Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Movies You May Have Missed

The year comes to an end this evening and right now Hollywood is pushing many of their prestige films in the run up to the industry’s various award ceremonies. Sounds of Cinema will feature its own countdown of the best and worst films of the past year in a forthcoming episode. But for now, here is a look at some of the underappreciated titles of 2018.

American Animals
This mix of documentary and drama was the true story of a heist gone bad. The mix of dramatic recreation and documentary testimonials opens new perspectives on the events and to limits of each genre.

Blockers was the tale of a group of high school girls who make a pact to lose their virginity on prom night and how their parents try to stop them. The film is a fun mix of raunchy comedy and good hearted drama.

One of several Black Lives Matter movies released in 2018, Blindspotting was the story of an African American felon (Daveed Diggs) with days to go on his probation when he witnesses a police officer shoot an unarmed citizen. Despite its wobbly ending, Blindspotting was a complex portrait of personal and cultural identity.

Border is a wonderfully weird Swedish fantasy picture. It’s best viewed cold but fantasy fans who are looking for something beyond superheroes should seek it out.

A novel zombie film starring Martin Freeman, Cargo takes the genre in new directions and offers emotional resonance that’s unusual for a horror film.

2018 has been the year of the political film but while everyone is talking about Vice and Blackkklansman one of the best and most provocative political releases of the year was Chappaquiddick, a drama about US Senator Ted Kennedy’s infamous 1969 car accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne. It has a complexity and intelligence that exceeds many of the other political films of 2018.

Lean on Pete
One of several “boy and his animal” movies of 2018, Lean on Pete is a terrific character piece about a teenage runaway. The story consistently takes the audience in unexpected directions.

The HBO drama was the latest collaboration between filmmaker Barry Levinson and actor Al Pacino. The film dramatizes the end of Joe Paterno’s career as Penn State’s football coach following revelations of child abuse by his former assistant coach.

Searching took the cross-platform found-footage genre to the next level in a gripping tale of a lost teenager.

A Simple Favor
Paul Feig’s adaptation of Darcey Bell’s novel was a stylish and fun mystery. Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively were terrific together.

Loosely based on a true story, Tag was a comedy of middle aged men who continue a childhood tradition. Although parts of it are calculated (and a few jokes are miscalculated) the film has an enjoyable sweetness and it's a refreshingly good-hearted take on masculinity.

Upgrade isn’t exactly original. The movie repurposes a lot of familiar sci-fi tropes but it does so in a way that is fun and fresh.

Widows was well received by critics but it was underseen by audiences. The film was an exciting thriller with some great performances. It’s the kind of film that would have been an Oscar contender a few decades ago, before the Academy Awards became preoccupied with political statements.

You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsay’s latest work isn’t what you might call a “feel-good movie” but it is a relentlessly bleak thriller about a hired gun (Joaquin Phoenix) who earns his living tracking down missing and kidnaped children.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Movies that Rock

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at movies that rock. Here is a recap of the films discussed on the show.

Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Elvis Presley’s third feature for MGM was one of his biggest box office hits. The movie was considered scandalous in its day, as Presley’s character was a murderer recently released from prison. At the time of its release, Jailhouse Rock got mixed reviews but the sequence of Presley performing the title song is now regarded as on the most important musical moments in Hollywood history and Jailhouse Rock has been added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture show began as a stage show that was adapted into a feature film. At the time of its release in 1975 the movie was a financial failure but it became one of the essential cult titles. The Rocky Horror Picture still plays at late night showings where the audience speaks back and interacts with the film and live performers sometimes act out in front of the screen. 

The Blues Brothers (1980)
The Blues Brothers was the first feature film to be spun off of a Saturday Night Live skit. The titular characters were played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and the movie featured cameos by James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Cab Calloway among others. According to a retrospective in Vanity Fair, the owner of Mann Theaters (one of the biggest chains in the nation at that time) refused to book The Blues Brothers in suburban show houses because he insisted that white audiences would not want to see a movie with black musicians. The Blues Brothers played in about 600 theaters, about half the size of a typical wide release. Despite the hiccups, The Blues Brothers was a hit and became one of the most popular movie musicals.

Sid & Nancy (1986)
Sid & Nancy featured Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, the former bassist of The Sex Pistols, and focused on his relationship with Nancy Spungen, played by Chloe Webb. The movie captured the chaos and ugliness of the punk rock scene of the 1970s and provided an unsparing depiction of drug abuse.

Wayne’s World (1992)
The song “Bohemian Rhapsody” was one of Queen’s biggest hits but its popularity was given a boost in the 1990s with its appearance in Wayne’s World. That movie was the most successful adaptation of a Saturday Night Live skit and Wayne’s World included cameos by Meatloaf and Alice Cooper. As part of the promotion for Wayne’s World, the music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” was recut to include scenes from the film. Not incidentally, Mike Myers has a cameo in the film Bohemian Rhapsody as an EMI record executive.

Across the Universe (2007)
Across the Universe was a musical that used the songs of the Beatles to tell its story of youth working their way through the social upheaval of the late 1960s. The story is a bit generic ’60s but the musical numbers were interesting and director Julie Taymor brought her characteristic visual flair to the project.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)
Scott Pilgrim vs the World was directed by Edgar Wright and, along from Baby Driver, this is the best example of Wright’s use of music. The film interweaves the songs into the action, sometimes underscoring the drama and at other times glibly poking fun at the characters.

The Runaways (2010)
The Runaways was a biographical film about the band of the same name. Kristin Stewart was cast as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning played Cherie Currie with Michael Shannon as band manager Kim Fowley. The movie had terrific energy and authentic period detail.

Rock of Ages (2012)
Based on the stage show, an Oklahoma girl arrives in Hollywood looking to break into the entertainment industry. Rock of Ages isn’t a great film. It suffers from a pair of uninteresting leads played by Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta but those who love 1980s hair metal ought to enjoy it. The film has a great supporting performance by Tom Cruise as rock star Stacee Jaxx.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Named after their signature song, Bohemian Rhapsody is a biographical feature film about the rock band Queen. The movie largely succeeds because of its cast. Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury and he captures Mercury’s charisma and stage presence. But just as impressive as the bravado are the ways Malek brings humanity and some complexity to a larger-than-life rock and roll icon. This film also has some exceptional musical performances, namely a recreation of the band’s performance at the 1985 Live Aid benefit concert. It is a breathtakingly shot, acted, and edited musical sequence that is a fitting tribute to Mercury and to Queen. 

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)
Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical. Driven by the disco music of Abba, this story was always intended to be a lighthearted, feel good show. The sequel continues that quality and it delivers more of what audiences enjoyed in the stage musical and its 2008 feature film adaptation. The story is thin. Here We Go Again is mostly an excuse to string together a series of musical numbers and the movie does that well but the Mamma Mia! sequel has no drama and virtually no stakes. But it does deliver lighthearted musical fun that fans of the original picture should enjoy.

A Star is Born (2018)
2018’s A Star is Born is the fifth iteration of this story following George Cukor’s 1932 picture What Price Hollywood? and subsequent feature film remakes in 1937, 1954, and 1976. The 2018 version stars Bradley Cooper (who also directs) as a rock and roller fueled by booze and drugs and Lady Gaga as a waitress who becomes a pop music sensation. 2018’s A Star is Born is arguably the best version of this story. It may not reinvent the show business narrative but it retells this story with intelligence and depth as well as an impressive visual style. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are terrific and Cooper makes this one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent memory.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special 2018

Halloween is upon us again and that means it is time for the annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special. This program provides the soundtrack for your Halloween with an hour of music from scary films as well as some other audible tricks and treats. Each year's program is newly produced so be sure and tune in.

The Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will air at 11pm on Tuesday, October 30th on 89.5 KQAL FM. The show can be heard again at 10pm on Wednesday, October 31st on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota and on 91.3 KMSK FM in Austin, Minnesota.

You can hear the Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special over the air and online at each station's website and on your mobile device using the TuneIn app.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Halloween Series Retrospective

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the history of the Halloween film series. The franchise has spanned forty years and been subject to numerous sequels, reboots, and remakes as well as countless imitators. What follows is a look back at the phases of this series and its many ups and downs.

