Friday, March 27, 2009

DVD: The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

H.P. Lovecraft may be getting the studio treatment soon, but a big budget isn’t necessary to bring his stories to life. I have seen the signs ...

The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society came up with a brilliant solution to adapting the author’s work. The Call of Cthulhu is how a Lovecraft movie might have looked the year the story was written, 1926. Black and white, silent, complete with stop-motion Old Ones! The ingenuity and talent on display is remarkable. The film moves with a true pulp energy. And it works. Even the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD is well done.

Here, watch the trailer.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Movies: Short Takes

Let The Right One In (2008). A guy who should know told me this was “a Swedish Val Lewton movie,” and is that description on the money. A lonely little boy befriends the mysterious girl who moves in next door, not knowing she’s a vampire. A chilling horror tale, a Scandinavian black comedy, and an unsparing look at childhood. (No one ever thinks about the psychic toll on the bully’s friends.) Can Tomas Alfredson direct; there’s half a dozen shots in this film that will take your breath away. Go rent now.

Zift (U.S. 2009). Budget Balkan noir. A convict arrested in 1944 is sprung in Communist Sofia and expected to produce a diamond he stole before the Russians took over. A number of classic films (D.O.A., Gilda) are turned inside out in a wild, digressive movie in which everyone has a story and they all involve excretions. Part Guy Ritchie, part David Lynch, pure Bulgarian. It just played at SXSW, but you can watch it at home via IFC on demand.

The Great Buck Howard (2009). The second-rate show business milieu is far more interesting than the story, but if like me you find the sentence “He co-hosted on Dinah!” funny, you’ll get something out of this, too. John Malkovich is terrific as a comeback-minded mentalist inspired by The Amazing Kreskin. Emily Blunt is also good as the publicist who won’t stand for his antics. The movie is in theaters and available on demand. With this technology and AmazonFresh, soon I’ll never have to leave the house.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Book: Cage of Night, by Ed Gorman (2008)

When 21-year-old Spence musters out of a stint in the army, he returns home to live with his parents and figure out what’s next. He tags along with his kid brother to a kegger and meets Cindy Brasher, reigning homecoming queen and recent patient at the local mental hospital. Spence falls, hard. And Cindy likes Spence, too, so much so that she wants to share her biggest secret with him. It seems there’s a well out in the woods. And something lives in it ...

Cage of Night is the kind of book that falls through the cracks. In fact, as the introduction by Stephen Gallagher in this PS Publications edition makes clear, it did fall through them when it was first published in the 1990s. It’s part crime novel, part horror story, with a rich strain of melancholy running through it all.

Best of all, Cage is vintage Ed Gorman, written with a feel for small town working class life, where people come home from thankless jobs searching not just for escape but elevation in books and movies. There’s some moving stuff about how it still aches when friendships formed on the most tenuous basis end. And it’s as creepy as all get-out.

The book is an expansion of Ed’s short story “The Brasher Girl,” which wowed me when I encountered it in Different Kinds of Dead. Ed kept the premise but pushed it in another direction. The ending of “Girl” is terrifying. Cage’s denouement is far darker, stripping away any shred of hope. “Girl” is dedicated to Stephen King, Cage to Robert Bloch. The influences are apparent in each. Read both if you can; it makes for quite the literary experiment.

UPDATE: Ed has copies of the Cage of Night collector’s edition available. Act now.

Miscellaneous: Technical Note

I have of late – but wherefore I know not – come under attack by Chinese spammers. Thus, comments are now moderated. Don’t let it hold you back.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Movie: Shack Out on 101 (1955)

Like all great works of art, Shack Out on 101 functions on several levels.

First, there’s the level at which it’s total shit. The budget for this Red Scare melodrama was so low that virtually all of the action is limited to one set, a California burger stand that has inexplicably become an espionage hotbed. Every scene runs too long, especially the ones that should have been cut. Like the indoor deep-sea fishing expedition. Or the love scene between deeply uninteresting leads Frank Lovejoy and Terry Moore that includes a civics lesson, with a kiss for each branch of government. Or the workout that takes place next to the serving area, in clear violation of any number of health codes, with the participants complimenting each other on how their bodies look with and without clothes. (“Them’s my pecs!”)

Then there’s the level at which the movie’s flaws work in its favor. Sometimes having three sweaty actors wedged into a tight frame shouting at each other does build intensity.

Finally, there’s the Lee Marvin level. As fry cook/spy Slob, his performance is loose and funny until he fires up that gangly, agile menace. When he turns on Moore, I was certain he was going to kill her – not her character, but the actress. He makes this lousy movie crackle with life. You can’t not watch Lee Marvin, even when he’s pimping cigarettes. (H/t to Bill Crider.)

Music: The Bad Plus

The trio is closing out a four-night run at Seattle’s Jazz Alley in support of their latest album, For All I Care. The first half of last night’s fantastic set had the boys performing their usual dense yet delicate instrumental pieces. Pianist Ethan Iverson introduced an original about stunt driving legend Bill Hickman’s love of fruit salad that had an entire movie playing in my head.

Then they were joined by rock vocalist Wendy Lewis for some amazing covers. A spare “Lock, Stock and Teardrops” that included every echo you’ll hear when your lover finally leaves, a version of “New Year’s Day” stripped of bombast but full of passion, a “Comfortably Numb” that can cut through the haze and make any stoner’s hair stand on end. Together, they even found tendrils of twisted longing in “Blue Velvet” that David Lynch somehow missed.

Here’s Fred Kaplan, who knows a thing or two, on For All I Care. And Ethan’s extraordinary reminiscence of Donald E. Westlake. And again, my favorite thing on the internet, Ethan’s opening of The DaVinci Code as written by Richard Stark.

