Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 in Review - Some of our Favorites

Happy New Year from all of us at bare•bones! 2019 was particularly exciting for us in that we finally saw the release of The Best of The Scream Factory from Cemetery Dance, which we then followed up with the surprise publication of bare•bones —the best of (order your copy today on Amazon!) and the announcement of the return to print publishing with an all-new bare•bones starting in 2020! No need to worry—the bare•bones e-zine isn't going anywhere. You'll just be seeing new content in print periodically in addition to the regular pieces you've come to know and love on the blog!

Of course these new projects have been keeping us busier than normal, and we apologize in advance for the lighter year-end wrap up than usual. But we wanted to at least share some lists of our favorite things rather than nothing at all. And you're in luck—Gilbert has managed to put the rest of us to shame by providing a very detailed review of some of his favorites of the year. Plenty of good stuff to check out. And as always, please add your comments letting us know anything that we may have missed... or where our lists are right or completely wrong!

Peter's Picks

  1. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
  2. Joker
  3. Marriage Story
  4. Knives Out
  5. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  6. Rocketman
  7. Downton Abbey
  8. Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
  9. Yesterday
  10. The Irishman
  1. Money Heist
  2. Manhunter
  3. Bodyguard
  4. Line of Duty
  5. Killing Eve
  6. Game of Thrones
  7. Watchmen
  8. Animal Kingdom
  9. Homeland
  10. Unbelievable

John's Picks


Apollo 11
I was lucky to catch this during its all-too-brief theatrical engagement in the IMAX format. It reminded me of the original IMAX films I saw as a kid—documentary footage on an epic scale. What made it all the more amazing was that it was long-forgotten large format footage shot decades ago in the time leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. What a fantastic way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that grand achievement. While it's still worth your time to see it at home, I highly recommend watching it on the largest screen possible. It can't match the theatrical experience, but the majesty of seeing a Saturn V rocket making the slow trek to the launchpad on NASAs crawler transporter is more amazing than most sci-fi CGI extravagances you might see.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
As much as I have enjoyed Quentin Tarantino's films, I must admit that the first trailer for Hollywood left me wanting. I certainly couldn't have guessed that it would surpass Jackie Brown as my favorite of his films on a single viewing. While I still regard the late Robert Forster's performance in Jackie Brown as the best in any Tarantino film, everything else about Hollywood blew me away. There was so much to explore and enjoy, I found myself returning again and again to see it again. I think Brad Pitt steals the show, giving the finest performance of his career, in a film filled with amazing performance. I feel sorry for those fans who mistakenly believed that Quentin Tarantino was going to deliver a Manson family bloodbath, and can't appreciate what a spectacular achievement the film is. In my opinion, despite an intensely violent (if cathartic) final act, it's Tarantino's most accessible film. And perhaps the greatest gift the film gives viewers is a memory of Sharon Tate as something other than a tabloid headline.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
A lot of Star Wars fans learned a lesson in 1999 about managing expectations. But just as many did not. They long for each new film in the 42 year-old saga to bring them back to that moment of their youth when Star Wars changed everything. I still love the original trilogy that I grew up with, and appreciate the prequels and sequels for the things they get right. For me, The Last Jedi was the first film since Return of the Jedi that I walked out of after the first viewing with an undeniably positive reaction. I wasn't completely surprised to find that many fans hated the film for the exact reasons I liked it... because it defied conventions and breathed new life into the franchise that was reborn with the entertaining and yet all-too-familiar The Force Awakens. Two things they got right were the hiring of Daisy Ridley, who does an amazing job across the three films, and Adam Driver, who I'll be the first to admit was my biggest concern going into the sequel trilogy. Of course, based on the rift the last film caused, and the return of JJ Abrams as director, it should come as no surprise that The Rise of Skywalker manages to 'right' many of the perceived wrongs of The Last Jedi in the mind of the disenfranchised. Fortunately, I found the roller-coaster ride of a film to be a satisfying one, and while it's not a film without flaws, it's the most entertaining and emotionally weighted of the sequel trilogy. It brought the series back to its cliffhanger serial roots, and whether you love it or hate it might depend on how willing you are to accept some of the tropes of those period inspirations.

