Archive for the ‘50/50 Movies’ Category

It. Exists.

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

[As the following contains a potential spoiler for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I’ll wait a few minutes for you to run out and see the movie. … … … ok, you back? Wasn’t that great? Anyway, spoilers in 3…2…1….]


It’s a goofy, throwaway joke, but the post-credit tag in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” kicked that summer movie up from very entertaining to A+++++. It also left anyone under 40 scratching their head and asking — “What’s with the duck?”

It was, or course, Howard the Duck. Director James Gunn had slipped in a sly homage to one of his favorite Marvel characters in the final scene. The cocktail-swilling, misanthropic talking duck once had his own best-selling comic book in the ’70s that was equal parts superhero parody, social satire, and existential musings. From the moment he appeared in 1974, Howard the Duck was a huge cult hit — and had a successful 5-year run until Marvel fired his creator Steve Gerber over creative differences, and Disney sued the pants on Howard.

Howard-the-Duck-01-00-FCHoward the Duck was also the spur to the greatest, dumbest quest of my life.

The cover of Howard the Duck #1 is still one of the best known covers of the Marvel era, with its send up of the fantasy illustrations of Conan the Barbarian and his ilk. In the issue, Howard is eventually sent on a fantasy quest dressed a la Conan, with nothing but a loin cloth, viking helmet and oversized sword. It’s ridiculous, but the spoof is so well rendered it works.

The thing is — I loved that cover. It’s so absurd but it plugged straight into all the stuff I liked at the time: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Dungeon & Dragons, wacky cartoon animals. And then one day, some guy at a game store told me that he heard they had made a D&D miniature of Howard the Duck in that exact pose.

htdEven though he didn’t have it and didn’t know who to order it from, he swore it was true. He’d seen it … or someone he knew had told him they’d seen it. And thus began my quest. For the next several years, in every game store I entered, I looked for it. I sought it out at conventions, and asked fellow gamers if they’d ever seen one. Some had heard rumors, some imagined they had seen it, but like the Maltese Falcon, evidence of the tiny figurine eluded me. Finally, I came to the conclusion the whole thing was an urban myth, that the game store owner had simply bullshitted me.

Howard the Duck 01 - 11And then the internet showed up.

I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but slowly the old curiosity came back. I had to discover once and for all if it was real or not. Googling variations of howard, duck, miniature, sword all proved fruitless however. Given the wild, open business environment back in the day, it was highly unlikely — scratch that, no chance in hell — that any company had bothered to license “Howard the Duck”™ for a simple lead miniature.

I did get a few hits: in the intervening decades, like-minded goofs had created modules, figures and entire games around sword-swinging anthropomorphic ducks. Weird, but didn’t count — I wanted the original. It was the holy grail or nothing. And then one day I stumbled across a site archiving old D&D figures and catalogs as if they were on an archeological dig in ancient Sumeria. And there it was —

Barbarian Duck.”

It existed. The urban myth was real.

A few more searches confirmed that Archive Fantasy Miniatures had indeed put out a 25mm Howard the Duck-like figure, complete with cigar, in 1976. Eventually one showed up on eBay. Suffice to say, I was the only bidder.

It is, admittedly, hideous. A small, misshapen lump of lead, it barely resembles the figure in the pages, much less the Howard the Duck of the cover. But it’s real, and it’s mine. And it felt good to scratch that itch.

So, who wants to play some D&D?



[50/50] Movie #14: The Sting

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Favorite Movie #14: The Sting (1973)

thestingSpeaking of old-timey classics, The Sting continues to hold up exceptionally well. This is all the more surprising when you realize that as much time has passed since The Sting was filmed, as the time it’s set in — the Great Depression.

Spinning a yarn of the two smoothest con men to every grace the screen, The Sting singlehandedly relaunched interest in ragtime composer Scott Joplin, and went on to win 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. The Academy Awards are, even in the best of times, either a self-satisfied mutual admiration society or a cynical marketing ploy (or both), but every so often they get it right.

The Sting is a near-perfect movie: an homage to caper films and the golden age of Hollywood, it is slick and entertaining in its own right. And while Paul Newman and Robert Redford are busily conning gangster Robert Shaw, the movie is delightfully misdirecting filmgoers with what’s happening on the screen. When the inevitable double-cross comes at the end, the audience is happy to be played.

