Saturday, December 30, 2017

"Creep 2" is perfect mumblegore for our post-truth era

Indie horror-comedy sequel "Creep 2" (currently on Netflix) boasts funny, disquieting performances by Mark Duplass and Desiree Akhavan, slowly building tension, and a nice twist at the end. However, it also includes a scene that, intentionally or not, speaks to our misbegotten age of alternative facts. Well into the sprightly 80-minute film, psycho killer Aaron (Duplass) informs web series creator Sara (Akhavan) that he "never lies." He clarifies that of course he plays with the truth at times, as Sara just has with him (hence the little speech). But Aaron emphasizes that he senses in her a truth that transcends the paltry matter of whether mere facts are true or false.

This put me in mind, when I later reflected on it, of the way in which so many Trump supporters seem to hear certain truths, and often reassurances, beneath or within the cavalcade of outright lies he delivers on the daily. The idea of an appealing truth that's deeper than facts seems especially dangerous in the context of the film, since Aaron elects to lie to Sara, late in the game, about his very nature, even after starting their relationship with honesty about his history as a serial killer so pure that Sara, a la "American Psycho," finds it impossible to believe. 

Aaron's decision to reassure Sara that he's harmless precisely so that he can move closer his violent goal -- which I'll leave viewers to discover -- smacks uncomfortably of the current president, who seems willing to say, and unsay, anything to keep things going his way -- to double down on falsehoods in such a nihilistic way that the whole thing, much like "Creep 2" itself in the end, feels like a waking nightmare. 

Oh, and what's mumblegore, you ask? Take a gander

No sleep tonight

Sleep paralysis -- so hot right now. You'd think so, anyway, if you had come across the Vimeo staff pick horror short "Paralys," a polished-looking, seven-and-a-half-minute scarefest that combines the aforementioned sleep condition with hints of Santaphobia (when you think about it, what's not scary about the Jolly Old Elf's annual B&E?) and a heaping dose of "The Ring" -- or "Ringu," if you're a purist, as one of the film's minor characters seems to be.

On Netflix alone, there's also the "documentary/horror" film "The Nightmare," which has a solid Rotten Tomatoes rating and looks well worth exploring; and the much less promising-looking "Dead Awake," starring highbrow scream queen Jocelin Donahue (from "House of the Devil" and the superior "Father's Day" segment of the otherwise forgettable "Holidays" anthology film). Vimeo offers another docu-horror hybrid, "Devil in the Room," so far unwatched by me.

For those seeking to write some kind of master's thesis on the subject, or simply for completists, there's "Be Afraid," the Maggie Q-starring "Slumber," and the probably abysmal "Sleep Paralysis," whose absurdly uncreative title hints at deeper creative voids within. There's also the "Dear David" Twitter thread, which apparently emerged quite recently and may still be making waves. Whaddaya wanna bet a "Dear David" movie hits sometime in 2019, with David F. Sandberg directing?

So why did it take filmmakers, especially in the horror genre, so long to seize on an actual condition that 1) paralyzes you, and 2) can subject you to terrifying hallucinations? I may need to do a little digging to find out why sleep paralysis seems suddenly to have become the genre's fright du jour. Maybe an increase in research on the subject has increased knowledge, and media coverage has placed the condition more squarely within mainstream cultural consciousness?

According to Google Scholar, fully 12.5 percent of published research on sleep paralysis has occurred since 2013. Consider that Scholar lists articles going back to the beginning of the 18th century, and you get a sense of how hot a topic it seems to be in the last five years or so.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

You gotta have heart

I'm more than midway through "Slasher: Guilty Party," the second season of the Canadian horror series whose debut season I praised, and I feel a sense of nausea creeping in. Like season one, "Guilty Party" includes graphic violence done by a merciless, mysterious killer. Also like that debut season, entitled "The Executioner," season two features morally ambiguous characters who have done bad things but seem sincerely remorseful, or at least had decent reasons for doing the bad things.

What "GP" lacks, to its serious detriment, is likable characters. Retreat center co-founder Antoine may be the series' closest thing to a hero, and that shows you how dire the situation is. Sure, Antoine killed a dude once, but that dude was a murderous homophobe, and Antoine practically killed him in self-defense. Not surprisingly, Antoine's commitment to nonviolence and serenity breaks down just as easily in the presence of the titular guilty party, a group of onetime camp counselors who return to the scene of a crime -- now the site of the commune-like retreat center -- to bury their big secret once and for all.

Most slasher films deliver gory comeuppance to characters in an as-you-sow-so-shall-you-reap, Old Testament kind of way. Antoine pays for knocking off a gay-bashing asshole and concealing evidence of another crime he didn't commit by ... getting drilled alive, chopped into pieces, and stowed in the same trunk where he had stashed that evidence? C'mon. It seems even less fair when Gene, the grumpy but otherwise reasonable snowmobile driver who escorts the ex-counselors to the retreat center, gets chainsawed in half at the start of the whole bloody story.

"The Executioner" satisfyingly combined the typical slasher morality play with the engaging puzzle of figuring out whose sins were bad enough and biblical enough to get them splattered. "GP" may be trying to say something grim and unpleasant about human nature, or an uncaring universe -- or something -- by making some kills so random and awful, but Lord knows what. After watching several of the ex-counselors suffer excruciating fates, I'm actually rooting for the remaining amoral bastards to escape with their lives, so that at least the whole damn season isn't red-smeared nihilism writ large. I definitely have "Slasher" fatigue. 

