Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Zack Clopton's 2015 Film Retrospective

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing…


And some, I assume, are good people.”

Welcome to the end of 2015. It was a year like any other, full of tragedies and victories, upheavals and compromises, heroes and morons. We all did our best to survive and sometimes it was a struggle. Most pressing to this blog’s topic, it was a year full of movies. Good ones, bad ones, blockbusters and flops. I saw a bunch and I’m going to tell you about ‘em.

In 2014, I did my best to make Film Thoughts worth reading as often as possible. This effort continued into 2015, I’m happy to say. I completed seven Report Cards, including a lengthy one covering the James Bond franchise. Each series was bolstered by multiple Recent Watches reviews. I completed two themed “weeks,” revolving around eighties action stars. I launched two new features, in hopes of varying the blog’s content some. The Bangers n’ Mash Show kept up its two-episodes-a-month schedule and found fans here and there. The Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon was maybe the most consistent I’ve ever had. I even managed a 25 day long Christmas movie marathon! All of this contributed to the blog reaching its widest audience yet. Thank you all so much.

Every year, I devoted a paragraph to the talented people we lost in the year past. And 2015 was a dozy. In particular, the cult/horror genre lost so many iconic faces. The passing of Christopher Lee and Wes Craven both hit me especially hard, as their work touched my life in so many ways. Leonard Nimoy, Robert Z’Dar, Roddy Piper, Yvonne Craig, Betsy Palmer, and Gunnar Hansen were people on my wavelength. To loose them made the universe less of a cool place. We lost Omar Shariff, Dick Van Patten, B.B. King, Louis Jorduan, Anita Ekberg, Rod Taylor, Robert Loggia, James Horner, George Barris, and “Motherfucking” Lemmy Kilmister. We also lost the Dissolve, perhaps the greatest film website that will ever exist. Let’s have a moment of silence for all of them. Except for Lemmy, who is better honored with a shot of Jack and a flash of the devil horns.

As for the year in film, it was an interesting. 2015 will go down in the books as one of my favorite summer movie seasons. Not only did I like most every movie I saw in the theaters this year, I really liked the majority of them. Maybe I’m getting better at calibrating my expectations. Or maybe not. I found myself slightly disappointed with the indie horror scene in 2015. There were some great films released, sure. However, I found the year a little lacking in surprises.

Either way, I was left with an interesting year-end list. In the months between January 1st and December 31st, I saw 86 new releases, three shy of last year’s record. Below is THE LIST, ranking all of them, from most to least favorite. Give it a look and reflect on the year that was.


1. White God
Heart-wrenching and powerful tale about dogs, cruelty, and the healing power of love. The dog sequences are incredible, the film getting fantastic performances out of the talented animals. The human scenes tell a parallel story about acceptance and rebellion. The violent last act is surprisingly visceral. Intended as a political allegory, this is just as potent as a fable.

2. The Hateful Eight
Tarantino’s most political and brutal film. Despite its western setting, the script examines what “hate” means in modern terms. The super-wide framing gives a small story an epic scope. The ending is bitterly ironic. The cast is excellent, especially the unlikely friendship Sam Jackson and Walter Goggins form. In other words, another fantastic film from my favorite filmmaker.

3. It Follows
Tension builds and builds, leading to fantastic shocks, without letting up. The simple image of someone walking is packed with dread, creating an original threat. The ordinary setting roots the story while the pulsating musical score prepares the audience for the chills to come. Moreover, the director never cheats and story is full of meaning and complexity.

4. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
Out of all of the protagonists in 2015, I think I related most to sad, lonely, awkward Kumiko. The world’s inability to understand her and her quest for a special meaning via her treasure hunt, is beautifully brought to life by Rinko Kikuchi’s touching, subtle performance. The film’s sad story is heightened by eccentric humor. The ending is incredibly cathartic. And Bunzo is awesome.

5. The Voices
Shows life through the eyes of a schizophrenic serial killer. This leads to funny moments, mostly thanks to the talking animals. When we cut to reality as it is, the film becomes effectively grim. Ryan Reynolds is brilliant and the supporting cast is full of great actresses. Equals parts funny, devastatingly sad, and horrifying, it wraps up with a beautifully cathartic conclusion.

6. Inside Out
Does a surprisingly good job of encapsulating the complexity of the human mind. The characters are lovable and the jokes are frequently hilarious. Typically, Pixar creates an imaginative world full of interesting aspects. Mostly, the story will tug at your heart strings, providing keen insight into the young mind during a crisis and making the case for sadness.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller still has it. Essentially a two-hour car chase, powered by a pulsing sense of energy that rarely lets up on the action and mayhem. A fascinating world full of weird detail is created. Yet the film engages with some interesting themes of masculinity and feminism. Furiosa and Immortan Joe are already rightfully cult icons. I wish Max himself was given more to do.

8. The Nightmare
Terrifying exploration of sleep paralysis. The recreations of the nightmares are disturbing, with a home-made quality. I like the way it connects pop culture and Jungian archetypes to the subject matter. Like Ascher’s previous film, he lets each interviewee speak for themselves, so this wanders into some woo-y territories. It’s a cliché but: Good luck sleeping after seeing this one.

9. Turbo Kid
Delightful, intentionally retro, hilarious riff on the post-apocalyptic genre. The gore is so over-the-top that it pushes past “Monty Python” territory. Yet the production design is surprisingly good. Mostly, it’s the sense of heart that makes this lovable. You really want to see the Kid and Apple – the Manic Robot Dream Girl for a new generation – run off together.

10. What We Do in the Shadows
Makes the case that being a vampire would be awfully inconvenient. This is a consistently hilarious comedy, many of the laughs coming from incredibly talented cast. Many of the gags – like the Swearwolves, the identity of the Beast, and Stu – pay off brilliantly. An immediate cult favorite because of its brilliant, this is one I suspect movie fans will be quoting for years to come.

11. Anomalisa
Beautifully melancholic tale about an alienated man struggling to find connection. The stop-motion animation is a fantastically deployed gimmick, used to give everyone but the two main characters the same faces and voices. When the titular Lisa appears, it affects the audience as much as it does Michael. The romance is gorgeously created, bittersweet and touching.


12. The Martian
Ultimately, this is two movies. The first, about Matt Damon surviving on Mars, features his best performance in years and is equally funny and perilous. The second, about the scientist trying to save him, is nearly as good. Though slightly dry, the excellent ensemble cast helps keep it interesting. The tone remains light but exciting, proving why this was such a crowd-pleaser.

13. Crimson Peak
I’m predisposed to love this. A full-fledged homage to gothic melodrama, del Toro’s latest is gorgeous. The sets are phenomenal. The color, emphasizing the mansion’s coldness and Edith’s warmth, is impressive. The only disappointments are the ghosts, which are overly reliant on jump scares. Of course, since this is del Toro, it’s not the ghosts that are the monsters but the people.

14. Ex Machina
Three strong performances anchor a story about uncertain alliances. The sci-fi story, which can be read as a typical robotic revolt story or a feminist metaphor, builds suspense by making the audience wonder whom the main character can trust. The direction and music are both chillily detached, creating an unnerving atmosphere that pays off with the bloody ending.

15. Jurassic World
Prepare for an unprecedented amount of dino-carnage. Which moment was better? Starlord and his squadron of charming raptors? The pterodactyl rampage? The spectacular Mosasaur? Or the three-way dinosaur battle? The script has some minor issues and the Indominous Rex is perhaps overdone as a threat. There was a reason this was the popcorn event of the summer though.

16. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Refreshingly comic book-y in its storyline. There’s so much plot here – something is always being thrown at the viewer – but the movie trusts the audience to keep up. Even with hordes of massive action sequences, the film still takes time for some slow-paced character moments. James Spader’s Ultron is a delightful villain and Hawkeye actually makes himself useful.

17. The Final Girls
A hugely likable pair of leading ladies gets you in the door. The movie does more then just mock slasher clichés. It ramps the genre up for silly laughs. While there is plenty of humor, what makes this truly good is that it actually has a heart. There’s an effecting mother/daughter drama under the goofball humor and meta-parody. The only problem is… Why is it rated PG-13?

18. Krampus
Krampus makes a triumphant screen debut. Despite its horrific content, the film is sincerely about the spirit of the season. It packs in the holiday horror action. Though the titular creature is slightly disappointing, the killer toys and evil gingerbread men are awesome. The reliance on practical effects is admirable. A solid cast is the bow on this twisted Christmas gift.

