Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Good Stuff: Life

Normally I don’t go in for New Year’s Resolutions. Imagine my surprise to discover that I made three of them on January 1, 2006. Let’s see how I did. Timpani!

1. Spend less time in the blogosphere.

Done. I also scaled back my posting here, believe it or not. Only post when you’ve got something to say, that’s my motto.

2. Broaden my reading range.

Done again. I’ve even got the spin-off blog to prove it. Granted, I haven’t updated it much lately, but that will change.

3. Order more obscure cocktails in bars.

Here I exceeded even my wildest expectations. In 2006 I became a regular at the Zig Zag Café, a bar specializing in obscure cocktails and convivial atmosphere. I’ve had conversations with offbeat characters from all over the world, received peerless recommendations on where to drink in Manhattan, and sampled libations like the Seelbach, favored by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the Corpse Reviver #2.

My resolutions for 2007? Same again.

2006 was a groundwork year. I laid the foundations for several projects that, with any luck, will come to fruition in the coming months. It’s going to take a lot more hard work, though, and I’m looking forward to it. I have to confess I’m always happy when the holidays end. I’m eager to roll up my sleeves and dive back into the fray.

With that, I give you a favorite memory from the year now ending.

It’s October. We’re in New York. Rosemarie and I head to Rockefeller Center. Look, here’s a picture. We get there to discover that the Fire Department is conducting an event, with equipment and personnel all over the plaza. Rosemarie notices that copies of the FDNY Calendar are on sale, filled with photos of buff, shirtless firefighters. Rosemarie thinks this will make the perfect gift for our gracious, generous hosts Barry and Buzz.

“Trust me,” she says. “They’ll get a kick out of it.”

After buying the calendar, she sees a long table behind which sit a dozen good-looking men. The models, autographing copies of the calendar. “I’ll get them to sign it,” Rosemarie says. “That makes it even better.”

Fine, I say. I’m going to go look at fire trucks.

I do that for a while, but Rosemarie’s still not finished. I cross the concourse to wait for her. After a few minutes she finally hoves into view, beet-red and giggling like a schoolgirl as she makes her way along the table chatting with the firefighters. After a few more minutes, she finally finishes and tracks me down.

Me: They didn’t sign it to Barry and Buzz, did they?

Rosemarie: No. We’re getting them wine.

Naturally, the calendar can’t hang in her office. She’s a professional, after all. So as I sit at my desk beneath the gleaming chest of Michael from Marine Unit One (“Thanks for your beautiful smile!”), I wish you a few such unexpected moments in 2007. Thanks for stopping by this year. Come on back.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Good Stuff: Movies

Updated 12/31/06!

Standard provisos apply. There are plenty of year-end films I haven’t seen yet – yes, Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men and Letters from Iwo Jima, I mean you – and I’m not stopping at ten.

The best movie of 2006? Easy. Jean-Pierre Melville’s French Resistance drama Army of Shadows was made in 1969 but never played in the U.S. until this year, so it counts. Alone among the movies I saw it had me holding my breath, afraid I would break its spell. It takes the title going away. It reopens at New York's Film Forum on Friday and will be playing around the country into early 2007.

You want the best new movie of 2006? Fine. Fabien Bielinsky’s El Aura bewitched me when I saw it and haunts me still. A heist film, a character study, a brilliantly directed exploration of isolation mental and physical, self-imposed and otherwise. It’s one of a kind.

That’s what I loved. I saw plenty more that I enjoyed the hell out of. Here are the ones that truly popped, in the order I saw them, with minimal commentary.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. In some circles this is regarded as a 2005 release. Just in case, I’m including it here.

Brick. Hammett in high school.

The Proposition. A tough-minded Australian western, featuring the best performance by flies.

A Prairie Home Companion. Maybe it is minor Altman, but it’s perfectly in tune.

Lady Vengeance. Chilling in its elegance.

Invincible. My orphan pick. A sports movie that nails every note. And I don’t even like the Philadelphia Eagles. But it speaks to the working-class Northeast football fan in me. It helps that the crazy dreamer’s name is Vince. And hey, Elizabeth Banks is in it!

Hollywoodland. The flip side of Invincible. Achieving your dreams is no guarantee of happiness. My faith in Ben Affleck is vindicated.

The Queen. The best written movie of 2006 is also the most politically astute, and moves like a thriller.

Slither. Delivering the gruesome goods counts for something around here. And hey, Elizabeth Banks is in it!

Borat. For the naked wrestling alone.

Casino Royale. Because the degree of difficulty involved was enormous.

Volver. Almodovar. Can he do any wrong?

Children of Men. Added 12/31/06. Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian vision is packed with sociopolitical ideas I haven’t yet processed. But taken purely as an action film, filled with extended, unbroken scenes of chaos and motion, it deserves a place on this list.

The film story of 2006 has to be the continuing changes in the way movies, particularly smaller ones, are distributed. I saw El Aura, my #2 choice, on TV because it debuted on IFC On Demand at the same time it opened in New York. Steven Soderbergh’s intriguing Bubble hit theaters and home video on the same day. The adaptation of David Mamet’s play Edmond, as dark and demanding a film as I saw this year, might as well have gone straight to DVD for the limited release it received. Technology makes these movies more accessible – you could be watching El Aura right now instead of reading this – but the downside is the audience doesn’t know they exist. And I doubt the advent of the downloadable premiere, which you know is coming, will change things.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Good Stuff: Books

In the order read, with minimal commentary.

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, by Paul Malmont. Nothing topped it for pure escapism.

Hit Parade, by Lawrence Block.

King Dork, by Frank Portman. My lone foray into YA fiction yielded the best-plotted mystery of the year. (Aside: is there really this much oral sex in contemporary high schools? Because ... damn. When I was in high school, oral sex was like the Loch Ness monster. We all wanted to believe in it, and there was a rich body of anecdotal evidence, but not much in the way of hard data. Go ahead, snicker at ‘hard.’ Juveniles.)

The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos.

The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, by Joe Eszterhas. A non-fiction selection. Weirdly, crazily inspiring. I’m still agitating for that Jade Special Edition DVD.

The Zero, by Jess Walter. A divisive book, and my personal favorite.

Death’s Dark Abyss, by Massimo Carlotto. A 2004 title receiving its first U.S. publication courtesy of Europa Editions. I pause here to acknowledge the overall fine work of Europa and Hard Case Crime this year.

World War Z, by Max Brooks. Man alive, do I hate zombies.

A Dangerous Man, by Charlie Huston.

Ask The Parrot, by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). The last book I read in 2006 was also one of the finest.

What do you know, ten on the nose. Don’t worry. It won’t happen again.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Good Stuff: TV

Believe it or not, I don’t watch much TV. I thought this year might be different. I’d sample some new shows, catch up with touted ones like Battlestar Galactica on DVD. Never happened. (Update: 2007 is another story.)

Most of what I liked is held over from last year. I’ve talked about The Wire enough, so I’ll simply say that season four is a staggering accomplishment. The Christmas party episode of The Office, directed by Harold Ramis, may have been that series’ finest hour. Right now the most complete universe on television is the bizarre parallel one that can be entered through the vortex of The Colbert Report. Just look at 2006’s final show, scattered across the website, in which the fake “Stephen Colbert” squared off against actual band the Decembrists in a guitar duel that ultimately involved Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, New York governor-elect Eliot Spitzer and Dr. Henry Kissinger. Blasphemy alert: Colbert is now funnier and more consistent than its progenitor The Daily Show.

Other, newer highlights:

Broken Trail. This AMC western directed by Walter Hill was one of the best movies I saw this year on any screen large or small.

When The Levees Broke. Spike Lee’s mammoth, indispensable HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

The Thick of It. The hilarious send-up of office politics and actual politics debuted on BBC America.

30 Rock. Because Alec Baldwin kills in every scene. Because Tracy Morgan’s perfect storm of narcissism and ADD still produces pearls or wisdom. (“Live every week like it’s Shark Week.”) Because of the supporting cast, namely Kenny the intern. Because Tina Fey is secretly using the show to explore the extra pressures faced by women in positions of authority. Because I can watch episodes for free online. But mainly because of Baldwin.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Good Stuff: Music

It’s that time of year, when a man feels compelled to draft best-of lists, for a week ...

The ground rules are simple: I don’t limit myself to ten, and only 2006 titles are eligible. Which makes it difficult, considering that most of what I read, watch and listen to tends to be older. But what better way to ring in the new than by ringing in the new?

I’m starting with music because I have almost nothing to say. 2006 was the year I made a concerted effort to turn myself into a full-fledged jazzbo, so I leaned heavily on vintage stuff in an effort to, ahem, plug the holes in a spotty education. My musical highlight was at long last visiting New York’s legendary Village Vanguard to hear the Brad Mehldau trio. Look, here’s a picture.

