Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

Killing Quarry Book Giveaway and…Rambo!!!

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

I have a whopping 15 advance copies of Killing Quarry (the book will be on the stands in November).

A number of you were nice enough to volunteer to review pretty much anything of mine, when I went on a recent self-pity binge. I am going to ask you a favor, because it will help me get these books out to you. Go ahead and enter this giveaway, even though not long ago you sent me info; it will make things move quicker. Here are the rules.

Write me at macphilms@hotmail.com. You agree to write a review for Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your own blog or review site (if you hate the book, you are released from this commitment, but can review it anyway if you wish). USA addresses only. It’s important that you send your snail-mail address. Also, if you’re one of the kind people who volunteered to review my stuff recently, remind me of that.

These are ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) but they are identical to the coming trade edition – I had made my corrections and revisions beforehand. I would be glad to sign and personalize your copy if you request it.

Thank you for your interest and support. A Girl Can’t Help It giveaway will follow in January or February.

* * *

Rambo: Last Blood has a 27% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes. That was almost enough to scare me off, until I noticed the audience score was 82%. Somewhere there’s a disconnect.

I decided to check out the negative reviews, and here’s a typical excerpt: “…less an escapist action movie and more a dramatized manifestation of the most notorious sentences from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign announcement speech (Matthew Rozsa).” This political, politically correct tone infected most of the negative reviews on view at Rotten Tomatoes.

Also, I read that the author of First Blood, David Morrell, had given his thumbs down to the film. More about that later.

I hardly ever talk politics here. Most people familiar with me and my work know that I am a left-of-center individual. But I have friends and business associates who have different views, and having damaged some friendships over this nonsense, I now try to keep my opinions to myself. I mention this only because I liked Rambo: Last Blood very much, as did my equally (maybe more) liberal wife.

Before I get into that film itself, let’s revisit the first four Rambo films, briefly (my wife and I watched them, one a night, after seeing the new one).

First Blood (1982) is the best film, a fairly faithful rendering of Morrell’s fine first novel (again, more about this later). It is set stateside and deals with both PTSD and smalltown prejudice against long-haired apparent hippies (a brilliant mix) and is a rousing action film that builds and builds to an emotional outburst from the taciturn Rambo about the rage in him and what fueled it.

Rambo: Second Blood (1985) is a fun action film, fast-paced and impressive in what it pulls off without CGI. This is where Rambo becomes iconic in the way Mike Hammer and Tarzan are iconic. A structure that would follow all of the coming films to at least some degree has (act one) Rambo reluctantly getting involved in a mission, (act two) Rambo playing cat-and-mouse games with his pursuers in a jungle setting, and (act three) Rambo kicking ass in a large-scale battle sequence. This really is the Morrell structure moved from America to Vietnam, with Afghanistan, Burma and Mexico substituting in subsequent entries.

Rambo III (1988) is pretty much the same movie as the second one, but bigger and with a few variables – Rambo is captured and tortured in the previous film, but this time his commander – played by the always dependable Richard Crenna – gets the torture routine. The difference is the stoic Rambo, when he does speak, utters quips right out of the Schwarzenegger playbook – this, for instance, is the one where Rambo tells the bad guy, “I’m your worst nightmare.”

All of these movies benefit from rousing Jerry Goldsmith scores that invoke John Barry’s Bond themes.

Rambo (2008), which is also known as John Rambo and was at one point actually called First Blood, comes about twenty years later and manages to be anti-war even as it bathes the screen in blood. It’s fast, entertaining and gritty, and the CGI ups the ante (although I am not a fan of computer-generated blood).

Now let’s talk the current movie, the fifth Rambo, called simply that. I am going to do a plot summary, so skip the next three paragraphs if you’re spoiler sensitive.

John Rambo is on his Arizona ranch where he rides horses when he isn’t obsessively digging tunnels and almost subconsciously preparing for a battle that may never come. His Hispanic housekeeper, with whom he has a warm mother/son relationship, has a teenaged daughter to whom Rambo has been something of a surrogate father. The girl is obsessed with facing her actual father, who deserted her and her mother, years ago; he’s in Mexico and it’s made clear that Rambo cleaned this abusive a-hole’s clock but good, once upon a time.

