Thursday, June 29, 2006

Movie: A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

I’m just going to admit it. NPR irks me. All those beige voices whispering over sound effects.

So I’ve never heard Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I’m not sure that I want to. I’d prefer to remember it the way Keillor and director Robert Altman have captured it here in all its fractious, chaotic glory.

It’s a musical, a comedy, a backstage drama, an elegy for a bygone era, a lesson on how to conduct oneself in life, and there’s not another movie I can compare it to. All I know is that in its sheer oddness, it held me rapt from first frame to last. Pairing up Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly was a stroke of genius. Meryl Streep, preternaturally at ease in her own skin, can officially do no wrong.

In this Slate piece, Dave Kehr sings the praises of mature directors. He cites Companion along with a few other recent films that I’ve enjoyed (16 Blocks, Find Me Guilty). This means my mother was right: I was born an old man.

After the movie, I observed to Rosemarie that a scene between Tommy Lee Jones and Virginia Madsen reunited the two stars of the 1988 cable film Gotham. She stared at me for a moment and said, “Congratulations. You’re the only person who is not either Tommy Lee Jones or Virginia Madsen to point that out.” Made my day.

Fabian Bielinsky, R.I.P.

The Argentine filmmaker only directed two features. His latest, El Aura, swept his nation’s film awards this week and will be released in the U.S. later this year. His first film Nine Queens is an absolute joy, with a near-perfect ending. Thinking of it now brings a smile to my face.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

TV: Broken Trail (2006)

AMC stopped calling itself American Movie Classics around the time it began running Chuck Norris Missing in Action-thons. That’s also when I stopped watching. But I’m slowly coming around. The con man series Hu$tle is good fun. And AMC’s first original movie, a two-part western, is a gem. It’s also a ratings success.

Two trail hands driving horses across the Pacific Northwest find themselves protecting five Chinese women who have been sold into prostitution. But Alan Geoffrion’s script is all about the details. Bad news is always bearing down on us, one and all; what matters is what you do before it reaches you. As Rosemarie said, “I didn’t think it was possible to cry at the end of a Walter Hill movie.”

Thomas Haden Church delivers an impressively taciturn turn. And you can keep your Yoda. I’ll take Robert Duvall’s grizzled cowpoke, dispensing hard-won wisdom as off-handedly as a request for more coffee.

Hill, a filmmaker I’ve admired for years, has plenty of wisdom of his own to share in this L.A. Weekly interview. Here he’s asked about how the superhero film has supplanted the action genre:

Yeah ... The kind of Burt Lancaster/Steve McQueen/Lee Marvin tough-guy movie, they don’t make very many of those. This, of course, is a shattering blow to me. [Laughs] Both as a filmmaker and as an audience. I love those things.

You and me both, Mr. Hill. I like superheroes as much as the next fanboy, but give me a badass who can bleed any day of the week. He also passes along this observation:

I remember having lunch with Jacques Demy once ... and he said he thought that Americans were losing contact with one of their greatest artistic discoveries in filmmaking: that the perfect playing time for a motion picture was 90 minutes. It’s the right amount of time you could sit and ... go without food, drink and going to the bathroom if you were in reasonable health. [Laughs] I’ve never forgotten that.

No doubt it will come back to me during the five hours I spend watching Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Both parts of Broken Trail air again Thursday night. Do yourself a favor and tune in.

Miscellaneous: Link

The newly-redesigned Slate kicks off Summer Movie Week by asking filmmakers and critics what film they’ve seen the most. Regular readers already know my answer.

Monday, June 26, 2006

TV: My List of DVDemands

According to TV Shows on DVD, the entire run of Bridget Loves Bernie will soon be available on video. Let songs of rejoicing ring out across the nation. Nay, the world.

Actually, this development gives me hope. If BLB has reached the promised land of home video, then maybe other obscure shows can, too. Here are five I’d pay money to see again.

Eyes. A smart, sly take on the private eye show from last summer. Good-looking people doing very bad things. ABC didn’t even air all the episodes that were shot.