This film could have easily been a disaster, but the combination of the cast (including the lovely Lily James of Baby Driver fame) and the fine renditions of so many Beatles classics by Himesh Patel adds this to the list of enjoyable British romantic comedies (no surprise that it was written by Richard Curtis, who has made a name for himself with such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love, Actually and About Time). But what truly elevates this film to this list was a startling revelation late in the film, one that hits the audience as strongly as it does the main character. In some ways, this film paved the way for the emotional payoff in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.


Godzilla Criterion Set
Criterion delivered an early Christmas present this year in the form of a collection of the 15 Showa-era (1954-1975) Godzilla films on Blu Ray. Currently available on Amazon at a price that's less than $10 a title, this is a G-Fan's dream. Longtime readers of TSF may recall my marathon viewing article in issue #8, which was completed at a time when VHS was pretty much the only game in town for these titles - and the original aspect ratio wasn't even a consideration. Though I've since advanced through LaserDiscs, DVDs and some early Blu Rays for a handful of these titles, I'm looking forward to sitting down for another marathon viewing, for the first time as they were all truly meant to be seen!

The Stand
I first read Stephen King's The Stand when I discovered the mass market paperback noting that it was soon to be a major motion picture from George A. Romero. While I was long disappointed that it never came to pass, I was excited when it was announced that Mick Garris would be producing a 4-part mini-series adapted by King himself. Featuring a solid cast and a pitch-perfect leading performance by Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, I was amazed Garris was able to pull off a fine and faithful adaptation of the book. Considering the TV movie was shot on 16mm film, with visual effects rendered in standard definition, the odds of seeing a Blu Ray release seemed to be slim at best, and even if possible, most likely an up-conversion of the SD content. So imagine my surprise when over the summer a remastered Blu Ray release was announced, scanned from the original film elements with newly enhanced visual effects. So it's not hyperbole to say that the mini-series has never looked this good before. If you've never seen it, now is the perfect time, before the 10-episode Josh Boone mini-series lands later this year...

Twin Peaks
: Z to A Box Set
I consider Twin Peaks to be the greatest TV series of all time, and the film Fire Walk With Me is also in my top 10 films, so it's no surprise that I would double, triple, quadruple-dip (and more) this series. Released last month as a limited edition box set containing the original two seasons, the film (and feature-length collection of outtakes from the film), the Showtime Limited Event series and a smattering of new bonus features (including 4k versions of the pilot episode and episode 8 of the Showtime series), it was a must-have for this Twin Peaks fanatic. While I am completely satisfied with what we have been gifted by David Lynch and Mark Frost (as I was after the original series went off the air, and also after the release of the film), I would welcome any continuation of this story from the creators if they ever choose to do so. 

Ultraman, Ultra Seven and Ultra Q
As if it weren't enough to have gotten an ultimate Godzilla Blu Ray set in 2019, Mill Creek has delivered not one, not two, but three(!) original Ultra-series on Blu Ray, with more to come. And for anyone who has ever priced out the untranslated Japanese Blu Rays would set them back, the notion of picking up entire series for a fraction of that price is extremely appealing! While I expect the original Ultraman series will be familiar to most viewers, we also got Ultra Seven and the extremely cool black and white series that preceded Ultraman - Ultra Q. While you won't find your silver-suited hero in that, you will find it chock full of cool kaiju! It's a series that I acquired on Japanese DVD, not expecting it would ever be released on DVD in the US (much to my surprise it was in 2013!), let alone a Blu Ray release. For about the same price of a single A-list feature release on Blu Ray, you can get an entire series of these shows. If you're already an Ultra-fan, you won't need my convincing, but if you're on the edge, I'd recommend the original series for men-in-suit combat, and Ultra-Q if you're less interested in the hero side of things, but intrigued by the thought of a few dozen mini Giant Monster movies!