Enter the widely lauded PG-13 horror-comedy "Happy Death Day." Recognized quickly by critics as the cinematic love child of "Scream" and "Groundhog Day," "HDD" is playful, good-natured, and populated with a mix of nice people, somewhat bitchy and superficial people, and genuinely bad people -- just like, y'know, the actual world. Also, unlike "Guilty Party," whose artistic intentions aren't particularly clear (is it trying to be a dark meditation on human nature? Or just a mashup of gnarly kills and hippie cliches?), "HDD" is clearly out for a good time. Jessica Rothe has It Girl written all over her throughout a funny, captivating, and even moving performance as Theresa "Tree" Gelbman, a bratty sorority sister with, it turns out, not only untapped depths but some bad-ass inner strength.

Overall, "Guilty Party" and "HDD" are quite the study in contrasts. The latter, with its goofy day-on-repeat premise and sweet romantic subplot, succeeds in being undeniably fun. "GP" engages some serious ideas and themes, like homophobia and rape, but considering its lack of a moral center, I don't know that it earns the right to do so. Season one of "Slasher" had plucky Sarah and genial real estate agent Robin, and it riffed on religious themes about as skillfully as season six of "Dexter." In "GP," there's no true protagonist. "HDD," for its part, is fashioned around Tree's gradual transformation from insufferable queen bee to empowered, relatively humble quasi-feminist. Thanks to Rothe's talent and likability, Tree's journey of self-discovery feels real.

Like other notable horror-comedies (e.g., "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil" and "Cabin in the Woods"), "HDD" flips the script on some horror tropes while employing others to delightful effect. This film loves slasher movies, college flicks, and movies in general. The inevitable, "Groundhog Day"-inspired sequence in which Tree parlays the lessons of repeated death and revival into a personal campaign to be a better person, set to Mother Mother's irresistible "Love Stuck," works like an IV drip of unfiltered sunshine. I couldn't help but grin.

Some of the finest horror films out there ("28 Days Later" and "Let the Right One In" come to mind) deal frankly and unabashedly in emotion. You gotta have heart if your movie is gonna stick with viewers; ripping characters' hearts out of their chests ain't enough.

Friday, December 22, 2017

My favorite songs of 2017

Top 10:
*single released in 2016, album in 2017

Honorable mentions:

Monday, December 11, 2017

Twitter is eating "A Christmas Prince" alive

And it's snarky pop culture vulture HEAVEN.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

"Slasher" is more than the sum of its (bloody) parts

I'm almost at the end of season one of "Slasher," an approximate cross between "Seven" and season six of "Dexter," with plenty of "Scream" thrown in. It's not a highbrow show, but it's grown on me quite a bit, despite having the kind of markedly bland protagonist/final girl that far too many horror movies and series seem to find necessary. It's not even so much the secondary characters who won me over, though plucky/unlucky artist Sarah Bennett's gay best friend, Robin, adds a bit of spice to the show's largely vanilla set of performances. And Erin Karpluk, of "Being Erica," brings a goodly amount of fire and fury to the role of grieving mother Heather Peterson.

Nonetheless, it's the twisty, turn-y plot that done hooked me, and that's as it should be. "Slasher" is the TV equivalent of an airport paperback thriller, and as such it delivers generously. Other series might have called it good at the close of the season's penultimate episode, when the serial killer is revealed and a courageous survivor vows revenge. "Slasher," to its credit, instead adds a meaty epilogue that proves much more exciting, and interesting, than the usual victim-takes-down-killer slasher movie denouement tends to be. More than halfway through the episode, it hit me: I do care who lives and dies, and I do want the killer stopped, one way or another. I'm more emotionally invested than I expected to be, and probably more than "Slasher" deserves.

All in all, this scrappy, semi-trashy show (with, it must be said, impressive special effects throughout) ended up showing more humor, and more genre savvy, than I anticipated. Even though season two's "I Know What You Did Last Summer"-esque premise doesn't intrigue me per se, I'll give it a try. After all, season one is considerably more than the sum of its parts -- no pun intended.

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.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Anne with an E" is Intense with a capital I

The new adaptation of "Anne of Green Gables" (a Netflix/CBC co-production) makes a case for the classic children's story, set on scenic Prince Edward Island, as one of Canada's great national narratives. Emotionally raw, in ways reminiscent of Cary Fukunaga's stellar 2011 "Jane Eyre," "Anne with an E" doesn't sugarcoat the abuse and trauma Anne suffers at the hands of the foster family she lived with (and worked for) before coming to stay with the awkward, emotionally constipated Cuthbert siblings. It also doesn't downplay the wrenching uncertainty of being a foster child, which too often means feeling like a person no one wants. If ever I've seen a compelling moral argument in favor of adoption, this show is it.

As suggested by the show's theme song, the gorgeous "Ahead by a Century" (by Canadian band the Tragically Hip), Anne is a de facto feminist in the frickin' 1870s, at which point the word feminism may not have existed. However, "Anne with an E" isn't just about exposing the horrors of the foster system or celebrating rebellion against rigid gender roles. It's also about the importance of the emotional self. The Cuthberts request a boy to help the aging Matthew work the farm. When they're sent Anne instead, Marilla sees her as a purely emotional creature, incapable of concrete usefulness, despite Marilla's own, obvious gender nonconformity. Anne, being Anne, cheekily points out Marilla's nontraditional femininity to Marilla in an effort to avoid getting shipped back to the foster home. 

Matthew senses early what it takes Marilla longer to recognize: Even if Anne were a physically weak little wisp of a girl, there's something to be said for opening one's life up to the wildness -- the uncontrolled emotionality -- of a child. To see such a modern idea expressed through this adaptation of a 109-year-old piece of literature is thrilling indeed.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Yet another reminder of why I love pop culture

I was recently introduced to "Rick and Morty," an adult-oriented animated show that most geeks worth their PS4s discovered years ago. I don't need to add yet another glowing review, or detailed analysis, to an internet swimming with both. However, one of the show's most-discussed moments reminded me, quite compellingly, why I love pop culture so much. So I figured I'd write about that.

