Introducing the Kamandi Challenge!

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I’ve written before about my interest in Kamandi, “The Last Boy on Earth,” the futuristic adventure series Jack Kirby created for DC Comics in 1972. So when I learned about DC’s upcoming Kamandi Challenge, described as a “round-robin, no-holds-barred storytelling extravaganza told in 12 issues,” with a separate writer/artist team picking up the thread in each installment, I knew I would be adding it to my pull list at my local comics store (shout-out to Prairie Dog Comics in Wichita). The book will apparently be more than just a showcase for talent: running up to the 100th anniversary of Kirby’s birth (1917-1994), the teams are invited to make things tough for those who follow them: “Each issue will end with an unimaginable cliffhanger, and it’s up to the next creative team to resolve it before creating their own. It’s a challenge worthy of ‘The King’ himself!” They already had me at “Kamandi,” but when cliffhangers are involved, how could I resist?

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To recap, Kamandi (named for “Command D,” the military bunker in which he was raised by his grandfather) is the last ordinary human in a post-apocalyptic world that has been taken over by intelligent animals: not just apes, but tigers, dogs, reptiles, and more. Other humans have been reduced to nonverbal animalism or have developed mutant powers themselves. Monstrous creatures roam the earth, and new animal societies have developed in the ruins of the old world, patterned on the Romans, pirates, or Chicago gangsters. Kirby had been tinkering with Kamandi as a concept for several years (his original idea was to be a newspaper strip called “Kamandi of the Caves”), but the final version owes a clear debt to the popular Planet of the Apes movies while remaining pure Kirby. It’s a set-up ripe for adventure and wonder, and after Kirby’s run on the original series it continued to inspire comics creators (not to mention the influence it had on cartoons such as Thundarr the Barbarian, for which Kirby contributed concepts and designs, and more recently Adventure Time).

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Perhaps to prime the pump for the upcoming series and get new readers caught up on the character and his setting, DC released the Kamandi Challenge Special this week, reprinting the double-sized Kamandi no. 32 (which included a reprint of the series’ first issue) from 1975 and including a pair of “lost” stories. Other than a full-page ad for the Kamandi Challenge, there’s no editorial hand-holding, and even the first issue, which introduces Kamandi and sets his feet on the path of adventure, is printed after the story from Kamandi no. 32, which begins in the middle of the action (just as it was in the original double issue–the reprint is always the backup in such cases). I guess they assume that fans can look up all the context on the internet, or perhaps the real audience is fans like me who’ve ready everything at least once already.

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Of most interest is a pair of stories that were intended for Kamandi nos. 60 and 61, but which were abandoned when Kamandi was a victim of the “DC Implosion,” when rising production costs and a slump in sales led to DC management cutting a third of the publisher’s titles without warning. Finished but unused stories from all the cancelled titles were printed in-house in ashcan editions (low-quality, low-circulation black and white copies); in addition to piecemeal reprints, scans of those stories have circulated online for years, but this is the first time the Kamandi stories have seen print in an official publication.

I’m not sure what a new reader will make of these “rediscovered” stories, to be honest: Kirby had left the book he created some time before its cancellation, leaving it in other writers’ and artists’ hands. In typical Kirby fashion, he had breathlessly filled his issues with ideas and characters, leaving many loose threads and never dwelling on any one idea for longer than a few issues. Writers who followed (including Gerry Conway, Dennis O’Neil, and Jack C. Harris) introduced some ideas of their own, but also revisited and fleshed out many of Kirby’s original concepts, using Kirby’s map of “Earth After Disaster” (also included in the Special) and tying the continuity together (for example identifying Kamandi’s grandfather as OMAC, the “One Man Army Corps,” another orphaned Kirby creation) while crafting some longer, less episodic arcs.

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The “new” stories form the end of one of those arcs, the quest of Kamandi and his friends to help stranded space alien Pyra (the final form of the energy being encountered in the first story reprinted in the Special) power up her spaceship by opening a “vortex” in a mysterious giant energy field in Australia, guarded by the “Kangarat Murder Club.” Kamandi, sucked into the Vortex by a mysterious voice, witnesses the infinite possibilities of the multiverse, and comes to understand that there are many versions of himself living different lives, including some in worlds that did not suffer the “Great Disaster.”

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Given a choice, Kamandi ultimately decides that he owes a duty to his friends, still in danger; before coming back, however, he is picked up by servants of the Sandman, the master of dreams, who mistake him for the Sandman’s friend Jed. (You see, Jed is one of the many alternate lives that Kamandi could have lived, had circumstances been different.) Kamandi’s encounter with the Sandman mostly serves to tee up an unused Kirby Sandman story in which Jed enlists the Sandman’s aid in proving to a miser that Santa Claus is real (this involves a trip through dreamland to the North Pole and a battle with a band of “Seal Men” who are unhappy about the Christmas presents they’ve received in the past). No, it doesn’t fit very well in the (admittedly fantastical) world of Kamandi, but the reprint was mostly to buy time as Harris and company geared up to take the book in a new direction, with Kamandi traveling into space and having yet more bizarre encounters. It was never to be. Nevertheless, it isn’t every day that a story sees the light of day (officially) nearly forty years after it was first meant to run.

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In any case, this is all preamble: the real action starts next week, with the release of Kamandi Challenge no. 1, written by Dan DiDio and Dan Abnett with art by Dale Eaglesham, Keith Giffen, and Scott Koblish. I’m so excited, I’ve decided to accept this challenge: I’m going to review and discuss each issue as it comes out. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll join me.

Remake, Revisited

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A couple of years ago, writing about the 2004 sci-fi adventure film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I commented on the use of repurposed footage of Sir Laurence Olivier, long dead, to represent the film’s villain, Doctor Totenkopf:

At least since 1997, when scenes of the late Fred Astaire from Easter Parade and Royal Wedding were digitally modified to show him dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner for a series of commercials, it’s been possible to change the context of an actor’s appearance using the same technology that can put Jude Law in an airplane when he’s actually on a sound stage. The Dirt Devil ads, although licensed by Astaire’s widow, were controversial, and raised questions that have still not been settled: who owns an actor’s image, and are there limits to the uses to which it can be put? More importantly, does legal ownership give someone the right to tinker with a classic film? The battle lines are not always clearly drawn, as colorizing enthusiast Ted Turner became the patron of a classic movie channel that is widely respected for its thoughtful presentation of all kinds of film, and George Lucas, who spoke out against colorization in the 1980s, has defended his right to modify his own Star Wars movies because they’re “his” films.

