Posts Tagged ‘Quarry’

Dinner With Perry and Della

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

Barbara Hale is gone.

She was 94, so it’s not exactly a tragedy, but it still hurts. Few actresses have done more with so underwritten a part as Ms. Hale did with Della Street on Perry Mason. She brought humor and intelligence to the role, and her genuine connection with both Raymond Burr and William Hopper brought a sense of reality to a fairly ridiculous if enormously entertaining concept – the defense attorney who (almost) never loses a case.

I was lucky enough to meet Barbara Hale and spend some time with her. Here’s what happened.

Back in the late ‘80s, I got the chance to collaborate on a project with Raymond Burr. Now, coincidentally, I had for some time been collecting the old Mason shows on VHS, and reading the Erle Stanley Gardner novels as crime-fiction comfort food, even collecting Mason first editions. Barb was a fan of the TV show, too, so it was a mutual enthusiasm, which is always nice for husband and wife.

Getting the chance to meet Burr, and work with him, was a dream come true. I made three trips to Denver, where the Mason TV-movies were being shot, and spent a lot of time with Raymond (he preferred that to “Ray”). He was an interesting guy, warm and generous and puckishly funny. The high-end hotel where I was staying had a residential wing where Burr lived during production of the films. I went to his suite, knocked on the door, and he answered, wearing a railroad engineer’s cap and coveralls – he had an elaborate model railroad set-up that threaded through the various rooms of the apartment. And the trains were a rollin’!

He and I got along fine. The first trip we didn’t work – we just got to know each other, and he regaled me with tales of his long and fascinating, much-travelled life. I heard about the Ballets Russes, where his career had begun, and of such world figures as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, as well as his experiences touring with the USO in Vietnam. I told him we should just skip the idea of doing a thriller and put together his autobiography. But he was adamant that he would never write that book, after spending hours convincing me it would be important and fascinating. His bisexuality, which he fairly openly referred to in our conversations – his frankness was part of my acceptance as a friend – was something he never wished to discuss in public.

On the other two Denver trips, we worked – plotting an espionage thriller in the morning and over lunch, with me working several hours in the mid-afternoon in my hotel room to put our thoughts on paper, joining him again an hour or two before supper. Every meal I had on these trips was with Raymond.

One meal was particularly memorable. Barbara Hale was arriving to shoot the next Mason TV movie, which was about to begin production. Raymond asked me if I would like to meet her and go out with them for dinner at the best steakhouse in Denver. I would have gone to the worst diner in Paducah for a chance to do that. I called Barb and said, “Guess who I’m going out to dinner with tonight? Perry and Della!” She said she hated me, but sounded sweet saying so.

Barbara Hale would have been 66 at the time – two years younger than I am now – but I remember being almost startled by how lovely and young she seemed to me, and, frankly, sexy. She came across older on television in the Mason movies. There was a genuine chemistry between us, and the fact that I could make Della Street smile so easily was just about as good as it gets.

We definitely hit it off, and she was impressed that I knew about her career right down to her appearing in small roles in various RKO movies of the ‘40s, like The Great Gildersleeve entries. In the limo on the way to the steakhouse, sitting between her and Raymond like their overgrown child, I told Barbara how much I loved her in Jolson Sings Again. Raymond, with his ever-present twinkle, said, “Oh, I agree. She was wonderful getting down on her knees in blackface.” She giggled and batted his arm and he giggled back. These two loved each other. Was I really here?

At the steakhouse – where actor Tom Bosley (filming the Father Dowling mysteries in Denver) stopped by to pay his respects – we had a long dinner during which I questioned Raymond and Barbara incessantly about the original Mason show. I had brought along the hardcover first edition of a Mason novel that had Barbara and Raymond pictured together on the back cover – I got this signed by both of them. They had a great time reminiscing about the original show and I only wish I’d secretly recorded all of it.

The TV movie they were shooting, The Case of the Musical Murder, had Debbie Reynolds as a guest star, but she wasn’t around while I was. I did get to go on set several times and watch scenes being shot, and also had several nice conversations with William R. Moses, who had just begun playing Mason’s young assistant on the show. For the first nine movies, Barbara Hale’s son, William Katt, had played Paul Drake, Jr., and Moses was essentially replacing him. I didn’t know why and was tactful enough not to ask.

