A Selective Table of Contents

November 17, 2013

 

RELIGION/PHILOSOPHY/ETC.

*Scripture in Common Usage
Prologue – Scripture, Science, and Weather

I. Scripture in Common Usage I: Oversight I- Scripture Divorced From History

II. Scripture in Common Usage II: Oversight II- Reading Scripture Flatly

III. Scripture in Common Usage III: Oversight III – Scripture in Opposition to Science

IV. Scripture in Common Usage IV: Positive Application I- Scripture as Peacemaker

V. Scripture in Common Usage V: Positive Application II- Scripture as Communal Conversation

VI. Scripture in Common Usage VI: Positive Application III- Scripture as Personal Meditative Redeemer

Scripture in Common Usage- Conclusion: I. Is Scripture a “Good” or a “Bad”? II. What will be Scripture in the future? What role will it play? III. What is scripture?

The God-shaped Hole

I. The God-shaped Hole I: Diagnosis

II. The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms-a)Politics without Principle

III. The God-shaped Hole II: Symptoms -b) The Divided Church

III. The God-shaped Hole – The myth of Redemptive Violence

Other Highlighted “Religion” pieces

I. The Sacredness of Secular Humanism

II. The Power of Story, The Truth of “Myth”

III. In Bombs We Trust

IV. Is Religious Literacy a Thing of the Past?

V. What is Morality?

VI. The Purpose and Function of Religion

VII. Does Religiosity Affect Morality?

VIII. Morality “in the absence of God”

IX. What is a “good” person?

MUSIC/FILM/COMICS/ART/ETC.

2015

Best of 2015 (Music, Movies, Comics)

2014

The Best (Music, Movies, etc.) of 2014

2013

The 10 Best Albums of 2013

The 25 Best Songs of 2013

The 10 Best Hip Hop Albums of 2013

The 10 Best Films of 2013

2012

The 10 Best Albums of 2012

Top 25 Songs of 2012

The 10 Best Metal Albums of 2012

The 10 Best Hip Hop and R&B Albums of 2012

The 10 Best Films of 2012

2011

The 10 Best Albums of 2011

The 25 Best Songs of 2011

The 10 Best Metal Albums of 2011

The 10 Best Hip Hop and R&B Albums of 2011

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My Top 10 Movies of 2017

January 9, 2018

Since 2018 is rolling along at a fair clip now, I’m going ahead and posting this to (almost) wrap up my best of the year lists even though there are quite a few movies I still need to see that I imagine will make the cut (Lady Bird, I Tonya, Mother, The Post, Dunkirk, 3 Billboards). Some of those I’ve waited forever to hit a local theater, some I’ll be catching on disc or streaming pretty soon. Anyway, of what I’ve been able to see here are my favorite movies of 2018. If you’d like to read my 10 TV or music picks click accordingly. I’ll have a “bonus 2017” list with some catch-all and runner-up choices as well as a book list coming soon.

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10) Murder on the Orient Express

There’s nothing ground-breaking here narratively as there’s a good chance you’ve either read the original book (maybe back in High-School English class?) or seen one of the previous film adaptions. If not, chances are you’ve seen a movie that has copycatted at least some of this for its own purposes. If not—settle in because there is (per usual for a Christie work) a twist ending coming that is perfectly built from clues that the most astute viewers can piece together if they know what they’re looking for. What makes the 2017 version work so well even beyond the great cast is simply the gorgeous cinematography—the color palette on display here is beautiful and few films last year were shot half as nice.

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9) Alien: Covenant

So yeah, looks like I have two Ridley Scott films on here and this one by far got the least favorable press. I like most of what Scott does with film whether a success or a flop, pitching to the critics or the geeks—he always swings for the fences. Plus, I’m a huge fan of the Alien world especially the first film (which of the originals is the only one Scott had anything to do with). I also really dug Prometheus and while I understand the criticism it’s received, disagree. So I’m glad Scott got to revisit that expanded universe he created here with Alien: Covenant which combines the visceral jumps of the original film with the half-baked philosophical musing of Prometheus mostly successfully. Rumors are flying that this may be the last though he’d planned a trilogy to tie this all back to the first film. I hope to see those other two installments but I’m happy with this if that’s all we get.

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8) The Big Sick

I love Kumail Nanjiani and he creates a delightful romantic flick with real bite and authenticity with his co-star Emily Gordon here in his auto-biographical film. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano certainly don’t hurt anything either with their own fine performances. Though centered around a protagonist who is a comedian who you see doing his job and interacting with his comedian coworkers this isn’t really a comedy even though I’ve always found Nanjiani’s stand-up work to be pretty solid. The life of a comedian is treated more like the nuts and bolts aspect of doing a job and that falls to the background as the dramatic aspects of the film take front and center.

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7) Gerald’s Game 

Up and coming horror writer and director Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Hush, Occulus) films this previously thought to be “un-filmable” book of Stephen King’s in a simple yet highly effective manner. Carla Gugino carries this film by herself (and has to given the size of her role) tremendously. She gives the best performance in a horror film of 2017 (a m Creepy, powerful, and dramatic. “Moonlight Man” or not there are plenty of horrors to be found as well as a brave portrayal of survival and strength. In a year full of surprisingly excellent Stephen King adaptations this one held its own.

 

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6) Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Some Star Wars geeks hated The Last Jedi for tinkering with the “rules” of the universe (be they from the no-longer canon novels or previous film installments)—whatever. The most important question regarding any of these big-budget franchise films is: is it entertaining? Seriously, captivating entertainment? If so, and so long as the parts of the whole don’t flush the core of what made the franchise so beloved in the first place away there shouldn’t be a problem. And there isn’t with The Last Jedi, easily the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. The previous two Abrams’ installments have been better than solid and have helped erase the shame of the prequel mess but this one is the first to really tell its own story, move the universe forward, all while living up to the fantastical space-western feel of the original films.
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5) All the Money in the World

This one gained a bit of pre-release notoriety because in light of scandal Ridley Scott re-shot every scene that had featured Kevin Spacey replacing him with Christopher Plummer. That’s no short-order job considering Spacey had played John Paul Getty, a major figure in the film to say the least. According to Scott, Plummer had been his original choice anyway replaced with Spacey only at the studio’s insistence on a more “bankable” star. However we arrived at this point I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job than Plummer who is a consummate actor and looks the part far more than Spacey. The emotional center of the film is Michelle Williams who has had a remarkable post-Dawson’s Creek career proving herself to be one of the best actresses of her generation. What could have been the stumbling block in this cast is Mark Wahlberg who while enjoyable in several popcorn flicks lacks the gravitas of his coworkers. Though he doesn’t give a performance that blows you out of the water here, he doesn’t stumble or ham it up in any way either.

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4) Logan

Logan is 10 times better than any X-Men film has been to date and realer than any super-hero film since Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. After a few truly abysmal Wolverine flicks the creative team behind this venture benefited from Deadpool’s foray into R-rated superhero waters (spoiler: there was a market) but instead of making a crude slapstick comedy as their predecessors did they went dark, dramatic, and mostly grounded to craft a tale loosely adapting “Old Man Logan” that has a heart and focuses on themes like mortality, fatherhood, and chosen family. Easily the best comic-book flick of 2018.

 

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3) Get Out

Get Out does what great horror movies throughout the years have done well but which no mainstream horror flick in recent memory has attempted (in my recollection): build terror out of real daily fears—that is, make social commentary from genuine horror so that the scares have a larger and deeper impact. Jordan Peele follows in the footsteps of George Romero, Ira Levin, and many others to craft a modern day horror thriller that hits hardest because it speaks truth. It doesn’t hurt that Get Out has a wonderful cast, an excellent score, and not an ounce of narrative fat. Here’s hoping this isn’t Jordan Peele’s last foray into horror.

darkhour

2) Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman becomes Winston Churchill completely in Darkest Hour. You forget it is Oldman on the screen as he brings to life one of modern history’s largest figures in what was easily the best performance I saw all year. In addition we get fine performances from everyone else (including some Crown cast members) and a powerful script. This is shot fast and energetic so that even though these events are almost a century old it feels pressing and pertinent today.

