Friday, July 29, 2011

Stan Lee, Immortal Douchebag

Captain America: The First Avenger, created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on comic-book stories by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Mark Gruenwald, Steve Engelhart, Steve Gerber, Jim Steranko and others, directed by Joe Johnston, starring Chris Evans (Captain America/Steve Rogers), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Hugo Weaving (Schmidt/The Red Skull), Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark), Stanley Tucci (Dr. Erskine), Toby Jones (Arnim Zola) and Tommy Lee Jones (Colonel Philips) (2011): Director Joe Johnston won an Oscar for his effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and directed the flawed but period-detail-rich superhero movie The Rocketeer; those two things seem to have informed this Marvel movie, which is flawed but rich in period detail, mostly old-fashioned in a good way, and possessed of a villain with a supernatural weapon that rivals the Ark of the Covenant. Raiders even gets alluded to early on in the movie.

Steve Rogers is a 4F orphan repeatedly rejected for U.S. military service in the early days of America's entry into WWII. He's idealistic, tough, and hopelessly weak of body, though strong and loyal of heart. Dr. Erskine, working on a U.S. supersoldier program to counteract Nazi Germany's super-scientific Hydra organization, picks Rogers to be the first of America's super-soldiers because Erskine, who escaped Nazi Germany after accidentally creating a super-soldier for Hitler, wants to see super-strength in the hands of someone with a good heart.

And after various complications, Captain America is born and unleashed on the sell War Bonds and entertain the troops. There's only one super-soldier, and the military brass don't want him getting killed. As this isn't actually a subversive comedy, Cap soon demonstrates his astonishing combat and tactical abilities and, with a Nick-Furyless group of Howling Commandos, takes on Hydra so that the rest of the Allied military can concentrate on the parts of WWII that actually occurred in 'our' history. Given that Hydra actually seems to be at war with the Axis as well as the Allies, I'm assuming Victory-Europe Day in this universe involved everyone celebrating the defeat of Hydra.

The movie is actually fun, and some of the period (or pseudo-period) stuff is pretty neat -- we get a flying wing, and we get those destroyer-sized Hydra super-tanks that the villainous Red Skull loved so much in Marvel Comics of the 1960's. Hugo Weaving plays the ambitious Nazi super-soldier -- he's the Red Skull but never actually called that in the movie -- who basically declaares war on everybody in 1943 thanks to the occultish power source that resembles the Cosmic Cube of the comic books but is actually some sort of tie-in to the earlier Thor movie and the upcoming Avengers movie. Weaving is great, the supporting cast is solid, and Chris Evans surprises as Captain America. He's still not big enough to be Cap, but he does a good job with the earnest, straightforward heroics of the role.

Some have complained that Cap doesn't really fight Nazis in the movie, which is pretty much true -- Hydra goes rogue pretty early and operates as its own entity. In this, the movie parallels the Captain America comics of the 1960's, which had Hydra galore and in which Hitler generally seemed to be working for the Red Skull, rather than the more (vaguely) historical Cap comics of the 1940's, in which Captain America battled saboteurs, Nazis, Bundists, and the Japanese empire. And vampires and werewolves working for the Axis. Oh, real history, why are you so boring even when you're occuring?

Captain America was, of course, created by writer/artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and not by some faceless monolith named Marvel or, even more egregiously, by Stan Lee, though Stan may have been sharpening pencils in the office when the first pages of Captain America showed up at the (then) Timely Comics. One of the great ironies of many iconic mainstream superheroes is that they fight for truth, justice and the little guy while themselves being concepts stolen from their actual creators to make enormous amounts of money for businessmen, gigantic corporations, and the apparently immortal Stan Lee, who cameos here as a general. Will Stan Lee ever die? How much life force did he steal from everyone who worked with him?

The script for this movie was assembled from the comics work of a lot of fine writers and artists, and I'm sure the screenwriters made more for cannibalizing those writers than all of those writers and artists made from their entire careers at Marvel. Welcome to the American Dream, True Believers! Excelsior! Nonetheless, recommended, though if you want to avoid shitting any more money into Marvel's coffers, by all means find a bootleg copy of the movie.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Before Westeros

Wild Cards: Card Sharks, created and edited by George R.R. Martin, written by Stephen Leigh, William F. Wu, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Michael Cassutt, Victor Milan, Roger Zelazny, Kevin Andrew Murphy and Laura J. Mixon (1993): George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards shared-universe series is a delight, a dark romp through a world forever altered by the introduction of an alien virus in 1946. The virus, a bioweapon meant to be tested on humanity by an alien race, does one of four things to humans who contract it: kills 90% of them, gives them major superpowers, gives them minor superpowers, or twists them into grotesques who also occasionally have superpowers.

In the vernacular of the series, the first group drew the Black Queen, the second group an Ace, the third group a Deuce and the fourth the Joker. Like anthrax, the wild card virus proliferates through spores and not direct human contact, so that over time Wild Cards are everywhere and not just in the New York area where the virus was first introduced. 'Normal' humans are disparagingly referred to as 'Nats' by Jokers, who themselves are ghettoized both literally and figuratively.

The first 12-book Wild Cards cycle followed world events from 1946 to the late 1980's, introducing such characters as Doctor "Tachyon", the alien scientist who tried to stop the virus's release; The Great and Powerful Turtle, a telekinetic ace who only appears in public inside a flying, heavily armored tank; The Sleeper, a wild card who gains a new power and new appearance after every hibernation/regeneration cycle; Captain Trips, a hippie with multiple personalities with their own bodies; and a host of other heroes, villains, and just plain folk.

This first book in the second Wild Cards 'cycle' sends Hannah Davis, a stubborn human fire investigator, on a trip through past events that suggest a massive conspiracy against Wild Cards since the virus first appeared -- a sustained attempt to find a way to kill every Wild Card on Earth by a cabal of the world's most powerful people. The conspiracy may have killed the Kennedys, caused the spread of AIDS, destroyed the early American space program, caused the failure of the Iran hostage rescue, and involved Marilyn Monroe, who in the Wild Card universe is still alive in the early 1990's.

Aided by the hunchbacked, time-and-mind-fractured Joker Quasiman and a number of other Aces, Jokers and Nats, Davis begins to uncover the current plans of the conspiracy (whose members call themselves 'Card Sharks'), inviting unwelcome attention. By the end of this volume, Davis has enlisted an ally whom readers of the previous cycle will find somewhat...worrying.

