Sunday, June 24, 2018

ELSEWHERE AND ELSEWHEN


Groff Conklin was one of the best anthologizers of science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories in the twentieth-century. If an anthology had Cronklin's name on it, the reader could be sure they were about to read some really good stuff. But no anthology, no matter how well curated, is going to score 100% every time. Like the proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get, which stories are going to be to your individual liking and which aren't.

Such is the case with ELSEWHERE AND ELSEWHEN (1968), a solid sampler of mid-century American science fiction selected from the pages of various science fiction magazines of the time. Of the nine stories contained within, there was only one that I didn't care for. One story was my favorite, while another ran a close second and the rest were all enjoyable. That's a pretty decent batting average in any one's book and your mileage (and tastes) may vary.

The only story I didn't care for was the lead off entry, SHORTSTACK by Walt and Leigh Richmond. It was originally published in ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION/SCIENCE FACT, December 1964. It's not terrible, it's just totally devoid of any dramatic tension.

The best story, in my estimation, was THINK BLUE, COUNT TWO from GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, February, 1963) by the late, great Cordwainer Smith. This was my first exposure to Smith's writing and I found it to be wonderfully stylish and narratively compelling. My second favorite story was EARTHMAN'S BURDEN (GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, October 1962) by the legendary Donald Westlake. Westlake, whether writing under his own name or as Richard Stark, is one of my favorite writers. I was unaware that he had ever written any science fiction and finding this little jewel of a tale was an unexpected delight. Sly humor in the Westlake style abounds in this one.

The remainder of the stories were all decent. None of the stories stand out as being either terrific or terrible but I enjoyed reading them. They are: HOW ALLIED (ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, December 1957) by Mark Clifton, THE WRONG WORLD (GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, December 1960) by J.T, McIntosh, WORLD IN A BOTTLE (GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, October 1960 by Allen Kim Lang, TURNING POINT (IF SCIENCE FICTION, May 1963) by Poul Anderson, THE BOOK (GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, November, 1953) by Michael Shaara, and TROUBLE TIDE (ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION/SCIENCE FACT, May, 1965) by James H. Schmitz.

As you can see, the majority of stories originally appeared in GALAXY SCIENCE FICTION, which is a sign of the high quality of the science fiction published by that magazine.

ELSEWHERE AND ELSEWHEN is definitely worth a read by any science fiction aficionado.

Thumbs up.



Saturday, June 23, 2018

GANGSTER SQUAD


Sean Penn, with his putty nose and over-the-top theatrics, appears to be channeling his inner Al Pacino more than actually trying to portray real-life Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen in GANGSTER SQUAD (2013). Pacino, you may recall, played cartoon crime boss "Big Boy" in Warren Beatty's four-color fantasia DICK TRACY (1990). Pacino was absolutely out of control in that ambitious failure of a film and one can only wonder what an imaginary movie starring Pacino, Marlon Brando, William Shatner and Rod Steiger and directed by either Ken Russell or Oliver Stone might look like. I think the screen would literally explode (as would more than a few heads in the audience) from the amount of histrionically insane acting and directing on display. But I digress.

The fact is, Penn's portrayal of Cohen is entirely okay in the context of this action packed, cops and gangsters crime film. GANGSTER SQUAD  falls short of both Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) and Curtis Hanson's L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) in it's depiction of days-gone-by mobsters and molls. But it is nevertheless an extremely entertaining film, with a top-notch cast, brilliant production design and machine guns. Lots of machine guns.

Josh Brolin stars as square-jawed, straight-arrow cop John O'Mara. He's a WWII veteran looking for another war to fight and he absolutely cannot be bought. O'Mara is put in charge of the "Gangster Squad" by L.A. police chief Bill Parker (Nick Nolte). Parker doesn't mind bending the rules to get Mickey Cohen before he controls all of the vice in Los Angeles. If GANGSTER SQUAD had been made forty years ago, Nolte would have played O'Mara with some character actor like Charles Durning playing Parker.

O'Mara recruits pretty boy Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) as his second-in-command. The rest of the squad is made up of Detective Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Detective Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Detective Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) and Detective Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). Harris is wicked with a switch-blade, Keeler is the electronics brain of the outfit, bugging Cohen's house for inside information, Ramirez is a rookie anxious to prove himself while Kennard is the last of the old-time gunfighters who still carries a big iron on his hip. Not all of these men will survive the war against Cohen.

