Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

Talkin’ ‘Bout Shaft

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

I bought Ernest Tidyman’s novel Shaft in 1970 at Iowa Book & Supply in Iowa City, on my way to class at the University of Iowa. I bought the first edition hardcover primarily because its black private eye hero was described in the jacket copy as making “Mike Hammer look like a sissy.”

When the film Shaft came out in 1971, Barb and I were there. We were perhaps unlikely fans of blaxploitation movies (then in their earliest stages), but we went to scads of the things, from Cotton Comes to Harlem to Coffy, from Slaughter to Super Fly.

For us, Shaft topped them all, due to the perfect marriage of the opening Isaac Hayes theme, Richard Roundtree’s charismatic performance, and Gordon Parks’ gritty, location-heavy direction. The follow-up, Shaft’s Big Score, wasn’t as good, but the finale was incredible, with John Shaft chased through an industrial landscape by a swooping helicopter. For some reason, the third entry, Shaft in Africa, didn’t make it to many theaters, and we didn’t see it until home video years later; but it turned out to be the best of the three. Unsung hero of the series was producer and Africa screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, the genius behind TV’s Route 66 and Naked City.

Shaft came to TV in one of those rotating anthology “wheels” (like the one that included Columbo and McCloud), but after seven TV movies the series was cancelled, though ratings had been good. The show got a lot of criticism for lacking the grit of the films, but looking at them years later, they seem pretty good (and I liked them at the time), with Roundtree great and the Hayes theme in play. They are available from Warner Archives as a boxed DVD set.

Warner Archives also just released Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa on blu-ray for the first time (the original Shaft has been available on blu-ray for several years), both as individual discs and in a three-disc set of all three features. I had long hoped for this kind of blu-ray release and it doesn’t disappoint. I have not revisited the 2000 Shaft with Samuel Jackson as the nephew of the original, played again by Roundtree. I will get around to seeing it again, but remember finding it just passable.

Now there’s a fifth Shaft film, and guess what? The critics hate it, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Seems the elder two Shafts (a young Millennial Shaft is the actual protagonist) strike them as politically incorrect, gun-loving louts, misogynist and violent. But the audience reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

There’s a reason audiences responded so favorably – it’s a terrific picture. I was in that joyous state I so seldom find myself in, these days, in movie theaters: I was a pig in shit. A lot of advance (pre-anybody seeing it) criticism has been thrown at the new Shaft on Facebook and elsewhere, for being a comedy and for not using the iconic Isaac Hayes theme. On Facebook, the question was posed indignantly: What kind of Shaft movie doesn’t have the Isaac Hayes theme? Many Facebook experts agreed that all real Shaft movies have that theme.

Of course, someone – I believe it was me – weighed in to point out that Shaft’s Big Score and Shaft in Africa, two of the original three films, also didn’t have the Hayes theme. Now that I’ve seen the new Shaft, I realize the theme is used a lot – just minus the Isaac Hayes vocal. But the wah-wah pedal-driven theme is used beautifully, when real Shaft-like stuff kicks in, like Jackson walking down a ghetto street, gun in hand, ready to kick drug dealer ass.

I pity the fools (as someone once said) who cannot enjoy this knowingly politically incorrect salute to the original film and its cinematic era. Roundtree doesn’t enter till act three, but he does so with a bang – a number of them. He’s wonderful.

But so is Jackson, much better than he’s been lately in some of his projects, spurred on this time by good material. Jessie Usher is winning as John Shaft, Jr., and the generational interplay between him and Jackson is funny and even at times touching. Director/co-screenwriter Tim Story does a fine job with both his actors and his action scenes.

As for this being a comedy, no – it’s a crime flick with comedy, not even tongue-in-cheek, although it does have an awareness of its absurdity. A scene in an Uber while Jackson tries to explain the film’s convoluted plot to Usher, getting interrupted by a chatty driver, is amusing proof of that. So is Roundtree’s throwaway reference to being called Jackson’s uncle, not father, in the 2000 Shaft.

