Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year In Review: The Year In Review

2007 began with French toast and a visit from an oracle.

The French toast is easily explained. The only holiday tradition Rosemarie and I have is breakfast out on January 1, complete with Bloody Marys. Begin the year by treating yourself, and it sets the tone for the months to come.

After breakfast comes a logy feeling, followed by introspection. I decided to take a walk and found myself in an eerily deserted downtown Seattle. As I approached a corner I saw a man on the other side of the street. He looked like he’d been living rough, but he had a smile on his face directed at me. When I crossed the street he pointed to my cap. “A Mets fan! You from New York?”

I’ll talk to anyone who acknowledges my Mets cap.

His name was Andre, and he was a recent transplant from New Orleans. He told me how his telemarketing job led to a newfound respect for New Yorkers. (“They keep it real. They’re upfront, want you to get to the point. Southerners like me, we take our time to get where we’re going.”) He discoursed on his difficulties meeting women in Seattle. (“Everywhere they go, they travel in packs. It’s like Diana Ross and the Supremes all the time.”) Finally, he asked if I had a couple of bucks to spare. I told him he was truly a Southerner, because it took him a while to get where he was going. Then I gave him some money. He’d certainly earned it.

We separated at the corner. From the other side of the street, he called my name.

“It’s gonna be your year!,” he said. “2007 is gonna be your year!” Then he was gone.

Of course, nothing can live up to that kind of introduction. 2007 may not have been my year, but it could have been much worse. In February, a vortex of illness and misfortune sucked in family and friends alike. The volume of incidents was staggering, but ultimately nothing fatal or permanent resulted. Several projects were delayed by the prospect and eventually the reality of a WGA strike, but my life wasn’t thrown into complete upheaval like so many others’ have been.

And then, in September, the Mets collapsed, going from prohibitive World Series favorite to missing the playoffs entirely. I hold Andre responsible for that. He shouldn’t have talked up the team’s chances so early in the year. But what did he know? New Orleans doesn’t have a baseball team.

Still, it’s not like 2007 was wanting for personal accomplishments:

I went back to my old neighborhood in Queens for the first time in ages and discovered that not only can you go home again, but odds are the local restaurants will have improved dramatically.

I started a running list of jazz musicians that sounded interesting. By the end of the year not only had I listened to all of them, but I’d seen several of them live.

I changed my physical appearance. I let my hair grow and switched to contact lenses. I no longer look like Frank Grimes. Now I look like a second-string orchestra conductor, or an English professor at a state college who blows tenure by sleeping with one of his students. I consider this a marked improvement.

Most importantly, I ventured into new areas. I landed a writing job that is challenging and a great deal of fun. I can’t go into any detail yet. (Let me put it this way. I’m game to tell you about it. There. I don’t think that violated any NDAs.)

The job is one of the reasons why I can’t wait to ring in 2008. I also want the WGA strike to end, so that a lot of good people can go back to work and I can pick up where I left off. And there are other exciting possibilities in the mix.

The other day Rosemarie said, “2007 was your rebuilding year, like in football.” Of course, 2006 was technically a rebuilding year for the New England Patriots and they made it all the way to the AFC title game. In 2007, they went undefeated in the regular season and are on the verge of making NFL history. It’s always nice to have something to shoot for.

Happy new year, everybody. May each of you, in your own way, sign Randy Moss in the off-season of your lives.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Movie: 52 Pick-Up (1986)

Say what you will about the 1980s, but it was the last decade that knew how to deliver quality sleaze.

Novelist George Pelecanos, in a 2005 Sight & Sound article about Elmore Leonard adaptations, describes 52 Pick-Up as:

“the first film that truly captures the beneath-the-gutter atmosphere and acne-scarred, unwashed villains of the middle period, ‘hard’ Leonard crime novels ... This one is sure to be offensive to some, but if the dark end of the alley is your meat, by all means, walk right in.”

The dark end of the alley was not my meat in 1986. At the time I was into stuff like SpaceCamp, which, coincidentally, starred 52 Pick-Up’s Kelly Preston.

Leonard co-wrote the script – to 52 Pick-Up, not SpaceCamp, although maybe he did some uncredited work – and the movie was directed by John Frankenheimer. But the surest sign you’re going to get the vulgar goods comes right at the beginning with the Cannon Films logo.

Roy Scheider is Leonard’s steely protagonist, an ex-military man who has built a successful engineering firm. He’s happily married to Ann-Margret, but is seeing Preston on the side. Little does he know that her interest in him has been orchestrated by a trio of seedy types bent on blackmail. Scheider convinces them he can only come up with a little more than fifty grand, then methodically pits the three of them against each other.

There’s some breathtakingly sordid stuff in Pick-Up, filmed in great lurid L.A. locations. Gotta love Scheider’s interrogation of Vanity in a “modeling studio.”

The movie’s best feature is its bad guys, rightfully described by Pelecanos as “unhinged.” John Glover portrays the ringleader, shooting porn films anywhere and everywhere; in that he’s ahead of his time, kind of a proto Joe Francis. His scene with Ann-Margret’s character late in the action is the very height of lowdown. Glover never lets up. He is magnetically loathsome, or loathsomely magnetic, in every frame. (Glover is an acclaimed stage actor who won a Tony award for his performance as twins in Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, which he then recreated on film. But what do I remember him for? Playing a deranged billionaire, equal parts Ted Turner and Donald Trump, in the underrated Gremlins 2: The New Batch. And now this. It almost makes me feel bad.)

Pick-Up is not exactly a good movie. It’s an enjoyably unpretentious one. It’s mean and it plays dirty. It’s trashy and it knows it. And sometimes that’s exactly what you’re in the mood for.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Year In Review: My Greatest Hits

Tell ya one thing I will look back at: the year in this blog. Here are the entries that generated the most interest.

Coming in at number one are the posts I’m most proud of, namely my coverage of Noir City Seattle in July. Every night for a week I’d see a double feature of classic noir, then come home and write the films up. I never miss a chance to work on deadline. The Noir City posts are here and here, with a brief follow-up. I hope I get a chance to do it again in 2008.

On the same subject, my half-baked attempt to answer the question, “What is noir?”

Some film posts that pulled their weight:

The Michael Shayne DVD collection;

A trio of Boston Blackie movies;

James Ellroy’s night of 1958 crime dramas on TCM;

An appreciation of Glenn Ford and The Money Trap.

And of course, my tribute to Steven Seagal.

But what drove the most traffic to this site? Amidst the thousands of words I cranked out in 2007, what served as the brightest beacon on the rough seas of the internet?

This photo of Pat Harrington as Dwayne F. Schneider on One Day At A Time.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Year In Review: In Which The Year Is Not Reviewed

The first installment of my 2007 recap was here earlier today, but I took it down when I realized I was never going to write the other installments. I have neither the time nor the inclination. I am officially retiring from the “best of” business. Which is too bad, because my year-end movie list might well have been the only one to have included Shoot ‘Em Up.

In other news, go see Sweeney Todd.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

TV: The Ghost of Christmas What?

Rod Serling adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the United Nations? Sterling Hayden as a Cold War Ebenezer Scrooge? Steve Lawrence – yes, that Steve Lawrence – as a WWI doughboy who speaks for all those slain in war? Peter Sellers as a crackpot Texan doomsday survivor? All of it scored by Henry Mancini and directed by Oscar-winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz?

The only thing odder than the fact that the above happened is that the resulting TV special only aired once. Thomas Vinciguerra on a bizarre chapter in Christmas and showbiz history.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Movies: Election (2005)/Triad Election (2006)

Now that’s what I’m talking about. This Johnny To double-bill, available on DVD, has it all: drama, action, suspense. It’s an epic told with economy. You can watch both films in a little over three hours.

Election lays out its premise in a handful of galvanizing scenes. Every two years, the gangs of Hong Kong choose a new chairman. The upcoming race is between Lok (Simon Yam), a steady hand who has planned his ascension for ages, and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), the wild man who’s generating a lot of income for his bosses. The campaign involves both politicking and extreme violence; I, for one, wish they’d deploy the same tactics in the Iowa caucuses. (If they did, Hillary would win in a landslide.) Nothing goes as you’d expect; Lok is more ruthless than he appears, Big D understands the wisdom of compromise, and the ending is a shocker.