Caught in the crossfire is the beautiful Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). Grace is Cohen's etiquette teacher (she's not doing a very good job, frankly) who falls in love with Wooters.

Will Beall's screenplay, based on Paul Lieberman's non-fiction book of the same name, takes more than a few liberties with the truth while director Ruben Fleischer adds some visually stylish flourishes to scenes to add snap and excitement. GANGSTER SQUAD is brimming with period detail. The clothes, the cars, the music, the locations (some real, some digital), all evoke Los Angeles, 1949, in a way that only a Hollywood movie can. There are car chases and gun battles galore and while the film brought in a disappointing $46 million in North America (against a cost of $60 million), it's nevertheless a fun ride into a glamorous past populated by tough cops, vicious gangsters and beautiful women.

GANGSTER SQUAD is one of my new favorite guilty pleasures. Check it out.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

THE DOUBLE MAN


I remember when THE DOUBLE MAN (1967) was released during the 1960s spy film craze. I didn't see it in the theaters when I was a kid and I'm glad I didn't. I would have been bored silly and watching this glacially paced "thriller" as an adult this afternoon didn't exactly give me a buzz either.

Yul Brynner stars as CIA Agent Dan Slater. He's the target of a diabolical plan by the Soviets, led by the always reliable Anton Diffring as Berthold, to replace him with an exact double. Slater's son is murdered in the Austrian alps (it's made to look like an accident), a tragedy which sends Slater, over the protests of his boss, Edwards (Lloyd Nolan), to Austria. Once there, Slater teams up with a former British agent, Wheatley (Clive Revill) and starts investigating. Slater meets the smoking hot Gina (Britt Ekland, who went on to become a Bond girl in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974)). Finally, after a seemingly interminable amount of running time (this turkey's only 105 minutes long) in which we're treated to nice Alpine scenery, horrible rear screen process shots and interiors filmed in England, Slater is captured and replaced by his double. But before the double can be sent to the U.S., Slater escapes from the Russians and upsets the apple cart.

Brynner plays both roles as if suffering from severe constipation while it appears as if Lloyd Nolan shot all of his scenes in one day in a studio (he has no screen time with Brynner). Based on the Henry S. Maxfield novel LEGACY OF A SPY (1958), the screenplay by Alfred Hayes and Frank Tarloff spins the original material into a second rate Bond film wannabe. Both the title credits and score (by Ernie Freeman), look and sound like they belong in a Bond adventure. But they're not enough to enliven this tepid, turgid, frankly boring, spy movie.

The concept of a spy being replaced with an exact double was better utilized in THE SPY WITH MY FACE, the 1965 feature film comprised of two episodes of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. spliced together. And the use of ski cable cars and mountain top transfer stations as locations for action set pieces anticipates WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), both of which are far superior films.

THE DOUBLE MAN was director Franklin J. Schaffner's fourth feature film. After working in television, Schaffner began his directing career with THE STRIPPER (1963), followed by THE BEST MAN (1964) and THE WAR LORD (1965). Those three and DOUBLE MAN were merely warm-ups for what came next, a string of critically acclaimed box office blockbusters beginning with PLANET OF THE APES (1968), PATTON (1970), NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (1971), PAPILLON (1973), ISLANDS IN THE STREAM (1976) and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978).

As you can see, Schaffner made some great films in his career. Unfortunately, THE DOUBLE MAN wasn't one of them. Thumbs down.



Saturday, June 16, 2018

SAVAGE STREETS


I found the book pictured above in an antiques store in Whitesboro, Texas, last summer. Whitesboro, in case you're wondering, is in far north Texas, just south of Oklahoma. I recognized William P. McGivern as an author I'd read and enjoyed and the price was right for this hardcover, book club edition: one dollar. I gladly paid the asking price.

SAVAGE STREETS (1959) is the fifth McGivern novel I've read in the last year or so. The other books have been THE DARKEST HOUR, THE BIG HEAT, ROGUE COP and SHIELD FOR MURDER. While those four books all dealt with cops and robbers, SAVAGE STREETS is something different.

