Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Back Issue! #84 On Sale Now!

The newest issue of TwoMorrows' Back Issue! is on sale now, and features my long-form interview with comics/novel/TV writer Alan Brennert. This interview was originally conducted for my show, The Fire and Water Podcast, but BI editor Michael Eury thought it would be great to run in this Supergirl-themed issue.

I am a huge fan of Alan's work, have been since I was a kid, and it was a real honor to get to talk to him at length about his comics work. I'm proud that the interview is running in Back Issue!, alongside many other fine articles about The Girl of Steel!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Movie Monday: Some Came Running


Some Came Running - Directed by Vincent Minnelli. Starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, and Arthur Kennedy. Released December 1958 from MGM.

I had never heard of Some Came Running--despite its pedigree, both in front and behind the camera--until Martin Scorsese used a clip from it in his three hour plus documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, one of my favorites. The sequence Scorsese showed was so compelling and beautiful that I made a mental note to track the film down and watch it. Flash forward ten years(!) or so, and I finally got around to watching it through the magic of iTunes. 

Some Came Running is based on the book by James Jones, who had a massive hit with his first book, From Here To Eternity, which of course was a huge hit for Hollywood, as well. SCR was not received nearly as well, but MGM still gave the film the deluxe treatment, hiring Vincent Minelli to direct and getting megastar Frank Sinatra to play the main character, WWII vet Dave Hirsh, who returns to his home town after many years away. Dean Martin, fresh off his breakup with Jerry Lewis, was brought in for his first real dramatic role, and Shirley MacLaine was set to play none-too-bright-but-sweet floozie Ginnie Moorehead.

The film opens with Hirsh on a bus on the way back to his hometown of Parkman, Indiana, having been put there in a drunken haze by some buddies, along with Ginnie, whom he apparently hooked up with as well. Ginnie likes Dave, but now sober he is surly and mean, and basically tells her to take off. Soon after, Dave takes a room in a hotel, and deposits the small fortune he has on him in a bank--but not the bank owned by his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), which causes quite a stir. Aside from his service in WWII, Dave became a semi-famous writer, but he seems unwilling to engage that part of his life now.

Things are clearly tense--very tense--between Dave and Frank, and the older Hirsh is not happy that his brother rejects Frank's attempts to have him meet the "right" people, preferring to drink and gamble, alongside new pal Bama Dillert (Dean Martin), a charming rogue who never takes off his cowboy hat. Ginnie flits in and out of Dave's life, even after he meets the daughter of a family friend, a schoolteacher named Gwen (Martha Hyer). Gwen tries to convince Dave that he has a real gift and shouldn't ignore it, causing Dave to fall for her. He still spends time with Ginnie, even getting into a drunken fist fight with a former hoodlum boyfriend of hers.

At this point, the film stays relatively in place, plot wise, as we watch all the characters bounce off around one another and go through their paces (all the supporting characters--Bama, Frank, Frank's wife Agnes, Frank's secretary--get their own subplots). Sinatra is good, if a bit morose, as Dave. As you might expect, his best scenes are with Martin as Bama the gambler, who had such a natural charm on screen it's sort of unbelievable. As much as I enjoyed Some Came Running (and I did), there were times where I wish the movie would ditch all these sad sacks and just follow Bama and his adventures.

The thing that kept me the most enthralled while watching Some Came Running was the visuals--shot in Cinemascope (unusual at the time for a non-epic), this movie is simply stunning to look at. Every scene is so beautifully composed and lit, the colors so vivid, that I think it's at least half the reason I enjoyed watching it so much. The final sequence (shown in the aforementioned Scorsese documentary), is so wonderfully staged that it's a complete knockout. It helps that MacLaine, in some ways playing a thankless role, is so good--sure, Ginnie is a sort of cliched Hooker with a Heart of Gold, but her inherent, somewhat dimwitted goodness is so sweet that when she does what she does at film's end, it really hits you. It's not a surprise she was nominated for an Oscar for this role.

Is Some Came Running another From Here To Eternity? No. It feels like it thinks it's more profound and deep than it really is, and at times Sinatra's character is such a self-involved dick that you wish everyone would just dump him and move on with their lives. Still, the performances are all quite good, and as I said the movie is just so beautiful to watch unfold that it's well worth your time.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Movie Monday: The Vampire Lovers


The Vampire Lovers - Directed by Roy Ward Baker, Starring Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O'Mara, and Peter Cushing. Released October 1970 by Hammer Films.

Ever since I launched the Film & Water Podcast, I've been wanting to get back to writing the occasional movie review here for this long-dormant writing blog. Then when my pals Chris and Cindy Franklin reviewed Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a Halloween-themed episode of their show, the Super Mates Podcast, it inspired me to watch the movie for the first time. After watching it via Amazon Prime, I decided to jot down a few thoughts on it myself!

