31 December 2008

Bela Lugosi Collection: The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat (1934)
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Jacqueline Wells, Lucille Lund.

Let us ring in the New Year with a fresh round of madness and death!

The next film in The Bela Lugosi Collection is the best of the set, and a highlight for Lugosi and co-star Boris Karloff. The Black Cat is a landmark as the first meeting between the titans of 1930s horror cinema. It’s also one of the finest horror films of the decade, and a gorgeous piece of pre-Production Code madness.

(The Black Cat is also available as a stand-alone DVD through Universal’s manufacture-on-Demand service, Universal Vault.)

Like Murders in the Rue Morgue, another Poe-inspired horror movie, The Black Cat borrows from the German Expressionist movement, a product of its Austrian director, Edgar G. Ulmer. The screenplay takes even less material from its Poe-source than Murders in the Rue Morgue; aside from occasional appearances of a black feline to justify its title, the movie has no connection to the short story about a man who murders his wife in a fit of madness and has his crime revealed through a possibly supernatural ebony house cat. But if the short story “The Black Cat” doesn’t show up on screen, plenty of Poe’s themes—necrophilia, torture, burial alive, revenge—make themselves felt. It’s much more Poe than many films that adapt his material more directly.

The screenplay’s story involves two rivals, Satan-worshipping architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) and vengeful Dr. Vitus Werdergast (Lugosi), in a duel to the death in a house of horrors while a young couple on their honeymoon tries to escape. It might have transitioned to a Weird Menace pulp without trouble. There isn’t much more “story” than that—mostly themes and ideas—but I’ll try to sketch out some of what occurs during its sixty-one minutes.

30 December 2008

Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Alphasmart NEO

You've all heard me maunder on about how much I love my Alphasmart NEO. Now you can hear me do so over at my Black Gate post for the week.

Six months with it, and I'm still completely enamored and awestruck with how much it allows me to get done.

Top Lines for the Line-less

And now, a fond farewell to the season, and to my musings on A Christmas Carol.
Top Ten Things the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come Might Say if He Were Allowed One Line:
  1. “Don’t buy Ford.”
  2. “You’re stepping on my cape.”
  3. “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!”
  4. “Beware of the man named Madoff .”
  5. “Just between you and me, don’t you think that Tiny Tim kid is a precocious twerp?”
  6. “I really can’t see anything in this hood.”
  7. “Damnit, I want some royalties from all the death metals bands that have stolen my image!”
  8. “Heath Ledger was really awesome as the Joker, wasn’t he?”
  9. “In canis corpore transmuto.”
  10. “Go Packers! Whoooo!”

28 December 2008

Gran Torino

Gran Torino (2008)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Christopher Carley, Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, John Carroll Lynch.

Gran Torino marks the first time that Clint Eastwood has acted in a film since 2004 and Million Dollar Baby. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is his last; he’s said almost as much, and he spends most of his creative talents directing films in which he doesn’t appear. If Gran Torino is the end for the Monument Valley of screen icons, I couldn’t think of one more appropriate. It’s a quiet, dignified, and career-defining send-off for an actor.

Gran Torino isn’t as magnificent a film as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, or Mystic River. Nor does it have as edgy or unusual a performance from its star as White Hunter, Black Heart and the criminally unknown The Beguiled do. But Gran Torino is quintessential Clint Eastwood in his twilight, made with a lack of histrionics, fascinated with themes of age and sacrifice, willing to look at American culture without irony or sermonizing… and with one beautiful tough bastard in the middle who makes every grunt or grimace, each snarled insult, into a piece of poetry.

Walt Kowalski (a name that seems to me a blend of Walt Disney and existential driver Kowalski from Vanishing Point) looks like Dirty Harry in retirement, and enough critics have aped that sentiment already. Kowalski is a squinty, grouchy Korean War vet living in a dying suburb of Detroit. A former Ford autoworker who has just lost his wife and who refuses his son’s (Brian Haley) entreaty for him to move out of a neighborhood that slanted toward a minority population long ago, Kowalski just wants everybody to leave him the hell alone so he can drink Pabst on his porch with his dog at his feet or tinker in the garage beside his mint condition ‘72 Gran Torino. The local parish priest (an earnest and clear-eyed Christopher Carley) seems like the only person who has any interest in the old man, and that’s because Kowalski’s wife had asked the young priest to follow up with him.

You might say that Eastwood could play this part in his sleep. And that’s true, but that’s an amazing compliment. His ability to create the granite-visage of Kowalski, make simple growls carry the weight of anvils, and the portray a 78-year-old man so that it looks like he could take out a whole gang merely by raising the corner of his lip in a snarl is pure movie magic. Eastwood is a national treasure of American film, and in a year when we lost Paul Newman, seeing Clint strut across the screen with such consuming presence is… well, I have a hard time describing it. It’s the sort of fantasy of the big screen that we’ll never see again.

I’m having a hard time writing this review, if you might have noticed, because I’ve loved Clint Eastwood as an actor and director for so long that any sense that he might be saying goodbye, even if he lives for ten more years and makes ten more films, causes an overwhelming stir of emotions in me. Eastwood directs films the way I like seeing them directed. He acts in ways I love seeing actors act. He’s something so damned special it gets me teary-eyed thinking about it.

Oh, what the hell was I talking about? Anything else you want to know about Gran Torino, except that you should see it because who knows how many more times you’ll get to see a first-run, new Eastwood film? Do you need me to tell you how oddly endearing you’ll find a man who spews out racial slurs with every other word? Or how this fellow develops a friendship with the Hmong family next door that doesn’t have an ounce of calculated sentimentality to it? Or how Eastwood again visits his themes of sacrifice and the harsh reality of dying in a way you’ve seen before, but which never becomes tired?

I guess I did just tell you that.

But I don’t want to write about this film any more.

Because I’m already missing Clint.

And he isn’t even gone.

27 December 2008

Due to non-technical difficulties

If you were expecting to find a review of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. for Tokusatsu Saturdays, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The holiday season has cut a bit into my movie review-writing time, and this will also mean no new Mummy film on Monday. Please be assured, I’ll return to my regularly scheduled movie reviews next week.

Don’t drink too much spiked egg nog, folks.

25 December 2008

The Further Adventures of Batman

The Further Adventures of Batman (1989)
Edited by Martin H. Greenberg

Here’s an original anthology that’s sat unread on my shelf for years. Like most comic book characters, Batman isn’t a figure I associate with a non-visual medium like prose fiction, but I decided to see what interesting variations the top-tier group of writers in the Table of Contents could bring to the Dark Knight.

The Further Adventures of Batman was released in 1989 to tie-in with the insane Bat-mania surrounding Tim Burton’s Batman. I look at it as akin to the DVD release of Batman: Gotham Knight, a compilation of anime shorts about the Bat—only in literary form. Two further volumes were released to coincide with Batman Returns in 1992, one featuring all-Penguin stories, the other all-Catwoman stories.

Batman doesn’t translate well into these fourteen prose stories, and overall the volume is disappointing. Some stories go for standard Batman-adventure fare, while others take experimental tacks; neither tend to work, with the exception of a few pieces.

“Death of the Dreammaster” by Robert Sheckley: The first and longest story in the collection is a novella that presents a straightforward adventure taking place in a near future when most of Batman’s enemies and allies have died. At first the story promises to be about the Joker, as Batman thinks he sees his dead adversary walking about the streets. But this is only a blind for a story about Batman investigating a suspicious military contract. It reads well, but is unremarkable considering the intriguing possibilities presented at the beginning. This sort of let-down will occur throughout the volume.

“Bats” by Henry Slesar: Alfred narrates, via his diary, this tale of a time that Batman appeared to have a complete mental breakdown. Slesar has Alfred’s voice down perfectly, and it provides a pleasant angle on what would have otherwise been a standard “Batman pulls a switcheroo” story.

“Subway Jack” by Joe R. Lansdale: I eagerly anticipated a Batman story from Lansdale, and he doesn’t disappoint. This is a genuine “weird story,” with Batman facing an other-dimensional serial killer known as the God of the Razor. The grotesque entity possesses a hapless college student who has peered too far into the unknown. The narrative is told in fragments from different points of view and styles, including descriptions of comic books panels. This would have collapsed into pretension with a less skilled writer; Lansdale makes it seem like the only way to tell the story.

“The Sound of One Hand Clapping” by Max Allan Collins: A crime story and comic strip author, Collins seems a natural fit for Batman. He delivers a basic adventure with a light tone that feels like a script for the future animated series. The Joker falls for another costumed criminal called the Mime, whose make-up reads like a preparation for the animated series’ Harley Quinn invented a few years later. Robin also features in this fast and fun piece.