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1) It

It isn’t a perfect movie. I will admit a certain overblown initial reaction to it upon first viewing which I tempered when I re-evaluated it after the fact. A few major themes of the book were either simplified or ignored, some of the characters were given far too little screen time and development (especially Mike), and a case can certainly be made that the camera treated Beverly questionably at times (particularly given the age of the character she portrays). Despite all of this, It is a great film that captures the spirit of the original book even while updating the material for the modern screen in a way that isn’t beholden to the book at the expense of the movie. The cast in particular nail every note of their performance from Skargsard as Pennywise to each and every member of the loser’s club. The dialogue snaps and evokes the setting of the script, and the scares when they come (jump or otherwise) actually work. Plenty of humor, wit, and heart balance out the terror and I look forward to the director’s cut and the completing chapter when it arrives to see if some of what was left on the cutting room floor helps flesh out what little this one was missing.

My Top 10 TV shows of 2017

December 20, 2017

For another year I found it easier to compile my TV picks than my movie picks–there were just so many quality shows to be found from a variety of random sources (HBO, Netflix, NPT/PBS and the AT&T “Audience” network–really?). Of course, the end of the year is back-loaded with a TON of excellent looking films so after I cram those in I’ll be able to proceed with that list. Anyway, this is what I enjoyed watching from my couch this year.

bosch

10) Bosch

Few mainstream popular fiction writers can pen a gripping crime story today better than Michael Connelly and Amazon has done a surprisingly good job of adapting his Bosch detective series for TV. Titus Welliver nails the primary character and from that everything else falls into place. Season 3, which premiered this year, was by far my least favorite season so far but despite that “Bosch” creeps into my top 10 based on the performances alone. The story wasn’t bad by any means–it keeps your attention throughout but after two very strong seasons this year the show felt like it just coasted along. Here’s hoping it amps up next year and as such moves up my list next December.

 

the crown

9) The Crown

My wife is a British history buff, particularly of the monarchy. It’s not an interest I particularly share but even so I find “The Crown” to be captivating television. I am a fan of WWI-WWII era British history, particularly as it involves Churchill so while season 1 was an easy sell to me it remained to be seen if I would care as much as history on the show progressed. However, great performances and stellar writing kept me involved and I’m happy to ride this show out as long as it maintains this high level of quality. The focus on the media and the royal family’s struggle to adapt for relevancy in the modern era makes for good TV.

 

room104

8) Room 104

Room 104 is one of the trippiest shows I’ve ever seen. It’s also unlike anything else (save for shades of “Black Mirror”) on modern TV, hearkening back to the glory days of anthology TV (Tales from the Darkside, Crypt, etc.). In it’s first season there were a few clunkers whose execution didn’t quite match their ambition–but the highs were so high it washed those out completely. The first episode (“The Boy”) was so terrifying the rest of the season could have coasted off of it but they followed that up immediately with an equally disturbing episode that allowed James Van Der Beek to go all in with arguably his best acting ever. But not every episode relies on shock as some are all heart and equally as captivating, particularly the seasons’ closer showcasing an 80-something couple reuniting in the room they had their honeymoon in (cue tears on multiple fronts).

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7) Ken Burn’s “Vietnam”

OK, I’m still slogging through this one so that should probably count as a strike against it–however, it’s taking me forever not because it lacks quality but simply because like the bulk of Burns’ work it is simply exhaustive in its detail. With each episode ranking over 2-2.5 hours in length and each episode being emotionally exhausting it’s just taking me some time to dig through it. But it’s great work for a historical documentary and it may be Burns’ best work ever. Trent Reznor’s score in addition to a soundtrack featuring the era’s best music doesn’t hurt either nor does the careful balance between highlight each side of the struggle.

mindhunter

6) Mindhunter

Leaping from the wreckage of “House of Cards” David Fincher revisits the territory of his classic “Zodiac” film with “Mindhunter”. Another period piece filled with great actors, “Mindhunter” traces the birth of the modern FBI and serial killer. This isn’t the type of show you might think it is based on its premise–it’s arguably better.

 

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5) Riverdale

Riverdale is another show that got much better in its second season. I’m a sucker for melodramatic teen drama. Even now that I’m in my thirties I (along with my wife) can still enjoy a show like “Degrassi” (which just aired it’s 4th Netflix season this year though I still prefer the original late 1980s run). I also like the work TV show scribe Roberto Aguirre-Sosa has done in the Archie-universe spin-off “mature” comics (Afterlife with Archie, Sabrina) over the past few years. He takes much of those themes and grounds them for this show. I would have said he left the horror out but as season 2 introduced a killer and horror references galore (complete with episode titles named after classic horror films) that’s no longer the case. “Riverdale” is classy, glossy trash—but in a good way, compelling to watch and fun when everything else in the world is just a bit too real. Plus it’s just gorgeous—the colors are so ethereal. I haven’t seen a show shot quite like this before.

 

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4) Stranger Things

I loved Stranger Things during its first season. For awhile I wanted not to simply because it’s ubiquitous and its PR made it feel like a mandatory watch. However, it touched on way too much of what I like in fictional entertainment and even though it is obsessed with its influences (and some of those influences were referenced a bit too on the nose early in season 2) it’s still has its own identity and is a joy to watch. By the final third of this season I knew this would be one to re-watch again and again for years to come. That final episode was probably the finest hour of TV (streamed or otherwise) of 2017.

 

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3) Mr. Mercedes

Just months prior to “It” and “Gerald’s Game” on the AT&T “Audience” network of all places (a channel I didn’t know I even had until I searched for this show) “Mr. Mercedes” proved it is possible to make a Stephen King adaptation for the screen that is not only a blast to watch but also respectful of its source material while not a slave to it. David Kelley with the help of great writers like Dennis Lehane kept day to day conversation with King to a minimal and felt free to update and change what was necessary to make the story work today on TV. They were certainly helped by a great cast (Brendan Gleeson wasn’t who I pictured when reading the character of Bill Hodges but now that I’ve seen his performance I can’t imagine anyone else nailing it; Mary Louise Parker is great as always), a great soundtrack, and a few of the creepiest scenes to air on TV this year.

 

Preacher

2) Preacher

Preacher is one of my favorite comics of all time and when I heard it was being adapted for basic cable (and thus beholden to censors, etc.) I had serious doubts that it would work. While the first season (much to my surprise) did actually work (for the most part), it didn’t really blow my mind. It all felt like what it was—preamble (nothing from the series even happens until the last episode or so). However, season 2 started with a bang and each episode got successively wilder. It was high-octane entertainment that pushed so many buttons I’m surprised there weren’t protests. Had this popped up on TV 10-15 years ago it would have been notorious. It’s certainly not all shock for shock’s sake though. As in the comics what really makes Preacher matter are the characters and their relationship with each other. What matters are the themes, like trying to do the right thing in a world where that seems impossible. Of course, the dark humor, the sight gags, and the profane exploration of a crumbling world littered with action and insanity are also on par.

The Deuce

1) The Deuce

The Deuce was hands down my favorite show of the year. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it was over far too quickly—I forget how short HBO seasons sometimes are and this one was over in a flash. Each episode is better than the last and David Simon’s return to HBO was a great thing to behold (The Wire is probably my favorite show of all time).Maggie Gyllenhal is such a wonderful actress and her work is among her best ever. James Franco gave me reservations until I saw him actually pull off dual roles (he plays twins). The Deuce is a period piece perfectly depicting New York in the 1970s from music and score to clothes and background. Simon and company deal with the topic of mainstream pornography’s early heyday as it is born out of a world of prostitution very carefully yet authentically. What could come off as exploitation, crass sensationalism or voyeurism instead works as gritty reality that takes each and every character seriously—seriously without condescending to or idolizing pimps, prostitutes, police or the everyday folks caught in the middle. It’s a show about survival, choices, and situations which deny choice. It’s also according to Gyllenhal an unfortunately timely show for its exploration of misogyny and hypocrisy.

