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.