Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Cowboy, a Space Captain, a Private Investigator, and a Barbarian Walk Into a Bar... [Guest Post]



By GW Thomas

That could be the beginnings of a really lame joke, but it's something more. All four of these characters, these separate genre icons, share something in common. They are all cut from the same bolt of cloth... the American hero.

The Cowboy grew out of the nostalgia for a Wild West that never really existed outside the imagination of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. You can see the beginnings of him in the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (1820-1850s), but it is Owen Wister who gets credit for the first official Western novel, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902). After him come all the rest, from Zane Grey to Louis L'Amour, along with his near cousin, the Northern hero: Mounties to gold-miners in the fiction of writers like Jack London or Rex Beach. North or West, the trappings of the Western and Northern include the tough, solitary cowpoke who enforces his own stern code with a shooting iron or a hanging rope. Locales where you'll find him include the wilderness and smoky saloons.

The second of these true, American heroes is the hardy Space-faring Captain. Pinpointing an exact creator is a little harder, for science fiction heroes begin with John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in February 1912 in "Under the Moons of Mars," acquiring all the fighting skill of the old romantic heroes, but then moving on to Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Hawk Carse, Eric John Stark, and the list goes on and on... Best of all of them was CL Moore's Northwest Smith, who hung around the seedy bars of Mars with his pal, Yarol the Venusian. These tough spacers drank segir, slept with alien chicks, and could shoot or punch their way out of any situation. They lead the way to the final icon, Captain Kirk of Star Trek.

The Private Eye was invented by Carroll John Daly in "The False Burton Combs" in Black Mask (December 1922). Daly may have been first, but his work was expanded by Dashiell Hammett, who had actually been a Pinkerton agent, and later by Raymond Chandler, who elevated noir pulp fiction to the highest level. The central hero is, of course, a private detective, who knows the mean streets and follows his own code of justice. This doesn't always match that of the police, who are often as corrupt as the criminals. Mystery tales date back to at least Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murder in the Rue Morgue" (Graham's Magazine, April 1841), but was made hugely popular by British author Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes in The Strand. The Private Eye was America's response to the effete murders in the vicarages over tea that the British cozy mystery was at the turn of the century. None of that middle class snobbery for the PI. He is a creature of independence, often found drinking in an illegal speakeasy.

The barbarian hero of sword-and-sorcery is our last of the foursome. The author who created him was Robert E Howard, in January 1929 with "The Shadow Kingdom," starring King Kull. Kull, like his replacement, and by far, the quintessential icon of S&S, Conan the Cimmerian, was a rough, deadly warrior, who claws his way to kingship. The barbarian is skilled with weapons, a hater of sorcery and evil magic, and a hero, but on his own terms and for his own price, which is often taken in gold, booze, or sex. He marches to the beat of his own drum, whether in a desert, a jungle, a filthy city with its steamy dens of iniquity. Conan walks a dark path and no furry little hobbits need apply.

So why do all these heroes exist, and why America? All of these characters are products of pulp fiction, whether in the early days when they were called weeklies, or in the later, true pulps. Magazine fiction since the 1880s had been driving genre with specialized types of reading. In America, this looked a little different than elsewhere, for North America was a land of pioneers. The sedate, well-established, Oxford-educated type good guy was seen as suspiciously too civilized for a land such as the US. American heroes had to be tough, whether they were in the Yukon or the Arizona desert or in imaginary lands or the quickly growing cities with the new problems of gangsterism and corruption. Only a hard man could walk the line between right and wrong.

World War II and later the Cold War would turn these heroes into sadly dated characters; no longer in style. They could have died in the pages of the pulps that folded and blew away by 1955. But was that really the case? Look at paperback sales in the 1950s and 1960s, and there they are again: the cowboy (Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour sold millions), the PI (whether he was Mike Hammer, Shell Scott, or Mike Shayne), the space captain (he fell on hard times in print but made it on radio and the small screen), and the barbarian (who sold millions of purple-edged Lancer paperbacks with the help of Frank Frazetta).

