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The Best Movies of 2013: #20 – #1

January 31, 2014

Congratulations, my players and playerettes! You finally made it, the big day has finally arrived! For those just tuning in, here’s what you’ve been missing:

Day 1: #85 – #66
Day 2: #66 – #51
Day 3: #50 – #36
Day 4: #35 – #21

Now that that’s out of the way, what do you say we get down to it?

20. Cutie and the Boxer
Those awesome opening credits. The unexpected weight of Ushio’s drunken, emotional breakdown. There’s just a lot to like about this gorgeous, honest, complex portrait of two aging, starving artists as they come into their own. Didn’t hit me right away, but it’s been lingering like a mother ever since.

19. V/H/S/2 (Full Review)
In light of its (mostly) disappointing predecessor, I can’t stress enough what an improvement this was every single way. Love what these guys are doing and, holy hell, that segment by Gareth Evans featuring the charming gent up yonder? That was something else.

18. Blackfish
Yup. SeaWorld is the worst. Awesome to see a doc create such a real-world impact like this.

17. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
As one of the six people people on Earth who actually liked the last one, this made for three awfully well-spent hours. Still pales in comparison to the book (because of course), but I just love coming back to Middle-Earth like this. That is far and away one of the nerdiest sentences I’ve ever written.

16. Stories We Tell
Proof that some of life’s most interesting stories are the ones we call our own. Big ups to Sarah Polley for sharing this with the world and to her family for making it happen. Takes guts.

15. Man of Steel (Full Review)
Fully aware that I’m in the minority here, but I’m sticking to my guns on this one. As a big fan Supes, it’s been far too long since he got his due on the silver screen. Can’t say the criticisms aren’t warranted as things do get a bit overkill there, but, for me, the shortcomings were easy to overlook. Consider this my mulligan for the year.

14. This is the End (Full Review)
I can’t remember the last movie that had me laughing this hard from the beginning to end. ‘Tis is a special, beautiful thing.

13. 12 Years a Slave
Isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said. There’s no shortage of good reasons for why it’s probably gonna win Best Picture.

12. The Gatekeepers (Full Review)
As sobering as it was enlightening. Glad I watched it, deserves to be seen.

11. American Hustle
Nothing against his last few gigs, but this was David O. Russell’s best movie since Three Kings. First time in a long time where I couldn’t venture a guess as to how the story would play out and it wound up playing out wonderfully. Bonus points for the best trailer of the year.

10. Gravity

9. You’re Next (Full Review)
For a year that had its fair share of noteworthy horror movies, this was the one that did everything right. Great sense of humor given everything that goes down, just the kind of heroine that this industry (let alone genre) needs and some very memorable villains sporting some very memorable getups. Just a total blast all around that breathed some serious life into a tired formula.

8. This is Martin Bonner
As understated as can be, there isn’t much that actually happens and I’m guessing you haven’t heard of it. BUT, I’ve always said that my favorite kind of movies are the ones about real people with real problems, and This is Martin Bonner is one of the great examples. Such a satisfying, simple, moving story that got so very much out of very little with ease. If only we had more movies that didn’t insist on over-complicating things.

7. Muscle Shoals
One of the best rock docs that I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. One of those rare things that renews your faith in the magic of music.

6. The History of Future Folk (Full Review)
Folks, I’ve been championing this movie all damn year and I’m not gonna stop ’til your granny’s running down the street with a bucket on her head yelling “Hondo!” I can’t imagine how anyone who gives this a shot wouldn’t be just as enthusiastic. The History of Future Folk is everything that’s great about going to the movies all at once and it is a sure thing for anyone looking to watch anything. For the love of god, do yourself a favor and watch this immediately. Granny can thank me later.

5. Dallas Buyers Club
One of the year’s best scripts, two of the year’s best characters and two of the year’s best performances to boot. This one was firing on all cylinders, folks, and I could not get enough of it. What a freakin’ year for Matthew McConaughey, huh?

4. Mud (Full Review)
Seriously though, what a freakin’ year for Matthew McConaughey. 2013 had its fair share of coming-of-agers, none of which came close to everything great about Mud. The cast, script, the story – everything, especially those kid actors. Reason No. 3 why Jeff Nichols continues to be one of the best film makers out there (see Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter for reasons No. 1 & 2).

3. The Act of Killing
The banality of evil is a jaw-dropping thing to behold. Unbelievable in nearly every sense of the word; the most important thing cut to film last year.

2. Before Midnight (Full Review)
Best trilogy ever? Best trilogy ever. I’ve already rambled enough about this one, but, believe me, I could keep going.

1. her
Knew this would be my No. 1 within the first five minutes. The one movie last year that truly reminded me why I love movies, that movies are so much more than mere escapism, that movies are art. One of those movies that’s so significant and true to who we are, where we are and where we’re going as a people that they should probably just preserve it in the National Film Registry already. I know, some seriously high praise going on up in here, but even if you don’t agree, even if you find it stupid, depressing or funny in the all the wrong places, it’s so rare to find a movie that invites those kinds of responses. So many feels with this movie. This is one that society will remember.

