Category Archives: Film

Thoughts on Marvel Studios’ 2017-2019 Releases

With Marvel Studios’ July 18th announcement of their 2017-2019 movie release dates, speculation has begun over which Marvel characters will have their movie projects greenlit as Phase 2 moves into Phase 3.  The last two years I hoped that characters like Doctor Strange, Daredevil and Luke Cage would get their shot on the big screen, and with Netflix’s upcoming production of five Marvel original series (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, The Defenders) and the Doctor Strange Easter Egg in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, slowly but surely my favorite characters will get their TV or cinematic due.

So with over 5,000 characters in the Marvel Universe, will Marvel Studios fill the majority of their TBD slots with the more popular characters, or go the Guardians of the Galaxy route with the lesser known heroes/super teams?  Here’s my latest wish list for the 2017-2019 Marvel Studios slate:

Alien Legion

Alien Legion Cover

When Marvel’s creator owned line Epic Comics published Alien Legion #1 in 1984 (written by Carl Potts and Alan Zelenetz with art by Frank Cirocco and Terry Austin), this diverse group of “footsloggers and soldiers of fortune,” a Foreign Legion set in space, got me hooked.  I was fortunate to find a page of original art from Alien Legion #4, and it’s a prized piece in my art collection.  Hopefully this title will get the movie treatment.

Micronauts

Micronauts 3 Cover

Another title I enjoyed during it’s early run and that I’ve come to appreciate even more 30 plus years later.  Based on a line of toys from the 70’s, Marvel Comics published the first volume of comics until the mid-80’s.  I recently re-read the first five issues written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Michael Golden and couldn’t stop thinking about how well it would translate on film.  J.J. Abrams is attached to a feature film adaptation with Paramount, but the screenwriters have said the film version would be different from the comic book.  (sigh)

Howard the Duck

Howard The Duck Cover

Hear me out on this one.  Even though those of us over a certain age still cringe at the memory of the terrible  Howard the Duck film produced by George Lucas in 1986, Howard still deserves a reboot based on a great comic book run.  News on Howard the Duck’s cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy is a great first step in that direction (is Marvel Studios testing the waters with audience response a la the Doctor Strange reference in Winter Soldier?).  Advances in CGI aside, the time is right to revisit Steve Gerber and Val Mayerick’s creation on film and hopefully it will be more in line with the original comic book.

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The Summer of ’84: Star Trek III The Search for Spock

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie going with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Star Trek III The Search for Spock Poster

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Release Date: June 1, 1984

Directed by Leonard Nimoy, Screenplay by Harve Bennett

Starring William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lloyd, Robin Curtis, Merritt Butrick

One of the absolute pleasures of my retrospective on the Summer of ’82 was revisiting the classic Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The film is pretty close to perfect, and watching it again at age forty allowed me to enjoy it on the same level as my younger self and also pick up on elements of the film that had eluded me in my younger years.  Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was high on my list when it was first released in June of 1984, and I went into this review with the same enthusiasm.  As a fan of the original TV series and first two films I was looking forward to the continuing cinematic voyage of Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise, but my main reason for wanting to see Star Trek III during the Summer of ’84 was the title’s promise of the return of my favorite Star Trek character.

Back during the Summer of ’84 I screened Star Trek III: The Search for Spock at the (now closed) Mamaroneck Playhouse as the school year wound down and a carefree summer vacation began.  I remember enjoying the film in the theater and on cable TV back in the 80’s, and I still enjoy it today, but watching it again 30 years later reminded me as to why Wrath of Khan is still revered as the best of the Star Trek films.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock begins where Wrath of Khan left off.  The crew of the Enterprise, still recovering from their epic battle with Khan and the death of Captain Spock, departs planet Genesis and returns home for repairs.  No sooner than they set course for Earth, an alarm signals a security breach in Spock’s sealed quarters.  A rattled Kirk, reeling from the loss of his best friend, personally investigates and finds a frenzied Dr. McCoy speaking incoherently about returning to Vulcan.  Upon the Enterprise’s return to Earth the crew has earned extended leave, but are given two pieces of bad news: they are ordered to maintain secrecy of the Genesis Project, and the starship Enterprise will be decommissioned.