My Top 10 Albums of 2017

December 8, 2017

It’s that time of year again. I’m still working on those “best horror ever” posts but in the meantime here is my first “best of 2017” posts. These were my 10 favorite albums of the year with a few honorable mentions to boot.

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10) Sanhet: So Numb

Instrumental rock music—particularly instrumental metal—can be tricky. It rarely warrants revisits. A guitar solo here or there, an extended breakdown between verses, but an entire album of harder edged rock sans vocals? Often it just becomes guitar aficionado  wankery. Even a guitarist as undeniably awesome as Animals as Leader’s Tosin Abasi rarely makes an album worth listening to repeatably because while the talent (and riffs) are there the hooks often aren’t, the emotion is often subdued (or absent) so it just becomes a showcase of talent rather than a collection of songs. So I was pleasantly surprised by Sanhet’s latest offering So Numb which has quickly grown to become one of my favorite instrumental rock albums ever. These are real songs—songs that are fully formed and catchy, heavy and at times emotionally unsettling. They are songs that are not lacking for words—in fact, lyrics and vocals would likely diminish what is present here. There are riffs—but listeners aren’t bludgeoned with them and things are downright understated when they need to be. Post-metal influenced by black metal with whatever else you want to call it thrown in the bucket is here to command your attention (and repeat listens).

 

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9) The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding

I always get a mid-career Bob Dylan early-career Peter Gabriel filtered through modern indie and synthwave vibe when I play The War on Drugs and I like it. A Deeper Understanding didn’t immediately grab me as much as 2014’s Lost in the Dream did but I’ve found myself listening to it over and over and each time the songs, layered as they are, grab me a bit deeper. It’s deceptively simple work on its surface that it really does require those repeat listens to unwrap. I enjoy these songs in different ways at different times—as soothing background music, as compelling driving music, as creative headphone music. Great lyrics, great vocals, great production.

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8) Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound

I was sure this was my record of the year the week it came out. I love Isbell (just a touch shy of how much I love DBT who gave him his start) and his solo work since Southeastern has showcased him truly coming into his own as one of the absolute best songwriters of his generation (in any genre). But while almost every song on The Nashville Sound is a winner I ultimately found myself thinking it doesn’t quite flow together coherently as an album. It plays more like a collection of great singles. These songs are also a sidestep from the deeply intimate narratives like those on previous albums where he most shines at—these are like the songs he penned while a Trucker. I have to admit I do like that though as that’s when I first grew to love his work in the first place and it’s nice to hear him with a full band really ripping into the rock side of his repertoire. So while the album as a whole isn’t the best representation of Isbell as a crafter of classic albums most of the individual songs are so strong it still easily warrants a place on any serious end of year list. “Cumberland Gap” roars, “White Man’s World” is an excellent indictment and “If We Were Vampires” is so freaking sad I can hardly listen to it.

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7) Jay Z: 4:44

4:44 seeks to do with hip hop what Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen did with rock via Wildflowers and Tunnel of Love (respectively) 20+ years ago—make a mature, adult record in a genre previously born of and made by (and for) the young. Hip Hop still hasn’t fully found a way to grow up—most of the time the veterans of the scene spend their later years trying to tap into what the youngsters are doing, relying on stories and themes they haven’t really been that close to for years. Jay Z has done away with that in shorter bursts before but not as fully (and as effectively) as he does here. This is him being honest, being himself where he is now as an adult, husband, father and entrepreneur. He owns up to his mistakes, seeks to explore his own vulnerability (not something hip hop has often done much of) and in the process makes one of his top 5 catalogue records (in a career full of classics).

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6) Kreator: Gods of Violence

I freaking love Kreator even though I was late to the party discovering them, first hearing them in recent years where they play more groove than thrash metal. While I’ve since went back and explored the early fierce Teutonic thrash they made in the early to mid 1980s and love that stuff I’m still a bit partial to their post-2000 work when they cleaned up the production and added hook after hook to their heft. I unreservedly love Gods of Violence and probably listened to it more than any other metal record in 2017. “World War Now” may as well be the news these days. Also–there’s something endearing about a heavy pit number that thunders “side by side we’ll crush homophobia” (“Side by Side”). I was lucky enough to catch these German gods in concert for the Decibel tour and this album (along with all of the old classics) rips live.

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5) Spirit Adrift: Curse of Conception

I think there’s been a melodic doom metal record near the top of my year end list for the past few years now. Back in the spring I would’ve sworn it would be the always reliable Pallbearer who did so this year—but while I enjoyed Heartless and it’s deeper into prog rock territory trappings I felt the middle of the record dipped from what was excellent at both record beginning and end. Curse of Conception by Spririt Adrift, on the other hand, hits all the right notes as far as I’m concerned and doesn’t let down in the slightest on any track. Spirit Adrift don’t venture into the prog like Pallbearer did this year, they instead inject classic heavy metal into their doom. This is well (and clear, undistorted) sung, well played, slower paced (but energetic) heavy metal.

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4) Joey Bada$$: All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$

For several months the latest from Joey Bada$$ set at the top of the list as my favorite record of 2017. I was really loving it when Kendrick’s came out and initially didn’t like Damn half as much as All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$. The focus and subject matter at hand on Joey’s LP is by far the more immediate of the two (and I have to admit hearing a rapper scream “F*** Donald Trump” as Joey and others have this year is appealing) but ultimately Damn got under my skin with repeat listens and edged just past Joey by a hair. Regardless, this is a damn fine hip hop album full of great songs. Joey carries it all by himself but the guest spots are worthwhile as well, particularly Schoolboy Q who is always good to hear. This is impressive and serious work for a still fairly young MC so I’m excited to hear what he does next.

Kendrick

3) Kendrick Lamar: Damn

On first listen I wasn’t sold on Kendrick’s latest. The concept, delivery and instant appeal of his previous album To Pimp a Butterfly (especially it’s flirtation with jazz) just wasn’t there for me on the first few spins of Damn. However, I kept coming back to individual songs and ultimately the album as a whole. The production is less genre boundary pushing than last album around but what he gives up on in terms of sonic variety he makes up for with honed-in expertly produced hip hop that (to my ears at least) convincingly merges classic old-school hip hop with the best of what’s being made in the genre today. Damn succeeds for me largely on those beats but the wizardry and left of center almost idiosyncratic rhymes send it over the top. There’s still a concept as usual though one less easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the religious sect he’s profiling subtly here (or who don’t do some internet research to find out what’s going on) but what’s most important this time around is perhaps what’s most important for hip hop in general: beats and rhymes.

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2) Tori Amos: Native Invader

 This album has grown and grown on me over the past few months. Ultimately I love this record because not only is it Tori’s best work in a decade or more (arguably since 2001’s Scarlett’s Walk) but my enjoyment of it connected that earlier work with all that came later—opening up for me just how consistent yet boldly original everything Amos has done as a songwriter and performer her entire career truly is. Finally catching her in concert this year didn’t hurt either but enough of that—how does this album alone and in full stand separated from the rest of that? Very well. It’s timely without being beholden to anyone else’s work for its sound, classically Tori without repeating any of her old tricks, and political without overt references that will instantly date it. Most importantly, it’s full of good songs filled with great lyrics, nice harmonies, and great instrumentation. With Native Invader Tori establishes herself fully as a “legacy” artist who isn’t dependent on her earlier work to remain relevant.

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1) Grave Pleasures

 Ultimately I can’t think of a better musical accompaniment to and future artifact of 2017 than Motherblood. Nostalgia is all the rage right now, particularly 1980s nostalgia (Stranger Things, It, synth pop, Hollywood remakes etc.). Also, the fear that everything’s doomed and about to explode currently flows pretty freely. So what better to soundtrack both than death-rock that mines left of the dial college art rock, punk, and pop from the eighties as hymns to the most destructive side of Kali? Grave Pleasures consists of former members of Beastmilk, The Oath, In Solitude and Oranssi Pazuzu and you catch a glimpse of each of those bands in this stew. If you want your Doom Metal more bouncy, your pop darker, your rock with a suggestion to strap on a gas mask for the coming apocalypse then Grave Pleasures is for you. All of the above is doubled if you like super catchy choruses and dark earworms that pacify you for the coming collision.

