Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Miscellaneous: My Star Wars History

My friend Mike asked me about REVENGE OF THE SITH. (BTW, it was indeed John G. who declared No Sleep ‘Til Anne Murray. Who else?) I might as well admit the truth.

I haven’t seen EPISODE III. And I don’t intend to. I resisted the movie and its promise of air conditioning during a freakish stint of plus-85 degree temperatures, so that should prove my resolve.

Herewith, my Star Wars history.

STAR WARS – I get into my first playground brawl for insisting that CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is a better movie, an opinion I hold to this day.

Don’t get me wrong. I like STAR WARS. It was the first film I saw in the theater more than once. But while everybody else was obsessing over Luke or Chewbacca (a fixation I never understood), I was strictly a Han Solo man. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Preach on, Brother Solo.

While my classmates watched the movie for the umpteenth time, I reread Brian Daley’s Solo trilogy. All Han all the time.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – The first sign that I’m not a true fan: I didn’t see this movie until its re-release a few weeks before RETURN OF THE JEDI. It just never occurred to me to go.

It’s got some great Han Solo moments. But it’s also where we meet Yoda.

And I hate Yoda. There, I said it.

A few months after the movie came out, we were able to write original STAR WARS stories to fulfill a class assignment. That’s right: course credit for fanfic. I pinpoint this as the moment when society lost its way.

RETURN OF THE JEDI – I went on opening day like everybody else from school, then again a few days later to confirm what at the time came as a shock: I didn’t like it, even though all my friends did. I felt bitter and alone. As usual.

THE INTERREGNUM – I get into several arguments in college for insisting that MAD MAX is a better trilogy, an opinion I hold to this day. I haven’t watched any title from Lucas’ original trilogy in over 20 years. Whereas I’ve enjoyed AMERICAN GRAFFITI repeatedly and become a huge fan of THX1138.

THE PHANTOM MENACE – I go late in the run out of a sense of obligation. I wait in vain for a Han Solo figure who will ask, “You don’t actually believe this crap, do you?” I realize that movie actually does believe this crap.

ATTACK OF THE CLONES – Haven’t seen a minute of it.

REVENGE OF THE SITH – Does sitting through the ads featuring Darth, Yoda and Chewie hawking fast food and M&Ms count?

Oh, well. I hear INDIANA JONES IV is coming along nicely.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Miscellaneous: C Is For Adequate

All my hard work is finally paying off. The good people at Blogebrity have declared me one of their C-List bloggers. Others might scoff at this lowly position. But I’ll take all the publicity I can get.

Frankly, even the C-List seems a tad grandiose to me. It puts me in the company of bloggers that I read regularly like John August, the Cinetrix, and Sarah Weinman, as well as long-time web favorites Harry Knowles and Maud Newton. Not to mention luminaries Margaret Cho, Tommy Lasorda, and Rosie O’Donnell.

I speak for everyone associated with this website when I say: Tommy Lasorda has a blog?

Friday, May 27, 2005

Book: Ponzi’s Scheme, by Mitchell Zuckoff (2005)

It’s a genuine accomplishment to have your name enter the English language. Even when it’s used as shorthand for robbing Peter to pay Paul.

At the heart of Charles Ponzi’s swindle was a legitimate idea – speculating on international postal reply coupons. It’s just that Ponzi never, you know, figured out how to make money on it. By the time he was forced to admit the truth, he’d already taken in $15 million dollars and counted half the Boston Police Department among his investors.

Zuckoff’s decision to shift focus between Ponzi and a crusading newspaper editor doesn’t pay off, mainly because I found myself rooting for Ponzi – a devoted husband who could have fled with his ill-gotten gains but instead made noise about running for office. An immigrant arrives with nothing, amasses a fortune through sheer moxie, and maintains his optimism when it all goes south in a hurry. There’s something uniquely American about that story.

