Sunday, May 22, 2016

INSIDE MAN


Spike Lee's 2006 caper thriller, INSIDE MAN, wastes no time in getting things moving. The film opens with a group of four masked individuals, led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), staging a robbery and hostage taking at a Manhattan bank. We have not seen the planning of this heist so we're in the dark (along with all of the other characters in the film) as to what the robbers' plan is.
 
The robbery launches a full scale response from NYPD including Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe) of the Emergency Services Unit, who sets up a mobile command post outside of the bank. NYPD Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is the lead hostage negotiator along with his partner, Detective Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The cat and mouse game of moves and counter moves begins. Meanwhile, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the chairman of the bank's board of directors calls in Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a high-powered "fixer" with political connections. There's something in the bank that belongs to Case that must be kept secret at all costs and White is hired to make sure the robbers don't get whatever it is.

The robbery plays out in a series of clever twists and turns. We know that it will eventually end because Lee gives us multiple flash forwards (shot in a desaturated visual palette) in which Frazier and Mitchell interrogate various people involved in the incident in an attempt to identify the robbers. This is a difficult task because all of the thieves and hostages are dressed exactly alike making it impossible to tell who's who. And it turns out that no money was stolen and no one was killed. So what, if any crime was committed and who do you charge with said crime? Frazier is told to drop the case but unanswered questions remain and he keeps digging.

To say anymore would be to spoil the surprises in store in the third act. Suffice it to say that the major plot twist (which I didn't see coming) was once used on an episode of BANACEK, the 1970s television series in which insurance investigator Banacek (George Peppard) solved "impossible" crimes.

Spike Lee seems like an odd choice to direct a crime thriller but he does a very good job here. He keeps things moving at a good clip, his camera constantly moving over, under and around characters in various settings. The cast is first rate. Washington is street savvy, ambitious and has a bulldog tenacity. Foster is an ice cold operator with a heart of stone. Plummer is a man desperately trying to buy respectability and Owen is the mastermind who has carefully engineered the intricate plot from beginning to end.

For the most part, Russell Gewirtz' script is good but it could have used some adjusting. At 129 minutes, the film is a bit too long with multiple climaxes in addition to being a bit vague about just who Madeleine White is and how she's able to do what she does. Also, there's no explanation (unless I missed it) as to how Dalton knows about his true objective in the crime.

Nonetheless INSIDE MAN is a slick, clever, well-constructed crime thriller with a first rate cast and enough plot twists and turns to keep you guessing right up to the end. Recommended.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

1408


One night back in the '70s, when I was in high school, a bunch of us went to see an X-rated, 3-D movie at the old Texas theater on The Drag. The film was entitled, wait for it, LOVE IN 3-D. I know, clever, right? When we entered the lobby after buying our tickets, an usher handed each of us a pair of 3-D glasses. One of my buddies, Smiley, looked at the glasses and asked "What are these?"

"They're 3-D glasses, " I said. "You gotta wear 'em to see the movie. What did you think we were coming to see?"

"Oh, I thought LOVE IN 3-D was a room number," he replied.

I tell that story to point out that 1408 (2007) is indeed a film about a room number. Based on a 1999 Stephen King short story (what is it with King and hotels, anyway?), the film stars John Cusack and a haunted hotel room. That's pretty much all there is to this movie. One guy, alone, in a hotel room that's trying to drive him to insanity and suicide.

Mike Enslin (Cusack), is a paranormal investigator and author. He doesn't really believe in the supernatural but he makes a living writing guide books to "haunted locations", including infamous hotels, most of which use the paranormal angle as a marketing tool. Mike is bitter and disillusioned following the death of his daughter and his estrangement from his wife Lily (Mary McCormack). Mike gets wind of Room 1408 in New York's ancient Dolphin Hotel and decides he simply must spend a night in the room in which all previous guests have died. Hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson, in what amounts to a cameo appearance, despite the movie poster art), at first refuses to let Mike stay in the room but he eventually relents. Mike moves in and the craziness begins.

At the end of the second act, the film plays the old "it's all a dream" move, a plot development I suspected from early on when Mike was submerged during a surfing accident and had a near death experience. I figured that from that point on, everything in the movie was a dream/fantasy and sure enough, that's exactly what director Mikael Hafstrom and screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski deliver. But there's still a good twenty minutes of running time left, so how is this all going to play out if it was only a dream that's now over?

Turns out, it's real after all and the whole "it's only a dream" was only a dream. Mike is still trapped in the murderous room from which he finally engineers a successful (although painful) escape.

