Friday, August 31, 2007

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

Forever Cool, Dean Martin. Enough with the albums where dead singers “duet” with contemporary artists. Dino did more than enough entertaining when he was with us. Let the man rest in peace. That said, at least this album includes some of Dean’s in-studio banter and revives the movie theme “Who’s Got The Action?,” performed here with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Robbie Williams again shows he knows his way around a standard. And Kevin Spacey earns points for chutzpah – or something – for singing with Dino as Dino.

Stalin’s Ghost, by Martin Cruz Smith. I never miss an Arkady Renko book. In this latest outing, the good-hearted Russian detective is assigned to investigate subway sightings of the title specter only to find himself drawn into post-Soviet politics and the repercussions of Chechnya.

Ask The Dust. Colin Farrell is terrific in Robert Towne’s adaptation of the John Fante novel. The bantam rooster strut, the self-doubt expressed as hostility; I actually believed I was watching a struggling writer in 1930s Los Angeles. The movie never fully escapes its literary origins, but that’s part of what makes it interesting. Also excellent: the letters Farrell’s character receives from his mentor H. L. Mencken, read in the vinegary rasp of film critic Richard Schickel.

This Is Tom Jones. No sooner had I picked up the first disc in this series of variety shows than Tony Kay recapped ‘em all, proving great minds really do think alike. The women’s lib sketches with Anne Bancroft alone make this worth a rental. I was struck by how much the 1969 Tom Jones looked like one of those deadly clotheshorse thugs that turn up in U.K. gangster films like Get Carter and The Long Good Friday. Time-Life should have done a better job of editing the shows. It’s not nice to promise Joey Heatherton and then not deliver. Not nice at all. So here’s Joey doing her all to sell mattresses.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Miscellaneous: Placeholder

Work, work, work. I’ve got one project nearing completion and last week I started an exciting new gig that I hope to be talking up big around here soon. The upshot is I haven’t had much time to post, or even to watch/read anything to post about.

A while ago, I said that under such circumstances I would hang out the video for ‘Crucified’ by Army of Lovers, which as I explained is 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.

I was all set to do that today, but instead I’ve decided to go with a solo effort from the ex featuring a bunch of fellows from the gym. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

Ed Gorman has sent me to Cinema Retro for many a fine article. It’s only fitting, then, that the site features an interview with Ed, in which he weighs in on vintage crime films.

Several years ago, I wrote a profile of Jim Bouton, former major league pitcher and author of the landmark baseball memoir Ball Four, for a small magazine. The article was primarily about Bouton’s business career – he was one of the inventors of the bubble gum Big League Chew, for instance – but touched on all aspects of his fascinating life. He was in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, fer cryin’ out loud! After the piece ran Bouton sent me an autographed copy of Ball Four, made out to “a great writer and a nice guy.” It remains one of my most prized possessions, even though he was wrong on at least one and possibly both counts. In some respects that lovely gesture on his part set me on the path I’ve followed ever since.

Bouton’s latest project is the Vintage Base Ball Federation, dedicated to recreating the experience of our national pastime as it was played in the 1880s. Yahoo’s Steve Henson covers the league’s first world series.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Movies: Out For Justice (1991)/Mercenary For Justice (2006)

Last week, Steven Seagal said he wants a public apology from the FBI for the damage a Bureau investigation did to his career. It’s clearly a reach; Seagal’s career was on the skids before the Feds came around. But the story reminds me that, problems aside, I like Seagal. I kind of miss the guy. And I miss the sort of movies he makes. (Yes, he’s still making them, on the cheap and primarily for video.)

I’m talking about your stripped down, basic action film. Not even meat-and-potatoes. Try meat only, bloody and still on the bone. The plot’s always the same. Bad guys do bad things. A badass who’s a good guy gets pushed too far. He settles the score by punching people in the face and snapping a few necks. Watching a bunch of one-dimensional louts get their asses kicked can satisfy on a deeply primal level.