The original novels by French Connection creator Ernest Tidyman are an odd but worthwhile bunch. Tidyman wrote the first three – Shaft, Shaft Among the Jews and Shaft’s Big Score – while the remaining books employed ghosts who worked from Tidyman’s outlines, with Tidyman apparently doing final drafts.

In my view, Tidyman screwed up Shaft’s potential as a long-running series character by utilizing two different ghosts and not doing all (or anyway most of) the work himself. The final book, in which he rather rudely and unnecessarily kills Shaft off, The Last Shaft, appeared only in England and remains difficult to find. Took me years, and I had begun to think the similarly titled, Goodbye, Mr. Shaft, was the same book.

Author David Walker has picked up the series in both prose and graphic novel from, doing so with respect and skill.

Also of note is The World of Shaft by Steve Aldous, with a Walker foreword. It’s from McFarland, so it’s pricey, but it’s a wonderful book. McFarland has a 25% off sale going right now, so it’s a good time to buy The World of Shaft…and Mickey Spillane on Screen. [Note from Nate: Here’s a link to The World of Shaft and another for Spillane on Screen. Enter code ANN2019 at checkout for 25% off.]

By all means, if you liked the Richard Roundtree Shaft, ignore the idiotic, easily offended critics and have a good time with this funny, exciting tribute to blacksploitation of yore.

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The audio of the new Caleb York, Last Stage to Hell Junction, is beautifully performed by Jack Garrett, whose range of voices is just perfect. I have been lucky to have solid narrators on this series so far, and Garrett continues my lucky streak.

And the book itself has received a wonderful review from Bookgasm. Check it out!

M.A.C.

An Un-Likely Miracle and a Marvelous Movie

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

I am reporting a small miracle, which is that Girl Most Likely turned up on the shelves of the Davenport Barnes & Noble. Sightings of Thomas & Mercer (Amazon) titles in B & B bookstores is pretty rare. So this was fun to see (evidenced by way of the pic included here). This is, I believe, a result of an upcoming book signing Barb and I will be doing in June at the Davenport store for Antiques Ravin’.

Girl Most Likely seems to be doing well, and holding at four stars at Amazon with 66 reviews as of the last time I checked. The first flurry of reviews, which came from the UK, were at times mean and often ridiculous, but those have been overwhelmed by positive responses among good ol’ USA readers, often young women, who are welcome additions to my readership.

The negative reviews seem to fall into two groups (and both are outweighed by the positive ones): male readers who want Quarry and maybe Nate Heller and Mike Hammer and are outraged that the novel is something of a change of pace; and female readers with agendas – sort of feminist but really just odd (like finding the word “attractive” offensive). One UK reviewer complained that I had noted that a couch and two chairs were in a room and a chair was selected to sit upon (“Thanks for telling us she didn’t sit on the floor!”) (you’re welcome!).

Which brings me to Avengers: End Game.


[Note from Nate: mild spoilers follow.]

I just read a Huffington Post essay complaining about how hollow the “girl power” moment rings in the film’s final epic battle. This is in the context of a lot of complaining about the boys in the film getting more time than the girls. I thought the moment was a kind of nice if heavy-handed reminder of the number of strong female characters that have been developed at Marvel, particularly in recent years. Why has nobody complained about Black Panther charging through the battlefield, with the Infinity glove, weaving and dodging like a running back? How stereotypical is that?

Or maybe we should all just lighten up.

The bottom line – other than that nothing satisfies anybody these days, particularly when political agendas come into play – is that Avengers: Endgame constitutes a remarkable achievement, a coming together of talent and skill on a staggering scale. The actors play the intimate moments just as well as the more epic ones, the visuals are eye-popping even in this jaded atmosphere, and the screenplay assembles so many Avengers, giving them meaningful and often funny moments, that it’s easy to forget just how difficult that task was. We’re talking, after all, about a cast that encompasses more name actors than any in history – where Robert Redford and Natalie Portman get walk-on roles. The original basic cast, of course, has plenty to do; but what about the newbies like Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Antman? One can imagine the difficulty of satisfying this line-counting bunch with the assurance of a least one really good scene.

