Sunday, April 27, 2008

TV: Today’s Mitchell And Webb Moment

If you’re not watching this show, you’re missing out. I have been known to talk about the Mets this way, and will start doing the same with movies.

Miscellaneous: Links, All-Brawl Edition

As a David Mamet fan, I can’t wait to see Redbelt. In an article he wrote for the New York Times, Mamet calls it a “fight film” and discusses a few cinematic battles and battlers that left memorable impressions.

Then, in the Daily News, Mamet calls Redbelt his tribute to classic film noir and mentions a few favorites.

Interestingly, both pieces cite the original Night and the City. Which also earns a place on this list of the 20 greatest movie fight scenes. Hat tip to Bill Crider and, by extension, Walter Satterthwait.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book: Matala, by Craig Holden (2007)

Craig Holden’s Four Corners of Night is a big, bruising heartbreaker of a novel. His latest, Matala, is short enough to be read in a single sitting and sharp enough to wound. It’s dark, sexy, twisted. Kinky in every sense, which I intend as a high compliment.

Darcy is a spoiled American girl fresh out of high school, sent on a European tour by her wealthy parents. Naturally, she gets bored at once. In Rome she falls in with Will, another American who’s grifting his way across the continent. Will, in turn, is in thrall to the older Justine, a veteran con artist who looks at Darcy and sees nothing but opportunity. The three of them agree to smuggle a package to Greece, and before the trip is over all manner of masks will slip.

Here’s the best way I can plug Matala. A meme currently making the rounds ask you to open the closest book. Turn to page 123. Find the fifth sentence. Post the next three sentences. (Yeah, I don’t get it, either.) No one has tagged me – what, you think you’re better than me? – but Matala was the closest book when I first came across it. I give you the result:

They had each other to keep them amused and happy and satiated. And she certainly felt all three of those things. Will had proved to a robust and durable lover, and Darcy did not feel disappointed in him except at the furthest edges of her desires.

Tell me you don’t want to read more.

Miscellaneous: Links

The AV Club’s exhaustive primer on my musical hero, Elvis Costello. King of America is a personal favorite.

Roger Ebert on Joe Vs. The Volcano. Via Bill Crider, a charter member of the JvTV fan club along with yours truly.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Book: Sleeping Dogs, by Ed Gorman (2008)

With the last major primary out of the way and the Democratic party’s electoral future clearsweet Jesus, this campaign is gonna go on forever – this seems like an ideal time to recommend Sleeping Dogs, the latest from friend-of-the-site Ed Gorman. Ed, an immensely talented writer who’s done some time in politics, knows the territory and covers it well.

Political operative Dev Conrad steps into an Illinois Senate race in the closing stages. The incumbent, a good-enough pol with only a minor history of bimbo eruptions, finds himself in a pitched battle with a downstate “nut job ... (who’d) gone to sanity school recently.” Dev has to deal with campaign sabotage and the suicide of the man he’s replacing, not to mention his own doubts about the candidate he’s working to reelect. The action, as always with Ed, goes down smooth, and is punctuated by his bittersweet observations about life and culture.

Don’t just take my word for it. Bill Crider, Lee Goldberg and James Reasoner like the book, too. I might steer you wrong, but those guys? Never.

Movies: More Blast of Silence

Found: a few panels from Sean Phillips’s graphic novel adaptation of the movie that has altered the way I communicate. Thanks to GreenCine Daily.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

DVD: Blast of Silence (1961)

Remembering ...

You’d heard of this movie before, in whispered tones. Church voices. Blast of Silence. A gritty, low-down noir shot guerilla-style on the streets of New York. Back in the early days of scrounging together bucks to make films on the cheap. You’d never seen it. Figured you never would. But you catch a break when lips slip that it’s getting the Criterion treatment. Five star all the way.

You jump on it as soon as you have the chance. Grass don’t grow under your feet.

You watch it, this movie written and directed by Allen Baron. He even stars in it, playing Frankie Bono, a Cleveland hit man who trains in to New York over Christmas to take care of a guy. But Frankie runs into some people from his past, a girl. He starts thinking about his life. You don’t want to do that. Not with that life.

You know the movie’s not perfect. The plot gets a little convenient, and if he can’t see the ending coming you figure Baby Boy Frankie Bono may not be the sharpest cannon in the shed.

But you’re not watching this one for the story. No. You’re watching it for the mood. The feeling. The energy that Baron finds on the streets of your hometown and channels into every frame. In Harlem. In Greenwich Village, beatniks pounding their drums and their libidos ‘til everything’s raw.

Remembering ...

