Sunday, April 29, 2007

TV: Neither Freak Nor Geek

I knew when I got into this racket that the pop culture rubric was a broad one, and that I was better qualified in some areas than others. Consider television. I’ve admitted before that there are plenty of classic and current shows I’ve never seen. But lately I’ve been popping episodes of Arrested Development like Raisinettes, so I thought I could hold my own on the boob tube front.

Apparently not, according to this TV Squad article. (Hat tip to The Rap Sheet.) It lists the ten things you need to be considered a fully-fledged TV geek, and yours truly comes up woefully short. Let’s run through ‘em. Timpani!

(Only a TV geek would make that joke, right? Who else watches the Jerry Lewis Telethon?)

1. At least one TV over forty inches.

No. We only have one TV, and the dimensions of the current Chez K made a plasma screen seem like a waste of money.

2. At least one TiVo or Replay TV.

Yes. We have a DVR, mainly to pluck obscure movies off TCM in the wee small hours. It’s not full. Never has been. We also use it to record the following TV series: The Office, 30 Rock and E!’s The Soup, which crams a week’s worth of bad TV into 22 minutes.

3. At least two VCR’s.

VC-what’s? We have one. I can’t recall the last time we used it for anything. Wait, I think we served drinks off it last month.

4. A videotape filled with episodes of a show only you enjoy.

We have a tape of Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. And who doesn’t enjoy that?

5. A recliner.

Come on.

6. A TV small enough to take anywhere.

No. Besides, I never go anywhere.

7. Total Television, by Alex McNeil.

No. We do have a well-thumbed copy of The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present, by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, although in this cast “present” means “1995.” Because sometimes you just need to know exactly how long Gavilan ran.

8. Digital cable or a satellite.

Yes. But that’s so I can watch Mets games.

9. Two or more biographies by TV personalities that shouldn’t have been written.

I can only cop to one: Backstage With The Original Hollywood Square, by Peter Marshall. But it came with a CD of zingers from the show, and I could make the case that the book needed, nay, demanded to be written.

10. ‘Television’s Greatest Hits’ CDs by Tee Vee Toons.

Nope. Never even tempted.

So that’s one point each for #2 and #8. I feel that I deserve partial credit for #7 and #9, as well as the fact that I can identify the author of this article, Paul Goebel, from his stint on the Comedy Central game show Beat The Geeks. Giving me a final score of ... what, 2.88?

Maybe I should change the subhead of this blog to Movies, Crime Fiction, Baseball, Jazz and Hard Liquor. That’s all I’m really interested in anyway.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Magazines: There’s No Me In Us Weekly

Yet there is in Premiere. Provided you scramble the letters.

The other day we received a card informing us that for every issue remaining in our subscription to the late, not really lamented Premiere, we’d receive a copy of Us Weekly.

Rosemarie: I don’t want that rag in my house. I won’t even look at it when I’m at the gym.

Issue #1 – technically, issue #638 – arrived today. The print is big. See-Jane-run big. Everything is punctuated with exclamation points, including the masthead. One feature measures the gap between the thighs of famous women to show they’re too thin.

Rosemarie: My IQ is actually dropping as I look at this. I can feel it. There goes all my French.

What I didn’t realize is that Us Weekly is essentially nothing but paparazzi photos. I make it a point not to look at these photos, and now bound copies of them are being sent to my house against my will.

Rosemarie: Can we cancel this? I don’t care about the money. I just don’t want other people to see this in our mail.

Only two more issues to go.

(Editor’s Note: Rosemarie would like me to point out that she is a longtime subscriber to InStyle magazine, and that she enjoys that publication very much.)

TV: Line Of The Week

Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) on the 30 Rock season finale, thinking he’s having a fatal heart attack:

“Ride it, Donaghy! Ride it straight to hell!”

Miscellaneous: YouTube Clip Of The Weekend

I’m now excited about installment four later this summer. Well played. Hat tip to Kung Fu Monkey.

Friday, April 27, 2007

DVD: Cue The Queue

Time to revive the storied tradition – OK, I did this once before – of briefly describing the DVDs gathering dust next to the TV because I’m too busy to watch them.

