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    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.

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    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    TV: The Greatest Broadcast in the History of the Medium 

    Five years ago today, a landmark broadcast went out over the airwaves ... of digital cable. An episode of the Independent Film Channel’s Ultimate Film Fanatic, featuring yours truly as a contestant.

    The strangest thing about the show is that a few weeks after it taped, Rosemarie was selected to be on Jeopardy! Making 2005 our year of game shows.

    UFF’s entire run lives on via YouTube. So I might as well mark the occasion by embedding it here. Again.

    Two vital points before watching –

    1. I now have the sense to wear contact lenses.
    2. Also, my hair looks much, much better.

    First, intros and round one: trivia. We were asked to come up with our own opening lines, which the producers then “improved.” Still, I sell the moment and cap it off by staring down the camera Lee Van Cleef-style.

    I had a strategy in this round. My competitor is Tom Tangney, critic for several Seattle radio stations, and I knew from our pre-show conversation that he was an erudite gentleman of taste. I therefore decided to force him to answer questions about crappy thrillers, which I regard as my forte. Watch as careful planning almost blows up in my face.

    Round two: debate. (Spoiler alert: I make it through round one. To this day, I can’t believe I remembered the name of that damn doll.) Your celebrity judges are Academy Award winner Tatum O’Neal and certified badasses Keith David and Henry Rollins.

    The producers stopped tape before this round to ask for topic suggestions. I confess that Kevin Costner was my idea. Again I had a strategy, namely degree of difficulty. If I could ably defend an unpopular position, maybe I’d earn the judges’ respect. For the record, I stand by the argument I made and would add the additional exhibits of The Upside of Anger and Mr. Brooks. As for Rumor Has It ...

    Round three: obsession. Or as I thought of it, collections.

    In a rare moment of prescience, I announced to Rosemarie after my audition, “If I get on the show I’ll make it all the way to the third round, then crash and burn.” Which is exactly what happened. See for yourself. Any of the other contestants would have fared better than me in this section.

    Problem #1: I don’t collect things. Scrounging up three items was a reach. (BTW, the key broke on the flight home.)

    Problem #2: I’m up against Tony Kay, now host of Seattle’s Bizarro Movie Night. I didn’t stand a chance.

    Note the raw sexual chemistry between Tatum and myself. What Rollins says about me is still one of the high points of my life. It was almost worth losing the five grand in prize money to be spared his scorn. Almost. And my popcorn line was used in TV spots throughout the season, so I won the battle for airtime.

    In closing, my hair really does look better now. Honestly. I can’t stress that enough.

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    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.

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    Friday, November 06, 2009

    Book: Hummingbirds, by Joshua Gaylord (2009)

    It was always odd to encounter one of my teachers outside the confines of the classroom. I’d be at the mall on Saturday afternoon and run into Mr. Granding, 6th period history. The ensuing conversation would be awkward and brief. For those few moments, he’d no longer be an imposing, vaguely unknowable figure who only had to flip to the back of the book for the answers. He’d become a suburban father, one of legion, pushing a stroller, wearing an ill-fitting sports shirt and ... dude, are those sandals?!?

    That academic overlap of worlds public and private, adult and adolescent is the subject of Hummingbirds, the lovely debut novel by Joshua Gaylord. A new year starts at the Carmine-Casey School for Girls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Two seniors, one popular and one smart, warily circle each other for the last time. Meanwhile Leo Binhammer, for years the only male teacher in the English department, has to make room for an interloper with whom he will develop a complex friendship. Gaylord flits between characters with an almost-but-not-quite omniscient voice that he deploys to startling effect. The result is a novel that, like the girls at its center, is delicate yet surprisingly resilient.

    I had the chance to hear Josh read from Hummingbirds last month in New York, as well as meet his wife, Edgar Award winner Megan Abbott. A literary power couple who have written two of my favorite books this year. I’m entitled to hate them a little bit for this.

    TV: What I’ve Been Watching

    While not tuned to a World Series in which I was rooting for inclement weather, that is.

    Poliwood. Barry Levinson’s loosely-structured “film essay” about showbiz and politics covers no new ground but does include some fascinating scenes. One shows ex-GOP pollster turned consultant Frank Luntz leading a communication seminar for members of the Creative Coalition at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He tells the assembled actors that he admires their passion, but that if they change their language they can reach a wider audience. Several actors immediately take offense and turn it into a First Amendment issue, thus proving his point. Later, Levinson and Luntz arrange a focus group on celebrity at the RNC. One woman tears into the actors with an almost sensual relish. That the person she describes – having millions of dollars, multiple homes and no commonality with regular Americans – sounds more like John McCain than Tim Daly passes without comment.

    Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me. I’m a Mercer fan and this documentary had me saying, “He wrote that song, too?” Factor in his singing, his role in founding Capitol Records and his work as a producer, and it’s clear that Mercer is one of the great men of the twentieth century. For the record, the other names on that list are Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tom Seaver.

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    Friday, October 30, 2009

    Miscellaneous: The Most Terrifying 3:34 on YouTube

    Martin Scorsese names the eleven scariest movies of all time. Five horror novelists including Joe R. Lansdale weigh in with their choices.

    With all due respect, these people are rank amateurs.

    In honor of Halloween, I am again offering a combination of sound and image that will chill the blood and drive good men mad. It’s the closing three minutes and thirty-four seconds from Paul Lynde’s 1976 Halloween special.

    Watch the whole show if you dare, ideally through one of these. I accept no responsibility for what happens to you.

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    Friday, September 25, 2009

    Movies: Programming Reminders

    An alert to all noir fans. Turner Classic Movies is turning over its primetime line-up this evening to the work of director Phil Karlson. After kicking around Hollywood for years in a variety of roles including gag writer for Buster Keaton, Karlson made his reputation in the 1950s with a series of hard-hitting crime dramas.

    TCM leads off with Scandal Sheet, based on a novel by Sam Fuller. It’s a wild one. I saw it earlier this year at Noir City. Next up is The Phenix City Story, a brutal small-town exposé that pulls no punches. The night wraps up with the gangster drama The Brothers Rico and the burlesque musical Ladies of the Chorus, featuring an early performance by Marilyn Monroe. Karlson Fest begins at 8PM Eastern, 5PM Pacific.

    While I’m at it, I’ll also point out that on Monday, October 5 TCM has scheduled a mini-marathon of films from The Whistler series starting at 6AM Eastern, 3AM Pacific. Sadly, only six of the eight titles will air, with two of the better entries – Mark of The Whistler and The 13th Hour – going missing. Still, it’s a rare chance to see these odd, haunting movies on TV. Set those DVRs.

