Sunday, May 17, 2015

THE MOONSHINE WAR


I finished reading Elmore Leonard's THE MOONSHINE WAR (1969) the other day. I have a vague memory of reading this one back in the 1980s but I had forgotten enough of the story to make this a brand new reading experience.

Set in 1931, THE MOONSHINE WAR is a transitional novel in Leonard's body of work, falling neatly between his earlier, fine western novels and the rest of his contemporary crime thrillers. Moonshiner Son Martin is sitting on top of a fortune worth of illegal white lightning in the back hills of Kentucky. The booze was distilled by his late father and only Son and his hired hand, Aaron, know the location of the hidden barrels of whiskey.

Along comes federal Prohibition agent Frank Long, a WWI buddy of Son's. Long is looking to find the hidden treasure but Son won't co-operate. Long decides he needs help so he calls in bootlegger and criminal genius Dr. Taulbee. Taulbee brings along his psychotic hired gun Dual Meaders and his young prostitute Miley Mitchell. Taulbee decides Son needs some extra persuasion so he recruits a small army of thugs to put pressure on Son's neighbors, all of whom operate stills of their own. When that fails, the bad guys resort to murder before things come to a (literally) explosive climax.

THE MOONSHINE WAR is a tightly constructed little crime thriller that moves along at a nice pace. The characters are all well drawn, as is the time and place and the dialogue is first rate. It may not be Leonard's best but it's a good one.

There was a movie version of THE MOONSHINE WAR released in 1970. I've never seen the film but the cast includes Alan Alda as Son Martin, Patrick McGoohan as Frank Long, Richard Widmark as Dr. Taulbee and Will Geer as Sheriff Baylor. When I was reading the book, I cast the characters in my mind as follows: Charles Bronson as Son, Dennis Weaver as Frank, Strother Martin as Dr. Taulbee, Bruce Dern as Dual Meaders and Woody Strode as Aaron. 

Recommended.

 

Friday, May 15, 2015

"HE LIVES NOW ONLY IN MY MEMORY"


Haven't had a chance to see the new MAD MAX: FURY ROAD yet but I hope to do so soon. The buzz about it is good and the trailers look awesome. But before I venture off to the local cinema, I thought I'd spend some time this afternoon revisiting an earlier MAX film: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981).

I first saw THE ROAD WARRIOR when it was released in 1981 at the old Highland Mall Twin Cinema. I didn't see the first film, MAD MAX in the theaters when it was released, but I do recall seeing ads for it when it was out. Just never made it to the theater where it was showing (the old Northcross Six, if I recall correctly). I finally saw MAD MAX on either HBO or Cinemax, back when those two movie channels actually showed movies, and was a bit underwhelmed by the film. It was an okay, low budget actioner but I didn't think it was anything spectacular.

THE ROAD WARRIOR, on the other hand, blew me away. I saw it twice at the theater and a couple of more times on home video but I hadn't seen it in at least thirty-four years until this afternoon. It still holds up as one hyper-kinetic, adrenaline fueled piece of filmmaking. And it looks fantastic on Blu-ray. 

I recall describing the film when I first saw it as "Jack Kirby meets VANISHING POINT" (and extra points if you get both of those references). Australian director George Miller tells what is essentially an American Western film set in the future in the Australian outback. A world wide conflict has reduced humanity to warring tribes and oil is one scarce and precious commodity. Max (a very young Mel Gibson), survives on the roads against marauding gangs on motorcycles and vehicles that look like they came from some dark and twisted version of the old cartoon series WACKY RACES. What Max needs is fuel and he finds it in a besieged refinery compound in the middle of nowhere. The people in the compound are constantly harassed by the marauders and yearn to escape with their precious oil to a more civilized (a relative term of course), outpost. Max, who only wants enough gas to get him on down the road, falls in with the group, realizing that he's their only hope of salvation.

Max agrees to drive an 18-wheeled oil tanker out of the compound and thus begins the astonishing, climatic chase across the desert. It's a thirteen minute long set piece of sustained vehicular carnage and edge-of-your-seat thrills which ranks as one of the greatest chase sequences ever filmed. And when the chase is over, so is the movie.

