Monday, August 13, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: FLIP SIDE (a Dan Spalding mystery) by Richard Prosch

This is the second novella-length outing to feature Dan Spalding, former Missouri Highway Patrol Investigator now turned used record store proprietor. Old habits and instincts are hard to break, however, which means Dan has a knack for still getting involved in matters considerably more dangerous that those usually found in stacks of old vinyl 

Building on this premise, author Prosch firmly establishes that the fine kick-off to the series (ANSWER DEATH) was no fluke and that Spalding is a character readers will want to continue seeing more of. Not only is Spalding himself very engaging, but so is the cast of recurring characters who also inhabit his world within touristy Ozark City. Add in the the author's distinctly evocative writing style and wrap it all around a clever murder mystery featuring unrequited love, betrayal, revenge, and even a dab of Dixie Mafia favor-trading – and you've got an entertaining, very satisfying reading experience. 

Strongly recommended.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My Take: THE MEG (2018, starring Jason Statham)

An increasingly popular way for reviewers to critique movies these days, especially those aimed at being big summer blockbusters, is to concentrate first on whether the film is going to “earn out” as well as expected against their budgets (often outrageously high due to more and more dependency on CGI special effects). After that comes an examination of the movie itself -- how good it is, how close it came to doing what it set out to do, how entertaining it is or isn't. (And if the money-making potential isn't there, then the reviews tend to be more negative [though such an admission/claim is never openly made]).
Seems like a sort of ass-backwards approach to me. I say, review the damn movie and let the box office do what it may – and not be adversely affected by poor reviews (or vice versa).
 
Okay, that little rant aside, let me get to THE MEG – which I enjoyed the heck out of, no matter what its budget (though I suspect it was pretty hefty due to the special effects). The latter did not overwhelm the film, however. They were necessary to the story and they were well done. Period. But at the core of the story, amidst all the undersea and on-the-sea action involved in fighting the giant prehistoric terror from the deep, there are people relating to one another in various and interesting ways. There is humor, lots of it stemming from the kind of banter that happens within a group of people who work together and face stress together, there is a bit of romance, some guilt and blame passed back and forth, some heroics and betrayal ... and all the while there is the menace of the megaladon shark, risen from the depths and angry and hungry as hell.
 
Jason Statham turns in another solid job as a slightly flawed action hero, and even gets a chance to flex his acting chops a bit. (Calm down, I said “a bit” - I'm not calling him the next deNiro [as if anybody'd want to be anymore] or Olivier or anything like that.) A Chinese actress named Li Bingbing at first comes across as merely a pretty scientist type (like we saw dozens of back in all those 1950s horror/sci-fi flicks) but then progresses to become a very appealing female lead, in contrast to other more flamboyant actresses in the cast. The rest of the cast in general is quite good, including a little 8-yr-old charmer named Shuya Cai, as Li Bingbing's daughter, who steals every scene she's in (and whose presence in the film's storyline is fine and natural, as opposed to “the little girl in peril” stupidly injected into the most recent, highly disappointing JURASSIC WORLD entry).
 
All in all, if you're looking for a well done, balls-out, high-energy summer popcorn flick, THE MEG – in my humble opinion – delivers the goods.
Strongly recommended.


Thursday, July 26, 2018

Another Look: THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN (1979, starring Robert Redford)

Yeah, I know – this movie also stars Jane Fonda. So if you're among those who hate Fonda and will never watch anything she's in, then that's your right and so go ahead and skip this too. All I'll say is that, in this case, you're cheating yourself of a pretty darn movie. I'll add that I myself share few if any of Fonda's views, especially her antics during the Vietnam War years, but am able to separate that from enjoying some of the movies she's been in.

Okay. That said, moving on to THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN:
This is, very simply, the story of a cowboy (a modern-day one) who has lost his way via fame and booze and manages to find his way back with the help of a twelve million dollar horse who has been drawn into a similar situation.
 
