On The Web: Amble to Ambler

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Mar 052014

My friend Ethan Iverson, pianist in The Bad Plus and crime/thriller fiction connoisseur, has written another of his brilliant overviews of a single writer’s work, in this case the great Eric Ambler. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek, and honored to make a meager contribution. Go read it, because I guarantee it will be the only time I ever share space with the legendary Len Deighton.

 Posted by at 10:21 pm

Miscellaneous: Youngman with a Horn

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Jan 062014

It’s a side effect of being obsessed with show business. Every time I meet someone who shares the same last name as somebody famous, I think, “Maybe they’re related!” Just a way to make my humdrum life more exciting. It never turns out to be true.

Until my first day in the video game business. I was introduced to the project’s lead designer Jim Youngman and thought, “Maybe he’s the grandson of Henny Youngman, the legendary comedian! The King of the One Liners! The featured attraction at the end of that spectacular tracking shot through the Copacabana in Goodfellas!” Not that I asked him about it. I knew how ridiculous the idea was.

But over the next few weeks, Jim would say things that kept me wondering. The clincher was when he mentioned that his father had edited The Horror of Party Beach, which had turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I did some research and came to our next meeting flabbergasted. “You are Henny Youngman’s grandson!”

Jim happily acknowledged the connection. “Not a lot of people my age know Henny,” he said. But Jim and his father Gary, an accomplished editor and documentarian, are trying to change that.

They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish a documentary about one of the all-time great comics. Take My Life … Please! features classic Henny Youngman performances, new interviews with contemporaries like Milton Berle, Jan Murray and Stiller & Meara, and exclusive footage of Henny shot late in the comedian’s life. I’m backing it. So is Mark Evanier, your one-stop shop for all things showbiz. And so should you.

 Posted by at 8:24 pm

Movie: The Impostors (1998)

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Dec 032013

I’m reluctant to file this post under the Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies rubric. After all, I remember The Impostors with so much affection that it was our Thanksgiving night entertainment, cinematic comfort food. The trailer’s not on YouTube – but a fan version is, which tells you something about the film’s reception.

Actor Stanley Tucci scored a succès d’estime with his maiden (co-)directorial effort, 1996’s delicate art vs. commerce fable Big Night. His follow-up left critics and audiences somewhat flummoxed. It’s an honest-to-God farce, a loving tribute to 1930s cinema featuring the best actors 1990s independent film had to offer.

Tucci and Oliver Platt play Arthur and Maurice, a pair of literally starving actors cut from Laurel and Hardy cloth. Fittingly the movie’s opening scenes play like one-reelers as the boys struggle to ply their trade. Thanks to their efforts, they run afoul of vainglorious thespian Sir Jeremy Burtom (Alfred Molina, gleefully picking scenery from between his teeth) and accidentally end up stowing away on a transatlantic cruise ship, where their troubles really start.

The characters onboard the vessel are broad types drawn from the era (Campbell Scott restores luster to a neglected favorite, the comedy German), each a faker in his or her own way. They’re played by an astonishing cast. The assemblage of talent is one of the things that keeps bringing me back to the movie: Steve Buscemi (singing!), Lili Taylor, Hope Davis, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, and many more. It was only on viewing the film last Thursday that I realized Burtom’s nameless dresser is played by Lost/Person of Interest star Michael Emerson. (Tucci is destined to be remembered by an entire generation as the preening M.C. of the Hunger Games Caesar Flickerman, but for me his legacy aside from his sterling work as a character actor is the trio of films he directed that show an affinity for a bygone New York: this, Big Night and Joe Gould’s Secret. I wish he’d make more of them.)

What I love about The Impostors, in addition to the players and the affection for the period, is the silliness. It celebrates a style of comedy seldom seen nowadays, wrapping up the mayhem with an end titles sequence that is one of the most joyous on film. Occasionally I’ll pop in the DVD just to watch the last shot. It never fails to make me feel like a million bucks.

