Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

On Kevin Spacey, Bobby Darin and Al Capp

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

I’m on a Bobby Darin group on Facebook, where several people have talked about throwing away their DVDs and CD soundtracks of Kevin Spacey’s 2004 Darin biopic, Beyond the Sea.

I get it. While I am at times queasy over the witch hunt feel of today – whose career will be ruined tomorrow? – seeing the creepy Roy Moore defend himself by attacking his attackers (the women accusing him, the Washington Post, Democrats in general, the media at large) reminds me that a verdict in a courtroom isn’t always necessary. Sometimes a legitimate verdict can come from the courtroom of public opinion, if the allegations have been vetted by journalists with the credentials of those at the Post. When the number of allegations grows to critical mass, as with Cosby and Spacey, that verdict has the ring of truth.

I can only say that Kevin Spacey – whose love for Bobby Darin’s work was deeply felt – was very kind to my wife, son and me when he performed his Darin tribute concert at the House of Blues in Chicago in December 2004.

Beyond the Sea

Spacey and I had a connection through Sam Mendes, who directed both American Beauty and Road to Perdition. When Barb, Nate and I went to the House of Blues, I brought along a signed copy of Road to Purgatory to send backstage to Spacey. I had ordered tickets for the event the day they went on sale, but when we arrived, we found most of the main floor was reserved for some special party. We were sent high up to nosebleed seats. The atmosphere created by Hell’s Angel type bouncers/ushers was decidedly unfriendly.

When I went downstairs to try to convince someone with the House of Blues to send the book backstage, I was treated harshly (I will never return to that venue). By bribing one, I finally got the book accepted, having the strong feeling it would be tossed in the trash as soon as I was out of sight. Upstairs, we crowded around a tiny table with a bunch of strangers and my family studied me with the cold-eyed “What have you gotten us into this time, you incompetent fool?” expression that I know so well.

Then, over the intercom, I was called to come downstairs to the front of the club. I went down and was told that Mr. Spacey wanted to meet us after the show – there was a scheduled meet-and-greet – and that we were to be given special seating. Chairs were set up for us (by some of the same crabby biker types who had treated us so badly) right in front of the sound board, dead center, best seats in the house.

Spacey came on and did a fine show. Afterward, he greeted us warmly and he and I talked Bobby Darin for about five minutes. He was friendly and articulate and I thanked him especially for making me look good in front of my family (something that rarely happens).

Which brings me to the today’s topic, as Bob and Doug McKenzie would say: Is the work of an artist suddenly invalid because bad conduct is revealed? And is there any coming back from a scandal like this and the behavior it represents?

I’m really just asking. With someone like Cosby, I think the body of work is so large and so at odds with his actual wrongdoing that it’s hard to imagine sitting down now with one of his comedy albums or TV shows. I love the movie Hickey and Boggs but haven’t watched it since Cosby’s fall from grace. I can’t imagine I’ll ever look at my complete DVD set of I, Spy again.

On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Al Capp and Li’l Abner. I have said numerous times that it’s not only my favorite comic strip, but in my opinion the greatest of all comic strips. It had everything – sharp satire, slapstick humor, adventure, suspense, great art, and…beautiful girls.

Capp’s women were outrageously sexy, and a hidden sexual content – the frequent use of the number 69, phallic mushrooms clustered around trees with vagina-like knotholes, the positioning of Shmoos also with phallic intent – was enough to encourage Capp’s former boss, Ham Fisher, to try to get his ex-assistant thrown out of newspapers by going around showing editors examples of supposed pornography smuggled into Abner. Unfortunately, Fisher doctored the examples to make them look worse, and got kicked out of the National Cartoonists Society for it, which led to Joe Palooka’s daddy committing suicide. (See my novel, Strip for Murder, for more.)

Late in his life, when longtime liberal Capp had suddenly gone right wing (as some old rich white guys do), he became a sexual predator. On college campuses, where he gave lectures, he would arrange to meet with coeds and came onto them; he did the same for young actresses who were supposedly interviewing for parts in various Abner TV series. No reports of rape, but plenty of obnoxious behavior, which eventually was exposed (shall we say) in the press. Capp didn’t kill himself, like his old boss, but he killed his strip and died a few years later.

Still, I love Li’l Abner. I have a number of Capp originals framed and on my wall. Is that wrong? Am I supposed to banish his lifetime of brilliant work to the scrap heap of history because he was, in his later years, a dirty old man? Also, am I supposed to be surprised Al Capp liked sexy young women?

Do we think Frank Sinatra would have held up to this kind of scrutiny? How about rock ‘n’ roll stars? Does anyone really want to turn over the rock that is Mick Jagger, much less Keith Richards? Did those lads from Liverpool have their way with some underage groupies? Would you be shocked if they did? Shine the spotlight on rock ‘n’ roll and it’ll be the sexual apocalypse.

