Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Extra, Extra! Noir City!

One of the benefits of being on the masthead of Noir City, the magazine of the non-profit Film Noir Foundation, is pitching in on the planning. I’ve known about the all-TV issue, which went out to subscribers last weekend, for ages, and had my pick of subject matter. I could have cherry-picked a vintage series that provided a small screen home for the migrating talent responsible for the twisted cinematic crime dramas of the 1950s. Or I could have claimed the contemporary cable antihero of my choice. It’s good to be the king, or in this case the managing editor.

Instead I pitched the only story I wanted to write. Which is why the issue features a look back at HBO’s two Phil Lovecraft films. Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) somehow knew Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft were two great tastes that taste great together. The result is a sly salute to classic noir that’s also genuinely, consistently funny. The disappointing follow-up Witch Hunt (1994) is an object lesson in the powers that be preparing a sequel while not comprehending what makes the original work.

Joseph Dougherty wrote both films, and proved a funny and candid interview. An acclaimed playwright and TV hyphenate, he’s spent the past seven years working on Pretty Little Liars, which he describes as “mini-Hitchcock movies for teens.” Dougherty wrote and directed “Shadow Play,” a film noir-inspired episode that became a fan favorite. We did a second interview about that show, complete with the welcome news that PLL has introduced a new generation to classic cinema as well as Dougherty’s brilliant advice for penning dialogue for teenage girls: “think of them as a bomber crew in a Howard Hawks movie.”

I’ve also got my usual Cocktails & Crime column, plus reviews of a new Douglas Sirk/George Sanders Blu-ray set and Edward Sorel’s offbeat book Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, covered in the New York Times by some wet-behind-the-ears stringer named Woody Allen.

But I’m not the only person in this issue. You also get—

- A double dose of FNF honcho Eddie Muller, interviewing Warner Bros. Home Entertainment George Feltenstein and holding forth on the small screen-spawned Mulholland Dr.

- Cartoonist/illustrator Daniel Clowes’ one-of-a-kind list of his five favorite noir films

- Imogen Smith on the definitive noir TV show, The Fugitive

- Jazz aficionado supreme Brian Light’s appraisal of the offbeat Johnny Staccato

- Alan K. Rode charting the noir roots of Perry Mason

- Steve Kronenberg’s assessment of the noir episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller

- Danilo Castro’s remembrance of Fallen Angels, the ‘90s cable series that brought pulp to primetime

- Sharon Knolle on the recent bumper crop of noir on cable, including Quarry and Animal Kingdom

- Ben Terrall’s very personal history of the pulp origins of Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

And, believe it or not, even more. It’s a true gem of an issue, and it’s yours by making a contribution to the Film Noir Foundation.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Best TV Show You’re Not Watching!

Titles like the above irk the hell out of me. That’s the peril of PeakTV®: no matter how many hours you clock in front of your various screens, you know you’re missing something.

Unless you’re me, in which case you’re missing everything. I used to joke that watching TV was a skill set I didn’t possess. At some point in the last few years, it stopped being a gag. Television viewing became serious business—maybe the real business of America nowadays—and I lacked the chops for it. I also used to joke that when I could watch whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, I’d wallow like a pig in a trough. Came that very day and I couldn’t be bothered to waddle over from the sty.

Game of Thrones? Haven’t seen it. The Walking Dead? Not one episode. My televisual diet consists of baseball and old movies. I have the occasional spasm of sensibility—I flew through Stranger Things this summer, the show scratching an itch I didn’t know I had—but for the most part I bluff my way through conversations about TV. It’s actually not that hard to do.

That said, allow me to tell you about the best TV show you’re not watching.

I’d never heard of Count Arthur Strong when I queued up the first episode. I simply read a description of the show on Acorn TV, a streaming service that offers British television fare, saw that it was a comedy about an aging entertainer, and figured it was worth a look. (Savvy readers may be wondering why I, as someone who professes not to watch much TV, subscribes to such a service. My accountant has raised the very same question.)

What followed was the exact opposite of a binge. What followed was me doling the episodes out incrementally, not wanting them to end. Because Count Arthur Strong is without question one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. Discovering Count Arthur Strong was a rare high point in a dire year. If you have access to Acorn TV, which you might via Amazon Prime, you still have time before the bells toll the deserved demise of this annus horribilus to make the acquaintance of Count Arthur Strong yourself.

Count Arthur, honorific never explained, is the brainchild of writer/actor Steve Delaney. The Count is a bit player in his dotage now known for his “raconteuring,” a legend in his own mind whose greatest claim to fame is a brief partnership with a man who broke up the act to become a titan of English entertainment. The ex-partner dies and his hapless writer son (played by Rory Kinnear, best known to U.S. audiences as the prime minister in that episode of Black Mirror) is pressed to pen about a book about the old man, which sends him careering into the orbit of Count Arthur and his friends.

