Thursday, December 4, 2014

MAJIC MAN


I finished reading MAJIC MAN by Max Allan Collins the other night. This 1999 mystery novel is the 11th Nate Heller adventure.  The latest in the series, ASK NOT, was published 2013.

Nate Heller, for those who don't know, is a private detective who gets involved in several of the most high profile real life murder/mystery cases of the 20th century. Throughout the series, Heller interacts with almost everyone who was anyone in America between the 1930s and the 1960s. Politicians, gangsters, movie stars, cops, government agents, presidents, cabinet members, newspaper columnists, military officers, etc. Heck, you name 'em and if they are in any way connected to a famous crime or unsolved mystery, Heller's met 'em. He's a gumshoe Forrest Gump investigating the seedy underbelly of the twentieth century in novels that are film noir meets The History Channel.

I've read four of the Heller novels. The first, TRUE DETECTIVE was published in 1983 (I read it way back when). It involves the assassination attempt in Miami on President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chicago's Mayor Cermak. BLOOD AND THUNDER (1995, Nate Heller #8) is about another political assassination, this one that of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long. And FLYING BLIND (1998, Nate Heller #10) reveals what really happened to legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart.

MAJIC MAN  finds Heller involved with the near-mythic "flying saucer" crash that occurred in Roswell New Mexico in July 1947. The bulk of the novel takes place two years later, in 1949 with Heller interviewing as many witnesses to the "crash" as possible. The more people he talks to, the more it appears that there really may have been aliens involved in the incident. Or were they?

Heller interacts with Secretary of Defense James D. Forestal, President Harry Truman, columnist Drew Pearson, Air Force officer Jesse Marcel and about a dozen other real people. He also discovers a secret organization within the U.S. government known as Majestic Twelve. The truth about Roswell is finally revealed but not before lives are lost.

MAJIC MAN is a first rate page turner. Collins has done his homework well and he sticks to the historical facts of the case. His portrayals of real people are accurate, as are his descriptions of period clothes and cars. Heller wisecracks his way through a twisted case of government cover-ups, ex-Nazis, a beautiful femme fatale and more. If you love mysteries, if you love history, check out MAJIC MAN. You'll love it. I sure did.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

THE HURT LOCKER


From 1970 to 2000 (a span of thirty years) I managed to see almost every film that won a Best Picture of the Year Academy Award. I missed a few here and there but I had a pretty good batting average. Heck, most years, I took pride in  having seen all five of the films nominated for Best Picture.

 But my movie going went into decline at the turn of this century and since 2000, I've seen only five Best Pictures of the Year: GLADIATOR (2000), MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004), THE DEPARTED (2006) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) and finally, about a month ago, THE HURT LOCKER (2009). That's five films out of fourteen. I've yet to see A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), CHICAGO (2002), THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003), CRASH (2005), SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), THE KING'S SPEECH (2010), THE ARTIST (2011), ARGO (2012) and 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013). I'm sure I'll eventually see most of these films except for THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING. I'd sooner scoop out my eyeballs with a dull spoon than watch any of the six Tolkien based films that have thus far been produced.

I spent a buck on a used DVD of THE HURT LOCKER at the thrift store awhile back, figuring what the hell, if this movie's no good, I'm only out a dollar. It turned out to be a very good movie indeed. Was it the best film of that year? Well, it was certainly better than DANCES WITH SMURFS, er, AVATAR, which was also nominated that year.

THE HURT LOCKER details the exploits of a three man Explosive Ordnance Disposal team during the Iraq War. The men are counting down the days until their tour of duty is up and they can return home. At least, two of the men are. The other, Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) lives his life on the edge 24/7. He's the best of the three men, fearlessly walking into danger to disarm bombs and other threats. He lives on the adrenaline rush of danger, the thrill of being a split second away from devastating injury or death. He's so addicted, he can't function without some kind of threat to face down.

The other members of the team, Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are good at what they do also, which is providing support and cover to James while he's defusing bombs. But these men are scared by their jobs, wrung out by the stress and fear and just want to survive long enough to go home alive and in one piece.

The structure of the film is episodic in nature. The men find themselves in several different potentially deadly situations throughout the film. All of these sequences are brilliantly filmed and edited to achieve maximum suspense and impact. Director Kathryn Bigelow puts us right alongside James, Sanborn and Eldridge and lets us feel the heat and the sweat, the suffocating claustrophobia of the bomb suit, let's us taste the bright metallic tang of fear that these men experience on almost a daily basis.

Following an excruciatingly suspenseful final episode with a suicide bomber, the men are sent home. James returns to his wife and infant child but he has no clue how to operate and survive in the relative peace and calm of the real world. He's in one piece physically, but he's so broken on a psychological level that he simply can't exist without the constant thrill of danger. He signs up for another tour of duty and goes back into the Iraq theater of war at the end of the film.