At the end of an episode titled "Auto Erotic Assimilation," in which Rick visits an old flame who turns out to be a body-snatching hive mind, the mad scientist retreats, heartbroken, to his garage-based lab. (If you haven't seen this episode, get thee to Hulu and watch it right now! And then come back here and read the rest of this post.) He removes a small, blobby alien from cryogenic deep freeze and insta-thaws it. The little creature is clearly distressed, as it likely was the instant he froze it to begin with. In a rare, and unexpectedly moving, show of compassion, Rick gently pets the poor creature.

It quickly becomes apparent that he's soothing it because he's about to zap it out of existence with one of his laser-y contraptions. After doing so, he sets the machine up to zap him -- but before it can, he slumps onto his desk. The killer beam barely misses his head. As he sleeps off yet another hangover, night turns to day, and we see Rick's son-in-law, Jerry, merrily weed-whacking the driveway just outside the garage, without a care in the world.

The tonal shift of this scene from the madcap, raunchy antics that preceded it is remarkable. The sad, beautiful song "Do You Feel It?" by Seattle indie band Chaos Chaos soundtracks the entire scene, and it perfectly complements the existentialism and emotionality on display. Wordlessly, this stunning scene humanizes Rick, helping us empathize with his loss of love and the frustration he feels as a genius surrounded by lesser minds. It also shows that he isn't simply a madman with zero regard for the welfare of other living things.

Part of what makes the scene great is the ambiguity baked into it: Did Rick mean to save his own life, or did he simply pass out before the laser energized? Did he unfreeze and kill the creature to "set it free" (rather than continuing to keep it cooped up like a lab rat)? Did he kill it because he planned to end his own life as well and wouldn't be around to take care of it?

Whatever his motivation, his tenderness toward the seemingly simple being adds depth to the character of Rick and to the show as a whole. This scene makes it obvious that Rick and Morty's interdimensional adventures, while often wacky and fun, come at a price, at least for Rick. It turns out that dating outside your species, galaxy, and reality isn't any easier than sticking to OkCupid. And being possibly the smartest human ever isn't all wine and roses.

I love how pop culture, at its best, can draw us in, get an emotional hold on us, and then upend our expectations, taking us somewhere, emotionally and otherwise, we never thought we'd go. The ending of "Auto Erotic Assimilation" blindsides you in the best way. Even within the context of a show about infinite parallel realities, this masterful scene knocks us off-balance and makes us wonder what kind of show it is, exactly, that we're growing increasingly attached to.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"Adore" captures the blissful ache of infatuation

Even though "Adore" was released as a single in 2016, the EP it ended up on, Amy Shark's "Night Thinker," didn't come out until 2017. And until this year, the Spokane area's premier indie rock station, KPND, wasn't playing it. So I'm tempted to consider it my favorite song of this year thus far. Back in 2016, after all, most of the people who fell in love with Shark's spare, sharp lyrics and achingly expressive music were her fellow Australians. Now we in the Northern Hemisphere get our shot.

"Adore" begins with three fraught guitar chords, then adds Shark's bruised-sounding voice, supported by a simple beat and subtle backing vocals. The song builds in urgency and vulnerability, all the while maintaining a loping, mid-tempo feel. The first three lines capture something vital about the desperation that accompanies a serious crush:
I'm just gonna stand with my bag hanging off my left arm
I'm just gonna walk home kicking stones at parked cars
But I had a great night, 'cause you kept rubbing against my arm
In a quick but emotionally rich three minutes, Shark communicates volumes about romantic attraction that may or may not be requited. Eleven years ago, I wrote for Seattle Weekly about the agonies and, well, further agonies of the unrequited crush. It's a universal theme, but it's the rare song that honestly describes the torturous state of wanting someone who doesn't want you back.

In "Adore," Shark certainly shows both the overflowing passion ("I want the entire street out of town just so I can be alone with you") and combative spirit  ("Watch me watch him talk to girls / I'm known as a right-hand slugger / Anybody else wanna touch my lover?") of someone who isn't entirely secure in her bond with the object of her desire. That's part of what makes the song so great: Obsession has a mighty undertow, a dark pull that can make otherwise reasonable people do unreasonable things. No unrequited-crush song worth its salt tries to pretty up the ugly side of asymmetrical attraction.

This gorgeous, pained love song would be a terrific fit for "13 Reasons Why," a show similarly concerned with infatuation that exists in tension with darkness. 2017 is far from over, but I'm not sure anyone is going to top "Adore" for raw emotional power.

Curative power

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Always nice to get feedback

Not only did Grace Rex read my post about her film "This Is She," she was kind enough to tweet back, as follows:

I'll see if I can swing an (email) interview with her to post as a follow-up.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Gimmicks, tropes, and why we love them

Two horror trailers have grabbed my attention this year, but not because they're teasing some kind of innovative, genre-busting, or intellectual take on scary movies. It's because they demonstrate a combination even more addictive than Trader Joe's peanut butter cups: high concept and lowbrow. "Wish Upon" and "Happy Death Day" both set up either marginally likable or somewhat unlikable heroines using a tried-and-true trope, and it's catnip to me.

"Wish Upon" re-configures Richard Matheson's old "Button, Button" premise in which protagonists get their wishes granted, at the price of someone's death each time. Richard Kelly's "The Box" made something heady and fairly interesting of Matheson's concept, as befitted the writer-director of "Donnie Darko," but "Wish Upon" is aiming decidedly lower: at teens, and maybe even tweens who somehow sneak a horror rental into a sleepover, if those still even happen.

Star Joey King is best known for playing Ramona Quimby, fer chrissakes, so she's pulling a Selena Gomez-in-"Spring Breakers" and darkening her rep. Based on the trailer, pro tip for poor Sherilyn Fenn: Keep yer damn braid away from the garbage disposal next time! Anyway, King's character goes from zero to popular girl, lotsa people die in gratuitously gruesome ways, etc. I likely won't actually watch this dreck, but why do gimmicks grab me -- us -- so persuasively? Why do I even slightly want to watch this movie?

