Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Year in Review: Movies

It used to be hard to draft a best list. Back before the shortened Oscar season, many of the year-end awards contenders wouldn’t be released nationwide until February. Now, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is the only major holdout, and I’ll be able to see it next weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if it factored into my final tally; I’m a big Clint Eastwood fan and I read the F. X. Toole novella on which the film is based. (Although I have to say I thought Toole laid it on a little thick. I’m curious to see how a filmmaker as spare as Eastwood handles the material.)

I could wait until every county was heard from, but where’s the fun in that? So let’s call this my Slightly-Premature-Still-Haven’t-Caught-The-Latest-From-Clint-And-Marty Best of 2004. For starters, I have a rock-solid top 5:

SPARTAN. Am I the only person to consider this the best movie of the year? I don’t care. I don’t care that it was pilloried last week on Andrew Sullivan’s website when the New Republic named it one of the year’s overlooked movies. (The criticism at Sullivan’s site was off-base anyway. David Mamet is non-partisan. He thinks everybody’s a hustler. The film’s unseen president combines the worst excesses of Bush II and Clinton, just as the unseen president in Mamet’s script for WAG THE DOG was an amalgam of Clinton and Bush I.) Mamet’s gripping thriller draws its power from startling bursts of emotion and preys on everyone’s worst fears of politicization run amok. It knocked me on my heels back in March and I never forgot it. What can I tell you? I’m not like everybody else.

SIDEWAYS. OK, I am like everybody else. I love this movie and every screwed-up character in it.

BEFORE SUNSET. For being the least likely sequel ever. For being every bit as intense as a thriller. But mainly for having the best ending in years.

COLLATERAL. Michael Mann’s triumphant return to genre filmmaking asks what a job takes out of a man and what a man takes out of a job.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Funny, I found it easy to follow.

Close behind them is a second tier of movies:

BAD EDUCATION. This film noir meditation on storytelling is proof that Pedro Almodovar is the world’s finest active filmmaker.

BON VOYAGE. Did anyone else even see this? A lush, comic WWII adventure that’s also a celebration of style – in life and in movies.

CELLULAR. Laugh if you must. But this was the most fun I had in a theater this year.

HERO. The more political of Zhang Yimou’s two martial arts epics, and the more interesting because of it.

THE INCREDIBLES. Perhaps Pixar’s crowning achievement, and a watershed movie for animation in America.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS. A near-perfect piece of entertainment.

SPIDER-MAN 2. The comic book elevated to the level of opera. The highest compliment I can pay this movie: it made me feel like I was eight years old again.

THE TERMINAL. I thought I was the only person who picked up the blithe spirit of Chaplin here. But David Thomson spotted it, too.

Other quick thoughts on the year. There were three cinematic flashpoints in 2004 – THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, FAHRENHEIT 9/11, and DOGVILLE – and I’m not sure what it says about me that I didn’t care for any of them. For a purportedly spiritual film, THE PASSION focused exclusively on the physical. Michael Moore couldn’t mount a cogent argument. Lars von Trier stacked the deck so that a cogent argument was impossible. Or, to put it another way: too bloody, too muddy, and too cruddy.

Overlooked Performances: Jeff Bridges in THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR, Helen Mirren in THE CLEARING

Performance I Was Afraid Would Be Overlooked: Clive Owen in CLOSER

Personal Cinematic Accomplishment of Which I Am Most Proud: According to David Poland, the lowest grossing film released by a major studio in 2004 was Disney’s THE LAST SHOT, starring Alec Baldwin and Matthew Broderick. It made $465,000. Ten bucks of that is mine.

Unsung Character Actor of the Year: Anybody can throw prizes at the big names. I want to single out someone lesser known who made my 2004 a little brighter. Rick Hoffman has an uncredited bit in THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW as a grumpy New York lawyer. In CELLULAR, he plays a sleazy Los Angeles lawyer. In a few minutes of screen time, he neatly delineates the differences between the coasts. That’s got to be worth something.

See you next year. Bring your own popcorn. I never touch the stuff.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

R.I.P. Jerry Orbach

I’m not a regular viewer of LAW & ORDER, but I enjoyed many of the episodes I watched because of the work of Jerry Orbach. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to see him on stage, although Rosemarie did in a revival of 42nd STREET. His musical performances (including his voice work in Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) and his epic run on L&O will no doubt be his legacy. But I’d like to single out a few of his other turns that might be overlooked.

