Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

Movie Round-Up

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Regular readers of this blog/update may recall that Barb and I see a lot of movies – usually one a week, sometimes more than that; when you work at home, you need the occasional escape. And you’ll know that I at times write about movies here, as I did last time with SPECTRE.

Here are a few quick notes on other movies I’ve seen over the last several months.

GOOSEBUMPS – We saw this in 3-D, perhaps proving my son Nate’s point that I will see anything in 3-D. Not true: I didn’t go to THE WALK, about that guy who did a tightrope act between the Twin Towers. But then I have vertigo (probably given to me by the movie of the same name). Back to GOOSEBUMPS. This is a basically kid friendly movie that is a lot of fun for grown-ups who were “monster kids” themselves (monster kids being those of us who grew up on FAMOUS MONSTERS and other such horror-movie mags). This is a very funny flick in the monster rally vein, featuring Jack Black as R.L. Stine, whose imagination is so strong, his creepy creations come to life, and must stay locked in their respective bound manuscripts or else (or else we have a movie). Black, playing a grumpy-father role that is quite different for him, is nonetheless very funny, particularly when he pronounces the name of the evil ventriloquist’s dummy he’s conjured: “Slaaappy!” The kid leads are appealing enough, too, and the monsters just keep coming.

BRIDGE OF SPIES – Tom Hanks plays insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who brokered the trade between the USA and Russia of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for U-2 pilot Gary Powers (note: U-2 is not a rock band in this instance). While I admittedly have a unique point of view here, I see this as something of a companion piece to ROAD TO PERDITION, with Hanks back in a topcoat and hat, a somber period setting, PERDITION producer Spielberg behind the camera, and influential composer Thomas Newman providing music with its many echoes of that previous score. This first-rate film recalls such ‘60s non-Bond movies as FUNERAL IN BERLIN and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD – the story is essentially a John Le Carre novel in real life – and Hanks quietly carries the equally quiet screenplay (the Coen brothers were involved) on his shoulders.

STEVE JOBS – This apparently bombed at the box office (as did the previous JOBS), but it shouldn’t have. Michael Fassbender is particularly strong in a stellar cast that includes Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Seth Rogen, all beautifully cast in a warts-and-all biopic. Danny Boyle’s direction of what is at heart a stage play opens things up with a drifting camera and the occasional daring effect, as when he uses a wall in a hallway to cast a moving image relating to the topic at hand. But the real star is Aaron Sorkin, whose screenplay represents the best post-WEST WING example of his walk-and-talk approach. Perhaps the people in Sorkin’s world are too witty and too articulate, and would that the world itself had the same problem. Sorkin brilliantly structures the film around three key introductions of new product by Jobs, and Boyle gives each section a distinct look, in part via film stock. I have the math skills of a third-grader, and not a top-notch one at that, but I had no trouble following the tech stuff enough to stay in the game. STEVE JOBS plays really well on the big screen, though its life will largely be on video. A pity.

CRIMSON PEAK – Guillermo Del Toro’s haunted house movie is a near masterpiece swaddled in gothic trappings with steampunk seasoning. It’s as if Stephen King was writing DOWNTON ABBEY – actually, the first act, set in 1880s Boston, exceeds the latter in its time-machine feel. Essentially a gothic romance – think JANE EYRE or even REBECCA – CRIMSON PEAK weds a young, talented woman (Mia Wasikowska) with writerly ambitions to a mysterious, handsome, financially strapped aristocrat (Tom Hiddleston) with a tragic background. She soon finds herself in a magnificent but ramshackle mansion where her husband and his spooky sister (Jessica Chastain) share secrets. This is sumptuous filmmaking, filled with haunting images, like the snowy landscape turned red by the brick-fodder clay beneath.

