Shaft 2019 style – a wasted opportunity

Image result for shaft 2019Four years ago it was announced that New Line had secured the rights from Warner Brothers to make a new Shaft movie. For fans of Ernest Tidyman’s hero and the original 1970s movies this was a welcome surprise. The key question was how would New Line treat the property? Gradually news filtered out that the movie would be a sequel to the Samuel L Jackson 2000 version, itself a sequel to Richard Roundtree’s three 1970s originals. The movie would feature a third generation John Shaft and would concentrate on the relationship between him and his father.  It would also have a comedic tone. That’s when my heart, and no doubt those of many other fans of the original, sank. What we got when the film was finally released in June 2019, nearly a full year after completion, was exactly what had been promised. I sat watching the film with an increasingly sinking feeling that the producers had totally messed things up. Jackson’s character has been turned into a caricature of his 2000 version, whilst Roundtree is trotted out for the finale and is given too little screen time, given he gives easily the most considered performance. My wife lasted half-an-hour, my son an hour, I had to see it through of course.

Related imageIt seems odd that we are to accept in the post-millennial, ultra PC world we currently live in that it is impossible to make a serious crime thriller with a black hero. Why? 1971s Shaft was a hard-hitting crime thriller with a solid plot and a charismatic lead, which also had aspects of social commentary. It resonated with a generation of black Americans and a wider worldwide audience. It was groundbreaking in opening up Hollywood to black filmmakers and actors and as such has massive cultural significance. Yes, the glut of Blaxploitation movies that followed in its wake quickly veered into the territory of the absurd, but there were the occasional gems and, more importantly, it helped give black artists a stronger voice in popular culture.

Ernest Tidyman, Shaft’s creator, was ironically a white man. His goal, on commission from Macmillan’s mystery editor Alan Rinzler, was to create a black hero to give readers of crime fiction something different to the glut of white detectives and Agatha Christie-styled comfy mysteries. Tidyman duly obliged with a private eye in the mould of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe brought up to date and thrown into a decaying New York City with all its financial and social problems and its escalating crime rate. The result was the novel Shaft (1970), a hard-hitting fast read of a thriller that integrates the social issues of life in Harlem into a straight-forward detective story of threatened gang warfare between the Mafia and the Harlem crime lord. Tidyman was a former journalist with the New York Times who had an in-depth knowledge of both the city and its issues.

As written by Tidyman, the character of John  Shaft was a product of poverty in the black community. Orphaned at two-years-old, passed around from foster home to foster home, he ran with the street gangs before being enlisted to fight in Vietnam rather than go to jail. A wounded war hero, hardened by his experience he made his own way in the white man’s world. Setting up his own detective agency and operating from Times Square – not the glitzy location of today, but the sleazy run-down place it had become in the 1970s. He lived in a Greenwich Village Apartment, amongst arty types. He had no time for the black militants, led by his former friend Ben Buford, and admonished Knocks Persons, the Godfather of Harlem for soaking the streets with drugs, prostitutes and for preying on the poverty of the population via the numbers racket. Shaft was a loner, out for himself. A man of few close friends. He had been shaped by his upbringing and his experiences into looking after number 1.

Tidyman cleverly weaved all these strands through that first novel and the result was a sensation that was quickly picked up by the big studios. MGM finally acquired the rights and hired Gordon Parks, a photographer and filmmaker with an affinity and feel for Harlem. Parks put his own stamp on the character in the film adaptation taking Tidyman’s template and fashioning a charismatic performance from newcomer Richard Roundtree. Isaac Hayes’ funky score captured both the character of Shaft and the feel of the streets and provided the icing on the cake. The opening sequence is one of the best in motion picture history at establishing a character in three or four minutes.

Image result for the last shaftLike Tidyman’s novels, the film series became gradually more formulaic as bigger budgets put more emphasis on action and less on character, but they remained thoroughly enjoyable. The failure of Shaft in Africa at the box office signalled a move of the franchise to TV for a short-lived series of 7 TV movies. In 1975, Tidyman killed off the character in his seventh novel The Last Shaft (“He was tired and so was I”)  and the world moved on.

Twenty-five years later, Paramount and John Singleton attempted to relaunch the franchise. They cast Samuel L Jackson as Shaft’s nephew (later to be determined as his son) – also named John Shaft – and put him in a serviceable crime thriller, which lost the hipness and resonance of those 1970s movies, whilst providing an opportunity for Jackson to showcase his considerable charisma. The movie did well at the box office, but no-one was really happy with it.

Nearly a generation later the world is a different place – even from that seen at the turn of the century, but there are worrying elements of an increasing backlash against attitudes of social tolerance: the election of Trump; Brexit in the UK; the increasing narrow-mindedness toward the migrant situation whether it be between the Middle East and Europe or on the US/Mexican border. Issues that could be addressed rather than ignored.

