Re: Purpose: Is Summer 2013 a High Noon for the Superhero Movie?

Julian Chambliss
Splash Art: Wolverine (Marvel). Interior Art: Stills from Iron Man Three, Man of Steel. Promo posters for the Lone Ranger, the Wolverine.

Just as westerns in the 1950s addressed the role US geopolitical concerns during the Cold War, the superhero and pulp-hero movie seems to have slid comfortably into that same popcultural space.

The cinematic superhero has come to define the summer movie season. A genre that blurs boundaries, the characters offer something new (yet familiar) to an audience escaping terrorism, economic worries, and fractious politics. While decades of popculture exposure and technological advances explain some of the cinematic superhero’s success, these reasons do not explain the more profound impact for US viewers. Distilled from a uniquely US perspective, the cinematic superhero translates contemporary sociopolitical circumstances in a manner that uniquely reassures U.S. audiences. In doing so, the cinematic superhero picks up the mantle of the western.

In Cold Warriors: Manliness on Trial in the Rhetoric of the West, Suzanne Clark writes that, “American studies scholars who delineated the frontier, the wilderness, the pastoral garden, and the West as key elements of an American cultural mythology legitimated the condensation of soldier and cowboy…” Her critique, concerned with the failure to recognize a persuasive cultural production during the Cold War, resonates with contemporary concerns around modern popular culture. Cold War discourse in American popular culture has had a powerful and some would argue deterministic influence on public perception, shaping the understanding of public policy. Hegemonic and jingoistic, the Cold War popular culture landscape immersed US consumers in tropes of "Us versus Them" that served to facilitate militaristic and covert actions. So thoroughly engaged in the substantive construction of a communal narrative of peril, most Americans were either incapable or unwilling to see the broad contours of differing opinion that could surround Cold War politics.

At that moment, popular culture offered the western hero as a symbol for the time. Films such as High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) did much to codify the shift to militarism and suppress civic discourse necessary for state security. (This is a sentiment echoed in Stanley Corkin's Cowboys as Cold Warriors). In this charged atmosphere, concerns for safety opened the door to actions hasty or ill-conceived that pitted the US against ruthless adversaries. Almost unconsciously, the western simplified the complexities of postwar internationalism for the US audience. The inevitable confrontations between good and evil at the heart of the western seems trite to modern audiences. Yet, a quick survey of the contemporary cultural landscape reveals the cinematic superhero seems to have inherited the western’s mantle. Like the western, the cinematic superhero has a clear framework. The white hat (hero) fights the black hat (villain) to protect the community. After much adventure, the hero wins and the community is saved. The western’s popularity in the 1950s reflected this narrative in the midst of an emerging Cold War framework with the United States representing the hero and the Soviet Union representing the villain. The success of Watchmen (2009) and X-Men: First Class (2011) utilized this Cold War iconography to good effect. Moving beyond those films however, arguably, the superhero genre is effective in reflecting U.S. values in a vastly more complex world.

This framing works because it follows a pattern within the genre. Batman's 1966 film, inspired by the camp television show, provided audiences with a funhouse mirror to the 1960s psyche. On the surface an escapist farce, yet with a yearning for security at its core. Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) sought to reclaim Americana after a bruising decade of uncertainty. The periodic embrace of Superman and Batman on the big screen highlights the genre’s power. Both characters speak to enduring ideas. Superman, the positive immigrant narrative, appeals our hopes for community. Batman, the cautionary tale of urban life, reminds us of the dangers posed by a lack of that same community. Neither narrative is easily ignored, but the need to engage with those beliefs waxes and wanes with the national mood. Superman’s 75th anniversary reminds us the concerns that informed the Golden Age (c.1938-c.1950) comicbook hero looks and feels different to an American public facing new millennial concerns.

No surprise then that the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) sparked a renaissance for the superhero film. (While Blade did precede X-Men, the former remains rooted in as much horror and supernatural cinema as the superhero experience). The X-Men’s successful transition to film opened the door to plethora of Marvel characters on screen. Spider-Man (2002), Daredevil (2003), Hulk (2003) and the Fantastic Four (2005) all followed that success. The resulting sequels and spin-offs gave Marvel Comics the clout to created their own movie studio.