I have still never seen the third Mad Max film, BEYOND THUNDERDOME. Maybe I will one of these days. But I can't imagine it's as good as THE ROAD WARRIOR This is stripped down, pedal to the metal action film making at it's finest, an amazingly durable touchstone of '80s science fiction cinema. Highly recommended.

P.S.: There's only one thing that could make this movie better:






 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

THE AGE OF RA


I finished reading THE AGE OF RA by British science fiction author James Lovegrove the other day. It's the third book of his "Godpunk" series that I've read. "Godpunk" is a series in concept only as each novel is a stand alone in which various ancient religions and pantheons play a major part in the narratives. The first of these that I read, AGE OF AZTEC, I loved. It had a pulp fiction/comic book character as the protagonist up against Aztec deities returning to earth. It was fast paced and action packed.

The  second "Godpunk" book I read was AGE OF VOODOO, which was a B horror/action movie on steroids. It started off slow with way too much talk and exposition but kicked into high gear in the second half of the book.

AGE OF RA starts out strong then quickly stalls, never actually managing to get back into first gear for the duration of the book. It's an intriguing premise. The entire world worships various gods of the ancient Egyptian pantheon with countries pledging their allegiance to their respective gods and goddesses. Every nation is tied to a god except for Freegypt, which refuses to worship any of the gods. David Westwynter, a British soldier, finds his way into Freegypt after his squad of paratroopers are ambushed and killed with Westwynter left for dead. In Freegypt he meets a beautiful woman, Zafirah and a mysterious, masked figure known only as The Lightbringer. The Lightbringer has more than one secret up his sleeve but his primary mission is to lead the forces of Freegypt against neighboring nation states in an attempt to topple the stranglehold the gods have on the world. It's a doomed gambit but all is not what it seems.

To say anymore would be to ruin a couple of major plot twists that radically effect the course of events. AGE OF RA is not a bad book. It's a compelling concept that deals with issues of fraternity, faith and belief. There are some well written battle scenes but the book lacks the propulsive narrative drive that AZTEC and VOODOO had. I kept reading but I wasn't turning the pages as quickly as I did with Lovegrove's other books. AGE OF RA is certainly worth reading but if you haven't sampled any of the "Godpunk" novels, start with AGE OF AZTEC like I did. It's the best of the three I've read so far.

You know what would have made AGE OF RA a real winner in my book? An appearance by this lady:


I know, this is a book I'm talking about, not a movie but hey, Ann-Margret is like bacon. She makes everything better.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

ATOMIC TREASURES

Years ago, comic book artist Gil Kane did an in store appearance at a comic book shop in the old Northcross Mall. I don't remember the name of the shop. I really wanted to meet Gil Kane for a second time but his appearance conflicted with my work schedule. I brought some Silver Age issues of THE ATOM (with Kane art) from my collection and left them with the young lady who managed the shop (I believe her name was Sabrina, if I recall correctly). She had Gil Kane sign them (in silver ink no less!) and here they are.

THE ATOM #18 May 1965


 THE ATOM #30 May 1967


THE ATOM #31 July 1967



THE ATOM #36 May 1968




THE ATOM #37 July 1968

KINGPIN

I found a brand new, never opened, still sealed in shrink wrap DVD of KINGPIN (1996) the other day at the thrift store. Even though I'd seen the film before I figured that a brand new copy for only a buck was too good a deal to pass up Besides, this movie made me laugh my ass off.

KINGPIN, directed by brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly  (from a script by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan), is a lowbrow, rude, politically incorrect comedy about three of life's losers who find a measure of redemption in the world of, wait for it, bowling. Yes, bowling. Part road comedy, part sports cliché movie and all vulgar humor (much of it directed at handicapped and disabled individuals), KINGPIN is one very funny movie.

Woody Harrelson stars as Roy Munson, a one time bowling champion who has hit the skids. He's an unemployed alcoholic with a bad comb over. And oh yeah, he has a prosthetic hand. Munson stumbles across Ishmael Boorg (Randy Quaid in a blond page boy wig), an Amish bowling prodigy. Munson sees Ish as his ticket back to the big time. He plans to coach the naïve young man and enter him in a million dollar, winner-take-all bowling tournament in Reno, Nevada.

