Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bad Movies: Advanced Studies

So you've seen The Room, Troll 2, Birdemic and the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man. Maybe you've gone back and checked out some of the older bad movie classics like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Manos: The Hands of Fate. You might be there more? Oh yes. Bad movies are like any other genre in that the more you learn about them, the more you discover that you still have to learn. Let me help you along with some "recommendations" for that priceless so-bad-it's-good feeling.

The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster

Two films directed by Ray Kellogg that get laughs because of the ridiculously cheap but surprisingly charming visual effects. In The Killer Shrews, a group of people get stuck on a small island during a hurricane and are terrorized by giant rodents. The "shrews" are actually just dogs wearing furry blankets and fake teeth. It's as convincing as it sounds and I'm laughing just thinking about it.

In The Giant Gila Monster, people in a small Texas town are disappearing and the culprit is revealed to be giant lizard resulting from (what else?) nuclear testing. In this case, Kellogg simply shot footage of a real Gila Monster wandering past miniature houses and cars. It looks about as intimidating as a chihuahua.

Even though both films are totally ridiculous, I actually have a lot of affection for them. These were cases where the creators just wanted to make a movie and used ingenuity to get it done for a reasonable price. Ironically, Kellogg would go on to direct the John Wayne Vietnam War film The Green Berets, which is shittier than both of these movies combined and not in a fun way.

The Giant Claw

Another 1950s monster movie where the antagonist is a bird that, as the characters will remind you multiple times, is "as big as a battleship!" This one is best known for just how ridiculous the creature looks. I've decided not to include a picture of it in this blog in case you watch it, because the build-up makes it even funnier, but here's what the New York Times had to say upon its release.

"This would have been an ordinarily bad movie of its type, with a good performance by Jeff Morrow, if the special effects had been industry standard. That, however, is not what happened. The Claw is not just badly rendered, it is hilariously rendered, resembling nothing so much as Warner Bros. cartoon-character Beaky Buzzard. Once seen, you will never forget this silly creation."

The contrast between the silly bird creature and the seriousness of the rest of the movie is pure gold, especially knowing that the cast didn't know what it would look like until the film premiered. The actors do their best with the ridiculous science-fiction dialogue about "antimatter galaxies" and "mesic atoms" and in perhaps the funniest scene where the bird does not appear, Morrow's character looks at a map of the bird's attacks and somehow deduces a spiral pattern to connect them. It makes no sense but since when does that stop a movie from being fun?

Empire of the Ants

Continuing with the giant animals, this movie was part of the 1970s revival of that subgenre that likely originated from that era's environmental movement. A slimy real-estate agent gathers a bunch of potential homeowners together to try and sell them on swampy Florida land that just happens to be infested with giant ants. Using rear projection, real footage of ants is enlarged and placed within the frame to make them appear gigantic. The problem is that the director can't control how the ants move and they often appear to crawl off the ground or walk vertically on thin air.

Most of the movie plays out like a run-of-the-mill Jaws ripoff that just happens to have goofy special effects, but Empire of the Ants ultimately has more in store for you than that. The third act of this film is absolutely bugnuts insane as the characters escape the island only to find the ants have gained a foothold on the mainland. Brainwashed townspeople try and force them to inhale ant farts in order to join the colony. It's a weird movie...but pretty funny.

Death Spa

I don't think there's any cinematic era more instantly distinctive than the 1980s and this little known oddity has that decade's cheese all over it. While it was released in some places as "Witch Bitch," Death Spa is the perfect name for this wacky story of a high tech health club that also happens to be haunted. The acting and dialogue are gloriously bad and the death scenes are some of the craziest you'll ever see. Check out the deaths by weight training machines, floor tiles and even a frozen fish. The convoluted back story behind the ghost haunting the place can get tedious but stick with this one because the final 20 minutes will blow your mind with the amount of sheer insanity on display.


A lot of slasher movies deserve at least some amount of ridicule, but this one makes the others look like Ingmar Bergman. A serial killer is prowling a college campus, murdering people with a few different weapons but he prefers a chainsaw. He's able to carry this chainsaw around in broad daylight without arousing any suspicion and hides it behind his back when he needs to be really sneaky. Yep, it's that kind of movie. Almost nothing makes sense and it's hilarious. The murders are spectacularly gory, although seeing the fake knife bend as one of the victims is stabbed takes some of the sting out of it.

This is probably the best known of the movies on this list and with good reason - several bizarre scenes come out of nowhere and are hilarious in how much they depart from anything even closely resembling sense. There's the sequence where a character is attacked by a Bruce Lee impersonator who laughs it off and leaves, never to be seen again. There's the scene after one of the murders where a policewoman character lets loose an awkward meltdown worthy of comparison to Tommy Wiseau's "You are tearing me apart, Lisa!" Then there's the ending. Good lord, the ending. It is one of the most jaw-dropping WTF endings I have ever seen. No matter what you may be imagining right now, you will not see it coming.

Maximum Overdrive

Dozens of film have been made out of Stephen King's work but the man himself has only directed one movie. Once you finish Maximum Overdrive, you'll understand why. This tale of machines turning murderous definitely has the biggest budget out of the films on this list and features recognizable actors like Emilio Estevez, Frankie Faison and Yeardley "Lisa Simpson" Smith. King also appears in the beginning as a man who gets called an asshole by an ATM machine. It only gets sillier from there, but as a Spider-Man fan, I have to give some respect to the Green Goblin truck. That thing looks awesome.

A group of survivors hides out in a gas station but are soon discovered by a horde of evil trucks who demand that they pump gas into them and murder anyone who steps out of line. It will take careful planning and major firepower to rebel against the sinister semis. King's novels can be very complex and artful, yet he also definitely has a sense of what makes for good lowbrow humor. I don't think anyone expected that from the author's first film but that's what we got. King later admitted that he was "coked out of his mind" for much of the shoot. It all makes a bit more sense now.

Ax 'Em

"On a cold winter night, in 1990, Mr. Mason, a mean and cruel Towns man, left his job for Home. After arriving home, He took a shotgun And killed his wife and Kids. Then is mean man Killed himself. When the police arrived they only Found the bodies of his wife, Daughter, and younger son. His mentally Ill son Harry Was not ever found. Legend has it, he will return in 13 years to revenge his family deaths."

That's the opening crawl of Ax 'Em, which should give you an idea of what you're in for if you choose to watch this one. This movie is TERRIBLE. It will make you long for the competent lighting of Birdemic or the decent sound design of Troll 2. It takes determination to finish this dumpster fire of a movie, but you'll be rewarded with moments of unintentional brilliance.

Shot on a '90s camcorder for $650, the movie stars a group of black teens who go camping and get stalked by a nutcase with an axe. There are scenes where the characters are literally incomprehensible because the sound is so messy. There's a scene where you can hear the director yell "Cut!' Speaking of the director, Michael Mfune, he is the son of former NAACP president Kwesei Mfune. You would think that this pedigree would result in Ax 'Em deconstructing some of the racial issues with traditional slasher films. You would be wrong. It indulges in the worst of black stereotypes and the story goes that it was actually screened at an NAACP event because the director was the president's son. I would love to have been in that theater when the movie ended.

Here's a tiny preview of what this movie is like. And that's a high point. They don't make them much worse than this.

That's all for now! Maybe I'll do more later. I have to go toss a football with my buddy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The 24 Hour Setlist - Postmortem

The 24 hour singing marathon is over and raised $780 for Connecticut Children's Medical Center. Thanks to everyone who donated and if you haven't and still want to, I just found out that Extra Life keeps collecting donations until the end of the calendar year before it goes to the hospitals.

The marathon itself was a pretty epic experience. I felt like I was sitting in a room separate from time while the hours flew by in the outside world. The biggest surprise was how little of a strain it put on my voice. I was expecting to have a lot of trouble and bought a huge case of water bottles and lots of cough drops...but I barely used them. I'm not sure what to credit for that - maybe it was the heavy training I did the weeks beforehand or maybe it was the all the fruit I ate that day (moisture, yo)- but my voice proved inexhaustible. My body, however, was a different story. Around 5:30 am, the 20 hours of singing hit me like a brick and I struggled to stay awake for the last hurrah. Still managed it, but I butchered Def Leppard's "Rock of Ages" by basically singing it in my sleep.