The first time I saw Jerry Orbach was in 1986’s F/X. He played the hale Mafia kingpin whose faked death sets the story in motion. F/X was one of those movies I watched over and over in high school, and Orbach’s sly performance was a big part of its charm. He’s also terrific in PRINCE OF THE CITY, playing an undercover cop running a business as part of a sting which he manages to turn into a going concern. And for many years, Orbach was the record-holder on CELEBRITY JEOPARDY!, donating his winnings to the pet charity Bide-A-Wee. Quite a career.

Miscellaneous: Link

The Village Voice’s year-end film issue is, as usual, an embarrassment of riches. My favorite piece is the defense of the orphan picks, in which critics participating in the poll justify selections (BEYOND THE SEA, the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake) that are theirs alone.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Year In Review: Books

The book topping my half-year recap maintained position: Edward Conlon’s BLUE BLOOD. A brilliant, incisive memoir of life as one of New York’s finest. Nothing else I read this year had the same impact.

As for fiction, here are ten titles from 2004 that mattered to me:

THE CONFESSION, by Domenic Stansberry
COTTONWOOD, by Scott Phillips
EARTHQUAKE WEATHER, by Terrill Lee Lankford
THE ENEMY, by Lee Child
HARD REVOLUTION, by George Pelecanos
SUNSET AND SAWDUST, by Joe R. Lansdale
THIEVES’ DOZEN, by Donald E. Westlake
THE 37th HOUR, by Jodi Compton

This year’s award of merit goes to Hard Case Crime, for bringing back pulp fiction in style. They published THE CONFESSION as well as GRIFTER’S GAME by Lawrence Block, which would have made this list handily if it hadn’t been originally released in 1961.

The Year in Review: Television

Best TV Series: THE WIRE

I suppose I could have said “Best Network: HBO” and been done with it. What can I tell you? I only watch TV on Sunday nights. The rest of the week I’ve got movies to see. More on them later.

Miscellaneous: Link

Twenty-five new titles are added to the National Film Registry, including the original D.O.A., ENTER THE DRAGON, UNFORGIVEN, and that Cold War classic DUCK AND COVER.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

DVD: California Split (1974)

A few years ago, I instituted a three-strikes rule for directors. Make three movies that I can’t stand, and I never have to subject myself to your work again.

The only exception to this policy is Robert Altman. He’s responsible for some truly awful, self-indulgent films, several of them so long (PRET A PORTER, SHORT CUTS) that they should count against him twice. But when he’s on, there’s no finer observer of human behavior. SPLIT, one of his lesser-known efforts, has basically been out of circulation for 30 years. The DVD release reveals it to be among Altman’s best work.

That’s because it plays to his strengths. It’s a hangout movie, following a writer (George Segal) as he develops a friendship with a fellow degenerate gambler (Elliott Gould). Both actors are in top form here, the bond between them instantly electric. Ann Prentiss costars. She’s a dead ringer for her sister Paula. And you know how I feel about her.

SPLIT is one of the best films made about compulsive gambling because Altman and writer Joseph Walsh are willing to show the highs that come with the lows, and not only in terms of winning. There’s a chaotic rhythm to the lives of these men that at times seems enormously appealing. Eating Lucky Charms with Elliott Gould and two prostitutes has it all over punching in at nine and reporting to wavy-haired editor Jeff Goldblum, photographed during an unfortunate skin phase.

And the film’s ending is still potent. With Altman, you know you’re not going to get a rah-rah finish. But what he offers here isn’t the typical dark ‘70s finale, either. It features the kind of stark epiphany that so seldom occurs in life that you’ve given up expecting it in the movies. When it comes, it packs a hell of a punch.

DVD: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

A recent conversation about Martin Scorsese’s remake of CAPE FEAR prompted me to revisit this movie. Both employ a baroque visual style, but Scorsese’s approach seems wildly at odds with the psychological realism of the story. The theatricality that Charles Laughton brings to HUNTER is inseparable from Davis Grubb’s tale, adapted by James Agee.

I’d have to put this on the short list of true American classics. How could Laughton only have directed once? Only an amateur would attempt as scene as bold – and as terrifying – as Harry Powell’s ride across the landscape at moonlight, staged as Japanese puppet theater. Robert Mitchum acts against type and delivers his greatest performance. He’s less a psychopath than an escapee from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a child’s vision of evil. And the closing scene with Lillian Gish made it appropriate holiday viewing.

And on that note, as I won’t be posting again until next week ... Ho Ho Ho!

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Movie: Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

My dislike of the 2001 OCEAN’S ELEVEN verges on the irrational. It’s not out of loyalty to the 1960 original, which, to borrow a phrase from Mel Gibson, is as boring as a dog’s ass. And it’s not because of what many critics perceive as the remake’s smugness. I have no problem with a stylish director working his mojo and an attractive cast standing around looking cool.

