Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Movie: The Queen (2006)

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

Miscellaneous: Links

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Movie: Slither (2006)

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

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

Miscellaneous: Boo!

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

Friday, October 27, 2006

Sports: The World? Serious?

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

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

Miscellaneous: For Your Listening Pleasure

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, Joe. I will. Your movie Jade.

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Power To The People

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Miscellaneous: Multimedia Grab Bag

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Movies: All Your Script Are Belong To Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Link

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

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Sports: Wait ‘Til Next ... Aw, Hell

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

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

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

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

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

TV: MMM, We Hardly Knew Ye

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

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Miscellaneous: Big Time

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

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

Miscellaneous: Conversations at the Whitney Museum

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


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

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

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

Helpful woman behind us: No, Kiki Smith.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Miscellaneous: The New York Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Back At My Post

D’ja miss me?

This New York trip was pure bliss. Good times, great drinks, and promising news about several projects. I’ve got a lot of writing to do between now and the end of the year, but don’t worry. Regular posting will resume shortly. Possibly as soon as later today. There may even be photographs.

One observation before I collapse into bed: all commercial aircraft without individual seatback television sets should be grounded. If I can’t watch the Law & Order rerun of my choice while flying over the flyover states, I’d prefer to travel via catapult.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Book: The Zero, by Jess Walter (2006)

It’s funny how you can have a proprietary interest in a writer. That’s how I feel about Spokane-based Jess Walter. I’ve been reading him since he started as a novelist, with Over Tumbled Graves and the heartbreaking Land of the Blind. He took home a much-deserved Edgar Award last year for Citizen Vince, and I thought: I knew him when. Sort of.

His follow-up novel, The Zero, is big, ambitious, and wild. How ambitious? It’s billed as a novel of September 12. How wild? It’s a comedy in the Joseph Heller mode, one of the blackest hue. It’d have to be.

New York cop Brian Remy was at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. He goes to work assisting in the clean-up until he shoots himself in the head. He’s pretty sure it’s an attempted suicide. But he doesn’t really know. Remy doesn’t really know anything anymore. He’s suffering from gaps in his memory, waking up in the middle of situations with no clear idea of how he got there.

That condition makes him the ideal candidate to undertake certain tasks for a top secret branch of the Office of Liberty and Recovery, charged with tracking down every piece of paper blown out of the Twin Towers.

Walter had a front row seat for much of what occurred in the wake of the attacks because he was helping then-NYC police commissioner Bernard Kerik with his memoirs. That access informs the book’s scabrous take on those early days. Politicians milk the tragedy for every advantage. Police officers complain about which celebrities they’re assigned to squire around Ground Zero, with Sarah Jessica Parker outranking a Yankees middle reliever. And the emotions stirred by events are commodified before they’re understood.

The book’s righteous anger finds the perfect vehicle in Remy’s stop-and-start perspective. It effortlessly conveys the nagging sensation that Remy – and the rest of us – have become caught up in something sinister without any understanding of what it is or how it can be stopped. The book’s sole misstep is a beautifully-wrought but on the nose paragraph that articulates:

“the general incongruity of life now – the cyclic repetition of events on cable news, waves of natural disasters, scientists announcing the same discoveries over and over ... wildly famous people who no one could recall becoming famous ... as if some faulty math had been introduced to all the equations, corrupting computer programs and causing specious arguments to build upon themselves, and sequential skips – snippets of songs sampled before their original release, movies remade before they came out the first time, victories claimed before wars were fought.”

I don’t know about you, but I feel like that all the time. Jess Walter wrote my favorite novel of last year, and he may have written my favorite of this one, too.

Update: Brief Hiatus

Time to head to New York for a little business and a lot of relaxation. Internet access remains a question mark. In the meantime, head over to the Links page and visit any of those fine bloggers. They’ll take good care of you.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Movie: A Sound of Thunder (2005)

Let’s just say that expanding Ray Bradbury’s classic short story wasn’t a good idea. The movie had a troubled production history (it sat on the shelf for several years), nowhere near enough money for special effects, and an unrealistic vision of the future. Like men’s hats would ever come back.

