Thursday, May 29, 2008

Music: The Kenny Barron Trio

Yeah, I should have just thrown up an Army of Lovers placeholder post. Busy, busy, busy. Multiple projects, staggered deadlines, etc.

I did have a night off yesterday, and marked the occasion in style by seeing the Kenny Barron Trio at Jazz Alley. Featuring Kenny Barron on piano, Kiyoshi Kitagawa on bass, and Francisco Mela on drums. The trio has a lively onstage dynamic. Mela is wildly expressive, his joy in performing unbounded; Rosemarie and I both called him the Jose Reyes of percussion. Kitagawa is the steely virtuoso, while Barron simultaneously hangs loose and rides herd. The result was a fantastic, supple set. I knew I was in for a good time when Barron introduced the opening number, the standard “Beautiful Love,” by saying that Benny Golson had told him the song was featured in The Mummy with Boris Karloff.

Miscellaneous: Links

15 years later, Maxim talks to the principals of True Romance.

I own very few TV series on DVD. Two of them are The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development. What do they have in common? Jeffrey Tambor.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Miscellaneous: Game Break

I’m spending this Memorial Day weekend with my nose to the grindstone, so you people will have to amuse yourselves. Why not play 6 Differences, the mesmerizing Flash game by Ivory? Even the music’s good.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Movie: The Sniper (1952)

I knew The Sniper was a rarity not available on video, which is why I recorded a TCM airing a while back. I only got around to it earlier this week. And there it still sits on my DVR, to serve as a reminder of the many months I let slip by without watching it. It’s that good.

Based on a story by Edward and Edna Anhalt (who won an Oscar two years earlier for another dark gem, Panic In The Streets) and scripted by Harry Brown, The Sniper is a chilly case study of a sex offender and serial killer. Or, as the opening titles put it, an account “of a man whose enemy was womankind.”

The movie was ahead of its time in any number of ways. The remarkably clinical point of view, for instance; Eddie Miller, the title character played by Arthur Franz, is presented as neither a monster nor an object of pity, and even though Freud was in vogue at the time there’s no effort to psychoanalyze him. Miller’s bitter line “My mother never taught me anything” is the closest we get to a motivation.

Or the treatment of violence. Miller’s long-distance executions of women have lost none of their impact; I can only imagine how these scenes played in ’52. I won’t soon forget Miller’s second victim, a middle-aged drunk who made the mistake of trying to engage Miller only to call him on his lies, staggering up to her lonely room and tucking a doll into bed before meeting her fate in front of a window. A sequence involving Miller and a hectoring woman who works in an amusement park dunk tank gets under the skin and stays there.

Stanley Kramer produced The Sniper and even the social consciousness material he’s known for shoehorning into his movies plays here thanks to Richard Kiley, who sells the hell out of it in his role as a police psychiatrist.

Director Edward Dmytryk, behind the camera again after his Hollywood 10 jail term, subverts audience expectations in the tense climax and makes excellent use of the against-type Adolphe Menjou as Lieutenant Frank Kafka (?!?), the weary detective on the killer’s trail.

Best of all is the location work in San Francisco. There’s a direct line from The Sniper to Dirty Harry to David Fincher’s Zodiac. A hellish trifecta if ever there was one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Book: The Finder, by Colin Harrison (2008)

Writing about New York City means writing about money. Few write about money or New York City better than Colin Harrison.

Two young Mexican girls, living anonymous lives far from home, are murdered in grisly fashion on a Brooklyn beach. Another immigrant, this one from China, barely flees the scene with her life. The mayhem is fallout from a series of financial crimes that touches lives from hedge fund barons to garbage men. Harrison depicts all of these characters and their disparate versions of the city with equal skill.

He does fall prey to one of my pet peeves. He has the habit of dropping entire chunks of undigested research into the text. Great unruly paragraphs about stock manipulation or the geographic history of Long Island. When he shoehorns the information into dialogue, he compounds the error by having someone else comment on it, saying, “I don’t need to hear all this.” And even that doesn’t clip Chatty Cathy’s string.