Deadwood: The Movie
While I enjoyed Game of Thrones, some of the missteps of the final season (and not the Targaryen twist that upset so many) have kept it off this list. But the other reason I held on to my HBO subscription paid off, and it paid off in spades. I had long given up on the thought of getting closure on Deadwood, so it was quite a surprise when the movie finally went into production and was scheduled for release. While I went in with low expectations, they were wildly exceeded. David Milch was able to create a story using our favorite characters that addressed the fact that time had passed since our last visit to Deadwood, and yet managed to resolve storylines and give characters fitting send-offs.


The Big Crush by David J. Schow
Subterranean Press brings us the latest Hollywood-based thriller from David J. Schow, who in case you've been asleep for the past several years has dropped a number of excellent, similarly-themed books (including Internecine and Upgunned, both also worth your time!). Schow once again weaves an intricate tale with fascinating characters, and along the way we get a lot of interesting Hollywood history and insider info that only someone with Schow's experience can provide. This time out, we follow a DVD quality reviewer who opens up a large can of worms when he reaches out to an old school crush through social media--and she agrees to meet him. Just when you think you've figured out where everything is headed, Schow pulls an emergency-break spin, and the next thing you know, you're going 100 miles an hour in a new direction. Fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. And be thankful you're on a closed course with a professional driver. 

Elevation by Stephen King
When I first heard that Stephen King had written a short novel with a character named Scott Carey (the name of the protagonist of Richard Matheson's novel The Shrinking Man) who begins to rapidly loses weight... let's just say I was concerned that King had perhaps slipped too far. The book's dedication, "Thinking of Richard Matheson," made it clear that he wasn't attempting to hide the similarities, but readers of both works would quickly discover that King had an original tale to tell, and anyone concerned about his attempting to replace The Shrinking Man in anyone's mind is quickly washed away. King delivers a touching tale that had a heart to it which had me wondering if perhaps he had once again incorporated feedback from his son, Joe Hill. And in one way it's quite similar to many of Richard Matheson's works—it's an ideal single-sitting read.


Abbey Road Anniversary Blu Ray
Yes, I've already got all of the Beatles released albums, and I've got the Anthology sets, but I'm a sucker for two things only available in these deluxe anniversary sets: even more undressed tracks and surround sound remixes of the albums (this follows 50th anniversary releases of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heats Club Band and The White Album). The discrete audio makes for an all-new listening experience (I've developed a new appreciation for "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" from this release), and the booklets that come with them are nicely designed and have a lot of interesting historical information. Hopefully some day the multi-channel audio mixes will get a standalone release for those who wish to experience them without the high cost of the deluxe set.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I've already sung the praises of the film, so now let me comment on the soundtrack. Fans of Tarantino soundtracks may initially be disappointed that this one doesn't feature the inclusion of dialogue from the film - there's certainly a lot of great bits that would have fit perfectly. But as with the film, Quentin has done something a little different here. This time out, the interstitial bits we get are from actual radio broadcasts. Bumpers, jingles, news and weather reports... which make listening to the soundtrack more of a living, breathing experience. And it's really effective. While I'm sure some folks will be disappointed that certain songs weren't included (The Rolling Stones "Out of Time," The Mama's and the Papa's "Straight Shooter" featured prominently in the film's trailer), a lot of fans (myself included) were inspired to seek out additional tracks used in the film. As of this writing, I have assembled just over 50 tracks, including numerous needle-drops from Spaghetti Westerns used in the film's Lancer sequences, Bernard Herrmann's Have Gun Will Travel cues that became Bounty Law music, and some of Herrmann's unused Torn Curtain score (used for the 14 Fists of McCluskey as well as Cliff Booth's long walk down the hall  in search of George Spahn at the ranch).

Jose's Picks

"A Short List of a Few of My Favorite Things"

  1. Guru the Mad Monk (Andy Milligan, 1971)
  2. Murder on the Orient Express (Sidney Lumet, 1974)
  3. Poor White Trash (Harold Daniels, 1959)
  4. This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (Jose Mojica Marins, 1967)
  5. The Magic Sword (Bert I. Gordon, 1962)
  6. The Toys That Made Us, Season 3 (Netflix)
  7. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season 3 (Amazon) - I'm not even finished, but we all know this series rocks!
  8. Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
  9. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
  10. The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star by Nikki Sixx
  11. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
  12. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (BBC Radio)
  13. I'm a children's librarian, and I read a *ton* of picture books this year. Some absolute favorites include:
    1. The Rough Patch by Brian Lies 
    2. Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol
    3. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
    4. The Diamond and the Boy by Hannah Holt
    5. Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley
    6. 7 Ate 9: The Untold Story by Tara Lazar
    7. The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan
  14. I'm a father of a two-year-old, and I watched a *ton* of Sesame Street this year. My biggest takeaways were:
    1. There's a reason this show is going 50 years strong
    2. Many of the songs are infectious
    3. Grover is the funniest character

