Thursday, March 31, 2005

TV: Eyes

ABC’s sharp new series, set in a high-end detective agency, is a throwback to ’80s shows like L.A. LAW, where we follow several characters who are rich, somewhat amoral, and happy about both states of affairs. There are also elements of classic P.I. shows like THE ROCKFORD FILES, which makes a welcome change from all the procedurals currently on the air.

Tim Daly (yes, the WINGS guy) is on fire as the slippery head of the firm, proving that my Operation Travolta theory also works on series TV. And kudos to the costume designer. At one point in last night’s premiere, Daly wore a pair of eyeglasses so cool that they knocked me out of the show. The side supports on the frames only went as far his temples. (My Macmillan Visual Dictionary tells me that those side supports are actually called ‘temples,’ so there you go.) All I know is I want those glasses, even if they cause severe headaches.

EYES creator John McNamara is also responsible for the acclaimed series PROFIT and worked on the Bruce Campbell cult classic THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JUNIOR. But for me the highlight of his résumé is the 1998 show VENGEANCE UNLIMITED. Michael Madsen starred as the mysterious Mr. Chapel, who every week put a complex plan into motion to deliver a comeuppance to a nefarious soul who badly deserved it. Mr. Chapel never asked for money from those he helped, only a future favor in giving some other bastard his just desserts.

The writing on the show was clever and unexpectedly funny, and Madsen was ideal as the lead. ABC, in its wisdom, aired this dark and twisty series at 8PM opposite FRIENDS. When it failed to find an audience the network tried to make the show appear lighter in tone without actually changing it; a new title sequence set to a mock-Sinatra tune was added that included some throwaway footage of Madsen dancing. That brought to mind images of Madsen cutting a rug and an ear in RESERVOIR DOGS, which only made the show seem even darker.

VENGEANCE UNLIMITED died a quick death, but I watched every episode. I’m still waiting for the show to come out on DVD. Considering the kind of dreck that’s been reborn on home video, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

Miscellaneous: Links

The Onion A.V. Club offers Bad Scenes in Great Movies, and Great Scenes in Bad Movies. The latter list is more fun. It’s great to see someone else acknowledge the divine slapstick ballet that opens SUPERMAN 3, and to admit that at least parts of DEATH TO SMOOCHY are funny.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

DVD: P.S. (2004)

This second feature from Dylan Kidd, who made a potent debut with 2002’s ROGER DODGER, got lost in the crush of holiday releases. (In Seattle, for instance, it debuted at a second-run theater.) That’s unfortunate, because it contains the great lost performance of 2004.

Laura Linney received a well-deserved best supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role in KINSEY. But if there were any justice, she would also have been recognized for her incandescent work here as a Columbia University official who suspects that one of the students lobbying for admission (Topher Grace) is the reincarnation of her long-dead lover.

With that premise, you’d expect a comic romantic fantasy. But the film, based on a novel by Helen Schulman, doesn’t unfold that way. Kidd gives us realism without the magic; no supernatural explanations are offered. He’s far more interested in how getting romantically involved with a much younger man forces a 40-year-old woman to reevaluate her life.

That puts the focus squarely on Linney, who is more than up to the challenge. The play of emotions on her face as Grace fumbles with a condom is mesmerizing. Later, there’s a startling scene where she makes him imagine a failed future version of himself. Linney moves from heartbreaking to cruel and back again without missing a beat.

She gets terrific assists from Grace and Marcia Gay Harden as her blowsy best friend. But basically it’s all her show, and she’s a complete joy to watch.

TV: The Surreal Life

I haven’t tuned in much this season; DEADWOOD is back on, the cast of B-listers isn’t gelling and VH-1 has preempted the show too many times. The few minutes I caught of this week’s episode were horrendous. The housemates made a kung fu film called “Seven Celebrities of Death,” which featured Chinese accents out of the Fu Manchu era and only six celebrities. Assuming you buy the network’s definition of ‘celebrity.’

I’m ready to wash my hands of the franchise when I read about next season’s cast, including steroid slugger/public health advocate Jose “Juiced” Canseco; THE APPRENTICE villain Omarosa; AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL judge Janice Dickinson; Cory “Sunglasses at Night” Hart; and Bronson Pinchot. They’ve only been shooting for a day and Omarosa and Dickinson are at each other’s throats.

So help me, I can’t wait.

Miscellaneous: Links

Speaking of reality TV, how does an Oscar-winning actress end up as a judge on THE STARLET? Faye Dunaway explains. Slate considers trends in commercial voiceovers. And a profile of’s top book critic Harriet Klausner. Over 8,000 reviews posted, and all of ‘em positive.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Book: Sin-A-Rama: Sleaze Sex Paperbacks of the Sixties (2005)

I bought this Feral House book for the articles. I swear. And I did it in spite of Bill Crider’s best efforts to stop me.