DC gave birth to the superhero, but Marvel seems to be doing a better job advancing it in this era of cinematic adaptation. Of course the auteurs given control of the properties shape the outcome a great deal. Tim Burton's Batman films are as different from than Joel Schumacher’s technicolor spectacles as Christopher Nolan's somber dynamic trilogy. Beyond this fact however, the societal narrative infused within the DC fictive universe differs from Marvel’s narrative. This fact informs the vision created around the characters. In essence, the Silver Age (c.1955s - c.1970) of superhero comicbooks, which was marked by both the evolution of established iconic superheroes and the emergence of conscious engagement with the cultural complexity of 1960s social liberalism, challenged readers to reconcile heroic expectations with broader social justice concerns. Marvel Comics, guided by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, represented this change with heroes that incorporated the challenging politics of that era with the heroic adventure intrinsic to the genre.

Marvel heroes are ideally suited for post 9/11 uncertainties because those characters have always existed in a narrative universe both celebratory and judgmental. The contemporary moment seems to be offering the cinematic superhero film as a means to channel communal desire to overcome contemporary uncertainty in much the same way as the western in the 1950s. Uniquely American in their construction, but recognizable around the world, the superhero film seems to be acting as a millennial guidepost reflecting and refracting internal concerns about a rapidly changing global experience. In this way, the cinematic superhero is serving the same role as the 1930s superhero in print. The heroic tales are far more complex, but the framework continues a pattern of affirmation familiar to the domestic audience. More importantly, these narratives do not generate the same dissension with international audiences since the superhero vs. supervillain clash is fanciful and because of the universality of the heroic message. The summer’s crop of superhero films takes on new meaning in this light.

A Hero’s Quest

By now you know that the plot for Robert Downey Jr.’s third outing as Tony Stark in Iron Man Three features his “brash-but-brilliant” hero against the Mandarin. A jingoistic villain inspired by Cold War uncertainty linked to Asia in the 1960s, the creators have easily re-structured the character as a referent to Osama Bin Laden. Playing on our contemporary anxiety, this enemy, “whose reach knows no bounds” will attack the US with a new weapon. Tony Stark must embark “on a harrowing quest” to punish the bad guys. In this third film Iron Man’s journey becomes a proxy for the US experience over the last decade. With his values and beliefs under pressure, will Tony find the strength to fight his way back? The answer, obviously is yes. This has been the answer for more than 50 years, but the benefit for the audience is the fantastic adventures take the emotional uncertainty of the age of terror and uses it to fuel a giant action adventure. Challenged in every way, Tony Stark must rely on his core beliefs to overcome his enemy. The challenge is as much ideological as physical. Not unlike action films of the 1980s (Rocky and Rambo series in particular), the journey become redemptive for the audience as much as the hero.

The challenge to find meaning is also at the core of Man of Steel. After the lackluster performance of Superman Returns (2006), hopes for another cinematic outing for Superman were low. Yet, this summer we will see the first superhero on the big screen directed by Zack Snyder (and produced by Christopher Nolan). Man of Steel brings us an introspective story. Drawing on the streamlined and modernized origin by Mark Waid and Leinil Yu in Superman: Birthright (2005), the promo material promises a young man on a journey to discover who he is and what he is meant to do. From the beginning, the creators have promised Man of Steel will be action packed. At the same time, they have also provided subtle hints that Clark must choose to be Superman. Caught between an unknown past and an undefined future, Man of Steel return to the immigrant allegory at the core of Superman mythology. The words of both his fathers in the teaser trailers highlight the point:

"You’re not just anyone. One day, you’re gonna have to make a choice. You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, is gonna change the world." -Jonathan Kent

"You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders." -Jor-El

These early trailers where followed by a longer version that offered a different vision of Jonathan Kent. While we have always seen Clark’s parents as positive forces helping him to become Superman, Jonathan Kent in the Man of Steel is afraid of what will happen to his son. This film will be a journey for Clark to overcome his father’s fear and his own doubt. While some have argued that this is a rejection of the Superman we know, I disagree. Instead, the effort is to make Superman’s eventually heroism more engaging by giving him a period of soul searching beyond the traditional adolescent angst. Thus, his experience now mirrors this generation’s concern about the future. Clark must take a chance and embrace the dream of something better in the face of an ambiguous world. Snyder has pushed back against early buzz that Man of Steel was “somber” by pointing out Superman is about hope, and in the end, he must be optimistic. Whatever the trials he faces, the journey will lead Clark to be the Superman we know. This is the superhero’s strength and greatest weakness. For all the history attached to superheroes, the contemporary audience may struggle to identify the paragons of virtue. Luckily, the genre has complex roots that can reach viewers turned off by adventure too tinged with the fantastic.

