Friday, April 30, 2010

Book: Expiration Date, by Duane Swierczynski (2010)

Pick up a novel by Duane Swierczynski and you know you’re going to get two things: breakneck pacing and a wild premise. His latest, originally intended as a serial in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is no exception.

The clock’s run out on Mickey Wade’s journalism career, and is down to the last few ticks on his relationship. Without options, he moves into his grandfather’s apartment in the dicey Philadelphia neighborhood he thought he’d left behind. Hung over after night #1, Mickey pops what he thinks are two ancient Tylenols. And abruptly finds himself in the Philly of 1972, several years before his father would be brutally murdered.

Time travel, serial killers, secret government projects. There’s inventiveness on every page, but what makes the book work – I hate using this word, but it’s appropriate – is its heart. Mickey slowly realizes that his problems are deeper than he thinks, actually going back a generation or two, and he seizes the chance to fix them. Expiration Date calls to mind those early, Night Shift-era Stephen King stories, mad science experiments that combine genres and fuse different pulp energies but keep the action human-scaled. The result is quite a ride, and my favorite Swierczynski book yet.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Movies: The Missing Person (2009)/44 Inch Chest (U.S. 2010)

Playing catch-up with a pair of interesting new-to-DVD crime films. One was never released theatrically in this neck of the woods. The other’s entire engagement took place while I was in the bathroom.

The Missing Person is an offbeat, novella-scaled movie. Oscar nominee Michael Shannon plays an ex-NYPD cop turned Chicago shamus, hired by a slippery lawyer and his associate (fellow Oscar nominee Amy Ryan, doubling as producer) to shadow a man on a train to Los Angeles. It’s a sort of post-9/11 noir, Dashiell Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable as told by Paul Auster. Noah Buschel’s movie toys with private eye conventions rather than subverting them; Shannon is led astray by a sexy dame (Margaret Colin, whom I’ve always loved), gets knocked out cold, and finds himself criticized for making wisecracks no one understands. Shannon’s quietly forceful performance is the reason to watch this one. The awed way he says, “This kid blocks the plate like Thurman Munson” while watching a little league game slayed me. Plus the movie has the great good sense to feature Joe Lovano.

The writers and two stars of Sexy Beast reunite for 44 Inch Chest, which unspools like the foulest mouthed Harold Pinter play ever. Hard case Col (Ray Winstone), bereft when his wife (Joanne Whalley) leaves him for a younger man, kidnaps loverboy and spends the next few hours deciding what to do with him. He’s aided, abetted, and egged on in his endeavors by his querulous crew of Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Dillane. Plus John Hurt, who is given dentures, the better to gnaw on the scenery. At the heart of the talk is men’s fear of love, of vulnerability, of any perceived weakness. Be forewarned that there is some truly world-class profanity on display, never more so than in the scene where the boys end up essentially spouting their sexual fantasies about Col’s missus in the idiotic belief they’re helping their mate’s cause. A scabrously funny movie with some real insight into the male psyche. Don’t skip the epilogues feature on the DVD.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Book: Memory, by Donald E. Westlake (2010)

Disquieting is not a word likely to turn up in blurbs. But it’s an appropriate one to describe Memory, in all probability the final novel from Donald E. Westlake and the first book I’ve read in eons that literally haunted my dreams.

The story behind Memory is fascinating; Westlake wrote it in the early 1960s but because it was, in the words of his friend Lawrence Block, “a lengthy serious existential novel by an unknown writer,” it failed to find a publisher. Block, one of the only people to have read the manuscript, recalled it in the wake of Westlake’s death in December 2008 and brought it to the attention of Hard Case Crime. Its appearance in print only burnishes Westlake’s reputation.

Actor Paul Cole is on the road with a play and sleeping with another man’s wife when the other man attacks him. As a result, Cole’s memory is damaged. His mind becomes a sieve, with bits and pieces of his self catching briefly before sluicing through.

Westlake’s crisply efficient writing is in evidence. X-rays of Cole’s skull are “photographs of the city in which he used to live and at the gates of which he was now camped.” Even more effective is the book’s demonically circular structure. Cole learns things only to forget them. Each toehold he finds on the long slope down only makes the next fall that much more painful. Westlake blindsides you at the start of one chapter with the blunt revelation that Cole has lost a critical item. As I read Cole’s emotions became my own: panic, despair, fatalistic acceptance.

Far more disturbing is what Memory suggests about life. Are we the sum of our experiences – or simply the product of our routines? The advice Cole receives from one man about the cumulative effect of one’s decisions has the feel of a secret never meant to be uttered.