The crew meets at Kirk’s home, but they are interrupted by Spock’s father Sarek, who is disturbed by Kirk’s decision to leave Spock’s body on Genesis when it should have been returned to Vulcan along with his katra (spirit).  Sarek assumed Spock would have implanted his katra in Kirk, but when his mind meld of Kirk finds no trace of it, he accepts that it is lost forever.  Kirk reviews the security footage of Spock’s last moments before his death which shows him transferring his katra to McCoy, leading to McCoy’s descent into madness.  Sarek tells Kirk they must bring Spock’s body and katra (via McCoy) back to Vulcan.  McCoy is one step ahead of them when he tries to book illegal passage to Genesis and is arrested.  Kirk and the crew break McCoy out of his detention, steal the Enterprise and set course for Genesis.

A crew of Klingons led by commander Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) obtain the Genesis code and set course for the planet.  Meanwhile the Federation ship Grissom, with scientists David Marcus (Merrit Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis), orbit Genesis to record the planet’s climate and progress.  They detect a life form, which should not have been possible under the Genesis project.  Marcus and Saavik beam to the surface of Genesis to investigate and find Spock’s tomb empty and a Vulcan child, presumably Spock.  Marcus admits the development of the Genesis project included unstable protomatter, which caused Spock to be “reborn” and age at a rapid pace but also made the entire planet unstable and on the verge of destroying itself.  Kruge destroys the Grissom, beams to the surface of Genesis, and holds Marcus, Saavik and Spock hostage.

Harve Bennett wrote the script (he was a writer on Wrath of Khan but was not credited), but Nicholas Meyer did not return to direct the third installment (he was in post-production on the 1983 TV movie The Day After), so Leonard Nimoy stepped in for his directorial debut.  Nimoy’s style of directing complements the film well, although the end of the third act drags with a longer than necessary passage of time sequence.  But as the sequel to the classic Wrath of Khan it’s hard not to make comparisons that can lead the viewer to judge Star Trek III for what it is not.  The tone of Search for Spock is noticeably different than The Wrath of Khan, which is a drama set in space with a story carried by themes of revenge, sacrifice and loss.  Search for Spock plays as more of a caper film, which in itself is especially fun with this cast of characters, with an overall tone that is more in line with the TV series.

William Shatner and DeForest Kelley as Kirk and McCoy carry the story, but James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei each have their scene stealing moments that move the plot forward in their attempt to steal the Enterprise.  In my opinion, the Klingons make the best villains, and Christopher Lloyd adds an element of psychotic joy to his performance as the Klingon captain Kruge.  But one major area of disappointment for me was the script’s lack of development of Kirk’s relationship with his son Dr. David Marcus.  That plot line in Wrath of Khan added an unexpected emotional weight to the film, but Search for Spock missed an opportunity to expand on it prior to (SPOILER ALERT) David’s death at the hands of the Klingons (though it would be revisited in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

While Search for Spock doesn’t come together on the same grand cinematic scale as Wrath of Khan, it does have the story, special effects, action scenes and film score that make a summer blockbuster.  30 years later, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is still an enjoyable film and perfect for a lazy summer Saturday.

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The Films of the Summer of 1984

For the last two years my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982 and 1983 allowed me to revisit some of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the 80’s and enjoy them on a new level as a 40 something.  In some cases I would approach a film with a sense of trepidation, wondering if you truly can go back and enjoy an old favorite on the same level 30 years later.  At the end of each series, I learned that many of these films withstand the test of time and sometimes you really can go back.

I truly thought each “Summer Of” retrospective would be the last.  After The Summer of ’82 I didn’t think there could be another lineup of summer films that could compare to Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, TRON and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial.  It was a magical summer for fans of fantasy and sci-fi films and there hasn’t been another like it.  But I had enjoyed writing that retrospective so much that I had gone through withdrawal and for the next year hoped for another opportunity to revisit a summer’s worth of films.  That void was filled with my retrospective on The Summer of ’83 which included a lineup of films that have been personal favorites of mine for over 30 years.  Even as I closed out that series, I didn’t think I would have an opportunity to write another “Summer Of.”

Then I saw the lineup for the films of the Summer of ’84 and realized another retrospective was possible.

