Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Year In Review: Movies

I’d already decided not to bother with a ten-best list before I read The Reeler’s devastating two-part takedown of them or learned that end-of-the-year introspection was hazardous to your health.

Why? Because these lists are fundamentally dishonest. Every year I sift through a good two dozen titles and delude myself that I’m ranking them using well-thought-out criteria. The truth is that each year yields a handful of films – in my case, it’s always around five – that stand head and shoulders above the rest. They change position on the list depending on how I feel about the world and my place in it, but their status is secure. Because when they ended, I felt different. More engaged with the world. More alive.

So, in today’s order and with no commentary, the five movies I cannot picture 2005 without:

1. 2046
2. Oldboy
3. Munich
4. The Squid and the Whale
5. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Now that the preliminaries are out of the way ... on with the awards!

There was plenty of competition for the coveted Double Dip Award, given to the filmmaker who had the most productive year. No one packed a better one-two punch than Steven Spielberg. WAR OF THE WORLDS demonstrated how quickly the language of terror becomes a common tongue, while MUNICH showed how we’re still struggling with the language of peace. With OLDBOY and SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, Park Chanwook fused Grand Guignol theatrics with an Old Testament sense of justice. But each of them has an entry in my fabled five, so they don’t need any more help.

Consequently, this year’s Double Dip goes to the tandem of writer/producer Luc Besson and director Louis Leterrier for UNLEASHED (aka DANNY THE DOG) and THE TRANSPORTER 2. I’m glad somebody still knows how to make B-movies with energy.

The Manny Farber Termite Award, sponsored by Orkin™ Pest Control. To George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead. Because political commentary always goes better with zombies. (Joe Dante’s ‘Homecoming’ disqualified because it debuted on TV.)

The ‘Quarter To Three’ Award. Given to the movie that I’ll watch to the end whenever I stumble onto it on cable, even though I own the DVD. Winner: The Ice Harvest. KISS KISS BANG BANG ruled ineligible due to fabled five status. One is a perfectly constructed noir, the other noir perfectly deconstructed. Both deserved better fates.

The Future Is Now Award. Memories of Murder is a tragicomic police procedural and a South Korean political allegory. It made its North American debut on television via On Demand before receiving a limited theatrical release. I’ve got my share of problems with the collapse of release windows. But when first-rate foreign films can’t get distribution, this is a viable option.

The Platinum Popcorn Award. Given to the most perfectly constructed piece of entertainment. Winner: Wes Craven’s Red Eye. Expert fun from start to finish. Bonus points for coming in at a sleek 85 minutes and avoiding the bloat of so many other big studio flicks.

The ‘Is He Serious?’ Award. Given to the movie I loved that nobody else seems to care about. Starring Nicolas Cage as an international arms dealer, Lord of War takes the up-from-nothing structure of gangster epics and hip-hop only to turn it on its head. The result is a brash and savage parable that sank without a trace.

Unsung Character Actor of the Year. For returning to drama after years as a clown. For coming in late but hot in THE ICE HARVEST, making the word ‘nitwit’ sound profane. For showing us how high the stakes are early on in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. This year’s recipient is Mr. Randy Quaid.

Here’s my hope for 2006: that when a film sounds interesting to people, they won’t wait for the DVD but will go out to the theater to see it. Going to the movies is still the most fun you can have in the dark with strangers. Unless, of course, you live in Canada.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Movie: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

When critics unite to coronate one movie, the contrarian in me is ready to pick nits. Makes life more interesting. But damned if I’m not going to line up with everyone else to praise Ang Lee’s latest, steamrolling its way to Oscar glory.

Annie Proulx’s short story is narrow in focus but epic in scope. Larry McMurtry (with screenwriting partner Diana Ossana) is scrupulously faithful to the source, but somehow manages to put his own distinctive stamp on the material. The film becomes an elegy for a way of life in the American West, one in which loneliness is one of the day’s burdens no matter who it is you’re pining for.

Here’s how good the movie is. I still think highly of it even after Rosemarie, who also liked it, pointed out that it turns into a tragic same-sex version of Same Time Next Year with Alan Alda. And she’s right.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Year In Review: Books

Here we go, in no particular order and with a minimum of commentary. A dozen books that made 2005 for me.

RED JUNGLE, by Kent Harrington
CAVALCADE, by Walter Satterthwait
EMPIRE RISING, by Thomas Kelly
BLONDE LIGHTNING, by Terrill Lee Lankford
DRIVE, by James Sallis

Short story collections that got the job done in wildly different ways: Ed Gorman’s DIFFERENT KINDS OF DEAD and SIMPLIFY by Tod Goldberg.

Everything old is new again: The short fiction and non-fiction of screenwriter Daniel Fuchs, brought together in THE GOLDEN WEST: HOLLYWOOD STORIES. And the first North American publication of Jean-Claude Izzo’s TOTAL CHAOS.

Lawrence Block’s ALL THE FLOWERS ARE DYING might not have the same impact on those unfamiliar with the character of Matthew Scudder. But as someone who’s read the entire series, it hit me hard. I have no idea what Block’s plans are for Scudder. But this book has the feel of a valedictory, a powerful and graceful way for the character to leave the stage.

Oh, all right, here’s some semblance of order. My bests of the year. In non-fiction, THE TENDER BAR by J. R. Moehringer. In fiction, Jess Walter’s CITIZEN VINCE. And once again, that’s not because of the title.

R.I.P. Vincent Schiavelli

From a career filled with memorable moments, a few of my favorites.

As a toadying alien invader in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension: They’re only monkey-boys. We can crush them here on earth, Lord Whorfin!

As Patrick Swayze’s guide to the afterlife in Ghost, spying a cigarette: Ahh, what I wouldn’t give for a drag! Just one drag!

The last words of a deranged children’s show host/assassin in Death to Smoochy: I never saw Venice!

Something tells me the actor did see Venice. He led an interesting life.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

My Christmas Wish To You

May none of your regional landmarks be imperiled by giant insects.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Book: Tab Hunter Confidential, by Tab Hunter with Eddie Muller (2005)

In 2003, Rosemarie and I spent an afternoon listening to Eddie Muller hold forth on the glories of film noir. At the end of the presentation he hinted that his next book would be a collaboration with a Hollywood star. “One with a life worth hearing about, for once.”

He wasn’t kidding. Tab Hunter rose to overnight stardom at the end of the studio era. For the most part, he was cast as a heartthrob for teenage girls – a difficult image for a gay man to live up to. Now Hunter tells all about his personal and professional life with bracing candor.

The book is written with tabloid zing, only fitting for an actor who was regular fodder in gossip pages. Credit for that should probably go to Eddie; I don’t think Tab Hunter would refer to “a 1941 Ford coupe that smoked like Oscar Levant.”

Hunter offers an unsparing look at the working life of an actor. His perspective is certainly unique. He went from having hit records to costarring with Soupy Sales and Judy the Chimp in Birds Do It in only a decade. He did his time in dinner theater, then blazed the trail to career revival through independent film by appearing in John Waters’ POLYESTER.

He feels he never got a fair shake from critics, and he may be right. Consider, for instance, the 1959 Sidney Lumet drama That Kind of Woman. Hunter calls it “a gem, still my favorite of all the films I’ve made.” Here’s what the Leonard Maltin guide says:

excellent performances from all but Hunter, and even he’s better than usual.

Now that’s simply uncalled for.

After reading the book I sought out Gunman’s Walk, another film Hunter is fond of. It’s a sorely underrated western from veteran hands Phil Karlson and Frank Nugent. Hunter’s work as the hot-tempered son of successful rancher Van Heflin is rock-solid. Plus it features TATTLETALES host Bert Convy as an Indian.

Miscellaneous: Link

The New York Times visits St. Malachy’s church, also known as the Actors’ Chapel. Rosemarie and I stopped by there on our walking tour of Dorothy Parker’s New York.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

TV: Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That

It would be hard to make a dull documentary about director Budd Boetticher. He was the kind of larger-than-life character you don’t see much anymore, heading to Mexico to learn bullfighting, threatening to knock Harry Cohn on his ass in front of two hundred extras.

