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Sunday, August 20, 2017

WHITLATCH’S ENIGMA

 
WHITLATCH’S ENIGMA

John Whitlatch is an author whose name pops up regularly within men’s adventure series genre circles. Between 1969 and 1976, Whitlatch wrote eleven action novels, the first ten of which were published with a series of stunning covers. Lurid and garish, featuring outlaw bikers, big breasted babes in jeopardy, and tough heroes out for revenge, the covers of Whitlatch’s novels could just as easily have graced the covers of any of the titillating Men’s Adventure Magazines of the day. 

In actuality, the stunning covers of Whitlatch’s books first ten books were painted by top Men’s Adventure Magazine artists Norm Eastman (Gannon’s Vendetta, Lafitte's Legacy, Tanner's Lemming, Frank T’s Plan, The Judas Goat, Morgan's Rebellion), and Mel Crair (Morgan's Assassin, Stunt Man's Holiday, Cory's Losers). Men’s Adventure Magazine top model Steve Holland—The Face That Launched A Thousand Paperbacks—appears on several of the covers, adding to their collectability. Unfortunately, Whitlatch’s last novel, Gannon’s Line, did not receive a similar instantly collectible cover. Instead, even though the small central illustration was by the great Robert Maguire, the cover design itself was generic and instantly forgettable.

While the covers of Whitlatch’s books are often the catalyst for men’s adventure readers to buy and collect them, the writing between the covers is uniformly terrific. While definitely in sync with the attitudes and mores of the time period in which they were written, Whitlatch’s tales of every day guys caught up in deadly circumstances never failed to thrill. A Whitlatch hero is a man pushed beyond the reasonable boundaries of civilization and is forced to find a core of inner strength to overcome overwhelming odds—in other words, a guy who you can unabashedly root for as he takes on outlaw motorcycle gangs, voodoo cults, tin-pot Latin dictators, sadistic Japanese troops in the Pacific Theater, Renegade Indians, and other megalomaniac villains.

Whitlatch’s books are straightforward contemporary actioneers. Even when writing a Western (Iron Shirt) or a WWII Dirty Dozen style tale (The Judas Goat), the narratives are straight out of the men’s adventure genre. This is not to say they are cookie cutter or by the numbers plots. Whitlatch’s writing elevates the tropes of the genre with excellent action scenes. His heroes are not supermen, but rugged individuals who face their fears and have the courage to not lay down and die.

For many years Whitlatch himself remained an total enigma. When asked about Whitlatch, regular genre resources and gurus were forced to shrug their shoulders and admit to their mystification at the lack of information.

Usually, this little information about an author would indicate the use of a house owned pseudonym, with a number of authors penning the tales. But, this doesn’t appear to be the case with Whitlatch. Having read all eleven novels, the distinctive tempo and sentence structure make it clear they were written by the same person.

About twenty years or more ago, I tried tracking Whitlatch through his publisher. I was put in touch with Whitlatch’s agent who informed me Whitlatch was deceased. He did, however, provide me with a contact number for his family, warning me they would probably not want to be interviewed.

I eventually made contact with Whitlatch’s sister in Arizona, but while polite, she refused to impart any information. A strange situation, especially coupled with a tid-bit from mystery historian Al Hubin, which noted there had been no copyright renewals on Whitlatch’s titles. This raised the odd possibility of Whitlatch or his work being seen as an embarrassment to his family.

My introduction to Whitlatch originally came through his second published title, Morgan’s Rebellion. This was a great adventure tale. The all-American everyman Jamey Morgan finds himself falsely imprisoned in Central America. Desperate and alone, he takes it upon himself to escape, rally the scattered rebel forces, and overthrow the corrupt regime in order to get his life back and revenge on his wife and business partner.

This was great stuff! Morgan was a cool character with his archery background and his righteous American indignation. Whitlatch is hardly politically correct and he wears the Mad Man style male chauvinist label proudly—definitely a product of his time—but the guy could write a rousing adventure

In 2009, I wrote about Whitlatch in a Forgotten Books post for my blog. At the time, in response to a blog post of his own, my buddy and prolific writer James Reasoner said, “You have to love the Internet.” In James’ case, his own blog post regarding a specific hardboiled author generated unexpected contact from one of the author’s surviving relatives.