19. The Boy
Slow-burn psychological thriller about the effects of loneliness on a young boy. The cast is incredible and the film takes its time to develop their world and personality. The film slowly becomes more menacing, developing a suffocating tone of dread, building towards an inevitable act of violence. A very impressive debut from its director, screenwriter, and most of its cast.


20. Cooties
Emphasizing comedy over horror, this zom-com has an extraordinarily funny cast. They have no problem juggling the hilarious, absurdist dialogue. As a variation on the zombie premise, it has some fun playing with the subgenre’s rules. If it had been any longer, it probably wouldn’t have been able to sustain the fun, poppy energy it has.

21. Cop Car
Cutting between the quasi-comic adventures of two tween boys and a psychotic cop covering his murderous tracks makes for an interesting contrast.  The boys are realistic and hilarious. Kevin Bacon is terrifying as the committed villain. When the two plot threads meet, “Cop Car” becomes an intense thriller and an unlikely battle of wits. A really likable, well-made indie.

22. Spectre
Moody but still occasionally funny Bond adventure. The subtext about surveillance or tying Bond’s previous enemies together doesn’t quite work. SPECTRE is reintroduced nicely and Christophe Waltz is a fine Blofeld. Craig and Lea Seydoux have winning chemistry. The action is predictably explosive. If this is indeed Craig’s final Bond film, it’s a satisfying one.

23. Clown
Grisly, pitch black horror-comedy that spins its one note premise into some creepy body horror, producing a decent mythology around the titular clown. Many sequences are equally funny and dark, building towards a fantastic sequence in a kids play-pen. The final act has the film transforming into an old-school, supremely satisfying monster movie.

24. The Hallow
Intense Irish monster movie puts an interesting spin on the fearsome fey concept. The monsters, a cross between trees and insects, make an impression. The body horror element is strong, especially once the main character becomes infected. Tension rises during a number of well-orchestrated scenes, such as a hand reaching through a floorboard or an endangered baby in a car.

25. The Good Dinosaur
Took me a while to figure out that this is essentially a frontier survival story WITH DINOSAURS. The animation is gorgeous. Pixar is unafraid to go to intense places. Arlo and Spot’s relationship is touching and funny. The story is episodic, the protagonists bouncing from encounter to encounter. A dream sequence is a little too on the nose as well.

26. Creep
Quirky found-footage thriller that has fun slowly revealing the psychosis of its central character. Mark Duplass is a compellingly off-putting and oddly funny villain. The movie generates some decent spookiness, like in one nighttime scene. Some of its other reveals are more successfully strange, like Peach Fuzz. The movie even seems to be mildly mocking the found footage genre.

27. Carol
At first, the chilly tone alienated me. However, as Carol’s struggle to reclaim her daughter in an intolerant age comes into focus, the film gets better. The gentle romance between the two leads slowly drew me in. The production design, music, and direction are all as beautiful as you’d expect. Rooney Mara is fantastic but Cate Blanchett is far too melodramatic for my taste.

28. Deathgasm
Destined to become a horror fan favorite. Exist comfortably within the minds of its adolescent protagonists, with everything that implies. The film has a keen understanding of the metal genre. The cast is obviously having a blast and all the actors have fantastic chemistry together. The gory monster effects are perfectly tuned with the outrageous sense of humor.

29. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Determined to please fans, which is both an attribute and a fault. It emulates “A New Hope” a bit too closely. Everything BB-8 does is amusing. Finn and Rey are great addition to the universe, though I’m still not sold on Adam Driver. The original cast are well handled, Chewie and Han given plenty to do. The commitment to practical effects is nice. Overall, it’s entertaining!

30. Knock Knock
Though it’s tempting to interpret this movie as either a feminist or sexist statement, in truth Eli Roth is fucking with his audience in much the same way the two femme fatales fuck with Keanu. A cruel psychological thriller with the heart of a sleazy exploitation film and moments of absurd comedy, this beautifully shot and theatrically acted flick is sure to leave people talking.

31. Digging Up the Marrow
Presents a fascinating mythology, about underground tunnels populated with monsters. The scribe of that mythology is played brilliantly by Ray Wise. The film walks a fine line between laughing at and being intrigued by this eccentric character. When the latex monsters appear, they’re quite startling. The mockumentry presentation is mostly a gimmick though an unobtrusive one.

32. Kingsman: The Secret Service
Rarely have I been this split on a movie. The politics are definitely problematic, the script slips up a few times, and Mark Millar’s trendy nihilism rears its ugly head. On the other hand, Matthew Vaughn still has an unparalleled ability for entertaining action scenes, the cast is lots of fun, and the soundtrack is perfectly in tune with the film’s tone. I guess that evens out to three stars?

33. Hungry Hearts
Intense thriller built around two performances. Alba Rohrwacher is totally convinced of her character’s crazy beliefs. Adam Driver, meanwhile, is likable for the first time. An infant’s life is at risk, very high stakes for a character-based drama. Though the conflict is frighteningly plausible, the script eventually overheats with melodrama. The climax is especially preposterous.

34. The Peanuts Movie
Adorably translates Schultz’ style into 3-D. By building a story around Charlie Brown’s mission to impress the Red-Headed Girl, it dispels the episodic aspects of the specials. Snoopy’s fantasy sequences don’t contribute to the story but they’re still damn cute. Though it could’ve been more melancholy, the film still captures the heart and humor we associate so closely with the brand.

35. Everly
Pulpy, incredibly bloody, and slightly sarcastic action thriller. Salma Hyack is a capable action heroine, leaping, bouncing, and shooting through what is essentially a live action anime. This becomes apparent as the story involves in more outrageous, sadistic directions. Yet there’s some heart and even a brief poetry in this gory comic book of a flick, making for a satisfying viewing.

36. Maggie
Depressing father/daughter drama that happens to be about zombies and star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnie and Abigail Breslin both give fine performances. The movie bleakly captures a world at the tail-end of a zombie apocalypse. Though slow moving, all the talk of death builds towards an emotional catharsis in the final act.

37. Ant-Man
Funny riff on a typical Marvel superhero story. Paul Rudd’s effortless charm, a handful of fun supporting parts, and a genuinely touching love of family roots this one in reality. The size-shifting sequence provides plenty of interesting visuals. The gimmick also makes the action scenes dynamic and amusing. Lastly, the movie is willing to get surprisingly weird in its last act.

38. Tales of Halloween
Like all anthologies, this is uneven. The movie begins with its weakest, most mean-spirited stories. Bousman’s and Gierasch’s segments are dire. Things pick up in the second half. “This Means War” and “Friday the 31st” are both hilarious and the last two sequences aren’t bad either. Funnier and more ghoulish fun then the other indie anthologies we’ve seen recently.

39. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau
When you hear insane behind-the-scenes stories like this, it’s a miracle any movie gets made. Richard Stanley’s original ideas sound interesting and deeply noncommercial. Watching the production fall apart is interesting but it’s the insane antics of the eccentrics involved – like an asshole Val Kilmer, a trolling Marlon Brando, and a fucking wizard – that makes this fascinating.

40. Pod
Dysfunctional family drama wrapped up in a conspiracy horror/thriller. The direction is showy yet there’s still some horrific jolts. The stagey setting creates a creeping atmosphere. Mostly, it’s the cast that makes this worth seeing. Brian Morvant seems genuinely crazy while Lauren Ashley Carter continues to establish herself as a prime scream queen. The ending is a bummer though.

41. Jupiter Ascending
The Wachowski create an insanely detailed sci-fi world. Obviously intended as an on-going comic or a TV series, the script has to parse a huge universe into a two-hour movie. This leads to a complex back-story and a plot that misses a few beats. But the gorgeous special effects, imaginative world, boundless ambitions, and fun craziness make the film a good time.

42. Absolutely Anything
At times, you see glimpses of Python-esque absurdity, such as the aliens having girly names. Other scenes are a lighter brand of comedy, like Pegg creating his ideal body. The romantic comedy scenes are routine though Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale have nice chemistry. Robin Williams’ talking dog adds some effervescent fun, especially with that tidy ending.

43. Chappie
Chappie is adorable, an innocent learning about his own potential. His relationship with his make-shift family is surprisingly sweet. When focused on action, this is less successful. Die Antwoord are unappealing. Blomkamp wears his influences, including “Short Circuit” and “RoboCop,” on his sleeves. Hugh Jackman’s villain is grotesquely cartoonish. An uneven but interesting film.

