Sunday, December 30, 2012

1982 Retrospective Replay

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was a repeat of the 1982 retrospective, which looked back at the science fiction, fantasy, and horror pictures of that year including Blade Runner, Star Trek II, and E.T. You can find more additional information about genre films of 1982 in this blog post.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Apocalypse Cinema

You may have heard of the superstitions regarding an apocalypse, set for December 21, 2012, based on the ancient Mayan calendar. If you are spending your last days on earth watching movies, here are a few suggestions:

12 Monkeys
Whatever Bruce Willis’ limitations as an actor, he consistently picks very good projects. 12 Monkeys is a complex but fascinating story about a man sent back through time to stop a biological weapon from bringing about the end of civilization.

The Animatrix
In between the game-changing and well-received The Matrix and its misunderstood and underappreciated sequels, the Wachowski’s produced a series of animated shorts expanding the world of the franchise. Of these, the most interesting was the two-part “The Second Renaissance” which told the backstory.

Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic is not about the end of the world but it is about revelation, one of the alternate definitions of “apocalypse,” as an American soldier travels into the war and into the darkest parts of the human heart.

Yes, it is stupid, but Armageddon is also undeniably entertaining. The film has earned a reputation for its sloppy science, hammy performances, and self-conscious sentimentality but in those regards it is no worse than most Hollywood blockbusters. It also has a sense of humor, something many of Michael Bay’s other films lack.
Trailer #1
Armageddon —

Beneath the Planet of the Apes
The second chapter of the original Planet of the Apes series is its darkest installment and includes a race of mutant humans that worship a giant nuclear bomb.

Children of Men
In the near future, human beings have lost the ability to procreate. When a pregnant woman is discovered, a reluctant hero must escort her to a safe haven. This is a beautiful and smart film that was underappreciated when it was released in 2006.

Dawn of the Dead
The renewed interest in zombie films and apocalypse cinema seems tied together and they share a common root in George A. Romero’s 1978 film.

Deep Impact
Released the same year as Armageddon, this was a much more thoughtful film about various groups of people coping with Earth’s impending collision with a comet.

End of Days
Arnold Schwarzenegger fights off the Devil on New Year’s Eve 1999. The film was supposed to revive Schwarzenegger’s career after a string of underperforming movies and a bout with heart surgery but it came in below expectations. Nevertheless, End of Days is a silly but fun action picture.

I am Legend
Based on Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name, this is actually the third film adaption of the story. 1964’s The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and 1971’s The Omega Man with Charlton Heston preceded the 2007 Will Smith version.

In the Mouth of Madness
One of John Carpenter’s underrated projects, this film follows a private investigator searching for a bestselling horror novelist who has gone missing and discovers that writer’s fictional world may be real.

Last Night
On the eve of the apocalypse, various people prepare for the end of the world. This is a small but beautiful film about people struggling with the finite quality of life.

This 2011 film is among Lars von Trier’s most depressing films but it is also one of his best. A mysterious planet is about to collide with the earth and a depressive woman finds her despair vindicated.

The Mist
Film adaptations of Stephen King’s stories run the gamut from great to god-awful. The Mist is one of the better pictures although the ending is very divisive.

On the Beach
In this Cold War movie the Earth’s northern hemisphere has been destroyed by nuclear war.  Gregory Peck, Fred Astair, and Ava Gardner star.

The Road
The adaption of the Cormac McCarthy’s novel is a stark movie about a father and son traveling through the world after an unspecified cataclysm.

The Road Warrior
The sequel to Mad Max is one of the most influential action films of all time, as it is imitated in movies like Waterworld, The Book of Eli, and The Fast and the Furious.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This 2012 film is really a midlife crisis story set against the end of the world. It’s a little thin on plot but it has a wicked sense of humor and impressive performances by actors Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Killer Santas and Other Holiday Horrors

Just in time for the Christmas season, Anchor Bay has released Silent Night, a remake of 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. The original film, about an ax murderer in a Santa suit, was one of the most notorious slasher pictures of the 1980s. But it was neither the first nor the last film to mix murder with holiday cheer. Here are a few films for Christmas curmudgeons:

Black Christmas (1974)
Black Christmas was one of the earliest slasher movies. Directed by Bob Clark, who would go on to make A Christmas Story and Porky’s, the film is about members of a sorority who are terrorized by a psychopath. Black Christmas was remade in 2006.

Christmas Evil (aka You Better Watch Out) (1980)
A man who is obsessed with Santa Claus loses his grip on reality and goes on a killing spree. John Waters called it the greatest Christmas movie ever made.

Don't Open Till Christmas (1984)
Most Killer Santa flicks are distasteful but Don't Open Till Christmas is nastier than usual. This British based movie upends some of the usual slasher cliches as the killer targets men dressed as Santa Claus. The film also features a cameo by former Bond-girl Caroline Munro as herself.

Gremlins (1984)
Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Joe Dante, Gremlins was one of the films that prompted the MPAA to create the PG-13 classification after parents expressed outrage over the scariness of the PG-rated film. Although it is a nicer film than others in this post, Gremlins is intense and has a wicked sense of humor.

Jack Frost (1997)
Not to be confused with the 1998 family picture starring Michael Keaton or the 1965 Russian fantasy film lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000, 1997’s Jack Frost is a horror movie about a serial killer reincarnated as a snowman.

Santa’s Slay (2005)
Another Killer Santa movie, although one that is more fun than most. This film supposes that Santa is actually a demon who lost a bet with an angel and has been punished with centuries of bringing happiness to the world, When the terms of the bet expire Santa makes up for lost time with a Christmas rampage. Former professional wrestler Bill Goldberg plays the lead.

Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
A reworking of the premise of The Haunting and similar haunted house pictures, the lead character inherits a property that was a mental institution.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
The seminal Christmas horror film, Silent Night, Deadly Night caused a sensation when TV spots aired on daytime television, prompting conservative parent groups to protest the film. Distributor Tristar buckled to pressure and yanked the ads and later the film, although not until after it premiered in theaters and made its money back. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used their syndicated television show to protest the film.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987)
The sequel to Silent Night, Deadly Night is almost as notorious as the original because it is such an effortlessly made film. The picture follows the exploits of the original killer’s younger brother and about half of the sequel is made of flashbacks to the original film. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 has become an object of cult affection because of the infamous “garbage day” scene.

