Posts Tagged ‘movies’

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of the 21st Century

October 17, 2016

9. The Descent (2005)

Years before he redefined TV action with his work on Game of Thrones, British director Neil Marshall earned his place in the horror pantheon with this merciless survival-horror story. One year after a car accident shatters their bonds, a group of women go spelunking in a remote Appalachian cavern and unearth far more than they bargained for. The claustrophobic setting is intense and the creature effects genuinely disturbing, but the film’s greatness lies in its use of its main character’s raw, red grief as emotional kindling for the catastrophe that follows. Few of even the greatest genre movies dare to go places this deep.

Alongside a murderers’ row of critics, I wrote about some of the best horror films of the new millennium for Rolling Stone. (For the record, I was on the “Mulholland Drive IS a horror movie” side of the argument referenced in the intro.)

“Daredevil” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “Regrets Only”

March 26, 2016

Hey, anyone order a full-fledged Kill Bill homage? ‘Cuz in “Regrets Only,” the sixth episode of Daredevil’s second season, that’s what you’re getting. The ep opens with a crew of yakuza assassins in suits and ties zipping through Manhattan on motorcycles. Sure, they lack the Kato masks of the Crazy 88, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Date With the Night” provides the soundtrack instead of Al Hirt’s “Green Hornet” theme, but I mean, c’mon. Then there’s the first of two different fights in which Daredevil and Elektra wind up silhouetted against some kind of strikingly lit backdrop and/or behind some strikingly lit screen. “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” baby!

I reviewed Daredevil’s sixth episode of Season Two for Decider.

The 15 Best Oscar Lineups of All Time

March 1, 2016

Best Actor, 1967

Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night – winner), Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?)

Meet the New Hollywood — most definitely not the same as the Old Hollywood. With Warren Beatty’s nomination for a celebrity criminal and Dustin Hoffman’s arrival as a new kind of leading man, the kids were taking over. Even Paul Newman’s nod came for playing a consummate rebel. Of course, the nominations for Tracy (posthumously; he died days after completing the role) and eventual winner Steiger, both portraying fiery but ultimately wise patriarchs in movies about the hot-button issue of race, were the dream factory’s way of showing the olds were alright. (Note that their mutual costar, Sidney Poitier, went shamefully unacknowledged even in the Supporting Actor category.)

Murderers’ Row: Over at Rolling Stone I selected the best nominee slates for the six major categories in the history of the Academy Awards.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 43!

December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or Episode Seven Kingdoms

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Sean and Stefan discuss the new Star Wars movie! Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens Jedi mind tricked us into dedicating this episode of our A Song of Ice and Fire podcast to an entirely different fantasy franchise. How did the film fit in with larger saga? How did J.J. Abrams’s direction differ from George Lucas’s? Is Rey a Mary Sue, and if so, how does that impact the film? What the hell was up with Starkiller Base? We answer all these questions and more, including a discussion of the film’s cinematography, the performances of its actors, the pros and cons of the characters, and even a few connections to the world of Westeros. I’ve got a good feeling about this…

Download Episode 43

Additional links:


Stefan’s review of the movie.

Tasha Robinson’s essay on Rey.

Previous episodes.

Podcast RSS feed.

iTunes page.

Sean’s blog.

Stefan’s blog.

Phoebe Gloeckner on reopening “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”

August 13, 2015

It was funny: I haven’t talked to the real person that [Monroe] was based on in a long, long time, but then I saw he was on Facebook. I wrote to him and I asked him if he’d read the book, and he hadn’t, so I sent him a copy. He said he read five pages and couldn’t read any more because it was “too intense.” Then he kept saying he’s going to read it, but he can’t. But when he found out there was a movie, I sent him the trailer, and he was really excited. He showed the trailer to some friend at a bar—I don’t think he’d said that it was supposed to be based on him—and that person said, “Wow, that relationship is really screwed up. Why are you showing me this?” The guy said “What do you mean, ‘screwed up’? That’s a real man!” You know? “He’s a real man! He’s going for it!” You can see that that particular person, that character…I mean, if I treated him correctly, he’s not the type of person who’s able to reflect on any of that. Which contributes to Minnie’s loneliness. It takes her a while to realize that, because she’s thinking she’s in love with him. What do you do when you’re “raped,” in quotes, by someone who’s thoughtless and unaware? There’s no way to have a discussion about that with him because he’s not on the ball enough to even grasp the situation. I don’t know what people think. You could argue rape or not—I mean, I don’t fucking know. It’s a complicated situation.

