Sunday, September 21, 2014

Comic Review: Beasts of Burden


    Hellboy and Scooby-Doo mixed with Lassie?  OK.  A bunch of neighborhood dogs (and one stray cat) become a supernatural investigation and combative force.  This collection of short stories has a dash of the old Tales from the Crypt type anthology comics.


    Eight stories of varying lengths introduce us to the various dogs and their stray cat friend, as well as a building sense of something very, very big coming.  The stories are a mixed bag.  The art is excellent thoughout, but a couple of the stories (The Unfamiliar and Grave Happenings) aren’t all that good.  In fact, by Grave Happenings, I couldn’t help but wonder, was all this build-up ever going to built to something?  I love the things hinted at, the greater world of dogs fighting evil, weird forces building, etc.  But it’s not the kind of thing that can just build and build without coming to some kind of a head.


    The best stories are Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, A Dog and His Boy, and Lost.  But each story builds the mythology.  I know there have been some more stories published since these were collected.  Here’s hoping they too will be put into one volume.  Here’s hoping that like Hellboy, it eventually rises above aimless build-up stories and moves the concept forward.  Whatever the case, fans of horror comics and old style anthologies should check this one out.  A Dog and His Boy, man.  That one is rough.


Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites
Author: Evan Dorkin
Artist: Jill Thompson
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
ISBN: 978-1-59582-513-1

-Matt

Book Review: Secret of the Lost Race


    Andre Norton (aka Alice Mary Norton) is among the great Golden Age Science Fiction writers (I consider the 50s as part of the Golden Age, though some say it ended in the late 40s).  Though her later career moved into a sort of Cat Fancy/Fantasy thread, her early work was core, essential stuff.  This tale is of a young seeming man with a shrouded past, working in a gambling hall.  When things go wrong, he ends up shanghaied and forced into labor on an ice planet.  From there, conflict, adventure, political intrigue, and galactic revelations.


    Going back and reading books from this era (used to be my bread and butter, but I don’t read nearly as much anymore), I’m always a bit taken aback by how modern they feel.  In large part, I think this is because movies, which I watch more frequently, are always so far behind books.  Settings and styles of books written in the 40s and 50s would not see depiction in film until the 80s, or even 2010s.


    I enjoyed the heck out of the book, but it feels like part of a larger whole.  Often, while reading books of this time, the worlds feel so fleshed out that when the book is done, I wish to read more stories.  Yet, most of the time there are no more.  It’s a testament to the skills of the writers, but it’s frustrating, none the less.   For fans of science fiction, Andre Norton is a must and this would be a good introduction.



Secret of the Lost Race
Author: Andre Norton
Publisher: Bean
ISBN: (I read this as part of a double volume called Secret of the Stars) 978-1-4767-3674-7



-Matt

Matt’s Week in Dork! (9/14/14-9/20/14)


    Not much in the way of Dork living this week.  Just watched a few movies and zoned out a lot.

The Smiling Ghost:  A goofy comic caper in the style that would go on to influence Scooby-Doo, this bit of fluff is enjoyable, with some fun performances.  But it also features some of that old timey racism that is so bloody awkward.


Borgman:  There’s about 75% of an awesomely weird movie here.  The missing 25% is the kicker, though.  While I’m all for films that don’t explain themselves, I still need enough to work out an explanation for myself.  Things are left so vague, there are simply too many ways to look at the events for my taste.  Sadly, the one that seems most popular (that Borgman is the devil) is the lamest.  Perhaps he is an alp, a sort of nightmare faerie.  This could have been so good.  But like the recent film Thale, it doesn’t have enough to build its mystery upon.


Destroy All Monsters:  Aliens and stock footage attack the world in this mid-level Godzilla film.  It’s more fun to watch than its almost clip-show reliance on previously filmed material would suggest.  The human characters and the aliens are fun.