Tales from the Crypt: “And All Through the House”
This episode of HBO’s horror anthology was another entry in the Killer Santa subgenre and was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Twilight, Women, and Hollywood

The release of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 brings the Twilight series to a close and that is cause for relief for both Twilight’s fans and critics. In an article at Empire, Helen O’Hara argues that, whatever the quality of the films and their problematic gender politics, the success of Twilight marks a pivot point for Hollywood filmmaking that will lead to more movies primarily aimed at female audience and featuring lead female characters. O’Hara writes:
What we might also see thanks to Twilight and a string of female-focused hits is Hollywood beginning to treat women like a demographic that matters at all in blockbuster films. As an example of how this can work, you might have noticed in the past few years that more and more blockbusters are globe-trotting to China or Russia (for example: Battleship, The Dark Knight, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, The Karate Kid, The Darkest Hour and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon all feature scenes in one of the two) because China and Russia are now important markets for Hollywood blockbusters. Following that logic, if women become a valuable demographic for the studios, maybe we'll see women in male-targeted action movies or thrillers not simply defined as Wife, Girlfriend or Mother. Maybe the character composition of these films will change from a statistically unrepresentative 25% female (or so) to a more-like-it 50%.
It is premature to declare that Hollywood has pivoted to women. In 2012 we have seen a handful of major Hollywood films led by female characters: Breaking Dawn, Snow White and the Huntsman, Brave, and The Hunger Games. But within Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking, women are largely absent from lead roles. Consider the biggest hits of this year: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, Skyfall, Ted, Madagascar 3, and The Lorax. The women of these films are generally limited to thin supporting parts and their roles are generally marginalized in the drama of the story.

It is also important to keep in mind that the arrival of women on Hollywood’s radar has been declared before. In 2008 it was noted—and celebrated—that four of the top twenty grossing films were female led. Interestingly, this came a year after Warner Bros president of production Jeff Robinov decreed that “We are no longer doing movies with women in the lead” because of the financial failure of female led films in 2007. In the four years since 2008, the number of female-led motion pictures in the top twenty slots of the yearly box office has remained steady, with about three films per year. Looking at four years before 2008 that number ranges from one to three pictures. Clearly there has been an improvement but it’s nothing worth bragging about.

It is also important to remember that, although the quantity of female-led films may increase, the quality of those roles matters as much if not more. As pointed out in the hoopla over the 2008 box office, most of the female-led movies of that year were about women trying to get men to like them. In that regard, not much has changed since 2008. And for every picture like The Hunger Games, there are many more films like Project X, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and Bachelorette. The Hollywood marketplace as a whole is stacked against quality female roles.

But as O’Hara points out, Hollywood may be forced to consider female viewers for the same reason they are being forced to think about audiences in international markets. Hollywood has always followed the money and studios will produce whatever they believe will make viewers show up on opening weekend. That’s reason enough to be cautiously optimistic even if it does not give me back the ten hours of my life that I wasted watching the Twilight series.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tony Kushner on 'Lincoln'

MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes recently included an interview with Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner. The interview discusses the way the filmmakers framed and condensed history and how the movie may parallel current events.

Part 1

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Part 2

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

James Bond Retrospective

2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Dr. No, the first picture in the James Bond film series. Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema surveyed the franchise, including some of the “unofficial” Bond films. What follows is a brief survey of James Bond from the character’s literary origins to his current incarnation in Skyfall.

I. Literary Origins
The roots of James Bond are found in the real life adventures of Ian Fleming. Fleming had worked for the British Intelligence Service during World War II and drew on his experiences to create the James Bond character. Demonstrating how a character can begin in one place and end up in quite another, Fleming originally envisioned James Bond as a bland and uninteresting character to whom interesting things happen. The name “James Bond” was actually taken from the author of the bird watching field guide Birds of the West Indies, since Fleming concluded that “James Bond” was the dullest name he had ever heard.

Fleming’s first James Bond novel was Casino Royale, which was published in 1953. After Casino Royale, Fleming continued to produce one Bond book per year until his death in 1964. Additional books were published posthumously in the two years following his passing, resulting in a total of fourteen James Bond books authored by Fleming. Starting in 1968 other writers were authorized to continue the stories of James Bond in original books and tie-in novels to Bond films. Between 1981 and 2011, thirty-three James Bond novels were published, with multiple books sometimes coming out in the same year. Other spin off books were written as well including the Young Bond series and The Moneypenny Diaries.

II. Dr. No
In 1959, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman purchased the film rights to all the James Bond novels except Casino Royale, whose film rights had already been sold to another party. Producers Broccoli and Saltzman established Eon Productions and set about making the first James Bond feature: Dr. No. Sean Connery was cast in the Bond role, and although Connery was not the filmmaker’s first choice, his casting is now considered one of the great assignments of an actor with a character. Far from the boring, blunt instrument of Fleming’s novel, Sean Connery’s James Bond was the epitome of cool, a mix of rapier wit, masculine violence, and suave sexuality.

The music score from Dr. No is primarily credited to John Barry but the iconic James Bond theme was written by Monty Norman. Norman was let go during the post-production process when the filmmakers were unhappy with the body of his score but liked his James Bond theme. Retaining Norman’s theme was a wise decision as it is now one of the most widely recognized pieces of music in the world.  The music suggests danger, mystery, and sexuality and the trifecta of Ian Fleming’s literary creation with Sean Connery’s performance and Monty Norman’s theme conspired to create one of the most memorable and iconic characters in this history of the movies.

III. From Russia With Love
Dr. No was released in 1962 to a mixed critical reaction, including negative reaction from novelist Ian Fleming, but the film did well enough to warrant a sequel: From Russia with Love. It was a bigger success than Dr. No both critically and commercially. Very importantly, From Russia with Love began the tradition of devising a radio-friendly pop song associated with the title. These songs became a key element of the James Bond brand and a cornerstone of the marketing of the films.

IV. You Only Live Twice
You Only Live Twice was the fifth James Bond film and upon its release Sean Connery announced his intention to abandon the character.  This installment was notable in that it used the title of the Ian Fleming novel but not the plot, a trend that would continue throughout the series as the character drifted further and further from the scope and tenor of the novels. You Only Live Twice also included Bond villain Blofeld, played by Donald Pleasence, a much imitated character who was the inspiration for Dr. Evil in Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers films.