You read Lawrence Block’s A Diet of Treacle not too long ago, from the same time and set on those same streets. The movie takes you right there. In style, in attitude, you’re watching one of those old Gold Medal paperbacks come to life. Or as close as you’re gonna get.

Most of all, you’re grooving on that voiceover. Written by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt under a phony name. Delivered by blacklisted actor Lionel Stander under no name at all. Putting you in Frankie Bono’s head. Making you feel Frankie’s palms sweat. Or not sweat. You know the meteorology of Frankie’s hands is important. You can’t get enough of that voiceover, think that Dave Kehr had it dead to rights when he called it “second person accusative.” You start doing that voiceover all the time. You can’t stop. You understand why friends of yours lapse into it on the streets of Philadelphia after a showing at NoirCon. You wish you were there to do it, too.

You even dig the extra features on the DVD. Baron’s still around, still kicking, still feisty. You like the guy, Martin Scorsese crossed with George C. Scott from The Hustler. He had a nice career for himself in TV. He takes you back to the locations, thirty, then almost fifty years later. Shows you the ways the neighborhoods change. And the ways they don’t.

You don’t see the best extra, though. A short graphic novel adaptation of the movie by Sean Phillips, one of the genius bad-asses behind Criminal with Ed Brubaker. That’s because you punked out, rented the DVD when you knew you should have bought it. You’ll pony up now, though. You want to come back to it.

Remembering ...

You watched Murder by Contract a few months back, another hit man movie. Picked by another genius bad-ass, James Ellroy. Vince Edwards wandering L.A., starting to feel bad about killing. You remember Ellroy talking up Contract as the first movie to give you the assassin as existential hero. Yeah, maybe. But you think Silence is the first one to get it right.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Meaningless Milestones: Four Candles

Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. Three cheers and a tiger for me!

I had planned on writing an epic post detailing all that I’ve learned in four years of blogging, building it around a few simple rules. One of the first rules to occur to me was, “Never, under any circumstances, blog about blogging.” Thus rendering the post moot before I’d even written it. Plus, I am swamped. Things have been nuts around here, and only stand to get nuttier.

So instead, I’ll repeat the news. Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog. Three cheers and a tiger for me!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sort Of Related: Hollywood Station, by Joseph Wambaugh (2006)/Confessions of a Superhero (2007)

LAPD veteran Wambaugh is perhaps the master of cop fiction. He turns his attention back to his old department for the first time in 20 years – at fellow author James Ellroy’s urging – and it’s obvious the man hasn’t missed a beat.

Station has a plot of sorts, involving a pair of tweakers and some Eastern European thieves whose fates are destined to collide. But the bulk of the novel is devoted to the day-to-day of the police officers who work the still-mean streets of Hollywood. And quite the motley bunch they are: surfers and wannabe actors, single moms and wily veterans. Wambaugh makes no bones about his dislike for the federal consent decree that the LAPD has been operating under in the wake of the Ramparts scandal, but aside from a single chapter it never overwhelms the narrative. It’s rich, compassionate, funny and heartbreaking stuff. A TV series based on the book is in the works, but there’s no sense in waiting for that. I’ll be jumping on the just-published sequel Hollywood Crows ASAP.

Wambaugh’s cops aren’t superheroes. As it turns out, his superheroes aren’t superheroes either. Some of the novel’s action takes place around the intersection of Hollywood and Highland, where people in costume pose for photographs with tourists outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Wambaugh spells out exactly how low-rent this spectacle is. According to him, many of the “performers” are meth addicts, and the police ID three similarly clad figures as Fat Elvis, Thin Elvis, and Smelvis.

Matthew Ogens’s offbeat documentary Confessions of a Superhero profiles four people who don capes to stay afloat in Tinseltown. The movie’s Superman, who identifies with his alter ego to an alarming degree, is a recovering addict who’s also the son of Academy Award winner Sandy Dennis – unless he’s not. Wonder Woman’s tale is all too common: the belle of her high school, she heads west to learn that she’s too “voluptuous” to book TV commercials. And wait ‘til you see what happens to Batman. Sometimes “only in L.A.” is the appropriate response.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Movies: Show Biz Sundays

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that Sunday evenings stink. That double whammy of disappointment, feeling you didn’t drain the weekend cup dry while dreading Monday’s return to the grindstone. I’ve always held that if aliens were going to invade, they should do so on a Sunday. Humanity would welcome the distraction.

The Chez K prescription for the Sunday blahs: show business melodramas. Plenty of color and movement to distract the eye – and no messy plots! Herewith, a rundown of an almost-month of Sundays.