For my A.V. Club debut, I interviewed Phoebe Gloeckner, my hero, about The Diary Of A Teenage Girl. I first interviewed Phoebe 12 years ago, and she’s been my hero ever since.

At Home at the End of the World: The Long Defeat of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy

July 22, 2015

…nearly all of the “Mignolaverse” titles are shot through with a sense of tremendous loss, of mind-warping waste. The world Hellboy and his friends inhabit is a brutal one, rendered unspeakably ugly by a combination of venal people whose minds are too small for empathy and the unstoppable forces they therefore unleash.

Moreover, there’s a specific sense throughout the saga that the violence wielded by its protagonists is futile, even counterproductive. The most gung-ho member of the B.P.R.D., heavily scarred ex-Marine Captain Ben Daimio, secretly harbored an evil spirit that eventually took over and rampaged through the team’s headquarters. An attempt by the artificial man Roger the Homunculus to ape Daimio’s hard-charging attitude led directly to his own death. The depiction of violence as causing more problems than it solves is a self-critique that few superhero stories attempt, and even the ones that attempt it usually ultimately reject it.

Yet Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. soldier on, fighting a menace they are too weak, and too late, to stop. Their goal, to the extent that they have one, is simply to survive, and to preserve what little light and life they can — to write an epilogue for a story that has already ended.

Apocalypse now and forever: I wrote about Hellboy, the BPRD, and pop-cultural armageddons for Grantland.

“Under the Skin” Is the Best Horror Movie You’ve Never Seen

May 27, 2015

Like comedy and pornography, horror is a practical art with a concrete aim; it exists to frighten. This utilitarian aspect makes horror a genre that constantly interrogates its own past, examining how other scary movies scared people in order to refine and surpass them. So like almost all of the great horror films,Under the Skin exists in conversation with its forerunners. The main character’s pattern of luring lonely, horny, pasty men to a decrepit house to be consumed by some nightmare secreted from the floor evokes the plot of Clive Barker’s similar meditation on agony in the UK, Hellraiser; a late-game makeup effect recalls its even more uncompromisingly brutal sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The circular, ocular forms that dominate the movie’s abstract opening sequence recall not only the baleful gaze of the killer computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (a frequent point of comparison in reviews) but also the similar combination of curvilinear shapes and unnerving musical dissonance that kicks off Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (a film with which UtS shares an unarticulated but brutal meat-is-murder subtext, one that’s a lot clearer in the source novel).

Another Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining, earns a visual echo in the bird’s-eye-view shots of the characters driving the curvy roads carved through the rugged region. Its long silent passages, in which our sole window into the world of the film is the monster at its center, force us into her skin in a fashion reminiscent of Norman Bates’s clean-up and disposal in Psycho. Indeed, the ominous hums and screeching strings of Mica Levi’s score place it with Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, John Williams’s Jaws, and the Ligeti/Penderecki/Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind–dominated soundtrack of The Shining at the top of the horror movie music pantheon.

The list could go on—seriously, I cut several entries for space—but it’s important to note this: None of these elements exist to be spotted, per se. They’re not overt references or homages, but rather a bedrock on which the film can be built into something new and unique. Under the Skin uses our shared vocabulary of horror tropes and techniques to create a new language, just like the disembodied syllables we hear the main character murmur over the stunning, dissociative opening sequence evolve into the words she uses to seduce and destroy.

Under the Skin is one of the best horror movies ever made, and one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, period. I make the case for it over at Decider.

