Pop Culture, High and Low, Past and Present.
One Day at a Time.

Email me:
vince AT vincekeenan DOT com

    Follow me on Twitter

    Tuesday, March 30, 2010

    Movie: Bigger Than Life (1956) 

    Talking about the latest Criterion DVD release has already landed me in a dustup, so I tread with caution. On Facebook I said the movie was a curio, not a lost classic. That prompted a critic whose work I regularly read to call me a ... well, the exact name was left vague but I’ll go with the most positive option and say philistine. The critic ultimately kicked me to the digital curb. Maybe Errol Morris is right when he suggests that social media is as bad as high school.

    Bigger Than Life generated an uncommon amount of publicity when it debuted on video last week. The majority of reviews were laudatory; the word “masterpiece” crops up repeatedly. It was hailed as a neglected landmark, an incisive social critique, a scathing exposé of the American Dream.

    All of which should have raised red flags. I don’t have many rules when it comes to movies, but here’s one: when every hosanna fawns over what a movie says but not what actually happens onscreen, odds are you’re in for a tough sit.

    Nicholas Ray directs. The movie is based on a New Yorker article and feels like it. James Mason plays a mild-mannered schoolteacher who moonlights as a taxi dispatcher. He suffers from increasingly frequent bouts of pain which are diagnosed as a symptom of a fatal arterial disease. But there’s a new treatment, the miracle drug cortisone. It saves Mason’s life, but also triggers manic episodes that crescendo into full-blown psychosis with his abuse of the drug. He becomes a suburban Nietzsche, a household tyrant terrorizing his family.

    The lopsided script is so focused on Mason and his largely one note fugues that the behavior of the other characters is rendered incomprehensible. His doctors aren’t held to account. As for Mason’s wife (Barbara Rush), I had to keep stepping out of the movie to backtrack her motivations. “I suppose if she thinks X, it makes sense she’d do Y.” Many critics claim Bigger Than Life is fundamentally about issues of class – novelist Jonathan Lethem, a great admirer of the film, offers 27 minutes of cultural background on the DVD – but the movie treats money obliquely. In a key scene, Mason holds up medical bills shot in such a way that I couldn’t tell what they were until he’d already put them down. Here’s another of my rules: if your characters’ actions are essentially prompted by subtext, you’ve failed as a dramatist.

    I was interested enough in the story to track down the original article in the New Yorker’s archives. Berton Roueché’s “Ten Feet Tall,” published in September 1955, is an astonishing piece of reportage that answered every question raised by Bigger Than Life’s flawed script. To begin with, the schoolteacher’s wife has a far more substantial presence. During the period in question, she herself was incapacitated by sickness. Her husband’s adverse reaction to cortisone was compounded by his doctor’s refusal to discuss why he was altering the dosage. Here’s the teacher on his physician: “He believes in a minimum of explanation and a maximum of results. And, of course, I said nothing to my wife.” The bath scene that gives the movie its signature image – Mason’s reflection in a shattered mirror – comes from out of left field in the film. The incident in context is smaller and far more devastating.

    Roueché’s article is a case study. So is Bigger Than Life, in how not to adapt material.

    UPDATE: Jaime Weinman offers a terrific counterpoint to this post.

    Labels: ,

    Monday, February 01, 2010

    Miscellaneous: Weekend Roundup 

    Wallander. Don’t ask me to compare these BBC adaptations to Henning Mankell’s novels about Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. I’m woefully unschooled in Scandinavian crime fiction, a failing I will soon remedy thanks in part to these films. They have a striking look, the Swedish locales shot in part by last year’s Academy Award winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Kenneth Branagh is sensational as Wallander, a compassionate investigator who is never fully present in his own life. The ninety-minute running times allow the personal scenes room to breathe. Sometimes they overwhelm the mystery; I was more involved in Wallander’s reconciliation with his troubled artist father (David Warner in Old Testament prophet mode) than the main story in Sidetracked. The films improve as they go; the last, One Step Behind, is as good as television gets. All three are suffused with a weary, bone-deep sadness that’s haunting.

    Whatever Works (2009). Minor Woody Allen, but still entertaining. The movie’s notion that living in New York makes you a better person is naïve, but I happen to agree with it. Larry David’s inability to be anyone other than Larry David actually helps to put it over. A pleasant surprise.

    Girls on the Loose (1958). The lovely Mara Corday leads a distaff team of heisters in a payroll job. I don’t know why she turns to crime. She says something about needing to live on the edge, but I think it’s because she’s going broke booking her gamine sister’s Bohemian burlesque act in her nightclub. Mara assembles some crew: a nervous wreck, an alcoholic French beautician, and a truck-stop tough blonde (Joyce Barker, a true Gold Medal gorgon who only appeared in this movie). The whole enterprise is nicely sleazy – Joyce is a masseuse! – and not all that badly plotted. Amazingly it’s directed by Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, Paul Henreid. That this movie is not on DVD is a travesty. Here’s the trailer.

    Labels: , ,

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Movie: Big Fan (2009) 

    The directorial debut by former Onion editor and screenwriter of The Wrestler Robert Siegel received only a token theatrical release. Now on DVD and streaming via Netflix, this unsettling, darkly hilarious film can find the audience it deserves.

    Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is a 36-year-old parking garage attendant who still lives with his mother. Two things get him out of bed every day: the New York football Giants and the few minutes each week when he gets to be “Paul from Staten Island” on a sports radio call-in show. One night he has a chance encounter with his favorite member of the team’s starting line. Only his dream moment ends up going wrong. Badly wrong. Several days in the hospital wrong. What do you do when your one true passion in life literally and figuratively kicks your ass?

    Big Fan is either the funniest drama of the year or the grimmest comedy. Siegel readily acknowledges the film’s debt to Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (not to mention Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie), but he makes the terrain his own and has a genuine feel for life in the outer boroughs. The movie is even better if you’re familiar with the charnel house that is NFC East football.

    Co-star Kevin Corrigan tells a great story in the DVD extras about his own Big Fan-style meeting with Robert DeNiro. In a Q&A on the disc, Siegel says Paul had to be a Giants fan because he couldn’t imagine people being unable to get Jets tickets. Not after yesterday’s San Diego game. For the record, Siegel is right about Philadelphia Eagles fans.

    Here’s Patton Oswalt deconstructing the hellish song ‘Christmas Shoes’ – now animated! And Roger Ebert on how Netflix streaming video may change the Academy Awards.

    Labels: ,

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    Movie: Best Seller (1987) 

    Time again for a question that’s a hobbyhorse around here: whatever happened to sleaze? Where’s a guy gotta go to get served up a cocktail of sex, violence and cynicism? Oh, right. Videogames. If I want the cinematic variety, I have to return to the cable staples of my youth.

    In Best Seller, Brian Dennehy plays Joseph Wambaugh Dennis Meechum, L.A. cop and successful author. He’s suffering from writer’s block when the perfect story saunters into his life in the form of Cleve (James Woods). Cleve claims to be the in-house assassin for a huge conglomerate and its pillar of the community founder. (“Corporations deal in two things, assets and liabilities. I eliminated the liabilities, and I provided some of the assets.”) As aggrieved as a top salesman passed over for promotion, Cleve has decided to bring the entire enterprise down by collaborating with Meechum on a book – whether Meechum wants to or not.

