MEMORIAL DAY 2016

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WE CROWN THY GOOD IN HOLLYWOOD, FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA (2016 VERSION)

Back in 2010, I surfed Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine and saw a link to a list of the 50 states and the best movie associated with each state. A pretty interesting concept, I thought. But the more I looked over them, the more I disagreed with most of them. For example, Recount was listed as the best movie ever associated with Florida. Of course, that’s just bullshit whining over the result of the 2000 presidential election. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was listed as the best-ever Illinois movie, and well, you get the idea. There was plenty of room for improvement.

So improvement arrived in major doses in the form of my own list in late 2010. Two years later, I revised the list somewhat, and now I revise it again. I’ve included the District of Columbia, and I also recognized there were a lot of states that had many great movies connected to them. It’s too difficult to select one great movie that bespeaks Florida, for example, so I listed four. In those cases, the multiple listings are arranged chronologically.

In addition, I gave New York City a separate listing apart from New York State. The city is such an iconic place, and so many movies were filmed or set there, it’s very easy to forget the rest of the state, so I split the city off.

I might add that these films were not necessarily shot in their respective states, but for the most part each film is set there, or it has a strong organic link to that state. Arkansas, for instance, gets A Face In The Crowd. Only the opening scenes are set in Arkansas, and probably none of it was actually filmed there. The film then swiftly moves on to Memphis and New York, but the central character, played by Andy Griffith (in a blistering screen debut), is an Arkansan through and through. His persona drips with Arkansas throughout the movie, regardless of his surroundings. The movies I chose, like A Face In The Crowd, must somehow convey the essence of the state to make the list.

In some cases, the movies I selected were not overflowing with greatness themselves, but I felt they did showcase the state strongly enough to make the list. Big Jim McLain is not one of John Wayne’s top 5 films, but it showed pre-statehood, Cold War-era Hawaii in a very different, very evocative way, so much so that the film made my list.

Other films, which I consider to be masterpieces, like The Wild Bunch or Citizen Kane, are not really associated with any particular state in a meaningful way, so they don’t make the list. The Wild Bunch, for instance, was set in Texas and Mexico, but there is nothing particularly Texan about the movie, despite its being one of the greatest films of all time.

All set? Heeeeere we go. And I expect complete agreement.

ALABAMA:  The Phenix City Story (1955), To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

ALASKA:  Cry Vengeance (1954), The Far Country (1955)

ARIZONA:  The Baron Of Arizona (1950), 3:10 To Yuma (1958)

ARKANSAS:  A Face In The Crowd (1957), West Of Memphis (2012)

CALIFORNIA:  A Star Is Born (1954), Bullitt (1968), Fat City (1972) The Player (1992), LA Confidential (1997), Go For Sisters (2013)

COLORADO:  Misery (1990)

CONNECTICUT:  Holiday Inn (1942), Christmas In Connecticut (1945), The Ice Storm (1997)

DELAWARE:  Trigger Man (2007)

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA:  The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), The Exorcist (1974), JFK (1991), Enemy Of The State (1998)

FLORIDA:  Key Largo (1948), Body Heat (1981), Scarface (1983), The Boynton Beach Club (2006)

GEORGIA:  Gone With The Wind (1939), Deliverance (1972)

HAWAII:  Big Jim McLain (1952), From Here To Eternity (1953)

IDAHO:  Duchess Of Idaho (1950)

ILLINOIS:  Halloween (1978), The Untouchables (1987)

INDIANA:  A Christmas Story (1983), Hoosiers (1986)

IOWA:  The Bridges Of Madison County (1995), Cedar Rapids (2011)

KANSAS:  Picnic (1955), In Cold Blood (1967)

KENTUCKY:  Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), The Insider (1999)

LOUISIANA:  All The King’s Men (1949), King Creole (1958), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Hard Times (1975), Twelve Years A Slave (2013)

MAINE:  Pet Sematary (1989), The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

MARYLAND:  Hairspray (1988), Avalon (1990)

MASSACHUSETTS:  The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Verdict (1982), Monument Avenue (1998), The Town (2010)

MICHIGAN:  Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

MINNESOTA:  Fargo (1996), A Simple Plan (1998)