44. Terminator Genisys
Makes complete mince meat of the mythology, via a convoluted and sometimes confusing storyline. Human Quaalude Jai Courtney is typically bland. However, old Arnold is fun. Emilia Clarke is inspired casting. The action is ludicrously fun, the comic relief is well deployed, and the mechanical threat is a clever special effects creation. I liked it!

45. Stung
Fun throwback to fifties big bug flicks as filtered through gooey eighties creature features. The giant, killer wasps are memorably twisted and the body horror elements work especially well. The reliance on practical effects is nice, though even the CGI is pretty good. The leads are likable and the humor is fun, without being flippant. The ending definitely goes on for too long.

46. The Visit
M. Night adapts so thoroughly to found footage that, aside from his bizarre dialogue, you can’t even tell he directed this. The actors playing the psycho grandparents are creepy. Thanks to them, this relatively typical found footage flick builds towards some good tension in the last act. I appreciate the attempt to incorporate a real theme into the film but it’s a little ham-fisted.

47. Dude Bro Party Massacre III
Exceedingly bizarre parody of eighties slasher films and frat movies. Many of the gags are brilliant, in a weird way. Such as the commercial breaks, the bag of oranges running joke, the celebrity cameos, the over-the-top death scenes, dancing robots, puppies, and ghostly conclusion. Yet it’s so uninterrupted in its weirdness that it’s an exhausting watch.

48. Final Girl
Handsomely photographed mash-up of the “slasher” and “teen girl assassin” genres. The artistic direction pairs well with an exaggerated script. The set-up is suspenseful. Abigail Breslin is better than the actors around her. It’s satisfying watching the prepared heroine turn the table on her would-be tormentors. The hallucinations are distracting, pushing too far into a weird zone.

49. Ricki and the Flash
Either Jonathan Demme softened Diablo Cody’s script or she’s maturing as a writer. The character interaction is honest and thoughtful. The dialogue is only occasionally in-your-face. The romance between Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield proves more interesting than the family drama. Somehow, the ending still feels earned, putting an emotionally sweet bow on the flick.

50. Extraordinary Tales
As a psychological examination of Poe, this comes up short. As an anthology flick, it has the clever idea of maintaining the text. The animation styles are varied, creating creepy, interesting, or pretty images. The “Tell-Tale Heart” and “M. Vladimir” segments are especially impressive. The celebrity narration, including an archive recording of Bela Lugosi, is a clever gimmick.

51. Z for Zachariah
Low-key post-apocalyptic tale with a quiet but nuanced human heart. Margot Robie’s earthy performance anchors the film while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine play off her nicely. The focus isn’t on the circumstances of the apocalypse or the daily routine of survival but rather on the characters. The film slowly drawls you into its focused, sad world.

52. The Editor
Spoof of giallos that sacrifices laugh-a-minute hilarity for spot-on accuracy of its chosen topic, nailing the color, dubbing, and soundtrack. Even for a spoof, the plot meanders to odd places. Not to say there aren’t any laughs. Many of gags, about fingers or a probably gay actor, are hilarious. A tone of comedic wildness is maintained throughout, up to the amusingly nutty ending.

53. Backcountry
Could’ve been subtitled “Reasons I’ll Never Go Camping.” The script does an above-average job of making its characters, especially the idiot boyfriend who’s responsible for everything that goes wrong, seem human. Despite the shaky-cam direction, the bear attacks are still riveting and intense. Though it generates some scares, the movie seemingly trails off in its last third.

54. Slow West
Visually impressive western with a quirky cast and laid-back pacing. Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a truly off-beat performance as the boy that saves the soul of an amoral gunfighter. The film focuses on the price of violence, as none of its gunfights are clean, quick, or dignified. I also like how it shows the diversity of the west, with many different accents putting in an appearance.


55. Tomorrowland
Frustratingly uneven. There are moments of exciting, sweeping sci-fi vistas. The cast is good. Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy could honestly become forces to be reckoned with. On the other hand, the violence is mean-spirited. The action scenes feel like they’re from a different movie. Despite its message of optimism, the filmmakers come off as hopelessly grumpy old men.

56. Spring
Off-beat hybrid of body horror and mumblecore romance. The progression from drama to horror works nicely. Seeing the protagonist integrate himself with the Italian setting is interesting. Both leads are good. The premise allows for many different monstrous transformations.  However, the script’s desire to justify its own mythology with convoluted science slogs down the last third.

57. Bone Tomahawk
They say it’s the journey, not the destination that matters. That’s certainly true in “Bone Tomahawk,” a horror/western hybrid that takes its time getting to the action. Yet this provides opportunities for the excellent cast to work with their eccentric characters. When the horror emerges, it’s brutal. Patient fans of either genre will probably find something worthwhile here.

58. Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story
Feature adaptation of a creepy web-series has some spooky tricks up its sleeve. For every effective jolt, it deploys one of those tactics – like jump scares or video distortion – a few times too many. I wish the subtext about addiction or surveillance was expanded on. It’s definitely too long, with several superfluous scenes. It earns points for that Angus Scrimm cameo though.

59. Dark Places
Despite having a loaded cast and being based on a best seller, this grim thriller went direct-to-video. Yeah, the plot is a bit convoluted. The reveal of a second killer comes out of nowhere. The film climaxes with a fizzle. Still, the actors work well, especially Charlize Theron’s gritty turn. The mystery kept me involved. The themes, of memory and forgiveness, are incorporated well.

60. A Christmas Horror Story
The lesser of 2015’s holiday horror offerings. The decision to interweave the stories prevents any of the tales from building up momentum. The haunted school story is full of clichés and lacking in Christmas scenery. The Krampus sequence has a weak ending but a decent middle. The Santa story is repetitive but the twist caught me off-guard. William Shatner’s framing device is fun.

61. Joy
Many undeniably typical Oscar-bait elements, like a voice-over narration or a touchy-feely ending, conflict with quirkier aspects, such as the soap opera framing device or obnoxiously off-beat family members. Jennifer Lawrence’s feisty performance and a handful of powerful moments helps elevate what is otherwise the latest mediocre David O. Russell movie.

62. We Are Still Here
Slow-paced ghost story that mixes a self-involved mythology with a message about grief and accepting death. Long scenes of character development and creeping tension pay off in intense violence. The cast is capable but the script is far too vague, not allowing any actor much room for growth. The overly ambiguous last act is frustrating. I really liked the ghost make-up.

63. Cub
Starts strongly, ends weakly. The young cast is talented and there’s some inspired, gory violence. The forest setting is well shot. By introducing multiple killers, the film negates its own gimmick. Once it becomes a survival story, the movie starts to drag. The nihilistic ending is very disappointing. A scene involving a dog is also very disturbing and not in a good way.

64. Paddington
Adds enough quirky, whimsical elements to the typical kids’ movie formula to prevent being totally forgettable. Instead, it lingers happily in the brain for a few minutes. There’s plenty of quasi-comic CGI mayhem, as you’d expect. The cast, both the characters and the actors, are way better then you’d expect though. Parents won’t totally hate this one, is what I guess I’m saying.

65. The Ladies of the House
If we’re supposed to hate the obnoxious male victims, why does the movie play their plight for suspense? If we’re supposed to root for the female cannibals, why are their antics so extreme? Aside from the unsure gender politics, the direction, music, and torture sequences are routine. Which is a shame, as the cast is talented and there are a handful of poetic moments.

66. Harbinger Down
Extended homage to “The Thing” that features some cool creature effects and a nicely gravelly Lance Henriksen performance. The icy location is well utilized. The characters aren’t very memorable. The script construction is totally route. However, there’s something to be said for a humble monster-fest like this, even if the film fades from memory minutes after watching it.


67. Hellions
When focusing on being a Halloween-themed home invasion thriller, this works fairly well. The heroine is memorable and the director knows how to engineer tense set-pieces. However, too often the script collapses into weirdness-for-weirdness’ sake abstraction, preventing this from being a truly satisfying horror experience.

68. Lost River
The sequences starring Christina Hendricks, set in a hellish night club, create some fascinating images. I couldn’t care less about the other plot, about her son surviving a post-apocalyptic southern town. The visual design, music, and cast are impressive but director Ryan Gosling is too obviously indebted to other directors. Eventually, this one dissolves into a pretentious slog.

