Monthly Archives: October 2015

Sometimes, good filmmaking ‘Follows’ a simple formula

It's coming for you, it won't stop and there's nowhere to run.

It’s coming for you, it won’t stop and there’s nowhere to run.

Back in the 1990s, when my wife and I were newlyweds and moving around a lot, we came up with this idea where a moving company would drop off a trailer at your home, you’d fill the trailer, and the company would come haul it to your new home and drop it off for you to unload. Imagine our surprise when, years later, we saw the first commercial for Pods. A simple idea, to be sure, but someone had figured out a manageable way to make our proposal work. It wasn’t the cure for cancer or putting a man on Mars, but it was elegant in its own way and the kind of thing many people would find useful.

That’s what I thought about as I watched It Follows. The premise of the film is pretty basic: A cursed person is followed by a shape-shifting monster visible only to themselves, and the only way to get rid of the curse is to pass it on, via sexual intercourse, to another person. A supernatural STD if you will.

I wonder how no one thought of this before. Much of horror, or at least American horror, is based around the idea that indulgence in vices leads to horrible repercussions, a sort of negative karma effect that comes down largely on teens. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell didn’t develop some mind-blowing premise on which to base his movie, such as we’ve seen in films like Cube, Pan’s Labyrinth or A Cabin in the Woods. He really just shaved all of the extras off of pretty much every horror flick you’ve ever seen and got down to the nut of it: Sex kills.

To his credit, that’s not all he did. His assembled cast is terrific. Maika Monroe plays Jay, the poor girl who has sex with her new boyfriend only to find out that she’s now being hunted by a monster with murderous intent. Her sister and friends – played by Lilli Sepe, Oliva Luccardi and Keir Gilchrist – are a tight, quirky unit who rally behind Jay while initially not being so sure that she is of sound mind. And the actors chosen to represent the “It” are all creepy and disconcerting in their own ways.

But for me, what really seals the deal is the score. Not since the original Halloween have I watched a movie where the music was so directly and surely woven into the story. It starts very quietly, slowly becoming more unsettling as it builds. The fact that Mitchell chooses to minimize the sounds and general aural distractions throughout It Follows results in the music having that much more of an impact when it does kick in. Brilliantly done all around.

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The only thing we have to fear is another ‘Walking Dead’ spin-off

If these are the people you are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with, you might as well just shoot yourself now.

If these are the people you are trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with, you might as well just shoot yourself now.

AMC, you’ve gone too far.

Better Call Saul was a great choice for a spinoff. You had a couple of interesting, vital, skeevy, secretive side characters, Saul and Mike, who were part Walter White’s story but weren’t really the focus of Breaking Bad, nor they should they have been. But there was so much going on with those two in Breaking Bad that exploring what got them to the point that they working with Heisenberg was a rich vein to mine, if done correctly. The first season proved Saul has something going on, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

But AMC couldn’t stop there. No, we were force-fed Fear the Walking Dead. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty that could have been explored in the Dead-verse. For example, why not focus on the government response to the calamity. What was going on in statehouses? How did the president and his (or her) advisers react to the crisis? We were given a glimpse of the CDC reaction in Walking Dead, but why not follow the research component of response to this pandemic? Why not leave the United States and give us a cast in sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, India, the Philipines? Heck, how about the struggle of the folks up in the International Space Station as they try to figure out what has happened on the ground and how they’re going to get back? The possibilities are virtually endless, restrained only by the imagination of the creative team. Everything I wrote here I thought up as I was writing it. Surely, given time and resources, the Fear the Walking Dead folks could have developed something beyond my abilities.

Instead of a million interesting, unique scenarios, however, we were given a West-Coast version of the East-Coast show we were already watching. It feels like we’re being fed under-heated, leftover lasagna that was overcooked in the first place. We watched as different people made the same mistakes we’d already seen our plucky Walking Dead heroes make over and over again. But, hey, L.A.! That has to count for something, right?