The film has a killer (no pun intended) opening, where a vampire hunter named Baron Hartog (Douglas Wilmer) beheads a beautiful, sultry vampire who has killed his sister. We then flash forward to the home of General Von Spielsdorf (Peter Cushing), which includes a niece and a sort of adopted daughter named Marcilla, played by the stunning Ingrid Pitt:

It's clear right off the, er, bat, that Marcilla is, if not a vampire, certainly a bit different than the rest of the family. She seems to regard every woman in her orbit with lust, and puts the moves on the General's niece, only waiting until after the seduction is over to put the bite on her. In an unusual bit, it would seem that Marcilla does not turn into a bat, but rather a cat. The General's niece has intense nightmares about being smothered by a giant cat ("Its fur was in my mouth!"), but everyone dismisses her until it's too late.

Marcilla (now calling herself Carmilla, doing the whole Count Alucard bit) then takes up with another family, and puts the moves on the young daughter, a saucer-eyed waif named Emma (Madeline Smith). Their relationship is so hilariously inappropriate, with Carmilla barely bothering her sexual interest in Emma, that you wonder what the rest of the household was doing. There's a scene where Pitt chases Smith around while both of them are half nude, ending with a clinch on the bed, which told me why this particular Hammer Production never showed up as part of the weekend "Creature Features" that I watched as a kid:

After a few more killings (Carmilla does put the bite on some men, but she seems to want to get it over with as soon as possible), the jig is up for Carmilla, and she is chased to her family crypt by the General and Baron Hartog, now much older and weary from having so much experience hunting vampires:

Generally, The Vampire Lovers is delightfully straightforward: Carmilla is a lesbian vampire, and basically humps and bites her way through everyone she meets until the people around her wake up to the situation. There's a not a lot of tension or suspense here, you're basically just waiting for the obvious to be discovered. It's funny, in some ways Carmilla being a vampire is more readily accepted as a reality than her being a lesbian: everyone seems just seems to think Carmilla is a close family friend, despite the fact she's caught several times laying in bed with her quasi-adopted sisters and other family relations.

The one element the film has that is unexplained is the occasional shot of this vampire-y dude, sitting on a horse and laughing at...something:

This character never interacts with the characters or the plot, is he Carmilla's Dad, doing the Proud Papa bit from afar? Who knows! Maybe he's just a perv who really enjoys watching Carmilla get naked and frolic around (who doesn't?). I imagine Hammer was able to get away with all this soft core stuff because of the English accents, period frippery, and the fact that this was adapted from an old book (Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu), which gave the whole thing a patina of class. In many ways, the most erotic scene is a shot of Ingrid Pitt naked but in silhouette, she had such an outstanding figure that went lit artistically, it's quite classy and really sexy. The bare breasts are nice and all, but not really needed (the 14 year old me is wondering who the hell is writing this).

The big minus for me was Peter Cushing as the General. It's a very dull part and while he breathes as much life into it as he can, there's just not much interesting stuff for him to do. Apparently he was a late addition to the cast, which might explain why he wasn't cast in the Van Helsing-y role of Baron Hartog, which seems like a natural.

As you might imagine, the poster for The Vampire Lovers features way more exciting stuff than what happens here, it's mostly Ingrid Pitt standing around drooling over nubile women while everyone else phumphers around. Still, there are worse ways to spend ninety one minutes!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Movie Monday: Hot Millions


Hot Millions - Directed by Eric Till, Starring Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Karl Malden, Bob Newhart


I recently showed my girlfriend Michael Curtiz's 1955 film We're No Angels, and she fell in love with it. And the part she loved the most was Peter Ustinov, who delivers a wonderfully strange comedic performance. So I thought we'd try some other Ustinov movies, and when I saw this film's cast, I knew this had to be next.

Ustinov plays Marcus Pendleton, who is just being released from prison for embezzlement. Pendleton is a crook, sure, but he's so smooth and charming that he even does the books for the prison warden! Released into a world heavily dominated by computer, Pendleton meets programmer Caesar Smith (Robert Morley) and convinces him to pursue his lifelong dream of hunting moths. He then assumes Smith's identity and gets a job at a huge corporation run by Carlton J. Klemper (Karl Malden). He buts heads with the company's top computer man Willard C. Gnatpole (Bob Newhart), who distrusts Smith and scoffs at his supposedly superior knowledge of programming.


