Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas treat ...

... courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola, Joseph Conrad and MadTV:

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sunday, December 21, 2008

As December winds down ...

... a song (and a sentiment) for the New Year, courtesy of The Hold Steady:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A dark month for journalism

My thoughts go out to the 2,000 Gannett employees who lost their jobs over the last two weeks, in what is certainly the largest single layoff in the history of American newspapers, and especially to my former co-workers at The Asbury Park Press who were let go without warning Dec. 2, some after decades of service. That following week, the Tribune Company, which publishes The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun, among other properties, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, ceasing severance payments to employees who had agreed to take buyouts or were laid off. This week will likely bring more grim news, as The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News float a plan to end home delivery on most days of the week, publishing truncated newsstand-only editions and possibly leading to more large-scale layoffs. And this is also the month that sees the departure of the remainder of The Newark Star-Ledger employees who took buyouts (including myself), depleting the newsroom by nearly 50%.  To quote another N.J. native, these jobs are going, boys, and they ain't coming back.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

And while we're at it ....

.... and the Tyrone Power controversy rages on, a little more Rathbone:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And on the same subject ...

... Hollywood's greatest real-life fencer, Basil Rathbone, in a much more realistic bout with Tyrone Power in 1940's THE MARK OF ZORRO:

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Random Readings, Vol. 6

This installment of Random Readings is courtesy of one of my favorite writers, Rafael Sabatini, and features one of the great opening lines in literature, from his swashbuckling 1921 novel SCARAMOUCHE:

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was obscure, although the village of Gavrillac had long since dispelled the cloud of mystery that hung about it. Those simple Brittany folk were not so simple as to be deceived by a pretended relationship which did not even possess the virtue of originality. When a nobleman, for no apparent reason, announces himself the godfather of an infant fetched no man knew whence, and therafter cares for the lad's rearing and education, the most unsophisticated of country folk perfectly understand the situation. And so the good people of Gavrillac permitted themselves no illusions on the score of the real relationship between Andre-Louis Moreau - as the lad had been named - and Quintin de Kercadio, Lord of Gavrillac, who dwelt in the big grey house that dominated from its eminence the village clustering below.


Despite the archaicness of its style, that paragraph is actually a model of succinctness. It provides backstory, tone, exposition and character information all in a single graph. (Sabatini was one of Norman Mailer's favorite authors as well. In 1963, Mailer told The Paris Review "I never enjoyed a novel more than CAPTAIN BLOOD.... Some years ago, I was asked by a magazine what were the ten most important books in my development. The book I listed first was CAPTAIN BLOOD. Then came DAS KAPITAL.")

SCARAMOUCHE was filmed twice, once in 1923 with Ramon Novarro and Lewis Stone, and again in 1952 with Stewart Granger and New Jersey native Mel Ferrer, who died earlier this year at age 89. The latter film included one the screen's great duels, with Granger and Ferrer athletically crossing swords in a crowded theater. Realistic? Ehhhh, not so. But brilliant all the same.

Friday, November 14, 2008

QUANTUM mechanics Pt. 2 (spoilers)

Spoilers ahead for the new Bond film QUANTUM OF SOLACE, so if you haven't seen it yet, STOP READING...

After seeing an advance screening a couple weeks back, I posted that, although I enjoyed the movie and think Daniel Craig is the best Bond yet, I found the whole thing way too action heavy and lacking exposition that properly set up what was going on.

So here are my questions for those of you who've seen it:

+ Is M shot during the interrogation in Italy? It appears she is, but she then seems fine in the next scene. What happened?

+ After Bond engages Mathis' help, they're traveling overnight on what? A boat? A plane? How does Mathis - a CIA contact with a shady past - merit a private plane complete with sleeper compartments and private bartender?

+ Is Agent Fields naked under that trenchcoat when she meets Bond at the airport? If so, why?

+ What exactly is Greene's plan? Did the Bolivian government not know there was a huge lake in the middle of the desert? If not, how did the Quantum people know? And what exactly were they doing? Damming up the lake to reroute the water to where?

+ I get that the painting-a-woman-in-oil bit is an homage to GOLDFINGER, but in the context of this film, what's the point? What message are they trying to send? Why kill her in the first place? And why oil? And what exactly are the logistics of drowning a full-grown woman in crude oil, painting her with it head to toe and then successfully depositing her body in a room in a luxury hotel with no one seeing it, and no traces left of how she got there?

+ Why does that hotel in the finale go up like it's made of gunpowder and gasoline, all from a single motor vehicle accident in the underground parking garage? And what are those "Hydro" canisters on the walls?

And finally:

+ Who shot Mr. Greene?

Answers, more questions, and general opinions welcomed. What did you all think?

And as an addendum, this illustration, commissioned by Ian Fleming in 1957 and representing his vision of what Bond looked like. It was done as preparation for a series of London Daily Express comic strips adapting the novels, though this particular art was never used, and was dismissed by the eventual strip artist. John McLusky, as being too "outdated" and "pre-war."

Monday, November 10, 2008

The new economic blues

Composing my thoughts for a Friday posting on QUANTUM OF SOLACE, but in the meantime, here's a perfect little character-driven crime drama - with guitar - courtesy of the great Dave Alvin:

Sunday, November 02, 2008

QUANTUM mechanics Pt. 1

Although the new James Bond film QUANTUM OF SOLACE has opened throughout much of the world (and is breaking box office records in Britain), it doesn't open in the U.S. until Nov. 14. So although I saw it at an early screening last week, and have much to say about it - and questions for others who've seen in - I'm going to stay spoiler-free and hold off on writing about it at length until it opens here.

In the meantime, a few quick thoughts:

+ This is the shortest Bond film ever, at one hour and forty-six minutes. And though many of the films have suffered from bloated running times (the otherwise-excellent CASINO ROYALE being a good example), this one feels like it could have used another good 15-20 minutes of story. Not only are the plot and various location changes hard to follow, it's so packed with action sequences - shot in hyperkinetic BOURNE style - that you never get a breather. The action is almost non-stop, with characterization, style and humor sacrificed along the way (and just what is the villain's plan after all?). Most of the dialogue in the film is actually contained in the most recent trailer. And though the chases, fight scenes, shoot-outs, etc. are well-choreographed, the editing is so ADD-addled that it's hard to parse exactly what's going on, where the combatants are in relation to one another, and who's doing what to whom.

