Some Quick Reviews of S3 Stranger Things, S3 Jessica Jones, and other stuff I guess

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I’ve been meaning to do this for a while so I’m just going to throw these out there:

Stranger Things Season 3

I’ve been a vocal fan of this show (Not as strong a fan as *some*, because I don’t want to be scary, but still) since I first watched it, but season three started off very badly. Characters I’d liked and who should have grown together were now snickering and making fun of each other. Hopper had become a complete mess. He’d gone from real life hero to obnoxious buffoon.

It took me a while to realize what they were doing. Season three had become an homage to romcoms, so we get clips of Sam and Diane, and we get endless bickering between characters who are attracted to each other but can’t admit it. And a show so used to leaning on homages ought to understand that homages of old jokes is just recycling an old joke. It’s not actually funny.

So yeah, that part wasn’t fun.

Everything else about the show? Loved it.

As the kids are getting older, the horror is getting scarier, more action-oriented, and gorier, too. And being Stranger Things, they nail it.

So, yeah. Not my favorite season, except for the parts that very much are.

Jessica Jones Season 3

One of the least interesting story lines a superhero show can tell is the “What does it mean to be a hero?” thing. Usually, it involves getting up off the ground after a round of grueling physical punishment.

I’m looking at you, Spider-Man, into the Spider-verse.

Of course, in superhero stories, the consequences of most fights are to make people feel a lot of pain, and also to make them incredibly tired. That’s why it’s such a struggle to get off the ground. To prove themselves to be heroes, protagonists need to stand up despite the pain and punch-induced exhaustion to return immediately to their pre-fight levels of physical capability, and finally make the bad guy super tired. Through punching.

Jessica Jones (the show, I mean, although the character, too) flips this on its head. When this show asks the question “What does it mean to be a hero?” they don’t mean putting on a mask and beating up “bad people.” It means finding evidence, getting confessions, capturing the criminal, and turning them over to the courts.

Based on her performance in this show, Rachel Taylor really ought to be getting a lot of high profile stuff. If you were annoyed by the way the writers portrayed Queen Whatshername’s descent into murder and darkness, check out the long, slow, tragic journey that Trish Walker makes from Beloved Celebrity Who Pulled Her Live Together into a Villain Who Thinks She’s Doing Right. Trish is all the worst instincts of the superhero genre, and because it all comes from her, and from the depths of her character, it never feels like a cheap commentary.

What I’m saying is, the last season of Jessica Jones might not have been the MCU/Netflix signoff/victory lap/low-budget Endgame remix that people expected, but it’s excellent in its own right.

C.B. Strike Series 1-3

I liked the books (I like private eye novels) and I liked the shows. Things are shortened and simplified, obviously, but these are solid PI stories.

What puts them above (and warrants mention here) is Robin’s subplot throughout. She has always wanted to be an investigator of some kind, and has everything stacked against her. But she is determined.

And I loved it. Everyone who has ever worked really hard for a dream that seemed unreachable ought to feel that pull. It’s a small part of the series, but it’s what put that show over the top.

Tolkien

Two terrific scenes, a bunch of great performances, and an otherwise dull movie.

Doctor Who Season 11

I’d given up on this show years ago, but thought I’d give it another shot with a new show runner and actress in the lead role. Verdict: I liked it. Very little frantic nonsense, a fair amount of actual drama and tension. We’ll be watching more of this.

Us

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Wow. Loved it. I guessed the twist pretty early, but I loved it.

The Boys Season 1

I didn’t like the comic so I was planning to skip the show, but enough people liked it that I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. Like the comic, it was dark but not in a childish way. The characters felt real, and so did their problems. If you don’t mind stories about violence, murder, and sexual assault, The Boys was effective.

Hannah Season 1

Based on the movie, which was decidedly more ruthless and brutal than the show. It’s one of the rare spy shows where the characters did things that were better than what I’d expected. Solid stuff.

Boom.

Done.

The Kickstarter campaign for additional Twenty Palaces novels is still ongoing, but it ends Friday. You have until then to secure two books for a minimum of $4.

