Sunday, November 25, 2012

Two from the Video Shelf

I actually went to the video store and RENTED some movies...and just in time, as it turns out my local video rental store is closing forever. (Just after I decided to move to Baltimore, too. And my favorite club, DC's Red Palace, just announced it's closing after the new year. I might as well move.)

Anyway, first up is Stanley Donen's 1966 thriller Arabesque.

This was a follow-up to another Donen work, 1963's Charade, a dazzling comedy-thriller starring Carey Grant and Audrey Hepburn, along with Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy. Charade is a minor classic and well worth seeking out. It's in the public domain but the Criterion disc is worth the cost. Arabesque is an attempt at a comic spy thriller in the same vein, but does it work?

David Pollock (Gregory Peck) is an expert on Egyptian hieroglyphs who is asked to translate what appears to be a coded message from a spy network. Pollock infiltrates the organization of the mysterious Beshraavi (Alan Badel, who is frequently mistaken for Peter Sellers in the role) and falls in with Beshraavi's mistress Yasmin (Sophia Loren), who may or may not be on his side.

OK, the worst up front: Gregory Peck, as wonderful as he is, is not Carey Grant and is not the greatest comic actor (something he purportedly admitted readily on the set of this movie). But Sophia Loren was at the peak of her beauty, and her natural wit and style shine. It's got Mancini music and Loren in Dior dresses, and enough excitement to keep one's interest. I enjoyed it, although it's definitely a cut below other works by the same director.

For a sample, here's the main credits:

Next up was something more recent: the 2010 independent film Cold Weather.

Doug (Chris Lankenau) is a forensic-science student home from school, taking some time off to re-evaluate his life. He moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), gets a job in a Portland ice factory where he befriends Carlos (Raul Castillo), and then is excited when his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) visits Portland on business. But then things get weird when Rachel disappears...

Cold Weather takes its time; the first third is just about setting up the characters and atmosphere. These are slackers, to be sure, but also have regular workaday lives and the give-and-take of their relationships and especially the budding friendship between Doug and Carlos actually make for good watching. When the mystery does kick in, it's rather low-key...but at the same time, since the movie has so firmly established the characters as regular folks in a normal world, it actually is exciting because it's how we can see ourselves handling this. Plot twists that would be nothing in a Sherlock Holmes movie are major here.

What's REALLY fun for me is watching how characters handle the mystery. Doug is a fan of Holmes and goes off to buy a pipe to help himself think; naturally, it doesn't work and he has to find his own way. And a couple of times characters are at a loss for what to do in a given situation, times when heroes of big-budget movies and slick novels would have everything figured out.

It does end rather abruptly, but then you realize that the movie isn't as much about the mystery as it is about the relationships, especially between Doug and Gail, and they're firmly on the way to fixing their broken connection by the end, and that's what matters.

Writer/director Aaron Katz deserves kudos; this is a delightful little film that mystery buffs like me can relate to; we often wonder how we would handle a real mystery coming our way, and this shows what it would be like. And the relationships in the movie are refreshingly REAL and relatable. Seek this one out, folks.

Here's the trailer:

Once Upon a Halloween, by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon is someone I just don't know what to make of. Figuring out where he's coming from is difficult; does he take this all seriously, or is his tongue planted firmly in his cheek? It's almost impossible for me to figure out.

In Once Upon a Halloween, we meet Shannon and Laura, two housemates waiting for their dates for a costume party on Halloween night. Trick-or-treaters are coming by, and everything seems as usual...until a teenaged boy runs in, claiming to be hiding from some sort of cult that had snatched his girlfriend as they were necking in a nearby cemetery. The two young women aren't sure if they believe him but then said cultists show up, looking for more victims. So then we kick off a story full of action and violence, and it also throws in a homicidal ghost haunting Shannon and Laura's house!

Laymon isn't for all tastes; some find his penchant for sexual violence to be off-putting, if not totally offensive and vile. I've read a number of his books and there's a rape or some other form of sexual violence in just about all of them. Plus his characters seem to always be thinking about sex, and everything is sexually charged. In this book the cultists are all impressive physical specimens, male and female, and run around naked under their robes. (Oddly, they use their real names, unless their idea of proper occult names includes "Royce" and "Eleanor." And there's no mention of them worshiping anything in particular; toward the end, it even goes so far as to have two surviving members speculate that it's all bunk and an excuse for an orgy.) Characters are constantly checking each other out and wondering about hooking up, even when in dire mortal danger. In this particular book Laymon even has an 11-year-old girl having sexual thoughts, and a teenager checks her out. Yuck.