SICARIO – A crime movie with a fine cast, stylish direction and a compelling score has no excuse to be this disappointing. Emily Blunt as an FBI agent is at the center of the action, but despite her T-shirt and sloppy attire, she is painfully girly, whining and deferring to men and even being saved by one, after she makes a bad dating decision. The script is a mess, illogical and poorly structured, with Blunt disappearing from the twenty-minute climax, which suddenly, jarringly puts Benicio Del Toro in charge of the narrative. And the joint CIA/FBI plot to bring down a drug lord is stunningly stupid. Still, the film has a lot going for it, in particular its unsettling look at crime-ridden Juarez. But the failed FX series, THE BRIDGE (reworking the nordic original), mined similar territory much more effectively, particularly in its second season.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE – Okay, it’s in 3-D. You don’t have to see it in 3-D, but why would you not? Do you really want to see Snoopy go after the Red Baron, all two-dimensional? My wife gave me a sideways look when I said I wanted to go to this, but in the theater, she came around quickly when we discovered that the film was a faithful compendium of the great Schulz comic strip, essentially Peanuts’ greatest hits wrapped up in a loose but rewarding narrative. The three-dimensional modeling of the characters is offset by their facial expressions having a drawn-on look.

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Here’s an intelligent review of the first Quarry novel (entitled, as you may recall, QUARRY, recently reprinted with a Robert McGinnis cover). Interestingly, this same reviewer did not like THE WRONG QUARRY, which I consider to be a superior novel. Still, the first book in a series almost always has more integrity than what follows, particularly when that novel wasn’t conceived to be the first in a series.

Check out this brief but interesting look at the forthcoming QUARRY TV series.

Finally, ROAD TO PERDITION gets some decent coverage on this list of worthwhile non-superhero comic-book movies. Scroll down a little and you can vote for your favorite such movie (helpful hint: your favorite such movie is ROAD TO PERDITION).

M.A.C.

Cry U.N.C.L.E.

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 2015

I was a junior and then senior in high school in 1964, when Beatlemania hit, and I was as caught up in it as anybody. The recent anniversary of their Shea Stadium concert got a lot of nostalgic talk going, particularly on oldies radio. (Not that someone as hip and culturally relevant as me listens to such a thing.) What hardly anybody discusses, though, is where the concurrent spy craze fit in.

Of course, James Bond – his anti-Beatles remark in the otherwise great GOLDFINGER a rare tin-ear moment from the filmmakers – was a big part of the British invasion. The success of the first few Bond films meant imitations were inevitable, and lots of spy stuff hit the screens, some of it more straight like THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and THE IPCRESS FILE, but a lot of it crapola like the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” abominations.

A ton of the imitations came out of Europe, particularly Italy, and those mostly terrible movies – for which I have an inexplicable fondness – are now lumped together as the Euro-Spy genre. The two OSS 117 parodies of recent years were takes on Bond, yes, but also on the straight OSS 117 movies from the ‘60s based on a long-running novel series that actually pre-dated James Bond. Some of these are among the best Bond imitations – SHADOW OF EVIL, MISSION FOR A KILLER, PANIC IN BANGKOK. (These are either unavailable in the USA or available only gray-market and/or pan-and-scan form. Check out Amazon France for better copies, most of which have English subtitles.)

But in Iowa in 1964, only the really mainstream spy movies made it here (again, the Dean Martin junk, and the very good Harry Palmers with Michael Caine) and that was true for a lot of the country. Buffs for this stuff wouldn’t see the Euro-spy movies until they hit TV a decade or two later in butchered, horrendously dubbed format, or in the last few years as DVDs and Blu-rays, often with wide-screen images intact and English subtitles. I particularly like the Joe Walker/KOMMISAR X series from Italy, but there’s no excuse for it.

Meanwhile, back in ‘64, television stepped in to feed a spy craze that couldn’t breathe on one Bond film a year and occasional double-feature double-oh-seven re-releases. So a number of spy series hit the small screen, most prominently THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (co-created by Ian Fleming, a fairly little known fact) and I SPY. I’ve revisited both series in the last several years, and neither holds up very well. Of course, I SPY is now on the pop-cultural scrap heap, thanks to Bill Cosby’s little hobby.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was always spotty. A few years ago, working my way through the show in a spy’s briefcase, I knew I was in trouble when late in the first season – generally considered to be the best – an episode written by the great Robert Towne blew chunks. But at the time, the show was a very big deal. The first episode was expanded, shown in color (the pilot had been shot that way but the first season was otherwise in black-and-white, and the pilot aired that way), and some new violent, sexy scenes were inserted. Also a big scene with David McCullum, who was a non-entity in the pilot but had Spock-like popularity with viewers that got him the second lead, very quickly. This cunning patchwork was titled TO TRAP A SPY and was released theatrically to some success. There were seven more of these recycled MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. movies, mostly utilizing TV two-parters, although only the first two did well, and several went overseas with no stateside theatrical release. They are available as a set on DVD from Warner Archive.