This adult novel explores what happens when two major mid-century phenomena collide: juvenile delinquency and the sheltered, middle class life of the American suburbs. A group of JDs, the Chiefs, start small, extorting money from some of the children who live in the peaceful, tranquil, and restricted neighborhood of Faircrest. The boys are too terrified to identify their tormentors in a police line-up and without their identification, the police can't move against the thugs. Some of the men of the community then decide to take matters into their hands and things quickly escalate. There are beatings, a hit-and-run auto accident, the rape of a girl gang member and the death of one of Faircrest's residents. 

The hero of the tale, John Farrell, is a decent, honorable but nonetheless conflicted man. His son, Jimmy, was one of the victims of the gang and it's Farrell that delivers a brutal beating to one of the gang members. But when his neighbors conspire to cover-up the truth of the matter, he sees them revealed for what they really are.

SAVAGE STREETS rips the lid off of the idyllic, peaceful, protected American suburb, depicting the residents of Faircrest as a gang unto themselves, willing to do anything to protect their turf and their lifestyle. It's a blistering indictment of both the juvenile delinquents and the good suburbanites who harbor dark secrets of their own. Reminiscent of the best works of John D. MacDonald, SAVAGE STREETS pulls no punches in this complex study of men and women pushed to the breaking point, people who will do anything to survive.

Highly recommended.



Friday, June 15, 2018

THE WOMAN IN GREEN


Sherlock Holmes is one my top five all time favorite fictional characters. The other four are Doc Savage, James Bond, Superman and Conan the Barbarian. And of all of the many fine actors who have portrayed Holmes over the years in both films and television, Basil Rathbone's portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal sleuth will always be my favorite, primarily because his was the first visual interpretation of the character I encountered, thanks to Saturday afternoon showings of his Holmes films on television when I was a kid.

Rathbone played Holmes, along with co-star Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, in fourteen feature films between 1939 and 1946. The first two films were produced by 20th Century Fox before the rights were acquired by Universal (my favorite Golden Age Hollywood studio) for the remaining twelve films. When Universal took over, the studio decided to move the characters forward in time from the Victorian era to present day, 1940s London. This allowed for Holmes to tangle with Nazis as villains and take advantage of then state-of-the-art technology. Rathbone and Bruce are still the classic Holmes and Watson but I must confess, I prefer Holmes material when it's set in the era in which he was created.

Nonetheless, THE WOMAN IN GREEN (1945), which I watched last night, is a solid little mystery thriller. It was the eleventh film in the Holmes series and features Henry Daniell (in his third Holmes film) as the diabolical Moriarty. The plot involves a series of murders of young woman, all of whom are found with a finger missing. It's a gruesome affair, to be sure, with the detached digits being used in a twisted blackmail scheme by Moriarty and his wicked femme fatale accomplice Lydia Marlowe (Hillary Brooke, also in her third Holmes film). The convoluted plot involves hypnosis and climaxes with a battle of the wills between Marlowe and Holmes as she attempts to hypnotize the intrepid sleuth into committing suicide.

THE WOMAN IN GREEN is directed with brisk efficiency by veteran Roy William Neill, who, in addition to helming several other Holmes films, directed the classic Universal horror film FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943). The screenplay by Bertram Millhauser, borrows material from two of Doyle's original stories, THE FINAL PROBLEM and THE ADVENTURE OF THE EMPTY HOUSE. A more accurate title for THE WOMAN IN GREEN would have been THE ADVENTURE OF THE SEVERED FINGERS but I doubt that would have gotten past the film censors of the 1940s. As it is, THE WOMAN IN GREEN is a fun film featuring my all time favorite Holmes actor in the role he was born to play.

Thumbs up.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

CRUEL GUN STORY


I recorded CRUEL GUN STORY (1964) off of TCM a couple of months ago and saved it, waiting for the chance to watch it with my buddy Kelly Greene. We got that chance yesterday and boy, was it worth the wait.

CRUEL GUN STORY is the second Japanese neo-noir film I've watched recently, following the brilliant A COLT IS MY PASSPORT (1967). Like COLT, CRUEL was produced by Nikkatsu Studios, which was to Japanese crime films what Toho Studios was to Godzilla movies. And both film star Joe Shishido as driven, tough-as-nails criminals.