This Turner Classic Movies film, executive produced by Clint Eastwood and written by critic and blogger Dave Kehr, does justice to the man and his work. The westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the 1950s are among the genre’s finest, taut films in which heroes and villains have more in common than they’d care to admit. They also mark one of the most sustained collaborations between a filmmaker and an actor in modern movie history.

TCM aired their first film, 1956’s Seven Men From Now, which debuted on DVD this week. It’s a typically lean, engrossing movie that showcases Boetticher’s eye for talent; a young Lee Marvin dazzles as a quick-witted gunman.

The documentary also offers the engaging spectacle of Eastwood talking with fellow Boetticher fan Quentin Tarantino. My favorite Eastwood observation isn’t in the film but in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly:

What I particularly liked about Boetticher was the way he knew how to make the horse an important part of the picture ... The way Scott always dismounts, waters the horse, inspects the animal for any injuries – real cowboy stuff I appreciate. Boetticher realized how central a horse was to a man’s sense of himself – an extension of himself, without getting too Freudian about it.

SEVEN MEN FROM NOW is a great title. So is ALIAS MIKE HERCULES, a TV show Boetticher worked on. It does what any good title should do: it makes me want to know more. Who would think Mike Hercules was a suitable alias? Mike’s not actually Hercules, is he? Sadly, no reference I’ve consulted tells me anything more about the show. If it’s familiar to anyone out there, speak up.

UPDATE: GreenCine has a new article by Sean Axmaker based on interviews with Boetticher.

Miscellaneous: Link

Let another Budd – Schulberg – tell you what’s wrong with the picture business.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Book: The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer (2005)

Bars didn’t hold much allure for me when I finally hit the legal drinking age. For that matter, neither did drinking. Blame – or credit – an Irish Catholic upbringing in which both parents had taken the Pioneer’s Pledge. They never said a word on the evils of alcohol; in fact, the subject never came up. To mark my 21st birthday I went to the movies. By then, I’d discovered my own intoxicants.

That early restraint allows me to savor a fine public house now. It’s also led to a fascination with memoirs about drinking life. Like, well, Pete Hamill’s A DRINKING LIFE. And this book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Moehringer.

He grew up fatherless in an extended Long Island family, but found an entire company of surrogates in what the Irish would call his local. As he grows up the bar stays the one constant in his life, becoming his sanctuary and perhaps his prison. The book is about manhood, storytelling, community, and how a youth spent in a saloon can be a sobering experience. It’s a keeper, with an epilogue that broke my heart.

Miscellaneous: Spirits Of Another Kind

Proof that I am not attuned to the otherworldly: I went on a tour of haunted Seattle, and our first stop turned out to be my old apartment building. The place is apparently hopping with poltergeists, but I lived an entirely ghost-free existence there for ten years.

Miscellaneous: Links

Via GreenCine Daily, a look at the year’s best in TV that focuses on individual episodes instead of series. And my friend Tony Kay remembers the late genre filmmaker Herbert L. Strock.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Miscellaneous: Our Modern Push-Button Age

Technology is the only area of life where I become openly spiritual. If something works, it will continue to work, long into the foreseeable future. So why change it?

Fortunately, Rosemarie is far more pragmatic than I am. She's wanted to upgrade our home computer for ages. When she landed a major promotion at work, that's how she decided to celebrate. We spent the weekend setting up the new machine, and when I say 'we' I mean 'she.' She even replaced our coal-fired printer.

This marks the first post I've written at a flat-screen monitor using a wireless keyboard and mouse. I feel like I'm living in the not-too-distant future. I expect my robot maid to roll in here and sass me any minute.

The conversion didn't go perfectly. They never do. Turns out if you buy a PC at one store and a printer at another, you should remember to throw in a cable that connects the two. And for want of a code printed on a back-up disc that didn't ship, we can't use software that's already installed on the machine. I can hear it even now, calling out to me.

The biggest disappointment is personal. Switching computers, like moving, is a chance to get rid of clutter. I was all set to purge my roll of bookmarks and make a fresh start, exploring the web in a more efficient fashion.

Then Rosemarie showed me how to transfer the old list. So I'm looking at the same old crap, only faster.

Movie: King Kong (2005)

I'd have positive feelings toward Peter Jackson's film just for ushering the landmark 1933 original onto DVD. But this overstuffed movie is ridiculously entertaining in its own right, and makes a more-than-worthy successor. I even loved the first hour, dismissed by some as slow. It's packed with retro moments that are like gifts from one die-hard movie fan to another.

For all the FX genius on display, the most memorable feature of the remake - what really makes the movie work - is the performance of Naomi Watts. Let's see a computer conjure up a beautiful and talented actress who's also a world-class screamer and who knows how to run like she's being chased.

The hand-wringing over the box office has me baffled. We're talking about a three-hour-plus movie opening on the Wednesday before a non-holiday weekend. Was it supposed to spark a massive outburst of absenteeism? I'd consider it a harbinger if the video game, with the "Play as Kong!" option touted in the ads, outgrosses the film. If that happens, then humanity as a species is circling the drain.

Miscellaneous: Link

In the Sunday Times Arts & Leisure section, A.O. Scott suggests that a system that prevents truly bad movies from being made also stifles truly great ones.

Friday, December 16, 2005

DVD: Went The Day Well? (1942)

Novelist Olen Steinhauer is one of the contributors to the blog Contemporary Nomad. His latest post, inspired by the 1943 Humphrey Bogart film Passage to Marseille, is in part about propaganda, then and now.

You’ll find few more effective examples of the form than this film, now available on video as part of Anchor Bay’s British War Collection. Based on a story by Graham Greene, the movie depicts a Nazi invasion of a remote English town. Characters out of an Ealing comedy – the haughty lady of the manor, dotty shopkeepers – find themselves battling for the future of their country, and sacrifices will be made. What’s most shocking is to view the film in context; at the time of its release, a German occupation of England was very much a possibility. The story is told in flashback after the war’s end, a date several years in the future.

During WWII, it was common for movies to carry positive messages about the fight. English audiences for 1940’s The Sea Hawk saw an additional closing scene in which Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) gave a stirring speech that recast Errol Flynn’s derring-do in a new light. But instances of similar scenes in films made during Korea and Vietnam are few and far between; it remains to be seen if there will be any in movies about the current conflict, although Bruce Willis plans on giving it a shot.

Why did these moments go by the boards? Is it because later conflicts lacked WWII’s clarity of purpose, as Steinhauer suggests? Or because movie audiences became too sophisticated to be preached to? Was it the transfer of ownership of the American film industry from a handful of image-conscious immigrant strivers to multinational corporations solely interested in not offending anyone? Or something else entirely?

I’m just asking.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Movie: Syriana (2005)

Is the movie complicated? Yes, deliberately but not excessively so. Stephen Gaghan’s political thriller isn’t just set in an era of globalization. It takes the concept on as its subject. With so many relationships – between nations, corporations, even individuals – built on shifting sands, any neat definitions offered at the outset would be false. So Gaghan doesn’t bother with them, trusting the audience to work out agendas large and small on the fly. Hard work, but worth it.

He still should have explained the title, though. People were asking about it on the way out of the theater. It’s a think tank term for a reshaped Middle East.

The ensemble cast is great, from Fat Clooney on down. Jeffrey Wright plays the most compelling character, a lawyer whose inspiring, up-from-nothing personal history feeds his sense that he’s better than everyone else – which sets him up to commit crimes on a truly epic scale. Gaghan knows how to write dialogue for power brokers, and Christopher Plummer knows how to deliver it. His casual reference to “the second creepiest party I’ve ever been to” is scarier than both SAW movies put together.

Miscellaneous: Link

It’s not on a par with Christopher Hitchens taking on Mother Teresa, but it’s close: Paul Theroux thinks Bono should stop minding Africa’s business.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Movie: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

If it’s not an official genre, it ought to be: the disco musical. These movies have single-handedly kept yours truly on the straight and narrow, because they serve as vivid reminders of the impact drug abuse can have on careers. What other explanation can there be for someone actually signing off on Xanadu? Or the mind-boggling spectacle that is The Apple?