Triad Election is darker and more disjointed than its predecessor, but ultimately cuts deeper. It picks up the story at the end of Lok’s term. (That might sound like a spoiler but trust me, it’s not.) Naturally, he wants one of the protégés who helped him secure power to succeed him. But his choice, Jimmy (Louis Koo), declines. He only joined the triads to further his business interests, and he’s about to close a deal in China that will make him completely legitimate. Lok decides to buck tradition and stand for reelection. As Lok amasses supporters and enemies, Jimmy learns his deal has been torpedoed by the Chinese government. They will reinstate it under one condition – that he challenge his godfather for the chairmanship.

The emphasis of the Election films isn’t on action, although To’s muscular and insinuating direction delivers the goods when the mayhem occurs. (Especially in Triad. Ouch.) The movies are about strategy, about how gaining authority and maintaining it require different skills. Mainly, though, they’re hugely entertaining, some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen this year.

Miscellaneous: Music Links

Via Paul Herzberg comes word that BBC Radio 1 is editing my favorite Christmas song. A lump of coal in their stocking, then.

The New Yorker’s David Remnick talks with The Bad Plus. I’m not only a fan of theirs but of Kiki & Herb, whose Carnegie Hall Christmas show is mentioned at the article’s close. Judging from this review, it was something to see.

Bonus! Here’s my review of a Kiki & Herb performance in Seattle. It’s from the early days of the site, when I posted every thought that came into my head.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Music: Ho Ho Huh?

Yesterday was holiday movies. Today it’s music. The Washington Post surveys the most loved and loathed Christmas songs.

Can’t disagree with the main choices. Barbra Streisand’s ‘Jingle Bells?’ is so insidious that in high summer, apropos of nothing, I have turned to Rosemarie and said, “Upsot?” I didn’t think ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’ was funny when I was eight, and that’s the target demographic. I do like Bruce Springsteen’s cover of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,’ though. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ turns up on the beloved list. I heard that song the other day and realized that I’ve always hated it, and I always will.

My Yuletide playlist is pretty short. Anything by the Rat Pack, with Dean Martin’s A Winter Romance being a particular favorite. Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas. And of course the greatest Christmas song ever, ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl.

Those selections should make it abundantly clear I’m not a holiday kinda guy. Stop by, where Matt has assembled a more upbeat seasonal mix.

And finally, because this is too good to leave in the comments, Rosemarie took over where I left off yesterday. In honor of Shane Black, here’s our version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

I wonder how much that would cost. And I’d love to hear Babs sing it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Movies: Three Hand Grenades, Two Mortar Shells, and a Suitcase Full of C-4

Slate provides some holiday cheer by serving up a list of alternative Christmas movies. Two of my yuletide staples are here (Die Hard and The Ice Harvest) along with some other inspired choices (The Thin Man, the haunting 2046 and All That Heaven Allows, a beautiful and deeply moving film that may send you into the egg nog headfirst.) I suppose tossing Bad Santa on there would have been too obvious.

But there’s no mention of the contemporary master of the Christmas movie: Shane Black. Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, all of ‘em set at the holidays, all of ‘em packed with a sleigh’s worth of firepower. Just what’s needed at the end of those long shopping days.

And where’s the Christmas movie that provides Chez K with its sole holiday tradition? Every year since its release, we screen it. In fact, I think we’re about due to fire it up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Miscellaneous: Miscellaneous

Work, work, work. Herewith, a grab bag.

The New York Times ten best books of the year list is out, and for once it’s not terra incognita for me. I’ve read one fiction entry – Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, which I adored – and am coincidentally in the middle of one non-fiction entry, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. This makes me feel like a certifiable genius and a man of the world.

We did see Enchanted, as referenced below. (I know some of you were wondering.) I liked it, and can say with great certainty that Rosemarie liked it even more.

We also caught up with Paris, Je t’aime on DVD, which is like an entire meal made up of amuses-bouche. “Collective” films are typically spotty, but this one has a good hit-to-miss ratio. It helps that each short is five minutes long, so the successes leave you wanting more while the misfires don’t go on too long. Each director’s assignment was to tell a love story in a different neighborhood in the City Of Lights. Leave it to the Coen Brothers to set their film entirely in a Metro station and consist of bad things happening to Steve Buscemi. Other favorites include the efforts by Alexander Payne, with its great performance by character actress Margo Martindale; Isabel Coixet, which initially seems like a send-up of French cinema but soon reveals the coeur beneath the sangfroid (hey, I took French in high school); Sylvain Chomet, finding fresh uses for both mimes and the Eiffel Tower; and Christopher Doyle, whose bizarre film is either pure fancy or a complicated allegory for the French experience in Southeast Asia. I honestly don’t know.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Book: Head Games, by Craig McDonald (2007)

Ever read a book and think the target audience consists of ... you? McDonald’s debut – named one of the year’s ten best crime novels by Eddie Muller in the San Francisco Chronicle – is about the intersection of pulp fiction, Hollywood and politics. Naturally, I ate it up.

Hec Lassiter is the last of the Black Mask boys, still cranking out two-fisted fiction in 1957. He’s being profiled by young poet Bud Fiske for True magazine when a real-adventure comes their way: they wind up in possession of the stolen head of Mexican general Pancho Villa, which is being sought by Yale University’s Skull & Bones Society for use in its secret ceremonies. Hec and Bud square off against intelligence agencies, ancient revolutionaries and homicidal frat boys. McDonald weaves plenty of real-life figures into the tale. Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, John Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Senator Prescott Bush. Even the senator’s grandson makes an appearance.

The plot moves at a hell-for-leather pace and is basically an excuse to mourn the passing of an era of American manhood and pay tribute to old-fashioned storytelling. Personally, I’ll never see Touch of Evil the same way again.

TV: Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2007)

The best observation in this HBO documentary about the insult comic comes from Penn Jillette:

“(Rickles) had this quality of ... pleasing the audience was the most important thing in the world. Not in his life, in the world. But he would not compromise in any way to please them. A very complicated, very important idea. In a certain sense, the definition of art.”

The documentary is a must-see for fans of old-school showbiz. John Landis, who directed, met Rickles while working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes. But there’s no mention of their other collaboration: 1992’s Innocent Blood, in which a sexy French vampire preys on Pittsburgh gangsters. Rickles plays a Mob lawyer-turned-bloodsucker. Also in the cast are Anthony LaPaglia, future Oscar nominees Angela Bassett and Chazz Palminteri, and half of The Sopranos. It’s great, trashy fun.

TV: This Week’s Reason Why I Don’t Watch CNN

I went back and forth about posting this photograph. It’s outside my bailiwick, the image isn’t the best, and it’s in questionable taste to harp on a typo in the midst of sad news. But I mentioned it over at Bill Crider’s blog, and now I feel it’s my duty.

Here’s Wolf Blitzer reporting on Wednesday’s shooting incident ... in Obama, Nebraska.

It’s a fast-moving story, they’re under pressure, I get it. But I still can’t believe this went on the air. Is the network using an election season macro? Any word beginning with ‘O’ auto-completes as Obama unless it’s changed to Oprah or Orange?

Update: The photo is now also up at Leavenworth Street, a blog devoted to Nebraska state politics.

Video: Farewell, Something Weird

PopMatters (via GreenCine Daily) brings word of the impending demise of Something Weird Video. I’ve watched a lot of the company’s titles over the years and while the movies themselves may have been disappointing, the presentation never was. Keeping these oddities in the public eye is valuable work, and Something Weird did it well.

I wrote about two of SWV’s burlesque films with Bettie Page here, and their Barry Mahon double bill here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Miscellaneous: An Open Letter To The New York Times

Dear Editors,

It is with heavy heart that I inform you that the paper of record’s readership is not funny.

For the duration of the Writers Guild of America strike, you have replaced the Sunday edition’s normal round-up of the best jokes from the week’s late-night shows with reader offerings from the paper’s Laugh Lines blog.

