Monday, January 11, 2016

My Take: CREED (2015, starring Sylvester Stallone)

Okay, now that ol’ Sly has won the Golden Globe for his terrific performance in this film (and is hopefully well on his way to an Oscar in the same Supporting Actor category) I guess I ought put down my thoughts, as originally intended right after seeing CREED on its opening day last Thanksgiving.

First off, the overall film is top-notch on all levels. If you count it as part of the Rocky saga stemming directly from Stallone’s original concept and the first film in the series, it would be ROCKY VII. By that measurement, it could be ranked at the very top level of the series, right beside ROCKY (I) and ROCKY BALBOA (VI). By my reckoning, that would place it in very rarified air indeed (even though I have enjoyed all of the Rocky films, even the middle ones with their varying degrees of weariness and over-the-topness).

But CREED is really a stand-alone film, telling the tale of the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (the former heavyweight boxing champ who gave Rocky his first big break). In the course of his drive to make his own mark in the boxing world, Adonis (Donnie) Creed seeks out the mentorship of an aged, somewhat embittered Rocky. At first, Rocky wants no part of the kid’s quest and Donnie doesn’t even use his father’s surname, wanting to make it strictly on his own skills. Eventually, the two bond (Donnie even takes to calling Rocky “unc” - short for uncle) and the kid’s raw talent starts to develop as Rocky’s vitality for life begins to return. A long-shot big match for Adonis comes along just as a serious illness hits Rocky, leaving them to each face his individual challenge but to do it side-by-side with the other. This bonding/dependency makes up the real core of the story and also provides some deeply emotional scenes that gives Stallone the chance to show his acting chops like he’s had too few times over his career.

The story and directing by Ryan Coogler is infused with a ton of love and respect for the established Rocky saga and then takes a fresh angle that pumps new life into it. It is the powerful, near-perfect acting of the three main characters --- Michael B. Jordan as Adonis, Tessa Thompson as his girlfriend Bianca, and Stallone as Rocky --- that elevates the whole thing even higher. And when the familiar strains of Bill Conti’s classic Rocky theme drift into the new musical score at exactly the right moment of the climactic big fight … well, if that doesn’t stir you, then your movie enjoyment capacity is on life support.

Even if you’re not a boxing fan or think the whole Rocky thing has been overdone and you’re tired of it, you ought to give this film a chance. I can darn near guarantee you won’t be sorry.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Another Look: SERGEANTS 3 (1962, Sinatra Rat Pack movie)

I saw this movie when it first came out in ’62. I was about 14 and remember liking it quite a bit. At the time, I had no awareness of the classic adventure film GUNGA DIN (upon which this is a blatant remake but curiously in no way acknowledged as part of the credits – yet always mentioned in any subsequent discussion of the film).

This is the second of four “Rat Pack” movies that Sinatra and his gang would make --- preceded by OCEAN’S 11, followed by ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS and then 4 FOR TEXAS. In summation: Two pretty good flicks; two quasi-clunkers.
SERGEANTS was really the last of the “full” Rat Pack ventures, as Peter Lawford was jettisoned from the group shortly thereafter when his family “in” with JFK wasn’t enough to keep Sinatra on the “in” (due to his mob ties) after he worked so hard to help get JFK elected. Lawford was gone from ROBIN and by the time TEXAS rolled around it was down to Frank and Dean Martin.
For a long time, SERGEANTS 3 was considered the “lost” Sinatra film since, after its initial release, it seldom, if ever, played on TV nor was available as part of the video or early DVD boom. That is no longer so, however. I recently re-watched as part of TCM’s “Sinatra 100” celebration, and it’s also now available on DVD.

Aside from a comparison to the vastly superior GUNGA DIN, SERGEANTS 3 is lackluster at best. It has its moments, but they are far between and not real strong when they come. This is surprising, given all the talent involved. And not just on the screen --- John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE MAGNIFICENT 7, etc.) was the director and W.R. Burnett (LITTLE CAESAR, THIS GUN FOR HIRE, etc.) did the screenplay.
This is a classic case of a “vehicle”, folks … Take a “hot” star (or a whole handful, in this case) put ‘em in a colorful romp or adventure never meant to be taken too seriously, serve up some light entertainment, make a little dough, and everybody comes out okay.
Trading India for the Wild West and the British Army vs. fanatical “thugs” for the U.S. Cavalry vs. fanatical Native American “Ghost Dancers” was a clever concept … but the handling after that turned pretty flat.

It’s not a terrible way to spend a little less than two hours.
The production values are good, the scenery is beautiful, and it’s kinda fun to see the Rat Pack pals cavorting at their peak. Dean and Sammy have the best moments and steal everything worth taking.
For the completest, it’s worth checking out … Just don’t expect too much.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Noteworthy Reads: SOMETHING SO DIVINE by J.R. Lindermuth

John R. Lindermuth is perhaps best known for his series of contemporary crime novels featuring former police chief/now special investigator Dan “Sticks” Hetrick. He also writes a series of period piece mysteries featuring Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman. Both are set in Pennsylvania’s coal country, where Lindermuth lives and has deep historical interest.

SOMETHING SO DIVINE, a period piece set in the same area circa 1890s, is somewhat reminiscent of the Tilghman books. It is suspenseful, quietly building in intensity, multi-layered in its characterizations, and cleverly holds its mystery “twist” to the very end.
It is also a story of romance, the title coming from a poem featuring the line “Love is something so divine”. Actually, it is the story of two romances --- one that ends tragically, one that concludes with a promise for the future.
Lindermuth’s writing gets more polished and insightful with each outing, and seldom has it been on better display than in this novel. The many facets of a small town murder and how it touches so many different people, both prior to and in the aftermath --- all siphoned through the sensibilities of an out-of-town investigator --- are explored masterfully.

