Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

How I Invented Binge Watching

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

When I landed the Dick Tracy writing gig in 1977, I received a nice advance of $5000. As half of a young married couple, with limited financial means, I somehow convinced my wife Barb that the first thing we should do was buy a home video recorder. I bought a VCR console, which was outlandishly expensive (despite its modest 19-inch screen), an unjustifiable extravagance amplified by my brilliant choice of formats: Betamax.

But I mention this only to let you know that the Collins household (all two of us) were early adapters in the home video revolution. You need to know this to understand that you are indeed in the presence of the person who invented binge watching.

Around 1979, the Australian TV series Prisoner Cell Block H was syndicated nationally. It’s a wonderful women-in-prison series that has recently been updated into the equally wonderful Wentworth. For some reason, the local channel running the syndicated show dropped it after a few weeks – maybe it had something to do with the rampant violence and lesbianism or maybe the Aussie accents.

But I was not to be denied (I rarely am).

I approached a friend of mine in Chicago who ran a comic book shop to work out a trade deal for original comics art for his ongoing efforts to record the five-times-a-week series for me on VHS (I had one of those machines now, too). Every couple of months he would send me a box of tapes, each package containing around 20 hours of Prisoner Cell Block H. Barb and I, and my cartoonist pal and collaborator Terry Beatty, would hunker in to watch the episodes until our eyes burned. This would be on the weekend, consuming two days (allowing time out for meals and calls of nature).

We did not call it binge watching, but clearly that is what it was. The same comic book shop pal did the same for me with the 1960s-70s Dragnet, which had not yet hit Nick at Night because it didn’t exist yet. Again, these were sent to me four or five shows to a tape, as the series was being “stripped” nightly. Barb and Terry did not join me for this, not being insane, and the binging would usually only be one or two VHS tapes a night.

The first binge watching from pre-recorded tapes came with Poldark, both seasons of which Barb and I consumed in a weekend. Over the years this approach to TV watching continued with the pre-recorded Poirot tapes and beyond. During my son Nate’s college years, he would come home for the weekend when informed that a new DVD season of LEXX had arrived (my favorite science-fiction series). These would be watched, binge-style.

To this day, Barb and I binge in this fashion, although sometimes not quite as aggressively. A House of Cards season usually lasts only two days, but with mystery shows like Murdoch or Midsomer Murders, we hold ourselves to two or three a night, because things in that happily homicidal world start to blur otherwise.

One bad side-effect of binge-watching seasons of favorite shows – particularly when you haven’t followed them in their bite-size weekly episodes – is that a new season can at first seem to have nothing to do with anything you’ve ever seen before. We had that experience with two excellent series that we’ve followed from the beginning – Ripper Street and Orphan Black – both of which we chugged in a couple of gulps.

What happens is that the first episode of the season makes you wonder if you skipped a season, but by the second episode, it begins to come back – especially when two of you are watching, as Barb and I will prompt each other as memories come floating or sometimes bursting back.

So I’ll comment briefly on a couple of series we’ve binged of late.

Poldark Season Three. While Barb and I are devoted fans of the original series, this remake is equally faithful to the books and has the production values of a fairly big-budget feature film, with breathtaking Cornwall location work. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson do very well as Ross and Demelza, and again the original Poldark, Robin Ellis, is back for a nice scene…a fine show of respect for the original classic series.

Murdoch Mysteries Season 10 – For some while now, Murdoch has been running 18 episodes. This charming, often amusing mystery series – which still plays as a turn of the century CSI – likes to bring characters back, and because those characters have appeared in single episodes (not story arcs), it can be tough to recall them. Also, we always have a little trouble getting used to the non-regulars in the casts because the Canadian acting style can have a dinner theater vibe…but you do get used to it. And the regulars are strong and very comfy in their roles – Yannick Bisson as Murdoch, Helene Joy as Dr. Julia Ogden, Jonny Harris as Constable George Crabtree, and in particular Thomas Craig as Inspector Thomas Brackenreid, who recalls Gene Hunt in Life on Mars. The tenth season begins jokey and at first seems weak, but by mid-point it’s playing well, even revealing itself as a particularly strong season, getting more serious and darker as it goes.

