Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year In Review: The Year In Review

2007 began with French toast and a visit from an oracle.

The French toast is easily explained. The only holiday tradition Rosemarie and I have is breakfast out on January 1, complete with Bloody Marys. Begin the year by treating yourself, and it sets the tone for the months to come.

After breakfast comes a logy feeling, followed by introspection. I decided to take a walk and found myself in an eerily deserted downtown Seattle. As I approached a corner I saw a man on the other side of the street. He looked like he’d been living rough, but he had a smile on his face directed at me. When I crossed the street he pointed to my cap. “A Mets fan! You from New York?”

I’ll talk to anyone who acknowledges my Mets cap.

His name was Andre, and he was a recent transplant from New Orleans. He told me how his telemarketing job led to a newfound respect for New Yorkers. (“They keep it real. They’re upfront, want you to get to the point. Southerners like me, we take our time to get where we’re going.”) He discoursed on his difficulties meeting women in Seattle. (“Everywhere they go, they travel in packs. It’s like Diana Ross and the Supremes all the time.”) Finally, he asked if I had a couple of bucks to spare. I told him he was truly a Southerner, because it took him a while to get where he was going. Then I gave him some money. He’d certainly earned it.

We separated at the corner. From the other side of the street, he called my name.

“It’s gonna be your year!,” he said. “2007 is gonna be your year!” Then he was gone.

Of course, nothing can live up to that kind of introduction. 2007 may not have been my year, but it could have been much worse. In February, a vortex of illness and misfortune sucked in family and friends alike. The volume of incidents was staggering, but ultimately nothing fatal or permanent resulted. Several projects were delayed by the prospect and eventually the reality of a WGA strike, but my life wasn’t thrown into complete upheaval like so many others’ have been.

And then, in September, the Mets collapsed, going from prohibitive World Series favorite to missing the playoffs entirely. I hold Andre responsible for that. He shouldn’t have talked up the team’s chances so early in the year. But what did he know? New Orleans doesn’t have a baseball team.

Still, it’s not like 2007 was wanting for personal accomplishments:

I went back to my old neighborhood in Queens for the first time in ages and discovered that not only can you go home again, but odds are the local restaurants will have improved dramatically.

I started a running list of jazz musicians that sounded interesting. By the end of the year not only had I listened to all of them, but I’d seen several of them live.

I changed my physical appearance. I let my hair grow and switched to contact lenses. I no longer look like Frank Grimes. Now I look like a second-string orchestra conductor, or an English professor at a state college who blows tenure by sleeping with one of his students. I consider this a marked improvement.

Most importantly, I ventured into new areas. I landed a writing job that is challenging and a great deal of fun. I can’t go into any detail yet. (Let me put it this way. I’m game to tell you about it. There. I don’t think that violated any NDAs.)

The job is one of the reasons why I can’t wait to ring in 2008. I also want the WGA strike to end, so that a lot of good people can go back to work and I can pick up where I left off. And there are other exciting possibilities in the mix.

The other day Rosemarie said, “2007 was your rebuilding year, like in football.” Of course, 2006 was technically a rebuilding year for the New England Patriots and they made it all the way to the AFC title game. In 2007, they went undefeated in the regular season and are on the verge of making NFL history. It’s always nice to have something to shoot for.

Happy new year, everybody. May each of you, in your own way, sign Randy Moss in the off-season of your lives.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Movie: 52 Pick-Up (1986)

Say what you will about the 1980s, but it was the last decade that knew how to deliver quality sleaze.

Novelist George Pelecanos, in a 2005 Sight & Sound article about Elmore Leonard adaptations, describes 52 Pick-Up as:

“the first film that truly captures the beneath-the-gutter atmosphere and acne-scarred, unwashed villains of the middle period, ‘hard’ Leonard crime novels ... This one is sure to be offensive to some, but if the dark end of the alley is your meat, by all means, walk right in.”

The dark end of the alley was not my meat in 1986. At the time I was into stuff like SpaceCamp, which, coincidentally, starred 52 Pick-Up’s Kelly Preston.

Leonard co-wrote the script – to 52 Pick-Up, not SpaceCamp, although maybe he did some uncredited work – and the movie was directed by John Frankenheimer. But the surest sign you’re going to get the vulgar goods comes right at the beginning with the Cannon Films logo.

