Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts

06 June 2018

Holding tight or Letting Go



by Robert Lopresti 

Warning: I am going to quote/paraphrase a lot of authors from my own memory.  You are hereby warned that such lines may not be reliable.

Let's pretend that you are an author.  For some of you that will be easier than others.

Congratulations!  A big Hollywood studio just called you.  They are interested in one of your books.  They are excited, even.

And now you're excited too.  Large checks with many zeroes are magically floating over your head.  You tell them you are eagerly awaiting their contract. 

Wonderful, they say.  And then they happily tell you about their plans for your masterpiece.

Remember your main character, the brilliant Native American nuclear physicist?  Well, in the movie she will be a Swedish man who makes balloon animals for a living.  And the cancer cure everyone is hunting for?  In the flick it will be a box of honey-glazed donuts.  It's a creative thing.

Are you still eagerly waiting for that contract?  Will you sign it when it arrives?

Different authors take different views on this, naturally.

Sue Grafton (herself a reformed screenwriter) refused to let Hollywood take a shot on her Kinsey Milhone books and claimed that, for that reason, she was highly respected in that town.

J.K. Rowling allowed movies of her books but, as I understand it, kept a pretty tight leash on Warner Brothers.  The studio wanted to combine her first two books into one movie. and she refused.  Considering how much money they made off those flicks they should send a million dollars a year to her favorite charity.

At the other extreme you have James M. Cain.  Supposedly someone tried to sympathize with him about what Hollywood did to one of his novels.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to my book.  It's right there on the shelf."

On a similar note Elmore Leonard once complained about the film version of one of his novels and his friend Donald Westlake asked: "Dutch, did the check clear?"

The problem with Westlake's philosophy, alas, is visible on his IMDb page.  A lot of the movies  based on his books are terrible.*

One more author example.  When William Gillette was preparing to write a play about Sherlock Holmes he asked Arthur Conan Doyle what he was allowed to do with the character.  The author repled: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."

And the mention of murder brings up our next topic.  How would you feel about someone writing new adventures for your character after you have passed on to your reward? 

When asked that question by his biographer, Rex Stout famously said, "Let them roll their own," meaning other writers should come up with their own characters. 

Lawrence Block said: "I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other."

On the other hand, we have the science fiction great Connie Willis, who said: "Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'"

And that brings us to Charles M. Schulz who, arguably, is the teller of the longest single tale in known history.  He never let anyone so much as ink or letter the Peanuts strip, which was intensely personal to him.

When he was a wealthy old man his children gave him one gift money could not buy: the promise that once he chose to put down the pen no one else would ever write or draw the Peanuts comic strip.  And they stuck by their word.  The cartoons that have been running since his death are repeats, all straight from the master's hand.

And that's enough to make Snoopy do his happy dance.

*Yes, two movies Westlake wrote, The Grifters and The Stepfather, were very good.  But they weren't based on his books.

21 April 2018

Mean Girls


A few weeks ago I posted a column about female protagonists ("Let's Hear It for Heroines"), and in putting together my list of those I was a little surprised at how few female heroes have been featured in novels and movies. The same thing goes for female villains, but even more so--Hollywood doesn't seem fond of casting a woman as the bad guy. But I'm fond of those in the following list. I've ranked these evil folks backward, by the way, from least creepy (#25) to most creepy (#1). My opinion only.

NOTE: Evil, in this case, doesn't necessarily mean criminal. It means those who scared me the most. How many of these do you remember?


25. Eleanor Shaw (Angela Lansbury) -- The Manchurian Candidate

24. Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) -- Body Heat

23. Bellatrix Lastrange (Helena Bonham Carter) -- Harry Potter

22. Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) -- Snow White and the Huntsman

21. Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) -- Hocus Pocus

20. Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) -- Maleficent

19. Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) -- Friday the 13th

18. The White Witch (Tilda Swinton) -- The Chronicles of Narnia

17. Jane Hudson (Bette Davis) -- Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

16. Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) -- From Dusk to Dawn

15. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) -- Sunset Boulevard

14. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) -- The Wizard of Oz

13. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) -- Gone Girl

12. Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) -- Play Misty for Me

11. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) -- Monster

10. Ellie Driver (Darryl Hannah) -- Kill Bill

9.   Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) -- Natural Born Killers

8.   Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) -- Rebecca

7.   Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) -- Basic Instinct

6.   Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) -- Mommie Dearest

5.   May Day (Grace Jones) -- A View to a Kill

4.   Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) -- From Russia With Love

3.   Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) -- Fatal Attraction

2.   Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) -- Misery

1.   Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Following up on that, here are ten female antagonists who weren't all that scary to me--but I just didn't like 'em. At all. I've ranked these from the least unlikable (#10) to the most unlikable (#1):


10. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

9.  The Warden (Sigourney Weaver) -- Holes

8.  Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) -- Annie

7.  Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey) -- The Goonies

6.  Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) -- The Help

5.  Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) -- The Graduate

4.  Regina George (Rachel McAdams) -- Mean Girls

3.  Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) -- Working Girl

2.  Cinderella's stepmother (Cate Blanchett)--Cinderella

1.  Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) -- The Devil Wears Prada



These lists don't include, of course, bad girls who are likeable--Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis), Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon), etc. But audiences are expected to like them: they're protagonists, not antagonists.

I also left out good/bad shapeshifters like Regan McNeil (The Exorcist) and Carrie White (Carrie), villains from TV series--Cercei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Sister Mary Eunice (American Horror Story), and a bunch of meanies from Buffy the Vampire Slayer--and animated female villains like Cruella de Vil (101 Dalmatians) and Ursula the Sea Witch (The Little Mermaid). And so on and so on.

As usual, I've included only characters from movies I've actually seen, which leaves out a lot of candidates. Who are some of your favorite female movie villains? Also (he asked, holding up a gender-equality sign), have you featured women as villains in your own writing?

I have. And it's fun.

31 March 2018

Space Opera and Horse Opera


Those who know me know I like to write--and read--mostly mystery stories. As for the writing part, my "genre specialty" is made easier because almost any story involving a crime can be considered a mystery.

Today, though, I want to tell you about two pieces of fiction that I recently discovered from other genres, and they're stories that I found exceptional. One's a western and one's science fiction, but both are chock full of crime and deception; does that mean they could be loosely defined as mysteries? Probably not. But I liked 'em anyway.

The first is a Netflix Orginal series called Godless. And I need to clarify that a bit. A lot of TV shows that I've watched lately, like Goliath, True Detective, Fargo, etc. (and unlike Longmire, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, House of Cards, and most others), have been what's become known as "limited-series" presentations--stories that are told start-to-finish in one season. There might be some degree of similarity and continuity between seasons, but mostly the story ends when the season ends, and you wind up with what amounts to a single seven-to-ten-hour, full-character-arc movie. I usually binge-watch them.


