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Archive for July, 2011

Some time ago, I bestowed upon myself the honorary and fictitious title “D.M.,” for Doctor of Mathesonology, since I think I can say without boasting that at this point, not too many people know more about his career—at least on screen—than I do. But now, I may have to quit my day job, or take a leave of absence, to earn my second D.M. in another field about which I am almost equally as passionate, i.e., a Doctor of Marvelocity. If you folks are wondering where I would complete this course of study, the answer, of course, is the (sorta) new site Marvel University, brought to you by Peter Enfantino and fellow Matheson scholar John Scoleri, the wizards who took the study of genre TV to new heights with their blogs about Thriller and The Outer Limits.

I say “sorta” because the site has been around since April, but under the Not Enough Hours in a Day Rule, I have only just become aware of it…with the current post just happening to coincide with the month of my birth; in the immortal words of Mike Hammer, “Kismet, baby.” The site’s premise is no less bold and ambitious than that of its illustrious predecessors: to go through the history of the first decade of the Marvel Era (that’s the 1960s for all of you dropouts), one month at a time. As any of you who have read my “Marvel Snapshots” know, this is exactly the kind of systematic analysis I would be doing on a regular basis if economic necessity didn’t force me to contend with the aforementioned day job, although my personal favorite Marvel era is the 1970s.

Yes, needless to say, I have signed up to receive these posts by e-mail, but in the meantime, I’ve got quite a lot of catching up to do, and the timing is rather unfortunate, since I’m immersed in a big project involving a certain Mr. Bond, James Bond. This is as good an opportunity as any for me to explain that I have embarked upon an article for Cinema Retro that will trace the history of 007’s nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, on both page and screen. Never one to do things half way, I have decided to fulfill a longstanding urge to compare all of Ian Fleming’s Bond books with their cinematic incarnations; whatever doesn’t apply directly to the Blofeld piece will still provide me with excellent background material and, as you may have noticed, fodder for several BOF posts.

So it may be a while before I get completely up to speed with Marvel University, but I’m excited at the prospect of doing so, and of course this summer’s trifecta of Thor, X-Men: First Class, and the as-yet-unseen but widely praised Captain America has only further whetted my appetite for all things Marvelicious. I have reprints of many of the ’60s issues (and I should add that while a purist may cringe, one thing I loved about the ’70s was the plethora of reprint mags, e.g., Marvel Tales, that made many of those early issues available—and affordable), but there are big gaps in my knowledge as well, so reading M.U. should be a delightful blend of the new and the familiar. In any case, with Peter and John at the helm, it’s sure to be delightful no matter how you slice it.

Excelsior!

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G.D. Spradlin (1920-2011)

Not content with Linda Christian, the Reaper has taken character actor G.D. Spradlin, who is perhaps best remembered as the corrupt and arrogant Senator Pat Geary in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), and was later cast as the slyly named “General Corman” in Coppola’s non-Godfather masterpiece, Apocalypse Now (1979). Spradlin also worked with directors as diverse as Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970), Richard Brooks (Wrong Is Right, 1982), Dan Curtis (War and Remembrance, 1988, as Admiral Spruance; Intruders, 1992), Danny DeVito (The War of the Roses, 1989), Tim Burton (Ed Wood, 1994), and Michael Moore (Canadian Bacon, 1995). Spradlin’s tough, weatherbeaten appearance well suited Westerns (Will Penny, 1968; Monte Walsh, 1970; The Hunting Party, 1971) and war movies (Tora! Tora! Tora!, 1970; MacArthur, 1977), although he popped up in thrillers such as Nick of Time (1995) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) as well, and will be much missed.

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Adieu, Vesper

Yesterday I saw the headline “First ‘Bond’ Girl Dies,” and steeled myself to read about the passing of Ursula Andress, the luscious leading lady who presumably sent bikini sales skyrocketing with her immortal entrance in Dr. No (1962), but the folks at that news source knew their history better than I expected. They were referring to Linda Christian (nee Blanca Rosa Welter in 1923), who played Vesper in the 1954 Climax! adaptation of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale–on which, by a weird concidence, I had recently posted–and was the former wife of actors Tyrone Power (by whom she bore actresses Taryn and Romina Power) and Edmund Purdom. Linda’s sister, Ariadna Welter, was known to genre fans for films from their native Mexico such as the seminal The Vampire (1957) and its sequel, The Vampire’s Coffin (1958), as well as the delirious Flynn-fave The Brainiac (1962); they appeared together in the U.S. obscurity The Devil’s Hand (1962), which I’ve never seen.

What’s weirder still is that the role of Vesper in the 1967 Casino Royale spoof was played by…Ursula Andress.

