Tuesday, December 17, 2013

2013 Movie Releases (In Review)

It's that time of year again - time to look back at the year's movie releases and tally up all the movies I got to see in the theater, the ones I wanted to see but missed, and the ones I caught later on at home. This was a busy year at the theater for me, thanks in part to the influence of a friend with a passion for going out to the movies.

January started off strong with not one but two movies of the horror variety, the trailers for which managed to successfully entice me into catching them at the theater. One was the new Texas Chainsaw reboot or sequel or whatever you want to call it. Purists probably won't like it, but I thought it was good fun, and Alexandra Daddario was super hot in the lead role (which is always a plus for me).

The other January release was a movie titled Mama, with an intriguing plot involving feral children and the suspected ghost of their mother. There was a scene in the trailer that successfully spooked me - a rare occurrence for a nightmare-hardened horror hound such as myself - so I decided to give it my money. It maybe wasn't as good as I hoped, but I liked that the ending wasn't forcibly saccharine, and the young Megan Charpentier put in a captivating performance. It was worth seeing.

Around spring time a few more movies of interest to me came out - only one of which was actually horror. That one was the hotly-anticipated remake of Sam Raimi's cult classic supernatural gorefest Evil Dead. I was excited about it from the first time I saw the red band trailer, and it did not fail to deliver. Opinions among fans are, as always, mixed, but I thought it was fantastic. And much to my delight, it took the more serious route of the first Evil Dead, avoiding the ridiculous slapstick humor that marred its sequels.

Of the other two spring releases, I saw one of them twice (because it was just that good), but the other one I didn't get to see at all, on account of its limited release and me living in the boonies. :-( The one I did see was Spring Breakers, which, being a member of the MTV generation who grew up in the '90s, was a bit of nostalgia (at least in the sense of me sitting in front of the TV dreaming of going on Spring Break, and not actually being there). But, for me, the whole success of the movie hinged on its marketing potential of casting "innocent" Disney-esque actresses (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson) in sultry roles for a sleazy film. It worked brilliantly.

The spring movie that I didn't get to see was The Bling Ring, which I am very disappointed about, on account of my obsession with Emma Watson. I didn't see the remake of Maniac, starring Elijah Wood, which is a horror film, until later in the year. But I did go back and watch the original, and being sufficiently impressed by it, I made a point to view the remake when it turned up on Netflix. It exceeded my meager expectations of a modern remake of such a morally ambiguous tale. I recommend it.

A number of horror movies came out in the middle part of the year, not all of which I went to see. The Purge proved to be a big hit, and boasts a very intriguing premise, but reviews were less than stellar, and I decided to wait and watch it at my convenience (yet to happen). I also passed up Insidious: Chapter 2, even though I watched the first Insidious this year and liked it. But by September I was going to an awful lot of movies, and felt like some of them I could wait to see at home. You're Next is another one that looked (and sounded, based on reviews) interesting to me, but I passed over for the time being.

But let's talk about the movies I did see. June brought this year's great zombie fest, a big budget adaptation of a novel titled World War Z. It was not the best zombie movie of the 21st century, but it was better than I hoped for after hearing about all the turmoil going on behind the scenes. In July, The Conjuring came out, boasting of being based on a true story - which is nothing special for a horror film, but here it's the details that matter. It's based on the most disturbing case a real life pair of paranormal investigators ever encountered during their entire lifetime of investigations. The movie writes a big check, epically tackling the haunted house and exorcism motifs, and if it doesn't quite live up to its ambitions, it's still a pretty thrilling watch.

Late summer brought a few not-specifically-horror movies that I had my eye on. One of those was the sequel to Kick-Ass, one of the more, ahem, kick-ass comic book/superhero movies in my opinion, featuring my gal Chloe Grace Moretz in the iconic role of Hit-Girl (this time enduring the challenges of adolescence, a theme she repeats in a bit part of the comedy anthology Movie 43, as well as her much-anticipated starring role in the remake of Carrie).