I've been asked if I will do it again in 2016. It's early, but I lean towards yes. Still, there will be many things to address before I can fully commit to another day's worth of song. I'll list them here to better explain myself and just for my own reference.

Streaming Tech Issues

This is by far the biggest problem that came up during the marathon. The livestream crashed every hour. That's not hyperbole by the way, it actually crashed once an hour. You could set your watch by it. The last two hours or so of the marathon was done totally offline because I was just too tired by then to put up with that bullshit. I'm not sure exactly where the problem lies, either. I was using a pretty new and powerful laptop and the capture card came highly recommended. It could be just that our internet isn't powerful enough, although I upgraded it last year after I started working for Degica so I could download games easier. I hope during the intervening year I can figure out a solution or else I'm not sure it's worth it.

More Focused Song List

This year's song list was thrown together a little sloppily. I basically just scrolled through the Rock Band 3 list and picked songs I liked in the order they appeared. With the benefit of hindsight, I can put together a new list that better captures that feel of increasing challenge I wanted. I can also eliminate songs that just weren't good for this. One example - Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" is good for a laugh, but that song is so repetitive that I almost fell asleep while singing it when I finally got to it around 6:45 am.

And I don't need to do every Iron Maiden song. Should probably keep it to the best of the best.

The arrival of Rock Band 4 brought a lot of new songs onto the platform and the weekly DLC additions have resumed, so next year's list will look a lot different than this one which is fun. I'll also have to rein in the amount of songs. I had 335 songs and I was sure I knew how the timing would work but that didn't work out. Near the end I was three hours behind schedule, meaning that I was singing songs at 8:30 a.m. that I expected to be singing at 5:30 a.m. Because of that, I didn't even get to the "Gauntlet" of 35 tough songs I had planned for the end before the 24 hours were up. A lot of the delay can probably be blamed on streaming issues, but I still think I would cut the amount down to 300 even.

The State of Rock Band 4

Rock Band 4 is a new game with a lot of changes to the interface, most of which are only noticed by hardcore fans. Still, one particular change makes it much harder to set up a 24-hour marathon. In Rock Band 3 you can create and save lists of songs to play through in full at a later time. I put in all the marathon songs in 3 sets of 100 plus the aforementioned "Gauntlet" which I didn't get to. It was very handy to just hit a few buttons and have 100 songs play uninterrupted.

Rock Band 4, for reasons that are not clear, removed this feature. In other words, I would have to scroll through the master list of songs and select each one. Repeat this process 300 times. If you thought this year was behind schedule, doing it this way next year would be nuts. However, it may not be this way in a year. The developers plan to keep patching in changes to the game and have already fixed a few fan complaints this way. We'll hope that something emerges within a year that will make this more feasible.

That's it for this year. I would encourage anyone to get involved with Extra Life. It's really a great cause.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The 24 Hour Setlist - Final Update!

Please donate here! Everything goes to Connecticut Children's Medical Center (CCMC) in Hartford.

My 24 hour Rock Band marathon begins this Saturday, November 7 at 8:45 a.m. I'm going to spend that first 15 minutes or so setting everything up and going over the details. However, I don't think anyone will be watching at that point which is why I'm also posting it here.

There are 335 songs in all. You can see the full list here.

I have roughly 15 minute breaks scheduled after each hundred songs. The last 35 are "the gauntlet," a group of the hardest songs in the game that I'll be taking on after singing for like 20 hours already. Should be dramatic. I'll be taking advantage of long guitar solos and other instrumental breaks (i.e. Free Bird, Green Grass and High Tides, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, etc) to use the bathroom or have a quick snack. I'm hoping to interrupt the setlist as little as possible because it's already 24 hours and doesn't need to go any longer. However, I'm not going to crap my pants for the sake of not pausing the game so depending on what happens there may be some abrupt interruptions.

When it comes to the singing itself, this isn't really a's a marathon. If you're expecting Josh Groban, you're going to be disappointed (plus his songs don't have enough instrumentation to really fit into Rock Band). I'll be going "half-voice" in order to make sure I can keep this up for a long time. There are a handful of songs with some growling and obviously I'm not doing any of that. I'll just substitute some freestyle singing for those sections.

I've got a huge package of bottled water ready for Saturday. I'll also be using cough drops and tea during the breaks. Still figuring out what to eat, but whatever it is it won't be anything too heavy.

Finally, I'll be streaming the whole thing here. Watch as much or as little of it as you like, but I hope you will help me raise a lot of money for CCMC. They deserve it! For more on Extra Life, check out my page there.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Outsider Becomes the Establishment: A Look at the Paranormal Activity Films

The latest Paranormal Activity film, the sixth in as many years, is being sold as the final chapter in the storyline. Horror fans know to be skeptical about this sort of thing - Friday the 13th Part IV had the subtitle "The Final Chapter" and there were six more movies afterward. Still, it seemed like a good opportunity to look at each entry in the series and observe how an upstart movie can change a whole genre.

Obviously, we've got to start with the original Paranormal Activity. Possibly the most influential horror film of the last decade, it single-handedly ended the reign of the post-Abu Ghraib torture-themed films and turned the "found footage" concept from a rare gimmick to a full-on subgenre of its own. This may be a mixed blessing, given the onslaught of far less creative imitators that followed. Most of those will be forgotten in the years to come, but Paranormal Activity will remain a milestone, not just for found footage but for low-budget filmmaking in general.

The first movie works so well mostly because of how well it involves the audience. A young couple, Katie and Micah, move into a new house and quickly discover that something is amiss. Micah is a total dipshit, needlessly provoking the entity in their house and uniting the viewers in a shared exasperation. Things escalate to the point where they decide to videotape themselves sleeping at night to get a better idea of what's happening. This do-it-yourself home surveillance is the meat of most of the movies in the series. The audience reviews the footage along with the characters, scanning the frame for the slightest bit of movement. The viewers are so worked up that even minor incidents like the sheets moving or a shadow moving across the wall get a huge reaction. Everything escalates to a grim conclusion that, thanks to a last-minute suggestion by none other than Steven Spielberg, leaves the door open for a sequel. After several years where horror films offered little more than English remakes of Japanese films or grueling stories about wandering tourists getting sliced up, the subtlety and creativity of this movie felt nothing short of miraculous.

Paranormal Activity 2 was not as encouraging. This one takes place shortly before the events of the original, revealing that the same demon had menaced Katie's sister, Kristi. Only in the last 10 minutes or so do we find out what happened after the end of the first movie. It expands the world of the series in a way that most good sequels do, but a lot of the original's magic was lost in the story's execution.

Instead of a single camera on a tripod, the paranormal activities are viewed through a full home security system with cameras in multiple locations. Most of the movie just cycles through these locations while the audience waits nervously for something to happen. There's so much waiting that you begin to wonder if the movie is trying to build tension or just kill time and save money. See that shot of the empty pool? That image makes up about 10 percent of the film's entire running time. I spent most of the movie feeling a strange mix of nervousness and boredom.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. After all, it's hard to follow a movie that felt so new and different. PA2 definitely could have been worse. Still, I've watched the first movie multiple times and I can't imagine ever sitting through this one again.

Following that, it certainly came as a surprise just how good Paranormal Activity 3 was. This one goes even further into the past - to the 1980s when Katie and Kristi were children and it was their parents who had a case of demonic infestation. Setting one of these films in the pre-digital era was a very smart idea as characters humorously struggle with dated problems like only being able to fit a certain amount of footage on a VHS tape.

