Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"My @ss May be Dumb, But I Ain't no Dumb@$$."

In light of Quentin Tarantino's return to blaxploitation with Django Unchained, I thought I would go back and rewatch Jackie Brown. I hadn't seen the movie since 1997 when I originally watched it in the theater.  While I thought it a solid effort back then, it wasn't my favorite, especially following the stellar Pulp Fiction.  Two factors had me curious about revisiting it: a) I've seen even more movies (and B-movies) since then which might help me plumb the depths with QT a bit more, and I was no longer on the high of QT's sophomore effort.

Based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown concerns an aging down-on-her-luck stewardess' effort to escape a smuggling conviction while also getting out from under the thumb of her gun-running benefactor. With the help of a lonely bail bondsman, Jackie cooks up a plot to rob Ordell, the arms dealer, while selling him out to the ATF. It's a dangerous game to play with the volatile Ordell that's only further complicated by the scheming of Ordell's surfer girlfriend and his ex-con buddy who may be a little iffy on his loyalties.

That's as simple as I can think to put it. The movie is far more novel-like than your average script, a trait that QT would definitely carry over into the films that followed. True, Pulp Fiction certainly played around with narrative structure, but was essentially a series of overlapping shorter tales. Jackie Brown, on the other hand, is a lengthy single narrative that's willing to spend some time swimming in side stories before moving things along. And that's the movie's biggest problem.

I recall when I first saw the movie I described it to others as feeling like the down time in the average blaxploitation movie. It's a common trait of low-budget features: Talk is cheap. When you've got to save money for your action sequences, you can burn time and film just having your actors talk and talk and talk for much less. In most of those old movies this is a liability, as the actors were often either subpar or the extensive talk began to reveal just how thin the story was...or just how painfully stiff that exposition could be. That's not the problem with Jackie Brown. The story is very well layered and the performances are exceptional, but we'll get back to that.

No, the problem is that it often feels like the movie's just not getting on with it. It's taking its sweet time.  On the page, with a likable enough cast of characters, that often works. On screen, while a strongly deliberate slow pace can work, a casual slow pace can start to have you checking your watch. Now, QT had this worked out by the time Kill Bill rolled around. The narrative was a little more inventively sliced up. The action sequences were served up regularly. And overall, even when there was down time, there was a greater sense of deliberate menace and build. Jackie Brown was never leading up to a big shoot out or major surprise twist, but was merely leading to a will it/won't it work and it showed.

It reminds me of an old maxim Christopher Frayling mentioned in his extensive study of spaghetti westerns: The Italian directors knew that to keep provincial audiences entertained, someone had to get punched or shot every ten minutes. You can practically time some of these films for an upcoming shootout at the ten minute mark from the last one.

I don't, however, wanna give the impression that I was let down by the cast or the characters they portrayed. In fact, revisiting it, I feel like everyone in the movie should've won something for their performances. Pam Grier as Jackie may have mellowed since her Foxy Brown days, but she was still a stone cold customer with a smoldering seductiveness. Robert Forster turns in a stellar performance as the bail bondsman on the verge of retirement, a sympathetic character without a hint of sap. This one was  still earlier on the road for Samuel L. Jackson's become SAMUEL L. JACKSON, but he puts in one of the best three-dimensional villains I've ever seen: a deliberate and calculating character, but with a streak of insecurity that's looking for affirmation. And Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda are the perfect grimy crime story Cheech & Chong...veritable staples of fringe folks in Los Angeles.  They're all great characters, and I enjoyed their banter (particularly scenes between Jackson and DeNiro) and was wowed by their performances.

The cinematography looks great and manages to communicate the different senses of many of the lesser known sections of Los Angeles. And naturally, QT serves up a fantastic soundtrack with frequent use of blaxploitation era favorites. I sometimes wonder if his popularity is tied to feeding the burgeoning love for nostalgia in audiences or that the nostalgia plucked him up and made him the synthesizer king of all things rare and cool. Anyone who regularly reads my posts knows that I too am a sucker for the cinematic arcane, but QT's films, Jackie Brown included, always rise far above the level of the pale imitation or the in-joke.

