29 April 2008

Italian Western Titles . . . Pray for Your Death!

Italian Westerns have some of the most bizarre titles ever slapped onto a movie poster. Some don’t make any sense, and many of them overuse ellipses to a criminal extent. It’s unfortunate that the genre has such poor representation on DVD, because these titles make Western fans like myself salivate. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Have a Good Funeral, My Friend... Sartana Will Pay 
  • Patience Has a Limit... We Don’t 
  • God Does Not Pay on Saturday 
  • God Forgives... I Don’t 
  • Don’t Wait Django . . . Shoot! 
  • Kill Them All and Come Back Alone 
  • My Horse, My Gun, Your Widow 
  • I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death 
  • Today It’s Me, Tomorrow You (seems fair)
  • Heads You Die... Tails I Kill You (not as fair)
  • If You Meet Sartana, Pray for Your Death 
  • Any Gun Can Play 
  • Sartana’s Here, Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin 
  • A Genius, Two Partners and a Dupe 
  • Shoot the Living... Pray for the Dead (which I guess means pray for everybody)
Django and Sartana Are Coming... It’s the EndIt seems that Sartana is one busy boy. Django appears in more films, but Sartana runs a close second—and he got more wacky titles. Many of these apparent sequels movies had no connection to each other, the studio just slapped the name “Sartana” or “Django” onto their hero to cash in on the popularity of the characters. (Some “Django” films don’t even have a character named Django, and the Germans retitled and dubbed any Western starring Franco Nero, star of the original Django, into a “Django” film.)

Here are a few Italian Western titles I made up on the spot:
  • God Forgive Them... For Django Won’t 
  • My Pistol Screams Your Death 
  • No Gun, No Gold, Three Coffins 
  • Duck, Sartana... or the Ellipses Will Kill You! 
  • We Will Re-title This Movie “Django” for a Few Dollars More 
  • No, Spaniards... Do Not Cut the Funding! 
  • Coffins Argue Softly... Bullets Do Not 
  • A Hangman’s Noose for General Arriba 
  • 37 Guns for a Dead Vulture 
  • Kill All the America Idol Contestants and Come Back Alone 
  • The Gringo Grins at Death 
  • Here Is Sartana, Your Budget Undertaker
It’s fun, try making your own!

28 April 2008

Ultraman vs. 60 Minutes

Any professionally published “Best” list, whether it come from AFI or Blender, has only one purpose: stir up arguments. Opinions are like favorite Sherlock Holmes stories—everybody has one. (Mine is “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” what’s yours?)

So once more into the breach… I’ll gripe about another of these ubiquitous lists. From The New York Post, the Daily Bugle of real world, comes “The 35 Best Shows on TV—Ever.” Immediately, you’ll discover that they don’t really mean “Best” but “Popular & Influential.” You will know that when you set your eyes on the No. 2 show...

American Idol

??!?!?!?!??!?!??!?!??!?!?

(I promise I will never ever lay down a string of punctuation marks as a complete line again. I try to make this blog look professional, but typing just typing American Idol in connection with “best” of anything caused a horrific muscle spasm.)

And, to make matters worse, you know where M*A*S*H appears on the list?

Nowhere.

Seriously, M*A*S*H does not appear on a list—made by professional journalists—of the best television shows ever.

This isn’t a case of a fannish complaint that some personal favorite didn’t make the list. I’m not a fan of M*A*S*H. I love the original Robert Altman film, but I never got involved in the long-running weekly series. However, it remains one of the most acclaimed comedies in American TV history, and was the defining sitcom of its decade. I think I can say that with strong objectivity, especially since that show isn’t that important to me personally.

And American Idol—influential, certainly, but by no means even a mediocre show—gets on the list and M*A*S*H doesn’t.

So this list is invalid, and somebody at the Post is getting shipped out for a stint in Korea. I’m sure J. J. Jameson raked him/her over the coals, because I know that M*A*S*H is J. J. J.’s favorite program.

Okay, now I get to do my fannish thing and bat around my crazy opinions as if they were scripture. Which, within the confines of my apartment, they are.

Why aren’t the following programs on the list?
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000, greatest TV show ever
  • Ultraman
  • Batman (60s series)
  • Batman: The Animated Series
  • Sledge Hammer!
  • The Muppet Show
  • Have Gun—Will Travel
I could easily kick a few shows off the Post’s list (ahem... General Hospital... ahem) to make room for these utterly awesome episodic wonders. If we are really talking quality over influence, then Have Gun—Will Travel bests Gunsmoke, and Sledge Hammer! takes out Oprah with one shot. Or we could be fair and bump the list up to fifty shows, let the Post keep some of their “not the best but you’ve heard of ‘em” entries, and let me squeeze in some geek quality.

Come on, would you rather watch 60 Minutes, or Ultraman? Be honest. Andy Rooney grousing about Christmas cards, or a rubber-suited super-sized alien hero smashing around a giant monster named Baltan?

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the answer is obvious.

(Ah, but what if Ultraman bashed around Andy Rooney? That, my friends, is why we have sweeps week!)

How long is that gunfight?

Today I clocked the running time of the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank in Once upon a Time in the West. From the moment that they begin to circle each other and Ennio Morricone’s music starts, until Frank hits the sand, dead, the single-shot duel last eight and a half minutes. I’d like to see an American film try something that outrageous today.

Watching both Once upon a Time in the West and Once upon a Time in America so soon after viewing Leone’s very first film as director, The Colossus of Rhodes, is a jarring experience. I started to re-watch Once upon a Time in America only minutes after completing Colossus. I didn’t get all the way through it—it’s close to four hours long—but it’s such a hypnotic work of cinematic art that I managed to plow halfway through it before I realized it was one a.m. and I should get to bed. I’ve never loved a gangster film as much as Once upon a Time in America, and that includes the first two Godfather films. Leaping from the competent director behind The Colossus of Rhodes to the genius who spent twelve years crafting Once upon a Time in America is like skipping from The Comedy of Errors to Hamlet.