I can recommend three excellent albums from this year if that iTunes gift card is burning a hole in your pocket:

1. Elvis Costello Live With The Metropole Orkest, My Flame Burns Blue. Which is basically a jazz record.

2. Sondre Lerche & The Faces Down Quartet, Duper Sessions. Jazz-inflected pop. Whaddaya know about that?

3. KT Tunstall, Eye to the Telescope. No jazz. This just rocks.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Miscellaneous: ‘Tis The Season

First, some last-minute on the road to the in-laws shopping help. Slate provides a slideshow of the finest gifts available at drug stores. Don’t say your Uncle Vince never did anything for you.

Next, to set the mood, I give you the only Christmas song worth a damn.

To quote the only Christmas movie worth a damn, “Isn’t that a lovely Noel? It’s been swell.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

Music: I Got Your Yule Log Right Here

Chez K. “The Christmas Waltz” plays in the background.

Me: I never liked that phrase “you and yours.” I think it sounds kinda dismissive.

Rosemarie: That’s because you’re from Queens.

Later. “Here Comes Santa Claus” is playing.

Rosemarie: I always hated that “Hang your stockings and say your prayers, ‘cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” Yeah, say your prayers ‘cause he’s going to kill you in your sleep.

Me: That’s because you’re from Queens.

Rosemarie: No. It’s from a much deeper place.

Miscellaneous: Links

Earlier this week I read George Packer’s fascinating New Yorker article on using anthropology to combat insurgency in Iraq and beyond. It includes a startling new use for the movie Fight Club. I was all set to write a post about it, but Jim Emerson handles the heavy lifting for me.

Chapter One of Eddie Muller’s Grindhouse is up at GreenCine.

MSN revives Moments out of Time, which used to be a year-end Film Comment staple. It’s assembled by FC veterans Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy, who now coincidentally write for the Queen Anne News, the paper that covers my Seattle neighborhood.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Music: It’s A Sugar Date

The Chez K philosophy is a simple one: treat every day like a low-key holiday. So when the genuine article rolls around, we don’t make much fuss. Our yuletide soundtrack is close to what we usually listen to. Christmas With The Rat Pack has been getting a workout. I want those bells to ring-a-ding-ding.

My favorite song is Frank and Dean’s version of “Marshmallow World,” recorded for Dino’s 1967 Christmas special. (Regis Philbin and Craig Ferguson recreated this duet on The Late Late Show last Christmas. I’ve already emailed Craig asking him to rerun it.) The boys did the song live; you can hear the audience reacting to their hijinks. And the sound has been driving me mad. What’s so funny? What are they laughing at?

Now, at last, I know. Behold a genuine Christmas miracle, courtesy of YouTube. Consider it an early gift from me to you.

Monday, December 18, 2006

TV: Ghost of Christmas Specials Past

Matt at asks about neglected holiday specials. Hard to believe any are left, considering that this month ABC Family has blown the dust off lesser Rankin-Bass offerings like Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey and The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold. I know I must have seen the Family Circus show Matt describes, but I can’t remember a thing about it.

I do, however, remember two other such programs. The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas featured the voices of Tom Smothers, Barbara Feldon and Arte Johnson. It was set in a parallel ursine universe, complete with airlines and catchy jingles (“Fly Bear Air to your lair!”). Said universe shuts down entirely for hibernation, but one bear wants to stay up and experience Christmas. He struggles not to fall asleep, meets Santa, and is ultimately given to a little girl as a present even though he’s, you know, alive. I wonder if Stephen Colbert has seen it. The soundtrack includes “Where Can I Find Christmas?,” a song so sappy it could bring a tear to the eye of Vladimir Putin, who would only deny the tear’s existence after dousing it with radioactive polonium. If I sing the opening line in a pathetic voice, Rosemarie is guaranteed to well up and then smack me.

The other is an all-mime version of the O. Henry story “Gift of the Magi.” I’m 90% sure it starred Shields & Yarnell, but I can’t find a record of it anywhere. Maybe it only aired in New York.

Music: Jingle Bell Rawk!

I’ve always thought of Trans-Siberian Orchestra as music to synchronize your Christmas lights to. But this New York Times article set me straight. The brains of the outfit is a product of Flushing, Queens, like Rosemarie. And the core of the group are members of ‘80s metal band Savatage. Behold the video for their biggest hit, “Hall of the Mountain King.” It plays like a Tenacious D NyQuil dream. Awesome!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Miscellaneous: King of the Silver Screen

Stephen King names his ten best movies of 2006 in Entertainment Weekly. I love King’s column: the odds of any other writer for a mass-market magazine singling out the old-school ‘70s-style urban action flick Waist Deep for year-end honors are mighty slim. I missed Waist Deep in theaters, but I’ll make a point of watching it now. King knows whereof he speaks when it comes to pulp.

Still, I can’t get behind his central thesis that it’s harder to go out to movies with all the media options now available. I know it’s true, but I can’t get behind it. The whole "let’s binge on an entire TV season in a single weekend pausing only to order Chinese and attend to biological urges" thing eludes me. But apparently only me; in the same EW issue, no less a celestial being than Oprah Winfrey claims that on a recent Saturday she never took her pj’s off and consumed 13 episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in one sitting.

Don’t get me wrong. I use technology to my advantage. I powered through the fourth season of The Wire on my schedule via On Demand. But I move at my own erratic – read: slow – pace. If I tried to compress all of Battlestar Galactica Season Two into a long weekend I’d go to bed the way I did every Halloween of my childhood, having gorged on candy: feeling kind of shaky and not a little bit greasy.

Plus there are some movies that have to be seen on the big screen if you have any interest in them. I’m sure Waist Deep will play just fine in the living room at Chez K. But King admits he was too busy watching Jericho on his computer to check out Clint Eastwood’s WWII epic Flags of Our Fathers. When he catches up with Flags, which I liked, on video – or if he goes to see the companion film Letters from Iwo Jima, now garnering huge acclaim – he’s going to be kicking himself no matter how big his home theater is.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Miscellaneous: My Holiday Gift-Giving Guide

Because I’m not just some blogger. I’m a lifestyle consultant.

No links to extravagant purchases like the Dolce & Gabbana Razr or a full-size replica of the Lost in Space robot (hat tip to Ken Levine). Instead, two affordable items guaranteed to play big at the most wonderful time of the year.

Candles are a standby gift. Why not bring them into the new millennium with LED candles? Long-lasting battery-powered flames that flicker like the genuine article. Not only can you blow them out, you can blow them on, too. They came in handy during last night’s storm, the Northwest equivalent of a nor’easter. (Update: they’re already sold out at ThinkGeek, but they’re available at plenty of other locations.)

Next, the new Deluxe Edition DVD of Patrick Swayze’s Road House. I’m a late convert to this movie’s charms, which are manifold. Gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, gratuitous monster trucks, gratuitous mullets. (When are mullets not gratuitous?) Now this celebration of all that was right about Reagan-era America finally receives the video treatment it deserves. Comes complete with feature on real-life bouncers called “What Would Dalton Do?” and commentary track by longtime fans Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier that pinpoints every homoerotic nuance. Trust me, it can’t miss.

Miscellaneous: Links

As award season approaches, Variety asks prominent critics to consider what Oscar got right, got wrong, and overlooked in the past 20 years. Genre movies, as always, hold up best. I’m just saying.

Speaking of awards contenders, many have wondered what Queen Elizabeth II would make of The Queen. Now we know.

Great news: GreenCine Daily will be serializing Eddie Muller’s out-of-print book Grindhouse.

Word usage conundrum of the day: Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League says that Jimmy Carter’s controversial new book on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict propagates a “shameless, shameful canard.” Is it possible to be both? After consulting a dictionary, I think it might be.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Peter Boyle, R.I.P.

When a much-loved actor passes away, it’s funny the first thing you think of. Sometimes it’s not the obvious high points, which in Peter Boyle’s career are numerous. His long run on Everybody Loves Raymond, his legendary performances in Young Frankenstein and Joe.

Sometimes it’s not even your personal favorites. Like Boyle’s work as the crafty campaign manager in The Candidate. Or the double-dealing bartender in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the kind of guy who’d feel right at home in The Departed. Or his Chief Orman in Honeymoon in Vegas. (To this day, whenever I hear the score from South Pacific, I mime putting a phone to my ear at the line “Bali H’ai will call you” in tribute to Boyle.) Or his dual turns as cabbies in The Shadow and Taxi Driver. Or his Emmy-winning appearance as morose psychic Clyde Bruckman on The X-Files, delivering what may be my favorite line from the show to Agent Mulder: “You know, there are worse ways to go, but I can’t think of a more undignified one than autoerotic asphyxiation.”