I don’t like the new OCEAN’S ELEVEN because it’s a lousy heist picture. Nobody on the crew is squirrelly. It’s a given in a heist picture that there’s at least one guy on the job you’re not 100% on. Consider the Brando/DeNiro film THE SCORE, which came out the same year. There are only three guys working that caper, and you’re not sure about two of them. But none of Danny Ocean’s boys are toying with a cut and run. They’re as solid as New Hampshire granite. Come on. There are eleven of them, for Christ’s sake.

So I was a little apprehensive about seeing the sequel to the remake. (Now there’s a depressing sentence.) But see it I did, because I can’t resist a Steven Soderbergh movie. He’s the most consistently interesting mainstream director in Hollywood. Anyone who can make both OUT OF SIGHT and SCHIZOPOLIS is capable of anything.

To my surprise, the follow-up turns out to be better than the first go-round. Largely because Soderbergh and screenwriter George Nolfi dispense with the idea that they’re making a heist picture. There are robberies galore in the film, but they’re literally afterthoughts. We only hear about them after they’ve been pulled off.

Thus, OCEAN’S TWELVE is free to follow a higher calling, which is to celebrate the fabulous in all its forms. The attractiveness quotient of the cast is upped considerably with the addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Vincent Cassel. Eddie Izzard and Robbie Coltrane pop in just to be cool. And Soderbergh is clearly enjoying himself, spotlighting gorgeous European locales using a battery of nouvelle vague camera tricks.

The movie’s a broad, showy lark, reminiscent of flamboyantly mod 1960s films like DIABOLIK and CASINO ROYALE. The only problem, of course, is that none of those flamboyantly mod 1960s films are really any good. They eventually collapse under the weight of all that whimsy. And OCEAN’S TWELVE is no exception. It’s fizzy for the first hour, then it goes flat. But it looks great.

This movie should hold me over until the announced sequel to Pierce Brosnan’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, which will borrow elements from the 1964 Oscar-winner TOPKAPI. Making it not only a sequel to a remake, but a remake in its own right.

Excuse me. I’ve got to go lie down.

Miscellaneous: Link

Variety’s Robert Koehler gives a complete rundown of every movie entered in this year’s Best Foreign Film derby. Check it out, because it may be the only publicity some of these films get.

Monday, December 20, 2004

TV: The Wire

Season three of HBO’s crime drama came to a rousing close last night. The focus of the series has always been the mechanics of big-city life; watching it is like getting a glimpse of how the world actually works.

This season was built around a concept that allowed the show to delve deep into the subject. A Baltimore police commander with his eye on retirement (Robert Wisdom, in one of the best performances of the year) decides to enact a drug enforcement policy of his own. If the dealers restrict the trade to unofficial “free zones,” the cops will leave them alone. (Wisdom has a magnificent speech, written by novelist Richard Price, in which he compares his plan to the paper bags that the old corner boys would use to conceal their drinking.) The rest of the season traced the fallout of his decision among the dealers, the police and the politicians.

The result was a brilliant piece of storytelling, packed with characters that live and breathe and a density of detail found only in novels. It was also important, a piercing exploration of the broken promises of both the drug war and urban life at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Naturally, it’s the only HBO series that hasn’t gotten any love from the Emmys or even the Golden Globes. And it may be facing the end of its run; HBO has yet to decide if the show will be back. It was moved from the summer to the fall this year, where it ran head on into ESPN’s Sunday Night Football and the first non-cable water-cooler show in eons, ABC’s DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. As series creator David Simon says, the days of HBO nurturing a marginal ratings performer like OZ are over.

I suppose I should feel angry at HBO for dithering about the show’s fate. But frankly I can’t believe THE WIRE ever made it on the air, much less lasted three years. So instead of complaining, I’m going to hope for the best and thank HBO for running one of the finest drama series in the history of TV. I guarantee that twenty years from now, people will still be talking about it. Season One is out on DVD, with Season Two to follow early next year. Do yourself a favor and check them out.

Book: The Confession, by Domenic Stansberry (2004)

I don’t believe in the phrase “guilty pleasure.” But I’m sorely tempted to use it when I say that I have an affection for movie thrillers written by Joe Eszterhas. Even the ones that don’t work – OK, none of them work – have a gaudy appeal. Many are set in and around San Francisco. They’re packed with sex, violence and outrageous plot twists. The characters are rich cops, lawyers or psychologists who all have wildly inappropriate relationships with each other.