But it’s a minor quibble compared to the rest of Harrison’s writing. He introduces a major character – maybe even the title character, if you want to interpret it that way – obliquely, through the eyes of a secondary figure. She’s a single woman pushing 40, knowing she’s fated to be alone, pouring her affection into her house but hoping to collect a few more memories for her golden years. She essentially disappears after she’s served her purpose, but in those pages Harrison sketches an entire life. He knows New York high and low, and puts its beating heart on the page.

TV: Still More Sinatra

Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne said that Frank’s 1967 TV special with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim, which TCM aired on Sunday night, was as good as showbiz got. Who am I to disagree? I paid the show the ultimate Chez K compliment by leaving it on the DVR.

The special’s high point was also a low point. Frank and Ella sit next to a piano and trade off on contemporary songs. Proving that synergy was around even in the ‘60s, Ella takes a crack at the theme from Frank’s then-current movie Tony Rome. The song is lousy to begin with, and having Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald!! – sing it represents a complete waste of talent. But I just watched Tony Rome, so I thought it was great. The segment has a sublime ending, with Frank and Ella dueting on “Goin’ Out Of My Head.” Absolutely electric.

TCM closes out the month with Frank’s 1973 special Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back on Sunday at 8PM Eastern and Pacific.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sort-Of Related: Iron Man (2008)/The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu (2008)

Finally caught up with Iron Man, and it’s as entertaining as advertised. Plus Seattle’s in the midst of a bout of unseasonably warm weather, which worked out perfectly. When I see a summer movie, I want it to feel like summer, dammit.

It was odd watching Tony Stark take it to the bad guys after reading David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. The book is a canny social history of the censorship frenzy surrounding comics in the 1950s. At the time superheroes weren’t the dominant genre that they are now; in fact, Hajdu argues, that transition came about as a result of the controversy chronicled here. But the costumed heroes who were around faced their share of scorn. Critics claimed these “false cartoon gods” promoted paganism and fascism.

Fifty years later, I lined up to see the ultimate Nietzschean power fantasy and before it started sat through trailers for The Dark Knight, The Incredible Hulk and Hancock. Suck it, moralists: the pagan fascists always win!

Hajdu’s book focuses mainly on EC Comics publisher William Gaines, whose gruesome horror books were at the center of the storm. Gaines’s critics condemned the story “Foul Play,” illustrated by ‘Jolly’ Jack Davis. It made enough of an impression on a young Stephen King that he recounted it in detail in his book Danse Macabre, and his description made an impression on a young me. A venal minor league baseball pitcher (King calls him “the apotheosis of the EC villain ... a totally black character, with absolutely no redeeming qualities”) kills an opposing player on the diamond and gets away with it. The dead man’s teammates ultimately play a game of their own with the pitcher – using his heart for home plate, his intestines as basepaths, and his severed head for the ball.

I’ve never seen a panel of that story ... but brother, can I picture it. (Actually, the closing art is here.)

Gaines was eventually driven from the comics business, but he’d have the literal last laugh. He started MAD magazine, which would lampoon the very people who hounded him. A key figure in MAD’s history and Hajdu’s book is artist Will Elder, who passed away earlier this week. Mark Evanier remembers him.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Miscellaneous: More Sinatra

GreenCine Daily has a round-up of posts related to the tenth anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s death. Which sets up this reminder: don’t forget that this Sunday as part of their Sinatra tribute, TCM will be showing Frank’s 1967 TV special with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

This past Sunday I watched 1966’s Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music, Part II, along with one of the few Sinatra films TCM isn’t airing this month, the 1967 private eye drama Tony Rome. It’s the first of two movies about the character, based on novels by Gold Medal author Marvin H. Albert. In this Mystery*File piece on Albert, Bill Crider says the movies have “a ‘60s smirkiness.” As usual, Bill’s right on the money; Tony Rome not only opens but closes with the camera zooming in on a woman’s shapely backside, accompanied by a BOING! music sting. Frank also spends an inordinate amount of time sporting an oversized sailor’s cap. The cover of the VHS tape doesn’t do it justice; I honestly thought Frank had part of the Sydney Opera House perched on his head.

On the plus side, the movie has a decent plot, some good lines, and a game cast including Richard Conte and the always fetching Jill St. John. I liked it enough to warrant checking out the sequel, Lady in Cement, at some point.

