Monday, January 29, 2018

Best and Worst Films of 2017

Yesterday's episode of Sounds of Cinema revealed my picks of the ten best and worst films of 2017. You can find more, including rationales for each title and lists of honorable mentions and trends of 2017, here.

Best Films of 2017
1. The Florida Project 

2. Get Out 

3. Mother! 

4. Call Me By Your Name 

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

6. Logan

7. Detroit 

8. Baby Driver 

9. Good Time 

10. I, Tonya 

  1. A Cure for Wellness 
  2. Baywatch 
  3. War on Everyone 
  4. CHIPS 
  5. I Do Until I Don’t 
  6. Home Again 
  7. The Only Living Boy in New York 
  8. Rings 
  9. A Quiet Passion 
  10. Transformers: The Last Knight 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sounds of Cinema 2017 Wrap Up Coming January 28

The Sounds of Cinema episode for Sunday, January 28th will look back at the cinema of 2017 and count down my picks of the best and worst films of the past year. Sounds of Cinema airs every Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. You can hear the show over the air and live streaming from each station's website.

Until then, here are the year end picks from other critics:


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Movies

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at Christmas-related films. Here is a recap of the movies covered on the show as well as a few other titles.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Dir. Frank Capra

One of the films most associated with the holiday season is Frank Capra’s 1946 feature It’s a Wonderful Life. However, at the time of the movie's release, It’s a Wonderful Life was a box office failure that received a mixed critical reaction. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the film became popular due to its repeated showings on television during the Christmas season which actually came about due to a lapse in the copyright. It’s a Wonderful Life has since been named one of the 100 greatest American movies by the American Film Institute and the organization named George Bailey and Mr. Potter on its list of the greatest movie heroes and villains.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Dir. George Seaton

Miracle on 34th Street is perhaps the only Christmas courtroom drama as it involves a department store Santa Claus who insists that he is the actual Kris Kringle and is subsequently put on trial for mental competency. Miracle on 34th Street was remade several times, most notably the 1994 version starring Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle and featuring a screenplay by John Hughes.

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
Dir. Sidney Lanfield

Bob Hope plays a small time crook who owes a gangster $10,000. To pay his debt, The Lemon Drop Kid recruits a group of people to dress up like Santa Claus and collect money in the name of charity. This movie introduced the song "Silver Bells."

White Christmas (1954)
Dir. Michael Curtiz

Music is an integral part of the Christmas season and several of the most popular holiday songs were originally created for Hollywood movies. One of the most popular of these is “White Christmas” which is usually associated with the 1954 movie of the same name but was in fact originally written for the 1943 motion picture Holiday Inn, for which Irving Berlin won an Oscar for Best Original Song. According to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, “White Christmas” has been recorded over 500 times in a dozen different languages.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Dir. Bill Melendez

One of the popular traditions of the Christmas season is the ritualistic broadcast of classic animated television specials. Most of these came out of the 1960s and that decade saw the premiere of animated network events that have become holiday fixtures including 1964’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and 1969’s Frosty the Snowman. Among the most popular of these was 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas in which the Peanuts gang rediscovers the meaning of Christmas.

Christmas Evil (1980)
Dir. Lewis Jackson

There is a whole subgenre of Christmas horror films. This isn’t as unusual as it sounds. A lot of elements of the holiday are frightening, especially for children, and there are a lot of killer Santa movies. The best of these is 1980's Christmas Evil. An early entry in the slasher genre, Christmas Evil is frightening but also darkly funny.

A Christmas Story (1983)
Dir. Bob Clark

One of Bob Clark's two Christmas films (the other being the 1974 horror flick Black Christmas). A Christmas Story has likable characters and wacky set pieces but it's also unexpectedly subversive in the way it weaves together 1950s suburbia, the Christmas holiday, and the tale of a young man's disillusionment. A Christmas Story was only a modest success in 1983 but it has become a classic and one of the most popular holiday movies.

