Wednesday, January 27, 2016

TV: Jackie Gleason and The Super Bowl

CBS is running a promo for Super Bowl 50 featuring Jackie Gleason.

The clip, according to Newsday, a Long Island, New York newspaper, is from Gleason’s show Saturday night, Jan. 14, 1967, when he closed by reminding viewers to tune in the next day for the first Super Bowl. Newsday said the clip also proves the big football game was called “The Super Bowl,” from the start.

For me, it was a treat to see “The Great One” again. My folks watched "The Jackie Gleason Show" every week and I have some fond memories of it.

Comedian Jackie Gleason was one of the biggest stars of American television in the 1950s and 1960s. He also did some fine dramatic work in movies like “The Hustler” with Paul Newman, and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” with Anthony Quinn.

Friday, January 22, 2016

FFB: The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

The Odessa File is a 1972 thriller by Frederick Forsyth about a young German tracking down a notorious Nazi war criminal.

Peter Miller, 29, a freelance reporter for West German glossy magazines in 1963, comes across the diary of a holocaust survivor who chronicled the atrocities committed in a concentration camp. The more Miller reads the more angered he becomes and the more determined he grows to find the commander of the camp, assuming he is still alive and living under an assumed name in post-war Germany.

Miller sees finding the Nazi and bringing him to justice as a terrific story, but is unable to convince his publisher. The publisher is not alone, no one wants to help Miller, including government officials charged with finding war criminals.

Undeterred, Miller presses on, more determined than ever to find the camp commander. His efforts come to the attention of a tough Jewish group with the same goals. They help Miller and warn him of the danger involved.

As Miller digs, he has no idea he has a tiger by the tail. The man he is looking for is not only alive, but also a high-ranking member of ODESSA, a secret organization of former Nazi SS men operating in Germany as well as South America and the Middle East, where they are helping the Egyptians develop rockets to bomb Israel.

The spy services of Israel are aware of the ODESSA and its plans and Miller’s work worries them and forces them to send an agent to find out what this young German is up to.

Forsyth, who also wrote The Day of the Jackal, here crafts a suspenseful tale with several parallel tracks shadowing Miller’s quest. He also weaves in a good deal of background on the SS, the pre- and post-war Germany, and the current events of 1963. He builds his story carefully until about two-thirds of way through when he tosses in a great twist. From there, the book zooms off faster than Miller’s sports car on the Autobahn.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tuesday’s Film: Out of the Past

“Out of the Past,” the 1947 noir film starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas, is one of those great, atmospheric, black and white crime pictures that leaves a permanent image on the mind even if the story is nearly impossible to recount.

It all starts off simply enough when somewhere in rural America a sinister city guy arrives in a big car and starts asking around for the owner of the local gas station. The owner, played by Mitchum, knows his past has caught up with him and so goes to correct things with a gangster played by Douglas.

For some unfathomable reason, Mitchum takes his current girlfriend along on the ride and tells her the tangled story of how Douglas once hired him to find the woman Douglas lived with, played by Greer. Douglas says Greer shot and wounded him and ran off with sizable amount of his money. Douglas wanted the girl and the cash back.

Mitchum tracks Greer to a Mexican seaside village where he not only finds her, but falls in love with her. They decide to duck Douglas and live together. During all this, there is sleuthing and snappy dialogue and scares when Douglas and his henchmen almost catch up with them.

From that point, about half way through the movie, the plot goes wild with double and triple crosses, beatings, killings and a subplot that, like a dream, would take far longer to explain than to see.

It somehow all adds up and concludes with a big violent finish that also, like a dream, would take too long to explain.

And what a dream “Out of the Past” is, with three young movie stars at the start of their careers. Mitchum at age 30 is the cool, confident anti-hero. Douglas, then 31, is the charming and dangerous bad guy. And the stunning, 23-year-old Jane Greer is the girl they both want. Greer is given one of the greatest introductions any screen character ever had when she ends Mitchum’s long search for her by walking out of the hot Mexican sunlight into a cool, shadowy cafĂ© wearing a sleek summer dress and a wide-brimmed hat.

Director Jacques Tourneur, the son of a silent film director, was a master of composition, tone and pacing, and this may be his best picture. Credit for the dark yet smooth look of the movie also goes to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, RKO's go-to guy for film noir. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Favorite Films of '15

Last year was a better than average film-going year for me. There are still a good many movies on recent top-10 lists that I have yet to see. Some of them will have to wait for video as they never came to a theater near me. But of those that did, a few stand out. Some may never make a critic’s list, but I liked them.

