Monday, April 26, 2010

Lunacy Royale--Monday Movies #1

I had hoped to start my new "Monday Movies" column with a review of a good ol' fashioned yakuza film. But then a friend of mine changed that plan.

Before I begin, in the interests of full disclosure, I am what one might call a huge fan of the most recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace--as previously discussed on this blog--as well as the Bond series in general. The only reason I offer this preface, is that I want to do my best not to come off as merely an angry fan with what I'm about to say.

So, as I mentioned, a friend changed my plans for this entry, specifically by forwarding me the link to Patrick Goldstein's blog for the L.A. Times, where he makes a claim that the Bond series should purposefully go on hiatus for a while, and then substantiates this claim with opinionated commentary regarding box office grosses, irony, and 3-D.

Allow me to counter this wrongheaded stump of an article (so much for civility, I guess), so seemingly ignorant of the Bond franchise's pedigree, and so horrifyingly unworthy of even a nickel's worth of income.

(Note: I am not engaging with the first paragraph about the MGM troubles, except to say that one wonders if Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson announced the suspension to perhaps drive MGM into some decision-making.) Responding to each of his points from the second paragraph onward, here we go.

I cannot imagine why this is the perfect time to suspend production on this series. After the two most lucratively and--for my money--narratively satisfying installments, the momentum of the series would dictate the exact reverse of suspended animation, and if the MGM troubles weren't a factor, EON would likely be pursuing the next installment with all the vigor and speed of the teaser sequence in QOS. I was one of the "unlucky" ones who saw the most excellently titled Quantum of Solace (Goldstein here writing with the impudent ardor of one who may not actually know what the phrase means), and while it's an imperfect film, it's certainly not flawed enough to warrant a franchise overhaul. Indeed, as he himself writes, $576.3 million is, in fact, nothing to sneeze at (and I count $568,090,727 for worldwide grosses--according to maybe an extra $12 mil is splitting hairs).

And the film earned that money precisely because it wasn't tired. The intense action, the break-neck cutting (while on the whole maintaining spatial orientation), the film's lightning progression through the series' shortest runtime: what is it about any of these that signals the film is tired?

Oh, wait. He said the franchise felt tired. Over a billion dollars in worldwide grosses since 2006 indicates to me that stunning numbers of audience members disagree. As far as the "aging hipster with a bad face lift" comment, all I can say is that vacuous cleverness has consequences. Granting a generic lineage between Bourne and Bond, Wanted and Iron Man are by no means the same kind of film, forcing me to wonder where in the cinematic soil these deep roots of his lie. And as for not updating the tone with more irony and updating the story with more technology, I wonder if Mr. Goldstein understands what it is the past two Bond films have actually set out to do with the series.

Indeed, while the Bond films are always, to some degree, representative of and responsive to trends in the Hollywood creative marketplace, one shouldn't underestimate the degree to which the Bond films are responses to their own immediate predecessors. One of the critical responses to Die Another Day was that it was overly gadget-laden (two words: invisible car).

Wouldn't it make sense in the reboot, then, to rid the series of the more unrealistic gadgets and base the technology in real world application--to mirror the realism the series is now trying to achieve both in characterization and aesthetic? And, since QOS picks up directly where CR left off narratively, doesn't it make sense that the same sensibilities would follow into QOS as well?

As for irony...there are SO many places to go with that claim, but I'll leave it at this. Since Mr. Goldstein makes it a point to say that QOS did worse than CR at the worldwide box office, is it at all logical to model future efforts upon the sensibilities of Wanted, Iron Man, or the Bourne series, when each of those films made less money in the worldwide marketplace than QOS?

And to call Hollywood's present relationship to 3-D a "torrid love affair" seems intellectually irresponsible. To further a juvenile metaphor, it might be more prudent to say that Hollywood is sliding safely into second base. Regardless, the films that have been expressly shot for or retooled for 3-D presentation are, on the whole, spectaculars teeming with visual effects. The Bond series certainly utilizes visual effects, but it is not so heavily reliant on them as to warrant even a 3-D experimentation with the gun-barrel sequence. In fact, I can think of no sequence in the past two films that would have aesthetically benefited from 3-D in a meaningful way--even the Parkour sequence in CR, because the pleasure of that sequence is not the kinetics of simulated multi-planar depth, but the visceral thrill in seeing an actual human being execute these actual physical feats.

Or perhaps that sequence is just enjoyable due to the hilarious irony of Bond catching a gun thrown at him, and then hurling it back at his attacker.

