Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Another Music Quiz



I do love me some soundtrack quizzes. I also like making them, as it gives me a chance to play around with the sound editor. Not all of the transitions are great, but whatever. The point is, I made another soundtrack quiz for you to test your knowledge of genre film scores.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Unpopular Opinion: Shut Up, Whiners


This January, like many Januaries past, brought with it the promise of a new beginning; with the new year comes a renewed hope that things will change, will get better, and we'll finally win the Oscar pool at work. But this year's Oscar nominee list didn't renew a waning faith in Hollywood, didn't offer hope that things are getting better with the Academy. Rather, this year's list of nominees precipitated a whole lot of bitching and moaning about representation. Nothing has changed, it seems. Nothing is getting better.

Why? Because no black narratives were nominated. Because too few female narratives were nominated. Because, because, because.

Value Judgement

The very fact that people care so much would suggest the Oscars are still the most important film award in North America (or the world, depending on who you ask), but the fact is, the Oscars have been slowly loosing credibility since 2009, if not the turn of the century. The expansion of the Best Picture category from five to a maximum of ten, devalues the nomination. So there were a lot of good movies in 2009, but the Academy couldn't whittle down the field? It hadn't been a problem the previous eighty-one years.

"Best," as a value, can be quantified and every now and again some wag likes to point out how the quantitatively "best pictures" of the year aren't the big winners. For example, Birdman won Best Picutre but 2014's highest grossing film was Transformers: Age of Extinction (these same wags conveniently forget that Titanic and Toy Story 3, two huge moneymakers, were nominated in their respective years). Oscar's "best" is, of course, a qualitative judgment, a synonym for outstanding. It's both objective and subjective; it's easy to spot the difference between Crash and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Best Picture and best box-office, respectively in 2005), but what makes Crash better than Brokeback Mountain or Munich? Where do we draw the line between popularity, critical acclaim, and making a good impression? Indeed the argument could be made that Brokeback Mountain had to be nominated because it was so beloved by critics, but would never win because the stuffy old white men of the Academy are were made uncomfortable by the movie's subject matter.

But these are the same starched collars and stuffed shirts who voted for 12 Years a Slave. Where was the outcry over Ray, Precious, The Help, or Django Unchained which were all nominated but didn't win? Why not demand to know why or how The Hurt Locker was more deserving to win than District 9, which is understood by most to be an allegory for apartheid.

Well, because The Hurt Locker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and it was about time a woman won Best Picture, and she was also running against her ex-husband and wouldn't it be great to stick it James Cameron and his over-the-top Avatar.

The Oscars will never, can't ever be divorced from politics. Remember when Denzel Washington won Best Actor for Training Day? Some say he only won because he was snubbed two years prior for his performance in The Hurricane. And Morgan Freeman's Best Supporting Actor win for Million Dollar Baby was more of an achievement award/apology for his numerous nominations and losses over the years (Jamie Foxx won Best Actor that same year for Ray, but lost to Morgan Freeman in the supporting actor category--yes, Foxx was nominated twice in 2004).

Hurt Feelings

I can't help but wonder if all the outrage isn't just a whole lot of hurt feelings. So the movie you liked best isn't on the list of best movies. Big deal. It happens every year, it's just that this year everyone's making a big deal about it.

What, exactly, is the point of the Oscars? Or of any awards show for that matter? Is it to celebrate achievements in a specific field or to address topical socio-political issues? How outraged would you be if I told you no black man or woman has ever won a Nobel Prize in literature?

The Oscars have always claimed to be free from politics, or at the very least, not a stage for political expression, which is a nice sentiment, but politics have a hand in everything, even celebrating a job well done. But when those politics begin to overshadow the purpose of the celebration, it's time to reevaluate the nomination process and the award as a whole.

Why, exactly, should Creed be nominated? Because Michael B. Jordan is singularly extraordinary as Adonis Johnson or because it's a black narrative that isn't about racism? And someone explain to me why the Academy should be ashamed of itself for not nominating Carol for Best Picture? Because it's an outstanding film that doesn't deserved to be passed over, or because it's a female-led narrative about a lesbian couple?

