Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Take: HERCULES (starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson)

Okay, before I tell you how much I enjoyed this movie, let's get The Big Gripe out of the way …
That being the advertising campaign that preceded the film's release and was pretty much a total misrepresentation of what the movie is really about. If you saw any of the trailers, you saw repeated showings of Herc fighting the Nemean Lion or the Hydra or the giant Wild Boar of the forest. Great special effects, nicely staged, very exciting-looking stuff. And all of it is in the movie … Trouble is, it only lasts about five minutes total and is told in flashbacks very early on in the film when Herc's young chronicler, Iolaus, is telling these tales to some bad guys who have him captured, trying to frighten them with the threat of how Herc will be showing up to kick their asses if they don't let him go.
Of course, Herc does show up --- along with the rest of his traveling mercenary band --- does kick the necessary asses, and saves Iolaus from being skewered in a most unpleasant manner.
And then the real storyline of the film starts to unfold …

This is at a later point in the legendary hero's life, well after he had completed the famed 12 Labors --- only to still be betrayed by the vengeful goddess Hera for being the seed of her husband, Zeus, king of the gods, and a mortal woman. This revenge takes the form of Hercules apparently going mad in the middle of one night and savagely slaying his own family – his beloved wife and children. After that, Herc renounces Zeus and all the gods and sets out to live the remainder of his life as a mere mortal, a man haunted and tormented, no longer a demigod.
Toward that end, he has formed the aforementioned band of mercenaries who roam the Greek world fighting for money, not causes. The hero of myth and legend lives only in the stories spun by Iolaus as sort of a PR campaign to attract potential customers and discourage future foes.
The movie, then, becomes more a tale of ancient intrigue and epic battles than myth and fantasy monsters. And when Lord Cotys, the king of Thrace, hires Herc and his band to train the battered remnants of the Thracean army into a fighting force to go up against the rebel horde of one Rheseus, who allegedly is threatening to overrun the entire kingdom, elements of Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven come into play.

Hard to say any more without spoiling too much of how the rest of it all plays out. Suffice to say there are some spectacular battle scenes, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson does a credible job playing his role and shouldering the brunt of the movie's load, there are some interesting (though not entirely unforeseen) twists, there are some nice bits of wry humor, and there's even some respectful homages to Hercules (Steve Reeves), Samson and Delilah (Vic Mature) and other strong man epics that have come before. And if you don't feel at least some small urge to stand and cheer when The Rock proclaims (and proves): "I am Hercules!" … well, you're probably in the wrong movie to begin with.

A lot of fun. Gritty action with just the right touches of fantasy and drama.
I recommend it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hot Diggity Dog!

The dog days of summer are upon us, all across the country.
Out here in west central Nebraska, especially out in the panhandle, they have been brutal over the past couple weeks. Temperatures well above one hundred in several places, and for several days in a row.
Here in the Ogallala area we've had mid to high nineties, but only broke a hundred once or twice. I've seen worse. And today --- and also as forecast for the coming week --- looks like we'll be seeing mid-eighties, maybe a high seventy one of the days.
These hot stretches of days, commonly called the dog days, are nothing new.
But, for me, this summer has brought the welcome arrival of a new kind of "dog day".

Anybody who knows me or has perhaps ready some of my interviews and also a couple posts here on this site, should know what a freak I am for Chicago-style hot dogs. One of my big laments about moving out here to Nebraska --- and I don't have very many --- has been the absence of a good Chi-dog. I've gotten to where I can do a pretty good job of making my own, but some of the ingredients --- especially the *main* one,  a Vienna beef hot dog --- are hard or impossible to come by. And the Sonic fast food chain (out this way, at least) has introduced a Chi-dog to their menu; it's decent, but doesn't really hit all the right notes any better than my homemade attempts. And, being a chain joint, the quality is inconsistent as hell, depending on the crew that is working.

