Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’
9. The Descent (2005)
Years before he redefined TV action with his work on Game of Thrones, British director Neil Marshall earned his place in the horror pantheon with this merciless survival-horror story. One year after a car accident shatters their bonds, a group of women go spelunking in a remote Appalachian cavern and unearth far more than they bargained for. The claustrophobic setting is intense and the creature effects genuinely disturbing, but the film’s greatness lies in its use of its main character’s raw, red grief as emotional kindling for the catastrophe that follows. Few of even the greatest genre movies dare to go places this deep.
Alongside a murderers’ row of critics, I wrote about some of the best horror films of the new millennium for Rolling Stone. (For the record, I was on the “Mulholland Drive IS a horror movie” side of the argument referenced in the intro.)
Three episodes deep into Westworld, it’s become clear that there’s a problem with the user interface. Theoretically, our deepest interest in this increasingly dark sci-fi parable should be with the characters best capable of sustaining it: the humans. After all, the guests and the staff of the theme park are the ones with actual, honest-to-god (or honest-to-Darwin) consciousness. They’ve lead real lives with real experiences, instead of having fake memories uploaded into their brains. Their emotions can’t be switched off with a command. Their bodies can’t heal from fatal wounds after a quick overnight trip to maintenance. They’re people, damn it.
So why do they feel like lines of computer code, stuck in a loop?
I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone. The human characters are faltering while the robot “characters” are fascinating.
“I know you think that you have a handle on what this is gonna be: guns and tits and all that mindless shit that I usually enjoy. You have no idea.” When Logan, a handsome, sleazy young veteran of multiple trips to Westworld, says this to his milquetoast first-timer companion William, he’s ostensibly referring to misconceptions about the park. But for all his subsequent blather about the place helping you find “who you really are,” who Logan really is turns out to be a guy who enjoys, well, guns and tits and mindless shit. He indulges in multiple male and female partners twice in his first day of vacation, pulls out a gun in a restaurant to test whether a fellow diner is real or an android, and brutally stabs an elderly “host” he finds annoying. Despite what he told his coworker, this creep’s robot-resort experience lives down to expectations.
But the real target of his words is quite clearly us, the audience. In Westworld‘s second episode – “Chestnut” – co-creators/co-writers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy continue to take an “as below, so above” approach to their material. The same ethical dilemmas posed to the park’s visitors – the gratuitous violence, the literally dehumanizing sex, the freedom to indulge in absolute cruelty with complete invincibility – are the same ones set forth by the show to its viewers. The implicit promise is precisely the one Logan makes to William: There’s more to this onslaught of nudity and brutality than meets the eye, even if for the time being we mostly have to take their word for it.
“What does it mean to be human?” is the least interesting question science fiction can ask, though that hasn’t stopped the genre from using tales of androids among us to ask it year after year. “What does it mean to be inhumane?” on the other hand? That’s an inquiry worth exploring. To knowingly inflict pain on artificially intelligent machine-men (or machine-women, though that’s a whole other issue) – when we treat them as slaves or toys or, to use Westworld‘s evocative term, “livestock” – that says a lot about us. Dr. Frankenstein made Frankenstein’s monster. The real question is whether this makes a monster of Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Judging from its intriguing, disturbing, hugely ambitious pilot episode (titled “The Original”), HBO’s series-length redo-cum-re–exploration of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie is focused on the correct side of this equation.
I’m reviewing Westworld for Rolling Stone, starting with last night’s pilot episode. I started as a skeptic and did not end that way.
I was one of the voters drawn from across the television landscape — actors, directors, writers, producers, critics — and polled to put together Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. My man Rob Sheffield did a bang-up job with the write-ups.
Netflix, September 30
Ooh baby, we like it raaaaw. With trailer music and episode titles alike nodding to classic New York hip-hop, the latest of Netflix’s street-level Marvel superhero shows (it follows Daredevil and Jessica Jones and precedes Iron Fist and team-up series The Defenders) looks like it will make good on the promise of its lead character, the pioneering African American superhero-for-hire created in the 1970s. Actor Mike Colter’s cameos on Jessica Jones were among the show’s high points; let’s see if his solo turn is as bulletproof as his skin. STC
I wrote about a whole bunch of upcoming or just-debuted shows for Rolling Stone’s big Fall TV Preview feature, along with a whole bunch of talented writers. Enjoy!
