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    Thursday, February 14, 2008

    Upcoming: Noir City Northwest

    It’s hard to believe a year has passed since Eddie Muller brought his dark carnival to town. That’s because it hasn’t been a year. The last Noir City was in July. You don’t hear me complaining.

    It’s another dazzling line-up that kicks off tomorrow night with Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, restored by UCLA and the Film Noir Foundation. Once again, we have tickets for the entire run. Once again, I will endeavor to write up the whole megillah.

    My gavel-to-gavel coverage of the previous Noir City can be found right here.

    Book: An Ordinary Spy, by Joseph Weisberg (2008)

    If you’ve gotta have a gimmick, former CIA officer Weisberg has come up with a gem. His novel is a putative memoir by a disgraced intelligence operative that includes the redactions imposed by the CIA. Whole swaths of text, sometimes entire pages, have been blacked out. That lack of information becomes essential to a narrative about the relationships that develop between spies and their contacts. It’s tough to describe, but well worth reading.

    Miscellaneous: Post-Strike Link

    Stephen Colbert welcomes back his illustrious writing staff. The last one out does the heavy lifting.

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    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    WGA Strike: Hello, Grindstone

    The strike is over. My pencil is up. Also, I’m ready to go back to work.

    When official word came, I symbolically cut the strike bracelet that’s been on my wrist since November. I have plenty left; they were cheaper by the gross so I gave them away to friends and colleagues. Maybe I’ll sell the rest on eBay.

    Book: Gas City, by Loren D. Estleman (2008)

    The latest by Estleman is, simply put, a thing of beauty. A big rollicking story anchored by perfectly scaled details. The long-serving chief of police in a fading Midwestern metropolis decides after his wife’s death to upend the genial system of corruption in which he has been a more than willing participant. Gas City gives us a cross-section of urban life – mobsters, politicians, press barons, clergymen, even a disgraced cop turned part-time pimp – and has them jockey for position against the backdrop of a hunt for a serial killer.

    Estleman is as good a stylist as we have in any genre, and his dialogue is sharp enough to make me laugh out loud. It’s only February, but here’s one of the year’s best.

    R.I.P., Roy Scheider

    Not too long ago, I watched Scheider in 1986’s 52 Pick-Up for the first time. And was reminded again of why I’d always been a fan. Scheider was an easy but alert presence on screen, always thinking, never phony.

    For some reason that 52 Pick-Up piece attracted a lot of attention, and became the most-read post in this website’s history. It even turned up in a newspaper’s online tribute to Scheider. That makes me happy. What would make me happier would be a DVD release of Last Embrace, featuring a Scheider performance that deserves to be remembered alongside his work in The French Connection, Jaws, Sorcerer, and All That Jazz.

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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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    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    Music: Wolfgang’s Big Night Out, by the Brian Setzer Orchestra

    The BSO typically gets a few spins around Chez K come the holiday season. We like our Christmas music up-tempo around here.

    I was about to fire some up in Rhapsody the other day when I discovered their latest album, in which classical music staples are retooled for a sixteen-piece big band. It’s been playing ever since.

    In the BSO’s hands, Tchaikovsky’s best-known composition becomes ‘1812 Overdrive,’ and the traditional wedding march from Wagner’s Lohengrin is reborn as ‘Here Comes the Broad.’

    My personal favorite is Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ served up with Django Reinhardt flair. It wouldn’t be a BSO record without a Christmas song, and their version of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ – here called ‘Take a Break, Guys’ – doesn’t disappoint. It sounds like the title song from a lost Quinn Martin series. (“Tonight’s episode: Naughty or Nice.”)

    Sure, it’s a concept album, but one stuffed with great musicianship and witty orchestrations. I particularly appreciate the endings; there is no piece of music than cannot be improved by the addition of ‘Shave and a Haircut.’

    News: Strike Stuff, Late Night Edition

    No Daily Show? No problem. The writing staff goes guerilla-style straight from the picket line.

    And David Letterman’s writers have started a blog chronicling the strike from an East Coast perspective.

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    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Book: Deadly Beloved, by Max Allan Collins (2007)

    Every month Hard Case Crime has a drawing to give away advance reading copies of their newest book. Every month I enter. Every month I lose.

    I really wanted to win the latest one, so I could be among the first to get my hands on Money Shot by Christa Faust. Christa is the first woman to be published by Hard Case, her blog is a regular stop, and the plot – ex-porn star left for dead seeks vengeance – had me at ‘ex-porn star.’

    Surprise. I didn’t win. But I can steer you toward someone who did get an early look.

    It turns out Hard Case held a second drawing using the Money Shot entries when they realized they had additional ARCs of Deadly Beloved by Max Allan Collins. I finally win a Hard Case book, and it’s the one title I’d already decided to take a pass on. Collins’ stuff has been hit-or-miss for me, and I knew nothing about Ms. Tree, the graphic novel character making her prose debut in Beloved.

    Naturally, I read the book as soon as it arrived and enjoyed the hell out of it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

    Collins is a well-known disciple of Mickey Spillane; he had a hand in completing the Mick’s Dead Street for Hard Case. Spillane provided the inspiration for Ms. Tree. Suppose Mike Hammer finally married his bombshell secretary Velda only to be gunned down on their wedding night? And further suppose that Velda took over Mike’s business?

    I don’t know about you, but I find that premise irresistible.