Why the Sundance Channel of all networks decided to blow the dust off this entry in the form is beyond me. But I’m grateful that they did. It never hurts to be scared straight all over again.

The skeletal, nonsensical plot links two dozen Beatles songs, which makes the movie ahead of its time. It’s a forerunner of jukebox musicals like the all-Abba MAMMA MIA!

Like any movie worth watching, SGT. PEPPER’S raises a host of questions. Such as: Why is Steve Martin doing a Boris Karloff-inflected cover of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? Am I actually seeing the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and George Burns walking arm in arm toward a giant hamburger while singing “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”? Can cocaine alone be responsible for this, or was PCP involved? If the closing rendition of the title song is so star-studded, why is Connie Stevens there? There had to be some hashish lying around too, right? Carol Channing? If Barry Gibb fought Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, who would win? And more importantly, what would they wear? (Aside: as a band, Aerosmith has appeared in this, WAYNE’S WORLD 2 and BE COOL. Draw your own conclusions.)

The movie did trigger a powerful personal epiphany. It happened when a pair of robotic masseuses began to sing “She’s Leaving Home.” At that moment, I realized that the talent of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration was truly indestructible. Because somehow, the song still worked.

At least the trumpet used in the movie found a good home.

Miscellaneous: Link

Jeffrey Wells on the seasoning of Kevin Costner as an actor. If only some handsome young buck could go on TV and plead the same case ...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Miscellaneous: In The Frame

A brand new installment of my column is now online at Steve Lewis' Mystery*File. It's packed with household tips and holiday gift-giving suggestions. Read it to find out which universally acclaimed classic of world cinema I dismiss as boring. Privately I dismissed it as a highbrow Ed Wood movie, but that seemed a touch harsh to commit to print.

Miscellaneous: Link

At Kung Fu Monkey, John Rogers explains how action scenes are supposed to work.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Books: Hard Case Crime Round-Up

For months, I’ve been snapping up any book that bears the Hard Case Crime logo. I just haven’t been reading them. In the past few weeks, though, I plowed through three in a row.

The Colorado Kid. Stephen King’s book netted the line a ton of publicity and vaulted them onto bestseller lists. It’s an atypical offering in that it’s not at all hard-boiled, in spite of the dedication to The Name Of The Game Is Death author Dan J. Marlowe. I found the first quarter of the book rough going, in that it was folksier than a lemonade stand at an ice cream social, don’t ya know. But the tale eventually took hold. The ending has generated its share of controversy, but it worked for me. You can’t say he didn’t set it up.

The Girl With The Long Green Heart. It’s Lawrence Block, so of course I liked it. This 1965 novel lays out its complex con game so meticulously that I’m now ready to pull it on the right mark. The book teaches a valuable lesson: sometimes the most shocking twist is the one that doesn’t come.

Branded Woman. The rare hard-boiled novel with a woman as protagonist. And what a woman! The Orson Welles film Touch of Evil was based on a book by the Wade Miller team, and I can’t help wishing that Orson had gotten a crack at this 1952 title as well. Tremendous south of the border atmosphere and a great gallery of rogues. This might be my favorite Hard Case book to date.

Conversational Tidbits Gleaned From This Week’s New Yorker

1. The only member of ZZ Top without a beard is named Beard.

2. The New York Times recently hired Matthew Carter, the world’s foremost typeface designer, to complete the alphabet of the face it uses to print its name. The newspaper only had the letters that spell “The New York Times.”

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Happy, Uh ... Merry, Um ... Is It January Yet?

It’s that time of year, when religious conservatives claim that there’s a war against Christmas. This time their cause is being abetted by Fox News personalities Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson, who has written an entire book on the subject. (By ‘book’ I mean ‘slender volume that makes its entire argument in its overly long title so that like-minded individuals who purchase it will not have to read it.’ This category will receive its own best-seller list in the New York Times beginning in January.) I should confess here that I haven’t been able to take Gibson seriously since Slate’s Jack Shafer branded him “TV’s only albino werewolf.”

The target this year is the retail industry, specifically stores that do not use the word ‘Christmas’ in their advertising. This New York Times editorial points out the irony of this approach: it puts these Christians in favor of the commercialization of a sacred holiday. Did they learn nothing from Charlie Brown?

Granted, sometimes the use of ‘inclusive’ language shades over into the ridiculous. There’s no reason for the city of Boston or Lowe’s stores to refer to ‘holiday trees.’ People aren’t buying them to celebrate Hanukkah.

I have a perfectly good reason for wishing others ‘Happy Holidays’ that has nothing to do with cultural sensitivity: I’m cheap. I want my greeting to cover New Year’s as well. Some of these people I may not see until January. Some of them I hope I never see again. In some cases, that’s my New Year’s resolution.

If we go along with the change, there’s no guarantee that the gesture will be appreciated. When I was growing up in Florida, a friend of mine lived on a cul-de-sac where all the neighbors tried to outdo each other when it came to Christmas decorations. Except for my friend’s parents. Every year they would plant a life-sized Nativity scene in their front lawn, illuminated by a single spotlight. “We want to put the Christ back in Christmas,” my friend’s mother would say.

The light show would draw such crowds that whenever I visited my friend in December I had to hike the last quarter-mile on foot, as if I were going to take down Navarone. As I walked up the driveway to the front door, without fail a passerby would shout, “Your house sucks!”

It’s possible that all of these hecklers were from the area’s admittedly slim population of Jews, Wiccans, and Zoroastrians; it’s not like there was anything better to do at night in that neck of the woods. But statistically, I doubt it.

Still, I try to be a force for good in my time. So if there are some who want me to can the euphemisms and say Christmas when I mean Christmas, I’ll do what I can to oblige. Consider:

“Dude, I’m gonna get so shit-faced at the Christmas party! That new girl in accounting sent me a sexy Christmas card, so when everyone leaves I’m gonna nail her under the Christmas tree. This is gonna be the sweetest Christmas season ever!”

No need to thank me. The act of giving is gift enough.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

TV: Masters of Horror/‘Homecoming’

Joe Dante takes Showtime’s horror anthology series in the truly terrifying direction of current events. The episode veers from sharp satire – this is how I hope Ann Coulter is in real life, but something tells me that it ain’t necessarily so – to surprising lump-in-the-throat moments. The scene in which the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers killed in an Iraq-style conflict burst open so that the dead can vote their leaders out of office is a dizzying pop culture sucker punch, the kind of moment that becomes an instant footnote to history. TV staple Jon Tenney anchors the madness with a heartfelt performance.

The show is racking up plenty of accolades, as well as attention from gloating political blogs. If I were a Republican, I hope I’d find ‘Homecoming’ funny. If I were a Democrat, I wouldn’t be so quick to clutch it to my blue-state bosom. The only characters in the film are either zombies or in the G.O.P. That’s it. Democrats have fallen to the level of Hollywood agents in The Player. They’re not even worth mocking anymore.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Miscellaneous: Link

Here's my idea of heaven. Wendell Jamieson watches three great New York films from the Fox Noir Collection - The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death and Where the Sidewalk Ends - then visits their locations. He also throws in a few other titles that are cherce.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Miscellaneous: Links

The Los Angeles Times remembers the extraordinary life and career of the late character actor Marc Lawrence, one of the movies’ great tough guys. The obituary overlooks a favorite credit: Lawrence menacing Bugs Bunny in LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION when the actor was in his nineties.

Slate’s Grady Hendrix considers movies about the Rapture and decides that poor production values are a sin in any religion:

The new “Left Behind” movie disturbs me – not because thousands of people are watching a movie that proclaims non-Christians will burn in hell for all eternity – but rather because thousands of people are watching a movie where Toronto stands in for New York, Chicago, and Israel. Also, Washington, D.C. And Egypt. London, too.

Still, it sounds like Commander in Chief Lou Gossett, Jr. shows President Harrison Ford how to get it done. Ford, after all, didn’t have to slip out of the White House in a hatchback. And you’ve gotta love the goats.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Movies: Red Rock West (1993)/The Last Seduction (1994)

In an era of shrinking DVD windows and movies being released on multiple platforms at once, these two razor-sharp thrillers from director John Dahl could serve as an object lesson. Both debuted on cable television only to find their way into theatrical release, their prospects undimmed. Well, except when it came to the Academy Awards. On the RRW commentary track, Dahl describes people going to the theater to find the film sold out and stopping at a video store to rent it instead. The moral for Hollywood is it always helps when the movies are actually good.