 

Honorable Mentions:

A lot of albums came really close to the top 10, probably none closer than Near to the Wild Heart of Life by Japandroids. I probably listened to the songs on that more than anything here so it’s almost unfair it didn’t make the cut–they walk the line between cheesy and earnest better than anyone making music today, coming out on the right side of that tricky balance to produce anthemic fist-pumping garage rock tunes that sound like 4 minute bro-hugs. Craig Finn‘s latest solo album also came close (We All Want the Same Things). He’s been one of my favorite song-writers for years and I think he’s only gotten better with lyrics post-Hold Steady. The National made more excellent sadcore hipster guy music with The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness but while almost great it didn’t quite live up to their last few records. I really loved the Lydia Loveless Desire/Sorry singles (who would’ve thought she could give that much life to a Justin Bieber song?) and am ready for another new full-length from her. Possibly my favorite song of the year was “The Doomed” by A Perfect Circle and the two songs they auditioned during their latest tour were also solid so I have hopes a new record (2018?) from them will be good. Like every year for the past several I listened to a ton of metal and could easily recommend plenty of those (notably this year Iron Reagan: Crossover Ministry, Steve Tucker’s reunion with Morbid Angel: Kingdoms of Disdain, Immolation: Atonement, Power Trip: Nightmare Logic, Wolves in the Throne Room: Thrice Woven, Myrkur: Mareidt, King Woman: Utopia and much more. Really in terms of hip hop the only three albums I really liked or listened to much made the cut above–it’s gotten for me with that genre that most of what comes out I don’t care much for but what I do like I like very much.

 

First off—it’s looking like I was (as I hoped I wouldn’t be) off base to cut Kevin Spacey even a hint of doubt as further credible allegations emerge. In the interest of not becoming a revisionist I’ve left the original post up with an “update” disclaimer so folks can skip to the “art vs. the artist” section if they wish as it looks like that’s the dilemma one who enjoys the actor’s work now faces. Of course I’m not one for consigning an entire body of work to the flame simply because a cog (or even the whole) in its production was a reprehensible jackass but that’s another argument for another day. I do think it’s odd that some on the right are using the sadly growing list of Hollywood figures (who are most often some degree of “liberal” politically) as evidence of a “perverted” left. If there’s really one thing we can be certain of in terms of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault it’s that it’s a bipartisan issue that affects every community. From the Fox News team of founder Ailes (a major figure in the White House and in every GOP campaign involving Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes) and network cash cow O’Reilly to Hollywood A-listers Weinstein, Spacey, possibly Hoffman (ouch) by way of the church (Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant) and up to the White House (Trump has more credible sexual harassment and assault allegations than even Weinstein) there are no subcultures or groups immune to the presence of abuse. Power is the unifying factor as those with power far too often use it to pressure, intimidate and abuse those with less or excuse questionable behavior. These microcosms now on display showcase behavior that goes on in every industry and in every town in America. So yeah, long story short—I cut Spacey too much slack too early it seems.

I’m beginning to feel it’s almost hopeless to expect more out of anyone. A friend recently posted “are there any famous dudes who aren’t total creeps?” to which I replied that I had a list of many I think (based on everything I’ve read and heard) fit that bill of being as ethical and stand-up as they are talented but that I’d be loath to list them right now for fear an old story would emerge making me eat my words. Folks make mistakes and no real hero exists, I know that. But the entire current climate of information, misinformation, historical and political ignorance, scapegoats and easy (but false) answers is exhausting.

For example, I could refer you to the Atlantic’s recent stellar coverage of the revolt at Reed College. For those interested in “trigger warnings”, “safe spaces”, and the criminalization of ideas it’s a worthwhile read. As someone who empathizes with most left positions but who is also a fan of open full-throated debate, grappling with complex ideas in a fruitful manner, and first-amendment absolutism I have long had a troubled relationship with some of the younger expressions of “idea” protest. This article lays out what’s happened in one extreme example but it at least ends promisingly as a newer generation of diverse students push back against simplistic inflammatory protest in favor of honest debate and education. But more troublingly for the left than the issues many campuses now face is the entire future of the Democratic Party.

Donna Brazile is doing her book tour and part of that is a full attack on the Clintons and the DNC in the wake of her ousting. While it should come as no surprise to any student of government and history the DNC (like the RNC, like every political, religious, and civic organization) is prone to corruption or at least political chicanery. While many of the concerns Brazile raises are troubling they are not surprising nor are they really that “new”. Righteous anger that such favoritism and political maneuvering could occur to affect the primary is understandable but unfortunately many on the left are now playing right into Trump’s hands (and words).

As someone who supported Bernie early on I recognize his appeal. I think that for the most part he is an ethical, honest person though I don’t believe he’s immune to political celebrity and it’s potentially corrupting allure (one can’t really be a politician without that).  If I had the power to wave my hand and replace Trump with anyone it would likely be Elizabeth Warren but Bernie would still be a close 2nd or 3rd. I also never believed Hillary Clinton to be my personal lord and savior and no act of political subterfuge in her pursuit of victory (within reason and with precedent) would really surprise me but I, like Bernie and like Bernie pleaded with his supporters to do, supported her when she became the candidate. Heck, Brazile mentions her conversations with Bernie took place before that endorsement so even in light of the knowledge that he’d been royally screwed by the DNC in funding and preference he still saw the bigger picture because he, unlike many of his supporters, is cause first and personality second.

That’s the thing about the so-called “Berniecrats”. That term was coined not to refer to the most “progressive” section of the Democratic Party or to Democratic Socialists. It was coined to derisively refer to those who built a cult of personality around Sanders, many of whom were frat-boys with more interest in “dank memes” than Democratic Socialism or progress for all.  So while Bernie certainly had support from Boomers, Xers, and Millennials of all styles who would have preferred him but who ultimately voted for Clinton when they had to the Berniecrats instead either stayed home, cast their ballot for some of the worst third-party candidates in a generation, or voted for Trump (an estimated quarter of Bernie supporters ultimately voted for Trump).  There’s a reason Russians included Berniecrats in their targeted audience—it worked. They shared false and inflammatory information and helped usher Trump into the White House.

Trump is now pushing the most far-right agenda to ever come from the White House. The damage he is doing to the environment, our relationships and standing in the world, and to the very legitimacy of our institutions is staggering and potentially irreparable. The bigger picture was to keep that from happening while working for reform and the bigger picture remains replacing Trump with a less noxious and damaging President ASAP (while seeking reform and incremental progress). Yet if a subsection of the left is happy to do Trump’s work for him (as they are today while Trump calls for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton live on TV), spread his message and share his Russian created memes then where are we to go? It would be easy to just say ignore this sub-section as they don’t show up in significant numbers at mid-term elections to keep the actual local and community gears progressing further towards equity but I don’t think that’s wise at all. I credit Bernie and his supporters for pushing Hillary to the left on many issues so that she ultimately ran on the most progressive platform in modern history. Those that were “Bernie or Bust” need to be in the fold because a mainstream liberal party that slides back to centrism is doomed it’s just that we need the most boldly Bernie or nobody folks to get behind the cause not the person and to find (and advocate for) young and new party figures. Sadly, however, it’s looking more and more every day like Trump, the most “unpopular” President in history will win a second term even as his entire cabinet faces indictment.

So yeah, it’s feeling hopeless. No “heroes”, no admirable institutions, no middle-ground, no respect for facts or the possibility thereof. A generation of students is coming up who report no real love of the freedom of speech or of the right to disagree. I’m thankful to love metal, horror, noir, literary tragedy and the oddly life-affirming qualities these art forms promote at a time like this while all seems to be turning to crap. So I’ll likely be picking up my lists and genre analysis as I ready my end-of-year “best of lists” and give my half-assed political commentaries another much needed rest.