Search For Order

The idea behind the superhero movie, and indeed the western, is so simplistic it is easy to miss--good people battle bad people to make the community safer. The irony in modern society is that such a clear moral directive is easier to believe when attached to super-powered beings. In our hearts however, the concern that society has become too corrupt and that lawful citizens have no place in it resonates. Thus, the return of the Lone Ranger this summer makes perfect sense.

Created in 1933 by Fran Striker as a radio show for WXYZ in Detroit, the Lone Ranger has been a staple of the American popular culture for 80 years. The new film starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer promises a simple, but satisfying cinematic experience. From the promos and trailers, the basic outline of the classic story is in focus: an ambush, a lone survivor, a Native American companion, and quest for justice. These elements have been adapted to every medium and adjusted for each generation since the character’s debut. While some might think that the Lone Ranger was a risk after the lackluster performance of the Green Hornet (2011), the reality is much different. Reclaiming the western locale and cowboy hero, the Lone Ranger is likely to find an eager audience.

There is little in the way of uncertainty about cowboy adventures in the film’s promotion. Instead, we see an embrace of the western form. Bad men are up to no good and the Lone Ranger and Tonto are going to set things right. The fact that the bad men seem to be in positions of authority, thus forcing an honest law man to wear a mask, plays all too well in a country where powerful men have seemingly escaped justice for allegedly illegal acts in recent years. The return of the cowboy, or more precisely the gunfighter cowboy, represents a powerful moral symbolism. As Richard Maxwell Brown explained in his book No Duty to Retreat, gunfighters, “were violent protagonists in the great social, economic, and cultural conflicts that rocked the West in late nineteenth century.”

Brown’s analysis makes a distinction between community oriented or grassroots gunfighters and political or glorious gunfighter. It is the glorious gunfighter that shapes western folklore and live so vividly in the U.S. experience. Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid represent this type of hero (or villain). Skillful and deadly, these figures were drawn into conflict with political, economic, and social import. They acted as key players in an unfolding drama. The cowboy as moral warrior seeking to stabilize the community remains a powerful trope. Placing a lone warrior at the center of a conflict with wider societal implication emphasizes the importance of individual agency and belief. Not surprisingly, those issues are at the heart of Hugh Jackman’s latest outing as Wolverine.

Glorious Warrior

The Wolverine, based on Wolverine, the iconic 1980s mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, takes arguably the most popular Marvel mutant to Japan for this iconic story. After a less than appealing outing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) Jackman has teamed with director James Mangold for an adventure that brings together western and samurai cinema. Like the western, Japan’s samurai films mythologize the country’s past. But also like the western, samurai films offer a seemly simplistic action oriented narrative that can easily transform into complex tales of loyalty, tradition, romance, and social commentary.

Jackman’s already-publicized excitement about this film is matched by legion of diehard fans. Everyone recognizes this story possesses elements that showcase why Wolverine is such a fascinating character. It doesn't hurt that the story has ninjas, sword fights, and femme fatales. Moving beyond those elements, Wolverine must come to terms with the beast within. Violent, driven, and ultimately noble, the Wolverine is a redemptive journey informed by the imagery of two frontier narratives.