I saw SEDUCTION at the Seattle International Film Festival back in ‘94. After the screening I stopped in the men’s room, where it was mighty quiet. Until one guy finally cried out: “Jesus, men are stupid!” If you’ve seen the movie, you know what he’s talking about.

My other thought after revisiting these films: God, I miss J.T. Walsh.

Why I’m Going To Hell: Defamer & Gawker

I don’t check these sister L.A. and New York gossip sites as often as some people. Once a day is generally enough for me, unless there’s a big Lindsay Lohan story breaking.

But I’m hooked on their celebrity sightings features. People write in when they spot someone famous at the gym, or in Starbucks, or walking their dog. I don’t know why I find these accounts so fascinating, or why I get a vicarious thrill when some luminary is seen in a location I’ve been to. Omigod! Matthew Broderick was in that restaurant we were in six months ago! Maybe he had our waiter!

In today’s Gawker Stalker, someone reports seeing “Bernadette (HEARTBEEPS) Peters” at a movie theater. Unbelievable. You glimpse a talented screen comedienne and one of the leading lights of the American stage, and the best you can do is Heartbeeps? For shame. I’m disgusted for – and with – all of us.

Monday, November 28, 2005

TV: The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson

I don’t know when I stopped watching talk shows. For many years I was a regular Letterman viewer, occasionally flipping over to see a particular guest on Leno. But at some point, the habit went away. Now I usually turn the set off after THE DAILY SHOW, or at least I did until THE COLBERT REPORT started following it. (Best feature of that show’s website: fanfic!) If Jon Stewart is on vacation, I’m more likely to catch a rerun on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim than a new Jay or Dave.

Conan O’Brien continues to offer a sharp, off-kilter 12:30 show. But in recent weeks, as I’m working a lot of late hours, I find myself watching Craig Ferguson more and more.

Ferguson doesn’t seem to be sweating his second-place status. Instead of booking flighty starlets and C-listers, he’s talking to the kind of interesting guests who were once late-night staples, like novelists (Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly) and filmmakers (Paul Haggis).

He’s also jettisoned the traditional monologue in favor of loosely-structured comic essays, which makes for a refreshing change of pace. Ferguson is a skilled raconteur who often draws from the vagabond life he led before becoming an actor. In last Friday’s opening about post-Thanksgiving shopping, he referred to trips he’s taken to Istanbul and Tangiers. It beats hearing about growing up in Boston or Indiana again.

It’s interesting that as ABC has turned Jimmy Kimmel’s show into a carbon copy of the Leno/Letterman programs, Ferguson continues to monkey with the form. And people are noticing. I plan to keep watching.

TV: The Food Network

What kind of masochist watches this channel while they’re working out? And why do they all go to my gym?

Miscellaneous: Link

Learn all you need to know about Aeon Flux before the movie comes out. From Mike Russell at CulturePulp. Make sure you scroll down to his rave for THE ICE HARVEST.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Movie: The Ice Harvest (2005)

No traveling. No shopping. No turkey. I’m in the midst of my best Thanksgiving weekend ever.

The cherry on the cake – oh yes, there was cake – is this adaptation of Scott Phillips’ novel, one of the most bracing pieces of crime fiction this decade. Director Harold Ramis, writers/producers Robert Benton and Richard Russo, and a first-rate cast nail the tone of ruthless melancholy that runs through the book.

I sense a new family tradition coming on. Every December 24, a lethal double bill of this movie and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. From now on, all my Christmases will be noir. (Although a double bill of this movie and Capote is sure to sound the death knell for Kansas tourism.)

America’s movie critics, muddleheaded nitwits that they are, have largely missed the boat on ICE HARVEST. The ones who have embraced it, like the New York Times’ Dave Kehr, seem to recognize that there’s something more than a quality film here. In the words of Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum:

Here’s a movie neither too big nor too small – just good. We need more of this size, this shape. Because, as THE ICE HARVEST rises, so rises the stock of the mid-size American movie.

So there’s your holiday challenge. If you’re a fan of skillful storytelling, of craft, of professionalism, get out there and support this one. Because they’re really not making them like this anymore.

Website Update: Links

The aforementioned Dave Kehr is added to the roll of honor, as is Chuck Tryon’s The Chutry Experiment. I’ve also updated the link to Ed Gorman’s Gormania, so you’ll miss nary a word of his wisdom.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Movies: Pre-Thanksgiving Grab Bag

Things have gotten a mite hectic around Chez K. Here’s a quick rundown on some of what I’ve seen recently.

The Squid And The Whale. The filet of current releases. Noah Baumbach’s semiautobiographical script about the effects of divorce on a family of New York intellectuals is harsh, unsparing, and brilliantly funny. Jeff Daniels gives the performance of the year.

Jarhead. A few years ago, I spent an afternoon in the Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) at the New York City Police Museum. It was a revelatory experience. More than once I had my gun drawn and ready to fire, only to realize that the situation could be defused through other means. That taught me a terrible lesson about the burden of being in law enforcement: once you steel yourself up to act, the adrenaline must be released somehow. Otherwise, it will tear through you like acid.

That point was at the heart of Anthony Swofford’s searing Gulf War memoir. Director Sam Mendes and writer William Broyles Jr. find a way to bring it home onscreen in this potent and disturbing adaptation.

Bonus links: here’s Swofford on the movie. And Nathaniel Fick – a key figure in GENERATION KILL, the brilliant book on the invasion of Iraq, and an author in his own right – explains why he hated the book, and how the film improves on it.

Walk The Line. Yes, all the standard biopic beats are here – but it’s the Man in Black, people. And when the movie focuses on the music, it verges on glorious. Having Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (as June Carter) do their own singing brings a sense of discovery to those scenes that’s electric. And Dallas Roberts has a great small role as Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips. Where’s the movie about him?

Miscellaneous: Link

Empire Magazine ranks the supermonsters. Should the Alien Queen be ahead of Godzilla? Discuss.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

TV: Masters of Horror/‘Jenifer’

The latest installment of Showtime’s anthology series opened with every network advisory symbol, plus a few that were new to me. Taboos were gleefully smashed. ‘Jenifer’ is easily the most twisted hour of television I’ve ever seen.

Director Dario Argento puts his stamp on a tale of sexual obsession with a plot that’s weirdly similar to that of a certain classic cartoon. Former WINGS star Steven Weber not only delivers a strong lead performance but also wrote the adaptation of the comic book by Bruce Jones.

Meanwhile, New York Times critic Dave Kehr raves about an upcoming episode from Joe Dante that may push a few political buttons.

TV: Something Weird

Having On Demand is like spending Christmas with a dotty aunt. You get presents galore. You’re just not sure if you want them. Sometimes, she simply wraps up the cat.

There are worthwhile features. A few days ago I discovered karaoke. Last night I unearthed Something Weird, a collection of old instructional films and movie trailers.

And, Lord help me, “retro erotica.”

Most of what’s currently available – a “stylized dance” from Bettie Page, a few minutes with “sexy contortionist” Twinnie Wallen – seems to be excerpted from the 1955 movie Teaserama. I’ve deduced this because the color shorts end with ancient burlesque gags delivered by comics Joe E. Ross and Dave Starr. Complete with punch lines that include the word ‘Chinaman.’

There’s also a ‘how-to’ feature on bathing produced by GLEN OR GLENDA? moneyman George Weiss. It focuses on poor Daisy June, a befuddled but buxom county girl in ragged cutoffs who cleans up in a washtub. Honestly.

I tried to figure out why such chestnuts would be made available on demand. Who’s the target audience for this kind of vintage cheese? Then I realized who. Me. And a substantial number of this blog’s regular readers. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Book: On Film-Making, by Alexander Mackendrick (2004)

I’ve never put any stock in the adage “Those who can’t do, teach.” (As for Woody Allen’s addendum – “Those who can’t teach, teach gym” – that, I believe whole-heartedly.) Still, it always pays to get advice from those who have done the job and done it well.

