Feb 9 2017

Guest List: Thomas Kent Miller’s Top 13 Graphics Left Out of Mars in the Movies

In his wonderful new book, Mars in the Movies: A History, former NASA employee Thomas Kent Miller takes us on every cinematic journey to the red planet, film by film, from the silents to today. And now, for a Flick Attack Guest List, the author takes us on a cinematic journey of a different kind: through the photos and illustrations that you won’t find in the finished book! Its loss is our gain. Time to blast off!

A printed book is a most finite object. It has a beginning, middle and end not only in terms of its size, content and page count. It also has strict limitations in time; books have production schedules with merciless restrictions of all sorts, especially deadlines. I turned in 69 graphics with my manuscript, and 43 glorious images were used. Those that “didn’t make the cut” were rejected mainly due to resolution issues. I’m sharing here 13 pieces of art that I mourn didn’t get into the book. These are presented in chronological order.

1. From the 1918 Danish film A Trip to Mars (Das Himmelskibet), this is the spaceship Excelsior, in which adventurer Avanti Planetarios and his crew spend six months cruising to the Red Planet. As far as I can tell, this is the first Mars “rocketship” in the cinema.

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Feb 8 2017

Arachnid (2001)

On a medical expedition to a remote and seemingly uninhabited South American island, a team of researchers and their guides finds itself stranded when the plane loses power and crashes. That’s the least of the travelers’ troubles, as they’re soon deluged by giant, acid-spitting spiders — yes, that’s spiders, plural, despite Arachnid‘s singular title — and the occasional toxin-filled tick.

These sorry saps include a spider researcher who practically orgasms as he’s covered in webbing spewed by one of the aforementioned mutated creatures, a doctor (Pedro Almodóvar regular José Sancho, Live Flesh) with a Spanish accent so theeck that you may need to enable subtitles to understand him, a quiet native who shoots poisonous darts through a blowgun, and an all-American tough guy (The Pacifier’s Chris Potter, who appears to have studied for this role solely by watching Mark Harmon’s old Coors commercials).

Lastly, there’s the female pilot. (Get it? Women can’t drive! Hee-haw!) Played by Alex Reid of The Descent, she has to remove her shirt when she gets webbing all over it, which is hardly an original creative decision on the part of once-reliable director Jack Sholder (The Hidden), yet you may not complain …

… because there is plenty left to complain about, including what sounds like constant electric sawing in the background of Arachnid’s early jungle scenes. Even that’s minor compared to the spiders — the movie’s reason for existing, mind you — which look thoroughly ridiculous and penny-ante, but at least they are not CGI. Everything you think will happen, does, right down to an ending that cries out, “Arachnid 2: The Arachining, here we come!” It’s not often we witness something with eight legs stumble so demonstratively. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 7 2017

Swordsman with an Umbrella (1970)

Roving good guy Iron Umbrella gets his name from the umbrella he uses not only as a weapon, but also as a method of flight. Repeat: a method of flight. Even without all that, viewers learn right away he is a badass because, in the first scene, he flicks one finger to hurl sword tips into the skulls of a few ruffians at a local inn.

Iron Umbrella is out to avenge the death of his parents and teacher. His chief nemesis is a scar-faced baddie who dons a black hood for most of the movie, but there is no shortage of enemies! They are everywhere, including the man known as Poison Dragon.

You know exactly how Swordsman with an Umbrella gets from Point A to Point B, but with all the bloody swordplay action at, um, play, martial-arts fans will have a lot of fun getting there. Of particular greatness is the end battle, in which the two foes laughably attempt to make you they’re kung-fu fighting in midair and slow motion! They’re not. Did no one on the crew teach first-time director Hung Shih about wires and undercranking? —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 6 2017

The Invoking 2: Paranormal Events (2015)

Didn’t see 2013’s The Invoking? That’s okay — it’s not a prerequisite for watching The Invoking 2: Paranormal Events. Hell, to be honest, you could forego any 10-minute chunk of this sequel and still track right along with it. That’s because this 2015 follow-up is a sequel in name only and is an anthology, which the original was not.

As with producer Jesse Baget’s Monsterland, Zombieworld and All Hallows’ Eve 2, this movie is a faux anthology, in that it collects pre-existing short films, presents them as a whole and calls it a day. Yet The Invoking 2 feels sloppier and less satisfying, because this time around, Baget and company don’t even bother to include a wraparound device. At least they deliver the subtitle-promised Paranormal Events: eight of them, to be exact.