No, sometimes what occurs to you is an offbeat tidbit that seems to capture an individual’s personality. And in Boyle’s case, it’s from a 2003 New York Times article on the madness of owning a car in Manhattan.

“I consider using my car unnecessarily as one of the great joys of my life,” said Peter Boyle, the actor ... Mr. Boyle starts most days with a stroll to the bank for a roll of quarters (he considers it unsportsmanlike to use a garage when he is out and about). He takes his Mercedes station wagon everywhere, even to Elaine’s, which is only a block or two away from his home. “Being dedicated to your car here is a test of patience and cunning,” he said. “And there’s better radio reception than in the house.”

That says it all, really. He will be missed.

Miscellaneous: Link

Wired magazine asked notable SF, fantasy and horror writers to come up with six word short stories as Ernest Hemingway did. This feature proves once again that Alan Moore is a genius. Read the results in the photo versions in the lower right corner to experience the full effect of the graphics.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Miscellaneous: Grab Bag

I thought I had an entire post prompted by Sarah Weinman’s question: whither noir? Specifically, is there any truth to a critic’s charge that many contemporary writers are “knowingly catering to a minority audience of crime buffs”?

It was going to be a thing of beauty, this post, a heartbreaking elegy for the generalist that would use this website as an example. Then I thought about it for three seconds and realized how self-serving it would be. Instead, I’ll make the one small point that has some merit. Sarah’s post springs in part from Tribe’s interview with Christa Faust. Swing by my links page and you’ll see all three of these fine bloggers there. Meaning that if there is “a minority audience of crime buffs,” I’m probably in the thick of it.

So to buttress my generalist bona fides, some quick takes:

Volver. Almodovar’s latest suffers only in comparison with his extraordinary recent run – All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education. It’s a bit self-conscious at times in its return to his older style, but still completely captivating. It’s like an entire rainy day afternoon of Joan Crawford movies rolled into one film. I trust all those Penelope Cruz naysayers are queuing up for crow.

Déjà Vu. The second hour isn’t as good as the first. But it’s packed with giddy moments and high-grade hokum. The car chase in which the present pursues the past is the reason why I go to the movies.

And, to burnish my crime buff credentials:

Hose Monkey. Author Tony Spinosa is actually Reed Farrel Coleman, creator of the award-winning Moe Prager series. The focus of this book is Joe Serpe, a one-time NYPD detective disgraced in a corruption scandal. He’s drawn into a murder investigation with the unlikeliest of partners: his former Internal Affairs nemesis, now dealing with demons of his own. A solid mystery made memorable by rich Long Island atmosphere and a great dynamic between the two lead characters.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Miscellaneous: Birthday Girl

Friday was Rosemarie’s birthday. Part of the gala celebration was ceding control of the TV to her.

We began the week with Wordplay, the winning documentary about crossword creators and fanatics. By the end of the movie Rosemarie, who tackles Saturday’s New York Times puzzle in ink, had jumped out of her seat and was shouting answers at the screen. She has now made it her goal to enter the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament at least once. Considering that her last such goal was to appear as a contestant on Jeopardy!, Stamford here we come.

She also wanted to revisit one of her favorite films, 1933’s Design for Living. Bohemian artists and longtime pals Fredric March and Gary Cooper both fall for Miriam Hopkins. The problem is that Hopkins falls for both of them. Ernst Lubitsch directs, with Noel Coward’s play adapted by Ben Hecht. That’s quite the writing combination, one graceful and sophisticated, the other brash and voluble, both of them as witty as all get-out. I’d draw a parallel, but modesty forbids.

For once, the birthday was not the signature event of Rosemarie’s week, or even her Friday. She delivered her presentation How Not To Do It: Scientific Misconduct in the Cinema, to her largest audience to date. Based on a paper she prepared for the Society of Research Administrators International, it uses movies to illustrate ethical dilemmas faced by scientists in matters like animal testing (Deep Blue Sea), human trials (Extreme Measures), and reporting conclusions (Hollow Man). Not many academic lectures refer to both the German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Diane Ladd’s performance in Carnosaur.

What kills me is that in her presentation, Rosemarie has to set up film clips. I wanted to be the first one in this marriage to do that. Damn.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sort-Of Related: The Wonga Coup, by Adam Roberts (2006)/The Dogs of War (1981)

There’s art imitating life. And there’s going through the looking glass.

In his book Roberts, a correspondent for The Economist, recounts the fascinating tale of an attempted coup in the West African nation of Equatorial Guinea in March 2004. It reads like a real-life version of a Ross Thomas novel. You’ve got mercenaries with names like Nosher, Captain Pig and Victor Dracula. Shadowy arms dealers. Cannibalistic dictators. Mystery men signing checks. And figures from various intelligence services who may or may not approve of what’s going on. Even the charmless son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gets caught up in the action.

But the strangest aspect of the story is how it’s a pop culture hall of mirrors. The coup’s mastermind, former SAS officer Simon Mann, was inspired by the derring-do of a fellow mercenary whose exploits were fictionalized in the movie The Wild Geese. Mann briefly left professional soldiering for the film business, serving as actor and technical advisor on Bloody Sunday. When he set out to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s government, his blueprint was the 1974 Frederick Forsyth novel The Dogs of War, a near-documentary account of a previous coup attempt in the country – which, Roberts discovers, Forsyth had a hand in organizing and financing. When Mann runs short of capital, he allegedly receives support from another novelist, Jeffrey Archer, who in 1980 wrote his own story of overthrowing an African government. Meanwhile, Mann’s failed effort has already been turned into a BBC film, with Roberts as consultant. Is that clear to everyone?

The 1981 movie version of The Dogs of War has been parked on my DVR for months. Roberts’ excellent book finally prompted me to watch it. It’s smartly made but not exactly fleet of foot. There’s a memorable scene in which Christopher Walken, playing a mercenary masquerading as a nature photographer, reels off the scientific names of several species of bird. You haven’t heard Latin until you’ve heard it from Christopher Walken.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Miscellaneous: Who Reviews The Reviewers?

I may have a point here. Bear with me.

My morning media routine starts with the New York Times. Today that meant Manohla Dargis’ rave review of the new David Lynch movie Inland Empire. Ms. Dargis describes it as:

one of the few films I’ve seen this year that deserves to be called art. Dark as pitch, as noir, as hate, by turns beautiful and ugly, funny and horrifying, the film is also as cracked as Mad magazine, though generally more difficult to parse.

Next, to the internet. At Movie City News, David Poland ran an email from screenwriter Larry Gross that calls the Dargis review “‘important’ film criticism” comparable to Pauline Kael’s landmark essay on Bonnie & Clyde, which “helped that film find a place for itself in the minds and hearts of the mass audience.” Poland himself also weighs in:

I was also struck by the sense that this piece was one of (Dargis’) most significant at the NYT. It’s not that it is her best writing or that the film is the most complex she’s written about. It’s that the review reaches well past traditional reviewing and speaks in a very interesting way to how we watch movies and how we should be watching movies.

MCN then followed up with a longer piece by Gross. The ever-reliable GreenCine Daily augmented the discussion by collecting other reactions to the movie and the review. Inland Empire, and specifically Dargis’ take on it, are the talk of the film blogging world.

Then I swung by another daily stop, Andrew Sullivan’s blog. As a rule, I don’t read political sites. I disappear down enough rabbit holes as it is. I read Sullivan because he’s a blogging pioneer, and because I find his point of view fascinating. A gay, Catholic, conservative Republican who turned against President Bush, he’s chronicled his struggle to hold true to his philosophy in a party that seems to have no use for him.

Sullivan also linked to Dargis’ review, under the headline “Poseur Alert.” He gives a hat tip to National Review columnist John Podhoretz. The title of his post on Dargis?

The Most Pretentious Piece of Writing in All of Recorded History

Rabbit hole entered. A Technorati search revealed that both echo chambers are working. Right-wing blogs pick up Podhoretz’s dig, while left-wingers mock earlier attempts at film criticism by Podhoretz and friends.

That’s the summary. Whew.

My point – and as I said, I may have one – is that the film community has declared Dargis’ review a significant event while those who view life through the prism of politics dismiss it as self-indulgent.

But ‘twas ever thus. Whenever an avant-garde work is praised, people will scoff. And to be honest, the section of Dargis’ review excerpted by Sullivan does make the movie sound like a tough sit. All that hooey about mirrors and entrances and exits.

Still, this seems like more than a knee-jerk response. There’s an undercurrent of judgment, a sense that there’s something unseemly about displaying such passion in print. “Doesn’t Manohla know that we’ve moved past that? She should save her enthusiasms for her blog.”