Recently I stumbled onto Out For Justice, a big favorite around here. (Believe it or not, Rosemarie is a fan, too. You know the observation that Fred Astaire gave Ginger Rogers class while she gave him sex appeal? Rosemarie gives me class and sex appeal, while I contribute crap action movies and Dijon mustard. Surprisingly, she seems happy with this.) I left the movie on for two scenes and ended up watching the whole thing again.

One scene is what Rosemarie calls “the Uncle Pino story.” Seagal, playing a New York cop hunting down a childhood friend on a drug-fueled rampage, stops the narrative cold to recount a rambling episode about going to the movies as a kid with his Mafioso uncle. It’s got nothing to do with the rest of the action, but it’s strangely compelling, in part because Seagal wasn’t a bad actor. It’s also an example of the off-beat human moments that somehow found their way into Seagal’s early films. I’m not saying he was Robert Altman, but Seagal’s movies often wove in textures that weren’t necessary but always appreciated.

The other key scene is a bar fight. Every good action movie’s got to have at least one, with these two beats: somebody sails into a neon beer sign, and a pool cue is used for a purpose other than the one for which it was designed. Out For Justice’s is a doozy. To this day, when I can’t find something I’m looking for, I’ll wander around Chez K bellowing “Anybody seen Rich-IE?” There’s also a fine sequence in which our Steven lays waste to a pork store.

Fast forward a few days. I’m flipping around and find Mercenary For Justice, one of Seagal’s later efforts, on basic cable; the premium channels don’t touch his stuff any more. Seagal has thickened up considerably, and doesn’t move so well now. You could fit a craft services table between him and the goons he’s ostensibly thrashing.

Worst of all was a throwdown in a swank restaurant men’s room. Seagal gestures vaguely toward a thug, who goes sailing into a wall so hard that a urinal falls off. Literally, it falls off. There’s no geysering water. It’s not even connected to any pipes. It might as well have been hung there by Marcel Duchamp.

That’s the real reason for this post. I wanted to mention Steven Seagal and Marcel Duchamp in the same breath. My work is done.

Miscellaneous: Links

William Gibson talks noir and other subjects. And I’m glad I’m not the only person who notices these things: Vulture on how Michael Kamen’s score for Brazil is suddenly everywhere.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

Variety on all the reasons – good and bad – why Young Frankenstein is the Broadway event of the season.

From the New Yorker comes Bruce McCall’s handy illustrated guide to summer camp pests.

The AV Club names 17 dangerous cinematic computers. I respect any list that gives props to Colossus: The Forbin Project. Extra points for noticing a connection between Dark Star and Sunshine that I’d missed. Here there be spoilers.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Stage: Young Frankenstein

It’s important in any entertainment to establish tone early. Which is why it was good to hear, in the opening scene of the new Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein, that the title doctor is on staff at “the Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine.” It lets you know what you’re in for. And it signaled to me that I’d be right at home. Three fleet hours of bawdy jokes, leggy dancers and Jolson impressions is my idea of a good time.

I had my doubts about Mel Brooks tuning up the film, but I shouldn’t have. After all, YF has the strongest spine of any Brooks movie. The play’s book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan hews closely to the original script by Brooks and Gene Wilder, right down to many favorite lines. (“What knockers!” is there, “It could be raining” is not, and “He vas my boyfriend!” is its own number.) Mel had more work to do on The Producers.

The familiarity of the movie is perhaps the biggest challenge to a ridiculously talented cast, but they’re all able to put their own spins on well-established characters. The one actor who by circumstance is forced into an imitation, Christopher Fitzgerald as Marty Feldman as Igor, walks off with the show. Go figure.