    Best Seller was directed by John Flynn, who brought astonishing fidelity to Richard Stark’s Parker in the tragically still-not-on-video The Outfit. The script is by personal hero Larry Cohen, which means it moves with ferocious energy while still having time for crackpot diversions. Like Woods singing in French and a visit to the hit man’s parents. Cohen wrote the film for Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster but Larry, bless his B-movie heart, can only work in fast-and-cheap mode. The result is the most underpopulated conspiracy movie ever. It’s basically just two guys.

    But what guys. Dennehy and Woods are the Hope and Crosby of mayhem. Woods has never been better, playing a true sociopath who is utterly ruthless yet has kind words for the little people and praise for the American dream. Watch his reaction, both deeply hurt and enraged, when Dennehy refuses a gift. This strange hybrid of thriller and jet-black buddy comedy also ventures into meta terrain thanks to Cleve’s obsession with coming across as a sympathetic character.

    There are movies with more sleaze, but what’s here – like Cleve’s pickup of a woman in a bar – is cherce. And for a jaundiced view of how the world works, it can’t be beat.

    Dennehy is still going strong at age 71, currently onstage in Chicago doing O’Neill and Beckett. I’d like to see him return as the head of the show-within-the-show’s Teamster crew on 30 Rock. Here’s a recent interview in which he demonstrates that good ol’ Irish Catholic fatalism that’s like mother’s milk to me.

    Labels: ,

    Saturday, December 05, 2009

    Book: Losers Live Longer, by Russell Atwood (2009)

    Exhibit A: The rare horizontal cover.

    Like I’m not gonna read that.

    Exhibit B is the setting in Manhattan’s East Village, specifically a few blocks where I’ve spent my share of time. But what cinched it for me was this review by James Reasoner. When he called this Hard Case Crime book “one of the best private eye novels of recent years,” I stopped in at Seattle Mystery Bookshop and picked it up that day.

    Payton Sherwood is the P.I. in question. Down-at-heel (for a few chapters literally), he’s happy to be asked by a legendary retired operative to pitch in for a few hours on a case. When the senior shamus turns up dead on his doorstep, Payton decides to follow through on the job – even though he has no idea what it is. Before his long day is through, he’ll tangle with porn kingpins, indie filmmakers, and, of course, beautiful women. It’s old school pulp served up with a sharp contemporary sensibility. Fast, ferocious and authentically funny. Don’t miss it.

    DVD: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Offscreen

    Cult director Ulmer was the king of Poverty Row, a man who could stretch a budget to the breaking point and, with 1945’s Detour, created true dark magic. This 2004 documentary reveals that the man who made something out of nothing in his work did the same with his own life story. Stylishly shot, featuring comments from collaborators (Ann Savage, William Schallert) and admirers (Wim Wenders, Joe Dante, John Landis). The best stuff comes late as John Saxon and Peter Marshall, costars of Ulmer’s last film The Cavern, bicker in the back of a convertible before a rear-projection screen.

    As an extra you get an entire Ulmer movie, 1943’s Isle of Forgotten Sins. It’s the South Seas by way of North Hollywood, the ocean-going scenes shot with models and the deep sea diving done by marionettes. Not good by any stretch, but strangely compelling and, as always with Ulmer, done with ingenuity.

    Labels: , ,

    Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    Movies: A Phil Karlson Thanksgiving

    The Phil Karlson Thanksgiving Weekend wasn’t planned. It was an act of necessity.

    The problem is I’d become obsessed with that clip of John Payne and others performing “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish” in Garden of the Moon. (Have you watched it yet? Go ahead. I’ll wait.) After repeated viewings of an impossibly young John Payne deftly tossing off Johnny Mercer’s lyrics, I needed to restore to my memory the older version. His face collapsed yet even more magnetic. In trouble and sinking deeper. The noir John Payne. That actor’s best collaborator was ex-prop man turned director Karlson. Time to revisit their finest hour.

    In Kansas City Confidential (1952), Payne plays an ex-con whose efforts to go straight mean nothing when he becomes the unintentional fall guy in a daring robbery. The simmering fury when he’s sprung from jail knowing that no one legit will ever trust him again is scorching. That bone-deep sense of betrayal, of hard work going for naught, charges the rest of the film, which despite the title is set mostly south of the border. Karlson as always keeps the action taut, and there’s the added bonus of what has to be the most badass crew in the annals of noir: Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand.

    Appetite whetted, I craved more. And had it on hand, thanks to the new Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics Collection. I’d wanted to see 5 Against the House (1955) for years, and not just for Karlson. It’s based on a Jack Finney story, adapted by Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night) and William Bowers (Cry Danger, The Mob). Imagine my surprise to discover it’s the rare Karlson film that’s a total misfire.

    5ATH begins as a tiresome college comedy then becomes a heavy-handed survey of the problems faced by returning Korean War vets taking advantage of the G.I. Bill before settling into a heist groove. The “perfect plan” posited by these aging students would be ridiculous under any circumstances, but on the heels of the ingenious scheme cooked up in Kansas City Confidential it’s downright embarrassing. There’s nice work by Brian Keith as the most damaged vet and a good climax set in an automated parking garage in Reno, but little else.

    ASIDE: Also in the Columbia collection is a superior Silliphant-scripted drama, 1958’s The Lineup (reviewed here), that features one of the greatest recent commentary tracks. My friend Eddie Muller and novelist James Ellroy tag-team on this one, Eddie providing a native San Franciscan’s view while Ellroy gives full vent to his obsessions. Eddie gave me a heads up after they recorded the track, saying, “It’s a wild one.” It lives up to that billing.

    In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, you can’t go this far and not go further. On to the Karlson films parked on the DVR.

    I’d seen 1955’s The Phenix City Story, but never with the reportorial prologue including interviews with several of the people involved in this true story. This segment made it easier to get scenes of still-shocking violence past the censors. Without it the movie opens with a haggard roadhouse number, ‘The Phenix City Blues,’ that swiftly presents the low-rent reality of life in an Alabama town choking on the vice aimed at soldiers in neighboring Fort Benning. Karlson and Georges Simenon make a natural match in The Brothers Rico (1957), with Richard Conte as an erstwhile Mafia accountant who thinks he’s made a clean break to become a cleaner, only to find himself doing the Organization’s bidding when his siblings go astray. With a dandy performance by Harry Bellaver as a local kingpin who orders hits and dinner in the same breath. They’re both tough-minded movies with a view of mobsters similar to the one articulated in Josh Bazell’s novel Beat the Reaper:

    Proudly ignorant, personally repellent, absolutely convinced that their willingness to hire someone to beat money out of someone who worked for a living constitutes some kind of genius and an adherence to a proud tradition.

    99 River Street, a John Payne/Phil Karlson film that screened at Noir City 2007, is currently available on Hulu and Fancast. You could be watching it right now! Here’s Ivan’s take at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. I look at Karlson’s final film Framed here.

    Labels: , , ,

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    TV: Edge of Darkness (1985)

    For years I’ve said that Edge of Darkness was the greatest program I’d ever seen on TV. And Stateside at least, nobody knew what the hell I was talking about.

    I was a high school kid when this six-part miniseries aired in the U.S. Unlike most BBC productions it didn’t run on PBS but in syndication, which may account for what I remember as a lack of fanfare. I watched it over three consecutive nights, and it left quite an impression. The score by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen still drifts through my head, and several images from the closing episode are seared in my memory. I even remember the character names, for crying out loud, and sometimes utter one of them – Darius Jedburgh – to relish its sheer awesomeness.

    Ronald Craven is a widowed Yorkshire detective, principled but pliable. He’s in the midst of investigating union corruption when a gunman ambushes him at his home. Craven’s student activist daughter Emma is killed. The theory is that an old adversary is seeking revenge, but Craven begins to suspect that his daughter was the actual target.