Roy Scheider is Leonard’s steely protagonist, an ex-military man who has built a successful engineering firm. He’s happily married to Ann-Margret, but is seeing Preston on the side. Little does he know that her interest in him has been orchestrated by a trio of seedy types bent on blackmail. Scheider convinces them he can only come up with a little more than fifty grand, then methodically pits the three of them against each other.

There’s some breathtakingly sordid stuff in Pick-Up, filmed in great lurid L.A. locations. Gotta love Scheider’s interrogation of Vanity in a “modeling studio.”

The movie’s best feature is its bad guys, rightfully described by Pelecanos as “unhinged.” John Glover portrays the ringleader, shooting porn films anywhere and everywhere; in that he’s ahead of his time, kind of a proto Joe Francis. His scene with Ann-Margret’s character late in the action is the very height of lowdown. Glover never lets up. He is magnetically loathsome, or loathsomely magnetic, in every frame. (Glover is an acclaimed stage actor who won a Tony award for his performance as twins in Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!, which he then recreated on film. But what do I remember him for? Playing a deranged billionaire, equal parts Ted Turner and Donald Trump, in the underrated Gremlins 2: The New Batch. And now this. It almost makes me feel bad.)

Pick-Up is not exactly a good movie. It’s an enjoyably unpretentious one. It’s mean and it plays dirty. It’s trashy and it knows it. And sometimes that’s exactly what you’re in the mood for.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Year In Review: My Greatest Hits

Tell ya one thing I will look back at: the year in this blog. Here are the entries that generated the most interest.

Coming in at number one are the posts I’m most proud of, namely my coverage of Noir City Seattle in July. Every night for a week I’d see a double feature of classic noir, then come home and write the films up. I never miss a chance to work on deadline. The Noir City posts are here and here, with a brief follow-up. I hope I get a chance to do it again in 2008.

On the same subject, my half-baked attempt to answer the question, “What is noir?”

Some film posts that pulled their weight:

The Michael Shayne DVD collection;

A trio of Boston Blackie movies;

James Ellroy’s night of 1958 crime dramas on TCM;

An appreciation of Glenn Ford and The Money Trap.

And of course, my tribute to Steven Seagal.

But what drove the most traffic to this site? Amidst the thousands of words I cranked out in 2007, what served as the brightest beacon on the rough seas of the internet?

This photo of Pat Harrington as Dwayne F. Schneider on One Day At A Time.

I couldn’t be more proud.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Year In Review: In Which The Year Is Not Reviewed

The first installment of my 2007 recap was here earlier today, but I took it down when I realized I was never going to write the other installments. I have neither the time nor the inclination. I am officially retiring from the “best of” business. Which is too bad, because my year-end movie list might well have been the only one to have included Shoot ‘Em Up.

In other news, go see Sweeney Todd.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

TV: The Ghost of Christmas What?

Rod Serling adapting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for the United Nations? Sterling Hayden as a Cold War Ebenezer Scrooge? Steve Lawrence – yes, that Steve Lawrence – as a WWI doughboy who speaks for all those slain in war? Peter Sellers as a crackpot Texan doomsday survivor? All of it scored by Henry Mancini and directed by Oscar-winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz?

The only thing odder than the fact that the above happened is that the resulting TV special only aired once. Thomas Vinciguerra on a bizarre chapter in Christmas and showbiz history.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Movies: Election (2005)/Triad Election (2006)

Now that’s what I’m talking about. This Johnny To double-bill, available on DVD, has it all: drama, action, suspense. It’s an epic told with economy. You can watch both films in a little over three hours.

Election lays out its premise in a handful of galvanizing scenes. Every two years, the gangs of Hong Kong choose a new chairman. The upcoming race is between Lok (Simon Yam), a steady hand who has planned his ascension for ages, and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), the wild man who’s generating a lot of income for his bosses. The campaign involves both politicking and extreme violence; I, for one, wish they’d deploy the same tactics in the Iowa caucuses. (If they did, Hillary would win in a landslide.) Nothing goes as you’d expect; Lok is more ruthless than he appears, Big D understands the wisdom of compromise, and the ending is a shocker.

