Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Miscellaneous: Plus Ça Change ...

I happened to read this passage in reference to Jimmy Carter last night.

“... What the hell is he doing? You got any ideas?”

“No,” Malatesta said.

“Neither’ve I,” Proctor said. “I have no idea in the world what he is doing. I wished I could convince myself that he does. It’s bad enough, I got to be an asshole, but if the goddamned President’s an asshole we are all in trouble, including poor assholes like me that can’t stay out of trouble anyway, and then what the fuck we do, huh?”

From The Rat on Fire by George V. Higgins, 1981

Miscellaneous: Movie Links

How hard is it to adapt a good book, anyway?

Speaking of adaptations, here’s Toby Young on what he’s learned about the movie business now that his life is heading to the silver screen. H/t to 2 Blowhards.

The 10 Best Designed Criterion Collection DVDs.

The New Yorker’s 5 Scariest Movies.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Comics: Two, Please

It’s a casting call for your favorite married film geeks, below or here.

Sports: And Welcome to Fantasy Baseball

One last note on the end of the 2008 season. I can now report the results of my first foray into the timesuck that is fantasy baseball. When I weighed in at the All-Star Break, I had finally muscled my way out of last place. At the time, I set three modest goals for myself. In the interests of completion, let’s see how I fared.

I fervently hope to stay out of the cellar. I think I have a shot.


I would accept finishing ahead of the person who dared me to play.

Mission accomplished. Take that, Karma! (For the record, I am not taunting the Eastern belief that our actions in this life have consequences in the next. My friend Karma dared me to join her league, in part by saying that if I was in it she wouldn’t come in last. As it happens, she didn’t come in last, either.)

Ideally, I’d like to make the top half of the field. I do not expect this to happen.

I was wrong. I finished fifth out of ten, closer in points to the top than to the bottom. I’m not saying that this is the equal of the Red Sox’s staggering comeback in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees. I’m saying it’s comparable.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Baseball: Actually, I Do Care If I Never Get Back

For the second consecutive year, the New York Mets took their season down to the final game. And for the second consecutive year, the team fell short.

I can live with that. I am a Mets fan. I am inured to disappointment, conditioned to keep my expectations in check.

It does sadden me that for the second consecutive year, the Mets squandered a truly titanic performance from one of their pitchers in the season’s penultimate game, a Herculean effort that made the drama of #162 possible. And it kills me that they couldn’t win the last regular season match-up ever to be played in Shea Stadium. For old times’ sake.

A few days ago, when the Mets were in the thick of both the wild card and NL East hunts, sportswriter Tim Brown wrote, “say what you will, they do drama like no one else.” That attitude helps take the sting out of another almost-but-not-quite season: view it as a soap opera. It had all the ingredients. The lingering shadows of last season’s collapse, big personalities, late-night executions, sudden reversals, a heart-in-your-mouth ending. If it were a TV show, I’d set the DVR for it.

I’ll remember the 2008 Mets season with fondness, in large part because I got to see them play at Shea one final time. Yes, I know that if their patchwork bullpen, an Achilles heel all year that imploded down the stretch, had held onto a lead in just one game, today’s drama would have been unnecessary. I know if their spotty offense had advanced a runner in scoring position in just one game, a playoff berth would have been theirs.

But the end of the season always puts me in a philosophical mood. So here’s something else that I know. If the last game of the season counts, then all the games before it count. Every single one, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time.

It’s a lesson that all baseball fans know. Even Yankee fans. It’s just that lately, Mets fan have been learning it the hard way.

All season long, I’ve followed my team at my friend Mike’s blog Mets Fan Club. Thanks also to the guys at Faith & Fear in Flushing. This wrap-up post is particularly fine. And here’s the New York Times’s George Vecsey saying goodbye to Shea.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, R.I.P.

The life itself is the tribute. All I can do is point to favorite movies.

Considering what’s talked about around here, I have to lead off with Harper. The two Fast Eddie films. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. The Sting. Slap Shot. The Verdict. Still throwing heat in 1994’s Nobody’s Fool.

But I want to single out a pair of films from late in Paul Newman’s career that might be overlooked today, but that mean a lot to me. The Hudsucker Proxy may be regarded as minor Coen Brothers but it’s a New Year’s tradition around here, thanks in part to Newman’s performance. And his turn as Louisiana governor Earl K. Long, besotted with a stripper in Blaze, is a thing of beauty. Ron Shelton makes movies about the two most adult subjects: sex and compromise. Newman fearlessly puts both front and center.

As a wise man once said: “Get that lumber in his teeth! Let ‘em know you’re there!”

Friday, September 26, 2008

Book: Still Shot, by Jerry Kennealy (2008)

Mix movies and murder and I’m there. If you can serve it up with finger-poppin’ brio the way Jerry Kennealy does in Still Shot, so much the better.