Early on Ben Kingsley, in a hairpiece that does not at all make him look crazy, launches into a stock speech about his company’s time travel technology. He compares it to “Columbus discovering America, Armstrong stepping on the moon, Brubaker landing on Mars.” It’s your classic science fiction variation on the triple, the dialogue equivalent of having someone drink something blue to remind us that our story is set in the future. Star Trek used this gambit regularly.

But the last part of the line stuck in my head. Brubaker landing on Mars? Why did that sound familiar?

Then it hit me. Growing up one of my favorite movies was Capricorn One, a thriller that riffs on the conspiracy theory that the moon landing had been faked. The commander of the movie’s phony Mars expedition is named Colonel Charles Brubaker. The film’s director? Peter Hyams, who also made Thunder.

I was way too excited about figuring this out.

Later, there’s a scene set in a store called Spota’s Market. It occurred to me that in the thriller The Presidio, directed by guess who, there’s a character named George Spota. (Don’t ask me why I remember this. I just do.)

Turns out that in several films written or directed by Peter Hyams, characters named Spota appear. And it also happens that talent manager/theatrical producer George Spota was Hyams’ father-in-law.

Clearly, I have seen too many movies. At least too many Peter Hyams movies. But discovering these connections made my day.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Movies: The Devil With Hitler (1942)/Nazty Nuisance (1943)

Sometimes, the cable gods are very, very good to me. This afternoon, they allowed me to stumble onto Turner Classic Movies’ double bill of Hal Roach oddities, in which Hitler, Mussolini and “Suki Yaki” (apparently, Japan’s WWII leadership had better representation) make like the Three Stooges. It’s the Axis of Hilarity! Think of Adolf as Moe, only more genocidal. But about as funny.

In the first film, Hell’s board of directors is so impressed with the Fuhrer’s moxie that they want him to take over their operation. The Devil Himself is forced to head topside and trick Hitler into committing a good deed. Number of laughs: one, when an American spy puts Adolf in his place by calling him “a cheap non-union house painter.”

The New York Times called Devil “as malodorous a film as has been placed on a Broadway screen in many a month.” Yet it proved popular enough to warrant a sequel. In Nazty, the fascist hijinkery moves to a tropic isle. At one point steam shoots out of Hitler’s ears, and later he and Mussolini have a pillow fight with a monkey. I am not making this up. Number of laughs: zero, but in a larger sense I was in hysterics the entire time.

Bobby Watson plays Hitler. In fact, he made a career of the role, donning the little mustache at least ten times. Mostly in comedies. What an odd career that must have been. “Get me that Hitler. No, the funny Hitler.”

The movies are fascinating, both tasteless and toothless; Saddam suffers far worse. I couldn’t begin to guess when they last aired on television. TCM is in the midst of a push to lure younger viewers with new programs like Underground, hosted by Rob Zombie. I just hope they continue to blow the dust off relics like these.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Update: Shame-Faced Podcast

In the latest episode of the spin-off blog’s podcast, Rosemarie and I finally right a great wrong by watching Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend along with another classic treatment of alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses.

For our straight-no-chaser conversation, direct download it here or get it at iTunes.

Book: Death’s Dark Abyss, by Massimo Carlotto (2004, U.S. 2006)

Great title, isn’t it? Read this in a coffee shop and have Goth chicks flocking to you. Assuming Goth chicks frequent coffee shops and engage in flocking behavior. I should look into that.

It’s been too long since I sang the praises of Europa Editions. I raved about The Goodbye Kiss, an earlier Carlotto title, in Mystery*File. His follow-up is every bit as strong.

A criminal takes a woman and child hostage during a botched robbery, killing them both. Fifteen years into a life sentence, he’s diagnosed with cancer and seeks a pardon so he can receive treatment outside the prison walls. Little does he suspect that the third victim of his crime, the husband and father he left bereft, will seize this opportunity for revenge.

Carlotto knows how to make a reader uncomfortable. He twists our automatic sympathy for the victim, who in this case is a man incapable of participating in life until his first taste of vengeance renders him a monster. By contrast, the criminal is a savvy, almost amiable hustler all too aware of the toll of his actions. The ending achieves a kind of shocking grace. This one is as spare (less than 150 pages!) and as dark as they come.