Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My Take: KONG - SKULL ISLAND

We all know by now that movie remakes seldom work out so hot and yet film makers – especially in recent years, it seems – keep going back to the same well again and again. Where remakes work best is when a particular story/concept isn't just re-hashed but rather when it is “re-booted” with some sort of fresh spin on the original concept. The BATMAN/DARK KNIGHT trilogy comes to mind as a good example of this and, more recent and more directly related to this article, 2014's GODZILLA is another.

That's what the producers of KONG: SKULL ISLAND did. They took the basic concept of Kong and his mysterious, uncharted island … then threw away the old plot with the movie crew and the golden-haired “beauty” who ultimately leads Kong to his demise from atop the Empire State Building and re-booted all that with a whole new set of characters, an updated time period (mid-1970s), and a whole new reason for going to Skull Island, complete with a military helicopter squadron escorting them. The motives for the expedition get to be a little complicated and silly (but, hey, this is a giant-prehistoric-monsters-in-modern-times movie so it's not fair to look for hard scientific reasoning) and, of course, there's more to 'em than everybody is at first led to believe.
Upon reaching the island, the team's transport ship cannot land because of the fierce “perpetual storm” that surrounds and obscures the place. So they go in via the military helicopters which are able to penetrate the storm. Once through, they immediately begin dropping explosives from which the accompanying seismologists can test one of the theories (a hollow earth) that brought them there. What they get instead is a pissed-off Kong who doesn't like uninvited guests showing up and setting off bombs in his back yard. To show his annoyance, he attacks the copters, destroys them all, killing many, and splitting the surviving members of the expedition into two groups.


From there, the movie becomes a long chase sequence with the two groups trying to reach a rendezvous with a re-supply team due to arrive at a point on the north end of the island in three days. Along the way, they have several clashes with various prehistoric monsters still in existence on the island – most fearsome of all being the underground reptilian horrors known as the Skullcrawlers. Kong, it turns out, is the island's protector against these predators and other threats.

I enjoyed this movie a lot. I was really looking forward to it, and did not come away disappointed.

The ensemble cast plays well off one another, particularly the banter amongst the soldiers. The male/female leads struck some subdued romantic sparks, though nothing overt came of it. Brie Larsen made an impression as a spunky, somewhat sassy big-time photographer who looked quite fetching in a very tight tank top; Tom Hiddleson, as a former British Special Air Service captain hired as tracker-hunter isn't really given a lot to do as the lead in an action movie, but conveys a certain presence and adequately handles what is asked of him. Samuel Jackson, as the commander of the helicopter squadron, intently portrays a man seeking revenge for the men he lost on the island and also revenge for having to “abandon” the Vietnam war. John C. Reilly, as a WWII pilot stranded on the island for all these years, nearly steals the movie (from the live-action performers, that is) by providing equal measures of humor and grim, sage advice for the newcomers.
The special effects are excellent and, when they are on display, there were two things I really appreciated about them: One, they were filmed in such a way where you could actually follow the action that was taking place (as opposed to, say, the TRANSFORMERS movies, where the screen is just a blur of colors and motion and you have no idea who the hell is doing what to who); and Two, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has a keen sense of how long to let these action set pieces play (as opposed to , say, Peter Jackson who, in his 2005 KING KONG remake, let some of his action scenes go on and on and on, until they were squeezed dry of all excitement and actually became boring).

All in all, a terrific popcorn-action-fun movie to kick off the summer movie-going season. And, perhaps best of all, Kong is left alive at the end (I don't think this is too much of a spoiler because the fact has been widely mentioned) to be appearing again a couple years down the road when he's scheduled to duke it out with another heavyweight contender from the past … Godzilla!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: BLOODY ARIZONA by Frank Leslie

This latest Yakima Henry adventure by Frank Leslie (who most everybody knows is ol' Mean Pete hisself, Peter Brandvold) is the first of a “quartet” of new short novels promised by the author. We haven't seen Yakima in a while and it surely is good to have the rowdy half-breed back in action.

