Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Writing Roundup: Movie and Music Reviews

I reviewed Christine (2016) recently for The After Movie Diner.

Wow. A few weeks since seeing it and I'm still processing my feelings. Even though I knew what was coming, it was still a gut-punch of epic proportions. That's because everything leading up to Christine's on-air suicide is so thoughtfully portrayed. It's a compassionately crafted film centered around one absolutely transcendent performance by Rebcecca Hall. In nearly every scene of the film, Hall is riveting, unforgettable, and heartbreaking. I haven't seen a better performance in years.

John Carpenter's classic Escape from New York is my latest Cult Classics Review at the Diner, and you can check that out here. Writing that review made me realize there are at least five Carpenter films that could each make my list of all-time top five films: Escape, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Very few filmmakers have ever equaled that quality. I sense an essay on Carpenter in my future...

Over the last month or two I also reviewed three albums for Spectrum Culture and wrote turned in my first contribution for DC in the 80s. That one's an origin story of sorts, which seemed appropriate.

The reviews run the gamut: from Imelda May's new album, to Incubus' first record in several years, and finally to a "Revisit/Rediscover" review of a band and an album I love unconditionally, Divinyls' 1983 killer full-length debut, Desperate.

You should drop everything and listen to May's new album, Live Love Flesh Blood. I had to reign in my gushing for the review, but I really wanted to gush. The album's that good. I'd like to write more about the song "Should've Been You" in particular, so look for that in this space someday.

Reading It, Part 3

It's been awhile since I've checked in here about It, but I've made my way to page 870 (less than 300 more to go!). I'd always heard that after a fast start things drag a bit in the second half; so far, that's been partly true. As a King fan, I'm more than happy to read his dialogue or narration and just get lost in his writing, which is always so immediate and forthright, but also at times reveals great depth. Even if things have gotten a bit bogged down in recent chapters—did we really need that many pages to reveal that Eddie's asthma is all in his head?—King is always able to right the ship, usually with an assist by another appearance from the ancient evil, Pennywise, which reminds us exactly how much danger lurks around every corner for these kids.

But it's the emotional beats in the relationships between the kids that's really drawn me in and made me care about them. Taking so many pages to tell their storie allows King to paint extremely rich portraits of Bev, Bill, Eddie, Mike, Ben, Stan, and Richie. They feel real, as if I grew up with them myself. My heart breaks when their innocence is continually shattered, but their resolve in the face of such horror is nothing short of inspiring.

Before I had children, reading King's work always made me both wistful to have my own and also straight-up terrified at the prospect of raising them in in this crazy world. King presents familiar stories that we've all grown up with—dysfunctional families, bullying, and first crushes—in ways that resonate deeply with us as adults. There's a nostalgia at play, but it's also because King simply nails what it's like to be a kid. His stories featuring children aren't usually lumped in with Young Adult novels, but they certainly could be. Few writers have ever gotten inside the minds of children and young adults quite like King. One more reason why the man is a national treasure.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

RIP Chris Cornell

He was Louder Than Love.

When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra: 
Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave
I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because those people must live the saddest, most pathetic existence to not understand why. For the last time: it's because we grow up with people like Cornell. They were there for us when no one else was, they spoke to us in a language we could connect with, and they helped us see things in ourselves we never knew existed before.

Thank you, Chris. You were there for us when we needed you, and we'll always carry you in our hearts.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Desperate for Divinyls: Introduction

This is the introductory post in a series where I'll focus on songs from one band or musical artist, typically featuring one song per post. First band up? Australian rock royalty, Divinyls. The essays might vary in style and length, some might even focus on some aspect of the band and not just a song, but the plan is to simply get at the heart of why Divinyls' were a truly great band.

Divinyls were the first Aussie band to sign their initial deal with an American record company right out of the gate. Their career spanned nearly two decades and five studio albums and contained countless Australian hit singles and several international ones as well. Still, while the band is rightly revered in Australia, they're not nearly as popular in the U.S., where a lot of people know them mostly for the international mega-hit, "I Touch Myself." I've already written about when that song was ubiquitous on early 1990s radio and MTV as a way to explore generational conflicts that arise when arrogant youth butts heads with humorless maturity.

As great as "I Touch Myself" is (and it is a great song), Divnyls' produced even more incredible songs over their career. An uncle once introduced me to their music and that's when I realized just how good they were. Today, I'm hooked on their addictive sound and the truly unique voice of the late, great Chrissy Amphlett. I'm especially fond of their first two or three albums, containing some of the finest '80s New Wave/pop rock you'll ever hear.

I'll be covering a lot of songs off those early albums. The band seemed to arrive fully formed on their classic debut, Desperate. The album came after the band's debut soundtrack album for the film Monkey Grip and was released with variations in track listings in Australia and the United States, which was common back then. For further reading, I reviewed the U.S./international release of Desperate recently, for Spectrum Culture.

Photograph by Robert Hambling

Which song will kick things off  next time? Will it be "Science Fiction," the lead single off their 1983 full-length debut? Or how about their very first single, "Boys in Town," which predates Desperate? Stay tuned.

Also, a few last words about why I've chosen to start this feature with a band many of you might not know well. First, Divinyls' music brings me enormous joy, and if I can share even a little of that with others, then that seems like a no-brainer. Second, my earlier post reflecting on "I Touch Myself" is, as of this writing, my most popular to date. I think that's a testament to Divnyls' devoted fan base. Which reminds me, I'd like to thank the kind folks in the Chrissy Amphlett & Charlie Drayton Facebook group. Y'all have been especially supportive and your song suggestions for this series are a big help.

As a teaser, here are a few of the songs I'm most eager to cover. This list is fluid, of course.

Boys in Town
Science Fiction
Only Lonely
Ring Me Up
Take a Chance
I'll Make You Happy (cover)
Don't You Go Walking
Good Die Young
Hey Little Boy

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Underrated: Shelley Duvall in The Shining

Admit it: it's nice to have our opinions validated. Those moments are usually uplifting, even invigorating. Recently reading this precise, critical analysis of Shelley Duvall's performance in one of my favorite films, The Shining, was one such moment.

I've always found Duvall to be astonishingly good as Wendy Torrance in The ShiningShe breathes life into a thankless role, giving an absolutely heartbreaking performance as an abused spouse. In the annals of horror, few actors have expressed real, palpable terror any better than Duvall does in the chaotic final act, when tidal waves of blood gush from elevator doors, a man wearing a dog costume suddenly appears, and Jack is maniacally axing his way through the hotel towards her and Danny. That she claws her way out of that timidity and fear to be the hero of the story, fighting for her son's life with every last gasp, is all you need to know, really.

