Apr 132014

You guys! Some thieves tried to steal a pair of ruby slipper replicas from a Staten Island hotel! The best part is, there were three of 'em, a woman and two men, so it's almost as if Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow were to blame (I'm figuring the Cowardly Lion would have been too cowardly to participate.) Mystery writers, wouldn't this make a great heist story, with a few modifications? Someone please write that novel. Thank you. And thank you, Jezebel, for calling my attention to this theft.

Mar 032014

Jeff Cohen

You never know who may be listening to you--Paul McCartney, "Take It Away"

How about those Academy Awards, huh? Were you shocked? I was stunned.

I'm lying. I wrote this a week before the Oscars. Hey. Life gets in the way sometimes.

Still, thinking about the glamor and silliness of Hollywood--and the best thing about the Academy Awards is how silly they are--got me to wondering. My writing has certainly not made me a household name, and I'm perfectly fine with that. But if I'm being accurate (to the best of my knowledge), my books have, in the past few years especially, sold conservatively in the tens of thousands, and that's probably an underestimate. 

So after a while you start thinking that maybe one or two of those mass market paperbacks has made it into the hands of a famous person. 

It's sort of a cool thought. Who might be a fan of the Haunted Guesthouse series? There's no way of knowing, really, unless said celebrity were to reach out and communicate with the author (that's me). And so far, they haven't, with one exception, who was a friend before the series started and has blurbed a couple of the books.

Erin posted a while back about the impression an author leaves when making public his/her thoughts about politics or some other sensitive topic. The flip side of that is wondering whether someone whose positions I support might be reading my work.

Or what if it's someone with whom I disagree vehemently? What would that say about my novel?

So in order to prevent myself considerable embarrassment (after this display of undigestible hubris), I've decided to provide a list of celebrities whom I hope are or will be fans of my work. Because you never know.

My Hoped-For Famous Fans

  • Mel Brooks: Always at the top of my list, unless Harpo Marx is resurrected. If someone knows how I can get Mel a copy of any of my books, don't hesitate to get in touch;
  • Jon Stewart: The smartest comedian at work for the past 15 years. Can take an incredibly obvious joke and still make it hilarious. I don't even care if he likes the book; I just want him to read one;
  • Queen Latifah: Hey, a fellow alum of 8096523-standardFrank H. Morrell High School and multitalented performer. Jersey girl with attitude, someone I'd be proud to have as a reader;
  • Ringo Starr: The People's Beatle and funniest of the bunch;
  • Steven Spielberg: Let's face it--if he were a loyal reader, Josh and I would have heard from him by now;
  • Derek Jeter: Not only an unparalleled athlete entering his final campaign, but an aspiring publisher--someone get this man a book!
  • Bette Midler: Because she's damn funny;
  • Craig Ferguson: Doing the funniest, most subversive talk show on the air, and a fan of crime fiction who books authors on his show. Yeah, you could do worse;
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Simply the coolest guy in any room he enters. A superstar astrophysicist? You know if Dr. T. likes your work, you must be smart;
  • Bill Murray: I'm not sure why, because I don't think he'd like my work, but I want to hope he would;
  • George Clooney: This generation's attempt at Cary Grant, falling a little short but way closer than most of us get. Smart, talented, committed; what's not to like?
  • Tina Fey: She's really funny, and if she publicly said she liked my books, my wife would be impressed with me for the first time this millennium;
  • Gene Wilder: The best comic actor of the past 50 years, and an author in his own write.

To be fair, of course (or even not to be fair), it's probably right to list a few celebs who, if they are fans of my work, I'd appreciate keeping it to themselves:

Thanks-But-No-Thanks List

  • Ted Nugent: Yeah, and his music is lousy, too:
  • Mel Gibson: I hold a grudge. Move on;
  • Rush Limbaugh: You shouldn't have to ask why;
  • The Duck Dynasty Guy: I'm almost ashamed to have a beard because of you;
  • The Boston Red Sox: Nothing personal. It's a religious thing;
  • Alec Baldwin: Luckily, he's getting out of public life, so that will never become an issue;
  • Vladimir Putin: Keep your shirt on, Vlad. I didn't watch your Olympics, either, so we're even;
  • John Travolta: If he can't get my name right, he's not going to be much help anyway; *
  • Justin Bieber: Get help, man--or just get better advice, and listen to it;
  • Isabel Allende: You know why.

For the record: I doubt any of these people has ever been in the same room with one of my books, but this is a fantasy league sort of thing, where you get to choose the names and assume they'll go along with you--or not. So that's my list. What's yours?


P.S. Recently the world of comedy has lost its grandfather and its funny uncle. Rest in peace, Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis. It doesn't matter how old you were; either way, it was much too soon. This is a world that can't afford to lose the laughs.

*Added after the Oscars

Feb 242014

Jeff Cohen

BALTIMORE, MD--It's not about baseball. Not this time of year, although there are stirrings in Florida that can cause a fan's heart to hope. It's not about the impending retirement of the noble Derek Jeter or the welcome relief from the year-long sabbatical imposed on Mr. Rod. No, I'm not in Baltimore this weekend, staying within spitting distance of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, for the baseball. It isn't here yet.

I'm here because a Mad_squirrelsquirrel got into my attic.

A few months ago, we woke up one morning to a nasty scratching sound in our bedroom wall. This is not something you want to wake up hearing, but it was undeniable and just as unmistakable. Something was living inside our walls, and that something was larger than a mouse.

You can be all anthropomorphic about squirrels and how "cute" they are if you want, but when one has taken up residence in your attic, it's just a rat with a fuzzy tail, and one that can do a good deal of damage. So we had an "animal control expert" come by, and he determined exactly how Rocky was getting inside our house. There was a hole in the soffet next to our attic window.

I asked him if the hole could be plugged, and Mr. Ranger shook his head. "You need a roofer for that," he said.

