Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015 in the Rearview Mirror




We’re about to exit the Year of Our Lord MMXV, and, wow, has it been a weird ride. Seen some neat stuff, seen some not so neat stuff, and seen some OMG that’s awesome stuff. I’m pretty sure everyone else will be doing Best Of/Worst Of lists, so I’m just gonna wing it here instead. I present to you the random misfirings of my brain as I look back on the things I noticed in 2015. Word of warning- It’s been a long two weeks. Times like this really get my sense of humor into an odd place.
 
Okay, let’s just get the “dead horse” observation out of the way now.

Let’s do the Time Warp Again

Déjà vu was de rigueur this last year. Some of the big buzz movies of the year had names like Mad Max, Jurassic Park, and Star Wars. Some of the names thrown out at the end of the year for coming soon movies to watch out for had names like Independence Day and Star Trek while King Kong Vs. Godzilla was announced as a much further down the road film to watch out for. Genre fans talked with much anticipation about an upcoming television show called The X-Files, with much less anticipation about a television production called The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and discussed both while settling in to watch The Wiz. Playboy announced their upcoming big deal cover model was going to be Pamela Anderson while big name Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis became the face of Scream Queens.

Neil Gaiman released a much awaited novel, the 19 year old Neverwhere (but in the author’s preferred text version) while talking about how a Death movie was as close as it ever was to being a reality and how Sandman was ever so slightly closer to reality than Death. In the backdrop of all of this we got to see a Clinton and a Bush slugging it out for the presidential nods of their respective parties while a penguin and a dead cat returned to our daily lives to comment on it all. In one of those strange but true moments we’re getting the first full moon for Christmas since 1977.

That’s no moon…

Oh, and we’ve been informed we’re looking at the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on top of all that. I’m not sure what all of that says about our popular culture, and I’m not sure I want to know.

But With All that Going on in 2015, Did You See These?

High on my list of best discoveries for 2015 are three documentaries. The first of them I knew nothing about before coming across it. The second one I’d been awaiting with bated breath since first hearing about it over a year before finally getting to see it. The third one I’d heard some good buzz about, but also had some initial reservations about from what I’d heard as well.


While technically a 2014 production, Ian Cheney’s documentary The Search for General Tso only became widely available for viewing when it hit streaming services in 2015. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. The Search for General Tso is a wonderfully entertaining exploration of the (surprisingly complicated) origins of one of the most popular staples of Chinese restaurant take-out food. The film takes you on an amazingly delightful and informative journey as it looks for the men behind the dish and the General it’s named after. Along the way we get a look at the rise of the Chinese restaurant in America, the almost celebrity status some restaurant owners achieved, the impact it had on local cultures across America, and the people who collect Chinese restaurant memorabilia the way genre geeks go after their favorite things. Check out the trailer here.

The other documentary, the one I’d been eagerly awaiting for so long, kind of fits in well with the nostalgia vibe that flavored the time warp our pop culture was in this year. It’s a documentary that looks back on an era in American filmmaking produced some well-remembered and much loved films while also creating a city dump’s worth of film that may be best forgotten, but also likely changed Hollywood in more than a few ways. The documentary is Mark Hartley’s love letter to one of America’s least loved movie studios, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Hartley takes us along as he talks to many of the people who were there, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, while chronicling the rise and fall of Cannon Films.  This was the company behind films like Missing in Action, Delta Force, American Ninja, Enter the Ninja, The Happy Hooker, The Last American Virgin, Gor, the Allan Quatermain films, the Deathwish films, Sword of the Valiant, Cobra, Masters of the Universe, Lifeforce, Breakin’, Captain America, Bloodsport, Barfly, and about a million or so other movies that were cranked out with an almost mass production level rate of release.

The people being interviewed discuss their time working with Cannon, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the absolute WTF, with the kind of nostalgia that only comes from being long removed from a traumatic event. The bad experiences and the crazy experiences seemed to have outnumbered the good experiences when it came to working with Cannon, but everyone involved seems to have a good sense of humor about it now. Well, maybe not the one actress who tried to demonstrate her still smoldering hatred for Cannon by attempting to set a copy of the film she was in on fire during her interview. The interviews are mixed in with a ton of highlights (Or should that be lowlights?) from the various films that Cannon made.