Sutton Foster, a Broadway veteran I know as Coco from Flight of the Conchords, joins Shakira on the short list of women who make yodeling sexy. It’s an embarrassment of riches onstage, with Roger Bart as Frederick Frankenstein, Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher (complete with horse whinnies), Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally succeeding Madeline Kahn as Elizabeth, and Shuler Hensley as the Monster. Odd note: Hensley, a Tony winner for Oklahoma!, played Frankenstein’s Monster in Van Helsing, although to my knowledge he doesn’t have a number in that movie. I also have to mention Fred Applegate, doing double duty as Inspector Kemp (the Kenneth Mars role) and the blind hermit. In the latter scene he manages to do a perfect rendition of Gene Hackman’s distinctive chuckle, a tribute I think was intended just for me.

The caliber of the cast is so high that it’s a problem finding enough for them to do. Mullally, the best known performer, has only one song in the first act and then disappears until midway through act two. She did have a second Act One number according to the program, but it had already been cut a week into previews.

The true star of the show is director/choreographer Susan Stroman. Her staging deploys a full battery of techniques to create a palpable mood, and on top of that she fills the stage with dancers.

Brooks’s songs are the show’s weak link. (Name one song from The Producers. Go ahead, I dare you.) They’re more like ditties, excuses for bits of comic business. But they’re socked over with such gusto by the cast and so inventively presented that you don’t mind.

The one truly memorable song in the score is the only one Brooks didn’t write: Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” The movie’s use of the song has nothing on how it plays out here. The number starts out small, then slowly and surely builds into pure joyous delirium. My sides actually ached when it was over.

Young Frankenstein runs at Seattle’s Paramount Theater through September 1, then moves to Broadway. Friends in New York already report that tickets are hard to come by. Insert monster hit joke here.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Miscellaneous: A Public Service Announcement

Traffic’s up at the old internet homestead lately, owing in part to an inordinate number of visitors in the last two weeks who searched the web for “Snyder” and “one day at a time.” I assume that’s because of this post about the late talk show host Tom Snyder and the website’s subhead.

I also assume that these people have arrived here in error.

Please always remember and don’t ever forget that the lovable handyman on the CBS sitcom One Day At A Time played by Pat Harrington was named Dwayne F. Schneider. I hope this helps.

As for those who got here searching on “swinger pics” ... your guess is as good as mine.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Miscellaneous: Links

Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus – go buy Prog, it’s terrific – takes a break from the trio’s tour to talk noir with Allan Guthrie. Do The Math keeps on giving: Ethan links to a new blog by critic Fred Kaplan, whose reviews are what helped me start climbing that jazz learning curve. Kaplan attended every night of the recent 70th birthday tribute to the great bassist Charlie Haden at New York’s Blue Note. Haden performed with a stellar line-up of pianists: Brad Mehldau, Paul Bley, Kenny Barron ... and Ethan Iverson. Would that I could have been there. I’ll have to fire up my copy of Always Say Goodbye, the Haden/Quartet West album that’s like a soundtrack to a brilliant film noir that never existed. See what I did there, bringing it back to noir? God, I’m good.

Fellow E.L.O. and Xanadu fan Matt at digs up some great video featuring the band’s music – including one anime clip from a 1983 Japanese science fiction convention that must be seen to be believed. It’s four minutes that will change your life.

Miscellaneous: Meaningless Milestone

This is my 750th post. Do I win a prize?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Stage: Eddie Izzard

I’ll be blunt. Actor and comedian Eddie Izzard is a fucking genius. If you haven’t seen his concert special Dress To Kill, queue it up right now to see a performer at his absolute peak. When we heard that Eddie was doing two shows in Seattle to try out new material, we snapped up tickets at once.

The general theme of the set could, I suppose, be described as the evolution of human belief systems. A rubric broad enough to include the following digressions:

- What aliens with acid blood would really be like
- The inner monologue of the human appendix
- The reasons why cows would make great secret agents
- The difficulty faced by Roman soldiers in describing Hannibal’s elephants in Latin

All of it done Eddie’s singular style – rambling, discursive, yet circling back on itself in surprising ways.

That spontaneity led to the show’s high point, namely Eddie being hit in the face by a kamikaze fly that had gotten into the theater. It prompted a ten-minute riff that won’t be repeated anywhere else. Sometimes, you really do just have to be there.

