Skip to content

Book Review: The Death Freak by Clifford Irving & Herbert Burkholz (1976)

February 12, 2016

the-death-freak-by-clifford-irving-and-herbert-burkholzI seem to be inadvertently drawn to action books from the 1970s with a fair amount of kink these days.First there were Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction in physical form, and now The Death Freak by Clifford Irving and Herbert Burkholz. While those were about an art historian-turned-secret agent, this one’s about U.S. and Russian murder masters who pull a Strangers On A Train and start taking out each others’ targets.

Both Eddie Mancuso and Vasily Borgneff work for their respective governments as architects of death, not actual assassins, but the people who figure out how to kill the targets when a simple sniper rifle won’t work. They both want out, but know that the very small group of agents they work for will never have it. Luckily, since the number of people who officially know about them is relatively small, it’s a number that can be easily terminated. Of course, none of it’s actually easy as both sides use computers to figure out the probability of each man’s next move.

So, once they make contact with one another thanks to the help of a woman who’s sleeping with them both, the two men come to an agreement and get to work figuring out how to take out their targets. The first few go quite well, but eventually the agents catch on and bring in a contingent of soldiers to put their scheme to an end.

As an action and intrigue story, Death Freak is on point. The authors bounce back and forth between each target making sure you never quite lose interest in their dirty deeds. Speaking of which, boy do some of these assassinations get kinky. The book actually starts off with a woman and her husband — one of Eddie’s superiors — getting violent before making love so there’s precedence right off the bat, but I was not expecting the graphic BDSM scenes. I don’t consider myself overly squeamish, but I definitely grimaced through those chapters.

Much like with Eiger and Loo, I feel like Death Freak would make a fantastic action thriller on the big screen. You’d only have to take out a few scenes and update a few others (actually, that whole Soviet Russia thing might be tricky, let’s do it as a period piece!). Still, there’s plenty of solid material here to bring to the big screen. Maybe if I keep reading these largely forgotten thrillers, I’ll hit on one that I can adapt into the next big blockbuster!

Classic Comic Double Feature: The Rocketeer (1991) & Dick Tracy (1990)

February 11, 2016

rocketeer posterA few weekends back we found ourselves in the enviable position of experiencing a light snowfall without much else to do so we decided to scroll through our On Demand options for a family movie. As it turns out we have free Showtime for a bit and The Rocketeer was on there, so we decided to give it a watch.

I don’t remember if I saw this movie in the theaters when it came out, but we did subscribe to Disney Channel back then (long before it was free) so I remember seeing a lot about it and probably caught it on TV.

Set in 1938, it’s about a stunt pilot named Cliff who discovers a rocket pack in his plane, designs a costume and helmet and fights bad guys including local mobsters (lead by Pau Sorvino) and movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) all while trying to keep things going with his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelley).

Directed by Joe Johnston who went on to eventually helm Captain America: The First Avenger, the movie not only works as an action-packed superhero film, but also a fun period piece that references a number of classic actors, actresses and other historical figures from the era (including Lost star Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes!). Add to that that real-life elements like potential Hollywood stars working with the Nazis and mobsters refusing to do the same and you have a great film that holds up really well aside from a few clunky special effects scenes here and there.

As a kid, I had no idea who the Rocketeer was before the film hit, but now I know that it was an indie comic book created by Dave Stevens in the 80s during that boom. However, I never got around to reading the actual comics until last year when I got my hands on the IDW-published reprint of Stevens’ entire run, though I was more interested in the pictures. You really don’t need to read the words because the art is just so crisp, clear and expressive. Plus, the colors in that book are just amazing. I don’t know how they compare to the original, but imagine they’re much better given IDW’s reputation for doing super high quality reprints and today’s far better printing techniques.

Dick-Tracy-PosterWhile scrolling through the options to get to The Rocketeer, I also saw Dick Tracy as an option. I LOVED this movie as a kid and realized that, given the obvious similarities, it would make for an excellent double feature mate with Rocketeer.

Based on the classic comic strip created by Chester Gould in the 1930s, Dick Tracy was directed by and starred Warren Beatty as the yellow-clad copper. He’s joined by Charlie Kormo’s The Kid, Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney, Al Pacino’s Big Boy and a variety of others as Tracy attempts to bring the mob boss down while keeping his relationship with Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly) together and figuring out what to do with his new ward.

The beauty of this movie is that Beatty went full boat when it came to recreating the look and feel of the comic strips on the big screen. The suits and cars are all wildly colorful, matte paintings give the world an ethereal feel and the bag guy make-up brings characters like Little Face, Flat Top and Pruneface fully to life. Add in the idea of a kid trying to constantly get in on grown-up cop action, the pseudo love triangle with Breathless and the mystery of No Face and you’ve got a super fun and compelling movie that doesn’t get enough kudos from the comic-loving crowd.