Boycotting the Oscars isn't going to accomplish anything, and it only further reinforces their prestige in the eyes of the audience. Moreover, the snubbing of black or feminist narratives won't prevent similar movies from getting made. For instance, horror movies are hardly ever nominated for anything, but that hasn't killed the genre.

Kind of a Big Deal

Feminism and racism are big right now, and these attitudes are reflected in the outrage over the Academy's lack of feminist and black representation in this year's nominations. But there's no law that states the Oscars have to cow-tow to popular or populist opinion. Sure, they have bowed to social pressures in the past but, for whatever reason, they haven't this year.

People like to accuse the Academy of being too male and too white, and their conservative, patriarchal leanings are reflected in their choices. While that may be true, the fact of the matter is, the Academy is a reflection or representation of Hollywood and the studios that produce these movies. If we want to see a change in the Academy, we have to demand a change in the system that made it. It's all well and good for Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to issue a statement about growth and change, but it's quite another to implement that change and for it to have an effect.

More to the point, the increase in DTV (STDVD?) and VOD distribution has had a huge impact on how we engage with film, but the Academy hasn't kept up with these changes. For example, Beasts of No Nation, which has been charming audiences, critics, and juries all over the place can't be nominated for an Oscar even though it should be. So, if the point of the Oscars is to celebrate outstanding achievement in motion picture arts and sciences, why is the Academy limiting their pool of potential winners to only those films which can afford a theatrical release?

It is prohibitively expensive for some filmmakers to get their movie into theatres, hence the increase in DTV and VOD releases. But since a film must have a theatrical release in order to qualify for an Oscar, the award is inextricably tied to antiquated notions of distribution and exhibition, which are themselves tied to the economical/political issues that surround film marketing and promotion.

Any change in how the Academy makes it decisions come Oscar time, must reflect the changing face of the industry as a whole. House of Cards, which is a Netflix original, has been nominated for several Emmys, and that's a powerful reminder of how much the television landscape has changed with the onset of streaming services. More recently, Amazon picked up a nomination with Transparent, further suggesting ATAS understands something about its medium that AMPAS refuses to accept.

There needs to be a change in the Academy and its nomination process, that much is obvious. But expanding and diversifying the Academy's membership isn't the cure-all everyone wants it to be. Rather, the Academy needs to be more inclusive not only in terms of who but also in terms of what. Diversifying membership will only result in diversifying the politics swirling around the nominations. Expanding the field of potential nominees, on the other hand, will introduce more and different narratives, non-traditional characters and roles, and, hopefully, fewer Oscar-bait movies.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Year in Review: 2015


Here it is, a brief run-down of some of the best and worst movies I watched over the past year. Hardly comprehensive, this list is more a sampling of some of the truly wonderful and god-awful films had the good- or misfortune to see.

Unexpectedly good: Detention
This was a surprise hit. A delightful tale of time of bombs and time travel.
Unsurprisingly bad: Blood Lake
The Asylum. Nuff said.

Heck Yes!: Hardcore
Fan favourite at TIFF Midnight Madness, Hardcore is the first ever first-person action movie. Must be seen to be believed. Although the action and stunts are outstanding, Sharlto Copely steals the show as the MC's guide through a hellish day.
Hells no!: Area 51
Remember when Alanis Morissette's people tried to bury her first album? Oren Peli should seriously consider doing the same thing with this movie (and it isn't even his first feature).

So much fun: Deathgasm
New Zealand death metal horror movie that hits all the high notes.
So boring: The Ridges
American found footage horror movie that's nigh impossible to sit through.

A wonderful slow-burning period piece about a family cursed by a witch.

Finally got to see it: What We Do in the Shadows
Fabulous mockumentary about the daily nightly lives of a group of vampires who share house.
Shouldn't have bothered: Lumberjack Man
I only made it through half the movie before giving up entirely. It's supposed to be a ribald horror comedy, but it's really just a teenaged boy's interpretation of a ribald horror comedy.

New and fun: Baskin
Turkish film about a group of cops who raid the wrong building. It's intense and violent, gross and kind of satisfying. Worth tracking down.
Old and tired: Hatchet 3
Not only does this movie have no internal logic, it contradicts an established story-line.