Well, the time had come. We'd been living in this house for just about 20 years, perhaps to the day, and had not addressed our roof except for a few patches after Hurricane Sandy had her way with the entire state of New Jersey and its neighbors. So the roof now had to be replaced.

That's not why I'm in Baltimore. Hang on.

After batting around the idea of a new roof for a few days, Rocky_the_flying_squirrelJessica and I decided it was best for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves our partners in all endeavors the IRS, to take our a home equity loan to pay for the roof. And if you're taking out a loan, you might as well get a few other things done. So we had a number of windows replaced too, just to experience the thrill (once this interminable winter, um, terminables) of opening a window and not having to prop it open with a book (I know, book lovers, but it's a cruel reality).

Still not the reason I'm in Barry Levinson's backyard. I'm getting there. Here. Wait.

Besides the roof and the windows, we had to prioitize the 15-million things that we could have chosen to fix in our ramshackle abode. And the one area (besides that roof) we'd been working hard not to discuss all these years was the staircase.

Our stairs, which go from the living room up to the bedrooms, were in desperate need of replacement. We'd talked to our contractor friend who lives across the street some time ago about repairing them because of the hideous, cacophonous creaking that caused us to pause the television anytime someone would walk up or down, or put the phone on mute because of the noise. And our contractor pal had informed us that repair wasn't an option. These stairs had to be ripped out and new ones put in. And he intimated, without actually coming out and saying it, that it was best we do so before someone were to head for the living room taking the local and end up there via the express. If you know what I mean.

So this weekend, two gentlemen (including our across-the-street neighbor) ripped up our Imagestaircase and installed a new and--since I can now verify it--vastly improved one. But it took the better part of three days, and there was no way to get up to our bedrooms while that was happening.

We decided on this particular weekend because it was one of the few coming up during which we had no plans, and initially assumed we'd book a couple of hotel rooms (one for us, one for our son the budding filmmaker and job seeker) and wait out the devastation. And then it occurred to me that if you're going to have a couple of hotel rooms anyway, it might be an idea to, you know, go somewhere.

It had to be within driving distance, and given the kind of weather we've been having since roughly Halloween, cancellable if necessary. And it might be a nice idea if we had an event, a destination, in mind for at least one day. So I started searching around.

And it turned out that this weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was playing a series of themes from science fiction film and television, featuring our host, SuluGeorge Takei. And since we're all big Takei fans in this house, the deal was done. 

We returned Monday, before Josh's shift at the movie theater was to begin, to a lovely new and completely functional staircase, having enjoyed some film music presented by a distinguished group of musicians and an iconic actor and Internet personality. (Alas, there was no time to see Edgar Allan Poe's home as well.)

So greetings from Baltimore, Maryland, everybody. Except we're back in New Jersey now, and supposedly things will (sigh) return to normal. Sort of.

There's still painting and maybe a new floor in the kitchen to discuss. 

Damn squirrel.


*No squirrels were harmed in the posting of this blog.

Feb 102014

Jeff Cohen

There was much hoopla in the past few weeks about the date, 50 years ago last night, that a rock and roll group from England appeared on an American television show and "changed history." (You can't actually change history; you can make history. Once it's history, well, that's history. If you know what I mean.)

Nonetheless, I was not as ambivalent to the overblown festivities as I would normally be. I'm a lifelong (pretty much) fan of the ImagesBeatles, still think their music is fresh and amazing, and enjoy watching them be appreciated by those of all generations. So although the coverage was certainly disproportional to any event ever, it was not as irritating--to me--as almost anything else would have been.

This is not going to be another one of those this-is-how-the-Beatles-changed-my-life stories, I promise. I was all of six years old when Ed Sullivan put them on a bill with Tessie O'Shea, Myron John-lennonCohen (no relation) and a very young Davy Jones, in the cast of Broadway's Oliver at the time. Frankly, I wasn't all that impressed that night, and wasn't until I got to hear the studio recordings, on which there was no hysterical screaming by teenage girls. (After all, I was six. Girls? Ugh.)

No, my appreciation of what those four men accomplished goes in another direction, and I think somewhat deeper than most. What the Ed Sullivan performances show me are four guys who were just starting, who were used to the spotlight but not the United States, and who could have easily been exactly what the adults in the suits and ties were saying they were--a passing fad fueled by silly children.

Instead, they became probably the signature musicians of the century and their music is still relevant enough that today's PaulMcCartney60sartists cover their songs. Not bad.

I write books for a living. And in those books, I make up stories. If you want to call that an art form, I'm not going to argue, but it feels like entertainment to me. That is not to denigrate what I and my colleagues do; I have long droned on here about my high opinion of popular enterainment, and will not take back a word of that now.

The admiration I have for what John Lennon, Paul McCartney, MV5BMTUyNjE0NzAzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQzMzU3._V1_SY534_SX475_George Harrison and Ringo Starr did is based in their ability to start as light entertainers and then grow into really great artists who were also fantastic entertainers. They never disappointed (unless you watched Magical Mystery Tour expecting a coherent film), but they also didn't rest on their laurels. They didn't stagnate.

George Martin, the producer of almost all Beatles recordings, has often said that one thing he loved about the group was that "they never gave me the same thing to do twice." The songwriters in the group were conscious of the danger in repetition; they wanted to progress with each new recording, and what is most amazing is that they actually did.

I have been struggling Imageslately with the feeling that I want to write something really notable, something that would stretch me into new areas, uncomfortable places (as a writer) and hit new heights for me. (Don't worry; this happens periodically. It'll blow over.) I don't want to stop writing the things I write; I love those--but I like to think there's something more as well.

Unfortunately, I suffer from a common malady among such entertainers as myself. I'm not sure what my limits are (I know; you're not supposed to have any, but we are given a finite amount of talent without an inventory of how much we have). And even such a revered writer as George Bernard Shaw, late in his life, was urged by a rather nervy acquaintance--Harpo Marx--to write something new.

Shaw looked over, stared Harpo straight in the eye, and asked, "Got any ideas?"

Yeah, I haven't hit on that yet.

