Breaking News: My Top 10 Journalism Movies

It’s been a week for movies and the media. I was part of the team live-blogging the Oscars over at RNZ this week which, um, took an interesting turn about 2/3 of the way into the show, you might have heard. 

I love it when one of my favourite things, the movies, intersects with my profession for many years now, journalism. And after the Oscars live-blogging marathon Monday night, I had to unwind with one of my favourite movies about journalism (which one? scroll to the end*, my friend). 

The art and craft of journalism has long fascinated filmmakers and resulted in some terrific movies – including that one many people regard as the best of all time, Citizen Kane. I sat down to write about 10 or so of my favourite journalism movies and ended with a sprawling list. I narrowed it down, and from the start I eliminated any documentaries (which are a form of journalism itself). Ever since I was a kid, the idea of journalism has appealed to me, even if in real life it’s not all glam and scoops. 

This list of my Top 10 Journalism Movies includes ones that idealise the profession like crazy, ones that just use it as a prop for a comedy or a romance, and a few that really delve into the gritty hard yards that make a truly great story. Some of them really capture what it’s like to be a journo, and some of them really capture what we all wish it was like to be a journo. 

In alphabetical order: 

Ace In The Hole (1951) – The late great Kirk Douglas in his finest role, as a cartoonishly conniving tabloid journalist exiled to the rural sticks who stumbles on the “story of the century” when a local man gets trapped in a cave. Billy Wilder’s cynical noir takes us deep inside the media circus that ensues, and we watch in real time as Kirk’s Chuck Tatum slowly loses what’s left of his soul. We’ve had countless “boy stuck in a well” type media sensations in the decades since, but nothing has ever captured the dark side of journalism better. 

All The President’s Men (1976) – There’s no way any list of journalism movies could ignore this one. Oh, for the days when Watergate was the biggest scandal a White House could imagine. There’s no movie that shows the painstaking, frustrating detective side of journalism better than this masterpiece, with Woodward and Bernstein’s investigations portrayed with stark realism despite glossy Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing their parts. The click of typewriters and hours on the landline phone, the endless cigarettes, the newsroom almost entirely run by white men wearing ties – this is a vanished world now, and journalism is probably better for leaving a lot of that behind, but nothing quite captures what it was like “back in the day” better than this film. 

Almost Famous (2000) – The life that William Miller leads in Cameron Crowe’s gentle and bittersweet coming-of-age comedy is pretty much exactly the life I imagined I might have when I started scribbling as an entertainment journalist in the mid 1990s. Spoiler: I didn’t go on tour with Stillwater or fall in love with Penny Lane. Crowe’s movie is warmly sentimental, but in the best possible way. With the acerbic interjections of the much-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs to balance things out, Almost Famous shows us a fairy-tale fantasy of journalism that I can’t help falling in love with every time I watch it. 

Anchorman (2004) – Absurdly goofy? Sure! The gem in Will Ferrell’s run of wacky comedies is a spoof of journalism, but it’s also subtly a very accurate satire of the alpha-male mentality that existed in newsrooms for decades, one that was still quite rampant just as I was entering the industry. It’s only in the last few decades that newsrooms have become a bit more diverse, and in between all the gags Anchorman accurately captures what it’s like when journalists start to believe their own hype and let their ego take over. (See also: Any number of the ‘outrage merchants’ who chatter and moan daily on American news networks today.)

Broadcast News (1987) – The great journalism romantic comedy, even beating out Cary Grant’s His Girl Friday. The late William Hurt, Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks are a perfect trio of striving TV journalists in the 1980s, capturing the mix of solid professionalism, glossy vapid good looks and gender battles that defined the era. James L. Brooks carefully keeps all his characters human despite their foibles, and it’s a movie that’s as much in love with journalism and it gently mocks it. And for my money, the “Albert Brooks sweating” scene is one of the funniest journalism fails ever portrayed on screen. 

Citizen Kane (1941) – The grandfather of all journalism movies, even if it’s perhaps more about the corruption of power than anything else. But Orson Welles captures the era when news publishers were almost kings in his very lightly fictionalised take on William Randolph Hearst, and how Kane uses the immense power of the press to build himself a perfect world – without ever really knowing what to do once he gets it. 