Yet over and over again, for decades, Duvall's been slagged off as "whiny" or "shrill" by one (male) critic and film nerd after another. Valid criticisms, because Wendy is indeed meek and intimidated by her psychologically (and possibly physically) abusive husband. Yet she's also holding it all together because that's what society tells women they must do: make a happy home for their son, keep him protected (from the world and his father), and, above all, don't make her partner upset. Wendy knows the game. She hates it, clearly; there are moments when Duvall gives a subtle tell, a certain look here, or overly fake pitch to her voice there, to reveal just how over it all Wendy really is.

Duvall's performance is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of a woman living in constant fear of a man she once loved, before the abuse started, which is something far too many women in the real world experience every single day.

Monday, May 8, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Polly Jean Meets Ze Monsta

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

In 1995, Polly Jean Harvey released her third studio album, and first proper solo outing, To Bring You My Love. It received near-universal praise and, while Harvey was already a star, helped elevate her into even greater worldwide stardom. This exceptional album retained elements of the awesomely heavy alt-blues rock sound of Dry and Rid of Me while adding more musical and lyrical textures to the mix. Its songs are about desire and loss, with many of them loaded with Biblical references and imagery. The album felt like a major artistic statement from Harvey at the time and hasn't lost any of its urgency over the years.

During the '95 tour supporting the album, Harvey elevated her live act to new heights as well. She exploded out of her shell, unleashing a new style, charisma, and electricity to her performances that only broadened her appeal. For proof, surf YouTube or look for full-show streams or downloads from that year. She was an absolute beast on that tour, setting aside her guitar to prowl the stage like a panther, moaning and screaming one minute, singing softy and beautifully the next. This video of "Meet Ze Monsta" from the '95 Glastonbury Festival is a perfect example of what made Harvey so appealing during that era: she's absolutely on fire, seemingly able to will herself to do anything, all while making it look organically effortless.

The spectacular pink catsuit!  The glam-rock makeup! The epic hair flips! The mesmerizing dancing! From the first note, she's in constant motion: swaying her hips, prancing with a mischievous confidence, stomping emphatically, crouching down low, springing up like a cat, and slyly smiling with knowing delight throughout. Her band tears into the song too, ratcheting up the already menacing heaviness of the album cut. It's an incendiary and iconic performance.

Iconic is an appropriate adjective to use when discussing Harvey during the To Bring You My Love era. The album and her live shows, including television performances, moved Harvey into the upper echelons or rock. Songs like "Long Snake Moan" and "C'mon Billy" practically seethe with passionate longing, while "Down by the Water" and "To Bring You My Love" are richly expressive and moody dirges infused with a palpable sense of dread. In the slinky slow-groove "Working for the Man," she asks, "Don't you know yet who I am?" and the answer, clearly, is that she can be anyone she wants to be. No longer just the quiet, petite woman from the English countryside who could produce a ferocious racket with her voice and guitar, she was now also achieving a level of performance art often reserved for the most accomplished of rock and pop stars. She was like Jagger, Madonna, and Prince on stage, all rolled into one, except with a modern rock integrity that was unparalleled. Plus, she held onto the smaller-scale charms that made her so intriguing to begin with.

As a faithful devotee for decades—there is no musical artist I love more than her, period—I'm captivated by all of her many musical shifts in style and composition, but this era will always be extra special. In '95, it was clear that she was reaching the big time, which can often signal the apex of an artist's career. Instead, she used it as a springboard to achieve further greatness.

Anyone who's followed Harvey's career knows she's made a habit of taking hard left turns, album after album. That's one of her strengths, and something both critics and fans love most about her. She can create an album of immaculately constructed pop music perfection like Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and then follow that up with the starkly abrasive punk rock of Uh Huh Her. Consequently, her anti-formula is her formula: for more than twenty-five years she's built as unique and diverse a catalog of music as anyone. You can try to compare her to other musicians, but ultimately she's incomparable. In '95, she proved this repeatedly, first with an absolutely killer album, followed by a live act that left audiences awestruck by her beautiful, raw, and explosive performances. After two phenomenal studio albums, plenty of us recognized her as a star. In '95, the rest of the world simply caught up to this fact.


Let's close out with an audio-video salute to PJ Harvey in '95  First, here's an essential hour-long compilation of Harvey's television appearances that year promoting To Bring You My Love.

Here's the full audio from the transcendent 6/24/95 Glastonbury Festival set.

And in case you want to see further video evidence of just how good that Glastonbury set was, here's Polly Jean performing "Long Snake Moan" from the same show.

This one's from 5/11/95 at the Kentish Town Forum in London. The video's a bit dark and the audio's not great, but it's worth checking out because the power of the music and her stage presence still shine through.

Finally, a brief interview with MTV where she discusses her musical evolution, how much she's enjoying using her body to articulate the words on stage now, and how much fun she's having playing dress up with her glamorous new style. She's thoughtful and reserved, providing a fascinating juxtaposition with her vampy and extroverted stage persona of the period.

Monday, May 1, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Falling Down

Joel Schumacher's 1992 film Falling Down has been on my mind a lot lately. It seems to have predicted a certain white-male-as-victim narrative that's playing out all over the United States today. April Wolfe looked back at the film recently for LA Weekly. It's a terrific article, examining both why the film works so well and how that may have contributed to audiences cheering on the main character ("D-Fens," played by a buzz-cut, bespectacled Michael Douglas). Yet, as Wolfe writes, he's clearly the villain, and that's only become more evident over the past twenty-five years.

What I didn't know before reading Wolfe's article was that Schumacher was filming Falling Down concurrently with the L.A. riots, in April '92. The smog in the opening traffic jam sequence? That's actually smoke from the raging fires less than a mile from where cast and crew were filming. Wolfe eloquently notes:
That Falling Down was filmed in L.A. amid the riots is both ironic and telling: D-Fens’ entire narrative is driven by his misconception that he is the true victim, even as he marauds through the city, terrifying fast-food cashiers, construction workers and immigrants — people who have far less privilege than the white, college-educated D-Fens does. The riots, of course, were a reaction to the jury’s and public’s sympathy for the white police officers who beat Rodney King; the cops were portrayed by some media outlets as the real victims with everything to lose, even as King himself suffered unquantifiable brain damage. The film itself is a caricature, but it carries the stain of this reality in every frame.
Wolfe sums up how this misconstrued white male rage against perceived enemies can intensify:
That opening scene — mimicking Fellini’s — is an object lesson in editing tension: A close-up shot of D-Fens’ sweaty upper lip cuts to a Latina child listening to Spanish radio cuts to rowdy children in a school bus draped in the American flag and on to two rich, white assholes yelling into a car phone. Then come insert shots of bumper stickers reading “Financial Freedom?” and “He died for our sins” and “How am I driving — call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” Full dissertations could stem just from the glimpses we get of a Tropic Sun billboard emblazoned with the company’s 1990 tagline: “White is for laundry.” Schumacher continually zips back to D-Fens to get his agitated reactions to each new outrage in this buffet of symbolism. To be clear, this is the world from D-Fens’ claustrophobic POV — not reality — and the message he thinks he’s receiving is that he’s no longer welcome in this country.
D-Fens and other American men of his ilk feel threatened, even though facts and evidence flatly reject their histrionic misconceptions of reality. Their jobs aren't being stolen by non-whites or "illegals"; the digital age and shifting global socioeconomic factors have combined to create an entirely new landscape, one in which these men can't seem to find footing. So they lash out, blaming everyone else for their misfortune.

