Monday, January 31, 2011

Burt With A Badge: Sharky’s Machine (1981)

Going into this movie I knew one thing, which I’d heard from a classmate who’d watched it on cable. At some point, a guy has a piece of glass shoved into his mouth and is then punched repeatedly in the face. The scene was described to me in such detail that I remembered it lo these many years later.

Like so much I learned on the schoolyard, this is completely untrue. Nothing even close to it occurs. On the other hand a ninja is shot with a spear gun, which I chalk up as a considerable improvement.

Burt Reynolds directs as well as stars in this adaptation of a novel by William Diehl. A drug buy arranged by Atlanta narcotics cop Tom Sharky goes chaotically wrong in the opening sequence, which includes some of the loudest gunshots I’ve ever heard in a movie. For his sins Sharky is cast into the department’s lowest circle, literally and figuratively: the vice squad, made up of misfits and short-timers. They’re content to bust streetwalkers, but Sharky has his sights set on a slick operator (Vittorio Gassman) with ties to the department and local power brokers. Soon the titular apparatus is running multiple off-the-books wiretaps and Sharky finds himself obsessed with Gassman’s pride, the lovely Dominoe (Rachel Ward).

That the apparent misspelling of her name is not only deliberate but a plot point is an indication of the kind of movie Sharky’s Machine is. Occasionally sloppy and coarse, but on the whole surprisingly effective. It’s the find of this utterly unmotivated one-man blogathon.

Burt fills the movie with his pals, old pros he worked with repeatedly like Charles Durning, Brian Keith and Henry Silva. His smartest casting decision was the then-unknown but wholly beguiling Ward. (Granted, I am susceptible to tall, regal, husky-voiced brunettes.) Yes, the Reynolds/Ward scenes borrow liberally from Laura. But if you’re going to borrow, why not do so from the best?

ASIDE: After watching the film I found the site for Rachel Ward’s production company. She expresses amazement “that anyone could want any information beyond the breasts and pouts ... so readily available on Google” and includes information on her latest film Beautiful Kate, which she wrote and directed from a novel by Newton Thornburg (Cutter and Bone). It stars her husband Bryan Brown and Ben Mendelsohn, so electric as Uncle Pope in Animal Kingdom.

As a director, Burt makes smart use of the Atlanta locations. And there’s a relaxed rhythm to his storytelling that makes room for compelling, off-beat material like Bernie Casey’s description of his Zen reaction to almost getting shot in the line of duty. Sharky’s Machine bears out what Burt’s two previous police dramas have shown: that in his prime he wasn’t interested in supercop heroics but the bonds between lawmen, the moments when things go awry. His detectives are more Barney Miller than John McClane.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Burt With A Badge: Hustle (1975)

Fair warning: I’m hanging a SPOILER ALERT up top. Because shortly I will give away the ending of this movie. And not in broad strokes either.

A year after scoring a massive commercial hit with The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds and director Robert Aldrich reteamed for Hustle. Burt is LAPD detective Phil Gaines, savvy and cynical. His relationship with high-priced call girl Catherine Deneuve an open secret, Phil’s got no interest in rocking any boats. So he’s inclined to ignore both his partner (Paul Winfield) and the grieving father (Ben Johnson) who insist that a stripper was murdered by politically connected types. But the father mounts his own investigation, and Phil’s got to react.

When the 1970s died, this movie is where they were buried. Burt fires up mood music on an 8-track and takes Deneuve to see A Man and a Woman. Comic Jack Carter plays a strip club MC who “blew some leaf.” A grandfatherly Eddie Albert speaks of balling.

Mainly the movie is ugly, visually and spiritually. Johnson is forced to watch his dead daughter in a porn film by the cops who want him to buzz off, in an unpleasant sequence ripping off a far better one in Get Carter. (A pre-Dukes of Hazzard Catherine Bach is the porn film’s clothed co-star.) There’s a quarter-assed endorsement of vigilantism. And a bogus nihilistic ending that thinks it’s significant.

This might be a good time to repeat that SPOILER ALERT.

Because I’m turning all the cards over now.

As the movie was winding down, I said to myself: Burt’s gonna die. Cheaply and randomly. You know why? Because shit happens, man.