That’s it. That’s the show in its entirety, now at thirteen episodes and counting, every one of them packed with laughs. Delaney created Count Arthur in the 1980s and revived him for the Edinburgh Festival in the 1990s, where his popularity led to a radio series. He then teamed up with Graham Linehan (Father Tim) for the TV version, which combines their strong suits: Delaney’s genius at inhabiting a fully three-dimensional character, and Linehan’s flair for lampooning sitcoms while honoring their traditions. Kinnear sends the show deliriously over the top, the putative straight man every bit as mad as his partner. The six episodes of Season One form a nearly perfect whole, unified by the storyline of Kinnear’s dogged efforts to write the biography of the father he never knew and studded with moments of surprising emotional impact. Season Two is looser but frequently more hilarious, as in the episode that is a meticulously detailed send-up of Misery. I told my compadre Ray Banks about my love for Count Arthur. He welcomed me to the brotherhood and steered me toward the trove of Delaney’s radio broadcasts, which I am now again doling out gradually until Season Three crests on these shores.

It’s a few days late, but for a taste here’s Count Arthur Strong’s Christmas message.



While I’m at it, a few other lesser publicized shows I’ve enjoyed this year—

Occupied (Netflix). Created by crime novelist Jo Nesbø and brought to the screen by filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjǣrg (Insomnia), this political thriller details the slow-motion takeover of Norway by Russia in order to commandeer its energy resources. Over the summer I recommended it to people as preparation for the Trump administration, because I’m such a cut-up. Now I’d call it mandatory. Its daring structure, with each episode set in a subsequent month, means key plot business sometimes occurs offscreen and we only witness the fallout. It also makes it a potent exploration of normalization.

Difficult People (Hulu). We pay for Hulu solely to watch Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner say what we’re all thinking. The show that makes me miss living in New York City.

Red Oaks (Amazon). Of course I’m in the tank for a series set in the 1980s about a high school kid who dreams of being a filmmaker. Season One was so flawless I almost resented its return, but the sophomore year brought an abundance of pleasures beginning with a Paris-set premiere directed by Hal Hartley (who helmed the bulk of the episodes) that plays like an independent film. And every single music cue this season broke my fucking heart.

People of Earth (TBS). A comedy from Conan O’Brien and some of the Parks & Recreation team about a recovery group for alien abductees—though they prefer to be called “experiencers” because it gives them more agency—that’s funny, deeply human and astonishingly soulful.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Keenan’s Klassics: It’s a Shane Black Christmas

A blast from the past. December 2009, to be exact.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year. (Editor's note, 2013: You can now add IRON MAN 3 to that roster. Editor’s note, 2016: And THE NICE GUYS. The Christmas trees are there if you look.)

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4


God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Queen of Crime

Several weeks early, I offer my New Year’s resolution for 2017: whenever I hear someone is making an enemies list, I’m gonna do what I can to be on it.

***

There’s still time to go, but it’s entirely possible the best movie I saw in a theater in 2016 will be ... the best movie I saw in a theater in 2015. Seattle’s Cinerama recently wrapped a 10-day run of Mad Max: Fury Road – The Black and Chrome Edition. What better time to revisit the apocalypse! George Miller called this black and white print “the best version” of his action extravaganza, a “more authentic and elemental” experience. I loved the film when I saw it last summer, but this viewing was indeed more intense and emotional. Monochrome is Tom Hardy’s friend, revealing new layers to his performance. Both versions will be available on Blu-ray next month, but I may put Fury Road in the rarified category of movie I only watch on a big screen.

***

One of the titles I picked up in the self-serve book room at Bouchercon in New Orleans was Blood Relations: The Selected Letters of Ellery Queen, edited by Joseph Goodrich. As one-half of Renee Patrick, I’m always interested in the working methods of other writing teams.

Rosemarie and I intend to remain married, so we’re not about to follow the lead of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. As Ellery Queen they wrote numerous novels and short stories about a detective also named Ellery Queen, with Dannay responsible for plotting duties and Lee handling the prose. It was a fraught system, each man resenting their interdependence and feeling unappreciated by the other. Their exchanges are charged with recriminations but also hugely instructive. One letter will offer a devastating critique of the work in progress, followed by an equally avid and airtight response. It’s bracing to read correspondence between partners who both have their reasons and are more than capable of defending them.