Better Call Saul
Game of Thrones
House of Cards
WILL WIN: Mad Men, the final jewel in the crown of TV’s New Golden Age, wrapped up its run with a triumphant final season last year — and Game of Thrones still beat the damn thing. Despite the long-overdue appearance of The Americans and the well-deserved debut of Mr. Robot on the Best Drama list, look for the Khaleesi and company to repeat the feat this year.
SHOULD WIN: We said it last year even while we were hedging our bets:“No series on TV thinks bigger or strikes harder than Game of Thrones.“ With its stunning dual climaxes — the jawdropping “Battle of the Bastards” and the destruction of seemingly half the cast as Cersei Lannister settled all family business — the show left it all on the field this year, and deserves the gold.
ROBBED: While Showtime’s smart, sexy The Affair and Lifetime’s breakout reality-TV satire UnREAL had to settle for Best Supporting Actress nominations to even get their feet in the door, the year’s two biggest turnarounds from their first-season woes, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s The Leftovers, were unjustly shut out entirely. Any of those four shows deserve the slots occupied by the Downton Abbey/Homeland/House of Cards trifecta.
I predicted the winners of all the major Emmy Awards categories for Rolling Stone. As is custom when I theorize or prognosticate, this is 100% real and serious and definitive; I am right and I will be proved right. Don’t @ me.
5. What’s up with Euron Greyjoy?
“I am the storm, brother. The first storm and the last.” Tough talk from a guy whose first act as King of the Iron Islands, after murdering his older brother Balon for the title, is to have his fleet stolen from him by his niece and nephew. But in George R.R. Martin’s source novels, Euron is a true menace — a maniacal nihilist pirate who dabbles in sorcery and revels in cruelty, like a seafaring Ramsay Bolton with magic powers. And note the similarity between how he describes himself and how Jon Snow describes the White Walkers: “I promise you, friend, the true enemy won’t wait out the storm. He brings the storm.” Is Greyjoy a human agent of the Night King? Is he simply crazy enough to wreak havoc regardless of the consequences? Will his new fleet attack Daenerys or invade Westeros? Whatever his destination, it sure seems like he’s being groomed to be the next big bad guy now that the Boltons and Sparrows are out of the way.
In the last (sniff) of my annual Game of Thrones traditions, I wrote up seven big questions I’ve got for next season now that this one’s wrapped up over at Rolling Stone. None of them are “How did Varys get back to Meereen that fast?”
The most direct contrast between this season and its direct predecessor is the relative position of its leaders. By the end of Season Five, Cersei had been imprisoned, beaten, publicly humiliated, and placed under house arrest. Daenerys lost control of the city of Meereen and got dropped by her dragon in the middle of hostile Dothraki territory. Sansa endured unbearable sexual violence until she and Theon managed to run for their lives while their tormenter Ramsay was busy defeating Stannis. And most strikingly, Jon Snow was freaking dead.
Where are they now? In a much stronger place, though whether that’s for better or for worse depends on the rulers involved. Cersei vaporized all her enemies, from the High Sparrow to Margaery Baratheon, in a Night of the Long Knives–style act of score settling. It cost her the life of her beloved son Tommen, who killed himself when he heard the news, but that cleared the path for her to take the Iron Throne herself. After taking down the Dothraki khals, Dany retook Meereen with their men; now she appears poised to do the same to Westeros at the head of a massive all-star alliance. Like her former running buddy Theon, who helped broker his sister’s alliance with the Khaleesi, Sansa played an integral part in defeating the Boltons and securing her half-brother Jon’s claim on the Winterfell (perhaps to her own chagrin).
Then there’s Lord Snow himself, who by the way is no longer dead (!). In the most dramatic turnaround of all, considering where he started the season (i.e. as a corpse), he has been crowned the new King in the North. The so-called “White Wolf” is now the undisputed leader of his region’s great houses, the knights of the Vale, and his wildling allies; no doubt whatever’s left of the Night’s Watch would follow his lead as well. And now that we know via Bran’s psychic flashback that Jon’s DNA contains both wolf and dragon strains — he’s actually the son of Lyanna Stark and Dany’s older brother Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, who died before she was born — he has a decent claim on being ruler of a whole lot more than just his native land.
it’s the silence of the opening minutes that stays with you. Composer Ramin Djawaid’s score pulls a delicate, melancholy piano suite from out of nowhere as the major players in Cersei’s trial — the Queen Mother, Tommen, Margaery, the High Sparrow, Loras Tyrell — wordlessly prepare for what’s to come. Then, when it’s over — Loras mutilated and humiliated, the King blocked by his mom’s mountainous bodyguard, Lancel Lannister failing to stop the enormous stockpile of wildfire beneath the Sept from detonating — there’s the silence of the young ruler’s room. He watches the city burn, realizes who and what he’s lost, steps away to take off his crown while the camera still lingers on the empty sky through his window. Then he returns and quietly leaps from the ledge. It’s the most devastating sequence in the episode, as sad as Samwell Tarly’s trip to the massive library in the maesters’ Citadel is uplifting. Both moments would have been just effective if you’d had your TV on mute.
