There once was a spider I hated, A creature that God had created. It helped to cull pests, The most useful of guests, But I didn’t care so I slayed it. ________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
I may not be a fan of the horror genre in general, but Halloween is a good excuse to seek out some new scary movies I might actually like. Supernatural horror is usually my preferred cup of tea, with a greater focus on tension over gore, but there’s one subgenre that often gets overshadowed by all the zombies and vampires out there – the nature creature feature.
When I was a kid, two things truly terrified me: the clown from Poltergeist and spiders. And unfortunately, I could only reassure myself that one of those wasn’t real. I would freak out at the mere sight of a spider on the playground, and I used to paper-clip notecards over the spider pictures in my biology book. So it’s no surprise at all that I never expected to see a film titled Arachnophobia in my life. I don’t know if this is common, but my once-severe antipathy toward spiders eased over time. I’ll still kill any that dare cross my threshold, but I can at least look at them without cringing. Maybe I just got used to Shelob and Charlotte.
The debut of director Frank Marshall, Arachnophobia is basically Jaws for spiders, taking an intimidating but largely non-threatening animal and turning them into a bloodthirsty monster seemingly targeting humans. An unfortunate American photographer (Mark L. Taylor) goes with a British spider expert (Julian Sands) to investigate new species in the Amazon rain forest before being bitten and killed by an unusually aggressive and resilient specimen. When his body is sent back to small-town California, the spider hitches a ride, beginning a series of unexplained deaths for new arachnophobic doctor Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) to figure out.
I was prepared for Arachnophobia to bring back my discomfort with arachnids, and certain scenes with large numbers of the crawlies emerging from throughout a house did give me the willies. The fact that much of the lurking and eventual confrontations with the spiders take place in everyday home locations add to the squirm factor, since you never know what could be prowling just out of sight in the places you feel safest.
Yet I found myself more entertained than scared, thanks to the unrealistic lethality of the spiders and the slight camp of the plot. John Goodman plays a scene-stealing pest control expert, whose arrogance belies an unusual competence for someone in this kind of movie, and there’s an undercurrent of dark irony as Dr. Jennings’ patients keep getting killed right after he examines them. The film never fully embraces its comedy label, but somehow it totally sells a face-off between Jeff Daniels and a tarantula. With Amblin Entertainment as one of its production companies, Arachnophobia has a Spielbergian vibe to it that feels more like E.T. than Jaws. I might have been able to handle it as a kid too, but then again it might have just made me even more skittish. At least now I know I’m over my fear of those eight-legged freaks… I mean, friends. See, no repressed spider hatred around here….
Best line: (Ross, after killing a spider) “Therapy.”
What looms within the human heart, Unwilling ever to depart, Is easy to depict in art For everyone to see:
The darkness and the violent lusts, Sin that beguiles and disgusts, That takes our innocence and rusts To gag morality.
It must be seen, the world insists, To show the horror that exists. Its advocates are but realists, As ugly truth they show.
Perhaps that truth is worth a peek, If only for what not to seek, But excess horror lacks critique And merely lets it grow. ______________________
MPA rating: R (strong language and violence, plus nudity in the Redux version)
And here I am finally halfway done with my 2021 Blindspot series… in late October. Okay, so I’m still behind this year, but I’m gaining ground. I had considered Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now for my Blindspot list in past years, but I remembered my mom saying how much she didn’t enjoy it. But it is a classic, right? It’s a monument of modern filmmaking, a testament to the senseless horror of the Vietnam War, a character study of men on the edge of sanity making hard decisions and quoting poetry. Yes, it’s all of these things, and I didn’t much care for it.
Somewhat based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and relocating the novel’s river journey from the African Congo to wartime Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is as much a psychological contemplation as it is a tour of the Vietnam War. Interspersed with nighttime shootouts and upriver ambushes, Army Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) waxes philosophical over the bleakness of battle and his internal moral debate of what he will do when he encounters Kurtz (Marlon Brando), the effective but crazed colonel his superiors have sent Willard to kill. At times, the film’s tone almost turns into dark comedy, as when Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) insists on surfing in the middle of a beach assault, but it yields to hallucinogenic nihilism by the end, which is more of a whimper than a bang, to borrow from the film’s own T.S. Eliot quote.
