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Film

Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

After spending the better part of the '60s on The Andy Griffith Show – and winning five Emmys for his sensational supporting work as the bumbling deputy Barney Fife, Don Knotts was lured by Universal into an exclusive feature film contract. His first effort for the studio was this lightweight horror comedy centering on nervous typesetter named Luther Heggs and a local legend about the ghosts that haunt the sinister Simmon's house. Tailored to his specific talents, it was a project perfectly suited for Knotts. After all, no one at the time did physical anxiety the way this mannerism master did. He could make an audience antsy just by saying 'Hello'. Here, Heggs was even jumpier than Mayberry's less than finest. With a script created specifically by Griffith scribes James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, and solid direction from small screen journeyman Alan Rafkin (responsible for episodes of everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Bewitched) what started out as a standard star vehicle quickly became a family film classic.

At first glance, this all does look like your typical Knotts material – fidgety town joke with a vivid imagination and a reputation for abusing same, gorgeous gal who won't give our hero the time of day, overbearing bully who finds Luther offensive as a co-worker and a human being, and an ordinary cinematic mystery involving a haunting, an unsolved crime from the past, and the requisite red herrings strewn throughout the sensational supporting cast. While most fans focus on the sensational – and somewhat scary – haunted house set pieces (the blood-riddled pipe organ, the secret stairwell, the portrait with a pair of gardening sheers jammed in its throat) it's actually the heart that confirms The Ghost and Mr. Chicken's consideration as a masterwork. Knotts is such a well meaning mensch, the kind of instantly likeable sad sack that we hope will eventually succeed, that we can't help but empathize with his plight. The fetching Alma seems to care for our coward, but with the dishonorable Ollie around to interfere with their budding attraction, we wind up with a sensational subplot of love unrequited to go along with all the macabre-based merriment.

As witty as it is wise, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken boasts another element that many post-modern movies can't even begin to find, and that's a combination of slapstick and character-based comedy. Most current films try to milk laughs out of ludicrous situations, standard gross out gags and superficial sexual innuendo. But every member of the town is terrifically realized, from the spooky Mr. Kelsey to the Mayor's paranormally obsessed wife Halcyon. With dialogue strewn with wonderfully memorable lines ("And they used Bon Ami"…"Let me clarify this"…"Attaboy Luther!") and a wrap up that makes us appreciate just how much we care for these characters, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is a landmark of lovingly crafted cleverness. One should ignore the dismissive tone of the 'too cool for school' generation and embrace this movie for the gentle gem it is. Luther may be a variation on the village idiot, but in the end, it's his courage and conviction that matter. It's an important message that bolsters what is a mini-masterpiece of a movie.

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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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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Music

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.

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It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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