Here’s what I think. You can’t call a review pretentious unless you’ve seen the work in question. The word does mean making unjustified or excessive claims, after all. Manohla Dargis can get carried away with herself; she’s written reviews where I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. But this isn’t one of them. This is her making a pitch for a movie that clearly moved her, and one that might get overlooked not only because of the crush of year-end titles but because of its odd release pattern. (Lynch is distributing Inland Empire himself. Its Oscar campaign consists of him sitting on various Los Angeles street corners with a cow.)

But ultimately, the review doesn’t matter to me. It’s for a David Lynch movie. I would have seen it anyway.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Movies: The Gambler and The Lady (1952)/Heat Wave (1954)

Onward into the Hammer Film Noir Collection I go. Here’s installment one.

This DVD serves up quite the double bill; Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide describes one film as “tepid” and the other as “tame.” Sadly, I can’t entirely disagree. The movies are primarily of interest to genre completists who want to see familiar noir tropes played out against unfamiliar English locales. Still, the collision of twisted psychology and the stiff-upper-lip mentality of our cousins across the pond yields a few interesting moments.

Heat Wave, also known as The House Across The Lake, also known as the tame one, answers the question “What would a film noir from the director of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang be like?” Ken Hughes even adapted it from his own novel. The story is the classic set-up of loner (here a visiting American novelist suffering from writer’s block), scheming dame, and wealthy husband. But Hughes adds the wrinkle of the loner and the husband meeting first and becoming friends, with the husband even giving tacit approval to his own cuckolding. The hubby is played by Sid James, a staple of the Carry On series who delivers solid performances in several U.K. noirs. The rest of the movie plays out exactly as you’d expect, with the husband’s murder almost an afterthought.

Hammer often imported American actors for their crime dramas, either those on the downswing of their careers or recognizable faces who never hit the big time. The Gambler and The Lady – that would be the tepid one – features one of the latter in Dane Clark. He’s a Yank who fled the States after a manslaughter beef. His obsession with joining high society has him taking etiquette lessons, but the poor sap doesn’t realize that the British upper crust is every bit as treacherous as the gangsters he left behind. The movie’s slow to get started and somewhat obvious once it does, but the story’s an interesting one. Plus the object of Clark’s affections is played by Naomi Chance, an appealing actress reminiscent of Kate Winslet. I haven’t seen anything else she’s been in, but one of her credits stands out: a 1964 television adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, written by Doctor Who guru Terry Nation and starring Peter Cushing as Lije Bailey. According to Wikipedia, it no longer exists.

Miscellaneous: Links

Via Bill Crider, we have the ten hottest alien babes of TV and film. And from GreenCine Daily comes the 50 greatest commercials of the ‘80s. That should keep you busy for a while.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Miscellaneous: Any Bonds Today?

It takes more than box office for a movie to become a genuine phenomenon. I learned Casino Royale reached that stage from my regular perch in Seattle’s finest bar. Not because three people marched in and ordered Vesper cocktails, but because I discovered such people have been coming in since the movie opened. Seattle’s best barmen were ready with the drink’s history, while I pitched in by clearing up some confusion regarding the earlier, allegedly comic version of Casino Royale. I do what I can to make myself useful.

The 007 fervor won’t die down. Writers Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Lee Goldberg are just the latest to have listed their Bond favorites; Lee’s gone so far as to rank the title songs.

I’m not prepared to do likewise. Beyond a handful of generalizations, rating the Bond movies is such fine work that it requires the use of an electron microscope. Herewith, however, are those generalizations.

Connery is tops. (I am prepared, on the strength of Casino Royale alone, to grant Daniel Craig the #2 slot.) From Russia With Love is a notch better than Goldfinger. The thing everybody loves about You Only Live Twice – the volcano hideout – is the reason I don’t care for the movie. Diamonds Are Forever is the kinkiest Bond film. I really should watch it again.

Yes, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a damned good movie.

The Spy Who Loved Me is Roger Moore’s best. The nuclear sabotage at the circus plot in Octopussy may be my favorite 007 storyline (Frederick Forsyth told a similar yarn in The Fourth Protocol, which became a movie starring ... Pierce Brosnan), but I can never remember how it ties in with the movie’s actual villain Louis Jourdan. A View To A Kill has the dumbest title and the highest inverse theme song/movie quality ratio.

Timothy Dalton makes a very underrated 007, and The Living Daylights is perhaps the most underrated Bond film. But I don’t like his second outing, Licence to Kill, at all.

Brosnan was a fine Bond, but he’s even better when he riffs on the character in other movies like The Tailor of Panama and The Matador.

As for the theme songs, I’m with Lee. There are the obvious winners (including k.d. lang’s “Surrender” from Tomorrow Never Dies), and then there’s the rest. I’d rather talk up the parody Bond songs. The runner-up is Weird Al Yankovic’s theme from Spy Hard, complete with mock title sequence.

But the champ is Robbie Williams’ “Man For All Seasons” from Johnny English. “So charismatic/With an automatic/Never prematurely shooting his load.” Noel Coward couldn’t top that.

Miscellaneous: Link

All the year-end Oscar hopefuls in the pipeline, and what movie am I most excited about? Hot Fuzz, the latest from the Shaun of the Dead team. It even has Timothy Dalton in it. Here’s the trailer.

Friday, December 01, 2006

TV: The Wire

Great interview in Slate with the show’s creator David Simon. It lays out what’s in store for the fifth and final season. Here’s my favorite quote:

On THE WIRE, we were trying to explore this stuff you don’t see – the dope on the table, all that has been done to death. Sometimes the real poetry of police work is a couple of detectives with their feet on a desk in the backroom looking at ballistics.

That’s the essence of the show: avoiding obligatory scenes, digging drama out of the everyday. I also love how Simon praises HBO’s other series while admitting that he doesn’t watch them. It confirms my long-held suspicion that The Wire works as well as it does because it’s made by people who don’t know or care about TV conventions. I can’t believe Simon conned HBO out of five complete seasons.

Miscellaneous: YouTube Treasure of the Day

My prayers have been answered. Some kind soul has finally uploaded the video for Saga’s “Wind Him Up.” Why have I been searching for it for lo these many months?

1. I actually like the song. I was always a sucker for prog-rock keyboards.

2. The video is unintentionally hilarious. It’s got everything. Cheap tuxedos, a Camaro, and a degenerate gambler who’s hooked on ... roulette. Those are the worst kind.

3. The last shot. It’s why this video has haunted my brain for 20 years. It’s so stupendously literal-minded that I can’t think of it without laughing. Watch and you’ll see.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Movies: Man Bait (1952)/Bad Blonde (1953)

Let’s talk about old movies. Feels like I haven’t done that in a while.

England’s Hammer Films is synonymous with horror. But in the 1950s Hammer also churned out its share of noirs, low-budget tales of doomed love and murder. Mother’s milk to yours truly. Neglected for decades, these movies are finally surfacing on DVD.

This is where I’m supposed to say that Hammer’s noirs are overlooked gems. Sadly, no. But they’re solid enough films. As screenwriter Lem Dobbs observed in his Double Indemnity commentary track, noir is the only genre that always satisfies. You won’t find a bad movie in it.

Although Man Bait (known as The Last Page in Britain) comes close. For starters, it’s set in that most hardboiled of environments ... a book shop? Considering the line-up behind the camera – directed by Hammer horror staple Terence Fisher, adapted by Frederick Knott (Wait Until Dark, Dial M For Murder) from a play by noted U.K. crime writer James Hadley Chase – I expected more than the standard mélange of blackmail and murder. Still, Diana Dors – England’s Marilyn Monroe, the Siren of Swindon – registers as a bombshell unsure of how to use her power over men who finds herself in the sway of a sociopath.

Bad Blonde (released in England as The Flanagan Boy – why do they fear lurid titles so?) starts out as a decent thriller with a boxing backdrop but eventually goes off the rails. The climactic scene requires not one but two characters to doze off. It doesn’t help that the femme fatale is played by Barbara Payton, whose life story is more twisted than anything unfolding onscreen.

VCI Entertainment’s animated logo looks like an outtake from Gun Crazy the videogame. And they could have taken more care with the extras. I enjoyed the brief, informative commentaries by film historian Richard Roberts delivered in Winchellesque style, but would it have hurt to edit out Roberts’ request for a retake?

Still, the company is to be credited for bringing these movies back. It’s always interesting to see another nation’s take on noir. Yes, the French know their way around it, but I always think of it as an American genre. This is the land of optimism and eternal sunshine, after all. When shadows fall here, they fall dark and deep.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Book: The Ruins, by Scott Smith (2006)

Sometimes I go months – years – without reading any horror fiction. Then I read two books in a row.

You can see why Smith would try the genre if you’re familiar with his first novel A Simple Plan or the film adaptation which Smith wrote. Plan moved like a bad dream, with the main character aware of every terrible thing bearing down on him yet powerless to stop it.

