Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TV: At Long Last, Morton & Hayes

What say we mix it up a little for the last post of 2008? I want to keep things interesting for my readers, especially as I now know, having run the year-end stats, how many of you there are. (I’ll just say “record setting numbers” and leave it at that. But my thanks to all of you, and the regulars in particular.)

I’ve mentioned before the TV series Morton & Hayes, which surfaced during the summer of 1991 and sank without a trace. The brainchild of Rob Reiner and Spinal Tap cohort Christopher Guest, it purported to be a showcase for the films of the forgotten 1930s comedy team of Chick Morton (Kevin Pollak in the role he was born to play) and Eddie Hayes (Bob Amaral). Each week the boys would appear in a “newly rediscovered” two-reel short, meticulously recreated right down to the jump cuts and shoddy effects.

I watched every episode. And ever since, I have waited in vain for the show to appear somewhere, anywhere else.

The other day I searched the online outlets for older TV series. AOL Video, Hulu, Fancast, Fanlu. Nothing.

But Youtube? Youtube had one episode, in three pieces.

It’s actually one I remembered vividly. Guest himself appears as a bandleader doing the novelty dance “The Cold Potato.” Even better, a then-unknown Allison Janney absolutely nails the period style. The way she says “Pago Pago” kills me. It’s not the best recording – for one thing, you won’t be able to appreciate the show’s look – but it’s better than nothing.

So end ’08 or start ’09 with “Society Saps.” Part one is below, and here are parts two and three. Here’s wishing everyone a happy new year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Good Stuff: Favorite Movies of 2008

Ask people to name the best of anything and they’ll dither, and think about the weight of history, and draft a lengthy list of possibilities to winnow down. I don’t have that kind of time. But ask for favorites and the answers come quick and can be counted on the fingers of one hand. These are movies that spoke to me personally. The marketing workups for these movies identify their target audiences in terms of oddly specific categories (“Copy Shop Employees Who Eat Sack Lunches and Have Never Seen Seinfeld”) and my name. This year, there are five of them, listed in the order seen.

In Bruges. Martin McDonagh’s scabrous and soulful comedy about a pair of hit men awaiting further instructions.

The Bank Job. A heist movie like they used to make.

Man on Wire. The documentary about Philippe Petit’s “coup” of walking a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center. It’s structured like a caper, and is a poem to possibility and to New York.

The Fall. Tarsem’s fantasia on the power of storytelling.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Sublime silliness, with many of the laughs coming from the flawless recreation of ‘60s spy movies.

Here’s how far out of the Oscar loop I am: not only are none of these films year-end prestige releases, all five are already on video. You could watch ‘em tonight if you wanted. In fact, you should.

This is where I’m supposed to name all the movies that came thisclose to making the cut. Instead, here’s A Half Dozen Thrillers That More People Should Have Seen, again in the order I saw them.

Married Life. Calling this a thriller is stretching the definition a bit. Consider it a small, arch marital noir, and proof that Pierce Brosnan should narrate every movie he’s in.

Jar City. A spare, haunting adaptation of Arnaldur Indridason’s Icelandic crime novel.

Tell No One. Some plot contrivances from the book remain, but you won’t notice thanks to Guillaume Canet’s breathless pacing and focus on the emotional underpinnings of the story. That this became a summer arthouse hit is one of 2008’s nicest surprises.

Transsiberian. Brad Anderson’s train-set drama takes its time getting started, but never goes where you’d expect. Emily Mortimer delivers one of my favorite performances of the year.

Body of Lies. And here I thought it had everything: two big stars operating at their peak, exotic locales, a smart script, and energy to burn.

JCVD. I described this to my video game colleagues as “a Charlie Kaufman movie with kickboxing.” I stand by that summation.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Movies: Holiday Affair (1949)/Remember the Night (1940)

At Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, which you should be reading regularly anyway, Ivan has a post on holiday movies that mentions the VKDC Christmas Film Festival. In some sense this is appropriate, because Ivan programmed my yuletide viewing. I made a point of recording two movies he championed and watched them as the last of the snow fell on Seattle. With the Shreve Seal of Approval, you’re seldom disappointed.

Although I am confused, because watching Holiday Affair so soon after The Killer is Loose raises a perplexing question: do I like Wendell Corey now? Let’s say I’m open to reappraisal and leave it at that. Corey is the Bellamy in this romantic comedy, set in New York City in the waning weeks of December. Janet Leigh plays a war widow with a young son. Accepting lawyer Corey’s longstanding marriage proposal would allow her to leave her job as a comparison shopper for a department store. But that job is how she meets Robert Mitchum, a vagabond clerk who challenges Corey for her affections.

Canned performances by child actors sink many films from the ‘40s and ‘50s, but Gordon Gebert feels almost contemporary as the lonely little boy who holds the action together. Isobel Lennert’s script is nicely balanced between the characters. Corey has a lovely moment late in the action when he lays out the facts of the case with legal precision. Some might be surprised by how easily Mitchum takes to the genre, but I’m not; the man always knew how to handle sardonic dialogue, and I will forever insist that His Kind of Woman is a comedy. Amidst the gossamer, Affair is quite tough-minded. Mitchum buys Gebert an extravagant gift because he wants the boy to know that good things are possible in life. Leigh protests only to have Mitchum remark, “Not every surprise is a telegram from the War Department,” a line that brought her and me up short.

Another sweet confection with a tart center followed in Remember the Night. The last script Preston Sturges wrote before moving to the director’s chair teamed Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck four years before Double Indemnity. He’s a New York D.A. charged with prosecuting her for shoplifting. He cagily has the trial postponed until after the holidays, only to discover that fellow Hoosier Stanwyck will be alone in the city for Christmas. The road trip that follows has its share of screwball antics, but mainly it affords Stanwyck’s character the chance to see that a hardscrabble start in life doesn’t have to dictate one’s fate. Sturges fills the screen with his typically vivid supporting characters – Elizabeth Patterson’s Aunt Emma lives an entire life in a single reaction shot – and wraps up the story with an unsentimental but potent ending.

TCM airs both films every December in the hopes of making them seasonal staples. I’ll certainly watch them again, after my screenings of The Ref and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I still prefer my Christmas movies naughty, not nice.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Miscellaneous: Ho Ho Huh?

From Alan Feuer’s New York Times article:

There is a theory of journalism that holds that Christmas Day is relatively news-free, a day spent peacefully at home opening presents, entertaining Grandma, watching “Klute” on DVD or simply mulling over what to order — the shrimp or the chicken lo mein — at the Empire Grand later that night.

Klute? Really? Who watches Klute on Christmas Day?

Ah, well. To each his own. Happy holidays, everybody.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Good Stuff: Favorite Novels of 2008

Some years I don’t feel like making lists. This year I do. Blame the weather. These aren’t “bests,” just my favorites.

To begin, the Grand Master slots. It’s not fair to cite these authors here, because my saying I like them is akin to opining, “I endorse breathing” or “You know what’s good? Bourbon.” So I again salute Donald E. Westlake in his Richard Stark guise for Dirty Money, the last of his triptych about a very hectic month in the life of his thief Parker. And Lawrence Block for Hit and Run, in which philatelist assassin Keller goes to ground in a gratifyingly old school way.

Now, ten books listed in the order I read them with minimal commentary, as I’ve already bragged ‘em up good.

Money Shot, by Christa Faust. Hardboiled stuff served up straight. I want more Angel Dare. I’d say please, but how hardboiled would that be?

Saturday’s Child, by Ray Banks. Banks! Get that website back up! You’ve got more books coming out.

Gas City by Loren D. Estleman. An almost clinical look at corruption in a fading Midwestern burg. Beautiful prose on every page.

Matala, by Craig Holden. A slim volume full of menace.