It doesn't take long for Pendleton/Smith to start running a scam which involves getting the computer to write and send checks to various false companies, all over the world, owned by him. In the meantime, he meets a nice, if nervous, young woman named Patty (Maggie Smith). After just a date or two, they fall for one another, even though Pendleton isn't honest with her about why he has to travel so much and what he's really up to.


The noose starts to tighten around Pendleton, and at the same time Gnatpole makes a play for Patty (at one point they go shopping at one of the Beatles' Apple stores, a failed experiment that only lasted a few months--Hot Millions features some of the only surviving footage of one of the stores). Eventually Pendleton and Patty have to leave England, and are chased by Klemper and Gnatpole. The customs agent they deal with is played by Caesar Romero, defying anyone who wouldn't believe that celebrities as disparate as Karl Malden, Bob Newhart, and Caesar Romero were ever in the same room before:


Hot Millions is very silly and light as air, and the final scenes are that, only more so. Patty has more upstairs than people think, and she figures into the story more prominently than just being the love interest. She and Ustinov have a real chemistry, and there's a very sweet, wordless scene where he starts playing the piano and Patty joins him on the flute.

Despite his funny character name, Bob Newhart sort of plays the heavy here. He seems the only person to doubt Pendleton's veracity, and tries to steal Patty away from him to boot. The film seems to regard corporate bureaucrats like Gnatpole with real disdain, choosing to side with the charming--if admittedly completely crooked--Pendleton, who does what he wants and knows how to get it, silly little laws be damned.

Hot Millions is a very slight film, and not worth spending a whole lot of effort to track down. But it is a nicely diverting couple of hours, and I have to say it is fun watching this very unique cast put through its paces. If you're a particular fan of Peter Ustinov--as we have become--you'll enjoy it.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Legion of Super-Bloggers: LCE C-49

I was asked to be a Guest Blogger over at the Legion of Super-Bloggers site, discussing the first LSH treasury comic. Go check it out!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Movie Monday: Guardians of the Galaxy

I'm hooked on a feeling!

At this point, does the world need another Guardians of the Galaxy review? of course not. The crowd has spoken, as it were, and GOTG is yet another massive, unbelievable success for the Marvel brand, which seems as invulnerable as Captain America's shield right now.

But I did want to say a few words about the movie, but in a slightly different manner then I normally do when talking about a movie for Movie Monday.
As I type this, I saw GOTG last Saturday. While impressed at the scope of these Marvel Universe movies, I have been consistently underwhelmed at the individual films--I liked Iron Man a lot, both Cap movies, the second Hulk, and the second half of The Avengers, but in many ways I've been bored with the rigid sameness that seems to be imposed on all these films from the get-go. In a lot of ways, that's why I always more of a DC kid than a Marvel one growing up--DC didn't have a house style, and as a consequence I felt had a lot more variety in their line, while Marvel strove for--and achieved--a mostly cohesive feel to all their books, no matter who it was about. So, in many movies, the Marvel movies are the most faithful comic book movie adaptations ever done.

I admit, I went into Guardians skeptical--could Marvel make this work, a film about characters who were "C list" at best? Characters that had none of the emotional, cultural resonance of Captain America or the Hulk?
The answer was revealed to me about ten minutes into the film when, after a quiet, sad but effective opening, director James Gunn cranks up "Hooked on a Feeling" over scenes of Star Lord dancing like an idiot on alien planet. Here, finally, was a Marvel movie daring to be unlike all the others!

That feeling of surprise and joy pretty much continued throughout the film. Chris Pratt filled the space admirably as our hero, the action was well-staged and easy to follow, and there were lots and lots of laughs. Sure, the villain--Ronan the Accuser--was another in a long line of kinda boring, generic bad guys who yell a lot, but I felt that was partly made up for by the appearance of Karen Gillan as Nebula, whose icy stare hinted that there was a lot more than what we were seeing. I think this is what they were trying to go for with Darth Maul in Phantom Menace, but here it worked.

About halfway through the movie, I realized that not only was I really, really enjoying it, but that it was already my favorite Marvel movie, by a lot. By the time it ended (with a post-credits cameo that was wonderful in its absurdity and ballsiness), I was of the mind that Guardians of the Galaxy might be my favorite superhero comic book movie ever, save for the original Superman: The Movie. But would that opinion hold up?

Well, I'm about to find out, because I decided to see the film again, something I have only done with one or two other movies in the last decade. So I will resume this review after I have seen GOTG a second time. Be right back...

Okay, so, it's the next day, and now I've seen GOTG twice. And I can honestly say, I pretty much enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time. The shock of the new as gone, of course, but this time I concentrate more on the individual scenes, and how it all hangs together as a whole.

