Thursday, November 29, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Movies: James Ellroy Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The worst soundtrack in film history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Links, No Country For Old Men Edition

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

Music: My New Favorite Christmas Song

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

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Movie: Beowulf (2007)

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Movie: Cops and Robbers (1973)

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Lessons Learned About Myself

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

Miscellaneous: Links

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2007

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Scenes From A Marriage

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

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

Me: (bad fake drum roll) Jon Hamm.

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

Me: Yeah.

Rosemarie: Wow. That’s an excellent pick.

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

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

Me: Both of them.

Rosemarie: Who else?

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

Rosemarie: Let me see that.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Miscellaneous: Where Everybody Knows My Name

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

News: Strike Stuff, Late Night Edition

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News: Strike Stuff

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous: Links

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

Hey, did somebody say Ruben Studdard?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Viewing Tip: Ellroy Vision

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

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

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

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

The Lineup, a cult favorite directed by Don Siegel.

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

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

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

TV: This Week’s Reason To Love 30 Rock

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

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

News: Strike Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 08, 2007

News: Hearts & Minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bizarre: You Are All Ears

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

News: Strike!

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

And the work stoppage has Josh Friedman blogging again.

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 05, 2007

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

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

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

TV: Viewing Tip

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

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