Thursday, July 31, 2008

New York Post: Movies

It took me this long to think of New York Post as a title? I must still be in vacation mode. Anyway, a recap of what we saw on t’other coast.

Man on Wire. Easily one of the year’s best, and a movie that was definitely worth seeing in New York. This documentary recounts Philippe Petit’s self-described coup of walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Director James Marsh seamlessly blends interviews, archival footage and recreations. The result is like a Donald Westlake-style caper, only instead of taking something this band of dreamers and misfits is giving. You already know the outcome – Petit is on camera throughout, still ridiculously charismatic – yet the ratchets tighten. And the climax, in which a bland public space now erased from the earth briefly becomes a realm of magic, has a startling emotional intensity.

Transsiberian. Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist) again delivers a thriller that never goes where you expect. Two American missionaries taking the nowhere-near-glamorous title train from China to Moscow fall in with a pair of mysterious vagabonds. The first hour chugs along at its own pace for good reason. But once it switches to the main track, hang on. Emily Mortimer kicks ass as a reformed bad girl, and Russian cop Ben Kingsley devours the scenery like it was made out of blintzes.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

New York Report: Medical Update

Rosemarie’s back from the doctor and hobbling around in one of those walking boots. Turns out she sprained her foot while racing to Sardi’s for a cocktail before curtain. Making her the first person to injure herself in such a fashion since Kitty Carlisle Hart.

New York Report: The Old Neighborhood

The entire reason for scheduling our trip at this time was to see one last New York Mets game at Shea Stadium before the exodus across the parking lot to Citi Field. It’s pointless to rehash a week-old sporting event, so let’s focus on the color commentary.

We headed to Flushing early, because it’s where Rosemarie grew up. She took me to her childhood haunts – the candy store turned cell phone shop, the former A&P. Her block, in her words, “is an inch long.” We took photos of her old house, alarming the contractors in the process of remodeling it. We also stopped by her school, not hard considering it’s across the street.

Flushing is renowned for inexpensive and delicious Chinese food. But where to go? We were still without internet access. After a scouting expedition we settled on a restaurant that still had customers late in the afternoon, taking that for a good sign. Plus it had “Gourmet” in the name, and who’d lie about a thing like that? They certainly didn’t. (Note what a later web search turned up.)

Next stop was Flushing Meadow Park. When I was a kid it was the only green area around. Not only did I have to take the subway there, I had to change trains at 74th Street. Never seemed out of the ordinary to me.

Then it was game time. We met up with our friends Mike and Paula. (Here are Mike’s pre- and post-game reports.)

It was merengue night. We didn’t stay for the show.

Call me a traditionalist, but I miss the old blue and orange panels that used to hang from Shea’s exterior. They gave the stadium what character it had.

A recent New York Times article on baseball cuisine reviewed the food at every major league ballpark. The verdict on Shea: eat the hot dogs and nothing else. New York law now requires fast-food outlets to post calorie information. This explains how I know that two Nathan’s hot dogs are roughly equal to a bag of peanuts. This made me feel better until I realized that no one consumes an entire bag of peanuts in one sitting. Even in extra innings.

For the record, I ate two hot dogs and no peanuts. Apparently those things’ll kill you.

Carvel ice cream is also sold at Shea. Talk about childhood haunts. Carvel soft serve would be my treat for getting good grades on my report card. Mike told me that the real prize dessert-wise was the lemon ice, which would last “a good three, four innings.” Only they weren’t available at any of the food outlets in the mezzanine. We’d have to wait for a vendor. By the seventh inning I gave up; “a good three, four innings” meant I’d be finishing it on the 7 train, not known for its dining ambiance. So we had Carvel instead. I didn’t bother to read the calorie information.

Halfway through the sundae I remembered something: Carvel ice cream isn’t that good.

There were a pair of homers in the game, a two-run shot from a reinvigorated Carlos Delgado and a career first for the Mets’ young second baseman Argenis Reyes. I was so excited to see the giant apple behind the center field wall light up twice that I forgot to take pictures each time.

I did the “Jose, Jose, Jose” chant, along with “Everybody Clap Your Hands!” Beats doing it at home all by yourself. But that’s true of so much in life.

Top of the ninth, one out with a six-run Mets lead, and who magically appears behind us? The lemon ice vendor. Thanks for nothing, guy.