Vengeance Unlimited. Another winner from John McNamara, the twisted genius behind Eyes. Who else would have known that the thorazine deadpan of Michael Madsen would translate perfectly to series TV? Madsen played the mysterious Mr. Chapel, who every week set up a complex scam to mete out justice to those who evaded the law. He did so with help from a seemingly endless list of “associates” who owed him favors. A funny, nasty, truly subversive show – so naturally it aired at 8PM.

Shannon’s Deal. John Sayles’ lone foray into series TV, about a high-flying Philadelphia lawyer forced to start over after his life falls apart. Shannon’s mantra – “Only losers go to court” – was the reason why I loved the show, and why it was doomed to fail. Jamey Sheridan lead a top-flight cast that included Elizabeth Pena, Miguel Ferrer and Richard Edson.

The above links are all to the indispensable Thrilling Detective. The site’s on a well-deserved hiatus now, but I want to show it some love.

And, for variety, some comedies:

The High Life. Perhaps the least successful series in HBO’s history. Even 1st & Ten gets more respect. A tribute to 1950s sitcoms, shot in glorious black-and-white, that addressed all the issues (McCarthyism, the KKK) those sitcoms wouldn’t touch. Executive produced by David Letterman.

Morton & Hayes. Every week, Rob Reiner introduced a newly-discovered two-reeler from the forgotten team of Chick Morton and Eddie Hayes. What followed was a note-perfect recreation of an Abbott & Costello-style comedy with a title like “The Bride of Mummula.” Kevin Pollak and Bob Amaral were backed up by guest stars like Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney and Hamilton Camp.

But it’s the level of talent behind the scenes that has me amazed this series isn’t on video. Not just Reiner but his Spinal Tap cohorts Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, plus SCTV vets Dick Blasucci and Joe Flaherty. Lines from this show are still heard around Chez K, such as “I’m sure we can find a splendid repast at that quaint inn.” Or the boys’ immortal theme song:

We’re Morton & Hayes
We’re buddies and chums
When one of us is whistling
The other one hums!

I’d give up the other four for this one. But I’m not holding my breath. I’ll set my sights on something attainable, like Hawaii Five-O’s debut on DVD. When’s that coming?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Movie: Lady Vengeance (2005, U.S. 2006)

Occasionally at the end of a movie’s title sequence, I’ll turn to Rosemarie and whisper, “Let’s go. It’s going to be all downhill from here.”

I was tempted to say that at the outset of Chan-wook Park’s latest film, but I knew better. Everything promised by the opening – expressive yet minimalist visuals, deft use of music – presaged what was to follow. (The movie is being released under this title in the U.S., but is still called Sympathy for Lady Vengeance onscreen.)

Park again turns the payback genre inside out here. A woman is released from prison after serving 13 years for her role in the kidnapping and death of a young child. To all appearances, she has turned over a new leaf while incarcerated. But that’s only stage one in a complex plan to destroy the man who is truly responsible.

The first half of the movie is extraordinary, shifting back and forth in time fluidly but with a formal elegance. A plot twist sends the story into unexpected, unpleasant and at times implausible territory. But it also becomes even more grounded in human behavior, and the film remains every bit as compelling because of it. The thematic perspective also widens, delving into redemption as well as revenge.

This is pulp storytelling for the 21st century. Melodrama elevated to the level of the operatic, violence and emotion fused and heightened, all of it delivered with Park’s startling command of the medium. The staggering Oldboy may be a better movie – if you haven’t seen it, rent it now, just brace yourself going in – but the skill on display in Lady Vengeance puts Park squarely on the short list of filmmakers (Pedro Almodovar, Neil Jordan) whose work I will not miss.

Miscellaneous: Minority Book Report

At a used book sale the other day, Rosemarie snagged a handful of old paperback thrillers for me. One of them was an entry in The Liquidator series by R. L. Brent. I can’t turn up much information on these books online. Anyone who can shed some light, feel free to chime in. (Yes, Bill Crider, I’m looking in your direction.)