V. Casino Royale (1967)
In 1967, the same year that Sean Connery left Eon Productions’ James Bond series, the franchise had one of its most unusual installments. The rights for the original Bond novel, Casino Royale, had initially been sold to producer Gregory Ratoff in 1955. After Ratoff’s death, the rights transferred to producer Charles K. Feldman. Feldman initially attempted to mount a joint venture with Eon Productions but was never able to come to an agreement with Eon producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Instead of making a straight adaptation of the source novel, Feldman decided to make a James Bond parody that incorporated the psychedelic styles popular in the late 1960s.

Casino Royale was a calamitous production. The very design of the movie invited a degree of chaos, since it is divided into chapters each directed by a different filmmaker. But the production was severely impaired by drama between cast and crew. Casino Royale included a number of heavyweight talents from that time including Peter Sellers and Orson Wells and the two men did not get along. Sellers was particularly difficult to work with and parted ways with the production before all of his scenes were shot. This, combined with script rewrites and other delays, resulted in cost overruns that doubled the budget and the film’s debut was postponed.

Casino Royale was released in 1967 and it was a commercial success although not a critical one. Orson Wells suggested that the box office success of Casino Royale may have had more to do with an effective marketing strategy and a poster that featured a naked, tattooed lady, rather than anything in the film. Looking at Casino Royale decades later it is absurd, erratic, and often incoherent. But at the same time it also an interesting souvenir of the psychedelic era.

VI. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Despite the departure of Sean Connery after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, Eon Productions moved ahead with the James Bond series with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. George Lazenby stepped into the lead role but he would only star as Bond for this film.

Aside from featuring Lazenby’s single Bond performance, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was also distinguished by its music. The James Bond films typically included a song that lyricized the film’s title. Composer John Barry realized that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was quite a mouthful and didn’t lend itself to a title song, so the film primarily featured score although songs were written for the film including “We Have All The Time in the World,” performed by Louis Armstrong.

VII. Diamonds Are Forever
After George Lazenby’s single performance as James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Sean Connery returned to the role for Eon Productions with Diamonds are Forever. Connery has made no secret that he was essentially bribed back to the role with a very significant paycheck.

Also returning to the Bond series was singer Shirley Bassey performing the title song. Bassey had previously recorded the track for Goldfinger and would later participate on Moonraker. She remains the only singer to provide multiple songs for the James Bond series.

VIII. Live and Let Die
Live and Let Die was the first Bond film to star Roger Moore. Although Sean Connery is popularly regarded as the best Bond and he certainly set the tone for the series, it’s the Roger Moore films that really sealed the popular image of the character. During Connery’s tenure, the James Bond stories were a mix of detective work with occasional action. The Moore films took the series is a fantastic direction with elaborate gadgets and a much more campy tone.

One of the interesting elements of the James Bond series is the way in which the character has proven pliable to the times. Although the basic elements of the character remain the same, the stories and situations have changed to reflect other cinematic trends. The villains of early Bond films directly and indirectly embodied the fears of Communism. Live and Let Die was made amidst the blaxploitation trend of the early 1970s and it incorporated urban settings and African American characters, including the first black Bond girl, played by Gloria Hendry. 

IX. The Man with the Golden Gun
The next film in the series, The Man with the Golden Gun, was the last picture to be co-produced jointly by Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. After The Man with the Golden Gun, Saltzman sold his stake in the Bond franchise to United Artists. This began the gradual corporatization of the character which would lead to legal complications in later years.

X. For Your Eyes Only
As the James Bond series entered the 1980s, a decision was made to pull back from the fantastical direction that the series had drifted toward, seen most obviously in 1979’s Moonraker, in which 007 was sent on a mission in space. For Your Eyes Only returned to the source material by combining plot elements from Ian Fleming’s novels Live and Let Die, Goldfinger and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Notably, For Your Eyes Only was the last Bond film to be distributed solely by United Artists, which merged with MGM soon after the movie’s release.

XI. Never Say Never Again
In the early 1960s, James Bond novelist Ian Fleming developed a script for a potential Bond film with producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham. This script, to be called Longitude 78 West, was never made. Fleming then took the idea and turned it into the novel Thunderball, which was subsequently adapted into a film by Eon Productions. McClory filed a lawsuit against Fleming but resolved the issue through a deal with Eon in which McClory would be able to adapt the Thunderball novel ten years after the Eon film was released. When the decade had passed McClory pursued his adaptation of Thunderball but was stonewalled by legal injunctions. Eon Productions claimed that McClory has the right to the story of Thunderball but not to the James Bond character. After several more years of legal wrangling, McClory not only produced his version of the film but was also able to enlist Sean Connery to return for his final performance as 007. The Thunderball-remake was titled Never Say Never Again, a title suggested by Connery’s wife as an in-joke regarding the actor’s previous declaration that he would never play Bond ever again.

As a result, the year 1983 saw the release of two James Bond films: Eon Production’s Octopussy starring Roger Moore and Never Say Never Again starring Sean Connery. The filmmakers of Never Say Never Again took note of Eon’s marketing strategy and included a title song for their picture performed by Lani Hall.

XII. The Living Daylights and License to Kill
Roger Moore completed his time as James Bond with 1985’s A View to a Kill. But Bond was back two years later with The Living Daylights staring Timothy Dalton. Dalton had originally been considered to replace Sean Connery in the late 1960s and again the early 1980s to replace Roger Moore, but in both instances Dalton walked away from the offers. When Dalton did finally accept the role, his films were a departure from the lighter and campier pictures that had distinguished Moore’s films. The Living Daylights and License to Kill took a harder edge and at the time of their release they were criticized for their violence. A third film with Dalton was planned but a legal dispute between Eon Productions and MGM stalled the production and Dalton resigned from the role.

XIII. Goldeneye
Once the legal disputes between Eon Productions and MGM were settled, the Bond series continued with actor Pierce Brosnan taking over the role in Goldeneye, released in 1995.

When production of the James Bond series resumed in the mid-1990s the filmmakers found themselves confronted by a new challenge. The original James Bond source novels had been Cold War-era spy fiction and the films to this point had directly or indirectly been about the Communist threat. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War it was unclear if James Bond still had any cultural currency. Fortunately action pictures of the 1990s had a decidedly apolitical tone as compared with the post-Vietnam action films of the Reagan-era like Rambo or the post 9/11 films of the next decade such as The Bourne Identity. During the 1990s, the ideology of the action film took a backseat to rollercoaster thrills and that is exactly what the Bond films of the Pierce Brosnan era delivered. In a way it was a return to the campier style of the Roger Moore Bond films but executed in a way that would appeal to an audience raised on videogames.

