“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “High Plains Hardware”

June 19th, 2014

Cameron’s joyless episode-ending booty call to Joe is yet another example of Halt‘s dire depiction of sex solely as a means of marking territory or venting aggression. Ditto Joe’s left-field tryst with Travis, the closeted arm candy for the would-be investor played by Jean Smart: What seemed at first like both a revealing character development and a refreshing fuck-you to the relentless heterosexuality of TV antiheroes was quickly revealed to be just another business maneuver.

While displays of dominance and lack of emotional investment are inexplicably popular drivers of TV sex scenes, they have almost no bearing on sexual relationships (however brief) in the real world, which result from a complex cocktail of emotional compulsion. To make a comparison invited by AMC itself: From its very first episode, Mad Men made its sex scenes sexy by using them to show its alpha males at their most vulnerable. Even at the apex of his ladies’-man days, Don Draper still looked flushed and moony-eyed every time he made a move, not like some kind of dead-eyed sex shark. Sex is everybody’s weakness. If you turn it into armor every time, you lose a chance to reach your characters where they really live.

Halt and Catch Fire got not-so-good again this past weekend; I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Ten: “The Children”

June 19th, 2014

Intimacy and grandiosity, empathy and brutality – Game of Thrones doesn’t just straddle these lines, it water-dances on both sides at once. So you get a skeleton-army attack out of a Ray Harryhausen Saturday-matinee movie and a domestic-violence murder out of a Michael Haneke art-house joint. You get an elf lobbing magic fireballs at zombies like something out of Dungeons & Dragons, and a man getting shot to death in a bathroom like something out of a mob movie. Jon Snow strides into the wilding camp, allowing himself to be surrounded and subdued — then Stannis and Davos charge into it on horseback, killing at will. Beautiful, peaceful, dead Ygritte on her bier or comatose, rotting, living Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane on Qyburn’s mad-science operating table — take your pick. You get the Hound repeatedly begging for death, and Tyrion repeatedly apologizing for causing it.

And it’s never stronger than when the care feeds the cruelty. Look at the episode’s two strongest sequences: Tyrion’s escape and the Hound’s last stand. Tyrion is the more or less undisputed fan-favorite character of the series; his framing and trial for murder was the season’s central storyline. The Imp’s emergence from his family’s hideous shadow has been crucial to the whole series since Peter Dinklage got top billing at the start of Season Two. But his great escape first sees him choke his ex-girlfriend to death, then murder his own father while the elder man takes a shit. Now he’s locked in a box literally and figuratively – set to stew in rage, resentment, and regret most likely for the rest of his life. This, it argues, is the inevitable consequence of greatness.

By contrast, Brienne and the Hound should theoretically be spared this kind of final reckoning. They’re both ronin, masterless misfits who don’t fit in with any side in the War of Five Kings. They even have the same motive: protecting the Stark sisters. Yet the show concocts a confrontation for them that’s nowhere to be found in the source material, taking two beloved characters and crushing them against one another until only one’s left standing. It basically weaponizes the affection we feel for them.

A lot of viewers bang their heads against this kind of dichotomy. Sometimes Game of Thrones is a widescreen epic fantasy, other times it’s a small-scale study of violent lives, and it’s a struggle both to anticipate and appreciate whatever you wind up getting. The answer is to stop struggling. At its best – and “The Children” is certainly this show at its wide and wild best — Game of Thrones is all of these things, simultaneously.

I reviewed GoT’s sprawling season finale for Rolling Stone.

“Game of Thrones” Q&A: Neil Marshall

June 9th, 2014

How did you do that big shot of Castle Black?

When I walked onto the Castle Black set for the very first time, I noticed that it’s a 360-degree set. You walk into that courtyard and it’s standing all around you. Immediately, I thought the best place to have it all to take place was the catwalks and steps — it’s more interesting than just two guys in a flat courtyard. At some point the idea came to me of doing a 360-degree shot of the battle going on all around.

Slowly but surely, the idea to motivate the shot came to me. What was the point of the shot, other than to show off? I realized you had five major characters involved, and at this point you needed to know where they were and how they were all interrelating with each other. That gave birth to that shot in thematic terms. It very literally put you in the middle of it.