New and Definitive Listing of MCU Films (w/ commentary) Don’t @ Me

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With Avengers: Endgame dropping this week, I decided to finally finish this post. Don’t bother trying to argue with me, because I’m 100% correct on all of this. Rotten Tomatoes scores added so you can see how wrong everyone else is.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (RT: 90%) Still the best of the MCU, with terrific villains, interesting locations, and a plot you give a shit about. Steve Rogers is a man who isn’t sure if he should continue to serve, and discovers that he should be giving orders, not taking them. Plus, the strongest parts of these movies are the relationships between the heroes and the people they love. Excellent movie.

2. The Avengers (RT: 92%) A strong contender for the first spot, with only a couple of glaring flaws holding it back. “I’m always angry” feels like a placeholder line in a moment that needs something stronger, and I suspect Whedon et al underestimated just how much of a sex symbol Tom Hiddleston’s Loki had become. In other words, no one wanted to hear him say “mewling quim.” But the characters bounce off each other and to keep things interesting, and the action scenes (all but two involving Avenger v Avenger conflict) are top notch. Love it.

3. Thor: Ragnarok (RT: 92%) This one is a real surprise, because I would not have expected to place a Thor movie so high on this list. But T:R tears down everything that defined the Thor movies up to now and replaces them with color, humor, production design, and a new way forward for Loki and Thor. So much fun.

4. The Black Panther (RT: 97%) This movie is pretty much tied with the one above, slipping into fourth only because so many of the interesting bits went to the villain and T’Challa was stuck doing the traditional first-MCU dance with an enemy who had his same powers (but was stronger) and daddy issues. Also, both T:R and TBP had ritual combat, but only the fights in Thor made any sense. I refuse to believe that such an advanced society would choose a leader via MMA bout. I know, it’s just a movie, but every moment that I have to forgive is one that disappoints me a little. Still, rhino cavalry! So much joy in this movie. I really did love it.

5. Doctor Strange (RT: 89%) Did I mention villains with the same powers as the hero, but stronger? Well, in a constrained setting like this one, a choice like that becomes invisible. I know people were annoyed by the white-washing of The Ancient One, but it was that or risk losing $110mil from the Chinese market for having a Tibetan character. While the humor on this one fell a little flat, no other MCU film comes close to matching its spectacle, and the journey Stephen Strange takes from arrogant jerk to “It’s not about you” is probably the most meaningful one in the whole series of films. Still, lets see some ranged attacks in the sequel.

6. Spider-man: Homecoming (RT: 92%) Every time I look at how high this places in my list, I think it’s too high. Then I look for something below that I’d rank above it and come up with nothing. It’s funny. S-m:H has become sort of a litmus test for me as I search out a film discussion to take the place of Every Frame a Painting. So many self-proclaimed savvy film theorists turn their attention to the MCU and pick out this film as an example of movies where the main character doesn’t change or grow. Baffling, but I’ve seen it three or four times now from people who ought to be good at this. Anyway, great performances, excellent villain, and the most engaging film version of Peter Parker since… ever.

7. Iron Man (RT: 93%) It’s easy to blah blah about what a massive deal this first film was, the huge effect it had, and the massive risk it represented for pre-Disney Marvel. What can’t be denied is that the first two acts are impeccable. The structure, the performances, everything. If the ending, where Marvel established it’s “Like the hero, but stronger” format, feels a little soft, its all forgiven when Tony Stark blows off the idea of a secret identity. And then Nick Fury? Loved it.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (RT: 84%) The MCU seems to be a playground for jocks with impeccable comic timing. Dave Bautista is the heart of this weird-ass movie, and I’m ready for a Drax trilogy. Maybe it’s time for Peter Quill to grow the fuck up, so GotG3 can score a higher spot on the list. Also, the ending feels a little long. It’s not, probably, but it feels that way. For the future, more Drax and Mantis, less Quill.

