First of all, this post will be filled with major spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, want to avoid spoiling it, and read on anyway, that’s on you.
First of all, this post will be filled with major spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film, want to avoid spoiling it, and read on anyway, that’s on you.
Here’s a quote I haven’t forgotten from Manohla Dargis’s NYTimes review of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
[The Marvel Cinematic Universe] is vast, complicated, lucrative and ever-expanding. It’s also intrinsically uninteresting for viewers (at least one!) who just want a good movie.
Confession: I remember no one saying this about The Return of the King. Nobody wanted to skip the first two films and have the third stand on its own.
And why should they? The Lord of the Rings films were a trilogy, like the books.
I also don’t remember anyone complaining that they should have been able to walk into a screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One, and (to satisfy their desire for “a good movie”) automagically know who’s who and how they relate to each other. Did audience members suddenly blurt out, “Who’s this DumbleDude guy? Sounds like a dick.”
Well, I’m sure someone did, somewhere, but no one paid them to publish those thoughts in the NYTimes.
Sequels! There are so many of them in the MCU, and it all started with that end-credits scene where Nick Fury tells Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative. Based on that one scene–not to mention the marketing that confirmed a common setting for these films–Thor was a sequel to Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk (which included a Tony Stark cameo) mentioned super-soldier serum in 2008, three years before Captain America: The First Avenger. That means The Incredible Hulk was another sequel and CA:TFA was a prequel.
Don’t like using the word like that? Would you rather think of the Iron Man movies as one film and two sequels, and the three Thor and three Captain America movies as one film and two sequels (each) and then The Avengers as some odd crossover event that won’t be neatly characterized, but that also comes with sequels?
Let’s look at Wikipedia for a sec.
A sequel is a literature, film, theatre, television, music or video game that continues the story of, or expands upon, some earlier work. In the common context of a narrative work of fiction, a sequel portrays events set in the same fictional universe as an earlier work, usually chronologically following the events of that work.
I confess (a second time), I prefer that one to the “continuation of the story” definition that you see in online dictionaries, which is unnecessarily nebulous. The films share a setting, which means they share supporting characters and story elements: SHIELD, the infinity stones, the Kree. Also, the events of previous movies affect current ones. T’Challa becomes king in CA: Civil War and is crowned in his solo film. SHIELD conducts research into Hydra technology because Loki sends The Destroyer to New Mexico to kill Thor.
That’s what the MCU is. They’ve created a long story–22 episodes of the newly christened “Infinity Saga” and I’ll see the “season finale” Friday sometime–and they’ve done it as haphazardly as the creators of traditional network TV series have done it. I suffered through the first season of 24 because the premise sounded amazing, but as that show foundered, it became clear that the creators did not have a plan for the season. They were winging it, episode by episode, and it showed. The folks making the MCU were winging it, too. See my previous blog post.
Except we need better a better term for it. Marvel is working on sequels for Black Panther and Doctor Strange, and when you use the word “sequel” that way, you understand exactly what they mean: another movie with Stephen Strange or T’Challa as the protagonist. What will we call the upcoming Shang-Chi film? An episode? An “installment”?
So I understand why people would complain that these films aren’t films, but I think that’s wrong. I think they’re both films and episodes, and they’re all the more enjoyable for it.
By the way, on Sunday night I plan to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones, even though I’ve skipped every other previous episode. And I’m going to say shit like “Who’s that guy? Who’s she? Jeez, remember back in the day when you could just watch a good TV show? Mid-season, fourth season, it didn’t matter! You had Starsky and you had Hutch and once the opening theme explained the premise, you were set. Now *that* was TV! Wait. Who’s that zombie–looking guy?”
We’ve gotten used to long arcs on TV shows, thanks to so-called prestige TV and the tendency of streaming shows to make each season a miniseries. Maybe we’re looking at a genuine sea change in the film industry, too.