Here are a few favorites from the past 12 months:

“The Big Short” – The financial collapse of 2007 not only made understandable, but funny. This gets my vote for best picture of the year. Look for Christian Bale and Steve Carell to get Oscar nods.

“Spotlight” – How the priest sex abuse scandal was uncovered by a team of investigative reporters from the Boston Globe. It is a very good film with a terrific cast.

“The Intern” – Robert De Niro as a bored retiree who goes to work as an intern at Ann Hathaway’s on-line clothing business. This gentle comedy is for everyone.

“Straight Outta Compton” – Well done bio of rap group NWA. The music may not be to everyone’s taste, but the story will explain the anger and frustration fueling the songs.

“Danny Collins” – This is Al Pacino’s best film in a long, long time. It also stars the wonderful Annette Bening and the terrific Bobby Cannavale.

“Love & Mercy” – The story of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Paul Dano as a young Wilson and John Cusack as an older Wilson were both excellent. Co-star Elizabeth Banks deserves an Oscar nomination for her controlled performance.

“Creed” – This is far better than the usual Rocky sequel with a story that mirrors the original Rocky and some of the most brutally realistic boxing scenes ever in a movie.

“Black Mass” – Johnny Depp completely transforms himself into one of the scariest bad men in the movies as he portrays real-life Boston gangster Whitey Bulger.

“No Escape” – An engineer, Owen Wilson, moves his young family to an unnamed Asian country only to get caught in the middle of a violent revolution. This is a tense, heart-pounding movie in which an “every man” and his wife flee blood-thirsty crowds while carrying two small children.

“Run All Night” – This was the ultimate “Friday Night” movie of 2015. A Friday night movie is a picture to see at the end of a hard work week. No deep meaning, no symbolism, just a straight up, non-stop action flick to make an audience forget everything outside the theater. Good performances from Liam Neeson and Ed Harris.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

FFB: Dick Francis's Gamble by Felix Francis

Author and former jockey Dick Francis, who wrote about 40 mysteries, died in 2010 at the age of 89.

His son, Felix Francis, co-wrote four books with his dad and has continued writing his own mysteries, some with, “Dick Francis’s…” in the title.

One of Felix’s books, Dick Francis's Gamble, came my way during the holidays when I was looking for a light, fun read. Gamble was exactly that – and more.

The 2011 novel, Felix’s first on his own, is the story of Nichols “Foxy” Foxton a former jockey now working as a financial advisor for a small investment company. While at the races with a colleague, Herb Kovak, a man approaches them and shoots Kovak dead in front of hundreds of people, then disappears into the crowd.

Unable to explain what happened or why to the police, Foxton gets involved with the murder in several ways. Not only was he standing next to the victim, but also he soon learns that he was named Kovak’s executor. Further, Kovak left everything he owned to the astonished Foxton.

In going through Kovak’s effects, Foxton learns some disturbing truths about his business friend. He may have been running an illegal gambling ring, and the operation may have lead to his murder.

While sorting out the mess Kovak left behind, a wealthy client confides in Foxton that he suspects one of his investments in an Eastern European development project may be a scam. Foxton, now with two mysteries to solve, barely gets started when the killer shows up at his doorstep, gun in hand.

Felix Francis does a nice job plunging Foxy Foxton, his likable first-person narrator, into trouble and turning up the heat. Gamble was thoroughly enjoyable, and I will be seeking out other Felix Francis novels this year.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Tuesday’s Overlooked Film: Cold in July

“Cold in July” is a Texas crime mystery directed by Jim Mickle, adapted from a novel by Joe R. Lansdale that came and went in 2014 and is now out on DVD.

Michael C. Hall is a family man and small business owner who shoots and kills an intruder breaking into his home one night. The local cops congratulate him and others hail him for his actions. But killing a man is not something to be proud of, Hall feels, even if in protecting his family.

The police identify the intruder as a known dirt bag from a criminal family. Soon an older man who is a career criminal and the father of the intruder, played by Sam Shepard, arrives in town and stalks Hall.

Before Shepard’s character can harm the man who killed his son, a twist comes out of the blue. Hall learns that the intruder was not Shepard’s son. The police stand firm that the intruder was identified correctly. Why are they lying, Hall and Shepard wonder?

To find out, Shepard contacts an old pal and private investigator played by Don Johnson. Johnson’s arrival in a red Cadillac sends the film into high gear as the three of them work to unravel the mystery, discover why the cops are lying and find Shepard’s son.

When Shepard and Johnson set out on this mission with Hall tagging along, I could not help smiling at the incongruity of the mild-mannered suburban dad riding off with these violent men. This odd little crime film is well worth a look.