Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Miscellaneous: Today’s Random Connection

The other night I take down my copy of David Mamet’s 1988 play Speed-The-Plow. Yes, I keep Mamet around the house. Why? To learn some craft. To have a sense of How Things Are Done. To “study.” Because I – I feel that ... look. Like the man says, if you have to ask ...

Two Hollywood executives are considering a pair of potential projects. One is a prison movie starring a box-office draw. The other is a book being given a courtesy read. A book by “A Very Famous Eastern Writer.” A book called The Bridge, or: Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. Or, as the execs call it, The Radiation Book. Here’s how some of it goes:

“The wind against the Plains, but not a wind of change ... a wind like that one which he’d been foretold, the rubbish of the world – swirling, swirling ...”

And more:

“What was coming was a return to the self, which is to say, a return to God ... And the man saw that ... things were ending. Yes. That things must end. And that vouchsafed to him a vision of infinity.”

What is it? “It’s a novel about the historical effects of radiation.” Yes, but What Is It About? Simple. It’s about The End Of The World. It’s about a man and a child. It’s about what we all feel. Everyone is frightened. Everything is breaking down. Things as we know them are over. Or, to quote the coverage: “the device of God, in all things, to prepare the world for its final decay.”

In other words, it’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Not that I’ve read the book. I don’t do everything Oprah tells me to do. Besides, I’m waiting for the movie.

Sports: My Impoverished Fantasy Life

In Slate, David Roth writes about how fantasy baseball has destroyed his ability to enjoy the game – and, to his eternal shame, to root unabashedly for the New York Mets, currently riding high atop the NL East.

Every season I say I’m going to join a fantasy league, and every season I don’t do it. I couldn’t tell you why. It just doesn’t interest me. Apparently, the only people left who still watch baseball games for the pure pastoral joy of the sport are Bob Costas, George Will and me. Company that’s not as august as you’d think. Just once I’d like to see one of those guys reach for his wallet when the hot dog vendor comes around.

MLB’s Extra Innings package is pitched to fans who can’t watch their hometown teams. That’s why I sprang for it. But the true market is fantasy fanatics who want to follow their rosters in real time.

You’d think access to a dozen-plus ballgames a day would up my interest in fantasy play. Nope. My viewing remains Mets-centric. Take last night. I caught most of the Mets/Giants game, an extra innings corker that ended with Armando Benitez, a former Mets reliever, getting called for two balks against Jose Reyes to bring the tying run across the plate before Carlos Delgado’s solo HR took it for the Mets in the bottom of the twelfth.

To quote Strangers With Candy, “If you’re paying for cable and not watching TV, you’re losing money. It’s just simple economics.” So on I went to the end of the Braves/Brewers game, hoping the Mets’ division rivals would fall even further back. (They did.) I closed the evening out with a little of the Mariners/Angels. All games that I watched and enjoyed, you know, as games. No divided loyalties. No sweat involved.

OK, I sweated a little during the Mets game. But that’s the price of being a true fan.

Other baseball notes: Sports Illustrated on how Mets’ GM Omar Minaya transformed the team into a contender. Hat tip to my brother Sean. And a terrific baseball blog with a focus on the Los Angeles Dodgers written by ... Alyssa Milano?!?

DVD: Not Just The Best Of The Larry Sanders Show

How did I spend my Memorial Day weekend? Consuming every facet of this extraordinary 4-disc set.

I’ll admit this right off the bat: The Larry Sanders Show is my all-time favorite TV series. I’ll stack it up against any comedy or drama. It helps that Larry is a perfect blend of both, an achingly funny series about a troika of characters so rich and well-defined they’d be at home in a Eugene O’Neill play. Insecure talk show host Larry (Garry Shandling), his loyal producer Artie (Rip Torn), and his talent-challenged sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor, giving full voice to the show’s most inspired creation).

Sanders is primarily remembered for the groundbreaking way it used real-life figures to comment on America’s growing obsession with show business, and those scenes draw blood to this day. Plenty of actors did the best work of their careers playing themselves. Like Illeana Douglas, worrying that boyfriend Larry will dump her if she tanks on his show. Jim Carrey’s turn on the final episode, his showmanship curdling into malignant narcissism as soon as the cameras are off, is nothing short of spellbinding. The later shows featuring Jon Stewart as Larry’s heir apparent make for particularly fascinating viewing now that Stewart has not only become this generation’s answer to Johnny Carson but has reinvented the role so completely.

For me, the show’s other true subject is work. You’re always aware of the enormous amount of effort that goes into making a standard-issue talk show that struggles in the ratings.