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The Big Sleazy

What I’ve Been Watching: The Bad Lieutenant—Port of Call: New Orleans (2009).

Who’s Responsible: Werner Herzog (director), William M. Finkelstein (screenwriter), Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, and Val Kilmer (stars).

Why I Watched It: Herzog; morbid fascination.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 3.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 6.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 5.

And? Alternating between fiction and documentaries, German filmmaker Herzog’s previous works (of which my favorites are Nosferatu the Vampyre and My Best Fiend, the latter covering his stormy relationship with the star of the former, Klaus Kinski) have been so diverse, and at times downright bizarre, that it’s difficult to label this or any one as a departure. I think it’s safe to say that nobody expected him to make a follow-up to Abel Ferrara’s sleaze epic Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel. If nothing else, we must concede that Finkelstein was qualified to write a police drama, as a veteran of the series Cop Rock, L.A. Law, Murder One, Brooklyn South, Law & Order, and NYPD Blue.

I say “follow-up” because it’s unclear just what the relationship between the two films is supposed to be; according to the IMDb, this was promoted as a remake, which outraged Ferrara, but Herzog never claimed it as such. Certainly the fact that Keitel’s unnamed character is killed at the end of Ferrara’s film would seem to rule out a sequel, and while my memories of the original are minimal, a quick perusal of the Wikipedia synopsis tells me that their specific storylines are different. Herzog’s opus could be best regarded as a conceptual kissin’ cousin, another “turning over a rock” tale of a cop wallowing in drugs, gambling, and sex that might more accurately have been titled Another Bad Lieutenant.

Cage is Terence McDonagh, who is promoted from sergeant after saving a prisoner from drowning in post-Katrina New Orleans, but this heroic act has unforeseen and ultimately tragic consequences. During the rescue, he suffers a back injury that leaves him addicted to painkillers, not to mention looking like Quasimodo, and by the time we rejoin him six months later, he has graduated to crack and heroin, as well as hooking up with prostitute Frankie Donnenfield (Cage’s Ghost Rider co-star, Mendes). He abuses his power left and right, stealing drugs held as evidence, shaking down perps, terrorizing old women, even getting a ticket fixed for the daughter of bookie Ned Schoenholtz (a robust Brad Dourif).

Forming a through-line amid all of this depravity are McDonagh’s efforts to nail Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), the gang leader who massacred a family of illegal immigrants for selling drugs on his turf. Along the way, McDonagh manages to piss off everybody from his partner, Stevie Pruit (Kilmer in a thankless umpteenth-banana role), and Ned to Frankie’s clients and various gangsters (one of them played by Finkelstein). Desperate to pay his gambling debts and in increasingly hot water with the force for his behavior, McDonagh seems to have bottomed out completely when he forms an alliance with Big Fate, yet his clever plan is designed not only to enrich himself but also to achieve his objective as a cop.

The ending—which I will not divulge here—appends an ambiguous coda to a somewhat unlikely series of redemptive events, leaving this viewer entirely uncertain what it was all supposed to mean, although this is perhaps not a film from which one expects tidy moral lessons or resolutions. It certainly succeeds as a portrait of utter human degradation, with Cage hallucinating iguanas and going completely off the charts in his manic performance while sharing crack with Big Fate. So while I wouldn’t exactly call it enjoyable viewing, this is certainly a compelling journey through modern society’s underbelly, and given the rampant corruption that followed Katrina, Finkelstein’s setting appears to be well-chosen.

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I, Claude

What I’ve Been Watching: Story of Women (1988).

Who’s Responsible: Claude Chabrol (writer-director), Colo Tavernier (co-writer), Isabelle Huppert, François Cluzet, and Nils Tavernier (stars).

Why I Watched It: Chabrol Memorial Viewing.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 4.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 5.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 5.

And? As a Francophile (and one-quarter French to boot), I am woefully ignorant of the work of Chabrol, the New Wave pioneer sometimes called the “French Hitchcock,” and when he died last year, I was shocked to discover that I appeared to have seen only one of his films, The Flower of Evil. So it was with a sense of obligation that I embarked upon this one, in spite of my longstanding loathing for Huppert, and knowing virtually nothing about the plotline. It turns out to be based on the life of abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud, who went to the guillotine in occupied France during World War II, the exact setting of a nonfiction book that I am proofreading for a cousin of mine (alas, she is not mentioned).

Our friends at Wikipedia say that Chabrol had “an approach characterized by a distanced objectivity,” and with no idea where the story was headed, I wasn’t getting a lot of clues as to his attitude toward his subject, although I did try to compensate for my anti-Huppert bias. Marie Latour, a housewife of limited means and an aspiring chanteuse, is raising her son, Pierrot (Guillaume and Nicholas Foutrier), and his little sister, Mouche (Lolita Chammah and Aurore Gauvin), in a small apartment. She starts a lucrative business by providing soapy-water-douche abortions to those impregnated by Germans and/or while their husbands are away, then begins renting out the bedrooms to hookers during the day.