This kind of ending can be appropriate in a cop movie. Joseph Wambaugh used it with great effectiveness. Routine calls go wrong on a dime, and officers die. But Hustle’s not interested in making a comment about the treacheries of the job. It wants to tell you the world sucks. Offing its main character is its juvenile bid to appear meaningful. You know, like the first cut of Clerks.

My premonition of the ending was quite specific. Burt will make peace with his woman. He will offer to take her away somewhere. He will stop to buy her a gift. And he will be gunned down by some punk committing a robbery.

What amazed me was calling this detail: Burt’s killer will be a then-unknown actor who later became famous, just to throw the proceedings completely out of whack.

San Francisco, a bottle of wine, Robert Englund. Sometimes I even frighten myself.

Burt has an impossible task in this movie. His dynamic with Deneuve makes absolutely no sense. And yet he almost pulls it off. He’s at home in the role, tossing off lousy lines so that they sound like wisdom, playing the crap comedy without sacrificing his strength. And then it hit me.

Burt Reynolds as Travis McGee.

He would have been perfect on the deck of the Busted Flush. He had the attitude, the presence. He even grew up in Florida, for Christ’s sake. Why didn’t you see that, ‘70s Hollywood?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Burt With A Badge: Fuzz (1972)

The problem with making something seem effortless is that people may start to resent you. It could look like you’re not trying; paying audiences occasionally want you to suffer for your art, or at the very least show your work. Conversely, there are times when familiarity truly does breed contempt, when a talent comes so readily to a performer that they begin going through the motions. It’s a tough line to walk, ease versus laziness.

Which brings us to Burt Reynolds.

Burt was once as big as stars got; at the time William Goldman wrote Adventures in the Screen Trade, he was the world’s top box-office draw for four years running and about to claim a fifth. What’s more he was accessible, appearing regularly on talk shows and even guest hosting The Tonight Show at the height of his fame. Burt possessed something that can’t be taught, the ability to be completely relaxed in his own skin. That repose and his casual physical grace have led to his undervaluing as an actor. (Doubters, watch Deliverance again.) But Burt’s bonhomie is also directly responsible for Cannonball Run and other movies in which he and his pals are having a blast, but we’re not. It’s those films that overshadow his strengths.

I’m watching several films from throughout Burt’s career in which he plays a cop. Why? Because I’m a Burt Reynolds fan. Why a cop? Because I thought of the title for this one-man blogathon. Catchy, isn’t it?

Fuzz is the only movie of the bunch I’d already seen. Let us pause to admire the poster in all its busy, Age of Aquarius glory, complete with nod to Burt’s Cosmopolitan centerfold.

Fuzz transplants Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct to the streets of Boston. McBain adapted the book himself under his own name, Evan Hunter. The Precinct’s regular nemesis The Deaf Man (Yul Brynner) launches a Zodiac Killer-style rampage against city officials as part of a larger scheme, and can’t helping taunting the cops he regards as inept. Other crimes are investigated as well, and this being McBain there are also two guys from Public Works Maintenance and Repair who will allow nothing to stop their efforts to paint the squad room apple green.

The movie’s an uneasy mix of procedural and black comedy influenced by M*A*S*H, with the two films sharing a cast member in Tom Skerritt. The humor is too broad, as evidenced by the scene in which Burt goes on a stakeout dressed as a nun with a full ‘stache. The violence strikes a jarring note and generated a degree of infamy when, after a TV airing, some kids set a woman on fire and claimed they were recreating a scene from the film. Raquel Welch’s storyline goes nowhere and could be easily excised, but then we wouldn’t see Raquel Welch. Director Richard A. Colla, who would be back in Boston directing multiple episodes of Spenser For Hire, can’t nail down the tone necessary to sell McBain’s ending, when all plot threads converge and Brynner’s plan is foiled by circumstance and dumb luck, which Jack Weston’s Detective Meyer Meyer describes as “good police work.”