Basically, this is a very snazzy superhero book with a better explanation for its hero's wild powers than most traditional comic-book superheroes (the Wild Card virus is essentially telepathic and telekinetic in nature, and those it doesn't kill are generally empowered or twisted by some random trigger within that person's self-image or subconscious. Regardless, the powers themselves are telepathic and telekinetic in nature no matter how they appear -- super-strength and super-speed are both telekinetic in nature, as would be weather control, fire control, flying and a variety of others).

It's Heroes or Alphas, only with good writers who know what they're doing and have an unlimited special effects budget. And it gave us heroic, doomed Jetboy's poignant dying line, "I can't die yet. I haven't seen The Jolson Story!" Highly recommended, though one should read the earlier books first.

Vampire Juice

Dracula (World's Classics edition), written by Bram Stoker, edited and introduced by A.N. Wilson (1897; this edition 1983): Tom Wolfe told us that great pilots have "the Right Stuff." Great pitchers have that mysterious "stuff" that very good pitchers never have. Or so we've come to believe. And some writers have "stuff" too, though for the sake of variety, I'm going to call it "juice." Juice has absolutely nothing to do with technical proficiency -- if art and literature came into existence solely through the mastery of formal and techical matters, then university professors would be the greatest writers and artists of them all. They're not, and it doesn't.

Bram Stoker, late middle-aged when he came to write Dracula, had juice for this novel and very little else. But what a crazy novel! Out of previous vampire stories, a smattering of mostly wrong Eastern European history and myth, and his own personal interest in (mostly paid for) sex, Stoker formed one of the most influential novels of all time. It isn't even a very good novel -- but boy does it have juice! The story of British estate lawyer Jonathan Harker's encounter with Dracula still resonates today because it's great, juicy, tranformative pulp.

Formally speaking, Dracula is almost archaic for its own time, much less ours. It follows the epistolary format of many early English novels, telling its story through letters and journal entries and the occasional newspaper clipping. This is all done ostensibly to add verisimilitude to the proceedings, and a lot of great horror from Frankenstein to Paranormal Activity has adopted a faux-documentarian format as part of an attempt to suspend disbelief.

There had been vampire novels and stories in English before, and Stoker lifts elements from many of them. His genius lay in bringing a foreign vampire to England, and in wedding the near-pornographic to both violence and a melodramatic depiction of morality. One attempted vampiric seduction plays like a thinly veiled blowjob scene (as Stephen King and hundreds of other critics have noted); another seems to parody Catholic Communion. Virginal British womanhood appears to be Dracula's target once he reaches England, the sexual threat of the Other made manifest and deeply kinky. And in a parody of the marriage bed, one male character has to stake his transformed beloved, with copious gushings of fluid concluded by a chaste kiss. Meanwhile, Professor Van Helsing's whale-oil candle drips "sperm" all over a female vampire's tomb. Great GooglyMoogly!

And there are also almost endless numbers of scenes in which men and women weep in despair, or clutch hands and swear allegiance before God -- sentimental Victorian melodrama at its wooziest, not helped in the slightest by the modular interchangeability of the four main male characters.

Moments occur which stretch and even break credibility. The insect-eating madman Renfield sets a modern-day record for most escapes from a mental institution in one novel. Dracula, in one of the great bait-and-switches in literary history, goes almost entirely offstage after the first 60 pages, his presence made known almost entirely by the effect he has on others. Babies are fed to vampires, and grieving mothers to wolves. Heads are chopped off, the mouths stuffed with garlic. Dracula does his own dishes and searches for his own money and makes Jonathan Harker's meals. He really seems like a helluva guy. Too bad he stinks like a rotting corpse.

And the whole thing ends with a lengthy, continent-wide chase scene by ship, boat, rail and horse. It's all completely ridiculous, and ridiculously entertaining. Even the Dutch Professor Van Helsing's garbled English becomes almost hypnotic in its lack of resemblance to any English ever spoken or written by anyone in the history of the English language. But Stoker keeps throwing Van Helsing's comments in there, sometimes with the caveat that even the other characters have trouble understanding him. It's a decision born of mad confidence.

There are several truly riveting and horrifying sequences in the novel -- Harker's initial ride to Castle Dracula and his subsequent adventures there; the diary entries of the Captain of the doomed Demeter; and the references to the "bloofer lady" who preys on children being three of them. Elements of the adventure novel, the thriller, the romance, the Gothic...all get synthesized by Stoker's lurid, imitative imagination, which remains, 115 years later, a greater imagination than that of most of his best-selling vampire-loving, novel-writing brethren and sistren. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


The Spirit: Femme Fatales, written and illustrated by Will Eisner and others (1940-1949; this collection 2008): I'm not always in the mood to read classic Spirit stories, but when I am, I read a lot of them in a row. They're always 7 pages long. And models of narrative economy and experimentation within a rigidly constrained format (those 7 pages).

The Spirit, blue of suit, red of tie, headquartered in Wildwood Cemetery in crime-ridden Central City, is more hard-boiled detective than superhero, his only concession to superheroics being a tiny mask. In that little domino mask and his blue suit, the Spirit always seemed embarrassed to nominally be considered a superhero. His primary attribute was an unrivalled ability to take punishment and bounce back up, which is a good thing given that no superhero has ever been hit on the head more often. I shudder to think what the Spirit's mental state would have been in later life.

The Will Eisner studio wrote and drew these gems during the 1940's and early 1950's with Eisner supervising more and more and writing and drawing less and less as time went by -- the studio produced a lot of work. But Eisner's innovative fingerprints (and his committment to experimenting with the embryonic rules of the comic-book page) are all over each story; very few of the writers and artists involved would ever reach such heights on their own.

Herein we get 23 stories about the Spirit's various female antagonists, all of them extremely va-va-voomish femme fatales, some of them entirely bad, some of them on the same side of the law as the Spirit. All the women and most of the men here have the half-joking, half-WTF names that Eisner handed out to all of his non-regular characters. We get the semi-heroic Sand Seref, the manipulative P'Gell, the tragic Plaster of Paris, the sinister Lorelei Vox, the homicidal Lorelei Vox, and so on, and so forth.