Never forget: Cooties
This one kind of came and went, which is too bad because it's the best recent take on the zombie genre. Pro-teacher and kind of anti-kid, Cooties needs to be seen be more people.
Already forgotten: Knock Knock 2
Four friends visit some famous murder sites in LA and I'm already bored.

Wha??: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
It's the Spectre movie you wanted but didn't get.
Um, what?: Spectre
The final nail in the coffin that was Daniel Craig's gritty James Bond series. Spectre tries to tie all the Craig Bonds together in one big, unwieldy package, but only succeeds in wasting Christoph Waltz's time and yours.

Ex Machina makes a strong argument for why we shouldn't pursue strong AI.

Aw: The Final Girls
A love letter to slasher movies, kinda meta with just a touch of post-modernism. I've never before had cause to describe a horror movie as heartfelt, but the word is absolutely appropriate here.
Oh: Terminator Genysis
I'm not sure why this movie exists other than to feed Arnie's insatiable appetite for cash. Also Matt Smith's in it, which would normally be a good thing, only in this case he's little more than a disembodied voice.

It's alive!: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
If it can satisfy the worst kind of Star Wars nerd (e.g.: me), then it's a good bet everyone else will like it a lot.
Dead inside: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The tighter you hold onto your childhood, the harder Michael Bay tries to ruin it.

W.T.F!:I am a Knife with Legs
More comedy than anything else, it's about a guy waiting for an assassin to kill him. Part musical, part multimedia installation, all hilarity!
W.T.F?: Winterbeast
It took something like six years to make, and it shows! It's only 80 minutes, but it feels twice as long. I can't believe I looked forward to paying money to see it.

OMG: Mad Max: Fury Road
The long-awaited and highly anticipated fourth Mad Max movie puts all action movies (and a lot of other movies besides) to shame.
GFY: Tin Can Man
More experiment than film, Tin Can Man is an insult to cinephiles regardless of their genre preference. Whoever says otherwise is wrong. Don't be fooled by the laurels on the box, this movie sucks out loud.

Honourable mentions
Superfights is amazing. It's kind of bad. But so good. But also bad. And I wasn't looking forward to Ant-Man, but when I finally did see it, I, like everyone else, was surprised by how much it didn't suck. In fact, I rather enjoyed it.




Monday, 21 December 2015

A Visit From Cassilda


Twas a night not unlike any midwinter's eve,
The landscape was quiet, the world slept in peace.
After saying my prayers and being tucked into bed,
I floated on dreams that spun through my head.
When out in the field, there sounded a screaming,
I woke from my slumber to discover its meaning.
Away to the window, my hand on my heart,
I threw back the sash, and stared into the dark.
The moon in the sky shone like a brand,
Spilling cold light all over the land.
And what did I see out in the snow?
The host of heaven and those from below.
As they stood in a line, shoulder to shoulder,
I could feel in my soul the night growing colder.
“Child,” spoke a voice from out of the black.
“Witness this scene and know it is fact.
The time has arrived for a changing of season.
Gone are the days of wisdom and reason.”
Then demon and angel, sacred, abhorred,
Presented their arms and fell on their swords.
Blood spread from their bodies that covered the earth
And seeped into the history buried deep in the dirt.
A horrible moment of stillness and quiet
Was followed upon by a terrible riot.
A great piercing cry ne'er heard before
Shook the foundation, from surface to core
It rose from the host that lay on the ground,
The soul of creation, unfettered, unbound.
The firmament rent, cracked open wide
From out poured the nameless hidden inside.
Ineffable terror crept over my skin
Visions of torment without and within.
Lasting forever, the moment soon passed.
And sanity dissolved the spell that was cast.
I heard the voice speak as it faded from sight,
“This is the start of the long winter night.”


Saturday, 19 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


I take no small measure of joy in knowing I saw this movie before any of my friends. For whatever reason, a movie theatre two hours away from where I live had a 22:15 showing on Thursday, 17 December. Everyone else back home had to wait till midnight. Suckers.

I did my best to go in clean. Sure, I saw that teaser back in 2014, and paged through the Vanity Fair editorial. But that was it. And one trailer. I avoided reviews, although I had a couple of headlines repeated to me, including the one in the New York Times: "It Didn't Suck." My mom told me; she knew I would appreciate it. Other than that, I was totally free and clear from any outside influence.