DVD: Cellular (2004)

It made my list of the best movies of 2004. After watching it again, I not only stand by that opinion, but I’ll go it one better. In terms of story construction – exploiting every possible complication that can be milked from its premise – it’s the best-written movie of last year, too. Credit goes to Chris Morgan, working from an idea by B-movie legend Larry Cohen.

Miscellaneous: Link

A local coffeehouse takes a bold step toward making the world a better place by turning off wi-fi access on the weekends. I’m ready to start petitioning Starbucks right now. Who’s with me?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

DVD: Too Late For Tears/Killer Bait (1949)

It’s the same movie. Turns out I’ve got two copies of it. It goes by the first title on a set of ten gangster movies I picked up for a song at Tower Records, but it answers to the second on Questar’s “Killer Classics” film noir collection.

Neither title really works. Which is unfortunate, because the film itself is a corker.

Bickering couple Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy accidentally intercept a bagful of cash meant as a blackmail payoff. Liz wants to keep it, which strikes Arthur as a surprise. Poor, foolish Arthur. I mean, she is Lizabeth Scott. When Dan Duryea turns up looking for the money he conned fair and square, we learn just how much Lizabeth Scott Lizabeth Scott can be.

The script – fiendishly inventive, cranking out surprises right up to the end – is by Roy Huggins, one of the true geniuses of television. Check out those credits: 77 SUNSET STRIP, MAVERICK, THE FUGITIVE, THE ROCKFORD FILES. His storytelling savvy is fully in evidence here.

Whatever you call this movie, it deserves to be better known. It also deserves a better video presentation. Neither of my copies looks that great.

Book: 361, by Donald E. Westlake (1962)

I’ve sung the praises of both Hard Case Crime and Donald Westlake many times. This reprint of one of his early novels is a case of two great tastes that taste great together.

So instead of repeating myself, I’ll just say that I’m thrilled this book mentions Bohack’s, a now-defunct New York supermarket chain that Rosemarie has never heard of. Proof that I didn’t imagine shopping there.

Miscellaneous: Link

Finally, a loving tribute to one of the longest-running shows on TV.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

DVD: Advise & Consent (1962)

Warner Brothers has excellent timing, releasing Otto Preminger’s political potboiler on DVD as the arcane rules of the Senate are in the news.

It’s odd to see this film hailed on editorial pages as a classic when for years it was dismissed as tedious, along with much of Preminger’s later work. His reputation hasn’t been completely rehabilitated; in a sidebar to Time’s 100 Greatest Movies list, Richard Schickel cites Preminger’s ANATOMY OF A MURDER as one of his five guilty pleasures.

Aside: I haven’t looked at the full Time list, and I’m not going to. Such lists are always a waste of time, but seeing Schickel’s idea of guilty pleasures – GUN CRAZY? – turned me off completely.

What happens when a Hollywood left-winger like Preminger tackles a novel by a well-known conservative (Allen Drury)? A sharp political film that focuses on process instead of issues. Some of the plot twists are dated, and the scenes involving compromised senator Don Murray and his family are actively bad. But the film is compelling from the first frame and features a host of memorable performances, led by Charles Laughton as a horse-trading Southern politico.

Much of the recent coverage of the filibuster battle has been about preserving the Senate’s role as a deliberative body, which is difficult considering that over half of its current membership comes from the more partisan atmosphere of the House. ADVISE & CONSENT undermines that argument. It also made me long for the days when members of both parties could play cards together. It’s a far cry from today. Not only do Senate leaders Bill Frist and Harry Reid not like each other, but it turns out that “neither one has a working sense of humor.”

The villain of the movie is a rabid liberal played by George Grizzard. I’ve got to say that a left-wing heavy made for a great change of pace. But to have him be the senator from Wyoming? The state once represented by Dick Cheney? Even in 1962, that was a reach.