The homicidal ghost in the house exists primarily as a side plot that is never truly resolved. While it's clear it's never harmed Laura or Shannon, it does make one attempt at murder and does succeed in killing two more people. Why? How do they deal with it? It's all abandoned at the end.

This book IS enjoyable on a certain level if it's taken as a tongue-in-cheek salute to Halloween, a sort of literary B-movie. And I've seen Laymon defended on those grounds, that his books are just B-movies on the page, if not just direct-to-DVD movies. Sometimes they seem homophobic, like a few that have featured villainous and vile gay characters, and oddly often Laymon attempts to establish his characters as fans of Rush Limbaugh, and I can't make out if that's meant to be satirical or a serious endorsement. And sometimes his books seem like macho wish-fulfillment. One of his last novels, Night in the Lonesome October, features a lonely protagonist who's bereft after his girlfriend ditches him, only to have multiple women and men throwing themselves at him. (To be fair, that book also features a gay character who's the real hero of the story, and some genuine atmosphere as the narrator has some surreal encounters while wandering the streets of his college town by night. However, it all ends up in a rather standard and uninteresting serial-killer plot, as if Laymon had set up a fascinating milieu but then had no idea of what to do with it.)

Once Upon a Halloween is an OK read for the Halloween season if you can handle the sexual violence and just feel like something trashy and disposable. If you want to check out further Laymon, I would suggest The Traveling Vampire Show, which some say is probably his best work. Night in the Lonesome October, as previously noted, is atmospheric but badly flawed. Come Out Tonight is very bad, full of stupid characters whose motivations can't be fathomed, and some say it's his worst work. I've read another book of his that I can't remember the title of (I think it may have been Among the Missing but am not sure) that wasn't even horror, it was just a police procedural with a bisexual killer and his sniveling gay lover.

Laymon (1947-2001) was never big in the US; one of his early books had a disastrous editing job and horrible cover art that he was never able to overcome. However, he was popular in the UK and after his death some of his work that never saw print the US was released. His works are thick but not very substantial; you can whip through one of his books in an afternoon. He's not someone I'm going to be reading often, as I've either had bad luck choosing titles to read or else he's just not to my taste. I may try some others but don't hold your breath.

Chilly Sunday Afternoon at the Movies!

We're reconvening after the Thanksgiving holiday, and hitting a show at the local theater. We swap tales of overeating and Black Friday shopping (or refraining from same) as we amble down the street. The weather's taken a turn for the cold and we're bundled in heavy coats and scarves against the wind.

First up is an odd bit of gothicism from Melies, 1904's The Wandering Jew.

And then something a bit more recent, 1936's Page Miss Glory, a triumph of Art Deco design.

And then the feature presentation, the 1931 mystery Chinatown After Dark.

The wind is even colder as we leave, and we scurry to the cafe down the street for our usual libations...

Sorry I'm so late with this; the combination of Thanksgiving, dealing with the office move, and now a nasty cold, haven't left me much time for blogging. Just now getting back in the swing of things...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The House of Lost Souls by F. G. Cottam

So I got this from the library recently, after Amazon recommended some Cottam works to me. It's pretty interesting.

Set in 1995, The House of Lost Souls is the story of Paul Seaton, a disgraced former journalist who's flailing through life fighting constant despair, and assailed by occasional supernatural hijinks, including a tape player that turns itself on, playing the same song. He's contacted by psychiatrist Malcolm Covey and the mysterious Nick Mason, and asked to join a trip to Fischer House.

It turns out that House is a bit of a cousin to Matheson's Hell House, in that Seaton is the only person to ever visit the house and survive. Mason's sister was part of a college experiment in studying the nature of evil and is now in a mental hospital, in danger of going insane. Mason has been having supernatural visions and wants to get to the bottom of it all. What is it in Fischer House that's causing this?

Much of the novel is spent in a flashback to Seaton's first trip there; he's researching Pandora Gibson-Hoare, a 20's photographer who visited the house with a party including Dennis Wheatley, Aleister Crowley, and Hermann Goring. And something horrible went down there, something that left Gibson-Hoare unable to do more work and somehow led to her death in a canal a decade later, malnourished and with her throat slashed. The diary entries that describe her adventures are very atmospheric and one of the best parts of the book. Seaton, thinking he can find some lost photos of hers in the house (he's doing this as a favor to his girlfriend), explores the derelict building, but barely escapes with his life, pursued by some sort of invisible monster.