With Avengers: Endgame dropping this week, I decided to finally finish this post. Don’t bother trying to argue with me, because I’m 100% correct on all of this. Rotten Tomatoes scores added so you can see how wrong everyone else is.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (RT: 90%) Still the best of the MCU, with terrific villains, interesting locations, and a plot you give a shit about. Steve Rogers is a man who isn’t sure if he should continue to serve, and discovers that he should be giving orders, not taking them. Plus, the strongest parts of these movies are the relationships between the heroes and the people they love. Excellent movie.
2. The Avengers (RT: 92%) A strong contender for the first spot, with only a couple of glaring flaws holding it back. “I’m always angry” feels like a placeholder line in a moment that needs something stronger, and I suspect Whedon et al underestimated just how much of a sex symbol Tom Hiddleston’s Loki had become. In other words, no one wanted to hear him say “mewling quim.” But the characters bounce off each other and to keep things interesting, and the action scenes (all but two involving Avenger v Avenger conflict) are top notch. Love it.
3. Thor: Ragnarok (RT: 92%) This one is a real surprise, because I would not have expected to place a Thor movie so high on this list. But T:R tears down everything that defined the Thor movies up to now and replaces them with color, humor, production design, and a new way forward for Loki and Thor. So much fun.
4. The Black Panther (RT: 97%) This movie is pretty much tied with the one above, slipping into fourth only because so many of the interesting bits went to the villain and T’Challa was stuck doing the traditional first-MCU dance with an enemy who had his same powers (but was stronger) and daddy issues. Also, both T:R and TBP had ritual combat, but only the fights in Thor made any sense. I refuse to believe that such an advanced society would choose a leader via MMA bout. I know, it’s just a movie, but every moment that I have to forgive is one that disappoints me a little. Still, rhino cavalry! So much joy in this movie. I really did love it.
5. Doctor Strange (RT: 89%) Did I mention villains with the same powers as the hero, but stronger? Well, in a constrained setting like this one, a choice like that becomes invisible. I know people were annoyed by the white-washing of The Ancient One, but it was that or risk losing $110mil from the Chinese market for having a Tibetan character. While the humor on this one fell a little flat, no other MCU film comes close to matching its spectacle, and the journey Stephen Strange takes from arrogant jerk to “It’s not about you” is probably the most meaningful one in the whole series of films. Still, lets see some ranged attacks in the sequel.
6. Spider-man: Homecoming (RT: 92%) Every time I look at how high this places in my list, I think it’s too high. Then I look for something below that I’d rank above it and come up with nothing. It’s funny. S-m:H has become sort of a litmus test for me as I search out a film discussion to take the place of Every Frame a Painting. So many self-proclaimed savvy film theorists turn their attention to the MCU and pick out this film as an example of movies where the main character doesn’t change or grow. Baffling, but I’ve seen it three or four times now from people who ought to be good at this. Anyway, great performances, excellent villain, and the most engaging film version of Peter Parker since… ever.
7. Iron Man (RT: 93%) It’s easy to blah blah about what a massive deal this first film was, the huge effect it had, and the massive risk it represented for pre-Disney Marvel. What can’t be denied is that the first two acts are impeccable. The structure, the performances, everything. If the ending, where Marvel established it’s “Like the hero, but stronger” format, feels a little soft, its all forgiven when Tony Stark blows off the idea of a secret identity. And then Nick Fury? Loved it.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (RT: 84%) The MCU seems to be a playground for jocks with impeccable comic timing. Dave Bautista is the heart of this weird-ass movie, and I’m ready for a Drax trilogy. Maybe it’s time for Peter Quill to grow the fuck up, so GotG3 can score a higher spot on the list. Also, the ending feels a little long. It’s not, probably, but it feels that way. For the future, more Drax and Mantis, less Quill.
9. Iron Man 3 (RT: 79%) The first of these films to score below 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I’ve heard plenty of complaints about this movie, I am there for it. Tony flew a nuke through a wormhole to save the Earth, and now he’s fucked up with anxiety. This is pretty much exactly what I wanted from a superhero movie and I didn’t even know it until I sat down in the theater. Stark gets to be extremely Tony Stark throughout, and the movie makes the wise choice to take away his armor for a big part of the second act. This, maybe, if the first of the movies listed that has a genuinely weak villain, but maybe if they’d stuck with Rebecca Hall instead of switching to Guy Pearce (for “merchandising”) I wouldn’t have had to type all that out.