I reviewed tonight’s excellent season finale of Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. I cried about Tommen.
Which brings us to the Red Wedding. A pop-culture touchstone the instant it took place, this bloody on-screen slaughter of House Stark’s leadership — most notably King Robb, his mother Catelyn, his wife Talisa and their unborn child — was payback by crusty old Walder Frey for the insult he suffered when the Young Wolf broke his promise to marry a Frey daughter. It was the ultimate revenge killing, for the pettiest of reasons. But more importantly, it represented as great a shock to the storyline as Ned’s death did. Before that fateful night, we’d assumed that while Dany’s dragons and the White Walkers would wind up moving to center stage at some point, the Stark/Lannister conflict would serve as a series throughline. Wrong. When Cat’s throat was cut, our understanding of what the show was about went with her. Suddenly the Lions were in charge, becoming the show’s ersatz protagonists simply by virtue of survival. A change that big required a massacre this graphic.
The same logic underlies the show’s most controversial and upsetting acts of violence: those against women and children. On this show, kings have ordered the murder of infants. Children have been sacrificed to White Walkers and the Red God. Peasant kids have been skinned, hanged, and burned just as a ruse, or devoured by the dragons their mother hoped would be humanity’s saviors. Young slaves have been crucified to send a message, young prisoners executed out of rage or simply for convenience. And from monsters like Joffrey and Ramsay to schemers like Littlefinger and Roose Bolton to ostensible heroes like Tyrion, women are treated like cattle: bargained for, bred with, and slaughtered at will.
It’s these deaths, whether they involve major players or minor characters, that are toughest to endure and most important to think about. Violence, like water, flows downhill, and inevitably drowns those most vulnerable to it. Depicting it in any other way would betray Game of Thrones’ central contention that however you dress it up, power is seized by the sword, with all the carnage that entails.
This is why complaints that Ramsay was too one-note in his cruelty miss the mark. Does he have a “character arc”? Not unless you count his legitimization by his father, which only made him more of what he already was. Does he grow, change, surprise? Nope — once he led Theon back to that X-shaped crucifix, we knew what he was, and he never challenged that knowledge. But there’s more to a character than this kind of by-the-numbers analysis lets on. There are the intangibles of Iwan Rheon’s performance — how he made the Bastard’s demented mirth feel so striking and singular amid an ocean of comparably cruel characters. There are the themes he helped articulate better than any other character — the inherent unfairness of Westeros’ class system, the way rich and powerful men can quite literally get away with murder. And there’s the spectacular nature of his brutality — how his extreme bloodlust forced every viewer to confront our own complicated feelings about violent stories, on-screen and off. We’re glad the bastard’s gone, but it’s good we got to know him.
When it comes to the Big Four, the most obvious difference is directorial. “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” were both helmed by Neil Marshall, the auteur of intelligent big-screen genre fare from The Descent to Centurion. As much a tactician as a technician, Marshall made his battles things of terrible beauty and precise calibration. He gave his attackers concrete goals – storm this wall, breach this gate – and based his battle choreography around them, making the spacial relationships and physical stakes involved in each physical clash easy for audiences to grasp. Nothing demonstrated Marshall’s clarity of action better than the stunning 360-degree swing around Castle Black during the fight for the Wall – shot in a single unedited take that revealed the location of every major character mid-battle, it involved moving the camera so quickly that the director worried someone might be struck in the head and killed. But his use of CGI is every bit as ambitious as his more practical effects; from the massive scythe and chain released from the Wall to sweep away its attackers to the enormous emerald-green wildfire explosion that sets Blackwater Bay alight – in terms of sheer scale, it’s still the show’s most jawdropping special effect – Marshall is a master of spectacle as well as mise-en-scène.
