noir flavor with modern story-telling--and Chaloner throws in some cool backstory elements for John Law, as well as a couple of superhero-type characters.)

The flaw with Chaloner's work is that he, like so many modern artists, doesn't quite have the talent for layouts and pacing of a comic book story that older artists had. No matter how packed with activity that Eisner's pages were, the eyes of the reader always moved easily across the panels and pages; Chaloner's work is less clear and his layouts less easy to follow. In the bigger picture, he doesn't end each page with a "mini-cliffhanger" the way Eisner and other classic comic book artists did... and I think that Chaloner's tales suffer because of these factors.

Despite my complaints relating to Chaloner's mastery of the basics of comic book art above, I think "Dead Man Walking" is a comic book that everyone who loves comics should read. Chaloner's weaknesses as an artist are all too common these days, and his strengths more than make up for them. And vintage Eisner is always worth the price of admission.

(This graphic novel was follewed by a single issue of what was supposed to be a "John Law" ongoing series. That was 2005. I've not seen a second issue. I can only assume this means John Law's second chance for an extended publishing life was only slightly more successful than his first.)

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