THE HURT LOCKER received nine Academy Award nominations including: Best Picture (winner), Best Director (Bigelow, winner), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal, winner), Best Sound Editing (winner), Best Sound Mixing (winner), Best Film Editing (winner), Best Actor (Renner), Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, beating ex-husband James Cameron who was also nominated for directing AVATAR. Jeremy Renner went on to star as the ace bowman Hawkeye in THE AVENGERS and THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON while co-star Anthony Mackie appeared as Sam Wilson/The Falcon in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER.

THE HURT LOCKER is an outstanding piece of film making. It's extremely well made, well acted and well written. It shows us a side of modern warfare that the average person has no conception of. The men who put their lives on the line to defuse bombs in a war zone pay a high price. They may survive but they'll never be the same. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

GOING CLEAR


"I can't get with any religion that advertises in POPULAR MECHANICS"-Woody Allen, ANNIE HALL (1977)

You didn't have to be crazy to be a pulp fiction writer in the early twentieth century but it didn't hurt if you were. Consider the life and career of Texan Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), creator of Conan the Barbarian and other sword and sorcery heroes. Howard was, by all accounts, crazier than a shit house rat but boy, that sum bitch sure could write. He's one of my all time favorite yarn spinners and it's a shame that he took his own life at the astonishingly young age of thirty.

L. Ron Hubbard, another pulp writer, was apparently crazy too. Crazy like a fox. A prolific wordsmith of marginal talent, Hubbard hacked out (figuratively and literally) a career in the pulp jungle of the '30s and '40s. He wrote a few novels in addition to the hundreds of stories he churned out in a variety of genres. But Hubbard's career really took off when he wrote DIANETICS and subsequently founded the Church of Scientology.

Scientology's "theology" is based on a story told by Hubbard that wouldn't have appeared out of place in the pages of  the pulp science fiction magazine AMAZING STORIES. But this yarn along with other writings by Hubbard, became the basis for a worldwide church that is staggeringly wealthy and powerful.

All of this and more is meticulously detailed in GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY, HOLLYWOOD & THE PRISON OF BELIEF (2013) by Austin based writer Lawrence Wright. I finished reading this one about a month ago and it's one helluva read. Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for THE LOOMING TOWER (2006), bends over backwards to present as fair and balanced a portrait of Hubbard and Scientology as possible. He conducted dozens of interviews and offers a revealing peek behind the scenes of this highly secretive religion.

What emerges in the pages of GOING CLEAR is the story of Hubbard, who appears to have been a pathological liar and control freak with delusions of grandeur. Those delusions were ultimately fulfilled however by the creation of his church of Scientology which brought him untold wealth and power. Scientology comes off as a group of not-so nice people doing extremely questionable things. The leaders of the church seem obsessed with courting such Hollywood stars as John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and, most importantly, Tom Cruise. Having a big name actor serve as the public face and spokesperson for Scientology seems to lend an air of credibility and respectability to the church and the leadership will go to any extremes to keep Tom Cruise front and center. And happy.

The leadership also indulges in punishing members for mistakes, subjecting them to treatment that some frat houses wouldn't condone during pledge week. Members are made to suffer and suffer some more when they don't pass their "audits". The church is also extremely vindictive and litigious when it comes to any negative portrayal in the media. The church leadership has filed countless law suits against their "enemies" and have resorted to other strong arm tactics including blackmail and coercion.

Criminal acts and terroristic behavior abound in the pages of GOING CLEAR. Wright and a small army of attorneys (most of them from THE NEW YORKER magazine) faced off against the current church leader David Miscavige during the writing of this book. Screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who spent years in Scientology, is now out of the church and served as one of Wright's main sources of information. There are many other people, former church members, who speak out in the book as well.

GOING CLEAR is a fascinating book. It reveals everything you ever wanted to know about Scientology and then some. It's not a pretty picture although, to be fair, many people have benefited from the religion over the years. It's the people who have been abused by the church that make up this extremely compelling, eye-opening, page turner of a history of a man and his followers. GOING CLEAR was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award. The book is currently being adapted into a documentary by HBO and is slated for release at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.

 HBO had 160 lawyers review the film out of fear of litigation by the Church of Scientology.

Monday, December 1, 2014

CONSTANTINE


I've been watching and, surprisingly, enjoying the new CONSTANTINE television series airing Friday nights at 9:00 p.m. on NBC. I say surprisingly because I don't really care much for the character of John Constantine. I liked him well enough when he was introduced as a supporting character in Alan Moore's brilliant run on SWAMP THING in the 1980s. When Constantine got his own title, HELLBLAZER, I read the comic for the first year or two and then gave up on it, along with all of the other Vertigo titles that were then being published by DC. I just lost interest in those kind of comic books.