In my case, several months after my post bemoaning the complete lack of information about John Whitlatch—beyond his novels and those lurid covers—I received a surprise email. It was from Bob Miller, a friend and former co-worker of Whitlatch’s who had somehow come across my original Whitlatch post. He offered to share information about the elusive author, whom he stated was a down-to-earth nice guy with a good sense of humor. I immediately scrambled to dial the provided phone and quickly found myself chatting with my informant

Bob Miller told me he worked with Whitlatch in the 1960s when they were both claims adjusters for an insurance company working out of an office on Gower Street in Hollywood. Bob remained friends with Whitlatch, and was an ardent reader of his novels, until Whitlatch died in the late 1970s.

Apparently, Whitlatch was a force in the insurance business. He eventually became the head claims adjuster for All-State Insurance, working out of the company’s headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in LA. Reportedly, he had a large, framed, picture of the All-State HQ building in Chicago hung on the wall behind his desk. The picture had a hand-drawn arrow pointing to one specific window in the building, which Whitlatch claimed was the office of the idiot I work for.

While working as a claims adjuster, Whitlatch also attempted to branch out into private business. For several years, he operated a self-service laundry on Ventura Boulevard—in the San Fernando Valley—with his wife, Geraldine. However, the business was forced into bankruptcy when long-term street repairs closed down easy access to the building.

Crippled with a bad limp, Whitlatch didn’t let his physical infirmities keep him down. Miller remembers Whitlatch’s visits to the ranch where Miller’s father-in-law trained and bred horses. Whitlatch always managed to get around and showed an interest in everything.

During the time of his visits to the stables, Whitlatch began writing spec movie scripts. Miller’s father-in-law had contacts in the movie industry via several of the horse owners for whom he bred and trained. He allowed Whitlatch access to those contacts and, while Whitlatch never sold a script, he received encouragement and praise for his writing.

On one stable visit, Whitlatch witnessed Miller’s father-in-law putting Vicks Vapor Rub in a mare’s nose in order to get her to accept a foal that wasn’t hers. The Vicks worked to distort the mare’s olfactory senses so she couldn’t tell the foal wasn’t her own. Whitlatch was to later use the scene in one of his novels.

A perfectionist when it came to insurance work, Whitlatch was a taskmaster—never letting correspondence or reports leave the office until they were letter perfect. But while he found insurance work financially rewarding, he longed to quit and write full time.

Miller remembers the day Whitlatch called him full of excitement. He had just sold his first two novels. Pocket Books had given him a contract for two of his completed manuscripts and planned to publish both novels simultaneously—a first for the publishing house.

Whitlatch eventually quit All-State to pursue his writing career. He had a handful of other novels published, but there was bad news on the horizon. Two years later, Miller received a phone call from his friend. Whitlatch told Miller he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and had been given six month to two years to live.

Whitlatch’s final book, Shoot-Out At Dawn, was a non-fiction account of the deadly events at a remote Southern Arizona cabin in 1918. The book was written with Tom Power, one of the survivors of the clash. Whitlatch died shortly after it was published by Phoenix Books in 1981.

From other sources , it appears Whitlatch’s wife died sometime around 2005. The couple had no children. Clearly, Whitlatch will remain an enigma, but thanks to Bob Miller, those of us who have admired Whitlatch’s novels were finally given a glimpse into his background.

GANNON'S VENDETTA 

Do not forget, gentlemen—violence is the only thing they understand. If in doubt, kill.

Recalling with hatred all the blood and pain these cycle creeps had caused him, Gannon described his enemy to the men who had come to help him. The animals on the hopped-up Harleys had raped Gannon's wife, torched his house, and then—after working him over—dumped him in the desert to die. They never expected Gannon to come out alive. This was the end of the long hunt--high noon at midnight. Gannon had followed the rat pack deep into Mexico. And now he was ready to do battle—their style.

GANNON'S LINE 

John Gannon had settled into the life he wanted as foreman of the Holguin Rancho, south of Sonora. But powerful people in Washington had singled him out to lead a band of men and horses into the scorching Baja desert. His mission: to locate in that inferno of sand and sun the secret base of an espionage ring—and to crush the sadistic genius who masterminded it.

MORGAN’S REBELLION

Prison made a man of Morgan. And the man became a legend.

Jamey Morgan—a quiet California citizen—was arrested on a business trip to Central America. Accused of aiding a revolution he knew nothing about, Morgan was deprived of all diplomatic rights, branded an international renegade, and sentenced to hard labor.