Arrested Development, Season 1, Disc 2. Whenever I caught an episode, I’d think, “This show is really funny.” I am now working my way through the entire series in sequence. One of the better decisions I’ve made lately.

A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. It’s a way for me to jump on the Shia LaBoeuf bandwagon, because I haven’t had a chance to catch Disturbia yet. The movie also stars Chazz Palminteri and Robert Downey, Jr., and it don’t get better than them. But mainly I’m interested because Saints is set in “the tough neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. ” I came up in the adjacent ‘hood of Woodside, where I have to say the streets didn’t seem that mean. Then again, I spent most of my time indoors.

Hollywood Burlesque/Peek-A-Boo. Watching burlesque movies, like this double bill from Something Weird Video, for the comedy is like reading Playboy for the articles. Which I also do, thank you very much. There’s something about those interminable baggy-pants sketches that fascinates me, especially on those rare occasions when you see a veteran performer who’s still able to liven up a bit.

One of the burlesque shorts on the disc featured a dancer doing a striptease to an up-tempo rendition of “Danny Boy,” which is wrong on many, many levels. By the time it was over I was weeping, aroused, and angry, which for an Irishman is a normal state of affairs. Back to work.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

DVD: Pulp (1972)

Get Carter isn’t just one of the great gangster movies. It topped at least one critics’ poll of the best British films of all time. A year after Carter’s release, star Michael Caine, writer/director Mike Hodges, and producer Michael Klinger reunited for Pulp. Which, to my knowledge, has never topped a critics’ list of any kind. A bare-bones DVD skulked onto the market last week. And while Pulp suffers in comparison to Carter – name a movie that wouldn’t – it’s still worth watching.

Caine plays an author of paperback thrillers, churning out titles like The Organ-Grinder under an array of pseudonyms (Guy Strange, Dan Wild). He agrees to ghostwrite the autobiography of a faded Hollywood star with alleged Mafia connections and soon finds himself neck-deep in the kind of plot he usually dictates into a tape recorder.

Hodges tries to pull off something difficult here, telling a noir tale while sending up the genre’s conventions. It doesn’t completely work, but there are enough smart moments to keep the action interesting. This is the Michael Caine that Craig Ferguson lovingly satirizes, in full ‘70s glory with wavy hair and thick-framed glasses. And while Mickey Rooney may not be believable as an Italian, he shines as the Cagneyesque actor driven by an aging male’s vanity and a celebrity’s narcissism.

One member of the Carter team not brought back is composer Roy Budd. ‘Carter Takes The Train’ is one of the indisputably great main themes, so much so that it was reprised in the 2000 Sylvester Stallone Carter remake, where it was easily the movie’s best feature. Budd had a nice career doing jazz-inflected scores for Euro thrillers of the ‘70s, many starring Caine (The Black Windmill, The Destructors). I’ve been listening to them a lot lately. Good stuff.

TV: Entourage

Naturally, I love this HBO show. It’s about a kid from Queens named Vince whose effortless talent makes him the center of his universe. Frankly, I deserve royalties.

I was willing to let Turtle’s fetishistic obsession with the Yankees go. There are a handful of Bronx Brombers fans in the Mets’ home borough. But I draw the line at this week’s episode, which featured a gratuitous anti-Mets joke. Vince Chase made a movie called Queens Boulevard, for Christ’s sake. There’s got to be at least one Amazins fan in his posse. If Jeremy Piven weren’t still bringing it as Ari Gold, I’d stop watching in protest. For one week.

Miscellaneous: Links

New York magazine’s new pop culture blog Vulture is fast becoming a regular stop. Roger Ebert shows what he’s made of. And personally, I would have looked for Superman first.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Website Update: Links

I finally got around to tweaking the Links page, tricking it out with a crime fiction section so I could add Crimespace and Graham Powell’s Check ‘em out.

Movies: All I Have To Do Is Meme

Once again, deadlines have me drawing from the meme well. I poached this one from Marty McKee’s blog, Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot.

1. Name a movie that you have seen more than 10 times.

Dr. Strangelove. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The Usual Suspects.

2. Name a movie that you’ve seen multiple times in the theater.

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pulp Fiction. L.A. Confidential.