Godless is a western, and one of the best I've seen. It features a few familiar faces like Jeff Daniels and Sam Waterston and a bunch of lesser-known actors that have become better known as a result of their being cast here. The story involves a legendary outlaw in pursuit of a former friend who betrayed him, but the strangest thing about the show is that it takes place in the fictional La Belle, New Mexico, which is a town of mostly women--all the men have been killed in a catastrophic mining accident. I won't get into too many details here, but this seven-episode series is truly well done, in every way. The writing, the acting, the direction, the cinematography, everything just works. By the way, any of you who might still think of Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber or Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey will barely recognize them here. Daniels is as good in this as he was in the HBO series The Newsroom, and that's saying a lot.

My other recent discovery was a novel called Artemis, by Andy Weir (who also write The Martian). I loved The Martian--book and movie--and I thought this second novel was just as good. The protagonist, a young woman named Jasmine (Jazz) Bashara, is as tough and resourceful as any hero/heroine I've seen in a long time, and outrageous as well. At the start of the book Jazz is a wannabe tour-guide for some of the attractions around Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, and since she can't seem to pass the test to become a guide she makes a living smuggling certain items when they arrive from Earth to her customers here in space. Long story short, because of her lack of funds and need for employment she finds herself a part of a get-rich-quick scheme that instead gets her into deep trouble, including dealing with hitmen who are sent from Earth sort of like the four gunmen in High Noon. You'll wind up cheering her on, while you learn (or at least I did) a lot about life on the Final Frontier.


That's my sermon for today. And don't get me wrong, I've watched a lot of other good movies lately--Wind River, Baby Driver, Arrival, Logan Lucky, Gerald's Game, Hell or High Water, No Escape, Wonder Woman, Bushwick, Mudbound, The Last Jedi, Get Out, Blackway, Bullet Head, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri--and I've read some other good novels too--The Cuban Affair, The Fireman, The Girl from Venice, Dragon Teeth, Home, Gwendy's Button Box, World Gone By, Blackjack, Mississippi Blood, Sleeping Beauties, Goldeline, Fierce Kingdom, El Paso, The Midnight Line, Paradise Sky, The Big Finish, A Column of Fire, etc.--but I believe these two stories were as good as any of them, and better than most. If any of you have seen Godless, or read Artemis, please pass along your thoughts.

I also wouldn't mind some recommendations. I've been devouring collections of short stories lately, mainly those by Bill Pronzini, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Annie Proulx, and (believe it or not) Tom Hanks. I need to get back into some novels.

Meanwhile, happy reading, and viewing.

03 March 2018

Let's Hear It for Heroines


There's been a lot of talk lately about strong female characters, both in movies and books. A recent USA Today article by Maria Puente says the number of movies with female leads dropped off a bit last year, but I think it's significant that the three top-grossing films of 2017--Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Wonder Woman, and Beauty and the Beast--did have female leads. (For what it's worth, I think I'm the only person in America who liked the live-action remake of Cinderella more than that of Beauty and the Beast.) Anyhow, as a male writer, reader, and viewer, I've decided to list some of my favorite movies and novels with female protagonists.

First, the movies. And please note: In the cases of shared male/female leads, I've tried to choose only those movies that I thought focused more on the female protagonist than the male, which excluded dozens of equal-attention-to-the-guy-and-gal favorites like Bonnie and ClydeWitnessDouble IndemnityBody HeatSleepless in SeattleWhen Harry Met SallyAn Officer and a Gentleman, etc.

The ones I enjoyed most are listed at the top, in each very loose category:


Adventure

Romancing the Stone -- Kathleen Turner
Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Daisy Ridley
The Hunger Games -- Jennifer Lawrence
Kill Bill (1 and 2) -- Uma Thurman
Gravity -- Sandra Bullock
Wonder Woman -- Gal Godot
The River Wild -- Meryl Streep
King Kong (2009 version) -- Naomi Watts

Comedy

Amelie -- Audrey Tautou
Sixteen Candles -- Molly Ringwald
Ghost World -- Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson
9 to 5 -- Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton
Clueless -- Alicia Silverstone
The Devil Wears Prada -- Anne Hathaway
Miss Congeniality -- Sandra Bullock
Private Benjamin -- Goldie Hawn

Drama

To Kill a Mocklingbird -- Mary Badham
Out of Africa -- Meryl Streep
Gone With the Wind -- Vivien Leigh
Hidden Figures -- Taraji P. Henson, Olivia Spencer, Janelle Monae
Music of the Heart -- Meryl Streep
The Help -- Emma Stone
Juno -- Ellen Page
Winter's Bone -- Jennifer Lawrence

(I avoided listing some of the great "message movies" like Norma Rae, Erin Brockovich, and Silkwood. Besides, how many times should Meriyl Streep's name appear in any one list?)

Musical

Mary Poppins -- Julie Andrews
Calamity Jane -- Doris Day
The Sound of Music -- Julie Andrews
My Fair Lady -- Audrey Hepburn
The King and I -- Deborah Kerr
Annie -- Aileen Quinn
Flashdance -- Jennifer Beals
Funny Girl -- Barbra Streisand

Mystery/Crime

The Silence of the Lambs -- Jodie Foster
Fargo -- Frances McDormand
Wait Until Dark -- Audrey Hepburn
Jackie Brown -- Pam Grier
The Long Kiss Goodnight -- Geena Davis
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011 version) -- Rooney Mara
The Brave One -- Jodie Foster
Thelma and Louise -- Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis

Romance/Romantic Comedy

While You Were Sleeping -- Sandra Bullock
Working Girl -- Melanie Griffith
Sense and Sensibility -- Emma Thompson
Muriel's Wedding -- Toni Colette
Enchanted -- Amy Adams
Sweet Home Alabama -- Reese Witherspoon
My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- Nia Vardalos
Peggy Sue Got Married -- Kathleen Turner

SF/Fantasy/Horror

Aliens -- Sigourney Weaver
Psycho -- Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
The Village -- Bryce Dallas Howard
The Terminator -- Linda Hamilton
Cat People -- (1982 version) -- Nastassja Kinski
Contact -- Jodie Foster
The Birds -- Tippi Hedren
Halloween -- Jamie Lee Curtis

Western (these were harder)

Cat Ballou -- Jane Fonda
The Homesman -- Hilary Swank
True Grit (2010 version) -- Hailee Seinfeld
Meek's Cutoff -- Michelle Williams
The Missing -- Cate Blanchett
Cold Mountain -- Nicole Kidman
The Quick and the Dead (1995 version) -- Sharon Stone
Hannie Caulder -- Raquel Welch




And here are some of my favorite novels with primarily female protagonists--again with what I consider to be the best listed first:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett
Fierce Kingdom, Gin Phillips
Artemis, Andy Weir
The Hunger Games -- Suzanne Collins
Sunset and Sawdust -- Joe R. Lansdale
Demolition Angel -- Robert Crais
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
Hannibal, Thomas Harris
The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M. Auel
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Blind Descent, Nevada Barr
True Grit, Charles Portis
The Relic, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
One for the Money, Janet Evanovich
The Fifth Wave, Rick Yancey
Goldeline, James Cajoleas
The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King
Divergent, Veronica Roth

(The only surprising thing I found after choosing these twenty novels is that ten were written by women and ten by men.)