But The Ruins plays out like a full-blown nightmare. Four young, happy-go-lucky Americans take a cheap vacation to Mexico before getting on with grad school and their adult lives. They meet some Europeans much like themselves, one of whom has a brother who has vanished while visiting an archeological dig. They decide to take a day trip to track him down and ...

I won’t even attempt to describe what follows, for fear I’ll make it sound ridiculous. It’s like something a fevered ten-year-old would cook up in his first night away from home at summer camp. It starts bad and goes downhill (well, technically uphill) from there. I can’t say that I enjoyed the book, but I couldn’t stop reading it. I had to know just how much worse things were going to get.

The Ruins didn’t truly terrify me, because it’s about an outdoor excursion gone awry. You’ll never find me in these situations. I won’t even venture to 7-Eleven without a flare gun and an all-in-one tool.

TV: Fill In My Blank

Yes, I watched a documentary on the history of Match Game, and I don’t care who knows it. When I was a kid, Match Game was the height of sophistication. It taught me all I know about the art of the double entendre.

I enjoyed the clips of the earlier, more “cerebral” version of the show. (Not too cerebral, though; one of the celebrity guests was Jayne Mansfield.) But I refuse to buy the documentary’s contention that Richard Dawson was Match Game’s villain. Dawson was the game’s best player. He made the show. I have patterned my life on his teachings.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Movie: El Aura (U.S. 2006)

As usual, I spent much of the Thanksgiving holiday watching movies. Some good, at least one lousy. Don’t expect to hear about that one; I’ve reached a point with this site where I only feel like talking about my enthusiasms. Apparently an attribute I share with Chuck Klosterman. (And the similarities don’t end there. Like Chuck, I sleep late, write fast and watch sports documentaries. Does this mean that I, too, am the voice of a generation?)

I don’t have a complex formula for figuring out what I like. There are no set criteria of the kind Jeffrey Wells describes. A movie simply resonates with me. The truly special ones provoke a feeling that’s the opposite of déjà vu: you’ve never been here before, but already you know that you will be again.

Normally by this point in the year I’ve seen at least one movie I can clutch to my breast and call my very own. Not so in 2006. I’ve seen plenty to like, but not much to love. And then came El Aura, the second and sadly final film from Fabián Bielinsky, who died of a heart attack earlier this year at 47. I had high expectations for this movie; Bielinsky’s debut, the con man caper Nine Queens, is a personal favorite. El Aura only makes it plain what a huge talent was lost.

The protagonist (Queens star Ricardo Darin) is an Argentinean taxidermist who suffers from epilepsy; the title is his word for the not unwelcome feeling that suffuses him before a seizure. He’s detached from life and obsessed with crime. During a hunting trip, he accidentally kills a man – only to discover his victim was a professional thief whose plans for a heist are already in motion. The taxidermist can step into his role and live out the life he’s always dreamed of. Think of it as Richard Stark meets Oliver Sacks.

Put simply, I love everything about this movie. Two scenes in particular stand out. One, a breathtaking sequence in which Darin narrates how he would rob a museum, his fantasy playing out around him as he describes it, proves Bielinsky was a born entertainer. The other, a series of cuts moving Darin from his empty apartment to the Patagonian countryside, reveals him to be a born filmmaker.

The strange thing is that I watched El Aura on TV. It’s part of IFC Films’ First Take, meaning it’s available via cable services on demand as it slowly makes its way around the country theatrically. It’s not slated to open in Seattle until March 2007, and I wasn’t about to wait. Odds are you could watch the movie in the comfort of your own home right now. Go ahead. You won’t spend a better $5.99 this holiday season.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman, RIP

Years ago I instituted a three-strikes policy for directors. Make three movies I don’t like and I never have to see another one. Life, I decided, was too short.

But I made one exception to the rule from the outset. That was for Robert Altman.

Altman made a number of movies that didn’t float my boat for one reason: he made a lot of movies. As Jaime Weinman points out, “he was an auteur who actually liked to work.” And across a wide range at that; Altman was the living embodiment of Whitman’s sentiment, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” If I didn’t care for one of his films, I knew there would be another soon enough that would be more to my liking. Alas, that is no longer the case.

When an Altman movie did work, the result was unlike any other. McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains one of the great movie-going experiences of my life. I hiked through the rain to see a revival print, the weather outside extending onto the screen. The Long Goodbye, an endlessly fascinating and occasionally maddening update of Raymond Chandler. California Split, a personal favorite and one of the best explorations of addiction that you’ll ever see. Secret Honor, which pulls off the singular trick of making me feel bad for Richard Nixon. The Player, Gosford Park, so many more.

His shadow looms large. Many contemporary filmmakers have embraced his technique of overlapping dialogue and plots. But with Altman that interconnectedness was never the point. It was simply the way he saw the world. We are all of us the focus of our own stories, and occasionally those stories converge.

He also has less obvious heirs who have adopted his work ethic if not his style. The Coens, Steven Soderbergh, and others who make movies year in and year out, always experimenting, having no fear of genre. That’s also quite a legacy.

A Prairie Home Companion is one of my favorite films of 2006. It’s about reaching the end of things and recognizing when it’s time to leave the stage. Strange that it’s also Altman’s last movie. That’s exactly the kind of ending that he always strove to avoid, and that I always find suspect. Once again, though, I’ll make an exception.

Update: Shame-Faced

The spin-off blog lives! Rosemarie crosses The Bridge at San Luis Rey.

Movie: Casino Royale (2006)

Loved it. Coming from someone who has cited James Bond and Bugs Bunny as his two formative influences, that’s high praise.

The black-and-white intro, followed by a dazzling title sequence, had me in the movie’s corner. (The song, not so much. Chris Cornell is no Shirley Bassey.) The ending completely won me over, especially that closing line. For a lifelong 007 fan, it packed a wallop. As the credits roll, you realize that they’ve rebooted the entire franchise. Leaner, meaner, darker, more relevant. Hell, it even has parkour in it.

I have to single out the final action sequence, set in a Venetian villa, as a model for how slambang ought to be done. Nowadays these scenes typically rely on flashy editing, but nothing generates suspense like knowing where characters are in relation to each other within a well-defined space. Director Martin Campbell – a craftsman in the best sense of the word, whose BBC miniseries Edge of Darkness remains one of the finest programs I’ve ever seen on television – conveys all the particulars in a handful of shots. Within seconds you know that those tanks are keeping the building afloat, and that elevator is going to be a problem. Don Siegel would be proud.

Sports: Suited, Not Booted

The NFL’s sideline dress code is actually a cover for a fat merchandising deal with Reebok. But two head coaches – the 49ers’ Mike Nolan and Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio, who has a name right out of a Gold Medal paperback – lobbied for and received permission to wear suits in a throwback to the days of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. They donned the Reebok-designed duds this weekend, so I rooted for the sharp-dressed men. This meant going against the Seahawks and the Giants, two teams I normally pull for. But standing up for men’s fashion is more important, damn it.

For the record, both teams won. And Reebok is now considering a men’s suits line. Meaning we’re all winners.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Miscellaneous: Shoptalk

Regular readers – hoo, that’s a good one – may have noticed that I don’t talk about work much. At some point in the inception of this site, I decided to focus on subjects that interested parties could check out for themselves. Which is why I’m happy to steer you toward my flash fiction or letters to the New York Times, but generally reserve comment on my current writing projects. I’m not sure why I made this decision; I’m a fan of several blogs where writers provide updates on novels and screenplays that may never see the light of day. Maybe I think going into that kind of detail on my own work is too personal.

Today, I’m making an exception.

John August is a successful screenwriter. His website is essential reading for anyone interested in the movie business. He regularly takes questions on all aspects of the industry from the writer’s perspective. Recently, he started a follow-up feature in which he asks those questioners to report in on what has happened to them since.

Two years ago, what I then laughingly called my career had stalled. (Actually, it had slipped into reverse, but through sheer force of will I convinced myself otherwise.) I started reaching out to anyone I could think of for guidance, including John August. He was kind enough to take my question seriously, and responded with some thoughtful advice.

Which I then proceeded to ignore. Still, things have worked out OK, as I report to him here.

I sent this update in for two reasons. One, I felt I owed it to Mr. August for taking the time to answer me. And two, I know if I were still in the position I was in two years ago, it would do me a world of good to hear that if I kept writing perhaps my fortunes would turn. So for the sad and curious few who have ever wondered what I do when I’m not watching monster movies and infomercials, this will tell you. And now back to the usual.

Miscellaneous: Links

All my regular stops – Ed Gorman, Bill Crider, Arts & Letters Daily – have linked to this fine 2 Blowhards piece on Gold Medal paperbacks and their continuing influence on film and fiction, so I will, too. I’ll also toss in a link to the Onion A.V. Club interview it mentions with my spiritual uncle Donald E. Westlake.