I’m less offended by the use of Olivier’s image in Sky Captain than by Astaire in the Dirt Devil ads–or by the use of Audrey Hepburn’s image in Dove chocolate commercials just this year–of course: however pulpy it may be, Sky Captain is a work of art, not a commercial. But it is worth noting how far we have come, that such things are not only possible but routine. Connie Willis, in her 1995 novel Remake, depicted a future Hollywood dominated by digital effects, in which hardly any new movies were made, but instead older ones were remade by computer with digital copies of past stars (Back to the Future remade with River Phoenix, for example). We’re not quite to that point, but it hardly seems like science fiction, does it?

Some things have changed since I wrote those words: George Lucas, whom I referenced as the bad guy in ongoing debates about the legacy of his Star Wars films, sold Lucasfilm and his right to tinker with the franchise in 2012, and since then new owner Disney has begun a slate of new Star Wars films. The march of technological progress has also continued, and at the end of last year we saw a full-fledged digital recreation of actor Peter Cushing (dead since 1994) in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One, reprising Cushing’s role as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original 1977 film. Although the filmmakers had their reasons to undertake this effort and appear to have not taken it lightly, I found it garish and disturbing; even a completely undetectable CGI job would raise questions.

Repurposed footage, as in Sky Captain, is one thing: in addition to the CGI Cushing, Rogue One also inserted unused footage of pilots in X-Wing cockpits from Star Wars‘ Death Star battle for its own climactic dogfight (again, Rogue One takes place immediately before A New Hope, so this was just one of many threads meant to connect the two stories). Perhaps I’m a hypocrite, but that didn’t bother me at all, and in fact I found it a clever touch (longtime readers will recall my love of stock footage and my general wonder at the magic of editing, though).

I should clarify that I’m not against computers, either: I love music created on synthesizers, and I enjoy computer-generated animation. I also respect that CGI has made practical filmmaking easier in many cases where the casual viewer wouldn’t even suspect that stray wires or other intrusions have been seamlessly erased.

But I think part of what I love about the art of film is its rearrangement of a tangible reality: I’ve written before about my love of animation for its ability to create a wholly new world through the illusion of movement, but even filmed live action involves quite a bit of assemblage–of cuts, of effects, of performances–in all but the most extreme cases of fly-on-the-wall documentary and avant-garde cinema. The end result is not exactly a mirror held up to the real world but a mosaic in which many facets of it are reflected, an arrangement of fragments that make up a whole picture.

In theory, the current digital toolbox is just an extension of all the image-making that has come before, but in reality it has its limits, and its frequent use as a cost-cutting measure is dispiriting. It’s all so literal: particularly in the case of Rogue One, there’s no real need to include Grand Moff Tarkin except for the desire to position this story right before Star Wars. In addition, it’s somewhat insulting in its implication that viewers wouldn’t accept a different actor in the role. I enjoyed Rogue One, I really did, but my enthusiasm flagged at the very end when it became clear just how closely it was meant to dovetail with the original Star Wars. I felt the same way at the end of Episode III, when George Lucas felt compelled to leave nothing unsaid, dumping information that was already (or would be, depending on the order in which one viewed the saga) revealed elegantly in the original trilogy. Both cases are typical, though, of a tendency to fill in any and all gaps in pop culture mythology, bowing to perceived demands from fans to reveal every detail, even when leaving something to viewers’ imaginations could have a greater impact.

The issue became more than academic in December with the sudden, tragic death of Carrie Fisher, who of course played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and who had returned to her iconic role in the new trilogy that began with 2015’s Episode VII. (As it happens, computer imagery had also been used for a brief appearance of “young Leia” at the end of Rogue One.) Reportedly, Fisher had already filmed her scenes for Episode VIII, but her death puts her role in the last film of the trilogy in doubt. Disney issued a statement to calm speculation last week, assuring fans that they had no plans to create a digital Leia for Episode IX. Is the difference simply that Cushing has been dead long enough that no one is likely to be outraged by his digital doppelganger? Is it “too soon” to do the same with Fisher? In fact, isn’t the cyber-Cushing atypical precisely because he’s been gone for so long? In recent years, digital imagery of this sort has largely been used to make up for the loss of a star during filming (most notably Paul Walker in Furious 7). It’s likely that Fisher, aware of the direction technology is headed, had explicit directions in her will regarding the use of her image, but it’s also true that Leia is a more significant character than Tarkin, and she was expected to carry both more scenes and more dramatic moments. There are still practical limitations on how seamlessly an actor can be recreated digitally.

The Star Wars films have always been showcases for the latest in special effects. If Cushing’s appearance in Rogue One was meant to be a test case for a new technology, it wasn’t reassuring, for either this audience member or (I imagine) living actors who now not only have to compete against each other, but against their predecessors.

R.I.P. Peter Cushing, 1913-1994

R.I.P. Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

My 2016 in Film, Part Two: New Discoveries

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As I mentioned yesterday, I was more diligent this year in keeping track of my film viewing than I’ve been in recent years, allowing me to provide a more detailed retrospective of older films I watched. The non-2016 films listed below are listed in chronological order without ranking; they’re movies that thrilled me, sparked my imagination, or filled in gaps in my historical awareness. All are recommended, for curiosity value if nothing else.

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Just Imagine (David Butler, 1930)
This movie came to my attention as the source of several futuristic cityscapes inserted as background shots in the 1939 Buck Rogers serial. It’s a fascinating production in its own right, and a time capsule of 1930’s ideas about both science fiction and pre-Code musical comedy. New York in the far-off year 1980(!) is a gleaming mass of skyscrapers bound together by orderly lanes of sky traffic, but scientific progress has commanded a high price in individuality and freedom: people have numbers rather than names, and marriages are chosen by the state for optimal matches (the plot centers on the unapproved romance between J-21 and LN-18, a young Maureen O’Sullivan); married couples have children by selecting them from a sort of vending machine; food and drink are taken in pill form; and the planet Mars is full of beautiful, savage women given to elaborate dance routines. The comedy of 1930 is mostly personified by the “Svedish” accent shtick of El Brendel, who plays a man of 1930 revived by science. It’s all corny as hell, but endearingly so, and with its visual flair and brisk, busy plot, it’s worth seeing for fans of retro-futurism and Hollywood musicals alike.

