For fans of noir nightmares from Double Indemnity to A Simple Plan---especially those who like a dash of absurdity as in Blood Simple---Prime Video's Blow the Man Down is a very interesting little film.
We start with a volatile situation: two sisters at their mother's funeral inherit nothing but problems. One doubles down on taking charge; the other goes wild. There's a murder, and covering it up turns into a farce. We are deep into noir territory.
But, there's a chorus of fisherman with surprisingly operatic voices singing sea chanteys. The movie is set in a New England fishing town, so, I guess, they're musical scenery.
And there's a trio of older woman who keep turning up . . . at the funeral . . . out for a walk in the village . . . they're always around. And there's Margo Martindale playing a matriarch as few other can.
There are plot twists. There are surprises. Ominous things turn out to be unimportant. Little things loom large. When it was done, I had to mentally reverse-engineer some developments to see if they made sense. But I was always fascinated.
The policy of social distancing means there aren't many people around when we go out for a walk, and we avoid those few we see. The streets and plazas and neighborhoods feel empty, and traffic signals seem useless.
But we're having lovely weather, and the place still looks nice. The skies lately remind me of that fine old song by Joni Mitchell, ". . . ice cream castles in the air, and feathered canyons everywhere . . ."
The new Transbay Transit Center has a roof garden. This is good because it covers four city blocks. It's nice to have four blocks of places to catch city buses and commuter buses that go outside the city. It's even better to get a big public park in the bargain.
The bit of greenery shown here is a collection of "living fossils," plants that were around long before people were. I find this reassuring, and I'm not sure why. Plants elsewhere in the park exemplify cloud forests, desert landscapes, Australia, and other cool stuff.
It's not all plants. There's a climber for kids, a plaza with cafe tables ringed by food and drink vendors, and a flat lawn with a stage incorrectly described as "amphitheater." All very cool.
I took this pic standing on a pedestrian bridge that connects the park to the fourth floor of an office building. We hit the coffee bar and sat out on chairs such as he one you see. We had our choice of chairs, which was unusual in the busiest part of town. This happened because everyone has been told to stay home through March 22, 2020.
We went out anyway. In our hearts we are from New Hampshire: "Live free, or die!"
We went to the Balboa Theater, one of San Francisco's remaining neighborhood movie houses, to see Bullitt, the 1968 action film starring Steve McQueen and green, Mustang fastback.
You don't see the title on the marquee, because it's on the other side. I could have photographed the other side, but then you wouldn't have seen that glorious sunset.
The car chase in Bullitt is rightly famous and more than fifty years later it still works. I had not remembered that the movie is a series of chases. Earlier in the film, McQueen chases the killer through the stairwells and basement corridors of a hospital. Later, he chases a different bad buy across the runways of SFO while planes are taking off.
This showing was part of the Total SF series hosted by two writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Hartlaub and Heather Knight. There pre-show trivia contests are fun and it's fun to see films shot in San Francisco with a home-town audience turning out to see how the place looks on screen. We previously saw The Rock and Sister Act in this series.
The numbers don't add up for the financing of a film production because it's really a front for human trafficking and drug dealing. An uptight bank investigator gets framed for the crime he is investigating.
We expect him to be no match for the Russian mob and their psychopathic enforcers, but he applies his analytical mind to each situation and beats them at their own game.
Michael Keaton deserves a lot of credit for pulling this off. The easy choice would have shown this numbers nerd discovering a side of himself he never knew existed and becoming an action hero. Instead Keaton remains the same guy throughout the film. He's just solving different kinds of problems. Very cool.
Michael Caine is predictably wonderful as the star of the fake film and Judith Godreche provides credible support in the always thankless role of the girl in the action film.
This film from 2003 went "straight-to-video." Back then no theatrical release meant no one believed in the film enough to back it. Fortunately it's still around for streaming. It's a conventional thriller with more light moments than usual. I found it entertaining.