In all, I was glad I sat back down and spent some time with Jackie Brown. Now that Quentin is a fair few films down the road from it, it was interesting to go back and figure out how and where this film now sits in the mix. If anything, it was a solid and enjoyable adaption while also providing the diving board for both greater experimentation as well as a greater plunge into the depths of genre storytelling.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More Fun Than a Pack of Rabid Squirlons

Today's a quickie review of the second installment of IDW's collection of the original Flash Gordon Sunday strips by Alex Raymond as well as his continuing run on Jungle Jim. I covered Volume One about two months back. That one came out December of 2011. Volume Two was August of last year. Volume Three comes out in April. I should get to it some time next November.

Once again, it's a large beautiful book that comes close to the size of the original new prtintings of the strips.   There's a little less wear and tear on the reproductions on this one, though there's a few that have been noticeably marred. The line work looks solid. The colors are rich. Again, it's an impressive collection and the nicest I've ever seen them look. Additionally, there's a fantastic introduction by Bruce Canwell that follows Flash's adventures into magazines, books and the early serials, which includes some wonderful stills, posters, and book covers. I give IDW full marks for the work they've done in putting these volumes together, and fully look forward to Volume Three. However...

Treat yourself to some 20 minute doses of Art Deco Sci-Fi Madness...
My only objection this time has more to do with the material. I imagine that as an excited kid tearing into the lastest adventure in 1937, one would be far less likely to notice the repetitive nature of the story telling. Flash gets in a rocket, it gets shot down, they get out of the wreckage only to be attacked by an animal who they have to fend off, then run into Ming's troops who they then escape. In the three years of strips the book covers, there are two major plot lines where chaos ensues because Flash let's a betrayer off the hook only to have them return to raise holy hell.  Compared to the novelty of the strange sights and sounds of the arrival on Mongo in the first book, the strip seems to have fallen into some complacency here.

Having said that, they were still immense fun to read and it's still impressive to see how Raymond's line work continued to develop and refine itself. In fact, once he seems to have hit a real hot streak with making Flash impressively flashy, Jungle Jim sees a marvelous jump in refinement and nears the elegance of its larger companion strip. I've never gone through the rigors of producing a regular comic strip, but imagining the demands, it's not hard to see where plot formula could be your friend as deadlines were closing in.

And by formula, I mean killer flying squirrels...
Reading this second volume also called to mind Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed's complaints about maintaining coherency on the ever shrinking comics page. These full pages are barely enough to contain all the action and adventure, I can only imagine what Breathed was up against.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Horses Always Shoot Twice

Over the holidays, I took a long ride into noir country with two depression era classics.

The first was James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). Despite Cain's multitude of successful conversions from print to screen, he's never enjoyed the household recognition of a Chandler or a Hammet. There's a sort of cosmic irony that Chandler, who was largely a washout working as a Hollywood screenwriter, had his greatest success adapting Postman for the screen when he despised Cain's writing. (The book would be adapted again for the screen in 1981 by no less than David Mamet.) Chandler described writers like Cain as, "Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way."

I was astounded by the total lack of Postmen in this book.
The story concerns a drifter, Frank Chambers, who happens into a restaurant owned by Nick Papadakis. Frank's trying to figure out how to get out of paying the check when the friendly Greek offers him work, which begins Frank's affair with Nick's wife, Cora.  The liaison leads to the pair thinking of murder to get Nick out of the way and sends them into a spiraling sinkhole of lust and mistrust.   I didn't share Chandler's disdain toward Cain's writing.  I found the story a compelling study of two people who can't help from digging further and further into their sins anymore than they can start up this new fantasy life they expected to live together.   However, once again, Postman represents one of those seminal works that have been hashed and rehashed so many times over the years that much of its original punch has been dulled. The characterizations, the vintage California setting and some of the unique aspects (the puma kitten, for instance) manage to rescue it from the letdown feeling of "Here we go again."

My second book had very little about it that felt all too familiar.

Horace McCoy, a contemporary of Cain's, also ended up working as a screenwriter after failing to make it as an actor and holding a string of different jobs living in Los Angeles. One of those jobs, a bouncer at the Santa Monica Pier, led to his writing the surreal and despondent They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1935).

The "startling affair" must be in another book that I didn't read...
Horses is the tale of Robert Syverten and Gloria Beatty, two young struggling actors in Depression-era Hollywood who enter a dance marathon in hopes of winning some cash to tide them over until they get a break. The novel opens with Robert, who narrates, telling us that Gloria is dead and that he is about to be sentenced for the murder. Then, the novel takes us back to their meeting and onto and through the strain and spectacle of the marathon with its strange cast of characters en route to Gloria's murder. While the book was largely a failure in the US, it saw popularity within existentialist circles in France, and it's easy to see why.  Though certainly not as alien as a work like Camus' The Stranger, Horses still holds that similar feeling of a character entering a disjointed nightmare of his own choices.  While I can't call it an enjoyable read, I tore through it at a breakneck pace and found it to be a sad study of humanity in extremity, a novel as relevant in this economically difficult time period as it was in the 1930's.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Don't Give Me That Supernatural Sh!t!"