This is the 2nd movie on this list by George Roy Hill, one of only three directors to score twice in the 50/50 countdown. His other — Slap Shot — is arguably the best sports comedy of all time. Both Redford and Newman did some of their best work under Hill, but Paul Newman in particular became a master of sly comedy under the director:

[50/50] Movie #15: Rollerball

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

Favorite Movie #15: Rollerball (1975)

rollerball2Forget the Superbowl. The ultimate championship takes place at the end of Rollerball: “No substitutions; no penalties; and no time limit.” The resulting devastation brings to a head the showdown between the corporate masters of a dystopian future and a global superstar. The 1975 sci-fi cult hit is still probably the best of the bleak “dark future” films of the 1970s. (It has certainly aged better than its contemporary harbingers of doom: “Soylent Green” and “Silent Running.”)

I’ve written before about Rollerball. A lot. Hell, I even designed a board game around it. The title game is that exceedingly rare creation: a fictional sport that is believable as a sport. This is thanks, in great part, to the cast of stuntmen hired for the movie’s action scenes. Between filming they reportedly kept playing, coming up with their own set of rules for the game, and even rewriting their own lines. By the time the film made it thru editing (and an enthusiastic marketing dept., who actually released the official rules as part of the movie’s promotional packet), a completely new game had been invented.

While that isn’t the point of the film — it is a cautionary tale of ceding too much control to corporations — the violence of the game helps drive home the heavy-handed message. Of course the great irony is that the director, Norman Jewison, originally set out make a movie with an anti-violent message; yet if Rollerball is remembered at all today, it is for the three amazing action scenes that showcase this fictional future sport.

[50/50] Genre Movie #1: “Star Trek II”

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Genre Movie #1: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

star_trek2-01For the 25th anniversary of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, we saw a special showing at The Carolina Theater with a fully restored 35mm print — and it was gorgeous. While you can laugh at William Shatner’s overacting or Ricardo Montalban’s chestplate, this is a stunningly beautiful film and, for all its special effects, a tense intimate drama. Kirk and Khan never appear in the same scene together, yet their interstellar mano-e-mano is one of the best boxing matches in cinema. Plus, thanks to big screen budget, we finally get to see the kind of damage starships can do.

“Star Trek II” isn’t just the best Trek movie, it’s a great sci-fi movie period. And, without its success — both commercially and storytelling-wise — there would never have been a “Next Generation,” no “Deep Space Nine” and (for what it’s worth) no JJ Abrams reboot.

And yes, I cried when Spock died. If you can get through Leonard Nimoy’s iconic death scene without shedding a tear, Scotty playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes will finish you off — heck, anyone playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes chokes me up. It’s a scene that deserves its reputation.


[50/50] Genre Movie #2: “Star Wars”

Thursday, October 24th, 2013


Genre Movie #2: “Star Wars” (1977)

Like Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas had a singular talent: he was very good at finding and hiring other very talented people. For everything that can be said about Lucas as a technician and movie maker — he was mechanically astute and had an exceptional visual eye — he was not a very good director, editor or writer. But he knew people that were. Everything we love about “Star Wars” — the look, the sound, the designs, the special effects, the sweep of the action — all of that was created by other people, who helped Lucas remix and reform the pop culture snippets he grabbed from movies and the pulp sci-fi he devoured growing up. (Heck, even the famous opening scene of the Star Destroyer rolling endlessly overhead was lifted from — or, if you want to be charitable, inspired by — a similar shot from “Space: 1999,” which aired around the time Lucas was in England to began pre-production work on “Star Wars.” As the old adage goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”) Lucas was a visual artist, yet the older he got, the more he forgot the most important rule: Show, don’t tell. The stuff people hate about Star Wars — the terrible writing, the abuse of English, the endless revamping and retconning — that’s all Lucas.


My “Star Wars” can be found in the amazing paintings of Ralph McQuarrie, who Lucas hired to help illustrate the script he was pitching. It was McQuarrie who gave shape to what we now recognize as the lasting legacy of the movie: its appearance. I still get the same sense of wonder each time I see these renderings, 35 years after I first discovered them in a short preview in Starlog magazine. These earliest images are curious too because the details are so different from what eventually was filmed, based as they were on an early draft of the script. In a way, I’m still waiting to see that movie.


(In a grand experiment, Dark Horse Comics recently began publishing a series based on Lucas’ first rough draft. Called “The Star Wars,” it is radically different — almost unrecognizable — from what appeared in theaters. I’m looking forward to reading it, if for no other reason than it, brings me full circle with my Star Wars experience.) As for that experience? Star Wars used to be much higher on this list, in my all-time Top 5 favorite movies, period. It was a massive influence on me as a kid, when I wanted to be a filmmaker, and even later, when it had a huge sway over me as a game designer.