A bit of paper fluttered out when I opened the book, a corner of a Newsweek page that the previous owner had used to mark his place. It trumpeted the marriage of “actor Tom Cruise, 24, and actress Mimi Rogers, 31” in upstate New York on May 9. To think we were all so young once.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced

You know who bugs me? Franz Kafka. Read why at the spin-off blog.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Movie: Into the Night (1985)

This neglected comic thriller, directed by John Landis from a script by Ron Koslow, is the working definition of offbeat. It doesn’t have a plot so much as a vibe. Nice guy engineer Jeff Goldblum drives the streets of Los Angeles to cope with his insomnia. He soon finds himself caught up in a bizarre noir plot involving smuggled emeralds, a femme fatale (Michelle Pfeiffer, never lovelier), and a quartet of lunatic Iranian killers, one of them played by Landis.

Like the story matters. The film is really about nocturnal rhythms, that sense that the wee hours of the morning are when the world is at its most dangerous and you’re at your most alive. Landis captures that feeling in his best directing effort. Night makes an interesting double-bill with Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (out on video now now – try it, you’ll like it). Both movies depict L.A. as a city of traffic and illusion – and both have interesting things to say about the women who migrate there to become stars only to fall short.

Night has been playing on cable, but I rented the DVD hoping that a certain extra would be included – and it was. B.B. King provides much of the film’s music, and the video for his song ‘Lucille’ features the cast as his band. Goldblum on piano, Pfeiffer and cameo player Dan Aykroyd in the horn section along with Steve Martin, and Landis vet Eddie Murphy on drums. It’s every bit as odd I remembered.

This kind of thing happened a lot in the mid-‘80s, when music videos were still new enough to be seen as prime marketing opportunities. It may have reached a nadir in the Bob Seger video “American Storm,” which featured James Woods, Scott Glenn, Randy Quaid and Lesley Ann Warren acting up an American storm in a movie that didn’t exist. They simply shot the scenes for the video. Why not? At the time, that’s what all videos looked like.

I can’t find that or the ‘Lucille’ clip online, but here are two premiere example of the form: Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” video, packed with pointless celebrity appearances (Melissa Gilbert? Irene Cara?) and Billy Ocean’s theme from The Jewel of the Nile, with Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito as his back-up singers. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Book: Killing Time, by Donald E. Westlake (1961)

Bill Crider and I may not be in complete agreement about Paul Malmont’s novel The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. But he has much to teach me. When he recommends a paperback – particularly a vintage Donald E. Westlake – I listen.

Time is about a private detective in a corrupt New York burg who maintains his independence by holding onto secrets. When reformers come to town, he finds himself in the crosshairs. Bill’s right to compare this book to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. But its genial cynicism is pure Westlake. As the detective puts it, if the town works, who cares if the powers that be skim a little off the top?

And that ending ... man. Great, tough stuff.

Miscellaneous: My Magazine Issues

Rosemarie said it best: “Entertainment Weekly changed its layout and now I can’t read it anymore.”

I always knew EW was a silly rag. Frivolous, even. Its heyday, back when Jada Pinkett (not yet Smith) cited its pop culture savvy in Scream 2 as the reason why she’d stay alive (she didn’t), is long past, but it was still fun to read. Until the redesign brought its weaknesses to the fore.

EW is like that vapid friend you hang out with because at least it knows the value of a good time. Then that friend gets botox and collagen injections, and it becomes impossible to ignore how shallow it is. So much so that you become retroactively annoyed about all the time you squandered on it in the past.

Now there’s not a smart mass-market film magazine left in the U.S. When it comes to movies new and old, I find more insight and passion through the round-ups in GreenCine Daily.

I should say something nice about the doomed format of weeklies. The June 19 issue of The New Yorker includes a lengthy, fascinating article on port security by William Finnegan. (Read his book Cold New World, you’ll thank me later.) He reports on the influence that On The Waterfront still has on those who make their living in New York Harbor, then reveals an amazing tidbit. Tom Hanley, the newly elected shop steward at a major freight terminal in New Jersey, appeared in the movie as a child. He played the kid who tends to Terry Malloy’s pigeons ... until Terry agrees to cooperate with the law. Hanley never acted in movies again. Instead, he lived out On The Waterfront for real.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced Podcast

26 minutes, 9MB. Available here or at iTunes.

This latest installment of the spin-off blog’s podcast, in which Rosemarie selects a classic chick flick for me to watch while I program a seminal guy film for her, is a bit longer than previous outings. We got a little carried away, and when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘I.’ I do a terrible impression and at one point actually burst into song. I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Honest.