The laudable focus on diversity and sexual equality has rendered some of the wider attitudes seen in 1970s society as objectionable. Questions are being asked about the popular cultural icons of the time. The sexism perceived in characters such as James Bond and John Shaft is now no longer acceptable. Today’s heroes are driven to be whiter than white or they cannot be held up as role models for society.

This thinking is embodied in the character of JJ (John Shaft III) in Tim Story’s new version of Shaft. The scriptwriters (Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow) decided they would pitch post-Millennial attitudes against those of the pre-Millennial through JJs relationship with his father. But instead of taking a serious approach and making a forceful statement, they go for a comedy of manners. In so doing they both undermine their message and end up creating caricatures for comic effect rather than characters of depth.

And none of this has anything to do with Ernest Tidyman’s original creation.

Ernest Tidyman

Tidyman was not going all out to make social and political points in his writing. The issues of the day were presented as a backdrop to the story. Tidyman was creating escapist entertainment and thrills from a plausible detective hero – a character single-mindedly establishing a life for himself despite the things that have conspired against him.  That is the essence of the character of John Shaft. Yes, he has his flaws – his disposable attitude to women, a sense of homophobia – but his heroic qualities of loyalty and resilience and his determination to do things his own way sent a message which resonated with the black population. Ernest Tidyman was recognised for his work on Shaft by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 2000, the original 1971 movie was preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

The question posed by the failure of the new movie is: Does John Shaft carry any relevance in today’s world? The box office numbers for Tim Story’s movie would suggest not. But, is that because the movie is a total misfire that adds nothing to the Shaft legacy and indeed mocks its perceived outdated attitudes? Could a viable Shaft production still be made today? I believe the answer to this question is a definitive YES. As long as the subject is taken seriously and abandons the dilution through generational baton-handing.

In my mind there are two potential ways to go with the franchise:

Image result for shaft a complicated man1.  Go back to the beginning and set it in the period. In 2014 David F Walker persuaded Dynamite Entertainment to obtain the literary rights to the character for a series of comic books and new prose novels. The result was Shaft: A Complicated Man. Set in 1969 this comic book is an “origins” story that explores how Shaft became a private detective having returned from Vietnam. It is effectively a prequel to Tidyman’s novel. It is a character study that deftly uses the 1969 New York setting and explores Shaft’s inner turmoil against the backdrop of him seeking revenge for the death of his girlfriend at the hands of organised crime. As a character study, a crime thriller and a representation of a period in history it works on multiple levels and has an emotional impact.

2. A reboot for the modern day. Bring the character up to date and set him against a backdrop of the social issues of today, whilst retaining his key core characteristics set down in Tidyman’s template. Craft a story that is exciting and challenging and allows these characteristics to be drawn out. Shaft should remain uncompromising, tough, resilient, single-minded. Some of the excesses of his character could be softened, but not removed altogether. Shaft is a flawed character – as are we all as individuals. These flaws are what make him feel human. The essence of that character should be retained.

I fear after the poor returns for Tim Story’s movie that the franchise is now dead on the big screen. However, there may still be opportunities to explore either of the two options I have outlined above on the small screen. If so, TV will likely be the best medium as it allows space for exposition of plot and exploration of social issues whilst giving the characters room to breathe and grow. A Shaft TV series today would be very different to the watered-down version of 1973/4. Warner Brothers need to stay true to a property in which I believe there is still mileage and not farm it out to hacks who have no feel for it. I am hoping there are sympathetic filmmakers out there who can put John Shaft back on the map and make him as relevant today as he was back in 1971.

Film Review – SHAFT (2019)