Aside: I always loved the episodes where something on the show would go so wrong that Artie would announce, “Tonight will be a ‘Best of Larry.’” It got to the point where I became disappointed that Jay and Dave never aired unscheduled reruns. Apparently I should have been watching The View, which had the decency to put the dysfunction front and center.

As the collection’s name implies, the episodes are cherry-picked from the show’s six seasons. Some personal favorites are missing. Artie’s drunken night in the office isn’t here, and neither is Larry’s celebrity roast. But other classics are, such as “Hank’s Sex Tape,” featuring one of the great lines of television history: “Sex is not a crime. It’s a loving act between two or more consenting adults.”

The episodes, though, are mere gravy for the special features. They’re so exhaustive that they essentially constitute a lost season of Larry, focused as they are on the divide between performer and performance, or what Garry Shandling calls “the curtain.” Shandling was intimately involved with assembling this collection; he even handwrites the introductions to his visits with the show’s guest stars. He boxes with Alec Baldwin and has breakfast with one-time paramour Sharon Stone, who played Larry’s love interest in one of the show’s strongest episodes. Their encounter quickly breaks through the playful artifice to plumb emotions with Cassavetes intensity. Shandling also reconnects with people who worked behind the scenes on the show. Protégé Judd Apatow cops to stealing Shandling’s creative method. In light of Apatow’s extraordinary success, that may be the show’s most lasting legacy.

I try to keep blanket statements to a minimum, but I already went big with the “all-time favorite” comment, so what the hell. This DVD package is the cultural high point of 2007 so far.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

On The Web: The Rap Sheet

The crime fiction blog’s One Book Project has been running all week, and what a treat it’s been. I imagine that none of the overlooked titles mentioned by the participants will be overlooked any more. I’ve got some reading to do.

My nomination appears in the series’ last installment. I’d like to thank Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce both for asking me to play, and for referring to me as a “culture critic.” The description has gone right to my head and my business card. Other answers we would have accepted include gadabout, curmudgeon, and force for good in his time.

Head over to The Rap Sheet. You’ll enjoy yourself.

Anniversary: John Wayne

Today is the centenary of Marion Morrison’s birth. A war movie, not a western, was my introduction to one of the greatest of film stars. The Duke received his first Academy Award nomination for 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima, playing a hard-bitten Marine sergeant prepping raw recruits for battle even as his personal life falls apart. It’s a well-made film that hits all the standard war movie notes – it may well have invented some of them – but I didn’t know those notes, so Sands made a vivid impression. Particularly Wayne’s final scene. Now I’d see it coming a mile off. Then, I was shattered for the rest of the day. It’s the strength of Wayne’s onscreen presence that gives the moment its impact.

Wayne was honored at Grauman’s Chinese Theater after the success of the movie. The cement in which he left his footprints and his fist print was mixed with sand from Iwo Jima.

GreenCine Daily rounds up tributes to the actor. James Reasoner lists his favorite John Wayne films. I second ‘em all.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Book: Then We Came To The End, by Joshua Ferris (2007)

Two weeks ago I said I wanted to rave about Joshua Ferris’ extraordinary novel Then We Came To The End. The fact that I’m determined to make good on that promise should tell you just how extraordinary it is.

The book, set in a struggling Chicago advertising agency in the waning days of the dot-com boom, is about work. Ferris tells the story largely in the first person plural, hence the ‘we’ of the title. Far from being a literary trick, this device illuminates the book’s essential truth: that for the eight hours a day in which “you walk around on the same bit of carpet” (to quote another brilliant examination of the modern workplace), you and your coworkers are all part of something larger. That something larger changes as people come and go, and will retain some trace of you after you’ve gone. The sad fact is none of us has any say in what part lingers. It’s about nothing less than finding the transcendent in the everyday, which sounds way too high-falutin’, so I’ll conclude thusly: Ferris’ darkly funny book is the best thing I’ve read in ages, and it knocked me on my ass.

TV: Current

Watching Al Gore on The Daily Show last night got me wondering. Is Current, his TV network, still on?

Turns out it is. According to my channel guide, here’s what’s airing in the next few hours:

International Insight
Global Scene
Random Insight
Views & Voices
Random & Riveting
Sum of the Parts
Parts of the Sum
Rebel Journalism
Citizen Journalism

Even better, every show has the identical description. News and current events. Hard to imagine SpikeTV is more popular.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On The Web: The Rap Sheet

Today marks the one year anniversary of The Rap Sheet, the crime fiction blog that has quickly become indispensable. Industrious types that they are, they’re not celebrating idly. Instead, they’re using the occasion for The One Book Project. A question was posed to authors, critics, and bloggers:

What one crime, mystery or thriller novel do you think has been most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years?