“Neutral Ground” by Mike Resnick: This short piece takes a humorous look at how both heroes and villains equip themselves. Apparently they all go to the same fellow. Convenient. Since I recently wore a Riddler costume for Halloween that required many purple question marks sewn onto it, I can understand the real villain’s concern about getting just the right number affixed to his costume.

“Batman in Nighttown” by Karen Haber and Robert Silverberg: Bruce Wayne chases a thief in a Batman costume from a charity ball at the manor, and the pursuit eventually leads to the house of his “Aunt” Chilton for an unusual confrontation. But not an exciting one. The novelty of Bruce Wayne doing heroics out of the Batman costume is the only interesting part.

“The Batman Memos” by Stuart R. Kaminsky: A series of Memos from and to movie mogul David O. Selznick detail an attempt to make a Batman film in a world where Batman is real. While Selznick tries to negotiate a deal with Batman through his representative Bruce Wayne, the studio is also concerned with the vanishing of one of their young female stars, who may be a victim of kidnap and blackmail. A lot of great old Hollywood names get trotted out (Douglas Fairbaks Jr. as Batman? Hmmmm…) and this is generally an enjoyable take on Batman in a different world from the comic books. The end is a touch confusion; even after reading over the last few letters, I’m still uncertain what happened.

“Wise Men of Gotham” by Edward Wellen: The Riddler returns, and he’s targeting the “Wise Men of Gotham” based on an old legend about the original Gotham in Nottinghamshire. Batman has one pun-filled poem after another to deduce to stop the Riddler’s assassinations. It’s a regulation Riddler story, and never that suspenseful. Far too much time concentrates on poem-deconstruction, but it does mean we see more of the “detective” part of the World’s Greatest Detective.

“Northwestward” by Isaac Asimov: Here we have the big author name in the anthology, but his entry isn’t a Batman story at all except through tenuous connection. It’s instead a parlor room mystery, where a group men reason through a problem and ultimately come to a solution without leaving the dinner table. “Batman” is actually Bruce Wayne, an elderly millionaire who served as the model for the comic book character decades ago. There’s no more twist than that; the rest of the story has his dinner companions, “The Black Widowers,” help him figure out a concern he has about his butler Cecil Pennyworth, Alfred’s nephew, possibly trying to steal from his Bat-memorabilia collection. As mysteries goes, the solution is moderately clever, but I expected something juicer from Asimov.

“Daddy’s Girl” by William F. Nolan: In one of the better stories, Robin finds himself imprisoned in his Dick Grayson identity in a mansion with a girl who has never gone outside the confines of this prison made by her “Father”—the Joker. The emotional content of the story makes it rise above many of the others, even if its declarations of love don’t strike true to the characters. The punishment that the Joker inflicts on his pseudo-daughter is the perfect kind of dark-comic nastiness that he loves.

“Command Performance” by Howard Goldmith: Robin is again the star character in this long—overlong—novella where the Boy Wonder goes into investigative reporter mode to track a ring of teenage thieves induced into crime through hypnosis and drugs. Dick Grayson’s quest to find the villain known as The Man (clever) leads him to a long cul-de-sac with a washed-up carnival hypnotist and his fun house. The finale isn’t much more interesting, and the novella is a pedestrian mystery-suspense that doesn’t even need Batman’s presence.

“The Pirates of Millionaire’s Cove” by Edward D. Hoch: Actual pirates—complete with classic accoutrements—start attacking wealthy yachts in Gotham, and Bruce Wayne puts his own ship out as bait. The story moves fast, has an outlandish conclusion, and provides standard meat n’ potatoes Batman fare.

“The Origin of the Polarizer” by George Alec Effinger: This is the other story I felt most excited about reading, based on its description on the front page blurb. It visits a period in Batman history usually ignored, the science-fiction era of the late 1950s. Batman finishes constructing the BATIVAC, the new vacuum-tube crime-fighting computer made with state-of-the-art 1957 technology. But a mad criminal calling himself The Polarizer finds a way to sabotage the BATIVAC and Batman and Robin’s equipment. Egads, what a horrific situation for our dynamic duo! The Polarizer wears silly villain duds and spouts megalomaniacal boasts, just as he should for the time period. Effinger has a blast playing with the decade and its expectations, and even gives the Polarizer the ultimate getaway vehicle: an Edsel! Batman makes a moralizing stump speech for the conclusion. Perfect stuff, all around.

“Idol” by Ed Gorman: The name “Batman” never appears in this brief story, told in clipped paragraphs and principally through dialogue. A deranged man believes he is Batman, and the real one is an impostor, and finally snaps and decides to do something about it. Excellent writing, but like many of the stories in this collection, the pay-off is tepid.

24 December 2008

Memories of a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Here it is, the twenty-fourth of December, 2008. On the twenty-third, I wrote a short reflection on the novella A Christmas Carol, and I mentioned that when I was a high school sophomore I appeared in a play version of it as The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. (Most people refer to it as The Ghost of Christmas Future, but Scrooge initially calls it The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and I prefer this archaic phrase. Still, in the program for the play, I was identified as The Ghost of Christmas Future, so I’ll have to live with that.)

That Winter Solstice of 1988—now two decades in the past—remains my fondest memory of the holiday season, and one of my favorite times in all of high school. I’ll crave your indulgence—sounding a bit like Dickens narrating one of his novels—to discourse about this time and how much I still think about it when the end of the year approached. Consider this my minor version of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”—my favorite holiday story after A Christmas Carol—although I don’t pretend to have his skill in the telling of it.

I participated in my school’s drama program from seventh grade on. I went to a six-year school, Windward School in West Los Angeles, which had a tiny student body of three hundred for all six grades. I enjoyed playing characters and being on stage, but I wasn’t much of an actor, and I didn’t like the business of the “drama world” I discovered when I went to college, where I decided that I didn’t want much to do with stage or acting.

No, I never had any illusions of becoming an actor—but I loved the world of imagination, and playing small parts in costumes, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream in eighth grade, where I played the Wall, was something I looked forward to each fall in school. (I never participated in the Spring musicals: I can’t sing, and I don’t generally enjoy musical theater any way. Now, if somebody would do a stage version of Phantom of the Paradise….)

At the start of tenth grade, I found out that the drama program would put on a dramatization of A Christmas Carol for the Fall show. The performances would be in early December, the perfect time for the play. I was thrilled, since I had loved Dickens’s story since I first saw the beautiful Chuck Jones-produced animated version in the ‘70s. I had read the novella numerous times, seen every filmed version I could, and could recite almost the whole damn thing. I also knew which character I wanted to play: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The inscrutable nature of the character had fascinated me since I first knew the story. I wasn’t one of the top performers among the drama crowd, but I knew that this was a part I could play. No dialogue, so no one could object to my delivery. But I believed I could bring something special to the part because I had such an interest in the Ghost. For the first and last time in any drama production, I told the director during the auditions which part I wanted to play… and that I was dead serious that I could do the best job in the part. She finally consented, although she might have had reservations, but as nobody else was clamoring for a part with no lines and a mostly obscured body and face, what the heck. Let Ryan play the damn thing. So a childhood dream came true, and I was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The rest of the casting fell into place easily. This was the largest cast yet for a Windward School drama production, and everyone from the seventh grade to the seniors took part, many of them not regular drama performers. This added to a wonderful, collaborative feeling to the project. It was such a warm experience, and I got closer to many people in our tiny school that I would sadly not interact with much afterwards. But I was glad to get to know them during the long hours of rehearsing into the mildly cool Southern California Autumn and Winter. A large dramatis personae, but a cozy experience.

There was no question who would play Ebenezer Scrooge. Senior Joel Kleinberg was the most skilled actor in school, and always got the largest parts. Although great with comedy, he also had the exact right frame for Scrooge, and once he was deep in his old man make-up he was spot-on in the part. (In an interesting case of method acting, Joel put gravel in his shoes to help him with an elderly walk.) In fact, I wonder if the director, Carol Rusoff, hadn’t selected the play in the first place because she knew Joel could hammer the part down in a way that nobody else could. I’m sure no one else was even considered.

The casting of Tiny Tim was another no-brainer. A seventh-grader name Daniel Mirell was the perfect look and size for the part, and the moment Carol saw him in the halls, she was begging him to audition. Probably would have drafted him if she had the power, but he was willing. And he was great.

My two fellow spirits of Past and Present were senior Becky Sanders and freshman Benny Silverman. (Yep, we had a Jewish Ghost of Christmas Present. I love Los Angeles.) As the ghosts we formed a sort of bond, even though we never shared the stage together. We would have made an interesting band, with Benny on bass, me on piano, and Becky doing vocals: The Ghosts of All Time Jazz Trio! We were Scrooge’s and the audience’s guide through the story, and we took pride in that. We also got to stand on stage uninterrupted for twenty minutes each. Not many actors get that pleasure. (Of course, this created its own problems—especially considering the arduous make-up and costume I had to wear.) We didn’t have much interaction with the other undead character, David Helvey as Jacob Marley. He never seemed that interested in the production, but he certainly delivered an intense, shrieking ghost of Scrooge’s dead and tortured partner.

