“Under the Skin” Is the Best Horror Movie You’ve Never Seen

May 27th, 2015

Like comedy and pornography, horror is a practical art with a concrete aim; it exists to frighten. This utilitarian aspect makes horror a genre that constantly interrogates its own past, examining how other scary movies scared people in order to refine and surpass them. So like almost all of the great horror films,Under the Skin exists in conversation with its forerunners. The main character’s pattern of luring lonely, horny, pasty men to a decrepit house to be consumed by some nightmare secreted from the floor evokes the plot of Clive Barker’s similar meditation on agony in the UK, Hellraiser; a late-game makeup effect recalls its even more uncompromisingly brutal sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. The circular, ocular forms that dominate the movie’s abstract opening sequence recall not only the baleful gaze of the killer computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (a frequent point of comparison in reviews) but also the similar combination of curvilinear shapes and unnerving musical dissonance that kicks off Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (a film with which UtS shares an unarticulated but brutal meat-is-murder subtext, one that’s a lot clearer in the source novel).

Another Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining, earns a visual echo in the bird’s-eye-view shots of the characters driving the curvy roads carved through the rugged region. Its long silent passages, in which our sole window into the world of the film is the monster at its center, force us into her skin in a fashion reminiscent of Norman Bates’s clean-up and disposal in Psycho. Indeed, the ominous hums and screeching strings of Mica Levi’s score place it with Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, John Williams’s Jaws, and the Ligeti/Penderecki/Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind–dominated soundtrack of The Shining at the top of the horror movie music pantheon.

The list could go on—seriously, I cut several entries for space—but it’s important to note this: None of these elements exist to be spotted, per se. They’re not overt references or homages, but rather a bedrock on which the film can be built into something new and unique. Under the Skin uses our shared vocabulary of horror tropes and techniques to create a new language, just like the disembodied syllables we hear the main character murmur over the stunning, dissociative opening sequence evolve into the words she uses to seduce and destroy.

Under the Skin is one of the best horror movies ever made, and one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, period. I make the case for it over at Decider.

May 26th, 2015

I was sexually abused when I was three or four years old. The exact date, like some of the specifics, is lost to my memory. As far as memories go I suppose this is one of my earliest, actually. My brain gives me gifts unasked for, sometimes.

I came under the care of two teenagers my family trusted. The elder of the two spent a week humiliating and abusing me. (The younger of the two saw everything and did nothing.)

She locked me alone in a room for hours, and forced me to work around the house, whatever that could have looked like for a three year old, when I was released. She fed me food she had rendered inedible through means I’m glad remain a mystery to me, and when I inevitably could not bring myself to eat it I went hungry. (At the time the only available category for bad food my brain had access to was “stale,” so that’s the description of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she made me that I remember formulating. Whatever was wrong with that sandwich, which I can still taste in my mouth over 30 years later, it wasn’t stale bread.) She made fun of me constantly, exclusively. She made me wear diapers, which like all children I’d stopped using with pride, and when the time came to relinquish me back to my parents’ care she threatened that they would put me in diapers and keep me in them if I told.

On the day she gave me a bath, she made me stand naked while she examined and ridiculed me. I can’t remember if she touched my penis, honestly I can’t, but she must have: I had a birthmark or freckle on it at the time, which she mocked. I was a freckly kid, and my mother had told me freckles were where the angels kissed me before I was born. “Did the angels kiss you there?” my abuser asked, laughing. I didn’t recognize what was being suggested, obviously, fortunately, though I sensed it was bad. I looked down and saw something that, while neither repulsive nor ridiculous, was now alien to me. What I understood most clearly was that my private parts were no longer private. They could be seen and touched and kissed and made fun of and laughed at. I had no more power to stop it than I could force my mouth to chew and swallow the tainted food my abuser served me. Here was another plate.

I knew what had been done to me was mean, which is a child’s word for wrong. I knew I’d done nothing to deserve it, so I had nothing to fear if I divulged it. When this time period drew to a close I told my parents what I could immediately, without hesitation. That put an end to it.

Until recently I hadn’t thought much about this incident, or its impact on my life. I didn’t think there’d been one. After all, I was lucky in many respects. The abuse occurred over a discreet time period, rather than an ongoing one. The physical component could have been much worse. I was so young that I didn’t understand the sexual component to be sexual; certainly no one presented it to me as such after the fact. I didn’t yet feel shame, thank christ. Authority figures believed me and not my abuser. I know so many people who went through so much more. I am not the kind of person to cut himself slack for suffering.