Book: The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, by Paul Malmont (2006)

It’s an idea so simple, so ingenious: put some of the masters of pulp fiction into a pulp story of their own. Paul Malmont, in his debut novel, more than does the idea justice. He’s written the most enjoyable book I’ve read in a long time.

Walter Gibson, creator of The Shadow, and Lester Dent, the man behind Doc Savage and this fool-proof pulp outline, have a personal and professional rivalry dating back years. Each is constantly trying to best the other, especially when it comes to unraveling real-life mysteries that might fuel their next two-fisted tale. Gibson heads to Providence to look into the alleged murder of second-rate pulpateer H. P. Lovecraft, while Dent tries to solve a Chinatown riddle dating back to the last Tong war. Little do they suspect that both crimes are connected ... to a dastardly plot for world domination!

The book is packed with thrills, spills and adventure – but it’s also about the power that myth and story have in everyday life. There are cameos galore from figures real and fictional, which I won’t spoil because they’re part of the fun. OK, I’ll spoil one: the scene in which Orson Welles, who voiced the Shadow on radio, describes his vision of a Shadow movie that prefigures film noir and Citizen Kane had my hair standing on end. It was strange to read about how poorly Lovecraft fared as a pulp writer during his lifetime only days after seeing the new Library of America collection of his work in a bookstore.

Here’s the highest compliment I can pay Malmont’s book: it not only kept me up well past my bedtime, it made me wake up early the next day so I could plunge back into it. I haven’t done that since I was ten years old – which is only appropriate, because this book made me feel that age again.

Miscellaneous: Links

A recent article on lucha libre, or masked Mexican wrestling, led me to the website of Christa Faust. Her novel Hoodtown is a noir set in a ghetto populated solely by masked luchadors. As if that weren’t cool enough, she also wrote the novelization of the upcoming movie Snakes on a Plane.

Christa’s latest blog post is one I’ve been waiting for, featuring her take on Jack Black’s Nacho Libre.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

TV: The Tonight Show Smackdown

The prospect of Ann Coulter and George Carlin on the same talk show couch had people salivating. I knew fireworks weren’t in the offing for three reasons.

1. It’s The Tonight Show. Nothing interesting ever happens on The Tonight Show.

2. Carlin doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody.

3. He is, at heart, a neighborhood Irish Catholic guy from New York. And one thing we’re taught is never be disrespectful to women in public.

Jay Leno isn’t the best interviewer, but he did ask Coulter if her caustic language about the 9/11 widows obscured her point. Because, like it or not, she has one. A small point, but a valid one. (John Tierney explicates it nicely in this piece behind the NY Times’ Select wall.)

Coulter replied by slamming the mainstream media and trumpeting her book’s sales figures. That rote response only lends credence to the charge – leveled by the Times’ David Carr and Andrew Sullivan, among many others – that she’s an empty provocateur who doesn’t believe what she says. Sullivan goes so far as to call her “a fictional character.”

And she is. She’s the anti-Stephen Colbert. He began as a comic figure who, in the wake of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, became a force to be reckoned with. Coulter started as a semi-serious pundit and devolved into a joke. And not a funny one, based on her appearance last night.

Leno’s audience was on her side, though, which makes sense considering The Tonight Show’s demographics. Frankly, I was glad to see it. It makes for a nice change of pace from the crowds at The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I’m a fan of both programs, but the self-love from those studio audiences grates on my nerves.

I only tuned in last night because my girl KT Tunstall was the musical guest. She engaged Coulter by taping a sign that read “This Machine Kills Fascists” to her guitar in tribute to Woody Guthrie. I never got that sentiment. I suppose if you swung, say, a Fender Stratocaster at the right angle you could take down a blackshirt. But that’s only one fascist. Unless the guitar broke in such a way that the neck could be used to stab another one, in which case you could get away with pluralizing. But that’s not a given. Those guitars are really well made.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Book: Kickback, by Garry Disher (1991)

For a while now, Lee Goldberg has been touting Disher’s novels about professional thief Wyatt as Australia’s answer to the Parker books by Richard Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake. And you know how I feel about Westlake.

