Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Women of Elmore

Fantasy artist Larry Elmore was one of the major reasons TSR, Inc. and its roleplaying games became as popular as they did. His iconic fantasy images, particularly the paintings and character designs he created for the "Dragonlance" property, fueled the imaginations of a generation.

Elmore's lines grace my two latest releases--"ROLF!: The Rollplaying Game of Big Dumb Fighters (Revised and Expanded... Because Bigger IS Better)" and "Houseboat on the River Styx". I am celebrating by presenting a selection of beautiful women from his drawing board (hopefully the first of many Elmore "exhibits" to brighten your Wednesdays here at Shades of Gray).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Available again... for the first time in five years!

In 1995, L.L. Hundal had an idea for a quick-and-dirty combat game for two players where each made a character, selected a few skills for them, and then set them about battling to the death. Steve Miller made a few contributions to it, and it was released into the Newsgroups as a freebie. It was a game that emphasized rollplaying over roleplaying. It ran about four pages.

That game was first coming of "ROLF!: The Rollplaying Game of Big Dumb Fighters"

In 2006, ID Adventures released a revised version of the game, illustrated with art by Larry Elmore. Miller expanded the game with a spell-casting system... because how can you possibly have your fantasy game system taken seriously if it doesn't have a spell-casting system? It was still designed for two players and it still emphasized rollplaying over roleplaying. It was now eight pages in length.

Now, in 2011, Steve Miller and NUELOW Games are bringing ROLF! back again... bigger and better than ever! "ROLF!: The Rollplaying Game of Big Dumb Fighers (Revised and Expanded... Because Bigger IS Better!)" clocks in at a massive 10 pages, and it can now be played by two, three, four, or even five players! It's still got gorgeous black-and-white Larry Elmore line-art, and it's in a handy-dandy PDF format for easy downloading to you computer, your iPad, and who knows where else? You can even print it on paper and have your very own old fashioned, paper-based game rulebook!

Oh yeah... and it still emphasizes rollplaying over roleplaying.

"ROLF!: The Rollplaying Game of Big Dumb Fighters (Revised and Expanded... Because Bigger IS Better" can currently be purchased for just $1 at If you you like RPGs and laughing with friends, I think you'll like ROLF! (The same might be true if you liked some of the humor in 150 Movies You (Should Die Before) You See, you might enjoy this also.

All proceeds from the sales of this game go to the Feed Steve's Hungry Cats Fund. Please buy your copy today!

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Shadow missing in 'International Crime'?

International Crime (1938)
Starring: Rod La Rocque and Astrid Allwyn
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

There are times when I wonder why production companies who spend good money on licensing existing properties don't keep their writers and directors in line when it comes to creating the screen adaptations. Heck, I don't understand *at all* why the owners of properties that are licenced don't insist on some form of oversight and/or quality control veto-rights over what the licensee does with their creations. (And I hope to some day be fortunate enough to work on a propety where the owner doesn't care what the heck I do with it... so far, I've never quite been in that position, as every licensed property I've worked on has come with a very attentive and concerned person reviewing my work for the licensor.)

Take the truly awful adaptation of The Shadow that is "International Crime". In this film, Lamont Cranston is a hardboiled radio commentator and criminologist who has a bad relationship with the police and solves crime more through trickery than detection; he's basically a stock lead character for low-budget detective comedies from that era. There's none of the mystery (and none of the horror/thriller aspect) that surrounds The Shadow and his cases... and Lamont Cranston exhibits no supernatural ability to "cloud men's mind." His identity as The Shadow is widely known, as it's the name of his radio show rather than a secret alter-ego.

Worse, the ever-charming and resourceful Margo Lane from the real stories and radio plays, who was always there to help both Cranston and his Shadow alter-ego, isn't anywhere to be found in "The Shadow Strikes," and is replaced in "International Crime" by an annoying girl reporter (played by Astrid Allwyn, who is really the only attractive thing about "International Crime"... even if she shows virtually no acting ability).

All in all, this feels like someone took an unused script that was sitting around the producer's office and slapped "The Shadow" on it and renamed the main character "Lamont Cranston." However, the true is probably that Hollywood creatives were arrogant morons who felt they could "improve" upon properties long before "Modesty Blaise" and "Jonah Hex" (just to name two of dozens upon dozens of examples). The more things change in the film biz, the more they stay the same.

Friday, June 24, 2011

In memory of Gene Colan

Master craftsman and comics book legend Gene Colan has passed away at the age of 84. Here is a small gallery of artwork in celebration of the great legacy of entertainment he has left behind.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The reason we must perform pagan rituals
on the summer solstice...

... is to keep Giant Martine Beswicke, the mightiest of the Great Old Ones, from breaking out of her intra-dimensional prison and striding the continents while bellowing, "Size DOES matter, you puny mortals!"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's a thriller that's almost thrill free

The Embalmer (aka "The Monster of Venice") (1965)
Starring: Gin Mart, Anita Todesco, Maureen Brown, and Luciano Gasper
Director: Dino Tavella
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A homicidal maniac in SCUBA gear abducts women from the streets of Venice and brings them to his secret lair under the canals where he embalms them after changing into a skull mask and monk robes. Will the only intelligent man in the city (Mart) stop the killing before his overly inquisitive girlfriend becomes the next victim (Todesco)?