+ Daniel Craig is - again - great. And I say now without reservation, best Bond ever. Though he has little dialogue in this one, he seems weary and battle-hardened, as if he's feeling the psychological toll of all that's going on around him. With that battered face and laser-blue eyes, he communicates a lot while saying hardly anything at all.

+ It has one of the best main title sequences of a Bond film since the days of Maurice Binder,  miles above the one in CASINO ROYALE. The new title song, "Another Way to Die" from Jack White and Alicia Keys, is serviceable, although it still makes one curious what the Amy Winehouse track sounds like.

+ The Aston Martin DBS returns briefly in the opening chase sequence and, unfortunately, is left much the worse for wear by its end.

More soon.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mad moments

Now that Season Two of MAD MEN has come to a very satisfying - if somewhat soap-operay - conclusion, I will once again direct viewers to the best MM discussion on the net, courtesy of my Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall. He also has a lengthy and exclusive Q&A with MM creator Matthew Weiner, talking about the series as a whole and the finale in particular.

My favorite moments from tonight's episode:
+ Don finally giving Pete the fatherly attention and approval he's sought for so long. I've always thought of Pete as a soul in the balance, looking for guidance from various father figures, only to be rebuffed by Don at every turn.
+ The merger of the Don/Dick personalities at the same time as Sterling Cooper itself is facing a merger. Don seemed to return from California with the best qualities of both his personas, plus a desperate realization of what he stood to lose if things continued as they were. And along with that ...
+ ... Don's letter to Betty, written with his characteristic adman's skill, but with an emotionally wrenching sincerity at its heart ... "you won't be alone for long, but I'll be alone forever."

All that said, I'm still hoping for the Freddy Rumsen spinoff series next year.

And, for those who missed it, one of the finer moments from this weekend's Saturday Night Live, courtesy of Jon Hamm.

Speaking of finales, in case any of you have been following the news about The Star-Ledger, the other shoe did indeed drop Friday. The short version being that I and 150 of my colleagues - about half of the newsroom staff - will be leaving the paper by the end of the year.

But enough about that, go read Sepinwall. And don't worry, he's staying.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fading ink stains

A busy week after returning from Bouchercon in Baltimore Monday, where I pontificated about THE WIRE and the death of newspapers and downed much red wine. The week since was punctuated by a wonderful Matthew Ryan performance within the intimate confines of The Saint in Asbury Park. Ryan, with violinist/keyboardist Molly Thomas, played an acoustic set to an enthusiastic crowd of about 75, taking requests much of the night (and venturing, unplugged, into the audience to play those requests up close and personal).

Back to Bouchercon: The mystery/crime field is full of current and ex-journalists, so another regular topic at the convention - in addition to the economy and the election - was the painful straits the newspaper industry is in, and many were curious about the future of The Star-Ledger. At the moment though, much remains in doubt, including my own involvement with the paper going forward.

But I would also be remiss in not mentioning the passing of former Newsweek editor Osborn Elliott, who died Sept. 28 at age 83. A staffer at Time who jumped ship to Newsweek in the late-1950s and rose to the top post there, Elliott eventually became dean of Columbia University's journalism school and - for a time - a $1-a-year deputy mayor in charge of economic development for New York City.

I never met Elliott (though a journalism professor of mine at Rutgers once chastised me for not interviewing Elliott personally when I referenced him in a thesis paper), and in fact knew him most through his 1980 book THE WORLD OF OZ, one of the best - and funniest - memoirs of life in journalism ever. It's a wonderful look at the rough-and-tumble world of New York newsmen, from the late 1950s into the Watergate era, sort of a MAD MEN for the ink-stained wretch set. It's also filled with priceless insider details, such as that when Elliott joined Newsweek in the late 1950s, there were so many alcoholics on staff that it was known throughout the industry as "Boozeweek." Or that Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee commonly referred to Elliott and his staff as "those f**ks in New York."

And, finally: I haven't commented on the upcoming election and the campaigns so far, and I won't, on general principals. However, I have to say that, here in New Jersey, if you come across someone named "Joe The Plumber," it's probably in a RICO indictment.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Song of the week ...

... or maybe the year.

Matthew Ryan's "Jane, I Still Feel The Same" from his most recent CD, "Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State," one of the best albums of 2008.

Monday, September 29, 2008


I sang the praises of AMC's MAD MEN back in September of last year after watching the first few episodes of Season One. I've just now caught up on watching the current episodes and, as much as I enjoyed (with some reservations) that first season, I think Season Two is a quantum leap forward. With the departure of THE WIRE, MAD MEN is now, in my opinion, the best-written show on television. Though it's taken a somewhat soap-operay turn this season (which I don't really mind), the show is full of narrative surprises that make perfect sense in retrospect. It also has some wonderful character moments, as well as spot-on depictions of 1960s parenting. And is there another show on the air with as many interesting - and unpredictable - female characters?

I was going to write more about it, especially in light of this week's episode, which focused in part on war-hero-turned-lush Freddy Rumsen, one of my favorite characters. But my Star-Ledger colleague (for the moment) Alan Sepinwall is doing a much better job over at his blog than I could hope to. See you over there.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Forgotten Book Friday Vol. 2 ...

... continuing Patti Abbott's tag-team effort of assembling a list of books which, in her words, "we love but might have forgotten over the years."

My previous Forgotten Book Friday choice was Donald E. Westlake's THE RARE COIN SCORE, written under the pen name "Richard Stark" and featuring Parker, the solo-named professional thief and protagonist of (so far) 24 lean and mean crime novels.