My non-prurient interest in the soft-core novels of the era stems from the fact that my two favorite crime novelists, Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake, toiled in these fields under assumed names. So did other mystery greats like Harry Whittington and Evan Hunter.

The book’s introductory material details how “sleaze” publishers capitalized on the collapse of the science-fiction market, which is why several big names from that genre cranked out sex novels too. One of them is Robert Silverberg, whose storied essay My Life As A Pornographer is reprinted here. There’s also a piece on filmmaker Ed Wood, one of the few sex book authors who refused to use a pseudonym because he loved seeing his name in print.

I’m with James Reasoner in wishing that the book included even more background; it’s a fascinating period in publishing history. And I would have loved to have heard more from the writers themselves. Turning out books according to a strict formula (“We need a hot scene every chapter, but which kind is up to you. And nothing too blue or we’ll get grief from the post office.”) must have provided an invaluable education. Some of today’s big-time novelists could have benefited from that kind of training.

But the real reason to pick up SIN-A-RAMA is for the glorious full-color reprints of the paperback covers. They’re organized into sections like sex in the workplace (HORIZONTAL SECRETARY), counterculture carnality (HIPPIE HARLOT), and the sordid suburbs (lots of swapping titles). The copy on the jackets is great, too. I had no idea the word ‘wanton’ could be used as every part of speech. That also indicates how relatively tame this material is now; when’s the last time you heard anyone use the word ‘wanton’?

Friday, March 25, 2005

TV: The Office

As someone who has watched every episode of the BBC comedy series at least twice and who regards it as the premiere artistic achievement of this decade (technically I could call it “the premiere artistic achievement of this century,” but that would be excessive), let me say this about the new NBC edition:

I liked it. If I weren’t so familiar with the original Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant version, I’d probably find it hilarious.

The remake is overseen by Greg Daniels, co-creator of KING OF THE HILL (which, despite its long run, remains the most underrated series on television). Daniels clearly knows that he has comic gold here, and he has skillfully Americanized the show while remaining true to the original’s rhythms. I doubt it will ever be as inspired as its inspiration. But I’d certainly watch it again.

Book: All The Flowers Are Dying, by Lawrence Block (2005)

As someone who has referred to Block as my spiritual father more than once (check the Links page if you don’t believe me) and who has read every one of his books about alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder in sequence, let me say this about his latest:

I liked it. A lot.

Block intersperses third-person sections told from the point of view of a serial killer, which I’ve always thought of as the CRIMSON JOY effect after the Robert B. Parker/Spenser novel in which I first encountered it. I’m not a fan of this device, particularly when it means time away from Scudder. But Block employs the technique more effectively here than in the previous Scudder outing HOPE TO DIE, and his effortlessly smooth prose makes these glimpses into madness chilling.

Scudder has aged in real time since 1976’s THE SINS OF THE FATHERS, so FLOWERS is as much a meditation on mortality as a crime novel. The ending packs a true emotional punch, especially for longtime readers. There’s a valedictory air about this book. Then again, I felt the same way about 1998’s EVERYBODY DIES and Scudder came back for more, so it’s clear I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Miscellaneous: Links

Astrology? Hogwash. For insight into your true self, try Popstrology, which is based on what pop song was Number One on the day of your birth. As this New Yorker piece demonstrates, popstrology “has a sneaky way of starting to seem reasonable.”

For the record, I was born under the sign of “Hello, I Love You” by The Doors. And life begins to make a great deal of sense.

My fellow film fanatic Tony Kay has a launched a blog of his own. More importantly, like me, he has taken a bite of THE APPLE.

And in Austria, THE SOUND OF MUSIC gets its first production in a national theater.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Book: Generation Kill, by Evan Wright (2004)

In 2003, Wright rode into Iraq with Marines from the First Recon Battalion. Their goal was to race ahead of the army and seize control of the direct route to Baghdad, a bold plan that asked First Recon to do work for which they were never trained. Wright was with them every step of this mad run, and has turned his award-winning Rolling Stone articles into the first great book about Gulf War II.

I try to keep the politics to a minimum around here, so I’ll say only this: Wright makes it plain that the Marines on the ground never have a clear sense of what their objective in the country is, and that the decision-making process was compromised by Defense Department imperatives to fight the war on the cheap.

I also have to admit that this is the funniest book I’ve read in ages. Throughout, the Marines tear into each other in profane, politically incorrect and hilarious ways.

Pop culture is deeply ingrained in these soldiers, which raises the question of what traces of it they’ll leave behind. You’d expect Marines to call the gung-ho commander of another company ‘Captain America.’ But to refer to an incompetent officer solely as ‘Encino Man,’ after an early Brendan Fraser movie? One Marine begins singing Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Sundown’ as he mans a machine gun in the middle of a firefight.

