Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Canadian horror story

The jokes are too easy. A Canadian horror series, even one called "Slasher," conjures up images of a polite serial killer courteously asking potential victims for their consent before he slices them to ribbons. If the rampaging murderer has a snappy catchphrase he utters right before bringing down the knife, you can bet it'll end with "eh." Right? Because Canada. Also, somehow there's gotta be a Timbits reference. There's just gotta be. Killer's favorite snack?

As it turns out, the more interesting story about "Slasher" is that it revives a genre that came roaring back in 2011, with FX's "American Horror Story," but has at this point gone seriously to seed. After the daring, emotionally gripping, at times deeply unsettling second season of "AHS," Ryan Murphy's gory, over-the-top anthology series drifted into gratuitous blood 'n' guts, borderline-tasteless exploitation of topics like slavery ("Coven") and disabilities ("Freak Show"), and, worst of all, a near-fatal lack of scares.

I gave "Roanoke" a try after giving "Hotel" a hard pass, and you know what? Four episodes in, Murphy & Co. couldn't resist a graphic disemboweling, just 'cause. Doesn't help when the disembowlee is one of the season's most entertaining characters. Sure, dead people often come back as ghosts in the "AHS" universe, but I don't need my "Murder House"/"Blair Witch" knockoff mashup with a side of "Saw," thankyouverymuch.

"Slasher," despite its forehead-slappingly dumb name, feels fresh much the way "Murder House" did, though showrunner Aaron Martin doesn't bring the funny, or the provocative, or the downright weird, as reliably as early-run Murphy did. But hey, "Slasher" uses one of my favorite TV premises of all time -- person takes job as editor of small-town newspaper, paper serves as convenient vehicle for all manner of snooping and gossip-mongering and ethical dilemmas -- and combines it with the tried-and-true "Scream" formula (young woman returns to small town where parents were brutally murdered, looking for answers). Almost can't lose with that setup.

"Slasher" doesn't have the wildness of "AHS" seasons one and two, but it has likable-enough characters and is willing to surprise us from time to time. For example, not everyone stalked by season one's killer, the Executioner, ends up expiring. This keeps us guessing in every scene about who's going to make it and who's going to croak. Gore isn't overused, and the show's casual racial diversity puts to shame American TV, which is aimed at a considerably more ethnically diverse population. Are Canadian small towns really this Benetton-colorful? Who cares! This is fiction; give black actors some work.

After the pilot, I was uncertain about whether I'd keep going. But as in Britain, Canadian TV seasons aren't obligated to hit some arbitrary 12-episode mark. Season one of "Slasher" has eight episodes, and partway through ep No. 2, I'm hooked enough. Katie McGrath is compellingly tenacious and tough as Sarah Bennett, whose parents the Executioner did away with so viciously so many years ago, and "Being Erica" alum Erin Karpluk is well cast against type as the homophobic town loon who may or may not be capable of murder. As Halloween recedes in the rearview and the holidays beckon, one could do a lot worse than to quest along with Sarah as she turns over every last rotten rock in Waterbury in search of the horrible truth.

Monday, October 30, 2017

"The Con" turns 10

In 2007, indie pop band (and twin sisters) Tegan and Sara (last name: Quin) released what remains their most ambitious album to date: an angsty masterpiece packed with therapy-worthy tell-alls. Yet the Quin sisters had already established themselves, particularly with 2004's "So Jealous," as creators of some of the best pop mash notes of the 21st century.

The emotional honesty of Tegan and Sara's songs often reaches high-school-diary proportions -- but, y'know, in a good way. The sisters care tremendously about the psychology and whirl of emotions that surround the experience of love, and more than that, of heartbreak. Their sweet-and-sour voices and harmonies suggest the pucker-inducing lemonhead that romantic love can be, all with a satisfyingly punkish, pugnacious edge. To say Tegan and Sara are unafraid to be vulnerable lyrically would be a massive understatement.