Robert Redford is the cowboy, Sonny Steele, a 5-time All-Around rodeo champ who these days, too bent and beat up to continue competing, serves as the “face” for a top-selling cereal product that is part of a big bucks business conglomerate on the brink of a very important merger to grow even bigger. The horse is Rising Star, a thoroughbred racing champion, now owned by the same outfit and serving as the symbol for their future expansion.
Both Sonny and Rising Star are in Las Vegas as part of a promotional extravaganza that will culminate in the finalizing of the merger. Upon examining Star, however, in preparation for riding him during an on-stage production planned as a highlight of the promotion, Sonny discovers the horse is doped to the gills and even has an injured leg that is not being splinted properly because it wouldn't “look good”. When he tries to bring this to the attention of the head honcho of the company, he is rudely blown off. And when no one else will listen to him either, the cowboy decides to take matters into his own hands.
At the height of the big stage show, astride Rising Star and all decked out in strings of electric lights fed off a battery pack, Sonny rides off the stage, out through the casino crowd and onto the Vegas Strip, then gallops away into the Nevada desert.
 
From there it's a game of cat-and-mouse. Sonny and Star on the run -- trying to keep from being discovered as they work their way toward a remote location where Sonny plans to set the horse free after he's purged the drugs from his system and healed his leg – and all the forces of the law and big money influence trying to intercept and stop them.
Only a savvy TV newswoman named Hallie (Fonda) manages to figure out what Sonny has in mind and manages to chase him down. Hearing his side of things, Hallie convinces Sonny to let her record what he has to say so she can get it played on the air and present to the public that he's more than just a crazy, drunken horse thief. A (somewhat illogical) romance blossoms between the two and, from there, Hallie sticks with Sonny to help him try to free Rising Star. It helps that her tape of what Sonny had to say starts to sway the public and the business conglomerate that owns the horse has to go into spin mode to try and convince everybody that they've only wanted what's best for Rising Star all along.
 
This is Redford's movie pretty much all the way. He's perfect as the sincere but rather dim (maybe from being dumped on his head too many times) cowpoke trying to recapture “the best part of himself”. Fonda is on hand mainly for the romance bit and to serve as a cypher to get Sonny's words heard. There are a number of good turns from the supporting cast, too – John Saxon, Wilford Brimley, Valerie Perrine. But Willie Nelson, in his acting debut and providing some key songs for the soundtrack, damn near steals the whole show with one immortal line. After Sonny has run off and Willie (playing his best pal) is left behind, somebody asks him what he is going to do. To which he replies: “Me? I guess I'll find me one of those Keno girls who knows how to suck the chrome off a trailer hitch ... and just kick back for a while.”

Ah, yes. My heroes have always been cowboys.
This is not a movie I'd stand in line around the block to see. But it's pretty good. A little different, enjoyable, well done. I liked it when I saw it at the theater almost forty years ago, I still did when I re-watched it on cable recently. Check it out if you get the chance, I think you might, too.



Monday, July 23, 2018

Another Look: WALKING TALL (1973, starring Joe Don Baker)

When this modestly-budgeted, little-heralded film first came out, it walloped the movie-going public like a smack from the “big stick” that played a key role in its storyline. It wasn't uncommon for theater audiences of the time to stand and cheer. Said stick – literally an oversized, hand carved baseball bat – was wielded by star Joe Don Baker in his portrayal of real-life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser, a lawman who rose to fame (along with a certain amount of notoriety) via his stance against the crime and corruption being introduced into his McNairy County by the Dixie Mafia.
 
WALKING TALL was a huge hit (no pun intended), building on the success of movies like THE BORN LOSERS and BILLY JACK that came a bit earlier and going on to inspire a long list of other popular, often big-budget, “vigilante” films to follow. (DEATH WISH, DIRTY HARRY, JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, TAXI DRIVER, etc., as examples.)
 
What gave WALKING TALL its distinction was that it was based on factual events and, at the time of its initial release, Buford Pusser was still alive and practicing his brand of law (though he would die [as the result of sabotage, in the belief of many] only little more than a year after its initial release). As usual with these “based on true events” films, certain liberties were taken as far as the truth vs. what ends up on the screen. Although, in this case, less so than in many others – mainly a condensation of time between Pusser's return to McNairy County following his retirement from a pro wrestling career to being elected sheriff. The fame that became attached to Pusser following the success of this film and then the controversies that arose after his somewhat suspicious death in a car accident produced many claims and all sorts of speculation that have blurred and in some cases unfortunately diminished his image. At its core, his story, I believe, is still that of a brave man who was willing to risk everything in a stand against evil forces.
 