Fifteen, sixteen years ago I rifled through my dad’s files and found a gifted-children evaluation that had been done on me prior to kindergarten. The evaluator noted that when given animal toys to play with, I had the predators menace the smaller animals until other, bigger animals came to fight the predators and rescue the prey. The evaluator ascribed this to the incident, but I’d always thought it was just how kids play. Isn’t all narrative conflict-driven? I put the report aside. I put the abuse aside.

I am currently at what I hope to be the tail end of a years-long bout of depression, and my life now is very different than my life before it began. My depression’s worst depths roughly coincided with the start of a period of intense sexuality. Given my interests as a critic and artist, this combination has been pretty fucking good for me, professionally. I write to figure things out; I figure things out when I write; this is true even when figuring things out is not the goal. I can’t help it. I am also fortunate enough to be in both a romantic relationship and a therapeutic one in which figuring things out is the goal. And so, inevitably, I’ve wormed my way back into this soil.

I’ve known for many years, because it’s been screechingly obvious to me even at my most oblivious, that sex is part of a cycle of humiliation and redemption for me. I was bullied badly in elementary school, and by middle school the teasing and mockery had hardened me into a fist of resentment against my social betters. By my sophomore year in high school it became apparent to me that I was now attractive to girls. This was great fun for all the usual healthy reasons, but I also saw it as slam-dunk evidence that I wasn’t the faggot and loser and geek and baby the male jocks said I was. Indeed, another human being need not be present for this catharsis to take effect: I felt a thrilling flash of “that’ll show them!” the first time I masturbated, because my body worked the way a man’s body should. Sex as a proving ground.

I identified this feeling early, but it never occurred to me to ask why I felt it. Why does the successful exercise of sexuality validate me as a person? Why does the mere fact of my sexual autonomy mean anything? Why does the concept of the body as a machine the operation of which exists outside normal social strictures of shame and propriety turn me on and get me off, ever since the very first time? If sex has taken on such importance in calibrating my personality, and if that calibrator was damaged by my abuse, were the parts of my personality that aren’t directly sex-adjacent able to be damaged as well? I don’t know.

I suspect, though. I suspect now. I suspect that at an age when I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being made to be a baby again, powerless and devoid of self-control, my abuser rooted my private experience of my body in a diaper. I suspect that at an age when every word from my mother’s mouth was love, my abuser used a story she’d told me to make me feel good about my body and hurt me with it, turned me against myself. I suspect that my baseline self-evaluation was reset at “not okay,” and that I grab what I can from outside and stand on it as long as I can to stay above it, which is never long enough. I suspect that anything that demonstrates that my body is my own and that my body is good is a balm to my soul but that its palliative effects only last so long. I suspect that I was conditioned to believe myself a shameful excess, a burden to everybody, and that my personal life has been an endless, futile scramble to make myself as unobtrusive and inoffensive as possible, to find solace only in hiding my own need.

I’ll never know, though. That’s the thing that bothers me the most: I’ll never know. This thing that happened to me, that was done to me, is dark matter. I know it’s there, but that’s all I know. Even if it were to have shaped me the way I suspect it might have, it’s convinced me I have no right to claim it as such — that the story’s not worth telling even if it’s mine to tell, since everyone has a story, don’t they, and if I went for all these years not thinking about it, not noticing it, even now I should just shut the fuck up about it, it’s vanity to pretend I have any reason to complain, you will be laughed at again, you are laughable again, how bad could it be? How bad could it be? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Seven: “The Gift”

May 25th, 2015

As with solitaire or Angry Birds, we tend to think of the Game of Thrones as a single-player pursuit. We focus on the lords of ancient houses, like Daenerys Targaryen and Stannis Baratheon. We monitor the behind-the-scenes schemers, like Cersei Lannister and Littlefinger. We watch the dark horses moving along the margins, like Jon Snow and Tyrion the Imp. In each case, it seems like power is a weapon only one person can hold in the end. But tonight’s episode — “The Gift” — showed just how much this game is a team sport. Friends and family matter at every step, and if you lose them? Game over.

I reviewed tonight’s jam-packed Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.