Answers will be posted all week. Installments one, two and three are available, and my to-be-read pile has swelled accordingly. Plenty of great titles there to be plundered.

It’s always a relief with such lists to see that I’ve read some of these books. Even better, I loved ‘em. Steve Brewer picks any of Ross Thomas’s standalones, singling out The Singapore Wink. Blogger Jiro Kimura names Dover Beach by Richard Bowker. Bowker wrote several SF/mystery hybrids in the 1980s that sustained me through high school, including Replica and Marlborough Street, and I’ve still got them all. Gar Anthony Haywood nominates Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block, saying it hasn’t “received anywhere near the credit it deserves for turning the P.I. subgenre on its head.” In a recent conversation on Crimespace, I said that this was the book that truly kindled my interest in crime fiction. It’s great to see it remembered here.

Swing on by and unearth some treasures for yourself. Full disclosure: Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce was kind enough to ask me to participate. With any luck, my answer should appear there before the week is out. I’ll let you know when it does.

Miscellaneous: Links

Bill Crider, who’s already weighed in at The Rap Sheet, on a Gold Medal paperback that might be one of the first graphic novels. Michael at 2 Blowhards sings the praises of Ed Gorman.

GreenCine Daily is always a regular stop, but during the Cannes Film Festival it’s essential. They have complete recaps of reaction to every major film as soon as it debuts. A Bela Tarr adaptation of Georges Simenon in which Tilda Swinton’s dialogue is dubbed by a Hungarian actress? I am so there. Or at least I would be, if Tarr movies ever played Stateside.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Music: The Bad Plus

Wednesday was our wedding anniversary. Rosemarie and I marked the occasion with a pizza and pushed the festivities to Friday night. Drinks at our usual hangout. Dinner at a fine restaurant. Some live music. And what live music. The Bad Plus was in town.

They’re a jazz trio – Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, David King on drums – that mixes terrific original compositions with singular covers. Their latest album Prog includes distinctive takes on “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” “This Guy’s In Love With You,” and “Life on Mars” by David Bowie*. We lucked out and got to hear their version of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” live, along with a haunting rendition of “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young.

It was a tremendous set. David King uses a variety of children’s toys to achieve the desired sound, and it’s dazzling to see (and hear) him work his magic in person.

After the show, the boys hung around to sign CDs. I spoke briefly with Ethan Iverson, a big crime fiction buff, about our mutual admiration for Donald E. Westlake – and complimented his version of the opening scene of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code as written by Westlake’s alter ego Richard Stark. I told him it was one of my favorite things on the Internet. I wasn’t lying.

All that, and the Mets beat the Yankees. What a day.

The Bad Plus is in Seattle through Sunday, followed by dates across the U.S. and Europe. Catch them if you can.

* Bowie’s song has been everywhere lately. I was getting a haircut when I heard Seu Jorge’s Portuguese cover from The Life Aquatic soundtrack. Looking it up on Rhapsody led me to discover that Barbra Streisand recorded the song in 1974. Nobody says “crashing bore” like Babs.

Upcoming: No Country For Old Men

For me, the rest of the moviegoing year will be a countdown to the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s neo-noir thriller, which has electrified the Cannes Film Festival. Variety’s Todd McCarthy raves. GreenCine has a round-up of other reactions.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

To quote Rosemarie on this New York Times article, “It keeps getting better!” You’ve got living saint Bono versus the man responsible for the worst dancing ever recorded, a still-feisty at age 95 Mitch Miller, and Marshall Brickman calling in to update his jokes. It’s a story that keeps on giving.

Novelist/gadabout Ray Banks explains the title of his latest book, with a minor assist from yours truly. I’m “a man knows his filth,” and I couldn’t be more proud.

The AV Club on twelve movies that define their decades. As exercises go, picking a single movie that encapsulates its era is a fairly pointless one. Still, the AV Club crew does a pretty good job. Each of the films does capture the flavor of life at the time; the choices for the 1950s (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) and the 1980s (Back to the Future) are particularly strong. The biggest surprise was realizing that the list includes the current decade (their choice: The 25th Hour), because it’s more than half over.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Miscellaneous: Today’s Random Thoughts

Watching The Sopranos during the day just feels wrong. Especially when it’s an episode as disturbing as the one that premiered on Sunday.

