Thursday, November 09, 2006

At the AFM....

I used to do a snarky run-down of the cheese flicks being hawked at the annual American Film Market conventions. However, this year Variety is not listing plot synopsises to go with the titles, so what's the point?

However, good news for giant monster buffs. The Korean director who made the not-that-great Reptilian has scrounged up an amazing $70 million bucks (to give you a comparison, the recent Toho Godzilla films have generally cost about $20 million) to make D-War, a shot-in-English with American actors (Robert Forster, Jason Behr) flick in which dragons and such attack Los Angeles. The still look pretty spectacular, and although the film still needs some work--Variety reports that the cut shown at AFM will feature "90% of the f/x work complete"--hopefully it will draw enough interest to finish the work and maybe, just maybe, get some sort of theatrical release over here.

Probably not, but one can hope.

Darabont gets all Mist-y...

Director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile) is in pre-production on what will be his third Stephen King adaptation, and his first horror one. He’s been talking about basing a film on the novella The Mist for a while, but seems to really have gotten things into gear, indicating that filming could start as early as February.

In an interview with, the director was quoted as following:

“[The Mist] is going to be a really quick project; it’s very low budget, very fast, not unlike what Danny Boyle did in 28 Days Later, which I found very inspiring in terms of, hell, just go out and make a movie and have fun with it…It’ll be a pretty fast and furious narrative, really. And I’m certain the shortest film I’ve made to date."

King’s short novel is one of his most overt homages to the ‘B’ monster movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it completely makes sense for this to be a comparatively low-budget, short and punchy film. Of course, all of Darabont’s theatrical films have, in fact, been pretty lengthy. Hopefully when he says the film will be his shortest, he’s talking around 100 minutes, and not something around two hours long. I've been a pretty consistent proponent of the idea that modern's overstuffed genre movies would be well served by being shorter, and maybe this will start a trend.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

New on DVD (11/07/06)...

Rather than movies, for me the exciting DVDs of the week are TV sets.

First is the hysterically funny (if, at only six episodes, extremely short-lived) Police Squad. This is the series that led to the films, and all the best gags were stolen from the program. Not only is the show funnier than the films, but it doesn’t feature O.J. Simpson, so I can watch it without being weirded out.

Camp fans, meanwhile, will swoon with delight to see the typically horrible and stilted ‘70s Saturday morning live-action program Ark II hit the shelves. Brought about as an excuse to use those moronic tri-wheel trucks from the movie Damnation Alley, this show centered on a team of unitarded (and just ‘tarded) do-gooders--along with, naturally, their similarly attired chimp (!)--who roamed an ecologically blighted future American whilst teaching people Valuable Lessons. Al Gore, call Ted Turner, and get this show remade on the double!

Other TV DVDs this week include Beverly Hills 90210 S1; The Complete Harveytoons Collection (not quite complete, actually); Doctor Who: The Hand of Fate; Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani; Grounded for Life S4; JAG S2; MASH S11; She-Ra Princess of Power S1; West Wing S7

As for movies:

First, Warners is going nuts this week. First, it’s releasing a large series of triple movie sets, all at cheap prices. I’m not going to go through all of them, but genre fans will enjoy the chance to get all three of the Larry Cohen It’s Alive movies for around $10.

Warners is also packaging a large selection of their pre-existing actor/actress/director sets, each of which themselves collect up to ten films. For not much more than $400, you can get the Mega Signature Collection, bringing together sets featuring Hitchcock, Bogart & Bacall, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Liz Taylor, Errol Flynn, Garbo, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, John Wayne, Judy Garland, Hepburn & Tracy, and Ronald Reagan. That’s got to be nearly over 125 films covered there. Wow!

Even more amazing is the Warners Mega Collection, which supposedly (although I doubt it) DVD Pacific is selling for $1,400, in lieu of the $4,250 suggested price. Maybe so, though, because Amazon has listed it for $1,900. Anyway, that set features 198 separate DVDs.