Few novels conjure up such a state of pervasive dread, or bring a character to a place where he seems so hopelessly doomed. All without a shot being fired, without anyone being killed. This is the noir nightmare, plain and simple. I read it in a white heat for two reasons: to find out what happened next, and to put myself out of my misery.

For the record, that was intended as an endorsement.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book: Do They Know I’m Running?, by David Corbett (2010)

Full disclosure: David Corbett is a friend. Fuller disclosure: His latest novel is terrific.

Life has not been kind to the Montalvo brothers, orphaned young and living with their Salvadoran aunt in Northern California. Roque is a talented young guitarist stumbling toward manhood. Godo is a shell of himself following his tour with the Marines in Iraq. Their situation only becomes more difficult when their uncle Faustino is deported. Roque agrees to travel to El Salvador and bring Faustino back along a treacherous route controlled by criminal gangs. Godo stays behind to work with their criminal cousin Happy, who has organized Faustino’s return. Both soon discover that Happy has an agenda all his own, one that will force Roque to take others on his journey.

Do They Know I’m Running? is written with a reporter’s eye and a poet’s heart. It’s wildly ambitious, packed with richly detailed characters, showing how distant spots on the globe from Central America to the Middle East are inextricably connected. Its vast scope occasionally threatens to become sprawl, but David always narrows his focus at exactly the right time to the things that matter: the obligations we all shoulder, the burdens we choose to ignore, the unspoken commitments to our loved ones. That intense interest in the human costs of 21st century life has produced a terrific, heartbreaking book that’s one of the year’s best.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

DVD: Over-Exposed (1956)/Women’s Prison (1955)

How do you solve a problem like Cleo Moore?

The Marilyn Monroe manqué appeared as trouble in tights in a few ‘50s films. Christa Faust saw Strange Fascination at Noir City Los Angeles and noted that Cleo “had an astounding build, but she looks disturbingly like a Cabbage Patch sex doll or a female version of Arch Hall Jr.” This description is both disturbing and weirdly accurate. When Alan K. Rode, an organizer of said Noir City fest, called Janis Carter the Courtyard by Marriott of femmes fatale – “always credible, dependable and frequently underrated” – I asked him who the Hampton Inn in this metaphor was. He said Cleo. I can only assume this means Cleo is close to the highway and offers On The Run breakfast bags.

Several of Cleo’s movies appear in Columbia’s recent Bad Girls of Film Noir collection. Two of them, both directed by Lewis Seiler, appear on the same disc, and they’ve made me a Cleo fan.

In Over-Exposed, Cleo tackles the role she was born to play – and I mean tackled, because the woman had shoulders like Jason Taylor. (Speaking of which: welcome to the Jets, big man!) She’s Lily Krenshka, clip joint honey turned swimsuit model who reinvents herself as fashion photographer/blackmailer Lila Crane. Cleo is saddled with telegraphed plot twists, Richard Crenna as a wheedling boyfriend, and dialogue that indicates a pathological fear of subtext; when given her first camera, she declares, “I can use it as a jimmy. It’ll open doors for me.” It’s vigorous sleaze, and Cleo’s right at home in it.

Cleo has a minor role in Women’s Prison. Even with those shoulders she can’t muscle more screen time from this cast. You’ve got Ida Lupino as the hard-edged and possibly insane warden. Audrey Totter as a married con with a husband on the men’s side of the wall. Phyllis Thaxter as a hausfrau who can’t hack it in stir, a character the movie loses interest in as soon as we do. Future Oscar nominee Juanita Moore as an inmate named after the hospital where she was born, Polyclinic Jones. Best of all is Jan Sterling – the Ramada Inn of femmes fatale, according to Alan – as the brassy blonde who shows new fish the ropes. Even Chez K fave Gertrude Michael is along for the ride as the screw with a heart.

Women’s Prison is a cheesy issue picture, striking the balance between just good enough and just bad enough to be thoroughly entertaining. Watch it for the scene in which noble doctor Howard Duff calls Lupino a psychotic jealous of her charges because they, at least, have experienced a man’s love – and know that the two actors were married at the time.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

TV: Roku Like A Hurricane

Never let it be said that I can’t see the writing on the wall. Netflix starts signing deals with studios to delay the rental of new DVDs in exchange for more streaming content. My only problem with this arrangement is I already spend enough hours in the day staring at my computer screen. Sometimes I want to stare at my TV.