And that’ll do it, folks. Hope you enjoyed this year’s rundown, and even if you didn’t, feel free to let me have it.

Until next time, stay groovy, y’all.

The Best Movies of 2013: #35 – #21

January 30, 2014

Getting to the home stretch here, folks. For those who need of a refresher:

Day 1: #85 – #66
Day 2: #66 – #51
Day 3: #50 – #36

Now, onto the good stuff.

35. The World’s End
Unexpected in both good ways and bad; one that I liked a lot more in the moment. Still, even as the weakest entry in the Blood & Ice Cream trilogy, Edgar Wright continues to have no equal. Something tells me time will be kind to this one. Looking forward to a second viewing.

34. Somm
For something that could have been as snooty and esoteric as it sounds, this was one wildly engaging doc with one satisfying payoff. Isn’t it just awesome to see someone master something, anything in life?

33. Lore (Full Review)
Not the kind of WWII/Holocaust movie I ever expected to see, let alone expect it to be this affecting in turn.

32. No (Full Review)
A fascinating story with a fascinating protagonist, one that’s just as pertinent today as it was back then.

31. Spring Breakers (Full Review)
It’s been almost a year now and I still have absolutely no idea where to rank or how to feel about this movie. Definitely made an impression though, that much is certain. So, yeah. I’m just gonna leave this here. Talk amongst yourselves.

30. The Conjuring
Seriously. Fuck that doll. I couldn’t even look at the screen during the first half-hour of this movie I was so utterly, helplessly scared. The clapping game? Not having it. Whatsoever. While it wasn’t quite as terrifying from that point forward, I haven’t been this spooked by a movie since The Orphanage.

29. Behind the Candelabra
For someone who never really piqued me interest beforehand, little did I know how taken I would be with this story of his life. What a weird, touching romance, and that ending was a keeper.

28. Side Effects (Full Review)
During what was easily the worst moviegoing period of last year, this was nothing short of a gift from the gods of celluloid. Totally unexpected and just another reason why Steven Soderbergh can’t leave us.

27. Upstream Color (Full Review)
Certainly original; certainly unlike anything else I saw last year or ever, for that matter. Shane Carruth should really make more movies.

26. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Did a bang-up job of clearing some things up. Not a pretty picture any way you paint it.

25. Nebraska
Wasn’t too crazy about it for the first half-hour, but it just kept getting better and better. Never underestimate the power of simplicity when telling a story. Write that one down, kids.

24. Room 237 (Full Review)
What a freakin’ trip. I think the fact that I’m still wondering about Kubrick staging the moon landing kinda says it all.

23. Iron Man 3 (Full Review)
Shane Black and RDJ should really do this more often.

22. Call me Kuchu
Heartbreaking. Mind-boggling. Required viewing regardless of your familiarity with the subject matter. Uganda needs to get its shit together, stat.

21. Sightseers
Totally warped, absolutely hilarious, right up my alley.

Alright, boys and girls. Just one more day to go. Until then, you stay groovy.

The Best Movies of 2013: #50 – #36

January 29, 2014

Welcome back, sports fans! Once again, if this is all coming as news:

Day 1: #85 – #66
Day 2: #65 – #51

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s keep this gravy train rolling.

50. Frances Ha
A bit too white and “hipstery” for my taste, but Greta Gerwig rocks, man. That woman rocks hard.

49. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Liked it for a lot of the same reasons as I did the last one, so points for consistency. Seriously though, it’s ridiculous how good this series is in comparison to all the coattail riders out there. Serenity now.

48. Oz, the Great and Powerful (Full Review)
The last thing the world needs is another fairy-tale adaptation, but, what can I say? I’m a sucker for Sam Raimi.

47. Bridegroom
Some straight people, man. Homeys need to get their act together. Sad stuff.

46. Ain’t in it for my Health: A Film about Levon Helm
Gotta say, it was pretty sad seeing how bitter he was about some of his former bandmates after all these years. Then again, I’ve never been broke or been screwed out of royalties. Anyhow, Levon was the man and this was just further proof. Not for nothing, but watching him cover “Atlantic City” was one of the best scenes of the whole damn year.

45. A Band Called Death (Full Review)
As surprisingly heartfelt as it was kickass. What a great band name, what a great family.

44. War Witch
Harrowing, important stuff that became even more so upon learning how terribly accurate it is.

43. The Way Way Back (Full Review)
Would have been higher if Steve Carrell hadn’t been such a huge dick, but if we could get more Duncans in our coming-of-agers, that would just be grand. And, as always, much love to Sam Rockwell, especially DANCIN’ SAM ROCKWELL!

42. Pacific Rim (Full Review)
Since anime is awesome, so, therefore, is this. Way more fun than I was expecting it to be.