When I first discovered the Stark books in the late '70s, they were like nothing I'd ever read before. There was a certain terseness to them I recognized from Hammett and Cain, and a laconic coolness reminiscent of the quirkier '50s film noirs, but they seemed like a totally new animal. I was amazed by their compactness, their narrative drive, their swift declarative sentences and their objective amorality. They were something no one had ever done before, I assumed. They had sprung into the world fully formed, unique creations owing nothing to anything that went before them.

And then I discovered Peter Rabe.

Between 1955 and 1974, Rabe wrote more than two dozen novels, many for Fawcett Gold Medal. Five of these, beginning with 1956's DIG MY GRAVE DEEP, were the adventures of an ex-gangster named Daniel Port, who leaves "The Stoker Mob" to strike out on his own. The cold-coffee-swilling Port is tough, agile and intelligent, but unlike Parker, he's one of the more compassionate animals in his particular jungle. In 1957's THE OUT IS DEATH, the second book in the series, Port comes to the aid of an ill and aging safecracker named Dalton, who's being strong-armed into doing one more job for a brutal young gang leader named Corday (shades of Westlake/Stark's THE JUGGER eight years later, although in that case the safecracker is dead before Parker can get there).

I came to Rabe's novels late, when Black Lizard Books reprinted a handful of them in the late '80s and early '90s. I had burned through all the Starks by then, and the Rabe books were more fuel for the fire. They were clearly the direct forerunners of the Stark novels, and shared a lot of the virtues I'd found so startling - their brevity (they almost all ran under 150 pages), the precision and clarity of the descriptive passages and the refusal to engage in simplistic genre stereotyping of good and evil. THE OUT IS DEATH, while not the best of his novels, is a quintessential slice of Rabesian pulp, hard-boiled in an understated way that Westlake would polish to perfection just a few years later. Here's Port trying to make his escape out the side door of a nightclub, with a menacing group of thugs at his heels and a lone obstacle at the door:

Port headed for the nearest exit guarded by only one man. The band stopped before he made it, and the sudden quiet was unearthly. After the silence there was bedlam again; chairs scraped, people laughed, and a buzz of voices rose from the tables.

The kid at the door saw Port coming, but he didn't expect much from a man running away.

Then the kid's arm was suddenly bent double. The pain grew like a fire running up his arm and bursting hot and big in his shoulder.

"It hurts less if you walk," said Port's voice close beside him, and they moved out of the door and into the alley.

Some of Rabe's novels were recently reprinted as double editions by Stark House Press (though, so far, not the Port novels). When the bottom of the paperback original market fell out in the early '70s, Rabe went back to his other profession, teaching psychology, a subject in which he had a Ph.D. Two of his final novels were the Fawcett GODFATHER cash-ins WAR OF THE DONS (1972) and BLACK MAFIA (1974). He died in 1990 at age 68.

There were other antecedents to the Westlake/Stark books, of course, notably Lionel White's CLEAN BREAK (aka THE KILLING) and W.L. Heath's VIOLENT SATURDAY, both of which were also reprinted by Black Lizard and are terrific novels in their own right. More on them at some point in the future.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Big Sky blues

I was going to post tonight about Jim Crumley, who passed away Wednesday in Montana, but I've decided to hold off a little and get my thoughts in order. I didn't know him well, but did get to spend a little time with him a couple years back, including a memorable tour of Austin's Highway 35 with Jim at the wheel, trying to reach a hotel that could be seen - but not accessed - from the roadway "(Goddamn Texas!").

In the meantime, my thoughts go out to his wife, Martha Elizabeth, his family, and his many, many friends, of which I was lucky to count myself one, if only briefly. Jim was a big-hearted guy. And that Washington Post headline couldn't be more accurate.

Also, I held off on mentioning this until contracts were in place, but St. Martin's/Minotaur will publish my new novel, GONE 'TIL NOVEMBER, in January 2010.  I won't say much more about it at this point, except that I originally pitched it to my agent rather grandiosely as " 'ONE FALSE MOVE'  meets THE WIRE. " It's a standalone, set in Florida and New Jersey, and the main characters are a woman and a black man, intentionally moving me out of my comfort zone of writing about depressed white guys at the Jersey Shore ... 

 And speaking of THE WIRE, for those attending Bouchercon in Baltimore next month, I'll be taking part in the panel  "DOWN IN THE HOLE: Authors Discuss Their Love of 'The Wire' and 'Homicide'," along with Harry Hunsicker, Scott Phillips and Peter Robinson, Thursday Oct. 9 at 4:30. I've also contributed a "Greetings From Asbury Park" gift basket to the convention's charity auction, featuring some books, a pair of personal-mix CD compilations from the Asbury Park music scene (past and present), postcards and a box of Jersey Shore salt water taffy, which I'm sure will be stale by then, if it isn't already, making it an authentic Shore experience.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

State of stress

A new University of Cambridge study shows that New Jerseyans are among the most-stressed people in the nation, ranking fourth in neuroticism but way low in agreeableness (34th) and conscientiousness (45th). No surprise, of course. I was traveling recently and it always occurs to me when I arrive back at Newark Airport from some friendlier, less-congested state, that there should be a sign on the concourse that says "WELCOME TO NEW JERSEY: WHAT THE F*** ARE YOU LOOKING AT?"

And speaking of Newark, this isn't helping the state's stress levels much either. It's certainly playing hell with mine.

And updates on that situation here and here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What I did on my birthday ...

... well, slightly earlier than my birthday, which hasn't happened yet.

Above is a 1940s-era AT-6 Texan dual-cockpit aircraft used to train pilots during World War II. More than 15,000 were built from the 1930s on, and apparently a lot of them are still flying, under private ownership. A couple weekends back I paid to fly in one for a half hour out of the Robert Miller Airpark in Berkeley Township, N.J., in the middle of the Pine Barrens. Though I'm not a pilot, I've always had a fascination with WWII aviation, so I figured this was a chance to get a taste of what it was like (without someone shooting at you).