That's really all there is to 1408. One man. One hotel room. Lots of bat shit craziness. It's nowhere near as good as Stanley Kubrick's abmitious yet flawed THE SHINING (1980).  Cusack (and special effects) do all of the heavy lifting here. The film isn't clever enough to surprise and not intense enough to truly terrify. Thumbs down.


MURDER TRAIL


I'm a sucker for just about any story (prose, comics, film, TV) that involves zeppelins/dirigibles. There's something about those magnificent airships that harken back to a bygone era of high adventure. The cover art of the paperback reprint of MURDER TRAIL (the 26th Shadow adventure, originally published in March, 1933) by the legendary Jim Steranko, is a beauty, featuring both the weird avenger of the night and a gigantic dirigible. Sold!

It's not false advertising either as the opening chapters of this story take place on board a German dirigible on it's way from Europe to the U.S. But the action quickly moves from the air to the ground in what is, I must admit, a pretty routine Shadow thriller.

A group of wealthy industrialists are attempting to pool their fortunes to create a World Industry League, a kind of super-conglomerate of international interests designed to foster both world peace and cooperation and stimulate the economy (this was, after all, written during the Great Depression). The scheme involves an emissary visiting each man on a secret list, producing identifying papers and documents and securing the millions in cold, hard cash each man has pledged. But a super-criminal who calls himself Crix, has gotten wind of this endeavor. He kills the emissary on board the dirigible, steals his identity and begins collecting the money for himself (and killing the men on the list of donors). Of course, gangsters Bumps Jaffrey and Bart Shallock, are recruited to be the muscle behind the plot and one of The Shadow's agents, Cliff Marsland, infiltrates the gang in order to channel information to his boss.

There's a couple of violent gun fights with high body counts but things are wrapped up fairly quickly with the identity of Crix revealed at the end (frankly, it's not that big of a surprise).

MURDER TRAIL isn't a bad read overall. It's certainly worth reading if you're a Shadow fan but after that strong opening, it quickly becomes a pretty routine adventure. In my opinion, more dirigible action would have really made this one sing.

Friday, May 13, 2016

CASTING THE SHADOW


It's time for another extended version of this blog's favorite game, "What If?" Regular readers will know that I've been reading and reviewing various Shadow novels over the last few years. These are paperback reprints of the original pulp novels and while Doc Savage is still my favorite pulp hero, I must admit that I really dig The Shadow. In fact, I'm reading a Shadow adventure right now, MURDER TRAIL, so look for a review of that one soon.

A while back here on the blog, I imagined what a 1960s Doc Savage film would have looked like. As you are probably aware, this almost happened with producers Goodson and Todman briefly owning the rights to the character and actor Chuck (THE RIFLEMAN) Connors supposedly in line to play Doc. I offered my casting choices for the various characters and had a lot of fun doing so.

Lately, I've been watching vintage episodes of 12 O'CLOCK HIGH on the Heroes and Icons cable channel. I really enjoy this old b&w (later episodes were in color) WWII series. As usual, in addition to the regular cast there were always great guest stars (this was, after all, a Quinn Martin production). Those guest stars got me to thinking about how many great character actors there were in the 1960s, men and women who regularly appeared in supporting roles in both comedies and dramatic series. And they had names to go with the distinctive faces then too. I know actors from this era much better than I do any performers on current television shows.

So, I got to thinking the other day, what if (there it is!) the BATMAN series had continued to be a ratings bonanza for ABC-TV in the mid '60s? What if it ran, five or more seasons and dominated the ratings? What if THE GREEN HORNET did likewise and became an extremely popular and long running series instead of the one season it really lasted? In short, what if costumed heroes became the rage of network television rather than spy shows? What if, in order to fill this need an ambitious production company (why not QM productions) secured the rights from Conde Nast to develop a weekly, hour-long SHADOW television series? Who would have been involved in this ambitious undertaking?

The first hire, obviously, would be Walter Gibson, creator of The Shadow. No studio would dare proceed with this project without Gibson's blessings and input so he would be ensconced as the creative director for the series.

The next phone call would be to artist Jim Steranko. He would be hired as art director/production designer and in charge of making sure that the various sets, costumes, props and locations looked as much like his incredible paintings as possible. 


Unlike Batman, The Shadow didn't have a huge gallery of rogues to contend with. Almost all of his foes were "one-hit-wonders" (usually dispatched by the Shadow's twin automatics!) with only one recurring villain, the evil Oriental mastermind Shiwan Khan. Who better to play this arch fiend than Khigh Dhiegh, who played a similar role as "Wo Fat" on HAWAII FIVE-O. 