The strangest pop culture eruption involves Wright himself. When he’s the target of sniper fire, he immediately thinks of Peter Falk’s advice from THE IN-LAWS: “Serpentine! Serpentine!” Which is exactly what would have occurred to me. Wright takes twice as long to reach cover as the rest of the unit, and is helpfully told to disregard Falk’s counsel in future.

The Marines consider the Charms candies they’re given with their MREs to be unlucky. According to THE HARDY BOYS’ SURVIVAL HANDBOOK that I read repeatedly as a child, Charms make an excellent addition to any emergency kit because they have a higher glucose content than other candies. The same book also taught me how to generate a small supply of potable water using only a hubcap, a dry cleaning bag, and some rocks. I have a feeling this technique would work as well as that “Serpentine!” thing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

DVD: Night and the City (1950)

When we first see Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in Jules Dassin’s film noir, he’s running. And he doesn’t stop for the length of the movie.

Harry, a grifter on the make in London, is “an artist without an art.” He’s full of ideas that never pan out, and his boundless energy is beginning to curdle into desperation. He strikes on a plan to become a wrestling promoter, but in order for it to work he’ll have to keep several balls in the air and con a few close friends at the same time. And Harry has no idea how many of those friends see right through him.

Dassin’s film, with its instinctive feel for the underworld, dazzles. As befits a movie with the definitive noir title, it’s about as dark as the genre gets. This thing doesn’t end well for any of its finely-drawn characters.

The new Criterion DVD contains some choice extras. In a recent interview, Dassin admits that because Fox hurried the film into production before he was blacklisted, he never read the Gerald Kersh novel on which it’s based – and still hasn’t. In a 1972 clip, Dassin brilliantly recounts a Louis B. Mayer story about a racehorse that is one of the best illustrations of how studios feel about directors that I’ve ever heard.

The 1992 remake, starring Robert DeNiro and set in New York, never quite comes together. But the screenplay by novelist Richard Price cagily updates the story and features some great, coruscating dialogue.

Noticed: Wait, Don’t Tell Me ...

Or: yet another example of the insidious nature of pop culture.

As I’m going to bed the plot of a TV episode pops into my head. A kid wants a skateboard for his birthday, but the family budget is tight. His father makes him one instead. The kid is so embarrassed that he pretends the homemade board is stolen. Hilarity ensues.

And I find that I can’t fall asleep until I figure out what show this episode is from. Here’s an example of my thought process as I’m trying to drift off:

I don’t know why, but it feels like an ABC show ... ROSEANNE? No, I don’t remember D.J. being into skateboarding ... I want to say HOME IMPROVEMENT, but the Taylors didn’t have money problems ... did they?”

For some reason, I settled on JUST THE TEN OF US, part of ABC’s old TGIF lineup and a show I never liked, but one that my younger sister and brother watched religiously. Turns out I was right.

Which means there’s a synapse in my brain devoted solely to this piece of information. I couldn’t be more proud.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Music: The Killers, “Mr. Brightside”

This song has been running on my mental iPod since I first heard it weeks ago. I can’t resist tortured romanticism or a swooning, grandiose chorus. I also can’t resist the music video (reg. req’d.), a sly gloss on Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! that has the added advantage of being only four minutes long. It makes excellent use of actor Eric Roberts and has some exceptional men’s wear on display. I covet lead singer Brandon Flowers’ suit.

The last few days have been strange ones for me. Professionally, changes are in the works that could have a major impact on my life. And my father suffered what turned out to be a mild heart attack. He’s already out of the hospital, and we had a talk over the weekend in which he was back to complaining about what was on TV. Still, an event like that provokes a lot of thinking about the big subjects.

On Saturday afternoon, I went for a long walk by myself. The weather was miserable, which was part of the reason why I wanted to go out; sometimes you need to brave the elements. As it had for the past few days, “Mr. Brightside” was playing in my head. I was alone on the street, so I began singing it.

In Reed Farrel Coleman’s fine novel WALKING THE PERFECT SQUARE, his character Moe Prager notes that “the older one gets, the less one’s life is accompanied by music.” Sad but true. So many moments from my childhood and adolescence are scored to particular songs. Hearing a few notes can conjure up a specific place and time. That kind of intense reaction doesn’t happen much anymore.

That’s when it occurred to me that I would forever associate “Mr. Brightside” with this period of transition and upheaval. The realization was so profound that I knew I would connect the song with the precise instant of epiphany. In thirty years’ time, I’ll be listening to the equivalent of an oldies station on my cranial implant. I’ll hear those opening lyrics --

Coming out of my cage and I’ve been doing just fine
Gotta gotta be down, because I want it all

-- and at once I’ll be transported back here. Saturday, 2:47 PM, midway up the Counterbalance, rain blowing under the brim of my Mets cap. It was like sending a message to my future self.