Gilbert Colon’s Picks


The Irishman (Netflix), in limited theatrical release to qualify for Oscar consideration while also streaming, is being hailed as director Martin Scorsese’s swansong masterpiece, and you half-expect to hear Scorsese and his old crew starring in the film, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, say in chorus, “I’m not dead yet!” But it is good to see De Niro, Pesci, and Keitel back in a Scorsese picture after all those years when Leonardo DiCaprio became his new De Niro after De Niro went off to do films like Dirty Grandpa and The Intern, and Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg took over for Keitel and Pesci.
Still, The Irishman is more than a reunion or an encore performance. Utilizing his old actors De Niro, Pesci, and Keitel for scenes spanning different decades presented The Irishman with a unique challenge that it met with an even more unique solution – the digital manipulation of the aging process. Through the use of state-of-the-art technology usually reserved for space battles and exotic aliens, courtesy of George Lucas’ ILM, The Irishman ironically recreates the past rather than creating a futuristic world. The more traditional Scorsese acclimated to the newfangled tools by simply thinking of it as “[u]sing the CGI as make-up.”
Adapted from Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses by Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York), The Irishman has grander ambitions than Scorsese’s past gangland fare. While the film’s main character is labor union official and mob enforcer Frank Sheeran (De Niro), at the heart of the gathering storm is Teamster labor boss Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino) – his tumultuous life and times and fall. (This is only the third time Pacino and De Niro have shared screen time together – the first a brief exchange in Michael Mann’s Heat and then in the widely panned cop thriller Righteous Kill – and the first time he has worked with Scorsese.)
The Irishman’s depiction of Hoffa, while technically flattering, is not the adoring portrait in the David Mamet-scripted Hoffa (1992). Whereas Mamet lionizes the man as an unstoppable force of nature, Scorsese shows him as a less imposing figure when not giving his rousing speeches at labor rallies. He bumbles, miscalculates constantly, yet is driven and fearless – foolhardy some might say – and always maintains his iron grip on the union he built from the ground up.
Besides reuniting his old troupe, the film contains many of Scorsese’s signatures – a voiceover like in Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and Mean Streets that takes us inside the protagonist’s head and world, an overhead shot of an arsenal of guns neatly displayed on a bed à la Taxi Driver, a Copacabana stand-up routine the likes of the ones in Raging Bull or King of Comedy, the wall-to-wall golden oldies soundtrack, etc.
Other familiar Scorsese faces populate the film. There is Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Graham, Gyp Rosetti and Al Capone respectively, from the Scorsese-produced series Boardwalk Empire. There is NYPD cop-turned actor Bo Dietl from Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. Comedian Jim Norton has a cameo playing the legendary Don Rickles, the actual Rickles having played a pit boss in Scorsese’s Casino. Behind the scenes is Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family upon which Scorsese based Goodfellas, executive produces. Also Thelma Schoonmaker returns for her 24th Scorsese picture. 
Not having to recast the older ensemble with younger actors gives the film an elegiac quality that deepens the film’s thematic elements (i.e., a soul’s journey through a life of violence climaxing in last things like repentance, damnation, deliverance, death). These are the kind of profound themes once so present in Scorsese films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, but almost wholly absent from Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and Gangs of New York. It was as if after Mean Streets Scorsese reserved his deeper themes for more “arthouse” fare like Kundun, Hugo, and Silence. In this way, The Irishman is something of a return to form.

