Monday, April 14, 2014

Back Issue! #72 On Sale Now!

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The newest issue of TwoMorrows' Back Issue! is on sale now, and features a feature article by me about DC superhero Red Tornado, in the longest piece I have written for the magazine to date:
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(Click to embiggen)

The theme for this issue is Robots, and there's lots of fun stuff in there as always. Click here to buy yourself a copy!


Movie Monday: Escape From L.A.

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We've escaped from New York, now it's time to Escape From L.A.!

I, like many people from my generation, love the films of John Carpenter. From Assault on Precinct 13 to Halloween to The Fog to Escape From New York to The Thing to Christine to Starman to Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter spent a decade on an amazing hot streak, crafting a string of classics that are still being watched and analyzed to this day.

He hit a bit of a slow patch in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and his style of tough, no-nonsense filmmaking seemed at the odds with the nascent era of blockbuster film production. But I can remember being excited that he and his most frequent collaborator, Kurt Russell, were returning for their first sequel, Escape From L.A.!

Then, of course, I saw it, and was thoroughly disappointed. Aside from its many faults, the thing that bothered me the most about it was...it was just lame. And coming from someone as tough and funny and inventive as Carpenter, that to me seemed like the worst sin of all.

Flash forward twenty years (wow, really?), and I've been re-watching a lot of Carpenter's films, and getting impressed all over again. And I'm not the only one: Hollywood has been churning out remakes or prequels of his most renowned films (Rob Zombie's Halloween, the 2011 Thing), so I thought it might be worthwhile to go back and check out Escape From L.A. again to see if it seems different than I how I remembered it.

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Set in 2013(!), this new vision of the future features a U.S. President-for-life (Cliff Robertson), a theocrat who has banished all the citizens who do not conform to his more moral version of America to Los Angeles, which has been turned into an island after a massive earthquake flooded a large chunk of Southern California.

Of course, this leads to a bit of trouble, like when revolutionary Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface) has seduced the Preisdent's daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) and brainwashed her into stealing the codes to a super weapon called a Sword of Damocles, which via satellites can knock out all the electronic devices in the country. This cannot stand of course, so the government hires the one man who can sneak into Los Angeles and get Utopia out: Snake Plissken!
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Snake is injected with a fatal toxin that he will only get the cure for if he completes his mission, ensuring he'll go along. After what seems like an interminable set up where we go over all the rules and gadgets Snake will be dealing with (delivered by Stacy Keach--swinging for the fences--and Michelle Forbes), Snake uses a private submarine to get onto the island where he runs into an aging hippie named Pipeline (Peter Fonda, of course) and a squirrely shyster named Eddie, who sells "Maps to the Stars" (Steve Buscemi).

Snake makes his first attempt at Cuervo and Utopia during a quasi-parade designed to rile up the rabble:
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This first attempt (shot at an astonishingly relaxed face for an action sequence) fails, so Snake searches for an old friend, who has since become a transsexual named Hershe Las Palmas played by Pam Grier. With the help of Hershe's gang and some hang gliders, Snake makes another try at Cuervo and tries to recover the remote control for the Sword of Damocles.

There are, of course, a number of action sequences, but not a one of them is exciting or thrilling or scary. It feels like Carpenter is bored, except during the most infamous scene: Snake Plissken and Pipeline surfing down a Los Angeles street, complete with the two of them high-fiving that reminded me of something you would have seen in the Batman TV series:
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Escape From L.A. ends on a similar WTF note that the first film did, which feels like the one genuine piece of vintage Carpenter: cynical and unromantic, it points toward a world that's even worse than the one we've just seen on display in the film.

As I mentioned above, I love John Carpenter's films, and it actually personally bothers me to say anything negative about his work. But unfortunately Escape From L.A. is no better than how I remembered it at the time: the special effects are horrendous, the action scenes are slow and uninvolving, and the story is just plain absurd: Corraface never seems remotely imposing enough to be in control of a whole city full of criminals, Buscemi is not terribly funny, Grier is wasted, and Peter Fonda just doesn't belong here at all. As for Russell, it's not like Snake Plissken is a terribly deep character, but here he delivers all his lines in this overly cartoony, clipped growl that just seems kinda ridiculous.