    The script by Troy Kennedy Martin (Z Cars, The Italian Job, Reilly, Ace of Spies) had the foresight to look past the Cold War and say screw the Russians, we’ve got bigger problems. Corporate malfeasance, environmental radicalism, mistrust among allies and intelligence agencies. It seemed to know exactly what was coming after the glasnost era.

    Earlier this month, Edge of Darkness finally became available on DVD. Revisiting it for the first time in over twenty years, I continue to be impressed.

    Sure, it’s dated somewhat. In 1985, after all, you had to break into a building to gain access to a computer network. It’s deliberately paced, there are a few story issues, and the politics in the wrap-up can get a touch ... allegorical. But it remains a staggeringly prescient work; it amazes me that Martin addressed these issues directly in the 1980s. And the program’s emotional power hasn’t dimmed a bit, thanks to some dazzling acting.

    Joe Don Baker is a revelation as the wily CIA officer Jedburgh, giving the role his all. What’s astonishing is that as powerful as Baker is, it’s still not the best performance in the series.

    Bob Peck’s Craven is a man of guarded emotions and inappropriate intimacies – with his daughter, with men he’s interrogating. He’s both genuinely good yet strangely unreadable. Peck died of cancer far too young at age 53, leaving behind a brief but indelible filmography. There’s his turn as the great white hunter in Jurassic Park, uttering “Clever girl” with a note of admiration before he’s slain by the raptor he’s stalking. And there’s Craven in Edge of Darkness, which goes on my list of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

    Time for some blasphemy. Edge of Darkness has been remade as a feature film due early next year, and I think it’s a good idea. The story is as relevant as it ever was. Martin’s script has been updated to the U.S. by Oscar winner William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell (the lamentably under-seen Lantana). The roles originated by Peck and Baker are now played by Mel Gibson and Ray Winstone. And Martin Campbell, who directed the original series before rebooting the James Bond franchise not once (GoldenEye) but twice (Casino Royale), is back behind the camera.

    However the movie turns out, it simply won’t have the room afforded by the mini-series format to flesh out its characters. I don’t know that I’d still call Edge of Darkness the greatest program I’ve ever seen on TV, but it is in the running. It’s certainly the finest thriller ever produced for the small screen.

    Labels: ,

    Sunday, November 15, 2009

    DVD: The Merry Gentleman (2009)

    This movie opened at my neighborhood theater earlier this year on a Friday when I was heading out of town. I made a note to see it on my return but never had the chance; by Wednesday it was gone. It deserved better than a five-day run. A lot better.

    Chez K favorite Michael Keaton plays a suicidal assassin. Through a random act of kindness he crosses paths with Kelly Macdonald, a women fleeing an abusive relationship. A strange bond forms between the two over a blustery Chicago winter.

    Keaton, typically a bundle of energy, opts for a powerful stillness here, achieving all he needs with a flicker of his facial muscles. He’s also sporting a great look. Macdonald beguiles in a role that requires every man to fall in love with her. Using her own Scottish accent aids in that enormously. Tom Bastounes shines as a lonely detective smitten with Macdonald, and the always welcome Bobby Cannavale is a powerhouse in his scene as Macdonald’s husband, never quite apologizing for his actions while touting his newfound salvation.

    Most impressive of all is Keaton’s direction of the film. (The actor took over behind the camera when screenwriter Ron Lazzeretti suffered appendicitis.) The Merry Gentleman is a quiet, deliberate movie, and Keaton nails the tricky tone from the outset. He has a nice eye for composition and an unforced feel for working people; the interactions with cops and hospital staff have the texture of real life. Pair this sleeper with Blast of Silence for a Christmas hit man double-bill.

    Labels: ,

    Friday, October 23, 2009

    DVD: Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2009)

    It’s not just one of the best titles of the year. This documentary is also one of the best movies.

    The Canadian band Anvil is a pioneer in heavy metal music. Guys from Anthrax, Guns N’ Roses and Motörhead attest to their unassailable awesomeness. The movie opens with rare footage from an epic 1984 Japanese metal fest featuring Anvil’s lead singer Lips wearing a bondage harness and playing the ax with what ‘70s game shows used to call a marital aid.

    Many of the acts on that bill went on to achieve success. Not Anvil. A series of bad breaks kept them in the minor leagues, famous only to other musicians and a small circle of fans. But the band keeps rocking. Sacha Gervasi, a screenwriter who was an Anvil roadie in their brief ‘80s heyday, picks up their story as they set aside their day jobs to embark on an extended European tour organized by their guitarist’s girlfriend and then record their thirteenth album.

    It’s a real-life Spinal Tap crossed with The Wrestler, following men in their fifties who won’t give up on their dream even in the face of age and common sense. It’s about family, friendship, and the power of belonging to a community. I may have teared up once or twice, but I was banging my head so nobody noticed.

    Labels: , ,

    Friday, September 04, 2009

    On the Web: More Playboy’s Penthouse

    What say we kick off the holiday weekend with a little music? These clips will give you a sense of the variety show I wrote about yesterday, and spare you the indignity of looking up Playboy’s Penthouse online. Safe search, my ass. My computer may never forgive me.

    First up in Hef’s pad is Frances Faye, one of the premiere nightclub entertainers of the era. Listen to her album Caught in the Act and tell me I’m wrong. With the awe-inspiring Jack Costanzo, aka “Mr. Bongo.” Part one is below, and here’s the rest.

    You can also enjoy the folk duo Bud & Travis in the first of three parts. Playboy’s Penthouse booked a range of artists – jazz, cabaret, folk – and let them perform several songs in a mini-concert that provided a real flavor of their shows. Better than the band doing one number before the infomercials start.

    Labels: , ,

    Thursday, September 03, 2009

    DVD: Playboy’s Penthouse

    The first lesson learned from watching two episodes of Hugh Hefner’s 1959-60 variety show while waiting for the next Mad Men to air: hipsters actually talked like, you know, hipsters, man. Lenny Bruce even snaps his fingers during his patter, like he’s covering for the bongo player who’s busy chatting up some broad.

    Playboy’s Penthouse is one strange program. The idea is we’re attending a party at Hef’s title pad. There are camera glitches galore – get that girl outta there! – compounded by the fact that the guests are downing actual cocktails. Hef tackles the dual roles of interviewer and master of ceremonies when he’s not qualified for either one. He clings to his pipe for dear life throughout. The pilot has the feel of a shakedown run, the show structured along the lines of an issue of the magazine. A truncated segment on a newfangled kitchen-in-a-cabinet comes off like a lifestyle piece that you’d page past.

    I appreciate Lenny Bruce’s role in the history of comedy, but I’ve never found him funny. His appearance as the first guest did make the show feel like a party, in that I wanted to wander off, refill my glass and inspect the host’s medicine cabinet.

    But the oddness of the conceit only adds to the fascination of these shows. Nat King Cole drops by and doesn’t sing. He just ... hangs out. Rona Jaffe talks about writing The Best of Everything and it manages to sound like a genuine conversation.

    The musical segments are where the shows really lift off. Cy Coleman, who composed the now-famous “Playboy’s Theme,” performs “You Fascinate Me” with a centerfold at his side and it turns into a spry, sexy, little horn-rimmed number. Sammy Davis Junior does an electrifying set.

    There’s talk about the Playboy philosophy, which apparently revolves around having a good hi-fi. To be fair, Hef does a fine job of explaining it in an accompanying 2006 interview. It boils down to figuring out who you want to be, then pretending to be that person until you are that person. Turns out I’ve been following Hef’s lead for years without knowing it. I’m here to say his approach works surprisingly well.