I technically watched Apocalypse Now Redux, the 2001 director’s cut that added 49 minutes to the original runtime, including 20 minutes that Coppola later removed again for yet another director’s cut in 2019. When I later read what the additional material was, I wasn’t surprised since they weren’t really needed. The longest added sections, including a stopover with Playboy bunnies and a visit to a plantation of French holdouts, not only slow down the pacing but mainly serve to make the film even more R-rated, adding in two sex scenes absent from the original.
On one hand, I can recognize what captured the regard of so many critics. Coppola’s direction is often top-notch, particularly during a sequence where Willard walks through a chaotic, flare-lit camp under attack, which is like a carnival battlefield from hell. I can’t fault the acting either, from Brando’s climactic soliloquy justifying his actions to Duvall’s mercurial officer who flits from cruel to kind and says “Someday this war’s gonna end” almost with regret. It was nice to see Laurence Fishburne in an early role, as well as minor parts for Harrison Ford, Scott Glenn, and Dennis Hopper.
Yet for all its strengths, the film ultimately feels aimless, with its inevitable climax just happening with no subsequent consequences, reactions, or closure for anyone involved. Its status as a critical darling makes me feel like I’m in the minority in disliking it, but it’s a lot like Blade Runner, another technically impressive Blindspot that proved to be style over substance, petering out with no effort to satisfy the audience. I suppose that’s a sign of creative independence and art, but it doesn’t make it a film I care to watch again. I’ve seen people complain that Apocalypse Now was snubbed for the Best Picture Oscar in favor of Kramer vs. Kramer, but I’m glad the smaller, more personal film won. On some level, others must have felt the same as I do.
Best line (not going for the obvious “I love the smell of napalm” line): (Willard, quoting Kurtz) “In a war, there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action – what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it, directly, quickly, awake, looking at it.”
The leafless woods’ alarming hem Does greet our eyes on every side. A wall for us but not for them, Where those we do not speak of hide.
Branches hang low But point to the sky To silently show Where we go when we die.
The elders say our safety’s sure Within the glen the village claims, But who can feel safe or secure When watched by creatures without names?
Nobody sees, And nobody hears, But none disagrees, And everyone fears. _______________________
Since starting out his career as a director with three excellent films in my view (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), M. Night Shyamalan has certainly had his ups and downs, with The Last Airbender being the low point. Nowadays his films are greeted with a mixture of optimism and misgivings, but back in 2004, there was still good reason to have high hopes for his fourth feature, The Village. Seen as a turning point between “good Shyamalan” and “bad Shyamalan,” The Village is indeed a middle-of-the-road effort with a plot that can’t help but buckle under its expected assumptions.
The titular village of Covington is home to a collection of folk living their best 19th-century life, including Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard in her first major role), the blind daughter of the village’s Chief Elder (William Hurt), and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man who wants to leave the village and venture to the distant towns for medical supplies. Yet the elders forbid leaving the village due to the ever-present fear of what lies in the surrounding woods, red-cloaked creatures known as “Those We Don’t Speak Of.”
There are plenty of elements to admire about The Village, notably James Newton Howard’s haunting Oscar-nominated score, which I heard and loved long before I even considered seeing its source. Shyamalan’s adroit camerawork and use of color also add to the atmosphere, and as with his other films, the script and camera are careful to only reveal what he wants the audience to know. The problem is that a thinking audience who knows Shyamalan’s penchant for twists can fill in gaps. While I went in knowing what to expect, my VC did not and yet still guessed the main “twist” long before its reveal. Plus, it feels like it ends too soon, with one subplot regarding romantic tension between William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver’s characters going nowhere.
I can see how The Village can be mocked and defended in equal measure. Its story might be labeled “dumb” (and has), but it’s far more psychological than the horror tale it may seem like on the surface. I could see it as a short story from some acclaimed writer, with its character archetypes and old-timey dialogue. (By the way, the quaint dialogue is both a plus and a minus. Most of the actors make it work, but Judy Greer’s delivery of one line is especially cringe-worthy.) The Village is not necessarily a bad film, but it’s a very fragile one, liable to fall apart if you ask too many questions. It’s neither as scary nor as deep as it wants to be, but it’s still a far sight better than Shyamalan’s low points since.
Best line: (Ivy) “Sometimes we don’t do things we want to do so that others won’t know we want to do them.”
