Sunday, June 29, 2008

Incognegro - Mat Johnson

Having grown up in the Fifties and Sixties, my taste in comics runs mostly to superheroes, but I sometimes read the more offbeat stuff, too. This new graphic novel from DC/Vertigo by Mat Johnson, for example, is set in the 1930s and concerns a light-skinned black reporter from the North coming to the South and passing as white so he can investigate lynchings. Since he’s working undercover, so to speak, his stories are by-lined “Incognegro”. His current assignment is more personal than usual, because his brother is in jail, accused of killing a white woman.

In the best tradition of hardboiled mysteries, and very appropriately in this case, not everything is what it appears to be. The investigation revolves around moonshining, murder, and a number of secrets that have little or nothing to do with race. It won’t come as any surprise to the reader that the deeper the reporter digs into things, the more danger he’s in, and not only because he’s a black man pretending to be white in 1930s Mississippi.

This is an excellent example of crime fiction in the graphic novel format and ought to be of interest to anyone who enjoys hardboiled historical mysteries.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Mr. Brooks

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a successful businessman in Portland, a family man with a beautiful wife and daughter. He’s also a serial killer with an imaginary serial killer buddy. Things start to unravel for him when somebody discovers his crimes but instead of trying to blackmail him for money, the guy wants in on the killing. Meanwhile, the millionaire cop (Demi Moore) who’s after the Thumbprint Killer, as Brooks is known to the police, has other troubles of her own: she’s going through a messy divorce, and another serial killer she put away in the past (the Hangman!) has escaped and is looking for her to take his revenge on her.

Then things get really complicated.

This is a weird, creepy movie that’s so unpleasant that it’s hard to watch in places. But it’s very well made and I have to admire the twistiness of the plot. I’m not a big Demi Moore fan, but she’s pretty good in this movie, and so is Kevin Costner, who succeeds in making a guy who’s basically a monster seem sympathetic at times. The action scenes, some of which really come out of nowhere, are very effective. But I still don’t know if I like the movie or not. I didn’t doze off during it, though, that’s for sure.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Forgotten Books: The Ghosts of Elkhorn - Kerry Newcomb and Frank Schaefer

The Wind River Kid is an old, old man, an aging gunfighter living out the last years of his life in an isolated ghost town during the 1920s, kept company only by phantoms of his own past. Then this relative calm is interrupted by the arrival of a young couple with plenty of trouble following them in the form of tommy-gun-toting gangsters. Wanting only to be left alone, the Wind River Kid is forced to take sides in this fight against varmints worse than any he ever came up against back in the Old West.

You couldn’t ask for a better Old West vs. New West novel than this one from 1982, nor a more mystical, beautifully written elegy for days gone by. In the spirit of full disclosure, one of the co-authors, Kerry Newcomb, has been a good friend of mine for nearly thirty years, but I read this book back when it first came out and it’s lingered in my mind for all that time, especially one evocative line towards the end. When THE GHOSTS OF ELKHORN was published, Kerry and his writing partner Frank Schaefer were already very successful authors, having written bestselling historical romance novels under the names Christina Savage and Shana Carrol, as well as historical adventures as Peter Gentry and a well-regarded thriller, PANDORA MAN, under their own names. There was talk of a movie deal for THE GHOSTS OF ELKHORN, but it never came about. As far as I know there was never a paperback edition of the novel, and it gradually faded from most memories as Kerry went on to a long and successful career as a solo novelist, producing several dozen excellent historical novels and Westerns. His books about the Anthem family of Texas, published first under the pseudonym James Reno and later reprinted under his own name, are some of the best traditional Westerns of the past twenty years. Anything you pick up by Kerry will give you a great story peopled by well-drawn characters.