Halloween (1978)
Directed by John Carpenter and co-written by Carpenter with producer Debra Hill, Halloween has a simple story. On Halloween night in 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers murders his sister. Fifteen years later he escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his hometown, stalking a babysitter and the children in her care.

There are different kinds of horror films. Some, like Cannibal Holocaust and Antichrist, plumb the depths of evil and depravity. Others, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Herschell Gordon Lewis, go for the gross out. These sorts of movies are endurance tests that put us through gastric and emotional ringers and oftentimes leave the viewer with an unclean feeling. Those movies are distinct from a third category of horror film, those pursuing the scare. These movies are frightening but also fun and they release the viewer’s anxieties instead of exacerbating them. 1978’s Halloween is a prime example of the clean scare. The movie is frightening but it is a pleasing sort of scare that creates tension through masterful execution.

Everything in Halloween is synchronized to set up and pay off a scare and its success is rooted in its craftsmanship. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is an excellent example of using framing to create a scary mood. Potential victims wander in the darkness or they do mundane things in the foreground while danger creeps in from the edges of the screen. The film also has adroit use of sound. The filmmakers place sounds effectively and the music of Halloween is one of the great film scores.

Halloween introduced one of American cinema’s great villains with Michael Myers. However, Michael doesn’t actually appear much in the movie. Like the shark of Jaws, the killer of Halloween is shown just enough to be effective and the camerawork and the music fill in his presence as do the terrifically melodramatic speeches by Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis. Pleasence is another key to the movie’s success. He’s cast as Michael Myers’ psychiatrist and he sells the gravity of the situation and fills in what we don’t see. Another critical casting success of Halloween is Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, the lead babysitter. In her debut feature film role, Curtis balances intelligence and fortitude with vulnerability. Laurie Strode isn’t an action hero but she does defend herself and the children in her charge. The focus of this movie remains on Laurie and her friends and they feel authentic and accessible. That emphasis makes Halloween more engaging than many of the slasher films that followed.

Halloween’s influence on the horror genre and on American culture can hardly be overstated and for that reason alone it is an important piece of work.  But Halloween is also one of those rare films that achieves cinematic perfection. Every aspect of the filmmaking is executed with such intelligence and craftsmanship that it transcends its exploitative foundation to become a work of art.

Halloween II
When Halloween was released in 1978 it was a box office sensation. The picture made an estimated $47 million against a production budget of $325 thousand and Halloween is frequently cited as one of the most successful independent movies ever made. But Halloween’s success was unique because its success was both commercial and critical. Unlike a lot of its imitators, Halloween earned many positive reviews. Roger Ebert compared it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

After Halloween did so well, other filmmakers set about making imitators. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Terror Train, Motel Hell, and New Year’s Evil were just some of the slasher titles released in 1980. Of them, Friday the 13th was particularly important. Halloween had been distributed by Compass International, a small company, and it opened regionally. That means Halloween opened in one theatrical market, played for a while, and then the prints were shipped to another market. By contrast, Friday the 13th was acquired by Paramount, one of Hollywood’s major studios, and the movie opened nationally on over one thousand screens following an aggressive marketing campaign. This had never happened before and Friday the 13th reaped enormous financial rewards. Following that, other studios began acquiring and distributing slasher films. And so it came to pass that Universal distributed 1981’s Halloween II. Unlike its predecessor, Halloween II had a wide release and it opened at the top of the box office chart.

Halloween II was a continuation of the original story, starting where the first film ended. Michael Myers continued to stalk the teenagers of Haddonfield, Illinois and eventually tracked Laurie Strode to the local hospital. Jamie Lee Curtis returned for the sequel although she spent most of the movie in a hospital bed. Laurie comes to discover that she is in fact Michael Myers’ long lost sister. Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence continued to chew the scenery as Dr. Loomis. Unlike the open ending of the original picture, the climax of Halloween II implied that Michael Myers’ story was complete.

The original Halloween was not intended to inspire sequels and John Carpenter was not really interested in making it. But Carpenter and co-writer and producer Debra Hill realized that the sequel would get made with or without them and so they joined the production. Several other key crew members returned for Halloween II, namely cinematographer Dean Cundy, but directorial duties went to Rick Rosenthal. Carpenter’s directorial touch is noticeably absent. Halloween II did an admirable job of matching the look of the 1978 film but it wasn’t nearly as polished. Halloween II is a sloppier and sleazier movie than its predecessor. It followed the trends in the horror market at that time by including gore and nudity and a lot of the kills are staged clumsily. Michael Myers moves so slowly and is so overexposed that he comes across like a monster from a 1950s drive-in movie. Some cast and crew members reported tension on the set between Rick Rosenthal and John Carpenter and Carpenter stepped in to direct some second unit work.

Despite its flaws, Halloween II was a box office success in 1981 and the movie has proven to be one of the most popular entries in the series among Halloween’s most ardent fans.

Halloween III
After the success of 1981’s Halloween II, plans were made for a third installment. However, the next film would be a very different project. The decision was made to pivot away from the slasher subgenre with the hope of reimagining Halloween as an anthology series. Each film would tell a new spooky yarn centered around the holiday. Halloween III: Season of the Witch told the story of an evil corporation whose Halloween masks contained a deadly secret. The film had more in common with The Twilight Zone than it did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Released less than a year after the second film, Halloween III was not a financial success and the fans hated it. There’s endless speculation as to why that might be. At the time, the slasher film dominated the horror genre and the box office charts. The genre tends to go through phases and the audience wasn’t necessarily receptive to the kind of horror offered by Season of the Witch. Also, coming off the second film, the audience had been conditioned to associate Halloween with Michael Myers and the new approach probably caused confusion among the viewers. It’s also worth pointing out that Season of the Witch was released in 1982, a year that also saw the release of Blade Runner, Star Trek II, TRON, Conan the Barbarian, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Creepshow, Friday the 13th Part 3, Poltergeist and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, among others, and the sci-fi/fantasy/horror market was flooded with competition.

Halloween III was written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, who had previously been the production designer on the original film and would go on to direct the 1990 television adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Wallace proved a competent filmmaker and the movie had some ambitious ideas. Season of the Witch is a smart and sardonic take on corporatization, especially the way in which our lives are shaped by products and slogans. It’s also about the ubiquity of television and the way the media has penetrated our homes.

Although it disappointed at the time of its release, Halloween III has enjoyed a reevaluation in recent years. In some respects, Season of the Witch was ahead of its time and horror audiences have begun to catch up with it. Had this movie been a success it might have led to a very interesting series of films.

Halloween 4 & 5
After the box office failure of 1982’s Halloween III, the series took a respite. John Carpenter and Debra Hill left the franchise to work on other projects and control of Halloween consolidated in producer Moustapha Akkad. A filmmaker in his own right, Akkad had financed the original Halloween and remained involved in the second and third installments. Akkad was interested in giving the audience what they wanted and he rightly recognized that viewers wanted to see Michael Myers. The fourth Halloween film, subtitled The Return of Michael Myers, was released to theaters in 1988 and its financial success vindicated Akkad’s instincts.

While returning the series to its roots, Halloween 4 also shifted the focus. It brought back the infamous killer as well as Dr. Loomis, played again by Donald Pleasence. It also introduced a new character, Jamie Lloyd, played by child actor Danielle Harris. Jamie was the daughter of Laurie Strode, who had died in an off-screen car crash. Halloween 4 and the sequels that followed this line of continuity were about the relationship between Michael Myers, Jamie Lloyd and Dr. Loomis. Danielle Harris proved to be an impressive young actress and Donald Pleasence turned up the drama, with Loomis developing a Captain Ahab-like obsession with Michael.

Halloween 4’s success is partly due to the way it played to the audience but it is also a well-made film. In fact, The Return of Michael Myers is one of the best slasher pictures to come out of the 1980s. It provides everything that the audience is looking for in a movie like this and does it with style. The movie also has a terrific twist ending that could have sent this franchise in new and compelling directions.