XIV. Die Another Day
The last Bond film of the Pierce Brosnan era was Die Another Day, released in 2002. Although it had a successful box office run, the film was very much an encapsulation of everything wrong with the action genre in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The picture had rampant product placement and it used action scenes as a distraction from the absence of a plot instead of the payoff to a carefully told story.

The James Bond films have on occasion rankled governments and religious organizations. Notably, the early James Bond films were criticized by the Vatican for their violence and sexuality while the Kremlin labeled them capitalist propaganda. Die Another Day received criticism from Asian countries. The North Korean government disliked the portrayal of their state and South Korean Buddhists boycotted theatres over a lovemaking scene near a statue of the Buddha.

XV. Casino Royale (2006)
After Die Another Day, the James Bond series required another reinvention. Taking a cue from the style of The Bourne Identity and following the trend of prequel and origin stories like Batman Begins, the James Bond series returned to the beginning with an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s original novel Casino Royale. Casting Daniel Craig in the lead role, the 2006 version of Casino Royale injected the Bond series with a fresh approach while maintaining the basic appeals of the character. The films of the Daniel Craig era are distinguished most by a palatable sense of both mortality and morality. Daniel Craig’s 007 was by far the most human James Bond of the film series but other characters, including the villains and the women, are also complex and compromised players in the action.

XIV. Skyfall
After the disappointing Quantam of Solace, the Daniel Craig era continued with Skyfall, which was unique both within the James Bond series and among contemporary action cinema in general. The James Bond films have generally avoided depth or emotional resonance. Bond has consistently been a flat character; he does not change much within or between films and he is typically unflappable and without weakness of character or fortitude. The James Bond of Skyfall is a complex and damaged character who must overcome personal demons and other challenges. The emphasis on character is part of a larger project of making Bond relevant for a post-9/11 audience that was begun in 2006’s Casino Royale. Skyfall continues that very aggressively and the film shows a self-awareness and intelligence about life in the age of international terrorism.

References and Further Reading
Those interested in further information about James Bond should check out the following:
  • James Bond and Philosophy edited by James B. South and Jacob M. Held
  • The James Bond Bedside Companion by Raymond Benson
  • License To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films by James Chapman
  • The Politics of James Bond: from Fleming's Novels to the Big Screen by Jeremy Black
  • Wikipedia: List of James Bond Films
  • Wikipedia: List of James Bond Novels and Stories

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

James Bond on Sounds of Cinema Nov. 25th

On November 25th, Sounds of Cinema will survey the James Bond film series from Dr. No to Skyfall. The episode will feature music from a variety of films in the series, including "unofficial" entries like the 1967 version of Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, as well as a full review of Skyfall.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Winona State Lecture on Nov. 14, 2012

I will be presenting as a part of Winona State University's Athenaeum Series at 1pm on November 14, 2012. The lecture is titled "Do Film Critics Matter?" and will be held on the second floor of the WSU Krueger Library. Here is the description of the lecture from the Athenaeum webpage:
Today film criticism finds itself at a crossroads. For most of the history of cinema, film criticism has been limited to a select few but with the advent of the internet, digital forces have democratized film criticism, flooding the market with new voices. And as digital sources erode print media, many film critics are finding themselves out of work. Simultaneously, films that are panned by both traditional and digital critics do extraordinarily well at the box office. This presentation will look at the change in film criticism and speculate on its value and function for the future.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Movies for Veteran's Day

Today is Veteran’s Day so here is a look at some related films. For this list I’ve chosen films that focus less on combat and more the lives of soldiers after the war.

The Best Years of Our Lives
Three World War II veterans return home and struggle to adjust to civilian life.

Born on the Fourth of July
Directed by Oliver Stone, this film tells the true story of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran who became a major figure in the anti-war movement.

Coming Home
Hal Ashby’s film focuses on a woman in a love triangle between her husband and a soldier who suffered a paralyzing combat injury.

Dead Presidents
An African American Vietnam veteran adjusts to life at home but economic desperation pushes him toward a life of crime.

The Deer Hunter
This film examines the way the experiences of the Vietnam War impacted people from a small industrial town.

The Great Santini
Based on the novel by Pat Conroy, this film focuses on a military family with a domineering father played by Robert Duvall.

The Hurt Locker
One of the few films about the war in Iraq to actually penetrate the public consciousness, The Hurt Locker tells the story of a bomb squad and the impact of a culture of war on the individual.

The Messenger
A wounded soldier is assigned to a Casualty Notification Team and is partnered with an experienced soldier who instructs him on the procedures of his job.

A documentary about American soldiers stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. The film includes interviews with the solders as they reflect on their service.

Stop Loss
A veteran of the Iraq war completes his tour of duty but is forced into re-enlisting. This film is notable since actors have become stars including Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Is the Fantasy Bubble About to Burst?

I've recently come across two pieces about the state of Hollywood studio movies. Neither one is very optimistic but both are worth a read.

David Denby has written a piece for The New Republic about the emphasis on superhero and fantasy entertainment in Hollywood and how the single-minded focus on popcorn cinema is pushing all other films out of the studios' slate of releases. It is a lengthy piece but an important one. Here is a relevant excerpt:
Yes, of course, the studios, with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm, make other things besides spectacles—thrillers and horror movies; chick flicks and teen romances; comedies with Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl, and Cameron Diaz; burlesque-hangover debauches and their female equivalents; animated pictures for families. All these movies have an assured audience (or one at least mostly assured), and a few of them, especially the Pixar animated movies, may be very good. The studios will also distribute an interesting movie if their financing partners pay for most of it. And at the end of the year, as the Oscars loom, they distribute unadventurous but shrewdly written and played movies, such as The Fighter, which are made entirely by someone else. Again and again these serioso films win honors, but for the most part, the studios, except as distributors, don’t want to get involved in them. Why not? Because they are “execution dependent”—that is, in order to succeed, they have to be good. It has come to this: a movie studio can no longer risk making good movies. Their business model depends on the assured audience and the blockbuster. It has done so for years and will continue to do so for years more. Nothing is going to stop the success of The Avengers from laying waste to the movies as an art form. The big revenues from such pictures rarely get siphoned into more adventurous projects; they get poured into the next sequel or a new franchise. Pretending otherwise is sheer denial.
I don't entirely agree with Denby's argument, as movies about fantasy and myth are not inherently without meaning. Films like the original Planet of the Apes, the Harry Potter series, and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy offer storytellers and their audiences a metaphor through which to deal with valuable or challenging ideas like race and class issues, growing up, and urban blight. But Denby is right that most fantasy films aren't trying to be more than just acceptably entertaining (see: The Avengers) and most studio films evade anything in the text, subtext, or filmmaking that is potentially innovative or challenging. He is also right on the broader point: blockbuster entertainment has crowded everything else out of the way and filmmakers interested in producing smaller, smarter, or more challenging films often have to struggle against the Hollywood machine to get their projects made and onto the radar of viewers.