May 20, 2015

One thing you don’t realize until you have a child is that stories about redemptive, heroic violence are omnipresent. Once a child is past toddlerhood and demands narrative media of greater complexity, violent conflict becomes an inescapable requisite. Having a daughter adds a layer of complicity: Boys are fed this stuff automatically, but with a girl you so often deliberately expose her to violent stories that would not reach her otherwise for the sake of egalitarianism. To send the message to your kid that the boy/girl binary is false you’re stuck showing her “boy stuff,” invariably involving punching or lasers, or “girl versions” of “boy stuff,” which port over those values as a cost of increased dynamism on the part of the female protagonist.

Every story I love from childhood involves solving problems with heroic violence. How can I share that love with my kid without imparting that view? It took me three decades to shake loose of it myself. Even when I thought I was out, I was in, as people who knew me ten, twelve years ago know. I’m sure smarter, better parents of daughters than I have figured it out, but I’m fucking stumped.

I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda with my daughter, age four. She is viscerally thrilled by the scope and the mystery, and it’s a joy to behold. She wants to know why the monsters are mean. I don’t know what to tell her.

That’s overdramatic, of course. As my dear friends Julia Gfrörer and Stefan Sasse pointed out to me, monsters are a vital embodiment of several crucial ideas — the beasts of nature, harmful everyday things you can’t negotiate, meanness itself. And it is delightful to have raised a child of such industrious empathy, a child so perturbed by meanness and rudeness as her tiny conception of cruelty that it’s the lens through which she views evil itself. But still: the guilt I feel when she chooses the sword.

This weekend I saw an okay movie called “Mad Max: Fury Road”

May 20, 2015

I liked it fine. It wasn’t bad, and it was never mindless which sets it a cut above 90% of action blockbusters, but it wasn’t great. It was okay.

And it was spectacular, but the spectacle added nothing but scale.  This is particularly true of the many chase sequences, which despite the well-publicized commitment to practical stuntwork had little of the white-knuckle claustrophobic about-to-break intensity of The Road Warrior. It was The Road Warrior but MORE, which in the end meant less. To be fair, The Road Warrior is flawless, a wholly original and alien vision, poetry in motion, probably the greatest action movie ever made, one of the best movies of any kind. Fury Road feels like George Miller took his masterpiece and added a bunch of unconvincing prosthetics to it, which in a sense he literally did.

To me the enthusiasm for Fury Road’s fantastical grandiosity is an echo (perhaps via influential cartoonist Brendan McCarthy, who storyboarded the film back in the day) of recent years’ fixation within the alternative/indie-comics world on Moebius and similar genre-comics artists who combine great technical ability with vivid visual imaginations; this attempt to realign the canon away from the Ware / Clowes / Doucet / Brown / Hernandez / Spiegelman / Crumb axis has been baleful for the artform in most every particular. (Simon Pegg was right.)

Miller also gave it an unambiguously happy ending, a big step back from the marvelous, singularly simultaneous gutpunch and uplift of The Road Warrior’s conclusion. A happy ending of this sort is fun, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t live off it.

Moreover, the sociopolitical praise for it, as is usually the case when people go berserk for giant pop-culture artifacts, is further evidence of the soft bigotry of low expectations. (Anita Sarkeesian was right.) You’ll be happy to hear that Mad Max: Fury Road takes a bold stand against the enslavement of women as broodmares by insane albino warlords, and that tough women with hip haircuts shoot guns in it. It’s a strange sort of progressivism that lionizes violence so long as it’s sufficiently badass and nominally egalitarian in its participants. It leaves us wishing Game of Thrones into the cornfield while demanding a Black Widow action figure in every pot.

Everyone in it was good, though, I’ll give it that as well. Tom Hardy is a god, Nicholas Hoult seems a very lively talent, Charlize Theron was rock solid. Like I said, it was fine, I enjoyed it I guess. It’s just that the existence of The Road Warrior renders it superfluous.