May 20th, 2015

One thing you don’t realize until you have a child is that stories about redemptive, heroic violence are omnipresent. Once a child is past toddlerhood and demands narrative media of greater complexity, violent conflict becomes an inescapable requisite. Having a daughter adds a layer of complicity: Boys are fed this stuff automatically, but with a girl you so often deliberately expose her to violent stories that would not reach her otherwise for the sake of egalitarianism. To send the message to your kid that the boy/girl binary is false you’re stuck showing her “boy stuff,” invariably involving punching or lasers, or “girl versions” of “boy stuff,” which port over those values as a cost of increased dynamism on the part of the female protagonist.

Every story I love from childhood involves solving problems with heroic violence. How can I share that love with my kid without imparting that view? It took me three decades to shake loose of it myself. Even when I thought I was out, I was in, as people who knew me ten, twelve years ago know. I’m sure smarter, better parents of daughters than I have figured it out, but I’m fucking stumped.

I’ve been playing The Legend of Zelda with my daughter, age four. She is viscerally thrilled by the scope and the mystery, and it’s a joy to behold. She wants to know why the monsters are mean. I don’t know what to tell her.

That’s overdramatic, of course. As my dear friends Julia Gfrörer and Stefan Sasse pointed out to me, monsters are a vital embodiment of several crucial ideas — the beasts of nature, harmful everyday things you can’t negotiate, meanness itself. And it is delightful to have raised a child of such industrious empathy, a child so perturbed by meanness and rudeness as her tiny conception of cruelty that it’s the lens through which she views evil itself. But still: the guilt I feel when she chooses the sword.

This weekend I saw an okay movie called “Mad Max: Fury Road”

May 20th, 2015

I liked it fine. It wasn’t bad, and it was never mindless which sets it a cut above 90% of action blockbusters, but it wasn’t great. It was okay.

And it was spectacular, but the spectacle added nothing but scale.  This is particularly true of the many chase sequences, which despite the well-publicized commitment to practical stuntwork had little of the white-knuckle claustrophobic about-to-break intensity of The Road Warrior. It was The Road Warrior but MORE, which in the end meant less. To be fair, The Road Warrior is flawless, a wholly original and alien vision, poetry in motion, probably the greatest action movie ever made, one of the best movies of any kind. Fury Road feels like George Miller took his masterpiece and added a bunch of unconvincing prosthetics to it, which in a sense he literally did.

To me the enthusiasm for Fury Road’s fantastical grandiosity is an echo (perhaps via influential cartoonist Brendan McCarthy, who storyboarded the film back in the day) of recent years’ fixation within the alternative/indie-comics world on Moebius and similar genre-comics artists who combine great technical ability with vivid visual imaginations; this attempt to realign the canon away from the Ware / Clowes / Doucet / Brown / Hernandez / Spiegelman / Crumb axis has been baleful for the artform in most every particular. (Simon Pegg was right.)

Miller also gave it an unambiguously happy ending, a big step back from the marvelous, singularly simultaneous gutpunch and uplift of The Road Warrior’s conclusion. A happy ending of this sort is fun, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t live off it.

Moreover, the sociopolitical praise for it, as is usually the case when people go berserk for giant pop-culture artifacts, is further evidence of the soft bigotry of low expectations. (Anita Sarkeesian was right.) You’ll be happy to hear that Mad Max: Fury Road takes a bold stand against the enslavement of women as broodmares by insane albino warlords, and that tough women with hip haircuts shoot guns in it. It’s a strange sort of progressivism that lionizes violence so long as it’s sufficiently badass and nominally egalitarian in its participants. It leaves us wishing Game of Thrones into the cornfield while demanding a Black Widow action figure in every pot.

Everyone in it was good, though, I’ll give it that as well. Tom Hardy is a god, Nicholas Hoult seems a very lively talent, Charlize Theron was rock solid. Like I said, it was fine, I enjoyed it I guess. It’s just that the existence of The Road Warrior renders it superfluous.

Q&A: Clive Barker on Almost Dying, Hustling, and Killing Pinhead

May 19th, 2015

You’ve been so unequivocal and public that this book is about the death of Pinhead — full stop, no spoiler warning. Why?