Image result for shaft 2019SHAFT (USA, 2019)
      Distributor: New Line Cinema / Warner Bros. (USA), Netflix (UK); Production Company: Davis Entertainment / Khalabo Ink Society / Netflix / New Line Cinema / Warner Bros.; Release Date: 14 June 2019 (USA), 28 June 2019 (UK); Filming Dates: December 2017 – February 2018; Running Time: 111m; Colour: Colour; Sound Mix: Dolby Digital; Film Format: D-Cinema; Film Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Hawk Scope (anamorphic) (source format); Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1; BBFC Cert: 15.
      Director: Tim Story; Writer: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow (based on the character created by Ernest Tidyman); Executive Producer: Kenya Barris, Richard Brener, Marc S. Fischer, Josh Mack, Ira Napoliello, Tim Story; Producer: John Davis; Director of Photography: Larry Blanford; Music Composer: Christopher Lennertz; Music Supervisor: Trygge Toven; Film Editor: Peter S. Elliot; Casting Director: Tara Feldstein; Art Director: Jeremy Woolsey, Brittany Hites; Set Decorator: Missy Parker; Costumes: Olivia Miles; Make-up: Kimberly Jones; Sound: Sean McCormack; Special Effects: Russell Tyrrell; Visual Effects: Nicole Rowley.
      Cast: Samuel L. Jackson (John Shaft), Jessie T. Usher (JJ Shaft), Richard Roundtree (John Shaft, Sr), Regina Hall (Maya Babanikos), Alexandra Shipp (Sasha Arias), Matt Lauria (Major Gary Cutworth), Titus Welliver (Special Agent Vietti), Method Man (Freddy P), Isaach De Bankolé (Pierro ‘Gordito’ Carrera), Avan Jogia (Karim Hassan), Luna Lauren Velez (Bennie Rodriguez), Robbie Jones (Sergeant Keith Williams), Aaron Dominguez (Staff Sergeant Eddie Dominguez), Ian Casselberry (Manuel Orozco), Almeera Jiwa (Anam), Amato D’Apolito (Farik Bahar), Leland L. Jones (Ron), Jalyn Hall (Harlem Kid), Sylvia Jefferies (Once Beautiful Woman), Whit Coleman (Butch Lesbian Girl), Chivonne Michelle (Baby), Tashiana Washington (Sugar), Philip Fornah (Jacked Dude), Laticia Rolle (Cocktail Waitress), Ryan King Scales (Male Secretary), Tywayne Wheatt (Portly Doorman), Kenny Barr (Cop), Mike Dunston (News Anchor), Jordan Preston Carter (5-8 Year Old JJ), Nyah Marie Johnson (5-8 Year Old Sasha), Joey Mekyten (5-8 Year Old Karim), Sawyer Schultz (Mike Mitchell), Esmeree Sterling (Cute Bartender), Jose Miguel Vasquez (FBI Employee), Gabriel ‘G-Rod’ Rodriguez (Goon), Keith Brooks (Drunk Disorderly Man), DominiQue MrsGiJane Williams (Beautiful Woman), Michael Shikany (Older Man in Mosque), Lucia Scarano (Lady in Line), Greta Quispe (Employee), Heather Seiffert (Hostess), Charles Green (Hallway Man), Dorothi Fox (Old Lady Neighbor), Shakur Sozahdah (Worshiper).
      Synopsis: John Shaft Jr., a cybersecurity expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.
      Comment: Misguided continuation of the Shaft legacy is one misstep after another. Firstly Story re-tools the franchise as an action comedy that attempts to wring laughs from the generation gap separating Jackson’s John Shaft II from his son JJ, played far too broadly by Usher. Jackson’s Shaft also suffers by being made into a caricature of the character he portrayed in the 2000 series continuation. Jackson does what he tends to do best but even he gives a one-note performance that lacks nuance. The plot thread that brings the two Shafts together is given scant focus by an incredibly lazy script by Barris and Barnow.  The plot is frequently abandoned to demonstrate time after time the un-PC Jackson vs the PC Usher through a series of increasingly tiresome jokes and one-liners. Roundtree, as the original John Shaft, appears late in the proceedings and delivers the best performance with a dry understated delivery that has more class than is seen in his character namesakes. Lennertz’s score is insipid, lacking the grooves of Isaac Hayes’ 1971 music, and fails to add anything to the franchise whilst it is constantly interspersed with rap numbers that only serve to give you a headache. Even the use of Hayes’ theme is mishandled removing all elements of cool. To say I was disappointed in this destruction of Ernest Tidyman’s legacy is an understatement. My advice to Shaft fans is to stick to the originals, or better still the books. If there is any future for the franchise on screen it would be better served making reference to David F Walker’s recent comic books series prequel and rebooting the series set in period as a serious crime thriller.
      Notes: Most of the movie was shot in Atlanta, doubling for New York.

Film Review – THE MULE (2018)

Image result for the mule 2018THE MULE (USA, 2018) ***½
      Distributor: Warner Bros.; Production Company: Imperative Entertainment / Warner Bros. / Bron Studios / Malpaso Productions; Release Date: 10 December 2018 (USA), 25 January 2019 (UK); Filming Dates: Began 2 June 2018; Running Time: 116m; Colour: Colour; Sound Mix: Dolby Digital (7.1 surround); Film Format: D-Cinema; Film Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Panavision (anamorphic) (source format); Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1; BBFC Cert: 15.
      Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Nick Schenk (inspired by the New York Times Magazine Article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule” by Sam Dolnick); Executive Producer: David Bernad, Jason Cloth, Ruben Fleischer, Aaron L. Gilbert, Todd Hoffman; Producer: Clint Eastwood, Dan Friedkin, Jessica Meier, Tim Moore, Kristina Rivera, Bradley Thomas; Associate Producer: Holly Hagy; Director of Photography: Yves Bélanger; Music Composer: Arturo Sandoval; Music Supervisor: ; Film Editor: Joel Cox; Casting Director: Tara Feldstein, Geoffrey Miclat, Chase Paris; Production Designer: Kevin Ishioka; Art Director: Rory Bruen, Julien Pougnier; Set Decorator: Ronald R. Reiss; Costumes: Deborah Hopper; Make-up: Luisa Abel; Sound: Alan Robert Murray; Special Effects: J.D. Schwalm; Visual Effects: Adam Ohl, Suraj Kaur Khalsa, Rick Sander.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (Earl Stone), Bradley Cooper (Colin Bates), Laurence Fishburne (Carl), Michael Peña (Trevino), Dianne Wiest (Mary), Ignacio Serricchio (Julio), Andy García (Latón), Taissa Farmiga (Ginny), Alison Eastwood (Iris), Richard Herd (Tim Kennedy), Lobo Sebastian (Bug), Manny Montana (Axl), Noel G. (Bald Rob), Loren Dean (DEA Agent Brown), Victor Rasuk (Rico), Clifton Collins Jr. (Gustavo), Robert LaSardo (Emilio), Eugene Cordero (Luis Rocha).
      Synopsis: A 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran is caught transporting $3 million worth of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel.
      Comment: Entertaining, if slight, story that fully capitalises on Eastwood’s charisma – which still burns bright into his 88th year. Evenly paced and directed with a sure hand, it benefits by concentrating on bringing character development to the forefront and using the plot as the device to do so. Cooper also gives a nicely judged performance as the drug enforcement officer closing in on the drug cartel’s operation. The scenes between Eastwood and Cooper are sublimely understated adding to the bittersweet nature of the story’s resolution.
      Notes: The movie was inspired by the story of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran in his 80s who became the world’s oldest and most prolific drug mule for the Sinaloa Cartel.