Seaton eventually has a breakdown, suffers multiple losses, and lives a haunted life until he finally confronts the evil in the house, and puts a tragedy to rest.

How is it? Overall, quite enjoyable, but flawed. The historic sections depicting the decadent roaring 20s party are great, and Seaton's torment is palpable and realistic. However, much is made of some characters who disappear from the narrative, the reasoning behind some of the haunting is vague and strange, and the finale seems rushed with a solution brought in out of nowhere and seeming a bit deus ex machina.

So, read it? Yeah, I'd recommend it, because the good outweighs the bad. And it was Cottam's first novel, so I'm willing to cut him some slack. Just look past the hurried ending and you'll have a good time.

Two at the Cinema

Saw two flicks out that the movie theaters lately...both of interest to this blog...

Sinister was rather unexpected. True-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves his family into a new house as part of his research into a new book. His family is blissfully unaware that he's moved them into a house where a gruesome quadruple murder had taken place: an entire family had been hanged from a tree in the back yard, and one child had disappeared. It's assumed that the killer abducted the child, but nobody knows why or where the child is...or if she's still alive. Then, Ellison investigates some odd noises in the attic, and finds films of other murders in which entire families are killed. How did they get there? Who is responsible?

I walked into Sinister figuring it to be a serial-killer plot, and the macabre murders captured in the films were memorable. But I was surprised to discover that it was actually supernatural in nature; there's ancient demons and a bizarre cult involved. Ghosts appear...what is their purpose? To warn against evil...or to cause it?

What's really cool about it is how it keeps unfolding, and so much of the menace is kept vague until the end. Of course, sharp viewers will figure out some of the plot twists ahead of time, but they still do it with style. It's also got some good characterization and a good acting job from Ethan Hawke; his Oswalt is torn between caring for his family and being a good father, and his ambition to repeat his earlier success in true crime and become a celebrity again. He's not particularly likable, but he is human.

It's got good reviews, surprisingly for a horror film, and has done well at the box office, costing $3 million to make and raking in over $47 million so far.

And then, being the avowed James Bond fan that I am, I went to see Skyfall on opening night.

James Bond is accidentally shot by field agent Eve while on a mission in Istanbul, to recover a stolen hard drive that contains the names of NATO agents embedded in terrorist networks. Presumed dead, he lays low in the tropics for a while, still thirsting for danger and recovering from his injuries. However, he returns to England when he sees that M is under fire; it turns out the names of the agents on the hard drive are being leaked on YouTube, and Bond must go from Shanghai to Macao to London to Scotland to find and stop the man responsible.

Is it good? I enjoyed it, far far more than the last entry, Quantum of Solace, which I disliked intensely. But I didn't find it as good as Casino Royale, which was pretty darn close to my idea of the perfect Bond film. I had serious misgivings about Sam Mendes directing; I find his films problematic, with a tendency to focus on men who hate their jobs, and a VERY bad habit of looking at people coping with miserable lives and situations, without ever really exploring the decisions and experiences that got them into those situations in the first place. (Which is why I consider Revolutionary Road to be hugely overrated.) But I have to admit, he did a good job with this; it lacked the listlessness that doomed Jarhead, that's for sure. Roger Deakins' cinematography made it very easy on the eyes, and some scenes are very, very memorable.

And I'm going be very spoiler-y from here on out, so please skip the rest of this post if you're wary of those things. The film is really equally about M (Judi Dench) as it is about Bond (Daniel Craig, very dishy this time), and the motherly bond she builds with the agents she chooses, and how that bond can go wrong. That's very obvious with villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), a former field agent with an almost Oedipal loathing of her but who ends up being as self-destructive as he is destructive. Naomie Harris is good as Eve Moneypenny, and Berenice Marlohe is memorable as Silva's mistress Severine. Ben Whishaw is fabulous as a young hipster Q. There was some real tension in the film as it shows Bond not at the top of his game but slowly getting back there, and some real emotion as M dies at the end.