Though Bond was obviously immune, the spy craze died quickly, particularly on TV. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., in its third season, went campy, following the lead of the new craze, the Adam West/Burt Ward BATMAN. Everybody hated this version of U.N.C.L.E., and the next half-season (they were cancelled midway) went back to more straight fare, too late. I SPY lasted three seasons. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, thanks to great music and a cool premise, out-lived every other espionage show of the era.

What most Baby Boomers remember about THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (and U.N.C.L.E. was not Uncle Sam, but an organization that seemed vaguely tied to the U.N. for worldwide law-enforcement) (no, I won’t spell out the acronym) are Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo (a name Fleming contributed) and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. The latter with his Beatle-esque haircut and understated Russian accent was a big pop-cultural deal. Vaughn, smooth and unruffled and impeccably attired, was arguably the best secret agent of the craze but for Bond himself.

So you’re waiting for me to slam the new movie, I suppose. Well, I’m not going to because it’s terrific. Director-co-writer Guy Ritchie has made a sly, darkly funny film that invokes not just the series but Bond and the entire spy craze era, with the look of the film drawing heavily upon the Harry Palmer trio. The twisty script is sexy and clever and occasionally scary. The music is witty and mixes zither exoticism out of FUNERAL IN BERLIN with Ennio Morricone cues, during which the direction takes an overtly Serio Leone take. The leads are fine, Armie Hammer redeeming his LONE RANGER travesty with a Kuryakin reworked into a volatile near psychotic, while Henry Clavill channels Robert Vaughn. It was this near impression – revealing the actor had really studied the series – that won me over early on. Clavill has Vaughn’s cadence and cool, as well as the dimple in his chin.

It’s an origin story, and U.N.C.L.E. itself is barely introduced at the end, though charmingly so, Hugh Grant nailing the spy agency’s boss, Alexander Waverly (the great Leo G. Carroll on the TV series). It sets up a series of films that probably won’t happen. Unfortunately.

Something this smart and witty may not work on the current generation, who won’t get the references and will wonder why every scene isn’t an action one, like the latest video game or the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. Now I liked the Tom Cruise film, found it great fun, but it’s just one Cruise action set piece after another linked by clumsy expository scenes and winning comedy relief from Simon Pegg. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. won’t be everybody’s cup of spy, but it’s my favorite film of the summer.

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Here’s a knock-out of a review of KING OF THE WEEDS from the Crime Review site.

And my 1981 Nolan novel, HUSH MONEY, made number two on the best reads of the month at Col’s Criminal Library.

M.A.C.

Road to Pernicious

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

A while back, I commented on JOHN WICK and how I thought I detected my fingerprints on it. Didn’t bother me, and (unless I was just being typically self-deluded) I even felt a little flattered. It’s nice to move out of the “being-influenced” category and into the “influence” one.

But I had a very different reaction to RUN ALL NIGHT, the Liam Neeson crime drama that co-stars Joel Kinnaman (of the American KILLING), whose presence is what got Barb and me there, since we are both fans of that series and in particular Kinnaman’s work. This is where I would normally give you a review, but I wasn’t able to tell much about the movie, other than the direction was distractingly flashy and that Ed Harris delivered another one of his strange over-acting and under-acting at the same time performances. Neeson was just doing his patented middle-aged-good-guy-who’s-depressed-he’s-been-a-killer-most-of-his-life turns.

Why I can’t discuss this film rationally is because it lifts so outrageously and shamelessly from both the film and graphic novel of ROAD TO PERDITION. There are differences – Kinnamon plays a grown son with a killer father, with whom he’s fallen out because daddy used to kill people…oh, and it’s present day. But almost every major story beat is PERDITION. Neeson is Michael O’Sullivan, Kinnamon is Michael O’Sullivan, Jr. (even named Michael!), Ed Harris is Paul Newman, and the conflict initiates when an innocent kid witnesses a vicious murder by Harris’ homicidal worthless son. The critics haven’t noticed this blatant borrowing (that I know of), but Barb and I picked up on it almost immediately. Maybe ten minutes in, I said to her, “I guess this is kind of a compliment, but it seems wrong that I should have to pay to see this.”