Oh, Rudy Ray Moore.

Even in the age of hip hop and internet-hyped esoterica, Rudy is in many ways as underground as he ever was. A legend of rude comedy, Moore released what were known as "party records" throughout the 60's and 70's. He's perhaps best remembered now for his string of low-budget blaxploitation films, particularly Dolemite (1975), but by "best remembered" I mean remembered mostly by film geeks and hip hop aficionados. Rudy Ray Moore is one of those rare creatures who's still distributed following someone saying something like "You've never seen a Rudy Ray Moore Movie?!? Then you have to see...."

I took a trip down memory lane and revisited Moore's bizarre later entry Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's  Son-in-Law (1977), and boy, was it awful. As awful as it ever was. And awful in that special way that makes an Ed Wood movie charming. But there's something disturbing about it...
Petey is born as a six-year old during a hurricane and after receiving martial arts training as a teen, grows up to become a stand-up comedian. (Got your attention now, don't I?)  Petey flies into to town for a series of dates that coincide with the opening of a new club by his comedy rivals and hoods Leroy and Skillet. Leroy and Skillet have their men "persuade" Petey not to perform in a series of mounting incidents that leads to Petey and friends being gunned down in front of a church after a funeral. In the afterlife, Lucifer convinces Petey to marry his hideous daughter, and in exchange resurrects Petey to exact his revenge on Leroy and Skillet with the help of his magical cane. But bowing to no man, Petey also seeks to outwit the devil and free himself from marrying Lucifer's daughter.

Now, if in some ways, minus the crazy suits and martial arts sequences, this sounds something like a blues song, I'm rather sure that's intentional. There was an early blues-folk singer William Bunch who performed as "Peetie Wheatstraw", a name from black folklore (Some suggest Bunch himself was the origin of said folklore.). Both Bunch and Robert Johnson, who was influenced by Bunch, have tall tales circling them that they sold their souls for musical fame.  However, the movie never delves all that deep into the idea.

In fact, it's difficult to say whether the over-the-top opening sequence of Petey's birth wouldn't be more at home in a blatantly racist production. As Petey's mother struggles (and hams it up to the nth degree with the rest of the cast) to give birth, the doctor first removes a large watermelon from between her legs before Petey himself arrives. In fact, watermelon makes frequent and strange appearances throughout the film, including the exploding of a truck loaded with the fruit. In many respects, I feel like the movie was trying to develop some kind of subtext but either the message didn't come through, or I'm completely wrong and it was all meant for hackneyed laughs.

Only a master filmmaker could've talked anyone into these outfits...
Otherwise, it's the usual hokey fun, you'd expect from a Rudy Ray Moore vehicle: the stiff kung fu sequences, the bombastic rhyming delivery, a bizarre orgy scene, and lots of hyperactivity.  It also features a bizarrely catchy theme song that's difficult to shake (but luckily not as dangerous to be singing as the theme to one of my favorite Fred Williamson films...look it up.).  Petey isn't the place to start with Rudy Ray Moore (that would probably be Dolemite) and it's not my favorite (that, for whatever weird reason, would probably be Disco Godfather (1979)...anyone know where Bucky is or what he has had?), but for the completist, or the person that just needs one more dose, it can't be beat.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Shadow KNOWS...

Today's review's going to be a quickie.

The Shadow KNOWS....the schedule of the E Train...
In 1930, on a show called Detective Story Hour, a new pop culture phenomenon was created with a character called The Shadow.  But the Shadow wasn't any ordinary gumshoe. He kept his face hidden. He could disappear in plain sight. He could cloud the mind's of men. He had a secret identity. (He had Orson Welles' voice for a while...). The Shadow was one of the original superheroes who made his way from the radio into movies, books, comics, and on into Pop Culture Valhalla.

I first became aware of The Shadow in comics, just about the time that the run-of-the-mill guys in spandex just weren't cutting it for my young teen brain.  Digging through some dusty boxes of comics I came across the above image by the great Mike Kaluta: The big fedora, the red scarf, the dual automatics.  It was something from the past that had come to invade my future.  But like many of my pulp favorites, The Shadow was in some ways of too bygone an era in style to become a true obsession, but like many of my pulp favorites, sometimes I can't resist the allure of his siren call...guess he's clouding my mind.