Next stop: Japan.
Oceanside cliffs are common in and around San Francisco. This one is just around the corner from the Golden Gate. It's kind of awesome to stand here and think that if you head due west, the next land you reach will be Japan.
The National Park Service has placed the Land's End Lookout here so you can have a cup of coffee and a sandwich while contemplating the immensity of the globe.
You can also learn a bit about the history of this spot or pick up a sweat shirt in case you came here thinking all of California is sunny and warm.
On a really clear day, you can see three tiny triangles on the horizon. They are the Farallon Islands. The water between here and there is the Gulf of the Farralons. It is home to the largest population of great white sharks in the world.
This is a great to to be glad you're on dry land.
San Francisco's historic cable cars are popular but misunderstood.
They are not trolleys. Trolleys are powered by electric lines overhead. Cable cars are powered by a system of cables that move constantly in channels beneath the street. The gripman operates a clutch that grips the cable, causing the car to move, and releases the cable to stop the car.
They aren't used for transportation any more. There used to be fourteen lines fanning out over the eastern portion of the city. They were invented because there were accidents involving teams of horses pulling heavy loads up the steep hills in the city.
Now there are just two lines. The Powell Street car runs from Market Street, up and over Nob Hill and winds up a Fisherman's Wharf. At either end you can watch a turntable turn the car around to go the other way. It is hugely popular with tourists
The California Street car (pictured above) starts near the Embarcadero, runs up and over Nob Hill and ends at Van Ness Avenue. The latter half of the ride is mostly residential and there's no tourist destination. Usually there's no waiting in line for this one. Just hop on!
I suppose every now and then someone rides them just to get from here to there, but mostly they are museum pieces, and delightful ones at that, although they are expensive.
Three years ago, I read Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. I read it again in 2018. In 2019, I re-read in more than once and found useful tips to keep me going.
When I saw that Block had published an updated version with "to Pixel" added to the title, I wasn't interested. The original, published in 1978, addresses all the fundamental problems a novelist must solve. Those things don't change. I didn't think a guy who has been traditionally published since the 1950s could have much to say about digital publishing. I was wrong.
In the early 2010s, Block began experimenting with self-publishing on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and others. He speaks from experience. This updated version contains everything in the original plus three new chapters: "The Case for Self-Publishing," "The Case Against Self-Publishing," and "How to Be Your Own Publisher." His analysis is valuable.
Writing in 2016, he says repeatedly that digital self-publishing will continue changing, and indeed it has in the last three years. But here again he focuses essential problems---things that don't change. If your thinking of upping your game as a novelist, it's worth getting this new version.
I've also tried Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. It's good, but there's a lot of overlap with Writing the Novel. Just get the 2016 expanded version and be done It is one of my three essential writing craft books.
Like The Thicket, this tale is set in East Texas during the Great Depression. In a small town that has grown up around a saw mill, the mill hands work long hours for low pay. But they are lucky. The migrants who work the farms sometimes get cheated out of their pay.
Not only is there poverty, there is also racism and sexism. Lansdale depicts the lynchings, the beatings, the physical and psychological abuse, and does so in the language of that time. He does not filter words and phrases we no longer use.
Also like The Thicket, this is a tale of a team---a band of brothers and sisters---who come together out of necessity and oppose the overwhelming cruelty of their world.
Sunset, a woman so named for her flaming red hair, becomes constable of the mill town through a series of unlikely events and pulls together an unlikely crew of deputies and enforcers.
The horrors of this violent world become bearable because these people do what they can to oppose it. They do so, not because they are idealists, but because they want to survive.
Landmark has announced it will close the Clay theater, which was built in 1910 as a movie house---no backstage! Reportedly they have lost money for years on this single-screen neighborhood theater, showing new art-house films and cult classics.
Elsewhere in the city, Landmark is doing well. Its Embarcadero Cinema emerged from a re-do with luxurious seats and upgraded food and beverage service. Landmark has announced it will refurbish the Opera Plaza Cinema, which needs it. Both are multi-screen houses.
