Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

Movies Are Your Best Entertainment!

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

Here’s a video I did to promote the prose Perdition saga in the great new Brash Books editions. If you don’t have them, what are you waiting for? A good use for your Amazon gift cards.

And now for Christmas, I thought I would share more opinions about movies with you, all wrapped in a big red bow. You’re welcome.

My son Nate has mentioned frequently my demented taste in film (some of which he shares). When I’m gone, he threatens to mount a web site where every day he will grab one DVD or Blu-Ray or maybe even laser disc at random, and review it. Might be The Big Combo or it could be The Invisible Ghost with Bela Lugosi (both were directed by Joseph Lewis, after all).

To demonstrate what he is talking about, here some movies I’ve watched on home video lately. These include a few movies I saw as awards screeners that I receive as a WGA member. Most I bought. Also, a few theatrical releases are tagged on at the end. All are mini-reviews.

Dolores Claiborne (1995) – really good Stephen King movie with no supernatural aspect, stylishly directed by Taylor Hackford. Great character study and sorta mystery starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh (of Road to Perdition fame).

Death Rides a Horse (1967) – one of my two favorite non-Leone Lee Van Cleef Italian westerns (the other is The Big Gundown). With John Phillip Law as Clint Eastwood. A new, slightly longer Blu-Ray from Kino. Saw it in the theater twice.

T-Men (1947) – excellent noir directed by Anthony Mann about undercover fed Dennis O’Keefe. O’Keefe is way underrated. Black-and-white cinematography by genius John Alton (I, the Jury). Starts with a stilted intro by Elmer Irey, one of the guys who took credit for taking Capone down and dissed Eliot Ness. See him brought to earth next year in Scarface & the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness & the Battle for Chicago.

The Laughing Policeman (1973) – interesting if dreary police procedural with Walter Matthau in a mostly humorless portrayal and Bruce Dern in a rare heroic role, though he’s casually sexist and sadistic, anyway. From a nordic noir novel. 1973 is starting to feel like a long time ago.

Battle Cry (1955) – wonderful Hollywood-ized Raoul Walsh-directed adaptation of the forgotten Leon Uris bestseller. Great soap opera of men training where my dad did in San Diego; an incredible cast – Aldo Ray, Tab Hunter, Anne Francis James Whitmore, Anne Francis, Van Heflin, Dorothy Malone…did I mention Anne Francis? L.Q. Jones appears under his real name playing a character called L.Q. Jones, which he then took as his stage name. Tons of familiar male actors making early appearances. Final half hour of battle finally arrives and is compelling.

Annie Get Your Gun (1957) – from VAI, a Blu-Ray of Mary Martin and John Raitt in a TV “spectacular” of the famous Broadway show. Great performances from the stars and lots of fun. Native American stuff and male/female interaction that will amuse you, especially if a humorless gal is in the room watchin’ with you. Assuming you survive.

Thieves’ Highway (1949) – gritty noir about trucking written by A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly!) from his novel, Thieves’ Market. Excellent villain performance from Lee J. Cobb, striking female lead in Valentina Cortese, and Richard Conte fine as a nice guy who is dumb enough to make you talk back to the screen. Hey, everybody in the sleazy bar! Look at all the money I just got! Director Jules Dassin tells us how much he hates capitalism, right before he packs his bags and heads overseas.

Since You Went Away (1944) – surprisingly effective home front soaper from producer/scripter David O. Selznick, directed by John Cromwell. Teenage Shirley Temple (disturbingly appealing – I’m pretty sure Roy Moore has this one on his fave flicks list) and Jennifer Jones convincingly go from kids to young women while Claudette Colbert reminds us why she was a movie star. Moving and generally unmanipulative for this kind of thing. Great cast also includes Joseph Cotten, Monty Wooley, Robert Walker, Lionel Barrymore and Guy Madison. A Christmas movie, by the way, though that doesn’t come in till the last act.

And now some new things….

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – this is an excellent showcase for both Frances McDormand and especially Sam Rockwell, with nice work from Woody Harrelson, too. The movie is challenging because it keeps shifting, challenging your thinking and assumptions, with none of its characters perfect (except perhaps Harrelson’s) and the resolution of its crime story elusive. Lovely writing and direction from Martin McDonagh. One of the two or three best of the year, topped only by Wind River.

The Post – boy, what a disappointing Mr. Show movie! Though they appear in a number of scenes together, David Cross and Bob Odenkirk just never get truly funny. And the story is quite unbelievable – a crooked United States President who tries to stifle and belittle freedom of the press? Some story ideas, even in a comedy, are too outlandish to pull off – just not funny! Supporting players Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep hog the screen from stars Cross and Odenkirk.

I, Tonya – good, quirky docudrama about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident that ignited interest in women’s competition ice skating. Well done, but star Margot Robbie, though very good, is miscast as Tonya, whose petite figure, not quite pretty face, and white trash aura call for a physically smaller, less overtly attractive, less obviously smart actress. Worth seeing.

Star Wars – The Last Jedi. I am thrilled for Mark Hamill, who knocks it out of the park with a genuine star performance. At its best, this is a wonderful movie and audiences will likely love it, and they should. But it’s way too long and overstuffed with very usual Star Wars plot shenanigans, plus a weak performance or two (Laura Dern, anyone?). But Luke Skywalker shines. This series was launched as The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, you know.

So – these were all viewed over a couple of weeks. That’s how we spend our evenings and the occasional at-the-actual-movies afternoon. This is relaxation in Iowa. If you’re nice to me, I won’t do this to you again.

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Bill Morris says Quarry’s Climax is one of the best books of the year – and he’s right. Read here to find me on a list with Joan Didion.

Here’s a nifty little piece about Quarry’s War issue #1.

M.A.C.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.