As much as I revere Once upon a Time in America, it’s a film I feel hesitant to recommend to friends. First, because of its length, I’m asking someone to make a significant time investment. Few of us can find a block of time to watch a four-hour movie. Second, it’s a bizarre film, and not everyone will react so enthusiastically to its ritualized pace and fluid use of time. Viewers expecting a standard look into the structures of organized crime will find Leone’s dream-like meditation on friendship and the passage of time baffling and maybe frustrating. Finally, the rape scene in the movie is incredibly disturbing. The second rape scene. When you have to identify which rape scene you are talking about, the movie obviously is one that will turn away some folks. The infamous rape is essential to the story, but it’s a harsh and difficult sequence to get through. I’ve occasionally skipped over it while watching the whole film because it’s so upsetting—and then feel ashamed of myself since that robs me of the film’s complete experience and diminishes the impact of a later scene (the “Age Cannot Wither Her” encounter in the theater dressing room) that I think is the strongest in the movie.

There… if you’ve never seen Once upon a Time in America, considered yourself warned. Now go rip open a four-hour hole in your sked and watch it.

“Noodles, I slipped.”

24 April 2008

River of No Return

After watching The Colossus of Rhodes last week, I felt a hankerin’ to check out one of star Rory Calhoun’s Westerns from his halcyon days. He was a top B-Western actor during the 1950s in films like Apache Territory, Powder River, and the 1955 version of The Spoilers. However, B-Westerns are poorly represented on DVD, so the only Western I could find available for rent featuring Mr. Calhoun is River of No Return. However, this 1954 Western is not a B-movie at all, but a CinemaScope big picture from a major director, and Rory Calhoun has only a supporting part. He gets third billing, but vanishes during the whole middle stretch of the film.

However, it is a Western from the grand days of CinemaScope epics, has Otto Preminger at the helm (his only Western), and stars one of the great tough-guy actors, Robert Mitchum. His co-star is Norma Jean Baker, who was going under the acting name of Marilyn Monroe at the time… perhaps you’ve heard of her. She had just hit the big time with How to Marry a Millionaire (with Calhoun in a small part) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Although we associate MM with romantic comedies and musicals—and nude pin-ups—she acquits herself well here. Her jeans fits her a bit too stylishly for the frontier, but this is a glitz picture, not an Italian Western.

I’ve never had much appreciation for Preminger’s style, and because he was forced to do this film from a contractual obligation the malaise is frequently palpable. Here he ditches close-ups almost entirely. Most of River of No Return feels filmed at arm’s length. This works great for the scenery in Alberta in Jasper National Park, but not so well for the more intimate moments. Thankfully Mitchum and Monroe have some good chemistry, or these stops along the fearful whitewater trip would be a chore to get through.

And speaking of the whitewater, the action scenes split between some excellent stunt work along the river and awful rear-screen projection where you can sense the stage hands holding the buckets of water right off camera.

River of No Return gets bonus points for some sharp lines of the classic Hollywood mode. The best retort comes when Calhoun says he’s going to go over and have a talk with Mitchum, and then starts loading his gun. When Monroe asks him what the gun is for, he answers: “In case he’s hard of hearing.” Zing!

Note to studio’s home video divisions and all DVD manufacturers: Let’s get some more B-Westerns on disc!

23 April 2008

Cornell Woolrich’s “The Street of Jungle Death”

Pulp writers frequently recycled plots from their earlier stories, and often would create novels based on published shorter works. Raymond Chandler lifted whole chunks of his shorts and combined them into novels, a process he called “cannibalization.” Other writers weren’t so extreme, but re-using ideas and devices that worked once before was fair game in the days when everybody thought the old pulp stories would molder forgotten in back issues and never appear in reprints. One famous example: Robert E. Howard’s 1935 novel The Hour of the Dragon, which was written specifically for the U.K. hardback market, made generous use of ideas from the earlier Conan adventure, “The Scarlet Citadel.”

Cornell Woolrich took a few of his short stories and expanded them into novels. “Speak to Me of Death” became Night Has a Thousand Eyes. “Face Work” became The Black Angel. “Call Me Patrice” became I Married a Dead Man. And “The Street of Jungle Death” became Black Alibi. The last case is the most interesting, since the novel is a classic, and the story is… well… not.

If at first you don’t succeed, re-write it as a novel. That’s what Woolrich’s thinking must have been with “The Street of Jungle Death” (Strange Detective Mysteries, July–August 1939), where killer conception and mediocre execution would eventually lead to its re-thinking as 1942’s Black Alibi, one of my favorite Woolrich chillers. It is intriguing to see how so little changed in the structure of events between the two, yet how fundamentally different Black Alibi turned out.

22 April 2008

Oh, you mean the other film

Today, someone at work asked me if I had seen the movie Grandma’s Boy. I said “yes.”

Except, I thought he was talking about the 1921 classic Harold Lloyd comedy from the Max Roach studios.

Actually, he meant a 2006 comedy produced by Adam Sandler, which is no relation at all to the Harold Lloyd film except through titular coincidence.

I am aware of the later film’s existence. I have a good sense of general pop culture, since I see myself as something of an informal pop culture scholar. If you love pulp literature and B-movies, you’re into popular culture studies whether you use the term or not. So I knew about Grandma’s Boy ’06: I saw the ads, read some reviews (almost universally scathing), and knew when the film came out in theaters. I didn’t see it because I was aware of its connection to Adam Sandler, and what better incentive do you have to stay away?

However, although I knew of the recent Grandma’s Boy, when I heard the title I immediately thought of the Harold Lloyd film.

And you know something? Man, does that make me happy.

In ten years, no one will remember Grandma’s Boy ’06, and the Harold Lloyd film will still be showing up in revival theaters and in deluxe DVD editions, and people will still laugh along with it as if it were made yesterday.

Harold Lloyd rules.