Again, this is my opinion only, which won't matter much to anyone beyond my home-office door. And I realize there are many, many more fine candidates for heroine-addiction, on both the page and the screen. These are just the ones I remember most.

What are some of your picks of books and movies with female leads? My Amazon wish-list and my Netflix queue await your recommendations.

Meanwhile, picture Sigourney Weaver saying this, in the original Alien, back in 1979: "This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off."

That still gives me goosebumps.

20 January 2018

Movie Music


Our house is alive, usually, with the sound of movie music. I've always loved it, and I'd probably be
embarrassed to know exactly how many soundtracks I've purchased in my life, or how many movie themes I've picked out on the piano or guitar, or even how many I've listened to over the past year or so, either on CDs or via my Amazon Echo. It also dawned on me awhile back that the movies I most enjoy watching over and over and over again--I do a lot of re-watching--are those that have terrific music.

Two observations. First, I fully understand that some excellent dramatic films have very little music (Dog Day Afternoon, NetworkCast Away, and Rope come to mind), and some have scores that are--how should I put this?--more functional than memorable. Second, even though I believe that a fine soundtrack cannot make a bad movie watchable, I also believe that a fine soundtrack can make a mediocre movie good or a good movie wonderful. One of my cinematic heroes, Sergio Leone, once said, "It is the music that elevates a movie to greatness." His practice was usually to have composer Ennio Morricone write the entire score first, and then Leone directed the movie to match the music, rather than doing it the other way around.

A sound approach

It's interesting to me as a writer that music can be a tool to help the storytelling process itself. All authors, whether they're writing novels, shorts, plays, or screenplays, want to "connect" with their audience, and in movies the right music at the right time can trigger emotions in the viewer that might otherwise be hard to reach. I never fail to get a tear in my eye when the camera backs slowly away from a distant Tara to include the oak tree and Scarlett standing underneath and the music builds to a crescendo. Or to feel a chill shimmy down my spine when Ripley claws her way to safety in the final moments of Aliens (as James Horner's score is pounding at my brain), or when Rocky runs the steps, or when Indiana Jones chases tanks on horseback, or when Bogie tells Bergman to get on the plane to Lisbon, or during the opening credits of movies like Top Gun or Superman or Goldfinger or The Big Country. And I guess I'm just enough of a romantic to love it when Richard Gere marches into the factory and sweeps Debra Winger off her feet (literally) in that final scene of An Officer and a Gentleman--and I don't think I'd feel any of those thrills without the accompanying music.

Once an officer but no gentleman, I am also no expert on music. I play a few instruments (badly, and for no one's enjoyment but my own), my singing is so pitiful it scares the neighbor's dog, and I've had no musical training (my educational background is, God help us, electrical engineering and computers). But I know what sounds good to me, and I know what I like.

Music to my ears

So here's the deal. If you enjoy a great soundtrack along with your movie-watching, I have taken the liberty of listing fifty of my favorites, in no particular order:

The Natural -- Randy Newman
The Big Country -- Jerome Moross
Legends of the Fall -- James Horner
The Rocketeer -- James Horner
The Godfather -- Nino Rota
Superman -- John Williams
Jurassic Park -- John Williams
Star Wars -- John Williams
The Last of the Mohicans -- Trevor Jones
Casablanca -- Max Steiner
Gone With the Wind -- Max Steiner
The Man From Snowy River -- Bruce Rowland
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) -- Michel Legrand
Medicine Man -- Jerry Goldsmith
L.A. Confidential -- Jerry Goldsmith
Somewhere in Time -- John Barry
On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- John Barry
Body Heat -- John Barry
Dances With Wolves -- John Barry
Goldfinger -- John Barry
Out of Africa -- John Barry
The Pink Panther -- Henry Mancini
Hatari -- Henry Mancini
Escape From New York -- John Carpenter
Signs -- James Newton Howard
Rocky -- Bill Conti
The Right Stuff -- Bill Conti
Lawrence of Arabia -- Maurice Jarre
Doctor Zhivago -- Maurice Jarre
Witness -- Maurice Jarre
The Graduate -- Simon and Garfunkel
Back to the Future -- Alan Silvestri
A Fistful of Dollars -- Ennio Morricone
For a Few Dollars More -- Ennio Morricone
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in the West -- Ennio Morricone
Once Upon a Time in America -- Ennio Morricone
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- Burt Bacharach
The High and the Mighty -- Dimitri Tiomkin
High Noon -- Dimitri Tiomkin
Vertigo -- Bernard Herrmann
Psycho -- Bernard Herrmann
Quigley Down Under -- Basil Poledouris
Cat People (1982) -- Giorgio Moroder
The Magnificent Seven -- Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape -- Elmer Bernstein
Dirty Harry -- Lalo Schifrin
True Grit (2010) -- Carter Burwell
Blood Simple -- Carter Burwell
Gladiator -- Hans Zimmer


This is my request: When/if you watch or re-watch any of those, pay special attention to the music. You won't be disappointed.

NOTE 1: Only a dozen or so of the above movies are in the mystery/crime genre. Apologies to my fellow SleuthSayers--this isn't the first time I've wandered away from our usual topic, and probably won't be the last.

NOTE 2: I intentionally listed no musicals, no TV shows or miniseries, no animated features, and--except for L.A. Confidential--no soundtracks packed with classic songs. In doing so, I have regrettably omitted favorites like Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, A Hard Day's Night, West Side Story, Calamity Jane, Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Game of Thrones, Lonesome Dove, Lost, American Graffiti, Goodfellas, Forrest Gump, Top Gun, The Big Chill, Reservoir Dogs, Easy Rider, Pulp Fiction, etc.