The Millennials did not live through the Sexual Revolution, which created a climate of carnal activity for a generation who’d been brought up innocently in the fifties. Beaver was the last name of a kid named Cleaver; then suddenly it wasn’t. I don’t excuse the behavior of any of my generation, but I’m not sure we should have to sit for a jury of kids who didn’t live through it. Free Love and feminism were brewing at the same time, and brother was it a strange brew.

During those years, when things were loosening up sexually, homophobia went on unabated. Closeted gays lived an outlaw life style by definition. Like a lot of straight guys, I had gay men come onto me – the first time freaked me out. Later I realized that they were as uneasy and even more afraid than I was. Roy Moore still wants gays thrown in jail or worse. Might someone like Kevin Spacey or George Takei make a mistake, a misjudgment, a misreading of another male, living as they did in a world of shadows? How harshly should we judge gay men and women who grew up in the second half of the Twentieth Century?

Not excusing anything. I certainly abhor what these famous men, straight and gay, have been getting away with, almost always operating from a position of power. But I wonder – is there any chance for redemption for somebody like Kevin Spacey or Louis C.K.? Can they come back from this? Should they? Can I watch Baby Driver with a clear conscience, or ever revisit House of Cards? Spacey’s scenes are being cut and re-shot for the soon-to-be-released All the Money in the World – should his entire cinematic legacy be similarly snipped away? Must I forget the kindness he showed me and my family?

Can I listen to Frank Sinatra without thinking about Sam Giancana?

I really am wondering.

But I do know plenty of great art has come from terrible people. It’s a subject I’ve been wrestling with, and discussing, for years – long before the daily exposure of this star or that one as a sexual predator.

* * *

The new Murder on the Orient Express isn’t bad. It’s quite sumptuous looking, and is faithful enough to the Christie source material to receive an approving nod from me. True, some action scenes – including questionable heroics from Hercule Poirot – seem like pandering to an audience dumber than anybody who would likely go to a movie called Murder on the Orient Express. But it’s a good, old-fashioned (in a positive way) movie. It’s just not as good as the 1974 original – actually, not even close.

Refresh your memory and look up the cast of the ‘74 version, and see names like Connery, Bacall, Guielgud, Widmark, Redgrave, Finney and on and on. Such giants no longer walk the earth – well, a few still do. This Murder is committed by a cast about half of whom are names – Cruz, Depp, Gad, Dafoe, Jacobi – but hardly the superstars of old. Depp, for example, is quite good…until you compare his performance to Richard Widmark’s. In ‘74, Albert Finney made an oddly cartoonish Poirot (though it worked), while director/star Kenneth Branagh has to compete with David Suchet’s definitive Poirot. In fairness, this one is better than Suchet’s Murder on the Orient Express, a rare misfire for that wonderful series.

Barb and I also took in Thor Ragnarok, which is very funny while retaining the expected spectacle and superhero heroics. Marvel seems to have learned a lot from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

* * *

Here’s a nice review of Fate of the Union.

And check out this look at Mike Hammer and Mickey Spillane.

M.A.C.

Two Dracula Flicks and a Great Rip-Off

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

Barb and I continued our Halloween season nightly horror film fest with a pair of Dracula movies, both of which I’d seen on their initial release and neither of which had made much of an impression on me. What a difference a few years makes.

First up was Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Stylish to a fault, flirting with incoherence, this Dracula shows what happens when a director goes with the hot talent of the moment. Gary Oldman – who was his era’s Johnny Depp for maybe fifteen minutes – is a singularly unappealing Dracula whose sexual appeal for his female victims is a bigger mystery than the thinking behind Anthony Hopkins’ ridiculously over-the-top Van Helsing. Other momentary stars help bring the lavish production down to dull earth – Winona Ryder, a very lost Keanu Reeves – despite some fun touches, in particular shadows that have a life of their own. With different casting, and a sharper script (this one is by James V. Hart, whose others “credits” include Hook and Sahara), this might have, well, flown.

When Barb complained that Dracula should be a handsome leading man type – not a quirky self-indulgent nebbish – I dug out Dracula starring Frank Langella. John Badham is hardly my favorite director – he was responsible for Saturday Night Fever, after all – but he does a very respectable job that, all these years later, comes across as the Masterpiece Theater version of Dracula.

Langella’s surprise Broadway triumph as the count, in Edward Gorey-designed play, ran for 900-some performances between October 1977 and January 1980. The actor fought to keep Dracula a romantic anti-hero in the film version, eschewing blood-shot eyes and fangs, and his lady love/slash victim, portrayed by Kate Nelligan, similarly sold the gothic romance at this version’s (stake-through-the) heart.

