Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Good Stuff: Movies of 2010

Look for your Oscar bait elsewhere. I give you ten essential thrillers in order seen, with links to the original posts when applicable.

The Red Riding Trilogy. Shattering.

The Ghost Writer. Ending of the year.

A Prophet. I’d complain that it didn’t win the ’09 Best Foreign Film Oscar, only it lost to ...

The Secret in Their Eyes. The best movie of 2010. Also the best movie of the last several years. Also inspired my favorite post of the year.

Winter’s Bone. The first American movie on this list, but it’s from an America you seldom see onscreen.

Mother. Bong Joon-ho with the hat trick!

The Square. Blue-collar Aussie noir.

Animal Kingdom. Jacki Weaver is understandably getting all the love. But it’s Ben Mendelsohn’s Uncle Pope that haunts me all these months later.

Cell 211. The one title on this list not yet on DVD. Don’t worry. It’s being remade.

The American. See? A studio film with a huge star. I’m easy to please. Just give me an existential noir with a European attitude toward pacing, atmosphere and nudity.

What? You want my favorite non-thrillers of 2010? Lord, but you people are pushy. Fine. Toy Story 3 and Exit Through the Gift Shop. Both of which move like thrillers.

Underrated: 44 Inch Chest and Please Give.

Scene of the year: Michael Caine’s breakfast alone in Harry Brown.

Cinematic highlight of the year ... you have to ask? Noir City. Although seeing a restored print of The Red Shoes introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker is right up there.

And favorite movies that were new to me ... Violent Saturday (1955), a heist movie that plays like a Douglas Sirk melodrama. The beguiling Three Strangers (1946). And the DVD discovery of the year, The Underworld Story (1950).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Good Stuff: Books of 2010

No top ten this year. Instead here’s a pick six, the half-dozen crime novels I commend to you unreservedly, listed in the order read. Click through to the original posts for more.

Print the Legend, by Craig McDonald. Yes, technically I read it in 2009. But I remembered it.

Do They Know I’m Running?, by David Corbett. Yes, Corbett is a friend. But leaving his brilliant heartbreaker off the list wouldn’t have been fair to you. And aren’t we friends, too?

Memory, by Donald E. Westlake. Yes, it was written almost 5 decades ago. But it wasn’t published until this year. And it gave me nightmares, so it makes the cut.

Infamous, by Ace Atkins. The best of the three Atkins novels I read this year.

The Big Bang, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins. Started by the first, finished by the second and the most fun you’ll have between two covers.

Savages, by Don Winslow. A game-changer for the author and my favorite of the year.

The non-crime fiction jury prize goes to Rut by Scott Phillips. For ingenuity in content and in distribution.

2010 was also the year I finally caved and bought an e-reader, and I haven’t looked back. That purchase is directly responsible for my favorite novels that were new to me: Solomon’s Vineyard, Jonathan Latimer (1941), Fast One, Paul Cain (1932) and especially I Should Have Stayed Home, Horace McCoy (1938).

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book: The War for Late Night, by Bill Carter (2010)

The true wisdom in New York Times reporter Carter’s chronicle of the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien debacle comes from someone who isn’t on TV anymore. Jerry Seinfeld recalls telling Johnny Carson not long after his retirement that for twenty years, comedians speculated on who would take over The Tonight Show. “And the one thing we never realized was that, when you left, you were taking it with you.” The creation of a viable late night alternative on CBS ended an era in television; as Seinfeld points out, comics say Jay or Dave or Conan now, not The Tonight Show. In retrospect, the writing was on the wall when Garry Shandling chose to do a behind-the-scenes comedy about a talk show as opposed to the real thing on NBC.

The slow-burn succession plan put in place in 2004 by NBC’s Jeff Zucker – Leno agreeing to step down as Tonight Show host in 2009 to make way for Conan – is usually characterized as the root of the problem. But by the end of Carter’s book I was convinced that the network unintentionally made the best of a bad situation. There was no way NBC could hope to hold on to both stars in the long run; one was always going to end up the competition. The current landscape, with Leno leading in the ratings and Conan on basic cable, no doubt suits the suits just fine.

Conan comes off as funny, decent and somewhat naïve. Leno, meanwhile, reads as hard-working and deeply uninteresting. When he does reveal something of himself, you wish he hadn’t; his explanation for why he refuses to take vacations (“I understand how people spend money to buy things they need or like. But spending money on an experience? That seems like an extravagance to me.”) seems utterly alien, especially when as Carter points out it’s people on vacation who pay for Leno’s fabled collection of vintage cars. It’s a sign of Leno’s lack of presence in spite of his success that his valid take on the situation – fiftysomething guy is forced out of his job, but returns triumphant – never caught on. Letterman, as always, remains inscrutable, while Carter gets plenty of good material from a savvy and scrappy Jimmy Kimmel.

