Sunday, January 31, 2016

Intruders (2016)

It's my first new review of 2016 and things are already off to a pretty good start. Adam Schindler's indie flick Intruders isn't amazing by any means, but it's a super fun horror thriller that fully embraces its B-movie roots. It's not The Babadook or It Follows, but it'll do... at least until The Witch finally comes out next month.

Anna (Beth Reisgraf) is an agoraphobe who, after her brother (Timothy T. McKinney) dies from pancreatic cancer, suddenly finds herself alone. She's terrified to go outside, but so desperate for human connection that she impulsively offers a pile of money to Dan (played with genuine charm by Rory Culkin), a Meals-On-Wheels delivery driver who clearly has a bit of a crush on the weird blond lady in the big spooky house.

This ill-conceived act of kindness comes back to haunt Anna, however. Unable to go to the funeral, she finds herself under siege when a trio of would-be burglars (Jack Kesy, Joshua Mikel, and a legitimately scary Martin Starr) — assuming she wouldn't be home — breaks in to try to find the money.

This is as standard a setup for a home-invasion thriller as you could possibly imagine. Add in a diabetic Kristen Stewart and we're basically looking at a cheapo version of Panic Room.

But the movie takes a pretty wild twist at the halfway point, and it just gets weirder from there. Anna and her late brother, as it turns out, aren't quite what they appear to be.

The movie isn't particularly scary, but Schindler knows how to get a solid reaction from the audience. There are a few good, wince-inducing body-horror moments (several involve a dislocated kneecap), and some of the plot twists provide genuine surprises. It grows into a fun puzzle box of a movie, half Home Alone and half Saw but without all the blood. Unfortunately, it kind of runs out of steam in the final third, as the script resorts to some clunky "as-you-know-Bob" exposition before limping into a pretty rote climax.

Still, there's enough here to recommend. The performances are all good in that kind of vaguely over-acty direct-to-video style that you expect in these kinds of movies. Starr is by far the best, using his laid-back, monotone persona to create a sense of real menace.

This is far from the best horror film you're likely to see this year, and I think Schindler probably has a much better movie in him down the line. Still, if you're looking for an entertaining slab of B-movie weirdness, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Phil Anselmo, Robb Flynn, and racism in metal

It was 1999, right at the apex of my love for extreme metal, when my friend Ryan and I went up to Fort Collins, CO, to see a festival of death metal bands both small and large called "Hatefest '99."

I've told the story jokingly over the years as my "break up with death metal" story; how we were crammed into a tiny bar that smelled like the ass-end of a wet dog, how every single shitty local band in Colorado seemed to be there but couldn't bother putting on anything other than sweatpants, how it was supposed to be fifteen bands in fifteen hours but we gave up around hour 10 when one of the shitty local bands got on stage and the lead singer proclaimed "This first song is about FUCKING! The SHIT! Of the DEAD!!!!!"

Makes for a good, funny story. The sad truth, though, is that I had checked out about an hour earlier when one of my absolute favorite local metal bands, Immortal Dominion, took to the stage and the floor completely cleared out. All the sweaty dudebros who had been moshing to terrible sub-Mortician death noise five minutes before evidently decided that this was their cue to go to the bar to get a drink. I saw the sneering looks on their faces as they did so and I immediately knew why.

The lead singer of Immortal Dominion was black.

Now maybe I'm reading more into what happened than is necessary, but I really don't think so. It's not like black musicians are unheard of in the metal world (see Living Colour, Bad Brains, Stuck Mojo, God Forbid,  etc.). And it's not like these musicians are never accepted, even in the extreme metal scene, just as a few women and even gay men have been accepted. But let's not kid ourselves; even in its most mainstream iterations, heavy metal tends to be the province of straight, hyper-masculine, regressive-minded white dudes.

Once we move into the extreme genres, this becomes even more true. Casual racism stops just being accepted and starts being celebrated. And rank homophobia is not even questioned. Gaahl, the former lead singer of black-metal band Gorgoroth (see the above link), is an example of some of the weird tensions you find at the margins — he's a gay man who performs in a genre often associated with neo-Nazism, and has himself said some reprehensible things about Jews and minorities. An imperfect hero at best.

Heavy metal has historically just not been a place all that friendly to progressive ideas.

This new flap about Phil Anselmo at Dimefest has brought all these issues to the forefront again, and has rocked me back on my heels and made me question how long I can stick as a fan. Here's the thing: I love Pantera. I love Down even more. Just as I love Emperor, whose original drummer was imprisoned for murdering a gay man. Just as I used to love W.A.S.P., whose guitarist moved to France to get away from all the black people.