Triad Election is darker and more disjointed than its predecessor, but ultimately cuts deeper. It picks up the story at the end of Lok’s term. (That might sound like a spoiler but trust me, it’s not.) Naturally, he wants one of the protégés who helped him secure power to succeed him. But his choice, Jimmy (Louis Koo), declines. He only joined the triads to further his business interests, and he’s about to close a deal in China that will make him completely legitimate. Lok decides to buck tradition and stand for reelection. As Lok amasses supporters and enemies, Jimmy learns his deal has been torpedoed by the Chinese government. They will reinstate it under one condition – that he challenge his godfather for the chairmanship.

The emphasis of the Election films isn’t on action, although To’s muscular and insinuating direction delivers the goods when the mayhem occurs. (Especially in Triad. Ouch.) The movies are about strategy, about how gaining authority and maintaining it require different skills. Mainly, though, they’re hugely entertaining, some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen this year.

Miscellaneous: Music Links

Via Paul Herzberg comes word that BBC Radio 1 is editing my favorite Christmas song. A lump of coal in their stocking, then.

The New Yorker’s David Remnick talks with The Bad Plus. I’m not only a fan of theirs but of Kiki & Herb, whose Carnegie Hall Christmas show is mentioned at the article’s close. Judging from this review, it was something to see.

Bonus! Here’s my review of a Kiki & Herb performance in Seattle. It’s from the early days of the site, when I posted every thought that came into my head.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Music: Ho Ho Huh?

Yesterday was holiday movies. Today it’s music. The Washington Post surveys the most loved and loathed Christmas songs.

Can’t disagree with the main choices. Barbra Streisand’s ‘Jingle Bells?’ is so insidious that in high summer, apropos of nothing, I have turned to Rosemarie and said, “Upsot?” I didn’t think ‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’ was funny when I was eight, and that’s the target demographic. I do like Bruce Springsteen’s cover of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,’ though. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ turns up on the beloved list. I heard that song the other day and realized that I’ve always hated it, and I always will.

My Yuletide playlist is pretty short. Anything by the Rat Pack, with Dean Martin’s A Winter Romance being a particular favorite. Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas. And of course the greatest Christmas song ever, ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues with Kirsty MacColl.

Those selections should make it abundantly clear I’m not a holiday kinda guy. Stop by, where Matt has assembled a more upbeat seasonal mix.

And finally, because this is too good to leave in the comments, Rosemarie took over where I left off yesterday. In honor of Shane Black, here’s our version of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas.’

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4

I wonder how much that would cost. And I’d love to hear Babs sing it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Movies: Three Hand Grenades, Two Mortar Shells, and a Suitcase Full of C-4

Slate provides some holiday cheer by serving up a list of alternative Christmas movies. Two of my yuletide staples are here (Die Hard and The Ice Harvest) along with some other inspired choices (The Thin Man, the haunting 2046 and All That Heaven Allows, a beautiful and deeply moving film that may send you into the egg nog headfirst.) I suppose tossing Bad Santa on there would have been too obvious.

But there’s no mention of the contemporary master of the Christmas movie: Shane Black. Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, all of ‘em set at the holidays, all of ‘em packed with a sleigh’s worth of firepower. Just what’s needed at the end of those long shopping days.

And where’s the Christmas movie that provides Chez K with its sole holiday tradition? Every year since its release, we screen it. In fact, I think we’re about due to fire it up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Miscellaneous: Miscellaneous

Work, work, work. Herewith, a grab bag.

The New York Times ten best books of the year list is out, and for once it’s not terra incognita for me. I’ve read one fiction entry – Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, which I adored – and am coincidentally in the middle of one non-fiction entry, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. This makes me feel like a certifiable genius and a man of the world.

We did see Enchanted, as referenced below. (I know some of you were wondering.) I liked it, and can say with great certainty that Rosemarie liked it even more.

We also caught up with Paris, Je t’aime on DVD, which is like an entire meal made up of amuses-bouche. “Collective” films are typically spotty, but this one has a good hit-to-miss ratio. It helps that each short is five minutes long, so the successes leave you wanting more while the misfires don’t go on too long. Each director’s assignment was to tell a love story in a different neighborhood in the City Of Lights. Leave it to the Coen Brothers to set their film entirely in a Metro station and consist of bad things happening to Steve Buscemi. Other favorites include the efforts by Alexander Payne, with its great performance by character actress Margo Martindale; Isabel Coixet, which initially seems like a send-up of French cinema but soon reveals the coeur beneath the sangfroid (hey, I took French in high school); Sylvain Chomet, finding fresh uses for both mimes and the Eiffel Tower; and Christopher Doyle, whose bizarre film is either pure fancy or a complicated allegory for the French experience in Southeast Asia. I honestly don’t know.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Book: Head Games, by Craig McDonald (2007)

Ever read a book and think the target audience consists of ... you? McDonald’s debut – named one of the year’s ten best crime novels by Eddie Muller in the San Francisco Chronicle – is about the intersection of pulp fiction, Hollywood and politics. Naturally, I ate it up.