Gremlins (1984)
Dir. Joe Dante

1984’s Gremlins is a delightfully mean spirited take on the holiday. In this film, a suburbanite is given a mysterious animal as a Christmas present but he fails to follow the special rules and the town is besieged by a horde of scaly green monsters. It’s not too much to read this film as a metaphor of the commercialization of Christmas. Gremlins was a hit but it was also controversial and, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, led to the creation of the PG-13 rating.

Die Hard (1988)
Dir. John McTiernan

Every year around this time, film and pop culture websites publish click-bait articles about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. It is. Die Hard takes place on Christmas Eve and the holiday is central to the premise. But this is also a Christmas movie in that it’s about one of the most popular themes of holiday movies: a man tries to get back with his family for Christmas.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)
Dir. Jeremiah Chechik

The National Lampoon Vacation series veers wildly in quality but Christmas Vacation is a comedy classic and one of the best movies of its kind. Written by John Hughes, the film is consistently funny in a way that few movies ever achieve and it has a cast of memorable characters speaking quotable lines. But Christmas Vacation also taps into something real about the suburban holiday experience that continues to play for the audience.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Dir. Brian Henson

Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel has been adapted to film more frequently than perhaps any other Christmas story with dramatizations going all the way back to the silent era. There have been a number of versions with different approaches to the material featuring notable actors taking the role of Ebenezer Scrooge including Albert Finney (1970), George C. Scott (1984), Bill Murray (1988), and Jim Carrey (2009). Among the most popular adaptations was 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge. Like most Muppet movies, it was a musical but one particular piece stands out. “When Love is Gone,” performed by Meredith Braun and Michael Caine, describes the falling out between Belle and Scrooge. It is the emotional core of the movie but studio executives ordered the song cut from the theatrical release for the sake of pacing, allegedly over the objections of director Brian Henson. “When Love is Gone” was featured on the VHS, laserdisc, and the full screen DVD release of The Muppet Christmas Carol but subsequent editions on Blu-ray and streaming services don’t include it.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Dir. Henry Selick

Animated fare is quite popular around the Christmas season and one of the most popular titles is The Nightmare Before Christmas. The movie was financed by Disney but in 1993 the Mouse wasn’t sure what to make of the film’s dark and oddball qualities and so it was released under the Touchstone Films banner. The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick but it was written and produced by Tim Burton and it has an undeniable Burton touch. This is one of the best collaborations between Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman and The Nightmare Before Christmas is a musical for people who hate musicals.

Bad Santa (2003)
Dir. Terry Zwigoff

It’s become fashionable to take an ironic stance toward Christmas or to spit in the holiday’s face. Bad Santa was among the first and it remains one of the best. In this film an alcoholic safe cracker poses as a shopping mall Santa while plotting to rob the store. Billy Bob Thorton turns in a career defining performance and the movie balances its crudeness with an aching sense of human frailty. This is the story of a man hitting rock bottom and coming around to redemption and Bad Santa is more authentically in tune with the Christmas season than a lot of saccharine dramas.

Love Actually (2003)
Dir. Richard Curtis

Among the most popular holiday movies of recent years is 2003’s Love, Actually. The directorial debut of Richard Curtis, Love, Actually is a collage of stories centered around the holiday season. The movie foreshadowed a lot of terrible imitators but Love, Actually manages a likeable tone and it is funny in a humanistic way that Curtis does so well.

The Polar Express (2004)
Dir. Robert Zemeckis

The Polar Express is a popular children’s book written by Chris Van Allsburg. The story concerns a boy who is invited aboard a train that takes him on a tour of Santa Claus’ home at the North Pole. The book was adapted into a computer animated feature film in 2004 directed by Robert Zemeckis. The Polar Express began Zemeckis’ foray into motion capture filmmaking which would later include another holiday film, 2009’s extraordinarily creepy version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Charles Manson on Film

Charles Manson has died at the age of 83. Unlikely and unfortunate as it may be, Manson was one of the most recognizable figures in the last quarter of the twentieth century and his public persona and the crimes committed by his followers had an indelible impact on American culture and in particular motion pictures.