Following the financial success of the fourth movie, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers was rushed into production and was in theaters less than a year after its predecessor. Halloween 5 continued the story of Michael Myers, Jamie Lloyd and Dr. Loomis but it didn’t follow the implications of The Return of Michael Myers and wasted a terrific setup. Instead, Halloween 5 mostly reiterated a lot of Halloween 4 but without that film’s style or execution and it often fell back on gore and slasher movie clichés. The filmmakers attempted to expand the Halloween mythos with the introduction of the Cult of Thorn but this was underwritten, almost an afterthought, and was handled clumsily.

Halloween 5 was not a success. The movie remains the lowest grossing title in the entire series. The Revenge of Michael Myers primarily suffered from simply being a mediocre slasher movie that was indistinguishable from any other low rent Halloween knock off. But there was something else happening in the cinema market at that time. Halloween 5 opened in 1989, the same year as A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. All of them disappointed at the box office. The reign of the slasher film, which had been one of the most popular and profitable trends throughout the 1980s, had come to an end.

The Curse of Michael Myers
The horror genre goes through cycles in which certain kinds of films are popular to the exclusion of others. The genre also experiences lean periods in which audiences don’t show up to the box office and Hollywood studios aren’t making these films. Such was the case in the early 1990s. The heyday of the slasher film was over. It had been replaced by more realistic kinds of stories like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Silence of the Lambs.

After Halloween 5 failed at the box office the series languished for a few years as the producers struggled to figure out what to do with it. The 1989 film had ended on a cliffhanger that no one seemed very interested in resolving. Closure would finally be attempted with 1995’s Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. The film attempted to make something out of Halloween 5’s messy ending but the result was itself a disaster and, among the fans, probably the most contentious entry in the series.

The sixth Halloween originally went into production with the subtitle The Origin of Michael Myers. The film intended to explain the source of Michael’s evil and his invincibility. The answer to that was a convoluted backstory involving an ancient Celtic cult. The movie mixed the familiar stalking scenarios with supernatural evil reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. Among the problems with The Curse of Michael Myers is that it was so far afield from the original movie that it no longer resembled the original idea. Michael Myers was introduced in the 1978 film as a violent psychopath in its purest form. He had no empathy or personality. By the end of that film he’s come to represent something more sinister. Like his trademark facemask, Michael Myers is empty on the inside. He’s evil in the theological sense—which is to say the absence of good—poured into the body of a man. That’s why Michael Myers is often referred to as The Shape, because he is just the silhouette of a human being. Giving Michael Myers a motive or making him the tool of a cult completely misses the point.

The Curse of Michael Myers had a difficult production. The completed movie was shown to a test audience who did not like it. The picture went through a significant reshoot and reedit that reduced the length of the movie, inserted gore and removed exposition, and completely reworked the ending. However, actor Donald Pleasence died between principal photography and the reshoot. The filmmakers had to piece together the new climax and the result didn’t make any sense.

The eighty-eight minute theatrical cut of The Curse of Michael Myers opened in cinemas in the fall of 1995. Although it was profitable the movie was regarded as a disappointment. However, the original version, dubbed “The Producer’s Cut,” began circulating on bootlegged VHS tapes and fans clamored for an official release. They finally got their wish in 2014 when Shout! Factory issued the Producer’s Cut on Blu-Ray. The Producer’s Cut contains about forty-minutes of alternate or additional footage and has a different tone than the theatrical cut. It also makes more sense, in and of itself, but the climax lacks intensity and the Cult of Thorn storyline is stupid. Ultimately, neither version of The Curse of Michael Myers can be seen as the definitive cut. They are different takes on a fundamentally bad idea.

Halloween H20 & Resurrection
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers was released during a slow period in the horror genre. That lull would be broken the next year with the release of Scream. Written by Kevin Williamson and featuring the original Halloween within the diegesis of the story, Scream reinvigorated the horror genre with a self-aware and sardonic style. The movie was a huge hit and one of the defining titles of the 1990s. Horror was back.

Starting with The Curse of Michael Myers, the Halloween franchise was now owned by Dimension Films, at that time a subsidiary of Miramax (which was owned by Disney), and Halloween went from an independent series to a corporate product. Dimension had also released Scream and they set about trying to reimagine Halloween in a way that would play for the 1990s audience. Realizing that the Thorn storyline wasn’t going anywhere and wasn’t doing anything for anybody, Dimension made a bold choice. The new film discarded with all of the continuity following 1981’s Halloween II and caught up with Laurie Strode, again played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Laurie was now a divorced mother raising her son in an isolated private school when Michael Myers shows up to finish what he started in 1978.

Released to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the original movie, 1998’s Halloween H2O was one of the better sequels in this series. Kevin Williamson was hired as a producer and the film has a post-Scream feel but not in a way that was obnoxious. H2O was directed by Steve Miner, who had previously helmed Friday the 13th Part 2 and 3 and Miner knew how to tell this kind of story and make it scary. Jamie Lee Curtis also brought a lot of credibility to the film as her character struggles with post-traumatic stress. H2O wasn’t without its flaws. The Michael Myers mask did not look anything like the original and in fact it changes throughout the film. The film included an original score written by John Ottman. However, cues were moved around and parts of Ottman’s score were omitted in favor reusing excerpts from the score to Scream. H2O also forced a stupid ending onto the finale that painted subsequent filmmakers into a corner.

The success of Halloween H2O led to another installment and Dimension Films followed one of the best sequels in the franchise with one of the worst. 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection had an interesting core idea. Channeling The House on Haunted Hill, a web-based reality show hires contestants to spend the night in Michael Myers’ house. Naturally, Michael shows up and starts picking them off.

Resurrection was ahead of its time but in a way that has caused it to age terribly. The movie is a parade of stupid and nonsensical choices but none more so than the pre-title sequence in which Laurie Strode was killed. The relationship between Laurie and Michael was the heart of that continuity of films and to summarily kill the character with no payoff or resolution was a cheap gimmick to allow Dimension to put Jamie Lee Curtis on the poster. The cast also featured rapper Busta Rhymes as the show host and the Halloween series’ lowest moment is probably Rhymes climactic kung-fu fight with Michael. Resurrection saw the return of director Rick Rosenthal, who had previously helmed Halloween II, and the ineptness of this film clarified the extent to which John Carpenter’s interventions probably salvaged the 1981 film.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween
In the early 2000s, musician turned filmmaker Rob Zombie found success writing and directing House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects. House of 1000 Corpses was a mess. Zombie had tremendous technical acumen but too often the movie was a disconnected cacophony of images. The Devil’s Rejects, however, was a masterwork and one of the best horror films of the 2000s. This caught the attention of Dimension Films and the producers of Halloween. At this time, horror remakes were all the rage following the box office success of new versions of Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the decision was made to give Rob Zombie the job of rebooting Halloween.

Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween was very much his own film. It reused some of the key elements of the 1978 picture, namely the mask and the musical themes, but it was stylistically distinguished and deliberately vulgar. The major innovations were packed into its first half which dramatized Michael Myers’ transformation from a troubled ten-year-old boy and into a psychopath. This portion of the movie is masterfully unsettling as Michael’s personality disintegrates and he becomes a mute killer. In the second half of the film, Michael Myers escapes and returns to Haddonfield and the remake mostly adheres to the structure and plot of the 1978 film. The latter half of 2007’s Halloween is certainly weaker than the first half, in part because Rob Zombie is much more interested in Michael than in his victims who are not interesting and frequently obnoxious.

2007’s Halloween was successful enough to warrant a sequel. Rob Zombie returned but made a very different film. 2009’s Halloween II focused on Laurie Strode, played by Scout Taylor Compton, as she copes with the aftermath of the first film. Where 2007’s Halloween was split between new material and retelling the original story, 2009’s Halloween II was in all new territory. Zombie turned everything up to eleven and the movie is unrelentingly grim with extremely brutal violence and explicit sexuality but it also has some extraordinary visuals. Halloween II took the audience into the mind of Michael Myers and discovered his motivation and in the process it blurred the line between reality and fantasy.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween couplet is a flawed but unique set of movies. Unlike a lot of horror remakes from the 2000s, which either lazily reiterated the original movie or cashed in on a title with no regard for the source material, Zombie’s Halloween films were germane to the core idea but stood on their own and were ambitious and even thoughtful. But like a lot of Zombie’s other work, they were overproduced and excessive. The films were also disconnected from the concept of The Shape. Unlike the force of nature in the 1978 film, Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers is a man-child who has lost connection with reality and just wants his family back. The Freudian psychology, and the films’ ultraviolent white trash aesthetic, might have been better suited to a remake of Friday the 13th.