10. Captain America: Civil War (RT: 91%) I wasn’t terribly keen on the Civil War storyline in the comics, but making it a Captain America movie meant making it about Bucky, and that centers this big, over-stuffed film on that unbreakable friendship between them. As for the central question of the film: In the real world, Tony was right. In the world of the film, Steve was right. Cap didn’t want to sign the accords for two reasons: what if they send the Avengers someplace they shouldn’t go, and what if there’s a problem they need to address but can’t get permission to go. The government that Cap is supposed to be signing on with does both of those things. They send a kill team to assassinate Bucky, who’s been framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and they refuse to let Cap go to Siberia. Thanks, movie, for arranging things so our hero gets to be right.
11. Avengers: Infinity War (RT: 85%) This is another one of those movies that make me think “Eleventh? Surely it should be higher than that” but nope, nothing above feels worthy of being swapped out. I’m not sure why they pulled that whole bit with Hulk losing a fight to Thanos and then hiding away for the rest of the movie (unless they wanted him to keep him from tearing apart the Children of Thanos like cardboard cutouts). I’m also not sure why they wrote Doctor Strange’s dialog the way they did. He’s a neurosurgeon, not a Gandalf from another dimension. “What master do you serve?” sounds bad and is bad. Still, this film did the best job yet of juggling that huge cast of characters, and I’m 100% ready for WandaVision, or whatever they’re calling it.
12. Captain America: The First Avenger (RT: 80%) This is probably the first movie where the main character doesn’t really have a personal journey. He goes from the weakling who wants to do right to the hero who actually can. It’s a solid movie and I just rewatched and enjoyed it a couple weeks back, but without Chris Evans this thing would have gone nowhere.
13. Captain Marvel (RT: 78%) Once again, this seems like a low ranking for a movie I saw in the theater three times (and would have gone a fourth with my niece if family obligations hadn’t interfered). All the Carol and Fury stuff is great, and while I’ve talked already about some of the character moments, it’s also a bummer that Hala and the inside of the Skrull ship look basically like 20 year old TV scifi. Compare the alien tech in this with Thor: Ragnarok and the production design on CM looks like a placeholder that no one swapped out. And then you get to that third act, which is just all-out superhero fun. That first shot of Carol flying gave me goosebumps. Three times. I’m convinced this picture was a billion-dollar earner because, in part, of that bravura ending.
14. Guardians of the Galaxy (RT: 91%) Remember when this was new in theaters and people were talking about it as a herald for the death of grimdark? The movie that opens with a little boy watching his mother die of cancer, then a space man dancing through the ruins of a civilization, kicking the local fauna? I think folks missed that all the humor in this movie was masking a lot of pain, and this wasn’t the bright and upbeat jaunt they’d originally thought. But there was also the space net of space ships, which is not what you’d call the best idea ever, and “Even this green whore—” which was not a winning move. A fun movie on first viewing, I don’t think it really holds up.
15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (RT: 88%) This movie is fine. It’s enjoyable. It hits the right beats, nabs an imaginative sequence from Dave Made A Maze, introduces Black Goliath, gets plenty of genuine belly laughs, and gives fans the Wasp they’ve been waiting for. But it’s time for Walton Goggins to play other characters, because he’s not carrying the “Head Baddie” mantle the way he should. Somebody cast him as the con artist with the heart of gold that we all want him to be, and put someone scary into the roles he’s been getting. Anyway, A-mATW has solid performances, trippy cgi nano-realms, funny jokes, and a solid structure. But I don’t love it and no one can make me love it.
16: Thor (RT: 77%) If you were put a bunch of these movie titles in a list and show them to me in 2007, I would have guessed this one to land at the very bottom. It doesn’t, solely on the strength of the relationship between Thor and Loki. Thor’s love for his brother keeps this thing afloat, even in the face of the Warriors Three and the Odinsleep. Frankly, it was a stroke of genius to establish Mjolnir’s rules about being worthy by having the lead character declared unworthy, then earn it. But it was such a weird movie, and only that brotherly relationship made it work.