The Summer of ’82 was about a lineup of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the decade (Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian).  The Summer of ’83 was about a lineup of my personal favorites (WarGames, Fire and Ice).  The Summer of 1984 was still heavy on the adventure and sci-fi films, including some of the most crowd pleasing films of the decade as well as a few cult favorites:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (5/23/84)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (6/1/84)
Ghostbusters (6/8/84)
Gremlins (6/8/84)
Conan the Destroyer (6/29/84)
The Last Starfighter (7/13/84)
Red Dawn (8/10/84)

Once I saw this list, I knew I had to revisit them again.

I’m taking these retrospectives year by year, but if the films of the Summer of ’85 etc. bring out the same sense of nostalgia for my original movie-going experiences, I’ll keep them coming.

 

 

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Movies For Memorial Day 2014

With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 26th, I’d like to take this moment to thank all veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.

Every Memorial Day weekend I scan the TV listings, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for some of the best military themed films to watch.  More than a few of the films listed below have been included on previous Movies For Memorial Day posts (Sergeant York, Band of Brothers, Gallipoli, The Big Red One, and The Best Years of Our Lives to name a few), but I also try to find a few lesser known films as well.  This year it’s an even mix of old favorites and new additions.  And while the films scheduled on Turner Classic Movies have made up the majority of my recommendations over the last couple of years, this year’s list is mostly made up of films available on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.

On Turner Classic Movies (all times listed are EST):

Saturday, May 24th

1:45 PM – The Steel Helmet (1951)
3:15 PM – Objective, Burma! (1945)

Sunday, May 25th

12:00 PM – Mr. Roberts (1955)

Monday May, 26th

7:30 AM – Sergeant York (1941)
6:00 PM – The Fighting Sullivans (1944)
8:00 PM – Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
10:30 PM – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

On Amazon Instant Video:

Medal of Honor (2008)*
Gallipoli (1981)*
Wings (1927)*
Taking Chance (2009)*
Fixed Bayonets! (1951)*
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Big Red One (1980)
Pork Chop Hill (1959)
The Green Berets (1968)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Hamburger Hill (1987)
The Fighting 69th (1940)
* = Amazon Prime

Netflix:

Restrepo (2010)
Ken Burns: The War (2007)

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Farewell to the Mamaroneck Playhouse

On Thursday April 17th my hometown movie theater, the Mamaroneck Playhouse, closed its doors and will eventually be torn down for condos.  Built in 1925 as a vaudeville theater, it’s been the center of Mamaroneck’s business district for 89 years.  The news was a surprise to everyone back home, with property owner Bow Tie Cinemas breaking the news to local officials only the night before.  According to the company, the playhouse wasn’t economically sustainable, but Mamaroneck residents (and former residents such as myself) are skeptical of that claim considering it’s a first run theater in a vibrant business district, surrounded by a variety of restaurants and parking.

The films I’ve seen there over my lifetime range from blockbusters (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), to the obscure (Raise the Titanic), to some titles better forgotten (lest I be judged…).  Even though the last film I saw there was back in 2001 (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), most of the films I’ve written about on Fante’s Inferno were originally screened at the Mamaroneck Playhouse.

I’ve seen the theater evolve from a single screen with balcony seating to a four screen multiplex almost 35 years ago.  Most of the films I’ve seen there were in the 80’s, but my favorite era of the Mamaroneck Playhouse was the mid-to-late 70’s when it was still only one screen.  Not necessarily because the movies were better, but because of the old school memories of the ushers walking up and down the aisles, shining their flashlights into the faces of anyone who dared to talk during the movie or put their feet up on the seats.  At one point in my early years attending that theater, they actually sold comic books on a spinner rack in the lobby.  By 1980 it was chopped up into four separate theaters, a crime in and of itself for altering the classic interior.

In honor of the now closed Mamaroneck Playhouse, here are a few of my favorite films screened there over the last 42 years:

Jaws (1975)

Released in theaters in 1975, but screened as part of a double feature with Jaws 2 at the Mamaroneck Playhouse in the Summer of 1978.

Airplane! (1980)

When I think back to the night I saw this film back in 1980, I’m reminded of how even the greatest comedy is funnier with the laughter of others around you.