But to my mind, THE GHOSTS OF ELKHORN is his masterpiece and deserves not to be forgotten . . . which is the whole point of posts like this, after all.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Cat's Meow

I’d never heard of this movie, but it was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, once one of the hottest directors in Hollywood for films like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, PAPER MOON, and WHAT’S UP, DOC (all movies that I like a lot). And it’s set in 1920s Hollywood, another interest of mine, and one of Bogdanovich’s as well, since he was the director of the forgotten and underrated NICKELODEON. So I figured it was worth watching, and turns out it is.

It purports to tell the story of what really happened to director and producer Thomas Ince, who died mysteriously during a cruise on a luxurious yacht belonging to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Also figuring in the plot are Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, and novelist Elinor Glyn. There’s lots of brittle, witty dialogue, a little depravity (what would Hollywood be without it?), and movie colony backstabbing and intrigue.

Probably nobody alive today really knows what happened to Tom Ince, but the movie makes a good case for the version it presents. It reminded me somewhat of HOLLYWOODLAND, the movie about the death of George Reeves (which I also liked), although it’s not as open-ended as HOLLYWOODLAND. If you’re interested in the silent film era, as I am, I think you’ll enjoy THE CAT’S MEOW.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hardluck Stories: The Pulp Noir Issue

The latest (and final) issue of the great webzine HARDLUCK STORIES is now on-line and includes a story by me entitled “The Red Reef”. The theme for this issue is Pulp Noir, so I decided to pay tribute to a little-known pulp subgenre with my story. When most people think of pulps, they probably don’t think of South Seas yarns, but such stories appeared often in the general fiction pulps like ARGOSY and BLUE BOOK. “The Red Reef” is an homage to the South Seas stories of H. Bedford-Jones and Donald Barr Chidsey, a couple of my favorite pulpsters. (That’s one reason I was reading so much by those guys a couple of months ago. Also, they’re really good.) There are nods to both authors in the story, although the ones to Bedford-Jones are pretty obscure. I also borrowed a couple of stylistic touches from HB-J for this story. I think it’s a pretty good yarn.

I’ve also had a chance to read the other stories in the issue, and they’re all excellent. My favorite is Bill Crider’s “Crossroads”, but I’m prejudiced, of course, since I’ve known Bill since we were both roaming the earth in the pre-Cambrian Era. You should read all the stories, and while you’re there, go back and read the previous issues of HARDLUCK STORIES if you haven’t already. You definitely won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sandstorm - James Rollins

Talk about your mixed emotions. I was predisposed to not like this book: it’s too long, and the author is too successful. (Writers are just as prone to sour grapes as anybody else.) On the other hand, James Rollins is a veterinarian in real life, or at least used to be, and seems like a nice guy, so it’s hard to envy him for his success. And he’s admitted in interviews that he’s a big fan of the Doc Savage novels, my all-time favorite pulp series, so in that respect I was predisposed to like the book. The verdict: I liked it. Quite a bit, actually.

It opens with an explosion at the British Museum that destroys a display of Arabian artifacts, but it’s not the terrorist attack you might expect. Instead, it’s a natural occurrence caused by the convergence of an electrical storm and something hidden inside one of the artifacts. This sends a large and varied cast of scientists, explorers, billionaires, and spies racing off to Oman in a quest to find a lost city buried under the sands before the natural catastrophe that’s developing threatens the continued existence of the entire world. Of course there’s action aplenty along the way, as well as a smidgen of soap opera.

I hardly ever even attempt to read a book that’s almost 600 pages long anymore, and when I do I usually make it thirty or forty pages and then decide that I don’t like it well enough to stick with it for the five or six days it’ll take me to read it. Usually there’s nothing really wrong with the book; it just doesn’t compel me to make that investment of time. That never happened with SANDSTORM, though. I was able to stay with it without any problem . . . although it wouldn’t have broken my heart if it had been a hundred pages shorter. Still, there’s a lot of plot in it, and Rollins seems to be very good about planting things that don’t pay off until two or three hundred pages later. He also writes decent action scenes and has good characters. Things get a little far-fetched now and then; Rollins leads the reader right up to the edge of saying, “Oh, come on!”, but doesn’t quite get there. And he winds up with at least semi-plausible scientific explanations for everything.

