My Favorite Films of 2015…

 

No Top Ten list here, just a dozen films that I really liked, in no particular order:

AMYAmy_Movie Poster

I like Amy Winehouse’s music, but this relentless documentary made me see her in a new light. A brilliant portrait of a talented yet self-destructive artist. Yes, it’s like watching a train wreck, but the glories and deep soul of  her music comfort us on the march toward her inevitable end.

 

ex-machinaEX MACHINA

A science fiction film that investigates the meaning of humanity, and an absolute gem. Alex Garland’s direction and script are spot-on, as are the performances of Domhnall Gleeson (who is turning out to have a fantastic career), Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, three of the best young film actors today.

 

SPOTLIGHTSpotlightTIFF2015

Not since All the President’s Men has there been as good a film about investigative journalism, and it’s got the best ensemble cast I’ve seen all year. Solid and immersive filmmaking at its best.

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHThateful_eight_cast_0

I love Tarantino films. I love westerns. I love it when violence erupts out of stillness. So how could I not love this film? Yes, Tarantino is brash and (intentionally) derivative — that’s his modus operandi. But the man can shoot a film. His use of the wide screen is unparalleled. There’s so much in every frame, whether it’s an interior or exterior, that you never get bored, since there’s always something to look at. And the performances are all classic B-movie: Kurt Russell, Sam Jackson, Walton Goggins, and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh, who anchors the whole film.

 

TOMORROWLANDtomorrowland-2015-movie-poster

Some films you love just because their message resonates with you, and that’s why I love Brad Bird’s SF/fantasy. I saw this on DVD a short time after seeing the new Star Wars film, and was moved and entertained much more by it than by the Force reawakening. Tomorrowland reawakened not only my sense of purpose, but my sense of wonder as well. Pretty much trashed by the critics, this deserves a look if you haven’t seen it.

 

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTONStraight_Outta_Compton_poster

Yes, this crazy motherhugger named White Boy loved this film about NWA, the bad boys of gangsta rap. I’m not a fan of rap in general, but this film effectively showed the artistry behind the genre, and the difficulties of starting a new (and frequently reviled) musical category.

 

 

 

THE MARTIANmartian-gallery9-gallery-image

At last — a science fiction movie about science, and the solving of problems through scientific means. A good script, cast, and special effects, sure, but what really makes this film a stand-out is its reliance on good old American (and universal) know-how. I hope millions of kids see this and are influenced by it. If so, it could be a big step toward making our country less fearful of science and knowledge in general, and a little less stupid overall. Oh, and did I mention, SCIENCE!

 

BLACK MASSblack.mass_.thm_

This one seems to have flown under the radar recently. It’s a chilling portrait of gangster Whitey Bulger, and a penetrating look at corruption at all levels. Johnny Depp as Bulger has never given a better performance, looking out at the world through cold, reptilian eyes. It’s a role for the ages, and he makes the most of it.

 

THE REVENANTrevenant-leo

Though it doesn’t fly as high as Director Innaritu’s Birdman, it’s a compelling recreation of an earlier time, and a grueling trek through the American wilderness of the 1820s. Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t one of my favorite actors, and I often think he phones in performances, but he really earns his money in this one. Though I’d like to have seen more depth in the characters, what’s on the surface is quite enough. It’s a tough film to sit through, but well worth the shared pain. Tom Hardy is, as always, brilliant and almost unrecognizable, probably the best film actor working today.

 

BRIDGE OF SPIESbridge_of_spies-2

When I heard about this film, the combination of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg made me think, “Oh, this is going to be earnest,” but I was pleasantly surprised. Hanks is our James Stewart, and he handles the role with aplomb, but the real treasure of the film is Mark Rylance, in the quietest and most subtle performance of the year.

 

BONE TOMAHAWKbone-tomahawk

Another Kurt Russell western, and a goodie, though this one is far more horrific than The Hateful Eight. It’s pure pulp and pure gruesome fun, and it’s now streaming free for Amazon Prime members.