Like so many of my generation, I grew up loving Star Wars, and spent a good decade of adult life absolutely hating part of it. It was a weird to hear about JJ Abrams' involvement, weirder still that Disney was in charge, but a huge relief to learn this episode was going old-school with proper sets, real locations, and practical effects. I have zero stock in Star Trek and so was able not only to appreciate what Abrams did with that franchise, but to enjoy it (the first one, at any rate). Perhaps he could do the same for Star Wars. Yes, I was pissed about the whole expanded universe thing--I invested long years of my life in reading book after book of EU adventures--but what're you gonna do? Not see the movie out of spite? Yeah right.

There is no way for me to boil down The Force Awakens to a single witty, pithy capsule comment. No way for me to lead in with some captivating click bait about how much I did or didn't like the movie, or what I thought about how well it did or didn't honour its legacy (never mind that someone already beat me to it). I have too much invested in this movie, this franchise--this galaxy. And that's a problem. A problem for me, as a critic, and a problem for you as a reader.

See, I'm biased. Completely and absolutely biased. I can't be impartial. My love for Star Wars makes too forgiving or, put another way, too critical. I could try to intellectualize my opinions about The Force Awakens, but what would be the point in that? The review would read so cold, unfeeling. Rather, I present a Star Wars review written by the worse kind of Star Wars nerd, the sort of girl who has a hard time seeing past her own personal feelings and who also holds herself, not only as a nerd but as a film critic and analyst, in high regard.

I wanted exactly two things from The Force Awakens, for it to be its own movie and to not suck. While they seem like simple things to ask for from any movie, they need some clarification here. Beginning with the latter, by not sucking, I mean I didn't want a repeat of the prequels--big, overblown movies that are too enamoured with themselves to provide any real entertainment value. It is impossible to speak about The Force Awakens without reference to what came before, and the prequels provide the perfect point of comparison on the subject of suckitude (a measure of how much something sucks).

For a nerd like me, the prequels are unwatchable. The story is too big, too convoluted, and too long, and the movies rely too heavily on CGI for their effects. The result is a poorly-conceived political plot that is hard to follow, both narratively and visually. George Lucas' motto while making the prequels seems to have been, why build it when we can render it instead? And since no one had the guts to ask the opposite, the very real, practical effects that helped make New Hope, Empire, and Jedi so wonderful were overlooked in favour of the digital effects that helped propel Avatar to mind-blowing success.

But while James Cameron understands (sort of) the benefits of CGI, Lucas was using because it was available to him. The thing about CGI is that it has no weight, it lacks texture and doesn't take up physical space, so it can be hard for actors to work with and play off something that's not actually there. And harder still for the audience to believe in what they're seeing because everything looks wrong. A great deal of progress has been made in this area since the prequels, but that only further reinforces what a total cock-up those movies were. Star Wars was ground breaking. Lucas innovated the crap out of that first movie and carried those innovations through the second and third. He had the chance to do so again with the prequels but he blew it.

In addition to overwraught visuals effects, the prequels lacked any kind of visual recall to the original films. Rather than taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, appeared to take place in some other galaxy in the far distant future. Lucas created an entire world, one with its own distinct look and feel, and while each new place we journeyed to in the original trilogy had its own visual flavour, they were all part of a single, unified system. That sense of visual unity was lost in the prequels, but Abrams recaptured the look and feel of the originals by blending practical effects and CGI. He took Lucas' original vision, beefed it up with some digital enhancements, and created something that looks like it truly belongs in the same galaxy as the OT.

Moving on to my second request, the be-its-own-movie stipulation, I have to admit to some disappointment. What I wanted was a film that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. A film like New Hope, that was one complete chapter in a larger tale that was being told. Force falls a bit short of the mark, I'm afraid. As a Star Wars nerd, I'm totally satisfied with the story on screen, but as a snooty cineaste, I wanted to watch a movie that ended, and ended well.