And so, the only way he could return to the United States was to overthrow the government that imprisoned him. He made the revolution his own. After escaping from prison, Morgan fled into the hills and joined the rebel forces. An experienced bowman, he trained and organized an extraordinary guerrilla troop—Los Arqueros, the Archers—fifty rugged men on horseback, armed with bows and explosive arrows. The exploits of this daring commando unit help bring a ruthless dictatorship to its knees—and brought fame, love, and fortune to Captain Jamey Morgan.

MORGAN'S ASSASSIN 

They called him El Arquero...

The history books said bows and arrows had gone out years ago. But nobody had told James Morgan. Armed only with his great longbow, he had led a revolution that freed a Central American nation from tyranny. His men were all arqueros, or archers, but he was the only one called El Arquero.

Now, back in the States, Morgan received another call for help—from the F.B.I. This time it was to foil an assassination attempt that everyone else seemed powerless to stop. But then he discovered that he was next on the assassin's list. It was kill or be killed—and as Morgan stalked his man, he discovered he was up against the most diabolical political conspiracy America had ever seen. To defeat it, the arqueros would have to march again...

TANNER'S LEMMING

Tanner—the man who single-fistedly quashed a student takeover and tongue-lashed its leaders into silence at a turbulent school-board showdown. Tanner—the man who had never flown a plane, yet took the stick when a pilot died in midair and landed safely. Tanner—the man whose blunt business sense had won him a place in a Senator's inner circle. Tanner—had he blown a hole in the heart of the man millions of Americans revered? Had he killed Senator Stanton? Could he have been the assassin?

THE IRON SHIRT 

Vengeance!

Jonathan Fontaine swore it...in the smoking remains of his homestead, over the charred, mutilated body of his young daughter.

He had gone East but now was back in Arizona with a specially equipped rifle.
And he had a fresh lead on the Indian—the one who had worn a necklace of human fingers and The Iron Shirt...

THE JUDAS GOAT 

Life had made them hard...The army made them mean!

The attack squad...Hand-nicked from the entire U.S. World War II army, they were a unique company. Twelve men led by a lieutenant, as able as he was arrogant, and a sharp, seasoned sergeant who was militantly silent about his past. Twelve fighters. among them an ugly man, a black man, an old World War I scout, a southern redneck, and a mountain climber. They were a strange assortment, but they had several things in common—They were tough and tenacious...and they didn't care too much about living.

To the General they were the army's answer to the marines. To the Colonel they were a crack team...the best he could assemble. To the lieutenant they were animals. And by the time their brutal training had ended they were killers.

LAFITTE'S LEGACY 

Jean Larue returns the newspaper said...The last of the Latittes had come back from Arizona to visit his dying grandfather. But enemies lay in wait, blocking his way with fallen trees, terrorizing his wife with poisonous snakes, signaling their malice with voodoo dolls. Someone wanted the old treasure map that was his legacy. But his adversaries had not reckoned with the pirate blood that was also part of Lafitte's legacy. He would tight with all the guile and guts, tenacity and ingenuity that had made his legendary ancestor the terror of the bayou.

FRANK T'S PLAN 

His daughter had been murdered...Frank T. had a painful score to settle. And his chance came when a jury freed the accused man, Martin Ballard. Lusting for vengeance, Frank T set out on a daring hunt to bring his prey back alive. But there was another group of desperate men who wanted Ballard dead. To get his man, Frank T would face death and terror with only his guts to get him through.

STUNT MAN'S HOLIDAY 

Max Besh was one tough apache. They shouldn't have gotten him mad.

Max Besh, movie stunt man arid full-blooded Apache, was having quite a vacation in Las Vegas. He'd wan six grand at the crap tables and he'd gotten himself a curvy young dancer for companionship. Next thing he knew, he was looking down the barrel of a .38 and somebody was riding off with the cash and the girl.

What the kidnappers didn't realize was nobody pulls that kind of trick on Max Besh. They eluded police and crossed the Mexican border, but they couldn't shake the angry Indian on their trail. Even if it took a shootout, Max Besh was going to get his money and his woman back—in that order.

CORY'S LOSERS

When Cory had been stuck with that had murder rap, some of the town's solid citizens had moved in and taken everything he had. Now it was seven years later, and Cory was back with a score to settle.

Meanwhile, his enemies had become the most powerful, ruthless men in town. They knew Cory was coming, and they were ready for him.