3. Name an actor who would make you more inclined to see a movie.

Robert Mitchum. Walter Matthau. From the long list of contemporary actors, two at random: Catherine Keener and Steve Zahn. And Alec Baldwin. And Jennifer Jason Leigh. And Stanley Tucci. And ...

4. Name an actor who would make you less likely to see a movie.

On the rare occasions when I’m tempted to write off an actor, he or she surprises me with a terrific performance. So I’ll say any singer/rapper I’ve never heard of.

5. Name a movie that you can and do quote from.

Quick Change. “It’s bad luck just seeing a thing like that!” “You two straphangers are interfering with Mrs. Crane’s beverage service!” “Flores! Flores para los muertos!”

6. Name a movie musical from which you know all the lyrics to all the songs.

The Music Man. Someday I will play Professor Harold Hill.

7. Name a movie that you have been known to sing along with.


8. Name a movie that you would recommend everyone see.

Local Hero. Bull Durham.

9. Name a movie that you own.

Zero Effect. Blowup.

10. Name an actor who launched his/her career in another medium but who has surprised you with his/her acting chops.

Greg Kinnear. The man went from talk show host to premiere interpreter of compromised American manhood.

11. Have you ever seen a movie at a drive-in? If so, what?

No. Not many drive-ins in New York City, and by the time I moved to Florida for high school they were all long gone. Alas.

12. Name a movie that you keep meaning to see but just haven’t gotten around to yet.

Thanks to Netflix and the still-ongoing Shame-Faced, I’ve crossed a lot of these titles off the list. But a few still remain, like The Philadelphia Story.

13. Ever walked out of a movie?

Yes. I left a superhero movie to remain nameless because I decided my time could be better spent buying a couch.

14. Name a movie that made you cry in the theater.

Frequency. It’s about fathers, sons, and the New York Mets. I wasn’t the only teary guy in the theater, either.

15. Popcorn?

Hell, no. To quote my only television appearance, “I cannot eat the popcorn knowing what I know.”

16. How often do you go to the movies (as opposed to renting them or watching them at home)?

At least once a week. We’re sixteen weeks into 2007, and so far I’ve been to the movies eighteen times.

17. What’s the last movie you saw in the theater?

Hot Fuzz. Hilarious.

18. What’s your favorite/preferred genre of movie?

Noir, baby. As dark as it gets.

19. What’s the first movie you remember seeing in the theater?

Walt Disney’s Dumbo. I think. If not that, another Disney cartoon.

20. What movie do you wish you had never seen?

Any sequel to a movie I didn’t like. Even if I enjoy the follow-up, I feel like an enabler.

21. What is the weirdest movie you enjoyed?

Not sure what ‘weirdest’ means here. So I’ll say Beyond the Sea. I know the movie is, on many levels, not very good. I also know that I love it.

22. What is the scariest movie you’ve seen?

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original Dawn of the Dead. The Blair Witch Project.

23. What is the funniest movie you’ve seen?

The Palm Beach Story. The Producers. The In-Laws. Slap Shot.

Anyone else wants to take a crack at this list, be my guest.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links As Dark As They Come

L.A.’s noir fest continues, and I continue not to be there for it. The L.A. Times looks at the festival’s bicoastal theme. Eddie Muller makes a key distinction, saying of the New York films:

“the characters want to escape the big city, the teeming metropolis. In L.A., you get to the Promised Land and you realize there’s no escape.”

GreenCine features a terrific multi-part video from January’s Noir City festival in San Francisco with Muller interviewing actress Marsha Hunt, star of Kid Glove Killer and Raw Deal.

The Rap Sheet recently conducted a poll to determine TV’s best cops and gumshoes. The results are in. Yours truly split his ticket, voting for Joe Friday and Jim Rockford.

DVD: Le Petit Lieutenant (U.S. 2006)

Last year I went to New York just as this award-winning French film ended its run there. Naturally, that’s when it played briefly in Seattle. I had to wait for its DVD release to catch up with it.

Lieutenant is the kind of police procedural that has been largely ceded to television. At times it plays like a cinema vérité hybrid of The Wire and Prime Suspect, as a rookie Paris detective adjusts to his duties with help from an alcoholic female superior returning to command. The movie takes its sweet time getting started; half an hour in, I confess to feeling a bit bored. But the plot takes hold once the rookie begins investigating the murder of a homeless man, leading to an ending that long-form TV couldn’t pull off. It’s a slow building film, but one worth watching.