Flash Gordon (1980)

This was a fun movie to see in the theater back in 1980.  A lot of folks in the theater didn’t quite “get” it, but those of us in the sci-fi/D&D crowd appreciated it on every level, from the production design and special effects to Queen’s still amazing score.

Time Bandits (1981)

My introduction to the films and genius of Terry Gilliam.  Still one of my all time favorite films.

The Goonies (1985)

A fun movie, and a great movie memory.  Four friends sitting in the front row of a matinee in an empty theater during the start of summer vacation.  A coke in one hand, a bag of Twizzlers in the other.  When I think of summer moviegoing, that’s the first memory that comes to mind.

X-Men (2000)

By the time my brother and I were finally able to see the X-Men on the big screen, we had waited about 20 years from when an X-Men film was first announced.  It was worth the wait.

Mamaroneck Playhouse

Mamaroneck Playhouse, 1980 (Photo by Tom Kennedy; used with permission under the Creative Commons license)

The picture above is how I will always remember the Mamaroneck Playhouse.  My main concerns over the theater closing its doors are less nostalgic than they are cultural.  The business district lost its book shop several years back, and now its movie theater is gone.  Sure, higher ticket prices, home video/theater systems and the lower standards of movie theater etiquette have kept people home in recent years, but one element of moviegoing enjoyment has been the sense of community.  I remember one Saturday night back in the early 80’s when it seemed like half of the audience was made up of our friends and neighbors.  Despite the access to many amazing and obscure films since I’ve moved to New York City, that’s one feeling I haven’t been able to experience as a moviegoer here.

I haven’t seen a movie at the Mamaroneck Playhouse in over a decade, so I can’t attest to the recent condition of the theater (though recent reports on the closing reference less than ideal conditions in the theater).  With 20+ years of cinematic memories there I feel a sense of personal loss, but I also feel the loss for the current and future residents of Mamaroneck who won’t be able to experience seeing a movie there followed by a slice of pizza at Sal’s Pizzeria across the street.  At least Sal’s is still there.

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Thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (SPOILERS)

Captain America The Winter Soldier Poster

Starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Scarlett Johanssen (Black Widow), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill), Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier)

Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo; Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley; Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

With each major comic themed film that’s been released over the last year, I couldn’t help but think about when the tide would turn and the genre’s popularity might start to wane.  But with over $400 million in worldwide box office since it’s April 4th opening weekend, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves the comic book film is still popular among U.S. and international audiences.

Anyone who knows me knows that Captain America is one of my all time favorite comic book characters (see The Captain America Project in my previous posts), so The Winter Soldier is one of the films I’ve been looking forward to the  most this year.  The character really is timeless, with each generation of creators since Joe Simon and Jack Kirby creating stories of pure comic book fantasy (The Silver Age Avengers comic books) and weaving issues and events of the last 70 years into storylines to keep Cap relevant over the years (World War II, Communism, distrust of government in the 70’s, the post 9/11 world).  During the film’s opening weekend I caught a screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier with two of my amazing friends (I’ll call them Wonder Woman and Phoenix), and the movie didn’t disappoint.

SPOILERS BELOW

Positives:

Chris Evans as Captain America

Steve Rogers doesn’t lose his soul or his hope for America when Project Insight and Pierce’s true motives are exposed.  As a man out of his time with 70 lost years to make up, he retains his ideals and moral compass without being jaded or effected by the modern era.  The fish-out-of-water element of his character doesn’t overpower the story, and it’s his introduction to the returned veterans in Sam Wilson’s support group that provides Cap with a sense of familiarity in a complicated world.

The Winter Soldier

I have to admit, when it was first announced this sequel would focus on the return of Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan) as HYDRA’s walking death machine The Winter Soldier, my first reaction was mixed.  Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting crafted an amazing run with The Winter Soldier in the Captain America comic book, but there was a part of me that was put off by the “resurrection” of Bucky Barnes.  In my opinion, Bucky was one of the Marvel characters (along with Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy) that should not have been brought back from the dead.  But after seeing the film, I’m sold on bringing Bucky back.

