Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"SHE'LL BE BACK"

I saw TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES for the first time on July 4th, 2003 at a movie theater in a mall in the small (but beautiful) town of Bluefield, West Virginia. Judy and I were there to take part in the wedding of Judy's good friend Cathy and her husband Todd. While all of the women in the wedding party were getting their hair and nails done that afternoon, Andrew (whose wife, Heidi, was also in the wedding) and I attended a screening of T3. We both liked the film and when I watched it again the other day, my opinion didn't change.

While not as groundbreaking as either of the first two James Cameron directed installments of the TERMINATOR franchise, T3 (which was the last film appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger before becoming governor of California), is a pretty solid science fiction action movie. Arnold is back as a Terminator from the war torn future with a mission to protect John Connor (an underwhelming Nick Stahl) and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) from another killer Terminator, this time one in the lovely form of Kristanna Loken. 

Director Jonathan Mostow orchestrates some slam-bang action set pieces, the special effects are good for the most part (although a few shots looked a little jinky) and the film ends in the only way it possibly could. It's a Strangeloveian finale but given what had already been established in the first two films, the ending is perfectly logical and makes complete narrative sense. 

Yes, Skynet takes over and launches nukes all over the world, a devastating act that sets up the world of the future where the machines rule and humans, led by John Connor, wage a war of resistance against the killer mechs. This future had to eventually come to pass at some point in this franchise in order to make the previous two films possible. After all, if Terminators keep coming back to present day from the future, shouldn't the filmmakers eventually establish once and for all exactly how that future came to be and, more importantly, use that future as a setting for subsequent installlments in the TERMINATOR franchise? You can't keep constantly sending Arnold back to protect Sarah and John Connor. 

It's a grim, downer of an ending but it's one that had to happen in order to move the franchise forward.


Monday, April 21, 2014

HIT ME

I finished reading HIT ME by Lawrence Block yesterday evening. Published in 2013 it's the fifth book Block has written about professional killer John Keller. It is also apparently, the last book Block plans to write. If that is indeed true, he's going out where he's always been: on top.

Lawrence Block, a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America has won multiple Edgar and Shamus Awards and countless international prizes. He's been writing since the late 1950s and while I haven't quite read everything he's written, I've loved everything that I have read that had his name on it. Block could and did do it all. He crafted many superb stand alone crime thrillers, many of which have been brought back into print by Hard Case Crime (my favorite publisher, by the way). In fact, the first Block novel I read was GRIFTER'S GAME, an early reissue from Hard Case. From there, I was totally and completely hooked on his books.

I've read many other stand alones by Block as well as entries in three of his ongoing series: the Matthew Scudder novels (a New York City PI who is also a recovering alcoholic), the Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries (a professional burglar who runs a New York City bookstore and is always getting involved in murder cases) and the aforementioned Keller series.

Keller is an interesting character. He kills people for money and he's very good at what he does. He approaches each assignment as a puzzle to be solved and watching Keller plan and commit his crimes is part of the pleasure of the books. Keller is also a husband and father and rock solid family man who manages to keep his bloody business separate and compartmentalized from his wife (who is fully aware of what he does) and daughter. Oh, and he collects stamps.

Stamp collecting takes about half of the narrative space in HIT ME with the other half devoted to murder for hire. HIT ME, like other entries in the Keller series, isn't so much a novel as it is a series of connected novelettes. In each, Keller has a crime to commit, a puzzle to solve and stamps to acquire. For instance, he has to figure out how to kill a cloistered monk in a monastery in the heart of New York City and he plans and executes (forgive the pun), a murder aboard a cruise ship, a trip upon which his wife accompanies him.

 Along the way, we learn much about collecting stamps but Block serves the info dumps in small and tasty bites and he leavens everything with deadpan humor and some pretty good one-liners. Block makes us like and care about Keller and, most importantly, he makes us pull for him to succeed in his various endeavors. That's a pretty remarkable accomplishment, making a man with blood on his hands (and lots of it), a likable, nice guy character, someone you'd like to have a beer or two with.

HIT ME isn't an out-and-out comedy but it's light and breezy and a pure joy to read. It's the most fun you'll ever have in the company of a professional killer.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"I JUST READ BOOKS"

I recently read somewhere that when Robert Redford was offered a part in this year's CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER, he read the script and replied, "this reminds me of THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR." He was right. Both films feature secret agencies within secret agencies. In CAPTAIN AMERICA, it's HYDRA within S.H.I.E.L.D.. In CONDOR, it's a rogue cell within the CIA.

I remember seeing THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) on first release at the old Capital Plaza Cinema (when it was still just a one-screen theater). I was in college at the time and I enjoyed the film. I watched it again the other day for the first time in thirty-nine years and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it still holds up very well as an intelligent suspense film that resonates with 1970s paranoia.

Redford stars a "reader" for the CIA. He and his team are tasked with reading everything they can get their hands on: books (fiction and non-fiction), newspapers, magazines, etc. They search for anything that might be coded information about actual or proposed CIA operations. Redford discovers something and submits a report to his superiors. That report sends up a red flag and every one in Redford's small office is soon murdered in a lunch-time attack. Redford, who was literally out for lunch at the time, survives and must go on the run to find out what's going on.

