“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.

 

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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.

 

 

This is the second of these installments. If you’d like to read my rankings of the Friday the 13th franchise click here and if for some reason you want to read my long-winded prologue as to why/when I started doing these feel free to click here.

I googled “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to check the date on the remake and saw a slew of “Nightmares ranked” posts from Buzzfeed to Nerdist and everything in between. I didn’t read any of them and as far as I know I’ve never read one before but I’ll check some of them out after I post this to see how my picks compare with others. As with Friday, if you disagree with my order that’s cool. I’ll be doing these lists with other horror franchises over the next few months as well as horror directors and certain adaptations, notes, etc.

Re-watching the Elm Street franchise after the Friday films revealed a few things. Though I loved Freddy as a kid/teen (“Freddy’s Dead” was one of the first R-rated horror films I ever saw and I loved it) the series has aged a bit worse than Friday particularly with the effects but also in some of the installments with the villain. Wes Craven came up with one of the most terrifying villain concepts ever—a child-killer with home-made knife gloves who worked as a school janitor that was burnt alive by the town parents only to come back as a dream demon who can kill you in your sleep—good lord, that is the stuff of nightmares)—but the character got more accessible and caricaturist with every installment. That said, there are still some good films in the batch and horror fans who came of age in the 1980s and ’90s will always be Krueger fans (or “ [his] children now”).

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9) A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

I would say it was pointless but I do in fact see the point of trying to update and remake Elm Street for a new generation with modern effects and solid acting. The Friday remake was actually pretty good (in my opinion). However, this one was terrible. It’s possibly the worst horror remake of the last 20 years. What a wasted opportunity.

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8) Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (part 6)

So this introduced me to Freddy and in some ways horror films…but my recent revisit of the film revealed that this did not age particularly wel at all. I find it especially funny that it was set in the future but everything in that future was concretely rooted in early 1990s technology and culture…for example the power-glove super Freddy? You do get some early Goo Goo Dolls on the soundtrack to remind you they were a hard rock act once. The timeless past of the dream demons prior to Freddy are played with a bit but the effects don’t do the concept justice. There are some solid scenes and it’s not a complete waste of a watch as I’ll likely give it additional views in the future, it’s just not the best of the series and Freddy is at his most ridiculous here (“wicked witch of the west”ing it?).

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7) A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
This one is hilarious and unique. You have an over the top male as the final girl and a metric ton of gay-subtext which the writer and director admitted as intentional later. You have some truly weird dream sequences. You have a lot of odd character choices and horrible (yet funny) dialogue. Then there’s the idea of Freddy needing to possess the protagonist and use him to come back, an idea not quite revisited later. You have an ending that just ends without being resolved in the follow-up. But you also have some dark, scary Freddy appearances—scarier than he would be in any of the follow ups other than “New Nightmare”. It is actually a solid movie and I can see how this one has garnered a cult following.

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6) A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child

Alice is perhaps a better protagonist than Nancy and here she makes her second appearance—and she’s tough. She fights back and fights hard. There are some of the best dream sequence effects of the series in this one and it may be the most under-rated film of the series.
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5) A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master

Alice makes her first appearance and the story propels nicely forward from the extremely successful (and fan favorite) “Dream Warriors” predecessor. Dream Master and Dream Child fill in some Krueger history and chronology, feature a great protagonist and decent supporting cast and work very well as a double-bill. Solid 1980s horror installments done right.

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4) Freddy vs. Jason

Fans waited so long for this movie. For the most part it always seemed like a pipe dream that wouldn’t ever really come to fruition until it actually did. So after that infamous Freddy glove made its appearance in “Jason Goes to Hell” speculation about what the movie might entail went on for years—as such, nothing would live up to that anticipation. What did come out though was thoroughly entertaining. I didn’t include Freddy vs. Jason in my Friday list because as I said there, it seems much more like a Nightmare movie featuring Jason which it does. This movie basically picks up where “Freddy’s Dead” left off and now that Freddy is “dead” he’s looking to make his entry back into the world via Jason—using Jason to kill and raise the body count and fear on Elm Street so that kids think Freddy is back enough that he can actually come back. The more modern special effects and make-up did wonders for the ultimate battle between these two horror icons and the movie had its share of thrills, laughs, and fun. I still like the idea that at one point they planned two endings to air in different theaters each with a different victor.

 

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3) Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare”

Craven played around with meta-narratives quite a bit, most strongly here and later in Scream. New Nightmare is a blast—audiences get to see most of their favorites from the first film back playing themselves (including/introducing director Craven). Let’s face it, Heather Lagenkamp wasn’t the world’s strongest actress back in the day or later in this one playing herself but it’s still nice to see her back. The visuals were the best they had yet been when this one showed Freddy and he was certainly more frightening than he’d been in almost a decade. Good story through and through.

 

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2) A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Probably the best cast (Laurence Fishburne), best lines (“Welcome to prime time…”), and some of the best visuals (Freddy the puppeteer) the series had. The soundtrack was solid as well, so there’s little wonder why this is many fans favorite of them all. Freddy also made a definite move to wiseass mischief maker who dished out comic relief and one-liners though which set the tone for every appearance he made afterwards (until New Nightmare). But this one works by pretty much every count: bringing back Nancy for a bit, expanding on the mythology, and squaring Freddy off against a group of quality adversaries.

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1) A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

In this instance (contrary to Friday) the original is by far the best of the batch. Wes Craven came up with a truly terrifying concept that was original and provided a twist on the slasher genre much different than what anyone else was doing. He assembled a mostly top-notch cast, shot it with the best effects he could muster (and there are really only 1-2 instances where said effects are overly dated), and gave horror fans a creative, unique, and original experience. The bath tub scene, the ceiling drag, the blurring of waking and dreaming life, this one is a true horror classic was truly unmatched by every successive film regardless of how fun those sequels were.

First off—Friday the 13th isn’t high-brow art just in case you’ve never seen it and were wondering. Let’s go ahead and acknowledge that this franchise isn’t about creativity or originality so much either while we’re at it. Watch any of the panel discussions and behind-the-scenes pieces on the first film and you’ll hear that producer Sean Cunningham simply saw that Halloween was doing big things at the box office and he wanted to rip it off and rush a film to theaters to strike while the iron was hot. Like Halloween (and all other 1980s slasher films) Friday the 13th stylistically and thematically owes a great deal to “higher” art of previous Italian horror and giallo pictures. But Friday was huge—it printed money and brought in crowds in droves for what was a modestly produced work yielding tons of cash. So then you had a string of sequels, some of which (to outsiders) seem to just rehash previous entries and others which do truly bizarre things (Jason in space, Jason in Manhattan). Despite it all, if you were young in the 1980s or ‘90s chances are you saw a Jason film or two fairly early in your horror exploration. If you’re a horror fan, even one with a preference for more “serious” horror films, chances are you have a soft spot for this franchise. It’s fun, it’s over the top, and it still has what it takes to surprise you with a scare. I recently watched the whole franchise from front to back over the span of a month or two. Some I’d seen before, some not for years, some never at all. Kicking off my series of horror film lists and articles I begin here by ranking the Friday films in order of my least favorite to my most favorite. Some observations I made while watching these about horror in general and cultural changes over decades made evident by genre films will be revisited in later articles.