As I mentioned, I was a huge fan of this flick when it came out. I definitely remember seeing it in the theater and as scenes appeared on my TV I remembered them from that viewing experience as well as moments captured by the trading card set. That feeling has lingered to this day when I basically want an Apple Watch just so I can feel like Dick Tracy (anyone else remember the wrist watch walkie talkies they sold?).

My four year old daughter slept through most of the first film and was looking at Disney princess dresses during the second, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend these for kids her age. Given the presence of mobsters, shooting, concrete and Madonna’s crazy dresses, it might not be appropriate.

That reminds me. I’m not a fan of Madonna’s outside of this movie and A League Of Their Own, but man, she just KILLS it in this movie. I’m sure I was dazzled by her sheer dresses as a kid, but this time around I really found myself feeling bad for her when she was ever so desperately trying to convince Dick Tracy to love her. Her character adds an interesting intensity to this film that just adds to the overall unique nature of a project that could have easily become what all the terrible late 90s comic book movies turned into: exaggerated cartoons with no concept of what made the source material work.

So, while these might not be the best movies to show a couple of kids (like we did), they are a ton of fun and act as a kind of vanguard for quality comic-based films that would come a decade or so later.

Charles Burns Trade Post: X’ed Out, The Hive & Sugar Skull

February 10, 2016

x'ed outBack when Charles Burns’ X’ed Out was first announced, I’m pretty sure I was still at Wizard. The idea was that he’d publish this story in three parts over the course of years. At the time, I don’t think I’d read Black Hole yet, but was still curious about the book. Even so, I figured I’d wait until the entire thing was out in the world before I read it.

Cut to a few weeks back when I was looking at my library’s art section and found several shelves dedicated to books on the history of comics and even a few seemingly misplaced graphic novels like X’ed. I grabbed it and put in a request for The Hive and Sugar Skull immediately after getting home and read them all within a few days of each other, which is definitely the way to go unless you can sit down and knock them out one right after the other.

the hiveThese three books chronicle large chunks of Doug’s life. Doug’s a dude who liked to dress up in a Tintin mask (called Nitnit in the book) and spout half-written poetry off to the sound of noise collages at rock shows while in college. He had a girlfriend, but left her for a girl he found far more interesting named Sarah. In a lot of ways, Sarah changes his life. He finds a fellow artist in her, someone who actually does more with her talent than take awkward self portraits with a Polaroid. But, like Doug, Sarah has a lot of other things going on, including a crazy ex boyfriend.

None of this is expressed as linearly in the book as in the above paragraph. We cut from periods of Doug’s life — usually designated by haircuts, chubbiness and scars that you just have to pick up on — to a Nitnit-inspired world filled with overly mean lizards, red and white eggs and bed-ridden versions of the women he loved who birth those eggs. I’m far from the best person in the world to analyze anything, but upon my first reading, I saw this world as the place Doug retreated to to punish himself for not being the person he thought he could be.

sugar skullWhen I finished Sugar Skull I felt very much like I did after watching David Lynch’s Lost Highway for the first time. In both cases I felt moved by the ingestion of art I just partook in, but knew that I wouldn’t actually understand it without repeated attempts (or possibly ever). Some people love having every beat and moment explained to them — and I honestly wouldn’t mind an in depth conversation about these books in the next few weeks before the memories begin to fade — but man, I love this kind of thing. It’s not the sort of entertainment I put into my brain often, because of general parent-related tiredness, but when I do, this is exactly the kind of deep, dark, layered story I want.

 

Toy Commercial Tuesday: Dick Tracy Figures & Walkie Talkie

February 9, 2016

As you will see in a post going up on Thursday, I was a huge fan of the whole Dick Tracy experience in 1990. I loved the movie, I picked up some of the toys, I collected the trading cards and I desperately wanted a watch that doubled as a phone.

In this spot, you can see some of those toys and a replica of the famous watch that basically just told time. If memory serves, there was a set of massive wristwatch walkie talkies you could buy as well.

Trade Post: Disney Kingdoms Seekers Of The Weird

January 20, 2016

disney kingdoms seekers of the weird HC Disney Kingdoms: Seekers of the Weird (Marvel)
Written by Brandon Seifert, drawn by Karl Moline with Filipe Andrade
Collects Disney Kingdoms: Seekers Of The Weird #1-5

Disney Kingdoms: Seekers Of The Weird is a book I was interested in for several reasons. First, I’d interviewed the writer Brandon Seifert a number of times. Second, my family loves Disney and third, it just sounded rad.

Back in 2011 I interviewed Brandon Seifert for CBR about his Image book Witch Doctor returning to stores. As I tend to do, I didn’t think much about the book again until a few months later I was combing through the Image releases and read what was out. Man, that’s a fun comic! It reminded me of a demented version of Doctor Who with a more magical leaning (many compare it to House, but I’ve never watched that show).

Anyway, I was psyched to later see him get a job writing the Doctor Who comic and jumped at the chance to interview him for Marvel.com in 2013 for the Seekers Of The Weird book which is part of Marvel’s exploration of Disney rides and attractions through comics. As it happens, my family belongs to the Disney Vacation Club so we’re fairly familiar with the place. One of my favorite attractions is the Haunted Mansion (I don’t like roller coasters), so I was even more interested when I heard that the Museum of the Weird was a planned add-on to the original attraction in Disneyland that never came to happen because of Walt Disney’s passing.