For what are formative, foundational texts in comic-book history, the Spirit's adventures remain remarkably fresh and engaging, and they're still studied by writers and artists today for their narrative and formal innovation and excellence. And their awesome splash pages. Highly recommended.


How Do You Know?, written and directed by James L. Brooks, starring Reese Witherspoon (Lisa), Paul Rudd (George), Owen Wilson (Matty), Jack Nicholson (Charles) and Kathryn Hahn (Annie) (2010): James L. Brooks, uber-TV producer (The Simpsons) and writer/director of such film hits as Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, can pretty much do what he wants now. Apparently, with How Do You Know? he decided to make a movie from what really seems like a first draft.

This romantic comedy isn't bad the way most contemporary romantic comedies are bad. The characters are recognizably human and Matthew McConaughey is mercifully absent. But the script meanders along, losing one entire subplot for 20 minutes as if Brooks had forgotten how to cross-cut and generally taking forever to get to the point.

Witherspoon plays Lisa, a 31-year-old woman who's played softball for the US National team her entire life. But now she's been cut from the most recent squad and has no idea what to do with her life. Enter Matty, a loveable, narcissistic MLB pitcher played pitch-perfectly by Owen Wilson, and George, a depressed CEO being investigated for company crime actually committed by his weaselly father (Jack Nicholson).

Preston Sturges could probably have gotten 100 minutes of classic screwball comedy out of the collision of high finance and sports; Brooks instead goes for a slow burn. A really slow burn. So slow that Nicholson's appearance here is somewhat pointless -- he doesn't have much to do, and casting Jack Nicholson in a part that seems like a classic James Cromwell role really seems like overkill.

The love triangle lurches along slowly...very slowly. Wilson and Rudd supply a surprising number of laughs, and Witherspoon is still as cute as a button, whatever that means. There are nice touches throughout, from the collection of specially made sweatshirts and pants Matty keeps for his one-night-stands to wear home the next morning like some sort of parting gift, to Lisa's encyclopedic assortment of inspirational phrases Post-It-noted all over her mirror, to George's peculiarly formal mode of speaking. This isn't a great movie (though compared to most modern rom-coms it's a classic), but it's a perfectly cromulent time-filler. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ratings Stunted

Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen) and Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher) (1976): Of local interest is the fact that the control room and news studio scenes in this movie were filmed at CFTO-TV in Scarborough. Weird! Of historical interest, Beatrice Straight somehow won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a role with only 5 minutes and 40 seconds of screen time -- the shortest in Oscar history for a winning performance of any kind.

Seen as a scathing satire of the changing face of network news when it came out in 1976, Network now seems prescient, almost creepily so. Our 24-hour-a-day news network world now delivers entertainment and scandal and blustery opinion far more than it delivers actual news. Reality TV has become the dominant mode of the dying networks. We watch people die 'live' on TV all the time.

Peter Finch, who would die of heart failure before he won the Best Actor Oscar for this movie, plays Howard Beale, a long-time newsman who's about to be fired from his anchorman position at moribund, fictional fourth-network UBS. So he loses it on-air, vowing to kill himself on his last broadcast. Allowed to apologize on-air for that stunt, he instead launches into an impassioned rant against the modern American world...and becomes a ratings hit.

So the network exploits him, shaping its new, news-free news hour around his increasingly bombastic, populist, apocalyptic rants. Veteran news producer Max Schumacher (an exhausted-looking William Holden) is appalled. So he's fired. Dunaway, as a new programming director, and Duvall, as the hatchet man for the multinational that's just purchased UBS, are delighted by Beale's ratings. A show that follows the real exploits of a homegrown terrorist group is greenlit by Dunaway, and also becomes a hit. Increasingly bleak hilarity ensues.

The world of Network is pretty much the world we now see on a lot of our TV channels -- Beale is Glenn Beck with a better writer (that writer being long-time, award-winning writer for stage, screen and TV Paddy Chayefsky). The performances shine; Lumet may have been the most gifted 'actor's director' of his generation. Ned Beatty even gets a lovely turn as a megalomaniacal, evangelical corporate boss whose speech about how there are no nations anymore, only corporations, sends Beale into his final rhetorical and mental downwards spiral. A terrific, bleak, funny film. Highly recommended.

Petrified and Ancient

The Petrified Forest, written by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves, based on the play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood, directed by Archie Mayo, starring Leslie Howard (Alan Squier), Bette Davis (Gabrielle Maple) and Humphrey Bogart (Duke Mantee) (1936): Odd little film of ideas based on a play of ideas that's probably most notable for being Bogart's first big break, as he reprises his Broadway role as gangster Duke Mantee. Bette Davis is almost unbearably cute, and Leslie Howard is almost unbearably smarmy, though Howard gets bonus points for forcing the filmmakers to cast Bogart as Mantee, and not Edward G. Robinson, whom they preferred.

All the action takes place in and around a diner in the Arizona desert. Dissipated English drifter Howard wanders in, falls in reciprocated love with waitress Davis, and gets taken hostage along with several others by Mantee and his men. The gangsters are waiting to rendezvous with a second group that includes Mantee's lover. They've just pulled a big heist in Oklahoma, killing eight people in the process, and are trying to flee the country.

Written in the depths of the Great Depression, The Petrified Forest is somewhat of a piece with other left-leaning Warner Brothers agit-prop movies of the time. Social mores are questioned and discussed, and one African-American character even mocks what he sees as the Uncle-Tommish deference an African-American chauffeur shows to his white employers. The eponymous national landmark serves as a metaphor for the dying "old guard" of American thought, represented by pretty much everyone in the movie except Davis.

The whole thing's enjoyable. though the dialogue often comes across as pompous, helped in this by Howard's mannered performance as failed novelist Alan Squier. Bogart glowers menacingly and delivers lines with his signature Bogartian flair. Soon, he'd be a star, as would Davis. The set is fascinating because it looks so much like a stage set -- the diner has two walls made up almost entirely of windows so action around the pumps can be seen from inside. Director Mayo doesn't open up the action much, contributing to the feeling of stagey, ship-in-a-bottle theatrics. Lightly recommended.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Boston Market

The Town, written by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, based on Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, directed by Ben Affleck, starring Ben Affleck (Doug MacRay), Rebecca Hall (Claire Keesey), Jon Hamm (FBI Agent Frawley), Jeremy Renner (Jem Coughlin), Blake Lively (Krista Coughlin) and Pete Postlethwaite (Fergus) (2010): Affleck's second directorial effort (after Gone Baby Gone, which starred his brother Casey) is yet another meditation on the criminal weirdness of Boston.