I think the main problem here is, the manner that John Carpenter makes his films is just at odds with major studio filmmaking, especially as it was circa 1996: you can almost feel him struggling to break free of the strictures placed on him by studio executives (when the CGI is so bad, why not just do it all as practical effects, like he had to back with the original?). Unfortunately, it seems as though those problems only got worse, until Carpenter essentially retired fro filmmaking entirely.

Many current filmmakers cite Carpenter as a major influence, surely one of them (Tarantino? Del Toro?) has enough clout and resources to hand the man ten or twenty million with no instructions other than to make a genuine John Carpenter Film? Despite his weak output of the last two decades, I'd buy a ticket for that film sight unseen!



Monday, April 7, 2014

Movie Monday: Operation Amsterdam

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This week's Movie Monday is the 1959 British thriller Operation Amsterdam!

Set in 1940, on the eve of the Nazis invading the Netherlands, the British government sends a small team of operatives into Amsterdam to find...a fortune in diamonds!

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The team consists of three men: Dutch diamond experts Jan Smit (Peter Finch) and Walter Keyser (Alexander Knox) and a British intelligence officer, Major Dillon (Tony Britton). They arrive on the Dutch Coast (having avoided German bombs on the way), and work their way past suspicious local authorities to find the diamonds before the Nazis steal them all.
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Amid the chaos, they commandeer a car driven by Anna (Eva Bartok), who was stopped by Smit as she tried to commit suicide by plunging herself and the car off a pier into the ocean. They convince her to go with them, where Smit learns that she blames herself for the death of her husband's parents at the hands of the Nazis.
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The group meets with Jan's father, a diamond merchant, who tries to talk the other local diamond merchants into pooling their stock to get it out of the Netherlands. Some of the diamonds are in a time-locked vault, which requires the team hiring another team to help break into it and get everything out in time.

Members of the Dutch police and the Nazis are on their tail, though, leading to some armed fights on the streets of Amsterdam. Anna shows that, despite her previous behavior, she is no shrinking violet:
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The rest of the film is a race against time for our heroes to get the diamonds, avoid the Nazis, and head back home. Will they succeed?
I wanted to like Operation Amsterdam, really I did. A rag-tag bunch of experts, sneaking behind enemy lines to stick it to the Nazis, the guy from Network, what's not to love?

There is no one thing you can point to about the movie and say it's bad or wrong--everything is shot and acted with cool professionalism. Unfortunately, it's also pretty darn dull. We barely get to know our heroes before they're of on their mission (about five minutes in, really), and these guys barely ever say anything to each other, so outside of Smit and Anna's conversations, we never do learn anything about them. That's probably very realistic, but it doesn't make for gripping cinema.

I actually had to watch Operation Amsterdam three times to keep my interest up. Each time I'd get a little further, and then I found myself distracted, wanting to check my email, etc., and before I knew I had completely lost the thread. Again, there's not a thing "wrong" with the movie, it's just so tight-lipped and cool that I found it inspiring not a single emotion from me, good or bad. The DVD sleeve makes the film look like a slam-bang action thriller; I'm guessing MGM knew it had to pull some sleight of hand to get people to buy it.

Why did I choose this obscure title, you might ask? Well, the poster for it (which you see up top) hangs in the hall in the office I work at, and I pass by it several times a day. The poster is so snazzy I thought why not try Operation Amsterdam out? Well, now I know.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Monday: Brass Target

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This week's Movie Monday looks at the 1978 thriller Brass Target!
As the poster suggests, Brass Target concerns itself over 250 million dollars worth of gold and the death of General George S. Patton. Was there a connection?
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The film opens in mid-1945, right after VE Day. General Patton has ordered that the vast deposit of gold stolen by the Nazis being transported for safekeeping to Frankfurt. But as a small band of U.S. military personnel are escorting it there, they are attacked and killed, with the gold stolen.

We learn early on that the theft has been organized by corrupt Army officers, Col. Rogers (Robert Vaughn) and Col Gillchrist (Edward Herrmann). Patton launches an investigation, while also dealing with the Soviets and their demands in a post-war Europe:
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The investigation initially turns towards OSS Major De Luca (John Cassavetes, clearly looking for some dough to make Gloria), whose crafted a wartime operation similar to how the gold was stolen. This inspires De Luca to look into the crime on his own.
 