Why not? If I’d been sly about this and not even mentioned the fact that Pinhead — excuse me, the Hell Priest — was going to die, that would have seemed really dumb. It’s actually a really important element of the book, the element of the book which will draw the most attention. He will not be coming back, by the way. That I promise you. There will be no return, no posthumous Frank Sinatra concerts from him.

In reading, I couldn’t help but think about your own life. You’ve been working on this book for years—

Yes, I have been working on this book for years. But I also had a coma, and lost my mother, my father, and the young man who was almost my son, and a lot of other terrible things in the meantime. Even though it might seem that I’ve been diddly-daddling instead of actually writing, a lot of that daddling has been because I was unconscious. I, uh … I take the Fifth. [Laughs.] I’m making a joke of it, but there have been some pretty damn horrible times of late. I’m only just now, after some many years, priming to leave the house. I’ve only been out of the house five times in the last few years. I am now well enough to, actually, finally leave the house. [Sardonically.] Hey, what about that!

In the midst of all this, you revealed that you supported your writing career in the early days by working as a hustler.

Was that really such a revelation? I was surprised. Maybe I hadn’t talked about it in the past, but I didn’t think I’d hidden it too much.

I got the sense that that was a painful time in your life to revisit.

It was, and yet it wasn’t. It was humiliating many times. It was stultifyingly boring much of the time. And it’s bad sex, mainly. [Laughs.] But you can’t have everything. It kept me in bread and cheese through a bad time in my life, fiscally. But do I want to go back to hustling anytime soon? Nope.

For my Grantland debut I spoke with Hellraiser director Clive Barker about his life, his health, and the death of Pinhead. His new book The Scarlet Gospels, which contains exactly that, is in stores today, and it is furious and empathetic and takes no prisoners.

Spoiler Alert: The Mad Men Series Finale

May 18th, 2015

I discussed the Mad Men finale with the New York Observer’s Drew Grant, the Guardian’s Brian Moylan, and the Huffington Post’s Ricky Camilleri on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert today. It’s a contentious and productive discussion.

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 14: “Person to Person”

May 18th, 2015

I remain agnostic about whether Don made the ad, as I believe the show intends. At any rate, it’s largely immaterial. We’ve spent seven seasons watching Don grow, shrink, succeed, fail, move forward, stagger back, and generally struggle with his inability to fill the void inside him with things pulled in from outside, whether that’s money, sex, love, wanderlust, creativity, or industrial quantities of alcohol. There’s no reason, really, to assume the struggle would end when the show does — that Don’s grin marks, for certain, the beginning of a more grounded, more centered new life completely separate from the old one.

What’s more, an uncomfortable overlap between his current self and his ad-man past would in no way wipe out the losses and gains he experiences here. Don’s grief over Betty’s diagnosis and his subsequent realization that his absence from his children’s life is, to them, “normal life” is real. So is his litany of unforgivable sins, recited in the sardonic lilt that should be familiar to anyone who’s taken a similar vebal inventory of their failings and found the results to be a crippling psychological wound: “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Don once told Peggy that despite seemingly having it all, he’s still gripped with a terrible worry: “That I’ve never did anything, and I don’t have anyone.” Crumpled by the payphone at the retreat, he’s realized his worry has come true. I envy anyone who doesn’t find this story, this show, completely devastating.

But it’s not just his collapse that remains real, but his catharsis as well. Sitting in the encounter group, he listens to a man named Leonard, a square in every respect, describe a life that’s very much like the ideal all-American one Don himself had at first tried to create before going on to constantly undermine and eventually destroy it. This, Leonard hasn’t done; it doesn’t matter. “I’ve never been interesting to anybody,” he says. “I work in an office—people walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids—you know, they don’t look up when I sit down. It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. Maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you, then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.” He describes a dream that sounds like an ad, about living in a refrigerator, thrilling to the smiling faces he sees when people open its door and the light switches on until he realizes they’re not looking for him at all and the door swings shut. At this, Don stands, walks over, kneels down, and embraces the man, a total stranger, as they cry. In this moment he realizes there are many ways to Have It All, and that so long as you see this as your goal, they all leave you with nothing.