However, at this pivotal point in my life --- when creaky old age is crowding me harder and harder, when the world is in flames, when our country is being run by corrupt morons with no better choices in sight ... A brilliant ray of light has shone through the gloom and despair and now illuminates my path with joy and hope for the future.
I now have relatively easy access to honest-to-goodness, for-truly-real Chicago style hot dogs (complete with Vienna red-hots) made with loving care and precision by fellow transplants from the Chicago area!!!
In the little town of Sutherland, just twenty-five miles to the east, they have set up an outdoor hot dog stand --- gleaming stainless steel covered by a colorful Vienna-logo umbrella --- and suddenly there is a whole lot more right with the world than wrong.
On a little Bose boomer, the lady who runs it, Michelle, plays oldies like Credence Clearwater, the Beach Boys, even Elvis sometimes.
I'm tellin' ya, people --- a sunny day outdoors, chomping on a couple Chi-dogs, with the Beach Boys playing in the background ... is this a great country, or what?
God bless America, baby!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Another Look: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965 version of Christie classic)

To the best of my recollection, I've never read anything by Agatha Christie. There was a time --- when I was younger and more brash, just kicking off Hardboiled Magazine and starting out on what I laughingly call my own "writing career" --- that I made that proclamation as a sort of point of honor. I believe I also tossed in a few snide remarks about "tea cozy" mysteries and "blue-haired little old lady" readers … With the passage of years and having developed a somewhat mellower outlook on certain things, I regret spouting off the way I did back then. It was unnecessary and gained me nothing. Realizing that I may be short-changing myself as far as the range of my reading, my diet in that regard remains almost exclusively hardboiled and therefore it remains unlikely that I ever will sit down and read one of Dame Agatha's books or stories --- due simply to having so many other titles available that sound more appealing to my tastes. Nevertheless, I now consider the sheer volume and immense popularity of the Christie byline worthy of more respect than I've shown it in the past.

Having said all that, I will now move to the subject of this piece: The 1965 film version of TEN LITTLE INDIANS (written and originally published as And Then There Were None – Christie's most popular book, and widely considered to be the best-selling [over 100 million copies] mystery novel of all time). In a way, I guess I could call the film a guilty pleasure.

I first saw this movie as the bottom title in a double or maybe triple bill at a local drive-in.  I admit that the main reason I probably stuck around to watch it was the fact it had Shirley Eaton in it. What red-blooded male in the mid-60s (after GOLDFINGER) wouldn't have stuck around to further admire the, er, acting talents of Ms. Eaton?
What I found, though, was that, only a few minutes into the film, I was totally hooked by the premise and storyline and the all the rest. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Eaton, it featured a truly accomplished international cast that included Hugh O'Brien, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Dahlia Lavi, and even Fabian in a brief but well done performance.

The story has ten people mysteriously summoned to a remote location (in this case a secluded mountain lodge – although in the book it was an island) by a mysterious and absent host (a Mr. U.N. Owen – Mr. Unknown, get it?) and then stranded there. First --- by means of a tape recording left by their host and then played by pre-arrangement when they are gathered together for the first time --- they are each accused of past crimes with which they were never properly convicted. And then, one by one, in accordance with the old "Ten Little Indians" nursery rhyme (Ten little Indians went out to dine; one choked his little self and then there were nine, etc.), they start getting bumped off.
It is all sort of campy and a little ridiculous, yet at the same time suspenseful and increasingly spooky, thanks to the crisp direction and earnest performances. This version being done in the '60s, there is a bit of gratuitous sex that I understand is not in the book, along with some added action and several alterations to the backgrounds and alleged crimes of the characters.
It is all wrapped up with a satisfactory conclusion and a couple nifty twists.

This is the second of four movie adaptations of the And Then There Were None novel (one by that title, the others all by the alternative Indians one), along with a well-received play and several TV adaptions.
I've never seen any of the others but have watched this '65 version a number of times over the years and have highly enjoyed it each time.
It played again only recently on cable's TCM and is available via DVD.
If you get the chance and are even mildly interested, I recommend you check it out. I think you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Another Look: BITE THE BULLET (1975 movie)

I remember seeing this film when it first came out (probably at a drive-in) and liking it fairly well. Hindsight suggests that this reaction from the then much-younger me was possibly influenced more than it should have been by the scenes featuring the then much-younger Candice Bergen in leather riding britches, chocolate brown in color. Subsequent viewings, including a couple very recent ones on cable's Western Channel, find me not quite so enamored of the overall work, although Candice's leather-clad fanny is still pleasing to look upon.

BULLET was written and directed by the highly successful, highly regarded, and quite diverse Richard Brooks. It came later in his career, after a string of critical and commercial hits that included titles such as CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, ELMER GANTRY, THE PROFESSIONALS, and IN COLD BLOOD. It featured a big budget, an all-star cast, and was very ambitious in what it set out to do.
Inspired by a real-life series of grueling endurance horse races that took place around the turn of the last century, BULLET tells the tale of a 700-mile race from Wyoming to Denver in 1906. The Old West is phasing out and a new world of steam locomotives and automobiles (and motorcycles, one of which plays a significant role in this story) are on their way in. Yet the horse and, for the most part, the mixed bag of participants signed on for the contest seem to be stubbornly, desperately clinging to their passing era.

