Reviews

'The Sentinel': Of Pre-Internet Feline Birthday Parties and Masturbating Specters

In 1977 film critics couldn't write, "LOL, wut?" and pass it off as a legitimate review. (Because no Internet!) And we can't, either -- but that doesn't mean we won't try.


The Sentinel

Director: Michael Winner
Cast: Christopher Walken, Chris Sarandon, Jerry Orbach, Ava Gardner, Cristina Raines
Distributor: Scream Factory
Rated: R
US Release date: 2015-09-22

So, if you just read about this 1977 horror flick, The Sentinel (not to be confused with the Michael Douglas film of the same name that came out about a decade back, or your dad’s favorite newspaper), the one where a young model/actress moves into a spooky building in New York only to discover that said building is, quite naturally, a gateway to Hell (Well, OK! That’s not disclosed in the lease; it takes her a minute to figure that out!) you might think, “Hey, that sounds like Rosemary’s Baby!” and you might not be entirely wrong. Of course being derivative isn’t all that big a deal in the horror genre—heck, this is an industry built upon being derivative, although at rare times, originality is sometimes prized.

The '70s had its share of good horror flicks, including Amityville Horror, The Omen, Carrie and the like. In some ways this flick has elements of all the things that were supposed to make flicks from that era scary: Wafts of Satanism, hints of lapsed Catholicism, a dash of gosh-it-could-be-true, and a dose of glamor (make the main character important —like an actress or model/actress or politician or politician/lawyer). The Sentinel has all that, although it lacks the presence of an eerie child, substituting that instead for an apparently malevolent cat. (Hey! It was pre-Internet!)

The cast here is first-rate (although maybe no one realized how first-rate at the time): John Carradine, Jeff Goldblum, Ava Gardner, Beverly D’Angelo, Burgess Meredith, Christopher Walken, Jerry Orbach, and, yes, Tom Berenger. But not even actors this accomplished could save something so deranged from flying off the ever-loving rails in what amounts to a film that seems to have been pre-edited for television and maybe pre-edited for maximum stupidity.

Our model/actress, Alison Parker (the now-retired Cristina Raines) moves into the aforementioned apartment building and before long weird stuff starts happening. Alison’s a little off balance (she takes “little white pills”) to help keep her calm and so we have to wonder if she’s really seeing the stuff that’s going down or losing her mind. Problem is, she’s living in a mostly empty building but claims that she’s been invited to parties (The aforementioned cat’s birthday party in fact! Pre-Internet!), had to fend off unwanted attention from a creepy neighbor, and all that jazz.

Alison’s boyfriend, Michael (Chris Sarandon), is about as un-squeaky clean as you imagine him to be from the first scene, though it’s hard to get a fix on him or really much of anything here (except that Alison is awfully comfortable wandering, half-dressed, through a creepy building in the middle of the night; so comfortable that she can’t be bothered to fix the strap on her slip!) and that the film doesn’t make much sense. We’re not talking that there are holes in the plot (though, one supposes that there are), or that there are questions of believability (though one guesses that there are—even with belief suspended like the Golden Gate Bridge). Scenes come and go without any real regard to a coherent plot and you begin to wonder if you aren’t watching the edited for TV version or perhaps one edited by a group of primary school students let loose on the reels. It’s so clumsy and haphazard at times that it borders on being avant garde!

Characters act—or react—without rhyme or reason and we jump from scene to scene with the kind of freeform association unique to an acid trip. It would be mildly entertaining if you saw this on late night TV but to have to dedicate time to sit and watch the thing as though it were created as a real cinematic venture? Forgetaboutit.

Sure, the acting’s good in places. No one is as creepy as Sarandon when he’s on and Walken is always money and always Walken. No one can pull off a masturbation sequence quite like Beverly D’Angelo! (Pre-internet!) But, really, the longer this things rolls on the more that Roger Corman films—and we’re talking the worst of those, here—begin to seem like high art.

The best horror films should raise questions about morality, about ethics, about the culture. They’re about the intrusion of the past upon the present, about bad deeds gone unpunished, about karma, about revenge, about family, about the world and whatever level of hell it’s currently in; the best horror films raise as many questions as they provide screams; the best horror movies have plots that slice like a chef’s well-sharpened knife.

But not this one. Oh, no. It’s just bad. And dumb.

This current edition comes with audio commentary with writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz, audio commentary with Raines, with writer/producer/director Michael Winner and an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton. Naturally, we also get the theatrical trailer and still galleries. But the real bonus would be if someone would turn to the camera in the middle of this turkey and say, “J/K! LOL!” (Pre-Internet!)

No such luck.

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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.

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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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