17 April 2008

Vegas films, good and bad

With the current, relative popularity of the movie 21, I have taken it upon myself (and your reading time) to list the best “Las Vegas” films. These are movies in which Vegas and its culture play an important part of the story, even though the whole film might not be set there:
  • Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
  • Viva Las Vegas
  • Diamonds Are Forever
  • Honeymoon in Vegas
  • Casino
  • Leaving Las Vegas
  • Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
  • The Cooler
  • Ocean’s Thirteen
For the record, here are some films that would never ever get on such a list:
  • Showgirls
  • Vegas Vacation
  • 3000 Miles to Graceland
  • Resident Evil: Extinction
  • Honey, I Blew Up the Kid
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I know there are fans of that last one I listed. I am not one of them. So there it sits.

The Shadow in The London Crimes

The London Crimes (1935)
Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Gran

Volume #8 of Nostalgia Ventures’ collections of Shadow novels contains two adventures set in England, The London Crimes and The Castle of Doom. Walter B. Gibson wrote them back-to-back as a switch from The Shadow’s standard New York haunts, although Street & Smith published them a few months apart in the actual magazine.

The London Crimes appeared first, in the 15 September 1935 issue of The Shadow. It is a follow-up to a novel from August of that year, The Man from Scotland Yard, which introduced British police inspector Eric Delka. This time, The Shadow goes to Delka’s homeland of the Sceptered Isle to help him break the case of the Harvester, a notorious crook with disguise skills to equal our protean hero’s.

Unfortunately, despite the build-up that pulp historian Will Murray gives the novel in his introduction, The London Crimes is a tepid and dull affair for a Shadow story. There’s not much in the way of either action or intrigue; it’s most humdrum detection without the mysterioso element I associate with The Shadow. Our hero spends most of his time in his disguise as Lamont Cranston, and Scotland Yard inexplicably allows him and his agent Harry Vincent (the only of The Shadow’s agents to appear in the novel) hang around as they hunt for the Harvester among a gaggle of suspects. The Harvester doesn’t have the most intriguing of schemes: a convoluted robbery involving oil options, fake jewels, and banking operations. Much of the story revolves around long dialogue scenes trying to pinpoint whom among the cast might be the Harvester. The finale involves too many chapters of alibi-haggling in an English manor house before finally erupting into a single page of suspense before the wrap-up. The sequence involving The Shadow’s investigating the jewels of the enigmatic Rajah of Delapore contains the most exciting segment—but there’s not enough of this. When The Shadow at last reveals the true identity of the Harvester, it doesn’t carry any shock, although The Shadow had planned out a clever way to blow the villain’s disguise.

The next novel, The Castle of Doom, comes highly recommended by a number of sources, so perhaps that will make up for the deficiencies in The London Crimes.

Update: Sorry to say, I found Castle of Doom disappointing as well, and just don’t feel like expending a full review on it. I feel a bit over-Shadowed at this point, honestly.)

15 April 2008

Dino Dreams from Rudolph Zallinger

I grew up loving dinosaurs, like any good elementary school boy. Unfortunately, this was during the last days before the “Dinosaur Renaissance,” a scientific movement that revitalized studies of the Mesozoic and changed the image of dinosaurs toward the warm-blooded, fast-moving ancestors of birds that we know today through books and pop-culture. The Renaissance was on in earnest by the early 1970s because of the discovery of Deinonychus, but scientific revelations take many years to filter down to popularizations, textbooks, and eventually volumes for children. Many of the dino books I had as a child in the ‘70s were first written in the ‘60s using data from the ‘50s—a time when Apatosaurus still lived in a swamp and was called Brontosaurus, Tyrannosaurus was a slow-moving scavenger, and there was such a dinosaur as Trachodon (now fully “hadrosaurized”). It was better than the four-footed creatures from the Crystal Palace exhibition in the mid-nineteenth century, but so much has radically changed since then that some of the old assumptions are a bit comical today. (I still get a thrill from those Crystal Palace dinos; they’re so fresh and innocent.)

However, the “slo-mo-dino” era does have its own reality, a popular culture reality, that gives me a nostalgia rush when I think back to my childhood dinosaur books. My favorite of these books was Album of Dinosaurs by Tim McGowen, a picture book with features on twelve dinosaurs and some beautiful full-color paintings with vibrant colors. These illustrations had a major effect on how I visualized dinosaurs as a child.

Almost as important to my view of the Mesozoic fauna is the mural “The Age of Reptiles” by Rudolph Zallinger that is the pride of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. This competes with the earlier work of Charles R. Knight for the most famous illustration of dinosaurs ever. It wasn’t until recently that I knew who created the mural and where it is located, but from a young age I had its dinosaurs burned into my mind from many reproductions in books, magazines, and educational films. Take a look at a detail here… I guarantee you’ve encountered it somewhere before.

The mural gained its wide fame from a fold-out spread in Life magazine. The work took Zallinger four years to complete and is 16 feet high by 110 feet long. Last year it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Biologically, much of it has been shown to be erroneous. The dinosaurs are static, have a slow-moving heaviness to their bodies, and a solemn air fit for a religious work from the Renaissance. In fact, the dark colors and deep focus give an Italian Renaissance feel to the whole work; this is what makes it stand out so many years later in people’s minds. It’s a haunting snapshot of a fictional past. If Raphael knew of dinos, this is how he would’ve painted them.

Charles R. Knight’s work is more accurate, and his painting of a T. Rex confronting a Triceratops is another key work of dinosaur visualization, making this Cretaceous Era one-on-one the most famous of dinosaur clashes. This picture also looms large in my dino-dreams of childhood, when there was nothing better than a trip to the Natural History Museum on a Saturday afternoon. (I always rooted for the T. Rex in these fights.)

If you want more information on the history of dinosaur art, definitely take a look at Paleoimagery: The Evolution of Dinosaurs in Art.

14 April 2008

Cornwell Woolrich’s Killer Fashions: “I’m Dangerous Tonight”

Cornell Woolrich’s dabblings in the supernatural constitute an intriguing corner of his suspense fiction. In these fantasy excursions, the otherworldly elements remain on the fringes, never a total certainty but just possible enough to shake the world view of the protagonists. The cruel fate of the world is a major theme in his fiction, and in these stories it receives actualization in the form of supernatural forces.