Hec Lassiter is the last of the Black Mask boys, still cranking out two-fisted fiction in 1957. He’s being profiled by young poet Bud Fiske for True magazine when a real-adventure comes their way: they wind up in possession of the stolen head of Mexican general Pancho Villa, which is being sought by Yale University’s Skull & Bones Society for use in its secret ceremonies. Hec and Bud square off against intelligence agencies, ancient revolutionaries and homicidal frat boys. McDonald weaves plenty of real-life figures into the tale. Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, John Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Senator Prescott Bush. Even the senator’s grandson makes an appearance.

The plot moves at a hell-for-leather pace and is basically an excuse to mourn the passing of an era of American manhood and pay tribute to old-fashioned storytelling. Personally, I’ll never see Touch of Evil the same way again.

TV: Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (2007)

The best observation in this HBO documentary about the insult comic comes from Penn Jillette:

“(Rickles) had this quality of ... pleasing the audience was the most important thing in the world. Not in his life, in the world. But he would not compromise in any way to please them. A very complicated, very important idea. In a certain sense, the definition of art.”

The documentary is a must-see for fans of old-school showbiz. John Landis, who directed, met Rickles while working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes. But there’s no mention of their other collaboration: 1992’s Innocent Blood, in which a sexy French vampire preys on Pittsburgh gangsters. Rickles plays a Mob lawyer-turned-bloodsucker. Also in the cast are Anthony LaPaglia, future Oscar nominees Angela Bassett and Chazz Palminteri, and half of The Sopranos. It’s great, trashy fun.

TV: This Week’s Reason Why I Don’t Watch CNN

I went back and forth about posting this photograph. It’s outside my bailiwick, the image isn’t the best, and it’s in questionable taste to harp on a typo in the midst of sad news. But I mentioned it over at Bill Crider’s blog, and now I feel it’s my duty.

Here’s Wolf Blitzer reporting on Wednesday’s shooting incident ... in Obama, Nebraska.

It’s a fast-moving story, they’re under pressure, I get it. But I still can’t believe this went on the air. Is the network using an election season macro? Any word beginning with ‘O’ auto-completes as Obama unless it’s changed to Oprah or Orange?

Update: The photo is now also up at Leavenworth Street, a blog devoted to Nebraska state politics.

Video: Farewell, Something Weird

PopMatters (via GreenCine Daily) brings word of the impending demise of Something Weird Video. I’ve watched a lot of the company’s titles over the years and while the movies themselves may have been disappointing, the presentation never was. Keeping these oddities in the public eye is valuable work, and Something Weird did it well.

I wrote about two of SWV’s burlesque films with Bettie Page here, and their Barry Mahon double bill here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Miscellaneous: An Open Letter To The New York Times

Dear Editors,

It is with heavy heart that I inform you that the paper of record’s readership is not funny.

For the duration of the Writers Guild of America strike, you have replaced the Sunday edition’s normal round-up of the best jokes from the week’s late-night shows with reader offerings from the paper’s Laugh Lines blog.

I am begging you, as a longtime subscriber, to kill this feature at once. Leave the space blank until the strike ends. Failing that, give it to Frank Rich so he can make additional tortured comparisons between the current number one movie at the box office and the failings of the Bush Administration.

As a product of the American public school system, I am loathe to rain on anyone’s creative parade. But the truth must come out. The comedic efforts of Times readers are uniformly terrible. They’re obvious, too long, and have overly elaborate punchlines. The consistently poor nature of these jokes has led to a new Sunday ritual in my household. I read as many of them as I can aloud before my wife beats me unconscious with the rest of your publication. I am beginning to believe that the truly humorous people of our great nation take USA Today.

The situation reached a nadir this past Sunday, when you saw fit to run an item about an “articulate hound” in “a dog-on-the-street” interview saying good things about “Bark Obama and Mutt Romney” but opining that his favorite presidential candidate is “Joe Bite ‘em.”