It’s been a while since I posted any Top Twelve lists, but this one is particularly overdue. My lists of favorite movies of the year are usually long after the New Year, when most people post them, just because I typically take longer to watch all the worthwhile films of the year. But in the past, I have at least posted my top songs of the previous year in January, which was foiled in 2020/2021 due to a tight school schedule. Now that I am finally through with school, it’s time to revisit the great musical gifts that 2020 had to offer.
To be quite honest, I consider 2020 a rather weak year for movies but a fantastic one for music. It was hard to pare down the list to a Top Twelve, considering how many other favorites ended up in the Runners-Up. I always find it interesting how my tastes continue to diverge from what is mainstream and popular; only one of these songs ended up in the Billboard Top 10, and you can bet Cardi B and Billie Eilish are nowhere to be found.
As always, there are no doubt songs I’ve missed along the way that I hope to discover at some point. My 2019 list seemed watertight at the time, but it wasn’t until this year that I was introduced to The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” or Mika’s whole My Name Is Michael Holbrook album. Speaking of the latter, I sort of retroactively assess years by the artists I fall in love with, such as Florence and the Machine in 2016, Kygo in 2017, etc. And 2020 continued this trend, making me a huge fan of Mika, Sparks, and The Orion Experience, all of which have been around for years and deserve way more attention. (Sparks did get a documentary this year called The Sparks Brothers, which I hope to review at some point.)
While most of these songs may not have been mainstream hits, I consider all of them modern classics at this point. Hopefully, you readers will agree, but if not, let me know what your favorite songs of 2020 were. It was a tough year for many reasons, but good music can make hard times more bearable and even fun. It takes more searching these days, but I’m always grateful that great tunes like these are still being created.
12. “Can I Believe You” – Fleet Foxes
Dropped on the autumnal equinox with little fanfare, literally the day after being announced, Shore is the latest album from Fleet Foxes, and while I wasn’t very familiar with their previous work, I was blown away with this dreamy folk tour de force. It was hard to pick a favorite among songs like “Quiet Air/Gioia,” “Young Man’s Game,” and “Jara,” but I settled on “Can I Believe You,” the kind of subdued jam that sends you to another plane when you close your eyes while listening.
11. “Lights Go Down” – I Dont Know How But They Found Me
Deriving their name from a Back to the Future quote and their lead singer from Panic! at the Disco, I Dont Know How But They Found Me made an exciting alt rock debut with their Razzmatazz album. Though “Leave Me Alone” and “New Invention” got more exposure, “Lights Go Down” is the clear standout for me. Those instantly memorable synth notes at the beginning give way to a similarly toe-tapping chorus and sax solo that are simply infectious.
10. “Kings & Queens” – Ava Max
Aside from the next song, this is the only other song on the list that I actually heard on the radio. Ava Max could be dismissed as a wannabe Lady Gaga, but I’ve enjoyed her work since “Sweet but Psycho” three years ago. The catchy beat and guitar solo of this anthem of female empowerment meld pop and rock in an effortlessly appealing single.
9. “Dynamite” – BTS
Yes, this is the monster hit that topped the Billboard Hot 100 and set multiple Guinness world records, and with good reason. Since I typically spurn rap, I wasn’t much of a fan of BTS before, and it’s perhaps a little ironic that their first English-language hit and the song that won me over was written by someone else. But who could resist this exuberant pop smash, making full use of the K-pop juggernaut’s energy and harmonies and somehow landing a spot on Rolling Stone’s updated list of the Top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s a perfect summer hit.
8. “Need Each Other” – TWRP, featuring Planet Booty
I missed out on featuring TWRP’s “Starlight Brigade” on my list of 2018 songs (since I only discovered them in 2019), but I am glad to not repeat that oversight here. The costumed Canadian band once more killed it with their Over the Top album, and while “Black Swan” seemed like the obvious choice, I had to pick “Need Each Other,” a funk-fueled collab that extols the feelings of community and mutual love that were most needed during the pandemic’s worst days.
7. “Daniel, You’re Still a Child” – Declan McKenna
Not only do I love the inventive green-screen music video, but Declan McKenna’s “Daniel, You’re Still a Child” is an eminently sing-alongable jam that never gets old, even if I don’t fully understand the potentially dark meaning of the lyrics. I could have also gone with “The Key to Life on Earth” or “Beautiful Faces,” since the whole Zeroes album rocks, but “Daniel” is the real stand-out.