41. Sound City (Full Review)
If this doesn’t make you want to start a band, I don’t know what will.

40. Blue Caprice
I always have trouble with movies that are based on real-life people who, you know, murdered a lot of real-life people. Kinda seems in bad taste, right? With that said, this was one truly haunting portrait. Isaiah Washington deserves more credit than he got.

39. Prisoners
For a movie where none of the characters really grew or changed, this sucker did a bang-up job of grabbing my attention and not letting go. That Hugh Jackman sure likes to yell, huh?

38. Blancanieves
Like I said, enough with the fairy-tale adaptations. But if you’re going to do it, bully to you for doing it as a silent film starring six bullfighting dwarves.

37. Gimme the Loot
I love these kinds of movies. Low-budget stuff driven by snappy, genuine dialogue and true-to-life characters that are just plain fun to be around. More of this, please.

36. The Great Gatsby (Full Review)
Granted, anything would have been better than the Robert Redford version, but after dreading this movie’s arrival for good couple years, color me impressed by the way it turned out. Honestly, I wish more adaptations would have the guts to do what this did rather than stick to the source material like they (almost) always do.

And that’s it for Day 3, folks! See you back here tomorrow for the next 15. Same Bat time, same Bat channel.

The Best Movies of 2013: #65 – #51

January 28, 2014

Alrighty then! 22 down, 65 to go. For those just joining us, here’s what you missed:

Day 1: #85 – #66

Now, where were we…?

65. Resolution
Intriguing premise that went off in a really weird direction for some reason.

64. From Up on Poppy Hill
Probably the only time I’ll ever say this, but it would have been better if it hadn’t been anime.

63. Trance
It’s no Shallow Grave, but it was fun to see Danny Boyle do a throwback for once.

62. Mama (Full Review)
Eerie stuff that, surprisingly, didn’t keep shooting itself in the foot like I totally expected it to.

61. Stoker
Some really great direction and use of inference here, just wish the characters hadn’t felt so damn stiff.

60. Warm Bodies (Full Review)
For a genre that’s starting to wear out its welcome, this right here was a welcome change of pace.

59. The Place Beyond the Pines (Full Review)
Still find myself thinking about this one every now and again, although it’s amazing how one weak character can really take the wind out of a movie.

58. Welcome to Pine Hill (Full Review)
Understated to the point where it hardly even felt like a movie, which is a good thing. Just wish there was a bit more closure to tie it all together.

57. Electrick Children (Full Review)
Mormons, music and Billy Zane. Not a bad formula, folks.

56. Drug War
A solid, gun-toting cop thriller. Easily the lamest review of this entire list, but that about sums it up for me.

55. Star Trek Into Darkness (Full Review)
Lackluster ending, overly familiar and it’s certainly no Star Trek, but it was a fun two hours all the same.

54. Inside Llewyn Davis
Great music, great cast, can’t argue that it had a lot of things going for it. So why’s it sitting at No. 54? Let me put it this way: you know how your impression of Catcher in the Rye changes when you read at different periods of your life? That’s kinda where I’m at with Llewyn Davis. Story, characters and humor just didn’t resonate like I was hoping they would. Doesn’t mean it’s not deserving of praise, doesn’t mean I won’t be revisiting it in a few years.

53. Evil Dead (Full Review)
Does kinda fall apart towards the end, but, man, was this a good ol’ time at the theater.

52. The Silence
As chilling as it is encompassing, even in respect to its title. Quite the downer though.

51. Europa Report
Thanks to Gravity, it was destined to be overshadowed. And while it’s certainly no Gravity, it was darn good for what it was. Bonus points for Sharlto Copley’s performance. Dude needed this one after that bearded nonsense in Elysium.

And that’ll do it for Day 2, folks. Catch you on the flipside. Word to your mother.

The Best Movies of 2013: #86 – #66

January 27, 2014

Hey, everybody! Long time no blog.

Apologies for the sudden four-month absence around these parts. Work’s been hella busier and I’ve been shifting my creative juices to brave new frontiers as of late. More on that later.

Didn’t manage to break triple digits this time and I also missed out on a handful of keepers (eg: Captain Phillips, Short Term 12, Battle of the Year). Nevertheless, 86 is a crap ton of movies and it’s time I gave ’em their due. So without further ado, let’s get this party started.

86. Sharknado
Was really hoping for one of those “so bad it’s good” situations, but hope can be a funny thing.

85. A Good Day to Die Hard (Full Review)
That’ll do, Bruce. That’ll do.

84. The Last Stand (Full Review)
If it hadn’t been by one of my favorite directors these days – the same guy who gave us this and this –  I’m guessing I wouldn’t have been such an utter buzzkill. Seriously though, check those movies if you haven’t already.

83. The Bling Ring (Full Review)
Great opening credits, but all press is good press for the little assholes that inspired this.