The girl winds up in Mexico, rejected by Daddy, then roofied and dragged into forced prostitution. Rambo goes looking for her and gets his expected torture scene – this is roughly act one of the usual structure, as earlier Rambo tried hard to talk the girl into not going looking for her despicable old man. After being rescued by an undercover female reporter, who gives him first aid and information, Rambo then goes back to rescue the girl.

This leads to mayhem (act two, minus the cat-and-mouse stuff) as he makes the rescue. But the brutalized and now dope-addicted girl dies on the way home. Rambo, having killed the number two bad guy, goes home and sends his housekeeper away and preps for war with bad guy number one and his minions. Act three is the big battle scene as the bad guys attack, like Apaches on a fort manned by a single brave soldier; and here an underground cat-and-mouse game finds its home within the larger battle.

Throughout this fifth film, Rambo is shown to still be suffering from PTSD, for which he takes (and eventually abandons) medication. A smaller film than the preceding Burma chapter, number five is a solid entry and employs some of the most startling deaths this side of an Evil Dead movie.

And that similarity made me reflect on why the Rambo films entertain – it’s, in part, because they invoke several genres all at once. Rambo is Tarzan, master of the jungle and jungle tactics. Rambo is Mike Hammer, taking vengeance (the main bad guy always gets it good). Rambo is John Wayne – in the current film, he’s specifically the surrogate father of The Searchers– with horseback action heavy in numbers three and five.

But this new film makes it clear, too, that every Rambo is an inverted horror film of the slasher variety – he is Jason or Michael Myers as the hero, stalking and killing and sometimes in a shockingly amusing fashion. Stallone is a master at talking to all our worst but also best instincts – family is important in these films, loyalty and friendship (another Hammer quality), even compassion.

If Rambo (2019) is a smaller film than the preceding entry, and perhaps not quite as epic as what would appear to be the final chapter might be, it’s a terrific action movie, well-executed with a legendary, charismatic star at its center.

What has made many of my fellow liberals, particularly those farther left than yours truly, go apoplectic, is that the bad guys are Mexicans. They ignore an obvious fact: so are most of the good guys – the Hispanic daughter, her grandmother, a doctor who tends to Rambo, the female journalist who helps him and whose own sister went down the same horrifying path as Rambo’s surrogate daughter. Idiots who see the shot of the Trump border fence (actually erected under Obama) see proof that this film is one big red MAGA hat. They don’t notice that the next shot shows Mexican bad guys coming out of a tunnel under that “big beautiful wall,” delivering them in the good ol’ USA.

The reviewers, whose gentle sensibilities have been ruffled by a straight-forward revenge melodrama, seem convinced this film was designed to pander to Trump lovers. I just watched the special features on the previous Rambo movie – the one that came out in 2007 – where in the “making of” documentary, Stallone tells the story of the film to come – Rambo back in Arizona, with the surrogate daughter who goes to Mexico and gets kidnapped into prostitution. This would have been conceived around 2005 – uh, Trump wasn’t president then, was he? I forget. Yet I do recall the review I quoted that insisted the film was inspired by Trump’s campaign announcement speech.

Why does Dave Morrell hate the new film? He has said it left him feeling “degraded and dehumanized.” I understand the complicated feelings writers have about their work being adapted to the screen. I also understand how frustrating it is to be left out of the creative process (Rambo’s creator had some early talks with Stallone about the story, but they stopped in 2016). When my Quarry was adapted for Cinemax, the most distinctive aspect of the character – his dark sense of humor – was largely gone. But I got over it. Well, I cashed the check.

I’m not a close friend of Dave’s, but we’re friendly acquaintances who shared a mentor in Don Westlake. Dave taught at Iowa City and I used to run into him now and then; we would talk, mostly about Westlake.

One memorable encounter between us in Iowa City, at a bookstore – Prairie Lights, I believe – we have both written about. He had been offered the novelization job for Rambo II and was uneasy about accepting it. Here’s his version from his website:

I killed Rambo (in the novel First Blood), and now in the novelizations he would be alive. The logic really bothered me. One day, I crossed paths with my writer friend, Max Allan Collins (among other things, he wrote the wonderful graphic novel, Road to Perdition), who said that the problem was easily solved. “Just add an author’s note,” he told me, “in which you say something like, ‘In my novel First Blood, Rambo died. In the films, he lives.’” So that’s what I did.