This leads De Luca to consult an old friend, Col. McCauley, played by Patrick McGoohan:
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As De Luca's investigation continues (also involving a former flame, played by top-billed Sophia Loren), the conspirators hire an expert assassin named Webber, played by Max Von Sydow. The film follows him for a good while as he prepares to murder Patton: 
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De Luca learns that Webber is on his trail as well, and the rest of Brass Target is a race against time to stop the assassination and to catch the conspirators. Will Major De Luca make it in time?

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I went into Brass Target with pretty high expectations. The cast is impressive, in a 1970s Irwin Allen kind of way; and the subject matter is right in my wheelhouse: WWII, a heist, a conspiracy, a little history mixed in, what's not to like?

The answer is, kind of a lot, actually: given the ingredients, there's no real reason why Brass Target isn't a crackerjack thriller. But as directed by John Hough (who has some solid directing credits to his name), the story plods along with the the tension never really building.

Following Von Sydow around as he kills people with laser-like precision is fun, but the rest of the cast feels wasted: Kennedy is cartoonishly gruff as Patton (I guess anyone trying to follow George C. Scott in the role is doomed to failure), Cassavetes seems bored, Sophia Loren is completely superfluous, and McGoohan seems beamed in from another movie entirely. Vaughn and Herrmann are okay, but the suggestion (more than a suggestion, actually) that they are lovers adds a weird shading to the proceedings: not only are they conspirators, but they're secretly gay, too! You just can't trust those people, you know?

Plus, you have to be careful when crafting a genre piece around a real person or real event: Patton really was killed due to a jeep accident, and here that scene is replicated but as cover to him being assassinated: it seems ghoulish, if not distasteful, to use such a sad event as grist for silly some Hollywood thriller.

That said, Brass Target looks good: it's replicating the look of post-war Europe looks spot on, and gives all these scenes a nice bit of verisimilitude. And the plot is (IMO) so inherently interesting--the chaos that follows such a horrific tragedy as a world war--that it keeps you involved as the plot unfolds. It's not a terrible film, but considering what the filmmakers had to work with, it should have been a lot, lot better.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Movie Monday: Raw Deal

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Life is just...a Raw Deal!
 
Raw Deal is one of those movies that film scholars immediately name when talking film noir; made in the years immediately following WWII, it's all deep shadows, death, betrayal, and for good measure, pyromania:
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Prisoner Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) is doing a stretch in the Big House for a crime that he probably didn't do; no, he's taken the hit for a former partner-in-crime, big time mobster Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr). He's being visited by his dame, Pat (Claire Trevor), who is helping him a plan a break out:
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What neither Joe or Pat know is, the skids for this particular escape are being greased by Rick, who has no intention of cutting Joe in on the spoils of the crime that put Joe in the slammer. The plan is that Joe will try and escape, and get killed in the attempt. Easy-peasy!
Except, this being film noir, nothing goes as planned: Joe's escape works, and soon he and Pat are driving off in the dead of night. Joe decides to stop and kidnap his social worker Ann (Marsha Hunt), who seemed sympathetic to his plight while he was doing the proverbial nickel up in Attica (okay, I'll stop with the prison slang). This immediately, understandably, sets Pat off a little, since Joe seems a little too keen on Ann as well. Things only get more complicated when Ann is forced to shoot a goon of Rick's death so she can save Joe's life. Dames!

Rick, for his part, does not take terribly well to the news that Joe has escaped and is coming for his money. As played by Burr, Rick is a hulking brute who dresses is nice suits and has fancy home decorations; but lurking just underneath the polite exterior is a volcano of rage:
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As I mentioned above, Rick is a pyromaniac, so if I were that couple dancing, I'd be careful around this guy and the open flame seen at right. Just saying.

One of Rick's goons is a smartass named Fantail(!) played by John Ireland. Even though he seems to work for Rick, Fantail seems to take delight in egging Rick on, even mocking him to his face. When he confronts Joe at gunpoint, he seems less concerned with carrying out his boss's instructions than he is just messing with Joe's head:
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Joe eventually sends Ann away, realizing he's dragging this nice woman into a dark path. The mobsters kidnap Ann, hoping that will lure Joe out of hiding, but the call is intercepted by Pat, who sees this a chance for her and Joe to get away and leave it all behind. But, of course, that doesn't happen.

Raw Deal is enormously entertaining; as directed by Anthony Mann, the movie's entire world is one of dark alleyways, police lights seen through venetian blinds, and guns in pockets. Hell, one of the characters lives on a street called Cork Screw Alley! The plot unfolds as it must, since this is a film noir, but it still feels fresh.

