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Saturday, April 07, 2007
      ( 4/07/2007 04:54:00 PM ) Bill S.  

NOTED BY JIM TREACHER; AGREED WITH BY ME* – Size fourteen Valerie Bertinelli is fat!?!?!?

*A rare enough occurrence that I thought I'd belatedly mention it here.

UPDATE (4/10): So today I see a Jenny Craig commercial featuring our gal Val teamed up with the appalling Kirstie Alley. Cripes . . .
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      ( 4/07/2007 10:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"ARE MADMEN HAPPY?" – American fans of the British horror movie company Hammer Films have had a rough time of it, putting together a collection of that august production company's monster movies: over its peak period (late fifties through early seventies) the company went through a variety of partnerships with American studios, resulting today in a confusion of DVD releases from different home entertainment concerns. The first big Hammer releases, for instance, Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula are presently available from Warner Video, though the sequel to Curse is presently a Columbia DVD; later Hammer entries can be found as MGM or Anchor Bay – or even Craptastic Video discs. Two years back, as part of its "Franchise Collection," Universal Studios Entertainment released a budget set of eight films made during the company's brief attachment with Universal Pictures. Originally released in the early sixties, the films include several attempts at continuing Hammer's monster movie resurrections (The Curse of the Werewolf, Phantom of the Opera), follow-ups to already established series (Brides of Dracula, Evil of Frankenstein and, tangentially, Kiss of the Vampire), imitations of Psycho (Paranoiac, Nightmare) plus a darker version of the Dr. Syn swashbuckler entitled Night Creatures.

Though many followers consider Evil of Frankenstein (only one of the Hammer Peter Cushing outings to utilize the flat-headed version of the creature, since the makeup was apparently copyrighted and owned by Universal) to be a disappointment in comparison to Curse of and Revenge of Frankenstein, this is a strong selection from the prolific studio. Recently took it upon myself to watch Brides of Dracula (1960), in fact, for the first time in years and was thoroughly entertained by it. The first follow-up to Horror of Dracula, the studio's first reinterpretation of the Drac story, Brides is a Dracula flick in name only. Christopher Lee, who so memorably assayed the Count (and would later return to do so in a string of Hammer hits), sat this one out – much as he did the follow-ups to Hammer's Frankenstein films. Fortunately, Peter (Knows A Good Thing) Cushing returned as vampire slayer Doctor Van Helsing to provide a sense of continuity that the movie's opening narration ("Dracula is dead . . . though his disciples live on!") can't quite fulfill.

Tidily directed by studio man Terence Fisher, Brides takes place in Transvylvania, "still the home of magic and devilry as the 19th century comes to an end," and centers around the evil doings of Baron Meinster (David Peel). The youthful looking Peel is a far cry from darkly imposing Lee, but the script uses that look to its advantage: when French school teacher Mme. Danielle (Yvonne Monlaur) first sees him, he looks more like a male ingénue than a vampire. Meinster is being kept chained in his room by his appalling mother the Baroness (Hammer regular Freda Jackson) and, from first impression, looks to be the victim in all this. But, of course, he isn't: instead he's a member of what Van Helsing tells us is the Cult of the Undead, a "survival of one of the ancient pagan religions in their struggle against Christianity." (So, vampirism is the 19th Century version of "Islamofascism"?) After turning his mother into a vampire (Oedipus Alert!), the freed Meinster escapes to start picking off local villagers and the faculty of a local girls' school.