The Mets win and we join the throng filing into the IRT station. The “super express” gets us back into Manhattan in no time flat. During the ride, we have a pleasant conversation with a Cardinals die-hard who flew in for the series. Mets fans, magnanimous in victory.

Barring a miracle, the next Mets game I see will be in Citi Field. Across the parking lot, but a world away.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New York Report: The Return

The days of neglect are at an end, for the great journey home to New York is over. After a morning of gallery-hopping in Chelsea and one last terrific lunch, we flew back to a city thirty degrees colder and shrouded in gray. Seattle, I say this as a citizen of the world: it wouldn’t kill you to tart yourself up a little.

We handled our accommodations a bit differently this trip, renting an apartment for our weeklong stay. I wouldn’t hesitate to do so again. There’s nothing like being centrally located and able to prepare your own breakfast for less than you’d pay to stay in a hotel.

We saw family and friends, did a little business, and partook of numerous cultural experiences to be detailed in a series of bloated posts. In short, a grand time was had by all. A few random notes:

Rosemarie stumbled off a poorly-marked curb in Times Square our second night in town. Her ankle swelled and turned purple, but she taped it up and soldiered on. She’s a trooper.

We did have one unfortunate incident involving the insect known to all New Yorkers as a water bug. Rosemarie insists the beast was the size of a bath mat; I’d say it was as big as my thumb. I almost pulled a hamstring getting rid of it.

For reasons I cannot fathom, I spontaneously bark Seth McFarlane’s dialogue from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, complete with Prussian accent. (“Agent Hellboy! I demand zat you take ze shot!”) On a related note, I learned again that skyscrapers allow the human voice to carry great distances.

When in the city, I leave the TV tuned to the local news network NY1. In short order I became obsessed with the promos with actor Dominic Chianese, in which The Sopranos’ Uncle Junior sings along with the station’s snippets of theme music. I don’t know who wrote the lyrics “Twenty-four seven, that’s what we’re here for,” but damn are they catchy.

On our last night in town, at the dark corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue, I literally slipped on a banana peel. One more thing I can cross off the bucket list. Next up: pie fight.

New York Report: Cocktails

Oh, yeah. We drank a lot. Did I mention that?

There are a handful of bars that we frequent when we’re in the city. On this outing, we hit all four.

Death & Company
The Flatiron Lounge
Little Branch
The Pegu Club

Peruse Death & Company’s menu and behold what you’re missing by attending various parent-teacher conferences and church events. Although I will say that the bar’s sublime Cooper Union – made with Redbreast Irish whiskey (although on the night I was there Bushmills had been pressed into service) and St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and served in a glass washed with Laphroaig – is in and of itself a religious experience.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Comics: Two, Please

The full report on all New York doings is still to come. In the meantime, your two favorite married film geeks return. This week’s installment is below or here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Miscellaneous: Little Town Blues Melted Away, Tonight at 11

Greetings from New York City. Yes, it’s time for the annual pilgrimage to our hometown. We’ve been here since Tuesday, and aside from the now-resolved glitch involving our internet connection, it’s been a little slice of heaven. More detailed reports to follow, because right now it’s too late and I’m too high on seeing this live to file them.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Movie: Tight Spot (1955)

In a conversation at work the other day, I made a passing reference to “script geeks” as a subset of “film geeks.” As if that’s not what I am. A writer’s name on a movie is all the excuse I need to watch.

Take, for example, William Bowers. He was responsible for any number of terrific westerns (The Gunfighter, The Sheepman, Support Your Local Sheriff!) as well as crime dramas like Cry Danger.

Tight Spot is a lesser effort; Bowers couldn’t get the movie past its stage origins. Ginger Rogers is a brassy dame released from prison by ambitious D.A. Edward G. Robinson and his hard-nosed investigator Brian Keith. They’re prosecuting a ruthless crime boss (Lorne Greene) who’s just killed the primary witness against him. Robinson’s only hope to send the capo packing is for Ginger to testify in open court.

There are some good late twists, and the single setting of a hotel room becomes nicely claustrophobic. Best of all is Ginger’s performance as the not-so-tough girl who can’t believe that the law or a man like Keith could be genuinely interested in her.

Tight Spot was directed by Phil Karlson, a name that keeps coming up around here. At Mystery*File, Steve Lewis considers another Karlson movie.