Two other ironies or at least odd resonances occur to me. First, I had not written any novelizations yet when I suggested Dave ought to take that gig. Second, the next time I ran into him, he was doing a book signing at B. Dalton in an Iowa City mall, and Barb and I were on our way to see Rambo II in that mall’s theater. I believe he was signing the novelization, and I think he signed one to me, but I’ll be damned if I know what became of it.

Dave and I have a bond. We created (as best we can tell) the first two Vietnam vet PTSD anti-heroes in Rambo and Quarry. And we both based those heroes, at least in part, on Audie Murphy.

Here’s what I know about David Morrell: he is a great guy and a great writer. I respect his opinion on the latest Rambo film, and hope he will tolerate mine.

* * *

Check out this amazing podcast largely about Quarry, and specifically about Quarry’s Choice. The reviewer (there are two, both of whom like the Quarry character, one a huge fan) puts Quarry and me in a pantheon of three, the others being Richard Stark and Parker, and Donald Hamilton and Matt Helm. I admit to be blown away by being compared to these greats.

Here’s a fun You Tube review of Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother.

The excellent True West magazine gives me a nice boost for Last Stage to Hell Junction in their current issues and on their website.

Finally, here’s a terrific review of Scarface and the Untouchable…from a gun enthusiast!

M.A.C.

Spoiler-ville!

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019

Crusin’ played on Sunday, from six p.m till around a quarter till eight, at the Musser Public Library in Muscatine – part of the Second Sunday Concert series. We’ve been part of that concert series for about a decade, but previously we’d been on the patio, outside, at Pearl City Plaza. That space is now privately owned and being developed for a restaurant, so the series is now at the library.

We were supposed to appear outside, in the parking lot, with a Mississippi River view (as the patio had in the past provided), but the morning was rainy with the day bringing dark clouds, so we headed inside to a nice big air-conditioned room on the third floor.

Frankly, I thought this change in venue – two changes, actually, from Pearl City Plaza to the library and then from the parking lot to inside the building – would mean disaster. I’m happy to have been wrong – we had a capacity crowd, easily over one-hundred, with the overflow seated outside the room itself in the hallway.

It went well. In a way that’s frustrating, because I’ve been leaning toward making this my final summer playing regular gigs – even our schedule of six appearances has seemed too much. But we are planning to do an original material CD over the winter months, so maybe we’ll be back for a limited schedule to peddle our CD…three gigs, maybe.

We played five of our originals from that project and they were well-received. It’s tricky as hell for an oldies band to do original material, but we got away with it. That is encouraging.

For a long time I’ve wanted to do one last rock ‘n’ roll album, something that sounds like a really good record from 1967.

We’ll see.

* * *

Welcome to Spoiler-Ville, and continue on at your peril. Skip down quickly if you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the fourth season of Veronica Mars.

First, Veronica Mars.

The world of Marshmallows (the cringe-worthy name for hardcore Veronica Mars fans, who have been, shall we say, a-twitter over the death of Veronica’s longtime love, Logan Echolls, portrayed by slow-burn actor Jason Dohring. Marshmallows want the show (assuming it comes back for a fifth season) to find a way to bring Logan back. Creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are speaking in terms of the finality of the character’s demise.

This is in concert with Thomas (and to some degree Bell) talking about freeing Veronica from her high-school-heavy past in Neptune, California, and (literally in the final episode) sending her off to solve mysteries in what appears to be a hip variation on Murder, She Wrote.

Look, Bell is great, and so is the character that the actress continues to love playing – she knows it’s her signature role. Thomas is a gifted writer and TV guy, and they presumably know what they’re doing. I believe part of the notion of leaving Neptune flows from the two painfully mediocre tie-in novels that Thomas co-bylined but almost certainly had little to do with. The Neptune setting and extended cast, in those novels, are burdens and baggage.

Veronica can lose all of those characters, except one – and that character is not Logan Echolls, who has ceased to be useful in her story. The essential secondary player is Veronica’s father, Keith Mars (as portrayed by Enrico Colantoni). Their chemistry – their verbal interplay – is the heart of the show. If Veronica leaves Neptune behind, including Keith, the character becomes just another detective, if the cutest on the planet.

So if Rob Thomas doesn’t find a way to keep Keith solidly in the mix, that could sink the show, whereas all Logan’s presence does is drag it down.