As for us moviegoers, it helps to first revisit at least Avengers: Infinity Wars before heading to Endgame, and Barb and I did that – we re-watched several other Marvel movies, as well, including both Guardians of the Galaxy movies (our favorites of all the Marvel films).

I grew up on comic books, and bought Amazing Fantasy 15, Spider Man #1, The Fantastic Four #1, The Hulk #1, Avengers #1 and X-Men #1 off the stands. I gobbled up every superhero comic book Marvel put out, until Jack Kirby stopped drawing Fantastic Four. I was a charter member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. And though the specific comic books being referenced by recent Marvel movies are largely lost on me, I was a pig in shit at Endgame. It’s clearly the best superhero movie ever made.

If you pay attention to this update/blog, you’ll know I haven’t always liked Marvel movies. Barb and I have walked out on several, including (somewhat notoriously) The Black Panther. But in retrospect, the care that has been taken, over a 22-film cycle (!), to plant narrative seeds to grow and then harvest in these last two Avengers movies is an impressive, even unparalleled achievement.

Over these last several decades many comics fans have resented my insistence that taking superhero/costumed-hero stuff too seriously is to deny the childhood roots that spawned them, to ignore that the creators were mostly kids and their audience kids, and unsophisticated ones at that. To those fans I say, it is humor that has saved the Marvel universe.

Actually, the Marvel universe was built on Stan Lee’s quirky way of being pompous and then kidding himself about it. The Fantastic Four save the city, and then get thrown out of their penthouse superhero digs because being a superhero doesn’t pay anything. Peter Parker is Clark Kent but with all the funny and tragic foibles of being a teenager, his capeless hero “your friendly neighborhood Spiderman,” with Perry White lampooned as Jonah Jameson, “Spidey” up against overt-the-top villains earning their own silly nicknames, like “Doc Ock.” The comic books knew they were absurd at heart and didn’t care – in fact, reveled in it.

What made the Marvel movies work, from Iron Man on, is Robert Downey Jr.’s deft touch with throwaway sarcasm. He deserves an Academy Award nomination for this Endgame performance, because – while some of that flip sarcasm remains – he brings a tragic, human edge to the proceedings that remind us that he is an incredible talent, and a human being who has experienced both triumph and loss on a rather grand scale.

The comic aspect of the absurdity of a time-travel attempt to turn back the clock on an epic tragedy comes across in many moments in Endgame. Give an MVP award to Paul Rudd, who brings just the right humanity and humor to the party. So does Chris Hemsworth, whose first two Thor movies were turgid and humorless, but who revealed in Thor: Ragnarok a comic touch comparable to Ricky Gervais. And in Endgame he’s a beer-bellied, dissipated god of thunder, a wonderful characterization from the writers carried out with aplomb by Hemsworth.

The Guardians movies paved the way for allowing in more humanizing humor than even Downey delivered, and just in time. Ironically, much of the Guardians cast is benched until the final reel or so of Endgame, but the strength of their influence and of the characters established in those films comes roaring back, in so beautifully familiar a fashion.

My wife, accidentally, summed up the film perfectly: “It’s a marvel.”

Nuff said.

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Wild Dog gets an ESPN shout-out.

Here’s a nice Girl Most Likely review.

Another Girl review, also nice.

And, finally, another.

M.A.C.

Girl Most Likely – On Sale!

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

Paperback:
E-Book: Amazon
MP3 CD: Amazon
Audio CD: Amazon

Girl Most Likely is on sale right now at Amazon – $4.99 on Kindle (regularly $15.95) and $10.97 for the trade paperback edition (again, regularly $15.95).