And, as usual for a novel from Leslie/Brandvold, action is the key word. It starts right from the get-go with Yak getting tossed in jail for brawling and then having to blast his way free after the marshal who put him there is savagely gunned down and it falls to the half-breed to go after the killers and the widow they take as hostage.

Subsequently, before the bad guys are made to pay, there is lots more gunplay and some hot sex with a pair of competitive sisters Yakima keeps encountering. There are also some poignant scenes where Yakima reflects on how much he misses his late wife.

The real delight in this yarn, however, is the Rio Grande Kid – a crusty, quasi-loony old outlaw who is long past being a “kid”. At first against Yakima's will (but eventually with the half-breed's gratitude) he becomes a sidekick we hope we'll be seeing more of in future yarns.

Top notch, gun-blazing entertainment you don't want to miss!
Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Another Look: THE SPOILERS (1942, starring John Wayne)

Prior to a few days ago, anyone would have been hard pressed to name a John Wayne film of any significance (which is to say almost anything post 1939's Stagecoach) that I haven't seen, many of them several times. Yeah, I'm an unabashed Duke fan, inherited from my folks, particularly my mother.
Nevertheless, for some reason I had never before watched The Spoilers until I got the chance to DVR it off cable about a week ago. I knew about it, had read quite a bit about it, had even seen its kindred flick --- Pittsburgh, released the same year starring the same lead trio of Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Marlene Dietrich --- more than once. But never got around to The Spoilers.
Well, now that gap in my movie viewing history has been filled and the experience was quite satisfactory.

The movie is based on a 1906 novel by the same name, written by Rex Beach. A peer of --- and heavily influenced by --- Jack London, Beach was a very popular writer throughout the early 1900s. (He wrote plays as well as novels and played on the silver medal-winning U.S. Water polo team in the 1904 Olympics.) For the most part, critics did not favor his literary output nearly as much as the reading public. Though lauded by one as “the Victor Hugo of the North”, many others found his work formulaic and unoriginal. “Strong hairy men doing strong hairy deeds” summed up one; while an Alaskan historian has since claimed his work is “mercifully forgotten today” … Almost makes you want to rush out and read some of his stuff just for spite, don't it?

At any rate, THE SPOILERS novel proved to be popular enough to be made into a movie no less than five times --- in 1914, 1923, 1930, 1942, and 1955. And each time with pretty well-established stars of the period. (For example: Gary Cooper starred in the 1930 version; Jeff Chandler/Rory Calhoun in 1955.)
But the star package was never bigger than the Dietrich/Scott/Wayne ensemble that Universal put together for this '42 version. Dietrich got top billing; Scott second; Wayne third, largely because he was on “loan” to Universal even though his part was bigger than Scott's and he was playing the hero. (As opposed to the aforementioned Pittsburgh, where Scott was the hero and Duke played the heel.) But, inasmuch as it has since been well documented that Dietrich and Wayne were having a torrid affair during this time period, one can assume that Duke was in a pretty agreeable mood as long as he was getting the lead role with Marlene off camera.


The movie itself is a rousing, two-fisted adventure that takes place in and around Nome, Alaska at the height of the 1900 Alaska gold rush --- a sort of a “Northern” as opposed to a more traditional Western (similar to Duke's North to Alaska that would come out 18 years later). Dietrich plays Cherry Malotte, owner of the town's most popular saloon; Scott plays Alexander McNamara, the newly appointed gold commissioner; Wayne plays Roy Glennister, Cherry's boyfriend and also half owner of the Midas mine (with Harry Carey Sr. as his partner Al Dextry).
In cahoots with a crooked judge, McNamara is allowing bogus cross claims to be filed on many of the best mines in the area, including the Midas, and then tying up the legal proceedings while thousands of dollars worth of gold is being siphoned from the mines during the time they are allegedly shut down. He's also trying to worm his way into the arms of Cherry.
Backed by his pal Dextry and armed with inside information from the judge's niece, who has fallen in love with him, Glennister stages a bank hold-up to get back the stolen money along with some key documents that prove the corruption of the judge and McNamara. This causes the judge to cut his losses and flee and brings Glennister face to face with McNamara in Cherry's saloon. With the townsfolk and other miners looking on, the two men slug it out in a fierce, smashing brawl that wrecks the saloon, spills out into the street, then back into the saloon again. Glennister is finally victorious, not only winning the fight but also winning back his girl and clearing the rights to his gold mine.