Carroll Quint, San Francisco film critic and noir expert, has show business in his blood. When his mother, an onetime studio system starlet, asks him to investigate the alleged suicide of her old Hollywood roommate, he’s got no choice but to say yes. The resulting case touches on decades-old Tinseltown scandals, ruthless moguls, phony Picassos, and a hard-boiled LAPD veteran whose claim to fame is being the first person ever to shout “Freeze!” at a perp. Plus there’s sex. What’s not to like?

Miscellaneous: Elsewhere

The AV Club offers a primer on TV detectives. Any article that shows love to Spenser: For Hire and Andy Barker, P.I. is OK by me.

At The Rap Sheet, their tribute to the best TV crime drama openers continues with a salute to The Avengers. As a result of reading this piece, I finally stumped the web. I have been unable to turn up a video I only saw once, for the song “Emma Peel” by Seattle band The Allies. I’m disappointed, people.

Matt at scrubbles.net has posted a slideshow devoted to old View-Master reels. The things we did for entertainment before the internet.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Miscellaneous: Bits and Pieces

Expect more posts like this. Terse, unfocused, and repurposing observations already made on Twitter.

Good book: Envy The Night, by Michael Koryta (2008). Frank Temple III has been adrift in life ever since his father, a federal agent and a hero to his son, was exposed as part of a ring of hit men. Frank gains a sense of purpose when he learns that the man who gave his father up is going home – where Frank can kill him. Strong, muscular writing, rich characters, and a great sense of place. I haven’t read Koryta’s novels about P.I. Lincoln Perry, but I’ll seek them out now.

Caught the end of We Own The Night today, and was reminded anew of what an underrated movie it is. Both as a thriller and a family drama. The car chase on the rain-slick streets of my old Queens stomping grounds is brilliant, and the closing exchange between brothers Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix got me all over again.

Elsewhere, I’d like to thank Jaime Weinman for restoring a certain cartoon to my memory. Rest assured I’ll get him for this.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Comics: Two, Please

Your favorite married film geeks are back on schedule. This week’s installment below or here.

Miscellaneous: Tweets for the Tweet

Posting will continue to be erratic. The bloom is not off the blogging rose, but it’s clear to me that this site is evolving into something else.

Therefore, I’ve added my Twitter feed to the main page. 140 characters at a clip I can do, usually several times a day. Find out what I’m having for lunch! Learn why the person in front of me at the supermarket annoys me! Discover where I itch! And assorted pop culture bon mots. Just look to your left.

Miscellaneous: You Know, Stuff

O, for that halcyon time, in the dim remember’d past, when I would update this website on a semi-regular basis! Too bad them days is gone. Here are a few recommendations.

Small Crimes, by Dave Zeltserman (2008). I thought Vermont was all foliage, maple syrup and abnormally sized filing cabinets. Silly Vince. It’s also festering small town corruption. Ex-crooked cop Joe Denton is sprung from jail after brutally disfiguring the D.A. The sheriff, more bent than Joe ever was, greets him with a proposition. Either finish the job he started on the D.A., or hasten the dying crime boss trying to cut a deal with him to the grave. Zeltserman, editor of the soon-to-be-shuttered Hardluck Stories, knows the territory and serves up the goods with psychological acuity.

Finding Amanda (2008). The debut directorial feature from TV maestro Peter Tolan (The Larry Sanders Show, Rescue Me) met the fate of many independent films. Brief theatrical release coupled with unpromoted on demand availability, then a quick dispatch to DVD. However you find it, it’s worth seeking out. Matthew Broderick plays a sitcom writer formerly addicted to ... well, everything. He’s got it narrowed down to gambling when he learns that his niece (Brittany Snow) is working as a hooker in Las Vegas. Why not save her from herself and bet the ponies at the same time? With Steve Coogan as a casino manager who’s exactly as friendly as he needs to be.

Speed Racer (2008). Yes, it’s too long and too much in general. But I actually kinda liked it.

Ghost Town (2008). Charming. Then again, I’m a sucker for the entire cast and New York in the fall.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Movies: The Films of the Whistler, Part Three

Here are parts one and two for those scoring along at home.

A name that pops up frequently in the Whistler films is Rudolph C. Flothow. A producer at Columbia’s B-movie unit, he not only oversaw most of the Whistler titles but also entries in the Crime Doctor, Boston Blackie and Lone Wolf series, not to mention the serials that marked the first screen appearances of both Batman and the Phantom. That makes him a footnote in movie history, but he deserves to be remembered as a man who knew how to get the most bang out of a studio buck.