 

 

 

 

CREEDcreed

One of my guilty pleasures is the Rocky franchise, and this seventh film is the best since the first in 1976. Apollo Creed’s son is the fighter in question, and the aging Rocky Balboa is his trainer. It’s a sharp and well-paced film, with terrific performances by Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, who is heartbreaking in his depiction of an old warrior.

 

THE BEST OF ENEMIESWILLIAM BUCKLEY;GORE VIDAL

A scorching documentary about the feud between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, which came to a head in a series of televised debates between the two in 1968. The actual footage shows that a battle of words can be just as involving and terrible as a battle with guns, knives, or lightsabers. The climactic scene may be the most grimly fascinating moment of television ever.

 

CRIMSON PEAKCrimson-Peak-Mondo-poster-3

Guillermo del Toro’s newest film took a lot of heat for not being as much of a horror film as some critics and viewers wanted it to be. That’s because it wasn’t a horror film, but a gothic film, and one of the best ever made. There were moments of sheer icy terror, nevertheless, and a plot that played beautifully with the tropes of the genre. A beautiful looking film as well, which was perhaps a case of pearls before swine. It was the film del Toro wanted to make, and if some viewers didn’t like it because it wasn’t the film they expected it to be, all the sadder for them.

 

And that’s it. I’m sure there are films I’ve overlooked or forgotten or not yet seen (always the case). If you haven’t seen these, I think you’ll find them moving and entertaining. Feel free to comment and share your own favorites from last year…

An analysis of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”

I learned of the death of David Bowie today, and thought I’d post this piece I wrote back in 2007, my reflections about one of his greatest songs…

 

manwhosoldOh No, Not Me”

David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”

I’d never paid much attention to David Bowie. When he was becoming famous in the early 70’s, I had lost interest in rock and was delving into classical music, still playing my Doors and Janis and Beatles and Stones LPs, but ignoring the new crop. Thus, I missed Bowie’s classic albums, and by the time I started paying attention to rock again, we (and Bowie) had entered the era of disco, a sub-genre that I found both forgettable and regrettable.

Just recently, however, I started listening to Bowie, thanks to the recommendation of a friend, and in short order got the albums, The Man Who Sold the World, Aladdin Sane, and a two-disc Singles 1969-93 collection (Hunky Dory is on my must-buy list). On the first album mentioned, I came across the song that made me realize that for a third of a century I’d been missing the work of a musical genius.

The title song from The Man Who Sold the World has become my mantra, a song that I literally cannot get out of my head and have no wish to. Musically, lyrically, philosophically, it stands above 99% of Bowie’s other songs (at least the ones I’ve heard), 99.9% of the songs written during the time of its creation, and 99.99% of those written today. I need to write about it, if for no other reason than to examine why it’s made such an impression on me.

Musically, the hook gets in your brain and won’t let go. That A-A-A-G-A-B flat-A-G is a riff as simple as rainwater, but what’s most infectious about it is that it’s played over three different chords: D minor, A, and F. The melody of the riff is unchangeable. It seems to owe nothing to any key, and stands alone, adapting itself to the darkness of D minor, the brightness of F, and the intermediary and transitory character of A.

When the song shifts to a C chord (after “a long long time ago”), the thrice-repeated octave-long C-run and the following single F-scale create a churning, rising engine out of the chorus. Just when we think we’re on solid musical ground between C and F, Bowie drops in a B-flat minor chord (on “never lost”) which adds a textural complexity that suggests that maybe we are lost after all. But at the end of the chorus we slide down a half-step from B-flat minor to A major, a step toward home.