There’s some great ‘70s detail on display in a porn shop sequence and a system of plastic punch cards used to dial a phone. The best thing in Fuzz? Burt as Steve Carella. He’s got an unforced camaraderie with his cohorts, and has a lovely scene with his wife Teddy in the hospital after he’s injured in the line of duty. Even better is the moment when Weston asks him if he feels weird about their adversary being deaf like Reynolds’ wife, and Reynolds marvels that he never made that connection. Both Burt and McBain deserved better.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book: In My Own Fashion, by Oleg Cassini (1987)

You never know where a mentor will come from.

Oleg Cassini led an extraordinary life. Born in Paris of Italian and Russian lineage, he was a fashion designer, the husband of Gene Tierney, the fiancé of Grace Kelly, the personal couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy, and an impresario of ski lodges, discotheques and licensing arrangements. Above all, he was a bon vivant.

Cassini wrote his autobiography in 1987. It is now one of the great books of my life. I intend to pattern my remaining days on its teachings.

It’s the memoir of a fearless man, which is my way of saying there’s dirt galore. Oleg not only tells you who he slept with during his years in Hollywood – Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Anita Ekberg – but how he wooed them, because to Oleg “the art of the seduction was always more fascinating than the ultimate result.”

Cassini moved through a fascinating world. One where he spent his childhood attending fashion shows with the children of Venezuela’s dictator, where he knows more than one person named Bunny, where his first wife hires a woman to throw herself at him so photographers can catch them in flagrante. All of it described in a fabulous voice.

I was well schooled in the traditions and alleged prerogatives of European aristocracy - and one of the more hallowed, if questionable, traditions was the surreptitious utilization of servants - ancillary love. In short, I developed a mild crush on one of the maids.

Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that dueling died out because it was so bloody expensive. You had to buy splendid gifts for your seconds because they were risking arrest, and you also had to pay the doctor handsomely. And I didn’t realize that, as Oleg’s mother taught him, “With a tennis racquet and a dinner jacket, you’ll be able to go anywhere in life.”

Cassini blended Old and New World sensibilities. He was determined to make something of himself – his brother Igor also came to America and became a powerful gossip columnist – but enjoy life at the same time. That latter attitude manifested itself in terms of personal style first and foremost. Cassini knew he had to leave Italy when under Mussolini “even the idea of wearing a dinner jacket had become ... a vaguely unpatriotic act.” The Russian officer who served as his tutor in the gentlemanly arts (just think about that for a minute) stressed the importance of clothes in creating bearing and confidence. It’s an approach that’s sorely missed.

But Cassini’s real secret was his deep shallowness. “My goal was ... to pursue the good life.” He established a deep bond with JFK because he was “not afraid to be silly.” In taking frivolity seriously, he accomplished a great deal. And looked good while doing it.

I checked Oleg’s book out of the library. As soon as I finished it, I tracked down a copy online. It sits on my bookshelf with the author’s rakish photo facing me to serve as inspiration. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to price ascots.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Movie: Satan in High Heels (1962)

That’s a hell of a title. Too bad the movie doesn’t live up to it. But for a while it comes close, thanks to its star Meg Myles.

Meg plays Stacey Kane, headlining the carnival burlesque circuit. Before the titles finish she shakes down the show’s manager for some extra scratch; reunites with her junkie writer beau only to swipe the cash he’s made from selling his story of recovery; and hops a flight to New York wearing nothing but a raincoat over her corset. By the time the wheels hit the tarmac in Idlewild she’s already roped a new sugar daddy and gotten an audition at the allegedly swellegant club Pepe’s, presided over by its world-weary namesake (Grayson Hall).

So far, so good. There’s a true seediness to the proceedings, as well some zip in the dialogue and the performances. (Most of them, anyway.) I start to think I’ve hit the mother lode. Is this the first exploitation movie that won’t bore me stupid? Have I found the cinematic equivalent of a Gold Medal paperback: fast, sleazy ... and good?

Then something interesting happens. Nothing.

Stacey, already involved with the club’s wealthy backer, starts dallying with his son because ... I couldn’t figure that out. The movie idles for the next forty-five minutes, not actively bad but never compelling, before having a plot spasm that doesn’t resolve much.