Woolrich’s best works in this vein are “Dark Melody of Madness” (often reprinted as “Papa Benjamin”) and “Speak to Me of Death” and its novel expansion Night Has a Thousand Eyes. A lesser fantasy work, interesting if extremely flawed, is “I’m Dangerous Tonight.” This novella, which runs about ninety pages in paperback, appeared in the general interest pulp All-American Fiction in 1937. It feels like a work that Woolrich might have tried to expand into novel format, since it has similar elements to “Street of Jungle Death,” which he turned into Black Alibi. There’s enough material in the novella to make a full novel, but perhaps Woolrich could see the weaknesses in the story and did nothing more with it.

13 April 2008

Once Upon a Time on a Colossus

Thanks to the DVD release of Sergio Leone’s first movie, 1962’s The Colossus of Rhodes, I can at last say I’ve seen every film that Leone directed.

Leone may be a filmmaking legend because of his classic Westerns The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once upon a Time in the West, and gangster epic Once upon a Time in America, but until recently it seemed that nobody had anything to say about The Colossus of Rhodes, almost as if no one had seen it at all. The movie belongs to a popular Italian genre of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that the French critics called peplum and in the U.S. is usually referred to as “sword-and-sandal.” These were action-adventure movies set in classical antiquity, most frequently the Roman Empire or mythical Greece. The stars were usually American bodybuilders who played musclemen heroes like Hercules, Maciste, Samson, or Ursus. Many of the productions were co-financed with other western European countries, and most were shot in Spain, including The Colossus of Rhodes. The casts were drawn from all over Europe, featuring Italian, Spanish, German, Austrian, and French performers. The genre played well overseas after the 1957 Hercules turned into a big international hit, so the Italian film industry and their co-producers jumped wholeheartedly into these slimmed-down Ben-Hurs that accented big action and colorful spectacle. The boom wound down and was replaced with the Western mania in the latter half of the 1960s, and that was where Leone flourished.

Colossus of Rhodes is therefore a film type that wasn’t targeted to Leone’s interests. But since it was his first film, he hadn’t yet developed his personal style. He already had over a decade of filmmaking experience working as an assistant director and in second units (he was on the Italian second unit crew of Ben-Hur), so Colossus of Rhodes is professionally mounted and feels like the work of a seasoned director. But it has few of Leone’s trademarks or signs of his later brilliance. No claustrophobic close-ups, vista-spanning long-takes, bizarre collages of sound effects, ritualized violence, or weird Ennio Morricone music (although Francesco Lavagnino’s score is effective). After the first half hour, it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a Leone movie at all. It turns into a standard sword-and-sandal film with only a few unusual touches to hint at what is to come from the man behind the camera.

However, it’s a good sword-and-sandal film, and I enjoyed it immensely on its own terms as popular early ‘60s entertainment. It’s loaded with action and vivid sets, and if the plot gets herky-jerky at times and filled with plot strands that don’t go anywhere (common in the rapid-fire filmmaking of Italy in the day) it still carries the viewer along for the two-hour running time. Some of the action scenes are gratuitous, but it’s a good kind of gratuitous. The sword fight on the top of the Colossus is a good piece of fun, and seems like an obvious nod to Hitchcock’s Saboteur (which concluded on the Statue of Liberty, a sculpture that’s an homage to the Colossus of Rhodes) and North by Northwest.

And who’s our guest-starring American actor? Surprise, this time it’s not a bodybuilder, but aging B-Cowboy Rory Calhoun. Calhoun was a last-minute replacement, and looks a bit dazed in the role. He plays the Athenian Darios, on holiday in Rhodes to see his uncle. He has a dopey good-natured demeanor about him as he gets pulled into a rebellion against the tyrannical King Serse of Rhodes and his scheming prime-minister Thar. While the rebels are plotting the king’s overthrow, Thar has his own plot with the Phoenician to take over the island for himself. Central to the schemes of all the groups is the Colossus, which isn’t just a giant bronze statue in this version of the story, but bristles with weaponry. It can drop molten lead from its torch onto ships trying to move through the harbor below. The hollow head serves as the control room and launching pad for catapults.

The look of the Colossus is inspired by the medieval myth that the statue straddled the harbor. This was impossible, since it would have required closing down Rhodes’s harbor during the long construction. No contemporary account mentions the Colossus standing across the harbor entrance, and indeed it was much smaller than art represented it. In the movie the Colossus is an effective combination of a model and full-scale mock-ups of its upper body and its feet.

The film concludes with the historical earthquake that felled the great statue, and it comes amidst a huge battle finale between the Phoenician allies of the the traitor Thar and the heroic freedom fighters. The scene is indebted to the very popular Italian film The Last Days of Pompei (which Leone worked on as an assistant director).

Leone fans will definitely want to see Colossus of Rhodes, although they won’t get out of it what they might expect. Casual viewers may get a thrill of it as well; it’s never boring. The DVD is of good quality, and has intelligent commentary from Italian popular cinema expert Sir Christopher Frayling.

11 April 2008

Your Grave Is Waiting for You, Mr. Woolrich

“Vampire’s Honeymoon” was a failed Weird Menace story from Cornell Woolrich. But he hit another one out of the park two years earlier with “Graves for the Living,” which appeared in a 1937 issue of Dime Mystery.

I’ve read a slew of Weird Menace pulp stories, and this is the best one. Woolrich was at home with the paranoia and stark fear of this crackpot sub-genre of suspense stories, although he holds back on the chum-buckets of grue. Unlike the convention-breaking “Dark Melody of Madness,” this story follows the rules of the bizarre horror genre by keeping supernatural events out of play. It adheres to the standard Weird Menace outline of a young couple plunging into a nightmare association with a cult and bizarre murders. Hero Bud Ingram has a fixation on premature burial because it happened to his father, but his friendship and romance with beautiful Joan helps combat this fear. Then he stumbles into the Friends of Death, a cult obsessed with living burial. They bury their members in coffins with air holes that run to the surface, then “miraculously” revive them. The cult traps Bud and forces him to join, then targets him for blackmail. After Bud witnesses the Friends of Death murder one of their own members with “the penalty”—live burial with no air passage—he tries to escape their clutches. But the cult has spies everywhere, even on the police force. Joan offers herself to the cult in Bud’s stead, and they bury her alive in a cemetery somewhere in the city. A crazed Bud runs through graveyards at random trying to dig her up. As a noir cop bonus, police officers pour acid on suspected cultist to make him talk.