Most books on filmmaking are by people whose qualifications are suspect. There are exceptions; William Goldman has written instructively about screenwriting, as have Sidney Lumet and David Mamet on directing, and Art Linson and Christine Vachon on the function of producers.

Alexander Mackendrick has a résumé every bit as impressive. He directed some of the great Ealing comedies, then came to America and made SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, one of the high points of 1950s cinema as well as the New Yorkiest movie ever. After Bill Murray’s Quick Change, of course.

Mackendrick didn’t take to working in Hollywood, however, and accepted a position at the California Institute of the Arts. His teachings, collected in this Faber & Faber volume, make up one of the finest books on filmmaking ever published.

The first section on the mechanics of storytelling contains information useful to writers in any medium. Mackendrick’s crisp prose is a pleasure to read, as you might expect from a teacher who assigned George Orwell’s “Politics and English Language” to screenwriting students. He draws on a wealth of examples, holding up Georges Simenon, for instance, as a master of exposition. Some come from his own work; his dissection of the same scene from SUCCESS as written by original scenarist Ernest Lehman and then revised by Clifford Odets is the most illuminating analysis of screenwriting I’ve ever encountered. This in spite of the fact that Mackendrick dismisses the film as “corny” and “melodramatic.” What did he know?

The film grammar section uses Mackendrick’s striking hand-drawn storyboards to illustrate his points on directing and editing. For lovers of the movies, ON FILM-MAKING will deepen your appreciation and understanding of the art form. No book can teach you all you need to know to make your own movies. But Mackendrick’s lessons are guaranteed to improve the result.

Miscellaneous: Links

GreenCine offers this interview with “word slinger and cultural archeologist” Eddie Muller. I make a cameo appearance in Lee Goldberg’s Mystery*File piece on FLETCH novelist Gregory McDonald – and then weigh in with my own opinion of the movies. And Slate lists signs that will indicate when baby boomers have lost control of the media. Worst. Trend. Ever.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Miscellaneous: Karaoke-Dokey

Thanks to the miracle of On Demand, I now have karaoke in my own home. Some random observations:

1. It helps to have a few drinks in you first. Even when you’re at home and there’s no audience.

2. Singing along with the radio in no way constitutes vocal training.

3. The word ‘pitchy’ actually means something. I owe AMERICAN IDOL’s Randy Jackson an apology. I thought he just made it up.

4. Songs from GREASE are now considered ‘Standards.’

5. Thanks to the two girls who lived upstairs from me during my freshman year in college and who would play the soundtrack in its entirety seven nights a week beginning at midnight, I know every standard from GREASE. Including the spoken word parts.

6. Any two people, regardless of vocal skill, facility with the English language, or amount of alcohol consumed, can do a passable Sonny & Cher. Even Sonny & Cher could do it.

7. When the introduction says ‘in the style of,’ it’s not kidding. If you’re foolish enough to perform “Just A Gigolo” in the style of David Lee Roth, you’re expected to do all of Diamond Dave’s scatting and call-and-response.

8. I did not require the prompts to do all of Diamond Dave’s scatting and call-and-response.

9. Almost half of the selections in the ‘Specialty’ category are Irish. Thus proving what the poet wrote:

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

10. Finding out that your significant other does a mean Ernest Tubb on “Walking The Floor Over You” is kind of a turn-on.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Book: Total Chaos, by Jean-Claude Izzo (1995)

I bought this book on impulse because it’s a handsome object. Europa Editions did a bang-up job. I’d never heard of Izzo before – this marks his first American publication – but the jacket copy made the novel sound right up my alley.

When I finished it, I almost turned to page one to start over. I haven’t been tempted to do that since I read my first Lawrence Block novel, EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE, in a single sitting on a lazy high school afternoon.

Police detective Fabio Montale grew up on the mean streets of Marseilles. His two closest friends never really left them behind. When they’re both killed, only Fabio is left to seek justice, even if it means going outside the law: “I wasn’t thinking like a cop. I was being swept along by my lost youth. All my dreams belonged to that part of my life. If I still had a future, that was the way I had to return.”

There’s a satisfyingly twisty plot, but it’s practically beside the point. Izzo’s descriptions of Marseilles make the city the book’s protagonist. Or they would, if Montale weren’t so vital a guide. CHAOS veers between that uniquely Gallic brand of romantic fatalism and a desperate sensuality. There’s even a touch of the prophetic about it, considering that much of the action unfolds in the largely Arabic slums around the city that have been in the news lately.

When I closed the book I knew that I’d want to return to its world. Izzo died in 2000, but CHAOS is the first book in a trilogy. Europa plans to publish the next two installments in 2007. (Before that, they’ll be bringing out a new edition of Patrick Hamilton’s suspense classic HANGOVER SQUARE.) A quick check of the IMDb reveals that there’s a movie version of CHAOS, as well as a TV series based on the entire trilogy with the great Alain Delon as Montale. Only problem: they’re not available in the U.S. yet.

2007 is a long ways off. I may have to read CHAOS again. It’s simply that good.

Movie: Last Best Chance (2005)

This short film about atomic terrorism, made with the support of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, is playing on HBO. Going for that scary “it could happen here” vibe, it casts politician-turned-actor-turned-politician-turned-actor Fred Dalton Thompson as the President of the United States. But the most frightening thing about it is the prospect of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE’s Uncle Rico as National Security Advisor.

Miscellaneous: Links

A terrific interview with KISS KISS BANG BANG auteur Shane Black. And Dave Kehr remembers the late character actress Sheree J. North.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Movie: Serial (1980)

So I’m scrolling through the late-night TV listings and come across this satire that I’ve never heard of before.

But Rosemarie has. It’s based on a novel by Cyra McFadden, one of those scandalous, zeitgeist-capturing books that merits reams of coverage in lifestyle magazines. Rosemarie can even picture the book’s original cover. But she never read it, and she hasn’t seen the movie, either. Set DVR on record.

SERIAL targets life in Marin County, California during the ‘Me Generation’ years, the era of consciousness raising, hot tubs and orgies. Or, as star Martin Mull says, “These are exciting times, aren’t they? Gas is over a dollar a gallon and it’s OK to be an asshole.” The cast is filled with TV stalwarts like Peter Bonerz, Tommy Smothers, and MAUDE’s Bill Macy. Horror icon Christopher Lee turns up just to keep things interesting.

The small screen pedigree extends behind the camera. Director Bill Persky was a key figure on the show KATE & ALLIE, and screenwriters Rich Eustis and Michael Elias would go on to create the family-friendly sitcom HEAD OF THE CLASS.

The TV influence sometimes works against the movie. It features a hellishly bad theme song that screams ‘Sundays at 9, 8 Central,’ and a jokey, episodic structure that makes it feel like an extended installment of LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE. Comedies that tackled similar subject matter earlier on have more bite, like the Paul Mazursky-scripted films I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

But SERIAL eventually buckles down and focuses on Mull’s efforts to salvage his marriage to Tuesday Weld. A solid ratio of its jokes score, and plenty of them involve nudity and/or profanity, which I always appreciate. It’s not a perfect film, but it deserves a better fate than surfacing on Cinemax at four in the morning.

Miscellaneous: Links

The latest subject being pondered at Reason: why are celebrity profiles so bad? Slate places 50 Cent’s GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ in the context of autobiographical films and declares Eminem the winner. And Bill Pronzini offers a reminiscence of lost pulp master Jay Flynn at Mystery*File.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Movie: Road House (1989)

Is it me or is this movie playing somewhere in the cable universe at all times? That’s a sure sign of staying power. But getting a sequel more than 15 years later, even a direct-to-video one? That means a cult following. And I do hate to miss out on these things.

I’ve seen the 1948 ROAD HOUSE, with Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. More than once, in fact. But the one where Patrick Swayze plays a philosophically-inclined bouncer who single-handedly cleans up an entire small town and flirts with lovely local doctor Kelly Lynch while she sutures his knife wounds was terra incognita.

Still, the unseen ROAD HOUSE has long been revered here at Chez K. Before Rosemarie and I met, we had both read the same review of the movie that cited some dialogue directed at Patrick Swayze’s Dalton:

“I used to fuck guys like you in prison.”