Maybe the answer can be found in the trailer for "Happy Death Day." Meet Tree, played by Jessica Rothe. Tree is a popular, bitchy, probably somewhat vapid sorority-type college student. Tree has a big birthday, everyone who's anyone attends, and somebody in a super-creepy mask kills her dead.

Roll credits? Nah.

See, Tree is stuck in a "Groundhog Day"-inspired time loop. She dies, she wakes up the morning of her "death day," and the whole kit and caboodle starts all over again. Fun fun! Tree has to solve her own murder, etc. ("I Don't Know Who Killed Me" -- alternate title?) Anyway, this one looks targeted at a slightly more sophisticated audience, in light of the fact that Blumhouse produced it. And it might be good fun, especially since bitchy vapid Tree gets help, evidently, from clean-scrubbed, geeky male classmates with whom I have to believe, if anything is sacred, she will mightily hook up with once he helps her save her own life from Masky McStab-Stab. But again, why is this trailer taunting me with its movie's theoretical entertainingness? Why do I want to see "Happy Death Day"?

I suspect it's mostly this: Tropes = comfort. When Blumhouse waves this particular product in front of our figurative and collective nose, we know what they're selling. So we have a general sense of the likelihood that we'll like it. That's something that's distinguished mainstream film from so-called art film for at least a few decades now. "Tree of Life" guarantees views nothing except multiple WTF moments. "Boo 2! A Madea Halloween"? The trailers are pretty much two-minute versions of the movie, and a bargain at the low, low price of free.

And yet... a movie like "Happy Death Day" also promises to have some wit up its sleeve. I wrote about horror-comedy recently, and how it's an ever-loving hassle to pull off. Well, "Happy Death Day" promises us it'll mine the existential-comedy antics of "Groundhog Day" while also tapping into the popcorn-y meta-horror of "Scream." As prepackaged products go, that sounds mighty tasty. Most moviegoers, I hope, don't want total paint-by-numbers gruel when they go to the theater or illegally download or whatever. But a familiar formula shot through with some offbeat humor -- or at least humor that's somewhat funny -- and an intelligence level that exceeds what is fundamentally necessary to plot and dialogue a film, well, that's sometimes exactly what the cinedoctor ordered. (In action, see: "Kong: Skull Island.")

We who love originality and realism in movies can also love watching old beats being skillfully hit. Not every horror movie needs to be "Get Out," and even there, Jordan Peele played with tropes. How can you not? Horror is one of cinema's tropiest genres. The worst horror flicks are built with tropes, zip ties, and fake gore. The best are much classier and, sometimes, sassier, but they're not from an entirely different family. Jump scares are scary! Shadows are shadowy! Icky-looking figures wandering slowly but unswervingly toward you are very unsettling!

Even arguably the best horror movie of the 21st century, "Cabin in the Woods," paid loving homage to the tropes it was upending. Ultimately, Pauline Kael was right: "Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them."

Friday, August 11, 2017

That new Arcade Fire album

Okay, so yes: Arcade Fire's new album, "Everything Now," is their least impressive outing in 13 years of being unparalleled indie-rock darlings. In 2004, when "Funeral" turned Pitchfork and much of the indie-admiring world weak-kneed, I'd been in Seattle (and working for Seattle Weekly) for a couple of years and was becoming aware that a few lucky indie bands, whether several albums in or after a single release, blow up. This was, after all, the year of Modest Mouse's "Good News for People Who Love Bad News" (their fourth album), whose massive smash single "Float On" elevated them to indie royalty (for a few crazy years). That same year, Franz Ferdinand's self-titled debut exploded, too. And, oh yeah, the Killers' "Hot Fuss." Holy crap was 2004 busy for indie fans. And "Funeral" added a powerful measure of dreamy, almost otherworldly storytelling and sound that was also, somehow, profoundly moving and relevant and ridiculously millennial. Album of the 2000s, and maybe of the young century thus far, thou art "Funeral."

In 2007, Arcade Fire somehow surmounted the unbelievable pressure of following up "Funeral" by releasing "Neon Bible," which was darker, satirized religion, and consisted almost entirely of irresistibly escalating, triumphal anthems (or anti-anthems, in the case of the haunting "My Body is a Cage" and "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations"). I was at the Seattle Times by then, and I still remember the version of "Neon Bible" I listened to obsessively in my trusty Discman. The track listing was markedly different from what ended up being the final, official one. "Intervention" started that alternatively ordered album, and it still seems much more appropriate than "Black Mirror" (second on that disc) as an opening track. Anyway, I fell madly in love with the gorgeous, doomy "Neon Bible," and though I will probably find, as I revisit "Funeral" now, that it's at least as strong as its predecessors, on some level Arcade Fire's sophomore set may forever be my favorite album of theirs.

"The Suburbs," in 2010, leaked out to me track by track via YouTube. "Rococo" struck me as pure, beautiful Arcade Fire bombast, a heavy, rolling destroyer of a song that more or less kicked off the band's ongoing reflection -- sometimes pretentious, sometimes self-lacerating, occasionally both -- on fame itself, and what it's like to be The Most Important Band Ever all of a sudden. "The Suburbs" won the album of the year Grammy, and it is indeed a lovely, ambitious project. As a suburban kid, and especially as one who spent most of his first 10 years in a classic American suburb (Warren, Michigan), I do think a lot of this quasi-concept album captures vital things about suburban life, including the sadness and isolation that can persist despite everyone's houses being built so damn close to each other. Parts of "The Suburbs" still grab me, but as a whole it didn't hit me as hard as the band's first two records.

