Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

…I Spoke Too Soon

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

Remember how last week I talked about how good the summer movies were, and how Barb and I didn’t seem to be walking out of movies anymore?

Then Atomic Blonde happened.

This was one I was really looking forward to – Charlize Theron as a spy in ‘90s Eurotrash-ville, showing off stylish clothes of the era, a popcorn flick with lots of action and a striking visual sense. Based on the trailer anyway.

And Charlize looks great. The visual style and the ‘90s fashions also look great. Lots of style, plenty of style, oodles of style.

No substance.

But you know what? I don’t care as long as I’m entertained. Hold me past my popcorn and I’m yours. But after forty-five minutes, Barb and I bailed. Life is too short.

Here’s the thing. The script sucks. It sets up a convoluted structure, where Charlize is getting debriefed (and not in the fun way) by solid actors Toby Jones and John Goodman. But the flashback-and-forth stuff tries to disguise a shopworn espionage set-up. Guess what the Maguffin is? Somebody has stolen a list of all the Western secret agents and if it’s found and they are exposed blah blah blah. Oh, and agent Jane Blonde…you are also try to uncover the traitor in our camp.

Then when you get to the airport, Jane, be sure to climb into the suspiciously waiting car not driven by the guy who’s supposed to pick you up. If you’re confused, just watch the start of Dr. No. You remember Dr. No, don’t you? It was released in fricking 1962!

Then, kids, stay tuned for mindless carnage and Charlize taking lots of baths in tubs full of fake ice cubes between stints of trying to convince you she’s a martial artist and…whoops, the popcorn’s gone.

Us, too.

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The Prowler

So what have I seen that I liked lately?

Bizarre as it may seem, I caught up with two very well regarded films noir that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. Both looked splendid on Blu-ray.

The Prowler, directed by the sometimes obtuse Joseph Losey, is a terrific 1951 crime movie ghosted by blacklister Dalton Trumbo, also responsible for the script of the great Gun Crazy. Van Heflin plays against type (he’s not the friendly rancher of Shane here) as a sort of male “femme fatale” who ensnares lonely housewife Evelyn Keyes in a Postman Always Rings Twice variant. Heflin is a sleazy, smirky cop, and we don’t even see the husband/victim till the murder – previously just been a disembodied voice on the radio. Wonderful.

On Dangerous Ground is from 1952. I can’t believe I never saw this before! The stars are Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino and Ward Bond, and the direction is by Nicholas Ray, produced by John Houseman. Despite this pedigree, the key credits are writer A.I. Bezzerides (who penned the screenplay for Kiss Me Deadly) and composer Bernard Herrmann, who for this low-budget B offers up a haunting score that prefigures every major noir/crime score of his to come. Ryan is a tough cop, as beaten down by his job as the punks he batters confessions out of. Bezzerides is clearly taking Spillane on, three years before Kiss Me Deadly (!), lambasting both tough-guy brutality and eye-for-an-eye justice, by way of Ward Bond’s out-of-control bereaved father. Ryan encounters blind Ida Lupino, a gentle soul who reveals his own metaphorical blindness. The narrative moves a little too fast to be credible, but forget it, Jake – it’s melodrama-town.

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With luck, when you read this, I will have delivered the manuscript for Scarface & the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness and the Battle for Chicago by M.A.C. and A. Brad Schwartz. Almost 900 pages, including end notes and bibliography.

So today’s update is brief.

I have things to do.

M.A.C.

Walk Out! Girl, Don’t You Walk Out….

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017
Quarry's War

The Quarry comic book mini-series (which will later be collected as a graphic novel) was officially announced at San Diego Comic Con, where I was not in attendance. The splendid cover is included here for your enjoyment, although my enjoyment is hampered by the fact that my name isn’t on it.

I trust this is an oversight that will be rectified by Hard Case Crime Comics, though I admit it rankles when the writer of the other comic book announced did make the cover of that number one issue.

I will leave it to you whether to file this under “What am I, chopped liver?” or sour grapes.

In the meantime, here’s the Booklist advance review of Quarry’s Climax:

Collins, Max Allan (Author)
Oct 2017. 240 p. Hard Case Crime, paperback, $9.95. (9781785651809). e-book, (9781785651816).

