Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

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.

Passings

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Three show business figures passed away recently, and as it happens, I had passing meetings with each.

CHUCK BERRY, 90, I met at an airport where we shared a gate. He was traveling with a guitar in its case, and appeared to be alone. But it was unmistakably him. As a longtime veteran of rock ‘n’ roll, I had to have a moment. I didn’t ask for an autograph, afraid I might start trouble for him, because a lot of people obviously didn’t recognize him.

“I just want to thank you for starting it all,” I said.

He smiled and said you’re welcome, and we shook hands.

I think I said something about having played rock ‘n’ roll for decades, and he said where he was headed, though I’ve forgotten. He was quiet but friendly.

What I said to him was about right. Little Richard and other black artists of the early rock days really were r & b starting to become rock, and Elvis fell in that category as well. But Chuck Berry, with his guitar-driven rock and his teenage subject matter, was not r & b, but at the very forefront of the new genre. Pure rock ‘n’ roll.

He was playing regularly in his home, St. Louis, until very recently.

TONY ROSATO, 62, is one of the unsung heroes of SCTV. He and the great Robin Duke were in the final season of the original incarnation of the show (they both moved to SNL after). His big character on the show was TV chef Marcello Sebastiani, but he was also a fine mimic, playing Lou Costello in a memorable Abbott and Elvis Costello parody.

He had a fine career, with a lot of Canadian TV, but mental health problems took him into a tragic area in later years.

I met him at the SCTV reunion in Chicago several years ago, in a crowded lobby of fans and Second City performers. He was accompanied by a minder of sorts and was obviously feeling a little lost. He was frankly surprised when I recognized him and asked for an autograph, which he gave me, and he smiled when I told him what a big fan I was of his SCTV and SNL work.

ROBERT OSBORNE, 84, the charming and knowledgeable presenter on Turner Classic Movies, I met backstage (actually upstairs somewhere) at a theater in Hollywood. My pal Leonard Maltin was giving me a chance to meet Jane Powell and a few other celebrities at the TCM Film Festival that year. I chatted with Osborne about (this will surprise few) how cool it would be to have a Mickey Spillane film festival on TCM, as they’d already shown The Girl Hunters a few times and Kiss Me Deadly many times. He was friendly and gracious, and exactly the guy you saw on TV.

I thanked him for everything he did for classic films and for sharing his enthusiasm, and knowledge, with viewers. And I’m glad I did.

While I never met him, BILL PAXTON, 61, was a good friend of my pal Bill Mumy and appeared in “Fish Heads” (which he also directed) and other Barnes & Barnes videos. What a terrific actor, and what a devastating loss. If you’ve never watched his HBO series Big Love, you should correct that mistake.

I don’t recall meeting the great cartoonist BERNIE WRIGHTSON, who like me was born in March of 1948, but I loved his work. Decades ago, when I started realizing interesting new things were happening in comics, and that I wasn’t the only one who liked the medium, Bernie Wrightson was at the forefront.

Such passings define bittersweet – we are so lucky to have experienced the art these creators shared with us, and so unlucky to be denied any more.

* * *

For those who suspect I have become a curmudgeon where current movies are concerned, walking out more often than staying to the finish, I am pleased to report Barb and I saw a terrific movie this weekend – Get Out.

Written and directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is a horror movie with darkly satiric overtones and some outright comedy that never dampens a truly creepy tale that might be described as an African-American Stepford Wives…though that doesn’t do it justice.

Remember how lousy I said the script of Kong was? And how I was chastised for expecting a monster movie to have good dialogue? Well, he’s a horror movie on a modest budget with no huge stars (but a strong cast) that not only has sharp dialogue but a well-constructed narrative that pays off everything it sets up, in a most satisfying manner.

This one I’ll be buying on Blu-ray.

* * *

The Will to Kill, the new Spillane/Collins, is getting some lovely reviews. Have you ordered your copy yet? What are you waiting for? You wanna get on Mike Hammer’s bad side? In the meantime, check out this wonderful Criminal Element review.

And here’s another great Will to Kill review, this one from the NY Journal of Books.

The new Hard Case Crime edition of Quarry’s Vote inspired this sweet review.

And Publisher’s Weekly likes Antiques Frame, due out in about a month.

Finally, once again my Eliot Ness/Batman graphic novel of some time ago is getting noticed.

M.A.C.

A Gig, a Walk-Out, and More

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Saturday night Crusin’ played for a benefit at the River Music Experience in Davenport. The cause was music education in the Muscatine school system. This was our first gig of the year (by choice), having last played in September for my high school 50th class reunion.

It was just an hour but felt good – nice to be back on stage with the guys, and our guitarist Jim Van Winkle’s son, Teddy, played trombone with us on a couple of songs. Teddy is a music major at the University of Iowa and really tore it up. This my first time performing since lung surgery, and I was of course concerned, but had no problems with either stamina or singing.

We have about half a dozen gigs lined up through the summer and fall.