Note—not listed in this ranking is “Freddy vs. Jason” as I view it more as an Elm Street movie featuring Jason than I do a true Friday film. I have included the 2009 remake, however.  Lots of folks have ranked these films prior to me and there are often serious horror-nerd arguments over differences of opinion on order. This is just my personal opinion and taste. If your opinion is different, that’s cool.

 

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11) Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

This is the worst entry in the franchise, period. There are a few entertaining moments, a couple of okay characters, and a few laughs but it’s the most boring of the batch and the problem contrary to what you might think if you haven’t seen it is not that they pull Jason out of his natural environment and throw him in one of the busiest sections of city in the world—it’s that in contrast to the title itself he’s not really in Manhattan! Well, at least not for long. The first 3/ 4 of the movie takes place on a cruise ship between Crystal Lake and Manhattan. Even after the ship docks in NY it takes even more time to actually make it to Manhattan so in total Jason spends about 10 minutes in Manhattan. There could actually be some good (if silly) story there but it was an opportunity wasted. Don’t even get me started on the “Jason reverts to childhood” effect. But—the heads-off KO was pretty cool.

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10) Jason X

This is the Jason in space movie and you know what? There are some fun things going on in this one. Uber-Jason, the flash-freeze kill scene, and the guest spot by David Cronenberg in particular. The plot is ridiculous and over the top but so what, it (mostly) works. There are some slow segments, several weak characters, and a complete disconnect with every other Friday movie to its fault though.

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9) Friday the 13th Part III

Some hold the first 4 films as the cream of the crop, even as horror classics. They are the “human” era Jason movies and all of the major ingredients are in place by III: stalking killer Jason, Camp Crystal Lake, counsellors, mayhem. This is also the one where Jason grabs his famous hockey mask and adorns it for the first time. All that said, this one had some of the weakest characters, silliest gags, and slowest parts. It was also “3D” in the old-school sense. It doesn’t work quite as well as the films surrounding it.

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8) Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning

Spoiler alert—the one without Jason. Who knows if this was to signal an entirely new direction or not but after the fact Jason was back in the follow-up. Despite no “real” Jason, this movie has its fair share of shocks, scares, and other such ‘80s slasher fare. Commentary from the director suggests the sexuality was much more troubling to the MPAA censors than the violence and as such it’s probably the goriest of the Friday movies until the censors stopped caring in “Jason Goes to Hell”.

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7) Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (pt. IX)

So a lot of people hate this one as it does mess with the mythology of Jason in ways never hinted at (or revisited) elsewhere. Some like it only for the exploding Jason at the beginning or the Freddy glove reveal at the end. The entire thing is entertaining though if you just roll with it and it has some of the best effects of the entire franchise. Jason possessing others as a force of evil is entertaining.

 

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6) Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood

This one is the “Jason versus the teen psychic who can raise her surprisingly un-rotted long dead father” one. There are funny moments in this one, a solid cast, and a surprisingly tense showdown with a final girl that fights back. Not to mention a rotten mask-less Jason in full-on battle mode.

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5) Friday the 13th (2009)

Largely hated by the hardcore fans of the original franchise, I say the 2009 remake worked surprisingly well, better by far than most of the ‘00s remakes (Nightmare, Last House, etc.). This one is basically a cliffs note version of the first 3 films updated for a new generation. Sure most of the characters are annoying though I think the final girl and the older brother looking for his lost sister both work just fine.

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4) Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives

 Jason lives–that he does I guess. This one is a fan favorite for good reasons. Jason brought back to life by lightning—bigger, rotting, tougher, cooler looking than ever—facing off with the only major adversary he ever had (Tommy Jarvis). Great shots, music, and solid acting with cool effects make this one of the best Friday movies in the canon. 

 

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3) Friday the 13th IV: The Final Chapter

They really meant to kill Jason in this one (maybe). This is with Corey Feldman as a (surprisingly un-annoying) child adversary fighting off (and ultimately “killing”) Jason.

What Friday fan can forget the gruesome eye socket slide of Jason to his “death” or Tommy’s psycho gaze in the hospital?

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2) Friday the 13th (1980)

So the original is not listed as my favorite. This is very rare for any series as you quite often get diminishing returns with each successive film in any series no matter how entertaining but for Friday I actually prefer the first sequel to the original (more on that below). The first one though—this is a genuinely entertaining slasher that was also a mystery of sorts in its time as the killer reveal wasn’t made until the end. There’s some acting chops on full display with Mrs. Vorhees in particular as she seeks her psychotic revenge. Not the best slasher of all time but one well worth watching a few times. The atmosphere of the entire series is at its best in the original and the final 10-12 minutes are among the most entertaining in slasher horror history.

 

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1) Friday the 13th Part Two

 What else can I say? Potato-sack masked Jason is the scariest of the bunch for me. This movie has everything an ‘80s slasher film needs. Jason is legitimately scary in this movie making his first adult (or arguably “real”) appearance. He’s a bit crafty, plotting, agile, and human. What’s not to love? There’s the revenge on the first movie’s final girl in the opening sequence. There’s Jason lying in wait and creepily rising off the bed to stalk his unsuspecting victim. Creepiest of all, there’s Jason with his macabre alter to his late mother. This is the best film of the franchise and the most traditionally “horror” of the batch. Jason would never be as scary as he was in this one and the story would never get better no matter how much more complex the successive scripts strove to be.

The future is over-rated.

Though I could make a “things I hate about social media”  list (posting and commenting on stories without reading them, constant outrage at what celebrity Z said about Y, knowing what a kid in 3rd grade I never saw again thinks about the Democratic party) this isn’t that article. Like I wrote last time, I like some outlets more than I used to and enjoy them (Goodreads, Yelp) and others less than ever (Facebook) but I appreciate keeping up with friends—I can think of several friendships that if it’d been down to the pen and postal service or the long-distance phone call we’d long ago fell out of touch. Likewise, though I recoiled (a bit) at the new CNN ad for “the Nineties” in which it begins with a CD inserted into a top-shelf stereo component—I couldn’t help but think (crappy song choice aside) mock it all you want, that sound quality is miles ahead of what most people are blaring from their smartphones or Bluetooth speakers today (as they obsessively skip from song to song). I love my CD set up, prefer a full album played on CD in my car on the way to work in the morning, and love my LP set up even more…but, I do love the heck out of Spotify, personalized mixes, and the money saved by exploring artists without purchasing an album first. No, this article is about how the future is overrated in another way. Sure it’s over-rated in that: (a) I still don’t have a jet pack; (b) Trump is president; and (c) and we still can’t cure the deadliest diseases. But a more simplistic way it’s over-rated is with movies. Not that they suck, there are good ones every year. But watching Andy Cohen’s “Then and Now” the other night the panel mentioned how huge Blockbuster used to be and then it imploded (though they neglected to mention the curious growth of Family Video around the south and Midwest in recent years). Now you can access any movie from home without leaving the couch” they said.