So we got a Roku. Hundreds of titles in my Netflix queue are now instantly available on my TV.

We’re tooling around the new setup and see that additional channels are available for a nominal fee. One of them, Moonlight Movies, bills itself as offering classic films from the 1930s through the ‘70s.

It’s actually the noir channel, including several hard-to-find and unavailable on video titles. We christened the Roku with a double-bill featuring an unintentional theme: mental derangement and characters named Vince.

First up, 1949’s The Crooked Way. Eddie Rice (John Payne) is a decorated WWII veteran with amnesia thanks to a chunk of shrapnel lodged in his brain. He heads back to Los Angeles to learn about his past only to discover he was both a crook and a bastard.

The Crooked Way is conveniently plotted; Eddie starts running into people who know him the second he steps off the train at Union Station. And the villainous Vince is played by Sonny Tufts, living up to his billing as a lousy actor. But Payne as always is terrific, disappointed in the man he can’t remember being. And cinematographer John Alton does some of his most extraordinary work, shooting one scene in stark silhouette and later offering an astonishing close-up in which Payne’s face is completely obscured, his character’s character unknown to the audience as well as himself.

Next, Fear in the Night (1947), a low-budget Cornell Woolrich adaptation made with ingenuity. DeForest “Bones” Kelley has a vivid nightmare about killing a man – and then finds hints that perhaps it wasn’t a dream. Like Kelley’s Vince, I couldn’t shake the unnerving sense that I’d experienced all this before. I soon figured out why: writer/director Maxwell Shane remade the movie nine years later, and that one I’d seen.

Also available via Roku is an MLB.TV package that puts the coverage I get from my cable company to shame. I’d have made the switch already, but I do have to work sometime. Speaking of baseball ...

Baseball: Let’s Play Two and Then Some

Yesterday’s epic Mets/Cardinals tilt was not televised in Seattle. I ended up blowing off plans to see a movie and instead sat in my favorite bar tracking the (in)action on my phone. The battery almost died before the game finally ended after twenty innings – eighteen of them scoreless – and nearly seven hours with a 2-1 Mets victory.

It was a strange way to follow a game, both old-fashioned and modern, like receiving a telegram on an iPad. Without the commentary, some nuances took a moment to register. “Wait, Felipe López is now on the mound for St. Louis? Isn’t he a shortstop? And he’s pitching to the reliever who gave up the grand slam to him on Friday night? Who the hell is Joe Mather?” The Mets couldn’t score runs off the Cardinals position players sent to the hill while their All-Star closer failed to nail down the save. But an ugly win is still a win. At the very least there’s something to put on the team’s 2010 highlight DVD.

Meaningless Milestone: Blog Out the Candles

Six years? I’ve been blogging for six years?!?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Extra, Extra!: Noir City Sentinel

Noir City Los Angeles wraps up this weekend, so it’s only fitting that the latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, trade rag of the Film Noir Foundation, streets today. This edition marks the Sentinel’s debut as a quarterly publication, and it’s packed with wonders including:

* FNF honcho Eddie Muller on the Foundation’s efforts to restore Too Late for Tears and The Chase

* Jake Hinkson on journeyman director Felix Feist

* The radio days of Jack Webb

* And so much more!

Among that last are two pieces by yours truly. One reviews the Red Riding trilogy, a blistering example of contemporary noir that’s a cinematic high point of 2010. The other puts the “Noir or Not?” question to a movie that has long flummoxed me, 1947’s Nora Prentiss. Where do I come down on the matter? You’ll have to contribute to the Foundation to find out.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Movie: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

There will always be a soft spot in my heart for Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Along with Frequency, it’s on the very short list of movies in which the New York Mets are essential to the plot. I revisited the film last year and while Harvey Keitel’s performance is still galvanizing, it didn’t hold it up as well I’d hoped. It’s very Catholic, and I bring that to the table already. And the truth is a lot of movies from the ‘90s indie film heyday don’t date very well.

You don’t need to have seen version one to make sense of Werner Herzog’s in name only sequel. You may not make sense of it anyway. But I loved every minute of it.

Nicolas Cage is the title cop. His Terrence McDonagh is no angel at the outset, but after wrenching his back rescuing a prisoner in the wake of Hurricane Katrina he becomes addicted to painkillers and that accelerates his downward spiral. McDonagh is a dogged but demented detective, determined to find out who murdered an immigrant family while juggling his own criminal endeavors and indulging various appetites.

