Believe it or not, there are signs of life at the spin-off blog. For that you can thank Rosemarie, recently back from traveling with Gulliver.
TV: Title Fight
The missus is reading the classics of world literature and I’m screwing around on YouTube, where I stumbled on the title sequence from the short-lived ABC series The Renegades. I can’t believe how long it is. But when a group of ethnically-mixed former gang members decides to work on the side of the law, I suppose you should take the time to introduce them.
Here’s what scares me. The show ran for one month in 1983. It’s never been in syndication or on video. So I only saw the episode in which the Renegades go undercover as a punk band once. And yet I still remember the group’s name (Blank Distress) and their song (“You’re Gonna Get What’s Coming”). I can’t believe there’s a synapse in my brain devoted solely to that.
Miscellaneous: Conventional Thinking
This year’s Left Coast Crime is being held within walking distance of Chez K. (OK, it’s kind of a long walk, but I could use the exercise.) That’s where I’ll be for the next few days. Look for the guy in the New York Mets cap; that’ll be me. I’ll try to post reports from the floor.
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
Movie: Little Children (2006)
I’ve wanted to see Todd Field’s film, based on a novel by Election author Tom Perrotta, for weeks. But it was booked into the one theater in Seattle that I refuse to patronize. Originally one of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Vaudeville Houses for Undernourished Children, the theater has seats so small that whenever I go there both of my knees lock. I hoped a few Oscar nods would nudge the movie into a place with legroom.
The nominations came in – for actress Kate Winslet, supporting actor Jackie Earle Haley, and the script by Field and Perrotta – the movie was sprung, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a terrific piece of work, easily one of the best films of the year. Great performances and sharp observations about life in the suburbs. The movie has plenty of chances to veer into melodrama but never slips. I was particularly bowled over by the script, which uses an omniscient third person multiple viewpoint voiceover. It’s a novelistic technique that shouldn’t work but somehow does.
TV: American Idol
I’m taking a pass on this season. Blame buyer’s remorse for my Taylor Hicks vote. But I couldn’t avoid hearing about the Seattle auditions, which apparently featured the worst performances in AI’s history. No less an authority than Entertainment Weekly said that the show’s trip to the Emerald City “sometimes crossed the line into outright cruelty.” So how does Washington State respond?
With an American Idol instant lottery game.
I wish the site featured the radio spot, in which the game’s rules are sung in the style of somehow who auditioned for the show here.
The New York Times on Noir City 5. Next year. I swear.
Booze news: Murray Stenson, who’s poured me many a cocktail at the Zig Zag Café, has been named one of America’s 10 best bartenders by Playboy. (The article is safe for work, but I can’t vouch for the ads.) Murray’s Liberal, singled out in the piece, truly is heaven in a glass. And Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club, where I bend an elbow when visiting New York, also made the grade. Stick with me, kids. I’ll take you to all the best places.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Movie: Awakening of the Beast (1969)
Last Zé do Caixão post, I swear. (The earlier ones are here and here.) There aren’t any more José Mojica Marins movies readily available.
By the time of Awakening of the Beast, as my friend Tony Kay points out in a comment below, Marins’ character Coffin Joe had become a huge figure in Brazilian pop culture. So we don’t get a typical Coffin Joe movie, with Marins, the grindhouse Cecil B. DeMille, offering up one shocking and prurient image after another and then justifying them with some bogus religious message.
Oh, no. We’re in for something darker and much more disturbing.
What we get is half meta-movie, with Marins appearing on camera as himself and defending his work, and half docudrama about the perils of drug abuse. Which, in Marins’ hands, plays like an episode of Dragnet directed by the Marquis de Sade. Every conceivable sexual fetish is on display. Orgies end in tragedy. Donkeys are abused. Chamber pots are filled.
The action wraps up when a psychiatrist inflicts Coffin Joe on four subjects in an LSD experiment that clearly has not been vetted by any institutional review board. The acid trip scenes, of course, are in lurid color. That’s when things start to get really weird.