Hmmm…..

I am fortunate I know in that with a living wage and a spouse who earns likewise I can afford to pay for not only cable but streaming services. I spent my college years and twenties cutting those expenses and for the most part didn’t miss them too much at the time. Busy, other options, etc. But to have them is nice especially in the modern era with DVR and on-demand. I know when I’m working out on the exercise bike I can flip on my recordings and catch up on my choice of news, binge-worthy episodic TV, or special interest programming. Not only that, I can pull up Amazon, HBO or Netflix and choose from thousands of options. Seriously thousands, you can get lost for an hour in any one of those portals just trying to determine what you want to watch.

On cursory glance you’d think Cohen and company were right—everything is at your fingertips. As a continual Netflix subscriber I once jettisoned a few boxes of my DVD collection. Many of those were all I had to choose from in the days of no cable and Ramen. Why keep them all? There’s always something on Netflix. But a curious thing happened: TV got good. What used to be a “slumming it” domain for writers, directors and actors became cutting-edge. There have always been some “good shows” and there have always been plenty of crap that condescends to the lowest common denominator. But suddenly, following the lead of shows that began to hint at efforts of scope, intricacy, grandiosity and TV artists taking their craft seriously (BTVS, West Wing, The Wire, Sopranos) there was a steady stream of quality, acclaimed and ultimately addictive TV. First on the premium channels but then on many of the networks and basic cable channels, then on the streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).

What happened next was that companies like Netflix—who were supposed to be our go-to video store—began to cut their budget for films to free up money for more shows and most expensively, making their own shows. Suddenly there were fewer and fewer movies in the stream. By this point Blockbuster was out of business, Redbox sprang up to at least give you a way to rent the new-to-disc releases, and you’d long since cancelled your disc subscription to afford all the damn streaming services.

Which brings me to my whole point and the focus of my next several posts: shows are great and all. I mean, I loved the Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I enjoy (current) Better Call Saul, Einstein, American Gods. I rarely get the urge to straight up “binge” a show anymore though I like a good, solid show that has 3-5 seasons of quality and wraps up in a satisfactory manner. I like watching them in weekly chunks as they happen or if they’re finished an episode here and there. But I was missing movies again. We go to see the major films we want to see in theaters but certainly not everything that comes out. Netflix (or Amazon, HBO) get a set of new choices each month (and drop a few with each addition) but we’ve spent many a night scanning through and though ultimately finding something it was usually not what we set out looking to watch.

Then I got the urge to revisit some old horror movies—to watch the entire franchise of several series’ (Friday the 13, Halloween) and the filmography of several directors (John Carpenter, David Cronenberg) to see how the ones I knew held up and how the ones I’d never seen were. I’ve always been a horror fan and had a (modest) collection of them on Blu-Ray or DVD but I suddenly had a long list of things I wanted to see….and only about 5% of them were available on any of the cable or streaming options I have. There’s actually a horror-specific streaming service (Shudder) and most of them weren’t even on that (though I was loathe to pay for another service anyway). This “everything is available from your couch” was proving to be laughable. Of course, throw on iTunes or Amazon and you can rent or buy digital copies of most films…$4-7 to rent, $8-30 to “own”. So there’s that. If I’m going to pay $4 to have digital access to a film for 24 hours or so fine but if it’s an old favorite and I can physically own it to watch when I want, as many times as I want, in better picture quality (if blu), and with commentary and bonus documentaries for a few dollars more I’m going to opt for that. But back in the day I could rent any older movie for $1-2 from the local video store.

So over the past 6 months or so I’ve picked up random horror films on blu and DVD, some from thrift shops here and there for 2 bucks, some from ebay when the price is right. I’ve enjoyed watching them and have ranked them for my own fun. Which is the best in a given series? How do competing series stack up against each other? My upcoming posts will showcase ranked horror franchises, observations I’ve made from watching how horror changed from the ‘50s-today, etc. I hope to do the same for other genres in future years—crime/noir, sci-fi/fantasy, action, comedy. So if that’ s your sort of thing, stay tuned.

My Top Movies of 2016

December 30, 2016

As I mentioned in my “Top TV” post, this was the first year I had far more worthy TV picks to pore through than movies. I may have went to the movies just a tad less than usual this year but if so, not by much and with Netflix, Redbox, HBO, Amazon, etc. there’s no shortage of movies out there to see. Of course, studios often hold their best work back until the end of the year to stay fresh in voters minds come Oscar season and some of those (mentioned at #10 below) I’ve yet to have a chance to see. Conversely, there were a lot of great little popcorn films (Deadpool, Civil War, Jungle Book, etc.) that were fun to watch but lacked the depth of a truly great film IMO. Regardless, here’s what I liked the best and the top 3 or 4 were in particular great and timeless works while the others also had plenty to offer.

10) I’m going to cop out with this one but as I’ve yet to see so many great contenders this year I am certain that once I do one of the following will likely place somewhere on this list, likely shifting the back (5-9) portion of this list:  Everybody Wants Some, La La Land, Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, Jackie, and Manchester by the Sea.

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9) Green Room

It was such a shame to lose such a young talent as Anton Yelchin this year. While best known for his work in the new Abrams Star Trek franchise, he delivers a more forceful and personal performance in Green Room. Veteran of an older Trek series, Patrick Stewart, delivers a menacing performance. Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat is also great here. This is a great little punk rock high-energy old-school grindhouse thriller.

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8) Tony Robbins: I’m Not Your Guru

I’m not a Robbins disciple and while I can see why many critics think this documentary failed to go deep enough in dissecting Tony and his own possible motives and motivations I found this a thoroughly entertaining documentary and portrait of a person, his audience and his work. I may not have gotten as full a picture of the person as I did with the subject of the equally entertaining Anthony Weiner documentary this year, this one just entertained me a bit more and made me think throughout.

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7) Dr. Strange

After a couple of decades or longer of consuming superhero stories in one format or other I more and more prefer in comics or films those that use the trappings of the icons and genre to tell bigger (or in some cases, smaller and more nuanced) stories. Marvel is in danger of over-saturating the market and now with C and D level characters (sorry Strange, you’re not known to the larger market in the way Spiderman is) moving into the starring role of their own films that risk looms even larger. Yet perhaps because of their relative obscurity to the mainstream it’s with these characters Marvel (in film and via Netflix originals) is telling its best cinematic tales (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage). It doesn’t hurt that Cumberbatch is a great actor. Nor does it hurt that this may be one of the only films in history to actually warrant a viewing with 3-D glasses as the mystical scenes are a roller-coaster via that method. Dr. Strange was the best superhero film of the year by remembering the value of the character, the motivation, the context and the uniqueness therein. While Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman bloated themselves to boring, Strange went small by focusing on character and then large with cosmic, intricate visuals and action.