9. Iron Man 3 (RT: 79%) The first of these films to score below 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while I’ve heard plenty of complaints about this movie, I am there for it. Tony flew a nuke through a wormhole to save the Earth, and now he’s fucked up with anxiety. This is pretty much exactly what I wanted from a superhero movie and I didn’t even know it until I sat down in the theater. Stark gets to be extremely Tony Stark throughout, and the movie makes the wise choice to take away his armor for a big part of the second act. This, maybe, if the first of the movies listed that has a genuinely weak villain, but maybe if they’d stuck with Rebecca Hall instead of switching to Guy Pearce (for “merchandising”) I wouldn’t have had to type all that out.

10. Captain America: Civil War (RT: 91%) I wasn’t terribly keen on the Civil War storyline in the comics, but making it a Captain America movie meant making it about Bucky, and that centers this big, over-stuffed film on that unbreakable friendship between them. As for the central question of the film: In the real world, Tony was right. In the world of the film, Steve was right. Cap didn’t want to sign the accords for two reasons: what if they send the Avengers someplace they shouldn’t go, and what if there’s a problem they need to address but can’t get permission to go. The government that Cap is supposed to be signing on with does both of those things. They send a kill team to assassinate Bucky, who’s been framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and they refuse to let Cap go to Siberia. Thanks, movie, for arranging things so our hero gets to be right.

11. Avengers: Infinity War (RT: 85%) This is another one of those movies that make me think “Eleventh? Surely it should be higher than that” but nope, nothing above feels worthy of being swapped out. I’m not sure why they pulled that whole bit with Hulk losing a fight to Thanos and then hiding away for the rest of the movie (unless they wanted him to keep him from tearing apart the Children of Thanos like cardboard cutouts). I’m also not sure why they wrote Doctor Strange’s dialog the way they did. He’s a neurosurgeon, not a Gandalf from another dimension. “What master do you serve?” sounds bad and is bad. Still, this film did the best job yet of juggling that huge cast of characters, and I’m 100% ready for WandaVision, or whatever they’re calling it.

12. Captain America: The First Avenger (RT: 80%) This is probably the first movie where the main character doesn’t really have a personal journey. He goes from the weakling who wants to do right to the hero who actually can. It’s a solid movie and I just rewatched and enjoyed it a couple weeks back, but without Chris Evans this thing would have gone nowhere.

13. Captain Marvel (RT: 78%) Once again, this seems like a low ranking for a movie I saw in the theater three times (and would have gone a fourth with my niece if family obligations hadn’t interfered). All the Carol and Fury stuff is great, and while I’ve talked already about some of the character moments, it’s also a bummer that Hala and the inside of the Skrull ship look basically like 20 year old TV scifi. Compare the alien tech in this with Thor: Ragnarok and the production design on CM looks like a placeholder that no one swapped out. And then you get to that third act, which is just all-out superhero fun. That first shot of Carol flying gave me goosebumps. Three times. I’m convinced this picture was a billion-dollar earner because, in part, of that bravura ending.

14. Guardians of the Galaxy (RT: 91%) Remember when this was new in theaters and people were talking about it as a herald for the death of grimdark? The movie that opens with a little boy watching his mother die of cancer, then a space man dancing through the ruins of a civilization, kicking the local fauna? I think folks missed that all the humor in this movie was masking a lot of pain, and this wasn’t the bright and upbeat jaunt they’d originally thought. But there was also the space net of space ships, which is not what you’d call the best idea ever, and “Even this green whore—” which was not a winning move. A fun movie on first viewing, I don’t think it really holds up.

15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (RT: 88%) This movie is fine. It’s enjoyable. It hits the right beats, nabs an imaginative sequence from Dave Made A Maze, introduces Black Goliath, gets plenty of genuine belly laughs, and gives fans the Wasp they’ve been waiting for. But it’s time for Walton Goggins to play other characters, because he’s not carrying the “Head Baddie” mantle the way he should. Somebody cast him as the con artist with the heart of gold that we all want him to be, and put someone scary into the roles he’s been getting. Anyway, A-mATW has solid performances, trippy cgi nano-realms, funny jokes, and a solid structure. But I don’t love it and no one can make me love it.