Movies: All Supered Out

Over the weekend I saw and enjoyed both Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and The Dark Knight. Don’t let anyone tell you that Christopher Nolan doesn’t have a sense of humor. Anyone who casts The Tick’s Batmanuel as mayor of Gotham City is a joker in his own way.

This makes me sound like an easy date, but I’ve liked all of this summer’s superhero ‘stravaganzas. Made by people who take the form seriously, they feature a range of tones and textures. None more so than Hancock, which while not perfect plays with the genre in some very interesting ways.

That said, I don’t need to see another of these movies for a good long while. Five in one summer is enough. Stop with the beautiful freaks and the billionaire crime fighters. I want suspenseful movies with more human dimensions. I want amnesiac assassins, obsessed Secret Service agents, hapless saps caught up in global conspiracies. You know, stuff we can relate to.

Where is this season’s version of The Bourne Ultimatum? OK, there’s Tell No One, a French adaptation of Harlan Coben’s novel that improves on the book. But that’s nowhere near big enough.

Am I the only person who recalls the halcyon summer of 1993? The Firm. In the Line of Fire. The Fugitive. Three crowd-pleasers. Three Oscar nominees. Three smash hits. And not a steel suit or a cursed scroll in the bunch.

So it’s agreed. No more superhero movies for the foreseeable future.

Or until Watchmen comes out. Because that looks friggin’ awesome.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Comics: Two, Please

Your two favorite married film geeks return, primed for adventure on the high seas! This week’s installment is below or here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Book: Screen Plays, by David S. Cohen (2008)

On this week’s episode of TCM’s Elvis Mitchell: Under The Influence, Bill Murray was the latest person to voice the truism that it takes a lot of work to make any movie, even a bad one. Plenty more ammo can be found in Screen Plays, subtitled How 25 Scripts Made It To A Theater Near You – For Better Or Worse.

Cohen, expanding on features he wrote for Script magazine, traces the histories of two dozen films through the eyes of their writers. He includes a broad range of titles from every genre, studio and indie fare, originals and adaptations, hits and misses. The strongest sections detail the sturm und drang of big-budget productions: David Franzoni getting fired from Gladiator, based on his original idea, while remaining as producer; Ken Nolan climbing back on the merry-go-round after being replaced by bigger names on Black Hawk Down; Leslie Dixon writing Pay It Forward “almost in spite of the premise.” Some of the most instructive material is in Cohen’s introduction chronicling his own screenwriting career, which consists of a single episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His limited experience is a Hollywood fractal. The part contains the whole.

TV: The Emmy Nominations

They’re out. But as always, you’ve got to go deep to find the real contests. Two songs from Flight of the Conchords versus “I’m F***ing Matt Damon”? I expect blood on the walls.

On The Web: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Why am I extending the awesome cachet of VKDC to this little web venture? It’s pretty damn funny, for one thing. But mainly it’s because Joss Whedon needs my help.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sports: All-Star Break Report

From Dan Barry’s Sunday New York Times article on Billy Joel:

Someone must sing a proper song of farewell for Shea Stadium, the nice try of a coliseum in Queens, as its dismantling draws near and a new ballpark rises just yards away. But that someone must be able to convey emotions specific to the place, emotions beyond the sadness of many lost Mets summers and the euphoria of two World Series championships. There is so much more.

The romantic idealism and the yeah-right realism. The quickness to mock and to take offense. The need to prove oneself better than any Upper East Side twit and the guilt from having conceived such a hollow ambition. The restlessness, angst and ache of the striver. The Long Island of it all.

Had they asked to use my photo as an illustration, I would have obliged. The conflicted soul described above? C’est moi.

But who cares? We got ourselves a pennant race!

After a half-season of drama that reached dangerous Melrose Place levels, the Mets closed strong, winning nine straight. They’re now only a half-game out of first. A few weeks back, they seemed to be staring down another lost Mets summer. Man, I love baseball.

Lots of critical games in the weeks ahead – and yours truly will get to see one of them. I want to say goodbye to Shea myself, no matter if it’s “not even the nicest ballpark in its own parking lot anymore.” Or if, according to some, it stinks.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But Vince, how are you doing in fantasy baseball?” Well, curse you for asking.