The two cheat, steal, hustle and con their way across country eventually crossing paths with Claudia (Vanessa Angel), a woman who knows a thing or two about hustling herself. They finally reach Reno but an injury to Ish forces Munson to take his place in the tournament where he must face his nemesis, Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray, sporting another ridiculous comb over). There's lots of high drama (veteran sportscaster Chris Schenkel calls the big showdown), before the end of the tournament.

Harrelson is good as the sleazy Munson, while Quaid imbues Ish with a sense of innocence and naivete. Angel is just there for eye candy while Murray practically steals the show in the third act. There are plenty of gross sight gags, physical humor and one liners, many of which are guaranteed to offend the sensitive. Me? I thought it was hysterically funny. Stupid? Yeah. Dumb? Yeah. But the Farrelly brothers manage to find the inherent goodness in these lovable losers. If you're looking for sophisticated comedy, move along. You won't find it here. But if you have a penchant for well done gross out comedy, KINGPIN rolls a strike every time.

 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

SEA OF GLORY


Two of my buddies, Steve Cook and Chad Wilman, have both recommended history writer Nathaniel Philbrick to me so I figured I should check him out. When I found a copy of SEA OF GLORY for two bucks at the local thrift store, I didn't think twice about buying it. Boy, am I glad I did.

SEA OF GLORY (2003) is an epic adventure story about a little known part of American history. In 1838, the U.S. government (mainly the U.S. Navy), commissioned an exploring expedition to chart, survey and map what was at the time, the largely unknown and unexplored Pacific Ocean. It was an enormous undertaking that would take a total of four years to complete. Six sailing vessels made up the squadron and they were manned with a variety of seamen (some experienced, others green) and scientists of various stripes.

They were also under the command of one Charles Wilkes, a man with severe psychological problems. A martinet with delusions of grandeur, Wilkes horribly mistreated his men, often punishing them with whippings and beatings that exceeded what maritime law permitted. He was petty, vindictive, untried and he desperately longed to acquire a higher rank. But as emotionally unstable as Wilkes was, he was a remarkable surveyor and many of his charts of Pacific islands and waters were still in use one hundred years later during World War II.

The Exploring Expedition, or Ex. Ex. as Philbrick refers to it, was given a formidable assignment. Wilkes and his crew explored the shores of Antarctica at a time when very little was known about that immense continent. They encountered fierce, cannibalistic natives and met spears and clubs with guns and swords. They ascended to the top of Mauna Loa, an active volcano in Hawaii, where the temperatures were both extremely cold and hot. Finally, they sailed to the Pacific Northwest to explore the deadly waters of the Columbia River. Along the way, vast amounts of specimens were collected that eventually became the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution.

But when the voyage was over in 1842, Wilkes didn't return to the United States a hero. Instead, he faced a military court martial brought by several crewmen who suffered under his hand and lash.

Philbrick makes the case that the Exploring Expedition should be as well known today as the similar expedition of Lewis and Clark. But Wilkes was his own worst enemy. His hubris, pride and ego constantly got in the way. He longed for so much more that he could never be satisfied with the truly remarkable achievements he had accomplished.

SEA OF GLORY is a page turner of a true adventure story, an epic voyage of discovery and exploration. It's also a penetrating and insightful psychological study of a man whose own quest for glory eclipsed everything .

Highest recommendation.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"IF YOU WALK OUT OF HERE, YOU'RE AN AVENGER"

Just back from seeing AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON this morning. I'll get to my thoughts on the film in a minute but first, a short trip down memory lane.
 
As I noted in a previous blog post, the first issue of THE AVENGERS that I can remember buying was #25. I'd seen issues on the stands before but it was the combination of this off-beat quartet of heroes (Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch) facing off against Dr. Doom that won my twelve-cents. I enjoyed the comic but I didn't buy AVENGERS on a regular basis until September 1966.
 