I stuck with it for the actors. There’s Sabrina, the buxom British bird who was briefly the U.K.’s answer to Jayne Mansfield. Several military vehicles were nicknamed after her for carrying a little more in front, wink-wink. And Hall brings a Weimar Republic grandeur to Pepe. A well-regarded stage actress, she would be nominated for an Academy Award in 1964 for The Night of the Iguana and had a long run on TV’s Dark Shadows. She never acknowledged appearing in this movie.

That it works at all is a tribute to Meg Myles. She’s believable both as a burlesque queen and a cabaret performer. Myles can sing and act, but she’s also, to be blunt, built.

The Seattle-born redhead was fabled for her dimensions, first earning fame as a pin-up girl. She moved into acting even though she asked, “How many actresses with 40-inch busts have ever won an Oscar?” She debuted in the 1954 film of Dragnet, where she is credited in the IMDb as “Bosomy Girl at Agency.” That led to roles in other films including the one where I first saw her. In The Phenix City Story, Myles has an incendiary song that establishes the title town’s lowdown reality instantly. It’s such a potent moment that I wanted to see Myles in something else. Satan in High Heels was her only chance at a starring role, and the movie isn’t worthy of what she brings to it. Even worse, photographs from her brief nude scene ended up in men’s magazines at the time, souring her on the film.

But Meg Myles persevered. She kept singing, releasing several albums. She studied with Lee Strasberg and has a successful career in the theater. And at last report at age 77 she was tending to New York’s wounded birds. She may not have had the career she deserved, but it seems like she’s having an interesting life.

I can’t close on that note. It’s too sweet for me. Here’s the trailer for Satan, and Meg doing her dominatrix routine.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

TV on DVD: Ellery Queen (1975-76)

For a series that only lasted a single season, Ellery Queen casts a long shadow. A cult favorite among mystery fans, the show would occasionally surface on cable but I’d never seen it. With its DVD release late last year, I blitzed through all 23 episodes and wish there were more.

Based on the detective created by cousins Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee, who also penned the books under that pseudonym (confused yet?), Ellery Queen is a genuine fair play mystery. Crime writer Ellery (Jim Hutton, affability incarnate) helps his detective inspector father (the permanently irascible David Wayne) on some of the NYPD’s most difficult cases. Every clue required to unravel the riddle appears onscreen. In the show’s signature innovation, once the penny drops for Ellery he turns directly toward the camera and asks if you’ve figured it out, helpfully recapping the suspects, key bits of information and even offering a hint. Never before has the pause button on our remote gotten such a workout. As soon as Hutton broke the fourth wall, we’d stop the show and hammer out our theories. Once I even made a sketch of the crime scene.

Co-creators William Link and Richard Levinson bring to bear the same sharp writing they deployed on Columbo. The first few episodes rely heavily on “dying clues,” cryptic bits of information left by the murder victims – the one in the pilot film, Too Many Suspects, verges on preposterous – but as the series progresses it slyly subverts that convention. The show also fully exploits the period 1947 New York setting. The locations and costumes aren’t always convincing but the atmosphere is, blending nostalgia for a bygone age (radio dramas and the Brooklyn Dodgers) with anticipation for the modern era (television).

Each episode brings a fresh cast of special guest stars. Familiar faces from Hollywood’s golden era abound (Vincent Price, Donald O’Connor), with many drawn from the ranks of film noir (Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Rhonda Fleming, Howard Duff). But the show’s secret weapon is John Hillerman. His rival “radio detective” Simon Brimmer, a cross between Orson Welles and Claude Rains’ character in The Unsuspected, appears in a third of the episodes. Neither as famous as he wants to be nor as smart as he thinks he is, he regularly sets out to unmask the culprit before Ellery does. Hillerman makes a sublime foil, plummy voice and bogus bonhomie setting him up for a fall.