Miscellaneous: Of Local Note

My adopted home state of Washington will never challenge California or Florida for sheer weirdness. But we’re making a run at it. Our governor’s race is being settled in the courts in a case that could have repercussions nationwide. And now comes word that the state issued the formula for methamphetamine on a vanity license plate.

Miscellaneous: Links

A former member of the Doobie Brothers joins the war on terror. And at long last, proof that prayer works.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Miscellaneous: Radio Radio

The typical Sunday night malaise – anxiety about the week ahead combined with the sense that you didn’t go for as much gusto as you could have on your days off – had settled over us. As so often happens, the Bob Seger song ‘Still the Same’ came up. This naturally led to ‘Against the Wind’ (“Let the cowboys ride!”) and other tunes by the pride of Michigan.

After Rosemarie went to bed, I put on the headphones and dialed up Seattle’s classic rock station in the vain hope of catching some Seger. When I was in college, my friend’s roommate once vowed not to go to sleep until he heard something by Anne Murray, preferably ‘Snowbird.’ He lasted until the wee hours before finally dozing off unfulfilled. I wasn’t about to go that far, but I had some time to spare.

Ten minutes later, ‘Still the Same’ started. It was uncanny.

I wasn’t ready to turn in, so I spent another half hour flipping between stations. A profile of Cheap Trick was on, and I heard ‘She’s Tight’ for the first time in a decade. It turns out John Tesh has a syndicated radio show, a mix of adult contemporary music and “information for your life” like the importance of eye contact in making a first impression. Thanks, John.

I shut off the radio thinking about the many adolescent nights I’d spent scanning the dial, dreaming up plans for making it big. Some of those plans are starting to pay off, which makes me wonder if I should set aside time every week to listen to whatever is on the air, lost in thought. It couldn’t hurt.

Friday, May 20, 2005


In directing last night’s season finale, Quentin Tarantino continued to shine the spotlight on neglected actors by casting John Saxon as the villain who buries one of the team members alive in a Plexiglas coffin. In fact, Saxon is the reason why I watched.

He’s probably best known for his work in ENTER THE DRAGON and the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. When I was a kid, I thought Saxon was the greatest and most famous actor in the world, simply because I saw him guesting on one TV show or another every week. He was practically a regular on FANTASY ISLAND, usually playing some Great White Hunter type of whom Mr. Rourke intoned: “He wishes to stalk the most dangerous prey of all ... man.”

He was also memorable as a ballet teacher who believed he was a vampire on STARSKY & HUTCH. Tony Kay, with little or no prompting, will happily recreate Saxon’s distinctive swooping run from that episode.

The actor certainly delivered on CSI. He also had one hell of an exit.

Last night’s show also marked the final screen appearance of the late Frank Gorshin. He had one fun scene with Tony Curtis, both playing themselves. In a few seconds he ran through many of his greatest impersonations, tossing off his perfect Burt Lancaster laugh. The episode, dedicated to his memory, made for a fitting sendoff.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

DVD: Birth (2004)

If you were one of the few to catch the trailer for Jonathan Glazer’s film before its brief theatrical run last year, it was clear that New Line was positioning it as a high-toned horror movie. And with good reason. It’s got the spooky premise of a 10-year-old boy telling widow Nicole Kidman that he is, in fact, her late husband. The cinematography captures New York at its most austere – and that’s in the interior scenes. Plus Kidman is wearing Mia Farrow’s haircut from ROSEMARY’S BABY.

If you take one look at the critical reaction, it’s clear that audiences didn’t know what the hell to make of the movie. Aside from a few devout admirers and Kidman’s Golden Globe nomination, it faded quickly from the scene.

If you watch the film for yourself, though, it’s clear from the opening frames – an extended Kubrickian sequence depicting the death of Kidman’s husband, with masterful composition and use of music – that you’re watching one of the only movies of 2004 that will have any kind of afterlife.