Because Christmas Carol has so many wonderful characters wandering through it—this is Charles Dickens, after all, master of the unforgettable oddball persona—there was plenty for the other top actors in the school to do. Howie Hallis played Bob Cratchit, and Alex Enberg (sportscaster Dick Enberg’s son, and who has since gone on to a regular acting career with a recurring role on Star Trek: Voyager) took on a number of the more grotesque comic roles that were his speciality. He played a urchin who assaults Scrooge on the street, jolly Mr. Fezziwig in the Past sequence, and most impressively the slimy Old Joe in the pawnshop who cackles and chortles as he buys the clothing of the dead Ebenezer from the other scavengers. Thinking back on the way Alex played this scene, it strikes me that he sounded a lot like the way Heath Ledger played The Joker in The Dark Knight. Pretty weird. Christopher Scott, one of the most buoyant personalities in the school, was the clear choice to play the buoyant Fred, Ebenezer’s nephew who just refuses to give up on the old man. (“Merry Christmas Uncle, and God bless you!” he says over and over again as Scrooge tries to bully him out of the office with the growled “Good afternoon!”)

Adaya Maesrow-Nissan, who would be my senior prom date two years later, portrayed a number of different roles. Principally, she played Martha Cratchit, the oldest of the Cratchit brood—the one who plays a joke on her father by pretending that she wasn’t able to come home for Christmas Eve because there was too much work at the milliner. She also played a toy peddler in the opening street scene, which was our small way of showing the bustle of Dickens’s London that appears so wonderfully on the page. Considering our small stage and cast (just about everybody doubled up to appear in this scene) we did a good job of creating a miniature version of 1843 London on Christmas Eve. Yes, we had plastic snow chips everywhere—I helped re-distribute them after each performance.

The carolers in the street scene (who included the girl who would play Belle, Ebenezer’s betrothed from the Past sequences, and Tiffany, who would play Fred’s wife in the Present sequences) were one of my creative contributions to the story. Carol, the director, knew that I had a deep interest in the story and the history of the period, so she had me re-write parts of the script to reflect the novella better. She also had me choose the Christmas carols for this scene to reflect the popular songs of the days. I chose “I Saw Three Ships,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (note placement of the comma), and “Lo, How E’re a Rose Is Blooming” to get the authenticity—and I had to teach the singers the lyrics and the melody.

Most people played more than one part, and since my main character didn’t appear until right after Intermission, I played two more tiny parts. The first was “Undertaker,” which was no more than a piece of stage business required to wheel Jacob Marley’s body across the stage in a wheelbarrow so Scrooge can see it. In the novel, Scrooge sees an entire funeral carriage barreling up the stairs of his house, and we certainly couldn’t do that. I was chosen for this simple silent role because it was meant to be symbolic of the character I would later play, a death-like specter. The real star of the scene, however, was the ghastly squeaking of the cart’s wheels, which set the mood without any help from me.

My other part was as a supernumerary in the Fezziwig party in the Past sequence. I actually spoke here, but not written lines, and not so the audience could understand. I stood in a corner and chatted with the seventh grade girl, Nicole, who was playing my daughter, and Hoody, the actor playing Dick, Ebenezer’s best friend and one of the major characters in the scene. The three of us ad-libbed some drivel about favorite English cheeses—I guess I was the Victorian version of Wallace from Wallace & Gromit. The job was merely to add chatter and party atmosphere to the scene. I didn’t like playing the part, not because it wasn’t fun, but because it meant a much quicker costume change to give Lisa Weisbart, the make-up artist, time to start altering me into the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This was a bit stressful, and I was always worried that I wouldn’t make it in time for my appearance—even though I had the rest of Act I and the Intermission to finish it. I took the part very seriously, so I was always concerned that it might not come across right.

Ah, the make-up. Lisa and Sarah Kleinberg (Joel’s older sister) did an amazing job with the various creations. Joel and David (Jacob Marley) required extensive old-age make-up and bald wigs, and the final affect was astonishing. Benny’s Ghost of Christmas Present got a lighter job, but it was designed to give him a reddish, slightly unreal glow under the lights. Becky and I also got extensive jobs. My make-up, although visually the most striking on stage, was actually the simplest, since it required no specialized blending or realistic effects. I was “skeletonized,” blackened eyes, white face molded into a skull’s visage, and skeleton teeth spirit-gummed over my mouth—which meant I really couldn’t talk and had to use hand signs to ask people when the Intermission would be over. Forced method acting.

How were the three ghosts portrayed? Always the key question in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. I was the most traditional of the three, and looked very close to Dickens’s description: clothed all in a flowing black robe with hood, white hands protruding from the sleeves. The skeleton face was an addition, since Dickens describes the spirit as having a completely hidden visage. I originally thought this was how it would be done, and I was perfectly willing to play the part with my whole body disguised. But the director and costumer decided seeing my eyes would make the part better, and the skeleton face was too startling an effect to pass up. The Inverness cloak I wore was immense, a huge flowing spot of inky darkness that made me look ten feet tall and an imposing blotch of nullity from a nightmare. I was very pleased with the way it turned out; once I got fully into costume and make-up, it was impossible not to play the part.

The other two ghosts had changes wrought on them. The Ghost of Christmas Past is always the toughest one to present, because Dickens’s description is maddeningly obscure—on purpose, I’m sure—describing an androgynous figure of indeterminate age that gives off its own light and seems to shift shape depending on how long you look at it. Becky Sanders as the ghost was done in an ethereal blue robe of glowing tatters and a similarly shaded face. Her emergence from the armoire was a startling moment because she looked so genuinely unearthly. There was a moment, when she first appears and stares off into the audience when you think she might be playing the character blind. It was quite remarkable. I should also admit, twenty years later, that Becky Sanders was a gorgeous, tall woman and I had a secret crush on her. There.

Anyway, Becky played the part similar to how the spirit appears in the book, despite the physical change: gentle, soft, but with a passive-aggressive edge that maddens Scrooge as it tours him first through the ups and downs of his youth and finally to his failure when Belle rejects him. (“Be happy in the life you have chosen.” I can still hear the girl playing Belle—damn, what was her name?—delivering this line with a perfect mix of iciness and regret.) Becky took the acting note to play the Ghost as if it were made of glass: fragile, any sharp move would shatter it. It was a wonderful performance and fit the mood of the past sequences.

The Past section also included a role for one of my closest friends at school, Lily Thompson, who played Ebenezer’s joy-filled little sister Fan. “A delicate thing, whom a breath might have withered,” the Spirit says. Funny, because that sure isn’t the way Lily is in real life!

With the Ghost of Christmas Present, the production faced a problem. Dickens’s character is a towering Father Christmas figure, boisterous and robust. We didn’t have anyone who fit those dimensions. So the character was re-imagined as a jolly, comic elf-like character, or, as I liked to call it “the Christmas Geek.” He was dressed in green vest and pants with a holly wreath around his head, and gave something of a leprechaun vibe, if a leprechaun had gotten lost and ended up in December. Benny Silverman, one of the funniest guys I knew in high school, had the part nailed down. He was a comic riot and made a perfect balance to the solemn and slow Past sequences. Benny came up with a lot of the comic business himself, but it never distracted from the story—and the audiences loved it. The dinner scene with the Cratchits occurred here, and it was one of the best moments in the production. But Benny also played well the Ghost’s moments of anger with Scrooge, such as the awesome “Decrease the Surplus Population” speech. And his final moments, with the introduction of Ignorance and Want (the two actors playing these orphaned monsters were really scary) he was suddenly straight-out nasty. “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

Which lead right into my entrance. I entered through the window over Scrooge’s bed, and stood on a platform that was bolted into place right after the Ghost of Christmas Present was dragged under the bed to make his disappearance. A fog machine poured a massive amount of London pea soup around me as I threw open the window. It was a real stunner of an entrance: a black shrouded, death-headed figure enshrouded in a billowing wall of mist. Each time it caused a sharp gasp from the audience. It was a magnificent feeling, and the best experience I ever had on the theater stage.