Turns out Lee’s right. Kickback is streamlined and lethal. Wyatt, pushing 40 and no longer able to wait for the best jobs, decides to take down a crooked lawyer’s stash of money. He’ll have to tangle with a South African hit man, partners who may not be on the level, and Sugarfoot Younger, a dimwitted hoodlum who doesn’t realize his nickname was given to him ironically. But what Sugarfoot lacks in brains he makes up for in nastiness.

Wyatt’s no slouch himself. Here’s his philosophy: “Let me down and I’ll kill you. You’d do the same to me. That’s all we need to know about each other.”

I found a pair of Disher’s novels in a used book store last year. Fortunately Kickback is the first in the series. The other one I bought is the third, but I’ll probably read it anyway.

Movie: Unholy Partners (1941)

More housekeeping. I caught the beginning of this Mervyn LeRoy movie on TCM and was instantly hooked. Eight months later, I finally watched the rest of it. I’m slow but thorough.

New York editor Edward G. Robinson returns from his WWI service with the idea of recreating the tabloid-style newspaper he ran for the troops. Lots of crime stories, gory photographs galore. As he puts it, “The war made life cheap, which made emotions cheap.” When no money men step up to back him, he turns to gangster Edward Arnold. It’s a perfect relationship – until Robinson pushes a story that Arnold wants hushed up.

The dialogue crackles and Marsha Hunt introduces “After You’ve Gone.” Sadly, the movie is not available on video. Neither is Sam Fuller’s Park Row, another drama about the rollicking early days of the newspaper business that I’ve always wanted to see. Hmm. There could be a boxed set in this.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Movie: The Proposition (2005, U.S. 2006)

Here we are closing in on the year’s halfway mark and I’m thinking: where’s a movie to send me back on my heels? This Australian western will do the trick nicely.

The Burns gang, a trio of outlaw brothers, are terrorizing the countryside. When two of them are captured, the English garrison commander Stanley (Ray Winstone – has the man ever been bad in anything?) takes an unorthodox step in his mission to “civilize this land.” He offers sober middle child Charlie (Guy Pearce) a deal: head into the outback and kill his older brother Arthur by Christmas. If he does, Stanley will spare his younger brother’s life and pardon them both.

The action cuts between Charlie’s trek into the wild and Stanley’s slow realization that his definition of law and order may not match that of those he is trying to protect – or even that of his wife (Emily Watson), an English rose struggling to take root in rocky soil.

Great acting abounds. Danny Huston’s Arthur isn’t some brutal beast but a poetry-besotted patriarch, which only makes him more frightening. Pearce barely says a word, but it soon becomes clear that the line between society and lawlessness runs straight through him. And John Hurt tears through the scenery as a wily bounty hunter.

Director John Hillcoat gives the movie an extraordinary look, like an artifact of the era come to life. I didn’t see if there was a credit for ‘fly wrangler,’ but if there wasn’t there damn well should have been.

The script by musician Nick Cave unfolds with the power of a folk tale – or one of the murder ballads he recorded with the Bad Seeds. Always nice to see a member of the Sons of Lee Marvin doing well. Even if they won’t me let in their secret club. The black-balling bastards.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Movies: Noir’s The Pity

Seattle’s weather patterns have been screwed up lately. Sunday was the first nice day we’ve had in a while. So how did we spend the afternoon? In the dark, like always.

It was noir day at the Seattle International Film Festival. Two movies, recovered from a sorry fate by the Film Noir Foundation and introduced by genre expert Eddie Muller. A few rays of sunshine weren’t about to change my plans. I’ve seen sunshine before.

But I hadn’t seen 1950’s The Man Who Cheated Himself. Detective Lee J. Cobb tries to cover up his role in a murder from his squad’s newest member – his own brother (Gun Crazy’s John Dall). He does it for the love of a woman Eddie describes as “the least likely femme fatale ever,” Jane Wyatt. That’s right, from Father Knows Best. But, as Eddie says, if you’re an adherent of the sexual fetish known as ‘librarianism,’ then Jane may float your kinky boat. I think the man’s got a point. It’s a lean movie with a taut climax set in San Francisco’s Fort Point years before Hitchcock made it famous in Vertigo.