As the man behind the camera of “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards,” Miguel Sapochnik has taken a different approach. Some of this is no doubt necessitated by the scripts: Unlike Marshall’s battles, Sapochnik’s share screentime with other scenes throughout Westeros and the world beyond, with the nearly simultaneous fight for Meereen last night the most obvious example. But if “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall” are about control, their successors are chaos incarnate. In these episodes, it’s not a matter of one side attempting to dislodge the other from an entrenched position, with all the logistical challenges and physical beats that entails – it’s a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, a swirling morass of the living and the dead and the bloody blades that turn one into the other. Whether it’s the Watch and the Wildlings fleeing for their lives amid a swarm of zombies, or the forces of House Stark and House Bolton being sandwiched together in a solid mass of violence and vulnerability, these battles rely on being fundamentally incomprehensible in their fury.
I went in-depth on Game of Thrones’ four big battle episodes, “Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Walls,” “Hardhome,” and “The Battle of the Bastards” – how they’re shot, how they work, what they mean – for Rolling Stone. If there’s been a driving force behind how I’ve written about visual art for 20 years now it’s my interest in how spectacle articulates meaning, so this one’s close to my heart, and I hope you enjoy it.
And in the end, the late Lord Bolton dies in a manner sadistic enough that even he’d approve of it, had he not been on the receiving end: fed to his own starving dogs by Sansa, who walks away smiling from the carnage. It’s a complex and unsettling set of images, even putting aside the shot of a gigantic hound tearing a man’s jaw off. Everything about it uses the cinematic hallmarks of badassery: the poetic justice of the method of execution; the exchange of quips and one-liners that eventually leaves the loser speechless; the blasé, almost slow-motion stroll away from the carnage; the vengeance-is-mine smirk. Certainly no one would begrudge Lady Stark her satisfaction, especially given the codes and customs of the place and time.
But righteous revenge is almost always an oxymoron. That goes double on this show: Theon’s betrayal of Robb Stark was repaid by a fate worse than death; Tyrion’s payback against his awful father Tywin also involved the Imp strangling his ex-girlfriend to death; the murderers of both the Hound’s religious community and Jon Snow himself died slowly at the ends of nooses; Arya’s kill-list victims have gone out in unpleasantly gruesome fashion one by one; and on and on it goes. Seen in that light, Sansa’s smile over her abuser’s hideous death is far from the simple “fuck yeah” moment it might seem. Again, there’s some question as to whether the series sees it this way, or if we’re intended to take her “cool guys don’t look at explosions” exit at face value. Given the unsparingly awful battle that preceded it, it seems safer to assume that it’s intended to make you uncomfortable. What kind of world would it be, what kind of people would we be, if we weren’t?
I reviewed last night’s Game of Thrones, which made me uncomfortable like a show’s supposed to, for Rolling Stone. My advice for processing this episode: 1. Don’t read the comments; 2. Don’t complain that Aquaman’s wife doesn’t have gills.
9. Stannis Baratheon
To some fans, he’s Stannis the Mannis, the guy whose uncompromising will to win — and last-minute rescue of the Night’s Watch at the Wall — makes him the one true king of Westeros. To others he’s a glowering goon whose pursuit of the Iron Throne cost him his humanity — and his brother, wife, and daughter their lives. In the end, he himself seemed to take the latter position, surrendering to Brienne of Tarth’s sword as if he accepted her guilty verdict. “The good does not wash out the bad, nor the bad the good,” he once said of human behavior. He was living proof.
I ranked the 30 best villains on Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone. On this show, “villain” can be very broadly defined, which is what made the assignment so interesting.
“The things we do for love.” When Jaime Lannister says this to Edmure Tully, his prisoner and bargaining chip, he’s quoting no less an authority than himself. These were the same words he uttered just before he tossed Bran Stark out the window to cover up his sexual relationship with his own sister, Cersei. Now he’s using them to describe the intensity of his love for her — confident that his prisoner’s feelings for his own family (especially the young son he’s never seen) will lead him to surrender the castle of Riverrun to save them. His gamble pays off, of course. If there’s one thing that tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones — “No One” — gets right, it’s how much our desire to see the people we care about one more time can motivate us. That, and how much leaving them behind can hurt us.
Sansa Stark (1:10)
The Queen in the North! From her head-in-the-clouds early days to her current role as a realpolitik rallying point against the Boltons and the White Walkers, Ned’s eldest daughter has learned from the countless torments she’s suffered to be strong while still being decent. If anyone will lead Westeros into its post-apocalyptic future, it’s her.