The whole thing is a lot of fun. Top production values, a strong cast, and a treatment that takes itself seriously, but not overly so, by injecting bits of drama and suspense but also plenty of rugged humor. The big fight climax is spectacularly staged with Wayne and Scott – not doubles - clearly mixing it up in several of the shots.
For me, finally getting to see this minor classic was worth the wait.
For anybody else who has never seen it before or maybe not for a long time, I'd certainly recommend spending the 87 minutes it takes to watch it if/when you get the chance. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: BULLETS, BRUINS, AND A LADY CALLED CHANCE by Peter Brandvold


This latest from Peter Brandvold (Ol' Mean Pete himself) is number four in the popular Bear Haskell series and it is a corker. I suppose it's sort of redundant to say that about any book by Brandvold (who also writes as Frank Leslie) because they're all action-charged page turners. But in this case, especially, Pete really goes balls out (and when you ready this yarn for yourself you'll see that's more than just an overused euphemism).

This time around, Deputy U.S. Marshal Haskell is sent to the bitter, freezing cold Dakota Territory in the dead of winter to investigate a series of alarming murders (including a previously dispatched U.S. Marshal) that have taken place in the settlement of Sioux Camp. The murder count only escalates after Bear shows up, some of it thanks to him and his own blazing .44.
Before Bear can stop the killings and solve who's behind them, he must first tussle with a pair of hot-blooded north country gals, tangle with a rogue grizzly who seems more interested in chomping on a nosy lawman than hibernating, dodge bullets and blizzards, and uncover layers of deceit and shame that reach far into the past.

Brandvold writes strong prose, rich in detail even in the midst of gun-blazing action (without ever slowing down the pace), introduces an array of colorful and original characters, and plots a mystery that will keep you guessing right to the end.
Good stuff. Recommended.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Noteworthy Reads: THE SAVAGE PACK by Fred Blosser


Reading this rousing historical adventure by Fred Blosser made me feel much the same as when I was a kid first discovering books like TREASURE ISLAND, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. It took me to a time and place I knew little or nothing about, introduced me to colorful characters and customs, threw in a mysterious object that everybody seems to want a all costs, then weaves the whole works into a complex, action-packed yarn. I'm talking rugged frontiersman, Indians, damsels in distress, damsels out to cause distress, dastardly villains, spies and counterspies --- even pirates!

The time is 1714 and the settings are the interior wilderness and coastal settlements of North Carolina. The main protagonists are Axtel “Ax” Fannin and his sidekick Jesse Driggs. The action starts one rainy night in the forest when they rescue lovely Sophia Drummond from her kidnappers and from there things propel forward and the pace never lets up.

Author Blosser's writing is clean and straightforward and he lays out the details of the period with a sure hand. The twists and turns and surprises of his plot will keep you entertained and anxious to keep turning the pages to see what happens next.
Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Another Look: THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (starring Glenn Ford, 1953)

This is an interesting Western drama from director Budd Boetticher, who a few years later would direct a string of Randolph Scott Westerns that are considered minor classics of the genre.
In and of itself, THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO is also a noteworthy oater. Its execution perhaps does not match its ambitions, but it nevertheless is solid entertainment with some different twists.

