Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Miscellaneous: November Roundup

Facing multiple deadlines, I look up at the ol’ calendar on the wall to notice November is in its dotage and I haven’t posted yet. I don’t update the blog as much as I used to, but I haven’t missed a month since I started it in April 2004 and I aim to keep the streak going. I swore a sacred oath years ago: The show goes on. The Stardust is never dark. It never has been. It never will be. Not while I’m alive.

Herewith, some recommendations.

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives, by Karin Wieland. Wieland’s wide-ranging, meticulously researched dual biography stems from a remarkable happenstance. Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl barely knew each other in Weimar Berlin despite living close enough for Riefenstahl to see into the windows of Dietrich’s apartment. Yet they would end up as icons of the opposing sides of the conflict that defined the twentieth century: Dietrich the imperious seductress who sacrificed herself for the boys during World War Two, Riefenstahl the filmmaker willing to glorify the Nazi regime in exchange for a budget as unchecked as her ambitions. Wieland’s book, featuring a supple translation from the German by Shelley Frisch, cuts back and forth between lives, the juxtaposition revealing surprising commonalities. It also benefits from judicious use of archival resources previously unavailable, specifically Dietrich’s letters and telegrams as well as Joseph Goebbels’ diaries, which illuminate Riefenstahl’s relationship with Hitler and the mechanics of the production of Triumph of the Will and Olympia. The closing chapters are particularly strong; decades after the war Dietrich, imprisoned by a glamorous image age will no longer permit her to live up to, retreats from the world while Riefenstahl, her films now viewed in a broader context, inhabits it more fully as she seeks the validation as an artist she believes history has denied her. A compelling look at two extraordinary women, both of whom appear in the just-completed second Lillian Frost & Edith Head mystery by Renee Patrick (aka me and the missus).

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, by Kliph Nesteroff. Anyone with a passing interest in show business will devour this book by standup comic-turned-scholar Nesteroff. Starting with vaudeville and ending with the death of Robin Williams, it chronicles decades of entertainment in a style simultaneously breezy and nuanced. Nesteroff is acutely aware of influences, tracking different strains of technique through generations of performers. Along the way, he offers deft thumbnail sketches of neglected names like pioneering female standup Jean Carroll, she of the evening gloves, and acerbic radio comic Henry Morgan. Even as the book moves into the modern era, Nesteroff still finds offbeat angles on familiar names. Bonus points for mention of the long-forgotten scandal that factors into Lillian & Edith #2.

Blandings. Our new favorite show here at Chez K. We blew through both seasons in no time flat. Available on Acorn TV, this P.G. Wodehouse adaptation boasts a peerless cast. Timothy Spall is Lord Emsworth, the daft nobleman preoccupied with the health and well-being of his prize pig. Feckless Freddy is his son, played by the pitch-perfect Jack Farthing. Jennifer Saunders pointlessly tries to impose order as Emsworth’s sister. Familiar faces aplenty turn up as various relatives, bounders and braggarts. The biggest surprise was discovering that the location for Blandings Castle is in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, home to the Keenan family for millennia, in a tiny town I’ve visited several times.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The cover of the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine says it all.

The women of film noir, particularly the ones behind the scenes, step into the spotlight in this edition. The result is, in the words of FNF founder and host of Turner Classic Movies’ Summer of Noir Eddie Muller, our “best issue ever.” It certainly boasts a stellar line-up of contributors.

Kicking things off is the cover story by Eddie himself on Alfred Hitchcock’s secret weapon, producer Joan Harrison. We’ve got Kim Morgan offering her defense of the femme fatale, Christa Faust weighing in on every movie based on the infamous “Honeymoon Killers” case, plus actress/hellraising advocate Rose McGowan on her top five noir films. Not to mention surveys of the film adaptations of Dorothy B. Hughes and Patricia Highsmith; tributes to Ella Raines, June Havoc and Jean Gillie; and so much more.

Getting her first-ever byline is Renee Patrick, the mystery writing alter ego I share with my wife Rosemarie. Together we look at Edith Head’s singular fashion contributions to film noir, in a piece gorgeously assembled by ace designer Michael Kronenberg.

It was my distinct pleasure to organize the women noir writers’ roundtable, posing questions to a quintet of top-flight talents: Megan Abbott, Steph Cha, Christa Faust, Vicki Hendricks and Denise Mina. I also interview Sarah Weinman about the acclaimed new collection she edited, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ‘50s.