Halloween (2018)
Horror in the 2000s had been defined by ultraviolent gore pictures like Saw and Hostel as well as remakes of nearly every major property in the genre including Dawn of the Dead, The Amityville Horror, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. As is often the case, what the horror genre started the rest of Hollywood imitated and remakes of all sorts were released. In the 2010s this took another turn with the soft reboot or nostalgia sequel. Movies like Creed, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens found major success reinvigorating dormant franchises by making new movies that appended onto the continuity of the existing series.

Concurrent with the advent of the nostalgia sequel, horror found renewed currency. In fact the genre may be in the middle of a new golden era of horror with movies like The Witch, The Babadook, Hereditary, and A Quiet Place, among others. Interesting, the patron saint for many of these filmmakers was John Carpenter. His influence, and especially the legacy of Halloween, can be found in many recent films including It Follows, The Purge series, The Hateful Eight, and the television show Stranger Things

One of the major architects of this horror renaissance was Blumhouse. The studio specialized in horror and has had a string of successes including Get Out, Insidious, and Sinister. In 2015, Dimension Films lost control of the Halloween franchise and Blumhouse stepped in. A new Halloween film, directed by David Gordon Green and co-written by Green and Danny McBride, went into production with John Carpenter producing and providing the score alongside Cody Carpenter and Daniel A. Davies. Jamie Lee Curtis agreed to reprise her role as Laurie Strode. The resulting film, simply titled Halloween, was a direct follow-up to the 1978 film and ignored the continuity of the other sequels.

2018’s Halloween reset the series and thereby did away with the concept that Laurie Strode is actually Michael Myers’ sister. This returned Michael to his origins as a random predator and the new movie makes him scary in a specific way that hasn’t been seen since the original movie. The film largely focused on Laurie, who has been coping with post-traumatic stress for the past forty years, and Jamie Lee Curtis did an impressive job in the role. We can see a hint of the teenager from the original film but decades of anxiety weigh on the character and Curtis brings that out vividly in her performance.

Halloween (2018) also succeeds as a nostalgia sequel. Like Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the new film found a way to reinvigorate the series while playing to audience expectations. It matched the look and tone of the 1978 film and it is an example of fan service done right. References to the older movies are there but are never obnoxious. The movie suffers from some out of place humor and the premise undoes the ending of the 1978 film. But 2018’s Halloween was the best sequel in the series and the box office results have been impressive.

Where Halloween goes from here is unclear. The success of the latest installment makes future Halloween films a near certainty. The 2018 picture appears to bring Laurie Strode’s story to a close and any future films are probably going to have to strike out in new areas. But surveying this series, it is clear that the Halloween concept is pliable enough to adapt to new generations and durable enough to survive creative mistakes.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Frankenstein and Other Literary Horrors

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at literary horror films. 2018 is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein and so the program examined a few adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel as well as other horror movies derived from literary sources.  What follows are the movies discussed on today’s show.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
 Frankenstein was originally published in 1818 and written by Mary Shelley. The title refers to a scientist who stitches together the remains of corpses and brings the being to life. The doctor is repulsed by his creation and rejects him. After a time, the monster returns to terrorize Frankenstein and his family. The book has been the source of numerous adaptations for screen and stage as well as the inspiration for a lot of mad scientist tales.

Although film adaptations of Frankenstein trace back to the silent era, the defining Frankenstein films were produced by Universal in the 1930s and 40s. The series began with 1931’s Frankenstein, directed by James Whale with Colin Clive cast as the doctor and Boris Karloff as the monster. Karloff’s makeup had little to do with the descriptions in Mary Shelley’s novel and are largely the work of make-up artist Jack Pierce who came up with the flat head and the bolts in the neck. This design became iconic and inspired countless Halloween decorations. The monster terrified audiences of 1931 but Karloff imbued the character with a childlike innocence that made him sympathetic. The popular image of Frankenstein’s monster is now inextricable from the 1931 film and the ongoing popularity of the story probably owes as much to Karloff, Whale, and Pierce as it does to Mary Shelley.

Karloff, Whale, and Pierce reunited for Bride of Frankenstein which is often cited as the high point of Universal’s classic monster series. The studio continued to make Frankenstein films—seven entries in all—including crossover titles like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, making Universal’s monster series the original cinematic universe. After Bride, the Frankenstein films became inconsistent. The monster acquired the ability to speak, something Karloff was unhappy about, and he played the character just once more in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The role of the monster would go to other actors including Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Glenn Strange but Karloff would return to Universal’s monster series as Doctor Gustav Niemann in 1944’s House of Frankenstein.

Thirty years later, Mel Brooks sent up the Universal films with Young Frankenstein. Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy was both a parody and a loving homage to the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 40s. Brooks tracked down Ken Strickfaden who had been the production designer on the Universal Frankenstein films and Strickfaden still possessed many of the props which he loaned to the filmmakers. Young Frankenstein was as much the product of Mel Brooks as it was Gene Wilder who co-wrote the script and played the lead as the grandson of the infamous scientist. Brooks has said he considers Young Frankenstein to be his best work as a director.

In the 1950s and 60s, the horror genre was dominated by Britain’s Hammer studio. The company remade many of the classic monster stories that Universal had found success with a couple of decades earlier. In 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Peter Cushing played the doctor and Christopher Lee was cast as the monster. (Cushing and Lee would subsequently be cast as Doctor Van Helsing and Count Dracula in Hammer’s The Horror of Dracula.) Lee’s monster was a stumbling idiot who was dispatched in the climax of the first movie and Hammer’s subsequent Frankenstein series was unique in that the stories focused on the doctor. In each movie, Baron Frankenstein would try new experiments that toyed with the boundaries between life and death and unleashed horrors on the nineteenth century British countryside.

One of the most unusual Frankenstein films was Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound. All versions of Frankenstein are science fiction but this gave the premise a contemporary twist. Channeling a bit of Star Trek, a scientist (John Hurt) is transported from 2031to 1817 where he meets Doctor Frankenstein and his monster (Raul Julia and Nick Brimble) and is flung into the events of the novel. But the scientist also meets Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) who is working on her book. It’s a bizarre film that delivers the Frankenstein story while taking a self-aware angle. It is also one of the first films that attempted to be faithful to the original material.

The 1994 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel was directed by Kenneth Branagh who also starred as Doctor Frankenstein. Throughout the 1990s, Branagh directed some well received adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, making them feel cinematic and contemporary. He did the same with Frankenstein and the film had tremendous energy and impressive production design. With a few minor deviations, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein lived up to its title as the most faithful adaptation of the novel. 

Frankenstein continues to find its way on screen with filmmakers taking passes at Mary Shelley’s novel or using it as inspiration for new stories. I, Frankenstein offered a dumb but fun superhero take on the monster while Frankenstein’s Army revisited the themes of the original story in the context of a war movie. There are also cult titles like Frankenhooker and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (aka Flesh for Frankenstein) which gave the material a necrophilic twist. And Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie adapted the story in a way that was accessible to family audiences.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula originated as a book by Bram Stoker published in 1897. The book was not a major financial success although it was successfully adapted to the stage. The first film version was 1922’s Nosferatu but this adaptation was unauthorized and Stoker’s estate waged a legal battle against it with the court eventually ruling that all prints of Nosferatu were to be destroyed. But some copies survived and Nosferatu is now regarded as one of the definitive titles of German Expressionist cinema. Ironically, the success of Nosferatu reignited interest in Stoker’s novel and it’s now one of the most popular books of its era.

