Movies (including DVD and Blu-Ray releases):
Peter's picks -
The Car - Finally given a US Blu-ray release, here's a 1977 exploitation flick given a bad rap as a Jaws rip-off (to be fair, that was Universal's intent) but rediscovered over the decades for what it really is: a tight, gripping suspenser with a few well-timed surprises.
The Monster That Challenged the World / Them! - Both these titles are giant monster flicks from the 1950s and both elevate themselves above the multitude of similar fare thanks to smart scripts and clever effects. Them! begins as a quasi-noir mystery about strange disappearances in the desert and then abruptly reveals the true menace about a third of the way through. Monster follows the same sort of path with a military backdrop and the always fascinating Salton Sea. The recent Blu-ray releases are polar opposites: while both films look great, Them! is presented with only a few throwaway extras (and those were carted over from the 2002 DVD release), while Monster benefits from its authoritative commentary by genre expert Tom Weaver.
|Nope, this is not a spoiler, boys and girls!|
Under the Skin - Not sure how I managed to miss this when it first came out, as I’m a big Scarlett Johannson fan. A strange sf/horror hybrid that in this viewer’s opinion far surpasses the novel that it is based on. Scarlett does a fantastic job as an extraterrestrial with unique needs. The most David Lynchian film I’ve seen in years, which to me is a good thing. If you’re not comfortable with ambiguity, you might want to steer clear of this one. But love it or hate it, it’s the kind of film you can’t stop thinking of days and months later.
Kingsman: Secret Service - The first major release I saw in 2015 had me anxious to see it again as soon as it ended, and Kingsman has managed to stay on the top of my favorite films list throughout the year. You’ll never think of the British Secret Service the same way after seeing this film. It’s often hilarious and occasionally poignant; quite an achievement for a film that can also be ridiculously over the top.
Mad Max Fury Road - I’ll admit to being of the “if it’s not Mel Gibson, it’s not Mad Max” contingent. But I also had great faith in George Miller, who manages to pull off a feature length car chase that keeps the viewer engaged, in no small part thanks to Charlize Theron’s fine performance as Furiosa. Tom Hardy is fine as Max, though I also am a fan of the internet spawned theory that he’s actually NOT Max, but the grown up Feral kid from The Road Warrior, having assumed the role.
It Follows - There was a lot of buzz around this movie this year, and I’m pleased to say it lived up to the hype. A new and interesting take on a sexually transmitted disease may not be perfect, but is good enough to forgive a few minor plot contrivances.
Mulholland Drive (Blu Ray) - One of my all-time favorite David Lynch films made its debut on Blu Ray this year, and it is just as powerful as it was the first time I saw it. Naomi Watts delivers an amazing performance as a wide-eyed dreamer who arrives in Hollywood only to find herself over her head when she meets a mysterious woman suffering from amnesia after a car accident. It has all the Lynch trademarks: beauty juxtaposed with ugliness, humor, and an odd array of characters.
Allegro Non Troppo (1976)
A delightfully mischievous parody of the classic Disney symphony Fantasia by Italian filmmaker Bruno Bozzetto, Allegro Non Troppo constantly surprised me with its shifts from laugh-out loud hilarity and absurdity (including a wrestling man-in-ape-suit bit) to tender humanity (try not getting choked up during the “Valtzer Triste” sequence). Reminiscent of a Gahan Wilson drawing come to life in moments, and with everything that entails.
Chamber of Horrors (1966)
Patrick O’Neal might not have enjoyed a career as a second-string Vincent Price, but when opportunity came a-knockin’ the man made the most of it with Chamber of Horrors, a kitschy hootenanny of a horror show that has the icy-eyed star slicing a path of vengeance through his enemies with glorious gimmickry as he swaps out his false hand for various murderous weapons. And there’s a duke-it-out in a wax museum and a blaring Horror Horn used to warn you away from the film's icky bits to boot. This movie was made for me.
Crimson Peak (2015)
A date night movie that didn’t disappoint, Crimson Peak finds Guillermo Del Toro engaging with Gothic texts of the Northanger Abbey persuasion and indulging in his affection for sumptuous set designs and painterly visuals. The cast is pure class from top to tails, with leads Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston all inhabiting their roles with the same comfort as their tailor-made costumes. They’re all great, but Chastain won my heart with her descent from chilled austerity to pure wailing madness at the climax.
I love me a nice “stagey” thriller, and Deathtrap surely fits the bill seeing as how it’s based on Ira Levin’s smash hit play of the same name. Bandying about phrases like “You won’t know who to trust or what to believe” can’t quite communicate the clockwork manner in which the plot ticks along as it reveals one false notion after another, but it’s the best I can manage at this late hour. Every time we try to get a firm grasp of what’s actually going on Deathtrap merrily grinds its heel into our hands. And we love it for that.
The Golem (1920)
Even though I’ve watched silent films since third grade, it feels like it’s only been recently that I’ve opened myself up to them and become more attuned to their own special brand of storytelling. This mindset allowed me to reap rewards from watching The Golem for the first time that might have otherwise been missed. In the absence of sound I was drawn into its alchemical power, reveling in its visual poetry and folkloric narrative in the same manner as an enraptured viewer of a magic lantern show.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
Every bit as grim and uncompromising as In Cold Blood, that other chilling B&W account of true crime, The Honeymoon Killers has the benefit of a lower budget that puts us in the same drab, desperate spaces as our eponymous murderers through the eye of an unflattering camera. Shirley Stoler’s romantic yearning for gigolo husband Tony Lo Bianco makes the annoyed sense of duty she dispatches their hapless and helpless victims with all the more disturbing. It feels like the infamous camcorder footage from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer set at feature length. Consider that a recommendation at your own discretion.