In practical terms, it was the first shot we did for that night. We set it up for about an hour, positioning everybody, practicing the camera moves. We got it on the seventh take. When I said we had it, we all gave each other a big round of applause. [Laughs]

No CGI? That was actually one single take?

It was one take. It was all the work of the ADs — and the stunt guys, for keeping out of the way of the camera. The camera was on the end of a crane arm and swinging around at high speed. It doesn’t necessarily look it from the camera’s point of view, but if the camera had hit someone in the head, it could have killed them — it was moving that fast. That was one of the worries. But nobody got killed by the camera, so that’s good.

What about that scythe on the ice wall?

David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss, the showrunners and writers] came up with that idea. I don’t know how, but it certainly was a fun idea. [Laughs] When I came in, I wanted to make it as logical as possible, to design it so it would look scary and practical.  There was discussion early on as to whether we needed it, but myself, David, and Dan really fought for it. It was a really cool idea to end [both] the episode and the attack.

In “Blackwater,” some book readers complained that the massive chain Tyrion uses to block Stannis’s boats from escaping didn’t show up in the episode. Well, here’s a chain.

[Laughs] I remember those questions. The chain for the boats was gonna be way too expensive to do. This chain was a lot simpler in that respect. Maybe that was the idea — to get a chain in to keep people happy.

I interviewed director Neil Marshall about making last night’s episode of Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “FUD”

June 9th, 2014

Halt’s first proper installment plays in many ways like a response video to the pilot: It does to the pilot’s hackneyed presentation of alpha-male antihero tropes what Joe apparently did to IBM’s data center before he disappeared — damage, and lots of it. And just like IBM, who cashed in on an insurance windfall after Joe’s top-secret rampage, the series emerges from the rubble better off.

This time, we watch Joe reap what he’s sown. The smirking, swaggering arrogance that made him so grating in the pilot turns out to be just that – grating (and, we find out, unearned) arrogance. He’s so fixated on his grand vision of a new era in personal computing, so focused on coercing and cajoling his underlings and accomplices into playing ball, that he completely misses the totally obvious tools of retaliation at his former employer’s disposal. We later learn from IBM’s chief goon that he’s not just overconfident; he may be actually crazy. Hell, the best line in his pep talk, the bit about putting a ding in the universe, is stolen from Steve Jobs. “You were just pretending,” his mousy engineer Gordon Clark marvels. “You’re like one of those guys who goes out and reads The Catcher in the Rye too many times and then decides to shoot a Beatle — only in this story, I’m the Beatle.” This is the show stomping all over its own lead character’s sophistry and sociopathy, and it’s glorious to watch.

I reviewed last night’s Halt and Catch Fire for Rolling Stone. I liked it a lot more than the pilot.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Nine: “The Watchers on the Wall”

June 9th, 2014

In the middle of its biggest battle since Season Two’s carnage at Blackwater, Game of Thrones takes us on a tour, via tonight’s episode, of Castle Black. Our guides just happen to be busy killing people.

We start with Jon Snow. He’s just brought reinforcements to the castle’s courtyard from the top of the Wall, and after killing his way through half a dozen wildlings, he pauses to survey the carnage. As he runs down the stairs to resume the fight, the camera leaves him, swooping across the chaos of the courtyard until it finds Jon’s former lover and would-be killer — the archer Ygritte. She draws and looses, and the camera moves on again to the axe-wielding, bald-headed barbarian Styr, leader of the cannibal Thenns. The camera moves again, and it’s back up another flight of stairs with Tormund Giantsbane, the red-headed ringleader of the raiding party. Then we take one last pass across the courtyard and its countless killings until the camera at last finds Sam Tarly, on a mission to free the great white wolf Ghost and even the fight.

