Friday, August 04, 2006

RIP Robert Cornthwaite


Far too many veteran actors, including Jack Warden, Mako and Red Buttons have passed away recently. However, I hadn't even heard about the passing of Robert Cornthwaite, on July 20th at the age of 89.

Although Mr. Cornthwaite has well over a hundred film and television roles listed on the IMDB, he acheived immortality with his first credited part, as the seminal misguided scientist Dr. Carrington (the originator of the "they're techologically superior to us, so they must be morally superior to us, too" school of thinking) in Howard Hawks' The Thing from Another World. Frankly, if he had stopped there, he never would have been forgotten.

However, he was just starting, and as recently as 2005 worked in the sci-fi spoof The Naked Monster (as, fittingly, Dr. Carrington--thus the role that made him was his first [credited] role, and his last as well). In the meantime he appeared in several movies and dozens and dozens of TV shows.

Genre fans should keep an eye out for him in the films War of the Worlds (1953), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and Colossus: The Forbin Project. (Cornthwaite also helped dub the American cut of Reptilicus!). As well, eagle eyes viewers might spot him appearing in such TV shows as Maverick, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Perry Mason, The Fugitive, The Munsters, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Get Smart, Batman, The Monkees, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The FBI, the pilot movie for The Six Million Dollar Man, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Laverne & Shirley, Murder She Wrote and several billions others.


It Came from the Longbox! Marvel Presents (Wolverine) #42, 1990

Marvel Comics Presents was an attempt at anthology book, allowing for stories starring characters who either didn’t have their own books, which were generally anchored by a lead story featuring an immensely popular character to help pimp sales. Each issue would feature four different eight-page stories, usually chapters of some larger narratives. When one tale was wrapped up after several issues, another adventure starring (generally) a different superhero would begin.

To help draw fans to the comic book stores on a regular basis, this book was published every two weeks, a rarity in the history of the comic book. (DC Comics had a similar book at the same time, which I think actually came out on a weekly basis, but I don’t recall what that one was called.)

Since I grabbed this comic at random from one of my many moldering comic boxes, I don’t really remember what the overarching storylines were like. So I’ll be reacting to them like someone who picked up the book for the first time and was just sticking his toe in.

The first tale is Chapter Five of a Wolverine story. Wolverine was like the hottest comic book character in the world back then and Marvel pimped him mercilessly. (Unlike the Punisher or Ghost Rider in later years.) The Chapter is entitled “Village of Blood!” and the overarching story seems to be called “Black Shadow! White Shadow!” Marv Wolfman wrote it, and John Buscema drew it.

We open on Wolverine (in his neutral brown costume that followed his traditional yellow one) standing in the middle of a horse stampede. A dialogue box seeks to brusquely set the scene for newcomers: “Not just anybody can get trampled by stampedin’ horses somewhere in the middle of China.” Given the dropped ‘g’, I assume the box represents Wolverine’s narration.

Wolverine extricates himself from the stampede, of course, and lands near some Asian people, two men and a woman. They call him “Patch” (complete with quotation marks—which are used every time, and thus gets pretty tiresome), which I vaguely remember was Wolverine’s then alias in the Pacific Rim.

The party moves on and soon comes upon a razed village. In the middle of the destruction is a big black blobby shape, unsurprisingly the Black Shadow. One of the guys with Wolverine has some grenades, and pulls the pins and jumps into the monster. SKRBLAMMOOOOO! (That’s what it says.) The Black Shadow is unaffected. “H-how could you let him die like that?” Mai, the woman, asks Our Hero. “There’s a look in some people’s eyes that says they’re already dead,” Wolverine responds. Whatever, dude.

Then the White Shadow (no, sadly, it’s not Ken Howard) appears, a blank white figure to match the Black Shadow. The two creatures tussle, but not before Wolverine scoops up Mai and runs off. “Wants us out of here,” he notes of the White Shadow. “I agree.” If you say so.

The Shadows trade blows and then disappear, leaving behind a wasteland where the village formerly stood. “Black Shadow made a bad mistake leaving us alive,” Wolverine promises. Big talk from a ‘superhero’ who spent eight pages not being turned into paste by horses, standing by as a companion committed suicide, and finally running away from a donnybrook.

(By the way, I know Asians are comparatively short, but how come Wolverine looms over everyone? He’s 5” 3’. And yes, that’s his official height, according to the Marvel Handbook.)