What’s most fascinating about “The Man Who Sold the World,” however, is not just the musical dexterity alone, but how Bowie relates the music to the evocative lyrics concerning duality, lost chances, and lives not lived. I’ll be up front and admit that I haven’t read any analyses of this song except for a rather brief one in Wikipedia, which makes the solid suggestion that the song might have been partly inspired by the poem:

Yesterday upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

Bowie takes this simple metaphor, however, and extends it radically. After passing upon the stairs, the narrator (the “self”) and the character he confronts (the “other”) speak “of was and when,” conveying in four words what other lyricists might have found required several lines. The story that follows might be seen as science-fictional, an epic tale of a man who literally sold the world and returns in some alien manner to tell an old friend. In that light, the lines “I thought you died alone/A long long time ago” to which the “other” answers, “Oh no, not me/I never lost control” suggests that the “other” might be the lost Major Tom of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and that “control” could be “Ground Control,” with which Major Tom never actually lost contact. (Though I haven’t read this interpretation, it’s so obvious that I assume I’m far from the first to suggest it.)

But what’s most interesting about the lyrics is not the surface SF story, but the psychological subtext and how it relates to its musical setting. The interpretation that I find most compelling is that of a man who meets his other self (or one of his myriad other selves) in a moment of self-awareness, realizes what he might have become, and considers the life he might have led if he had “lost control.” Through conformity, by never losing control of his emotions or his life, the narrator sells the world, gives up whatever other lives he might have lived in exchange for solidity and placidity, for a life which has neither excitement nor trauma. Still, that “other” beckons from time to time, and though the narrator thinks that aspect of his character “died alone, a long long time ago,” it still haunts and mocks him with the thought of what might have been.

When the narrator departs from the “other,” he tries to return to his home, searching “for form and land,” roaming for years and staring “at all the millions here,” the mob of undiscovered selves, duality multiplied to infinity. There is also a move from certainty to uncertainty: the first chorus states “Oh no, not me,” while the second changes the line to “Who knows? Not me.” The narrator has moved to unsure ground, not yet come home. And there is the suggestion that even if he does, home will never be the same again, now that he has been confronted with his new knowledge.

A more traditionally moralistic view is also possible (though less textually supported). It’s a mirror image of the above scenario, in which the narrator has sold the world – home, wife, family – in order to act upon his desires. He meets the “other,” the one who never lost control, but who recognizes in the narrator his other self, the man who did indeed sell the world. The rebuked narrator unsuccessfully attempts to go back home to reclaim the lost Eden, but finds “all the millions here” attempting to do the same.

Whichever approach one finds most appealing, there is no denying the underlying themes of duality and multiple personalities, and the suggestion that everyone has multitudes within them. The disquieting aspects of this are amplified by being placed upon a musical chordal structure that is just as disturbing as the underlying philosophical ideas.

The real brilliance of the song is the musical metaphor that Bowie uses, the constant, never-changing riff that fits harmonically with three individual chords, and whose character changes as it is played over each. It is a perfect illustration of how one personality, represented by one tune, can slip easily into very different lifestyles, represented by the changing chords.

While the original recording of the song fades out, in live performances Bowie ends the song on the unresolved A chord, leaving the narrator suspended, still uncertain, between the resolved “happy ending” of F major and the mysterious and unpredictable D minor. Thus the story remains unfinished and ambiguous.

There are songs that have equally compelling lyrical ideas, and songs that have as powerful melodic and chordal structures, but there are few that blend the two to create a work as cohesive, as compelling, and as haunting as “The Man Who Sold the World.”

Good words on PSYCHO: SANITARIUM…

Psycho: Sanitariummy authorized sequel to Robert Bloch’s original novel, Psycho, is being released as a Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press hardcover on April 12th. The book has been getting some good words from authors and reviewers already, and I thought I’d share a few here…

“Loved it. Delicious take on Bloch’s Norman Bates. Bloch is a favorite of mine and Chet Williamson’s novel captures Bloch’s cleverness, humor, as well as the disturbing aspect of making us sympathize with Norman’s sad background. This is beautifully written and realized. A creeping thriller of the sort you see so little of these days. Quiet until it isn’t. A marvelous continuation of Bloch’s character and attitudes that somehow manages to stand tall on its on two feet due to Williamson’s total grasp of the original material.” — Joe R. Lansdale, best-selling author of  HAP & LEONARD and PARADISE SKY

 

“Chet Williamson has brought Psycho back to frightening life, with disturbing psychological intensity and with knife-blade glittering.”
— John Shirley, bestselling author of DEMONS and screenwriter of THE CROW

 

“Fans of Robert Bloch rejoice! Chet Williamson’s PSYCHO: SANITARIUM brings a 21st Century sensibility and edge while remaining true to the classic pulp spirit; a fun, smart, nasty, throwback. You’ll want to read in a single sitting with the lights on. But as always, beware of Mother.”  –Paul Tremblay, author of A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS and DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL’S ROCK.

