Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Switching to Weebly

Okay. I've fucking had it. Blogger sucks balls.

So I'm moving this blog over to Weebly. Check it out:

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Coen Brothers' movies tend to spring from two very distinct wells of inspiration. You have the bleak, existential, miserablist Coens (A Serious ManNo Country For Old MenInside Llewyn Davis) and the zany, madcap Coens (O Brother Where Art Thou?Raising ArizonaIntolerable Cruelty) who take their cues more from screwball-comedy maestro Preston Sturges than from someone like Martin Scorsese or Ingmar Bergman.

Most fall on a spectrum between those two poles, and often enough their best films (FargoThe Big LebowskiBurn After Reading, Barton Finkare nestled in the sweet spot that exists dead center between them. The one unifying element in all of their movies is their worship for but utter lack of reverence toward classic movie tropes, which they love to employ and then turn inside out with reckless abandon.

Their new film, Hail, Caesar!, lives pretty comfortably on the screwball side. For a Coen Brothers' film it's surprisingly gentle. The Coens are often accused of harboring a deep contempt for their characters, and in movies like Burn After Reading and Barton Fink it's hard to argue against that. But, as ridiculous as everyone is in Hail, Caesar!, the filmmakers' abiding affection shines through. Even the worst characters here are pretty lovable.

The movie is also a lot more direct about its influences. Set in the 1940s and focusing on a day in the life of a studio "fixer" named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Hail, Caesar! is sort of the sunnier flip side to Barton Fink's much more vicious take on old Hollywood. Rather than rub our noses in the muck, in Hail, Caesar! the Coens would much rather give us a friendly wink and a nudge. This is a movie that's in love with movies.

Eddie is a devout Catholic, and they have a lot of fun turning him into a sort of dimestore Christ figure. He suffers gamely for the sins of his industry, helping a caustic starlet (Scarlett Johansson) cover up an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, guiding a dimwitted singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) who the studio insists on casting in a stuffy drawing-room melodrama, fending off a pair of malicious twin-sister gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton, having a lot of fun), asking a quartet of religious leaders for theological guidance on a script ("The chariot race seemed a little fakey to me," offers the Orthodox patriarch), and — most dramatically — attempting to pay off a mysterious cadre called The Future who have kidnapped one of the studio's biggest stars (George Clooney) for, as it turns out, a pretty asinine reason. 

The Coens use this loose narrative framework to recreate scenes from a number of classic Hollywood movies, including Busby Berkeley musicals like Million Dollar Mermaid, Gene Autry singing westerns, and massive Biblical epics like Ben-Hur and The Ten CommandmentsThey're clearly having the time of their lives skewering some of the more, shall we say, dated elements (the terrible matte paintings and awkward stunts are fantastic), but you can also tell how much they love this shit. The highlight is a Footlight Parade-inspired dance number featuring a tap-dancing Channing Tatum, which moves from silly and cheeky to not-so-subtly homoerotic before it's done.

Hail, Caesar! is packed full of jokes (my favorite is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it gag involving an itchy foot) and movie references both obvious and obscure (one of the minor character's names is a pretty arbitrary callback to Vertigo). The Coens have also seemingly called all their actor friends and invited them over to play. We get a bunch of funny glorified cameos from Jonah Hill, Christopher Lambert, Ralph Fiennes, Frances McDormand, and even Fischer Stevens. I guess John Goodman must have had the flu that day. 

You get the sense that everyone was having a blast here, which is not always the case in Coen movies. There's a looseness to the performances that I don't generally associate with their films. Brolin has probably the least fun role, but he provides an anchor for all the ridiculousness swirling around him. Clooney lovingly roasts his own movie-star image and proves once again that he's one of the most underrated comic actors out there. Swinton is both monstrous and hilarious. Johansson's role is pretty one-note, but she plays that note brilliantly. The standouts are Tatum (the less said the better) and relative newcomer Ehrenreich, who steals every scene he's in and is obviously a star in the making. 