Cage is almost the whole show here, harking back to his wild, early, Vampire’s Kiss-era performances. His enthusiasm for silent film acting comes across in his walk, which had my back aching after ten minutes. His accent devolves as the movie progresses; halfway through he sounds like Tony Clifton. But his hell-for-leather inventiveness is given a sturdy framework courtesy of the script by TV veteran William M. Finklestein (who saves a few choice lines for himself as a weary gangster).

The movie’s funny, weird, and subversive. The scene in which Cage’s many problems are resolved rat-a-tat-tat plays like some deadpan existential sitcom, as if Samuel Beckett wrote an episode of My Two Dads. Ferrara’s film may come across as more serious; every minute he’s on screen Keitel is wrestling with demons, while Cage merely seems to be playing footsie with fate. Then you get to Port Of Call’s ending, which is moving, even transcendent. I don’t know if Port of Call is a joke or a work of art. I can only say that I enjoyed it tremendously.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Keenan’s Klassics: The Money Trap (1965)

Is that second K too much? Rosemarie thinks it’s too much.

In honor of Noir City Los Angeles and the pending release of Warner Brothers’ fifth Film Noir Classic Collection, the Warner Archive is running a sale. Thirty percent off select noir titles through April 19.

I wondered via Twitter why The Money Trap wasn’t on the list. In short order the situation was rectified. Thus did I single-handedly save consumers $5.99 and prove the utility of Twitter. No need to thank me.

Here’s a post from July 2007 explaining why this underrated film is as noir as they come.

Funny how these things work. When the question of forgotten pop culture personalities was raised at Hollywood Elsewhere earlier this month, Glenn Ford was one of the first names mentioned. And not without reason. Then the other day, author George Pelecanos wrote a heartfelt tribute to him, saying that “Ford, more than any other screen actor, is the paternal stand-in for a generation of boys whose fathers served in World War II” and praising the “quiet, confident masculinity that could only have come from someone who had nothing to prove.”

He’s ripe for reappraisal, with Russell Crowe taking over for Ford in his prime in the upcoming remake of 3:10 To Yuma. At Noir City I saw the young Ford in Framed. Time for a film from later in his career.

The Money Trap is an unheralded noir with an offbeat pedigree. Director Burt Kennedy is better known for comic westerns. Walter Bernstein adapts a novel by Lionel White (The Killing). Ford plays a weary detective married to a wealthy younger woman (Elke Sommer). The missus begins having cash flow problems just as Ford is handed the case of a thief gunned down in front of an empty safe by connected physician Joseph Cotten. The thief’s dying words have Ford convinced that the safe wasn’t originally empty, and that if Ford can somehow steal the contents Cotten won’t be able to go to the police.

I’m not claiming that The Money Trap is a neglected masterpiece. The plot’s a bit lumpy, and the only thing missing from the opening sequence – Ford and partner Ricardo Montalban rocketing through the rain to a murder scene at a brothel, complete with brassy jazz soundtrack – is a narrator intoning, “A Quinn Martin Production.” But it’s a good movie. More to the point, it’s a bracingly adult one, about sex and money and the need to make a name for oneself.

It has a healthy appreciation for sleaze, always a plus in a thriller. The magnificently fleshy Sommer undressing just at the edge of the frame, loads of shots of curvy women in garter belts.

That sleaze is tied to what drives the movie: Ford’s repressed paranoia that living off his wife’s money has diminished him as a man. At one point Ford looks up the thief’s widow, a woman from the neighborhood he has a history with, played by Rita Hayworth. Ford and Hayworth appeared together several times, most memorably in Gilda. They put that history to work for them in an extraordinary scene in which they compare how their lives haven’t matched the dreams of their youth and end up sleeping together one last time. Neither actor indulges in vanity, the weathered hunk and the ravaged beauty giving each other some small bit of comfort in the long night.

Black-and-white films from the mid-to-late ‘60s seem to carry a sense of their own futility. You can feel history shrugging its shoulders and asking, “Why aren’t you in color?” In a film noir that feeling is only intensified, moreso one with leads in the twilight of their careers. Stumbling onto The Money Trap was like discovering ghosts struggle with their problems, certain in their belief that no one was watching.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Miscellaneous: Relaunch!

Consider this post the champagne bottle. I am christening version 2.0 of this blog. I’ll tweak the design, add a few bells and whistles, but basically this is the new internet homestead.

The plan, you may recall, was to maintain the blog at the original URL. It soon became apparent that the best way to keep the old links, comments and images intact was to migrate to a subdomain with a slightly different address. Think of it as the website’s backyard. Look, I put in a deck.