Film Review – TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012)

Image result for trouble with the curveTROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (USA, 2012) ***
      Distributor: Warner Bros.; Production Company: Warner Bros / Malpaso Productions; Release Date: 19 September 2012 (USA), 30 November 2012 (UK); Filming Dates: Began March 2012; Running Time: 111m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: Dolby Digital | Datasat | SDDS; Film Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision 2383), D-Cinema; Film Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Panavision (anamorphic) (source format); Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1; BBFC Cert: 12.
      Director: Robert Lorenz; Writer: Randy Brown; Executive Producer: Tim Moore; Producer: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Michele Weisler; Director of Photography: Tom Stern; Music Composer: Marco Beltrami; Film Editor: Joel Cox, Gary Roach; Casting Director: Geoffrey Miclat; Production Designer: James J. Murakami; Art Director: Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.; Set Decorator: Gary Fettis; Costumes: Deborah Hopper; Make-up: Luisa Abel; Sound: Bub Asman, Alan Robert Murray; Special Effects: Steve Riley; Visual Effects: Darin McCormick-Millett.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (Gus Lobel), Amy Adams (Mickey Lobel), Justin Timberlake (Johnny Flanagan), Matthew Lillard (Phillip Sanderson), Jack Gilpin (Schwartz), John Goodman (Pete Klein), Robert Patrick (Vince), Scott Eastwood (Billy Clark), Ed Lauter (Max), Chelcie Ross (Smitty), Raymond Anthony Thomas (Lucious), Matt Bush (Danny), George Wyner (Rosenbloom), Bob Gunton (Watson), Tom Dreesen (Rock), James Patrick Freetly (Todd), Joe Massingill (Bo Gentry), Jay Galloway (Rigoberto (Rigo) Sanchez), Sammy Blue (the blues guitar musician).
      Synopsis: An ailing baseball scout in his twilight years takes his daughter along for one last recruiting trip.
      Comment: Whilst the movie may be both predictable and a little contrived it is more than compensated for by the central performance of Eastwood and his strong chemistry with Adams (as his estranged daughter) and Timberlake (a former protegee). Goodman is also good in a supporting role as Eastwood’s boss. Traditional crowd-pleasing elements combine with the grizzled cynicism of Eastwood’s character to make for an enjoyable, if slight, entertainment.

Film Review – GRAN TORINO (2008)