Dracula had many screen adaptations and the title character has appeared in over 270 films. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, that makes Count Dracula the most portrayed literary character in film. The two most renowned portrayals are Bela Lugosi’s turn in Universal’s 1931 film and Christopher Lee’s many portrayals of the Count for Hammer. What is notable about Lugosi and Lee is that they portrayed Dracula as a suave and sophisticated aristocrat where the vampire of Stoker’s novel was not so attractive. Lugosi and Lee set the tone for subsequent cinematic vampires especially other versions of Dracula and other actors to don the cape include Jack Palance, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and Gerard Butler.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is the story of paranormal researchers who spend the night in a haunted mansion. It was the basis for two feature films. 1963’s The Haunting was directed by Robert Wise (who also helmed The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still) and it is widely regarded as one of the best haunted house pictures. The film is so scary because of what it doesn’t show. The haunting might be real or it might be all in the characters’ heads. The suggestion allows for mystery but also psychological complexity.  A remake of The Haunting helmed by Jan DeBont (director of Speed and Twister) was a released in 1999. It was the stylistic opposite of the 1963 movie. The remake was a big budget special effects show that was entertaining but had none of the depth of the 1963 picture. The Haunting of Hill House was recently made into a series for Netflix.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde told the story of a scientist who concocts a serum that turns him into a belligerent monster. The concept is so ubiquitous that the title of the book has become shorthand to describe a two-faced or unpredictable person. Film adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde trace back all the way to the silent era. Notable actors to play the dual roles include John Barrymore, Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and John Malkovich.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells 1896 book The Island of Dr. Moreau is the story of a mad vivisectionist who creates a race of creatures on a remote island. The book has been adapted to film several times. The best regarded version is 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls. The book was subsequently adapted in 1977 in a film starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York and a 1996 version starring Marlon Brando and David Thewlis.

Various works by Edgar Allan Poe
Throughout the 1960s, the stories of Edgar Allan Poe were adapted to the screen in productions often starring Vincent Price. These include The Bat, House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, and The Tomb of Ligea, among others. Price got Poe in a way that was very special. The best evidence of that is 1970’s An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe which was simply a recording of Price reciting the stories aloud. Poe’s work was also the basis for Extraordinary Tales, an animated anthology with narration by Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, and Guillermo del Toro, among others.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

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 simply believe in independent media, 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 station's website.

This pledge drive has a $25,000 fundraising goal. The money primarily goes to KMSU's overhead expenses. Most of the local programs, including Sounds of Cinema, are produced by volunteers. Your pledges go directly to keeping the station on the air so that all of us can keep sharing our passions with you.

KMSU offers a variety of extraordinary and unique programming that is valuable to the community. The station allows local businesses, artists, and community organizations exposure they would not get otherwise. It is a truly independent voice in this community. Our playlists are not dictated from corporate offices nor are our views and opinions restrained by marketing departments and partisan talking points. Whatever goes over the air is the result of the dedication, effort, and passions of the station’s staff and volunteers. That feature is increasingly unique in broadcasting and KMSU represents something that the community ought to be proud of.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. The reality is that radio—like everything else—costs money. Every piece of media that you hear, watch, or read costs somebody something to make into a tangible and accessible reality. Don’t kid yourself; music and movies and radio programs do not magically appear out of nowhere. They are the result of time and effort and investment. That’s where you come in. As consumers and citizens, we express what we want by the way we spend our hard-earned dollars. Every day we vote with our wallets whether it is at the market, at the local movie theater, or through a public radio pledge drive. And just like the goods of your favorite store, your support will determine whether or not KMSU’s product continues to exist.

It's also important to remember that pledge drives are about more than money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify the station's continued existence.

Also, keep in mind that KMSU is a part of the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations. This is a separate organization from Minnesota Public Radio and MPR's fundraising dollars  do not go to KMSU.

On Sunday, October 21st, 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.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Legacy of the Living Dead

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the themes and legacy of George A. Romero's landmark zombie films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). What follows is one of a series of commentaries featured on the program, with this one looking back at the legacy of Night of the Living Dead and its many sequels and imitators.

Night of the Living Dead is one of the most influential films in the horror genre and in American cinema. George Romero and company did not invent the zombie. These creatures had featured in movies before 1968 such as White Zombie and Voodoo Island. But in most of those films the zombies were mindless slaves controlled by a villain. Night of the Living Dead set the zombies loose and the movie created the template for a whole genre of films.

Romero would continue to follow up Night of the Living Dead throughout his career, starting with Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and then Day of the Dead in 1985. He returned to the genre in 2004 with Land of the Dead and followed it with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Romero’s later films failed to recapture the impact of his earlier work but Day of the Dead has enjoyed a reappraisal in recent years.

Night of the Living Dead producers John A. Russo and Russell Streiner also continued to work in the zombie genre, writing the story for 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. Directed by Dan O’Bannon, this film was a comic take on the zombie genre and has its own devoted fan following. Return of the Living Dead inspired four sequels.

John Russo also spearheaded one of the most unusual artifacts in the Living Dead pantheon. To coincide with Night of the Living Dead’s thirtieth anniversary, Russo oversaw a special edition of the film that included fifteen minutes of newly shot footage and a new music score. This version was—rightly—disparaged by the fans and has all but disappeared.

Night of the Living Dead was lauded for its black and white cinematography but the movie has had several colorized editions and a 3-D conversion. The movie has also been remade twice, both in color. The 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead was produced by George Romero and directed by Romero’s frequent special effects collaborator Tom Savini. It was a noble effort that both revisited and updated the material. A 3D remake of Night of the Living Dead starring Sid Haig was released in 2006.

Night of the Living Dead inspired a couple of animated projects as well. 2009’s Night of the Living Dead: Re-Animated is a mixed media remake that uses the audio from the 1968 film and recreates the visuals through various styles of animation. 2015’s Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn was a sort-of remake of the original story told through computer animation and featuring the voice talents of Tony Todd and Bill Moseley.

Aside from direct sequels, remakes, and spin-offs, Night of the Living Dead inspired a whole genre of zombie films whose entries are too numerous to count. Films such as the Resident Evil series, [REC], Night of the Creeps, Zombie, World War Z, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and the television show The Walking Dead all trace back to the 1968 film. The influence isn’t limited to the shuffling, undead cannibals. Night of the Living Dead created a boilerplate that filmmakers have followed for the past fifty years and most zombie films adhere to the siege formula originated in the 1968 movie. Night of the Living Dead also established a political framework and a set of socio-economic themes that have formed a baseline for most of the zombie films of the past half-a-century.

There are some signs that the zombie genre might finally move beyond Night of the Living Dead. The past few years have seen the release of some innovative titles. The Girl with All the Gifts and ParaNorman and Cargo and It Stains the Sands Red made a deliberate effort to move the zombie genre into new and interesting places. But whatever the future of this genre might be, the zombie film is inexorably tied to the efforts of  George A. Romero and his crew and the little horror movie they made in between beer commercials in rural Pennsylvania.

For more on Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, click here

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Haunted House Movies

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema kicked off the month-long Halloween theme with a look at haunted house pictures. What follows are the movies discussed on today’s show as well as some additional titles.

The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Amityville Horror was based on the supposedly true story of a haunting experienced by the Lutz family in their Long Island home. The facts in the case have been a matter of dispute but that controversy only added to the mystery of the Amityville haunting. The 1979 movie was enormously successful and inspired a series of sequels although the follow ups had little to do with the original material. A remake of The Amityville Horror was released in 2005.

The Beyond (1983)
Lucio Fulci is one of the legendary directors in the horror genre. His movies were mostly known for their gore but he mounted ambitious productions on small budgets. Many of Fulci’s fans consider 1983’s The Beyond (also known as The Seven Doors of Death) to be the director’s masterpiece. The movie concerns a hotel constructed over a gateway to hell. At the time of its release, The Beyond was subject to censorship and like most of Fulci’s films it was critically derided but it has since achieved a modest reputation as a work of surrealist horror.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods was a high concept metafiction about the clichés and subgenres of horror. It was a witty and generally smart picture that was also a bit cynical about the attraction of horror for the audience. 

The Changeling (1980)
A man mourning the death of his wife and child rents an isolated mansion and is accosted by the spirit of a murdered child. Martin Scorsese named The Changeling one of his favorite horror films.