After drifting in and out of prisons and other institutions throughout the early part of his life, Manson came to lead a hippie commune during the countercultural movement of the 1960s. Under Manson’s direction, members of the commune committed a series of murders (although it is unclear if Manson himself actually killed anyone) and the ensuing trial became a media circus. The lurid details of the crimes and the troubling narrative of middle class youth brainwashed to become brutal murderers—as well as Manson’s charisma and his skill at doublespeak—coalesced into a cultural moment. The murders signaled the end of the hippie movement and Manson became a cultural icon dubbed “the most dangerous man alive.”

The transformation of Charles Manson from a murderous conman into a generational icon of evil was a result of a symbiotic relationship between Manson and the media. During the trial, news outlets racked up ratings and sold newspapers through Manson’s image and he played to the camera. In the decades following Manson’s conviction, various media personalities from Tom Snyder to Charlie Rose to Geraldo Rivera to Diane Sawyer would interview Manson for highly publicized television specials, vainly trying to pin him down. (The best of these was probably Manson’s 1987 interview with Heidi Schulman for NBC’s The Today Show precisely because Schulman just let Manson talk.) The press and the criminal used each other and turned Manson into one of the biggest cultural icons of his day.

The influence of Charles Manson on feature films is unmistakable.  The most obvious evidence of that are the many dramatizations based upon the Tate-LaBianca murders and the trial that ensued.  Of these, the essential title is probably the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter in which Manson is played by Steve Railsback. Based on the book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter distilled the investigation into a three hour movie and Railsback is electric in the marquee role.

Movies directly based upon Charles Manson and his “family” are still being made. The Tate-LaBianca murders were the basis for television programs Aquarius and American Horror Story: Cult as well as recent feature films like House of Manson, Manson’s Lost Girls, Manson: My Name is Evil, the 2004 remake of Helter Skelter, and Wolves at the Door, among others. Upcoming features inspired by Manson include James Franco’s Zeroville and Quentin Tarantino’s untitled next project.

For the most part, these real life depictions entrenched the myth around Charles Manson: that he was a mad philosopher and a criminal mastermind. This is all nonsense. Manson had an undeniable charisma and he was a smooth talker who created the impression of profundity. But his rants are logically and ideologically incoherent and his pretensions to grandeur are just that. Even the race war motive used to explain the Tate-LaBianca murders was probably bullshit; the Tate house had been the home of a music producer who reneged on a record deal with Manson but he was not there when the family struck. Far from “the most dangerous man alive,” Manson was a sad, pathetic figure who lived an awful life.

Aside from the dramatizations, Manson’s influence can be found in virtually every psychopathic criminal and cult leader to come out of American cinema since 1969. A glut of movies about murderous hippies were released following the trial including I Drink Your Blood, Snuff, Sweet Savior, and John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs. The television interview sequence in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers was deliberately patterned upon Geraldo Rivera’s interview with Manson. Rob Zombie’s movies, namely House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects also make reference to the Manson Family. In The Devil’s Rejects, Bill Moseley plays a killer with an unmistakably Manson-like appearance and before killing one of his victims he says, “I am the devil and I am here to do the devil’s work,” a quote attributed to Manson Family member Tex Watson.

As a result of being crafted into a folk outlaw like Jesse James, Al Capone, or Bonnie and Clyde, Charles Manson became a popular figure in the underground scene. The best example of this in motion pictures is probably 1997’s The Manson Family directed by Jim Van Bebber. It’s a wild and vicious film that likely bears little resemblance to the way things actually played out but it is also a bold movie that epitomizes the excess and madness associated with Manson’s public persona.

Also worth mentioning is the cottage industry of Manson documentaries. They can be divided into two camps. The first is simply documentaries that attempt to recount and explain what happened.  Manson: Journey Into Evil was produced for A&E’s Biography program and it’s fairly authoritative. The other camp of Manson documentaries are apologetic works. These films suggest that Manson was somehow misunderstood or was the messianic figure he claimed to be or was framed for his crimes. Among  the most notorious of these documentaries is Nikolas Schreck’s Charles  Manson Superstar, which has been accused of celebrating Manson and emboldening the mythology around him.