When Eddie blanked on the name of “that dancer who died because her scarf was so long it got caught in the wheels of the car,” Rosemarie shouted out Isadora Duncan first and loudest. And here I thought she was so circumspect.

Seattle’s stint as the new New Haven continues. Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein musical is in tryouts here before opening on Broadway. We’ve got tickets for that, too, and will be seeing it later this week.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Movie: Slayground (1983)

I watched this movie because I am a Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark completist. And so you won’t have to, because it’s not good.

Stark’s Parker character, here named Stone and played by Peter Coyote, is forced to go ahead with an armored car robbery without his getaway driver of choice. The reckless replacement ends up killing a young girl. Her wealthy father hires a professional killer to track down the men responsible. And Stone hies off into England to hide out in a creepy amusement park.

Slayground errs in making the hit man a full-blown psychotic out of a horror movie. As a result, plenty of potentially engaging material – how does the assassin locate three loosely-connected thieves? – is skipped over entirely. There’s some interest in seeing the British comic actor Mel Smith in a straight role, but the amusement park stuff wears thin in a hurry.

Still, for the first twenty minutes or so I thought I’d lucked into something special. There’s a great, ice-cold opening scene (featuring Kelli Maroney of Night of the Comet and Chopping Maul) explaining what happened to Stone’s original driver. And the heist itself is the closest representation of Stark I’ve yet to see on film, a quick and brutal piece of work carried out in one of those isolated shades-of-brown towns where cash remains king.

But once Parker – sorry, Stone – tells the rookie driver to pull over after the accident to see if anyone’s hurt, I knew the good times were over. The Parker I know wouldn’t do that.

TV: My On Demand Demands

Hey, basic cable networks. You’d be having an even better summer if you took full advantage of On Demand. I missed Sunday night’s debut of TNT’s The Company, based on the novel by Robert Littell and starring VKDC favorite Michael Keaton as legendarily brilliant-but-batshit CIA officer James Jesus Angleton. No problem, I figure. I’ll just catch up with it during the week.

No dice. Part one hasn’t aired again, and there’s no sign of the miniseries at TNT On Demand. Yet all their other summer shows, like The Closer and Saving Grace, are there. The USA Network will allow you to catch up on Monk whenever you want, but not their spy caper Burn Notice. I know I have a DVR, but seriously, do I have to do everything myself?

Miscellaneous: Links

The unbelievable feel-good story of the day: the inspiration for Omar in The Wire and the main character of The Corner are getting married.

You don’t have to be a Catholic from Queens to find this Onion story hilarious. But it helps.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Rant: All The News That’s Print To Fit

It’s day two of the incredible shrunken newspaper. Yesterday, the New York Times cut one-and-a-half inches from the width of its pages. This hard on the heels of another increase in price. The Times has managed to convince some fools to pay more for less.

Meet one of those fools.

I have a more romanticized notion of the daily paper than most people my age. Blame my father. Not that he was an ink-stained wretch. He worked at the airport, and every day he’d salvage whatever newspapers were left behind on planes and spend the night paging through them. He’d walk through the door with a stack so thick a cop in a James Ellroy novel could beat a guy with it. Not just the New York rags, but papers from around the globe. Occasionally a copy of the Sun would be in the mix, and I’d ogle the page 3 girl while pretending to broaden my horizons. The idea was fixed in my head from a young age: reading the paper is what grown-ups do.

I’ve been subscribing to the New York Times for years. Not too long ago, I was about to break the relationship off. The size change and the rate hike were factors, but the main reason was much simpler. I was tired of reading the paper. If I didn’t tackle it early enough in the day it became a burden, like a troll dwelling under a bridge I had to cross on my way home.

Me: I can’t believe enough shit happens in the world to fill this damn thing every day.

Rosemarie: You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. You’re allowed to take a day off.

Me: I can’t. It’ll know.