I liked this one enough so that I’ll certainly read more by Rollins, and if you like big, epic adventure novels, I think his books are worth a try.

Monday, June 23, 2008

American Gangster

This movie begins with a guy getting doused with gasoline, set on fire, and then shot multiple times at close range. After watching this opening, my daughter Joanna commented, “Well, it’s no BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” (which she had watched earlier in the day).

No, it’s certainly not. There’s a lot of bad ****in’ language, a ****load of **********in’ violence, a bunch of ********er’s shootin’ up, and numerous nekkid women. Other than that there’s really nothing objectionable in it.

AMERICAN GANGSTER is the story of Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington), who took over the drug trade in New York in the late Sixties by the simple means of going to Thailand and buying directly from the suppliers. Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts, an honest but otherwise messed-up cop from New Jersey who winds up trying to take down Lucas’s drug operation. It’s based on actual events, but as usual, I don’t know how much of the story was invented for the movie.

I do know that I enjoyed it, despite the fact that some of it is pretty unpleasant. This is a relentlessly old-fashioned movie that looks and feels like it could have been made in 1975. The pace is a little leisurely, but the acting is good all around, and at two-and-a-half hours, it definitely has an epic feel to it. I liked this considerably more than some other cops vs. gangsters movies that got a lot more acclaim. (cough* THE DEPARTED *cough) It’s well worth your time if all that cussin’ and killin’ and dopin’ doesn’t bother you.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Forgotten Books: Rope Law - Lewis B. Patten

Over the past few years, Lewis B. Patten has become one of my favorite Western authors. The West he writes about is often a dark and dangerous place, where no one can be trusted completely, not even your best friend or the woman you love, where good men sometimes do bad things and bad men do even worse. His Gold Medal novel ROPE LAW, originally published in 1956, fits right in with that description and is probably the best Patten novel I’ve read so far.

The story begins in the middle of the action, with a posse chasing down a fugitive atop a rugged plateau. When the man they’re after holes up in an old cabin, the posse members surround the place, but then the sheriff throws them a curve by riding up to the cabin and walking in to confront the outlaw . . . who, as it turns out, is the lawman’s adopted son.

From there, as the posse waits for nightfall so they can close in, Patten backtracks to fill in the story of what brought the characters to this point, and it’s a years-long saga of drunkenness, prostitution, robbery, and murder worthy of any of the more contemporary Gold Medals. Sex serves as the motivation for most of this, and while the scenes aren’t graphic, there are quite a few of them for a traditional Western published in 1956. He also puts his heroes through a lot of torment, both emotional and physical, that was unusual for the time period. Patten’s tendency to come up with somewhat happy endings keeps his books from falling completely into the Western noir category, but they come close enough to satisfy most readers of crime fiction, I think. ROPE LAW certainly does.

A couple of words of warning, though: Not all of Patten’s novels are as dark as what I’ve described here. Some of them are very traditional Westerns with nothing really to distinguish them except a competent readability (not something to be taken lightly in its own right, mind you). And he’s also an inconsistent writer, especially in his later books which are carelessly written to the point that I’ve started some of them and not finished them. But pick up ROPE LAW or LYNCHING AT BROKEN BUTTE or THE SCAFFOLD AT HANGMAN’S CREEK (Patten likes hangings as plot instigators, too) or any number of other novels, and I think you’ll be thoroughly entertained.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Continuing our revisiting of the Indiana Jones films, we watched this second entry in the series recently. I remember being somewhat disappointed in it when it came out, and I hadn’t seen it since then. I was curious to see how I’d feel about it now. And, as it turns out, I still don’t like it very much.