Affleck plays Doug MacRay, an ace bank and armoured-truck robber from the lower-class Boston ghetto of Charlestown. He longs to escape his life even as he plans and executes robberies with his gang, all working for a demonic 'florist' played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite. Loose cannon Jem (The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner in a pudgy, glowering performance that dominates the screen whenever he's on it) takes a female bank manager hostage during the bank robbery that opens the movie, a no-no as far as MacRay is concerned.

Incognito, MacRay checks up on her after the robbery, and finds himself falling in love with her, and she with him. Meanwhile, FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm in a nicely arrogant, somewhat oily turn) seems to be closing in on the gang. And the florist demands yet another heist out of Doug's gang...and then another, even bigger heist.

Affleck is solid as recovering addict MacRay, as are all the other actors, even Blake Lively, whose enormous boobs do about 75% of her acting for her. The rote action sequences undermine a lot of the drama of the movie -- bullets are sprayed around like we're in The Expendables 2, but cause even fewer casualties. Still, the performances and the grubby sense of place Affleck conjures up make the whole thing worthwhile. Recommended.

Attack of the Scottish Blob

X, The Unknown, written by Jimmy Sangster, directed by Leslie Norman, starring Dean Jagger (Dr. Royston) and Leo McKern (Inspector McGill) (1956): Tight little Hammer science-fiction horror film from the mid-1950's, seemingly consciously constructed to resemble the proto-Doctor-Who Quatermass tv serials and movies (the title recalls the title of the then-recent Hammer Quatermass picture, The Creeping Unknown).

Atomic scientist Royston ultimately becomes the only thing standing between an intelligent radioactive blob and global armageddon. The blob, which apparently lives somewhere in the Earth's molten mantle or core, surfaces in Scotland and starts heading for every available radiation source, which it then slurps up.

This would be fine if it didn't kill any human being in its way. The blob is pretty much a big, radioactive brother to the Horta in the original Star Trek episode "The Devil in the Dark": even its malevolence is in question, as its mere proximity to a human being kills that person due to heat and radioactivity. For all we know, it's just on vacation.

There's an enjoyable ruthlessness to this movie that probably wouldn't exist now, at least if it were a studio picture -- a young boy actually dies of radiation poisoning, foregrounding the menace. The filmmakers wisely keep the blobby thing off-screen as long as possible, and when we do see it, we don't see it much (a scene of the blob destroying power lines shows us just how limited a budget the filmmakers were working with). There's also a shocking level of violence for the time period -- two victims melt pretty convincingly before our eyes.

The science is hooey, delivered quickly and with conviction. The performances by Jagger and McKern are solid and professional, lending verisimilitude to what is, after all, a Shaggy Blob story. The film ends with a tiny lack of closure, in keeping with its overarching story concern with the gaps in human knowledge when it comes to the fundamental atomic forces of the universe. A fun 80 minutes. Recommended.


Shaun of the Dead, written by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, directed by Edgar Wright, starring Simon Pegg (Shaun), Nick Frost (Ed), Kate Ashfield (Liz), Lucy Davis (Dianne), Dylan Moran (David) and Nicola Cunningham (Mary) (2004): Pegg, Frost and Wright made the jump from the loveable BBC series Spaced to the big screen here with this part-satire, part-straight take on zombies and the film geeks who love them. It's become a cult classic, and deservedly so -- it's sharp and funny.

Shaun is a retail drone (the movie overtly and repeatedly hammers us with the idea that modern jobs, and modern life in general, have made zombies of us all) saddled with a hilariously lumpen best friend, Ed, who messes up the apartment they share and steadfastly refuses to get a job. Shaun's having girlfriend troubles, partially because of Ed and partially because the only thing Shaun wants to do after work is have a few pints at the Winchester Pub.

Zombies really shake things up, and soon Shaun is the only remotely competent person in his group of survivors (which includes his girlfriend Liz's roommate and her boyfriend, Shaun's mother, and Shaun's stepdad). Who will survive and what will be left of them?

As with the later Pegg/Frost/Wright movie Hot Fuzz, comedy gives way to (relatively) straightforward action over the last 20 minutes of the movie. One's reaction to this will depend a lot on how many zombie movies you've seen and how funny you think the blood-and-gore stuff is. All in all, a dandy movie. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

From Dangerous Depths

Out of the Past, written by Geoffrey Homes, Frank Fenton and James M. Cain, based on Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes, directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey), Jane Greer (Kathie Moffat), Kirk Douglas (Whit Sterling), Rhonda Carson (Meta Carson) and Virginia Huston (Ann Miller) (1947): Classic post-WWII film noir about a shady private detective (Mitchum) trying to escape his shady past, only to be hunted down by gangster Douglas and forced back into more shady doings.

Jeff Bailey, the assumed name of the former Jeff Markham, runs a gas station in a small town not far from Lake Tahoe. Spotted by the lieutenant of a gangster he once worked for, Bailey gets pulled back into the competing schemes and treacheries of the gangster and the femme fatale who Bailey once loved but was ultimately betrayed and manipulated by.

Mitchum is terrific, as is the moody direction by B-movie maestro Jacques Tourneur (Cat People). Tourneur and his cinematographer set up a lovely contrast among the dark and dead-end streets of the cities; the rundown, sunny seediness of Acapulco; and the wide-open spaces around the small town Mitchum's character hides in. The urban world is Hell, but the people from Hell also carry Hell with them.

Douglas, in his second film here, makes for a jittery mob boss, while Jane Greer makes a great bad woman -- as in many films noir, the woman is ultimately deadlier (and smarter) than the male. And in this film world, as in a lot of noir, the past is something that always gets you in the end. Highly recommended.

Stretching for Dollars

DC Archives: Plastic Man Archives Volume 3, written and illustrated by Jack Cole (1944-45; collected 2001): Another dandy collection of the early adventures of one of the two or three best long-running American comic books of the 1940's (the others involve The Spirit and Captain Marvel). Jack Cole would go on in the 1950's to become a cartoonist for magazines like Playboy, disowning pretty much all his comic-book past in the process. But it's now and probably forever that Plastic Man is what he's remembered fondly for.