Playing the Ghost was difficult. Simply because the spirit does not speak doesn’t mean it’s easy to play, and I knew that when I sought the role. The physical demands were heavy. I spent the entire twenty minutes I was on stage perched on top of the bed, which was canted toward the audience to allow a better view of it, which meant I was on a slippery, slanted surfaced covered with a comforter, wearing a floor-length heavy black robe that I could easily step on if I moved wrong and trip myself. Any sudden moves on the Ghost’s part would wreck the atmosphere on stage, and as this was the grimmest and gravest section of the story. The Ghost of the Christmas Yet to Come going splat in the middle of the Cratchit’s mourning scene would be a play-killer, to put it mildly. Also, the spirit gum that attached the skeletal teeth appliance over my mouth was both itchy and made it impossible for me to move my mouth without ripping the device off. I constantly worried that some grimace would cause it to fall, which would be another moment-killer.

In summation, playing the Ghost was stressful even before considering the performance. But this tension helped me with playing it. I had thought through how I wanted the ghost to move, passed on through an assimilation of the novel and the many film versions I had seen, although I was most affected by the way the Ghost was portrayed in the 1984 George C. Scott version released to U.S. television and theaters in the U.K. I knew that economy of movement, deliberately slow gestures, use of my hands, and an inscrutable intensity would leave the right impression. The Future is unknown, dark, and impossible to fathom. It speaks through directing attention, not through interpretation. That was how I approached the Ghost.

I was proud of what I did. It’s the only time in my short time acting in high school that I felt that way about a performance I gave. Carol, the director, paid me the only compliment I ever received during my six years in the Windward School drama program: “Ryan, your intensity in that part is wonderful. I’m glad we cast you.” I know she had reservations about putting me in the role, but I tried to live up to the part.

I also had the honor of standing on stage during the production’s best scene: the Cratchits mourning Tiny Tim’s death. The actors playing the family nailed this one shut, powered through Dickens’s dialogue without any additions. Audience members later told us how amazed they were with the emotional power of this scene. Daniel Galvadon, a wonderful teacher and humanitarian (he volunteered all his time outside of school to a children’s hospital), said he could barely get through watching scene, and he came to see the play three times because of it. My own contribution to the scene was small: I “summoned” it onto the stage with my outstretched hand, and then stood sentinel over it. I’m sure my presence as a black, death-like figure over it helped the gravity, but my only contribution to the scene other than at the beginning was to slowly lower my head and hide my face as the family hugged each other and Bob Cratchit says, “Then—I am happy,” before the scene closes. Scrooge then question me about whether these are shadows of things that will be or, or only may be. I turned my head slowly up to meet his eyes from my reverent bow, and there was this electric second for me. This was one of the moments I remembered so intensely in the story from a young age, and I was thrilled to take part in it.

Of course the story ends in joy, and Joel Kleinberg as Scrooge hit all the right notes as a man so suffused with love of life that he can hardly contain himself. I don’t think Joel was really acting, either… the enthusiasm of his laugh was simply too rich and real. Unfortunately, because of the nature of the staging, the play had to conclude at Fred’s party, when Scrooge stops by to interrupt the “Yes and No” game (“It’s your Uncle Scrooge!” he shouts, to win the round) with a Christmas tree. In the previous scene, he had come in to the Cratchits’ home with the goose, where in the novella he sent it anonymously. A very warm ending for a play, of course, but it meant getting rid of the novella’s concluding scene, one of my favorites, where Scrooge surprises Bob Cratchit the next morning at work, first pretending to be his old miserly self, and then springing on Bob with a salary raise. (I understand why Bob Cratchit wanted to reach for a ruler and brain ol’ Ebenezer, assuming he had gone bonkers.) A great scene from Dickens, but sacrificed to have as much as the cast as possible on stage at the end. Made bows easier too, and I usually took my bow in my costume, but with my make-up off. That way, people could actually say “Oh, it was Ryan Harvey in the part!”

It wasn’t a perfect show. There were a few scenes that didn’t work. The Fezziwig party was a problem from the beginning; it seemed like forced enjoyment instead of the glowing celebration that Dickens wrote, where a few pounds brings everyone a night no one would ever forget. Our version fell flat, even with Alex Enberg as Fezziwig giving it his best as an enthusiastic host. I think part of the problem was that most of us in the scene (remember, I was there) played more important characters elsewhere and got placed in the party to fill up the crowd. Not until the scene shifted to its important drama—young Ebenezer, Dick, and Belle—did it come into focus. During rehearsals the party scene was a dead fish; the director even commented: “The Fezziwig party—was that a bummer.” It improved for the actual performances before audiences, but it never was one of the production’s prouder moments.

I also disliked the first scene the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows to Scrooge: two men discussing callously another man’s death. In Dickens this occurs in a place of business, where a few fat and pimply traders nonchalantly discuss the death as if it were a boring lunch conversation. It captures the business world that Scrooge lives in, and how it won’t miss him a damn bit. The way our production played it was two buddies meeting in the street, possibly drunk, and joking uproariously about the dead man. It didn’t work, it was too forced. I’m glad the next scenes, the Pawnshop of Doom and the Cratchits’ Sorrow, were strong and compensated for it.

There were also a few acting choices that just didn’t sit well with me at the time, and still don’t. The little boy who Scrooge greets from his window on Christmas morning was plain weird. Damon Needleman, a friend of mine at the time, decided to play the part with an annoying kiddie whine. I don’t know how the director allowed him to get away with it. And for some reason, the costume budget must have run out at this point, since the character was dressed in a near-modern snow outfit. All the other characters had perfect early Victorian costumes rented from a theatrical costume service, but this one character ended up a bit—1988.

Overall, however, it was a superb production for a high school play, and the praise we got from students, parents, and teachers was above anything I had heard about a drama production before or since at Windward School. Joel Kleinberg was always a great actor, but he was something astonishing as Scrooge. The production design was perfect, the tech crew made miracles with the lighting to enhance the mood, the make-up was ethereal, and the cast worked together as an ensemble. The last two weeks of rehearsal and the week of the play in December were utter magic in which I felt I had stepped into the Dickensian world. I can still smell the paint on the sets, feel the heat of the gel lights on me, catch the acrid odor of the fog that shrouded my entrance, and recall the crunch of the plastic snow under my feet as I helped to sweep it up after another successful show. I started to become close friends with Adaya during the production, and enjoyed a great friendship with Lily during our long time waiting backstage. I knew, after it was over, that I really didn’t want to do any more acting (although I still did two more shows in junior and senior year, neither of which I enjoyed) because I had done the part that meant the most to me in a production I didn’t think I could better. With Charles Dickens’ words in my ears, I started to turn more seriously toward writing.

And that, in my long-winded way, is the story of my favorite Winter Solstice ever.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, and even if you don’t celebrate one, may the end of the year bring you happiness and hope, and may the next year be the best of your life.

23 December 2008

What the surplus is, and where it is

I’m not a religious person (oh, that’s putting it mildly), but I have an enormous affection for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a work of enormous literary skill, a perfect snapshot of the world of mid-19th-century London, and a piece powerful political insight. I have my own personal connection to this work, since as a sophomore, I performed in my high school drama version of the story. I played The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and it was an amazing experience.

So, with the Solstice Season here—yes, I call it Solstice—I offer this exchange from A Christmas Carol, which speaks out to the impoverished and against the horrific greed of that has paid some horrible dividends recently:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

That’s right: Forbear until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Got that, you jet-riding CEO jerks? I think three ghosts are coming to visit you this season.

Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: Write or Die

Today in my Black Gate blog entry, I present another installment of Hi-Tech Lo-Tech devices to aid your productivity: Write or Die. A web application that makes sure you write... or else! (Or else what? You’ll find out. Heheheheh!)

22 December 2008

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Tomb

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Directed by Harold Young. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Dick Foran, John Hubbard, Elyse Knox, George Zucco, Wallace Ford, Turhan Bey

Two years after The Mummy’s Hand, Universal churned out a direct sequel, uniting some of the surviving cast members (Foran, Ford, Zucco) and placing their new horror feature player, Lon Chaney Jr., beneath the bandages so he could strangle all the people that Prince Kharis missed killing the first time around. Chaney wouldn’t appreciate the gesture much, but it was enough to have the series limp on through two more entries.

Dick Foran, in light “old age” make-up to indicate that enough time has passed for his character Stephen Banning to have an adult son (John Hubbard), narrates a long flashback to the previous movie and plenty of its footage. Since it was unlikely anyone in the 1942 audience had seen The Mummy’s Hand since its release—if they had seen it at all—this backstory was probably necessary. Even so, the flashback is ridiculously prolonged, replaying all the major events of the earlier film with a large chunk of dialogue even though it only needs a short recap: “We dug up a mummy, a high priest animated it, it killed some of us, we burned it.” This flashback continues for eleven minutes, cutting costs for Universal and boring modern audiences. At least it allows some Egypt to get into the movie, as the rest of the story takes place in the United Sates. Again, I can hear the budget-cutting shears clipping away in the background.

