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What I watched in… November 2017

justice-league-poster-fandango

Favorite of the Month: Justice League (2017)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. The Deadly Mantis (1957), D-
  2. The Brides of Dracula (1960), B-
  3. Spielberg (2017), B
  4. Barracuda (1978), F
  5. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), D+
  6. Blacula (1972), D
  7. Springfield of Dreams: The Legend of Homer Simpson (2017), B+
  8. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), A+
  9. The Wizard of Oz (1939), A+
  10. Hidden Figures (2016), A-
  11. Jack Frost (1979), B-
  12. Justice League (2017), B+
  13. Matilda (1996), B+
  14. Fun in Balloon Land (1965), F; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  15. Home For the Holidays (1995), C
  16. The Great Santa Claus Switch (1970), B+
  17. A Christmas Story Documentary: Road Trip For Ralphie (2008), D
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Movies you (maybe) didn’t know came from comic books

In case you didn’t know, this coming Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, the annual celebration of comics where stores across North America give out special edition comics made just for the occasion. Many of the best stores have gone so far as to make this event a sort of mini-convention, with tables for writers, artists and media folk to sit, chat, sketch, and interact with the fans. In fact, I’ll be at BSI Comics in Metairie, Louisiana Saturday with my podcast and promoting my novels.

But this year, we’re stretching the celebration out. This year, the days before FCBD have been declared Comics Kick Ass Week, a time for everyone to spread the word and talk about how great comics are. Now, I do that all the time on my main blog and in my position as a columnist and podcaster for CXPulp.com, but I know the Reel to Reel blog reaches a slightly different audience. So I decided that here, to help get folks in the mood, I’d run down some movies or franchises you (probably) didn’t know were based on comic books. Then, check out the Comics Kick Ass Week Tumblr page to see how other bloggers and podcasters are celebrating.

Road to Perdition PosterRoad to Perdition Graphic NovelRoad to Perdition (2002)
Based on the graphic novel Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner

This graphic novel, originally published by DC Comics’ now-defunct Paradox Press imprint, tells the story of Michael Sullivan Jr., a young man horrified when he discovers his father is a hitman for the mob. When his father’s boss, John Looney, finds out that Mike Jr. knows what his father does, he tries to have the family killed. Mike Sr. and Jr. both survive, and begin a road to revenge for the murder of the rest of their family.

Collins is a great novelist and comic book writer who does some of the best old-school crime drama being published today in either medium. He also takes great lengths to make his books as true to life as possible, including real historical figures and events whenever possible. The film, directed by American Beauty’s Sam Mendes, starred Tom Hanks as Mike Sr., Tyler Hoechlin as Mike Jr., Paul Newman as John Rooney (they changed his character’s name for the film) and Jude Law as another hitman sent out to take care of the Sullivan problem. I’ve always enjoyed this movie, even though it can be kind of difficult to accept a hardcore Tom Hanks, and the graphic novel has several sequels, both in comic book form (which tell additional stories about the Sullivans’ time on the road) and in prose form (which focus more on what happened to Mike Jr. when he grew up).

Ghost World Graphic Novel Ghost WorldGhost World (2001)
Based on the graphic novel Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Ghost World focuses on a pair of teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, the summer after their high school graduation. A practical joke on a lonely man named Seymour sends Enid into an unexpected friendship, a relationship neither of them seem to particularly understand.

Terry Zwigoff, who had previously directed a film about indie comic legend Robert Crumb, helmed this film, casting Thora Birch as Enid, Steve Buscemi as Seymour, and a pre-superstar status Scarlett Johansson as Rebecca. The graphic novel is far more episodic in nature than the film, showing assorted short stories featuring the girls without as much connectivity as Zwigoff gave them on screen. It’s an acceptable compromise, though, making the film feel unified in a way that wouldn’t have happened if he had made a strict adaptation. That sort of anthology feel works much better in book form than it does in a movie.