* * *

I am rather astonished to report that Barb and I walked out of a movie again, one we had been looking forward to all week. Kong – Skull Island has a high Rotten Tomatoes rating, and my pal Leonard Maltin loved it. We didn’t. The script was terrible – cringe-worthy dialogue and a ponderous set-up, and a cast that couldn’t overcome either. Tom Hiddleson, with his narrow face and slight build, is presented as some kind of bar brawler, which is unbelievable even without the notion that this makes him vital to a team going out to track monsters. John Goodman has lost so much weight, he looks ill, as if he’s wearing a baggy skin suit, and Samuel Jackson glowering at Kong and Kong glowering back has an uncomfortable racist tinge. Your results may vary, but we gave it fifty minutes before it got so stupid we couldn’t even stay to watch a bunch of characters we hated get killed.

Barb passed on Logan, but I saw it with Nate a weekend ago, and found it okay, with the trio of actors at its center (Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen) strong. Self-importantly dark and almost entirely humorless, Logan also suffers from underwhelming villains in actors Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant, the former silly in his villainy, the latter hammy as an evil scientist. No Ian McKellan or Michael Fassbender in sight.

Some of you are suspecting I don’t like anything any more. But I like lots of things, mostly on TV, including lately Rowan Atkinson’s Maigret (and Michael Gambon’s and Bruno Cremer’s), the fourth season of Endeavor (the Morse prequel) and the Victoria series, though I wish it didn’t want to be Downton Abbey so bad.

* * *

My editor at Hard Case Crime, Charles Ardai, is so fast and efficient I sometimes think I’m hallucinating. Less than a week after I turned in Quarry’s Climax, he gave me edits and then galley proofs, and the book is put to bed.

No sign of a second Quarry TV season, though there’s been no official cancellation.

I am working on the non-fiction book Scarface & the Untouchable, the joint Capone/Ness bio. It promises to be major, but brother is it tough. My co-authors Brad Schwartz and George Hagenauer have written their rough draft material and gathered research, and now I’m up to bat.

Looks like the manuscript could be in the 1200 – 1500 page range. Like we say in the funnies, gulp.

* * *

Now in Paperback!

If you are going to Bouchercon this year, and have been sent an Anthony ballot, and like my work enough to be reading this, here’s a reminder of what’s eligible:

Road to Perdition: The New Expanded Version, paperback original.
The Nate Heller novel, Better Dead, hardcover.
Quarry in the Black, paperback.
Murder Never Knocks, hardcover.
Antiques Fate, hardcover.
A Dangerous Cat,” Hammer short story in the Strand.

* * *

The Will to Kill is out and I hope some of you have already bought this new Mike Hammer by Mickey and me, and that the rest of you will do so soon. We need reviews at Amazon and elsewhere, including blogs, and your participation would be much appreciated.

Michael Carlson has done a most interesting Will to Kill review in his UK column, Irresistible Targets.

Also out in (mass-market paperback) is Hammer’s last year’s performance, Murder Never Knocks. Here’s a great Ron Fortier review of it.

Finally, here’s a Quarry’s Choice audio review, very nice.

M.A.C.

Okay, So Maybe Movies Aren’t Better than Ever

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Before I briefly chat about what I’ve been up to on the storytelling front, here are reviews of two movies I endured this weekend.

Live by Night – Where shall I start? This is a terrible movie. It looks great, and I wanted to like it – it’s full of old cars and lots of cool wardrobe and art direction, just the kind of production values I’d like to see lavished on a Nate Heller movie. Unfortunately, this is the kind of lavish dud that will make it hard to get a Nate Heller movie made, because the Hollywood boys and girls will remind me how poorly Live by Night did at the box-office.

I’m not a Ben Affleck basher. He’s done some very good things, like Argo and The Town, and…well, like Argo and The Town. He’s a pretty fair Batman, too. Here he is a multiple threat, and I do mean threat, as actor, director and writer. I have no idea whether the source novel by Dennis Lahane is any good – I don’t read him. Some pretty fair movies have been made from his stuff, like The Drop and Gone Baby Gone, though I disliked both Shutter Island and the hammy Mystic River. My hunch is that the novel here is likely better, which would not make it good.

Clearly the novel was longer, because this has so much expository voiceover, the telling outweighs the showing. No characters take hold, no scenes develop sufficiently, and the stupidity of the plotting is at times mind-boggling.

For example. Affleck is secretly having an affair with the top gangster in Boston’s moll; when the gangster goes out of town, however, Affleck openly cavorts with the moll in public, and then is surprised when the gangster finds out. For example. When the film lurches into a Florida setting, a dumb-ass KKK leader is bombing Affleck’s nightclubs and wantonly killing people in the process; Affleck asks the dumb-ass to meet with him at Affleck’s own casino construction site, and then the dumb-ass is shocked when Affleck’s men pour out and kill him and his own goons. There are half a dozen scenes with set-ups that moronic.

The best moments are throwaways, as after the dumb-ass-gets-killed sequence when Affleck argues with a crony about who accidentally shot him. Only then does Affleck himself (and the movie) come to life. Elsewhere he goes beyond underplaying into a sort of mobile coma. He wears lots of hats, and I don’t mean director/writer/star, I mean hats – tan fedoras, gray fedoras, white fedoras, yellow fedoras, purple fedoras. I see a drinking game coming!