I was interested in Elysium, also, which looked to be a sci-fi dystopia story with some potential, but ultimately missed it. I did catch Riddick, however, an action-heavy sci-fi horror crossover that stands as the third part of the ongoing saga of the titular bad-ass space fugitive. Eschewing the sci-fi ambitions of the middle part of that saga - The Chronicles of Riddick - it harkens back to the tighter horror-based themes of Pitch Black, probably for the better. Like the rest of the saga, it's not going to top any "best of" lists, but it is fun, and it has its moments. And one thing Riddick does right that Pitch Black messed up, is scary creature designs.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, there was only one big horror release in October that I went to see, and that was the big remake of Carrie starring Chloe Grace Moretz. I was very excited about it, being a huge fan of Chloe, knowing the horror roles she's taken on in the past (for example, the vampire in the American remake Let Me In). And lest my review give you the wrong idea, I did enjoy the movie. Chloe lights up the screen in every role she takes. However, it was a bit hard seeing her as the downtrodden girl, after watching her as the ultimate bad-ass just two months prior. And there was something about the movie that failed to reach that next level. It was, in the end, very derivative of the original, and though well composed - many of the elements are as good if not better than the original - doesn't feel spontaneous or dangerous enough. Still, it's worth seeing, and even more so if they eventually release some kind of director's cut that takes a few more chances.

November was the month for the release of the second part of The Hunger Games saga, Catching Fire. I was underwhelmed by the first Hunger Games movie, which I rewatched in anticipation of the sequel, feeling that many of its parts didn't come together, and it wasn't as captivating or compelling as the book it was based on. Thankfully, the second part doesn't suffer from those problems. It is much better than the first, and is, truly, a thrilling movie experience. I enjoyed it so much I went back and saw it a second time, and am looking forward to the continuation of (and conclusion to) the story in the coming years. It's probably my vote for the best movie of the year, except possibly for the Evil Dead remake, with Spring Breakers hanging in third.

December (just this past weekend, in fact) saw the release of the second part of The Hobbit saga, The Desolation of Smaug. My feelings toward it are very similar to those I had for the first part, which makes it hard for me to write a review for it. I just feel very ambivalent about these movies, which is a shame because I adored Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. But, truth be told, The Hobbit is a lighter story, and these movies reflect that. Even their attempt at buffering them out with the goings on of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur and all that, it still doesn't reach the level of fear and excitement that we saw in LotR. There is far too much CGI, that gives the movie very much the feeling of almost being one of those animated children's movies. I watch these movies because come on, it's The Hobbit, but frankly they don't get me terribly excited (even the whole Mirkwood sequence - one of my favorite parts in the book - fails to thrill terribly much). That having been said, getting to see Smaug in action in this movie, among his hordes of treasure, was very cool.

For the sake of cataloging, I'd like to name a few movies that came out this year that I did not get to see, but want to at some point. I thought that Prisoners sounded interesting, but I was a little concerned at how it might end. Obviously, it's not a feel-good kind of movie, but I'll have to give it a watch some time. I wanted to see The To Do List after a recommendation from my brother, but it failed to materialize in the theaters I had access to, so I'll have to catch it at some other time. In that vein, I was also a little curious about Lovelace. But another movie's hype totally captivated me - that of Blue Is The Warmest Color. I haven't been able to get my hands on it, and there is zero chance that it'll play anywhere I'll be able to see it, but it's a must-watch (uncensored, full length only!) on my list. I also wanted to see Machete Kills, the bombastic sequel to a neo-grindhouse movie that I enjoyed seeing when the first one came out. And another horror on my list is All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, which I think is actually from several years ago, but only saw daylight this year.

I actually don't know of a lot of movies scheduled for release next year to look forward to, with the exception of - of course - the conclusion to The Hobbit, and possibly also the first part of the last part (confusing, isn't it?) of The Hunger Games. Plus there's this one called Maleficent, which I think is about the evil witch from Sleeping Beauty, but most importantly stars Elle Fanning, Dakota's darling little sister (what, you thought I was gonna say Angelina Jolie? :p). But you know there's always interesting titles coming out. Some good and some not so good. And there's never enough time to watch them all! But I'll do my best to keep up. ;-)

Wow, I think this was the longest Movie Releases in Review yet!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Courtney Love

Several weeks ago, I happened to hear on the radio a tribute to the "women of rock". Now, as it turns out, it was nothing more than a block of classic rock songs with women's names in the title. A fun enough theme, but it got me to thinking about actual women who rock - the rock goddesses, women who sing or play rock n roll music. And I even got to the point where I considered doing another installment of Zharth's Music Log celebrating women who rock. But what stumped me was the very unfortunate fact that the rock n roll landscape is dominated by men.