    For more on the Whistler films, read my pointlessly exhaustive coverage.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Friday, July 17, 2009

    Miscellaneous: Dick Tracy Meets The Phantom

    In November 2008, the Los Angeles Times website featured this article on Warren Beatty’s federal lawsuit over control of the character Dick Tracy. Beatty bought the rights to the detective two decades ago and made the Oscar-winning 1990 film. According to the article:

    The sale allowed Tribune, the original publishers of the classic strip, to take back the rights if Beatty didn’t film another project.

    Tribune, which owns the Los Angeles Times, recently sent Beatty a letter saying time is up and it is reasserting control of the character. But the actor claims he should retain the rights because he started filming a Dick Tracy TV special earlier this month.

    Imagine my joy upon opening the July issue of Now Playing, the Turner Classic Movies program guide, and seeing the following listed as airing as part of their salute to the character on July 18 at 7PM EST:

    Dick Tracy Special (2009). Leonard Maltin interviews Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy, while film clips trace the history of the comic strip detective. BW&C30m.

    I circled it in the schedule, and had the DVR ready to go.

    Check the schedule now. Airing at 7PM EST on July 18 is Role Model: Gene Wilder, an interview with the comic actor by Alec Baldwin. I saw it when it first aired. It’s a fine show, as Mark Evanier will tell you. But it lacks the zest that only contractual obligation can bring.

    In a March 25, 2009 Chicago Tribune article, Beatty’s attorney says, “He sold [the special], even though the contract doesn’t require him to do that. The contract doesn’t even require him to finish it. He just has to start it.” The article also notes that in promotional materials, “the half-hour movie chat between film critic Leonard Maltin and Tracy (played by Beatty), is simply called ‘innovative.’”

    The special is listed as being in post-production in the IMDb. I honestly hope that Beatty completes it, and that it turns up on TV eventually. Something tells me it’ll be a hoot.

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    Sunday, June 07, 2009

    Book: The Way Home, by George Pelecanos (2009)

    When George Pelecanos is good – witness The Night Gardener – he has few peers. When he misses, he manages to do so in his own unique way. The unsuccessful Pelecanos novels seem to have been set down on paper because there were no stone tablets handy. They’re not sober but somber, ascetic to the point of being overbearing. Reading his books is occasionally like falling into conversation with a guy at a bar who becomes steadily more grave until he seizes your arm and says, “Let me tell you what it means to be a man.” Then you shake him off and point out that you only came in for a cold beer and some of the ball game, and things stay awkward until you close out your tab with the game still in progress.

    That said, I prefer Pelecanos’s approach, always mindful of choice and consequence in people’s lives, to the cavalier one prevalent in other crime fiction. And I continue to pick up every book he writes.

    It’s no surprise that The Way Home is one of his stronger outings, because he’s working with the genre’s elemental plot – The Bag of Money. It’s an intriguingly structured book, the first third devoted to the adolescence of Chris Flynn, a troubled kid from a good working class background. He finally goes too far and ends up doing juvenile time. Several years later he’s working as a carpet installer at the family business. Unambitious and half-heartedly trying to go straight, he’s still a worry for his father. And he continues to hang out with people he met on the inside.

    Then, on a job, he discovers The Bag of Money.

    The simplicity of the story and the leanness of Pelecanos’s prose complement each other here, leading up to a finale with genuine understated power. Pelecanos introduces the shrewish realtor trying to flip a house Chris is working on, apparently a minor character, then beautifully sketches in the woman’s life with a few concise paragraphs involving a waitress at the restaurant she frequents. He then goes one better by giving us the totality of the waitress’s existence in miniature. This is one of the Pelecanos books that’s like buying a round for a stranger to keep the conversation going.

    On The Web: Ebony, Ivory & Jade

    Meet my new favorite thing on the internet, courtesy of Jaime Weinman. It’s the titles to Ebony, Ivory & Jade, a busted 1979 TV pilot starring Bert Convy and Debbie Allen. (Convy is Jade, in case you were wondering.) As far as I can tell, the premise is Tony Orlando & Dawn as crimefighters. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pure genius. Turns out it was written by one of my heroes Jimmy Sangster, from a story by M*A*S*H’s Mike Farrell. I want this show found, and found now.

    On The Web: New Blogs In Town

    Hey! Joe R. Lansdale has a blog!

    Hey! Scott Phillips has a blog, too!

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    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?

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    Friday, May 08, 2009

    Sort-Of Related: The Couch Trip

    Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Doctor. I wanted to – there’s no couch? Only a chair?

    No, it’s not a problem, I just expected a couch. Too many New Yorker cartoons, I suppose.

    Anyway, Doctor, I’ve had psychiatry on my mind lately and I wanted to talk to someone about it.

    How did it start? With High Wall, a film noir from 1947. Robert Taylor plays a veteran who suffers blackouts as a result of an injury sustained in the war. When he comes out of one of them his wife is dead, so he ends up in an institution under the care of Audrey Totter. Unsure if he killed his wife, afraid to find out the truth.

    He didn’t do it. That’s one of things I like about the movie, the very elegant way you find out at the start that Herbert Marshall is the killer.

    What else did I like? The hospital scenes are good. Honest without being overwrought, like in a lot of nuthouse – sorry, mental hospital films. And I appreciate the role that money plays in the plot, driving a wedge in Taylor’s marriage and indirectly setting up the murder. Very ... adult, I guess you’d say.

    You know what’s funny? I saw this movie years ago and didn’t realize it until it was half-over. There’s a scene where Taylor recreates the crime, and as it comes back to him the rest of the movie came back to me. Part of the problem is Robert Taylor. He never leaves much of an impression. When I hear is name all I think of is Sarah Jessica Parker’s outsized enthusiasm for him in Ed Wood. But you’d think I’d remember Audrey Totter ...

    No, I don’t care to explain that. Why would – what could I possibly be hiding?

    All right. I am hiding something. I’d never seen Alfred Hitchock’s Spellbound.

    Of course I’m ashamed. I’ve seen all of Hitch’s other big films. And most of the lesser ones. I’ve even seen his two wartime shorts, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, on the big screen, so ...

    I don’t understand. Overcompensating for what?

    The point is, I finally saw Spellbound. Ingrid Bergman’s the psychiatrist. Gregory Peck is the new head of her institution, only maybe he’s not. And he’s got mental problems of his own.

    Yes, I did like it. It was made during the Hollywood vogue for psychiatry, so it treats the practice a little too much like magic. It’s best known for the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Which is dated and somewhat silly, because it contains the solution to a murder in code. But Hitchcock really sells it. The movies he made with David O. Selznick have a swoony, gothic feel like no other. I would have liked more of Rhonda Fleming as a nymphomaniac.