I am begging you, as a longtime subscriber, to kill this feature at once. Leave the space blank until the strike ends. Failing that, give it to Frank Rich so he can make additional tortured comparisons between the current number one movie at the box office and the failings of the Bush Administration.

As a product of the American public school system, I am loathe to rain on anyone’s creative parade. But the truth must come out. The comedic efforts of Times readers are uniformly terrible. They’re obvious, too long, and have overly elaborate punchlines. The consistently poor nature of these jokes has led to a new Sunday ritual in my household. I read as many of them as I can aloud before my wife beats me unconscious with the rest of your publication. I am beginning to believe that the truly humorous people of our great nation take USA Today.

The situation reached a nadir this past Sunday, when you saw fit to run an item about an “articulate hound” in “a dog-on-the-street” interview saying good things about “Bark Obama and Mutt Romney” but opining that his favorite presidential candidate is “Joe Bite ‘em.”

I say without a trace of exaggeration that I have read Bazooka Joe comics that are funnier than that. I will provide examples upon request.

Comedy is best left to professionals. I implore you, for the good of the Republic. Take this feature. Please.

Vince Keenan

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Movie: The Mist (2007)

All these Oscar bait films out, and when I finally get an afternoon free what do I sneak off to see? A monster movie. To be fair, though, I’ve waited years for this one.

I must have read Stephen King’s novella The Mist a dozen times when I was in high school. King may have written better, but The Mist remains the finest showcase for his talent of mixing the quotidian and the otherworldly. It’s the apocalypse in a supermarket. After a massive electrical storm knocks out the power in a Maine resort town, everyone heads to the store to stock up. A mysterious fog rolls in, and in it be monsters. Of course, there are also some inside the Food House in human form. The question is which ones pose the greater danger.

What did I love most about The Mist? Simple: it includes every variety of creature imaginable. Giant, flying, poisonous insects? Check. Larger pterodactyl-style things that eat aforesaid insects, as well as anything else that moves? Check. Spiders that shoot acid webs and lay eggs in human hosts? You better believe that’s a check. Not to mention mastodon-sized scorpion beasts and enormous tentacled hellspawn that seem to have escaped from the work of another New England horror writer of note.

Whenever I’d finish reading The Mist I’d think, “When are they gonna make a movie out of this? It’s only gonna be like the best one ever!” Eventually I realized there was a good reason for the delay. (More on that later.) At last Frank Darabont, who has had some success adapting King, stepped up to the plate.

From the moment Jeffrey DeMunn, a Darabont regular, races into the supermarket, his face and shirt bloodied, and screams, “Something ... in the mist!,” I knew I was in good hands. Many of my favorite moments from the novella are transferred intact, including the bone-chilling “Won’t anyone here see a lady home?” scene. (Darabont adds a late fiendish coda of his own devising.)

The movie adroitly captures that sinking, post-disaster sense of immediate helplessness, and the worse moments that follow when people who baselessly claim to know the truth begin amassing followers and making decisions. (You want to read some contemporary political parallels into that, be my guest.) Marcia Gay Harden, who, bless her heart, does not recognize that there is a top for her to go over, is ferocious as Mother Carmody, who builds a congregation of the fearful. King’s reliance on that old-time religion often hurts his work for me – it pretty much spoiled the fun of last year’s TV movie Desperation – but in The Mist it’s largely invoked to make points about the dangers of fanaticism. It was great to see Toby Jones, the Truman Capote lookalike who played the author in Infamous, as the mild-mannered assistant grocery manager who proves to be the level-headed figure you want on your side in a crisis.

Darabont keeps a few too many of King’s folksy/juvenile sayings, but that’s easily forgiven once the monsters show up. They’re all here, being fought off with broomsticks and bags of dog food. It’s like the ultimate ‘50s horror movie.

There’s a problem with The Mist that may have thwarted earlier attempts at adaptation: the novella doesn’t really have an ending. It basically stops on an ambiguous but tentatively hopeful note. (Not that the adolescent me saw it that way. Every time I read it, I thought: these people are screwed.) Darabont goes past that point to provide a more concrete resolution, and the diverse critical reaction to it compelled me to the theater.

I’m not going to spoil what he came up with. One interpretation of Darabont’s conclusion is that it buttresses Mother Carmody’s argument. Another is that it makes King’s fundamental point in the starkest possible terms. My initial reaction, in all honesty, was shock. I couldn’t believe Darabont had gone with an ending so bleak. I don’t know that it completely works – it’s tonally at odds with what came before, and goes on a bit too long – but the boldness of his choice, the sheer ballsiness of it, earned my respect.

Not that the critics are giving him credit for daring. A lot of them take Darabont to task for going all high-falutin’ in what they took to be a one-note scarefest. Then again, plenty of their number claimed Darabont was a newcomer to horror, not recognizing that The Mist marks a return to his roots. He wrote the best of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as well as the underrated 1988 remake of The Blob. Like Stephen King, he respects the genre and knows what it’s capable of. The Mist is proof.

P.S. Just back from an impromptu trip to the supermarket, as Seattle is getting its first snowfall of the year. Already the panic is setting in. A couple of pterodactyls is just what the place needed.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Miscellaneous: The November Stuff-I-Didn’t-Get-To Post

... will be fairly thin this month. I’ve got projects stacked up like jets over O’Hare, so naturally the ol’ internet homestead is going to suffer. And letting the site lie fallow for a few days always prompts those “you must go on, I cannot go on, I’ll go on” thoughts, even after almost eight hundred – Mother of God! – posts.

Then there’s content. It helps to have stuff to write about, and lately I’ve come up short in that department. In the past six weeks I’ve read a slew of recent crime novels and found most of them disappointing. No names; as I’ve said many times before, if VKDC is about anything, it’s about love. Several of these books have been nominated for awards or were written by authors whose previous work I’ve enjoyed, so maybe it’s me being cranky.

Or maybe it’s not. I read a review by John Williams late last year and haven’t forgotten this line about contemporary crime writers:

“These are writers happy to work within the crime field, extremely genre-literate in a post-Tarantino kind of way, but there’s a sense that for the most part they’re knowingly catering to a minority audience of crime buffs.”

I’m in that minority audience, and the last few well-regarded crime novels I read felt insular, airless, uninteresting. As if they were written for people who would appreciate all the in-jokes and cleverboots references. People like ... well, me.

Pop culture has become so specialized that at times I feel inundated by like-minded voices. And I’m not the only one who’s noticed. New York Times columnist David Brooks wonders why popular music isn’t, you know, popular any more, and turns to Steven Van Zandt for answers. (Please tell me there’s an audio file of the bookish conservative that even liberals can pretend to love talking rock with Silvio Dante. Please.) In a recent review, Variety critic Todd McCarthy noted:

“... ‘Enchanted,’ in the manner of the vast majority of Hollywood films made until the ‘60s, is a film aimed at the entire population – niches be damned. It simply aims to please, without pandering, without vulgarity, without sops to pop-culture fads, and to pull this off today is no small feat.”

I suppose what I ultimately want is to be seen as more than the sum of my niches. I want a return to the days of the generalist. Think I’ll start by going to see Enchanted.

Not that the month was a total loss. I did enjoy Park Avenue Tramp, a 1958 novel by Fletcher Flora recently republished in Stark House’s A Trio of Gold Medals. It’s a strange book, paced like an opium nightmare. Not a whole lot happens, and what does is obvious from the outset. But Flora’s rich psychological descriptions and his compassion for his doomed characters keeps you reading. It’s a novel that’s haunting for its failures as much as its successes.

And then there are the brilliant posts I just don’t have time to write. This month I watched The Deal, the incisive 2003 film from the writing/directing/acting team behind The Queen that examines the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were both plotting to restore the Labor party to Downing Street. I also saw Johnnie To’s dazzling Election (2005), about the brutal campaign between gangsters to take control of a Hong Kong triad. And it occurred to me that both films make potent parallel arguments about the sacrifices needed to acquire power and the greater ones required to maintain it.