But Cory had friends—the losers who, like him, had been taken by the big honchos. Together, they were going to make things pretty hot for those crooked bastards...

SHOOT-OUT AT DAWN: AN ARIZONA TRAGEDY

John Whitlatch co-authored this book with Tom Power, one of the survivors of the event. There are but a handful of true west stories. The Power family story is one of those. From their simple beginnings in West Texas, to the furious gun battle a snowy winter day in Arizona, to decades of fighting for justice, theirs is a story of pain and courage. Tom and John Power—both blinded in their left eyes during the gun battle—and old, ex-Army Scout, Tom Sission, eluded a 3,000 man posse and soldiers for over a month in some of the most forbidding terrain on this planet. Their story is truly one of the most remarkable feats of courage and will ever played out in the American West.

ALEX RIDER RETURNS

ALEX RIDER RETURNS

The Alex Rider books have long been my favorite Y/A spy series..Young Bond comes a close second with Robert Muchamore's Cherub series third...The Alex Rider books were supposedly brought to a conclusion with Scorpia twelve years ago, but apparently you can't keep a good spy down...Author Anthony Horowitz is, of course, currently writing the James Bond continuation novels (starting with the tepid Trigger Mortis) and was the force behind the brilliant British television series Foyle's War...


Saturday, August 19, 2017

WRITERS’ POLICE ACADEMY

 


WRITERS’ POLICE ACADEMY

 If you’re an established or a budding mystery writer and you can only attend one writers’ conference next year, make sure it’s the Writers’ Police Academy 2018. I had the opportunity to be one of the guest speakers at this year’s Writers’ Police Academy—making a presentation on interrogation—and came away convinced it was the best writers’ conference or convention I’d ever attended...bar none.
 
An exciting, fully immersive  long weekend event, the Writers’ Police Academy gives attendees hands-on law enforcement, firefighting, EMS, and forensics experiences. The professional staff of law enforcement instructors provided training on an incredible range of subjects and activities including: Long Gun And Handgun Live Fire; Emergency Driving; Traffic Stops; Pursuit Termination Techniques; Defense and Arrest Tactics; SWAT Explosive Entry; Death Scene Investigation; Building Searches and Room Clearing; Shoot/Don’t Shoot Scenarios; Taser Training; Police Dogs; Evidence Collection and Processing; Narcotics; Prison Gangs; Mindset of Cops; Serial Killers; Fake/Genuine Suicide Notes; Arson Investigation; and so much more. The four track programming was so comprehensive and densely packed, it was impossible to do it all.
 
Cop turned writer Lee Lofland is the innovator of the Writers’ Police Academy. He and his staff work incredibly hard to ensure a seamless conference where writers can enhance the realism of their fiction in an educational and fun atmosphere.
 
My experience at this year’s Writers’ Police Academy involved hanging out with 250 crime and suspense writers avidly participating in every scenario and skill thrown at them—including 20 of them who volunteered to wear a standard police utility belt with all the trimmings—gun, ammo pouches, handcuffs, CS gas, etc.—for the whole long weekend. I was also able to interact with twenty other staff instructors and a wonderfully uncountable number of volunteers (all in highlighter yellow T-shirts) who could have not been any friendlier. And all of this to help crime writers escape the Hollywood Effect of bad scenarios being perpetrated again and again—silencers on revolvers, anybody? How about getting DNA back between commercials?
 
I was impressed by the high quality and professional résumé of the instructors. Most were attached to the Public Safety program located on the campus of the Northeast Technical College in Green Bay—used as an actual police academy by many local law enforcement jurisdictions. It was also the location of much of the provided training for the Writers’ Police Academy attendees, along with the nearby newly opened pursuit driving course, and the excellent conference rooms and facilities in the conference hotel.
 
The bottom line is, the Writers’ Police Academy is an action-packed and thrilling weekend of playing real-life cops and robbers. If you plan to attend in 2018 here are some tips to make your experience the best it can be... 

  • Wear comfortable clothing as it is nearly impossible to duck live ammunition, crawl under loops of barbed wire, and defend yourself against twelve knife-wielding attackers while wearing heels and a skintight leather jumpsuit like many action move heroines. 

  • Bring only the things you need to the academy grounds. It’s tough to kick in doors and perform a PIT maneuver if you’re constantly juggling the contents of a purse big enough for a pack mule. However, sunscreen, sunglasses, bottled water, and a light jacket should be part of your personal gear bag.  

