Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Format Is the Formula

It took me long enough, but I finally figured out that social media, particularly Twitter, has become what the Krell overlooked in Forbidden Planet (1956): the monsters from the id. Subconscious desires given raging, destructive form, with the occasional Simpsons reference. Arguably, that has always been the case, but as Twitter continues to spiral down the feeling has only intensified.

Given that, I thought a format change might spur me to post here more consistently. Let’s see if it sticks.

What I’m Watching

All My Sons (1948). Noir City Seattle has come and gone. Packed houses throughout the festival—including Valentine’s Day—and I had fun dispatching my hosting duties. It’s always interesting to see which movies really land with audiences. This year’s winner was So Evil My Love (1948), a noir-tinged Gothic with the blackest of hearts. The title I was most eager to see was Sons, the adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play which has inexplicably fallen out of circulation, resulting in what Noir City master of ceremonies Eddie Muller has called “the great lost Edward G. Robinson performance.” Robinson plays a self-made businessman who has rebounded from charges of selling defective airplane parts to the Army during WWII—a scandal resulting in multiple pilot deaths and the incarceration of his former partner—to participate in the nation’s postwar prosperity. Then his son (Burt Lancaster) announces plans to wed the ex-partner’s daughter, and Robinson’s self-deception collapses around him, jeopardizing all he’s created. Sons isn’t a true film noir. It has abundant noirish elements—how could it not, with that plot—which Miller and screenwriter Chester Erskine assembled into a family drama. A few of Miller’s gambits remain resolutely theatrical and I never bought Robinson and Lancaster as father and son, but it’s a compelling film that proved a great way to close out this year’s festival.

What I’m Reading

A Death in Tokyo
, by Keigo Higashino (2022). A Higashino novel was on my best-of-2022 list, and his latest, published in December, may well appear on this year’s roster. Of course, there’s a murder—a businessman dies of a brutal stab wound on a bridge miles from his regular haunts—that serves as a vehicle for Higashino to explore aspects of Japanese culture. Here, it’s the fascinating, time-honored practice of worshipping at various shrines that provides essential clues. As usual, Higashino channels intense emotion with an exquisitely calibrated touch; Newcomer (2018), the previous entry in his Detective Kaga series in which Kaga unravels multiple neighborhood mysteries while investigating a woman’s death, has stayed with me as an example of his command of structure and his masterly control.

What I’m Drinking

Neal Bodenheimer’s Old Hickory. If Rosemarie and I were on a game show and one of us was asked, “What’s something that’s always in your refrigerator?” the other would say, “Vermouth.” I’ve always got a few bottles open, and one that has belatedly joined the ranks is blanc vermouth. This variation, walking the tightrope between its dry and sweet brethren—more floral than the former, robust enough to smooth out edges like the latter—has become my new favorite cocktail ingredient to play with. But it’s no mere featured player, as its star turn in this lower ABV charmer demonstrates. Note the different approach to mixing.

1 ½ oz. blanc vermouth
1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash orange bitters

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass without ice. Stir. Pour into a rocks glass over a single large ice cube. Express the oils in a lemon peel, then use it as a garnish if you so choose.

Monday, February 13, 2023

A Few February Recommendations

Fake Money, Blue Smoke, by Josh Haven (2022). Nothing beats going into a novel cold and having it completely knock you out. A veteran of the war in Iraq is released from prison and finds an ex-girlfriend, one he’s pined for but also written off, waiting for him. Turns out all these years later she’s a damn good counterfeiter, and has a job on which her old beau might be able to provide assistance. Of course, she’s not telling him the whole truth, and he’s got a duffel bag full of secrets himself. Haven writes in a sleek third-person-omniscient style that leaves room for unexpected deadpan asides. He also pits his half-hearted lovers against some truly odious villains. The result is a globetrotting, thoroughly disreputable heist novel that I loved straight through to the slam-bang finish.

Reboot (Hulu). The main thing I want from a sitcom? Jokes, and lots of them. They’re served up at a furious clip with deadly accuracy in this behind-the-scenes series from Modern Family’s Steve Levitan. When a schmaltzy family comedy series gets a makeover twenty years later, the cast reunites with their problems intact. There’s Keegan-Michael Key as the stage actor who thinks the material is beneath him; Johnny Knoxville as the stand-up comic terrified that he has lucked into the best gig of his life; and Judy Greer as a woman who viewed acting as a stepping stone to a future that didn’t pan out. Even better are Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) as the young writer/producer forced to fight for her edgy vision of the retooled show against the original’s creator—her own father, played by Paul Reiser. Over the last few years Reiser has been the best part of everything he’s appeared in, from The Kominsky Method to Red Oaks, an Amazon show that somehow survived three seasons despite my being the only person to watch it. The highlight of Reboot is the writers’ room scenes, with two generations of hacks kvetching and eventually figuring each other out. (MVP to Rose Abdoo’s Selma, whose every filthy line kills.) I was about to press play on the season finale when I read that the show hadn’t been renewed, and attempts to move it elsewhere have sadly failed. Watch it before it gets disappeared like so many other programs and I’m convinced it was all a beautiful dream I had.

Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter
, by John Hendrickson (2023). I hate when reviewers open by telling you something about themselves, but in this case I feel it’s necessary, so here goes: I have a stutter. It occurs rarely now, usually only in moments of stress, and I have a lifetime of workarounds for when I feel it coming on. Journalist Hendrickson wrote an acclaimed article about President Joe Biden’s history of stuttering, which forced him to reconsider his own. This memoir is the result, a powerful book about dealing with a lifelong condition that whenever it rears its head, in the words of writer and fellow stutterer Nathan Heller, leads to “a kind of tightening of the leash, and you can’t ever escape what you were at five years old.” There’s a lot of fascinating material about the science behind stuttering; different neural pathways are used for spontaneous speech and memorized speech, which is why many prominent actors are able to perform in spite of pronounced stutters—including Samuel L. Jackson, who uses the word “motherfucker” to help overcome blocks. Hendrickson also dives into how his stutter has shaped his life, conducting interviews with friends, family, speech therapists, and others to dig into the awkwardness stutterers frequently encounter. (He participated in this terrific short documentary about the subject last year.) It’s given me plenty to think about, including what Joe Biden’s debate coach—and fellow stutterer—described as the condition’s two gifts, one good and one bad: “immense empathy” and “an anger that is very deep … an anger that comes out of frustration.”