Saturday, January 16, 2016

Favorite Music of 2015

Music is my third passion, after my marriage and movies. It was cultivated through the years by many, but mostly by a few. For some years after college I abandoned it, but eventually it came back to me. It combined with my passion for movies to a degree that recently I’ve found myself including motion picture scores in with my favorite albums of each year. This year there were so many favorites of each, traditional albums and original motion picture soundtracks, that I decided to compile two favorite ten lists.

Even more so with music than with movies, it is impossible to hear everything that is released within a year’s time. This is why I avoid calling this a “top ten” list or a “best of” list. I could hardly claim these are the best of the lot. Not only is there too much material out there to make such a claim, but also each album and soundtrack score needs time to breathe. You need to spend time with them before you can claim to truly know them. I guess they’re like people that way. I think in the past that need to spend time with them has favored albums that were released earlier in the year. Those are the ones I got to spend the most time with. However, it seems this year I’ve bucked that trend and find more late-year albums on each list than I have in the past. This makes me feel I’ve done a better and fairer job of judging these albums than ever before.

I usually don’t write anything about the individual albums I pick each year. I like to let the music speak for itself. Plus, I reviewed a few albums in college; and despite my ability to analyze film; I’ve never felt I had the knowledge of music to write good album reviews. I don’t pay much attention to the details so much as the feeling they give me. Sometimes I don’t even hear the lyrics of a song until years after my first listen. This is probably why I’m drawn to soundtrack scores as much as I am.

There are a few things I’d like to say about a couple of the albums this year though.

First, in regard to Ryan Adams’ “1989”—I was surprised not to see this album on more “Best of” lists at the end of the year. I get the feeling people thought an entire cover album of another artist’s songs was a lame idea, or maybe it’s more because it was an incredibly popular artist’s album. I don’t know, but this is my favorite album from Ryan Adams in a long time. This is a guy who is a perennial favorite of mine, so that’s saying something. What Adams does here is not only make each and every one of Taylor Swift’s songs his own, but he highlights the incredible musical ability that went into composing each song. His arrangements are for the most part vastly different from Swift’s, but by removing her particular pop music sensibilities, it’s easier to see just what a rare talent she is.

I think it should also be noted that Adams didn’t spend the entire year copying someone else’s catalogue. For the past year and a half, before the release of his self-titled album in the fall of 2014, Adams has been releasing three track EPs every two or three months that have exemplified a remarkable range of original material, even for Adams. These eight EPs each take a different tone and have further impressed me about the musical abilities of this artist who has been making fine music for over a quarter of a century at this point.

Second, in regard to the Blackhat Original Motion Picture Soundtrack—For some reason this soundtrack has yet to be released in any album format. The tracks are out there, and it might be possible to piece together a playlist of this soundtrack album. There may be legal reasons behind the lack of a release for this remarkable soundtrack, however. Harry Gregson-Williams is credited as the film’s score composer. When he saw the final cut of the film, he was shocked to find almost none of his music was used. He set to twitter to complain about Michael Mann, who has a reputation for slicing and dicing his composers’ scores with electronic music. Rumor is that Mann brought Atticus Ross in to edit the music together and compose some replacement music for Gregson-Williams’ more traditional score, but it appears most of the score music was composed by electronic artist Ryan Amon, whose previous credits include the score to the film “Elysium” and to the video games “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” and “Bloodborn”. I hope any legal wrangling doesn’t keep this soundtrack from surfacing in an album format eventually. Until it does, you’ll just have to watch the movie to hear it.


Primrose Green
Artist: Ryley Walker
Label: Dead Oceans
Dropped: March 31

Coming Home
Artist: Leon Bridges
Label: Columbia
Dropped: June 23

Artist: Ryan Adams
Label: Blue Note
Dropped: September 21

Lost Themes
Artist: John Carpenter
Label: Sacred Bones Records
Dropped: February 3

Dying Surfer Meets His Maker
Artist: All Them Witches
Label: New West Records
Dropped: October 30

Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Artist: Courtney Barnett
Label: Mom & Pop Music
Dropped: March 23

Artist: Tamaryn
Label: Mexican Summer
Dropped: August 28

…is Doomed
Artist: Black Wing
Label: The Flenser
Dropped: September 25

Beyond Belief
Artist: Mark McGuire
Label: Dead Oceans
Dropped: November 13

Blowing Inside
Artist: Chicos de Nazca
Label: BYM Records
Dropped: October 26

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight
Artists: Ennio Morricone (score), cast (dialogue)
Label: Verve
Dropped: December 18