In the case of D-Fens, he's suffered enough, to his way of thinking. He abandons his car in traffic, declaring "I'm going home." Wolfe sums up the significance of that reference to home:

Going home becomes a central theme of Schumacher’s film, and as D-Fens travels across Los Angeles, we come to understand that “home” means the past, that simpler, fictitious time politicians invoke when they want to win elections, and pundits hammer on when they want to drum up fear and paranoia.
What follows is a series of disturbing confrontations between D-Fens and those he cannot tolerate: a Korean convenience store owner, fast-food employees, and even a white supremacist. These scenes show Schumacher confounding audience expectations—are we meant to side with D-Fens, or be revolted by him? Clearly, it's the latter, but the film regularly complicate matters. Wolfe explains:
D-Fens, disgusted by overt racism, eventually kills the white supremacist, but only after the man has smashed D-Fens’ daughter’s snow globe (a conspicuously symbolic gift). D-Fens can’t — and won’t — face the fact that he, too, is a caricature of white male rage. He won’t speak the slurs but he’ll seethe with anger when he hears that Korean store owner’s broken English. Today, we might see D-Fens and the white supremacist as the infighting sides of the far right — one couches racism in coded words like “thug,” while the other wants an outright ethnic cleanse. Ultimately, what both want is to return to their idea of a purer America, unburdened by the concerns of minorities and women.
Later we learn more about D-Fens' past with his family. Watching an old VHS tape of his daughter's birthday, we witness his explosive temper, aimed directly at his then-wife and child. This terrifying moment, from that fictionalized, bullshit "purer America"—when he was happily married and gainfully employed—exposes the lie behind his rage, which existed long before his wife left him, or the Korean store owner raised prices. Still, D-Fens is occasionally positioned as a sympathetic antihero in the film, or given more leeway by other characters than he deserves.

There's a reason for that. White men are allowed to express their anger, be abusive to their spouses, lament the loss of a way of life that never actually existed, and blame everyone else for their problems. Despite all of that, they'll continually be afforded more chances to redeem themselves than their female or non-white counterparts. 
If you doubt this, just flip on Fox News, or passively follow the NFL, for example. That some audiences have celebrated D-Fens and his actions is an indictment on a decades-long fomenting of hate and division in our country that certain politicians and media personalities have stoked and exploited in order to win votes or ratings.

Falling Down captured a moment in time: the racially charged powder-keg that was Los Angeles, circa 1992. It also provided an early glimpse at the white male victim lingering on the fringe, a character who would only inch closer to the mainstream over time. Wolfe succinctly points out, "Falling Down remains one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, one both adored and reviled by the extreme right." That's the scary part: it hasn't lost any of its relevancy and in fact may now be more relevant than ever.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Janet

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

First, a prologue. This post ran here in a slightly different form last year. That was before I'd started the '90s series here, and since then I realized this piece fits well within that framework. I've edited it a little (very little, in fact) and am slotting the revised version into this series. It just seems appropriate; it's looking back at a time when Janet Jackson ruled the airwaves, in this case I'm really focusing on the Rhythm Nation 1814 years, so '89, '90, maybe '91. That album rarely left my tape deck or Walkman, and the videos were ingrained in my memory from repeat viewings on MTV. One thing I didn't edit is the overly precious use of second person in the narrative. When you read "you" here, I'm really talking about me, but also you, or us, or anyone else who loved Janet back then. I'd grown up on her music. Soon after this I'd transition fully into my teenage/young adult rock-snob years *groan* but this period in pop music was glorious. I haven't lost any love for that era's music since.


Have you ever wanted to hug a pop music icon as much as you wanted to hug Janet Jackson in, say, 1990? She exuded warmth, soul, and acceptance. Hell, years before that you wanted to save her on Good Times. Oh, Penny! Little did you know, she didn't need saving.

Look at the videos for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" or "Escapade"—her smile shines brighter than a thousand suns. She practically radiates happiness in those videos. Certainly she could be as serious as a heart attack—"State of the World" and "Rhythm Nation," for instance—but she was still always fun. Those songs set up residence in your heart and mind, never leaving. Back then you marveled at them as they premiered on MTV; each one more insanely catchy than the last.

Name a better pop love song from the last twenty-five years than "Love Will Never Do." See, you can't. What's often forgotten now is how heavy her songs were during her prime—the beats on "Love Will Never Do" practically blast you off your feet; "Rhythm Nation" is pure epic R&B jam, but also entirely unlike anything pop music had seen before. It explodes out of the speakers and never hits the brakes. Props to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, in full effect.

A poster of Janet from the "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" video hung on your bedroom wall during most of high school. That smile, always beaming out at you when you entered the room. That smile, it always seemed even more incandescent to you after a particularly rough day in the teenage trenches. In the song Janet knew that in theory love is fine, but in reality it simply would never do without that most essential ingredient: you. What more could a listener want to hear? Sometimes silly things like pop music get you through certain points in your life, but it's only after that you fully appreciate them. Years later you felt you'd outgrown Janet's music, her poster. You were a fool.

During a Presidential debate last fall, that perverse misogynist, that habitual sexual predator, the current Cheeto-in-Chief *shudder* infamously muttered "nasty woman" at his opponent. Memes of Janet and her song "Nasty" popped up online in an instant. It was as if a nation needed Janet and her nasty grooves again. Gimme a beat. It's time to give a damn, let's work together. By listening to her you could cleanse the toxicity from your system that had infected you over this long and grueling election cycle. You had deluded yourself into thinking you were fine without her over the years. Then you started spinning her songs again. It was obvious that for a decent chunk of time, when she and you were younger and full of electricity, there was simply no one better in popular music. For your money, she was the best there ever was at what she did and you'll endorse her every day of the week.