Glazer made one of the great recent debuts with SEXY BEAST, and BIRTH (which he cowrote with Milo Addica and Jean-Claude Carrière) shows a willingness not only to tackle risky material, but to take chances in his handling of it. He dispenses with any kind of supernatural explanation early on, transforming the movie into a meditation on self-deception that’s also a mordant comedy of manners.

I know what you’re thinking: how could a movie like that miss?

Kidman is at her peak here, and she’s well-matched by Danny Huston as the upper-crust suitor bewildered by events. But it’s Cameron Bright as the young doppelganger who makes the film work. His performance is so compelling that I haven’t been able to watch him play the creepy kid in the cloning thriller GODSEND. Something tells me that may not be the worst thing in the world.

Miscellaneous: Link

The BBC embraces the reckless digital frontier even as Hollywood cowers in fear. From Kung Fu Monkey.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Miscellaneous: Blast From The Past

Last night Rosemarie and I went out to celebrate our wedding anniversary. The restaurant still featured the Gibson on its drinks menu, so naturally we had to order a couple.

There’s nothing quite like biting into a pickled cocktail onion that’s been steeping in gin and vermouth. By the time I finished mine I was weeping copiously and had been visited by the baby Jesus and every member of the Partridge Family. Including Reuben Kincaid.

Movie: Lawless Heart (2001)

The brilliant actor Bill Nighy has made his reputation playing outré parts like a dissipated rocker, the lord of the undead, a middle-class zombie and the designer of Norway. It’s a treat, then, to see him inhabit the role of a befuddled mere mortal like the rest of us.

A man in a small English town dies, and we trace the overlapping fallout in the lives of three other men: his lover, his vagabond cousin, and Nighy as his brother-in-law. Unlike other films that mimic RASHOMON, here the structure pays off, as acts that seem callous or inexplicable from one perspective make perfect sense when seen from the other side.

LAWLESS HEART had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release, but it turns up on cable regularly. It’s a small movie, and in its own way almost perfect.

TV: The Fall Season

In the pleasant surprise department, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and THE OFFICE were renewed. EYES, alas, was not.

ABC also announced COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF, starring Geena Davis as the first female President of the United States. Which means that one of the great crushes of my youth is now old enough to be cast as the leader of the free world.

Some guys would take this news as an intimation of their own mortality. I plan to go another way. I think ABC should embrace its CHARLIE’S ANGELS glory days and fill out the Davis administration with other ‘80s bombshells. The all-babe cabinet.

Put Ellen Barkin in charge of the Department of Defense so she can show Rummy how it’s done. I hereby nominate Mimi Rogers as Attorney General. And Kim Jong Il would be putty in the hands of Secretary of State Jennifer Tilly.

Well, I’d watch.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Book: The Other Hollywood, by Legs McNeil & Jennifer Osborne (2005)

The full subtitle of this book is The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. I’m going to pause here so that we can get the snickering out of the way.


Thanks to an Irish Catholic (and thus repressed) adolescence, my experience with pornography has been limited to listening to my college friends recount the plot of a hardcore gem called HEAD GAMES. It’s also thanks to said Irish Catholic adolescence that I recall this synopsis in detail. (To this day, I will not eat any salad dressing that I did not apply myself. Don’t ask.) I even remember the movie’s theme song, which my friends insisted on singing for me.

And yes, it is better than the Foreigner tune of the same name.

McNeil’s PLEASE KILL ME is widely regarded as the definitive history of punk music. His take on the adult film business promised to be every bit as exhaustive. And as regular readers of this site know, I am all about self-improvement.

The authors of THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD talk to everyone connected with porn, not just performers and producers but law enforcement officers, organized crime figures, even Academy Award-winning producer Albert S. Ruddy (who points out that one of the top distributors of pornographic films also released THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, a different kind of skin flick.)

The book does a good job of recounting the industry’s early years, the evolution of ‘nudie-cuties’ and stag films into hardcore. The sections on DEEP THROAT include plenty of quotes from star Linda Lovelace, making it a strong complement to this year’s documentary INSIDE DEEP THROAT.