"Reflektor" came out in 2013, right around the time Liz and I bought our house. I took immediately to "Joan of Arc" and "Normal Person," both of which riffed memorably on the notion that being a nonconformist misfit sucks, but the only thing worse is being a rigidly conventional, boring bully. (Basically: the plot of "Carrie," minus the firestorm.) "Afterlife" served as a lovely climax near the end of the album's dance-y, angst-y arc, and I loved the use of rhythms and sounds of Haiti (co-lead signer Regine Chassagne's ancestral homeland, which the band name-checked with a song title on "Funeral") throughout the record -- especially on "Here Comes the Night Time." After the big concept and epic sprawl of "The Suburbs," "Reflektor" couldn't help but feel like a more minor album. Still, the work and care that went into it was evident, and it had plenty of that Arcade Fire ache -- the emotional charge, the yearning, the thrilling interplay between sadness and joy.

"Everything Now" has some of it, too, but not nearly as much. Think of it as an extended EP: "Everything Now," "Creature Comfort," "Electric Blue," "Put Your Money On Me," and "We Don't Deserve Love," and you're pretty much good to go. Even critics who've ragged on the record as a whole admit that "Creature Comfort" has some of that old-time Arcade Fire magic, what with the "everybody sings at once!" wall-of-sound moments and the lyrics about body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, and suicidality. (The midsong reference to "Funeral" that so many critics found annoying strikes me as a fair poke, on the part of the band, at their debut album's long shadow and vaunted reputation as the emotional expression of an entire generation's collective angst.)

However, it's "Put Your Money On Me" and "We Don't Deserve Love" I keep coming back to. Sure, "Money" has a mix of great and dodgy lyrics ("Above the chloroform sky"? Sure! "Clouds made of ambien"? Yeah, not so much). Then there's this breathtaking run:
I know I've been different
My skin keeps shedding
My mother was crying on the day of our wedding
Trumpets of angels call for my head
But I fight through the ether and I quit when I'm dead
Oh, man. The song builds and builds and by the end the harmonies are ethereal, and yet somehow it still sounds like 21st-century ABBA. It's a mesmerizing, beautiful song. It sticks in my head.

"We Don't Deserve Love" works similarly, though it's musically pretty different. Here's where the lyrics really take off:
Mary roll away the stone
The men that you love
Always leave you alone
Go on Mary
Roll away the stone
The men you love always leave you alone
You hear your mother screaming
You hear your daddy shouting
You try to figure it out
You never figured it out
Your mother screaming that
You don't deserve love
The very band that skewered evangelical Christianity on "Neon Bible" has taken the age-old story of a mourning Mary and lifted it up movingly in its own unique style. Lead singer Win Butler's voice has always been highly expressive, but here his prolonged falsetto feels unusually vulnerable. Critics we'll never see the likes of "Funeral" again from Arcade Fire, and I understand the disappointment that surrounds their release of a decidedly nonessential record.

But the spark hasn't died out completely. From 2004 to 2013, the band's albums met me at what now seem like crucial points in my life. It's okay that many of these new songs falter. After producing so much music that's filled with passionate but ambiguous feelings and surprising, creative stories and ideas, these guys deserve some grace. And hey, three new songs that stand up to repeat listening are definitely better than none.

"Watch Out" and the way humor works in horror

Humor and horror can make for a queasy mix. Too many straight-ahead horror movies treat human lives like trash, thanks in part to the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchises but going back to Z-grade slashers and gorefests from many decades past. Trying to blend humor with horror tropes can make a fairly insensitive, dehumanizing horror flick seem downright mean-spirited.

When dark humor works well in horror, however, the results can be thrilling, as in remarkable films like "The Cabin in the Woods" and "Get Out" and honorable mentions such as "Ginger Snaps" and "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil." In the best-case scenario, humor makes the horror more palatable while also developing and humanizing the characters and delivering a more memorable, and meaningful, narrative. When horror-comedy works, it really works; when it doesn't, well, sometimes we get "Leprechaun in the Hood."

"Watch Out," a short film available on Hulu via the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival ("a bicoastal program seeking the next generation of writers, directors, producers and actors, while celebrating innovative storytelling from diverse backgrounds"), isn't "Cabin in the Woods"-level awesome -- but hey, few movies are. However, it deftly presents itself as one thing -- straight horror -- before downshifting to some surprisingly light-on-its-feet comedy, then lingering in the Venn diagram overlap space for a bit longer than you expect.

"Watch Out" takes a simple premise -- definitely a "Why didn't I think of that?" kind of setup -- and makes considerable hay. The film succeeds primarily because it follows the No. 1 rule of horror-comedy: Violence itself is rarely funny, but people's responses to violence, and its direct aftermath, definitely can be. Situational and/or character-based dark comedy goes a much longer way, most of the time, than trying to make plain ol' gore hilarious.

"Dawn of the Deaf" is quite something

British filmmaker Rob Savage's 12-minute short "Dawn of the Deaf" is gutsy, efficient, and hard not to think and talk about. It swiftly winds together four separate narratives that converge when a mysterious pulse has a devastating effect on the hearing population of a city. I want to avoid giving away more than I need to, as the film's brief run time includes a remarkable number of surprises and twists. It's not for the faint of heart, more due to some difficult subject matter than because of gore, but if you're a horror or sci-fi fan, it may well be worth your time. Also worth checking out: Savage's other shorts "Absence" and "Sit in Silence," both similarly refreshing takes on familiar horror subgenres.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Reflecting on a step forward for local Jewish-Muslim relations

On May 12, 2017, Temple Beth Shalom invited Spokane’s Muslim community to an evening Shabbat service and dinner. At the time, SpokaneFAVS reported on this extremely well-attended and inspiring event, so I don’t intend to rehash the facts. A little more than a week later, on May 20, a significant contingent from the Jewish community attended SpokaneFAVS and the Spokane Interfaith Council’s “Meet the Neighbors” event at the Spokane Islamic Center.