MISSISSIPPI:  The Long Hot Summer (1958), In The Heat Of The Night (1967), Mississippi Burning (1988)

MISSOURI:  Winter’s Bone (2010)

MONTANA:  They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Little Big Man (1970)

NEBRASKA:  Election (1999)

NEVADA:  Ocean’s 11 (1960), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Shootist (1976), Bugsy (1991), Casino (1995), Hard Eight (1996)

NEW HAMPSHIRE:  To Die For (1995)

NEW JERSEY:  Atlantic City (1980), The Wrestler (2008)

NEW MEXICO:  Ride The Pink Horse (1947), The Big Carnival (1951), Them! (1954)

NEW YORK CITY: The Hustler (1961), The Godfather (1972), Across 110th Street (1972), Saturday Night Fever (1977)

NEW YORK STATE: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Niagara (1954), The Last Of The Mohicans (1992), The Last Seduction (1994)

NORTH CAROLINA:  Cape Fear (1962), Bull Durham (1988)

NORTH DAKOTA:  The Purchase Price (1932), Northern Lights (1979)

OHIO:  Heathers (1988), Major League (1989)

OKLAHOMA: The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), Oklahoma! (1955)

OREGON:  Portland Exposé (1957), Mr Holland’s Opus (1995)

PENNSYLVANIA:  Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Rocky (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), Groundhog Day (1993)

RHODE ISLAND:  Reversal Of Fortune (1990)

SOUTH CAROLINA:  The Lords Of Discipline (1983)

SOUTH DAKOTA:  Badlands (1973), Dances With Wolves (1990)

TENNESSEE: Thunder Road (1958), Mystery Train (1989)

TEXAS:  Red River (1948), The Alamo (1960), The Last Picture Show (1971), Blood Simple (1984), No Country For Old Men (2007)

UTAH:  Once Upon A Time In The West (1968)

VERMONT:  Baby Boom (1987), State And Main (2000) 

VIRGINIA:  Remember The Titans (2000), Lawless (2012)

WASHINGTON:  House Of Games (1987), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

WEST VIRGINIA:  Matewan (1987)

WISCONSIN:  Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)

WYOMING:  Shane (1953)

 

HAPPY EASTER 2016

Easter Doxies

REVIEW: “QUARRY’S VOTE”

 

Quarry's Vote

Understatement of the year:

“My big mistake was allowing happiness to creep in.”

That’s Quarry talking, and it provides the opening line of Quarry’s Vote (Hard Case Crime/Titan Books, 2015) by Max Allan Collins, a rerelease of Collins’ 1987 novel, originally titled Primary Target. This edition, however, rests behind one of Hard Case Crime’s patented pulp-style covers, in this case drawn by the great Robert McGinnis.

Quarry has settled in to a quiet life of retirement, or as quiet as an ex-hitman can ever hope to find. He’s married, getting fat, and living on the aptly-named Paradise Lake, a remote, bucolic spot in a woodsy area of northern Wisconsin. Using his sizable nest egg from his assassin days, he has bought into a little lodge up there and he and his wife are getting along just fine, thank you, as he enters middle age. He listens to Mel Tormé records on his stereo, watches a lot of movies on TV thanks to an early-generation satellite dish, and seems prepared to doze his way through the rest of his life in bliss.

But one day, while he’s relaxing on his porch sipping coffee, a BMW pulls up and a fiftyish man gets out. Quarry is immediately suspicious, and even moreso when the man reveals he knows who Quarry is. Furthermore, he offers him one million dollars for one final job, enough money to make his retirement far more worthwhile. Seems somebody wants a politician killed, specifically, a politician who is running for president the following year under a third party banner, and who has plenty of grass roots support nationwide.

Quarry nixes the deal without blinking. Killing politicians draws way too much heat, and he would no doubt be a loose end that would have to be cleaned up. BMW Man gives Quarry his best pitch, urging him to take the job, but no dice.

That stern refusal kickstarts the plot of this eerily-timely novel. Collins started the Quarry series back in the early 1980s and now, through the efforts of Hard Case Crime, he has added several new books to it. In addition, HCC has rereleased all of the series’ original novels from the 80s, allowing Quarry to earn the attention of a whole new generation of readers. In addition, he will even be the subject of a long-awaited TV series which will air on Cinemax later this year.