Gene Hackman and James Coburn play two former Rough Riders who went up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. Hackman's is clearly the starring role (reportedly turned down by Charles Bronson) with the most screen time and the most complexities to his character. Viewed now, the scene where he tells Bergen about the famous charge – first echoing the popular version, and then backing up and telling how it really was – is like an eerie premonition to his Little Bill character in UNFORGIVEN, setting the record straight on some of the popular myths of the Old West.

Coburn is given surprisingly little to do except to play the kind of laconic, somewhat cocky character he could by that point do in his sleep. Bergen fares a little better, with a couple decent scenes --- but then peters out toward the end after her character allows herself to be played for a sucker in a pointless, lackluster story development that has her attempting to aid in helping her husband escape from a chain gang doing labor on a railroad track. Ben Johnson, as an old cowpoke in frail health trying to attain one fleeting moment of glory by winning the race, has a fine, memorable scene that makes you wish his character would have lasted a lot longer.

In the end, I guess that's what I found unsatisfying about BITE THE BULLET (the ill-fitted title, by the way, related to one of the secondary racers enduring a painful toothache by fitting an empty cartridge casing over the ailing tooth and biting down on it)… it has several good, solid scenes, some stirring music and stunning cinematography, but the string that should tie it all together somehow isn't pulled tight and knotted quite sufficiently. And for every good scene, there are others (a chase with the side-car motorcycle; a rundown of one of the characters [punky Jan Michael Vincent] who has recklessly ridden his horse to death and is trying to flee the carcass with properly burying it; and the seemingly endless slow-motion conclusion as the sweating, frothing horses [with the drawn-out huff and puff of their breathing slow-played on the soundtrack] close on the finish line) that are overstated and run on for-fucking-ever. Until you want to throw something at the screen and shout, "Enough! I get the point!"

All in all, I guess I would still say that BITE THE BULLET is a watchable movie. I'd even go so far as to say it is entertaining, due to the scenes that are good being very good. But it's not a great movie, and it's not a great Western. Especially when you take into consideration Brooks' earlier (1966) THE PROFESSIONALS. The actors aren't the main problem, but nevertheless: Hackman ain't no Burt Lancaster; and Coburn ain't no Lee Marvin; and Candy, even in her leather britches, sure as hell ain't no Claudia Cardinale.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


 Pamela Sue Susanne Theresa Daum Dundee

July 14, 1948 – February 4, 2008

The picture is that of my lovely bride. I gave her my heart then, back in 1966. She still has it with her now, up in Heaven.
My heart is where it belongs, but her I miss every minute of every day.
Happy birthday, babe.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Another Look: BLAST FROM THE PAST (1999 movie)

This whimsical, borderline-science fiction, semi-screwball romantic comedy is hardly the kind of movie fare I usually seek out.
It's the age-old story: When my wife was alive, this is the kind of flick she would occasionally drag me to see at a theater or, more often, urge me to watch with her on cable. (Truth to tell, I often ended up enjoying more of these than I pretended to admit --- although that still doesn't mean I actively search for them on my own.)
In this case, sitting down to watch Blast From the Past with Pam for the first time didn't seem like too much of a chore because I liked Brendan Fraser from the action-oriented Mummy movies and I figured I could stand to watch Alicia Silverstone because … well, it was Alicia Silverstone (this was back when she was known mostly for being hot rather than becoming better known for being [IMO] so kooky in her personal life).

Bottom line: I enjoyed the heck out of Blast From the Past and continue to feel the same after watching it again several more times over the years. I even had my oldest grandson sit down and watch it with me the other night, after I'd DVR-ed it. He groaned now and then, rolled his eyes a few times, and also chuckled and laughed out loud. His overall reaction after the final credits rolled: "It was definitely different and … well, kinda sweet."
There you have it. Charming, funny … and just plain sweet.
Those are the enduring traits of Blast From the Past. Served up by clever writing, solid direction, and crisp, surprisingly good acting by the leads and back-up actors as well.