Hector and the Search for Happiness:  “Whoever said money can’t buy you happiness? …Fuck you!”  When the movie started off, I was enjoying it.  I liked the cast and I don’t have a problem with obvious, uplifting plots.  Heck, I enjoyed the heck out of the Pollyannaish film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  But somewhere in the middle of this movie (right around the kidnapping in Africa), it all goes wrong.  From that point on, the message becomes not just obvious, but condescending and wrong-headed.  In a way, it reminded me of Life of Pi, which you may remember I was not the biggest fan (it was my worst film of 2012).  The last twenty minutes of the film are kind of insufferable, in spite of a wacky Christopher Plummer performance.


Castle of Blood:  Barbara Steele bug-eyes her way through another black and while horror film with delusions of Hammer.  The look of the film is good, but the story kind of dull.  And the resolution doesn’t hold interest especially well.  I guess it wouldn’t be uncharacteristically crass of me to say, the film continues to promise lots of skin, and never delivers (apparently there is a version that does feature nudity...this wasn't it), which doesn’t help.


    On Friday night, I finished up Andre Norton’s Secret of the Lost Race, a fun Golden Age science fiction novel.  I love her early work, full as it is of that 50s/60s wide open universe storytelling.  Not hampered so much by the later 60s/70s doom and gloom.


The Juniper Tree:  The Brothers Grimm get the indie film treatment in this black and white Bjork vehicle.  The accented English was a surprise.  I figured the film would be subtitled.  It looks pretty good, but feels too long.  As a thirty or forty minute short in a lager Grimm anthology film, it might have worked better.  Not bad, but not especially captivating.


Blonde Venus:  Marlene Dietrich heads an excellent cast in this film about a woman who tries to help her sick husband, only to succumb to the charms of other men.  Following the story arc is crazy.  But it’s a pretty good story, giving Dietrich plenty of material to sink her teeth into.  And very, very young Cary Grant is devilishly charming as the film’s almost villain.


    On Saturday, I caught two of the three silent comedies on my resolutions list.  I’m hoping to get The General in by the end of this next week.


The Gold Rush:  One more of my cinematic resolutions down.  When my resolution list was made, I had never seen a Charlie Chaplin film.  Since making the list, I’ve seen two; this is my third.  Unfortunately, it’s also the weakest.  There are some very good bits and gags.  But the overall story is only meh, and the very good bits are few and far between.  Still, the actors are charming and some of the comedy bits are impressive.


Safety Last!:  Famous for its stunts, this comedy is pretty typical of the 20s, with a poor kid going off to the big city to make his bucks, only to fail and try to make people think he didn’t.  Expected comic hijinks ensue.  The stunts are impressive and Harold Lloyd is good.  But the star of the film is obviously the big building climb and all the associated stunts and gags.


    And that’s about it.  Like I said, not much Dork living.  I know I’ve got a couple things coming right up though.  And I sure as heck have a bunch of reading to do.  Oh, and Lisa came up with the idea of doing a 30 Day Sketch Challenge.  I’ve been having fun defacing things with illustrations.





-Matt

Friday, September 19, 2014

Another Two Fistfuls of Favorites! (Matt’s Picks)


    It’s that time of year again.  Brad and I put down in stone (blog) the next ten movies in our lists of all time favorite films.  (See my 1-10 here, and 11-20 here).  The further into the list I get, the more weird I feel about it.  Not bad.  Just weird.  Of course, picking favorite movies is like picking favorite children.  Still, some kids are better than others.  And dang it.  Where’s Citizen Kane?  2001?  Hard Ticket To Hawaii?  I love those movies.  Well, maybe in the next installment.

30.  Cat People:  “Look at that boat…Look at that boat.”  I’m not a kinky guy.  But this movie drips in kink and I love it.  John Heard plays a successful me (you know, if I ran the zoo, and all that), wrapped up with a very special kind of femme fatale.  Nastassja Kinski is that fatale, a sweet natured girl with giant eyes and deep naivete.  They’re a perfect match, except for one thing.  Beautiful, deliberately paced, and with plenty of time spent on character, this weird mystery takes more than one unexpected turn.  Not for the easily upset, it features some rather unusual ideas, none too few of them depicted on screen.


