Sunday, October 29, 2017

Stranger Things 2: What Went Wrong

Since I came under fire yesterday after I posted on Facebook that I didn't care for the second season of Stranger Things, I figured I'd write a critique to justify my position. I've studied horror movies for about 40 years now, have published three horror novels and many stories, am a member of the Horror Writers Association, and wrote my master's thesis on contemporary horror fiction. Yes, that makes me an authority in the field. That doesn't mean you have to agree with me, of course. You're welcome to follow along with the rest of the sheeple and blindly agree with what the media tells you to like. I prefer to have a mind of my own.


Here are my complaints in no particular order:

1. Season 2 (S2) isn't scary at all. Keep in mind, I had just finished re-watching Season 1 (S1) the night before the premiere, so I was totally caught up. S1 scared the shit out of me, especially the scene where Joyce (Winona Ryder) strings up all those Christmas lights and the demogorgon tears through the wall to attack her. I had goosebumps all over and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Kind of like what happened a dozen times when I saw the movie adaptation of IT last month. That's what horror is supposed to do above all else, create a sense of fear and dread. That never happens for me in S2. Not once. In fact, anything intended to be scary, and there's very little, makes me roll my eyes or shake my head.

2. S2 has no human villain. This is a huge problem. All horror fans know that the human element is always more frightening than the supernatural one. That's why Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine) works so well in S1. He's pure evil. Considerably worse than even the terrifying demogorgon. All we get in S2 is Billy (Dacre Montgomery), and he's an asshole (with a meager justification not provided until the second to last episode). He certainly isn't evil.

3. The heroes do nothing. This might piss me off the most. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) goes on an unnecessary quest to unravel her past. That could've been wrapped up in about five minutes. If they wanted to keep her separate from the group this season, here's a more exciting idea: have her fight her way out of the Upside Down where she disappeared at the end of S1. Or, I don't know, maybe she could've battled the Shadow Monster. You remember that swirling mountain of mist or smoke (or whatever the fuck it was) that does absolutely nothing through nine episodes but kill pumpkins and possess Will (Noah Schnapp)? And what about Mike (Finn Wolfhard)? What happened to his character this season? He was my favorite of S1 but does absolutely nothing in this one. Neither does Joyce. The unraveling and lunacy of her character in S1 creates so much dramatic tension, completely missing in S2. Chief Hopper (David Harbour) also does nothing. After a few episodes of investigating those horrifying dead pumpkins (sarcasm, folks), he gets wrapped up by deadly underground vines (VINES! Can you believe it? VINES! How frightening! - that's more sarcasm), and then spends the rest of the season at Will's bedside doing nothing. It's as if S1 was inspired by all the best elements of Stephen King's novels but S2 used all his worst.

4. Mad Max (Sadie Sink) should've been Eight. That would've created so much more dramatic tension, especially since Eleven was jealous of her. They could've eliminated that whole fucking Scooby Gang in Chicago and just made Billy part of a group of local thugs. That would've made him considerably more nasty and given Mad Max a bigger reason to keep her distance from him. As it is now, Eight (Linnea Berthelsen) does nothing in the story at all. She's completely unlikable. Why put her in there? Does Eleven really need another bad example to teach her right from wrong? Doesn't Hopper's screaming at her give her enough of that? And, by the way, what is with his borderline child abuse anyhow? Hopper sure has a terrifying way of showing how much he loves Eleven. That's the most frightening element of the entire season.

5. The fucking pollywog that becomes a demodog. I can't even begin to describe how fucking absurd this is. Plus, where did all the other demodogs come from? Are we to assume that Will isn't the only one who comes back from the Upside Down coughing up slugs? If so, where are all the rest? Is that overly maniacal and dastardly ferocious Shadow Monster possessing them as well? Where? When?

6. Deus ex machina. Somehow, Eleven magically realizes that her friends are in trouble and she needs to save them. Yes, Eleven spends a lot of time in her surreal black pool that's part The Dead Zone, part The Shining added to her part Carrie, part Firestarter abilities. Fine. You want her to be the savior dropping down like the machine of the gods in Ancient Greek theatre? Cool. Make her fight something. All she does is hold up her hands and close some nightmarish CGI gate that doesn't even kill that tornado of pain and horror, the Shadow Monster. How ridiculous!