    There’s nothing to read into that sentiment, Doctor. I think it’s pretty obvious.

    You’re right. There is something further back that triggered all of this.

    No, not in my childhood. I meant last month, when I started watching the new season of In Treatment on HBO.

    Gabriel Byrne’s the shrink – sorry – and we sit in on four of his appointments a week, then his own session with Dianne Wiest. It’s a brilliant structure. Byrne is the model of rectitude with his patients, but when it’s his turn on the couch – actually, he and Dianne don’t have them, either – he’s petty, judgmental. Human.

    I don’t follow every patient. I usually pick one or two. This season it’s Oliver, an overweight boy whose parents are getting divorced. And at the opposite end of the spectrum Walter, a businessman suffering panic attacks. John Mahoney from Frasier plays him, and he’s doing some of the best acting I’ve ever seen on TV. The man breaks my heart every week. Walter’s convinced his problems stem from an ongoing corporate crisis, but over the course of his treatment it becomes apparent that pain he buried sixty years ago is still seeping into his life. Powerful stuff. I never took therapy seriously, but the show illustrates how it can be beneficial for people. Who knows? Maybe even I could get something out of it.

    It costs how much per session?

    I see our time is up.

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    Wednesday, February 25, 2009

    Book: Spade & Archer, by Joe Gores (2009)

    Yes, I took a brief sabbatical. You try seeing two movies a night and then staying up late to post about them.

    While attending Noir City, I was also reading Spade & Archer, the prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. I’m not a purist about Falcon; after all, it took three tries to get the movie right. (In the comments on my post about the first two films, I am schooled by none other than Max Allan Collins. Go look.) And the character of Sam Spade later appeared in a radio series.

    As for following Hammett, you couldn’t ask for a better choice than Joe Gores. They have a lot in common. Both know San Francisco, both toiled as gumshoes themselves. And Gores is a talented writer whose work includes a novel with Dash himself as the protagonist.

    But the opening pages of Spade & Archer gave me pause, because we see a young Sam Spade investigating the Flitcraft episode. Spade recounts this incident from early in his career to Brigid O’Shaughnessy in several extraordinary pages in Falcon. Rehashing this story – or, to use a hated term that seems appropriate, unpacking it – at the outset is a miscalculation.

    Soon, though, Gores’s uncanny approximation of Hammett’s voice and his feel for San Francisco take over. The book is in three linked segments, another technique lifted from Hammett. The third section, in which Spade finally confronts the villain who has dogged him amidst a caper involving a woman who may be the daughter of Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, is overcomplicated and anticlimactic. Various aspects of Spade’s life familiar from Falcon are fleshed out in ways that satisfy without surprising. At times Spade & Archer reminded me of Casino Royale, the movie that rebooted the James Bond franchise by explaining a character who was already fully formed. Of course, I liked Casino Royale, and I liked this book. Gores has done as good a job as possible with the project, but when I reread The Maltese Falcon I won’t remember what I learned in Spade & Archer. I won’t need to.

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this exchange from the book.

    “The bank making money?”

    “Tons if it. If you have the routine down and don’t make any crazy investments or shaky loans, it’s all so darned easy.”

    Too bad that wasn’t in the original. Someone might have paid attention.

    On The Web: The Larry Sanders Show

    I have only now discovered that episodes of my favorite sitcom are available on Crackle. To think I am but a click away from the seething anger of Hank Kingsley, or the wisdom of Artie.

    “After my first wife gave me the gate, I went on a binge of sex, drugs, and 180 proof Everclear that lasted for three years. After my fourth divorce, I was able to squeeze the same amount of debauchery into a long weekend. But I have a scar from that one.”

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    Wednesday, December 31, 2008

    TV: At Long Last, Morton & Hayes

    What say we mix it up a little for the last post of 2008? I want to keep things interesting for my readers, especially as I now know, having run the year-end stats, how many of you there are. (I’ll just say “record setting numbers” and leave it at that. But my thanks to all of you, and the regulars in particular.)

    I’ve mentioned before the TV series Morton & Hayes, which surfaced during the summer of 1991 and sank without a trace. The brainchild of Rob Reiner and Spinal Tap cohort Christopher Guest, it purported to be a showcase for the films of the forgotten 1930s comedy team of Chick Morton (Kevin Pollak in the role he was born to play) and Eddie Hayes (Bob Amaral). Each week the boys would appear in a “newly rediscovered” two-reel short, meticulously recreated right down to the jump cuts and shoddy effects.

    I watched every episode. And ever since, I have waited in vain for the show to appear somewhere, anywhere else.

    The other day I searched the online outlets for older TV series. AOL Video, Hulu, Fancast, Fanlu. Nothing.

    But Youtube? Youtube had one episode, in three pieces.

    It’s actually one I remembered vividly. Guest himself appears as a bandleader doing the novelty dance “The Cold Potato.” Even better, a then-unknown Allison Janney absolutely nails the period style. The way she says “Pago Pago” kills me. It’s not the best recording – for one thing, you won’t be able to appreciate the show’s look – but it’s better than nothing.

    So end ’08 or start ’09 with “Society Saps.” Part one is below, and here are parts two and three. Here’s wishing everyone a happy new year.


    Monday, December 15, 2008

    DVD: Capricorn One (1978)

    Much as I’d love to be able to say that I’m the product of the best influences, that I was forged in the kiln of the works of our greatest writers, thinkers and artists ... it ain’t necessarily so.

    Capricorn One is a crackpot conspiracy thriller about a faked Mars landing. It’s more than a favorite movie of my childhood. It’s the first story of any kind that I ever analyzed. I watched it repeatedly on TV and took the entire narrative apart, sketching out the plot in detail in the back of my social studies notebook. I even scared up a copy of the novelization by Ron Goulart and dissected that. I never did anything by half-measures, even as a kid. Except social studies, obviously. Capricorn One marked the start of my awareness of the craft of storytelling. Yeah, I wish it were Shakespeare or Kubrick or Faulkner, too, but we are who we are.

    Among the lessons learned that still hold up, based on watching the recent special edition DVD:

    - Give your supporting characters a signature detail. Writer/director Peter Hyams does this throughout. Take Sam Waterston’s astronaut, given to cracking ancient jokes. He tells himself one as a distraction while climbing a sheer rock wall. He reaches the top and the punchline at the same time – then makes an unwelcome discovery. I never forgot that moment. It’s cheesy, and it still plays.

    - Reluctant villains are more powerful. I like a psycho as much as the next guy. But when your heavy says over and over, as Hal Holbrook does here, “I hate like hell to do this to you,” and then does it anyway – his actions have that much more impact.