Questions

How important to you is the music in a movie? Do you even notice it? If you do, what are some soundtracks you especially enjoyed? As with most lists, I'm sure I forgot some of the best.

If you have recommendations, please let me know. (Cue John Williams's theme from E.T.) I'll be right here…

25 December 2017

Christmas Miracle Movies


Trying to come up with a post for Christmas wasn’t easy. It's such a joyful time for a huge population. You know, pushing and shoving to reach the Filene’s gift that is just perfect for your Uncle Billy Bob or for your Grandmother Ella Daye. For some people, including myself, Christmas can be somewhat depressing. Bah. Humbug.
However, I didn’t want to post a somber or sad article for this December 25th, 2017. Instead, I turned to two storie from childhood, The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell and The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson. I found both on YouTube in Animation and Leigh helped me posted them.

It seems the early versions of The Littlest Angel weren’t well preserved. Either the pictures faded or the sound track deteriorated, or both. This one seems the least damaged.


The Little Match Girl has even more editions, a few as early as 1902, 1914, 1928, and 1937. I first saw the 1954 version, one of the least faithful to the original story, although the narrator sounds like Vincent Price. There are beautiful versions from many countries, politically slanted versions, a peculiar Legos WW-II stop-action and a Disney release. Disney’s ending is cleverly shaped so that it seems uplifting to children, but an aware adult can read it differently.

Look at the sublime special effects of the 1902 version. Charming!


Leigh selected this beautiful Vietnamese rendition.


Please everyone have a Merry and a Happy and prosperous 2018.

18 November 2017

A Book and a Movie


For my post today, I'm making two recommendations: one for a novel I recently read and one for a movie I recently watched. Neither one is a traditional mystery, but both qualify as mysteries since they're both suspense/thriller stories in which crimes are central to the plots. In fact, murders are central to the plots.

The first is Fierce Kingdom, a 2017 novel by Gin Phillips. I think one reason I so enjoyed this book is that I'd heard nothing about it beforehand. I happened to be in a bookstore, noticed the cover, read the inside jacket copy, and bought it. That kind of thing doesn't always work out well for me, but this time it did.

Fierce Kingdom is about a woman and her small son who are visiting a local zoo and are caught up in a killing rampage by (at first) unseen shooters. It's almost closing time, the place is shutting down and night's approaching, and the mother and child find themselves alone and fending for themselves until the outside world can find out what's going on and intervene.

Another thing I liked about this book is that--like a long-ago movie favorite of mine called Wait Until Dark--the characters here know something the killers don't: the mother and child are frequent visitors to the zoo and are familiar with its grounds, even its nooks and crannies. This inside information of course comes in handy as the drama unfolds.

Needless to say, this reader became quickly invested in these two characters, and there were some seriously tense scenes. I loved every minute, and I'm now on the lookout for more novels by Ms. Phillips.

The other welcome surprise I discovered recently was the movie No Escape (2015), with Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. (Not to be confused with the 1994 No Escape with Ray Liotta, though I liked that one too.) This is a story of a businessman (Wilson) who has accepted a job position in a third-world country and is in the process of moving there along with his wife and two young daughters. While in a hotel the family (and Brosnan, a fellow traveler who comes to their aid) suddenly find themselves in the middle of a bloody revolution where Americans are being rounded up and executed on the spot. I should mention here that I've never been a big fan of Owen Wilson . . . until now. I was impressed with his performance in this film, along with that of Brosnan and of Wilson's character's wife, played by Lake Bell.

For the writers among you, the script is especially good, and the story moves at a fast pace, with plenty of action and some breathtakingly scary scenes--in some cases because the story (like Fierce Kingdom) involves children in jeopardy and parents' overwhelming love for those children, which is a sure-fire generator of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension. Or at least the biting of my nails and the edge of my seat. I mean, I really, really wanted these kids to come out okay, and almost everyone in both the book and the movie seemed to be trying to catch these families and kill them. And yes, I know, it was just fiction--but it was good fiction, so it felt real.

Part of my enjoyment of No Escape was probably due to the fact that I could relate to it, in a way. My IBM travels took me to some far-flung locations, and immediately after one of those trips (to the Philippines), I sat here at home in my recliner and watched a machine-gun-blazing coup take place just outside the Manila hotel where I'd stayed only a couple of weeks earlier. In our screwed-up world, violent uprisings like this do happen, popping up out of nowhere, and it's easy to believe that it could happen someplace at the same time an unsuspecting American family arrives there to start a new life.

So that's my report. Was this the best book I've ever read or the best film I've ever seen? No. Have they won any earth-shaking awards? Not that I know about (although Fierce Kingdom is still recent enough that it might). But I do know they were both interesting and entertaining and thoroughly satisfying. At least to me.

Have any of you read this novel or watched this movie? If so, I'd like to hear your opinions.


As of this writing, Fierce Kingdom is still prominently displayed in bookstores and No Escape is still available for streaming via Netflix. Give 'em a try.

16 October 2017

Whatever Happened to Fan Mail?


Jan Grape When I was a pre-teen girl (age 9 to 12 maybe) in a small West Texas town growing up I read fan magazines by the dozens. Falling in love with male and female stars both, No, I wasn't confused about my sexuality. I had no idea what homosexual or heterosexual was, I just loved to see beautiful movie stars and handsome movie stars and dreaming about being a movie star myself someday.
Girls my age wrote fan letters to stars back then: Dear Miss Monroe, I thought you were really, really good in The Seven Year Itch. I saw it 3 times. Sincerely, Jan Barrow
Yet my absolute favorite stars were in Westerns: Roy Rogers and Dell Evans.
Dear Mr. Rogers, Did you really fall in love with Miss Dale Evans when you first saw her? Sincerely, Jan Barrow.
We wrote letters to those we admired. Put them in envelopes, addressed them after we searched and searched for an address, licked a stamp to put on the envelope. We made sure we put out return address in big letters, both inside and out. Jan Barrow, Box 413, Post, Texas. Then walked the four long blocks to the post office to mail it. Surely you remember waiting and hoping day after day that you might one day get an answer back.

Just when you had given up hope a letter came. Oh no, it wasn't a letter BUT it was an autographed picture of Roy and Dell and Trigger. Does anyone remember the name of Dale Evans' horse†?? (Answer at the end. And I didn't have to look it up but it did take me a couple of minutes to remember it.) I would guess that Trigger was one of the most famous horses ever who wasn't some race horse. Oh yeah. How could I ever forget the Lone Ranger's horse Silver. He yelled, Hi-yo, Silver at least 3 times in every movie.