Frames, by Loren D. Estleman. Estleman’s second book on the list is a complete change in tone, an almost lighthearted story of a “film detective” caught up in a decades-old Tinseltown murder.

Hollywood Crows, by Joseph Wambaugh. Another peerless picaresque about day to day life in the LAPD.

Vampyres of Hollywood, by Adrienne Barbeau and Michael Scott. The most fun I’ve had reading all year.

Small Crimes, by Dave Zeltserman. Lean and dark with a chest punch of an ending.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. A haunting tale made all the more so by the author’s death.

Toros & Torsos, by Craig McDonald. The only book on this list I haven’t mentioned before because I just finished it, so allow me to sing its praises now. Hector Lassiter, the two-fisted pulp writer who featured in the Edgar-nominated Head Games, is embroiled in a series of murders inspired by Surrealist art. Spanning many years and locations with cameos ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Orson Welles, it’s a ferocious, wildly ambitious novel and a grand way to close out a year’s worth of reading.

And yes, I am aware that half of these titles involve the nexus of crime and movies. You should know to expect that when you come here.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book: Hey There (You with the Gun in Your Hand), by Robert J. Randisi (2008)

In the third of Randisi’s Rat Pack novels, Eddie Gianelli is once again called on to perform a service above and beyond his duties as a pit boss at the Sands. Someone is blackmailing Sammy Davis, Jr., and only Eddie is fit to be go-between. But this caper could extend beyond show business; after all, it’s 1961, and Rat Pack crony JFK is in the White House. The book is Randisi’s usual mix of clean prose and sharp period detail. If he writes a dozen of these books I’ll read them all, because the Rat Pack are my version of superheroes. Sure, Tony Stark can build a pocket fusion reactor in a cave with a box of scraps. But could he do a number with Allan Sherman and Vic Damone like Dean Martin?

Eddie did a favor for Dino in the first novel, then helped Frank in #2. I doubt that Peter Lawford will be next, based on how he’s treated in the books. I’ve always felt some degree of affection for Brother-in-Lawford, who had to know he was in over his head. (Lawford, well played by Angus Macfadyen, is the focus of HBO’s The Rat Pack.) He was a mere mortal who found himself amongst gods, and that’s as close as you’re going to get to tragedy in the world of ring-a-ding-ding.

Movie: The Killer is Loose (1956)

I owe Randisi. His book kept me up late the night I was recording this movie on TCM and the DVR stopped six minutes early. Because I was awake to notice it, I was able to grab the fraught closing scenes, which play out like ur-DePalma.

Killer marks a foray into crime drama by Budd Boetticher, a director whose lean psychological westerns are winning deserved acclaim on DVD. While attempting to arrest mousy bank clerk Wendell Corey for robbery, detective Joseph Cotten accidentally kills Corey’s wife. Several years later, Corey escapes from prison hell-bent on responding in kind, targeting Cotten’s spouse Rhonda Fleming.

Boetticher’s economy and stark compositions ratchet up the tension brilliantly. Corey is an actor I haven’t particularly cared for in the past but he’s phenomenal here, his face rendered a void by Clark Kent eyeglasses, his psyche scarred by his perceived failures during the war. There are terrific supporting performances by veterans of the Jack Webb Players John Larch as Corey’s former sergeant and Virginia Christine as a cop’s wife who knocks Fleming off her pedestal. A genuine B-movie gem.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie: It Happened In Hollywood (1937)

Since making my way through most of The Whistler movies, I’ve become a fan of the stolid charms of actor Richard Dix. So when TCM aired this obscure movie, aka Once A Hero, a few weeks ago, I recorded it. Little did I realize that bonuses were in store.

Bonus #1: It’s the second writing credit for the great Samuel Fuller.

Bonus #2: It features an extended sequence that earns it a small place in Hollywood history.

Bonus #3: It’s awful, but in a way that fascinates.

Dix, in an echo of his own career, plays a star of silent movie westerns devoted to his young fans. Then talkies come in. After one session with a diction coach (Franklin Pangborn in the Franklin Pangborn role), it’s clear that Dix ain’t cut out for Coward. As his best girl Fay Wray moves on to success, he loses his money. He gets a second chance when he’s offered a role as a tough guy in a gangster film, but Dix refuses to be a bad example to the kids by gunning down a cop in cold blood. He decides to leave Tinseltown and return to life on the range, where based on his duds he was a midnight cowboy. That’s when Billy, one of the kids he doesn’t want to disappoint, turns up on his doorstep. He won’t go back to the welfare home until Dix introduces him to some movie stars, a plot development that makes zero sense considering Billy’s stated contempt for every film that isn’t a western.

Bringing us to bonus #2 above. Dix throws a party for Billy at the ranch he’s already lost to the bank, and invites the stand-ins for the biggest names in the business. All of whom are played by the actual studio doubles for those stars, in the only on-screen appearances many of them had. You see facsimiles of Clark Gable, Mae West, James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Arthur McLaglen turns up as his brother Victor. Sisters Betty and Carol Dietrich appear as Greta Garbo and Marlene (no relation) Dietrich. Bing Crosby’s doppelganger lip syncs to one of Bing’s records. It’s an amazing bit of movie history.

Normally I don’t give away endings, but It Happened in Hollywood goes so off the rails in the closing minutes that I have no choice. Consider yourselves warned.

Billy has one of those movie accidents. Dix needs money to save the kid’s life. So he returns to the bank he was supposed to rob in the gangster film, this time to knock it over for real. Only before he can do so, it’s held up by actual thieves. After one of them shoots a cop, Dix draws his six-gun and saves the day. By this point the studios have figured out how to record sound outdoors, so westerns are back in vogue. And Dix returns to the silver screen, a bigger star than ever. The end.

It Happened in Hollywood is four different movies jammed together, often in the same scene, and none of them good. I’d call it a comedy because it’s impossible to take seriously, not because it’s funny. But in holding up a funhouse mirror to show business, it was years ahead of its time. And in my book, you get points for being early.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Miscellaneous: Yuletidings

It’s a Letterman tradition: Paul Shaffer’s interpretation of Cher singing ‘O Holy Night’ from an old variety special. Now, thanks to some enterprising elf, I can finally see the original. It’s just after the four minute mark, but why would you want to fast forward? Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

As you prepare for your holiday festivities, allow yours truly to shoulder some of the burden and make your movie selections for you. Here are the standard titles in the VKDC Christmas Film Festival.

The Ref. A movie I have watched every Xmas since its release.
Die Hard
The Ice Harvest

Blast of Silence. A new entry this year. Thanks to Christa Faust for reminding me.

Followed by the collected oeuvre of the true auteur of the season, Mr. Shane Black:

Lethal Weapon
The Last Boy Scout
The Long Kiss Goodnight
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

And now, by popular demand, I give you Vince and Rosemarie Keenan’s Shane Black’s The Twelve Days of Christmas. Well on its way to become its own holiday tradition.

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (U.S. 2008)

Jumping on the bandwagon is no fun. I prefer being a contrarian myself. But sometimes there’s no choice. You’ve got to join the choir and sing your hosannas with everyone else.

The drumbeat for this debut novel started last year. No doubt the author’s personal story contributed to the buzz: a crusading Swedish journalist delivers manuscripts for three interconnected books shortly before dying of a heart attack at age 50.

The first installment justifies the hype. It is, in a word, bewitching, thanks to an alchemy of setting (Stockholm and the frigid reaches north), character (a disgraced journalist and the investigator of the title, an enigmatic and damaged ward of the state) and story (a 40-year old locked-room mystery set on an island that ultimately encompasses crimes of the boardroom and of the heart). Nearly 500 pages, read in a flash. The next book can’t come fast enough.

Monday, December 15, 2008

DVD: Capricorn One (1978)

Much as I’d love to be able to say that I’m the product of the best influences, that I was forged in the kiln of the works of our greatest writers, thinkers and artists ... it ain’t necessarily so.