    These shows are a time capsule of a moment when popular culture was broader. Jazz and theater were common currency, proven in a Teddi King novelty song that assumes a familiarity with Tennessee Williams and William Inge. I’m happy to meet someone who knows Brandon Inge. They also capture the last instants before hip became cool. Hip was adult. Cool is adolescent. Hip, as exclusionary as it was, at least rewarded effort. You had to work to find the cutting edge stuff, and then act as if you hadn’t tried. Cool only focuses on that last part.

    The rest of the shows in this collection are from Playboy After Dark, Hef’s 1969 variety series. Only ten years had passed, but it was a completely different era. I’ll watch the later shows, but I doubt I’ll find them as interesting.

    UPDATE: I dig up some clips from the show here.

    Labels: ,

    Sunday, August 30, 2009

    DVD: The Last Lullaby (2008)

    The Last Lullaby is a throwback, deliberately so. It’s a taut, low-key crime drama, more interested in character than chaos, with the feel of a Gold Medal paperback. That may be to its financial detriment; the filmmakers ultimately distributed the movie themselves after a long run on the festival circuit. An upcoming DVD release should allow Lullaby to find its audience.

    Max Allan Collins co-wrote the movie, based on his short story “A Matter of Principal.” Tom Sizemore plays a hit man settled into uneasy retirement who finds himself drawn back into the life, only to experience complicated feelings for the woman he’s meant to kill.

    Lullaby benefits from its deliberate pace. That’s not to say that it’s slow, but that it’s set in a world where actions have consequences and the movie has the confidence to allow them to play out. Sizemore gives a revelatory performance as a genuine tough guy who knows he doesn’t need to shout in order to make himself heard, and there’s a delicacy to his scenes with his target (Sasha Alexander). Lullaby could also be eligible as the Best Foreign Film entry from America, a nation of highways and chain restaurants, of small towns with their own rhythms. There’s a scene where Sizemore’s character meets the man who hires him at his lake house. It’s not Hollywood’s idea of a big spread, but in plenty of places it’s exactly what a rich man’s digs look like.

    Lullaby’s director Jeffrey Goodman has been chronicling the film’s release at Moviemaker magazine.

    Labels: , ,

    Thursday, August 20, 2009

    Sort Of Related: The Amateurs, by Marcus Sakey (2009)/Julia (U.S. 2009)

    The latest novel by Marcus Sakey nails that stage in life when potential begins to curdle into disappointment. Four Chicago friends meet regularly for drinks every week. All of them unattached, in their 30s, and wondering what happened to the fabulous lives they were going to lead. When one of them is pulled by his boss against his will into a drug deal, they decide to steal the money for themselves. But the job doesn’t go as planned. The foursome may not be as close as they thought. And what they’ve stumbled into is no ordinary drug deal.

    The lead characters are drawn with plenty of shading and rough edges. There are sharp observations about friendship and aging. A passage early on sets the tone, when the sole female member of the group talks about how going out on Saturday night once meant feelings of lightness and possibility. Now she fills days and waits to turn into her mother. The Amateurs also captures the mood of those months in 2008 when Americans felt impotent collective rage at the collapse of the financial system and the associated lack of accountability. A strong piece of work.

    Speaking of people who should not undertake lives of crime ...

    (You see? There are themes to these entries.)

    Julia played the festival circuit, received an abbreviated theatrical release, and is out this week on a bare bones DVD. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour character study-cum-crime drama. And it demands your immediate attention.

    Tilda Swinton plays the title role, a self-destructive L.A. alcoholic blazing her own path to hell. At an AA meeting she meets a fellow sufferer who presents her with a deranged plan: kidnap my son from his wealthy grandfather. Julia, at the end of her long, unraveling rope, goes along with it.

    The crime in this movie is not that of big-budget thrillers or gritty noir novels that tout their realism. This madness is right out of a police blotter, caprice and coincidence colliding with bad planning and poor impulse control. Harrowing.

    Julia is also one of the great depictions of a hardcore drunk. The character is always ready with blame and an excuse. Her highs are believably high, her lows degrading. Swinton is simply astonishing, serving up the addict’s quicksilver shifts from confidence to rage to petulance. It’s a titanic performance.

    The movie is a messy ramble, at times maddening but always fascinating. That’s only fitting for a film inspired by John Cassavetes and specifically Gloria. How odd is it that for all Cassavetes’ influence it’s a movie he tossed off as a lark that has spawned remakes official and unofficial?

    Labels: , ,

    Monday, August 03, 2009

    Sort-Of Related: Get Real, by Donald E. Westlake (2009)/Made in U.S.A. (1966)

    That there’s not a pall hanging over Get Real, the last novel completed by Donald E. Westlake before his death last year, is a testament to how funny the book is, how sharp Westlake’s eye was. Only when it ended did it truly sink in that we won’t get another John Dortmunder book.

    The sad-sack criminal mastermind and his gang of misfits are between heists when the strangest of all opportunities comes along – their own TV show. A company that produces reality television has the brilliant idea of following the crew while they plan and execute a job. Dortmunder agrees to play along as cover for an actual caper. There are a few snags, naturally. Like, how do you put professional thieves on salary? How do you steal something and get away with it while cameras are rolling? But the biggest problem is one that Dortmunder doesn’t see coming: Andy, Tiny, even Dortmunder himself kinda like being on TV.

    The reality genre – which shapes the truth, into entertainment – takes plenty of well-deserved hits. There are some sly observations about the acting life, which crops up often in Westlake’s books, plus a few bits of business that will only be funny to New Yorkers. Things don’t exactly work out – that wouldn’t be Dortmunder – but they go less wrong than usual, and our last glimpse of the hangdog burglar is him rounding a corner with something that’s almost but not quite a spring in his step. It’s a nice sendoff for the character.

    Coinciding with Get Real’s release was the debut of Made in U.S.A. on DVD. Jean-Luc Godard’s film was based, theoretically, on The Jugger, one of the Parker novels that Westlake wrote as Richard Stark.

    I knew going in that the film bears no resemblance to the source novel, that it was made hastily under bizarre circumstances, that Westlake himself hated it. Here, I’ll quote him: “it’s such a rotten movie.” Godard films, even ones I like, leave me a little cold. But I’m a Westlake completist, so I had to check it out.

    Or at least I had to try. I tapped out after forty minutes, and only lasted that long because of Anna Karina. I did watch the entire 20 minute short film on the new Criterion disc cataloging Godard’s many political and cultural references. A writer in the movie is named David Goodis. Daisy Kenyon is paged at a health club. It’s eighty-five minutes of meta-rib-ticklers and preening self-regard.

    Rosemarie’s review: “Movies like this make me appreciate the Jonas Brothers.”

    Say what you will about Kevin, Joe and Nick – and if you talk trash about Joe, I will so NEVER SPEAK to you AGAIN – you can at least understand how some people find them entertaining. Made in U.S.A., on the other hand, exists simply to make those who “get it” feel superior. That’s not true to the serie noire spirit Godard claims to be honoring. It’s certainly not true to the ethos Donald E. Westlake embodied. I’m fairly sure I know whose works will stand the test of time better.

    Westlake is having quite a few weeks. Also out now is Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation of the first Parker novel The Hunter. I ordered myself a copy as a birthday present. Speaking of my birthday ...

    Miscellaneous: Meaningless Milestones

    ... it’s today. I’m not picky. Making the check out to cash is fine.

