Thursday, April 28, 2005

DVD: Lady Gangster (1942)

Rosemarie here again.

Here’s an offer we couldn’t pass up. Ten movies on disc for $5.99. Used, sure. Public domain prints, no doubt. But less than $6.00? C’mon, you have to take a flyer on that. Which is how Vince and I came into possession of GANGSTERS. Five double-sided DVDs with movies like MA BARKER’S KILLER BROOD, GANG BUSTERS and, of course, LADY GANGSTER.

This 1942 picture stars Faye Emerson as Dot Burton, a tough dame who helps out with a bank robbery, gets sent to the big house and then manipulates a lox of a radio announcer, Kenneth Phillips (Frank Wilcox) to help get her paroled so she can stop the rest of the crew from taking off with her share of the loot.

The few plot summaries I was able to find make it sound like poor Dot gets mixed up with some bad guys and regrets it. That’s not the movie I saw. Dot never stops scheming. Emerson is great in the role – you believe she’ll do whatever’s necessary to hold onto that $10Gs she earned. Gotta love those fierce brunettes. The ending comes a little fast (it is only 62 minutes long) and tries to get us to believe that Dot will go straight and marry Ken. I didn’t go for it. I bet she got out of town long before the parson showed up.

Ruth Ford is hissable as the cellblock snitch. Julie Bishop plays Myrtle, Dot’s only friend in prison. Myrtle. That’s not a name you hear much anymore. I think it’s due for a comeback.

TV: Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

Turner Classic Movies’ star of the month for April has been Errol Flynn. I caught the special they put together on his life, but managed to miss all the movies. Well, all but one. FOOTSTEPS is a light comedy/murder mystery. Flynn plays a stodgy upper class banker by day who is a mystery writer by – well, by day and night. (He doesn’t seem to do any actual banking-type activities. And really, would you trust Errol Flynn with your money? I didn’t think so.) He’s got a separate house for writing and a chauffeur/typist played by the great Allen Jenkins. Seeing Jenkins reminds me it’s about time to watch 42nd STREET again.

It occurred to me, watching Flynn climb into his own bedroom window in the middle of the night, that those separate beds mandated for married couples by the Hays Office made it that much easier for a husband to sneak into bed while his wife was sleeping. Chalk another one up to the ingenuity of the Hollywood screenwriter.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Miscellaneous: Digital Video Recorder

Rosemarie here.

The cable guy hooked up the DVR yesterday. My first test was recording the Mets game for Vince. Luckily they won, so I didn’t have to erase it and think of something else.

I think the DVR is going to come in handy, especially for channels like BBC America. Good shows - many, many commercials. Many of the same commercials repeated endlessly. But with the DVR and a little prior planning I was able to watch both episodes of The Benny Hill Show without once watching the mineral makeup ad. Make no mistake, I’m sure it’s a fine product (even though it only comes in 4 shades) but I did get the gist after the first 50 viewings.

TV: ESPN Bowling Night

ESPN is now a partner with the Professional Bowlers Association and is slowly integrating bowling into their line up. They even had the bright idea of an original show where professional athletes bowl in one of those “fun” bowling alleys with music and distracting lighting. I kind of liked it. It’s always nice to see worse bowling than my own. But why, oh why, was the mighty Brandi Chastain wielding only an 8 pound ball? I was rolling a 12 pounder in ninth grade when I looked like the love child of Olive Oyl and Joey Ramone. Only skinnier.

TV: On Demand: NFL Receivers Wide Open

There are times you don’t want to read a book, commit to a movie or watch a lame sitcom. And it's then that an hour of football history, highlights and interviews hits the spot. Plus, the NFL Films’ 35mm highlights make it look like you could catch the ball yourself, if only Terrell Owens wouldn’t keep getting in the way.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Movie: Kung Fu Hustle (2004, U.S. 2005)

What can I say? Go. Just go.

Movie: Oldboy (2003, U.S. 2005)

It’s way too soon for me to be writing about this movie. I haven’t fully recovered from the assault yet. Watching Chanwook Park’s Cannes prize-winner is like being pounded in the sternum for two hours by a middleweight.

The plot – a man mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years is just as mysteriously released and given a few days to figure out who held him captive and why – hooks you instantly. And maintains your interest throughout scenes of heart-stopping violence and heartbreaking cruelty. The relentlessly grim atmosphere isn’t merely a stylistic choice as in so many American thrillers; every character is so much a victim of mankind’s twisted need for vengeance that this insatiable desire seems to have infected the movie itself.