The King (Netflix). “Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.” So goes the saying, paraphrased from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Wearing the crown in Netflix’s The King is Timothée Chalamet, and great a weight it is for a young actor. In some ways The King is a dress rehearsal or audition for playing the messianic Paul Atreides in the upcoming Denis Villeneuve Dune remake, a critical role whose demands will have Chalamet carry an entire epic on his shoulders.
In The King Chalamet is a mopey presence, and while he conveys callow youth in his Prince Hal scenes, he struggles to project the charisma that kinghood demands once he ascends the throne. Ofttimes stealing his thunder is his trusted royal counsel William Gascoigne (Sean Harris). For those who remember Harris as stone-cold killer Micheletto Corella, Cesare’s iceman from Showtime’s The Borgias, there are times it feels like the soft-spoken Gascoigne might suddenly throw off his cloak of nobility and cut someone’s throat. Gascoigne patiently navigates the idealistic young king through the byzantine world of court politics and foreign intrigue until he can come into his own, which by the end he does in an unexpected way. (The Shakespeare source material serves only as an outline for The King – there is no father-son rapprochement as there is in Shakespeare, no St. Crispin’s Day speech, no untimely death for forsaken Falstaff, etc.)
Battle scenes in The King are as gritty and grimy as those from Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, and there are parts of The King that could be called “Falstaff Rehabilitated.” No longer the drunken fool or corrupted night, this Falstaff rises to destiny’s occasion and accompanies his crowned Prince Hal on his French campaign.
While The King dispenses with the Bard’s blank verse, it remains an impressively literate script. The upcoming Ophelia, told from the perspective of Hamlet’s star-crossed lover, is expected to do the same with Shakespeare’s material. It is a risky move, but a better alternative than retaining the Bard’s words only to set the story in a world of biker gang wars and drug deals as did the Ethan Hawke vehicle Cymbeline (2014). Seen in that light, the reinterpretations of classic characters and events in The King may be questionable but preferable to what some poetry purists do to the Bard’s stories.


Bodyguard (BBC/Netflix). Assigned to guard Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes, her character based on former Home Secretary Amber Rudd) is PTSD-scarred David Budd (Richard Madden from Game of Thrones), a Principal Protection Officer who suffers debilitating flashbacks resulting from a traumatic tour of duty in Afghanistan. The two are case of opposites attracting. She is the hardline Home Secretary, which puts her literally in the crosshairs of an assassination plot, and he the war-weary combat veteran who does not share her hawkish War on Terror politics. (It is a subplot very similar to that of another recent series on Netflix, the French import Marseille, wherein a moderate mayor makes a right-wing populist his deputy mayor and lover, despite his disdain for her nativism.)
Bodyguard is good at wringing the tension out of trope scenes that in lesser hands would otherwise feel long, and the disorienting opening credits coupled with a jarring score only add to the tension. It also has a clever twist to its ending that, while it may feel like it comes out of left field, is in fact a well-thought-out and logical resolution that will challenge a variety of political assumptions (in spite of Netflix comedian Hasan Minhaj’s parochial criticism that Bodyguard “is so good, you almost forget about the Islamophobia”).
Bodyguard, from Line of Duty writer (and former RAF officer) Jed Mercurio, was nominated by the Golden Globe Awards for Best Television Series and won Madden the award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama.