The book is compulsively readable but evenhanded to a fault. Carter’s Gray Lady insistence on reporting everyone’s side as if he’s covering arms negotiations weakens the fascinating opening at the May 2009 upfronts, when Leno flopped with a long set of dated material. And he shies away from any assessment of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, including the commonly held one that it was never vital television until it was on the verge of extinction.

Overall, there’s a sense that Carter is missing the boat. 11:30 on the broadcast networks may be where the money is, but not the excitement. Jay Leno couldn’t get millions of people to turn up for a rally on the Washington mall or shame Congress into passing a bill. The boldest late night personality is Chelsea Handler on E! The only late night clips I’m sent these days are from Jimmy Fallon’s show, and the one show I try to regularly watch is Craig Ferguson’s, where actual conversations occur. Carter’s book is filled with the crack of buggy whips. It’s diligent reportage on the final mastodon’s struggles in the tar pit.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Books: Comfort Reading

Checking in with two favorite series in the waning days of 2010 ...

Hollywood Hills is Joseph Wambaugh’s fourth book about life in Tinseltown’s cop shop. A few new officers are thrown into the mix as well as dual sets of bad guys destined to collide. We have two only-in-L.A. victims of the Great Recession, a caterer turned gentleman’s gentleman and a gallery owner on his uppers. And we have victims of Hollywood itself in a pair of drug-addled teenagers obsessed with ripping off celebrities like their heroes. Wambaugh weaves in the usual tales of humor and heartbreak on the beat, but this time around he puts some of his recurring characters through the wringer. It’s another strong outing. Extra credit for referring to Paris Hilton by her correct job title, “famous person.”

The fifth of Robert J. Randisi’s Rat Pack mysteries, I’m a Fool to Kill You unfolds in 1962. Sands pit boss/fixer Eddie Gianelli gets the call when Ava Gardner appears in the hotel looking for her ex-husband Frank Sinatra only to vanish. Eddie G, aided as always by gastronomical gunsel Jerry Epstein, tracks Ava down to learn that the she went on a bender and lost several days only to find blood literally on her hands when she woke up. Randisi’s portrait of Ava – earthy, seductive, foul-mouthed and fearful of aging – is the best feature of this breezy caper.

Hey, did you know there’s an Ava Gardner museum?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Movie: The Underworld Story (1950)

Over the weekend I read critic David Thomson’s New Republic article on “feel-good noir.” Thanks to Megan Abbott for bringing it to my attention. (Checked out the blog Megan’s running with Sara Gran, the Abbott Gran Medicine Show, yet? It’s well worth your time.) I’m an admirer of Thomson’s but his latest is a windy, broad brush piece. “There are many things corroding America,” Thomson fulminates, “and this endless cultivation of noir must be on the list.” If you say so, but it had better be pretty fucking far down that list. It doesn’t help that Thomson is guilty of the very crime he protests against. Only by the broadest definition can Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and Ben Affleck’s film The Town, both of which I enjoyed, be considered noir.

Thomson’s sentiments chafed because over the weekend I also encountered genuine noir. Long forgotten, The Underworld Story has been brought back into circulation courtesy of the Warner Archive. It’s based on a story by Craig Rice, whose antic crime novels landed her on the cover of Time magazine. But the only laughs here come from the gallows. The movie whips up a paranoid atmosphere so intense it’s no surprise its director (Cy Endfield), screenwriter (Henry Blankfort) and one of its stars (Howard Da Silva) would soon be blacklisted.

When a story by reporter Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) about a witness against a crime boss gets that witness killed, he becomes the fall guy for the paper’s higher-ups. Non grata in his chosen profession, Reese waltzes into the office of the crime boss (the blazing Da Silva) to ask for payment for the service he unintentionally rendered. Reese uses the money to buy a stake in a suburban rag for people who like to see their names in print. Then he strikes pay dirt with a juicy society murder. The victim: the daughter-in-law of one of the press moguls (Herbert Marshall) who refused to give him a job. It’s immediately revealed that the killer is Marshall’s own son (Gar Moore), and that both men are perfectly willing to allow the family’s poor African-American maid to take the blame for the crime.