Some favorite episodes:

The Adventure of the Mad Tea Party, a Lewis Carroll-themed show adapted from a Dannay/Lee story

The Adventure of Veronica’s Veils, with George Burns as the victim of the week and a great burlesque background

The Adventure of the Wary Witness, a surprisingly effective minor key outing

The Adventure of the Sinister Scenario, set in Hollywood and taking swipes at earlier screen incarnations of the character

The Adventure of Caesar’s Last Sleep, for finally allowing the long-suffering Sgt. Velie (Tom Reese) to have a moment in the spotlight

If only I’d watched the show in time to ask William Link about it at Bouchercon. To ease my pain, here’s a song that namechecks Ellery Queen. Hat tip to Russell Atwood, whose fine novel East of A is now available as an eBook.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Book: Frank: The Voice, by James Kaplan (2010)

Many serious celebrity biographies (the “serious” is meant for you, Kitty Kelley) tend to buy into one of two theories. Either the subject was such a genius that his sins against his fellow man must be forgiven, or to hell with his accomplishments because the bastard treated everyone like shit. James Kaplan walks the fine line between the two poles in Frank: The Voice, his hugely engaging new biography of Sinatra. Excuses aren’t made for Sinatra’s frequently loutish behavior, but respect is always paid to his overwhelming gift.

The book runs through 1953, ending when Frank has won his Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, lost the love of his life in the tempestuous Ava Gardner, but met his most significant partner in Nelson Riddle, arranger of the songs that would become the soundtrack to the rest of the twentieth century. Some have knocked Kaplan’s novelistic approach, putting himself in the heads of Sinatra and those around him. But that’s only an instance of the author taking cues from the master. Frank, we learn, was a supreme interpreter of lyrics because he lived inside them, analyzing them so he could “understand the point of view of the person behind the words ... his emotions.”

Sinatra’s background and resulting psychology aren’t all that unusual; not everyone who’s the product of a domineering mother and a weak father ends up being a noirish antihero. What’s different is Sinatra’s talent, his awareness of it and confidence in it. That talent is what Kaplan always leads with. There’s juicy gossip galore – in the midst of the Hollywood shenanigans, Frank’s first wife Nancy emerges as a compelling figure – but the focus is always on the music first. Kaplan provides plenty of nuggets, like how Sinatra’s rejection of the Mitch Miller-selected novelty songs “The Roving Kind” and “My Heart Cries For You” (“I’m not recording this fucking shit”) single-handedly led to Guy Mitchell’s career, and the trickery deployed by Capitol Records to get Frank to work with Riddle. Kaplan, let it also be said, is a very funny writer.

A week or so later, Sinatra had yet another on-set visitor at Columbia: the syndicated columnist Harold Heffernan, whose prose style was as clunky as his byline. “Salient factors that keep the pugnacious Frank Sinatra’s career from wallowing are a dogged tenacity and an enthusiasm about whatever he attempts,” Heffernan thesaurused, in his April 2 column.

Kaplan’s also serious about exploring all of Sinatra’s music. Thanks to this book I have now been exposed to “Mama Will Bark,” Sinatra’s 1951 duet with the evanescently famous bombshell Dagmar. Kaplan is far too kind to the song, which astoundingly was the B-side to Frank’s triumph “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Then again, why should you take the word of someone whose ringtone is “Bim Bam Baby”?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Movie: Tron: Legacy (2010)

What follows is completely irrational. I know that.

My name is Vince Keenan, and I loved Tron: Legacy.

Don’t try to disabuse me of my affection. My colleagues at the video game company have relentlessly itemized the movie’s flaws and I remain unswayed. The sole holdout at the office refuses to see the movie because, in his words, “I know how computers actually work.” Nobody made that argument about Toy Story 3. (OK, maybe Armond White did.) You’ll grant an inner life to a plastic action figure but not Quicken? If your empathy banks are that impoverished, I feel for you.

I know that the story – about a young man venturing into a synthetic realm in search of his father, who created it – is a hodgepodge of Christian allegory, dodgy Holocaust parallels and Joseph Campbell, laced with the most preposterous pseudoscience ever. And the way the title character is shoehorned into the narrative simply doesn’t work. Don’t care. Bought into it completely.