But I did, at our steakhouse dinner, tell Barbara in front of Raymond what a great job I thought her son had done in that role. She beamed at that. The next day, when Raymond and I picked her up at her suite for lunch, she took me aside and gave me a hug, and whispered, “Thank you for what you said about my son.” Katt, it turned out, had left the Mason movies for a (short-lived) series of his own, and apparently Raymond was not happy about it.

Still, the affection between the two performers was obvious. Raymond told me over lunch one day that he planned to end the series of movies with one in which Mason and Della finally got married. The films began to include genuine expressions of love between the characters, even a kiss or two (the original series had been much more coy about what was an obvious long ongoing relationship between boss and secretary).

Unfortunately the project with Raymond (and I do apologize for speaking of him so familiarly) did not go anywhere. The New York editor who had put us together wanted a mystery, and even suggested a courtroom-oriented one, with the world-hopping thriller we proposed not doing the trick. The editor clearly wanted something like Perry Mason or Ironside. Raymond Burr, with all his international interests and travels, wanted something wider-ranging and in the espionage field. I later learned that two other writers were put together with Raymond Burr and in each case the actor’s strong personality guided them to espionage, and each time the New York editor bridled.

Of course Perry and Della never got married. Raymond Burr’s death in 1993 pre-empted that.

While I regret I never shared the Burr byline on a book or even series of books, I still relish the memory of the collaboration.

After all, it’s not everybody who gets to spend an evening with Perry and Della.

* * *

Arrow is giving some info about Wild Dog’s origin. Still haven’t watched an episode.

Here’s a fun look at Mike Hammer in the movies and on TV (though the writer, who quotes me occasionally, does not seem to have read Mickey Spillane on Screen by Jim Traylor and me).

Here’s an article about the Quarry books and a discussion about what order to read them in, with several options.

Finally, here’s an essay that thinks Cinemax ought to give Quarry a second season. My bank account agrees!

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.

First Movie Walk-out of the Year

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

It’s January 2nd as I write this, and Barb and I have already walked out of a movie. Make that two movies. Sort of. Kind of.

Now that I’m in the Writers Guild, I get to vote in several prestigious awards competitions, which means I receive DVD screeners. I’m gradually working my way through these, but I saved one – La La Land – to watch on New Year’s Eve with Barb. We had party mix and champagne ready (that’s about as festive as it gets in Muscatine, Iowa) and were really looking forward to this highly acclaimed, much-hyped film, which has a 93% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and is “a delightful extravaganza (that) revives the big-screen musical,” according to one critic, a rather typical reaction.

The problem is the movie blows. It’s a full-of-itself valentine to Hollywood (with occasional digs at the movie industry that, surprisingly, don’t ring very true) that is chock full of references to, and reminders of, classic films that this one is a bright-colored yet pale shadow thereof. My comments are based on the first hour, at which point Barb and I went to the kitchen for more festivities (cheese and crackers) and to refill our champagne glasses, and decided not to return to the film. We gave it a chance. We really did. And neither of us had said a word throughout, not wanting to spoil the other guy’s fun.

But when we took our break, it came out: the Emperor was stark staring naked.

First, a small detail: there’s no story. An aspiring actress and a frustrated jazz pianist – both narcissistic know-it-all’s – come together in a passionate, all-talking-all-singing bout of co-dependency. They are joined by no memorable characters. Their meet-cute, date-cute romance turns into occasional barely adequate dancing and singing – the songs are also barely adequate (with the exception of one romantic theme). The best songs are some New Wave hits that are being pimped out, seen as beneath the jazz pianist. An opening number of commuters stuck in traffic and getting out of their cars to sing (again, just adequately) and sort of dance (mediocre choreography) on and between their vehicles has a lot of energy and nerve, in service of not much.

The two leads (Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) have some decent interludes of clever talk, though Ms. Stone has a terrible case of the I’m-so-cute’s. Still, these two have a nice chemistry that deserves a real, much-less-precious movie. The real problem is the self-indulgence of the director/writer, Damien Chazelle.

We’re in neither-fish-nor-foul territory here – not real enough, nor unreal enough, to work. I can accept singing and dancing breaking out – but not the expensive apartment the actress and her equally unsuccessful roommates live in. Or the stupid guy at the party who talks about his credits. Or the call-back for the actress where she is ignored. Or the inability of the jazz pianist to lower himself to making a living.