Anthony Mackie as Falcon 

Falcon/Sam Wilson brought me back to the Bronze Age Cap/Falcon stories I grew up with, and actor Anthony Mackie was great in the role.  Sam Wilson was more than Cap’s wingman (sorry for the pun), he’s a leader that holds his own.  His backstory as an Air Force veteran of the War on Terror was the perfect origin for a contemporary Falcon, and his empathy for Steve Rogers as a veteran struggling with a return to normalcy is the backbone of their friendship.

Robert Reford as Alexander Pierce

Going into the film it was Robert Redford’s performance as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Anthony Pierce that I was looking forward to the most.  This inspired casting elevated Winter Soldier from a high octane comic book/superhero film to an engaging political thriller.  Redford’s portrayal of Pierce and his true motives for Project Insight within S.H.I.E.L.D. was reminiscent of the ambiguous government characters in Alan Pakula’s conspiracy films of the 70’s.  Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley referenced the classic films Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View as influences on their story.

Easter Eggs

I won’t name all of them because the fun is in discovering them.  But one name dropped in the film got me thinking about the future of Marvel’s films: Stephen Strange.   I’ve been saying Doctor Strange was deserving of his own feature film for years.  Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Different tone from Captain America: The First Avenger

The first film (directed by Joe Johnston) had a look and feel that showed direct inspiration from the pages of the comic books.  Winter Soldier had less of this tone, but I felt it was appropriate for this film.  To me it was representative of how comic book stories have evolved over the last seventy years.  First Avenger was the Golden/Silver Age comic book, but Winter Soldier was the modern age comic book.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier is more than a comic book film, it’s an action film/political thriller with comic book characters.

Negatives:

For me, there weren’t any.

When I first read that part of the story was influenced  by current events, particularly a government “kill list,” I was concerned the film would be too heavily focused on the idea of government as evil/untrustworthy and possibly insert a sucker punch or two.  But I was happy to see the film did not take that route and instead showed the honorable, patriotic members of S.H.I.E.L.D. putting their lives on the line (with many making the ultimate sacrifice) to fight a HYDRA infiltration of their organization.  Great job by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley and directors Joe and Anthony Russo.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a solid film with equal parts adrenaline and emotion that raises the bar for comic book movies as Marvel Studios works toward The Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015.  Last week Marvel announced that Captain America 3 will be slated for May 6, 2016, the same weekend as Zack Snyder’s Superman/Batman film.  We’ll see who blinks.

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Escape From New York (1981)

Escape From New York Poster

Release Date: July 10, 1981

Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes

Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is a film that I’ve been looking forward to revisiting for awhile now.  It’s an old favorite of mine that I have vivid memories of watching on cable back in the 80’s, sometimes followed by a screening of The Warriors.

The film takes place in 1997, nine years after the entire island of Manhattan had been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison.  Prisoners are only given life sentences, but are offered the option of immediate death and cremation prior to departure.  Decorated war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has been sentenced to life in New York for robbing a federal reserve.  As Plissken waits for the shuttle to Manhattan, prison warden Hauk (played by Lee van Cleef) receives a distress signal from a hijacked Air Force One.  The President (played by Donald Pleasence) is ejected in an escape pod as Air Force One crashes into downtown Manhattan.  Hauk scrambles a rescue team, but by the time they find the abandoned escape pod, the President has been taken hostage by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the island’s leader.  They’re given 30 seconds to leave the island or the president will be killed.

Back at prison headquarters, Hauk offers Plissken a deal: bring the president back alive and he’ll be granted a full pardon, but equally important is the cassette in the President’s possession containing information on cold fusion.  The President must be returned in time for the Hartford Summit with China and Russia in order to share the formula for cold fusion in a show of good faith for world peace.  Plissken agrees, but any thought he had of using it as an opportunity to escape is quickly diffused when the warden implants two explosives in his neck that are timed to detonate in 23 hours unless Plissken succeeds in his mission.

