Monday, August 27, 2012

Movie Monday: The Spirit

This week's Movie Monday selection is the live action adaptation of Will Eisner's classic comic book The Spirit!

No, not the Frank Miller-directed bomb from a few years ago; even I have my limits. Rather, I'm talking about the little-seen 1987 version done for ABC, starring none other than Flash Gordon himself, Sam Jones!

I watched The Spirit when it first aired, and then was confused as it seemingly completely disappeared from existence. My memory of it was hazy, but I didn't remember it being that bad. I occasionally thought about tracking it down one way or another, but for whatever reason I never did. Then, when I attended the Great Allentown Comic Con with my Ace Kilroy partner Dan O'Connor, I saw a bootleg copy of it for sale. I didn't buy it (the quality of those things is always pretty dodgy at best), but I did search it out online, watching it for only the second time in twenty-five years:
The Spirit opens strongly, with panels of Will Eisner's artwork as they fade to live action versions of the scenes. The music--which will be a consistently weak element throughout the movie--is screechy 80s guitar rock, a mystifying choice, but the visuals are great.

The first scene proper is of Denny Colt (Sam Jones) getting a call from his mentor, a man named Sevrin (the great Phillip Baker Hall, who ironically enough would have been a perfect Commissioner Dolan) who investigating a case of art forgery. When Colt arrives, he finds Sevrin's house ablaze, leading to the man dying in Colt's arms, with a single clue to the case--the name of a museum curator:
Colt pursues the investigation, which involves rich, respected members of the city. Commissioner Dolan (Garry Walberg) warns Colt to be careful who he offends, but Denny Colt only cares about truth and justice!

During these scenes we are also introduced to Dolan's daughter Ellen (a pre-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Nana Visitor), a young grifter orphan named Eubie (Bumper Robinson, playing essentially the "Ebony" role), and the slinky P'Gell (Laura Robinson), a friend of Ellen's. Colt gets a tip about the case and meets his informant at the harbor, but it's all a set-up leading to Colt being shot to death and dumped in the water.

Somehow, Colt survives, and crawls his way to Wildwood Cemetery, where Eubie is conducting a "business deal" involving some bootleg Whitney Houston cassettes. The other kid is scared off, but Eubie sticks around, helping Colt recover. In time, it dawns on Colt that since he is believed dead, he now has the perfect chance to go after criminals without all that pesky law stuff getting in the way. He sets up his HQ inside a crypt and fights crime as The Spirit:
The crime/investigation scenes are fairly dull (with a cookie-cutter TV movie bad guy), but the interplay between Jones and Visitor is pretty good, if at times in the movie's attempt to capture Eisner's whimsical approach, they go a little broad. Case in point: this scene of The Spirit and Ellen trying to climb out an upper window, involving all manner of physical comedy:
Most of the movie is shot during the day (an odd choice), on sets that look like standard issue backlot. Occasionally the filmmakers (including director Michael Schultz, who just helmed an episode of another comic book series, Arrow) go for something moody and striking, like this scene of P'Gell watching as The Spirit is tortured by some thugs:
Ellen and P'Gell think The Spirit is a hunk (of course), and there's a number of scenes with Jones with his shirt off. At one point Ellen gets an unconscious Spirit into a cab, where she is tempted to remove his mask and see who he really is--but a reminder from her father (who is now secretly working with The Spirit) pops into her head admonishing her:
Finally, The Spirit stops a bomb (planted by P'Gell in the museum while it's full of innocent people, like Eubie)and finds Sevrin's killer. P'Gell manages to get away, which leads to The Spirit to promise they'll meet again.

The movie ends with The Spirit and Ellen walking arm and arm out of his crypt, launching the beginning of a beautiful friendship:
...The End!

Like Dr. Strange, The Spirit has completely disappeared from the unofficial corpus of comic book movies--many people don't even know it exists. It never aired again, and has never been released on VHS or DVD. Which is too bad, because it's really not that bad, merely inconsequential--it's hardly worth seeking out, but at the same time it's not a blight on the legendary work of Mr. Eisner. Jones is fine if generic as The Spirit, and Visitor channels Lucille Ball as Ellen, with a dash of Lois Lane thrown in. The rest of the cast is fairly unmemorable, the sets uninspiring, and as I said above the music is god-awful.