But I’ve got to go back to work. So you’ll have to check out the movies for yourself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Movies: James Ellroy Theater

On November 13, novelist James Ellroy served as guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies. Among his selections were three relatively unheralded crime dramas, all from 1958, all set in California, all new to me.

It took a while, but I finally made my way through them. Feature it: we’re firing up the time machine and journeying back to the Golden State, when everybody claimed to like Ike but secretly sought sanctuary in shadow. It’s gonna be a gas.

First up is Stakeout on Dope Street. A trio of teenagers (including Little Shop of Horrors star Jonathon Haze and Yale Wexler, brother of cinematographer Haskell) stumble onto two pounds of pure heroin from a busted drug buy. They set an aging hophead to work selling the stuff and next thing you know, according to the out-of-place voiceover, they’re pricing “bongo drums and other racy items.” But Yale’s gal Abby Dalton wants no part of his dirty money, and the cops and drug dealers are hot on their trail.

Dope Street is a bargain basement production with a half-baked script; the JD scenes fall flat. But it’s also a crudely effective piece of filmmaking. There’s an extended withdrawal sequence that’s still harrowing, and director Irvin Kershner uses unexpected edits and camera angles to maximize tension. It’s no surprise he went on to better things. The movie also has a solid jazz score and the night’s best credit: Bowling Technical Assistance by the Redondo Recreation Center.

Murder by Contract has two things in common with Dope Street: a low budget and actor Herschel Bernardi. The similarities end there. Vince Edwards stars as a hired killer who takes up his trade solely to buy a house for himself and his unseen girlfriend. He’s sent to L.A. to eliminate a witness and has a crisis of conscience when he discovers his next target is ... gasp! ... a woman.

Objectively, Murder by Contract is terrible. Three reasons why, off the top of my head:

1. A drab look, shot in weirdly underpopulated Southern California locations;

2. A thin script packed with pretentious “psychological” dialogue, all delivered by the charisma-impaired Edwards;

3. The worst soundtrack in film history.

And yet ... the movie’s sheer lousiness and its struggle to say something exert their own fascination. Ellroy’s right in observing that its vision of the hit man as an existential figure is years ahead of its time. I can easily see how it would have made an impression on him as a young man.

ASIDE: Thanks to Ben Casey, Edwards was one of the biggest TV stars of the 1960s. Now he’s been banished to total cultural insignificance. I’ve never seen him in anything other than this movie. (Ed. note: I stand corrected. Please see the comments below.) Audiences actually bought this guy as a neurosurgeon? At least now I get another Simpsons joke. The show’s melodramatic veterinarian was drawn to look like Edwards.

The final ’58 film, The Lineup, is by far the best of the bunch. It’s based on a then-current TV series, a San Francisco version of Dragnet. The opening scenes suffer for hewing close to the show’s format. Two uninteresting cops investigate a bizarre incident at the docks and realize that unsuspecting travelers are being used as drug mules for the Syndicate.

It’s when the villains turn up that Stirling Silliphant’s script kicks up the kink. Eli Wallach, in only his second film, is the man tasked with retrieving the dope at all costs. He travels with an older “associate” (Robert Keith) who records the dying words of each person Wallach kills. Their relationship officially out-creeps anything I’ve seen in a dozen more recent, “edgy” crime dramas. There’s also nice work from Richard Jaeckel as a cocky getaway driver with a drinking problem.

Don Siegel, who knows his way around San Francisco, directs. The climax includes some shocking acts of violence and a dazzling car chase on the highway system then under construction. But it’s Siegel’s throwaway use of everyday locations that elevates the movie. A single shot of Jaeckel parking a sedan in front of a freighter that begins pushing away from a pier is a thing of beauty.

Overall, some great picks by Ellroy that highlight his influences and provide an X-ray of a young author in development. And that depresses the hell out of me. Movies like this, that don’t skimp on the mayhem but always show the toll it takes, are in short supply these days. Where is the next generation of crime writers supposed to get their fix of human-scaled sex and violence?

Miscellaneous: Links, No Country For Old Men Edition

See the movie. It’s a hell of a ride. Then you won’t mind the spoilers in the AV Club’s comparison of book and film. Nora Ephron also puzzles it out.

Music: My New Favorite Christmas Song

‘Don’t Shoot Me, Santa’ by the Killers. A novelty record that also manages to be an authentic Killers song. And it’s for charity.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Movie: Beowulf (2007)

See it in 3-D. In IMAX if possible. I have no idea if this new-and-improved technology is the future of movies; it’s not going to be an aid to storytelling. I do know that it looks extraordinary. It made me glad that I recently conquered my longtime phobia about touching my eyeballs and switched to contact lenses. I don’t think it would have looked anywhere near as good with my specs on.

An added bonus to seeing it at the Pacific Science Center: the restroom is covered with factoids explaining how the excretory system works. Quite the education.

Let me add that Brendan Gleeson is the man, in motion capture or in Belgium. I think McDonagh is a feckin’ genius, so I can’t wait to see this movie. Fair warning, though: there’s loads of cursing in the preview.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Movie: Cops and Robbers (1973)

On the plus side, my cable company – I’ll take a page from Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear and call them Bombast – regularly adds movie channels. You just can’t watch them unless you ask, even if you’re paying for them.

A few months back two new stations appeared at the high end of the dial, taunting me with their listings. If I flipped them on, a message told me to call Bombast to subscribe. Which irked me no end, because I pony up for their “platinum premium” package. As far as I’m concerned, that means I should receive a jewel-encrusted remote every time a new channel is offered. This weekend we finally called, and learned we were supposed to be getting these stations all along. They were activated in the blink of an eye, and we’re now spending less per month on the “emerald elite” plan or whatever the hell it’s called.

I marked the occasion by tuning in one of these stations to watch Cops and Robbers, not only based on a Donald E. Westlake novel but scripted by him as well. Two New York cops (Cliff Gorman and Joseph Bologna), fed up with the pressures of the job and the city, decide to exploit their positions and pull a ten-million dollar heist during a ticker-tape parade to honor returning astronauts. Westlake being Westlake, problems ensue.

It’s an odd duck of a film, one of those laugh-to-keep-from-crying comedies thick on the ground in the 1970s. Aram Avakian, who would direct a similarly offbeat caper movie the following year with 11 Harrowhouse, keeps it all on an even keel. Tough guy character actor John P. Ryan is terrific as the Mafia middleman with a bowling alley in his house, complete with pin monkey. The bogus soul title song by Michel Legrand, on the other hand, is unforgivable.

Miscellaneous: Lessons Learned About Myself

Any movie universally hailed as “a humanist masterpiece” will bore me off my ass.

Miscellaneous: Links

A great, epic Washington Post article by Neely Tucker about the ‘70s P.I. show Mannix, its absence on DVD, and the role that it plays in the lives of its fans and cast. I’ve never seen a minute of Mannix myself. But Ed Gorman doesn’t think too highly of it, and his word is enough for me.

Allan Guthrie, a man who knows a thing or twelve about noir, lists 200 essential novels in the genre.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Book: The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps (2007)

Ed Gorman’s review alone convinced me to order this book, a compendium of writing from the glory days of the pulps. Editor Otto Penzler has assembled the big names. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, even a never-before-published story by Dashiell Hammett. Then there are the names that only the hardcore hardboiled fan recognizes. Steve Fisher, Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield. And plenty more that are new to me. Short stories, novels, reproduced illustrations, biographical sketches, the works.

The volume tops out at over 1100 pages. Good thing the shipping was free. It’s literally the size of a phone book. One of the bent cops contained within could use it to obtain a confession. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it yet. So far, I just take it down from the shelf and admire it.

John Banville, the Booker Prize-winning author who pens crime fiction as Benjamin Black, offers another take on the collection in Bookforum. (H/t to GreenCine Daily.) The intro’s a touch precious, but his thoughts on Chandler versus Cain are interesting. And we’re in complete agreement on the Parker novels by Richard Stark, aka Donald Westlake (“among the most poised and polished fictions of their time and, in fact, of any time”) and Georges Simenon. Read his piece and Ed’s. Then I dare you not to buy the book. You’ll probably finish it before me.

