Monday, November 09, 2020

Movies: The Car (1977)

 Just how much menace and dread can be extracted from the revving engine of a tricked-out Lincoln Continental Mark III with illegally tinted windows? That's explored at length in 1977 horror-thriller The Car, renowned among some as a so-bad-it's-good chestnut; critics had fun describing it as "a total wreck." My grandmother drove a Lincoln Continental back in the early '80s, and I remember it as an incredibly long vehicle with those little panels that would come down and hide the headlights when not in use. I was fascinated by those.

Starring Josh Brolin as the sheriff, The Car followed in the recent dust of highway thrillers like Duel, and its poster is simply fantastic with the car's angry face and the windswept lettering.  I remember it as one of the first movies that scared me as a kid when it was on TV, probably as a "movie of the week" on one of the big three networks back in the days when they aired theatrical releases as Event Programming. The titular auto zips around a desert town terrorizing its residents, seemingly without anyone behind the wheel, and it all looks pretty great in HD. Hammy dialog aside, the threatening face of that rampaging vehicle stirs dread every time it appears. Though the plot may be thin, it has its effective moments; the best one gives new meaning to the phrase "drive-thru" in a harrowing scene involving one of the leading damsels. It all builds to a sudden, fiery conclusion, with the movie never signaling what drove the car to its murderous rampage, literally or figuratively. As with so many things, the journey is more satisfying than the destination.

The Car is currently streaming on Netflix.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

RIP Alex Trebek


Alex Trebek was one of the last of the old guard, from the days when game show hosts were professional emcees and not third-tier stand-up comics or random actors playing the part. He always seemed to enjoy his work, and it seemed like he would always just be there, reading endless daily double clues and making small talk with the regular folk who made it to the stage of that great celebration of knowledge called Jeopardy!.

We all know that one, of course, but there were numerous others (Pitfall and Battlestars, anyone?). Here are a few deeper cuts from Trebek's career to celebrate a great legacy:

Classic Concentration // Buzzr recently began airing the Concentration revival, which is helmed by Trebek with a bit more playfulness than he displayed on Jeopardy!. The episodes hadn't been re-run since NBC dropped the game, and it's a fun show that deserved a longer run than it had on NBC daytime, 1987-1991.

High Rollers // Speaking of fun, I love the dice-based High Rollers (1974-1976, 1978-1980), in which players knocked out the numbers 1-9 to win some impressive prizes. Trebek is in top form in this lighter format.

To Tell the Truth // NBC's 1990-1991 run of Truth went through several hosts, with Trebek arguably turning in the best performance. Episodes can be found on YouTube.

Wheel of Fortune // Yes, Trebek presided over several episodes of the legendary Wheel — once for April Fool's Day in 1997 (while Pat Sajak did Jeopardy!) and also as a substitute in 1980. The April Fool's event is on YouTube.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Notes for the new Unsolved Mysteries

It's great to have you back, Unsolved Mysteries. I'm still working my way through rewatching the entirety of the Robert Stack episodes and am currently on season 6 (sadly, it's no longer free on Prime Video at the moment, although it’s free with ads via imdb). The new Netflix series started strong — the two opening episodes about truly mysterious deaths are very good — but it steadily nosedived from there. As a superfan of the show, I have a few suggestions and general observations:

We don't want to read Unsolved Mysteries. I don't care how great the mystery is — we don't want to read subtitles for 45 minutes. This is comfort food TV, not a stuffy foreign film. The offending episode, "House of Terror," about the murder of a French family, is, indeed, a fascinating case, but we don't want to read it.

• Keep things moving. One of the good things about subscription television is the emergence of sophisticated documentary programming without the constraints of the network television format. It's also a potential pitfall … all of that room to breathe and expound can lead to glacially slow programming. The old Unsolved Mysteries rarely gave the viewer an opportunity to lose interest; each mystery almost always wrapped up before the next commercial break. The storytelling was tight and incisive. Please keep it that way — this model of only one mystery filling out the entire show is fatiguing.

• The UFO episode was simply terrible. Not even a grainy Polaroid or out-of-focus home movie footage? Just people talking about what they saw? I love a good UFO yarn, but this was really weak.

• Consider a host. Robert Stack obviously can't be replaced, but it feels odd without the narration to help set the scene.

Six more new episodes arrive on October 19.

Also see // Streaming Unsolved Mysteries

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Movies: Midsommar

Somebody's been watching The Wicker Man. Like that '70s classic (and the cheeky Nick Cage remake), Midsommar takes us to an isolated clan practicing increasingly creepy pagan-like rituals, smiling and gracious all the while. It is fertile territory for a thriller.

Midsommar plods along in the Swedish sunshine for a bit until director Ari Aster takes a hammer to viewer's kneecaps with a singularly disturbing scene. This moment defines the movie, much like a particularly disturbing sequence in his interesting debut, Hereditary, defined that movie. It's treated as a big moment; the music and the visuals of the awaiting crowd amongst the jagged, rocky landscape create a palpable dread of whatever is about to unfold. And, once it becomes apparent, the realization of what is about to happen is almost as shocking as seeing it reach its horrific conclusion. The results are displayed in graphic detail, with another horrifying act capping the gory sequence. It is disturbing, and it will be too much for some viewers.