Capricorn One is a crackpot conspiracy thriller about a faked Mars landing. It’s more than a favorite movie of my childhood. It’s the first story of any kind that I ever analyzed. I watched it repeatedly on TV and took the entire narrative apart, sketching out the plot in detail in the back of my social studies notebook. I even scared up a copy of the novelization by Ron Goulart and dissected that. I never did anything by half-measures, even as a kid. Except social studies, obviously. Capricorn One marked the start of my awareness of the craft of storytelling. Yeah, I wish it were Shakespeare or Kubrick or Faulkner, too, but we are who we are.

Among the lessons learned that still hold up, based on watching the recent special edition DVD:

- Give your supporting characters a signature detail. Writer/director Peter Hyams does this throughout. Take Sam Waterston’s astronaut, given to cracking ancient jokes. He tells himself one as a distraction while climbing a sheer rock wall. He reaches the top and the punchline at the same time – then makes an unwelcome discovery. I never forgot that moment. It’s cheesy, and it still plays.

- Reluctant villains are more powerful. I like a psycho as much as the next guy. But when your heavy says over and over, as Hal Holbrook does here, “I hate like hell to do this to you,” and then does it anyway – his actions have that much more impact.

- Never hire O.J. Simpson.

And two random observations:

It’s strange to watch this movie and think that only two years earlier Holbrook had a key role in All The President’s Men. They say the cultural metabolism moves fast now, but that’s a pretty speedy arc for conspiracy tales and the image of journalists. From Woodstein to Elliot Gould’s hangdog horndog in about 24 months.

The evil company behind the phony landing? The same one up to no good in Hyams’ 1981 Outland, set late in the 21st century.

TV: The Age of Believing

Turner Classic Movies is airing this documentary on Walt Disney’s live action fare as part of December’s tribute to family films. It doesn’t spend anywhere near enough time on the Medfield College trilogy starring Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, but otherwise it’s pretty thorough. I think I saw every film highlighted, thanks largely to the Catholic school tradition known as Movie Day. Nuns love Disney.

I bet Rosemarie beforehand that the special would make no mention of one of Uncle Walt’s lesser efforts, Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN, but sure enough there it was. How bad was the movie? The third time it screened on Movie Day, I wandered to the back of the auditorium and found the school principal.

“Sister Maureen,” I said, “can I go sit in the library?”

“What’s wrong? Don’t you feel well?”

“I’m great, Sister. But this movie is not.”

Sister Maureen wrinkled her nose. “You’re right. But it’s the only one we could get.” You know a movie’s bad when a kid would rather do his homework. Especially this kid.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

TV: Scream Queens

By rights, Scream Queens should have been crap. It is, after all, part of VH1’s reality lineup, in which hustlers and fame whores acquire wisdom and disease via hot tub. The premise: ten aspiring starlets share a house (again with the communal living, reality TV?) while competing for a role in the upcoming Saw VI. But Scream Queens, in spite of itself, became DVR-worthy. I learned more about acting in its brief run than I have from years of Inside the Actors’ Studio.

Each episode is as rigorously structured as a Feydeau farce. In Act I, Saw actress Shawnee Smith leads the ladies through an acting exercise informed by the realities of low-budget horror. Sometimes you have to create a character while drenched in fake blood. Or make ridiculous dialogue believable, hence a recreation of a scene from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die in which you play a disembodied head. Low budget means varying acting ability, so your scene partner will be a gorgeous male model incapable of human emotion.

Next up, workshop. John Homa, possessed of the righteous prick demeanor and facility for gnomic utterance essential for any acting coach, puts the girls through their paces. At times his tactics seem dubious. More often than not they’re unhinged: locking a bunch of twenty-somethings in the drawer at an abandoned morgue? But there’s Method to his madness. The morgue bit, for example, prepares each actress to play a character facing death. (OK, it’s still ridiculous. But it’s great TV.)

At this point there’s some filler about “tension in the house,” but the show’s heart isn’t in it; you can sense the producers thinking, “Hey, this acting stuff is actually interesting.” The ladies bring all they’ve learned to bear on the director’s challenge in which they work with James Gunn, the Troma vet who made the delirious Slither. The outcomes can be genuinely surprising. In one episode an early favorite, a striking actress with real chops who occasionally made baffling choices, waited until cameras were about to roll before telling Gunn that she was uncomfortable with kissing another woman. She was cut at the end of the episode for unprofessional behavior. That this was presented as an ethical dilemma – and that we got the girl-on-girl action anyway with a different actress – demonstrates the program’s particular genius.

There’s also a nice mix of personalities among the contestants. Like Lindsay, a former child actress working through confidence issues. (Politically incorrect aside to Lindsay: in addition to being skilled, you also have the best rack on the show. Do not be afraid to use it. This is Saw VI we’re talking about here, not Mother Courage.) And Tanedra, the oldest and least trained of the ten, who has undeniable raw talent. Both of my favorites made it to the Final Girl stage. Can I spot ‘em or what? I am Flo Ziegfeld reborn.

It’s been said that it takes as much work to make a bad movie as a good one. Scream Queens drives that point home. Episodes are still airing, or you can watch them at VH1’s website.

Miscellaneous: Radio, Radio

The peerless Bill Nighy stars as Simon Brett’s dissolute actor-cum-sleuth Charles Paris in Dead Side of the Mic for BBC Radio. The four-part series airs on Wednesdays, and you can hear each installment online for the next week. Hat tip to Ed Gorman.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Music: You Got EBN In My OZN!

The MTV Music video database expands. Gaspo, this one is for you. Still not enough Adam and the Ants, though. Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd look owes something to EBN. It’s amazing we communicate at all. Languages and dialects ...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Books: A Pair of Hard Cases

Steve Fisher netted an Oscar nod for Destination Tokyo, and his name appears on the writing credits of some interesting noir films. Dead Reckoning with Humphrey Bogart. Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person camera take on Chandler, Lady in the Lake. The singularly odd City That Never Sleeps, narrated by Chicago incarnate. He was also a novelist perhaps best known for I Wake Up Screaming, a tale of the showbiz margins turned into an offbeat B-movie.

Hard Case Crime has brought Fisher back into print with “a novel of Las Vegas,” and brother, is it a doozy. No House Limit (1958) is the story of Joe Martin, the last independent casino owner on the Strip. The Syndicate is out to break him, though, and to do it they’ve brought in Bello, gambler extraordinaire – but he’s only the opening salvo in the battle. It’s also the story of Mal Davis, the two-bit lounge act who falls hard for Bello’s girl.

Fisher knows the city inside and out. He opens each chapter with an icy, clinical paragraph explaining some facet of how Las Vegas actually works. And he takes pains to show that neon lights burn through small dreams as well as big ones. Throw in an afterword by Fisher’s son Michael that includes excerpts from his father’s original outline, and you have one of Hard Case’s best recent titles.

I’d been given the advance word on David J. Schow’s Gun Work by someone in the know a few months back: “pure gun porn.” The billing was accurate. Iraq war vet Barney heads to Mexico to offer what he thinks is help to a guy he considers a friend after the apparent kidnapping of said guy’s wife. Attentive readers may discern that all is not as it appears. An orgy of violence follows, leavened by Schow’s mordant wit and sharp turns of phrase. Fast, brutal, and over the top. Barney even learns a few life lessons. And there are luchadores. What more could you want?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

More premature nostalgia.

The Greatest Show on Earth is widely regarded as one of the worst Best Picture Oscar winners. It beat High Noon and The Quiet Man, although considering that The Bad and The Beautiful and Singin’ in the Rain weren’t nominated that year, it’s safe to say that errors had been made even earlier in the process. If I’m going to begrudge Cecil B. DeMille’s big top extravaganza anything, it’s that its win for Best Story came at the expense of the noir classics The Narrow Margin and The Sniper.