It Follows
Artist: Disasterpeace
Label: Milan Records
Dropped: March 23

Mad Max: Fury Road
Artist: Tom Holkenberg (aka Junkie XL)
Label: WaterTower Music
Dropped: May 12

Love & Mercy
Artists: Atticus Ross (score), Brian Wilson (songs), The Beach Boys (songs)
Label: Capitol
Dropped: September 18

The Revenant
Artists: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, Bryce Dessner
Label: Milan Records
Dropped: December 25

Artist: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Label: Varese Sarabande
Dropped: September 18

Artists: Ryan Amon (score (uncredited)), Harry Gregson-Williams (score (credited)), various artists (additional music)
Label: N/A
Dropped: N/A (maybe someday)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Artist: John Williams
Label: Walt Disney Records
Dropped: December 18

Ex Machina
Artists: Ben Salisbury and Geoff Darrow
Label: Silva Screen
Dropped: May 26

Artist: Michael Brook
Label: Lakeshore Records
Dropped: November 6

All albums and soundtracks except Blackhat Original Motion Picture Soundtrack available through most major music services, including Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Favorites of 2015

The time has come for yet another list from yet another fan of cinema. I do this every year and hope it does some of my readers good. By this time most people have already gotten their lists out. As such there is sometimes little new to be found in my contribution. Still, it was a rough year for the blog and most of these movies never got a review when I originally saw them. In fact, I believe this will be the first opinions of all but two of these films to be posted on my site at all.

As is usually the case, because of my limited resources being a blogger outside the Hollywood industry, I did not get to see all the movies I would’ve liked to consider for this list. Most notably missing are Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and Charlie Kaufman’s stop motion “Anomolisa”. I hope to see them before the Oscars are awarded in a little over a month.

That being said, I was able to see a greater amount of the contenders than normal this year despite the fact that I viewed far less movies than I usually do in a year. Thanks to a much greater availability of platforms than ever before, I was able to cull out most of the titles I felt I needed to see to compile this list and the result is that I found it very difficult to cut down my favorites, or even to put them in any sort of order. I’ve never had such a tight and interchangeable list of favorites before. I decided not to limit my list and have listed every four-star review I awarded this year. I have tried to place them in an order of very favorite to slightly less favorite. There are sections of this list that I could endlessly rearrange if I didn’t just force myself to post it. The margin of difference between the first film on the list and the last film is so narrow it hardly matters.

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie 1947-2016

When Morgan Freeman joked during the Golden Globes last night that a long applause from the audience meant that they thought he would die soon, it occurred to me what a monumental loss that will be to the entertainment world when it actually occurs. Hopefully, it won’t happen for many years. Then, I woke up this morning to discover that David Bowie has passed from this world.

For a good deal of time I only had my initial, guttural reaction to the news. “What?!” I couldn’t think anything else but unspeakable shock about it for much of the morning. I don’t think I was in shock so much because of the surprise of the news, although I didn’t really see it coming. Perhaps the release of his new album on Friday lulled me to sleep on the possibility of his demise, but it really had never even occurred to me that he might be sick at any time in the future, let alone now. Was his 18-month battle with cancer public knowledge? I don’t remember hearing anything about it. But I don’t think my inability to process this loss has anything to do with the unexpected nature of it.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Video Thoughts--The Hateful Eight

Here's my first attempt at a quick video review. I'm not happy with it. It's a second take. I need to work on my screen presence, but it'll come. So here's a very brief impression immediately following my screening of "The Hateful Eight". Full length written review to follow.

Friday, January 01, 2016

A New Year in the Well

It’s been two whole months since I posted here. I never finished my Horrorfest entries. I even missed reviewing one of the biggest movies of my lifetime. 2015 was a year many people found to be a difficult one. A Penny in the Well was no exception. Family commitments forced The Well to take the most diminished role in film criticism I’ve taken since the inception of this site. I’m hoping 2016 will provide more opportunities to both see and comment on movies, television, music and other pop culture phenomenon.