6. “A Good Song Never Dies” – Saint Motel
I don’t dislike Billie Eilish’s theme song for No Time to Die, but this song proves beyond a doubt that Saint Motel needs to do a James Bond theme. “A Good Song Never Dies” already sounds like one, and the horns and bassline have swaggering style to spare. It also makes them the only returning band from my 2019 list, further cementing them as one of my favorites and one of the most underrated groups out there. Special mention for “Preach.”
5. “My God” – The Killers, feat. Weyes Blood
Through most of the year, I was sure that “Caution,” the lead single from Imploding the Mirage, would be The Killers’ obvious entry on my list, but then I heard “My God.” This anthem of catharsis is The Killers at their best, and Weyes Blood’s pure voice during the bridge gives me chills every time. Special mention for “Lightning Fields” as well.
4. “All That” – Sparks
Last year was the year I discovered Sparks, the duo that have been making fantastic, quirk-filled music for over fifty years with nowhere near the acclaim they deserve. They’re still going strong with the album A Steady Drip, Drip Drip, with “All That” being the best. With its wistful, nostalgic lyrics and clapped beat, it sounds like both the culmination of a long career and a classic that’s been around for years. With Edgar Wright’s recent documentary about the Mael brothers, I’m glad Sparks is getting more attention. Special mention for “Self-Effacing” and “Left Out in the Cold.”
3. “My Rajneesh” – Sufjan Stevens
In 2020, I also gained a greater appreciation for the poetic delicacy of Sufjan Stevens. While the year saw a whole album from the auteur, with great songs like “Video Game,” “America,” and “Tell Me You Love Me,” the highlight somehow didn’t make it on the album. The B-side of “America” and running for 10 minutes, “My Rajneesh” is an endlessly inventive meditation on spirituality encapsulating his odd artistry. The extended fadeout is a bit anticlimactic, but the high points are glorious.
2. “Someday” – Kygo, with Zac Brown
And Kygo once more returns to the list, having scored #4 for the 2017 list and #3 for the 2018 list. (I guess he keeps going up.) While many artists held live remote concerts during the lockdowns, Kygo’s Golden Hour festival was a highlight of them all. With my dad’s passing still in my mind, “Someday”’s hopeful themes of missing someone just spoke to me, and the combination of country and tropical house is a perfectly catchy combination to boot. Special mention to “Lose Somebody” and “Broken Glass.”
1. “Before We Drift Away” – Nothing But Thieves
Honestly, I was really torn on which song would snag the top spot, since any of the top 5 could have won that honor. But when listening to all of them in sequence, the building momentum of this one became self-evident. Starting dreamy and peaceful, the mounting strings and drums erupting into the chorus take it to another level of sublime pop rock. “Before We Drift Away” wasn’t even a single, but I love it dearly, and it kills me that Nothing But Thieves is still largely unknown in the U.S. Special mention for “Moral Panic” and “Is Everybody Going Crazy?”
And that concludes yet another yearly song countdown. Better late than never, right? What did you think of my list? Let me know whether you agree with my musical tastes or think I’ve been locked down for too long, and be sure to share your own favorites from 2020 as well. It may have been a crappy year, but at least there was great music to help us all through. As always, below is my long list of runners-up, continuing the countdown in order (#13, #14, etc.), so hopefully you’ll find some new favorites among my list as well.
“Medicine Man” and the rest of the Lush Life album – The Orion Experience
“Thank You”, “Phoenix”, and “Symphony” – Sheppard
“The Gate” and “The Door” – Caroline Polachek
“Say Something” and “Magic” – Kylie Minogue
“Bummerland” – AJR
“Crocodile Tears”, feat. Jens Hult and “Nights Like That”, feat. Georgia Ku – BUNT.