OLDBOY may relish its headlong trip to the dark side a little too much. But it has an intensity unmatched in any film of recent years. This one, I fear, is going to haunt me.

Miscellaneous: Mental Miscasting

This morning I mistakenly said that the voice of Winnie the Pooh in the original TV specials was provided by Sterling Hayden, not Sterling Holloway. And now I’d give anything to hear Hayden’s rendition of the character.

“I’ve had it up to here with your bellyachin’, Eeyore. You’d better start pulling your freight.”

Website Update: Guest Blogger

I’ll be in Los Angeles for the next week. But never fear. This website will never desert you in your hour of need. I’ll be turning over the reins to Rosemarie for the next few days, and by the time she’s done you probably won’t have me back. She’s a sharp observer of the pop cultural scene. Just witness the trouble she’s been causing Ryan Seacrest this week.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Book: Empire Rising, by Thomas Kelly (2005)

Kelly’s first two books, PAYBACK and THE RACKETS, offered a rare working class view of contemporary New York City. He maintains that perspective in his first historical novel, which brims with roisterous energy. It’s a potboiler in the best sense of the word. (And if there isn’t one, there oughta be.)

It unfolds over the course of six months in 1930, as the Empire State Building is being erected. There’s a love triangle, of course, in which an immigrant steel worker battles a slick Tammany Hall man (“a human link between night and day”) for the love of a good woman. It’s the kind of book where the iron worker has a tortured loyalty to the Irish Republican Army, and the woman is a great beauty desired by every man she meets in spite of her tragic past. The half-hokey, half-mythic structure only adds to the enjoyment level.

It’s also the kind of book where anyone who was famous in 1930 pops in for a cameo. Hey, it’s Babe Ruth! Isn’t that Primo Carnera? Why, Governor Roosevelt! Again, that’s not a bad thing.

Kelly ably conveys the fierce pride that the Empire State’s construction crews took in their work, the sense that they were contributing to something that would long outlive them. It’s a feeling that seems to be in short supply these days.

After a recent episode of DEADWOOD, Rosemarie and I had a long talk about this subject. The show takes a lot out of her; as she said, “It’s hard to see what people, especially women, had to go through in those days.” I had to confess to some occasional jealousy for those hard lives. They may have been nasty, brutish and short, but there must also have been a feeling of accomplishment. In some small way, those pioneers were pushing America forward.

I felt the same way after watching the seafarers in MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD. As the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane said in his review, “If you died on board the Surprise, it would not be for want of having lived.”

Rosemarie says I’m romanticizing these eras. I have no doubt she’s right. She usually is. But I can’t shake the feeling that, at a time when the most common way of belonging to something larger than ourselves is voting on AMERICAN IDOL, the human race is longing for some great adventure to take possession of us again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Book: The Sailcloth Shroud, by Charles Williams (1960)

Every new Mystery*File changes my reading habits. Thanks to issue #47, I’ve delved into the work of P. M. Hubbard. Gothics aren’t my usual cup of tea, but Hubbard achieved remarkable effects through primarily writing about landscape. 1971’s THE DANCING MAN is like a Hammer horror movie on the page.

And Bill Crider’s Gold Medal Corner column had me eager to read Williams’ work. I couldn’t track down any of the paperbacks Bill singled out for praise, but I did find one of the sailing novels that, according to Bill, some people regard as Williams’ best. (Another of these books was the basis for the early Nicole Kidman movie DEAD CALM.)

SHROUD did not disappoint. A sailor loses one member of his crew at sea and the other soon after they reach port. Naturally, the two deaths are connected. It’s a lean, economical story that only has me more determined to find Williams’ RIVER GIRL.

In the last few years I’ve read several other nautical thrillers by authors like Justin Scott. Yet I’ve never been sailing. Makes me wonder if secretly my life, my love and my lady is the sea.

Miscellaneous: White Smoke

So Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI. He’s a hardline conservative whose views have been described by one theologian as “medieval, anti-Reformation, (and) anti-modern.” Yet I have positive feelings about him because Jason Robards played a character with the same name (variant spelling) in QUICK CHANGE, one of the great lost comedies of the 1990s.

All those years as an altar boy were for naught. It turns out that I bow my head in the church of popular culture.