Grade: Lame!!

The second story stars Wonder Man*, a venerable second banana member of the Avengers going all the way back to his first appearance in Issue #9 back in 1964. Wonder Man was a dying guy granted a temporary reprieve and god-level superstrength by Thor’s Asgardian enemies the Enchantress and the Executioner.

[*Wonder Man is one of those b-level heroes, like Luke Cage (whose profile has admittedly risen since Brian Michael Bendis adopted him) and Ghost Rider, who has always been a favorite of mine. However, I really just like him during his ‘safari jacket’ stage, as his ‘superhero’ costumes have been uniformly dumb. Thus I was highly comforted by the news that a new Avengers title being started soon would feature the “leisure suit clad Wonder Man.” (Again, though, it was a safari jacket.)

Actually, now that I think about it, the three heroes I mentioned all were maskless and had costumes that were basically street clothes, although superhero boots were usually added. Ghost Rider has a costume (and a blazing skull head), but it was just Johnny Blaze’s performance leathers that he wore during his motorcycle stunt act. Wonder Man had slacks, red boots and a matching red safari jacket, along with sunglasses. Luke Cage wore slacks, boots and a yellow silk shirt, accessorized by a chain and metal headband. Maybe it was the (comparatively) costume-less look that drew me to these characters.

Sadly, the Wonder Man featured here is the one with a mullet and one of his numerous bad superhero costumes featuring a big red ‘W’ on the chest.]

Trojan Horse Wonder Man managed to join the Avengers (there weren’t a lot of superheroes back in those days), and led them into a trap. However, he reformed at the last minute, saved the Avengers, and apparently died. Years later he returned, having undergone a transformation into basically a walking fusion reactor. He was gun shy due to having already ‘died’ once, but otherwise had nearly Thor-esque levels of strength and invulnerability. Wonder Man has been an off and on member of the Avengers ever since.

As we open this tale (Chapter 5, “She Belongs to Me,” of the story “Stardust Memories”) we see fellow Avengers Iron Man (in damaged armor) and The Beast (Wonder Man’s best pal during this period—in entirely groovy news, he will be reunited with Wonder Man in the new Avengers book) looking around in bewilderment. Apparently in the last episode Wonder Man had just disappeared before their eyes.

Wonder Man appears before none other than the Enchantress herself, who, being the Norse Goddess of Sexy, is wearing a very skimpy swimsuit. Apparently Wonder Man is in her thrall again, and it was he who attacked and smashed up Iron Man’s armor.

This established, we cut to Janet Van Dyne, a.k.a. The Wasp, another old school Avenger. The Enchantress wants Janet, for some reason, and has sent Wonder Man after her, albeit while mystical disguised as Janet’s estranged husband, Hank Pym (a.k.a. Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and a zillion other identities.) Janet is indeed thrown off by “Hank’s” appearance, and eventually the two start tussling. Finally the confused and tearful Wasp falls into her ersatz husband’s arms, where she is squeezed into unconsciousness and delivered to the Enchantress. It’s all part of another evil scheme to destroy the Avengers. I don’t have the following chapters, but I’m assuming the plan ultimately fails.

Grade: Eh, OK. You better know your Avengers backstories to have it make any sense, though.

In the next tale, “The Establishment,” we cross the pond for a single chapter short starring Union Jack, sort of the UK version of Captain America. Since he’s a fairly obscure figure even to Marvel maniacs, we get a backstory recap. This explains that the current UJ is Joey Chapman, a second generation Union Jack, newly following in the footsteps of the recently deceased original one who fought in World War II. He’s a Cockney bloke, as is revealed by his painfully rendered phonetic dialogue: “Run. An’ I wanna ‘ear yoor lungs suckin’ air.” Seriously, that’s one of his dialogue balloons.

UJ appears between some Bobbies and a gang of hooligans (all wearing Margaret Thatcher masks!), but to the surprise of the police attacks them, so as to allow the rioters to escape arrest. “The people of Great Britain should reserve the roit to express their views, especially if they don’t agree with the bloody Queen’s upper class snobbery!” UJ opines to the understandably pissed off cops.