Two women are at the center of the story – the Bonnie Parker-type moll whose betrayal sends Affleck scurrying to Florida to avoid the wrath of the Boston mob boss – and a Cuban girl whose brother is in the rackets with Affleck. Though the latter is portrayed by Uhura herself, Zoe Saldana, and the former by usually reliable Sienna Miller, neither character makes a dent in the proceedings…and they are the two motivators in sleepy Affleck’s life. Elle Fanning as a nice-girl-turned-drug-addict-turned-evangelist, does better, but her role is so fragmented that it too never quite adds up, though its importance is also key to what little story we perceive.

The moral seems to be: when you’re making a movie, don’t wear too many hats, literally and figuratively. Also, when you’re doing a period piece about the twenties, don’t sing a snippet of “Sugartime,” a song from the late fifties. But it’s almost worth seeing for a howler about Hitler that comes very late in the proceedings: “Some little guy in Germany,” he says in voiceover, “was gettin’ people all excited. But they weren’t gonna go to war over him. No percentage in it.”

The Edge of Seventeen – This is a tricky one. It’s very well-made and nicely acted. The dialogue is frequently witty. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 93% Fresh. But there’s nothing very fresh about the story, which is that a nerdy girl (Hailee Steinfeld) has a crush on a bad boy and doesn’t realize the nice smart guy who sits next to her in class is a better prospect. As if that wasn’t enough, the nerdy girl is portrayed by a lovely young actress, more likely to be prom queen than an outcast. On the other hand, she does behave like an asshole throughout, which doesn’t help us like her as a protagonist. Nor does the fact that she lives a privileged, cushy upper-middle-class life. Also, after she accidentally sends the bad boy an explicit text about wanting sex with him, she is surprised that, when they go out parking, he expects to have sex with her.

Additionally, she still doesn’t see the nice boy as a prospect even after he turns out to be very, very rich (he even has a bigger swimming pool than she does) (see how hard she has it?).

The secondary central conflict is rooted in her asshole-ishness: her nerdy outcast best-and-only friend (also portrayed by a lovely young woman) starts dating our heroine’s hunky brother, and this our heroine cannot abide! She is a flaming bitch to both throughout most of the film. Don’t you feel sorry for her? This is interspersed with occasional Breakfast Club self-exploratory soliloquies (as when her hunky brother reveals his life is also very hard, because he has to keep an eye on their emotionally troubled single mom, who by the way has a very, very good job, despite being an emotional wreck). Of course, she comes around to the worthy boy…after he invites her to a film festival where his incredibly professional animated “student” film unspools…and is about her!

How is this twaddle 93% Fresh? How is this a story that touches an average girl’s heart when the central character is a spoiled beautiful upper-middle-class brat?

The writer/director, Kelly Fremon Craig, does a professional job and some nice moments do happen, most with the Woody Harrelson teacher character. The producer is James L. Brooks, whose TV work (The Simpsons, Lou Grant) has often been stellar but whose movies (often acclaimed) have consistently missed me, and I include Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment.

So your mileage may vary.

* * *

This flurry of reviews lately – all positive last week, remember? – does not negate the fact that I genuinely dislike writing bad reviews. They are the easiest kind of thing to write, often filled with cheap shots (see above). For a long time I stopped writing them. I learned from my own indie movies just how hard the process is – that even making a bad movie is a tough, tough thing. I resigned from my movie column at Mystery Scene because of that. Then I wrote mostly good reviews at Asian Cult Cinema for several years.

Now, like a drunk falling off the wagon, I find myself writing bad reviews again. Why? It reflects a level of frustration that I feel as someone who loves movies, and who goes to a lot more of them than most people. Because I’m in Muscatine, Iowa, I often miss the art movies that are highly touted, but often when I see those, I am no more happy than when I see Hollywood’s standard fare. Art movies, indies, have become a kind of genre in themselves; that includes a lot of European stuff.

I am older now, and harder to please. I have quoted several times what the beautiful and wise Barb said when, as we watched a lousy Italian western at home, whether we would have stayed through the entire movie in the theater, back in “the day” (the ‘70s or ‘80s). As I shut off the Blu-ray player, she said, “Yes, but we had our whole lives ahead of us then.”

Truer words.

* * *

I am working on a Quarry graphic novel, which Titan will publish in four issues and then collect. Don’t know the artist yet, though I approved several based on samples.

It’s very, very hard. I have been away from this format for a while, and the story takes place partly in Vietnam in 1969 and then back in the America of 1972. Providing visual reference for the artist has been a dizzying, daunting task. A 22-page script runs to 60 pages with panel descriptions and links to reference photos.

I doubt I will do many more such projects. Prose is far less taxing.

* * *

The Rap Sheet takes a look at the Black Dahlia case, and has nice mentions of the Nate Heller novel, Angel in Black.

Here’s info on the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD of the Quarry TV series.

M.A.C.