Chronology is always a little tricky in Collins’ Quarry series. Take this one. It’s a new entry, but the story is set in the 1970s, when the first Quarry thrillers were written. The hit man with a heart of steel (and a skewed sense of, well, just desserts) is working for the Broker, a murder middleman who farms out hired kills to his operatives. This time it’s a little complicated: Quarry and his partner, Boyd, must first dispatch the hitters sent to eliminate the publisher of the Memphis-based porn mag, Climax; then determine who hired the hitters; and, finally, get rid of them, too. All in a few days’ work for the resourceful Quarry, of course, who developed his killing chops as a Vietnam sniper, but along the way Collins treats us to a wonderfully vivid look at the pornography industry in its heyday. From publishers to centerfolds to strippers to feminist protesters, he cuts through the stereotypes with quick bits of subtle characterization (but, please, don’t say you read a book with ‘Climax’ in the title only for the characters).

— Bill Ott

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The title of this week’s update is a line from the Monkees’ “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” which Crusin’ covered for a Monkees tribute CD some years back. But the subject is not rock ‘n’ roll – rather, the now legendary tendency of my wife Barb and myself where walking out of movies is concerned.

We were walking out of so many movies, readers of this weekly update were wondering what movies I might actually be able to tolerate, or perhaps even (choke) like. But others have noticed that there have been no reports of such walk-outs lately.

One possible reason for all the walk-outs has been a spate of overblown, mediocre would-be blockbusters, frequently cribbed from comics or otherwise pop-culture retreads. The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island are typical. CHIPs and Baywatch are the kind of movies where you consider walking out during the trailer, which is all we saw of them.

The truth is, though, something strange happened this summer, at least so far: the blockbuster movie releases have been…how can I put it…good. Here’s a rundown on them, just little mini-reviews to pop like Milk Duds. And what part of the cow is the “dud,” anyway? A few of these I’ve already commented on, in passing.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A lot of care went into making sure the quirky humor of the first film was maintained, and it paid off. Casting Kurt Russell was a very good move. These movies know exactly how to walk you up to sentimentality and then drop the trap door on you.

Wonder Woman. Chris Pine, channeling William Shatner in the manner of the recent Star Trek movies, contributes humanity and humor while lead Gal Gadot brings provides charm, beauty and athleticism in an epic origin tale craftily set in a vivid Great War setting. And it’s surprisingly faithful to the Golden Age comic book.

The Mummy. The weakest of the non-walkout-worthy summer blockbusters is nonetheless a lot of fun, with Tom Cruise (no matter what you may think about Scientology) bringing his genuine movie-star charisma and skill to the party. A female mummy (Sofia Boutella) is a nice twist, although too much back story and the clumsy inclusion of Jekyll/Hyde (Russell Crowe) is a lame attempt to build a franchise nobody is waiting for.

Baby Driver. A reminder of what it felt like to go to the movies in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, this is a slick, fast-moving crime film that is propelled by music and moves from one phenomenal, and mood-changing, set piece to another. It’s an outrageous melodrama, with compelling, often larger-than-life characters. Not sure the proposed sequel is a good idea, though.

Spiderman – Homecoming. It took some doing, getting Barb to go along, and she wasn’t won over immediately. But this third reboot (who’s counting?) manages to both re-imagine and yet be quite faithful to the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko original (how I wish I had hung onto Amazing Fantasy #15). Tom Holland is a winning Peter Parker/Spidey, though the heart and soul of the movie, oddly enough, belongs to the villain, the wonderfully cast Michael Keaton. Only real flaw is how hard the film works to invoke other aspects of the Marvel film franchise universe, with much more Avengers and Iron Man stuff than necessary. It’s too much salt on an already well-seasoned popcorn.

War for the Planet of the Apes. This may be the best Planet of the Apes movie of all, and as good as the two previous ones are (Rise and Dawn), that’s saying something. There is a grandeur and even majesty to this one, and the believability of the apes is complete and stunning. But it’s also emotionally wracking, action-packed and even frightening. Give Andy Serkis an Oscar already, would you, Academy?

Dunkirk. I’ve never been a Christopher Nolan fan, but I am now a convert. This is the year’s best movie so far. It’s demanding – for Americans, the various Brit accents may mean losing this line or that one, and there’s no Pearl Harbor back story: you’re just thrown right into four or five storylines that crisscross over the running time. The Hans Zimmer score is ruthlessly relentless, and a relaxing time at the movies this isn’t. A few have complained that the film lacks any overview, but the situation is simple: the Germans have driven the British and the French armies to the coast of France with the Channel between the Brits and home. Hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers are trying to get home, and the advancing German army as well as their fighter pilots are trying to stop that, while British civilians in their own little boats are heading across the Channel to take soldiers home by the handful. That’s all you need to know. There is heroism and cowardice and various other shades of humanity, but also a sense of patriotism in a just cause that today somehow seems remote. Churchill’s famous speech, read by a soldier from a newspaper, is a reminder that giants once guided government.

