Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Color That Couldn't Die!

I was well and truly gob-smacked when I ran across the cover above in my sojourns across the internet. From Australia's Yaffa Comics, this issue of Supernatural Thrillers, offers up a truly offbeat version of some of Jim Steranko's most memorable artwork. From the debut issue of Marvel's Supernatural Thrillers, the story underneath adapted Theodore Sturgeon's "IT!". Go here for more detail on that exceedingly influential story.

Here's a chance to glom Jim Steranko's original cover, the creature appropriately green against a blood-red sky instead of an odious purple swimming in a pale blue atmosphere. Yuck!

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dojo Classics - RKO's Dick Tracy!

I just finished watching all four of RKO's Dick Tracy movies. These are solid little movies, with stlyish noir details and brisk compelling plots. I frankly was surprised how good they were.

Dick Tracy, Detective stars Morgan Conway as the eponymous detective and he's terrific. Conway has a deep voice and a presence that really sell the notion he's a tough as nails detective; when he leans into a baddie you buy it. And while he might not necessarily look like the classic Tracy we know today, I think he resembles the original Tracy in the earliest strips quite a bit. The first movie involves a villain named Splitface who at first appears to be a wild serial slasher, but with investigation it turns out there is a method to his murders. There is a slick balance between the investigations on the shadowy streets and an oddly warm home life for Dick and Tess Trueheart played by Anne Jeffreys. There's even a sub-plot with Junior who is just on screen long enough to not get annoying. Lyle Latell is Pat Patton. Mike Mazurki as Splitface is outstanding, and he offers up a really frightening and merciless killer. The balance between humor and suspense is nearly perfect in this one.

Dick Tracey Vs. Cueball again stars Morgan Conway as Tracy, and Jeffreys plays Tess again. Cueball is played by Dick Wessel and he's a strangler involved with diamond thieves. His murderous tendencies run afoul of the plot the others wish to pursue to glean profit from the theft, but he doesn't seem to care. This is not quite as tight as the first movie, but it's still got plenty of noirish action to satisfy those cravings. Ian Keith turns up as Vitamin Flintheart and he's outstanding in the role. Lyle Latell is back as Pat Patton and he's pretty entertaining. The characters are a bit broader in this one, more in the style of the comic strip, but mildly less effective on the big screen.

Dick Tracy's Dilemma sees Ralph Byrd take on the lead role, one he was familiar with from the serials. He is a handsome enough fellow and looks the role well enough but alas he is too affable to be as effective as Conway. The story involves fur thieves and a rough customer named The Claw played by Jack Lambert who uses his hook hand to commit his murders. There are a lot of twists in this one, and again a bit more humor. Junior who had been the previous two movies is absent from this one and the next. Kay Christopher is Tess and she's lovely. Ian Keith as Vitamin Flintheart plays a big role in this one, and there's a charming character called Sightless. Lyle Latell returns as Pat Patton and his set pieces of comedy seem to be larger and more frequent. The action in this is shootouts and missing is the car chase which was a key set piece of each of the previous two movies.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome is doubtless the most famous of these movies, and that's because of Boris Karloff who plays the murderous Gruesome a thug just out of prison who immediately is looking for action and finds it with his pal Melody using suspended animation gas to rob banks. Ralph Byrd is back as well as Ian Keith and Lyle Latell. Anne Gwynne takes on the Tess role. The plot is wilder than any of the previous movies and the noir details while visually present are undercut a bit by the quasi-science fiction feel of the story. The movie is pretty interested in maximizing the star power of Karloff, even referencing his name at one point. But a number of scenes reminded me of the classic Frankenstein, especially with Gruesome rising from the dead in the morgue and the climax where he is chasing Tracy around a car. The humor is much bigger in this one and centers around Lyle Latell as Pat Patton, and while it's still an entertaining movie for sure, not really the suspense thriller the first few were.

Overall, these are terrific little movies, helped immensely by running times of just over an hour. The stories are brisk and the action is pretty darn good. My wife who walked in on one showing commented on the speed of the dialogue and that's another detail that helps keep these movies running along neatly.

When Ian Keith pops those vitamins into his mouth he's right out of the comic strip.

Dandy entertainment!

UPDATE: Still have a high regard for these flicks. They are wonderful little pulp adventures with some nifty atmosphere and more than a mote of adventure. These are widely available and highly recommended.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Total Dick - The Dick Tracy Movie!

