Saturday, February 5, 2022

New adventures in genre-bending

Clockwise from upper left: Werewolves Within, 
Love & Monsters, Yellowjackets, and Spontaneous. 

Since 2022 began, I’ve had the good fortune to watch some pretty spectacular examples of genre-bending movies and TV. Wasting no time, on Jan. 4 I saw Spontaneous, which I figured would be good but ended up leaving me a weeping mess. One way a film can genre-bend is by starting out in one place, genre-wise, and ending up somewhere very different. Spontaneous starts with — forgive me — a bang that feels decidedly horror-comedy (specifically, teen comedy with bloody explosions), but by the end it’s been both a coming-of-age drama, an involving sci-fi-ish thing, and a genuinely moving romance, all mixed with some truly artful philosophizing about the importance of taking risks and recognizing life’s transience. 

That’s a lot of lifting for one kicky dark comedy, but thanks to both a brilliant screenplay and the two leads’ lovely performances — though for me Katherine Langford is the beating heart of this movie — it really comes together, and even the crazypants free association of the ending feels earned because of all the great stuff that came before. The scene with Mara and her boyfriend’s mom in the cemetery at night, in its context, is one of the best single scenes I’ve watched in quite some time.

Then there’s Yellowjackets. Unlike with most of what I watch, I didn’t realize at the beginning how far into horror this one would lean. It could have been pitched as “Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls,”  but none of those possible inspirations channels quite the sense of foreboding and menace that Yellowjackets manages to from the jump. That opening scene, of the hunt through some pretty Blair Witch-y woods, stays with you throughout the consistently excellent first season; its themes of brutality, tribalism, and maybe even cultism never really go away, no matter how mundane the settings and situations get. 

There have been countless “flash back/flash forward” movies and series that examine characters in childhood and adulthood along parallel tracks, but Yellowjackets packs a bigger wallop than most in its depiction of trauma’s many and varied aftereffects as well as the pain, guilt, and in some cases ruthlessness that seethe beneath the surface of some people’s polished family lives. Even for those of us who didn’t survive a plane crash and resort to cannibalism and God knows what else, a placid exterior doesn’t mean there isn’t turmoil within. And Yellowjackets does particularly wise work in its exploration of female friendship, which it depicts as capable of both immense strength and alarming fragility. 

Next, Werewolves Within is up-and-comer Josh Ruben’s adaptation of, apparently, a 2016 VR game of the same name? We live in weird times, man. Sam Richardson is terrific as buoyant park ranger Finn Wheeler, and Milana Vayntrub shines as manic-pixie-dream-girl-with-a-dark-side-who-is-also-a-letter-carrier Cecily Moore. (FWIW, for anyone out there with a raging crush on Vayntrub, this movie won’t help you shake it.) By the film’s midsection I began to feel like it wasn’t more than the sum of its parts, which isn’t a huge problem when the parts are funny and diverting. At the same time, I quickly tired of the film’s gay male stereotypes that seemed more rooted in the 2000s than the 2020s, and the requisite band of dumb yokels that surround Richardson and Vayntrub feel a bit worn out, too. 

Compared to SpontaneousYellowjackets, and the also excellent Love & Monsters (how many sci-fi comedies feature a male hero choosing peace and empathy over violence in the climactic battle?), Werewolves Within comes across as above-average horror-comedy, but not transcendent — not an all-timer. They can’t all be, though, and if you’re staying in on a snowy February night, you could do a lot worse.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Top songs of 2018

Behold! My top 12 songs of 2018:

And the honorable mentions*:

*a few of these came out in very late 2017

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Tweaking the watchlist

I keep a running list of horror films I'm interested in. Some are already in circulation; others are coming out soonish. I recently realized that intriguing but ostensibly feel-bad titles like "A Dark Song" and "The Devil's Candy" (both on Netflix) might not be what I'm actually into these days.

I think I went through a phase with horror similar to my trajectory with indie and foreign films: At first, if a film was dark thematically, and maybe even hard to watch at times, it struck me as unquestionably deep. How could it not be? Human suffering, man -- that shit is deep. And since I was doing plenty of suffering, due to a lively combination of anxiety, depression, and disordered eating, I found a lot to relate to in movies like Catherine Breillat's devastating "Fat Girl" (2001), whose shocking ending is one of the few vivid memories I have of it.

These days, life is generally much sunnier for me, despite the chronic sleep deprivation that comes with being the parent of a toddler and working two part-time jobs. My wife is a big fan of genre film and TV, be it science fiction, fantasy, or relatively light horror ("Cabin in the Woods," yes, but probably not "We Are What We Are" or "We Are Still Here"). Much of what we watch together is "genre" in one way or another, though we also share a love of quirky and/or dark comedy ("You're the Worst," "Big Mouth," etc.).

In any case, I'm trying to modify my genre watchlist to reflect what I actually want to see. I just started watching "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," intrigued by a local filmmaker acquaintance's praise for it and my appreciation of Martin McDonagh's previous work (chiefly "Six Shooter" and "In Bruges"), and though it isn't genre, it's quirky dark comedy, and it's an award winner -- serious cinema, if you will.

I think something that's been missing in my life, along with time to write for this blog and Spokane Faith & Values, is ambitious, "prestige" film. Before my son's birth in June of 2016, I squeezed in a few last Oscar winners, knowing my days of watching what I wanted when I wanted were numbered. Most notably, I watched and loved "Spotlight," "The Big Short," and "Room."

I remember how wonderful it felt to watch these thoughtful, complex movies, which, despite the difficult themes they highlight, I experienced as life-giving and inspiring. Because that's what outstanding, memorable films have always done for me: They've helped me keep believing in the human race rather than cynically focusing on our worst qualities and retreating into misanthropy.