82. The Kings of Summer
A crowd favorite that just didn’t do it for me. Tried way too hard for its own good.

81. Admission (Full Review)
White people, right?

80. Jack the Giant Slayer (Full Review)
Big fan of everyone involved here, just not sure why there were involved.

79. Elysium (Full Review)
Not a fan.

78. Grabbers
So much potential, could have been a blast, never managed to capitalize on either fronts.

77. Oblivion (Full Review)
Eye candy can only do so much to save a Frankenscript like this.

76. The Bitter Buddha (Full Review)
Still not sure how I feel about this guy.

75. Epic (Full Review)
Just another Pixar knockoff with Pitbull and Beyonce, which is fine. Little brother dug it and that’s all I was really hoping for.

74. World War Z (Full Review)
Just another zombie movie that could have been so much more.

73. Venus and Serena
Theirs is a story worthy of film and it does make some astute points about how male and female athletes are viewed in the public eye. Still, seems like a random, anticlimactic time to share their story with the world.

72. Prince Avalanche
Felt like I was watching the artsiest locker-r0om conversation ever cut to film. Killer ‘stache on Rudd, though.

71. To the Wonder (Full Review)
Points for appearances and doing something different. Could have used some more focus, though.

70. Future Weather
Never really clicked with me, bummed it didn’t.

69. The Wolf of Wall Street
Don’t get me wrong; it’s incredibly well-made, liked it a lot more than I expected to and it’s one of Leo’s best performances. But the fact remains: fuck Jordan Belfort. People like Belfort shouldn’t be rewarded for doing what they did, especially with an Oscar-nominated movie that paints him as a hero of sorts, a hero that douchebags far and wide will celebrate and idolize like he’s Tony Montana. Could have afforded to lose an hour, too. Alright, stepping off the soapbox…

68. It’s a Disaster (Full Review)
Inspired premise that never really caught its stride until the final scene. Great final scene though.

67. Only God Forgives
Actually kinda dug it until those last 15 minutes. No coming back from that.

66. The Spectacular Now
Pretty misleading title, huh?

Alright, sports fans. See you tomorrow for the next 15.

Best Movie Ever: Episode 14 – Turning it up to 11

September 20, 2013

Well hey there, everybody! Welcome back to another glorious episode of Best Movie Ever!

In case you haven’t noticed, pickin’s have been kinda slim at the theaters the last couple weeks. So in honor of the release of One Direction: This is Us, Sean and I figured we’d run down our picks for the Best Rockumentary/Music Film Ever! Oh yes, it’s a keeper alright, and we even take some time to get all insightful on yo’ asses with our thoughts on the state of cinema through the eyes of Joss Whedon.

Not sure why, but I also sound like a ghost from time to time and say “like” like crazy this episode. Classic Aiden.

Anywho, there ya’ have it, folks. So without further ado, click that banner up there and listen away!

You’re Next (2013)

September 13, 2013

8/10 Animal Houses

More of this, please.

You’re Next is about an Australian gal who drives out to the country for her boyfriend’s family reunion. Everyone’s there and, as expected, no one’s getting along. They try to play nice for the sake of their parents, but things come to a head during the first family dinner. Brothers are yelling, parents are upset and one of the new boyfriends gets an arrow between his eyes. Once everyone realizes that Tariq’s been assassinated, it puts things into perspective right quick. Panic sets in and they batten down the hatches, but as this family tree gets shorter and shorter, this charming girl from a land down under becomes their best hope for survival.

First, it was The Strangers. Then, it was The Purge. Going off that synopsis, it might not sound like You’re Next is doing much to distance itself from such a disappointing lot. Going off that synopsis, it’s another home invasion movie starring dudes in creepy masks. Under someone else’s direction, you’d probably be right and this vicious cycle of mediocrity would continue on. But thanks to Adam Wingard, it’s good be wrong.

If you haven’t been introduced, Adam Wingard is part of this budding horror collective of sorts that’s been giving us winners like The House of the Devil and V/H/S/2 as of late. While his contribution to the latter wasn’t exactly the standout of the bunch (not enough demon births), it was a solid 15 minutes and a fitting precursor to what he brings to You’re Next.

Now, if there’s anything I’ve learned from The Cabin in the Woods and all the folks that I recommended it to last year, it’s that horror comedies aren’t for everyone. It makes me sad, but I get it. Sometimes, when all you want to do is have the crap scared out of you and into your knickers, running gags from start to end can really kill the mood. Even at its best, it can be a hard balance to strike and an even harder one to sell. So if there’s anything I can say to dissuade you bloodthirsty boys and girls from writing this off as a sheep in wolf’s clothing, it’s that You’re Next is a horror movie, no doubt about it.

As I already mentioned and likely didn’t need to, a lot of people bite it in this movie. Oh it’s gnarly alright, but not just because of how these siblings get offed (though that’s certainly a key factor). Usually in situations like these, the people that die are horny-ass teens too stupid to live. The kicker here is that everyone’s family, so when one of their crew dies, it makes for one hell of a ripple effect.