They said it wouldn't last. What did they know, anyway.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Reading It, Part 2

Reading It after dark, while the kids are sleeping soundly, has certainly enhanced the horror inherent in King's story of children either being abducted or living in fear of being abducted. Actually, it's the parents' fear that is most palpable throughout, even though they receive comparatively little "screen" time so far (three-hundred pages into the book). The kids understand on some level that they should be scared of the bogeyman terrorizing Derry, but as kids are wont to do they're also attracted to this horror, feeling a need to investigate it/It, to see it/It for themselves.

Following Bill, Ben, Eddie, etc., as they play outside, building dams and avoiding bullies, I can't help but think back to my own childhood. While these tales of childhood take place in the late '50s in the book, and I grew up in the '80s, there seems to be more in common with a child's existence in those decades than there is between the '80s the now. Helicopter parents, if they existed at all in the '80s, were rarer than today. Gen X latchkey kids ranged far and wide across our neighborhoods and towns, riding our bikes everywhere without much fear of consequence (what if we got lost and couldn't find our way back home?), always exploring, always looking for more adventure.

As the parent of twin toddlers now, that absolutely terrifies me to remember. When I swap out myself for my kids in these memories, my first thought is, "Oh, hell no." Then I try to reason with myself: kids have to be kids, they need a certain amount of freedom to grow and mature, and some balance between advocating for safety and allowing for exploration must be achieved by parents if they want their children to grow up to be free-thinking, productive adults.

Still. There are very real terrors in the world for parents to worry themselves silly over. With It, King plays off of those fears in powerfully visceral ways. He has a knack for bringing us inside the heads of his characters, and especially the young protagonists of so many of his books. King lulls us into a sense of comfort with the familiar nostalgia of childhood life. Then, he unleashes a giant, menacing black bird hellbent on eating a young victim, and all reason and ability to remain impartial fly out the window. Especially at ten or eleven o'clock at night and after a long day.

Do I think my children are in danger of a serial murdering clown who can manifest different shapes based on each person's own fears and anxieties? No, of course not. But in It, Pennywise represents the accumulated history of awful things that parents have long feared would cause harm to our children—drugs, heavy metal, sex, pedophiles, car accidents, razors in the Halloween candy, you name it.

Kids sometimes possess a naivety that can help them to face these fears. As adults we start to lose that ability, that courage to face down what scares us, because by then we simply know too much. So far, It is exploring how the innocence of youth can bolster our courage—sometimes stupidly so—even in the face of a creepy clown peering out at us from down in the storm drain.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Nicole Kidman—A Star is Born

Nicole Kidman lit up the screen in '90s films like Batman Forever.

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Nicole Kidman rose to prominence in the 1990s, her star shining brighter with each passing year of the decade. This isn't to say she was the most popular actress of the decade—that honor likely goes to one of America's sweethearts, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, or Sandra Bullock—but Kidman's unique talents and serious acting chops came to the forefront during those years in a series of challenging roles. The Australian actress was laying the foundation for a terrific career that continues to this day.

Kidman's started acting in Australian films during the 1980s. On the cusp of the '90s, she drew critical raves with her performance in the tense thriller Dead Calm (1989). Then, alongside her husband Tom Cruise, she starred in the trashy but fun Days of Thunder (1990), the maudlin and forgettable Far and Away (1992), and the confounding classic Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Of the three films she made with Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut left the most lasting impression, for several reasons.

First, it was the last film from legendary auteur Stanley Kubrick. He died soon after showing the studio his final cut. Second, Kubrick chose Hollywood's then-current King and Queen, Cruise and Kidman, to star as a couple pushing back against the boundaries of their staid marriage. Critics had a field day with this added layer of meta-commentary. Cruise turns in one of his strongest performances to date as the naive husband, while Kidman imbues her role as the trophy wife with both smoldering resentment and barely contained eroticism. As in most of her work, she goes all in with the material, baring body and soul in the process. She's remarkable here, really scorching the screen.

Kidman, framed in classic Kubrickian style. Note the Edward Hopper feel to the composition.

Kidman didn't need Cruise's star power though, as she went on to chose a series of intriguing roles throughout the decade that only further cemented her as a serious talent. 1995 was a particularly big year for her, showcasing her talents in two vastly different films: Joe Schumacher's campy box-office smash Batman Forever, and Gus Van Sant's searing social commentary-cum-crime-comedy To Die For. It certainly doesn't hurt that her sex symbol status with movie audiences reached DEFCON 1 levels in '95—she was about to go nuclear.

She's ferocious in both films, attacking the material with an insatiable appetite and reckless abandon. As sultry psychologist Dr. Chase Meridian in the silly popcorn flick Batman Forever, she chews the scenery with such gusto that her jaw must've been sore for weeks after production ended. She practically devours Val Kilmer's Batman every time she's on screen. Then, in To Die For, as aspiring news anchor Suzanne Stone, who will do anything—or anyone—to get what she wants, Kidman is electric. Its no wonder she was awarded the Golden Globe for Best Actress for the role. Yet again she dominates and manipulates the men on screen, seducing them into submission.

In films like To Die For, Kidman's characters often dominated weaker men.

She may have excelled as a femme fatale, but Kidman was far more than just a sultry starlet. Throughout the '90s, she methodically put together an impressive body of work across a disparate array of films. It was clear that she respected the art form and put in the time and effort to make her performances memorable. Even if her fans swooned with every magnetic smile or flip of her long cascading locks, they ultimately respected her talent above all else.

All of these hyperbolic statements about Kidman's talent do serve a purpose: to underscore how on fire she was during those years. I didn't even mention her work in Malice (1993) yet, a deliciously nasty and subversive little film that I recall fondly—who can forget Alec Baldwin as the narcissistic surgeon, delivering that memorable line, "I am God." I was already familiar with Kidman when I saw Malice, but that's the role that made me sit up and take notice. It's a layered performance, full of notes and textures. Ultimately, what made Nicole Kidman such a star in the '90s was her determination, her commitment, and her willingness to pour all of herself into a role. She still does this today. No matter the film's quality, genre, style, or budget, you can count on Nicole Kidman to bring the heat.

The look: Kidman's trademark smoldering intensity, from Malice.

Nicole Kidman's '90s filmography:

Days of Thunder (1990)
Flirting (1991)
Billy Bathgate (1991)
Far and Away (1992)
Malice (1993)
My Life (1993)
Batman Forever (1995)
To Die For (1995)
The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
The Peacemaker (1997)
Practical Magic (1998)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Postscript: Kidman's ascension during the '90s continued early in the following decade when she was nominated for an Academy Award Award for Best Actress for Moulin Rouge (2001) and then won the award for The Hours (2002).

Monday, April 10, 2017

Iron Fist: A Postmortem

Danny, showing off his skinny jeans at Colleen's dojo.

Well, now. Marvel's Iron Fist on Netflix certainly was a major disappointment, wasn't it?