The Texan is a big, loud, powerful machine. The student sits in the front cockpit, with the teacher/pilot (in this case, owner/operator Ott Clermont) in the back. The one I flew in was built in 1943 and the front cockpit looked like this:

Once we were airborne and clear of the field, with the Pine Barrens a safe 2,000-feet below us, Ott let me take the stick. It was a beautiful day with no clouds or wind, so it was pretty smooth flying. I was able to bank left, straighten out and fly toward the ocean, then bank left again and fly north along the beach. It was relatively simple, especially since all I had to worry about was the stick, as opposed to rudder, ailerons, trimtabs, etc. I was able to fly along like that for a good 15 minutes, slightly amazed at how that huge piece of machinery responded to even the slightest pressure on the stick.

I turned back toward the airport then and Ott took over the controls once more and led us through a pair of rolls and finally a complete loop. It was my first time ever flying under these conditions, and, I have to say, there's a huge difference between reading about "pullings Gs" and actually pulling them. For both the rolls and loop, the plane has to dive first to pick up speed, and then, when the maneuver begins, the G-forces pin you back in your seat. This is especially true of the loop, where you're flying vertically and then suddenly upside down and weightless at the apex, before coming back down the other side. My breakfast stayed down, but my legs were a little spongy for a couple hours afterward.

Ott brought us in for a beautiful landing and the whole thing was over before I knew it. I was a little drymouthed, but it was a lot of fun. Next time though, I want to do an Immelman.

Out of town with little internet access for the next two weeks, so no blogging until I get back. Some people have been asking me about the ongoing situation at The Star-Ledger, but I've been trying to avoid getting into too much of that here, especially since there isn't much in the way of further news. More when I get back though.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey

 A dark day in the newsroom this week, but I'm not going to dwell on that. Some additional thoughts on it from Editor & Publisher here.

This week also brought three Springsteen shows at Giants Stadium, two of which I got to attend. They'll likely be the last ones at the venue as well, since it's scheduled to be demolished in 2010. Rumor is the Meadowlands arena - currently dubbed the Izod Center - is on the hit list as well.

Thursday's show was delayed for an hour by what, in retrospect, was a very Jersey event - a propane tanker overturned that afternoon on the N.J. Turnpike, on the exit ramp that led to the Meadowlands. Traffic was backed up for miles and diverted to neighboring roads which also quickly backed up as well. The concert started at 9:30 and ended at an amazing 12:40 a.m., non-stop with no intermission.

A great show, with some real surprises ("Light of Day," Pretty Flamingo"), but the Ledger's Jay Lustig sums it all up better than I. You can find his reviews here, as well as interviews he did with various E Street Band members here.

Even better are these videos from, which came directly from the concert video feed Thursday:

More can be found here.

And in case you've ever wondered why so many of the best seats to in-demand shows never make it to the public but end up on StubHub and eBay at 5 to 10 times their face value, some clues can be found here. But hey, it's Jersey, folks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

We have a winner ...

... as of 10:19 E.T. tonight (7/23). Congrats to James Cubby of Fair Lawn, N.J., who was the first to message me with all 14 correct answers. He walks away with these prizes.

And now, the answers:

14: This celebrated sessionplayer and Warren Zevon compatriot can be seen going down with the ship in the original THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Name the performer.
Robert "Waddy" Wachtel. In addition to being Zevon's long-time guitarist, he plays a member of the band performing on the S.S. Poseidon during its ill-fated final cruise.

13: When it was released in the United States, this British film was retitled to make it seem as if it were based on a work by Edgar Allan Poe, with a new voiceover by its star to cement the connection. Name the film’s original title.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). When it was released in the U.S., it was retitled THE CONQUEROR WORM, after the Poe poem, which star Vincent Price reads over the credits.

12: In 1977’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK, Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans first meet during a performance by what band?
The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. In the film, Dorsey is played by real-life trombonist and bandleader William Tole.

11: Though he went on to star in other films for director Akira Kurosawa – sometimes in lead roles – this actor has only the briefest walk-on in the director’s 1954 classic SEVEN SAMURAI. Name the actor.
Tatsuya Nakadai. He appears briefly in the scene in which the searchers are sizing up passing samurai as possible hires. Reportedly, he and Kurosawa spent five hours on the scene, because the director didn't feel his walk was natural enough.

10: How old is Travis Bickle at the beginning of TAXI DRIVER?
26. He gives his age while he's applying at the cab company.

9: How many men are left behind to fight the rearguard action in Sam Fuller’s FIXED BAYONETS?
48. One of the easier questions, but taken from an excellent low-budget film set during the Korean War, while the war was still going on.

8: In the words of Warner Oland, this plant “is the only known cure for werewolfery.” Name the plant.
The mariphasa, as avowed by Dr. Yogami (Oland) in 1935's WEREWOLF OF LONDON.

7: Quentin Tarantino named a now-defunct distribution company after this violent 1970s B-film. Name the film.
ROLLING THUNDER (1977). Scripted by TAXI DRIVER writer Paul Schrader and directed by John Flynn, it was about a Vietnam vet (William Devane) who turns vigilante after his family is brutally attacked. An early (and great) co-starring role for Tommy Lee Jones.

6: This Hong Kong action classic makes use of a Lionel Richie song as a musical code among undercover police. Name the film.
HARD-BOILED (1992). This John Woo-directed action epic even has star Chow Yun-Fat singing lines from Richie's hit song "Hello."

5: In Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, government forces mobilize using trucks bearing the logo of this real-life supermarket chain. Name the chain.
Piggly Wiggly, the nation's "first true self-service grocery store." It operates mainly in the South and Midwest.

4: In the circus soap opera CARNIVAL STORY (1954), a stunt diver (Lyle Bettger) and his wife (Anne Baxter) are featured in a photo spread in a real-life magazine. Name the magazine and the person on its cover.
Life Magazine, featuring then vice president Richard Nixon on its cover.

3: What iconic image – a fixture of almost every werewolf film – does *not* appear in the 1940 classic THE WOLF MAN?
The full moon. It's never shown in the film.