    - Never hire O.J. Simpson.

    And two random observations:

    It’s strange to watch this movie and think that only two years earlier Holbrook had a key role in All The President’s Men. They say the cultural metabolism moves fast now, but that’s a pretty speedy arc for conspiracy tales and the image of journalists. From Woodstein to Elliot Gould’s hangdog horndog in about 24 months.

    The evil company behind the phony landing? The same one up to no good in Hyams’ 1981 Outland, set late in the 21st century.

    TV: The Age of Believing

    Turner Classic Movies is airing this documentary on Walt Disney’s live action fare as part of December’s tribute to family films. It doesn’t spend anywhere near enough time on the Medfield College trilogy starring Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, but otherwise it’s pretty thorough. I think I saw every film highlighted, thanks largely to the Catholic school tradition known as Movie Day. Nuns love Disney.

    I bet Rosemarie beforehand that the special would make no mention of one of Uncle Walt’s lesser efforts, Lt. Robin Crusoe, USN, but sure enough there it was. How bad was the movie? The third time it screened on Movie Day, I wandered to the back of the auditorium and found the school principal.

    “Sister Maureen,” I said, “can I go sit in the library?”

    “What’s wrong? Don’t you feel well?”

    “I’m great, Sister. But this movie is not.”

    Sister Maureen wrinkled her nose. “You’re right. But it’s the only one we could get.” You know a movie’s bad when a kid would rather do his homework. Especially this kid.

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    Thursday, December 11, 2008

    TV: Scream Queens

    By rights, Scream Queens should have been crap. It is, after all, part of VH1’s reality lineup, in which hustlers and fame whores acquire wisdom and disease via hot tub. The premise: ten aspiring starlets share a house (again with the communal living, reality TV?) while competing for a role in the upcoming Saw VI. But Scream Queens, in spite of itself, became DVR-worthy. I learned more about acting in its brief run than I have from years of Inside the Actors’ Studio.

    Each episode is as rigorously structured as a Feydeau farce. In Act I, Saw actress Shawnee Smith leads the ladies through an acting exercise informed by the realities of low-budget horror. Sometimes you have to create a character while drenched in fake blood. Or make ridiculous dialogue believable, hence a recreation of a scene from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die in which you play a disembodied head. Low budget means varying acting ability, so your scene partner will be a gorgeous male model incapable of human emotion.

    Next up, workshop. John Homa, possessed of the righteous prick demeanor and facility for gnomic utterance essential for any acting coach, puts the girls through their paces. At times his tactics seem dubious. More often than not they’re unhinged: locking a bunch of twenty-somethings in the drawer at an abandoned morgue? But there’s Method to his madness. The morgue bit, for example, prepares each actress to play a character facing death. (OK, it’s still ridiculous. But it’s great TV.)

    At this point there’s some filler about “tension in the house,” but the show’s heart isn’t in it; you can sense the producers thinking, “Hey, this acting stuff is actually interesting.” The ladies bring all they’ve learned to bear on the director’s challenge in which they work with James Gunn, the Troma vet who made the delirious Slither. The outcomes can be genuinely surprising. In one episode an early favorite, a striking actress with real chops who occasionally made baffling choices, waited until cameras were about to roll before telling Gunn that she was uncomfortable with kissing another woman. She was cut at the end of the episode for unprofessional behavior. That this was presented as an ethical dilemma – and that we got the girl-on-girl action anyway with a different actress – demonstrates the program’s particular genius.

    There’s also a nice mix of personalities among the contestants. Like Lindsay, a former child actress working through confidence issues. (Politically incorrect aside to Lindsay: in addition to being skilled, you also have the best rack on the show. Do not be afraid to use it. This is Saw VI we’re talking about here, not Mother Courage.) And Tanedra, the oldest and least trained of the ten, who has undeniable raw talent. Both of my favorites made it to the Final Girl stage. Can I spot ‘em or what? I am Flo Ziegfeld reborn.

    It’s been said that it takes as much work to make a bad movie as a good one. Scream Queens drives that point home. Episodes are still airing, or you can watch them at VH1’s website.

    Miscellaneous: Radio, Radio

    The peerless Bill Nighy stars as Simon Brett’s dissolute actor-cum-sleuth Charles Paris in Dead Side of the Mic for BBC Radio. The four-part series airs on Wednesdays, and you can hear each installment online for the next week. Hat tip to Ed Gorman.

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    Thursday, October 16, 2008

    TV: Weekend Programming Note

    Watching nothing but baseball, reading nothing but research material. So this post is more of a heads up.

    The good people at TCM Underground will again be airing the bizarre, unavailable on video, split-screen serial killer film Wicked, Wicked at 2:15 AM Eastern Saturday, 11:15 PM Pacific Friday. Undoubtedly this encore is due to the overwhelming response to the post I wrote the last time TCM showed the movie. (That post actually is one of the most popular on the site, thanks not to my deathless prose but the photo of Anita Ekberg. Rowr.)

    Again, here’s the trailer. Set that DVR. Fortify yourself with strong drink. And behold the madness.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    During my travels I missed this AV Club interview with Patton Oswalt on his stint as programmer at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. Patton has excellent taste, and he and I are simpatico on Walter Matthau.

    There’s a special edition DVD of Capricorn One? Why don’t I have this?

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    Monday, August 25, 2008

    Sort Of Related: Noir Is The New Black

    A $500 million domestic gross propels a movie beyond blockbuster into cultural phenomenon. The Dark Knight should reach that rarified box office air by Labor Day. Weeks into its release it’s still stirring intense conversations; I witnessed one the other day in Quizno’s that jeopardized the pepper bar. Op-ed takes on the movie’s politics abound, ranging from cautiously vague to, forgive me, batshit crazy.

    What amazes me is all this passion, all this furor, over a film that is so bleak. So grim. So ... noir.

    I’m not the only who thinks so. The Dark Knight receives a lengthy, glowing review in the latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, in which it’s compared favorably to genre classics like Touch of Evil. Several years ago I heard FNF founder Eddie Muller speak, and he said the films of Dark Knight co-writer/director Christopher Nolan, citing Following and Memento, came right out of the noir tradition.

    This summer also saw AMC’s 1960s advertising series Mad Men return for its sophomore season, to continued critical acclaim and higher ratings. Novelist and Sentinel columnist Megan Abbott, in this appreciation of the show, noted that it was “easy to see Mad Men’s noir underpinnings.”

    Are you detecting a pattern here?

    Maybe this vogue for noir is a fluke. Shadows are cool, literally and figuratively. And The Dark Knight, after all, is still a big-budget superhero movie, one featuring the last complete performance by an extraordinary actor.