 Constantine, as a comic book character, always seemed to occupy the region between hero and villain. He's not technically an anti-hero in my mind. He's a self serving prick who knows just enough magic to be dangerous. He's no do-gooder. Constantine's motivations are almost entirely selfish but still, more times than not, he winds up on the side of the angels. He's no costumed super hero, eschewing cape and cowl for trench coat, untied tie and a wrinkled shirt. He's a bit of a slob but when push comes to shove, he can usually save the day.

The television series gets this characterization of Constantine right to a great degree. Constantine, as portrayed by Matt Ryan, is a man haunted by his past who currently fights a one-man war against the gathering forces of darkness. He's been successful so far but he's going to need help before the end of the season and we can expect to see that help in the form of Jim (the Spectre) Corrigan and, perhaps, Dr. Fate (among others).

Matt Ryan, who looks like a younger, blond version of comedian Jim Carrey, is good as Constantine. He's aided by Zed (Angelica Celaya), a psychic artist, Chas (Charles Halford), his oldest friend who possesses some bit of magical power himself and Manny (Harold Perrineau), an angel who appears from time to time to offer advice to Constantine.

Ryan certainly looks the part. He's blond, British and wears the rumpled trench coat well. He's a far better Constantine than Keanu Reeves was in the 2005 film. The supporting cast is good and I particularly enjoyed the first appearance of New Orleans police detective Jim Corrigan (Emmett J. Scanlan) in episode number five, "Danse Vaudou" and the blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of the Spectre. Of course, the helmet of Dr. Fate was glimpsed in the first episode but so far, the helm hasn't been seen again or referred to.

CONSTANTINE reminds me a great deal of the early X-FILES and KOLCHAK:THE NIGHT STALKER series. He's up against a different "monster" every week and there's almost no B and C story lines to follow from week to week. I get the sense you can miss an episode of CONSTANTINE and not miss a great deal of overall plot development.

What I don't like about this show (and almost all other network episodic television series currently on the air) is the lack of a proper title sequence with a good theme song and actor/role credits. The show simply starts with the credits (actors names only) appearing on the bottom of the screen. There's a brief title card of CONSTANTINE and then it's time for the first commercial break. I see these names and have no idea who is who, which actor or actress is playing what part. I know that Matt Ryan is Constantine but the other names listed above? I had to search on the Internet to get that info.

On the classic television shows of old, there were great title sequences that offered memorable graphics, terrific theme songs and actor/character credits. Think STAR TREK, MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE, HAWAII FIVE-O, THE WILD, WILD WEST, THE AVENGERS, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and countless others, all of which helped give those shows a distinctive and memorable hook. Not so on today's television series. No theme songs. No great graphics. No actor and role credits. Sure, we get more story this way around but I miss the old way of doing it.

NBC announced in November that they would not order any more episodes of CONSTANTINE past the initial order of 13 episodes. If the ratings improve, there's a chance at a second season but at this point, it looks like CONSTANTINE may be a one-season-and-done comic book based television series. I'm going to enjoy it while I can.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

GUNS AT BATASI


I watched GUNS AT BATASI (1964) for the first time the other day and enjoyed it. Although the DVD copy I have is from the 20th Century Fox "War Movies" collection, it's hard to classify this film as an actual "war" movie. It does involve military forces and armed conflict but it's not set during any actual historical "war".

The story takes place in an unnamed African country during the then present day (1964). The country has recently been granted its' independence from Great Britain. There's a provisional government in place and British troops are still in country, training the natives to serve in what will eventually become their own national military.

But the situation is fraught with tension. A revolutionary group stages a coup against the brand new government. There are supporters of this group within the military and they soon seize control of the military base at Batasi. They order the British soldiers there to surrender their weapons and stand down. And that's when things take a turn for the worse.

A British Sergeant Major (superbly played by Richard Attenborough) refuses to back down. He's been posted to British colonies and military bases around the globe over the course of his military career but he's never been in a combat situation. He sees the current situation as a chance to uphold his military training and loyalty to the crown and, just possibly, to cloak himself in the glory of battle.

Attenborough and his men (a small handful of other officers) use their officer's club as a fortress against the rebels who eventually issue an ultimatum: surrender their weapons or be killed. To show that they mean business, the rebels bring in two giant cannons and point them at the building. Against a ticking clock, Attenborough and one of his men sneak out and blow up the guns only to find out that everything has been resolved between the new, revolutionary government and the British foreign office. Peace is restored but Attenborough is transferred back to England due to his insubordination.