2: Before helming a science fiction blockbuster, this writer/director helped create a popular TV show and co-wrote and co-produced an acclaimed crime drama from 2000. Who was it?
Matt Reeves. The CLOVERFIELD director co-created TV's "Felicity" with J.J. Abrams, and co-wrote and co-produced the crime drama THE YARDS with his film school classmate James Gray.

And finally ...

1: Who are Charles Rains, Joseph Scilose and John Doe and in what Best Picture nominee are they characters?
They're the three men Travis Bickle kills at the climax of TAXI DRIVER. Their names aren't mentioned in the film or in the credits, but they're visible in the newspaper accounts of the shooting that adorn Travis' wall at the end of the film (though winner Cubby correctly notes that it should be "Anthony Scilose" instead of "Joseph"). Rains (or alternately "Rain") is Harvey Keitel's character, though he's referred to as both "Matthew" and "Sport" in the course of the film. (screenwriter Schrader reused the name "Charlie Rane" for the hero of ROLLING THUNDER, played by Willian Devane, see above). Scilose is the mafioso played by Bob Maroff, and the John Doe is Iris' timekeeper, played by Murray Moston, who loses his right hand to Travis' .44 Magnum.

However, it might well be that Cubby had an inside line on that final answer, being that he hails from Fair Lawn, which, as everyone knows, is also home to Henry Krinkle.

And that, folks, is the end of The Ultimate Post-Internet Movie Trivia Contest, now and forevermore.

I'm going to leave these questions and answers up for about a week and then delete them from the blog for space reasons. Hope someone had some fun with them along the way.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Generation Kill"

I've now seen all seven episodes of the new HBO miniseries GENERATION KILL, which premieres tonight, and I have to say it's like nothing I've ever seen on television before. Taken from Evan Wright's book, drawn from his time embedded with a Marine Recon unit in Iraq in 2003, the series feels more like journalism than drama. It's a straightforward you-are-there narrative told from the point of view of the boots on the ground, with little or no time spared for big-picture perspective or pondering what it all means. It's brutally realistic, profanely funny and often disorienting. It's been brought to the screen by David Simon and Ed Burns, creators of THE WIRE, and, like that show, it never stops to fill you in or explain what's happening or who's who. It drops you into the midst of the chaos and trusts you'll figure it out along the way.

Because of that, like THE WIRE, GENERATION KILL may end up playing better on DVD than weekly television. Even watching the early screeners pretty much in a row I had to backtrack to pick up story elements or key points of dialogue I missed the first time. And it's so filled with military terminology and jargon that it can be hard to parse what exactly's being said, much less who's who in the chain of command.

I showed the screeners to a friend who spent four years in the 82nd Airborne (albeit 25 years ago) and he was over the roof about the show's verisimilitude and tone. Even though many of the details were Marine Corps-specific, he immediately recognized character types and parallel situations to the ones he'd experienced back in the day. And he gave high marks to the humor, which he found to be dead-on and precise. The show was "a lot like Shakespeare," he wrote me. " You don't need to know everything about it to get it."

Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall has more on the show today, including interviews with Simon and Wright.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Random Readings, Vol. 5

This installment of Random Readings is from Lorrie Moore's 1986 novel ANAGRAMS. Some thoughts on growing older and new experiences ...

The teacher took a walk before her afternoon class. Near the campus were several old houses rented by some of FVCC's full-time students and from them blared radio jabber and stereo music. That is the difference between the young and the not-so-young, she thought. The young keep their windows open so that the world can fly in and out. By the time you hit your thirties, you're less hospitable; you start closing up the windows. You've had enough of the world; you have, you think, everything you need for the wintry rest of life. You can't let anything else in, for you will never understand it. And the nightmare, of course, is that as you slowly start shuttering up your house, you turn and suddenly see, with a gasp, that you are the only thing in it.

- From "Anagrams," copyright 1986 by Lorrie Moore

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Rock & roll tours of the Jersey Shore

Well, I ain't giving them, but there are people who do, and you can find out about them here. In the meantime, the next best thing is the third edition of their book ROCK AND ROLL TOUR OF THE JERSEY SHORE, which has just been released. Stan and Jean are long-time locals, and this is one of the few books of its type not plagued with factual and geographic inaccuracies (another is Daniel Wolff's great 4TH OF JULY, ASBURY PARK: A HISTORY OF THE PROMISED LAND, which I wrote about at length when it came out back in 2005).

ROCK AND ROLL TOUR is both a great reference book and an evocative time capsule, tracing the glory days of the Asbury Park/Jersey Shore music scene past, present and (hopefully) future. Full disclosure: The book features two anecdotes penned by me - one about a chance 3 a.m. encounter in Asbury Park back in 1984, and the other about a confrontation with an angry and tired Clarence Clemons a year later, when I was a young reporter for The Asbury Park Press and subject to the stupid ideas and humiliating assignments thought up by senior editors.

More trivia and prizes later this week. Also, possibly, a small announcement about something people have been asking me about for awhile.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Thought for the day ...

... or maybe the decade.

"Perseverance is where the gods dwell."

- Director Werner Herzog, quoting a Peruvian saying.

Friday, June 06, 2008

More Stark raving

I've received a couple e-mails since last week, bemoaning the fact that my Forgotten Book Fridays choice - the 1967 Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark novel THE RARE COIN SCORE - is not only out of print, but pretty much unavailable from used book vendors
for less than $30, and often closer to $100. Unfortunately, it's the same way with many of the later Stark books, especially from 1966's THE SEVENTH (aka "The Split") through 1974's BUTCHER'S MOON, which may be the rarest of them all (at right is the original Fawcett Gold Medal edition of 1969's THE SOUR LEMON SCORE).