I was in no hurry to see it until we visited Sarasota, Florida. For decades, the Ringling brothers used the town as the winter headquarters for their circus operations. DeMille shot some of the movie in Sarasota, and it had its world premiere there. A section of the John and Mable Ringling Museum is devoted to it. Numerous props including the model used in the justly celebrated train wreck are on display, and the film plays on a constant loop. But that’s not the way I wanted to experience it.

DeMille gives himself a pompous and unnecessary voiceover. That Oscar-winning story? Utterly predictable. Show this movie to a lost tribe that had never seen a film before, and, after marveling at the magic box of color and sound, they would say, “Blondie runs off with Mr. Fancy Pants, right?”

Charlton Heston lets his jacket and hat do the heavy lifting and treats the rest of his role as an exercise: how unlikable can I make this guy and still have the movie work? Betty Hutton looks the part of a trapeze artist but is out of her depth playing her torn between two lovers scenes. The fun is in the supporting ranks. The undervalued Cornel Wilde as an aerialist with a gigolo’s swagger, Gloria Grahame’s seen-it-all type, Lawrence Tierney menacing on the sidelines. Legendary clown Emmett Kelly shows tremendous artistry in his handful of scenes.

And speaking of clowns, there’s Jimmy Stewart as a fugitive from the law hiding out with the circus. Consequently he never takes off his white face make-up, lending a creepy serial killer vibe to the proceedings.

Show is pure, uncut hokum, one of those movies that is hugely entertaining without actually being good. Did it deserve its Best Picture Oscar? No. But I understand why it won, and under the right circumstances could even see voting for it myself.

Rosemarie has always had a soft spot for it. She occasionally quotes one of Grahame’s lines, uttered after the train wreck: “I’ll bring every elephant that can walk. And the ones that can’t walk, I’ll carry.” Her voice always breaks on that last word. For all her chic elegance, my wife is a complete sucker for that show-must-go-on stuff.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Books: Long-Time Listener, First-Time Reader

Meme time. Jeff Pierce at The Rap Sheet called me out earlier today. The rules:

1. List the authors you read in 2008 who were new to you, regardless of the year of publication.

2. Bold the ones that were debuts (first novel, published in 2008).

3. Tag some people.

I’m going to change them slightly, counting debuts from mid-2007 on. I’m including a pair of titles that I haven’t read yet but will finish by month’s end. And I’ll copy from Jeff and go with two lists. First, fiction authors who were new to me.

• Peter Spiegelman (Red Cat)
• Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road)
• Ray Banks (Saturday’s Child)
• Joseph Weisberg (An Ordinary Spy)
Tom Epperson (The Kind One)
• David Levien (City of the Sun)
Tom Rob Smith (Child 44)
• Shepard Rifkin (The Murderer Vine)
• Anthony Neil Smith (Yellow Medicine)
• Ian Rankin (Knots and Crosses)
Adrienne Barbeau & Michael Scott (Vampyres of Hollywood)
• Tom Piccirilli (The Fever Kill)
Derek Haas (The Silver Bear)
• James Patrick Hunt (The Betrayers)
• Dave Zeltserman (Small Crimes)
• Michael Koryta (Envy the Night)
• Jerry Kennealy (Still Shot)
• Simon Kernick (The Business of Dying)
• Bill Cameron (Chasing Smoke)
• Steve Fisher (No House Limit)
Stieg Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)
• Charles Cumming (A Spy By Nature)

Vampyres of Hollywood marks Adrienne Barbeau’s debut as a novelist, so it gets bolded. And yes, I am admitting that I am a crime fiction fan who prior to this year had never read any Ian Rankin. I’m sure each of you have similar shameful admissions of your own. And I did start with the first of the Rebus books, so give me some credit.

Next up, non-fiction authors I read for the first time.

Kelly DiNardo (Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique)
Stephen Marks (Confessions of a Political Hit Man)
• Hugh Wilford (The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America)
Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood)
• David Hajdu (The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America)
Melissa Plaut (Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Starting Driving a Yellow Cab)
• Matt Taibbi (The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire)
Philip Delves Broughton (Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School)
• Dan Kennedy (Rock On: An Office Power Ballad)

Feel free to leave your own list in the comments. As for tagging people, I don’t want to impose. Although I will say that such a list drafted by Bill Crider would be something to see ...

UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive.

Cocktails: Class of the Glass

The New York Times devotes today’s Dining section to cocktail culture, even seeing fit to give my man Murray Stenson at the Zig Zag Café his very own action shot. I was astounded at how many of the bars mentioned I’ve been to, and was filled with both pride and shame. An experience that is not entirely new to me.

The lead article is on the resurgence of the White Russian, spurred by The Big Lebowski. I confess that as much as I love Lebowski, I have never ordered a Caucasian, nor do I intend to.

I was more interested in this piece on cocktail geeks. I’m not sure if I could call myself one of them. I have never made my own vermouth, and set the bar pretty low when it comes to ice. (If it’s cold, that’s good enough for me.) On the other hand, I too have little use for vodka and can pinpoint my own moment of conversion: entering the Zig Zag for the first time, telling Ben that I wanted to learn about rye whiskey, and being poured a Red Hook. From then on, I was a new man.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Miscellaneous: Thanksgiving Roundup

Chasing Smoke
, by Bill Cameron (2008). Oregon homicide detective ‘Skin’ Kadash is supposed to be on disability while he undergoes cancer treatment. But his ex-partner comes to him with a case he can’t resist: several prominent men, all apparent suicides, all patients of Skin’s oncologist. It’s an involving mystery built around a memorable character in Kadash, a brusque, doggedly unsentimental man forced by his illness to deal with the transcendent even as he copes with countless personal indignities. I hope he makes it. I’d like to hear from him again.

The Tall Target (1951). I never pass up a chance to catch an Anthony Mann movie. Some veteran noir hands spin a historical footnote about Abraham Lincoln’s secretive train ride to his inauguration into a taut thriller. Dick Powell plays the New York cop determined to foil an assassination attempt. (His character is named John Kennedy.) Powell’s brief speech to an impossibly young and beautiful Ruby Dee about his reaction to Lincoln as a man and a leader is a model of Mann’s forceful yet understated style. TCM aired it because it’s featured in Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery by John DiLeo. A book I now have to read.

Ca$h (2008). My affection for OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies lingers. First I bought the DVD days after renting it. Then I ordered this movie from IFC Festival Direct because it also stars Jean DuJardin. Here he’s a small-time con artist bent on taking down Europe’s premiere thief (Jean Reno). Twist heaped upon turn, charismatic actors, lovely locations. The French, they have a word for it: divertissement. It depressed me no end to learn that the French now also say “chill” and “total hottie.” C’est la vie. DuJardin plays it straight in a film adapted from a Lawrence Block novel. Eyes will be peeled for that one.

Transporter 3 (2008). The latest entry in my favorite junk franchise is the least and the least intelligible. Literally; I understood every third non-Statham word. But I don’t go for the dialogue. I wanted over-the-top action and got enough. Read Christa Faust’s take for your word of the day.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Movie: The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962)

So we have Timothy Carey, an actor who may have been unmatched at conjuring up a sense of genuine menace, a wild man onscreen and off, a favorite of directors like John Cassavetes and Stanley Kubrick. For me, Carey will always be the malignant scarecrow who rifles down a racehorse in The Killing.

Carey grew tired of playing supporting parts, so he decided to engineer his own breakthrough. The World’s Greatest Sinner is entirely his; he wrote, produced, financed and directed. (Sensibly, he hired Frank Zappa to do the music.) Ultimately he had to distribute it as well; Sinner never had a formal theatrical release. In some sense it’s the definitive underground movie, spoken of more than seen. I was stunned to learn that TCM would be premiering Sinner on TV last month. I would be out of town on the day, but it is for such occasions that the DVR was invented.