So I intend it as a compliment when I say that Stansberry’s novel, from Hard Case Crime, reads like the most entertaining Joe Eszterhas movie ever made. All of the elements are here, perfectly combined. Stansberry’s greatest accomplishment is the voice of his protagonist. It’s cruelly insinuating, peppered with phrases like “as I’ve already said” and “I’m sure you agree” that make you complicit in his tale. I found myself wanting to draw away from him – but not so far that I couldn’t hear him talking.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Website Update: Practice

Consider this an early Christmas present. The latest installment of In the Frame, my column in Mystery*File, is now up on the Practice page. Read all about the latest from S. J. Rozan and Greg Rucka, as well as the Warner Brothers film noir collection. If you want my take on GET CHRISTIE LOVE!, though, you'll have to subscribe to the magazine. Which is worth every penny.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Movie: The Machinist (2004)

I’ve come up with two reasons why Brad Anderson isn’t a better-known filmmaker. One is that his work isn’t easily pigeonholed. In the past few years he’s made the off-kilter romantic comedy NEXT STOP WONDERLAND, the sci-fi love story HAPPY ACCIDENTS, and the truly chilling psychological horror film SESSION 9. My other theory: too damn many Andersons behind the camera. We’ve already got Wes, Paul, and Paul Thomas to keep straight. Four may be pushing it.

Christian Bale stars in his latest film and lost some weight for the part. Maybe too much, because reports on Bale’s shockingly thin frame seem to be the only attention the movie is getting. Lisa Schwarzbaum focuses on it in her ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY review to the exclusion of all else.

Which is unfortunate, because THE MACHINIST is a creepy and unsettling film. Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a factory employee in freefall. He’s unable to sleep at night and growing isolated from his coworkers. His only human contact comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a tired prostitute and a friendly waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) at an airport café. Trevor begins seeing things which may be the beginnings of a vast conspiracy against him – or the onset of a nervous breakdown.

Anderson and writer Scott Kosar establish a powerful mood of foreboding in the opening half hour. It’s so relentless, though, that soon it begins to seem comic; just how bleak is this poor bastard’s world gonna get? But the ending packs a real emotional punch. There’s an elegance to the explanation of what’s happening to Trevor. It may not come as a shock; I had figured it out but got the specifics wrong in some surprising ways. But, as with the climax of SESSION 9, it reveals that the evils visited on the characters have a cause that is all too human.

The movie was filmed in some desolate urban locations in Spain that add to the sense of dislocation. And Bale gives an intense performance that bodes well for his upcoming turn as Batman.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

TV: Scorsese on Scorsese

Richard Schickel keeps himself busy. He’s writing for TIME magazine, supervising the restoration of classic films, and directing this Turner Classic Movies documentary. Which is in no way intended to promote the pending release of THE AVIATOR.

It’s essentially a ninety-minute interview punctuated by film clips, which means it’s impossible to screw up. Nobody talks movies like Scorsese.

He describes his great love of noir, saying how happy he was that Warner Brothers picked up MEAN STREETS because they made the best gangster films. It’s strange, then that his one overt attempt at making a movie in that mode – CAPE FEAR – is a misfire. The psychology of the characters may have been updated, but the movie is overheated and overwrought, with direction that calls attention to itself. The 1962 version, directed by journeyman J. Lee Thompson, is simpler, cleaner, and better.

A few of Scorsese’s films are given short shrift here. CASINO is only discussed in passing. There’s no mention of NEW YORK, NEW YORK, AFTER HOURS (for which he won Best Director at Cannes) or BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. But time is spent on my favorite Scorsese movie, 1983’s THE KING OF COMEDY. I watched it repeatedly in high school while everyone else was hung up on PORKY’S. No wonder I didn’t go to the prom.

Noticed: Bumper Sticker

Saw this on the back of a car festooned with Darwin fish –


I object to this on both political and pop cultural grounds.

Miscellaneous: Link

Sidney Lumet, master of the New York police thriller, will finally receive a much-deserved Oscar. I doubt we’ll see clips from A STRANGER AMONG US, starring Melanie Griffith as a cop who goes undercover in the Hasidic community, in the highlight reel. But you never know.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Movie: The Big Red One (1980)

Reading Samuel Fuller’s memoirs a few weeks ago primed me to see the restored version of his WWII epic on the big screen. Which I was able to do this week thanks to the Northwest Film Forum. Critic and historian Richard Schickel supervised this new edit, which adds 45 minutes of footage. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to Fuller’s original vision; his dream cut ran four and a half hours.

Making this movie became an obsession with Fuller, so much so that he accepted the leanest of budgets. Like all great B-movie filmmakers, he turned the situation to his advantage. The sameness of the locations adds to the movie’s hallucinatory quality. Fuller shoots the action close-up and low to the ground, with the focus on the few feet – and sometimes the few inches – in front of his soldiers. His recreation of the D-Day invasion is a marvel of ingenuity. He may not have had the resources Steven Spielberg had on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but he’s every bit Spielberg’s equal when it comes to cunning and craft.

