Film

Where It All Began: 'Frankenweenie'

Though the subject matter and style may be a bit too frightening for some kids, the overall result is a clever, cheeky homage.


Frankenweenie

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Charlie Tahan, Frank Welker, Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Robert Capron, Atticus Shaffer
Rated: PG
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-10-05 (General release)
UK date: 2012-10-05 (General release)
Trailer

It more than likely started when Winona Ryder walked onscreen during the opening act of Beetlejuice. Decked out like a dead bride and wearing a "woe is me" attitude in both wardrobe and wit, Goth introduced itself to mainstream moviegoers...and Tim Burton was soon crowned its creative king. Granted, there were other examples of doom and gloom teens dressed like Alice Cooper's unofficial offspring circling around the cinema, but for the most part, the man behind Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, and the first Batman reboot, gave the darker side of life an amicable comic spin. Fast forward a few years and there are many who believe the once celebrated filmmaker has overstayed his brazenly baroque welcome.

So how odd is it that Disney, the company that canned Burton after they felt he wasted their money on a live action short entitled Frankenweenie, is back banking the House of Mouse's money on the director and his weird, wonderful stop motion animation take on same. In a circumstance that only big box office can support (read: the massive international success of Alice in Wonderland), Burton has returned to former form, so to speak, reinvesting his tale of a boy and his undead dog with a splash that recalls the best of the animated artform (Rankin-Bass, friend and frequent collaborator Henry Selick) with obvious references to the horror films and icons that inspired him in the first place. Though the subject matter and style may be a bit too frightening for some kids, the overall result is a clever, cheeky homage.

Little Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) loves science. So do the other oddball students at New Holland Elementary School. While his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara) wish he would do something other than obsess on genre movies, work on inventions, and play with his dog Sparky, they love their special son. One day, during a baseball game, the family pet runs out into the street and is hit by a car. Devastated, Victor vows to bring him back to life. With the help of inspiration from eccentric teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) and the upcoming science fair, he taps into the area's ever-present lightning and does just that. Naturally, his classmates want to understand just how he did it, and will stop at nothing to find the secret. When they do, they wind up creating their own collection of homemade monstrosities, leading the town to take up torches and pitchforks.

For the first few minutes of Frankenweenie, we are convinced that Burton's continuing path toward career irrelevance is continuing unabashed. Even when Landau's Vincent Price-inspired instructor character shows up, his mouth filled with hundreds of misaligned teeth, we sense a desperate director struggling, not a pure visionary at the top of his game. Even as the Universal horror oriented laboratory set-piece kicks in, we can't get the Burton basics out of our head. They include the Weird Girl with a skeletal face and a delightfully deadpan feline companion, the Igor like chum/challenger to young Victor, and other members of our lead's surreal peer group. Even when nasty neighbor Mayor Bergermeister shows up to shout down everyone, the link to something like Santa Claus is Coming to Town feels forced.

But then Frankenweenie finds its own voice, and the remaining running time is like a far more polished and mainstream take on ParaNorman. While that criminally overlooked effort failed to connect with the kiddies, Burton almost guarantees a new underage cult. He champions the intelligent and the odd. He doesn't talk over or down to the audience (like the horrible hit Hotel Transylvania does). It knows its origins and exploits them well and there is never a moment when we think the director will pull his punches and paste on an unnecessary happy ending (though the short and its full length cousin conclude in a similar manner). Instead, the film just finds its footing, and continues to pile on the smiles long after the credits have rolled.

For many over the intended demographical age limit, Frankenweenie will be full of nutty nostalgia. It offers nods to almost all the horror tropes both internal and external to the genre. We have hints of Hammer, AIP, EC Comics, and the '80s revival via direct-to-video. The characters are composites of standard macabre archetypes while the narrative arc follows the Mary Shelley inspired cinematic namesake to a fault. All of this will fly over the heads of the pre-teen audience while keeping the often disgruntled parents in attendance alert and laughing. Burton clearly loves to make movies forged from the past. He's the Quentin Tarantino of terror.

It's also his aesthetic Achilles Heel. Instead of expanding his frame of reference and working outside his comfort zone, Burton has become that most criticized of cinematic visionaries - the brand. Like such hallowed names as Hitchcock and Spielberg, you can almost predict what this filmmaker will feature once the lights go down. In essence, they all become borderline cliches, creating a cultural consciousness that they rarely shake. In the case of Frankenweenie, Burton is doubly pigeonholed. Not only is he tackling subject matter he's (and we are) more than familiar with, he's doing so via remaking himself...and even then, the approach is the only thing that's really different. Frankenweenie's artistic ambition is amazing. The story is stuck in the same Burton benchmarks.

Still when you consider how far we've come in just a couple of decades (Disney's past decision was also based on how "horrific" they thought the subject matter was), the telling triumvirate of ParaNorman, Hotel Transylvania, and Frankenweenie make it very clear that fear is the new black. No, this movie won't spawn suggestive nightmares on behalf of your underlings. It will merely underscore the continuing influence of Goth givens in our everyday life. At one time, being weird, dark, and brooding was a social stigma. As this fun film shows, it's now every child's cheeky ambition.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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