I sort of remember when Dick Tracy, the high-profile 1990 movie from Touchstone Studios starring big-wheel Warren Beatty hit the theaters. It was about the same time as Darkman and I for some reason saw previews for one at the screening of the other, but I cannot now remember what the order was. Whatever the case, the brightly colored cinematic effort has a lot of charms hidden among its varied hues.

Not least of those charms are those put on display by an up and coming Madonna, a bonafide superstar singer when this movie hit the screens and who does what to my mind is her best film role as Breathless Mahoney. That she can lock down the role of a sultry seductress seems obvious and she does a great deal with the role with very small dresses. Her singing is a highlight of the movie too, though I confess I was likely on toxic overload to Madonna when this movie first landed and so reacted to her with less kindness. The years have proven me wrong and she does a pretty good job. Also on hand are a who's who cast with Beatty himself in the title role, Al Pacino as the major baddie Big Boy, Glenne Headley as Tess Trueheart, and guys like Dustin Hoffman, Ed O'Ross, William Forsythe, R.J. Armstrong, and Henry Silva as sundry Tracy baddies. Forsythe as Flattop steals all of his scenes though O'Ross as Itchy is dang good too.  I especially liked Mandy Patinkin as 88 Keyes too. Even the kid Charlie Korsmo is pretty good in a role which helps add some dimension to a simple crime drama.

The star of this show though is the production design which does everything it can to blend the four-color world of comics with the deep shadows of film noir to produce a movie which to my eye looks like nothing else ever filmed. And I have to say I enjoy it, the bright colors make the characters pop in a landscape that's supposed to evoke the dreariness of a Depression-era city battling mobsters. We're so used to thinking of this world in black and white, that seeing it in such eye-stinging color really shakes up the expectations. It's a pop-art masterwork!

This is far from a great movie, but it's a darn fine entertainment with lots of really fine actors chewing up brightly colored scenery with abandon. Dick Tracy as played by Beatty often looks bewildered, but he's not lost in this spectacle that is worth the time.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Total Dick - The Dick Tracy Show!

The Dick Tracy Show is an absolute riot! Marred in the modern day by some pretty outrageous ethnic stereotypes (what cartoon of early eras was not really) this show gets hammered out of all perspective in my opinion. For one thing, these little vignettes are often pretty funny, wild absurdist variations on classic crime tropes armed with a brisk pace and some sterling voice acting. Many object to Dick Tracy's cursory role in the show, often being only seen in the office issuing tasks to a team of subbordinates and then getting reports. Later episodes do show Tracy in the field but it's true he's never the focus of any single episode, save perhaps the one in which he's kidnapped.

A gaggle of classic Dick Tracy baddies are on display. Flattop, Stooge Viller, The Brow, Pruneface, Mumbles, Oodles, Sketch Paree, and the Mole among the lot. Usually the villains team up to create some hair-brained scheme which is often as stupid as it is outrageous and just as swiftly they are brought to justice when Tracy's selected agent lands on the job. The crimes range from classics like jewel heists and bank robberies, to more bizarre things like crooked chicken fights and toupee thefts.

The agents on call are where folks begin to have issues with the show. Of little complaint is Hemlock Holmes, a British Bulldog who leads a gang of inept human cops called "The Retouchables", a Keystone Cops gang who are fast but stupid. Hemlock himself sounds like Cary Grant but is the oddity in the show, a talking animal in a show which almost exclusively features human beings, albeit odd ones.

Less annoying to critics is Heap O'Calorie, an Irish cop stereotype who steals apples and other fruits from local vendors and consults a beatnik named "Nick" (perfect) who never talks but uses only bongo drums to send Heap crucial data. Heap sounds like Andy Devine.

And then there's Go-Go Gomez. His full name is Manuel Tijiuana Guadalajara Tampico Gomez Jr. but Tracy calls him "Go-Go" because he's super-fast. He is often compared to another problematic Hispanic character by the name of Speedy Gonzalez. Go-Go is a stereotype of the apparently lazy Mexican who is actually quite effective, though he keeps his skills hidden until needed. He lounges in a hammock a lot and appears unusually interested in lovely ladies.  Go-Go shows up half-way in the series, pretty much taking the place of Heap O'Calorie who falls into obscurity.

Likewise with an eye for a beautiful dame is my favorite of the agents -- Joe Jitsu. Joe is a a Mr. Moto type, a painful buck-toothed Japanese stereotype so common in popular entertainment. He's smart and skilled in martial arts when needed and also has some special mental powers on occasion. His banter is among the funniest of the agents and that's why he's my fave, despite the problems with is look and manner.