10 April 2008

30 Days of Night

I’ll never write a story using vampires. Never never never. (I know I’ll eat these words one day; any absolute statement is designed to cause regret.) But I’ll still watch an occasional movie starring one, or read a book featuring one. I watched I Am Legend in December, and even though the filmmakers tried to hide their creatures as something other than vampires, you can’t fool me. I read the novel and I know they are vampires. And last night I watched on DVD the recent adaptation of the graphic novel 30 Days of Night. It offers nothing new in the vampire legend stakes, only the suspense idea of a town that undergoes a month-long vampiric siege when the sun goes down for a full month in the winter.

The town of Barrow, Alaska is real, and it is the most northern town in the U.S. However, it doesn’t suffer from an abrupt thirty day sky black-out as the movie portrays, and anyone with any knowledge of the northern and southern regions would understand that. The sun doesn’t rise, but it still lights the horizon at dawn, and the descent from day and ascent back into it happens more gradually than the sharp cut-off the film shows. And Barrow has regular flights in and out during the darkest month and isn’t cut-off from the rest of the world as the movie shows.

But it’s a film with a “oh boy, hot dog!” premise, so why let reality get in the way? It’s a flick starring vampires, after all, which don’t exist, so let’s not quibble further over the available light in Barrow, Alaska.

As a horror-suspense movie, 30 Days of Night gets the job done, nothing more. The actors are a decent bunch, and Josh Hartnett is actually well-cast as an everyman sheriff. He has a limited range as a performer, but this falls squarely in the range. Melissa George as his sparring love interest is far too “pretty” for the part, and the drama between the two of them isn’t given enough play to make it an interesting contrast to the prowling snarling vampires on the street. It’s much more interesting to watch Mark Boone Junior mow down vampires with his giant snowplow than stare at Hartnett and George struggling to relate about their past relationship.

The vampires belong to the most common breed of contemporary movie vampire: feral beasts. I would love to see an old-fashioned aristocratic vampire again one of the these days, one who uses stealth and charisma to lure his or her victims, but for now I will have to settle for the scabby Red Bull-jacked nosferatu who spew gore messily each time they rip into a victim’s throat. Danny Huston, one of the most suspicious-looking actors whose ever lived, does the film’s most memorable turn as the vampire’s leader, Marlow. (That’s what the credits name him; I don’t recall his name ever mentioned on screen. The vampires speak in what sounds like pseudo-Hungarian as performed by Morbid Angel, so it’s hard to tell.) There’s a bonus wild-child vampire in a convenience store, which is the movie’s best sequence.

30 Days of Night is one of those movies that, while it sustains entertainment, eventually reaches a point where the audience has too many opportunities to ask needling questions. I kept thinking, “What are the vampires doing during the off-time from the thirty-day siege? They’ve already fed themselves on everyone available, so there’s no more food supply. Are they just standing around on the streets, looking menacing? Don’t they have hobbies or some ways to kill time? Hell fellas, here’s a rare opportunity when you get to be up all day—use the time to learn some skills. Typing, snowboarding, refrigerator manufacturing, anything! Carpete noctem!

My biggest criticism of 30 Days of Night is that it’s not that scary. The grim snowbound atmosphere creates an oppressive gloom, but the genuine fear never kicks in. Even the jack-in-the-box frights didn’t get much of a jump out of me. Although the story takes place over thirty days, the only way I knew this was the on-screen countdown titles and Hartnett’s meager five o’clock shadow; otherwise, the sense of a prolonged fearful stand against the vampires doesn’t come through, and that defeats a lot of the tension. It isn’t a dull film, but it isn’t a breathless ride either—and that’s exactly what it needs to be.

By the way, snowmobiling and alcohol don’t mix. I know this because of a sign in the Barrow sheriff’s department that keeps appearing in the frame. For some reason, I burst into laughing fits every time I saw the sign. Vampires don’t kill people; Tanqueray and a snowmobile do!

Not my favorite movie

I often say that my favorite movie is Chinatown. I’ve thought for years—nay, staunchly defended for years against all-comers—that my favorite movie is Chinatown. But actually, my favorite movie is often the original King Kong. (I like the Peter Jackson re-make, but not at that level). And then the next day it might be Chinatown again, but more often now my favorite movie is the Big Ape in the Big Apple epic. When I’m honest about it, which movie would I much rather stick into my DVD player and watch on a Friday night? No contest, King Kong wins over Roman Polanski’s brilliant but very bleak noir classic. So perhaps King Kong truly is my favorite movie.

And then other days, I’m sure that 2001: A Space Odyssey is my #1. But I would rather watch the whole of The Outlaw Josey Wales than 2001, so often the Clint Eastwood Western classic is my favorite movie. But I may watch Duck Soup instead, because that’s my favorite movie. Not Manhattan, which is also my favorite movie.

The point is, I’ve given up on the idea of having a favorite movie. I grew up thinking I needed to have one, and now I realize there’s room at the top. No need to single one out; they all serve their special purposes. Even The Searchers, and it’s my favorite movie.

09 April 2008

Jules Verne Rains Rerror from the Sky!

This ties in with my frequent maunderings about Jules Verne. The first European Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Jules Verne ATV, docked successfully today with the International Space Station. Captain Nemo was at the helm, with co-pilot Robur, and from the ISS they will show their superiority to the world and rain destruction down upon their warmongering enemies. The Baltimore Gun Club has quickly dispatched a team to ready a massive cannon to fire a projectile into space to knock down the ISS and the dangerous geniuses at its helm, while the rest of the world is advised to find an extinct volcano in Iceland and hide in the tunnels beneath until this whole crisis passes. Failing that, take to a balloon and look for a deserted island.

