Thursday, March 29, 2012

This Week's Travel Reading

His name is Parker. Don't ask if that's his last name--or his first, for that matter--because we don't know. It's all he's ever called. Even his woman, Claire, calls him by that name.

Except when he's working, which is whenever he needs money to get by. Then he uses various aliases. Charles Willis. Ronald Kasper. Edward Lynch.

Parker's job? He's a professional thief--or a "heister," to use the vernacular of the trade.

Parker is very good at his job, whether he's knocking over a bank, lifting some jewelry, snatching a payroll or stealing an armored car. He's tough. Determined. Agile of mind and body. And damned hard to kill.

His associates in these jobs, however, are not always so professional. Some get greedy. Others get stupid. And some decide it's a good idea to cross Parker.

For the record: It is not a good idea to cross Parker. He's just about the last person on this earth you want to cross. Because Parker will find you. And he will make you pay.

Donald Westlake (working under the non de plume Richard Stark) wrote 24 Parker novels--the first, The Hunter, first appeared in print 50 years ago in 1962; the last, Dirty Money was published in 2008, the year Westlake died. There was a substantial gap in there--there were no Parker novel's between 1974's Butcher's Moon and 1996's appropriately named Comeback--but the gap made no difference in quality. Westlake's novels move with a ruthless efficiency of narrative and character, making them perfect for my train rides to and from work.

So far, I've only read the novels Westlake wrote after the 20-plus-year gap (I'm on Nobody Runs Forever right now) and the two excellent graphic novel adaptations by Darwyn Cooke (The Hunter and The Outfit) that introduced me to Westlake's prose. However, after I finish Dirty Money, I'll backtrack--damn, that would have been a good title for a Parker novel--and read some of the older material.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Every Picture Tells a Story: 3/23/12

Damn near everything in my neighborhood is blooming--about a month early.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On the Way to Work This Morning...

This Week's Travel Reading

For a film critic, the flip side of seeing some great movies is seeing many, many movies that aren't so great. A sizable number of them will be merely mediocre and utterly forgettable, but there will be a few--perhaps, quite disturbingly, more than a few--that are bad.

Some will fall into the "so bad they're good" category--Plan 9 from Outer Space comes to mind--but many just keep falling well below that dubious watermark to the level of painful viewing experiences.

Comedies that aren't funny. Dramas that aren't dramatic. Horror films that horrify for all the wrong reasons.

Goodness knows that, in his 40-plus year career as a professional film critic, Roger Ebert has seen his share of stinkers, offenders and wastes of valuable time--enough, in fact, to fill three full volumes with reviews of the unwatchable that he, unfortunately, had to watch.

The first of these books, I Hated Hated Hated This Movie! (the title taken from Ebert's review of Rob Reiner's North,, though I'm pretty sure two or three "hateds" were omitted), contained many of his more infamous bad notices, including his one-star review of Blue Velvet (which he later said was too harsh) and his zero-star review of Caligula (which he did not later rescind--nor should he have). Unfortunately, Hated was padded out with a number of two-star reviews for films not good enough to recommend, but not bad enough to condemn--shoulder shrugs on film.

The second book in the series, Your Movie Sucks, remedied this problem nicely--it had no two-star reviews at all and was, therefore, much more enjoyable (even if it contains a rather churlish, condescending review of the original Gorjira which, at the time it was originally published, pissed me off, and seeing it again in Sucks did not make me feel any more warmly toward it).

Sadly, the newly released third book, pictured above, represents a huge step backward--it contains many, many two-star reviews.It seems like at least half the book is made up two-star reviews. Perhaps the subtitle of the book should have been something more like, "More Movies That Are Just Kinda Meh."

Credit must be given where due, however: The title of the book comes from Mr. Ebert's review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,; truer words have never been written.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Every Picture Tells a Story: 3/13/12

It's always sad when toys get tossed out, but somehow it seems even more so when a robot gets scrapped.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Friday, March 9, 2012

Silents, Please

Most of my friends--and yes, I have real friends, not just the imaginary kind) love movies, but some of those friends find it difficult, if not impossible, to sit through silent films.

I don't hold this against them. To the contrary--I completely understand.

Silent films are a different art form, relying much more on pantomime than dialog. They demand attention. You can't talk on the phone, make your grocery list or do your taxes while a silent movie plays in the background. You have to either watch it or not watch it--no middle ground.

Me? I love silent movies. One of my latest decadent indulgences is buying silent movies on Blu-ray. The picture quality is substantially better than most DVDs of the same films, and the extras tell me things about the films and stars that I never knew before. (Buster Keaton broke his ankle while trying to make "The Electric House," so while he recuperated, he made "the Playhouse" instead--and danced on that broken ankle in the film! See the things you learn?)

More than anything, though, I love to watch silent films in a theater with an audience and live musical accompaniment (usually on a house organ, but sometimes by a visiting orchestra or ensemble that specializes in playing live music for silent films). When you see a silent film with a crowd, it's not really silent at all--you can hear audience reaction much more clearly than you can during a modern film, especially if it's a comedy. (The laughter reverberates off the walls and through the floor.)

Fortunately, I live in Chicago, where I have multiple venues for silent film viewing. The Portage Theater hosts many showings on behalf of the Silent Film Society of Chicago, including their annual six-week Silent Summer Film Festival. (Last summer, for the first time, I attended all six showings during the festival.) The Music Box Theatre, best known for showing a mix of independent films, revivals and cult classics, started a series last year in which, on the second Saturday of every other month, they'd show a silent film in their main auditorium, which seats something around 800. (They have a smaller side screen that can accommodate around 100.)

That series of screening must have done well--this year, they expanded the series to the second Saturday of every month. And each time I've gone, the audience has grown, regardless of what's showing or what the weather is doing outside. (For the first two movies this year--"Show People" starring Marion Davies and Fatty Arbuckle's "Leap Year"--it was bitterly cold, but each crowd was sizable and enthusiastic.) Tomorrow, they're showing the very first Oscar winner for Best Picture, "Wings," with live organ accompaniment by Dennis Scott.

At previous showings, Scott has said that the Second Saturday Silent Cinema series has "flown under the radar"--i.e., hasn't gotten a lot of publicity--and has urged attendees to bring their friends. Silent This blog can't generate too much publicity, and I don't have that many friends to bring. If, however, you stumble across this little missive and happen to like silent cinema--or, if you're unfamiliar with the likes of Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks and Lon Chaney and are willing to take a chance on something new--head on down to the Music Box tomorrow. The theatre is beautiful, the popcorn is great and the experience is one to remember.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Every Picture Tells a Story: 3/2/12

This winter has been less than impressive--it has, in fact, been one of the warmest on record in Chicago--so snowmen have been hard to come by. (It's difficult to make snowmen when you lack, y'know, snow.) Much more typical this year are lumps like these, typically found in the corners of parking lots and tucked against garages--though, usually, they don't have cigarette butts sticking out of them. Maybe this lump of snow got bored and took up smoking.