The French Dispatch (2021) – The newest movie on this list, Wes Anderson’s kaleidoscopic anthology imagines a series of articles in a New Yorker-type magazine in its final issue. Anderson’s unique aesthetic has never been more pronounced than it is in this incredibly dense, ornate movie, which I immediately wanted to see a second time so I could go back and catch all the jokes and references I missed the first time around.

Shattered Glass (2003) – For a while there in the pre-social media world, scandals about plagiarist journalists were all the rage. This tense and darkly funny under-seen gem looks at the curious Stephen Glass, who made up magazine scoops left and right until he was caught. Featuring a never-better performance by Hayden Christensen, who will wipe your memories entirely of his hammy Anakin Skywalker, and terrific work by Peter Sarsgaard as the editor who exposes him.

Spotlight (2015) – A solid companion to All The President’s Men, set at the twilight of a certain kind of journalism, before job cuts gutted newsrooms worldwide. This deserving Oscar winner showcases a Boston investigative journalists team and their stunning work uncovering sex abuse cover-ups within the Catholic Church. With an absolutely top-notch cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Liev Schreiber, it’s another movie that patiently shows the hard, hard work that goes into breaking a massive story, and yet makes it exciting as any thriller. 

Zodiac (2007) – When journalism turns into obsession. David Fincher’s sprawling, sinister epic about the hunt for San Francisco’s Zodiac killer avoids tidy serial murder movie cliches or easy closure, and somehow that makes it even more disturbing than any blood-soaked horror might. Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo are terrific as journalists who slowly lose their minds trying to find a killer, and Fincher masterfully escalates a sense of dread, which is inextricably tied to the one single question that drives almost every journalist’s career: I want to know

Clustered together at #11: His Girl Friday, The Sweet Smell of Success, Fletch, The Paper, Good Night And Good Luck, The Philadelphia Story, Adaptation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

(*So what did I watch after Oscars live-blogging? Well, after a night that hit the peaks of drama and absurdity, what else could I watch but Anchorman for the 458th time? What can I say … sometimes journalism really is like being trapped in a glass case of emotion.)

Movies I Have Never Seen #16: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

What is it: Long before she directed Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known as a pioneering documentary filmmaker for her chronicling of the gritty reality of LA’s music scenes. Over three films from 1981 to 1998, she covered punk and metal stars and never-weres, fans and bands with an unsparing eye. The first of her movies, 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization, looked at bands like Black Flag, Germs, X, the Circle Jerks and Fear in squalid, sweaty detail, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best music documentaries ever made. 

Why I never saw it: Despite its cult status, Decline and its two sequels were barely released and almost impossible to watch for decades. Long ago, when I worked at video stores and paged through ink-stained fanzines, I’d hear about these movies a lot, but pre-YouTube or eBay, good luck ever actually watching them. Finally, a few years back, the entire series was released on DVD with a bunch of cool bonuses, and I finally sat down recently to watch them. Can punk still shock more than four decades on?

Does it measure up to its rep? Music documentaries are one of my favourite genres, whether they’re behind the scenes concert footage, making-of histories, birth-to-death storytelling or day-in-the-life voyeurism. Decline  is a little bit of all of the above. These aren’t superstars – X and Black Flag are probably the best known of the bands here, and this is a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag at that. Even by 1979 and 1980, punk was a bit past its first wave, and so you’ve got a variety of fiery young bands trying to figure out who they are – whether it’s the bludgeoning rage of Circle Jerks and Fear, the angst of Germs and Black Flag or the more arty, performative work of almost-forgotten bands like Catholic Discipline, this is a snapshot of a moment in time but an anger that’s still understandable today. We see heaps of roiling, brutal men in mosh pits, slamming against each other in an intimate way that seems even more invasive in a pandemic world. Spheeris has a knack for capturing the propulsive motion of punk, with a visceral touch that makes you feel like you’re back in these crowded, grotty rooms decades ago. We see the bands off stage – Black Flag in an insanely over-graffitied squalid crash pad, The Germs’ doomed, mumbly lead singer Darby Crash cooking eggs and playing with his pet tarantula. (Crash would be dead at 22 of a drug overdose suicide before this movie even came out.) There’s a tinge of hopelessness to Decline, especially when Spheeris talks to the fans like nihilistic skinhead Eugene, but that’s balanced out by some incredibly passionate performances, like young Black Flag singer Ron Reyes screaming out “Depression’s gonna kill me.” It’s strange to think that now, 40+ years on, most of these angry young men and women are either nearly senior citizens – or gone. Unlike slick, polished reality TV versions of life, the squalor and power of Decline never feels fake. 