Maybe it’s because I still like the original movie. Or because Legacy so cannily exploits the fact that Jeff Bridges has become a beloved figure with a readily identifiable persona. Or because of the visceral thrill of watching Bridges square off against a digitized version of his 1982 self – although I prefer to think of the villain as a simulacrum of Richie Bone. Or because of Michael Sheen’s willingness to embrace his character’s looniness so completely. (Exactly what kind of code looks like Ziggy Stardust and does a Chaplin walk? I think I may have downloaded it by accident.) Or because of the brilliant Daft Punk soundtrack, which succeeds at being both one of their albums and an effective score. Or because the 3D photography for once adds to the believability of the film’s world. Director Joseph Kosinski isn’t getting enough credit for the deft way he handles the effects – or for his daring in undercutting them by closing with the most startling visual of all: the look in one of his actors’ eyes.

But ultimately I know why I fell for Tron: Legacy. It doesn’t indulge in the hipster storytelling that afflicts so many blockbusters, the knowing nods to convention. Legacy doesn’t wink once. It serves up this hooey unironically, with a sense of wonder that can’t be faked. In the age of iPhones, it still thinks computers are cool. A critic prefaced her year-end best list by saying that in order to earn a spot, a movie had to make her say “Wow” when it ended. When Tron: Legacy’s credits rolled, my only thought was, “Again.” That has to count for something, too.

Legacy was the first movie I saw at Seattle’s newly refurbished Cinerama, owned by Microsoft magnate Paul Allen. It’s still the best place in town to see a film, and now has memorabilia on display in the lobby including a costume from the original Tron. But if those are John Wayne’s jeans from The Searchers, I’ll eat the hat next to them.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Pete Postlethwaite, R.I.P.

It was a sad start to the new year, hearing that Pete Postlethwaite had died after a long battle with cancer at age 64. He was a brilliant actor who never struck a false note and enlivened everything in which he appeared. Deservedly nominated for an Academy Award as the gentle man pulled into his son’s nightmare in In the Name of the Father. Showing the whelps how the Bard was done in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Doing a pair of films with Steven Spielberg in 1997 that led the director to call him probably the best actor in the world. And in one of those odd pop culture felicities, immortalized in song with Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping.”

But for me, he will always be the inscrutable lawyer Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects, thanks mainly to his delicious phrasing. To this day I will seize any opportunity to work the phrase “gruesome violation” into conversation, and around Chez K whenever one of us is about to undertake some project the other is wont to say, “Kill away, Mister McManus.”

He had an astonishingly good 2010, appearing in three monster hits: Clash of the Titans, Inception and The Town. The last film offered him his best of the three roles as Fergie, the kingpin of Irish Boston whose flower shop front fooled no one. The actor looked frail but menacing, as if Fergie was hell-bent on channeling his dying breath into fucking his enemies over. Illness didn’t dim Pete Postlethwaite’s intensity one iota. He was a favorite, and he will be sorely missed.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Movies: Inside the Numbers


That is the total number of movies I watched in 2010. Somehow I never counted them before.

I am well aware that 228 movies in a single year is an abnormally large figure for most people. It would have been even more if I weren’t a baseball fan. But 228 puts me at the level of gifted amateur when compared to say, Marty McKee, from whose fine blog I swiped this post.

I won’t subject the movies to a sabermetric level of analysis. There are only a handful of statistics here that interest me anyway.

First film of 2010: District B13: Ultimatum (2010)
Last film of 2010: Freebie and the Bean (1974)

From the 1910s: 1 – The Cheat (1915)
1920s: 1 – Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

Both directed by Cecil B. DeMille, viewings prompted by reading Scott Eyman’s bio.

1930s: 8
1940s: 58
1950s: 39
1960s: 1

That shocked me. Even more shocking, the movie was The Oscar (1966).

1970s: 5
1980s: 8
1990s: 3
2000s: 104

Of more interest was the manner in which I watched the movies.

DVD: 99
DVR/TV: 49
Theater: 48
Streaming: 21

Lest ye forget, I got a Roku in 2010.

On Demand: 10

That’s the figure that intrigued me the most. Independent distributors are increasingly turning to video-on-demand to maximize the exposure of new releases. I saw some of the best films of 2010 on television at the same time they were playing in theaters, including one of my top three picks of the year The Red Riding Trilogy, the new version of The Killer Inside Me, and the latest from the great Neil Jordan, Ondine.

Oh yeah, and I watched one movie in its entirety on YouTube. But that was Wicked Woman, which I’ll take anyway I can get.