7. How many of us didn't guess that Bob (Sean Astin) would die? Come on. Tell the truth. We all loved Bob. His name even sounds like Barb. We all loved her. Of course, he was going to die. Fine. Horror needs fodder. Why didn't he die sooner? Why didn't anyone else die? Killing Barb (Shannon Purser) so early in S1 was fucking terrifying and bad-ass. Remember that pool scene? It's unforgettable and scary as hell. Maybe they could've killed Mr. Clarke (Randall P. Havens), the AV schoolteacher, early in S2? He does nothing in this season and already earned our respect and adoration during S1. That would've unnerved everyone the way Barb's death did. Exactly what S2 needs. But, wait a minute, how could the Shadow Monster have killed Mr. Clarke that early anyhow? It doesn't do anything but spread slimy goo on trees, kill pumpkins, and grow underground vines.

I could go on. (How about Dr. Owens, played by Paul Reiser, found wounded on the staircase? Why wasn't he killed? Did the demodogs just figure they'd taste him and leave him alone?) Believe me, I love Stranger Things. That's what makes me so angry. Watching sixteen hours over the last few days made the characters seem like family. Made Hawkins seem like my hometown. The Duffer Brothers went to high school nearby in Durham and I work with their drama teacher, so I even have a personal connection to the show. But it's like they phoned in this season just to capitalize on the success of their first. I wished they would've stopped after Eleven killed the demogorgon. We didn't need what they gave us in S2. At least I didn't.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

40 Years Later. The King's Best Songs.

I can't believe Elvis died 40 years ago. When we first heard the news, my mom and I sat together on the stairs near the living room and cried. My dad's gentle "You still have me" not enough to comfort. Even now, all that matters to me is his music. I don't give a shit about anything else. Each time I hear his voice, he tells me "I love you." I could never ask more of an entertainer. Or of anyone else.

Elvis recorded 711 songs in the studio. They've also released hundreds of his live cuts and alternate takes. Here's my list of his best 40 songs in chronological order with minor annotations. These aren't necessarily my favorites. Some are. That would've taken a completely different approach. You don't have to be a dedicated fan to enjoy these treasures. They're revolutionary and timeless. Sift through the crappy '60s soundtracks and the maudlin country of his latter years and you'll find pure gold.

1. That's All Right (7/54) - The Big Bang. As soon as Elvis, Scotty, and Bill jump on this vintage blues track by Arthur Crudup in tiny Sun Studios under the guidance of rock-n-roll founding father Sam Phillips, music and culture are never the same. Also, check out the '68 Comeback performance and his live rendition from August 1970. Two completely different, yet equally remarkable, treatments. The first of three Elvis songs that inspired me to pick up the guitar.

2. Blue Moon of Kentucky (7/54) - The "b" side to "That's All Right." Every bit as riveting and controversial. Audiences didn't know what to think of Elvis' rhythm and blues adaptation of this Bill Monroe country and western classic. Neither did Bill Monroe until he finally conceded and re-recorded his own song in Elvis' style!

3. Good Rockin' Tonight (9/54) - Elvis kicks it into high gear on this second Sun single. The template for all rock songs to follow: driving lead guitar, howling vocals, sexy undertones.

4. Baby, Let's Play House (2/55) - This fourth Sun single finds Elvis exuding confidence and humor. Bill Black slaps the bass while Elvis' hiccuping underscores another sexual romp.

5. Mystery Train (7/55) - The haunting melody and Scotty Moore's churning guitar riff reflect Elvis' longing to conquer the road and subsequently the nation. Fittingly, this was his final single at Sun.

6. Heartbreak Hotel (1/56) - Nobody, including Sam Phillips, thought this choice for Elvis' first national release through RCA would score big. His introduction to the world with this solitary tale of death by suicide shocked audiences and inspired a couple of fabulous Brits to later pen "A Day in the Life" as a musical nod to the King. Paul McCartney voted for this as the greatest rock song of all-time.