The Underworld Story captures several dynamics at play in the wake of World War II: the rise of the suburbs, the shift to either the trivial or the sensational in news. It also manages to shake one’s faith in every major American institution. The Fourth Estate? Reese’s initial plan for his new paper is to shake down his own advertisers. He brokers the maid’s surrender to the authorities only to claim the reward money. When that fails, he sets up a defense fund in her behalf so he continue to control the story and rake in chips. He ends up on the side of the angels simply because he’s got nowhere else to go. The lawyer who takes the maid’s case does so only for the publicity and the fee he’s splitting with Reese. The crusading D.A. puts his grudge against the reporter ahead of his responsibilities. And don’t expect any help from the top of the food chain. Marshall marshals the town’s elite and has them boycott the paper, using his influence to stifle debate. In a bone-chilling scene, respected citizens stand outside Duryea’s office glaring at him after the place has been vandalized, making it clear that they’ll escalate their tactics if necessary. The movie’s vision of a world dictated by bureaucracy and self-interest make it play like a proto version of The Wire.

It’s not a perfect film. Gale Storm doesn’t do much with the bland role of Reese’s new partner, Gar Moore is a vague presence as the killer, and the casting of a white actress as the maid (along with some strange dubbing in the scenes in which her character’s race is discussed) is jarring. But it’s a potent work that asks a lot of unsettling questions about where America was heading. When it’s over, nobody feels good.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On The Web: Blatant Self Promotion

A regular feature of the Noir City Sentinel, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, is “Noir or Not?,” in which a film’s status in that darkest of pantheons is considered. For the Sentinel’s true crime edition, the task fell to me. The title in question? On the Waterfront. It was a tough piece to write, because before I could settle the noir matter I had to address my complicated feelings toward the movie.

True confession time: WATERFRONT is one of those classics that I respect more than like. I blame the Actors Studio. The Method school of performance it touted as the apex of emotional realism now reads as stylization of a different kind. Aside from some ferocious muckraking moments, the film crowned Best Picture of 1954 doesn’t speak to me. Three years earlier, Columbia Pictures released another film about harborside corruption. THE MOB (ironically made with the working title WATERFRONT) is a sharp-elbowed racketeering exposé with a crackling script by William Bowers. If you’ll permit a little blasphemy, your correspondent prefers it to WATERFRONT. It’s faster, funnier, more suspenseful, less ... psychological. In it a young Charles Bronson slams the degrading and tainted shape-up system of hiring longshoremen, but does so amidst corkscrew plot twists and wise-guy dialogue. True noir has no agenda other than to whisper in our ears that not only are we all doomed but destined to die unfulfilled, that at best we’ll go out with swag within arm’s reach and the lover for whom we stole it pulling the trigger. Not so ON THE WATERFRONT. It has points to make. It’s an issue drama in noir threads, a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Nothing like walking up to a revered movie and kicking it in the shins.

My Waterfront essay is one of several from the latest Sentinel currently available for free on the the FNF website. You can read it here. While you’re there, why not kick in a few bucks to the Foundation and get regular access to my genius?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Noir City: The Countdown Begins

Last night, during a seasonal double-bill of Remember the Night and Mr. Soft Touch, the schedule for Noir City 9 was released.

The festival, run through the auspices of the Film Noir Foundation and programmed by my friend Eddie Muller, will be at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre from January 21-30, 2011. The theme this go-round is “Who’s Crazy Now?” and features 24 features that witness madness ... or do they? Dig that lineup.

The fest then goes into roadshow mode, playing Los Angeles and, more importantly to your correspondent, Seattle’s SIFF Cinema. I’m disappointed that the Northwest won’t be getting the Barbara Stanwyck pairing of The Lady Gambles and Sorry, Wrong Number, and regret that I won’t be seeing Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door on the big screen. (Eddie calls Secret “incomprehensible.” Far be it for me to disagree with the Czar of Noir, but to me the movie is perfectly comprehensible ... just completely preposterous.) But there’s so much to look forward to: The Hunted, which I have on reasonable authority is everything you could want in a loopy B film, and the closing night screenings of Loophole and Crashout.

The year’s Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren, will benefit the FNF. As it happens, it also coincides with Noir City Northwest. My contribution to the blogathon will be the Noir City coverage you’ve come to expect.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Music: The Bad Plus

The Bad Plus has been together for ten years. Their show at Jazz Alley last night drew entirely from Never Stop, their new album celebrating that anniversary. As always, it was a sensational performance. The trio played one of my favorites, “Bill Hickman at Home,” a salute to the stunt driver of Bullitt and The French Connection, and Reid Anderson’s heartbreaking “People Like You.” Drummer Dave King truly got to shine, using his box of toys to full effect. They’re at Jazz Alley again tonight, with upcoming dates in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York. Go, go, go.