If you’ve ever sat up staring at your television as late night cable paraded one 1980’s film after another in front of your eyes and wondered how anything that weird, that strange, that over the top, and/or that godawful bad managed to get made, you’ve probably seen a Cannon film. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films is probably the single most entertaining way to get the answer to that question. Check out the trailer here.

The last of the three is also technically a 2014 film. It made the rounds at festivals in late 2014, but got an official release in 2015. The documentary is call An Honest Liar, and it gives you an entertaining (if understandably CliffsNotes version) look at the life and work of one of the most famous and tireless debunkers of frauds, James Randi. 

Randi was a stage magician, going by the name The Amazing Randi, who turned his talents towards exposing people who he deemed to be dangerous frauds. These would be faith healers, people who pushed the con of psychic surgery, and other Pied Pipers who used basic stage magic tricks to convince the gullible masses they were the light and the way. Probably the most famous fraud he came into conflict with was Uri Geller, and their many interactions are given much of the film’s focus.

The film also gives us a look at Randi’s personal relationship with his longtime partner. By a strange twist of timing, a revelation about that relationship got dragged out into the open and played out in real-time as the documentary was being filmed. It actually takes over the latter third of the documentary- debatably to the detriment of highlighting and focusing on the life’s work of the man.

But, even with the unexpected shift of focus, the film still gives you a good look at some of the things Randi did to earn admiration and anger from skeptics and believers respectively. We get a look at his consulting with television producers to fraud proof their studios before the appearance of “psychics” on their shows. You get to see Randi creating hoaxes, even going so far as to fool entire universities and scientific study groups, in order to prove how easily a gifted con artist could pull the wool over even the smartest set of eyes. You also get to see Randi as he followed Uri Geller around the talk show circuit replicating all of the “psychic phenomena” performed by Geller. Unfortunately you also see the angry responses by some audiences and television hosts who screamed their displeasure at Randi; some going so far as insisting he had debunked nothing and was only able to replicate such feats because he was  actually psychic himself while being unaware of this fact.

Overall, the documentary is an enjoyable one is slightly undercut by not being able to spend the time to truly focus on much of Randi’s work as well as it could. However, anyone who enjoys the documentary can always find more in depth looks at how the hoaxers managed to pull off their hoaxes by tracking down some of his still in print books. You can even learn a few of the tricks that way. Check out the trailer here.

TV and the Big Screen in Four Colors and More

From a geek perspective, 2015 was one of the best years I’ve ever seen with regards to catering to genre fans. Genre juggernauts like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead continued to command high viewership numbers for their channels, old favorites like Supernatural continued to make fans happy, Syfy started taking steps to return to the better days of when it was called The Sci-Fi Channel, and comic book characters superheroes began to multiply like a math nerd at the National Student Mathematics League Annual Competition.


The Flash alone has spent the last year rather enjoyably building the type of superhero team we’ve always wanted to see brought to life on television, but fortunately that show didn’t have to do it alone. Arrow continued to breathe life into Oliver Queen and crew, and even gave new (if temporary) life back to a much beloved by fans version of John Constantine. We’ve also been treated to an alternate take on the Batman mythos with Gotham, and 2015 saw the slightly faltering show begin to get itself back on track in a serious way.

We also got to enjoy the continuing adventures of one of the more pleasant and personable zombies brought to television life from the comic page in the form of iZombie. I have to admit, that show has been one of the bigger surprises for me. I really had little interest in what looked from early descriptions to be a buddy comedy procedural cop/mystery of the week show featuring a fluffy and nice zombie with spunk. After about 20,000 recommendations from my fellow attendees at this year’s Dragon Con I gave in and gave it a look. I’m really glad that I did.