The filmmaker insists on reminding us of classics like Rebel Without a Cause, Singing in the Rain and Casablanca, as well as Astaire and Rogers pictures, only making us wish one of those is what we were watching.

Look, I like musicals. My list of favorite films includes How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (coming out on Blu-Ray from Twilight Time!), Gypsy, Damn Yankees, Li’l Abner, Carousel and West Side Story. Those came from Broadway shows, but there’s also Hollywood originals like Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, and, yes, Singing in the Rain. Plus all those Astaire/Rogers flicks.

Maybe I’m wrong. But ignore this warning at your own peril.

Now, above I indicated Barb and I had walked out of two movies already this very new year. But the second walk-out came quite late – in fact, what was probably the last scene, although since we didn’t stick, I can’t be sure. It’s a comedy called WHY HIM? that pretends, in part, to be a Christmas film. I’m tempted to say it also pretends to be a comedy, but really it does have some laughs.

We went, largely, because we like Bryan Cranston, who here is revisiting his Malcolm in the Middle muse. He’s very good, as are Party Down’s Megan Mullally (as his wife) and Zoey Deutch (as his daughter). Cranston’s character owns a Midwestern printing company that is struggling in the new e-world, and is presented as a very straight, conservative, even dull businessman. He and his wife and teenage son go to visit their college-age daughter in California and wind up staying at the modern-art mansion of her boy friend, James Franco.

Now I like Franco. I’ve liked him since Freaks and Geeks. But he’s very one-note here, thanks mostly to a script in part by Jonah Hill. He’s supposed to be an idiot savant who as a teenager made a fortune in gaming. But here only the idiot side is on display. The big joke is how many “f”-bombs he drops. He also has a lot of tattoos. Also a mansion full of stupid paintings and statues, usually sexual in nature, a Japanese toilet that requires no t.p., and geek employees who lurk. Nothing about any of this coheres.

Watching Cranston find a million ways to react to the one grinning expression that Franco uses is an acting lesson in overcoming weak material while only occasionally going so far over the top that the desperation shows. Keegan-Michael Key is, as usual, very funny, this time as Franco’s ambiguously sexual, vaguely foreign assistant. If you see this, you may wish the movie was about him.

Here’s the kind of movie Why Him? is.

In the gaming multi-millionaire’s living room there is a dead moose behind glass preserved in its own urine. If you don’t know from the moment you see this gigantic urine-filled tank that it will, late in the film, break open and spill its gross contents, you should rush to a theater instantly and see Why Him? You will have many such surprises.

Speaking of surprises, major domo Key periodically sneak-attacks his employer Franco in elaborate martial arts displays that mimic those of Inspector Clouseau and his manservant, Kato. When Cranston points this out to them (“Classic Pink Panther!”), Key and Franco react with bewilderment – they’ve never heard of the Pink Panther!

Again, we’re in the area of a weak movie taking the insane risk of invoking much better movies. Similarly, it lifts two gags from Christmas Vacation regarding an oversize Christmas tree, as if the people watching this film would probably not have ever seen that one.

The ending, back at Cranston’s modest home, goes on forever and includes a cringe-worthy appearance by a couple of members of KISS. This includes a line by Cranston’s wife about giving him a hand-job on their first date after a KISS concert. That’s the kind of unfunny crudity that Why Him? offers in place of wit.

Hey, I’m no prude. I’ve dropped more fucking f-bombs than James fucking Franco, in my day. But this shit has to stop.

A final word – Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts, is terrific, and a must for Breaking Bad fans. He appears to have written it himself, and much of what he says about acting, and the actor’s life, applies equally well to writing, and the writer’s life. It’s as wonderful as Why Him? isn’t.

* * *

Here’s a lovely appreciation of (aw shucks) me.

And more of the same here, I’m blushing to say.

More praise for the Quarry TV show.

And still more here. Happy New Year!

M.A.C.

Gifts

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

Andy Landers, left, Ellis Kell, right

Ellis Kell died at age 61 on December 16. He was diagnosed with cancer in October. Ellis played a major role at the River Music Experience in the Quad Cities. As a guitarist and singer, he appeared in concert with many major acts and played with countless musicians in the eastern Iowa area.