Worth seeing? Decline of Western Civilization isn’t for those with gentler musical tastes – while some of the bands like X are excellent musicians whose snappy tunes still hold up well today, all of them are loud and confrontational. The Germs are barely holding a tune, with the chaotic power of their only album turned into a muddy, jagged roar. Spheeris closes Decline with a terrifying, mesmerising set by Fear, whose lead singer is shown as a bare-chested, swaggering Johnny Rotten on steroids spitting out homophobic and sexist taunts as the kids in the mosh pit smash into each other. It’s like a vision of Dante’s inferno, and it’s awful, yet at the same time, it’s amazing – the power of punk at its most primal, with a chorus screaming “I don’t care about you / F— you!” Fear’s thundering, cruel set seems to sum up everything that’s come before it. Punk could be awesome and it could be ugly and it could often be both at the same time, and Spheeris’ magnificent documentary captures it in all its complicated sprawl. I’m definitely moving on next to check out 1988’s equally cult but slightly more absurd hair-metal saga Decline of Western Civilization II and the reportedly even darker street kids-focused Part III, but the first Decline movie still packs the punch of a brawl in a mosh pit. It isn’t meant to make you feel good, but like punk itself, it’s meant to make you feel something. 

The Marx Brothers, Duck Soup, and three perfect scenes

War, pestilence, disease, death and really annoying people on social media. Times like these call for the Marx Brothers.

It’s been nearly a century since Groucho, Chico, Harpo and sometimes Zeppo stormed cinema screens, and their surreal, multi-faceted anarchy is still very much the cure for what ails the spirit. 

I got away from it all with a double-feature of Marx classics at one of our awesome local revival cinemas last weekend, and found that no matter how many times I’ve seen stuff like Duck Soup and Animal Crackers, they still lighten my mental load. 

Of the classic early comedy teams I adore, from Chaplin to Keaton to Laurel and Hardy to Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers stand out because they’re pure id … and just a little bit dangerous. Most comedy teams had a kind of smart one and a kind of dumb one, but in this trio, they’re all a little bit of both.

The Marxes weren’t quite as well served by the movies as Chaplin or Keaton – they didn’t creatively mastermind their own films, which were never as groundbreaking and perfectly sculpted as something like City Lights or The General. Their early movies are hilarious but also bogged down by cheesy romantic sidebars and interminable songs; their later movies often felt strained and tired as the brothers themselves entered their 50s and 60s and bowed to the whims of studio heads. 

But for that sweet spot of four or five movies that hit the screens 90 years ago now, they were a whirling dervish of Groucho’s wit, Chico’s wordplay, Harpo’s pantomime acrobatics and Zeppo… well, Zeppo was there, too. There’s no filler in perhaps their greatest moment, 1933’s Duck Soup, a fast-moving war satire with no romantic subplots and even poor Harpo refused a chance to play his harp. While there’s funnier gags scattered throughout all their movies, there’s nothing quite as unrelenting. Duck Soup barely runs over an hour, but you can distill it even further by boiling it down to a mere three scenes that show the Marx Brothers at their very best. 

The Marxes were unpredictable and a wee bit unhinged, breaking furniture, grabbing women (in rather un-#Metoo ways, I’ll admit), wrestling strangers, pushing the limits of social propriety. The Three Stooges were violent and chaotic, too, but very childlike. The Marx trio always felt vaguely adult, dada and surrealism given form in flesh, and I’d always picture them whipping out cards, dice and booze between scenes. This scene with Harpo and Chico is one of the Marxes’ intricately building symphonies of insanity, escalating from a shouting match with a lemonade vendor to beautifully choreographed, maddening brutal psych-warfare against the poor befuddled vendor: 

…Meanwhile, while Groucho and Chico were masters at verbal japes and insults and malapropisms, one of the most beloved Marx routines is this elegantly simple, but endlessly comic “mirror gag.” All you need to know is that Harpo and Chico have both ended up disguised as Groucho, running around a wealthy lady’s house in a grand farce until they all end up combining in this one glorious scene: 