Torch Song (1953). In the days before Mommie Dearest, when people made fun of Joan Crawford this is the movie they had in mind. Joan plays the Broadway legend who can’t stop giving her all no matter how much we beg her to hold back. In Joan’s first Technicolor feature, she dyes her hair crimson and lemons around in outfits so garish they permanently damaged my TV screen. With Michael Wilding as the world’s most insufferable blind man.

Enjoy the trailer, featuring some choice dialogue and a snippet of Joan’s big number in blackface (and blacklegs).

Alas, the trailer does not include the moment when Joan, still in blackface, yanks off her wig in a titian tizzy. Scarier than Pinhead, Jigsaw and Donald Trump rolled into one.

My Wild Irish Rose (1947). A St. Patrick’s Day perennial on TCM. Dennis Morgan stars as Chauncey Olcott, the tenor who invented stage Irishness. This movie is what is known in the old country as malarkey.

It’s A Great Feeling (1949). Morgan and Jack Carson came to my attention in The Hard Way, a backstage meller with a heart so black that it screened at this year’s Noir City. But to the extent that they’re remembered at all, it’s as Warner Brothers’ answer to Hope and Crosby. Here, Dennis and Jack try to get unknown Doris Day cast in their next project. It’s not a movie so much as a collection of skits with Warners stars like Gary Cooper and Edward G. Robinson. The best of the bunch is Joan Crawford’s scene. She erupts in fury, slapping both Morgan and Carson. When Carson asks why, she says, “I do that in all my pictures” and strides off.

When I say these movies have no plots, I’m not kidding. Absolutely nothing happens in them. Every problem is readily surmountable, with solutions coming in about the time it takes to warble a few bars. Which makes them the perfect way to ease into the long week ahead.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Movie: The Laughing Policeman (1974)

Flipping channels the other day, I stumbled onto the middle of The Laughing Policeman. After three minutes I thought, “It’s been too long since I’ve seen this. Time to watch it again from the beginning.”

Policeman is one of the great underrated procedurals, a movie with an unerring eye and ear for detail. Screenwriter Tom Rickman skillfully transfers the action of the award-winning Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel from Sweden to San Francisco. Walter Matthau leads the investigation into a massacre on a public bus, a task complicated by the fact that his own partner is one of the victims. Bruce Dern is the callous detective new to the detail who slowly breaks through Matthau’s shell.

Three random observations:

1. It was filmed in a San Francisco still in the shadow of the Zodiac killings. Tremendous location work. Every aspect of the city’s life at the time – hippies, political revolutionaries, Mitchell Brothers-style sleaze – is on display. For crime drama, nothing beats the city by the bay.

2. In 1973 and ’74, Matthau consecutively appeared in Charley Varrick, Policeman, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which as some of you know is the Official Vince Greatest Movie Ever Made™. That’s a stupendous streak of winners. Especially since Matthau’s acting wasn’t stylized. No matter what side of the law his characters were on, Matthau played guys who worked for a living.

3. I think the title was meant ironically.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Movie: Daisy Kenyon (1947)

It’s one of the latest releases from the Fox Film Noir Collection. It’s directed by Otto Preminger, who made Laura. It’s got shadowy photography and a plot that’s twisted in every sense.

But trust me on this. Daisy Kenyon is not noir, no matter what the box says. Daisy Kenyon is melodrama. Pure melodrama. Uncut melodrama. Schedule I grade melodrama.

And as such, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Joan Crawford – who else? – plays Daisy, a Manhattan graphic artist who insists on paying her own way even though she’s also the mistress of high-powered attorney Dana Andrews. She’s on the verge of ending their relationship when she meets a veteran (Henry Fonda) shattered by the death of his wife and his experiences in Europe. Daisy awakens something in him, and soon she’s forced to choose between her two suitors.

Sound straightforward? Take my word for it, it ain’t. Nothing is straightforward with Otto Preminger. There’s always a welter of perversions and neuroses beneath the polished sheen of his movies.

Dana Andrews, a Preminger favorite, is at his best here playing a blithe charmer whom Rosemarie described as “Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer combined.” Competition for Daisy’s affections and a pro bono lawsuit he takes only to demonstrate what a swell guy he is reveal the hollowness of his life to him. They also expose the deep fissures in his marriage; his high-strung wife (Ruth Warrick) is taking out her frustrations with her husband on their younger daughter, in a subplot that still startles.

Fonda gives an atypical performance as a man whose demons have stripped away his internal censor. His unflinching honesty in word and emotion teeters between charming and unsettling, with the balance tipping toward the latter once Andrews comes back into the picture.