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6) Star Wars: Rogue One

I’m torn a bit with the sheer omnipresence of Star Wars (like superheroes). I can’t help but think market fatigue and backlash is coming–can we really sustain a big-budget blockbuster Star Wars movie (and 10 superhero ones) every single year forward? The original trilogy was fantastic and nostalgia for those films went mainstream as fans grabbed the helm (Abrams). Regardless, Rogue One may only tell the tale of protagonists we know are doomed from the start and fill in a gap that wasn’t glaring (everything we need to know Princess Leia summed up in a throwaway line in the OT) but cash grab or not Rogue One may technically be the best overall SW film in terms of acting, production and overall delivery (though the magic of the OT isn’t quite matched). The new characters, short-lived they may be, are great and the final 10 minutes with Darth Vader are alone worth the price of admission.

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5) Bad Santa 2

So I realize this was generally panned even by critics who begrudgingly praised the first one. I also realize it’s a stream of nihilistic profanity from first shot to last which doesn’t scream “happy holidays” to most viewers. Yet I found it laugh out loud funny throughout and I’m always a fan of Billy Bob Thornton. Kathy Bates was also a welcome addition as was Christina Hendricks. It’s not high art but it gets the job done and it’s far preferable to most cheesy holiday dreck.

 

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4) The Witch

The Witch is an arty Gothic historical piece that was also the best horror film of the year.  I know some excluded it from 2016 consideration since it is technically a 2015 film but as it never hit a US theater, streaming site or DVD release before 2016 that hardly seems fair. There’s no gore to be found and most of the dialogue is pulled (and rearranged) directly from 17th century diary entries. It tells the tale of a Puritan family estranged from their community in 1630s New England and the religious paranoia, social isolation and supernatural (?) factors that slowly tear them apart. Black Phillip is a truly scary nemesis.

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3) Eye in the Sky

Another film excluded from many lists because apparently it is also a 2015 film–this one didn’t hit US theaters until April 2016 so I’m safely counting it as one of my favorite 2016 movies. This was a great movie. First of all there’s the cast–the always excellent Helen Mirren is phenomenal, the sadly departed Alan Rickman delivers a great performance as one of his last and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul showcases a softer side than Jesse Pinkman. Then there’s the story itself–Hibbert’s script and Hood’s direction produces edge of your seat suspense in a nontraditional (for movies, especially “war” movies) way as computer screens, phone calls and second guessing stretches out a drone mission in real time. Moral complexity and a realer look at modern war than most cinema goers get in any format these days.

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2) The Arrival

The Arrival is not your typical sci-fi film and certainly not your typical “alien invasion” flick. It’s a smart, intricate rumination on language, culture, change, time, choices, peacemaking and relationships. It’s probably the best “contact” film of all time too. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner are great and hey–Forest Whitaker gets two great sci-fi roles in 2016!

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1)  Hell or High Water

There wasn’t anything else close to being my top movie this year. Hell or High Water was by far the best movie I saw all year. Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine square off in an an epic noir standoff with the broken down landscape of America in the background. Some critics have claimed this as a modern western and that seems plausible though crime noir seems more applicable to me. Great bit parts people the landscape, great shots throughout, great dialogue, excellent score, everything works perfectly.

Best of 2015

December 21, 2015

*Note–I will likely be revising and editing this over the next two weeks but these are my top picks for albums, tv shows, movies and comics as of Dec 21, 2015.

Music  (in alphabetical order but bold are my top 10)

Beach House: Depression Cherry/ Count Your Lucky Stars                               Both records Beach House released this year, like 6 months apart, were great. I give a slight edge to Depression Cherry but likely just because I had a few other months to absorb it. The chillest yet captivating music you were apt to hear this year.

Ryan Adams: 1989

Gary Clark Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

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Craig Finn: Faith in the Future
I enjoyed but didn’t love Finn’s first solo record. This one I love. Short and sweet with some of the best lyrics he’s ever written–including Hold Steady–but a different style than his band, much more singer-songwriter.

Deerhunter: Fading Frontier

Drive By Truckers: It’s Great to be Alive (live box set)

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Ghost: Melioria ; Lucifer – Lucifer I ; Christian Mistress – To Your Death

These three acts all in their own way brought back the best of ’70s era pre-metal/early metal traditions particularly the occult rock stains of it and made it sound fresh and new. Ghost has been at this bit awhile now and though they’re certainly not for everyone they have made their catchiest most accessible record yet with Meliroria particularly with lead single “Circe”–and who would have ever thought the band would perform on network cable as they did on Colbert’s late show for Halloween? Ghost are kind of the band fundamentalist pastors and parents thought Kiss were but actually weren’t. Ghost, with their anti-pope frontman and “clergy” band are all spectacle and tongue in cheek satanism but with undeniably catchy riffs, vocals and hooks. Lucifer on the other hand, Johanna Sadonis’ new band mines the feel of forgotten Sabbath records (particularly the excellent and underrated Technical Ecstasy), Blue Oyster Cult and a slew of female heavy “witch” rock to make a gem of an album. Christian Mistress, featuring Christine Davis’ excellent vocals and great riff after great riff edge closer to the NWOBHM scene that followed ’70s acts but bridge the gap between the two. All three records sound like classic heavy metal that fans from any metal era can appreciate.

Grave Pleasures: Dream Crash

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Horrendous: Anareta

Horrendous are the best metal act on record right now. Three albums in each excellent and each better than the last. It’s solid OSDM that hits all the highlights of classic DM bands without retreading their ground–instead it mixes in experimental highs, hooks, riffs, atmosphere and an odd sense of joy. Lyrically they find peace in absurdity and I freaking love this album.

Iron Maiden: The Book of Souls

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Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
This one is tied neck and neck with Sufjan as my album of the year but while I may think Carrie and Lowell is the overall better record, I listened to this one quite a bit more. Isbell may be America’s best working songwriter today. “Children of Children” “24 Frames” and the title track were some of 2015’s best songs. Isbell seems to have found his own space and style in his post DBT career. I hate that those who are now flocking to Isbell aren’t by and large giving the Truckers catalog (other than maybe Jason’s songs therein) much of a go but I always felt Isbell was much more of an accessible artist than Hood though I prefer all things considered Hood and Cooley–I’d actually call them America’s best current songwriters but they don’t seem to have the reach and pop sensibility that Jason does.