It takes 43 seconds to make the circuit of Castle Black – 43 seconds involving dozens of performers and stuntmen arrayed across a multi-level set, shot without a single cut. Like all great action filmmaking, that shot rooted us in a specific environment, and did so clearly enough that you could practically give a tour of it yourself now if you were paying close attention. The stakes of every sword stroke were crystal clear – kill your man or you lose this patch of ground, and this one, and so on until there’s no more left to lose. It’s not just a choppily edited jumble of indistinguishable hacking and slashing; it’s the battle for Castle Black, and you are there.

My review of last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone also doubles as a sort of “How to Make Action Cinema and Why” manifesto. I hope you like it.

“What Is Nigeria?”

June 3rd, 2014

Colin Panetta and I made a comic called “What Is Nigeria?”, inspired by this vox.com article by Max Fisher.

“Halt and Catch Fire” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “I/O”

June 2nd, 2014

Maybe you can already see the problem here: Who gives a shit about another master-of-the-universe type treating his industry of choice and everyone in it like Tony Montana’s proverbial giant chicken just waiting to get plucked? (We’re using the dialogue as it would air on AMC, of course.) Sure, Lee Pace is a handsome guy – he has the face of an ecstatic saint in a Renaissance portrait – but we’ve been watching Jon Hamm perfect this routine for seven years now. Halt runs into the same problem the nascent personal-computer industry it chronicles is facing: Why innovate when it’s so much easier to duplicate? Complete with a mysterious past, and an opening title card that explains the name of the show! Something got reverse-engineered here, but I think Matt Weiner should be more worried than IBM.

Abort, Retry, Fail? I wasn’t crazy about last night’s series premiere of Halt and Catch Fire, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Eight: “The Mountain and the Viper”

June 2nd, 2014

It all comes back to the Mountain and the Viper, really. For all his decadent swagger, Prince Oberyn was genuinely a man out for justice against people who committed monstrous war crimes against his innocent family. Yet it’s his insistence that Gregor Clegane die as punishment for those crimes, instead of just because he’s the dude who got tapped to represent the prosecution in Tyrion’s trial, that gets him killed in turn. And so, an admitted rapist and murderer crushes a man’s head with his hands, and in so doing insures that an innocent man will die for a crime he didn’t commit. That horrifying special effect was as symbolic a spectacle as any Fourth of July fireworks display – a bright-red tribute to Game of Thrones’ central contention that power is the only thing that matters, and any claims to the contrary are as hollow as a shattered skull.

—Head like a hole: I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone.

STC @ CAKE

May 29th, 2014

Come see me at CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (the “k” is silent, and invisible), this weekend! I’ll sporadically be at table 68A with Julia Gfrörer, hawking our Edgar Allan Poe porn comic In Pace Requiescat and potentially Flash Forward by me and Jonny Negron too, and I look like this.

“Mad Men” thought, Season Seven, Episode Seven: “Waterloo”

May 26th, 2014

“One small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind. One enormous problem for Peggy Olson.

On the eve of the biggest pitch of Peggy’s life, human beings walked on the surface of a celestial body other than the Earth for the first time in history. Bad enough if they died in the attempt, but their success is hardly a solution for her either. “I have to talk to people who just touched the face of God about hamburgers,” she laments to Don Draper when he passes the cup from his lips to hers.

But Peggy, it turns out, is a prophet. And like any prophet worth her salt, she speaks with God’s voice. She speaks of Burger Chef as if its fast-food formica is the Ark of the Covenant, a vessel with the power to bridge the generation gap and end the conflict over Vietnam, if not the Vietnam Conflict itself. At home, she argues, our connection with each other—the connection we all keenly felt as we watched Neil Armstrong take those first shadowy steps—has been severed. Not so at Burger Chef: “What if there was another table where everybody gets what they want when they want it?”

That’s the theme of “Waterloo,” the “mid-season finale” of Mad Men‘s final season. In this episode, desire—particularly the desire of women—is fulfilled. Wishes are granted, closure is reached, and even death becomes a song-and-dance number. What makes “Waterloo” one of Mad Men‘s finest hours is the way it delivers all that catharsis, yet still questions what happens to it after the curtain comes down.”

I reviewed Mad Men‘s marvelous final episode of the year for Wired.