But despite stereotypes about testosterone and aggression, this is not because women can't rock, nor even that women don't rock, as the few prominent counterexamples will attest to. Truth is, there is undoubtedly a large amount of social pressure, fueled by the usual gender stereotypes, that serves as a significant barrier for women attempting to "make it" in rock n roll - probably even more so in the decades going back to the sixties and seventies (the heyday of "classic rock") than today.

Now, there's no question that women have made their mark in other genres of music, and rock can come in the form of many guises (punk, metal, country, even pop, and more), but it's rare to find a female musician who truly embodies the rock n roll attitude, in all its raw and anarchic splendor, and actually plays rock music. There are a few I consider within my purview of experience, like Suzi Quatro, and the girls of The Runaways that she helped to inspire, including the very popular Joan Jett. And there's Janis Joplin, who, even with her soul influences, had a true rock spirit. The Wilson sisters, in their band Heart, who were big fans of titan rock band Led Zeppelin, could lay one down from time to time as well.

But then you get to other names. I'm very familiar with the band Fleetwood Mac, and I like Stevie Nicks. And truth be told, she could rock when she wanted to. But I don't know that I'd really call her a rock star; and the other girl in the band, Christine McVie, I never liked as much. And there's Grace Slick, the very popular singer in the psych rock band Jefferson Airplane, but can you really call her a rock star? She seems more into head trips than power trips. And then there are names like Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde (of the band The Pretenders), and Patti Smith, but these are artists I only barely know a few songs by, and have never made it into my pantheon of favorites.

So in my attempt to get to know some new rock goddesses, I procured some recordings by two different female musicians, for trial purposes. One of them was Lita Ford, whom I knew from the band The Runaways. She was fairly popular in the '80s, to the point of recording a duet with Ozzy Osbourne. She also has the prominent distinction of being one of the very few female musicians I know who can play lead guitar. (You can imagine my disappointment, as a guitarist, when I discovered that Nancy Wilson plays rhythm guitar, and that the lead guitarist in the band Heart is just another man). Unfortunately, though, Lita Ford's music, while competent, fails to impress, falling within the category of bland '80s hair metal.

The other rock goddess I endeavored to experience was none other than the infamous Courtney Love. Based on her reputation, and listening to a few of her more popular songs on youtube, I thought that maybe here was a woman who could truly rock. It was quite a departure for me, as it is not often that I venture into the realm of '90s music. I grew up in the '90s, yeah, but I was always very strongly anti-conformist, and so I associate the popular music of the '90s with the kids I grew up alongside who liked that music - and they were people I had no desire to emulate.

But, I think I've grown up a little over the years, and I'm not as reticent as I used to be. Still, I find it ironic that between the choice of a lead guitarist who played hair metal, and a singer with ties to Nirvana and its grunge/alt rock scene, I ended up liking the latter a whole lot more. But Courtney Love's music is so raw and energetic, it's exhilarating. I find myself mesmerized by it, listening to songs over and over and over again, which is something I only do with music that really resonates with me.

I keep reading comments that, compared to her later, more pop-friendly arrangements, Courtney Love's earliest recordings are "abrasive" and "unlistenable". Abrasive, absolutely. The anger and excitement in Love's voice is matched only by the frenetic and anarchic noise produced by the band she plays in. But unlistenable? To most, I wouldn't be surprised if that were the case. But I can't stop listening to it! The noise is very Neil Young Arc or Dead Man-like, at least the louder portions - very rock n roll, loose and unpredictable, but heavy. Some of the transitions from gentle, whispering parts to outright screaming even recalls for me one of my favorite elements of post-rock music. And the energy of it all is infectious. I'm in love with it.

Hole's first album, Pretty on the Inside, and other early tracks recorded by the band - like Retard Girl, Dicknail, Drown Soda; I'm also fond of the track Violet from the band's second album Live Through This - most perfectly embody the abrasive, "unlistenable" approach I've come to appreciate so much. It is the most hauntingly affecting debut album I've heard since Bob Dylan's, who was trying to conjure the cursed pathos of Robert Johnson's recordings. If I thought that Bob Dylan's rough ruminations on death were even more compelling than Johnson's folk blues, Courtney Love's blaring outbursts with her no-holds-barred rock band Hole, covering such lurid topics as rape, abuse, abortion, prostitution, humiliation, abandonment...all with a confident if tortured attitude that screams "fuck you", is positively harrowing. It's my new musical obsession.