17. Ant-Man (RT: 82%) This film is haunted by the Edgar Wright picture it could have been. It’s also haunted by the specter of The Wasp, who should have been part of the plot from the beginning. Honestly, a super-hero heist movie is a no-brainer and ought to be a massive win, but this movie felt like a jumble of fun ideas and weak ones.
18. Avengers: Age of Ultron (RT: 75%) Someone online described Spader’s Ultron voice as a retiree who took a part time job at Home Depot, and yeah, it just doesn’t work. Ultron is one of the scariest of the Avengers’ villains, but this version of him never comes together or feels real. One thing I will say, though, is that it’s funny to remember all the criticisms of this film that said it was overfull with superheroes. Later movies were more crowded, but they made it work. I also question the choice to make Stark the guilty party here. He’s investigating the space spear. It jumps into his computer. Why does that have to be his fault.
19. Iron Man 2 (RT: 73%) The first Iron Man was so wonderful and this was such an amazing misfire. I liked Sam Rockwell quite a bit but they forgot to give Mickey O’Rourke’s character a personality beyond Pissed-Off Guy. And the villains vanish for the middle 45 minutes of the film. Not recommended.
20. Thor: The Dark World (RT: 67%) Oh, look, it’s the movie that drove Natalie Portman out of the MCU. Odin, who spends the whole first movie advocating peace turns into a raging war monger. And the villains, who have great character design, turn out of lack every other aspect of character. Like personalities and motivations. They still hadn’t realized that Chris Hemsworth has excellent comic timing, and this alien invasion of an alien world is ponderous when it could be a sword and planet romp.
21. The Incredible Hulk (RT: 67%) Nobody knows how to make a Hulk movie. He’s a gothic monster. Everyone hates him, including himself, and that loathing sometimes makes him lash out, but he’s good at heart. This film played up his first appearance as though he was a monster, moving in the dark, stalking his victims. It’s the most effective part of the film. Unfortunately, it spins out farther and farther, losing momentum until the big (but unconvincing) fight against “Like The Hulk But Stronger” Abomination in Harlem. Too bad. There’s a gothic monster storyline for the Hulk that could make a gangbusters film
I’ll be seeing Avengers: Endgame this weekend, and I’m curious to see where it will slot in.
Remember the end of DOCTOR STRANGE, where he straps on that super-expensive but thoroughly ruined watch to symbolize that he has learned to accept the broken things that are important to him? I thought that was beautiful because it underplayed the moment. It implied rather than stated, and it did so artfully.
Later, I heard a bunch of people didn’t like the movie because (in part) they thought Strange didn’t change. Never mind that he started off as a guy who was concerned only with his rep, to the point that he wouldn’t see patients if they were too old or sick and his treatment might fail, and at the end of the movie, he wins by losing, and he does so in a way that ensures no one will ever know about it except for him and his two buddies. He has turned himself upside down on reputation and failure, and he’s found a new, better way to live.
But DOCTOR STRANGE is a superhero melodrama, and the less obvious story beats were lost in all the disks of colored light, uncollapsing buildings, and kung fu. And now I think the same thing has happened to CAPTAIN MARVEL.
Now, to be clear, I really, really enjoyed CAPTAIN MARVEL. I saw it twice in the theater already, and once my wife and son go on their trip, I’ll see it again.
FYI: SPOILERS after the jump. You’ve been warned.
5) Forgery Experts Explain 5 Ways To Spot A Fake. Video.
7) How to take awesome food photos by Helen Rosner. (This is a terrific primer on visual composition)
Hey, let’s talk a little bit about something that way too many people have already talked about: the Harry Potter films. And by “talk about” I mean “share this series of three Movies with Mikey episodes about the franchise.
Go ahead and watch. They’re good. If you’re not sure why you should bother, read more below.
The first time I told someone outside my family that I planned to binge all eight Harry Potter movies (nearly 20 hours worth of films but maybe more with bathroom breaks depending on beer) their reply was “Better you than me.”