29.  In a Lonely Place:  I’ve been a Bogart fan since I was around 10, when we got a VCR at my house and saw Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Key Largo on a VHS my dad had.  Bogie was so cool, so tough, and so beautifully ugly.  Over the next 25 years, I watched those three films many times, and slowly watched others in his filmography.  But it was In a Lonely Place that struck me like a bolt of lightening.  Like when I read Henry Rollins’s poem I Know You, I felt my heart and soul were being ripped out and shown to me in their raw form.  Here was a film where my favorite actor was playing me, or at least the version of me I’m most ashamed of, most scared of.  I think it’s his best performance, and though the ending is a bit sensationalist, the movie feels like a brutally honest piece of self assessment by a writer about being a writer.


28.  Zardoz: "I have seen the future and it does not work."  It doesn’t get a heck of a lot more British-weird than this 70s masterpiece of the bizarre.  Sean Connery plays an ubermensch uplifted from the shattered remnants of humanity who sneaks into a pampered paradise of bored immortals.  Everyone plays it straight, no matter how crazy it gets.  And it gets CRAZY.  Zardoz is not for everyone…Scratch that.  Zardoz is not for most.  But for those lucky few, this movie is like no other and it’s wonderful.


27.  The Creature from the Black Lagoon:  I saw this film at such an early point in my life that I only have the vaguest sense of when it was.  I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6, and it would likely have been on the Creature Double Feature, seen at a friend’s house (they had cable, and got Channel 56 out of Boston).  I’m sure it wasn’t the first monster movie I saw, but it was the one that stuck with me, that made me a lover of the genre.  And it was my introduction to the Beauty and the Beast plot archetype, which has remained a favorite of mine ever since.


26.  Escape from New York:  Kurt Russell is a one eyed monster getting all up in the Big Apple’s prison hole.  Great cast, great score, lots of awesome action, and Snake Plissken, one of the most ridiculously tough tough guys of cinema.  I don’t think anyone but Russell could have pulled it off.


25.  An American Werewolf in London:  Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’d heard a lot of negative stuff about this movie before I rented it, but just minutes in and I loved the Hammer Horror vibe, the humor, and the surprising twists.  I laughed and jumped and marveled at the horror.  The effects are some of the best put to film, the cast is extremely charming, and the story wonderfully tragic.


24.  The Iron Giant:  The design and animation are excellent, but the story is the thing.  A lonely boy living in Cold War era Maine finds and befriends a giant robot from outer space.  It’s a good movie all around, but the ending.  Man, it gets me.  Superman indeed.  Niagara Falls.


23.  The Virgin Spring:  A beautifully filmed medieval story that straddles Ingmar Bergman’s symbolic and visceral sides comfortably.  It’s gut-punch brutal and lyrically mystical in turns.  A family’s love, the destruction of innocence, and the calculated vengeance of a grieving man.  This was the movie that made me a Bergman fan, and it’s a darned fine film.  Human ugliness displayed in a beautiful package.


22.  Coffy:  The rough, tough, and sexy Pam Grier shotguns her way through the criminal underworld as a one-woman war on corruption.  Reveling in the weird fashion and décor of the 70s, while slinging slang and splashing house-paint blood, it may not be the best Blaxploitation (Trouble Man, maybe?) or the best Pam Grier film (Jackie Brown), but it’s my favorite, and my go-to.  It’s the film that brought me to the genre, and the one I find myself popping in the DVD player most often.


21.  Alien:  A fantastic cast of characters, stunning production design, wonderfully slow then nightmarishly fast pacing, and one of the most beautiful creatures ever designed.  It’s a haunted house on a space ship.  It’s a creature feature.  It’s a pretty darned good slice-of-life science fiction film.  Everything about this film is top notch.  But I think it really comes down to the script and performances.  (See my detailed review here).