7. Blue Suede Shoes (1/56) - Although Carl Perkins scored the big hit on the national charts with his original countrified version, Elvis amps up the tempo and fun in this wild rocker. Scotty Moore's lightning guitar breaks stand as some of the best he ever recorded.

8. My Baby Left Me (1/56) - Another Arthur Crudup blues song turned into straight rock-n-roll with a rumbling drum intro by D.J. Fontana. Elvis rips through the vocals like a caged tiger hungry to be free.

9. Lawdy Miss Clawdy (1/56) - Elvis' cover of Lloyd Price's rhythm and blues smash is both playful and taunting. This is the second song that inspired me to pick up the guitar, especially the '68 Comeback performance where Elvis pounds the guitar and roars the vocals in black leather reclaiming his rock-n-roll throne.

10. Hound Dog (7/56) - Although Big Mama Thornton scored the original hit with her slower blues version, Elvis was inspired by a Las Vegas nightclub act who re-arranged the song into a powerful rocker. The most dynamic of his '50s live performances, this is the song that caused the uproar, forcing television cameras to shoot him from the waist up. Scotty Moore's lead guitar electrifies.

11. Don't Be Cruel (7/56) - This straight-up rhythm and blues signifies a change in Elvis's musical career. Everything he'd released prior had been a melding of country and western with rhythm and blues into rock-n-roll (or rockabilly). This song buries Scotty Moore's guitar (except for that tuned down intro) under a delightful piano rhythm and supporting vocals by the Jordanaires. The first of many hits written for Elvis by musical genius Otis Blackwell. Issued as a double "a" side with "Hound Dog" and spent 11 weeks at #1 on the pop charts.

12. All Shook Up (1/57) - This follow-up Blackwell-penned smash is equally catchy rhythm and blues with a softer guitar and dominant piano. Inspired Paul McCartney to write "She Loves You."

13. One Night (2/57) - Elvis returns to full force playing lead guitar on this bluesy rocker. The modified lyrics downplay the sexuality but Elvis' performance does not. The third song that inspired me to pick up the guitar, especially his '68 Comeback performance.

14. Jailhouse Rock (4/57) - Probably the most recognizable song of Elvis' career thanks to an early incarnation of the music video in the hit movie. The power chords and crashing drums elevate Elvis' raunchy vocals into the heaviest rock song of his career.

15. Stuck on You (3/60) - Elvis hit big with this first post-army single thanks to an Otis Blackwell rhythm and blues number keeping in line with "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up." Elvis displays a maturity to his playfulness but remains able to unleash fury each time he belts the chorus.

16. It Feels So Right (3/60) - This haunting blues appears on Elvis Is Back, his first and best album after his return from the army. Elvis drives the rhythm guitar in his classic style, letting loose with the vocals in a desperate cry for sexual consummation.

17. Like a Baby (4/60) - Another bluesy rocker off Elvis Is Back, Elvis tears into the soulful lyrics with equal parts anger and defeat. The evocative background vocals by the Jordanaires echo Elvis' call of self-pity and misery.

18. Reconsider Baby (4/60) - This best blues song of Elvis' career includes an incredible sax solo by Boots Randolph, the first on an Elvis record. The defiant sexual swagger of Elvis' vocals is highlighted by his pounding rhythm guitar and catcalls.

19. Little Sister (6/61) - One of the few rockers by Elvis to feature distortion on lead guitar, played by country ax-man Hank Garland with grace and tornadic force. The catchy melody and youthful adoration make this one of the finest performances of Elvis' career.

20. His Latest Flame (6/61) - A lighter rhythm and blues song in the spirit of Otis Blackwell's hits featuring a rockabilly Bo Diddley beat and softer, poignant vocals. Shared the double "a" side with "Little Sister" and soared up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

21. Devil in Disguise (5/63) - Bright guitar licks and shifting tempos make this Elvis' most enjoyable hit right before the British Invasion. Elvis undersells the vocals on the verses only to hit with sheer bluster each time he roars through the chorus.