Adventures of TintinAdventures of Tintin Graphic NovelThe Adventures of Tintin (2011)
Based on the series The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé.

Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson achieved a long-held dream in 2011 when they directed and produced the motion-capture Adventures of Tintin. Most American audiences were unfamiliar with the character, though, or if they knew him at all knew him only through the cult favorite 90s animated series. Most audiences didn’t know that Tintin is over 70 years old and, in fact, one of the most popular comic book series of all time… it’s just that most of its success has been overseas.

Created by Hergé in 1929, The Adventures of Tintin featured a young boy reporter going on incredible adventures all over the world. Hergé filled the comics with intensely-researched artifacts and cultures that Tintin and his large cast of friends would get involved with on a regular basis. The comic is criticized sometimes for some culturally insensitive portrayals of different races, depicting them as primitive in comparison to the White-As-The-Driven-Snow Tintin (who, like Hergé himself, is Belgian). Considering the time period Hergé was working in, though, it’s something I’m willing to give a partial pass. Tintin is one of those properties with a huge cultural imprint, inspiring later adventure characters like Indiana Jones, another Spielberg co-creation. It’s worth giving the original a look.

Tales From the Crypt Archives Tales From the CryptTales From the Crypt
Based on classic comics from Tales From the Crypt, The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear by William Gaines, Al Feldstein and countless others.

Remember that awesome HBO horror series Tales From the Crypt? Every week it was like a new horror movie, presented by one of the greatest creepy movie hosts ever. This too, though, was based on a comic book series (in case you missed it somehow). In the early 50s, horror and crime comics were among the most popular titles being published in America, with the EC Comics line dominating sales. Then came a nationwide panic about the effect comic books were having on children, a congressional hearing, a psychology book of extremely questionable pedigree, and the comic publishers got together and wrote a content code that was so restrictive EC went almost completely out of business, eventually ceasing publication of all of their titles except a humor magazine you may have heard of, Mad.

Many of the episodes of the TV show were based on stories pulled straight from the comic books, and like the comics, they maintained their warped sense of justice. Criminals usually received a suitably karmic punishment, victims were rarely completely innocent in the first place, and through it all the Cryptkeeper would hit us with deliciously deadpan puns. The TV series was enormously popular, spawning three movies (not counting two earlier movies made before the HBO formula got it right) and an animated spin-off for kids, Tales From the Cryptkeeper. And that’s not even mentioning the huge stamp the property had on horror fiction in general over the last 50 years, influencing the likes of Stephen King and Sam Raimi and producing plenty of imitators, such as the Creepshow series.

DuckTales Uncle Scrooge in Only a Poor Old ManDucktales
Based largely on Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks.

I know what you’re thinking. “Blake, you can’t tell me DuckTales was based on a comic book. The Disney Ducks were cartoon characters first!” Well, Mr. Smarty Pants, that’s true of Donald Duck and his three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie. But what about the rest of the cast of DuckTales? Scrooge McDuck? Crazy inventor Gyro Gearloose? Nefarious villains like Magica DeSpell, Flintheart Glomgold and the Beagle Boys? Just a few of the characters conjured up by one of the greatest cartoonists ever to pick up a pencil, Mr. Carl Barks. Barks worked in animation before finding his niche in the licensed Disney comic books published by Dell. Although he was one of many creators working on those comics, he quickly outshone many of the others… in fact, although at the time the comics were published without creator credits, his style was so distinctive and so much better than his contemporaries that fans sought out his work, and without knowing his name, simply started referring to him as “the Good Artist.”

Barks expanded Donald’s universe immeasurably, not just introducing new characters and concepts, but turning the ducks into globetrotting treasure hunters. Many — hell, most of the most memorable episodes of the DuckTales TV show (which did have a movie spin-off) were lifted straight from Carl Barks comics. He even did a little work on the show for a while. But his best work was in the comics, and those comics were some of the greatest ever made. Fantagraphics Comics is currently publishing an archival series of hardcover books reprinting Barks’s work — if you’re a die-hard Duck fan, you owe it to yourself to read the comics that breathed a new life into the Disney characters and helped spark the renaissance of 80s animation.