Related imageGRAN TORINO (USA/Germany, 2008) ****
      Distributor: Warner Bros.; Production Company: Matten Productions / Double Nickel Entertainment / Gerber Pictures / Malpaso Productions / Media Magik Entertainment / Village Roadshow Pictures / WV Films IV / Warner Bros; Release Date: 9 December 2008 (USA), 17 February 2009 (UK); Filming Dates: 14 July 2008 – 16 August 2008; Running Time: 116m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS; Film Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision 2383), D-Cinema; Film Process: Digital Intermediate (2K) (master format), Panavision (anamorphic) (source format); Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1; BBFC Cert: 15.
      Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Nick Schenk, Dave Johannson; Executive Producer: Bruce Berman, Jenette Kahn, Tim Moore, Adam Richman; Producer: Clint Eastwood, Bill Gerber, Robert Lorenz; Director of Photography: Tom Stern; Music Composer: Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens; Film Editor: Joel Cox, Gary Roach; Casting Director: Ellen Chenoweth; Production Designer: Phill Zagajewski, James J. Murakami; Art Director: John Warnke, Shelagh Conley; Set Decorator: Gary Fettis; Costumes: Deborah Hopper; Make-up: Tania McComas; Sound: Alan Robert Murray; Special Effects: Steve Riley; Visual Effects: Mark Freund, Julian Levi, Darin McCormick-Millett, Kelly Port.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (Walt Kowalski), Christopher Carley (Father Janovich), Bee Vang (Thao), Ahney Her (Sue), Brian Haley (Mitch Kowalski), Geraldine Hughes (Karen Kowalski), Dreama Walker (Ashley Kowalski), Brian Howe (Steve Kowalski), John Carroll Lynch (Barber Martin), William Hill (Tim Kennedy), Brooke Chia Thao (Vu), Chee Thao (Grandma), Choua Kue (Youa), Scott Eastwood (Trey), Xia Soua Chang (Kor Khue), Sonny Vue (Smokie), Doua Moua (Spider), Greg Trzaskoma (Bartender), John Johns (Al), Davis Gloff (Darrell), Thomas D. Mahard (Mel), Cory Hardrict (Duke), Nana Gbewonyo (Monk), Arthur Cartwright (Prez), Austin Douglas Smith (Daniel Kowalski), Conor Liam Callaghan (David Kowalski), Michael E. Kurowski (Josh Kowalski), Julia Ho (Dr. Chu), Maykao K. Lytongpao (Gee), Carlos Guadarrama (Head Latino), Andrew Tamez-Hull (Latino Gangbanger), Ramon Camacho (Latino Gangbanger), Antonio Mireles (Latino Gangbanger), Ia Vue Yang (Hmong Flower Woman), Zoua Kue (Hmong Flower Woman), Elvis Thao (Hmong Gangbanger), Jerry Lee (Hmong Gangbanger), Lee Mong Vang (Hmong Gangbanger), Tru Hang (Hmong Grandfather), Alice Lor (Hmong Granddaughter), Tong Pao Kue (Hmong Husband), Douacha Ly (Hmong Man), Parng D. Yarng (Hmong Neighbor), Nelly Yang Sao Yia (Hmong Wife), Marty Bufalini (Lawyer), My-Ishia Cason-Brown (Muslim Receptionist), Clint Ward (Officer), Stephen Kue (Officer Chang), Rochelle Winter (Waitress), Claudia Rodgers (White Woman Neighbor), Vincent Bonasso (Tailor).
      Synopsis: A disgruntled Korean War vet sets out to reform his neighbour, a young Hmong teenager, who tried to steal Kowalski’s prized possession: his 1972 Gran Torino.
      Comment: Modern morality tale effectively uses Eastwood’s embittered and recently widowed war veteran as the story’s conscience. Initially antagonistic to his Hmong neighbours he gradually grows to accept and like them, whilst taking on a mentor role for the young teenager. The script may heavily hammer home the point, but it is directed with taste, humour, and a strong sense of character progression. Eastwood is also on top of his game in the acting department and delivers his lines like the true veteran he had become. The final scenes wonderfully portray closure on the theme of salvation which resonates throughout this quality movie.

Film Review – MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)

Image result for million dollar baby 2004MILLION DOLLAR BABY (USA, 2004) *****
      Distributor: Entertainment Film Distributors; Production Company: Warner Bros. / Lakeshore Entertainment / Malpaso Productions / Albert S. Ruddy Productions; Release Date: 5 December 2004 (USA), 14 January 2005 (UK); Filming Dates: 7 June 2004 – 14 July 2004; Running Time: 132m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS; Film Format: 35mm (Kodak Vision 2383); Film Process: Panavision (anamorphic); Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1; BBFC Cert: 12.
      Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Paul Haggis (based on stories from “Rope Burns” by F.X. Toole); Executive Producer: Robert Lorenz, Gary Lucchesi; Producer: Clint Eastwood, Paul Haggis, Tom Rosenberg, Albert S. Ruddy; Director of Photography: Tom Stern; Music Composer: Clint Eastwood; Film Editor: Joel Cox; Casting Director: Phyllis Huffman; Production Designer: Henry Bumstead; Art Director: Jack G. Taylor Jr.; Set Decorator: Richard C. Goddard; Costumes: Deborah Hopper; Make-up: Tania McComas; Sound: Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; Special Effects: Steve Riley; Visual Effects: Liz Radley.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Danger Barch), Mike Colter (Big Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie ‘The Blue Bear’), Brían F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Peña (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie’s Manager), Bruce MacVittie (Mickey Mack), David Powledge (Counterman at Diner), Joe D’Angerio (Cut Man), Marcus Chait (J.D. Fitzgerald), Tom McCleister (Lawyer), Erica Grant (Nurse), Naveen (Pakistani), Morgan Eastwood (Little Girl in Truck), Jamison Yang (Paramedic), Dean Familton (Ref #1), Louis Moret (Ref #2), V.J. Foster (Ref #3), Jon D. Schorle II (Ref #4), Marty Sammon (Ref #5), Steven M. Porter (Ref #6), Ray Corona (Ref #7), Ming Lo (Rehab Doctor), Miguel Pérez (Restaurant Owner), Jim Cantafio (Ring Doctor #1), Ted Grossman (Ring Doctor #2), Ned Eisenberg (Sally Mendoza), Marco Rodríguez (Second at Vegas Fight), Roy Nugent (Fan in Vegas), Don Familton (Ring Announcer), Mark Thomason (Radio Commentator), Brian T. Finney (Irish Fan #1), Spice Williams-Crosby (Irish Fan #2), Kim Strauss (Irish Fan #3), Rob Maron (Irish Fan #4), Kirsten Berman (Irish Fan #5), Susan Krebs (Rehab Nurse), Sunshine Chantal Parkman (Rehab Nurse #2), Kim Dannenberg (Rehab Nurse #3), Eddie Bates (Rehab Resident).
      Synopsis: A determined woman works with a hardened boxing trainer to become a professional.
      Comment: An outstanding drama that works on many levels. It’s seemingly simple and straight-forward sporting drama plot is deceptive as it adds subtle layers of subtext and a change of direction in its final act that is both shocking and intensely moving. Eastwood, Swank and Freeman give multi-dimensional performances. Haggis’ script is wonderful in its use of dialogue and the way it manages the more melodramatic moments. Eastwood directs with a veteran’s eye and ear. Stern’s contrast heavy photography helps set the dark tone. A true modern classic.
      Notes: Won 4 Oscars including Best Film, Director, Actress (Swank) and Supporting Actor (Freeman).