After the show, Rosemarie and I spent some time chatting with pianist and crime fiction connoisseur Ethan Iverson. Talk turned to ‘70s era detective shows and we mentioned Columbo, season one of Mannix, and the short-lived Ellery Queen. (We’ve been making our way through the recent DVD release; expect a post when we’re done.) At his blog Do The Math, Ethan details his recent reading.

Of course, this post is simply an excuse to link to Ethan’s astonishing overview of Donald E. Westlake’s career, now back on the web and somehow expanded. As it happens, Ethan’s classic rendering of the opening of The Da Vinci Code in the style of one of Westlake’s Richard Stark novels is today’s guest post at The Violent World of Parker.

All the TV shows mentioned above were created by the team of William Link and Richard Levinson. In another nice bit of serendipity, today is William Link’s 77th birthday. Mr. Link is still going strong; we recently had the pleasure of hearing him speak at Bouchercon. Extend your birthday greetings at The Rap Sheet.

And one final link to a piece on a subject that is also near and dear to my heart: Ethan’s wife Sarah Deming on cocktails bars that go too far. Who doesn’t serve Amaretto sours?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Keenan’s Klassics: It’s a Shane Black Christmas

From December 2009. We know this year’s cost of the 12 days. I shudder to think what my version would run you, even in this economy. Remember the Night will be playing at Noir City Xmas on December 15.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year.

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

God bless us, everyone. Or else.

UPDATE: Head over to Duane Swierczynski's blog for more suggestions on dark-hearted holiday fare.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Book: Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane (2010)

If you’re going to take time off, you might as well be productive. In the eleven years since the last Kenzie/Gennaro book Dennis Lehane has had an astonishing run, writing Mystic River, Shutter Island and The Given Day. Now he returns to the characters that made his name.

Lehane is too good and too serious a writer to phone it in. Changes have happened in the intervening decade. Some familiar faces are long gone. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are now married and raising a daughter in Boston – because honestly, where else could they live? Angie’s no longer a private investigator while Patrick does dispiriting freelance work in the hope of getting hired on at a big security firm. A sly reversal in the opening chapter nicely establishes Patrick’s diminished expectations.

Then Amanda McCready goes missing again, and once more Patrick is asked to find her. Their paths crossed in Gone, Baby, Gone, the consequences from that case nearly driving Patrick and Angie apart and haunting Kenzie still.

Revisiting the series’ strongest book is a risky gambit that calls to mind another Boston crime writer, Robert B. Parker, whose P.I. Spenser came to the aid of troubled young April Kyle more than once. Moonlight Mile’s plot, involving identity theft, Russian gangsters and a stolen artifact, is busy and none too tightly packed; Kenzie is more witness than protagonist by the end. Lehane’s real focus is on aging, the compromises we make as we grow older, and learning to “love the things that chafe.” There’s some similarity with the later films of Clint Eastwood, who directed the Oscar-winning adaptation of Mystic River, in terms of how a man of violence deals with the fallout from his actions.

Anyone unfamiliar with Patrick and Angie won’t understand the big deal here; anyone who has read the earlier books will relish a chance to hang out with them again. Because that’s essentially what you’re doing, hanging out. Moonlight Mile is like catching up with an old high school friend you encounter by chance. The conversation is rushed and covers a lot of ground. But when it’s over you hope you run into each other again, and more regularly.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

It’s that time again, kids. The Noir City Sentinel, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, hits the streets today. You probably heard it, because this issue is a gargantuan 71 pages, packed as always with news that’s red hot and ice cold.

Things lead off with updates on the calendar for Noir City 9 and the Foundation’s future restoration projects. The theme of the issue is the intersection of true crime and film noir, so there are pieces on crime photographers in general and the great Weegee in particular, Jake Hinkson on the spate of fact-based syndicate movies in the 1950s, and yours truly giving the “Noir or Not?” treatment to – and admitting I don’t actually like – an acknowledged cinema classic. Plus reviews, profiles, and fine writing galore. Kick a few bucks into the kitty and deny yourself no longer.

On a related note: Noir City Sentinel Annuals #1 and #2 are now on sale at Amazon, in time for the holiday gift-giving season. Several of my essays are in #2. Go. Buy. Read.

Now a bonus for sitting through all that shilling. The hugely talented Serena Bramble, who made The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir for last year’s Noir City, also assembled this tribute to San Francisco cinema for last month’s Bouchercon. Enjoy.