Interesting article by Lauren Collins in the May 14 issue of The New Yorker about the reclusive graffiti artist Banksy. It stands to reason that Banksy would have a website where he can post comments. Same goes for a professional photographer who may or not have taken Banksy’s picture, and various art critics. But when the head of Los Angeles’ animal services, who objected to the use of a painted elephant in a Banksy installation, has a blog, we have reached a strange cultural stage. This could be the future of journalism. A reporter simply visits the blogs of every person involved in an incident, aggregates them, and creates a semi-definitive version of events. Call it Rashoblog. (That’s trademarked, by the way.)

Collins also makes this interesting comparison, which I’m still pondering:

“The graffitist’s impulse is akin to a blogger’s: write some stuff, quickly, which people may or may not read. Both mediums demand wit and nimbleness. They arouse many of the same fears about the lowering of the public discourse and the taking of undeserved liberties.”

I can resist any TV commercial pitch – unless Bruce Campbell is involved. Hat tip to Bill Crider. What am I going to do with all this body spray?

I’m late to this party, but so what: Mika’s song “Lollipop” is now playing in my head in a constant loop. It’s a strangely perfect blend of Queen and The Jackson 5. It’s like a Pixie Stick for your ears.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Miscellaneous: Neither Waving Nor Drowning

A New York childhood taught me that the light of the end of the tunnel is usually an oncoming train, often an express at that. Still, I see such a light, and I am hopeful. In the meantime, some tidbits.

The best movie I’ve seen in years debuts on DVD this Tuesday. Jean-Pierre Melville’s WWII resistance drama Army of Shadows receives the full Criterion treatment. Here’s what I said about it last August. Do yourself a favor and watch it as soon as you can.

Arrested Development, season two? Every bit the equal of season one.

Thanks to MLB Extra Innings, I have now seen commercials for every mid-level casino and regional brand of cold cuts in the continental United States.

At other blogs: Bill Crider has Joe R. Lansdale weighing in on zombie movies. And Ray Banks takes apart the Eurovision Song Contest. I demand to know why this spectacle isn’t televised in the U.S.

After weeks of searching, I finally scored some of Stephen Colbert’s Ameri-cone Dream ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s. A quality product. It’s a good thing Jane Fonda didn’t have any on hand during her recent Colbert Report segment. I won’t go as far as Salon’s Joan Walsh. I will say that supermodel Paulina Porizkova did a better job of flirting with the host – and with her husband Ric Ocasek present.

A lovely old brick apartment building around the corner from Chez K is being slowly demolished. I took some pictures of what remains. They’re posted on my Flickr page.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Miscellaneous: The Missing Links

It’s at times like this I think I don’t know how to use the Interweb at all.

I’m working like a lackey from rise to set, sweating in the eye of Phoebus. I haven’t read/seen/listened to anything I want to comment on. (OK, that’s untrue. I want to rave about Joshua Ferris’ extraordinary novel Then We Came To The End, but I don’t have time to do it justice. So, for the nonce: read it.)

You’d think I’d be able to throw together a post full of amusing links. Odd news stories, funny videos, bizarre items available for purchase. Only I seldom discover those wacky bits of detritus online. I visit the same handful of sites over and over, hoping they’ve updated. I don’t know where those people find their stuff. And I want to bring something new to the table. I don’t want to be the umpteenth person linking to the music video featuring that insanely cute polar bear cub in the German zoo because I happened to see it on The Colbert Report last night. Maybe I’m doing this Internet thing wrong.

For now, I’ll steer you once again toward Vulture, the New York magazine pop culture blog now enshrined on my Links page. In fact, check out any place on the Links page.

Mark Evanier says it’s an ancient Internet tradition for a blogger to put up a photo of a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup when he’s too busy to post. As I said, I strive to be different. So here’s a new VK.C tradition. When under the gun, I will post the video for ‘Crucified’ by Army of Lovers. A band consisting of my first wife, my half-brother Nils, and the guy who used to handle my landscaping. And I’m not talking about yard work.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Miscellaneous: The Grindstone Report

Been toting that barge and lifting that bail. Lately I’ve had just enough energy to collapse in front of the TV and watch baseball. Luckily the Mets are in the middle of a west coast swing. Related link: New York Times business columnist Harry Hurt III tries his hand as a vendor at Shea Stadium, where more hot dogs are consumed than any other ballpark in the league. In your face, Yankees! Make sure to watch the accompanying video.

If it’s not baseball, it’s season one of Arrested Development. The pangs of retroactive guilt I feel for not fully supporting this series when it originally ran on Fox are eased by the fact that I can take an hour and binge on three episodes in a row. The show produces a dizzying screwball high, particularly the initial 13 episodes, which are as funny as anything that has ever aired on American television.