And I get it. They’re kids films–at least at the start. They have good choices mixed with the not so good, and an inconsistent tone in some places. They take a while to hit their stride. It’s the BLOODLINE effect: how many hours do you have to watch before it “gets good”?
But I thought that binge-watch was valuable. The first movie is adorable, like a 130 million dollar school play. The last is as intense as any big-budget thriller. Making that journey is no easy feat.
I wouldn’t consider myself a Potterhead, or whatever Rowling’s Potter fans call themselves. I don’t visit Pottermore, write fanfic, or play quidditch IRL. I haven’t memorized the biographies of the supporting cast, so I couldn’t tell you where Minerva McGonagall took her gap year or whether Professor Sprout makes her own hats. I’m not that sort of fan about anything.
But I have read the books more than once (unusual for me) and I think there’s a lot to learn from the way the movies stumble and then correct themselves as they go on (which is a weird way to describe that process, I know, because movies don’t create themselves, but you guys know what I mean). I’m always interested in the creative choices behind a work that affects me deeply, which is why I’ve watched Beyond Stranger Things a half-dozen times, and I’ve already watched this three-part documentary twice.
In these videos, Mikey covers the onscreen character choices, the studio-level hiring decisions, and everything in between, showing how they came together to become this weirdly compelling long-form story. And I say “weirdly” because this sort of thing shouldn’t be my jam (except for all the death) but it is, and Mikey touches on that, too.
If you’re interested in how creative work gets made (esp in a group/corporate environment) give these a watch. They’re funny, insightful, and breezy. Neumann is also one of the few Patreon accounts that I feel I can afford to support, if you want to know how strongly I feel about his work.
Anyway, this is where I confess: I just binged these movies last July for my birthday, and watching this documentary makes me want to do it again, just to pick up on more elements that change in each installment: costuming, camera movement, sound design, and so on. And it just so happens that I got a box set for Giftmas. Maybe it should be a reward for finishing this round of edits on my new book.
I bought a ticket to AQUAMAN. Deliberately.
If I’m speaking honestly, Aquaman might be the second superhero I ever really liked as a kid. (after ’67 Spider-man, obviously). This was before I was reading comics, and my sole exposure to the genre was cartoons. I had to look up the name of the show–The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure–but he was my favorite character, with the rings coming out of the bridge of his nose and water blasts/balls/whatever that he threw.
Then came Superfriends and, yeah, lets just drop the whole thing there. Even as a dumb kid I knew Superfriends wasn’t going to fly. I didn’t find a version I liked again until the New 52, which made him just about the only character from that particular reboot that I thought was well served.
Anyway, I almost skipped the film because of that anecdote about Jason Momoa tearing out the end of bookworm Amber Heard’s book because she wasn’t paying attention to him. More here: although it sounds as if he only did it once and she actually likes the dude, annoying prank notwithstanding.
The movie is gorgeous, and dumb, and utterly predictable. There’s a three-stage plot coupon/fetch the macguffin story, with Our Hero as the dumb guy who inexplicably wins over his mentor/super-hot love interest through his ability to… I dunno… withstand a bunch of blows to the head?
Which is a little unfair, because they give Aquaman a bunch of nice heroic moments. Then there’s this:
Character in movie: Atlantis needs something more than a king.
Me, in theater: A democracy.
Character in movie: It needs a hero.
But whatever. the whole pick-your-autocrat-through-trial-by-combat was as stupid in BLACK PANTHER as it is here, but it’s fun to watch. And for once, Ocean Master doesn’t come across as a dink.
Plus, Amber Heard in her fluorescent jelly fish dress, and the drumming octopus. And jousting from the back of a sea horse. And and and. The film is dumb and beautiful and eager to please. Buy some popcorn and have a few laughs, but try not to think about Amber Heard’s book.
In a now-deleted tweet, another author wrote that the Fantastic Beasts movies sounded like the Star Wars prequels, because they focused on worldbuilding at the expense of characterization. That got me thinking about the basic appeal of fantasy stories, and what role worldbuilding and characterization plays in making that appeal long-lasting.