For decades, Collins has written series characters, each of which has found an audience, but Quarry is going for his second trip around the block, and readers are much better off for it. This is an exciting series with a compelling lead, and Quarry’s Vote is one of the best entries. You start reading it and before you know it, you’re on the final page.

Recommendation: buy it. You can’t go wrong with Quarry or Max Allan Collins. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.

REVIEW: “MURDER NEVER KNOCKS”

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When you love a great series character, and the author dies, a little of you dies with him, because you know that your beloved character will visit you no more. Many millions of crime fiction fans felt that way when Mickey Spillane passed away in 2006 at the age of 88, because with his departure, Mike Hammer, it was thought, went with him, never to be seen again.

Fortunately, Mike got a last-minute reprieve. Before Spillane died, he alerted his wife to the presence of unfinished Hammer manuscripts and other material in his home office. “Give them to Max,” he said. “He’ll know what to do.”

“Max” was Max Allan Collins, formidable author in his own right, having birthed scores of novels over a decades-long career. Collins and Spillane had become close friends, and upon Mickey’s passing, Collins picked up the standard when he received all the unfinished material and vowed to complete every remaining Mike Hammer novel.

And so we have Murder Never Knocks (Titan Books, 2016), the eighth (or is it the ninth?) Spillane-Collins posthumous collaboration. According to Collins, Spillane began the novel in the mid-1960s, so Collins made sure it was set in the correct period, as he has done with all the novels in this series. And like the others, this one kicks off very nicely.

Mike Hammer, hardboiled private investigator and a magnet for trouble (much to the chagrin of New York police captain Pat Chambers), is hanging around his office after hours one day when a man walks in, pointing a gun at him. The man admits to Mike this is a contract killing, sort of one killer wasting another. Mike disposes of him in short order, but it doesn’t end there.

Pretty soon, everywhere he goes, he finds people around him are being murdered: in front of a newsstand, at a bridal shower … no matter where Mike is, someone’s getting clipped. Is there a revitalized version of Murder, Incorporated on the loose? And if so, why do they keep missing Mike if he’s the one they’re after?

The story expands from there, taking in Broadway producers, Mafia figures, Greenwich Village types, even New York gossip columnist Hy Gardner makes an appearance. The body count continues to rise as Mike looks for answers while he moves among shady suspects and gorgeous dolls. Who is behind all this? And why?

As with all of the other Spillane-Collins books, it’s hard to tell which has authored which passage. Collins has Spillane’s style down so thoroughly, it’s almost as if Mickey himself was doing all the writing.

Score another winner for Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins.

BEST FILM OF 2015: EX MACHINA

Below is a review I did a few months ago of Ex Machina, which turned out to be my choice for best film of 2015.

 

11190916_oriLet me say this right up front: Alex Garland’s dazzling film Ex Machina is, in its own way, as mind-blowing as Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I insert the qualification “in its own way” because Kubrick’s tableau was the enormity of the universe and all of human history, while Garland has chosen a far more claustrophobic and time-limiting setting.

It opens with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a tech geek for a Silicon Valley search engine giant, winning an in-company contest in which the grand prize is a week one-on-one with Nathan, his reclusive CEO (Oscar Isaac) at his remote mountain home. Nathan is one of the world’s smartest people, yet he goes out of his way to be a regular guy, welcoming Caleb to his high-tech palace. He’s all T-shirts and swilling beer, constantly calling Caleb “Dude”, but after Caleb gets settled in, reality begins to unfold.

Nathan has been working on a supersecret artificial intelligence and had in fact pre-selected Caleb to “win” the contest so he could put Caleb to the Turing Test, an exercise in which a person must determine if a machine can exhibit human speech and behavior to the point where a human cannot tell if he is talking to a machine or to another human. Caleb is skeptical, but agrees to take the test, so he is introduced to Ava.