High Priest Andoheb (George Zucco) survived his apparent death from shooting in the previous movie, and under his own old-age make-up, commands the incoming high priest Mehmet Bey (Turhan Bey) to send the mummy of Kharis on a revenge quest against the defilers. Andoheb then dies, and Zucco is out of the picture. Thanks for dropping by, George.

21 December 2008

Here’s the Spaniard/Here comes Hadley

I tried yesterday to put up some video of my nephew Diego, but something didn’t work out. I’ll see if I can get it placed up tomorrow. Until then, please accept this photo:
Today was the baby shower for my cousin Audrey, who is due in May. This week she and her husband Dean (who is my actual blood cousin, but Audrey’s been with him for so long that she might as well be a blood cousin too) found out their baby is a girl and they already have a name: Hadley.

20 December 2008

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Godzilla against Mechagodzilla

Godzilla against Mechagodzilla (2002)
Directed by Masaaki Tezuka. Starring Yumiko Shaku, Shin Takuma, Kumi Mizuno, Akira Nakao

We’re now in our third Godzilla series in the space of three reviews. The Heisei series came to a conclusion in 1995 with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, in which Godzilla appears to die in a nuclear meltdown created from his own body. The real reason for his death was that Toho had sold the rights for a U.S. re-make of Godzilla to Sony Pictures, and felt fine turning over their franchise to a big Hollywood studio.

We all know how that turned out.

The backlash against Godzilla ‘98 was so enormous that I’m surprised Japan didn’t bomb Pearl Harbor again just to get even. Of course, they knew American fans were as incensed as anyone that Sony had screwed up the greatest giant monster in history. Everyone had suffered, and Japan felt it was time to start the healing process and get a new, genuine Godzilla movie out as soon as possible.

The result was Godzilla 2000: Millennium, shortened to Godzilla 2000 for its U.S. release. The movie went to theaters in America, the first time that had occurred with the Big-G since The Return of Godzilla arrived stateside in the hacked-up form of Godzilla 1985. Millennium is a good, but not great, Godzilla movie, yet it reassured fans that the U.S. version of Godzilla would quickly be forgotten. Which it has. In fact, I’m not even sure what I was just talking about.

Godzilla 2000: Millennium initiated a new series of Godzilla films, the “Millennium Series,” which emphasizes large-scale effects with extensive CGI, although the monsters remain the traditional stunt people-in-suits that we all know and love. What sets this series apart from the first two is its purposeful disregard for continuity between entries. With one exception, which I’ll get to next week, each Millennium film has no connection to the others, and each creates its own distinct setting.

Godzilla against Mechagodzilla is the fourth Millennium movie. The previous film, Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, was a high-profile experimental work from director Shusuke Kaneko, who had helmed the popular trilogy of new Gamera films that had a major impact on the style of the Millennium films. GMK, as it’s usually shortened, pleased some fans, but annoyed just as many with its radical supernatural re-interpretation of Godzilla and his adversaries. Godzilla against Mechagodzilla strives to return to an earlier and less ambitious style. The director of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, Masaaki Tezuka, returned to helm this more lightweight science-fiction story, and the screenwriter who helped make Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II such a slimmed-down SF delight, Wataru Mimura, also came back to fashion the script.

18 December 2008

Bela Lugosi Collection: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Directed by Robert Florey. Starring Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, Burt Roach, Noble Johnson

Done with one DVD horror movie set, on to another. As I close up the new Hammer movie collection from Columbia, I now switch over to the classic Universal Horrors of the 1930s and ‘40s and the five-movie compilation The Bela Lugosi Collection. The five films don’t belong to any of the famous monster series—no Draculas or Frankenstein Monsters or Wolf Men—but still contain a few genuine classics that deserve more attention.

The title of the collection is a touch deceptive. If you’re purchasing the set only because of the Lugosi name, you might find yourself disappointed that he isn’t the lead in all of the movies. In The Invisible Ray he has a supporting part, and he’s in the bottom of the cast in Black Friday. Horror rival/partner Boris Karloff appears in these films almost as much as Lugosi, and he’s missing only from Murders in the Rue Morgue. However, if you think of this set as a way to round out the corners of the Universal Horror “Legacy Collections” and grab some lesser-known classics, you more than get your money’s worth. The Black Cat and The Raven make the collection worth your dollar bills, and the rest are pretty good as bonuses.

Although Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (born Bela Blasko, later adopting the name of his hometown of Lugos for his stage name) is today one of the unassailable icons of the screen, his actual career peaked and tapered off rapidly in the early 1930s. Dracula thrust the actor into the spotlight, but his heavy accent limited the number of roles he could take on, and he soon found himself typecast. According to his son, Bela Lugosi Jr., he was frustrated by the range of roles he was offered because they wasted his talent. By the middle of the decade, Lugosi had slipped into supporting roles and lead parts in programmers, and Boris Karloff had eclipsed him the horror-viewing public’s mind. Three of the films on this double-sided DVD capture Lugosi during his short period of leading-man status, while the last two show him slipping into the fringes.

The first movie in the set is an oddity of historical importance, and it’s also great if you ever wanted to see Bela Lugosi ride around nineteenth-century Paris at night in a carriage with an ape.

16 December 2008

Hi-Tech Lo-Tech: WriteRoom

Over at Black Gate, I’ve started a series of posts about technology for writers designed to imitate lower-distraction older technology. I’ve discovered a few of these over the last year, and I’m sharing what I’ve discovered.

The first item: WriteRoom, a word processor that cuts away the bells ‘n’ whistles of most writing programs. I’ve written about WriteRoom before on this blog, if you want to check that out.

Movie Review: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll

After some delay, the last film from Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films DVD set:

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)
Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee.

Hammer Films used the Universal catalog for their first color horror movies, but Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is one of classic movie monsters that the black-and-white Universal films hadn’t touched. The famous 1931 movie starring Frederic March was made by Paramount. MGM produced a slicker (and less effective) version in 1941 with Spencer Tracy—and almost destroyed the Paramount film just to keep it from competing with their new movie. Thankfully, MGM failed in their search-and-destroy mission, and the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to date remains the best-known filming of the novel, with its simian Mr. Hyde becoming the iconic image of the dark side of human nature unleashed. Oh, and it’s a great film, overcoming the restrictions of early sound movies under the ingenuinty of director Rouben Mamoulian.

When Hammer got around to doing their own version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (that’s right, no “The”), the studio was firmly entrenched in outré gothic shockers, and Terence Fisher was the #1 director for the genre. However, in terms of violence and shock, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll comes across as sedate. The social aspects of the story seem more important to screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz and director Fisher than the horrific ones. It makes for an intriguing film, but not much of a shocking or exciting one, especially when compared to Fisher’s other horror movie of 1960, The Brides of Dracula.

15 December 2008

Movie review: The Black Scorpion

The Black Scorpion (1957)
Directed by Edward Ludwig. Starring Richard Denning, Mara Corday, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro.

Willis O’Brien was one of the masters of special effects magic, the genius who brought King Kong and Mighty Joe Young to life, but for some reason producers never wanted to back his ideas for fantasy and science-fiction movies. O’Brien spent much of his career hunting for funding for imaginative projects like War Eagles and King Kong vs. Frankenstein, and occasionally picking up animation assignments, like Irwin Allen’s documentary The Animal World and a mini-budgeted monster film like The Black Scorpion.

Warner Bros. was hoping to follow-up the success of the killer-ant film Them!, which used full-sized monster ant props to create its headlining atomic horrors. In their new “giant bug” horror thriller (I know scorpions aren’t “bugs,” but I’m sure this was the term the producers used in their pitch) enormous and near-invincible scorpions crawl from beneath the landscape of Central America after a volcanic erruption and sting and drool their way toward Mexico City. But The Black Scorpion was done on a much smaller budget than Them!, photographed and set in Mexico to lower the cost of filming. O’Brien had precious little with which to work, and that he had to spend all this time on a shoddy re-tread of most ‘50s atomic monster-cliches gives the film a depressing aura. When he gets to do his full animation, the effects look quite impressive. But he has to rely on repetition of shots and numerous close-ups of silly-looking prop scorpion faces to stretch out the budget. Even this didn’t work, since the producers ran out of money before the composite animation for the giant scorpion’s rampage through Mexico City was completed, leaving an empty black matte of the scorpion “terrorizing” fleeing citizens. It looks like everyone is running away from a shadow puppet.

O’Brien gets to excel in two sequences. The climax of the military attacking the largest scorpion inside a stadium lets the animation cut loose with the monster hurling around trucks and grabbing at a helicopter. The shots repeat a lot, but it’s hard to resist a stop-motion animated monster in full attack mode. The best section is the descent of scientists Hank Scott (Richard Denning) and Arturo Ramos (Carlos Rivas) into a deep underground cavern system, where they discover not only the giant scorpions, but also a tentacled worm-creature and a huge trapdoor spider. There’s a “Lost World” elegance to the backdrops and ambience here that is transporting in the best way of stop-motion animated films. Also, the two other monsters are models originally built for the lost “Spider Pit” sequence in King Kong, so they form an important part of vanished special-effects history. You’ll root for the spider to get the aggravating little kid who stows away with Scott and Ramos, however. In fact, you’ll root against the uninteresting and smug humans every chance you get, and they appear in far too much of the movie.