It’s a line the missus and I have fallen back on a lot over the years. I suppose I was afraid the rest of the movie wouldn’t live up to it.

Fortunately, it does. I can see why ROAD HOUSE is popular. It’s cheese that ages well, the kind of good, dumb, unpretentious B flick where an entire bar erupts in fisticuffs at the slightest slight. There’s some nice local color that doesn’t mock country folks, and Swayze’s goofy Zen demeanor works perfectly. (I don’t believe in guilty pleasures – if you like something, claim it with pride, says I – but if I did, the Swayze double-bill of this and POINT BREAK would be high on the list.) And that wily old pro Ben Gazzara even acts a little as the town boss who knows he’s destined for a fall, and who may be secretly relieved that the day is at hand.

As for the line referenced above, it’s even funnier in context. If you can call it that.

Music: “All the Best,” Glen Campbell

23 tracks may be a broad definition of “the best.” But “Wichita Lineman” is one of them, and that’s enough for me.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Music Video: “Hung Up,” Madonna

I never gave much thought to Madonna as entertainer or cultural force, pace Camille Paglia and the Reservoir Dogs. I stole my standard line on her from writer and critic Clive James, who said that she sings better than she acts, she dances better than she sings, and we all know somebody who dances better.

Her shenanigans the last few years have only made it tougher: touting kabbalah, kissing Britney Spears, rapping about soy lattes. Lately she’s been coming on like everyone’s crazy aunt Madge, who still hasn’t learned to dress age-appropriately.

Then I saw her latest video, available here and here. Now I’m ready to become an icon member of her fan club.

There’s the song, which is so infectious that the CDC should be notified. Then there’s Madonna, looking spectacular. Part of the credit has to go to yoga, but she’s also smiling here. I’m not sure if I’ve seen that before.

Finally there’s the video itself, directed by Johan Renck. It’s charged with a raucous energy, at times playing like the Luc Besson version of YOU GOT SERVED. It even has parkour in it.

There’s only one word to describe the ending, with its tribe of Madonna-led dancers busting old-school moves in a video arcade: joyous. I’ve watched this video over and over in the last 24 hours, because it makes me feel like a million bucks.

Music: “My Humps,” Black Eyed Peas

Conversely, I hate this song, currently the top download on iTunes. It’s the one in which singer Fergie offers a paean to “my hump, my hump, my hump/my lovely lady lumps.” Her boasts prompt witty rejoinders from her bandmates, like “Whatcha gonna do with all that breasts, all that breast inside that shirt?” It makes Kelis’ “Milkshake” seem like the essence of sophistication. At least that bit of pop ephemera was built around a metaphor, even a thuddingly obvious one.

I don’t mean to give the Steve Allen treatment to a stupid dance record. But whenever I hear this song – every twelve minutes – all I can think of is that criticism leveled at Spinal Tap. The Peas are “treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.” Only, you know, without the poetry.

Miscellaneous: Link

Two of my favorite authors, Terrill Lee Lankford and Reed Farrel Coleman, are featured in the Wall Street Journal’s clear-eyed look at the harsh realities of the publishing business. Read it while the WSJ is free for the day.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Movie: Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

A friend called me three months ago, when this film played in New York, to tell me to watch for it here. It’s good to have people looking out for your interests.

Louis Malle was only 24 years old – a mere vingt quatre ans – when he made this tightly controlled New Wave noir. It’s one of the coolest movies I’ve ever seen, in the original hipsters’ sense of the word. Paris at night, Jeanne Moreau in an early role, soundtrack by Miles Davis.

A man commits the perfect murder only to get trapped in the elevator at the scene. His lover (Moreau), baffled that he’s missed their rendezvous, wanders the streets questioning their entire relationship. Meanwhile, a teenaged couple obsessed with trouble and each other steals the man’s car for a crime spree of their own. As the night progresses, the fates of all four become hopelessly intertwined. The wrap-up is particularly satisfying.

Rialto Pictures’ website features a trailer guaranteed to whet the appetite, as well as the dates of upcoming screenings around the U.S. Past Rialto re-releases like LE CERCLE ROUGE and THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS have preceded impressive Criterion DVDs, so a new home video version could be in the offing.

The high point of seeing this movie had nothing to do with the film itself. I was in the lobby when an elderly woman asked me, “Which way to the gallows?” Would that I’d had a clever answer.

Movie: From Hell It Came (1957)

While looking up GALLOWS under its original U.S. title FRANTIC in my trusty Leonard Maltin guide, I came across the review for this Grade-Z horror film. Leonard says, “As walking-tree movies go, this is at the top of the list.” You’ve got to figure that the Ents in the LORD OF THE RINGS series have wrested that title away. Still, FROM HELL had a good run.

Miscellaneous: Links

Slate’s slideshow on Calvin & Hobbes, “the last great newspaper comic strip,” has bumped that Bill Watterson collection higher up on my Christmas list. Over at Mystery*File, Gary Warren Niebuhr’s look at the Honey West books shows that you can’t go home again. Ah, to return to that bygone era of the international eye-spy with ample assets and professional football in Los Angeles.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Miscellaneous: Critics’ Choice

Nancy Franklin’s latest TV column in the New Yorker, which looks at several new sitcoms, contains her usual sharp writing. She suggests that the recent fallow period for comedies is what allowed offbeat shows like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and SCRUBS to survive despite low ratings. But now that the format is hot again, new sitcoms will be expected to deliver at once.

Her main focus is NBC’s hit MY NAME IS EARL, which she describes as “charmless and patronizing, and as refreshing as dust.” Ouch. You’d think that a review that bad would keep me from watching. But Franklin also says that EARL contains “more than a whiff of MALLRATS.” Rosemarie and I have an irrational degree of affection for that Kevin Smith movie, largely due to EARL star Jason Lee’s ridiculously charismatic performance. A weekly version of that goofball flick sounds worth a look to me.

GreenCine Daily steered me toward New York Times film critic Dave Kehr’s blog. His latest post does the impossible: it has me even more excited to see the adaptation of Scott Phillips’ killer crime novel THE ICE HARVEST.

TV: Masters of Horror

Here’s one new show that I am watching. Showtime presents 13 hour-long fright films by genre specialists. The premiere episode reunited Don Coscarelli with mojo storyteller Joe R. Lansdale after their success with BUBBA HO-TEP. The result was as intense as anything I’ve ever seen on the tube. This week’s episode, with Stuart (RE-ANIMATOR) Gordon turning once again to H.P. Lovecraft, made for a solid follow-up. Upcoming installments will be directed by Dario Argento, John Carpenter and Takashi Miike, and include adaptations of stories by Clive Barker and Richard Matheson.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Miscellaneous: And I Didn’t Have All I Could Eat, Either

The other day I received an email from Netflix informing me of a recent class action settlement. A former subscriber had filed suit against the company, claiming that they did not provide “unlimited” DVD rentals and “one day delivery” as promised. The company has denied any wrongdoing or liability, but has also reached an out-of-court settlement giving eligible members a free one-month service upgrade that they then have to remember to cancel. Naturally, I couldn’t be bothered.

Even in an age of ridiculous lawsuits, I still can’t believe someone went to court over this. Then again, when I was in New York last week I couldn’t believe people called 911 to say “I smell pancakes!” Clearly I need to be more on edge. Maybe I’d pick up some extra money. I’m still waiting for my David Manning and Milli Vanilli windfalls.

Miscellaneous: Link

The Onion AV Club assesses the past decade in underrated movies. I don’t agree with all of their choices, but any list that talks up LORD OF WAR, CELLULAR, SPARTAN, DARK BLUE, VANILLA SKY, WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, OFFICE SPACE, ZERO EFFECT, TIN CUP, FUNNY BONES and multiple Walter Hill films has forever won a place in my heart. Elsewhere, Slate considers the rock snob.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Movie: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

Go see this one. Trust me. It’s a blast.

Shane Black was screenwriting’s poster boy in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, scoring huge paydays for action scripts with wildly outsized characters. LETHAL WEAPON reinvented the form and contains a genuine edge of danger. THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT is uneven, but at its best it plays like a daft popcorn masterpiece.