69. The Human Centipede III
Tom Six’s fecal-fascinated franchise fully transforms into gross-out comedy. The movie is essentially critic-proof, as its only goal is to disgust. It succeeds, of course. The “satire” of the prison system is childish but least it has a sense of humor about itself. Dieter Laser’s utterly insane performance is the only reason to watch. Truly, the “Citizen Kane” of shit eating movies.

70. Poltergeist
Makes the mistake many horror remakes do, assuming that just copying the original but with updated effects will be enough. This remake seems ignorant of the original’s subtext and tries, unsuccessfully, to flip it in a new direction about home ownership. The cast, Sam Rockwell especially, does good work. However, the movie spins its wheel with an unnecessary extra act.

71. Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’
Since I haven’t watch anything “Dragon Ball” related in a decade, I’m not sure how to respond to this. The comic relief is baffling. The constant build-up to bigger and bigger fight scenes is tedious. I only have so much patience for the formulas of shows like this, these days. I was bored frequently, proving I’ve definitely outgrown this series. The animation is pretty though.

72. Suburban Gothic
Richard Bates Jr.’s disappointing follow-up to “Excision” saddles itself with an obnoxious main character. Most of the characters are obnoxious, for that matter. Which is a shame, since the dialogue is actually sharp and frequently funny. This is in contrast with the jokes themselves, which are juvenile. The storyline is generic, with little interesting or novel about it. 

73. The Green Inferno
Eli Roth’s recycled cannibal cruelty seemingly doesn’t have a point. Beyond some unfocused criticism at college activists, this is mostly a confused act of homage to a long deceased Italian genre. None of the characters are distinct and the gore is sickening. The ending is muddled, throwing in a dumb jump scare and a sequel hook. The cannibals getting high was kind of funny.

74. Goodnight Mommy
Who is creepier, the faceless mother or the weirdly synchronized twin boys? Unfortunately, this Austrian thriller is too chilly for its own good. The pace is agonizingly slow and there’s no music. The script turns in various unsatisfying ways, eventually building towards explicit violence. It wraps up with an incredibly lame twist ending, solidifying the disappointing whole.

75. The Lobster
At first, this eccentric comedy functions as an interesting allegory for being single. The early scenes in the hotel are interesting. However, the script eventually wanders off on unrelated tangents. Combined with the overly mannered dialogue, dawdling pacing, and annoying musical score, not even a pudgy Colin Ferriall and Rachel Weiz rambling bout anal sex can save this.

76. Tremors 5: Bloodlines
Neither of the series creators where involved with this, which is all too obvious. It’s cool to see Burt Gummer back in action but the script doesn’t entirely respect him. The monsters are all entirely CGI and given charmless redesigns. Though the trademark humor is intact, mostly thanks to Jaime Kennedy, sometimes this feels too much like a typical monster movie.

77. Area 51
Oren Peli’s long delayed follow-up to “Paranormal Activity” is unextraordinary in every way. The characters are all stock parts and the film takes far too long to arrive at the titular location. The finale features some interesting visual yet yields zero answers. The rest of it is filled to the brim with the found footage clichés we’re all sick of, including the abrupt ending.

78. Horsehead
Surreal horror film set in the world of dreams. Many of the images, such as the equine villain or an underwater sequence, are striking. The story remains inscrutable, the direction is sometimes annoying, and some scenes produce laughs. The pregnancy/mother imagery doesn’t seem to have much purpose. Maybe this would make more sense if I took a dream analysis course…

79. Fantastic Four
During the first act, I thought “This isn’t so bad!” The relationship between the cast is fairly solid and some of the variations on the mythology are interesting. Once everyone gets their powers, it falls apart. Why are they working for the military? Mr. Fantastic’s stretching still looks awful on-screen. Kate Mara is barely conscious. And the film screws up Dr. Doom beyond recognition.

80. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
Glacially paced and excessively arty, Spike Lee’s vampire story addresses themes of black heritage, addiction, Christianity, fluid female sexuality, and more. The film never coherently focuses on one idea. Stilted dialogue, wooden performances, and a distracting musical score makes this another ambitious but horribly unfocused movie.

81. Night of the Living Deb
For every decent zombie comedies, it seems like there’s ten crappy ones. Every character in this movie is annoying, from the titular Deb on down. The movie’s attempts at comedy are frequently forced and lame. The script has no drive, the plot flopping around in search of a point. The final reveal, concerning how the virus is spread, is mildly clever.


82. The Vatican Tapes
Who would’ve thought that one of the guys who made the “Crank” movies could crap out something this dull? There’s very little of that manic energy here, save one scene involving rioting mental patients. Soon enough, this devolves into dreary exorcism movie clichés and overblown CGI before ending on one of more unpromising sequel hooks I’ve seen recently.

83. Apartment Troubles
Amazingly lacking in entertainment value. The characters are insufferable, floating around on whims. The supporting cast is nothing but abrasive quirks. The plot lacks motivation, bouncing from random encounters. The script is incredibly uncertain about the lesbian aspect. It’s a shame as the cast is talented and there’s an occasional nice moment, such as the poetry reading.

84. Barely Lethal
“Barely Lethal” is right, as the action in this is anemic. The movie claims to parody the high school comedy genre but it actually plays all the clichés totally straight. Most of the cast seems embarrassed, even the usually shameless Samuel L. Jackson. Except for Jessica Alba who is amazingly awful as the villain. Oh, when will we get the teen girl assassin movie we deserve?

85. Zombeavers
Doesn’t really utilize its ridiculous premise that well. The beavers only cut down a tree once! The characters are obnoxious and intensely unlikable. For an intentionally absurd film, the script frequently takes the characters’ romantic bullshit drama seriously. There’s actually very few jokes, as the movie seems to think its knowingly silly premise is enough. It’s not.


86. Burying the Ex
Maybe not the worst movie I saw this year but definitely the one I hated the most. The characters are obnoxious, especially the slob brother who somehow sleeps with models. The script is built upon sexist garbage, of a bitch girlfriend who restrains her boyfriend’s fun. Most of the “humor” is lame puns. Joe Dante should be ashamed and Alexandra Daddario deserves better.


If you've waded through all of that, thank you. I know just presenting a general "best of" or "worst of" or "year in review" article would be easier. That's not how I function. I've been presenting these huge retrospectives for a while now. It's a testament to how many hours I spent plugged into a movie screen every year. That's important to me.

Return tomorrow for Film Thoughts' 2016 Preview, in which I'll discuss the stuff coming next year that I'm excited for. Thanks so much for reading. Let's toast to the year past and the one before us.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 80: The Inevitable Star Wars Episode

It's the last Bangers n' Mash episode of the year! I originally intended this to get out a lot sooner, closer to "The Force Awakens'" release, but end-of-the-year obligations kept me behind. The raw audio file for this episode was two hours and eleven minutes. Yes, you could have watched a "Star Wars" movie in the time it took us to record this. Disappointingly, we talked so much about the seven actual movies that we didn't have much time to discuss the "Holiday Special" or the "Ewok" movies.

Come back tomorrow for my annual year-end retrospective, in which I'll list every new release I saw in 2015. On the 1st, I'll be posting my 2016 Film Preview. Happy New Year's Eve and thank you so much for another great year at Film Thoughts!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2015)

10. The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino announcing that he was working on a new movie would be a bigger deal if he hadn’t announce about a hundred projects over the years he’s never made. When Tarantino is actually writing a movie, with an envisioned production date not far off, that’s exciting. When “The Hateful Eight” was first announced, another western assumed to be a variation on “men on a mission” flicks, the anticipation was already running high. Not long after the project’s announcement, it fell apart, Tarantino canning the whole thing because of a leaked draft. Yet it seems Quentin doesn’t let go of an idea once it grips him. Soon, “The Hateful Eight” was back on track. Seeing how the final film would vary from the leaked screenplay made “The Hateful Eight” enough of an event already. The director’s insistence upon releasing the movie on physical film, in an extra-widescreen roadshow edition, elevated “The Hateful Eight” even further. I drove two and a half hours - slightly less time then it would take to watch it - to see this movie. I have to say, it was worth it.

In the middle of a Wyoming blizzard, a few years after the Civil War, a man sits upon a pile of corpses. A bounty hunter and a former Union Major, he soon comes across a stage coach. Inside, another bounty hunter and his latest target sit. After picking up another stranger, who claims to be the sheriff-in-waiting of the near-by town, the stage coach stops at Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside is a collection of characters with motivations all their own. As they wait out the storm, tension rises, rivalries are established, and blood is spilled.