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Bedelia (Lance Comfort, 1946)
Margaret Lockwood plays the title character, a recently remarried widow; during her honeymoon in Monte Carlo, her bland new husband strikes up a chance encounter with a painter who appears to know too much about her. When they return to England, the painter follows. As the mystery of Bedelia’s past (and the death of her first husband) emerges, her web of secrets threatens to come unraveled. The resulting film is a mixture of noirish suspense and doomed romance.

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The Alligator People (Roy Del Ruth, 1959)
If Tennessee Williams wrote a monster movie, it might come out something like The Alligator People, a Southern Gothic tragedy of secrets and mad science. Lon Chaney Jr. as a crazy, gator-obsessed swamp rat is the icing on the cake.

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The Telephone Book (Nelson Lyon, 1971)
The strange odyssey of a young woman determined to track down the man who transported her with an obscene phone call, The Telephone Book is a surprisingly sweet portrayal of a time and place–the sexual revolution in New York City in the early 1970s–that are usually depicted in sleazier terms. Alice (Sarah Kennedy) is both naïve and alluring to the colorful characters she meets along the way, but once she finds the right “John Smith” (Norman Rose), he takes over the story with his commanding monologues, seducing the audience the same way he seduces the women (“I have over thirty regular clients,” he says) he calls. In writer-director Nelson Lyon’s vision, obscene phone calls aren’t just about sexual release, they are an implicit critique of a repressed society, but the film is too wrapped in layers of irony to present such a pat solution without complication. Intercut with “confessions” from reformed obscene callers and the doctors and police who deal with them, The Telephone Book is thrillingly visual for a film about talking, showing off a pop art sensibility that gripped me from the beginning. With its deadpan humor and emphasis on the power of words, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was one of Steve Martin’s favorite films.

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Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Sam Neill has the honor of appearing on both yesterday’s and today’s lists. Is Possession a movie about mental illness? Divorce? Nuclear war? All of the above? What the hell can you even say about this movie? It must be seen.

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Return to Oz (Walter Murch, 1985)
Unlike many of the movies listed here, I was aware of this movie and even remember when it was released, but for one reason or another (its reputation as a flop, or that it was too dark for its intended audience) I didn’t get around to it until this year. All the reasons not to watch it back then make it all the more interesting now, and in addition to its mixture of whimsy and dread (in many ways more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s creations than the 1939 classic), I was pleased to discover a forgotten trove of lavish production and practical effects at their pre-CGI 1980s peak.

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Split (Chris Shaw, 1989)
At first, Starker (Timothy Dwight) appears to be just another homeless crackpot wandering the streets of Los Angeles, but it soon becomes clear that he’s a man of many disguises, secreting extra clothes in dumpsters around the city and taking on new personalities as he hides out in a diner and crashes an art gallery opening. His elaborate routines prevent an omnipresent surveillance network from tracking him: paranoid fantasy, or chilling glimpse of a future that was right around the corner in 1989? Featuring then-cutting edge computer graphics and a “handmade” (i.e., low budget) production style, Split is a quintessential cult film, proto-cyberpunk closer to A Scanner Darkly than Blade Runner.

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Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
I was able to see several Studio Ghibli films for the first time this year thanks to a film series at Wichita’s Palace Theatre (other first-time views included My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Princess Mononoke). Perhaps I’m choosing to highlight Howl’s Moving Castle above the rest simply because it doesn’t seem to be quite as well-loved as those others (all of which were great, of course). As lumpy as it is, its mixture of European fairy-tale fantasy (it’s based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones) and Japanese anime style makes it unique.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010)
A spiritual descendant of Orson Welles’ meta-documentary F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop begins with compulsive filmmaker Thierry Guetta’s quest to document and participate in the exploding street art scene in Paris and other cities. The first half of the film introduces a cast of daring cat burglar-like graffitists who go to great lengths to place their artwork on the sides of buildings, on streets and sidewalks, and on billboards, usually under cover of night, and the more inaccessible the better. Once Guetta is introduced to the elusive Banksy, the film takes a strange turn as Banksy takes over editing the project and Guetta assumes the name “Mr. Brainwash,” setting up his own ridiculously large art show. Whether the whole thing was a scheme for Guetta to cash in on the hot street art trend from the beginning, or (as some have claimed) a put-on designed to expose the hollowness of the art world, the film itself is as daring and exciting as the wall-climbing provocateurs who inspired it.

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Lazer Us: The Legend of Jimi Lazer (Mann Munoz, 2013)
An odd mash-up of contemporary Christian film and rock-and-roll mythologizing, Lazer Us tells the story of Jimi Lazer, a would-be star who made a deal with the devil to become famous but walked away from it all and essentially disappeared. Now, twenty-seven years later, he has returned to set things right, reuniting the scattered members of his band and rescuing a mysterious young woman (named Zmoothie, in keeping with the film’s square idea of rock culture) from the same fate. The film is essentially a parable building on the “crossroads” legend like The Soldier’s Tale or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but throws in references to The Red Shoes, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Johnny Cash, and the “27 club,” not to mention the Biblical figure whose name is suggested by the awkward title. Edgy and “in your face” but ultimately safe, I have no idea whether this movie will lead young rockers to Jesus, but it’s worth seeing on its own quirky merits.

My 2016 in Film, Part One: Top Ten

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Earlier this month, critic David Ehrlich released his annual video list of his top 25 films of the year. To my chagrin, not only had I only seen one film on his list (Kubo and the Two Strings), I hadn’t even seen 25 films released in 2016 total. Of course, I’m not a professional critic, and I don’t have the opportunity to see films unless they’re in wide release or hit streaming/home video by the end of the year (with a few exceptions), but as someone who enjoys film and tries to come up with his own year-end wrap-ups, I try to see as many films as I can in a timely manner. I’ve managed to do some catching up (and I did end up seeing more than 25 movies from this year), but as usual the following observations are based on my rather selective and scattershot viewing. (One thing I did this year for the first time was keep a list of every film I saw, new or old, which has made it easier to remember what I saw way back in January; tomorrow I’ll review some of my favorite non-2016 discoveries.)