House of Games (1987)
Roger Ebert said of this David Mamet production that it is constantly “awake,” and it’s easy to see why. Right from the opening frames House of Games has a steady kinetic buzz pulsing through its images, carrying us with confidence man-like professionalism from one set-up to the next. Like Deathtrap, this is a movie where true motivations and identities are constantly called into question and yet for all its twists still manages to register as a devoutly human drama with matters of the heart being the main concern.
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
One of the most infamous products of Pre-Code Hollywood finally got the esteem treatment from Criterion a few years back after languishing in the no-man’s land of the home video market. Like similar titles, Island of Lost Souls might seem awfully tame to contemporary viewers who don’t see the big whoop about a bunch of guys with yak hair glued to their faces, but the movie retains the same transgressive vibe of H. G. Wells’ novel and amplifies it through the megaphone that is Charles Laughton’s performance, a purple-plum role that the actor indulges in before succumbing to the truly unnerving masses of his leering Beast Men in the House of Pain.
John Wick (2014)
I’d heard good things from friends on social media about this one, so when a pal of mine asked if I wanted to watch his recently purchased Blu-ray I jumped at the chance. Suffice it to say I was completely enamored, not only with the justly-lauded fight sequences that melded messy realism and sleek efficiency but with the economy of visuals and narrative that directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch used to expertly set up the (thankfully) silent Keanu Reeves for an unwavering mission of righteous payback.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
The summer blockbuster everyone went crazy for before the oncoming of Star Wars for the holidays. One needn’t have been a fan (or even seen) any of the original Mad Max films to appreciate the chaotic vision of fuel-guzzling insanity George Miller brought to the screen here. But underneath all the pyrotechnics and rich mutant mythology beats the heart of a genuine epic, which is why the movie is still being talked about even in the day-old news pace of contemporary society.
For me, Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s documentary of the legendary renegade Big Hollywood screenwriter and director was most memorable as a testament to the love of creating stories. Finding out about John Milius’s hopes and angers and passions through this biographical journey brought an extra depth and resonance to the words we see intoned by characters in clips from Conan the Barbarian, The Wind and the Lion, Dirty Harry and others. Some may see his pictures as a conservative’s fantasies gone wild, but the uncompromised vision and poetry Milius brought to each project inspires one to do the same for their own artistic endeavors, as it did for this viewer. If you ask me, that’s the best gift a film can give you.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Those who read my columns here at bare•bones will know that I’m an unapologetic horror junkie, but I also have a huge, aching soft spot for Disney films, especially those reminiscent of the traditionally animated variety I grew up with, as The Princess and the Frog is. Blame it on living in close proximity to the Happiest Place on Earth, but this throwback to the Renaissance of the 90s hits high marks for its diversified characters (Keith David’s hoodoo villain Dr. Facilier and Michael Leon-Wooley’s cuddly, jazz-playing gator Louis were easily my favorite players) and rich atmosphere, its stirring musical numbers, and the sparkling humor and adorableness that the House of Mouse has been known for.
Spider Baby (1967)
Jack Hill’s cult film might not be “The Maddest Story Ever Told”, but it’s certainly a heck of a lot of fun if you’re tuned into its dead-of-night spookshow wavelength. Viewers will be able to see the blueprint of depraved familial cults to come in Hill's Merrye clan, covering every insane character template from the hulking savant (Sid Haig, later an honorary member of Rob Zombie’s loyal pack of murderers from House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) to the sexually promiscuous but ultimately deadly vixen (Jill Banner, a doe-eyed temptress with twin butcher knives). And then there's Lon Chaney, giving one of the best performances of his career. He is the tie that binds the film together, a caretaker who shows with his final actions what it really means to be family.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
After I finished watching the Criterion disc of Fritz Lang’s sequel to Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler (1922), my first thought was why it took me so long to find this movie. It spoke beautifully and at length about some of my deepest fascinations, namely the trope of the all-knowing criminal mastermind plotting schemes like a poisonous spider at the center of a vast, intricate web of underground underlings, not unlike how Professor Moriarty was described by Sherlock Holmes. Lang’s masterpiece takes the conceit even further, imagining the shadowy Mabuse as a literal shadow, a contagion that can infect formerly-upstanding citizens and turn them to the Dark Side. There are so many grand visuals in this one (the bug-eyed spirit of Mabuse hypnotizing his next host with whispery utterances is one of the great Creepy Moments From a Non-Horror Film) and Lang goes about it with all the intrigue and action of the spy and crime genres that you can only sit back and applaud.
Coppola’s latest feature is destined to divide the room but count me on the side of the supporters. It’s funny, because I have the impression that Twixt is unlikely to find favor with the horror crowd, yet I think fans could hardly have asked for a more canny, original, bonkers, and incisive examination of the genre than this. A washed-up writer of supernatural thrillers visits a small, quiet hamlet to work on his next book but runs afoul of serial murder, a cantankerous sheriff right out of a Stephen King novel, Goth kids partying by the lake who may also be vampires (?), actual ghosts, one of which is Edgar Allan Poe’s, religious cults, and lots of liquor and guilt over his late daughter’s death. It reads like a horror novice’s frantic stringing-together of all the clichés in the book but the delivery speaks to the creative team’s experience with and respect for the material, a fact that most folks haven’t seemed to pick up on. And it’s a little crazy too, crazy enough to try new things even as it’s honoring old ones, a hokey-looking, intimately-filmed phantasm perfect for solitary viewing during the waning hours of the afternoon where there’s no one but you and your ghosts to keep you company. You should watch it. You probably won’t like it.
Birdman-Yes, it came out in 2014, but I saw it in January 2015. I resisted going but I loved every minute of it. Where has Michael Keaton been? He’s my favorite Batman.