This movie is a lot of fun, even if it's basically cotton candy. It doesn't pack the punch you tend to expect from these guys, and I'm going to guess it won't have a lot of staying power in relation to their masterpieces. It's pretty much mid-level Coens. But even mid-level Coens tends to be better than 90 percent of the rest of what's out there.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Green Inferno (2015)

"Justine, this is good news. If he's telling the truth, then those bulldozers will tear these motherfuckers to shreds."

This is an actual line of dialogue in Eli Roth's The Green Inferno, spoken by one of our white main characters about the villainous (and entirely fictional) cannibal natives of the Peruvian Amazon.

To be absolutely clear, the character (whose name I can't remember because I don't think Roth ever bothered to tell us) is setting up the film's central premise — for our (again: white) protagonists to survive, we must root for the destruction of the Amazon and the violent death of the natives who live within it.

That's what this movie's about. For real.

I finally watched The Green Inferno after sort of purposefully avoiding it for months. But it kept popping up on Amazon feed and, unfortunately, curiosity got the best of me. I really wish it hadn't.

I'm not going to mince words here: The Green Inferno is a racist movie. In fact, it's a viciously, gleefully racist movie. We're talking Birth of a Nation-level racist. It's the sort of movie I'm actually stunned anyone was willing to fund or distribute.

Do I think Eli Roth is a vicious, gleeful racist? I don't know the guy personally, but no, probably not. But I've known a million Eli Roths in my day — dudebro, snickering heavy metal guys with the emotional and intellectual depth of the scrum of dirty water at the bottom of a kitchen sink. Guys who just love being offensive for the hell of it, who say things like "cunt" and "faggot" in mixed company because they like to see people squirm. And if you call them out for it, you're a pussy (or, in today's parlance, an "SJW"). Basically, guys like Phil Anselmo. And I get it. Hell, I used to kind of be that guy myself. 

As Buzzfeed's Allison Wilmore says in her review of The Green Inferno and Roth's other 2015 film, Knock Knock

"The Green Inferno, which is about college activists who have a run-in with cannibals, aims to be horrifying. Knock Knock, which is about two women wreaking havoc on a married man, aspires to be titillating. But more than anything, both persistently, persuasively angle to make you angry. They’re bad faith arguments expanded to feature length and served up with a you mad, bro? smirk. Roth, having reached the limits of splatter as a way to provoke, seems to have settled on something new: trolling."

She continues: 

"Their goading feels unpleasantly familiar, because it recalls internet griping about 'SJWs' and women lying about sexual assault. Whatever Roth claims, these movies sure feel like they’re catering to the grimmest parts of 4chan and Reddit, and that’s more nauseating to see onscreen than the most graphic of violence."

The Green Inferno is a riff on Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, considered by many to be the meanest horror film ever made (I've seen it, and I wouldn't exactly argue with that assessment). The movie centers on Justine (Lorenza Izzo, who also happens to be Roth's wife, and who is actually pretty good here), a college freshman drawn (because of a boy) into the world of college activism. Within two weeks, she's off with a group of barely sketched stereotypes to the Peruvian jungle so that they can all chain themselves to a bunch of bulldozers and stop the death or displacement of an isolated jungle tribe. Then their plane crashes, and the once-privileged "slacktivists" proceed to get horrifically killed and eaten by the very same tribe they were there to save.

Yes, The Green Inferno is offensive, but I don't want to give you the impression that that's the only thing wrong with it. It's also a deeply stupid movie, where the characters continuously do stupid, incomprehensible things like not take off their bright yellow jumpsuits while trying to hide from the cannibal natives in the jungle. It's a movie where the sight of a bunch of children laughing while a young woman almost literally shits her guts out is meant to be funny. Roth hasn't met a cliché he doesn't like, and the characters only ever rise above their respective types when they start behaving in weird, motiveless ways so he can advance what I guess is supposed to serve as his plot.

