Love is in the Air: John Carpenter in Concert

I was originally going to see John Carpenter perform in Detroit. I spent money that I didn’t have on a VIP ticket that included early entry, a backstage tour, and signed merchandise. When I ended up seeing him perform in Boston instead, this time with a general admission ticket, the only thing I envied about the (many) others in line that had VIP tickets was the early entry.

Because it was cold outside. Cold to the point where my feet were going numb by the time the rest of us general admissions were allowed inside. But when I was finally allowed inside the Royale, a venue I’ve been to a couple of times, it was worth it.

I ended up seeing John Carpenter in Boston instead of Detroit because of a sudden death in the family that necessitated changing my concert plans. The funeral was the same day of the Detroit performance. The Boston performance was five days after the funeral. I will fully admit to not being the best when it comes to grieving, and the combination of losing a close family member along with some other not-great developments in my life led to me doing what I seem to always do when I’m a mess: I latched on to something nerdy for relief. In this case, it was seeing John Carpenter perform.

This past summer, I did a proper deep dive into Carpenter’s filmography, having only seen a few of his movies before. I love how straightforward and well-composed his films are, both visually and musically. Straightforward isn’t meant to imply that all of his films are predictable or classical. It means that there isn’t a film of Carpenter’s that tries to hide what its genre or tone is. And usually, Carpenter’s films establish their tone with the music he composes or co-composes for them. Most people know the theme from Halloween, but there are so many more gems in his body of composing work.

There’s the ominous blues of They Live, the lyrical dread of The Fog, the rocking swagger of Big Trouble in Little China, or the slowly building menace of Escape from New York. Every one of his films’ identities are hyperlinked to the themes he writes for them. Listening to any of these themes gives you a perfect musical representation of what you are in for when you watch whichever movie the theme is from. My personal favorite movie and theme of Carpenter’s is In the Mouth of Madness, a Stephen King/H.P. Lovecraft-inspired tale whose main theme is a ridiculously awesome guitar-centric piece, with an interlude of ambient horror thrown in the middle.

The last time that Carpenter composed for a movie was in 2001 for his own Ghosts of Mars. After that, he directed one other movie in 2010 called The Ward, and then seemed to go into retirement. Then a couple years ago, Carpenter teamed up with his son, Cody, and godson, Daniel Davies, to begin composing and performing music again. The trio released two albums, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, described as music for the movies in your imagination.

The music on both of those albums are of the same style as Carpenter’s scores. Beautiful, menacing, and distinct, with an emphasis on synthesizers. The trio went on tour not long after the albums’ releases, but by the time I had become a fan of Carpenter and his music, that tour had long since ended. Until Carpenter surprise-announced a new album, Anthology, that would contain new versions of most of his movie themes. And an accompanying tour. The timing could not have been better.

Inside the Royale, the stage was set up with screens on the left and right, along with one behind the drum set onstage. When it was time for the performance to start, there was no opener, no announcer, just the lights going down. Then Carpenter and the band walked onstage, and began to play Escape from New York.

As the song started and the audience cheered, Carpenter made something crystal clear as soon as he was center stage in front of his keyboard: he was having the time of his life. He was happily march-dancing to the beginning build of the song before the time came for him to play the melody. As he started, the surrounding screens began to play clips from the movie, and continued to do so for every movie theme that was played that night.

Occasionally in between songs, Carpenter would talk to the audience, usually to introduce the next song. One of my favorite moments was when he said how lovely a night it was, that it seemed that love was in the air, and that love lasts forever and will never leave you. And then he and the band played the Halloween theme.

When they played the theme from The Fog, halfway through the song, the fog machines were turned on, surrounding the band.

And before the last song of the encore, Carpenter encouraged everyone in the audience to be careful driving home because the possessed car “Christine” was out there. Which was of course followed by the theme from Christine.

That kind of humor, along with the very evident camaraderie between all of the players, contributed to how much goddamn fun this performance was. The audience I saw this with was comprised of a surprisingly wide range of ages. I was honestly expecting an older crowd, given Carpenter’s more cult-ish following. But there were a decent number of twenty-somethings there, along with one pre-teen kid who was super excited to be there.

The point is that, like Carpenter said, love was in the air. Love for Carpenter, his movies, and his music. And to be around such unadulterated joy was pretty nice.

The closest thing I have to a complaint was that the concert was less than an hour and half. But I was fortunate enough to see one of my favorite directors and composers perform their music live. And with the kind of year I’m having… hell, with the kind of year the world is having, it was great to be surrounded by people just happy to be present to see this artist perform, even just for an hour and a half.