It’s a great, strange bird of a film. Some of Fuller’s more conventionally structured war dramas – like the Korea-set FIXED BAYONETS – may have more immediate impact. But this is obviously a reporter’s war movie, packed with detail. Fuller doesn’t bother to flesh out his quartet of soldiers or their sergeant, played by the great Lee Marvin, so there’s little here about the camaraderie forged in battle. None of the principals are killed, so the film isn’t really about loss. It’s simply a litany of bizarre and stupefying events that only men in war would see. Which is Fuller’s point. Ultimately THE BIG RED ONE is a movie about bearing witness, about coming home alive so that you can tell people about the insanity you were briefly a part of.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

DVD: The Ref (1994)

A lot of the New York Times’ arts coverage isn’t worth reading. But Sharon Waxman’s piece on cynical Christmas movies is particularly dim. She heaps abuse on every holiday film made after NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION for mocking the season. I don’t know why she’s picking on Hollywood when the real world is having plenty of problems with St. Nick.

Waxman’s article is undermined by its own sidebar, on how Revolution Studios has turned CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS into a modest hit by emulating THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST’s marketing campaign. How can KRANKS be anti-Christmas if religious audiences are turning out for it?

Besides, anyone who has seen these movies knows what an utter crock Waxman’s argument is. These films all deliver the same traditional, even conservative message: a poor misguided soul learns the true meaning of Christmas. Granted, a few of these souls have further to go than others, as in BAD SANTA. But even Billy Bob Thornton learns to put others ahead of himself and ends up part of a (wildly dysfunctional) family. In truth, BAD SANTA’s story is very conventional. Apart from the rampant cursing, lawbreaking, alcoholism and wanton sex, that is.

I have very few holiday traditions, but one of them is watching a movie that Waxman doesn’t mention even though it fits perfectly in her paradigm. THE REF is the least likely Simpson/Bruckheimer production and my idea of the perfect yuletide movie. A bickering couple well on their way to divorce (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) is taken hostage on Christmas Eve by a thief (Denis Leary) trying to evade a police dragnet. Spacey and Davis have some hilarious and truly lethal arguments, but in the end their marriage and the spirit of the season are saved. I like to think of this movie as the cinematic equivalent of spiked eggnog. It’s not for everybody, but what holiday would be complete without it?

Video: Perry Como Christmas Specials

Just to prove that I do have a heart, I’ll admit that I watched two of these shows recently. EARLY AMERICAN CHRISTMAS, filmed in Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg, includes John Wayne in a ruffled shirt hoisting a flagon of ale. CHRISTMAS IN THE HOLY LAND features “special American guest star” Richard Chamberlain. Rosemarie and I have fond memories of a show Perry did in Quebec, but we don’t have that one on video.

The original songs are lousy, and Perry’s ultra-laidback style makes Dean Martin look like Jerry Lewis. But the shows hold up. They’re simple, well-produced, and try to give a real flavor of what the season is like in other parts of the world. When the only holiday specials made are tongue-in-cheek affairs like Nick and Jessica’s, Perry’s relaxed charm and sincerity come as a welcome relief.

Miscellaneous: Link

Then there’s the Times’ art coverage that is worth reading. Like this piece on a collaboration between Mexican crime novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II and rebel leader Subcommander Marcos.

Monday, December 13, 2004

DVD: Infernal Affairs (2002)

What’s the story on this movie, anyway? I’ve been waiting to see it since I read the review in Variety last year. It racked up raves on the festival circuit and won a score of Hong Kong’s Oscars. The remake rights were the subject of an intense bidding war. Miramax announced plans to release the original this fall. The trailer is available via On Demand right now, listed as ‘Coming Soon.’ I kept checking the papers for it.

But the other day I also happened to check Netflix. And there it was. ‘Coming to DVD on December 7.’ Was the theatrical release curtailed for some reason? I added it to the queue. Sure, I’d prefer to see it on the big screen. But I’ll take what I can get.

The premise is brilliantly simple. A promising police recruit is drafted to go undercover in the triads. At the same time, a young gang member joins the police force and rises through the ranks, secretly reporting to a crime boss. Ten years later, their paths collide. And each mole is ordered to hunt down the other. Kind of like a straight version of CORKY ROMANO.