If someone as savvy as the one mentioned above thinks the Fantastic Beast films have Star Wars Prequel-level characterization, that’s a major failure of the WB marketing department. Whatever the flaws of the Fantastic Beast movies, boring lead characters are not one of them. Newt Scamander might be the most peculiar hero of big budget studio adventure films in my lifetime. Even something as simple as the way he stands when he talks to other people subverts the idea of a male hero, the guys who wipe a trickle of blood from the corner of their mouth with their fist.
Honestly, I found Newt’s body language off-putting at first. His body language suggests that he believes other humans are dangerous predators, even the friendly ones. Imagine a Harry Potter who can barely make eye contact with Draco. It’s a bold choice, and it’s about a thousand miles from sulky, petulant Annakin and whatever Liam Neeson was doing.
One the problems with the second film is that the newer additions to the story aren’t as distinctive as the characters from the first film. Grindelwald’s hench-people in particular are a bunch of stoic blank-faces and a big disappointment from the writer who created the faculty at Hogwarts.
But I have to ask, if you want to talk about interesting characters, what about Harry Potter as a character? He comes from an abusive background (without the harmful damage kids in that environment get in the real world). He’s good at sports. He’s earnest and brave and snubs Flashman… er, I mean Draco from the start of the story.
We like him because, in part (and I’ll get to the second part in a bit), he’s a good guy in difficult circumstances, but it’s the specifics of those circumstances that make his story compelling. That’s on the worldbuilding.
Really, it’s Hogwarts. Hogwarts is the centerpiece of the appeal of the Harry Potter stories. Yeah, the characters. Yeah, the names of the characters (which I love). Yeah, the mix of plot threat, magic, interpersonal character bonding and conflict–Rowling has a sense for mixing those things in just the right order. But the Harry Potter books work so well because of a fairly ordinary Brave Young Hero in an extraordinarily appealing setting.
There’s a moment in FB2 where the story briefly returns to Hogwarts and it’s announced by that musical motif. You know the one I mean. It made me wonder why the other characters didn’t have their own music. Shouldn’t Credence’s scenes have their own little jingle? Shouldn’t Grindelwald’s? (Or maybe they did, but if so I didn’t notice) It would have helped establish the various factions in the plot, and helped us connect them.But Hogwarts deserves its own jingle because Hogwarts is the place we want to be.
Personally, I think the worldbuilding is an obsession with fantasy readers and fans. I have seen people complain about The Lies of Locke Lamora because it didn’t give them a sense of the world as a whole. It’s been said that a crime novel is, at its core, about a city, while a spy novel is like a tourist’s travel guide. Well, I think fantasy readers want their novels to be expeditions into fictional places, and I suspect Rowling has plenty more travel guide in her.
This isn’t to say that characterization isn’t important–obviously it is–but I think what really matters (this is the second part I mentioned above) is the relationships between the main characters. How they’re connected, how that relationship is tested, how it survives (or doesn’t).
I think this is the biggest flaw in the FB2: not enough emphasis is put on the connections between the characters. Jacob and Queenie spend most of the movie apart. Credence and Nagini need a scene to demonstrate the powerful connection between them to make his climactic choice meaningful. Leta’s connection to Newt is demonstrated powerfully, but not her connection to Theseus. And Grindlewald’s connections to his henchfolk is simply assumed.
Yeah, the movie has problems, but I think it’s better than people think. As I said on Twitter, in a few years’ time I expect people to reappraise it, especially in light of the FB series as a whole, however long many movies turns out to be.
But I’ll sum up by saying the worldbuilding has to have lasting appeal to sustain a long series, which I think the HCU (Hogwarts Cinematic Universe, ‘natch) does. Also, it helps to have interesting supporting characters and standard heroic leads with strong relationships to the other characters, because it’s the connections the readers will invest in, not the characters themselves. IMO.
Some short reviews of Halloween-themed binge watches from this year (which isn’t over yet, obviously).
Horror is at once my least- and most-favorite genres. I don’t like stuff that too gross or gory. I’m not a big fan of torture, or grime, or people being torn apart. Misogynistic torture porn is my least favorite sort of movie. Spooky, evocative supernatural stories might be my favorite.
