Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sort-Of Related: Park Row (1952)/The Wire, Season Five

Park Row, Samuel Fuller’s two-fisted tribute to the glory days of the newspaper industry, has long been one of my personal white whales. It’s unable on video and seldom turns up on television, owing in part to its history as one of the first independent films. I was thrilled to see it surface on Turner Classic Movies during John Sayles’ recent stint as guest programmer – and could have kicked myself for almost forgetting to set the DVR.

Why do I love Sam Fuller? Because he has no problem opening the film with a list of more than 1700 daily newspapers, followed by the 120-point declaration DEDICATED TO AMERICAN JOURNALISM. Because when he offers adoring close ups of the statues of Horace Greeley and Benjamin Franklin that adorn the New York street of the title, you know someone will later get his ass kicked in front of them. Because he’ll wear his heart on his sleeve and give you the shirt off his back.

Sayles wasn’t kidding when he introduced the film by saying that it packs twenty years of journalism history into two months. Gene Evans, a Fuller regular who once played John D. MacDonald’s Meyer to Sam Elliott’s Travis McGee, stars as the crusading editor who gets a chance to start his own paper in 1886 Manhattan. He then singlehandedly develops banner headlines, newsstands, and linotype, all while romancing his chief competitor. It’s one damn thing after another, served up with Fuller’s customary brio and feet-firmly-planted honesty. Alas, the print quality was noticeably poor; someone needs to restore this corker sharpish.

It was strange to watch Fuller’s film in the midst of the fifth season of HBO’s The Wire, focused as it is on the inexorable demise of the daily newspaper. Series creator David Simon had a storied career with the Baltimore Sun, and he’s openly admitted that he has axes to grind. Personally I think the man responsible for the finest show in television history is entitled do what he likes, even if he is nostalgic for an era that may have been an aberration.

That said, the newsroom scenes have yet to grip me. Maybe Simon’s proximity to this world weakens the material. But the truth is the drama is simply too pallid compared to the rest of what The Wire has to offer. Cops, drug dealers and politicians are being challenged by technology and cold economics. They’re not being fundamentally altered by them, the way newspapers are. End of story. As Sam Fuller would say, thirty.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Miscellaneous: Today’s Brilliant Observation

Thanks to the internet, everything is now either overrated or underrated.

Miscellaneous: How I’ve Been Spending My Time

Jekyll (2007). This six-hour contemporary take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic – by Steven Moffat, who according to Rosemarie is responsible for the best Doctor Who episodes – gets more ridiculous and more entertaining as it goes along. It’s a field day for actor James Nesbitt. And Denis Lawson from Local Hero – fine, Wedge Antilles to you Star Wars geeks – makes a sublime heavy.

Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing, by Jeffrey Stepakoff (2007). Stepakoff’s career in TV spans the everybody-gets-a-deal boom years of the ‘90s and the recent rise of reality TV. His book details the many ways that industry consolidation has affected the television business, from the stunted development of most writers’ careers to the neglect of entire demographics. Interesting material to consider in the midst of a writers’ strike.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lady, Make a Note of This: The Nicer Side of Reality

Because we could use a female perspective around here, welcome to the first in a series of occasional guest posts by my significant other. Take it away, Rosemarie!

I wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy Lifetime’s new show How to Look Good Naked, hosted by Carson Kressley, mostly because of the host himself. On Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, he was the fastest with the double entendres, trying on the style-impaired firefighter’s helmet and making jokes about hoses. Not that I mind a good hose joke, but the constant sniping got old quick.

On Naked, we get a kinder, gentler Carson with a great idea for a show. Women who don’t like their bodies because they think they’re too [skinny, fat, short, lumpy, whatever] receive advice. Not the “lose forty pounds and get a nose job” kind of advice dished out by other reality shows, but the “you’ve got great shoulders and you can conquer the world when you’re wearing the right size bra” kind of advice.

A woman who was crying because she didn’t want to look into a full-length mirror ends up posing for some strategically-draped nude glamour shots and feeling like a million bucks. I start weeping during the opening credits and don’t stop until it’s over. What can I say, empowerment gets to me. And on a personal note, that bra size thing is true.

Miss America: Reality Check is another show that doesn’t go mean. The contestants are the 52 young women who will be competing for the Miss America crown this Saturday. The show, part of the pageant’s ongoing attempt to update its image, brings in stylists and beauty consultants to help the women become the best “modern” Miss America they can be. So it’s out with the hairspray and in with the flat iron. The show’s fun, because I for one don’t mind a reality series where no contestants are voted off, fired, or have their sashes snipped by rhinestone-bedecked novelty scissors, to cite another Carson Kressley program. But 52 contestants are about 40 too many. The few singled out were the quirkiest ones – i.e., they had short hair – who were alternately praised for being themselves and reprimanded for acting oddly.