DVD: End of the World (1979)

Hard to believe I had good memories about this Christopher Lee film dating back to when I saw it on a double bill with LASERBLAST. Shows to go you: all you need to impress a ten year old is a killer opening scene and a creepy ending.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Meaningless Milestone: My Paper Anniversary

Funny how these dates sneak up on you. It was one year ago on April 18 that came kicking and screaming (mostly screaming) into the world.

This site exists for one reason: I couldn’t see another project through to the end. Early in 2004, I decided to start a journal. I’d failed at this task in the past, but this time I had a plan. The journal would only chronicle my writing efforts. Projects started, contacts made, goals achieved. And maybe, if I was lucky, some mention of the occasional success.

I’m outing myself as a freelance writer here. I’ve never mentioned it on the site before. (I have to cultivate a sense of mystery somehow, don’t I? I mean, I told you what my real name is. It’s the domain name, fer cryin’ out loud.)

The diary lasted for 18 days.

I had to pack it in because it was affecting my work. I’d wrap up each day by recording the rejection letters I’d received, the assignments I didn’t get. All part of the business, I know. And if I do say so myself, over the years I’d developed quite the rhinoceros hide.

But I’d done so by moving on to the next query or the next project right away. Now I was dwelling on each day’s disappointments. Usually right before I went to bed. Not a healthy way to build a career.

So the diary bit the dust. But I wanted to keep writing in that style: quick, punchy, and on a regular basis. And if I was going to keep racking up rejections, I might as well have an outlet where some of my work would see the light of day, even if nobody stopped by.

The site has evolved over the months to become more what I wanted it to be, namely my pop culture autobiography. And it has managed to attract a few readers, for which I am extremely grateful.

In the 12 months since the site went live, I sold my first short story to a national magazine, which promptly went out of business. I finished my second novel, which now resides in a comfortable box next to my first. I learned some invaluable lessons in completing it, and met several people in publishing who have been kind enough to help me with my third.

Best of all, my screenwriting career is finally gaining some traction. In fact, I’ll soon be taking a few days off so I can go to Los Angeles for a round of meetings.

It’s been a busy year, and the next few months promise to be even more hectic. I may not be posting as often, and I may not gas on as long as I usually do. (Please, people, contain your emotions.) But there’s absolutely no way I’m going to give up this blog. I enjoy writing it too damn much.

Website Update: Links

To mark the big oh-one, I’m adding two new stops to the blogroll: Tony Kay’s Pop Culture Petri Dish and the singular If Charlie Parker Was A Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats. Enjoy.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Miscellaneous: Halcyon Days

This week, many of my regular blog stops – Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, James Reasoner – have looked at books that were childhood favorites. I’m always ready to jump on any bandwagon.

There’s The Hardy Boys, natch. It was an odd time in the series’ history when I was reading it. The original run of books had been revised to reflect the times, but early editions were still in circulation. I didn’t know anything about copyright dates back then, so the only way I could tell if it was a new or old version was by the font size.

Purists don’t care for the later books in the series, but I loved them. Especially those set in foreign countries, like THE SHATTERED HELMET (Greece), THE MYSTERIOUS CARAVAN (North Africa), and my personal favorite, THE WITCHMASTER’S KEY, with Frank and Joe in England.

I was also around for the first of the “new” Hardy Boys books released in paperback, but those really were poor. I didn’t even care for the titles. THE APEMAN’S SECRET?

My biggest influence was easily the Three Investigators books, about a trio of boys who solved crimes from their junkyard HQ: boy genius/former child star Jupiter Jones, lad of action Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews, listed on their business card (they actually had a business card) as “Records & Research.” They were often aided in their work by Worthington, the chauffeur whose services they initially won in a contest.

Best of all, Alfred Hitchcock himself would turn up in the last chapter to hear how the boys had cracked the case.

The Hitch connection came from the fact that series creator Robert Arthur, a veteran of the pulps and radio drama, also worked as a writer and script editor on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Other books in the series were penned by novelist Dennis Lynds. I have no doubt that they still hold up.

I shifted to reading science fiction when I was in high school, but eventually moved back to crime fiction and suspense. There’s something about the books that first captured your imagination as a kid that you can never shake.

Miscellaneous: Personal Grooming Report

As is my wont in the winter months, I grew what I think of as a relief pitcher beard. Small and neat. I was about to shave it off when I realized that I’ve never seen what I look like with a mustache alone.