Who we are and what we believe (as US citizens) rests at the core of the superhero narrative in print and that tradition continues in this new cinematic explosion. Given that these narratives go beyond the realm of reality, the technological capabilities of modern filmmaking took time fully realize these stories. Now, when done effectively, these adventures continue a supportive dialogue about the US experience both engrossing and empowering. Just as westerns offered framework for Cold War anxiety, the cinematic superhero offers an affirmative narrative in an age of terror. More flexible in form, the cinematic superhero may persist in a way the western could not by using fictive narratives constructed over decades. If so, the impact of superhero escapism make take on new meaning in the years to come.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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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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59. Everything Everything - A Fever Dream (RCA)

Everything Everything is a band of impossible ambition, apparent from even the name. Merely everything is not enough for this prog-pop quartet and frankly, the world may not be ready to oblige. "I want this planet, and I want it now / to beat like an anvil 'til the poison's out" begins "Desire", one of the album's early gut-punches. If these were times of hope and prosperity, maybe egos this size would be celebrated. But we've made that mistake before. Hovering in our minds is the expectation that we must repent for generations of excess with modesty, conservation, quiet introspection. A Fever Dream embodies none of this. It reeks of English imperialism and mulish masculinity. It's bombastic beyond belief, and it's exactly what we need.

Everything Everything's fourth record is its most personal and urgent yet. The lyrics seem to be a document for primary songwriter Jonathan Higgs' psychological condition, and it's a troubling one, to say the least. He wears his insecurities like armor, and his pride gleams like Excalibur. Enshrouding his big plans for this world gone mad are doubt and defeatism and a predisposition for hedonism. It's the battle of Jonathan vs. the world, but also of the world vs. the world, and of Jonathan vs. Jonathan. For us sons and daughters of the microprocessor, a mere trip to the grocer's forces us to contend with the unruly exponential growth of this absurdist empire—our neighborhoods and international networks, ids and egos are in constant need of rewiring

That concluding track of A Fever Dream rides out with the mantra: "Never tell me that we can't go further." The title of this track is "White Whale"—that impossible desire perpetually just out of reach. Whether for peace on earth or a little peace of mind, the struggle to satisfy it can lead only to insanity or death. But Everything Everything would never strive for anything less. - A. Noah Harrison

58. Do Make Say Think – Stubborn Persistent Illusions (Constellation)

Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone and other times you don't realize it until it returns. Following an eight-year hiatus since Other Truths, Do Make Say Think's previous album, Stubborn Persistent Illusions is the boldest, most arresting progression of songs that the Toronto unit have crafted since Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn in 2003. Among the swells and cries of their heavier-hearted Constellation label mates such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and the Silver Mt. Zion permutations, Do Make Say Think always set themselves apart by keeping spry and limber. The band was, and remains, a kind of compact jazz orchestra in rock band's clothing. Not a moment is wasted even in the record's tranquil stretches. This is fitting for an album whose concept comes from something as deep yet fleeting as an "image in a Buddhist poem about working with a wild mind." - Ian King

57. The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti-)

Thirty years on from their last studio album, 1988's Ghost Stories, Steve Wynn has reconvened the Dream Syndicate to release what is arguably the band's best record ever. Yes, Days of Wine & Roses will always remain a touchstone for longtime fans, its surprises still fresh after decades, but How Did I Find Myself Here? distills every lesson Wynn had learned over a long and adventurous career into a coherent eight-song set that finds his band confident and playful in equal measure, amped up and in sync. Here, Wynn is joined by longtime drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton and, as he has since the Dream Syndicate's 2012 reformation as a touring unit, Jason Victor (Wynn's longtime partner in Miracle 3) has replaced Paul Cutler on guitar. Further, Kendra Smith's surprising and welcome return on album closer "Kendra's Dream" evaporates time to connect past and future in a perfect psychedelic drift. It all adds up to a triumphant and fitting capstone for the legendary band.

56. Lee Ann Womack - The Lonely, the Lonesome, & the Gone (ATO)

Lee Ann Womack recorded The Lonely, the Lonesome & the Gone in Houston, not far from the small town where she grew up. The album is rich with a mythical Texas in the best possible ways. Womack sings with a twang and gets sentimentally soppy or wickedly mean as the songs suggest. She goes to the extremes one would expect of a Lone Star musician. It may not be the biggest state geographically, but Texans have always done things bigger. Like her fellow state-mate George Jones, whose gospel "Take the Devil Out of Me" she covers, she's pure country, meaning she probably won't be played on country radio these days. Womack wrote half of the songs here, and redoes classic material associated with Patsy Cline, Lefty Frizzell, and Johnny Cash. She covers them with a style that shows her respect for past masters and still manages to make their songs her own. - Steve Horowitz