The Alienist (TNT). This ten-part series, based on Caleb Carr’s mystery novel set in late 19th-century New York, aired in late January 2018 and debuted on Blu-ray and DVD in September of this year. At ten parts, it sometimes meanders, but the period world it recreates is so absorbing in its own right that it handily sustains viewer interest over its many hours.
First the (mostly mild) misgivings. If The Alienist has any debilitating flaw, it is the anachronistic psychologizing that far surpasses anything found in the engrossing but similarly flawed Netflix series Mindhunter. Much of the modern theory it propounds is cover for the sensitive nature of the story’s politically incorrect crimes, namely the murder, mutilation, and molestation of young boy prostitutes, some of them done up as cross-dressers, by a male serial killer stalking the slums of turn-of-the-century New York. This sordid plot, while legitimate subject matter, compounds the problematical material with boy actors attired in ways that will have audiences calling into question the parents and filmmakers who would subject child actors to these scenes, especially in light of the Hollywood scandals exposed in the Amy J. Berg documentary An Open Secret.
Carr has before wrestled with this third-rail issue in a related way whenever he has had to make the case for his father, the famous Lucien Carr. An early figure of the Beat Generation, Lucien,was neither homosexual nor homophobic, asserts his son Caleb, when at age 19, in response to unwanted sexual advances, he killed 32-year-old David Kammerer, the teacher who had been stalking Lucien since he was 12. In 2013, actor Dane DeHaan played Lucien Carr, with Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg, in Kill Your Darlings, a film that brought this particularly disturbing chapter from Beat history to life (as did Beat novels such as And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, The Town and the City, and several others).
Kill Your Darlings sparked a rebuttal from Caleb who disputed the film’s interpretation of his father Lucien and events. In a like manner The Alienist, after choosing its touchy topic, goes to great lengths to distance itself from the controversy it creates.  It deflects away from the main issues by implicating the usual roster of convenient suspects inhabiting the murderer’s world (corrupt police, poor parenting, political structures, the ruling elite, etc.) as even greater evils than the torture and slaughter of young boys. The blaming of societal forces and institutions is more, well, sociology or critical theory than it is psychology, a problem for a story called The Alienist (the archaic word for psychiatrist).
The Alienist manages to brilliantly overcome these self-inflicted wounds with two indelible characters, the “alienist” Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and, enlisted to sketch crime scenes, New York Times illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans). Individually the two are compelling and compassionate crime solvers, and doubly so when partnered. Carr’s publisher must wholeheartedly agree – Carr’s novels have been retroactively rebranded “the Kreizler series” as he picks up after his Alienist sequel Angel of Darkness with 2016’s Surrender, New York and two future installments, The Alienist at Armageddon and The Strange Case of Miss Sarah X. TNT definitely agrees – Brühl and Evans will reunite in the sequel series that adapts Angel of Darkness.
Carr is celebrated for weaving historical figures into his period narratives as characters, in this case the future U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, here the New York City police commissioner. It is a stage of Roosevelt’s career probably never committed to film, and a welcome addition to films covering his San Juan Hill days and a gunboat-diplomacy incident during his presidency (John Milius’ Rough Riders and The Wind and the Lion, respectively). After actor Brian Geraghty’s weasley stint on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, it takes a little getting used to him as the young and impeccable Teddy, but memory of that fades once this performance grows on viewers. This, fortunately, is not a revisionist TR – it is the Roosevelt of unbending idealism who we have all (or most) come to know and love. (The Angel of Darkness sequel series will also feature a welcome return of Teddy Roosevelt, reprised by Geraghty.) Tycoon J. P. Morgan (Michael Ironside from Starship Troopers) features in The Alienist, and yellow journalism magnate William Randolph Hearst (Matt Letscher of The Flash) will be a character in Angel of Darkness.

I Am the Night (TNT) concerns the infamous Black Dahlia case, but not the murder itself. It is set in 1965, not the 1940s like the more prominent fictionalizations True Confessions (1981) and The Black Dahlia (prosaically adapted in 2006 from the great James Ellroy novel). Instead the six-part miniseries revisits the infamous case from the perspective of the next generation with eerie menace, and it may be the first time a drama documenting Elizabeth Short’s murder pointed the finger at a real-world culprit. (Although maybe the 1975 TV movie Who Is the Black Dahlia? did.) I Am the Night’s hypothesis has been endorsed by Ellroy, even though his 1987 novel necessitated a fictional resolution. Because true crime podcasts are all the rage these days, the miniseries is based on the multipart podcast Root of Evil: The True Story of the Hodel Family and the Black Dahlia which elaborates upon its hypothesis, though told from the point of view of the prime suspect’s son Steve Hodel, a former LAPD homicide detective, rather than from Hodel’s granddaughter Fauna (played by India Eisley) as in the miniseries.