The Times’s checkered recent history didn’t help. The excesses in the Wen Ho Lee case. The Jayson Blair scandal. Judith Miller’s flawed reporting on WMDs in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. I’d gone from thinking of the paper of record as an institution, like marriage, to thinking of it as an institution, like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Whole sections of the paper I never even look at. I could not describe under pain of death the contents of Thursday Styles or House & Home. The magazine irks me, largely because of Deborah Solomon’s odious feature in which she puts condescending questions to accomplished people. I hate the sports coverage because it slights the Mets in favor of the Yankees.

Then we have the op-ed pages. I skip the editorials. Maureen Dowd’s poisonous coquette act has been tiresome for 12 years. Every Nicholas Kristof piece on Africa is the same. (There, I said it.) One out of every seven David Brooks columns is interesting; the others are unhinged because of Brooks’s desperation to cling to his conservative bona fides while appealing to the paper’s liberal readership. And if Thomas Friedman explains how “going green” makes sound business and political sense one more time, I will track him down and tear out his transit cop mustache with my bare hands.

When the letter announcing the increased rates arrived, I snapped. That’s it, I said. I’m not standing for it. I can read the damn thing online, the way I read the local Seattle papers, and for free.

I logged onto the Times website to cancel my subscription. What followed was a curious exercise in number crunching.

Do I get $6.40 worth of value out of weekday delivery of the Times? Obviously not.

Do I get $6.50 out of Sunday delivery of the Times? Hell, no. The national edition doesn’t even include much of the good stuff. Rosemarie likes the crossword puzzle, but not that much.

Do I get $12.80 out of seven-day delivery?

Hang on a minute.

Yes. Yes, I do.

I need to read the paper. I have to get my news from somewhere, and I haven’t watched it on TV since Lynne Russell left CNN. The Times is to newspapers what democracy is to systems of government according to Churchill: the worst we have, except for all the others.

And I don’t want to read the Times online. I spend too much time staring at my computer screen as it is. I never finish anything beyond a certain length anyway. (This post is getting dangerously close to that limit.)

Online, I’d only read articles that interest me, about culture and politics. I wouldn’t see striking photographs or pullquotes that might draw me in. I might miss the bylines of Times staffers like Jack Hitt and C. J. Chivers whose reporting is always worth a look.

Also, it’s difficult to drag a laptop into the bathroom. I admit it, I read in there. It’s the only place where I multitask. The rest of the time, baby, I’m focused like a laser. (Incidentally, the new smaller size makes restroom reading even easier.)

Portability has an added benefit. One of the great pleasures in life is reading the Times in coffee shops. While everyone else huddles over their laptops or has inane conversations on their cell phones, I pore over the vital issues of the day. It’s one of the rare times in life when I truly feel like an adult. Like a grown man. And I’m willing to pay close to thirteen bucks a week for that privilege.

But three bucks for the coffee? That’s another story.

Miscellaneous: Links

Behold the awesome power of animation! From the great comedian Louis CK.

Salon (yes, you’ll have to sit through an ad) interviews blogger Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles, who sings the praises of a local watering hole I may have mentioned once or twice.

New York magazine discovers that winning a competition reality show like Project Runway or Top Chef is no guarantee of success. And this comes as a surprise to whom, exactly?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Movie: The Simpsons Movie (2007)

“Irreverent humor throughout” is right. Why, the credits alone are packed with sassback!

The Simpsons big screen debut is loads of fun, with a suitably grand sense of scale and a spirit the harks back to the early seasons of the show. I could have used more Krusty, but at least he gets one great sight gag. The breakout star in the supporting cast: Chief Wiggum. Maybe he’ll get that spin-off after all. Does this mean President Arnold Schwarzenegger will meet Rainier Wolfcastle, as the movie shows they’re clearly not one and the same?

I am firmly a part of Generation Simpsons. Literally every day for the past fifteen years, I have made at least one reference to the show in conversation. One of Moe Szyslak’s pearls of wisdom comes up frequently (“I’m a well-wisher, in that I don’t wish you any specific harm”). More often than not it’s a throwaway line of Homer’s. Favorites include:

“Well, if we agree, then why are we arguing?”