Enter our hero Van Helsing, who's been called to the area by a concerned priest. Cushing is his usual stalwart British self: in his most memorable moment, he himself is bitten by the decadent Meinster and staves off vampiric infection by burning the bites with a hot branding iron and some holy water. Pretty strong stuff for 1960. His showdown with Meinster and the "brides" in a deserted old windmill isn't as rousing as his first climactic battle with Lee's Dracula (when he finally kills the bloodsucking blackguard, it's from a distance, so we don't even get to see any cool close-ups of Meinster's body disintegrating), but it's still reasonably action-packed. (Has anybody done anything on the influence of Hammer's fight scenes on early James Bond flicks?) "What about the 'brides'?" I hear you ask. Well, their primary function is to stand side-by-side, looking darkly photogenic. The studio wouldn't really start pushing the sex-&-vampirism angle until 1970's Countess Dracula and The Vampire Lovers. Meinster's lady minions (Andree Melly & Marie Devereux) were still hot enough to stoke the fires of many an early adolescent horror fan when he saw their pics in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland or Castle of Frankenstein, however.

Christopher Lee's Dracula would return to the studio in Dracula: Prince of Darkness five years later, only this time Cushing's Van Helsing was M.I.A. This this-than-satisfying follow-up currently exists in the U.S. as an out-of-print Anchor Bay two-fer, alongside Lee's Drac swansong, Satanic Rites of Dracula. Some days, being a fannish completist can be a real [read this last in a Gene Rayburn voice] pain in the ________.
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Friday, April 06, 2007
      ( 4/06/2007 09:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

THE FIFTEEN-MINUTE COMIC – Later than ever, it's another round of quickie comics reviews. Let's pick through the pile, shall we?
  • Brave And the Bold (DC) #2: Yeah, the scenes where Green Lantern slaps himself via interior monologue (thought balloons!) for mentally ogling the flirty 17-year-old Supergirl are kinda creepy. But they build to a decent punchline: a scene where Kara shows up to compete in an intergalactic arena fight, wearing a pink schoolgirl outfit. (Scripter Mark Waid channeling his inner Tarantino?) With last ish's Batman still showing up to move the plot along – and next ish's Blue Beetle also making several brief appearances, this team-up title has the potential of being more of a mash-up than a monthly two-character book. Too, I've gotta wonder when you're already putting in a lesser light like BB to co-star in your third issue. Is there a large coterie of BB fans out there – or is this title relying on Hal Jordan's marquee power? Still, the book's basic intro story arc – which essentially involves some alien gamblers' attempt at cheating in the Biggest Vegas of Them All – has a sweet Silver Age vibe to it. Enough to make me wanna follow this arc to its conclusion, at least.

  • Fall of Cthulhu (Boom!) #0: Having given us several anthologies of Lovecraft-influenced stories, now Boom! offers a fuller Cthulhu mini-series, written by Mark (Second Wave) Alan Nelson and illustrated by Jean Dzialowski (who I mainly remember from a smartly rendered Pirates Tales entry). The premiere ish is primarily historical set-up – though Lovecraft mythos junkies will be doubtless be please to note the appearance of regularly referenced mad Arab Abdul Alhazred in this opener, even if he really doesn't look as mad as all that: lots of moody gobbledegook ("with strange eons even death may die") and portentous statements, lots of murky imagery suddenly! broken by two pages of garish comic bookery that almost comes as a visual relief. Last six pages take us to a presentday swamp and a self-proclaimed "god killer," but whether you'll wanna follow this into another issue most likely depends on whether your love of Lovecraft is enough to pull you through a prologue populated by plot-moving ciphers.

  • Hero Squared (Boom!) #5: Dang, I skipped an issue of this title! Doesn't seem like I missed too much, though, since I was quickly able to catch up with our cast o' four. Giffen & DeMatteis still make me chuckle, though – their funniest conceit here is to blend Boom! Studios and Marvel, giving us the best Stan Lee parody since Funky Flashman – so it looks like I'm gonna have to seek out ye old back issue. Not a lotta titles that'll compel me to do that these days, but this is one of 'em.

  • The Spirit (DC) #4: Five issues in (counting that Batman team-up), Darwyn Cooke has now had enough playtime with Will Eisner's creation to make this version distinctly his, so I guess I'll swallow my initial objections to the project and accept it for the crisp genre exercise it is: Cooke's version of the hardnosed govt. agent Silk Satin is arguably his best updating of an Eisner Dame to date. Gotta admit the cover faked me out: heroine and hero stumbling through a desert I first thought was gonna be in the Middle East (as it was in a memorable string of forties Spirit adventures), though instead turns out to be near Beau's Butte, Texas. Dumb joke, good comic.