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Carly Rae Jespen: Em.ot.ion

Fine, it’s some seriously sugary bubblegum level pop music. Sorry. Carly Rae was my guilty pleasure jam this year and I’m feeling less guilty with each spin because it’s just so much fun. This is some synth style 80s mall pop  filtered by way of indie rock to today’s pop radio hits but better. Carly’s voice fits the earworm hooks so well and I hear M83 in those back-beats.

Talib Kweli: F*** the Money

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Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

They say for every hip hop fan there’s a shark waiting to be jumped–that eventually mainstream hip hop will leave every fan. I kind of thought this was my time and it may still be but though I enjoyed the heck out of Drake’s “If You’re Reading This…” it wasn’t great art (though it was above average pop). Kendrick’s latest work however is, divisive as it may be and as hipster embraced as it was. By far the best hip hop record of 2015 from one of today’s strongest rappers.

Lucero: Lucero (2015 S/T)

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The Night Flight Orchestra: Skyline Whispers                                         Second only to perhaps Carlie Jae for just sheer fun, Night Flight Orchestra have been described as montage music–every song on the album could easily soundtrack an 80s movie montage. It’s fun, cheesy soaring “dad rock” without trying too hard or over reaching. This isn’t down and dirty Steel Panther style parody, this is much more subtle and unoffensive. Catchy tunes that rock in a throwback manner.

Myrkur: M

Nile: That Which Should Not Be Unearthed

Purity Ring: Another Eternity                                                                          Indie synth pop with a great hip hop undercurrent that actually works. Almost (almost) as catchy as Carly Rae.

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Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
This one was probably my favorite record of the year even if not my most listened to. It’s simply a bit heavy and sad to listen to on a daily or even weekly basis but it’s so beautiful. Sufjan’s love letter to his deceased mother in a warts-and-all biographical lyrical narrative is set to some of the most gorgeous arrangements of his impressive career.

Tribulation: Children of Night

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Movies –
alphabetical again but with a disclaimer–I’m sure I’m forgetting some great films I’ve seen and I know that about 5-10 of those I have planned to watch over the next month or two (Star Wars, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Hail Caesar, Joy) will also deserve a space on this list.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Relatively simple period piece but so good.

It Follows   The best horror film I’ve seen in five years easily.

Spotlight  – So far my favorite film of the year Great cast, captivating and important story, good on every cinematic level.

Steve Jobs –
I really enjoyed this though I know some didn’t. It’s certainly warts and all and who knows how much liberty Sorkin took to weave his trademark snappy dialogue but it’s a great character piece.

Trainwreck  – Shumer is my favorite (perhaps second to Louis C.K.) working comedian and her team up with Apatow was awesome.

Trumbo –
Sadly this is still a timely tale if we just switched the terms out a bit. Cranston is terrific.

 

TV

The Goldbergs

Homeland

Bosch

The Man in the High Castle

Jessica Jones

Master of None

Blackish

Larry Wilmore Show

Daily Show

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Comics

Killing and Dying – Arienne Tomine

Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses

Southern Bastards

Harrow County

Ms. Marvel

Nailbiter

The Fade Out

 

 

 

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Last weekend I went to see “The Imitation Game” and it’s a terrific film. Benedict Cumberbatch does a terrific job portraying Alan Turing, the often forgotten  hero of WWII who cracked the Nazi transmission code thus saving millions of lives and shortening the war by an estimated two years while practically inventing the computer in the process. Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke is just as good, in her portrayal of a woman capable of matching and in some ways exceeding Turin’s wit at a time women weren’t believed capable of  the science-heavy  work she was most certainly doing and doing well. “The Imitation Game” was one of the films I didn’t have a chance to see before the end of the year and thus was unable to weigh as consideration in my list of best films of the year. “The Theory of Everything” “Boyhood” and “Selma” waited far too late to show up in my neck of the woods as well but I plan on seeing each and expect each to be phenomenal. These films, along with “Birdman” (which I loved) “Whiplash,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “American Sniper” are all nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I expect that “Sniper” is solid  in that Cooper is an incredible actor and Eastwood has rarely disappointed as a director. “American Sniper”  has generated quite a bit of political controversy which I’ll weigh in on later in this piece. “Budapest” is probably fine, I’m just not a Wes Anderson fan and find all of his films to be basically the same pretentious thing.

I love films and I maintain that good movies are good movies whatever their topic, target, or  intent. Some movies are popcorn-friendly summer smashes that are sheer entertainment; sometimes such films work in deeper content and purpose and when they do that’s great though it’s not always important. Sometimes big summer movies are just asinine garbage, but if someone enjoys them enough to stop worrying about their mortgage or ISIS for 2 hours then no harm done. Fall and Winter are the months reserved for the “serious” films to unroll, those award show contenders. It’s my overall favorite period of the movie-going year and most of my ticket money is reserved for the end of the year and the first part of the new year when the specialty market films finally trickle to the exurbs. Many people complain about this way of fielding films, that some are “serious” and “contenders” and that critics point the way to which those are and award them to their own preferences in a subjective way while unfairly (or elitely) dismissing others. It’s like this with any type of art criticism–literary, music or film–and certainly what one likes eventually boils down to a matter of subjectivity. I’ve defended the role of critics in the past, and I still think film criticism is a worthy task. If you’re paid to watch movies all the time seeing hundreds a year, have studied the history and techniques of film and have devoted much of your life and time to films and appreciating “good” films, then I have a good idea that one you run across in a typical year that you find warrants praise, your opinion is probably worth at least a little consideration. If there’s a growing consensus on certain pictures being worth our time as a viewer, if enough people who devote their time to film agree on certain pictures, I believe those pictures are likely good movies whether they’re suited to everyone’s tastes or not. On the other hand, I have no doubts at all that some truly worthwhile and entertaining films are critically rejected out of hand from pure snobbery, particularly “genre” films far too many critics feel “above.”  So the way I’ve always seen it, those universally raved works are probably good and at least worth a watch while simultaneously not everything panned is necessarily that bad or unworthy of my own consideration.