Since a large portion of the new films I saw this year were wide release blockbusters and family movies, it’s worth noting just how many of this year’s films were part of series or franchises: the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange; the Harry Potter spinoff/prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; and additions to the Star Wars, Godzilla, and Phantasm canons, among others. That’s not unusual: sequels and franchises have been common for years, although it seemed even more pronounced this year. Many of the sequels that came out this year (not all of which I saw) bombed, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with series. I enjoy catching up with familiar characters and settings as much as the next audience member, and new installments of ongoing series were among my favorites this year. (As always, I’m basing my list on US release dates.)

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10. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale plays the scheming widow with a mixture of calculation and blasé wit for which Stillman’s brand of dry humor is perfect. Tom Bennett (as the empty-headed Sir James) is very funny in this and well deserves the accolades that have greeted his performance.

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9. Hail, Caesar! (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
On the surface, the Coens’ homage to Golden Age Hollywood is a trifle, a light-hearted spoof and celebration of the studio system that had previously crushed Barton Fink’s spirit. The plot (in the loosest sense of the word) consists of several vignettes tied together by their connection to studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to put out one fire after another in a typical day. The most worrisome is the kidnapping of leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the Biblical epic that gives the film its name. While I found Hail, Caesar! entertaining enough while I was watching it (and the film is lots of fun, packing an all-star cast into witty recreations of musicals, Westerns, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming, and “women’s pictures”), it also felt a little slight. But Mannix’s defense of show business (against the materialism of both Communist rhetoric and a Lockheed executive attempting to lure Mannix to a position in the “real world”) has stuck with me, and is typical of the Coens’ habit of packaging serious messages in comedies that go down easily.

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8. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” The Witch is a spooky distillation of Puritan fears of devilry and witchcraft, with a single family isolated in the woods illustrating the growth of a panic in microcosm. Are the glimpses of Satanic forces, exemplified by the unmanageable goat Black Phillip, signs of genuine witchery, or are they merely the fervid imaginings of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in a haunting performance)? Like the best horror, the answer is less important than what it reveals about the character of the family members as they retreat into religious faith, run off into the woods, or turn against each other.

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7. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee)
As I wrote in my review back in March, “Like many modern reboots and revivals of old properties, this ‘comeback’ is packed with nostalgic callbacks and Easter eggs, remixing an older story by sprinkling in familiar themes, character types, and imagery to summon up the old magic. . . . I’m probably too close to tell you whether this is a fans-only proposition, but as a fan, I liked it.” While the callbacks to the original were the weakest part of this year’s Ghostbusters reboot, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday proved that it is possible for the formula to work, at least as long as you’ve got super-cool Joe Manganiello providing a foil for Paul Reubens’ antic, childlike character. (Come to think of it, Chris Hemsworth was the funniest part of Ghostbusters: maybe 2016 was secretly the year of hunky, bromantic scene-stealers?) One statement I made in my review, that “Unlike Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself hasn’t aged a day,” deserves to be explored: I didn’t realize when I wrote that just how much technological assistance was involved in rewinding a couple of decades of aging, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the ubiquity of CGI these days. In any case, Pee-wee’s digital facelift was less distracting and disturbing than the CGI resurrection of long-dead Peter Cushing in Rogue One (a movie I liked, but yeesh).

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6. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
An aspiring model (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A. and discovers just how cutthroat the business can be in this stylish thriller. I just saw this one, so I’m still digesting it, but on a first pass I loved the visuals and Cliff Martinez’s electronic score; I wish I’d had the opportunity to see The Neon Demon on the big screen, but even at home it was electrifying. However, it took a while to win me over, as it was hard to shake the impression that I was seeing ideas and stylistic flourishes that had been done before by David Lynch, Ridley Scott, and Dario Argento. A grisly turn in the last twenty minutes took me by surprise and elevated the whole affair by recontextualizing much of what came before, so I have a feeling this is a film that will play very differently for me on a rewatch.

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5. Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)
Immersive, three-dimensional computer animation has its drawbacks: not every setting can stand up to the scrutiny invited by nearly photorealistic animation, nor live up to the standards of internal logic set by Pixar. This year’s Zootopia is a positive example, however, of the tendency to build worlds in a comprehensive way, a dazzling and thought-provoking allegory of modern race-relations and identity politics laid over a clever extrapolation of the “funny animals” that are one of the most venerable pieces of Disney’s heritage. After idealistic rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the police force, having fought against (cuddly, nonthreatening) stereotypes her whole life, she is forced into a begrudging partnership with the hustling Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a (sly, predatory) fox, and learns to confront some of her own internal prejudices. The parallels to real-world issues are unmistakable, but Zootopia’s heavier moments are supported by a well-oiled action comedy with riffs on Chinatown, 48 Hrs., and The Godfather (and even a nod to Breaking Bad). Most fun of all is the multilayered title city, with its ethnic enclaves for different types (and sizes) of animals, somehow finding ways to live in harmony.

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4. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
The first time I saw the trailer for The Love Witch, I was unsure if it was a new movie or the latest rerelease of an obscure exploitation film. Even after seeing it, I’m impressed at the attention to detail writer-director-designer Anna Biller brought to her feminist-themed parody/homage of early 1970s softcore. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses spells and charms to win the hearts of a series of men, but they can’t fill the hole in her heart, even as she drives them to their deaths. (Robinson’s matter-of-fact voice-overs, revealing the gap between Elaine’s perceptions and external reality, brought to mind Election, another bone-dry comedy about feminine striving.) Wryly ironic and reveling in its artificiality (channeling Joe Sarno and Russ Meyer as well as the Gothic chic and hip Satanism of Hammer horror), The Love Witch could have perhaps better emulated the brevity of its inspirations, but like The Neon Demon it’s eye-poppingly colorful and turns its genre’s assumptions upside-down (and this one I did get to see in the theater thanks to a limited release in Wichita).

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3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was my favorite film of last year, and while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is more down to earth, it is no less warm and funny. Wannabe gangster Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster father Hec (Sam Neill) find themselves on the run together in the “majestical” New Zealand bush after a series of misunderstandings. That these two lost souls will come to understand and support each other through their adventure is a given, but the movie never feels formulaic, a credit to both Waititi’s knack for making unusual choices in staging and music, as well as the humanity Dennison and Neill bring to their characters. (Props also to Rachel House, who is hilarious in a potentially one-note role as an overeager Child Welfare officer.)