There are choice details galore. An FBI agent who became too closely attached to his cover reminisces about tipping cocktail waitresses with pairs of Jordache jeans. The script to John Holmes’ first ‘Johnny Wadd’ movie was written on the back of an envelope.

But 590 pages is a long slog, especially when many of the participants have similar stories that they don’t tell very well. (One porn actor says, “Fame is a barbed wire treadmill.” In the words of R. Lee Ermey in FULL METAL JACKET: “You think you’re Mickey Spillane?”) Some of the editorial choices compound the problem, like cutting back and forth between events linked only by chronology. The authors also decided to write out “ha ha ha” every time one of the interviewees laughs. It’s amazing how a little thing like that can grate on your nerves.

As porn becomes more corporate and more pervasive in society, the book becomes shapeless. McNeil and Osborne seem to lose interest as outsized personalities like Lovelace and Holmes fade from the scene. Which is unfortunate, because it’s precisely that story – of an industry gone mainstream that is now dominated by multi-national corporations – that needs to be told. In many respects, THE OTHER HOLLYWOOD isn’t so much like BOOGIE NIGHTS as it is Martin Scorsese’s CASINO: an almost fond look back at a disreputable business before it became a business.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Movie: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)

Xan Cassavetes’ documentary is currently screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Thanks to IFC, it’s also the best program on television this month.

The film is an homage to the pioneering Los Angeles cable outlet that made subscribers’ homes a home for great cinema. It also tells the story of chief programmer Jerry Harvey, who was single-handedly responsible for the network’s vision but whose life ended in tragedy. Harvey’s personality is largely defined through the films that he cared about, so Cassavetes (John’s daughter) doesn’t attempt to plumb his psychological depths. She simply lays out the sad facts of his case.

This approach allows her to the keep the focus on celebrating the Z Channel aesthetic, which put a premium on foreign films, neglected gems, and director’s cuts of movies like HEAVEN’S GATE, DAS BOOT and ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. In many respects, Z Channel prefigured the DVD boom.

It also served as a communal repertory house for the city of Los Angeles; as Jim Jarmusch says in the doc, such a channel wasn’t as necessary in New York, which had numerous revival and art theaters. It’s clear that a sense of community grew up around the station, one that included filmmakers then forgotten (Richard Brooks), at their peak (Oliver Stone and Robert Altman) and waiting in the wings (Quentin Tarantino and Alexander Payne, who, in the film’s high point, proudly wears the vintage Z Channel shirt he received when their monthly magazine printed his letter griping about the size of the letterbox bars during Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW.)

Cassavetes shows tremendous skill in her use of film clips. I watch plenty of movies about movies, and this is the first I’ve seen in a while that made me write down a list of titles to rent ASAP. Some of them, I must confess, I’d never heard of before, like THE MAIN THING IS TO LOVE. Expect a few to show up here soon.

Miscellaneous: Link

Every time I see an add for Will Ferrell’s KICKING & SCREAMING, I think, “Am I the only person who remembers the Noah Baumbach movie?” Turns out Slate does, too, and delves into the thorny question of title repetition.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Movie: Man of the West (1958)

People told me that having a DVR would change my life. Of course, they said that about my cell phone and I seldom use the thing.

But I’ve developed a new and potentially unwholesome relationship with my TV now that, with the touch of a button, I can record movies that air at odd times.

Like this Anthony Mann western, with Gary Cooper stepping in for Mann’s frequent collaborator James Stewart. Cooper plays a reformed outlaw who gets caught in a train robbery and ends up falling in with his former crew. The slow build of Reginald Rose’s script gives way to a fierce climax. It’s as hard-bitten a western as you’ll find.

Lee J. Cobb plays the heavy. I’m a big fan; nobody blusters like Lee. But one of the pleasures of the film is the contrast between his sweaty, Method-influenced acting style and Cooper’s spare approach – and seeing how much more effective the latter is. Although it’s odd to hear Cooper refer to Cobb as “the old man” when Coop’s clearly got ten years on him.