The perfect circularity of that moment – reviving the youthful sense of connection so that I’d always remember this consideration of mortality – was powerful. Curiously, it also convinced me that everything would be OK.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Book: Rebels on the Backlot, by Sharon Waxman (2005)

My hopes for this book were both raised and lowered by Waxman’s infamous New York Times profile of David O. Russell, which featured the director capering in his Jockeys on the HUCKABEE’S set. I like gossip as much as anybody (OK, more), but not at the expense of reportage on a worthwhile subject.

For the most part, the focus is squarely on movies in this chronicle of the 1990s rise of independent film and its gradual merger with mainstream Hollywood. What few tidbits there are don’t exactly shock: Quentin Tarantino has questionable personal hygiene, and directors are emotionally distant control freaks. Film at eleven.

Waxman readily admits that it may be too soon for this book, and she’s right. We don’t yet have enough distance to gauge the impact of the era’s films effectively. She also limits herself by concentrating on the work of six directors (Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Steven Soderbergh in addition to Russell and Tarantino). It’s obvious that she wants to wander off the trail to follow the interesting characters who pop up along the way, like the Wachowski Brothers and Alexander Payne, who has perhaps had the most success in fusing studio filmmaking with the indie ethos.

For all the talk of creative flowering, the ‘90s were a fertile time for cinema because of money; the constant churn of mergers and buyouts created opportunities on which filmmakers were able to capitalize. Waxman recounts how BEING JOHN MALKOVICH happened only because the companies involved were in a constant state of flux and basically ignored the production.

Miramax always looms large in the story, even when it’s not involved in the movies. Paul Thomas Anderson owes his career to the fact that New Line wanted an in-house auteur of their own. Waxman’s book buttresses the argument that the premiere movie talent of the decade wasn’t a director at all, but the Brothers Weinstein.

Noticed: TV News

As a rule I try to avoid watching cable news when there’s a-doin’s a-transpirin’, but I was trapped in the gym when CNN showed Robert Blake speaking to the press after his acquittal yesterday. When asked what he would do next Blake said get a job, because he was so broke he “couldn’t buy spats for a hummingbird.” He also said he wanted to ‘go cowboying,’ which he described as getting into a van and driving until:

you wind up in some little bar in Arizona someplace, and you shoot one-handed nine ball with some 90-year-old Portuguese woman that beats the hell out of you. And the next day ... you go see a high school play where they’re doing ‘West Side Story.’

He went on in this vein until Paula Zahn and Jeffrey Toobin cut him off to complain about his tendency to ramble. I don’t get it. Idiotic press hijinks managed to scare Ashley Smith into silence earlier in the week. But when they get a man who not only wants to talk but knows how to do it, they bitch about it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Movie: Mokey (1942)

Turner Classic Movies is one of my default TV stations, so when I turned on the set this afternoon I caught the last few minutes of this juvenile delinquent melodrama. It ends with Robert (then Bobby) Blake weeping in a courtroom because he doesn’t want to be sent to reform school.

I switched to my other default station, MSNBC. And there, sixty-three years older, was Robert Blake, weeping in another courtroom, because he’d just been found not guilty of first-degree murder.

I know it’s an accident of scheduling. But I’m still spooked.

TV: Project Greenlight

Season three of the reality series is off to a flying start. Turns out I’ve already badmouthed the work of this year’s director in print. John Gulager, son of actor Clu, made a short film about his father that appeared on the Criterion Collection’s 2-disc set of THE KILLERS. I called it “overly arty in its execution” in my Mystery*File review.

Still, I was rooting for him to land the gig. Based on the clips of his work, he was easily the most talented of the three finalists, with a sensibility all his own. And the fact that he’s a character – older than the other competitors, and a touch ... withdrawn – can only make for better TV.

HBO dropped the series after two seasons, and now Bravo has picked it up. That’s only the beginning of the show’s woes. Neither of the previous GREENLIGHT films made a ripple in the marketplace, so this year the pressure is on to produce a commercial movie. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are still involved in the show, but their disappointment at what it has been reduced to – Damon’s in particular – was palpable in last night’s premiere.

I suppose I’m partly to blame. Despite watching both seasons of the show religiously, I never went to see either STOLEN SUMMER or THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS. Haven’t even checked them out on cable. I know too much about them going in.

Hearing about creative battles after the fact is one thing. But being a fly on the wall while, say, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne fought over the ending of CHINATOWN would alter my perceptions of the film. The truth is that movies probably belong on the list with Bismarck’s laws and sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Miscellaneous: Links

The readers of Film Comment pick the best movies of 2004, and weigh in with some thoughts on the year in cinema. Nice to see a few others sticking up for CELLULAR and SPARTAN. I'm tired of toting those weights by my lonesome.