As the movie unfolded the first time, something I found I really enjoyed was how it managed to answer every question I had, and seemed to anticipate those questions: there's a scene involving a sort of intergalactic cock fight which I found upsetting, because it's sort of played for laughs: that is, until we see one of the characters react in horror to what they're seeing, which told me that the movie itself felt like that, too.

During the final battle scenes, when movies like tend to get numbing with all the noise and CGI spectacle, GOTG has enough faith in its story to slow down, and have a couple of very beautiful moments where we just are spending time with the heroes. Not only are these scenes simply pretty to look at, amid all the destruction and bombast, they feel like a cool drink of water on a hot day.

One of the criticisms lobbed at this movie, and it's a fair one, is that the plot and villain are so cookie cutter, and how GOTG is so similar to the other Marvel movies. Isn't this film supposed to the beginning of Marvel's "Phase 2", which means it might be time to break from formula and try something truly different?

Having now seen it twice, I feel as though director James Gunn has taken the Marvel movie structure and twisted it for his own ends--adding all the humor, the soundtrack, the overall lightness of tone. So instead of GOTG being the start of Phase 2, it's more that this is the final film of Phase 1: after this, Marvel has to start really playing with the formula, or audiences will get bored and stop showing up to Iron Man 7 or whatever. James Gunn is pointing the way, showing future Marvel directors that you can break the mold and be successful.
Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the few films where I am actively, intensely interested in what they do with the sequel: the crawl at the end "The Guardians of the Galaxy will be back" harkens to an older era of movies, one promising fun and adventure and derring-do. Now that the origin story has been told, I really can't wait to see what trouble they get into next. And hear whatever is on Mix Tape Vol. 2!

I'm going to take a break from Movie Mondays for a little while. For those of you who have been reading every week, I very much appreciate it, and rest assured Movie Mondays, like the Guardians, will be back!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Movie Monday: Baron Blood

Beware the curse of Baron Blood!

I was in the mood for trashy, bloody, gory fun, so a Mario Bava movie that I had never seen before seemed like the perfect fit.
The story concerns an American student named Peter (Antonio Cantafora), who is returning to his ancestral castle home so he can learn about an ancestor, the infamous Baron Otto van Kleist. He is infamous for murdering and torturing his subjects, and even though that was a long time ago, his name still inspires fear in the local townsfolk.

Peter meets the comely Eva (Elke Sommer), the assistant to a real estate developer who is working on turning the historic castle into a hotel. He mentions an ancient document he found back in the States, which is an incantation that would bring the Baron back to life if spoken aloud at the right time. Neither one of them take it very seriously, so they decide to try it, just for kicks:

It becomes clear that the document does, in fact, work! They hear slow footsteps outside the castle door, and it pounds heavily. They recite it again, and the seemingly nefarious presence is gone. The next night, for some reason, they do it again, except this time a stiff breeze carries the fragile paper onto a nearby roaring fire--meaning the Baron lives again!

The Baron stalks the town, first stopping at a doctor's office. The doctor treats this stranger with kindness, despite his frightening visage:
For his troubles, the doctor is murdered, and so is a gravedigger. Peter and Eva explain to the developer what they've done, and are met with disbelief. Nevertheless, the murders continue, which, you know, kinda drive real estate prices down a bit. The renovation is cancelled, and the castle is put up for auction. It's bought by wheelchair-bound millionaire Alfred Bekker (Joseph Cotten, back for a second straight Movie Monday):
It doesn't take long for our dim-witted heroes to realize Bekker and the Baron are one and the same. Via a magic amulet, a plan is realized how to send Baron back to the grave.

Like I said above, I was looking for a big, fun, pulpy horror film, and usually Mario Bava delivers exactly that in his films (Black Sabbath, Planet of the Vampires), but unfortunately I found Baron Blood to be mostly very, very dull. Peter and Eva are your classic Stupid Protagonists, and a lot of horror movies wouldn't exist at all if the main characters didn't do very stupid things, but these two are so painfully careless that it makes the whole "incantation" scene laughable, as opposed to frightening. Once you've learned that the magic paper works, you wouldn't, oh, I don't know, tear the thing up into a thousand pieces?

The best part of the movie is, by far, the character design of the titular Baron. With his Solomon Kane-esque cloak and Hammer Films-like face, he cuts quite a dashing, scary figure, especially when draped in shadow, which is most of the time. There's a fun scene of a victim getting trapped in an Iron Maiden, which seemed like something Bava just really enjoyed.

But that stuff is few and far between, mostly it's Peter and Eva running about, which I found to be tedious in the extreme. It's always nice to see Cotten, although I always found him so charming that having him play a bad guy seems like a waste sometimes. Maybe I should have just watched Planet of the Vampires again.