Charles Manson is not a figure to be celebrated or memorialized. He wasn’t fighting for anything. He wasn’t a criminal mastermind or a cultural commentator or a renegade philosopher. Manson was a pimp and a thief who led gullible young men and women to murder eight people whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it’s undeniable that Manson was one of the most influential people in American culture—and in particular American film—in the last fifty years. The sheer number of movies about him or inspired by him and his cult of followers and their crimes is a testament to that.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special

The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will air on October 30th and 31st on 89.5 KQAL FM and 89.7 KMSU FM, respectively.

The Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special features an hour of music from scary films as well as some other audible tricks and treats. Each year's program is an entirely new mix with different musical selections from the previous year so don't miss it.

The Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special can be heard Monday, October 30th at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM and then again on Tuesday, October 31 at 10pm on 89.7 KMSU FM. The programs can be heard over the air and live streaming from each station's website.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Look at Horror Remakes

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at horror remakes. Remakes are now a cornerstone Hollywood's regular release slate with reboots like 2009's Star Trek and reiterations like Disney's Beauty and the Beast. But the current trend of mainstream remakes is rooted in the horror genre. Here is a look at the films discussed on the show as well as a few other titles.

Cat People (1982)
Dir. Paul Schrader

1942’s Cat People was about a woman who fears that her own sexual awakening will cause her to turn into a cat. The material was given an erotic and surreal update in Paul Schrader’s 1982 remake which expanded the concept in the story of a woman who discovers that her family members have the habit of turning into panthers. Like the original, the remake of Cat People retains the core fear of our own sexuality and the 1982 version has become a cult title.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Dir. Zack Snyder

The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead was one of the first and most successful titles in the recent trend of horror remakes and it was the feature film directorial debut of Zack Snyder who went on to helm movies like 300, Watchmen, and Batman v. Superman. In many respects, Dawn of the Dead portended the rest of Snyder’s career. George A. Romero’s original movie was intense but also smart and it used the zombie genre to send up mass consumerism. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead had double the action but only half the brains. It works as an action oriented horror film that’s very entertaining but the remake is bereft of subtext and it stripped the ideas down to almost nothing.

Evil Dead (2013)
Dir. Fede Alvarez

The original Evil Dead was about a group of young people who retreat to an isolated cabin where they are besieged by demons. The movie was one of the seminal horror films of its day and it was renowned for its gore and intensity which caused the original Evil Dead to be censored and banned in several countries. Despite its controversy, Evil Dead launched the career of filmmaker Sam Raimi and inspired a franchise of sequels, video games, and a television series. A remake of Evil Dead was released in 2013. It was a respectable effort that retained the core idea of the original. It was a slicker movie and didn’t have the amateur appeal of the original film but it was nearly as intense and the remake included some shocking and innovative visuals.

The Fly (1986)
Dir. David Cronenberg

1958’s The Fly was a mad scientist movie in which a teleportation experiment goes wrong and turns a scientist into a man-insect hybrid. David Cronenberg remade The Fly in 1986 in a version that was consistent with his obsessions with the body and identity. His film retained the core premise of the original movie but presented it in a way that was more dramatic but also more grotesque.

Halloween (2007)
Dir. Rob Zombie

In the 2000s, nearly every major horror property from the 1970s and 80s was remade. One of the most contentious was Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. As in the original, Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his hometown for a night of murder and mayhem. Unlike the original, the first half of Zombie’s remake portrayed Myers’ home life and cast him as the product of a dysfunctional family. 2007’s Halloween was flawed but it was also one of the most audacious and fascinating remakes of its period and Rob Zombie deserves credit for making his own film rather than a soulless rehash. An even more ambitious sequel followed in 2009.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Dir. Philip Kaufman

The Red Scare era produced a lot of great paranoia movies and among the best was 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which the citizens of an American town are replaced with alien duplicates. As written and shot, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers ended ambiguously but a prologue and epilogue were added in post-production at the behest of studio executives. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was remade in the late 1970s with the emphasis shifting from communism to consumerism and this version retained the downbeat ending.