CRUEL GUN STORY is, on the surface, a standard heist film. Togawa (Shishido), is sprung from prison by crime boss Matsumoto (Hiroshi Nihonyanagi) to engineer a daring caper: steal 120 million in yen from an armored car The money is from the racetrack where the Japan Derby is held.

Togawa wants his share of the money to finance an operation for his crippled sister, Rie (Chieko Matsubara). The doctors tell him she'll never walk again even with the surgery, but Togawa is determined to do everything he can to take care of the young woman. Togawa blames himself for her condition. Rie was hit by a truck and Togawa, fueled with rage and frustration, sought out the truck driver and crippled him in revenge.

Togawa assembles a team including his friend Shirai (Yuji Odaka), the only man he really trusts. The other two men, a boxer and a gambler/junkie, are untrustworthy but necessary to pull off the heist. A minute-by-minute plan is conceived and put into motion.

You can see where this is going, right?

After things go wrong, Togawa and his men are on the run with Matsumoto and his gang on their trail and out for blood. There are some spectacularly staged shoot outs and the body count keeps going up and up and up. CRUEL GUN STORY is one brutal, nihilistic film with only one character left alive at the end of the film. And it's not one of the gangsters.

Director Takumi Furukawa keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. There's a jazzy score that lends an urgency to the narrative, the location work is first rate and all of the main characters are well drawn, especially Togawa, a brutal man who lives (and dies) by his own code of honor.

CRUEL GUN STORY is a dazzling piece of 1960s Japanese crime cinema. It makes a great double bill with A COLT IS MY PASSPORT.

Highest recommendation.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

EDGE OF DARKNESS

Image result for EDGE OF DARKNESS FILM

Not a whole lot to say, good or bad, about EDGE OF DARKNESS (2010). It's a competently produced thriller starring the durable and always reliable Mel Gibson. I like Gibson and he's perfectly fine herein as Thomas Craven, a Boston police detective whose daughter is gunned down by a masked assailant at the beginning of the film. Everyone thinks Craven was the target but as his investigation digs deeper, Craven finds out that his daughter was indeed the killer's assigned victim.

Turns out his daughter and several other murder victims were all about to blow the whistle on Northmoor, a research and development company that is secretly up to no good. And they have a U.S. Senator in their pocket to protect them.

But Craven, seeking the truth and revenge for his daughter's murder, will not be stopped in his pursuit of his own brand of justice.

EDGE OF DARKNESS is the film version of the 1985 BBC TV series of the same name (which I haven't seen) and both the series and the film were directed by Martin Campbell. Campbell has done good and bad genre work in his career. He's responsible for two James Bond films, GOLDENEYE (1995) and CASINO ROYALE (2006), two Zorro films, THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) and THE LEGEND OF ZORRO (2005) and the DC Comics bomb GREEN LANTERN (2011). From a purely financial standpoint, EDGE OF DARKNESS must also be considered a bomb. The film cost $80 million to produce and earned only $81 million at the box-office.

Gibson and the supporting cast are fine as is the screenplay by William Monahan and Andrew Bovell. EDGE is not an adrenaline fueled action film. It's a slow burn conspiracy thriller that takes it's time to develop the plot and the players. There are some decent action scenes but few (if any) genuine thrills and little suspense. It's a decent little movie but it won't blow you away.

My biggest complaint with this film (and other modern movies) is the sound. There are several scenes between Gibson and Ray Winstone in which they both speak so softly (and Winstone with a British accent), that I literally could not understand what was being said. I had to jack the volume up tremendously only to crank it down as fast as possible when gunfire exploded and car chases screehed in my den.

I don't know if this a factor of the sound mix on the film itself, the format that I'm watching it on (Blu-Ray), my equipment (not that old but I don't have any additional speakers other than what's on my television) or am I just getting hard of hearing?

Which, I admit, is entirely possible.

I submit the problem lies in this film as I had no problem hearing anything while watching LONE WOLF MCQUADE (made in 1983) on Blu-Ray on the same machine the previous day. It's extremely frustrating to have to keep dialing the volume up and down between scenes that are barely audible and scenes that make my dog want to run and hide from the sonic assault.