Q&A: Clive Barker on Almost Dying, Hustling, and Killing Pinhead

May 19, 2015

You’ve been so unequivocal and public that this book is about the death of Pinhead — full stop, no spoiler warning. Why?

Why not? If I’d been sly about this and not even mentioned the fact that Pinhead — excuse me, the Hell Priest — was going to die, that would have seemed really dumb. It’s actually a really important element of the book, the element of the book which will draw the most attention. He will not be coming back, by the way. That I promise you. There will be no return, no posthumous Frank Sinatra concerts from him.

In reading, I couldn’t help but think about your own life. You’ve been working on this book for years—

Yes, I have been working on this book for years. But I also had a coma, and lost my mother, my father, and the young man who was almost my son, and a lot of other terrible things in the meantime. Even though it might seem that I’ve been diddly-daddling instead of actually writing, a lot of that daddling has been because I was unconscious. I, uh … I take the Fifth. [Laughs.] I’m making a joke of it, but there have been some pretty damn horrible times of late. I’m only just now, after some many years, priming to leave the house. I’ve only been out of the house five times in the last few years. I am now well enough to, actually, finally leave the house. [Sardonically.] Hey, what about that!

In the midst of all this, you revealed that you supported your writing career in the early days by working as a hustler.

Was that really such a revelation? I was surprised. Maybe I hadn’t talked about it in the past, but I didn’t think I’d hidden it too much.

I got the sense that that was a painful time in your life to revisit.

It was, and yet it wasn’t. It was humiliating many times. It was stultifyingly boring much of the time. And it’s bad sex, mainly. [Laughs.] But you can’t have everything. It kept me in bread and cheese through a bad time in my life, fiscally. But do I want to go back to hustling anytime soon? Nope.

For my Grantland debut I spoke with Hellraiser director Clive Barker about his life, his health, and the death of Pinhead. His new book The Scarlet Gospels, which contains exactly that, is in stores today, and it is furious and empathetic and takes no prisoners.

Movie Time: Ex Machina

May 8, 2015

spoilers below

I’ve never been interested in science fiction about “what it means to be human.” That is not a question that has ever once occurred to me to ask myself, much less interested me in being asked by others. I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on it, thanks! Like, what does it mean to be human? You’re soaking in it.

Moreover, I’m so likely to err on the side of caution with regards to the issue of “killing” an artificially intelligent machine that this facet of the subgenre holds no interest for me either. I’m a vegetarian pacifist who opposes the death penalty – don’t make a machine that would feel bad about getting unplugged. Boom, done.

So that’s problem number one for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, as far as I’m concerned.

Problem number two is that while no one likes a good Bluebeard story more than I do (with one possible exception), this one tried to have its cake and eat it too with regards to the sexy naked lady robots in the evil inventor’s death closet, and the larger issue of male privilege and misogyny the evil inventor’s death closet represented. Obviously the film intends you to find the sexy naked lady robots creepy and the evil inventor’s behavior toward them loathsome, but the parade of fabulous nude bodies that ate up the film’s third act embodied (wink) the very problems it was ostensibly intended to critique. The tell here was the fact that Ava, the main sexy naked lady robot, stood around nakedafter she’d defeated the two human men involved in the story and was free to think and act on her own. At that point, the only male calling the shots was the director.

The final problem is that despite their primacy in the narrative, the two male characters were somehow still underexplored. As a subset of points one and two, I feel like I’ve had my fill of evil sexy robot lady stories for this life, so Ava, in the end, was just not that compelling a monster to me. You know who was, though? Nathan, the genius search-engine gazillionaire and evil inventor. If you’ve ever worked for a company owned by one or two very wealthy people, you know the unique horror of realizing that another human being can pretty much literally buy and sell you, completely upending your life before going home to their own that afternoon. There were feints, and more than feints, in this direction throughout the film, but in the end he was supplanted by his much less fearsome creation.