Plissken lands a glider on the top of the World Trade Center and avoids rogue packs of prisoners as he makes his way through downtown Manhattan guided by a tracking device linked to the President.  The beacon leads him to the basement of an old theater (complete with a musical act, proving the lights never never will go out on Broadway even if it becomes part of a maximum security prison) but quickly finds out he’s been on the wrong trail and the President is now prisoner of The Duke.  An old cab driver named Cabbie (played by Ernest Borgnine) recognizes Plissken and offers to take him to The Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who can in turn lead Plissken to the Duke.  Plissken and the Brain have a history that Plissken hasn’t forgiven or forgotten, but have to work together to get the President out of New York.

Escape From New York is almost exactly how I remembered it when I watched in the 80’s.  Kurt Russell is the star of the film as Snake Plissken, but the supporting cast of Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and led by the amazing Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) is top notch.  The special effects, particularly the models, miniatures and matte paintings that recreated Manhattan, weren’t as dated as I thought they would look 33 years later.  Ironically the film was shot primarily on location in East St. Louis, Missouri (the true New York locations were Liberty Island and New York Harbor), but cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer Joe Alves did a great job turning it into the decaying, deadly Manhattan in Carpenter’s dystopian representation of 1997 New York.

Most films I revisit after 30 odd years tend to feel slower paced the second time around, but from the moment Snake lands in Manhattan and the clock winds down, the film plays out at a fast, action packed pace though sometimes at the expense of the characters.  Carpenter takes the time at the beginning of the film to present Snake’s qualifications for the mission, but neglects to reveal his motives for committing the crime that got him a life sentence to New York.  I also thought the script tended to take the easy way out on a couple of occasions by having several characters in the film, prisoners with very little in terms of electricity and communication with the outside world, instantly recognize Snake Plissken as if he was a celebrity.  Unfortunately there are moments when the script only gives the bare minimum of character information when slowing down the pace to answer these questions would have added that one additional layer the story needs.

Overall Escape From New York is a great film that still holds up.  It may not have the visual effects of Blade Runner, but the premise, cast and production design make for a great ride.  It’s been at least 25 year since I’ve seen Escape From New York and revisiting this film didn’t disappoint.

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The Films of 1939 at 75 (Part I): Adventures with Gunga Din, Boyer and Dunne’s Love Affair, and John Wayne’s Stagecoach to Stardom

Fante’s Inferno commemorates the 75th anniversary of the films of 1939 (considered one of the greatest years of moviemaking) with a four-part retrospective posted in conjunction with the quarters in which they were released.

Part One: January to March of 1939:

Stagecoach 1939 Movie Poster

Stagecoach

Release Date: 2/15/39
Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, George Bancroft
Directed by John Ford; Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Ben Hecht (based on Ernest Haycox’s short story The Stage to Lordsburg)

Six passengers on a stagecoach from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico, each with their own reasons for leaving town.  Along the way they pick up a fugitive and shoot their way through Apache territory to reach their destination.  John Ford’s Stagecoach revitalized the Western genre and made John Wayne a star.  The story does get a bit too heavy handed with several characters written to represent hypocrisy in society (i.e. a kind prostitute forced from town by the “decent” women; a businessman that preaches patriotism but is embezzling funds, etc.) that it tends to become a distraction.  Regardless, each character is woven into the script so perfectly the story would be unbalanced should one of them be removed, from John Wayne as the Ringo Kidd hell bent on revenge, to Dallas (Claire Trevor) forced out of town with the weight of her past and “proper society” on her shoulders, even down to the comic relief of stagecoach driver Buck (Andy Devine).  Cinematographer Bert Glennon’s photography of Monument Valley is majestic and the editing is seamless.  When you hear the title Stagecoach, how can you not think about John Wayne’s first shot in the film?

Gunga Din 1939 Movie Poster

Gunga Din

Release Date: 2/17/39
Starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Victor McLaglen, Sam Jaffe, Joan Fontaine
Directed by George Stevens; Screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol based on the story by Rudyard Kipling

Three hell-raising British soldiers (Grant, Fairbanks and McLaglen) are sent to a investigate a military outpost in Tantrapur, India after a break in the communication line.  They arrive to find the town deserted with no sign of soldiers or civilians, are quickly attacked by Thuggees, and fight their way out with the three sergeants and their detail barely making it out alive.  Back at their camp, Sergeant Cutter (Grant) befriends Gunga Din (played by Sam Jaffee), a water carrier with dreams of being a bugler in the British Army.  He tells Cutter of a temple of gold, and against the orders of Sergeants MacChesney (McLaglen) and Ballantine (Fairbanks) Cutter and Din sneak out of camp.  They find the temple, which unfortunately is inhabited by the murderous Thuggees.  Cutter is captured, but Din escapes to bring reinforcements.