HOGAN'S HEROES better than M*A*S*H? Believe it or not, Jaime Weinman makes a compelling argument.

Monday, March 14, 2005

DVD: Saw (2004)

Most DVD commentary tracks are a snooze. We learn which action scenes were rendered digitally, and that every actor “was a joy to work with.” But some tracks deserve a listen. Steven Soderbergh’s are wry and informative, while Kevin Smith’s can be funnier than his movies. Paul Thomas Anderson claims that everything he knows about directing he learned from John Sturges’ commentary on the BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK laserdisc.

To the short list of worthwhile tracks, add the one on this disc featuring director James Wan and writer/co-star Leigh Whannell. It’s studded with useful tips on low-budget filmmaking. It’s also hilarious. The enthusiasm of these two is so infectious that it made me wish I’d liked their movie, which is derivative, dopey and kind of unpleasant. Points for the ending, though.

Like SE7EN and PHONE BOOTH, it’s a thriller featuring an evil genius intent on righting society’s wrongs. One could speculate on whether these films are positing that the rise of secular humanism has brought about the diminution of the Judeo-Christian belief in a common morality imposed by a higher power. And that we secretly long for someone to fulfill that role, even if the only figures willing to do so are psychotics unable to differentiate between great crimes and petty ones who thus punish them all equally, becoming modern avatars of the vengeful pagan gods of old.

But this isn’t that kind of blog.

Noticed: Block Watch

Lawrence Block will be on Craig Ferguson’s show Tuesday night to promote his latest Matt Scudder novel. He also announced in his email newsletter that he’ll be writing the screenplay for the next film from Wong Kar-Wai, to be set in 1937 Shanghai. I cannot wait to see how these two diverse sensibilities mesh. Considering the extended gestation of Wong’s latest film 2046, the result may be some time in coming.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Movie: Be Cool (2005)

Signs your movie may be in trouble:

- The most interesting people on screen are the supporting characters’ supporting characters.

- Said supporting characters’ supporting characters are portrayed by a musician (Outkast’s Andre Benjamin) and a former professional wrestler (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson).

- The movie is about the music industry, but all of the music in it is terrible.

On the plus side, the movie retains one of the best lines from the entire Elmore Leonard canon, when record exec Tommy Athens (James Woods) sings the praises of a Chili Palmer production: “(It was) a terrific picture, terrific. And you know what else? It was good.”

DVD: The Rocketeer (1991)

Nobody’s claiming that this is a neglected classic. But in a year when Howard Hughes (THE AVIATOR) and ’30s-style action (SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW) are on the big screen, it’s worth remembering a movie that combined both. And did it with flair and a sense of adventure.

It’s got Timothy Dalton playing an Errol Flynn-type as a Nazi collaborator, and a villain made up to look like ‘40s screen heavy Rondo Hatton. Terry O’Quinn’s take on Hughes is positively heroic. Casting Jennifer Connelly in her pre-Oscar days shows some wit, too, in that she looks exactly like the kind of ingénue that Hughes would try to turn into a star. The Nazi cartoon that shows an army of jetpacked stormtroopers invading America never fails to send chills down my spine. It’s one of the most potent movie moments of the 1990s.

In the years since this film, star Bill Campbell has been billed as ‘William’ and ‘Billy.’ The changes haven’t helped. When I saw an ad announcing he’d joined the cast of a TV series, I thought, “Hey! The Rocketeer’s on THE O.C.!”

Friday, March 11, 2005

DVD: Slapstick Symposium: The Harold Lloyd Collection

The good people at Kino Video had to make do with early, lesser known Lloyd films for this disc. The silent comedian’s family held on to the good stuff with an eye toward restoring luster to his reputation. I’m not sure how releasing a book of 3-D nude photographs taken by Lloyd fits into this plan, but maybe that’s why I’m not in public relations.

Among aficionados, Lloyd is known as the third great genius of silent film comedy along with Chaplin and Keaton. Lloyd’s comic persona was the least defined of the three, and also the most American. He generally played good-natured, put-upon young men whose faith in themselves and the system is ultimately rewarded.

That character found its greatest expression in later films like THE FRESHMAN. Here, it’s unformed enough to allow Lloyd to play shady types in “Are Crooks Dishonest?” and “His Royal Slyness.”

The films on the disc are a mixed bag. The longest and best known of the lot, “Grandma’s Boy,” beats its one joke to death and is a slog to sit through. But each movie contains at least one great gag, and “Bumping Into Broadway” and “Number, Please” are treats.