The movie reminded me of Bertrand Tavernier’s L.627. The epic black comedy following a Paris drug squad is the M*A*S*H of cop movies, and as far as I know it’s unavailable on DVD. Who do I talk to about that?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links With Wordy Commentary

First, many thanks to everyone who took the time to comment on the previous anniversary post. I reached double digits, which has been a lifelong dream. Well, the life of this blog, at any rate. I intend to implement much of your advice, particularly my brother’s.

If you haven’t commented, why not skip down and do so? There’s plenty of room and I crave attention.

And now, on with the links ...

I can’t get behind Neal Pollack’s Alternadad stuff. I understand where he’s coming from; no sane parent actually wants to listen to the Wiggles, with the exception of horny moms. But don’t foist Bob Dylan onto your offspring just so you can riff on Blonde on Blonde while helping him with his fractions. Kids need to listen to their own crap.

That said, I love Pollack’s occasional pieces on being a baseball fan. In his latest, he gorges himself at Dodger Stadium.

Another Slate article explains why NBC’s Thank God You’re Here, which isn’t very good, is also not improv.

My hero David Mamet has sold his papers to the University of Texas at Austin. From his 1975 journal:

“David, you absolutely must complete a draft of Buffalo by 1 June. June. You want to be a pauper all your life?”

I’m glad to see he talks that way to himself.

Recently, Steve Lewis’s Mystery*File blog featured Bill Pronzini’s appreciation of novelist Elliott Chaze, prompting a follow-up by Ed Gorman. Comes now word that Chaze’s masterpiece Black Wings Has My Angel may be coming to the big screen courtesy of Mr. Frodo himself. Mssrs. Lewis and Pronzini then weigh in on this development, as does Mr. Gorman.

The next movie I’m dying to see is Hot Fuzz, opening Stateside this week. The AV Club has an interview with the crew responsible in which they discuss their research process:

Director/co-writer Edgar Wright: You watch something like Steven Seagal’s Out For Justice and think, “Hey, someone actually wrote this. There was a screenplay for this film. Somebody sat down and wrote the line, ‘Yo, fucknuts!’ on a page.”

Co-star Nick Frost: Then they must have taken the day off.

What’s more, unless ‘Yo, fucknuts!’ was a particularly inspired ad lib, the someone who wrote it is also the someone who wrote Road House. Proof that lightning can indeed strike twice.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

Normally, I’m thrilled when people agree with me. But finding out that Steve Lewis had the same reaction to Boston Blackie that I did kinda bums me out.

David Thomson on the ten extraordinary minutes of film for which the late Barry Nelson should be remembered.

Because Rosemarie can’t get enough of him, I give you MC Nuts.

Miscellaneous: Another Year, Another Blogiversary

Wednesday marks three, count ‘em, three years of what a friend of mine has shorthanded to VK-dot-C. Not bad, considering the average lifespan of a blog. (Starting one and then neglecting it? Who would do such a thing?)

The site has evolved over that time. I don’t post every day, or even every other day, any more. And believe it or not, I don’t post about every book I read or movie I see, either. It only seems that way. Somehow, though, I find enough to blather about.

Occasionally I’ll tell myself that it’s time to mix it up. Change the layout of the site, or at least the photos on each page. But life and work intrude, and I never seem to get around to it. The look of the page hasn’t changed in three years, and it may not for three more.

Speaking of work, I’ve got some I should be doing. So I’m going to steal a bit from Ken Levine and ask you to do a little writing. If you’re a regular or semi-regular reader, leave a comment. Say who you are and where you’re from, what you like or what you don’t like about the place. Or you can just say “Hi” to let me know you’re there. (NOTE: Family and friends are not exempt from this request. In fact, I’m relying on you to do your part. You don’t want me to be embarrassed, do you?)

As always, thanks for stopping by. I’ll do what I can to keep it interesting around here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Movies: In Theaters Now

A pair of winners.