    Labels: , , ,

    Monday, July 27, 2009

    DVD: Golden Age Noir

    The role of television is an under-reported chapter in the evolution of film noir. The small screen supplemented and eventually supplanted the B movie, attracting talent from both sides of the camera. Many of these shows, episodes of various anthology series of the 1950s, no longer exist.

    Cultural impresario and freelance wild man Johnny Legend is doing his best to rectify the situation. His Raunchy Tonk Video label has released Golden Age Noir, a DVD containing seven blasts from the past. They’re from a variety of series, with an emphasis on name actors.

    Sound Off, My Love (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). Merle Oberon stars as a woman too vain to admit she requires a hearing aid. She relents only to discover that she hasn’t been fooling anyone – but several people have been fooling her. Starts slow but picks up thanks to direction by old noir hand Robert Florey (Danger Signal).

    Dark Stranger (the premiere of The Star and The Story, 1955). Edmond O’Brien is a pulp writer who falls in love with a woman (Joanne Woodward) who may be his own creation. It bears a resemblance to Stranger Than Fiction.

    The Squeeze (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). Gambling house owner Willie Dante (Dick Powell, who played the role several times) gets pressured by the ne’er-do-well son of a crusading D.A. Sharp script by Blake Edwards – have I mentioned I’m still on a Peter Gunn kick? – and direction by Robert Aldrich.

    F.O.B. Vienna (Suspense, 1953). Hooey about an American engineer caught up in European espionage. Director Robert Mulligan strains against the limitations of live TV. It’s a dud, but it stars Walter Matthau, so what are you gonna do?

    House For Sale (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). A house-hunting Ida Lupino encounters escaped lunatic George Macready. Minor fun.

    Counterpoint: The Witness (1952). A true rarity, the sole episode of a cop series starring Lee Marvin several years before M Squad. It’s about a botched robbery and the resulting murder of a burlesque clown. With some great gritty locations and a few odd David Lynch-style moments, but it’s easily the worst of the bunch. The show is set over three city blocks but features more walking than the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

    A Place of His Own (Four Star Playhouse, 1953). A mentally damaged WWII veteran is coerced by his family into taking the blame for a murder he didn’t commit. The winner, hands down, with a fine performance by Charles Boyer.

    The disc is a fascinating peak into a neglected era of film noir. Johnny’s already got a second volume set for release next month, along with a sex-and-drugs Dragnet compilation that I should order right now.

    Labels: , ,

    Sunday, July 26, 2009

    Movie: Bunco Squad (1950)

    It’s been a strange week. Several new projects cropped up, and I ceded control of the television to Rosemarie for five nights so she could watch Torchwood: Children of Earth.

    I was able to squeeze in a few short items, like this movie recorded off TCM in the wee hours. How could I resist a title like Bunco Squad? Plus it’s about phony psychics, and you know how I feel about them.

    Robert Sterling is the wooden detective in the titular unit. His aspiring actress girlfriend is played by Howard Hughes discovery Joan Dixon. Hughes certainly had a type: skittish brunettes who couldn’t convey fear if their hair was on fire. Sterling, at the request of a lieutenant who has never missed a meal, engages in some baffling police work to track down a ring of sham spiritualists. They’re led by Ricardo Cortez, more animated here than he was playing the first Sam Spade. Their target is a kindly rich woman mourning her dead son. Sterling’s brilliant plan is to set Dixon up as another fake fortuneteller, preying on the poor grieving mother’s emotions for the greater good. I’m sure the idea made sense to Lieutenant Are-You-Going-To-Finish-That on paper.

    Bunco Squad is crap, but it’s fast-moving crap. Director Herbert Leeds churned out entries in the Cisco Kid, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Mike Shayne series, so he knew how to move things along. There are some interesting tidbits explaining how mendacious mediums work. Dante, once known as “king of magicians,” appears as himself, aiding the police in their inquiries. You also get a ridiculous fight scene a la Mummenschanz. And Cortez and his cronies can only kill people by tampering with their brake lines. It happens not once, not twice, but three times in 67 minutes. Not that that establishes a pattern or anything.

    DVD: The Paul Lynde Halloween Special

    Why did I watch this now? Good luck trying to rent it in October. You can’t get near the thing. The Lynde special aired exactly once in 1976, and was then thought lost. They haven’t found the full eight-hour cut of von Stroheim’s Greed, but they did dig this one up.

    It features every All Hallows’ Eve staple: witches, CB radio, and sketches spoofing Valentino. There’s also Kiss making their TV debut, but none of their numbers is anywhere near as scary as Florence Henderson’s rendition of “That Old Black Magic.”

    Also on the show is Roz (Pinky Tuscadero) Kelly. Pinky is the character she played on three episodes of Happy Days. That’s how she’s billed. Lynde even announces her name that way in the wrap-up. It’s like putting an expiration date on her fame. “You’ll get fifteen minutes if you’re lucky, sweetheart.”

    Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the closing disco number. Don’t let the three-minutes-plus running time fool you. It seems much longer.

    Labels: ,

    Sunday, July 19, 2009

    Books: Bulletin From Hard Case Crime

    An extraordinary piece of news from Hard Case Crime this weekend. In April 2010 they will release Memory, a never-before-published novel by the late, great Donald E. Westlake. Westlake’s friend Lawrence Block provided them with the manuscript. Barring any additional discoveries, it will be the last novel we get from one of the greats. The opening chapter already has me clamoring for more.

    DVD: On Guard (1997, U.S. 2001)

    This sumptuous swashbuckler was recommended by author and fellow OSS 117 enthusiast Walter Satterthwait. It’s truly the kind of film they don’t make any more. Considering that it took four years to find an American distributor, they seldom release them, either.

    An acrobat and child of the road who falls in with a nobleman during Louis XIV’s reign must raise his friend’s young daughter in secret to protect her from a scheming relative. This movie has it all: hissable villains, hidden identities, real estate swindles, and hunchbacks aplenty. Plus too many swordfights to count. Technically, it should be called En Garde.

    Or Le Bossu, as it was known in France. (The novel by Paul Féval, a contemporary of Alexandre Dumas, has been filmed six times.) There’s so much story that the third act felt a touch frantic; it’s the rare movie that would be benefit from being a few minutes longer. The conclusion initially gave me pause, but it’s all of a piece with the film’s swooning tone. Grand, old-fashioned entertainment. Thanks for the tip, Walter.

    Movie: The Hurt Locker (2009)

    I’ve been meaning to say this for a week. You won’t see a better action movie, suspense film, or drama this summer. Get out there and support this one.

    Labels: , ,

    Friday, July 03, 2009

    Too Soon Gone: The Noir Legacy of Fabián Bielinsky

    An edited version of this article appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of the Noir City Sentinel. To subscribe, become a member of The Film Noir Foundation.

    Two movies. That’s not much of a legacy. But the brief filmography of Argentina’s Fabián Bielinsky is enough to prove that, with his death in 2006, world cinema lost more than a gifted storyteller. After watching Nueve Reinas (2000) and the darkly glittering jewel El Aura (2005), Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller said he was “so miserably sure that Bielinsky would have been the greatest writer-director of contemporary noir.”