I have grander plans for The Well over the next year, but it remains to be seen whether I will actually be able to implement some of my ambitions. It’s unlikely I will be able to return to daily reviews, however I will be tweeting reviews for every movie I see through my twitter handle @ydnasllew. I also hope to provide instant reviews through Twitter or Vine videos for any film I see in the theater. This will at least provide some sort of opinion on current releases should I fail to find the time to write full length reviews on them.

As has always been the case with The Well, I intend to write a full-length review for any film I see in theaters. 2015 was the first time since 2005 that I failed in this task. I don’t intend for that to happen again. I will also collect all the written Twitter reviews I write for every film in The Well on a regular basis for those who do not wish to engage in Twitter. I will continue the Criterion Thoughts feature that I started last year exploring all the titles in the Criterion catalogue. Again, these “thoughts” will not be outright reviews so much as impressions inspired by these remarkable films.

I finally caught up with the world of podcasting last year and have embraced several film-based podcasts that I listen to regularly. Listening to these shows has made me wonder if podcasts might really be where the future of film criticism lies. So, one of my more ambitious ideas for this year would be to start a film podcast. I have an idea or two as to just what my unique turn on the film podcast format might be, but we’ll keep that under wraps until I actually have the capacity to produce such an endeavor.

Finally, there is a project I’ve been planning for the past two years and I just haven’t been able to get it going. I’m hoping to publish a collection of my best reviews. I’d also like to publish a collection of reviews I wrote before I began the site, but that’s for later. Anyway, this project would be something I could never finance on my own, so I’ll probably be looking into some sort of crowd funding option. I have a likely publisher; it’s just a matter of figuring out costs and getting the campaign going. Keep an eye out for details right here in The Well.

So, here’s to a more fruitful year in 2016. I can’t wait to see the movies and share my thoughts. Stay tuned for my 2015 Favorites lists and what promises to be a unique new year in entertainment. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Horror Thoughts ‘15—Dracula Untold (2014) ***

PG-13, 94 min.
Director: Gary Shore
Writers: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, Bram Stoker (characters)
Starring: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston, Noah Huntley

“I’m so sick of origin stories.” That seems to be becoming a mantra from filmgoers in this age of the comic book movie where origin stories are everything. I’ve never been much of a mind to think that way. A story is a story, origin or otherwise. What people are sick of is the same superhero origin story over and over again. How many times have we seen the origin stories of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man? Now, Dracula… that’s one we haven’t seen before.

Of course, one of my big problems with so many of today’s vampire stories is that the storytellers have forgotten what the vampire mythology is all about. All too often vampires are turned into superheroes, which is just wrong. Unfortunately, this is just that type of vampire movie. It lacks all the classic themes of the vampire mythos. Considering that those tropes seem all but forgotten today, I’m willing to give into the fact that this is going to be a vampire superhero origin story. Once you give yourself up to that fact, it’s not such a bad movie. It ain’t scary, but it’s enjoyable.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Horror Thoughts ‘15—Manhunter (1986) ****

R, 124 min. (director's cut)
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Michael Mann, Thomas Harris (novel “Red Dragon”)
Starring: William Petersen, Denis Farina, Tom Noonan, Kim Griest, Joan Allen, Brian Cox, Stephen Lang, David Seaman, Benjamin Hendrickson

So, the best show to get canceled from television this year was “Hannibal”, which remarkably made it through three very dark and twisted seasons. Of all things Hannibal Lecter related, it is by far my favorite. But, Lecter has certainly made an impression before. In celebration of those three wonderful seasons, I decided to watch all five of the Hannibal franchise films for Horrorfest.

The police procedural aspect of most of these films generally places them outside of the horror genre in my mind, yet Hannibal Lecter is one of the greatest movie monsters ever created. So I wanted to look at them from a horror mindset. Certainly the television show is rooted solidly in horror, yet its creator, Bryan Fuller, intended to keep references to the novel storylines throughout the series. So, how much of that horror do the movie versions of these stories contain?

“Manhunter”, the first adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel “Red Dragon” and first movie appearance of Hannibal Lector, retains the least amount of horror movie aspects of the bunch. Directed by Michael Mann in full 80’s gear, it retains the crisp “Miami Vice” feel to his imagery. Note that in this vision, the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is depicted with entirely white walls and features. No colors of any kind. This is, of course, how Mann envisions the clinical, completely sanitized. It is 180 degrees removed from the grimy, dungeon-like depictions of the institution in “The Silence of the Lambs” and the later adaptation of the same story.