The Hoax. Richard Gere gives great flop sweat as Clifford Irving, attempting to pass off a phony Howard Hughes autobiography as the genuine article. Fast-moving fun with a terrific cast. Additional weirdness points for having Julie Delpy play Irving’s mistress Nina Van Pallandt, who would become an actress and appear in American Gigolo opposite ... Richard Gere.

Random note: Every time a character hoisted a 1970s pull tab can, it almost knocked me out of the movie. “Look at the size of that! How did people drink out of those? What’s in that, Tab or Valvoline?” Some period details are too real to be real.

Black Book. In WWII Holland, a Jewish resistance fighter dyes her hair – all of it – blonde so she can start an affair with a Gestapo officer. Said Gestapo officer, played by The Lives of Others’ charismatic Sebastian Koch, is presented in something of a heroic light. The resistance fighters aren’t all good. And things get really bad once the war is over. I suppose I can see why some critics have called Paul Verhoeven’s drama ‘misguided.’

These critics are dead wrong. True, Black Book isn’t a serious exploration of the resistance like Melville’s Army of Shadows or Verhoeven’s own Soldier of Orange. It isn’t meant to be. It’s an engine of pure, delirious narrative. Epic romance, suspense, tragedy – everything you want is in this movie, and it never lets up. Carice van Houten is destined to be a huge star, which will only help her little brother Milhouse.

Random note: Black Book was part of a Saturday afternoon out. Matinee, book store, record store. All of them sparsely populated. Maybe everybody really does do everything via the Internet now. The people who were out could be split into two camps, hardcore obsessives and aimless drifters. Or, those who have nowhere else they’d rather be, and those who have nowhere else to go.

Miscellaneous: Next Caller, Please

I’ve foolishly ignored caller ID and am on the phone with a telemarketer pitching a dubious-sounding charity. But I’ve played this game many times before. I’m saying ‘no’ without providing reasons, leaving him no options. He started out asking for a hundred bucks and is now down to twenty-five.

Me: Sorry. Can’t do it.

Him: Can’t is a word of defeat. What do the last three letters of ‘American’ spell, my man?

I almost cracked. Almost.

Miscellaneous: Link

Terrence Rafferty on Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, a movie that is in no way controversial in the mystery community.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Miscellaneous: Your Weekend Planner

Readers in the Los Angeles area are advised to head to the Egyptian Theater for the Eighth Annual Festival of Film Noir, mainly because I can’t. This year it’s L.A. versus NYC in a battle to crown the most noir city in America. Which is odd, because I know festival organizer Eddie Muller would nominate his home town of San Francisco for the honor.

If, like me, you won’t be in attendance, take heart. The divine Christa Faust has pledged to take in every double feature and will be reporting from the floor.

The last two episodes of the hilarious Andy Barker, P.I. will be airing Saturday night at 8PM, the timeslot known as television’s graveyard. Andy, we hardly knew ye. Where am I going to get my fill of Fidel Castro jokes now?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Book: The Wrecking Crew, by Donald Hamilton (1960)

After Donald Hamilton’s recent death, I said I’d read the other Matt Helm novel that I own. I’m a man of my word. Now my problem is that I don’t have another one waiting in the wings.

Crew, the second book in the series, takes place a year after the events of Death of a Citizen. Helm’s wife has left him, having discovered his past as a WWII government operative with a license – and a willingness – to kill. So Helm has accepted Mac’s offer of returning to service. His first assignment sends him to his (and Hamilton’s) ancestral homeland of Sweden. Helm is to smoke out a spy known as Caselius while masquerading as a photographer alongside a journalist who might be a double agent ... or Caselius herself.

Of all the book’s good qualities – the pacing, the sense of place – what struck me most was Hamilton’s coolly rational view of violence. Helm’s a bit rusty when it comes to dishing it out, and Mac cagily uses that fact to the mission’s advantage. Helm still has problems when it comes to women in pants, but each of the female characters is nicely nuanced. And Hamilton can always be counted on to deliver a sharp observation in his spare style:

I was told by my dad once that a man who tied his own ties was much more likely to be a gentleman than one who did not. Just what constitutes a gentleman in this day and age, the old man didn’t bother to say. To him, the distinction was clear. It must have been nice.