This was my first screening of Gunga Din, and it was a pleasant surprise.  I wasn’t expecting to be an adventure/comedy that borders on the screwball.  I’m a big fan of Cary Grant and even in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday I’ve never seen him play comedy quite this hammy.  Regardless, it’s a fun performance and Grant’s chemistry with McLaglen and Fairbanks carries the film, but at the expense of the title character.  Sam Jaffee gives the character of Gunga Din heart and pathos, but isn’t given enough screen time to present his backstory or motivations.  But overall it’s a fun, fast paced adventure.

Love Affair 1939 Movie Poster

Love Affair

Release Date: 3/16/39
Starring Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Maria Ouspenskaya,
Directed by Leo McCarey; Screenplay by Delmer Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart based on a story by Mildred Cram

Painter and bon vivant Michel Marnet (Boyer) and singer Terry McKay (Dunne) meet on an ocean liner bound for New York for their respective weddings.  Their “meet cute” occurs when a breeze blows a romantic telegram from Michel’s hands into Terry’s.  She’s actually amused that the telegram about a romantic night in Lake Como is from his future sister-in-law, and they strike up a conversation that leads to a somewhat innocent tour of her suite.  They take a liking to each other but decide to keep their distance during the next eight days of the voyage in order not to stir up rumors that would leak to the press and interfere with there upcoming weddings.  Try as they might, they just can’t seem to shake each other to the point where it becomes a joke among the passengers.  Along the way, the ship stops in Spain and Terry joins Michel on a day trip to meet his grandmother (played by Maria Ouspenskaya).  She confesses to Terry that she’s concerned about Michel’s lifestyle…unless the right woman can change him.  By the end of the voyage, Michel and Terry are in love and make a pact to meet at the top of the Empire State Building on July 1st.  Michel eventually cancels his wedding and tries to support himself selling his paintings (while painting New York City billboards) as he counts the days to July 1st.  Terry calls her wedding off and bides the next several months as a headline act in Philadelphia.  But as they make their way to the Empire State Building, a cruel twist of fate could keep them apart.

It’s hard to watch Leo McCarey’s Love Affair without automatically comparing it to his 1957 remake An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr.  Despite An Affair to Remember’s popularity and Grant and Kerr’s unforgettable performances, the 1939 original stands on its own and in my opinion is the better film of the two.  It’s no wonder Love Affair was remade twice (the third version was 1994’s Love Affair starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening): Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne are fantastic their roles, and (in my opinion) their chemistry actually surpasses Grant and Kerr’s.  Go into a screening of Love Affair without comparisons to An Affair to Remember and you’ll enjoy the film on its own merits.

Other notable films from January-March 1939:

Son of Frankenstein
The Son of Frankenstein

Release Date: 1/13/39
Directed by Rowland V. Lee; Starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi

Jesse James 1939 Movie Poster
Jesse James

Release Date: 1/27/39
Directed by Henry King; Starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda

Oklahoma Kid Movie Poster
The Oklahoma Kid

Release Date: 3/3/39
Directed by Lloyd Bacon; Starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart

Midnight
Midnight
Release Date: 3/15/39
Directed by Mitchell Leisen; Starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche

Hound of the Baskervilles
The Hound of the Baskervilles

Release Date: 3/31/39
Directed by Sidney Lansfield; Starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

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Thoughts on the Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

It’s been barely 24 hours since the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer was released and it has already topped 4 million views on YouTube.  I was surprised by the positive buzz over it in my office today, mostly from non-comic book readers (including one of my co-workers that admitted he’s never read a comic book in his life – you know who you are…).

When I first learned that Marvel Studios had green-lit Guardians of the Galaxy, my initial reactions were surprise and skepticism.  Considering the higher profile characters and super teams that have yet to get the big screen treatment (Doctor Strange, Black Panther), I was surprised Guardians was even on the cinematic radar.  I’ve only read a handful of GotG comics, so while I’m hopeful the film version of Guardians of the Galaxy will continue Marvel Studios’ current positive streak at the box office, I’m not as emotionally connected to the characters or canon as I would be to the Fantastic Four, Alpha Flight or even the New Mutants.