Rumors of the next installment's plot would have Rachel Weisz as the head of Quantum, and Bond discovering that he doesn't have to prevent the world from being taken over--it already has been. One can only hope that The Property of a Lady isn't as unbelievably awful a title as Quantum of Solace. (Note: It's not. It's every bit as smart, elegant, and narratively connected.) If the rumors end up being true, then it seems to me that Broccoli and Wilson will be doing exactly what should be done, once the MGM troubles are settled: 1) building further upon the new narrative framework they've so aptly put in place, 2) striving to make the series exciting while simultaneously realistic and relevant, and 3) driving onward, leaving Mr. Goldstein's "lunacy royale" in the empty desert to which it so ably maroons itself.

As the friend who originally pointed me to this article said, "No one in a Bond film has ever said that discretion is better than valor...because no one says that at all." If Mr. Goldstein isn't sure if Mr. Bond has ever uttered this non-aphorism in any of the films, then I begin to wonder if he's even seen them all.

I, on the other hand, will end my post with an actual aphorism, one that's found often in the end credits sequences.


P.S. Thanks to Brad and Colin for spurring on this entry.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Little Things--Old Man Sundays #1

You'd think "Old Man Sundays" would mostly be a jumble of grumbles; at least, that's what the title would imply.

However, the title refers to a propensity, however infrequent, to enjoy a few small pleasures on a Sunday morning that make me feel like an old man. Going out to breakfast by myself, reading a copy of Illustration Magazine while I eat, followed by a bit of pool. This is the program.

So while there are numerous things I could (and want to) gripe about, I'm not going to do that least not today. Instead, in no particular order, here's a brief list of the small pleasures in which I've recently indulged, or to which I always look forward.
  • an unbroken Butterfinger from a vending machine
  • fine book design (cover art, trade dress, the works)
  • discovering a bourbon that reminds me of scotch (Black Maple Hill)
  • discovering a rye that reminds me of all that's good in this world (Templeton)
  • merely knowing there's a film out there that's titled Man on the Spying Trapeze
  • Tina Fey making a reference to Tron
  • almost everything Christina Hendricks says here (particularly her 6th point, which seems like a rare quality)
  • sliding my fingers over well kept felt on a pool table, and likewise the feel of the Irish linen on my cues
  • my E.T. ad about drinking and driving, shown here.
  • the tactility of reading the Griffin & Sabine books
  • a sketch that an artist draws inside your hardcover comic, precisely because you bought the hardcover
  • tennis at sundown
  • using a wooden bat at a batting cage when everyone else is using aluminum bats
  • mail-order ribs (from Memphis, specifically)
  • that moment during a run when you tell your burgeoning shin splits to go fuck themselves
  • lip balm that tastes like Dr Pepper
  • this article
  • reading any Golden Age comic before I go to sleep
  • a superhero who, clearly without any logic or motivation, uses a gatling gun instead of his magical powers
  • having a theater to myself (and taking a call during the movie if I want to; it's plain sinful)
  • ekranoplans
  • watching the entire run of Homicide: Life on the Street in two months
  • listening to every Miles Davis Columbia album chronologically
  • great screenwriting
  • feedback on this blog

It's the little things in life, after all.

And thus I have completed 7 straight days of posting, which for someone who hasn't posted in as many months, feels like a something of a minor feat. I doubt I'll be posting daily this week, but definitely expect new posts for "Monday Movies," "Wednesday Comics," "Friday Night Heists," and "Saturday Swigs."

I hope you've liked what you've read here this week. If there's something I can improve or change--however large or small--tell me. And if you expected a grumpier "Old Man Sundays," well...all I can say is to check back tomorrow for my first installment of "Monday Movies."

And with that, I bid you all a good evening.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Get Up from Your Rocker--Saturday Swigs #1

Unlike my previous few columns, this one will be quite brief. As I mentioned, I'll be starting a whiskey blog soon for the express purpose of having a little fun with whiskey reviews. I have a strong (one might even say cask strength) preference for scotch and bourbon, but I'm sure I'll select some Irish, Canadian, and a smattering of other stuff along the way.

I'll go into greater detail later about my reviewing methodology (yes, I have one). If the subject interests you at all, let me give you a little taste of what to expect with these reviews.

Swig of the Day: Old Grand-Dad 114 Barrel Proof Bourbon
Bottling Info: Distilled and bottled by the Old Grand-Dad Distillery Company, Frankfort, KY (OGD owned by Jim Beam); bottle is marked Lot #1

Glass: Glencairn
Served: Neat. Always.
Pour: 1 oz.