About Elly-Released in the U.S. for the first time in 2015, this 2009 film is the third in a row I’ve seen by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that blew me away. An extended family goes to the Iranian seashore for a vacation but things turn very bad very quickly. One thing I love about foreign films is that they show how similar people are all over the world.
La Sapienza-Eugene Green’s gorgeous film about an aging architect and his wife who go to Italy and rekindle their love for life. The scenery is beautiful.
The Martian-Who would have thought a movie about a botanist left alone on Mars would be this exciting? Matt Damon is terrific and there is a great ensemble cast on Earth and in the spaceship.
Coming Home-A Chinese film with Gong Li about a woman whose husband is jailed during the Cultural Revolution. Director Zhang Yimou tells a moving story about love and loss, and watching films about what happened in China in the '60s and '70s always makes me glad to have been born in the U.S.
Bridge of Spies-Stephen Spielberg’s late '50s/early '60s period piece is a delight to watch. Tom Hanks as great, as usual, and Mark Rylance is superb as the Russian spy who becomes a bargaining chip in a high-stakes negotiation.
The 33-A true story about Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days, this movie features a strong cast and a narrative that is even more exciting because it really happened.
Spotlight-Great acting by the entire cast, especially Michael Keaton (again!), Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. I’m Catholic and this movie made me angry, but I still go to church every week. Spotlight is like a modern-day All the President’s Men.
Brooklyn-Perhaps the only movie this year where I welled up with tears, Brooklyn is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. Saoirse Ronan is excellent, once again, and the story takes place in a New York of the early 1950s where people were kinder to each other than they seem to be today.
Hitchcock/Truffaut-An all-time favorite book about movies is the basis for a thoroughly enjoyable documentary, in which one great director polishes the reputation of the all-time greatest director. Loads of great clips and music as well as photos and rare footage I had not seen before. And that’s saying something!
The Flash - I've hated just about every attempt to bring superheroes to TV. Gotham? Yecch! Smallville? Dullsville! Agents of SHIELD? The worst. So, when several people nudged me towards The Flash, I naturally looked at their recommendation with a certain amount of derision. I was expecting more of the same tedious writing and bad spfx but, nope, not this time. The first season continually excited, thrilled, and, best of all, surprised me with its involving characters and top-notch acting (who knew the guy from Law and Order could actually, you know, do something other than utter a bad one-liner to Jerry Orbach?). It also did what few other spandex shows could do: it somehow transferred the vibe of a comic book to the little screen. Biggest surprise of the year.
The Walking Dead - Another show I came to late but spent a good portion of two weeks marathoning last summer. I love the fact that, after a while, you almost forget that zombies will pop up from time to time.
The Returned - Not the lousy American remake that came and went very quickly last season but the original French series all too scarce on these shores (you can stream the first season on Netflix but you'll have to fork over extra dough to your cable company to watch the second series on Sundance). What would you do if you returned home from work and your dead daughter was having a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, looking just the way she did before she perished in a bus crash? And how would your friends and neighbors deal with this sudden return? Maybe not the way you'd expect. And that's the recipe for a successful thriller - evade the path of the obvious. The first season's siege finale ends with a cliffhanger so wild you can't imagine what would come next.
Bloodline - Another Netflix winner, this one details the disintegration of a Florida family (even though the vibe you'll get is Southern plantation in the 1800s) through deception, backstabbing, jealousy and, eventually, murder. Killer cast: Kyle Chandler, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard and Chloe Sevigny.
Scott & Bailey - My favorite discovery of the year. On the surface, a British homage to Cagney & Lacey, S&B is so much more than just a cop-buddy show. The two cops defy expectations each successive episode; there is literally no guessing what one of these women might do. DC Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) is the sexy half, sleeping and drinking her way through life when she's not showing she has a knack for solving crimes. Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) is the sensible one, almost a motherly figure who tries her best to keep her partner on the straight and narrow but, as each season progresses, we see that there might not be much of a difference after all between the two.
Spiral (Engranages)/ Braquo - Two French series that might have pinched a bit of inspiration from The Shield but these two series take the morally decrepit law officer to a new high. Most of Spiral's dynamic comes from its spark plug lead character, Police Captain Laure Berthaud (the incredibly attractive Caroline Proust), a flawed and dangerous woman who seems constantly on the edge of a meltdown (and finally succeeds in the fourth season), using her badge to mete out her own brand of justice and settling personal conflicts with violence. As with The Shield, Berthaud is backed up (and, eventually, alibied when the shit hits the fan) by a crack team of screw-ups who know their detective work but never seem to know how to follow the letter of the law. Braquo is similar in a lot of ways to Spiral but it's a lot grungier and macho. There are a lot of Charles Bronson moments when the characters almost shrug and wink at the audience before blowing away a plethora of bad guys (and some not so bad guys) but it never descends into parody. Think The Expendables with brains.
Game of Thrones (HBO) - When it’s airing, it’s the best thing on television. If only it lasted longer, and didn’t take so long to return! This season was no exception, once again filled with developments that had our viewing group regularly gasping and shouting at the screen. It will be interesting to see where things go as they get past the point to which the books have been written, although at this point I have confidence in the show runners to bring this one home.
The Newsroom (HBO) - Once again, Aaron Sorkin manages to take a topic that on the surface I would seemingly have no interest in (cable news) and makes a compelling drama out of it. Jeff Daniels is fantastic as the anchor of a cable news network and Sam Watterson is terrific as his boss who runs the network. Now that the show is completed, it’s an ideal target for binge watching.
Mad Men (AMC). It was a season of series finales this past year. AMC taglined Mad Men’s final season as “The End of an Era,” concluding its seven-year run with a Coke and a smirk. Creator Matthew Weiner swears there was no cynicism behind ad man Don Draper finding “om” enlightenment at a New Age retreat in the form of the jingle “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” but the previous decade’s Holden Caulfield could have told the difference between “the real thing” and phoniness.