All the performances are solid, but what really stuck out to me were the bad guys: Ireland's weird, self-amused Fantail (who I'm sure plays craps with Tommy Udo every week), and Burr's Coyle, whom Mann always shoots from an angle highlighting his mountainous frame:
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At only 79 minutes (or the length of one dish washing scene in The Hobbit), the film moves at a lightning pace and is pure pleasure to look at: Mann knew how to compose a shot to achieve maximum mood, and then let his actors do their thing.

As of this writing, Raw Deal is available on Netflix WI, so give it a play when you're in the mood for a dark, grim mini-masterpiece. And stay away from open flame when Rick Coyle is around.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Movie Monday: Thirst

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This week's Movie Monday is the 1979 Ozploitation horror classic Thirst!

I like to think I'm fairly well-versed when it comes to horror films; sure there are many I haven't seen, but I had never even heard of Thirst before its DVD/Blu-Ray release this month, so once I read up on its plot it was a slam-dunk. How did this movie escape my notice for so long?

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Shot in Australia, Thirst is about  a young woman named Kate Davis (Chantal Contouri), who seems to have it all: a successful career, a nice house, not to mention a super-hunky 70s-style boyfriend:
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But her life turns into a living nightmare when she is kidnapped by a strange shadowy organization known as The Brotherhood. Kate is locked up on some massive compound, we learn that The Brotherhood is nothing less than a cabal of vampires (played by the British David Hemmings, American Henry Silva, and Aussie actors Shirley Cameron and Max Phipps)! They want Kate because she is a descendant of the notoriously bat-sh*t Elizabeth Bathory, and want to draft her into the lifestyle of the vampire!

Kate, as you might imagine, wants nothing to do with this, and tries to escape, but nothing doing: The Brotherhood's operation is enormous: it houses hundreds of vampires, who consider themselves the aristocracy, as well as thousands of "blood cows", half-dead victims who are used as sustenance for the vampires:
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As The Brotherhood puts Kate through one mind-screw after another, trying to break her down mentally and physically, we learn that there are thousands of vampires out there, and The Brotherhood supplies them all with blood, shipped in cartons like milk and carefully checked for quality and taste--they even run tours of the dairy, featuring vampire tourists snapping pics while the cows are drained of their blood. Ick!

For most of the its run time, Thirst eschews cheap scares and gory scenes of bloodsucking. The Brotherhood is run like a typical, boring, company, except for the fact that their talking about death, blood, and mind-control (so maybe it's like Goldman-Sachs in that way). Henry Silva is his usual weird self, with strange line readings and a perpetual smirk that seems to suggest he's in on a joke the rest of us are not.

Kate's only "friend", if I may use that word at all, is Dr. Fraser (Hemmings), who seems the most squeamish about putting her through the mental hell the rest of them are almost gleeful over. But he is, after all, part of a vampire cabal, so everything's relative (in this movie, literally in some cases). You can't help but feel deep pity for Kate, since The Brotherhood seems too big to fail, and this being the 1970s you know a downer ending is probably on the menu.

There are some moments where Thirst threatens with breaking the Goofy Meter: whenever someone vamps out their eyes turn red while standing perfectly still for about a solid minute, which just looks silly. Plus there's an action scene that seems woefully out of place, but I must admit features an extended, nasty death scene that I enjoyed for the imagination it took to conceive and shoot it.
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There are so many dream sequences or hallucinations that at a certain point Thirst loses that sense of impending doom, because you're never certain whether what you're watching is really happening. But it still packs a nightmarish punch, presenting a chamber of horrors that seems to be operating right under all our noses, right out there in the daylight. *Shudder*

P.S. Check out the movie poster up top, featuring a vampire wearing a classic Bela Lugosi-esque cloak, something that never comes close to happening in the movie. I guess the producers were worried Thirst was a little too different from the standard vampire flick for average audiences.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Back Issue! #71 On Sale Now!

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The newest issue of TwoMorrows' Back Issue! is on sale now, and features an article by me about DC's one-off Dick Tracy Limited Collectors' Edition comic published in 1975.

The theme for this issue is "Tryouts, One-Shots, and One-Hit Wonders" and is all kinds of fun. Head over to the TwoMorrows site to purchase a copy!