I'm a fan of the Danny Rand character and the mystical martial arts world he inhabits in Marvel Comics, which includes strong supporting cast members like Colleen Wing. I've read a lot of Iron Fist comics, so I was possibly more invested in this series than most people I know. So when the early buzz was terrible, my expectations started to plummet. It's wise to be wary of pre-release reviews, of course, especially in this case when they only screened the first six episodes of a thirteen episode series. Yet, in this instance, those early reviews were accurate. The show is a mess, and not an entertaining, b-movie style mess, but instead a convoluted and boring mess.

The first few episodes were so interminably dull that I seriously contemplating quitting after the second. Things picked up a little after that, with some decent middle episodes. Then it slumped again, then found decent footing for the final few episodes before stumbling across the finish line in a ludicrously stupid finale. For a show about a master of Kung Fu, there wasn't nearly enough Kung Fu! The fight scenes they did include were also pretty underwhelming, with a few exceptions. The now standard hallway fight scene was good, but even that paled in comparison to similar scenes from Daredevil. The rest of the fighting often felt rushed and unimaginatively choreographed and filmed. The long warehouse battle with a series of Madame Gao's Hand operatives was particularly bad. The Bride of Nine Spiders, who worked beautifully in the comics, was laughably awful here. In her Frederick's of Hollywood meets cheap Halloween costume, and spouting cringe-worthy dialogue, she would have been right at home in an episode of Silk Stalkings.

Finn Jones really struggled to make Danny interesting. He seemed more assured in the relaxed, more lighthearted scenes, but seemed directionless or to be trying too hard when he was called on to emote or be badass. I kept telling my wife he reminded me of a puppy: he was cute and it was hard for me to dislike him, but he seemed way out of his depth here. I don't blame him for all of this though; the writers saddled him with atrocious dialogue and inconsistent motivations. Finn was trying, that was clear, but he rarely pulled it off. That's a big problem; when your Iron Fist isn't very interesting, how good can your Iron Fist series be?

Jessica Henwick was a bright spot, kicking all sorts of butt as Colleen Wing.

A few of the actors did well with what little they were given to work with. Jessica Henwick as Colleen was equal parts strong, sardonic, and smooth. She was great in the action scenes, really selling Colleen's swordplay skills, and also handled the quieter scenes well. She didn't have a lot of good writing to work with, and was saddled with some stupid lines and character development, but she made the best of it. In other words, she was nearly everything Finn as Danny was not. Throughout, I kept daydreaming of a spinoff show about the Daughters of the Dragon, costarring the equally good Simone Missick from Luke Cage as Misty Knight. I'm sure we'll get a Colleen and Misty teamup within the upcoming Defenders series, but I'd much rather see an entire show devoted to just them at this point.

As the nefarious Harold Meachum, David Wenham was acting in his own alternative universe. The only actor who really embraced the silliness of it all, Wenham hammed it up throughout. He was downright hilarious at times, but over the course of the series his performance started to grate on me a bit. Still, he kept me hanging in there at times when the rest of the show was sagging badly.

Ward Meachum was one of the only characters with a clearly delineated and interesting character arc. Tom Pelphrey played the material straight, and really elevated his performance so far above this mess that it's a shame he wasted it on this. Ward went from stereotypical smarmy and selfish businessman to struggling abuse victim and drug addict to, finally, practically the hero of the piece. Whether he was reacting with subtle incredulity at Harold's insane scheming, or painfully opening up to his sister Joy, or just giving an eavesdropping dear ole dad the most hilariously emphatic double-bird salute I've seen in ages, Pelphrey was terrific. His constantly bemused  "WTF" expressions made Ward into an effective audience surrogate.

It certainly didn't help Iron Fist that it came on the heels of the powerful and heartbreaking Logan and also ran concurrently with FX's mind-blowing head-trip of a show, Legion. Both of those Marvel properties (from studios other than Marvel) were outstanding because they had strong narratives, characters we could care about, and experimented with the superhero genre in ways we hadn't seen in film or television before. Comparatively, Iron Fist didn't know what it wanted to be. Was it an over-the-top martial arts romp, reminiscent of the kind Quentin Tarantino loves? Or was it the overly serious exploration of identity and loss that it kept aiming to be? It was only ever either of these things halfheartedly, and in limited quantities. Otherwise it was just a slog to get through.

Finally, people far more qualified than me have addressed the problem with casting a white actor as Danny. Yes, Danny is white in the comics, but there's so much more to it than that. Do a little searching online and you'll find some cogent essays on the issues at play, and why Marvel missed a golden opportunity. All I'll add to the conversation is that Marvel had a chance to correct the character's troubling 1970s white savior origins. Instead, they cast Finn Jones. 'Nuff said.

When it comes to Iron Fist, I think Ward speaks for all of us here.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Writing Roundup: Movie Reviews, a Q&A, and a New Theory

If I never do anything else worthwhile with my life, at least I can say I invented the Unified Theory of Jessica Alba. Put that on my gravestone, please.

I don't know where or how the idea struck, but it hit like a lightning bolt while reviewing the average but mostly forgettable Fantastic Four (2005) for The After Movie Diner.  Before I knew it, I'd formulated the entire theory. Based on an extensive use of the scientific method (i.e., watching movies), it maintains that there are five factors, or aspects, of any Jessica Alba performance that, inexplicably, combine to form something something...well, something. I won't spoil the rest for you; go read the review and find out.

And then read my latest review of another film that also happens to star Alba, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. I really enjoyed the first Sin City and I thought the sequel was a worthy followup. It's not as good as the first, but together they're a fun blast of comic book neo-noir silliness. And they provide further proof that the Unified Theory of Jessica Alba is really a thing! That's got to count for something.

A while back I also reviewed a much darker film, Rolling Thunder. This is a nasty, post-Vietman '70s grindhouse classic. Think a less artistic Taxi Driver meets Death Wish. Its tone and style are brutal and laced with dread. Also worth noting that, in a supporting role, young Tommy Lee Jones is electrifying as a live-wire vet just itching to get back into combat. It's nice to remember how great he was back then after having recently rewatched his gonzo (and not in a good way) performance as Two-Face in Batman Forever.

Lastly, I had the extreme pleasure of chatting with Jon Morris for Sequart about his new book, The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains. Jon runs one of the oldest comic book blogs on the Interwebs, Gone & Forgotten. This book and his last one (focusing on regrettable superheroes) are like his blog only in book form, with more of the same funny and intelligent commentary you've come to expect from Jon.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Reading It, Part 1

It's finally happening. I'm going to read it.

See what I did there?