And that is what, for me, is the defining genius of the Beatles. Given the opportunity to milk their success into a year or two of tremendous wealth and fame, they chose instead to push the envelope. The group recorded 13 albums of about 14 songs each. In a seven-year recording career. Writing almost all the material themselves, while touring almost nonstop for the first four years. That's astonishing.

The more they recorded, the more innovative they became. String sections in rock and roll? Why not? Backwards lyrics? Bass lines that were sung instead of played? Songs with false endings, concept albums, extended medleys of new material that didn't have anything to do with each other but managed to come together cohesively. Done, done and done.

A Hard Day's Night. Day Tripper. Yesterday. In My Life. Help! A Day in the Life. Here Comes the Sun. Hey Jude. I'm just getting warmed up.

So those of us who entertain for a living should take a hint from those four "youngsters from Liverpool," as the condescending and avuncular Ed Sullivan said. Don't rest on your laurels. Don't simply write what you've written before. Challenge the conventional. Write to entertain oneself as well as an audience. Try things that aren't supposed to be done and see if they work.

It doesn't hurt if you're a brilliant artist. Or four. But since none of us knows if that term applies to us, we must operate on the assumption that if we try hard enough, we can find out. Maybe we are brilliant artists, and we just don't know it yet.

Turned out The-beatles-0John, Paul, George and Ringo fit into that category. But ironically in the end, the love they took was not at all equal to the love they made. Countless millions were touched by the music those four men created. And they were repaid very well monetarily, no doubt. They also lost all chance at anything resembling privacy, their fame eventually drove wedges into their personal friendships, each one went through a divorce, one was shot and another died of cancer after being knifed by a madman.

Oddly, our memories of them are usually happy ones. We celebrate their work and we remember them fondly. And sometimes, when we dare to place ourselves in similar categories, we wonder, since they did it, if we can become great artists just by pushing ourselves to the limit. And maybe a little bit further.

Got any ideas?


P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 4 days.

Feb 052014

It was a beautiful morning for a horseback ride through New York City's Central Park. Too bad it ended in sudden - and most unnatural - death for the rider. As a result, the very considerable talents of schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers and her good friend, Inspector Oscar Piper proved to be essential in solving The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, by Stuart Palmer. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

Stuart Palmer wrote more than a dozen novels and a fair number of short stories about schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers, whom he referred to as "that meddlesome old battleaxe." Hildy generally teamed up with her friend (and more than occasional rival), New York City Police Inspector Oscar Piper to solve mysteries which very often appeared impossible at first viewing.

The Puzzle of the Red Stallion, which was first published in 1935, was the sixth book to feature Hildy and Piper. It begins with a murder – a murder in which Miss Withers quickly becomes involved. The victim, a glamorous fashion model, had been riding her horse, a beautiful red stallion and former racing horse named Siwash. At first, there appears to be no good way to explain her death, as there is no evident wound on the body, though there is blood in Siwash. Miss Withers helps Piper solve that problem only to discover that, while there are plenty of suspects who might have had good reason to want the victim dead, none appeared to have had an opportunity to commit the murder. There is a great deal about horse racing in this book, and the sport does play a very important part in the solution of the mystery. There is more than one murder – and, I would have to say, a really nasty method for committing murder that almost evades detection.

While The Puzzle of the Red Stallion is not the strongest entry in the series, there are a couple of murders and some interesting characters. It was made into a movie called "Murder on a Bridle Path," but I don't think it's available for viewing at the moment. The book is a fairly quick, enjoyable read. There are used copies available from the usual sources, but it's also been published as a low-cost e-book from the Mysterious Press and Open Road Integrated Media.

This book is another entry for this year's Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge at the My Reader's Block blog. The challenge this year is to fill our "Bingo" - type cards with vintage mysteries (Gold = pre-1960 or Silver = 1961-1980) mysteries. On my Gold card, this book counts os "one book with an animal in the title.


Jan 272014

Jeff Cohen

Let's have a brief break from the crime fiction and take stock of another form of entertainment close to my heart. 

It's film awards season! Everybody who has ever been near a movie set is about to hand out some statuettes in anticipation of the Academy Awards on March 2. And because my son now works at a movie theater (although anyone who has contacts in the film business and needs someone with a degree in that area--who works cheap--need not hesitate to get in touch), I've seen a good number of the contenders this year. 

So simply because my opinion is worth roughly the same as yours, let me offer a few on this year's more lauded films. SPOILER ALERT: None of them exactly knocked me for a loop.

In no particular order:

12 Years a Slave: 12-years-a-slaveYou have to figure this is a very strong candidate for many awards. It has the benefits of being based on a true story, dealing with perhaps the most hurtful period in American history and doing so quite well. And it has many British people speaking with American accents. It's a harrowing film with excellent performances by just about all the actors--the only false notes struck by Brad Pitt as the angelic white guy--and it portrays slavery in America in ways that have rarely, if ever, be seen on a screen before. In short, I'll give the last words to my son Josh, who said, "I think it was really good and I never want to see it again."

All is Lost: Robert Redford, playing... somebody... is stuck on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean when his craft is hit by a cargo carrier and starts to sink, just before a horrific storm hits. With virtually no dialogue and no other actors, it's Redford's show, and a major surprise that no Oscar nomination followed. Problem with the film, which is technically brilliant: You don't know who this guy is, you don't know what the hell he's doing in the middle of the Indian Ocean by himself, and you don't even know his name, so you don't really get emotionally involved. It's all about pulling it off, not really about involving the audience.

Gravity: Gravity-movie-review-sandra-bullock-suit-2"All Is Lost" in space, with Sandra Bullock. A little more talking, and one other actor on screen (George Clooney) for a while. We know more about Bullock's character, and that helps. It's technically amazing, but the story is, at best, slight, and there are points at which it stretches credulity. Google "Neil DeGrasse Tyson" and "Gravity" (or click here, but there are SPOILERS) and you'll see what I mean. Nice to look at. I don't remember much of it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: The Ben Stiller version of the Danny Kaye version of James Thurber's very slight short story, which means there's almost no Thurber in it at all. It's cute, although not so closely fetched, and after a while you wonder why this Walter Mitty is doing all the wacky stuff he's doing. The daydreaming stuff becomes secondary. Someday someone should make a real movie out of Thurber material. Nobody's done it yet.

Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen Brothers take on the folk music scene in the early 1960s. Again, wonderful performances, especially by Oscar Isaac as the title character. But that character is so completely involved with himself and unconnected from everyone he encounters (including a cat) that it's hard to care. More music probably would have helped.

Her: A guy in the not-very-distant future falls in love with his operating system. Just to make it more believable to an audience, the OS is given the voice of Scarlett Johanssen. It moves along in that strange mode from writer/director Spike Jonze for a while, then takes a complete left turn two-thirds of the way through that comes out of nowhere. And we're supposed to care whether this "relationship" survives, but we actually don't very much.

Captain Phillips: Tom Hanks, in another notable Oscar snub, was probably brushing off his tuxedo months before the nominations came out just to be as surprised as everyone else. Here, in another based-on-a-true-story film, he plays the captain of a cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates. He's very good, the completely new-to-acting Somalis who play the pirates are even better, and the movie is sort of tense despite our knowing in advance how it's going to end up. 

Saving Mr. Banks: Saving-mr-banks-tom-hanks-emma-thompsonHere comes Mr. Hanks again. This time Tom is playing Walt Disney trying to get P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, who ALSO didn't get nominated!) to sell him the rights to Mary Poppins despite her being a giant pain in the butt. We find out why she's like that in far-too-numerous flashbacks to her Australian childhood. You never for a second believe Tom is Walt Disney--he's Tom Hanks--and despite the protestations that this is not a sanitized version, it's a sanitized version. That would be okay, except there's not that much suspense about what's going to happen, and the drama is almost all in dialogue.

American Hustle: Oh, boy, a movie about corruption in New Jersey, and just to make my home state look even worse, it's the late 70s. A VERY loosely adapted version of the Abscam operation run in NJ--and other states--in the 70s and 80s, here we get a bloated Article-0-19DA5A8A000005DC-252_634x894Christian Bale (and we get to see the Batman connection, because he looks just like Adam West) joining with Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to scam the mayor of Camden about something going on in Atlantic City, which is not in Camden (and we can see with a sign outside the mayor's office window that the filmmakers think Camden is in Essex County, which is only about two hours away) and... after a while it's hard to remember. Entertaining enough, but all this hoopla is odd.

Nebraska: Nebraska_0Bruce Dern (in a film that sometimes seems to be starring his nose hair) plays the inevitable befuddled old guy that a 77-year-old actor will be offered, and does it well. But the idea that this movie--about, um, a befuddled old guy who thinks he's won a million dollars because he's received a mail scam for magazine subscriptions and travels to Lincoln, Nebraska with his son (Will Forte)--is about Dern's character and not Forte's is silly. Forte is on screen much more often and it's his story that's being told. But everybody wants Dern to get an award. This one goes on too long, is in black and white for absolutely no reason, and is sometimes amusing.

The Wolf of Wall Street: There is no chance I would ever go see this movie. It's not bad enough that guys like this destroyed the economy, screwed regular people worldwide, and got off with a slap on the wrist? Now I should pay money (some of which will go to the actual person who did these things) to see them do it? I think not.


P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 18 days.

Jan 232014

Cold in July film

Calling it “dank and sweaty and fabulous,” Twitch reviews Cold In July, directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are) and starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson. The way the film is described can also be applied to Joe Lansdale’s writing: “dark, grim, all-too-real, refusing to stay within a predictable path.” Please join us in congratulating Joe as Cold In July is positioned to be one of the most buzzed-about films at the Sundance Film Festival.

And when can plebes like us watch the movie? Cold In July was just snapped up by IFC Films for nationwide distribution, and they’re expecting to release the film theatrically and on Video On Demand this summer. Read the full press release on Deadline.

Jan 132014

Weaponized by Nicholas Mennuti with David GuggenheimNicholas Mennuti, one of the authors of Weaponized, is a true cineaste. In this post, written at the end of 2013, he shares with us his favorite film scores of the year. You can stream these scores as a playlist via the Spotify widget below.

There’s still a few scores I’ve been waiting to get my hands on: Roque Banos’s Oldboy, Arcade Fire’s Her, Danny Elfman’s Unknown Known, and Explosions in the Sky and Steve Jablonsky’s work on Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor, so I hate to make this list without hearing them—because judging from the composers’ prior work, I’m sure one of them would have made it—however, December is winding down and being cursed with a sense of impending time comparable only to a Italian railroad official, I wanted to get my thoughts down on film scoring in 2013.

I’ve been told by those “in the know” that lists of ten are so common they tend to get passed over by search engines, so here are the 11 best film scores of 2013.


It’s hard to justify one’s love for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follow-up, Only God Forgives, without dropping caveats up front—yes, it sure is excessive and slow; luckily, you don’t have to do the same for Cliff Martinez’s score.

Refn and Martinez both hit it big with Drive, which relied as much on songs from Johnny Jewel’s “Italians Do It Better” label—as it did Martinez’s score—to back a meticulously executed, but seriously derivative film that at times felt like a cryogenically frozen fetish object.

Only God Forgives is Martinez’s solo show and this film—which has been compared to a vomitorium—is the furthest thing from derivative, excepting a few discreet borrowings from The Grifters. Refn has seemingly invented his own genre this time around; if not invented, then thrown so many together, from Leone and Jodorowsky to Hitchcock, that Martinez gets the opportunity to put his unique stamp on five different film scoring standards.