I kept tuning in to IFC’s mini-Marins festival because unlike most of the underground cinema I read about when I was a budding film buff, his movies are genuinely unsettling. I’m not sure to what end, though. His talent certainly improves with each film. He shares David Lynch’s facility for crafting the imagery of dreams but not his interest in recreating their logic. Awakening’s reflexive nature calls to mind Orson Welles’ F for Fake with none of that movie’s playfulness. And his films aren’t conventional horror flicks with plots and characters. I don’t know what the hell they are, other than primitive, powerful and unforgettable. I just wish I, you know, liked them.
Marins, at 78, has recently wrapped a new Coffin Joe movie. I’m sure it will prove to be difficult to see. That won’t stop me from trying.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Movies: Noir City 5
Great article on Eddie Muller and the fifth Noir City Film Festival, kicking off tomorrow in San Francisco. I vow to get to it one of these years.
The line-up includes salutes to tough guy Charles McGraw and screenwriter William Bowers, a man equally at home on the mean streets and the open range. Just the other day I watched his terrific underrated western The Sheepman, with Glenn Ford.
The Bowers tribute includes a screening of 1951’s Cry Danger, which stars Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming. The film also features a fantastic unheralded turn by character actor Richard Erdman. Erdman plays a one-legged ex-Marine marinating in booze and jovial cynicism. (“Occasionally, I always drink too much.”) He perfectly captures the post-war feeling of disaffection from society that would lead to biker gangs, beatniks, and ultimately the entire counterculture. Fifty-some years later, his performance still feels jarringly new.
Now 81 years old, Erdman will be in attendance at Saturday’s screening doing a Q&A. What I wouldn’t give to be there.
From Reason: the politics of zombies. And reaction, mostly negative, to a list of the ten best business novels.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Miscellaneous: First Impressions
The New Yorker on Rich Little’s selection as the headliner at the upcoming White House Correspondents Dinner. The official line is that Little is not a safe choice in the wake of last year’s controversial Stephen Colbert appearance, but it’s clear that writer Jeffrey Goldberg ain’t buying it.
The piece seems a touch mean-spirited to me, but then Little doesn’t do himself any favors. When you’re asked to name your favorite young comedian, do not say “Robin Williams.” And never follow up your own jokes with the observation that they’re funny. Particularly when they’re not.
After reading the article, I then spent twenty minutes exploring Little’s website and listening to some of his 163 impressions. If he didn’t identify the person beforehand (always with the same phrase, “Well, this is ... INSERT NAME HERE”), I’m not sure I could tell you who he was doing. I doubt there’s much call for imitations of Edgar Buchanan, Jack Hawkins and Stewart Granger these days, but considering the age of some of the members of the Senate he’ll be performing in front of, his act will probably play like gangbusters. He may even get requests. (“And now, for Senator Robert Byrd, here’s ... Hugh Herbert!”) I will say that Little’s Rod Steiger is still damn good.
As for those naysayers who claimed that Colbert bombed last year: twelve months later people are still talking about his appearance. He must have done something right.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Movies: Golden Boy
A few quick thoughts on this morning’s Academy Award nominations.
It’s always nice to see some dark horses score, and this year quite a few did: Ryan Gosling (who in a just world would have been acknowledged several years ago for his performance in The Believer), Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Greengrass.
I saw Letters from Iwo Jima over the weekend, and it’s Best Picture inclusion doesn’t surprise me. It’s a solidly crafted, traditional war movie. Then every few minutes, the realization hit me anew: this is about the Japanese, fighting the Americans. Forging that level of identification is an amazing accomplishment.
I have no idea who the Best Picture favorite is. Going in, I assumed it would be The Departed, and it still may be. But with Leo getting the nod for Blood Diamond and no nomination for Jack, I’m not sure. When in doubt, I always go with the Jack Warner Gambit: saturation in the major categories. The only movie up for picture, director, script and lead performance is The Queen.
Marty vs. Clint is the new Manning vs. Brady. And we all know how that turned out this year.
Six nods for Pan’s Labyrinth. Amazing.