Film Review – BLOOD WORK (2002)

Image result for BLOOD WORK 2002BLOOD WORK (USA, 2002) ***
      Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures; Production Company: Malpaso Productions / Warner Bros. Pictures; Release Date: 6 August 2002 (USA), 27 December 2002 (UK); Filming Dates: Began 19 February 2002 – March 2002; Running Time: 110m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS; Film Format: 35mm (Fuji); Film Process: Panavision (anamorphic); Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1; BBFC Cert: 15.
      Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by Michael Connelly); Executive Producer: Robert Lorenz; Producer: Clint Eastwood; Director of Photography: Tom Stern; Music Composer: Lennie Niehaus; Film Editor: Joel Cox; Casting Director: Phyllis Huffman; Production Designer: Henry Bumstead; Art Director: Jack G. Taylor Jr.; Set Decorator: Richard C. Goddard; Costumes: Deborah Hopper; Make-up: Tania McComas, Francisco X. Pérez; Sound: Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; Special Effects: Steve Riley; Visual Effects: Michael Owens.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (Terry McCaleb), Jeff Daniels (Jasper ‘Buddy’ Noone), Anjelica Huston (Dr. Bonnie Fox), Wanda De Jesus (Graciella Rivers), Tina Lifford (Detective Jaye Winston), Paul Rodriguez (Detective Ronaldo Arrango), Dylan Walsh (Detective John Waller), Mason Lucero (Raymond Torres), Gerry Becker (Mr. Toliver), Rick Hoffman (James Lockridge), Alix Koromzay (Mrs. Cordell), Igor Jijikine (Mikhail Bolotov), Dina Eastwood (Reporter #1), Beverly Leech (Reporter #2), June Kyoto Lu (Mrs. Kang), Chao Li Chi (Mr. Kang), Glenn Morshower (Captain), Robert Harvey (Restaurant Manager), Matt Huffman (Young Detective), Mark Thomason (James Cordell), Maria Quiban (Gloria Torres), Brent Hinkley (Cab Driver), Natalia Ongaro (Receptionist), Amanda Carlin (Office Manager), Ted Rooney (Forensics #1), P.J. Byrne (Forensics #2), Sam Jaeger (Deputy), Derric Nugent (L.A.P.D. Officer).
       Synopsis: Still recovering from a heart transplant, a retired FBI profiler returns to service when his own blood analysis offers clues to the identity of a serial killer.
      Comment: Interesting premise is occasionally undone by lapses in logic and implausibilities. The production also feels a little too routine. Eastwood is as charismatic as ever in the lead role, but as director, he fails to inject sufficient suspense, even in its finale. The strongest moments are the character conflicts that arise during the story – notably Eastwood and his doctor Huston as well as with the two cops (Rodriguez and Walsh). It remains an entertaining enough and serviceable mystery despite its flaws.

Book Review – THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE (1964) by John D. MacDonald

THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE (1964) ***½
by John D. MacDonald
First published In Great Britain by Robert Hale, 1965
This edition published by Orion, 2002, 200pp (195pp)
ISBN: 0-75284-767-8

Image result for the deep blue goodbyeBlurb: Travis McGee is a self-described beach bum who won his houseboat in a card game. He’s also a knight-errant who’s wary of credit cards, retirement benefits, political parties, mortgages, and television. He only works when his cash runs out, and his rule is simple: He’ll help you find whatever was taken from you, as long as he can keep half. McGee isn’t particularly strapped for cash, but how can anyone say no to Cathy, a sweet backwoods girl who’s been tortured repeatedly by her manipulative ex-boyfriend Junior Allen? What Travis isn’t anticipating is just how many women Junior has torn apart and left in his wake. Enter Junior’s latest victim, Lois Atkinson. Frail and broken, Lois can barely get out of bed when Travis finds her, let alone keep herself alive. But Travis turns into Mother McGee, giving Lois new life as he looks for the ruthless man who steals women’s spirits and livelihoods. But he can’t guess how violent his quest is soon to become. He’ll learn the hard way that there must be casualties in this game of cat and mouse.