Heavy metal is supposed to be in your face. It's supposed to be offensive. But does it have to be stupid, hateful, and boneheaded? Do these things automatically go hand in hand?

I used to say of course not.

Now I simply don't know.

These are things all liberal-minded metal fans need to be asking themselves right now. We don't like to talk about it because it's embarrassing. But frankly we should be embarrassed. How long are we going to put up with the racism, sexism and homophobia that have so long defined the scene and the music we love? How long are we going to keep shrugging our shoulders when a Phil Anselmo drunkenly spouts off about "white power" or a floor-full of fans turns their back and shuns a great band like Immortal Dominion? How long are we going to let the sneering beardo assholes shouting about "political correctness" drown the rest of us out? What are we supposed to do, if not give up on the music that, for most of us, is in our blood?

Here's what we do. We do what Robb Flynn of Machine Head did when he called out Anselmo in an 11-minute YouTube video. We do what MetalSucks did when they wrote an editorial denouncing Anselmo and all the fans (including me, including themselves) who have simply averted their eyes out of deference for his position in the metal world.

We stop making excuses. We stop pretending like it's not a big deal.

We start calling racist assholes exactly what they are. And we stop supporting them.

Flynn, MetalSucks, and all the other more progressive fans I've been seeing chime in on message boards and Facebook threads give me a lot of hope. And even Anselmo just apologized (disingenuous though it seems). There's finally some real pushback happening, which is exactly what the scene needs to stay alive.

But there's still a long, long way to go.

Top 20 Movies of 2015 (with omissions)

As usual, I have to put out the caveat that there are a number of movies I didn't manage to see this year before putting this list together. The biggest blind spots for me at the moment are The Big Short, Chi-Raq, 45 Years, Dope and Carol. Hopefully I'll get a chance to catch up with those before too long.

That said, 2015 was a pretty incredible year for movies... maybe the best since 1999 (American Beauty, Fight Club, etc.) So incredible, in fact, that I wasn't able to boil my list down to my usual top 10.

So, without further adieu, here are my top 20 films of 2015.

20. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

This one probably sat higher on my list a couple weeks ago, but as is the case with most Tarantino movies it seems to have lost a little luster the more I've thought about it. Still, it's his most ferocious film in years, and the locked-room claustrophobia harkens back nicely to his best work, Reservoir Dogs.

19. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)

This French-Mauritanian film tells the story of the fabled Malian city after it fell under occupation by a militant Islamist group in 2012. For dealing with such heavy subject matter, it's a much gentler movie than you might imagine. The Jihadists and city dwellers alike are presented as human and with heart, and the violence is kept to a minimum. This light touch only makes the ultimate tragic arc of the story all that much more disquieting.

18. The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu)

Leonardo DiCaprio is just okay in this film, and it doesn't have nearly as much narrative depth as a lot of critics are giving it credit for. But it's one of the most powerfully immersive experiences you're likely to have in the theater at least since Gravity, and Tom Hardy's complicated and understated performance as villain John Fitzgerald elevates the film beyond the strict survivalist/revenge movie construction the script confines it to.

17. White God (Kornél Mundruczó)

On its surface, this weird, imperfect, but stunningly ambitious Hungarian film tells the simple and heartfelt story of a young girl trying to reunite with her lost dog. But this isn't a family film; there are way too many throats being ripped out for that. Mundruczó's White God is sort of like The Incredible Journey by way of Cujo and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's a little obvious with its message, but the twin performances by Zsófia Psotta as 13-year-old Lili and "Body" as loving companion/Ché-style revolutionary Hagen make this one of the most affecting movies of the year. If you're a dog lover like me, that simple and elegant final shot is going to hit you right in all the feels. 

16. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)


This is your typical Cronenberg film in the sense that not a lot happens on the surface, and yet you feel a compelling need to take a shower afterwards. At once a tightly controlled character study and a vicious satire, this is right up there with Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust as one of the meanest movies about Hollywood that has ever been made. When it takes a sudden turn into the nightmarish and surreal at the end, somehow in Cronenberg's hand it all makes sense.

15. Goodnight Mommy (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala)

Austrian director Veronica Franz is continuing to prove (along with The Babadook's Jennifer Kent and Honeymoon's Leigh Janiak) that right now it's the women who are making the scariest films. Along with co-director Severin Fiala, Franz makes Goodnight Mommy a quiet, slow-burn of a horror movie. But Franz and Severin fill it with some of the most disturbing imagery you've never wanted to see. This one will stick with you for days.