The follow-up was The Window, the first movie restored through the efforts of the FNF. This retelling of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ was the sleeper hit of 1949 and earned young Bobby Driscoll a special miniature Oscar for his performance. For various reasons it fell out of circulation, but the new print played like gangbusters to a packed house. (The Cornell Woolrich story that inspired it was also the basis for the 1984 film Cloak & Dagger, a huge favorite of mine growing up. Remember, Jack Flack always escapes.)

At the end of the film, Eddie told the crowd that Bobby Driscoll died of a drug overdose in 1968, in a tenement one block from where he’d filmed The Window as a child. He hated to send us out on such a grim note, he said, but when fate imitates noir you have to pay attention.

Not that it mattered. By then the clouds were rolling back in anyway.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced

Rosemarie has a session with Dr. Freud at our spin-off blog. Remember, sometimes a post is just a post.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Books: Caught Stealing (2004) & Six Bad Things (2005), by Charlie Huston

Am I getting cranky in my dotage? Is that the thing? In recent days I’ve groused about the beginning of Bust and the end of The Dramatist. I’ve also discovered Charlie Huston, the most exciting new writer to come down the pike in ages – and can only brood about the one aspect of his work that I don’t like.

Hank Thompson once had a promising career as a baseball player ahead of him. Thanks to an injury he’s now adrift, an alcoholic working as a New York bartender. He’s still a mensch, though. In Caught Stealing he even agrees to take in his neighbor’s cat, a good dead that unleashes a frenzy of violence Manhattan won’t soon forget.

Hank’s a truly memorable character, with an urgent but vulnerable voice. I have a bad habit of glossing over action scenes in books, but Huston’s are compelling. Nothing sucks harder in fiction than dream sequences, but Huston delivers one that not only serves a purpose but broke my bloody heart. In the playoff scenario used as a framing device, the Mets – my beloved New York Mets – are the villains. And I still liked the book.

And yet.

It’s built around the most minimal of wrong man plots. Various heavies mistakenly believe Hank knows where a big pile of money is. That’s it. As a result Hank becomes a vortex of mayhem, destroying the lives of everyone he cares about. With a body count this high, I can’t help wishing that events were driven by something more.

I try not to read books by the same author consecutively, but I couldn’t get Hank out of my head. So I broke that rule and plunged directly into Six Bad Things, which picks up Hank’s story three years later.

Like many sequels, the plotting is a bit mechanical. And there’s still a hollowness at the core of the havoc. But Hank has become an even richer character. His exposure to violence has changed him – and what’s worse is that Hank is all too aware of the transformation.

A third installment, A Dangerous Man, will complete Hank’s saga later this year. I might as well put in my order for it now. Despite my reservations, these books are absolutely riveting. I can’t wait to see where Huston goes from here.

Miscellaneous: Just Wait For The Alaskan Polar Bear Heater Number

Jerry Lewis plans on turning The Nutty Professor into a musical. I mention this because I caught the end of the original movie on TV the other night, and immediately bought the only version of Buddy Love’s song “We’ve Got A World That Swings” on iTunes. It’s by jazz pianist/singer Tony DeSare, and it’s a dandy. Not sure I’d want to build a lavish stage production around it, though.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Movie: District B13 (2004, U.S. 2006)

B-movie maestro Roger Corman once laid out his formula for exploitation film success. Mix good looking people with plenty of action, and add a dollop of social consciousness.

Sounds simple enough. And yet the only person walking in his footsteps is France’s Luc Besson. The last few films from his stable – including Unleashed and both Transporter movies – have been lethally entertaining. His latest effort follows the Corman program to a T.

1. Political content. In 2010, the French government walls off the worst of the ghettos, called banlieues, that lie at the edges of major cities, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. Based on recent events, this premise doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched.

When a neutron bomb falls into the hands of B13’s crime lord, a by-the-book cop teams up with the last honest man in the district to recover it. Think of it as Escape From New York meets Rio Bravo/El Dorado, only with a heroin-addicted sister instead of a drunk.