Nose: Straightaway, the nose on this is gonna rouse your tired bones from the rocker. OGD comes on with a strong--but harmonious--mixture of vanilla, caramel, and citrus, as well as pronounced hints of tobacco.

Taste: It breaks out of the gate with a citrusy sweetness carried over from the nose, and then it bolts sharply around a peppery oak bend.

Finish: I hope you're settled in your saddle, because you're in for a lingering, leathery finish of tornadic proportions.

Overall: Put it this way: you'll eye your empty glass with yearning, the glass raised in front of you as though in tacit toast to the next dram. (Or, if you're looking for something more objective, 5 out of 5.)

So, concrete flavor descriptors deployed amongst mixed metaphors, witticisms abound. That's my style. After all, for a pursuit so pleasurably subjective, it's the only way for me to do this.

If you enjoyed this, check back soon (hopefully) for my new blog: "From the Sweet to the Peat."

Read: Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2010, the single greatest book on whisky ever written, by the single greatest reviewer of whisky there ever was.
Watch: Big Bad Love (dir. Arliss Howard, 2001)
Listen to: Django, by Luis Bacalov (particularly the theme song, which is simply unforgettable)

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Split--Friday Night Heists #1

From October 14, 2009, through January 22, 2010, I watched a heist movie every day (that makes 101 days for the curious). I'm not entirely sure why I did it, but I know that my unemployment certainly enabled it. Perhaps I was training myself. Perhaps, feeling pretty wretched at the thought of being unemployed for some time, I just wanted something to look forward to each day. And heist movies--with their propensity for the precise, the logical, and the daring willful--always cheer me up.

Or perhaps it was the poster's fault.

You see, I have this beautiful re-release poster for Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi in my living room, and while I was spending way too much time thinking about what to watch on that day, I turned and stared at it for a while.

Gabin's old, crusty face. A stack of bills, sandwiched between a pistol and a pool of blood. I now needed to watch this movie again. Right away. The next day, I watched The Split, as I'd wanted to see it for a while, and it had finally fallen into my hands. I watched another, and another...until I just wanted to see how far I could go. Friends gave me suggestion after suggestion, and 101 days later, I felt a sense, however minor in the grand scheme, of accomplishment having watched that much heistacular cinema.

That said, I'm going to start posting my thoughts on some of these movies (hopefully every week), as well as new heist movies that I encounter along the way.

The Job: The Split
The Man with the Plan: Gordon Flemyng
The Year It Was Pulled: 1968
The Source: Adapted by Robert Sabaroff, from the Parker novel The Seventh, by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake)
The Take: $548,000 from a Packers/Rams football game

In this rarely seen and more-than-moderately enjoyable caper, Jim Brown plays McClain (the Parker alias here, as Westlake never allowed the Parker name to be used in any adaptations of his books), a hard-as-nails thief who's come to town to find his ex-wife (Diahann Carroll). He locates her through his old friend, Gladys (Julie Harris, equally--and delightfully--tender and tough), who's incidentally got a potential job for him. Gladys & McClain do a walkthrough of the stadium where the Packers & the Rams will be playing to see who goes to the playoffs, and the plan is to walk away with all of the cash pouring into the stadium that day.

To that end, as is often the case in these good ol' heist films, McClain's gotta get a crew together. And what better crew to get than Ernest Borgnine (the heavy), Jack Klugman (the wheelman), Warren Oates (the safecracker), & Donald Sutherland (the sharpshooter). Together, the six of them look to take over half a million bucks from the game, but after they steal the money, of course, that's when things go wrong.

Part of what I wanted to do with this heist marathon was figure out what exactly constituted a heist movie. Was it the fact that there was merely a heist/robbery/burglary sequence in the movie? From the get-go, that really didn't work for me. Despite the fact that films like Bonnie & Clyde and Public Enemies have bank robberies in them, I'm hesitant to call them heist films.

The rule I set for myself was that the heist(s) had to be something which was an utterly integral component to the structure--regardless of whether the heist propelled the plot, the heist was at the center, or everything built to the heist. The Split certainly complies with that criterion. The Split also is a convenient starting place for talking about heist movies, as it conforms to the conventional wisdom about narrative structure for the heist sub-genre. For me, there are three stages: planning, execution, getaway. I'll talk about this more with subsequent entries (as the exceptions to the rule are always more interesting), but suffice it to say that The Split conforms quite cleanly to this structural pattern (planning is 33 minutes, execution is 23, and the getaway is 33). The movie also slides very stealthily from planning to execution, for there is no straightforward, "Men, here's the plan," scene. One minute, they're picking up the sub-machine guns. The next, they're breaking into the stadium, but it takes you a few minutes to realize that they're not preparing the job anymore. They're pulling it. It's usually much more satisfying to see an unknown plan unfold, rather than having it spoon fed to us before its later flawless execution.