Now Black is directing as well as writing, and it turns out he’s the best interpreter of his own work. He knows that for all the over-the-top slam-bang going on, his stories are actually about people driven by forces they can’t control or understand to find the truth. The secret of boy’s own adventure movies is that boys actually believe this stuff.

Robert Downey, Junior plays a two-bit New York thief mistaken for an actor. He’s shipped out to Los Angeles to audition for a role under the guidance of a tough gay P.I. (Val Kilmer). The two become embroiled in a convoluted murder plot out of a ‘40s crime novel. Quite literally: Black based his script in part on one of Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne mysteries. The story even includes a series of cheap detective paperbacks that look like the Shayne books. Dig those crazy covers.

Not that the plot matters. It’s an excuse for Black to send up storytelling clichés in movies and in mysteries while at the same time revealing how satisfying they can be when used effectively.

Downey has never been better. He’s finally in a movie that matches his hell-for-leather metabolism. And Kilmer, who started in comedies like TOP SECRET! and the underrated REAL GENIUS, blows the roof off the place. Their scenes together crackle with a crazy, hellzapoppin’ energy. It’s like watching one of the great comedy teams of yesteryear. Normally I’d never say this, but here goes: I want a sequel. Bad.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Miscellaneous: Big Apple Grab Bag

Selected highlights of my trip to New York:

- Correcting a long-standing oversight by finally going to the top of the Empire State Building.

- Coming over the George Washington Bridge after a weekend in the country as “Native New Yorker” plays on the radio.

- Stumbling onto a bistro named after a favorite movie and getting one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had.

- Discovering that I am not suffering from olfactory hallucinations.

- Taking a terrific walking tour of Dorothy Parker’s New York and absorbing just how much of American culture was created in the 20 blocks around Times Square.

- Concocting this recipe for a perfect day. Sleep late. Have lunch at a restaurant that only serves grilled cheeses. Go see a new print of the mesmerizing Nicholson/Antonioni film THE PASSENGER on the big screen. Have post-show snack at a place that only serves rice pudding. Meet friends for a tapas dinner. Walk back to temporary digs through Greenwich Village on the Saturday before Halloween, taking in a dizzying array of costumes.

- Walking the southern tip of Manhattan on our last morning in town, pausing only for the occasional Bloody Mary to slake an Indian summer thirst.

Miscellaneous: Links

I’m going to have to rely on Overheard in New York to tide me over for the next few months. A book based on the site is on the way, with an intro by my spiritual father Lawrence Block.

Mystery*File editor Steve Lewis and I tag-teamed on a review of ‘70s TV classic GET CHRISTIE LOVE! It’s now up at the Mystery*File website, along with a fascinating interview with author Dorothy Uhnak, whose books inspired the series.

Great news: Ed Gorman is back, and he’s blogging.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Website Update: I Have Returned

I'm back. Utterly spent, but back. Regular posting should resume shortly. In the meantime, the latest installment of my column In the Frame is up at Steve Lewis' Mystery*File. That should tide you over until I get my sea legs again.

I would, however, like to comment on one event that transpired while I was incommunicado. As I predicted, the White Sox won the World Series. Which means we all have one year to get our affairs in order. Remember who told you first.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Website Update: Brief Hiatus

Every so often I get the urge to test myself. Do I have what it takes to compete on the mean streets? To make it in the big town? To cut it in a permanent orange alert environment?

It's time for my annual pilgrimage home to New York City. I may post from the road, I may not. I make no guarantees. I'll be back on what passes for my regular schedule around Halloween. In the meantime, check out the sites on the links page and take care of yourselves. I want to find this place exactly as I left it or I'll call your mothers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Movie: The Birds (1963)

When we heard that Turner Classic Movies would be showing Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS with Tippi Hedren in attendance, we had to go. We don’t get many movie stars in this neck of the woods. They’re all up in Vancouver. Although Rosemarie did once see Ethan Hawke coming out of our local supermarket. We never figured out why he was there. The produce selection is good, but not two-time Oscar nominee good.

Ms. Hedren (suddenly I’m Larry King – “Ms. Tippi Hedren for the hour”) looked every inch the movie star. She was literally dazzling; every time she moved in her chair, the light bounced off a different diamond. She was also wearing the pin depicting three birds in flight that Hitch himself presented to her when he signed her to a contract more than forty years ago.

TCM host Robert Osborne led her through a spirited interview. She was marvelously self-effacing, saying that Hitch wanted an unknown for the lead in THE BIRDS because any established actress would have known not to take the part. She told some wonderful stories about Hitchcock’s technique, but was also very forthright about the director’s obsession with her, which went far beyond their onscreen collaborations. Hitch wanted to control how she dressed, what she ate, what books she read. Osborne asked if Hitch’s wife Alma knew. Ms. Hedren said she did, and that she was very sorry about it. Ultimately, Ms. Hedren had to tell Hitchcock that she was uncomfortable with their relationship and didn’t want to work with him anymore. He accepted that – but also refused to allow her to act in other films. “For years, directors and producers came up to me and said they’d wanted me for a role, but Hitch wouldn’t allow it,” she said. “The worst was when I found out that Francois Truffaut had wanted to cast me. I’d never heard a word about it. That one hurt.”

Osborne is too much of a showman to let the conversation end on a down note, so he asked Ms. Hedren about the wildlife refuge she’s run for decades and her daughter Melanie Griffith. He closed with some kind words about Evan Hunter, who took the film’s premise from Daphne DuMaurier and concocted the screen story himself.

Then, on to the movie. I’ve seen THE BIRDS more than any other Hitchcock film, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. The attack scenes are brilliant, executed with a chilling indifference. The lack of explanations – and the inconclusive ending – are still deeply unsettling. But that first hour of half-baked psychology is awfully slow.

The sound in the theater was first-rate. Loud enough to make me shield my eyes, lest they be pecked out next.

You never know who’s going to show up at these things. There was the celebrity hound in our aisle, who shouted out allegedly witty remarks to Ms. Hedren and then left before the movie started. And the contingent from the Art Students’ League who decamped en masse about twenty minutes in. And the musky-odored gent ahead of us in line, who was there because “movies cost too much, and I heard this one’s free.”

Then again, there was the man who queued up behind us, took one look at the crowd, and said, “Lot of Rod Taylor fans, I guess.” You, sir, made our evening.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Website: Ed Gorman & Friends

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve linked to Ed’s blog. Yesterday he put up what he called his final post. Ed has shut down his site before only to come back. I hope he does so again.

Bill Crider does a far better job than I could explaining Ed’s many contributions to the crime fiction community. I’ve been a Gorman fan for a long time. His blog inspired me to start my own, and the plugs he graciously gave this site in its early days accounted for most if not all of its traffic. For that, I’ll always be in his debt.

Ed is one of the great appreciators, always singling out quality work no matter the medium or genre. By coincidence, in the past week I caught up with two films that Ed brought to my attention:

MISTER BUDDWING (1966) – Amnesia victim James Garner wanders the black-and-white streets of New York attempting to reconstruct his identity. It’s a surprisingly experimental movie, with the role of Garner’s significant other played by several women that his character encounters. I went in expecting a thriller, but the film posed a far more disturbing question. Does losing your way mean losing yourself?

NO DOWN PAYMENT (1957) – Sort of a BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES set a decade later, as WWII vets begin moving out to the suburbs only to face entirely new problems. Ed’s right to single out Tony Randall’s performance as a striver driven to alcohol by the need to keep up with the Joneses.

The films have a lot in common. They deserve to be better known. They’re based on novels by authors generally seen as crime writers (Evan Hunter and John McPartland, respectively). And they focus squarely on the human wants and needs of their characters, a quality evident in all of Ed Gorman’s work.

Like a lot of other people, I’m keeping my bookmark in place and waiting for his return.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Website Update: Changes

The incremental design change continues. I’ve tweaked the Links page, but that’s the least of it. The Purpose page is no more, because by this point even readers of Parade magazine know what a blog is. As for Theories, I finally had to admit that I was never going to update that section of the site. So I’ve kissed it goodbye.