Even when I was a grown woman and had three kids I wrote two fan letters. One was to a television star, Dennis Weaver, who played in a series called McCloud. About a lawman working in Manhattan, riding his horse, cowboy hat and all. I wrote to him just to tell him how much we enjoyed his show and wished it was on every week. He wrote a nice note back, with an autographed photo and asking me to write to the network which I did. I think the show was on for five or six seasons, can't remember for sure now. But my husband and I really enjoyed that show.

The second fan letter I wrote as an adult was to Isaac Asimov. Thanking him for all the wonderful stories and books he had written through the years. Told him I was hoping to be published one day. He wrote me back on a postcard thanking me for writing and telling me to keep writing. I was lucky enough to meet him in 1988, the first time I ever went to the Edgars in NY City.

Jan Grape and Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov. Yes, that's me in my fancy hat.
The first ever fan letter I ever got was from Tom Piccirilli. He and I had appeared in a couple of anthologies. I don't have that letter anymore. Wish I did, since Tom has passed away. Tom became one of my non-favorite, favorite writers with Choir of Ill Children. I'm not really a fan of horror and yet this book is so beautifully written and it's proclaimed as Southern Gothic. I personally like his crime noir books best. I especially liked The Last Kind Words.

I got to write to Tom when he was undergoing cancer treatment to tell funny story about his fan letter to me in hopes of giving him a laugh. A few days after I got this letter from Tom, I was visiting my daughter and her family in Ft. Worth. I mentioned the fan letter and since I had it in my purse, I pulled it out and read it out loud at the dinner table. Her husband, Stin asked me to repeat the man's name. I said, Tom Piccirilli. And Stin said, that sounds like the name of a newly discovered disease. "Sorry, ma'am. you have Pictorial. Hate to tell you we don't have a medication to treat Piccirilli yet, but the CDC is working on it and we hope to have a Piccirilli vaccine soon."

I only got a couple more fan letters after that because suddenly we had the Internet and people could write to you via e-mail. Now they write to you on FB or Twitter. They write nice notes but somehow I miss real fan letters.

† Dale Evan's horse was named, Buttermilk. Whatever happened to Trigger and Buttermilk and their German Sheppard, Bullet, I'll suggest you Google, it's interesting. If you're curious about that sort of thing.



Art Taylor, we congratulate for winning the macavity Award for Best Short Story “Parallel Play” (Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, Wildside Press).

Bonnie Stevens, we congratulate for winning the Anthony Award for “The Last Blue Glass” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Dell, April 2016).

19 September 2017

The Terror of Daylight – Neo Noirs for a Rainy Day


Fall’s coming and winter’s sliding in behind it. So I thought I’d talk about some rainy day movies for crime writers and readers: neo noirs, mysteries and thrillers. All movies I’ve seen more than once, some many times, and never get tired of. All of which I like and would recommend to anyone who’s into these genres. All of which I own in one form or another. And I know I’ll have left out some of your faves and even some of mine, but I have to leave some for another list some time down the road. And I know you won’t agree with some of my choices, but that’s what makes a horse race.

Many of these flicks involve the terror of the everyday, of the mundane. The “terror of daylight” as some have put it.

So here’s the list as they popped into my head, in no particular order:

Pacific Heights, with Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine. I’m not a big fan of horror movies these days. They’re just too predictable for my tastes, plus they’re more shock fests than true horror. But to me, while probably technically a neo-noir, Pacific Heights is a true horror movie. Why? Because it’s the kind of thing that can happen to anyone. We’ve all probably experienced that bad neighbor (or tenant) or the guy who lives in the apartment upstairs and makes noise at all hours of the night. Well if those things bug you, you’ll be creeped out by this movie.


Malice: with Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman. Written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame. There’s just something about this movie that I really like. I think it’s very clever, good twists. Engaging cast. I don’t want to give away too much but you think this is going to be a straightforward serial killer mystery, but it spins off in a totally unexpected way.


Masquerade, with Rob Lowe and Meg Tilley. Part love story, part crime movie, but very noir in the sense that everyone is doomed, even as they’re redeemed.


Body Heat, with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Double Indemnity for the 80s, and today. I recently posted about this movie on FB and found some people hate it, so I guess to each his own, but for me personally this is the perfect updating of noir to a more recent (if you can consider the 80s recent) era.


The Firm, The Client, The Rainmaker, Pelican Brief: A John Grisham Quartet, starring respectively: Tom Cruise, Susan Sarandon, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts/Denzel Washington. All of them really good movies. And, while not neo-noir really, these also help satisfy that craving for crime, suspense darkness and evil and are entertaining at the same time.


Derailed, with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston, based on the novel by James Siegel. I didn’t like the movie when it first came out, but it’s grown on me. For whatever reasons, even though I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, I gave it another shot. And another. And each time grew to like it more. A hapless family man is lured into a trap by lust – a very noir theme. And the bad guy (played to rotten perfection by Vincent Cassel) is so vicious and cruel, it makes my skin crawl every time.


The Lincoln Lawyer, based on the novel by Michael Connelly. Matthew McConaughey playing a sleazy lawyer – what’s not to love? When I first read the Connelly book this is based on, I wasn’t a big fan of the character, but the movie gave me a new appreciation for him. While not classically noir, you could make a case for the Ryan Philippe character as an homme fatale.


Fracture: A clever, intelligent psychological thriller. Great twists in this one. Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling play an intriguing cat and mouse game. I love this one so much I bought the download off Amazon so I could watch it multiple times.


Final Analysis, with Richard Gere, Kim Bassinger and Uma Thurman. Very Hitchcockian with a twist of noir, reminiscent of Vertigo. Another one I could watch over and over.


Drive: Ryan Gosling as a movie stunt driver, who moonlights as a getaway driver for crooks. But that’s just the plot. The “story,” as one development exec used to tell me is something else altogether. The film has an urban fairytale quality that  makes it very memorable.


The Big Easy, with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. Not noir, but fun to watch. After seeing this movie I went out and bought a bunch of Cajun/Zydeco music CDs.


Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington, as Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. The book is one of my faves and, of course, since it’s the first Easy book the one that turned me onto the character. I didn’t love the movie the first time I saw it, but it’s grown on me over the years in subsequent viewings. And it plays off the noir theme of the soldier returning home after the war to a very changed country.


Double Jeopardy / Kiss the Girls: Ashley Judd double feature. Both are great fun to watch. Ashley Judd at her best in these kind of action flicks. Instead of playing the femme fatale here, she is our every “man” noir hero/heroine, who takes matters into her own hands.