If Fonda is stretching here, Joan Crawford is playing Joan Crawford. Again, I have no problem with that. 42 at the time of Daisy Kenyon’s release, Joan is at least 12 years too old for the role; the noir cinematography by Leon Shamroy isn’t used to establish mood, but to hide the leading lady’s age. Watching Joan at this stage in her career isn’t about seeing her disappear into a character. It’s about bearing witness to a woman trying to stop the hands of time with every weapon in her arsenal. Always a mesmerizing spectacle.

For every aspect of Daisy Kenyon that’s dated, like the divorce proceedings that take up much of the third act, there’s another that remains bracingly fresh and adult. Throw in some well-produced extras that feature several members of the Film Noir Foundation and you can’t go wrong. Noir or not, Daisy Kenyon is a movie that gets under your skin.

Monday, April 07, 2008

TV: Today’s Infotainment Break

There’s a real post coming up, I swear. Witty, impassioned, the whole shebang. In the meantime, here’s a clip from my new favorite show, That Mitchell and Webb Look on BBC America. It’s the kind of educational program that’s all too rare these days. Here, Dave and Rob explain how cheese is made.

Oh, yeah. I should probably say it’s NSFW.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Miscellaneous: Stuff

A reminder to my vast SoCal readership: Noir City begins this weekend. Go.

Tonight, Turner Classic Movies salutes Richard Widmark. On April 20, the network will do the same for Jules Dassin.

: Screenwriter William Goldman recalls his one encounter with Widmark.

Having trouble selling books? You could always write erotica. It’s working for novelist Rupert Smith. Can I just say that titling a gay porn version of an Agatha Christie country house murder mystery The Back Passage is sheer genius? Hat tip to Arts & Letters Daily.

The L. A. Times considers James Ellroy and the movies.

Speaking of Ellroy, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has made their collection of kinescopes of The Mike Wallace Interview available. There are 65 programs from 1957 and ’58 online. They’re fascinating relics, with Wallace alternating between bullying his guests proto-cable news style and shilling Philip Morris cigarettes with their “man’s kind of mildness.”

Wallace talks to Frank Lloyd Wright, Salvador Dali, a panel of Nobel Prize winners. So who did I watch? Ellroy favorite Fred Otash, the Hollywood detective who dished dirt for Confidential magazine.

I also cued up the interview with stripper Lili St. Cyr. I had read that Lili had a “high pitched, Minnie Mouse-like voice,” and that’s certainly true. Lili talks about how show business is a “pantywaist profession” suitable for women only, and about her belief in UFOs, speculating on what men from Venus are like. Science has since supplanted Lili, as we now know that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

Twice during the interview, Wallace quotes the stripper Sherry Britton. Who, coincidentally, passed away this week.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Book: City of the Sun, by David Levien (2008)

Another day, another screenwriter’s novel. And as it happens, another good one.

With Brian Koppelman, David Levien has written several entertaining movies, among them Rounders and Ocean’s 13. His first foray into crime fiction ventures into some truly dark territory.

In suburban Indianapolis, 12-year-old Jamie Gabriel disappears while on his paper route. Over a year later, the police are no closer to finding him and the marriage of his parents Paul and Carol is on the verge of collapse. Out of desperation and resignation the Gabriels hire Frank Behr, a brooding ex-cop with a tragic past. Behr’s investigation will yield reasons for them to hope – and to despair.

There are a few plot developments that strain credibility, and the ending is a lot to swallow. But I went along with it, because Levien knows how to power through a story. He also peoples it with a strong gallery of characters. Not just Behr and the Gabriels but the range of criminals responsible for Jamie’s abduction, all of whom are given some shred of humanity.

In a recent essay, ESPN’s Bill Simmons names Rounders as one of the only classic sports films of the past decade. Which raises the question: is Rounders a sports movie? Feel free to respond in the comments.

A few years ago, Simmons did a two part Q&A with Koppelman and Levien. Glad to hear that my reaction to Rounders is fairly typical. First time around you can take it or leave it, mainly because the poker scenes leave you in the dust. But for some reason you’re compelled to watch it again, and the lingo makes more sense. By the third viewing, you’re completely on board. And that ending is still ballsy.

Music: Brad Mehldau Trio: Live

I have reached some kind of jazzbo milestone. The new album from the trio – Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, Jeff Ballard on drums – was recorded during an October 2006 run at New York’s Village Vanguard. Rosemarie and I were at one of those shows. Which means that could be us you hear applauding. Only I didn’t applaud. I snapped my fingers beatnik-style and then requested “Freebird.”

Listen to the album. You won’t be disappointed.

Miscellaneous: Folding Links

The New York Times profiles Mad Magazine’s Al Jaffee, complete with interactive gallery of his fold-ins.