Thursday, December 1, 2016

FFB: Jolie Blon’s Bounce by James Lee Burke

This post comes after a re-reading of James Lee Burke’s 2002 novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, or, more accurately I should say it is the second time around. This time I listened to the unabridged audio book of the novel.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is the 12th of Burke’s 20 Dave Robicheaux novels. Dave Robicheaux is a former homicide detective who left the New Orleans Police Department during a low point in his life when he was drinking too much and ghosts of his past were haunting him – the murder of his wife, the war in Vietnam. Now, he is a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, lives in the community and also owns a fishing-tackle and boat-rental business located on his home property.

Iberia Parish is an actual place about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of New Orleans. A parish, is what the state of Louisiana calls its counties. Burke describes many actual places in this and his other Robicheaux novels, and he is a master at conveying the sights, sounds, smells, and time of year in that part of the country.

In Jolie Blon’s Bounce, Dave Robicheaux has two murder mysteries to solve, which may or may not be related. He also goes up against a host of suspects including local toughs, New Orleans mob guys, and a man who may or may not be possessed by the devil, if not a demon himself. The man goes by the name, Legion, which is a reference to a story in the New Testament. Legion is a tall, wrinkled 74-year-old man who is physically powerful and has the power to scare the crap out of everyone – including Dave Robicheaux.

The only one not afraid of Legion, although he should be, is Dave’s friend and former homicide partner, Clete Purcel, now a private detective and bounty hunter. Throughout Burke’s series, Clete will step in to assist Dave, and more often than not he storms ahead and gets himself into a world of trouble. Here, I should note, there is a lot of violence, graphically described, in this book.

While parts of the story can make your hair stand on end, and parts could get your heart racing, the novel also has a good deal of humor, sometimes supplied by Clete Purcel, sometimes by Dave Robicheaux’s first-person observations of the people he must deal with day-to-day. Burke also shows tender moments with Dave and his second wife Bootsie and their adopted daughter Alafair.

Burke's storytelling skills weave so much of the culture, history, food, and dialects of the place into this, and all his Dave Robicheaux novels, that I almost feel I know more about that section of Louisiana than I do about my own town.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is another great novel from James Lee Burke, someone who has been a favorite writer of mine for many years. The audio book, narrated by the late actor Mark Hammer, who recorded several of Burke’s earlier mysteries, is excellent.

(For more book posts, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Eastwood is a youngster compared to Oliveira

The other day, I was talking to someone about Clint Eastwood, saying he was remarkable for continuing to direct movies at his age. He is 86 now (born 1930) and his latest film, “Sully,” came out in September of this year (2016). Mr. Eastwood is defying the idea that the difficult, stressful and physically taxing job of directing films is a young person’s game.
Some of the Hollywood legends made films into their 70s. John Ford was about 71 when he made his last movie, “Seven Women.” Howard Hawks made his last, “Rio Lobo,” when he was 73. Alfred Hitchcock made “Family Plot” when he was about 76. Michael Curtiz did “The Comancheros” when he was about 75.

But Eastwood is unique, turning out movies well into his 80s.
And then I remembered an even more remarkably superannuated movie maker: Manoel de Oliveira.

A few years ago, I saw some of his films on DVD, and was amazed he was still creating at his age. But, when I looked him up the other day on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), I was saddened to learn that he had died in 2015 at the age of 106.

Now here is the part that should knock you out: He made his last feature film in 2012 at the age of about 103. Let that sink in before I tell you that the IMDb also says he made a 15-minute documentary the year he died.

Mr. Oliveira was born in Portugal in 1908 and made films there starting in the silent era. Due the political climate of the country, his output was spotty until the 1970s, said Dennis Lim in his New York Times obituary of the director.

The three Oliveira films I have been able to view are:

“The Strange Case of Angelica” (2010). This is a strange one indeed. It is the story of a young man who falls in love with a young woman but can never be with her. The movie feels like it traveled through time from the silent era to the 21st Century. I saw it when I was researching a movement called Slow Cinema and I am here to tell you this one is slow – really slow. Luckily, I like a lot of the Slow Cinema productions.

“Belle Toujours” (2006) is the story of an older man who sees an old flame at a concert, pursues her, and after a time convinces her to have dinner with him. Secrets and a lot more are revealed at the dinner and the meal goes on in almost real time. Very slow, but fascinating.