    Born in Buenos Aires in 1959, Bielinsky earned his stripes as an assistant director on over 400 commercials and numerous feature films. During this fifteen-year apprenticeship he worked on projects as varied as an ad directed by German auteur Wim Wenders and Eversmile, New Jersey (1989), an oddity about an itinerant dentist fated to be remembered as the other movie Daniel Day-Lewis made the year of his Academy Award-winning triumph in My Left Foot. In 1998, Bielinsky received his first above-the-line credit as one of three writers of the allegorical science fiction film La Sonámbula (Sleepwalker). He longed to make his own movies but felt hamstrung by an industry dominated by established names and prejudiced against genre fare. He ultimately made the transition to the director’s chair the way so many of the greats did – by winning a contest. The Patagonik Film Group selected his screenplay out of 350 entries in a 1998 competition, giving Bielinsky a green light and a modest $1.3 million budget. The resulting movie revolutionized Argentinean filmmaking.

    Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) is a con man caper with a distinctive Latin flavor, seasoned by the corruption endemic during Argentina’s fiscal crisis of the 1990s. Veteran grifter Marcos (Ricardo Darín) bails novice Juan (Gastón Pauls) out of trouble for his own selfish reasons; he needs a partner for the day, and his usual sidekick is unavailable. Marcos gives Juan a crash course in the art of the short con. Among his pearls is knowing when to act aggrieved. “The more offended you are, the less suspicious you look,” he advises his protégé. But plans change quickly when an aging confederate presents Marcos with a “once in a lifetime” opportunity – unloading a forgery of the title sheet of Weimar Republic stamps on a shady financier poised to flee the country. To make the score Marcos reaches out to his estranged sister, Juan risks his own nest egg, and each man will have to trust the other.

    Bielinsky’s film is ferociously entertaining. Breezy yet tense, packed with reversals and plot complications but never difficult to follow, culminating in a note-perfect ending. Much of the film’s impact can be traced to the bravura sequence when Marcos points out to Juan the countless “mustard chuckers ... operators, swindlers” hiding in plain sight on the streets of Buenos Aires, watching for any hint of vulnerability on which to pounce. Bielinsky’s on-the-fly technique, which Darín described as “almost as if we were carrying out a raid or pulling off a heist,” only adds credibility. Nueve Reinas posits a world of tricksters and thieves, leavened by the wounded insistence of all involved that they are not crooks. Even the acquaintance offering Marcos a motorcycle with minor damage, namely a “small caliber” perforation in the gas tank, bristles at the accusation. It’s all just business.

    Hollywood took note of Nueve Reinas’s international success, but Bielinsky resisted the call. An Americanized version happened without him. As remakes go, Criminal (2004) is not at all bad. It has a nice sense of scale, a game cast featuring John C. Reilly and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a feel for the multicultural vibe of Los Angeles, beautifully shot by cinematographer Chris Menges. Producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney turn it into a scruffy, low-key cousin of their Ocean’s Eleven films. (Soderbergh cowrote the adaptation with director Gregory Jacobs under the name Sam Lowry, the Brazil-inspired pseudonym he used on The Underneath, his 1995 retooling of the classic noir Criss Cross.) Criminal’s primary problem is that it simply cannot compare with the movie that spawned it. It lacks the danger and unpredictability of Nueve Reinas. Some of the best beats and lines from Bielinsky’s film had to be cut because they were unique to the original’s setting. Take the ending. There’s no way it could be used in an American film. Actually, scratch that. It might work now.

    Nueve Reinas has a jaundiced view of human relations, but Bielinsky’s noir sensibility would not reach full pungent bloom until his follow-up effort. El Aura, known as Dawn in Argentina, is a singular achievement, a truly existential film that comes across as an unholy combination of Richard Stark and Oliver Sacks. Its cunning use of traditional genre elements – fate, choice and chronic blackouts – makes it one of the finest cinematic noirs of this decade.

    We meet the film’s nameless protagonist (Ricardo Darín again) lying amidst a swirl of ATM receipts, seemingly rehearsing for his own chalk outline. He’s not dead, just suffering from an epileptic fit. The character works as a taxidermist, bloodlessly applying logic to recreate the savagery of animals. As a colleague notes, he has “a weird fantasy for a taxidermist who’s never gotten in a fight with anyone,” and that’s plotting perfect heists he lacks the nerve to carry out. “It can be done neatly. It can be done well ... There’s no reason why anyone should die,” Darín insists. “Yes, there’s a reason,” his skeptical colleague replies. “There’s a load of guys with guns.”

    Darín gets an unlikely chance to put his theories to the test. While on a hunting trip he accidentally kills a man, only to discover that his victim was an underworld figure whose plan to rob the local casino is already in motion. The taxidermist can step into the dead man’s role and live the fantasy he has long imagined.

    Bielinsky’s growth as a filmmaker, from the effervescent charm of Nueve Reinas to the command on display in El Aura, is hugely impressive. Much of the latter movie plays with minimal dialogue, communicating information purely through images. Consider the sheer elegance of the way Bielinsky uses details in the background of shots to convey that the taxidermist’s wife has left him. He immediately follows this revelation with an extraordinary series of edits moving Darín from his apartment to the lush greenery of the Patagonian countryside. Darín suffers a seizure when he’s alone in the woods about to bring down a deer, and thanks to Bielinsky’s kinetic treatment of the incident we experience it right along with him.

    But it’s the robbery scenes that showcase Bielinsky’s mastery. Early in the film, Darín waits with a fellow taxidermist to cash his check. As Darín explains how he’d loot the place, his scheme comes to life. It’s beautifully choreographed mayhem, the sad sacks in line behind them abruptly transformed into icy professionals, Darín and his associate blithely commenting on the action. Contrast this with the botched factory job that occurs halfway through the movie. Darín is no longer conductor but bystander. The sequence deftly illustrates the power and the impotence of bearing witness as Darín reacts to every gunshot and cry of agony, trying to piece together what went wrong.

    El Aura has style to burn, but Bielinsky knew that true noir is about character. He has an able collaborator in Ricardo Darín. The actor shines playing a man who takes refuge in his intellect as he finds his masculinity constantly questioned. He’s at his best during a halting speech to the dead man’s wife in which he explains the not-altogether-unpleasant sensation (the aura of the title) that precedes one of his neurological episodes: “There’s a moment, a shift ... things suddenly change ... The fit is coming, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Nothing. It’s horrible ... and it’s perfect. Because during those few seconds, you’re free. There’s no choice. No alternative. Nothing for you to decide.”

    That sense of inevitability pervades the movie, ratcheting up the tension and coloring the taxidermist’s actions. Darín has ample opportunity to walk away from the situation, but his refusal to do so – or even to recognize those moments of opportunity – adds force to the ending, which is as bleak as can be. For the taxidermist everything has changed, but nothing is different. Chilling stuff.

    Special mention must be made of the dead man’s dog, who alone knows that Darín has disposed of his master. Easily noir’s greatest canine since Pard in High Sierra. And both of Bielinsky’s movies make reference to a shadowy figure known as “El Turco,” integral to each plot but never appearing onscreen. One can’t help but speculate that future Bielinsky films would have drawn us deeper into the Turk’s demimonde.

    El Aura did not achieve Nueve Reinas’s level of exposure in the United States. It was distributed via the Independent Film Channel’s First Take series, released on demand and in theaters simultaneously. This approach makes films available to a wider audience – your correspondent saw El Aura on TV on “opening night,” a full three months before its truncated big-screen run in Seattle – but at the expense of publicity. Even being named one of 2006’s best films by The New York Times’s A.O. Scott didn’t garner El Aura additional attention.

    Hollywood again made overtures to Bielinsky, but he continued to spurn them. He said it would take a different type of movie to tempt him to America. For crime dramas he would remain in his native Argentina, where he could “keep full control.” Bielinsky undoubtedly had the right idea. It’s unlikely that a studio would give him free rein to make a thriller as spare and unsettling as El Aura.

