Wednesday, November 30, 2005

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

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

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

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

Why I’m Going To Hell: Defamer & Gawker

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2005

TV: The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson

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

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

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

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

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

TV: The Food Network

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

Miscellaneous: Link

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

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Movie: The Ice Harvest (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Website Update: Links

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Movies: Pre-Thanksgiving Grab Bag

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Link

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

Sunday, November 20, 2005

TV: Masters of Horror/‘Jenifer’

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

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

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

TV: Something Weird

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

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

And, Lord help me, “retro erotica.”

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Links

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Miscellaneous: Karaoke-Dokey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie: Last Best Chance (2005)

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

Miscellaneous: Links

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

Friday, November 11, 2005

Movie: Serial (1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Links

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Movie: Road House (1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music: “All the Best,” Glen Campbell

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

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Music Video: “Hung Up,” Madonna

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music: “My Humps,” Black Eyed Peas

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

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

Miscellaneous: Link

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

Monday, November 07, 2005

Movie: Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

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

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

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

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

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

Movie: From Hell It Came (1957)

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

Miscellaneous: Links

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

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Miscellaneous: Critics’ Choice

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

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

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

TV: Masters of Horror

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

Friday, November 04, 2005

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Link

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

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Movie: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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