Taking WALKING TALL strictly as movie entertainment – apart from any subsequent controversies that rose around Pusser the man – it works very well. It is an action/drama with some emotional depth, about a stalwart, quasi-tragic hero who refuses to be swayed from doing what he believes is right, even to the point of great cost. In the hands of celebrated noir director Phil Karlson (99 RIVER STREET, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, THE PHENIX CITY STORY) and with an outstanding performance by Joe Don Baker, this film plays like a much bigger production than its budget. Other than veteran actor Noah Beery Jr. in a supporting role as Pusser's father, and a couple B movie heavies like Gene Evans and Kenneth Tobey also on hand, the rest of the cast was made up of little known actors and actresses. Not to say that many of them – particularly Elizabeth Hartman as Buford's wife and Felton Perry as his black deputy – didn't give fine performances. And although some of the casino sets look a little cheap, production values overall are very solid.
 
Re-visiting favorite old movies and books and such from one's younger years can be risky. Too often you find your tastes have matured or changed in some other way, and you're left wishing you would have not bothered and just left the good memory alone. Such was not the case when I sat down for a couple of re-viewings of WALKING TALL after a forty year gap. It held up great. I found it every bit as exciting and emotional as the very first time I saw it. If anything, I came away with an even greater appreciation due mainly to the acting chops of Joe Don Baker, whose size and graceful power satisfied all the action hero requirements but with an intensity that took it to a whole 'nother level.
Buford Pusser's life and career, along with the success of this film, inspired several additional movies, made-for-TV movies, and even a brief TV series. In 2004, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who tends to make movies I usually like) starred in a big-budget effort that was supposed to be a remake – but aside from using the same title, it changed the locale, the premise, even the Pusser name, to the point of bearing little or no resemblance to the real deal and ending up a dud. As far as the other aforementioned productions (even though one of them starred Brian Dennehy, a good actor who physically should have made a perfect Pusser) I wouldn't recommend wasting your time.
 
But as for the original, it's exacly the opposite. If you've never seen it for a while – or have never seen it – I definitely urge you to check it out. It's playing now on various cable movie channels and is available on DVD. If you crave a hero and like movies that literally kick ass, WALKING TALL gets the job done.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: COLD IN THE GRAVE by Stephen Mertz

Steve Mertz has returned to the private eye genre with an engaging new protagonist, a fresh setting, and a solid murder-mystery that will grab and hold readers from first page to last. The time is the mid-1970s, the place is Denver, Colorado, and the man on the job is Kilroy, a bearded, quasi-laid back Vietnam vet who takes no guff and locks onto a case like a pit bull on a throat.

Mertz is well known for his acclaimed contributions to the Mack Bolan-Executioner series; he has also written Westerns, thrillers, horror, and created his own highly popular MIA Hunter series. But his first book was SOME DIE HARD a hard-hitting private eye tale with a surprisingly clever mystery at its core ... and now he's back and most assuredly has not lost a step. Even better, is that the news that COLD IN THE GRAVE is the first of at least three Kilroy thrillers.
This time around, Kilroy is hired to follow a young woman whom her jilted lover thinks is in trouble, possibly being blackmailed. Sounds simple enough. But matters quickly turn more complicated ... and dangerous. Few things turn out to be as they first seem. Yes, there is blackmail involved – but who's trying to extort who becomes questionable. There's little doubt, however, that something plenty serious is on the line when murder rears its ugly head, followed quickly by betrayal, political corruption, escalating threats, and flying bullets.

The writing is smooth and assured, the dialogue crackles, and there is real depth to the characters. Mertz's descriptions of Denver capture the time and place very vividly, and a winter storm at the climax becomes a threatening character in and of itself. Kilroy is tough but human, equally sharp with a wisecrack or a deduction, and definitely the kind of guy you'd want in your corner. Readers will be happy to see more of him.
Strongly recommended.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: I ONLY HAVE LIES FOR YOU (a Rat Pack mystery) by Robert J. Randisi

This eleventh entry in Bob Randisi's highly entertaining “Rat Pack” mystery series is another solid job. It will hook you right from the get-go, swirl you into the high-living, fast-paced world of mid-1960s Las Vegas (as well as, this time around, Miami Beach) and propel you along as fast as you can turn the pages or thumb the tab of your e-reader.
 