The awful fate reserved for his opposite number, Caleb, didn’t jibe either. How could it? It’s a plot point that Caleb was selected by Nathan to participate in the Turing testing of his evil sexy robot lady precisely because he’s a good-hearted cipher – kind and caring, but with nothing connecting him to the world at large. There’s no way for the horrific events of the film to feel like they are part of an emotional economy originating in that character, since he has so little in the bank.

Yes, it looks nice, but any knucklehead can make a stylish science fiction film look nice. That’s kind of their thing.

But the music, by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and his frequent collaborator Ben Salisbury, is overwhelming and tactile; it’s terrific. So is Oscar Isaac, so good at turning slightly-off creeps into these weird magnetic presences on film. And the dance scene? Fucking phenomenal. It’s the one part where the spectacle doesfeel like it sprang forth out of the psychic grotesquerie of this person’s brain. In that sense I guess it’s basically the “In Dreams” scene from Blue Velvet – <Morpheus voice> what if I told you this sexy, stylish psychological thriller was indebted to David Lynch? – but hey, I’ll eat it.

Marvel Movie Catch-Up Thoughts

May 6, 2015

In the last three days I watched the last four Marvel movies.

Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor): Wafer-thin characters and worldbuilding offset by charismatic performances and cheeky action sequences. I don’t quite understand the white dwarf sexual gravity exerted by Tom Hiddleston on large segments of the audience, but he and Chris Hemsworth are clearly having a ball every minute they’re on set. Same with Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard and even, in this one at least, Natalie Portman, who’s only ever been good in Closer (and I guess Leon) but is fun here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dir. the Russo Brothers): Exciting, well-staged action from start to finish — very much the cinematic child of the Ed Brubaker run on the comics, where the characters felt solid and rooted in physics but operating at the absolute peak allowed, like they rolled a 20 for every saving throw. Not street level, super-street level, if that makes sense. Chris Evans is shockingly likeable in that role, which is hard for both him as an actor and that character if you’re a commie like me. I’ve never bought Johansson as Black Widow, but okay, fine. Mackie was fun as Falcon, Redford was Redfordian as the evil suit, and I liked the future Crossbones guy. A solid message regarding the out-of-control security apparatus, too, that wasn’t undermined by Black Widow’s “you need us” testimony at the end the way I’d been led to believe it was. Best of the lot.

Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn): A decent enough tonal and design throwback to ‘80s/early ‘90s sci-fi/action/popcorn fare — the Kyln prison looked like something out of Total Recall — but it overshot fun and hit shrill time and again. The fight scenes were poor, like a sort of warped version of the Captain America ones: All of these characters are way powered up, yet the nature of the story required them to be brawlers, so you were left with this down-and dirty fight choreography that just revealed how phony the physical effects were. And none of these lovable losers were as lovable as the film needed them to be, or clearly thought they were. How about that Chris Bautista though, huh? Funny stuff. Though that reminds me: Over and over again, the Marvel movies go to the most generic-looking blue-skinned-cosmic-type villains in the whole Marvel Universe. Laufey, the Frost Giants, Malekith, Kurse, the Dark Elves, Ronan, the Sakaarans, the Chitauri — it’s like they took their pointers from Guillermo Del Toro’s still-baffling decision to boil the entire Mike Mignola bestiary down to a shitty redesign of the frog monsters for Hellboy.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon): Nowhere near as confusing as advertised. Nowhere near as sociopolitically noxious, either; jesus, if ever there were an illustration of my Golden Rule of Internet Argument — interpret with minimum good faith, attack with maximum rhetorical force — it’s the litany of charges leveled against this relatively innocuous film, that’s for fucking sure. Whedon’s an awful director of action, you can never tell what the physical stakes are for any particular move or blow or strike or dodge. But he’s good with teamwork, with selling the idea of this group as a group. With the exception of that cornball farm shit back at Hawkeye Acres, all the personal-trauma stuff worked very well too. James Spader was very funny as Ultron, and Paul Bettany’s Vision reminded me of something I’ve heard from many older superhero fans, which is that once upon a time the Vision was the top-dog “cool” Marvel character, like Wolverine has been ever since. Sure, I can see that. Like all Marvel movies, even the best, it’s almost aggressively bereft of style, so the emphasis on charm is a necessary saving grace.