    Or maybe it’s something more. Again quoting Megan Abbott:

    Many point to the impact of World War II as central to the rise of film noir, the sense that the world is a much darker place than we had ever thought before – hence, the feeling of cynicism, anxiety, paranoia and desperation that drives KISS ME DEADLY, DEAD RECKONING, ACT OF VIOLENCE and IN A LONELY PLACE.

    I recently read Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement, a flawed book built around the brilliant premise that in the wake of 9/11 Americans have become “a people (who) can no longer agree even on the basic objective facts of their political existence.” He writes that “we had become a nation of reality shoppers, mixing and matching news items to fit our own self-created identities.”

    Mad Men’s audience is vocal, devoted, and, in the grand scheme of things, small. (I count myself among its number.) But half a billion dollars? That’s another matter entirely. That indicates a worldview that resonates across the political spectrum and a range of “self-created identities.” Getting that many people to agree on anything in this culture, even a vision that could be described as pessimistic, is a step forward and out of the darkness.

    2008 was the summer noir came back. And I welcome its return, for more reasons than one.

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    Sunday, August 10, 2008

    TV: TCM Picks of the Week

    As part of the network’s Summer Under the Stars festival, two fine noir dramas air this week. Pushover (Tuesday @ 8PM EST/5PM PST) marks Fred MacMurray’s return to the shadows after Double Indemnity. And The Money Trap (Friday @ 1:30PM EST/10:30AM PST) is a late career reunion for Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth. While neither film is a lost classic, both are worth pushing the record button for.

    Comics: Two, Please

    Things get spicy for your two favorite married film geeks in the latest installment, which is below or here.

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    Friday, July 18, 2008

    Book: Screen Plays, by David S. Cohen (2008)

    On this week’s episode of TCM’s Elvis Mitchell: Under The Influence, Bill Murray was the latest person to voice the truism that it takes a lot of work to make any movie, even a bad one. Plenty more ammo can be found in Screen Plays, subtitled How 25 Scripts Made It To A Theater Near You – For Better Or Worse.

    Cohen, expanding on features he wrote for Script magazine, traces the histories of two dozen films through the eyes of their writers. He includes a broad range of titles from every genre, studio and indie fare, originals and adaptations, hits and misses. The strongest sections detail the sturm und drang of big-budget productions: David Franzoni getting fired from Gladiator, based on his original idea, while remaining as producer; Ken Nolan climbing back on the merry-go-round after being replaced by bigger names on Black Hawk Down; Leslie Dixon writing Pay It Forward “almost in spite of the premise.” Some of the most instructive material is in Cohen’s introduction chronicling his own screenwriting career, which consists of a single episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. His limited experience is a Hollywood fractal. The part contains the whole.

    TV: The Emmy Nominations

    They’re out. But as always, you’ve got to go deep to find the real contests. Two songs from Flight of the Conchords versus “I’m F***ing Matt Damon”? I expect blood on the walls.

    On The Web: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

    Why am I extending the awesome cachet of VKDC to this little web venture? It’s pretty damn funny, for one thing. But mainly it’s because Joss Whedon needs my help.

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    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Book: The Finder, by Colin Harrison (2008)

    Writing about New York City means writing about money. Few write about money or New York City better than Colin Harrison.

    Two young Mexican girls, living anonymous lives far from home, are murdered in grisly fashion on a Brooklyn beach. Another immigrant, this one from China, barely flees the scene with her life. The mayhem is fallout from a series of financial crimes that touches lives from hedge fund barons to garbage men. Harrison depicts all of these characters and their disparate versions of the city with equal skill.

    He does fall prey to one of my pet peeves. He has the habit of dropping entire chunks of undigested research into the text. Great unruly paragraphs about stock manipulation or the geographic history of Long Island. When he shoehorns the information into dialogue, he compounds the error by having someone else comment on it, saying, “I don’t need to hear all this.” And even that doesn’t clip Chatty Cathy’s string.

    But it’s a minor quibble compared to the rest of Harrison’s writing. He introduces a major character – maybe even the title character, if you want to interpret it that way – obliquely, through the eyes of a secondary figure. She’s a single woman pushing 40, knowing she’s fated to be alone, pouring her affection into her house but hoping to collect a few more memories for her golden years. She essentially disappears after she’s served her purpose, but in those pages Harrison sketches an entire life. He knows New York high and low, and puts its beating heart on the page.

    TV: Still More Sinatra

    Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne said that Frank’s 1967 TV special with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim, which TCM aired on Sunday night, was as good as showbiz got. Who am I to disagree? I paid the show the ultimate Chez K compliment by leaving it on the DVR.

    The special’s high point was also a low point. Frank and Ella sit next to a piano and trade off on contemporary songs. Proving that synergy was around even in the ‘60s, Ella takes a crack at the theme from Frank’s then-current movie Tony Rome. The song is lousy to begin with, and having Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald!! – sing it represents a complete waste of talent. But I just watched Tony Rome, so I thought it was great. The segment has a sublime ending, with Frank and Ella dueting on “Goin’ Out Of My Head.” Absolutely electric.

    TCM closes out the month with Frank’s 1973 special Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back on Sunday at 8PM Eastern and Pacific.

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    Tuesday, May 06, 2008

    TV: Frank’s, For The Memories

    I’m on deadline, meaning I’ll be taking a sabbatical for the next few days. Lucky for you it’s Sinatra month on Turner Classic Movies, so you have this widget to tide you over ‘til I return.

    UPDATE: Initially I embedded the widget, but it starts automatically and I hate that. So you can find it here.

    The High Society number with Bing Crosby is a favorite. TCM is also airing some of Frank’s TV specials on Sunday evenings at 8PM Eastern and Pacific. I’m waiting for his 1967 show with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim, which airs May 18.

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    Sunday, April 27, 2008

    TV: Today’s Mitchell And Webb Moment

    If you’re not watching this show, you’re missing out. I have been known to talk about the Mets this way, and will start doing the same with movies.

    Miscellaneous: Links, All-Brawl Edition

    As a David Mamet fan, I can’t wait to see Redbelt. In an article he wrote for the New York Times, Mamet calls it a “fight film” and discusses a few cinematic battles and battlers that left memorable impressions.

    Then, in the Daily News, Mamet calls Redbelt his tribute to classic film noir and mentions a few favorites.

    Interestingly, both pieces cite the original Night and the City. Which also earns a place on this list of the 20 greatest movie fight scenes. Hat tip to Bill Crider and, by extension, Walter Satterthwait.