That kind of conformity is what cut short my pageant career. That and my chosen talent; apparently the judges don’t care for Zasu Pitts impersonators. My favorite talent of this year’s cadre? Miss Texas’ Character Jazz on Pointe. I have no idea what it is, but I’m rooting for her to win it all.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Miscellaneous: Grab Bag

Oscar nominations. They’re out, and here’s all I have to say: if “Falling Slowly” from Once doesn’t win Best Original Song, somebody’s getting a letter.

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates (1961). A modern classic I am only now coming to. It deserves its reputation; I was well and truly staggered. Yates’s story of stultifying suburban life and how the lies we tell ourselves can poison others blazed a trail that novelists have been following for decades.

The Colbert Report. Tuesday night’s show, with “Stephen Colbert” dipping into Stephen Colbert’s family history and a closing Gospel number, is a must-see. Colbert has always walked a high wire, but the WGA strike has removed his net. He has yet to stumble.

Miracle (2004). I don’t know how I missed this movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. I’m a sucker for inspirational sports films, it acknowledges my alma mater as a college hockey powerhouse, and I revere Kurt Russell as the acme of American manhood. A recent mention from Kung Fu Monkey corrected my oversight.

Art in the Blood, by Craig McDonald (2006). Not too long after I raved about McDonald’s debut novel Head Games it was nominated for an Edgar, due presumably to my endorsement. I can also recommend this collection of interviews with some of the leading lights of contemporary crime fiction. McDonald knows how to ask questions, and includes a wide range of writers. Lots of insight to be gained here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Miscellaneous: Music Links

Do The Math, evolving from The Bad Plus’s blog into a music ‘zine, collects answers to a questionnaire in which jazz luminaries and critics name interesting TV themes, movie scores, hip-hop tracks and more. Who knew the music from The Price Is Right contained such harmonic depths?

So the New England Patriots make it to another Super Bowl, this time with a chance at a perfect season. It’s only appropriate on this day that we pause to remember a musical moment from the team’s not-so-distant past. In 1985, the Pats squared off for the NFL championship against the last team to flirt seriously with perfection, the Chicago Bears. Everyone remembers the Bears’ ‘Super Bowl Shuffle,’ as well as they should; talk about your harmonic depths. But the Patriots also had a song. I give you the overlong and grammatically incorrect New England, The Patriots And We.

Linking to this may be an attempt to jinx New England. I honestly don’t know.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Miscellaneous: One Step Behind Links

I haven’t posted for a few days, so I might as well link to some stuff I should have tumbled to earlier.

The 2008 Edgar nominations are out. Hey, I’ve actually read a bunch of these! And where’s the screenplay nod for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead?

Here’s the original, unaired 1994 pilot of 24.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Book: Money Shot, by Christa Faust (2008)

My, but things have been in the gutter around here lately, haven’t they? And I see no reason to change that.

Some of you may recall how much I wanted a preview copy of Money Shot by Christa Faust, the first woman to be published by Hard Case Crime. I was thwarted in that effort, but a good Samaritan who shall remain nameless stepped in. An organization that shall also remain nameless delayed my reading the book until now. But I still beat the street date by two weeks.

Ex-porn star Angel Dare – née Gina Moretti – has found success on the other side of the camera running a booking agency. She agrees to do one last movie as a favor for a friend, only to find herself bound, gagged, and left for dead in the trunk of a Honda Civic. She has no idea why this happened, but she’s hell-bent on finding out – even if it means transforming herself into an avenging Angel to do it.

Two words to describe Money Shot are fast and mean. It’s a savvy tour of the porn demimonde in which no one can be trusted to do anything, even stay alive. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

So your porn name is your childhood pet and the street you grew up on? Say hello to Prince Wilshire. With a handle that good, maybe I ought to get into the business.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Movie: More 52 Pick-Up

Turns out I’m not the only one who’s watched the sleazetastic Elmore Leonard adaptation 52 Pick-Up lately. So did Filmbrain and Premiere’s Glenn Kenny, who notes that the movie includes a veritable who-did-who of late ‘80s porn. I missed that aspect of the movie entirely. Yours truly, a good Irish Catholic boy, doesn’t take an interest in such prurient matters.