Without in any way diminishing my craving for a new “Sticks” mystery, I give this book a very strong recommendation.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Paul Bishop's LIE CATCHERS (from ThiefTaker to LieCatcher)

I’ve known Paul Bishop --- mostly via correspondence and a few phone calls back in the day --- for over a quarter of a century. We even met in person once at a Bouchercon (Minneapolis, I think it was) several years hence.

The thing that initially brought us together was Hardboiled, the small press magazine I used to put out. Paul submitted some terrific short stories that I was proud to publish in HB. One of them, featuring his too seldom used PI Quint, was nominated for a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America (that might have been the year we got together in Minneapolis).

What I hadn’t thought about in a long time was the fact that when I was starting Hardboiled, Paul was just finishing up with a small press publication of his own called The Thieftaker Journal. (A “thieftaker” is an old English term for a policeman.) I only read a couple issues and have to admit that my cobwebby old brain doesn’t really remember much about them. But when I saw the title of Paul’s new book, LIE CATCHERS, it immediately took me back --- Thief-TAKER, Lie-CATCHER. Just a quirky, personal thing I suppose, but I sure wish I still had my old copies of The Thieftaker Journal to look back through.

The good news, though, is that I do have --- and have read --- LIE CATCHERS. And it is terrific. Paul always spins an entertaining yarn, in whatever genre he’s writing in, but with his police procedurals, as a bonus, you also know you’re getting the real deal as far as behind-the-scene facts. Some cop writers put out a solid tale as far as the factual side of things but are weak in the entertainment part to keep their stories moving along. Not Paul. He peppers his police/crime writing with colorful characters and writing skill that rockets the story forward and compels the reader to keep turning the pages (or flipping to the next screen on an e-reader). Further evidence of his writing skill is the way he captures the voice/POV of “Calamity Jane” Randall in LIE CATCHERS. That’s damn hard to do, but Paul nails it. Which takes nothing away from the secondary lead in this tale --- Ray Pagan --- who strides off the pages fully realized and memorable.

The extra good news is that this is the start of a new series. But don't wait --- jump right in at the beginning.
Highly recommended!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Coming Soon: Re-Launch of The LONE McGANTRY Series


The initial publications of these two books are what first expanded my writing to include the Western genre. Having started down those dusty trails of the Old West, I’ve written almost exclusively in that genre ever since. And while I haven’t completely abandoned my relationship with a certain blue collar PI named Hannibal, I have to say that making the acquaintance of Lone McGantry, Bodie Kendrick, Cash Laramie, and numerous other hombres, both good and bad --- and not forgetting several memorable gals, also good and bad --- has been exciting, rewarding, and a heck of a lot of fun.
But it all started with DISMAL RIVER and RECKONING AT RAINROCK.
Yet while both have been available for some time and have garnered their share of critical praise, neither has taken off, sales-wise, as well as my other Westerns. So now, in the hopes of attracting a new and wider range of readers, these books are being re-launched under my own Bil-Em-Ri banner with new covers, new formatting, and a very attractive new price of only $1.49 each!
What’s more, a brand new Lone McGantry adventure --- THE FOREVER MOUNTAIN --- is in the works and will be out before year’s end.
I find all of this very exciting, and I hope readers will too!

DISMAL RIVER  (winner: Western Fictioneers’ Best First Novel of 2011)
At the urging of none other than Buffalo Bill Cody, former Indian scout Lone McGantry agrees to guide an adventurous English lord heading a group of explorers and scientists into the untamed reaches of the Nebraska Sandhills—a vast expanse of treeless, rolling hills scoured by harsh winds and blistering sun. In addition to the hardships of the environment, other challenges and threats—from within as well as without—soon overtake the expedition. Deceit, betrayal, stampeding buffalo, a raging grassfire, and a band of ruthless marauders must all be dealt with. Unless McGantry can see them through, their very survival is at stake. Lives will be lost and the banks of the Dismal River will be scorched and stained with blood before the ordeal is finished.
“ … a rousing Western adventure that reads like a good old-fashioned epic … This is how they used to write ‘em and how Ford and Hawks filmed ‘em. I couldn’t give this book a higher recommendation.”
 --- Peter Brandvold, author of THE SHOTGUN RIDER, TWO SMOKING BARRELS, and the Lou Prophet novels

Former Indian scout Lone McGantry is hired by Harriet Munro, a fiery woman lawyer seeking to make a name for herself on the western Nebraska frontier. Munro has taken the case of beautiful young Roxanne Bigbee—a desperate fugitive fleeing a trumped-up murder conviction and a hangman's noose. But before she can appear for the re-trial that Harriet has arranged, Roxanne must be rescued from the current threatening situation her flight has placed her in.  
It’s up to McGantry to get her out. 
Lone succeeds in returning Roxanne to Rainrock, the town where she was originally convicted and where the re-trial is set to be held. Faced with this, however, the town conspirators responsible for setting Roxanne up in the first place, mount another campaign to try and make certain the real truth never comes out. Before it is over, trusts will be betrayed, bullets will fly, lives will be lost, and McGantry must once again ride to Roxanne's rescue … until, within the stark, hauntingly empty reaches of the fabled Toadstool Badlands, scores are settled and a bloody reckoning is finally achieved.
“Wayne D. Dundee continues to solidify his growing reputation as one of the best Western writers in the business with RECKONING AT RAINROCK, a gritty, unflinching tale of revenge and redemption … Don’t let anyone tell you the Western is dead. Dundee is one of the reasons the genre is not only alive but thriving.”
 --- James Reasoner, Western Fictioneers’ Life Achievement Winner, author of the OUTLAW RANGER series

Keep your eyes peeled sharp.
Lone McGantry will be riding your way soon!