-Matt

Another Two Fistfuls of Favorites! (Brad's Picks)


For the last two years, Matt & I have been constructing a list of our Favorite Films.  My personal Top Ten came to me quick & easy; those films have ranked as my all time favorites for several years.  My Top Twenty was a little tougher to crack, but I got their after minimal struggle.  However, formulating my Top Thirty Favorite Films was downright brutal.  A couple of them sprung to mind (#s 21 & 30 were obvious), but I spent several hours over the course of this week pursuing my DVD shelves, selecting & rejecting various movies for whatever reason.  I Love All Of These Films...and so much more.  I cannot guarantee you in a week, let alone a year, that this list will remain - How can The Monster Squad not be in my Top 30 Favorite Films!?!?!  That seems ridiculous to me, but a fact nonetheless.  So take the ranking below with a grain of salt.  I love 'em, but my confidence is not as strong as it was for Movies 1-20.


30.  King Kong (Merian C Cooper & Ernest B Shoedsack, 1933):  Monster movies, this is where it all began.  Frankly, I love all three versions of this movie, as well as the crappy sequels & the Hong Kong knockoffs.  King Kong is one of those rare movies (maybe the only movie) that I'd like to see remade every decade or so, and I find myself positively giddy over the upcoming Skull Island.  It's delightfully simplistic, and eternally relevant.  "It was beauty that killed the beast." This is the ultimate Man Fucks Over Nature story.  We see something beautiful, dangerous, AWEsome and we've gotta have it - even if that means destroying it in the process.  A terribly sad movie, but also one filled with wonder and exceptional cinematic craft.  No King Kong means no Ray Harryhausen, which means no Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante, etc - which means one crappy childhood for this guy.


29.  In The Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1995):  This was the first Horror movie I ever saw in the theater.  Hellraiser was the film that sparked an interest in the genre, and that film led me to the works of Clive Barker & Stephen King.  I remember vividly when I caught the trailer for In The Mouth of Madness on TV, and the Stephen King namecheck immediately peaked an interest.  Who is Sutter Kane?  The concept of a world driven mad by Fiction, was both terrifying & infuriating.  It's a plot spit forth from the mouths of your parents, your teachers, your politicians.  Horror will rot your brain, kids.  Sam Neil has never been better, and his journey from dismissive suit to screaming believer is utterly unsettling.  He steps into frame thinking he's Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity, a cocky insurance investigator bored of the game, but a "chance" encounter with an axe-wielding madman sends him scurrying down dark alleys populated by unnamable horrors.  If you're reading this blog post than you already know how this film had an impact on both Matt & myself.  It introduced me to John Carpenter & HP Lovecraft - after such an encounter how can one not become a full fledged horror fiend?


28.  Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988):  There is simply no better action film.  A good, but flawed man fights his way through a slew of bad men in an effort to reunite with true love.  And all set to the backdrop of the Ho-Ho-Holidays.  The 1980s were bogged down with countless bloody shoot 'em ups, but few had as much charming character as Die Hard.  Bruce Willis is exceptional as the everyman.  He's fun, witty, goofy, and absolutely badass when he's got a gun in his hand.  Yipee Ki Yay for the Energizer Bunny, the man takes a beating and keeps on ticking.  After a half dozen sequels, it's hard to find excitement for the "regular Joe," but you can't hate on the studio for trying to recapture the magic of the original.


27.  The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004):  As much as I enjoyed Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, it was not until The Life Aquatic that Wes Anderson's mastery over his dollhouse filmmaking hit perfection.  Words like "quirky" and "whimsical" get tossed around a lot when discussing his films, and I find them to be frustratingly reductive.  Anderson does not wish to recreate reality.  He's not interested in Oscar Bait.  He strives for the artificial, for style, for the storybook.  But to say there's no truth in the artificial is absurd.  The Life Aquatic is layered in familial heartbreak.  Bill Murray is an artist soaked in despair, a man desperate to believe in fatherhood when the chance presents itself, but also incapable of expressing love.  Owen Wilson is equally adrift as the son in question, but manages to force himself into this gruesome adventure of oceanic revenge while deflecting the jealously of Zissou's crew.  Ultimately, The Life Aquatic is about getting beyond your emotional baggage, and accepting the imperfect people around you.