The film apparently suffered due to the recent release and success of the spoof Love at First Bite with George Hamilton, but it plays very well now. Coppola’s casting of the moment is defeated by Badham’s transfer of the Langella Broadway performance, Nelligan’s full-blooded heroine, and a supporting cast showcasing those crazy kids, Sir Lawrence Olivier and Donald Pleasance. A wonderful John Williams score is another big plus, and the script is in part by W.D. Richter, whose cultish credits include the likes of Buckaroo Banzai and Late for Dinner (which he directed but did not write).

The Blu-ray (and the previously released laser disc) are a revision of the theatrical version, with Badham desaturating the color to near black-and-white, to recall both the Gorey stage version and the original 1931 film, while the theatrical release had a kind of golden glow forced upon the director.

Anyway, decades later my opinion of the Coppola film worsened and that of the Badham film got elevated.

Happy Death Day

As Barb and I near the end of our horror festival, we took in the current theatrical release Happy Death Day, which is a slasher film/mystery variation of Groundhog Day. This is an example of why paying some attention to Rotten Tomatoes can pay off. I had seen the preview of Happy Death Day and contemptuously dismissed it as a rip-off. I was looking forward to both Suburbicon (directed by George Clooney from an early Cohen Brothers script with a top cast) and the nordic noir, The Snowman. The critical response to both was dismissal – Suburbicon rates 26% fresh and Snowman a staggering 8% fresh. Meanwhile, Happy Death Day rates 69% fresh with a lot of positive reviews.

Our only other possibilities were the well-reviewed downers Thank You for Your Service and Only the Brave. We were in the mood for neither, plus there was something Trump era-ish about both, and anyway Happy Death Day worked as part of our Halloween-month film festival.

And Happy Death Day is terrific. It is indeed a rip-off of Groundhog Day (which it cheekily admits right on screen in its second-to-last sequence) but it’s clever, witty and brings in some nice new twists to the stuck-day concept. Further, lead Jessica Rothe is appealing even when she’s playing the early, somewhat unpleasant version of her character (like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Rothe must learn to be a better person as the day repeats – but she must also solve her own murder).

* * *

I am deep in the research for the upcoming Heller, which is about the Sam Sheppard murder case. I find the material disturbing in the same tough-to-get-to-sleep fashion of the research for Butcher’s Dozen and certain of the CSI and Criminal Minds novels.

I am also wrestling with the nature of the case, which does not lend itself to certain elements that Nathan Heller books always contain – specifically, sex and action. This feels much more Perry Mason, and I haven’t decided whether to just go with it or to find ways to make the book more typically Heller.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out what happened in this controversial case. Hint: it wasn’t the One-armed Man.

* * *

I may have provided this link before, but check out this nice “mini-interview” at Rumpus.

The actor who plays Wild Dog weighs in on the new costume controversy, which Terry Beatty sparked without wanting to. For the record, I think the costume sucks.

Finally, here’s a lovely review of the Mike Hammer short story collection, A Long Time Dead, from that great writer, Bill Crider.

M.A.C.

October Country

Tuesday, October 24th, 2017

Barb and I often watch a movie on Blu-ray or DVD in the evenings, and when October rolls around, we make a steady diet of horror films.

For many years, Barb avoided most modern horror films (she’s always liked “monster movies”), but after she worked on Mommy and Mommy’s Day, and had a behind-the-scenes glimpse at making movie mayhem, she has been much more open to such fare. In particular she is a fan of the Alien movies, in part because of the strong female central characters in those films (Aliens by far her favorite).

In the past we’ve gone through the Universal horror films, many Hammer UK films, as well as the Scream, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. This year we tackled Friday the 13th, although we stalled out after number five (a good entry), having begun to tire with number four (a bad entry). We decided to pick up next October with the rest of the series.

The only real misfire was the Phantasm series, which I like but Barb couldn’t abide. I understand that – the Phantasm movies are a very quirky affair and you either get into their sloppy but earnest amateur style or you don’t.

We took comedic side trips into Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Chopping Mall, the latter a film I’d watched earlier this year and put on the “Barb should see this” pile. I have several more of those I want to show her, mostly low-budget ‘80s fare that had limited releases theatrically but success on home video (not unlike Mommy); these include Warlock and Wishmaster, both spawning series that quickly got terrible. Vamp and the two Waxworks film are pending.

The top of the pile (and I spoke of this one before, briefly) is the South Korean film, Train to Busan. If you haven’t seen this, you need to. I avoided it for a while because it is a zombie film, and I’m fairly sick of those. But Busan is a remarkable piece of filmmaking that works on many levels, not the least of which is the scarcy-as-frigging-hell one. Most of it takes place on a train where a handful of survivors are wading through and battling off the many passengers who have gotten infected, died and quickly returned as ravenous zombies. In that regard, Busan is like Dawn of the Dead and other good zombie movies that have a strong adventure aspect – a resilient group of humans flees and outwits a zombie horde.