At “Meet the Neighbors,” members of the Muslim community showed the same degree of hospitality the Jewish community had displayed the previous weekend. There was a presentation on some basic elements of Islam, a Q&A session, and a delicious and bountiful meal. For Spokane, two opportunities for Jews and Muslims to break bread together in less than 10 days is a big deal. As far as I know, such intentional interfaith bridge-building has never happened here between these two communities.

I am heartened by these events particularly because I have witnessed firsthand, at times, the opposite of such open-mindedness in Jews’ views of their Muslim neighbors. A couple days after the Shabbat service and dinner, a Jewish friend of a friend expressed skepticism that Jews and Muslims can find common ground. He even went so far as to say that Muslims don’t love their children as much as Jews do.

Although he claimed to have personal experience that supported his point of view, this person’s comments sounded sadly familiar to me. Especially when the topic is Israel/Palestine, it’s not uncommon to hear comparisons of Jews and Muslims that purport to stand up for one group by dehumanizing the other. It’s no more productive for Jews to engage in this behavior than it is for Muslims to do so. Nobody wins when we follow this path.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues its anti-immigrant rhetoric and policymaking, and some Inland Northwest organizations promote Islamophobia under the banner of “national security.” Despite these destructive forces, my hope is that something new, powerful, and promising blooms from May’s two interfaith events. And I think there’s reason for hope: After all, these were instances of unprecedented connection between communities that have so often, and so profoundly, misunderstood each other.

"Ouija: Origin of Evil," or: The Horror Trope That Really Freaks Me Out

I'm not sure why, but distorted faces freak me out. I learned this the hard way back in 2003, when a friend and I rented the American remake of "The Ring." Note to self: Don't watch a horror movie on DVD if it's about a cursed VHS tape. It doesn't take much for a "Ring"-addled mind to worry that a DVD has just as much power to kill its viewers as any videotape. I insisted we take the foul object back to the Blockbuster store (remember those?) whence it came. To be specific, here's what did me in: the film's jolting, unexpected, second-long reveal of the corpse of the teen girl killed in the film's opening minutes: cowering in a closet with, as my friend put it, a "boiled face." Just thinking about it still gets to me a little.

Distorted faces in horror movies still freak me out, damn it. "The Ring" was only the beginning. In 2005, a different friend basically dared me to see "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" in the theater. Like the "Ring" remake, "Emily Rose" has its flaws, but it's genuinely creepy at times. The moment that a recently possessed Emily glances at a classmate and thinks his face is melting? 😢 To my supreme chagrin, for quite a few nights after that fateful trip to the theater, I woke up at 3 a.m., supposedly the terrible hour that possessions happen (because Christ was crucified at 3 p.m. and this is the inversion of that, hence Satan's time, blah blah).

And then there's "Ouija: Origin of Evil." At this point, I think it's safe to say I'm a Mike Flanagan fan. I've now seen three of the writer/director's horror movies: "Hush," "Oculus," and "Ouija," and at some point I'll figure out how to watch "Absentia," an earlier work. Like the rest of his oeuvre, "Ouija" features smarter writing and better character development than the average horror film. It also includes a chilling scene in which an unsuspecting teenager is reaching for something inside a basement wall while a possessed little girl watches intently, standing just far enough away to be a little out of focus. And then her face gets all weird and her neck bends and her mouth starts opening and closing ghoulishly.

Stupidly, I watched this while my wife, Liz, was out and the baby slept in the nursery -- at night. The moment her possessed, distorted face started moving around, I stopped the movie, but it was too late -- I was freeeeeaked out. Later, in the kitchen, I looked over my shoulder nervously as I did some dishes. I glanced at the darkened window between the kitchen and laundry room. I hoped my wife would get home soon.

Why do distorted faces freak me out so much? Why are the one of the only reliable horror movie tropes to really get under my skin? I talked about this with Liz once. She suggested it might have something to do with the baseline unnaturalness of seeing a human face warped into strange, boiled, stretched, or otherwise out-of-whack variations. True, it's unnatural, but so are a lot of things you see in horror movies: compound fractures, whitened eyes, flesh-eating -- that sort of stuff.

What is it about melty faces that gets me? I'll have to keep thinking about it. For now, though, I wish the MPAA would consider making an addition to its rating reasons. Can't you just picture it? "Rated R for violence and disturbing images, including melty and/or stretchy faces."

"This Is She"

Just a quick plug for Grace Rex's 2014 short "This Is She," an enigmatic piece that uses some horror tropes but is more of a mystery/drama (dramstery?) than a fright flick. More obliquely and cleverly than many filmmakers have, Rex uses an unexplained, shape-shifting blob on the unnamed protagonist's apartment wall to represent depression.

We get small hints of this symbolism throughout the film's 10 minutes. For example, a person we assume to be the woman's mother calls to make sure she's doing okay, using a tone and language that implies she's recovering from some kind of difficult, or even traumatic, experience. At one point, the woman scrolls through pictures of, presumably, her previous apartment, which looked horribly colonized by some kind of black mold... which bears a resemblance to the little blob she's currently interacting with. When you move, from a chapter of life or an apartment, or both, a little bit of your depression inevitably follows?

After she breaks a mirror by accident, the woman picks up a piece of the shattered glass and contemplates it for a moment. But perhaps it's her interactions with the strange blob during the film that clues us in the most. Initially startled, then curious, the woman soon decides to do battle with the blob, covering it up and pretending that means it's gone. Ultimately, she comes to a relatively peaceable arrangement with her odd little housemate.