On the other hand, Logan is probably not dead.

Huh? What?

Logan is a Naval Intelligence Officer, who is established in season four as someone who suddenly leaves from time to time, to do dangerous spy stuff. Also, right before he marries Veronica (I told you not to look, Nate!), she receives a text from him that says, “Sorry.” But then he shows up to marry her anyway, and shrugs off the “Sorry” as meaning he was sorry he was going to be a little late for the wedding (not a big church one, after all).

Okay. So how hard would it be to write Logan back in? Not at all. He’s off on secret spy stuff, so secret and dangerous that it might come back on Veronica if he’s found out. Naval Intelligence could easily fake his (off-camera) death. Then why would he marry her and put her through this? Part of the cover for his disappearing into undercover spy stuff would be to seem really dead…and marrying Veronica would at once (a) show her how he feels, and (b) get her all the perks of having a dead husband in the military.

So here’s what could happen. When Rob Thomas knows Veronica Mars is finally at its end (and it’s a hard show to kill, let’s face it), Logan can return. All kinds of melodrama can ensue, because Veronica will be furious with him, and so on.

This reading of the Logan Echolls demise may not be new – I do not keep up in any with Veronica Mars fandom, not being a Marshmallow, although I do like Krispie Treats.

On to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

First of all, I have seen it a second time and like it even more. It’s a masterpiece. I was able to convince Barb to go, even though the Manson aspect put her off; but she loves violent revenge (always a bit unsettling in a wife) and loved it as much as I do.

Tarantino fills the screen and the soundtrack with references that will fly over many heads. I thought I’d caught plenty of ‘em, but new ones hit me this time.

For example, when a bus glides by with a banner promoting the Combat TV series, the star pictured is Rick Jason (not the better-known Vic Morrow). Jason, whose name is obviously similar to DeCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, died a suicide. And Rick Dalton is a fading TV series lead who has suicidal tendencies (he’s somewhat patterned on Pete Duel of the TV western, Alias Smith and Jones, as well, another real-life suicide).

And when Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth stops to possibly give a ride to Manson girlie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), his POV shot of her is ironically accompanied by a “Heaven Sent” commercial on the car radio; her POV shot of him includes a billboard with a big slab of meat advertising a supermarket.

Tons of that kind of stuff. I look forward to spotting more next time around.

The looming question about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is whether Cliff Booth killed his wife or not. But that question is not answered, although significantly the moment that seems to say he did has him pointing his speargun at his wife while seated before her on his boat deck – she looms above him, carping at him, and when we cut away from them, the thought that he might pull the trigger in the next instant is inescapable.

But…(and my son Nathan had already ascertained this) on second viewing, I could clearly see that the speargun is not loaded.

I continue to feel the purpose of the rumor about Cliff killing his wife is a commentary on Hollywood judging people by rumor and not fact, and is a sly critique of #Metoo gotten out of hand.

When I revealed here last week that I had not liked Tarantino’s early films, I was hit by a few folks who wondered how my taste could be so terrible. Surely everybody loves Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bills! Well, I didn’t, although I may revisit them. My problem at the time, mostly, was that I knew the references – and not the resonant kind in Once Upon a Time, but more I knew where he was stealing from.

I also found him to be an obnoxious interviewee, still the nightmare video store clerk who tells you what’s good and bad and ugly, and assumes you don’t know as much as he does. I still have that problem with Tarantino when I have to look at him and listen to him. It’s just, now I understand that behind that geek-made-good persona is a truly gifted storyteller and filmmaker.

I think he turned the corner, in a good way, with Inglorious Basterds. Barb pointed out something that shows how smart she is and how slow I am – she said, after viewing the slaughter of the Mansonites by Pitt, his well-trained dog, and DeCaprio, “Tarantino really likes to right wrongs, doesn’t he?”

That was it. The cult movie regurgitation of his early films was replaced by a real theme that generated compelling narratives, not just clever, dialogue-driven playlets not adding up to much (Jackie Brown, excepted…Elmore Leonard, after all). Now he’s giving Nazis what they deserve (Inglorious Basterds), and slave owners (Django Unchained).

And the Mansion family.

Also, Once Upon a Time is his best film because it addresses Hollywood in a different way than the fan boy/video clerk manner of his earliest, over-praised work.