My Cocktails & Crime column is in the front of the book, while in the back is a piece I’ve wanted to write for a while: an appreciation of the Joel and Ethan Coen film The Man Who Wasn’t There. Its debut on Blu-Ray finally allows me to make the case for it as the Coens’ best film, a truly chilling film noir, and one of the few masterpieces of this still-young century.

I’ll be blunt. You need this issue. So make a donation to the FNF’s preservation efforts and receive the magazine as your reward. The ladies of film noir and I thank you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Belly Up To The Classroom

It’s back to school season, even for yours truly. In my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, I recount my adventures in bartending class. Chief lesson learned: I finally crack the code of the gimlet, the cocktail Raymond Chandler made famous.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Happy Birthday, Preston Sturges!

In honor of the 1898 birthday of the American master of film comedy – and supporting character in our debut Lillian Frost/Edith Head mystery Design for Dying, available from Tor/Forge in April 2016 – here are his Eleven Rules for Box Office Appeal.

1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
2. A leg is better than an arm.
3. A bedroom is better than a living room.
4. An arrival is better than a departure.
5. A birth is better than a death.
6. A chase is better than a chat.
7. A dog is better than a landscape.
8. A kitten is better than a dog.
9. A baby is better than a kitten.
10. A kiss is better than a baby.
11. A pratfall is better than anything.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Me Elsewhere: On The Rocks

A lazy lightweight, Deborah Kerr, Mad Men, and Hawaiian Punch. They all feature in my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, focusing on a trio of cocktails made with the same ingredient. That magical elixir? It’s the one advertised here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

In Amadeus, Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart one of his compositions, while ingenious, includes “too many notes.” At Noir City, we tell Emperor Joe to stuff it.

The house rag of the Film Noir Foundation shines its spotlight on music, and we filled this issue to overflowing. Honestly, it’s an embarrassment of riches of which we are inordinately proud, and you owe it to yourselves to secure a copy post haste.

My favorite piece, for obvious reasons, is my lovely wife and writing partner Rosemarie’s debut in the magazine. When we finally saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s Deux Hommes dans Manhattan, Rosemarie became obsessed with “Street in Manhattan,” a haunting ballad performed onscreen by a singer billed as Glenda Leigh. Rosemarie wondered whatever became of her and doggedly tracked her down. Now Glenda Grainger, still singing at age 80, she tells the story of her jet-set career in an interview.

But that’s only one verse, kids. Open your ears and eyes to the following:

- Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus on the soundtracks of Philip Marlowe

- Ray Banks’ self-described “5000 word labour of love” on the noir ethos of Tom Waits

- Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra names his Five Favorite noir films

- Woody Haut’s survey of the 15 best film noir jazz soundtracks

- Jake Hinkson considers the country noir of Johnny Cash

- Brian Light revisits the scoring of Touch of Evil, by Henry Mancini and a cast of West Coast jazz heavyweights

- Maestro Eddie Muller not once but twice, recalling his friendship with jazz legend Charlie Haden and interviewing noir chanteuse Jill Tracy

Plus even more music, as well as our usual coverage of all things noir like my friend David Corbett’s razor sharp appraisal of the best film noir of the 21st century, El Aura, and Duane Swierczynski’s review of the new Blu-ray of Prime Cut. I yammer on about nonsense as well, sizing up a trio of titles that screened at the recent Seattle International Film Festival and serving up my usual Cocktails & Crime column.

Contribute to the Film Noir Foundation and this veritable feast will be winging its way to you. Don’t wait.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Elementary, My Dear Bartender

Yours truly is all over this week’s issue of Eat Drink Films. First up is my Down the Hatch column, which reviews a new book destined to become a modern mixology staple: The Cocktail Chronicles by Paul Clarke. Included are some comments from Paul and a sterling trio of drink recipes from the book’s pages.

But wait! There’s more! Eat Drink Films also features excerpts from The Cocktail Chronicles, among them a take on the gimlet that could teach Raymond Chandler a thing or two.

Then I slide over to the film portion of the magazine for A Century of Cinematic Sherlocks, about seeing a pair of Sherlock Holmes films made one hundred years apart within days of each other. Swing by and give them – and the rest of the issue – a look, why don’t you?