The Shadow KNOWS...the danger of Radon...
So I picked up this Bantam paperback of The Death Tower I found hidden away on a bottom shelf of a used bookshop. I'd been looking for this edition if only for the fantastic cover by Sandy Kossin.  It's a reprint of a Shadow story from 1932 in which the Shadow does battle with Albert Palermo, a well-respected doctor who also happens to be...dun-dun-DUNNNN...a criminal mastermind. Palermo has been staging disappearances and deaths for his ill-gotten gains, and when the Shadow crosses his path, he thinks himself more than a match for the vigilante and his network of part-time helpers.

There's always a fun pulpy charm to the old Shadow stories that I've read. They move at a breakneck pace. There's always at least a small handful of narrative inconsistencies and a few strange plot contrivances. In some ways, it's what makes them quaint and enjoyable. In others, it's what keeps them from being truly memorable. Maxwell Grant, alias for author and magician Walter B. Gibson, cranked out nearly 300 of these Shadow novellas over 20 years, supposedly writing 10,000 words a day to keep apace of demand.  It's a wonder they make any sense at all.

Walter Gibson...His fingers were each an inch long when he retired from writing The Shadow
And so, like many of my other pulp recommendations, I'd say you could do a lot worse for thrills and a few chills than delving into the annals of this icon of yesteryear (who still shoots his way through the pages of comics) than by picking up one of his old adventures....however, unlike Conan or Matt Helm, I would recommend familiarizing yourself with some of The Shadow's backstory and aliases and support staff, because at the pace these books go, they're not likely to help you out before their simply over.
The Shadow KNOWS...clean energy policy...

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Beat to a Pulp

While shopping for a gift for a friend in a used book shoppe, I came across a book I'd been looking for for ages. And yes, I'm perfectly aware of the existence of Amazon, but I still enjoy the sensation of getting my fingers dusty digging through crates and shelves. If I simply must have something I go on- line, otherwise, I often let fate decide the course of my literary leanings. In any event, there it was: Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton, the first Matt Helm adventure. Not a first edition, but a nice looking copy at a reasonable price.  
So it's not a Carter Brown cover by McGinnis...still beats most covers today...
Those familiar with the blog may remember that I took a look back at all four of the Dean Martin vehicles in the Matt Helm film franchise. As I previously stated, the Helm books are not the swanky, swinging 60's romps as portrayed in the movies, but rather a darker, grittier version of a James Bond novel. Helm doesn't swagger through exotic locations and lavish hotels, he gets his hands dirty. Not that I don't love Bond's more jetsetting lifestyle, but sometimes you just want some meat and potatoes action.

The first novel sees Helm settling into soft middle age as a western fiction writer...and a retired ex-secret agent from World War II...when he spots someone from his past at a social gathering. Suddenly, there's a dead counter-agent in his office bathroom and he's back in the twisted world of the spy game. The book alternates between Matt's memories of his past in the war and his chase to thwart an assassination attempt on his friend, a nuclear scientist.

As I had read several of the Helm books before this, it was a bit of a letdown in the get up and go department of the later adventures. It reminded me of watching any of the comic book movies that spend far too long rehashing the characters origin rather than getting them in the suit and beating on baddies. That's not to say the book dragged or was too light on action, it wasn't. In fact, it probably had the most character study of the several that I've read, but did lack the in medias res feel that I value in action/adventure stories. Nevertheless it was solidly written with a healthy dose of suspense and a good helping of hardboiled dialogue.

I have oft considered contacting the Hamilton estate to see if I can use this for my author bio pic as well...
Perhaps one of the most fun aspects of this first Matt Helm outing is how literally in matches the life of it's author in setting. Hamilton had also served during the war, lived in New Mexico with his wife and family, and had written several Western novels such as the The Big Country, which became the 1958 movie with Gregory Peck.  And, I like to think, that every time he "ran down to the store" he was doing a blackout on some Commie plot in the American Southwest. In all, Death of a Citizen was just the sort of page-turning thriller that makes for the perfect material to get you quickly from one end of a holiday flight to the other. Frankly, it's also given me the yen to perhaps revisit this counter agent more often...after all, there's only 20+ more Matt Helm adventures to go through.