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode Six: “The Strategy”

May 19th, 2014

“What if there was a place where you could go where there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were sitting with was family?” This isn’t just the new Burger Chef advertising angle that Peggy Olson had been searching for—the strategy that gave last night’s Mad Men its title. It’s damn near a mission statement for the whole series, now entering its home stretch. Back in Season One, Don’s legendary “Carousel” pitch leveraged nostalgia for family as the ultimate inducement to buy. Nearly a decade later, the definition of family is changing, but the need for what it represents—safety, loyalty, love—has never been stronger. Don, Peggy, Pete, Joan, and Bob have all learned this the hard way. Now they’re gonna use it to sell burgers.

Mad Men was so good last night that at one point I was literally sitting there with my jaw hanging open and my hands on my face, Kevin McCallister-style. I reviewed it for Wired.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Seven: “Mockingbird”

May 19th, 2014
“You cannot give up on the gravy.” So declares Hot Pie, former running buddy of Arya Stark and budding Great Chef of Westeros, to an unappreciative Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne. All they signed up for was a square meal and a place to spend the night on their quest for Sansa Stark. Instead, they get a monologue from a refugee from Flea Bottom who can’t stop talking about what makes for a good pie. Eventually, the kid gives them information they find a bit more useful: Arya’s alive and headed for her crazy aunt Lysa’s place. He also dropped some science: Westeros may be a hellhole of murder and deception, but individual moments of pleasure and kindness are all the more vital for it. Ice demons, zombies, dragons, giant sword-wielding maniacs, it doesn’t matter: You cannot give up on the gravy.

Or the hot sauce, for that matter. For all that we critique the show’s handling of nudity and sexuality, we should probably also celebrate it when it’s, you know, sexy. To wit: Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, getting some of that Daario D. Henry Kissinger once called power “the ultimate aphrodisiac,” but it’s unlikely he realized that it applies not just for those in the presence of power, but for those who wield it as well. Dany is intoxicated by her command of this swaggering sellsword, and the master/servant dynamic she establishes by making him drop trou in front of her – and the audience, woo-hoo! – is intensely erotic. The look on her face as she stares at Daario’s exposed Naharis? Hot as dragonfire.

I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones episode for Rolling Stone, and for once I got to write as much about sex as I did about violence. Wheeeeeeeeeeee

“Godzilla” thoughts

May 18th, 2014

For letting the trailers fool me, I deserve what I got. I mean, to be fair, they didn’t fool me, exactly — I’m well aware that you can make a good trailer out of pretty much any film. But the movie promised by the trailer was very much my kind of movie: well-acted horror in which the horror dwarfs and makes mock of human ambition and self-conception.

But Godzilla‘s not a horror movie, it’s a blockbuster, and by that I mean blockbuster-as-genre, with all the faults that entails: cardboard-cutout leads, buildings meaninglessly collapsing, paper-thin women characters, and the glories of the U.S. military. (Yes, in a Godzilla movie! No, mentioning Hiroshima once doesn’t cut it!) Everything that was beautiful, moving, and scary in the trailers is beautiful, moving, and scary here, but with the exception of some unexpected and laugh-out-loud funny swipes at CNN, that’s the extent of the film’s value.

The soul of those trailers, Bryan Cranston, is absolutely amazing here, displaying total commitment to the work and bringing me to the brink of tears. The problem is that he’s so much better than everyone else in the movie that (SPOILER ALERT) when he dies at the end of the second reel, any incentive to give a shit dies with him. Seriously, did they not see the problem that sticking with this twist idea would cause? He’s so incandescent in every moment he makes everyone else look like the movie was some kind of community-service sentence. Poor Ken Watanabe is given nothing to do but glower his way through some exposition, and David Strathairn’s disinterest is so palpable I half expected him to take off his mic and walk off the set at any moment. The one exception is Juliette Binoche, but she dies even before Cranston does. Perhaps Cranston’s early departure was mandated by budget or scheduling, but all I can do is critique what wound up on screen, and it’s not even a matter of a counterfactual wherein his character was the lead instead of Aaron Taylor Johnson’s nothing of a Navy bomb technician: His character was the lead for half an hour, and that’s when it was a good movie.