Meanwhile, hardcore film buffs will also want to keep in mind Criterion’s Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films, of 50 of the truly greatest movies ever made for about $600. If I didn’t already own a bunch of the Criterion discs covered, I’d have agnonized over buying that set myself.

Other titles this week:

Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York Costas Mandylor (the poor man’s Michael Pare) and Alexandra Paul of Baywatch fights…well, you know.

The Chairman is a cold war suspenser starring Gregory Peck as a spy in China with a bomb in his head. You know, just in case.

The Blue Max stars the A-Team's George Peppard as a WWI flying ace.

Fallen Idol: Criterion Collection Classic suspense tale about a butler put in danger during a murder investigation by his young charge’s hero worship of him.

The Fountainhead
Gary Cooper (?) stars in this Ayn Rand adapation.

It’s Alive Collection All three of the killer baby movies.

James Bond Collections More even lavisher sets of the Bond films, for those who don’t mind double (or triple) dipping or didn’t buy them the first time. Warning, the sets are not in ‘order.’

Jungle Girls Pack (Diamonds of Kilimanjaro, Golden Temple Amazons, Amazonia) Three sleazy Euro jungle flicks. Jesse Franco Alert!

March of the Wooden Soldiers Beloved (by me, anyway) adaptation of Babes in Toyland, with Laurel & Hardy as workers in Santa’s toyshop. A great, very weird, movie.

Poison Ivy Collection All three of the dangerous skanks movies, including turns on Drew Barrymore and Alisa Milano.

The Seduction Camptacular (I have to assume) ‘80s stalking-murder drama starring the great thespian Morgan Fairchild.

Shockwave "Killer military robots run amok." When will they learn? Stars Michael Dorn (ouch) and Alexandra Paul of Disaster Zone: Volcano in New York.

Wordplay Another in a growing list of well received documentaries featuring some sub-culture or other; pro bowlers, Scrabble enthusiasts, spelling bee contestants, serial cinema attendees, compulsive collectors of 8-track tapes, etc. This one covers Will Shortz, the storied crossword puzzle editor of New York Times and his acolytes.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


The next Hannibal Lector movie, Hannibal Rising, is a prequel to the previous books and films. Notably, Anthony Hopkins is not involved. It will be interesting to see if people remain interested in the character sans the actor.

Weirder is that the novel the movie is based on will hit shelves only two months before the film is released. Author Thomas Harris worked on the book and the screenplay at the same time, which is kind of funny, because I think it took him like ten years to write the first sequel to Silence of the Lambs, when such a book was truly being slavered after.

For the trivia minded, this will mark the third actor to play the role; Brian Cox (as Hannibal “Lecktor”) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon, and Gaspard Ulliel as the young Lector in Hannibal Rising.

For the record, I’ve seen Silence and Manhunter, and that’s it.

Disappointing hundreds of millions of rabid fans, no doubt: “By playing a superhero in Daredevil, I have inoculated myself from ever playing another superhero. ... Wearing a costume was a source of humiliation for me and something I wouldn't want to do again soon." – Ben Affleck. Following that logic, but the way, he’d never appear in a movie again, period.

Meanwhile, superhero films remain hot—no doubt helped by the recent breakout TV series Heroes—although the blah results of the latest Superman and X-Men movies (not to mention how awful Ghost Rider looks) indicate that it may, maybe, take more than another hopefully rousing Spider-Man movie to get things going again.

We’ll find out soon. The next Fantastic Four movie is out this summer, and there’s no reason it couldn’t improve on the lackluster first entry. So anyway, 2007 will see Ghost Rider (probably sucks), Fantastic Four 2 (probably decent), and Spider-Man 3 (hopefully terrific). Another sort-of, comic book movie, and a potentially fabulous one, is 300, a film about the Spartans at Thermopylae, as adapted from a Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name.

Meanwhile, there’s another Batman movie in the works, currently set for 2008. That will be a busy year. The summer of 2008 has already been staked out for an Iron Man movie—starring a well-cast Robert Downey Jr.—and a second, presumably more crowd pleasing, Hulk film.