No need to go into the plot, surely, other than the fact that there’s not much of one. This movie seems like a prime example of sequelitis to me: take whatever worked in the first film and make it bigger, noisier, more frantic, and more special-effects-laden. I actually kind of liked the opening scene in the nightclub, although it gets a little busy and cutesy before it’s over. The kid sidekick isn’t quite as annoying as I remembered. But once Indy and the kid and the girl get to the palace, with that gross-out dinner scene, things start to fall apart for me. After that it’s just one mindless action scene after another. And the ending certainly lacks the ironic kicker of the first movie.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a terrible film. And I know I should judge it on its own merits rather than compare it so much to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM just never really quite works for me.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

It was a quiet, peaceful Father's Day around here (the best kind). I worked on the current manuscript and wrote 26 pages, so I certainly can't complain about that. The girls gave me assorted CDs and DVDs, plus a good fishing cap and a fedora. Pictures on here eventually, more than likely. And it's always nice to get a reminder that while I'm proud of my career, the absolute best thing I've ever done is to be a dad.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pavilion Photos

Mark Finn with REHupan Amy Kerr sitting on the other side of the table.

Indy in "friendly REHupan" mode, with Gary Romeo in the foreground. As I've mentioned before on this blog, I tend to forget to take pictures, and when I do I'm not very good at it. But at least I got a few this time.

Howard in Pop Culture Panel

At the table, that's Indy, Mark, Dan, and Rusty, left to right.

Cross Plains

I rolled into Cross Plains a little before ten o’clock this morning for my almost-annual visit to the Howard Days get-together. I say almost annual because I missed last year, but now I have a new streak started. The day had already been productive for me, because on the drive down there I worked on the plot for a new project that I can actually talk about for a change, at least once all the details get nailed down. More on that later.

But today was mostly about visiting with old friends like Rusty Burke, Indiana Bill Cavalier (“the friendly REHupan” or “Black Indy the Bad Ass”, depending on whether or not you’re roused his ire), Mark Finn, Charles Gramlich, Dave H
ardy, Michael Scott Myers, Gary Romeo, Paul Herman, Chris Gruber, and Russell Andrew. The highlight of the morning was Mark Finn’s discussion of his REH biography BLOOD AND THUNDER, plus we were entertained by a reading of a new short story by Mark.

After adjourning to Jean’s Feed Barn for lunch, it was back to the pavilion at the Howard House for a panel all about Robert E. Howard in Pop Culture, moderated by Indy and featuring Rusty, Mark, and Dan Rosenfelt, a representative from Paradox Entertainment, the company that now controls all the Howard-related properties. Dan filled us in on the numerous Howard-related movie projects that are coming up, as well as the extremely popular and successful Age of Conan on-line roleplaying game. I also spent a considerable amount of time talking to authors
and Howard fans Christopher Fulbright and Angeline Hawkes. I spent less time actually inside the Howard House than I normally do, but of course I had to walk through and pause outside Bob’s room for a moment to reflect on all the great work that was done there.

Late in the afternoon most folks headed for the barbecue at Caddo Peaks, while I climbed in the car and headed home. It’s a two-hour drive, and I like to get home before dark. My name is James, and I’m a geezer.

All in all, I had a great time, as I always do in Cross Plains. I always come back feeling a little revitalized as a writer, too. We’ll see how that carries over when I sit down to do tomorrow’s pages.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Dark Brand - H.A. De Rosso

Since no one else seems to be doing Westerns in this Forgotten Books series, I thought I’d continue for a while. H.A. De Rosso is another of my favorite Western authors. He wasn’t prolific at novel-length works, turning out only a handful of books in a career cut short by a mysterious death that might have been suicide or an accident. He wrote a lot of short stories and novelettes for the pulps, though, some of which have been collected during the past ten years. Several of his novels have been reissued as well.

THE DARK BRAND is one of those novels. It opens with the hero, Dave Driscoll, in jail for rustling, but the fellow in the next cell has it even worse. He’s going to be hanged the next morning for killing a bank teller during a robbery. This doomed hombre is a hardscrabble rancher with a wife, a son, and a failing spread who became a bank robber to help his family. Because of that, he’s hidden the money he got away with and refuses to tell anyone where it is, including the brutal sheriff who wants the loot for himself.