Nor does it hurt that the plot is (at least to me) fresh and original.
It all stems from the Cold War paranoia of one Calvin Webber (Christopher Walken), an otherwise brilliant nuclear scientist whose fears lead him to build an elaborate, self-sustaining underground fallout shelter beneath his suburban LA home. In 1962, on the evening the Cuban missile crisis was announced to the public, Webber takes his pregnant wife (Sissy Spacek) down into the shelter for precaution sake. Coincidentally, that night, shortly after they've gone down there, a Navy jet goes out of control in the skies over LA and crashes in the Webbers's back yard. The sound of the tremendous causes the Webbers to presume that the bombs of a nuclear war have started falling. Webber sets the time locks of his shelter for 35 years, calculating that's how long it will take for radioactive fallout to dissipate on the surface. Above ground, it is determined that the Webbers surely perished in the plane crash and no attempt to find them is made.

For the next 35 years, the Webbers exist in their underground world. A son, Adam (Brendan Fraser), is born to them. He is raised with perfect manners, educated extensively, taught a whole range of things like how to dance, how to defend himself, exposed to kinescope recordings of The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, and so forth, and familiarized with "current" music from the likes of Perry Como, etc.
At the 35-year mark, the locks open and Professor Webbers ventures to the surface to find out how/if civilization has survived. In the time he's been away, the advancement of urban sprawl --- now turned to urban blight --- has overrun what used to be his property. He promptly encounters a transvestite hooker, a homeless panhandler, a drunk puking in an alley, and an adult bookstore. That causes him to flee back down, announcing that the population has turned to disgusting mutants and that he and his family will have to stay below ground for another several years.
However, he will have to go back and replenish some critical supplies. Shortly after that, however, the father suffers a minor heart attack and the son, Adam, is sent instead.
This is where the movie really picks up steam and the fun starts.

Armed with money, some very select baseball cards (to trade, if necessary), and also some stocks and bonds possibly to trade (although the father doubts they are of any value because he assumes the companies that issued them [IBM and the like] aren't even in existence any longer), 35-year-old Adam meets the real world for the first time. He (and the viewer) quickly find out that having been taught and thereby knowing about things, is vastly different than actually experiencing them. Things like seeing the actual sky and sun for the first time, meeting and shaking hands with a real live "Negro", and riding on public transportation provide comedy moments.
Quickly realizing that the cash money he's been given will not cover the cost of all the supplies he's been sent to get, Adam finds a sports memorabilia shop where he attempts to cash in some of his baseball cards (many of them worth tens of thousands of dollars, though he is wholly unaware). When the owner/proprietor tries to take advantage and tries to badly rip him off, one of his clerks, Eve (Alicia Silverstone), can't bear to allow it. She steps in and saves Adam from being taken advantage of, losing her job in the process.
The relationship between super-naïve Adam and sassy, sexy Eve starts to build from there. He hires her to "guide" him through the maze of this confusing world and to help him fill the list of supplies he needs to take back to the shelter. He says only that he is "from out of town" and Eve --- who fancies herself somewhat psychic --- devines that he is from a remote village in Alaska. Eve introduces Adam to her platonic roommate, Troy, whom she explains is gay (to which Adam, unfamiliar with the term in that context, tells Troy that he is "very glad you are always so happy, Troy").

Not surprisingly, Adam and Eve fall in love. Him with her immediately; her reciprocating much more slowly, only after a series of misadventures with ex boyfriends, a brush with mental health officials, and other women who quickly spot Adam's handsomeness and offbeat charm where Eve is slow to see anything but an overly polite oddball.
The change in these two characters as they converge from polar opposites --- Adam growing from a previously insulated boy-man to a more confident, quickly-adapting man with desires and emotions to fulfill; Eve changing from a shallow, cynical child of divorce to someone who finds she can still appreciate simpler, more traditional values --- is where the aforementioned sweetness and the acting chops come in.
Once you get past the premise, I guess there is much that is predictable and not quite so original. But it is nevertheless very well done and thoroughly enjoyable.

If you're in the mood for a sweet (I know I'm overdoing it with that word, but that's what it is, dammit), semi-screwball romantic comedy, you could do a whole lot worse.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Goodbye to a Pal: C.J. HENDERSON; 1951 - 2014

 Last evening, I heard the news that my friend C.J. (Chris) Henderson had passed away late the previous day (July 4). It was a somewhat stunning, sobering, sad moment. I had known, of course, that Chris was fighting a battle with that damned beast Cancer and that the treatments were no longer having much affect, except to make him sicker and weaker for periods afterward. Still, I did not realize (maybe no one did) that the beast would win its battle quite so soon.