Here’s where I confess my ignorance of the Queen oeuvre. My experience was largely limited to the TV series from Columbo creators Richard Link and William Levinson, which incidentally is streaming on Hulu. Goodrich culls the letters in Blood Relations from what scholar Francis M. Nevins calls the “Third Period” of Queen, from 1942-58, when Ellery Queen the character was transformed from effete dandy to flesh-and-blood individual. I set out to read the books from Queen’s golden era even though the Dannay/Lee letters made me familiar with their twists and turns. I was curious; having peaked behind the curtain, could I still enjoy the show?

Ten Days’ Wonder (1948) is something of a chamber piece, one of the novels where Ellery retreats to the bucolic hamlet of Wrightsville. As such, it has a small cast of characters and for that reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that even coming to it fresh I would have sussed out the killer. The core idea still strikes me as a shade too intellectual. But the writing is soulful, seeking and finding a deepening of the character, and the mechanics of the final revelation are impressive. The next year’s Cat of Many Tails, in contrast, seemed even more thrilling knowing what tricks the boys had up their sleeves. The gripping tale of a serial killer terrorizing New York, it’s thick with mid-century atmosphere; when handing over his detailed outline, Dannay suggests Lee use the then-in-the-theaters The Naked City as a guide. The Cat’s method of selecting his victims is as diabolical now as it was nearly seventy years ago, the motive behind it every bit as chilling. The psychological explanations tend to be long-winded, understandable given when the book was written. But that gentility also makes the shock easier to take.

It was fascinating to approach a book when its gaff has been blown and look for the seams. Time to read some Ellery Queen where I don’t possess any of their secrets.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Social Media Habits, and How the Coen Brothers Saved Election Night

For some reason I feel compelled to explain why this post exists. I’ll keep it brief. A week before the election, I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter. I realized that, like the rest of the country, I was going insane, and social media was only accelerating the process. I was checking Twitter constantly for updates and new polling numbers, mainlining everyone else’s fears and hopes at the same time. Conversely, I’d stop by Facebook for a break from the news – Post some photos of your damn cats! – only to get sucked back into the maelstrom.


It finally dawned on me that this was part of the problem.

Time for a sabbatical. I still read the news, but in concentrated doses. (Do the republic and yourself a favor: subscribe to a newspaper. Journalism is important enough to pay for.) By election night I felt calmer, I was sleeping better, and once out of the echo chamber I’d unintentionally built I was even somewhat prepared for the eventual outcome. I also discovered I wasn’t in any hurry to get back to my old habits.

I’ve made some resolutions for the coming years. If anything I’m going to spend more time in bars, because what we all need to do now is talk directly to friends and strangers alike in a congenial atmosphere. Engagement must be the order of the day. (Here’s a segment from WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show about the role of the bar as community meeting place on Election Night, featuring the terrific New York Times Magazine writer/bartender Rosie Schaap.)

And I’m going to reduce my social media presence for my own peace of mind. Not eliminate it; the pull’s too strong, and I know how essential it is for promotion. (Did I mention that Rosie Schaap blurbed my book Down The Hatch?) While I am going to scale back, I do still have an overwhelming urge to shoot my mouth off. So I plan on posting here again – I’m aiming for once a week, maybe Thursdays – with recommendations and updates. Why not start with how I spent election night?

No way was I watching returns on television. I gave up TV news, especially the cable variety, a while ago. Instead I tracked the results online and entered the brave new world in the company of Joel and Ethan Coen, who never let me down. I rewatched a trio of their titles that seemed unusually apt, given the circumstances.

Burn After Reading (2008). I have irrational affection for what’s often viewed as a “lesser” Coen film. When it came out, I glibly told people it was about how the United States ended up going to war in Iraq. I never developed the theory in detail; it just felt true to me. This was the Coen movie I thought of the most during the election cycle. Pretty much every character is a self-absorbed idiot, by turns entitled and aggrieved. Empathy ends at their fingertips. They obsess over their own problems and assume the worst about everyone else. The only decent person to be found lacks all conviction, and naturally ends up meeting the cruelest fate.

Plus you have Frances McDormand, looking a little like Hillary Clinton, sobbing about having to build a firewall. So yeah, 2016 in a nutshell.

Miller’s Crossing (1990). The angry man behind the desk is a Coen motif. Sooner or later, their protagonists always have to square off against one. Crossing doubles down on the theme. Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan stands before two such desks – Albert Finney’s and Jon Polito’s – as both advisor and adversary. There are valuable lessons here for the next few years. In a harsh and unpredictable world, the only way to win is to play the long game, even if it means keeping your true motives hidden.