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    Monday, April 07, 2008

    TV: Today’s Infotainment Break

    There’s a real post coming up, I swear. Witty, impassioned, the whole shebang. In the meantime, here’s a clip from my new favorite show, That Mitchell and Webb Look on BBC America. It’s the kind of educational program that’s all too rare these days. Here, Dave and Rob explain how cheese is made.

    Oh, yeah. I should probably say it’s NSFW.

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    Saturday, March 15, 2008

    TV: Thoughts on the AVN Awards

    Oh my God! The Adult Video News Awards are being televised on Showtime? This means they read my letters!

    Wow. Always a bad sign when the women escorting the winners offstage are better dressed than the winners themselves.

    I don’t know any of these people. I don’t watch porn or listen to Howard Stern. But it’s an award show, so I have to watch.

    After 25 years they’re still doing jokes about “having hard days”? Bruce Vilanch is just phoning it in.

    Every woman who teeters onstage hikes the bodice of her dress up, as if afraid it’s going to fall off. What are they worried about? They’re porn stars.

    Ron Jeremy – hey, I do know one of these people! – just said he’s reading off cue cards. All the money in this business and they can’t afford teleprompters?

    Every award has three presenters, and some categories have fifteen nominees. The adult film industry is like pee-wee soccer. Everybody gets recognition.

    As always, lots of competition in Best High End All-Sex Release. In another year, any of these titles could win.

    Guy in the front row! Button your shirt! Oh, sorry. Buckle your shirt.

    Sweet Jesus, there’s a production number.

    It’s set in the year 2011. It’s about abuses of the Patriot Act. I’m not kidding. And I’m so happy I’m watching this.

    Oh, Lord, now the lead dancer is being arrested by FBI agents wearing flak jackets and gimp hoods who are taking her into custody using hula hoops.

    I’ve got to admit, this number isn’t completely terrible. I’m glad they finally stopped hiring Debbie Allen.

    Look at all the bored tongue kissing in the audience. Is that how you place a drink order?

    Jenna Jameson is presenting an award named after her. She’s up there having a mini-meltdown, rambling about her crazy year and generally overstaying her welcome. She’s the Mickey Rooney of the AVN Awards.

    So Jenna’s not retiring, but she said she’ll never spread her legs in this industry again. Clearly, there’s some nuance here that is lost on me.

    This is the last year of the film category? Only video from now on. Jack Horner must be spinning in his grave.

    No. Another production number. It features a drag queen and all the starlets groping one another. It’s like my senior prom is happening all over again.

    Female Performer of the Year is the final category, the equivalent of Best Picture. The winner looks like she just came from a My Chemical Romance video shoot.

    This must be the only awards show in television history to end with a 2257 notice. To read more about it, pick up Christa Faust’s Money Shot.

    DVD: Houdini, The Movie Star

    Let’s class it up a little around here, shall we? Via BoingBoing, here’s the preview for Kino Video’s upcoming 3-disc collection of Harry Houdini films. Gotta love that robot.

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    Saturday, March 01, 2008

    Miscellaneous: Grab Bag

    Busy, busy, busy, so here’s a bunch of stuff at once.

    A Diet of Treacle, by Lawrence Block (1961/2008). Hard Case Crime has reprinted some extraordinary early novels by Lawrence Block. But Treacle, originally published as Pads Are For Passion by Sheldon Lord, is the first that seems like a paycheck gig. It’s a sordid trip through the Greenwich Village beatnik world. Block paints the scene as peopled largely by posers and venal layabouts, a characterization I have no problem with. As always in a Block book, there’s fluid prose and vivid New York atmosphere to spare. But nothing much happens until the last forty pages or so. To be fair, those forty pages are pretty damn good, but Treacle is more a curio than anything else.

    And then there’s that title. I dig that it’s a riff on Lewis Carroll, who always seemed like he Got It. But as a title, man, it’s strictly from Squaresville.

    Stardust (2007). Why wasn’t this a big hit? High adventure with a noble hero, a fallen star, evil princes, wicked witches, and a swishbuckling sky pirate (not a typo), all of it served up tongue-in-cheek. Loads of fun.

    Let’s All Kill Constance, by Ray Bradbury (2003). In 1960 Hollywood, an unnamed writer (c’mon, it’s Ray himself) is asked by a legendary star of the silent screen to figure out who left two “Books of the Dead” for her. If James Joyce wrote a pulp detective novel after mainlining Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, Constance would be the result. I don’t know if I completely got it, but I did enjoy it.

    Larry King Live. Last night, Larry was responsible for the single dumbest hour of television I’ve ever seen. I was on a treadmill at the gym, but as fast as I ran I couldn’t escape it. Larry had tag teams of celebrities talking up their picks in the 2008 presidential election. The dictionary may not agree with me here, but I’m making a new rule I expect Larry to follow. Newspaper editorial boards, political organizations, and elected officials can “endorse” a candidate. Samwise Gamgee and Kumar can only support the individual of their choice. I have spoken.

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    Thursday, February 07, 2008

    Rant #1: So Long, Inside The NFL

    HBO announced that it was canceling Inside the NFL after 31 years. I can understand the network’s argument; in the era of all-sports channels, Wednesday is a little late for a highlights show. Even when NFL Films provides the footage.

    NFL Films, owned by the National Football League, says they’ll bring the show to a new station in the fall. I’d wager that a serious contender would be the network owned by the National Football League.

    Guess what, NFL? I’m still not anteing up for your damn channel.

    Rant #2: Wrong Robots, Dude

    “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”

    When that Star Wars line was referenced in The King of Kong, I realized I was getting tired of it. Now that Mitt Romney has said it, its usefulness is officially at an end. The moratorium begins ... nnnnnow.

    TV: Weird Show Biz Story of the Day

    Arrested Development’s Will Arnett is forced to give up his job on Knight Rider because of his commercial work for General Motors. And I was so looking forward to hearing KITT say, “With club sauce.” At least Val Kilmer makes an excellent replacement.

    Miscellaneous: Ministry of Silly Walks Links

    The AV Club has a great interview with John Cleese. But they don’t ask the question I want answered. Why is he providing election analysis for Fox News?

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    Friday, February 01, 2008

    Sports: Step Right Up and Greet Him

    I don’t want to make too much of the fact that Johan Santana, two-time Cy Young award winner and one of the most dominant pitchers of this era, now wears a New York Mets uniform. I will simply acknowledge this great moment in the history of athletic competition, and humbly move on.

    TV: Up and Down the Dial

    Last night’s Obama/Clinton debate took place in the Kodak Theater, home of the Academy Awards, and CNN shot it like there wasn’t going to be a ceremony this year. I caught glimpses of Steven Spielberg, Pierce Brosnan, Diane Keaton, and Stevie Wonder among others. The only thing missing was a red carpet show.