The movie's masterstroke comes when the father, while trying to find a way to keep an eye on the large living room/dining room area in their house, attaches the camcorder to a rotating fan. This leads to scenes where the audience's point of view steadily moves from the left to the right side of the room and back again, meaning that each half of the room is out of sight for a few moments at a time. The way the filmmakers use this gimmick is utterly brilliant as subtle changes to the areas while they're not visible gets huge reactions from the audience. If that wasn't enough, the movie also adds significant detail to the overall lore of the series, revealing how Katie and Kristi first came into contact with the evil entity sometimes referred to as "Toby" and introducing a coven of witches who have been pulling the strings this entire time. Throw in a truly unsettling ending and you have a movie that's not quite on the level of the original but still quite good.

Conventional wisdom among Star Trek fans say that when it comes to the original series of movies (pre-JJ Abrams), the odd ones are bad and the even ones are great. The reverse seems to be true for this series and Paranormal Activity 4 is the lowest point. While it does reference the other films briefly, this is mostly a separate story about a family in Nevada who are just in the wrong house at the wrong time. Despite the innovations of the previous film, this one is content to return to the one-camera-in-a-bedroom format and while the demon's attacks are more brazen that what we're used to, none of it justifies the existence of another sequel.

When the movie ended and I realized that the overarching story was in basically the same place, I was pissed. I realized that a series that had started with a milestone in the history of independent horror films was now your basic Hollywood horror franchise, crapping out derivative sequels that were deliberately pointless so that the story could stay unresolved and the series could keep making money forever. I bid farewell to the series until I started hearing that the sixth movie was going to end things. With only two movies left, I figured I might as well catch up.

At this point, the producers stopped using numbers in the movie titles, perhaps trying to avoid drawing attention to the fact that this series was well past its expiration date. I'm adding them for the sake of clarity. I didn't see Paranormal Activity 5: The Marked Ones until well after its theatrical release and my expectations were in the gutter. However, this one won me over in a way I didn't expect - with humor.

The Marked Ones takes place in a Mexican community, adding some diversity to what had been an exclusively white series. Jesse and his friend Hector (who holds the camera for most of the movie) notice strange occurrences in their neighborhood and eventually find out that a nearby coven of witches is seeking out new recruits in very creepy fashion. There's always a lot of incidental banter in these movies but in this case, it was often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Jorge Diaz, who plays Hector, has a major gift for comedic delivery and I hope to see him in other films. While watching this movie, my wife gave me a strange look at one point and I explained that "this is supposed to be a horror movie but I'm laughing my ass off."

When the demonic hijinks come, it's nothing we haven't seen before. However, the ending is surprisingly badass, as Hector recruits the local gangster and his pals to storm the coven and start unloading on the witches with shotguns. It's ridiculous but totally awesome and pretty cathartic after five movies.

Finally, we arrive at this year's Paranormal Activity 6: The Ghost Dimension. A family moves into the house from PA3 and finds the VHS tapes which include footage recorded after the events of that film. It does a decent job bringing in elements from all the other movies, although PA4's story is so pointless that it's only alluded to in a single line of dialogue.

The gimmick of this movie is a modified camera that (somehow) can see the presence of the demon, which appears as a mass of swirling inky particles. It's quite a change of pace in a series that relied on unseen menace, but it does lead to some unique moments of suspense where we know exactly where the demon is but the characters being filmed do not. However, the series has become so dependent on cheap horror tricks that it can't even follow its new rules - the demon has a habit of suddenly disappearing and reappearing from view just for the sake of a jump scare. The haunting escalates into a surprisingly old-school showdown with the demon complete with some conspicuously bad CGI.

So is it really the end of the series? Well, based on how it ends, it could pass as a finale even if there are loose ends left unresolved. Still...ending a series for good is not really how the movie industry rolls these days and I wouldn't be surprised to see some kind of spin-off/prequel/reboot in a few years. The onslaught of found footage films has lasted longer than anyone thought, although the current new wave of horror may be what takes it out of the mainstream. Movies like The Babadook and It Follows present their horrors with a technical proficiency and inventive cinematography that's the total opposite of the found footage film's attempts at verisimilitude.

Ranking the series (from best to worst): 1, 3, 5, 6, 2, 4

Monday, October 12, 2015

The 24 Hour Setlist - Questions and Answers

The big day is less than a month away, so I figured I would try and answer whatever questions might come up about this unique undertaking.

Where do I donate?

My Extra Life page is here. It also gives an outline of why I chose to do this and what their cause is all about.

Can I donate now or do I have to wait until the marathon?

Whichever you like. If you are planning to donate, make sure you do it before November 8, because that's when the marathon ends.

Where do I watch the stream?

At my Twitch channel. Right now there isn't anything on there, but starting at 8:30 am on Saturday, November 7 it will broadcast all 24 hours of the marathon. I know nobody's going to sit there for all 24 hours, but I hope people pop in and out. You can leave comments in the chat window to the side and I'd appreciate it if someone could let me know if the audio or video quality starts to give out.

What is with you kids and this Rock Band stuff? How can you sing in a video game?

Well, I'm firmly into my 30s now and still a big fan of these games! For those who nothing about this series, Rock Band is not your typical videogame. Up to 4 players can play together on instrument controllers (lead and bass guitars, a drum set and a microphone) and try to replicate the rhythms and melodies of real songs that get licensed for the series.

The vocals system is reminiscent of a karaoke machine, although in addition to the lyrics, the game shows you the pitches of each note relative to the others. Your job is to be as accurate as you can in singing the song.

Why don't you just learn a real instrument?

Sure, just as soon as everyone who plays Call of Duty enlists in the military and heads to Afghanistan. Actually, that doesn't really work on me cause my voice is my voice, regardless of where I use it.

Why did you pick this game to play for 24 hours?
I figure if you're going to play a game this long, you should be good at it. I've never been as good at a game (or perhaps anything else) as I am at Rock Band. This post has more about my history with the games.

What are the songs?
All 335 songs on the 24 hour setlist are listed in order here.

Rock Band 4 just came out. Why are you doing this on Rock Band 3?

The short answer is that I planned a lot of this before I even knew Rock Band 4 was going to happen. It would be tough to switch this late in the process.

The longer answer is for any RB fans who were looking for more details. Up until recently, we weren't sure how much of the previous series content would be available so soon after its launch. Worst case scenario is that I wouldn't even have enough for 24 hours (I didn't want to repeat any songs). Also, we've recently found out that they won't be any quickplay setlists, meaning that I would have to select each of 335 songs one at a time...for 24 hours. I would much rather let the huge setlists I've already put together in RB3 just play out.

So I suppose this is my farewell to Rock Band 3, which I've had for 5 years. If I do this again next year, I'm sure I'll have come up with a feasible way to do it in Rock Band 4.

How are you going to sing for 24 hours straight? You're going to kill your voice, are you crazy?

Maybe. I hoped the audacity of the idea would get some interest.

My approach to the challenge is that it's a marathon, not a sprint. I don't plan on singing "full voice," like I would at a karaoke place or in the car. Going "half voice" is a lot less strain on your vocal cords and probably more sensible when I have another mic collecting streaming audio right near me. I hope it sounds at least decent, but I'm not out to win a Grammy with this, I'm trying to go the distance. Other than that, it's a matter of stocking up on bottled water and cough drops, going to the bathroom during long guitar solos and enjoying myself!

Any more questions? Leave them in the comments and I'll be happy to answer!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The 24 Hour Setlist - Full List of Songs

Be advised that all these times are approximate and could be compromised by things like long load times and unexpected interruptions.

8:45 - 9:00 a.m.
Setup and Opening Remarks

9:00 -10:00 a.m.