22. It Hurts Me (1/64) - The best track cut while Elvis was lost in Hollywood. This power ballad co-written by Charlie Daniels gave Elvis the freedom to show off his maturing vocals and fight for the respect he'd lost in the industry.

23. Guitar Man/What I'd Say (Uncut Master) (9/67) - One of the best stories of Elvis' recording career is how his entourage snatched country songwriter Jerry Reed off his fishing boat to replicate the cherry picking guitar riff heard on his demo for Elvis' take because the Nashville studio musicians couldn't nail it. This snappy travelogue about a wandering musician is Elvis' "Johnny B. Goode" and opens the door to his inevitable comeback from the nightmare that was Hollywood. Find the uncut version to hear Elvis launch into an improvised rendition of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" with complete lack of restraint and total exhilaration.

24. Big Boss Man (9/67) - Jerry Reed also plays lead guitar on this rocking blues hit that helps reinvent the rebellious Elvis for modern audiences. His raw, confident vocals are countered by a shrieking harmonica and sax. With a crisp and wild funk unknown to country music at the time, this precursor to what will eventually be known as Elvis' Nashville Sound is unlike anything else he recorded.

25. If I Can Dream (6/68) - The best vocal performance of Elvis' entire career. Perhaps the most passionate one I've ever heard on record. Elvis sings for civil rights in one of only a handful of his politically charged anthems. Legend has it that he collapsed into the fetal position on the studio floor in tears after the master take. He'd finally escaped the shackles of Hollywood.

26. Wearin' That Loved on Look (1/69) - This powerful rocker about betrayal opens From Elvis in Memphis, the second best album of his post-army career. Elvis' raw vocals are fueled by a funky lead guitar, both reckless and raunchy like the rock-n-roll of his youth.

27. In the Ghetto (1/69) - Another political song, this time from the famed Memphis sessions with Chips Moman at the helm of the American Sound Studios. Give the undubbed version a listen to hear how beautiful the rhythm guitar sounds accompanying Elvis' tender, yet dramatic, vocals. A poignant saga at a volatile time in our nation's history.

28. Suspicious Minds (1/69) - Elvis returned to the top of the pop charts for the first time in seven years with this modern rock song about mistrust between lovers. Elvis fuses rock, country, and rhythm and blues into his own brand of soul. Definitely the best of his non-'50s songs, this became the centerpiece of his live show for the remainder of his career. Check out his legendary performance in the rockumentary Elvis That's the Way It Is.

29. Stranger in My Own Hometown (2/69) - Supported by legendary studio guitarist Reggie Young, Elvis launches into this inspirational blues number about a hero who's lost his way. The relentless chorus and self-deprecating humor highlight Elvis' awareness of how he disappeared from the music scene while making disappointing trash in Hollywood.

30. Power of My Love (2/69) - Another excellent cut from the American Sound Studios, Elvis's sexual vocal abandon is equalled by more powerful bluesy guitar by Reggie Young. Elvis' vocals on this underrated modern rock hit are energized and impassioned.

31. Kentucky Rain (2/69) - The final song from the American Sound Studios to make my cut, Elvis takes this Eddie Rabbit-penned country song into new territory as a soulful rocker with dramatic tempo shifts and a pounding piano by then unknown Ronnie Milsap.

32. Polk Salad Annie (Live) (2/70) - The best live rock song of Elvis' career. I prefer the Elvis That's the Way It Is version for its earth-shaking false ending and outro, but the infectious bass romp in Madison Square Garden makes for raucous and compelling soul as only Elvis can deliver.

33. An American Trilogy (Live) (2/72) - The third political entry in my list, this medley of spiritual songs reflect how Elvis embraced America with all its glory and imperfections. His vocals soar to operatic heights as they often did in the '70s. The dramatic orchestration and powerful momentum shifts make this Elvis' unmatched showstopper.