You are now exiting Spoiler-ville.

* * *

This is a wonderful write-up in Booklist about the Mike Hammer novels that I’ve been completing.

Here’s another of those write-ups where somebody notices that Road to Perdition the film began as Road to Perdition the graphic novel.

And another.

Finally, here’s a short but sweet RTP write-up, acknowledging the great Richard Piers Rayner.

M.A.C.

Once Upon a Time in Muscatine

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

If you’d like to pick up any of the Nathan Heller novels that Thomas & Mercer has reprinted (that’s everything but the more recent Forge-published novels including the upcoming Do No Harm), you can do so this month for a mere 99 cents per. Right here. Step right up!

If you’ve read and liked Girl Most Likely, please post an Amazon review, however brief. We’ve drifted just below a solid four stars and could use input from readers who dug it to push us back up. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?

I have been having difficulty with responding to your comments here. Readers seem to be able to post, but recent responses I’ve made to questions have not made it through the process. I responded three times to this thoughtful post from Mike Pasqua:

Sorry that we didn’t have a chance to connect. Two things: I am pretty sure that, without Miguel, Bill probably would be reluctant to do a one-off SOTI show (I know that Miggie missed shows in the past because he was working but this is different). Second, while no one person is indispensable, the loss of Bat Lash was a terrible blow to Jackie and losing John Rogers was a major body-blow to the Con. Yes, they did their usual great job because they are consummate professionals but John’s loss cast a pall on the event. Rest assured Robin Donlan is more than capable of taking over the reins but people were operating on fumes this year. I know that this was nowhere near the celebration that I expected it to be but it’s hard to be upbeat when there was such a void (I spent time with John’s wife and I know that this was beyond painful for her). Just my two cents.

I’ll respond to Mike right now, and hope what I have to say will be generally interesting to readers of these updates.

Seduction of the Innocent’s surviving four members have discussed the notion of performing again, one last time, obviously without Miguel but in his honor. Bill Mumy was part of that discussion. Now, he might change his mind, but the reality is we were not asked to appear for the 50th San Diego Con, which would have been an ideal place to do a final show, possibly post-Eisner Awards. Our thinking was that we’d probably do a single, if rather long, set. We appeared at DragonCon without Miguel, when his movie work precluded his attendance, so there is (as Mike indicates) a precedence for SOTI playing as a four-piece.

Saturday morning quarterbacking is the easiest thing in the world to do, and I have nothing but respect and appreciation for those who put this juggernaut of a con on. Mike is an old friend and he is a veteran of helping mount this difficult, challenging show. My criticisms of the con are mostly confined to the increasingly dangerous exhibition hall floor, where the problems of crowds were exacerbated by exhibitors who created a frenzy with artificially contrived limited editions that fed lines in main aisles, which in turn sparked belligerent behavior on the exhibitor’s staffs and on convention security. SDCC stands on the precipice of a major, even tragic disaster if these practices are not curtailed.

My other complaints are more personal – that my collecting interests are not as well-served by the show now, and that my age (and the aftermath of health problems) make it difficult for me to navigate a room with 150,000 people in it, all seeking their own pop culture nirvana.

Here’s another comment I wasn’t able to respond to (Nate is working on it), this from Brendan:

It’s wonderful to hear more about your Ms. Tree collections. I managed to track down a large number of original issues several years ago, but some of them were in a pretty sorry state, so it will be great to own fresh copies of the stories.

And a Johnny Dynamite collection is coming out, too?! I can’t wait! Are you and Terry connected to that reprint? I’ve heard you two share the copyright on the character, but was never sure if that was true.

Yes, a Johnny Dynamite collection is coming out from Craig Yoe, gathering all of the Pete Morisi-drawn stories with a bonus Ms. Tree story (one of the few things not collected in the forthcoming five-volume Titan series). I am doing an intro but haven’t written it yet. We do control the copyright.

* * *

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably director/writer Quentin Tarantino’s best film – certainly it’s my favorite movie of his.

I came slow to Tarantino. I did not care for – and am still not a fan of – Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, True Romance and both Kill Bills. With the exception of the Elmore Leonard-based Jackie Brown, his films seemed to me undisciplined show-offy affairs, and painfully reflective of the motormouth, know-it-all video clerk from the ashes of which director Tarantino emerged.