Ava (Alicia Vikander in a properly spooky performance) is Nathan’s AI creation and Caleb meets with her every day. They speak through a glass partition and are constantly monitored by Nathan’s cameras. Apart from the wiring visible in her stomach, Ava seems human enough and Caleb gradually gets comfortable with her. But eventually, it all comes down to ulterior motives, and you find yourself asking exactly who is manipulating who.

That’s not the only dilemma this film poses, however. Not by a long shot. It asks the same type of big, big questions Kubrick asked in 2001. No answers are offered, but your mind gets pried open whether you want it or not, and the questions haunt you long after the final credits have rolled. At one point, Caleb and Nathan are discussing the Turing Test and a chess computer is mentioned. Caleb asks, “Does the computer know it’s playing chess?” rather than merely reacting to the human’s moves on the board. He then says, “Does it even know what chess is?” The application of this broader concept to Ava, along with its consequences, are shattering.

Garland, who also wrote the incisive screenplay, does not back down from any of this. Nor does he settle for a Hollywood ending. In addition, he wisely defuses the script from the potential quicksand of indecipherable tech talk by explaining the science in breezily accessible terminology, keeping viewers’ attention riveted to the screen and their brains in high gear.

You don’t see a film like Ex Machina come along too often. In this case, once in 47 years, since the opening of 2001. I didn’t know anything about it when I went to see it, and so it revealed itself to me exactly as Garland had intended.

Recommendation: Drop everything and go see it. This is easily the most intelligent film in decades and so far the best film of 2015. Alex Garland has fashioned a masterpiece.

HAPPY NEW YEAR 2016

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year and may 2016 be the best year yet!

Happy New Year

HAPPY THANKSGIVING 2015

Thanksgiving

HAPPY 4th OF JULY

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REVIEW: “THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYES”

THE GIRL WITH THE DEEP BLUE EYESDoak Miller’s done his twenty-five years with the NYPD. Pensioned off, he wants a quieter life, so he moves to Gallatin County, hidden away in the big bend of Florida. He gets his private investigator’s license, hoping to pick up a little off-the-books work on the side. It’s been three years now, time enough to have developed a working relationship with Gallatin Sheriff Bill Radburn. The Sheriff has a little job for him. Shouldn’t be any problem. No problem at all. And so begins Lawrence Block’s new novel, The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes (Hard Case Crime, TitanBooks, 2015).

Well, wait a minute. It begins there, but it flashes back almost immediately to his arrival in Florida and his purchase of a house. Before you can say “James M Cain”, Miller is in bed with the realtor — Barb, “like a fishhook” — and is performing vividly-described sex acts upon her. This scene is jarring — occurring so close to the beginning — but the reader soon learns how well it fits Miller’s persona.

Block smoothly segues back into the present, where Miller is meeting with Sheriff Radburn. Seems the Sheriff has received a tip that a local woman wants someone to kill her wealthy husband so she can grab his vast fortune. Miller, not as well-known around town as Radburn’s deputies, is the ideal candidate to pose as a hitman applying for the job.

Complications ensue and Miller eventually reveals himself as a true noir character, incapable of keeping his head above water or making the right choices at vital forks in the road. He keeps seeing Double Indemnity and other film noir classics play endlessly through his mind, and a fatalistic tone slowly envelops the entire novel. His secrets and dark desires — and don’t we all have them? — gnaw away at his psyche right up to his final ironic choice.

In crafting Miller’s character, Block allows the reader to experience Miller’s downward spiral in real time; that is, by the time you realize things are going south, it’s already way too late. This is the best way to read noir fiction — total immersion in the life of a well-drawn central character. The atmospheric, small-town setting adds to the proceedings, since everyone knows everyone and you have to be very careful if you step out of line. Someone is likely to notice.

Hard Case Crime has served up yet another worthy addition to their crime/noir catalog with yet another knockout cover. This one features an image by artist Glenn Orbik. It turned out to be his final work before he passed away very recently. The Girl With The Deep Blue Eyes is scheduled for publication in September, 2015.

Recommendation: Pre-order it from Amazon. The story draws you in like the aroma of bacon frying, and doesn’t let go. Block shows he hasn’t lost a step after all these years. Besides, it’s from Hard Case Crime, so you know it’s got to be good.