“Clear” and Present Danger: Alex Gibney on His Bold Scientology Doc

March 19, 2015

Though it helps humanize many current and former believers, Going Clear pulls no punches against Scientology’s biggest “celebrity megaphones” — especially its superstar public face, Tom Cruise. Both the book and film allege that Cruise, a close friend of Miscavige (who was the best man at the actor’s wedding), has benefited for years from a labor force of Sea Org clergy members. “I’m singling him out,” Wright says. “More people got interested in Scientology because of Tom Cruise than any other individual, and he knows what’s going on. He could effect change, and it’s on his shoulders that he should.”

Gibney is harsher still. “For [Cruise] not to denounce, or at least investigate, what’s going on seems appalling to me,” he says. “He gets a lot of money and a lot of privilege from a lot of fans, and the idea that allows the vulnerable to be preyed upon in his name seems reprehensible.” In fact, Going Clear claims that Cruise’s own ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, fell victim to Scientology’s excesses herself. According to high-ranking defector Marty Rathbun, the Church wiretapped Kidman as part of a multifaceted campaign to drive the couple apart when Miscavige felt she was pulling him away from his faith. Even to readers of Wright’s book, this is breaking news.

“That was something Marty told me in my interview,” Gibney says. “When he spoke to Larry for the book, emotionally, he still had one foot in the Church. [Rathbun] had been a key enforcer for them. To unravel those big lies takes years, and to undo the psychological damage that was done to him by the Church is a slow healing process. He was able to say things now about how aggressive the Church was, in terms of trying to get Cruise back, that he might not have been willing to say before.”

I interviewed Oscar and Emmy–winning director Alex Gibney, Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, and high-ranking Scientology defector Mike Rinder about thir upcoming HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for Rolling Stone. I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

The Perfect (Spoiler!) Crime: Art, Justice, and “The Jinx”

March 16, 2015

I wrote a lengthy, pretty much unexcerptable piece on The Jinx for the New York Observer in light of last night’s finale and the surrounding news stories. It touches on Serial, Capturing the Friedmans, Mea Maxima Culpa, Going Clear, Gimme Shelter, The Thin Blue Line, America’s Most Wanted, True Detective, Goofus & Gallant, spoiler alerts, hubris, justice, and art. I’m proud of it and I hope you enjoy it.

The 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the ’70s

January 14, 2015

18. ‘THX 1138’ (1971)

As visually and sonically stunning as anything George Lucas would later do in a galaxy far far away, his future-fascistic nightmare is a pure product of the decade’s New Hollywood renaissance, exploring sex, drugs, mind-numbing television, governmental malfeasance, and both the necessity and futility of rebellion. Robert Duvall is quietly tremendous as the movie’s equivalent of 1984‘s Winston Smith. It’s not just a film, it’s a jumping-off point for an alternate universe in which George Lucas’s body of work veers closer to Sixties cerebral sci-fi than Thirties serials.

“What’s wrong?” I contributed a couple of items to Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the ’70s.

Rolling Stone’s 2015 Preview

January 13, 2015

Better Call Saul (AMC, February 8th)

We all know the story of Walter White, but how did his lawyer break bad? That’s the intriguing idea behind AMC’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work prequel to Breaking Bad, in which Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as Saul Goodman (née Jimmy McGill), the sleazy but skillful lawyer to Albuquerque’s lowlifes. Rejoining Odenkirk and showrunner Peter Gould (the character’s original writer) are Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and costar Jonathan Banks as the infamous fixer Mike Ehrmantraut. Origin story, bitch!

I was moving last week when this went up, so I missed it, but I contributed thoughts on several upcoming works of note to Rolling Stone’s big 2015 pop-culture preview. Enjoy!