This year, and certainly not for the first time but perhaps more than usual, race has become a major topic in relation to awards-season and these critical “gate-keepers.” Race has been a large topic in everything this year and with good reason so it is certainly worth bringing to the discussion table regarding film, awards, and Hollywood today. The minute after the Academy nominations were released it became quickly evident and commentated on that there is very little diversity among the nominations. Not a single actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress or director nominated is African-American.  The director of “Birdman” is a Mexican-born film-maker but that’s pretty much it in terms of non-white diversity. “Selma” is of course about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement but its African American lead actor is absent from consideration as its female African-American director. This comes shortly after some of the leaked documents from the Sony hack showcased Hollywood agents and shot-callers displaying a deep (if unconcerned) knowledge of racial disparity in Hollywood as they joked about the President’s likely favorite films (Kevin Hart movies) or discussed why Denzel Washington shouldn’t be cast in a particular film due to the potential loss of overseas returns due to a foreign audience’s perceived racism.
Chris Rock recently discussed racism in Hollywood in a deft piece for the “Hollywood Reporter”. Film buff and critic that he is, he makes the valid point that studio heads have to go out of their way not to hire Hispanics in Hollywood while hardly any Hispanics work on any set or movie company above the janitorial level. Rock himself, whose “Top 5” was one of the best pictures of 2014, is not immune to allegations of racism.*  He describes “Top 5” as one of the “blackest” films ever nationally released yet one that is so naturally and is not a “race” picture. Which of course is the area which needs growth; when Hollywood awards a black film it’s usually a “race” film dealing with slavery, civil rights, or race as a central topic rather than by simply featuring a diverse cast and profiling their lives and adventures naturally.
So is Hollywood racist? Rock details a scene he ultimately cut from “Top 5” in which a black agent (played by Kevin Hart) complains about studio racism (he’s not invited to a meeting) by exclaiming “and these people are liberals, this isn’t the KKK!” Racism certainly exists in Hollywood like it exists everywhere else. White-privilege works itself out by layering a power system at the top of every business, corporation, or political party in the same way it has in the media through concentrating generations of wealthy white male power at the top. Perhaps some of this is unintentional and a product of its formative time. It’s certainly time to shake up the membership of the Academy and bring down the overwhelmingly white, old, and male membership percentage and to boost diversity. Of course, Academy members have to invite diverse people into the academy on a member-to-member basis as that system works and to do that they have to socialize with a diverse crowd in the first place (a fault more than one industry and community shares). More films need to be made showcasing diversity, but ultimately in a natural way that isn’t overt and political. Hollywood isn’t a nonprofit so ultimately an audience has to vote with its dollars. Did those complaining about lack of diversity  pay to go see “Selma” “Top Five” or “Fruitvale Station”? Should it even be their (or our) responsibility? Going to the movies is expensive and even the most politically active diversity-seeking person around might not want to spend their time and money on something just to increase diversity when they may instead just want to see something fun and easy. What Hollywood can do is cast more African- Americans and Hispanics in roles where race is irrelevant (as was done in the great casting choice of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in an upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie). If foreign audiences have a race problem and won’t bother to see a character-driven piece about black life in America or even a romantic comedy starring a black couple, perhaps they will be unable to avoid that multimillion dollar summer action blockbuster even if it is peopled with a diverse cast. Hollywood will still make their money and foreign audiences will be subtly acclimated to diversity and recognition that people are in some ways all the same.

The problem seems to be a mixture. It’s that not enough quality films are made with diverse casts on one end. Should this year’s nominations have not been recognized as top-quality simply because they’re not diverse enough? A lot of wonderful films this year lacked diversity but that’s no reason to boycott good films or to refuse to recognize their excellence or quality. I’m neither gay nor British and did not serve in WWII but can thoroughly enjoy “Imitation Game” much the same way I’m not black nor a comedian but can enjoy “Top Five.” Audiences nor studios can be asked to subsidize films for activism’s sake. Yet those who love film and independently make films can certainly take more risks as they so often do. What films that were made were slighted this year? The glaring omissions by concensus seem to be “Selma’s” director and lead actor. Which others?

And what about that “American Sniper” controversy? Politics most certainly do play a role in who goes to see and praise a move after all, do they not? Some left-leaning critics decried the perceived glorification of war and that a character based on real life with depictions of real war was played for heroic effect. The real life American sniper this film was based on labels the natives of the country he does battle in less than admirably in his book. Many who turned out to see “Sniper” did so in an odd sort of patriotic support of our military. This became an “issues” movie. Oddly, stats show evangelical Christians turned out in significantly higher numbers to see “Sniper” than they did that notable movie about a Baptist preacher living out his faith to lead an equality movement. Yet should such a movie as “Sniper” not be made? Of course not. War is indeed an ugly thing and there is danger in glorifying it and unconditionally praising soldiers regardless of what they may have done in combat and for what reason De-facto. There have been great war movies; ones on the one hand that portray it starkly, realistically, and troublingly. On the other hand, there have been those that white-wash it and portray it as good vs. evil, which is difficult to do with any war effort post-WWII. I haven’t seen “Sniper” yet and can’t personally offer my opinion but I do find the discussion interesting, particularly the fact that for those who don’t see a difference between fantasy violence and violence based on real life narratives and real life violence don’t see why there’s even a discussion over this film.

Politics and Race affect what movies are made, what movies are praised, who sees what movies, and often what someone thinks of a particular movie. This is a reflection of society at large. So ultimately, the issue must be resolved in larger society as a whole and then these reflections will follow suit. Of course, often a bottom-up approach of fixing the symptomatic expressions of racism and class-ism is easier and more effective than seismic large-scale change. So it’s good that we as a society are having this discussion now. Hopefully by addressing it, the coming years will see more diversity in film simply because it’s been so noticed now. In the meantime, as art is always an expression of the place its overall society finds itself, I maintain that good movies are good movies even in the midst of troubling power-structures. They represent their era in explicit and implicit, intentional and subconscious ways. Nothing precludes “Selma” and “American Sniper” from both being good films but maybe watching either should lead to a discussion for the viewers.

Your thoughts?

* A quick note on the allegations of racism towards Rock. The ones I’ve heard in most recent months oddly attack him for stand-up material he made popular more than 20 years ago as much of that re-surfaced in a misappropriated manner by white “fans” in the form of social media posts following Ferguson. Simply put, like Chappelle and Pryor, Rock is one of the funniest comedians to ever do comedy and all three have made race a loud, often uncomfortable, but prophetic topic. Sadly a certain white frat-boy culture always misappropriates and wrongly quote such material but I find that hard to be the comedian’s fault. Rock has always been accused of class-ism too, as he has done well for himself and does come from a middle class background. Check Rock now–his most recent stand-ups, his comedy round-table contributions, “Top Five”, and his “Hollywood Reporter” piece to see where he is now. Acknowledging race and tackling racism as always, trying to give a hand-up to other new black comics, etc.

The Best of 2014

December 24, 2014

So it seems I’ve abdicated “Raging Against the Dying Light” much of this year as I haven’t posted anything since summer. Yet it’s the end of the year and I’ve posted my end-of-year picks every year since I began this blog in 2008 and I don’t feel like letting this year get by without at least some such post. I’ve always enjoyed this part of the blogging year more than any other as I thoroughly enjoy reading every magazine, blog, and random person’s pick of the year for almost everything. It’s a great way to learn about things that have gotten by my radar when reading other people’s picks and it’s a great way to time-capsule my own favorites as I organize these each year. That being said, I’m foregoing the usual slew of posts (10 Best Albums, 25 best songs, 10 Best metal, 10 Best Hip Hop, 10 Best Movies, 10 Best comics, etc.). I’m taking a cue from one of my favoire living musicians, Patterson Hood, who simply posted some alphabetically ordered favorite picks and highlighted top choices. So here goes.