For some great photos of the concert, check out Ben Stas’ report on the performance here.

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Baby Driver

This is going to be a short review because I don’t have much to say about Baby Driver that isn’t positive. I knew that the combination of this movie’s premise with Edgar Wright as the director would most likely result in an experience of profound joy. As someone who considers their first viewing of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive to be one of the closest things to a religious experience that they’ve ever had, I am already on-board with well-made movies about quirky getaway drivers that like listening to music while they work. But the level at which Wright integrates the music into this movie was something I was truly unprepared for.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World demonstrated Wright’s ability to handle musical moments with both songs and fight sequences, but what Baby Driver does isn’t just a rehash of that movie’s technique. The lead character, “Baby”, picks specific songs to drive/work/escape to during heists. And when those songs start, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING that’s happening in the movie is following the trajectory of the song. Every gunshot, every car movement, every background noise. In Baby Driver, the characters don’t burst into song, the world of the movie does. And it is done with just the right balance of cool and ridiculous, and so seamlessly that it never once becomes annoying or overwhelming.

Part of the reason this works so well is Ansel Elgort’s performance as “Baby”. Elgort’s many moments throughout the film where he joyfully sings and dances along to the music that he loves and needs so much instantly win you over from the very first scene. His sweet romance with Lily James’ character, Debora, is highlighted by him performing songs centered on her name in front of his deaf foster father, Joseph (played by CJ Jones), and their first date in a laundromat, where the camera swirls around them like a dance sequence. Their chemistry is charming, and easily sells a romance centered around two people that just want to escape their respective jobs.

All of the supporting turns from Spacey, Hamm, González, and Foxx are equally fun and menacing, providing further balance to Baby Driver‘s tone. These characters are both exactly what you expect and very surprising in certain scenes.

I have missed Edgar Wright so very much, and I am very happy that he is back with a movie as joyful, musical, and exciting as this.

A Surprisingly Fun But Frustrating Mess: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I used to be a big Harry Potter fan. I was gifted the first book by both my aunt and grandma when I was 6, and some of the few happy memories that I have of my family pre-divorce are of my dad reading the first three books to me. Together with the film adaptations being released every few years, I was in love with this universe. At least until 2007. After the books finished, my enthusiasm for the series waned. The story was over, and I found that I didn’t like David Yates’ entries in the film series.

So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced, I was completely apathetic to its existence. David Yates was back to direct a Harry Potter prequel that Warner Brothers wanted to become a series. OK, whatever. When the first trailer was in front of a number of movies I saw in theaters, I had the same reaction.

Even the reveal that Grindelwald and Dumbledore would eventually be characters in the series didn’t elicit any interest. As for Johnny Depp’s casting… I’ll get to that in a bit.

When I did go to see Fantastic Beasts, I had heard good things from a couple friends and early reviews. So I managed to have a little curiosity by the time the movie started.

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Getting Freaky: An Appreciation of Batman Returns

I rediscovered Batman Returns sometime in the last few months of 2014. This was around the same time I saw Bride of Frankenstein for the first time. And as with Bride, I went crazy for this movie. Out of the original four Batman movies from the 80s and 90s that I had watched as a kid, Returns was the one I had revisited the least. But I never forgot it.

Opening a movie with attempted filicide, following that with a killer circus troupe, and a woman being brought back to life by cats after being pushed out of a window will have that effect on a viewer. Regardless of your personal opinion of the movie, you can’t deny its audacity.

But the most memorable part to me, the part that I never forgot and never stopped loving even as I forgot other parts, was the following exchange that occurs first between Batman and Catwoman, and later Bruce and Selina:

“Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”

“But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

There are many many aspects of this movie that I love, but I think this exchange sums up Batman Returns the best. Strange, but beautiful.

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Captain America: Civil War, Surviving Los Angeles, and a Promise

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think it’s a miracle that a super-franchise like this exists and is not only respectful of its source material, but also consistently fun to watch. I’ve always been a sucker for serialized storylines, ever since I started watching Lost. While that show has ultimately ended up disappointing me (to the point where it took me six years to realize and accept that its finale was just not that good), the Marvel movies have become a constant event for me to look forward to every few months, similar to how I felt when LostDoctor Who, Gravity Falls, or Hannibal would air a new episode.

Captain America: Civil War represents everything I love about the MCU, good and bad. It’s a very rewarding and thoughtful blockbuster experience, but very dependent on previous entries in the franchise. If you’re not caught up with the MCU, there’s a chance you may be wondering who a lot of these characters are. It would be interesting to hear the opinion of someone who isn’t as familiar with the MCU, to see if the movie holds up well on its own.