Once again, the writers show their stuff. They gave Borat its only recognition and are the sole above-the-line branch to single out Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Also worth noting: two of the writers who worked with Steve Coogan on the various Alan Partridge series are represented, Peter Baynham (Borat) and Patrick Marber (Notes on a Scandal).
I love that the cinematographers vote solely to honor their craft. Their nominees: The Black Dahlia, Children of Men, The Illusionist, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Prestige.
The best performance I saw this year was sadly snubbed, and that’s Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in The Queen. On degree of difficulty alone he deserved a nod: playing not just a well-known public figure but a currently serving world leader. As miraculous as Helen Mirren is in the title role, the movie is in many respects a two-hander. Without Sheen, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.
Finally, it’s great to see Mark Wahlberg get some love for his work in The Departed. I’ve been parroting his dialogue for months. He warrants the nod just for the way he delivers the line of the year, written by William Monahan, when a guy he’s berating asks who he is: “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Movie: This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1966)
So I watched that other Coffin Joe movie. In the interest of thoroughness, I offer some follow-up:
Wow. OK. Jesus.
Again with the long-winded introduction. Then a title sequence, the hand-drawn letters squirming as if they’re trying to escape the frame. A card appears, informing us that the movie begins where At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul left off. The closing sequence from that film begins to play.
Me: How is he going to do this? Joe was obviously dead at the end of the last movie.
Character onscreen, subtitled, pointing at Joe: He’s still alive!
Rosemarie: That’s how.
The success of Midnight meant that José Mojica Marins had more money in this go-round. He was able to shoot outdoors, during the day. He also has a hunchback for a sidekick. Way too much yammering about the “immortality of blood” as Joe tries to find the perfect woman to give birth to his child.
But it’s worth sitting through for the journey to hell described below. It’s genuinely disturbing, a vision of the underworld that’s depraved but informed by a religious sensibility. (Coffin Joe, you will not be surprised to learn, repents at the end of this movie before dying. Again. I wonder how he comes back in the next installment.) The unabashed luridness of the sequence calls to mind what I’d heard about the old tent revival shows: they concentrated so much on damnation that you were more concerned about not going to hell than reaching heaven. Same difference, I suppose.
Coffin Joe’s jaunt to Hades is on YouTube, natch, but it’s not subtitled, so odds are you won’t be able to understand the screams of the tormented. And I’m not linking to it, because I think it’s better appreciated in context. So here’s the video for the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Hell.” I don’t want to be a tease.
Next week, Coffin Joe returns in Awakening of the Beast!
Miscellaneous: Why I Don’t Blog About Sports Often
Me, approximately three months ago, speaking to my brother, whose lovely wife is from the Indianapolis area:
“Sorry, dude. Not only are the Colts not going to the Super Bowl, they’re not even going to the AFC title game.”
Friday, January 19, 2007
Miscellaneous: Spreadin’ The Good News
Some familiar faces are among the 2007 Edgar Award nominees. Bill Crider received a nod in the Best Short Story category for the down-n-dirty “Cranked,” featured in the anthology Damn Near Dead. And Contemporary Nomad Olen Steinhauer made the Best Novel short list with Liberation Movements. Congratulations to both on their well-deserved honors. I was also happy to see Massimo Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss singled out in the Best Paperback Original category. I’m fairly certain that my rave review in Mystery*File put him over the top.
What else have I accomplished recently? Glad you asked. I’m pleased to announce that yours truly is now a footnote in Wikipedia. I will be remembered for all eternity as one of sixteen people who observed that the young actress Gage Golightly looks a bit like Drew Barrymore. Factor in my recent citation in an Australian academic text and it’s clear that my plan to become a world-renowned expert on popular culture is proceeding incrementally apace.
Movie: The Descent (U.S., 2006)
Here’s how scary Neil Marshall’s movie is. It held me rapt even though the scenario – bad doings on a spelunking trip – would never happen to me. The only way I’d end up deep in a cave is if something far worse occurred on the surface. Say, an atomic holocaust unleashing rampaging hordes of zombified bears. In which case, better to make the movie about that. (You don’t want to be near me during a film about terrors I actually might encounter, like cannibals in the subway.)