The 1969 movie “adaptation” has Helm (Dean Martin) chasing down thieves who have hijacked a train carrying a billion dollars in gold. It also features Chuck Norris.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Movies: Boston Blackie

What interested me most in Turner Classic Movies’ “Watching the Detectives” line-up last month was an evening of Boston Blackie movies. Actor Chester Morris starred in fourteen films as the gentleman thief turned crimefighter, loosely based on a character created by Jack Boyle. Clearly Blackie had been popular, yet now he was almost completely forgotten; the movies TCM was airing hadn’t been on TV in decades. I cherry-picked a few to record. Maybe I’d get lucky with a series character again the way I did with the Michael Shayne movies.

(I’m not the only one who was impressed with those films, by the way. Bruce Grossman at Bookgasm sings Lloyd Nolan’s praises. Hat tip to The Rap Sheet.)

I began at the beginning with 1941’s Meet Boston Blackie. It was written by Jay Dratler, whose work I’ve praised before. (I link to that post only so you’ll read the lovely comment it prompted.) This inaugural entry, in which Blackie stalks spies operating out of a beachfront carnival, establishes tropes that end up in every film. Devil-may-care Blackie is accused of a crime. The intrepid Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) hounds his every move. He’s aided only by a beautiful woman and his pal the Runt, played in this outing by Charles Wagenheim and in later films by George E. Stone. Sadly, the problems that plague the series are also here. The plot breaks down about 25 minutes in, and the comic relief is neither comic nor a relief.

Morris is an interesting presence. He has the theatricality of Robert Preston combined with a hint of coldness; as a result, he’s completely plausible as a reformed criminal. In real life Morris dabbled in magic, which is often deployed to good use in the films.

Next I played the auteur game, recording the titles made by directors I’d heard of. Noir veteran Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, Crossfire) is behind the camera on the series’ second movie, Confessions of Boston Blackie. Our hero takes on a gang of murderous art forgers. Also written in part by Dratler, the movie makes even less sense than the previous one, with an ending that’s a complete mess.

Budd Boetticher – whose Randolph Scott westerns like Seven Men From Now and The Tall T are as tough and spare as movies get – was still billing himself as Oscar when he helmed 1944’s One Mysterious Night. Blackie is deputized by Farraday in order to track down a stolen diamond. Dorothy Malone (then Maloney) turns up in a small part and Morris makes some cunning use of disguises, but again the plot quickly becomes ridiculous.

What have we learned? Some things are forgotten because they deserve to be. Now if somebody wanted to update the character ... that’s another story.

TV: Entourage

Season 3B’s premiere included a shot of a massive banner that read, “Victoria’s Secret Wishes Vince A Very Sexy Birthday.” I would like it known that I will pay a king’s ransom for said banner.

Superagent Ari Gold trying to dissuade his once-and-future client from doing a period piece: “Do you know Edith Wharton? It’s always the same story. Guy can’t fuck the girl for five years ‘cause those were the times.” I’ve missed you, Ari.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Miscellaneous: Make Mine Music Link

Still on deadline, but I have to steer you toward this marvelous Washington Post article by Gene Weingarten. Take one of the world’s greatest classical musicians and a flawless instrument. Put them both in a D.C. subway station at rush hour. Watch what happens. Hat tip to Arts & Letters Daily.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Upcoming: El Aura (U.S. 2006)

Barreling toward a deadline means no new blog fodder for the weekend. Instead, here’s a heads up about an old favorite.

The best crime drama of 2006, not to mention one of the finest films of the year, comes to DVD on Tuesday. I speak of Argentina’s El Aura, or in English, The Aura. (Pretty good, huh? Never took Spanish. That’s just from watching soccer on Univision.)

Fabien Bielinsky’s haunting movie is about an epileptic taxidermist who accidentally gets the opportunity to live out his dream of pulling the perfect heist. To quote myself when I raved about it last November, “think of it as Richard Stark meets Oliver Sacks.”

Bielinsky died far too young last year, having made only this film and the marvelous con man caper Nine Queens. Both deserve your attention. I’m happy to do what I can to get El Aura’s cult following off the ground.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Movie: Johnny Cool (1963)

Sicilian bandit Henry Silva is “adopted” by an exiled Mafia kingpin, schooled in the ways of the Syndicate, then dispatched to America to wreak bloody vengeance.