08 April 2008

Book Review: Raptor Red

Raptor Red (1995)
By Robert T. Bakker

If you’ve never come across the novel Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker, I give it my highest recommendation for fascinating science reading. I read it first about eight years ago, and have returned to it a number of times since to thumb through some of its more interesting passages. It’s still in print and easily available at online and brick-and-mortar bookstores. It combines animal fantasy with scientific data, and has the sort of joyful feel that I sometimes get from Jules Verne novels, where the author entertains with a story, but also entertains when he stops the story to share engrossing scientific information. I’m a bit biased, since I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was four years old, but I’m not unique in that way. I happen to have carried it much farther into adulthood and enjoy using dinosaurs in my writing, but even if you haven’t visited the Mesozoic era since you were in short pants or pig tails, I think Raptor Red will bring all the dino-love back to you.

Author Bakker is one of the leading paleontologists in the world, and his radical theories about dinosaurs (published for the general public in the mid-‘80s in The Dinosaur Heresies) helped re-formulate the way we consider the famous beasts of the Mesozoic. Long gone are the lethargic, cold-blooded clods imagined by the mid-twentieth century. Instead, we have the virile, hot-blooded, be-feathered dinosaurs that Bakker proposed. Bakker is a proponent of a taxonomic reorganization that makes dinosaurs unextinct by made birds a subclass of dinosaurs. I ardently support this, not based on scientific evidence (I’m no scientist, so wouldn’t dream of jumping into the argument), but because I want to be able to say crazy things like, “Let’s go feed the dinosaurs!” in public parks.
Raptor Red follows the adventures of a single female Utahraptor (far larger than an actual Velociraptor, and similar to the ones seen in Jurassic Park) through the daily travails of Cretaceous life. The writing does not anthropomorphize the raptor, but tries to give a sense of how the creature might really have thought about itself and its world. Because we are accustomed to seeing raptors as “villains” from their use in movies, having a dangerous predator for a heroine gives us a new perspective on survival and natural balance. Periodically, Bakker inserts chapters from his own voice where he details what science knows about the era and its creatures, specially theories on dinosaur behavior, obviously a contentious and speculative field. Bakker writes science fact with an easy and colloquial friendliness that makes the material accessible to anyone old enough to understand the words. He also embellishes the text with his own detailed illustrations.

Even if the science of dinosaurs doesn’t interest you—and I personally don’t understand why it wouldn’t—Raptor Red is a thrilling animal fantasy about one of the most amazing creatures ever to walk the earth. Plus, the paperback edition has a nifty holographic cover!

07 April 2008

Leatherheads

Leatherheads (2008)
Directed by George Clooney. Starring George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski.

Leatherheads pulled in enough cash to make the #2 spot at the box-office this weekend, but don’t expect this nominal “football comedy” to hang around long. The movie is a major disappointment from director George Clooney, who had promised great things after Goodnight, and Good Luck. The trailers and promotion for Leatherheads promised a comic and nostalgic romp about the origins of professional football, starting in the days when the pro-leagues were really the bush-leagues, and the mere mention of playing professional to a college player brought on bursts of laughter. Oh, how the times have changed, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see that change happen?

Yes it would, but Leatherheads doesn’t offer that past the first act. In fact, it hardly offers any football between the first and last twenty minutes. In between, Clooney appears to strive for a Howard Hawks-style romantic comedy about a go-getting sassy newspaper gale (Renée Zellweger) trying to dig up the dirt on a World War I hero with a suspicious record (John Krasinski). The war hero happens to be the star player who is driving Dodge Connelly’s (Geroge Clooney) risky new professional football team to victory, but the sports angle vanishes under one too many hotel and restaurant scenes.

Occasionally, Clooney does accurately tap the Howard Hawks and George S. Kaufman spirit of zingy screwball dialogue. Far too often, however, the movie collapses in a sludge of nostalgia that throws the pacing entirely off. Snappy openings and closings and a few smatterings of slapstick (the scene of Krasinski’s sleeve catching on fire is the movie’s funniest moment) can’t survive the periods of drudgery that should have gotten mercilessly tossed to the cutting room floor—or dragged to “garbage” icon on the Avid. Randy Newman’s jazz score provides help, but all his buoyancy can’t force the rest of the picture to keep up. The film’s major slapstick sequence, unfortunately, goes all wrong in its homage to the Keystone Kops and appears to be phoning in from a surrealist farce.

The football scenes are amusing, and they should have taken most of the focus. The final game, however, isn’t at all what you might hope for from a sports movie. Mired in the mud with almost no action, even the fictional commentators can’t get much excitement out of it. It sets up a decent gag about the last moment of old-fashioned football tactics (i.e. “cheating”), but as a finale for a film that’s already over two hours long, I call it a fumble in the end zone. And M*A*S*H did a similar gag much better back in 1970.

The 1920s, however, is still was one of the best-looking eras ever. People just knew how to dress stylishly back then. I want those vests, jackets, and ties…now!

05 April 2008

The Cid is Dead! Long live the Cid!

Oh no, he’s finally gone and done it! Damn him all to hell!

This constant stream of obituaries is turning downright depressing. Now Charlton Heston is dead at age 84. This isn’t a tremendous surprise, since he had revealed back 2002 that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Nonetheless, I got a jolt when I read the news today; only last month I had watched him in the movie El Cid (directed by the awesome Anthony Mann) and realized that the much-parodied NRA president and SNL comedy-staple could actually be a great actor. He was a stylized and larger-than-life performer, and in these days of naturalistic acting style he can seem pretty hammy. Having classic lines from Planet of the Apes (“It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!”) and Soylent Green (“Soylent Green is made from…” well, you know what) repeated endlessly as punchlines or as clips on TV shows tended to immortalize Chuck Heston as the Grand Ham of Hollywood. But he brought a tremendous presence and authority to his roles, especially in the epics where his performance fit the scope of the story, like Ben-Hur, El Cid, and The Ten Commandmants. He also has a special place in the world of science fiction for Omega Man, Soylent Green, and Planet of the Apes. And for the film noir lover, there’s always Touch of Evil—and he was instrumental in getting Orson Welles on as director. One of Heston’s best performances is unfortunately mostly forgotten: the title character in Tom Gries’s gritty Western about the workaday world of the cowboy, Will Penny.