Some of that punkishness comes out in Ryan Adams' cover of "Back in Your Head," from "The Con X: Covers," in which artists like City and Colour, Hayley Williams, and CHVRCHES pay homage to "The Con." (I actually prefer Adams' version to the original.) Going in a totally different direction, CHVRCHES turns "Call It Off" -- one of the Quin sisters' simplest, saddest, and prettiest lost-love songs -- into an ethereal hymn, with dazzling results. It doesn't hurt that "Call It Off" includes some of Tegan and Sara's best lyrics, perfectly capturing the mourning and ambivalence that mark a tough breakup:
Call, break it off
Call, break my own heart
Maybe I would have been something you'd be good at
Maybe you would have been something I'd be good at
But now we'll never know
I won't be sad
But in case I go there
Everyday, to make myself feel bad
There's a chance that I'll start to wonder if this was the thing to do
Maybe "The Con" received as much acclaim as it did because it's a sprawling, conceptually rich album from a previously small-scale band. It's bigger in scope and length, and boasts more emotional depth, than any of Tegan and Sara's other records, before or since. For a taste of the psychological intensity on display, check out the title track's intervention-from-hell lyric: "Encircle me, I need to be taken down." Who hasn't needed a friend to steal their cellphone so they don't drunk-text their ex? Who hasn't needed a pep talk of Taylor Swiftian proportions to avoid idealizing a bad-news former lover? With masterly brevity, Tegan and Sara made "The Con" a compendium of romantic calamities. Better to have loved and lost? Easy for him to say.

Throughout its length, "The Con" alternates between quieter introspection (as in "Call It Off") and surging mini-epics that use turbulent drums, abrupt starts and stops, and vocals that veer thrillingly skyward or dizzyingly downward. And is there, in all of 21st-century indie pop, a better account of teen love and loss than "Nineteen"?
I felt you in my legs
Before I ever met you
And when I lay beside you
For the first time I told you
I feel you in my heart and I don't even know you
And now we're saying bye, bye, bye
And now we're saying bye, bye, bye
There's a reason we yearn to read other people's diaries. Even after a decade, "The Con" feels fresh and vital in its account of the raw, overwhelming emotions we feel before, during, and after a big, big love.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Nightmare fuel

Last year my thoughtful wife, knowing I love horror, sent me a Buzzfeed roundup of "16 Terrifying Horror Movies You Can Watch In 20 Minutes Or Less."

Yeah, they weren't kidding. Some of those puppies are friggin' TERRIFYING.

Short film is a busy parent's friend. Got 90-120 minutes to watch a feature-length film in one sitting? Ha! Got 10-15 minutes to watch a short by horror auteur Rob Savage? Indeed I do, thanks for asking!

So anyway: Many of Buzzfeed's picks are unsettling. "Vicious" and "I Heard It Too" are very, very unsettling. I'm kind of afraid to rewatch them this year. That's how much they freaked me out the first time.

And yes, some of these mini-movies rely a bit too heavily on jump scares, as too many horror films in general do. But some of these little bastards set up enough suspense and spooky mood to make your skin crawl.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Indie queen

I discovered Grace Rex's short film "This Is She" while browsing Vimeo's horror/thriller category. That's ironic considering how Rex herself described the film to me in a recent email exchange. "I am surprised when people refer to 'This is She' as a horror film," she wrote. "I think of it as a quiet, non-narrative film that has some psychological themes and uses practical effects to create visual representations of those ideas." The rising indie director, writer, and actress tweeted at me after I wrote about "This Is She." In our email "interview," I asked Rex about her creative process in relation to "This Is She," her bittersweet short "Be Good," and what she's working on now. I've reproduced the exchange below, edited for clarity.