Going more in an action direction, the sequel will pit the Green Goliath against his long-time comic book adversary The Abomination. Whether they will bother trying to bring back the actors from the first movie, like Eric Bana, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, although Wonder Woman was originally meant for a 2007 release (apparently Marvel and DC are alternating years), it hasn’t even been cast, yet, so even if it does get made, that would probably come out in 2008, too. Superman will be returning to the screen again too, via the lead actor and director of Superman Begins, despite that film’s disappointing box office. I assume that film is looking towards a 2009 release date.

Anyway, all of those 2008 films—Batman, Iron Man, Hulk, Wonder Woman—could be pretty good. I figure if two of them manage to be so, that will be about all you could hope for.

Robert Downey Jr., by the way, is pushing himself as a comic book fan as a kid, and says he actually went after the role of Iron Man, but “To tell you the God's honest truth, I'd thrown them all away for [DC WWII war comic character] Sgt. Rock.” (!!)

Downey wisely admits, though, that he fits Tony Stark a lot better than the beefy Rock. By the way, let me again say I’m thrilled that they cast an actor in his early forties to play Stark, and not some kid. He’s also indicated he would be available for sequels, should they be warranted. Presumably Downey’s at the age where he’d like to pull in a few major paychecks while he’s still young enough to star in mainstream movies.

Iron Man will also be featured in an animated original film being released to DVD in January, followed later in 2007 by an animated Dr. Strange film. Presumably Iron Man will be voiced by the same actor who played him in the two earlier Ultimate Avengers movies.

Speaking of Spider-Man 3, CBS is supposedly set to run a commercial/preview trailer for the film this Thursday. No time has been announced, but presumably it will air either during (or between) Survivor and CSI. A trailer (maybe the same thing) will also be available on-line that day.

Brundleflying Networks leads to typically tragic results…

The merge of the WB and UPN networks into the CW has failed to bear fruit to a bizarre extent, presumably because ‘CW’ is a retarded named for a network.

In any case, an article in the Nov 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly notes that the combo network is pulling only as many viewers as the demised WB or UPN pulled each on their own, meaning their former aggregate ratings have dropped nearly in half. Moreover, the revenue gleaned by the CW is actually $35 less than the WB brought in, albeit quite a bit more than the UPN pulled in.

That seems counterintuitive, to say the least. Merging the two networks allowed the CW to cherry pick programming to create one, presumably superior, entity. However, as the stagnant ratings indicate, the CW has basically maintained the audiences of many of its shows, and not garnered many of the viewers newly at large from the new lack of a fifth broadcast network.

In other words, the viewers that were watching UPN’s programming instead of the WB’s, and vice versa, have gone elsewhere. This has left the CW with pretty much exactly the same ratings of the shows when they were on the previous two networks. In hindsight, this perhaps doesn’t seem surprising, but the fact that the CW supposedly merged the best/most popular programming of both networks should have meant at least some uptick in the CW ratings.

Instead, ratings for veteran series are largely flat or actually lower. 7th Heaven, formerly the most popular show on either the WB or UPN, finds its ratings down nearly 30%. (Perhaps viewers took to heart the fact that the show was ending, as was the original plan.) Gilmore Girls is also down nearly 20%. Critical fave Veronica Mars has seen a meager 2% rise in its ratings, which, considering the show was long considered on the bubble for cancellation, does not bode well for its continued existence.

Things haven’t been helped by the utter routing of the combo network’s new programming, shows so obscure—The Game, Runaways—that frankly I myself hadn’t even heard of them. Runaways has apparently already been canned, after only 3 episodes.

Of course, the experiment is but a month or two old, so there’s still time for the CW to pull itself together. One really major hit—as when the fledgling Fox Network came up with The Simpsons nearly twenty years ago—might be enough to ensure it’s existence. Stranger things have happened.