Seifert and Karl Moline were actually able to work with Rolly Crump, the Imagineer who developed the attraction to build this story around high school siblings Melody and Maxwell who soon discover that supernatural forces truly exist when their parents get kidnapped and their uncle Roland appears fighting monsters. From there, they learn the truth about a group called The Wardens that collects supernatural objects and puts them in the Museum so they can’t hurt the world at large. At the same time, they aim to save their parents even if it might threaten humanity at large.

Melody and Max are delightful protagonists. I’m sick of the always-fighting-siblings thing, and this is far from that. These kids love each other, even though they get on each others’ nerves. They also balance each other well as they go on this journey that includes a sentient living room, a bird-legged villainess and a unicorn made out of plants all of which are beautifully drafted by Moline (who also killed it on Buffy) and fill-in artist Andrade. It’s fantastic seeing Melody and her ever-present lacrosse stick taking on all manner of monster.

Supernatural and fantasy are far from my genre strong suits, but it still felt like when the story was leading to something expected, there was a turn that lead into a different direction. I’m always a fan of that, so I’m definitely down with this book and hope there are more in the works because it’s a lot of fun.

Toy Commercial Tuesday: Batman Forever Figures

January 19, 2016

I was about 12 when Batman Forever came out. I’m fairly certain I saw it in the theaters, but don’t have much memory of the outing aside from chuckling at the “Holy rusted metal,” line that Chris O’Donnell says at the end. Even though I was down with Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Jim Carey as The Riddler, I think this was the first movie I saw where part of my brain was like, “This might not be good.” I can’t say for sure that’s where my love of bad movies started, but I can say that I liked it AND that I didn’t see Batman and Robin in theaters, so take that for whatever it’s worth.

At that time, I was still fully engrossed in the world of collecting Batman toys and did get the Two-Face toy, which comes with a gun permanently melded in his hand and a scratched up coin. I didn’t have the Dick Grayson seen in this spot, but would have grabbed him given the chance because that was my idea of awesome as a kid. Man, what a bonkers line and movie!

Warming Up To The Iceman (2012)

January 14, 2016

the iceman posterA few years back, before we had kids, my wife and I spent some time at her parents’ house in New Hampshire and I happened to see one of HBO’s documentaries on mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. I was instantly captivated by his seemingly honest, simple and concise recollection of over a hundred murders, some of which he was paid to commit and others that came as a result of simple misunderstandings or perceived insults from random people. After getting caught by police, he spoke to plenty of people about what he did and why and those people have written books and made documentaries. The Iceman by director Ariel Vromen is a dramatic retelling of some of those events plus healthy doses of fiction thrown in for added drama.

Basically, Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) grew up in an abusive family that eventually lead him down a life of violence and crime. Before long he found himself married to Deborah (Winona Ryder), but also working for mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) who made him an enforcer and hitman. As his life progressed, Kuklinski branched out working for other people, with a fellow killer Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), knocked off a few of his friends and eventually got caught by the cops.

In addition to being somewhat familiar with the film’s subject, I was also very interested in this cast. Shannon, who I’ve only ever seen as Zod in Man Of Steel, turned out to be positively captivating. I haven’t gone back and looked at the tapes, but his performance made my brain buzz with memories of that viewing experience. On top of that, he also has a real quiet menace to him that makes him scarier than an alien overlord. Captain America himself Evans also stars in the film as a fellow killer who’s a bit looser and crazier. Frankly, the scenes they were in together were delightful in a creepy way.

As far as the actual story goes, it’s pretty solid, though ends abruptly. I guess that’s how it works in real life sometimes, but after reading about Kuklinksi on Wikipedia, I found out about this huge sting operation in the works that was eventually sprung on him. This film is completely told from his perspective (I’m fairly sure there aren’t any scenes where he’s not present, but can’t be positive) so it would make sense that he wouldn’t know, but it felt like a bit of a let down.

And you can’t completely chalk that up to the whole “life is like that sometimes” idea because they definitely made changes to his story for the film. In the movie, his first hit for Demeo is a bum. In real life it was apparently a guy walking his dog. Does that change matter? Not when it comes to showing what they’re trying to show about these characters, but there’s also something to be said about sticking with the facts if the point is to show how complex this guy’s life was. I mean, being a sociopath is one thing, we see it all the time, but to be one with a wife and kids who have NO CLUE what he does is a lot more interesting. Then again, I’m always more scared by the idea of the maniac who blends into the crowd than the one holed up in his house.

At the end of the day, The Iceman is an interesting character study. Shannon and the rest of the cast pull their weight and give solid performances that seem to capture these real life people. While some of it might play off like plenty of other mobster movies, this one benefits from the real life aspects incorporated into the proceedings.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 867 other followers