I promised a surprise, didn’t I? After posting installment one I received an email from Ed Gorman, the man who made this festival possible. Ed, a mensch amongst mensches, had good news: he had unearthed a copy of the second movie in the series, 1944’s Mark of the Whistler, and was sending it my way.

Of the eight films, it’s the one I was most keen to see. It’s directed by William Castle, and based on Cornell Woolrich’s “Dormant Account.” Richard Dix plays a drifter who discovers that money belonging to someone who shares his name is being held in a small town bank. He takes over the man’s identity only to end up with more than he bargained for. Dix gives his strongest performance in the series as the conflicted character, fusing resourcefulness with desperation. Toss in some of Woolrich’s trademark fatalism and you’ve got the best movie of the bunch.

For me, that’s the last of the Whistling Dixes. (I’m sorry. I had to.) The actor appeared in the series’ seventh film – and the only one Ed didn’t have handy – 1947’s The Thirteenth Hour, and then retired. He died two years later.

Columbia tried to keep things afloat. 1948 saw The Return of the Whistler with leading man chores handed to Michael Duane, who had a small role in 1946’s Secret of the Whistler. Again the story comes from Woolrich, and it’s a doozy: Duane’s bride vanishes without a trace on what’s meant to be their wedding night. It’s served up with energy and Duane is perfectly capable, but – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – I missed Richard Dix. His bleary presence brought an otherness to the earlier films that this one is lacking. The Whistler series could have continued without him. Perhaps it’s just as well it didn’t.

And that’s that. The Thirteenth Hour is still out there, my own personal white whale. When I track it down, you’ll hear about it. It felt strange to watch these largely neglected films, not knowing when they’d be screened again. They should be available on DVD. They’re not masterpieces by any stretch, but as Ed said, “in their own low-rent way they’re remarkable Bs.” Thanks again, Ed, for sharing them.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Miscellaneous: Links

Things are hopping here at Chez K. The weekend was so busy we didn’t have time to get a new Two Please up. So go read the old ones and leave laughs and pithy comments. In the meantime, I can tell you that in recent days I have enjoyed The Betrayers, a no-nonsense cop novel by new-to-me author James Patrick Hunt, and Burn After Reading. Then again, I will eagerly take any trip to Planet Coen.

Here’s a pair of links courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily. The author of How to Cheat at Everything confirms what I have long suspected: I have the heart if not the nerves of a con man. And an appreciation of the continuing power of black-and-white film across the genres.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Movies: The Films of the Whistler, Part Two

Here’s part one, with the necessary background.

Of all the qualities that make the Whistler films distinctive – the poverty row atmosphere, the bleakness of tone – attention must be paid to the performances of Richard Dix. Because they go a long way toward creating the series’ singular oddness.

One of the few stars to survive the transition from the silent era and a Best Actor nominee for 1931’s Cimarron, Dix is largely forgotten. (He does get a mention in Blazing Saddles, but even that’s ancient history.) Dix is a heavy man with a soft voice. Throughout the Whistler movies he reads his lines tentatively, as if feeling his way through rehearsal. You half-expect him to look into the camera at any moment and say, “Sorry, Bill, can I have another take?” Somehow that foggy aura works, lending a desperation to the proceedings.

1946’s Mysterious Intruder gives Dix a chance to play a character not beset on all sides, and he’s clearly a lot more comfortable. He’s a scheming private eye hired to find a missing girl who stands to come into a fortune. It’s a conventional but solid film, livened up with sharp plot twists, a clever MacGuffin, and a supporting cast that includes Charles Lane and Mike Mazurki. Director William Castle has his own fun, staging the first scene between shamus and client to ape a psychiatric session.

Dix gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop again in Secret of the Whistler (1946), as an aspiring artist with a rich, terminally ill wife and a hot young mistress (Leslie Brooks from the noir cult classic Blonde Ice). Dix is a touch long in the tooth for his role, and the script is clunky. At one point in his florid voiceover, the Whistler refers to “the uncertainty of not knowing.” Which, as I understand it, is the definition of uncertainty.

But a well-executed twist ending explains away many of the plot holes. And Dix’s strange affect in his early scenes with Brooks, explaining his need for simple companionship, again underscores the real subject of the Whistler movies, the loneliness and isolation of modern urban life.

The concluding post should be up sometime next week. And true to the Whistler series, expect a surprise.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

DVD: Joy House (1964)

Somehow I knew the title Joy House was meant ironically. And that was before I was aware of the movie’s hardboiled pedigree: based on a Day Keene novel, adapted in part by fellow Gold Medal author Charles Williams.