Monday, November 06, 2006

It Came From Netflix! The Last Voyage (1960)

Robert Stack was already a veteran of the proto-Disaster Movie genre by the time he appeared in this, via his earlier role as a panicking pilot in John Wayne’s 1954 The High and the Mighty. Oddly, he failed to be called upon during the Disaster Movie heydays of the 1970’s, save for an appearance as the captain of another endanger passenger liner, this one threatened by a bomber in the 1975 TV movie Adventures of the Queen. Immortality was assured, however, when he was cast by the Abrahams/Zucker team for their classic genre spoof Airplane!

The Last Voyage is a nifty entry in the shipwreck genre, which prior to this was mostly stocked with various films about the Titanic. One advantage it has over its oft-bloated ‘70s cousins is that it focuses on but a few characters instead of a larger, ‘star’-studded cast, and just moves. The film is a brief 90 minutes, and from the opening (and ongoing) narration by the ship’s Third Mate, which confirms the doomed fate of the SS Claridon (just in case the title didn’t give things away), events move at a pretty quick clip, more or less in real time.

We open on the Claridon, a still luxurious but aged liner only a few trips away from being consigned to the scrap yard. We briefly meet some of the main characters, including the ship’s patrician Captain Adams (George Sanders), and a vacationing family, Cliff Henderson (Stack), his wife Laurie (Dorothy Malone), and their seven year-old moppet Jill. Other names in the cast include Edmund O’Brien as Second Engineer Walsh, and (yay!) muscular Woody Strode—who spends the entire film shirtless and seemingly oiled down—as a crewmember. Strode's role here is quite a bit bigger than he usually got, and that's all to the good.

Early on the ship’s engine room catches fire. They manage to put it out, but Walsh’s request that they stop the engines for in inspection is vetoed by Adams, who is more worried about arriving back at port on time. Needless to say, given the nature of the film, this is a bad idea. First, the initial fire has traveled up a flue and set an upper deck on fire. Worse, when one of the boilers begins overheating, they learn that several of the safety valves have been fused. Despite their valiant efforts, a huge explosion rips its way up through every deck of the ship.

While the Captain tragically continues to dither, the situation grows worse. Eventually, however, it becomes apparent the ship is going to sink. However, there’s a hitch for our featured passengers. The explosion ripped through the Henderson’s cabin. Even after a tense sequence as Cliff attempts to save his young daughter (caught on a slight ledge on the opposite side of the now floorless chamber), there’s the fact that Laura is pinned down by a heavy piece of wreckage. With the crew obviously having its hands full, Cliff must find a way to free her before she drowns in the sinking ship.

That’s about it, but it’s all in the execution. The film is well enough made that, despite the fact that we know the Claridon is going to sink—that’s what the whole movie is about, after all—I still found myself somehow hoping that the crew’s efforts would save the ship. Aiding immensely is the fact that the movie was shot on a real ship, the French passenger liner Ile de France. They actually flooded some of the ship during the sinking scenes, and except for a very few shots, the transitions from the real ship to the presumed miniatures and studio sets are seamless.

It weird to me how Hollywood seems to have so much trouble making films like this anymore. The Last Voyage is no classic, and certainly by today’s lights some of the acting is a bit wooden. (We are talking Bob Stack here, after all.) However, it’s a cleanly efficient effort, one that sets fairly modest goals and then manages to hit them all in an entirely professional manner.

I wish they still made movies like that.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Great Books series...

I'm currently reading the non-fiction book The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and The Invention of Murder, by Daniel Stashower. It's a very readable tome examining the sensational murder of Mary Rogers and its aftermath. After the crime remained unsolved, Poe eventually wrote a story (with names and settings very lightly altered) in which his pre-existing sleuth Auguste Dupin--literature’s very first detective character--solved the crime, using Poe's own formulated solution to the real life mystery.

This is a very good effort, briefer than many such (300 pages), and written well enough that the pages fly by. Stashower manages to cover and integrate such topics as the murder; its attendant cast; Poe; the then at best nascent criminal justice system; the period's often-scurrilous popular press, and other topics without overwhelming the reader. A very nice job.

This remains my favorite passage so far: The following morning, a local farmer named James McShane came across [a prostrate fellow] sprawled facedown, sobbing in the wet grass. The smell of alcohol hung in the air. To McShane, this could mean only one thing. "My dear man," he said, "are you a Frenchman?"