But when it comes down to it, the number one thing I think of when I think of the Marx Brothers remains Groucho’s sardonic wit and raised eyebrows, able to cut to the chase and knock any windbag down to size. This astounding little monologue towards the climax of Duck Soup is particularly funny because it’s the rare case where Groucho, as the beleaguered President Rufus T. Firefly, manages to make himself the butt of the joke, and talk himself into going to war in the space of a few sentences. In a world where we’re still seeing madmen go to war for stupid reasons, there’s something vaguely comforting to me in this scene watching Groucho show how pointless and ego-feeding it all is, 89 years ago now. 

The Marx Brothers have been gone for decades, but they’re still making me laugh nearly a century past their peak. Now when you think about it, that’s pretty funny.

Movies I Have Never Seen #14/15: What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973)

What they are: We’ve lost quite a few silver screen legends lately, but behind the camera, one of the biggest curators and creators of cinema history also left us last month – director Peter Bogdanovich. His death may have been overlooked a bit in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle, but for a certain breed of movie hound, at a certain period of time, Bogdanovich was the great hope for the Future of Cinema. His breakthrough movie, 1971’s ode to a vanished idea of small town Texas life, The Last Picture Show, was nominated for eight Oscars and won several. Bogdanovich followed that drama up with two big genre swerves – the goofy comedy What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and con-man comedy/drama Paper Moon, which saw Tatum O’Neal become the still-youngest competitive Oscar winner by nabbing Best Supporting Actress at just 10 years old. When Bogdanovich died last month, I realised I needed to finally get around to watching Doc and Moon and fill in some big gaps in my film knowledge. 

Why I never saw them. The theme of many of his obituaries was that Bogdanovich came into movies like a comet, burning brightly and then flaming out. He loved classic Hollywood, and his best movies are all homages to the 1930s and 1940s. His debut, 1968’s Targets, is a fond love letter to horror icon Boris Karloff combined with a still-shocking look at a mass shooting. The Last Picture Show is one of my favourites, a monochrome gem of nostalgia and bittersweet romance that manages to both romanticise and demonise the American dream, with an utterly luminous young Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges. Next, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon were both popular and critical hits.

But then Bogdanovich steered Shepherd into two notorious flops, Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love, and his career for the rest of his life alternated between moderate successes and mild failure, as well as grim personal tragedy. A keeper of the flame for cinema history, he wrote some excellent books on the many classic Hollywood stars and directors he befriended over the years (he was notably close to the great Orson Welles, and his final film was a documentary on Buster Keaton), but when he died, many of the Bogdanovich obituaries cast him as a kind of example of lost potential. I don’t quite think that’s a fair way to measure a life. 

Do they measure up to their rep: Let’s take each film separately. What’s Up, Doc? is essentially a colourful homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s, with Streisand and Ryan O’Neal filling the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Gran-type roles. Streisand is someone I’ve never always warmed to, but she’s a fiery, wisecracking delight here, a predecessor of the oft-maligned “manic pixie dream girl” archetype. She splashes into O’Neal’s stiff academic’s life almost at random and upsets the dull order of his world. In one light, her character’s stalking of O’Neal and his intense fiancee (a great Madeline Kahn) may be annoying, but if you ride with Doc’s giddy vibe, you’ll get caught up in Barbra’s freewheeling spirit. While I don’t think it quite beats the heights of Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Bogdanovich’s homage is a light and hilarious ride. 

Paper Moon isn’t quite so loose and frivolous, although it’s also very funny. Bogdanovich went back to a gorgeous black-and-white for this caper starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Ryan is a con man who shows up at the funeral of 9-year-old Addie’s mother. He might be Addie’s father, or he might not. O’Neal agrees to take Addie on a road trip to the rest of her family, but along the way also drags her into his complicated cons, scheming his way across Depression America. Bogdanovich expertly balances Paper Moon between comic and tugging the heartstrings, but is just cynical enough not to make this feel like a Disney movie. He’s helped by Tatum O’Neal, who’s utterly amazing as Addie – her character develops and expands throughout the movie and manages the almost impossible task of feeling like a real, chaotic and somewhat unpredictable child instead of just an actor.  