Miscellaneous: Links

Repeating these from my Twitter feed. Are you following me over there? You should be.

The New Yorker profile of Tony Gilroy is packed with great information on screenwriting.

My favorite bar and a grand cocktail jointly celebrated. Watch the video to see the legend Murray Stenson in action.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Miscellaneous: This Space For Rent

Multiple projects, too many deadlines, no time to post. So –

A link. The AV Club’s Random Roles returns, with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. Tim Whatley forever!

Bonus links. Via Mark Evanier with a reminder from John Hall, some vintage L.A. Times coverage of Raymond Chandler.

A reminder. TCM Underground will be airing the trash Red Scare classic Shack Out on 101 this Friday at 2AM EST (OK, technically that’s Saturday), 11PM PST. With Lee Marvin as Slob!

A staple. Time for the band featuring my first wife, my half brother Nils, and the guy who handles my landscaping. And I ain’t talking about yard work. When I get swamped, you get ‘Crucified.’

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Book: Adios, Scheherazade, by Donald E. Westlake (1970)

I’ve wanted to read Adios, Scheherazade by the late, great Donald E. Westlake for years. I also assumed I never would; Scheherazade is no longer in print, and the few paperbacks in circulation can get pricey.

Then, a shadowy benefactor from the east made a copy available to me. And thus does my bucket list grow one entry shorter. (Thanks, Duane! Someday, somehow, I will return the favor.)

Ed Topliss ghostwrites sex novels for his friend Rod Cox. (Only Westlake would create dirty book writers named Topliss and Rod Cox – and force them to use a pseudonym.) Every month Ed grinds out a yarn with a title like Beachcomber Sin or Passion’s Prisoner. He’s done twenty-eight so far. Only twenty-nine ain’t coming so easy.

Scheherazade is what Ed writes while trying to make his deadline. Notes, false starts, complaints. Pages of self-loathing autobiography, which he then cannibalizes and tries to turn into titillating sleaze. Westlake not only explains how such books were produced during the pulp era – ten chapters, five thousand words each, a sex scene in every one – he actually writes one hewing to the very formula he deconstructs. On top of that, it’s hysterical. Sparkling turns of phrase cheek-by-jowl* with deliberately bad writing. Hell, even the page numbering is funny.

Then Westlake surprises once more by making the damn thing moving. As Ed spills his life onto paper, it soon becomes clear that writer’s block is not his biggest problem. He’s a young man trapped by important decisions made in haste, with no thought for the consequences. And he’s only now realizing he can’t write the ending he desperately wants.

It’s brilliant stuff, hilarious, sexy, gripping. One of the best I’ve read from a favorite author. This has been such a success that I’m extending this offer: if you have any rare books you’d like to send my way, you know where to reach me.

* I initially typed cheek-by-howl. A little too Gene Shalit, so I took it out. No need to thank me.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

DVD: In the Electric Mist (2009)

This adaptation of a Dave Robicheaux novel by James Lee Burke went straight to DVD in the United States. There’s an alternate version playing in Europe, and the confederate dead are no longer in the title. That electric mist must be thick.

Still, it’s Robicheaux and it’s director Bertrand Tavernier, who made the great cop drama L.627 and Coup de Torchon, based on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280. Rent the Criterion DVD of Torchon, watch the deleted waltzing monkeys ending, and understand why people speak of the French as they do.

Electric Mist is one of the later, more baroque entries in the Robicheaux series. (Someone please make a movie of Black Cherry Blues.) Dave is dealing with a string of brutal serial killings; the skeleton of a black man found in the bayou some 40 years after Dave witnessed his murder; a dipsomaniacal movie star filming a Civil War drama on location; and the ghost of General John Bell Hood. I can see why Tavernier sparked to the material. It’s a chance to meditate on America’s great crimes. And the French love that movie-within-a-movie stuff.

It’s a lot of story for one movie, and the compression is clunky. The pace is more languorous than suspenseful. I blame the heat. Well, not so much the heat as the humidity.

Updating the setting to post-Katrina Louisiana works, and the locations are shown to good effect. And there’s no faulting the cast. Tommy Lee Jones is a dandy Dave. John Goodman and Ned Beatty, veterans of the definitive New Orleans crime drama, have a high time as heavies. And you have to credit any movie with the wit to cast John Sayles as the director of a bloated Hollywood production, and the sense to give Buddy Guy a speaking role.

It’s not perfect by a damn sight. But it deserves a damn sight better.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Book: Safer, by Sean Doolittle (2009)

In small towns as in academia, life can get nasty because the stakes are so low. Both feature in Safer, the latest from Sean Doolittle.

When his wife accepts a job at a Midwestern university, Paul Callaway finds himself at a loose end. He no longer wears the pants in his household and he’s not in his big city comfort zone, staring down a future of weekend golf and nightly patrols with the neighborhood watch. In short order he clashes with a local fixture who is a retired police officer and beloved community leader. When the bad blood between them boils over, Callaway finds himself in jail charged with child pornography, and he soon realizes the poison running under his quiet street has its origins in a murder a decade old.

The neighbor-from-hell premise may be a familiar one, but Doolittle sharpens its teeth. His villain is a chillingly plausible and all too human one, and he works in a portrait of a shaky marriage amidst a nuanced recreation of the awkward suburban dance of backyard barbecues and over the fence conversations. The book is shrewdly structured, alternating between present tense scenes of Callaway’s legal nightmare and a past tense recounting of his collapsing relationships. And the suspense never lets up.

Doolittle’s previous books include diamond-hard intimate crime novels like Rain Dogs and The Cleanup. Not to speculate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been encouraged to think bigger with this outing. It’s nice to see him clear the fences.

DVD: The Narrow Margin (1952)

Seventy one minutes. No false steps. B-movie magic. Pure noir heaven.