Carey, looking like a cross between Nicolas Cage and Keith Olbermann with a pinch of Michael Madsen for flavor, plays an insurance salesman who quits his job to start a cult. He changes his name to God, and you know he means business because he has it embroidered onto his sleeves. He incorporates music into the pitch, although his act consists mainly of doing flaccid belly rolls in a lamé suit. The next step, obviously, is to declare himself a candidate for president. He actually has a shot at winning, because in the days before the “gotcha!” media no one discovers that he’s screwing underage girls. The film culminates with a jawdropper of an ending that manages to:

1. Completely misinterpret the fundamental Catholic precept of transubstantiation;

2. Undermine the entire concept of religious faith;

3. Switch from black and white to color a few seconds too late.

Is that everything? Oh, yeah, it’s all narrated by the devil. Did I say that? I probably should have said that.

Sinner looks lousy; don’t tell me the jump cuts and choppy editing are artistic choices, because I simply will not believe you. Carey never explains his character’s philosophy, offering up guff about how we can all be “super human beings” over and over. He pushes every conceivable button purely for the sake of button-pushing.

And that wildness is why the movie is worth watching. It’s a ferocious cry, a discharge of pent-up frustration, the full-throated scream of a salesman stifled by his work ... or a character actor suffocated by the scope of his roles. It reminded me of a Charles Willeford piece about how every man has to make his sound. Rosemarie, better read than me, quoted Shakespeare:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.

I watched Sinner on Wednesday night, thinking it might be my annual Thanksgiving movie turkey. No dice. The World’s Greatest Sinner may be a bad movie. But it’s a hell of a lot more than a turkey.

Besides, the last fucking thing I need is the ghost of Timothy Agoglia Carey haunting me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Miscellaneous: Doorbuster

Thanksgiving turkey is being digested, which means it’s time to get those Christmas decorations up. So here’s a holiday classic.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rant: Pure Pulp Power

Rewatching The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) I was bowled over again by that closing soliloquy, courtesy of Richard Matheson.

... So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle ... And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

Heady stuff for a sci-fi tale that gives away the game in the title. But that’s the genius of Matheson, providing a textured, philosophical climax without skimping on the thrills. Scott Carey’s epiphany occurs after he’s fought a battle royale with a giant (to him) spider, for Christ’s sake.

Matheson works similar magic in I Am Legend. Robert Neville spends pages killing the vampiric creatures that have taken over the Earth, only to realize that they are not the monsters of his world – he is the demon of theirs. It’s a demanding notion that survived, albeit in muddled form, into last year’s blockbuster movie adaptation, only to wind up an alternate ending on the DVD after test audiences gave it thumbs down.

Shrinking Man was remade once as farce, and a second such treatment is in the works with Eddie Murphy. Thus proving that the famous dictum “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” applies only to execution and not signing on the line that is dotted; half the remakes cited in the trades nowadays are “comic reimaginings.”

Such is the way of the world. I don’t expect studios spending millions on popular entertainments to spring for existential wrap-ups. What bothers me is how few Oscar bait movies attempt to convey ideas as nuanced as Matheson’s anymore. Once you got food for thought in the story of a man who almost becomes food for a house cat. Now most films aimed at adults can’t convey an idea more sophisticated than “Love endures” or “Families are good.” Yet another sign that we are no longer a serious society, and that we are fated to end in ruin.

Rant over.

ASIDE #1: The Shrinking Man DVD also included The Monolith Monsters (1957), featuring ISM’s star Grant Williams and a story by that film’s director, Jack Arnold. I saw Monolith once as a kid and never forgot it. The monsters of the title – fragments of an asteroid that grow to skyscraper heights when exposed to water only to collapse and start the process anew – are the very definition of implacable. The movie doesn’t hold up completely, but damn, are those rocks still scary.

ASIDE #2: Irving Gertz, who composed the music for both movies and plenty of others, died this month at age 93. Margalit Fox offers a sterling example of the obituary writer’s art.

Monday, November 24, 2008

John Michael Hayes, R.I.P.

The screenwriter, who died on November 19 at age 89, had a remarkable career. The highlight was easily the four consecutive films he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock in the mid-1950s: Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, To Catch A Thief, and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. This impressive run led to a falling out with Hitchcock; in Hayes’ words, “we parted because I was being too identified with him.” Hayes would make out just fine on his own, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his adaptation of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place and writing the script for Butterfield 8.

I reread the interview with Hayes in Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 3 this morning. In it, Hayes recounts his relationship with Hitchcock, the reasons for his fade from Hollywood in the 1960s, and his surprise return to movie theaters at age 75 with 1994’s Iron Will. The piece ends with Hayes being asked about a rumored sequel to his greatest achievement, Rear Window. I love his response. It’s the answer of a true professional.

I was offered an absolutely monumental sum of money by the man who owns the rights ... That money would help me in my old age ... I don’t know. Some pictures have a magic that’s almost indefinable. Grace is gone. Hitch is gone. Jimmy’s too frail. Wendell Corey’s gone. Raymond Burr is dead. We couldn’t recapture that kind of innocence. What could it possibly be?

But I’ve done a story, just in case.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movie: JCVD (2008)

Ah, but a man should turn toward the camera and explain how his reach exceeds his grasp, or what’s a meta for? In JCVD, the unlikeliest star goes all Tristram Shandy on our collective asses to tremendous effect. Jean-Claude Van Damme, nee Van Varenberg, plays himself: a 47-year-old Belgian action star with a history of divorce and drug abuse, reduced to making DTV crap in Eastern Europe, reeling from a protracted child custody battle. He returns home to start over only to find himself in a dog day afternoon, trapped in a robbery gone wrong where he’s both assumed to be the villain and hated for not being a hero.

Reflexive stuff fails far more often than it succeeds. (Exhibit A: Richard Belzer’s recent I Am Not A Cop!, which squanders the potentially killer premise of a recognizable TV detective swept up in an actual mystery.) But Van Damme and cowriter/director Mabrouk El Mechri get a surprising amount of mileage out of the idea. It’s strange to watch a guy who fought time-traveling thieves and zombie soldiers meet his match in three desperate, greasy losers, including one who looks like a sleazoid Geddy Lee. And nothing will prepare you for the impact of JC’s impassioned, fourth-wall-breaking speech about the cost that following his dreams of stardom has had on his life. By the end, the movie has built up some genuine emotional power. Plus JC executes a few of his trademark high kicks into the bargain.

The lead Belgian police inspector in the movie is named Bruges. Isn’t that like coming to America and meeting Doctor Detroit?

As it happened, Hard Target (1993) was on cable last night, and I watched it again to see JC at his peak. One of JCVD’s heisters says that if Jean-Claude hadn’t brought John Woo to Hollywood, Woo would “still be shooting pigeons in Hong Kong!” Hard Target remains completely ridiculous, and I still kind of like it.

This short interview offers a taste of JC’s crackpot Zen wisdom.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Book: The Business of Dying, by Simon Kernick (2002)

Tell me that a writer has been influenced by Lawrence Block and I’ll read them. It’s taken me some time to get to Simon Kernick, but I’m glad I did.

The protagonist of The Business of Dying is Dennis Milne, a police inspector who occasionally moonlights as a hired killer. After gunning down three people in a hotel carpark who may not be the scumbags his boss made them out to be, Milne is assigned to investigate the murder of a young prostitute. As the noose closes around his neck he desperately hunts the girl’s killer, hoping to save another life and in some small way redeem his own.

Milne isn’t a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, which is Kernick’s greatest accomplishment; there’s scarcely any daylight between assassin and detective. The Block influence is there in the deceptively simple prose, the darkness, the haunting ending. Milne also appears in 2005’s A Good Day to Die. I’ve got that and some other Kernick books to read.