There is hope the Clay will be saved by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which has saved the Vogue (1912) and the Balboa (1926). The Castro (1922) survives in all its glory thanks to community support. A few others survive around the city, mostly divided into multi-screen theaters.
Peter Abrahams excels at exploring altered states of mind. Most famously, in The Fan (1996), a baseball fanatic pursues his hero to the point of madness. Robert DeNiro and Wesley Snipes starred in the film version directed by Tony Scott.
In Oblivion (2005), Abrahams explores the altered state of mind that follows removal of a brain tumor. The chief symptom is loss of memory for the three days leading up to the surgery.
The loss is critical because the hero is a private investigator tracking a missing-person, and he spent those three days getting close to cracking the case. Following his surgery, he must re-investigate the case, but all the people he talks to now know more about what he's up to than he does. This puts him in increasingly dangerous situations.
To complicate matters, years earlier, one of his cases was the subject of a based-on-a-true-story Hollywood film, and it's not always clear whether people are remembering him or the character based on him in the movie.
Alteration of the hero's state of mind makes this one of the more ambitious P. I. novels I've read.
The land under the bridge is part of the Tennessee Hollow Watershed. The water flows from a freshwater spring down the side of a mountain and trickles through this grassy area.
When the US Army drained this "swamp" to create dry land for a shooting range and other uses, the water was channeled into culverts and carried underground to its ultimate destination, San Francisco Bay.
When the Presidio Trust daylighted the water, the native plants returned, creating habitat for native frogs, insects and birds. It's a lively place.
It got its name from the 1st Tennessee Regiment, volunteer soldiers who camped here before shipping out to the Philippines for the Spanish-American War.
It sounded like my favorite kind of movie. The promotional descriptions says, "A charismatic jeweler makes a high-stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. In a precarious high-wire act, he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides in pursuit of the ultimate win."
To me, it sounded like the perfect-crime scenario, beloved of noir writers and filmmakers. A guy or gal down in a tight spot comes up with a plan to make a big score, get out of trouble, and be set for life. I've written about several in this blog, including The Concrete Flamingo by Charles Williams, Out of the Black, by John Rector, and The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips.
But Uncut Gems didn't play out that way. We watch the jeweler pile risk upon risk to make a huge bet on basketball game. When it doesn't work out, he does it again, and again, and . . . It turns out he has no plan for what to do with the windfall. He just likes gambling.
Watching the jeweler rob Peter to pay Paul for the umpteenth time so he could place a bet reminded me of watching All in the Family and waiting for Archie Bunker to make a bigoted remark. Sure enough, there he goes again. About halfway through the film, the audience of about 300 with whom I saw the film started laughing whenever the jeweler went for it one more time.
I'm offering the ebook version of Dark Mural free from January 1st through 5th. If you have wanted to try my murder-mystery series featuring Nicole Tang Noonan, art historian, this is an excellent chance to get the first book of the series.
As you can see in the foreground, Potrero Hill is a traditional San Francisco neighborhood with attached houses, small apartment buildings, and street trees. It even has a neighborhood bar with hard-boiled, private-eye vibe. It's less dense than many places. Here, people park in front of their houses.
As you can see in the background, Potrero Hill has a commanding view of downtown, or at least the newer part, south of Market street. Most of those big buildings went up in the last ten years. The building boom was driven by The tech industry's need for office space.
I've heard that in just a few years the city built space for 15,000 people to live and work. And yet people still get squeezed out of gentrifying neighborhoods. Partly that's because tech hubs down the peninsula---Mountain View, Cupertino, Redwood City, etc.---refuse to build housing. Instead they remain true to the vision of their founders: houses on lots of a half acre or more.
Of course there are also neighborhoods in San Francisco that refuse to allow building higher than three stories.
And we all complain about traffic.