16: Thor (RT: 77%) If you were put a bunch of these movie titles in a list and show them to me in 2007, I would have guessed this one to land at the very bottom. It doesn’t, solely on the strength of the relationship between Thor and Loki. Thor’s love for his brother keeps this thing afloat, even in the face of the Warriors Three and the Odinsleep. Frankly, it was a stroke of genius to establish Mjolnir’s rules about being worthy by having the lead character declared unworthy, then earn it. But it was such a weird movie, and only that brotherly relationship made it work.

17. Ant-Man (RT: 82%) This film is haunted by the Edgar Wright picture it could have been. It’s also haunted by the specter of The Wasp, who should have been part of the plot from the beginning. Honestly, a super-hero heist movie is a no-brainer and ought to be a massive win, but this movie felt like a jumble of fun ideas and weak ones.

18. Avengers: Age of Ultron (RT: 75%) Someone online described Spader’s Ultron voice as a retiree who took a part time job at Home Depot, and yeah, it just doesn’t work. Ultron is one of the scariest of the Avengers’ villains, but this version of him never comes together or feels real. One thing I will say, though, is that it’s funny to remember all the criticisms of this film that said it was overfull with superheroes. Later movies were more crowded, but they made it work. I also question the choice to make Stark the guilty party here. He’s investigating the space spear. It jumps into his computer. Why does that have to be his fault.

19. Iron Man 2 (RT: 73%) The first Iron Man was so wonderful and this was such an amazing misfire. I liked Sam Rockwell quite a bit but they forgot to give Mickey O’Rourke’s character a personality beyond Pissed-Off Guy. And the villains vanish for the middle 45 minutes of the film. Not recommended.

20. Thor: The Dark World (RT: 67%) Oh, look, it’s the movie that drove Natalie Portman out of the MCU. Odin, who spends the whole first movie advocating peace turns into a raging war monger. And the villains, who have great character design, turn out of lack every other aspect of character. Like personalities and motivations. They still hadn’t realized that Chris Hemsworth has excellent comic timing, and this alien invasion of an alien world is ponderous when it could be a sword and planet romp.

21. The Incredible Hulk (RT: 67%) Nobody knows how to make a Hulk movie. He’s a gothic monster. Everyone hates him, including himself, and that loathing sometimes makes him lash out, but he’s good at heart. This film played up his first appearance as though he was a monster, moving in the dark, stalking his victims. It’s the most effective part of the film. Unfortunately, it spins out farther and farther, losing momentum until the big (but unconvincing) fight against “Like The Hulk But Stronger” Abomination in Harlem. Too bad. There’s a gothic monster storyline for the Hulk that could make a gangbusters film

I’ll be seeing Avengers: Endgame this weekend, and I’m curious to see where it will slot in.

For Every Failure, an Opportunity

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If you’re backing my Patreon, you may have noticed that it has been switched back on. That is, it’s back to a monthly basis, charging credit cards at the start of every month. I’d turned it “off” because I’d started a new job. As of this week I’m no longer working there, so it’s on again.

I’ve never been fired for being bad at a job before, but you know what? It was the right thing for them to do. I absolutely should have been let go. And I’m glad for it.

In previous posts I was a little cagey about where I’d been hired because it was a six-month contract at a game company, and I was sure how it would go. I’ll say now that it was the Valve Corporation over in Bellevue. I’ll also say that they asked me not to talk about the games I worked on/heard about/whatever outside of their offices, even to my own family. I haven’t done that and I won’t start now.

How it happened was this: Gabe, the founder of the company, liked my books and invited me to lunch. This was back in, I think, 2012? 2013? Several months before my Kickstarter for The Great Way, at least. I’d heard of Valve’s games but hadn’t played any, and I honestly thought he was going to ask if I would write a novel for the company. But lunch wasn’t just me and Gabe, we were joined by a bunch of writers already working for the company, and I was all What am I doing here? Nobody needs me to write a novel when they already have Marc Laidlaw sitting right there.