And it's not a particularly scary movie. The carnage would be laughable if it wasn't so boring. I was eating a cold pizza while watching it, and not once did my gorge rise. The only remotely cringe-inducing moments for me involved bugs, and that's only because I'm arachnophobic. The rest of it's just inane and unbelievably fake. I didn't buy one second of the violence. A guy's eyes get gouged out with sticks? Yawn. A woman cuts off a dude's tongue and eats it? Pass the popcorn.

Oh yeah, and if I haven't quite sold you yet, there's some really clumsily telegraphed female genital mutilation. By the time it actually occurs, it felt like Roth was simply ticking things off his checklist.

But let's get back to how this movie is really, horribly, stupefyingly racist. A few critics, including New York Magazine's David Edelstein, have tried to defend it by arguing that there's some sort of social commentary in here somewhere. Even my beloved Stephen King liked it. I'm not sure what movie they saw, but it sure as hell isn't the one I watched. Whatever commentary Roth might have been trying to make is completely undone by the incomprehensible nature of the film's message. It wallows in centuries-old primitivist stereotypes before absurdly trying to let itself off the hook at the end with a tacked-on speech about how bad racism is, or something. Is this movie about the futility of social-justice activism? I guess maybe? Or is it about the savage colonial exploitation of the Amazon? Could be, maybe, a little bit? Is it about how brown people are pretty scary and really actually just want to eat you? That's getting closer to the mark. Or is it about how awesome it is when that one fat dude's head gets cut off and then the tattooed lesbo gets skinned alive, but how it's kind of a bummer because we never got to see her tits? Now you're getting there. 

Horror fiction, by its very nature, depends on tapping into some very primal and irrational fears — the so-called "reptile brain" psychologists and neuroscientists like to talk about. As someone who writes horror myself, I think there's an inherent value in tapping into those fears. It's not just the proverbial "rollercoaster" ride so many critics talk about, but something rather deeper, more visceral, and much more necessary than that. It's like lancing a boil or draining the pus out of an infected wound — not always pleasant or pretty, but really goddamn important if you want to live.

But the problem for the horror writer (or filmmaker) is that these reptile-brain fears are also the source of some of our worst, most destructive impulses as a species. One of those basic fears is the fear of the other, or the alien — which can encompass everything from insects and arachnids, to space aliens, to Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster, to (frankly) people of ethnicities and cultures different from our own. This fear of the other is the primal, animal source of human bigotry.

I think horror is at its best when it drags these fears out into the open and forces us to examine them in unexpected ways. Horror fiction can become truly great when it twists the irrational in on itself to make a fundamentally rational point. Stephen King's The Stand has some interesting things to say about the dangers of unchecked technological progress. Scream has a valid point to make about violence and mass media. Roth himself actually made some shrewd observations about the post-9/11 American mental state in Hostel. Hell, even Cannibal Holocaust — as gross and exploitive as it is — yields a few smart and provocative ideas about gross exploitation. 

I'm not saying I want all our horror movies to come with bumper-sticker slogans, or that horror as a genre shouldn't be violent or confrontational. There are plenty of writers (Jack Ketchum) and filmmakers (James Watkins) I respect who've made entire careers of that. The difference is that their work isn't completely asinine. It's a fine line between dealing with our basest fears in a real and honest way and simply wallowing in them. That's what Roth wants us to do in The Green Inferno. While the white and/or American characters never really rise above caricature, the cannibal natives aren't even characters at all. Nothing about the tribe or its rituals makes any sense outside of dumb movie logic. They are an almost literally mindless horde that wants nothing more than to eat us alive. They're classic zombies, except instead of being dead they're brown.  

The Green Inferno is a racist movie because it taps deeply into our primal fear of the other and has absolutely nothing to say about it. Rather than give us anything approaching any sort of commentary on the subject, Roth just wants to gross us out and high-five himself while he does so. And he can't even get that part right.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Most anticipated of 2016

I've never done a "most anticipated" list before, but 2015 was so great — from the first Faith No More record in 18 years, to the best Stephen King novel since the 90s, to the consistently excellent film and television — that I'm finding myself much more excited about what's coming up than I have been in a really long time. So here are a few of the things I'm looking forward to the most in 2016.