Knightfall (History Channel) enters its second season with a changing of the guard. Aaron Helbing (writer for Starz’ Spartacus) takes over from first season showrunner Dominic Minghella (writer on the 2006 BBC series Robin Hood), and the difference is instantly apparent.
Before it aired, History Channel’s head of programming Eli Lehrer said to expect “a grittier, darker Knightfall” in the second season, a mandate these episodes fulfill without sacrificing heroism the way so many gritty dark dramas do. One critic of the first season over at TV Overmind rightly complained that Knightfall tried to be too many things at once and could not make up its mind what it was. While the first season did indeed get off to a clumsy but honorable start, it has, in its second, finally found its focus.
Knightfall is set in the 14th-century France during the time of the Order of the Knights Templar, a powerful medieval Catholic military order formed to protect persecuted pilgrims in the Holy Land and promoted vigorously by St. Bernard of Clairvaux himself.
Mark Hamill – Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars films – joins the cast as a new character named Master Talus, “a veteran Templar who trains initiates at the Chartres Temple.” It is a fun piece of stunt casting considering how Hamill’s Skywalker was a Jedi Knight, and Star Wars creator George Lucas, inspired by the Templars as well as the samurai and rōnin of feudal Japan, originally named his science-fictional knightly order “Jedi Templar” in early screenplay drafts. (Lucas’ “guardians of peace and justice” are even headquartered in a “Jedi Temple” and are exterminated in a blood purge ordered by the head of state they serve, an act mirroring King Philip the Fair’s final persecution of the Templars.) Even back during season one, before Hamill was part of the cast, Minghella said of the Templars, “[Y]ou’re a Jedi Knight. The Templar are literally the inspiration for the Jedis.”
Having fled the Paris Temple, the former disgraced Master, Landry (Tom Cullen of Downton Abbey), must begin again as an initiate at the Chartres Temple. There he struggles to remake himself and restore his honor and standing before God and the Order. Hamill’s role proves to be more than good stunt casting – he nearly steals the show, and gets the best lines. Besides undergoing Talus’ grueling drill instruction acted out beneath the Temple’s massive crucifix – “After your sacred training is complete, you will be transformed into soldiers of Christ, men ordained as God's executioners!” Talus barks – some of the recruits join veteran Templars in a local crusade against the Luciferians, a Satanic cult making human sacrifice in the forest and historically based on the followers of a 12th century woman named Lucardis. Later in the season, Philip’s open persecution of the Templar Order intensifies beyond the confines of Paris.
Something else season two wisely does is tone down the esoterica of the first season so that it can concentrate on the theme of brotherhood, especially in the basic training scenes. Explored in these episodes is the historical Order of Saint Lazarus, its “Leper Knights” righteous, humble, and brave in their affliction. Knightfall’s Templars and Lazarists embody the romanticism of the French warrior ethos found in the French Foreign Legion, combined with that in The Song of Roland and The Three Musketeers.
When popular culture is not conflating Templar Order with Freemasonry, it tends to portray them as either religious hypocrites or the Christian equivalent of jihadists rather than Sir Galahads. In Knightfall, however, the Templars are knights in shining armor with chinks in that armor (ordinary failings like lust, envy, etc. which they strive to conquer). While fervent in their fight to free the Holy Land from infidel invaders, Knightfall’s Templars are also exemplars of tolerance. At Acre the Templar Brothers have “in our care not just Christians, but Jews, Saracens, all faiths.” Before battle their Master commands them, “Take every life you must take, but no more, and remember that we answer to God, just as we fight for God. And we win by the grace of God.” Also in the first season they come to the aid of Paris’ Jews to prevent a pogrom. Cullen, who plays Landry, says the series depicts the knightly Order as they saw themselves, “trying to do the right thing, and living by a very strict code, which revolves around faith,” and states unequivocally of the Templars that “in our show they are absolutely the heroes.”
So the tides are turning for Templars. After centuries of abuse at the hands of literature and popular entertainment, starting with the villainous depictions of Templars in the Walter Scott novels The Talisman and Ivanhoe, through to the Templar diabolism in the Blind Dead Spanish horror films of the 1970s and the unflattering representations in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and the Assassin’s Creed videogame series, all the way up to the perverse distortions of the Templar role in history found in Dan Brown’s novel Da Vinci Code (including the 2006 film adaptation) and the mass-market knock-offs it spawned (Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar, Steve Berry’s The Templar Legacy, C. M. Palov’s The Templar’s Code, Jack Whyte’s Knights of the Black and White, and countless others), the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon are finally experiencing a public relations rehabilitation in the popular culture.
Former showrunner Minghella says that Knightfall owes a good deal to Arn – The Knight Templar (2007) and Arn – The Kingdom at Road’s End (2008), a pair of Swedish films (based on author Jan Guillou’s series of novels) that are another example of Templars in a positive light. At MovieZine he states that he “thought [Arn] was epic” and, after seeing how many people “wanted to see more of Arn,” began to look at those films as “a good starting point for us.” (He was quick to qualify that “we are not trying to copy anything.”)
Even on HBO’s Tolkien-subverting fantasy series Game of Thrones, Templars receive oblique praise. Amidst the multitudinous antiheroes and malefactors populating that series, one of the few noble characters, Jon Snow, belongs to the Night’s Watch, a military brotherhood which author George R. R. Martin, along with Knightfall’s historical advisor Dan Jones, author of The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, explicitly likens to the Knights Templar on the DVD/Blu-ray featurette “The Real History Behind Game of Thrones.” Jones calls Throne’s 700-foot high rampart that the Night’s Watch patrols “a place where all the brothers are equal, where your past doesn’t matter, where you can get on in life by the power of your sword [like] the warrior monks of the Middle Ages.”
Knightfall’s last episode of season, “While I Breathe, I Trust the Cross,” concludes in flagrant defiance of recorded history, or so it seems come the final scene. It is a dénouement practically daring viewers versed in history to tune into the next season to see if the writers can cleverly paint themselves out of their corner. Do they have a trick up their sleeve to right the course of history as we know it, or will they rewrite history?
As of press time, History Channel has made no formal confirmation or denial for a returning third season, but if it is not renewed, the finale will at the very least give Templar sympathizers the same type of wish-fulfillment catharsis Quentin Tarantino gave Hitler-haters in Inglorious Basterds.