After decades of dancing around this book while being a Stephen King fan and reading a lot of his other books, it's time to finally read It. With the movie hitting theaters this fall, it seems like the perfect time. I only saw parts of the old miniseries and I barely remember it all, beyond Tim Curry's scary clown.

So far, I'm only 55 pages in—only 1,100 more pages to go! As I continue, I hope to occasionally share some random observations along the way. Not reviews, just quick hits. This might take a while, I might not get to write about it often, and I'm not even sure it'll last—although I will finish the book! I think it goes without saying, these posts will be lousy with SPOILERS.

Just a quick introduction to my relationship with the King of Horror. Like many young kids, I was infatuated with King's books and their movie adaptations. I remember devouring Night Shift and Skeleton Crew when I was around 11 or 12. Pet Sematary crushed me a a few years later. I took a long break from reading King as a young adult but then returned to him about ten years ago. The Dark Tower series was an epic reading experience. Reading The Shining right after becoming a parent was equal parts traumatizing and cathartic. In short, I love King's work, unabashedly. Some if it's subpar, but that's rare. Most of it is consistently great. No one writes a ripping yarn like King. He has an innate way of exploring our very real fears in creative ways that reveal things about us that we might not have known previously. The man is a national treasure.

It starts strong. Pennywise shows up early and he's creepy as all hell. Also right off the bat, King wastes no time playing off our eternal fears of our children being hurt or abducted. Without revealing much, he sets the tone: something's not right about the quiet Maine town of Derry and the crazy clown hanging out in storm drains is just the start. Throw in the homophobic violence of the second chapter and it's a decidedly upsetting read so far. As you would expect, of course.

Clowns are terrifying. This is an indisputable fact. From Bozo to John Wayne Gacy to last year's rash of creepy clown sightings, they're the worst. I don't know the backstory of It but I wonder how much Gacy's serial murders influenced King's decision to write about a killer clown. No matter the inspiration, It is off to a satisfyingly unsettling start.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Weezer's Geek Rock

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

The X-Men references in Weezer's "In the Garage" resonated with me when I first heard the song in 1994. I'd grown up on a steady diet of comics and rock and pop music at that point, so Rivers Cuomo and the gang were landing squarely in my wheelhouse.

I've got a Dungeon Master's Guide
I've got a 12-sided die
I've got Kitty Pryde
And Nightcrawler too
Waiting there for me
Yes I do, I do

Uncanny X-Men comic books changed my life. I was just a bit younger than Kitty Pryde when I first read her introduction to the series. She was a lot of readers' surrogate back then, acting as our introduction to the colorful, surrealist, and expansive world of Marvel's mutants. She and the X-Men gave voice to our own struggles with fitting in at school. Years later, the music on the Blue Album had a different, yet still measurable impact on me. With songs like "Undone - The Sweater Song," "My Name is Jonas," "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here," and "Surf Wax America," Weezer seemed to reflect the the geeky introversion of so many Gen X kids haunting the malls and study halls of America.

Cuomo must've read his fair share of X-Men. Also, like me, he probably watched every episode of Misfits of Science and regularly read Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. At this point in the '90s, the geeks had not yet inherited the earth; we were still scamming BMG and Columbia House music clubs for free CDs and goofing around with this newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. Those moments of connection between like-minded nerds were more rare than they are today, when every other person you know is cosplaying as Harley Quinn. Just by being so earnestly dorky, Weezer stirred up the natural nerd tendencies that I'd been trying to suppress—halfheartedly and ultimately unsuccessfully—out of some fear they'd turn off potential friends or girlfriends.

During the height of the Blue Album's ubiquity across college campuses throughout the land—thanks in large part to the way their Happy Days-set video for "Buddy Holly" served as pure crack for Gen Xers raised on the Fonz—you couldn't escape its music. I was attending an outdoor festival with friends, summer of '95. Before the show, we hung out in the parking lot with everyone else, pre-gaming for the long day of music. I can still see us, sitting on the ground and leaning against the car, when one friend started humming, then full-on singing "No One Else." Soon we were all singing along to those vaguely unsettling lyrics about wanting a girl who'll laugh for no one but you.

Cut to recently, when I had a conversation with a Millennial friend about Weezer and realized that maybe you not only had to be a certain age to fall for them, but also needed to live in a certain time period to do so. This friend pointed out how narrowly immature the songs' narratives around women could be. She had a point (see "No One Else" above), one that I'd considered before but never really addressed. I stammered around a semi-coherent response, eventually coming up with this: when you remove them from the context in which they were first listened to with the most frequency—namely, by "alternative" kids in '94 and '95—then yes, they're definitely going to seem dated and out of touch in 2017.

Clearly, I could write a dissertation about my overwhelming love and affection for that era of Weezer, from about '94–'97. Even though I've outgrown much of their thematic obsessions (even if they haven't), I can still relate to those first two albums (Blue and Pinkerton) because it was the exact music I needed to hear at the exact age I needed to hear it. Any sooner and it might not have hit with as much force; any later and it might not have hit with any force at all.

In those days, through some misguided attempt at projecting depth, my friends and I saw ourselves as one pulled sweater-thread away from totally unraveling. Whether that was an organic or manufactured angst (it was likely a little of both), Weezer really did help keep us sewn together, at least for a little while.

Friday, March 24, 2017

This is not my beautiful blog

Sometimes I think this blog has multiple personalities.

Other times I think I have multiple personalities.


Every now and then I have a moment of cognitive dissonance around here: wait, wasn't I going to use the blog as therapy? Why am I writing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then? And not even the beloved series, but the film no one cares about!

Writing about yourself has its limits. I've done it a lot here, but usually filtered through popular culture musings. That's how I'm most comfortable doing it, I suppose. Sometimes those reflections turn further inward. Things get real, as we used to say in the '90s. Mostly though, this space is for enthusing about books and movies and music and whatever else I'm hooked on at the moment, or have been hooked on at some point in my life.

I've started some recurring features in the last year in order to help organize my thoughts and provide a rough outline for future posts. "It Came From the '90s" has been an awful lot of fun to write, in fact, probably the most enjoyable stuff I've written here. I have at least countless more ideas for future posts in that series.

I'm hoping to start a new series on music, focusing on one band or artist for a stretch, with each post looking at one song. I know what band I'm starting with, so that should kick off soon. This will likely supplant my older music feature, "Songs in the Key of Life," at least for now. I never found the groove with that one and I feel like most of them were overlong and could have used some tightening. Oh well. Live and learn, and all that.

My reading for pleasure lately has been derailed by the usual late-winter stuff: work, colds, and kids. "Barely Making a Dent" really keeps me honest about my reading though, so be on the lookout for more of that.  I'm toying with another book-related series: blogging about Stephen King's It as I'm reading it. This would entail a series of posts, spread out over months, most likely (because the book is long, you guys, and I'm busy). They won't be comprehensive reviews or anything like that. I'm thinking more along the lines of short, quick hits on what I've just read. If that sounds disjointed, well, so be it.