There are plenty of opportunities for John Woo-style emotional pyrotechnics, but directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak don’t go that route. Instead they tell the story as a procedural, adopting the lean, cool style of Michael Mann. The emotion is there, but it’s all under the surface. (There’s more overt sentiment in Woo’s best American film, the similarly-themed FACE/OFF, even though the plot is more outrageous.) Not that I’m complaining; this film is, in its way, a near-perfect piece of entertainment. Lau and Mak have made two follow-up films, set before and after the events of this one. No word yet on when they will come to video.

The U.S. version, due in 2006, will star Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio. It will also be directed by Martin Scorsese. Usually, I’m opposed to remakes on general principle. But this one sounds like a great idea.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Book: Death of a Citizen, by Donald Hamilton (1960)

Here’s how stupid I was as a kid: I actually took Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies seriously. It wasn’t until I got older and my irony gland developed that I realized how lousy they were, jokey send-ups of something (the 007 movies) that would soon drift into parody on its own. The poor quality of the films kept me away from Hamilton’s novels.

But articles in the last two issues of Steve Lewis’ Mystery*File (which you really ought to be reading, and I’d say that even if I wasn’t a contributor) piqued my interest. I found a copy of the first novel in the series on the fifty-cent table outside a used book store and snapped it up.

It’s a nasty piece of work, and I mean that in the best way. Hamilton wrote it without intending to bring Helm back, so he’s unsparing in his depiction of the character. Helm had been a black-bag operative for an OSS-style outfit during the war, a part of his life he has carefully buried. When a face from his past shows up at a cocktail party, Helm is forced to brush off his old skills. He takes to them with chilling ease: “I was through being a model citizen. I was myself again.”

I was also able to snag the follow-up title, THE WRECKING CREW. We’ll see how it holds up.

TV: The Nanny Reunion Special

Let me make this clear. I didn’t set out to watch this. I stumbled onto it while flipping channels. But I can’t resist TV series reunions, especially one filmed in a palatial home purchased with the proceeds from said series.

Late in the special, Fran Drescher shows some video she shot on the last day THE NANNY taped. When it ends, she says, “Isn’t that bittersweet!” Previously, I had only heard ‘bittersweet’ used conversationally when the subject was chocolate. It’s a great fake TV moment, and yet another reason why I’ll always love Fran.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Book: Budayeen Nights, by George Alec Effinger (2003)

If any science fiction author deserves a renaissance, it’s Effinger. He died in 2002, after an interesting and often difficult life in which he suffered from chronic pain and illness, which contributed to his drug and alcohol abuse. In spite of that, he wrote some short stories that I count among the funniest I’ve ever read. Comedy is always difficult, but cut with SF it’s damn near impossible. Effinger pulled it off regularly.

His greatest accomplishment is the Budayeen series, a hard-boiled cyberpunk trilogy that considers the impact of technology on the Muslim world. The hero of the books is Marîd Audran, whom I can best describe as an Islamic Jim Rockford. Each of the three titles – WHEN GRAVITY FAILS (1987), A FIRE IN THE SUN (1989) and THE EXILE KISS (1991) – is structured as a mystery, but at heart is an exploration and appreciation of Eastern culture. They are singular books, all worth tracking down, and I can’t believe some enterprising publisher hasn’t reissued them. They have even more currency now.

I was thrilled to find this new collection of short fiction at the library. It even includes a fragment of a story that Effinger began a few days before his death. Barbara Hambly provides a foreword and introductions to each piece. It was good to spend time in Effinger’s company and in the world of the Budayeen again.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

TV: So Funny It Hurt

The most painful half-hour of television I’ve seen in a while. This TCM documentary focuses on Buster Keaton’s stint as a contract employee at MGM. The studio was so regimented in the way it made movies that Keaton was denied creative input on his films. By the end of his five-year run, he was essentially unemployable, and was reduced to selling his old gags for use in Red Skelton movies. We see some of the bits performed by both actors back-to-back.

The documentary, which is included on a new DVD of later Keaton efforts, is hosted by Keaton’s friend, the character actor James Karen. He’s had a fine and varied career, but I’ll always think of him as the Pathmark guy.

I was convinced that the actor playing the German soldier in a scene from the 1930 WWI comedy DOUGHBOYS, which Leonard Maltin calls “one of Buster’s worst films,” was Donald Pleasence. That’s not possible, because Pleasence was 11 at the time. Still, the resemblance is startling.

Book: The Enemy, by Lee Child (2004)

Many authors delve into a character’s past as a way of keeping a series fresh. Few have done it as effectively as Child does here. In this book, set in early 1990, Jack Reacher is still a military policeman. It’s fascinating to watch him butt heads with those in authority and slowly become disillusioned with the service.

Reacher is assigned to look into the death of a two-star general at a sleazy motel. The book is more of a straightforward mystery than some of the other titles in the series, but Child’s gifts for pacing and sharp dialogue are on full display.