Don’s dénouement is set in 1970, one year before the historic Coca-Cola ad he invents in the Mad Men universe, not long before the appearance of Tom Wolfe’s famous 1976 essay “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” which mercilessly excoriated the era and could almost be read as commentary on Mad Men (more than once, Wolfe even refers to the Esalen Institute, the actual commune retreat where Don ends up).
It remains the perfect epilogue for the series – unexpected and destined to provoke endless conversation and dissection. It is even fitting in its way since all along Mad Men, for all its fetishization of Camelot and post-Camelot glitz and glamour, was really about “liberating” Americans from “bourgeoisie” Eisenhower-era values through the “Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll” of the coming Counterculture. The substances abused may have gotten harder, but SCP’s advertising executives were already practicing “free love” every time they bedded their secretaries behind their wives’ backs, so what really has changed for them? (Ease perhaps, and normalization.)
What has changed is that the shifting times have handed them a new Coca-Cola Generation youth demographic to which they can market. Before America passed from “Hippiedom” to “Yuppiedom,” no less a countercultural icon than Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his essay “The Hippies” that “the hippie in 1967 was put in the strange position of being an anti-culture hero at the same time as he was also becoming a hot commercial property.” Maybe Don read that 1968 piece. “If it feels good, do it,” the times said, so then why not “Greed is good”? Whether he knows it or not, Weiner has inadvertently come to the same conclusion.
Public Morals (TNT). If TNT was going to slot a period crime series starring Edward Burns, Robert Knepper, and Neal McDonough, it might as well have renewed its David J. Schow-Michael Sloane-scripted Mob City. Instead the network introduced another, Public Morals, this one (as the New York Daily News put it) “set in the early 1960s, when the city still had a lot more vestiges of the ’30s and ’40s than hints of the flash and glitter that lay a couple of decades ahead.”
Writer-director-actor Burns’s cops-and-gangsters drama does nothing startlingly new, while doing it well, that is until you slowly realize that he is giving an extended look into the home lives of neighborhood lawmen and petty thugs that, in an age of cookie-cutter TV police procedurals, is usually only alluded to. Not only that, the dramatization of police work is well-integrated into the lives of its NYPD Public Morals Division vice cops (along with the neighborhood hoods) who keep the peace by containing small-time crime before it threatens to cross the line into murder and gangland violence.
Besides the element of domesticity that Burns brings from his directorial debut The Brothers McMullen, Public Morals distinguishes itself from Mob City by being less L.A. Confidential and more A Bronx Tale and Mean Streets, only with Hell’s Kitchen and Westies replacing Little Italy, Fordham, and Mafiosi.
Unfortunately Public Morals suffered the same abrupt fate as the ill-fated Mob City, its season finale serving as its series finale.
Hell on Wheels (TNT). It was supposed to be Hell on Wheels’s last year, but TNT decided to split in half the last season of their Reconstruction-era Western series and air the rest next summer. Thanks to two dueling rail companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, America is on the verge of becoming a land that stretches from “sea to shining sea,” though as railroad baron Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) promised in episode one, “Blood will be spilled,” as it is with nearly all great human endeavors, and spilled it was these past five seasons.
With Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) defecting from Durant’s camp to the rival Central Pacific, the railroad race intensifies and adds Chinese rail workers into the mix. Unlike the freed black slaves of the Union Pacific Railroad eager to make their mark on newly emancipated America and, along with the Irish-Americans, participate in land grabs, the Chinese workers are unassimilated and treated like Chinatown sweatshop or Red Chinese factory labor by Chang (Byron Mann), their exploitative foreman, who is something of a Tong boss.
Also in competition is Mormon Church founding father Brigham Young himself, who schemes politically to maneuver the railway through to Salt Lake City. While Young figured last season, his expanded presence gives Hell on Wheels the chance to showcase a fourth subset of workers never depicted in how-the-west-was-built movies, the Mormons.
It is a combustible cauldron that threatens to explode like the dynamite used to tunnel though mountains, but out of it will come a coast-to-coast united America, “a single generation, passed under the hard conditions of life in the wilderness,” as President Teddy Roosevelt would come to say about the Old West, “weld[ed] together into one people [from] numerous and different races; and the children of the next generation bec[oming] indistinguishable from one another.”
New episodes air this summer.
Hannibal (NBC). Before NBC decided the season finale would serve as a series finale, Hannibal managed to film, in its third season, much of both Thomas Harris’s novels Hannibal and Red Dragon. The series has always looked a little like Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, never more so than this past season, which served up an even richer and more decadent banquet of visuals that let you enter not only the serial murderers’ minds, but their very worlds. (Lecter’s lavish “memory palace” is surreally visualized, as are the Tooth Fairy’s extravagant wing- and tail-sprouting transformations.)
If it seems like the end for Lecter and Graham, consider that creator Bryan Fuller compares their cliff plummet to Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty’s off the Reichenbach Falls, though of late the pair have become a little more like Leopold and Loeb than Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters.
About what a fourth season would have encompassed, Fuller issued a tantalizing statement that “[t]here’s a portion of the novel Hannibal that has not been included in any of the adaptations of the story.” Plans to conclude the cancelled series with a feature film have so far come to naught.
No word yet if Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter would get a guest spot preparing dishes from The Joy of Cooking with Giada De Laurentiis, Hannibal producer Martha De Laurentiis’s granddaughter-in-law, on her Food Network show Giada at Home.
Aquarius (NBC). The question was always if the hip and sardonic David Duchovny could play a “throwback” cop who is, as he described in interviews, “a dinosaur...a unicorn, an extinct being, but he doesn’t know it.” He does, but does it with a wink and wry smile that take the edge off.