So I lost the beard, but the ‘stache stayed. I reserved judgment on my appearance until Rosemarie saw me. In situations like this, your significant other’s opinion matters most.

Once the initial shock wore off, she said: “You look like Brian Donlevy. How can you grow period hair?”

She’s right. Somehow I ended up with a ‘40s mustache. I’ll probably shave it off in a few days. There’s not much call for ward heelers any more.

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

“There are people who say that beauty is not important, that what’s important is what’s inside. But who is going to get close enough to an ugly woman to ask what’s inside?”

- Beauty academy owner Hermán Vallenilla, on Venezuela’s mania for beauty pageants

Thursday, April 14, 2005

DVD: Call Northside 777 (1948)

The film noir floodgates are wide open. Now 20th Century Fox has released its own DVD collection. LAURA is the crown jewel of the lot, which I’ll get to eventually. I wanted to start with a film I hadn’t seen.

The noir label is a bit of a misnomer in this case. NORTHSIDE was shot in the semi-documentary style that director Henry Hathaway pioneered with THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET. And it’s firmly in the ‘wrong man’ genre, with Chicago reporter James Stewart trying to clear Richard Conte for the murder of a policeman.

It’s a solid, engrossing film, powered by Stewart’s work as a cynic initially interested in Conte’s case for its publicity value only to become convinced of his innocence. In many ways it’s a pivotal role for the actor, marking the transformation of his persona from the aw-shucks Jimmy of the ‘40s to the haunted figure of VERTIGO and Anthony Mann’s westerns.

The film is based on a true story but leaves a number of questions unanswered. The commentary by noir experts James Ursini and Alain Silver ably fills in the gaps.

Miscellaneous: Links

David Thomson bids farewell to MGM. And Slate considers how the Internet killed Trivial Pursuit, and maybe the generalist in general.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Book: Briarpatch, by Ross Thomas (1984)

During Ross Thomas month recently, I proclaimed from the rooftops of the hardboiled fiction list Rara Avis that THE FOOLS IN TOWN ARE ON OUR SIDE was the master’s masterpiece. Others were quick to nominate this Edgar-award winner. In his appreciation of Thomas, Roger L. Simon calls BRIARPATCH “a classic of the ‘corrupt town’ genre” and compares it to the work of Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren. I vowed to read the book again and reconsider my decision.

BRIARPATCH is a corker, all right. Ben Dill leaves Washington for the dusty burg of his youth when his sister, a homicide detective, is killed in a car bombing. The story behind her death involves D.C. power players, bent intelligence agents, and down-home skullduggery. There’s the usual gallery of Thomas rogues, and an ending that’s a heartbreaker.

But I’m gonna dance with the one what brung me. FOOLS, with its intimately epic scope, remains my favorite.

Miscellaneous: Public Service

I’ve gotten several emails about the striking specs featured in the pilot episode of the ABC series EYES. (If you type Tim Daly, glasses, and EYES into Google, guess who comes up first?) I take my civic responsibilities very seriously, so I tracked down the maker of this dazzling eyewear: Dop Design. No need to thank me. But if you all want to chip in and buy me a pair of shades, I wouldn’t say no.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Cable Catch-Up: Last Embrace (1979)

For years I’ve been trying to track down a copy of this Jonathan Demme thriller, which Leonard Maltin describes as one of the better faux Hitchcock films. It was worth the effort.

Roy Scheider stars as an intelligence agent who suffers a nervous breakdown after his wife is killed. He’s released from a psychiatric hospital to resume his normal life, only to become convinced that someone is after him.

The is-he-or-isn’t-he-crazy gambit works phenomenally well here, thanks in large part to Demme’s use of subjective camerawork. Many of the actors address Scheider (and us) directly. When Demme cuts to the opposite angle, Scheider is always slightly off-center in the frame. It’s a subtle but powerful effect that ratchets up the tension. And unlike many thrillers of this stripe, the revelation of the truth makes the proceedings even more disturbing.

There’s a lot of talent on both sides of the camera. At this time in his career Demme was bringing his finely-honed B-movie chops to bear on all kinds of material. Screenwriter David Shaber, adapting Murray Teigh Bloom’s novel THE TENTH MAN, was also responsible for THE WARRIORS and NIGHTHAWKS. Janet Margolin, who didn’t appear in nearly enough films, registers strongly in a tricky part.