It’s disappointing. It comes off as the sort of crass money grab one would expect from one of the major networks instead of something new and interesting from the cable network who has dropped some pretty interesting drama in our laps over the past five years or so. It’s not must-watch television, period. Heck, after the first season of Walking Dead, I could name most of the characters off of the top of my head. Notice how I haven’t mentioned any Fear the Walking Dead characters by name? That’s because not only do I not remember any names, I don’t consider it worth my time to hop over to IMDB and look them up.

So, sorry, AMC. I eagerly anticipate your small-screen version of the Preacher comic book series, and I’m sure I’ll get into some of your original programming down the road. But Fear the Walking Dead is about as interesting to me as AfterMASH or That 80’s Show. And so, much as I did with those shows and others like them, I’ll turn my attention elsewhere.

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What in the name of ‘Jupiter’ is going on with the Wachowskis?

The duo who created "The Matrix" thought elf ears and rocket boots were a good idea.

The duo who created “The Matrix” thought elf ears and rocket boots were a good idea.

My thoughts on Jupiter Ascending can be summed up in the three words: What the fuck?

Channing Tatum with elf ears and rocket boots, then wings to replace his boots. Spaceships that physically reconfigure as they fly, acting like Transformers that can’t quite transform. A cast of aliens that look like they were kicked out of the Mos Eisley cantina because they couldn’t hold their own with true ruffians. Eddie Redmayne acting like a constipated Darth Vader who is seeking revenge against the universe for that one time that one kid broke the kung-fu grip on one of his G.I. Joes. A movie that has no suspense, uninteresting action sequences and a wicked sense of humor that far too rarely shows its face. A film that acts like it wants to confront corporate greed and the moral failings of the universe’s 1%, but only skates the surface, refusing to make the leap and sink into the perversity. And so on.

Sex, gangsters, money, the corruption of a patriarchal society and more make "Bound" one of the Wachowskis most interesting flicks.

Sex, gangsters, money, the corruption of a patriarchal society and more make “Bound” one of the Wachowskis’ most interesting flicks.

I remember watching Bound, the first film from Lana (then Larry) and Andy Wachowski. The noir crime flick is taut and suspenseful, a swirl of uncertain loyalties and sexual intensity. It’s the only low-budget flick the duo have ever created, and it might be their finest. They made the most of the limitations of their budget, leaning heavily on story, a moody atmosphere and fine performances by Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly and Joe Pantoliano.

Then, of course, came The Matrix, the movie that took sci-fi and action cinema and ripped it to shreds. I think now, in part because of the problematic Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, the original gets taken for granted. And when The Matrix does get props, it’s too often for the technological aspects. The Wachowskis managed to mix futuristic technology, kung fu flicks, LGBT+ subculture, noir cinema and some deep philosophical thought into a movie that could be enjoyed as a straight shoot-em-up flick as well as high art.

But since then … Matrix Reloaded was just awful. After the initial time I saw it in the theater, I’ve never been able to get through it again. Revolutions really did a nice job of getting the whole Matrix mess back on track, but it was still unsatisfying. Speed Racer is dour and dull, a movie that wants to be serious and important thematically while visually being little more than a somewhat intense and significantly less-fun version of Mario Kart. V for Vendetta wasn’t bad, but the Wachowskis didn’t direct that one, and if you’ve read the graphic novel the movie was based on like I have, you’re probably less impressed with the film than the average viewer. I haven’t seen Cloud Atlas, mostly because I loved the book and find it hard to believe that author David Mitchell’s sprawling tome could be done justice in a few hours of screen time, although I might get around to it at some point.

Which brings us back to Jupiter Ascending. When it was announced, I thought this might be it, the Wachowskis getting back on track, making movies that are must-see. The first trailer popped that balloon, and what we got was a final product that was a bloated, boring, tonally uneven mess that wasted the talents of actors like Tatum, Mila Kunis and Sean Bean.