A similar argument was made by Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski in an interview at The Huffington Post. Tykwer and The Wachowski's, whose film Cloud Atlas opened recently, explained that the emphasis on superheroes and spectacle might come to a forced end:
Do you think Hollywood doesn't give the audience enough credit to keep up with layered, ambitious storytelling?

Tom Tykwer: In particular they don't when it comes to movies that are being made for the big screen. If you want to raise a certain budget for a more spectacular experience on a large canvas, it seems it has to be connected to PG-spectacle. A superhero film. What really started missing a while ago was large-canvas filmmaking with substance. Something to discuss and revisit. Films that stay with you -- that become friends in your life. Films that you want to find other things out about. Something else to discover on your second and third viewing. That has moved to television or a certain type of art house movie. It is really struggling to survive on the big scale on the one we attempted to do.

Andy Wachowski: There's a supply-and-demand thing working there in Hollywood. The studios are making these big spectacles, but the audiences are going to see them.

Lana Wachowski: It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Andy Wachowski: Soon the audiences will stop going to see them -- and they will. We think it's hysterical that the studios are basing all of their films nowadays on superhero sequels, when just 20 years ago you saw the collapse of the comic book industry because they did the exact same thing. So, at some point, people are going to stop going to see [these movies] and the whole system will reinvent itself as something else.
The predictions of Debny, Tykwer and the Wachowski's may already be coming to fruition. In 2012 we saw the box office failures of John Carter and Battleship as well as the under performance of The Amazing Spider-Man, Dark Shadows, and Men in Black 3. The success of movies like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers may be enough to sustain interest in making these films for the same reason that the occasional lottery winner keeps the public buying tickets. But the fantasy bubble may burst and soon and when it does the studios will scramble to find a new source of revenue. When that happens it could bring about a resurgence of American film as it did in the 1970s or it could decimate the Hollywood studio system.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Political Films

On the off chance you haven’t gotten enough of electoral politics or (more likely) you are looking for an alternative to election night coverage and the cable news dissection that will follow, here are some films with political stories and subjects.

All the President’s Men
The story of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward breaking the Watergate story and subsequently bringing down the Nixon administration remains one the essential political movies.

The American President
This film tells the story of a widowed president who gets romantically involved with a lobbyist. The film plays like a dry run for The West Wing, as it was written by Aaron Sorkin and shares some of the same cast members. The film includes Sorkin’s droll banter but it also suffers from his obtuse speechifying.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story
This documentary about the career of Lee Atwater, a Republican political operative and the campaign chair for George H.W. Bush, is a terrific story of ambition and hubris. The film reveals how Atwater was among the primary architects of contemporary political campaigns.

This comedy about a Democratic senator suffering a mental breakdown has a raucous performance by Warren Beatty. Bulworth’s cultural references and racial politics are very much of 1998 but it remains an amusing and intelligent film.

Duck Soup
The Marx Brothers took on the absurdity of war in one of their best films. Fans of Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report should check it out.

This dark comedy about a high school student government election gone awry has terrific performances by Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick and it is among Alexander Payne’s best films.

The Great Dictator
Charlie Chaplin’s reworking of “The Prince and the Pauper” is a classic piece of political satire.

Ivan the Terrible
Sergei M. Eisenstein’s two part film was originally supposed to be three parts but Joseph Stalin hated the second part so much that Eisenstein was forbidden from completing it. Nevertheless, the surviving films are impressive work by one of Russia’s most important directors.

John Adams
This made-for-HBO miniseries has a grand scope but an intimate focus, telling the life story of John Adams and his family set against the formation of the United States. Other founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin also figure prominently in the drama.

The Lion in Winter
This story of King Henry II and his dysfunctional family is a classic of its genre and features a haunting score by John Barry.

Meet John Doe
Although it was made over seventy years ago, this film is as relevant now as it was then as it deals with media-created celebrities and political movements.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Another Frank Capra classic, this film is often cited as one of the director’s most uplifting and inspiring works but there is a cynicism underlying it.

Oliver Stone’s biopic of the 37th president is among the director’s best work, possibly his masterpiece. The picture is not a hatchet job; in fact, Stone paints a very sympathetic portrait of Richard Nixon, casting him as a tragic figure.

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism
Liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald examines the effect of Fox News on the media landscape and how “infotainment” impacts political discourse.

Directed by Barry Levinson, this documentary follows members of the Creative Coalition during the 2008 election while also exploring the overlap of entertainment and politics.

Oliver Stone is not usually recognized for his humor although films like Natural Born Killers, The Doors, and Scarface (which he wrote) all have quite a bit of comedy in them. W. is the closest Stone has come to a full on comedy and its contemptuous portrayal of George W. Bush contrasts with Stone’s more reverential portrait of Richard Nixon.

The War Room
This documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign is a very popular and respected documentary that did much to turn James Carville into a media personality.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

'V for Vendetta' at Winona State on Nov. 5

The Winona State University History Association is sponsoring a screening of V for Vendetta at 7:30pm on November 5, 2012 in the Somsen Auditorium on the Winona State campus.

Although I gave a mixed review to this film at the time of its release (you can find the review in the archive) , V for Vendetta has become an important motion picture. The Guy Fawkes mask worn by the hero has become an international symbol for resistance movements, popping up everywhere from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street. V for Vendetta is also interesting to screen at this particular moment since the film was adapted by The Wachowski's, whose film Cloud Atlas has recently opened, and the themes of revolution, identity, and consciousness run through their work.