Pretty ballsy move to go down this road, but that’s why the humor works as well as it does. Trust me, watching this family break down as their sibling/child/significant other bleeds out in the foyer is no laughing matter. It’s some pretty heavy shit. It’s not like Wingard cues up the Benny Hill song every time someone gets an ax to the noggin, but if the laughs weren’t there to lighten the mood, this would be a pretty depressing affair. Rest assured, it’s still quite suspenseful and it’s certainly quite brutal. The laughs aren’t here to screw that up, but they sure work wonders to keep the mellows from harshing.

Speaking of dead relatives, another big bonus is that these characters aren’t stupid. The reasons they keep on dying an’t because they always go into That Room when they really shouldn’t go into That Room. Death becomes them because they’re either in panic mode (an understandable reaction) or the bad guys are one step ahead of them. Not only does this make their demises that much more of a bummer, but it saves my eyes having to roll back into my brain. Rough as it may be, using family members as sitting ducks is a surprisingly effective way to make minor characters matter.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part is the one character here who isn’t a sitting duck.

See that ax-toting Australian badass down there? That’s Erin, and someone ought to give Wingard a high-thirty for not making her a dude. Get Sharni Vinson in on that action for playing her, too. She’s cool under pressure, she’s got skills to the kill the Bills (just go with it) and, best of all, she doesn’t need some douchebag guy to protect her. It’s the first time since maybe Scream that I’ve seen a woman beat the marrow out of her would-be killer like this, which is both phenomenal and disappointing. Man, I am such a sucker for strong, confident, smart women in any walk of life, and film is a world that could always use more.

As for the aforementioned would-be killers, how great are those get-ups? Those things speak for themselves. Love it.

You’re Next is just a really fun movie to play along with. It was fun to keep guessing who was masterminding it all, to jump and laugh at all the same parts with everyone else in the theater. It was a beautiful thing, really, which is something given how gory it tends to be.

If you’re the kind of person who sleeps with one eye open and a gun under your pillow, then I imagine You’re Next will be the scariest goddamn thing you’ve ever seen. If you’re more in the market for big scares and cheap thrills, you might be better off with something like The Conjuring. Not that you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, it did make me yell “JESUS!” once. But the reason my wife and I had such freaking blast with this movie isn’t because of all the times that it goosed us. You’re Next is a blast because I was plugging my ears from one scene to the next, because I didn’t have to yell at the people on the screen, because I was quoting it and chuckling on the whole drive home.

It’s a new-school take on old-school horror that does a lot of things well and isn’t frustrating in the slightest. May not sound like much, but believe you me, it’s one of the best horror movies I’ll see all year.

Hell of a time.

A Band Called Death (2013)

September 11, 2013

7/10 Family Albums

Thank you, internet. Thank you, record collectors. We owe you one.

A Band Called Death is a documentary about three brothers from Detroit who started a band called Death in the early ’70s. You probably haven’t heard of them, but they were punk before punk was punk and, boy, did they do their thing and do it well. Unfortunately for them, record labels weren’t too crazy about signing a band called “Death” and Death wasn’t too crazy about changing their name. As the rejection letters continued to pour in, their dreams of success started slipping away. So they moved out of Detroit and gave it another go only to hit the same road blocks before going their separate ways. Decades go by, Death is all but forgotten. Then, as fate would have it, a record promoter from way back when stumbles upon their old singles. He sends them to some collectors, they make their way online, and as the masses catch on, Death finds new life.

Now that we live in this brave new world where any song by any artist is just a click away and free of charge, bands like Death are the best kinds of bands. Nothing whatsoever against the bands we all know and love, but there’s nothing like discovering a little-known band that’s been hiding in plain sight all this time. I probably sound like the king hipster of music snobs right now, but it’s truly bands like Death that make the search worthwhile. To this day, there are only a couple bands out there that I consider “mine” – the bands that make me want to start a band, yet, for some reason, (almost) no one knows about them. As tragic as it is that they aren’t household names, it’s a special thing just to be in the know, to be part of a club where, for all you know, you might as well be president.


So when I heard about this movie, I naturally wanted in.

Off the synopsis alone, there are a lot of things worth noting about Death. With the exception of Living Colour, Fishbone and Unlocking the Truth, there aren’t a whole lot of African-American rock outfits out there. Always wondered why that is, and if that shortlist is any indication, we could really use more. Nor is it common for a band to invent a genre only to be utterly forgotten by their peers and the masses once that genre hit the mainstream. Throw in a name that’s as metal as Black Sabbath, and one can’t help but wonder why they never hit the big time? Then again, this isn’t first time fame and talent have eluded each other in this industry.

With that said, one can safely put A Band Called Death up there with the likes of Searching for Sugar Man and Anvil! The Story of Anvil. As far as comparisons go, those ones ain’t too shabby any way you slice ’em. Unfortunately, it’s these very comparisons that are also the catch.