“Taking a Picture” (2003) is several stories about people on a cruise ship. Some of the passengers, including Catherine Deneuve and Irene Pappas, spend a lot of time talking during meals at the captain’s table. John Malkovich plays the ship’s captain. Malkovich made several films with this director, as did Ms. Deneuve.

The films of Manoel de Oliveira are not for everyone, but anyone feeling a little adventurous and willing to let an old master do his thing – no matter how slowly – should give his movies a try.

(For more posts on movies and TV, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

FFB: N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims a Thanksgiving Story

Around the turn of the millennium, I found a glossy, soft-cover book about the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving on sale at a local bookstore, and bought it as a way to teach the story at home.

N.C. Wyeth’s Pilgrims is an over-sized book of artwork illustrating the story of that famous group who left England in 1620 and sailed for two months to the New World on the ship Mayflower. Their destination was the Virginia Colony, but they landed about 600 miles north in what is now the state of Massachusetts.

There, they established the Plymouth Colony, endured a harsh and deadly winter, and befriended the natives who introduced them to local crops. They planted, tended and harvested the food, and in the fall, had a three-day feast for the survivors of the colony and for their Native American friends.

The paintings in the book are reproductions of murals created by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), depicting scenes in a colorful and romantic style. The story was written by Robert San Souci.

Wyeth, an accomplished artist, had studied at the studio of artist and illustrator Howard Pyle. Later, Wyeth created illustrations for popular editions of Treasure Island and Robin Hood.

In 1940, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (today known simply as MetLife) commissioned Wyeth to create the series of murals for its New York City headquarters.

Wyeth worked on the project until his death in a car accident. His son, Andrew completed the project. Andrew’s son, James, is also a well-known artist.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

(For more on posts books, see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Three Spy Films from Len Deighton Novels

Love them, hate them, or never read them, I think most people would agree that the movies made from Len Deighton’s three spy novels, The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain, are pretty darn entertaining.

In 1965, Harry Saltzman, the producer of the James Bond films, took on another fictional British agent for a series of very different films – very different from the Bond pictures and very different from each other.

Again, the producer and his people pulled off a casting coup landing young, rising-star Michael Caine to play the spy they named Harry Palmer. In the Deighton books, this character has no name. Caine brought his considerable acting talent and personal charm to the role, which burst through despite a rather restrained, at first, portrayal of the somewhat bland, but deep down rebellious character. Even the heavy, black-rimmed eye glasses he wore in all three pictures could not flatten out his personality.

“The Ipcress File,” the first of the trio, is the story of the British military intelligence service setting out to find a kidnapped scientist. Harry Palmer, who had a crooked reputation while in the regular army, is reassigned to the service where, his stuffy superiors believe, his talents could be better used. The picture was directed by Sidney J. Furie, a Canadian, who gave this film a realistic, cold and claustrophobic atmosphere. Furie was greatly aided by Otto Heller’s photography. Together they employed odd framings and cocked camera angles to keep Harry Palmer, and the audience, off balance and on edge.

In the second film,“Funeral in Berlin” from 1966, Harry Palmer is sent to West Berlin and ordered to cross into Communist controlled East Berlin through Check Point Charlie, to meet a Communist colonel who wants to defect but needs help getting out. Directed by Guy Hamilton, who directed “Goldfinger" in 1964, “Funeral in Berlin” is a smoother production than "Ipcress," but still has a bit of grit and some very good location photography, again by Otto Heller. It also has a wonderful performance by Oscar Homolka as the jovial colonel. Over all, this movie has a lighter feeling than the first.

The last of the three, “Billion Dollar Brain,” from 1967, is the loopiest and slickest of the series. Here, Harry Palmer goes to frozen Finland in the middle of winter to deliver a mysterious package, discover what the package contains (deadly viruses), who wants them (Karl Malden as a slippery middle man), and the ultimate plot of a crazy Texas millionaire out to destroy Communism with the aid of a self-financed army and a computer, the billion-dollar brain of the title. Not much of this one makes sense, but the film is so lavishly produced and so artistically directed by Ken Russell, that the plot did not matter as much as the wild visual ride. “Billion Dollar Brain” is the closest to what the Bond franchise became with beautiful location photography by Billy Williams and a beautiful leading lady in Francoise Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s late sister). Oscar Homolka also returns in this one.

The three films showed back-to-back on cable last weekend and gave me the chance to watch “Funeral in Berlin,” which I had never seen before, and which is now my favorite of the three.