He very quickly discovers that he can trust no one. Mysterious agent Cliff Robertson may or may not be telling him the truth, there's a deadly assassin (Max Von Sydow) on his trail and Redford's only ally is single woman Faye Dunaway, who first resists and fears him but soon comes to sympathize with him which leads to a night of love making.

For a guy who "just reads book" and wasn't trained as a field agent, Redford proves remarkably adept at staying one step ahead of his pursuers. He uses his wits and innate intelligence to navigate the suddenly deadly streets of New York City and eventually discovers the truth about what led to the mass murders. The ending of the film is appropriately ambiguous and leaves the viewer wondering if The New York Times will print the story Redford has given them.

While watching the film, I was struck by how well director Sydney Pollack orchestrates everything. There's only one fight scene in the entire film but there is plenty of suspense and danger. If this movie was remade for today's audiences it would star some peach-fuzzed nobody in the lead role and would be wall-to-wall kinetic action scenes with beau coup fight scenes, car and foot chases, gun battles and explosions. Lots of explosions.

Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack were an unbeatable combination of actor and director. They made six films together: JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972), THE WAY WE WERE (1973), THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979), the multiple Oscar winner OUT OF AFRICA (1985) and HAVANA (1990).

Oddly enough, the four main stars in CONDOR would all later appear in films based on comic books. Max Von Sydow appeared in both FLASH GORDON (1980) and JUDGE DREDD (1995), Faye Dunaway was in SUPERGIRL (1984), Cliff Robertson played Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's SPIDER-MAN (2002) and of course Redford is in the current CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"...BY ANY OTHER NAME..."

I watched THE COSMIC MONSTER last night, a 1958 British science fiction film that I had recently recorded off of TCM. At least, that's the title that was on my DVR and on the print of the film that I saw. But this schizo movie has more personalities than Sybil, having been released in both the U.K. and the U.S. as COSMIC MONSTERS, THE CRAWLING TERROR, THE COSMIC MONSTER and THE CRAWLING HORROR. Whatever you want to call it, it's a stinker.

In addition to having various titles, COSMIC MONSTER has a number of plot elements, none of which are ever fully developed into a satisfying narrative. I will admit that I nodded off a couple of times watching this snoozer but here's what I was able to make out of this mess while I was awake.

A British scientist and his American assistant (Forrest Tucker), are conducting some sort of experiment involving magnetic fields. They inadvertently cause a series of strange, world wide phenomena to occur including freak storms and UFO sightings (!). Turns out they've burned a hole in the ionosphere allowing those oh-so-pesky cosmic rays (and we all remember what those things did to humans in the first issue of FANTASTIC FOUR) to bombard the earth. A mysterious vagrant gets half of his face burned by the radiation and goes on a killing spree. Is this the titular "cosmic monster"? Maybe. Maybe not.

At the same time, a mysterious Mr. Smith (Martin Benson) shows up in the British countryside. It's quite obvious that he's an alien and is somehow related to those UFO sightings. Again, is he the "cosmic monster"? "Probably not as, only minutes later, yet another plot development is thrown in, this time involving insects that have been mutated to giant size, well, pretty big, okay, about the size of a large dog, by the cosmic radiation.

If this was an American science fiction film, you'd expect stalwart scientist Forrest Tucker to cobble up some method of defeating the big bugs but he does nothing. He's the most ineffectual scientific man of action I've ever seen in a '50s sci-fi film. Instead, it's up to Mr. Smith, the alien, to blast the bugs with a ray gun, deliver a lecture to humans about messing around with things unknown and then leave in his space ship. That's the end of the film because, remember kids, when the monster is dead, the movie is over.

COSMIC MONSTER borrows liberally from both 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (a far superior film) and 1957's THE BEGINNING OF THE END (not a very good movie but a masterpiece compared to COSMIC MONSTER). Six-foot, four inch Forrest Tucker is horribly and hopelessly miscast here. He's unbelievable as both a scientist and a love interest for co-star Gaby Andre (who is badly dubbed). Tucker made three British sf films over the course of two years, this one, THE TROLLENBERG TERROR aka THE CRAWLING EYE (1958) and the Hammer Films production of THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (1957), which is far and away the best of the three. Tucker is best known for his starring role on the ABC-TV sitcom F-TROOP, which ran from 1965 to 1967.

And is just me or does Forrest Tucker





look like this guy?




Bandleader Phil Harris

Monday, April 7, 2014

THE ENEMY


"I said nothing."


I finished reading THE ENEMY by Lee Child last night. It's the eighth Jack Reacher novel and I'm slowly but surely working my through all of these terrific novels. I've read eleven Reacher adventures so far and I've enjoyed each and every one of them.