That said, the tone of The Spirit is so earnest and straightforward that it's hard to really dislike it--everyone here is in there swinging, and there's no reason to think if this movie/pilot had gone to series it wouldn't have gotten more interesting all around.

I guess any chance of this movie being officially released got buried along with the memory of Denny Colt when Frank Miller's 2008 adaptation bombed so massively; it's a shame that so many younger comics fans probably think of that when they hear the name "The Spirit" before they do the work of Mr. Eisner. Seeing this movie might be a nice bridge between the two.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The 2012 Philadelphia Geek Awards

Many of you who read this column already know all about this, but it would be remiss of me not to mention Friday night's events here on my writing blog.

Thanks to my work as writer/co-creator of the daily webcomic Ace Kilroy (which you totally should be reading!), I was nominated for a 2012 Philadelphia Geek Award as "Comic Book Writer of the Year." The Geek Awards are an annual award created by the site Geekadelphia, which celebrates all sorts of geek and arts culture in the Philadelphia area--science, social media, the arts, film, and, yes, comics. Both my co-creator and partner Dan O'Connor and I were nominated, in the comics art and writing categories, respectively. The ceremony was held at the beautiful Academy of Natural Sciences in Center City, preceded by food and cocktails. I attended with my Darlin' Tracy, and Dan was there with his wife Kayla.

Our awards came near the end of the program, which was deftly paced and a lot of fun. Finally, when they got to my category, photographer/filmmaker Kyle Cassidy read off the names, which included Phil Kahn and Bryan J. Glass. Apparently there was a mistake with the envelopes, which had mixed up the artist and writer categories. As Kyle explained what had happened, I wondered if it was anatomically possible for my heart to burst out of my throat.

Finally, Kyle got the right envelope, and I stared straight ahead, waiting to see the letters in Phil or Brian's names form on the screen. Then...
I heard my name, and was confused. What? That can't be right! I turned to my right, to see Kayla and Dan clapping madly, and Tracy smiling as wide as I've ever seen her. Holy cow, I think I won!

I made my way to the stage, hands shaking madly. I managed to cobble together a speech made from random thoughts, ending with a dedication to three people, without whom Ace Kilroy wouldn't exist: Dan, Darlin' Tracy, and the late, great Joe Kubert. After all, it was at his school that Dan and I met, and without that...

I got back to my seat, completely floored. Two or three more awards were given out, and then the show ended with a brief video message from Stan Lee, who I believe read his lines phonetically. As we wandered back into the hall, a few people congratulated me and said nice things about my speech. I then got Tracy to take a pic of me and the statue, which I would eventually name Blinky:
After a very brief appearance at the after party, the four of us split off, and Tracy and I headed home. An amazing night, punctuated my phone dinging madly--Tracy had posted the news on Facebook, then I posted this picture, and every fifteen seconds I received another nice comment from one friend or another.

All through art school, I never considered myself a writer: all my fellow Kubies had their own characters, which meant they were de facto writers; I never thought that was my path. It took over twenty years, but I soon realized I love writing, in some way even more than illustrating, and I am so fortunate that Ace Kilroy fell together the way it did, and that I have such a perfect partner in crime in Dan. The whole project from the beginning was meant to be DIY, and while there are many upsides to that, there are also a lot of downsides--one of them being, it's really hard to get noticed.

Organizations like Geekdelphia, which shine a light on projects that might otherwise not get much attention from the media, are vital to keep the independent creative spirit alive. I couldn't be prouder of the award, and am looking forward to being back next year to give Blinky some company!

For a complete list of nominees and winners, click here!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Movie Monday: The Wild Geese

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1978 all-star action/adventure The Wild Geese!

I was in the mood for an old-timey big adventure-type film, and how could I pass up a film with this cast? (Though I will admit, I don't think Hardy Kruger is quite on the same level as his co-stars)
Anyway, The Wild Geese opens with Col. Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) who has arrived in London to meet Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger), whom the latter wants to hire for a special, very dangerous, mission: to rescue the recently-imprisoned leader of a small African country, named Limbani, who has fallen victim to a military coup.