If we thought the 1980s were bad, the great enfranchisement of yesteryear doesn't hold a candle to the kind of lateral expansion that's happening now. Trilogy is the watchword, and while some have (thankfully) stalled out, it seems as if any and all genre pictures are greenlit for their potential sequels rather than on the strength of their single, solo stories. Movies today don't end, and the two-parter finales that capped off the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games series are a perfect example of how greedy studios are and how inured we've become to this kind of gross manipulation. For all the good and goodwill Force has managed to accomplish, these deeds are undercut by the fact that the movie is incomplete.

As much as I hate to use Marvel as an example, each movie in that ever-expanding cinematic universe, can stand on its own; I frequently encourage people to skip over Captain America and go right to Winter Soldier. Likewise, Cap detractors don't need to see either film in order to enjoy The Avengers. Force had the opportunity to do something similar, to exist independently of what'll come next. Do you need to watch the OT before seeing Force? Yes, but since everybody's seen it already, that point is moot. Rather, no one walked out of New Hope knowing they'd have to wait two years to maybe get some closure, and Force should have offered all generations of Star Wars fans (and genre buffs in general) that same satisfaction.

Secondary to this point is the sense that I might have missed something, even before the movie began, although that's impossible given the EU I spent so much time in no longer "exists." Kylo Ren, Snoke, and Poe clearly have rich backstories, but with the exception of Kylo Ren, we never get a real sense of who these people are. One or two lines would have been enough to give some depth or dimension to these characters, but their presence in the film is treated with the same matter-of-factness as that of Wedge or Boba Fett. Sure, it works great for tertiary characters but Snoke and Poe aren't expendable. They help shape the narrative and drive the story forward, and for that reason, I needed to know more about them. Something as simple as Poe's a celebrated resistance pilot, or Snoke is the last Palpantine clone (*wink) would have helped make the movie that much more engaging.

So as not to end this review on a low note, let me say this: despite my misgivings about how this story is told, I am totally on board with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Is it almost entirely a re-telling of New Hope? Yes. And that works in its favour. Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams found a way to give an awful nerd like me (almost) exactly what I wanted--which is to say something I already have--while presenting me with something new to fall in love with all over again.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Trailer Review: The Forest


For starters, this trailer is way too long. Three minutes is a short film, not a movie trailer. But the real problem lies in the trailer's editing and sound design. I'm almost certain this movie trades more on atmosphere than jump scares, but the trailer would have you believe the opposite. Full of sound cues and hard cuts, the trailer for The Forest looks like something from the Screen Gems Horror Film Assembly Plant.

To me, this points to just how badly some people misunderstand the genre. Horror can be, and often is, all broad strokes and obviousness--and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But horror can also be subtle and quiet, and recently this kind of atmospheric (elevated?) horror has been winning over more mainstream audiences. The promotions people over at Focus Features/Gramercy Pictures obviously didn't get the message, which begs the question, do these people even pay attention to horror and genre cinema in the first place?

The answer is, probably not. The documentary, Lost Souls, makes it clear that studio execs don't give a shit about movies--but they (some of them, at any rate) do have a very good understanding of how much they should cost. Taking that into consideration, it shouldn't surprise me that something like The Forest could be so badly misrepresented by its own trailer; PG-13 horror, which is nothing but jump scares set against a backdrop of mildly spooky atmosphere, can be relatively cheap to produce and turn a big profit. As such, the trailer for any horror movie, regardless of type, will attempt to appeal to that teen market. Because teens are pretty stupid, let's face it. They like what they like, and if The Forest looks like Carrie, then they'll go see it.

I know the good people who are marketing The Forest don't give a damn about cultivating taste, but this trailer does a huge disservice to the movie, and to the audience. If I were the filmmaker, I'd be pissed. That's assuming, of course, the movie is what I think it is. I could be wrong.

God, I hope I'm not wrong.


Sunday, 13 December 2015

Eight Nights of Terror: Jewish Pop Culture


In this final post, I take a look at Jewish influences in genre cinema and television. Christianity reigns supreme in terms of how many horror stories are based on elements of Christian belief--I'm talking Satanic and apocalyptic stories--but every now and again Judaism inspires someone to go in a slightly different direction.