Am I done with the Wachowskis? That might be overstating it. But the writer-directing duo’s next project, whatever that may be, won’t be must-see as far as I’m concerned. And it makes me a little sad to write that.

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Favorite songs of 2015: The 3rd Q review

Anonymous, Desaparecidos – Probably has my favorite lyrics of the year: “Freedom’s not free / Neither is apathy.”

Better Man, Leon Bridges – Soul music, smooth and clean, that has an Otis Redding feel to it.

Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, Unknown Mortal Orchestra – A slow beginning evolves into an absolutely addictive track.

Dreams, Beck – Beck dumps the doldrums of his previous album and gets to work making music to shake ya ass to.

Drum Machine, Big Grams feat. Skrillex – Big Boi with Phantogram and Skrillex? Count me in.

Gwan, The Suffers – Kim Franklin’s gorgeous voice pushes everything forward.

Go Head, Awreeoh – A tasty hip-hop nugget from the film Dope.

Handsome, The Vaccines –  Brash, cheecky pop punk.

Hate Street Dialogue, The Avener feat. Rodriguez – The lyrics are much darker than the music backing it would imply.

Holy Ghost, A$AP Rocky feat. Joe Fox – What do you do when the church offers no solace? If you’re A$AP Rocky, you write one helluva song about it.

I Don’t Think She Cares, White Reaper – Had the pleasure of seeing these Louisville rockers at their hometown Forecastle Festival this summer. Best show I saw that day. White Reaper rules!

In My Mouth, Jeff the Brotherhood – Drudgy, cocky and hilarious. I’d love to see these guys live.

Institutionalized, Kendrick Lamar feat. Bilal, Anna Wise and Snoop Dogg – Kendrick and Co. get their Bernie Sanders on and attack income inequality.

Lawman, Girl Band – I love bands that aren’t afraid to make noise. The bass makes this particular track.

Out of the Woods, Ryan Adams – I’ve never really doubted Taylor Swift as a songwriter, I’m just not much into Swift the performer. Adams makes the entirety of 1989 work.

Paper Girl, July Talk – See July Talk live. Please. Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay will make sure it’s a show you never forget.

Pedestrian at Best, Courtney Barnett – Courtney’s smart, funny, melancholy, endearing, stream-of-consciousness lyrics are all her own.

Rap Zealot, K-OS – Short and to the point. Love the production.

Smarter Than I Was, Buddy Guy – While B.B.’s always kind of been the super-ego of blues, Guy is pure Id.

Stalker, Kasey Chambers – Smart, funny lyrics and Chambers’ unique voice are a winning combination.

Strange Hellos, Torres – I love how Strange Hellos builds, and the PJ Harvey-like strength from Mackenzie Scott’s voice.

Tease, Pale Honey – I don’t know if this is a trend, or if I’ve just been lucky in finding them, but there seem to be a lot more female-led bands making big, fuzzy, loud guitar rock in 2015. Pale Honey kicks out the jam here with Tease.

Trustful Hands, The Do – There’s just something warm and familiar about this track that gets me every time.

Uptown Funk, Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – I love the horns, I love Bruno, I love the funk.

Victory or Die, Motorhead – It’s not rocket science. Lemmy = Awesome.

On the bubble: All My Heart, The Mynabirds; Blud, SOAK; City Boy Blues, Action Bronson; Foreign Object, Mountain Goats; Johnny Delusional, FFS; Milkman, Bully; This World is Not My Home, Robert Earl Keen; Vices, Slayer; Wicked Game, Wolf Alice