“It teaches them while they learn.”

“You can’t go this far and not go further.”

“Everyone is stupid except for me.”

“It’s because they’re stupid. That’s why everyone does everything.”

To be fair, I had those last two thoughts before Homer put them into words, so I feel I deserve partial credit.

The Simpsons line I cite most often isn’t spoken by any of the regulars, but a guest player. Perhaps the show’s supreme guest player, who also turns up in the movie, one A. Brooks. It’s from his appearance as self-help guru Brad Goodman:

“There’s no trick to it! It’s just a simple trick!”

Something about that sentiment is as American as apple pie.

Friday, August 03, 2007

On The Web: Siskel & Ebert

More than ten years’ worth of reviews from Siskel & Ebert, beginning in 1985, are now available online. Looking at a few clips reminded me how much of an impact the show had on me during my budding movie buff years. Sometimes the only thing I’d know about an independent or foreign film that wouldn’t play the hinterlands of South Florida would be what Gene and Roger said about it.

Too bad you can’t watch entire episodes. I have vivid recollections of one from June 1987, when Gene’s annoyance that Roger gave a thumbs down to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket while praising Benji, The Hunted ate away at him throughout the telecast. He kept circling back to it, goading Roger. When they appeared on talk shows that summer, Gene continued to bring it up.

The Full Metal Jacket clip shows both critics at their best. (For the record, I’m with Gene.) Gene Siskel is a classic example of someone who shouldn’t work on television – a vinegary, balding, middle-aged man – taking to it with aplomb.

I stopped watching the show regularly after Gene’s death in 1999. I have tremendous respect for Roger Ebert as a critic and a human being, but it was his tetchy chemistry with Gene that made the program worth watching. For proof, check out the look of disbelief on Gene’s face as Roger famously gives a thumbs up to the Burt Reynolds kiddie comedy Cop and a Half. “Where’s your red suit and beard, Santa, ‘cause you just gave them a gift.”

Miscellaneous: Blow Out the Candles

When I was a kid, my least favorite days of the year were December 25 and August 3. Christmas and my birthday. Because for at least part of those days, I was the center of attention. And believe it or not, I hated being the center of attention.

But that was then, this is now, and I’m starting to warm up to the spotlight. So, for the good of my own mental health: today is my birthday. Hooray for me.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

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

Sunshine. The production team behind 28 Days Later turns their attention to science fiction. An impossibly beautiful team of astronauts heads into space to jumpstart the sun before it dies. I liked it quite a bit. And the science is accurate. Kinda.

The Bullet Trick, by Louise Welsh. An interesting structure and seedy atmosphere to burn in this novel about a cut-rate burlesque magician who gets in over his head with dirty cops and shady dames.

Mad Men. Two episodes in and I’m loving AMC’s first dramatic series, about advertising execs in 1960 New York. It illustrates in many subtle ways how the world has changed in 45 years – and how it hasn’t.

Miscellaneous: Quote of the Day

From the New York Times article on the success of Skinny Bitch, a chick-lit-style diet book that, to the surprise of some purchasers, includes several chapters of animal rights information. Says co-author Rory Freedman:

“They’re mad that they spent $14 on a book that was not what they thought, but they’re not mad that chickens are having beaks chopped off their faces? How is that possible? I can’t even wrap my mind around that.”

Oh, come on. I’ll bet some of the people who bought this book paid good money to have part of their own beaks chopped off their faces.

Miscellaneous: Raise A Glass

Tales of the Cocktail, the international culinary and cocktail event, held their annual shindig in New Orleans last month. There my usual hangout The Zig Zag CafĂ© took home prizes for Best Drinks Selection and Best Classic Cocktail Bar. That’s in the world, folks, and decided by people who know. Congratulations to Ben, Kacy, Murray (also a finalist for Bartender of the Year), and company. Drop by if you’re in Seattle and mention my name. Maybe it’ll help. Me, I mean, not you.