Several of the shorts were restored exclusively for this collection. I missed the artwork from the original title cards, and couldn’t help noticing that the new ones featured more typos.

Miscellaneous: Links

Years ago I read the book MAFIA COP by Louis Eppolito. It was about his life as an NYPD detective who had to endure suspicion because of his family’s involvement in organized crime. He eventually retired and became an actor, landing bit parts as hoodlums and working with Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and David Lynch. I’d always get a charge when I saw his name in the credits.

And I still will, but for completely different reasons. Yesterday, Eppolito and his former partner were indicted in a racketeering conspiracy. They’re suspected of “taking part in eight murders on behalf of the Mafia – most while one or both were active members of the police force.”

The Times also offers this report on the troubles and triumphs of Fespaco, Africa’s premier film festival.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Book: A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley (1968)

It’s not that I have a bad education. It’s just a little spotty on the details. Once you get away from my extremely narrow areas of expertise, I’m the mental equivalent of a Potemkin village. I know the gists of things, enough to bluff my way through the Double Jeopardy round of life but not to finish in the money.

So every January, I make the same pledge: to read better books. Some years I even make lists of titles, classics old and new.

This year, I actually picked one of them up. And wish that I’d done so a long time ago.

Exley’s “fictional memoir” contrasts his life – big dreams undone by apathy, alcoholism and extended stays in mental hospitals – with that of his former college classmate, New York Giants star Frank Gifford. One achieves success while the other seems destined to observe life from the sidelines.

It is, simply put, one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, written in a clear-eyed, simple style that recalls J. D. Salinger and packs ferocious emotional weight. It’s an unstinting exploration of masculinity and what it means to be branded a failure in American society. I had a rare experience when I finished it: I knew that I’d be reading it again.

As for the other great books on my list, I’ll get to them. Don’t rush me. You should be happy I got this far.

Movie: Klute (1971)

Jane Fonda is about to hit the comeback trail with an autobiography and a new comedy. I wouldn’t number her among my favorite actresses of all time, but she deserved the Oscar she won for this movie, part of the cycle of ‘70s paranoid thrillers. It’s a smart film that’s too chilly for its own good.

But Fonda is brilliant playing a New York call girl who’s a small town detective’s only link to a missing man. It’s a harrowing portrait of self-destructive behavior, and Fonda holds nothing back. All of her theatrical mannerisms work to the character’s advantage.

Disturbing fact: Donald Sutherland – also wonderful in the film as he’s been in so many others – has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Better start prepping that Lifetime Achievement trophy now.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Noticed: Magazines I'm Not In

The latest issue of Steve Lewis' Mystery*File is out. My column 'In The Frame' was bumped at the last minute, so you'll have to wait for my take on Lee Child's recent novels and Universal's film noir collection. In the meantime, there's plenty in this issue to enjoy, including a look back at the legacy of the late crime novelist Joseph Hansen. Steve has given M*F a new subtitle, The Crime Fiction Research Journal, and it looks like the magazine is moving in an exciting new direction. I'm pleased to be a part of it.

Elsewhere, I learned that the final issue of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, which was to include a short story of mine, has been scrapped for financial reasons. Sad news. Futures was always fun to read. C'est la guerre. Here's what the cover would have looked like.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Movie: Slaughter Trail (1951)

Demonstrating a loose understanding of the word ‘classic,’ Turner Classic Movies aired this RKO relic as part of their Brian Donlevy tribute. It was an odd choice, and not just because the actor was only cast after the film’s original star Howard Da Silva was blacklisted and RKO chief Howard Hughes ordered all of his scenes reshot. SLAUGHTER TRAIL is easily one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. We’re talking Ed Wood meets the sagebrush bad.

It’s only 78 minutes long, but there’s not enough plot to sustain an episode of BONANZA. The filmmakers still seem to think that we won’t be able to follow the story, so they tacked on musical narration by Terry Gilkyson that tells us exactly what’s unfolding onscreen, as if we won’t believe our own eyes. To further confuse matters, Gilkyson appears in the film as a singing cavalry officer – raising the question of how he can be recounting events that take place miles away. The only possible answer: the U.S. government’s experiments with remote viewing began a long time ago.

The movie did remind me of a favorite toy from my childhood, this Fort Cheyenne play set. Cat not included.

TV: Dan Rather Signs Off

I can’t call myself a Rather fan. His folksy but tough demeanor always seemed calculated to me, an impression borne out by Ken Auletta’s profile of Rather in the March 7th issue of The New Yorker. The article’s most shocking revelation is that many of Rather’s CBS colleagues preferred Brokaw or Jennings.