Smurfs FCBD 2013 SmurfsThe Smurfs (2011)
Based on The Smu
rfs by Peyo.

Look, I’m not even going to pretend I think the Smurfs movies were any good. But I was a fan of the cartoon when I was a kid, and at the time, I had no idea that the Smurfs, like Tintin, made their original appearance in comic books from Belgium. Originally, they were supporting characters in a Spirou magazine story called “The Flute With Six Holes,” but they soon became popular enough to explode into their own series, many of which are currently being published in English for the very first time by Papercutz Comics. And that’s the reason I’m closing off this list with the Smurfs — because this year, they’re going to be featured in a Free Comic Book Day offering that’s never appeared in the US before. If you’ve got kids who enjoy the movies, here’s a great chance to get them reading.

Check out the Free Comic Book Day website to find the nearest participating store. And while you’re there, look at some of the other books available. Your kids will find recognizable characters from Sesame Street, Spongebob Squarepants, Teen Titans Go!, Adventure Time, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For you grown-ups, there are comics based on the NBC series Grimm, the British cult favorite Judge Dredd, and the Image Comics publication that inspired the AMC smash hit The Walking Dead. Plus, you’ll find Superman, the Avengers, Star Wars, Tinkerbell, Garfield, the Peanuts gang, the Tick, Sonic the Hedgehog, Archie Andrews and other old friends, and there’ll be plenty of titles and characters you’ve never heard of before, but may turn into a new favorite.

And while you’re there, if you’re a fan of any of the movies I mentioned, browse the shelves of the store and pick up a few volumes, or look for something totally new.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 27: Poltergeist (1982)

poltergeistDirector: Tobe Hooper

Writers: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor

Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, Martin Casella, James Karen

Plot: The film begins simply enough, with a television playing the national anthem and going to static (reminding us of those quaint days when television stations actually went off the air). As her father Steven (Craig T. Nelson) sleeps in front of the TV, little Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) wakes up, walks to the flickering TV, and begins to speak to it. The next day, the family’s pet bird dies, and mother Diane (JoBeth Williams) is forced by Carol Anne to give it a proper cigar box funeral. The older children, Dana (Dominique Dunne) and Robbie (Oliver Robins) are nonplussed by the loss of the bird. Robbie is, however, disturbed by the gnarled tree outside his bedroom window. The next night, when a storm scares Carol Anne and Robbie into their parents’ bed, the static appears on the television and again summons Carol Anne. This time, a spectral hand reaches out of the screen and rattles the room, waking up the Freelings and prompting one of the most famous lines in scary movie history: Carol Anne’s, “Theeeeeey’re here!”

The next day, Diane begins to notice strange phenomena around the house, such as a spot on the kitchen floor that sends objects sliding across the room. The fun evaporates, though, when Robbie’s gnarled tree comes to life and snatches him. As Steven and Diane try to save their son, the closet blows open with an intense white light, and little Carol Anne is sucked in and vanishes. After a frantic search for the girl, the family hears her voice coming from the television set. Steven turns to a group of paranormal investigators for help. The investigators: Ryan (Richard Lawson), Marty (Martin Casella) and Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) find the children’s room in a state of chaos – the bed spinning, objects hurtling through the air, the closet glowing.