Faulkner goes to assemble the core of his team, which consists of Shawn Flynn, a pilot-cum-smuggler (Roger Moore) and logistics expert Rafer Janders (Richard Harris):
When we first meet Flynn, he is forcing a former employer--a drug runner--to literally eat his own stash of cocaine after Flynn realizes he's been used to run drugs, something he is morally against. Janders, for his part, has managed to return to a quiet civilian life, spending time with his young son. But after playing on Janders' political leanings, Faulkner gets him to come aboard, where together they help rescue Flynn after he is kidnapped by the mob that he double-crossed.

Seeing these three huge stars all in one scene, acting like they all know each other, makes The Wild Geese feel a little like a sequel to a movie we've never seen, and Burton, Moore, and Harris have an easy rapport. The sequence where they turn the tables on the mob is tense and a lot of fun.

They also hire Peter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger), a down-on-his-luck former South African solider who just wants to earn enough money to buy a farm back in his homeland. The four of them hold what kinda looks like Open Auditions for the other team members, making all of this look so casual:
A team of about fifty soldiers are hired, and The Wild Geese make a parachute drop into South Africa on the mission. They land near the prison where Limbani is being held, and make their way in via crossbows, cyanide gas, and guns.

Limbani is found and rescued, but he gets wounded in the melee. They make their way to an airfield, ready to be picked up.
Unfortunately, back in England their benefactor has decided to cancel the whole mission, having made arrangements with Limbani's captors. See, this wasn't a mission of politics so much as it was business: this small country is sitting on a fortune ofminerals, and Limbani was an easy partner with Matheson and his business interests. But now that a new deal has been made, and the money is flowing again, he and The Wild Geese are left stranded.

The Wild Geese then have to fight their way past and through heavily armed African troops, on their way to Limbani's village in an effort to reinstall him as leader. Some of the team are killed (in some fairly decent action sequences), and what's left of the team have to make a daring escape before they and Limbani are killed.

I found The Wild Geese highly enjoyable. As I said above, it's really fun to watch three old pros like Burton, Moore, and Harris--all English, but very different in their screen personas--mix it up and kick ass. Compared to today's action stars, these guys look positively geriatric, but it's plausible because this is supposed team with years of experience, having been through countless scrapes all over the world. You're gonna get a couple of wrinkles!

The film spends a little too much time with quasi-racist Coetzee and Limbani learning to appreciate one another, in a whole Ebony and Ivory thing, but the action scenes come fairly frequently and are well staged. That's something else I feel like modern action films are missing nowadays: with their heavy reliance on CGI, the blood, sweat, and dirt looks too clean, too perfect, to have as much of an impact. Watching real guys out in the real desert being set on fire or sprayed with bullets (squibs, but you know what I mean) gives action films from this era a leg up--you feel like you're really there, because of course you are (Moore in particular seems to be sweating a lot, I wonder if he had a good time making this).

The ending--which I'm not revealing on purpose--is tense and dark and has some nice twists and turns, ending on a moment of kindness and grace. Nobody's a real hero in The Wild Geese, so the best any of these guys can do is finish the mission and get their butt out in one piece. And not all of them do!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Movie Monday: Charlie Chan at the Olympics

This week's Movie Monday selection is 1937's Charlie Chan at the Olympics!

With the dust barely settled on the London Olympics, I thought it would be fun to spend at least one Movie Monday focused on a Olympic-centric movie. Strangely enough, the list of films with the Olympics as any sort of back drop is fairly thin, the most famous of which is probably 1981's Chariots of Fire. But that film won the 1982 Best Picture Oscar, so where's the fun in watching that?

So I decided to go down the prestige ladder a couple of rungs, to the somewhat-less-respected but hopefully-more-fun Charlie Chan programmer, Charlie Chan at the Olympics. Let's see who gets murdered, and if a javelin has anything to do with it!
This was either the fourteenth, fifteenth, or sixteenth (various websites have conflicting info) time the Swedish Oland played Chan, so by this point making these movies must have either been a tedious chore or an effortless glide for the actor. But this particular installment is a little different, for various reasons, which we'll get to in a moment.
A plane carrying a device that allows it to be remote controlled goes down when the pilot is killed by a stowaway. Legendary detective Charlie Chan gets involved int he case when he and his son, Charlie Chan Jr. (Lane Tom Jr.), discover the crashed aircraft while on their way to go fishing.
Strangely, both the bodies of the pilot and the pilot's murderer are found--but the remote control device is missing! Chan determines that the best place to sell the device--to any number or foreign governments who might want it--is Berlin, which is currently playing host to the 1936 Olympics!