Ryan O’Neal anchors both these movies, although he’s upstaged by his female co-stars. He’s an interesting case of an actor who was a big star but also tends to blend into the scenery, I find. As a slippery con man in Paper Moon and a stuttering geek in Doc, he never entirely convinces, but he’s also oddly enjoyable to watch playing off the stunning Streisand and the remarkable Tatum. But both of these movies are far more about the women than they are the ostensible main character. Bogdanovich was a spectacular director for women – Cloris Leachman’s Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show is a perfect example – and whatever the ups and downs of his career, he created some of the most indelible roles for women of the 1970s. 

Worth seeing? Viewed 50 years on, Bogdanovich’s great trilogy of films is about his love for the history and form of cinema itself, and that great American theme of the desire to better oneself, whether in money, love or location. The Last Picture Show is stark and sharp as a knife, while What’s Up, Doc? is a silly blast nearly as manic as the Bugs Bunny cartoons it got its name from, and Paper Moon combines elements of both of them to create a satirical yet heartfelt tale of a con man’s mild redemption.

Bogdanovich might have been a comet in that he never really bettered these three films in his career, but he certainly left a lot of great work behind and was one of the last men who knew and worked with the golden stars of Hollywood’s peak years, and worked to keep their names alive. That’s not a bad legacy to have at all. 

Year In Review List Week: My 10 favourite movies of 2021

It’s year in review list week before this new year gets a little too old, and here’s my 10 favourite movies of 2021 in alphabetical order, ranging from critical favourites like Jane Campion’s sublime Power Of The Dog to movies that might not be on a lot of other critical lists like Godzilla Vs Kong, because, again, monkey punching lizard!

Annette


The Beatles: Get Back

The French Dispatch

Godzilla Vs Kong

Licorice Pizza

Pig

The Power of the Dog


The Sparks Brothers

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Summer of Soul

Very much tied up for No. 11: Dune, The Green Knight, Nobody, No Time To Die, The Velvet Underground

My top pop-culture moments of 2021

And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.

Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasisMy experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.

The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.

When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.

Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.

Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, but Edgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers triggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.

Meeting Neil Gaiman, in strange days – I’ve always loved the Auckland Writers Festival, and like many things I loved it’s had rocky days during the Covid era. Fortunately, this year’s festival went off just fine in May, and a big highlight was getting a chance to meet one of the world’s biggest writers, Neil Gaiman, who’s been a bit of a New Zealand resident himself with his wife Amanda Palmer during the pandemic. I waited an hour or so to briefly meet Neil and have him sign a few of my favourite books after listening to some excellent talks he gave, but that was nothing compared to some who waited up to six hours. Neil was apparently as much a gentleman with the last person in line as he was with the first. They say never meet your idols, but getting a chance to tell them how much their work means to you is sometimes worth the wait.

Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?

Frankenstein at 90: The genius of Boris Karloff

One of the greatest horror movies of all time debuted 90 years ago today. In its honour, here’s a post I originally wrote in 2010 about the enduring power of Frankenstein:

It’s a little late for Halloween, but I’ve been in a monster movie frame of mind. The classic monster movies, that is, which to me have always been the Universal Pictures horror of the 1930s to 1950s — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, et cetera. I loved ’em as a kid in the 1980s and lately have been on a jag watching some of these classic black and white flicks for the first time in 25 years or so. What’s amazing is how well many of them still hold up, particularly those starring the man who I’d say was the king of monster movies — the original and best Frankenstein’s Monster, Boris Karloff.

Bela Lugosi‘s immortal Dracula seems to get more ink today, and Lon Chaney Jr‘s tragic self-loathing Wolf Man was also great, but Boris Karloff created a monster who defines horror. Try not to imagine Frankenstein’s Monster as the cliched star of everything from breakfast cereals to video games to really bad Hugh Jackman movies. Instead picture the Monster as he first appeared in 1931, looming from the darkened screens. An abomination against life, a morality tale about man’s desire to play god, a creature cursed for the way he looks.

The very first scene when we see the Monster in “Frankenstein” is remarkable. The Monster walks eerily backwards into a dark and gloomy room, almost unnoticed for a fraction of a second — then the camera abruptly quick-cuts inward, two beats, to an extreme, silent close-up of Karloff’s heavy-lidded, haunting eyes. It’s still chilling 80 years after it was filmed.