By extension, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) should be on this list of favorite movies as well. It is widely thought to be better than “Star Wars,” and is frequently held up as the best example of how a sequel could be done. (It should be noted it was not directed by Lucas, but Irvin Kershner.) The Battle for Hoth is still one of the most thrilling cinematic achievements ever. Lucas’ endless tinkering with his ‘baby’ — instead of making new movies, he just kept reworking the same three films past the point where anyone cared — doesn’t take that away.


In the end, people can be very hard on George Lucas — and justifiably so. But the fact remains: he is probably the only director to inspire filmmakers around the world twice — first, when he did “Star Wars” in 1977 and showed everyone how to make a movie; and again in 1999, when he did the prequels, and showed everyone how not to make a movie. How many people can say that?

[50/50] Genre Film #4: “Excalibur”

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Genre Film #4: “Excalibur” (1981)

excaliburLush, sexy and dreamlike, John Boorman’s insanely shiny, insanely violent and insanely anachronistic take on the Arthurian legend is also the version that comes closest to feeling truly mythological. Studded with future stars (Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, among others), it is Nicol Williamson as an idiosyncratic and enchanting Merlin who keeps the whole thing from flying apart. Quite simply one of the best fantasy movies ever made.

[50/50] Genre Movie #3: “The Three Musketeers”

Friday, October 18th, 2013

threemusketeersGenre Movie #3: “The Three Musketeers” (1973)

Speaking of epic swordplay…  Every generation, it seems, needs to have its own version of the Three Musketeers, but it is tough to top this one. Directed by Richard Lester — who also did The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” — he ramps up the comedy and turns the action scenes into lusty, rolling brawls. Michael York reinvents the conniving D’Artagnan as a romantic fop whose enthusiasm always gets ahead of him, and Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain and Frank Finlay OWN the three musketeers. And did I mention Christopher Lee and Chuck Heston are the heavies? Film at the same time as its sequel, “The Four Musketeers” (a far darker and dour production), the first half of the pair is sweeping, jaw-dropping swashbucker.

[50/50] Genre Movie #5: “Aliens”

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

alienshicksGenre Movie #5: “Aliens” (1986)

“That’s it man, game over man, game over!” The movie that proved that not only can a sequel be different than the original, it can be just as good.

[50/50] Movies: Apocalypic Fun

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

Genre Movie #6: “Children of Men” (2006)
Genre Movie #7: “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

children-of-men-2006-michael-caine-pic-4We caught Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” yesterday. It is a stunning technical achievement, and should be seen in the theater, on the biggest screen you can find, but it doesn’t quite reach the transcendence it is seeking to find. For that, you need to go back to Cuarón’s last movie, “Children of Men,” an exhausting tour de force that will leave you both enraged and exhilarated. Set a few decades in the future, when women have lost the ability to become pregnant, the film explores dissolution, loss, and the persistence of hope even in the face of despair. Showcasing Cuarón’s mastery of the single-take shot, “Children of Men” is relentless even in its quiet moments. (It also gets major points for making Michael Caine a dope-smoking editorial cartoonist, who brings levity and grace to a movie about the end of the world.)

dr.strangeloveBut for pure Apocalyptic fun, you have to go back to 1964 and “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedic masterpiece. Eminently quotable, this deadpan doomsday romp is still a cultural touchstone, long after the Cold War ended. While Peter Sellers chews the scenery — in three different roles — with his usual aplomb, it is George C. Scott and Slim Pickens who go all in, achieving a level of ridiculousness that has not been seen since.

[50/50] Genre Movie #8: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Genre Movie #8: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

raiders-of-the-lost-ark-imaxWhen I started making the final tally of this list, I was surprised at how few Spielberg movies were still under consideration. As the list of titles was winnowed down, “Jaws” fell away (it’s only the 2nd half, on the boat, that holds up) as did, unbelievably, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which just missed the cut. I hadn’t seen “E.T.” since it first came out in 1982 and found I had no interest in finding out if it held up. Although I appreciated Spielberg’s admission that he was wrong to later alter it for the special edition director’s cut, by then I found I just couldn’t take the cloying happy endings he insisted on forcing in every thing he produced, and I couldn’t even tell you the names of half the movies he’s made in the last 20 years . (Ok, I did rather enjoy 95% of his take on “The War of the Worlds” … until, you know, the happy ending. And it’s still rather hard to forgive him for the nonsensical hash he made of “Minority Report.” I mean, how do you screw up a movie with a jetpack chase scene? How?)

But one title that was great when it came out and is still eminently watchable? Yup.