 

“This brilliant projection of a horror classic is also a surgical deconstruction, a look not only inside the mind of a maniac, but into the milieu of ‘treatment’ of the criminally insane. There are a million reasons to read PSYCHO: SANITARIUM, but the most compelling is the lesson it teaches: Real horror is real. And never that far from home.”  –Andrew Vachss, bestselling author of AFTERSHOCK

 

“Effortlessly capturing the spirit of its venerable source material, Psycho: Sanitarium is a fast paced, gripping thrill ride that fans of the original books and movies will rapidly devour. Packed full of surprising twists and edge-of-your seat moments that will have you covering the next page to avoid spoiling anything, Psycho: Sanitarium comfortably lives up to the legacy of its predecessors.”       — Den of Geeks reviewpsychosanitariumpsychosanitarium

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

 

Narrating Disney Live Music/Film Saturday with Hershey Symphony!

MickeyI’m absolutely delighted to be narrating the Hershey Symphony Orchestra’s “The Magical Music of Disney” this Saturday, September 26th, in performances at 2:00 and 7:00. The Hershey Symphony, in the glorious Hershey Theatre in Hershey PA, will be playing an overture of Disney favorites (including the pictured “Mickey Mouse Club March”), and then a series of suites for nine different Disney films — The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, Frozen, Aladdin, Mulan, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Lion King.

What makes this so cool is that on the screen above the orchestra, the audience will see footage from the various films, with the live symphonic music synchronized to what’s happening on screen. These films were prepared exclusively by Disney for the Hershey Symphony (earlier versions done by other orchestras had still photos only), so you get to see it here first!

If you live in the Central PA area and have kids, this would be a real treat. Or if any of you adults are just fans of the Disney films, you’ll get a huge kick out of this. We had a dress rehearsal last night (as in the photo) and the orchestra sounds great! Hope you can join us! Here’s the link for tickets…or call the Hershey Theatre Box Office at (717) 534-3405.

Weird Tales & One Degree of H. P. Lovecraft

Last August I was invited to be the Guest of Honor at PulpFest, an annual pulpfestgathering of collectors and readers of the old pulp fiction magazines. Since the theme of the convention was Weird Tales magazine and the 125th birthday of H. P. Lovecraft, I was asked to talk about how Lovecraft and Weird Tales influenced my life and work. This is the result, along with a few weird tales of my own about collecting pulps and meeting the people who helped to create them…

My and my pal Cthulhu
My and my pal Cthulhu

When you’re asked to talk about H. P. Lovecraft, you wonder what can be said that hasn’t already been talked about a thousand times. Continue reading Weird Tales & One Degree of H. P. Lovecraft

A Plethora of Audiobooks — a PLETHORA, I Tell You…

For those of you who love audiobooks, let me suggest listening to some of mine! I’ve done over forty, both as author and narrator, and you’ll find them all here at Audible.com. along with my own work, I’ve recorded novels by Clive Barker, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, Lucky McKee, John Farris, Irving Wallace, Forrest Carter, Dave Pedneau, Charles L. Grant, Joseph Citro, Neal Barrett, Tom Piccirilli, Bill Pronzini, John Skipp & Craig Spector, Raymond Benson, David Niall Wilson, and more. They’re all unabridged, downloadable, and your first title is free with a trial membership to Audible! The next one I’m working on is Clive Barker’s Everville, the sequel to The Great and Secret Show, which I recently narrated…greatsecretshow