The joy of Plastic Man is that it's often-anarchic fun rendered in a clean, fluid line. Plastic Man takes stretching to its ultimate extent: he can imitate anything (including women -- in that sense he's a bit like Bugs Bunny, only more convincing), stretch into any shape or to almost any length or size, and easily weather gunfire. Extremes of heat or cold may be able to do him in: the crooks sure try, anyway.

There's a fine balance in Cole's work between the hilarious and the grim. People do die in these stories, and the criminals tend to be ruthless -- there's a tiny measure of the Dick Tracy ethos at work here. But everything turns out all right in the end thanks to Plastic Man and his bumbling sidekick Woozy Winks, one of the few comic sidekicks of the 1940's whom I can stand.

Plastic Man, now owned by Time Warner/DC Comics, has never fared particularly well in hands other than Cole's. He truly was a singular creation who needed his creator to make his adventures essential reading -- unlike the adventures of Batman or Superman, Plastic Man's 1940's adventures have never been surpassed by later exploits. The 1940's have been dubbed 'The Golden Age of American Comic Books', but Cole's Plastic Man stories are one of only a few truly superlative strips of the period (and remain superlative compared to anything else in this sub-genre to this day). Highly recommended.

Appetite for Deconstruction

Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman (revised 2001 edition): Chuck Klosterman has carved out a niche for himself as an iconoclastic cultural critic. He began as a music and entertainment journalist in America's Midwest in the early 1990's, first as a college student and then as a professional. Before that, he was a kid growing up in the 1980's in the tiny North Dakota town of Wyndmere, where he developed a love for heavy metal -- and, more particularly, 'glam metal' or 'hair metal', perhaps the most dominant musical genre in North America by the late 1980's. But then grunge swept it away. Here, in his first book, he tried to bring it back -- or at least provide a counter-narrative to the standard 'Hair metal sucks!'

Klosterman's musings begin with Motley Crue and end, pretty much, with the disintegration of Guns 'n' Roses in the early 1990's. He makes a great revisionist case for the artistic merit of a lot of metal songs, albums and bands, all while remaining uncomfortable with the idea of critical praise (in part because critics don't tend to praise the bands he's praising).

I think you'll probably find yourself mentally arguing with a lot of his conclusions, which is great -- that's part of what makes the book fun. Klosterman's great weakness -- a tendency to generalize or even universalize based solely on his personal preferences and experiences -- is also his great strength. He can get you mad -- or happy when you agree with him.

It helps that he's both killingly funny and gifted at presenting fresh, involving autobiographical detail, whether that detail comes in the chapter in which he introduces his 1990's alcoholism, or in imagining his teenaged self listening to Motley Crue for the first time. He evokes small, small-town life in telling detail (as he notes at one point, the small town of John Mellencamp's "Small Town" would be a city to the residents of Wyndmere) without condescending to rural residents. Also, he invented and named his own drink (The Witty Chuck, a mix of brandy and ginger ale).

But it's the musical contextualization and appraisal that makes the book really appealing. You'll probably want to check out at least a few tunes that you haven't heard for years (or at all), and the argument he makes for GNR's Appetite for Destruction as one of the ten best albums ever is pretty fascinating and. depending on your taste, compelling. But the most interesting thing he observes about GNR is how truly real Axl Rose's existential anger was, and how central it was to the band's early success: once it was gone (or at least partially dissipated), Rose couldn't fake it or replicate it, leaving Chinese Democracy in limbo for 15 years.

The great weakness of the book is its title, one that Klosterman notes himself he isn't all that crazy about (he suggested Appetite for Deconstruction, which would have been hilarious). Oh well. All this and you also find out that Klosterman hates hippies almost as much as Eric Cartman does. A great, contentious book for any fan of popular music in the late 20th century. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Too Many Vampires

The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010): The Passage caused a bidding war among publishers that topped out at $3.75 million for the publishing rights and an unknown (and probably greater) amount for Ridley Scott's purchase of the film rights. Pretty good for a third novel from a writer whose first two novels were acclaimed and awarded for their literary merit but, insofar as I know, lacked vampire apocalypses.

There are a lot of good things in The Passage, especially in the first 500 pages or so (it checks in at about 760 pages in trade paperback, with two more volumes of the trilogy on the way). Cronin has a flair for description and characterization that elevates this above the run-of-the-mill thriller, with passages of occasional lyric beauty and some keenly drawn sympathetic characters. The plot is suspenseful, the apocalypse nicely imagined. He's not so good at imagining the inside of unsympathetic characters, but that seems to be part of the ethos of the novel -- there's really only one truly despicable person in The Passage, and he isn't a vampire. Everyone else has his or her reasons.

We begin in 2016. A U.S. military-funded expedition to South America yields what appears to be the source of all vampire legends: a bat-carried virus that turns people into, well, vampires. They're super-strong, nearly invulnerable, extremely photo-sensitive, tear people to pieces and eat them an awful lot, and can transmit their affliction to others. They also lose all body hair and run around naked -- essentially, they're a cross between the vampire in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu and Will Ferrell's character in Old School.

The military sees this a golden opportunity to "weaponize the human body", and begins experimenting with the virus in a secret Colorado laboratory. Things go well. And then they don't. They really, really don't. Boy, do they not go well at all.

We leave the major characters of the 2016-2018 portion of the novel behind at about the 250-page mark with the complete collapse of civilization well underway. A couple of vignettes take us through the next 93 years until we arrive at a small California mountain-top settlement that's survived the ongoing apocalypse, and we are introduced to our next cast of characters. Here, the novel shifts into a post-apocalyptic mode that recalls novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz, only with vampires and a lot of late teen-aged angst. Lots of stuff happens. And 500 pages later, we end on a cliffhanger.

There's a major logical flaw very early in the novel that may derail some of your appreciation for the work if you figure it out. I'm not telling you. Like Ontario, it's yours to discover. The first 500 pages really do zip by, with solid world- and character-building yoked to a rollercoaster of a plot. And what a rollercoaster!

No, seriously, what a rollercoaster! After 500 pages of reversals, apparent deaths, shocking developments, shocking returns from the dead, more shocking deaths, and a casino that explodes because of a 93-year-long build-up of sewer gases, I started to feel less like I was on a rollercoaster and more like I was being punched in the head repeatedly.