Glenn Ford (always easy to watch) plays protagonist John Stroud, who, as the title suggests, is a man who fled the battle of the Alamo before it fell under the superior forces of Santa Ana. His reasons for leaving, however, have nothing to do with cowardice. In fact, in an early scene where the Mexican army's bombardment of the mission fort results in its flag pole being blown off the wall, Stroud risks danger from further blasts by climbing up and re-posting the flag while the bombardment continues. Shortly after this, however, we learn that Stroud is one of about a half dozen volunteer defenders who have property and families not far to the north. Since word is out that Santa Ana is issuing land grants to Texcians who will fight on his side and harass settlers as his army is otherwise occupied, Stroud and his neighbors are worried for the safety of their families while they are away in battle. When a rider makes it through the enemy lines with word that no reinforcements are coming to aid the embattled garrison, he also mentions that raids are taking place up north by a band of Mexican sympathizers who are burning homes and re-claiming land for themselves. Based on this, Stroud and the others hold a secret meeting to try and decide how to fight Santa Ana and keep their families safe at the same time. “One man more or less here ain't gonna make that much difference,” one of them says. “But one man up there might be enough to round up our wives and kids and get them to safety.” They then agree to draw lots to see who will be the one man to try and make it out … Stroud draws the black bean.
When Travis assembles the garrison and gives permission for any man to leave who doesn't want to stay and fight to the death, Stroud takes a horse and rides out with no clear explanation for why he is making the choice. The rider who brought in word that no reinforcements are on the way is also sent back out by Travis, but not before he sees Stroud leave and is left to think him a coward.

Weeks later, Stroud arrives back home only to find he is too late. His home and those of his friends have all been raided and burned to the ground, his own wife and child murdered. He learns from the lone survivor, the young son of a faithful servant who also killed, that this was the work of a Mexicn sympathizer and gang leader named Jess Wade.
Stroud takes the boy to the nearby town of Franklin where he seeks to leave the orphan with someone who will care for him while Stroud returns to the war. In town, he learns that the Alamo has fallen and he ends up branded a coward and the “man who left the Alamo”. Things go from bad to worse when Stroud is taken into protective custody to save him from a lynch mob. When a Texican army patrol shows up to evacuate the town ahead of the advancing Mexican army, a wagon train is formed and Stroud, still a prisoner, is taken along. Unknown to any of them, the Jess Wade gang takes out after them in order to get the bank money that is traveling on the train. After they've started out, the army patrol is suddenly called away to go fight with Sam Houston in the battle of San Jacinto, leaving the train of mostly women and children to fend for themselves. Stroud steps forward at this point, showing his true bravery and cunning, and leads this unlikely force in a successful fight against the attacking gang. In the process, the truth is finally revealed and accepted of why he left the Alamo. He even ends up with a new sweetheart before he rides off to also join Sam Houston in winning Texas independence.

Like I said, interesting and with some different twists. Also with a sizable dollop of hokiness (like why didn't Stroud or any of his buddies reveal, right from the get-go, his reason for riding away from the Alamo in the first place).
Also noteworthy and curious: In the opening scenes at the Alamo, everybody was firing flintlock rifles and pistols (as it should be). After Stroud got away and showed up in Franklin, he was packing a revolver holstered on his hip—as were the sheriff and other men in town. And the Wade gang members were also packin' revolvers. But then, when the ladies of the wagon train were armed by Stroud to fight off the gang, they were issued flintlocks again. This is a pretty glaring inaccuracy for the time period.

Also of note (to me anyway) is the presence here of actor Chill Wills in a significant role. Seven years later, in John Wayne's big budget version of THE ALAMO, Wills would play another significant role and even get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for it (which he lost, and deserved to—largely due to his overzealous lobbying for the vote). Truth to tell, in THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO he played a better, stronger part.
Hugh O'Brien, Neville Brand, and Julia Adams also turn in good performances. And Victor Jory, as gangleader Jess Wade, is convincingly menacing, but to me he seems oddly out of place in a Western.