Here’s a great, heartbreaking New York Times article on the demise of a classic film buff’s video store.

Friday, November 17, 2006

TV: First Impressions

It’s ‘Impressionists Week’ on The Late Show With David Letterman. If anything can get me to skip the interview segment on The Colbert Report, it’s a theme.

All of the segments are available on the Late Show website. Things kicked off on Monday with – who else? – Rich Little. Fred Travalena was on the next night. I hadn’t seen Fred in ages. When I was a kid, he was everywhere: game shows, talk shows, variety specials, and the unholy tandem of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.

Last night’s performer, Frank Caliendo, had a killer set. His George W. Bush is hands down the best I’ve ever seen, but his John Madden is nothing short of channeling. Make sure you watch the Christopher Guest clip, which also involves an impression. For what it’s worth, I think the idea is almost as funny as Dave does. It all wraps up tonight with Kevin Pollak.

Here’s my impression of impressionists, having watched several ply their trade this week. Politics forces them to keep their acts current. (Right now I’m sure one of them is brushing up on outgoing Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, just in case.) But in terms of pop culture, the staples – Nicholson, Eastwood, Stallone – have been around for a while. The only contemporary star mimicked on Letterman this week was Jim Carrey, and that was actually a take-off on Ace Ventura. Changes in acting styles mean those big public personas simply don’t exist anymore. Try to imagine Frank Gorshin sending up, say, George Clooney and Will Smith the way he’d do Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Makes me wonder who the big impressions will be twenty years from now.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Book: World War Z, by Max Brooks (2006)

Years ago I interviewed horror writer and filmmaker Clive Barker. (That’s it for the name-dropping in this post.) He made the point that classic movie monsters like vampires and werewolves are basically conservative, representing the fear of man’s primal urges. Zombies, he said, are the exception. They are the great liberal nightmare, an entitlement program run amok.

Here’s what I know about zombies: they’re the only ghouls that scare me. I’m not talking about the genteel kind. I mean great George A. Romero hordes of the undead. It’s not the violation of taboos that gets me. It’s the sheer implacability of the zombie as enemy. Their numbers are always increasing, and they’re never going to desert or fall for propaganda. The remake of Dawn of the Dead didn’t help matters. No shambling for these new models, which made a bad situation worse. An uncompromising ending pushed that worse situation into hopeless. At the time the climax angered me, but secretly I respected it for its honesty: if the dead start walking the earth, we are capital-S screwed.

For proof, look no further than World War Z. Max Brooks – Mel’s son! – has written an ingenious book, a mock Studs Turkel-style oral history of the apocalypse. Brooks spans the globe to talk to a variety of “sources,” tracking the chaos from the initial outbreaks in China to the years known as ‘the Great Panic,’ sketching a world in which skirmishes with the undead are a constant.

It’s a richly imagined story, filled with versions of real-life figures. (If you’ve ever wondered how Howard Dean would fare against zombies, this is the book for you.) But it’s the details that give WWZ its charge; there’s a reason why it features blurbs from military affairs correspondents and National Center for Disaster Preparedness personnel. It’s a post-9/11 novel that feels like a post-Hurricane Katrina novel, drawing drama from government’s catastrophic failure to respond to crises.

But don’t let that observation turn you off. Read it if you’re retaining a lot of bejesus and want some of it scared out of you.

Miscellaneous: VHS, RIP

It’s official. Variety says so.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Movie: Borat (2006)

In criticism and on op-ed pages, questions are being raised about this comedy. Who, exactly, is it mocking? Are the jokes at the expense of foreigners? Or is the movie’s target Americans? If so, which kind? Those who secretly harbor prejudices? Or who are so politically correct that they stand idly by while others air those prejudices? Or who live in such cultural ignorance that they will accept, if not expect, boorish behavior from those unlike them? Are the wrong people laughing at this movie, or are people laughing at the wrong things? Are you going to finish that?

I’m not going to answer any of these questions. I lost my Congressional bid; I don’t have to have a position on everything. I will, however, offer the following observations:

1. Borat is hilarious.

2. It’s the first genuine cultural phenomenon in who knows how long. We saw it at a sold out late Saturday matinee. Entire families were there, from little kids to grandmothers. The atmosphere in the theater as the lights went down was more like that of a rock concert.

3. For all the emphasis on Borat’s improvised encounters with people, it’s the scripted scenes that show Sacha Baron Cohen’s peerless understanding of comedy.

4. I cannot get the phrase “like the sleeve of a wizard” out of my head.

5. I’m sure I’m missing the point here, but I haven’t seen a movie that filled me with such love of country since The Right Stuff. The U.S. and A. isn’t perfect, but a boob like Borat can work his way from one end to the other without being arrested or beaten to a pulp. That is something to be proud of.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Book: A Dangerous Man, by Charlie Huston (2006)

Earlier this year, I raved about Caught Stealing and Six Bad Things, a pair of novels by Charlie Huston. Now he’s brought the Henry Thompson saga to a kick-ass close in A Dangerous Man.

Hank was once a regular enough guy, albeit one packing a few too many regrets. Agreeing to do a friend a favor plunges him into a brutal underworld where he’s shocked to find he’s right at home. At the start of A Dangerous Man, he’s a hit man forever indentured to a Russian mobster. When the boss sends him back to New York, where his nightmare began, Hank stumbles onto what may be a way out. But it’ll take a lot more killing to get there.

Hank’s voice remains Huston’s greatest accomplishment, raw and recognizably human no matter how hardened the character becomes. Dangerous has its share of the fluid action scenes that Huston writes so well. He’s even brought the Mets back for an encore.

Each book recounts a stage in Hank’s hellish journey: the downward spiral, the bottoming out, the final shot at redemption. Together, they make for one lethal ride. Make sure to read ‘em in sequence for the full effect. Trust me. Once you start, you’ll tear through all three in no time.

Miscellaneous: Link

Sid Davis was the king of the “social hygiene” film, with classics like The Bottle and the Throttle and Live and Learn to his credit. This New York Times obit does justice to a fine career.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Miscellaneous: Early And Often

I know I’ve been neglecting you. Blame recuperation and a final frenzy of rewrite work. I’ve been focused on nothing else, so even if I had time to post I don’t have anything to post about. I still haven’t seen Borat, fer cryin’ out loud. (Although I did manage to catch The Last King of Scotland. Forest Whitaker’s performance as Idi Amin is spellbinding. The rest of the movie is good, too.)

I did, however, make time to exercise my franchise yesterday. Also, I voted.

I went to the polling place for two reasons. One, to preserve lap dancing within the Seattle city limits. The pursuit of happiness, people. It says it right there in the Declaration of Independence. Although in this case, you don’t have to pursue it. It’s already in your lap.

And two, to cast my biennial protest vote. Metropolitan Seattle (which is actually metronatural, according to our godawful new slogan) is a one-party town, the kind of place where NPR tote bags are handed out as you enter the city. I use mine to muffle my screams. We’re represented in the House by ultra-liberal Jim McDermott. He routinely receives over 75% of the vote. The GOP has never mounted a credible challenge to him, which means the seat is his until he keels over. And possibly well after that if he has the right handlers.

Personally, I like a little variety. Keeps our representatives on their toes. So I vowed several years ago never to vote for McDermott again. Whenever he’s up for re-election, I go with a write-in candidate.

To date, I have put my support behind advice columnist Dan Savage, the anchor of the Mariners’ starting pitching staff, Seattle’s most accurate weatherman, and Rosemarie. Any of whom would do a fine job in the other Washington.

When I got to the polls yesterday, I was offered a choice: standard paper balloting or electronic voting. I’ve never used the latter, and I didn’t want to pass up a chance to have my vote hacked. The precinct only had one such machine available, leading to a fifteen minute wait. When it was my turn, all went swimmingly. I told the machine I wanted to vote for a write-in candidate, and it took me to touch screen keyboard. All I had to do was type in the candidate’s name, and it would appear electronically on the ballot.

So I voted to send myself to Congress. I just had to see how my name looked on an official ballot. Damn good, I must say. McDermott currently has a commanding lead, but you never know. There could be a late-breaking groundswell. Maybe the people have had enough.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sort-Of Related: The Wire/Freedomland (2006)

Consider this the under-the-weather report. Everybody seems to get sick when they travel now. It’s how you know the trip is over. (Orbitz will soon allow you to pre-select the virus that fells you, but the software is still in beta.) Me, I wait until whatever projects were left hanging fire are completed, and then I succumb. I’m nothing if not efficient.