The two principal characters of Midsommar are in the midst of a fragile relationship, and Aster weaves the emotional wreckage of that into the tapestry of insanity unfolding in the Swedish countryside. The movie is rather long and might benefit from excising the opening half hour or so, which establishes the relationship of the leads and is the weakest portion of the film.

Nothing else in Midsommar equals The Big Scene, but it is an enjoyably unsettling experience that will linger in the mind. 

3.5 out of 5

Midsommar (2019, 227 minutes) is currently streaming on Prime Video.

Also see // The Wicker Man (1974)
The Wicker Man (2006)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Song of the decade

Does a decade's worth of music mean anything anymore? To me, it doesn't feel like it, and hasn't really since the '90s, which probably just means that I'm old. Time flies and a lot of life is happening, so I'm just getting around to taking a look at the past decade. Rather than serving up a big list, I've decided to simply crown my most-played song of the twenty-teens.

The winner is '90s survivor Robyn with "Dancing on My Own," which was released in June 2010 as lead single from the excellent Body Talk album (my #9 album for the decade, including music from all decades, per, and which she cowrote and coproduced with Patrik Berger. It's a devastating dance music ballad, all swirling synths and heartbreak, that should have shot an arrow through the heart of the pop music audience. It is the epitome of the melancholy cast against a euphoric upbeat arrangement, which defines so much of my favorite music. How does a song this brilliant (and featured prominently in HBO's Girls) not even crack the Billboard Hot 100? Despite making no impression on the chart, it did, deservedly, go platinum in the U.S.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

RIP Kenny Rogers

Whenever I think about Kenny Rogers, I always remember my late Aunt Jackie kindly giving me her copy of The Gambler album around 1983. Perhaps appropriately, we were in a house on a little dirt road in a speck of a town — New Site, Mississippi. Rogers was huge when I was a kid, and "The Gambler" was a fun tune for all ages. I also love that album's "The Hoodooin' of Miss Fanny Deberry," about a girl who walks barefoot down a gravel road and sleeps with the devil. And The Gambler album has one of the coolest covers ever. Elsewhere, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" with his band The First Edition from 1969 is a killer tune about a veteran, and The Killers gave it a worthy cover back in the 2000s. "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" is a hoot of a song title — was Morrissey listening? Rogers was one of the original country crossovers, and he made country and pop more fun.

In his final words
I found an ace that I could keep

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Music that moved me in 2019

Song of the year
Tanners, a relative unknown, won the year with a song from 2018, the urgent "Holy Water." It's hard to describe her vibe; I've been thinking I could imagine Sophie B. Hawkins doing this in the '90s if she'd had a tad more of a pop sensibility.

The runner-up
Dido put out a fine album in 2019, and the lush ballad "Give You Up" finished one point behind Tanners. It's her best track in years.

A year without breakouts
I said this about 2018, as well — there was no single artist or album that emerged as a big thing for me. Madonna's Madame X was a notable lemon in my world, a non-starter for the most part, although "Medellin" did get some spins and "Looking for Mercy" finished at #60 for the year. I feared this album would disappoint when I heard Mirwais was producing. For me, it's her worst since American Life and a real letdown after Rebel Heart, which had a few duds but, to me, is the best since Ray of Light. My most played album for the year was the new David Bowie compilation Loving the Alien (1983 - 1988).

Mildly unexpected
I've liked a random Bruce Springsteen song here and there through the years, but he stopped me in my tracks in 2019 with "There Goes My Miracle," #18 for the year. It's a beautiful tune and I've never heard him sing in this style — like an old-school crooner. Carly Rae Jepsen is not an artist I've given much attention, but her "Want You in My Room" finishes way up at #5 for the year.

When we was fab
I've never been one to listen to the Beatles, but a couple of the players had a good year with solo material — I've really gotten into some of the songs on Paul McCartney's latest, Egypt Station. He finishes #6 for the year with "Dominoes" and #22 with the beautiful ballad "Happy with You," while John Lennon is in at #69 with oldie "(Just Like) Starting Over." Julian Lennon got some spins as well with "Say You're Wrong."

What's so hot about the Hot 100?
We have but one instance of crossover for 2019 courtesy of Ava Max, whose "Sweet but Psycho" closed out the year with a long run at number one on my rolling chart. Had I discovered it earlier in the year, it probably would have been a contender for song of the year honors. Sounds a bit like early Gaga, doesn't it? It finishes the year at #53 for me and #23 in Billboard. Speaking of Gaga, the big soundtrack hit "Shallow" was a close call for another point of crossover (#134 me, #19 Billboard). And Post Malone's "Circles," which finished at #62 in Billboard, has recently gone onto my current playlist.

Go here for the best of 2018 and links to numerous previous years.