King Kong (Broadway). Forget Cats. Like a traveling circus animal, Kong has been touring the world, originating the summer of 2013 in Melbourne, Australia, and he is far more fun than a clowder of frolicking felines. Years in the mounting, King Kong the musical almost inevitably arrived on the Great White Way, much like the Eighth Wonder of the World himself, in November of 2018 and played through August 2019. Despite its detractors, it won one of the four Tonys it was nominated for.
The songs are inoffensively familiar-sounding, and the appropriately-period song-and-dance numbers energetic, elaborate, and entertaining. Kong’s recurring musical motif, however, is a major misstep – it is pure modern metallic discordance and does not fit with the rest of the score.
Suffice to say Kong does no singing himself, but that never stopped Richard Wagner from composing lines for Fafnir the bass-voiced dragon in his Siegfried opera. 
While based on the 1933 film, Ann Darrow’s love interest Jack Driscoll is gone from the narrative. Either this is because young audiences have no patience for romance, or more likely the book writer thought that in the age of Frozen heroines, there can be no damsels in distress. Yet losing Jack means destroying the “love triangle’ comprising Kong, Jack, and Ann, with Kong and Jack thinking they are saving Ann from their rival when in fact both have Ann’s welfare at heart. In other words, in the name of rewriting Ann as a modern independent woman in no need of a man, the tragedy of the tale has been subtly weakened. (Naturally Carl Denham is still there as the human foil.)
Nevertheless, for sheer spectacle, King Kong cannot be beat. There is not a bad seat in the house, thanks to a towering animatronic puppet that is the true star of the show. If in the coming years Kong makes his way to your city’s playhouse, do not miss him.


Erik Nelson said...

Thanks for doing this. There are some cases where my picks overlap with the various contributors, and that makes all of the recommendations of things new to me more enticing. Lots to check out!

Jack Seabrook said...

My favorite flicks of 2019 were Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Pain and Glory.

John Scoleri said...

Jack - I'm pretty sure it's a first for the three of us to agree on the same favorite flick of the year. I think that says a lot about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!

Erik - You're welcome! We hope you find some more things to enjoy from our recommendations. Please let us know if you have any favorites that we have overlooked!