I reviewed the finale of Mad Men for Wired. This was a show, folks. This was a show.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Six: “Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken”

May 18th, 2015
“Game of Thrones” Recap: Stark Reality

Few of these developments hold a candle to the episode’s most upsetting and controversial development: the wedding night of Sansa and Ramsay. In the books, Lady Stark’s place in this storyline is held instead by a childhood friend, groomed to impersonate Arya and dupe the Northern lords into believing House Bolton has wed itself into Winterfell’s ancient line. What befalls her is no less awful than what happens to Sansa, but because she’s a comparatively minor player in the saga rather than one of its most prominent and beloved figures, the events hit even harder here. The groom’s sadistic grin, the bride’s look of resigned and mounting agony (so reminiscent of Daenerys on her first night with Khal Drogo all those full moons ago), the tears of Theon Greyjoy as he’s forced to watch —  these faces will be hard to forget.

So yes, Sansa’s rape by Ramsay is of the show’s own devising, and it feels every bit the violation it is. But by involving a multidimensional main character instead of one introduced primarily to suffer, the series has a chance to grant this story the gravity and seriousness it deserves. The novels present this material through Theon’s eyes, relegating Bolton’s bride to a supporting role in a man’s story. Sansa has a story of her own, of which this is now an admittedly excruciating chapter — but she, not Theon, is the real victim here, and it remains her story nonetheless. The next chapters will be hers alone to write.

I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones.

“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 15: “Wentworth Prison”

May 18th, 2015

There’s a quote attributed to Star Wars impresario George Lucas via his ex-wife, Oscar-winning editor Marcia, that speaks directly to what you and I and everyone who watched Outlander this week subjected ourselves to. As Peter Biskind tells it in his classic history of American cinema in the ‘70s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “Emotionally involving the audience is easy,” George is said to have remarked. “Anybody can do it blindfolded, get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” No kittens, I’m happy to report, were harmed in the making of “Wentworth Prison,” this week’s installment. But what happened was just as lopsidedly sadistic and nakedly manipulative, the only difference being that the target wasn’t a housecat, but a character with all the three-dimensionality and disposition of one. Like an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys directed by Hostel auteur Eli Roth, “Wentworth Prison,” tonight’s installment of Outlander, is an experiment designed to see how badly cheese can bleed.

[...]

There’s no sense in pulling punches here: It’s infuriating to be asked to suffer through the extended torture and humiliation of characters who, at every other juncture save perhaps their creatively choreographed sex scenes, are trotted around like action figures and posed like romance-novel covers. Outlander’s insistence that Jamie Fraser as a character, or Sam Heughan as the actor playing him, possesses the smoldering and unpredictable charisma required for him to make sense as the anchor of a crazy centuries-spanning love is as wholly unsupported by the on-screen evidence as the show’s claim that he has red hair. (It’s brown! We can all see it!) The man doing the humiliating and torturing has no shades of grey (ironically), no characteristics that make him feel human, or even just interesting as a complete black-hat villain. The less said about the legion of interchangeable dudes in beards and kilts, the better. Only Claire herself stands out, which makes watching her cry for this cipher a surefire way to undermine her power, and a genuinely maddening act of “emotionally involving the audience” by the Lucas definition. Dump her into a pile of corpses, make a mute goon sexually assault her, subject her to whatever indignity you can come up with in lieu of creating characters who equal her depth — it’s not going to suddenly make the show worth taking seriously. Quite the opposite! Calling Outlander soft porn has never been a fair critique. Now it’s torture porn, too, though. And it’ll leave you limp.

I reviewed this week’s Outlander for the New York Observer. Turns out torture and sexual violence aren’t a shortcut to seriousness.

A Psychologist Ranks the 9 Worst Parents on TV

May 15th, 2015

3. Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister
Westeros’s queen of mean, currently using religious fanatics to menace the family of her kingly son’s wife.

“When it’s a parent who’s trying to drive a wedge between spouses, one [of which is their] child, in a sense, that’s no longer parenting. They’re just being … evil. Now they’re manipulating, they’re interfering, they’re purposefully going against another person who happens to also be their child. In a sense, it’s compounded by the fact that it’s a loved one. For a parent to go against their child in that way, I would say, is the ultimate in betrayal.”

Over at Vulture, I interviewed Dr. Donna Tonrey, director of the Counseling and Family Therapy Master’s programs at La Salle University, about bad TV parents.