Orphan Black Season Five. Orphan Black shares a charming recurring actor – Kristian Brunn – with Murdoch. Otherwise the shows have little in common, and the guest casts never have that dinner theater vibe. Two things are particularly outstanding about this series. First, it’s one of those convoluted, complex science-fiction/fantasy series in the X-Files mode that seems to be getting so ever more complicated, you suspect it doesn’t know where it’s going (Lost, anyone?). Well, Season Five is the final season of Orphan Black and everything from the previous four is paid off with thought and emotion, and no small amount of clever plotting. Virtually everybody of any importance is back from the run of the show and loose ends are not in abundance.

Second, lead Tatiana Maslany may be the best actress of her generation, or maybe several generations, as she portrays the various “clone” sisters who are the orphans of the title, each one distinct in look, mannerism and overall characterization. She is a wonder (and the technical expertise of the “sisters” interacting is mindboggling). Particularly interesting, and rewarding, is the decision of co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson to wrap up the exciting, often frightening storyline midway through the final episode, and follow it with a “three months later” half-an-episode that suggests where the characters are heading and how they are, or are not, dealing with what they’ve been through.

Ripper Street Season Five. Ripper Street, set in Whitechappel just after Jack the Ripper’s reign, is like a much, much darker Murdoch Mysteries. Lead Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Reid brings modern police methods to London’s most barbaric area with the help of his American forensics expert, Adam Rothenberg as Captain Homer Jackson. Like Murdoch, Ripper Street appears initially to have been born out of the popularity of CSI, but has outlived its inspiration, and surpassed its accomplishments. Creator Richard Warlow wrote around two-thirds of the episodes (early seasons ran 8 episodes, later one 6) and he does not stint on wild plot twists and grittily horrific crimes, but the characters are so real and compelling – and not always admirable – that you will likely stick with them.

Orphan Black runs 50 episodes, and Ripper Street 37, so binging on their complete runs is doable, and will not provide the confusion that those of us doing so a season at time can experience. Murdoch is well over 100 episodes now, so binge-watching can take planning and patience.

So, yes, now that you ask – I did indeed invent binge-watching, with Barb’s help, and Terry’s.

You’re welcome.

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Hey, I bet you didn’t know Road to Perdition came from a comic book. You do? Check this out anyway.

M.A.C.

Shock Value

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

I recently received in the mail from the UK the Arrow Films blu-ray box set of Shock Treatment, the much unloved sort of sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show. I will now discuss this a little – not in depth, because for you to have access to this, you’d have to have an all-regions blu-ray player, which still isn’t very common (though they are not expensive).

Shock Treatment is high on my list of things that I love that I’m not supposed to. (Also on this list is another movie sequel – the Chinatown follow-up, The Two Jakes.) I am one of the few people you’re likely to run into who saw Rocky Horror in a movie theater on its first run. I was at the time teaching cops English in the Quad Cities (with my back to the firing range at the Davenport PD) and had a long stretch of time between the morning and late afternoon sessions. This I would fill with a movie. So it was that I found myself the only person in a very big theater watching Rocky Horror.

I liked it, and bought the soundtrack (vinyl days). When it became a cult hit, I disliked the talking-back-to-the-screen and dress-up midnight-show screenings, because I actually wanted to hear, see and enjoy the film. That’s how strange I am.

Anyway, Shock Treatment was, on one level, a misguided attempt to create a cult film; its first run in theaters was as a midnight show, and the movie itself was brimming with colorful characters in colorful costumes for Rocky Horror-ites to dress up as.

But it was also a fairly acid criticism by creator Richard O’Brien of America in general and Rocky Horror fans in particular, although you had to be smart to get the latter. Whereas Rocky Horror was about “don’t dream it, be it,” and letting your freak flag fly, Shock Treatment was a critique of everybody wanting to be a star in the “me” decade, which in 1981 had just begun. One of the big production numbers had much of the cast dancing with wheeled full-length mirrors.