To Duchovny, his LAPD detective character Sam Hodiak “is fighting a war already lost. He may know it. He is fighting against change and the ’60s.” All of this sounds heavy-going, like one tormented man raging against a river whose rapid currents and tides will inevitably sweep him away and drown or dash him on the rocks below. Executive producer John McNamara says that Hodiak “is asking himself one fundamental question: If this was the world today, why the f did I fight in World War II?” Surprisingly, the final product turns out to be something pleasantly different.
Hodiak is partnered with a young rookie (Grey Damon) sporting Serpico-hair long enough for him to go undercover with the youth culture. This odd couple generational clash – two war veterans, one Second World War, the other Vietnam – is played mostly for dry humor so that Aquarius can save its serious side for its depiction of a pre-Helter Skelter Charles Manson as he assembles his “family,” hones his charismatic cult leader persona and, with his commune, gradually comes to the attention of Hodiak and his cop colleagues.
The actors mostly look too scrubbed and feel too contemporary to be playing Sixties characters, and the period details are not up to the level of Public Morals, Mob City, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men, to name a few examples. Yet Aquarius does not overdo the nostalgia, an advantage for a drama depicting a darker side of the Sixties often conveniently ignored.
The best parts of Aquarius are Duchovny’s trademark drollness and the largely unexplored chapter of Manson’s obscure rise before making a national name for himself the way failures often do. This year promises to be the year of Duchovny – first he reprises his role as Agent Mulder in January’s X-Files miniseries (with Hannibal’s Gillian Anderson back as Agent Scully), and then Aquarius returns later this year.
Tyrant (FX) is the only show where you are likely to see homosexuals hurled to their deaths off rooftops, Muslim wives enslaved, and Christians marked for ethnic cleansing by radical Islamic savages. To most Americans, what is unfolding overseas is worlds away, just as it was to Bassam’s American wife in the first season – it always is, until it hits the homeland. Tyrant brings horrific current events to audiences’ attentions in a thoughtful and dramatic way. In many ways, it does not go far enough.
This second season Bassam Al-Fayeed (Adam Rayner) secretly joins a resistance movement against his own brother, President Jamal (Ashraf Barhom), while an ISIS-inspired terrorist movement calling itself “the Caliphate” cuts a swath of death and destruction through the nation of Abbudin (a cross between Iraq and Syria).
The episode “Desert Storm” has exhilarating war scenes as good as anything in feature films as Abbudin’s military joins forces with armed resistance fighters to crush the new nihilistic threat. Viewers will be torn. On the one hand they will root for the good Al-Fayeed brother to bring Western democratic values to the troubled land of his birth, but on the other hand they will wrestle with an uneasy underlying suggestion that it might take a tyrant to rule the region.
True Detective (HBO). Quentin Tarantino went on the record calling the series “really boring” and dismissing its detectives for “walking around looking like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. It’s so serious, and they’re so tortured, trying to look miserable,” then admitted he only saw the pilot episode. (Sight unseen, he similarly dismissed the Martin Luther King, Jr. feature biopic Selma as only Emmy-worthy.) Maybe he only likes his fiction with movie references instead of the literary ones creator Nic Pizzolatto buries in his work. Or, in light of his recent public feud with police, prefers criminal characters to cop ones.
What Tarantino calls “the weight of the world,” however, is at the heart of Pizzolatto’s earnest exploration of the existential human condition framed as crime fiction, elevated themes entirely absent in Tarantino’s body of work. Maybe it rankled Tarantino when True Detective took a jab at the John Woo-inspired posturing he indulges in – when cartel gangsters burst in on Vaughn’s character, everybody’s guns drawn on one another, he quips, “That’s one off the bucket list. A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans.”
Though not technically a series finale, the closing episode of the second season is the last time viewers will see this case and characters (Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell, and Taylor Kitsch). Pizzolatto submerges his influences and inspirations even more deeply this go-around – the first season was weird fiction, the second Twin Peaks, Thomas Pynchon, and pulp. Replace Chinatown’s “water wars” with high-speed rail, and that gives you an idea of what this season is about. Though shot in many locations just outside Los Angeles, the California-set season is as sprawling as both L.A. and James Ellroy’s novels about the city, and its storyline just as dense as anything in an Ellroy mystery.
While not as one-of-a-kind as the first season, Pizzolatto’s second seemed determined to do something different and was punished for it. As for a third season, Pizzolatto's involvement as both showrunner and writer on every episode remains a question mark. The odd part is that HBO signed Pizzolatto for other undisclosed projects while (if rumors are accurate) demoting him on True Detective. Ratings for season two were high, but media criticism was so fierce and vociferous that it almost felt like viewers were following their lead rather than their own instincts, often only echoing what they read in reviews.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I love hero narratives, especially ones that take the time to examine what exactly it means to be one, what it ultimately costs, and how important it is to keep being one regardless of those costs. We see Sarah Michelle Gellar’s tough and chipper cheerleader go through more than one flaming hoop over this series’ seven seasons, tackling everything from sound-sucking ghouls to the emotional upheavals of seeing loved ones die and friends losing themselves to their darker hungers. Joss Whedon's show is a triumph, and has one of the most simultaneously wrenching and satisfying endings that you’re likely to see in any medium. I’d easily watch it all again.
Daredevil / Jessica Jones
Speaking of hero narratives… I’ll merely add to my cohort Peter’s fanfare and say that these two Netflix Original programs demonstrated what great things could be done in adapting comic book mythology to the televisual serial format. More than any of the flashy films from Marvel Studios, Daredevil and Jessica Jones made their characters feel immediately real and within our grasp. Whether it was Charlie Cox getting the unending hell beat out of him or Krysten Ritter grappling with a predatory relationship, both shows made it clear that you don’t need end-of-the-world stakes to captivate an audience with superheroes. I can’t wait to see what comes next, especially when Jon Bernthal arrives in the second season of DD as the Punisher.
Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
What’s a list of my favorite television shows without some British comedy in the mix? With Matthew Holness assuming the role of a snobby horror writer of cheap '80’s-styled fiction showing us episodes from his cancelled hospital-bound supernatural TV drama Darkplace, how could a freak like me go wrong? This is very much in the vein of what one would expect from Adult Swim, a purposefully-bad parody of Me Generation cheesiness complete with visible boom mics, Dollar General special effects, and clunky dialogue delivered with overblown conviction. It’s cult-niche entertainment that the handful of devoted fans will be quoting long after the synth-laden credits have ended.
The IT Crowd
Another hilarious series from across the pond, with Darkplace’s Richard Ayoade and Matt Berry on hand as delightfully eccentric and clueless players. Although one might call it a “workplace comedy,” it has even less to do with the responsibilities of the day-to-day than The Office and is more of a traditional sitcom than Darkplace, laugh track included. I can’t say much else about the show aside from the fact that it made me laugh quite a bit, so there you have it.
United States of Tara
My wife was two or three episodes into this when she suggested I watch along with her, and boy am I glad she did. Toni Collette stars as a suburban wife and mother struggling with a near-lifelong condition of dissociative identity disorder. Collette brilliantly portrays three distinct personalities in addition to Tara, including a 50s-style happy homemaker, a sassy teenager, and a surly male redneck and, later in the series, a genuinely frightening abuser that holds a key to her traumatic past. Collette is a marvel and yet never seems to be showboating, always displaying a vulnerability even in her most in-your-face moments. She’s supported by a beautiful cast composing her equally fractured family (John Corbett, Keir Gilchrist, Brie Larson), characters who buckle under the weight of their burden on more than one occasion but, in the end, unite under a pledge of familial devotion that makes even the most insurmountable of obstacles seem within our power to overcome.
Call the Midwife-The fourth series aired on PBS this year and it's still guaranteed to have me near tears every episode. Who would have thought that a show about a group of midwives in the late '50s in London's East End would be this gripping?
Person of Interest-The second half of season four aired in 2015 and I'm eagerly awaiting season five in the winter of 2016. I don't know why they skipped the fall of 2016, but this show, which has had its ups and downs, always manages to get back on track and be a real nail-biter as Reese and Finch try to keep the giant computer from taking over every aspect of our lives.
Supergirl-This is the most pleasant surprise of the new 2015-2016 network TV season. It got off to a shaky start but gets better with each episode. Melissa Benoist was holding the show together in the early episodes but the cast is starting to click and the recent appearances of the Red Tornado and the Martian Manhunter were a couple of nice surprises for the DC fans among us.
Flash-The first season was terrific and it built toward a monumentally entertaining climax. Season two had a tough row to hoe to match the end of season one, but bringing back Tom Cavanagh as the Earth-Two version of Harrison Wells was a great idea, since he was such a strong presence in season one. I love Gorilla Grodd, too!
Fargo-The best TV show of 2015! The war between the Kansas City mob and the Gerhardt family in 1979 in the upper Midwest was brilliantly done from start to finish. The entire cast was fantastic and the direction was superb, with lots of split screen action that recalled film and TV techniques from the '70s. If you haven't seen Fargo, start with season one, set closer to present day, and then try not to get frustrated as you wait for season two to show up on Netflix or Hulu or wherever they stick it.
My man Jack got me Van Halen Rising for Christmas and, though I'm only three-quarters through, this is the best music book I've read all year (and I read quite a few of these). The difference between Greg Renoff's warts-and-all look at one of the greatest rock bands of all time and the other tell-alls is that the history pretty much stops right about the time VH became a mega-seller. All the nastiness between Roth and the brothers and the replacement years is only briefly mentioned in an epilog. Renoff interviews dozens of insiders to compile a fascinating look at how the band evolved from its early days as Mammoth and backyard shows in Pasadena to recording the classic first album.
Sex and Horror: The Art of Emanuelle Taglietti throws the spotlight on the wild and sleazy art pumped out by Taglietti for Italian horror comics in the 1970s. This is some pretty hard core stuff: masturbating goddesses, sexual vampires, hooded dominatrixes, naked ghouls. Definitely not for everyone but sitting comfortably on my shelf next to reference works on Skywald, Eerie Publications, and men's adventure magazines, The Art of ET is a gorgeous, full-color treasure trove. A second volume, this one devoted to one of Taglietti's colleagues in four color mayhem, Alessandro Biffignandi, is promised for Summer 2016.
|One of Taglietti's tamer works.|
The Shaft by David J. Schow (Centipede) - Twenty five years after it debuted in the UK, David J. Schow’s only out-and-out horror novel finally received a long overdue domestic release (and for the first time ever alongside the original short story), in a beautiful limited edition from Centipede Press. It still holds up as one of the best horror novels of the 90s, and while that version is out of print (as of this writing copies can still be obtained on Amazon), a more affordable trade paperback will hopefully be available very soon from Rothco press.
Star Wars: The Original Topps Trading Cards Series One - If like me, you collected the Topps Star Wars trading cards in the 70s, you can’t afford to pass up this book by our pal Gary Gerani. In addition to a full gallery of all the cards, Gerani lays out the history of the series (even going into detail on the oft-discussed ‘X-rated’ card). This first volume in a series covers all 5 series of trading cards released for the original Star Wars (Blue, Red, Yellow, Green and Orange bordered cards).