Doing a sort of "quick hits" regular feature sounds interesting to me also, where I might just write simply and briefly about things I'm thinking about at the moment—politics, daily life, music, etc.—without needing to expound. Sometimes my impediment to writing here comes from trying to fit everything into something else. That's fine and even necessary when I'm writing at other websites, but here it's nice to have fewer restrictions, more room to roam.

So those are a few potential things to look forward down the road. But what was my point, again? I don't think I have one, honestly, but I riffed on a line from a great Talking Heads song in the title of this post, so, that's cool.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


I read Moonglow in January, then wrote up a very short review. Forgot about it until recently. Might as well share it now.

Released last November, Moonglow is the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. Except it's a bit more and a bit less than that; a hybrid of sorts. The publisher calls it, "an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir." The book begins with a bang, then takes some time introducing characters and concepts that will play important roles in the book's narrative. The narration is by a character named Michael Chabon, a barely fictionalized analog of the author, but is not explicitly about him. The story is based loosely on Chabon's own family history, except with plenty of deviations, artistic license, and other influences woven in to create a novelistic memoir of slyly epic proportions.

Our narrator acts as our conduit to the story of his family tree. His grandfather is seriously ill and nearing the end of life. The young Chabon, fresh off his debut novel Wonder Boys, begins to tease out snippets of the old man's life story. This proves challenging because his grandfather can be both taciturn and unimpressed with the details of his own life. These moments between Generation Xer Chabon and his "Greatest Generation" grandfather shed light on generational differences and challenges.

Eventually his grandfather's stories reveal a life less than ordinary, one that intersects with history in important and dramatic ways. Chabon gains a greater understanding of his grandfather, grandmother, mother, and other relatives. In the process, our narrator also unearths new ways of comprehending himself and his own life.

Ultimately, it's a heartfelt look at family, aging, mental illness, twentieth-century America, and love—in all of its many forms. Chabon is one of our most gifted writers, with a strong eye for revealing certain aspects of the human condition that we've all felt before but haven't articulated with such clarity ourselves. Moonglow is filled with those sorts of life-affirming moments, ones that will make you nod in recognition while also shaking your head in amazement. It beautifully showcases how we can always discover new perspectives on our parents, our grandparents, ourselves. Once again, Chabon displays an uncanny ability to make the personal feel universal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Leftover Thoughts on the Films of Paul Verhoeven

I'm on Paul Verhoeven overload, or, Verhoeven-load, lately.

After revisiting some of his films and reading Paul Verhoeven: Interviews for an article at Sequart I've had his films on the brain. Here are a few leftover odds 'n' sods, just some random observations about an underrated filmmaker. 

A recurring theme throughout his career is how often critics seem to misinterpret his work. This seems an especially common reaction to his Hollywood films. How did so many critics miss the point of the scathing satire in Starship Troopers? Some even deemed it a pro-fascist work. I suppose when you skewer fascism and the military industrial complex as well as Verhoeven does here, many viewers will simply take it too literally.

Similarly, Showgirls was panned during initial release and dismissed as trash. If they'd looked any deeper than the film's surface aesthetic—past all of the nudity—they'd see it's an age-old cautionary tale that somehow avoids passing judgment on its characters even as they use and abuse each other to further their careers.

Showgirls is high camp, as a film set in the world of Vegas strippers should be. The actors embrace this lunacy, none more so than the film's star, Elizabeth Berkley. The movie's critical lashing seemed to torpedo Berkley's film career before it even got off the ground. It's hard not to see that as sexist when you consider the actors in the torpid Magic Mike were certainly not shunned for playing male strippers. This is a starring vehicle for her, as her character Nomi carries us through the film on her journey, as she scratches and claws—and let's not forget, strips— her way up the ranks. Berkley goes in all with the camp overtones that Verhoeven establishes, whether its gyrating on stages, lasciviously (and hilariously) licking poles, or engaging in an absurd pool sex scene with a very game Kyle MacLachlan that has to be seen to be believed. That sort of off-the-wall approach is why Showgirls lives on as one of the more popular cult classics of the last two decades. Repeat viewings of it only enhance your enjoyment of the wild ride Verhoeven's taking us on.

In the book of interviews, Verhoeven talks about his vision for RoboCop as a Christ-like figure. It's that sort of allegorical storytelling that underpins most of his work, including in his big Hollywood films. Total Recall is all about there being no one "real" reality, and Verhoeven structures the film in such a way as to leave it open to interpretation: is it reality, alternate reality, dreams, or some combination of all three?

One of the more salacious stories that is returned to over the course of the interviews in the book regards that infamous scene in Basic Instinct. You know the one: the Sharon Stone interrogation scene. Apparently, Verhoeven wasn't completely open with Stone about his intentions to include that now-notorious leg-crossing, upskirt shot of her in the scene. Stone was livid when she saw how much it revealed of her at an early screening. Certainly, Verhoeven mislead her, and you can understand why this would break an actor's trust in her director. Soon after though, she came around to agreeing with Verhoeven's notion that it was the best shot for the scene, that it works artistically. She also recognized how that one scene made the film such a cultural touchstone, one that lives on today in numerous parodies and references.

One last thought. It occurs to me now that I can mark my growth during the release of many of Verhoeven's big Hollywood films. RoboCop? Geeky adolescence. Basic Instinct? Geeky teenage wasteland. Showgirls? Geeky college wasteland. His films were a huge part of my existence back then even if I never really gave them much thought beyond the surface. Even then, though, I could see that they were a too strange for big Hollywood productions. There was something weird about each one of them, something that made them highly memorable. Only as an adult did I start to see Verhoeven's usual themes emerge in most of these films: reality vs. unreality, identity, agency, corruption, free will vs. determinism, and so many more.

Verhoeven has been around long enough to see the inevitable critical reevaluation, but it's still good to see it happen. His films are not perfect but, they're uniquely true to his own cerebral visions and always highly entertaining.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Logan is the best superhero film ever made

Wolverine and X-23

When I reviewed Logan last week for FanSided I tried to reign in my fanboy gushing and keep it spoiler free. But there was a lot more I wanted to say about the film. This being my blog, where I'm free to let the fanboy freak fly and get spoilery, I'm about to do just that. I'm a huge X-Men fan. Like many of us, I've been waiting years for a truly great film in the franchise (besides X2, which is a very good movie). Logan is the film we've all been waiting for. So you've been warned: excessive geeking out and spoilers lie ahead. 