Even detractors of Shock Treatment will occasionally admit that the score is at least as good as Rocky Horror and probably better – the soundtrack is a virtual compendium of “New Wave” at its best. I was sold on Shock Treatment going in, because I knew that Janet (of the Brad and Janet duo) was going to be played this time by Jessica Harper, the mesmerizing Phoenix of Phantom of the Paradise, who brought her Karen Carpenter-like alto to all the great Paul Williams music in a film that is on my shortest short list of favorites. And Shock Treatment seems to have been more heavily influenced by Phantom than by Rocky Horror, oddly enough.

Shock Treatment presents the residents of Denton, USA, as the members of a studio audience, who even sleep in that studio. As they watch monitors and live broadcasts, they are caught up in the lives of the various local people who have become the stars of game shows, religious programming and reality TV.

Now here’s the thing: when Shock Treatment was made in 1981, reality TV didn’t exist. Nor did MTV, though the DTV of Shock Treatment seems to be a parody of it, right down to the logo. I had probably seen Shock Treatment fifteen times, easily, on its initial release and later on a laser disc I got from Japan. But I hadn’t watched it in at least ten years.

I had realized the film was remarkably prescient long ago, but seeing it again I was staggered by how much it seemed to be a satire on Trump’s America. It not only predicts and defines MTV and reality television, Shock Treatment includes “selfies,” anti-Mexican Americanism, anti-gay Americanism, and the fast food culture. Most shocking (so to speak) was seeing the movie’s climax in which the much-manipulated studio audience is handed out matching baseball caps with a dumb slogan to wear for the rally-like appearance of a Trump-ish figure whose slick-haired resemblance to Donald Trump, Jr., is downright creepy.


Cliff De Young as…Don Jr.?

This satire of Trump and his followers would seem too on-the-nose and heavy-handed, if it were done today…and not thirty-six years ago.

I don’t expect anybody reading this to send to the UK for the Arrow box set (and Arrow doesn’t have the rights to release the package in the US). But there’s a DVD available, as well as a double feature DVD with Rocky Horror.

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Another movie walk-out: The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I am partial to Ryan Reynolds as a quipster, but Samuel Jackson must have really good material to be tolerable, and this one doesn’t have that. The tone is an uneasy combo of extreme, nasty violence and supposed dark humor, with tons of lazy f-wording. We bailed when Reynolds and Jackson, hitchhiking, were picked up by a van that turned out to be transporting cute nuns. Jackson says to the girls, “Whose lap am I going to sit on?” The nuns blush and titter, and we are gone.

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Bookgasm has often been very good to me, but this review of Quarry’s Climax rubbed me the wrong way.

Anybody has a right not to like a book, and say so; but this reviewer (who has liked other Quarry novels and has a few nice things to say even here) accuses me of “a disturbing lack of commitment.” That’s a combination of personal insult and mind-reading that goes over the line.

I will counter this review by sharing these Quarry’s Climax reviews with you:

Publisher’s Weekly on Quarry’s Climax:

Set in 1975, MWA Grand Master Collins’s taut 14th Quarry novel (after 2016’s Quarry in the Black) presents a peculiar challenge for the professional hit man. Instead of simply killing his target, Quarry is tasked by his employer, the Broker, with protecting Max Climer, the Memphis-based publisher of a raunchy skin magazine called Climax, from a hit that has been assigned to parties unknown—and then eliminating the rival hit men. Quarry travels from his home in Paradise Lake, Wis., to Memphis, where he joins forces with his longtime partner, Boyd, a proficient assassin, and the two plunge into the city’s underworld in search of those out to get Climer. One of the book’s pleasures is watching the cold-blooded Quarry make tactical decisions with utter logic. Fun, too, is Quarry’s raffish way with the women he meets at every turn, leading to several colorful (and explicit) assignations. Numerous ’70s pop culture references leaven the criminal proceedings in this deft exercise in the business of violence.