With tracks like “Sister Part 1” Martinez evokes his traditional eerily moving ambient sound that he’s patented during his years with Steven Soderbegh. In tracks like “Chang and Sword,” he creates a soundscape with twanging guitars and long plucks that sounds like electro-Morricone, or a Spaghetti Western unfolding on the banks of the River Styx. With “Mai Quits Masturbating”, we’re almost in Bernard Herrmann territory, with anxious, mournful strings providing a sonic analogue to distorted sexuality. With “Wanna Fight” we enter something akin to John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” with an Asian flair. However, the most stunning to my ears was Martinez’s descent into what can only be called Thai Hell, which consists of Mike Oldfield pianos, gongs, chimes, shrieking strings, and an avant-garde rumble—almost Pendericki—that truly sounds like sulfur spitting or tectonic plates shifting.

Whether or not you think Refn’s film will endure—I tend to think it will—I have no doubt that Martinez’s score will.


The penultimate film in Steven Soderbergh’s mad pre-retirement dash (including Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, and Behind the Candelabra) was this unjustly overlooked thriller that takes place in the nebulous world of healthcare kept afloat on big Pharma money. It’s the type of movie that rarely escapes from Hollywood these days: mid-budget, actor-driven, provocative without being preachy, and R-rated for all the right reasons. And it’s the type of film Soderbergh tends to do best: rigorous formal control (bordering on icy) with a burning center.

Soderbergh has a stable of composers and tends to dole out scoring duties depending on the genre, illustrated in the brief breakdown below:

Cliff Martinez: Has been with Soderbergh from the beginning (1989’s Sex Lies and Videotape) and tends to be his stylistic soul mate. They both employ a hypnotic ambient arsenal of texture, misdirection, and tonal ambiguity. In fact, I’m shocked Martinez didn’t get the Side Effects job, but I’m going to bet it had to something to do with the fact that he already had three movies lined up to score this year.

David Holmes: Generally gets the job within the crime/thriller genre when Soderbergh wants a funkier, lighter, 70′s Schifrin-esque vibe to complement his Pop-Art visuals.

Alberto Iglesias, Marvin Hamlisch: The biopic composers. Both superlative talents brought in for Che, The Informant, and Behind the Candelabra respectively, and finally,

Thomas Newman: Tends to get Soderbergh’s—for lack of a better word—“prestige” projects: Erin Brockovich, The Good German, and Side Effects. Newman—more than any composer today, I think (outside maybe James Newton Howard), is a master of giving the director what they need musically to tie a film together. In fact, Newman’s music is so good that in some cases he can literally create the illusion of continuity and sense (see The Adjustment Bureau for example) where none exists.

Side Effects didn’t need his sonic glue to hold it together—Soderbergh’s craft has never been better—but let me allow the late Roger Ebert to say exactly what Newman’s spell-binding and spine-tingling music brings to the project, because I can’t put it any better:

The music tells us what kind of movie Side Effects is going to be. It coils beneath what seems like a realistic plot and whispers that something haunted and possessed is going on. Imagine music for a sorcery-related plot and then dial it down to ominous forebodings. Without Thomas Newman’s score, Side Effects would be a lesser film, even another film.


Steven Soderbergh may shoot, edit, and direct his movies, but Shane Carruth can go one (nay two) better: he also scored and acted in Upstream Color, the movie I’m sure all Terrence Malick fans hoped To The Wonder would be. A film that’s simultaneously about romance, recovery, thieves, parasites, mysterious pig farmers, and the interconnected heartbeat of the universe. Somehow it works. The highest compliment I can pay it is this: It rewards all the attention you give it; there are mysteries in there worth searching out. And Carruth’s own score plays a huge role in making the viewer feel this way; the music binds together and deepens the film’s mysteries.

One can use all the stock terms to describe the score: ambient, airy, pillowy, ethereal, Eno-esque. And they’re all true. But there’s something more going on here, and it’s what makes both the film and the score vault past abstract metaphysical concerns: the beautiful, broken romance at the center. Although neither the film nor the music make it explicit, they both seem to say the same thing:

There are more mysteries in the world than one can even begin to conceive of, nothing makes sense at all, and the thing that makes the least sense of all is love. And be thankful for that.


I’ll be upfront about this one: I don’t think Gravity is the most overrated movie of the year. I think it may be the most overrated movie since American Beauty or Crash (another Sandra Bullock project. Ha! I just realized that). But this is a list about film scoring, and on that front, Steven Price’s score is such a marvel of mood and scope (moving from ambient to all out action) I didn’t even have to think about its inclusion on this list.

On top of which, the score itself is also a potent illustration of two larger trends in film scoring:

1. Bands or single band members (Air, Arcade Fire, Alex Ebert, Kevin Shields, Jonny Greenwood, Steven Price comes from Basement Jaxx) or electronic artists (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, M83, Daft Punk, Skrillex) muscling into film scoring, and snaring it away from traditional orchestral sound, which brings us to point two…

2. Narrative film has fundamentally changed, thus so have the traditional requirements of film scoring.

Movies have become fractured, employing editing techniques something akin to digital cubism, and the music itself reflects this, falling somewhere between electronic scoring and sound design. Some movies today aren’t even designed for a traditional big-screen intake; they’re for you to stream on whatever’s handy. Modern life just doesn’t sound like Korngold or Herrmann or Miklos Rosza anymore, and film music must reflect this fact. Modern life doesn’t go from A to B anymore. It’s pulsating, digital, discordant, and poses more questions than it answers, and at this point in time, the only current films that require some of the old sturm-und-drang of traditional Hollywood scoring are genre epics and comic-book movies.

The preceding two paragraphs may seem counterintuitive since “Gravity” is by all counts a space-opera, the most tried-and-true of all genre gambits. But it’s a space-opera subjected to the minimalist art-film aesthetics of director Alfonso Cuaron, a true visionary, whom a big space score was never going to satisfy, and who, with Steven Price’s work, got a score so good that it made me wish I enjoyed the film even more.


Hans Zimmer has changed the sound of film scoring more than any composer since John Williams. Whether you like where he’s taken it or not is an entirely different matter. On four separate occasions he’s reset the template for modern action scores.