    When I had my wonkish fill I flipped channels and found, to my surprise, a bedridden Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) being spelled by ... Bette Davis? Turns out Perry is part of the line-up on the Retro Television Network, added to my cable service with zero fanfare. It’s so new that its website isn’t finished yet. Among the shows in the RTN rotation: The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Rockford Files, Cannon, Hawaii Five-O, and Mission: Impossible. There are even “retromercials.” Of most interest to me is a Saturday night bad movie show hosted by, like, freaky beatniks, man.

    Incidentally, Bette won the case.

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    Tuesday, January 29, 2008

    Sort-Of Related: Park Row (1952)/The Wire, Season Five

    Park Row, Samuel Fuller’s two-fisted tribute to the glory days of the newspaper industry, has long been one of my personal white whales. It’s unable on video and seldom turns up on television, owing in part to its history as one of the first independent films. I was thrilled to see it surface on Turner Classic Movies during John Sayles’ recent stint as guest programmer – and could have kicked myself for almost forgetting to set the DVR.

    Why do I love Sam Fuller? Because he has no problem opening the film with a list of more than 1700 daily newspapers, followed by the 120-point declaration DEDICATED TO AMERICAN JOURNALISM. Because when he offers adoring close ups of the statues of Horace Greeley and Benjamin Franklin that adorn the New York street of the title, you know someone will later get his ass kicked in front of them. Because he’ll wear his heart on his sleeve and give you the shirt off his back.

    Sayles wasn’t kidding when he introduced the film by saying that it packs twenty years of journalism history into two months. Gene Evans, a Fuller regular who once played John D. MacDonald’s Meyer to Sam Elliott’s Travis McGee, stars as the crusading editor who gets a chance to start his own paper in 1886 Manhattan. He then singlehandedly develops banner headlines, newsstands, and linotype, all while romancing his chief competitor. It’s one damn thing after another, served up with Fuller’s customary brio and feet-firmly-planted honesty. Alas, the print quality was noticeably poor; someone needs to restore this corker sharpish.

    It was strange to watch Fuller’s film in the midst of the fifth season of HBO’s The Wire, focused as it is on the inexorable demise of the daily newspaper. Series creator David Simon had a storied career with the Baltimore Sun, and he’s openly admitted that he has axes to grind. Personally I think the man responsible for the finest show in television history is entitled do what he likes, even if he is nostalgic for an era that may have been an aberration.

    That said, the newsroom scenes have yet to grip me. Maybe Simon’s proximity to this world weakens the material. But the truth is the drama is simply too pallid compared to the rest of what The Wire has to offer. Cops, drug dealers and politicians are being challenged by technology and cold economics. They’re not being fundamentally altered by them, the way newspapers are. End of story. As Sam Fuller would say, thirty.

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    Sunday, January 27, 2008

    Miscellaneous: Today’s Brilliant Observation

    Thanks to the internet, everything is now either overrated or underrated.

    Miscellaneous: How I’ve Been Spending My Time

    Jekyll (2007). This six-hour contemporary take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic – by Steven Moffat, who according to Rosemarie is responsible for the best Doctor Who episodes – gets more ridiculous and more entertaining as it goes along. It’s a field day for actor James Nesbitt. And Denis Lawson from Local Hero – fine, Wedge Antilles to you Star Wars geeks – makes a sublime heavy.

    Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing, by Jeffrey Stepakoff (2007). Stepakoff’s career in TV spans the everybody-gets-a-deal boom years of the ‘90s and the recent rise of reality TV. His book details the many ways that industry consolidation has affected the television business, from the stunted development of most writers’ careers to the neglect of entire demographics. Interesting material to consider in the midst of a writers’ strike.

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    Thursday, January 24, 2008

    Lady, Make a Note of This: The Nicer Side of Reality

    Because we could use a female perspective around here, welcome to the first in a series of occasional guest posts by my significant other. Take it away, Rosemarie!

    I wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy Lifetime’s new show How to Look Good Naked, hosted by Carson Kressley, mostly because of the host himself. On Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, he was the fastest with the double entendres, trying on the style-impaired firefighter’s helmet and making jokes about hoses. Not that I mind a good hose joke, but the constant sniping got old quick.

    On Naked, we get a kinder, gentler Carson with a great idea for a show. Women who don’t like their bodies because they think they’re too [skinny, fat, short, lumpy, whatever] receive advice. Not the “lose forty pounds and get a nose job” kind of advice dished out by other reality shows, but the “you’ve got great shoulders and you can conquer the world when you’re wearing the right size bra” kind of advice.

    A woman who was crying because she didn’t want to look into a full-length mirror ends up posing for some strategically-draped nude glamour shots and feeling like a million bucks. I start weeping during the opening credits and don’t stop until it’s over. What can I say, empowerment gets to me. And on a personal note, that bra size thing is true.

    Miss America: Reality Check is another show that doesn’t go mean. The contestants are the 52 young women who will be competing for the Miss America crown this Saturday. The show, part of the pageant’s ongoing attempt to update its image, brings in stylists and beauty consultants to help the women become the best “modern” Miss America they can be. So it’s out with the hairspray and in with the flat iron. The show’s fun, because I for one don’t mind a reality series where no contestants are voted off, fired, or have their sashes snipped by rhinestone-bedecked novelty scissors, to cite another Carson Kressley program. But 52 contestants are about 40 too many. The few singled out were the quirkiest ones – i.e., they had short hair – who were alternately praised for being themselves and reprimanded for acting oddly.

    That kind of conformity is what cut short my pageant career. That and my chosen talent; apparently the judges don’t care for Zasu Pitts impersonators. My favorite talent of this year’s cadre? Miss Texas’ Character Jazz on Pointe. I have no idea what it is, but I’m rooting for her to win it all.

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    Wednesday, January 23, 2008

    Miscellaneous: Grab Bag

    Oscar nominations. They’re out, and here’s all I have to say: if “Falling Slowly” from Once doesn’t win Best Original Song, somebody’s getting a letter.

    Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates (1961). A modern classic I am only now coming to. It deserves its reputation; I was well and truly staggered. Yates’s story of stultifying suburban life and how the lies we tell ourselves can poison others blazed a trail that novelists have been following for decades.

    The Colbert Report. Tuesday night’s show, with “Stephen Colbert” dipping into Stephen Colbert’s family history and a closing Gospel number, is a must-see. Colbert has always walked a high wire, but the WGA strike has removed his net. He has yet to stumble.