Booklist on Quarry’s Climax:

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).
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Here’s an interview with the guy who plays Wild Dog on Arrow (still haven’t seen it, but the blu-ray set is on its way).

And finally here’s a Wild Dog podcast.

M.A.C.

Perdition, Zorro, Movies and More

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017
Road to Paradise

Road to Paradise is coming to trade paperback in November. I am thrilled with the job Brash Books has done on bringing the complete prose trilogy into print. The covers are great, and though many will read the e-book versions, the physical items are handsome.

Of course, this all hinged on getting the original, complete, previously unpublished Road to Perdition prose novel into print, the first of this matched-set trilogy.

Before long Brash will be bringing out USS Powderkeg (a slightly revised version of Red Sky in Morning) and Black Hats under my name, jettisoning the Patrick Culhane pseudonym the publisher insisted upon.

If you’re a regular reader of mine, please support these great efforts by Brash Books to get my novels out there again and in the manner I prefer.

Check out the Road to Paradise page out at their web site.

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Zorro Vol. 6

I’ve been a fan of Zorro since childhood – some of you may have read my introduction to the Hermes Press collection of Dell’s pre-Disney-TV version of the character, including four wonderful issues drawn by the great Everett Raymond Kinstler.

Well, publisher Rich Harvey’s Bold Venture Press has just completed an ambitious program to collect all of the original novels and stories about Zorro by his creator, the underrated Johnston McCulley. The sixth and final volume was just published, and I had the honor of writing the introduction, in which I detail the torturous route to finally having these rare Zorro tales collected and accessible to readers. It’s a bewildering mystery why the well-written stories by the creator of one of popular fiction’s most iconic characters (on a par with Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and, uh, well, Mike Hammer) have been so elusive. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to solve it….

The great color covers of those early Dell issues provide most of the cover images of this series.

Read about it (with ordering info) here.

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Two excellent recent crime films are worthy of your attention (and your money).

Steven Soderbergh’s return to movie-making, Logan Lucky, is a clever, funny but not campy heist picture with a Southern twist. The cast is terrific, but the stand-out is Daniel Craig, and to say he’s playing against type is a bit of an understatement – stick around for his hilarious credit at the close. And what a surprise it’s been seeing just how much talent Channing Tatum turns out to have, and this is coming from the skeptical author of the G.I. JOE novelization.

Writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is a worthy follow-up to the excellent Hell or High Water (and, yes, I remember how much I hated Sicario, but he didn’t direct that). It begins leisurely and takes full advantage of its beautifully bleak snowy Indian reservation setting before some shocking action kicks in. There’s nothing new here – a fish-out-of-water young female FBI agent is teamed with a somewhat older local fish-and-wildlife man, and the sad backstories of various characters are things we’ve heard before…virtually everything here is familiar. But the kicker is how well done it all is, how quiet and deep the characterizations are, with Jeremy Renner nailing a quiet, modern cowboy with all the right tough-guy moves. He looks nothing like Nate Heller or Mike Hammer, but could play either one admirably.

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Crusin' @ Ardon Creek

Crusin’ played a gig last Friday evening at Ardon Creek Winery – a lovely setting and a lovely evening. We play under a tent, open to a gentle slope where people dance and sit at tables to sip wine and munch bring-your-own goodies. To one side is the vineyard. Really a beautiful venue for us, with an appreciative crowd. We’ll be back next year.

Our new guitar player, Bill Anson, is doing a terrific job; good singer and he plays very well. He had to pick up about 36 songs – well, he brought about five or six suggestions along, which we learned – in about three weeks, during which we played two gigs. As I said about the previous performance, there were a few train wrecks but no fatalities, and we have the makings of a very good version of the band.

We play once more this year – at Ducky’s in Andulsia, Illinois, Thursday evening (6 to 9) – outdoors again, for their “bike night.” Our next scheduled appearance is April ‘18, and over the winter we’ll be retooling our list.

M.A.C.

…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.