Miscellaneous: Scenes From A Marriage

Me: Salon came out with their sexiest men alive list. Want to know who’s on it?

Rosemarie: Do I? They probably went with Dennis Kucinich. Sure, go ahead. Who’s their sexiest man alive?

Me: (bad fake drum roll) Jon Hamm.

Rosemarie: (sharp intake of breath) From Mad Men?

Me: Yeah.

Rosemarie: Wow. That’s an excellent pick.

Me: You know who else is on here? Flight of the Conchords.

Rosemarie: (another sharp intake of breath) Which one?

Me: Both of them.

Rosemarie: Who else?

Me: Um, Alec Baldwin, Tony Leung, Will Arnett –-

Rosemarie: Let me see that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Miscellaneous: Where Everybody Knows My Name

Many’s the time I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the Zig Zag Café, the finest cocktail bar in Seattle and one of the best in the world.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Robert (Drinkboy) Hess. He’s devoting several episodes of his web series to the Zig Zag, the first being an interview with co-owners Kacy Fitch and Ben Dougherty. And ace bartender Murray Stenson is there in spirit.

Get it? Spirit? Bartender? Man, I’m good.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Music: Wolfgang’s Big Night Out, by the Brian Setzer Orchestra

The BSO typically gets a few spins around Chez K come the holiday season. We like our Christmas music up-tempo around here.

I was about to fire some up in Rhapsody the other day when I discovered their latest album, in which classical music staples are retooled for a sixteen-piece big band. It’s been playing ever since.

In the BSO’s hands, Tchaikovsky’s best-known composition becomes ‘1812 Overdrive,’ and the traditional wedding march from Wagner’s Lohengrin is reborn as ‘Here Comes the Broad.’

My personal favorite is Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ served up with Django Reinhardt flair. It wouldn’t be a BSO record without a Christmas song, and their version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ – here called ‘Take a Break, Guys’ – doesn’t disappoint. It sounds like the title song from a lost Quinn Martin series. (“Tonight’s episode: Naughty or Nice.”)

Sure, it’s a concept album, but one stuffed with great musicianship and witty orchestrations. I particularly appreciate the endings; there is no piece of music than cannot be improved by the addition of ‘Shave and a Haircut.’

News: Strike Stuff, Late Night Edition

No Daily Show? No problem. The writing staff goes guerilla-style straight from the picket line.

And David Letterman’s writers have started a blog chronicling the strike from an East Coast perspective.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book: Deadly Beloved, by Max Allan Collins (2007)

Every month Hard Case Crime has a drawing to give away advance reading copies of their newest book. Every month I enter. Every month I lose.

I really wanted to win the latest one, so I could be among the first to get my hands on Money Shot by Christa Faust. Christa is the first woman to be published by Hard Case, her blog is a regular stop, and the plot – ex-porn star left for dead seeks vengeance – had me at ‘ex-porn star.’

Surprise. I didn’t win. But I can steer you toward someone who did get an early look.

It turns out Hard Case held a second drawing using the Money Shot entries when they realized they had additional ARCs of Deadly Beloved by Max Allan Collins. I finally win a Hard Case book, and it’s the one title I’d already decided to take a pass on. Collins’ stuff has been hit-or-miss for me, and I knew nothing about Ms. Tree, the graphic novel character making her prose debut in Beloved.

Naturally, I read the book as soon as it arrived and enjoyed the hell out of it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Collins is a well-known disciple of Mickey Spillane; he had a hand in completing the Mick’s Dead Street for Hard Case. Spillane provided the inspiration for Ms. Tree. Suppose Mike Hammer finally married his bombshell secretary Velda only to be gunned down on their wedding night? And further suppose that Velda took over Mike’s business?

I don’t know about you, but I find that premise irresistible.

Michael Tree’s husband – also named Michael – has been in the ground a year when Beloved begins. Ms. Tree is hired to look into the open-and-shut case of a woman who murders her cheating husband. The investigation points toward a shadowy professional killer nicknamed “The Event Planner,” whose long list of victims might also include Ms. Tree’s spouse.

Collins, who wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip for several years, doesn’t shy away from the character’s cartoon origins. The good guys have names like Steele and Valer, while the evil Mafia family is called the Muertas. Collins also finds a way to bring the larger-than-life tone of graphic novels to the page. Deadly Beloved bounds along at a furious clip, providing loads of fun along the way. Another winner for Hard Case, in more ways than one.

News: Strike Stuff

Look, I don’t want to link to it, people. I have to.

John August explains residuals. Craig Mazin backs him up with another metaphor. Mmmmm, cake.

Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times has a message for the moguls: “If you don’t believe in the future, you shouldn’t be in show business.”

Who says there’s no money in the internet? Not these guys:

Miscellaneous: Links

Meet the best reason to watch HBO’s Flight of the Conchords: Kristen Schaal.

Hey, did somebody say Ruben Studdard?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Viewing Tip: Ellroy Vision

November is guest programmer month on Turner Classic Movies. Each night, the best network on television hands over the reins to various luminaries. There are some nice surprises scattered throughout the lineup – Charles Busch picking the underrated showbiz melodrama The Hard Way, Tracey Ullman opting for Kes, an early Ken Loach film, and 1959’s I’m All Right Jack – along with the occasional dud. Like Donald Trump night. With TCM’s vast library at his disposal, the Donald selects warhorses like The African Queen, Gone With The Wind, and Citizen Kane. Nice to see his talent for the thuddingly obvious isn’t limited to real estate. (“Slap some gold trim on there. People love that crap.”)

The night I’m waiting for is this Tuesday, November 13, when novelist James Ellroy takes to the air. His choices include a trio of California-set crime dramas from 1958, all of which are new to me:

Stakeout on Dope Street, the debut feature by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), with a cast that includes Roger Corman staple Jonathan Haze;

Murder by Contract, a hit man drama with Vince Edwards;

The Lineup, a cult favorite directed by Don Siegel.

I can unreservedly recommend Ellroy’s last pick. Armored Car Robbery is a crackerjack heist film from B-movie maestro Richard Fleischer, starring one of noir’s great tough guys Charles McGraw.

Clips from all four films can be seen at TCM’s website, along with a brief interview with Ellroy. He doesn’t tone down his act for the network’s gentlemanly host Robert Osborne. When asked why he chose Dope Street, Ellroy replies, “Because it made me want to shoot big H and crawl back into the gutter from which I emerged.” All that plus a shout-out to the czar of noir himself, Eddie Muller. The fun begins Tuesday at 8PM Eastern, 5PM Pacific.

TCM keeps up the noir theme after Ellroy’s picks end. At 1:45AM Eastern the network will be showing another Richard Fleischer gem, 1949’s Follow Me Quietly. This thriller about the hunt for a serial killer known as “The Judge” contains one of the creepiest shots I’ve ever seen in a movie. Quietly runs a mere 59 minutes, and is worth setting the DVR for.

TV: This Week’s Reason To Love 30 Rock

Jack Donaghy reading an official NBC ratings report: “Look how Greenzo is testing. They love him in every demographic. Colored people, broads, fairies, commies. Gosh, we’ve got to update these forms.”

That line was scripted. Which brings us to ...

News: Strike Stuff

Expect this to be a semi-regular feature until this mishegoss is over.

Lawsuits are all-American, but strikes still make some people uncomfortable. Tool around the web and you’ll find wags condemning the walkout, usually citing an Ayn Rand free market libertarianism often influenced by business practices in the start-up world. John Rogers handily demolishes those arguments. Make sure you read the comments, where he does it again.

Variety’s blog Scribe Vibe has far outstripped the paper’s coverage of the work stoppage. I’d link to this entry, in which several top talents weigh in on the strike from Friday evening’s Jack Oakie Celebration of Comedy in Film, even if it didn’t contain some interesting comments. I just love that the Motion Picture Academy still has an event named after Jack Oakie.

For those coming in late, screenwriter Howard Michael Gould lays it all out.