  • Make ahead of time for any child care issues you may have. There are no child friendly options at the Writers’ Police Academy. However, there is a timeout corner for misbehaving adults—most often those who may think it’s okay to keep their phone video app running when the no video rule is implemented. 

  • Cameras used for still shots are acceptable with an instructor’s okay.  

  • Bring a photo ID and keep it with you at all times while at the police academy. Some of the activities do require ID and background checks. For instance, you need a valid driver’s license to participate in any vehicle related activities. Book covers/dust jackets do not count as official ID.  

  • When participating in those emergency driving workshops, keep hands and feet inside the car at all times—especially while spinning wildly out of control. 

  • Be sure to attend the Thursday night orientation. This is where secret details about the event are provided—where to go, when to go there, what to expect when you arrive, what to do and say if captured, schedule changes, classroom number changes…Treat it like a shift change roll call and be there. Besides, it’s fun. 

  • Camping is not allowed at the academy, so be sure to book your hotel accommodations ahead of time—the main conference hotel books up quickly.  

  • The hotel bars and casino are well-stocked with alcohol, so pace yourselves. They will not run out of your favorite beverage. Only TV and movie detectives can drink themselves into oblivion and show up for work the next day popping aspirin and breath mints. Keep in mind the next morning will indeed arrive, and it will include lots of loud gunfire, sirens, and barking, snarling police dogs.  

  • Remember to bring cash and/or credit cards in order to unload a boatload of dollars at the raffle, auction, and silent auction, during the banquet evening. The prizes are unbelievable. This year included a cool guitar signed by the Oak Ridge Boys, a PR package worth nearly $3000, a manuscript review by a top Harlequin editor, two seats at a law enforcement only gang conference, and a ton more.
If this sound as if it’s the conference for you, be sure to sign up as soon as registration opens for 2018. Be prepared to take copious notes at the speed of light, to find the answers to questions you didn’t even know you had, identify those things you want/need to know more about for you writing, and make many potential contacts among the speakers and instructors—many of whom are happy to give out their emails to answer any questions that might arise about procedure, etc.
AND REMEMBER...
 
FOR MORE ABOUT THE WRITERS’ POLICE ACADEMY CLICK HERE


LOGAN LUCKY—OCEAN’S 7-ELEVEN

LOGAN LUCKY—OCEAN’S 7-ELEVEN

Don’t ask me to explain the details of Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist film, Logan Lucky, because I can’t—but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy this Southern fried Ocean’s 7-Eleven to the fullest. 

I can’t take credit for the above clever 7-Eleven quip, which references the film director’s prior forays into classic heist film territory. It is a throwaway line used by the film's TV anchor reporting on the heist of the huge cash take at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina during the running of NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. For anyone unfamiliar, 7-Elevens are convenience stores famous for Slurpees, ptomaine hotdogs, and being referred to in LA as Stop-n-Robs.

But Logan Lucky has a wide variety of far more clever ingredients and set pieces, which don't need the joke explained. I had a big smile on my face as one part of the heist after another clicked into place. Despite being a fuzzy on the details, I was caught up in whatever was to come next--and in not knowing what it was going to be. While all of this is straight by the numbers from Soderbergh’s usual bag of tricks, there is enough depth of characterization, poignancy, and charm to turn it's moonshine sensibilities into Southern Comfort. 

While none of this is supposed to be taken seriously, there is a serious attempt not to treat to the audience as if it had a negative tooth to tattoo ratio. And if several secondary characters verge on inbred Southern stereotypes, Soderbergh never treats them with contempt. Instead, he handles them with a subtle sense of humor and a certain endearing affection.

It also helps that Channing Tatum and Adam Driver never push their working class characters into parody. Driver’s prosthetic arm—the original lost in Iraq—even becomes a brilliant bit of emotional misdirection used to cover a raft of plot holes. With Tatum and Driver consciously underplaying their parts, Daniel Craig—as the blond, buzz-cut, tattooed, Joe Bang—is able to let loose without fear of turning the film into an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard or the slapstick comedy of Talladega Nights.

As in many of his films, Soderbergh's directorial technique purposely doesn’t allow his stars to disappear into their characters. Instead, you are acutely aware of the actors you are watching while also being aware of each Soderbergh touch as it appears on the check list. Strangely, this calculated method has the effect of somehow making the film stronger—the professional chops on the screen avoiding deterioration into scenery chewing because the script keeps everything twisting and turning.