Noticed: The Christopher Guest Effect

I can take the new Sierra Mist ad featuring Fred Willard and Michael McKean, members of Guest’s regular company of players. But the villains in BLADE: TRINITY include Parker Posey and John Michael Higgins. Does this mean we’ll see Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3?

Miscellaneous: Links

If I wanted to reintroduce my grandfather’s classic silent comedies to “families, kids and regular people,” I don’t know that I’d begin by releasing a book of 3-D nude photos he’d taken of various women. But then, I’m not Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter. And from National Lampoon, here are the 10 least successful holiday specials. None of them would hold a candle to the STAR WARS extravaganza that George Lucas has tried to hush up. Happy Life Day, everyone!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Movie: Closer (2004)

For some reason, I’ve been pronouncing the title of this film as if I’m repeating the flawed conventional wisdom about John Kerry (“He’s a strong closer”), when it’s actually a description of proximity intended ironically. Proof that I’ve seen GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS far too many times.

This adaptation of Patrick Marber’s acclaimed play never escapes its theatrical origins: four characters in various pairings speaking graphically about sex and not so honestly about love. But Mike Nichols, unlike most directors, doesn’t shy away from the staginess of the piece. Instead of “opening things up,” he narrows the focus on this roundelay and their exchanges. As a result, it takes a while for the characters to reveal themselves to us. But once they do, hide all the breakables.

Jude Law’s Dan is the most contrived figure of the quartet, and the actor is never able to transcend that limitation. Natalie Portman tries gamely as Alice, but she always seems to be playacting. Portman came across as older than her years in films like BEAUTIFUL GIRLS and THE PROFESSIONAL, but in her first truly adult role she seems very young.

Julia Roberts is as good here as she has ever been, ditching her usual mannerisms and playing the recessive Anna close to the bone. And Clive Owen is simply spellbinding as Larry. (He originated the role of Dan on the stage.) His presence seems to galvanize his costars; each has their best scene opposite him. Screw all the rumors about Owen becoming the next James Bond. He’s too valuable a resource to waste on a moribund franchise – and I say this as someone who still sees every Bond movie.

TV: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Is it me, or is Santa a huge jerk in this show? In fact, everyone in a position of authority at the North Pole is something of a pill. And the show is riddled with bad writing: Yukon Cornelius, the Han Solo figure (roguish and solely interested in material wealth), falls over the cliff with the Bumble to a certain death. Then he turns up alive all of ninety seconds later. Why kill him at all, then, if you’re not going to milk it for suspense?

Yet I still watch this special every year. Nostalgia is a lethal thing.

Monday, December 06, 2004

DVD: Vampyros Lesbos (1971)

Honestly, I thought this movie was about something else.

TV: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

Yet another film about a talented individual who turns out to be a bastard in real life. Is anyone surprised by such revelations any more? Rule of thumb: content, well-adjusted geniuses don’t get biopics.

To complicate matters, this HBO production is built around the notion that Sellers is the Oakland of thespians. There’s no there there. As the man himself said, “I did have a personality, but I had it surgically removed.” It’s an idea that’s fascinating to contemplate, but not to watch played out on screen for over 2 hours.

The conceit does give rise to some surface cleverness, like having Geoffrey Rush as Sellers play every other character in Sellers’ life: his parents, his wife, Stanley Kubrick, Blake Edwards. The only problem is that the insights Sellers offers in these guises aren’t particularly, you know, insightful.

Besides, a brief post-credit sequence encapsulates the movie’s message perfectly. The camera reveals that the film we’ve just seen was directed by Sellers himself. He shrugs disarmingly in a best-that-I-could-do way, then strolls through the props from his life to his trailer. The camera moves to follow, but Sellers bars the way. “Sorry,” he says. “You can’t come in here.” He closes the door on us. That’s all you need to know, and it only takes thirty seconds.

The movie is worth watching for the great production design and for the acting. Rush is phenomenal as Sellers. Wearing the actor’s distinctive glasses goes a long way to completing the illusion. But through subtle make-up effects, Rush resembles Sellers even without the specs. It’s an uncanny performance.

Miscellaneous: Link

Blogging at Ed Gorman’s site, Terrill Lankford reports from the 30th anniversary screening of CHINATOWN and offers a wonderful reminiscence of that film’s cinematographer, the great John Alonzo.

Friday, December 03, 2004

DVD: Criss Cross (1949)

The rest of the Universal noir collection. Armored car driver Burt Lancaster still has it bad for ex-wife Yvonne DeCarlo, now shacked up with local crime boss Dan Duryea. He’s hooked so bad that he hatches a robbery scheme just so he can stay close to her.