I had seen “The Ipcress File” several times, including earlier this year. “Billion Dollar Brain” I had not seen since I was a kid, watching it on TV, and unable to make head or tail of the story. But there was one sequence in it that stuck with me all those years.

When Harry Palmer is given the mysterious package to deliver, his instructions include the warning not to try to open what looks like a coffee thermos. Harry takes it to a London shopping area, enters a shoe store where they have some kind of X-ray device for customers to look down through a viewfinder at their shoes and see the bones in their feet. Harry sticks the thermos in there and has a look. It is still my favorite scene in this oddly funny movie.

(For more posts on movies and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Friday, November 18, 2016

FFB: This is Murder by Erle Stanley Gardner

Erle Stanley Gardner is one of my favorite writers. Every Perry Mason novel I read, I enjoyed. And, since the man wrote about 80 of them, I still have a ways to go with that series. However, I am not so enthusiastic about his non-Mason books.

And then came This is Murder – a big disappointment.

That surprised me. Just writing this surprises me. I never thought I would be bashing the work of this writer I admire.

But Gardner can take it. Yes, I know he has been dead since 1970. Even if he were not, any writer with a body of work like his – at least 100 books, some say more – can handle it if one blogger does not like one of his stories.

In this 1935 stand-alone novel, which he wrote under the pen name Charles J. Kenney, Gardner introduces us to Sam Moraine, an adman and friend of the district attorney of a cold, windy, unnamed city. For kicks, Sam involves himself in a kidnapping case and is soon tangled up in a complicated murder investigation.

Political corruption is part of the plot along with many twists and turns, convenient coincidences and improbable – if not impossible – situations. All of which caused me to lose interest in Sam, the suspects, and the whole thing.

Mostly, This is Murder suffers from over plotting. It is said that Gardner created a plot wheel, a paper device he could turn and come up with a variety of situations, to help him create all those stories. This time he gave the wheel too many spins.

Gardner also seems out of his element writing about an ad executive who runs a one-man advertising business with his secretary. It all came across like a law office not an ad agency.

So, I will stick with Gardner’s stories featuring his famous criminal-defense attorney.

(For more posts about forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Monday, November 14, 2016

MOVIE: Decision Aginst Time

The 1957 British film, “Decision Against Time,” is the simple but tension-filled story of a test pilot for an aircraft manufacturer who, while demonstrating a new cargo plane to a potential buyer, has engine trouble and is forced to fly the damaged plane until it is safe to land, all the while wondering when the engines will completely fail and the whole thing crash down into a suburban neighborhood.

Jack Hawkins does a terrific job playing the pilot who is sweating out the ordeal. Hawkins may not be remembered today, but he was a major talent and appeared in many big movies like “Lawrence of Arabia," "Ben Hur," and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” He also starred in many smaller films, including the excellent, “The Cruel Sea,” where he played the commander of a British ship during World War 2 and which may be his best performance. He was also in another good airplane-in-trouble movie called “No Highway in the Sky,” where he co-starred with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.

A familiar face in “Decision Against Time” is mild-mannered Donald Pleasence, playing the mild-mannered client the company is trying to impress. This was years before Pleasance reinvented himself in horror movies of the 1970s and 1980s.

The picture was directed by Charles Crichton, a versatile filmmaker who did the great Alec Guinness comedy “The Lavender Hill Mob” in 1951, and “A Fish Called Wanda” in 1988.

“Decision Against Time” was written by William Rose, an American who worked in England and who could create thrillers as well as comedies.

The film was produced by MGM and the Ealing Studios. Ealing is best known for its comedies, but it was a company that also turned out well-done dramas.

(For more posts on movies and television, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

FFB: Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

In 1923, Dorothy L. Sayers published her first novel, Whose Body?, a puzzle mystery filled with wit, humor, and sharp observations.

The book introduces Lord Peter Wimsey, the son of a noble family who, for excitement, involves himself in local crime cases. He is bright and inquisitive and usually helps the police, although some on the force find him a meddling nuisance.

The discovery of a dead body sets this story in motion. The situation is unusual, clever, and – to me, at least – very funny. A dead man is found naked in a bathtub in a home that is not his, and the owner of the house has no idea who the fellow is or how he got there. There is one more intriguing element to the discovery. The dead guy was wearing a pince-nez (those odd, old-fashioned glasses without arms that clip onto the bridge of the nose).

By chance, Lord Peter arrives on the scene before the cops, which gives him the opportunity, with the help of his manservant, Bunter, to closely examine the body and the bathroom.

