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.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

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

Lonely Hearts. The sordid tale of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, who murdered at least a dozen women in the late 1940s, was told in The Honeymoon Killers and Deep Crimson. Now Todd Robinson, grandson of one of the Long Island detectives who brought the pair to justice, recounts the case from their perspective. His low-key but gripping style honors the memory of his grandfather, played by John Travolta. I was concerned about Salma Hayek as Martha Beck, a fearsome woman who weighed over 200 pounds. But Salma finds her own ways to be fearsome.

The Wounded and the Slain, by David Goodis. Don’t be fooled. This isn’t a pulp novel about a couple getting caught up in murder while on vacation in Jamaica. It’s a brutal portrait of a marriage in crisis that cuts to the bone.

The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet. You think you know how bad a sexploitation version of the Bard’s classic filmed in the style of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In – complete with repeated references to “beautiful downtown Verona,” women hollering “Sock it to me!” during sex, and cutaways to lame one-liners – can be. Then you watch the movie. And you realize you had no idea.

Sports: That’s What I’m Talking About

After the Mets collapse, what I needed was a game like last night’s instant classic between the Rockies and Padres to, as they said at Faith and Fear in Flushing, restore my belief in baseball. (I should have linked to FAFIF long before now. Some excellent writing to be found there even if you’re not a Mets fan.) Seeing Mets castoffs like Heath Bell and Kaz Matsui playing with fire was odd, but it allowed the healing to begin. I figured the Arizona Diamondbacks, who smoke-and-mirrored their way to the best record in the National League, would win the pennant. But I’m revising that opinion. Whoever makes it out of the Rockies/Phillies showdown, sure to be a corker, will be in the World Series and give the AL champ a run for their money.

In Mets’ downfall news, ESPN’s Bill Simmons was so moved by the team’s collapse that he created an entirely new level of losing to describe it. What did he call it?

The Goose/Maverick Tailspin.

I had that on Sunday, Simmons. I want full credit. Top Gun is an obscure film no one remembers.

And don’t let anyone tell you what happened to this team is not a tragedy. Lives are being destroyed by it.

Miscellaneous: Links

A moment of silence for The Tube, an excellent music channel gone too soon.

Hey, Stephen Fry has a blog!