  • Keith Giffen's Tag: Cursed (Boom!) #1: Uh oh, a comic where the original creator's name is a part of the title. You know what that means: no Keith Giffen, but a replacement scripter (Mike Leib) in his place; a story tone that replaces the original's heartlessness with a misguided attempt at empathy and "expands" our understanding of the original storyline in a way that doesn't necessarily add to it. Pure horror sequel, in other words, its tenuous connection to the first Tag underlined by new artist Chee's Jack Kamen-esque flatness . . .
All for now.
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Thursday, April 05, 2007
      ( 4/05/2007 06:23:00 AM ) Bill S.  

OH, MY GOD, YOU KILLED OUR SAVIOR! – To these admittedly biased eyes, this week's South Park was one of the sharpest episodes that the boys' have presented in quite some time: SParkers Parker & Stone are more consistently funny when they primarily aim their satire at religion. They have a knack for fearlessly heightening the absurdities of belief, and it was put to great use in this year's Very Special Easter Episode, which managed to take on both Bill Donahue and the Easter Bunny. (Peter Cottontail came out ahead.) Added bonus: a Jesus Christ death scene that both Mel Gibson and Herschell Gordon Lewis would envy.
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      ( 4/05/2007 05:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BOB CLARK – So director Bob Clark has been killed with his son in a car crash at the hands of drunk driver. Like most movie fans, I've had an up-and-down relationship with the man's movie output. Unlike Ben Varkentine, I do make a point of watching A Christmas Story every holiday season and think it's the best adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s work to have been lensed; Clark himself returned to the same well with It Runs in the Family (a.k.a. My Summer Story), only much less successfully, so perhaps it was a stars-in-alignment thing. And while I bow to no one (except maybe Aaron Neathery) in my appreciation of low-brow movie comedy, I never much enjoyed Porky's, which had a sourness to it that for me kept interfering with the laffs.

But I first noticed Clark as a director of low-budget horror and suspense films, for which he appeared particularly well-suited. Two of the former, Deathdream (a Vietnam Era take on "The Monkey's Paw") and the original Black Christmas were models of economy and scary little exercises as well. (The less said about his horror "comedy," Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things the better.) Too, I'm also really fond of Clark's Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper movie, Murder by Decree, which recalls Hammer Films in its blood-&-thunder period feel and presents a wonderful Holmes-&-Watson match-up (Christopher Plummer & James Mason). While not the first film to put the great detective in the midst of the Ripper killings (that would be 1965's A Study in Terror), it arguably is the best. Wish the man could've followed that career path instead of the one which led him to doing Baby Genius movies, but that's not the way it went . . .
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Wednesday, April 04, 2007
      ( 4/04/2007 08:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"I'M STRANGELY ATTRACTED TO MEN WHO SMELL OF MACHINE OIL!" – One look at its dust jacket cover – with its battle-ready robot posed holding an outlandishly long Old Glory and its stark black lettering – and you pretty much get what GRW: Giant Robot Warriors (AiT/Planet Lar) is all about. They're giant; they're robot; they're warriors. What more is there to know?

Well, there's "more than meets the eye," as the ol' theme song'd have it. Originally printed in 2003 and reissued to catch some of the action from the upcoming Transformers movie (no flies on AiT publisher Larry Young!), GRW aims to be more than just a graphic novel destructo marathon. As scripted by onetime Vergito editor Stuart Moore, the black-and-white graphic novel strives to be a knockabout satire of American gung-ho militarism a lá Dr. Strangelove (check the review refs on the back of the dust cover). Packed with broadly loud-mouthed characters, the b-&-w graphic novel is set in an alternate post-9/11 U.S.A. where much of the worldwide military industrial complex has focused its energies on the development of giant robots. Much of the battle action remains focused on the Middle East, which proves a problem for big robot developers, since the desert sand keeps mucking up the works. But when the Saddam-esque dictator of an oil-rich country called Paraqan plans a robot attack on a neighboring country, the WMD threat becomes certifiably verifiable.