They said you were hot stuff: on the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence from Velvet Goldmine

January 5, 2015

I Was a Teenage Velvet Goldmine Skeptic. Not quite teenage, I suppose — I’d already turned 20 by the time of the film’s autumn 1998 release — but my musical mindset was still adolescent in essence. Precariously poised between poseurs and mainstream morons, I believed, there existed a sweet spot of authentically alternative art, of real rock and roll rebellion. This was a place you could live, provided you worked relentlessly to refine your taste to its essentials, and then never, ever fucking budged. One and a half post-poptimism decades later I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how needlessly dreary and exhausting an approach this is, but my own Pauline conversion was still a few years in the future. That road to pop-cultural Damascus had many side streets. But if you were to retrace the route — starting with My First Pop Divas Kylie and Beyoncé, working back through electroclash and the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtracks, traversing all the ‘80s pop and ‘70s rock I’d never before gone near, and converging at David Bowie, the artist whose breathless, liberating adoption and deletion of influences and imagery at opened up my avenues to all of the above — the road would begin with a chance late-night Cinemax channel flip and my second encounter with Todd Haynes’s glam fantasia Velvet Goldmine. It’s no exaggeration to say that that viewing changed my life. The only thing it had in common with my first viewing of the film — a head-scratching, yawn-suppressing affair in the campus art-house during its brief bomb of a theatrical run, at which I pronounced it an overinflated, pointlessly complex dud that committed the cardinal sin of not rocking hard enough — was this: I loved the “Baby’s On Fire” sequence, the movie’s centerpiece, its beating heart, its throbbing loins.

Famously, Velvet Goldmine is to David Bowie what Citizen Kane (from which it stole its structure) is to William Randolph Hearst. To use a more recent example, and a more accurate one given how both films center a fictional, emotionally overwhelming relationship between two men, it is to Bowie what The Master is to L. Ron Hubbard. In place of Joaquin Phoenix’s giggling alcoholic damage case, VG puts forward Ewan MacGregor’s American rock’n’roll animal Curt Wild as the foil to its central celebrity stand-in, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s Brian Slade. Though primarily an Iggy Pop manqué, Wild will, throughout the course of the movie, incorporate elements of Lou Reed’s biography, Oscar Wilde’s name, Kurt Cobain’s name andlooks, and Bowie’s own post-glam Berlin period. The moniker for Meyers’s Bowie figure similarly references fellow glitter luminaries Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry, and the band Slade; if we were to pick apart “Maxwell Demon and the Venus in Furs,” Brian’s alien-messiah persona and his house band, we’d be here all night.

This Russian nesting-doll layering of references to icons of rock, film, and literature is an annotator’s dream, to be sure. But more importantly, it enables Haynes to make a movie not about Bowie, Iggy, and glam, but about the idea of them, doing so by constructing them from a continuum of related ideas. Velvet Goldmine is about artifice as art and fandom as fantasy, and a love letter to the artists who introduced a young Haynes to these sensations as he came to terms with life as a young gay man. The “Baby’s On Fire” sequence is where that letter gets sealed with a kiss.

I wrote about my favorite sequence from one of my favorite movies, the Velvet Goldmine montage sequence scored by Jonathan Rhys Meyers/Venus in Furs cover of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” for One Week One Band’s special soundtrack spectacular.