We learn that Joey is buddies with the vandals (although they don’t know his of his superhero secret identity), and himself a rabid hater of Thatcher. This is an interesting idea, having a hardcore political leftie take over the mantle of a formerly traditionalist superhero. However, with only eight pages to work with, things quickly take a lazy turn when Joey learns that his buddies are planning to trash the estate of…none other than the deceased Lord Falsworth, the original Union Jack. Well, that certainly throws things into stark contrast, doesn’t it?

“I knew the boys had been vandalizin’ property, but it was just Tories they was hittin.’” Joey muses. Now, though, they aren’t attacking people with different political views than Our Hero, but the home of someone he personally has an attachment to. So obviously he’ll intercede. He intercepts the vandals, and after laying a little hurtin’ on them, teaches them a valuable lesson by pointing out Lord Falsworth’s tombstone, which is conveniently close at hand.

“Wot you’re foitin’ for is roit an’ true,” Union Jack concedes, “an’ you should foit for your stake in loife, but you can’t do it by hurtin’ the past.” Actually, ‘progressive’ politics are, in fact, largely based on tearing down the past. Sorry UJ, you should probably think this through a bit more.

And thus the novice Union Jack has learned an important lesson, that committing crimes against people is wrong, even if the victims are conservatives. (Originally things ended with Union Jack breaking into a rendition of “With a Little Bit of Luck,” but sadly they couldn’t fit this into the eight page limit and it got cut.)

Grade: A for effort, C+ for result, but take away part of a grade for UJ’s accented dialogue. C-.

“Armed & Dangerous” stars The Daughters of the Dragon, a pair of female PIs who were then part of the supporting cast in the (Luke Cage) Power Man and Iron Fist series. (The story is written by the series’ then regular writer, Mary Jo Duffy.) Colleen Wing, a Caucasian high-level martial artist, is at a circus hearing about a prospective job. Her partner, not yet on the scene, is a blaxploitation, Pam Grier-type ass-kicker named Misty Knight. She carries a .44 Magnum and furthermore has a bionic arm.

Anyway, somebody is trying to bring down the Vandenburg Circus. The ladies’ job is to find out who, and stop them. The employer takes this all very seriously. “The spirits of all our ancestors—a hundred generations of circus folk—would rise up in shame if we yielded to terrorism,” he claims. (Really? His family has been running circuses for the last two thousand years?!)

Meanwhile, Misty is finally introduced, seen undercover as the living target in the circus’ knife throwing act. Hilariously, since they only have eight pages to tell the ‘story,’ Colleen here just turns to the owner and basically says, “The bad guy is your brother, the knife thrower.” See, if either brother dies, the other inherits the entire circus. Anyway, this express-line unmasking leaves three pages for ‘action’ stuff involving the more or less superpowered Colleen and Misty capturing a rather inept knife thrower and his cowardly clown (really) accomplice.

Sadly, I don’t have the next week’s story at hand, which I imagined involved Misty and Colleen dealing with some kids who run their bikes across the road over the objections of the duly constituted crossing guard.

Grade: Snort.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Negadon: Monster from Mars

The 30-minute short film Negadon: Monster from Mars is another of the seeming flood of independently-made movies being produced by folks with a love of old monster movies. Some of these are outright, if affectionate, spoofs (Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, Destination: Mars), some are instead comparatively straight recreations (Stomp! Shout! Scream!). Negadon falls firmly into the latter category.

Made in Japan, Negadon is unsurprisingly a nod to the Toho giant monster movies of the classic “Showa” era, by which I mean the ‘50s and ‘60s. The extent to which this is true can be ascertained by looking at the poster/DVD box art, which copies the insanely busy and colorful poster art style employed by the Toho sci-fi movies of the '50s and '60s.

Referencing several of these, notably Atragon and (not to surprisingly) the original Godzilla, Negadon is set a couple of decades in the future. A terraforming mission to Mars reawakens a monster—sort of bio-mechanical beastie with range energy weapon capabilities—who comes to Japan to wreak the usual sort of havoc. There follows a pretty fun if predictably futile attempt by the military to deal with the situation.

Following in the footsteps of the previously referenced Atragon and Godzilla, the only hope for Mankind lies in a secret weapon held by a man who refuses to use it. In this case, the weapon isn’t a flying submarine or oxygen destroyer, but your classic giant robot (commanded, of course, from an interior compartment).

The man who controls this device is former industrialist Seiji Yoshizawa. There’s a reason for his decades’ long fall into abject despair, but why ruin it? In any case, he’s finally roused by this chance for redemption, and finally deploys his creation to stop the marauding invader.