The investigators believe the events to be the work of a poltergeist instead of a traditional haunting, which means it could stop at any time and the missing Carol Anne – whose voice they keep hearing coming from… somewhere – could vanish forever. With a time limit, the family and investigators grow more desperate and begin conducting experiments to find the girl even as her disembodied voice cries for help. Steven discovers from his boss, real estate developer Mr. Teague (James Karen) their house was built on the remains of an old cemetery. They send the other children away and bring in a medium, Tangina Barrons (Zelda Rubinstein), who believes the spirits in the house are attracted to Carol Anne’s “light,” and thus are keeping her captive. There’s a demon, “the Beast,” using her to restrain the other spirits, who don’t realize they’re dead and flee the Light that would send them to the next world. Tangina proves that the portal in the closet eventually comes out in the Freelings’ living room, and Diane ties herself to a rope and plunges into the abyss to find her daughter. When he realizes Tangina is trying to use Carol Anne to force the demon into the light, Steven pulls on the rope and finds himself face-to-face with the Beast. With the creature distracted, Diane and Carol Anne fall free, and Tangina declares the house “clean.”

The family decides to move (because people just don’t have the guts to stand up to a supernatural infestation anymore). In their last night in the house, Diane is left alone with Robbie and Carol Anne. Robbie is attacked by a demonic clown doll and the Beast assaults Diane, preventing her from getting to the children. As the closet begins to transform, Diane rushes outside for help and falls into the muddy pit the family had dug for a swimming pool, only to find herself facing the rising corpses of the graveyard Steven’s company built over. Diane makes it back into the house and gets the children away from the closet, but the corpses – and their coffins – begin rising everywhere as Steven and Teague arrive. Dana gets back from her date just as the rest of the Freelings escape, and the house itself implodes in front of the whole neighborhood, disappearing in a flash of light. Exhausted, but together, the family checks into a hotel for the night… and Steven shoves the television out onto the balcony.

Thoughts: Like The Exorcist and, to a lesser degree, The Shining, Poltergeist makes childhood a target of the supernatural. That idea is something that comes back on us time and again over the years, and with good reason. Childhood is supposed to be the time of innocence, the time when we’re protected from the nasty things in the world by Mommy and Daddy. Even when you’re an adult, seeing a symbol of innocence corrupted by a monster can terrify you. The filmplays on our fears by tapping into a very normal situation – a standard suburban family – and throwing it into the grip of something horrible. And Hooper and Spielberg work hard to make this family as typical as possible, while still showing off a little geek cred – the younger Freelings’ bedroom is rife with posters for Sesame Street, Star Wars and Alien, there’s a Los Angeles Rams helmet in the corner, Nelson’s character reads a biography of new president Ronald Reagan, and so forth. This is a film that wears its early 80s time frame as a badge of honor. (There’s so much Star Wars, in fact, you’d suspect the producer was buds with George Lucas or something.)

Speaking of the producer, there are stories that Spielberg had a much heavier directorial influence than the filmmakers admitted (and, in fact, probably only skipped directing it himself because he was busy with E.T. at the time). Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over the movie. Yes, technically it’s a supernatural horror flick, but the tone of the story and the quality and type of the special effects all fit in very neatly with the Spielberg sci-fi films of the time period. This movie doesn’t look like The Shining, it looks like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This isn’t a bad thing, though. So much horror – even great horror – tends to have a very similar flavor to it. It’s refreshing to see a Spielberg come in every once in a while and tell a ghost story that doesn’t feel exactly like every other ghost story out there.

That said, although the movie is a lot of fun, it’s fun in the way that a lot of 80s family adventures are: you watch the film, you think how awesomely authentic the portrayal of the children are, and you wish you could experience the cooler moments of the story. Granted, this movie doesn’t have as many moments a person would actually want to experience as, say, Goonies, but it’s hard today to find this PG-rated fright flick actually scary. In fact, it’s very much the kind of ghost story a parent could feel comfortable sharing with some children. (I’ve got to stress some children here – let’s face it, there are kids who get nightmares at the slightest provocation, and this movie would most definitely give them that provocation. But if you’ve got a slightly older child that has proven he or she can handle a little bit of a scare, this movie would be okay.)