As I’m sure none of you remember, I dithered on the subject of joining a fantasy league. Not too long ago I saw World Series announcer Joe Buck on Bob Costas’s HBO show say that he’d played fantasy baseball only once and came in dead last. I passed this salient fact on to my friend Mike, who replied, “Buck is old school. He probably drives a Buick and has dinner at 4:30 p.m. and watches Judge Judy.”

I was essentially goaded into participating this year by a friend of Rosemarie’s. I am pleased to say that after spending most of the season mired in last place, I have clawed my way up to eighth out of ten. There’s a lot of churn where I am; just before the All-Star break I lost a mere half-point and dropped two slots.

My goals for the year are modest. Ideally, I’d like to make the top half of the field. I do not expect this to happen. I would accept finishing ahead of the person who dared me to play. Currently that is the case, but how long that status stays quo is anybody’s guess. I fervently hope to stay out of the cellar. I think I have a shot.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Miscellaneous: Rebooted and Reborn

These files ... are CLEAN!

At least they seem to be.

By all appearances, we have brute forced our computer woes into submission. And by we I mean the lovely and tech-savvy Rosemarie, with a huge assist from the gang at Windows Support Center. They walked us step by step through what we needed to do and spared us the worst-case scenario of formatting the hard drive and starting anew. Fellas, we owe you a heartfelt thanks.

I’ve got so many anti-virus and anti-spyware programs running now that my desktop looks like Christmas morning. Now the truly hard part begins. Can I learn to love the internet again?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Miscellaneous: Boot And Reboot

It was bound to happen eventually. After years of roaming the Wild West ranges of the internet, never troubling no man and receiving no trouble in kind, I finally got winged.

My primary computer came down with a case of malware on Friday afternoon. It’s not even a particularly bad case; just a blitz of pop-up ads (for anti-malware software, very funny). Thanks to Rosemarie’s tech know-how, we’ve narrowed the trouble down to a single tenacious file that refuses to be killed.

For the time being I’ve switched to my laptop, a machine that, truth be told, I prefer anyway. I may not be posting much until we get the matter resolved. But we’re not letting it spoil the fun. Behold!

Comics: Two, Please

This week’s installment is below or here.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Miscellaneous: Links

Lorenzo Semple, Jr. on creating TV’s Batman.

Behold the glory that is Road House.

The six (plus) mistakes even best-selling novelists make, from Joseph Finder with an assist by David J. Montgomery.

Here’s your early Bastille Day DVR reminder: TCM will be showing the Anthony Mann French Revolution-as-noir drama Reign of Terror, aka The Black Book, on Monday at 1:45 PM Eastern.

If you’re feeling particularly perverse, TCM will also be re-airing Otto Preminger’s infamous Skidoo at 2AM Eastern tonight. (I know that’s technically tomorrow, but bear with me.) The screening earlier this year, which I watched, must have paid dividends. TCM will also be repeating The Love-Ins again right after it. It’s as bad as I said it is.

Skidoo, as my friend Mike pointed out, features the Riddler, the Joker and the Penguin from TV’s Batman. Which was created by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Thus is the circle made complete.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

DVD: Framed (1975)

In 1973, director Phil Karlson, writer Mort Briskin, and star Joe Don Baker had a surprise hit with Walking Tall, the saga of hard-hitting Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser. Two years later they reunited to make the new-to-DVD Framed, in which every character including the lead is, to use the movie’s term of choice, a shitbird.

Baker plays a small-town Southern gambler with big-time connections. After scoring in a card game he ends up in a bizarre confrontation with a deputy sheriff and kills him in self-defense. He’s railroaded into jail, where the efforts of an exiled Mob kingpin (The Godfather’s John Marley) lead to his parole. Baker heads back home to bust heads and figure out who set him up. But mainly to bust heads.

Describe Framed in one word? Mean. The fight that sends Baker to prison is long, sloppy and brutal, with the chaos and opportunism of real life. Everyone’s out for themselves, including our nominal hero. At times the movie’s vision of crime as a hierarchical, corporate enterprise makes it play like a hillbilly Point Blank. But Framed has no time for style or nuance. Not when there are faces to punch and balls to kick.

The first twenty minutes of the movie are a little hard to take. Some of the performances are ... how can I put this? ... lousy, and it occasionally sounds like the audio equipment was in a port-a-potty just out of frame. But things improve once the pros come in and hit their marks, like Marley, Brock Peters as the only honest deputy in town, and ex-Dead End Kid Gabriel Dell as a sarcastic hit man. And the plot takes several unexpected turns. Framed is crude, and crudely effective. If it’s down and dirty you want, look no further.