These characters all became icons, part of our collective culture along with the jungle lord and lady, the avenging swordsman, the secret agent, and the superhero. Love them or hate them, they all serve the same function: a plot Christopher Booker calls "Overcoming the Monster." The hero takes on the the "Big Bad" and wins, whether that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Beowulf. These heroes tells us we are not small, but can win; that our personal code is worth protecting, that there are reasons to charge "once more unto the breach." The hanging around in bars... well, what else is a hero going to do while waiting for that next adventure?

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, March 20, 2017

7 Days in May | Blood Father and La Belle et la Bete

Blood Father (2016)



Look, I wanna be mad at Mel Gibson and I am. But just like I'm mad at Tom Cruise and still go to his movies, I love Gibson's acting and I'm usually curious about what he's doing. Blood Father looked like a callback to what Gibson does best: playing unhinged heroes with a lot to lose.

In this case, he's an alcoholic ex-con with a lot to apologize for who's too far beyond redemption, but would settle for some peace in his later years. That goes out the window though when his estranged daughter calls him out of the blue in desperate need of money and help. When he offers it, he's pulled into a nasty situation with violent consequences.

I like that Gibson's character is drawn back into the criminal world, but he doesn't just settle in like he's always been there. He's old and weary and every step of the way it's clear that he's making sacrifices for his daughter. As the title gives away, it's a movie about parenthood that uses violence and crime to accentuate the extreme love that Gibson's character feels for his daughter. I liked it a lot.

La Belle et la Bete (2014)



I didn't make it to the theater last week and even if I had, the live action remake of Disney's Beauty and the Beast is more a curiosity than a must-see. But I've had this French version on my To Watch list for a while and by sheer coincidence it made it to the top just as the new one's coming out.

I've talked before about what I really like in this story, so any new interpretation has my attention, but I also totally dig Léa Seydoux (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, SPECTRE) and was attracted to the idea of seeing a French version of this French fairy tale. Also, the visuals are lush and imaginative.

It is an imaginative take on the story, but I was disappointed by the quality of the CG effects that are never quite believable. Some of the story changes are good (I love the explanation for why and how the Beast got to be the way he is), but others just seem like excuses for some over the top effects (that again, aren't that spectacular anyway). It's a worthwhile version of the story, but unfortunately not going to become a favorite one for me.

The Wild Life (2016)



Absolutely miserable. Didn't even finish it. I was warned, but you know what? "Nice job" to whoever put together that trailer. You got me. The trailer has fun music and cuts clips together in a way that looks like actual humor. The movie does none of that. It's dumbed down to five-year-olds and reminded me of an amateur Sunday School puppet show. Glad this was a Netflix DVD and not something I paid money to watch.

Henry V (1989)



I kind of gave up blogging about my British History in Film project. I'd like to get back to that. But I haven't given up actually watching the movies. I left off blogging about Edward II, but since then I've watched the mini-series World Without End (2012) that deals with fallout from the events of Edward II (as well as the Black Plague) and started The Hollow Crown, another TV series from 2012.

The Hollow Crown is a great idea. It presents Shakespeare's Henriad tetralogy as a complete story, using as many of the same actors from play to play as possible. Ben Whishaw (Q in the current Bond films) plays the tragic Richard II who's usurped by Rory Kinnear's (Tanner in the Bond movies) Henry IV. Jeremy Irons plays the aged Henry in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 with Tom Hiddleston as his son, the questionable Price Hal. At first, I wasn't sure how Richard II fit thematically with the other plays (other than just showing Henry IV's rise to power), but then Shakespeare helped me out with a line of dialogue explaining that IV is so worried about Hal because he sees in Hal the same traits that made IV want to take Richard's crown in the first place. It's a powerful story about fathers and sons, but also about duty and responsibility.