With Logan, director James Mangold has given us one of the most visually stunning films the superhero genre has ever seen. The cinematography beautifully reflects the film's themes and tone. More than a week after seeing it, I still can't get certain scenes and images out of my head. These are just a few:

The first of several brutally graphic fight scenes that made it clear this would be the most R-rated and unleashed cinematic Wolverine yet.

Logan, battered and bruised, carrying the sick and weakened Charles to his bed.

Caliban's death scene, when everything goes quiet for a brief moment before he sacrifices himself and blows the truck sky high.

Every single time Laura leaps and slashes and screams into action, matching Logan's own ferocity in battle.

The quiet normality of the family dinner scene, with laughter, even. The calm before the horrendous violence to come.

Charles' moving, elegiac speech about the perfect day he's just experienced, followed immediately by his death.

Logan, after so much trauma has transpired, choking back tears and breaking up in front of Laura.

Logan, asleep on Laura's lap in the truck. a rare moment of respite.

Near the end, when Logan tells Laura, "Don't be what they made you."

And finally, when Laura rotates the cross on Logan's grave so it resembles an "X."

Wolverine and X-23

Logan absolutely wrecked me, for several reasons. First, I'm invested in Hugh Jackman's portrayal of the character at this point, after seventeen years and nine previous films. Like many, I wasn't sure about his casting back in 2000 (he was an unknown in America), but over the years he consistently proved to be one of the best aspects of every X-Men film he appeared in. Knowing this was Jackman's last time wearing the claws, I was prepared to be emotional.

The story, focusing on family—both the kind you're born into and the kind you create—also completely destroyed me. It was impossible not to see similarities to my own experiences, both in Logan's relationship to an aging father figure losing his mental acuity (Charles) and to his young daughter (Laura). I've felt as tired and resigned as Logan feels while caring for the aging Charles; I've felt, deep inside, the overwhelming fatherly instinct to protect my daughter and son, at any cost. At the heart of film, Logan is really about the love we have for family, and how we'll do anything to keep them safe. Even when we feel hopeless, as Logan does, we'll still muster the strength because we have to. We can't let them down.

Wolverine, X-23, and Professor X

So many aspects of Logan are unlike anything I've experienced in previous superhero films. The fight scenes, the cinematography, the direction, the pacing, and the acting are all first rate. Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Daphne Keen in particularly give performances that are so real that it's uncanny. After all these years, Jackman and Stewart are so in sync with their characters now that it's hard to see them acting at all. Keen is the real revelation though; it's remarkable to realize she was only eleven or twelve years old while filming. Together with Jackman, Keen completely commits to the fight scenes, which are all breathtakingly executed. The chemistry between the three leads is off the charts. Stephen Merchant as Caliban, the mutant helping Charles and Logan, and Boyd Holbrook as the relentless pursuer Donald Pierce are also standouts.

It's also worth mentioning just how well the studio advertised this film. The first trailer, last fall, was nearly universally praised. It was a work of its art for the form, frankly. Now having seen Logan, I can see how the trailer perfectly captured the essence of the film. From the music—Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt"—to the scene selection and editing, it conveys everything you need to know about the film in under two minutes. It carries similar a emotional weight as the film. That's incredibly rare. I've watched it again since seeing Logan (several times, in fact), and it only further reinforces my love of the movie.

I realize it's still fresh and this opinion could change, but as of this writing it's the best superhero/comic book film I've ever seen. There are so many reasons why: it's heartbreaking, brutal, thoughtful, exhilarating, touching, violent, funny, powerful. It seamlessly blends all of those elements into one truly memorable cinematic experience. This is what a superhero film can be when the filmmakers place the emphasis on characters instead of things blowing up. Certainly, Logan is filled with its fair share of pulse-pounding action scenes (some of the best I've ever seen, in fact). However, it's the journey that Logan, Charles, and Laura are taking together—and how it solidifies their bond and our investment in them—that leaves the biggest impression.

I've rambled, ranted, and raved here. Even with all of that, I still can't express enough just how much I loved Logan. Go, see it right now. Call out of work if you have to, get a babysitter if necessary, just do it. And be prepared to cry, both during the film and after the end credits roll.

Friday, March 10, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Just the idea of a blonde-bimbo-teenage-cheerleader as vampire hunter is so ludicrously over the top that you can't help but love it. However, when the Joss Whedon-penned Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit theaters in 1992, audiences were probably not prepared for this concept. It's bizarre, subversive, and just weird enough to turn off the masses.

Years later, Whedon massaged, expanded, and improved on the Buffy mythos in his long-running television series of the same name, relegating the movie that spawned the series to a footnote. Many fans of the series don't even acknowledge the film's existence. That seems harsh. While it doesn't compare in quality or lasting impact to the series, it's still worth revisiting.

When I first saw it I thought, "What the hell is this?" It's rare for Hollywood to create a truly original concepts, but Whedon did just that with the character of Buffy. Vampire slaying, like other macho work, have historically been relegated to the males of the species. With Buffy, Whedon gives us a vacuous heroine who learns of her slayer lineage, then steps up to the plate to kick copious amounts of undead ass. Imagine Kelly Bundy as an action star.

While Buffy's transition from Valley Girl airhead to major ass-kicker happens a bit too quickly, the result is still exciting. Buffy becomes Los Angeles' only defense against the legion of bloodsuckers rampaging around town. All the while, she's also navigating the treacherous landscape of an American high school, adding another layer of metaphor and symbolism. Again, Whedon would explore all of that in greater depth during the series.

Kristy Swanson will forever be overshadowed by Sarah Michelle Gellar's 144-episode run as the slayer, which allowed Gellar to grow with the character over time. In many ways though, Swanson seems more appropriately cast as the vapid teen queen who becomes fiercely adept at wielding a stake. Fairly or not, Swanson's career is most notable for her sex symbol status, which works to her advantage as Buffy. She also more than handles the physical demands of the role. Not only does Swanson look like she could be a cheerleader, she's also athletic enough to pull off Buffy's many dexterous fight scenes. You actually believe that she can kick this much ass.

It's also worth noting that the film is a wonderfully dated artifact of the early 1990s. From Paul Reubens hamming it up (he may be the one actor who truly commits to the gloriously camp of the film) to 90210's then-reigning teen-dream heartthrob Luke Perry as teen-dream heartthrob Pike to the obnoxiously loud fashion (see header image for visual evidence), the film is littered with plenty of so-'90s-it-hurts moments.

Buffy was famously not what Whedon envisioned in his initial script. He was disheartened, eventually walking off the set. He would make amends later by molding and shaping Buffy into something more personal. But the movie shouldn't be summarily dismissed. It's still a fun, salty-sweet popcorn flick, worth catching up with, even if only to be reminded of where it all began.