Black Rain in 1989 was the first action film to seamlessly employ both synth and traditional orchestral accompaniment. (Jerry Goldsmith tried this combination with considerably lesser results through the 80s.) With Crimson Tide in 1995, Zimmer finished what he started in Black Rain and, since then, literally nothing has changed in action scoring except for when Zimmer decides it should…

Which he did in 2000 with Gladiator, where he started the now ubiquitous trend of ethereal female vocals over action scenes (Lisa Gerrard in this case)—that reached its zenith or nadir, whichever you prefer with Horner’s score for Troy. Ten years after Gladiator, Zimmer added to the synth, orchestra, and female voice template with the now infamous “Inception trombone” (which in all fairness actually originated in Zack Hemsey’s trailer music), but was strewn throughout Zimmer’s film score as well.

All of that preamble was to remind people that although Zimmer is known for bringing the bombast, he first gained recognition for his smaller more character driven scores—Rain Man, Thelma and Louse, True Romance—and actually excels at finding the heart of a movie. And sadly he’s been doing less and less of that lately, which is why his work on 12 Years A Slave comes as such a pleasant surprise. It was a simultaneous reminder that Zimmer can do this type of material, and that when he wants to, he’s one of the best.

Sure, he recycles some of his greatest hits moments—parts of 12 Years sound a little The Thin Red Line-by-Inception at times—but when it sounds this good who cares. Zimmer does what Zimmer does best – he finds the sonic heart of Solomon Northrop just as acutely as he did Thelma and Louise. Try not to be moved by it.


Claire Denis can be hit-or-miss for me. I’ll go to the mat for Beau Travail and I Can’t Sleep, but I genuinely have no idea what the hell she was going for in Bastards, which plays like a Gallic Get Carter without any of the suspense or humor. Denis is such a deliberate director that on some level I have to believe that the utter absence of tension, character, and efficient plotting must be intentional.

Thank God, then, that her frequent composers Tindersticks seem to have kept their eyes closed and gave the movie the score it deserves.  In fact, the score is so good, you can almost picture in your head the movie it was supposed to accompany—and what a movie that is:

A smoky, mournful Parisian noir with synths that sound close to organs, something heavenly but blasphemous, because an angel was dragged to Earth and abused. A revenge thriller with a twist—the avenger may be just as unstable and dangerous as the people he seeks. Even the music doesn’t know what to make of him, evidenced by long, ponderous silences between the notes and question marks in the form of endless reverb. An investigation into the seamy underbelly of high-finance and cheap, underage sex set to a dance-beat.  And then the kicker: the cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” when you realize just how sick the movie really is. The vibrating bass line matched by the tremor in Stuart Staples’ voice. Even the music seems shocked by the depravity.

And once again, like Steven Price’s Gravity, this is a masterful score in search of a better movie.


Not to sound like Christopher Walken in The Comfort of Strangers, with his oft-repeated monologue (“To talk about me, I have to talk about my father”), but to talk about Pino Donaggio, one has to talk about Bernard Herrmann.

Bernard Herrmann provided Hitchcock with his most memorable set of scores until they parted company after a particularly acrimonious dispute over the score to Torn Curtain. Herrmann wanted to sound like Herrmann, and Hitchcock wanted him to sound “jazzy” to capitalize on new trends in film scoring. Enter a long fallow period for Herrmann, until Brian De Palma burst onto the scene with 1973’s Hitchcock/Polanski pastiche Sisters, to which Herrmann lent a Moog-infused symphony of sexual dread. De Palma and Herrmann collaborated until Herrmann’s untimely death in 1976, at which point De Palma enlisted Pino Donaggio to score Carrie, and—except for a brief flirtation with Ryuichi Sakamoto—Donaggio has been De Palma’s go-to guy for scoring his now-infamous brand of erotic thrillers. And truth be told, he might even be a better fit for De Palma’s work than Herrmann.

What makes a De Palma thriller a “De Palma” thriller is also what makes a Donaggio score a “Donaggio” score—they tinker with the audience, providing light-on-their-feet, neo-classical sexual languor before the horror starts. They don’t just actively flirt with self-parody; they step up to the line and obliterate it. And Passion, which is their seventh collaboration, lives up to their previous triumphs.

The centerpiece of Passion is a full-on set piece at a performance of Debussy’s ballet “Afternoon of a Faun,” complete with the now-infamous De Palma split-screen. But Debussy has been with the score even before we go to the ballet. He was there subtlety imprinting the gleaming high-rises, the deco apartments, the constant flirtation, and sexual ambiguity. Donaggio’s score, like Debussy’s ballet, can be up-tempo, erotic, confrontational, misleading, but most importantly, like most symbolist-influenced impressionists, it’s beautiful.


Alexandre Desplat has been omnipresent on the American film scoring scene since 2004, when he broke out with his work on Jonathan Glazer’s Birth—incidentally, one of the best scores of last decade. Post-Birth he has literally been scoring between 6 to 8 films a year, ranging from blockbusters like Harry Potter and Twilight: New Moon to intimate films like Tree of Life and Philomena.

Roman Polanski has always been one of the most musically astute directors. Try to imagine Chinatown without the way he used Goldsmith’s score, or Knife in the Water and Rosemary’s Baby without Komeda’s eerie jazz fusions. Plus Polanski has also directed opera for the stage. Hell, he even starred in Amadeus in Paris. The guy has an ear.

So when Polanski and Desplat joined forces in 2010’s The Ghost Writer, I had high expectations, and their work together leapt over even my highest hopes. And Desplat’s work on Venus In Fur, although not quite The Ghost Writer, still makes a powerful minimalist mark with 36 minutes worth of music.

To explain why what Desplat has done is remarkable, allow me a brief anecdote. Famed screenwriter William Goldman once said—and I’m paraphrasing—that for a director, shooting a desert vista is the easiest thing in the world, but shooting two people talking in a room is fucking hard. Polanski’s Venus In Fur is an adaptation of David Ives’s two-character play about a sexual dance between an auditioning actress and a director who keep turning the tables on each other. And I’m going to imagine that scoring a film about two people talking in a room isn’t much easier than directing it.