Karloff’s portrayal is a marvel of economic emotion, terror and innocence all bundled together. The physicality Karloff brought to the Monster defines it; the locked-kneed, lurching walk, flailing hand movements, the monosyllabic grunts and groans. 

The famous “monster meets the blind hermit” sequence in “Bride of Frankenstein” is a bit hard to watch without bias today because Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” did such a glorious job of sending it up, but try to picture it as it seemed in 1933. It’s an amazing little character arc, as the Monster learns and grows an astounding amount in just a short time, from guttural grunts to emotion-packed short sentences. Treated with brief kindness, we see his potential, which makes what happens next that much more stinging.

The naked emotional need of the blind man and the Monster is startling. But what we’re seeing here is a real attempt at human connection between two utter outcasts, a connection that is of course shattered by the outside world’s cruelty. “Alone: bad. Friend: good.” That line could have sounded awful done wrong, but Karloff puts just the right spin of hope and sadness on it. The genius of Karloff is in full flight in this scene, as he’s alternately savage, needy and rocked with childlike glee. He helped form the whole “monster you feel kind of sorry for” motif we’ve seen everywhere from “King Kong” to “Twilight.”

Karloff’s skill is more notable when you compare his portrayal to that of other actors who’ve played the Monster — in the many sequels to the 1931 movie we saw actors like Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. take on the role, but they lacked that almost-sweet innocence Karloff brought. What was a character of real tragic depth became the more familiar lumbering monster we now know, still cool, but not quite as shocking and strange as the half-human Monster Karloff created in the first three films. And Frankenstein’s Monster on film since has never quite managed the power of the Karloff years.

Sparks, Velvet and Harlem: Comfort viewing for when you miss that live concert buzz

Do you remember music? Three recent terrific music documentaries might not have been quite the same as going to a sweaty concert back in the day, but they still gave me quite a buzz – one fondly visiting some old friends, one giving me a deep dive into a band I’ve barely explored, and a third simply exploding with the sheer joy of live music, humans together in crowds and all the things we can’t quite do like we used to. All three are well worth your viewing time.

The very first time I remember listening to The Velvet Underground was in university, at a friend’s house, and there might have been alcohol involved. My cool friend put on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and somewhere between “Heroin” and “European Son,” I got lost. It didn’t sound quite like anything else I’d listened to, mean and lo-fi and rambling and full of jagged edges. I was hooked for life. The first big ol’ CD box set I ever bought was the Velvet Underground’s 1995 Peel Slowly And See containing pretty much everything they’d ever done. I’m a fan of all the solo work of Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, even Mo Tucker. I even have a tattoo of a Lou Reed lyric on my arm. 

So I’m a fan, which means that any documentary about the Velvet Underground has to pass my nerdy standards. Fortunately, Todd HaynesThe Velvet Underground documentary gets the job done, despite a kind of unimaginative title. When you love a band so much that you kind of know their story by rote it’s hard for a documentary to stun you, but I found myself caught up in Haynes’ approach, mixing split screens, plenty of footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory and rare scenes of the band at work. It’s a movie that kind of washes over you, like the propulsive debauchery of Sister Ray in its never-ending live jam form. 

Haynes talks a lot to the band’s surviving members Cale and Tucker, and plenty of Factory scenesters and hip fans like Johnathan Richman, but he tries to keep The Velvet Underground from being one of those endless parades of talking heads. Yet I don’t know how well the movie might work for Velvet novices, as it’s so impressionistic at times that it occasionally flits past a narrative. But then again, when I think of the Velvets, I think of them as an experience, something to dive into, possibly while sitting at a friend’s house with a head full of beer at 2am, wondering what that clatter and buzz coming from the stereo could possibly be. Watching The Velvet Underground and letting it suck you into their shadowy world is well worth it.

On the other hand, sometimes you want a documentary to show you something new. Sparks is a band I have been kind of generally aware of (I always loved their “Eaten By The Monster of Love”) without being a huge or knowledgeable fan. Edgar Wright’s delightful The Sparks Brothers made me a fan for life, which is the ultimate sign of success for a music documentary. Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve bubbled around in music circles for more than 50 years. From their early rock that teetered between pop and prog to their embrace of synth with songs like “The Number One Song In Heaven,” they marry some insanely catchy melodies with wry, sarcastic lyrics. 