Stephen King once said that he watched Rather because he was certain that one night, Dan would snap on air and start telling the truth about Area 51, the Freemasons and what really happened to Elvis Presley. Rather, warts and all, is a genuine character, and that’s why I’m sorry to see him go. His eventual replacement will turn out to be an amiable automaton like NBC’s Brian Williams, and TV will be poorer because of it.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

TV: Unscripted

HBO’s semi-improvised series about struggling actors wrapped up its first and perhaps only season last week. Despite the network’s marketing savvy and the presence of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney as producers, it didn’t make much of an impact. I can understand why. It’s a frustrating and at times maddening show. But one that I couldn’t stop watching.

It did a lot of things wrong. Every week the actors (playing themselves, and there’ll be more on that in a moment) were subjected to contrived humiliations that more often than not were their own faults. Their “characters” were inconsistent. Jennifer Hall, for instance, supposedly knows Hollywood player Akiva Goldsman well enough for him to land her a job as Angelina Jolie’s stand-in on the upcoming movie MR. & MRS. SMITH. But she’s so naïve that she plops down in co-star Brad Pitt’s chair without thinking, and asks director Doug Liman if he’s “involved with the production.” Promising storylines – like Krista Allen’s conflicted feelings over her son’s success as a child actor while she tries to overcome her soft-core past – were never developed.

But the show succeeded in showing acting for what it is: a craft that’s also a difficult, punishing job. Every episode had at least one scene that brought the point home. Bryan Greenberg going up for a movie role that mirrors his own life only to be told he’s not right for it. Or being privy to the thoughts of casting agents and producers (which veer from lust to jealousy) as Krista auditions for a sitcom. And Frank Langella dazzled as acting teacher Goddard Fulton. A man drunk on his own insight, at times justifiably so.

Langella has an unfair advantage over his co-stars, in that Fulton is clearly a character. One partly based on him (footage from his performance in 1970’s THE TWELVE CHAIRS was used in one episode), but a fictional creation nonetheless. Jennifer, Krista and Bryan are playing scripted versions of themselves, which I fear in the long run may hurt their careers.

I was a big fan of Bravo’s THE IT FACTOR, which followed actors in New York and Los Angeles as they tried to break in. When I see people from the show in movies or on TV (most recently season one’s Nathan Wetherington in BAADASSSSS!) I experience a small, I-knew-them-when thrill. Which doesn’t detract from their performances because THE IT FACTOR was a documentary. It didn’t present Jeremy Renner as a “character,” but as a relative unknown weighing whether playing the heavy in the big-screen version of SWAT was a good career move.

Conversely, established actors can “play themselves” without fear because they’re actually tweaking the public’s perception of them. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH hasn’t affected the actor’s ability to be accepted in other roles.

But UNSCRIPTED strands its principals in a shaky middle ground, giving us “Krista,” “Jennifer” and “Bryan” as characters and as actors, with no history to separate them. On the show, Jennifer landed work as an extra in CONSTANTINE. When she showed up on screen, I was instantly knocked out of the movie. Later this year, Bryan will appear in PRIME opposite Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. But will I see a twenty-something New Yorker in love or “Bryan” pretending to be one?

Believe me, I know how to separate an actor from a role, even though I still refer to Colm Feore as Glenn Gould. But it’s getting harder. We know too much about our actors now. Fay Weldon calls movie stars an invention of the 20th century – and notes that we live in the 21st.

Tonight’s debut of THE STARLET won’t help matters. And it’s only going to get stranger. Krista Allen’s next movie is FEAST, the making of which will be documented on the third season of PROJECT GREENLIGHT. So the next time she’ll be on TV it won’t be as “Krista,” but as Krista. Until the movie comes out, when she’ll be someone else.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Miscellaneous: Links

From Seattle's own The Stranger: Domenic Stansberry's Edgar-nominated novel THE CONFESSION and the rest of the lineup from Hard Case Crime ("may be the best new American publisher to appear in the last decade") has Neal Pollack anticipating the triumphant return of pulp fiction. Him and me both.

And courtesy of Defamer, the gang from H.O.P.E. protests bad entertainment at this past weekend's awards frenzy. You're doing the Lord's work, kids. If only there were some way to give the same treatment to the cable news networks, considering that all of them interrupted their regular coverage of the Michael Jackson trial last night to show live footage of the SUV bearing Martha Stewart stealing across the West Virginia countryside under cover of darkness. But I suppose that's too much to ask.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

DVD: No Way Out (1987)

I didn’t plan on this being “Thrillers of ‘87” week. That’s just how it worked out. Honest.

I don’t want to overstate this movie’s importance to me. But I couldn’t begin to guess how many times I watched it in the halcyon days of the late ‘80s. It was steeped in sex and intrigue, for one thing. And it was a popular thriller at a time when I was first becoming interested in the form. There were lessons to be learned from it: how to handle exposition, the impact of a well-timed plot twist, the power of setting scenes in unlikely locations. To this day I vividly recall a key late encounter involving a paraplegic computer genius that takes place on a Pentagon basketball court.