Godzilla has strong kaiju visual effects, certainly stronger than those of Pacific Rim; you watch this and you just think Guillermo Del Toro should be even more embarrassed for himself than he already ought to be. But it’s hardly novel in that regard: The Mist and especially Cloverfield pioneered the use of modern-day CGI to convey the horror of scale, and in those films the one-dimensional characters and hackneyed tear-jerking moments are more easily forgotten since they really are horror movies, and really do try and occasionally succeed to be frightening and bleak. For all the ranting about how Gojira will send us back to the Stone Age, this is no apocalypse: Godzilla‘s supposed to leave you cheering and hungry for the sequel. It lacks the courage of Cranston’s convictions.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 29!

May 16th, 2014

Conquest!: GeorgeRRMartin.com’s Aegon Targaryen-centric “The World of Ice and Fire” Excerpt

Another week, another sample from something Good King George has got cooking — if, of course, by “another week” you mean “last week.” Yes, since Stefan and I recorded this episode, yet another excerpt from George R.R. Martin, Elio Garcia Jr., and Linda Antonsson’s worldbook The World of Ice and Fire has been released. No matter! Like the modern-day maesters we are, we stay focused on the matters at hand, specifically the sample unveiled on GeorgeRRMartin.com regarding House Targaryen’s flight from Valyria and Aegon’s Conquest of Westeros. The sample raises many intriguing questions — indeed, more than it answers — on everything from the bloody century the Targaryens spent on Dragonstone between the Doom and the Conquest to Aegon and his sisters’ adoption of the Faith of the Seven. After Stefan and I discuss these matters, we follow up on a related Tower of the Hand roundtable and ask what place supplementary materials like this should even have in a work of narrative fiction. Saddle up, dragonlords!

Mirror here.

“Game of Thrones” thoughts, Season Four, Episode Six: “The Laws of Gods and Men”

May 13th, 2014

for the trial of Tyrion Lannister, the throne room is transformed into something more like a circus, or the ringside seating area at a particularly lopsided boxing match. On the kind of bleachers Westeros normally reserves for the audience at jousting tournaments, the lords and ladies of King’s Landing gather round to watch the Imp’s chickens come home to roost: the Kingsguard he antagonized; the Grandmaester he imprisoned; the sister who despises him; even Varys, the friend who could never be anything but fair-weather. Watch how much work is done here by the camera alone, framing Tyrion all the way over in the lower left-hand corner, squashed into exhaustion and irrelevance by the kangaroo court that surrounds him.

It’s only when his father Tywin calls his son’s former girlfriend, Shae, to the witness stand that Tyrion, a passive participant in his own trial, becomes the star of the show. Her unexpected appearance (even the “Previously on” teaser, which dutifully reminded us of Tyrion’s previous beefs, kept her return quiet) was galvanizing and devastating, especially after the sudden relief of the previous scene. Jaime’s deal with Tywin – Tyrion’s life is to be spared, and he gets sent to the Night’s Watch in exchange for Jaime becoming heir to House Lannister once more – might have seemed too good to be true, but hey, this show does bigger surprises than that all the time. Undoing it so quickly was almost cruel.

Crueler to no one than the two people involved, of course. As Shae, actor Sibel Kikelli does harrowing work here: She’s both the betrayer and the betrayed, and her every line communicates a mix of sorrow, regret, rage, and raw terror. Tyrion, meanwhile, reaches the low point in a life filled with public humiliations. Now it’s his sexuality – the most private and intimate aspect of the physicality that’s gotten him mocked and shunned for decades – that’s put on display for the world to see, complete with pet names and pillow talk.