11/3/17 update: I admitted in my first line of this post that I “may regret writing this once more facts come to light” which indeed didn’t take long. It seems from additional credible allegations that continue to come to light that Spacey had career long pattern of harassment and intimidation which is indeed a shame on many levels. In the interest of not being a self revisionist I’m leaving the article up and in tact but feel free to skip to the bottom half where I deal with the struggle of art vs. the artist as that is the real debate for Spacey fans now.

I may regret writing this once more facts come to light. Regardless, these are my thoughts now when considering the latest Hollywood scandal, that of Kevin Spacey.

From The Usual Suspects to American Beauty, Seven to House of Cards Kevin Spacey has been one of the  best actors of his generation. He’s also been one of the largest examples of an actor guarding his privacy and personal life to a such a degree that most knew nothing of it at all for reasons he claims have always been so that he could effortlessly disappear into the roles he plays—no tabloid snapshots to distract the viewer and for an actor who loves and promotes the theater at the level Spacey always has that seemed plausible. In interviews and appearances he’s always come across as likeable, talented, and witty.

None of that—talent, wit, appearances—negates the seriousness of the allegation he now faces nor does it excuse the behavior if true. It is however a likely culprit for my initial desire to reject such an allegation. We don’t usually want the artists we like to be terrible people. I like Spacey the actor so if I’m confronted with evidence that I wouldn’t like him as a person there’s a disconnect (we’ll get to art vs. artist in a bit).  Yet the concern that sparked this article is the rush of the crowd to pass a final verdict at the first hint of an allegation and the wide swath painted by the paintbrush in labeling all questionable behavior and mistakes (no matter how old and foggy with memory) as equally bad. In that regard this reminds me of recent allegations made against former President George H.W. Bush—for those who haven’t heard, three women to date have accused Bush Sr. of touching their backsides while cracking the same joke during photo opportunities (“Want to know who my favorite magician is? David cop-a-feel!”). While H.W.’s behavior (and it looks like those allegations are definitely true) is certainly not acceptable behavior, the act of a 90+ year old man in a wheelchair touching a woman’s butt as his wife rolls her eyes and slaps at him (a man with early dementia to boot) shouldn’t be equated with rape as it was in the first woman’s allegation (“he sexually assaulted me..”).

The atrocious behavior of Harvey Weinstein that blew open with confession after confession of abused victims coupled with the fact that it was an “open secret” for so long in Hollywood coming on the heels of similar stories of abuse by other powerful men (Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump) has resulted in a much deserved soul-searching (of sorts) in Hollywood (and beyond, especially on Facebook). Women in every field and facet of life have been judged, ignored and silenced for so long that to have their stories finally heard is a positive development to say the least. But like anything this rush of exposure and widespread public sharing of personal experiences does invite some potential dangers. While no predator should be allowed to roam free (throw Cosby in jail, impeach Trump, stop financing O’Reilly’s worthless career by buying his abysmal “books”) the rush to pass judgement in the court of public opinion before the facts are in can sometimes lead to unfairly tarnished reputations. Furthermore, flattening all indiscretions so they fit under the same label and deserve the same punishment does a disservice to the real victims of rape and assault. We all know (if we’re being honest) that women still face an uphill battle in almost every workplace: they aren’t paid as much as their male counterparts, they aren’t treated the same (what is seen as assertive in a male coworker is often seen as “shrill”  or worse in a female), and they are subject to harassment and assault at much higher rates than their male colleagues. I am certainly not trying to contest that. Calling out sexist practices in every industry is important—because it’s not just Hollywood, it’s not just in government or the church (Protestant, Catholic and Evangelical in large numbers), it’s not just in big business, it’s everywhere and those areas of higher visibility are just observable microcosms of a national problem.  However, there is a chance that hitching to the coattails of this long-needed re-evaluation there also emerges some gleeful condemnation as well as a dash of puritanical and unjustly smug self-righteousness. The unwritten “rules” are changing and while mostly all for the better when it comes to workplace flirtation, sexual innuendo and exploitation, etc. it doesn’t hurt to realize the greys amidst the black and white and the differentiating aspects of each individual case and story.

For example—Kevin Spacey is accused by actor Anthony Rapp of sexually propositioning him in 1986 when he (Spacey) was 26 or so and Rapp (the victim) was 14. According to the allegation Spacey laid on top of Rapp after the other guests had left a party at Spacey’s house and “tried to seduce” him to which Rapp declined and the encounter ended. While it’s not only unethical but disgusting for any adult to proposition a 14 year old kid there are several factors worth considering in this example. One is that Spacey has not confirmed the event occurred—only that “if it did” it was the result of “too much drinking” 30 years ago and Spacey apologized to the accuser by saying if any hurt was caused by anything that may have happened that he can’t recall he was truly sorry. I personally would know that I had never flirted with a minor no matter how many years back it is alleged to have been but I’m also not a closeted actor flirting with any and all other gay actors I come into contact with out of a hyper-awareness that my career would be derailed if I had a public relationship with another man (name an openly gay film superstar from 30 years ago—heck name a leading man that is openly gay in Hollywood TODAY). Another fact to remember—Spacey’s alleged attempt allegedly ceased once verbal declination was given. There is no claim of rape or assault.  To cement Spacey as a pedophile or other such scum-bucket I feel we need to hear that this was a pattern of his. Did he proposition other minors? Did he do so over time and into the present? Is there any evidence that such propositions were ever consummated? If any of these other factors are an affirmative then I believe it is more than fair to throw his name in with the others (Cosby, Ailes, Weinstein). But if all that ever occurred was a drunken proposition that was declined 30 years ago I think he deserves another chance.

I in no way want to make light of sexual assault, harassment or child abuse. Nor do I want us to return us to the days of instantly doubting all accusers. I know that statistically speaking very few women (or in the Spacey case men) make false sexual abuse claims (satanic panic and false-memory cases aside*). I know that those who do bring accusations to light and pursue legal recourse very rarely receive compensation and justice for their abuse. I mainly want to make the following points: (1) not all crimes are the same; and (2) the court of public opinion is rarely the best arbiter of guilt. Kevin Spacey may be guilty of something. Hopefully the extent of that guilt is making a very wrong-headed decision to proposition an under-age coworker for sex 30 years ago in a drunken haze. If that is the sum total of his guilt then stripping him of all accolades (his Netflix series cancelled, his Emmy nomination rescinded, the possible loss of any association with the theater in London he oversaw for so long) and condemning him to the forgotten past is not only wrong but is a shame. I know some of the anger levelled at Spacey comes from the LGBT community as the wording of his recent statement that he “chooses now to live as a gay man” and the timing of that announcement is pernicious given the accusation (thus damaging the LGBT cause by once again allowing for conservatives to draw a false line between homosexuality and pederasty). But read that statement again in full and put it in the context of a man who has lived his life in the closet and done his best to keep his private life out of the spotlight. If this is the only accusation involving any hint of involvement with a minor then cut the man a little slack and give him a little grace.

Conversely it could come out that Spacey in addition to being  a great actor is a terrible person in which case we are once again facing the issue of art vs. the artist: can we separate the work we love from the person who created it if that person is horrible? It’s a different decision for everyone. I long ago gave up on believing every artist I love is a wonderful person. Lots of great musicians were absolute terrible people yet I still love the work they created. Lots of great writers had terrible political ideas, inane religious beliefs, and behaved atrociously. HP Lovecraft’s embedded racism gave him a fear of the “other” that presented itself in ways likely unknown to him in his fiction yet it doesn’t negate the effectiveness of his supernatural horror. John Lennon wasn’t the peaceful, altruistic savior his many fans hoped he was but his songs remain timeless. On the other hand, Bill Cosby presented himself as America’s father figure and his comedian stage presence and TV persona was so tied up with who we thought he was that to learn he was a serial rapist make it impossible for me to actively enjoy his work anymore. I struggle with a current example as if rumor after rumor is true I fear the best comedian working today may be guilty of forcing women who were trying to flee to watch him masturbate (and said comedian is producing and writing a superb cable comedy that is highly female-centric for a good friend and frequent collaborator of his, a show I enjoy but can’t watch without pondering said allegations). We each make our decisions on these issues. I don’t hold artists to the same moral standard I hold myself to just for me to enjoy their work but I try not to actively finance the careers of artists who commit actions I deem past the pale (helps when they’re long dead). It gets a bit like divestment—can you actively avoid doing business with any company guilty of terrible crimes? Probably not—but you can pick your battles.