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My pal Bud Plant has found a supply of the first Ms. Tree trade paperback. It’s cheap and it’s here.

The Hard Case Crime announcement of Quarry’s War made at SDCC was picked up all over the Internet.

Finally, here’s news of the live performance of Mike Hammer: Encore for Murder next January in Florida. It stars my buddy Gary Sandy, who appeared in Mommy’s Day.

M.A.C.

A Showdown and a Ghost

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

The mass-market edition of The Big Showdown, the sequel to The Legend of Caleb York, has just come out. It continues with the characters and stories that Mickey Spillane developed in the (unproduced) screenplay he wrote for his friend John Wayne in the late 1950s.

Response to this new series, representing my first westerns (unless you count the movie novelization Maverick and maybe my Wyatt Earp meets Al Capone novel, Black Hats), has been positive. In fact, I’ve completed a third Caleb York story, The Bloody Spur, and have signed to do two more.

The novels are in part mysteries, befitting the two bylines, and are otherwise very old-fashioned westerns in the manner of Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy movies of the fifties and early sixties…but with a higher, more Leone-like level of violence, which is only appropriate with the name Spillane invoked. Mickey’s York screenplay was far more violent than anyone in the western film or novel field was doing at the time. The sexual content was adult for its time, but that time has passed.

The book was one of the last that I completed before I went in for my heart surgery – one of a handful on my docket that I wanted to make sure got done in case…well, you know. I thought it came out well and am particularly proud of the finale, a shoot-out – you might say, a big showdown – in a rainstorm…also typically Spillane.

If you like my crime novels but don’t usually read westerns, give these a try anyway. I’m pretty sure you’ll like them.

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The movie Ghost in the Shell, based on a famous Japanese animated film (which spawned an anime series and many sequels) has been getting a rough time of it. Only 43% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, it received a scathing review on Facebook by my pal, Terry Beatty, with whom I rarely disagree on films. He hated it so much that I’d decided not to go, though based on the previews I’d been looking forward to it.

But the workload right now is so brutal, I needed a break, and took a risk. I’d read the positive reviews among the pans and caught hints that I might not agree with Terry. And I didn’t.

Barb and I are becoming infamous for walking out of movies, and we fully expected this to be one of them. Instead we both loved it. Scarlett Johansson is Major, whose human brain has been inserted in a robot body, designed to be the perfect terrorist fighter. She inhabits a world futuristically Asian, influenced by Blade Runner’s city but even more complex in its imagery.

Johansson is very good, much as she was in Lucy, moving with a certain robotic gait though not overstating it, her dialogue delivered in a similar fashion. She has a team of cyber-enhanced soldiers, one of whom is her partner, played by “Pilou” Asbæk, the Swedish actor who was so good in the TV series Borgen, the nordic West Wing. Major is having flashes of memory and humanity that are intruding on her search for an uber-terrorist, but of course everything is not as it seems.

A special treat is the presence of Takeshi Kitano, director/writer/star of Violent Cop and Boiling Point, among other great Japanese crime films. He’s essentially M to Major’s Jane Bond, but he gets out from behind the desk and kicks ass, late in the proceedings.

Themes of identity, family and loyalty are explored, but not to the detriment of well-staged action scenes that don’t indulge in that speeded-up crap. The art direction is stunning throughout, and seldom has CGI been better employed. We saw it in 3-D, which really enhanced the levels of the design work.

I have hesitated till recently to review movies again. I know how hard it is to make one. And I realize that taste is individual, and smart people can disagree. If you skip a movie because I don’t like it, you may be making a mistake. And if you go to one because I did like it, you might also be making a mistake.

But I don’t think so.

* * *

This review of The Big Showdown first appeared last year about this time, but if you’re considering picking up the paperback, you might want to check this out.

M.A.C.

How to Make Me Smile

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

As you may have gathered, if you’ve stopped by here at all frequently, I am a collector of movies on Blu-ray and DVD. Many of my favorite films have made it onto Blu-ray, like Kiss Me Deadly and Gun Crazy (though I had to get that from Germany). And a fairly short list of my favorites remain on DVD only, like the Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, and the great film version of the Broadway musical, Li’l Abner.

One of my favorites, poorly represented with a terrible transfer on DVD, has finally made it to Blu-ray, in a limited edition of 3000, from Twilight Time, the boutique label that has brought us any number of terrific films, from The Big Heat to the Hammer Hound of the Baskervilles, from a Sinatra Tony Rome double feature to Pretty Poison.