If you’ve got a minute, why not sign this petition in support of the writers? It probably won’t do any good. But it’s certainly not gonna hurt.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

News: Hearts & Minds

For the first few days of the WGA strike, the thinking was that the writers were losing the public relations battle. Not that the public is all that involved at this stage; outside of New York and Los Angeles, the story doesn’t have a lot of traction yet.

Much of the initial coverage condescended to the writers, noting that “those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.” (C’mon, David Carr. You’re better than that. Don’t you want me to link the Carpetbagger blog this awards season?) Personally, I’d prefer to read a piece on why the media conglomerates are focusing their energies on extracting the last few bucks from a dying system instead of developing a serious plan to generate internet revenue, but I never did understand economics. And maybe that’s more of a shareholder question anyway.

A few days later, the writers are finally punching back in the perception fight, and they’re the using the very medium they’re striking over in order to do it. Some worthwhile stops:

United Hollywood. A great source of news and information from the front lines.

Here’s a short video they produced explaining the issues at stake.

The writers/cast of The Office also take a crack at laying out what’s at stake. It may be the last original material they generate for a while. And now I feel bad for watching those episodes online.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bizarre: You Are All Ears

Two days without The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and this is what I’ve been reduced to watching. If you can’t last the full seven minutes, try to make it to about, oh, 1:10 or so.

The truck at the end is from “Big Poke Ice Cream,” in case you can’t make that out. It’s a vital detail.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

News: Strike!

Screenwriter John Rogers serves up the best piece to date on the Writers Guild strike. It’s a clear-eyed look at the issues that addresses the technology questions head on. Long, but well worth it.

And the work stoppage has Josh Friedman blogging again.

Movie: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Film noir meets Eugene O’Neill in Sidney Lumet’s latest, proof that the master of the New York crime drama hasn’t lost his touch.

Overextended real estate accountant Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) goads his screw-up little brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into committing the perfect crime: robbing their parents’ suburban jewelry store. Nobody gets hurt, the insurance company will cover the losses, and both brothers can pocket some much-needed cash. Naturally, it doesn’t work out that way.

The script by Kelly Masterson employs a novelistic, elliptical structure. Lumet, who at age 83 has completely embraced digital video, takes full advantage by shooting extended takes with multiple cameras. The resulting movie tightens the screws by revisiting the same scenes from different angles, each time giving us more information and a greater sense of impending tragedy. Tremendous stuff from a veteran who moves with the speed and grace of a wunderkind.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Miscellaneous: The October Stuff-I-Didn’t-Get-To Post

The Shotgun Rule, by Charlie Huston (2007). Stephen King blurbed this book, calling it “Stand by Me on dexedrine.” If he hadn’t made the comparison, I would have. Four teenage boys growing up in the ‘burbs of Northern California in 1983 decide to stick up for one of their own and recover a stolen bicycle from some local hoodlums. They also swipe a bag of crank from the hoods’ drug lab, a spur-of-the-moment act that unleashes forces they’re not quite old enough to understand. The book doesn’t match the hell-for-leather pacing of Huston’s brilliant Hank Thompson trilogy. But it gets the details of those years at the tail end of adolescence right – including the shocking realization that not only were your parents young once, but they’re still feeling their way along, too.

Year of the Dog (2007). A fascinating, off-beat comedy. Molly Shannon stars as the kind of woman who seems to exist in every office: friendly, a bit creepy, truly awful taste in sweaters. Then her pet dog dies, a small tragedy that expands the horizons of her life in unexpected ways. Featuring wicked supporting turns from Laura Dern and Peter Sarsgaard, and a script by Mike White that’s one of the best of the year.

TV: Viewing Tip

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was well before my time. I know the series is much-loved among espionage fans, and thought the upcoming DVD release would be a chance to check it out.

As it happens, Tuesday, November 6 is U.N.C.L.E. day on Turner Classic Movies. Eight two-part episodes of the show were edited into feature films, and TCM will air all of them beginning at 6AM Eastern.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Music: Fred Hersch Trio

It’s not a festival if you only go once. Earshot Jazz continues, so we ventured out for another show.

Fred Hersch is one of America’s premier jazz pianists. He recently wrapped up what sounds like an extraordinary series of duet concerts with some of my favorites like Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson, and his latest album Night and the Music is a gem. He took the stage in Seattle with bassist Ben Street and drummer Nasheet Waits for a set that included some Ornette Coleman, a mini-tribute to Wayne Shorter, and original compositions that aren’t afraid to be lyrical.

Does it sound like I have any idea of what I’m talking about? Because I don’t. Not really. I’m still at the low end of the jazz learning curve, looking forward to making my way up.

In an unusually active month of concert-going, I’ve seen jazz performers ranging in age from late-20s to a still-spry 80. That’s one of the things I love about the form; if you can bring something to the party you’re more than welcome, no matter how young or old you are. It’s a life’s work.

That openness, I’ve realized, is true of other things that interest me. Like crime fiction. And baseball; plenty of the players from my childhood extend their careers in the game as coaches, scouts or managers.

These pursuits also share a healthy respect for the past that never shades over into reverence. ESPN’s TV coverage of the Joe Torre story mentioned Wilbert Robinson as one of the only other people to manage both the Yankees and the Dodgers, even though in Wilbert’s day the Yankees were in Baltimore and the Dodgers in Brooklyn. The cocktail world, one of my other passions, also has that sense of tradition. There’s nothing like a forgotten drink rediscovered by a contemporary bartender.

Chalk it up to premature old man-ism, but I like things where the current practitioners recognize that they are only temporary custodians of their art. Stop worrying about creating something new, and maybe you can create something good.

Miscellaneous: Halloween Links

Tony Kay compares the Rotten Tomatoes scary movie list with his own. At Shoot the Projectionist, results of a month-long horror film survey are in. And Jim Emerson offers a great list of four overlooked scary movies on DVD.

As a bonus, here are two men who went on to far greater things with some Halloween advice. Boo!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

TV: Viewing Tip

One of the damnedest movies I’ve ever seen makes a rare TV appearance this week. Deadline at Dawn (1946) screened at this year’s Noir City festival. It marks a wild confluence of talent – Clifford Odets adapting Cornell Woolrich for Harold Clurman, the founder of the Group Theater directing his only film. It airs this Tuesday, October 30, on Turner Classic Movies at 11:45 PM Eastern. It’s worth setting the DVR for.

Music: Terrasson/Vasandani

Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival is in full swing, and this year I’m finally making good on my annual promise to take in some shows. Not that I’m going to write about them at length. When it comes to jazz, I’m still a neophyte who doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I’ll just tell you who I saw and leave it at that.

I’m all about piano, so Jacky Terrasson was at the top of my list. His solo set was the second such show I’ve seen this month after Martial Solal at the Village Vanguard in New York. (Oddly, each offered an idiosyncratic version of ‘Take The A Train.’) Terrasson is an intense performer who attacks the piano from a variety of angles, using it as a percussion instrument or reaching inside for a harp-like pluck of the strings. The sound that results is incredible. His ‘America The Beautiful’ is a haunting reverie, while his impassioned take on ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ wrings powerful emotion from a song that I’ve previously never liked. Both tracks are available on his fine new album Mirror.

The opening act, singer Sachal Vasandani, has a warm, supple voice and a way with standards (‘Baby, Don’t You Go Away Mad’) and original material (‘Storybook Fiction,’ a charmer you can hear at his website). A good night all around.

Miscellaneous: Links

A new member of the Writers Guild learns that David Mamet loves her house.

Nerve has a three part series on the best fictional presidents in film. How they could overlook Richard Belzer in Species II and Roy Scheider in Chain of Command is beyond me.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

From the New Yorker excerpt of Steve Martin’s upcoming memoir:

Through the years, I have learned that there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.

Thank you, Steve.

TV: This Week’s Reasons to Love 30 Rock

The word “adverlingus.”

Jack Donaghy’s advice, “Never go with a hippie to a second location.”

Alec Baldwin in the roleplaying scene.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Movies: Horrorween Spooktacular!