Coincidentally, just this week comes news (to me at least) that the University of Chicago Press, of all people, plans to reprint all the Parker novels in chronological order, beginning in September with THE HUNTER (aka "Point Blank," aka "Payback"), THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE and THE OUTFIT. Not since the 1985 Avon paperback editions has someone actually pulled this off. In the early 1980s, Gregg Press published a handful of the early ones in limited edition hardcovers, and on the heels of the 1999 Mel Gibson film PAYBACK, Mysterious Press/Warner Books reprinted some of the earlier novels along with the most recent (with somewhat generic covers). Now even those are out of print. Here's hoping U of C stays the course.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Forgotten Book Friday

... in which I pick up Patti Abbott's tag-team effort of assembling a list of books which, in her words, "we love but might have forgotten over the years."

I've done this sort of thing on the blog before, with "One Book and Beyond," an extension of The Rap Sheet's One Book Project from last year. I've previously written about Leonard Gardner's FAT CITY, Jonathan Valin's EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES, Lawrence Block's THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD and Anthony Lee's MARTIN QUINN.

This time, though, I want to go back even farther, to 1967's THE RARE COIN SCORE, Donald E. Westlake's ninth "Richard Stark" novel about a hardcore professional thief named Parker. Parker needs no introduction, but unfortunately THE RARE COIN SCORE has been effectively out of print since the 1985 Avon paperback edition. That's too bad, because in my mind it's the quintessential Parker novel, the uberStark.

It was first published as a paperback original (cover above) by Fawcett Gold Medal, under the editorship of the legendary Knox Burger, and adorned with a classic Robert McGinnis cover. Despite its almost generic title (when the series moved from Pocket Books to Fawcett, the first four books used the word "Score" in their titles), RARE COIN SCORE is a landmark book in the series. It was a revamped Parker with a new publisher and a major new character, Claire, who would become Parker's regular woman for the rest of the series (she figures prominently in the latest, this year's DIRTY MONEY).

SCORE also has maybe the greatest opening line in Starkdom:

Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans.

The second sentence is just as good:

He took a room in a downtown motel and connected with a girl folk singer the first night, but all she did was complain how her manager was lousing up her career, so three days later he ditched her and took up with a Bourbon Street stripper instead.

(The previous eight Parker books had all begun with the word "When," a device that returned in 1997's COMEBACK and continues to this day.)

Revolving around the robbery of the bourse room at a coin show in Indianapolis, SCORE is Parker at his leanest and meanest, both in terms of character and prose (the original Gold Medal edition runs only 160 pages). It also contains scenes in which the writing is so simple and direct - yet evocative - that they've stuck with me ever since I first read them. Here's one, the beginning of Part One, Chapter Eight:

"I must be a masochist," Claire said. She was sitting up in the bed, knees up, arms wrapped around her legs.

Parker, lying beside her, said "I hadn't noticed."

She gave him a quick smile, then looked away again, saying, "I'm always attracted to men who are about to get killed."

"Not always," said Parker. "Light me a cigarette."

"What, not you? You're the worst of them all." She took the cigarette and matches from the night table, lit two cigarettes and gave him one. "The first boy I ever - ever went around with, drove in stock car races every weekend. His left leg was all scars from an accident."

Parker said, "Ashtray."

This is also the only Stark novel I remember in which Parker shoots a relative innocent, gunning down a Pinkerton guard who draws on him during the course of the robbery. And in her first appearance, Claire is more the classic noir femme fatale, stringing along an amateur named Billy Lebatard until he gets the job in motion, then switching her allegiance to Parker, setting off a triangle that almost sours the whole plan. Think Marie Windsor in Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING.

THE RARE COIN SCORE is existential crime fiction at its best. It's also a master class in terse, effective writing. The fact that it - and so many of the other Stark novels - remains out of print is a crime.

(For my thoughts on Brian Helgeland's restored Parker adaptation PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP - THE DIRECTOR'S CUT, see here. .)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

"On the Outs"

As any honest media person will tell you, one of the great perks of being in the business is free stuff. Lots of it. Books, CDs, DVDs and more pour in unsolicited, their makers hoping to get even the slightest mention of their work in print or on air, anything to help it stand out from the thousands of other releases out there.

The down side? Lots of free stuff. More than one person could ever conceivably read or watch or listen to. It piles up in the mail like some great always-growing beast. The sheer volume of material keeps you from getting to most of it. You put things aside for further consideration and sometimes you get back to them. More often than not, you don't.

In 2006, Warner Home Video sent me a DVD of the independent film ON THE OUTS, which had gotten a brief theatrical release the previous year. I was intrigued enough by the box copy and review blurbs to add it to the To Be Watched pile. There it languished, constantly superseded by newer releases, until last week.

My loss. ON THE OUTS is an absolutely stunning first feature by co-directors Lori Silverbush and Michael Skolnick. Filmed on location in Jersey City, N.J., it follows the intersecting stories of three troubled teenage girls. At 15, Suzette (Anny Mariano) has been sheltered from the streets by her hardworking mother - until she falls under the spell of a charming 25-year-old thug. Marisol (co-creator Paola Mendoza) is a 17-year-old single mom trying to raise her two-year-old daughter and battling a drug addiction. And Oz (Judy Marte, above, left, in an extraordinary performance) is a teenage crack dealer, struggling to care for her mentally retarded brother and hold her own fragile family together.

Silverbush and Skolnick based their film on real cases and people they encountered while taking part in a three-month workshop at the Hudson County Juvenile Detention Center in Secaucus, N.J. And it shows. Nearly every second of ON THE OUTS crackles with authenticity. It carries the same charge as Martin Scorsese's MEAN STREETS, but without that film's bravura theatricality. For much of its length, ON THE OUTS feels like a documentary, an intimate look into the lives of everyday people struggling to survive, but gradually being pulled down by the environment around them.

Not that there isn't hope to be found here. At the end of their respective storylines, all three girls encounter traumatic events that make them reassess their lives. Will they escape from the cycles that have so limited them? ON THE OUTS leaves that question unanswered. But you'll be thinking about those girls - and this film - for a long time to come.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Slight return

Apologies for the lack of posts - and to anyone who e-mailed me in the last three weeks - but an unexpected illness sidelined me for awhile. Should be back to normal posting by next week.