Special kudos are due to Farrah Mackenzie playing Channing Tatum’s young daughter—who tugs at your heartstrings at the perfect moment. Also to Hillary Swank, who puts in a late appearance as a tightly wound FBI agent, and gets to put the final twist in the tail.

While you never get to completely suspend your disbelief, the sum of the parts is a ridiculous fun and quirky ride fueled by Moon Pies and RC Cola.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

SHOCK TROOPS OF JUSTICE

SHOCK TROOPS OF JUSTICE
PULPS VS. REALITY

As the 1930s progressed, pulp magazines exploded in popularity. The demand for stories of all kinds was voracious. Each month hundreds, if not thousands, of tales were needed to fill the harsh, wood-chipped, pages behind the pulp magazine’s lurid cover paintings. 

Paid a cent a word or often less, the top pulpsters knew they needed to keep throwing one word after another in order to keep whiskey in their bottles and, perhaps, food on their family’s tables. Less experienced wordsmiths realized their chances of making a living increased with every story they pounded out on letter-sticking typewriters. 

Although there were a handful of pulp writers who were both fast and entertaining, for lesser writers being fast more often took precedent over being good. The demand for product thrived on creativity—purple prose, imagination, and character drove the action in order to overcome plot holes and realism. 

Obviously, there was no Internet for quick fact checks. If a writer didn’t know what procedures were used in the real world or how scientific principals actually worked, he made something up to fit the needs of the story. Time to research stories meant less time for writing, missed deadlines, and missed pay checks. The writing itself became the be all and end all of the pulp writer’s life.

Robert Mill, however, saw things differently. Mill saw the intrepid values imbued upon fictional pulp heroes in the reality of a group of real life men—the special agents of J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation. 

Mill’s enthusiasm for these new paragons of justice was unfettered by his need to simply tell stories to get paid. He was moved to tell real stories (or as real as the pulp market would allow) using the real techniques developing in law enforcement, which enraptured his imagination.

Mill’s believed his idolization of the bravery of those true-life individuals in the service of their country should, and would, be shared by his readers. He recognized the fascination the everyman had, and still has today, with the gritty realism of real law enforcement.

In a time when the techniques of fingerprinting, criminal profiling, and crime scene investigation were in their infancy, Mill found his pulp niche. He researched not only the techniques, but also the methods, personal lives, and stresses faced by real special agents taking on criminal gangs of kidnappers, robbers, and thieves. The fascinating world he discovered fueled his creation of square-jawed Special Agent James Ashby and the behind-the-scenes characters who worked to help him be successful. 

Mill’s stories collected within the pages of Shock Troops Of Justice are a delight to read. Presented in the order in which they were written, it’s interesting to see how Mill learns to blend his enthusiasm for realistic police work while still maintaining the pulp stylings appropriate to his markets—purple prose and criminal argot garnishing the real world research, giving authority to Mill’s storytelling so lacking in the frippery of his contemporaries.

From the workings of the newly established crime labs to the techniques of information gathering, to the dangers of being deep undercover, Mill researched it in-depth. He then wrote his tales with the confidence of a man passionate and knowledgeable about his subject. Hoover’s schoolboys couldn’t have had a more ardent proponent.

Because of Mill’s skill at imparting his real world knowledge of law enforcement procedure, these tales hold up remarkably well when compared to the more fanciful tales of Mill’s contemporaries.

In the preface to Shock Troops Of Justice, Mill tells us about crime and society:

The police of the cities were powerless to combat the monster. Some were honest, but incompetent. Others were efficient, but dishonest. Still others, both honest and efficient, were made impotent by grafting politicians. But whatever the case may have been, it is an unchallenged fact that for long months and years, the underworld held a decided advantage in the constant war between police and evildoers.

Having had a thirty-five career as a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department (honest and—hopefully—efficient), I can reliably say not much has changed. The criminal argot is different, gangs and cons have come and gone, technology has advanced, but the underworld still appears to have a decided advantage in the constant war between police and evildoers. We need Special Agent James Ashby and men and women like him today more than ever.

 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

WHEREFORE ART THOU DUNKIRK

WHEREFORE ART THOU DUNKIRK

Conversation while walking out of the theater immediately after seeing Dunkirk...

“What did you think?”

(Pause) “The cinematography was excellent…”

When the first thing you say about a movie is the cinematography was excellent, there is a major problem with the cinematic event to which you’re responding—and Dunkirk has more than one major problem. In fact, the film is filled with them.