The film, based on a Gold Medal paperback by John McPartland, perfectly captures the spirit of those pulp novels. It’s filled with hard men, harsh violence and wild passion, all of it capped by a truly twisted ending. What’s amazing is who’s behind the camera: William Asher, a veteran of I Love Lucy who would go on to direct several AIP beach party movies and almost a third of the episodes of Bewitched.

Silva has always been an odd actor, but here his stoic, implacable quality is a bonus; he’s essentially playing a zombie, doing another man’s bidding. Producer Peter Lawford found room in the movie for Rat Pack running buddies Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis, Jr., who’s great as an icy eyepatched gambler named “Educated.” Familiar faces stud the cast; satirist Mort Sahl even turns up as a casino boss! This must have been some hip ticket back in ’63, pally.

But the revelation is Elizabeth Montgomery as Dare Guiness. (What a name!) She simply nails the psychology of those mercurial good-time-girls who are drawn to bad boys. And she was never lovelier.

Bill Crider brought this movie and another fine McPartland adaptation, the 1957 suburban drama No Down Payment, to my attention. He observed that Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a kind of unofficial Johnny Cool remake. I think he’s right.

Sammy Davis, Jr. also sings the movie’s theme, a Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen classic that tells the story of Johnny Cool. It’s called “The Story of Johnny Cool.” After hearing this and Sammy’s rendition of “My Mother The Car,” it’s safe to say that no one sold a bad song like the Candyman.

Life’s Too Short: Marlowe (1969)

I recorded this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister the same day as Johnny Cool and gave up after forty minutes. James Garner makes a fine Philip Marlowe, but the movie seems tired from the start. It’s bad enough to have Marlowe use gay panic to trick a thug into jumping off a building. But when said thug is played by Bruce Lee ...

Miscellaneous: Link

Grady Hendrix offers an inconvenient truth: authentic grind house theaters and movies sucked.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Movie: Dressed To Kill (1941)

You’d think four Michael Shayne movies in a row would be enough. But knowing that the third film in the series was already available on DVD meant that I had to track it down. My Shayne bender wasn’t over yet. Speaking of which, who played Shayne Bender? Wasn’t it Hugh O’Brian? No, wait, Hugh O’Brian was Brannigan. (Have you watched the Lookwell pilot I sent you to? These are the jokes, folks.)

Alas, Dressed to Kill is easily the least of the five Shayne films I’ve seen so far. The gumshoe’s all set to marry his girl (played by series regular Mary Beth Hughes) when he stumbles onto a gruesome double murder tied to a long-ago theatrical production. The plot, from the Richard Burke novel The Dead Take No Bows, is so thick that Lloyd Nolan gets little chance to demonstrate his charm. His few good lines and the presence of veteran actors William Demarest and Henry Daniell are all that recommend this one. And with that, I stop talking about Mike Shayne. Until Volume 2 of the collection comes out.

Miscellaneous: Links, All Queens N.Y. Edition

A last-minute deal keeps Major League Baseball’s out-of-market games on cable – and the Mets sweep the opening 3-game series against the defending world champion Cardinals in St. Louis, outscoring them 20-2. It’s going to be a good summer.

Spider-Man 3 is set to receive “the first-ever star-studded gala premiere in Queens” in the movie theater blocks from my childhood home. I knew Peter Parker growing up. A loner, kept to himself mostly.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Donald Hamilton, R.I.P.

I suppose it’s only fitting that I learned about the death of novelist Donald Hamilton at the Mystery*File blog. It was two articles that appeared in the magazine that convinced me to give his Matt Helm books a try. I still haven’t read The Wrecking Crew, but it’s close at hand and I’ll be diving into it soon enough. I worship Dean Martin, but the Helm movies are a caricature of what Hamilton accomplished on the page.

Some of my usual web haunts do a far better job of remembering the man. Steve Lewis looks back at The Ambushers and hints at the possibility of one last go-round for Helm. Plus more from Bill Crider and The Rap Sheet.

Upcoming: Art House Freak Outs!