14. Room (Lenny Abrahamson)

Lenny Abrahamson's (Frank) adaptation of the amazing 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue can't quite measure up to the source material, but that's not for any lack of talent or trying. The movie tells the story of a young woman named Joy (Brie Larson) who is held hostage for years in a  backyard shed by a mysterious kidnapper we know only as Old Nick. Forced to bear Nick's child, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), Joy makes the decision to tell her son that there is no world beyond the walls of "Room." This comes back to bite her when she must convince Jack to help the two them escape. The novel was told entirely from Jack's perspective, a narrative luxury that Abrahamson doesn't have at his disposal here. Yet, Abrahamson does an admirable job of hewing close to the novel, and he manages to capture its delicate balance of despair and hope. Larson and Tremblay both give show-stopping performances.

13. Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray)

Gray's film can't quite transcend its essential nature as a musical biopic (how could it?), but it's still a remarkable and remarkably entertaining depiction of the rise of seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A. The film manages to be stylish and edgy without being obtrusive, but what Gray and his cast (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., and Paul Giamatti) do best is capture the subtle nuances of the group's personal dynamic, along with their at-times fraught relationship with manager Jerry Heller (Giamatti). This movie doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it may pull its punches on a few of the uglier details (particularly in regards to the group's treatment of women), but it tells a damn good story that's as vital today as it was nearly 30 years ago.

12. The Martian (Ridley Scott)

This movie's personal to me in a way that none of the other films on this list are. For one thing, the writer/producer is Drew Goddard, a guy I went to high school with (no I'm not dropping names; we barely knew each other). For another, Drew made it clear during a Q&A that he sees this as essentially being about our home town. Adapted from Andy Weir's thoroughly entertaining novel, The Martian is an unabashed love letter to science and scientists. Rather than wallow in the bleakness of most non Star Wars/Star Trek sci-fi, it's a funny, warm, and hopeful declaration of what smart people can do when they put their heads together, even over a distance of 250 million miles.

11. Inside Out (Pete Docter)

I don't have a lot to say about this movie that hasn't already been said, other than to re-iterate that it's just one more example of Pixar's unmatched ability to craft a raucous, funny kid's movie that also manages to be a pretty sensitive and deep examination of the human condition. I don't manage to see all of Pixar's films, but for me it's their best since WALL•E

10. Spy (Paul Feig)

The best use of Melissa McCarthy since Feig's Bridesmaids, Spy is the most laugh-out-loud big Hollywood comedy of the year (Trainwreck was good, but it was rather too impressed with itself). I never thought a movie could possibly make me a Jason Statham fan, but he turns his persona on its head and delivers one of the funniest performances I've seen in a while. McCarthy, for her part, manages to display a sense of genuine pathos I didn't know she had in her. I had no expectations for this film, so it's probably my biggest surprise of the year. It's big dumb fun but still manages to have a few smart things to say about workplace gender relations, without beating you over the head with it.

9. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

Montreal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) is one of the most exciting talents to emerge in a long time, and Sicario is probably his best film yet. A French-Canadian love child of David Fincher and David Cronenberg, Villeneuve make movies that are pretty standard on-the-surface genre exercises that nevertheless manage to get under your skin in some pretty profound ways. You might think from the trailer that Sicario is just one more drug-cartel action thriller, but that's selling Villeneuve's vision way short. This movie is quietly terrifying and psychologically scarring in ways I can't even describe. Just watch it.

8. Beasts of No Nation (Cary Fukunaga)

There has been some understandable pushback on this film, seeing as how it's a bleak African story told mostly by American and British filmmakers (see Timbuktu for the real deal). But Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Sin Nombre) is a thoughtful and visionary auteur, and star Idris Elba is one of the best actors in the world. And that all comes before we even get to the remarkable central performance by Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah as Agu, a young African boy who watches his family get murdered before finding himself pulled into the clutches of a vicious warlord (Elba) with a deep need for child soldiers. Beasts of no Nation is both sensitive and stark, lyrical and brutal, and it unfolds almost surrealistically, like Apocalypse Now but with a more brittle edge. It's not an easy sit, but it's well worth it.