The Split's major draw, and one of the major charms of this sub-genre, is the casting. I mean, we already have this group of hard-ass criminals, but I haven't even mentioned James Whitmore as the creepy landlord to McClain's girl, or the man of smiling rage, Gene Hackman, as a greedy hot-shot police detective. Seeing all of these guys interact with each other is a tremendous treat. I've seen some cite one the movie's flaws as the introduction of the crew, as Brown has a sequence with each one where he very literally tests their respective skills (a fight with Borgnine, a car chase with Klugman, and so on). For me, this seems like both a novel and narratively motivated way to go about introducing these men.

After all, these characters are little more than skillsets personified. The bulk of the characterization is in the casting. It's not necessarily a bad approach, or at least not with these actors. And from a narrative standpoint, if McClain doesn't know any of these guys, why should he trust what he might hear from some schnook he's never worked with? But if he can make sure they're as good as he's heard, then he'd have the certainty he needs to proceed.

Besides--teaser alert--who wouldn't want a scene where the only way Warren Oates can break out of a vault is with his pants? I'll say no more.

It was that novelty of the ensemble that sparked my initial enthusiasm for the movie (look for Sutherland in later columns here, who proves himself to be a regular heistmeister). I also walked away with the intense desire to listen to Quincy Jones's score over and over, which was an easy thing to do, seeing as how I already owned it. Listen to the track called "Kifka Car Caper," and you'll feel like the coolest person on earth, no matter what you're doing.

Upon second viewing, it's still an entertaining flick, but it has its problems. The romantic sequences feel less like story fuel and more like boring burglaries of screen time. Also, as talented as Whitmore is, his scenes are so far away on the spectrum from the relatively even tone throughout most of the picture, it's almost as though he's in another movie altogether. Gordon Flemyng and cinematographer Burnett Guffey provide us with visuals that are highly competent, though not especially awful. I have read comments here and there that indicate it's not at all a solid adaptation of the novel. My apologies, but I can't speak to that yet, as I've only read the first 6 Parker novels. I really must get to that, mustn't I?

All in all, because of the cast and the overall enjoyable structure of the movie, I do recommend The Split, particularly if you can find a copy in scope. MGM, why won't you release a copy of this movie? Oh, right, you've got...a few other things on your plate.

Next week, I'll be looking at a new film (i.e. one I didn't watch during the marathon) that's got a fantastic title: La Raison du plus faible (The Law of the Weakest).

Bonus Feature:

Here's the breakdown of the original heist marathon, for those of you who haven't seen it. You'll note some...interesting choices...and believe me, I can justify them all.

The Films:

10/14—Touchez pas au grisbi (dir. Jacques Becker, 1954)
10/15—The Split (dir. Gordon Flemyng, 1968)
10/16—Out of Sight (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1998)
10/17—The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. John McTiernan, 1999)
10/18—Topkapi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1964)
10/19—Heat (dir. Michael Mann, 1995)
10/20—Thief (dir. Michael Mann, 1981)
10/21—The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. Norman Jewison, 1968)
10/22—Ronin (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1998)
10/23—Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (dir. Michael Cimino, 1974)
10/24—The Good Thief (dir. Neil Jordan, 2002)
10/25—Bob le flambeur (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955)
10/26—The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
10/27—Heist (dir. David Mamet, 2001)
10/28—Bottle Rocket (dir. Wes Anderson, 1996)
10/29—The Italian Job (dir. Peter Collinson, 1969)
10/30—Quick Change (dir. Howard Franklin & Bill Murray, 1990)
10/31—The Anderson Tapes (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1971)
11/01—$ (dir. Richard Brooks, 1971)
11/02—The Hot Rock (dir. Peter Yates, 1972)
11/03—Ocean’s Eleven (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
11/04—Ocean’s Twelve (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2004)
11/05—Ocean’s Thirteen (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2007)
11/06—Inside Man (dir. Spike Lee, 2006)
11/07—Sneakers (dir. Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)
11/08—Underneath (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 1995)
11/09—Dog Day Afternoon (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1975)
11/10—Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988)
11/11—The Asphalt Jungle (dir. John Huston, 1950)
11/12—The Lavender Hill Mob (dir. Charles Crichton, 1951)
11/13—Criss Cross (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1948)
11/14—Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
11/15—The Getaway (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1972)
11/16—The Wild Bunch (dir. Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
11/17—Dead Presidents (dir. The Hughes Brothers, 1995)
11/18—The Great Muppet Caper (dir. Jim Henson, 1981)
11/19—Charley Varrick (dir. Don Siegel, 1973)
11/20—Straight Time (dir. Ulu Grosbard, 1978)
11/21—After the Sunset (dir. Brett Ratner, 2004)
11/22—The Italian Job (dir. F. Gary Gray, 2003)
11/23—Three Kings (dir. David O. Russell, 1999)
11/24—The Code (dir. Mimi Leder, 2009)
11/25—Blue Collar (dir. Paul Schrader, 1978)
11/26—Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson, 2009)
11/27—The Driver (dir. Walter Hill, 1978)
11/28—Family Business (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1989)
11/29—The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1972)
11/30—City of Industry (dir. John Irvin, 1997)
12/01—Classes tous risques (dir. Claude Sautet, 1960)
12/02—Le Cercle rouge (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)
12/03—The Usual Suspects (dir. Bryan Singer, 1995)
12/04—Beverly Hills Cop II (dir. Tony Scott, 1987)
12/05—Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (dir. Guy Ritchie, 1998)
12/06—The Brink’s Job (dir. William Friedkin, 1978)
12/07—Kansas City Confidential (dir. Phil Karlson, 1952)
12/08—Blood and Wine (dir. Bob Rafelson, 1997)
12/09—City on Fire (dir. Ringo Lam, 1987)
12/10—Mannequin (dir. Michael Gottlieb, 1987)
12/11—Two-Way Stretch (dir. Robert Day, 1960)
12/12—A Man, a Woman and a Bank (dir. Noel Black, 1979)
12/13—Ocean’s Eleven (dir. Lewis Milestone, 1960)
12/14—Big Deal on Madonna Street (dir. Mario Monicelli, 1958)
12/15—Kelly’s Heroes (dir. Brian G. Hutton, 1970)
12/16—Once a Thief (dir. John Woo, 1991)
12/17—Point Break (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
12/18—The Silent Partner (dir. Daryl Duke, 1978)
12/19—A Fish Called Wanda (dir. Charles Crichton, 1988)
12/20—5 Against the House (dir. Phil Karlson, 1955)
12/21—To Catch a Thief (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
12/22—Reservoir Dogs (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
12/23—High Sierra (dir. Raoul Walsh, 1941)
12/24—Seven Thieves (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1960)
12/25—How to Steal a Million (dir. William Wyler, 1966)
12/26—The Aura (dir. Fabián Bielinsky, 2005)
12/27—Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (dir. Simon Wincer, 1991)
12/28—Full Contact (dir. Ringo Lam, 1993)
12/29—Cops and Robbers (dir. Aram Avakian, 1973)
12/30—The Bank Job (dir. Roger Donaldson, 2008)
12/31—Cruel Gun Story (dir. Takumi Furukawa, 1964)
01/01—The Ladykillers (dir. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)
01/02—Die Hard with a Vengeance (dir. John McTiernan, 1995)
01/03—Going in Style (dir. Martin Brest, 1979)
01/04—The Bank Shot (dir. Gower Champion, 1974)
01/05—Odds Against Tomorrow (dir. Robert Wise, 1959)
01/06—The Hard Word (dir. Scott Roberts, 2002)
01/07—Grand Slam (dir. Guiliano Montaldo, 1967)
01/08—The Heist (dir. Stuart Orme, 1989)
01/09—Hudson Hawk (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1991)
01/10—Flawless (dir. Michael Radford, 2007)
01/11—The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (dir. Charles Guggenheim & John Stix, 1959)
01/12—The Hard Easy (dir. Ari Ryan, 2005)
01/13—Larceny, Inc. (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1942)
01/14—Welcome to Collinwood (dir. Anthony & Joe Russo, 2002)
01/15—Gonin (dir. Takashi Ishii, 1995)
01/16—Set It Off (dir. F. Gary Gray, 1996)
01/17—The Real McCoy (dir. Russell Mulcahy, 1993)
01/18—Robbery (dir. Peter Yates, 1967)
01/19—The League of Gentlemen (dir. Basil Dearden, 1960)
01/20—Le Deuxieme soufflé (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966)
01/21—Rififi (dir. Jules Dassin, 1955)
01/22—Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (dir. Leonard Nimoy, 1986)

The Breakdown:

101: Films

101: Days

51: Films Watched for the First Time

24: Most Films from One Decade (1990s)

13: Directors with Multiple Films in the Marathon

7: Most Films with One Actor (George Clooney)

6: Remakes

5: Most Films by One Director (Steven Soderbergh)

5: Most Films from One Year (1978)

3: Number of films it takes to inflate actor/director stats (not a complaint, merely an acknowledgement)

The Loot:

A few swirls of paint, a cuss-ton of food, a jeweled dagger, some jeweled eggs, a little black box, a device that can turn lead into gold, a case that should contain ice skates but probably doesn’t, 2 humpback whales, 1 whole bank, and eleventy gajillion dollars in cash, stones, and gold bars.