55. Charly Bliss - Guppy (Barsuk)

On the first track of Charly Bliss' debut album Guppy, the pop-rock band, led by potent vocalist Eva Hendricks, makes a bold declaration of self. On "Percolator", Hendricks defines her artistic self and if that definition includes some uncertainty and some conflict, so much the better as Hendricks's confidence bursts forth in accepting all those elements. The rest of the album, a joyous bash of guitars and energy, pounds through related but non-repetitive territory. Hendricks takes on relationships, abuse, and harassment (and more), vocalizing complex feelings and ideas that need to be heard. She shifts quickly from anger to humor to questioning without breaking stride. The band and its sound of eating candy in the garage delivers catchy melodies and bright sounds that matches the sense of seeking and realization throughout the album. Guppy looks for sense in a demanding world while retaining a strong center, keeping a strong self-assurance in the face of various challenges. - Justin Cober-Lake

54. Tyler, the Creator - Flower Boy (Columbia)

After baiting the media with controversial, derogatory statements for years, the fact that Flower Boy was hyped as the album where Tyler, the Creator came out of the closet was, for some, reason enough to dig into it, to give him a second chance, to reassess his past statements or, you know, dismiss him all over again. Yet despite lines about "kissing white boys since 2004", the crux of Flower Boy isn't Tyler revealing his sexuality so much as he's revealing his loneliness. This is a profoundly sad album, where the immaculate production hits all of your brain's pleasure centers at once while distracting you from how isolated he feels. Happiness is always elusive, which is why he pulls out every trick he can to prevent us from seeing the real human beneath, from stacking the tracks with guest spots to releasing the worst song as the lead single. Yet the more time you spend with it, the more you wan to keep coming back to the emotional world he's constructed for himself. You'll share in his loneliness, too. - Evan Sawdey

53. Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life (Interscope)

The image of physically scaling the Hollywood sign's "H" encapsulates Lana Del Rey's ethos in that celebrity is not some abstract pinnacle one reaches but one that needs to be experienced in person. Chasing the rush of fame drove the impeccable Born to Die and, five years later, the feeling of having achieved it is evoked by the smoldering warmth of Lust for Life. Still, the disarray of the world broke through even to pop's foremost escapist, but she addresses it and her well-earned status with cryptic optimism; "Is it the end of an era? / … / No, it's only the beginning." What Lust for Life teaches is that one can – and, possibly, should – stay as vigilant towards the affairs that affect us all while also indulging in the selfish, beautiful act of seeking love. - Brian Duricy

52. Paramore - After Laughter (Fueled by Ramen)

Many bands know what a Herculean undertaking reinventing their sound is. This year, nobody did it better than former pop-punkers Paramore. Four years since their last release, Hayley Williams and co. released After Laughter, which fuses sleek elements of '80s new wave, funk, and synthpop while keeping their emotional foundations intact. The most important ingredient to Paramore's success is the return of founding member Zac Farro, whose musical direction in side project HalfNoise point to the influence he had on crafting the new Paramore. Although ten years removed from their breakout, Riot!, they're still "in the business of misery" with songs like "Fake Happy" and hit single "Hard Times". But if the misery business means more of these grooving bass lines and tropical marimbas and guitar riffs, sign me up. - Chris Thiessen

51. (Sandy) Alex G - Rocket (Domino)

Alex Giannascoli refines his paradoxical impulses on Rocket. On his eighth full-length overall, and second for Domino, he crafts a beautifully strange brew of haunting folk with a narrative that's oddly indistinct. He's learned to work within the constraints of an album, a format that he treated with some flippancy during his Bandcamp years, though he still finds any excuse to circumvent the format as he draws upon a patchwork of ideas. Giannascoli finds his muse in longtime collaborator, and partner, Molly Germer, an accomplished violinist who adds whim and character to his otherwise sparse arrangements. From yearning country ballad "Bobby" -- their voices entwined and harmonized to their lush, string-led compositions -- to the gliding melancholy of "Powerful Man", they provide a touching ode to traditional folk that comes across as some alien take on a Smithsonian Folkways recording. And yet Rocket is so much more, taking on a surfeit of modern and antiquated music styles set against a backdrop of bucolic terrain. But even at its most eccentric, Giannascoli has accomplished a winsome collection of handcrafted songs that leave a lasting impression. - Juan Edgardo Rodriguez

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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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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