The Devil’s Candy (2017)
The Devil’s Candy is an exceptional example of domestic horror. The family relationships are the strongest element in the film. The father and daughter, played by Ethan Embry and Kiara Glasco, share a love of heavy metal music and the soundtrack includes songs by Pantera and Metallica. This complements the film’s visual style which channels the demonic imagery of heavy metal album cover art. 

Hellraiser (1987)
The Hellraiser franchise is now synonymous with the character of Pinhead but the original movie is really a haunted house picture. A married couple move into the husband’s childhood home but the reanimated corpse of the husband’s older brother is living in the attic and he seduces the wife into bringing him victims so that he can regenerate the rest of his body. Hellraiser was one of the best horror pictures of the 1980s and it’s one of the best debut features by a director in the genre.

House (1986)
A troubled novelist moves into the home of his recently deceased aunt in order to complete his next book. The movie isn’t a horror comedy but some of the visuals are a bit silly in a way that makes the movie campy fun. Interestingly, House was produced by Sean Cunningham, director of Friday the 13th, directed by Steve Miner, who helmed Friday the 13th Part 2 and 3, and features a music score by Harry Manfredini, who scored Fridays 1 – 6.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Directed by William Castle and starring Vincent Price, The House on Haunted Hill tells the story of a millionaire who offers ten thousand dollars to five people who agree to be locked in a spooky house overnight.

Monster House (2006)
Monster House is a good example of a family movie that respects the intelligence of both kids and their parents. This is an animated film but it gets pretty intense and is thematically heavy while managing to be appropriate for the family audience.

The Orphanage (2007)
A couple renovates an orphanage into a home for handicapped children and their son plays with imaginary friends who might be ghosts. The Orphanage is a thoughtful haunted house picture. It may not deliver the shocks of a mainstream horror film but it does tap into something that is mysterious about childhood. The Orphanage was directed by J.A. Bayona who also directed this year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

The Others (2001)
Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, The Others is a very effective haunted house movie. The story concerns a mother and her two children who have an allergic reaction to sunlight. The mother maintains strict control over the household but her grip is disrupted by supernatural phenomena.

The People Under the Stairs (1991)
In the late 1980s and early 90s, Wes Craven wrote and directed a series of horror films for Universal Pictures. Among them was 1991’s The People Under the Stairs. The movie is fundamentally a haunted house picture but not in a supernatural sense. The story involved a young boy who breaks into his landlord’s house and discovers a terrible secret hidden in the walls. It’s one of Craven’s wildest and most entertaining pictures.

The Shining (1980)
Based on the book by Stephen King, The Shining has been adapted twice. The more popular version is the 1980 motion picture directed by Stanley Kubrick. This film starred Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple who spend the winter as caretakers of an isolated hotel and the husband gradually goes insane. King was unhappy with Kubrick’s film, as it diverged greatly from the novel, and he produced a made-for-television remake that aired on ABC in 1997.

Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist was a very intense and quite successful haunted house picture in which a family’s youngest daughter is abducted by ghosts. Released in 1982, the movie was rated PG but it is more intense than that rating suggests. Poltergeist inspired two sequels and a television series. A remake of the original film was released in 2015.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Sounds of Cinema October Programming 2018

It’s October and that means it is time for a month of Halloween-related programming on Sounds of Cinema. Each episode this month will take a look at a particular theme or set of films and feature music to match. Here is a preview of what’s to come:

October 7: Haunted House Movies
Sounds of Cinema will kick off October with a look at haunted house movies including The Beyond, The Amityville Horror, and The Devil’s Candy. The show will also feature reviews of The House with a Clock in its Walls and Hell Fest.

October 14: Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of George A. Romero’s seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead and the fortieth anniversary of its sequel Dawn of the Dead. This show will take a look back at the two films and how their legacy continues to shape horror and the zombie genre.

October 21: Literary Horror Films
2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the novel Frankenstein. This episode of Sounds of Cinema will take a look at some of the film adaptions of Mary Shelley’s book as well as other esteemed horror literature adapted to the silver screen. Listeners of 89.7 KMSU FM will hear the pledge drive edition of Sounds of Cinema.

October 28: Halloween Series Retrospective
This episode will survey the Halloween series from John Carpenter’s 1978 classic through its many sequels and reboots. The show will also include a review of the newest installment in the series.

October 30: Halloween Special
The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will provide the soundtrack for your All Hallows Eve with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music. The show is anticipated to air the evening of Tuesday, October 30th. Exact air times are yet to be determined.

Sounds of Cinema’s regular broadcast can be heard every Sunday morning on the following stations:
  • 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and online at
  • 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and online at

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Look at Recession Cinema

This September marks the tenth anniversary of the 2008 economic crisis that begat the Great Recession. According to the Brookings Institute, this event was the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that job losses were unprecedented. The causes of the 2008 collapse are somewhat complicated but the crisis was rooted in the home mortgage market. Banks loaned money to customers who could not afford to pay it back and then repackaged those home loans as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations that financed other parts of the economy like pensions and retirement savings. When enough home owners defaulted on their mortgages, the whole system came crashing down, taking some of the largest investment banks in the world with it and destroying American wealth. Forbes reports that the median family net worth dropped 40% between 2007 and 2010 with the brunt of the loss felt by the middle class. 

In the ten years since the start of the Great Recession, filmmakers responded with stories about economics, power, and capitalism. What follows is a brief look at some of the notable titles in the genre I call recession cinema.

Documentary Films
Documentary filmmakers were the primary cinematic responders to the economic crisis. The recession was decades in the making, with its origins reaching back to the Reagan and Clinton administrations, but for most people—including the political and economic elite and the journalists covering Wall Street—the events of 2008 seemed to come out of nowhere. The financial press corps in particular failed to understand and report what was happening until it was too late. In the aftermath, documentary filmmakers stepped up to explain the crisis and untangle a convoluted web of confusing financial jargon and political corruption.

One of the first recession documentaries was I.O.U.S.A. This film exposed the extent to which the American economy was propped up on unsustainable credit and it was released in August 2008, about a month before the economic collapse metastasized into a national and global crisis.

Filmmaker Michael Moore also got in on recession cinema with 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Like a lot of Moore’s movies it was entertaining and rabblerousing but it was also a little unfocused. In fact, Capitalism: A Love Story might capture Moore’s best and worst tendencies more severely than any of his other films. But Capitalism: A Love Story is notable for the extent to which it was in touch with the struggles of everyday Americans. Very few filmmakers put the stories of middle and working class people on the screen but Moore’s movie did that in some heartbreaking sequences of people being evicted from their homes. At the time of its release, Moore teased that Capitalism: A Love Story might be his final movie but he has continued to produce and direct since then, most recently this year’s Fahrenheit 11/9.

Also notable among recession documentaries is The Queen of Versailles. Lauren Greenfield’s film documents the lives of David and Jackie Siegel of Westgate Resorts who owned one of the most elaborate homes in the United States. The filmmakers captured the way their lavish lifestyle hit the skids during the recession. But the portrait of the Siegels was not flattering and David Siegel filed a defamation lawsuit against the filmmakers but ultimately lost.

Any survey of recession cinema must include Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job. In less than two hours this film broke down exactly what happened and explained it in a way that was accessible to general audiences but also put the crisis in a larger context. Inside Job explained the relationships between Wall Street bankers, Washington bureaucrats, private and government regulators, and celebrity intelligentsia who unwittingly conspired to create an economic house of cards. Inside Job remains the definitive documentary about the 2008 crash and it is mandatory viewing for anyone trying to grasp what happened.

To the extent that they could, documentary filmmakers filled in a gap left by the popular press. There can be no denying that business journalists missed the biggest financial story of the last thirty years. But documentary features, which can take years to make, are no substitute for everyday coverage provided by regular publications. Cinema simply cannot get into the details the way that a book or a series of exposés can. And documentaries are also easier for the public to ignore than a consistent stream of news from local and national outlets. That’s especially true in a polarized media environment where the documentary genre has become increasingly politicized.

Feature Films
The economic collapse of 2008 filtered through different filmmaking genres and made an impression on movies that might not otherwise have taken notice of economics. For instance, Bridesmaids is an unusual romantic comedy precisely because the economic instability of the lead character is such an important part of the story. A lot of romantic comedies are about wealthy and glamorous people or proletariats who become bourgeois by falling in love with a wealthy person. Although it doesn’t dwell on the matter, economic anxiety is a key part of Bridesmaids and shapes the internal and external conflict of the main character.