I noted in my previous post that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s hallucinogenic western El Topo was almost impossible to see. Looks like I spoke too soon, because it’s scheduled for release on DVD next month. I assume a direct dial number to the closest mental health facility is among the bonus features.

WR: Mysteries of the Organism, the damnedest movie I’ve ever seen and the highlight of my “The Body In Film” class, will be getting the full Criterion treatment. I’m going to have to revisit this one.

Movie: The Lookout (2007)

Scott Frank gets my vote for America’s best contemporary screenwriter. Turns out he’s a fine director as well. Some guys have all the luck. The Lookout is a smart, taut, lived-in thriller. With roles in this film, Brick and the much-delayed Elmore Leonard adaptation Killshot, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is becoming this generation’s noir icon. Greencine has an interview with actor and director, as well as co-star Matthew Goode.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Movies: An F in Grindhouse 101

You bet I’m going to see Grindhouse. Just not right away. I want to let the fanboy stench dissipate a little first. Plus I’m leery of the idea of deliberately setting out to make what some would call “bad” movies. Plenty of “bad” movies happen all by themselves.

Lately, though, I’ve had a revelation. Perhaps I’m not grind house material.

Understand, I love my junk cinema. I’m the guy who recently binged on Coffin Joe movies. But when it comes to true grind house, I may be out of my depth.

Assemble a list of twenty movies of any stripe – neglected art house gems, say, or the best films with protagonists named Steve – and I will have seen at least seventeen of them. In many cases all twenty. No brag, just fact, to quote one of my former bosses quoting a TV series I’ve never seen.

At least it was fact until last week, when Entertainment Weekly cited 20 flicks that inspired Messrs. Tarantino & Rodriguez. (List not available online.)

I only notched ten. A meager half.

Here’s what I’ve seen and what I haven’t:

1. Escape from New York (1981). Yes. Repeatedly. I still do Lee Van Cleef’s awesomely callous move with his fingers when he tells Snake Plissken about the explosive charges in his neck.

2. Vanishing Point (1971). Yes. The best exponent of the Southwestern Existential Highway Movie. Examples of this genre that I don’t like include Two Lane Blacktop and Electra Glide In Blue. Blame a New York childhood’s general indifference to cars. I can sum up why I like it in three words: Barry f*cking Newman.

3. Mad Max (1979). Yes. The one title on this list I own on DVD.

4. A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Yes. The best movie on this list. In fact, I’m not sure it belongs here.

5. Dawn of the Dead (1978). Yes. Once. And I never forgot it.

6. The Warriors (1979). Yes. Many times. See earlier reference to New York childhood.

7. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970). Yes. Not my first or my favorite Dario Argento movie.

8. The Street Fighter (1974). No. I’m woefully unschooled in Sonny Chiba.

9. Piranha (1978). Yes. Still hilarious – and scary.

10. Zombie (1979). No. I’ve never seen “the Cadillac of Italian zombie films,” in which a zombie battles a shark. I know at least one person I’ve just disappointed.

11. El Topo (1970). No. It’s almost impossible to see. I read about a guy who watched it while on acid in the ‘70s and had recurring nightmares about it decades later. Which I consider a ringing endorsement.

12. Maniac (1980). No. Haven’t seen it, and never will. Joe Spinnell’s psycho killer movie holds no interest for me.

13. Dolemite (1975). No. Rudy Ray Moore just performed in Seattle to mark his 80th birthday. Didn’t see that, either.

14. Raw Meat (1972). Yes. Cannibals in the subway. See earlier reference to New York childhood.

15. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). No. But it’s been parked on my DVR for nine months, so I deserve partial credit.

16. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Yes. Bored me stupid.

17. My Bloody Valentine (1981). No. Not a big slasher film fan.

18. Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971). No – I think. I consumed Hammer horror films growing up, but don’t recall this one. And something tells me if I’d seen it, I would remember it.

19. The Big Bird Cage (1972). No. My women-in-prison background is very thin. Except for an incident in Juarez that I’m not prepared to discuss.

20. The Clones of Bruce Lee. That’s not a title, it’s a subgenre. And the answer is no.

It only gets worse. Cinematical offers a similar list. There, I’m 0-for-7. I hang my film buff’s head in shame.