I say without a trace of exaggeration that I have read Bazooka Joe comics that are funnier than that. I will provide examples upon request.

Comedy is best left to professionals. I implore you, for the good of the Republic. Take this feature. Please.

Vince Keenan

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Movie: The Mist (2007)

All these Oscar bait films out, and when I finally get an afternoon free what do I sneak off to see? A monster movie. To be fair, though, I’ve waited years for this one.

I must have read Stephen King’s novella The Mist a dozen times when I was in high school. King may have written better, but The Mist remains the finest showcase for his talent of mixing the quotidian and the otherworldly. It’s the apocalypse in a supermarket. After a massive electrical storm knocks out the power in a Maine resort town, everyone heads to the store to stock up. A mysterious fog rolls in, and in it be monsters. Of course, there are also some inside the Food House in human form. The question is which ones pose the greater danger.

What did I love most about The Mist? Simple: it includes every variety of creature imaginable. Giant, flying, poisonous insects? Check. Larger pterodactyl-style things that eat aforesaid insects, as well as anything else that moves? Check. Spiders that shoot acid webs and lay eggs in human hosts? You better believe that’s a check. Not to mention mastodon-sized scorpion beasts and enormous tentacled hellspawn that seem to have escaped from the work of another New England horror writer of note.

Whenever I’d finish reading The Mist I’d think, “When are they gonna make a movie out of this? It’s only gonna be like the best one ever!” Eventually I realized there was a good reason for the delay. (More on that later.) At last Frank Darabont, who has had some success adapting King, stepped up to the plate.

From the moment Jeffrey DeMunn, a Darabont regular, races into the supermarket, his face and shirt bloodied, and screams, “Something ... in the mist!,” I knew I was in good hands. Many of my favorite moments from the novella are transferred intact, including the bone-chilling “Won’t anyone here see a lady home?” scene. (Darabont adds a late fiendish coda of his own devising.)

The movie adroitly captures that sinking, post-disaster sense of immediate helplessness, and the worse moments that follow when people who baselessly claim to know the truth begin amassing followers and making decisions. (You want to read some contemporary political parallels into that, be my guest.) Marcia Gay Harden, who, bless her heart, does not recognize that there is a top for her to go over, is ferocious as Mother Carmody, who builds a congregation of the fearful. King’s reliance on that old-time religion often hurts his work for me – it pretty much spoiled the fun of last year’s TV movie Desperation – but in The Mist it’s largely invoked to make points about the dangers of fanaticism. It was great to see Toby Jones, the Truman Capote lookalike who played the author in Infamous, as the mild-mannered assistant grocery manager who proves to be the level-headed figure you want on your side in a crisis.

Darabont keeps a few too many of King’s folksy/juvenile sayings, but that’s easily forgiven once the monsters show up. They’re all here, being fought off with broomsticks and bags of dog food. It’s like the ultimate ‘50s horror movie.

There’s a problem with The Mist that may have thwarted earlier attempts at adaptation: the novella doesn’t really have an ending. It basically stops on an ambiguous but tentatively hopeful note. (Not that the adolescent me saw it that way. Every time I read it, I thought: these people are screwed.) Darabont goes past that point to provide a more concrete resolution, and the diverse critical reaction to it compelled me to the theater.

I’m not going to spoil what he came up with. One interpretation of Darabont’s conclusion is that it buttresses Mother Carmody’s argument. Another is that it makes King’s fundamental point in the starkest possible terms. My initial reaction, in all honesty, was shock. I couldn’t believe Darabont had gone with an ending so bleak. I don’t know that it completely works – it’s tonally at odds with what came before, and goes on a bit too long – but the boldness of his choice, the sheer ballsiness of it, earned my respect.

Not that the critics are giving him credit for daring. A lot of them take Darabont to task for going all high-falutin’ in what they took to be a one-note scarefest. Then again, plenty of their number claimed Darabont was a newcomer to horror, not recognizing that The Mist marks a return to his roots. He wrote the best of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as well as the underrated 1988 remake of The Blob. Like Stephen King, he respects the genre and knows what it’s capable of. The Mist is proof.

P.S. Just back from an impromptu trip to the supermarket, as Seattle is getting its first snowfall of the year. Already the panic is setting in. A couple of pterodactyls is just what the place needed.