Cronin never runs out of ideas (though they're often other people's ideas synthesized into new combinations), but after awhile you may wish he would. Or save some for the sequel. As The Passage has often been compared to the first volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I'll illustrate the problem with the climax using The Fellowship of the Ring: imagine if Gandalf and company fought a Balrog, then fought two Balrogs, then fought an army of Balrogs, and then found out that there were 500 more Balrogs between them and Mordor. Somewhere in the middle of all that, both Boromir and Gandalf die and then come back to life, only to die again. Or maybe not. Now imagine that scenario on speed. That's what the novel accelerates into, out of the blue and into the black.

By the end, there's too much of everything. So too much of everything. Two loveable animals killed for no discernible plot reason except to jerk some tears; two 'good' characters with what amount to superpowers; two Magical Negros (seriously -- it's as if Stephen King decided to have both Mother Abigail and John Coffey dispensing magical blackness in The Stand); two action set-pieces involving a train pursued by a horde of vampires; 12 vampire lords (actually, 13. Or maybe 14. Maybe it's an homage to the replicant-number problem in the original version of Blade Runner); so many teary farewells and subsequent teary hellos that I lost track; bioluminiscent vampires (which are I assume a satiric commentary on the sparkly vampires of Twilight); multiple nicknames for vampires, none of them being the obvious 'vampire' or 'vamps' (instead we get 'smokes' or 'jumps' or 'flyers'); one super-magical little girl; two dead characters who return from the dead and really, really shouldn't have; one fairly major character we know is doomed because he alone never gets an internal monologue; a seemingly haunted house; and repeated references to an academic conference more than a millennium after the outbreak of the vampire plague that recall Margaret Atwood's frame narrative for A Handmaid's Tale but which don't help at all with generating suspense.

This last one is quite interesting, as it's similar to what Max Brooks did in World War Z -- that is, contain the apocalypse within a shell narrative demonstrating that the end of the world did not, in fact, entirely arrive. It defangs the menace of the apocalypse (and the vampires), and I can't say as I think it's a good idea. Essentially, it puts a guardrail up for the weak of heart. Someone will survive! But one of the points of an apocalyptic narrative in the contemporary world is that someone may NOT survive, and you're supposed to read to the end to find out.

The dual trains-outracing-vampires sequences illustrate one of the problems with Narrative Overkill. The first sequence is startling, in part because the character describing the events can't actually see what's happening -- she can hear what's happening, she can respond to the reactions of the people around her who actually know what's happening, and she can describe what she learned later about what she was hearing. It's quite unnerving and evocative, and leaves a lot to the imagination, which is where a lot of great horror ultimately resides.

The second train sequence plays like a storyboard for a Mummy movie, with rivers of fast-moving vampires pursuing a train in what really reads like a description of a CGI scene from a big-budget film. It isn't evocative at all, or particularly scary, and the conclusion of this sequence also operates as a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card that immediately solves what might have actually been something of a messy plot problem. It's dull, it's manipulative, and it's completely inorganic. Remember when Spielberg couldn't restrain himself and had to give us a second 'bike flying through the air' sequence in E.T., only with more kids and far less impact? That's Cronin's problem here. He's too schematic in his attempts to top himself.

Overall, though, I enjoyed The Passage more than I was annoyed by it. The first 500 pages really are solid and sometimes spectacular; the last 260 pages are increasingly wearying and manipulative. I will be interested to read the middle book of the trilogy. Right now, Cronin could go either way as a thriller writer, and I'm interested to see which way that will be. Recommended.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Target That Explosion And Fire!

It! The Terror from Beyond Space, written by Jerome Bixby, directed by Edward L. Cahn, starring Marshall Thompson (Carruthers), Shirley Patterson (Ann Anderson), Kim Spalding (Van Heusen) and Ray "Crash" Corrigan (It) (1958): I salute the B-movie makers of the 1940's and 1950's for being able to make enjoyable movies that clock in at under 90 minutes. Actually, this one clocks in at less than 70 minutes. And that's with a mostly unnecessary frame-narrative involving expositional press conferences back on Earth.

About 90% of this movie takes place on a rocket ship headed from Mars to Earth. It's just picked up the last survivor of the first Mars manned mission (in 1973, no less!), Colonel Carruthers. He maintains that a mysterious monster killed the other members of his crew. Nobody believes him. Guess who's right? Veteran science-fiction writer Jerome Bixby writes a solid script with some wackiness, while the direction is tense and suggestive rather than literal most of the time. The filmmakers do what they can with a very limited budget, and the suspense remains pretty tight for the entire movie.

Many moments anticipate Alien and Aliens and any number of other monster movies in which a seemingly indestructible creature stalks humans in an enclosed space. Almost every movie ever made along these lines seems to owe a debt to Canadian Golden-Age science fiction writer A.E. Van Vogt's seminal 1940's novellas "Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet" -- indeed, the makers of Alien paid Van Vogt an out-of-court settlement because of the similarities between their movie and his novellas.

The monster looks about as good as any humanoid monster of the 1950's ever looked -- rubbery and a bit goofy, but fine as long as it remains in the shadows. The spaceship crew is hilariously trigger-happy, firing off wildly inside the spaceship (which ain't that big), setting off grenades, setting off gas bombs, and in general doing things that should pretty much result in their immediate deaths, monster or no monster. One astronaut even fires off rounds from a bazooka during the final battle. Did I mention that the ship consists of four levels, each of them maybe 30 feet in diameter?

Hilarity will also probably ensue when you realize that the all-female medical staff of the ship is also in charge of serving food and beverages. This is what I went to medical school for?

The title is, of course, misleading -- it should really be It! The Terror from Mars. Marshall Thompson, who plays Carruthers, bears an uncanny resemblance to Tim Robbins, who was in the much worse Mission to Mars movie decades later. Recommended.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Chinatown 2: Electric Boogaloo

The Two Jakes, written by Robert Towne, directed by Jack Nicholson, starring Jack Nicholson (J.J. "Jake" Gittes), Harvey Keitel (Julius "Jake" Berman), Meg Tilly (Kitty Berman), Madeleine Stowe (Lillian Bodine), Perry Lopez (Lou Escobar), Richard Farnsworth (Earl Rawley) (1990): This much later sequel to the much-praised neo-noir Chinatown sees Jake Gittes ten years older (it's now 1948) and much more successful as the head of a private detective agency specializing in cheating husbands and wives. It was a critical and commercial dud at the time, though it now looks pretty good: it only suffers by comparison to Chinatown.