On The Web: Crimes of the Century

Ethan Iverson is the hugely talented pianist in The Bad Plus, a connoisseur of crime fiction, and a man who does not shy away from monumental tasks. His latest dark undertaking is an exhaustive, highly idiosyncratic list of the genre’s must-read books. I was honored that he asked me to give feedback, along with the estimable Sarah Weinman. Clear the decks and go read his choices.

 Posted by at 8:36 pm

Noir City X: San Francisco, Day 3

 Cocktails, Movies, noir, Noir City, On The Web  Comments Off on Noir City X: San Francisco, Day 3
Feb 022012

It wouldn’t be a festival without one controversial title. 1949’s The Great Gatsby, out of circulation for decades, split the audience down the middle. Alas, I come down squarely on the negative side. This noir-inflected adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel plays like it was made by people who once had the book described to them during a drunken luncheon.

Things get off to a graceless start with a clumsy “Remember the Jazz Age?” montage. Alan Ladd plays the title role and is the best thing about the film. In a sense that’s faint praise, because it’s badly cast; Betty Field brings nothing to the almost unplayable role of Daisy, and we’re saddled with Macdonald Carey, who stubbornly resisted rising into the Hollywood firmament despite having Paramount’s promotional muscle behind him, as Nick Carraway. Reliable noir faces Barry Sullivan (Tom Buchanan) and Howard Da Silva (Wilson) fare better. Ladd flaunts his physique poolside and bristles enough to set the chip on his shoulder trembling. He has some strong moments in his up-and-comer flashbacks, like when he tells his mentor Dan Cody that he plans to succeed through hard work only to have Cody cackle and say such platitudes are meant to keep the suckers in line while the wise men sweep the chips off the table. (Every film this year seemed like political commentary to me.) Ultimately, though, this Gatsby lacks both the poetry and the edge of Fitzgerald’s story. Ladd’s son David, interviewed onstage after the screening by my friend Alan K. Rode, had it right when he called the film a “simplistic take” on the novel that offered a fine part for his father.

I discovered Three Strangers (1946) in 2010 and welcomed the prospect of seeing it on the big screen. This second viewing confirmed my belief that it’s one of the best films of the 1940s. A haunting fable with an extraordinary script by John Huston and Howard Koch, it tells the interlocked stories of a trio of desperate people hoping a bizarre pact brings them fortune. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet play characters, not the caricatures they’re largely known for, and Geraldine Fitzgerald’s quicksilver presence pushes the proceedings toward the unpredictable. Director Jean Negulesco’s flair for melodrama makes every leap into the unknown believable.

Nightly Cocktail Report: A dandy Manhattan variation called the Ellis Island at Poesia. Made with bourbon, Carpano vermouth and Strega.

All this was preamble for Everybody Comes To Eddie’s: The Noir City Nightclub. The Film Noir Foundation took over a hall and turned it into the nocturnal hot spot of cinematic dreams. The place was packed, partly because of the open bar but mainly due to the tremendous roster of talent Eddie Muller assembled. Dig this bill –

Mr. Lucky and the Cocktail Party, keeping the joint jumping;

The sublime Evie Lovelle, a demure beauty whose classical approach to burlesque damn near set the town ablaze;

Laura Ellis, a silver screen chanteuse performing a repertoire of noir nocturnes;

The Latenight Callers, the pride of Kansas City, closing out the night with a killer set. Here’s their video.

The high point had to be when Muller himself took to the mic to belt out the title song from Fear Over Frisco, his recent Grand Guignol show at the Hypnodrome Theater. I described his vocal stylings as Tom Waits meets Steve Lawrence, and he seemed inordinately pleased.

At one point during the evening, it dawned on me that I felt like I’d actually stepped into a swank joint from one of the movies we’d been watching. Gorgeous dames in their finery, a hot band and a cool vibe. The party underscored the fact that Noir City isn’t simply about preserving classic films. It’s about keeping alive the social aspect of moviegoing, getting together with strangers in the dark.

One day left to go. As in all good noirs, expect a twist ending.

On The Web: Ah, Treachery!

Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus reads every novel by one of my all-time favorites, Ross Thomas. Sharp analysis and long quotations from the master. Check it out.

 Posted by at 7:02 pm