34. Separate Ways (3/72) - The mournful longing of Elvis' vocals and melodic lead piano accent the most mature offering of Elvis' latter career. With divorce looming, Elvis reaches out to his beloved wife and innocent child in a chilling ballad of loss and despair.

35. Burning Love (3/72) - One of his last rockers. Possibly his best. A throwback to the '50s infused with chord changes inspired by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The churning guitar riff and swampy Southern-rock catapult Elvis' soulful vocals into a passionate hymn.

36. Always on My Mind (Alternate Master) (3/72) - Issued as a double "a" side with "Separate Ways," another solitary ballad co-written for Elvis by "Suspicious Minds" creator Mark James. The alternate master is hard to locate but worth a listen for Ronnie Tutt's rolling drum breaks.

37. My Boy (12/73) - An overlooked gem from his '70s catalog, this evocative tale of caution and doubt offers tempo shifts unique to many of Elvis' most endearing adult ballads. Recorded at the famous Stax Studios in Memphis, Elvis reaches a new pinnacle of country and soul with this tearjerker.

38. Promised Land (12/73) - Elvis wouldn't cover a song if he couldn't add to the original, and he doesn't disappoint with this Chuck Berry rock-n-roll masterpiece. James Burton's leads are the best of his tenure with Elvis. The song drives wild into rhythmic frenzy with thumping bass, heavy drums, and striking piano. Also cut at Stax, Elvis rarely had as much fun rocking out this late in his career.

39. For the Heart (2/76) - Dennis Linde, writer of "Burning Love," penned this inspired country tune for Elvis who recorded it as part of his famed Jungle Room sessions in the den at Graceland. If you listen to the countless alternate takes, you'll see how much fun Elvis had with songs he admired despite the addiction and despair that ravaged his final years. A vigorous rocker with swinging background vocals provided by gospel quartet, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps.

40. Way Down (10/76) - This final hit during Elvis' lifetime is beyond magical. Elvis ratchets up the energy in what becomes almost a remake of "Burning Love" in style and passion. J.D. Sumner again hits those famous low notes as Elvis finds his love and passion in unrivaled soulful depths.

Bonus Track
A Little Less Conversation (JXL Remix) (2002/Original Recording 6/68) - This incredible remix launched Elvis into the 21st century after appearing in a commercial during the World Cup and in the box office smash Ocean's 11. The groovy guitar and gritty vocals trace back to the '68 Comeback Special, and JXL compliments Elvis with a bright energy and timeless sound for a new generation of music lovers.

This list was next to impossible to create. Elvis gave us so much to choose from. I didn't pick many ballads because I think the rockers belong. Elvis was the King of Rock-n-Roll for a reason. Many people forget, or choose to ignore, that fact.

So many things have been said about Elvis, but my favorite quote comes from John Lennon (I'm paraphrasing slightly here): "Elvis was my religion."

I still believe in him. Hope you find something worth listening to. Hope the world continues to do so long after we've all left the building.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why I Love Wonder Woman

Because she kicks ass.

Because she has integrity.

Because she loves.

Because of her innocence.

Because she makes me smile.

Because I never thought for a single moment that she couldn't accomplish what she set out to do.

Because I believe in heroes.

Because I enjoyed watching her kick the shit out of the bad guys.

Because I never questioned whether or not she could do it.

Because she was a role model for my wife when Lynda Carter created the role.

Because Gal Gadot is one for my daughter now.

Because Gal Gadot was five months pregnant when she filmed the movie. (Are you fucking kidding me!)

Because of all the posts I've seen on social media, especially by my former female students, praising her greatness.

Because she inspires.

Because she empowers.

Because she listens.

Because she's a fierce warrior.

Because she takes all the fire for the soldiers at they cross No-Man's Land during the siege of Veld.

Because she's the God Killer.

Because she brings hope to the current DC Comics Cinematic Universe, which sucks without her. (Where are you Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton?)

Because of how she sees snow for the first time.

Because "Really, specs? And suddenly she's not the most beautiful woman you've ever seen?"

Because she believes in us.

Because our world needs her.