Angel Heart, with Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Charlotte Rampling. I know people who claimed to have figured it out before the leader even finished spooling through the projector. I guess I’m not that bright. But definitely a good twist. Very dark. And a beautifully shot film. This was when Mickey Rourke still had a promising career.


John Dahl triple header: The Last Seduction, Kill Me, Again, Red Rock West, starring respectively: Linda Fiorentino, Val Kilmer, Nicholas Cage. All great neo-noirs based on the classic formula, with modern twists. I wish Dahl would make more.



The Grifters, The Getaway: Noirs based on Jim Thompson novels that start with G. And it must be noir if it’s Jim Thompson, right? Starring John Cusack and Angela Huston in the former, Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger in the latter.



And let’s not forget L.A. Confidential, based on James Ellroy’s 3rd novel in the LA Quartet. I loved the book when it first came out. I loved the movie when it came out. I re-read the book – I think I love the movie more! With Kim Bassinger, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce.

So that’s my starter list. What are some of your fave neo-noirs?

***

And now for the usual BSP.

I’m happy to say that my short story “Bunker Hill Blues” is in the current Sept./Oct. issue of Ellery Queen. It’s the sequel to the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll winner and current Macavity Award nominee “Ghosts of Bunker Hill”. And I’m surprised and thrilled to say that I made the cover of the issue – my first time as a 'cover boy'! Hope you’ll want to check it out. Available at Ellery Queen, newstands and all the usual places.




My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.



16 September 2017

A Trivial Pursuit



by John M. Floyd



Yes, I know: there are a lot of productive things I could and should be doing right now, instead of writing a trivial post about trivia. But, as I've confessed in the past, I love little-known facts about fiction and those who create or portray it.

So, for the next few minutes, I challenge you to forget about the stock market and North Korea and politics and global warming and take a look at these worthless little tidbits about movies and novels and actors and writers. Since they surprised me when I learned about them, I hope they (or at least some of them) might surprise you as well.


- Ian Fleming wrote the children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

- Jack Kerouac typed the novel On the Road on one continuous roll of paper 120 feet long.

- Dooley Wilson (Sam, in Casablanca) didn't know how to play the piano.

- Dr. Seuss wasn't a doctor, of any kind.

- Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door to Mark Twain in Hartford, Connecticut.

- The names of the policeman and the cab driver in It's a Wonderful Life were Bert and Ernie.

- Both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were extras in Field of Dreams.

- Between 1982 and 1984, Nora Roberts wrote 23 novels.

- The announcer who replaced Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer (played by Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam) was Pat Sajak.

- Mel Brooks wrote the lyrics to the theme from Blazing Saddles.

- Steve Buscemi is a former NYC firefighter.

- The final Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King, was nominated for eleven Oscars and won all of them.

- Before writing The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown was a pop singer. One of his solo albums was called Angels and Demons.

- In Raiders of the Lost Ark, a drawing of R2D2 and C3PO appears on a column in the Well of Souls.

- The novel Catch-22 was originally titled Catch-18.

- Robert Louis Stevenson burned stories based on readers' informal responses, Leo Tolstoy's son rescued the manuscript of War and Peace from the ditch where Tolstoy had thrown it, and Tabitha King pulled the discarded manuscript of Carrie from Stephen King's wastebasket.

- James Arness (Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke) and Peter Graves (Jim Phelps of Mission: Impossible) were brothers.

- William Atherton, who played the obnoxious TV reporter in Die Hard and Die Hard 2, sang the "What'll I Do?" theme song during the opening credits of the 1974 (Robert Redford/Mia Farrow) version of The Great Gatsby.

- "Goldeneye" was Ian Fleming's name for the Jamaican beach house where he wrote all the James Bond novels. Sting later used the same desk to write the song "Every Breath You Take."

- One of the voices of E.T. was that of Debra Winger.

- Clint Eastwood composed the main theme ("Claudia's Theme") for Unforgiven.


- Tom Wolfe, who was six-foot-six, preferred to write standing up, using the top of his refrigerator for a desk.

- In The Abyss, many of the underwater scenes were actually filmed in smoky air, using fake bubbles.

- Olivia Newton-John's grandfather, Max Born, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1954.

- Both Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie dictated their novels. (Though ESG typed his earliest work.)

- To make some of the spacecraft seem larger in the movie Alien, director Ridley Scott filmed his own two children outfitted in miniature space suits.

- Rowan Atkinson has a master's degree in Electrical Engineering.

- Singer Tex Ritter ("Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'," from High Noon) was actor John Ritter's father.

- Actor/director Anthony Hopkins composed the music for the movie Slipstream (2007).

- Clyde Barrow once wrote a letter to Henry Ford (it's on display at the Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan) praising the V-8 Ford as a getaway car.

- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the first book written using the typewriter.

- Clint Eastwood did all his own mountain climbing--no stuntmen--in The Eiger Sanction.

- Most of the cast and crew of The African Queen got sick from the water. Only Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston were unaffected because they drank only whiskey.

- Evelyn Waugh's first wife's name was Evelyn.

- Tom Hanks is a descendant of Abe Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

- The first U.S. paperback edition of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale was published with the title You Asked for It.

- Michael Myers's mask in Halloween was a two-dollar Captain Kirk mask, slightly altered and painted white.

- Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew novels, was really a pseudonym for a team of several different writers.

- Hoyt Axton (the father in The Black Stallion) wrote "Heartbreak Hotel."

- Melissa McCarthy and Jenny McCarthy are first cousins.

- The original title of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. It was reversed when Newman decided to take the role of Butch rather than Sundance.

- The same author (Larry McMurtry) wrote Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment.

- Frank Oz was the voice of Yoda, the Cookie Monster, and Miss Piggy.

- Mickey Spillane ordered 50,000 copies of his 1952 novel Kiss Me, Deadly to be destroyed when the comma was left out of the title.

- Mia Sara (Ferris Bueller's girlfriend) has had two fathers-in-law: Sean Connery and Jim Henson.

- Director John Carpenter composed the music for most of his movies.

- Noah Webster was T. S. Eliot's great-uncle.

- Ian Fleming got the name for his fictional spy from a book he owned called Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond.

- The charcoal sketch of Kate Winslet in Titanic was actually drawn by director James Cameron.

- Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore were roommates at Harvard.

- J. K. Rowling came up with the names for the houses at Hogwarts while on a plane. She jotted the names down on a barf bag.

- The keypad on the laboratory's door lock in Moonraker plays the five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

- Author Sidney Sheldon created the TV series I Dream of Jeannie and The Patty Duke Show, and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

- When the kid in Home Alone 2 walks into the Plaza Hotel, the person he asks for directions is Donald Trump.