Train to Busan

But Busan has many serious socially charged themes, including greed, sacrifice, family, and bio-tech hazard. It’s also well-acted and brilliantly shot and staged; the director is Yeon Sang-ho. I think of the Hollywood fare that I’ve either suffered through or walked out on, in recent years, and see in BUSAN a level of filmmaking I’ve rarely encountered of late. I believe you can find this streaming on various services, and the Blu-ray is inexpensive.

We did take a break from horror to watch the fifth season of Wentworth, the reboot/re-imagining of the great Aussie soap opera, Prisoner Cell Block H (actually, just “Prisoner” in its native land, Patrick McGoohan nowhere in sight). We’re about two-thirds through and remain riveted to this deftly plotted and well-acted series, which strikes me as better than any TV series currently generated in America in the crime genre.

A sixth season is in the works. This one is on Netflix, I believe. We’re watching it on a Blu-ray from the UK.

* * *

On the health front, I am doing quite well. I have a procedure scheduled this week that I may be able to skip, as medication seems to have gotten rid of my a-fib and put my heartbeat back where it’s supposed to be. A cough that has nagged me for many weeks seems beaten back, too, and my energy level is close to normal. I am taking a shitload of pills, but gradually am getting off some of them.

I do regret missing Bouchercon. Looks like everybody had a great time.

On the work front, editing on Scarface and the Untouchable by A. Brad Schwartz and myself continues apace. Killing Town has been delivered, and I am researching the next Heller and hope to be writing in early November.

* * *

Here’s a review column by the great Maxim Jakubowski (no one knows his stuff better) that includes a nifty Quarry’s Climax review.

Check out this terrific Bookreporter review of Quarry’s Climax.

And here’s an interview with me on the Quarry novels from Adam Hill.

M.A.C.

Hey Kids! Free Books (Again!)

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Paperback:
E-Book: Amazon Nook Kobo iTunes

Hardcover:
E-Book: Google Play Kobo

[Nate@3:21 PM: All giveaway copies are claimed. Thank you for your support!]

I have six advance copies of the just-published Quarry’s Climax for the first six readers who request one and promise an Amazon review (Barnes & Noble also encouraged, and blog posts, too). Reviews need not be lengthy. And I have six advance copies of The Bloody Spur, the new Caleb York western, which will be published in January.

Rules: only the USA, foreign shipping a little too pricey. And you must include your snail-mail address in the e-mail you send requesting the book.

* * *

I know many of you were disappointed to learn that Stacy Keach had stepped down from reading the Mike Hammer audios. But I was able to enlist the man who has brought Nate Heller to life many times – Dan John Miller.

The Will to Kill is available now from Audible on Journalstone (the CD version isn’t available yet). Barb and I are listening to it in the car as we gallivant about the Midwest, and Dan has done a terrific job.

* * *

More Mike Hammer news, which I should soon be confirming. But reliable sources tell me a Blu-Ray of I, the Jury in 3-D is at long last in the works!

I love the movie and getting it on Blu-ray in 3-D is probably my remaining Holy Grail of movie collecting.

I have seen it theatrically in 3-D, which improves the movie immeasurably. The cinematography is by the great noir master, John Alton, and it’s written and directed by Harry Essex of Creature from the Black Lagoon fame. The cast includes the much underrated Biff Elliott as a very Mickey-like Hammer, the lovely Peggie Castle, Preston Foster, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Qualen.

* * *

I am sorry to report that we walked out of Blade Runner 2049. I have friends (including Terry Beatty) who loved it. I found it infuriatingly poor in pacing and coherence, despite the plot being simple. We gave it an hour, and when we left, Harrison Ford hadn’t been in it yet.

When I got home, I did some checking and discovered the director, Denis Villeneuve, had been responsible for two films I despised, Sicario and Arrival. I should have done my homework.

* * *

It has been, as people of my generation are wont to say, a bummer, having to bail out of the Toronto Bouchercon at the last minute. Matt Clemens is having such a good time there that I have determined to throttle him when he returns (in his sleep – he’s bigger than I am).

But it was necessary (staying home, not throttling Matt). I had another rough week, and am goofed up on meds as the docs work on getting me regulated to where I can have the jump-start procedure that will, I hope, take me out of a-fib and back into a regular heartbeat.

Good thoughts and prayers are appreciated, but what I really want you to do is buy Quarry’s Choice.

* * *

Well, the TV geniuses have screwed up Wild Dog already. Read it and weep.

Barb is speaking at a brunch in Muscatine on Thursday. A rare public appearance by my beautiful, somewhat publicity-averse wife.

Here is a lovely article about Quarry, with a gallery of the Hard Case Crime covers.

Check out this lovely Quarry’s Climax review.

And here, I am pleased to say, is another.

M.A.C.