‘Captain America: Civil War’ – pick a side

capcivilwarfaceoffMore-likely-than-not pre-production art for “Captain America: Civil War” hit the web today.

We know that the star-studded movie, due for spring release, pits teams headed by Cap and Iron Man against each other.

Although I bet we’ll see some allegiances change during the movie, the initial lineups are pretty interesting.

capcivilwarcap

Here’s Cap’s team. Hawkeye, Sharon Carter, Falcon (with Redwing above!) and Winter Soldier.

capcivilwarironman

And here’s Tony Stark’s team. War Machine, Black Widow, Black Panther and Vision.

In the shot of Cap’s team, did you notice Ant-Man on Hawkeye’s shoulder?

hawkeyeantmanarrow

That means we’ve got to see this.

Marvel wouldn’t tease that and leave us hanging, would they?

Classic: ‘The Man Who Would Be King’

the man who would be king poster

Did you ever go back and watch a fondly-remembered movie for the first time in 20 years and worry that your memories of it were totally skewed, that it wouldn’t be as good? Or maybe even embarrassingly bad?

I was a little worried about that upon my first re-watching in a couple of decades of John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” the director’s version of the Rudyard Kipling story of two British soldiers-turned-adventurers-turned-con-men in the depths of colonialism in the late 1800s.

Huston’s film was released in 1975 and is still more than effective in telling its story of two men who start out with nothing more than a plan to get rich off tribal warlords as they leave India and journey to remote Kafiristan, a province of Afghanistan.

The idea is to sell rifles to a warlord, allowing him to more effectively kill his enemies and expand his reach.

But as Peachy (Michael Caine) and Danny (Sean Connery) put their plan into motion, they discover that while they can train a warlord’s troops and stroke his ego, it would just be easier to become the warlords themselves.

Danny – and Connery is wonderfully effective here – believes his own hype and before long is acting like the god-on-earth that his new subjects believe he is.

the man who would be king scene

The story – based by Kipling on a couple of real-life adventurers – is a jarring mix of the old-fashioned and brutal. There’s a quaint framing device to tell the story but the fortunes of war are not kind to would-be warlords and gods.

Christopher Plummer is terrific as Kipling, as is Saeed Jeffrey as Billy Fish, the loyal native who helps the pair.

Seeing Plummer, Caine and Connery so young and vital is great fun and they’re perfect in what seemed like a throwback then that’s even more so now.

RIP Yvonne Craig

  
Sad news. 

Yvonne Craig has passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. She was 78.

Craig was a bright and bubbly actress who broke out in the 1960s with roles in movies and TV series like “Star Trek.” 

To me, she’ll always be Barbara Gordon, who slipped into a cape and cowl and became Batgirl on the 1960s “Batman” series.

She’s already missed.

Harlan Ellison and ‘The Glass Teat’

harlan ellison

Who is Harlan Ellison?

It’s a question that, after a quick search, I discover I’ve never answered on this blog before. And I feel kind of bad about that.

Ellison, now 81 years old, is one of the most influential writers in science fiction. That’s something that would piss Ellison off to hear, because he’s always fought against being limited, against being pigeonholed, in what was once a “ghetto” of science fiction.

Before I get to one of my favorite examples of Ellison’s other writing, let me give you his science fiction credentials:

Ellison is the author of more than 1,700 stories, books, screenplays, comic books and the like. He’s won every award of any importance in the world of speculative fiction.

Although he maintained his work was butchered, Ellison is in some circles best known for “City on the Edge of Forever,” the “Star Trek” episode in which Kirk and Spock go back in time to find McCoy, who has – in a drug-induced haze – gone back in time and changed history.

Ellison wrote great television including episodes of the “Outer Limits” anthology TV series – “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” – that were such an influence on James Cameron’s “Terminator” that, post-theatrical release, an acknowledgement of Ellison’s work was added to the credits of Cameron’s movie.

TheGlassTeat

Ellison wrote some great fiction but I wanted to note one of a few volumes of non-fiction that he wrote, “The Glass Teat.”

Re-reading “The Glass Teat” now is a time machine not unlike those that Ellison wrote about for “Outer Limits.” How much of a place and time is “The Glass Teat,” a collection of columns Ellison wrote for the The Los Angeles Free Press in the late 1960s and 1970?

Well, suffice it to say that the collection ends with a showdown between Ellison and Ohio school administrators while the spirt of Spiro Agnew hangs overhead like a buzzard.

If you also ask, “Who is Spiro Agnew?” then I’m not sure why you’ve read this far.

And yes, Ellison’s three-part column (four really) about the stir caused when Ellison spoke to Ohio (he’s from Ohio, despite decades in California) high school students and not only spoke his mind but uttered a few colorful words and phrases didn’t have a lot to do with TV. I’ll get to that in a minute.