Barb would lean over and point out the parallels: “Now they’re doing the church scene,” “This is Newman calling Jude Law,” “This is Jude Law getting his face messed up so he can appear later ravaged-looking” (which he does – at a cabin on a lake, in the fucking kitchen!).

Some scenes from the graphic novel appear that weren’t in the Sam Mendes film – including one that I wish had been included, where Michael O’Sullivan takes a meeting with the top gangster (here Ed Harris as an amalgam of Looney/Rooney and Frank Nitti) in their stronghold and then shoots his way out.

Much of what I did in ROAD TO PERDITION drew upon novels and books I read as a kid and of course John Woo and LONE WOLF AND CUB (though there’s more Richard Stark in there than anything Japanese). There’s also some GUN CRAZY and BONNIE & CLYDE, because I wanted to merge the classic gangster story with the outlaw saga. My own Quarry was in the mix, and Nolan and Jon, and even MOMMY. But I didn’t lift, not even from myself. I wasn’t lazy. I put together something of my own, or at least I think I did.

I’m not shouting plagiarism, understand. But I am crying shamelessly lazy screenwriting that is an even bigger insult to the audience than it is to me.

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Here’s a write-up that appeared on Mickey Spillane’s birthday a week ago, with a brief review of KILL ME, DARLING.

And if you scroll down to the bottom review here, you’ll find a nice one on KILL ME, DARLING (amusing referred to, at one point, as KILL ME, DEADLY).

M.A.C.

Note from the Bunker

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

As I’ve indicated in an earlier update, I am really up against it in the first half of this year. With only about a week’s break after finishing BETTER DEAD (the new Heller), during which a lot of other business was conducted, I got right on the next Quarry novel, QUARRY IN THE BLACK. I am about a third-of-the-way in, writing one chapter a day, final draft. I took one day a week off, generally.

I don’t mind working hard, and I feel my novels – particularly those in first person – benefit from the intensity and speed of the process. Right now two of my collaborators, my lovely bride Barb and my good buddy Matt Clemens, are preparing their rough drafts of the next ANTIQUES and Reeder & Rogers novels. They make my life and my job much easier, and the resulting novels will be better than I could have made them on my own.

But the writing may mean for some scattered and occasionally, well, grouchy updates. This report from the bunker includes a few stray thoughts.

First, few comments have come in about my favorite and least favorite movies of 2014 list. Probably I was too belligerent in presentation. Whenever you sense that in one of these updates, you’ll know the writing is rubbing up against me hard, trying to make a pearl.

Birdman

Second, I have now seen both BIRDMAN and FOXCATCHER. Both are very good (Barb agrees) and I was especially impressed by BIRDMAN, which is the rare film that is as driven by dialogue as it is visuals; the cast is outstanding, especially Michael Keaton and Ed Norton, who is spoofing himself to some degree. BIRDMAN would have gone on my Favorite lists.

FOXCATCHER suffers from a sluggish pace and some poor narrative choices, but it is nonetheless worthwhile with excellent performances from Steve Carrell, Tatum Channing and Mark Ruffalo. It would not be on my favorites list.

Keaton is now my Best Actor “Oscar” pick.

By the way, I never watch the Academy Awards. I find the show dull and embarrassing, and many of the movies being honored do not interest me. Is this like a sports fan skipping the SuperBowl? I wonder. In any case, we always watch a movie instead.

Third, a good number of readers misunderstood my rant about getting hit on for free advice. I was specifically talking about my home town and people who don’t really have an interest in me or my work, other than sucking information out of me at a social occasion. On the other hand, with very rare exceptions, I can’t give blurbs anymore because I don’t have time to read the books. Too much research to plow through, and when I’m writing a book, I tend not to read fiction.

I am pleased to report that QUARRY’S CHOICE is racking up some great reviews. Here’s one.

And it’s a thrill to get reviewed at Bookgasm; here’s their QUARRY’S CHOICE rave.

M.A.C.