Their story spans from their first big hit, the bombastic 1974 “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” all the way up to writing the music and story for Leo Carax’s beautifully strange musical Annette starring Adam Driver this year. 

Wright tells their story with humour and creativity, using animated interludes, plenty of great vintage footage (I’ll never get tired of watching Ron Mael’s stern scowl at the camera) and candid current interviews with the brothers. The Sparks Brothers manages to touch at least briefly on every one of their 26 albums, rather than just sticking to the biggest hits. It’s a nice idea that makes the documentary feel much more authoritative in its approach. 

Wright leaves in just enough mystery about the Maels – you finish realising you don’t actually know much about their private lives, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the music and their creativity, as they’ve charted a path somewhere between pop stars and cult acts and defiantly followed their muse the entire time. You can’t ask for a better career than that.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) might be one of most joyous movies of a rather joyless year. It’s a documentary about the nearly forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a kind of Black Woodstock that took place over several weeks at a Harlem park and featured huge crowds jamming to legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone and much more.

I love documentaries that introduce you to something a bit hidden – the Harlem festival drew tens of thousands and was filmed, but the footage was abandoned and forgotten for decades. The Roots’ Questlove has done a remarkable job directing this feature which juxtaposes stunning footage from the concerts with broader context about the turbulence late ‘60s and the Black experience in America. It’s deep when it wants to be, but more importantly Summer of Soul is sheer cathartic bliss, with beautiful crowds and remarkable music. 

Some concert movies have one or two stand-up-and-cheer moments – Summer of Soul is packed with them, from Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples duetting to 19-year-old Stevie Wonder getting his funk on. For some reason the moment that stuck with me most was seeing the somewhat uncool Black band The Fifth Dimension blow the crowd away with their none-more-hippie anthem “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” pumping with uncomplicated positivity onstage and the same singers much older, watching back their performances 50 years later, grins on their faces. “Let the sunshine in,” indeed. It’s hard to imagine I’ll watch a more uplifting movie all year. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #13: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

What is it: The mother of all Satanic panic possession stories, and widely considered one of the best psychological horror tales of all time. Mia Farrow is Rosemary, who seems to live a perfect life with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). But when they move into a new apartment, they become close to their mysterious neighbours, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers she’s caught in an evil web she can’t escape. The “Satanic horror boom” that ran through the 1970s from The Exorcist to The Omen starts here. 

Why I never saw it: I’ve been rather tardy to a lot of the truly iconic horror films of the 1970s, as this occasional series has shown on several occasions. I think the horror movies you hear rumours about as a kid can haunt you even more if you haven’t gotten around to seeing them as an adult. I mean, I checked out Cronenberg’s The Fly when I was like 16 and became a fan of its goopy glory for life, but I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was in deep into my 40s because it sounded a wee bit too scary. I’m funny that way.

Does it measure up to its rep? Some movies are so famous you know the broad strokes of their plot without even seeing them. It’s a sign of a classic when you finally watch it and still be sucked right into the story. Roman Polanski may be a deeply problematic human, but his skill as a director is hard to cancel entirely. In movies like Chinatown, Repulsion and The Pianist, he’s always in control no matter how chaotic the situation he puts his characters in. He sets a foreboding tone for Rosemary from the start, where everything appears normal, but has an oddly menacing vibe. Nothing much truly scary happens in this movie, but it leaves you feeling unmoored and shaken, just like Rosemary herself is. Brief surreal glimpses of Rosemary’s dreams or a horrifying seduction sequence stand out sharply from the carefully ordered world. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrifying that makes Rosemary’s Baby work more than 50 years on.