- Tom Clancy was part owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

- Cormac McCarthy wrote with the same typewriter for more than fifty years. When it broke, he auctioned it off for more than $250,000 (to donate to charity).

- In World War II, Roald Dahl was a fighter pilot, Donald Pleasance was a POW, Christopher Lee was an undercover agent for British Inteligence, and Charles Durning was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.

- When a hurricane hit the set during filming of Jurassic Park, the pilot who choppered the crew to safety was the man who had played Indiana Jones's pilot, Jock, in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

- The top three most-read books in the world are The Holy Bible, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, and the Harry Potter series.

- In The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, Fleming was played by Sean Connery's son Jason.

- Actor Sam Shepard wrote 44 plays; one of them won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979.

- The roles of both John McClane in Die Hard and Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry were first offered to Frank Sinatra.

- When J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, she typed three separate copies of the manuscript because she couldn't afford copying fees.

- Samuel L. Jackson's Pulp Fiction quote from Ezekiel was originally written for Harvey Keitel's character in From Dusk to Dawn.

- Chocolate syrup was used as blood in Psycho's shower scene; it was also used as the Tin Man's oil in The Wizard of Oz.

- Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was eighteen, and it was published when she was twenty.

- Mystery writer John Sandford, a.k.a. John Camp, won a Pulitzer for Non-Deadline Feature Writing in 1986 for articles about the life of a Minnesota farming family.

- Of his 70-plus film roles, Gregory Peck played a villain only twice (I think), in Duel in the Sun and The Boys From Brazil.

- Dolph Lundgren has a master's degree in Chemical Engineering.

- In the UK, Fifty Shades of Grey is the best-selling book of all time.

- George Lucas had a dog named Indiana.

- Robert Duvall had a bit part as Steve McQueen's cab driver in the movie Bullitt.

- The Salvation (2014) was a Western filmed in South Africa, with a Danish director and actors from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, the U.S., and England.

- Haley Joe Osment, the boy who "saw dead people" in The Sixth Sense, played Forrest Gump's son five years earlier.

- Tippi Hedren (The Birds) is the mother of Melanie Griffith and the grandmother of Dakota Johnson.

- Kurt Vonnegut managed America's first Saab dealership.

- Denzel Washington and Jeff Goldblum both played thugs in 1974's Death Wish.

- As a child, Roald Dahl--the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory--was a taste-tester for Cadbury's chocolate.

- Nathaneal West's 1939 novel The Day of the Locust features a character named Homer Simpson.

- In High Plains Drifter, one of the headstones in the cemetery was inscribed with the name Sergio Leone.

- Married (at one time or another): Geena Davis/Jeff Goldblum, Rachel Weisz/Daniel Craig, Calista Flockhart/Harrison Ford, Marlo Thomas/Phil Donahue, Rita Hayworth/Orson Welles, Uma Thurman/Gary Oldman, Dyan Cannon/Cary Grant, Lorraine Bracco/Edward James Olmos, Catherine Keener/Delmot Mulroney, Mia Farrow/Frank Sinatra, Christie Brinkley/Billy Joel, Barbara Streisand/Elliott Gould, Brooke Shields/Andre Agassi, Lisa Marie Presley/Nicolas Cage, Mary Steenbergen/Malcolm McDowell, Isabella Rosselini/Martin Scorcese, Madonna/Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller/Will Arnett, Michelle Phillips/Dennis Hopper, Mimi Rogers/Tom Cruise, Helen Hunt/Hank Azaria, Drew Barrymore/Tom Green, Katherine Ross/Sam Elliott, Scarlett Johanssen/Ryan Reynolds.

-Dated (at one time or another): Helen Mirren/Liam Neeson, Anjelica Huston/Jack Nicholson. Sarah Jessica Parker/Robert Downey Jr., Courtney Cox/Michael Keaton, Whoopi Goldberg/Frank Langella, Carrie Fisher/Paul Simon, Jeanne Tripplehorn/Ben Stiller, Meryl Streep/John Cazale.

- Barbie in Toy Story 3 is voiced by Jodi Benson, who also voiced Ariel in The Little Mermaid.

- Paranormal Activity cost $15,000 to make and has grossed $210 million; Deep Throat cost around $25,000 and grossed $600 million; John Carter cost $350 million and lost $200 million.

- Mickey Spillane was at one time the author of seven of the ten best-selling novels in history.

- Sean Connery wore a toupee in all of his James Bond movies.


And maybe the most valuable and surprising piece of trivia of all:

- Katy Perry's cat's name is Kitty Purry.

(Don't ever say I didn't give you the inside info.)


Can you think of any crazy and lesser-known movie/novel/actor/author facts? Inquiring minds want to know . . .




19 August 2017

Jewels From the Bargain Bin


Like many of you, I was shocked and saddened by the recent passing of our friend B.K. Stevens. I can't remember when she and I first met face-to-face--one of the Bouchercons--but we've exchanged (literally) hundreds of emails over the years. I miss her deeply. It was I who, with the blessing of our board, invited her to join SleuthSayers a couple of years ago, and I believe she enjoyed the group. I know I always looked forward to her insights--Bonnie was one of those writers who seemed always to to be able to find the humor in this crazy pastime of ours. I'm pleased that her fictional characters will live on, and I look forward to discovering or re-reading her many stories in back issues of AHMM and other publications. Once again, deepest condolences to Dennis and the rest of her family. 


Not that it matters, but my post today involves one of the many subjects that Bonnie and I often discussed…

I've always loved movies. I grew up in a town too small to have a traffic light, much less a theatre (actually it did have a rickety wooden building that screened what my granddad called "serials," with John Wayne and Tom Mix, but it burned down when I was four or five), so the first cinematic experiences I really remember are the movies my parents or my older cousins took me to in our two nearest "cities," one seven miles west and the other twelve miles east. I can still recall the names of some of those thrilling adventures: The Missouri Traveler, Operation Mad Ball, Old Yeller, Fire Down Below, Calamity Jane, The Seven Year Itch, The Lion and the Horse, Bend of the River, and so on. Later, I devoured movies at every opportunity, in high school, college, and the Air Force, and since by that time I could also see them regularly on TV, I furthered my addiction at home, late at night. Even now, I spend way too much time in front of either the big or small screen (mostly small, via Netflix, Apple TV, and Amazon Prime Video). I'm hooked--what can I say?