Marvel has been no slouch on the TV front this year either, whether you’re talking about traditional TV or the newer streaming originals. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kept getting better, Netflix and Marvel brought us a Daredevil that really set the bar high, and them they delivered Jessica Jones, while not a personal favorite of mine, to almost universal praise and rave reviews.

 Syfy, as mentioned above, also delivered in 2015 with programs like The Expanse, Dark Matter, and Killjoys and (sort of) delivered with Childhood’s End. The upcoming shows they’ve been promoting like mad the last month or so also look strong. It’s actually nice to see them trying to aim for more quality programming as well as the goofier, fun stuff again.

Just Me and a Little Over 70,000 of my Best Friends


‘Nuff said.

Okay…

The biggest fan convention in the country was better than ever this. If you’ve never gone, you need to go. 2016 is going to be the 30th Anniversary event. A disclaimer here- I volunteer, but I don’t know anything more than many other attendees know with regards to this, but you have to figure they’ll be pulling out at least a few impressive stops if not all of them for this coming year’s convention.

Go. Join the family. Have fun.

Tunes for Our Times

We all saw the big stories in music this year. Axl Rose managed to find a microphone and once again swear that G&R were coming back big time, Phil Collins kind of came out of retirement, Lionel Richie clawed his way back into the consciousness of the music scene as a part of 1,000 Adele memes on social media, and Europe finally roared back onto the national stage in America by performing one of their only two real hits for a GIECO commercial. Given these huge events, it was easier to miss some of the smaller stuff.
  

For me, one of the smaller things I found in 2015, and I’m listening to it as I type this, was Midnight Syndicate releasing a Christmas themed album, Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering. If you don’t know Midnight Syndicate, they’ve been making albums for years now that are, as they sometimes call them, horror movie soundtracks for horror movies that haven’t been made.

This is definitely the Christmas album to buy for any creepy kids you have, or buy for yourself if you are a creepy kid. The music on the album has a strong horror vibe to it while remaining surprisingly Christmassy. It’s a bit like Mannheim Steamroller playing classic Christmas selections if Mannheim Steamroller had been reimagined by Clive Barker and Stephen King. Even with Christmas now passing us by, it’s still worth tracking down right now.

Shall We Read a Bit?

One of the larger 2015 firestorms in the book world was centered on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The novel’s treatment of literary hero Atticus Finch set many people’s hair on end and angered and horrified many longtime fans of both the author and the character. Fortunately for us all, one of those horrified people was Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed. Breathed was a devoted fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, and his strip’s character of Opus was once the focus of a letter to Breathed written by Harper Lee. It’s a bit of a complicated story, but Breathed explained it to NPR back inOctober.

The short version of this story? Bloom County, absolutely my favorite comic strip ever, returned to us in 2015. It didn’t come back to the newspapers though. Breathed took the stripe to Facebook, and he publishes it there for free. When there are enough strips to collect into book form, they’ll be published by IDW (who have been publishing some amazing archive quality collections of all of Breathed’s works) later next year. If you’re not reading it, you should be. If you’re not familiar with Bloom County, you need to hop on Amazon and track some of the classic strip’s collections down.

Peter David also made an announcement of a return at year’s end when he revealed the rights to Sir Apropos of Nothing had landed back in his lap. An amazingly entertaining original creation of David’s, he’s so far existed only in three novel, a short story collection, and a limited run comic book. The strange world of dealing with the sometimes odd ideas of major publishers ended his fictional life way too early despite rather loud fan clamoring for more. Now we get more. The first book has been reprinted under the Crazy 8 Press banner with the remaining existing stories to follow soon. After that, a new story, Pyramid Schemes- being worked on as you read this -will continue the adventures of the lovable scoundrel.

Hollywood Loses its Shirt, Gains Back a Clothing Store

2015 started out with a lot of fretting about box office and the future of film. Well, lots of recent years have started out with industry insiders fretting this way, but the choir seemed a little bigger this year. The worry has been that Hollywood was fixating on the tent pole films, the giant spectacle films, while ratcheting up their budgets beyond an ability to recover a budget even as smaller that should be turning a profit fail to do so. 2015 certainly gave them much to worry about.