Film: Lost Movies

Via GreenCine comes this piece by director Mike Hodges on making films that disappear without a trace. I’m a fan of Hodges’ The Terminal Man, the most underrated Michael Crichton adaptation. I wrote about Pulp here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Miscellaneous: Business, Bigamy & Brass

Busy, busy, busy here at Chez K. There’s always my Twitter feed. It’s amazing how often you can say all you need to in 140 characters or less. But here are some recent discoveries worth a sentence or two.

Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School, by Philip Delves Broughton. The author, the former Paris bureau chief for the Telegraph, dealt with doubts about the future of his profession by enrolling in the Crimson’s MBA program. His book is an engaging, warts-and-all portrait of an institution with an uncommon amount of global influence; HBS graduates include George W. Bush and Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling. (OK, that’s not exactly a representative sample. But in light of recent financial events, fuck fair.) If you want to understand how the people who can be said with little exaggeration to run the world think, this book is a good place to start.

The Bigamist (1953). Don’t let the pulpy title fool you. Sadness is the overriding tone of this Ida Lupino film, which I caught on TCM. Edmond O’Brien is a decent, profoundly lonely man who finds different satisfactions from each of his two wives (Joan Fontaine and Lupino, directing herself for the only time). The story is handled in compassionate, humane fashion, right up through the slightly unsatisfying ending.

But the goodwill is almost squandered in a strange reflexive moment. Miracle on 34th Street’s Edmund Gwenn is cast as the adoption agency employee whose investigation causes O’Brien’s double life to unravel. It’s already tempting fate to have Fontaine say that he looks like Santa Claus. But when a Hollywood tour guide blithely announces that the bus is now passing the home of actor Edmund Gwenn, that’s a stunt even Charlie Kaufman would steer clear of.

Moon & Sand. This Rhapsody channel dedicated to West Coast jazz of the ’50s and ’60s was off the air last week, stranding yours truly at his wit’s end. It’s my daily soundtrack. Recently it introduced me to my new favorite song, ‘Swingin’ on the Moon’ from Mel Tormé’s album of the same name. It features the immortal lyric “Tell mater and pater/We live in a crater.” And dig that crazy cover art.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book: Killing Castro, by Lawrence Block (1961)

One of the many benefits of having a spouse who also reads pulp fiction is that it doubles your chances to win advance copies of books from Hard Case Crime. Thanks, Rosemarie!

Killing Castro marks the fifth time Hard Case has gone to the Lawrence Block well, and you never come back from that trip thirsty. The novel, published before the Cuban missile crisis as Fidel Castro Assassinated by Lee Duncan, tells the tale of five Americans who sign on to complete the title task. Each accepts the assignment for reasons of their own, which Block efficiently lays out. Not one of them meets the fate you would expect. Block also weaves in a brief, illuminating history of Castro’s then-fresh revolution. And the ending still has the capacity to surprise. It hits stores at the end of the year. As always with Block and Hard Case, it’s worth picking up.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been!: Leisureville, by Andrew D. Blechman (2008)

Continuing in a premature nostalgia vein ...

I knew what I was getting into before visiting my parents at their home in a Florida retirement community last month. I’d heard the stories about those places. Sexagenarian shenanigans. Septuagenarian salaciousness. Octogenarian ... you know what, I’m going to stop now.

Point is, I knew. I also knew that a recent book on retirement in America focused specifically on The Villages, the largest such development in the area where my parents live. (CAUTION: Music may automatically start.) I put off reading it until after my trip, so I could draw my own conclusions.

Leisureville was inspired when author Andrew Blechman’s active retiree neighbors abruptly left New England and went south to putt and putter. Blechman does a sturdy job of tracing the history of retirement communities and of raising valid questions posed by The Villages’ sprawling success: the autocratic nature of the place, the long-term social, economic and environmental effects.

But the bulk of the book chronicles his experiences during the month he lived in The Villages. In short, he finds the place isolating and weird, filled with aging lotharios racing to assignations in their pimped-out golf carts before their Viagra wears off.

On my brief foray there, I found The Villages somewhat disorienting myself. We visited one of their prefab downtowns, with its man-made lake and a radio station pumping out feel-good music around the clock. The fake town has its own fake history, complete with phony tracks for the trolley that never ran there. As for the mack granddaddies, I can only offer as an example the fact that my married and visibly pregnant sister was hit on at the community pool. Repeatedly.

To which I say: so what? Yes, it would be nice if the older generation knew a little about safe sex – did they learn nothing from Robert Mitchum and Noah Beery, Jr.? – but where’s the harm in letting them swing? Communities like The Villages offer people of a certain age the chance to live with others who remember the same presidents, all within fifteen minutes of everything they need including health care. After forty or fifty years of hard work, especially at the sort of difficult jobs my parents had, they’re entitled to that comfort if that’s what they want.

It’s not for me, and I doubt it will be. When I reach what my father calls “a big age” I’m fairly sure I’ll still crave the stimuli that only the city and the company of younger people can provide. But who knows? They do drink an awful lot down there, and maybe the cold will finally get to me.

My problem with Leisureville is that Blechman, like many participants in our current discourse, takes things far too personally. He’s not simply aggrieved by his neighbors’ choice but offended, as if their decision is a judgment on him. It’s not a good sign when people who agree with you think you lay it on a little thick.

ASIDE: A while back I noticed a flurry of hits on the website from The Villages, all of them interested in VKDC’s most popular feature, this photo of actor Pat Harrington. I knew it wasn’t my parents, because they don’t have a computer. But I mentioned it to them anyway.

“Oh, that’s because he was down here,” my mother said. “He was visiting his brother. It was written up in the paper. Would you like me to send you the article?”

Monday, November 10, 2008

DVD: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (U.S. 2008)

Hysterical. One of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a while. At a time when spy farce seems old hat, this French movie breaks new ground by making the bold decision to go period. Not just in setting (Egypt, 1955), but in appearance. OSS 117 is a note-perfect recreation of late 1950s/early ‘60s films. The cinematography, the sets, even the fight choreography. As a fan of the early Bond films, I was laughing at individual shots. Star Jean Dujardin, as the sublimely oblivious secret agent, even looks a little like Connery.

The deleted scenes are funny. The making-of is funny. The whole enterprise is funny. Rent it before the sequel comes out. Rent it before Quantum of Solace comes out.

Miscellaneous: Links

L.A.’s one-stop shop for sheet music needs is in danger.

A day in the life of The Daily Show.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Oh, The Places I’ve Been!: Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

Call it premature nostalgia. I visit a place and immediately make plans for a return trip with a book or movie set there. Which is why, as I walked the streets of Provincetown, Massachusetts last month, I decided to watch Tough Guys Don’t Dance again.

The movie, written and directed by Norman Mailer from the novel by Norman Mailer, is a product of the Go-Glo ‘80s. When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus ran Cannon Films, they cranked out properties high and low. When the movies were good, they were serious, adult, auteur-driven titles like Barfly. When they were bad, they featured Michael Dudikoff. (The Golan-Globus factory produced one of my favorite films of that decade, Runaway Train.)

Tough Guys was one of Cannon’s highbrow projects. I haven’t read Mailer’s book, an exploration of masculinity in the guise of a detective story. I do know that the movie is a borderline-camp frenzy of purple prose, Byzantine plotting and gay panic.

I sought it out after reading about its controversial debut. The story I remember is that when Mailer’s two-fisted drama was greeted with laughter, he cagily rechristened it a black comedy. When he got away with it, I knew I had to see the movie.

It soon became clear to me that I was in over my head. I only saw Tough Guys once, but some of its dialogue has never left me. A few favorites:

I am so wrong for this kind of imbroglio.