The movie marks one of the sultry Julie London’s infrequent big screen appearances, but she doesn’t sing even though she plays a singer. The big surprise is Jack Lord – Steve McGarrett! – as a psychotic gunman. His epic brawl with Cooper is bruising, disturbing stuff.

Turner Classic Movies is repeating MAN OF THE WEST this Saturday night (technically Sunday morning) at 12:15 AM Eastern.

Movie: Kid Glove Killer (1942)

Then there’s this early Fred Zinnemann thriller. It’s kind of a proto-C.S.I., with police scientist Van Heflin using cutting edge techniques to determine who killed a reform-minded mayor.

I watched it for the chance to see character actor Lee Bowman in action. Bowman has always been my father’s go-to guy when playing Initials. L.B. even stumped Rosemarie.

Miscellaneous: Links

Slate offers a belated tribute to the late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg. THE INTERPRETER may have made the U.N. look good, but the building clearly needs help if the warning signs still tell people to “call MUrray Hill 2-4477.” Elsewhere in the Times, the terrible twosome of A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis blog the Cannes Film Festival.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Movie: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (2005)

I had to buy a second copy of this Douglas Adams book when I was in junior high. The first one fell apart because I read it so many times. I’m versed in every version of the story: the BBC radio serial, the TV adaptation. (OK, the video game eluded me. But video games always elude me.)

Adams’ daft comic vision of a universe that was marvelous and maddening at the same time was like our own world (or at least England) writ large. His books always seemed on the verge of profundity only to cut away to a joke – which may be the most profound statement of all.

The movie, in the works for decades, misses some of my favorite bits. The Babel fish is here, for instance, but not the section of the Guide noting that this spectacularly useful creature is used an argument both for and against the existence of God. And where’s the revelation that thanks to Ford Prefect’s research, the entry on Earth has been updated from ‘harmless’ to ‘mostly harmless’?

There’s not really a plot to speak of, but let’s face it, there isn’t much of one in the book, either. It’s a collection of funny individual scenes, like a movie cobbled together from the illustrations Sergio Aragones drew in the margins of MAD magazine.

And that’s fine by me, because the movie does a wonderful job of capturing the Adams sensibility. It’s basically the first intergalactic hangout movie. I’ll watch it again just to spend time in Adams’ universe. Especially because, sadly, there will be no more books.

TV: Penn & Teller

The boys are back doing the Lord’s work in the third season of BULLSHIT!, debunking all comers. In last night’s episode they took aim at conspiracy theorists, saving the heavy fire for the buffoons who claim the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the U.S. government.

They even use the Watergate argument I’m partial to, which says in essence: If the Nixon administration couldn’t cover up a third-rate burglary, how could NASA fake the moon landing?

That said, I’ll confess to a deep fascination with conspiracy theories. My policy is everyone is allowed to believe in one crackpot scenario in the face of overwhelming evidence and common sense. Here’s mine: Pope John Paul I was murdered as part of a plot involving shady money men and organized crime figures, a scheme fictionalized in THE GODFATHER, PART III and the even less well-remembered THE POPE MUST DIE(T).

Why is this my pet theory? Because it involves:

a. A great motive, namely a missing $1 billion dollars;

b. A highly suspect ‘suicide,’ in which a corrupt banker managed to hang himself from the middle of the underside of a London bridge while his pockets were full of rocks; and

c. The Vatican. You can’t tell me those guys don’t know how to keep secrets.

The only problem: last month indictments were handed down in the ‘suicide’ of that banker, which is now being investigated as a homicide. Which means it may not be a theory after all.

Great. Now I have to pick another one.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Mr. First Timer: The Opera

Every January 1st, I tell myself that this will be the year when I finally go to the opera. I’m a reasonably cultured individual. My sole experience of the most intense of all theatrical forms should not be limited to Elmer Fudd’s spear and magic helmet.