The sense of claustrophobia that Marshall creates would have been even more intense in the dark, so I’m sorry I missed The Descent in theaters. But I’m happy to have seen it in its original form. The U.S. theatrical release cut the final ninety seconds – a single, beautifully executed closing shot – in order to end the movie on a more hopeful note. What babies we are.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Movie: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963)
In college, as in prison, you want to land a job in the library. I spent most of my years in the Microfilm Department poring over film reference books I couldn’t afford, like the horror volume of the Overlook Film Encyclopedia.
In particular I read and reread the entries on the movies of José Mojica Marins and his character Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe. Joe, played by Marins, is an undertaker who scorns both religion and the supernatural. He’s taken self-interest to its logical endpoint: he does whatever he wants to whomever he wants, and his neighbors live in fear of him. (An interview with Marins is available here.)
At the time the films were almost impossible to see outside of Marins’ native Brazil. Their obscure status, combined with author Phil Hardy’s meticulous descriptions of every act of mayhem and sacrilege, made them loom large in my mind. These films, I thought, were like the ones that occasionally turned up in horror novels, where simply watching a few frames could ... drive men mad.
Some of Marins’ movies were eventually distributed on video. I didn’t seek them out; I suppose I didn’t really want to see them. I knew they couldn’t live up to the unholy spectacles I imagined them to be.
Last Friday, as we were about to settle in and watch a DVD, I noticed that IFC was only minutes away from showing Coffin Joe’s debut At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul as part of its Grindhouse series. I’d never heard of a Marins film airing on TV before. I wasn’t about to miss my chance.
There’s no plot. After not one but two Ed Wood-style introductions delivered straight to the camera, Joe begins humiliating and murdering people. He horsewhips a guy, sics a tarantula on his wife, and uses the crown of thorns from a bust of Christ as a weapon. He also proves that my mother was right: you can take someone’s eyes out by imitating the Three Stooges.
The film looks like it was shot on the sets for a Brazilian kids’ show after hours. One of Joe’s victims has pennants hanging in his room. I wanted them explained – “This one’s for the Sao Paulo Rams, and that one is for Lucifer” – but before that could happen Joe knocked the man unconscious, dragged him into the bathtub and drowned him. Joe’s a busy man with a lot of folks to kill.
Midnight is not a good movie. It’s actually kind of boring. But after a while it began exerting a peculiar fascination. Unlike many horror films, it has the courage of its convictions: Marins is determined to shatter as many taboos as possible. The low production values only enhance the movie’s power. When Joe is haunted by a vision of his dead victims carrying him in an open casket, Marins simply shows the scene in negative. The result is genuinely disturbing, as are a number of other bargain-basement effects.
This Friday, January 19, at midnight Eastern, IFC is showing the second Coffin Joe film, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. (I’ll say this for Marins: the man knew from a good title.) According to The Psychotronic Video Guide by Michael Weldon, a reference book I can afford, the sequel is “Marins’s ultimate movie,” including a full-color sequence set in an ice-cold Hell with moving body parts embedded in the walls. This is followed next week by Awakening of the Beast, which is part documentary about the drug culture of the 1960s and part Coffin Joe schlockfest.
Based on my experience with Midnight, I can’t recommend these movies. But you know I’m going to be watching them.
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Miscellaneous: No Business Like Snow Business
It snowed in Seattle again last night. Not a whole lot, just enough to throw the town into a tizzy. I’ve lived here for years, and days like this force me to admit I don’t understand this place. How can a city surrounded by mountains and peopled by skiers lose its collective head whenever the white stuff hits the ground? Winters back east have warped my expectations. In Boston, snow plows are on the streets around the clock. Even in August.
The adverse conditions haven’t affected me much, although I did scrap my plans to stop by Seattle Mystery Books and meet Charlie Huston. Today, that lunchtime jaunt would consume the entire afternoon.