And Kim Cattrall.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

We Hardly Knew Ye, Chick Vennera--Thursday Television #1

Remember this, dear reader. It always comes back to Night Court.

You see, whenever my friends get together, if certain folks are around--myself included--a conversation about Night Court will inevitably ensue (especially during any kind of playoff games, for some odd reason). Whether you grew up with it or not, I stick up for its comedic greatness. Like most shows, it has high highs, and low lows, and there was one episode in particular that proved quite a cosmic coincidence for me and my friends. I fear this story will not be as good in the retelling. If it's not, um, sorry.

To explain:

I was out with my friends Dave & Colin at a downtown brew pub. We'd just finished watching the first two chapters of a most excellent serial--The Adventures of Captain Marvel, which deserves an entry all its own--and we were just hanging out, doing two things that we do often: talking about movies, and drinking.

Involved in our conversation, ignoring the music blasting from the speakers, we were then interrupted by the burly gent in the booth next to us, who yelled, "Hey! I got a trivia question for you! Can you tell me what movie this song is from?"

Taken aback and trying to figure out a) what the song was (besides disco), and b) why the hell this guy was so excited to ask us, we sat silent, and we listened. Breaking the silence, he yelled again. "I'll give you a hint, it's got Jeff Goldblum in it."

It was all I could do not to bust up laughing at this point. Really? Jeff Goldblum is our hint? Thanks, total stranger! I mean, in exactly what world is Jeff Goldblum the go-to hint for damn near anything?

Colin and I stalled, pretending like we were on the cusp of the answer, as though if we put our hands to our chins and squinted just enough, oh we'd have it. I was about to signal Dave to get out his iPhone to look it up, but he was already on it. Within a few seconds, he quickly found the answer.

The song was "Last Dance," by Donna Summer, from the 1978 movie Thank God It's Friday. "That's right!" he exclaimed. He then proceeded to talk about how much he loved the song and the movie. It was, apparently, a childhood favorite. Dave brought up a jpeg of the poster (check it out, NOW) for the guy, and he went ape-shit, screaming at his buddies to come over and take a look. The guy thanked Dave profusely for showing him the poster, and the three of us returned to our conversation, thoroughly bemused. Something like 20 minutes later, the guy comes back to our table and thanks us for talking with him about the movie, and Dave in particular for bringing up the poster. He rambled on, but the comment that stuck with me was, "Man, when I saw that movie, I didn't think I was ever gonna get any pussy!"

And out of a combination of discomfort, humor, and genuine absurdity, the three of us just lost it. He left shortly thereafter, and we decided we must see this movie.

Almost three months later, several of my friends and I get together, and we watch this Oscar winning masterpiece (for the song) by a first-time filmmaker (who would go on to direct his second, Weekend at Bernie's II; we're waiting with bated breath for his third).

There's no plot summary I can give better than the poster. If you didn't look at it, scroll back up now and do so. When we started the movie, this is what greeted us.

And what followed was a captivatingly inept network narrative about people...ehhhh...without much in the way of actual story. It hinges on a dance contest...that only lasts 8 minutes! Jeff Goldblum tries desperately to break up a marriage...for a night of sleazy, meaningless sex! Donna Summer knows she can make it...if she can just break into the DJ booth! Debra Winger...realized she should never do slapstick comedy again! Oh, and the Commodores eventually show up...and then half an hour later, they actually play!

And then, there's the mystery that is...Chick Vennera, here bringing Marv Gomez, aka Leather Man, to life.

As I'm sure you get from these two clips, TGIF was a hilariously awkward, almost inexplicable movie, and one best experienced with a group of great friends, with a great deal of scotch, bourbon, and beer at the ready.

So, after the movie, in the midst of our befuddlement at what we'd just beheld, we debated what to watch next. And, for those of you who don't know me, there's quite the selection in my collection. (What the hell is it with me and unfortunate rhymes today?)