(My husband) gives me five orgasms a night. That’s what I call him. Mr. Five.

I just deep-sixed two heads.

I’d say the last line in the gravelly tones of Lawrence Tierney. Because of the inflection, Rosemarie assumed I meant “I recently murdered a pair of hippies.” She was stunned to discover that the line is to be taken at face value: I have of late disposed of two severed skulls.

Ryan O’Neal plays a recently divorced ex-con turned aspiring writer prone to alcoholic blackouts, Norman Mailer being unafraid of saddling a character with baggage. Tierney turns up as O’Neal’s dying father, and O’Neal recounts in a series of Russian doll flashbacks how he came to be in possession of the aforementioned detached craniums.

Like you can follow the plot. O’Neal does what he can with an unplayable part. The performances range all over the map. John Bedford Lloyd as a Southern wastrel is right at home, as is B-movie icon Wings Hauser playing deranged police chief Alvin Luther Regency. I never forgot that name. I also never forgot the scene where O’Neal, the poor bastard, is forced to repeat “Oh, man! Oh, God!” as the camera swirls around, a shot that cinched the movie’s cult status. (Mailer admits it was a mistake in the documentary on the 2003 DVD. He also calls Tough Guys a “subtle horror film.” So much for black comedy.)

When I first saw the movie, I was a budding young cineaste who didn’t know anything. Rewatching it now that I have some knowledge of noir conventions, I spot layers that were lost on me back then. And I realized that I like Tough Guys Don’t Dance. It’s a movie that’s hellbent on taking you on a journey, even though it has no idea where it wants to go. It’s also batshit crazy.

The film’s best feature is its feel for off-season Provincetown, beautiful in its windblown isolation. The inn where my friends Barry and Buzz were married is one of the movie’s key locations. I have now downed bourbon in the same room where Ryan O’Neal swilled the stuff. That’s no small accomplishment.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Music: You Have Your MTV!

With the election over, you’re no doubt on the hunt for prime time-wasting opportunities. Look no further than MTV Music, a database of almost 20,000 videos. It’s already yielding surprises. More to the point, it has finally delivered unto me my own personal white whale.

For years I have been obsessed with the 1986 video for “American Storm” by Bob Seger. Not the straight performance version that occasionally surfaces on VH1 Classic or is easily found on YouTube. No, I mean the video featuring scenes from an action thriller with an all-star cast including James Woods, Scott Glenn, Randy Quaid and Lesley Ann Warren.

The only problem is ... the movie doesn’t exist.

The “scenes” were shot exclusively for the Seger video. To this day I have no idea if this was intended as post-modern commentary on the then-standard practice of using videos as film promotion tools, or just a really, really bad idea.

I hadn’t seen that version of “American Storm” since high school. Thanks to MTV Music, I present it to you now.

As if that’s not enough, you can also enjoy an absolutely pristine copy of “Crucified” by Army of Lovers. My first wife has never looked so good. The minx.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Miscellaneous: Polling the Electorate

I exercised my franchise today. Also, I voted.

Total time involved: six minutes. There were longer lines for free coffee at the neighborhood Starbucks. I would have gladly waited to cast my ballot, because the Catholic in me is a great fan of ritual. The impending loss of that ritual is what weighs on my mind most today. King County, Washington is switching to all-mail voting in 2009, and the prospect depresses me. I like going to the polls. I want to put forth the effort. It adds something ineffable to the process.

Following the policy I’ve adhered to all year, that concludes my comments on the election. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming. Anybody else watching Scream Queens on VH1?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Miscellaneous: Your Samhain Weekend Roundup

The Black Scorpion (1957). This low-budget creature feature was our Halloween evening entertainment. Ignore the scorpions’ “faces” and focus instead on the tremendous stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson. No less an authority than Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (now celebrating its 25th anniversary) says: “The terrifying huge scorpions make the monsters in most other films look pathetic.” Star Mara Corday is so much of a ringer for Gina Gershon that it lends a whole new layer of meaning to the proceedings.

The movie has a special place in my heart because of the circumstances during which I first saw it. I was nine years old, visiting family in Ireland with my mother. She noticed that the movie would be coming on at two in the morning and suggested that we watch it together. Sure enough, she woke me at 1:45 AM with tea and cookies at the ready. I sat with her in my grandfather’s living room watching giant scorpions rampage across Mexico, then went back to bed and slept like an angel. It’s funny to think she had me figured out that early.

Pride and Glory (2008). After all the trouble this movie had, it’s almost unfair of the New York Times’ Dan Barry to have a go at it in an admittedly funny piece about the depiction of Irish Catholic New York cops. But Pride and Glory can take the heat. It doesn’t break new ground, but director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor, the son of an NYPD officer, knows the terrain and gives it a gritty, lived-in texture. Colin Farrell continues his string of terrific performances. Jon Voight’s teary Christmas dinner speech would be right at home in any number of Keenan family gatherings. I could have done without the reel on the jukebox during the bar fight. But the one cliché that did stand out – Edward Norton’s character living on a boat – has nothing to do with being Irish, and O’Connor takes pains to justify it. Smart, solid filmmaking.

Earshot Jazz Festival. I missed most of Seattle’s premiere jazz event thanks to traveling. But we did squeeze in the Phil Markowitz Trio at Tula’s last night, and we’re glad we did.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Miscellaneous: Boo!

Happy Halloween! To mark the occasion, a little nightmare fuel from my childhood ...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Miscellaneous: Picture as an Exhibition, Part Two

More traveling, more catch-up. This time we were in beautiful Provincetown, Massachusetts, attending the wedding of two dear friends. An absolutely marvelous time was had by all. Here’s the stupendous view from the porch of the inn where we stayed.

In the meantime, a Halloween link. At the AV Club, a newbie to the Saw series watches all five movies in a row.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Book: The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane (2008)

Talk about swinging for the fences. Lehane’s latest is epic in size (700 pages) and scope, surveying Boston history from the end of the Great War through the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the city’s police strike the following year. All of it seen through the eyes of a young white cop, scion of a powerful department family, and a black man on the run for murder.

Oh, and Babe Ruth. Still with the Red Sox at the time.

It’s a grand, roistering tale, packed with subplots elbowing each other for room. Lehane’s Irish Catholic sensibility – compassionate and sardonic, with an eye for both weakness and the telling detail – is perfect suited for the material. There are coincidences aplenty, and certain key relationships aren’t fleshed out so much as asserted. But Lehane draws some rich parallels between then and now, and his gift for narrative remains peerless. I devoured all 700 pages in record time. The Ruth sections, with the Babe in his optimism and childishness an able surrogate for the American public, are the strongest in the book.

Plus it never hurts to have a few passages with some contemporary resonance.

But (he) had come to the table with something they’d never expected, something they would have thought outmoded and out-lived in the modern age: a kind of fundamental righteousness that only the fundamental possessed. Unfettered by doubt, it achieved the appearance of moral intelligence and a resolute conscience. The terrible thing was how small it made you feel, how weaponless. How could you fight righteous rage if the only arms you bore were logic and sanity?

Or, even shorter:

“People don’t want truth, they want certainty ... Or the illusion of it.”

’twas ever thus.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Movie: Body of Lies (2008)

Damn the critics and the box office. This CIA thriller is smart, engrossing studio filmmaking. Supple direction by Ridley Scott. A twisty, profane script by William Monahan from David Ignatius’ he-knows-whereof-he-speaks novel. Leonardo DiCaprio flaunting his leading man chops while Russell Crowe serves up a juicy character performance. Plus Mark Strong in his immaculate bespoke wardrobe as the film’s secret weapon. Honestly, his suits were so beautiful they distracted me from the action. As I get older, I find myself more drawn to quality men’s wear.