Chan, Hopkins (the plane's owner, played by Jonathan Hale), and Cartwright (the inventor of the device, played by John Eldredge) try to get to Berlin before the thief. They first take the Hindenburg (which blew up a mere two weeks before this film was released), and then the ocean liner Manhattan, which is also carrying members of the U.S. Olympic team, including Chan's son Lee Chan (Keye Luke), who is on the swimming team. Also on board are enough suspects to choke Agatha Christie.
Lee Chan is buddies with Betty Adams (the adorable Pauline Moore), who is suspicious of another woman making time with her boyfriend, Olympic pole vaulter Dick Masters (Allan Lane). Lee Chan agrees to keep an eye on them, acting as a detective in his own right.

We get a brief shot of the real-life Olympic stadium as Chan and the others see it from another blimp:
Chan realizes the device has been smuggled into Berlin via Betty's luggage, and swaps it for a book. Double-and-triple-crosses occur, fingers of suspicion are pointed all around, Lee Chan is kidnapped, and there's a fairly clever sequence involving one of the bad guys reading Charlie Chan's lips via binoculars:
It's this sequence, inside the stadium, where we get to see real footage of the Olympics, including one race featuring the legendary Jesse Owens, an African-American whose repeated gold medal wins showed up Hitler right in his own backyard:
Chan is taken to the mansion another man involved in the crime, along with the device (actually a copy containing a secret radio transmitter). It looks like Chan and His Number One Son are gonna get it, when the Berlin Police arrive. Shots are fired, and Chan reveals the murderer, tying everything together in a nice little bow.

The film ends with Lee Chan's swim meet, which he wins. After leaving the pool, he greets his father, who brought along the paddle he used to use to train the boy growing up:

Charlie Chan at the Olympics is diverting enough for a "B" programmer, but sadly its not much of a travelogue for the 1936 Olympics. Oher than some very brief footage, the movie doesn't actually get to the games until about 45 minutes in--and since the film is only 71 minutes total, that doesn't leave much time to sight-see, especially when is has to spend so much time unraveling the over-complicated plot.

A few years ago, I read a book about the honorable detective (simply called Charlie Chan), about how the character was created and how he is perceived in Asian culture nowadays. Sure, the constant fortune cookie aphorisms ("Truth, like football--receive many kicks before reaching goal")
are fairly embarrassing to our modern sensibilities, but there are a refreshing lack of stereotyped gags in this movie--Charlie Chan is considered a brilliant detective, a figure of respect, and his son is clearly just as much a member of the American Olympic squad as his white teammates. And, unlike the roles offered to African-American actors at the time, Chan and his son are the stars of this movie.

I've only seen one or two other Charlie Chan movies, so I can't say with any authority how this stacks up against the others in the series. It is amazing to see the movie manage to weave in two huge historic moments--the Hindenburg and the 1936 Olympics--even if the filmmakers didn't know what they had when they filmed it. As the Honorable Detective might say, "Movie camera like human eye--you never know what you're going to see!"

Monday, August 6, 2012

Movie Monday: Dr. Who and the Daleks

This week's Movie Monday selection is 1965's Dr. Who and the Daleks!

Despite being a 100% nerd/geek all my life, the world of Dr. Who is one I have never entered. I remember when Marvel did a couple of comic book adaptations (starring the then-doctor, Tom Baker), as well as seeing the occasional cosplayer dressed as the Doctor at the low-rent comic cons I attended. From what I saw of it, the show looked really cheesy and silly, and I was of the age where I took my sci-fi/fantasy very seriously.

I have never caught up with Dr. Who, even after the series' resurgence in the 21st Century; the sheer massive amount of material that's out there now feels a little too daunting to take on, so it remains--like Dungeons & Dragons and video games--a corner of geekdom to which I don't venture.