Before I watch the Hollow Crown version of Henry V, I wanted to revisit Kenneth Branagh's version, which made me realize nearly 30 years ago(!) that I actually could enjoy Shakespeare's history plays as much as I did Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've seen it countless times, but not recently, so it was great to see it again and especially fun to rewatch it now with all the backstory of the earlier plays finally in my mind. Branagh includes some scenes from those plays in Henry V as flashbacks and it was also cool when I watched those plays to recognize where I was for a moment.

Branagh's Henry V is still powerful and funny (so funny) and I'd forgotten how stirring Simon Rattle's score is. I used to have the soundtrack somewhere and need to find it again or rebuy it.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing how The Hollow Crown interprets it now.

Zorro (1957-61)



I'm on a huge Zorro kick lately and it's because of this show. I'm about halfway through the 39-episode first season and it is so awesome. Guy Williams is the definition of swashbuckling and perfectly plays the balance between dashing Zorro and passive Don Diego. Gene Sheldon is also delightful as Diego's mute manservant Bernardo and Henry Calvin is a joy as the good-hearted, but wrong-sided Sgt. Garcia.

I expected most of that, having watched an episode or two as a kid, but what I'd totally forgotten was the amazing sets and matte paintings. Disney threw some real money at this and created a wonderful fantasy landscape for southern California with all kinds of great cliffs and passes and skull-shaped mountains.

And I had no idea that the storytelling was so 21st Century. Each episode is more or less self-contained, but they also connect and build on each other to tell longer stories. The first 13 episodes pit Zorro against the ruthless Captain Monastario and I was shocked when he actually succeeded and that storyline ended. Then, just as Zorro's thinking of retiring, a new enemy shows up in the form of a secret society that uses eagle feathers to communicate. I'm in the middle of that story now and loving every minute of it.

It's got me wanting more Zorro, so I've been reading The Curse of Capistrano, the original Zorro story by Johnston McCulley that was serialized in All-Story Weekly. I'll report more on that later, but I'm very much enjoying it so far, too. It's briskly written and I'm surprised to be over halfway through without seeing one mention that Don Diego and Zorro are the same person. Once I finish that, I'll make a project of rewatching my favorite Zorro movies.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992-93)



This year is the 25th anniversary of Young Indiana Jones, so I decided I should probably finally watch the whole thing. I was a fan back in the day, but its sporadic schedule made me miss a bunch of episodes and I finally just gave up.

The DVD collection (which is what's on Amazon Prime for me to watch) has Special Editioned them, but I don't really mind. They've taken out the framing sequences with the 90-year-old Indy and I'm kind of sad that those aren't available for me to watch if I want to, but I also didn't especially like them. And I do really like that the episodes are reorganized into chronological order instead of jumping around between 10-year-old and teenaged Indy.

David asked me if I recommend the show and I don't know that I do. Not unconditionally anyway. I'm enjoying it, but it's very different from the adventures of Harrison Ford. Each episode has its small mystery or adventure, but the focus is mostly on introducing a new place or historical figure. It's entertainingly educational; it's just not thrilling in the way that Indiana Jones is known for.

I'm partway into the 10-year-old's travels with his parents and governess as they follow Henry Sr on a lecture tour. We've been to three different parts of Africa, and a few places in Europe (Paris, Vienna, and Florence, so far). Highlights include Lukas Haas as Norman Rockwell, Danny Webb (Henry V) as Picasso, and Max Von Sydow as Freud.

Underground (2016-present)



Finally, I'm about halfway through the first season of Underground and am loving the show. It starts off as sort of a disturbing, Southern version of Downton Abbey. It never focuses long on the owners of the Macon plantation (which is good, because they're horrible), but there's instead a stark contrast between the lives of the house slaves and the field slaves. Neither group is well off, but they have different challenges that are fascinating to learn and think about.

Mixed into that story is another one about John Hawkes, the brother of the plantation's owner Tom. Both brothers are from the north, but where Tom has become a slave owner, John very strongly believes in abolition. So he and his wife Elizabeth consider becoming a part of the Underground Railroad and have to weigh the costs of participating in an illegal, but morally right endeavor.