 

 

*I didn’t want to derail this article with a full paragraph on the “satanic panic” of the 1980s but feel it is an area overlooked when some of these types of discussions are made. An excellent journalistic investigation into that area is Lawrence Wright’s “Remembering Satan” book. For the unaware, in the 1980s dozens of cases throughout the US emerged where parents, daycares, churches and schools were accused of sexually assaulting infants and children as part of satanic rituals. No evidence for such widespread occurrences every emerged and most were linked to copycat stories formed by teens and children repeating previous stories made popular in dimestore “autobios” and daytime talk shows. Parents even confessed in instances where it was clearly impossible they had committed the acts they claimed. Embedded “false memories” were ultimately given the ultimate blame. I can think of only one Hollywood scandal that bears striking resemblance to this phenomena and I’d rather not invite a lot of hate by speculating too openly of it here only that it involves a big cinema figure who is alleged to have committed an act one time that bears many similarities to embedded memory stories. Said alleged perpetrator paid for multiple open investigations into the allegations by third-parties, no evidence was found, no later allegations ever made, no conviction ever made yet in many (liberal and conservative) circles this person is synonomous with guilt to this day for a number of reasons.       

Sorry, it’s been awhile since I’ve made a post in this series but I haven’t neglected the task itself! I’ve been at this project most of the year and October is the best month to binge as many horror films as possible it’s just that I’ve seen a large variety of films but not enough of one series or genre to do a completest list such as this until now. I am closing in on a few other complete runs as well and I’m tracking the “master-list” for all the assorted films that don’t quite fit in a list so those will be discussed near the end of the year. I’ve also thought a lot about the horror genre in film itself and have some pieces on the sociology of the format, it’s history, etc which I’ll try to upload at some point particularly as they respond to recent op-eds and events.

Okay, so the last time I did one of these it was for the Halloween series which you can find here. Prior to that I did the Friday and Nightmare movies, click the title to check those out if you like. Today we’re discussing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. As a whole the TCM series is the most convoluted in terms of continuity—you have the original classic film which was a game-changer and wholly original in many ways then almost a decade later you have the same director returning to complete the story with a film completely different in tone and style. Skip ahead and you have  a third film that completely ignores the 2nd one ever happened and acts as a direct sequel to the first. A few years later you have a 4th film that doesn’t really fit in with anything and about a decade later you get the first remake of the original film, a prequel to that remake, then another “direct sequel” that ignores everything but the 1st. Now this year we have another film titled “Leatherface” which this time serves as a prequel to the original film. Whew. Well, as the new film is currently just a DirecTV rental I haven’t yet seen it so it isn’t included in the following list.

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7) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

This is a prequel to the 2003 remake that is set in the 1960s but it never feels that way—it feels like a bunch of mediocre millennial actors are vaguely pretending to be 1960s teens with “Vietnam” references thrown in to convince you. It’s dull, overly glossy, and completely non-compelling and inauthentic. This is the only of the batch I didn’t even feel like finishing.

 

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6) Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

I debated keeping this one at the bottom of the heap because in many ways it’s not only the worst of the TCM franchise it’s possibly the worst installment of any 1970s or ‘80s horror franchise series. It’s a mess as it’s never really scary, shocking, funny, intriguing, unsettling…it’s rarely entertaining at any moment. Doing a Texas Chainsaw movie you need to pick something to lean on (Gothic, dark comedy, horror) and this one never quite does. It’s rather bloodless, the plot is an after-thought. It doesn’t really fit with any of the other films—is it a remake, a prequel, a sequel, a re-imagining? Leatherface is pretty much a pre-teen girl dreaming of being a princess in this one, at least I think so. Rene Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey both do a decent job but there’s not much for them to work with here.

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5) Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

This one surprised me as I didn’t expect much but I ended up enjoying it. Forget the “3D”—I watched it on cable without any kind of glasses though I could tell there were a few moments when things were supposed to fly out of the screen had I been wearing them (and it been broadcast in the right format). But as a direct sequel to the first original timeline film this one was interesting. The first 10 minutes or so ties it to the original, adds a new twist to that mythos, then skips ahead 20+ years to focus on the last young Sawyer descendant (who doesn’t know it yet). Things stumble along for a bit with passable acting and redundant plot but the last 30-40 minutes this one picks up and does something at least somewhat original and pretty entertaining—it even includes a good scare or two in that last half and ends with a pretty satisfying conclusion.

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4) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

The early aughties gave moviegoers a slew of horror remakes (Friday, Nightmare, Halloween, and even most of the less known ones). Texas Chainsaw Massacre was kind of early in the game beating most of those to the punch and for the most part it does work pretty well. It’s shot really great—it is a bit glossy for the series (Michael Bay doesn’t associate his name with anything that isn’t bright and poppy) but it retains some of that Gothic feel that is so important to the series. This is a direct remake of the original film and it’s set in the 1970s and kind of pulls that feel off to some degree. It’s well acted and I don’t care what anyone says, I actually like Jessica Biel quite a bit and she does a solid job here.

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3) Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990)

From this spot on the list onward there is a huge leap in quality from what precedes. The first three original Texas Chainsaw Massacre films are each great in different ways and miles ahead of most of the competition. Leatherface is a direct sequel to the first TCM film—it just ignores part 2 and picks up the action 15 years or so after the culmination of the first film. This one eschews the dark comedy of 2 and amps up the action. It’s a horror film sure but it also has the feel of action-horror like later films (Devil’s Rejects). The cast in this one is simply phenomenal—Viggo Mortensen is always great and in this early role he’s creepy as heck. Ken Foree of original Dawn of the Dead fame is superb as well.

 

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2) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

So judging from its Rotten Tomatoes score this one was (and likely still is) hated by critics who by and large praised the original film. It’s a cult and fan favorite though and for good reason—Chop-Top as played by Bill Moseley is a creepy hoot and Dennis Hopper as the Texas Lawman in pursuit of the Chainsaw family is also a heckuvalot of fun. Knowing he couldn’t out-scare or add to the atmosphere of the original Tobe Hooper returns to his creation here to excessively amp up the gore and the comedy. We’ve got chilli-cookoffs, a war against ‘80s yuppies, a great soundtrack and some seriously shocking moments. The saw is family indeed.

Note– there are more than 6+ hours of quality features on the stuffed “Gruesome Edition” DVD or Bluray and even more on the Scream! Factory special edition.

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1) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw is one of the most important horror films of all time. As has been argued it’s not really a “slasher” film so much as it’s a “bad place” one—Leatherface and family don’t go looking for victims they just off those who make the mistake of wondering into their home. There is little to no gore in this film either—it’s all in the mind of the viewer. It’s harrowing and unsettling, offers subtle commentary on a slew of then (and now) prescient issues and is written, acted, shot and produced pretty perfectly.

 

 

 

 

tom petty

The first time I spent my own money to buy music was in the 5th grade when I used my allowance to buy two Tom Petty cassettes from a classmate—Wildflowers and the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits compilation. To this day those remain two of my favorite albums. Wildflowers is a masterpiece but one that went largely over my head back then. I dug the melodies but the words were more mature than I was at the time. It, challenged only by maybe Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love may be the best adult rock record of all time in its straightforward handling of issues facing us as we age out of rock’s original target audience. However, back then I played that Greatest Hits tape over and over and I contend to this day it’s the best greatest hits album ever assembled. It’s just perfect–one great song after another and it flows together cohesively like an album all its own. To top it off he was able to stick one of his biggest hits on it before it was even a hit as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was a new song recorded for the compilation.