Nicholson's direction (this is either his third or second directorial effort) is solid but unspectacular, though the golden and brown hues of the cinematography make the whole thing go down pretty smoothly. Robert Towne, who also wrote Chinatown, returns here, in good form.

You can follow the plot of The Two Jakes without having seen Chinatown, but I wouldn't recommend it. A lot of the emotional heft of this film comes from its connections with the events of the first film, in which Gittes was inexorably pulled into a wide-ranging scheme with both personal and professional repercussions.

The always welcome Richard Farnsworth gets shoehorned into this film as a sort of substitute for the awful antagonist of the first film (played with jolly, sinister menace by John Huston), but ultimately has nothing to do. This leaves Nicholson and the other Jake, Harvey Keitel, with a lot of heavy lifting to do as actors, and they do it well.

A somewhat overstuffed cast of characters keeps things interesting (Tom Waits's cameo as a cop is pretty funny), and the plot actually does make sense, though red herrings and reversals do make the scheme behind all the other schemes look more complicated than it really is. Keep an eye out for an anachronistic ATM in one shot. Recommended.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Leonardo di Caprio (Cobb), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Arthur), Ellen Page (Ariadne), Tom Hardy (Eames), Ken Watanabe (Saito), Dileep Rao (Yusuf), Cillian Murphy (Fischer), Tom Berenger (Browning) and Marion Cotillard (Mal) (2010): A gleaming, machine-tooled puzzle box of a movie which has justifiably spawned a plethora of theories about what's "real" in its narrative (and justifiable complaints that it didn't snag Christopher Nolan a Best Picture or Best Director nod).

One's assessment of what's real hinges on one's assessment of the film's somewhat Byzantine explanation of how dreams work. Do you take at face value the "infinite subconscious" and the accelerated time of the dreams or don't you? Are the emblematic names of a couple of characters coincidental, aimed only at the viewer, or aimed at the "realness" of the dreamscape itself?

Nolan's tale of a group of dream thiefs hired to implant an idea in the head of the new head of a multinational conglomerate falls down only, I suppose, in the realm of emotional depth and richness of characterization. But the actors are all so good at combining competence with a sort of post-James-Bond bitchiness that the whole affair goes down smoothly, though the James Bondian third level of the dream world bogs down a bit in pyrotechnics and too much gun-toting action.

South Park accurately skewered the gobbledygook of the dream-world dynamics (Ellen Page has an occasionally thankless role as a sort of reverse-Basil Exposition, repeatedly getting DiCaprio's Cobb to explain how things work, sometimes at credibility-stretching moments). Nonetheless, the movie is a serious fun machine, and DiCaprio has really started to grow on me as an occasionally dewy eyed action hero. Recommended.

A Time of Running

The Night of the Hunter, written by James Agee, based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, directed by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum (Harry Powell), Shelley Winters (Willa Harper), Lillian Gish (Rachel Cooper), Billy Chapin (John Harper), Sally Jane Bruce (Pearl Harper) and Peter Graves (Ben Harper) (1955): This dark American fairy tale was the only movie Charles Laughton ever directed, as it bombed at the box office. In the decades since its release, it's come to be acknowledged as a classic, its influence seen in such filmmakers as David Lynch and the Coen Brothers (the latter of which would be the only filmmakers I'd trust with a remake).

Robert Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a Depression-era itinerant faux-clergyman and serial killer who murders widows for their money (and because he gets off on doing so). While in jail for a car theft, he learns that his cellmate -- set to be hanged -- stole and successfully hid a big wad of cash somewhere on the outside.

So Powell woos his cellmate's widow (Shelley Winters) while trying to ferret out the location of the money from the only two living people who know -- Winters's son and daughter. Powell fools everyone with his schtick except the boy. Soon there will come, as the Faulkneresque Davis Grubb novel the film's based on notes, "a time of running."

Mitchum's performance is singular and stellar -- he's a charming, creepy monster with a (real) tremendous singing voice. Billy Chapin, playing the 10-year-old boy, does lovely work as he defiantly opposes Powell while trying to keep his younger sister -- and the money -- safe. Their escape down the Ohio River, with Powell always somewhere close behind, is staged as an almost mythic journey.

Laughton uses a lot of silent and early sound film in-camera visual effects to achieve certain things (forced perspective being the most notable, but he also deploys the 'iris-in', a silent-film technique not much used since, oh, about 1929). The black-and-white cinematography glistens. The characters straddle the line between verisimilitude and allegory (or in the case of some supporting characters, caricature). And somewhere at the end of the line waits silent-film star Lillian Gish, embodying canny good. An odd, great film. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, on Earth-Bradbury

Hallows Eve by Al Sarrantonio (2004): Sarrantonio's best work channels the nasty lyricism of early Ray Bradbury (that is, Bradbury of the 1940's, before he got too mushy inside) into new and unexpected directions. It's an approach that seems to work better in short stories than in novels (which was also true of Bradbury's output), though this novel contains a lot of fascinating scenes and setpieces, along with one of the more idiosyncratic views of the Afterlife ever put on paper.

A young man returns to Orangefield (the pumpkin capital of America), the small town he grew up in, ten years after he left. Orangefield is deeply weird, as in supernatural occurences every ten minutes weird -- it's like Stephen King's Castle Rock after several bong hits. The Celtic god of death and the harvest (what a job title!), Samhain, is working to let a much greater evil god into our universe. Our protagonist and a plucky little girl can stop this. Maybe. Weirdness ensues.

The first half of the novel is weird and gripping; the second half seems a bit rushed and sketchy. Nonetheless, Sarrantonio takes chances with both plot twists and characterization here (not to mention the overall weirdness of the supernatural in this novel), giving us something other than the standard humanity vs. supernatural evil tropes that dominate horror fiction. This is part of a much larger story-and-novel cycle, though it stands pretty well on its own. Recommended.