In my view, a species that can artfully and poignantly reflect on its own weaknesses is one that may still have hope of becoming better over time. Especially in the era of Trump, perhaps humanity's most prominent and least inspiring example, I think I need more high-minded, well-crafted film -- whether it's "genre" or not.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our robot overlords

Not sufficiently terrified by the now-infamous Boston Dynamics robot dog that can open doors?

In that case, you'll definitely want to check out two short horror films that predict an even gloomier future for us puny humans. It seems we're just lambs to the slaughter once our mechanical, AI-powered Frankenstein's monsters decide they're done putting up with our bullshit and turn on us. But don't take my word for it; see for yourself below!

Blinky™ from Ruairi Robinson on Vimeo.

ABE from Rob McLellan on Vimeo.

Five great arts and culture accounts to follow on Twitter

Mark Harris -- the author of the great nonfiction book "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood," which analyzes the 1968 best picture Oscar nominees and extrapolates a whole lot about American society and the entertainment industry -- is funny, informative, and at times righteously indignant about the dangerous nonsense going on in our country.

Sample tweet:

Rahul Kohli, who plays the wry and intrepid Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti on "iZombie," is caustically funny at times, but his tweets also reveal great affection for his co-stars on the show. He and I once had a delightful back-and-forth regarding "iZombie" star Rose McIver's Netflix movie "A Christmas Prince," which the internet hungrily and hilariously devoured last month.

Sample tweet:

"The Big Sick" co-writer and star Kumail Nanjiani‏ is a newer follow for me, but I appreciate his charming sense of humor and sincerity, along with a significant dose of humility, which was particularly evident when he and fellow screenwriter (and wife) Emily Gordon were recently nominated for an Oscar for best original screenplay.

Sample tweet:

My fellow Oberlin College graduate Emily Nussbaum, who now writes for a little magazine called The New Yorker, also happens to be my favorite TV critic. (She penned one of my favorite TV pieces ever, an aptly cutting assessment of "Dexter.") Nussbaum tweets a lot, and often hilariously, about all things pop culture and some things political.

Sample tweet:

Barry Jenkins won an Oscar last year for his "Moonlight" screenplay, and the film itself won the Academy's best picture trophy. Yet the man's Twitter feed is a model of humility; Jenkins largely uses it to amplify other artists' achievements, with particular emphasis on black filmmakers, writers, musicians, etc. For one of the finest directors and screenwriters working today, he seems remarkably, and believably, like an honorable, modest everyguy. But don't be fooled: His cultural observations are far sharper than the average bear's.

Sample tweet:

Friday, February 2, 2018

Revivals, reunions, and reboots I'd like to see

In honor of the imminent "Murphy Brown" revival (Murphy takes on Trumpism and the "fake news" phenomenon!), as well as another new season of "X-Files," NBC's resuscitation of "Will & Grace," and -- holy cow! -- the upcoming return of "Roseanne," here are a few TV revivals or reunion movies I'd like to see as we enter some kind of golden age of resurrecting old cultural products:
  • "Clueless" reunion movie: Cher, now a lawyer just like her (now-retired) father, is married to her scrumptious stepbrother, Josh, and they have -- of course -- one kid who wants to be a corporate go-getter when she grows up, and one who's into fashion and wants to be the next Michael Kors. Antics ensue when Dionne comes back into their life after a messy divorce from Murray. Also, Tai is cleverly yet sensitively written out of the cast in light of Brittany Murphy's untimely demise.
  • "ALF" revival: ALF returns to Earth from Melmac, and his spaceship crash-lands on the White House. Though the crash is thought by most Americans to have been a terrorist attack, a young aide encounters ALF fleeing his damaged craft and learns the truth. ALF takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania and gets into all sorts of amusing trouble, including impersonating a Secret Service agent and, on a dare, stealing Trump's daily cheeseburgers for a solid week. 
  • "The Wonder Years" revival: The new season follows the adventures of Kevin Arnold's grandchildren, contrasting suburban life in the late '60s and early '70s to its equivalent now. Fred Savage, aged only somewhat believably by the show's makeup artists, makes appearances throughout the season as Kevin.
  • "Murder, She Tweeted": In this reboot for the iPhone age, Oscar winner Emma Stone plays Jessica Fletcher, a plucky crime blogger and amateur PI around whom millennials keep ending up dead for some reason. Much seriocomic sleuthing ensues.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Simplicity and ambiguity: The horror short as flash fiction

Back when I was but a wee adolescent aspiring to become a fiction writer, in the summer of 1996, I attended Interlochen Arts Camp for a month of intensive writing instruction. Peter Markus, our quirky and charismatic teacher, introduced us to "flash fiction" -- very, very short stories. Some of these micro-tales were a couple pages long; some consisted of just a few paragraphs. Discovering this precise, economical subgenre inspired us to be wildly imaginative without setting ourselves the daunting goal of cranking out some arbitrary number of words or pages in order to feel like we'd written a "real" story.

I thought of flash fiction when I watched "Curve," a 10-minute horror/suspense short with a premise so simple, some young filmmakers are almost certainly kicking themselves for not coming up with it. (This was the effect flash fiction often had on us young writers.) I don't want to expound at length about a film so simple and effective, but I should also note that it features the kind of ending that drives some cinephiles absolutely bonkers. There's no clear resolution: Not only do we not know what ultimately happened, we don't know how whatever happened happened. But what the filmmaker was going for, I think, was primarily a chilling mood of uncertainty, mystery, and, yes, dread. If that was writer-director-cinematographer Tim Egan's goal, then mission accomplished.

CURVE from Lodestone Films on Vimeo.