The score begins with a powerfully baroque organ that feels like the sonic equivalent to a carnival barker inviting you in. The carnivalesque feel remains throughout the score, fading in and out, and supplemented by tinkling chimes and bells—reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s motif for Lucy in Coppola’s Dracula—and playful piano and strings. But make no mistake—and this is where both Polanski’s film and Desplat’s score truly impress—just when you think you have the mood nailed down, it turns on a dime.


If there’s one underlying thread linking many of these disparate film score choices, it’s the fruits of a long-term director/composer collaboration. We’ve already had Donnagio/DePalma, Newman/Soderbergh, Tindersticks/Claire Denis, and here’s another one that stretches back to the mid-80s: Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio. Their first film together was Koyaanisqatsi, a silent juxtaposed tone poem about the effects of modern civilization told through still shots of nature photography and sped-up images of worldwide urban life. Their latest effort, Visitors, is told through the eyes of a lowland gorilla, and is an effort to make humans see themselves through the POV of an animal, and to appreciate all our strangeness and contradictory behavior.

I sadly can’t comment on how the music works alongside with the images—the film hasn’t been commercially released yet—but I can tell you that the score is among the high-water marks of Glass’s career in composing for film (his day job is writing symphonies and biographical opera).

Glass has made a few inroads into traditional film scoring with Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, Cassandra’s Dream for Woody Allen, and the Angelina Jolie thriller, Taking Lives, but his best work has always been for non-narrative work and documentary for filmmakers like Reggio and Errol Morris. Not for nothing did Morris say Glass “can create a feeling of existential dread better than anyone I know.” And let’s be honest, there’s not much of a need for that in current Hollywood film, and in some cases (Notes on A Scandal) Glass’s music can seem downright oppressive against conventional narrative.

Those who listen to Glass regularly will notice certain hallmarks present in Visitors: the minimalist maelstrom on tracks like “The Day Room” and “Off Planet 2.” The flutes of dread popping up on “Off Planet 1.” But there’s something new in this score that’s been steadily creeping into Glass’s work of late: a transcendental longing, a spiritual questioning. His work on Visitors is magical, simultaneously one of his lightest and most dexterous scores and also one of his most thematically heavy.


No director this year enacted a larger pendulum swing than J.C. Chandor, who debuted in 2011 with the ensemble financial thriller talk-fest, Margin Call, and two years later created an almost wordless sea-faring adventure staring solely Robert Redford and the regrets etched in every crevice on his mesmerizing face. On the surface it may sound like Gravity for the AARP set, but Alexander Ebert’s score keeps the film from drowning in the manufactured sentiment that ultimately sunk Cuaron’s lone survivor tale.

Ebert’s score does the seemingly impossible: it functions both as “environmental music”—using water as one of its prime elements—and the soundtrack of Redford’s mind, literally becoming the film’s second character. The score can be deceptively simple, using alto flutes, whistling, male voices, and silence—at times it feels like Britten’s Billy Budd adapted by John Cage—but it’s doing the nigh impossible: it’s providing the aural counterpoint to Chandor’s images, exactly what film scoring should always strive for, but rarely achieves.

I feel like the previous two paragraphs have made Ebert’s work sound dangerously academic or impenetrable, and the truth couldn’t be further from that. Like many composers on this list, Ebert has a day job: he’s the lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and although he’s shorn himself of every trick in the pop musician’s arsenal, his entertainer’s instincts haven’t left. This is just full-on beautiful music. Try and listen to the main theme, “Excelsior,” or the closer, “Amen,” without a lump in your throat.


Cliff Martinez is back.

It was a hard call for the final space between this soundtrack and Hans Zimmer’s superlative score for Rush, but Martinez won it because he had the harder job. Harmony Korine’s whacked-out masterpiece runs the gamut from beach party kitsch to soft-core exploitation to beach-noir to European neon-lit dread, and back again. And the soundtrack runs the same schizo sprint from Skrillex to Birdy Nam Nam to Gucci Mane to Britney Spears, and holding it all together is Cliff Martinez’s patented and endlessly adaptive ambience.

In several interviews, Korine said he wanted the film to evoke the feel of a “pop song” more than a film. I think he succeeded. And a huge part of every great pop song is a chorus with a hook that brings everything back to the center to recharge before exploding again, and this is exactly what Martinez’s score allows co-composer’s Skrillex’s contribution to do.

Skrillex is all glitches and beeps and distortion. Martinez is all synth wash. They allow each other to be their best. Martinez brings the shimmering neon. Skrillex brings the shotgun blasts against the sky. It’s one of the best soundtracks of the year to one of the best films of the year.

Jan 132014

Jeff Cohen

My beloved Garden State (that was NOT meant sarcastically!) was the focus of much news coverage this past week, when some good old-fashioned newspaper reporting revealed that highly ranked officials in the administation of Our Beloved Governor (might be a little sarcasm in there) might have purposely closed numerous access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a mayor from the other party who didn't endorse said Beloved Governor for reelection, of which he was pretty much assured, endorsement or no endorsement.

There's a lesson to be found here, crime fiction authors. You'll see in a minute.

At a nationally televised news conference on Thursday, the Gov took a couple hours to shoot the breeze with the press about this incident. And apologized, in his extremely imitable way, sort of. But when addressing the firing of a close aide, did he explain that it was because of the disservice to the citizenry? The flagrant illegality of what was done? The callous disregard for the citizens of Fort Lee and anyone else who wanted to get into Upper Manhattan for a few days in September?

Nah. It was "because she lied to me."

Forget the Claude Rains ("I'm shocked--shocked--to discover there's gambling going on here") implausibility of his declared amazement at what had happened. Don't even consider the possibility that the traffic gambit was the tip of the iceberg. The bit of wisdom we can all take away from this particular political nonsense is thus: 

It ain't all about you. Ever.