Horror’s not my thing. I only scored a lousy 78 on this quiz. (Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

But it’s that time of year, with Halloween only a week away. So I put you in the good-if-bloody hands of the experts.

At the A.V. Club, Hostel director Eli Roth programs 24 hours of horror. His line-up starts with John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, includes a surprising but fully justified appearance by Fellini, and ends with a little gem called Torso. He also makes the supremely idiotic suggestion that you watch Dario Argento’s Suspiria at two o’clock in the morning. All that’s missing is a handy list of local sanitariums you can check yourself into when you’re finished.

If it’s October, it means my friend Tony Kay is in the midst of Horrorpalooza at Pop Culture Petri Dish. Already he’s got entries up on the films of British director Pete Walker, the baffling splendor of The Manitou, and ‘50s scream queen Beverly Garland.

Tony’s post on filmmaker Jess Franco reminds me of how I spent last Halloween.

IFC will mark All Hallows Eve by airing three movies from the Coffin Joe cycle. I watched them earlier this year:

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse

Awakening of the Beast

As for my Halloween plans, I know what I’m hoping for. A ghoulish game six of the World Series.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Miscellaneous: The Jet Lag Round-Up

Still coming down off that New York high. I had to watch Quick Change again to remind myself of how city life actually works. So, while I’m getting my feet back under me, a grab bag of sorts ...

I miss Dunkin Donuts. Their absence in this part of the country has led to a donut-shaped hole in my heart. Which I suppose technically is two holes. I should consult a cardiologist.

When in New York, visit Death & Company. Order some rye cocktails. Tell them I sent you. I’m trying to build up a reservoir of good will.

I saw The Darjeeling Limited on the trip and liked it a lot. So much so that I watched Hotel Chevalier, the short film billed as part one of Darjeeling, as soon as I got home. Chevalier looks great and has some charming moments, but on the whole I didn’t think it added much. Maybe it was seeing them in the wrong order. Now, in a reverse of the original plan, Chevalier will be included when Darjeeling goes into wide release this weekend.

I just double-checked. There are definitely no Dunkin Donuts around here. Damn.

Fred Kaplan went to see Martial Solal at the Vanguard the day after we did and raved. The promised recording of his appearance there will be something to behold.

Apparently, I’ll watch anything on a six-hour flight. Like a deeply disturbing episode of Super Friends. Mr. Mxyzptlk, the criminal imp from the Fifth Dimension – does he know Marilyn McCoo? – imprisons some of the Super Friends in a fantasy world based on The Wizard of Oz. Superman becomes the Tin Man, Aquaman the Scarecrow, and strangest of all, Wonder Woman is transformed into the Cowardly Lion, padding along the Yellow Brick Road in oversized cat feet and a leotard. It was like a fetish video for children. I didn’t know whether I should inform a stewardess or order a copy.

The last two episodes of Mad Men were worth waiting for. What a fantastic debut season.

In honor of the upcoming World Series – Boston and Colorado? Who saw that coming? – here’s an article detailing the history of the bullpen car.

God, I could really go for a donut right about now.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Miscellaneous: Look Homeward, Mets Fan

The hiatus is over. Time to document the trip home. And this time I’m serious.

I visit New York at least once a year. I see friends and family, take in shows, absorb all that the city of my birth has to offer. But there’s one thing I hadn’t done, and that’s return to the Queens neighborhood where I grew up. This time, I made it a point to do so.

Here I am in front of the apartment building I lived in when I was a kid. The building looked the same, although it seemed larger in my memories. The pavement leading to the front door used to be bright pink, like the slab of gum that comes with baseball cards.

A cemetery dating back to the colonial era is around the corner. Naturally, it haunted me. I still on occasion see this headstone in my dreams. To this day I have no idea who A.M. is.

Next stop, the church where I was an altar boy. I knew it was small at the time. We always heard that the diocese ran out of money during construction, so what was intended to be the basement ended up being the whole shebang. I don’t believe it, but it’s a good story.

The corner pharmacy where I bought my first paperback is still there, as is the local pizza parlor. The movie theater where I squandered my youth is now a health club, but there’s a much nicer multiplex just down the street.

I used the Museum of the Moving Image, located blocks from my old home, as an excuse to visit the neighborhood. Truth is, the museum would have been worth the trip by itself. It includes some terrific interactive exhibits. I went into a looping booth and rerecorded Humphrey Bogart’s dialogue from To Have and Have Not. His readings were better.

Rosemarie and I are both unafraid to do touristy things in our native town. We rode the Staten Island ferry for the first time, a feat that now means I have set foot in all five boroughs. We also ventured to Top of the Rock, the new observation deck in Rockefeller Center, which may offer the best views - and elevators - in the city.

As always, I went to the movies at every opportunity. I jumped at the chance to see what’s being billed as the definitive cut of Blade Runner on the big screen. I stepped out of the theater directly into Times Square, and for a moment I wasn’t sure the movie had ended.

We also caught We Own The Night, an old-fashioned New York crime thriller that takes full advantage of the city’s locations. There are several terrific set pieces: a fraught sequence in a stash house, a car chase in rain-soaked Queens that’s as good as action scenes get, a final exchange between two brothers that damn near killed me.

The main point of our trips is to see people. We added some new ones on this go-round. Our nephew and his charming new bride relocated to the city recently and are throwing themselves into life there with an enthusiasm that’s a joy to behold. Even better, another nephew was there visiting for the first time as an adult. It was a treat to spend time with people experiencing New York with fresh eyes and boundless hunger.

My friend Mike – he of Mets Fan Club and proud member of the Islanders Blog Box – came into town for dinner. The plan was to have a beer while coming up with a place to eat. We didn’t know the bar was having trivia night. By round three, The Sinatra Group had earned a comfortable lead and dirty looks from the regular competitors. We stayed to the bitter end and emerged victorious, thus fulfilling another of my lifelong dreams: to hold an oversized novelty check.

The regulars expect us back next Tuesday. They’re in for a long wait. They will look for us at the quiz night ... but we will not be coming.

Celebrity sightings were sparse, but the one we had was a good ‘un. We were leaving a restaurant as John Slattery, who’s been dazzling as louche agency head Roger Sterling on Mad Men, came in. Rosemarie said, “He gets the same billing at lunch that he gets on the show. ‘Special Guest Appearance by John Slattery.’”

I have a few more photos up at my Flickr page. And I’ll leave you with one more, of me recreating a scene from David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner at the actual location in Central Park.

Zoom in on my eyes. You can see the panic, can’t you? Oh, I’m bringing it, baby. Next trip I’m going up for a role on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And another dream will be fulfilled.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Miscellaneous: Bites of the Big Apple

You expected posts? I’m on vacation, people.

Actually, I’m on a spiritual quest, one encapsulated by a question from the hardboiled fiction list Rara Avis: whatever happened to rye?

The answer divined from some of Manhattan’s finer bars confirms what I already knew. Rye is making a comeback. It’s used in any number of cocktails, many of which are named after neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Red Hook, Greenpoint, Bensonhurst, Bushwick, Park Slope. Apparently, this is something of a tradition for New York bartenders, as all rye cocktails are seen as descendants of a drink called the Brooklyn. It contains rye, dry vermouth, Maraschino liqueur, and Amer Picon. That last ingredient is the tough one to get ahold of, but it’s worth the effort. Even if you have to stash it behind the rocker panels.

In other news, we seized the opportunity to see Romance & Cigarettes. The musical written and directed by actor John Turturro was orphaned by its studio, so Turturro is distributing it himself. It’s a truly odd duck of a film featuring a stupendous cast and some singular moments, like Christopher Walken’s take on ‘Delilah.’ The limited initial run has been a success, so who knows? Maybe it will be coming to a theater near you.

And then there’s the real reason for the trip. Xanadu on Broadway. Sure, I have people to visit here, business to transact. But there’s also a stage version of the movie on the Great White Way.

I’ve seen the film countless times. I think of it as the cocaine simulator. You want to know what riding the white horse does? It makes you think that Xanadu is a good idea.