Also notable was The Dark Knight Rises. Economic resentment underlines the way in which supervillain Bane recruits an army of disillusioned Gotham citizens to turn the city into a miniature failed state. It was surprising to see such an overt political theme in a studio tentpole film and The Dark Knight Rises remains unique in that respect. None of the superhero films since have taken on such ideas.

Filmmaker Uwe Boll made a point of exploiting recession anxiety. The filmmaker, who is generally derided but has nevertheless carved a niche for himself in the industry, directed a number of revenge fantasies in which a heavily armed assailant opens fire on the political and economic ruling class. Among these was 2013’s Assault on Wall Street which is exactly what it sounds like.

One of the most interesting titles in recession cinema, and one that has been underappreciated, was Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 picture The Girlfriend Experience. The film is about a high class escort, played by Sasha Grey, who caters to wealthy Wall Street clients. The film is cerebral but it also makes a pointed analogy between this woman’s occupation and what her clients do for a living. More generally, The Girlfriend Experience explores the commoditization of our personhood, a theme Soderbergh would revisit in his Magic Mike movies. The Girlfriend Experience has since been adapted into a television series.

Aside from slipping into the subtext of a lot of features, the recession also provided filmmakers with narratives about people directly affected by the collapse. A few productions attempted to tell stories about average folks starting over, such as Larry Crowne and Everything Must Go, but these films weren’t very good. Much more popular and more successful were dramas about people working in the banking industry. Margin Call is among the most impressive of these. The film dramatizes a twenty-four hour period in which the staff of an investment bank realizes their firm is on the brink of collapse. Margin Call does the job of drama with the characters working through complex moral and ethical problems. It is also an incisive portrait of cutthroat capitalist survival and the final monologue delivered by Jeremy Irons puts the collapse in a larger historical context.

Based on the nonfiction book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the HBO feature Too Big to Fail dramatizes the 2008 financial collapse by focusing on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his inner circle as they attempt to stave off an economic collapse while negotiating with the United States Congress and the major investment banks. Too Big to Fail neatly summarizes what happened in the fall of 2008  and how the response to the crisis was compromised by free market ideologies and the power structure of Washington and Wall Street.

Similar to Margin Call and Too Big to Fail but with a very different tone was 2015’s The Big Short. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short dramatized the true story of investors who identified the mortgage bubble for what it was and positioned themselves to make a great deal of money when the bubble burst. The Big Short was very funny except when it wasn’t and the film subversively questioned the ways we measure success.

Other notable banking dramas included Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere as a compromised hedge fund manager, and 99 Homes about the eviction of homeowners by unscrupulous mortgage lenders.

One of the unusual banking films in recession cinema was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to the 1987 film. Michael Douglas returned as Gordon Gecko and the film focused on how he rebuilds his brand. The 2008 collapse is actually a set piece in the Wall Street sequel and Gordon Gecko’s return is a metaphor of the power and resilience of the banking system.

Hollywood’s Cognitive Capture
Hollywood’s failure to tell stories about the average working class citizen and its emphasis on the economic elite reveals the industry’s own biases and blind spots. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, many of us wondered how the business press and the regulatory agencies failed to see it coming. The answer was cognitive capture; the journalists and regulators were so close to the people and institutions they were supposed to monitor that they saw the world and the economy the same way the bankers did. The observers didn’t have the critical distance to think outside of the box. Hollywood is just as susceptible to this kind of thinking and it shows in their movies.

Hollywood’s cognitive capture is evidenced by two titles. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was based on the life and crimes of Jordan Belfort. The film does not evade Belfort’s misdeeds but it does certainly glamorize them and his debauched lifestyle. In this film, Belfort was an antihero but he was still nevertheless characterized as a hero. Even though he’s punished in the end he’s never really remorseful. The penultimate scene of Belfort in a minimum security prison is a wink and nod to the audience. The Wolf of Wall Street tapped into the American taste for excess and the movie was among the biggest box office successes of Scorsese’s career.

Another example is the 2015 remake of Poltergeist. The movie demonstrated a dim aware of the housing crisis. A family has purchased a new house after suffering an economic hit and losing their previous home. The new house is large and spacious and well-kept but Poltergeist includes a bizarre dialogue exchange between the parents and their upscale friends. While hosting a house warming party, one of the guests makes a clumsy remark about how the family is now living in a bad neighborhood. It sounds as though the family is living on skid row but in fact it is the kind of home many Americans only dream of owning. The faux economic hardship of Poltergeist comes across as a wealthy Hollywood producer’s idea of what poverty looks like.

American cinema’s focus on Wall Street and forsaking of Main Street is an inevitable outgrowth of the industry’s focus on spectacle. Hollywood—and by this I mean American cinema as a whole, not just major studios—is a dream factory. They are in the business of manufacturing fantasies. In feature films we see people who are better looking than we are but also more courageous and more successful. The titans of Wall Street embody that fantasy. As much as Americans might claim to identify with the simple tastes of blue collar heroes, the fact is that many successful Hollywood films give us just the opposite and the audience eats it up. This brings to mind Ronald Wright’s famous observation that average Americans “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hollywood plays to that delusion. They also reinforce it.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Summer 2018 in Review

Labor Day represents the end of the summer movie season so here is a look back at the past few months. The industry rolls out its prestige pictures in the fall and winter but the summer is all about entertainment and box office. The summer most clearly demonstrates Hollywood’s priorities and the season allows insight into what the production and exhibition industries are doing right and doing wrong.

The Box Office Returns  .  . . Sort Of
The summer of 2017 was dominated by headlines about the depressed box office which was the worst in twenty-five years. Less attention was paid to the box office of 2018. According to The Hollywood Reporter, revenue was up by fourteen percent and this summer is projected to be the fifth best season on record. However, the attendance figures—the actual number of tickets sold—was the second worst since 1992. That means fewer people were going to the theater and paying more money to do so. Even though both attendance and revenue were up over last year, the overall trend is not a healthy one for theaters.

Where Are the Family Films?
Something that’s been missed in the reporting of the summer box office was the dearth of family films. By this I mean movies that are rated G or PG and are intended for parents and small children. (PG-13 action films don’t count.) Over the last twenty years Hollywood has mostly given up on this field. Admittedly, some G and PG hits of earlier decades like Planet of the Apes, Jaws, and Top Gun would probably get a PG-13 rating today but a PG title like E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial just isn’t fashionable right now and isn’t a part of Hollywood’s release slate. Aside from animation houses like Pixar, no one is turning out truly family oriented movies and the only notable animated releases of summer 2018 were Incredibles 2 and Hotel Transylvania 3. This lack of family films may help explain the overall lack of ticket sales. Where a title for older audiences may attract single or double ticket buyers, a family film will attract parents and their kids who purchase three to five tickets at a time.

Still More Sequels
One of the ironies of the 2018 summer box office recovery is its reliance on sequels. The dominant narrative of the 2017 season was that audiences were staying away because of “franchise fatigue.” However, eleven of the top twenty films of summer 2017 were franchise titles. In 2018, franchise releases accounted for fourteen of the top twenty summer films. Clearly, “franchise fatigue” wasn’t the answer. What was different was quality. Summer 2017 was dragged down by such lousy films as The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Transformers: The Last Knight. The summer of 2018 had its own disappointments like The Meg (which was lousy but nevertheless an international box office hit) and Mile 22 but the major releases were generally of high quality and the box office reflects this.

What to Make of Solo?
The popular understanding about Solo: A Star Wars Story is that the movie was a financial disappointment. But the numbers indicate something a little more complicated. Solo earned $213 million domestically and $392 million worldwide, putting Solo among the top ten grossing movies of the year so far and among the top five titles of the summer. But there are two variables here. The first is cost. Variety reports the production budget of Solo to be about $250 million with another $150 million spent on promotions. And since studios and theaters split the ticket revenues, Solo would have to make about $800 million just to break even. The second issue is expectations. This is the first Star Wars title under the Disney regime to make less than one billion dollars worldwide and it is the lowest grossing live action Star Wars feature film (unadjusted for inflation). Solo’s failure has bigger implications for the summer box office and for the industry as a whole. If a movie can be among the year’s top earners and still be a financial disappointment that indicates studios are spending too much money and have unrealistic box office expectations. That’s not sustainable and it could very easily blow up in Hollywood’s face.