Anyway, this is what I’ve watched so far this year. And I’m sending this out as a first draft, so please forgive any awkward phrasing.
I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (Netflix streaming): A quiet, understated ghost story about a timid live-in nurse who comes to care for a horror writer with dementia. She slowly comes to realize that the author’s most famous work may not have been fiction, and that her house might be haunted. There’s not a lot of story here, but there is a lot of quiet dread.
The Shining (Netflix streaming): Kubrick’s horror classic still holds up today, and it does so without a lot of shadowy figures in dark rooms. King himself was unhappy with this adaptation because he wanted an everyman actor to play Jack Torrance, because to him it’s a story of an average man who loses control. King thought Jack Nicholson was too much of a wild man, and famous for his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But this is Kubrick’s story, and he’s got other things on his mind. Brilliant film, full of unforgettable moments.
Ringu (library dvd): Somehow I’ve missed this up until now, but I confess that I admired it more than I enjoyed it. There are, as far as I can tell, two sorts of ghost story. One where the main purpose of the story is to uncover a hidden truth, and one that doesn’t have a hidden narrative to uncover. The Shining was the latter, while Ringu is the former. That hidden narrative was interesting enough, but it didn’t feel solid.
The Sixth Sense (Netflix streaming): Everyone talked about the twist ending of this show, but what really makes this movie work is that it has two twists. The first is spoiled by that famous four-word line of dialog, and it takes a long time to get there. Still an enjoyable movie, though.
1408 (library dvd): A haunted hotel room is a fine idea for a story, but this whole thing feels expensive but uninspired. I enjoyed it while I watched it, but I’ve already forgotten most of the story.
Kwaidan (Netflix dvd): A big hit at Cannes in 1965, this anthology of ghost stories is very long and very beautiful, in a lavish studio technicolor way.
The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix streaming): Probably the scariest thing I watched this year, and I loved it. The combination of kids in danger, sound design, and continually building tension made me turn it off, more than once. After the first few episodes, I felt acclimated to it and was happy to binge to the end. Loved it, except the end. Honestly, the ending was pretty much a betrayal of the first nine-and-a-half episodes. But the rest of it was ::chef’s kiss::
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Netflix streaming): I never watched the sitcom or the various cartoons, and I never read the comics, so I put this one on my queue solely based on the strength of the trailer. The show aims high, mixing horror and comedy and a bit of camp, which is not an easy tone to hit. It has a great cast, sharp writing, and it amazing to look at.
Ash vs The Evil Dead season 3 (library dvd): Speaking of difficult tones that are hard to get right, this third season of Ash vs the Evil Dead works like gangbusters, introducing Ash’s daughter, and losing some of the convoluted plotting off the earlier seasons. Even Lee Majors makes a brief return. I said above that I didn’t much care for gore, but I make an exception here. They don’t always get the tone right, but but they get it right enough that I can stick with it. It’s a shame the show was cancelled, but what a send off. I loved it enough to take a chance on the dvd commentary (which I regretted, as usual).
Constantine (Netflix streaming): There’s a lot of money and energy and charisma behind this, but it just doesn’t hold up.
Frailty (library dvd): Axe murder is one of the horror tropes that I try to avoid as much as possible, because it’s usually an excuse for fake gore, and I’m not a fan. But this movie turns the camera away at just the right moment, leaving the focus on the murderous father on a mission from God and his relationship with his sons. Super effective and very creepy.
It (2017) (library dvd): There are a few problems with this film, especially the way they treat Beverly as a plot device. But it has tremendous energy and a fantastic balance between youthful camaraderie and the threats surrounding the kids, whether supernatural or not. The structure was so solid I did a beat sheet for it. Now I just need to find time to break it down farther.
Ganja & Hess (library dvd): This is art-horror from the early seventies, a vampire movie directed by a Bill Gunn, a black playwright, actor, and director who also plays a supporting role here. Like a lot of older artsy movies, it tries the patience at times, but it also thwarts every genre expectation (in a good way). The original film was butchered by a distributor who wanted to show a blaxploitation film, but it’s been restored to the 110 minutes it’s supposed to be. Worth seeing, mostly because it’s different and an under appreciated classic.