It turned out the offer was to work at the company on the actual games, which I had to decline. I didn’t play many video games because a) they were often asking me to do shit that was illegal and immoral, which I hate and b) too many games were boring, making me quit early, and most of all c) if I did like them, I could be obsessive about it. I mean, Freedom Force and its sequel were scads of fun, but playing them, I spent hours with my back to the living room, and every other aspect of my life suffered. I’m not exactly Mr. Moderation. My wife was especially unhappy to be ignored evening after evening while I shot pretend ray guns at cartoon people.

After that lunch meeting, I started playing (and enjoying) games a lot more, and Valve was a big reason for that. I love the Portal and Half-Life games–like, genuinely loved playing them–because they didn’t ask me to run errands, murder innocent people or navigate lots of high places without railings (seriously the worst). As my son got older, he started recommending games that suited me better, and so I felt I understood them a little better. I never became good, but they made sense in a conceptual way

Then we came to the end of 2018. I’d taken a big gamble after The Great Way and Key/Egg came out. I put two years into a fat fantasy with a cool setting, a plot that was a little out of the ordinary, and badass characters. The plan was simple. Write a book that stands out, place it with NY publishers, and let the backlist bump spill some extra coins into our savings accounts.

Except it didn’t work. Publishers passed. The book was too different, or too something, and there was no new contract and therefore no bump.

At that point, we’d been living off the money from The Great Way for too long and our savings was getting low (not to mention rent increases and a possible eviction in the coming months), so my wife asked me to find a day job, and I thought about Valve, and I reached out. Did, maybe, I have something to contribute there?

Nope! But I didn’t know that at the time.

Gabe and his people were nice enough to give me a chance though, working on a multiplayer team-fighting game that was in the very early stages. I was to do worldbuilding for them.

Which meant: Where and Why.

Where are they fighting?

Why are they fighting?

Those were the two questions I was supposed to answer, and over the course of two months, I couldn’t make a suggestion that both matched the criteria they’d given me and also made the rest of the team excited. Two full months! Of course they let me go.

As a writer, I’ve had my share of one-star reviews. And you don’t grow up in a family like mine and get all tender-hearted about what people think of you. But when you’re sitting in a meeting, and everyone looks miserable because of you–because of the mouth-sounds you’re making–well, that suuuuucks.

You guys should have seen some of the body language in the room for that last meeting. Picture, if you will, a person sitting on a bench at a bus stop at night. They’ve forgotten their jacket, and it’s sleeting. That’s exactly some of those guys were sitting: hunched over, head down, waiting for all this to just be over.

And that was my fault.

See, it doesn’t matter if it’s a great company, or that the money was good, or that there was a free salad bar at lunch every day with chick peas you could scoop right into the bowl (seriously, so fucking delicious). None of that shit matters if the work itself is a waste of time to everyone on the team, including the person doing it. That’s demoralizing as hell.

Me, personally, I think the setting I created for that last meeting would be a home run in all sorts of media–books, animation, whatever–but not in computer games and certainly not in the game they’re working so hard to create. It just didn’t fit. And at this point, I don’t care where my proposals came up short or if they went too far or what was actually wrong. All that matters is that it wasn’t successful, and Valve owns it, and I hope they can cherry-pick a few things out of it that they find useful. And if they can’t, sorry, guys.

Where does that leave me? Not unemployed, exactly, since I’m working for myself again.

Those two months helped refill our bank accounts a little, and I have three completed, unreleased novel manuscripts. One is that big gamble. Another is a mystery/thriller with no supernatural elements. Another is the fun fantasy adventure that needs a little bit more tweaking before my agent takes it to NY publishers.

I’m composing this during the time I’m supposed to be writing a novelette for an anthology I’ve been invited to, but I put that off because I feel like I owe you guys an update on where things stand, fiction-wise. I’ve spent the last two months squeezing my own projects into the hour before I went into the office, but now that I’m back on my own time, things will go faster.

My fun fantasy will go out to publishers (“Funpunk”! You heard it here first, folks). My big gamble book and the thriller will be self-published. Kickstarter maybe? We’ll have to see. I also have to write the next Twenty Palaces novella. And at some point soon, we’ll look again at our bank accounts and maybe I’ll grab another day job.