Signed copies of the book are available from vjbooks for $24.99.

Last week I did a TV appearance on Paula Sands Live, the very popular local show on KWQC-TV in Davenport. Some of you may remember Paula from Mommy’s Day, in which she played herself…sending herself up somewhat, and really delivering.

Then this past week – Thursday, April 4 – I made an appearance at the Dubuque Public Library, promoting Girl Most Likely (Galena is a short drive across the river from Dubuque). We had a very nice turn-out – sixty or so – and just about everybody bought books. Great people – fun and friendly, with lots of excellent questions. Among the crowd was my old pal Steve Moes, location manager on the two Mommy movies.

The next day we spent some time Galena, including dropping by the police station to deliver some signed copies of Girl Most Likely to Chief of Police Lori Huntington.

The reviews for Girl Most Likely have been largely favorable, with the exception of a couple of nasty ones at Amazon (which have largely been terrific). One reviewer from Seattle finds the idea that Millennials would even bother having a ten-year class reunion “unlikely” (untrue) and finds the book “definitely written by a white man.” Hmmm…was it the author’s photo that gave it away?

A review by someone who claims to be a big fan who has read all of my stuff, some of it multiple times, advises all fans of my work not to read Girl Most Likely: “What utter crap this book is!”

On the other hand, we had a very nice review – balanced but ultimately highly favorable – that was sent out by the Associated Press to papers all around the good ol’ USA. In the past week, the review has been appeared in 20 publications, at least, and probably many more (the 20 are just the ones that appear online).

And the blog reviews are even better. I’ll list some links later in this update. If you received a copy of Girl Most Likely in my recent giveaway, and don’t agree that it’s “utter crap,” be sure to post a review at Amazon and elsewhere. A review by one of the getaway winners that Amazon wouldn’t publish – for no good reason – was easily posted at Barnes & Noble.

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Remember how I liked the Marvel Captain Marvel movie a while back? Well, I like the DC Captain Marvel movie even more, though the name “Captain Marvel” doesn’t appear anywhere in Shazam.

Don’t be put off by the somewhat deceptive advertising that might make you think this is a kid’s movie – it’s more the equivalent of a YA novel, with plenty of adult themes and scary villainy, perhaps a little too safely political correct, but what the hell – diversity is here to stay and a good thing to honor in a movie that will have a large teen audience.

What I like about it – beyond its acknowledged debt to Big (via a brief walking piano sequence) – is Shazam’s ability to be funny without completely sacrificing the darker elements expected these days. It’s kind of the anti-Deadpool, and I say this liking both of those films; but this has a good heart and the humor never walks the dark side – that’s left to the bad guys.

Zachary Levi is the unnamed Captain Marvel and Asher Angel is Billy Batson, the kid who can turn himself into a super-hero with a word.

The filmmakers go out of their way to honor the original source material – a comic book drummed out of business by DC in 1953! References to the C.C. Beck classic (Beck gets a co-creator screen credit with writer Bill Parker) are frequent, from the high school being named Fawcett (after the comic book’s original publisher) to setting up the most unlikely super-villain of all for a possible sequel. They even make a joke out of Billy Batson’s super alter-ego not having a name. Plus, we get appearances by Captain Marvel Jr. (also not named) and Mary Marvel.

For a rapidly ageing comics fan, this was bliss.

Do you want a plot summary? Just go to it, if nothing I’ve said here scares you off.

On the television front, Barb and I continue to adore Schitt’s Creek, which has done much to quietly normalize the notion of gay romance and now marriage. The show is reportedly wrapping up after one more season, which is a shame but what a run they’ve had – a post-SCTV triumph rivaled only by Christopher Guest’s films, which also starred Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara.