The critics who rated Dunkirk a 92 on Rotten Tomatoes must have seen a completely different film to the one I saw. Or, perhaps, they were so enamored by the auteur power of Christopher Nolan, they couldn’t see the emperor has no clothes.

Of the three marquee stars, Mark Rylance is the only one with a modicum of screen presence. However, the script gives Rylance—along with Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy—absolutely nothing from which to create a memorable character. All three could have been replaced by any random WAM (waiter/actor/model) and it wouldn’t have made a sliver of difference to the film.
 
Nolan provides no context for the incredible feat of the Dunkirk evacuation. Nor does he manage to convey the scope of the heroic rescue of 380,000 soldiers by over 800 small civilian ships. There is no indication of the courage of those who sailed, again and again across the English Channel to rescue every soldier or sailor they possibly could—be they British, Polish, French, or from any other allied nation without prejudice. In the face of great danger, these average civilian men and women committed themselves selflessly because it was a job nobody else could or would do. They did it because England would not have survived otherwise.

According to what Nolan puts on the screen, the RAF had only three planes, the British Navy only had one destroyer (which kept being blown up), and a couple of thousand men—most of whom died by being strafed, bombed, crushed, or drowned—were rescued by a dozen or so little boats—The End. If you went into the movie theater knowing nothing about the historic events of Dunkirk, you would leave the theater knowing even less.

Aside from all its other faults, Dunkirk commits the cardinal sin of being boring. It is a cold and distant film, which completely fails to engage on any level. Nolan’s snazzy time shifting nonsense, which the critics swooned over, does nothing but muddle an already murky continuity. Things are made even worse by mumbled and garbled dialogue—what there is of it anyway—which does nothing to explain the situation or further the plot. Wait...There wasn’t a plot, only a series of disconnected scenes, which crash and burn like a Spitfire shot out of the sky—much like Dunkirk itself.

Personally, I think the above poster would have been a much more entertaining film...

Friday, August 4, 2017

ATOMIC BLONDE EXPLODES

 
ATOMIC BLONDE EXPLODES

Atomic Blonde is being marketed as a start to finish kick-butt action film comparable to the director’s other action series, John Wick. This is not only misleading, but a disservice to a film trying—not always successfully—to be something different. To be sure there are some terrific set pieces of brutal, balletic, violence in which Charlize Theron proves she’s the real deal when it comes to being an action star. She’s not quite up to Wonder Woman standards, but there is no doubt Theron is giving everything she has to the part. 

Beyond the excellent execution of this expected action, Atomic Blonde is mostly a smoldering slow burn, allowing bits and pieces of its end of the Cold War plot seep out before the next explosion of violence. This works much like a pressure cooker without a release valve, which ratchets up the film’s concept. However, the issue with these scenes is they suffer from a standard espionage cross, double cross, triple cross plot line. The search for a microfilm with the names of every agent the British and the Americans have in Eastern Europe was old after the first season of Mission: Impossible. My question about his trope has always been, who would know all the names of the agents from both countries and why in hell would they write them down? 

Despite this cliché, you do have to pay attention to the details in order to understand the whole—which by the end of the movie not only comes around, but comes around again. The Accountant did this payoff better last year, but Atomic Blonde almost pulls it off.

Atomic Blonde also tries had to make up for its plot shortcomings with a stylish neon color palette and some amazing fashions for Theron to strut her stuff in. The excellent fight scenes are well choreographed, but the biggest plus is you can actually see what is happening and follow the action. For once there is no herky-jerky, motion sickness inducing, handheld camera crap with so many cuts as to render the sequence totally devoid of any interest. When Theron goes into action, you are watching and riveted by her every continuously flowing move.

Best of all, Theron’s character not only gets beat up as she fights desperately against multiple stronger foes, but she wears the unglamorous results from start to finish—she has not only been put through a preverbal thrashing machine, but displays the ravages. Theron’s acting, while stylistically wooden in the quieter scenes, subtly allows her character’s core of inner strength and determination to believably overcome the physical damage she has sustained. In a genre where subtly is usually distained, this is a welcome surprise.

Atomic Blonde is not a movie for everyone—certainly not for those with gentler sensibilities—but action and spy junkies will find a lot to like, while wishing there was just a bit more tactile strength to hold it all together...

Big plus: The '80s sountrack kicks butt as much as Theron does...