7. Tangerine (Sean Baker)

When you hear that Baker's indie film is about transgender prostitutes on the streets of LA, and that it was shot on an iPhone 5, you'd be forgiven for wanting to dismiss it as pretentious, just-out-of-film-school pablum. But you'd be wrong. For one thing, this movie is fucking funny. Baker's approach — both with the camera and with the narrative itself — leans more toward playful than really edgy, which makes the genuine moments of darkness land with that much more force. But central to the film's success are Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, as the aforementioned prostitutes Sin-Dee and Alexandria. Their performances are outlandish, nuanced, fiercely funny and full of genuine heart. This movie goes down so easy it's like a banana/blueberry smoothie, and the quiet but devastating final shot of the two of them together will make you laugh and cry at the same time. And, for what it's worth, Baker manages to make the iPhone footage look amazing.

6. What We Do in the Shadows (Taika Waititi)

This New Zealand comedy by the Flight of the Conchords guys is destined to join my own personal pantheon of most rewatchable/quotable cult comedies of all time, right up there with Shaun of the Dead, Ghostbusters and The Big Lebowski. I haven't laughed this hard in a long, long time. A mock-documentary that's sort of The Real World by way of Anne Rice (with the best joke over about a sandwich), there is not one false step in the entire film. Just when you think it can't get any funnier, it does. Seriously, you might actually rupture something. No description of this film can do it any sort of justice; you just have to see it for yourself. I promise that you'll thank me.

5. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell)

This movie is a total throwback to the 80s horror movies that I grew up with and love, but it also manages to do what it does better than most of those films. The concept and setup here is so simple it almost sounds like a joke; after having sex with her new boyfriend, a teenage girl (Maika Monroe) finds herself stalked by a malevolent being that can only be passed on to another person through coitus. But what Mitchell does with this idea is stunning. The movie taps into basic, reptile-brain fears like no movie I've seen since maybe John Carpenter's The Thing. Yeah, the logic doesn't entirely hold up... but maybe that's kind of the point.

4. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

Only in a year this good could a movie like Alex Garland's debut feature Ex Machina come in fourth on my list. This is exactly the type of movie I want to make. The film could almost be a stage play, but the anchoring performances by Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander — as (respectively) a computer geek bought in by a probably insane dot-com mogul to perform the Turing artificial intelligence test on a beautiful robot — are almost unreal in how good they are, and the production design and cinematography keep it firmly cinematic. Helped along by Garland's (the writer behind novels like The Tesseract and movies like 28 Days Later) expertly crafted screenplay and surprisingly assured direction, the quiet pressure this film puts on its audience becomes almost unbearable before it's over. It's also perhaps the most disturbing examination of the male gaze ever put on film. The best sci-fi debut since Duncan Jones's Moon

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

Based upon my love of George Miller's The Road Warrior and the expectations set by Mad Max: Fury Road's incredible trailer, I went into this film thinking there was no way it could do anything but disappoint me. Instead, it exceeded my wildest expectations. Well into his 70s, Miller managed to make one of the most thrilling action movies of all time while keeping it firmly rooted in the franchise's B-movie roots. This is the Mad Max movie we've all been wanting to see since we were kids. And, yes, it's a feminist film — gleefully and unapologetically so in a way we should not only respect but celebrate.

2. Creed (Ryan Coogler)

The 1976 film Rocky is an undisputed classic that was followed by a string of fun but ultimately inconsequential sequels. So it would make sense that Creed would be just more of the same. Instead, Sylvester Stallone made the brilliant decision to hand the reigns of the franchise over to one of the most exciting filmmakers of the moment, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and let him have his way with it. Coogler focuses not on Rocky but instead on Adonis Creed (a quietly affecting Michael B. Jordan), son of legendary champion Apollo Creed. The aging Rocky is relegated to the Mickey (Burgess Meredith) role here. Creed is at once completely fresh and a powerful callback to the original film, both in its narrative but also its joyous spirit. It's a perfect bookend to the franchise, and is the rare sequel that actually makes the original a better film. When you're talking about a movie like Rocky, that's really saying something.

1. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)

I'm going to make a bold statement here: Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is every bit as good as Alan Pakula's classic All the President's Men (1976), the movie whose legacy looms largest over it. I happened to live in Boston at the tail-end of the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal depicted in this film, so it hit home for me in a pretty real way. But beyond that tenuous personal connection, Spotlight is to print journalism what The Martian is to science: a loving reminder of how important these institutions can be. Spotlight is a classic procedural, and it depicts the grind of squeezing out a great piece of investigative journalism while never feeling like a grind itself. The film honors the importance of its subject by never moralizing or talking down to its audience. The performances — Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Leiv Schreiber, John Slattery, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci — are uniformly masterful, but Schreiber is my favorite as caustic Boston Globe editor Marty Baron. The role could have been reduced to cliché — in fact, McCarthy deftly sets us up to expect it, only to pull the rug right out from under us. In Schreiber's hands, Baron is a quietly powerful force, the outsider needed to rip the scab off an entrenched community's festering wound. It's one of the more unheralded performances of the year, but should not be ignored. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Still Reeling: David Bowie Just Died and I Can't Even Deal With It

It was just announced a couple hours ago on the official David Bowie Facebook page that everyone's favorite rock & roll extraterrestrial has died.