"This Is She" reminded me of "The Babadook" in its suggestion that even if we can't completely shed our most deep-seated demons, we can at least learn to live more harmoniously with them. Ideally, we can accept that a smaller, more manageable version of them is somehow part of us and will therefore be with us, in one form or another, forever.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Home Invasion 101

I recently watched two home-invasion horror/thrillers that focused on homeowners with significant sensory impairment: "Don't Breathe," about a blind military veteran who lives alone in a broken-down part of Detroit, and "Hush," about a deaf author (who also can't speak) who lives in the woods with only a cat and a few neighbors for company. "Hush" is the superior film, not least because it doesn't go for over-the-top shockeroos but instead focuses on the basics of a prolonged but suspenseful cat-and-mouse pursuit.

That said, "Don't Breathe" boasts sharp performances from "13 Reasons Why" star Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy, who went from the smart sitcom "Suburgatory" to the grisly horror of Fede Alvarez's "Evil Dead" remake without missing a beat. Alvarez also directed "Don't Breathe," and the newer film shares the remake's willingness to take the audience to uncomfortable places. As the vet, whose mind has been twisted by sorrow, Stephen Lang gives a chilling and very physical performance. It's tautly directed and well acted, and not too predictable, but its secrets end up being perhaps a bit more unsavory than they needed to be.

The twist of making the homeowner in a home-invasion thriller the villain and the invaders the protagonists is interesting. Nonetheless, as a Detroit-area native, I was sad to see yet another stereotypical depiction of urban rot. Detroit seems to have been chosen as a setting (I doubt the film was shot there), as it has been so many times before, to convey blight and emptiness. Within the horror genre, "It Follows" used (actual) Detroit locations in a more nuanced and less cliche way.

"Hush" may or may not be writer-director Mike Flanagan's best film so far. You could make an argument for "Ouija: Origin of Evil," which is much more lavishly produced than the bare-bones, pedal-to-the-metal "Hush," which looks like it was filmed on a budget of about a buck twenty-five, some fake blood, and a few donated prosthetic and makeup effects (albeit very good ones). As others have noted, Flanagan knows two things that are key to making good horror: 1) Developing actual characters, about whom we have actual feelings, matters; 2) It's a very good sign if partway into the movie we'd be enjoying it even if it weren't a horror movie, and if it's actually hard to tell what genre it belongs to. (Another good example of both points: Ti West's "The Innkeepers.")

"Hush" thumbs its nose at some horror and home-invasion conventions while adhering, in a lively and imaginative way, to others. Two moments in the film are standouts for me. In the first, John Gallagher Jr.'s truly upsetting psycho killer threatens the life of a cat, with delightfully unexpected results. In the second, the killer thinks he has Kate Siegel's deaf fiction writer, Maddie Young, right where he wants her: His hands are, at long last, around her throat. Though we pretty much know what the outcome of the scene will be, Flanagan uses a flash of images to suddenly add great poignancy and weight to what might otherwise have played out as a routine thriller finale.

Siegel took on a great challenge in playing a deaf woman who also can't speak, due to an adolescent case of bacterial meningitis. She co-wrote the screenplay with Flanagan, her partner in life as well as filmmaking. So this is very much the story both of them wanted to tell, told in the way they preferred. "Hush" has much in common with "Wait Until Dark," "The Strangers," "You're Next," and other noteworthy home-invasion films, but it avoids falling into some common traps of the subgenre. For one thing, it doesn't treat human lives as worthless, as many movies with much higher body counts do.

"Hush" also refuses to turn the main character's mistreatment at the hands of a monstrous villain into an excuse for all-out, stomach-turning gore -- the kind of thing we saw, or maybe turned away from, in "The Last House on the Left," "I Spit On Your Grave," and other such bloody revenge fantasies. Maddie needs to defend herself, and that does mean trying to harm her assailant, but she isn't a merciless sadist (unlike her attacker). She's just a traumatized woman trying to survive.

At first I questioned the calm note the film ends on, thinking that someone who had been through what Maddie had would be hypervigilant, unable to relax for even a moment, and would make a beeline for the approaching police cars. But, after some reflection, I'm not sure I know what the survivor of such an ordeal would think, feel, or do in its immediate aftermath. I do know that "Hush" provides well-matched opponents, a consistently tense mood, and a resolution that's considerably more satisfying than those of many thrillers that operate on a similar premise.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


The buzzed-about new horror anthology film "XX" recently made its way to Netflix, and I jumped at the chance to finally see it. Like pretty much all anthologies, it's uneven, but unlike "Holidays," it isn't wildly, maddeningly inconsistent. It's closer to "Southbound" (but not as memorable) and "V/H/S" (but not as scary). Creepiest: "The Box," which will surely join the new (non-horror) Marti Noxon film "To the Bone" as part of some film studies course on disordered eating and body image in cinema. Most compelling overall: "Her Only Living Son," which melds a feminist take on single motherhood with the "Something's terribly wrong with Billy" horror subgenre (see also: "Joshua," "The Omen," etc.).

Not every film in the set packs a wallop, but all show signs of having been made thoughtfully, which is more than one can claim about, say, Kevin Smith's awful contribution to the aforementioned "Holidays." As all the hype assured us it would, "XX" does showcase some talented/promising female writer/directors in the genre. I was especially pleased to see work by Karyn Kusama, who directed both the excellent "The Invitation" and the unfairly panned "Jennifer's Body." It also leaves out a few notables who might be a great fit for "XX2," including Leigh Janiak ("Honeymoon"), Sarah Adina Smith ("The Midnight Swim"), and Jennifer Kent ("The Babadook").