The Horror of 1986

DAW Year's Best Horror Stories Series XV (1986) edited by Karl Edward Wagner (1987):


Introduction: What's in a Name? • essay by Karl Edward Wagner
The Yougoslaves by Robert Bloch
Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back by Joe R. Lansdale
Apples by Ramsey Campbell
Dead White Women by William F. Wu
Crystal by Charles L. Grant
Retirement by Ron Leming
The Man Who Did Tricks With Glass by Ron Wolfe
Bird in a Wrought Iron Cage by John Alfred Taylor
The Olympic Runner by Dennis Etchison
Take the "A" Train by Wayne Allen Sallee
The Foggy, Foggy Dew by Joel Lane
The Godmother by Tina Rath
"Pale Trembling Youth" by W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Red Light by David J. Schow
In the Hour Before Dawn by Brad Strickland
Necros by Brian Lumley
Tattoos by Jack Dann
Acquiring a Family by R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Another year (1986, that is), another great Year's Best Horror anthology edited by Karl Edward Wagner. Horrible things happen in biker bars, country estates, tourist towns, travelling carnivals, Hallowe'en parties and haunted houses. There's a lot more indeterminate, atmospheric horror here than in other Wagner Year's Best anthologies, epitomized in an emblematically Etchisonesque Dennis Etchison story ("The Olympic Runner") which disturbs even as it leaves one unsure of what, exactly, has happened (it also contains a terrifically handled shift in third-person narrative POV, for those who enjoy that sort of thing).

Horror grandmaster Robert Bloch contributes one of his last, great stories; Ramsey Campbell contributes one in a long line of odd, ruthless stories about childhood horrors. Joe R. Lansdale wrings some gruesomeness from the end of the world and what happens after, with some of the most unlikely predators ever arising from the irradiated remains of North America to finish off the survivors of WWIII.

For an anthology in the heart of the rise of splatterpunk, there's a surprisingly lack of graphic violence (fine by me, BTW), though what there is seems justified by the narratives in which it's contained. The R. Chetwynd-Hayes story pretty much embodies a sort of British drollness in horror, a blackly comic vision of a pitiful person undone by a ruthless evil from an unexpected source. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Piranha 34-DD

Piranha 3D, written by Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, directed by Alexandre Aja, starring Elisabeth Shue (Sheriff), Jerry O'Connell (Derrick Jones), Steven R. McQueen (Jake), Jessica Szohr (Kelly), Ving Rhames (Deputy), Richard Dreyfuss (Boyd), and Christopher Lloyd (Goodman) (2010): Much-hyped, relative tongue-in-cheek remake of what was already a tongue-in-cheek original. Released from some sort of underground pool into a lake by seismic activity, giant prehistoric piranhas make a beeline for a 'Girls Gone Wild'-style Spring Break. Boobs and blood ensue.

The relatively high-profile cast hinders rather than helps -- Lloyd and Dreyfuss probably seemed a lot funnier choices in the idea stage than they are on-screen, Rhames has nothing to do, and Shue is such a non-entity here that the casting is irrelevant. O'Connell does have some funny moments as the lecherous producer of the 'Girls Gone Wild'-style video production; blink and you'll miss Eli Roth, who now seems to act almost as much as he directs.

There's nothing really wrong with the movie, and there's a surprising amount of female nudity for a 21st-century horror flick, but I'm hard-pressed to find anything to recommend, so lightly not recommended.


Devil, written by Brian Nelson and M. Night Shyamalan, directed by John Erick Dowdle, starring Chris Messina (Detective Bowden), Jenny O'Hara (Old Woman), Jacob Vargas (Ramirez), Bokeem Woodbine (Guard), Bojana Novakovic (Young Woman), Geoffrey Arend (Salesman), Logan Marshall-Green (Mechanic) (2010): Toronto pretty much stands in for Philadelphia in this first installment of the pompously named 'Night Chronicles' (for M. Night Shyamalan, who provides the story and then lets someone else write the screenplay and direct). Five people get trapped on an elevator. But one of them is the Devil!

The somewhat laborious, apparently fictional 'legend' that we're told this whole elevator scenario arises from is the idea that the Devil occasionally leaves Hell to torment the damned on Earth before killing them and taking their souls back with him to Hell. Thankfully, a religious security guard who knows this legend is around to fill us in on the details, which become increasingly baroque as the telling unspools.

Still, the movie remains pretty straightforward, and a big step up in quality from M. Night's more recent writer/director botches. There are some genuine thrills and some spooky moments, though even at about 85 minutes the movie seems long, like a padded one-hour TV episode. Is there a crazy twist at the end? Well, sort of, though you'll probably have seen it coming. The Devil, he is a sly one! Lightly recommended.

Destination Moon

Destination Moon, written by Alford Von Ronkel, James O'Hanlon and Robert A. Heinlein, based on Rocketship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein, directed by Irving Pichel, starring John Archer (Barnes), Warner Anderson (Cargraves), Tom Powers (Thayer) and Dick Wesson (Joe) (1950): Ambitious in scope, limited in budget, and almost documentary-like in execution, Destination Moon won an Oscar for Visual Effects for the movie year of 1950.

Some things seem almost hilariously wrong now -- in the world of the movie, we're told that only American Big Business is capable of the rapid action and planning needed to put a man on the Moon. Indeed, the U.S. government tries to shut the project down. The government may have a point -- the rocket uses an atomic motor, something the rocket's creators are awfully cavalier and off-hand about, even though we're told that a prototype of the engine ended its "successful" test by spontaneously exploding. Seriously?

The moon is also viewed as being a great place to rain nuclear missiles down on the Earth, necessitating that the U.S. beat the Soviets there. You may have noticed how well the lunar nuclear weapons platform idea went in real life over the last 42 years or so.

In the hopeful astronautical world of 1950, putting together a Moon expedition goes amazingly smoothly until the landing stage. Then, events somewhat mirror those of the actual Apollo 11 mission, with fuel usage becoming an issue (though a much bigger issue here than in real life). Like almost every science fiction movie ever made, a comic-relief sidekick caused me to want to shoot my TV. Visuals of the Moon and outer space, copied and extrapolated diligently from science-fiction-painting-great Chesley Bonestell, remain quite stunning.

Another sf great, Robert A. Heinlein, helped script the movie, loosely based on his Young Adult novel Rocketship Galileo, though he leaves a lunar gun battle with space Nazis out of the film. Science-fiction movie producing guru George Pal produced this one. Interesting and a bit boring, the movie actually could have used some space Nazis. What movie couldn't? Lightly recommended.