The DVD of The Black Scorpion is more valuable for its extras than the soggy film with interesting effects that’s its main feature. The complete “Prehistoric Sequence” from Irwin Allen’s The Animal World appears, which O’Brien animated with Ray Harryhausen. I have great memories of this footage as a child, because it appeared in numerous television specials and museum footage about dinosaurs. The narrator’s scientific commentary is amusingly inaccurate—although acceptable for its day—but the nostalgia factor of O’Brien and Harryhausen’s dinos clashing is impossible to resist. Two pieces of special effects test footage for unrealized projects are also included: “The Las Vegas Monster” (staged on sets and props from The Black Scorpion) and “The Beetlemen.”

Movie Review: The Mummy’s Hand

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
Directed by Christy Cabanne. Starring Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, George Zucco, Cecil Kellaway, Tom Tyler

The Mummy’s Hand was made eight years after the original Universal Mummy, but the cinematic time-gap between them is far larger. The Karl Freund Mummy was a film of the atmospheric early sound era. The Mummy’s Hand is a robust B-picture of the slick studio ‘40s, done with a “kitchen-sink” approach mixing comedy, romance, and adventure to fill out a double-bill. The Universal Pictures that had made the first film in 1932 died in 1936 when the Laemmles lost control of the studio. The new owners ceased production on horror films until 1939, when the success of Son of Frankenstein ushered in the second wave of Universal classic monsters, one dominated by actor Lon Chaney Jr. and director Frank Waggner. It was under this new system, the well-oiled production machine, that The Mummy’s Hand was made.

(You can always tell immediately if you’re in the post-Laemmle era by the Universal logo. The plane flying around the globe gets replaced by a stunning art deco glass ball, glittering stars, and heroic fanfare by Jimmy McHugh to create the coolest old studio logo of all time.)

The film isn’t a sequel to the 1932 movie, and instead created a new undead Egyptian, Prince Kharis, to fill the title role. Although the first film is superior in every way, The Mummy’s Hand had a greater influence on the popular perception of the character: the lurching, silent killer swaddled head-to-toe in cloth wrappings. The Hammer Mummy is essentially a re-make of this film with elements of its sequel, The Mummy’s Tomb, tossed in.

13 December 2008

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Directed by Tadao Okawara. Starring Masahiro Takashima, Ryoko Sano, Megumi Odaka, Yusuke Kawzu, Kenji Sahara, Akira Nakao.

Welcome to the second era of Godzilla films, known as the Heisei series. The original movies made between 1954 and 1975 are referred to as the “Shōwa films,” after the reign of Emperor Hirohito. The new era started in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla. (If you’ve seen it in its Americanized version, Godzilla 1985, my condolences.)

My overview of the films featuring Mechagodzilla drops us into the middle of the Heisei years with the movie that most G-fans would vote as the best of the second series. I flip back and forth between Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) as the top picture of the Heisei films. King Ghidorah has an intriguing and interesting time-travel plot, the return of Godzilla’s most famous adversary, and a knockout finale. But Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II has a straightforward script, streamlined action, and in general the best structured screenplay of any of the Heisei films, written by a hardcore G-fan for once, Wataru Mimura. The collection of effects scenes are the best from VFX supervisor Koichi Kawakita, and the science-fiction theme of nature vs. technology is adeptly handled. So . . . yeah, it’s the best film in the series. I guess I’m not flipping around any more.

(Despite the Roman numeral, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II isn’t in any way a sequel to Jun Fukuda’s 1974 movie. This is just the way Toho’s International Sales Department titled the film in English so viewers could distinguish it from the older movie.)

Mechagodzilla gets in the title, but two bonus monsters are packed inside. Rodan makes its first re-appearance since Destroy All Monsters (1968), re-imagined as a smaller and more realistic Pteranodon creature. As most Heisei monsters had the ability to fire missile weapons (a favorite device of special-effects supervisor Kawakita), Rodan eventually turns into “Fire Rodan” and develops heat bursts. The explanation for the transformation is almost non-existent, but what the hey.

The other bonus monster is the core of the story: Baby Godzilla. Those words might make you cringe, fearing cuteness. But Baby Godzilla acquits itself very well here. It’s designed as a human-sized infant Godzillasaurus (un-radiated), and although definitely cute, Baby makes biologic sense. And it drives the plot, giving viewers a sympathetic center in the middle of the war between Godzilla, Mechagodzilla, Rodan, and the flying battle-platform Garuda.

09 December 2008

The Spaniard Returns

My sister and her baby arrived in L.A. today at around 7:30 p.m. I went right over to my parents’ house, where she and Diego are staying. He’s changed so much since I last saw him: active, grabbing, smiling, and extremely interactive. He also slept on the plane all the way, so he was in no mood to sleep when he suddenly had so much attention. His poor mother won’t get to sleep more than a minute tonight.

Here’s some action video (captured with a lo-resolution camera, I apologize) of Diego reading a book with his grandmother:

A photo of the Spaniard and his Uncle Ryan:
With granddad:
More reading with grandma:

The Spider Revival, Part II: City of Doom

The Spider: City of Doom (2008) 
By Norvell Page writing as Grant Stockbridge

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Last week, I reviewed the first volume in Baen’s trade paperback reprints of the adventures of Norvell Page’s grisly pulp hero, The Spider. Now, I plunge into the violent maelstrom of… The Spider: City of Doom.

The three novels reprinted in City of Doom are The City Destroyer, The Faceless One, and The Council of Evil. The City Destroyer, which Page submitted under the title Crumbling Doom, is the earliest of Baen’s reprinted Spider stories, published originally in the January 1935 issue of The Spider. It also appeared in Pocket Books’ reformatted (with pointless modernizing) series in the ‘70s. It ranks as one of the Norvell Page’s best-written works, but it has an ugly timeliness that dulls the edge of the absurdist fantasy and may unsettle some readers. In the opening chapter the villain, decked out with the bland handle “The Master,” steals the secret for a metal-corroding dust. Richard Wentworth thinks the Master plans to use the chemical invention to break into bank vaults, but he should know that his adversaries don’t think that small. Instead of wasting time with piddling safes, the Master uses the chemical to knock down entire New York skyscrapers, killing thousands of people. His first target is New York’s newest, tallest building, and the writing dwells for a few pages on a gruesome depiction of the skyscraper’s collapse and the gory aftermath, complete with fleeing crowds, a dust cloud pluming over the Manhattan skyline, and trapped people trying to escape certain death in a crumbling tower.

08 December 2008

The Punisher: R.I.P.?

To nobody’s surprise, Punisher: War Zone had a dismal opening, netting only $4 million over the weekend. That makes it the lowest opening ever for a Marval character, lower than even Howard the Duck. (By the way, I think a well thought-out adaptation of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck would work well in today’s marketplace… except that no one will dare try because of the stigma attached to the name from the notorious first movie flop.) The chance of another Punisher film coming along within the next decade now seem nil. Perhaps that is for the best, since the character—even when adapted faithfully—has so far defied attempts to make a completely satisfactory movie version.

This seems strange initially, since unlike most comic book heroes, the Punisher is realistic: no powers, no explicit costume, no costumed supervillain. He’s essentially like any other gritty action hero. But maybe that’s the problem: there isn’t much to distinguish the Punisher from anything else you might see released in February to grab the male audience desperate for some blood ‘n’ guts. On the comics page, the Punisher leaps out from the crowd, but on the movie screen he’s just the same-old we’ve seen in action films since the mid-‘80s.

Movie Rview: The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy (1932)
Directed by Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Edward Van Sloan, Arthur Byron, Bramwell Fletcher, Noble Johnson.

It looks like I’m on a mini-series of “Mummy Mondays.” After reviewing two Hammer mummy films, I’ve decided to swing through the classic Universal series of horror from the sands of Egypt.

This is going to be a bit of a drive-by review. The 1932 original is one of my favorite Universal Horrors, losing out only to The Bride of Frankenstein, but how much more can I add to the praise this classic has already received? There’s a reason I’ve never reviewed the 1933 King Kong—what more is there to say, really?

But there’s always something to say about a film this great, even if it repeats years of previous praise. I’ll make this review brief and then get on to the films you probably haven’t seen. (And if you haven’t seen The Mummy, what are you doing wasting your time reading about it? Go rent it or buy it right now.)