Still, quibbles aside, this is a pretty entertaining flick. Well worth 80 minutes of your time if you catch it on the tube or spot it in a DVD bargain bin.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

THE UGLY SANTA MASK

This week, my son-in-law out in Washington is playing Santa Claus for the kids there (his grandchildren, my great grandchildren). They're still very little, so we'll see how that goes. 
But hearing about this made me think of another Christmas many years ago when my dad decided to dress up as Santa at our house. That one, I can report, definitely did not work out so hot.
Here's story:
It was Christmas eve (when we've always opened presents in my family). I was about 12, my two little sisters, Lorie and Pam (the only ones born at that point) were like 3 and 2. We had it set up so that Dad would slip out of the living room at a certain point and go upstairs and dress up in his Santa get-up. It wasn't a full-fledged, bona fide suit, mind you; I don't know if there wasn't any available or the folks just couldn't afford one back then. Anyway, he dressed in a pair of bright red long underwear, a pair of high-topped rubber boots, and a Santa mask, hat attached.
My recollection of said mask, even after all these years, was that it was a pretty sorry creation. The accompanying picture doesn't begin to match it. Like I said, money was kinda tight back then so I suspect it was the best my folks could afford.
Mom and I entertained the little girls while Dad was getting ready. The upstairs was accessed by a closed stairway with a door at the bottom. The deal was, Dad (as Santa) would come down and knock on the door. Then we'd go through the whole “Who could that be?” bit and send one of the girls (Lorie, I think, because she was the oldest) to open the door and see. At which point, Dad/Santa would step out saying “Ho-ho-ho” … Which was exactly how it went.
At that point, however, the master plan careened off the rails. One look at this big stranger in red underwear wearing a ghastly mask and my two sisters let out screams that may still be echoing somewhere yet today. They bolted into the arms of me and my mom, howling and hiding their faces like it was the Frankenstein monster coming after them. Dad, in the meantime, was frantically trying to get shed of his bag of presents and pull off that stupid mask, hollering, “It's Daddy, honeys … Don't be afraid … It's Daddy!” But the howls of the little ones kept drowning him out for several chaotic minutes.
Finally, the mask was removed and hidden away, the kids could see it was Dad, and everything calmed down. There were still presents to open and that was the ultimate healing balm that saved the evening and helped turn everything into a Merry Christmas.
Now ... as Mr. Paul Harvey used to like to say … Here's THE REST of the story:
Remember me --- the innocent little 12-year-old “helper” to the foregoing? Not surprisingly, I was often called upon to babysit my little sisters in those days. Now I loved them very much but, being on the brink of my teen years and beginning to feel my oats a bit, craving to be “cool” and having interests of my own to pursue, it should also not come as a surprise that babysitting didn't exactly thrill me a whole lot. Plus, truth be told, my sweet little sisters could be stinkers and didn't always mind me like I thought they should.
Re-enter the dreaded Santa Claus mask which, like the aforementioned Frankenstein monster, was not so easily destroyed. I knew where it had been stashed. And, I'm not proud to say, pukey little 12-year-old me wasn't above resurrecting it and putting it to use …
I don't think I ever resorted to actually putting it on. But one one day when the little darlings were acting up, I yanked the mask out from hiding and waved it at them, threatening to put it on. That was enough. They snapped to attention and jumped to Best Behavior like soldiers in basic training. In the weeks and months that followed, all I had to do was say the words “I'll get that Santa Claus mask” and I suddenly had two golden children.
Eventually, though, I overplayed my hand and the effectiveness of the threats wore off. Plus, as the girls got older, they simply no longer found the mask so scary. But, for a while there, whenever I was babysitting I had me some mighty well behaved little girls.
Now I'm not recommending this --- or any form of it --- as an effective form of controlling your kids. In hindsight it was pretty mean and I probably deserved to have had somebody scare the crap out of me for payback. But, come on, you gotta admit that using a Santa mask as a non-violent tool to control a couple of sometimes-brats was quasi-clever and has a kind of humorous side to it, too. Don't it? The saving grace, I hope, is that my sisters still did (and do) love me, and for any nasty trick I ever played on them there were also many hours of love and affection showered on them (and the rest of my siblings as they came along) by me.
You forgive me, Lorie and Pam … don't you?