Cut to the next January 1st, when hearing the fat lady sing would go back on the to-do list.

I could offer plenty of excuses for this lapse. Like my busy, busy schedule. Really, the last fifteen years have been insane. I’m only now just catching up.

The truth is I was daunted. My only non-Bugs Bunny contact with opera was in music appreciation class, a name that implies you’ve got to study before you can enjoy. I was sure my ignorance would be spotted by some sharp-eyed aficionado before I made it to the ticket window, much less the concert hall.

Stupid, I know. I blame the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW fans who told me that I’d be ruthlessly mocked as a ‘virgin’ the first time I went to the movie. As if the bluehairs would fling toilet paper at my head if I failed to recognize the key players in DON GIOVANNI.

But last week, I finally remedied the situation. Thanks to Tony Kay, Rosemarie and I were able to attend the dress rehearsal of the Seattle Opera’s production of Offenbach’s TALES OF HOFFMANN.

I’m not going to offer a review, because as I’ve already explained I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. But I can tell you that I intend to go the opera again. And soon.

Here are a few other lessons I’ve learned:

If you want to experience something, simply dive in. Nobody’s paying any attention to you anyway.

Not every opera has a fat lady.


Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

I recall that in the movie version of Robert Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS, you couldn’t become a full citizen unless you served in the military. Maybe that’s the solution.”

- Georgetown professor and military analyst Loren Thompson, in a New York Times article on recruiting new soldiers

That’s not the example I would have picked.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Book: Cavalcade, by Walter Satterthwait (2005)

Full disclosure: Walter is a friend of this website. But I was reading him long before he was reading me.

I deliberately saved the latest installment in his Pinkerton series for my trip to Los Angeles. I’ve never had a more enjoyable flight, and I chalk that up to the fine company of Phil Beaumont and Jane Turner.

In this outing, Phil and Jane travel to Germany in 1923. Someone has tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the leader of the surging National Socialist Party. The Nazis have hired the Pinkertons to find out who.

The story, obviously, is darker than previous adventures – Hitler appears as a character in several scenes, and Phil’s experiences in the Great War loom in the background. Walter does a splendid job recreating the period, and he deftly avoids the great pitfall of historical novels in that the characters aren’t unnaturally prescient. Phil and Jane quickly perceive how dangerous their clients are, but don’t foresee the catastrophes that they will wreak on the world a decade and a half hence.

And the book maintains an effervescent tone that carries the day. The sections narrated by Phil contrast nicely with the Englishness of Jane’s many letters home. In lesser hands, the conceit of Miss Turner’s correspondence would play like a gimmick. But Walter makes it one of the book’s strengths.

Miscellaneous: Links

What can we learn from this Los Angeles Times article on action guru/screenwriting legend Shane Black? That success can be every bit as daunting as failure. And if you plan on attending the time traveler convention at M.I.T. tomorrow, stay away from the chicken. I found it dry.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Movie: The Interpreter (2005)

Sydney Pollack’s U.N.-set thriller has a few too many slow spots and implausibilities. But it also offers its share of pleasures.

Like the chance to witness a fascinating collision of acting styles. Sean Penn is so grounded in naturalism that his Secret Service agent has been saddled with a morose backstory that threatens to stop the movie cold. And Nicole Kidman is so luminous a star that a single close-up glosses over the many inconsistencies in her character. Together these two have a kind of anti-chemistry that lends their scenes an air of authenticity. They genuinely seem like people thrown together by circumstance.

The movie also includes an extended sequence involving a Brooklyn bus that on its own is worth the price of admission. It’s the best thriller set piece I’ve seen in ages. Pollack, canny old pro that he is, knows that suspense doesn’t spring from fast cutting but from information. He trusts the audience, which repays him in spades. It’s a thrill unto itself to see an entire theater full of people slowly inch their way to the edges of their seats.