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2. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi)
In October, I wrote that Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla movie since 2004, “is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.” I stand by my original review, but reading other viewers’ responses to the movie, it became clear to me that I underestimated how much humor is in the movie (as the heroic bureaucrat Yaguchi ascends ranks, the onscreen captions listing his titles become longer and longer, until the bulk of the screen is filled with text, for one example), caught up as I was in that spectacle. I have so far only seen Shin Godzilla once, but like most of the films I’m highlighting this year, it’s one I hope to return to in order to pick up more of its nuances.

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1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
As I wrote in October, I only caught up with 2008’s Cloverfield this year, but it was one of the best movies I saw that month. This year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t exactly a sequel, but is rather a free-standing story with a completely different set of characters, only loosely connected (if at all) to the first film. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) loses consciousness in a late-night car wreck, only to awaken in the underground shelter of Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that an attack on the United States has left the surface uninhabitable. Whether she likes it or not, she’s stuck in the bunker with the paranoid Howard and his good-ol’-boy handyman, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Michelle is understandably skeptical of Howard and his motives, but this tightly-plotted thriller kept me guessing with twists and turns (and powerful lead performances by Goodman and Winstead) up until the very end.

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Worst movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Complaining about this one almost feels like piling on at this point, but I can’t help it: leaving aside the humorless, sociopathic interpretation of its “heroes,” Dawn of Justice is a cluttered, kludged-together mess of a movie that would make even less sense to anyone who had never heard of Batman or Superman. I won’t deny that Snyder attempted to make some serious points about hero-worship and the burden of power, but every time I’m tempted to give credit for its ambition, or for good points like its introduction of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, the best part of the movie), I remember the nonsensical nightmare sequence (Sucker Punch starring Batman, i.e. the movie I suspect Snyder really wanted to make) or the plot-stopping interlude that serves only to introduce the members of the future Justice League. The result is a sprawling contraption designed primarily as a launchpad for future DC comic book movies. And I like comic book movies!
(P.S. I didn’t see Suicide Squad.)

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Dumbest movie that I will almost assuredly watch again: Yoga Hosers (Kevin Smith)
I actually had some hope for this one, against all reason to be optimistic: I liked Tusk, imperfect as it was, and this follow-up put the two Colleens (Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, seen briefly in the first movie) front and center, facing off against living Nazi bratwursts in a convenience store. Perhaps it’s my affection for movies that take goofy premises and play them out to their logical ends, or perhaps I was hoping for something like The Gate or Freaked!: kid-friendly horror comedies that knew just how ludicrous they were and leaned into it. Or maybe it had just been a while since I’d treated myself to something so shameless. (A rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gremlins? With Nazis? Sign me up!) I’d have a hard time recommending the result, a comedy of cod-Canadianness so dopey it makes Bob and Doug McKenzie look subtle, but I would have loved it when I was 13, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch it again. The two Colleens have a fun, snarky chemistry that reminds me of why Smith’s Clerks was so refreshing way back when; Justin Long as a seedy storefront guru makes me laugh; and I can even put up with the return of Johnny Depp’s Clouseau-like Guy LaPointe, who has a few choice lines about his attempts to cash in after solving the case of the “Winnipeg Walrus” in Tusk. You know what this means, right? I’m obligated to see the final installment of the trilogy, Moose Jaws (like Jaws, but with a moose), when it comes out.

Movies I didn’t get to but which probably would have been in the running: Green Room, Swiss Army Man, Arrival, Moana, La La Land, The Handmaiden, too many to name, really

My 2016 in Television

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It’s funny that I don’t consider myself that much of a TV watcher anymore, at least compared to the amount of time I spend watching movies, but when I look back over the past year, I did watch enough to at least write about. (Sorry for the lack of pictures; I’m traveling this week and short on time. As much as I’d like to believe my deathless prose and penetrating insights are the reason people visit Medleyana, it’s an incontestable truth that pictures drive traffic. Don’t worry, my roundup of 2016’s films, set to run later this week, has plenty of pics.)

At the beginning of the year, I caught ABC’s two mid-season short series, Galavant and Marvel’s Agent Carter, both in their second (and, alas, final) seasons. Agent Carter was the 1940s-set spinoff of Hayley Atwell’s popular character from Captain America: The First Avenger, and continued the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s pattern of filling in details of its world. In this case, that meant spending more time with Howard Stark, father of future Iron Man Tony, and his man Jarvis (and filling in more of his backstory). However, it put off the foundation of SHIELD as once more Agent Carter found herself working on the outside (a situation that allows for both more drama and more overt commentary on the difficulty women found finding a place in postwar society once the boys came back from fighting).

The second series found Carter traveling to Los Angeles and getting mixed up in a case involving “zero matter,” a mysterious power source with links to another dimension, and one that, if uncontrolled, threatened to destroy the world. Zero matter was also part of the origin of the season’s antagonist, actress/scientific genius Whitney Frost (a barely fictionalized Hedy Lamarr). Frost’s frustration at being held back by men’s low expectations, revealed in flashback, and the way she eventually obtained power through manipulating men (as a movie star, as the power behind a rising politician, and as the lover of a mob boss) made for an interesting counterpoint with Carter’s own struggles living in a “man’s world.” The first Captain America film and the Agent Carter series have been some of my favorite parts of the MCU, so it’s unfortunate that Agent Carter won’t be returning for a third season (and with Carter’s death from old age in the current movies, we probably won’t be seeing much more of Atwell in the MCU unless there’s a special or a flashback, as in Ant-Man).

Galavant also ended after only two seasons: the musical comedy spoof was a favorite of mine in its first season, as the charming and dashing title character (played by Joshua Sasse) sought to rescue the love of his life, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), from the dastardly King Richard (Timothy Omundson) while teaming up with another princess (Karen David) displaced by Richard’s conquest. That traditional-sounding fairy tale setup was consistently undermined at every turn: Galavant, despite his rakish charisma, was a washed up has-been, supported in his return to form by his plucky squire (Luke Youngblood, memorable from Community for his turn as Magnum); Madalena turned out to not be waiting for her prince to rescue her, but was a more practical-minded gold-digger who considered being the King’s wife an upgrade: or at least she would if King Richard weren’t so ineffectual and childish. The second season explored the fallout of these character dynamics, with Madalena becoming a full-fledged power-hungry villainess and Richard, unseated from his own throne, befriending Galavant and discovering his latent capacity for heroism. Both seasons came to life with knowing references to clichés from both fantasy and musicals, with songs by Alan Mencken and an experienced theater cast to bring them to life (as well as a number of guest stars, ranging from John Hamm to “Weird Al” Yankovic) and finding time for moments for side characters such as the put-upon chef (Darren Evans) and his romance with fellow servant Gwynne (Sophie McShera), hilariously plagued by the life-shortening hazards of medieval life.