I reviewed Phil Karlson’s career in film noir here.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Comics: Two, Please

This week’s installment is below or here.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Book: Dirty Money, by Richard Stark (2008)

There are plenty of reasons to read Richard Stark. His offhand way with description, for instance:

Oscar Sidd’s car was so anonymous you forgot it while you were looking at it. A small and unremarkable four-door sedan, it was the color of the liquid in a jar of pitted black olives; dark but weak, bruised but undramatic.

But Stark – you all must know who he really is by now, considering how often I bring him up – may have outdone himself with his latest run of books. In 2004’s Nobody Runs Forever, the thief’s thief known as Parker pulls an armored car robbery with some cronies only to be forced to leave the swag hidden in a church. The book ends with Parker scrambling up a hillside to avoid the cops. He reaches the top of the slope in Ask The Parrot (2006), only to be dragooned into another job in return for a hideout. Dirty Money finds Parker heading back to pick up the Nobody stash, making this a heist story without a heist.

That’s three books covering a stretch of, what, two weeks? Let’s see the Victorian novelists top that. Westlake himself considers these last few titles “more a triptych than a trilogy, where the side panels reflect on one story and the center panel reflects on something else.”

Whatever it is, it works like a charm. Dirty Money may be the strongest of the three, but I’m in the odd position of not recommending it outright. So many characters and incidents from the previous two books play into it that I’d read them all in sequence. You won’t regret it.

On The Web: Ready When You Are, SK

Sheer bloody genius. That’s what this commercial is.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Movies: Metropolis Reborn

Some big film news breaking in Germany: the discovery of a print of Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis. GreenCine Daily’s David Hudson has the details.

DVD: The Furies (1950)

It’s redundant to sing the praises of a title from the Criterion Collection. Of course the movie will be worth a look and the disc immaculately produced. But I’m gonna do it anyway.

Director Anthony Mann made a string of remarkable noirs in the late 1940s. In the ‘50s he reeled off one fine western after another, the best of them being Winchester ’73. The Furies, made the same year, is in many respects the Mann film that bridges the two genres. It’s dark and brooding, with an emphasis on psychology.

Walter Huston, in his final screen performance, plays T.C. Jeffords, owner of the title ranch and therefore king of the New Mexico Territory in 1872. He gallivants all over the coast spending his fortune like water, knowing his whip-smart daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is a steady hand at home. Vance endures T.C.’s antics because someday The Furies will be hers. Or so she thinks until she shows interest in a gambler that T.C. doesn’t cotton to, and a possible new stepmother appears on the scene.

The Furies is one odd duck of a movie. It’s a western that takes place largely indoors. It has little action, but several startling acts of violence. It’s the sort of film praised for its “complex characterizations,” which is a critic’s way of saying that people exhibit wildly contradictory behaviors that get a pass because they’re entertaining.

But The Furies is also my favorite type of movie, the kind in which shit keeps happening. Empires rise and fall! Great passions are extinguished only to burn anew! Grudges are carried and promises kept! It’s one damn thing after another, and I defy you to look away.

Speaking of Anthony Mann ...

TV: DVR Alert

During Noir City I saw Mann’s remarkable Reign of Terror, which treats the French Revolution as a crime story. Turner Classic Movies will give it a rare TV airing, under its alternate title The Black Book, on Monday, July 14, at 1:45PM EST. I’ll post another reminder as Bastille Day approaches.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Miscellaneous: Movie Notes

Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has a few movies to his credit, offers a few tips on how to write one. Lots of good advice here, with my favorite being rule #4, Forget The Three-Act Structure:

When you’re shaping things, it’s more useful to think about suspense. Suspense is the hidden energy that holds a story together. It connects two points and sends a charge between them.

David Mamet said something similar when he observed that movies are simply about getting the audience to ask, “What happens next”? Do that all the way through, and you’ve got it made.

Much attention has been deservedly paid to Mark Gill’s grimly optimistic, or optimistically grim, assessment of the current state of independent film. It’s prompted plenty of analysis, like this column from David Carr of the New York Times. But perhaps the best appraisal comes from director, screenwriter and newlywed John August, who uses his own Sundance film The Nines as a case study.