Two members of the Shadow's supporting cast were law enforcement officials. As Commissioner Weston (who was played by Jonathan Winters in the 1994 film) I would cast veteran character actor (STAR TREK, BATMAN (False Face!) and TO CATCH A THIEF), Malachi Throne.


And as Detective Joe Cardona, Robert (T.H.E. CAT) Loggia.


Burbank ran the Shadow's communications network, relaying messages to and from the Shadow and his various agents. Although seldom a featured player in any of the novels (at least not in the ones I've read thus far), he nonetheless played a vital part in the Shadow's war against crime. He was faithful, loyal and dependable, all qualities that were embodied by the wonderful character actor (and sadly, recently deceased) William Schallert.


Rutledge Mann was a quiet, reserved stock broker who also served as an agent of the Shadow. He rarely became physically involved in an adventure but he did ferret out important information and oversaw a certain mail drop. A perfect role for Tom Bosley.


When the Shadow needed to get around Manhattan, he often depended on Shrevvy, a tough, New York cab driver who knew every inch of the city and then some. I submit that Roy Thinnes would have been good as the hard nosed cabbie.


Cliff Marsland, an innocent man who served time in prison before being exonerated by the Shadow, was often dispatched into the "bad lands" of the underworld to spy for the Shadow. Marsland had the chops to be credible as a smooth, suave, sophisticated type of gangster. Rick Jason, anyone?


Harry Vincent was the first agent The Shadow recruited and he appears in more Shadow novels than any other supporting character. A suicidal young man, Vincent was stopped from taking a fatal plunge off of a bridge by The Shadow in the opening pages of the very first Shadow novel, THE LIVING SHADOW. Vincent, owing his life to this mysterious creature of the night, swore his undying allegiance to his savior and was The Shadow's most trusted agent. Who better to play this role than James MacArthur?


Margo Lane was more a fixture on The Shadow radio program than the pulps but she did appear in some adventures and provided a much needed female presence in this all-male bunch of characters. I think the lovely Suzanne Pleshette would have made a great Margo.



Finally, we get to the star of our show, The Shadow aka Lamont Cranston. I know, I know, Cranston wasn't The Shadow's real identity, it was just one that he borrowed from time to time. But thanks to the radio program and other media iterations of the character, Lamont Cranston is, for better or worse, The Shadow. And who better to embody this weird avenger of the night than Lloyd Bochner. 


There you have it folks. What do you think? I know I would have watched a SHADOW TV show with this cast in the 1960s. 


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

ANOTHER FAVORITE BRUNETTE


I haven't posted a Favorite Brunette in quite some time so let's fix that right now. I was watching an episode of 12 O'CLOCK HIGH the other night on the Heroes and Icons cable channel. Lee Meriwether had a bit part as a Lt. at the 918 bomber group's headquarters. She's romantically involved with Colonel Joe Gallagher (Paul Burke). This is the second HIGH episode I've seen her in recently, playing the same part. I don't know how many episodes she appeared in (readers, can you help?) but seeing her served to remind of just how beautiful she was and how much I always enjoy watching her in anything.

What a career the lovely Lee has had. A former Miss America, her one and only turn as Catwoman in the 1996 feature film BATMAN almost made me forget regular TV Catwoman Julie Newmar. She was a regular on the short lived but fondly remembered Irwin Allen sf series THE TIME TUNNEL. She co-starred with Buddy Ebsen on BARNABY JONES. She made countless guest appearances on dozens of television shows in the '60s and '70s including the immortal "That Which Survives" episode of STAR TREK ("I am for you Kirk.").

Lee Meriwether has always been one of my favorites.



Tuesday, May 10, 2016

THE LAST STAND




I know I learned about "Custer's Last Stand" in school but danged if I can remember what I really learned about this pivotal event in the history of the American west. That it happened on June 25th, 1876. That the Little Big Horn is a river in what was at the time the Montana Territory. That Custer's 7th Calvary were vastly outnumbered by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and hundreds of Indian warriors. That Custer and his men were wiped out. That's about it.

Nathaniel Philbrick, one of America's preeminent writers of popular history, goes much deeper into this epic battle in his book THE LAST STAND: CUSTER, SITTING BULL, AND THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN (2010). I finished reading this masterful narrative last night. It's the third Philbrick book I've read in the last year, the other two being SEA OF GLORY and MAYFLOWER and I'm here to tell you that all three are excellent.

Philbrick goes into granular detail in LAST STAND as he gives us portraits of Custer, Sitting Bull and all of the other major players that took part in that doomed campaign in the summer of 1876. While Philbrick draws heavily on a multitude of sources, he never gets bogged down in telling this extremely compelling tale. Even though we know the final outcome, it's fascinating to see how Custer, through a series of tactical errors and his own over-sized ego, led his men to their deaths and into myth. The battle scenes ring sharp and true and contain a real sense of the madness, chaos and horror of close, armed combat. It's not for the squeamish.