As much as I love me a good rockumentary, there’s definitely a good amount that following the same formula:

Step 1: Find a kickass band that never made it big even though they should have.
Step 2: Have them tell their story and get them back together, preferably for a reunion tour.
Step 3: Make them famous through the power of film.
Step 4: Party on, Wayne. Party on, Garth.

Again, hell of a formula, but after watching it play out as many times as I have, it was only a matter of time before I started longing for more. Which brings us to what makes A Band Called Death different from the rest.

The surprising thing about this rock doc is that the star of the show isn’t the music. With a lot of rockumentaries, the people in the band are often defined by the band, being that it’s seemingly the most interesting thing about them. Their life stories are told according to the highs and lows of their careers and getting to see their lives offstage is usually a bonus to equation. As interesting as it is to see a band find fame some 30 years after the fact, it’s even more interesting that to see the Hackney brothers take center stage.

Instead of telling the story about a band called Death that was formed by three brothers, it’s the story of three brothers that just so happened to form a band called Death. It’s not like this approach is simply unheard of, but big ups to the film makers for recognizing that the heart of this story lay with the musicians rather than their music. It also happens to be a wild story to boot.

They can tell it better than I can, but this tale is something to hear. As crazy as it is to see their hopes and ambitions come to fruition from an outsider’s perspective, it pales in comparison to how it plays out from their point of view. This isn’t serendipity at work, this here is prophecy, and it’s plain to see that it means everything to them. Oh, it’s a story alright, and a big part of why it makes for such easy listening is because of the men who tell it.

Simply put, the Hackney brothers are good company. I’ve seen some docs with some real buzzkills in front of the camera and the Hackneys ain’t that whatsoever. These are some happy dudes, always smiling, always laughing and always spreading the love. More importantly, they’ve just got so much love for one another, their faith and optimism is a thing to admire given everything that life has thrown their way and it’s their bond as brothers that makes their lives so compelling. Plus, it’s always refreshing to meet musicians who don’t fall into the mold of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Double plus, their music’s legit.

It’s as touching a headbanger as I’ve ever seen, folks, and it was an awfully nice surprise. But what I really didn’t expect was how this hit home geographically.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Vermont since moving up here last year, it’s that the world has never been smaller. I can’t tell you how many chance run-ins and random connections I’ve made with people I used to know or who somehow know me since I’ve been up here, way more so than when I lived in Manhattan. I feel like I’m on The Truman Show some days, only there’s more hemp. So when Death starts to burn out and the Hackneys move from Detroit on up to Burlington, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of all the places, there they were: walking down the streets that I walk down every day, working the night shift at the college down the block. Hell, the best sandwich in town is even named after the band their kids started. Doesn’t do much to add or detract for the movie, but it was a weird bonus, man. Nexus of the universe here in Burlington, VT.

Anyhow, where was I? Oh, yes, the stuff that doesn’t solely pertain to people in my area code.

As far as rock docs go, A Band Called Death is a pretty sweet find. Face-melting tunes, brotherly love and a wonderful story that comes with the Henry Rollins stamp of approval? That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout. It’s not unexpected in the way that Last Days Here or The Devil and Daniel Johnston are, but if Anvil! and Sugar Man hadn’t come first, I’m dead certain that Verdict would have been a point or two higher. Nevertheless, by no means does that take away from everything that makes the Hackneys’ story so special. Might even come as an epiphany for the right set of ears.

Like I said, these kinds of movies are almost always a sure thing, and with a band like this, you can’t go wrong. After all, what’s not to love about a band called Death? So freaking metal.

A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

September 6, 2013

3/10 Goddamned Americans

If ever there were a time for Bruce to branch out…

A Good Day to Die Hard picks up with our man John McClane heading off to Russia because his estranged son assassinated some guy and got thrown in the Gulag. Worst. Father’s Day. Ever. As his son is about to testify against a political prisoner as part of a plea deal, the proceedings are interrupted by a terrorist attack on behalf the guys who want the political prisoner dead. Lucky for John Jr., daddy-o shows up just in the nick of time and helps him escape with the prisoner in tow. Turns out, the kid’s been working for the CIA all along, which is a big relief for Pops here. But with the terrorists hot on their trail and some good old-fashioned backstabbing to be had, they’re gonna need to work together and put aside their differences if they don’t want to die…HARD.

To answer your question: I was on a seven-hour flight and the pickins were mighty slim. That’s why.

It’s too bad though, I was actually kind of excited for this before the reviews came in. Like many a folk, I have some pretty fond memories with this franchise, and even though things haven’t been the same since it “surfed the jet,” Die Hard‘s always been a safe bet. Even at its worst, it was still pretty fun. It just wasn’t until now that it became a truly mindless affair.

Although if you’ve had your fill of character and switched over to a strict cleanse of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and infinite ammo, well it’s a very good day, indeed.