"The Embalmer" dates from the late 1960s, but it feels more like something from someone studying at the feet of such master hacks as William Beaudine and William Nigh but who either didn't pay attention or who is nearly devoid of talent. In a similar vein, it feels like it was made by someone who wanted to make a movie like the 1962 hit Mario Bava's "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" or the horror-tinged Val Lewton oddities from RKO twenty years earlier, but who didn't pay attention to what made these movies from classier directors work either.

This movie features the same sort of long-on-looks-but-short-on-personality hero and the stupid, indifferent cops that were mainstays in so many Beaudine and Nigh directed films, as well as an outrageous plot just like many of their movies. But this film is slower and more repetitive than either the worst Beaudine or Nigh effort, with the lead-up to the abductions and the freeze-frame that identifies the victim becoming tiresome by the third time we are walked through the process (just in case we didn't catch it the first two), and the supposedly spooky ramblings of the girl-collecting mad man getting longer and stupider as the film progresses instead of shorter and creeper. Basically, it's a non-thrilling thriller in just about every way.

In trying to be like Bava or Lewton, Tavella only manages to make the mundane world existing around the horrific so mundane that it's downright boring, while consistently failing to deliver anything but flatly lit scenes filmed in an uninspired fashion. And what suspense there might be in a scene is usually dispelled by some of the most inappropriate jazzy soundtrack music you're likely to encounter.

And then there's the obligatory musical number at the halfway point of the film. Even that is painful to sit through.

For all that is bad with this movie, Tavella does start to get with the horror movie and/or suspense film program as we reach the final 10-15 minutes of the roughly 80-minute running time. The chases in the madman's underground lair, the final fate of the girlfriend, and even the final square-off between the hero and the killer all feel like they might belong in a different movie--except for the crappy soundtrack music, but even that is deployed a little more effectively here. All the moodiness that has been lacking up to this point is suddenly present on the screen, and our patience for sticking around is rewarded.

That said, the pay-off may not be good enough to waste an hour of your life on. Supposedly there's an edit out there that runs about 50 minutes. If it was cut by someone with skill and talent, maybe they managed to make the film worthwhile, although my experience has been that such hackery often makes things worse.

"The Embalmer" is available in multiple DVD editions on its own, or in a couple of different multi-packs. The only reason for checking it out would be if you're interested in examining movies that feature elements of what eventually became the "slasher movie" genre, so your best bet is to acquire it in a multi-pack and consider it a "bonus feature".

Note: It's entirely possible that I am being unfair to Dino Tavella by assuming he was trying to copy/pay homage to other filmmakers. It's entirely possible that his incompetence was born entirely of his own inspiration. This is one of two movies that Tavella wrote and directed in 1965. He died at the age of 48 in 1969, and I could learn little else about him during a quick web-search.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Introducing 'Pretty Little Maids, All in a Row'

A look at the "popular post" list shows both what people visiting are Googling for, but also what they click through to via the "You might also like feature at the bottom of each entry on the blog.

To serve those of you looking for pictures of and posts about actresses and pretty women in general, I have created an archive blog that's fed by the five most-frequently updated Cinema Steve blogs. Click here to visit Pretty Little Maids, All in a Row.

If you already follow several of my blogs, there won't be a whole lot at Maids you won't already have seen or read, although I will be swapping out many of the stills from the original posts to more closely match the theme of the archive. That will be a process way down the list of priorities.

However, if you do check it out, I hope you enjoy it as much as I know Groucho would.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Apocalypse Corman!
(or 'Three actors, three days, and three bucks')

Last Woman on Earth (1960)
Starring: Betsy Jones-Moreland, Antony Carbone, and Robert Towne
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A crooked business man (Carbone), his wife (Jones-Moreland), and his young attorney (Towne) through a fluke survive a mysterious disaster that kills every living thing on the surface of Earth's northern hemisphere, perhaps in the entire world. They attempt to forge a life on the now deserted planet, but how long can two men tolerate each other with just one woman between them? Not very long.

There isn't much more to this film that that paragraph. If I told you that one man kills the other, and the remaining couple lives happily ever after, I wouldn't be spoiling the film, because that's the outcome that's set up early on, and it's an outcome that's never in any doubt.

The cinematography and acting is serviceable for a film which was probably written on the back of cocktail napkins, for which much of the dialogue was probably ad-libbed (the only explanation I can think of for inexplicably repeated lines within the same scene), and which was only made because "Creature from the Haunted Sea" wrapped a few days early and director/producer wanted to squeeze as much work out of the cast and crew he had brought to Puerto Rico as possible.