We also consumed the sixth season of the Morse prequel, Endeavor, and found it to be the strongest yet, and probably the best of the British crime series. A subtle aspect of these four movie-length episodes is the collision between the rough-and-tumble Sweeney style policing of the early ‘70s and the more cerebral Morse style policing of the late ‘80s-onward – both series having starred John Thaw, whose daughter Abigail is an Endeavor series regular.

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Here’s a nifty review of Girl Most Likely from bookfan.

And a great one from Jonathan and Heather.

Plus this one from Mrs. Mommy Booknerd.

M.A.C.

Girl Most Likely

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

Audiobook Sample (MP3)
Paperback:
E-Book: Amazon
MP3 CD: Amazon
Audio CD: Amazon

I am, no fooling, writing this on April 1, which is the pub date of Girl Most Likely. The Galena, Illinois, based mystery/thriller, introducing police chief Krista Larson and her retired homicide cop father, Keith, marks a slight change of pace for me – although nothing so radical that anyone interested in my work will find themselves untethered.

First, if you live in or near Dubuque, Iowa, here’s what might like to spend the evening of Thursday, April 4 – I will be making the only major scheduled appeared for the new book at Carnegie-Stout Public Library, 360 W 11th Street, in Dubuque, starting at 7 p.m. The event will be hosted by River Lights Bookstore, who will sell books, including Girl Most Likely of course, and my appearance will be in the library’s auditorium space. I’ll give a short reading/talk, followed by an audience Q&A and the book signing. Barb will also be at the event and our “Barbara Allan” Antiques mysteries will be available there, too.

Second, those of you who have won advanced reading copies of the novel can now post your Amazon reviews. I have had one reader encounter difficulty getting Amazon to print a review – for reasons neither he nor I can figure out – but he was able to post the review easily at Barnes & Noble. So there’s your Plan B if you need one.

As I’ve said in interviews, Girl Most Likely grew out of my desire to do something reflective of the approach I’ve seen in the Nordic Noir of The Bridge, The Killing, Wallander, Varg Veum and other mystery/thrillers that combine wildly melodramatic bad guys with, generally, detectives who are a little more real than the P.I.s, hitmen and small-town theatrical divas I’ve been writing about in recent years.

Girl Most Likely is also reflective of my wanting to develop something more thriller-oriented for Thomas & Mercer, where such novels have been successful for them – including mine. The Reeder and Rogers political thrillers for T & M by Matt Clemens and me are among my best-selling novels ever. Supreme Justice has in particular racked up strong sales.

I view Girl Most Likely as an opportunity to expand my audience – to bring in more women, and younger readers who aren’t Baby Boomers like a lot of the Heller, Quarry and even Antiques readers are. The novel alternates points of view chapters between 28-year-old Krista (youngest police chief in the nation) and her 58-year-old father Keith, which allows me to court such new readers, as well as have the nice contrast between generations.

I shared here recently some of the odd reviews I got from the UK a while back – Girl was an Amazon Prime “First Read” title over there, last month – though most of the advance notices here have been pretty good to great. GoodReads (where I hope readers of these updates will consider posting reviews) has been somewhat spotty. This week we are likely to see more reviews and get a better general feel of the reaction.

The two complaints – from younger readers and often female ones – seem to be about the clothing description, which I’ve discussed here previously, and that the ending seems abrupt. The latter is because I ended the story without a post-game wrap-up chapter – you know, like on Perry Mason when Paul Drake says, “Perry, why did you have me drop dry ice into the Grand Canyon from a helicopter?” Instead I revert to my Spillane training and end the story when it’s over, in what is (I think) a punchy way.

One recurring compliment from readers posting reviews has been how much fun the book is – that it’s a great “beach read.” That’s at once nice to hear and a little bewildering. The novel has a number of second-person POV chapters, in which you are in the skin of a butcher-knife-wielding maniac. The violence, when it comes, is as rough as anything I have done elsewhere.

For me, as these early notices (like the wonderful review and article in The Big Thrill), have come at a distracting time, as I have been writing the sequel, Girl Can’t Help It. In fact, I finished that yesterday, or at least shipped it to my editor – one never knows if one is really “finished” until the editorial notes come in.