This was late 1969, after all, and the country was a different place: Vietnam was raging, our leaders were either Nixon and Agnew or they had been assassinated, and a young generation was trying to break away from their parents’ world. Before your time? Check out any recent “Mad Men” episode for frame of reference.

Although Ellison wrote what was more than marginally a TV column, he really wrote about whatever intrigued or infuriated him that week. Sometimes that was TV, which was a very different medium back then, and how it squandered its potential. Sometimes it was current events or politics.

Ellison wrote enough columns to fill this book and a sequel, “The Other Glass Teat,” and I highly recommend both of them.

The players might seem of another time – they are – and Ellison’s trademark acerbic wit/outrage might seem foreign to readers who are today accustomed to writers who not only don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves but cover up their hearts for mass consumption.

But Ellison doesn’t care. He has always done his thing and “The Glass Teat” documents just that.

Why I won’t be seeing ‘Fantastic Four’

fantastic four thing no penis

Up until a few days ago, I was considering going to see “Fantastic Four.”

Of course, my interest in the movie was pretty modest compared to my borderline mania to see each movie released by Marvel Studios – the official Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course.

But I was considering going to see the new Josh Trank “FF” anyway because Fantastic Four – along with the Avengers – was my favorite comic book growing up.

I might have gone to see it despite my misgivings about Trank’s efforts to turn Marvel’s most swashbuckling, space-spanning, goofy, good-natured comic into a “grimdark” spectacle.

fantastic four 2015

But reading reviews of the movie turned me off, convincing me that the movie was not only a joyless experience but a throughly bungled one, too.

Trank himself trashed Fox and his own movie on Twitter the other day, saying that he had a good movie in the works before Fox took over and ruined it.

I don’t know who’s responsible for what is, by almost every account, a mess with awful characters, subpar story and effects and bizarre choices. I suspect maybe we’ll get a post-mortem sometime.

fantastic four 16

(And it’s funny that everyone thought the troubled production of “Ant-Man” was going to turn that movie into a disaster, huh?)

I just know that everything I’ve heard – from the botched storyline, the short shrift for Susan Storm – who doesn’t even go on the adventure, apparently, but gets her powers from an accident afterward – the penis-less Thing and the thoroughly screwed-up version of Doctor Doom – this is not a movie for FF fans from way back.

We’ve seen four movie versions now, not counting the best of them all, the unofficial version of a superhero family, Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles,” and I imagine Fox will still be cranking them out to keep its rights to the story.

And that’s a damn shame. Just think what Marvel Studios could do with FF.

fantastic four daredevil

Final thought:

The days of standalone superhero movies that are not part of a bigger universe are over. Sure, I thrilled at the end of “Iron Man” when Nick Fury showed up, talking about “the Avengers initiative.” It meant that if the movie succeeded, critically and financially, Marvel would cautiously build out its universe. The new “FF” movie couldn’t connect to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course, because it was made by Fox. But the claustrophobic nature of these narrow, self-contained worlds are done, done, done for me.

I want to see universe building, and, bizarrely enough, the most far-reaching, science-mad, adventuring characters of all, the Fantastic Four, won’t have a chance to build their universe until the rights are back in the hands of Marvel.

RIP “Night Stalker” creator Jeff Rice

jeff rice night stalker

I’m kind of heartbroken right now.

Earlier today I saw a random tweet about the passing of Jeff Rice.

If you ask, “Who is Jeff Rice?” you’ll either not give a damn about his death or – hopefully – you will care after I lay a little information on you.

Jeff Rice, who died in Las Vegas on July 1 at age 71, was a talented writer who peaked way before he should have and struggled – and failed – to reach the same height of success again.

You see, Jeff Rice created Carl Kolchak and “The Night Stalker.”

If that rings a bell, and it should, you might remember that “The Night Stalker,” a TV movie from “Dark Shadows” creator Dan Curtis and starring Darren McGavin as Kolchak, aired on ABC on Jan. 11, 1972.

The movie – what might now be called a procedural, as Las Vegas newspaper reporter Kolchak tracks a serial killer in Vegas and ruffles the feathers of cops, politicians and his boss at the paper – was one of the most successful TV movies of all time, with 54 percent of TVs in use and 33 percent of all TV homes tuned in the night it aired.

That’s in part due to the funny, action-filled script by “I Am Legend” and “Twilight Zone” screenwriter Richard Matheson and Kolchak’s way of staying one step ahead of everyone else – and rubbing their noses in it. (I’m betting he influenced almost as many would-be newspaper reporters, like me, as did Woodward and Bernstein.)

But “The Night Stalker” also did as well as it did, I believe, because Vegas serial killer Janos Skorzeny was a vampire.

I’ve written in this space before about my love for the movie – and my great fondness for the follow-up movie “The Night Strangler” and the “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV series that aired from September 1974 to March 1975.

As writer Mark Dawidziak noted in his book “The Night Stalker Companion” and his online obituary for Rice, the author’s work and the adaptations of it were enormously influential.