Queen - "We Will Rock You"
The Ramones - "Blitzkrieg Bop"
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Snow (Hey Oh)"
Joan Jett - "I Love Rock N’ Roll"
Nirvana - "In Bloom"
Weezer - "Say It Ain’t So"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Maps"
The Presidents of the United States of America - "Lump"
Warren Zevon - "Werewolves in London"
The Flaming Lips – "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots"
Stephen and the Colberts – "Charlene (I’m Right Behind You)"
Social Distortion - "I Was Wrong"
The Ramones - "I Wanna be Sedated"
Foo Fighters - "Learn to Fly"
Bang Camaro - "Push Push (Lady Lightning)"
Screaming Trees - "Nearly Lost You"
Foo Fighters - "My Hero"

10:00 - 11:00 a.m.
Nirvana - "Something in the Way"
Blur - "Song 2"
Duran Duran - "Hungry Like the Wolf"
John Lennon - "Imagine"
3 Doors Down - "Kryptonite"
The Offspring - "Self-Esteem"
Garbage - "I Think I'm Paranoid"
The Knack - "My Sharona"
Bang Camaro - "Pleasure (Pleasure)"
Pretty Girls Make Graves - "Something Bigger, Something Brighter"
Silversun Pickups - "Lazy Eye"
The Offspring - "Gone Away"
Slipknot - "Before I Forget"
Squeeze - "Cool For Cats"
Opiate For the Masses - "Burn You Down"
Electric Six - "Gay Bar"

11:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
Iggy Pop - "The Passenger"
Tom Petty - "Free Fallin'"
Weezer - "Buddy Holly"
Blue Oyster Cult - "Don't Fear The Reaper"
Stone Temple Pilots - "Interstate Love Song"
Ozzy Osbourne - "Crazy Train"
Semi Precious Weapons - "Magnetic Baby"
Alice in Chains - "Man in the Box"
Skylliton - "Crabplosion"
Judas Priest - "The Hellion/Electric Eye"
Blue Oyster Cult - "Godzilla"
Sonic Youth - "Kool Thing"
The Who - "Baba O'Riley" (Teenage Wasteland)
No Doubt - "Don't Speak"
Rush - "Limelight"
Dropkick Murphys - "I'm Shipping Up to Boston"

12:00 - 1:00 p.m.
Finger Eleven - "Paralyzer"
A Flock of Seagulls - "I Ran (So Far Away)"
R.E.M. - "Losing My Religion"
The Offspring - "Pretty Fly For A White Guy"
Bad Religion - "Sorrow"
Ray Parker, Jr - "Ghostbusters"
Roxette - "The Look"
The Automatic - "Monster"
Franz Ferdinand - "Take Me Out"
The Offspring - "Hammerhead"
Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Free Bird"
Avenged Sevenfold - "Afterlife"
The Who - "Behind Blue Eyes"
R.E.M. - "Orange Crush"

1:00 - 2:00 p.m. Motorhead - "We Are The Road Crew"
Queens of the Stone Age - "3s and 7s"
Soundgarden - "Black Hole Sun"
Muse - "Hysteria"
Rob Zombie - "Dragula"
Kaiser Chiefs - "Ruby"
Roy Orbison - "You Got It"
David Bowie - "Space Oddity"
The Coral - "Dreaming Of You"
Anvil - "Metal on Metal"
The Von Bondies - "C'mon C'mon"
The Doors - "Riders on the Storm"
Green Day - "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Dani California"
The Doors - "Break On Through (To The Other Side)"
Rush - "Tom Sawyer"

2:00 - 3:00 p.m.
Blondie - "Call Me"
Motley Crue - "Dr. Feelgood"
Queens of the Stone Age - "Little Sister"
The Clash - "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"
GlaDOS - "Still Alive"
Tenacious D - "Rock Your Socks"
Deep Purple - "Smoke on the Water"
Flobots - "Handlebars"
The Offspring - "The Kids Aren't Alright"
Depeche Mode - "Policy of Truth"
Bikini Kill - "Rebel Girl"
Pat Benatar - "Hit Me With Your Best Shot"
Golden Earring - "Radar Love"
Joy Division - "Love Will Tear Us Apart"
Black Tide - "Warriors of Time"

3:00 - 3:20 p.m.
Nirvana - "Come As You Are"
Motley Crue - "Kickstart My Heart"
Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Proud Mary"
Children of Bodom - "Are You Dead Yet?"
Gorillaz - "Feel Good Inc."
The Doors - "People Are Strange"

3:20 - 3:30 p.m.

3:30 - 4:30 p.m.

Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Who'll Stop The Rain?"
Kutless - "The Feeling"
Alestorm - "Shipwrecked"
Simon & Garfunkel - "The Sounds of Silence"
Stone Temple Pilots - "Vasoline"
Bad Company - "Shooting Star"
Megadeth - "A Tout Le Monde"
Bon Jovi - "You Give Love A Bad Name"
The Offspring - "All I Want"
Kiss - "Rock and Roll All Nite"
Modest Mouse - "Float On"
The Zutons - "Valerie"
Nirvana - "About A Girl"
Jonathan Coulton - "Code Monkey"
Stan Bush - "The Touch"
Europe - "The Final Countdown"
Night Ranger - "Sister Christian"

4:30 - 5:30 p.m.
Katrina & The Waves - "Walkin' on Sunshine"
Bad Religion - "21st Century Digital Boy"
Megadeth - "Hangar 18"
Freezepop - "Less Talk More Rokk"
Sweet - "Ballroom Blitz"
Puddle of Mudd - "Blurry"
Pat Benatar - "Invincible"
Bon Jovi - "It's My Life"
Depeche Mode - "Never Let Me Down Again"
Megadeth - "Tornado of Souls"
Ozzy Osbourne - "Mr. Crowley"
Rush - "Subdivisons"
The Doors - "Touch Me"
The Sounds - "Living in America"
5:30 - 6:30 p.m.
Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Bad Moon Rising"
Bon Jovi - "I'll Be There For You"
Alice in Chains - "No Excuses"
Ozzy Osbourne - "Over The Mountain"
Iron Maiden - "Wasted Years"
P.O.D. - "Youth of the Nation"
Megadeth - "Peace Sells"
The White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army"
Mastodon - "Curl of the Burl"
Billy Idol - "Rebel Yell"
The Police - "Every Breath You Take"
Foo Fighters - "Everlong"
Pantera - "Floods"
Ozzy Osbourne - "Bark At The Moon"

6:30 - 7:30 p.m.
Bush - "Machinehead"
Freezepop - "Brainpower"
Black Sabbath - "N.I.B."
Linkin Park - "New Divide"
System of a Down - "Aerials"
Hollywood Undead - "Young"
Ghost Hounds - "Ashes to Fire"
Billy Joel - "Pressure"
Motorhead - "Killed By Death"
Lesley Roy - "I'm Gone, I'm Going"
Bon Jovi - "Wanted Dead or Alive"
Linkin Park - "In The End"
Bang Camaro - "Night Lies"
Rise Against - "Re-Education (Through Labor)"
Metallica - "Ride the Lightning"

7:30 - 8:30 p.m.
Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Simple Man"
Pat Benatar - "Heartbreaker"
Bon Jovi - "Bad Medicine"
Survivor - "Eye of the Tiger"
Green Day - "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)"
Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Have You Ever Seen The Rain?"
The Offspring - "A Lot Like Me"
Dio - "Rainbow in the Dark"
Journey - "Don't Stop Believing"
Megadeth - "Symphony of Destruction"
Filter - "Hey Man Nice Shot"
Rise Against - "Prayer of the Refugee"
Evanescence - "Bring Me to Life"
Poison - "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"
Ozzy Osbourne - "Mama, I'm Coming Home"

8:30 - 9:30 p.m.
Pat Benatar - "Promises in the Dark"
Guns N Roses - "Shackler's Revenge"
The Outlaws - "Green Grass and High Tides"
Soft Cell - "Tainted Love"
HIM - "Wings of a Butterfly"
Antoine Dodson & The Gregory Brothers - "Bed Intruder Song"
The Clash - "Rock the Casbah"
Iron Maiden - "The Trooper"
Bon Jovi - "Blaze of Glory"
Kiss - "Detroit Rock City"
Outside - "Tribe"
The Police - "Roxanne"
Judas Priest - "Breaking the Law"
Lenny Kravitz - "Are You Gonna Go My Way"
Megadeth - "Take No Prisoners"

9:30 - 10:15 p.m.
Linkin Park - "What I've Done"
Dire Straits - "Walk of Life"
Deep Purple - "Child in Time"
Three Doors Down - "It's Not My Time"
Living Colour - "Cult of Personality"
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Parallel Universe"
Alice in Chains - "Would?"
Authority Zero - "No Regrets"
Pearl Jam - "Alive"
Sonata Arctica - "Flag in the Ground"

10:15 - 10:30 p.m.