I always knew there’d come a day when I moved the blog off the main page. After all, I bought the domain to build the Vince Keenan brand and promote my various products: books, films, articles, video games, my dance album, my personal fragrance (scribe ... pour homme) and my online series of motivational lectures (Take Out the Biggest Guy on the Yard: Management Lessons from Prison).

Speaking of which, I have to get back to work. Hang around all you like. Just turn off the grill when you’re done, and close the gate so the dog doesn’t get out.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Miscellaneous: Testing

Pay no attention to this post. This is Vince, making sure the first stage of the blog migration was successful. He has nothing interesting to say. As usual.

This blog has moved

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Miscellaneous: Changes Afoot

Some websites are redesigned, and some have redesigns thrust upon them.

Back in the technologically primitive days when I started VKDC, in the long ago year of 2004, publishing via Blogger on a non-Blogspot domain meant using file transfer protocol. Alas, Blogger has decided to stop supporting FTP at the end of this month. Meaning that I now need to do something.

The plan, if it works, will keep the blog at this URL. The migration process will take some time, more if we screw it up. In the interim, follow me on Twitter for updates.

Once the migration is done, I intend to make some visual changes around here. Believe it or not, six years ago this was a fairly slick design. Now I’m sick of looking at it.

If all goes well, there should be no interruption of the top-drawer service you have come to expect. If all doesn’t go well, which is entirely likely, remember me as a consensus builder. Except when it comes to Bigger Than Life.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Book: Faith and Fear in Flushing, by Greg Prince (2009)

On a recent evening, Rosemarie and I were strolling around our Seattle neighborhood. A gent who’d gotten in his cups a little early stopped before us, turned to Rosemarie, and said, “What’s a good-looking woman like you doing with a Mets fan?”

(I was wearing a Mets cap. As is my wont.)

Rosemarie replied, “This man is my loving husband of almost twenty years. And I’m also a Mets fan.” Appropriately chastened, the interloper took his leave.

We walked on. “So, uh, thanks for sticking up for me,” I finally said.

“Forget it,” Rosemarie replied. “He did say I was good-looking, right?”

Random abuse is part of being a Mets fan. I don’t know how it works between Cubs and White Sox partisans, but in New York you always have to explain why you root for the orange and blue. That’s because the Yankees are the Yankees, and the Mets are the Mets.

But root for them I do. The Mets have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Before movies, before crime fiction, there was the Mets. Blame growing up in Queens, just a stone’s throw from Shea Stadium. They were my home team in every sense. (Rosemarie, a product of Flushing, would actually walk to games.) Being a Mets fan is an inextricable part of my identity. Ask anybody who knows me.

Greg Prince is one of the writers behind Faith and Fear in Flushing, a regular stop for me. He’s spun the blog into a book. Subtitled An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, that’s exactly what it is: a look at how supporting a team, through good times and bad, becomes a constant, a way of marking the years. It’s about the twinned joy of giving yourself over to something larger, and the agony of being at the mercy of that which you can’t control. Substitute the names and it could be about your team. But if the phrase Grand Slam Single produces chills in you as it does in me, you’ll love it.

So as Opening Day dawns on Monday, I will once again don my cap in support of the most dysfunctional team in professional sports. This in spite of the fact that they’re in a division with the Phillies, the National League equivalent of the Yankees and Red Sox: a perennial contender. That everyone expects them to flirt with .500 and place no better than third this season. That sportswriters have taken to calling for regime change as if the front office is part of the Axis of Evil, or comparing Citi Field to the hell of Dante’s Inferno.

Instead, I’ll focus on the good times. Cementing my bond with my friend Mike, whose blog Metsanity is well worth reading. The 1986 world championship; game six remains one of the high points of my life. Meeting Tom Seaver, the man to this day known as The Franchise. Want to see hero worship? Look at my face.

Or simply helping out another fan. It’s late 2007. Only a few weeks after the Mets’ storied collapse, blowing a seven-game lead with seventeen to play and missing the playoffs entirely.

Whoo. Hang on. I need a minute.

I have to run to the grocery store. It’s raining, so without thinking I put on my Mets inclement weather cap – yes, I have more than one – and head out. I’m in the express line when the guy behind me taps me on the shoulder.

“I have to tell you, I’m so glad to see you,” he says to me in a quiet voice. “I haven’t been able to put on my cap since it happened.”

“You’ve got to man up,” I told him. “Next year starts right now.”

I am way, way too proud of that moment.