However, when Driscoll gets out of prison three years later and returns to the same town, he finds that a lot of people believe the condemned man told him where the money was hidden, and now there are various factions who want to force him to lead them to the loot by any means necessary, including torture. Driscoll really doesn’t know where the money is, but he wants to find it to help the hanged man’s wife and son.

None of De Rosso’s heroes are actually very heroic, and Driscoll fits that mold. He’s a brooding, emotionally tormented man who’s sort of forced into doing the right thing most of the time. What he goes through in this book doesn’t make him any more cheerful, that’s for sure. The story takes place near a mountain range called the Sombras that figures in some of De Rosso’s other books. The name certainly fits because there’s a somber air that hangs over THE DARK BRAND. And the title itself is an indication of the mood here, of course. Actually, THE DARK BRAND is regarded as one of De Rosso’s less bleak books, which tells you how grim he can sometimes be.

Fittingly, De Rosso writes in a spare, fast-moving style, and there are some excellent twists in the plot here, the sort that I should have seen coming but didn’t. His work has echoes of Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis, but what his books most remind me of are the noir Westerns of Ed Gorman. If you like any of those writers, I highly recommend that you pick up THE DARK BRAND or any of De Rosso’s other novels or short story collections.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Now & Then - Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker’s sort of on probation with me. I still read the Spenser books and the Jesse Stone books, but I’ve been tempted to give up on both series. However, I just read NOW AND THEN, the Spenser novel from last year, and I thought it was one of the best entries in that series in a while, so I guess I’ll keep reading them, at least for the time being.

Parker almost lost me early on in this one when he goes on about Spenser and Susan eating cold plum soup. I stuck with it, though, and was glad I did. The plot doesn’t matter all that much. Spenser’s hired to investigate some stuff. A couple of people get killed. Spenser takes it personally and goes after the killer. It all ties in, at least emotionally, with the time many years ago when Spenser and Susan split up for a while. But what I liked is the fact that Spenser quotes from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, one of my favorite films. Also – and this is the clencher for me – there’s a brief reference to George Harmon Coxe’s character Flashgun Casey. Any writer who throws in something like that, knowing that it’s probably going to go right past most of his readers, is aces with me, cold plum soup and all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Today marks the 72nd anniversary of Robert E. Howard's death. It's a tradition among Howard fans to read something he wrote and have a drink to him on this day (as well as his birthday), and that's exactly what I plan to do. Although the drink will probably be iced tea, since I seldom indulge in anything stronger than that. But it's the thought that counts, I hope.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Team Zero - Chuck Dixon

Some of the first comic books I remember reading are an issue of OUR ARMY AT WAR that I read at a cousin’s house and an issue of G.I. COMBAT I bought at Tompkins’ Drug Store when it was on Main Street in an old wooden building that’s now well over a hundred years old and still there. The drug store is long gone, though, along with its soda fountain and spinner rack of funny books. However, I digress. My point is that I’ve been a fan of war comics for almost fifty years, so it’s not surprising that I enjoyed a recent trade paperback from DC/Wildstorm reprinting their Team Zero mini-series from a couple of years ago.

When Image Comics first came on the scene in the mid-Nineties, I read quite a few of the titles in their Wildstorm imprint, which is now part of DC, of course. My favorite was DEATHBLOW, and I also liked a character called Grifter who appeared in their WILDC.A.T.S. title. Both Deathblow and Grifter appear in the World War II yarn TEAM ZERO . . . but not the same Deathblow and Grifter. No superheroics here. This is a straight-out war story following a specially-assembled team of commandos dropped far behind enemy lines in the waning days of the war to snatch up the German rocket scientists at Peenemunde before the Soviet army can get its hands on them. It’s exactly the sort of assignment that in another comics era would have been given to Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (and what a great comic book that was for a lot of years). The soldiers recruited for this mission are given code-names that would later figure prominently in the Wildstorm Universe – Deathblow, Grifter, Backlash, Claymore, etc. – but with one exception, they’re not the same characters. That tenuous connection to what comes later chronologically isn’t really important to the reader’s enjoyment of this story; TEAM ZERO can be read as a complete stand-alone.