Then there’s Scheider, always a dependable presence. He’s a key part of so many signature films of the 1970s (KLUTE, THE FRENCH CONNECTION) who would come into his own by the decade’s end with JAWS and ALL THAT JAZZ. But his career declined with the start of the ‘80s. When he turned up as the nefarious head of the insurance company in 1997’s THE RAINMAKER, it seemed like ages since I’d seen him. His performance here is among his best.

TV: The Miss USA Pageant

My streak continues. Once again I picked the winner – the lovely Chelsea Cooley, Miss North Carolina – from the opening line-up. Rosemarie was more impressed with this feat than usual, because the intros were shot outdoors in variable lighting. I don’t know why I have been given this gift. I only know that I must use it for good and not for evil.

Another thing I don’t know: why were the contestants told to pose as if they were Jennifer Garner in ELEKTRA?

Magazine: Bostonia

I get this rag for free as an alumnus of Boston University. I usually don’t read it, because I don’t want to feel guilty for ignoring the solicitations that come with it.

But the latest issue includes profiles of the many crime novelists who matriculated at B.U., including Robert B. Parker, Linda Barnes and April Henry. It’s definitely worth a look.

But I’m still not sending them any money.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Movie: Sahara (2005)

For the second weekend in a row, I saw the number one movie in the country. Truly I have my finger on the pulse of the American people.

In high school, I was a voracious reader of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels, even though numerous classroom wags referred to the main character as “Arm Pitt.” 1981’s NIGHT PROBE was the first adult book I read more than once. I remember it being a great mix of history and high adventure, with a dollop of kinky sex thrown in. Ah, the formative years.

It’s been ages since I read one of the books, which Cussler is now co-writing with the son he named after his lead character. To make matters more odd, Cussler is now making cameo appearances in the novels, rescuing the son of the character he named his own son after who is now co-authoring the books his father turns up in. Let’s see Martin Amis top that.

Hollywood’s first attempt at bringing Dirk Pitt to the screen was the legendary bomb RAISE THE TITANIC!, which I’ve somehow managed to avoid. I went to SAHARA for old times’ sake and because it features not one but two actors who improve every film they appear in: William H. Macy and Steve Zahn. (And yet I’m not a fan of HAPPY, TEXAS, in which they also co-star. Go figure.)

SAHARA is a hoot, a movie in the old-fashioned adventure mode that resists the testosterone-fueled impulses of most current action movies. It serves up its derring-do with high spirits and a nice sense of its own silliness. I particularly enjoyed the score by Clint Mansell, which made frequent nods to the James Bond movies and other classic soundtracks of the past.

Even the title sequence is old school, with the camera efficiently laying out Pitt’s entire back story in a trip around the cabin of a ship. I’m a little concerned about the fact that the movie is billed in those titles as “A Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure.” Shades of REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS. And we all know how that turned out.

Friday, April 08, 2005

DVD: Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse

The plot of 2000’s THE CRIMSON RIVERS would be right at home in Hollywood. Two detectives (Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel) work gruesome murder cases that ultimately come together at a mysterious, exclusive school in the Alps.

The movie is the Gallic version of a big studio blockbuster, only the result is actually entertaining. At times deliriously so. It combines Grand Guignol violence, style for its own sake, and first-rate hooey like a nun who has taken “the vow of shadows.” She can yammer all she wants, but she must remain in darkness. The movie occasionally flirts with incoherence – and I knew what was going on at that school from the get-go – but I loved every minute of its ferocious élan.

Around the same time, France also produced the period kung fu monster movie THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, also avec Cassel and another crackpot delight. These two movies called to mind the explosion of Hong Kong crime dramas ten years earlier, which proved that plenty of life remained in old genres.

RIVERS director Mathieu Kassovitz went Hollywood and made the Halle Berry thriller GOTHIKA. Both movies are a far cry from Kassovitz’s earlier work, like the gritty but stylish LA HAINE. (Kassovitz is still probably best known for playing the mystery man in AMELIE.)

But in showing the studios how it’s done, the RIVERS producers also picked up some bad habits. Like making unnecessary sequels.

Bad Sign #1: The follow-up went straight to video in the U.S.

Bad Sign #2: Jean Reno is the only key person from the original film to return.

Bad Sign #3: The script by one-man French film factory Luc Besson has nothing to do with the first movie. It’s a bunch of sub-DA VINCI CODE malarkey involving lost religious artifacts and surprisingly limber monks. On the plus side, Christopher Lee is the heavy.