    Miracle (2004). I don’t know how I missed this movie about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. I’m a sucker for inspirational sports films, it acknowledges my alma mater as a college hockey powerhouse, and I revere Kurt Russell as the acme of American manhood. A recent mention from Kung Fu Monkey corrected my oversight.

    Art in the Blood, by Craig McDonald (2006). Not too long after I raved about McDonald’s debut novel Head Games it was nominated for an Edgar, due presumably to my endorsement. I can also recommend this collection of interviews with some of the leading lights of contemporary crime fiction. McDonald knows how to ask questions, and includes a wide range of writers. Lots of insight to be gained here.

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    Sunday, January 06, 2008

    Movie: Skidoo (1968)

    I watched it. All of it. From the truncated cartoon opening to the closing credits, which are sung. Yet another item I can cross off life’s to-do list.

    The history of Otto Preminger’s unwieldy combination of head movie and counterculture farce, laid out nicely in this TCM piece, is more interesting than its plot. And that’s saying something. Jackie Gleason is a reformed mobster coerced by the country’s top kingpin “God,” (played by Groucho Marx in his final performance) to go into prison and whack his onetime best friend. He’s thrown into a cell with a draft dodger (Austin Pendleton, easily the best thing in the movie) who accidentally turns him onto LSD. Meanwhile, Gleason’s daughter and wife fall in with a band of hippies. Here, watch the trailer.

    Some select highlights from the Chez K running commentary:

    Me: I don’t know which thought is more disturbing, Carol Channing sleeping with Frankie Avalon or Frankie Avalon sleeping with Carol Channing.

    Rosemarie: Please don’t talk to me.

    And when the movie was over:

    Rosemarie: Honestly? Twenty minutes in I was hoping the wind would knock the cable out so I wouldn’t have to watch the rest of it.

    Me: You could have just walked away.

    Rosemarie: No. I couldn’t. But I can still root for an act of God.

    As bad as Skidoo is – and is it bad; I’ve seen episodes of The Monkees that make more sense and do a better job of explaining the ‘60s – it at least represents an honest attempt to come to terms with the times. Which is more than I can say for 1967’s The Love-Ins, which followed Skidoo on TCM. It stars James MacArthur as the least believable hippie in film history – he still has his Dan-o hair, for Christ’s sake – and Susan Oliver, the first actress to become famous for going green. At one point Oliver takes a massive dose of LSD – again with the acid! – and does a striptease during a protracted trip based on Alice in Wonderland.

    Rosemarie: They spent too much money on this. The freakouts in Skidoo were better because they looked cheaper.

    Let that be a lesson to prospective filmmakers out there.

    Strike Stuff: The Golden Globes

    The WGA makes it difficult for the awards show to go on. Note to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association: maybe the writers don’t want to help you out because you treat them so shabbily. Only one screenplay category, for adapted and original, with a mere five slots? No recognition of TV writing at all? And yet you split the lead acting categories into comedy and drama so you can pack the hall with A-listers, and nominate seven movies for best drama just ‘cause you feel like it? You’re lucky the Guild doesn’t picket you when there isn’t a strike.

    TV: The Wire

    The fifth and final season starts tonight on HBO. Slate digs up a suppressed closing scene. I think they should air it.

    Miscellaneous: Links

    The New York Times on free web-based videogames. This is how I’ve been killing time while riding out a cold. I particularly like 5 Differences, which works as a soothing art piece as well as a game.

    It took two years, but my friend Tony Kay finally finishes the tale of his autograph hound trip to Los Angeles, complete with photo gallery.

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    Friday, January 04, 2008

    TV: Late Night Report

    Second day back for the network shows and things have already returned to normal, in that I didn’t watch any of them. And if I’ve got the TV on tonight, I know what I’ll be watching: Skidoo. Otto Preminger’s counterculture film – Jackie Gleason as a mobster on acid, Groucho Marx playing a gangster named God, and hippies, hippies, hippies – gets a rare television screening on Turner Classic Movies at 2AM Eastern/11PM Pacific. Mark Evanier has done a sterling job of getting the word out. Don’t miss it.

    Book: Luck Be A Lady, Don’t Die by Robert J. Randisi (2007)

    Back in March I raved about the first of Randisi’s Rat Pack mysteries. The second entry in the series keeps the good times rolling. The Pack is back in Las Vegas for the premiere of Ocean’s 11, and once again they reach out to Eddie G, pit boss extraordinaire at the Sands casino, for help. Frank Sinatra, pining for Ava Gardner even as he cavorts with Juliet Prowse, has arranged for yet another young lovely to meet him in town. After checking into her hotel she disappears, and Mr. S wants Eddie to find her. Before he’s done Eddie will cross paths with a battery of luminaries, including Sam “MoMo” Giancana. With slick plotting and a peerless recreation of 1960 Las Vegas, the book goes down like good bourbon.

    It also reminded me of another recent appreciation of Las Vegas in its mobbed-up heyday, from Bob Newhart in the HBO documentary Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project. As Newhart put it, say what you will about “the boys,” they knew how to run a gambling establishment.

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    Thursday, January 03, 2008

    TV: Scattered Thoughts

    The things you watch when you don’t care about college football. I stumbled onto an encore broadcast of the World Magic Awards on the mystery station known as MyNetworkTV on New Year’s Night. I knew I’d leave it on when the announcer described some jet fuel to be used in a later bit of derring-do as “insanely flammable.”

    Most of the performers who followed were insanely self-serious. It didn’t help that I’ve been watching Arrested Development on DVD again and enjoying Will Arnett’s genius as Gob Bluth, the insanely deluded illusionist.

    Wow, that word really will modify anything. It’s insanely useful.

    As awards show go the WMA has the right idea. No acceptance speeches. The winners just perform their acts. The Golden Globes people should bear that in mind.

    Watching the show meant repeated exposure to a commercial for another MyNetwork show, a compendium of home videos so outrageous “we could have called it ‘Lifestyles of the Dumb and Stupid.’” Really? Who decides which is which?

    The network late night hosts returned from their strike break yesterday, Letterman and Ferguson with writers and the others without. Detailed recaps of all five shows are at Variety’s Scribe Vibe blog.

    I watched Letterman and recorded Leno. Dave’s best joke was his introduction of the picket sign-carrying chorus girls who accompanied him onstage as “the Eugene V. Debs.” Lots of pro-WGA material in what felt like a typical show.

    The Tonight Show, on the other hand, had an air of unpredictability to it as Jay Leno shouldered the burden on his own. And did a solid job of it. Dave may have his pick of big-name guests, but Jay will get a bounce from the “now-what?” factor.

    Monday’s the night I’m waiting for, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert begin ad-libbing their way through their shows. We could have used them before Iowa and New Hampshire.


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