The one bit Who-dom I did see was the 1965 movie starring Peter Cushing--Gran Moff Tarkin himself--as the Doctor. We had it at the video store I worked at, and once in a while I would put it on the store's TV for everyone to enjoy(?). But I had never actually sat down to watch the movie all the way through, so I thought why not dip my toe in the water?
Dr. Who and the Daleks, from what I understand of the Whoverse, exists outside the show's regular continuity, such as it is. Cushing had never played the Doctor before, and as it opens we see it takes a few liberties with the show's basic premise.

In an unassuming brownstone, the Doctor lives with his two granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Robert Tovey). They are enjoying what seems like a typical morning of tea and reading the papers--with the Doctor engaging in one of my favorite pastimes:
Barbara's boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle) comes to visit, and the Doctor (whom Ian specifically calls "Dr. Who", one of the movie's breaks from canon) shows off his newest invention, the TARDIS. Roy is amazed at the contraption, which is ten times bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and which--the Doctor claims--can travel through time!

Via some forced slapstick, Roy bumps a control switch, and the TARDIS goes rocketing through time and space, carrying all four of them to another planet, a planet that clearly has been devastated by nuclear war. Soon after, Dr. Who and his charges meet one of the forces behind the war--the evil robots known as, you guessed it, the Daleks!
The Daleks explain that they their race, sickened by nuclear radiation, retreated to the one remaining city and built robot casings for themselves, so as to be able to keep living. Meanwhile, another race of beings known as the Thals were able to counteract the radiation through the development of a drug, and became a peaceful community of farmers. They ask the Doctor for help in getting some of the drug for themselves.

Barbara and Ian want to leave--naturally--but the Doctor's curiosity gets the best of him and fakes the TARDIS being damaged. While on a search for supposedly-needed fuel, the whole group starts feeling sick, and the Doctor surmises they, too, are starting to suffer from radiation sickness. Young Susan heads out, where she meets one of the Thals who gives her some of the drug to cure herself and the others. The Daleks learn of this, and we learn their real plan: to lure the Thals (whose crops have recently died) into the city, where they will be, yes, exterminated!!
The Thals, a trusting and pale bunch, read a letter from Susan telling them to come to the city where the Daleks want to make peace. One of the Thals is skeptical, but he is overruled and the Thals decide to come to the city in peace.

Dr. Who and the others learn that the Daleks have been spying on them, and what the plan really is. They figure out the Daleks use some sort of static electricity to move about the city (not down stairs, though), and lay a trap for one them, using a plastic cape from one of the Thals to break the connection and stop it in its tracks.

(There's an interesting scene where Dr. Who and Roy remove the Dalek from its metal body, scooping it out with the plastic cape, and it appears to be no bigger than an infant:)
Dr. Who has Roy climb inside so they can move about the city (Luke Skywalker borrowed this same gag when he, Han, and Chewie ended up on the Death Star), and it works for a little while, until an alarm goes off. Who and the rest warn the Thals, and escape with them back into the jungle.

The Daleks test the drug, but learn it has horrible side effects on them. Knowing now they will never be able to leave the city, they decide to throw the baby out with the bath water, they plan to detonate a nuclear bomb, and destroy the Thals once and for all.

I won't get into the details of the ending, suffice it to say the Doctor and his traveling companions (SPOILER ALERT) survive, and make it back into the TARDIS. But unfortunately, when they emerge from it again, they find themselves not in London, but somewhere else entirely:
...Just the Beginning!

Well, sort of--there was a sequel produced, Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., but apparently it was a bit of a disappointment so that was the last of Peter Cushing as the movie Doctor. Apparently, die-hard Who fans don't think too much of either film; they're considered too silly and take too many liberties with the established world, but of course coming into it with no expectations, I was free to just enjoy the movie.

And I did--Dr. Who and the Daleks is no sillier than most of the other lower-budgeted sci-fi at the time, and while it leans more towards the juvenile in its look and approach than the series did (again, only according to what I've read), the plot is tight (the film is a lean 79 minutes), the visuals are pretty good, and of course I always enjoy Peter Cushing, whether he's a good guy or a bad guy. The final scene has some clowning around by Ian that's pretty embarrassing, and the sfx are laughably bad. Its what I imagine Dr. Who would have looked like if produced by Irwin Allen.

But overall I came away with a good impression of the whole Dr. Who universe, and while I still don't know if I'll ever get into the show, I am kinda interested in seeing more of the good Doctor's adventures!

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