In the midst of all this, her own husband, Paul (Cluzet), returns home from some form of German camp (whether POW or forced-labor, I was unclear), and as my pal Tom would say, she gives him the stink-eye from Day One. Okay, Paul is no Alain Delon, and he’s a bit of a dull thud, but he is her spouse, and the father of their children, and has obviously been through hell, so perhaps she could cut this guy some slack. You can guess that she won’t let him lay a finger on her, although not because the horrors of war have squelched her libido, since she soon finds herself a slick lover (Tavernier), so it’s perhaps no surprise when her husband, torn up with frustration and humiliation, drops a dime with an anonymous letter.

Now, I’m proudly pro-choice (if not pro-abortion), and I understand that Marie’s clientele is in a particularly ticklish situation, yet it seems odd to me that as a mother, she displays no qualms whatsoever, especially after one client dies under circumstances in which her culpability was, at least to me, ambiguous at best. And while she doesn’t abuse the kids, she is raising them in an abortion clinic/mini-brothel, with keyholes through which young Pierrot witnesses inappropriate things. So while Marie’s punishment doesn’t appear to fit the crimes (there is no indication that the authorities knew of the deceased client), she is hardly an innocent victim, but I leave the final verdict to your own distanced objectivity.

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Bang! Zoom!

What I’ve Been Watching: Moonraker (1979).

Who’s Responsible: Lewis Gilbert (director), Christopher Wood (screenwriter), Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, and Michael Lonsdale (stars).

Why I Watched It: Research.

Seen It Before? Several times, including on its release.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 8 (it is Bond, after all).

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 4.

And? From the ludicrous teaser, in which sadly returning 007 heavy Jaws (Richard Kiel) flaps his arms—yes, you read that right—when his parachute doesn’t open and survives a freefall into a circus tent, to the horrific “Disco Bond” end-title theme, this is one of the most misconceived entries in the entire series. Moonraker was considered as a film as far back as a script version Ian Fleming toyed with before writing his 1955 novel, and again as Moore’s debut, but it took the success of Star Wars to make it actually happen. Like Tom Mankiewicz before him, Wood scripted his freshman entry, The Spy Who Loved Me, with series mainstay Richard Maibaum, and then graduated to his first Bond solo credit.

Moonraker is far from Fleming’s best novel, but at least features a straightforward story (which is more than can be said of the film), and is set entirely in England, where Bond, it is noted, would not normally be allowed to operate. Both versions feature a fabulously wealthy and powerful man named Hugo Drax, whose highly vaunted Moonraker poses a secret threat, and a woman operating undercover in his organization, but the similarities pretty much end there. Fleming’s Drax is a Nazi spy posing as an Englishman, who has a London-bound Soviet warhead inside the rocket scheduled for a “practice” launch, while the film’s is a Frenchman (!) based in California, manufacturing a fleet of space shuttles.

The Macguffin is the theft of a Moonraker lent by Drax (Lonsdale) to the British, which he later offhandedly explains by saying, in effect, “Yeah, I need it for my nefarious plan, so I stole it back myself.” This flimsy pretext enables the filmmakers to send Bond to a series of exotic locales in search of clues, and inspires Drax to launch a gamut of failed and far-fetched attempts on his life, many of which end with an “oh, crap” expression and a miraculous survival by Jaws. These commence as soon as Bond arrives at Drax’s H.Q. (“See that some harm comes to him”)—not, of course, that anyone is going to smell a rat if the agent sent to investigate his outfit is suddenly and conspicuously rubbed out, right?

It is beyond the scope of this post to enumerate the movie’s manifold failings, but let’s hit a few highlights, starting with Chiles as NASA-trained Dr. Holly Goodhead, one of those female CIA agents the cinematic Bond, uh, bumps into from time to time. Okay, I know, Fleming started the whole “Pussy Galore” thing, but that was after Moonraker, in which the heroine is Policewoman Gala Brand of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch (with whom Bond never gets to score, as Moore does with Chiles in the film’s teeth-grinding zero-g fadeout). Like every Bond girl, Chiles is beautiful, yet since she displays all the charisma and emotive skills of an avocado, Dr. Goodhead must, alas, be written off as an epic fail.