Very quickly though, the focus of the show becomes an escape plan by a group of the Macon slaves. It's led by Noah, who's tried to escape once before, but managed to hide the fact even though he was caught. Smart guy and Aldis Hodge is absolutely captivating in the part. The rest of the group comes from a mixture of people hand-picked by Noah for their talents and/or abilities to get things that the group will need. And not all of them have the group's best interests at heart. Once they run, the show takes on a Walking Dead feel with slave hunters standing in for zombies. It's a brilliant show that constantly changes the way it tells its story so I'm always guessing and always intrigued.

Jam of the Week: "Burn the White Flag" by Joseph



As I try and make another go of this "7 Days in May" feature, one of the things I wanna do each week is share a song that's making me happy. This is one of my favorites from last year. It's rowdy, folky, and has hand claps. I'm a total sucker for hand claps.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Kill All Monsters Omnibus will be here soon!



If you look at page 65 of this month's Previews catalog (that's the one with the March 2017 cover date for stuff hitting shops in May 2017), you'll see the solicitation for the Kill All Monsters Omnibus, Volume 1. Because of the way the book market works, our ginormous hardcover isn't actually hitting in May with the single-issue comics being advertised in the same catalog. We're coming out on July 19.

And we'll be everywhere. It'll be very easy to find the book, especially online. But if you prefer to buy it at your local comics shop on the day that it comes out, now is the time to let them know that you'd like a copy. Or if you forget, they can special order it for you later. That works, too.

It's going to be awesome. I just this week got to read the whole thing for the first time and I'm really happy with it. Jason is, too. We can't wait for you all to see it. It's going to be a brick of a book: 368 pages containing the previous Ruins of Paris volume (slightly edited, so the original book is still a unique object), the continuation and conclusion of that story, the complete Dark Horse Presents story (reformatted for widescreen presentation), a whole new story set in a different part of the Kill All Monsters world, and pin-ups by some amazing artists. And all of that for about $25.

It's almost here, you guys!



Monday, February 20, 2017

Damon Knight: Artist! [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

When you think of Damon Knight (1922-2002) you get a picture in your head of an old dude with a long, grey beard. Maybe you see him editing Orbit or hanging off the arm of his wife, Kate Wilhelm. Knight won many awards, wrote several books on writing science fiction, and is best remembered as a reviewer with high standards of quality in the genre. What you don’t picture is a twenty-year-old kid doodling – because Damon Knight started in science fiction as an artist. His first published work was in Amazing Stories, May 1940. His first story appeared just a little later in Ray Bradbury’s fanzine, Future Fantasia, Summer 1940. It was called “The Itching Hour.” His first professional sale wasn’t until February 1941 in Stirring Science Stories with “Resilience,” where they botched the ending. By 1950 he would be writing stories like “Not With a Bang” and “To Serve Man” (made famous on The Twilight Zone with “It’s a cookbook!”) and his fame as a short story writer would be forever set. Before then, a lot of minor work and plenty of artwork.

It would be fair to describe Knight’s art style as “cartoony.” That first sale to Ray Palmer was a cartoon. The cover he drew for the fanzine, Le Zombie in January 1940 has the same line-oriented feel. Despite this simplified style, Knight puts it to good use, adding more atmosphere and interest with delicate shading and atmospheric tones, eventually working on black scratch board. His work appeared primarily in Science Fiction Quarterly, Future, Super Science Stories, and Weird Tales, all low-paying art markets. This also explains why his artwork is so hard to find. With the exception of Weird Tales, these magazines were small timers and not collected as widely. (I imagined only for a random second that it was because Knight had purchased up as many copies as possible over the years and destroyed them. Like I said, only for a second.)

There is almost nothing written about Damon Knight’s artwork. He did not comment extensively about it himself. (I could be wrong about this and if you know otherwise, please let me know. I found one bio where he calls himself “artist.”) So I’m going to make a few surmises about it. I think his biggest supporter and influences were Boris Dolgov and Hannes Bok, two other Weird Tales artists with cartoony but powerful styles; acolytes of Maxfield Parrish. If this is true, then when Knight got to illustrate a story by Hannes Bok with “Starstone World” (Science Fiction Quarterly, Summer 1942), this must have pleased both of them. (Though the two illos are not his best and I haven’t included them.)