So I wanted you to know that, even though I haven’t published a new novel since 2015(!) I haven’t stopped writing. I haven’t stopped working hard. There’s new stuff on the horizon and, you know, maybe I won’t try those big gambles again.

Thanks for reading.

AQUAMAN

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I bought a ticket to AQUAMAN. Deliberately.

If I’m speaking honestly, Aquaman might be the second superhero I ever really liked as a kid. (after ’67 Spider-man, obviously). This was before I was reading comics, and my sole exposure to the genre was cartoons. I had to look up the name of the show–The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure–but he was my favorite character, with the rings coming out of the bridge of his nose and water blasts/balls/whatever that he threw.

Then came Superfriends and, yeah, lets just drop the whole thing there. Even as a dumb kid I knew Superfriends wasn’t going to fly. I didn’t find a version I liked again until the New 52, which made him just about the only character from that particular reboot that I thought was well served.

Anyway, I almost skipped the film because of that anecdote about Jason Momoa tearing out the end of bookworm Amber Heard’s book because she wasn’t paying attention to him. More here: although it sounds as if he only did it once and she actually likes the dude, annoying prank notwithstanding.

The movie is gorgeous, and dumb, and utterly predictable. There’s a three-stage plot coupon/fetch the macguffin story, with Our Hero as the dumb guy who inexplicably wins over his mentor/super-hot love interest through his ability to… I dunno… withstand a bunch of blows to the head?

Which is a little unfair, because they give Aquaman a bunch of nice heroic moments. Then there’s this:

Character in movie: Atlantis needs something more than a king.

Me, in theater: A democracy.

Character in movie: It needs a hero.

But whatever. the whole pick-your-autocrat-through-trial-by-combat was as stupid in BLACK PANTHER as it is here, but it’s fun to watch. And for once, Ocean Master doesn’t come across as a dink.

Plus, Amber Heard in her fluorescent jelly fish dress, and the drumming octopus. And jousting from the back of a sea horse. And and and. The film is dumb and beautiful and eager to please. Buy some popcorn and have a few laughs, but try not to think about Amber Heard’s book.

“Mankind Was My Business”: The Annual Repost of the Best (Objectively) Version of A Christmas Carol

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Each year, I share this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which is still my favorite of all the versions of that famous story.

Because of the way they portray the ghosts and the spirits. There is no spookier version, and even fifty years later, the animation is gorgeous. So great, in fact, that it won an Oscar for short animated film, and prompted the Academy to change their rules so that shows that were first broadcast on TV were no longer eligible for their reward.

It’s the Wilt Chamberlain of animation.

If the embed doesn’t work, here’s the link.

Honestly, I think these times need this story more than ever. If you haven’t seen this version, this is your chance.

Short Reviews from this Year’s Halloween Binge

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Some short reviews of Halloween-themed binge watches from this year (which isn’t over yet, obviously).

Horror is at once my least- and most-favorite genres. I don’t like stuff that too gross or gory. I’m not a big fan of torture, or grime, or people being torn apart. Misogynistic torture porn is my least favorite sort of movie. Spooky, evocative supernatural stories might be my favorite.

Anyway, this is what I’ve watched so far this year. And I’m sending this out as a first draft, so please forgive any awkward phrasing.

I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (Netflix streaming): A quiet, understated ghost story about a timid live-in nurse who comes to care for a horror writer with dementia. She slowly comes to realize that the author’s most famous work may not have been fiction, and that her house might be haunted. There’s not a lot of story here, but there is a lot of quiet dread.

The Shining (Netflix streaming): Kubrick’s horror classic still holds up today, and it does so without a lot of shadowy figures in dark rooms. King himself was unhappy with this adaptation because he wanted an everyman actor to play Jack Torrance, because to him it’s a story of an average man who loses control. King thought Jack Nicholson was too much of a wild man, and famous for his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But this is Kubrick’s story, and he’s got other things on his mind. Brilliant film, full of unforgettable moments.