    On June 26, 2006, El Aura swept Argentina’s film awards, taking home prizes for best picture, Bielinsky’s script and direction, and Darín’s performance among others. Two days later, in a hotel room in São Paulo, Brazil where he was casting a TV commercial, Fabián Bielinsky died of a heart attack at age 47, leaving behind a wife and a young son.

    Two movies. That’s all we’re going to get. Considering the innate understanding of noir that Fabián Bielinsky showed, it’s nowhere near enough.

    Labels: , ,

    Thursday, June 11, 2009

    Movie: Picture Snatcher (1933)

    This movie has been on my DVR so long that it has since been released on DVD. On the bright side, if it sounds appealing you can queue it up.

    James Cagney plays Danny Kean, a New York hoodlum freshly sprung from the slammer. Only Danny’s decided to go on the straight and narrow, see? He’s gonna follow up on an offer to work as a photographer for a newspaper. Naturally, the rag’s the worst in the Big Apple. Naturally, his editor (Ralph Bellamy) is sneaking shots of hooch at his desk. Naturally, Danny’s got to hustle and cut corners to make his mark.

    Does he succeed? It’s a lead pipe cinch. But Danny may take things too far when he returns to the big house – to snatch a picture of a woman in the electric chair at the exact moment of her execution.

    This movie is over 75 years old, but the energy in Cagney’s performance feels so contemporary it’s startling. He’s virility incarnate, his every gesture – a wave, an offer of a handshake – a demonstration of aggression. Screw CGI and 3D. From now on, everything should be shot in CagneyVision™.

    The plot creaks a bit. The great rollicking metropolis of New York has a population of about twelve when it suits the story. But on the whole Picture Snatcher is like its star, nimble and tough. This is a Pre-Code movie that delivers on the promise of illicit sex and violence. Bellamy’s girl, a reporter on the paper, puts her not-inconsiderable moves on Cagney because he’s a bad boy. Even better, the movie doesn’t punish her for it. And an entire arsenal is deployed during the climactic shootout. It’s seventy-seven minutes of moxie with a wicked sense of humor.

    The movie was inspired by the Daily News photographer who strapped a camera to his ankle and snapped a photo of Ruth Snyder as she was electrocuted. In 1927, Queens housewife Snyder and her travelling salesman lover murdered her husband for the insurance money. The case served as an inspiration for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. The scandal surrounding her execution spawned both this movie and its remake Escape From Crime. Years later, Snyder’s cell at Sing Sing was occupied by Martha Beck, one of the Lonely Hearts Killers, whose rampage has been chronicled in at least three films. That has to be one of the strangest intersections of crime and popular culture ever recorded.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, June 10, 2009

    Music: Bucky Pizzarelli & Benny Green

    The world’s greatest living jazz guitarist and the gifted hard bop pianist kicked off a brief West Coast tour with a long, extraordinary set at Seattle’s Jazz Alley on Tuesday night. Bucky is 83 years old – eighty-three! – and still throwing heat; I’m fairly certain I saw smoke pouring off his guitar neck at one point. He soloed on one of my favorite standards, “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, conveying every ounce of acceptance and regret in the song without any of the lyrics. And Benny’s got chops to spare as well. The two men’s styles complement each other beautifully, their joy at performing together contagious.

    To top it off, Bucky offered me his hand as he walked offstage following the encore. Rosemarie shook the other one, then turned to me and said, “I got the one that does all the fretwork.” Bucky also thanked us, which is officially the most absurd thing that has ever happened to me.

    Bucky and Benny have another show at Jazz Alley tonight, then hit California and B.C. over the next several days. See them if at all possible.

    DVD: Detective Bureau 2-3: Go To Hell, Bastards! (1963)

    So we’re in agreement. This is the greatest movie title ever, right?

    This Seijun Suzuki film may lack the formal rigor of Tokyo Drifter, but makes up for it with sheer unadulterated goofiness. Two rival yakuza gangs find themselves victimized by a third that favors ascots. Jo Shishido, who may be a private eye but is almost certainly storing nuts for the winter in his cheeks, cons his way inside this third group to bring them down.

    I think. I’m still not sure why the Japanese police trust Shishido so completely, or if the people who share his office actually work for him or are only subletting the space. But I enjoyed the movie tremendously. Especially the musical numbers. Think of it as a live action manga adaptation of a Black Mask story. (There, Kino Video! I dare you to slap that quote on the DVD box!)

    Once my ship finally comes in, I will spare no expense to recreate the Christmas party from this movie. And on that grand day, brothers and sisters, you will all be invited.

    Labels: , ,

    Thursday, May 28, 2009

    DVD: Killshot (2008)

    The Elmore Leonard adaptation, on the shelf for years save for a brief theatrical run in Arizona in the wake of Mickey Rourke’s Oscar nod for The Wrestler, finally debuted on video this week. As was the case with another recent film based on the work of a high-profile crime writer, it deserves better.

    A feuding Michigan couple (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane) is stalked by a half-Native American hit man (Rourke) and his hair-trigger sidekick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) following an attempted crime. Not even relocation under the auspices of the Witness Security Program can help them.

    The plot ambles along in the Leonard style, with a few lapses I found hard to swallow. But the movie is admirably terse and hard-boiled, shot in great gunmetal gray locations. Rourke does some subtle work, and Gordon-Levitt channels Warren Oates. It’s a solid film that’s more interesting than most of what will be in theaters this year.

    DVD: Peter Gunn

    Henry Mancini’s soundtrack album to the vintage Blake Edwards private eye series is in regular rotation on Rhapsody’s West Coast jazz channel. After listening to it day in and day out, I finally watched the show. And now I’m hooked.

    Gunn, played by Craig Stevens, is unlike any other P.I. He doesn’t have an office, instead hanging his hat at a swinging club called Mother’s. He spends most of his time making goo-goo eyes at chanteuse girlfriend Lola Albright. Each episode is a slick noir vignette, packed with prime hipster patois and always with a killer hook. Edwards was a man who knew how to grab the attention.

    Mancini’s music figures prominently. And you occasionally glimpse other West Coast jazz legends like Shorty Rogers. The best aspect of the show, hands down, is Herschel Bernardi as Gunn’s police contact Lt. Jacoby. Bernardi, doing more with less than anyone I’ve ever seen, plays the cop as if he’s a thousand years old and has seen it all twice. Pure minimalist genius.

    There are 32 episodes on DVD. I’m rationing them out carefully. Edwards made a Peter Gunn film without Albright and Bernardi, cowritten by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, that’s rarely screened and supposedly not very good. I still aim to track it down.

    Here’s Art of Noise’s cover of Mancini’s distinctive Gunn theme, featuring surf guitar god Duane Eddy and Rik Mayall as the shamus.

    Miscellaneous: The Rooster Crowed At Midnight

    China Miéville on the inevitable disappointment of crime novels. As for Miéville’s “only flawless” example of the form, Ray Banks offers both explanation and excerpt. My question: isn’t there an episode of M*A*S*H with the same plot?

    Labels: , , ,

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009

    DVD: Recent Release Round-Up

    Just Another Love Story (U.S. 2009). I read some rave reviews for this movie when it opened in New York earlier this year and kept an eye out for it. Next time I saw the title, it was on the new release list. Jonas is a Danish crime scene photographer, married with kids. He’s responsible for a car accident and goes to visit the victim in the hospital – where he’s mistaken for the woman’s mysterious boyfriend by her family and eventually the woman herself.