In the interim, congrats to Megan Abbott, the winner of this year's Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original for her great retro-noir QUEENPIN. I missed the ceremony, unfortunately, but was happy to see her well-deserved win.

And finally, after seven weeks and many incorrect responses, we have a winner of sorts for the fifth trivia question. See the update here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Farewell to THE WIRE

And if there was ever a more emotional moment in television history than Bubs' ascension up the stairs to his family's dinner table, I don't know what it is ...

Over at The House Next Door, I've offered my own brief contribution to their ongoing and stellar WIRE coverage, a reading list for those feeling the first pangs of withdrawal. There's also lots of great stuff to be found here, including an exclusive post-finale Q&A with David Simon.

It was a great run. I'm gonna miss it.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Why I love Lorrie Moore

Well, one of many reasons ...

In addition to being one of America's greatest short story writers (though she hasn't had a book out since 1998's BIRDS OF AMERICA), she is also an unparalleled master of the opening line.

Witness this, from her 1986 novel ANAGRAMS:

Gerard Maines lived across the hall from a woman named Benna, who four minutes into any conversation always managed to say the word "penis." He was not a prude, but, nonetheless, it made him wince.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The great lost movie trivia contest mystery

As many of you know, for the last seven years I've written something called the Ultimate Post-Internet Movie Trivia Contest for The Star-Ledger of Newark. It was a series of alternating simple/difficult - sometimes *very* difficult - movie trivia questions (79 last year), with the grand prize being an all-expenses-paid four-day trip for two to Hollywood.

And, as many of you also heard, this year's quiz fell victim to space and budget cutbacks. It is, as they say, kaput. However, it was about halfway written when the plug was pulled (it was to contain 80 questions, to commemorate the 80th year of the Oscars) and some of the questions are just too good to never see the light of day.

So, over the next few weeks, I'm going to occasionally post some of the unpublished questions here - one at a time - and the first person who messages me at my site with the correct answer will win something. No trips, unfortunately - more like CDs, DVDS and books - but there will always be an item or two to make it interesting. Be warned though, the questions will be on the *difficult* side of the scale - no easy giveaways here (and, of course, The Star-Ledger is in no way, shape or form affiliated with or responsible for ... etc etc).

I'll post the first question - and information about the prize - here Sunday afternoon, Feb. 24, 2008 - Oscar night - at around 4 p.m. ET. See you then.

And, in the meantime, enjoy this inspirational trailer .

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Roy Scheider 1932-2008

Many years ago, I read an interview with author Richard Matheson in which he discussed the film versions of his apocalyptic vampire novel I AM LEGEND (at that point, there were only two, 1964's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, starring Vincent Price, and 1971's THE OMEGA MAN, with Charlton Heston). Matheson hadn't been happy with either film - or actor - and told the interviewer he always felt the perfect choice to play Robert Neville would be Roy Scheider, because he personified the normal, non-heroic guy forced to cope with extreme circumstances.

Matheson's description nails it. Scheider was a '70s icon to be sure, but he was also the Everyman hero, the audience surrogate in such high-intensity films as JAWS and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the self-doubter who nonetheless manages to muster the courage and wherewithal to do what has to be done.

A Jersey guy who (like me) attended Rutgers University, Scheider earned his movie star looks the hard way. His famous broken nose was a reminder of his boxing years (months?), when he fought in the N.J. Diamond Gloves Competition. His Everyday Guy presence grounded - and validated - almost everything he appeared in. THE SEVEN-UPS, Philip D'Antoni's follow-up to THE FRENCH CONNECTION, is an evocative 1970s New York time capsule, but it's not a great movie, except when Scheider's on screen - fortunately most of the time - as the head of an elite police unit (in CONNECTION, his character is named "Buddy Russo." In SEVEN-UPS, it's "Buddy Manucci"). He makes all that follows instantly believable.

He does the same for the character of Harry Mitchell in John Frankenheimer's 1986 52 PICK-UP (one of the best Elmore Leonard adaptations, aside from its logic-free ending, changed from the book), as a philandering - but still loving - husband, who's forced to face up to his own transgressions and extricate himself from a bind involving some very tough people, turning the tables on them in a surprising, but believable, way.

Back in April 1998, I attended the dedication of the Elaine Steinbeck Stage at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y. The widow of John Steinbeck, Elaine was one of the first female Broadway stage managers, having worked on productions such as OKLAHOMA!, OTHELLO and others. It was a small theatre - less than 300 seats - but it was packed with celebrities who'd come to honor Steinbeck (who was in the audience) and perform on the newly renamed stage. Bruce Springsteen opened the evening with an acoustic version of OKLAHOMA!'s "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" (I've waited years for a tape of that to surface, still haven't found one) and closed it with a moving rendition of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." In between, there were dramatic readings from Roddy MacDowell and Gary Sinise, a performance from Betty Comden and Adolph Green and testimonials frorm Edward Albee, Terrence McNally, E.L. Doctorow and others. It was quite the night.

But I think I was most starstruck to see Scheider - sitting about three rows from the back, low-key as ever, looking dapper but slightly frail. As the evening ended and the mingling began, I considered making my way through the crowd to tell him how much I enjoyed his films, for the same reasons I mentioned above. By the time I gathered my courage, he was gone. And that I regret.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Heroin chic

When it comes to putting true-life stories on screen, Hollywood likes to embellish. That's no surprise. However, in the case of Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, there may actually be more embellishment than fact, as the Associated Press has reported. In addition, some DEA agents were so angry with the way they were presented in the film that they sued. Also unhappy were the three undercover Newark police officers who actually did the street work that brought down Frank Lucas' empire. Lucas, played by Denzel Washington in the film, was already in custody by the time prosecutor Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) was brought in to help build an indictment against him.

But Hollywood is Hollywood, and if you want a more accurate look at that era and the Harlem heroin empire, check out Marc Levin's excellent documentary MR. UNTOUCHABLE, just out on DVD. It's the story of Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, the *real* heroin kingpin of Harlem in the 1970s. Like Lucas, Barnes eventually turned state's evidence and testified against his former partners, leading to dozens - if not hundreds - of convictions.