You can read more at The Hollywood Reporter, including a fairly extensive biography of the icon. Here's the statement from the family:

"January 10 2016 - David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle with cancer. While many of you will share in this loss, we ask that you respect the family's privacy during their time of grief."

David Bowie is probably my fifth-favorite musician of all time, right up there with Faith No More, Pink Floyd, The Clash, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. He's always been a part of my life — from when I was a little kid and I stole my brother's Bowie poster because I thought he looked cool, right up to these past few days as I've listened with euphoric levels of glee to his latest release, Blackstar. He seemed like Mount Rushmore, or the Golden Gate Bridge — a musical monolith, as precise in his artfulness as he was stolid and apparently eternal.

My fandom for the Thin White Duke has ebbed and flowed over the years, hitting a peak somewhere around 1991-1992 when I was in my weirdo 70s music phase (that's also when I fell in love with Frank Zappa), and probably sinking to its lowest point around 1997-1998, when I was all caught up in the whole death metal thing. Over the last fifteen years or so his music has steadily wormed its way back into my soul. The man was an absolute genius. There will be never be another like him.

As sad as I am over this news, I'm so grateful that he was able to give us Blackstar before he passed. It's his best, most adventurous album in years, and it's a genuine inspiration that he managed to remain so vital and boundary-pushing right up to the end.

I don't have a whole lot more to say about this. I'm still trying to process. But I know I want to celebrate him and his genius, so in no particular order here are my 10 favorite David Bowie songs:

Lazarus (2016)

Let's start with his most recent. Blackstar, written and performed with some of the world's best jazz musicians, is a truly amazing achievement — particularly now that we know it was made while he was dying. The single "Lazarus" was originally written for a new off-Broadway musical that was inspired by his 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. It's the best track on an already brilliant record, and in retrospect it seems obvious that it was planned to be his swan song. I can't think of a better one.

I'm not going to have much to say about the rest of these. Just enjoy them.

Heroes (1977)

Station to Station (1976)

The Hearts Filthy Lesson (1995)

Even when I moved away from Bowie for awhile, I took this song with me.

Life on Mars (1971)

Just so goddamned pretty.

Suffragette City (1972)

Where Are We Now? (2013)

Bowie as an older man reflecting on his memories of Berlin. So beautiful and melancholy. It's actually a little too painful to listen to this song right now.

Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (1983)

This song got re-popularized after Tarantino used it in Inglorious Basterds, but I'll always remember it as the only good thing about Paul Schrader's terrible remake of Cat PeopleVal Lewton's 1942 horror classic.

Queen Bitch (1971)

Ziggy Stardust (1972)

Keep in mind I'm not arguing these are the definitive 10 best Bowie songs. These are just my favorites, the ones I enjoy the most, and this list could change at any time depending on my mood. There are so many others I could talk about — "Space Oddity," "Fame," "Starman," "Changes," "Diamond Dogs," "Rebel Rebel," "Golden Years," "Modern Love," "Sound and Vision," "TVC15," "The Jean Genie," "Young Americans," "All the Young Dudes," and on and on and on and on. The list is almost literally endless.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Hateful Eight and Joy (2015)

Okay, let me start off by saying how much I fucking hate Tarantino's whole "The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino" thing. I know he's been doing it for awhile, and I'm sure he'd say he's trying to call back to the grandiosity of classic cinema in some way. But I'm sorry, it's just really annoying. We get it Quentin. You're you.

With that out of the way, I'll go ahead and say that The Hateful Eight is probably my favorite Tarantino film since Reservoir Dogs. This isn't necessarily saying all that much because I haven't really loved a Tarantino film since Dogs (or maybe Jackie Brown). I appreciate most of them and only actively dislike one (Django Unchained), but after the new-car smell of Pulp Fiction wore off back around 1996 or so I've just never really been able to plug back into his aesthetic the way most people seem to. 