“The Hateful Eight” has been described as Tarantino’s most political film. It’s not an incorrect assessment. In the lead-up to the film’s release, the director has attracted controversy for attending a Black Lives Matter rally. In this light, “The Hateful Eight” can’t help but seem like a comment on recent events. Racial tension plays a huge role in the film. The events of the Civil War loom large over the film. The lingering resentment between the North and the South, and the still palpable tension between the races, forms the movie’s backbone. Yet “The Hateful Eight” is about many types of hate. The black characters distrust the Mexican characters. A woman is brutally beaten throughout. An atmosphere of suspicion and loathing characterizes the entire movie. The title is well chosen, commenting on a culture boiling over with resentment between the races, the sexes, and humanity in general.

“The Hateful Eight” has also been compared to the director’s earliest film. The movie does have something in common with “Reservoir Dogs.” Both concern men with ambiguous loyalties stuck in a tight location together. However, there’s very little cutting away or extended flashbacks. Once “The Hateful Eight” arrives at Minnie’s Haberdashery, it rarely leaves it. Instead, the movie focuses on the rising tension among the men. Ordinary events, like boiling a pot of coffee, serving up some stew, playing a piano, or sitting in a chair, are laced with suspense. In its second half, “The Hateful Eight” also becomes something like a murder mystery. Either way, the script’s focus is on tightening the screws and keeping the audience guessing.

Throughout his entire career, Tarantino has had a relationship with violence. The director has attracted controversy for his treatment of bloodshed. There’s no doubt that the mayhem in Tarantino’s movies frequently cross over into the cartoonish or joyous. In “The Hateful Eight,” however, the violence is brutal, ugly and direct. Russell frequently cracks Leigh across the face, blackening her eye, bloodying her nose, and knocking out her teeth. Poisoned coffee results in two characters vomits torrents of blood, an extended and sickening moment. Each gunshot has a visceral effect, the bullets ripping through flesh and bone. At one point, a head is shot enough times it explodes into gore. By the end of the film, every character left alive is covered in blood, in agonizing pain as their bodies’ fail. There’s nothing glamorous or fun about the violence here. This is a vicious story about the wages of hate and the violence reflects that.

Even in the leaked first draft, Tarantino boasts how the film would be shot in “GLORIOUS 70MM!” In the months leading up to the film’s release, the plan to roll out a “road show” version in the aforementioned glorious 70mm was announced. The super-widescreen format has two affects on the film. The white, snow-choked Wyoming countryside becomes truly rolling and seemingly limitless. A carriage crossing the snow and ice or a small man marching over the hills appear like huge images. It’s all part of Tarantino’s plan to emulate the epic westerns of the sixties and seventies. Yet most of “The Hateful Eight” takes place inside a small building. Thus, the men’s faces become landscapes. The confines of Minnie’s Haberdashery become a country. The director foreshadows this decision in the movie’s first proper shot. The camera slowly zooms out of the face of a wooden statue of Christ, expanding from the very personal to the very wide.

When reading the leaked screenplay, part of the fun was imagining which actors would play which parts. We knew Tarantino had written roles for Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen. The corresponding characters weren’t too hard to figure out. Two of the leads weren’t announced but the script provided plenty of clues. Major Warren talked with a candor obviously inspired by Samuel L. Jackson. Chris Mannix, meanwhile, was described as wide-eyed and wiry, two attributes that brought Walter Goggins to mind. In the final film, Mannix and Warren begin as bitter enemies, veterans from opposite sides of the war. Yet of all the eight, they are the two with the clearest motivations, a shaky alliance eventually forming. Jackson is experienced at managing Tarantino’s dialogue. The Major is one of the filmmaker’s most vicious anti-heroes, cruel but skilled at manipulating those around him. Jackson brings the part to life with zeal. As for Goggins, he brings a lot of nervous, quirky energy to Mannix, generating humor during the film’s grimmest moments.

Two names I was surprised to hear announced were Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Russell, sporting some magnificent facial hair, plays bounty hunter John Ruth. At first, Ruth appears to be the closest thing the film has to a traditional hero. However, the more time we spend with him, the clearer it becomes that Ruth is a sadistic and dangerous bastard. Russell plays the part as a variation on his usual John Wayne tough guy part, bringing that style’s nasty roots to the surface. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a deeply unglamorous performance as Daisy Domergue. Becoming more and more deformed as the story goes on, Leigh spits back all the hatred the other characters give her. Though a victim, the script doesn’t deny that Domergue is as hateful as the rest. Hopefully, the part will launch the hard-working character actress to wider acclaim.

Though those four roles emerge as the leads, “The Hateful Eight” is still an ensemble film. Smaller but still notable parts are created for its other actors. As Oswaldo Mobray, Tim Roth gets to indulge in all his foppish fancies. Roth is also experienced at spouting the director’s twisted dialogue, turning it into poetry. A nice bit of acting comes when he drops his accent near the film’s end. Bruce Dern, as the old Confederate general, says a lot with a squinting stare or bits of short, barked dialogue. Michael Madsen plays probably the most mysterious of the eight. His character doesn’t say much but, when he does, his scratchy voice makes an impression. Demian Bichir probably gives the least showy of all the actors. He does, however, get to be one half of a great exchange of dialogue in a stable. I also loved Zoe Bell’s brief appearance, which she brings a lot of energy too.

Like many of Tarantino’s films, “The Hateful Eight” is presented as a novel. The film is broken up into six chapters. Only the fifth leaps around in time, Tarantino showing restraint by keeping the story mostly confined to one time and place. The film’s biggest excesses are two moments when the director himself narrates a sequences of events. Though surprising and somewhat funny, it also has the side effect of pulling the audience slightly out of the film. Yet the show reveal of the character’s backgrounds and motivation, the script slowly twisting the screws on the audience, feels like a great book. In its full presentation, “The Hateful Eight” runs 187 minutes long, over three hours. (This includes an intermission.) Yet it zips by very quickly, never feeling bloated or overdone.

Up until it’s sixth chapter, the film version of “The Hateful Eight” follows the first draft relatively closely. Tarantino promised, however, that the final movie would have an entirely different ending. Indeed it does. In the last forty minutes, the writer/director seems to intentionally be throwing right angles at the viewers. Characters previously assumed dead actually survive their wounds. Characters recently introduced die suddenly and violently. Long portions of the last act are devoted to characters debating their loyalties. Or trying to squirm their way out of this grim situation. It’s not exactly tiresome, as the film is still rolling along at a solid clip and the performances are still great to watch. However, the movie definitely looses a bit of steam during this part.

In “Django Unchained,” for the first time, the director worked with a composer to create music for one of his films, instead of solely sampling pre-existing songs and scores. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone contributed an original song. Much was made of Morricone coming aboard to create the score for “The Hateful Eight.” This hype was slightly misleading. Instead of composing an entirely new score, Morricone instead used excerpts from his rejected score for “The Thing.” I’m not necessarily complaining. Both films share a star, a snowy setting, and rising paranoia among a tight cast. Morricone’s music features foreboding, mounting strings which is a good fit for the material. Despite using original music, Quentin can’t resist inserting familiar songs or score snippets. Morricone’s own “Exorcist II” score is memorably sampled. One of David Hess’ songs from “Last House on the Left” makes a notable appearance, adding intensity to a flashback. A song from the Roy Orbison-starring western “The Fastest Guitar in the West” plays over the end credits, a fantastic deep cut.

“The Hateful Eight” has been called nihilistic. Its ending is bitterly ironic, two characters coming to an agreement with death all around them. An important line near the end, “We still have a long way to go,” suggests that relations between the races, genders, and humanity as a whole haven’t improved much since the Civil War era. It’s a powerful message to end on, further marking “The Hateful Eight” as the director’s most political work in years. It’s damn good, a beautifully shot film full of fantastic actors, making a powerful point about the world as it is. [Grade: A]

Friday, December 25, 2015

MEMORIES: Christmas

No holiday is more nostalgic than Christmas. It’s that way for most people, I imagine. Halloween has always been my favorite but there’s no doubt that the 25th of December loomed large in my mind as a child. As a kid, you look forward to it all year, writing your Christmas wish-list up months in advance. This doesn’t make me unusual. American culture has done a good job of elevating Christmas above all other holidays in the national consciousness. Like everyone else, I have many memories associated with Christmas. Considering that’s what this essay series is all about, I figured I’d share some Christmas memories. Since this blog is Film Thoughts and not Holiday Thoughts, all of these memories are focused around movies.