Check out this video from the time of V for Vendetta's release, in which pundits debate the merits and political message of the film. Note: the following video includes spoilers.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special

The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween special will air:
  • October 30th at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN
  • October 31th at 10pm on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN
This show includes a variety of music from Halloween related films as well as other audio tricks and treats. This program is newly produced each year, so be sure to tune in for the soundtrack to your Halloween.

Movies about Ghosts, Hauntings, and the Beyond

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at films about ghosts, haunted houses, and the supernatural. Here is a look at the films discussed on the show as well as a few others.

The Amityville Horror
The Amityville Horror is a film in which the picture itself was secondary to the phenomena around the movie. The Amityville Horror was based on the book of the same name by Jay Anson which purported to tell the true story of a haunting in Long Island. After the book became a success it was a source of controversy and lawsuits as the claims in the book were questioned and some critics suggested that the haunting was a hoax. The film was remade in 2005 and it was surprisingly good, in some ways better than the 1979 original.

Beetlejuice was one of Tim Burton’s early feature films and it remains among his better movies.

The Beyond (aka Seven Doors of Death)
Lucio Fulci’s mixes zombies and haunted houses together in this dream-like film. It is considered among Fulci’s best work.

The Blair Witch Project
This wasn’t the first found-footage film but it was the first movie of its kind that got a nation-wide release and it is the template for all found-footage films to come since. The Blair Witch Project also set up a marketing template for using the internet and social media, still in its infancy in 1999, to build a buzz for a new release.

Based on a short story by Clive Barker, Candyman tells the story of a graduate student researching urban legends and discovers one that may be real. The film is smart and scary and was one of the best horror pictures to come out of the 1990s.

Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi returned to his roots with a film about a bank loan officer haunted by a recently foreclosed—and since deceased—customer. This film came out at the start of the current supernatural trend in the horror genre and it got lost but it is one of the better horror films of recent years.

Evil Dead II
Evil Dead II was a sequel to the low budget shocker released in 1981. The sequel is really a remake of the original film, meaning that it can be viewed independently, and in most respects Evil Dead II is a better movie than its predecessor. Directed by Sam Raimi, who went on to make the 2002 version of Spider-Man and A Simple Plan, the film has become a classic that successfully combines horror with comedy in ways that are comparable to Ghostbusters.

The Exorcist
The Exorcist was shocker at the time of its original release and it became a cultural phenomenon. The picture evoked something very deep in the audience and following its premiere there was a huge increase in demand for exorcisms. The furor over The Exorcist was such that evangelist Billy Graham claimed that the devil was actually embedded in the prints on the film.

The Fog
The Fog was directed by John Carpenter, a filmmaker who was very influenced by the science fiction and horror movies of the 1950s and the influence of pictures like The Blob is evident in The Fog. This film was remade in 2005.

Ghostbusters remains one of the great combinations of humor and horror. It’s primarily remembered as a comedy but Ghostbusters has quite a few shocks to it as well.

The Haunting
The Haunting is a classic horror film. Because it depends on insinuation and suggestion, this film has aged very well and its influence can be seen in more recent films like The Others and Paranormal Activity.

Hellraiser was written and directed by Clive Barker. At that time Barker was primarily known for his novels and short stories but he is also an accomplished playwright and painter. Hellraiser gave the world the character of Pinhead, although he is barely in the first movie. As the series progressed Pinhead gradually moved to the center of the series.

This Japanese film was remade for American audiences as The Grudge.

Monster House
Monster House is a motion capture animation film and one of the earliest films to be entirely produced using that process. Despite a marketing campaign that made the film look like a children’s picture, Monster House gets quite intense but it is a smart and well-made haunted house film.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
The second film in the Nightmare on Elm Street series combines the slasher film with the possession film. It is an uneven movie and isn’t very well regarded by the Nightmare fanbase, but the movie has some fascinating psychosexual content.

The Others
A moody supernatural mystery about a mother and her children plagued by supernatural activity. The Others is an impressive piece of filmmaking and it is a good example of how PG-13 horror can work.

Paranormal Activity
Although the series has since gone awry, the original Paranormal Activity is a very craftily made movie that uses limited resources to its advantage.

Poltergeist remains an excellent film that will scare its audience. It is also quietly subversive, suggesting that affluent suburban society is built on the dead.

This is the Japanese film that was remade for American audiences as The Ring. At the time it was the highest grossing horror film in Japanese history.

The Shining
The Shining was released in 1980 and in many respects it was the last gasp of big budget Hollywood horror films. After The Shining, the genre gave way to Friday the 13th and films like it, which tainted the horror label in the eyes of both mainstream critics and high profile filmmakers. The Shining was based on a novel by Stephen King but although King was initially enthusiastic that Stanley Kubrick was adapting his work the writer was disappointed with the final result, feeling that Kubrick missed the point of the novel. King wrote and executive produced a made-for-television adaption of The Shining broadcast in 1997.

The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense is a PG-13 haunting film and one that is probably for older viewers. This film goes get intense but the resolution leaves the viewer on a relieved note that softens the trauma.

Tales from the Crypt
Tales from the Crypt was a television show that ran on HBO from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The show was based on the EC Comics series of the same name and the show broke quite a few barriers at the time. Since it was on HBO the program was able to include bloody violence and explicit sexuality, something that was relatively new to television at that time. After its television run ended, Tales from the Crypt generated two theatrical features: Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood.

What Lies Beneath
This film has A-list actors in a story of supernatural intrigue with Harrison Ford cast successfully against type.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

89.7 KMSU Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato is currently holding its fall pledge drive in which the station asks listeners to show their support with a financial donation.

Pledge drives have two goals. The first is obvious: to generate the money that will keep KMSU on the air. Your donations cover the day-to-day overhead expenses of running the station so that the station's volunteers and staff can keep the programming coming to you.

The second goal of a pledge drive is about public relations. Space and money are at a premium across higher education. Your pledges demonstrate to the university that KMSU is an important and valued part of the community and allow the station and its staff to justify its existence. This means that the amount you give is not as important as the fact that you do give.

To make a pledge to KMSU, please call 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also visit and click on the "donate" icon. Leave your name, address, phone number, and the amount you would like to pledge. Please do not leave credit card information in an email or voicemail as they are not secure.