Speaking of which, the one big complaint that I’d heard about this from my friend Sean was that John McClane is no longer a one-man army who makes the most of what he’s got. John McClane is now a walking, talking God Mode. Being that the guy’s gotten out of his fair share of binds in the past, I thought it would be a good idea to keep a running tally of all the ways he cheats death this time around. So without further ado,  the definitive list of why Johnny Boy lives:

– He dodges an RPG.

– He rolls a pickup trick half-a-dozen times…over other cars. Survives.

– He gets hit by a car head-on, then gets up without so much as a limp and chews out the driver like he’s Lieutenant Dan.

– He drives a Mercedes SUV off a bridge, lands on a car below and proceeds to drive that mofo like a monster truck over the other poor bastards that are stuck in traffic…all while on the phone with his daughter. Pretty inconsiderate from top to bottom now that I think of it.

– He survives a full-blown terrorist attack. Bodies everywhere, man, but not John McClane. He’s alright.

– He rolls aforementioned Mercedes another half-dozen times. Survives again. Double bonus: a great endorsement for Mercedes.

– He asks to be shot at, gets shot at, evades every bullet. Amazing.

– He uses an automatic rifle to single-handedly eliminate an entire Russian task force while firing from the hip and standing out of cover…twice.

– He evades gunfire from a helicopter machine gun that’s aimed directly at him…twice

– He jumps through a glass window, crashes through 10 stories of plywood, walks away with cuts and bruises. Son does the same, also walks it off.

– He jumps through a glass ceiling and into liquid fire. Survives.

Reading it all back, it actually doesn’t sound all that bad. Sounds like another day in the life of John McClane. But alas, there’s something missing this time around. That thing, dear readers, is the man himself.

He looks like John McClane and he’s still got that native New Yorker gruff about him, but being a New Yorker myself, the dude comes off as a shit ambassador. There are even a couple characters that are pretty vocal about how he’s everything that’s wrong with America, and the sad thing is that they’re pretty dead-on. Not counting his one amusing conversation with a Russian cabbie, McClane’s gone from an endearing wise-ass to straight-up loud and obnoxious. In a nutshell, it’s because of people like John McClane that everyone outside of the Big Apple thinks everyone inside the Big Apple behaves like John McClane. I don’t know what happened to the pride and joy of the NYPD, but the nuances that once made him such an endearing badass are now gone with the wind.

But that’s not really Bruce’s fault, that one’s on the writers and director John Moore.

The one-liners are corny, the pacing is a drag, the “clever” plot twists are deserving of the quotation marks and it generally takes itself too damn seriously. Case in point: the father/son relationship that keeps getting pushed to the forefront. I get it, John wasn’t exactly around to play daddy since he was walking around Harlem wearing the N-word on a sandwich board (yet, for some reason, gets along swimmingly with his daughter). Anyway, that’s not the case with John, Jr., so for 98 minutes, we get to watch them patch things up and bond over common interests, like being invincible and murdering people. Not only does it feel out of place, not only does it feel forced, but I couldn’t have cared less as they started to become family.

Seriously, who gives a shit?

Also wasn’t expecting the plot to shift to the Chernobyl disaster in the final Act. An interesting choice, for lack of a better word. And how many times is the good guy gonna get away because the cocky bad guy opted for torture over execution? Enough of that already.

Again, it’s really too bad, even more so because Bruce decided to be part of this. I like Bruce, and I get why he signed on being that he’s the face of the franchise and all. I just wish he would quit selling himself short. Nearly every time he signs on for something, he’s lighting up bad guys with a squint and a smirk. Occasionally we’ll get a Looper out of it, but most of the time it’s more of the same. It’s not the worst strategy to have considering that it’s usually not his performance that brings a movie down, although it really would be great if his turn Moonrise Kingdom wasn’t so against-type. The man’s A-list, he’s got nothing to prove and money to burn. Where’s the harm in diversifying your career?

Just saying, Bruce. The world is your oyster.

So from John McClane’s lackluster entrance to the ending that belongs in a Michael Bay movie, A Good Day to Die Hard is not what this series needed. It isn’t fun, it isn’t engaging and it wasn’t long before it all felt like noise. Yeah, Live Free or Die Hard wasn’t doing itself any favors with that PG-13 rating, but going the way of Rambo is no way to make up for past mistakes. Then again, mistakes are made to be learned from, and with Die Hardest coming to a theater near you, lets hope for Uncle Brucie that they do just that.

The Gatekeepers (2013)

September 3, 2013

9/10 Vicious Cycles

Can’t we all just get along?

The Shin Bet is an intelligence organization that was formed in the wake of the Six-Day War and was tasked with preventing terrorism on Israeli soil by eliminating threats in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Gatekeepers is a documentary about six men who headed up the organization during their respective tenures from 1974 through 2011. After decades of attacks, retaliations and fledgling peace talks, the six men sound off on why things are the way they are and how each of them played a role in the conflict’s evolution.