Once again you'll be making the rounds with Eddie “Eddie G” Gianelli, former pit boss but now unofficial fixer/troubleshooter for the Sands Casino. Moreover, Eddie has become pals with the Rat Pack crew—in particular, Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—due to past problems he has helped discreetly “handle” for them and some of their showbiz friends.
Such is the case once more when Sinatra invites Eddie to join him on a trip to Miami Beach where he'll be playing a brief engagement at the Fontanebleu. Dino will be in town too, making an appearance on Jackie Gleason's TV show that does its taping in Miami Beach. Because it is Sinatra making the request, Eddie's boss at the Sands has no qualms about grating him some time off for a little “vacation” that Eddie is certainly eager for himself.
 
Once in Miami Beach, however, Frank takes Eddie to meet “the Great One” himself, Jackie Gleason. This introduction, it turns out, is really a chance for Gleason to size up Eddie and then, liking what he sees, solicit his special services—discreetly looking into a problem the Great One is having. After all, Frank and Dino have lauded Eddie as “the guy” ... the guy who can be counted on to handle such things.
So, wanting to neither disappoint or possibly anger Frank, who obviously set up the whole thing under the guise of a “vacation, Eddie agrees to see what he can do. It starts out simply enough: Some creep seems to be stalking Jackie's girlfriend, Marilyn Taylor (sister of the famous June Taylor, who choreographs the intricate dance performances on Gleason's show); Eddie is tasked with finding out who he is, what he's up to, and stopping him from continuing. From there, things quickly start to turn un-simple. The action shifts back and forth between Vegas and Miami and along the way Eddie will run up against murder, betrayal, police corruption, mysticism, and threats to his life including becoming the apparent target of a knife-wielding “ghost” hit man no one can find a trace of except for the stabbing victims he leaves behind.
All of this is told in Randisi's lean, dialogue-driven narrative style that does a fine job of capturing the era and the settings without layering on too many details just to show he's done his research. Which, make no mistake, he has done; if he says, for example, that Sinatra was playing a gig in Miami on a certain date – he was there. The nasty deeds and shady characters and plot twists woven in and around the realities, that of course is Bob's craft and imagination at work.
 
Eddie G makes a fine protagonist. Likable, engaging, tough when he has to be, smart enough to know his limitations. When he calls on a couple of pals to assist him—mob strongarm Jerry Epstein and Vegas PI Danny Bardini—the banter and friendship between them seems real and well balanced. This is especially true with Jerry, and some of their exchanges, in particular, made me laugh out loud.
If you want a slick, fast-moving murder mystery with colorful settings and characters, plot twists galore, all told in a lean, clear narrative, you don't need to look any further than right here.
Strongly recommended.





Monday, April 30, 2018

Impactful Reads: THE GIRL HUNTERS (1963) by Mickey Spillane

For me, this is where it all started.
This book, more than anything else, is what set me firmly on the path to not only one day becoming a writer myself but also falling in love with the hardboiled framework within which I would do my writing.
Oh, I had “tinkered” with thoughts of writing and storytelling all through grade school—initially blocking out pages of paper, comic book-style, and filling the blocks with drawings and conversation balloons to tell a story; until eventually deciding I was more interested in (and better at) the writing than the drawing. And as far back as I can remember I was an avid reader—comic books, youth adventures and mysteries, young adult, Whitman editions of classics and TV show tie-ins, etc.
 
Then along came Spillane.
I bought my copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS off the spinner rack of a drug store in Antioch, Illinois. I recognized the names of Spillane and Hammer because of the old Darren McGavin TV series. I remembered liking that show when it was on, but I was soon to find out it did little to prepare me for the real thing. “The first Mike Hammer in 10 years!” read the back cover blurb of the book; and then, “Only Mickey Spillane can write them as rough, raw, and violent!” I couldn't plunk down my 50 cents down fast enough, and it was possibly the best investment I ever made.
 
In fairness, I should mention that, in this same time period, Ace paperbacks had begun re-releasing the Tarzan novels (and other works by Edgar Rice Burroughs) with those wonderful Frank Frazetta covers. These, too, factored strongly into inspiring the writer in me. The thrill and enjoyment I got from reading these works by Spillane and Burroughs (and other writers they subsequently led me to) was something I not only wanted more of but it became a goal to one day produce work of my own that would hopefully provide that same kind of enjoyment for others. And if you're thinking what a strange combination Spillane and Burroughs make, well, I can't help it—that's the way it was.
Spillane ultimately won out as far as the direction my own writing would take (though there's still a part of me that hankers to one day do something in the fantasy/high adventure mold). I think this was largely due to my blue collar background and a peripheral family influence. My folks were pretty basic, hard working, middle class types (as I consider myself, and proudly so) who didn't exactly dis-courage my writing aspirations, but neither were they enthused about it as I grew toward manhood. Telling them I was going to be writing detective mysteries or maybe Westerns was one thing; had it been forgotten realms and tales of derring do, hard to tell what their reaction might have been.
 