Jon Snow (10:1)
He’s the prince that was promised, to hear Melisandre tell it — the man to lead humanity against the Long Night. Here’s the thing about messiahs, though: They tend to sacrifice themselves to save the world. Granted, Jon’s done so already, falling to the blades of the Night’s Watch mutineers but returning to fight another day. Unfortunately, his supernatural luck can’t last forever. Expect Lord Snow to go down swinging in the final battle against the Night King.
Arya Stark (Even)
More like Arya Questionmark: Now that she’s spurned the Faceless Men, will the Starks’ wild child pick up where she left off with her kill list and make a kamikaze run into King’s Landing? Will she reunite with her old running buddy the Hound, or her siblings Jon and Sansa — or maybe even her direwolf Nymeria, who is still roaming around out there somewhere after she shooed the beast away way back in Season One? The answer will help determine whether her story is a cautionary tale about children in a violent world or a moving message of rescue and redemption.
Over at Rolling Stone I predicted the odds of survival for every major character on Game of Thrones. As always when I predict things, these are definitive and not subject to debate. Don’t @ me.
When Game of Thrones does a cold open, you know something big is about to go down. Tonight’s well-paced and well-packed episode — “The Broken Man” — is only the third time in the series’ history that the show has started with a pre-credits scene, the others being the Season Four premiere and the pilot. What warranted the break from tradition? The presence of two of the most intimidating actors in HBO history: Deadwood‘s Ian McShane, making his first (and only) appearance as a cheerfully profane man of the cloth called Ray, and the return of Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane, the motherfucking Hound himself. It turns out the mad dog of Westeros survived and joined a religious community in the Riverlands. After a lifetime of violence, a new life of peace was within his grasp. Seen in that light, the episode’s final shot, of Sandor reaching down and picking up the Axe of Vengeance, is crushingly depressing.
But more than that, it represents a surprising lapse on the part of the show itself — a Walking Dead style conflation of principled nonviolence with fatal naïveté. Ray’s belief that “it’s never too late to come back,” functioned as, well, a ray of sunshine in GoT’s bleak world. There’s no reason such faith in humanity need be portrayed as Pollyannaish; as Ray himself explains, it’s the result of bitterly earned shame in having participated in war atrocities himself. But the extreme sanction he and his flock face for this belief — slaughtered in minutes, with the septon hanging from the eaves of his own house of worship — makes him seem like a sucker, not a sage. He looks idiotic for leaving his followers defenseless, and Sandor’s Rick Grimes–style decision to murder the perpetrators seems like the just and moral choice.
You can say “Violence is a disease — you don’t cure a disease by spreading it to more people” all you like; you can even sincerely believe it. But actions speak louder than words. And by wrapping up this subplot in such spectacularly grim fashion, the series is shouting “kill or be killed,” at least in this circumstance.
I’m excerpting this part but you should really read the whole thing, because I had both negative and positive feelings about tonight’s Game of Thrones, which I reviewed for Rolling Stone.
There’s a lot going on in tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, entitled “Blood of My Blood.” Isn’t there always? With so many characters involved in so many storylines spread across so many locations, the sprawl is simply incomparable to anything else on television. But that backstage sequence stands out because it demonstrates how nimble this series can be, despite its massive scope. Writer Bryan Cogman and director Jack Bender took time out of their busy schedule of zombies, dragons, and Dothraki hordes to craft an intimate exchange between two strangers, both of whom know the advantages and disadvantages of playing the role of someone they’re not. Yes, this gives the audience a big stand-up-and-cheer moment when Arya returns to stop the assassination she’d set in motion, but that’s almost beside the point. Revealing character through conversation, even if it’s buried deep beneath layers of deception, is what matters here.
11. The Prisoner (1967-1968)
When mercurial writer-actor-director Patrick McGoohan parlayed his experience playing a secret agent on the British show Danger Man to create an espionage thriller of his own, he unexpectedly created the prestige drama 30 years ahead of its time. The Prisoner is a frightening, funny, philosophical, absolutely mesmerizing allegory in which McGoohan’s nameless title character, a retired spy dubbed Number Six by his mysterious captors, is imprisoned in a bizarre place called the Village. While crafting an escape plan, he’s subjected to psychological experiments designed to break him by a series of interchangeable superiors all named Number Two. It’s one of the mot visually striking and bracingly bleak shows ever; everything from Lost and Twin Peaks to The Americans owes it a debt.