Negadon’s most distinctive feature is that it’s entirely CGI. As usual, the humans don’t look as photorealistic as the rest of the show (including the monster and robot), which can be distracting. That said, the animation here is pretty amazingly good, include formerly problematic effects like rain showers and such. In the end, it’s a showcase for how much better and more accessible such technology is getting, with Negadon being the work of 11 people who spent 2 and a half years on it.

In other words, within 10 years, and maybe a lot sooner, we may indeed get to the point where a couple of people, or even one, with the proper level of enthusiasm and commitment, can craft themselves a pretty spectacular movie in their garage. At the other end of things, DVD and streaming Internet will provide the distribution mechanisms. This will be a boon for genre buffs, with films being made by people who love the same things, and aren’t constrained by the sort of compromises required by a film that needs to draw an audience of tens of millions of people. Random pixels are a lot cheaper than Tom Cruise.

Due to the short running time, the story is necessarily condensed. It probably could have been fleshed out a bit more, but on the other hand there’s nothing wrong with a piece that moves. Some might be disappointed by the comparative lack of screentime awarded to the monster and the robot, but what’s there is cherce. And even with animation, special effects-laden action scenes require more money and effort than scenes of two humans talking. Moreover, the monster stuff is pretty spectacular, and worth the wait.

In any case, any fan of giant monster movies should check this out, and for two reasons. First, because it’s good stuff and you’ll enjoy it. Second, because the amount of work and effort these guys put into this, along with the fact that they did a good job, deserves a half hour your time.

Negadon: Monster from Mars is available for rental from Netflix, or can be bought from the usual web vendors for around $12. The disc also features a pleasing array of 'making of' materials of those interested in such.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

New on DVD this week (08/01/06)

No really big TV set news today. Probably the most interesting release is the first season set of the ‘60s “Wacky Maid” series Hazel (imagine The Brady Bunch if the show had been built around Alice as the main character), and say what you will, but it didn’t star Fran Drescher.

Other sets this week include Curb Your Enthusiasm S5; Dallas S5; The Girls Next Door S1; and Good Times S6.

Also not a huge week for movie releases, and even much of these are TV movies. Still, you need the slow weeks now and again to pay off your credit card before that next wave of awesome, must-buy releases hit the shelves.

10.5 Apocalypse was the recently telecast mini-series sequel to 10.5, and even lamer.

Alice in Wonderland 1985 TV is a better bet for camp fans, a 1985 TV ‘event’ produced by Irwin Allen (!) and starring such luminaries as Steve Allen, Scott Baio, Ernest Borgnine, Beau and Lloyd Bridges, the recently deceased Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Carol Channing, Imogene Coco, Sammy Davis Jr., Patrick Duffy, George Gobel, Eydie Gorme, Merv Griffin, Sherman Helmsley, Ann Jillian, Arte Johnson, Harvey Korman, Steve Laurence, Karl Malden, Roddy McDowell, Jayne Meadows, Donna Mills, Pat Morita, Robert Morley, Anthony Newley, Louis Nye, Donald O’Connor, Martha Raye, George Savalas, John Stamos, Ringo Starr, Sally Struthers, the also recently passed on Jack Warden, Jonathon Winters and Shelley Winters. Whew!

The Black Hole isn’t the old Disney schlock classic, but rather a recent Sci-Fi Channel flick (uh-oh) about an electricity monster. Stars Kristy Swanson and Judd Nelson (!).

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein is directed by Jesus Franco. That is all.

The Gambler: The Adventure Continues… is another TV movie about the card player who knows when to hold ‘em, and knows when to fold ‘em. As usual with this series of movies, it’s packed with familiar faces from old TV shows.

I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer brings back the murderous Fisherman, this time as an undead, unstoppable killing machine. Wow, where do they get their ideas? I still like the original title better, “Hey, You Kids, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten What You Did, Like, What Was It, Seven or Eight Summers Ago! Because I Haven’t!”

Mr. Moto Collection Volume 1 Four films from the series that saw Hungarian Peter Lorre playing Japanese detective Mr. Moto. Think Charlie Chan with more Judo.

Putney Swope Rad, “Give it to the Man!” time capsule race comedy from 1969, about a *gasp* black man being accidentally put in charge of a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Socially relevant wackiness ensues. Directed by Robert Downey Sr.