Farrow, who I mostly know from her days making Woody Allen movies, is terrific, going from wide-eyed ingenue to a truly haunted figure over the course of the movie. And it’s a real trip to see Ruth Gordon, whom I will forever associate with the classic Harold and Maude, hamming it up as the gossipy sinister neighbour (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as a result). There’s also a firm subtext about Rosemary’s marginalisation as a pregnant woman – her agency is usurped constantly by her husband, friends and authority figures, and it’s hard not to see the picture itself as a bigger metaphor for the claustrophobic traps too many women were – and are – put in by society. Rosemary’s Baby implies far more than it shows, which in my mind at least almost always makes for a better horror movie. Polanski’s general restraint makes the shocking final 10 minutes of the movie hit that much harder. You’ll never think of “Hail Satan!” in the same way again. 

Worth seeing? The idea of Satan sneaking his way into your life has been done to death in movies and horror, but the devil is in the details here. Polanski’s keen eye for how the ordinary moments in life can be hiding something else make Rosemary’s Baby a vision of hell far scarier than some guy in red with horns.  

I’m already a little sick of the multiverse

I’m a comics geek, a mild obsessive who can tell you in detail about the difference between all the Robins or who the best and worst Avengers of all time were. And I love me a good game of “What If” more often than not. But I’ve got to say that I’m already getting pretty sick of the flood of multiverses getting rolled out in both comics and movie adaptations.

“Multiverses” – or alternate versions of existing characters – have a long, strong history in comics, of course, going all the way back to those Superman “imaginary stories” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, on to thinly-veiled spoofs like the Squadron Supreme of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were so many infinite earths and alternate possibilities that DC had a big ol’ Crisis on them back in the mid-1980s meant to simplify everything. There’s been at least a dozen other crises since then.

I absolutely loved learning about Earth-3 and Earth-X back in the day. But whipping out the Captain Ecuador of Earth-78 or the Victorian Batman of Earth 342 who’s also Sherlock Holmes has diminishing returns after a while. There have been many, many great stories involving alternate or reimagined versions of existing characters – it’s one of the ways that icons like Superman or Batman have proven so durable in nearly a century. 

Yet both Marvel and DC now seem determined to not use multiverses sparingly, but to make them the centre of their latest intellectual property strategy. Over in DC Comics, you’ve got Infinite Frontiers and Flashpoints and notions like the idea of seeing Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck’s Batman spread their wings, while Marvel is getting as lost in multiverses as DC did before their ‘80s Crisis, with the kind of underwhelming What If? cartoon show apparently entirely created to give us a shiny team of “Guardians of the Multiverse” versions of the characters we already knew, and the new Dr. Strange and Spider-Man movies set to dive deep into the multiverses of madness. 

I’m still a geek, so I do get a thrill when I see Alfred Molina’s awesome Doctor Octopus from two Spider-Man reboots ago popping up again through some timey-wimey shenanigans. I thought seeing multiple Spider-Men and -Women collide in Into The Spider-Verse was one of the best comic films in recent years. DC’s “President Superman” – a thinly-veiled Barack Obama homage who’s both Superman and the President of the United States – is a cool spin on a shopworn idea. 

But it can get old real fast and becomes the equivalent of a writer just throwing ideas into the air to see what sticks. I dip into DC Comics’ never-ending Crises now and then and it all just becomes a gaudy blur of evil Batman and sideways versions of Flashes. I skipped entirely a recent series of Avengers comics all about yet another evil alternate version of the team.

The multiverse too often becomes all about the colourful over-the-top spectacle of a dozen Batmen together rather than about a good story like Into The Spider-Verse told. It’s all about callbacks and easter eggs rather than forming a solid character arc. It’s fan service turned into plot. A character’s got to have more meaning than “wouldn’t it be cool if Batman, but from Albuquerque?” 

Like I said, the alternate realities of comics have been around a while now, and it used to be, they were a bit of a treat – the bi-monthly issues of What If? in its ‘70s heyday, the goofy stories of Batman and Superman’s sons fighting crime together. But when they start to become the main event all the time, it all just blurs together into an endless stream of writer’s drafts and easy shortcuts to character – what if Wolverine was Aquaman? What if Green Lantern was from apartheid-era South Africa? What if the Hulk was a 6-year-old boy? 

It’s easy for anyone with an imagination to knock off 50 of these multiversal variants in the space of an hour, really. But to make an actual character out of them, that isn’t just a kind of hollow echo of someone else’s creative work? That’s the hard part, and rather than endlessly revisiting the past to riff on it, it’d be great to see all the comics shared universes try a little harder to be new things, rather than new versions of old things.