    Michael Tree’s husband – also named Michael – has been in the ground a year when Beloved begins. Ms. Tree is hired to look into the open-and-shut case of a woman who murders her cheating husband. The investigation points toward a shadowy professional killer nicknamed “The Event Planner,” whose long list of victims might also include Ms. Tree’s spouse.

    Collins, who wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip for several years, doesn’t shy away from the character’s cartoon origins. The good guys have names like Steele and Valer, while the evil Mafia family is called the Muertas. Collins also finds a way to bring the larger-than-life tone of graphic novels to the page. Deadly Beloved bounds along at a furious clip, providing loads of fun along the way. Another winner for Hard Case, in more ways than one.

    News: Strike Stuff

    Look, I don’t want to link to it, people. I have to.

    John August explains residuals. Craig Mazin backs him up with another metaphor. Mmmmm, cake.

    Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times has a message for the moguls: “If you don’t believe in the future, you shouldn’t be in show business.”

    Who says there’s no money in the internet? Not these guys:

    Miscellaneous: Links

    Meet the best reason to watch HBO’s Flight of the Conchords: Kristen Schaal.

    Hey, did somebody say Ruben Studdard?

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    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    Viewing Tip: Ellroy Vision

    November is guest programmer month on Turner Classic Movies. Each night, the best network on television hands over the reins to various luminaries. There are some nice surprises scattered throughout the lineup – Charles Busch picking the underrated showbiz melodrama The Hard Way, Tracey Ullman opting for Kes, an early Ken Loach film, and 1959’s I’m All Right Jack – along with the occasional dud. Like Donald Trump night. With TCM’s vast library at his disposal, the Donald selects warhorses like The African Queen, Gone With The Wind, and Citizen Kane. Nice to see his talent for the thuddingly obvious isn’t limited to real estate. (“Slap some gold trim on there. People love that crap.”)

    The night I’m waiting for is this Tuesday, November 13, when novelist James Ellroy takes to the air. His choices include a trio of California-set crime dramas from 1958, all of which are new to me:

    Stakeout on Dope Street, the debut feature by Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), with a cast that includes Roger Corman staple Jonathan Haze;

    Murder by Contract, a hit man drama with Vince Edwards;

    The Lineup, a cult favorite directed by Don Siegel.

    I can unreservedly recommend Ellroy’s last pick. Armored Car Robbery is a crackerjack heist film from B-movie maestro Richard Fleischer, starring one of noir’s great tough guys Charles McGraw.

    Clips from all four films can be seen at TCM’s website, along with a brief interview with Ellroy. He doesn’t tone down his act for the network’s gentlemanly host Robert Osborne. When asked why he chose Dope Street, Ellroy replies, “Because it made me want to shoot big H and crawl back into the gutter from which I emerged.” All that plus a shout-out to the czar of noir himself, Eddie Muller. The fun begins Tuesday at 8PM Eastern, 5PM Pacific.

    TCM keeps up the noir theme after Ellroy’s picks end. At 1:45AM Eastern the network will be showing another Richard Fleischer gem, 1949’s Follow Me Quietly. This thriller about the hunt for a serial killer known as “The Judge” contains one of the creepiest shots I’ve ever seen in a movie. Quietly runs a mere 59 minutes, and is worth setting the DVR for.

    TV: This Week’s Reason To Love 30 Rock

    Jack Donaghy reading an official NBC ratings report: “Look how Greenzo is testing. They love him in every demographic. Colored people, broads, fairies, commies. Gosh, we’ve got to update these forms.”

    That line was scripted. Which brings us to ...

    News: Strike Stuff

    Expect this to be a semi-regular feature until this mishegoss is over.

    Lawsuits are all-American, but strikes still make some people uncomfortable. Tool around the web and you’ll find wags condemning the walkout, usually citing an Ayn Rand free market libertarianism often influenced by business practices in the start-up world. John Rogers handily demolishes those arguments. Make sure you read the comments, where he does it again.

    Variety’s blog Scribe Vibe has far outstripped the paper’s coverage of the work stoppage. I’d link to this entry, in which several top talents weigh in on the strike from Friday evening’s Jack Oakie Celebration of Comedy in Film, even if it didn’t contain some interesting comments. I just love that the Motion Picture Academy still has an event named after Jack Oakie.

    For those coming in late, screenwriter Howard Michael Gould lays it all out.

    If you’ve got a minute, why not sign this petition in support of the writers? It probably won’t do any good. But it’s certainly not gonna hurt.

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    Thursday, November 08, 2007

    News: Hearts & Minds

    For the first few days of the WGA strike, the thinking was that the writers were losing the public relations battle. Not that the public is all that involved at this stage; outside of New York and Los Angeles, the story doesn’t have a lot of traction yet.

    Much of the initial coverage condescended to the writers, noting that “those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.” (C’mon, David Carr. You’re better than that. Don’t you want me to link the Carpetbagger blog this awards season?) Personally, I’d prefer to read a piece on why the media conglomerates are focusing their energies on extracting the last few bucks from a dying system instead of developing a serious plan to generate internet revenue, but I never did understand economics. And maybe that’s more of a shareholder question anyway.

    A few days later, the writers are finally punching back in the perception fight, and they’re the using the very medium they’re striking over in order to do it. Some worthwhile stops:

    United Hollywood. A great source of news and information from the front lines.

    Here’s a short video they produced explaining the issues at stake.

    The writers/cast of The Office also take a crack at laying out what’s at stake. It may be the last original material they generate for a while. And now I feel bad for watching those episodes online.

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