07 December 2008

Punisher: War Zone

Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Directed by Lexi Alexander
Starring Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchinson, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok


Punisher: War Zone answers the important question: “What if the slasher were on our side?” Frank Castle, ex-special forces man on an endless quest to kill all gangsters in the world to avenge the murder of his family, pulls out every creatively gory Jason Vorhees and The Shape trick in the book, and walks around with the same invulnerability from his adversaries you expect from a horror movie serial killer. But instead of capping dumb teens, he’s mowing down mobsters. If that’s what you want from the famous Marvel Comics character (who, believe it or not, started life as a Spider-Man one-shot villain), then the newest attempt to franchise the Punisher on the big-screen will please you.

Although this third movie captures the comic book character—specifically the first solo-run in the mid-‘80s and Garth Ennis’s recent stretch on the MAX line—better than the first two, it’s not as good a movie as the 2004 vehicle starring Thomas Jane. That film lacked the dark fury of the character, and the Punisher didn’t do much, you know, punishing until the end, but the damn thing actually grew on me, mostly because of Jane’s perfect portrayal of the character and because it doesn’t wear out its welcome too fast. It also re-calls the exploitation films of the 1970s, which was a surprising bonus. The new film is a nice jolt of adrenalin, and the Punisher starts punishing from the moment he appears (beginning with a decapitation), but I can’t imagine I’ll want to sit down and watch it again without feeling wearied. There isn’t enough going on in it aside from the big action set-pieces to recommend a double-dip.

Ray Stevenson, from the cable series Rome, replaces Jane as the lead, but aside from physically looking like Frank Castle as he cuts down the mob, he isn’t that interesting. Jane’s character was ruthless but also human, which made his intensity even more forceful. Stevenson is just ruthless, and maybe that’s all some Punisher fans will want, but it isn’t enough to satisfy beyond the level of, “Well, that was kind of cool, but…”

To play fair with Stevenson, the script doesn’t give the Punisher much to do aside from finding interesting ways the kill off all the mobsters in Montreal—I mean New York, in no way resembling Montreal. The attempt to give Frank Castle some conflict after he accidentally slays an undercover FBI agent during one of his massacres does far better at motivating the other characters in the story, like the dead man’s former partner (Colin Salmon) and his distraught wife (Julie Benz, who also appeared in the other over-the-top gore-fest action flick of 2008, Rambo) than the title character. The Punisher’s origin has also gotten reduced to a few flashbacks, but that works to the film’s advantage since it means the action can hit the ground running and cross the finish line early.

Director Lexi Alexander seems aware of the outrageous nature of the story and fills the Punisher’s world with equally outrageous performances to make sure viewers never forget that this is a fantasy urban comic book world. Dominic West plays Jigsaw, one of the few continuing villains in the Punisher’s universe, as if he were a Batman villain in an ultra-violent version of the ‘60s TV show, or one of the Burton-Schumacher Batman films that somehow managed to score an R-rating. I’m not complaining, since West sure seems to be having a good time, and I love that his makeup looks like it came from Jack Pierce, the Universal monster-maker of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Alexander directs all the action-sequences well, and I’ll give her credit for understanding what the hardcore fans wanted delivered, even if that means we don’t end up with anything to take away from the movie aside from creative deaths.

I can’t imagine we’ll see another Punisher movie in the near future. Even if Punisher: War Zone rakes in some cash, there isn’t much about the new installment that cries for a sequel. It’s satisfactory for the moment, but I can’t see it leaving anyone wanting more that they can’t get from buying a trade paperback collecting some of the Garth Ennis issues.

I paid six dollars to Ray Stevenson as the Punisher. But do you know what I would gladly have paid twelve bucks to see? Adlai Stevenson as the Punisher. He’s prepared to wait until Hell freezes over for your answer! YES OR NO?

06 December 2008

Mechagodzilla Chronicles: Terror of Mechagodzilla

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)
Directed by Ishiro Honda. Starring Katsuhiko Sasaki, Tomoko Ai, Akihiko Hirata, Tadao Nakamura, Goro Mutsu.

Welcome to the second part of the films of Mechagodzilla, part of our continuing coverage of the complete films of the metal impostor.

You’re probably tired of hearing me refer to some of these tokusatsu films as “the end of an era,” but you’re going have to hear that a lot when it comes to Terror of Mechagodzilla, the second movie featuring the robot mockery of Big-G. Mekagojira no gyakushu (“Mechagodzilla’s Counterattack,” or in more colloquial English, “Revenge of Mechagodzilla”) is filled with famous “lasts”:
  • It’s the last kaiju film from director Ishiro Honda.
  • It’s Ishiro Honda’s last solo directorial project.
  • It would be the last Godzilla film for nine years.
  • Finally, it’s the last Godzilla film of the “Classic” or “Shōwa” era—ending the continuity that started with the 1954 original (although there are plenty of continuity problems within this series).
That makes a sad list of “lasts.” At least Godzilla would come back, and Honda’s career would have more high points even after he stopped solo-directing. If Terror of Mechagodzilla isn’t the towering classic that should close out the Shōwa series, it still stands as the best of the 1970s Godzilla films. Honda’s touch gives it a distinct feel that we would never have in any of the Godzilla films that followed.

The previous Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla was enough of a success for Toho to bring the cyborg monster back the following year for a direct sequel. With Honda at the helm, Terror of Mechagodzilla aims for a more serious and often tragic human plot to go alone with the standard monster-mashing. While Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is a lightweight adventure and espionage story, the sequel aspires toward a darker science-fiction fable with some elements of the very earliest Godzilla movies and themes of vengeance and self-sacrifice tossed in. The nature of kaiju movies of the decade makes it impossible for Honda’s film to go completely dead serious—there’s requisite silliness for the children’s audience, and the budget is a fraction of the earlier alien invasion epics—but it’s a pleasure to see the ambition at the close of the series.

05 December 2008

Ahhhhh...

Here is a ridicul0usly adorable photo of my nephew Diego. It's amazing how much he's already grown since I last saw him in September:

04 December 2008

Happy birthday Cornell—But I still wouldn't be in your shoes

Today is the birthday of Cornell Woolrich, my favorite American author. If were alive today, he would certainly be depressed about being another year older and closer to death. A happy guy, that Cornell. Strange that as readers we benefited from his deep-set angst.

How to celebrate Old Man Woolrich’s natavity? A review of one of his stories. One of his classics. One I had talked about before, but I went back and slashed out that post and present an expanded version for the B-Day festivities. And I should warn you, I am going to spoil the end to this one, but to properly talk about it, I have to. The story works whether you know the ending or not anyway.

“I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” was first published in March 1938 in Detective Fiction Weekly, the magazine where Woolrich made his pulp debut in 1935 and his most consistent home for his fiction. The story later head-lined a popular anthology of his short stories published under the William Irish pseudonym.

The novella is one of the indispensable noir portraits of fate, where a mountain of circumstance and happenstance turns into a death trap. On a sweltering August night, Tom Quinn hurls his shoes out the window of his ramshackle tenement to silence some howling cats. He goes out to recover the shoes, but returns to tell his wife Annie he couldn’t locate them. A few days later the shoes appear on the Quinns’ doorstep without explanation. The couple forgets the incident. Not long after, Tom comes home with a wallet he found that contains two thousand dollars. They hesitate long enough to see if someone will claim the money, then start spending their windfall. And that’s when the police come through the door with the handcuffs. All of Tom Quinn’s apparently innocuous actions have created a snap-tight case against him in the murder of a neighborhood miser: a print left outside the dead man’s window matches Tom’s unique corrective shoes, the Quinns’ sudden influx of money, Tom checking the papers each night after the murder, a shoeshine boy noticing the mud on Tom’s shoes, etc. But when Tom sits on Death Row, ambitious detective White develops his own suspicions concerning the man’s innocence. The crusading detective tracks down the young man who may have been the actual murderer.

“I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes” lacks the breathless suspense of some of Woolrich’s other works, and that Tom and Annie both fail to remember the shoe-throwing incident when the cops build their case is another example of the author dancing too glibly around a plot-hole. It is easy to forget such things in the middle of Woolrich’s perfect evocation of poverty and helplessness. The dance of deadly circumstance, which Woolrich maps out step-by-step as the Quinns blindly create a case against themselves, makes for a powerful story.

