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.