And of all the discs that we could have chosen, we chose Episode 17 of Season 3 of Night Court, entitled "The Mugger." It's the one where Dan's on the trail of a hot stock tip, and, more importantly, a guy who mugged Christine ends up taking hostages. Much to the chagrin of a tubby, half-naked, gunbelt-strapped, M16-wielding army surplus store owner, Christine eventually negotiates with the mugger, promising him a fair trial and defusing the situation.

'member it?

Well, we get ten minutes into the episode. We see the mugger for the first time (he was masked at the beginning). I hear somebody say, "Isn't that Leather Man?"

And sure enough, it was; I double checked afterward. Chick Vennera, who we'd just seen as the guy for whom, "dancing is everything, and everything else is BULLSHIT," played the mugger on Night Court. And by night's end, thanks to a wonderful cosmic coincidence, we'd had what I'm sure was the only Chick Vennera double feature ever.

Oh, Chick Vennera...we hardly knew ye...and that's probably for the best.

Like I said, folks, it always comes back to Night Court.

And for those of you for whom I was right--if the story wasn't as funny in the retelling--well, hell, if nothing else, you should count your lucky stars that you too have now seen the Columbia lady shake her groove thing.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Change of Plans--Wednesday Comics #1

I had every intention of posting my analysis of a Queen & Country page today, but it occurred to me that the longer I go without reporting on the C2E2 con, the less relevant what I have to say becomes. With that in mind, a brief report.

Overall, my experience was positive, but the con's main negative is the reason for my post, and it has to do with two of DC Comics' panels on Saturday.

The Brightest Day panel--the first DC panel of the day--was good fun. Even though there wasn't much in the way of news, the members of the panel did their jobs, in as much as they got us excited about what we are reading now and what we will be reading in the weeks and months ahead. The participants were lively and engaged, and I confess to being a fan of the comedy stylings of Ian Sattler.

But the second panel...that's where it went wrong. This was the DC Universe Editorial presentation, which was to be hosted by newly crowned Co-Publishers Dan Didio & Jim Lee and the new Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Jones.

And none of them showed up. There was neither acknowledgment of nor explanation for their absence. What's even stranger is that there was no mention of their absence in the press on the event.

Now, the guys I was with and I might have missed an announcement about this. Maybe there was a posting at the DC booth. If so, then you can all ignore this rant. If not, then can SOMEONE please explain to me why the new "Big Three" were no-shows? This is a brand new show in Chicago, and it behooves the publisher to have its heavy hitters running what should be the company's biggest panel on what is supposed to be the busiest day of the convention. Sattler and company did well enough (kudos to James Robinson and his surliness), but with the panel already being disappointing on the level of expectation, the seeming lack of concrete news combined with the fans' questions made for a less-than-enjoyable experience.

By the time my friends and I showed up for DC's third panel of the day, there were less people in the audience, and rightfully so, since there was a grand total of 3 people who showed up to present at the panel. (Note: Gail Simone did walk in after the panel started, and while she's one of those people who makes EVERYTHING better, we only had two hours left in the day. We wanted to get more out of our con than the same old fan questions.)

I was really pissed about the absence of the new heads of DC, and it's all but passed. I just want to know why it happened. If you've run across this entry and can put me in the wrong for being pissed, please do.

The rest of the con met or surpassed my expectations, and by all reports a successful launch for Chicago's newest show. There were plenty of guests, and, almost as important, there was plenty of room for everyone to move around. I got to meet Jonathan Hickman (who promises indie work in the not-too-distant that will surpass The Nightly News in design, which excites me no end), Mike Mignola (who seemed fine that no one was in line for him), and Ben Templesmith (who I've been waiting to meet for some time, and was impressed with how I held myself together). I also got the chance to see Carla "Speed" McNeil (who generously sketched Tara Chace for me) and Steve Bryant again, Steve in particular always being a great guy to chat with. Check out the "Support Athena Voltaire" and "Atomic Tiki Studio" links to the left to see some of his art and support his Kickstarter campaign.

More importantly, I did the two things I wanted to do that day. First, I kept my spending well in check. Second, Brian Hurtt did a fantastic sketch of Queen & Country's Paul Crocker (the young version) to add to my collection. Check it out here.

Most importantly, I went with my good friends Brad and Mark. And ultimately, they're the guys that made this whole thing fun.

Until next time, everybody. Next week: the analysis of the Q&C page, as advertised.