Honorable mentions: 15 Years, Houndmouth; Ashes to Ashes, Warpaint; Awake, Snoop Dogg; Baby Britain, Seth Avett & Jessica Lee Mayfield; Bleeder, Ceremony; Bunker Buster, Viet Cong; Chalk Snake, No Joy; Carrion Flowers, Chelsea Wolfe; CHERRY BOMB, Tyler, the Creator; Don’t Wanna Fight, Alabama Shakes; Feel Right, Mark Ronson feat. Mystikal; figure 8, FKA twigs; How Could You Babe, Tobias Jesso Jr.; I’m Callin’, Tennis; I Feel Love, The Dead Weather; I’m Gonna Teach You, Daniel Romano; 100 Watt Horse; Kokaine Karolina, Elle King; Melt Me, Hanni El-Khatib; My Own Fantasy, Royal Headache; Only You (Live), Anderson East; Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves; Rain or Shine, Young Fathers, Romance Dawn, Radkey; Run, Rainbow Kitten Surprise; Solid Gold, Turbowolf; Son of God, Will Butler; Vital Signs, Gang of Youths; the valley, Miguel; Young Girls in Space, The Unwed Teenage Mothers

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Favorite albums of 2015: The third quarter review

Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color – There’s no weak sauce, from track the first to track the last. Wish I’d caught them in Indy this summer, because they’re most definitely on my “must see” list.

Dead Weather, Dodge and Burn – Maybe the best thing Jack White’s done since the end of the White Stripes. He sounds energized, and the Dead Weather sound stronger because of it.

The Do, Shake, Shook, Shaken – It’s just a great mix of electronic pop, moody lyrics and the gorgeous voice of Olivia Merilahti.

Heartless Bastards, Restless Ones – I like a band that keeps evolving. Restless Ones is a step beyond any of their previous albums.

Houndmouth, Little Neon Limelight – These Kentucky rockers keep picking up steam. Nice to see them get broader recognition.

July Talk, July Talk – Visceral blues rock with pop touches. They put on a terrific live show.

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly – Kendrick is the only mainstream rapper I have any interest in, because Kendrick is the only mainstream rapper with something to say.

No Joy, More Faithful – High-quality stoner rock that would be more comfortable in the mid-1990s than the mid-2010s.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love – Going to see them for the first time in December. Can’t wait.

Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men, TooWhite Men Are Black, Too, takes hip-hop to new strange, interesting places, and might even be better than To Pimp a Butterfly.

On the bubble: Action Bronson, Mr. Wonderful; Girlpool, Before the World Was Big; Pale Honey, Pale Honey; White Reaper, White Reaper Does It Again

Honorable mentions: Ryan Adams, 1989; Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit; Girl Band, The Early Years; Elle King, Love Stuff; Miguel, Wildheart; Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer; Torres, Sprinter; Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp

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New ‘Apes’ works for me in ways original movies never did

It's time to call in the cavalry.

It’s time to call in the cavalry.

I’m a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Thematically, both shows were challenging, the core group of actors worked well together and the humor is terrific. I know some folks had problems with the rubber masks, but that never bothered me. Vampires, demons, werewolves, they aren’t real, so if they look a little hokey, I can live with that.

That’s why I never could get into the original Planet of the Apes movies. Apes, monkeys, orangutans, whatever, they are very real and have unique features that distinguish them from each other, as well as from humans. The apes from the old flicks mostly just kind of looked and sounded like humans, except they were wearing bad masks. They were hokey, and every time I tried to watch them, it took me completely out of that world. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

The new Planet of the Apes films, on the other hand, I find fascinating. The first flick was a nice set-up, a prison escape film that give us an interesting inside perspective on being a wild animal in captivity, as well as the damaging psychological effects on such animals. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes really got me cheering on this series. We watch as the apes sulk and scream in rage, spitting out their animosity at the humans every chance they get. And yet, when the time comes, the apes evolve into scheming, duplicitous, violence-loving bipeds that seem a lot like the people they despise so very much. When Caesar’s death is orchestrated to appear as if it was done by humans instead of his own lieutenants in order to unite the apes against the humans, I thought of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led up to increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the sinking of the USS Maine that was the preamble to the Spanish-American War.

And I was able to enjoy all of this because I was never taken out of the moment by stiff, rubber-masked pseudo-apes. With my disbelief sufficiently suspended, I could really soak in the story. And I’m left wondering what War of the Planet of the Apes has in store for us next.

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