Some authors are tempted, for example when a negative review is posted on a web site, to rebut the points, even inaccuracies being presented as fact. Some authors (see last week's post) can't see past their own titles when considering possible excellence in the field. Some authors believe that the agents and editors with whom they deal should be devoted strictly to the advancement of said author and his/her brilliant product.

Oh, get over yourself. Just because each of us is intimately familiar with our works, and believe what we write to be fabulous in some way or another--a healthy ego IS necessary to do this job--doesn't mean the whole publishing world comes to a halt the moment your word processor keyboard cools off.

Consider the equally well documented case of one Mr. Alex Rodriguez, until recently third baseman for the New York Yankees: Mr. Rod has been suspended from all things baseball for a year because of a list of indiscretions involving banned substances that, from the sound of it, is impressive enough to drop the most jaded of jaws.

Mr. Rod was one of 13 players caught in a particular net, and the only one who didn't just take the punishment and slink back into the shadows. Granted, his punishment was about 3.25 times that of the closest runner-up, which again leads one to wonder exactly how many smoking guns he had left behind ("Leave the gun. Take the steroids."). Nonetheless, it was his handling of the brouhaha from which we can take our cue.

First, he exhibited confidence: The charges were false and he would undoubtedly be exonerated. There was no question. Until there was a good deal of question. Compromises were offered; deals were put on various tables, and it was suggested by the head of Mr. Rod's own labor union that perhaps he would be best served by negotiating. 

No way. Mr. Rod then clammed up. For a while. For the "good of the team," which was in awful shape last year but still had an unbelievably slim shot at success, which didn't happen. Once radio silence was broken, Mr. Rod attended the hearings on his case, even finding groups to picket the building where the hearing was being held. I'm not making a word of this up.

When it was clear things weren't going his way, Mr. Rod threw a hissy fit, banged his fist on the table, left the hearing in a huff, and headed directly to a sympathetic radio program, where he looked into the eyes of the host (and because of simulcast on a TV station owned by the Yankees, the viewer) and insisted he had never done any of the things of which he was accused. Nothing. Nada. 

The suspension was handed out on Saturday, and immediately Mr. Rod announced he would appeal it in federal court. Yes, he wants to literally make a federal case of a ruling that didn't go his way.

Authors, consider: Sometimes things aren't going to go your way. Some editors will reject your work. Some reviewers will criticize it. Sometimes the book buying public will simply refuse to spend its hard-earned money on your hard-earned brainchild. 

Think about how you look when you react. Denial--the editor asking for changes just lacks vision? Your ego can be seen from space; calm yourself. Hissy fit? You're petty. Escalation of the rhetoric? You have an inflated idea of your own place in the publishing universe. Refusal to budge an inch? Yeah, you have your artistic integrity, but you're overlooking one possibility--other people may be right about your work.

With your work, be open to suggestion. With criticism, be deaf to cheap shots. With your sales figures, be blind to any criterion other than whether you wrote the book you wanted to write and did it as well as you could.

Take the high road. But you might want to divert to the Lincoln Tunnel. I hear the traffic at the GWB is a little backed up.


P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 32 days.

Dec 312013

Josh Getzler


So we’re on vacation in Florida, and my son Joe, who’s pinch hit for me before, told me as we took a walk that he’d like to write the year-end post. Since I really had written my Last-of-year post last week, I figured it would be OK. So this is where my always-unique freshman son is on December 31. I hope we all succeed in our hopes and dreams for 2014, and that our expectations are realistic. Happy New Year, everyone!




On the Cusp of the New Year

By Joe Newman-Getzler

Well, folks, in mere hours 2013 can be officially known as “last year” and 2014 will be upon us. I have to say, 2013 was a very mixed year, and at times like this I like to look back at the old year and think of the positive things in my life. After all, I’m an optimist, and who likes thinking of the lowlights when we can celebrate the highlights? In the previous year, I:

  • Starred in 2 school plays
  • Discovered the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, which utterly changed my life
  • Watched Citizen Kane for the first time (lived up to the hype)
  • Fully developed a complete cast of characters and a plot to a cartoon series I’m working on
  • Went to Columbia
  • And finally saw one episode of Dr. Who (“City of Death,” which wasn’t bad)

So, you might be wondering: what are you going to resolve for the new year, and, for that matter, what am I going to resolve? Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in making huge, lifestyle-changing resolutions for the new year. I fear that too often I’ll forget them and resort to old habits. For instance: you can’t just go out and say, “I’ll never argue with my sisters again.” You could never live up to that. It’s easier to say, “I’ll try harder not to argue with my sisters.” And don’t set huge goals like, “As soon I can, I’ll lose 50 pounds!” Start with 5, then 10, then 15, and move up. It’s easier to receive gradual gratification than immediate. So my new year’s resolutions are relatively small. They aren’t huge lifestyle changes, just little things I’d like to do or improve on.

  • Read and watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Finish the first episode of my series
  • Work on my novel, Ham City
  • See The Lion King on Broadway (heck, I liked the movie...)
  • Learn how to read music for the spring musical
  • And watch a Simpsons episode at last (I hear “Marge vs. The Monorail” is a good one)

You see? All of these goals aren’t impossible to reach. No, I can’t do them all at once, but that’s what so many people don’t understand about new year’s resolutions. They think the moment the clock strikes midnight, their goals must be set into action and they can never go back. This isn’t realistic! It will make them feel pressured to meet the expectations immediately, and when they forget or change their minds, they’ll feel immensely unsatisfied and guilty. Be gradual, and set realistic expectations. Good things come to those who wait.

In closing, let me wish everyone, on behalf of my dad and the folks here at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room, a happy and safe new year. Let’s hope you all set good goals and achieve all of them. Bonan Novjaron!

(See Joe’s own blog at http://livetonerd.blogspot.com/, his YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/SuperJNG18, and artwork at http://herodeablazingcarpet.deviantart.com/)

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