After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
Float through the current horror/weird fiction circles and you’ll eventually hear SGJ’s name and work uttered with quiet reverence, and rightfully so. Jones has a narrative voice unlike many of his contemporaries, a streamlined, almost casual tone that acts as both an updating of Native American storytelling (a favorite line refers to the dawning of a new day as the time when “the sun was just happening”) and as a deliciously effective means of allowing the terror and mystery of his stories to seep into the reader’s mind. There are the chilling ghostly visions of “Uncle”, the tragic potency of “Snow Monsters”, the unsettling remembrances of “Thirteen”… These are stories you won’t be able to shake and will find yourself thinking back to in light and in darkness.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
For reasons that I may never find out, I like reading things that are depressing. So when I came across the late author’s novel mentioned in a list of works credited as being able to “Crush Your Soul” or something to that effect, I duly noted the title and checked it out from the library where I work. The horribly ingenious thing about The Bell Jar, if it can even said to be that, is that the inherent sadness and tragedy don’t make themselves immediately known to you. In fact, the story of the magazine writer trying to cope with young adulthood in the Big Apple feels more like a satire at first, just a hair short of a comedy, but before we’re even aware of it we are at the narrator’s side during her nightmarish electrotherapy sessions and lounging in her soiled robes, aimless in purpose and despondent to the world, wondering how we’ve come to this point. It’s only after finishing The Bell Jar that you realize your heart was breaking the entire time.
Blood Meridian; or, the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
Hey, remember that thing I said about depressing books? McCarthy’s volcanic vision of the Old West as a sanguinary wasteland is grander in scale and more philosophical in tone than Plath’s novel, but several passages and events from this book will certainly leave you on the dumping end of the emotional wringer. With the wide, merciless vistas of desert at the disposal of brigands and bandits (and possibly devils) like a cosmic sandbox for the taking, there’s little room left for reprieve, with characters major and fleeting biting the dust in various stages of gore and suffering. The viciousness of the crimes is only intensified by the relative impassivity of the perpetrators; this is a book where any simple notions of “good” are stamped into the dirt. I finished this right around the time I caught The Honeymoon Killers, so suffice to say my worldview was a bit dimmer than the norm for a few days.
Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett
Bartlett lets his freak flag fly mightily and proudly in the unfettered visions of madness conjured in this self-published collection/fragmented novel concerning the witch cult-dominated domain of Leeds, Massachusetts, transitioning from broad scatological comedy to the most unnerving of half-seen nightmares with aplomb and wild abandon. Reading Gateways was one of the wildest, most refreshing experiences I had in the last year.
North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud
I knew after reading “Wild Acre” in The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 5 last year that I would have to get my hands on anything and everything Ballingrud produced. I’ve gone on at some length about the author’s work here and elsewhere, so I’ll just give you the thumbnail now: No one courses the dark byways of the human heart in speculative fiction as powerfully as Ballingrud does. Every story in this collection is a jewel in its own way, to be treasured and carried with you for all the rest of your days.
Selected Short Stories by William Faulkner
This year more than any other I attempted to make a concentrated effort to explore literature outside my usual wheelhouse of dark and speculative fiction. This collection of Faulkner’s short stories was nabbed on a whim one day when it came through the library, and I’m certainly the happier and (hopefully) wiser for it. I’ve yet to read any of Faulkner’s novels, but his general aesthetic of crumbling Southern decadence and fading grandeur is one that’s tugged at my interest for some time. (One of the reasons I enjoy Tennessee Williams too, I suppose.) I knew by the end of the first tale, “Barn Burning,” a little powerhouse of family conflict and obligation, that Faulkner had me good and hooked. From the near-fugue like state of “Mountain Victory” to the ugly beauty of “Dry September,” Faulkner’s prose is something that I know I’ll be returning to in the near future.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Good Lord, the words. Much like Faulkner, Bradbury strings sentences together like musical movements, filled with the poetical flourishes and alliterative melodies that make for a narrative symphony. The splendor of adolescence infuses each scene and event of this coming-of-age tale with a sense of wide-eyed magic, whether it’s glimpsing forbidden scenes of adult relations, sneaking out with your best friend on midnight missions, or glimpsing the horrible form of a bogeyman come to life. Every colorful beast and monster in Bradbury’s nostalgic closet comes spilling forth with the arrival of Cooger and Dark’s carnival in a postcard town that might have existed once, and from there we are swept up in a Neverland of childhood fancies and terrors that we hope never to leave. If only we could all see the world with Bradbury’s dark, rosy eyes.
Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti
Hey, remember what I said…? It’s no secret that the strange fiction of Thomas Ligotti remains some of the bleakest in the field, but whereas other works I’ve discussed trade in earthly despair Ligotti’s stories are more on the order of alienation, of personal nightmare, of hidden conspiracy, and possessing more mordant humor than the author is given credit for. Many of his tales feature identical narrators, all of them shattered fragments of the author’s persona, their moribund obsessions and fears fascinating in their illogical natures, whether it’s a tape recording describing the fetid conditions of a bungalow house or the invisible manager of a small town who makes increasingly bizarre demands of the villagers at his command. To read Ligotti is to know him, and this volume spanning his career is a good place to start. (Though had I only known, I would’ve totally swiped the Songs of a Dead Dreamer/Grimscribe compilation from Penguin before deciding to get this one last year.)
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu
Hadju’s account of the moral panic that broke out in the 40s and 50s over crime and horror comic books remains an engaging and measured look at the country’s response to violent graphic art. Spanning the anecdotal and the historical, it’s especially eye-opening in its detailed coverage of the specific instances of censoring, banning, and outright destruction of funny books that occurred across America, bringing a much-needed level of reality and gravitas to a social eruption that is typically viewed with a shrug and a nod as if to say, “Ahh, those silly righteous ding-dongs of the past.” First-hand remembrances from the children who volunteered or were cajoled into participating in mass comic book burnings help to put the situation in a harsher, more illuminating light and should be kept in mind the next time your local news broadcast puts the next hot entertainment format in its crosshairs on its hunt for the source of violence in adolescents.