Once the film does start going for more traditional scares, it can be a little cheesy. The scene with the maggots bursting from a raw steak isn’t bad, but a few seconds later when Marty starts peeling his face off, it’s terribly obvious that you’re looking at someone ripping make-up from a mannequin head – the hands clutching at the face don’t even look like they’re coming from the proper angle. It jerks you out of it. Later on, when Robbie gets attacked by the Clown doll, it’s really effective – Hooper got a nice fake-out by making you expect to see something under the bed. But that doesn’t make the doll itself less cheesy. Other scenes seem to want to mine a little bit of comedy – when Steven’s boss visits him to find out why he hasn’t been coming to work, Steve’s efforts to prevent him from noticing the ghostly goings-on are a little funnier than they probably need to be.

It’s the last third of the film that’s the scariest and the most effective. Once Tangina enters the picture, the intensity increases significantly and you start to fear for the rest of the family, the child, and the investigators throughout the house. Tangina’s actually a magnificent creation – she’s  Yoda with a southern accent, (ah – Star Wars again) making Steven and Diane do whatever they need to do to get their daughter back, up to and including threatening her, growing angry with her, and manipulating her into laying a trap for the Beast. She’s an awesome character that helps the film work, serving the same function as Father Merrin in The Exorcist (in fact, many of the scenes where the parents and investigators try to tap into the spirit world evoke a much more special-effects heavy version of The Exorcist). She’s the Mentor, even if she’s a Mentor who doesn’t show up until late in the game, and she brings just the right touch of awesome to make the movie work. The climax – except for the clown doll – is also great. The corpses bubbling up out of the pool are creepy as hell, the telescoping hallway adds to the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that Diane has to defeat, and the effects on the gaping maw of the closet… scary stuff. We’re getting into Spielberg-Gremlins here. (And in fact, some of the fleshy appearance of the portal is very similar to what Spielberg and Chris Columbus would do in that other little monster movie a couple of years later.)

In the end, we still get the expected Spielberg feel-good ending, but that’s okay. This is a scary movie, but not in the same vein as most of the others we’ve watched. This is a chill for everyone, something that parents and kids can watch and both hold on to each other a little tighter.

From the warmth of the family to the cold of Antarctica – tomorrow we see the return of John Carpenter to this list with a sci-fi classic – his 1982 remake of The Thing.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 19: Jaws (1975)

jawsDirector: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Peter Benchly & Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Benchly

Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton

Plot: On Amity Island, tourists come to spend relaxing summer months. There’s nothing relaxing this year, though. A young woman is drawn underwater and killed by some unseen creature, and police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) finds her mutilated remains a few days later. The coroner labels her death as the result of a shark attack, prompting Brody to order the beaches closed. The town Mayor (Murray Hamilton) overrules him, worried that shutting down the beaches will ruin the summer tourist season, the town’s main source of income for the year. Predictably, there’s another attack – this time a child, and in the middle of a busy afternoon on the water. The child’s parents offer a $3000 reward for the shark, and the town goes wild. As a debate rages about closing the beaches, a professional shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to kill the beast, but will only do so for $10,000.

Brody calls in a marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help, even as would-be hunters from all around converge on the island to try to find the shark. Hooper can tell from examining the first victim that not only was it most definitely a shark, but the one that’s much bigger than any ordinary shark. The mayor still refuses to close the beaches on the Fourth of July, and on the big day the beaches are more crowded than ever. Brody and Hooper assemble a small army to patrol the waters, but the beast  strikes again. The Mayor finally agrees to hire Quint to kill it, and Brody and Hooper join the old salt on the water. As the men share a drink, the creature strikes the boat, cracking the hull. The shark starts to pull the boat out to sea, flooding it in the process. Quint heads for the shallow water, hoping to suffocate the beast, but he burns out the boat’s flooded engine and it dies. Hooper enters a shark cage and gets into the water, hoping to shoot the shark in the mouth with a poisoned harpoon, but fails. The shark breaks the cage apart, coming after Hooper before surfacing and going for the boat. As the ship begins to sink under its weight, Quint is eaten. Brody manages to cram Hooper’s space scuba tank into the monster’s mouth, then shoots the tank, causing an explosion that kills the beast. With the shark dead, Hooper surfaces and the survivors begin to piece together a crude raft to paddle back to shore.