Halfway through the film, I finally figured out why I was having such a fine time. The revelation occurred when Simon McBurney turned up in a small role as an eccentric Agency computer whiz. I thought, “It’s the Peter Lorre part,” and I realized that for all of Body of Lies’ visual razzle-dazzle, at heart it’s a 1940s thriller, the kind of movie cranked out regularly by Warners or RKO. Dick Powell or Mitchum in the lead, Claude Rains flashy in the Crowe part, Michael Curtiz behind the camera.

Maybe the problem is that the bar is set too high for what is seen, for good or ill, as the “War on Terror” genre. Critics expect every movie set against that backdrop to comment boldly about the state of our troubled world, while audiences shy away thinking they’re going to get a polemic. Not every WWII movie was under pressure to say something significant about the war. Many of them were simply entertaining potboilers about people doing difficult jobs at a dangerous time. Which is statement enough, really. That’s what Body of Lies is, and why I liked it. So there.

Miscellaneous: Links

I’m a week late in highlighting Eddie Muller’s salute to James Crumley. Read it for the Scott Phillips story. I can’t believe Crumley actually worked on the Judge Dredd script.

Behold the Biblio burro!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

DVD: Two for Two

The Fall (2008). A true spellbinder, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. An injured stuntman in 1920s Hollywood (Lee Pace of TV’s Pushing Daisies) spins an epic fantasy yarn to a young girl in the same hospital. But the story begins to change as we learn more about the teller – and the listener. A sumptuous visual feast, and the closing montage made this movie lover’s Grinch heart grow three sizes. The performance of Catinca Untaru, who never acted before, is nothing short of astonishing.

Bonus: This L.A. Times article chronicles the movie’s tortured history.

Le Deuxième Souffle (1966). Words cannot describe the thrill that comes from knowing I’m about to see a Jean-Pierre Melville film for the first time. Too bad I’m running out of them. Criterion has done its usual sterling job with Second Wind, as it’s known in English. Lino Ventura, star of Melville’s masterpiece Army of Shadows, plays a thief who escapes from prison. Dogged by a wily detective (Paul Meurisse), he signs on for a risky heist so he can afford a final flight to America. As always Melville is more concerned with preparation, anticipation, and the codes among men than action, but when it comes it’s meticulously orchestrated. Souffle’s plot is convoluted rather than complicated, and at 2.5 hours it runs a bit long. But I’d watch at twice that length; Melville’s world is one I never want to leave.

Bonus: The film was remade last year.

Bonus Bonus: One of the DVD extras is an interview with Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as Melville’s publicist on this project. He mentions a critic who praised a trio of 1960s French crime dramas, Le Trou, Classe Tous Risques, and Souffle, all by different directors, marveling that he couldn’t find any link between them. He didn’t notice that all three were based on novels by José Giovanni, who also adapted them. Those auteurists.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

TV: Weekend Programming Note

Watching nothing but baseball, reading nothing but research material. So this post is more of a heads up.

The good people at TCM Underground will again be airing the bizarre, unavailable on video, split-screen serial killer film Wicked, Wicked at 2:15 AM Eastern Saturday, 11:15 PM Pacific Friday. Undoubtedly this encore is due to the overwhelming response to the post I wrote the last time TCM showed the movie. (That post actually is one of the most popular on the site, thanks not to my deathless prose but the photo of Anita Ekberg. Rowr.)

Again, here’s the trailer. Set that DVR. Fortify yourself with strong drink. And behold the madness.

Miscellaneous: Links

During my travels I missed this AV Club interview with Patton Oswalt on his stint as programmer at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Patton has excellent taste, and he and I are simpatico on Walter Matthau.

There’s a special edition DVD of Capricorn One? Why don’t I have this?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Miscellaneous: Picture As An Exhibition

Still playing catch-up and recovering from a cold after bragging that I never get sick after air travel. Foolish, boastful Vince. In the meantime, here’s a photo I took at Cà d’Zan, the Ringling mansion in Sarasota. It looks fake. It’s not.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Miscellaneous: Back At My Post, Posting

I have returned. Nothing happened while I was gone, right?

We were in Florida for a week, first visiting my parents outside Ocala for my father’s milestone birthday, then heading down to Sarasota to spend some time with my brother Sean, his lovely wife, and their adorable new daughter. Of course, my Twitter feed on the main page told you all that.

The trip was all about family, and nobody needs to hear me wax maudlin on the subject. Instead, some observations of a stripe more suited to this page –-

Florida is clearly a swing state, because the barrage of political ads was relentless. So much so that it made watching TV damn near impossible.

I now want the NFL Network.

The Direct TV “mix” feature – a channel showing all of their news or sports feeds at the same time – is ingenious and should be offered everywhere.

A high point of the trip was our visit to the John and Mable Ringling Museum. The 66-acre estate chronicles every aspect of the circus magnate’s life. It includes his waterfront mansion Cà d’Zan, his extensive art collection, and not one but two buildings devoted to circus history and memorabilia. A glimpse of old Florida well worth seeing.

There’s Key lime pie, and then there’s Florida Key lime pie.

Margaritas should, whenever possible, be consumed at an open air bar near the water.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

DVD: The Holcroft Covenant (1985)

You know what I haven’t done in a while? Gas on at length about a movie that everyone else has long since forgotten about.

With the Jason Bourne series, Robert Ludlum finally got the movie franchise he deserved. It’s not surprising that the films only use the set-up of the novels, though. Ludlum was the master of the killer premise and knew how to keep you turning pages, but his books are prime examples of Hitchcock’s fabled “icebox factor.” Only when you finish reading and head for the kitchen to get a glass of milk do you start spotting plot holes.

In an interview in Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 3, Richard Matheson compared Ludlum’s style to that of a pulp writer, saying “he doesn’t really plot; he just starts out his stories and lets them roll all over the place. ... That must be why they almost never make films out of his books, because you cannot make heads nor tails of his stories.” Sam Peckinpah tried with his final film, 1983’s The Osterman Weekend. Matheson passed on the chance to adapt the novel because he “couldn’t figure it out. They finally made a picture out of it, and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. It was incomprehensible.” Maybe that explains why I can’t remember anything about the movie other than that I saw it once on cable.

The film version of The Holcroft Covenant interested me for several reasons. A startling array of talent, for one thing. Directed by John Frankenheimer. A script labored on by a trio of writers I admire: George Axelrod, Edward Anhalt (Panic in the Streets, The Sniper), and John Hopkins (The Offence). Michael Caine at the height of what I call his blazer years, when he played a series of men caught up in international intrigue while looking smashing in navy sports coats.

Here Caine is Noel Holcroft, a New York-based architect who is the son of a Nazi general. He discovers that in the waning days of World War II his father and several compatriots, having learned about the Holocaust, began stealing money from the Third Reich and hiding it in Switzerland. Forty years later it now amounts to four and a half billion dollars. Holcroft is to administer it in trust, using it for reparations. Only there are other Nazi descendants with their own designs on this bounty.

See what I mean about the killer premise?

Once again the film deviates from Ludlum’s novel, but to little avail. Everyone has a triple agenda and there are double crosses galore; I was close to breaking out my copy of Visio so I could chart who was on what side. The movie’s tone toggles between deadly serious and antic. In 1962 Frankenheimer and Axelrod collaborated on one of the great thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate. They seem to be trying to recreate that film’s singular mood here, but it doesn’t work. (In Backstory 3, Axelrod dismisses Holcroft as “a terrible picture.”)

Yet such is the power of Ludlum’s idea that I stuck it out. A little late neo-Nazi kink helped. Rosemarie said, “It’s one of those boring movies you keep watching because you’re genuinely curious about how it’s going to end. You know, the worst kind of movie.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you miss Ludlum check out the note-perfect parody The McCain Ascendancy. You won’t look at the 2008 election the same way again.