I've always said that Tarantino is like the most genius 13-year-old boy in the world. He can craft a brilliant scene (the opener of Inglorious Basterds, the "oh, I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?" scene in Pulp). His movies are, by and large, full of such scenes — even in Django, which I found pretty repulsive, I watched the "white cake" scene with my jaw on the floor. But, in the end, he just can't help but get in his own way. The constant movie references, the baroque violence, the scene-stomping monologues... over the course of two hours or so I just find it all pretty wearying. Not offensive or distasteful. Just... kind of boring. I know I'm not the first to say this, but I ultimately find his hyper-referential approach more alienating than entertaining. Whatever substance might be there gets buried under all the "isn't this cool?" posturing, and I just check out eventually.

There's something about The Hateful Eight that feels a little different, though. It's still a Tarantino film, with all that that implies, but it's sharper and more purposeful than anything he's done in years. And, for once, it really seems like he has something he wants to say here. 

This is a mean fucking movie — maybe the meanest he's ever made — but in its way it's an oddly moral one. Tarantino has been oft-derided for his liberal use of the N-word, and I'll admit that most of the time I've felt that he uses it for shock value and little else. But in The Hateful Eight he really digs into the word — its meaning, its power to hurt and to be wielded as a weapon, and how it can be turned against the person wielding it. While I think The Hateful Eight is one of his best and most cohesive films, it actually has fewer of those amazing scenes we've grown accustomed to. But there's one right before the intermission (I saw the 70mm roadshow version) that's a true show stopper. Tarantino rips the scab off the country's long racial wound and lets all the festering ugliness just flow right out. In the era of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, that feels necessary. 

Tarantino also explores some interesting and similarly dark territory in regard to gender. Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is one of the vilest, most disgusting characters in recent years (she reminded me a more dangerous/psychopathic Gollum). We spend much of the movie rooting for her to die — and to die painfully. Yet, Tarantino constantly pulls the rug out from under us and fucks with our sense of empathy. She'll do something truly awful, but when one of the much larger male characters responds with a vicious punch, pistol-whip, or elbow to the face — well, it's hard not to wince and feel a little disgusted with ourselves.

For all its nastiness, however, The Hateful Eight is also supremely entertaining. I think it's no accident that I responded to this in a way I haven't since Dogs; by locking the characters in one place and forcing them to bounce off each other like pinballs (or grenades), both movies strip away so much of what I tend to find so maddening in the rest of his work. The film is clearly influenced by John Carpenter's The Thing (he even uses some of Ennio Morricone's unreleased music from the 1982 horror classic), but it also owes a huge debt to Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Romero's Night of the Living Dead. The use of the wide-format 70mm in the confined space of the snowed-in cabin that serves as the movie's primary location heightens rather than takes away from the claustrophobia. The aspect ratio tends to crowd the characters together in an interesting way, rarely letting any one person own the frame him/herself. The film starts relatively quiet by Tarantino standards, but he uses that claustrophobia brilliantly and lets the tension build until it explodes in a truly impressive carnival of violence that feels more earned than gratuitous.

I still don't love The Hateful Eight, or at least not as much as I love Dogs. But it's Tarantino's first movie in a long time that reminded me what he's capable of when he gets serious.  


I've always been a bit on the fence about David O. Russell as well. His movies tend to be an odd mix of mania and ponderousness that undercuts whatever comedy he might be going for. Occasionally it clicks (Flirting with Disaster, American Hustle) but too often his films can kind of sink under their own weight (I Heart Huckabees). 

I saw Joy the same day that I saw The Hateful Eight, and two more different movies I couldn't imagine. On paper, Joy shouldn't work at all — the story of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop does not seem to cry out for cinematic treatment. 

But, while The Hateful Eight is maybe the better and more ambitious movie, Joy is a hell of a lot of fun. It's loose and breezy in a way that reminded me of Flirting, and O. Russell rides that line between just-enough-quirk and way-too-much like an expert rodeo cowboy riding the bucking bronco. There are moments where I felt like Joy was about to tip over into preposterousness, but O. Russell unerringly pulls back at just the right moment.

Sort of based on the story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), the aforementioned Miracle Mop inventor, the film is actually a pretty insightful (if at times too on-the-nose) study on the ways our society conspires to thwart the ambitions of women. Joy is a single mom saddled with two kids, an ex-husband and a father who won't move out of her basement, and an epically dysfunctional extended family that seems determined at every turn to stomp whatever sense of industriousness and entrepreneurial self-worth right out of her. She risks everything to bring her damn mop to market, but it all nearly comes undone because of a family member's stunning act of presumptuous incompetence. 