After the reprinting of “Herbert West, Reanimator: Part 4” (November 1942), most of Damon Knight’s work for Weird Tales was illustrating poems, but in January 1943, Knight got to illustrate Mary Elizabeth Counselman’s “Seventh Sister.” By 1946, Knight put away the drawing pencils for the blue ones. With new markets coming like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy, he was ready to explore SF through words alone. His last illo was “The Haunted Stairs” in Weird Tales, May 1946. Knight was twenty-four. Any dreams of being another Hannes Bok or Lee Brown Coye were abandoned for the typewriter. Sadly, Knight never got to illustrate one of his own stories.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.









Monday, February 13, 2017

My 20 Most Anticipated Movies of 2017

It's fun to think about what's coming out and which movies I'm most interested in, then compare that at the end of the year to what I actually enjoyed. For example, last year, seven of my Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies for 2016 actually made it in into my Top Ten of the Year. That sounds pretty good, but I listed 20 Most Anticipated Movies last year and only half of them were in my Top Twenty.

Two of them (Underworld: Blood Wars and Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) got pushed back to 2017, so they don't really count, but three I didn't even bother to see after learning more about them (Warcraft, Jason Bourne, and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; though I'll likely decline its advice and go back for that last one at some point). The remaining five (Hail Caesar, Fantastic Beasts, Ghostbusters, TMNT 2, and X-Men: Apocalypse) were all over the map in terms of how much I enjoyed them.

Which goes to show that we need to underline the words "interested in" in describing this list. These aren't the movies that I'm predicting will be the best; just the ones that I most want to see. That could be out of genuine excitement, but it might just be irresistible curiosity. I'll try to specify which as I go.

Tell me what you're looking forward to in the comments!

20. The Beguiled



Sofia Coppolla directs this Western (I don't like calling them Southerns, but technically that's more accurate in this case) about an injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) who's imprisoned in a Confederate boarding school for girls and tries to charm his way out. Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and Kirsten Dunst are the primary occupants of the school. I like all of those people, the setting, and the drama of the situation.

19. Ferdinand



One of my favorite children's books. I have way more in common with the character of Ferdinand than I should ever admit. I have no idea if this is doable as a feature length movie, but I generally like Blue Sky's stuff, so hooves are crossed.

18. Hostiles



Another Western; this one with Christian Bale as an Army captain escorting a Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family through hostile territory. I'm concerned that Studi gets like 12th billing right now on IMDb, because I'm most interested in seeing the relationship between his and Bale's characters. Hopefully that's not indicative of his actual importance to the story.

Lots of other great people in this thing, too. Rosamund Pike and Stephen Lang, for instance, but also Ben Foster in his second Western with Bale after 3:10 to Yuma ten years ago.

17. Jumanji



I'm not crazy about the original, but it had a cool concept, which means that it's ripe for a remake. And I couldn't be more excited about The Rock and Karen Gillan as the leads. Hoping it's more focused on high adventure and less schmaltzy than the earlier version.

16. The Dark Tower



Never read these books, but they've certainly captured a lot of imaginations and I usually like fantastical Westerns. I also like Stephen King, though movies based on his work are a mixed bag. I guess I'm pinning my hopes on Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in this genre instead of on the source material.

15. Spider-Man: Homecoming



I like Spider-Man and boy that was pretty cool in Civil War. But I don't love Spider-Man and there are some things about this that just make me tired. Young Aunt May and the look of the Vulture aren't thrilling me, for two things. Another is that I already feel like I've seen all the Tony Stark/Peter Parker interaction I want to in Civil War. And as much as I trust in my heart that Marvel is going to make a good movie, this is still another Spider-Man reboot in too short a time.

On the other hand, I've learned not to bet against Marvel. If this is the fun, teen comedy that it looks to be, I expect to be much more excited coming out of it than going in.