But this time – and my birthday month yet – they have given me (and Barb and for that matter son Nate, who also loves it) a film I could watch once a week – How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

There are those who can find reasons not to like this movie, just as there are people who can find a reason not to like ice cream. They are to be pitied. How to Succeed features a brilliant, witty, acid but not hateful score by the brilliant Frank Loesser. A Pulitzer Prize-winning musical (yes, Pulizter Prize-winning musical) in 1961, the Broadway version skewered the shallowness of big business in an up-to-the-moment manner. Unfortunately, the timing of the film’s release – 1967 – made How to Succeed’s cutting-edge satire seem dated, a lot having happened since ‘61.

Fortunately, time has been kind to this early ‘60s musical, with its bright Batman TV colors and cartoon images come to life (cartoonist Virgil Partch – VIP – was a consultant) and Bob Fosse choreography that is as witty and biting as the original play itself. (Fosse is not the actual choreographer of the film, but he’s credited as the source.)

A number of players from the Broadway show are retained, including Michelle Lee (who was the second Rosemary Pilkington in the original cast), the very funny Rudy Vallee, Ruth Kobart, and Sammy Smith, with Charles Nelson Reilly’s Bud Frump M.I.A., though decently replaced by Anthony Teague. Maureen Arthur – a live-action Little Annie Fannie – was in the national company of the musical and joined the Broadway run later.

I saw the national company in Chicago when I was in high school and fell in love with the musical then. The cast included Dick Kallman as Finch (later star of Hank on TV), who was excellent, with the second Great Gildersleeve, Willard Watterman, in the Rudy Vallee role. And of course the eye-popping Maureen Arthur was Hedy LaRue (“O.K. Charlie!”).

Two things make this film one of the best transitions of a Broadway hit to the big screen. First, director/writer David Swift – with credits like Pollyanna and Under the Yum Yum Tree enough to make one doubtful – had the surprising sense to film faithfully a show that had won seven Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The other thing is Robert Morse.

His J. Pierrepont Finch is my favorite performance in any musical film. He shamelessly recreates the Broadway role with only the slightest concession to movie technique. He understands, as does the rest of the cast (though not on this level), that he’s appearing in a cartoon. His character, who climbs from window washer to the chairman of the board in a few days, following a self-help book that provides the film’s narration – should be unsympathetic. He’s manipulative and dissembling and is never seen really working (not really trying, remember?); but the boyishness of Morse himself smooths the edge off.

Morse brings a remarkable energy to his songs and his loose-limbed dancing brings James Cagney to mind. In the ensemble, “Brotherhood of Man,” in the midst of a sea of Bob Fosse choreography, brilliant scene-stealer Morse knows just how to draw the viewer’s eye, chiefly by lagging like a jazz player behind the melody just enough to seem improvisional among all the precise dancers. He alone seems spontaneous.

Does he mug? Almost constantly. His performance is basically Jerry Lewis Goes to Graduate School. Somehow, playing a ladder-climbing nogoodnik, he seems joyful – the perfect conveyer of Loesser’s lyrics, with their hidden dark side.

Famously, the big hit love song from How to Succeed is sung by Morse’s Finch…to himself in a mirror. Few scores rival this one, though like Sondheim, Loesser writes to the story. The songs that were left out (“Paris Original,” “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”) are the weakest in the show. The only loss, besides Charles Nelson Reilly, is the great “Coffee Break,” which was filmed but cut for time. Too bad it doesn’t seem to have survived to be a special feature.

Morse and Reilly, by the way, were so successful on Broadway that they made an album together, “A Jolly Theatrical Season,” in 1963.

If the name Robert Morse seems vaguely familiar to smart younger people, he played Bertram Cooper on Mad Men, a role he was cast in, in tribute to his star turn in How to Succeed. Toward the end of Mad Men’s run, Morse was given a lovely song-and-dance farewell.

Morse’s career on Broadway was a stellar one, particularly his roles in Sugar and his one-man play, Tru, in which he played Truman Capote, winning his second Tony. But his film legacy is, largely, How to Succeed. No other film caught his magic, and a few really did him no favors – Honeymoon Hotel; Quick, Before It Melts – though The Loved One and Guide for the Married Man are worthy credits. I used to feel sad that this great talent had only one film to do him justice.

But with How to Succeed finally on Blu-ray, and with Mad Men as a wonderful, Emmy-nominated coda, I can only smile.

Nice modern-day (separate) interviews with Morse and Michelle Lee are special features. No “Coffee Break,” alas.

Buy it here.

* * *

The Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa gives its mystery-writer black sheep some nice recognition.

And here’s a lovely look at Road to Perdition the film.

M.A.C.