The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin (May 24)

The final installment in Cronin's The Passage trilogy of post-apocalyptic vampire novels (comprising 2010's The Passage and 2012's The Twelve), this book will conclude what, for my money, is the best horror/sci-fi series to come along in a very long time. Owing much to Stephen King's The Stand and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, Cronin's vision is nevertheless distinct enough to make it stand apart, and the world and characters he creates are vivid and complex. The overall tone is one of deep melancholy that should make newer readers think of a more bent version of The Walking Dead. 

A lot of fans (myself included) were a bit underwhelmed by The Twelve (although, on a second read, I have to say it was a lot better than I remembered), so it'll be interesting to see if Cronin can stick the landing here.

Runner Up:

End of Watch by Stephen King (June 7)

Another conclusion to a trilogy, King's End of Watch is the follow-up to the pretty good Mr. Mercedes (2014) and the excellent Finders Keepers (2015). This series is a bit of a departure for King, who's working in a self-consciously John D. McDonald-influenced hard-boiled crime framework here. Mr. Mercedes showed a bit of strain, probably because of his unfamiliarity with creating this type of story, but in Finders Keepers he found his stride and wrote his best book in well over a decade.

The ending of Finders Keepers hints that End of Watch might stray back towards his supernatural horror roots, however, so I'm curious to see what he does with the likely genre mashup.


The Witch (February 19)

Coming out of last year's Sundance, the level of buzz surrounding the debut film by Robert Eggers has been insane. And, if the above trailer is any indication, this promises to be one of the scariest fucking movies in the history of ever. The most difficult part of this for me is managing my expectations. Luckily we don't have to wait much longer.

 Runner Up:

 Green Room (April 15)

Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin was an imperfect but wildly ambitious debut, and Green Room looks to take that movie's savage ethic and positively square it. All I know is that it's about members of a punk band from Portland who inadvertently agree to perform at a white supremacist gathering, where they witness a brutal crime and then have to fight to survive.

Just the concept alone is enough to grab my interest, but the fact that it's Saulnier makes it a must-see.


Deftones, Gore (April 8)

Looking at what's scheduled, there isn't a whole lot coming out in the music world that really grabbed my attention. But I'll always check out a new Deftones record; for me, they're one of the only 90s nü-metal bands to survive with their artistic integrity intact.

Runner Up:

Anthrax, For All Kings (February 26)

I'm enjoying this throw-backy Anthrax that we've been getting since the return of Joey Belladonna. I can't say the above-linked song is among their best work, but I'm willing to give the album as a whole a chance.

2nd Runner Up:

Untitled new Metallica album (TBA)

I'm quite convinced that this album, whatever it is, will suck a hairy dog ball. But I'm still enough of an old-school thrash guy that I can't ignore a new record by these guys. We'll see, I guess.

3rd Runner Up:

P.J. Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project (April 15)

Harvey's work is always great and she hasn't put out a record since 2011, so I'll definitely be excited the day this one drops.


Daredevil Season 2 (Netflix)

I don't really care about the whole Marvel universe thing, and I've only ever been mildly interested in the movies. But the work they're doing on Netflix with Daredevil and Jessica Jones has been excellent. Both series have more in common with gritty cable fare like Sons of Anarchy or Banshee than they do with The Avengers, and the fact that they're bringing in the Punisher (John Bernthal) has me almost giddy with excitement. Frank Castle is really the only comic-book character I ever followed with any regularity, and I've been dying to see someone do a solid screen take on him since Dolph Lundgren mumbled his way through the dismal 1989 movie. I'm looking forward to the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist series' as well.

Runner Up:

Vinyl (HBO)

Everything about this — from the subject matter and setting to the talent involved to the network it's on — tells me that Vinyl is going to be awesome. In fact, they would almost have to go out of their way to screw this one up.

Of course, after the dismal second season of True Detective, HBO has proven that that is entirely possible.