Looking over the scope of his career now that he’s gone, however, I’m going to lay my money down on El Cid as the best work he ever did. If you haven’t seen it before, the new DVD set is absolutely essential viewing. Especially now the Cid has finally ridden off into legend.

(To all those who think deaths happen in threes, the recent progression just shows that celebrity deaths happen constantly, and then we just group them into threes. I’m guessing that most people won’t count Jules Dassin as a “celebrity,” but he sure was to me. Same with Gary Gygax and Arthur C. Clarke, just as much as Chuck Heston and Heath Ledger. Most “death in triplicate” proponents cherry-pick whose death counts and whose doesn’t until they arrive at the magic number three.)

The Shadow in The Salamanders

The Salamanders (1936)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

The second novel in Volume #5 of Nostalgia Ventures’ reprints of “The Shadow” is The Salamanders. As the included historical essay points out, this novel was selected as a contrast to the first, The Black Falcon. Where The Black Falcon focuses on mystery and deception sprinkled with action, The Salamanders accents action, action, action with The Shadow in the thick of the fray.

By 1936, when The Salamanders appeared in the magazine, The Shadow had serious competition from Popular Publications’ demented take on the hero pulp, The Spider. I’ll spend some blog time on the Spider eventually; he’s worth plenty of bandwidth because of the sheer insanity that author Norvell Page put into him. Suffice it to say for the moment that The Spider’s adventures involved blazing action, horrific violence influenced by Weird Menace pulps, and the constant threat of utter annihilation. Where The Shadow uses style and plotting, The Spider goes blood n’ guts fueled by heapings of caffeine.

The Salamanders is definitely a “Spider-ized” outing for The Shadow. According to Will Murray in his essay in Volume #5, Street & Smith requested this more competitive direction from Shadow scribe Walter B. Gibson. Gibson described it this way: “Instead of building up to some great menace, then unravelling it and defeating it, writers were plunging into a full-blown horror that called for immediate demolition.” This is exactly what Gibson serves up in The Salamanders, although he does it with more control and attention to detail than the feverish Norvell Page Spider novels. The Shadow appears in the forefront of the action, right in the thick of the battle against a plague of arson committed by asbestos-suited villains toting flame-throwers. They would look right at home in an issue of The Spider, and so would the massive incendiary finale where The Shadow darts around a burning town trying desperately to stop the Salamanders from completing their evil task. Throughout the book there is no end of thrill sequences: two massive car wrecks over the sides of cliffs, multiple burning fire-traps, rescues across hot coals, a train filled with dynamite crashing into a blazing depot, and The Shadow flying his autogiro to the rescue.

Gibson manages to hold the story together with his customary precision even in this nonstop barrage. He doesn’t fly into the Spider-lunacy land: the Salamanders have a realistic goal (collecting securities for a greedy power company owner) and everything makes sense at the end. However, this simply isn’t the kind of Shadow adventure that grabs me. I enjoy the Knight of Darkness best in the mysterious supporting role, as in The Black Falcon, instead of always in the center of the action like a spotlight was shining down on him. The Salamanders is pulp-thrills at a mile-a-minute, but it doesn’t have the writing beauty that Gibson brought to the best of his work. The Spider played the insane action game better, even if the total illogic of his escapades are headache-inducing and not for everybody.

O! O! O! Totus Floreo!

Time for a little Spring-time raunchy Latin rejoicing:
Oh, Oh, Oh,
Totus floreo,
Iam amore vigrinali
Totus ardeo,
Novus, novus, novus amor
est, que pereo.
Laymen’s translation: “I’m so damn in love I’m going to burst and die.”

This is from the part of Carl Orff”s Carmina Burana that isn’t “O Fortuna.” Chances are you won’t hear this as the music on any upcoming movie trailers.

04 April 2008

The Return of the iPod Ten

And you thought it was dead! Here’s another “iPod Ten,” where I jam my iPod on shuffle mode and see which ten songs pop up first. I then unwisely try to explain the random selection and hope this illuminates something about me.

Lalo Schifrin: “The Window” from The Amityville Horror (1979)
The hoax that won’t die. The original Amityville flick is a dour and boring affair (the remake is hardly better), but Schifrin’s score—based on a, eerie two-note motif using a young girl’s voices—is excellent, and he received an Academy Award nomination for it. This is an excellent suspense track.

Jerry Fielding: “Bleak Bad Big City Dawn” from The Gauntlet
The “other Jerry” from film music. Near the end of his career (he died in 1981 of a heart attack) Fielding had a productive relationship with Clint Eastwood. He composed the stunning music for The Outlaw Josey Wales (an Academy Award-nominee), followed up with The Enforcer, and then took on this 1977 actioner with a “dirty jazz” score that Clint must’ve loved. This scene-setting opening feels like a jazz-hangover; a perfect way to start the film.

Sergei Prokofiev: “The Battle on the Ice: Spears and Arrows” from Alexander Nevsky
We know him as a concert composer, but Russian maestro Prokofiev also turned out one of filmdom’s most studied and appreciated scores. Unfortunately, it was poorly recorded for the movie, and some temp piano music somehow got into the mix, but at least we have some excellent re-recordings such as this one from Leningrad. The section covers the climactic battle scenes and uses the ponderous Latin chorus singing “Peregrinus Expectavi” (“As a wanderer, I expected…”)

Jerry Goldsmith: “Something of Value” from The Wind and the Lion
You knew Jerry would show up here eventually, right? This is one of the best scores the composer ever turned out, a rollicking adventure score and an Oscar-nominee. The music here is for the quiet and introspective coda of the movie, where the composer works together the Arabian flavor with the stalwart Teddy Roosevelt theme. Beautiful, beautiful stuff. I miss Jerry sumthin’ fierce.

The Raymond Scott Quintette: “Girl at the Typewriter”
Another burst of chamber-jazz goofiness from the 1930s master of oddball jazz and cartoon archive music. Here, the six men in the quintette (no, that’s not a typo) imitate the clattering sound of a woman in a typing pool pounding away. No wonder Carl Stalling slapped Scott’s music onto WB cartoons every chance he got.