As I’ve been a film fan my entire life, I’ve frequently received movies as gifts. The first time I ever got VHS tapes as a present was so long ago that I can’t even remember unwrapping them. I must have been two or three years old. For Christmas that year, my Aunt got me all the Don Bluth movies out at the time on VHS. I have the vaguest memory of seeing those tapes under the Christmas tree. I heard about the gift so much that this might not even be a real memory. I watched those tapes of “Secret of NIHM,” “An American Tail,” and “The Land Before Time” so many times that the boxes became frayed and tattered. I’m fairly certain this is my earliest Christmas memory.

My next memory is from December of 1996. My parents’ marriage was over. My dad was already living in our basement at the time. He would stay there for about a year before moving out. Because of this, we held Christmas in the basement rec-room that year. One of my dad’s favorite movies is “Highlander.” At the time, we were even members of the Official Highlander Fan Club. They would send us a catalog every few months, full of cheesy merchandise. My dad’s gifts would frequently come from that magazine. A bathrobe, a baseball cap, letter openers, and replica swords were some of the things we ordered. Anyway, I know this was 1996 because one of his gifts that year was the 10th anniversary VHS release of “Highlander.” I remember this because I accidentally opened it. My mom has always reused gift bags, so names and tags would frequently get mixed around. I suppose this is what happened because I remember opening a bag and seeing the tape inside. I sheepishly handed the gift bag to my dad afterwards. No, I don’t know why this memory has lingered in my brain for so many years.

By next December, my dad had moved out. Despite being separated, my parents have always tried to maintain a good relationship. For a few years, we had Christmas over at his place. Another one of my dad’s favorite movies is “Billy Jack.” My dad even loves the totally bonkers sequels. He has weird taste. Around that time, the entire “Billy Jack” series had been released in a VHS box set. I distinctly remember this set because the box had a faux-denim pattern to it. The back of the box happily declared that this was the first time “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” had been released on home video. When my father unwrapped the box, he was nearly moved to tears and told us “it was the best gift we ever got him.” That was a sweet gesture but, that it was directed at such odd films… Well, that’s just my dad.

Kids have notoriously bad taste. In 1998, I would’ve been ten years old. So I was still in the age range where my taste was questionable. Two would-be blockbusters that came out the previous summer was “Lost in Space” and “Godzilla.” I saw both in the theater. I liked the former but didn’t enjoy the latter that much. Both were out by Christmas and, for whatever reason, I asked for both. My cousin, who is about fifteen years older than me, ended up gifting both to me that year. This memory sticks out to me two reasons. We opened gifts at my grandparents’ house that year. It was an unusually December that year. I remember the sun light shining through the picture window, onto the big couch where we all sat. My grandfather would pass away the next year which is why, I suppose, this memory sticks out to me. I watched both tapes a lot, even though both movies are fairly lousy.

That same cousin was also a frequent shopper at our local Suncoast, the topic of the previous Memories column. As I got older, my taste in cinema became far more discerning. As a teenager, extended family members would ask me what I wanted for Christmas. I got into the habit of writing up very long lists of DVDs I wanted, saying anything from the list would be fine. When we visited with my cousin’s family for Christmas, I unwrapped a box with three films inside. I don’t recall what the third one was but I definitely remember receiving a budget version of “The Shining” and “Superman II.” I didn’t own the first “Superman.” On one hand, you have to put on a polite face for family members. That disappointment can be hard to mask though. I’m pretty sure my cousin didn’t notice. I discreetly returned both disc and purchased superior versions. It happens.

Sometimes, I received unexpected gifts from that side of my family. One year, I can recall unwrapping the “Dr. Phibes” films, the Midnite Movies release from MGM. The gift was from my grandmother, who was hardly the person to buy me horror movies for Christmas. She’s a devout Baptist, just to give you an idea. I later learned that my mom bought the movies and gifted them under my grandmother’s name. Still, the pleasant surprise I felt when opening that present has stuck with me. Despite better editions of those films being released, I’ve hold onto those discs for sentimental reasons.

In my recent review of “Jingle All the Way,” I mentioned a holiday tradition I had many years with my cousin David. (This is on my father’s side, so a different cousin.) We bonded over our mutual appreciation of quote-unquote bad movies. At some point, we got into the habit of buying each other “bad” films. I can remember the unwrapping genuinely wretched movies like “Zombie 4: After Death.” More often though, he’d gift me with odd-ball classics like “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” or “Slugs: The Movie.” I didn’t get as many opportunities to return the gestures as I would have liked. I do know that I, one year, gave him such classics as “Breakin’” and “American Ninja 4.” After David got married, his wife, not entirely grasping the tradition, bought “Epic Movie,” a different breed of stinker. David has his own life now, including kids and a hectic job, and we don’t see each other very often. Hopefully some day, we can resume this tradition.

As you get older, you tend to receive fewer gifts on Christmas. That’s normal. It’s more fun to watch a little kid open a gift then a twenty-something. But my mom has always been very generous around Christmas. She’s very generous period but especially during the holidays. For a while, used to have fabulous summer sales. The website is still around but it isn’t as popular. Like Amazon or other retail sites, you could make wish lists. At least two years in a row, during the summer sales, my mom would order a bunch of titles from my list. At Christmas, I’d open them up, not knowing what I got but knowing it was stuff I approved of. That was always fantastic fun. Many of the great, weird titles in my collection I owe to this. I can remember getting both volumes of the Mario Bava Collection, for example, or “The Forest.” It’s not often that an adult child can be surprised by a parent at Christmas. This was a good way to maintain some of that childhood excitement, of not knowing what was under the tree.

Not every film-related Christmas memory I have involves gift-giving. A few weeks before December of 2009, I met a girl. It wouldn’t take very long for me to fall head-over-heels in love with her. You could argue I was on the rebound, as I had my heart broken not long before this. In about the space of six months, I’d have my heart broken again. Anyway, Christmas was nearly there. We had dinner at a fantastic Mexican restaurant, where I’ll always remember she said the mushroom were “scrumptious.” A local park, every year, does a night time light show. I’d understand if someone would consider that tacky. Lighting the entire park up with fifty light displays and a million bulbs probably is tacky. However, I’ve always liked visiting. I remember her remarking how much her little sister would enjoy the show. Or the two of us stopping and watching the dancing lights on the trees at the center of the park. Or how her breath plumed out in the December cold, her shoulders shaking under her silver jacket. How does this relate to film? The two of us bonded over our shared love of weird-o cinema. “Rocktober Blood” was one of the first things we ever talked about. After the Christmas light show, we returned to her apartment for a movie night. She had never seen “May” or “Hot Fuzz,” which I was quick to correct. She really liked both. I also brought along Argento’s “Deep Red” but we didn’t make it to that one. By the time the relationship ended, she still hadn’t seen it.

Two or so years later, I was dating a girl I’ll call Elyse. We both had family plans on Christmas Eve and the 25th, so we endeavor to spend the 23rd together. A moment I’ll never forget is waking up the next morning, the light streaming through the windows, casting an early morning glow over her basement apartment. She had forgotten to unplug the tiny fiber-optic Christmas tree the night before. It made an odd creaking noise as it rotated, the lights changing from pink to blue to red. After we both got up, we opened our gifts. Elyse had gotten me a VHS copy of “The Prey,” my favorite piece of bizarre eighties horror trash. Unlike some other people I mentioned, Elyse wasn’t very invested in obscure movies. That she knew how much that film meant to me, and put the effort in to track it down on tape, really meant a lot to me. It was the only Christmas we had together. The relationship didn’t make it to next December. Yet I still have that tape. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it. Life is like that.

That’s the thing with Christmas. It’s such a specific day, a mixture of family get-togethers and yearly traditions. You can track the years by looking at the tree and considering each of the ornaments, each one representing a different era of your life. The gifts you receive connect you to the times, good and bad, you’ve had in the past. When Christmas rolls around, it brings along a fountain of memories. Perhaps this was an inappropriate, too personal topic to share on the blog. Maybe. Then again, if there’s any time of year to reveal a little about yourself, it’s December. Consider that my gift to you.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 24

Black Christmas (1974)

When it comes to Christmas themed horror flicks, “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and similarly exploitative fare tends to hog all the press. Which is fine, as I too enjoy a good Santa slasher flick. However, few seasonal horror films truly utilize the eerie potential of Christmas… The soft, spooky glow of the tree… The disquieting hum of barely heard carols… “Black Christmas” was directed by Bob Clark, years before his far more well-known Christmas movie. It’s regarded as a pioneering slasher film and Christmas horror movie. (Though “Silent Night, Bloody Night” predates it on both counts.) It’s not only influenced “Halloween” but some consider Clark’s film superior. I’ll be the judge of that!