It’s written by Chuck Dixon, who was one of my favorite comics authors during the Nineties with his work on AIRBOY and THE PUNISHER. There’s plenty of action in the story, a few plot twists, and plenty of blood ’n’ guts, as you’d expect from a war comic. I enjoyed it a lot and highly recommend it to any comics fans out there.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

We liked the first NATIONAL TREASURE movie quite a bit, so there was a good chance we’d enjoy the second one, NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS, too. And we did.

This time around, historian and archeologist Ben Gates (no relation to the PI of the same name from Robert Terrall’s novels, one assumes) is trying to find the fabled Lost City of Gold so that he can prove his great-grandfather wasn’t the mastermind behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. (Trust me, it makes sense, sort of, in the movie.) After numerous chase scenes, shoot-outs, and assorted derring-do, the whole thing comes to an action-packed climax inside Mount Rushmore. (Trust me, this also makes sense, sort of . . . well, not so much.)

But the important thing is that Nicolas Cage, playing the stalwart hero, and Ed Harris, who plays the villain, seem to be having a lot of fun, as do the members of the supporting cast, most of whom return from the first movie. There’s no point in trying to analyze a movie like this. Yes, some of the historical speculation is a little goofy, but so what? At least the movie is actually about history, which isn’t a bad thing. I had a really good time watching it.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Sharpshooters -- John Benteen

THE SHARPSHOOTERS is #9 in the Fargo series by John Benteen, who was really Ben Haas, and while it happens to be the one I’ve read most recently I’m really recommending the entire series. Although they were marketed as Westerns, and some of them certainly have Western elements, like this one, they’re actually tough, gritty, globe-trotting adventure novels set around 1915, in locations ranging from the Philippines to Panama to Alaska.

Neal Fargo is a veteran of the Spanish-American War who served in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. In fact, he carries a sawed-off shotgun presented to him by Roosevelt himself. He’s a mercenary, a gun-runner, and has fought in wars all over the world. He’s not exactly a hired killer, although he’s definitely a bad man to have for an enemy. In this book he’s caught by the Texas Rangers trying to run ammunition across the Rio Grande to Pancho Villa and blackmailed into penetrating a remote valley in the Davis Mountains of West Texas to arrest a man who shot a Ranger in the back. Problem is, the killer is part of a clan of hillbilly moonshiners who came to Texas to escape a long, bloody feud back in the Smoky Mountains. Complicating the situation are two cattle barons who want the valley for themselves and have hired gunmen to take it away from the moonshiners. In other words, Fargo finds himself surrounded by scores of hardcases who want to kill him.

As I read other books in the Fargo series, I was reminded of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and the similarities really come through in this book. While I don’t know if the author, Ben Haas, ever read REH, my hunch is that he did. Haas even wrote three sword-and-sorcery novels, EXILE’S QUEST and THE NIGHT OF MORNING STAR as by Richard Meade and QUEST OF THE DARK LADY as by Quinn Reade. I’ve read the latter and liked it, haven’t gotten to the two Meade books yet but I will.

Haas is actually one of my favorite Western writers, though, and I highly recommend his work. He wrote the Fargo series and the even longer-running Sundance series as by John Benteen. As Richard Meade he wrote the above-mentioned sword-and-sorcery novels and a handful of really fine traditional Westerns, as well as a couple of espionage novels I haven’t read. As Thorne Douglas he wrote the five-book Rancho Diablo series, another one I haven’t gotten to yet. And he wrote several mainstream and historical novels under his own name. First and foremost, though, he was a great paperbacker, turning out numerous tough, pulpish Western action novels under the John Benteen pseudonym. A couple of the Fargo novels were written by someone using the name John W. Hardin, and the Sundance series was eventually taken over by Peter McCurtin after a few books written by various authors (Tom Curry, Dudley Dean, and Mike Linaker, that I know of) under the Jack Slade house-name. But if a book has John Benteen’s name on it, chances are that Ben Haas really wrote it and that it’s very entertaining. Haas died relatively young, but he wrote a lot of good books in a fairly short career. Take a look and see what you think.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Double Nickel Hoopla

Sounds like a book title, doesn’t it? In this case, though, it refers to the fact that I turned 55 today, which means I can now legitimately get the senior citizen discount that retail clerks and restaurant cashiers have been giving me for several years without asking.