Book: Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique, by Kelly DiNardo (2007)

On the other hand I did read a biography of a stripper, so maybe I’m lying.

Lili St. Cyr is primarily remembered now as a reference in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But she was America’s greatest ecdysiast. (I’ve always wanted to use that word.) One glimpse of Lili plying her trade in Irving Klaw’s burlesque films Varietese and Teaserama and you can see why. She had a cool elegance and a sense of the theatrical that elevated her performances above the mere bump and grind ... although she had va-va-voom to spare. (Check out the NSFW Varietease trailer for a sample.)

But a life rich with incident – six husbands, multiple suicide attempts, and a sad end as an elderly heroin addict – doesn’t necessarily equal a compelling story. Lili never fully registers as a person in these scrupulously researched, rather academic pages. DiNardo wants to use Lili to make broader comments on evolving attitudes toward sex and the role of women in society, but the dancer born Marie van Schaak doesn’t provide enough of a foundation.

Still, there are plenty of great tidbits. A nicely fleshed-out portrait of Montreal as the Sin City of ‘40s North America. Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, taught at the Pink Pussycat College of Striptease in Los Angeles, including a course called ‘Dynamic Mammary, Navel and Pelvis Rotation.’ Lili’s numbers in the film adaptation of The Naked and the Dead were so arousing that they allegedly made director Raoul Walsh’s glass eye pop out.

I didn’t need to know that Lili possessed a “high-pitched, Minnie Mouse-like voice,” though. Shades of Lina Lamont.

Kelly DiNardo is interviewed by Rick Klaw, grandson of Irving, here. DiNardo’s blog The Candy Pitch covers the contemporary burlesque scene and is worth a look. Or several.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book: Red Cat, by Peter Spiegelman (2007)

It’s always strange to leap into a series in the middle. But considering the acclaim Red Cat has received, I figured it was time to meet Peter Spiegelman’s New York private investigator John March.

March is the black sheep of his family. Which is why he’s surprised to be hired by his own brother. David March is a successful financier. Also a married one. That doesn’t stop him from meeting women anonymously via the Internet for what are supposed to be meaningless flings. Unfortunately his latest paramour, a mysterious beauty who calls herself Wren, isn’t interested in going away quietly. Wren has worked out David’s identity and is threatening to expose his indiscretions. John’s job is to turn the tables and learn who she is. Only once he does, he also discovers that Wren isn’t interested in something as simple as blackmail – and that David may not be the innocent victim he claims to be.

I have one quibble about Spiegelman’s writing. Ending a chapter with a plot twist, then starting the next one some time later and filling in what happened after that twist, is a powerful device. Unless you use it in almost every chapter, as Spiegelman is wont to do. Then it becomes somewhat mechanical.

But that’s a minor complaint. Red Cat is smart, suspenseful, and full of sharp observations about family, marriage and New York. Particularly when it comes to categorizing every type of cold weather that plagues the city come winter. Red Cat is the third of the John March books, so I plan on doing some falling back of my own.

Miscellaneous: Links

Both courtesy of Movie City News. 15 performances left on the cutting room floor. Then Joe Queenan on why No Country For Old Men is set in the past, and how technology has killed suspense.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Movie: Skidoo (1968)

I watched it. All of it. From the truncated cartoon opening to the closing credits, which are sung. Yet another item I can cross off life’s to-do list.

The history of Otto Preminger’s unwieldy combination of head movie and counterculture farce, laid out nicely in this TCM piece, is more interesting than its plot. And that’s saying something. Jackie Gleason is a reformed mobster coerced by the country’s top kingpin “God,” (played by Groucho Marx in his final performance) to go into prison and whack his onetime best friend. He’s thrown into a cell with a draft dodger (Austin Pendleton, easily the best thing in the movie) who accidentally turns him onto LSD. Meanwhile, Gleason’s daughter and wife fall in with a band of hippies. Here, watch the trailer.

Some select highlights from the Chez K running commentary:

Me: I don’t know which thought is more disturbing, Carol Channing sleeping with Frankie Avalon or Frankie Avalon sleeping with Carol Channing.

Rosemarie: Please don’t talk to me.

And when the movie was over:

Rosemarie: Honestly? Twenty minutes in I was hoping the wind would knock the cable out so I wouldn’t have to watch the rest of it.

Me: You could have just walked away.

Rosemarie: No. I couldn’t. But I can still root for an act of God.