Director René Clément and star Alain Delon proved they knew their way around pulp four years earlier with Purple Noon, their take on Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. Here Delon is a gorgeous playboy – what, again? – who goes too far with a married woman in New York. Pursued by a gang of villains that includes Boss Hogg and Punky Brewster’s dad, he hightails it back to la belle France. There, he holes up inside a mansion with two very odd women, a sensuous widow whose husband was mysteriously murdered (Lola Albright from The Good Humor Man!) and Jane Fonda as her coquettish cousin/maid. Delon is hired to ferry the ladies around in a sedan with a transparent roof, and to provide *ahem* other services. He thinks he’s gotten lucky. He hasn’t.

Joy House is, in a word, ridiculous. And that’s before the overheated plot kicks into gear. (At one point, Fonda notes that some people describe the title manse as “neo-Gothic.” No, really?) The movie keeps threatening to get suspenseful, or kinky, or both, but never quite makes it. Although the sequence in which Jane, in her yowza! days, strips down to almost nothing and does the forgotten ‘60s dance “The Surf” in front of a mirror did burn out some pixels on my TV.

In addition, there’s the Riviera in slick black and white and a cool jazz score. Andy Warhol once said, “Sometimes I like to be bored, and sometimes I don’t. It depends what kind of mood I’m in.” My mood could be called Sunday night, and Joy House bored me in exactly the right way.

Miscellaneous: Link

David Carradine does the AV Club’s Random Roles.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Comics: Two, Please

Your favorite married film geeks brave the elements, below or here.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Movies: The Films of the Whistler, Part One

Amidst multiple deadlines, I’ve been making my way through the offbeat movies based on the radio program The Whistler. The opportunity comes courtesy of Ed Gorman – friend of the site, damn fine writer, and all-around good guy. Thanks again, Ed.

The Whistler ran on radio for 13 years, beginning in 1942. The film series, which started two years later, is essentially a noir grab bag. All the elements are here, recombined in various ways: amnesia, blackmail, femme fatales, shady shamuses. And lingering over it all, a pervasive sense of doom, of fate reaching out from the darkness.

The title character, glimpsed only in silhouette, narrates each tale. (“I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night.”) Purple prose read in a fulsome voice. Something tells me Ed Wood was a big Whistler fan.

Richard Dix starred in the film series. He’s given a different name in each movie, but he’s playing the same type: a man hounded by life no matter how successful he is. As Ed put it, “Dix is awkward but somehow right as a down and outer. Even when he’s supposed to be up he’s down and out, sort of his spiritual DNA I suspect.”

Snappy, B-movie pacing is the order of the day; the longest of the eight films clocks in at just over an hour. Each could use another three or four minutes to smooth out the plotting, but they’re still marvels of economical storytelling.

1944’s The Whistler kicks things off. Director William Castle is best remembered for the gimmicks he deployed to sell schlock like The Tingler, but he knew his way around a suspense piece. The story is the venerable warhorse used most recently in Bulworth: guy hires a hit man to end his own life, has a change of heart, then desperately tries to cancel the contract. Dix’s natural malaise is a perfect fit. Titanic’s Gloria Stuart plays his loyal secretary, and J. Carrol Naish is the killer who taunts his target as part of a “psychological experiment.”

I will not, alas, be able to see the same year’s Mark of the Whistler, adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s “Dormant Account.” In Power of the Whistler (1945), Dix puts his befuddlement to work as an accident victim who has lost his memory. Janis Carter is the would-be fortuneteller who vows to help him, even though small animals that come near Dix tend to meet grisly fates. It features the creepiest use of the Whistler’s shade.

Voice of the Whistler (1945) is the oddest of the lot so far. It opens with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel singing the praises of Dix’s deeply unhappy industrialist. Ordered by his doctor to take a vacation for his own mental health, Dix falls ill and is taken in by a kindly stranger. As he recuperates under an assumed name, he reinvents himself as a more open individual. The film grafts on a conventional and unsatisfying plot involving a scheming nurse and a locked-room mystery in a lighthouse. But the opening scenes, with Dix questioning whether it’s possible to die from loneliness, cast an unsettling spell. They go right to the core of what the Whistler movies are about: the burdens “hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows.”

Three down, three more to go.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Miscellaneous: An Open Letter To Entertainment Weekly

Dear Entertainment Weekly,

I’ll give you credit for trying to cast the net a little wider with the nationwide pop culture recap in your September 12 issue. It is, in fact, true that “the hottest ticket” at Seattle’s Seven Gables Theater is Elegy. It is also the coldest ticket, considering that the Seven Gables has only one screen. I can’t believe I renewed my subscription through 2010.

Hoping this finds you well,
Vince Keenan

Miscellaneous: Blue Blaze Irregular Link

Just a day after learning that I made one of my coworkers a convert to the glories of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension comes word of Buckaroo’s return in comic book form. Wherever Buckaroo goes, there I am.