But this isn't a weeper or a tragedy. This movie is fucking funny. Lawrence showcases the same comedic chops that she did in last year's Hustle, and she's balanced perfectly against a supporting cast that includes an in-rare-form Robert de Niro and a giddily vampiric Isabella Rossellini. 

When he's at his best, O. Russell is a master at zeroing in on those little moments of interaction that can be at once fraught with tension and absolutely hilarious. I don't think he's been as sharp in his observations of the sometimes cannibalistic nature of the American family since Flirting with Disaster

Saturday, January 2, 2016

No "Winds of Winter" before season 6; a note on writing and GRRM and how the fans need to shut up

Warning: A few spoilers below for the previous books.

So the worst has happened and all of our darkest fears have been realized.

George R.R. Martin has not finished "The Winds of Winter," and the book will not arrive before season 6 of Game of Thrones

You can read his blog post from earlier today explaining what happened.

"Here it is, the first of January. The book is not done, not delivered. No words can change that. I tried, I promise you. I failed. I blew the Halloween deadline, and I've now blown the end of the year deadline. And that almost certainly means that no, THE WINDS OF WINTER will not be published before the sixth season of GAME OF THRONES premieres in April (mid April, we are now told, not early April, but those two weeks will not save me). Even as late as my birthday and our big Emmy win, I still thought I could do it... but the days and weeks flew by faster than the pile of pages grew, and (as I often do) I grew unhappy with some of the choices I'd made and began to revise... and suddenly it was October, and then November... and as the suspicion grew that I would not make it after all, a gloom set in, and I found myself struggling even more. The fewer the days, the greater the stress, and the slower the pace of my writing became."

Cue the howling from the fans. Cue the shouts about how GRRM is getting old and he's going to die before the series is done. Cue the crying about spoilers in season 6. Cue the claims of betrayal, of laziness, of disloyalty, etc. 

"George should have stopped with all his other appearances so he could just write," some people will say. "He should have quit updating his blog. He should have stopped watching football. He should have sold (or never bought) the Jean Cocteau Cinema. He should have just sequestered himself in his office, with an IV drip to keep him going and maybe a little camping cot in the corner so he could grab a few hours of sleep here and there, and just KEPT WRITING."

Here's the thing: I'm willing bet good money that most of you people saying these things are not writers. Or if you are writers, you're not serious writers, because no serious writer would be so stupid.

Here are a few points.

1) George R.R. Martin doesn't owe you a goddamned thing. Might he die before the books are finished? It's possible. Not likely, but shit happens. We could all be obliterated by an asteroid, too, or by the Wyoming supervolcano. 

You know what? Deal with it. You don't own him and you don't own his creativity. You'll get the book when you get it. Or you won't and we'll all be dead and it won't matter anyway.

2) The writing process just doesn't work like we, the fans, may want it to work. Sure, deadlines are important — as a screenwriter, if you miss a deadline you're likely to cost a production hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars and you'll probably be fired. If you're a TV writer, the pressure is just that much more intense.

But writing a 90 to 120 page screenplay (or a 47 to 55 page TV episode) is not the same as writing a 1,500 page novel set in a highly detailed fictional universe with literally thousands of years of history, hundreds of characters, and an entire world mythology to deal with. Aside from the drastically reduced word count, most screenwriters and TV writers are working off some sort of an outline that can, at the very least, serve as a lighthouse in the distance showing them which way to go. If you're a novelist like John Grisham or Sara Paretsky or James Patterson, you might be doing something similar. This is why those writers can turn out tightly plotted, entertaining books with seeming clockwork regularity. 

But if you're GRRM writing "The Winds of Winter" — or Stephen King writing "The Dark Tower," or J.RR. Tolkien writing "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Silmarillion," or even Jonathan Franzen writing "Freedom" or David Foster Wallace writing "Infinite Jest" — that's probably not going to be the case. If you're one of those folks, you're more like Jim White after he discovered Carlsbad Caverns — pushing forward with nothing but a lantern, unable to see more than three feet in front of you, swallowed by a darkness that's seemingly without end. 

I'm sorry to disappoint, but you don't just sit down in front of the computer and churn out 20 pages a day like you're doing data entry. If you do do that, you're likely a pretty shitty writer. Writing is very often a process of indecision, false starts and painful course corrections. Even if you're working off an outline, you rarely if ever get it right the first time. 