10:30 - 11:30 p.m.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Under The Bridge"
REO Speedwagon - "Keep On Loving You"
Jet - "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?"
Fleetwood Mac - "Go Your Own Way"
Pat Benatar - "Love is a Battlefield"
Judas Priest - "You Got Another Thing Comin'"
The Strokes - "Reptilia"
Black Sabbath - "War Pigs"
Iron Maiden - "Aces High"
Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
The Guess Who - "American Woman"
Wolfmother - "Joker and the Thief"
Linkin Park - "Numb"
Rise Against - "Savior"

11:30 p.m. - 12:30 a.m.
Boston - "Peace of Mind"
Silversun Pickups - "Panic Switch"
Pat Benatar - "Shadows of the Night"
Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Fortunate Son"
Tenacious D - "The Metal"
Boston - "More Than A Feeling"
Molly Hatchet - "Flirtin' With Disaster"
Dio - "Holy Diver"
R.E.M. - "It's the End of the World As We Know It"
Bon Jovi - "Runaway"
Anarchy Club - "Blood Doll"
Yes - "Heart of the Sunrise"
Jefferson Airplane - "Somebody to Love"

12:30 - 1:30 a.m.
Queen - "Another One Bites the Dust"
The Who - "Pinball Wizard"
Billy Joel - "We Didn't Start the Fire"
Red Hot Chili Peppers - "Otherside"
Motorhead - "Ace of Spades"
Incubus - "Pardon Me"
Boston - "Smokin'"
Ayreon - "Dawn of a Million Souls"
Rolling Stones - "Gimme Shelter"
Pearl Jam - "Jeremy"
Shaimus - "Like A Fool"
That Handsome Devil - "Rob The Prez-O-Dent"
The Who - "Won't Get Fooled Again"

1:30 - 2:30 a.m.
My Chemical Romance - "Welcome to the Black Parade"
Queens of the Stone Age - "No One Knows"
Joan Jett - "Bad Reputation"
Rammstein - "Du Hast"
The Killers - "Spaceman"
Nickelback - "How You Remind Me"
Paramore - "That's What You Get"
Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"
Iron Maiden - "The Clairvoyant"
Eiffel 65 - "Blue (Da Ba Dee)"
John Parr - "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)"
Def Leppard - "Rock of Ages"
Coheed & Cambria - "Welcome Home"
Bon Jovi - "Living on a Prayer"

2:30 - 3:30 a.m.
Billy Joel - "Piano Man"
The Acro-Brats - "Day Late, Dollar Short"
Iron Maiden - "The Prisoner"
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - "Fire"
Hypernova - "Viva La Resistance"
Iron Maiden - "The Wicker Man"
Billy Joel - "Only the Good Die Young"
Shinedown - "Diamond Eyes"
Iron Maiden - "2 Minutes to Midnight"
Rise Against - "Give It All"
Deep Purple - "Highway Star"
Queen - "The Show Must Go On"
Yes - "Owner of a Lonely Heart"
Led Zeppelin - "Stairway to Heaven"

3:30 - 4:30 a.m.
Jethro Tull - "Aqualung"
Queen & David Bowie - "Under Pressure"
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - "Purple Haze"
Ozzy Osbourne - "Diary of a Madman"
Iron Maiden - "Can I Play With Madness?"
Faith No More - "Midlife Crisis"
Styx - "Renegade"
Iron Maiden - "Fear of the Dark"
Janis Joplin - "Piece of My Heart"
Foster the People - "Pumped Up Kicks"
Iron Maiden - "Infinite Dreams"
Chicago - "25 or 6 to 4"
Shinedown - "Second Chance"

4:30 - 5:30 a.m.
Anarchy Club - "Get Clean"
Def Leppard - "Photograph"
Dragonforce - "Through the Fire and Flames"
Cutting Crew - "(I Just) Died in Your Arms"
Foreigner - "Cold As Ice"
Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)"
Queen - "I Want It All"
Whitesnake - "Here I Go Again"
Grand Funk Railroad - "The Loco-Motion"
Billy Idol - "White Wedding"
Tears for Fears - "Shout"
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - "All Along the Watchtower"
Boston - "Foreplay/Long Time"

5:30 - 5:50 a.m.
Jackson 5 - "I Want You Back"
Tenacious D - "Tribute"
Rush - "Fly By Night"
Lacuna Coil - "Our Truth"
Iron Maiden - "Hallowed Be Thy Name"

5:50 - 6:00 a.m.

6:00 - 7:00 a.m.

Foreigner - "I Want to Know What Love Is"
Anthrax - "Caught in a Mosh"
My Chemical Romance - "Sing"
Nightwish - "Amaranth"
Barenaked Ladies - "One Week"
Iron Maiden - "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
The Allman Brothers - "Ramblin' Man"
Dead Kennedys - "Holiday in Cambodia"
INXS - "Need You Tonight"
Rush - "The Trees"
Yes - "Roundabout"
Kansas - "Carry on Wayward Son"

7:00 - 8:00 a.m.
The Darkness - "I Believe in a Thing Called Love"
Mastodon - "Colony of Birchmen"
Pink - "Raise Your Glass"
Everlife - "Real Wild Child"
Death of the Cool - "Can't Let Go"
Tenacious D - "Master Exploder"
Iron Maiden - "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son"
Soundgarden - "Spoonman"
Queen - "Don't Stop Me Now"
Paramore - "Misery Business"
Rush - "2112"

8:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.
System of a Down - "Chop Suey"
Iron Maiden - "Phantom of the Opera"
Aerosmith - "Dream On"
Testament - "Souls of Black"
A ha - "Take On Me"
Iron Maiden - "Run to the Hills"
Dream Theater - "Panic Attack"
Iron Maiden - "Flight of Icarus"
Quiet Riot - "Bang Your Head (Metal Health)"
Queen - "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Judas Priest - "Painkiller"
Queen - "We Are The Champions"

9:00 a.m. - ????

The marathon starts on the morning of Saturday, November 7 and can be watched on my Twitch channel. Here's my page at Extra Life if you want to donate early or just read more about the event. Hope some of you will check it out!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The 24 Hour Setlist: Introduction

For my first ever participation in the Extra Life charity event for children's hospitals, I'll be singing a 24 hour marathon on Rock Band 3 from November 7th to 8th!

Here is my page on Extra Life, which has more information on that initiative. The marathon will be broadcast live on my Twitch channel.

So why Rock Band? I don’t say this lightly, and this is not hypberbole, Rock Band changed my life. We knew right away it was a cooperative game experience like none other as we selected our roles in the band. My brother Alex had a knack for the Guitar Hero series and continued that role on Rock Band. Our lifelong friend Mark took on the drums. As for me, there was nobody on the mic so I basically found myself there my default. We never did find ourselves a permanent bassist, although a few great candidates came and went over the years.

As for the mic, I loved it. My voice was the controller. I used to be nervous about singing in front of people, but I found much more confidence as I went from failing out on “Reptilia” to being able to get 100% on insane Iron Maiden songs on the hardest difficulty even while I had bronchitis. Rock Band vocals were the only video game I had where I was the most skilled person I knew (not the best singer in general, but the best at singing for the game, I don’t want to sound too over the top). At the peak of my powers, which was around the time that Rock Band 3 came out, I had gold-starred (very high scores on expert difficulty) hundreds upon hundreds of songs in RB’s ever-growing library and was one of the top 100 singers in the world as ranked by the online leaderboards.

Eventually, the genre of music games fell on hard times. Activision’s competing Guitar Hero games, which had sloppily adopted the full band format as well, flooded the marketplace with half-baked spin-offs. As for Rock Band, they were a little too eager to silence idiots who would insult the games since “it’s not like playing a real instrument.” You don’t say? All this time I thought guitars only had five notes, who knew? Not sure how that applies to singing, anyhow. Your voice is your voice. Anyway, Rock Band wanted to prove that it could actually teach people real music, so for Rock Band 3 Harmonix invested considerable expense into a “pro guitar” mode that would enable people to play along to the real notes a controller modeled after an actual guitar. There was also the addition of the keyboard that had its own “pro” mode. It was impressive ambition, but in the end Harmonix greatly overestimated the demand among players for “real instruments” and Rock Band 3 sold far less than the concurrent Guitar Hero game that had no such ambitions.