My Top Albums of 2014 (all genres, in alphabetical order– those in bold are my top 10)

1) Agalloch – The Serpent and the Sphere
2) At the Gates – At War With Reality
3) Behemoth – The Satanist
4) Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral
5) Common – Nobody’s Smiling
6) Cynic – Kindly Bent to Free Us
7) Drive By Truckers – English Oceans
8) Drive By Truckers – Black Ice Verite
9) Dum Dum Girls – Too True
10) Electric Wizard – Time to Die
11) Eric Clapton and Friends – The Breeze (a tribute to JJ Cale)
12) Gary Clark Jr. – Gary Clark Jr. Live
13) Horrendous – Ecdysis
14) Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
15) Jessica Lea Mayfield – Make My Head Sing
16) Junius – Days of the Fallen Sun (EP)
17) Lana Del Ray – Ultraviolence
18) Lecrae – Anomaly
19) Lord Mantis – Death Mask
20) Machine Head – Bloodstones and Diamonds
21) Matisyahu – Akeda
22) New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
23) The Oath – The Oath
24) Opeth – Pale Communion
25) Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
26) Rich Gang (Young Thug, Birdman, and Rich Homie Quan): Tha Tour Pt. 1
27) The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
28) Rosanne Cash – The River and the Thread
29) Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
30) Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
31) Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
32) The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
33) Slipknot – .5 The Grey Chapter
34) Spoon – They Want My Soul
35) Steel Panther – All You Can Eat
36) Tom Petty – Hypnotic Eye
37) Tryptykon – Melana Chasmata
38) Tweedy – Sukie Rae
39) U2 – Songs of Innocence
40) The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
songs (mostly from albums not chosen above, with a few notable exceptions when the song was just that good as a song itself divorced from the overall album)

1) Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
2) Cannibal Corpse – “Kill or Become”
3) Gaslight Anthem – “Get Hurt”
4) High Spirits – “I Will Run”
5) Hold Steady – “Oaks”
6) Insomnium – “While We Sleep”
7) Jessie J feat. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang”
8) Johnny Cash – “Out Among the Stars”
9) Mastodon – “The Motherload”
10) Morrissey – “World Peace is None of Your Business”
11) New Pornographers – “Dancehall Domine”
12) Spoon – “New York Kiss”
13) Tori Amos – “Unrepentant Geraldines”
14) Tweedy – “Low Key”
15) U2 – “Iris (Hold Me Close)”

Movies
1) Bird Man
2) Chef
3) Godzilla
4) Gone Girl
5) Guardians of the Galaxy
6) Interstellar
7) St. Vincent
8) Top 5
9) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Books (difficult because the bulk of books I read this year were published in 2013 or earlier)
1) Revival – Stephen King
2) The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap – Matt Taibbi
3) How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee – Bart Ehrman

TV (difficult because I tend to watch shows after they hit Netflix)
1) True Detective
2) Homeland
3) Gotham
4) The Goldbergs
5) Cosmos

Comics

1) Saga
2) Batman (Scott Snyder)
3) Lazarus
4) Nailbiter
5) A Voice in the Dark
6) Minimum Wage
7) Southern Bastards
8) Stray Bullets
9) Wytches
10) Ms. Marvel
11) Hawkeye
12) Afterlife with Archie

The 10 Best Films of 2013

December 28, 2013

This list is always complicated by timing; I mention every year that by the time I compile my list of favorite films of the year, even when waiting until the last week of the year, there are still quite a few films that I know are worthy of consideration in anyone’s list that I simply have been unable to catch due to timing. December-January is prime movie release time in that every studio holds back its Award season hopefuls for a very last minute release so as to stay fresh in voter’s minds. My wife and I are movie buffs and the end of November through the first of January is our prime movie-going time. Though we catch a few major blockbusters during the summer rush, most of our movie dollars are saved to catch the big releases at the end of the year. Yet it is always impossible to catch all important flicks; sometimes because two or three major ones are released at the same time every week at the end of the year and timing/money simply doesn’t allow us to see every possible choice. Then there’s the frustrating way many big movies simply aren’t released widely for too long; such is the case with this year’s Long Walk to Freedom, a film I’ve been waiting to see since catching early teasers of Idris Elba portraying Nelson Mandela in a film that should surely be in the spotlight a bit now since it coincidentally comes out immediately after Mandela’s passing. In addition to that film, there are a few others I am sure would have had a large chance of making my own personal cut if I had had the opportunity to catch them before compiling this list: certainly 12 Years a Slave. Also:  Saving Mr. Banks, The Invisible Woman, Nebraska, August: Osage County, HER, Inside Llewyn DavisGravity, and Blue Jasmine to name a few big ones I’ve been wanting to see all  year long. There were also some interesting genre flicks I would have liked to have considered as well (The Spectacular Now; You’re Next).
Anyway, judging simply from what I have seen I feel comfortable with this list in that I loved every picture here. Looking back at last year’s list I know I would have certainly added Silver Linings Playbook and The Master in place of a few of my back-end choices had I seen them in time, but even counting the big picks I’ve mentioned here as not having seen yet, these following pictures would be hard to top. Here goes.

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10) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

While overall I enjoyed the first film more, largely due to its quick and effortless act of world-building, this second Hunger Games adaptation is a great and intelligent action sci-fi flick;  it does in some ways feel like the typical middle chapter of a major story by being a “bridge” piece, but as far as such sequels go this is one of the better blockbuster sequels in the past few years. It doesn’t retread the same ground as its predecessor; it opens up that world in which the characters are living and give it even more reality. The action is at times bigger but not unnecessarily so; and it’s all helped along by its lead actress in that Jennifer Lawrence continues to prove herself as perhaps the best young actress of her generation, equally competent in popcorn blockbusters and performance heavy depth-pieces. This is but one of her great performances this year (and on this list).

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9) Behind the Candelabra

I read speculation that Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic, was deemed “too gay,” for a major theatrical studio release. If so, it’s is a shame because this HBO film lacks nothing in terms of pure cinematic quality more than capable of standing up with the year’s best dramas. Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his romantic live-in partner of five years deliver two of the best performances of the year and this is the only great Soderbergh movie I’ve seen in years. It may very well rank with the best biopics in recent memory in that it’s portrayal of its protagonist and his relationships is just so utterly human and real that even the most far removed from the man’s orientation, fame, lifestyle, wealth, and proclivities can’t help but find the story in it’s parts and pieces as some way relatable.