From Smoked helmer Jamie DeWolf, the opening U-Turn follows an inebriated redneck — he’s just a good ol’ boy, never meanin’ no harm — who picks up a pretty little filly standing along Highway 116 at night. She’s wet (not that way), mute and just points … toward his fate! In Insane, from Zombieworld contributor Adam O’Brien, a location-scouting filmmaker gets a nighty-night tour of a sanitarium that’s been abandoned for 32 years … or has it? Next, Jay Holben, an All Hallows’ Eve 2 alum, depicts a spooky evening of a woman home Alone … or is she?

You get the drill and you know how things go. You certainly do in the longest short, Natal, in which Corey Norman (Monsterland) shows what happens when hot, young things go camping for the weekend: never anything good. Amid all the predictability, only two segments stand out, and one of them, Jamie Root’s Melissa, is as unimaginative as them all, but legitimately creepy and over and done with in the time it takes to jump-scare.

That leaves Do Not Disturb as the best of the bunch. From Nailbiter director Patrick Rea, it holes up in a Kansas hotel room with an on-the-loose serial killer who gets the strangest dish from room service: a woman’s head, through the mouth of which pop out cards imprinted with answers of the questions he poses. Hey, whatever works! —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Feb 5 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 2/5/17

David Thomson is one of our finest living writers, period. He just so happens to work in the field of film criticism, yet his prose sings as marvelously as any acclaimed work of fiction. Each book he releases is an event for cineastes, including his latest … although it is about the movies’ archenemy. In the Thames & Hudson hardback Television: A Biography — heavy in size, heady in subject — Thomson relates the history of TV in the same manner he did cinema in 2012’s The Big Screen: purely on his terms. That means neither chronologically nor logically by anyone’s standards, yet the book feels that way once the whirlwind tour is done. The man can pivot on a dime, going from Gunsmoke to The Rockford Files to James Garner’s Polaroid ads with Mariette Hartley to Merv Griffin — and somehow, his dot-connecting leaps work. The cover image — the iconic one from 1982’s classic Poltergeist — is as good a joke as any, representing Thomson’s sometimes contentious relationship with the boob tube. And let’s be honest: His is ours.

While not quite a runaway smash, The Legend of Tarzan performed better than expected at last summer’s box office, proving there’s lots of life left in the lord of the apes. For the life already lived, David Lemmo recounts the pulp hero’s first century of existence in Tarzan, Jungle King of Popular Culture. Published by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback has the daunting task of distilling 100-plus years of content into roughly a 200-page narrative, and for the most part, the man succeeds. With Edgar Rice Burroughs writing dozens of novels starring his creation, adapted for dozens more motion pictures, there is little space for Lemmo to dive too deeply into individual works. Plus, the preceding sentence doesn’t take into account Tarzan’s adventures into TV, radio, comics, toys and other merchandising vines, all of which get covered here — just at a monkey’s-eye view. For example, the aforementioned Legend film merits one paragraph, but that’s more than is earned by Hollywood’s heretofore most recent live-action Tarzan film, 1998’s flop Tarzan and the Lost City (a vehicle for a loinclothed Casper Van Dien). Lemmo’s writing leans heavily on names and dates, so passages tend to grow arid. For those seeking a reference work on just the movies, reach for Scott Tracy Griffin’s recent Tarzan on Film; for a broad overview on the character’s wide-ranging market penetration and influence, Lemmo’s book serves as that introduction.

As you may have noticed with his previous book on Jamie Lee Curtis in 2010, when David Grove gets interested in a celebrity as a subject, he goes all in. Now, he’s gone all in on the troubled star of Damnation Alley, White Line Fever and TV’s Airwolf in Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness. One of the best things about the BearManor Media release is that it exists at all; although once a matinee idol, Vincent is remembered more today (when he’s remembered at all) for substance abuse struggles and other tabloid fodder. I’ll be the first to admit I thought the actor already had died. Perhaps Grove’s book can help — not to rewrite Vincent’s history or legacy, but just to make certain that someone acknowledged his talent and, furthermore, mourned its loss. If you’re not already a fan, Edge of Greatness won’t change your mind; I suspect it won’t even be read by JM-V virgins. Working without input from or access to his subject, Grove guides us through each step of Vincent’s career at a quick clip, from its sharp ascent to an extended train wreck of a fall. Any fear on your part that Grove will indulge in hagiography is unwarranted, as the rather odd and sobering (pun not intended) final chapter makes clear. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.