Next on Bond’s itinerary is Venice, where a glassworks that he trashes in battle (which I guess is supposed to be funny) turns out to be the cover for a lab manufacturing a powerful nerve gas. A strong candidate for the Highly Unlikely Award is the sequence in which Bond’s boss, M (Bernard Lee), and his boss, Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen), personally come to check out said lab, which by then has been completely removed. Interestingly, Gray’s warning that Bond had better be sure of his facts because Gray plays bridge with Drax is one of the few actual ties to the novel; the entire first section is a Casino Royale redux in which M asks Bond to dissuade Drax from cheating at bridge in his club, Blades.

Following a trip to Rio, Bond probes the Amazon jungle, the source of a rare orchid used in the nerve gas, and locates the base from which Drax begins ferrying his perfect genetic specimens into space. We’re told that a radar jammer conceals his space station, ignoring the fact that it would take a ship the size of Pittsburgh to transport the materials there, and after surviving the thrust of one Moonraker by hiding in a ventilation shaft (another detail from the novel), Bond and Holly supplant the crew of another…completely unnoticed by Drax’s cohorts. Knocking out the jammer allows them and a platoon of space Marines—who knew we had those?—to foil Drax’s plan to poison us all and then repopulate Earth.

Among the more offensive touches are hooking Jaws up with a petite blonde chick, Dolly (Blanche Ravalec), with whom he reforms and aids Bond at the end, and “comic” musical homages to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Romeo and Juliet, and The Magnificent Seven. Aptly, both composer John Barry and production designer Ken Adam seem to be off their games, with the former providing a fairly forgettable theme song (the third and least sung by Goldfinger showstopper Shirley Bassey), plus a lumbering rendition of his own “007” theme, and the latter a space-station set that is huge, arid, and boring, rather like the film itself. Moore, in his fourth of seven Bond films, proffers frequent double-entendres and exudes sexism.

For all of you statisticians out there, this film marked the end of the 007 line for Gilbert (who, with Terence Young and Guy Hamilton, directed ten of the first eleven entries), Wood, Adam, Bassey, Kiel, and Lee. Only Lee and Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) had appeared in every film to date; soldiering on with Maxwell in their usual capacities were Keen, Desmond Llewelyn as Q, Walter Gotell as General Gogol, Barry, and title designer Maurice Binder. Michael G. Wilson herewith joined his stepfather, Albert R. Broccoli, as a producer, in which capacity he continues today, and John Glen earned his third credit as editor before directing the next five films, all of which Wilson co-wrote.

Addendum: The vast gulf between the Fleming and Wood incarnations of Moonraker resulted in that curious phenomenon of a novelization (adapted by Wood, as was The Spy Who Loved Me) based on a screenplay based on a novel, and imaginatively entitled James Bond and Moonraker. That’s showbiz…

Bradley out.

Go to From Russia with Love.

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Plugged Nicol

What I’ve Been Watching: The Lone Hand (1953).

Who’s Responsible: George Sherman (director), Joseph Hoffman and Irving Ravetch (screenwriters), Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, and Alex Nicol (stars).

Why I Watched It: McCrea.

Seen It Before? No.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 5.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 4.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 6.

And? I’m far pickier with Westerns than I am with horror/SF films, so I need a strong hook to pull me in, said hook usually being a favored actor such as McCrea, although I got to know him as a sagebrush star only late in the game, starting with Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country. His films are an eclectic mix, e.g., The Most Dangerous Game, Dead End (opposite an up-and-coming Bogart), Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, and the Preston Sturges comedies Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story. The prolific but unexceptional Sherman worked mainly in Westerns, while Ravetch and his wife, Harriet Frank, Jr., later wrote eight scripts for BOF fave Martin Ritt, including Hud and Hombre.

As is often the case with Westerns, the cast is at least as interesting as the story, with McCrea’s fellow leads each having a Matheson connection: Nicol starred in his Twilight Zone episode “Young Man’s Fancy,” and Hale in the ur-Matheson adaptation “Young Couples Only” on Studio 57. Jimmy Hunt of Invaders from Mars fame plays young Joshua Hallock, who arrives in a new town with his dad, Zachary (McCrea), and before you know it they witness a bank robbery in which the sheriff is killed. Soon the Hallocks have acquired a farm and befriended soon-to-be love interest Sarah Jane Skaggs (Hale), her little brother, Daniel (Wesley Morgan), and their kindly neighbor, George Hadley.

Played by Charles Drake (whose three films for Jack Arnold include It Came from Outer Space), Hadley runs a vigilante group called the regulators, who now seem to be the only hope of catching those pesky thieves making a mockery of the law. Joshua encounters Jonah Varden (Nicol) and his brother, Gus (the late James Arness), yet when he tells his pa that they were the robbers, Zachary not only orders him to clam up, but also joins the bad guys to bring in some much-needed extra money. To nobody’s surprise, things turn out all right after Zachary and Hadley are revealed as, respectively, a Pinkerton agent and the “big boss” whose respectability provided him with information to plan the robberies.

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