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8) The Bling Ring

One of three great movies this year (and on this list) that portrays and subtly condemns the dark side of the American dream. Taken as a linear progression through modern US history, you can see the scrappy birth of (my #3 pick), the extravagant expansion of (my #4 pick) and (in this film) the “trickle-down” affect to youth in the modern day of some of America’s worst greedy tendencies. The Bling Ring showcases celebrity worship and soulless selfish ego, the hollowness of an unchecked wanting. Sophia Coppola continues her string of excellent directorial work, which here coupled with a great script and some of the best performances by young (and some first-time?) actors in recent memory allows the journey of these millennial famous-for-being-famous chasers to progress as their own with not overt surface judgement or pretentious commentary. Coppola’s admitted distaste with what these (historically–or should I say E! News–adapted) events represent and are born out of is shown by simply allowing her young performers to evoke that feeling in the audience subtly but progressively by their (often lack of ) character. A wonderfully shot art teen crime comedy.

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7)  The Way Way Back

There were more unchecked (and non-guilty) laughs to be found here than in maybe in any other comedy I saw this year. Plus I’m a sucker for coming of age stories and this one is a great example of how to do that without being overly cliched or derivative. There’s enough heart and character on film here to balance those laughs out as well. Not to mention that this has one of the best ensemble casts of any other movie this year; Steve Carrell (at least to me) never really shows a wide diversity of range, and though he’s not the stand-out here it is nice to see him playing someone different than his usual character. But Liam James is great in the lead and Sam Rockwell is utterly hilarious as his unexpected mentor and boss at the water park. Maya Rudolph, Toni Collete, Amanda Peet, Rob Cordrry and the rest round out the cast terrifically.

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6) The Book Thief

The Book Thief was released during the season of and to the people interested in viewing Oscar-bait but quickly got swallowed up and forgotten by the giants of the month; lukewarm reviews didn’t help in that regard either. That’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful little movie with great performances, a captivating period-piece setting, great warmth, and a non-pretentious all-ages appropriate message. Though this setting has been used repetitively in some way throughout the history of film (WWII, Nazi-era Germany, the Holocaust), it was an interesting twist to see this time from within Germany by non-Jewish yet non-Nazi Germans.

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5) Much Ado About Nothing

Whedon, the current brain-trust scribe of the Marvel Avengers films (and related titles), took a break from big budgets to film a pet project of his own this summer–a black and white production of the Shakespeare classic done in his own backyard with his friends. Apparently he and his Whedonverse friends have been doing down-time weekend Shakespeare readings for fun for years–and it shows. These folks pull it off wonderfully. This movie does a fine job of preserving the beauty of the language by keeping it as is and not paraphrasing or interpreting it, but each actor does it straight-forward and not over-the-top; that fact combined with the casual, modern  house-party setting and artsy yet under-stated cinematography helps the classic language be heard in a casual, common way so that there is little head-scratching as to what is going on or being talked about even for non-experts of Shakespeare.

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4) The Wolf of Wall Street

Watch the first five minutes of Scorsese and DiCaprio’s latest epic opus and it will quickly reveal to any viewer why this is a controversial, polarizing film. I have  never heard so many audience gasps and audible moments of discomfort and shock to any film I have seen in a theater and those reactions begin from the moment the film begins to roll. This is one that has been almost universally lavished with critical praise while receiving quite disparate , mixed audience reception. It’s vulgar; it’s a high momentum train throttling directly at viewers showcasing ugly people doing ugly things. Yet it’s also more complex than first glance would have you think. I’ve thought more about this one since seeing it than perhaps any other big film of the year thus far; on its surface, with its snappy captivating (if discomfiting) script by the Sopranos scribe and its glossy, hyper-fantasy editing and camerawork by arguably the best living American director, it’s an unavoidably entertaining, often hilarious, over-the-top story that you in many ways hate to enjoy so much. Yet scratch that surface and it’s a full indictment of modern era Wall Street and the obscenity of the American dream (in that the dream as (de)volved from “making it” to “becoming obscenely wealthy at the expense of all others”). It’s a condemnation of the shallowness of hyperbolic greed and over-consumption, of the exploitation of the many by the few and the dissatisfaction found in the merely wrist-slapping punishments usually given to the worst of white-collar crime perpetrators. Scorsese shoots this one in the same manner he has shot his gangster and crooked cop tales and it fits; the script allows you to continuously laugh at protagonist Jordan Belfort and his cohorts, so much so that you are innocuously drawn to liking them by default just long enough before being reminded how terrible these folks are as human beings. DiCaprio gives an amazing performance, perhaps his best ever; Jonah Hill as his primary partner and wing-man also provides his own best work to date. It’s not for everyone, and it may be the only mainstream “R” film I’ve ever seen that I felt should require ID to determine a viewer is at least 21 to see, but it’s film-making at its finest. McConaughey, seen further on in this list for delivering his own performance of a lifetime, drops in for 15 minutes in an amazing cameo early in the film, one pivotal that is is seen incorporated into everything DiCaprio does as the lead from that point forward. Watch this one and for three hours you will be glued to your seat, shocked, laughing, and uncomfortable–but entertained.

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3) American Hustle

David O. Russell makes terrific films–from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter to his (at least for me thus far) crowning achievement Silver Linings Playbook–he writes, produces, and directs films with terrific scripts and draws out career-high performances from his regular rotation of stars (Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence). This film is an often under-stated comedy that plays for laughs not just in lines but simply in absurd situations, visual gags, and the details lavished on a funny time and place setting of ’70s Urban America–bad hair, disco and all. This embellished recount of the Abscam scandal and its assortment of hustlers, con-artists, federal agents is a hoot. Jeremy Renner as the NJ mayor caught up in the fall almost tops all of the assorted talent surrounding him but everyone else does so well it’s hard to make that call. Louis C.K. as a ham-strung FBI boss is an added bonus.

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2) Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey has always been a promising actor but until rather recently he never had the kind of roles that allow him to display his full talent. His acting chops are at full force here in Dallas Buyers Club as a rough and tumble hard-living Texan rodeo rider who becomes HIV positive. His rampant homophobia makes it hard for him to accept this as even a possibility when it occurs to him in the early 1980s; acceptance soon gives way to a trans-national mission to procure and distribute (at a profit) alternative treatments for the virus at that time barred by the FDA. McConaughey is brilliant and convincing, and the viewers witness the journey of a real, complex person who finds his prejudices challenged and gradually evolves in subtle ways through his unexpected friendship with a transgender person. The best performance by anyone in any film I saw this year.

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1) Philomena

In a year of excellent films this one might slip beneath the radar for many, which is unfortunate because it is a truly excellent film. Wonderfully acted, wittily scripted; at quick turning intervals warmly funny and emotionally sad. Judi Dench is always terrific, but she outdoes herself here. It’s like Dame Judi unplugged as we just watch her play every possible emotion out in convincing, captivating ways throughout the course of the film. Steve Coogan, not as well known to American audiences, does a great job here as well as he always does. This is a deep character work that shows the humanity of a diverse group of people, the possibility of unexpected friendships, and the full force impact and struggle of genuine forgiveness.

Honorable Mentions: The Place Between the Pines; The Conjuring; Iron Man 3; Thor 2