Bad Sign #4: I only brought the sequel up so I could talk about how much I enjoyed the original.

Miscellaneous: Links

Jim Romenesko’s Obscure Store links to two great articles from the Los Angeles Times. First, this piece on how the STAR WARS fans lined up outside the wrong theater know their part in the media frenzy. And a terrific look at STAR TREK bit players capitalizing on their odd slice of immortality. Yes, Michael Dante appeared in a memorable episode of the show, and he deserves his Golden Boot award. But to me, he’ll always be the creep in Samuel Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

TV: The Adventures of Errol Flynn

Jude Law may have played Flynn in THE AVIATOR, but the contemporary actor who most resembles him in his CAPTAIN BLOOD days is Christian Bale.

TCM’s documentary touched on the fact that Flynn was never taken seriously as an actor because he made his mark in adventure films. Even his costars weren’t immune to this prejudice; Bette Davis resented being cast opposite him in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, and didn’t see the error of her ways until after Flynn was dead. That’s why having Burt Reynolds appear in the documentary was a good idea. Reynolds is another actor whose best performances (DELIVERANCE) often involve a physical component, and as such are sold short.

Let me point out that this is in no way intended as a defense of SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, much less the CANNONBALL RUN movies.

Last year I had the opportunity to see Flynn’s glorious THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD on the big screen. And it’s the utter lack of psychology that makes his performance a joy. Today’s actors would overthink the part. (“He’s breaking the law, but for the right reasons, so he’s conflicted.”) Flynn’s approach couldn’t have been simpler: he’s stealing from the rich to give to the poor, and having a blast while doing so. What’s to think about?

Book: Hard News, by Seth Mnookin (2004)

Having the New York Times delivered is an indulgence that has become a necessity. I can’t let a day go by without reading it. Being a subscriber to the paper of record is part of how I define myself.

So I suffered through the Howell Raines years, when the new executive editor tried to give the Times more of a personality and used it to wage his own battles, like his campaign to force the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, to accept women. And I took the Jayson Blair scandal as a personal betrayal. It was a disgrace to have a reporter faking stories, particularly at a time when so many journalists are killed in the line of duty. (The numbers for 2005 don’t look any better.)

I would have found any book about this period in the paper’s history interesting, but HARD NEWS is a pleasure. It’s got outsized personalities, brutal power struggles, and the pace of a thriller. The only thing it’s missing is a rave quote from the Times.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

DVD: Mr. 3000 (2004)

Yesterday was Opening Day, and the Mets already have a losing record. Well, that’s just great. On the bright side, if recent acquisitions like Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran continue to perform the way they did for the first eight innings of the opener, the Mets will be in the hunt through September.

To mark the start of baseball season, I watched this Bernie Mac comedy that was repeatedly cited as a sleeper in last year’s otherwise dismal Slate Movie Club. I can see why. It’s a perfect example of savvy commercial filmmaking, the kind of movie that Hollywood should be able to produce with regularity but seldom does.

Bernie plays a Milwaukee Brewers slugger who abruptly retires when he reaches 3000 career hits. Nine years later, he’s still waiting for the call from Cooperstown when he learns that due to a scoring error, three of his hits don’t count. So he rejoins the team, determined to burnish his reputation.

As always, Bernie delivers laughs, often with nothing more than a pause or a change in his facial expression. But he also taps into the deep well of narcissism that drives many professional athletes. He’s not afraid to be unlikable, which makes his character’s measured transformation that much more believable.

The movie gets the details of the current baseball world right throughout. The Brewers are depicted as a deeply mediocre franchise who at best have a shot at third place. SEX AND THE CITY’s Chris Noth plays the team’s GM as a disappointed MBA who exploits Bernie’s comeback for the publicity value and makes every decision accordingly. Even the Brewers’ move from the A.L. to the N.L. – which means that Bernie will have to field as well as hit – is acknowledged, although that was one plot element that I never completely bought. You have to figure his defensive skills would atrophy long before his hitting ability would. Nobody’s taking steroids to improve their pitching.

There’s also an adult love story between Bernie and ESPN reporter Angela Bassett, and an ending that avoids all the typical sports movie clichés. It’s not a great movie by any means, but a solid stand-up double.