26.  The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966):  Last year, in the wake of The Lone Ranger, I put together a list of my Top 5 Favorite Westerns, and The Professionals ranked at number 4.  Well, as I warned above, I've changed my mind.  It now sits as my third favorite western & my 26th favorite movie.  Lists are stupid.  But I love them.  Ralph Bellamy's Texas tycoon hires Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, & Woody Strode to charge down into Mexico to rescue his wife from Jack Palance's crazed revolutionary.  But as plot demands, things are not as simple as they seem.  I've spoken about it before, but perhaps the most stunning feat about The Professionals is Lancaster's ability to steal the show from Marvin.  His rapscallion is not so much an outlaw as he is a man who let his disgust for humanity crush his own morality, and the result is a gleaming devil worth rooting for.  Lee Marvin is simply a badass...he's great at being a badass, but it's also kinda expected.  The Professionals is certainly Lancaster's show, but there are few films with as strong a cast - each man (and one lady) gets their moment.  Imagine The Wild Bunch minus the grotesque i.e. violence as Adventure!


25.  Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005):  One of my many reoccurring rants around here is my stance against Superhero Origin movies - they're boring!  Been there, done that.  'nuff said.  So, why in the world is my all time favorite Comic Book movie an origin story???  Well, because in the 75 years of Batman's time on Earth, we've never been given the full story on Bruce Wayne.  Yep, before Batman Begins even the comic books only told a partial story.  Not to mention the fact that because we've had so many incarnations of Batman over the years, an origin story was actually a fresh approach to the character.  I love The Dark Knight, I dig Rises, and I even appreciate the Clooney travesty.  The Brave & The Bold and "Holy Adam West, Batman!"  But this is Bruce Wayne's story.  No other film comes close to that kind of human focus.  Plus, the way Nolan & Goyer snake the theme of fear through the story is outstanding.  A child's fear leads to his parents' murder, that fear becomes the child's armor, and that armor becomes Gotham's Knight, it's savior from the forces of darkness.  The first time I saw Batman Begins will go down as my All Time Favorite theatrical experience.  While attending the Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con, I was one of a lucky few who won tickets to see an advanced IMAX screening of Batman Begins.  I've never been more thrilled to be part of a crowd; several hundred nerds cheering, rooting, and screaming as the caped crusader finally got his story told proper.


24.  First Blood (Ted Kotchef, 1982):  The story of two generations of soldiers, the good war vs the bad war.  I know it's hard to imagine in this Expendables era, but once upon a time Sylvester Stallone was considered a Renaissance Man.  Before he got 'roided & sequeled out, Stallone made a career out of emotionally gripping character pieces.  First Blood was the last one...or at least, the last successful one.  A Vietnam vet wanders through town after discovering his last war buddy has died a lonely cancerous death.  A Korean War vet turned constable scoops him up, and attempts to shuffle him down the line so he may not soil the town scenery with his long dirty hair.  An act of disrespect that leads to rage-fueled domestic warfare that's as sad as it is understandable.  John Rambo began his career in cinema as a symbol for the lost, the disaffected, and the traumatized.  This is not the badass action film the sequels would eventually attempt.  First Blood is the story of hurt, and a damn fine one.


23.  Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943):  I only saw this film for the first time six years ago.  "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."  I'd seen all the clip shows, read all the critic's lists, and I thought I knew what Casablanca was.  Nope.  More often than not, classics are classics for a reason.  Humphrey Bogart is a lost American hiding from himself as much as the war when an old flame walks into his club, and causes all sorts of Nazi trouble.  Bogart is cold & cool in The Maltese Falcon, a cocky braggart in The Big Sleep, and the shlubbiest sadsack loser in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Rick, though, is Bogart's great performance.  He's a selfish jerk, a master of slick wit, a (self)forgotten patriot, and a doomed romantic.  If all you know is the soundbites, do yourself a favor, and treat yourself to one of The Great Movies.


22.  Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987):  An action film, a gorehound's delight, a Frankenstein parable, and a painfully funny satire of 1980s consumerism.  Robocop is one of the strangest bits of outsider art to sneak into mainstream cinemas.  Peter Weller does Karloff proud as a man slaughtered by criminals, and butchered further by corporate scientists.  He's given very little to emote with (a facial slit & Mr Roboto body language), but the film succeeds thanks to Weller's ability to pull the humanity from the cyborg. Then you have Kurtwood Smith & his gang of goons.  Never has there been a better collection of psychopathic villainy.  Verhoeven revels in the monstrosity of man, he takes glee in showcasing the vile & despicable, and then he projects triumph through violence.  Politically correct?  Hell no!  It's cool though.