Not just on “The X-Files,” which captured the spirit of the movies and TV series and even paid tribute to Kolchak, but also a host of series that, like Rice’s work, brought “creatures of the night” out of the Victorian era and shook off their gothic trappings to introduce them to the modern world, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and pretty much every recent movie or series that used “The Night Stalker”‘s mix of horror, humor, sarcasm, pessimism and, ultimately, bravery.

There had been little like “The Night Stalker” before but there was plenty to come.

As Dawidziak notes, however, Rice’s story was in many ways as dark as his story “The Kolchak Papers,” which eventually saw paperback publication as “The Night Stalker” in December 1973.

night stalker books

(The book cover photos that accompany this post I took today of my copies of Rice’s books. I’ve had them since they were published. They’re terrific.)

Dawidziak notes that Rice – himself a Las Vegas Sun reporter in the 1960s, and nobody’s pushover – based his fantastic yarn on his own experiences in Vegas, running up against corrupt politicians and criminals. Rice didn’t encounter any vampires, as far as we know, but anyone who remembers the movie knows that the most dangerous antagonists in the movie aren’t the age-old vampire but the forces of politics and the law, who lower the boom on Kolchak just as he triumphs.

As Dawidziak tells it, Rice’s downfall came after the “Kolchak” series was approved. It seems like somebody neglected to get the rights to the characters from Rice. The author asked for a piece of the action and, when the studio thumbed its nose at him, threatened to sue.

Rice was barred from the the production of the series and felt like his career was greatly diminished.

Rice never caught the huge break that his talent deserved.

And as Las Vegas Review-Journal writer John L. Smith reported, Rice lived out a “troubled” life until his death a little more than month ago.

I’ve seen “The Night Stalker” countless times and I’ve read Rice’s books several times. From the first page, Rice grips the reader with his portrait of Cheryl Ann Hughes, a casino worker in one of Las Vegas’ darker sidewalks on the wrong night.

A series of bullet points – a style best appreciated by those of us in the newspaper business – sums up Hughes in less than a page. Then this:

“Cheryl Ann Hughes: a girl with less than fifteen minutes to live.”

If you seek out and read Rice’s book – and you should – you’ll realize how much the TV movie owes to Rice not just because of characters and plot but also tone and voice. You can hear McGavin’s voice as you read Rice’s story.

I was 12 and a horror film fanatic when I first saw “The Night Stalker.” I greedily sought out more of this world, snapping up Rice’s novels when I found them and watching the sequel movie and series.

After hearing the news about Jeff Rice today, I’ll be stepping back into Kolchak’s world again soon.

‘Mr. Holmes’ a bittersweet look at the legend

mr holmes

If I actually get around to writing all of this, the blog will seem very Sherlock-centric for a while. I’m reading a Sherlock Holmes book now – the second in a row – and I’m mightily tempted to watch some early “Sherlock” episodes on Netflix.

And then there’s “Mr. Holmes.”

I didn’t know quite what to expect from the Bill Condon film, starring Ian McKellen as an older, retired Sherlock Holmes, and I haven’t read “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the 2005 book by Mitch Cullin. I had an impression the story was about a mystery deep in the retirement years of the world’s greatest consulting detective.

Holmes’ retirement years have been fertile ground for writers, most notably Laurie R. King, whose “Beekeeper’s Apprentice” books featuring Holmes and Mary Russell, his younger love interest and deducting equal, have thoroughly explored this world in a dozen books.

(I can’t help but wonder if writers like King aren’t ticked off when they treat an idea with such care and originality and see others’ treatments get turned into movies.)

“Mr. Holmes”¬†unfolds in 1947, when 93-year-old Holmes – long after the death of everyone important in his life, including his brother Mycroft and companion John Watson – is living in his house in Sussex and keeping bees. His only companions are his housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker).

Holmes, in failing health, struggles to remember the case, decades earlier, that prompted him to quit detecting. WIth some prompting from Roger, he remembers the bittersweet circumstances. The realization affects him in a couple of ways, including his dealings not only with his surrogate daughter and grandson but with a Japanese businessman who seeks answers that only Holmes can provide.

If you’re expecting a version of Holmes that’s like the aging astronauts of “Space Cowboys,” that’s not what Condon’s movie is about. It’s a low-key affair, more bitter than sweet, about a legendary figure fighting with the loss of his greatest tool: his mind.

But it’s also about how Holmes, notoriously aloof and superior, comes to realize – too late, tragically so in one instance – that the need for companionship is felt by everyone. Even him. The bitter realization, played out in one of the film’s flashbacks, stems from a moment that seems out of the blue but is ultimately understandable.

McKellen is wonderful, of course. We’ve seen so many decades of good work from him that we shouldn’t be surprised that he can play at least three different versions of Holmes here – at his deductive peak, at his most confused and vulnerable and at his saddest as he realizes what might have been and attempts to solve the mystery of his life.