But I stand behind the sentiment that graced that page for lo these many months: everything that is wrong with society can be blamed on either hippies or television.

Book: Hell Hath No Fury, by Charles Williams (1953)

It reads like the ur-noir novel. A slick operator in a small town tempted by a good girl, a bad woman, and an easy bank. Williams’ lethally spare prose conveys the heat, the desperation, and above all the sense that a man who feels trapped can talk himself into anything.

The novel was the basis for the 1990 film THE HOT SPOT. Williams himself had a hand in the adaptation. I somehow missed the film for fifteen years, and I have to say I’m glad. It’s simultaneously too faithful to the source – almost every incident from the book is recreated – and not faithful enough, serving up the action in an arch, self-conscious style.

Still, director Dennis Hopper casts the movie well. The good girl is future Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly, the bad woman recent Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen.

Don Johnson makes a perfect noir protagonist – thickset, good-looking, and not as smart as he thinks he is. I’ve thought Johnson was underrated ever since 1993’s GUILTY AS SIN, which I recently caught again on cable. Screenwriter and personal hero Larry Cohen begins with the conceit of recasting the femme fatale as a man. The result is schizophrenic, to say the least; director Sidney Lumet and costar Rebecca DeMornay seem to think they’re making a courtroom drama. But Johnson is squarely on Cohen’s page, unafraid to push the feminine aspects of his character. The actor also scored in a TV production of THE LONG HOT SUMMER, and as a comic foil in TIN CUP. I had hoped to check out Johnson’s new TV series JUST LEGAL, in which he played a role similar to Paul Newman’s in THE VERDICT, but it was an early casualty of the fall season.

You may have noticed that most of this post has focused on Don Johnson’s career instead of Charles Williams’ novel. That’s because there’s nothing I can say about an acknowledged classic of the genre other than: read it.

Movie: Thunder Road (1958)

The sometime Hollywood stuntman who anchors James Sallis’ DRIVE spoke so reverently about this movie that I had to seek it out. Robert Mitchum, who not only wrote the story but the title song as well, plays a Tennessee bootlegger facing down revenuers and the Mob.

A low budget and a formula script hamper the story, but the film has a genuine feel for life in the holler, and Mitchum creates another in his gallery of screw-you individualists. And fans of fine motoring will find much to savor, including displays of the bootlegger’s turn (a 180-degree change of direction without stopping) and the moonshiner’s turn (the same thing done while driving in reverse). Yes, I had to look them up.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Movie: Blind Spot (1947)

It has been pointed out by many writers that endings are a bitch. But titles aren’t a walk in the park either. At times, they can be the inspiration for all that follows, like MARS NEEDS WOMEN or I CHANGED MY SEX.

They can arrive with the original idea or show up a few weeks later as if by fourth-class mail. Occasionally, a suitable one never presents itself. And then you’re left hanging.

Last year an entire screenplay fell into my head. Plot, characters, dialogue ... everything but a title. I wrote it in a white heat – now there’s a title – then slapped a placeholder on it. THE NEXT LEVEL. As in, “I’m gonna take this to ...”

My manager is very enthusiastic about the script but says we’ve got to call it something else. Out of curiosity I ask why.

“When I hear that phrase,” he says, “I think of video games.”

“Damn,” says the PlayStation-less I. “We’ve got to call it something else.”

Thus began the title fight. The two of us come up with a dozen alternates. Friends and associates contribute even more. The winner, by almost unanimous decision, is BLIND SPOT. It suits a noir-style thriller, and has certain thematic resonance. That’s the title it was optioned under earlier this year.

Other movies have gone by that name. There’s the acclaimed documentary about Hitler’s secretary. And a 1947 mystery which is unavailable on video.

I vowed that at some point, I would track that BLIND SPOT down.

One of the highlights of the fall cinema season in this neck of the woods is the Seattle Art Museum’s film noir series, which always sells out instantly. A few days after that happened, I took a look at this year’s program.

October 13. Blind Spot. 1947.

This is where I’m supposed to explain how difficult it was for me to land a ticket. Nope. A friend put me in touch with SAM’s film curator. When I told him why I had to see the movie, he said, “Don’t worry. We’ll make room for you.”

This is where I’m supposed to say that the 1947 film is a hidden treasure. After all, Leonard Maltin gives it three stars and calls it a “tight little mystery.” Can’t do that, either. It’s got a clever premise. Chester ‘Boston Blackie’ Morris plays an alcoholic writer forced to prove that he didn’t murder his publisher using the method he devised for his next novel. There are some nice jabs at the book business, and Constance Dowling is on hand to look lovely.

The print we watched came from the U.K. and by all accounts is the only one in existence other than the original negative. I was one of the younger people in the audience last night, and it’s strange to think that someday I could be one of the few people who has seen this particular film.

But with any luck, it will live on through the title. A huge grin split my face when it came up on screen and stayed there throughout the movie. Although when the film ended, I did have this thought:

My BLIND SPOT will be better.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Book: Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

Novelist James Reasoner recently wrote on his blog about the impact of having a teacher talk to you about a book you’re reading. It’s a powerful moment that hints that the transition to adult life might not be as hard as you think, and may already have started.

I remember how grown-up I felt when Miss Clark asked me how I was enjoying Martin Cruz Smith’s GORKY PARK. I was even reading the U.K. edition that I’d picked up in Ireland. I was quite the young sophisticate, in my smoking jacket from Botany 250.

The most memorable of these encounters came on the first day of my first college English course. The professor wanted to begin with beginnings, and hit us with this opening paragraph:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.

On day one of college, I was taught that the kind of books I wanted to read actually mattered. I still consider that knowledge a gift.

As soon as class ended I ran to the library and checked out a copy of RED HARVEST. That night, I read it for the first time. I revisited it most recently the other day. It’s still a staggering piece of work, a relentless narrative engine that’s also a definitive exploration of corruption.

I made a point of watching MILLER’S CROSSING again after I reread it. It’s said that the Coen Brothers wrote this script in frustration after being unable to secure the rights to HARVEST. The result is a Hammett pastiche that captures the flavor of much of his work. The Coens continue to use this approach to great effect; THE BIG LEBOWSKI riffs on Chandler and in particular Robert Altman’s adaptation of THE LONG GOODBYE, while THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is the best unofficial James M. Cain movie there is.

Miscellaneous: Craig, Daniel Craig

Rumors that Craig would be the new James Bond have been circulating for months. Now that Variety and Slate have picked up the story, it’s seeming more like reality.

Craig is a fine actor – if you haven’t seen LAYER CAKE, rent it at once – and his casting, if true, hints that the 007 producers may finally be serious about reinventing the character in a meaningful way.

Conventional wisdom holds that a franchise part like James Bond can straitjacket an actor. I don’t buy it. Playing Bond put Pierce Brosnan in interesting films like THE TAILOR OF PANAMA. And no one worked the role like Sean Connery. During the height of his 007 fame, he appeared in movies as varied as MARNIE, THE HILL and THE OFFENCE. I’d love to see an actor of Craig’s caliber in films half as demanding.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Miscellaneous: All-Sports Edition

The halftime guests in the booth on MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL were Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi. Interviewed separately. Meaning that ABC staffers blew the opportunity to reunite the stars of RED HEAT live on the air. Do I have to do everyone’s job for them?

Now to baseball. Considering all the ink spilled over the Yankees/Red Sox “greatest rivalry in sports,” I take a perverse satisfaction in seeing both teams bow out of the playoffs in the first round. Factor in another early exit for the hated Atlanta Braves and I’m pretty happy about the league championships.

I don’t have a dog in this particular fight, but if I were a betting man I’d pick the White Sox to win the World Series. And if that happens, watch out. The Red Sox take it one year and the White Sox the next? Only the crosstown Cubs are left, and after they win the 2006 Fall Classic the world will immediately come to an end. God himself will appear at Wrigley Field and say, “All right, I let all the cursed franchises win one more. Now it’s time to go.”

At which point a great cry will rise up from this region of the country. “But what about the Mariners? They’ve never ever been to the World Series!”

And the Good Lord will reply, “An expansion team? Screw that. Everybody has ten minutes and then, seriously, we’re outta here.”