In the same vein, I caught up this year with the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the star vehicle of actress-singer-songwriter Rachel Bloom. I’m not sure if I was even aware of Bloom before this year, but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was one of the most talked-about shows in my circle of friends, and after getting started with Anthony Pizzo’s excellent articles on Bloom’s earlier songs and videos, I jumped on board. Like Galavant, the show is made by and for musical theater fans, with each hour-long episode including two or three songs in a variety of styles, reflecting the inner state of mind of Bloom’s alter ego, musical-obsessed Rebecca Bunch. As laid out in the show’s theme song (ironically, the weakest song in the show), Rebecca was a high-powered but deeply unhappy lawyer in New York City until a chance encounter with Josh Chan, the boy with whom she had a brief summer romance at theater camp years ago. Impulsively, she moves to Josh’s hometown of West Covina, California, and begins a new life, stalking Josh and talking herself into ever-more complicated situations, all while denying to herself that that’s why she moved there.

One could call it a deconstruction of I Love Lucy-style screwball antics, and as her earlier work suggested, Bloom is uniquely qualified to balance the comedy and pathos of a fundamentally damaged character. Given my adoration of Community, which similarly made comedy out of a sometimes-bleak perspective, it should be no surprise that I fell hard for this show (even though it took me half a year to finish the whole season, and I haven’t even started on season two).

I’ve also been enjoying the renaissance of DC superhero television, particularly Supergirl (which was somewhat uneven in its first season, but has delivered tighter action sequences and vastly improved character work this fall). Star Melissa Benoist is perfectly cast as the title character and is well served by an ensemble that has grown stronger (even with the unfortunate departure of Calista Flockhart as mentor Cat Grant). Aside from the show’s winningly optimistic spirit, Supergirl is also a treat for eagle-eyed fans, (for example) working in a reference to the “evil” Superman from Superman III or casting former TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the President.

Another DC program, Legends of Tomorrow, was frequently awkward in its first season, but with the defeat of lame villain Vandal Savage and the exit of the equally lame Hawk people, the show has greatly improved in its second season, with a less heavy tone and more connection to the greater DC universe (both leaning into its time travel gimmick to feature characters like Western antihero Jonah Hex or the World War II-era Justice Society of America), even crossing over with the other DC shows in a faithful approximation of the comic books’ “multiverse” of parallel worlds.

Although not connected to the “Arrowverse” DC shows, and generally a show that I drop in and out of rather than watch faithfully, Gotham (a sort of prequel series about future Batman Bruce Wayne as a young boy) has had its moments. The best of all was a mini-arc in which Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor, channeling Crispin Glover’s alien charisma) was reunited with his father (guest star Paul Reubens, who had a cameo as the Penguin’s father in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns). While warmly received by his wealthy father, Penguin was not welcomed by his father’s family, to whom Penguin was simply a freak and an unwelcome intrusion into their plans to inherit the Cobblepot fortune. Over a handful of episodes, this sequence spun from heartfelt reunion to black comedy, and showed the reformed Penguin re-embracing his capacity for violence. It was the show’s high point as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, my summer was dominated by two science fiction programs: BrainDead, which I’ve already written about, and Stranger Things, the breakout Netflix series. Stranger Things got a lot of attention for its slavish recreation of an early 1980s aesthetic (primarily drawing from the work of John Carpenter, Stephen King, and Steven Spielberg, but with nods to John Hughes and Freaks and Geeks), but I don’t think it would have worked or been the sensation it was without its central ensemble of youthful actors. Its moody, Carpenteresque synth soundtrack also set just the right tone.

My 2016 in Books

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No, I haven’t read all the books in this pile; that’s my haul from one of several library sales I hit this year (I have read a couple of these, so far, though). I really can’t help it: this year I continued to collect books at a rate faster than I could read them (a common problem, I’m afraid), but I did make an effort to read books that were already on my shelf. Other books I got from the library when I could, including most of the graphic novels listed below. (I debated whether to include trade paperback collections of monthly comics, but in the case of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I decided what the heck: they’re some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of months, and for the record The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! is a graphic novel in the traditional, standalone sense.)

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In addition to filling some gaps in my comics reading, I followed through on my promise from last year to read more of the pulp and genre novels that have been crowding my shelves for years. Most are quick reads, and some of them tied into other projects I was involved in. Reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was part of my preparation to watch the Buck Rogers serial for a feature in The Solute last spring; novels by William MacLeod Raine and Zane Grey (my first Grey!) continued my exploration of the traditional Western.

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And what about those covers! I love the lush cover paintings Ballantine commissioned for its “Adult Fantasy” line back in the late ’60s, and Ron Walotsky’s cover for Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star in particular is a great example, intensely colorful and reminiscent of Weird Tales great Hannes Bok and Dungeons & Dragons icon Erol Otus. (The book itself was less psychedelic than the art might suggest, an early example of “parallel world” fantasy whose only speculative element was the presence of psychic witches. The Blue Star was originally published in 1952, early enough that Pratt included a prologue setting up the events of the novel as a dream, unable as he was to assume that contemporary audiences would automatically understand the concept of a secondary world.)

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Then there’s this one, an ironic bit of spy-fi, found in a used bookstore. I only recently found out that The Bamboo Saucer was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. The book was okay. (High Road to China, an aviation adventure set in the interwar years, is another one that was made into a movie; the copy I read is even a tie-in edition with a photo insert of star Tom Selleck, but I have absolutely no memory of the film.)

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Other Highlights:

It was a good year for non-fiction for me, and the books on Gary Gygax, Nancy Drew, and Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer were especially fascinating looks into the publishing industry and the creative process. (The Man From Mars also confirmed that the scientist alter ego of superhero The Atom was named after the Ray Palmer, something I had wondered about.) Another fascinating read was A Kim Jong-Il Production, about the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, who were pressed into service making movies for the North Korean dictator, a noted film buff.

I also read quite a few (mostly short) novels, including books by Jack Vance, the last book of Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions (a series I enjoyed very much), and a pair of contemporary (ca. 1970) gothic romances by Susan Howatch (another library sale find: how could I resist a cover like this?).