But working on a book in a series while reviews for the previous entry are coming in can be disconcerting – you feel like people are reading over your shoulder. Nonetheless, complaints about too much description, for example, are not going to convince me to send my characters running around naked in empty rooms – I will stubbornly continue to clothe them and put them in specific locations.

I do suspect – and it’s just a suspicion, and there’s no “boo hoo” in this – that some female readers may not be crazy about a man writing a woman’s point of view. I have of course done this many times before – Ms. Tree, anyone? – but I am occasionally getting that who-do-you-think-you-are vibe, imagined or not. This includes the objection that I sometimes call a female character “attractive,” as if I am imposing a cultural stereotype in so doing. But “attractive” is a subjective word – it’s one of those words that allows readers to plug whatever their idea of attractiveness is.

At any rate, I hope you will judge for yourself. I am very proud of this novel – and its sequel, which finds me dipping into my decades of rock ‘n’ roll in a way no novel of mine has before – and hope you will give them both a try.

Dan John Miller’s reading of the new novel is available now, too (haven’t listened to it yet – but Barb and I will, as Dan always performs in a stellar fashion). And I think Thomas & Mercer did an incredible job on the cover.

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I see that Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us, has topped $200 million at the box-office. Nonetheless, Barb and I walked out on it yesterday.

Hey, we gave it a good shot. Stayed for an hour. But we found it dreadfully slow in its opening act, rife with over-blown scary music to make up for the lack of scares, pitifully hammy, the dialogue an embarrassment, and the doppelganger menace (and its explanation) downright dopey. During the flashback that begins the picture, I immediately figured out the “big surprise” (confirmed by Wikipedia’s write-up, which I checked when we got home).

This is a 94% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, so your mileage may really vary.

On a happier note, Captain Marvel is an entertaining super-hero flick with a great lead in Brie Larson and (no kidding) a relatively restrained performance from Sam Jackson. Now, any director who achieves the latter is one fine director (although there were two on this one, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck).

I am also looking forward to the fun, goofy-looking real Captain Marvel movie, Shazam. I am still pissed that DC forced Captain Marvel off the comic book racks when I was five years old.

In other cinematic news, all seven Road movies with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour are now out on Blu-ray (that talented trio was not available for Road to Perdition, by the way). I have loved these movies since childhood, and saw Road to Bali and the somewhat unfortunate The Road to Hong Kong in the theater. Barb loves them, too, and over the years we’ve watched them on VHS and then on DVD and now on glorious Blu-ray. Lots of fun going through them in order.

The casual, somewhat adlibbed repartee between these two performers remains modern and amazing. Crosby, who cheerfully plays a rat throughout all but the first film, and Hope, who plays a cowardly schlemiel, are magical together. Some say the men were not friends off-screen, but this is doubtful – they were in several businesses together, went golfing, guested on each other’s radio shows frequently, etc. But who cares?

I mention this chiefly because when I was searching Google for articles about the Road series, I came across one that informed me that Hope and Crosby were not funny, because Hope was a womanizer and Crosby beat his kids. Apparently, this means the rest of us shouldn’t watch those movies and laugh.

This is a most unfortunate era we’re living in. As the divide between us increases, like Hope and Crosby straddling a widening icy chasm in Road to Utopia, we are all in danger of falling.

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This is an article I wrote for Crime Reads about the rewards and benefits of a writer like me doing a change-of-pace novel.

Here’s a very nice Girl Most Likely review at Where the Reader Grows.

Girl Most Likely gets the number one slot in twelve good books to read in April, as selected by Cosmopolitan magazine.

The New York Post has chosen Girl Most Likely as one of its five best books of the week.

Finally, Matt Damon considers my novel version of Saving Private Ryan to be one of his five most life-affirming books!

M.A.C.