Philip Glass: “Sand Mandala” from Kundun
Hey, a timely piece of music considering the uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule! Glass provides his customary circular minimalism to the film and mixes in traditional Tibetan instruments ad throat-singers. Glass is a Buddhist as well, and he beliefs probably influence his approach to the material.

Akira Ifukube: “Meltdown” from Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
Whoa, this track lasts a whole fifteen seconds! Not the best way to get to know the brilliance of the late Ifukube and his thundering Godzilla scores. Maybe next time I’ll get a track that lasts over half-a-minute.

Count Basie and His Orchestra: “Doggin’ Around”
We have to have some swing in here someplace, and it happens to come from the greatest swing band in history during their golden era in the late 1930s. Now get up and dance! Dance! Dance, damn you!

Leonard Rosenman & The Yellowjackets: “Market Street” from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
I should point out that film music and concert composer Leonard Rosenman died recently. So it saddens me to say that this is my least favorite of the Star Trek movie scores. This particular piece is some mid-‘80s pop schlock for when the Enterprise crew walks down Market Street in modern-day San Francisco. It’s here because I’m a completist. That’s the best I can offer.

Michael Nyman: “Not the Only One” from Gattaca
Having both Nyman and Glass on the same list must mean my iPod got trapped in minimalist mode. Nyman’s work has a warmer sound than much of Glass’s output, which explains why he does more films, but he has a very similar repetitive style. It services the sterile futurism of Gattaca very well.

02 April 2008

My Shadow Reading List

Since I’m heavy into a Shadow riff, I thought I’d step back and look over all the novels of the Dark Avenger that I’ve read over the last ten years. I’ve read twenty-two so far (and I’ll update this post each time I read more), which is 5.8% of the total. Yes, there are over three hundred Shadow novels.

Here are the ones I’ve read, listed in order of publication. All are written by Walter B. Gibson except The Golden Vulture, which was written by Lester Dent and then revised by Gibson.


The Shadow in The Black Falcon

The Black Falcon (1934)
By Walter B. Gibson writing as Maxwell Grant

Time for more from The Shadow!

It’s a great time to be a fan of the Dark Avenger, the first true superhero. Starting in 2006, Nostalgia Ventures is releasing new editions of the classic Shadow pulp novels from the 1930s and ‘40s. So far they have published sixteen volumes, each containing two novels along with historical essays and bonus features. This is the first time in decades that the original novels have been in print; previously I had to read them in downloaded PDF form. Amazingly, you can even find them in bookstores, since Nostalgia Ventures has a deal with Borders (they’re in the Mystery section, although at my local store they are filed under “Nostalgia Ventures” as the author—strange). You can also order them online.

I’ve started collecting the volumes, but getting around to reading them is another affair. I just finished the first novel in Volume #5, The Black Falcon. I can see why the editors selected it: it’s a quintessential early Shadow adventure and one of the best I’ve read.

01 April 2008

Not All Woolrich Is Great: “Vampire’s Honeymoon”

Doing an overview of Cornell Woolrich’s short stories means that I can’t focus attention purely on his many classics. Like any hard-working pulp author of the day, Woolrich sometimes had to pound the brass to get a paycheck when he wasn’t feeling particularly inspired. Other times he may have had the inspiration, but just couldn’t follow through on the execution. The stories sold anyway because Woolrich’s name meant increased sales when it appeared on the cover of Dime Detective or Black Mask. Most of his second- and third-tier stories vanished into the pulp graveyard and fans such as myself haven’t had them embarrass us further.

But a few Woolrich stinkers keep popping up. The most persistent one is 1939’s “Vampire’s Honeymoon.” It even headlined a Carroll & Graf collection from the late ‘80s, which bizarrely had a version of the poster from the Hammer 1958 Dracula as the cover (seen to the left). On general principles I can’t complain about any Woolrich getting back into print, but the thought that new readers might pick up a story like this as their introduction to Woolrich gives me shivers far worse than I’ve ever gotten from the best vampire horror tale (which would be Matheson’s I Am Legend, if you care to know). If “Vampire’s Honeymoon” was the first Woolrich story you ever read, I wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to touch the guy’s writing again. I would beg you to give him another chance, but I would understand your reluctance.

Night and Jules Dassin

Obituary, obituary, obituary. Never a shortage of these. Recently I seem to write a lot of obits for totally awesome people. Now comes another one.

Jules Dassin, a great unsung American filmmaker, dies at age 96.

Dassin started as an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock, was blacklisted by the Dark Lords at HUAC in 1952, and won the Best Film Award at Cannes for his 1960 movie Never on Sunday.

But Dassin’s great legacy to film is his quartet of four superb films noir he made during 1947–1950: Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. All four belong in any list of the great films noir, and I think that Night and the City is perhaps the greatest entry from the classic noir period. This feverish nightmare about a wrestling promoter in London (played in a career-best performance by Richard Widmark) whose dangerous schemes go out of control is on my list of can’t-miss films. It’s noir incarnate, and contains one of the quintessential great lines from this genre: “Yes, you’ve got it all. But you’re a dead man, Harry Fabian.” Who would ever believe you could set America film noir in London and have it work so perfectly? (Apparently not Michael Winner.)

As for the rest, each one is more than worth your time and rental (or purchase) blood-soaked greenback. Brute Force is a rough and bleak prison noir with an early starring role for Burt Lancaster. The Naked City is the quintessential neo-realistic or docu-noir shot on location and emphasizing procedural police work. It has a spot in the United States Film Registry and inspired a popular TV show of the same name. Thieves’ Highway is a strange but memorable film about the seedy side of produce delivery—which turns into one extremely and nasty cut-throat job. Lee J. Cobb delivers a great performance as the bullying racketeer villain.

All four films are currently available on DVD, and to commemorate Jules Dassin’s important cinema legacy, I suggest you go grab all four and have a deep and dark noir festival this weekend.

“There are eight million stories in the film noir city. This has been one of them. Jules Dassin, signing off.”