21.  2001 - A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968):  My experience with this movie is probably like a lot of folks my age.  At 15, I didn't "get it."  At 20, I thought I liked it until it went Beyond The Infinite.  At 25, seeing it for the first time on the Uptown's Big Screen, I was in awe of the cinematography and the pulsating soundtrack.  At 35, I worship it's attempts at understanding the question of man via science fiction & metaphor.  I don't claim to understand the Star Child any better than I did at 20, but maybe in another decade or so I will.  I certainly look forward to rewatch after rewatch.  2001 is a rare event, a film that evolves as you do.  You gotta cherish that.


--Brad

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Fistful of Influence! (Matt’s Picks)


    OK, everything Brad said in his post on this same subject.  These aren’t necessarily my favorite films, but these are five of the films that shaped who I am as a movie viewer.  Movies have been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember, becoming all the more so when we got a spankin’ new VCR and color TV in the mid 80s.  These movies represent a few important street signs on the road map of my life in film.



5.  Star Wars:  Growing up in the 80s, Star Wars and the renaissance of genre films that followed in its wake was like a warm blanket I wrapped myself in.  The toys, the bed sheets, the Underoos, sure.  But the movies themselves.  To a lonely kid who spent much of his time inside with a TV, the Star Wars films were trusted friends.  And Star Wars itself was the beginning of it all.  I love all things (almost) science fiction, and I never held with the idea that you were either a Star Wars or a Star Trek person (the 60s Star Trek remains one of my favorite TV shows, and if I did a list like this for TV it would be right near the top).  But Star Wars had a lasting impact, even with all the later tainting of my love that came with the dreaded prequel trilogy and overdose of merchandising.


4.  Fist of Legend:  I’d watched a few Chinese martial arts films before I watched this Jet Li film, mostly Jackie Chan stuff.  But it was while watching this movie that I realized Kung Fu films could be more than just stunts and bad dubbing.  They could also be about stuff.  They could also have compelling characters and solid plots.  They could also tap into genuine emotions.  Fist of Legend has some excellent fights, but it’s a good movie, too.  So, in a way, it was the movie that really introduced me to Kung Fu films.


3.  The Phantom Empire: This Gene Autry serial was a very early viewing for young Matt the Lad.  Not only did it make me fall in love with the idea of the movie serial, but I also became captivated by the mix of genres (here Cowboy Musical and Science Fiction).  Over the years, bits of this film were always floating around in the back of my head, leaking into my fiction and into my choices of movie rentals.

What could I possibly have found to like in this?

2.  Coffy:  When I broke up with my high school girlfriend, I suddenly found myself with more time and more money than sense.  Being me, instead of re-directing those resources into doing something that would improve my life, I descended into a black whole of video rental madness.  For a couple years, I watched more movies than I could possibly count.  I mean, I watched EVERY DANGED THING I could get my hands on.  And while I’d been aware of Shaft, and I knew there were Grindhouse films that had been made in the 70s, I was largely ignorant of them, and knew little of Blaxploitation beyond a few articles in film texts.  But one night, walking through the stacks at the local Front Row Video (yeah, it wasn’t even Movie Gallery, yet), I spotted a very sexy picture of Pam Grier looking out at me from a video box.  I was in love, and my movie lust found yet another new direction to stretch.


1.  Raiders of the Lost Ark:  Almost everything about me, my tastes, and my interests eventually leads back to seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at the old Bangor Opera House when I was five years old.  I wanted to be Indiana Jones.  I wanted to fight Nazis, travel the globe, find ancient cities, have love affairs with feisty brunettes, and live in Hollywood’s version of the 1930s.  Pulp, history, geography, the desert, the jungle, nature, religion, and so many other life long interests started here, not to mention my eventual love and fascination with the films and the era that inspired it.



-Matt