But for a movie that was probably made in a single-digit number of days, it isn't all bad. The characters are interesting in a community theater one-act play sort of way, and the story moves along at a quick pace. While there isn't a whole lot that happens in this film, you can still watch it and not get bored. Antony Carbone is particularly interesting as the crooked business man, mostly because you know that he's going to kill someone before the film's over. The only question is who.

That's not to say that it's necessarily worth watching unless you're interested in what an "artsy" Corman film might look like, or if you want to check out the humble beginnings of the writer of "China Town". But in the final analysis, this is yet another Roger Corman production where the poster art is more interesting than the film itself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Picture Perfect Wednesday:
Signs of the Bad Economy

She can't afford shirts...

... she can't afford pants...

... she has to ride the bus to work...

... and she gave her soul to a nameless Lemurian demon god
for a carton of cigarettes.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Then she lit up a candle,
and she showed me the way

Is there anyone out there who doesn't love "Hotel California"? It's a great tune and a great spook story!

Here's a moody metal cover of the classic Eagles song. (Not much of a video, but then no one has really made one.)

Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

This file could probably have stayed hidden

Secret File: Hollywood (1962)
Starring: Robert Clarke, Francine York, Sydney Mason, John Warburton, Bill White, and Maralou Gray
Director: Ralph Cushman
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A former private detective (Clarke) is hired by a scandal sheet to take pictures of celebrities for the publication. However, he soon discovers there is a dark and deadly side to the magazine's activities, and he find himself in the middle of blackmail schemes... and ultimately having to prevent his own murder.

"Secret File Hollywood" is a film that reminded me of the crime dramas from the old time low-budget studio PRC, an outfit that one could say was making film-noir movies before the subgenre existed. Like those films, "Secret File Hollywood" is populated almost exclusively by deeply flawed and unpleasant characters, living in a dank version of Los Angeles that feels all the more dirty and sleazy because of the cheap sets and low production values of the films. Glamour is the last thing you'll find in most PRC movies, although nihilism is present in large amounts.

The film's villain also shares a trait with many of those who moved through the plots of the PRC films with sneers, growls, and maniacal laughter; he is executing an insane revenge scheme in an unnecessarily complex fashion. And then there's the fact his secret identity isn't so secret, because the cast of characters is so small that there's only really one possibility as to who he might be.

The acting is decent and what you might expect if you consider the aura of a 1940s low-budget quickie that surrounds this picture. There isn't a scene where I wish they didn't pick up the pace a bit, but the actors generally provide solid performances of their stock characters.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Cab Calloway Classic

I'm starting the week with something a little different: An entire short film you can watch right here on the blog.

Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho (1934)
Starring: Cab Calloway, Fredi Washington, and Ethel Moses
Director: Fred Waller
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Jazz star Cab Calloway (Calloway) advises a porter to buy a radio in order to keep his wife from stepping out while he is away from home. Unfortunately, the wife (Washington) stays in with Cab Calloway himself.

This fun little ten-minute short features a trio of great Cab Calloway songs, including "The Lady with the Fan", a song written specifically for Calloway's Cotton Club show and performed here in his fictitious Cotton Club Show. They illustrate one of the things I've always found so much fun about Calloway's songs--characters appear in several of them, like Smokey Joe and Minnie--so they can combined to sort of tell larger stories. And then there's always the endless variation on the call "hi-de-ho."

Aside from the gag ending, this film is interesting from the point of view that it shows a black patron at the Cotton Club, a Harlem nightclub that was notoriously racist in its policy of only admitting white customers, despite specializing in black performers and black jazz music. By 1934, however, the policies had been been somewhat relaxed at the insistence of Duke Ellington, whose band and music had been a major part in building the club's high reputation. None the less, the black patron is shown separated from the rest behind a low wall.

Those were different times.

On the other hand, the film also shows that Cab Calloway would fit right into today's entertainment scene if he were a young musician and performer today. With the grasp of cutting-edge technology and tendency toward sex scandal on display in this film, Calloway might even be a politician Tweeting pictures of his penis for the world to see.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Blake should have stayed lost in the fog

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937)
Starring: Ralph Byrd, Herbert Rawlinson, and Joan Barclay
Director: Robert F. Hill
Rating: One of Ten Stars

Sir James Blake (Rawlinson) retires from Scotland Yard so he can help a pair of young inventors (Byrd and Barlcay) complete their death-ray machine and get it safely to the League of Nations so they can use it to end all wars. But spies opposed to world-peace are lurking in every shadow....

"Blake of Scotland Yard" is a movie that was created by editing down a serial... and it shows. Basically, it consists of a lot of characters running around and throwing punches at each other for unclear reasons, repeated establishing shots of the same strange French dive-bar, and sequences with a hunchbacked villain and his minions who seem to constantly change their minds about what their plans are in midstream.

This show was made in the late 1930s as a kids' program. I wonder how much kids liked it back in those days, but I'm certain they wouldn't like it today. Adults might get the occasional chuckle from some of the unintended comedy in the show, as well as some of the "topical references" which are just plain funny with 75 years of history between when they were made and now, but even they should be able to find better ways to spend their time... or at least something better to watch.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

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