In the years since I’d last seen the movie, I’ve read THE BIG CLOCK, the 1946 Kenneth Fearing novel on which it’s based, and become a huge fan of the 1948 film adaptation, with its bristling script by novelist Jonathan Latimer.

All three versions use the same plot. A powerful man murders his mistress and wants to pin the blame on a visitor she had the same night. Tracking this “killer” down falls to a trusted employee, who finds the clues pointing to himself. The remake moves the action from New York journalism circles to the Pentagon, which suits Hollywood’s bigger-is-better mentality. As the last act of the story unfolds inside a sealed building, why not use one of the largest in the world?

I thought watching the movie again would be fun. Instead, I was in a pile-up on Memory Lane.

Like many films from the Tangerine Dream and shoulder pads era, it has dated badly. What was it about that decade? I’m glad I don’t have any children running around. I’m not sure how I’d explain Steve Guttenberg to them.

The first third of the movie is unbearably slow, and when the plot does kick in momentum is lost in pointless action sequences.

Still, parts of it hold up. Like the Kevin Costner/Sean Young sex scene in the back of a limousine. And the performance of Will Patton as the creepily devoted aide spearheading the cover-up. It’s the kind of part that would springboard Kevin Spacey to stardom a few years later. Patton works steadily, but he never again had a role this substantial. Perhaps because he was a little too good here.

As for the final plot twist, when many critics decried as ridiculous: I loved it then, and I like it now.

It pleases me no end to note that heavy-set character actor Dennis Burkley, whose filmography includes multiple turns as bartenders and sheriff’s deputies as well as characters named ‘Oatmeal’ and ‘Hillbilly,’ plays the Elsa Lanchester role from the 1948 version.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

DVD: Fatal Attraction (1987)

How much does a hot button movie cool off?

Eighteen years ago, Michael Douglas and Glenn Close were on the cover of TIME magazine, which loudly proclaimed that “the thriller is back.” (When had it left?) The movie became a cultural flashpoint, cited in conversations about feminism, relationships, AIDS. Tina Brown must have loved it. It grossed a mint and was nominated for Best Picture.

The film hasn’t quite been forgotten, but nobody talks about it much any more. All I remember is that I hated the ending.

The story has been enshrined in Hollywood lore, and was sent up by Robert Altman in THE PLAYER. The original, more subtle climax tested badly, so it was scrapped to satisfy the audience’s bloodlust. The shading of Glenn Close’s character went out the window in favor of a scene that aped the ending of DIABOLIQUE by way of FRIDAY THE 13TH.

To me, it played like a bad joke. But the crowd at the Cheri Theater in Boston lapped it up. I stormed out in disgust. Whenever I thought of the movie, I recalled that frustrated walk back to the dorm – along with the vague sense that I’d been enjoying myself until Glenn went nutzoid.

Revisiting the film for the first time since then, I can see why. Its first half is strong, smart filmmaking, a beautifully observed portrait of married urban life. The key dialogue between Douglas and Close remains potent, and the subsequent scenes detailing their affair are sharply attuned to the psychology of the characters, with Douglas casually abdicating responsibility and Close’s neediness masquerading as strength.

The ending is still a crock. The shift in tone is so jarring that I’m convinced it’s the reason why the film’s reputation has suffered. The fabled “Madame Butterfly” wrap-up is included on the DVD, and while it’s an improvement, it doesn’t completely work, either. It seems flat and a little rushed. Endings are always tough.

FATAL ATTRACTION features my all-time favorite writing credit: Screenplay by James Dearden, based on his original screenplay. The script was an expansion of a short film he made for the BBC, which would have been a nice DVD extra. In the making-of doc, all of the film’s principles shower praise on Dearden’s screenplay – even the movie’s uncredited script doctor Nicholas Meyer. But Dearden isn’t heard from once, even though as far as I know he’s still working.

TV: Ultimate Film Fanatic

The season two finale, repeated tonight at 10:30 PM Eastern and Pacific, was a disappointment. A celebrity ringer is brought in to decide between the last two contestants. This time around it’s legendary producer/raconteur/survivor Robert Evans. Who seems to have the show confused with PROJECT GREENLIGHT. It’s not about finding America’s next great filmmaker, it’s about crowning the country’s biggest movie geek. Apparently nobody explained that to Bob. Or they did and thanks to years of living the high life, it never sank in. I prefer to believe it’s the latter.

I hate seeing the rules changed at the last minute. But at least two of my fellow contestants can say that they broke bread at the Kid’s table.

Miscellaneous: Link

Mark your calendars: Turner Classic Movies explores the history of product placement.