End Game: TV’s Best and Worst Series Finales

May 13th, 2015

Best: ‘Battlestar Galactica’

Divine intervention, voluntary space-fleet destruction, the incredible disappearing Starbuck — the decisions made in the final episode of this politically charged sci-fi reboot baffled viewers at the time. Hindsight, however, has been extremely kind to Commander Adama and his crew. The show’s long-simmering supernatural elements paid off with the daring idea of a deity whose actions are just as unpredictable and unfathomable as humanity’s. And the joint human-Cylon decision to jettison their ships and live out their days planet-side — in what turns out to be our own Earth’s pre-history — bucked a core tenet of post-apocalyptic SF, arguing that individual lives are more important than the preservation of a culture at all costs. Risky? You bet. Rewarding? So say we all.

I wrote about Battlestar Galactica, Cheers, Dexter, Lost, Roseanne, and The Sopranos for Rolling Stone’s list of the best and worst series finales. But which are which? The answer may surprise you!

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 13: “The Milk and Honey Route”

May 11th, 2015

Pete Campbell not looking for a new job, but there’s one heading toward him at jet speed. Drunk, desperate Duck Philips has headhunted him into an ersatz interview with an executive at Learjet, the private aviation firm that heretofore had a reputation for providing playthings to Hollywood stars. But there are no stars in Pete’s eyes when—with the same clarity of vision that helped him predict the rise of the youth and African-American markets, and which helped him secure wayward clients Burger Chef and Avon for his new bosses at McCann—he proposes a different clientele. “Corporate executives should be your core business,” he tells the impressed exec, explaining that the company’s best bet is to market its service as “a tool, not a frivolous extravagance.” Giving people what they want is well and good. Giving people what they need? That’s something else entirely.

Providing high-priced jets to high-powered suits seems miles away from the emotional abattoir that is “The Milk and Honey Route,” Mad Men’s penultimate episode. It was an hour of television haunted by death and graced with unexpected rebirth, in which the characters barely set foot in their agency’s office—Don has officially quit, walking away from millions in the process, and Pete is about to follow suit. But while the Learjet material seems incidental, the course of action Campbell plots for his future employer also maps the path of the characters. Pete, Betty, and Don all reject glamorous illusion for journeys of necessity.

I reviewed last night’s incredible Mad Men for Wired.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Five, Episode Five: “Kill the Boy”

May 11th, 2015

They say “Winter is coming,” but for readers of A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novels upon which Game of Thrones is based, it’s already here. Written by series mainstay Bryan Cogman, tonight’s episode — “Kill the Boy” — is the first in which every single storyline has been altered so substantially from the books that it may as well be brand new. Sansa Stark’s stint in Winterfell, Brienne’s quest to save her, Ramsay Bolton’s girl trouble, Jon Snow’s mission to the wildling village of Hardhome, Princess Shireen’s ride south to war with her father Stannis, Daenerys’ execution-by-dragon and shotgun betrothal to her aristocratic adviser Hizdahr, the death of Barristan Selmy, the romance between Grey Worm and Missandei, the dragon and Stone Men–haunted journey of Tyrion and Jorah: None of it happened in author George R.R. Martin’s original texts. Like the exile knight and fugitive Lannister, readers and newcomers alike are now all in the same boat.

I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.

“Outlander” thoughts, Season One, Episode 14: “The Search”

May 11th, 2015

If I’m spending more time on plot recap than usual, it’s because the plot here is this episode’s distinguishing feature, for better and for worse. Outlander is built on a herky-jerky rhythm of reveals and reversals — people are captured and freed, threats are made and rescinded, people fight and make up, over and over and over. Since those plot points so rarely rise above the level of cliché, a storyline that takes things this far in the direction of the unusual and unexpected deserves spotlighting, if not outright praise. The problem is that only on a show this frustrating would a raunchy 18th-century rewrite of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” be seen as a bold storytelling maneuver, instead of what its in-world performers intend it to be: a novelty act.

I reviewed this weekend’s odd episode of Outlander for the New York Observer.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 22: “All Happy Families Are Alike”

May 11th, 2015

Try to imagine the endgame for this series. Seven, eight seasons, at 22 episodes apiece, of half-assed references to various Bat-villains before Bruce finally puts on the cape and cowl? Gotham needed to do a lot more than it did this year to justify that kind of investment. Some shows just want to watch the world burn.

I reviewed the season finale of Gotham, which was awful, for Rolling Stone.