2. Action. It’s all based on parkour, the French-created extreme sport that’s about constant efficient motion around obstacles in an urban landscape. Here’s how smart Besson is: he simply took one of his best stuntmen and made him a star.

3. General hotness. I have it on reasonable authority that the two lead ass-kickers are, and I quote, “yummy.”

Take my word on this. You may see more expensive action films this summer, but you won’t see a better one.

TV: Color Commentary

I had the perfect baseball experience last night: the Mets beat the Dodgers in a game called by Vin Scully. How is it that Vin is more entertaining and informative working all by his lonesome than the batteries of ex-ballplayers other teams put in their booths?

It helps that Vin is a walking history of baseball. Last night’s success of the Mets’ Cuban pitcher Alay Soler had him reminiscing about a time when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley flew his team and the Cincinnati Reds to Havana for spring training. It was the early days of the revolution, and people lined up to have their pictures taken with Fidel Castro look-alikes “as if it were a fiesta,” Vin said. “Some fiesta.” It’s a privilege to listen to him.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced Podcast

Episode two of the spin-off to the spin-off blog is now available. In this outing, Rosemarie and I consider guy films and chick flicks, checking out examples of each form that we’ve managed to miss (The Great Escape and Dirty Dancing).

Twenty-two minutes long, 8MB wide, and available at iTunes or right here. Get it while it’s hot.

Book: The Dramatist, by Ken Bruen (2006)

As a Ken Bruen fan, I was already looking forward to his latest Jack Taylor novel. Then it seemed the entire new wave of writers that have revived noir started raving about it – particularly the ending.

At the indispensable hardboiled fiction list Rara Avis, author Duane Swierczynski said “when I finished that one, the book just fell out of my hands. I couldn’t believe Ken had gone there ... when (my wife) finished, she threw the book across the room. And then she started to cry.” Ray Banks described the ending in this interview as “a real kick in the heart.” So The Dramatist vaulted to the top of the TBR pile.

Ex-garda Jack is somehow clean and sober, but still getting tangled in a variety of private investigations, including what may be a string of serial killings involving the work of the playwright J. M. Synge. All the Bruen hallmarks are present. Effortless prose that flows like Jameson’s at an Irish wedding. A dense stew of pop culture references that serves to deepen our understanding of Jack. And characters that walk off the page and slap you in the face.

Then I got to the ending. And much as I hate to say it, it felt tacked on, even forced.

Maybe it was because I knew something was coming. But I’m pretty sure that even if I didn’t, those closing pages would have left me cold. It’s as if Bruen felt compelled to rain on Jack’s parade. I’ve been to Ireland plenty of times, and here’s what I know: if there’s not a cloud on the horizon, just wait. One will be along soon enough.

Still, I’ll be reading the next Jack Taylor book (Priest, already available in the U.K.) as soon as I can get my hands on it. Bruen’s that good.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Book: Bust, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (2006)

Last week, Bill Crider began his review of this book by saying, “Probably everyone’s read this by now.” That was my cue to take my copy down from the shelf. I do want to be timely.

The latest from Hard Case Crime is a twist on a classic set-up: guy hires other guy to off his wife so he can get it on with his much younger mistress. To be honest, I didn’t warm to it at first. The proceedings seemed a bit too jokey (and in-jokey), and the two main characters are the least interesting in the book.

But eventually – around the time the ex-bank robber admitted to taking acting classes because his imitation of Ray Liotta in Something Wild wasn’t enough to scare the tellers – I got into the spirit of things. The plot corkscrews crazily in the second half, serving up double-cross after double-cross but never in the manner you expect. It’s just one thing damn thing after another, and I finally had the sense to hang on and enjoy the ride.

Miscellaneous: Links

Slate probes the seamy underworld of gray market DVDs. By all accounts the suppressed Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues, mentioned in the piece, is a total bore. But I still regret passing up the chance to catch a screening when I was a student in Boston. I have seen Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, though, and it deserves its reputation. “I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.” Jesus. They don’t come any tougher than that.

Elsewhere, the Los Angeles Times considers the debased coin of glamour. And a lengthy, fascinating interview at In Focus with Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, the two X-Men writers charged with reviving the lost son of Krypton in Superman Returns.