Simply put, it breaks him. Once again, the camera tells the tale: It circles like a vulture as actor Peter Dinklage swivels this way and that, turning his head over his shoulders to track down and berate the gazing, gawking eyes of the audience he’s forced to endure. So Tyrion plays to type, wishing death and destruction on the people who’d use something as noble as love against him. (That he did the same thing to Shae, calling her a whore in order to get her to leave town, is an irony unlikely to be lost on him.) Now he’s Richard III – a titanic figure, willing to embrace his infamy. Fuck the deal his dad and Jaime made; he’ll take his chances on a trial by combat once again. He’s gambling that his brother or Bronn will enable him to walk out of King’s Landing a free man. But the fury Dinklage pours into him makes his real goal clear: He wants to give his father, his sister, and all the nobles in the realm reason to fear. Throne room or no, you’re in his house now.

I reviewed Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone, paying special attention to sets and staging.

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode Five: “The Runaways”

May 12th, 2014

At the episode’s conclusion, issues of loyalty and command come to a head not once but twice. After a tipoff from Harry, Don crashes Lou and Jim Cutler’s meeting with the aptly named Commander cigarette brand execs from tobacco giant Phillip Morris. If the firm gets the gig, Don, who famously tore the cigarette companies a new one in the pages of the New York Times, has gotta go. (Which is precisely the idea—there’s Lou’s loyalty for you!) So Don sells his services almost exclusively with the vocabulary of power: The government built a gallows for Big Tobacco but Don “stayed the execution,” and even though he betrayed the cigarette companies before, why not “force me into your service” and score a bigger victory over your rivals in government and business alike? A master of the language of authority, Don can wield it, reject it, fight it, and submit to it in a single sales pitch.

Michael Ginsberg is not so lucky. Throughout his brief but memorable time on this show, he’s reacted to his circumstances like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Even before he went all Dave Bowman about SC&P’s resident HAL-9000, he was shouting “I am become death!” about working in advertising at all. It came across like a neurotic quirk of ’60s Jewish comedians he’s likely based on—at least until we learned he may have been born in a concentration camp. That is how Michael Ginsberg understands authority. And when a computer—the ultimate unfeeling embodiment of cold command—takes over his break room, Ginsberg breaks. So did a lot of people, when confronted with a society and a government indifferent to whether they lived or died. The very fabric of Scout’s Honor is more than a joke to them. It’s a joke on them.

I reviewed last night’s Mad Men for Wired.

The 40 Best Cult TV Comedies Ever

May 8th, 2014

“31. ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’
Sure, they did it out loud in front of a big screen (or at least their silhouettes did) back then while we do it now by livetweeting the latest episode of Scandal. But in a twist stranger than any of the countless B-movies they watched, MST3K – in which a human and two robots watched bad movies and made fun of them the whole time — basically became our culture. Not bad for a show that started out on a local Minneapolis TV station, though keeping the microscopically low budget and cosplayers-at-a-comic-con aesthetic was a brilliant move; the low-rent feel is part of the charm. The later schism between hosts Joel Hogdson and Mike Nelson has caused almost as much intra-nerd strife as Kirk/Picard or Edward/Jacob — still, we’ve all put our faith in Blast Hardcheese.”

I helped write a countdown of the greatest cult-tv comedy series ever for Rolling Stone. It was fun!

“Mad Men” thoughts, Season Seven, Episode Four: “The Monolith”

May 5th, 2014

Spending so much time in a space suffused with death causes Don to see the infernal when he contemplates the infinite. He confronts [computer salesman] Lloyd as Satan in short sleeves: “You talk like a friend, but you’re not. I know your name. No, you go by many names—I know who you are. You don’t need a campaign. You’ve got the best campaign since the dawn of time.” As one of Creative’s three heads, Don naturally sides with the Creator against the Enemy. Who cares about cataloging the stars, when you can dream of them?

But the task that returns Don from his stargate-in-a-bottle isn’t dreaming, it’s committing those dreams to paper. “He’s an exquisite copywriter, if nothing else,” Jim Cutler told Lou; it turns out “nothing else” is needed. What makes Don Don is what happens when he sits at a typewriter and starts click-click-clicking until he distills the infinity of ideas into 25 tags for Burger Chef. “Do the work, Don,” said Freddie Rumsen. All work and no play makes Don a dull boy, yeah, but a dull boy is still a human being. It’s doing the work that makes Don more than a machine.

I reviewed last night’s Kubric-scented Mad Men episode for Wired.