There’s a timelessness to the music of Tom Petty. There’s also a remarkable consistency. I remember off-handedly saying to my wife a few years ago that Petty should “lead a class for other musicians on how to not suck”. Because seriously—scan through his body of work and find something bad–it’s a pretty difficult task. Sure some songs or albums are better than others but there’s no huge embarrassment or clunker in his catalogue. Some might see that as a sign of not pushing boundaries, of not being “experimental” enough. Whatever. He encompassed so much scope so simply which is why I think so many people are saddened over his untimely demise. Punks, rock and roll purists, country music fans, top 40 listeners—there’s something for all of those people in Tom Petty’s songs.

Tom Petty gave songs the strictest of focus. Sure his work could be “political” (as in The Last DJ or “Shadow People” from Hypnotic Eye) but never at the expense of the song. Sure he could be writing some seriously heartfelt introspection—but never in a banal navel-gazing way. The songs always had to work as songs. They are unpretentious songs.

It’s just a bummer to have him gone now, talk about bad news on top of bad news. I know as a fan I can never mourn an artist like their family and friends do as I didn’t know him for who he really was. I know him as he presented himself to me in song, how he came across in witty profile pieces and interview after interview, how he appeared in Bogdonovich’s Running Down a Dream film and perhaps as intimately as an outsider possibly could know him from reading the masterful biography his fan and friend Warren Zanes wrote. I know people who are genuinely heartbroken over the loss of this man and it’s easy to see why. I wrote one of these pieces about Prince not too long ago. We’re losing too many of the last masters of pure rock music: Neil Young, Van Morrison, the remaining Beatles and Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen are about all that’s left. More than any of them (except arguably Springsteen) Tom was unique in that he was still making vital new work as Hypnotic Eye and the Mudcrutch LPs were as good as anything he’d ever done. It’s a shame we won’t get to hear what he had in store for us over the next 20 years because I know his creativity would have held out as long as he did.

So be thankful you have a vast catalogue of Tom Petty, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch & Traveling Wilburys records to listen to, over and over. Be thankful an artist as authentic and honest as Petty devoted his life to making the best music he could and that he came along in a time and place where he was able to develop and share that talent. And the next time your musical hero comes to town to play a show make sure to go if you have the chance because it’s never a given you’ll get that opportunity again.

“It” Movie Review

September 8, 2017

It

“It” finally arrived…and it was worth the wait. In fact, “It” may be the best adaptation of a Stephen King work yet in a year full of (despite one reputed letdown) solid King adaptations. Some might say “that doesn’t take much” thinking of the less than stellar low-budget horror films “Children of the Corn” (and it’s dozen sequels), “The Mangler” or “Graveyard Shift” but they’re forgetting great films like De Palma’s “Carrie”, Kubrick’s “The Shining” and John Carpenter’s “Christine”.* Others might be saying no way! What about “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Green Mile” and “Stand By Me”?  To both camps I say–yep, as an adaptation of a King work “It” may be the greatest yet. It captures the heart, tone and feel of the book–updating it just enough to retain relevancy for a younger generation and making a change or two that actually enhance on the original book.** Most of all it does the impossible–it takes the Moby Dick of popular horror novels and films it in a way that works cinematically (that is, in the language of cinema) without sacrificing the story of the original opus. There’s no beat-you-over-the-head explication and voice-over to explain themes and thoughts that the filmmaker uses to tell when  too lazy to show.

No, perhaps best of all—Pennywise is terrifying. If you’re an 80s or 90s baby you probably have fond (or grimacing depending on your tastes) memories of Tim Curry’s original Pennywise in the made-for-TV miniseries back in the day. I mean no disrespect to his performance–it was the only thing of that original teleplay that really holds up but it’s feared more in memory than in re-watching–but Bill Skarsgard sends chills down your spine here. He’s helped in large part by some seriously good special effects and production that a cable TV movie in the 1990s simply can’t be compared with. When this movie goes for the scares it really goes for them–relentlessly. This movie is intense and any illusion that the protagonists on screen will be okay because they’re children is quickly displaced.

Yet beyond the scares this movie knows that to keep you from being overwhelmed there has to be a bit of comedic relief which it provides in full. True to King, there’s as much heart as terror and the kids cast as the Loser’s Club are all a joy to watch. I can only hope that their adult counterparts are as honestly, convincingly cast in the culminating part II. I expect anyone who is a fan of the massively popular throwback “Stranger Things” on Netflix will be a fan of the Loser’s Club and watching them in action reveals just how deep an homage to King (as much as Spielberg) that show truly is.

So yeah.  “IT” exceeded my expectations and is the best mainstream horror film in many years in addition to being possibly the best adaptation of a King work to hit the screen yet.  Pennywise is terrifying, the Loser’s Club are a joy to watch, the score is fantastic, the performances are honest and the special effects are spot on. Andy Muschietti does a terrific job of being true to the source material but not being so beholden to it that he is afraid to make the work his own and make it work on the screen for today’s audience.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

* I think it will take time and a few revisits for me to know where “IT” stands as a movie in comparison to other King-inspired movies like “Shawshank”, “The Green Mile”, and “Carrie”. Certainly “The Shining” is Kubrick’s visionary work on full display and may be a “better” movie than “It” but it’s a far worse adaptation of its source material (which is why King dislikes it so much). But as for an honest adaptation of a King work that captures the story, atmosphere, and heart of the work “IT” may indeed be the best so far. On TV this year “Mr. Mercedes (thanks to Dennis Lehane and David E. Kelly) probably comes closest to retaining all of those same things in an adaptation but we’ll have to see if it ends as strongly and “IT” just stands head and shoulders in an iconic way above that more recent work on the page itself at least.

**[minor] spoiler alert—The changes made in the film from the book are mostly minor and all are for the better at least for the screen. The book set the children’s portion in the 1950s and the adult half in the 1980s (when it was published) and the movie bumps the children’s half to the 1980s presumably so the adult half will be set in modern day. It’s interesting how seamlessly this change works–nothing about the kids really changes that much with the 30 year jump. I think that’s largely due to the timelessness of great kid stories like this and such settings can probably be fluid anytime post-rock and roll to pre-smart phone fairly easy. The big change was that there’s a particularly infamous scene in the book in which the kids make the jump to adulthood and bond themselves to each other in a way that Steve thought was largely metaphorical and symbolic but which would certainly strike most of us as tasteless and questionable on the movie screen. That act is changed to a blood oath hand-holding style which works better by all counts IMO.

 

Today I’m back to my ongoing project of ranking horror franchises, sub-genres and directors. I’m exhausted with the news and have nothing of worth to say about it today. I’m also taking a quick break on heavier writing I’m doing professionally and creatively so it seemed like a perfect time to hack out the next list in this series. Today’s topic–the “Halloween” franchise. If you’d like to read my “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Friday the 13th” lists please do so by clicking the embedded hyperlinks.

Today’s list will rank every “Halloween” movie—that’s right, both timelines of the original franchise (Halloween-Halloween II-H20-HResurection as well as Halloween-HII, H4, H5, H6) as well as the remakes and the standalone “Season of the Witch”. So both versions of Michael–the Shape and the overgrown redneck! Here we go!

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10. Halloween: Resurrection

To be honest, I couldn’t bring myself to slog through the Big Brother meets Scream via who knows what crap fest of Resurrection. Most Halloween fans pretend this one didn’t happen. It does feature kung-fu fighting between Bustah Rhymes and Michael Myers if that sounds appealing to you.

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9. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers

What a crap-fest. What makes it a crap fest is it’s “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach. This film undoes everything that was worthwhile in its predecessor and sets up an absurd side-plot that overtakes the film, ends it, and is never followed up on in successors. It’s disjointed, confusing, boring, repetitive…It may be the worst installment of any 1980s horror franchise and if you watch behind the scenes features on it you’ll hear the obvious confirmed in that it was just an attempt to quickly cash in on the unexpected financial success of its predecessor.