THE ENEMY takes place in 1990, during Reacher's career as a military police special investigator in the U.S. Army. It's New Year's Day, 1990 and an Army general is found dead in a seedy motel room. His briefcase and contents, the agenda for a secret meeting of the general and two other top ranking officers, is missing. Before you know it, the general's wife is found dead in her home. Next, a special forces member is murdered on the base where Reacher has been suddenly and mysteriously re-assigned, followed by the murder of a special forces officer in another city. What is the thread that ties these deaths together? Reacher, along with the very able (and attractive) Lt. Summer race against the clock to solve the crimes. Their investigation takes them from the east coast of the U.S. to Germany and back and then to an explosive climax in the California desert where Reacher squares off against one of the murderers. Oh, yeah, and a tank battalion.

Reacher, all six-feet five inches and 250 pounds of him, narrates this untold tale of his Army days. It's standard Reacher stuff. He's as tough and taciturn as Clint Eastwood and he has the deductive abilities of Sherlock Holmes. THE ENEMY is a straight ahead murder mystery involving a military coup that will keep you turning the pages as only Lee Child can. If you've never read a Reacher novel, THE ENEMY is a good place to start as it provides a lot of detail about Reacher, his family and his career in the military.

Highly recommended. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING

I finished reading (for the second time) A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING (1964) the other day. It's the third Travis McGee novel by the late, great John D. MacDonald and it's a splendid yarn.

This one finds McGee out west instead of his home turf of Florida where he meets Mona Yeoman, a blond beauty who wants to hire McGee to help her get the inheritance money left to her by her father back from her several years older (and friend of her late father) husband, Jass. McGee doesn't much care for Mona and he thinks something fishy is going on but before he can agree or disagree to help her, she's shot dead by a sniper hidden in the rocks of the vast desert wasteland.

All of that happens in the first chapter and it's one helluva narrative hook, both for the reader and McGee. Even though Mona is dead and McGee is a witness to her murder, someone goes to great lengths to make it look like she's run off with her lover, college professor John Webb. McGee soon meets Webb's sister, Isobel, a sexually repressed virgin, who becomes his partner in this adventure.

There are many twists and turns and several more deaths before everything comes to a thrilling climax in which McGee and Isobel are stalked at night in the high desert country by the killers. In the aftermath of their ordeal, McGee once again uses his "magic dick" to deflower the young virgin and thaw her chilly attitude towards men.

A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING has a terrific sense of place. Fish-out-of-water McGee is at a disadvantage away from his Florida home but he manages to come out on top of his adversaries. With colorful, well-drawn characters, great dialogue, a terrific mystery and an exciting finish, A PURPLE PLACE FOR DYING is a winner in my book. Thumbs up. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) remains my all-time favorite Marvel movie. I loved the combination of a super hero action film with a WWII movie. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which I saw this morning, is another mixing of cinematic genres, this time placing the slam bang super hero fisticuffs smack dab in the middle of a modern spy film. The results are spectacular.

Before I get to a brief rundown of the film, here's how I scored the trailers I saw before today's feature.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2: I'm in.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: sign me up.

LUCY: Maybe. Looks interesting.

MALEFICENT: Pass.

CAPT AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is two-hours plus of prime Marvel Universe  goodness. There's a lot going on in this movie including: Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Nick Fury, Sam Wilson/The Falcon, Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Maria Hill, Jasper Sitwell, Batroc (yes, Batroc!), Armin Zola, S.H.I.E.L.D, HYDRA, not one, not two, but three helicarriers, a Stephen Strange name drop, blistering action scenes, a lot of info dump dialogue, a labyrinthine plot full of secrets, moves and counter-moves, a lot of screen time in which Steve Rogers is not in uniform (as Tony Stark was not in armor throughout much of IRON MAN 3), a very puffy and bloated looking Gary Shandling (both Redford and Jenny Agutter (who has a small part in the film) have aged better), Peggy Carter, Sharon Carter/Agent 13, a James Bond style credit sequence and the now common teaser scene which ups the ante for the Marvel movie universe even more.

Remember how at the end of AVENGERS, there was a collective gasp of "Holy Shit! It's Thanos!" Remember how at the end of THOR: THE DARK WORLD, there was a collective gasp of "Holy Shit! It's the Collector!" Get ready folks because at the end of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, there was a collective gasp of "Holy Shit! It's ***** ******** and *********** and ******* *****! What this means for the upcoming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON movie to be released next year remains to be seen but I can't wait to see how it all plays out.

I know I've said this before but I cannot emphasize this enough. In 1966, when I was ten years old, I was a regular reader of the Marvel comic book title TALES OF SUSPENSE featuring Iron Man and Captain America. Cap didn't get his own title until 1968 but I loved the character from the first time I saw him on the printed page. The work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and the stories they told in ten pages per month of the Star Spangled Avenger were some of my favorite comic books (then and now). The very idea of being able to go to a movie theater and see a full length, live-action (non-camp) major motion picture of CAPTAIN AMERICA was the stuff that dreams were made of. All we had was BATMAN (both the weekly television series and the 1966 feature film).

Never in my wildest fantasies did I imagine that I would one day see a film like this in which so many elements of my beloved Marvel Universe would be brought to vivid and dynamic life on the big screen.This movie made me feel like a ten-year old kid again and for that, I give it a big thumbs up.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER. Recommended.