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Being Human" means making big mistakes, over and over

The British supernatural dramedy "Being Human" gets a lot of mileage from the irony that its protagonists -- a werewolf, vampire, and ghost, seemingly primed to be part of a corny Halloween dad joke -- struggle at least as much with the human condition after becoming something other than human as they did before. In the second season, George, the werewolf, makes some particularly hard-to-watch mistakes, including rebounding from a touching, heartbreaking relationship with Nina, whom he accidentally turns into a werewolf, to a pro forma affair with a single mom whose young daughter is, we sense, creepily aware that George isn't what he seems.

Compared with Mitchell's transformation from kinder, gentler "on the wagon" vampire to merciless seeker of vengeance, and Annie's understandable curiosity about whether the priest and scientist who offer a supposed cure for lycanthropy might be able to help her, too, George is the main character I most want to shake by the shoulders until he sees reason. But true love will mess with your head, and breakups are tougher to shake off when one of you turned the other into a wolf-human hybrid.

"Being Human" mines from the horror genre some bloodletting and some exquisite suspense (observe the scene in which priest and scientist experiment on Nina, still a likable character, and ultimately stop just short of killing her in the process). I think it works best not as a melancholy friends-in-a-flat sitcom, but rather as a meditation on personal conscience and how we slip in and out of living up to our own moral standards. And, like most other stories of vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, it's a tale of not fitting into society at large, and trying to come to terms with that somehow.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The rest of "The Monster"

So, between work, baby/family time, and sleep, I finally finished watching "The Monster." Zoe Kazan and her young co-star, future Anne of Green Gables Ella Ballentine, really do act the holy heck out of this movie. And for me their acting really elevates what might otherwise be a very routine exercise in genre tropes. (Admittedly, the film includes one age-old cliche that caused me to do an internal facepalm and say, aloud, to no one in particular, "C'mon!") Reviewers have noted that the movie isn't as profound as writer-director Bryan Bertino seems to want it to be, and I think that's accurate. However, it's much less shallow than it could have been.

Fortifying the standard monster-movie beats is the wrenching relationship between Kazan's Kathy and her young daughter, Lizzy, played by Ballentine. Critics have rightly noted that the title could refer just as easily to Kathy, who is by turns abusive and neglectful toward Lizzy. However, as I noted in my last post, it's really a triple entendre: monster, mother, and addiction. What makes "The Monster" a tragedy, and truly one of the saddest horror movies I've seen, is Kathy's fervent, almost palpable regret about all the emotional and psychological crud her behavior has heaped on Lizzy.

I don't leave this film thinking Kathy doesn't love Lizzy, or Lizzy doesn't love Kathy. I do come away with great sadness -- that their relationship was so broken, and that it took such extreme circumstances to move them both toward healing.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What makes horror matter

I'm only about a half-hour in, but, thus far, Bryan Bertino's "The Monster" has many of the qualities I look for in horror: real character development, strong acting, an emotional connection to one or more characters (hence: emotional stakes for what comes later), and a gradual (but not slow) pace that effectively builds suspense. Zoe Kazan, who made a lasting impression in 2009's "The Exploding Girl," has made a graceful transition from indie ingénue to screenwriter (2012's "Ruby Sparks") and careful selector of projects. Her Kathy, an alcoholic single mom whose irresponsibility puts her daughter in the position of having to parent her, is broken enough to evoke pathos but not so broken as to alienate us completely.

A scene in that first half-hour in which Kathy fights to resist the magnetic pull of alcohol, after we see a message her daughter has scrawled on the kitchen whiteboard ("You can do it, Mom!"), and then succumbs, provides an emotional oomph that will likely make the bumps-in-the-night to come a lot more meaningful than they otherwise would have been. (The scene concludes with Kathy, having been sick, lying on the bathroom floor. Her daughter finds her and, instead of angrily walking away or bursting into tears, sweetly lies down beside her, spooning her.) Once I'm done with this one, I'll try to finish this review.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A return to Red Blue Green

It's been years -- more than five years, to be exact -- but I'm trying to coax myself back into blogging. I love writing for Spokane Faith and Values, but not every subject I want to write about fits into FAVS' (admittedly broad) thematic framework. I'm easing myself in by simply reposting a response I had to a FAVS article, but my goal is to create original content now and again to revive this long-neglected blog. I won't be able to provide the kind of frequent pop culture coverage I did back in Seattle, by virtue of having a baby, but maybe Red Blue Green can become part daddy blog, part indie horror appreciation website. A fella can dream, right?

 Anyway, here's the link to the FAVS article in question, "My class needs to be a safe space," by EWU professor Chadron Hazelbaker. And here's my response:
I attended Oberlin College, 1997-2001, and the concept of safe space was a big deal there, perhaps well before most of the culture had heard of it or knew what it was. Baldwin House, one of the on-campus program houses, was a safe space for women; men weren't allowed in certain parts of the building unaccompanied. The house did feminist programs and events, but it was also a place for sexual assault survivors to feel relatively safe -- probably safer than in some random dorm or off-campus house. Afrikan Heritage House, as I recall, included a lounge that white people weren't supposed to walk through -- unaccompanied, or maybe at all. And of course this was controversial in some circles. 
I think white people (and men, especially cisgender, heterosexual men) often have a hard time understanding the value of space in which one can discuss one's experiences of oppression without members of the oppressive group present. That doesn't mean all men or all white people are doing oppressive things 24/7. It just means that it can be important to have a safe space to process difficult experiences and work on building one's identity as a minority of whatever kind. 
I can see why this concept is easy to ridicule, but I also saw its usefulness and power at Oberlin, so I'm loath to endure the endless mockery -- such as the conservative radio host on ACN (106.5 FM locally) who seems to find it terrifically entertaining to make fun of college students who played with kittens and colored after the election. Sure, you could accuse these young adults of regression, but as a country that deals poorly with emotional expression, maybe it's more helpful to consider why someone might need a bit of TLC following the election of a man who bragged about sexual assault, dismissed it as "locker room talk," and won the presidency.