Chris was one of my oldest friends in the writing community – which is to say that our friendship went back nearly thirty years. I met him via letters and phone conversations in the pre-email and internet era of late1985. Bob Randisi sent him my way after Chris had submitted a story to one of the PWA anthologies; Bob liked the story a lot but was unable to fit it into that particular collection and wasn't sure when he would be doing another, so he suggested it might find a home at Hardboiled Magazine, which I had just started editing and publishing at that point.
Chris contacted me, sent me the story, I loved it --- and so it began. Chris quickly grew into one of the handful of Hardboiled contributors I came to consider personal friends. We talked on the phone often, continued to exchange letters now and then.
The initial story he sent was entitled "Toothpick", and remains one of the best --- certainly the toughest and grittiest --- of his Jack Hagee tales. It is a charming little vignette that pits PI Hagee against a serial killer called the Chef, who kidnaps, rapes, tortures, kills, and eventually devours his female victims. As I recall, a drastically different version of the story had previously appeared somewhere (sorry, I don't remember where) in a collection of illustrated stories. But Jack Hagee made his prose debut in the pages of Hardboiled. In the twelve issues of HB that I put out before handing the reins over to Gary Lovisi (who continues to publish it yet today), four Hagee stories appeared, plus two articles by Chris and one article about him and his other work. Like I said, Chris was a friend and pal but above all he was a damn good writer whose work I truly enjoyed.
Hagee has appeared in several more issues of Hardboiled under Gary's watch, as well as in a series of published and re-published novels, along with Chris's ever expanding work in the occult/supernatural genre. He is probably known by more readers for the latter, but as Chris himself always said: Everything he wrote was hardboiled. That remained at the core of our particular connection.

As the years came and went, we continued to stay in touch.
We met in person on two occasions. The first was when I journeyed east to attend a Bouchercon in Philadelphia. Chris attended also, as did Gary Lovisi; and we buddied up for much of our time there (and a terrific time it was) with the one and only Mike Avallone. In the day and night prior to driving from NYC to Philly and also for a night following the convention, Chris and his family generously put me up in their home. Chris met my train at the station, took me on a memorable tour of the Big Apple that included a trip to the heights of the Empire State Building, Coney Island, and a ferry ride around Ellis Island. All mighty impressive stuff to this country bumpkin rolling in from the farmlands of northern Illinois. And, topping it all off, was the hospitality shown to me by Chris and his family.
A number of years later, Chris passed through Rockford on his way West --- a drive he was making with his daughter and one of her friends --- to see sights such as Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, etc. They stopped briefly, I met them at one of the nicer restaurants just off the Interstate, and bought lunch. Rather puny compared to what I'd met with when I went east, but they insisted that was all they had time for.

In recent years, we've talked and exchanged e-mails a little less frequently, but still on a fairly regular basis. Every now and then we would appear in the same anthologies and we would critique one another's stories, just like always.
When I first heard from a mutual friend, John French, that Chris had been diagnosed with cancer, it came right after I was trying to get him involved in a series of short horror novels (to appear initially as eBook originals). He seemed uncharacteristically slow about committing or even responding --- after I heard about the cancer, I knew why.
He'd already begun chemo by then and was having some pretty rough days, so I was reluctant to just haul off and call him. So we traded a few e-mails. He told me to give it a while and then try to call, if he was feeling up to it we could talk.
But I let too much time pass. It felt too awkward, I wasn't sure if I would be imposing and I wasn't sure what I should or would say.
Then I started hearing that the cancer was getting worse. I sent a couple more e-mails and left a few comments and "likes" on Chris's Facebook posts.
But I still never called.
And now I can't. And I feel ashamed and empty and very regretful that I didn't.
I'm still not sure what I would have said. But, damn it, we talked a thousand times. One of us would have come up with something. If nothing else, we could have argued about politics or movies like we often did.

Times like now is why I use "Persevere" as the sign-off to most of my correspondence.
It's what those of us who remain behind must find a way to do --- that got pounded into me real deep when I lost my beloved Pam back in 2008. Wading through the emptiness and finding the will to keep going was never harder for me than at that point.
Now my hope is that Chris's wife and daughter will lean on each other through the emptiness and find a way to persevere.

As far as sign-offs, Chris used the same one through all the time I knew him.
It was always: "yer pal – Chris".
Goodbye, pal. See ya on the other side, one of these days.