Television

I didn't cover the golem in my rundown of Jewish "monsters," largely because it's the most well-known creature of Jewish myth. For that reason, the golem often appears in Jewish-inspired genre fictions. The X-Files, of course, has a golem episode (season 4, episode 15: Kaddish). The last name of the Jewish family who play a central role in this episode is Luria. It bears mentioning that Issac Luria, who was a 16th century Jewish mystic, features in a number of Jewish folktales in which the rebbe deals with the supernatural. The Luria family in the X-Files and their use of a golem suggest that someone at work on the show had at least a passing familiarity with Kabbalah.

Season 4 of Supernatural used Lilith as a the villain for its seasonal arc. The Lilith that appeared on the show had very little to do with the Lilith of the Bible, but it was a good season nonetheless. In season 7, Leviathan was the big bad. This Leviathan, however, wasn't a great big fish monster. Rather, it was consciousness that occupied human hosts and sometimes ate people. On a side note, I'm certain episode 9 of that season makes a Team America reference, so that's awesome.

Like The X-Files, Supernatural also has an episode that deals with a golem. This is a Jewish as it gets for the show in that the episode features Nazis, Nazi hunters, a rabbi, and a guy who's trying very hard to rid himself of his cultural and religious identity. Personally, I find the self-hating Jew thing a little insulting, but it's important for the character's personal journey.

Supernatural also makes use of the Lesser Key of Solomon, using a "demon trap" from the book to trap demons. Although not strictly a Jewish text, the Lesser Key has roots in Jewish history and myth.

The short-lived Constantine TV show also drew on Solomon's demonology. But whereas Supernatural uses the demon trap repeatedly, it only showed up in one episode of Constantine, and a variation at that. In the episode Feast of Friends, Constantine carves what looks like a Star of David (referred to as taba'at Shlomo, the Ring of Solomon ) onto a bottle, in the hopes of trapping a demon inside it. The taba'at Shlomo is mentioned in the Testament of Solomon--I can't speak to weather it appears in either of the Keys--and appears in the comic book.

Judaism plays a big role in Dig, which I've not yet finished watching, so I can't really comment on it. In short, both fundamentalist Christians and Jews are, in their own ways, trying to force the End of Days. Similarly, there's an episode in the third season of Millennium (which I didn't watch--I stopped after the second) in which a Jewish millennial cult abducts a pregnant woman in hopes that her child, if raised properly, will bring about the messianic age.

Movies

Obviously, there's The Possession, which is about a dybbuk. Then there's The Unborn, which is also about a dybbuk, but totally cocks up what a dybbuk is and does. It's not a terrible movie, but don't expect to learn anything about dybbuks by watching it. Perhaps the best of the contemporary dybbuk movies is Demon, which played at TIFF this past September.

Also rating an eleven in the obvious scale is The Dybbuk about a dybbuk, and Der Golem, about a golem. These films introduced generations of gentiles to dybbuks and golems, and are likely responsible, in one way or another, for their pervasiveness in popular culture.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, draws heavily on (made up) stories about the ark of the covenant, and mines Judaism for its premise. The titular ark is supposed to house the tablets on which the ten commandments are written, and anyone who opens the ark is in danger of having their face melted. I'm not sure if the inscribed words of God can actually do that, but who doesn't love to watch Nazis melt?

Another totally made up story, but still kinda rooted in the Bible, is the terrible Syfy (at the time, Sci-Fi) TV movie Monster Ark. This ark is a boat, a Noah's Ark v1.0, which contains what remains of the nephilim (a race of giants/monsters begat by women who slept with angels). The nephilim are attested to in the Bible, but there's no "monster ark."

The Fearless Vampire Killers isn't a movie that I'm at all familiar with, but it features a Jewish vampire. And a joke about using crosses to ward him off.

Rounding out this selection of Jewish-inspired horror movies are The Seventh Sign, and End of Days. The Seventh Sign, which is about an impending apocalypse, has little to do with Jewish eschatology, but it does make mention of the guf. The guf is the repository of souls, and there is a finite number of souls in the guf. In the film, Demi Moore is pregnant with the last soul, which means it's the end of the world.

End of Days has absolutely nothing to do with Jewish apocalyptism, but the movie's opening credits features this:


The Hebrew is upside down.