Anyway, all of this is a prelude to the reason I’m writing this. I want to talk about why Civil War was one of the most important movie-going experiences of my life.

When I found out the Russo brothers were returning for the next Captain America movie, I was very happy. I had loved what they did with The Winter Soldier. When I found out the premise for Captain America 3 was going to be an adaptation of the Civil War storyline, I was excited. When Spider-Man was announced as a supporting character in the movie and future MCU entries, I was ecstatic. I had hated the last Spider-Man movie so this was a literal dream come true.

Most of these pieces of news and hype leading up to the movie occurred while I was living in Los Angeles.

I was worried about what it would be like to live in LA before I committed to going there for my last semester of college. I was worried the lack of real change in weather would drive me nuts. I was worried that the business that I thought I wanted to be a part of would drain me of my enthusiasm for movies. I was worried it would put a strain on my current relationship.

All of those things happened, and more. Having to drive everywhere in a city full of the absolute worst drivers I have ever seen took away my ability to enjoy a simple car ride. My internship turned out to be little more than unpaid office work that showed me how unpleasant people in the film business could be. One of my classes was centered around stories of unhappy people who lived in LA, and all the reasons not to live there. My other class involved writing for a show that further dealt with unhappy and depressed individuals.

On top of all this, I was sinking. I felt myself getting worse and lower and miserable, and I wasn’t able to deal with it. When the first season of Daredevil came out, I latched onto watching it whenever possible. I started watching Batman: The Brave and the Bold, devouring all 65 episodes in less than a month. I also saw many, many movies in LA theaters to further distract myself from how bad I was getting. (special mentions to Kingsman: The Secret Service, Magic Mike XXL, Creed, and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation for being my favorites out of what I saw)

But what I latched onto most of all, what I built up in my head as my light at the end of the tunnel, was Avengers: Age of Ultron. I had been waiting for this movie since I had seen Whedon’s first Avengers movie at the end of my freshman year of college. It was the only graduation gift that I cared about. I told myself that if I could make it to this movie, I would be ok.

I enjoyed the movie when I saw it, but it was a disappointment that took a while for me to deal with. Because, as you probably know, movies don’t magically fix all your problems. That and Age of Ultron is one of the more inconsistent entries in the MCU.

My problems got worse after that. I struggled to find consistent work to pay for the apartment that my girlfriend and I had just moved into. Eventually, a visit to the ER happened that traumatized us both, leading us both to leave LA. She left a couple months before I did, so there was this strange period of time where I was living alone in our apartment, working at a good, full-time job, and coming home and doing nothing but listen to David Bowie music (he had just passed away) before maybe eating something and going to sleep.

I started seeing a therapist, which helped, but I eventually moved our stuff out of the apartment with my friends’ help, and flew back to the east coast.

I moved back in with my dad and brother and got a part-time job at a bowling/arcade place. I saw my girlfriend when I could as we navigated through a death in her family, long distance, discomfort at our respective living places, and both of our mental health problems.

Throughout all of this, as we were slowly beginning our recovery from LA, I remembered that Captain America: Civil War was in my near future. It came out about a week after my birthday. I was reading very positive reactions to the movie before I saw it. I lost my shit when the Spider-Man costume was revealed.

And I felt myself becoming enthusiastic and hopeful about something again.

The movie didn’t disappoint me. It was everything I wanted it to be. I came out of that theater so happy. Especially after the dumpster fire that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I am still trying to navigate through my depression, so I’m not trying to say that this movie magically cured that. Because of course it didn’t.

The reason why Civil War will forever be an important movie to me is that it showed me that I still had the ability to feel happy again.

I rewatched it tonight for the first time in months and it reminded me of all the crap that I’ve gone through since LA (almost two years, holy shit), and how far I’ve come. I still have to figure out how to deal with my depression better, but I also need to allow myself more time to do something else that makes me happy, which is this: writing.

The last time I wrote something was my Star Trek Beyond review in July. And that’s partially because I haven’t seen a movie in a theater since then. But it’s also because I’ve become hyper-focused on things that have taken away time from doing this. I’m not great at it (there is a reason I call myself an amateur), but I love writing about movies.

So this is me making a promise. From now on, I am publishing a review once a week. Good or bad. But preferably good.

If you’ve read all of this or any of my other writing, thank you. I’m sorry if I’ve let you down, but I’m going to do my best to make up for it.

Starting with Doctor Strange next week 🙂

Thank you.