A couple of weeks ago I watched two films I'd somehow never gotten around to seeing: Waterloo Bridge (recommended by Paul Marks) and In a Lonely Place. I liked them both. I've also recently re-watched familiar favorites like L. A. Confidential, Apocalypse Now, The Big Country, Raising Arizona, and Aliens. And, in so doing, it occurred to me that most people's favorite films are probably those that are well-known: the Citizen Kanes, Godfathers, Chinatowns, Casablancas, Fargos, Vertigos, etc. They're great movies, yes, but they're supposed to be. They're classics.

What I especially enjoy, though, is to "discover," either by accident or through the recommendations of friends (thanks again, Paul!), good movies that I've not heard about, or that I didn't think I would like. The following is a list of a round 100 of those "pleasant surprises." Most are those that you might find in the six-foot-diameter, three-to-five-dollar DVD bin at Walmart, but I liked 'em all. And yes, I know I wrote a similar column about guilty-pleasure movies earlier this year, and this list recycles some of those--but more than half of these are new entries. (I've dug through a great many of those discount bins since then.)

Anyhow, if you're ever stuck for something new to watch, give one of these lesser-known gems a try:


From Noon to Three (1976)
The Rocketeer (1991)
Sands of the Kalahari (1965)
Park (2006)
Born Losers (1967)
Magic (1978)
A Family Thing (1996)
The Hanging Tree (1959)
Melancholia (2011)
Used Cars (1980)
Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
The Gypsy Moths (1969)
I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017)
Duck, You Sucker (1971)
The Last Sunset (1961)
The Dish (2000)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2007)
Waterhole #3 (1967)
Proof (2005)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Ghost World (2001)
Remo Willians--the Adventure Begins (1985)
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)
The Professionals (1966)
Dillinger (1973)
A History of Violence (2005)
Cloverfield Lane (2015)
In Bruge (2008)
Vanishing Point (1971)
What's Up, Doc? (1972)
The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Island in the Sky (1953)
Good Neighbor Sam (1964)
Pawn Shop Chronicles (2013)
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Cashback (2006)
Copland (1997)
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Lockout (2012)
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
Red Rock West (1993)
An Unfinished Life (2005)
Edge of Darkness (2010)
Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)
Game Change (2012)
A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
Killer Joe (2011)
Idiocracy (2006)
Nebraska (2013)
What About Bob? (1991)
Mystery Road (2013)
Frequency (2000)
Big (1988)
The Sea of Trees (2015)
Leap of Faith (1992)
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Mexican (2001)
The Great Train Robbery (1979)
Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Across the Universe (2007)
The History of the World, Part I (1981)
Brassed Off (1996)
Lady in the Water (2006)
Top Secret! (1984)
Ransom (1996)
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
16 Blocks (2006)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
The Cooler (2003)
Seven Men From Now (1956)
Hidalgo (2004)
The Book of Eli (2010)
True Romance (1993)
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
Always (1989)
Heaven's Prisoners (1996)
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Manhunter (1986)
Silver Bullet (1985)
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Secondhand Lions (2003)
Nobody's Fool (1994)
Dead Again (1991)
Will Penny (1967)
Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Nevada Smith (1966)
Necessary Roughness (1991)
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
The Edge (1997)
A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
Rustler's Rhapsody (1985)
The Great Race (1965)
Undercover Brother (2002)
The Salvation (2014)
The Flim-Flam Man (1967)
Stripes (1981)


If you've heard of some of these, I'm pleased--not many are instantly recognizable. But I think they're worth your while. Some have won awards, many are technically excellent, and a few will make you laugh or cry. If you do watch any of them on my recommendation and they make you laugh or cry for the wrong reasons (believe me, I've seen a lot of those, too), I apologize. My taste is sometimes a little weird.

Here's the question of the day: Do you have any obscure favorites you can point me to? I received a lot of great suggestions from your comments, last time.

My Netflix queue awaits your replies…

24 July 2017

Withnail & I


Picture this: A large, empty, cavernous movie theater auditorium in the depths of winter. I'm in a jacket and scarf, and my breath is visible. It's a matinee screening and no one else came. The lights go down and the ruby red curtains part. A soulful saxophone echoes: a four a.m. version of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale. Up on the screen, a man sits in profile in a darkened sitting room and smokes a cigarette. He's contemplating the universe, or he's about to face a firing squad.
This is a memory burnt into my mind. And I am lately reminded that it happened thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago, Kevin called me up on the telephone. "You should go see it," he said. He'd called to tell me about a movie that had opened a couple of days earlier. I don't remember his exact words, but I remember his enthusiasm, and the movie was Withnail and I.

"What's it about?"

A couple of days later, I sat alone in that aforementioned empty movie theater: The Embassy; a cold, uninspiring Art Deco building of creams and off whites. It used to stand on the corner of Lorne and Wellesley Streets in Auckland City, and it was a proper movie palace: wide, a couple of levels, big fat chocolate leather seats (and not a darkened shoe box like most cinemas today).

"What the hell was that about?" Francine asked, two weeks later, when I suggested we go see it (me for the second time), and we did, and we sat in a café afterwards.

The movie is set in England in 1969 and it's about a lot of different things, and to describe any one of them would do disservice to the others. To my mind, it's about as close to a book as any movie has ever gotten. When I close a good book, I'm left first with a mood, a feeling; it's taken me somewhere emotionally. Remembering scenes and moments (and the plot) comes later.

Essentially, Withnail is the story of two actors. They've graduated from drama school and are looking for work. They're unemployed and the world owes them no favors. In fact, the world seems to offer no hope whatsoever. The world is crumbling.
This can be read as a metaphor, and it's the key to the movie's popularity (it flopped when it was first released, but it's since become a perennial favorite; a cult classic). We've all been there. The waiting. The what next? The what do I do now?

It doesn't matter the career or chosen path, be it actor, writer, musician, or ________ (fill in the blank). Most of us have found ourselves, at some point, standing at the crossroads wondering what the hell do we do next?

Do I wait for the phone to ring? Do I go out and hustle? How does this thing work?

And there is no right answer. And Withnail doesn't provide one.

That's the trouble with most movies today. There's always a right answer: it's provided for you, usually in triplicate, and underlined. You can watch and "understand" most movies today without almost any assistance from your brain.

I'm not arguing that Withnail & I is the greatest movie ever made, but it takes you somewhere, if you want it to. And I will argue that it's one of the more sharply written and better acted.

Withnail ends in Regent's Park, London. It's raining. It's a miserable day. One of the actors has left to catch a train; he has secured a job. The other is left drunk at the bars of the wolf enclosure, his future uncertain. He recites the what a piece of work is man? monologue from Hamlet. The wolves are uninterested.


Again, a metaphor.

Withnail & I is about whatever you want to find in it.

Withnail & I (at the IMDB)

Stephen Ross (on Facebook)