The casting doesn’t completely work. It’s tough to buy the ultra-virile Lancaster as this big of a chump, and DeCarlo has a brittle sexuality. But they compensate by pitching their performances at a near-delirious level, matched by Robert Siodmak’s swooning direction. And you have Duryea in what may be his definitive performance ... although now I can’t remember if he slaps any women, which was his trademark. Gimme a break. I’ve got a cold.

Steven Soderbergh remade this as UNDERNEATH (1995), which I’m pretty much alone in liking. It’s a slight but engaging film that I’ll bet Soderbergh did just so he could recreate the original’s best scene. The driver, played in the new version by Peter Gallagher, comes to in a hospital bed after the robbery has gone awry. Another man is in the hallway, waiting for an update on his injured wife. Or is he? Terrific stuff – in both movies.

DVD: The Big Clock (1948)

I’m not sure how noir this adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel is, but there’s no doubt about its entertainment value. Big shot publisher Charles Laughton murders his mistress in a jealous rage and seeks to pin the crime on her mysterious visitor. He puts ace reporter Ray Milland on the case – not knowing that Milland was said visitor.

Jonathan Latimer’s mile-a-minute script tosses you headlong into the action. At first the caustic dialogue moves almost too quickly, but once the plot kicks in the film can’t be stopped. The last forty minutes in particular are a marvel of construction. Laughton is priceless, as is his wife Elsa Lanchester in a small part as a bohemian artist caught up in the manhunt.

Fearing’s novel was revisited forty years later as NO WAY OUT. I haven’t seen the movie in ages, but I remember being impressed by it. Especially by Will Patton, deftly taking over the toady role from GILDA’s George Macready.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Books: The Hills Are Alive

GANGSTERS AND GOODFELLAS, by Henry Hill with Gus Russo
ON THE RUN: A MAFIA CHILDHOOD, by Gregg and Gina Hill

Henry’s life was the basis of Nick Pileggi’s WISEGUY, which in turn became GOODFELLAS. Gregg and Gina are his children.

You want a schizophrenic reading experience? Try plowing through these books back to back like I did. Each one tells the same story, first recapping Henry’s days as a New York gangster, then delving into the family’s experiences in Witness Protection in places like Omaha and suburban Seattle. (At one point, Henry set up a carriage ride for tourists in Cincinnati. He went on TV to promote it – even though Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke was still trying to have him killed.)

The facts in the books never quite match up. For instance, the Hills’ first new surname, depending on whom you ask, was either Haines or Haymes. Henry’s an affable rogue in his book, always trying to put one over on the feds. But let the kids tell the same story and he comes off as monstrous. Consorting with lowlifes, hooked on booze and drugs, forever taking stupid risks that put his entire family in harm’s way. My neck still hurts from the whiplash.

ON THE RUN is the better book, told in alternating sections by the two Hill children. Gregg in particular is very candid about the emotional problems his father’s lifestyle created. But Henry’s book is much more fun to read.

Although neither holds a candle to WISEGUY. Sometimes Henry would call Pileggi to work on the book and get his wife Nora Ephron. She turned their conversations into the script for MY BLUE HEAVEN, a Steve Martin comedy about a Mafia man relocated to the suburbs. Henry says more than once that if it had been anyone else’s wife, he’d have whacked her.

Magazine: The New Yorker, 11/29 issue

The phrase of the day comes from Frederick Kaufman’s piece on raw milk smugglers in New York:

... a secret Listserv of lacto-fermentation scofflaws.”

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

TV: Nightline

Anybody see last night’s show about departing JEOPARDY! champ Ken Jennings?

Yeah, well, forget him. He’s yesterday’s papers. Anybody notice the striking brunette in the red blouse featured in a good half-dozen shots in the behind-the-scenes footage?

That was none other than my lovely wife, Rosemarie. The day the NIGHTLINE crew was on set happened to be the day that Rosemarie was taping her first (?) appearance as a JEOPARDY! contestant. 25,000 people audition every year. Only 400 are chosen. And just a handful of them scored extra air time on NIGHTLINE. Not bad.

Rosemarie went down to L.A. under the impression that Ken had already lost. But he had come back to tape material for NIGHTLINE, so he was in the hotel. She slept poorly that night, convinced that she’d have to face off against him.

As for how she did, well, you’ll have to wait until next February to find out. Don’t worry. I’ll post reminders.

The oddest part of all this is that it happened less than a month after I taped my own game show appearance, which will also be airing early next year. More on that later.

Miscellaneous: Link

A question I know I’ve been asking, in the wake of the success of NATIONAL TREASURE: whither Jerry Bruckheimer?