The cartoons have a rigid structure in the early days, the call comes in from the Chief to Tracy to calls an agent who enters the fray and quickly gets into trouble. On the edge of danger, the agent then calls a halt and time stops as he calls Tracy to report. Then time restarts and eventually the tables are turned and the crooks are captured with a final report to Tracy to wrap it up. The utter predictability of these might annoy some, but I found it nifty as the writers kept finding small ways to reinvent and re-imagine the strict storytelling frames. Later the stories become a little looser.

I found the cartoons like potato chips, breezy and entertaining in their own way but so briskly paced that even the weaker ones ended before any real sense of boredom could set in. It's the pacing and wonderful voice work that makes these really click, though I personally found the designs and limited animation generally effective too. Telling a tale on the cheap takes no small skill and the makers of these cartoons were well able to make the most of the meager cartooning they had.

I recommend these, but not to those who have a low threshold for insult. There is not doubt these cartoons would not be made today and that's for the better I guess, but for a fan of funny cartoons, I'm personally glad they were made a long time ago.

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Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Shape Of Monsters!

Finally at last got to see The Shape of Water. I wanted to catch this modern monster flick when it first dropped last fall, but it played nowhere near me that I could find convenient. So it swam away and I figured I'd have to wait for the DVD (which I'll snatch up posthaste). But by winning the Oscar this movie was given a new life in the theaters and finally stopped long enough in my vicinity for me to sample.

Of course this movie is an unofficial sequel of sorts to the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. The "Gill-Man" in this Guirellmo Del Toro effort is visually distinctive enough to not violate any trademarks, but for any fan of vintage monsters the comparison is inescapable. The creature in this movie was found and captured in the Amazon where it was the object of mythic lore. Snatched and brought to the United States of the early 60's, this creature is treated like an animal in a test lab and subjected to physical abuse while scientists try to glean enough understanding of its biology to assist the manned space program.

The movie is a blistering indictment of a society ruled by the whims and privileges of white men and we see how others in the society (women in general, people of color, homosexuals, and those with handicaps) are belittled and demeaned by the ascendant order. (Michael Shannon is the villain of this piece and he's magnetic and comes damn near stealing the film.)

The romance which blossoms between the creature (Doug Jones) and a mute cleaning woman  (Sally Hawkins) desperate to connect with someone worthy of her attentions is a story which redefines and broadens the definition of what is properly human and acceptable in the spectacle of human society. The ascendant order fails because it is too blind to see the capabilities of those who live in their midst, a silent majority of another stripe which will we know in coming decades increasingly demand their place in the order of society.

But at its core this is a lovely romance, a love story for the ages. It's a fable of a woman who finds another to love, someone who understands her in ways others cannot, even those she calls friends. This is a story of outsiders and those who have become alienated from their worlds and who seek to connect with someone or something who will deem them worthy. It's no less than all of us deserve and this movie affirms that truth.

Highly recommended.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Total Dick - Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc.

The final Dick Tracy Republic Serial is titled Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc. and later was released in the 50's under the title Dick Tracy Vs. Phantom Empire. This 1941 movie is easily the least of the four serials dedicated to the adventures of Chester Gould's comic strip hero, and that's despite a pretty good villain named "The Ghost" who can use science to make himself invisible.

The scenes in which this gimmick is used are pretty darned good and unfortunately the highlight of a serial which borrows from too many earlier movies to make a coherent effort of telling a story. Cliffhangers are borrowed from earlier Tracy serials and other Republic efforts. Maybe if I'd not just seen those I'd have been less annoyed, but all it all it felt like a hodge-podge effort as the creators twist and turn to make the yarn fit up to the already selected disasters they want to unleash. Much of the movie is spent trying to find out who the Ghost is, one of a small cadre of respected men who form a secret council that Tracy is the head of.

More Dick Tracy tomorrow.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Total Dick - Dick Tracy's G-Men!

The third Dick Tracy Republic Serial titled Dick Tracy's G-Men came out in 1939 and in many ways is the most fully satisfying of the four films. Ralph Byrd returns but none of the comedy relief characters from the earlier films is present. This time it's just Dick Tracy and his "G-Men" agents against a remarkable dangerous spy named Zarnoff (Irving Pichell) who starts off the story on death row and escapes by faking his own death.

It's a pretty grotesque and atmospheric beginning and while the serial doesn't manage to keep that tone all the way through, the plot in this one hangs together better than most serials and Zarnoff is sufficiently interesting enough to hold the stage without benefit of any other mystery. One land, sea,and air the battler is raged and the ending comes really out of nowhere and is surprisingly satisfying for a serial, which often seem to care little about the finale all that much.

One more Dick Tracy serial to come tomorrow.

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