Now if only the Mets can tighten up their bullpen, we’ll have something to talk about.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Movie: Sin City (2005)

It’s been a long time since I checked out the number one movie in the country on opening weekend. I have a thing about crowds, particularly when they’re packed with overeager fanboys. But there was no way I was waiting to see this one.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers (you are out there, aren’t you?) that I liked it.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: SIN CITY looks spectacular. For once scrupulous fidelity to the source material (I’m looking at you, overlong Harry Potter movies) makes sense, because that source material is so ferociously visual. Frank Miller’s graphic novels owe a substantial part of their impact to their stark imagery, so why shouldn’t Robert Rodriguez meticulously recreate them? At times the film’s digital world comes across as static and a little dead, but it only adds to its claustrophobic feel.

For all its posturing, I’m not sure how truly noir the movie is. It needs a few more femmes fatale, for one thing. The women of noir are usually catalysts. The women of SIN CITY, tough as they may be, are primarily victims. Although Robert Rodriguez does deserve credit for having the vision to cast Carla Gugino, the mother in his SPY KIDS films, as a pistol-packing babe in a thong. Yowza.

The Clive Owen story is the least satisfying because it plays like issue #2 of a three-part comic. On the plus side, it does feature an army of scantily-clad prostitutes firing machine guns, which I responded to on a primal level. Several primal levels.

The Bruce Willis story comes the closest to classic noir in that it touches on thwarted, forbidden desires. The Mickey Rourke story is easily the best because it’s the most extreme, and because Rourke is phenomenal. Buried under monstrous make-up (in an echo of his work in Walter Hill’s neglected JOHNNY HANDSOME), he creates the only character in the film to transcend comic book origins and register as human. Watching him was like seeing Ralph Meeker’s take on Mike Hammer reborn.

Considering that the same corrupt family lies at the heart of all three tales, they could have been integrated better. But it’s a small quibble. Is SIN CITY essentially a compendium of tough-guy clichés served up in cutting-edge style? Yep. But I love those clichés.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Le Cinema: French Noir

The film noir series that unspools each autumn at the Seattle Art Museum is always a high point of the city’s movie-going year. At least I think it is. It’s so popular that I’ve never been able to get into the damn thing. And I may face the same problem with the new program Love Crimes: Sixty Years of French Film Noir, which kicks off April 7 and runs every Thursday through June 9.

I’ll confess to being slightly underwhelmed by the selections on the calendar. It’s heavy on the usual suspects, many of which are already available on DVD – RIFIFI, DIABOLIQUE, Clouzot’s sublime QUAI DES ORFEVRES. A few titles were in local theaters not too long ago, like Jacques Becker’s TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI. And there’s no Jean-Pierre Melville, which is flat out wrong. How can it be a French noir fest without Melville?

Still, any opportunity to see these films on the big screen is one worth taking.

The series closes with the Seattle premiere of Claude Chabrol’s THE FLOWER OF EVIL, a film that debuted on the Sundance Channel last week. Chabrol introduces us to a criminally content Bordeaux clan with a long and sordid history that includes Nazi collaboration, incest and murder. Skeletons begin tumbling out of the closet when the matriarch decides to run for mayor. Chabrol’s interest here is not so much in providing thrills but in dissecting bourgeoisie mores, where all sins are treated equally provided you get away with them. It’s proof that the French still know their way around film noir. They did name the genre, after all.

DVD: Red Lights (2004)

Future installments of the series may want to include this Cédric Kahn adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel. A milquetoast husband (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his high-powered attorney wife (Carole Bouquet) begin their vacation with a long drive. They quarrel over the husband’s drinking and separate. The husband picks up a mysterious hitchhiker. Very bad things happen.

It’s an intense film that deftly anatomizes a marriage as it delivers suspense. The mixed message sent by the movie’s conclusion only adds to the creepy tone.

TV: The Alan Partridge Experience

BBC America does all of us on this side of the pond a favor by bringing back Steve Coogan’s deliriously deluded chat show host. The fun starts with 1994’s KNOWING ME, KNOWING YOU and continues with both series of I’M ALAN PARTRIDGE. Saturdays at 11PM Eastern and Pacific. Don’t miss it.

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

From a New York Times article on the struggles between James Dolan and his father Charles over the future of the family business Cablevision:

The father-son combat is, said Aryeh Bourkoff, an analyst at UBS Securities, ‘50 percent King Lear and 50 percent Norman Lear.’