Ringu (library dvd): Somehow I’ve missed this up until now, but I confess that I admired it more than I enjoyed it. There are, as far as I can tell, two sorts of ghost story. One where the main purpose of the story is to uncover a hidden truth, and one that doesn’t have a hidden narrative to uncover. The Shining was the latter, while Ringu is the former. That hidden narrative was interesting enough, but it didn’t feel solid.

The Sixth Sense (Netflix streaming): Everyone talked about the twist ending of this show, but what really makes this movie work is that it has two twists. The first is spoiled by that famous four-word line of dialog, and it takes a long time to get there. Still an enjoyable movie, though.

1408 (library dvd): A haunted hotel room is a fine idea for a story, but this whole thing feels expensive but uninspired. I enjoyed it while I watched it, but I’ve already forgotten most of the story.

Kwaidan (Netflix dvd): A big hit at Cannes in 1965, this anthology of ghost stories is very long and very beautiful, in a lavish studio technicolor way.

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix streaming): Probably the scariest thing I watched this year, and I loved it. The combination of kids in danger, sound design, and continually building tension made me turn it off, more than once. After the first few episodes, I felt acclimated to it and was happy to binge to the end. Loved it, except the end. Honestly, the ending was pretty much a betrayal of the first nine-and-a-half episodes. But the rest of it was ::chef’s kiss::

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Netflix streaming): I never watched the sitcom or the various cartoons, and I never read the comics, so I put this one on my queue solely based on the strength of the trailer. The show aims high, mixing horror and comedy and a bit of camp, which is not an easy tone to hit. It has a great cast, sharp writing, and it amazing to look at.

Ash vs The Evil Dead season 3 (library dvd): Speaking of difficult tones that are hard to get right, this third season of Ash vs the Evil Dead works like gangbusters, introducing Ash’s daughter, and losing some of the convoluted plotting off the earlier seasons. Even Lee Majors makes a brief return. I said above that I didn’t much care for gore, but I make an exception here. They don’t always get the tone right, but but they get it right enough that I can stick with it. It’s a shame the show was cancelled, but what a send off. I loved it enough to take a chance on the dvd commentary (which I regretted, as usual).

Constantine (Netflix streaming): There’s a lot of money and energy and charisma behind this, but it just doesn’t hold up.

Frailty (library dvd): Axe murder is one of the horror tropes that I try to avoid as much as possible, because it’s usually an excuse for fake gore, and I’m not a fan. But this movie turns the camera away at just the right moment, leaving the focus on the murderous father on a mission from God and his relationship with his sons. Super effective and very creepy.

It (2017) (library dvd): There are a few problems with this film, especially the way they treat Beverly as a plot device. But it has tremendous energy and a fantastic balance between youthful camaraderie and the threats surrounding the kids, whether supernatural or not. The structure was so solid I did a beat sheet for it. Now I just need to find time to break it down farther.

Ganja & Hess (library dvd): This is art-horror from the early seventies, a vampire movie directed by a Bill Gunn, a black playwright, actor, and director who also plays a supporting role here. Like a lot of older artsy movies, it tries the patience at times, but it also thwarts every genre expectation (in a good way). The original film was butchered by a distributor who wanted to show a blaxploitation film, but it’s been restored to the 110 minutes it’s supposed to be. Worth seeing, mostly because it’s different and an under appreciated classic.

The Night Stalker (my own dvd): One of the few movies I own. It has problems, but the structure is perfect, and it deserved to be a huge hit when it first aired. I watch it every year, and still love it.

Salem’s Lot (1979) (my own dvd): Far superior to the 2004 version, this simplification of Stephen King’s original novel still has chills, even 40 years later. My wife didn’t think much of it, since much of the staging and performances are dated, but revisiting it over the summer convinced me to pick up a copy of my own, and I’m glad I did.

The Transfiguration (Netflix streaming): Another art-horror film, this time one that combines the vampire story with hood dramas. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy in Harlem who is obsessed with vampires and blood-drinking. This is another slow, quiet film, without much in the way of supernatural elements. I’m glad I saw it, but I probably won’t watch it again.