14. Pitch Perfect 3



'Cause I love these movies. The humor is always pretty uneven, but there's always a good character arc and I do like me an a cappella mash-up.

13. Table 19



We've been rewatching Friends and I'm totally ready to see Lisa Kudrow do something more than a cameo in a movie again. And I always enjoy Anna Kendrick and Craig Robinson. The trailer made me laugh and I usually enjoy seeing outsiders push back against their oppressors, so this has a lot going for it.

12. Justice League



I have no idea if I'm going to like this or not and that lack of expectation is partly what's attracting me to it. But mostly, it gets my money because it's our first real look at Jason Mamoa's Aquaman.

11. Murder on the Orient Express



They don't really make straight-up murder mystery movies anymore, so this is cool. And it's cool that Kenneth Branagh is directing it. And it's cool that Daisy Ridley, Penélope Cruz, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, and Derek Jacobi are all in it. I'm a bit more nervous about Johnny Depp and especially about Branagh's playing Herucle Poirot. Either (or both) of those could be goofy, caricatural performances that will ruin the movie for me. But I'm glad someone's adapting some Agatha Christie again.

10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales



I love the opening trilogy (even At World's End), but On Stranger Tides needs making up for. This will either bring the series back in line or prove once and for all that we're done. Really hoping for the former, because there's so much potential for a lot of fun movies in the Pirates world.

9. The Mummy



As a huge fan of the Universal monster movies from the '30s and '40s (and '50s, when you add in Creature from the Black Lagoon), I'm all for the studio's trying to make a Marvel-style, connected universe with those characters. In fact, Universal was already doing that 70+ years ago. Marvel just revived the idea with superheroes.

I don't know if it's going to work this time, but they're starting in a pretty good place with a Tom Cruise action movie that's also trying to be legitimately scary. Working in Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll feels like a great idea, too, especially since they're not knocking people over the head with that fact in the trailer. Nowhere is this being billed as Mummy v Mr Hyde, which already puts it on a better track than Warner Bros.

8. Thor: Ragnarok



Speaking of Marvel, Thor is one of my favorite superheroes, Chris Hemsworth is one of my favorite actors, and I love the pitch of Ragnarok as a buddy road trip movie with Thor and Hulk. I've liked the other Thor movies, but they aren't as strong as the best Marvel films, so I'm not expecting to be blown away by this third one. I just want it to be a good time at the movies and don't see any reason to expect anything else.

7. Kong: Skull Island



I'm hoping that the trailers are leaving some surprises, because I've always thought it would be cool to have a movie completely focused on Skull Island. It's an awesome setting for adventure and Kong: Skull Island has a great cast to put in it. I just don't like feeling that I've already seen most of the film in ads.

6. Logan



I like Wolverine best when he's mentoring a young girl or woman. And I'm super excited by what I've seen of Patrick Stewart's portrayal of Charles Xavier in this. Logan appears to be a movie about relationships. That was the best thing about The Wolverine, too, so yes, more of that.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2



"Obviously," indeed.

4. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets



Luc Besson and I don't always get along, but if we learned nothing else from my excitement about Jupiter Ascending, it's that I'm always on the lookout for the next, great space opera. See also: Guardians of the Galaxy. My excitement for Valerian edges out Guardians because it's new. It looks insane and amazing and both Cara Delevingne and Dane DeHaan are fascinating people whom I'll enjoy watching go through whatever lunacy Besson has planned.

3. War for the Planet of the Apes



I'll always have a special place in my heart for the Planet of the Apes movies of the '60s, but I don't think there's any denying that these new versions are way better films. (Except for maybe the original Planet of the Apes, which totally holds up.) There's still a part of me that can't believe I like these new ones as much as I do, but I've learned to shut that part up and just let myself be excited. This is gonna be great.