This is the first of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels and also the first of his books I have read. My only previous experience of Travis McGee being via the 1972 film Darker Than Amber, which was based on MacDonald’s seventh book in the series and I remember it being a pretty good movie. The Deep Blue Goodbye was first published in 1964 and in both title and the actions of its hero the book has echoes of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.  McGee takes it upon himself to take into his care a psychologically damaged woman dependant on alcohol and resolve to put things right. The opening chapters in which McGee lives in the house with Lois Atkinson are reminiscent of Philip Marlowe and his obligation to the writer Roger Wade in Chandler’s masterpiece. McGee, however, blows much more hot and cold in his temperament and has less of Marlowe’s world-weary cynicism.

The plot unfolds as McGee looks to trap his target, the sadistic Junior Allen. McGee is a hero looking to right wrongs and as such is quite traditional. He manages his own time and is in control of his own destiny as he picks and chooses who he decides to help. He balances his need for income with his moral obligations to his clients. His relationships with women in the book are largely manipulative and whilst the character grows close to Lois, he also maintains a detached emotional involvement. This makes McGee’s character more complex and also more interesting. The book’s finale is both exciting and surprising and, as was customary for the day, its relatively short page count makes for a quick and entertaining read. MacDonald wrote 21 Travis McGee novels and the book left me wanting to revisit the character to see how the series developed.

 

Film Review – SPACE COWBOYS (2000)

Image result for space cowboys 2000SPACE COWBOYS (USA, 2000) ***½
      Distributor: Warner Bros.; Production Company: Clipsal Films / Mad Chance / Malpaso Productions / Village Roadshow Pictures / Warner Bros.; Release Date: 1 August 2000 (USA), 22 September 2000 (UK); Filming Dates: 19 July 1999 – 19 October 1999; Running Time: 130m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS; Film Format: 35mm, D-Cinema (Texas Instruments DLP 1280 x 1024, 1.9 : 1 anamorphic); Film Process: Panavision (anamorphic); Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1; BBFC Cert: PG.
      Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Ken Kaufman, Howard Klausner; Executive Producer: Tom Rooker; Producer: Clint Eastwood, Andrew Lazar; Director of Photography: Jack N. Green; Music Composer: Lennie Niehaus; Film Editor: Joel Cox; Casting Director: Phyllis Huffman; Production Designer: Henry Bumstead; Art Director: Jack G. Taylor Jr.; Set Decorator: Richard C. Goddard; Costumes: Deborah Hopper; Make-up: Tania McComas, Francisco X. Pérez; Sound: Bub Asman, Alan Robert Murray; Special Effects: John Palmer; Visual Effects: Nelson Cabrera, Susan Greenhow, Michael Owens, Lisa Todd, Judith Weaver.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frank Corvin), Tommy Lee Jones (Hawk Hawkins), Donald Sutherland (Jerry O’Neill), James Garner (Tank Sullivan), James Cromwell (Bob Gerson), Marcia Gay Harden (Sara Holland), William Devane (Eugene Davis), Loren Dean (Ethan Glance), Courtney B. Vance (Roger Hines), Barbara Babcock (Barbara Corvin), Rade Serbedzija (General Vostov), Blair Brown (Dr. Anne Caruthers), Jay Leno (Jay Leno), Nils Allen Stewart (Tiny), Deborah Jolly (Cocktail Waitress), Toby Stephens (Young Frank), Eli Craig (Young Hawk), John Asher (Young Jerry), Matt McColm (Young Tank), Billie Worley (Young Gerson), Chris Wylde (Jason), Anne Stedman (Jason’s Girlfriend), James MacDonald (Capcom), Kate McNeil (Female Astronaut #1), Karen M. Waldron (Female Astronaut #2), John Linton (Male Astronaut #1), Mark Thomason (Mission Control Tech), Georgia Emelin (Jerry’s Girlfriend), Rick Scarry (State Department Official), Paul Pender (JBC Security Guard), Tim Halligan (Qualls), Manning Mpinduzi-Mott (Press Reporter #1), Steve Monroe (Waiter), Jean-Michel Henry (Centrifuge Tech), Steven West (Construction Tech), Cooper Huckabee (Trajectory Engineer), Hayden Tank (Boy at NASA Tour), Jock MacDonald (Press Reporter (1958)), Gerald Emerick (T-38 Pilot), Renee Olstead (Little Girl), Don Michaelson (NASA Doctor), Artur Cybulski (Press Reporter #2), Gordy Owens (Simsupe), Steve Stapenhorst (Vice President), Lauren Cohn (Teacher at NASA Tour), Michael Louden (Young Pilot #1), Deborah Hope (Female Engineer), Jon Hamm (Young Pilot #2), Lamont Lofton (KSC Guard), Aleksandr Kuznetsov (Russian Engineer (as Alexander Kuznetsov)), Erica Grant (Female Engineer).
      Synopsis: When a retired engineer is called upon to rescue a failing satellite, he insists that his equally old teammates accompany him into space.
      Comment: Highly entertaining, if wildly implausible, space rescue thriller. It coasts on the charisma of its four veteran leads and generates much humour out of their character interactions. Also impressive are the in-space special and visual effects. Eastwood directs with confidence and generates a fair amount of tension in the movie’s final act. If you can accept the premise you’ll find much to enjoy, just don’t scrutinise the plot too closely.