Severed: Forest of the Dead An evil foresting company (zzzzzz) does, well, evil stuff, and soon loggers and environmentalists (ha!) have been zombies. Well, in the case of the environmentalists, they become *meat-eating* zombies.

Warning Shadows is a 1923 film that was influential in the German Expressionism movement.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Musing on The Descent...

I wasn’t entirely surprised that American distributor Lion’s Gate has altered the bleak original ending of the British horror film The Descent for it’s theatrical release here (starting Friday). I’ve seen the film, and frankly while I’m pretty much a purist, I don’t believe their edits will really alter the tone of the film much. I think I know what they’re going to do, and if so, it lowers the Bleak-o-meter by a pretty small percentage.

However, I do find it weird given the television ad campaign. The TV commercials are doing everything they can to suggest that The Descent is in the torture porn tradition of Saw and Hostel, two films heavily named in the ads.

My initial problem with this is that I’ve seen The Descent (via a PAL DVD Joe Robin of Opposable Thumbs had procured), and it’s not a gore film. It has gore, but anyway going in expecting fountains of grue is likely to be disappointed, I think. Admittedly, maybe the gore that is there comes across more vividly on the big screen. Even so, I’m a bit of a wuss, and while I can’t imagine sitting through Saw or Hostel (partly for pure nastiness, if nothing else), I had little problem with The Descent. Well, actually, one scene came close to really freaking me out, but it didn’t even have any violence in it, much less dismembered limbs or whatever.

Still, if you’re trying to attract the sort of crowd that went to see Saw and Hostel, why would you bother to edit the film to make it even marginally less disturbing? My only guess is that they realized that the film was so intense that it they believe it will satisfy the hardcore gore crowd, while being a good enough film to please people like me, who aren’t really interested in gore for gore’s sake. In this particular case, they may even be correct. Even so, I find the campaign misguided, and seldom do you really maximize box office receipts by misrepresenting the film via its ad campaign.

In any case, anyone even remotely interested in horror films should go check this out, as indicated by the movie’s astounding 89% rating on Rotten

At the Box Office

The year’s one genuine mega-hit, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, finally ceded the number one position at the box office this week. And that’s the correct way to put it. Nobody took the box office title away from Pirates, but rather the latter surrendered the crown due to old age.

The ‘winner’ was Michael Mann’s Miami Vice update, which took in a comparatively paltry $25 million. Given that box office totals now generally fall by half or more from the first weekend to the second (and that the studio will only receive a percentage of that $25 million to start with), it will take a very strong foreign take to justify the films $135 million budget.

Pirates fell to second after three weeks in first (the most this year), collecting a still sizable $20.5 million, for a current domestic total around $360 million. It is now Disney’s highest grossing movie ever, which considering they spent $450 million to film the second and upcoming third films back to back, must be causing some sighs of relief at the House of Mouse. Pirates is now the 11th highest domestic grosser ever, and seems certain to sail past the current number ten, The Passion of the Christ, which topped out around $370 million. By the end of thing, Pirates is likely to grab over $400 million of box office swag.

Teen comedy John Tucker Must Die came in third, with $14 million. Monster House fell to fourth, gobbling up another $11 million for a $43 million total so far. Meanwhile, the premiering The Ant Bully was more anthill than mountain, drawing a puny $8 million in its first frame. Moreover, cartoon movies continue to flood the market, with Barnyard joining Monster House and Ant Bully in theaters next weekend.

Things look bad this summer for Warner’s. Poseidon is perhaps the summer’s biggest flop, Superman Returns failed to soar to expected box office heights (falling out of the top ten this week with a $185 million total so far, and hence being dramatically trounced by Pirates), while Ant Bully and Lady in the Water die on the vine. The latter saw it’s feeble first weekend box office decline by a woeful 61%, garnering a highly lame $31 million total after two weeks. In comparison, The Village had drawn $86 million by the same point in time, and Signs nearly $120 million.

Further humiliating filmmaker Shyamalan is the fact that his movie is unlikely to end up drawing the $50 million already brought in by the awful looking Little Man. Meanwhile, the surprise hit The Devil Wears Prada is losing steam, but after having cracked the $100 million mark. Finally, Clerks II drew another $4 million, for a near $19 million total. However, with a production budget of $5 million, the film’s already in the black.