I didn’t know Ellis well, and only performed with him once, at the wedding reception of my stellar Crusin’ guitarist, Jim Van Winkle. But Ellis’ presence was warm and kind. He was a good friend of Jim’s, and of Andy Landers, the gifted singer/songwriter currently working major venues in the Seattle area. Andy played rhythm guitar and sang with Crusin’ from 2000 to 2008, and – like Jim – is among the best musicians it’s been my honor to perform with. They would be the first to tell me I should add Ellis to that list as well, though he and I only played a few songs together.

I’ve been performing rock ‘n’ roll since 1966, and much earlier than that appeared in choral concerts and musical comedies as a junior high and high school student. At my age, inevitably, I’ve lost a lot of collaborators. Kathe Bender was my Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Jim Hoffman was her “get me to the church on time” father. Both are gone. Jim was in Crusin’ at the very beginning, briefly, and since then we’ve lost Bruce Peters, Chuck Bunn, Tom Hetzler, Larry Barrett, Terry Beckey, and Paul Thomas.

My filmmaking collaborators who’ve gone on ahead of me include actors Majel Barrett, Jason Miller, Del Close and my frequent cohort, Michael Cornelison. Steve Henke, the indispensable madman who was my first A.D. and much more, worked on both Mommys, Real Time: Siege at Lucas Street Market and co-produced Caveman (Mike Cornelison was involved with all of those). And there are others whose names will jump into my mind as soon as I post this.

When someone dies around Christmas, it’s sometimes viewed as particularly sad (as if it weren’t sad enough). I’m not sure I agree. With families gathered at that time of year, it’s a perfect moment to remember and celebrate a loved one who’s gone. And TV, magazines and web sites use that time for “in memoriam” pieces about the celebrities we’ve lost throughout the year.

Crusin’ marked the loss of David Bowie and Prince by learning songs of theirs — a band can salute and celebrate in that unique fashion. Because of my own minor celebrity, I’ve come in contact with some real celebrities, whose passings this year have a special resonance for me.

Peter Brown (of Lawman) I met over the phone after he’d read and enjoyed Black Hats. Patty Duke and I had a brief, friendly conversation in a restaurant in Studio City. Mohammed Ali I met in an airport and shook his massive hand, basking in his charisma. Noel Neill signed her book to me at a Chicago comics con and shared stories about George Reeves. The warm, friendly Bobby Vee I spoke with backstage on two occasions. Comedian Kevin Meaney (“We’re big pants people!”) spent time with Barb and me twice after stand-up appearances – a sweeter guy never lived.

Apologies if this sounds like grisly name-dropping. But these moments have become precious in my memory, and are a continuing reminder of the mortality that faces us all.

Last year about this time, I was very sick. I was facing heart surgery early in the coming year, and I was weak as a kitten but not near as frisky. In my office I wrapped my wife’s presents – I do a miserable but sincere job of it – and it occurred to me I might not be around to do so again. That this might well be my last Christmas. When I came downstairs and put the awkwardly wrapped presents under the tree, Barbie got teary-eyed, which she doesn’t do very often (she’s on Prozac – you would be, too, if you lived with me).

Now I’m preparing to wrap her presents this year. And I’ll tell you – it feels like a privilege. No – it feels like a gift. Every minute we spend with people we care about is just that – a gift.

Raise a glass of nog (Captain Morgan optional), would you, to those you love and those we’ve lost? Here’s some you might wish to include: Bob Elliot, Bob of Bob and Ray; Frank Sinatra Jr. (we had tickets to see him we didn’t get to use); Ken Howard of 1776; brilliant Garry Shandling; Anton Yelchin of Star Trek; Hugh O’Brien, who made Wyatt Earp famous again; magnificent Robert Vaughn, the Man from U.N.C.L.E. but also Hustle; and of course Gene Wilder (“We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams”). Add your favorites and especially those who’ve given you the gift of laughter and/or music.

Rest in peace, Ellis Kell.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

* * *

Here, oddly, is a nice review of the Criminal Minds novel, Finishing School, on which Matt Clemens collaborated.

Once again Quarry is among the best shows of 2016.

Check out this nice write-up on the Quarry series, having to do with its appearance in the UK.

Finally, here’s a chronology with an article about the Quarry book series, with my comments.

M.A.C.