The company added more songs to the game’s huge library for a couple of years afterward, but the genre was fading away. Nobody I knew wanted to play anymore. Finally, they announced that the DLC songs would also be coming to an end. The world may have decided that “the era was over,” but I really wasn’t ready for it to go. It had brought too much joy into my life. The news of Rock Band 4's upcoming release was hugely uplifting and I decided that this year's Extra Life event would be one epic way to say goodbye to Rock Band 3.

We're still months away from the big day, but I'll be practicing on the Twitch Channel hopefully once a week (Friday nights) and later this summer, I'll post the setlist in all it's 335 song glory! Please look forward to it!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Son of Dinosaurs

Back in the 1980s, when the Disney Channel was still a premium network, a series of dinosaur-themed specials aired that captivated kids everywhere. They were hosted by Gary Owens, a prolific DJ and voice actor who was the original Space Ghost, and writer and TV personality Eric Boardman. At the time, I was already obsessed with dinosaurs and my relatives recall me being able to spell their long names at an unusually young age. In those pre-internet times, it was much harder to find something you wanted to see if you had missed it and so you used the available technology to take the proper precautions. Son of Dinosaurs, an hour-long special that aired in 1988, had been taped onto an old VHS and that was how I watched it...and I watched it many many times. I still remember how in order to get to the beginning, you had to fast forward through footage of my family's vacation to Florida.

The shows were a mixture of educational visits to various museums and parks and silly side-stories featuring the two hosts. In one other special, Gary was actually turned into a "Garyosaurus," complete with mustache. I'm not sure why Son of Dinosaurs was the one I liked best. It might have been the novelty of its meta-premise - Gary and Eric are entrusted with a dinosaur egg that has a still living embryo inside it and decide to produce another dinosaur special as a means of doing some additional research. There was a lot of variety squeezed into this hour, including a visit to a black-tie "dinosaur ball" at a Los Angeles museum, a look at paleontologist digging sites in Alberta, Canada and my favorite bit, footage of Loch Ness that concludes with a pan under the lake's surface that seques into a stop-motion Nessie prowling around. When I actually got to visit Loch Ness many years later, that scene wasn't far from my mind.

The science in these shows is already quite dated (no feathered dinosaurs here) and I expected that they had been lost to time or restricted to bootleg VHSs like mine. But then I found out (can't remember how) that they actually were released on a couple DVDs. I recently ordered one that had three of the specials on it and obviously decided to watch Son of Dinosaurs first. Right from the first bit of footage, I got hit with a huge deja vu/nostalgia bomb. Once that wore off, it was delightful to see that it was still as enjoyable and pleasant as I remembered it. There's none of that darkness that has accompanied some of the other stuff in this series. This was just doing what good educational programming does - making learning fun. And I still want to go to that zoo in Alberta with all the life-size dinosaur replicas. That place looked awesome as a kid and it looks awesome now.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

How The Babadook became the Most Acclaimed Horror Film of the New Century

One of my pet peeves is when people make decisions about whether or not to watch a movie solely based on its Rotten Tomatoes score. Never mind the possibility that you may disagree with the consensus and like whatever movie you were interested enough to look up, there are issues with film criticism in general that play into those numbers. One of these is the condescension and dismissal towards horror films. I've often told people to add 20 points to a horror movie's rating on that site to balance things out. This technique proves ineffective on The Babadook, which scored 97 percent, impressive for any film but downright astonishing for this genre. It's on DVD now so it seemed like a good time to try and analyze just what went so right.

The last horror film I can think of that enjoyed this level of acclaim was The Sixth Sense in 1999, which earned a numerically appropriate six Oscar nominations to show for it. There have been plenty of great horror films in the intervening 15 years, but more often than not, horror gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. So how did The Babadook do it? How did this little Australian independent film with the funny name snap so many critics out of their judgmental haze? I think it boils down to several major elements, which I'll detail individually.

A Reminder of Horror's Potential

So how exactly did horror become such a disreputable genre in America? It hasn't always been this way. In 1973, The Exorcist received a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Other touchstones of 70s horror like Carrie and The Omen were also recognized. Shortly after that was Halloween, which deserves its place in the pantheon of horror classics, but inadvertently led to a boom of "slasher" films in the early 80s that changed the way the genre was viewed...and not in a good way. By the end of a decade saturated with slashers, film critics and American culture at large began to associate the entire genre with the tropes of slasher films, particularly the fact that they were meant for teenagers.

So in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs blows minds everywhere and becomes the only horror film in history to win the Oscar for Best Picture. But wait, horror films were supposed to be for dumb high-schoolers and not worthy of serious consideration. What's a snob to do? Well, people began to call Silence of the Lambs a "psychological thriller," which allowed them to justify their appreciation of it while distancing themselves from horror. That phrase has continued to be used for horror films where the scares come from non-supernatural elements and are considered "adult," even if they have grisly murder scenes worse than anything in the Friday the 13th series. Slasher films have mostly tapered off, but Hollywood continues to operate as if horror films are meant exclusively for teens who want the same experience over and over again. The same demonic possession movie comes out every year, sometimes with found footage, sometimes not. Up until a couple of years ago, when a wave of polished American independent horror films began to emerge, the best examples of the genre were coming from Europe and Asia, places where it's taken far more seriously.

Coming from Australia, Jennifer Kent's The Babadook has made enough of an impact to challenge how the genre is perceived here in the USA. It is unquestionably a horror film and unquestionably for adults. It's hard for even the most horror-averse film buff to deny its virtues. The story is highly ambitious, the visuals are wonderfully creative (the pop-up book scenes, wow!) and there's a whole lot of subtext and metaphor to sift through if you're so inclined. Viewers who are used to the well-worn tropes of mainstream horror films have pushed back against its acclaim, calling it "boring" and insisting it's not scary at all. Well, if you define "scary" by how often you leap out of your seat in shock, that may be true. On that note...

No False Scares

A lot of people say they hate jump scares. I don't think that's what they actually mean. A really great jump scare is exhilarating. What pisses people off are false scares, which are a plague upon the genre. You know what I'm talking about - someone's wandering a dark house, things are getting tense...and then something jumps out! There's some huge metallic noise, the camera whirls around...but wait! Oh, it's just a friend wearing a scary mask! Or it's just a cat! Nothing to be scared of after all!

People hate that shit and I don't blame them. A rant by Chris Stuckmann became a viral hit among movie buffs for articulating very well what we all think about this cliche. It's cheap, overused and dilutes the terror of the actual frightening moments yet to come. Horror movies specialize in building tension, but if too much gets released during these fake-outs, the audience gets burnt out quick. This doesn't mean you can't ever have someone get startled by something harmless, but you don't want to treat it the same way you treat the real thing. In The Babadook, there's a scene where Amelia gets interrupted at a very inopportune moment when her son runs into the room. It's an unexpected scene, but it's not trying to freak us out. It's trying to get us to empathize with Amelia, who just can't get any time to herself without her troublesome son causing some sort of random mischief.

The monster in The Babadook is spooky, but even it's not the real source of horror in this film. What makes it so effective is the gradual understanding of just what may be going on in the head of the main character. On that note...

Psychological Horror

So you know by now how I feel about the phrase "psychological thriller." However, psychological horror is arguably the most enduring horror subgenre, stretching all the way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920.

When we first meet Amelia, she's an overworked single mother with a troublesome son prone to delirious fits. Her struggle to keep her life in order (along with Essie Davis's performance, which we'll get to) immediately resonates with viewers, many of whom also feel that they are doing their best in the current economic era and it's still not enough. However, it slowly becomes apparent that her troubles run much deeper. Her husband died in a car accident on the day her son was born and although many years have passed, she is still deeply depressed and struggling with unresolved feelings about the tragedy...feelings that none of us would admit.