The Night Stalker (my own dvd): One of the few movies I own. It has problems, but the structure is perfect, and it deserved to be a huge hit when it first aired. I watch it every year, and still love it.
Salem’s Lot (1979) (my own dvd): Far superior to the 2004 version, this simplification of Stephen King’s original novel still has chills, even 40 years later. My wife didn’t think much of it, since much of the staging and performances are dated, but revisiting it over the summer convinced me to pick up a copy of my own, and I’m glad I did.
The Transfiguration (Netflix streaming): Another art-horror film, this time one that combines the vampire story with hood dramas. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy in Harlem who is obsessed with vampires and blood-drinking. This is another slow, quiet film, without much in the way of supernatural elements. I’m glad I saw it, but I probably won’t watch it again.
He Never Died (Netflix streaming): Like Kwaidan, this isn’t exactly horror, but it’s close enough to qualify. Henry Rollins plays a sort of immortal vampire, but one who feasts on flesh as well as blood. And he’s lived for so long that he has pretty much given up on life. Then he discovers that he has a daughter, and his quiet, controlled life begins to spin out of control. The movie is funnier than it sounds, with Rollins giving a quiet, droll performance, but it looks like that miniseries about the character will never happen.
Interview with a Vampire (Netflix streaming): This holds up much better than I expected, possibly because it’s a period piece that feels so grounded in its period. Few things become dated as quickly as a child actor’s performance (see Salem’s Lot above) but not Dunst. But the real strength of this film is the relationship between Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. They’re great together.
Hereditary (Netflix dvd): Probably the second scariest thing I’ve watched so far this year. It felt a little confused, but it was one of a number of stories where the protagonists were threatened by spells and magic rather than traditional monsters or hauntings. Great performances, with a whole bunch of scary images at the end that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s not often that I see horror films that make magical rituals or other spell casting work, but boy, does it.
The Ritual (Netflix streaming): This one combines a ritual magic story with a lost-in-the-woods monster story, and is mostly getting good word of mouth based on its unusual (and highly effective) monster design. The monster is not the real appeal, though. It’s the mounting tension and inexplicable threats the characters face.
The Wailing (library dvd): The third and final film about horror driven by magic spells, and this one had my wife and I guessing until the very end. Who is trying to do harm? Who is trying to help? It’s a longish film and starts off as a sort of horror comedy, with a buffoonish protagonist. As it progresses, shit gets more and more serious, and the buffoon turns into something else. I don’t think the film was playing fair 100% of the time, but I still loved it.
Evolution (library dvd): A quiet piece of French body horror about children in an island community who are being experimented on by their “mothers”. It’s weird and unsettling, filled with long quiet moments and blank, staring expressions. I liked it, but sometimes I thought it was deliberately trying my patience. Art/body-horror, if you can believe it. Side note: the ocean is creepy.
Slither (library dvd): This James Gunn horror comedy isn’t as funny as I remember it, but it was still pretty great. It’s hard to believe this was a huge flop that scared filmmakers off horror comedies for years. Nathan Fillion was his usual charming self, but some of his dialog could have been sharper. it was Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker that really make the film work. We could stand to have more alien invasion horror.
The Endless (Netflix streaming): A bunch of people have recommended this to me, but the sound mix made it hard for me to hear. I’ll have to try again another time, maybe when I have a chance to really crank the volume.
The Monolith Monsters (library dvd): I’ve seen this several times over the course of my life, and it was nice to revisit. It’s the only black and white show on this year’s list, which is unusual for me, but I really love the central conceit, about mindless alien stones that petrifies people.
Stranger Things (Netflix streaming): Oh hey there’s this sci-fi horror thing on Netflix you might have heard of. It’s pretty great. I’ve watched it a bunch of times, but every time I put it on, I end up getting hooked.
2) A Songwriting Mystery Solved: Math Proves John Lennon Wrote ‘In My Life’. Mathematical analysis applied to musical authorship, which I find damned interesting.
3) Political Moderates Are Lying: How group social dynamics push moderate voters to extremes. (Not a perfect article, but interesting.