GUNS AT BATASI is an intelligent, well written (Leo Marks, Marshall Pugh and C.M. Pennington-Richards adapted the novel Siege of Battersea by Robert Holles) drama. Director John Guillermin keeps things moving and slowly ratchets up the tension between the British officers and the rebel soldiers. He gets good performances out of a solid cast which includes Jack Hawkins, Flora Robson and Mia Farrow. Although set in Africa, GUNS AT BATASI was filmed entirely in England. A great deal of the "action" takes place indoors with scenes in the embattled officers' club having an air of claustrophobic unease and dread. A minor film but a good one. Thumbs up.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

BADLANDS


Well, I'm glad I finally got that out of my system.

Until a few nights ago, I'd never seen a Terence Malick film. The mercurial (and sometimes Austin resident) filmmaker has a reputation for making beautifully shot, incredibly cerebral films. He also rivals the legendary Stanley Kubrick for producing a small body of work over an extremely long period of time. Consider his filmography: BADLANDS (1973), DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), THE THIN RED LINE (1998), THE NEW WORLD (2005), THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), TO THE WONDER (2012) and KNIGHT OF CUPS (2014). That's seven films over a forty year span.

I finally watched my first (and most likely, last) Terence Malick film the other night. BADLANDS ran on TCM and I recorded it and watched it. I'm not certain of this, but I'm willing to bet good money that some 1973 film reviewer used the words "lyrical, poetic" in his or her review of BADLANDS. "Lyrical, poetic" in a film review are code words for "has no plot". BADLANDS has a plot (sorta). It's a beautifully shot film (three cinematographers worked on the film: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner and Brian Probyn), well acted (the young Martin Sheen and even younger Sissy Spacek are both very good), glacially paced film about two young lovers/killers on the run in the 1950s.

Except that there's no dramatic tension, no sense of urgency, no blackly comic buzz to the whole affair. BADLANDS goes nowhere and takes it own sweet time in getting there. You want a good young lovers/killers on the run film? Check  out THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), GUN CRAZY (1950), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) or THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974), any one of which is infinitely better than BADLANDS.

Based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, Martin Sheen channels his inner James Dean into his portrayal of Kit, an insane young man who kills several people throughout the course of the film, all for no apparent reason. Kit is no thief who kills in the commission of his crimes. He's a thrill killer without the thrill. Spacek is Holly, a borderline retarded young woman who accompanies Kit on his cross country spree after he shoots her father (the great Warren Oates, who is sadly under used here). The two live a fairy tale existence for awhile, setting up a tree house in the woods where they become a Swiss Family Robinson style little family. But the law soon stumbles upon them, Kit shoots and kills the police officers and they're on the run again. They're eventually captured. Kit is executed, Holly receives probation.

As I said, the film is gorgeous to look at and well acted but that's about the only nice things I can say about BADLANDS. It's a pretentious art film and I hate pretentious art films. I don't think I'll bother to see any other Malick films. I'll add him to my list of filmmakers to avoid along with David Lynch and Quentin Tarrantino. Thumbs down.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THE BLUE MAX


It is stuck in my memory that I saw THE BLUE MAX (1966) at the Varsity Theater on The Drag when it was first released. It was a Sunday afternoon matinee. Don't know why I can remember that. I just do. So it's somehow fitting that I recently watched this film for the first time since 1966 the other afternoon. And yes, it was on a Sunday.

THE BLUE MAX, with a screenplay by Ben Barzman and Basilio Franchina from the novel by Jack D. Hunter, tells the story of one Corporal Bruno Stachel (George Peppard), a German army infantryman at the beginning of World War I who yearns to become a fighter pilot and, more importantly, an ace (20 kills) along with the accompanying Blue Max medal of honor. He joins a German squadron where he immediately sets out to prove himself in air combat at any cost. He lies about his first kill and butts heads with both his commanding officer Hauptmann Otto Heidermann (Karl Michael Vogler) and the resident ace, Willi von Klugermann (Jeremy Kemp). Stachel is from common stock which makes his desire to equal and better his aristocratic squadron mates even stronger.

Stachel's exploits soon catch the eye of General Count von Klugermann (the great James Mason) and his wife, Kaeti (the breathtakingly beautiful Ursula Andress). The count sees Stachel as playing an important part in a propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the German people by showcasing the achievements of a commoner among the aristocracy. Kaeti, on the other hand, just wants to sleep with Stachel. They do so but it's a relationship that will soon lead to Stachel's downfall. Stachel eventually earns the highly coveted Blue Max but when the count learns that he won it by cheating, he lets Stachel fly a dangerously unsafe new, experimental aircraft with disastrous results.

THE BLUE MAX is a big, old-fashioned (it's got an intermission, anyone remember them?) epic war movie. Director John Guillermin does a great job with the action both on the ground and in the air. Shot in Ireland by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, THE BLUE MAX has a terrific score by Jerry Goldsmith and spectacular flying sequences with stunt pilots and vintage aircraft putting on a dazzling show. Peppard is a bit stiff but I've always liked the guy. Mason is, as usual, superb and Andress is simply too gorgeous for words.Thumbs up.