Miscellaneous: Links

David Mamet writes up his own interview with the New Yorker.

The AV Club revisits the most recent films of the biggest screenwriters of the 1980s. My Year of Flops considers one of the oddest movies I’ve seen more than once, Joe Eszterhas’s An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. And The New Cult Canon takes on one of the movies I can quote by heart, Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Best line:

Watching KISS KISS BANG BANG prompts wishes that Hollywood still had screenwriters talented enough to use explosion-filled trash as a means for personal expression.

Amen, brother.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Miscellaneous: Surfacing

Coming up for air to weigh in on a few things ...

Spiderweb/Shooting Star, by Robert Bloch (1954/1958). Hard Case Crime revives the double! Two Bloch novels in one, both set in a Hollywood where the tinsel is not so bright. Shooting Star, about a one-eyed literary agent turned gumshoe investigating a cowboy star’s suspicious death, is creaky but fun. Spiderweb is an unmitigated blast. A showbiz wannabe is groomed into a phony psychic so he can work his way to the top of the movie colony. And you know how I feel about phony psychics.

Redbelt. David Mamet has described his latest as both a fight movie and a modern Samurai tale. It’s really about the code of the warrior. Mamet strikes an idiosyncratic tone here, blending a knotty, intellectual plot with Rocky-style uplift. A good chunk of the audience I saw the movie with didn’t get it, which I understand. I, however, was on its wavelength from frame one. I heartily endorse its philosophy, it’s got some great Mamet dialogue (“Everything in life, the money’s in the rematch”) and my favorite scene of the year so far, where Chiwetel don’t-call-him-Chewie Ejiofor trains Emily Mortimer.

Iron Man. Haven’t seen it yet. Yeah, I can’t believe it, either. But I could only squeeze in one movie in the last week, and Redbelt had better start times. Soon, though. In the meantime, Jeff Bridges was kind enough to post his photographs from the shoot on his dandy website.

World Cocktail Week. It runs through Tuesday. Get out there and do your part. I had the boys at the Zig Zag CafĂ© fix me a “lost” classic cocktail featured on their website, a Firpo’s Balloon. Ask for it by name and give your bartender fits.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Miscellaneous: Links

Some sabbatical taker, I. My problem is that when I find the good stuff, I have to share.

Like this article on a guy who has convinced the city of Seattle that he’s Gary Busey.

Or Isabella Rossellini’s series of short films on the sex lives of insects. Maybe I’m susceptible to the accent, but these are hot. Also, about the snails? I had no idea.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

TV: Frank’s, For The Memories

I’m on deadline, meaning I’ll be taking a sabbatical for the next few days. Lucky for you it’s Sinatra month on Turner Classic Movies, so you have this widget to tide you over ‘til I return.

UPDATE: Initially I embedded the widget, but it starts automatically and I hate that. So you can find it here.

The High Society number with Bing Crosby is a favorite. TCM is also airing some of Frank’s TV specials on Sunday evenings at 8PM Eastern and Pacific. I’m waiting for his 1967 show with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim, which airs May 18.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Link: California Crime

My friend the czar of noir Eddie Muller has a terrific article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle on why the city by the bay looms so large in crime fiction. He interviewed 30 writers who live in the area, and the resulting piece explains the importance of community as well as touching on the struggles of the mid-list author. Go read it.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Miscellaneous: I Got Plenty of Nothing

Interesting times here at Chez K. Lots of irons in the fire, developments on multiple fronts. I may even be able to talk them up soon.

What this means in the short term is work. Here’s how much: on Tuesday night, I had to pass up a free early screening of Iron Man. That was free. And early.

So I haven’t had time to post. Or even to read/see things to post about.

But I want to give you something for stopping by. So here’s a tip: head on over to the new Crime/Noir issue of Storyglossia, edited by wild man Anthony Neil Smith and featuring short fiction from the likes of Kevin Wignall, Vicki Hendricks, Megan Abbott and your friend and mine Ray Banks.

What, that’s not enough? Fine. I give and I give to you people and this is the thanks I get. Here’s more Mitchell and Webb.