And it doesn't happen in a vacuum. To be able to write effectively, you need to live an active, purposeful life. To be inspired, you need to put yourself in position to encounter inspiration. That only happens through experience and engagement with the world around you. You never know where the next idea will come from — it could be a conversation with a friend, or a drive through the mountains, or a war, or even a bloody shootout with bank robbers. But I can tell you that it almost never comes from sitting in a dark room by yourself. It's no accident that most of our best writers — Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, Maya Angelou, on and on and on —lived big, messy, complicated lives. 

GRRM's life is hopefully less messy than, say, Charles Bukowski's. But I can't begrudge him his afternoon football games, his movie theater, his convention appearances, his life with his family and friends, or his engagement with the New Mexico film and arts community, because I know that those things are just as integral to his process as the actual typing. You need to get out and do things so that you can refill the well of wherever the inspiration comes from. 

3) If avoiding spoilers is important to you, then avoid them. It's not always easy, but it can be done. It takes a certain amount of work and discipline to resist clicking on this episode recap or that Facebook post, but it takes far less discipline than it does to, say, write a 1,500 page novel from scratch. Maybe just maybe it's on you to do some of the work.

But I watch the show TOO! you whine. Am I supposed to just give that up?

Yes. You are. If the books are more important to you than the show, then that's the choice you will have to make. This is the real world, kid. Life is full of hard choices, and you don't always get what you want. 

But what if something does get spoiled? What if one of your stupid friends says "Holy shit, can you believe that Dani turned out to be a man?" without knowing that you've stopped watching the show and have been engaged for months in a monk-like process of ascetic self denial.

So what? I'm guessing you have a favorite book or movie, and that you have not read or watched that book or movie only once. I'm sure you enjoyed it just as much, if not more, the second, third, tenth, twentieth time through it. 

Here's a little secret: good stories may be about what happens, but great stories are about HOW it happens. They're about all the little details and character choices that lead up to the thing happening, not the thing itself. 

When I started reading "A Song of Ice and Fire," I managed to spoil two big things for myself early on: Ned's fate and the Red Wedding. I learned about what happened to Ned because some magazine profile on GRRM mentioned it. I was pretty pissed at that reporter for not putting a spoiler warning up front until I remembered that the book came out in 1996 and it was now 2011. I'd had plenty of time to get caught up beforehand.

The Red Wedding was my own damn fault. I went to A Wiki of Ice and Fire to look up something else and I just sort of stumbled on it. I think I was halfway through "A Clash of Kings" at the time so it was a pretty solid punch to the gut.

But did either of the revelations ruin the books for me? No! In fact, in a way they almost deepened my experience. There was something exciting about the dread that came from reading and knowing what dark shit was just over the horizon. When Ned had his conversation with Cersei in the godswood in "A Game of Thrones," I wanted to scream at him because I could see him make the choice that would ultimately lead to his death. It was like watching a slow motion car accident.

In "A Storm of Swords," when Robb arrived back to Riverrun with Jeyne Westering and introduced her to Lady Catalyn as his wife, I had a similar reaction. My stomach fell into my shoes because, since I knew the Red Wedding was coming, I could recognize that as the moment where he had sealed his fate. Everything that came after that, including all the negotiations with the Freys, were infused with a sharp sense of tragedy. 

Would it have been nice to experience either of those major events without having had them spoiled for me? Sure. But I can't say it made me enjoy them any less, or weakened their impact when they happened.

I stopped watching Game of Thrones after season 4, partly to avoid upcoming spoilers and partly because, frankly, I just don't think the show is all that good anymore. I found that I was hate-watching the show more than I was enjoying it, so I decided to stop bothering with it altogether. 

But I did hear about the whole Stannis/Shareen thing. For one thing, I'm not convinced it's a spoiler because the show has gone so wildly off down its own path already. But even if it is... okay, well now I'm curious how that's going to work. If anything, it's made me more intrigued about "The Winds of Winter" than I was before.

Look, I get it. I get the impatience. I read an update like this and there's definitely a small part of me that wants chain the guy to his chair and make him finish the book at gunpoint. 

But I want the book to be good more than I want to have it now. I was a rabid fan of Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series, but I wasn't all that satisfied with the direction he took it in the last two books. He had been subjected to some very similar fan pressure and I can't help but think his decision to write the last three books in a rush didn't do the series (or the fans) any favors in the long run. I still love the series, but I always wonder what might have been if we'd all just shut the fuck up and let him get on with it in his own time. 

I don't want to see that happen with "A Song of Ice and Fire." 

So, George, just keep doing what you're doing. 

I'll be here when you're ready.