The show’s a hoot, even if you’re not way too familiar with the source material. And it’s allowed me to fulfill another lifelong dream. I have now seen a cast member from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (and Tony Roberts as Warren LaSalle) sing and dance live. I love New York.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Miscellaneous: Travels With Laptop

Greetings from New York City. My first post from the road almost came in the wee hours of the morning, but I couldn’t get decent internet access at Sea-Tac Airport. Our red eye flight east was delayed due to weather. Takeoff was pushed from a hair before midnight to three AM. It’s strange to have a normally bustling superstructure all to yourself. Most of the other passengers decided to go to sleep, the automated announcements echoing off the walls not disturbing their slumber. Rosemarie and I ended up commandeering an empty section of terminal and playing charades using the longest titles we could think of. Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium.

Fortunately, the delay didn’t throw a crimp into our evening plans. We were reasonably bright-eyed and technically bushy-tailed when we went to see Martial Solal, one of the world’s foremost jazz pianists, celebrate his eightieth – eightieth! – birthday with one of a week’s worth of solo shows at The Village Vanguard. Solal is only the second performer honored with a run of such sets. (Fred Kaplan has a great summary of Solal’s career. It was Kaplan’s review of NY1, an album Solal recorded during a lonely run at the Vanguard after September 11, 2001, that sparked my interest in Solal’s work.)

The show was an absolute joy, a celebration in every sense. Solal toyed with a battery of standards – “Body and Soul,” “Tea for Two” – with the energy and ingenuity of a man half his age, but also with the ease of a performer who no longer has to prove himself. It was like eavesdropping on a master noodling on the piano in his study, playing for his own amusement. Occasionally I could glimpse a small smile creeping across Solal’s face, vanishing as soon as another notion occurred to him. “I tried to play ‘Cherokee,’” he said at one point, shrugging helplessly. His rendition of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” was infused with the memory of a lifetime’s worth of clear days. Quite the memorable start for our trip.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Book: Grub, by Elise Blackwell (2007)

It’s funny to realize how few novels I’ve read about novelists. You always hear that there are too many books about literary life. No doubt this is true. But unless the protagonists are accused of murder or battling vampires, odds are I’m not going to pick those titles up.

Grub, however, may have changed my mind. Elise Blackwell’s novel is an elaborate contemporary re-imagining of New Grub Street, the 1891 satire of the London publishing world by George Gissing. I’m not familiar with Gissing’s book, but I have read the Wikipedia entry, which qualifies me as an authority.

Aside from moving the action to New York, Blackwell apparently hasn’t changed much. Nor does she have to; ambition, jealousy and fear are constants in the writer’s lot. She smartly updates the Victorian conventions of Gissing’s novel. More impressively, she recreates the feel of reading one of the books of that period, with its rich stew of characters and incident. Success, failure, romance, secret identities, and endings that come in degrees of happiness. There’s something for everyone. Lovely stuff.

Sports: The Road to Recovery

The Phillies, who outlasted my New York Mets, are already out of the post-season. The Yankees also made an early exit. Which means I can just sit back and enjoy the rest of the baseball playoffs.

I have moved on from the Mets’ late-season collapse with the aid of mental health professionals. The other day I even wore my Mets cap in public again.

Complete Stranger in Supermarket: I haven’t been brave enough to put mine on yet.

Me: You gotta man up, son. Next year starts right now.

Complete Stranger in Supermarket: You’ve inspired me.

Sadly, that exchange is the supreme accomplishment of my life so far.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

DVD: Tension (1949)/Where Danger Lives (1950)

Onward into Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 4 we go. Tension is the sleeper of the set so far. Richard Basehart stars as a mild-mannered pharmacist utterly devoted to wife Audrey Totter. Trouble is, Audrey’s not devoted to him. While he’s mixing pills on the graveyard shift, she’s swanning around town with her lover. Basehart wants to off the beau, but realizes he doesn’t have it in him. However, if he creates another identity for himself ...

Tension’s structure has dated somewhat; the proceedings are introduced and narrated by Barry Sullivan as a homicide detective with the great unlikely moniker of Collier Bonnabel. But the storyline about what people are capable of when they let slip their everyday lives is as sharp as ever. The cast makes the most of it, especially the magnificent Audrey Totter. She’s always a lot of fun to watch.

Where Danger Lives is a dud, but an oddly compelling one. Doctor Robert Mitchum saves a woman’s life after a suicide attempt, then promptly falls in love with her. (Don’t they cover these situations in medical school?) There’s a murder, and the couple goes on the run – even though initially, no one is chasing them. The first half of the movie is a series of miscues and mixed signals, while the second half grows increasingly surreal as Mitchum begins feeling the effects of a concussion.

The troubled woman is played by Faith Domergue, one of Howard Hughes’s “discoveries.” Faith, alas, isn’t a very good actress. But as the extent of her character’s mental illness is revealed, the weaknesses in her performance become ... well, not strengths, exactly, but interesting shadings in a psychological portrait. Let’s leave it at that.

Movies: Enjoy The Show

Yesterday we saw Michael Clayton, the terrific directorial debut of one of my favorite screenwriters Tony Gilroy. Great to see a smart, grown-up movie in a packed house. Still, the experience prompted a few rants.

Rant #1. Every preview we saw – and there were a lot of them – was for a movie about death. Dead kids, dead spouses, dead lovers, dead friends. Two in a row was depressing. Three was kind of funny. Four had people turning around to look at the guy who couldn’t stop laughing. For the record, attending a movie that addresses adult concerns does not mean that the audience is simply marking time until the sweet embrace of the grave.

Rant #2. The people who sat on the other side of Rosemarie brought an entire picnic with them. Thermoses full of liquid, large plastic sacks of bite-sized chocolate bars to be individually unwrapped. I’ve made my peace with the fact that people are incapable of sitting still for two hours without feeding themselves, and that many of these people are cheap.

But then the guy right next to Rosemarie ate an apple.

Anyone who eats an apple in a movie theater is a jackass. Apples are the loudest of the natural snacks, and they spray juice into the dark.

And don’t bother giving me the speech about how you’re hypoglycemic. Not everyone who claims to have blood sugar woes can be so afflicted. Statistically it’s not possible. You know the last society so fixated on humors of the body? Ancient Rome. And we all know what happened there.

Lastly, if you do insist on eating an apple during a movie, at least have the decency to take the core with you when you leave.

Ah. I feel better now.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

DVD: Alligator (1980)

Here’s one for the Bill Crider video collection. A movie that probably had too much influence on me finally gets the DVD it deserves.

Alligator was a huge favorite of mine when I was a kid. A perfect blend of genuine shocks and tongue-in-cheek laughs, it somehow made the idea of a giant mutated reptile living in the sewers under Chicago plausible.

At some point I noticed that this movie and another cable TV staple, Piranha, were written by John Sayles. And that Sayles was also responsible for more ... grown-up fare. But he applied the same attention to detail, no matter what kind of movie he was making. From Sayles, I learned that craft counted regardless of genre.

The new DVD was a chance to watch Alligator for the first time in ages. Not only does the movie hold up, it’s better than I remembered. I appreciate the casting a lot more now. Comedian Jack Carter as the obsequious mayor, Henry Silva as a great white hunter brought in to get the gator. Robin Riker, playing the Midwest’s most fetching herpetologist, looks enough like Lindsay Lohan to give the proceedings some contemporary resonance. And Robert Forster is the man as the troubled cop who first realizes what lurks below.

The disc features an interview with Sayles, who explains how he folded a sociological critique into a monster movie (not a horror film), as well as a commentary track with Forster and director Lewis Teague that makes it plain everyone involved with this movie knew exactly what they were doing.

Miscellaneous: Overhead Conversation of the Day

Concerned Citizen #1: The government, they tell you they’re sending all that money to Iraq, but you know these guys are just lining their pockets with it.

Concerned Citizen #2: Yeah! They’re getting rich. Like Hal Burton. Dick Cheney’s buddy. Burton’s getting it all!

Miscellaneous: Link

I’m enough of a philistine to admit that I don’t think building a secret studio apartment in a shopping mall is art. I will say it’s pretty cool. Via The Obscure Store.