Not long after the discovery, Wimsey hears about the disappearance of a wealthy financier, and comes to suspect the two mysteries are related.

Lord Peter is the kind of guy who pokes his nose into a case, ferrets out clues the police overlooked or cannot connect, and then wishes he could step away and let the cops handle it. But he can’t step away. Once he gets in, Lord Peter is committed to solving the mystery and nailing the criminal.

If he has any fault, it is his penchant for babbling on and on. But every time he launches into one of his monologues, Sayers peppers it with humor and clever comments.

His chatty, overly polite, sometimes scatter-brained style may be Wimsey’s way of distracting people, disarming them, making them believe he is not serious, while he is actually focused on gathering information, putting together the clues and solving the mystery. Sayers does this in an amusing way and may have been poking fun at the idle rich of her day.

Wimsey is about 30 in this story, and a veteran of World War 1. In a disturbing scene, Lord Peter, who was a major in the British Army, dreams he is back in the trenches, and it takes Bunter, a sergeant who was with him, to hear him, go in and wake him from the recurring nightmare. After the war, Wimsey returned to England with a case of shell shock. Today, it is called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sayers shows that it was taken seriously back then, too.

Sayers wrote 11 Lord Peter Wimsey novels and about 21 short stories which often featured characters introduced in Whose Body? – Wimsey’s mother the Dowager Duchess, his pompous older brother Gerald, Bunter, and the detectives Sugg and Parker.

For more on Whose Body? and Lord Peter, take a look at Sergio's fine review at Tipping My Fedora.

And for more forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott's site, Pattinase.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Storm Warning, musical-comedy cast in film noir

“Storm Warning,” a Warner Bros. picture from 1951 about the Klan in a southern town, is a combination of “Black Legion,” the studio’s 1937 Bogart movie on that subject, and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Marsha, a fashion model, played by Ginger Rogers, traveling across the country makes a detour to a small town for a quick visit with her sister Lucy, played by Doris Day.

Marsha is not in town 10 minutes before she witnesses a gang of Klansmen drag a man from the county jail and shoot him down in the street. Hiding in a doorway, Marsha plainly sees two men whose hoods have come off.

Shaken, she meets her sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s new husband, Hank, played by Steve Cochran. Hank was one of the men she saw.

To protect her sister and to get away from her new brother-in-law, Marsha plans to get out of town early the next morning. But county prosecutor Burt Rainey, played by Ronald Reagan, has Marsha picked up and questioned as a witness.

Things heat up for Marsha, Lucy and especially Hank, who is part bully, part simpering coward, when both the prosecutor and the leader of the Klan lean on them.

And when things could not get worse, Hank tries to rape Marsha.

From there, the film slips into an old formula and while not a happy ending, it is not as hard-hitting and memorable as it could have been.

One of the problems is Ronald Reagan. His part is not well written and Reagan was always better as an amiable second lead to stars like Errol Flynn. Doris Day, on the other hand, was a good choice for the young wife so in love that she cannot see that her hubbie is a lout. Ms. Day was a much better actress than people remember. This is also one of Steve Cochran’s better films. Usually cast as a gangster in movies like “White Heat,” here he gets to do a lot more with the part of a wannabe tough guy.

The picture was directed by Stuart Heisler, a Hollywood veteran, who in 1940 made the excellent feature, “The Biscuit Eater.” Heisler does a good job with the material he is given, and brings a taught, noir feeling to the film. The night scenes leading up to the killing are dark and moody, thanks to cameraman Carl Guthrie.

“Storm Warning” was written by Daniel Fuchs, who wrote the screenplay for the 1949 noir classic, “Criss Cross,” and Richard Brooks, who had a long career in Hollywood first as a writer and later as the writer-director of films like “In Cold Blood” and “Blackboard Jungle.”

This fast-moving, 93-minute movie is well worth a look.

(For more on film and television, visit Todd Mason's blog.)

Monday, October 31, 2016

Movies to Watch on Halloween

Today is Halloween, and to get everyone in the mood for it, the cable this past weekend was flooded with horror movies.

But, with the beautiful mild weather each day and the World Series each night, there was little time left to watch any of them.

Two films that aired the night of game five of the series were Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” two of my favorites. Had they played either before or after the baseball game, I would have gladly watched them.

Both are a joy to watch and while they are comedies, they use all the elements of classic horror movies to their advantage.