Smart and Subversive Films
The summer box office is synonymous with popcorn entertainment and 2018 certainly provided that with titles like Avengers: Infinity War, Crazy Rich Asians, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout. But there was a surge of smart and subversive movies, many of them by filmmakers of color, that provided an alternative summer movie experience. BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, The First Purge, and Blindspotting were in touch with the political zeitgeist and offered stories that were innovative and challenging as well as entertaining. Although prestige titles are usually released in the fall, a few summer releases will likely be candidates for best of the year lists including Eighth Grade and First Reformed. Documentaries also did very well including the Ruth Bader Ginsberg profile RBG and the Mr. Rogers biography Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The latter became the highest grossing biographical documentary. These films are encouraging. They represent an artistic bedrock underneath Hollywood’s decadent extravagance and these titles point a way forward when the event film paradigm eventually crumbles.

In Summary
The Best of Summer 2018:
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Blindspotting
  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • Eighth Grade
  • First Reformed
  • Hereditary
  • Incredibles 2
  • Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • Tag
The Worst of Summer 2018:
  • Bad Samaritan
  • The Book Club
  • Life of the Party
  • The Meg
  • Mile 22
  • Super Troopers 2

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Brief History of Sharksploitation

Yesterday’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a review of The Meg, the big budget killer shark film adapted from the novel by Steve Alten. The Meg is bad but not in a way that is any fun and that makes it a disappointing exception in the killer shark film genre. This niche of movies is quite prolific and it has generated a lot of titles that achieve a sublime schlockiness that is undeniably entertaining.

Jaws remains the de facto shark film. This movie wasn’t entirely original—monster movies had long been a staple of Hollywood—but Jaws was executed in a way that elevated the material into a perfect combination of populist entertainment and cinematic craft. But Jaws was—at its heart—the kind of monster picture that would have played at a drive-in a few decades ago and one of the attractions of monster movies in general and the killer shark genre in particular is their unapologetically low brow thrills. The iconic Jaws poster art captured this appeal.

Jaws ushered in a wave of killer shark movies such as Up from the Depths, Devil Fish, and Tintorera as well as other animal attack pictures like Grizzly and Orca. The 1981 Italian film Great White [also known as The Last Shark] followed the formula a little too closely. The picture was so similar to Jaws that Universal successfully sued to keep it out of US theaters.  The shark movie genre has never really gotten past Jaws and films as diverse as Open Water and Deep Blue Sea and Shark Tale continue making deliberate references to it.

The Jaws series quickly descended into studio financed versions of the low budget sharksploitation churned out by independent filmmakers. Following the respectable Jaws 2, Universal embraced the B-movie nature of the genre with 1983’s Jaws 3-D. A reworking of Revenge of the Creature, the film plays like a comic book version of a shark movie as a giant great white goes on a rampage inside of a fantastical reimagining of Sea World. Jaws 3-D was released just as stereoscopy was going through a resurgence (one that would end shortly after the movie’s release). The 3-D format required a particular lighting and photography style and this combined with the sci-fi-like setting, the odd special effects, cornball dialogue, and the colorful 1980s production design resulted in a motion picture that is one of the most satisfying pieces of killer shark shlock.

Most of the shark films released from the late 1970s through the 80s were low budget affairs that tried to replicate the Jaws formula. Like the 1975 film, these stories revolved around a large man-eating shark that arrives at a tourist destination just in time for the resort’s grand opening. The hero is usually a blue collar type who fights the shark as well as a corrupt politician or business owner who is willing to put people in harm’s way for the sake of dollars. The films typically conclude with a fishing expedition in which the shark is spectacularly destroyed.

The Jaws formula triangulates conflicts between the individual, nature and society. These stories are primarily about our primal fears but secondarily about social anxieties. In these pictures, mankind engages in a struggle to survive with one of nature’s greatest predators but the protagonist also participates in a moral contest with the community. The endings of these films tentatively reaffirm man’s dominion over the earth while also questioning civilization’s priorities.

Other shark movies made at this time deviated from the Jaws formula. One of the popular alternative approaches combined shark action with crime stories and undersea treasure hunts such as 1975’s Shark’s Treasure and 1979’s The Shark Hunter and 1988’s Night of the Sharks. These films strayed from the primal thrills of the Jaws-formula with scenarios that were cynical and often brutal. One of the unfortunate qualities of these films was the routine killing of actual sharks. Many animals, especially tiger sharks, were often abused by the production and killed on camera.

After 1987’s Jaws the Revenge ended Universal’s high profile killer shark series the genre faded out until the late 1990s. One of the major titles kicking off this new wave was 1999’s Shark Attack. This film and its contemporaries adhered to the Jaws formula but instead of relying upon clumsy mechanical sharks or enlisting real ones to be killed on camera, the movies of the Shark Attack-era used documentary footage (even if it didn’t necessarily fit into the continuity of the action). Shark Attack heralded a new era of killer shark movies that included Red Water and Blue Demon and Shark Zone as well as sequels to Shark Attack.

In between the post-Jaws fad and the debut of Shark Attack, the Discovery Channel had massive success with its annual Shark Week programming. There was always a tension in Shark Week between the Discovery Channel’s stated goal of providing educational programming and commercial-driven sensationalism. This played out in Shark Week’s mixed messages as fear mongering shark attack documentaries were intercut with calls for shark conservation. Over three decades, Discovery’s Shark Week programming has gradually gotten dumber and in recent years the channel has become one of the biggest purveyors of shark shlock. In 2013 and 2014 the channel featured pseudo-documentaries that deliberately misled the audience. While Discovery has since reigned in the fictionalizations, the link between Shark Week and sharksploitation films is evident in the cross promotion with features like The Shallows and The Meg.

The era of shark films that started with Shark Attack were also distinguished by a particular focus on the Carcharocles megalodon, an ancestor of the great white shark that was the size of a city bus. An entire subgenre of shark movies about the megalodon has emerged including 2001’s Shark Hunter and 2002’s Megalodon and 2018’s The Meg. Probably the most popular megaladon film among killer shark aficionados is 2003’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. The movie is such an extraordinary cinematic train wreck that it has to be seen by lovers of shlock cinema. (And it is far more entertaining than The Meg.)

The megalodon films were made possible by advancements in digital technology that made giant sharks accessible to low budget filmmakers. These digital tools were seized upon by The Asylum, an independent production company whose films frequently play on the SyFy Channel. The Asylum styled itself as Roger Corman’s American International Pictures for the digital age with throwbacks to the drive-in B pictures of an earlier era. Sharks are the cornerstone of Asylum’s oeuvre. The company’s output shifted the sharksplotation genre into a new phase with deliberately silly titles like Mega-Shark Versus Giant Octopus, 2-Headed Shark Attack, and Planet of the Sharks. But The Asylum’s greatest success was the Sharknado series. With six installments in all, Sharknado is one of the unlikeliest cinematic successes of this decade. The first film was released in 2013 and became a sensation. It premiered on the SyFy Channel but Sharknado was given some limited theatrical showings that played to sold out crowds. A sequel followed every year since with D-list celebrities vying for cameo appearances. (Donald Trump angled to play the President of the United States in 2015’s Sharknado 3 but when that fell through he had to settle for being the actual President.)

The past three years have seen sharks return to theaters. 2016’s The Shallows, 2017’s 47 Meters Down, and 2018’s The Meg were well received by audiences. The movies befitted from high production values, competent filmmakers, and a strong cast but they were also rooted in the primal thrills of classic sharksploitation.

Given the ratings bonanza of the Sharknado series and the box office success of The Meg it is unlikely that sharksploitation will ebb anytime soon. The genre has proven remarkably flexible and its evolution has mirrored the changes in filmmaking over the past four decades. While real sharks are in danger of extinction, killer shark movies are here to stay.