“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 21: “The Anvil or the Hammer”

May 11th, 2015

At least Harvey Bullock gets to dress up nice for his ignominious adventure tonight. The grizzled vet un-grizzles himself for a visit to the Foxglove, a supposedly swanky sex club that plays Suicide songs about Marvel Comics characters on its sound system — thank God it wasn’t “Frankie Teardrop,” or things would have gotten really weird — for the entertainment of a clientele decked out in fetish gear to a hilariously explicit degree. (When Harvey finally placed everyone under arrest, here’s hoping he started with whatever Foley artist decided to add the squealing pig to the mix.) Looking around this Eyes Wide Shut meets the Gimp hellscape, it’s hard not to wonder who the target audience is — perverts who thought Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was too intellectual, maybe? Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.

Forgot to link this at the time, but I reviewed the penultimate Gotham episode for Rolling Stone.

Movie Time: Ex Machina

May 8th, 2015

spoilers below

I’ve never been interested in science fiction about “what it means to be human.” That is not a question that has ever once occurred to me to ask myself, much less interested me in being asked by others. I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on it, thanks! Like, what does it mean to be human? You’re soaking in it.

Moreover, I’m so likely to err on the side of caution with regards to the issue of “killing” an artificially intelligent machine that this facet of the subgenre holds no interest for me either. I’m a vegetarian pacifist who opposes the death penalty – don’t make a machine that would feel bad about getting unplugged. Boom, done.

So that’s problem number one for Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, as far as I’m concerned.

Problem number two is that while no one likes a good Bluebeard story more than I do (with one possible exception), this one tried to have its cake and eat it too with regards to the sexy naked lady robots in the evil inventor’s death closet, and the larger issue of male privilege and misogyny the evil inventor’s death closet represented. Obviously the film intends you to find the sexy naked lady robots creepy and the evil inventor’s behavior toward them loathsome, but the parade of fabulous nude bodies that ate up the film’s third act embodied (wink) the very problems it was ostensibly intended to critique. The tell here was the fact that Ava, the main sexy naked lady robot, stood around nakedafter she’d defeated the two human men involved in the story and was free to think and act on her own. At that point, the only male calling the shots was the director.

The final problem is that despite their primacy in the narrative, the two male characters were somehow still underexplored. As a subset of points one and two, I feel like I’ve had my fill of evil sexy robot lady stories for this life, so Ava, in the end, was just not that compelling a monster to me. You know who was, though? Nathan, the genius search-engine gazillionaire and evil inventor. If you’ve ever worked for a company owned by one or two very wealthy people, you know the unique horror of realizing that another human being can pretty much literally buy and sell you, completely upending your life before going home to their own that afternoon. There were feints, and more than feints, in this direction throughout the film, but in the end he was supplanted by his much less fearsome creation.

The awful fate reserved for his opposite number, Caleb, didn’t jibe either. How could it? It’s a plot point that Caleb was selected by Nathan to participate in the Turing testing of his evil sexy robot lady precisely because he’s a good-hearted cipher – kind and caring, but with nothing connecting him to the world at large. There’s no way for the horrific events of the film to feel like they are part of an emotional economy originating in that character, since he has so little in the bank.

Yes, it looks nice, but any knucklehead can make a stylish science fiction film look nice. That’s kind of their thing.

But the music, by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and his frequent collaborator Ben Salisbury, is overwhelming and tactile; it’s terrific. So is Oscar Isaac, so good at turning slightly-off creeps into these weird magnetic presences on film. And the dance scene? Fucking phenomenal. It’s the one part where the spectacle doesfeel like it sprang forth out of the psychic grotesquerie of this person’s brain. In that sense I guess it’s basically the “In Dreams” scene from Blue Velvet – <Morpheus voice> what if I told you this sexy, stylish psychological thriller was indebted to David Lynch? – but hey, I’ll eat it.

Marvel Movie Catch-Up Thoughts

May 6th, 2015

In the last three days I watched the last four Marvel movies.

Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor): Wafer-thin characters and worldbuilding offset by charismatic performances and cheeky action sequences. I don’t quite understand the white dwarf sexual gravity exerted by Tom Hiddleston on large segments of the audience, but he and Chris Hemsworth are clearly having a ball every minute they’re on set. Same with Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard and even, in this one at least, Natalie Portman, who’s only ever been good in Closer (and I guess Leon) but is fun here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dir. the Russo Brothers): Exciting, well-staged action from start to finish — very much the cinematic child of the Ed Brubaker run on the comics, where the characters felt solid and rooted in physics but operating at the absolute peak allowed, like they rolled a 20 for every saving throw. Not street level, super-street level, if that makes sense. Chris Evans is shockingly likeable in that role, which is hard for both him as an actor and that character if you’re a commie like me. I’ve never bought Johansson as Black Widow, but okay, fine. Mackie was fun as Falcon, Redford was Redfordian as the evil suit, and I liked the future Crossbones guy. A solid message regarding the out-of-control security apparatus, too, that wasn’t undermined by Black Widow’s “you need us” testimony at the end the way I’d been led to believe it was. Best of the lot.

Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn): A decent enough tonal and design throwback to ‘80s/early ‘90s sci-fi/action/popcorn fare — the Kyln prison looked like something out of Total Recall — but it overshot fun and hit shrill time and again. The fight scenes were poor, like a sort of warped version of the Captain America ones: All of these characters are way powered up, yet the nature of the story required them to be brawlers, so you were left with this down-and dirty fight choreography that just revealed how phony the physical effects were. And none of these lovable losers were as lovable as the film needed them to be, or clearly thought they were. How about that Chris Bautista though, huh? Funny stuff. Though that reminds me: Over and over again, the Marvel movies go to the most generic-looking blue-skinned-cosmic-type villains in the whole Marvel Universe. Laufey, the Frost Giants, Malekith, Kurse, the Dark Elves, Ronan, the Sakaarans, the Chitauri — it’s like they took their pointers from Guillermo Del Toro’s still-baffling decision to boil the entire Mike Mignola bestiary down to a shitty redesign of the frog monsters for Hellboy.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon): Nowhere near as confusing as advertised. Nowhere near as sociopolitically noxious, either; jesus, if ever there were an illustration of my Golden Rule of Internet Argument — interpret with minimum good faith, attack with maximum rhetorical force — it’s the litany of charges leveled against this relatively innocuous film, that’s for fucking sure. Whedon’s an awful director of action, you can never tell what the physical stakes are for any particular move or blow or strike or dodge. But he’s good with teamwork, with selling the idea of this group as a group. With the exception of that cornball farm shit back at Hawkeye Acres, all the personal-trauma stuff worked very well too. James Spader was very funny as Ultron, and Paul Bettany’s Vision reminded me of something I’ve heard from many older superhero fans, which is that once upon a time the Vision was the top-dog “cool” Marvel character, like Wolverine has been ever since. Sure, I can see that. Like all Marvel movies, even the best, it’s almost aggressively bereft of style, so the emphasis on charm is a necessary saving grace.

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode 12: “Lost Horizon”

May 4th, 2015

Joan has an even harder time accepting her reduced status as more pluribus than unum at the new office, though things seem fine, even fun, at first. She’s welcomed to work by Libby and Karen, two copywriters who specialize in campaigns targeting women—“If it’s in it, near it, or makes you think about it, we’re on it”—and whose approach to gender politics is connected women’s lib only by the coincidence of one of their names. “It’s not women’s lib, just a bitch session,” says Karen of the weekly girls’ night out to which they invite the newcomer. “We are strictly consciousness-lowering,” Libby jokes, and Joan’s smile practically radiates “I’m gonna like it here.” But by the end of the episode, the boys’-club condescension and harassment she’s subjected to by McCann execs like Dennis and Ferg Donnelly is such that she threatens to sic feminist icon Betty Friedan on the company unless they either put the kibosh on the creeps or cough up the cash she’s owed.

Being seen as part of a fundamentally faceless female horde is awful when it subjects you to undercutting, backstabbing, and grab-assing, but it’s a useful tool to strike fear in the hearts of men who watched said horde march through the streets of New York some 50,000 strong fighting for equal rights and respect—the political equivalent of the muscle her developer boyfriend tells her he’s hired from time to time when dealing with difficult individuals. Unfortunately for Joan, though, she’s fighting fanatics, and she’s forced to accept a buyout rather than endure a potentially ruinous legal battle. The system’s strength lies not just in who it allows to win, but how it permits different losers to lose.

I reviewed last night’s great Mad Men for Wired.