When the monster shows up, the film strongly suggests that it only exists in Amelia's mind and represents the dark feelings she struggles to keep at bay. The text in the pop-up book that heralds its appearance can be interpreted to support this ("the more you deny, the stronger I'll get"). When Amelia is fully possessed by the babadook near the end of the movie, she becomes a violent danger to her son. Interestingly, the boy seems to accept the idea that a literal monster really has taken control of his mother, but the movie points towards something much scarier. Amelia blames him in part for her husband's death. She knows this is wrong but can't get it out of her mind just the same. If she were to get worn down enough by grief and depression to lose her control over those urges, the family might turn into one of those shocking stories you hear about on the news every so often.

This idea is much more disturbing than a monster who emerges from a cursed pop-up book and that's because it breaks a major taboo. Women are supposed to be happy to be mothers, no exceptions. In the arty drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, it's suggested that Tilda Swinton's dissatisfaction with motherhood is at least partly to blame for Kevin growing up to be a dangerous sociopath. Here, it's the mother that becomes the threat and not to a teenager but a small child. It's button-pushing, risky storytelling with the potential to totally alienate most of the audience...but the movie has an ace up its sleeve to keep that from happening. On that note...

Essie Davis

Another effect the slasher films had in America was that horror began to be associated with terrible acting, even though the full history of the genre has a long list of great performances. Add Essie Davis to that list. Her performance turns this character into someone the audience cares deeply for, even during her darkest moments. There's no movie-star glamour here, she looks exhausted and disheveled for most of the movie...and that's before the really bad stuff starts. Here's film critic A.A. Dowd:

"There’s an overwhelming emotional power to this bump-in-the-dark material, and it’s owed chiefly to star Essie Davis, an Australian actress whose most prominent prior role was probably a supporting turn in the Matrix sequels. No mere scream queen, Davis offers a disturbingly acute portrait of festering resentment, demonstrating how undigested trauma can curdle slowly into abusive rage. The Babadook, the well-dressed fiend of the title, is scary. But he’s not half as scary as Davis. It’s a true transformation, from quietly frazzled mother to bellowing monster of grief."

In the final confrontation, Amelia struggles to shield her son from the monster, which appears not as the pale-faced ghoul who showed up earlier but as a huge dark shadow creeping across the room, a"dark cloud" that is often a personification for depression. This time she gives it what-for, shouting that "if you ever hurt my son again, I'LL FUCKIN' KILL YOU!" In the wrong hands, this scene could have turned into unintentional humor but Davis just nails it. Her rage is transcendent and the moment is deeply cathartic. Who wouldn't want to stand in front of their inner demons and cuss them out?

All that said, Davis really had no chance at a Best Actress nomination. Critics were blown away, but none of the major award season pundits even entertained the possibility and sure enough, they were right. There's a rumor that The Babadook's simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming services rendered it ineligible according to Academy bylaws, but that was never confirmed. If it's true, that's obviously a rule better left in the past. But if it's not, there's still not much hope for horror films when it comes to this type of award. The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense had major box office success to show off, something The Babadook never achieved. Historically, the Oscars prefer tepid middlebrow dramas like The Theory of Everything over even the most well-crafted horror films. The Best Actress category in particular has been suffering from a lack of creativity for quite a while now. That's not to say Davis would have won had she earned the nomination. Nobody was going to beat Julianne Moore last year, but even so, the recognition would have been a huge deal for people who work in the genre and for people who believe in its merit.

But the Oscars can go screw. This was an amazing performance and film history will be kind to it.

Final Thoughts

The Babadook impresses people not just because it's a great horror film, but because it's really about something. Jennifer Kent didn't just want to frighten people, she wanted to tell a story that would resonate with people who have suffered from grief and depression and, given the way the movie ends, leave them with some hope. In short, she took the genre seriously and it shows. The recent film It Follows is enjoying similar acclaim for similar reasons, including a mysterious monster ripe for analysis and a compelling lead performance from Maika Monroe. It also has outstanding widescreen and deep focus cinematography which really makes it stand out. If we keep getting horror films as good as this and if they get such enthusiastic responses, then perhaps, over a long period of time, the genre can finally get some respect here in America. Maybe.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscars 2015 Educated Guesses

Every year's Oscar nominations come with surprises, often unpleasant ones. This year took that to a whole new level with a slew of startling omissions that riled up movie buffs in a way that I haven't seen in a long time. We can (and will) discuss individual snubs, but the cumulative effect of them is that the Oscars didn't live up to their promise this year. Ideally, they are a celebration of a year's great films, but that didn't quite work out. It's hard in a year where the great stuff was so diverse but then again, there were some pretty boneheaded choices on the Academy's part. Still, it could be worse. It could be the Grammys. Let's get to it.

Best Animated Feature
Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Who Will Win: The first and perhaps most inscrutable controversy of this year's Oscars was the absence of The Lego Movie from this category. Popular with audiences and worshiped by critics, it would have been a clear front-runner. It may have been disqualified for its live-action sequences, although the Academy hasn't clarified that. Without it, there's no obvious winner. It will likely be one of the CGI blockbusters, but which one? The original How to Train Your Dragon would have won this category in 2010 if it didn't have the misfortune of getting matched up against Toy Story 3 and it's four-hankie finale. The sequel isn't quite as good, but it packs an emotional punch that I think voters will remember.

My Choice: Princess Kaguya has a level of thematic ambition that is far beyond what you usually see in animated films, in addition to being stunning to look at. An upset in this category is certainly possible and I would love to see this one pull it out.

Best Documentary Feature
Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth

Who Will Win: The most popular documentary of the last year was Life Itself, a moving portrait of the late critic Roger Ebert. It's not on the list this year, which suggests that the Academy is in the mood for more serious fare this time around (although this category is not very consistent about this). The two docs about photographers, Finding Vivian Maier and The Salt of the Earth, are probably out. Last Days in Vietnam is compelling stuff, but the Fall of Saigon was over 40 years ago. Virunga's central African setting probably feels too far away from your average voter. It doesn't get much more timely than Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA that puts the viewer right in the room as history is being made. Any movie that can feature the brave but insufferable journalist Glenn Greenwald so prominently and still be tolerable deserves something.

My Choice: Citizenfour is an impressive piece of film journalism, but as a viewing experience it has nothing on Virunga. The combination of intense subject matter, haunting music and beautiful scenery shots was incredibly potent. Netflix knows how to pick 'em.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jason Hall for American Sniper
Graham Moore for The Imitation Game
Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
Anthony McCarten for The Theory of Everything
Damien Chazelle for Whiplash

Who Will Win: Graham Moore's screenplay for The Imitation Game accomplished a few different things - it gracefully meshed three separate periods in Alan Turing's life and it boiled down the incredibly complex mathematics behind the decoding work of the main characters in a way that any audience member could understand what was going on. I suspect he'll have an Oscar to show for it, although Damien Chazelle is a potential upset.

My Choice: I don't have a strong preference here. The Imitation Game was impressive for the reasons listed above and Whiplash's layered exploration of ambition is a good conversation starter. Either of them would be cool, just please don't give it to American Sniper. That movie was downright ludicrous.

Best Original Screenplay
Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
E. Max Byre for Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dan Gilroy for Nightcrawler

Who Will Win: Three of this year's heavy hitters are squaring off in this category. Birdman's got four writers attached to it and this category typically favors a single recipient. Linklater has a great ear for dialogue but it will probably hurt him that so much of Boyhood's dialogue sounds improvised. That leaves Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel has a lot of nominations and it probably won't go home empty-handed. This category, with its hipster bent, seems the ideal place to recognize it.

My Choice: Dan Gilroy. Nightcrawler was a brilliant look at how modern work culture rewards sociopathic behavior and not just any writer could pull off a lead character who speaks almost entirely in canned self-help jargon he read off the internet. This movie was overlooked in general and really deserves some props.