Thoughts: Some people will argue that this isn’t a horror film. I say they should tell that to anyone who was afraid to go to the beach in 1975. Although the film is only rated PG, this in the years before there was a PG-13, Spielberg managed to get in some pretty gruesome imagery, such as when the shark’s first victim is found. You don’t really see how mutilated her body actually is, because what’s left of it is swarming with crabs. Other films would use flies or maggots, but somehow this is just as disturbing, if not more. Spielberg also gives us a nice chill using the “less is more” philosophy. The truth is, we see very little of the shark because the mechanical beast built for the movie really wasn’t all that convincing. But because Spielberg had a crappy shark-bot, he avoids actually letting you see it for as long as possible, scaring you way more than he could have if he’d actually shown you a convincing shark. Like Hitchcock in Psycho, Spielberg avoids showing you the evil and allows your brain to fill in the blanks.

Atmosphere, of course, is all-important in these movies, and Spielberg achieves that perfectly with the help of his frequent collaborator, John Williams. Williams has scored (I believe) all but one of Spielberg’s directorial efforts, and he’s turned out some of the most memorable movie music of all time, starting here. The Jaws theme is still emblematic of fear, and the rest of the score lets you feel the danger all around you.

The film works on the level of the “townies versus the outsider” mindset as well. Brody is the outsider – he’s been sheriff and lived on the island for less than a year. When he wants to shut down the beach, not only does the mayor strongarm him out of it, but he gets the coroner to change his diagnosis from “shark attack” to “boating accident.” I’m no doctor, but I can’t imagine that any competent one couldn’t tell the difference between a body that’s been hacked up by a propeller and one that’s been chewed, if for no other reason than the pattern of damage to the bone would be different.

In some ways, you almost watch two different movies when you watch Jaws. For the first 70 minutes or so, you’re in the town, experiencing the fear of the townies as the truth about the shark becomes evident. The last 50 minutes is all about the three men at sea, hunting the creature, and taking on a somewhat different tone. There’s still fear, but it’s more immediate. In the first half of the movie, as long as you’re on the land you know you’re safe. Once they set out to sea, the danger is most definitely all around. It gets even worse in the climactic scene, when the engine kills and our heroes are stranded with no means of escape. There’s something terrifying about that, and that’s what makes this movie work so damn well. I don’t even care if the Mythbusters proved that the exploding scuba tank wouldn’t really work, that doesn’t make the finale of this movie any less exciting.

And let’s be fair here – this is one of the most eminently quotable scary movies of all time. Little quips like Brody’s “That’s some bad hat, Harry” or Hooper’s “They’re all gonna die” have pervaded the common lexicon. Quint’s speech about killing the beast or the injury-comparing scene have been quoted, copied, and parodied so often that younger people familiar with the tropes may not even be aware of where they originated. And who can forget, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”?

Jaws changed not only horror movies, but the movie business itself. It was the first film to use “wide release” as part of its campaign, opening everywhere instead of rolling out in a few cities at a time, which is now the common practice. It was also a gargantuan success financially, inventing the blockbuster motion picture and starting the practice of films distributing their major releases during the summer months. It was the first film to advertise heavily on television as well. Pretty much everything standard about the film industry today is true because of Jaws.

More specifically in terms of horror, the film spawned the inevitable rash of imitators: Piranha to Deep Blue Sea to this summer’s Shark Night. On land, we’ve had animal horror films like Anaconda and Lake Placid, and more and more of these imitators are drifting away from any real attempt to scare the audience  in favor of going for shock and laughter. Cinematically, Jaws has two thriving descendants today: the way you see any movie, regardless of genre, and the made-for-TV monster goofs SyFy shows on Saturday nights.

In the mid-70s, a name that would become synonymous with fear first made its mark, and tomorrow we’ll look at the first movie made from his first published novel: Stephen King’s Carrie.