A critic – I can’t remember who – once said of the Scottish writer/director Bill Forsyth that he was one of the few filmmakers alive to “the comic possibilities of goodness.” The same dynamic is at play on Arrested. Jason Bateman and Michael Cera, playing father and son, wring endless humor out of being the only rational people in a family full of grasping greedheads. The entire ensemble is peerless, but you’d be hard-pressed to top Will Arnett as the deluded “magician” Gob. There hasn’t been such a gloriously self-involved character since Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show. It’s only fitting, then, that Jeffrey Tambor plays Gob’s father. (I recently ordered the new Sanders collection on DVD. That’s my next big project.)

The commentary tracks on the Arrested DVDs are hilarious. They also provide a fascinating window into the process of making series TV. (David Mamet: “Features are a marathon. TV is running until you’re dead.”) Arrested never had an easy time, a fact reflected on the tracks for the 13th episode, which the cast and crew initially assumed would be their last, and the season finale, filmed while the show’s fate was in doubt. In each case, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and the writers labored to wrap up the storylines while still leaving room for the series to continue. Somehow, they pulled it off. Season two awaits. A sensible man would pace himself, but I’m diving right in.

All this means that I haven’t been to see Spider-Man 3 yet. New York magazine’s Vulture blog considers some less successful threequels. I still maintain that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the best part three. Other nominations welcome.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book: Robbie’s Wife, by Russell Hill (2007)

Hard Case Crime has won me over with their reprints. Not a dud in the bunch. I’ve found their original titles to be hit-and-miss.

Robbie’s Wife belongs in the hit category. It starts with what may be the quintessential noir premise: a man, a woman, her husband. But Hill updates it into something quite special. There’s the setting, the English countryside during an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease. The characters, a failed Hollywood screenwriter in his sixties and a fortyish dancer-turned-farmwife, are older than the ones typically caught up in a love triangle, giving their actions an edge of desperation. Hill experiments with form, too, rendering parts of the story as scenes in his protagonist’s screenplay. Above all there’s the extraordinarily fluid writing. Hill is also a poet, and that comes across in his prose. This book is one of Hard Case’s best yet. Don’t miss it.

Miscellaneous: Casting Call

One of the joys of spring and summer, as I’ve said before, is listening to the great Vin Scully call baseball games for the L.A. Dodgers. During Tuesday’s showdown with Arizona, Vin recounted the amazing story of D-backs’ pitcher Livan Hernandez’s defection from Cuba with the aid of a mysterious figure known only as “El Gordo,” or The Fat Man (in actuality sports agent Joe Cubas). Vin began speculating on the cinematic possibilities of this tale, casting Antonio Banderas as Hernandez. He was torn on who should play “El Gordo,” however. Sydney Greenstreet was the obvious choice, Vin said, “or, going back a few more years, Akim Tamiroff.”

I was holding out for Thomas Gomez myself. Still, I want to live in Vin’s world, where such a movie would be possible.

It turns out there was a film on this subject in the works several years ago that would have starred Banderas – only as “El Gordo,” with then newly-minted Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. playing Livan’s brother and current Met Orlando.

Miscellaneous: Links

Can I buy tickets to this movie right now? Just asking.

The remodeled and expanded Seattle Art Museum looks like a hit.

Slate offers a slideshow chronicling Spider-Man’s journey into darkness in both comics and film. Don’t miss the list of Spidey’s victims, including the separate category of “sentient robots Spider-Man has killed.”

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Miscellaneous: The April Clean-Up Post

Among the helpful suggestions I received in response to my recent anniversary post was the notion from Alice at Random Musings to recap what I watched/read at the end of each month. It’s a good idea that far outstrips my organizational abilities. I’d have to, you know, keep track of stuff.

Instead, here’s the inaugural edition of the Things I Meant To Get To This Month post.

Friends With Money. I finally caught up with Nicole Holofcener’s movie on cable, and think it’s one of the best films of 2006. A wonderful script that makes smart observations about life, happiness, class and Los Angeles.

Blood of Paradise, by David Corbett. Corbett ventures into Graham Greene/Robert Stone territory with his latest novel. The son of a disgraced Chicago cop finds a new life as a bodyguard in El Salvador. Then faces from his father’s past catch up with him. An intense personal story mixed with a pointed political one, revisiting the scene of an earlier U.S. misadventure in foreign policy.

Miscellaneous: Corrections & Addenda

The Chez K DVR is also recording the fourth season of Hustle on AMC. regrets the error.

Miscellaneous: Link

The AV Club on 13 failed attempts to start movie franchises. I flat-out love two of these films, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and would happily pay to see follow-ups to several others. I’m surprised the list doesn’t include the most egregious offender, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, in which the adventure also ended.