The October 28th edition of Sounds of Cinema heard on 89.7 KMSU FM will be a speical pledge drive edition that will showcase what this program has to offer. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM will hear the regularly scheduled broadcast, featuring a look at films about ghosts, hauntings, and the beyond.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Psychos, Serial Killers, and Madmen

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at films about psychos, serial killers, and other madmen. Here is a recap of the films addressed on the show and a few that didn't make it into the episode.

American Psycho
Adapted from the controversial novel by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho is about a Wall Street executive who spends his nights as a serial killer. The film significantly toned down the violence of the novel while emphasizing its dark comedy aspects and the movie was a successful adaptation that may have saved the book. Looking at the film more than a decade later, it is remarkably prescient in its depiction of a Wall Street employee who preys on the lower classes.

Basic Instinct
Basic Instinct is about a police detective trying to catch a murderer who is inspired by erotic fiction and it has a performance by Sharon Stone as one of the great movie villains. Basic Instinct was fairly controversial at the time of its release. The film is very violent and it was one of the first films to be threatened with the NC-17 rating by the MPAA.

Cape Fear
There are two versions of Cape Fear: the 1962 original staring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and the 1991 remake staring Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro. It is a draw as to which of these films is better although curiously they both use the same score by Bernard Herrmann.

In the early 2000s there were a string of direct-to-DVD biopics about serial killers including John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein. Dahmer was a surprisingly good dramatization of the Milwaukee-based serial killer, featuring Jeremy Renner in the lead role.

The Devil's Rejects
Rob Zombie followed up his directorial debut House of 1000 Corpses with The Devil’s Rejects and it was a significant improvement over its predecessor. Jettisoning the campy look of the first film, The Devil’s Rejects was a lean and nasty road film that was one of the best horror pictures of the 2000s.

Written by David Mamet, directed by Stuart Gordon, and starring William H. Macy, this film tells the story of a businessman who descends into madness.

Fatal Attraction
Another Michael Douglas thriller, Fatal Attraction is about a married man who is stalked by the woman he had an affair with. It is a very effective suspense picture with a number of memorable sequences and a frightening performance by Glenn Close. Fatal Attraction was a cause of debate at the time of its release, with some critics and feminists accusing the film of being misogynist.

Despite the fact that The Silence of the Lambs was a tremendous critical and commercial success, it would be almost a decade before the follow up novel was published and then adapted to the screen. Directed by Ridley Scott, Hannibal is a very different film from The Silence of the Lambs but it is also quite different from the source novel, making critical changes to the ending. It is a flawed film but it is also grotesquely beautiful.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a challenging and unpleasant movie but its nihilism is matched by the filmmakers’ earnestness. This is not an exploitation film and its treatment of psychopathology is far more serious than many Hollywood pictures dealing with the same subject.

Ichi the Killer
Directed by Takashi Miike, Ichi the Killer tells the story of an assassin who becomes a pawn in yakuza politics. The following video is NSFW.

M is one of German director Firtz Lang’s great pictures, maybe his greatest. The film is about a community’s reaction to a series of child murders and its influence can be seen in later movies like Zodiac and Summer of Sam.

The Silence of the Lambs was not the first film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels. In 1986 Michael Mann adapted the novel Red Dragon into Manhunter. This film features William Peterson as FBI profiler Will Graham and Brian Cox as Dr. Lecter. Stylized like Mann’s hit television series Miami Vice, Manhunter wasn’t a hit at the time of its release but it has since developed a strong following. The novel was adapted again in 2002 for a film directed by Brett Ratner and featuring Anthony Hopkins in his final turn as Dr. Lecter.

Maniac was released in 1980 and it remains one of the most disturbing films of all time. The picture is about a delusional serial killer, played by Joe Spinell, stalking women on the streets of New York. It is a very violent picture with effects by renowned makeup artist Tom Savini that were ground breaking at the time. Because of its extreme gore, Maniac was protested by film critics and women’s organizations. Maniac has recently been remade with Elijah Wood in the main role. The following video is NSFW.

Adapted from the novel by Stephen King, a writer becomes stranded with an obsessive fan of his work. Kathy Bates’ performance is very frightening and the scene in which she teaches the writer a lesson is one of the most memorable moments in horror.

Mommie Dearest
Based on the bestselling memoir, Mommie Dearest depicts the abusive childhood of Christina Crawford at the hands of her mother, screen legend Joan Crawford. The film was not a success at the time of its release but it has since become a cult classic.

Monster is a dramatization about Aileen Wuornos, a Florida-based prostitute who became a serial killer. The film has an incredible performance by Charlize Theron as Wuornos and the film manages to strike a balance between empathizing with this woman and her horrible life while not overlooking her crimes.

Natural Born Killers
Based on an original screenplay by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone, Natural Born Killers was perhaps the most controversial film of the 1990s. The film is a satire of media sensationalism and violence but it is criticized for being exactly what it was satirizing.

Play Misty For Me
Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut tells the story of a one night stand gone bad. Jessica Walter plays the deranged woman.

The original Psycho is often cited as the first contemporary horror film. It is a movie that changed horror filmmaking by introducing the killer with a psychosis, paving the way for everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Silence of the Lambs but it also changed Hollywood filmmaking in general by violating a lot of norms about what kinds of subject matter could be dealt with and how it could be presented.

Red Dragon
Directed by Brett Ratner, this turned out better than expected. Red Dragon is much closer in style to Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs than Ridley Scott's Hannibal or Michael Mann's Manhunter and it features cameos from some familiar faces including Anthony Heald as Dr. Frederick Chilton.

Reservoir Dogs
Quentin Tarantino’s first film features of a cast of criminals, some more psychopathic than others. This remains one of Tarantino’s best films, as it is made with a focus and discipline that has wavered in later pictures.

Director David Fincher has the distinction of directing two of the better serial killer films in American movies: Zodiac and Se7en. Although he had previously directed music videos for Madonna and Aerosmith and the feature film Alien 3, it was Se7en that introduced him to mainstream audiences and it remains among his best work.

The Silence of the Lambs
The Silence of the Lambs tells the story of an FBI trainee who gets involved in an investigation of a serial killer. Adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris, this is a great work of suspense and it introduced audiences to Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who is now regarded as one of the great cinematic villains.