The peace of a sorority house during the Christmas holiday is disrupted by increasingly nasty obscene phone calls. The girls inside have problems of their own. Jess has discovered she is pregnant and her unstable pianist boyfriend is insistent on keeping the baby. Barb’s booziness makes her unpopular with her flat mates. Claire has vanished and her father wonders where she is. A dead girl has been found in the park. Unbeknownst to everyone, a raving lunatic has sneaked into the sorority house’s attic and is slowly picking the inhabitants off, one by one.

“Black Christmas” begins with the camera slowly moving across the home’s front lawn, snow scattered about. As we draw closer, the soft bars of “Silent Night” slowly become audible. It’s creepy. “Black Christmas” doesn’t use its holiday setting as a gimmick or an afterthought. Instead, Clark’s film builds an unnerving atmosphere by subverting the traditional iconography of the holiday. Christmas decorations contrast against the murders that happen in the home. Christmas carols take on a creeping quality. (Though it's never built into a solid point. Jessica's pregnancy can't help but reminds us of another girl who was once pregnant around Christmas...) The music and sound design especially help cement “Black Christmas’” very spooky tone. As Jessica becomes increasingly alone, you really begin to feel her isolation. The film never quite generates extended tension but, with a prevailing atmosphere of dread, it doesn’t really need it.

Calling “Black Christmas” the first slasher film is somewhat misleading. Many of the sub-genre’s formulas had yet to be established. There’s no drugs or sex nor a virginal final girl. Though there’s some comic relief, the police aren’t incompetent. Like “Halloween,” “Black Christmas” drawls from American urban legends. The script is basically an extended adaptation of the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” maintaining the legend’s climax beat-for-beat. Truthfully, “Black Christmas” earns the title of “slasher film” through its focus on the murder scenes. The deaths in “Black Christmas” are claustrophobic in their closeness. Claire is suffocated with a plastic sheet, the camera shoved in the closet with her. The camera is attached to the swinging hook that takes out Mrs. MacHenry. The film lingers on the distortion via glass, splattered blood, and gasps for help when Barb is stabbed with a glass unicorn. There’s little in way of exploitation here. Instead, “Black Christmas” mines stark horror from the murdered scenes.

Clark is really good at creating a creepy atmosphere and shocking death scenes. Yet that’s not “Black Christmas’” secret weapon. That status belongs to Billy. Unlike most visually oriented slashers, Billy is never fully seen. Instead, we get a shadowy shot of a staring eye or a fleetingly glimpsed hand. The camera frequently adapts his point-of-view, putting the audience in his insane head, which was undoubtedly an influence on Carpenter. Billy is recognized by his voice. Through the phone and the obscene calls, we hear him ranting incoherently. His voice changes pitch, rolling from female to male, adult to child. He shrieks, cries, and roars. He mentions someone named Agnes and a baby, hinting at a disturbing back story otherwise unelaborated on. In short, Billy is the creepiest motherfucker around. Unlike the comic book badassery of other slasher villains, Billy comes across as genuinely insane, a totally unhinged and dangerous murderer.

Further solidifying “Black Christmas’” status as a classic is a legitimately likable cast. Olivia Hussey’s undefined accent marks Jessica as someone more sophisticated than her classmates. Yet Hussey’s beauty has a girl-next-door aspect, making her seem down-to-earth. Her subplot involving the pregnancy actually allows her some subtle, low-key acting. Margot Kidder is also unforgettable as Barb, the boozy and loud-mouthed classmate. On paper, Barb probably wasn’t very likable. Kidder gives the character a vulnerability beneath her sharp tongue. At the time, the film’s marquee name was John Saxon. Saxon was experienced at playing authority figures in low budget genre films, always bringing a certain charm and humor to the parts. I also like Marian Waldman as the funny, usually intoxicated Mrs. MacHenry and Andrea Martin as the mousy Phyllis.

Another possible influence “Black Christmas” had on “Halloween” is its ending. Billy escapes justice, Jess’ boyfriend getting the rap instead. In its final moments, the film focuses on Claire’s dead body, still saran-wrapped and sitting in the attic. As the camera pulls away, we hear Billy’s insane rantings again. The ambiguous ending is as chilly as the winter’s night air, leaving the audience shivering. “Black Christmas” is not as good a film as “Halloween.” Though a beautifully orchestrated horror story, it’s not in service of deeper themes like Carpenter’s film. Still, in a dark room, lit only by a Christmas tree, it is astonishingly effective. It may not be the most well-known holiday horror film but it’s probably the creepiest. [9/10]

Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)

Despite it being their most popular and beloved Christmas special, Rankin-Bass did not make a sequel to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” until 1976, twelve years after the special originally aired. The time lapse is made even weirder because “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” is a direct sequel. Santa and his elves look and sound entirely different, the quirky character designs of the original “Rudolph” have been absorbed by the Rankin-Bass house style. Despite this, it picks up minutes after the conclusion of the previous special. After Rudolph saves Santa’s midnight flight, the fat man receives news that Baby New Year has disappeared. If the baby can’t be found by midnight on the 31st, the next year can’t begin. Rudolph heads off for the Archipelagos of Time in search of the missing child.

“Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” does the most unexpected thing: It creates a bizarre mythology around Rankin-Bass’ holiday characters. Turns out every year is overseen by Father Time, who ages an entire life time in the span of twelve months. At the end of the year, a new baby is born who becomes the next Father Time. After his year is up, Father Time retires to an island. These islands maintain the characteristics of whatever year that Father corresponds to. In the course of the story, we visit a prehistoric island full of dinosaurs, a medieval island populated by fairy tale characters, and an island stuck in revolutionary America. Also, Father Time’s servants are humanoid clock creatures. Got all that? Good because “Shiny New Year” is just getting started. There’s also a giant vulture named Eon, who lives an eon and turns into ice and snow after his time is up. He wants to kidnap Baby New Year, so the year won't end and his life won't expire. All of this information and more is explained to us by Red Skelton as Father Time, who belabors every point in an extensive voice over narration.

The original “Rudolph” was weird but to saddle an hour-long holiday special with all of the above information is just overkill. Despite all its meandering oddness, “Shiny New Year” replicates its predecessor’s structure. Rudolph meets an oddball collection of characters on his journey. First, he is accompanied by a clock-man soldier who rhymes all his sentences with “Sir,” an annoying quirk. Soon, they meet a camel with a clock in his hump who talks in a slow voice. Next, they encounter a whale with a clock in his tale called Big Ben. There’s a caveman, a knight (voiced by Frank Gorshin, no less) and a cartoon version of Benjamin Franklin. That doesn’t include the fairy tale character they also encounter, such as the Three Bears or Cinderella. With such an extensive cast, Rudolph winds up being lost in his own special.

Rudolph doesn’t become useful until the very end. You see, Baby New Year fled because everyone made fun of his freakishly huge ears. Annoyingly, the special soon falls into the structure of Rudolph and his ever-expanding gang finding the Baby’s previous location right after he left. When the reindeer finally catches up with the infant, they have a heart-to-heart. After all, Rudolph has experience being excluded because of an unusual physical attribute. Despite seemingly pushing the same “never judge a book by its cover!” moral as the original, everyone still laughs at Baby New Year’s big ears. Later, his Prince Charles size ears save the day. Upon seeing them Eon falls into a fit laughter so jovial it melts his icy heart. Get your moral straight, “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.”

Piled atop the incoherent mythology and far too large cast is a collection of annoying, subpar songs. The first number, “The Moving Finger Writes,” is actually kind of nice, Father Time describing the onward march of time to a low-key melody. Every other number you can forget about. “Have a Hap-Hap-Happy Year” has a repetitive, grating melody. “Raining Sunshine” has some of the most asinine lyrics to ever appear in a holiday specials. When recounting the origin of his nose, a reprise of Rudolph’s theme song plays. Oddly, scenes from the first special are shown but in traditional animation. There are other songs but I’ve already totally forgotten all of them.