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Aside from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, comics and graphic novels that I found rewarding were Planetary (I had read the first few issues several years ago, but the Omnibus edition from the library caught me up on the entire series), All-Star Superman (as good as everyone says), and V for Vendetta (unfortunately timely).

Here’s the complete list:

January
Armageddon 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
All the Wrong Questions: “Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?”, Lemony Snicket
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, Paul Fischer
League of Somebodies, Samuel Sattin

February
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, ed. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu
Bulldog Drummond, Sapper
Halting State, Charles Stross

March
Mission to the Head-Hunters, Frank and Marie Drown
All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
The Fighting Tenderfoot, William MacLeod Raine
Cowboys & Aliens, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, et al
Al Williamson Adventures, Al Williamson et al
The Planetary Omnibus, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

April
Heroes of Bear Creek, Robert E. Howard
Big Planet, Jack Vance
The Blue World, Jack Vance

May
The Dragon Masters & Other Stories, Jack Vance
The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, Philippe Druillet
Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, Adam and Dustin Koski
Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, Michael Witwer

June
The Blue Star, Fletcher Pratt
Lone Sloane: Delirius, Jacques Lob and Philippe Druillet
Camelot 3000, Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
The Flight of the Bamboo Saucer, Fritz Gordon
Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson

July
High Road to China, Jon Cleary
Three Weeks, Elinor Glyn
Last of the Duanes, Zane Grey
Marvelman Classic Vol. 2, Mick Anglo et al

August
Cowgirls: Women of the American West, Teresa Jordan
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne

September
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak
This Business of Bomfog, Madelaine Duke
Critical Mass, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis
A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju, Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling and Shawn Pryor
The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, Thomas E. Simmons

October
Monster, 1959, David Maine
Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, Jacques Futrelle, ed. E. F. Bleiler
The Waiting Sands, Susan Howatch

November
The Devil on Lammas Night, Susan Howatch
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. One: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, North and Henderson
The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem (2nd ed.), Myrick Land
Howard the Duck Vol. 0: What the Duck, Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones et al
The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, Roseanne Cheng
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

December
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Two: Squirrel, You Know It’s True, North and Henderson
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Tony Cliff
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Three: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, North and Henderson

Monstober 2016

mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown

Mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown


Since for the last couple of years I’ve kept track of my October viewing and written about it, I’ve gotten in the habit of setting aside movies to watch during the Halloween season. I don’t set a strict schedule, since the odds are against me being able to keep it anyway, and I like to make choices as my mood strikes me, but I did have a stack of movies I had planned on getting to in October. However, once things came together to make October “kaiju month,” even those loose plans went out the window and I ended up spending the first half of the month watching monster movies, many of which are only nominally horror.

That’s OK: as I’ve said before, I’m not a “Shocktober” purist, and I cast a pretty wide net to include science fiction, fantasy and genre pictures during this month. But it did make my list pretty monster-heavy, and as you’ll see I ended up waiting until later in the month to get a very consistent “Halloween” vibe going. In any case, I got my fill of movies this month: at 37 films, including only three I’d seen before, I exceeded last year’s total of 31 movies. (It didn’t hurt that the movies I watched were shorter on average than in previous years, many under 90 minutes). This included several classics I was watching for the first time, as well as a few new releases.

1. Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, 1968)
2. All Monsters Attack aka Godzilla’s Revenge (Ishiro Honda, 1969)
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3. Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967)
4. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) *
5. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) *
6. Rodan (Ishiro Honda, 1956)
7. Destroy All Monsters (Ishiro Honda, 1968)
8. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) *, r
9. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)
10. Godzilla vs. Gigan (Jun Fukuda, 1972)
11. Godzilla vs. Megalon (Jun Fukuda, 1973)
12. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
13. Terror of Mechagodzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1975)
14. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)
15. Phantasm: Ravager (David Hartman, 2016) *
16. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, 2016) *
17. It’s Alive! (Larry Cohen, 1974)
18. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
19. The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja) (Chano Urueta, 1962)
20. The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldicion de la Llorona) (Rafael Baledón, 1963)
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21. Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) *
22. Dragon Wars: D-War (Hyung-rae Shim, 2007)
23. Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972)
24. Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981)
25. The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears, 1957) r
26. Daigoro vs. Goliath (Toshihiro Iijima, 1972)
27. Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
28. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (Takao Okawara, 1995)
29. The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)
30. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973)
31. How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock, 1958)
32. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973)
33. Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) *
34. Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2015) *
35. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
36. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) r
37. Night Train to Terror (John Carr, Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Greg Tallas, 1985)
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* theatrical screening
r repeat viewing

(Sorry, no elaborate key to themes and images this year–maybe next time.)

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I also watched a few short films that don’t really fit on the list: a pair of shorts on superstitions, Who’s Superstitious? from 1943 and Black Cats and Broomsticks from 1955 (both aired earlier this month on TCM); It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (an annual viewing with the family, of course); Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live; and assorted bumpers and trailers, not to mention this creepy Japanese Kleenex commercial.

Best movie: I saw several good films this month, but picking one that stands above the rest is more difficult than in previous years. Two of the films that gave me the most pleasure are rewatches: Phantasm and Carnival of Souls. (As an aside, the similarities between the two films are obvious when watched in close proximity: both obey the non sequitur logic of dreams or nightmares, and both feature protagonists menaced by suit-wearing older men who are apt to pop up at the most frightening moments. Upon seeing Phantasm for the first time last year, I had connected it to the dream-like disconnected narrative of Italian horror, but it seems possible that Carnival of Souls–itself an Americanization of Bergman and other European influences–also informed it. It’s also probably not a coincidence that both films had two of the best scores I heard this month: I’m jamming out to the Phantasm soundtrack right now, in fact.)

I liked most of the Godzilla movies I watched this month, as well, not only the “serious” ones but also the goofier entries with Megalon and the like (heck, I even enjoyed the very silly Daigoro vs. Goliath). I think my favorites were the two Mechagodzilla films, which balanced the campier elements of the Godzilla mythos (robots, space aliens) with the heavier themes of the more serious films: sacrifice, tradition, and kaiju as guardian spirits.

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Ultimately, my pick for best first-time viewing is Shin Godzilla. Perhaps I was simply primed by all that Godzilla-watching leading up to it, but the experience of seeing Shin Godzilla in a theater packed with fans (the first Godzilla movie I’d seen in a theater since Godzilla 1985–no, I didn’t even get to see Roland Emmerich’s or Gareth Edwards’ films in theaters) was a high point of the month.