Hail, Caesar! (2016). Fourth viewing of their latest movie. I don’t think it’s a minor work. I think it’s a dense, unconventionally structured masterpiece. (My pal Ethan Iverson likes it, too.) The “man behind the desk” evolves in the Coens’ films – when the figure appears in Burn After Reading in the form of J.K. Simmons’ CIA chief, he’s as befuddled as everyone else – and it’s strangely moving that in Caesar, they’ve finally made him their hero. All you can hope for is that, like Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, he has a soul and is trying in his own way to do the right thing. Slapping some sense into wayward movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), he says, “You’re going to do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never going to forget that again.” Finding something larger than you and serving it. Good advice for the week.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Me Elsewhere: Noir at the Bar Seattle

Coming up tomorrow night. A swanky venue! A sterling line-up! And booze!


Warning: photo not to scale.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Extra, Extra! Noir City!

Over the weekend, the Summer 2016 issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s house rag hit in-boxes. And I’ll tell you right now, I’ve never been prouder of any edition of this magazine. The reason is the cover story, my interview with Academy Award nominated director Stephen Frears.



I gave the assignment to myself, not even running it past FNF founder and Noir City honcho Eddie Muller at first for fear the interview wouldn’t come together. My bailiwick as managing editor at the magazine is contemporary noir. It occurred to me that there are plenty of current filmmakers who have contributed mightily to noir – and that we need to talk to them about that work while we have the opportunity. We’re not going to get to sit down with, say, Robert Siodmak or Robert Wise, but we could corral their successors and discuss noir’s evolution. And, at the risk of sounding morbid, we were obligated to do so now, as last week’s untimely passing of writer/director Curtis Hanson at the age of 71 reminds us. (What I wouldn’t have given to talk to Hanson, not only about his masterwork L.A. Confidential but so many other dark gems on his resume like The Silent Partner, The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence.)

Why start with Stephen Frears? Three reasons. He has unassailable credentials, with The Hit (1984) and The Grifters (1990) enshrined in the neo-noir pantheon. He had a new film in release, which in purely practical terms meant he’d be more likely to be accessible. Incidentally, that new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, is delightful. Meryl Streep is understandably the focus of all the attention, but it also boasts the best performance of Hugh Grant’s career.

But my main motive was personal. Frears is one of my favorite filmmakers, his name on a movie a guaranteed incentive for me to watch it. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen The Snapper (1993), while High Fidelity (2000) is a kind of touchstone for me. If I were drafting one of those best-films-of-the-21st-century-so-far lists for the BBC, 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things would most definitely be on it.

Somehow, the stars aligned and I found myself on the phone with the man himself. Frears seemed amused at the prospect of being viewed as a noir filmmaker and agreed to stroll down Memory Lane with me, reminiscing about his debut feature Gumshoe (1971) and chiding me about not thinking of Dangerous Liaisons (1988) as film noir. He answered my questions with the low-key, self-effacing humor that seems the exclusive province of the English.

Eddie then took things to the next level by announcing Frears as the recipient of the Film Noir Foundation’s first annual Modern Master Award, “given to an artist whose work has displayed an appreciation for the thematic and artistic traditions of classic noir, as well as an eagerness to extend those traditions in fresh and unexpected directions.” Our plan is to present the award to Frears in person at the Noir City film festival in either San Francisco or Los Angeles – provided he can tear himself away from his latest project. And we’re already discussing who the next recipient might be.

But that’s only scratching the surface of what’s in this issue. There’s Eddie’s spellbinding article on the making of The Murderers Are Among Us (1946), the first of the “rubble films” shot amidst the ruins of post-war Europe. Imogen Sara Smith offers a pair of related articles on British World War II noir and an appreciation of Carol Reed’s neglected The Man Between (1953). Jake Hinkson considers the career of Detour author Martin Goldsmith. Steve Kronenberg salutes the great cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Nigel Collins, longtime editor of boxing magazine The Ring, serves up a surprising list of his 5 favorite noir titles. And the inimitable Johnny Shaw takes us on a tour of South Korean crime cinema, specifically The Yellow Sea.

Plus there’s the usual bounty of news, reviews and features, including my Cocktails & Crime column and my take on four films that screened at the Seattle International Film Festival. All of it beautifully laid out by ace designer Michael Kronenberg.

To get your copy, donate to the Film Noir Foundation. You’ll also be entered into a contest to win the brand new Kino-Lorber Blu-rays of Deadline U.S.A. and 99 River Street, with commentary tracks by Eddie Muller, and the Warner Archive DVD of James Ellroy favorite Stakeout on Dope Street.

If you want a taste of what’s in the magazine, my piece from last issue on Tequila Sunrise, a movie that had way too much influence on me, is now on the FNF website.