That's the month when I started buying almost every Marvel comic book on the stands each month. The issue of AVENGERS that I started with was this one:




#33 was the second part of a two-part story in which the Avengers battled the nefarious Sons of the Serpent. The story was by Stan Lee with art by Don Heck. The lineup had changed by this time, with Cap's "Kooky Quartet" expanded with the return of original Avengers Goliath (Hank Pym/Ant-Man/Giant-Man) and the Wasp (Janet Van Dyne). From then on, I purchased AVENGERS every month and it quickly became one of my favorite Marvel titles.

Flash forward to the summer of 1968. I bought new off of the stands (or more likely the spinner rack) the issue in which Ultron first appeared.




 #54 featured another new Avengers line-up (Goliath, Wasp, Hawkeye and Black Panther) against a new iteration of the Masters of Evil (Melter, Whirlwind, Klaw, and Radioactive Man) in a story by the best AVENGERS creative team of all-time: Roy Thomas and John Buscema. Granted, Ultron only makes a cameo in this issue but nonetheless, he's in there. And I read it. So, yeah, I was there at the very beginning of Ultron as a major Avengers foe.

Which explains the stupid grin I probably still have on my face a few hours after seeing AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. I won't give a detailed review here (besides, most of you hardcore fan boys reading this have probably already seen the film) but I will note several things that I loved about the movie.

First of all, it's still hard for me to believe that I can go to a theater, pay my ten bucks and see a live-action, big budget AVENGERS movie on the big screen. If someone had told me in 1968 (I was twelve at the time) that in 2015, there would be a blockbuster motion picture starring the Avengers and Ultron, I simply would not have believed it. The special effects technology that existed in 1968 were stone knives and arrowheads compared to what we have today. A 1968 AVENGERS movie would most likely have been a rather embarrassing, low-budget and, yes, pathetic attempt to bring these characters to life. Still, I would occasionally play the "what-if" game in my mind, imagining a day when such a film might actually be made and wondering what it could possibly look like. But in my wildest dreams, I never saw in my head what I saw on the screen today.

Captain America. Iron Man. Thor. The Hulk. Hawkeye. The Black Widow. Quicksilver. Scarlet Witch. The Vision. Ultron. Nick Fury. War Machine. The Falcon. Baron Strucker. Ulysses Klaw. Wakanda. Vibranium. Infinity Gems. Thanos. All that and more in one movie? Oh, yeah, I had a fangasm deluxe.

Director Joss Whedon stages some spectacular action set pieces that are leavened with quieter character development scenes. A beauty and beast relationship between Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce (Hulk) Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is given a lot of screen time and Clint (Hawkeye) Barton (Jeremy Renner) has one helluva of a secret.

There's a terrific mano-a-mano battle between the Hulk and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) with Tony in Hulk Buster armor. There are scenes of mass destruction of several cities but the Avengers go out of their way to make sure the people in those cities are safe (unlike the wholesale, wanton destruction of Smallville and Metropolis on display in MAN OF STEEL).

Ultron (James Spader) is a terrific foe. We get the introduction of three new Avengers, two of which, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) start out as villains only to be redeemed as heroes (as in the comics). The third newcomer is The Vision (Paul Bettany) who was always one of my favorite Avengers.

Lots of seeds are planted for future films. Ulysses Klaw and vibranium will definitely return in the upcoming BLACK PANTHER film as will the nation of Wakanda (we get a fight scene in a Wakandan city but no mention of Prince T'Challa). Thor is off in search of the remaining Infinity Gems (a search that will most likely continue in the next THOR film), an Avenger dies (no telling who!) and there's an entirely new Avengers lineup in place at the end of the film. Oh, and the credits teaser is a short appearance by Thanos, who will figure prominently in the next two AVENGERS films.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is not my Avengers. Changes have been made in the characters and story lines. In the comics, Hank Pym created Ultron who in turn created the Vision. Here, Ultron is created by Tony Stark. The Scarlet Witch's powers in the film include the ability to mess with people's minds (a far cry from her original hex power). But I'm okay with these changes and my original beloved Avengers still exist in those old comics that I hold so dear. A film is not a comic book and this iteration of the Avengers is perfectly acceptable to me. Joss Whedon and company certainly haven't ruined these characters and this franchise. If anything, they've brought it to an entirely new audience and generation for whom this version will be their Avengers.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is an enormously entertaining, fun comic book super hero film. I loved every minute of it. Highly recommended.