Worst movie: I watched a few clunkers this month, partly as a result of my search for the silliest giant movie monsters, but you also just never really know what will work for you until you pull the trigger. Dragon Wars: D-War, which didn’t make the silly monster list (the movie is ridiculous, but the monsters for the most part aren’t), was a famously terrible flop when it was released, but as janky as it was it also held my attention (its worst sins are convoluted, front-loaded exposition and an over-reliance on CGI, as if the filmmakers had learned the wrong lessons from the Star Wars prequels). Night Train to Terror, an anthology, almost lost me completely in its first segment, but recovered in the second and third parts with some charmingly primitive stop-motion monster effects (this short review of the Blu-ray release goes into more detail and explains why it took five directors to make this mess!).

Of the Godzilla movies I watched in the first part of the month, Son of Godzilla was my least favorite, with its emphasis on the uncomfortably squishy “baby Godzilla,” Minilla (yes, I even enjoyed the oft-maligned Attack All Monsters more than Son of Godzilla; at least Attack All Monsters has a definite point of view and some creative staging).

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However, I have to give the edge to Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. It’s a coincidence that I watched my first film from director Ted V. Mikels the same month that he passed away (I had bought the disc last month). As much as I hate to speak ill of the dead, the movie failed to deliver on its awesome title and was not only disappointingly tame, it was, even worse, boring. I’m told that this is typical of Mikels’ work, which is too bad.

Scariest movie: Well, did you see that Japanese Kleenex commercial?

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But seriously: I’ve written before about how easily scared I was as a kid, and how that’s left me playing catch-up with a lot of classic horror that I probably should have seen sooner. That’s how I ended up seeing The Exorcist for the first time this year, and you know what? After expecting the “scariest film of all time,” I just didn’t find it that scary. How can any film live up to a reputation like that? It probably didn’t help that The Exorcist has been so frequently referenced and parodied that I felt like I had already seen many of its most famous set pieces. Having said that, it was an excellent film, deserving of its reputation. It’s a great drama about faith and loss, with a lot of spooky atmosphere, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really even trying to be the film I had been led to expect. Probably if I had seen it at a younger age it would have had more of an effect on me.

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So what did scare me this month? “Toby Dammit,” Federico Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead, had some eerie visual shocks, as did The Curse of the Crying Woman (the title character’s eyeless appearance is pretty creepy) and Phantasm II, but I think the most consistently tense and viscerally scary movie I watched this month is director Matt Reeves’ and writer Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster movie update Cloverfield. The immediacy of the found-footage device (a gimmick I’m not usually fond of) gives the audience the sense of being on the ground during a giant monster attack on New York City, the kind of scene that is usually visualized from afar (the story contrives to get the characters briefly onto a helicopter so we can get the kind of wide shot of the monster we’re used to seeing in films like this, but for the most part the handheld camera footage feels very naturalistic). In addition to the scenes of citywide destruction, there are sequences in subway tunnels underground that are extremely creepy, as the characters are stalked and attacked by the spider-like parasites that have dropped from the main beast. Finally, the circumstances by which the camera is recovered imply a government-conspiracy backstory to the events that is anything but reassuring. In fact, you know what? Maybe this is the best movie I saw this month (non-Godzilla category, anyway).

Funniest movie: The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorites, but I was never a fan of its sequel or the spin-off cartoon series. It was pretty much just the first film, a unique blend of irreverent humor and special effects-driven action, and even then it wasn’t scary to me. So I wasn’t offended by the release of the controversial female-led remake this year, but I also didn’t have high hopes that it would recapture what I loved about the original. The new film was, when I finally saw it, quite enjoyable, even if not everything landed. If anything, I found the callbacks and reminders of the first film more annoying than affectionate: the pleasure of seeing the proton packs back in action, wielded by a new generation of characters, should have been enough. However, I won’t deny that it made me laugh; I’m comfortable saying that it is easily my second-favorite Ghostbusters film. (It was also interesting to see the movie, a summer blockbuster like the original, during the fall, and place it in the context of other supernatural “scary” movies: it works decently on that count, especially early on, but like many horror movies it becomes less rather than more frightening as the threat becomes known and it barrels towards the big climax.)

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Even funnier, however, was a film that took me by surprise: Hotel Transylvania, an animated film about Adam Sandler as Dracula, faced with the prospect of his daughter growing up and yearning to explore the world of humans, from which Dracula and his monster pals have been hiding for over a century. Nothing about that description, or the ads that were ubiquitous when the movie was released, made me want to see it, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal, laughing at Genndy Tartakovsky’s expressively cartoony animation style and the many sight gags and running jokes, and the story was actually rather touching.

Weirdest movie: As mentioned, Phantasm and Carnival of Souls are “classically” weird, and I would also put Halloween III in that category, combining as it does elements of horror and science fiction in a story that touches on many qualities of both fairy tale and nightmare. But there are movies that have weird stories, and there are movies whose entire existence seems unlikely: the weirdness is in their conception, leading not to questions like “what does this mean?” or “wait, was Ellie a robot the whole time, or what?” but to questions like “how did this get made in the first place?” and “how can I make sure I don’t meet any of these people in real life?”

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Such was my response to The Baby, the 1973 cult oddity about a social worker confronting a family whose twenty-something son has remained in an infantile state, pre-verbal, crawling, and wearing a diaper. Is he genuinely developmentally disabled, or is he being kept from growing by his domineering mother and stepsisters? Does the effect he has on women stem from something missing in their own lives, or is he capable of adult urges? Frequently disturbing, the movie subverted my expectations at every turn, right down to an ending that was head-smackingly obvious but which I still didn’t see coming. If I had to explain this movie, I would say “only in the ’70s.”

Goriest movie: Night Train to Terror (another candidate for “weirdest movie”) was by far the most graphic and bloody film I watched this month, and despite its deficiencies in other areas, I can’t deny that it delivers the kind of macabre violence–slashings, beheadings, and dismemberments, along with more exotic causes of death such as electrocution and exploding head (sorry, “catastrophic head injury”)–one associates with Halloween thrills. I don’t have much stomach for gore, but fortunately Night Train is a pretty cheap movie, and so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously.

That’s it for this year: maybe I’ll keep watching horror movies through November and work through the stockpile of movies I didn’t watch this month, or maybe I’ll end up saving some for next year. But now I have some important candy to eat business to attend to. Happy Halloween!

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Any questions?