But starting with Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino began to better organize his narratives, making them less self-indulgent without losing his fannish enthusiasm and love of the outrageous. His characters no longer all sounded the same, spewing glib Tarantino speak; rather, they had specificity and even depth. Django and The Hateful Eight were among my favorite films of their respective years, and I am now – however improbably – a fan.

Like Yesterday, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will work best on a certain kind of Baby Boomer audience member (some will be put off by its bold storytelling and climactic violence). Tarantino lovingly, almost fetishistically, recreates the late ‘60s in Los Angeles, both the era and its artifacts. For those of us who lived through those years, it’s a time machine ride that will plaster a smile on faces despite the lingering presence of the Manson family on this oddly innocent world’s periphery.

I won’t talk much about the plot – frankly, there isn’t much of one, although for something so slight, the payoff is major. And this is a film that needs to be seen cold – avoid spoilers at all costs.

But the incidental joys are endless – replications of ‘50s and ‘60s westerns (and their differences); clips from films and TV shows into which the stars of this film are believably inserted (and, in one case, movingly not inserted); marquees and movie posters of exactly the right releases; products and places and things that now exist only in memory, brought back to life.

The film is not without controversy. Tarantino has not made friends with the far left by hiring some actors who have been tarnished by #Metoo, and his protagonists are obviously white males, one of whom (Brad Pitt) is overtly if quietly macho. An interesting and thought-provoking aspect of the narrative is the possibility that the Pitt character killed his wife – something neither confirmed nor denied – which has generated career-crippling rumors for the stunt man character. Somewhere in there is a commentary about the post-Weinstein criticism Tarantino has been getting, and knew he would inflame, but we are left to sort it out for ourselves.

On the other hand, Sharon Tate as portrayed by Margot Robbie, is a sweet, sympathetic portrait that shows the director as anything but misogynistic. This is in keeping with Tarantino’s improved ability to create characters for his little playlet-like scenes that aren’t just fragments of himself. Particularly winning is a surprisingly touching yet unsentimental scene between DeCaprio’s fading TV star and a female child star.

DeCaprio and Pitt give unflinching performances as “heroes” who are hugely flawed. What you ultimately have in Once Upon a Time is a loving critique of Hollywood and that specific late ‘60s era, at once a valentine and a reality check. Oh, and if you are avoiding this because of the Manson aspect, don’t. Their presence is unsettling but not a deal-breaker.

For me, the film had some interesting resonances. I was working on the script for in 1993 and ‘94 in Hollywood – not living there, but making numerous trips – and the world of this film was close to what I witnessed. Growing up in Muscatine, Iowa – and staying here for my whole life (so far) – it often strikes me as odd, how many brushes and near brushes with Hollywood I’ve had.

For example, Bruce Lee is depicted in the Tarantino film, and his son Brandon was my friend – and a huge Quarry fan. I once got a telephone call from him (while Barb and I were living in our downtown Muscatine apartment over a beauty shop, our rent $100 a month) to tell me how much he loved the Quarry novels. By the way, Damon Herriman plays Charles Mansion in Once Upon a Time – he played the Boyd character (renamed “Buddy”) in the Quarry TV series. I spent time with him on set – he’s a delightful guy…Australian, by the way.

Also, right now I’m reading Funny Man, a warts-and-all bio of Mel Brooks, and discover Jose Ferrer was a pal who Brooks often ran his stuff by, because he found Ferrer a good judge of what’s funny. Of course, Jose was Miguel’s father. I once spoke to Jose Ferrer on the phone about his love for mystery fiction, and he was so impressed that I was close to Mickey Spillane.

Yet here I am in Muscatine.

Right now I’m glad to be, because Nate and Abby and Sam and Lucy (son/daughter-in-law/grandson/granddaughter) have moved here and are just up the street from us now. Guess who went to a 3 pm matinee of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with me?

Nathan Collins.

* * *

Ron Fortier has done a wonderful review of Murder, My Love. Check it out!

A detailed entry on my band, The Daybreakers, is on Wikipedia. I had nothing to do with it, which makes it special to me. Pretty good. Check it out, too.

Finally, here’s a short but sweet review of The Wrong Quarry, my favorite of the list books (Brandon would have loved it), on Sons of Spade.

M.A.C.

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.