Red Blue Green: What projects are you working on now that you’re excited about? And what can you tell me about them? (e.g., "High & Dry")

Grace Rex: "High & Dry" is a new British sitcom for UK's Channel 4. It concerns five people who wash up on a desert island after a plane crash. We filmed on an uninhabited beach in the Seychelles. I got to meet some amazing giant tortoises. They're huge and very friendly and you can tell they know a lot of stuff about life that we do not know. I still think about them. I think about my four lovely British co-stars, but mostly I think about the tortoises. The sunsets were also incredible.

In terms of my own work, I'm making a short film right now called "Others." It's a series of eight non-narrative vignettes. Each one concerns a different person in an everyday moment who is connected by an umbilical cord to an irreverent being. We just launched our Kickstarter! Can I plug that? I'm gonna plug that. Folks can watch the whole first of the eight vignettes in the project video.

RBG: How consciously did you incorporate horror elements in "This Is She"? Are you interested in horror as an actor, writer, and/or director?

GR: I like some horror movies but I'm not knowledgeable enough about the genre to consider myself a true fan. However, I've been watching a lot of horror movies lately because my partner is a big fan and cinephile, and it's October, so ... I'm getting a good scoop! ... My new project also has some elements that could be described as body horror, so I realize there's something of a pattern there! I'm mostly scared of what's hiding in the recesses of my mind. I find that totally terrifying. Does that count as horror?

What compelled you to make "This Is She"?

GR: I was going through a difficult time several years ago and felt surrounded by grief for the first time in my charmed life. I couldn't hide from my feelings. They felt like a presence in the room, and I started to think about what the visual representation of that feeling might look like. I was also reading a book by a Jungian analyst at the time who wrote about how trauma presents a unique opportunity to deal with some ugly business in the unconscious that presents itself in times of crisis. 

This author believes that you get to kind of greet your true and messy self when things get rough, and if you're brave enough to look at what's been hiding inside of you and integrate it, you can come out the other side with your feet more firmly on the ground. I grew up with such a strong moral compass, a deeply rooted understanding of good and bad, and a lot of shame about being imperfect. This written theory shifts that understanding because it values honesty over perfection. It's an affirming and empowering viewpoint for me.

RBG: How did you develop the concept? In general, what is your creative process like?

GR: Tarik Karam directed the movie and was instrumental in developing its look and tone. He came on board early in the writing process, and I would work on the script and share drafts with him. We went back and forth with notes until we were ready to film. 

I haven't made enough work to say I have a defined process; it's developing all the time. I will say that, as a director, I am enjoying making lookbooks and finding reference images from other films and photographers. Creating a written narrative around my intentions helps me define what I want a movie to look and feel like.

RBG: Did you have a metaphor in mind when creating the blob in "This Is She"? What kinds of interpretations and reactions have people shared with you about it and the film as a whole?

GR: The ambiguity of the metaphor is intentional. I like hearing other people's interpretations. I hope it functions a bit like a shabby Rorschach test: In telling us what the thing means, people are sharing something about themselves, and I think that's a wonderful way to connect with people. 

Some folks have said the spots represent depression and anxiety, or loss of a loved one. The mother of a good friend told me it reminded her of an article she read about prisoners of war personifying the walls of their cells after being isolated for long periods of time. Some people think it's a mold problem and are grossed out. It's all gravy!

RBG: Did you make up the "red balloon" game for "Be Good," or is that something you knew about and/or played before?

GR: Yeah, I made it up. I was thinking about how people play games sometimes so they have a structure in which to bridge intimacy. Truth or dare is the first example that comes to mind. I gather that, most of the time, when someone suggests truth or dare, it's because they're looking for an opportunity to share or engage in an act of vulnerability. It's hard to talk about scary things, and neither of the characters in that scene in "Be Good" wants to talk about what's on their minds, even though they need to, so the game gives them a way to engage in a more honest conversation.

RBG: How do you figure out how and where (in the story) to end a short? I'd be interested in hearing specifically how you made those decisions for "This Is She" and "Be Good."