Barnes is now in the Witness Protection Program, but Levin and co-producer Mary-Jane Robinson tracked him down and got him to agree to sit for a series of interviews (his face is concealed and his voice slightly distorted when he's on screen). It's buttressed with a series of extensive interviews with former Barnes colleagues and the law enforcement officers who eventually brought him down and got him to turn. All point to Barnes' appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1977 (above right) as the act that precipitated his downfall. Worried that the Times would use a mugshot of him (above left) to illustrate the story, Barnes agreed to pose for a Times photographer. When President Jimmy Carter saw the story that Sunday, he placed a call to U.S. Attorney General Griffen Bell. At 8 a.m. the next morning Bell informed the New York Attorney General's Office that Barnes had just become their No. 1 priority.

Also worth checking out are the DVD's many supplementary interviews and features, including a videotaped conference call - from Levin's office - between Barnes and Lucas.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Stars in the night

I'm a little late in getting around to posting this, but I did attend the 73rd annual New York Film Critics Circle awards at Spotlight in Times Square Jan 6., which was much fun but slightly surreal. Kyle Smith of the New York Post wrote a snarky, but fairly dead-on, synopsis of the night.

Other quick impressions:

- I've always admired Sarah Polley's aloof, slightly otherworldly screen presence - she'd be great in a remake of Park Chan-wook's LADY VENGEANCE. But in person (I physically bumped into her at one point as she was racing across the floor to see someone) she's actually very young, cheerful and girly.

- Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem are both tall, and appear to have the same chin.

- Steve Buscemi gave the speech of the night, presenting the Coen Bros with their best director award. It was drink-spilling funny, though the Bros. - or at least Joel - seemed vaguely irritated through most of the evening.

- Ellen Barkin's dress was ... well, have a look yourself.

- Patricia Clarkson, whom I've loved from afar ever since I saw her in THE DEAD POOL, looked terrific and radiated such an aura of general niceness that she fairly glowed.

- In the Embarassing Moment Department, I approached and struck up a conversation with director Michael Almereyda, certain that I knew him from somewhere else. However, not only was I unable to establish where that might have been, but as he ran through his very substantial list of credits, I realized I hadn't seen any of his films. I *had* seen a great episode of DEADWOOD he directed, but by the time we got to that point, the conversation was in the last throes of a slow, painful death. Sorry about that, Michael.

The irony is, that particular episode contains the quintessential DEADWOOD speech, courtesy of Al Swearengen, which I can reel off the top of my head whenever my DW fan credentials are questioned:

"Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man… and give some back.”

That night, thankfully, I kept it to myself.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Nightmare logic

Back at Rutgers University in the 1980s, I took a film criticism seminar with the great film critic (and, at that time, Penthouse columnist) Roger Greenspun. One of the dozen or so films we watched that semester was Francois Truffaut's MISSISSIPPI MERMAID, based on Cornell Woolrich's 1947 novel WALTZ INTO DARKNESS. Greenspun loved the film but dismissed the source material - and all of Woolrich's books - as "unreadable," a statement which drew laughter from the class.

I took exception - and offense. I was on a serious Woolrich kick at the time, having discovered him through the paperback reissues Ballantine Books had just done of his major novels, most of which were graced with moodily beautiful cover paintings by Larry Schwinger. I don't think I'd ever heard of Woolrich before I bought RENDEZVOUS IN BLACK, solely on the basis of the cover art. In the year or so that followed, I read all the Ballantine reprints and went looking for more Woolrich. What Greenspun found unreadable, I found irresistible. I loved the mood, the ambiance, the urban nightscapes (New York, more often than not), and the pervasive atmosphere of dread, even if the plots didn't always make much, uh, sense. This was noir so strong it warped reality. The stories unfolded with the logic - and inevitability - of a nightmare.

I haven't seen - or heard of - Greenspun in years (he was a brilliant critic and an excellent teacher, despite his anti-Woolrich bias), but his words came back to me last week while reading Hard Case Crime's" reissue of Woolrich's 1950 novel FRIGHT. The jacket copy says it's the book's first reprinting in more than 50 years. Halfway into the novel, it was easy to see why. Some passages are literally unreadable - and yet there are others that are sheer noir poetry.

The plot is pure Woolrich. In the heat of anger, a man commits a horrible crime hours before his wedding, then skips town (New York, again) with his bride to start a new life elsewhere. But as his past - and his guilt - catches up with him, he ends up committing a series of crimes in order to cover up the first one, while his long-suffering - but not terribly bright - wife begins to realize he's not quite the happy-go-lucky guy she once thought him to be.

Here's part of the poetry, a shorthand description of a man on a bender in Manhattan, getting progressively drunker as he stumbles from bar to bar:

All at once there was a woman with him. She'd been with him for just a few minutes, she'd been with him for long, endless nights at a time. She kept changing her dress at intervals. And even her hair and face to go with it. First she was in pink, then suddenly she was in light green. As though a gelatin slide had revolved and cast a different tint over her... The bars were very unreliable tonight. They looked nice and steady, but he'd lean on them too heavily, or something. They'd tilt way up on one side, and slope all the way down on the other... The bars gave place to a sidewalk. A sidewalk that was straight up and down in front of his face.

And here's the, um, other part:

The night was like purple ink. And it was as though the bottle that had held the ink had been smashed against the sky by some insurgent celestial accountant. For heaven was pitted with its tiny, twinkling particles of broken glass. And there seemed to be no one up there to sweep them up. God's office was closed for the night.

Though it's set in 1915 (in his mind, Woolrich might well have romanticized that era, the way we now romanticize the New York of the 1930s and '40s), FRIGHT is classic Woolrich - evocative, unsettling and often downright loopy. It's not one of his great novels, by any means, but it's Woolrich through and through, from the comma splices to the over-the-top descriptive passages to the omnipresent feeling of guilt and undercurrent of sexual shame. And - most Woolrichian of all - the Doom that watches over us always, waiting for its moment to arrive.