2. Wonder Woman



We've waited so long for a Wonder Woman movie and this one has the right ingredients - and the right trailer - to promise a good one. It's still concerning to me that the folks behind Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were allowed anywhere near this thing, but I have my fingers crossed and am holding my breath that their influence will be minimal and that we'll get the film we hope for.

1. The Last Jedi



Rey! Finn! Poe! Luke!

I have crazy high expectations for this, but I trust that Rian Johnson in the one to meet them.

Monday, February 06, 2017

My Top 10 Movies of 2016

10. Rogue One



I've talked about this one at length on podcasts. Recorded my initial reactions on Starmaggedon, then got together with the Nerd Lunch crew to dig more deeply into it. But if podcasts aren't your thing, here's the short version.

I went into Rogue One just hoping for an entertaining movie that was different from the typical Star Wars experience, and that's exactly what I got. It's a great story and everything a prequel should be. My only disappointment was that I didn't connect with any of the characters as much as I wanted to. I feel empathy for many of them, appreciate the moral journey that Cassian goes on, enjoy what Saw Gerrera represents to the Rebel Alliance at large, and I really really like K-2SO. I just don't love any of these folks as much as I do Rey, Finn, and Poe.

9. Sing Street



I love the setting and the music. That's a lot of fun and the original songs are super catchy and sound right out of the '80s. I also really love the relationship between Conor and his older brother and the themes about firstborn children blazing trails for their younger siblings.

I'm not crazy about the assertion that success can only be found outside of Dublin, though. Especially since the movie has to ignore the existence of U2 in order to make that claim. It's a major omission for the sole purpose of forcing Conor down a particular path, when I'd much rather have seen him make a different choice anyway.

Very good movie, but as someone who adores director John Carney's Begin Again, I expected much more from his take on my favorite music genres.

8. Magnificent Seven



Another one that I went into more detail about on a podcast. Very nice update. I love the diversity in the cast and these actors are all compelling and great. I also love James Horner's score, especially how he suggests the original Elmer Bernstein music without simply dropping it in whole.

My issue with the movie is that it replaces the complex themes of the original with a straightforward revenge story. Peter Sarsgaard is great as the villain, but the character is so charmless and excessively evil (unlike Eli Wallach's Calvera in 1960) that he becomes less interesting.

Still, the way the heroes react to Sarsgaard's character is great and that's where the real story is anyway.

I liked it even more the second time I saw it. Everyone's motivations may be simplified from the original, but I don't like the characters any less for it. In fact, I like all of these Seven more than a couple of the originals.

7. Doctor Strange



Visually stunning with great performances. I loved the sense of humor. Strange has a similar character arc to Tony Stark, but it's different enough to stay interesting. Stark's ego and selfishness makes him charmingly careless while Strange is arrogant and often mean. The similarities seem intentional though and I love the movie's description of the mystical masters as essentially the Avengers of the spiritual world.

6. Legend of Tarzan



I was extremely skeptical after seeing the trailers, but I love this movie.

I love that it doesn't spend much time on Tarzan's very familiar origin, but relates only what it needs to in quick flashbacks sprinkled throughout the main story. It's made some minor changes to that - mostly around Jane's background - but for great reasons that improved her as a character.

And it's the characters that I love the most. This feels like Tarzan and Jane, but a mature, contemporary (even though it's set in the nineteenth century) Tarzan and Jane. They're clearly equals and Jane has a lot to do. She's technically the damsel in distress for quite a while, but the movie comments on that and subverts it. Margot Robbie can pretty much do no wrong at this point.

Alexander Skarsgård is a perfect Tarzan. He's big, he's physical, but most of all he's completely convincing as both English lord and wild man. It's awesome, because we meet him in London, then get to watch the civilization slowly fall off of him once he returns home to the jungle. It's simultaneously thrilling and also kind of heart-breaking to watch.

The various tribal people are also fantastic. Sidney Ralitsoele in particular plays an unbelievably handsome and charming ally. I expect to see a lot more of that guy.