I read a lot of fiction in my free time. As much as I enjoy it, I don’t know why that is. I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before the non-fiction fix kicks in since those are the only books that my parents and grandparents seem to read. Not to mention how hard it is to find a bad documentary and how I can’t say the same about almost every other genre. Anyhow, the primary reason why the bug hasn’t bit is because there are only so many moments and figures in history that make me want to pick up a biography or the like. Such is life in the age of Wikipedia, I suppose.

However, there are always exceptions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being one of them.

From an early age, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict always struck me as something important, something I should really know more about but always seemed out of reach. Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly hitting the books to verse myself on the matter, but there was good reason behind why Google wasn’t helping. Hell, I watched half of this movie before I started it over in the hopes of making heads or tails out of this conflict and its roots.

For a documentary that revolves around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was hoping for a clear-cut explanation. A fair expectation, so I thought, being that’s how these things usually go. I’d like to say that I could hold a halfway intelligent conversation about it now, but I’m not fooling myself. On any other day, I’d usually count that against a documentary. However, it was a naive expectation to begin with.

It kind of makes me think of the way Inside Job tried to explain what derivatives are, how they work and why they led to one of the worst economic crises in history. There’s so much more to this conflict than the history between Israel and Palestine, and while it can be explained, there’s no easy way to break it all down into mere bullet points. The motivations and actions of those involved are by no means black-and-white and the goal of this film is not to simplify the situation so that viewers like myself can be on the level. Even if you are on the level, there’s nothing simple about it; it’s a conflict mired in grey, and therein lies why The Gatekeepers is so effective.

I’ve often thought about what it must be like to hold a position of power such as the one these men once held. Here in the States, everyone grows up wanting to be the President and wanting to make the world a better place. It’s the ultimate job title, a privilege among privileges that’s idolized for good reason. It isn’t until you get older and start voting that you realize the burden that comes with having the final say on national matters. Even if you are trying to make the world a better place, even if you’re saving lives by eliminating a terrorist threat, you’re still the one who has to make those calls and live with the consequences. You may not be the one who drops the bomb or pulls the trigger, but that blood’s still on your hands. I can’t imagine living with a burden like that.

Needless to say, these six men make for some compelling interviewees.

Director Dror Moreh approaches his subjects in the same way that Errol Morris did in The Fog of War. Each individual recounts how they came into their position, reflects back on the tenures of their peers and is challenged by Moreh on decisions each of them made along the way. The results are as harrowing as the ones we got out of McNamara.

It’s fantastic to hear Moreh press these men on matters that I’m guessing they would have pleaded the Fifth to while in office. I’m so used to seeing journalists throw softballs to whoever’s in front of the camera that I almost forgot they could grow a pair. Speaking of which, it’s crazy – if not strangely refreshing – how frank these men are about the realities of what they were up against and the decisions they made along the way. Being that it seems almost impossible to ever get a straight answer out of anyone in the military or politics, I can only imagine how much stuff these guys had to cover up and deny while they were doing their jobs. So the fact that there were only one or two times where a question was avoided – and even then, someone else  was always quick to provide an answer – that’s not something I was used to hearing. That’s something the world could really use more of.

But that’s not to say Moreh is trying to pain these men as anyone other than who they present themselves as, or at least that’s how it seems having just met them. Nor does it present itself as a means to point fingers. It’s the kind of thing you’ll wish every military and political leader would have the gumption to participate in, and while they may not come off in the most endearing of lights, it’s hard not to respect them for speaking their mind. Moreover, there’s an air of respect about the whole process and a common understanding that, with a subject like this, there’s nothing to lose by being honest.

Being a lapsed Catholic of sorts and living in the most secular state in the nation (Vermont of all places), I can’t even pretend to understand what life must be like for an Israeli or Palestinian. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, to say that their faith plays a defining role in their being couldn’t be more of an understatement. When you spend so much of your life in one place, it can be easy to forget how different the lives of others can be. Not only are reminders like these important in respect to understanding and accepting cultural differences that may be different from our own, but, given the context we’re dealing with, they’re a  huge step towards understanding the “terrorist” mindset through a different set of eyes.

The great thing about The Gatekeepers is that you don’t need a working knowledge of the conflict’s history to appreciate its weight and the testimonies given. While the finer details of the conflict might elude me for the time being, the benefits of watching this certainly weren’t lost.

But as enlightening as it is, The Gatekeepers is a sobering experience. Being the eternal optimist that I am, I can’t help but hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel here, that the fighting will stop, talking will continue and peace will eventually come to the Middle East. But to see the defeat and inexpression in the faces of these men who have long since arrived at the futility of their efforts, there’s a case to be made for there being no end in sight. However, one can hope and those who can make a difference can always try.

Regardless of where you hail from or how familiar you are with the subject matter, there’s a lot to be learned. It’s a testament to the cycle of violence begetting violence, the weight of which has been and will continue to be felt throughout history. And with the US on the verge of attacking Syria any day now, the takeaways are hardly exclusive to those in Israel and Palestine. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to war, but as the words of these six men will show, lending an ear certainly doesn’t hurt.

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