Before I even watched the Guardians trailer, I was convinced I wouldn’t like it.  Maybe a better choice of words would be that I was convinced there wouldn’t be enough in it to make me want to give the film a chance.  But I’ll admit, I liked what I saw though not without a few concerns.

Positives:

A solid cast: Bradley Cooper (Rocket Raccoon), Vin Diesel (Groot), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Benicio Del Toro (the Collector), Djimon Hounsou (Korath the Pursuer), Glenn Close (Commander Rael), John C. Reilly (Rhomann Dey)

The effects, production design and makeup/costumes show that Marvel Studios saw something in the Guardians of the Galaxy and didn’t skimp on the budget.

However:

The trailer doesn’t give any indication as to what the movie is about.  Maybe the “Who are these guys?” element of the trailer will drum up initial curiosity/interest in the film, but I can’t help but wonder what it might be lacking in plot.

The reliance on comedy in the trailer has me concerned that the studio is trying to make the film more “accessible” to a non-comic reading audience by having the film make fun of itself rather than creating a story true to the GotG canon.  Nothing irks me more than a comic book movie that gives a wink to the audience as if to say, “We know comics aren’t cool, but this is!”  Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord reminded me of Bill Pullman’s character Lone Starr in Spaceballs.

But in spite of my concerns, I’ll still hold out hope that Guardians of the Galaxy is a good film that both comic readers and non-comic book readers will enjoy, and that it will be successful enough at the box office to add more comic book films to the pipeline.

Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters August 1, 2014.

On a side note, BleedingCool.com posted this article on Rocket Raccoon co-creator Bill Mantlo.  A significant portion of my comic book collection growing up was written by Mantlo, with my favorite titles Micronauts, ROM: Spaceknight and Cloak & Dagger.  In 1992 Mantlo was the victim of a hit and run accident that caused a traumatic brain injury and he has required ongoing care ever since.  I made my donation tonight.  I hope this article will inspire other fans of his work to also make a contribution towards the cost of his care.

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The Films of 1939

Beau Geste Movie PosterGone With the Wind Movie PosterHunchback of Notre Dame Movie Poster

With awards season upon us, it’s usually this time of year that old Academy Award winning favorites are televised in advance of this year’s Oscar ceremony (thanks Turner Classic Movies!).  I’ve never really been a fan of the awards presentations, and most of my favorite films were never nominated anyway, but it is nice to turn on a channel like TCM and watch an old classic again.  I look at this year’s list of Best Picture nominees and wonder if decades from now American Hustle, Gravity or The Wolf of Wall Street could ever be as revered among movie fans as Casablanca, On the Waterfront, The Godfather or Rocky.

Each decade of the last century has produced its timeless classics of cinema, but lately I’ve been reading about how 1939 is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest year for films.  Looking over the list of releases that year it’s a solid lineup, all of them classics to this day:

Gone With the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Stagecoach
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Love Affair
Of Mice and Men
Gunga Din
Ninotchka
The Women
Stanley and Livingstone
Destry Rides Again
Beau Geste
Babes in Arms
Gulliver’s Travels
Jesse James
The Roaring Twenties
Wuthering Heights
Young Mr. Lincoln

Whether 1939 was actually the greatest year for films is an argument that I’m personally hesitant to make since 1940 had it’s own list of classics that year including The Grapes of Wrath, The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday.

But when a lineup includes films like the epic Gone With the Wind, incredible performances in Wuthering Heights and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and a perennial family favorite like The Wizard of Oz, there’s no denying there was something special about the films of 1939.  And to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that celebrated year of moviemaking, Fante’s Inferno will revisit some of the classic films released that year in a four-part retrospective that will be posted in conjunction with the quarters in which they were released.

Part one of our retrospective will begin with several notable films released between January and March of 1939: John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach starring John Wayne; George Stevens’ Gunga Din starring Cary Grant; and Leo McCarey’s twice remade Love Affair starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer.

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