White Jazz by James Ellroy
Ellroy’s fourth entry in his L. A. Quartet would’ve been served just as well had it found inspiration in the classic James Cagney gangster flick and assumed the title White Heat, for that’s the same temperature that Ellroy keeps things blazing in this locomotive of a novel. It’s a story steeped in sleaze yet told with scalpel-precision; you can hear the typewriter keys clacking away, sentences barking like the staccato of gunfire. It’s a tough story to tell, full of sexual deviance, Hollywood gossip, racial tension, political corruption, low-budget monster flicks, rampant abuse of drugs and bodies… The reader just may walk away from this one feeling the bruises shared by the wayward hero, a most misguided and messed-up of noir protagonists. A hard book to put down and an even harder one to forget.
The Mirror of the Sea by Joseph Conrad. One of my favorite writers, Conrad describes his days at sea. Fascinating, as usual, and even more interesting in that he was able to use his experiences to write great novels like Lord Jim.
The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson. I have always loved books where the author travels around America, and this one, which came out in 1989, is a lot of fun. I’ve read several of Bryson’s books and he’s an entertaining writer.
The Smell of the Night by Andrea Camilleri. This was the sixth novel to star Detective Salvo Montalbano, and it’s another great one. I’ve been working my way through this series for a few years now after watching all of the TV shows. New episodes were filmed in Sicily this year and I eagerly await their appearance on DVD with subtitles!
So, Anyway by John Cleese. The Python’s autobiography is funny and avoids the years of Monty Python. It’s interesting to read how much Cleese did before and after the Flying Circus.
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle. The only book on my list published in 2015. Boyle writes novels that are at once suspenseful and humorous; this time, he takes on a contemporary story about gun violence that is sadly all too timely.
I continue to enjoy two pre-code reprint comics, Haunted Horror (now on #20) and Weird Love (nine issues published) but I wish editor Craig Yoe would assign someone to at least write up some cursory notes on the stories they collect; there's no editorial presence at all, in fact. That doesn't detract from my enjoyment of these loony tales though, and I'm pleased to hear that a third title, Haunted Love, in early 2016. Aside from that, the only comic reading I do is for the four blogs we're currently running. Who has time for reading these days?
Sandman Overture. Neil Gaiman’s prequel series to his groundbreaking Sandman saga (which in my opinion is the greatest comic of all time) finally wrapped up this year. Gaiman's intricate tale and the beautiful art of J.H. Williams III (whose did an amazing job with DC's Batwoman a few years ago) fit perfectly into the existing body of work; leading us right up to where we find Morpheus, the Dream King, in the first issue of the original series.
DC Comics: A Visual History. I got this for Christmas 2014 but it is so big and so long that I spent about six weeks reading it. I love the reproductions of covers and interior art from the birth of DC to today, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were comics that looked interesting that came out after I quit reading in the late ‘70s.
All-Star Comics Archives. I am having a blast collecting this series of books that I could not afford when they first came out at a $50 list price. Now they're online for $20 and I'm thrilled, though the slightly rare and pricey volume 10 cost me list price in a store and I was happy to get it for that. Collecting causes strange behavior!
The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library. Fantagraphics puts out two a year and more power to them! This year I got The Seven Cities of Gold and The Pixilated Parrot and I couldn't be happier to read some of the best comics ever made.
DC War and Horror. For our two series on these comics, Peter and I read 144 DC horror comics, spanning the period from January 1974 to April 1976, and 84 DC war comics, spanning the period from January 1963 to January 1965. While it's not fair to include all of them in a "Best of" selection (Peter would tend toward "Worst Of"), there's definitely some great stuff in there, especially when Joe Kubert is involved.
I only bought two CDs by contemporary artists this year. 25 by Adele is everything it's been hyped to be, a stunning variety of ballads and mid-tempo toe-tappers that only gets better with each listen. The other new artist I discovered came via an appearance on a TV commercial (who says those things don't attract your attention), the product which I can't remember but the song, "Sound and Color," blew me away the first time I heard it. I very seldom spring for an entire album based on a snippet but I took my chances and it payed off. The set (also titled Sound and Color), by Alabama Shakes, is a fabulous mass/mess of sounds and beats. "Don't Wanna Fight" is a bluesy barn burner that would have fit in quite well had the Stones written it for Exile on Main Street.
I always seem to stumble onto great collections years after they've been released. Last year it was a couple of fabulous 1960s sets released by Rhino, this year a whole 'nother ballgame, sweet sisters and brothers. I had to go all the way to England to dig up the wondrous six-disc set known as Superfly Soul Vol. 1-3, crammed with exactly 100 funky, spunky, and sometimes junky tunes ripped from some hot slabs of vinyl released way back before most of you were born. I'm finding myself listening to just about nothing else these days besides these revelations. Dig these: Peace of Mind by S.O.U.L; Sir Joe Quartermain's (I Got) So Much Trouble in My Mind; Ike and Tina Turner's Cussin, Cryin, and Carryin' On; The Bottle by Gil-Scott Heron; and the ten-minute jam, The Preachers Tune by Richard "Groove" Holmes & Jimmy McGrif. These are a bit pricey due to the export but they're well worth the extra dough.
I tried but could not think of a single new song I bought or even heard in 2015. It's all nostalgia at this point. I enjoyed watching Simon and Garfunkel's Concert in Central Park on PBS as well as the Frank Sinatra concert to celebrate his centennial. The fact that my most enjoyable musical experiences of the year involved reruns on PBS really tells you something, doesn't it? Before long, my wife and I will be in the audience of geezers at one of the PBS "My Music" concerts where people like Davy Jones show up and sing their hits from 50 years ago right before they drop dead.