Our arrogant all-American hero is a technocrat chick magnet named Rufus Hirohito, who we're introduced to as he appears on a chirpy teevee talk show, making fat jokes about his boss, Walther Negamon. Teamed with a sardonic female CIA agent named McManus – you know she's a moderne woman coz she wears those ugly black-framed glasses every smartgal is required to wear these days – Hirohito and his team take Killamon, their still-unfinished GRW, to the desert to do battle with Paraqan's mighty machine. Wisecracks and robot parts a-plenty fly all over the place, and the whole shmear ends with an ironic jingoistic "Go U.S.A.!" montage.

Moore treats his caricatures unsubtly – this is a work where a vacuous President Bush repeatedly calls his adversaries "towel-heads" over the air (and a sycophantic press rushes to "explain" what it means) and a certain juvenile heartlessness is the order of the day. Very Strangeloveian, indeed, if a bit unbalanced: while that classic Cold War satire had the wherewithal to ridicule all sides of the political spectrum (witness softspoken president Merkin Muffley – clearly meant to be a parody of liberal politico Adlai Stevenson – and his ineffectual attempts at maintaining peace in the War Room), GRW aims its shots primarily rightwards. Considering the political tenor of the year it was written, that's understandable, but, four years later, you can't help feeling that something's missing.

Ryan Kelly, currently doing good art on Local, handles the black-and-white graphics, aiming for and generally hitting the 2000 A.D. vibe of early British comics series like A.B.C. Warriors and Ro-Busters. He has the most fun with a comic sequence featuring a robot politician – when the actual robot fight comes, it's not as Ultraman excessive as you'd expect even if the desert setting does get us anticipating a graphic novel version of those giant creatures battling in a barren landscape Japanese entertainments of the past. GRW's great robot warrior moment is a scene where one of the great machines tells its depot master to "Cram it!" and then violently self-destructs. Brazenly adolescent? That's the point . . .

NOTE: The cover shown on both AiT's site and Amazon is the one from GRW's original printing, not its current dust-cover.
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Tuesday, April 03, 2007
      ( 4/03/2007 12:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

APRIL THE SECOND – Left my job yesterday. After more than a decade with the same company, I was brutally made aware that I was no longer compatible with the place where I worked. I shouldn't have been surprised by the way it played out – in truth, I haven't been happy at my job for at least two years and had been making feeble moves toward looking somewhere else – but I’m still feeling gob-smacked by it all. In America, after all, our jobs are a big part of what we are.

Well, the issue's been forced, for better or worse (right now, it feels like worse), and I suspect I'm gonna be pretty damn useless over the next couple days. My apologies to my small readership ahead of time . . .
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Monday, April 02, 2007
      ( 4/02/2007 09:28:00 AM ) Bill S.  

OUT – Bloggin' action was non-existent over the weekend (even managed to keep myself away from everybody else's!): most of my computer time was spent working on writing projects away from the blogosphere. I did manage to do some teevee catch-up at home: thought the essentially stand-alone episode of Lost was one of the season's best (loved how two largely irrelevant characters proved to be ahead of the series' prime movers on so many plot points), while the season finale of Dirt (every series' opening recaps should be as schizilly entertaining as Don Conkey's!) has me futilely hoping fx has it in 'em to renew the ratings-challenged show for another season. (Yeah, I know: fat chance!) Also played the Kaiser Chiefs' new release (Yours Truly, Angry Mob) while driving 'round town on weekend errands. I'm really digging it for its Britpop energy: a solid spring-y disc w./ some decent peevish lyrics, methinks.

More later . . .
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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