There's been a trend lately to use real life historical figures as protagonists in mystery series. As the inventor of the detective story, Poe naturally ranks among these. Most notably, he has been the subject of several suitably baroque mystery novels by Harold Schechter, which have affectionate fun with Poe's overwrought and dramatic personality. These books tend to join Poe up with some other historical figure, such as Davey Crockett or Kit Carson or, most recently, a young Louisa May Alcott.

Buffs will also want to check out the recent and rather more serious The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, which features Poe helping solve a string of murders while a military cadet. (An even younger Poe, meanwhile, is a less instrumental character in Andrew Taylor's An Unpardonable Crime.) The adult Poe, meanwhile, searches out a killer in Randall Silvis' Disquiet Heart, itself a follow-up to Silvis' earlier Poe mystery, On Night's Shore.

All of these books are worth a look for mystery and/or Poe fans.

It's a miracle, really...

Tonight a theater up north is playing Jaws at midnight. (Luckily I have a friend up there who will loan me her couch, sparing me a two a.m. drive home.) That's a film I haven't on a screen since it was first out, and then only once. I did see Jaws 3-D in a theater, but that's not quite the same thing.

Those conversant with my review site will probably be aware that Jaws is one of my favorite films, so obviously I'm very excited.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Plague of the Zombies (1966)

One of the things that makes horror such a sturdy genre is that a lot of the classic monster archetypes act as obvious and handy metaphors for the darker aspects of the human condition. Vampires touch on issues of spiritual corruption and sex (and, in the modern Anne Riceian vamps, on a narcissistic ‘youth’ culture gone mad). Frankenstein explores hubris and unintended consequences. Werewolves and Dr. Jekyll touch on the dark side lurking in every human soul.

Modern zombies dwell on the profound fear of conformism and lost of individuality. (They also focus, to a lesser extent, on the terror of loved ones suddenly turning against us.) Traditional zombies, however, of the voodoo persuasion and generally not the flesh-eaters of today’s films, take that a step further. The original zombies were the result of souls captured by voodoo rites, leaving the victim’s shambling corpse a literally mindless tool of their master. This is slavery of the most direct kind, and thus the traditional zombie film was often a critique of capitalism exploitation. See White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, among others, in which the dead are used as the ultimate sweatshop workforce.

Plague of the Zombies, one of the more obscure Hammer horror films, proved to be cut from this cloth. Added to this is a nice additional critique of class differences there, at least back in the day of the aristocracy.

Sir James Forbes, a prominent physician and medical teacher, receives a letter from a former student, Peter Tompson. This relates the fact of a mysterious plague affecting the small Cornish village for which Tompson is the resident doctor. Forbes’ independent minded daughter, Sylvia, pushes for a visit to Tompson, as her friend Alice is now Tompson’s wife.

Along the way Sir James and Sylvia run across some fox hunters. Once they have arrived in town, they see the hunters again, this time running their horses through the middle of a funeral procession. This causes the coffin to be thrown down an embankment, pithily establishing the simmering contempt and loathing the working class villagers and the upper class hooligans have for each other.

The fox hunting hooligans prove to be the ‘guests’ of the local squire, Clive Hamilton. Despite the spate of deaths, lately, Tompson has been unable to obtain Hamilton’s permission to conduct autopsies on the bodies. Meanwhile, the townspeople are turning against Tompson too, who’s a convenient scapegoat due to his education and outsider status.

In the end—and I really don’t think this ends up enough as a surprise to qualify as a spoiler, although you may skip ahead if you wish—we learn that Hamilton and his toughs are using voodoo (imported from Hamilton’s travels in Haiti) to raise the village dead and work them in his tin mine. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s turns his attentions toward Sylvia…

Plague of the Zombies is a movie I hadn’t seen before. It probably didn’t get as much airplay because it lacked Dracula or Dr. Frankenstein. Moreover, it’s one of but a handful of Hammer horror pictures that doesn’t feature Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee in the cast. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the film, which is definitely in the high second tier of the studio’s horror entries. This movie should really be better known, and hopefully more folks like me are checking it out now that it’s on DVD.