Throw in a spate of truly lousy weather, and it’s been the perfect time to catch up on episodes of HBO’s The Wire. For a while, season four threatened to get away from me. Which would have been a shame, because the best show on TV continues to get richer and deeper as it progresses. Expanding the focus from police work to the public school system underscores that the program has always been more than a crime drama. It’s a ruthless anatomization of American urban life. Some fans have groused about the mayoral election subplot, but those have been my favorite scenes so far this year, beautifully detailing old-school retail politics at the door-to-door level.

It was only appropriate that I also watched Freedomland, the adaptation of Richard Price’s brilliant 1998 novel. Price has penned episodes of The Wire, and the film features a couple of key members of its cast. The incendiary plot would work on the show – a poor white woman’s claim that a black carjacker kidnapped her son escalates tensions in a racially-mixed New Jersey city.

Price, in condensing his 700+ page book, eliminated my favorite character as well as any mystery about what really happened on the night in question. But the power of his storytelling – his ability to capture the day-to-day burdens of big city life, the wellsprings of humanity that flow in the darkest of places, the ways in which well-meaning people can talk past each other – still registers strongly. It’s far from a perfect movie, but it certainly didn’t deserve the critical brickbats it received earlier this year. Wire fans in particular should check it out.

Miscellaneous: Links

A while back I linked to the short film Terrill Lee Lankford made of the opening chapter of Michael Connelly’s latest novel Echo Park. The L.A. Times reports on how the film may have bolstered the book’s sales. I prefer that approach to treating books as design accessories. But whatever works, right?

In excellent news, Ed Gorman returns to the blogosphere. Ed, you have been missed.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Miscellaneous: How I Spent My Halloween, Or A Fistful of Zagnuts

Once again, not a single costumed child turned up on Chez K’s doorstep. They must have been at the mall or, God help us, trunk-or-treating. They were probably all wearing helmets, too. Halloween has certainly changed since I was a kid.

Later, we watched a ripped-from-the-headline episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent about John Mark Karr, with Liza Minnelli as Jon-Benet Ramsey’s mother Patsy.

Then it was on to the Sundance Channel for their night with Jess Franco. Franco has made over 180 movies, most of them soft-core horror. Judging from the furniture and artwork on display, he’s also the only director to shoot all of his films in international departure lounges. Jess is still active at age 76; he recently made a movie called The Killer Barbys vs. Dracula, which I am prepared to recommend sight unseen.

Sundance focused on a trilogy of films Jess made with the striking actress Soledad Miranda, aka Susann Korda. The first, She Killed in Ecstasy, is an erotic revenge thriller, words that have been used to describe my own life. From the opening titles, in which acid jazz plays over images of deformed fetuses in jars, the mind sits back and says What the hell?

Soledad’s doctor husband commits suicide after a small-minded medical panel condemns his unauthorized experimentation on human subjects. Peer review, my ass. His widow then seduces and murders each member of the panel, usually while wearing nothing but a purple crocheted body sheath. Jess gets points for having Soledad kill another woman with a transparent inflatable pillow – and shooting the scene through the pillow. There may also be necrophilia in the movie, but I’m honestly not sure.

I had already seen the second and best-known film in the trilogy, Vampyros Lesbos, at a Knights of Columbus outing. I gave The Devil Came From Akasava a shot but by then it was 1:30 in the morning, and the movie’s plot – secret agent Soledad goes undercover as an exotic dancer in order to recover a metal that turns people into zombies – is only comprehensible after a good night’s sleep. Maybe not even then.

The kicker? Liza was scarier than anything Jess could dream up.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Movie: The Queen (2006)

I’ve been meaning to say something about this movie since I saw it near the start of my New York trip, but I’ve been swamped. And that may be a good thing, because time has only confirmed my initial reaction. As I’m still swamped, I’ll keep it brief: this intimate drama about the British royal family’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana is one of the best movies of the year. High praise from someone raised not to give the royals the steam off my piss, as my earthy Irish forebears would say. Extraordinary acting, Stephen Frears’ customarily subtle direction, and an uncommon script by playwright Peter Morgan that endows public figures with rich inner lives and treats the grief-as-spectator-sport mindset that swept England as the grotesque exhibition it was. Go see it.

Miscellaneous: Links

Two from today’s New York Times: Neil Gaiman on ghost stories, and word of a Jim Thompson/Stanley Kubrick collaboration given new life.

Someone has to put an end to this madness, so I’ll start. My name’s Vince, and I’m a napper. Via Arts & Letters Daily.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Movie: Slither (2006)

If horror movies are so big right now, how is it that this ridiculously entertaining one – which scored good reviews to boot – came and went earlier this year without even leaving a slimy trail behind? I’m kicking myself for missing it in the theater, or even better, a drive-in; if ever there was a film to see with an audience, this bad boy is it. Still, it’s available on DVD in time to make your Halloween.

Troma veteran James Gunn returns to the gory glory days of ‘80s schlock, concocting not one, not two, but three ways for his characters to buy it: extraterrestrial squid being, parasitic slugs, and acid-coughing zombies. Firefly’s Nathan Fillion is our dimwitted, sarcastic hero. There’s also another great performance from Elizabeth Banks, a Chez K favorite thanks to The 40-Year-Old Virgin and her appearance as the world’s loveliest New York Giants fan in Invincible. (Rosemarie favors the Jets.) Plus in-jokes and homages galore. Pick this one up. It delivers the gruesome goods.

Miscellaneous: Boo!

Need more tips for All Hallows’ Eve fare? Stop by my friend Tony Kay’s blog Pop Culture Petri Dish, where he’s in the midst of his second annual Horrorpalooza. He’s got you covered from A (Argento, Dario) to Z (Zombies, Nazi).

Friday, October 27, 2006

Sports: The World? Serious?

So my prediction was wrong, and a St. Louis Cardinals team statistically proven to be the worst ever to appear in the World Series has won the whole thing. I have decided to take solace in the fact that the Cards needed all nine innings of Game 7 to get past the weakened New York Mets, while dispensing with the AL champion Detroit Tigers in a mere five games.

Look, I know these rationalizations are pathetic. But I’ve got an entire off-season to get through.

Miscellaneous: For Your Listening Pleasure

A recent episode of The Bat Segundo Show, the podcast from esteemed blogger Edward Champion, features an interview with my hero (see below) Joe Eszterhas. As much fun as Joe is on the page, there’s something about hearing that great ruined rasp of a voice. Don’t miss it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Book: The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!, by Joe Eszterhas (2006)

How could I not love a book with that title? I’m a sucker for an exclamation mark.

And for Joe Eszterhas, as I’ve mentioned before. Whatever you think of his movies, there’s no denying that they have a bravura energy that compels you to keep watching. Give me Showgirls over any dozen solidly-made, well-meaning indie dramas any day of the week. And Joe’s battles with Hollywood powers that be are legendary. We could use more of his type, on screen and behind the scenes. (At least he’s blogging. Sort of.)

Devil’s Guide collects pearls of wisdom from such luminaries as Paddy Chayefsky, William Faulkner, and Joe’s fellow Hungarian, femme fatale Zsa Zsa Gabor. Much of it I’ve encountered before, but not with Joe’s unique spin. And some of it is new to me, like this advice David O. Selznick received from his father:

“Spend it all. Give it away. Throw it away. But get rid of it. Live expensively. If you have confidence in yourself, live beyond your means. Then you’ll have to work hard to catch up. That’s the only fun there is: hard work.”

That is genuinely inspired. Spend your way to success. That I think I can do.

Joe’s writing tips are simple. Read plays from the ‘30s and ‘40s to learn how to write dialogue. Don’t talk your story away; get it down on paper. And fight for something every once in a while.

OK, Joe. I will. Your movie Jade.

It’s another of Joe’s patented mixes of sex and murder set in San Francisco. It’s nowhere near as stylized as Basic Instinct, and that only makes it more lurid. I’ve always preferred its crackpot charms to Verhoeven’s movie. It’s long been a Chez K favorite.

For years I thought I was alone. Then I saw The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which Seth Rogan tells Steve Carell that in order to attract women, he has to be a jerk. He has to “be David Caruso in Jade.” Recently, ESPN’s The Sports Guy Bill Simmons wrote that since moving from the Colts to the Arizona Cardinals, running back Edgerrin James “has the same look on his face that David Caruso had in Jade.” Clearly, the film has a following.

Then how come there’s only a lousy pan-and-scan version on DVD? One that doesn’t include the additional kinky scenes and the different ending featured on pay TV? David Caruso himself once said: “Jade will be rediscovered by audiences in the future. In fact, I will make a prediction that this film will have a resurgence.”

That future is now. The time has come for a Jade Special Edition. A Resurgence Edition. Draft those emails. Do it for me, for Joe, for Edgerrin James. Do it for all of us.

Miscellaneous: Power To The People

My smartmouthery now extends to Thursday’s letters page of the paper of record. I take a cheap shot at the Democratic party. Scroll to the end. They saved the best for last.