What annoys me is that Seattleites don’t even take routine precautions like, say, clearing off their sidewalks. We got a light dusting on Saturday, sufficient to cover the slick patches that lingered from the midweek snow. I discovered one while strolling up to the supermarket. My Doc Martens were no help. Ass, meet pavement. Icy, rock hard pavement. My only thought as my second foot slid out from under me was, Man, I haven’t fallen down in years.
Since then, I have been liberally self-medicating with ibuprofen and Irish whiskey. At least my mishap didn’t ruin the weekend. We’d already been to see Pan’s Labyrinth. (Quick take: get thee to a theater at once.) And my pain had subsided enough by Monday so that we could see Notes on a Scandal. (Quick take: great nasty fun. Comparisons to Patricia Highsmith are apt.)
You’d think a quieting blanket of white would facilitate my getting some work done. But the snow didn’t keep the valiant crew renovating the apartment upstairs from their appointed rounds. No, they’re here, prying the hardwood floors up one board at a time. Good thing I’ve got plenty of that whiskey on hand.
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Movie: Crank (2006)
How does Bill Crider always know my viewing habits in advance? Am I under surveillance, or simply that predictable?
In this non-stop action movie, a professional killer with the indisputably great name Chev Chelios* awakens to discover that he has been injected with a lethal fast-acting poison. The only way to stave off its effect is adrenaline, and lots of it. This circumstance thus paves the way for drug abuse, public lovemaking and multiple car chases.
In other words, it’s Speed with Jason Statham in the role of the bus. It’s A.D.D.O.A. The movie is shot like a video game and edited with a machete. It’s completely ridiculous, deeply implausible, and thoroughly disreputable. And as such, I enjoyed the hell out of it. Extra points for the ending and an excellent ironic soundtrack.
* I would pledge to christen my firstborn Chev Chelios Keenan regardless of gender, but I’m already committed to Ernst Stavro Keenan.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Book: Chourmo, by Jean-Claude Izzo (1996, U.S. 2006)
I’ve had the second volume in Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy on hand for a while now. I’ve been anticipating it since I finished the first installment, Total Chaos, several months ago. But I didn’t want to read it right away. There are some books you keep in a kind of glass case, to be used in the event of an emergency. For when you need to be inspired, when you want something to savor.
And savor Chourmo I did. The voice Izzo has created for his protagonist Fabio Montale – again beautifully translated by Howard Curtis – is singular. Rich, evocative, eternally alive to the pleasures of music, food, life. Izzo’s work bears parallels to that of George Pelecanos, but where Pelecanos’ books possess a reserve, a coolness that’s distinctly American, Izzo’s are charged with passion. His descriptions of Marseilles, “the first city of the Third World,” are so vivid that I feel as if I could find my way around its streets in the dark.
I’m not entirely certain that I followed the plot, which embroils gangsters, crooked cops and Islamic fundamentalists in Montale’s search for his missing nephew. And I didn’t care. Chourmo – the title comes from a French word meaning rowers in a galley, people “trying to get out ... together” – is primarily a tribute to a vanishing way of life, what Montale calls “the art of living, Marseilles style:”
Those were the days when people still knew how to talk to each other, when they still had things to say to each other. Of course, it made you thirsty. And it took time. But time didn’t matter. Nobody was in a hurry. Everything could wait a few more minutes. Those days were no better and no worse than now. But it was a time when you could share your joys and your sorrows. You didn’t hold back. You could even tell people you were poor. You were never alone ... And whatever problems kept you awake at night vanished in a haze of pastis.
I’d always heard about Club 33, the secret and exclusive restaurant hidden away at Disneyland. Now, via Nikki Finke, comes a website that takes you behind the scenes.
Two smart guys, Craig Mazin and John Rogers, weigh in on what all the changes in media really mean.
The Onion A.V. Club on the genius of one of my favorite albums, Elvis Costello’s King of America.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Movie: Idiocracy (2006)
Mike Judge’s satire met a bizarre fate last year. Numerous delays in its release date, followed by a truncated theatrical run in a half-dozen markets with no promotion of any kind. Yesterday’s home video debut – slated for right after the holidays, when nobody’s paying much attention – was my first chance to see the movie. I jumped on it at once. If Idiocracy turns out to be another cult smash like Judge’s last movie, the justly-revered Office Space, I want in on the ground floor.