Summer of Sam
Spike Lee’s dramatization of the Son of Sam killings in New York in 1977 focuses on a fictional group of young people and their families. The film is an interesting exploration of the ways fear can sweep people into hysteria.

Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese’s film about a New York cabbie teetering on the edge of a psychotic episode has become a classic and the line “You talkin’ to me?” has become part of the national vocabulary.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a story of sibling rivalry gone violent. Bette Davis performance in the title role is often cited as one of the great villains in film.

Zodiac is a dramatization of the investigation of the Zodiac Killer who terrorized the San Francisco area in the 1970s. This film puts a lot of police procedural television dramas to shame and it indulges the intricacies of actual police work.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sounds of Cinema Pre-Empted on KMSU on Oct. 21

Sounds of Cinema will be slightly pre-empted on Sunday, October 21 from 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato. The program will be split into segments so that the station can broadcast live from the Mankato Marathon. As a result, some of the music and other commentary on Sounds of Cinema may not be heard.

The episode can be heard in full at 9am that same day on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona. Those living outside the Winona broadcast area can hear the show online at

This Sunday's program continues the month-long Halloween theme, addressing movies about psychos, serial killers, and other madmen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Culvers fundraiser for KQAL FM

89.5 KQAL FM will have a fundraiser at Culver's restaurant in Winona, Minnesota  on Tuesday, October 16th from 5pm - 8pm. Ten percent of Culvers sales in that time period will be given back to the radio station. If you are in the area, please consider stopping by. Keep in mind that this only applies to sales from the Winona location.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Family Friendly Halloween Movies

On today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema I continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at family-friendly Halloween films: pictures that are scary or Halloween related and which parents ought to feel comfortable watching with their kids. Friends, family members, and others who have children have often expressed to me their frustration in finding movies that are family appropriate. Hopefully today’s show and the list below provide a few suggestions. However, please keep in mind that I am not a parent (truthfully, I’m not that crazy about kids) and different parents have different ideas about what is and is not suitable for children, so I suggest doing a little research of your own before selecting a title for family movie night.

The Addams Family (1991)
This was one of the better adaptations of a television show to a feature film. It is a little edgier than the show was but it is also a lot of fun.

Bride of Frankenstein
I like to suggest that viewers explore older movies whenever possible and holidays are a great time to do this. Halloween provides an opportunity to look back at horror classics like the Universal Monsters. These pictures were thought of as terrifying at the time of their initial release but now they are quite accessible, often about as scary as Disney films, and with their short running times they fit within the attention spans of young viewers. Of the Universal Monsters, the Frankenstein pictures are generally regarded as superior with Bride of Frankenstein the best of them.

The Burbs
A 1980s comedy in which a bizarre family moves into a suburban community and sets off paranoia among the neighbors.

Directed by Henry Selick and based on the book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline has a sophisticated take on childhood and it is one of the best animated films of recent years.

Corpse Bride
Tim Burton directed this film about a living groom who gets involved with an undead bride. It isn’t as popular as The Nightmare Before Christmas but in many ways it is the better film.

Creature from the Black Lagoon
Creature from the Black Lagoon is closer to a B-movies than other Universal Monsters but those qualities work in its favor as it is fast paced and has a sense of adventure.

The Dark Crystal
Since young people have been reintroduced to The Muppets in last year’s new Muppet movie, this may be a good time to revisit one of Jim Henson’s other projects: The Dark Crystal. This film was an attempt to push puppetry beyond the Muppets. That broader goal didn’t work out but the film remains a fun fantasy adventure.

I often regard Gremlins as a Christmas movie as it is set at Christmas time and makes broad swipes at the commercial aspects of the holiday season. But Gremlins makes for a good Halloween movie as well, although for a PG rating it gets pretty intense and it is often cited as one of the motivations for the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating’s board to create the PG-13 rating. 

The Harry Potter Series
Virtually any film in the Harry Potter series will do, although the films get increasingly mature as the series goes on. The best installments are the middle three (The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire, and The Order of the Phoenix).

Hocus Pocus
A trio of witches return from the grave on Halloween. Since its release this movie has been embraced in much the same way that A Christmas Story has become a part of many people’s December celebrations.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The Disney label is often associated with soft and cuddly characters but Disney’s feature films can be pretty scary, at least for kids, and their villains are often memorable characters. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the darker Disney animated features.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
In the mid-1980s, Steven Spielberg produced, wrote, and/or directed a string of movies that remain very frightening such a Poltergeist and Gremlins. For a long time Indy fans looked down on The Temple of Doom but since the release of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull its standing has improved. But with human sacrifices and violence against children, Temple of Doom remains a tough movie.

King Kong (1933)
Another classic film for Halloween viewing. There is a soulfulness to the stop motion animation ape of the original King Kong that neither the man in the suit of the 1976 version nor the computer generated 2005 edition quite match. If the original Kong is aged by anything it isn’t so much the special effects as it is the sexism and racism of the characters.

Monster House
A better and smarter film than it appears based on the trailer, Monster House is a great haunted house movie that has some strong frights but also moments of emotional resonance.

Monsters, Inc.
Monsters Inc. is fairly inoffensive, as are all of Pixar films, but it does have some great characters and a compelling idea.

Monster Squad
The influence of this overlooked family picture from the 1980s has shown up in recent R-rated films like Attack the Block and The Watch.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas is more of a Christmas movie than a Halloween film but it works well enough and features one of Danny Elfman’s best musical scores.

Return to Oz
This dark sort-of-sequel to The Wizard of Oz is sometimes bizarre and at the time of its release in 1985 it was considered too scary for children. But in the years since, Return of Oz has gathered a cult audience and contemporary viewers may find it worth revisiting.

The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense is a PG-13 haunting film and one that is probably for older viewers. This film goes get intense but the resolution leaves the viewer on a relieved note that softens the trauma.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Willy Wonka was criticized at the time of its release for being too mean spirited. But according to director Mel Stuart, those criticisms always came from parents but never came from kids, who understood and accepted the tone of the story.

The Witches
Another adaptation of a Roald Dahl book, The Witches is a well-made fantasy picture produced by Jim Henson although it is a little rough around the edges and has an absurd ending.

The Wizard of Oz
One of the essential family movies. In its time, the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys were considered too frightening for children but Margaret Hamilton’s performance endures as one of the great villains in Hollywood films.