On the Star Wars trailer, because someone asked

December 1, 2014

I find the idea of Star Wars without George Lucas singularly unappealing, even troubling. Turning Star Wars into a depersonalized, committee-driven content factory divorced from its creator in perpetuity, like the major superhero franchises, is a tremendous regression in any number of ways. Whatever his faults, Lucas is a real filmmaker, and these were his original ideas. J.J. Abrams, by contrast, is a facilitator, a babysitter for the ideas of others —Mission: ImpossibleStar TrekStar Wars, the Spielberg gestalt (Super 8). His involvement with Lost was minimal — the germinative idea was brought to him by the network, and other than his admittedly fine work co-writing and directing the excellent pilot, 95% of that show, good bad and ugly, was Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Alias is a sexy female spy series. Honestly, his greatest claim to originality is Felicity. In other words, he is Hollywood’s first “auteur” in the mold of the countless superhero-comics writers and artists who’ve been content to labor with the tools made for them by actual visionaries decades ago, spending entire careers creating nothing new, ideal employees for a system that has wholly conflated art and product. Moreover, his visual style is capable of being parodied in its entirety with a five-second montage of a shaky-cam shot and lens flare. That he’s apparently pouring Star Wars into his bog-standard garden-variety postmillennial action-blockbuster directorial mold (shaky-cam stormtroopers) instead of adjusting for the material is crass and sad. I’m sure the movies will have entertaining moments performed by state-of-the-art special effects technicians and likeable, talented actors, and have all the soul, guts, and idiosyncracy of a superhero movie, which is to say none at all.

Also the lightsaber makes no sense. “Check out my sword. It’s extra good because it has two little swords sticking out from the hilt of the big sword, in case I need to stab someone standing immediately to my right. Or to my left, even — the possibilities are endless, really.”

The 20 Scariest Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen

October 30, 2014
Don’t let the snakebit production (two directors came and went before Antonia Bird was brought aboard) or the jarring score put you off. Ravenous is a roaringly good cannibal-horror movie, and one of the finest film examples of the “Weird West” subgenre, which situates supernatural evil amid 19th-century America’s wild frontier. Trainspotting’s Robert Carlyle chews more than just the scenery as the lone survivor of a Donner Party-style expedition, while Guy Pearce, Jeffrey Jones, and Jeremy Davies are among the motley crew of a remote Army outpost who try to find his lost companions — and fall into his trap. Spectacular gore, genuinely funny black comedy, and a surprisingly powerful exploration of cowardice in the face of violence make this one worth sinking your teeth into.

I have a couple of entries in Rolling Stone’s fine list of widely overlooked horror films. Find them…if you dare!

How Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles went from comics in-joke to cowabunga blockbuster

August 14, 2014

Most of the action-figure/kids’-cartoon juggernauts of the Eighties were developed the old-fashioned way: by corporations. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe began in the design department of toy behemoth Mattel. Its rival Hasbro teamed up with Marvel Comics to revive its old G.I. Joe concept, this time making its toy soldiers the same size as the smash-hit Star Wars action figures to which Mattel had passed up the rights several years earlier, with their “Real American Hero” relaunch. The Hasbro/Marvel team-up found similar success when it rebranded several lines of robot toys Hasbro had licensed from Japanese toy company Takara as the Transformers.

By contrast, the Turtles literally started out as a joke. Co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were comic-artist wannabes when they spent a November 1983 evening doodling the masked, weaponized reptiles to entertain themselves. Each adjective in Turtles‘ title represented a hot superhero-comic trend at the time — mutants were the stars of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men; DC’s New Teen Titans had teenage protagonists; and future Sin City impresario Frank Miller had stuffed his groundbreaking run on Daredevil full of ninjas. By throwing it all together atop a funny-animal framework — which, from Carl Barks’ Donald Duck to Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, had long been a route to comic-book gold — Eastman and Laird simply obeyed the Spinal Tap doctrine of cranking it to eleven.

This here is a snippet from the history of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I wrote for Rolling Stone. The gist is that the Turtles began as a literal joke shared by creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and came to prominence as a comic that existed halfway between Frank Miller parody and Frank Miller homage; it was only when Eastman & Laird hooked up with a toy company that hooked up with an animation studio — i.e. the same basic process that birthed He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Transformers — that it became the durable pop-culture phenomenon it is today.

I got to work in all kinds of fun factoids — the “black-and-white boom” that followed TMNT’s success in comic shops, the bonafide alternative-comics ventures funded by Eastman (Tundra) and Laird (the Xeric Grant) with their Turtle fortunes, “Turtle Power” going to the top of the pop charts in the UK. I hope you enjoy it!