Getting back to THE GIRL HUNTERS. This remains my favorite Spillane book (though I tend often to think of it in conjunction with THE SNAKE, which makes a very powerful second act if for no other reason than the terrific ending). When it comes to a series of books or movies, it is sometimes hard, for me anyway, to make a distinction between favorite and best. No less a Spillane expert (not to mention colleague and collaborator in continuing the Hammer series) than Max Allan Collins considers the seven earlier Hammer books to be Spillane/Hammer at their best. Me, I consider three of the titles that came after Mickey's ten-year hiatus – from1952 to 1962 – to be his best. THE GIRL HUNTERS, THE SNAKE, and THE BODY LOVERS. But, like I said, that's where I came in and where I was first bowled over by the world of Hammer and his creator. My favorites? For sure. The best? Each can judge for him- or herself.
The premise for THE GIRL HUNTERS recognizes Hammer's absence from the scene. In this case, it's only for seven years. Velda, Hammer's beautiful and beloved secretary/partner has been missing for all that time. He sent her out on a case by herself, to guard some jewels being worn by a high society dame at a large function. Velda, the jewels, the high society dame and her husband, all come up missing and presumed dead. Hammer blames himself and goes on the skid, becoming a drunk and a has-been. Until the day a man named Richie Cole, wounded and dying, hanging on just long enough to beg for Hammer to be summoned to his bedside, whispers some startling news to Mike before he checks out. Velda is alive though in great danger – having urged Cole to contact Hammer because he is the only one “terrible enough” to do what is necessary to save her! This is a terrific set-up for everything that follows. Hammer must not only race against the forces looking to kill Velda (a team of high level Soviet assassins, it turns out, seeking to silence her for the secrets she learned after being shanghaied and then spending all this time on the run inside the Soviet bloc), but he must also dodge the cops and feds who want to know what Cole told him, while all the time fighting his own diminished capacities after being shocked out of a seven-year drunk. Along the way he meets a Spillane-special female who he almost falls in love with; he dodges bullets and those seeking to “test” him in order to find out if he's got the old moves; and engages in a brutal fight to the death with one half of The Dragon assassination team before he finally puts the last of the pieces together that will ultimately lead him to Velda.
Damn! Writing about it after all these years and even after re-reading it once again before sitting down to do this piece, the power of it still hits as hard as ever.
Two final notes about THE GIRL HUNTERS:
  1. A film version came out in connection with the paperback release of the book. It starred none other than Mickey himself as Mike Hammer. Inasmuch as he was also executive producer and screenwriter, it was, as you might guess, pretty faithful to the book. What's more, Spillane made a damn good Hammer and it was a solid crime mystery overall. With good direction and co-stars like the veteran Lloyd Nolan and the voluptuous Shirley Eaton, it deserved to get better distribution and reception than it did. The fact it had to be shot in black-and-white for budgetary reasons and the timing was such that it was going up against the just-building James Bond craze combined to make it a little-seen gem. But if you ever get the chance to catch it on cable or DVD, it's definitely worth checking out.
  2. The copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS that I bought way back in 1963 (same as the cover scan at the start of this piece) is still in my possession. That's 55 years, folks. Think it might be kinda important to me? That book has endured countless moves, adding up to several hundred miles. In those 55 years, I've lost loved ones and friends, lost my youth and my hair, lost my patience with the world and most of the people in it. Yes, I've been blessed by many things along the way, too – no complaints. But the point is: My copy of this book has been with me all the way. What's more, in the summer of 1996, on the set of Max Collins' movie Mommy 2: Mommy's Day, I got it signed by the very gracious Mr. Spillane.
By this point, I trust I have impressed upon you that THE GIRL HUNTERS was/is a very important book to me.
If, for some ungodly reason, you have never read Spillane or never read this particular title, I urge you to seek it out and do so. You won't be sorry.