In the birthday present department, this year was largely about replacing stuff that was lost in the fire, like my iPod and THE BLACK LIZARD BIG BOOK OF PULPS and a GET FUZZY collection and assorted CDs and DVDs, plus some that I didn’t have before, like the soundtrack CD from THE COMANCHEROS, which is playing as I type these words. Great stuff, in other words. Simply put, it was a fine birthday . . . even though I don’t feel 55, no how, no way.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


I’ve been wanting to see this movie ever since it came out. Here’s the set-up: 600 years before Columbus, a young Viking boy, the sole survivor of an ill-fated expedition to North America, is taken in and raised by the local Indian tribe. Years later, when more Vikings show up with pillage and slaughter in mind, the boy, now grown, rallies his adopted people in a guerrilla war against the invaders. Much hacking and slashing ensues. Really sounds like my kind of movie, doesn’t it? But . . . I didn’t like it.

To start with, the photography is murky and the editing often seems designed to make the action as difficult to follow as possible. The plot that I describe in the previous paragraph? That’s it. No real twists at all. Because of the helmets the Viking invaders wear, we hardly ever see their faces, so we don’t really get to know any of them. That doesn’t make for very good villains.

On the plus side, there’s the occasional striking image or bit of business, and the conflict between the hero and the leader of the Vikings finally comes alive late in the movie. PATHFINDER isn’t terrible, it just isn’t very good, and I kept feeling like it could have been. Not recommended unless you’re really a fan of this sort of film.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

More Movies

We’ve watched a few more movies recently. Here’s a quick rundown.


It’s not a sports movie, but it is inspirational and based on a true story. Denzel Washington is a professor and coach of the debate team at tiny, all-black Wiley College in 1935. Since Wiley is located in East Texas, the movie is as much about racism as it is about debating. Although Washington is the star (and the director), the film really belongs to another Denzel, Denzel Whittaker (the real-life son of co-star Forest Whittaker), who plays a 14-year-old who’s already in college and turns in a fine performance. Well-made, worth watching, and only a little heavy-handed at times.


We watched the first one, so you know it was inevitable we’d watch the sequel as well. All the characters return for a story that finds them out of school for the summer and working at an exclusive country club. As you’d expect, friction develops between the rich kids and the kids who are part of the staff. Everybody sings and dances a lot. I thought the original HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL had a certain breezy charm to it, this one less so. It reminded me a little of the old Beach Party movies, only without the humor. Still, there are a lot of bright colors and enthusiasm, and the movie’s not aimed at crusty old geezers like me anyway. (And I suspect that thirty years from now, when today’s kids are watching whatever’s popular then with their kids, they’ll grumble, “Yeah, but it’s not as good as the old High School Musical movies.”)


Saving the best for last, this fantasy set partially in 1840s England and mostly in the magical realm of Stormhold is a wonderful movie. The plot is really too complex to describe, but you’ve got evil witches (one of them played by Michelle Pfeiffer), evil princes feuding over who’s going to succeed th
eir father as King of Stormhold, people being turned into animals (and vice versa), a stalwart young hero, a fallen star that assumes human form (Claire Danes), pirates who sail the skies in a ship attached to a giant balloon (the captain played by Robert De Niro), and sword fights. Lots and lots of sword fights. I absolutely loved it and thought it was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve never read any of the novels by Neil Gaiman, but this adaptation of one of them is enough to convince me that I ought to.