GR: This is a good question. I don't know! With both movies, finding the ending was difficult. Just leaving a viewer with a cohesive experience is difficult in a short film. You have so little time to help people care about the images you're making. There are some narrative shorts that I love because they have a great twist in there and they end with a bang. There are others that leave you with this whole, visceral feeling afterward, even when nothing is resolved. I think finding an ending that feels right is a totally intuitive process!

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Wonder Woman" and loving your enemy

Much has been made of the ways in which "Wonder Woman" is different from male-centered comic-book movies. For example, director Patty Jenkins goes out of her way not to sexually objectify the movie's many female characters, and the effort pays off: It really does feel like a flick the Amazons would sign off on. Yet in addition to the fierce female warriors, Diana's emphasis on peacekeeping, and the aforementioned lack of gratuitous T&A (check out the Amazons' practical outfits!), I noticed something else about "WW" that seemed like a marked departure from the usual superhero testosterone-fests: the recognition that even our enemies are still human beings.

The moment whizzes by fast. Diana is trying to convince Capt. Steve Trevor that Ares, the god of war, is behind all of the hideous violence that WWI has wrought. Yes, she's been fighting on the Allied side against the Germans, from the moment that Steve landed on the shores of Themyscira through the bombastic, CGI-heavy climax. But her belief that Ares is the real culprit, not the German army, supports a logic one doesn't often witness in Marvel or DC films: If Ares is defeated, the Germans, too, will be liberated from the awful burden of their own bellicosity.

In the realm of progressive politics, particularly the branch dedicating to fighting oppressive systems, it's long been understood that neither the oppressor nor the oppressed group ultimately benefits from an oppressive dynamic. Sure, it sucks to make 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, but men aren't stronger, better people because they benefit from injustice. If anything, our sexist system makes good relationships between men and women more difficult to maintain than they would otherwise be, as women feel (understandable) resentment and men experience (equally understandable) guilt. Yes, there are shorter-term, material gains to be had when you're in the oppressor's seat, but it coarsens your soul if you don't commit to dismantling it, and that's too steep a price to pay.

"WW" doesn't delve into the intricacies of interlocking oppressions, but Diana's comment clearly underscores the film's overall message about war: It's bad for everyone. Victories that result in a bunch of stuff being blown up aren't glorious or triumphant; they are, at best, a necessary evil. (It's worth noting that the Marvel movies, and especially the "Avengers" films, have at least acknowledged the collateral damage -- to people and buildings -- that superhero smackdowns tend to produce.)

Germans might well be the most loathed white people in Hollywood period pieces. Think of the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies, or the Nazis in any movie, or indeed the amoral general and mad scientist in "WW" itself. Yet Jenkins' movie tries to see the bigger picture, in a way that some might consider more typically feminine than masculine. At the end of the day, only the most sociopathic bullies want this gruesome war, and it's worth fighting for the freedom of the many, and remembering in the process that peace-loving people will always outnumber the most devout warmongers.

Hope for men

This marvelous video essay from Pop Culture Detective explores the unconventional masculine identity of Newt Scamander, the highly sensitive and empathetic protagonist of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." Its conclusion is one I wholeheartedly agree with: Depictions of male role models of this type are far too rare in contemporary pop culture.

At the same time, "The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander" gives me hope that despite the cruel ogre in the White House at present, my son may have more worthwhile male role models than just immediate family members as he grows up. I was fortunate enough to have a nurturing, thoughtful, and sensitive father, but not every little boy is so lucky. Here's hoping Newt is just the first of many new heroes of his ilk to get blockbuster-scale exposure in the years to come.

Monday, September 25, 2017


Josephine Livingstone's excellent review of "It" for the New Republic wisely zeroes in on the theme of trauma, which the film explores throughout its two-hours-plus running time. Livingstone notes: "Children are the powerless recipients of generation[al] trauma, the violence and perversion which haunt any human settlement, but which are denied and therefore left unaddressed." While she is right to point up the story's powerful parallels between supernatural and human-caused trauma, I'd go further and focus on a very specific kind of trauma: bullying.

Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the interdimensional being who likes to prey on children when they're at their most afraid, is a bully of legendary proportions. But underneath, or alongside, the Losers' terrifying battle with Pennywise are some less otherworldly trials that, in the moment, may feel just as harrowing. Ben has to endure the violent predations of Derry's premier pack of bullies, one of whom, Henry, carves the letter "H" into Ben's ample belly, as if marking his territory, or branding a bull. Fortunately, Ben escapes before Henry can form the other four letters with his knife.

Mike, one of Derry's few black residents, has to cope with bullying at home from his grandfather. The old man insists that Mike take up the family business, which requires him to stun sheep with a captive bolt pistol prior to their slaughter -- a nasty business that reliably leaves Mike queasy and drenched in sweat. He also has to put up with the same band of bullies who harass Ben and the other Losers, but who tell Mike to get outta town with a savagely racist flair. Never mind that Mike's family has lived there for generations -- the implication is clear: Black people will never belong in Derry, no matter how deep their roots. (Though Chosen Jacobs, who plays Mike, doesn't get as much screen time as the other Losers, I hope his adult stand-in has more to do in director Andy Muschietti's follow-up.) Derry is a small town, and one quickly gets the sense that if you're unlucky enough to become the target of bullies, there's almost literally nowhere to hide.

That's especially, horribly true for Beverly Marsh, whose father calls her "his girl," and not in a sweet, caring way. Worse, he becomes highly territorial upon discovering that she has same-age male friends. For me, Beverly's story of resilience, and eventual self-liberation, in the face of bullying was the film's most compelling. "It" reminds us chillingly -- and necessarily, in this age of the neo-Nazi next door -- that evil isn't out there somewhere. No, evil lives beneath, within, and among us, in our history and present, in our perceived safe spaces, in broad daylight.

In the film's opening scene, evil comes out of the dark and snatches little Georgie away from a perfectly normal street in a normal town on a normal day. As we were reminded so painfully by the recent shooting at Freeman High School, bullying has invaded our schools and our online lives. For some children dealt a particularly awful hand, it waits for them also at home each day, in the place that's supposed to be the safest of all. In "It," newcomer Sophia Lillis gives a wonderful performance as Beverly, capturing her strength, wit, and beauty as well as the fear and desperation she feels under her abusive father's roof. Many fans have advocated for Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain as the grown-up Beverly, and either would be a fine choice. When it matters most, Beverly summons her inner resources and is fearless. Her righteous vengeance is a sight to behold.

I was bullied as a kid. It's no picnic. Stephen King's work often deals with the horrors and consequences of bullying, perhaps most memorably in "Carrie." But "It" takes a broader view of the subject. Where "Carrie" provides a detailed exploration of one girl's response to severe bullying, on the part of both her insane mother and her cruel classmates, "It" examines many types of bullying -- including the harsh treatment Henry, himself a bully, gets from his father, who seems to delight in humiliating and demeaning him. I appreciate it when movie bullies aren't one-dimensional monsters (so to speak). Plenty of children who do unkind things to their weaker, gentler peers have been victims themselves -- bully-victims, as they're called in the counseling literature.

In a way, Henry, a classic bully-victim, is at the center of the film. He represents the link between cause and effect; he is a living embodiment of the uncomfortable fact that evils of the past don't stay buried, that suffering is intergenerational and persistent, not static and ahistorical. I haven't read the novel that inspired "It," though I'd like to do so before Muschietti's sequel comes out. But after seeing the topic of bullying treated more thoughtfully, and with more empathy, in "It" than it often is in pop culture, I look forward to seeing how Muschietti, his screenwriters, and another terrific cast explore the longer-term, and even lifelong, effects of childhood bullying.