And New York has seldom looked better onscreen. Although this is one time when a little knowledge of the city’s geography hurts. I can understand the logic in closing the film with a shot of the U.N. in the background. Cinematographer Darius Khondji makes the building sparkle. But all I could think was: what the hell are we doing in Queens?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Book: Red Jungle, by Kent Harrington (2005)

Aldo Calcagno, the Mystery Dawg himself, gave me a heads up about this book a few months ago. I’m glad I listened to him. It’s the first great read of 2005. (Even if it was technically published in the last week of 2004.)

Russell Cruz-Price, a half-American journalist stationed in his homeland of Guatemala, is having a premature midlife crisis. To solve it, he tries several approaches. He sinks all of his money into a plantation on the advice of a deranged archeologist named Gustav Mahler, who insists that a rare Mayan artifact is buried there. He starts secretly advising one candidate for President. And he launches a torrid affair with the wife of the other, who happens to be the chief of the country’s ruthless intelligence service.

Harrington combines the political savvy of Ross Thomas with the bruising, elemental prose of the pulp masters. The edition from Dennis McMillan Publications includes striking illustrations and endpapers by Joe Servello. It’s a wonderful book to look at as well as read.

Movie: XXX: State of the Union (2005)

Don’t ask me to compare this to the first XXX with Vin Diesel, which I somehow missed. It was the only movie starting at a convenient time when a hole suddenly opened up in my schedule. I’ve never gone to a sequel without seeing the original before. Fears that I would be unable to follow the story proved unfounded.

The movie raises some troubling questions, such as: why does the Presidential bullet train, which runs underneath Washington, D.C. and is to be used “for emergency evacuations only,” have a fully functional kitchen?

On the plus side, the movie does feature a tank battle inside the hold of an aircraft carrier. Haven’t seen that before.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Miscellaneous: It Came From Hollywood

I’m back. Did you miss me?

First of all, a round of applause for Rosemarie. I told you she’d deliver the goods. Now I’m not the only person telling her she should start a blog of her own. Plus she had the DVR working in no time, so I didn’t miss a minute of PROJECT GREENLIGHT or EYES.

My trip to Los Angeles was exhausting and exhilarating. Shortly before I left my screenplay BLIND SPOT, an original noir thriller, was optioned. I talked to the producers on the set of their current film, where I had the chance to see a cast of top-flight actors work their magic up close. More details will be forthcoming, but I can say that the producers and I seem very much in sync and that I can’t wait to get started on the next step in the process. For all the talk of film being a collaborative medium, a writer often ends up working all by his or her lonesome. I’m grateful for the opportunity to play with somebody else. At long last.

I also did a round of meetings. Lots of bottled water and smart talk about movies. I listened to a few ideas and pitched some of my own. I don’t know if these sessions will lead to anything, but they’re never dull.

A friend took me to dinner at The Palm, a legendary steak house frequented by people who, in the words of Hank Kingsley, are not from the old school, but the school they tore down to build the old school. Case in point: Larry King, who was at the next table. I also had a few cocktails at Dominick’s, an old Rat Pack hangout that’s making a comeback. On the way out, I literally walked into CSI’s William Petersen.

No matter what happens, I’m always going to approach Hollywood with a certain degree of awe. I was on the Warner Brothers lot and passed a soundstage featuring some of the sets from THE GILMORE GIRLS. A plaque alongside the door listed some of the movies that had been filmed inside, including CASABLANCA and one of Rosemarie’s favorites, 42nd STREET. I stood there for a moment and placed my hand on the side of the building, which generated a few odd stares from some nearby Teamsters. I didn’t care.

I also stopped by the Chinese Theater to look at the stars’ footprints in cement. While I was there, I overheard this from a twenty-something girl:

“God. Jean Simmons wore his heels when he was here. And his feet are so small!”

Ah, show business. Like no business I know.