I don't always know what I'm going to get from a Samuel L Jackson or Christoph Waltz performance. A lot of times, they're just doing their Samuel L Jackson and Christoph Waltz things, but every once in a while they'll really go all out for a character. I didn't expect Legend of Tarzan to be one of those times, frankly. I was expecting it to be just a big, dumb, heartless cash-grab with half-hearted performances. But everyone's put a lot of effort into it. It helps that they have strong characters to work with. Waltz' motivations are believable and go way beyond just being evil and destructive. And Jackson has a touching backstory that also gives him purpose in the film and explains his actions.

The writers not only get these characters; they also clearly love Burroughs' novels. This feels like a Burroughs adventure. From an alternate timeline perhaps, but the heart is there. And there are lots of references to Burroughs' stuff that I won't spoil.

I do have one minor issue and that's with the quality of the CG. It's not horrible, but it's not especially good either. I was able to overlook it though, because I was so pleased with everything else.

5. Captain America: Civil War



When Warner Bros announced their plans to fast-track the building of a DC cinematic universe, I was worried for two reasons. First, it would be headed up by the folks responsible for the problem-filled Man of Steel. But also, it sounded like WB was hoping to reap the benefits of a shared universe without putting in the years of character development that Marvel had. That's very clearly seen when I compare Batman v Superman with Civil War.

The movies have almost identical plots, with their villainous masterminds who manipulate heroes into fighting each other. But BvS feels forced and unnatural while Civil War is fun and organic. Everything that happens in Civil War flows out of motives and decisions that are believable because Marvel has spent several years exploring and growing these characters. I like all of these people and I understand why they do what they do, even when I don't agree with them.

But Civil War's success isn't all due to work done by previous movies. It's just more smartly written than BvS. The source of the conflict between the heroes is complicated and fascinating, unlike the self-absorption and bigotry that drives BvS. The characters in Civil War are way smarter, too.

So Civil War really shines next to BvS, but even without that comparison, it's a great time at the movies. It's thought-provoking, but it's also funny and the fights are amazingly choreographed. This is superheroics at their best.

4. Jane Got a Gun



I was totally sucked into this story of a woman who's had to make some hard decisions and now faces the violent consequences. There's some High Noon going on in that it's as much about the build-up to the final confrontation as it is about the confrontation itself.

I love that almost as much as I love the way it gradually reveals the characters' pasts and why they currently feel about each other the way that they do. It's all complicated and human; none of it more so than Jane herself. Portman does a great job, as do all of her co-stars.

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople



Delightful and beautiful. I'm such a sucker for stories about broken people who learn to connect with each other. Especially when they're as charming and funny as this one. I don't want to say too much and oversell it, but I highly recommend this one.

2. Star Trek Beyond



My favorite of the rebooted Star Trek movies. That's not saying anything in comparison to Into Darkness, but I quite enjoyed the 2009 movie and this is better. 2009 did a great job of introducing the alternate timeline and these new versions of the characters, but it's still an origin story. It has to spend most of its time getting everyone into place so that we can have movies like Star Trek Beyond, which is what I really want to see.

Beyond plays like an episode of the show, but a really badass episode of the show. It's got everything I want in a Star Trek story: strange new worlds, new life and new civilizations, reflections about humanity, and plenty of action. As much as I hear fans talk about action as if its some kind of necessary evil for Star Trek these days, it's always been a vital ingredient of the series and I love having it in the mix.

And speaking of "new life," I have a new favorite Star Trek character in Jaylah. Holy Neck Pinch, she's awesome.

1. Moana



I was hoping to love this. I'm a big fan of Disney animated movies when they're done well and the Pacific islands setting is so my bag. Plus, The Rock. But it's even better than I imagined.

The movie subverts expectations while still feeling very much like what it is. And those coconut pirates are totally rad. I laughed a lot, I was deeply moved, and the songs are as good as any Disney musical since The Little Mermaid (or maybe Aladdin; in a really long time, is my point). You know how little girls everywhere drove everyone crazy with their personal renditions of "Let It Go?" That was me with "How Far I'll Go." And David and I can't stop singing "You're Welcome," either.

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