The Last House on the Left (2009)
Dir. Dennis Iliadis

Wes Craven’s directorial debut was one of the most important horror films of the 1970s. An unofficial remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, 1972’s The Last House on the Left told the story of a pair of teenage girls who are abducted, tortured, and murdered by a band of psychopaths who then inadvertently seek shelter in the home of one of their victims and the parents take revenge. The movie was made for very little money by people who didn’t know what they were doing but its amateurishness gives the movie a rawness and authenticity that’s very powerful. Craven produced a remake released in 2009. The new version was better in almost every respect; the acting, the production design, and especially the cinematography were all first rate and the remake fixed some of the storytelling problems of the first film. But the slickness of 2009’s Last House on the Left polished off the edge that made the original film so impactful.

Maniac (2013)
Dir. Franck Khalfoun

The splatter film became quite popular in the 1980s and in many movies of that period the majority of the effort went into the gore effects. The viscera drew crowds but it also caused condemnation from critics and cultural commentators. Among the most controversial was 1981’s Maniac. The movie was a character study of a disturbed man, played by Joe Spinell, who murders women and mounts their scalps on mannequins. A remake of Maniac, starring Elijah Wood, reiterated the premise but it had the unique quality of being entirely shot from the killer’s point of view. 2013’s Maniac wasn’t as controversial as its predecessor although it was banned in New Zealand.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)
Dir. Tom Savini

George A. Romero created the zombie genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and he subsequently released sequels in each of the following decades except for the 1990s. Instead of a new zombie film, Romero produced a remake of Night of the Living Dead with his frequent collaborator Tom Savini directing. 1990s’s Night of the Living Dead mostly adheres to the story of the 1968 film but with a few critical changes, especially to the ending. The remake did not have the impact of the original film (that was impossible) but it was a fun retelling of a familiar story.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Dir. Werner Herzog

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire film Nosferatu is one of the most influential horror movies ever made. Filmmaker Werner Herzog directed a remake released in 1979. As is typical of Herzog, his version of Nosferatu was contemplative and considered what meaning life would have for an immortal being. A Nightmare on Elm Street actor Robert Englund has said that his portrayal of Freddy Krueger was influenced by Klaus Kinski’s performance in Nosferatu.

The Ring (2002)
Dir. Gore Verbinski

2002’s The Ring was a remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu. The story follows a reporter who investigates a series of deaths connected to a mysterious video tape. The Ring followed the original movie quite closely and its success ushered in a wave of American remakes of Asian horror films.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Dir. Marcus Nispel

The 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre began the remake craze that seized Hollywood throughout the past decade. It was also the first release from Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company which led the way in remaking many of the classic titles from the 1970s and 80s such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. The remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a financial success that pioneered the look and style that would be followed by most subsequent remakes and by the horror genre in general, in particular the blue-gray color scheme and ostentatious gore. The movie was better than any of the subsequent Chainsaw films but it wasn’t especially memorable.

The Thing (1982)
Dir. John Carpenter

1951’s The Thing from Another World told the story of scientists and military personnel who discover a flying saucer buried in the arctic snow and must fight off the attacks of an extraterrestrial. Filmmaker John Carpenter directed a remake released in 1982. In Carpenter’s version the alien disguises itself as other living beings and so the men must figure out who is infected. At the time it was not very successful but The Thing is now considered one of the best monster pictures ever made. It is a masterful work of suspense and paranoia combined with impressive practical creature effects.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

89.7 KMSU Fall Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its fall pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

The funds raised in KMSU's bi-annual pledge drive pay for the overhead cost of running the station, maintaining and replacing the equipment, and keeping KMSU on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact that KMSU's content has on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. Your pledges to KMSU demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, October 29th, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.