If the politics offend, note that my last letter to the Times not only criticized President Bush, but Russian President Putin as well. I fear nothing and no one.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Miscellaneous: Multimedia Grab Bag

I’m keeping strange hours and watching bad television. Like VH1’s latest dive to the bottom of the reality TV barrel, The Celebrity Paranormal Project. Have there been any ads for this show, or was it slipped onto the air under cover of darkness? Assorted C-listers prowl haunted houses in search of ... OK, that part eludes me. It’s Scooby Doo meets The Love Boat! As if the restless spirits of children who died of tuberculosis at the turn of the previous century want to commune with the sixth runner-up on America’s Next Top Model. I’m pretty sure ghosts are afraid of Gary Busey and not the other way around.

Sometimes it pays off to monitor the tube in the wee hours. Tonight the Sci-Fi Channel plugged a hole in its schedule with two episodes of Tales From The Darkside. One of them was ‘Distant Signals,’ which I wrote about when actor Darren McGavin passed away earlier this year. I haven’t seen it in ages, and now it’s parked safely on the DVR.

A new edition of the 1999 Mel Gibson thriller Payback will apparently be coming to DVD next year. The movie - based on The Hunter, the Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) novel previously filmed as Point Blank - had a troubled history; it was taken away from writer/director Brian Helgeland and extensively reworked. I hated it myself. But I wouldn’t mind checking out Helgeland’s original version, which by all accounts is closer to Stark’s lean-and-mean style.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Movies: All Your Script Are Belong To Us

Sparse posting of late for several reasons. Rewrite work has me jumping. I’m still recovering from the Mets’ playoff ouster. And I’m making my way through the magazines I missed while on vacation.

So I’m late in calling attention to this Malcolm Gladwell article in the October 16 issue of The New Yorker on a computer program designed to predict hit movies. It’s actually an artificial neural network that analyzes screenplays using weighted values for various story elements; so many million bucks in projected box office for the right action beats or key bonding moments in the third act.

As a screenwriter I am entitled to hate such software, but I can’t completely, at least not as Gladwell depicts it. The software allegedly shows that audiences are primarily concerned with story, and don’t care who the stars of a movie are. You’re preaching to choir here, Univac.

Gladwell’s trademark digressions into history and theory bog the article down somewhat, but it’s still worth reading for its insights into how movies are written. The software designers demonstrate their handiwork for Gladwell using the 2005 Sean Penn/Nicole Kidman thriller The Interpreter. The computer analyzes the original draft of the screenplay by Charles Randolph, plus the shooting script revised by several writers including Scott Frank, one of the best there is. (Frank is brutally honest in his comments, saying he reached a point where he didn’t believe what he was writing. “I don’t know that I made (the movie) better. I may have just made it different.”) The computer then serves up a rewrite of its own.

I’ll say this for Epagogix (the name comes from Aristotle); it nails the flaws in the finished film. The Interpreter has some solid set pieces, but it doesn’t fully exploit its U.N. location and the ending doesn’t make a lot of sense. The computer apparently had nothing to say about my main problem with the movie: too many scenes saddling Penn’s character with an unnecessary tragic backstory. Rosemarie and I now call them “abutment scenes” in honor of this film, because Penn is constantly rambling about his not-quite-yet-ex-wife’s death when her car ran into a bridge abutment. (Note to screenwriters: if you’re going to make an actor, even one of Penn’s caliber, repeat a word endlessly, make it more lyrical than “abutment.”)

As for the computer’s version of the movie, it’s the worst kind of hackwork. And I have no doubt that it would indeed have grossed the $111 million that the program projects. I know I would have gone to see it.

Miscellaneous: Link

We’re rolling into prestige movie season, and I have to admit I’m not feeling a whole lot of enthusiasm. Then I saw the trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Sports: Wait ‘Til Next ... Aw, Hell

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.

Let’s be honest. No National League team is going to beat Detroit in the World Series this year. We all know that. Even so, I still wanted the Mets to be the ones facing them.

And they should have been. Their untested starting pitchers delivered in games six and seven. They had ample opportunities to finish the Cardinals off tonight but failed to close the deal. When Endy Chavez made one of the most spectacular catches I’ve ever seen, turning a two-run shot into a double play, I figured a win was in the books. Didn’t happen. Still, the Mets played one hell of a season, and are primed to dominate their division for the next few years.

So now St. Louis will be fed to the lions, or should I say Tigers. I’ll shake off the blues and watch the October Classic, mainly because Tommy Lasorda says I have to. And whatever Tommy says, I do.

One pop culture note. A fan in the stands at Shea was waving a sign reading “Oliver’s Army,” in honor of Mets starter Oliver Perez. A 25-year-old Elvis Costello reference. I love this team.

TV: MMM, We Hardly Knew Ye

A moment of silence, please, for TBS’ Midnight Money Madness. The live late night game show, which grew progressively sleazier throughout its eight-week trial run, airs for the final time tonight. I won’t miss MMM, but I will miss the traffic generated by the nasty post I wrote after stumbling onto it by accident.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Miscellaneous: Big Time

From the How Did I Miss This? Department: Congratulations to Jess Walter, whose novel The Zero is one of five finalists for this year’s National Book Award.

I write a glowing review of his book before I go on vacation, and by my return he lands one of the loftiest of accolades. Such is the power I wield.

Miscellaneous: Conversations at the Whitney Museum

Elderly woman standing before a Jackson Pollock painting: Thank God ours isn’t glooped up like that one.


Thus marking one of the rare uses of ‘glooped’ when it is not the operative word in a sentence.

Me, spotting a sign for an upcoming exhibition of the work of artist Kiki Smith: Didn’t she used to sing with Louis Prima?

Rosemarie, playing along with my dumb joke: Yeah, she had that great haircut.

Helpful woman behind us: No, Kiki Smith.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Miscellaneous: The New York Experience

The first order of business on this New York trip was acquiring a Mets home cap. The away one I’ve worn all season wasn’t fit to make the trip. A truck driver on the Upper East Side blasted his horn and gave me the thumbs up, then yelled that the hat looked a little new. No one accuses a Queens native of jumping on the Mets bandwagon, so I yelled back that it was replacing one I’d worn out. He found the answer acceptable. Wearing the cap on the street prompted several such conversations, including a few with disgruntled Yankee fans.

We were able to visit our friends Terry and Tom at their house in the country, the restoration of which I’ve been reading about on their blog. It was a treat to see the place in person at last. Fortunately, our hosts didn’t ask us for remodeling help. I only pick up a claw hammer to fight off hordes of the undead.

On this trip, Rosemarie and I decided to do a couple of things we’d put off for too long. I got into jazz through the recordings the Bill Evans Trio made at the legendary Village Vanguard. When I saw that Brad Mehldau, another piano player with a long Vanguard history, would be in town with his trio, I knew the time had come to make my pilgrimage. Mehldau played a terrific set, including a dynamic cover of Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ and a version of ‘Secret Love’ that would break your heart.

As for Rosemarie, she finally got to follow in the footsteps of her idol Dorothy Parker and enjoy a few cocktails at the Algonquin Hotel.

Visiting several of the city’s mystery bookstores yielded plenty of treasures. I snagged a copy of Damn Near Dead, the anthology edited by Duane Swierczynski. It’s signed by several of the contributors – but not, alas, by Bill Crider, Mr. Legible himself.

Friends provided plenty of suggestions for which Broadway show to see, but we arrived with our minds made up. We opted for Martin Short’s Fame Becomes Me, because we knew it would be funny. And we were right. Our celebrity mystery guest was none other than the former first lady herself. That’s right, Stockard Channing.

The cultural high point was the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which includes his immortal Nighthawks as well as all of Hopper’s studies for the painting. The culinary high points were too numerous to mention – although I have to single out S’Mac, which only serves macaroni and cheese.

Celebrities sighted: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Richard Belzer, both dining at outdoor cafes. The strangest encounter, though, occurred at the Whitney. Moments after leaving the gallery named for the family of Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz, we passed the man himself - or a reasonable facsimile - in the museum’s lobby. Seeing such a rarified presence in the flesh was a bizarre, otherworldly experience, like spotting the devil at a pay phone. It raised the possibility that the world of movers and shakers was not as far away as you’d imagined.

Speaking of hidden universes revealed, here’s the secret to having a great time in New York: ask your best local bartender for recommendations on where to bend an elbow. The staff at the Zig Zag Cafe, Seattle’s finest, gave us a list of five spots and we hit ‘em all. By the time our trip was over we were semi-regulars. To be greeted like a friend by a roomful of strangers in the greatest city in the world is an experience like no other.

I’ve posted a few photos of the trip at Flickr, if you’re interested.