“Lost in Yesterday” and “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” – Tame Impala
“No Ordinary” – Labrinth
“Lost in Paradise” – ALI, feat. Aklo
“Night Crawling,” “Golden G String,” and “Plastic Hearts” – Miley Cyrus
Love Goes album and “The Lighthouse Keeper” – Sam Smith
“Physical,” “Break My Heart,” and “Levitating”, – Dua Lipa
“Think about Things” – Daði Freyr
“Changes” and “Modern Loneliness” – Lauv
“Bury Us” – The Naked and Famous
“In Your Eyes” – The Weeknd
“All Eyes on You”, “Forever Alone”, and “Godsent” – Smash Into Pieces
“La Vita Nuova” – Christine and the Queens, ft. Caroline Polachek
“Moonshine” and “Pluma” – Caravan Palace
“It’s All So Incredibly Loud” and “Heat Waves” – Glass Animals
“Zombie Prom” and “Oh My God” – Kaiser Chiefs
“Why Try” and “Nominated” – Ginger Root
“Papa” – Scott Helman
“Synthian” and “Gave Up on Us” – NINA
“Gold” and “Last Night on Earth” – Paloma Faith
“Le Coeur Holiday”, feat. Soprano, and “Belle D’Estate” – MIKA
“Box in My Head” and rest of The Symbol Remains album – Blue Oyster Cult
“In Your Eyes” – Robin Schulz, feat. Alida
“Husavik” – from the movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Everyone Changes” feat. Gabrielle Aplin, “Sometimes”, and “Wherever You Are” – Kodaline
“Head & Heart” – Joel Corry x MNEK
“And It Breaks My Heart” and “Who You Lovin” – LÉON
“Maybe I” – Seven Billion Dots
“Higher” – Bishop Briggs
“Chinatown” – Bleachers, ft. Bruce Springsteen
“Headphones”, “19,” and “Irony” – FAITH
“I’ll Get By” and “Born in California” – Avi Kaplan
“Comeback” – Carly Rae Jepson, ft. Bleachers
“Dancing in the Dark” – Frank Walker
“Rosenrot” – Faun
“All My Love” – Elderbrook
“Who I Am” and “Prover” – Milet
“Gravity” and “Acacia” – Bump of Chicken
“Heaven on My Mind” – Becky Hill & Sigala
“Blood Bonds” and “Paranoia” – Nathan Wagner
“Under the Sun” – Bakermat
“Sign” – Roosevelt
“Lucid” and “Paradisin’” – Rina Sawayama
“Losing My Mind”, “Roman Empire”, and “Can You Feel the Sun” – Missio
“Break Up Song” and “Happiness” – Little Mix
“幸せのシャナナ” – BRADIO
“Young and Restless” – SIAMES
“Many Roads” and “Need You,” feat. Madge – Chaos Chaos
“Light the Light” – RADWIMPS
“I Think There’s Something You Should Know” – The 1975
“Rescue Dog” – Train
“Sunburn”, “Animal”, “Can’t Wait”, and “Drunk” – The Living Tombstone
“Superlove” – Royal Republic
“I Don’t Know What We’re Talking About” – NSP
“The Movies” and “You Should Probably Just Hang Up” – Nightly
“Fools” – ufo ufo
“Keep Me Light” – Tall Heights
“Animal” and “Hate You” – Jim Yosef x RIELL
“Come Over” – Dagny
“Baby It’s You” and “Californian Soil” – London Grammar
“Riots” – Stuck in the Sound
“Someone Else’s Dream” – Absofacto
“Gimme a Minute” and “Stay Gold” – PVRIS
“Seventeen” – Deamn
“Scream Drive Faster” and “Best I Ever Had” – LAUREL
“Change” – Pale Waves
“Tell Me I’m Wrong” – Dwayne Ford, feat. Clara Sorace
“sustain++” – Mili
“homebody” and “hiccup” – Valley
“Wonder” and “Teach Me How To Love” – Shawn Mendes
“Cardigan” – Taylor Swift
“Off My Mind” – Hazel English
“I Saw Love” – Forest Blakk
“Pretty Please” – Jackson Wang and Galantis
“Let’s Love” – David Guetta & Sia
As with past music posts, I want to end my yearly music list with an overdue tribute to the many music artists we lost in 2020, including Neil Peart of Rush, Pop Smoke, David Roback of Mazzy Star, Barbara Martin of The Supremes, Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers, John Prine, Ryo Kawasaki, Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, Brian Howe of Bad Company, Little Richard, Steve Priest of Sweet, Bonnie Pointer of The Pointer Sisters, Vera Lynn, Charlie Daniels, Ennio Morricone, Regis Philbin, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, Malik B. of The Roots, Leon Fleisher, Trini Lopez, Frankie Banali of Quiet Riot, Ronald Bell of Kool & The Gang, Toots Hibbert of Toots & The Maytals, Lee Kerslake and Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep, Tommy DeVito of The Four Seasons, Helen Reddy, Johnny Nash, Eddie Van Halen, Tony Lewis of The Outfield, Alto Reed of Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, and Charley Pride. May they rest in peace, for they and their music will not be forgotten.