What edges the story into classic status is the ending that flips the picture upside-down and leaves the reader staring at a black pit in the middle of events. Nice young boy Kosloff is now going to the electric chair for the killing, but in the final section Woolrich suggests through Annie’s doubts that Tom Quinn actually did commit the murder. The reader then realizes that the text has offered no proof of Tom Quinn’s innocence, or that the money he brought home came from a discarded wallet as he claimed. Is Kosloff the real victim of circumstances? Who killed the old miser? It seems that neither Tom or Kosloff did, but it’s too late for both: Kosloff goes to the chair, and Annie leaves Tom because she knows she can never trust him again. (“There are 364 days in the year; 182 of them I’ll believe you, 182 of them I won’t.”) The gods who load the dice and cast them—to paraphrase Woolrich—have destroyed two men and left the reader confounded about the workings of the universe. It presages the cruel mystification of I Married a Dead Man and has intriguing similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s , the best screenplay Cornell Woolrich never wrote.

03 December 2008

Taste of Fear (Scream of Fear)

You would imagine that I would now turn to The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll as I continue to review the movies on the Icons of Horror Collection: Hammer Films DVD set. After all, it is another Terence Fisher movie. But instead I’m going to go to the film that most people would watch last of the four.
Taste of Fear (1961)
Directed by Seth Holt. Starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, Christopher Lee.

Actually, the title on the disc and on the screen is the U.S. title, Scream of Fear, but I’m annoying when it comes to correct film titles. I’m using the U.K. title, I don’t care what Columbia Home Video says.

Hammer wasn’t exclusively making color period horror movies during the 1960s. They also did a series of presumably less expensive black-and-white psychological thrillers in the Hitchcock-Woolrich mode. Aside from Taste of Fear, the studio also made Paranoiac and Nightmare, two other films I own on DVD in Hammer collections.

The film’s original publicity campaign clearly borrowed from Psycho’s famous “No One Will Be Seated After the Film Begins” tag:
This is positively the only photograph we are allowed to show you.

Under no circumstances may we give away any of the startling secrets of this Great Screen Thriller.

IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT YOU SEE IT FROM THE START!

--THE MANAGEMENT
Okay, everybody chill out. The management won’t come and enforce this ultimatum if you try to watch the DVD. Go ahead and skip to Scene 3 if you want; the Management will not punish you.

Despite the Psycho-inspired warning, the film that Taste of Fear owes the most to is the hit 1954 French thriller Les Diaboliques, the classic of the “am I insane or is something sinister happening here” subgenre (although Gaslight might give it some competition). Crippled Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) returns to her father’s home after she hasn’t seen him for ten years, only to find he has gone on holiday suddenly and left Penny’s stepmother Jane (Ann Todd) and her chauffeur (Ronald Lewis) in charge of the house. Penny has never met her stepmother before, and it was her own mother’s death three years ago followed by that of her former nurse and best friend, that has driven Penny back to her father. However, Penny soon starts to see—or imagines she sees—her father’s corpse lying around parts of the house. Is she going bonkers? Or is someone trying to drive her crazy in order to get to her father’s fortune?

Early on I figured out what was going to happen. At least, I thought I had. I seemed to be correct, but the film actually has a second twist that blindsided me. It requires lengthy exposition at the finale, and leaves a few nagging and unresolved problems behind, but I have to give the script credit for crafting it in the first place. This type of thriller depends heavily on how it makes its final bow, and Taste of Fear leaves a good finale impression.

American actress Susan Strasberg gained most of her reputation for her stage work—she originated the role of Anne Frank on Broadway—and as part of the famous New York Strasberg acting family. It’s too bad she didn’t do more film, because she’s extremely good here—not to mention astonishingly gorgeous—in a performance of a performance. Penny is both fragile and strong at the same time, filled with a beautiful hypnotic loneliness.

You might have noticed Christopher Lee’s name in the credits, billed fourth. As one of Hammer’s top stars, he would occasionally show up in supporting roles to add some box-office muscle. His part of Dr. Gerard is either a red herring or part of the twist (I won’t tell you which), because otherwise they wouldn’t have cast someone of Lee’s stature in the part. Lee can seem sinister without forcing it, and he doesn’t lay on the French accent too thickly.

But the real star of the movie is cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who shot the first three Indiana Jones movies and was sorely missed on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (Slocombe is still alive, but in retirement.) Slocombe’s deep-focus compositions are marvelous and moody, and there are numerous clever camera set-ups and angles to enhance the paranoid feel of the film.

Taste of Fear is a pretty nifty find. It’s no Psycho or Les Diaboliques, but a good cast, a clever double-twist that genuinely caught me without warning, and photography from one of the masters make it worth watching. And if you get it in a deal along with The Gorgon, all the better.

Enjoy the amazingly overwrought U.S. trailer for the film here.

One-Scene Performances: Chinatown

My next Great One-Scene Performance is actually two performances, since I couldn’t decide on who should get this prestigious honor from one of my favorite movies of all time:

Allan Warnick as Hall of Records Clerk and Roman Polanski as Guy with Knife in Chinatown
You know that snotty prick who works in a government office and never seems like he wants to actually help you, and acts as if by even asking him to do his job, you’re intruding on him? That’s the character Allan Warnick plays—all of them, packed into one short scene where Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) goes to check on land purchases in the Valley. This little jerk is intolerable almost from his first word, and even if Gittes is somewhat an abrasive personality, Warnick’s responses show that his character treats everybody who comes into the office with the same utter disdain. Warnick would return in the sequel, The Two Jakes, essentially playing the same character with a big promotion. In fact, I believe it’s meant to be the same character, and he’s still an unhelpful jerk.

I’m not sure what a knife-wielding Polish gangster dressed like a giggolo is doing walking around 1930s Los Angeles reservoirs, but that’s part of the charm of Polanski’s director-cameo in Chinatown. He’s just random and odd, this force that steps out of nowhere and inflicts one of the most memorable moments of violence in screen history when he ventilates Jack Nicholson’s nose. It’s the greatest director cameo ever—even if you have no idea this short sadist (“Where’d you get the midget?” Gittes smirks) actually is the director, it’s an impossible scene to forget. You know what happens to nosey fellows? Huh? No? Want to guess?

One-Scene Performances: Thirteen Days

In college, I read an article in Film Comment listing some of the great “one-scene performances.” You all know the type: an actor who appears in only one sequence, but has an enormous affect on the film and the viewer. You walk out of the theater, turn to your friend, and say, “Hey, remember that scene with that one guy? He was great!”

I’ve decided to start my own on-going post series about some of my personal favorite one-scene wonders. I’ll begin with one that probably most people haven’t thought of, but it almost immediately leaped to my mind when I first thought about doing this blog series:

Len Cariou as Dean Acheson in Thirteen Days
I saw Thirteen Days twice in theaters, mainly because the very first Lord of the Rings trailer was later attached to it. But I did like the film enough—a tight thriller in the vein of Seven Days in May abd Fail Safe—to not mind seeing it twice.

In a movie filled with fine performances from a cast of mostly top-line character actors, the one that really grabs me, as well as most people who had have seen it, is Len Cariou’s short appearance as Dean Acheson during a briefing. Acheson was Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State, and was the man who convinced Truman to intervene in Korea… so you know how this fellow might view a situation like the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK calls him in for some old-school advice about dealing with the USSR.

Cariou gives a performance that is riveting in how alarmist and purposely over-stated it is. He plays Acheson as the perfect fear-monger, and gives the dead-serious equivalent of George C. Scott’s “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed” speech from Dr. Strangelove:
Gentlemen, for the last fifteen years, I have fought here at this table, alongside your predecessors in the struggle against the Soviet. Now I do not wish to seem melodramatic, but I do wish to impress upon you a lesson I learned with bitter tears—and great sacrifice. The Soviet understands only one language, action; respects only one word, force. I concur with general Taylor: I recommend air-strikes followed by invasion, perhaps proceeded by an ultimatum to dismantle the missiles, if that is militarily viable….

Your first step, sir, will be to demand that the Soviet withdraw the missiles within twelve to twenty-four hours. They will refuse. When they do, you will order the strikes, followed by the invasion. They will resist and be overrun. They will retaliate against another target somewhere else in the world, most likely Berlin. We will honor our treaty commitments and resist them there, defeating them per our plans.
No more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Depending on the breaks.

JFK does point out to Acheson that “those plans” call for the use of nuclear missiles. At which point, Cariou simply leans back in his chair and crosses his arm with a look that says, “So?”

‘Cause, you know, modest and acceptable civilian casualties.

The tone Cariou delivers in this short moment is brilliant: Acheson says he doesn’t wish to be melodramatic, and then hits the melodrama so hard you’d think the Russians were standing outside the door to the White House briefing room, holding hand-held nuclear missiles and doing Boris Badanov impersonations. Acheson talks as if his word is a Law of Nature, and the president dare not go against it.

Which, of course, he does. He did. We’re talking about real people here.

Think how horribly things might have gone if we had listened to this guy. Cariou makes this clear with his acting: Acheson is wrong, but damn is he one scary scary guy, and plenty of people felt that fear at the time to almost fly off the handle and end up with no more than twenty million people killed, tops.

Depending on the breaks.