Read: The Engineer: Konstrukt, by Brian Churilla & Jeremy Shepherd
Watch: Going in Style (dir. Martin Brest, 1979)
Listen to: Big Fun, by Miles Davis
Eat at: Beefaroo

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Getting the Memo--Tuesday Tomes #1

There is a moment about 2/3 through Private Wars, where author Greg Rucka uses the text of a memo not only to elide time in the story, but also to put a bullet through the plate glass window of the status quo, through which I'd previously thought I could see so clearly. And to think it wasn't even the text of the memo, but rather the "To" line, that did the shattering.

We've all had those moments where we have a piece of grave news dropped on us with the utmost mundanity. While seeming insignificant to others, both the what and the how stick with us forever. That Rucka knows this fact is laudable; that he demonstrates it so deftly is what sets him apart from his peers in the genre.

I give this example not only because it was so striking to me personally, but also because it illustrates what Rucka's Queen & Country series is...and what it isn't. Set among the ranks of the Special Operations Section of the British Secret Service, Queen & Country is the anti-James Bond (at least pre-Daniel Craig). Battles are fought as much with words as with fists, and they are won as much with pens as with pistols. Far from a world of laser-firing Omega watches and properly chilled Dom Perignon, Rucka never lets the reader forget his vision of the world of spies.

In short, it's a dirty business, best left to the indomitable and the sly.

Private Wars is the second novel set in the Q&C world (but the thirteenth story, the other eleven being comic volumes). Minder (i.e. operative) Tara Chace has returned from the devastating events of A Gentleman's Game and Operation: Red Panda, only to find herself plunged into an even more complex, dangerous mission in Uzbekistan. The current Uzbek president is close to death, leaving one of his two children to take office. Chief of the Minders, Paul Crocker, orders Tara to sneak into the country--without any local help--and come back out with the pro-West son and his child, before the power-hungry daughter gets to them. Add the complications of an arms deal come back to haunt SIS and Chace already being at her breaking point, and you have the setup for the most emotionally wrenching and politically labyrinthine tale Rucka has offered yet. (And since I've got at least a couple of good friends reading this series right now, that's all the plot I'm going to declassify.)

Private Wars serves as a turning point in the series. New characters are introduced, notably a new SIS Deputy Chief and a new CIA contact for Crocker, which shake up the long established relationships in the book from the word go. Supporting characters, particularly fellow Minders Nick Poole and Chris Lankford, are given more time to shine--an advantage over the comic format, of which Rucka makes the most, without ever slowing the book's momentum.

And Britain's top spy finds herself even more at odds with Britain's top spymaster. The increasingly rocky relationship between the icy Chace and her boss, the taciturn Crocker, gives the story its foundation and propels it forward. And beyond the fact that I...respond somewhat favorably to tales of grumpy spies, one of the most wonderfully accessible qualities of this book (the series, too) is that anyone who has worked in any sort of office can identify with the office politics these characters suffer. This identification, in conjunction with the realism with which the service is portrayed, makes the book's stakes and its characters much less abstract, much more personal.

Private Wars also seems like a turning point for Rucka's writing. He is already known as an author who gives his characters not only breath but brains, and he's especially praised for the complexity and authenticity of his female characters. But the increased maturity with which he writes Chace here--trying to speed through the intersection of duty and tragedy--points to the type of work he recently completed with Batwoman in Detective Comics and is beginning with Dex Parios in Stumptown.

Rucka has also grown even more fastidious (which I didn't think was possible) with respect to the integration of his research and his fiction. After reading this book, it occurs to me that, if I ever got lucky enough to interview Rucka, one of the first things I would ask him would be where he gets his news. I've heard him referred to as "Tom Clancy with a brain." Which is insulting, because this book proves Rucka's ever-growing place as a consummate--yet never overblown--stylist, where Clancy's work is a consummate, overblown bore.

Rucka gives us thoughtful prose, and with a Hammett-esque snap.

I cannot wait for October's release of the third novel, The Last Run, which will lead into the new volume of Q&C comics. I'm almost positive I know where the story will go.

And I know I'm going to love it when Rucka proves me wrong.

Bonus Feature:

I mentioned that the Q&C series is comprised of both comics and novels. To that end, because I've not seen it elsewhere very often, here is a comprehensive read order for the series to date.

Operation: Broken Ground
Operation: Morningstar
Operation: Crystal Ball
Operation: Blackwall
Declassified, Vol. 1 (technically published before Blackwall, but directly sets up Storm Front)
Operation: Storm Front
Operation: Dandelion
Operation: Saddlebags
Declassified, Vol. 2
Declassified, Vol. 3
A Gentleman's Game
Operation: Red Panda
Private Wars
The Last Run (available October 26)