The antics of Baby New Year and a singing caveman really make you long for the comparatively charming antics of Hermie the Dentist Elf and Yukon Cornelius. “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” occasionally gets aired along side its more famous companion. However, it says a lot about this particular hour that it’s packed on the “Year Without a Santa Claus” DVD as a bonus. A glance at Rankin-Bass’ Wikipedia page shows me they made way more of these than I realized. As of right now anyway, I’m ready to declare “Shiny New Year” the weakest Christmas special the company would ever make. Happy New Year, I guess. [4/10]

Bangers n' Mash 79: Christmas Vacation 2015

Hey, it's that time of year again! Time for the Bangers n' Mash Show to take a week off and make a seasonal holiday video that isn't about anything!

As opposed to previous years, where JD and I just talk about anything, this year's Christmas episode is actually a little more structured. We picked three topics - Favorite Christmas movie, favorite Christmas television special, and favorite Christmas song - and made our top five list for each. It turned out all right, I guess.

Come back tomorrow for the final round-up of Christmas reviews. I'll have a new Memories column on the 25th and one or two other things before my Year End Retrospective goes up on the 31st, including another Bangers n' Mash episode. As always, December is a very busy month for me. See you again soon.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 23

A Christmas Carol (1984)

There have been so many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” over the years. Ones that are in black and white, in color, musicals and cartoons, ones for TV and ones for theaters. For a while there, we were getting new “Christmas Carols” on an almost yearly basis. There have been so many takes that most of the new ones add comedic, meta, or modern angles. Heck, I’ve already reviewed one version this December. Out of all the versions of Scrooge’s story that have graced the screen, one has emerged as definitive. The 1984 version starring George C. Scott still gets singled out as the best adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved novel.

Like I said, “A Christmas Carol” is so frequently adapted that most versions have to add some sort of gimmick. If the ’84 version can be said to have a gimmick, it’s incredible fidelity to the source material. The film hews so closely to Dickens’ book that the dialogue is frequently taken directly from the page. Every aspect of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nightly journey with the three ghosts is included. Many elements frequently left out of other adaptations are presented here. The spooky carriage that precedes Marley is left intact. The Ghost of Christmas Past carries a metal cap over her head, which Scrooge eventually smites her with. Scrooge’s boyhood love of reading is included. The Ghost of Christmas Present presents the children of ignorance and want to the old man. Scrooge’s frequently excised sister Fan appears. As does a moment which shows the married life of the old man’s love, Belle. The movie is so faithful to the text that it almost becomes a flaw. As in Dickens’ book, Scrooge’s fate as the hated dead man is too heavily foreshadowed. Still, Dickens fans hoping to see the author’s words retained on-screen will likely do best by this version.

Because such effort was made to follow the original book, 1984’s “A Christmas Carol” is far spookier and darker then most adaptations. This is one of the few Dickensian movies that truly seem to earn the title of “ghost story.” Marley’s appearance is truly creepy, his jaw dangling open in a grotesque way. He shouts and screams like a banshee. The Ghost of Christmas Past has an eeriness rarely seen in other versions. All the ghosts are more stern then usual, giving Scrooge a lot more grief for his bullshit. The usually jovial Ghost of Christmas Present comes off as downright mean at times, not sparing the old man’s feelings. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears, he is shown only in silhouette. An off-putting noise, a shriek like rusted metal, accompanies the spirit. The movie also focuses far more on the filthy, foggy conditions of London in the 1880s. The plight of the poor is given extra attention. “Dickensian” is a term associated with filthy ragamuffins for a reason, you know. This “Christmas Carol” doesn’t forget that.

1984’s “Carol” is respected for sticking so closely to the novel and its serious presentation. The reason people love this movie is George C. Scott. The notoriously gruff character actor was perfect for Ebenezer Scrooge. His husky voice works especially well when barking Dickens’ dialogue. Scott often adds a sardonic edge to the character, his cynicism hardened to a point. When the Ghosts presents his past or present to him, his exterior never cracks. He watches with a stern, stony face. The emotion he shows most often is anger. Scott’s unerring curtness makes Scrooge’s inevitable redemption all the more satisfying. (Also amusing: Scott never even attempts a British accent. He was a good enough actor know how ridiculous that would sound.) The rest of the cast is solid as well, including relatively big names David Warner and Susannah York as the Cartchits and Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present. But Scott outshines all of them, dominating the screen and impressing the audience.

It’s a frequently overlooked fact but this “Christmas Carol” was actually made for television. It originally aired on CBS. You’d be mistaken for missing this, as the film is incredibly cinematic. The production design is impressive, the film deeply rooted in London fog. Director Clive Donner has a stylish visual sense. He’s fond of reflecting images through the Ghosts’ trademark item. Scenes are shown in the Ghost of Christmas Past’s cap or through the Ghost of Christmas Presents’ torch. Really, the only sign that the movie was originally made for TV is a single shot, the introduction of the Ghost of Christmas Past, that comes off as slightly cheesy and dated. This “Christmas Carol” was so well made that it was released theatrically overseas without a pause.

I’ve already established what my favorite version of “A Christmas Carol” is. This particular take ranks a close second though. It beautifully captures the spirit and tone of Dickens’ original work. It’s a fantastically well made and directed movie. Mostly, I love George C. Scott as Scrooge, one of my favorite actors putting his own stamp on an overplayed part. When a version of a story adapted this often makes this strong of an impression, that shows you just how well done it is. [8/10]

Futurama: The Futurama Holiday Spectacular

When a revival of “Futurama” was announced, it seemed like a great idea. The show was still hilarious when it was canceled and never seemed to get a fair chance in its day. Quickly though, fans learned once again that sometimes dead is better. The direct-to-video “Futurama” movies were disappointing and the new season got off to a really rough start. While the quality would eventually turn around, none of the new episodes proved as memorable as the classic ones. Take the new season’s Christmas episode, for example. “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” provides three segments, each based around a holiday. Christmas, Bender’s made-up “Robanukah,” and Kwanzaa are all high-lighted, each story ending in catastrophe and death.

In the Christmas segment, Fry has the X-mas blues, once again feeling isolated in the future holiday. This retreads ground covered in season one’s “X-Mas Story.” With some help from Robot Santa, Fry realizes he needs a traditional Christmas tree. A quest to recover the extinct pine tree results in a super-strain of the species that takes over the world. The best gags in this story involve barking snakes and the guard of the seed vault’s nonchalant, vaguely Canadian attitude. Bender’s apocalypse-triggering cigar is a nice touch, especially his realization that he hasn’t contributed to this plot yet. The song – each segment features a song – is pretty lame though. It’s funny but not very novel.

The funniest segment in the episode is devoted to Robanukah. A holiday seemingly made up by Bender to get an extra day off work, Robanukah involves copious alcohol consumption and robotic prostitutes wrestling in petroleum oil. Petroleum oil is increasingly rate, leading to a dangerous quest deep into the Earth. The weird specific qualities of Robanukah are amusing, even though it’s out of character for Bender to care that much about anything. This segment features solid, absurd gags. Such as an albino humping worm, discovered deep in the Earth. Or the ending, which twists the Hanukkah legend in a goofy, perverse direction. Special guest star Al Gore also gets a funny gag about solar energy. The song here is the catchiest, with some amusingly strangled rhymes.

The last segment is devoted to Kwanzaa, as celebrated by Hermes and his family. The search for traditional bee’s wax candles, hindered by colony collapse disorder, send the Planet Express team towards the giant space bee hive, seen all the way back in “The Sting.” This story builds on a gag first mentioned in “A Tale of Two Santas.” Kwanzaa-Bot reappears and sings a rap explaining the holiday’s traditional. Amusingly, even the robot is slightly clueless about the tradition’s meanings. A similar joke declares Kwanzaa to be “a thousand” years old, a comparatively short amount of time considering the future setting. The story also brings back some minor characters, leading to decent gags. The antics of the giant space bee is funny, including a random reference to “Raging Bull.” Of all the downbeat endings in this episode, the Kwanzaa story’s conclusion comes off as the most mean-spirited.

Truthfully, all of the stories are a little too mean, each killing the cast members in brutal ways. The episode’s theme of limited resources and ecological tampering are appreciated and won the show an award. The best joke in “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” is in the framing devices, which makes repeated references to “Gunderson’s Shelled Nuts!,” the show’s corporate sponsor. There are several good gags and funny moments in “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” but it really doesn’t hold up against the show’s other holiday-themed episodes. [7/10]