As bad as Skidoo is – and is it bad; I’ve seen episodes of The Monkees that make more sense and do a better job of explaining the ‘60s – it at least represents an honest attempt to come to terms with the times. Which is more than I can say for 1967’s The Love-Ins, which followed Skidoo on TCM. It stars James MacArthur as the least believable hippie in film history – he still has his Dan-o hair, for Christ’s sake – and Susan Oliver, the first actress to become famous for going green. At one point Oliver takes a massive dose of LSD – again with the acid! – and does a striptease during a protracted trip based on Alice in Wonderland.

Rosemarie: They spent too much money on this. The freakouts in Skidoo were better because they looked cheaper.

Let that be a lesson to prospective filmmakers out there.

Strike Stuff: The Golden Globes

The WGA makes it difficult for the awards show to go on. Note to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association: maybe the writers don’t want to help you out because you treat them so shabbily. Only one screenplay category, for adapted and original, with a mere five slots? No recognition of TV writing at all? And yet you split the lead acting categories into comedy and drama so you can pack the hall with A-listers, and nominate seven movies for best drama just ‘cause you feel like it? You’re lucky the Guild doesn’t picket you when there isn’t a strike.

TV: The Wire

The fifth and final season starts tonight on HBO. Slate digs up a suppressed closing scene. I think they should air it.

Miscellaneous: Links

The New York Times on free web-based videogames. This is how I’ve been killing time while riding out a cold.

It took two years, but my friend Tony Kay finally finishes the tale of his autograph hound trip to Los Angeles, complete with photo gallery.

Friday, January 04, 2008

TV: Late Night Report

Second day back for the network shows and things have already returned to normal, in that I didn’t watch any of them. And if I’ve got the TV on tonight, I know what I’ll be watching: Skidoo. Otto Preminger’s counterculture film – Jackie Gleason as a mobster on acid, Groucho Marx playing a gangster named God, and hippies, hippies, hippies – gets a rare television screening on Turner Classic Movies at 2AM Eastern/11PM Pacific. Mark Evanier has done a sterling job of getting the word out. Don’t miss it.

Book: Luck Be A Lady, Don’t Die by Robert J. Randisi (2007)

Back in March I raved about the first of Randisi’s Rat Pack mysteries. The second entry in the series keeps the good times rolling. The Pack is back in Las Vegas for the premiere of Ocean’s 11, and once again they reach out to Eddie G, pit boss extraordinaire at the Sands casino, for help. Frank Sinatra, pining for Ava Gardner even as he cavorts with Juliet Prowse, has arranged for yet another young lovely to meet him in town. After checking into her hotel she disappears, and Mr. S wants Eddie to find her. Before he’s done Eddie will cross paths with a battery of luminaries, including Sam “MoMo” Giancana. With slick plotting and a peerless recreation of 1960 Las Vegas, the book goes down like good bourbon.

It also reminded me of another recent appreciation of Las Vegas in its mobbed-up heyday, from Bob Newhart in the HBO documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. As Newhart put it, say what you will about “the boys,” they knew how to run a gambling establishment.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

TV: Scattered Thoughts

The things you watch when you don’t care about college football. I stumbled onto an encore broadcast of the World Magic Awards on the mystery station known as MyNetworkTV on New Year’s Night. I knew I’d leave it on when the announcer described some jet fuel to be used in a later bit of derring-do as “insanely flammable.”

Most of the performers who followed were insanely self-serious. It didn’t help that I’ve been watching Arrested Development on DVD again and enjoying Will Arnett’s genius as Gob Bluth, the insanely deluded illusionist.

Wow, that word really will modify anything. It’s insanely useful.

As awards show go the WMA has the right idea. No acceptance speeches. The winners just perform their acts. The Golden Globes people should bear that in mind.

Watching the show meant repeated exposure to a commercial for another MyNetwork show, a compendium of home videos so outrageous “we could have called it ‘Lifestyles of the Dumb and Stupid.’” Really? Who decides which is which?

The network late night hosts returned from their strike break yesterday, Letterman and Ferguson with writers and the others without. Detailed recaps of all five shows are at Variety’s Scribe Vibe blog.

I watched Letterman and recorded Leno. Dave’s best joke was his introduction of the picket sign-carrying chorus girls who accompanied him onstage as “the Eugene V. Debs.” Lots of pro-WGA material in what felt like a typical show.

The Tonight Show, on the other hand, had an air of unpredictability to it as Jay Leno shouldered the burden on his own. And did a solid job of it. Dave may have his pick of big-name guests, but Jay will get a bounce from the “now-what?” factor.

Monday’s the night I’m waiting for, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert begin ad-libbing their way through their shows. We could have used them before Iowa and New Hampshire.