Judge had me at the premise. A soldier scientifically proven to be the most average man in the U.S. Army (Luke Wilson) is drafted to be the guinea pig in a short-term hibernation experiment. He awakens in 2505 to discover that society has become so dumbed-down that he is the smartest person on Earth. By, like, a lot. In Judge’s future, justice is meted out by monster trucks, the President is an ultimate fighting champ/porn star, and a doctor renders his diagnosis of Wilson’s character thusly: “Your shit’s all retarded.”
At least one critic has called Idiocracy “easily the most potent political film of the year, and the most stirring defense of traditional values since Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.” I wouldn’t go that far. Considering that Burke’s scathing indictment of the abstract foundations of the Revolution was later used to condemn any form of socialist government, I think it’s fair to suggest that Burke’s shit was all retarded, too.
Idiocracy’s skimpy plot makes Office Space look like Chinatown. But its vision of tomorrow – this dystopia brought to you by NASCAR – is every bit as meticulously conceived and terrifying as the one in Children of Men; if anything it’s more plausible. I laughed myself stupid, which only makes me part of the problem.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Monday, January 08, 2007
Movie: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Bill Crider expects my reaction to this movie to turn up here. And I’m not about to let Bill down.
1. I liked it. Quite a bit.
2. Bill described it as ‘goofy.’ I’ll second that.
3. The movie is jam-packed with characters, and Will Ferrell and co-writer/director Adam McKay are willing to let each of them have their moment in the sun. Everybody gets a chance to be funny.
4. For all the comic actors on display, it’s Gary Cole who walks off with the movie as Ricky’s ne’er-do-well dad Reese. His performance is just an angstrom away from being completely straight, which only amps up the hilarity.
5. Elvis Costello does a cameo! How could I speak ill of it?
6. I will never look at Days of Thunder the same way again. And John C. Reilly is in both.
Forget the botched Tony Romo snap that sent the Seahawks deeper into the playoffs. The best thing I saw during a weekend of football? Bruce Campbell as Old Spice pitchman.
Movie City News asks: creepiest trailer ever? I’m gonna go ahead and say yes.
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Book: Dead Horse, by Walter Satterthwait (2006)
It’s always nice to have the first novel of the year be a winner. But it’s hard to go wrong with Walter Satterthwait, whose Phil Beaumont/Jane Turner books are an unalloyed treat.
Dead Horse is about Raoul Whitfield, the Black Mask veteran who was the highest-paid mystery writer of the late 1920s. His second wife, Emily, was a socialite who made their lavish life on the desert ranch of the title possible. Then Emily committed suicide – or so it would appear. The question of what really happened to her that night is only one of the mysteries raised in Walter’s evocative book.
My experience with Whitfield is limited to his 1930 novel Green Ice. I’d been told that it and Paul Cain’s Fast One were the most hard-boiled books ever published. I still haven’t tracked the Cain down, but I did dig up a copy of Green Ice. Hard-boiled it is, so much so that parts of it are indigestible. But Walter’s book has me ready to take another crack at it.
A.I. Bezzerides, RIP
What a remarkable 98 years the man had. He wrote the novels Long Haul (filmed as They Drive by Night) and Thieves’ Market (which became Thieves’ Highway). He penned the screenplays for On Dangerous Ground and the great Kiss Me Deadly. And in his spare time he created TV’s The Big Valley. Two documentaries were made about him in 2005. I’d be happy to see either one.
Friday, January 05, 2007
Oh, hi. Didn’t see you there.
Apparently I’m in the midst of a blogging sabbatical. Thinking about whether the ol’ Internet homestead needs a new coat of paint or maybe more substantial changes.
In the interim, I can relay the following:
Mystery*File is back, now in easy-to-use blog form!
Children of Men opens in more theaters this weekend. Go see it.
I had my first Chicago-style hot dog yesterday. Why aren’t sport peppers served with everything from breakfast cereal to ice cream?