A few things I didn't like included Eve suddenly turning out to be Moneypenny, which annoyed me a bit as she had denied the rumor months ago. Also, an Aston-Martin DBV that was supposed to be Bond's private property turns out to be loaded with Goldfinger-era gadgets; how did they get there? And the dialogue seemed clunky at times, and the last act (at Bond's crumbling family estate in Scotland) seems a little drawn out. Something very minor that still bugged me a tiny bit was the gunbarrel scene which again was at the end; I'm ready for it to be back at the beginning, thank you.

Still, at the end, Bond trades banter with Moneypenny, and then goes into the office of the new M (Ralph Fiennes) which is almost a dead ringer for the traditional office of the Connery films. The viewer is left feeling ready for more action. Reportedly they're planning to do Bond films every two years from now on, and screenwriter John Logan is on board for two more films. It's said that Mendes might stick around (he might as well, he's had a string of box-office disappointments and Skyfall will be his first unqualified success since Road to Perdition). And now we have a new M, Q, and Moneypenny, and I hope in the future they manage a balance between action and cerebral intrigue. And put the damned gunbarrel at the beginning again!

So yeah, go check 'em out if you have an evening to spare...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dust & Corruption Calendar for November 2012

Again, sorry I'm late with this; I've had quite a week and only now have the time to do this.

All month long: Fascinating lectures and soirees at the Observatory in Brooklyn, NY. Check out their schedule here.

 11/10 - Beauties, Creeps, and Geeks Burlesque and Sideshow. Pretty much speaks for itself, with my friends Reverend Valentine, Candy del Rio, Cherokee Rose, Charlie Artful, and Swami Yomahmi. Doors at 9pm, $12. The Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC.

11/11 - Veteran's Day. Thank a veteran. Also Corduroy Day, for obvious reasons, so wear some corduroy.

11/14 - DC Variety! A monthly open mic night for budding variety talent in the DC area; this month with Moxie Labouche, Adora Coquette, Abby Nightingale, Dainty Dandridge, and Glam Gamz. Doors 8:30pm, $8. The Red Palace, Washington DC.

11/18 - Hot Todd Lincoln's Thanksgiving Feast. A burlesque show with a difference, in that it's a canned food drive and fundraiser for Food & Friends, a local charity that delivers meals and groceries to those suffering from severe chronic illnesses. (I used to volunteer in their kitchens back in the 90s.) With Maria Bella, Cherie Sweetbottom, Ula!, Miss Abby, Charlie Artful, and Dolly Longlegs. Doors 8:30pm, $12 or $10 if you show up with 2 canned food items. The Red Palace, Washington DC.

11/21 - Sherlock Holmes in Cinema! Film series at the AFI Silver Theater featuring Holmes in many incarnations, from John Barrymore to Arthur Wontner to Basil Rathbone to Peter Cushing to Robert Downey Jr., and who knows who else in between. Running till Dec. 18. Also starting that day is a Hitchcock series and a Tarzan series. AFI Silver Theater, 8633 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD.

11/22 - Thanksgiving Day. Don't eat too much.

11/23 - Sticky Buns Burlesque. Baltimore's own goofy troupe do a special Black Friday show. With Paco Fish, Marla Meringue, Shortstaxx, Sunny Sighed, Nicolette LaFay, Cherokee Rose, and Hot Todd Lincoln. Doors 9pm; $10 in advance, $12 at the door. The Red Palace, Washington, DC.

11/30 - Billtown Burlesque Presents: The Great Tang Hoochie Coochie Show! Williamsport PA's resident troupe visits the nation's capitol. Two shows. Doors 8pm and 10:30pm; $10 advance, $12 day of show. The Red Palace, Washington DC.

Well, that's a sampling of what's going always, if you know of something, let me know...

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

November's here, at the Phantom Cabaret

It's chilly out tonight, we're gathered for a drink in the aftermath of the election, relieved that it's finally over, with no more robocalls and leaflets in the mail and dreadful TV commercials and hearing about the same issues over and over on the radio. And up to the piano steps an elegant lady, who sings a tune that speaks to the time of year...

There have been many versions of this lovely Johnny Mercer tune, ranging from Barry Manilow to Nancy Wilson, but this version is my absolute favorite.

Sorry to have been so late with this, folks. In between the election and my office moving to a new location, I've been freaking exhausted and barely up to posting. I'm in bad shape tonight after being up half the night and I'm still adjusting to my new commute...I've gone from a 15-minute bus ride to a 40-minute drive. And my new office has no internet or phone hookups yet, and we're waiting for Verizon to see fit to connect us. Sigh.

Anyway, hope everyone has a great November...I'll be back...