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Laura Dern in Wild
Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game
Emma Stone in Birdman
Meryl Streep in Into the Woods

Who Will Win: Patricia Arquette. Her vanity-free performance as a mother who is in over her head but refuses to give up stays with you long after Boyhood ends. It helps that she's also at the center of the film's most emotional scene. She's been sweeping the preliminary awards and there's no reason to think the Oscars will be any different.

My Choice: Arquette deserves the win, although I was also pretty impressed by Emma Stone. As the angry, drug addict daughter in Birdman, she really looked and sounded like she had just gotten out of rehab. For someone whose looks are always being praised, it's not a "beauty queen" performance at all.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall in The Judge
Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
Edward Norton in Birdman
Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Who Will Win: The other four nominees have no chance against J.K. Simmons and the evil genius music teacher he played in Whiplash. Although it's in the "supporting" category, he dominated that movie and it is truly an unforgettable performance.

My Choice: I'm a huge J.K. Simmons fan. Whether it's the sweet father in Juno or the hilariously cantankerous J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films, this guy brings it every time.

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Who Will Win: If you're hoping to get an Oscar, the best narrative you can hope for is that it's "your turn." This is what's happening this year with Julianne Moore, to the point where it seems like people don't care about the actual movie she's in. The focus is that she's given a lot of strong performances, has yet to win, and is not getting any younger. She's got this one in the bag.

My Choice: I honestly don't care. Julianne Moore's done good work for a long time, let her have it. This category needs an intervention because it's becoming the laziest and most consistently disappointing one in the whole lineup. The Academy always seems to choose from a ridiculously small pool of actresses to fill this one out. Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike are some new blood, but the other three are regulars. People always say there aren't many good roles out there for women, but there are more than this. Essie Davis in The Babadook? Rosario Dawson in Top Five? They're out there if you look for them. Look a little harder, please.

Best Actor
Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton in Birdman
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

Who Will Win: Here we have the only acting category that's actually competitive this year. The three Cs (Carell, Cooper & Cumberbatch) have taken a backseat to the neck-and-neck contest between Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne. In one corner, you have an actor with a long and (mostly) distinguished career who got the role of a lifetime in Birdman. It's hard to believe this is Keaton's first nomination ever and sentimentality might carry him over the edge. However, statistics are against him. In the other corner, we have an actor who is playing a real English disabled person, the holy trifecta of award bait. Redmayne's eerily convincing performance as Stephen Hawking is the sole reason why The Theory of Everything, a trite biopic that ignores Hawking's groundbreaking contributions to science in favor of a conventional awards bait romance, has done so well. He's already got a SAG award to show for it and I have to give him the edge...but this one is super close.

My Choice: First things first. Where the hell is David Oyelowo? He was outstanding as Dr. King in Selma and this lack of recognition is going to go down as one of the great boners in Oscar history. If only Dr. King had Restless Leg Syndrome or something...any kind of disability and the Academy might have taken more notice. Another omission that bugs me is Jake Gyllenhaal, who brought to life one of the year's most vivid characters in Nightcrawler. In terms of the nominees, might as well give Keaton the gold while they've got the chance. He might not get another shot and Redmayne will surely be nominated again at some point.

Best Director
Wes Anderson for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Bennett Miller for Foxcatcher
Alejandro G. Inarritu for Birdman
Richard Linklater for Boyhood
Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game

Who Will Win: For a while, it looked like Richard Linklater was going to take this one home not just for Boyhood, but for 25 years of great films. Then Inarritu upset him at the Director's Guild awards, which are a highly accurate oracle for this category. Given the large overall support for Birdman, it makes sense although it's still fairly close. If I'm right about this, Inarritu will be the second Mexican director to win in a row after Alfonso Cuaron last year. Guillermo Del Toro might want to start planning a 2016 speech.

My Choice: Ava DuVernay pulled off some beautifully staged scenes in Selma and would have made history if she was recognized, but as with a lot of that movie's talent, she got the cold shoulder. This category's always been a little unpredictable so it's not quite as surprising as what happened in Best Actor, but it's still unfortunate. As it stands, I'm rooting for Linklater. He's made so many great movies, from Dazed and Confused to Bernie to School of Rock to Waking Life, but he doesn't really make "Oscar" movies so I'm not sure he'll get another chance.

Best Picture
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Who Will Win: Despite a list of nominees loaded with typical Oscar bait, it's the two least traditional of the films that are fighting it out for Best Picture. Let's knock out the others. The Theory of Everything has little going for it outside of Eddie Redmayne's performance. The Imitation Game is held in higher regard but still feels too much like a typical winner for this year. Whiplash is a small film that had a very small release. Selma was torpedoed by an ugly combination of various double-standards (more on that soon enough). American Sniper is not the evil piece of propaganda that its detractors fear and that Fox News so desperately wants it to be, but it is a crude, silly movie that is far too polarizing to survive the Academy's preferential ballots, which reward films with more universal acclaim. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a serious challenger, but I think that in the end, Wes Anderson's work doesn't do so well outside of his niche (although that niche is steadily growing).

That leaves Boyhood vs. Birdman. For a while, the conventional wisdom was that Birdman's support among the actor's branch would be balanced out by the other branches going with Boyhood. But then Birdman started winning all the preliminary awards. Not just the Screen Actors Guild, which was expected, but also the Producers and Director's Guild. Clearly, it has more wide-ranging support than it was given credit for. If it does pull off the win, it will easily be the weirdest Best Picture winner ever. If it were about any other profession than acting, I don't think we would be seeing this kind of reception. So I'm going with Birdman but don't count Boyhood out. After all, if we're talking about identifying with the work, everyone voting was once a child.

My Choice: My opinion of the nominees goes something like this: Boyhood > Selma > Birdman > Whiplash > The Imitation Game > The Grand Budapest Hotel > The Theory of Everything > American Sniper. I think it would be wonderful if a gentle, personal film like Boyhood took the top prize, but I feel like my own preference means even less than usual this year. There's other stuff I gotta get off my chest.

I don't typically go this in-depth, but this year's Oscars come with a lot more baggage than usual so let's talk about Selma. The conventional wisdom about its weak amount of nominations (only 2, which is unheard of for a Best Picture nominee) is that the exaggerated portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as cranky and obstinate about the Voting Rights Act backfired. Indeed, some Academy members have spoken anonymously about how the movie "misrepresented history." If this is really how it went down, then the whole situation comes with the pungent whiff of bullshit. In a documentary, getting all the facts right is important. But movies like Selma, often given the misleading label of "docudrama" are still technically fiction, even if they are heavily based on history. These films are not simple recitations of textbook history, they interpret history, often to comment on the era the film is made in rather than the era it depicts. Selma spends a lot of time demonstrating the work involved to make change happen - building up grassroots support and exploiting the bad habits of politicians and media to get the word out. If the movie's Johnson had been on board from the start, none of that work would have seemed as necessary. Selma's LBJ strikes me as less a representation of the real man, but of modern politicians who can't hide their exasperation that all these protesters can't just be happy with their black president and stop complaining. This creative choice may cost Selma some credit as a historical document, but not as a movie.

Movies like this have been playing loose with the truth ever since George Arliss won Best Actor for playing British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1930. Even in this very category, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and especially American Sniper also alter the reality of their subjects to suit their purposes. Regarding the latter, the Iraq War is turned into a Sergio Leone western where the good sniper has to battle the bad sniper, very little of which is supported by Chris Kyle's actual experiences. This change isn't necessarily a surprise given that the director, Clint Eastwood, always tends to frame issues in ways that are reminiscent of classic westerns. Yet American Sniper was rewarded with surprise nominations while Selma was punished. So tldr, if you're going to start bringing the hammer down on artistic depictions of history, be consistent about it or shut up. A lot of people can't stand it when race gets brought into the Oscars, but their frustration seems better directed at the Academy for making it so easy. I've said enough, but I do have some further reading. Here is a great article on the racial elements of the issue and here is an article going into the specifics of the movie's portrayal of Johnson.

So that's all for now. Last year, I had a perfect score for predictions. I'd be surprised if that happened twice in a row, but we'll see!