    Some classic noir threads are at play here. The disgruntled man led astray, Cornell Woolrich-style mistaken identities. The opening minutes are too cute and self-conscious, but soon the movie settles down and tells its story simply and well. One of the better films of the year so far.

    Murder at the Vanities (1934). Director Mitchell Leisen praised himself at the expense of Busby Berkeley in a book I recently read, saying that at least the numbers in this film could be staged in a theater. Because that’s what we’re looking for in a musical – rigorous fidelity to the confines of the proscenium arch.

    It is a backstage film, so (minor) point taken. If only the numbers were any good. The best, “Sweet Marihuana,” gets by on the basis of strategic nudity. As a musical comedy lead, Kitty Carlisle is a great game show panelist. Her costar Carl Brisson is one of those European exports that takes America by storm, like bidets, Fiats and socialized medicine. The murder plot is investigated by Victor McLaglen, who delivers every line around a mouthful of corned beef. Dorothy Stickney is fun as a nervous maid, and you do get a little Duke Ellington.

    Search for Beauty (1934). Olympic athletes Buster Crabbe and Ida Lupino (then a mere sixteen years old, using her native English accent, and wearing scary eyebrows) are hoodwinked by con man Robert Armstrong (King Kong) into fronting a lurid “fitness” magazine. The kids then set up a spa, which Armstrong tries to turn into a brothel. Featuring multiple bare asses of the male variety and a number, “Symphony of Health,” best described as Leni Riefenstahl’s Xanadu.

    The latter two films, part of Universal’s new Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, feature fetching ‘30s sexpot Toby Wing and actress Gertrude Michael. A hellraiser who dated pulp novelist Paul Cain and inspired a character in his legendary Fast One, she’s easily the best thing in both movies.

    Labels: , ,

    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.

    Labels: ,

    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.

    Labels: ,

    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.

    Labels: ,

    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.

    Labels: , , ,

    Wednesday, February 11, 2009

    Book: The Red Right Hand, by Joel Townsley Rogers (1945)

    It’s one of those books that pulp aficionados speak of with reverence. For years, I’ve been meaning to read it. A short time after Donald E. Westlake died, Ed Gorman reran a 2006 interview in which Westlake said that “The Red Right Hand should be reissued every 5 years forever.”

    That cinched it. And now I owe Mr. Westlake even more.

    The cover of the copy I bought at San Francisco’s Kayo Books describes Hand as “a classic of suspense-horror-mystery.” That claim does not represent indecision on the part of the promotions department. The book belongs in all three genres, and is a smashing success in each. It’s a singular, deranged, balls-out masterpiece.

    I won’t describe the plot, for fear of spoiling even one of its treasures. All you need know is that it’s about the hunt for a mad killer. An unforgettable one, an “ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height.”

    Rogers achieves wonders with POV, the narrator never quite having a grasp on his own story, what he didn’t see every bit as important as what he witnessed. Never have I read a book that so effortlessly conjured up feelings of dread, with paragraphs of fevered Lovecraftian detail that make the inside of the skull sweat. And structure? Read the closing pages and be amazed. I finished the book in the wee hours and sat there dumbstruck, listening to the walls creak.

    Then I almost read it again, just to figure out how Rogers did it.

    DVD: Le Trou (1960)

    This movie also knocked me on my ass. Jacques Becker’s final film is perhaps the definitive prison break drama. Non-professional actors, documentary realism, a pitiless focus on the physical toll of the bust-out, and an ending that had me hollering at the screen grindhouse-style.

    It’s been a good week.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    A pair from the AV Club: Random Roles with Bruce Campbell and an appreciation of the brilliant commentary track on the DVD of The Limey.

    The Financial Times on the relationship between comics and movies. H/t to Arts & Letters Daily.

    And a headline that perfectly captures the Florida that I know: Fake Foreigner drummer allegedly steals Corvette.

    Labels: , , ,

    Tuesday, January 20, 2009

    DVD: The Maltese Falcon (1931)/Satan Met a Lady (1936)

    At last I have caught up with the two adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon that preceded John Huston’s definitive 1941 version. In the process, I received an object lesson in screenwriting.

    No bones about it: 1931’s The Maltese Falcon is lousy. It’s stilted, and despite an interesting supporting cast – Thelma Todd, 42nd Street’s Una Merkel, the original Renfield Dwight Frye as Wilmer the gunsel – is hamstrung by having the one-dimensional Ricardo Cortez play Sam Spade. Mainly, though, it’s a perfect example of playing the notes but missing the music. Many of the beats and lines of dialogue that Huston took directly from Hammett’s novel are here, yet each one feels off.

    Brown Holmes – now that’s a moniker! – cowrote the ’31 film and received solo credit on Satan Met a Lady, which treats the story as more of a comedy. Prevented from using Hammett’s names, Holmes threw the Falcon out as well; here the MacGuffin is a ceremonial ram’s horn stuffed with jewels. He also reinterpreted the characters. Spade’s capable secretary Effie Perine is now a ditz, but one who may not be as dizzy as she seems. The Levantine Joel Cairo becomes enormous Englishman Arthur Treacher. And “the fat man” Kasper Gutman is a woman. Who is, to be fair, still pretty big.

    Spade, rechristened Ted Shayne, is played by Warren William, who had already portrayed Perry Mason and Philo Vance and would go on to be the reformed jewel thief The Lone Wolf. In Rosemarie’s words, Shayne is “whimsical to the point of derangement.”

    Again key scenes survive from the book, but Holmes mixes them up, reassigning dialogue and bits of business, playing them for laughs. The thing is ... it works. The documentary on the DVD had me hating Satan in advance, only using clips that made it appear foolish. As it happens, my main dislike was Warren William’s enormous hat. It’s a testament to Hammett’s novel that it survives adaptation even when pushed into Thin Man territory.

    Both movies are considerably shorter that the ’41 Falcon. One reason is that the scripts eliminate my favorite scene, where Spade blows out of his initial meeting with Gutman in order to test the fat man, only to return and learn the statue’s history. I understand why this edit was made; it’s a common note to collapse scenes so locations aren’t repeated unnecessarily. But we lose a great moment.

    It’s also worth noting that the two earlier films break the first-person POV hewed to so rigorously by Huston and taken to its logical extreme by Robert Montgomery in his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake. After Miles Archer’s murder in the ’41 film, Spade appears in every scene. The other films accelerate the action by cutting away from Spade to follow the conspirators or the police. These moments by themselves don’t hurt the films, but they do break the spell.

    Satan Met a Lady will air on TCM as part of its Bette Davis tribute – Bette Davis is in it, did I mention that? – on January 26 at 11:15AM EST.

    Upcoming: Noir City

    This interview with my friend Eddie Muller paves the way for Noir City, kicking off in San Francisco this weekend. This year’s irresistible theme is newspaper noir. The exception is a special event this Saturday honoring actress Arlene Dahl with a Q&A and screenings of her films Slightly Scarlet and Wicked as They Come.

    Yours truly will be at that event. I’ll also be at every screening when Eddie brings Noir City back to Seattle next month. And while I won’t dress vintage, I will dress appropriately.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    Jeff Pierce of The Rap Sheet introduces the spin-off site Killer Covers of the Week.

    This ad is NSFW. It’s also the funniest thing I’ve seen in weeks.

    Labels: , , ,

    This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?


    www vincekeenan.com


    Site designed by Rosemarie Keenan
    Movie stills from The Prelinger Archives