Philbrick takes no sides here. He paints a balanced portrait of both the American military and the various native Indian tribes and their chiefs and warriors. The clash of cultures was unavoidable and while many thought it would signal the end of the Indians, it instead rang down the curtain on the age of the Indian fighter and relentless westward expansion. There are no real heroes or villains in this tragic story only deeply flawed human beings capable of acts of magnificent heroism and unspeakable savagery.

Philbrick touches briefly on the aftermath of the battle and the enshrinement of Custer as a great American hero, an image that was greatly embellished in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, a 1941 Warner Brothers epic starring Errol Flynn as Custer and Olivia de Havilland as his faithful wife Libbie. It's horrendously inaccurate from a historical viewpoint but Raoul Walsh's film is nonetheless a rousing, flag-waving ode to Custer as a colossus of the west. I recall seeing the film years ago at the long since defunct Dobie Theater, back when they used to regularly screen classic films. I loved it then but I haven't seen it since and I'd love to revisit it now having read Philbrick's book.



Custer's Last Stand was also depicted in Arthur Penn's revisionist western LITTLE BIG MAN (1970), but it was only part of a larger narrative tapestry of American history. Believe it or not, there was actually a short-lived Custer television series in the '60s. THE LEGEND OF CUSTER, starring Wayne Maunder, ran 17 episodes on ABC-TV from September to December, 1967. The series seemed doomed from the beginning. After all, how do you generate any suspense for the lead character when everyone knows his eventual fate? If it had come later, it might have worked better as a mini-series rather than a weekly, episodic television show. But the show did produce a comic book spin off. THE LEGEND OF CUSTER #1 (and only) (my personal copy pictured below) was published by Dell Comics in January 1968, shortly after the show was canceled. I guess anything with Custer in it is destined to end badly.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

THE PROPOSITION


My long time buddy Steve Cook recommended THE PROPOSITION (2005) to me awhile back and I finally got around to watching it yesterday. I'm glad he turned me on to this Australian western that has elements of Peckinpah and Leone with a liberal dash of Tarantinoesque violence.

The film starts with a literal bang, thrusting us into the middle of a gun battle taking place at a remote wooden shed (whore house?) somewhere in the Australian outback. The police win the battle and Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), faces his two prisoners, brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson) Burns. Turns out their older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), is a certified psycho killer, having recently slaughtered an entire family comprised of a man, his wife and their infant child (it's implied the woman was raped). Arthur is a deranged, homicidal maniac but Captain Stanley is much too civilized to track and capture the man himself. Instead he offers Charlie a "proposition". Stanley will hold Mikey in jail for nine days, after which Mikey will be hanged for his crimes. While Mikey sits in jail, Charlie must venture into the wilderness, find Arthur and kill him.

Thus, a chain of events is set in motion and it's one that will not end well for all involved. Charlie is wounded by aborigines but is rescued and nursed back to health by his brother and his gang while Captain Stanley and his English wife, Martha (Emily Watson), desperately try to bring some whiff of civilization to the fly speck town they live in by preparing to celebrate the upcoming Christmas Day.

But political pressure, in the form of Stanley's boss, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), is put upon Stanley to do something more concrete than simply wait for Charlie to accomplish his mission (or not).  The helpless Mikey is taken out of his cell and mercilessly whipped 100 times in front of an impassive crowd of townspeople. Mikey is now at death's door and Charlie and Arthur are heading for town, aiming to exact vengeance for their wounded and dying brother.

Mikey does indeed succumb to his injuries, leaving Arthur to target Stanley and Martha as his next victims. But Charlie finally sees that family ties can only bind so tight when your brother is a savage animal of a killer.

Shot on location in Australia (the cinematography by Benoit Delhomme is first rate), THE PROPOSITION presents a bleak look at life in the Australian outback in the 1880s. There's nothing remotely romanticized about the people or their lives. They live a hellish existence, full of danger and death. And flies. Boy, there are a lot of flies buzzing around in this movie.

All of the leads are strong as is John Hurt as a crafty bounty hunter who crosses paths with Charlie. The script by Nick Cave and direction by John Hilcoat pays homage to other classic works of the genre while simultaneously charting its' own course and offering us something that while it looks familiar is definitely a different kind of Western.

Bloody, brutal and violent, THE PROPOSITION is not for everyone. But if you're a fan of Westerns and are willing to take a chance on a fresh and unique spin on this venerable genre, have I got a proposition for you.