Gene Wilder, in Mel Brooks 1974 film, is brilliant as the heir to the Frankenstein castle who finds his grandfather’s notes and creates a project of his own. The entire cast is terrific: Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, who, when pressed to reveal her relationship with the original Dr. Frankenstein, admits: Yes! He was my – boyfriend! By the way, Mel Brooks, in a TV interview, said the name Blucher means glue maker, and that’s why the horses go crazy when they hear her name.

“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” from 1948 is, to me, the comedy teams’ best film. Abbott and Costello play moving men who bring crates containing Dracula and Frankenstein to a museum and some great stuff happens when the monsters awaken and chase the guys. To further complicate things, the Wolf Man also shows up. Universal got Bela Lugosi to play Dracula again, and Lon Chaney, Jr. to reprise the Wolf Man. Frankenstein, in this picture, was played by Glenn Strange, who for many years played Sam, the bartender at the Long Branch Saloon, on the TV show “Gunsmoke.”

Because those two comedies were the ones I regretted missing, I wondered which horror movies – true horror movies – I would want to look at again?

Would I want to watch “The Exorcist,” probably the scariest movie I have ever seen? No thanks. Once was more than enough.

How about some of the classic slasher films like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th”? I don’t think so. I saw a lot of them years ago and still remember all the twists, shocks and surprises.

As for classic monsters, I will watch almost any film with a werewolf in it. I particularly like the early ones featuring a sympathetic Chaney. Another older one I like is the low-budget “The Werewolf” from 1956 starring Steven Ritch and directed by Fred Sears.

The 1942 film, “Cat People,” starring Simone Simon, is another film I would gladly watch again. Its story, atmosphere and performances all add up to one creepy movie. The scene that gives me a chill is when Simone Simon, who we suspect is capable of turning herself into a large cat and killing anyone she is displeased with, is approached in a restaurant by another woman with rather feline features. The woman calls her, My sister, in another language, but the message is clear.

One more film that is on my watch-again list is “Curse of the Demon” (also called “Night of the Demon”), from 1957, starring Dana Andrews. This quiet little movie about an American in England and an curse that can bring down the wrath of some terrible monster, will stick with you long after seeing it. But, had the movie ended five minutes before it did, it would have been even better, creepier, and more memorable.

Which horror movies do you remember, and which would you watch again? Or, which films would you rather not see again?

Now, I’ve got to go. Little ghosts and goblins are at my door looking for treats.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

MOVIE: Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter” starring Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton

Critics say the decade of 1970s was a golden age of movies. Newcomers were given a chance to do the stories they wanted, and commercially doubtful films found their way to the screen because the filmmakers believed in them.

But, having read Charles Willeford’s novel, Cockfighter, I had to wonder why anyone wanted to turn it into a motion picture? Did they expect audiences to flock to the theaters to see it. (Sorry about the bad pun there.)

“Cockfighter," the 1974 movie, was directed by Monte Hellman, a quirky filmmaker who directed Jack Nicholson in a couple of westerns in the 1960s, and who made the terrific “Two-Lane Blacktop” in 1971. “Cockfighter” was produced by the dean of low-budget movies, Roger Corman. It starred Warren Oates, a very good actor, who proves it again here. Also in the cast were Harry Dean Stanton, Richard B. Shull, Troy Donahue, Ed Begley, Jr., Laurie Bird, and Charles Willeford, the author himself, in a surprisingly big supporting role as the referee of the fights.

All those people made me want to see the movie. But before watching it, I read the book.

I found the novel jaw-dropping in its violence. The movie follows the book very closely. Willeford wrote the script himself and the fights are as they were in his novel. But, without the gory descriptions Willeford detailed in the book. The documentary-style footage of roosters fighting mostly looks like a lot of wings flapping and feathers flying about. Still, it is pretty brutal stuff.

Aside from the fights – which look real – the story of Frank Mansfield doing everything he can to be the top owner and trainer of gamecocks is quite good, better than the book, which is due to Oates, a likeable actor. His scenes with the other trainers, his brother and a woman who wants to marry him are well done, if very slow by today’s standards. Movies back then took their time and allowed an audience to observe the characters, unlike today when too many movies feel rushed and choppy.

Oates, Stanton and the other actors were very good in their low-key, naturalistic performances, which fit the style of the film. Hellman seems to have used a lot of non-actors and it all blends together very well. But be warned, this movie is pretty tough to take, even for a fan of Hellman, Corman, Oates and company.

(For movie posts on movies and television, see Todd Mason’s blog)