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8. Halloween II (2009)

Maybe Zombie’s worst film, definitely his most boring. Largely forgettable.

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7. Halloween (6): The Curse of Michael Myers

Most fans hate the thorn cult aspect of “Curse”, the 6th installment of the original franchise. I actually like it though I find its details and much of its execution lacking. I have no problem with an occult grounding for the Shape but this is the only film that tries to do it so it involved a fair amount of retconning. There are some genuinely creepy moments, it’s well shot and well acted, and I particularly liked the introduction of Tommy Doyle as an adult (Paul Rudd in his film debut) nemesis to the Shape. However as it is, nothing in 6 is grounded to what came before or followed up with in what came after so it stands as its own island (or hiccup).  Still, this is the first entertaining film mentioned thus far in the rankings so everything gets better from here onward!

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6. Halloween H20: 20 Years Later

“Scream”, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and a slew of other 90s bubblegum horror flicks ushered in a very lucrative, commercial, and ultimately forgettable era of mainstream teen horror films. What made “Scream” terrific wasn’t ported over to H20 but what every other knock-off at the time did pretty much was. However, H20 was solid and enjoyable with a fresh-faced popular cast. H20 completely jettisons the “Halloween” timeline by pretending installments 4-6 never happened. Thus it follows as a direct sequel to II albeit “20 years later”. It’s worth it for the Laurie Strode-Michael Myers stand off though and it put the exclamation mark on this particular timeline of the series.

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5. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

This is peak-’80s horror franchise film-making. The censors were watching so you have a rather bloodless affair that is shot a bit glammier and acted passably but clearly aimed at the mall crowd. However, “Return” is enjoyable and seemed on the verge of actually surprising and prepped to give an exciting new direction to the series with the narrative (and twist) on Myers’ niece Jamie. However, everything that could have been great about 4 for the franchise was quickly undone in a truly atrocious follow-up.

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4. Halloween (2007)

Here’s another one many didn’t like—but I actually really enjoy Rob Zombie’s re-interpretation of “Halloween”. I think Zombie is a creative (if often derivative) director who has made some terrifying work. “Halloween” (2007) is second only to “The Devil’s Rejects” in his cannon. Many fans of the original series disliked this version because it explained too much—we get a grounding in “reality” for everything that was left mysterious in the first film. We get psychological exploration of Michael Myers, an origin story and an extensive background that “humanizes” the Shape. However, if it had been a shot for shot remake (e.g. the “Psycho” remake) it would have been pointless. Instead we get an original film that is disturbing, fast-paced, scary, and visually stunning.

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3. Halloween II (1981)

Taking place in the immediate wake of the first film (the same night!), Halloween II upped the body count and gore and followed through the Myers-Strode storyline for the night “he came back” to it’s culmination. Everything that worked in part one works in part two and though it’s not as original the second time around it does serve as a satisfying horror film and is worth a double-feature most Halloweens.

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2. Halloween III: Season of the Witch

A lot of people initially didn’t care for the third installment of Halloween—and many probably still don’t. “Season of the Witch” isn’t a Michael Myers film at all despite bearing the franchise moniker. After all had (thought to have) been said on Myers as a character by the end of the second film the idea was to use the franchise banner to present a new tale of terror each year in an annual anthology. “Season of the Witch” was the one and only such installment before the hard detour back to Michael in the following installment. However, just judging films by their own merits there’s no denying the quality of this one. This tale of technology, Halloween (the holiday) and “haunted” masks is a winner. It’s the best film in the series after the first. The soundtrack is great, the setting is creative, the story is cool. It’s an under-rated ’80s horror classic with a genuinely creepy ending.

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1. Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” is one of the greatest horror films of all time and set the template for every American slasher film that would follow. Carpenter makes unique movies that evoke a definite style and feel that is wholly his own—yes “Halloween” borrowed from predecessors especially Italian horror films but what makes it his own is the soundtrack he composed and the vision he provides with every camera choice he makes. He also got a terrific cast for this film. This movie was terrifying for what it didn’t show as much as it was for what it did show and even more for what it did not explain (or need to). If you came to Halloween late after years of more gorier derivative fair it likely didn’t have the impact on you that it did for previous generations. It also is certainly not without fault—Loomis’ doomy declarations of danger are certainly hokey if you don’t give yourself over to the film and appreciate the greatness of Donald Pleasance. But if you’re a fan of horror this one is a must-see at least once a year and it retains a sense of fright, fun, excitement and nostalgia (it was nostalgic even when it first came out in the purposeful tranquility and design of the town’s sidewalks and atmosphere) that are unmatched elsewhere.

 

 

It took two days for the President to denounce white supremacists after initially condemning the “hatred on many sides”. I am sure he ultimately caved in and named the main culprits after much pressure. But that “on many sides” aside is what stuck with most and is embedded in the interpretations far too many have of Saturday’s tragedy.

In an unsurprising continuation of willful ignorance and warped propaganda that passes as “fact”, a lot of white folks out there today judge what happened Saturday as a violent confrontation between two equally bad groups. I’ve seen far too much castigation of those who stood against the Nazis and even something akin to sympathy for the nazis themselves. For many conservative people today what happened Saturday was that “terrorist” Black Lives Matter protestors instigated violence during what would have otherwise been a “peaceful” demonstration by a perhaps fringe deluded extremist group.

When Trump refused to lay the blame on American neo-nazis, the alt-right and all other cults of racists that turned out in a march for white supremacy in Charlottesville on Saturday he made a dangerous, demeaning but much-desired (by his base) false equivalency. David Duke told Trump to remember what put him in the White House and Duke, former Klan “Grand” Wizard was certainly in attendance in Charlottesville.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t blame for the violence on parties other than the white power cretins. The BBC is one of the few sources to instantly get the big picture and you can read their report here if you so desire. The blame is first and foremost on the Nazis but of course antifa should bear some fault as well—and it seems that Saturday was the largest exposure those folks have gotten in the mainstream in a long time. Antifa, if you aren’t aware (short for “antifascist”) have a complex history going back to Germany but the modern US branch of antifa is mainly known for showing up looking for violence anywhere far-right ideology is (or is perceived) to be present. In the past that has led to bomb threats, tear gas hurling and fists to the head at not only right-wing events but also concerts, movies, and bars when a member of antifa believes an artist, event or crowd consists of at least one “fascist” (labeled so by the antifa). So in addition to occasionally getting that wrong and performing terrorist acts on peaceful folks even when they get their target right (as on Saturday) they come ready to hurt as many of the other side as they physically can. As a friend of mine said, while punching a nazi may feel cathartic for you (and those pressing the replay button on youtube) it likely doesn’t accomplish the goals you want it to.

As the BBC (and other reputable sources) reported, the initial counter-protestors consisted of Black Lives Matter activists, pastors, clergy and church-goers, and UVA students, all of whom peacefully protested the white nationalists storming through campus with torches shouting garbage and attempting intimidation. Soon, however, the counter-protestors were infiltrated and inundated with antifa members ready for a fight. Everything then quickly escalated.

So today, the common conservative takeway is that “BLM are terrorists!” equally bad to the KKK. This is a dangerous and delusional interpretation but if we allow BLM (and the mainline churches and student activists) to be conflated with antifa in the coverage of Saturday’s tragedy we will allow not only damage to groups like BLM themselves but to also their very important, urgent cause.

Trump’s base—even those not consciously and purposefully racist—want to believe BLM is a terrorist group and that both sides are “equally bad.” They don’t want to question the role “Make America Great Again” and their support of Trump played in fomenting and recruiting more openly right-wing supremacists than ever before in recent history.

As I write this I just received a news alert that Trump has once again defended the rightwing protestors from Saturday (“not all of them were Nazis”). With Bannon in the White House and Trump’s base convinced the neo-nazis share nothing in common with their own political beliefs we have a long way to go in addressing this country’s race problems. Antifa isn’t helping, particularly as they go after the ACLU openly. We can’t allow the nazis to cause us to relinquish our own highest values and identities in our battle to discredit and overcome them otherwise they score a huge win in this war.