The combination of big names and “artistic merit” flamed out horribly this year. Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies barely earned back its production and advertising budgets despite the big names involved, Steve Jobs, even with only a $30 million budget, failed to recover its budget even with overseas box office added in, and Robert Zemeckis died a horrible box office death with The Walk. At least The Martian seemed to beat that trend.

Fluff films designed to go in with minimal budgets and at least earn a small profit also struggled this year for various reasons. Jem and the Holograms couldn’t figure out if it was going for hooking the nostalgia bug of the original fanbase or making something new. The result was a $5 million dollar budgeted film earning a worldwide total of just over $2 million. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension helped the same studio recover a bit, but by going to the well one time too often they fell short of what they had hoped to see as box office returns. The franchise that started out as a $15,000 (not a typo) film that pulled in close to $108 million domestically quietly ended its run (we hope) on a $10 million film that pulled in only $18 million domestically.

The Last Witch Hunter the trend of Vin Diesel not being able to land a big film that doesn’t involve him voicing animated characters or speeding along in sweet looking cars. 007 fought Spectre and was saved only by the international box office. The film did a respectable box office, coming in just shy of $195 million domestically, but they somehow crammed a $245 million dollar budget onto the thing. The Good Dinosaur went quickly extinct, but it looked like the success of the year next to the not quite at all Fantastic Four reboot that Fox tried to convince people to see this year. I’ve never seen so many people literally praying for a film to fail.

But when films hit this year, they really hit big. Avengers: Age of Ultron made more money at the box office than some countries have in their banks, but it was surprisingly only a warmup for movie goers. Jurassic World came stomping in to top it by a couple hundred million, but even that was just the first inning. We’re ending out 2015 with Star Wars: The Force Awakens making around half of those two films’ total box office earnings in a single opening weekend, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down any time soon. We’re not even done with 2015, and the film is already the #6 top grossing film for 2015 after less than a week in theaters. By the time this goes live, it will probably be the #4 or even #3.

But despite these films and others like them this year, the problem still remains. When Hollywood gets a box office winner these days it’s absolute gold, but they’re dealing with a lot more pyrite lately. It’s going to be interesting to see how filmmakers and studios adjust in the coming year.

What’s NXT in Wrestling?

A lot of the pro wrestling in the states was getting less interesting for me to watch a couple of years ago. I initially wrote it off just being burned out on the product after being a fan for 40 years now. Then I decided to spend $10 a month on the WWE Network and started watching a lot more NXT.

I don’t know how the same company can own NXT and both RAW and Smackdown and have NXT feel so vastly different than RAW and Smackdown, but there are a lot of Wednesday nights when NXT feels like a completely different company, not just a different brand set off to the side to develop future talent.

Beyond putting in some solid regular shows, the NXT “PPVs” on the network have had some really top notch matches. One of their biggest events of 2015 even featured a first for the WWE as a women’s title match main evented the card. Bayley and Sasha Banks faced off in an Iron Man (or Woman) Match for the title in what was a legitimate barnburner. Fan favorite Bayley retained the belt wjile Sasha was permanently demoted to the main roster.

I kid.

Well, kind of.

The main roster events have had their ups and down, with more ups at the start of the year and more downs as the year began to come to a close. Still, whenever the main roster was letting me down a bit, I could always count on NXT (or some of the WWE Network’s archived programs) to light that spark again. And, damn, Finn Balor as Jack the Ripper was something else.

By the way, someone go tell Steve Harvey that Money in the Bank briefcases aren’t supposed to be used in beauty pageants.

I could probably keep going for a long time. There were a million little things that happened in the pop culture landscape between the big things that made 2015 tick long more nicely for me than many of the big things. However, I’m closing in on 4,000 words here, and the three of you that made it this far likely don’t want to keep going an additional 5,000 words.

A lot happened in 2015. A lot more looks to happen in 2016. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year. Enjoy 2016. 
 


Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.

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