All the strengths of the Hammer films are on display here. A lean, strait forward plot with escalating narrative drive. A fine, atmospheric and insistent score by house composer James Bernard. And while neither the story nor the characters are all that ‘original’, they are brought to live with admirable professionalism. As is usually the case, it’s less the assorted elements of the film that ensure its success, it’s the quality of the execution that wins or loses the day.

A special nod to a very good cast. Sir James is probably the richest character here—had Cushing been available, he undoubtedly would have had this role—and is extremely well played by Hammer regular Andre Morell. At first Forbes seems a typically stolid and stuffy upper class sort. However, he soon reveals both a strong moral seriously as well as a wry sense of humor. I’ve said this before, but it’s also nice to see a film where the lead character is an actual adult, and here a middle-aged one, at that.

Especially nicely judged is Forbes’ relationship with Sylvia. He often displays annoyance at his daughter’s headstrong forthrightness (and nicely, is occasionally actually irked by her), but both he and she knows it’s an act. The respect and affection the two have for each other is palpable.

Sylvia, for her part, also is a character—the plucky heroine—who could have been a rote cipher and instead actually succeeds in seeming a real person. The scene where her terror at being nearly raped subsequently turns to a quiet rage is entirely believable, and credit should be given to actress Diane Clare here. She’s one of the better Hammer heroines.

Veteran character actor John Carson does a nice work with Hamilton, who actually isn’t quite as deftly limned by the script. Carson did tons of British TV work, and was most familiar to me as the more benign Dr. Marcus in the similarly superior and offbeat Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. Meanwhile, Michael Ripper, who seems to be have in every single film the studio ever made, has a slightly bigger role than usual here as the village constable.

Tech credits, per usual with Hammer fare fro this period, are very good. The location shooting for the exterior scenes lends a nice expansively that works well with the typical sumptuous-on-a-budget sets the studio was known for. John Gilling, who also helmed the similarly rural-set film The Reptile the same year, provides nice, unobtrusive work here. The make-up for the zombies is rather good, although the ambitious climax requires rather obvious masks for them that don’t mesh well with the earlier scenes.

All in all, a very nice piece of work.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Marvels both good and ill...

Marvel Comics is in the new this morning. On the one hand, some of their superheroes are to be honored on U.S. postage stamps, as the classic DC comic characters were recently. Several of the featured characters are the usual heavy hitters--Spider-Man, The Hulk, Wolverine, Silver Surfer, Iron Man, The Thing, Captain America--but there are a couple of b-listers (Daredevil, Namor), a character presumably only included because of a recent but already forgotten movie (Elektra), and...Spider-Woman? Really? Spider-Woman? Over, say, Thor? Luke Cage? Ghost Rider? Ant-Man? Weird. I can really only assume they wanted some female characters in their for whatever reason. However, the Wasp or the Invisible Woman would have seemed better choices.

Moreover, Spider-Woman really gets two stamps. The set includes a stamp for the featured characters, and then a separate second featuring a classic comic book cover of their respective series. (Except that Wolverine gets his own stamp, while the X-Man cover stamp features the old team before he joined.)

The stamps can be seen here (click on the small image).

As also reported at, there is far stranger Marvel news afoot:

"According to the Hollywood Reporter, Marvel Comics has partnered with CBS' daytime soap opera Guiding Light to produce an episode in which a character is zapped by an electrical current and becomes infused with superpowers, including the ability to levitate and to conduct electricity.

The episode, set to air Nov. 1, involves the show's Harley Davidson Cooper character, played by Beth Ehlers. As part of the deal, Marvel will produce an eight-page insert for some of its top comic titles that involves Marvel characters descending on Light's fictional town of Springfield to determine whether the new superhero is friend or foe.

"Joining forces with Marvel is such a natural fit for us because comic books and soap operas have so much in common," said "Guiding Light" head writer David Kreizman."

Er, yeah.