Film Review – TRUE CRIME (1999)

Image result for true crime 1999TRUE CRIME (USA, 1999) ***½
      Distributor: Warner Bros.; Production Company: Warner Bros. / The Zanuck Company / Malpaso Productions; Release Date: 19 March 1999 (USA), 14 May 1999 (UK); Filming Dates: 4 May 1998 – 26 June 1998; Running Time: 127m; Colour: Technicolor; Sound Mix: DTS | Dolby Digital | SDDS; Film Format: 35mm; Film Process: Spherical; Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1; BBFC Cert: 15.
      Director: Clint Eastwood; Writer: Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, Stephen Schiff (based on the novel by Andrew Klavan); Executive Producer: Tom Rooker; Producer: Clint Eastwood, Lili Fini Zanuck, Richard D. Zanuck; Director of Photography: Jack N. Green; Music Composer: Lennie Niehaus; Film Editor: Joel Cox; Casting Director: Phyllis Huffman; Production Designer: Henry Bumstead; Art Director: Jack G. Taylor Jr.; Set Decorator: Richard C. Goddard; Costumes: ; Make-up: Tania McComas; Sound: Bub Asman, Alan Robert Murray; Special Effects: John Frazier.
      Cast: Clint Eastwood (Steve Everett), Isaiah Washington (Frank Louis Beechum), LisaGay Hamilton (Bonnie Beechum), James Woods (Alan Mann), Denis Leary (Bob Findley), Bernard Hill (Warden Luther Plunkitt), Diane Venora (Barbara Everett), Michael McKean (Reverend Shillerman), Michael Jeter (Dale Porterhouse), Mary McCormack (Michelle Ziegler), Hattie Winston (Angela Russel), Penny Bae Bridges (Gail Beechum), Francesca Eastwood (Kate Everett), John Finn (Reedy), Laila Robins (Patricia Findley), Sydney Tamiia Poitier (Jane March), Erik King (Pussy Man), Graham Beckel (Arnold McCardle), Frances Fisher (D.A. Cecilia Nussbaum), Marissa Ribisi (Amy Wilson), Christine Ebersole (Bridget Rossiter), Anthony Zerbe (Henry Lowenstein), Nancy Giles (Leesha Mitchell), Tom McGowan (Tom Donaldson), William Windom (Neil), Don West (Dr. Roger Waters), Lucy Liu (Toy Shop Girl), Dina Eastwood (Wilma Francis), Leslie Griffith (Herself – TV Anchor), Dennis Richmond (TV Anchor), Frank Somerville (Afternoon News Anchor), Dan Green (Field Producer), Nicholas Bearde (Reuben Skycock), Frances Lee McCain (Mrs. Lowenstein), Cecil Williams (Reverend Williams), Casey Lee (Warren Russell), Jack Kehler (Mr. Ziegler), Colman Domingo (Wally Cartwright), Linda Hoy (Counter Woman at Pocum’s Grocery), Danny Kovacs (Atkins), Kelvin Han Yee (Zachary Platt), Kathryn Howell (Nurse), Beulah Stanley (Female Guard), George Maguire (Frederick Robertson), Bill Wattenburg (Radio Reporter), Cathy Fithian (Nancy Larson), Roland T. Abasolo (Guard), Michael Halton (Guard), Jade Marx-Berti (Waitress), Velica Marie Davis (Purse Whacker), John B. Scott (Colonel Drummond), Edward Silva (Colonel Hernandez), Jordan Sax (Colonel Badger), Rob Reece (Executioner), Walter Brown (Beechum Family Member).
      Synopsis: Can an over-the-hill journalist uncover the evidence that can prove a death row inmate’s innocence just hours before his execution?
      Comment: Taut, gripping race-against-time thriller may stretch credibility but is nonetheless well-crafted. Washington delivers a superb performance as the innocent man on death row, whilst Eastwood’s star quality cuts through as the alcoholic and womanising reporter out to clear his name. Hill gives a nicely balanced portrayal as the prison governor at odds with his conscience. A tighter script would have made this an absolute winner, but it too often relies on a significant suspension of disbelief from its audience. Fortunately, due to its strong cast, it just about delivers.