He Never Died (Netflix streaming): Like Kwaidan, this isn’t exactly horror, but it’s close enough to qualify. Henry Rollins plays a sort of immortal vampire, but one who feasts on flesh as well as blood. And he’s lived for so long that he has pretty much given up on life. Then he discovers that he has a daughter, and his quiet, controlled life begins to spin out of control. The movie is funnier than it sounds, with Rollins giving a quiet, droll performance, but it looks like that miniseries about the character will never happen.

Interview with a Vampire (Netflix streaming): This holds up much better than I expected, possibly because it’s a period piece that feels so grounded in its period. Few things become dated as quickly as a child actor’s performance (see Salem’s Lot above) but not Dunst. But the real strength of this film is the relationship between Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. They’re great together.

Hereditary (Netflix dvd): Probably the second scariest thing I’ve watched so far this year. It felt a little confused, but it was one of a number of stories where the protagonists were threatened by spells and magic rather than traditional monsters or hauntings. Great performances, with a whole bunch of scary images at the end that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s not often that I see horror films that make magical rituals or other spell casting work, but boy, does it.

The Ritual (Netflix streaming): This one combines a ritual magic story with a lost-in-the-woods monster story, and is mostly getting good word of mouth based on its unusual (and highly effective) monster design. The monster is not the real appeal, though. It’s the mounting tension and inexplicable threats the characters face.

The Wailing (library dvd): The third and final film about horror driven by magic spells, and this one had my wife and I guessing until the very end. Who is trying to do harm? Who is trying to help? It’s a longish film and starts off as a sort of horror comedy, with a buffoonish protagonist. As it progresses, shit gets more and more serious, and the buffoon turns into something else. I don’t think the film was playing fair 100% of the time, but I still loved it.

Evolution (library dvd): A quiet piece of French body horror about children in an island community who are being experimented on by their “mothers”. It’s weird and unsettling, filled with long quiet moments and blank, staring expressions. I liked it, but sometimes I thought it was deliberately trying my patience. Art/body-horror, if you can believe it. Side note: the ocean is creepy.

Slither (library dvd): This James Gunn horror comedy isn’t as funny as I remember it, but it was still pretty great. It’s hard to believe this was a huge flop that scared filmmakers off horror comedies for years. Nathan Fillion was his usual charming self, but some of his dialog could have been sharper. it was Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker that really make the film work. We could stand to have more alien invasion horror.

The Endless (Netflix streaming): A bunch of people have recommended this to me, but the sound mix made it hard for me to hear. I’ll have to try again another time, maybe when I have a chance to really crank the volume.

The Monolith Monsters (library dvd): I’ve seen this several times over the course of my life, and it was nice to revisit. It’s the only black and white show on this year’s list, which is unusual for me, but I really love the central conceit, about mindless alien stones that petrifies people.

Stranger Things (Netflix streaming): Oh hey there’s this sci-fi horror thing on Netflix you might have heard of. It’s pretty great. I’ve watched it a bunch of times, but every time I put it on, I end up getting hooked.

The New Iron Fist Trailer is Fine When It Needs to be Great.

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Here’s the first trailer for S2 of Iron Fist, and if I’m being honest, I don’t love it.

It’s not terrible, not like the trailers for S1 (“Where did he learn martial arts?”) but S1 was so terrible that I wanted this to blow me out of the water.

It doesn’t. It’s a competently staged fight with an interesting viewpoint trick, it’s clear that the filmmakers know how to show Finn Jones fighting, but the visuals aren’t interesting. The location isn’t unusual. The enemies are, what, a few muggers?

That’s not going to wash away the bad feelings from S1.

I’ve heard that the fight footage they showed at SDCC was exceptional, and that everyone who saw it is really hopeful about this new season. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/holy-crap-iron-first-season-two-actually-looks-really-1827712069

It’d be nice if that extra footage was online right now.

Yeah, I know Iron Fist is problematic, but he was pretty new when I first got into comics at that impressionable age, so he was all over the comics. I have a soft spot for the character, and I want to see him done well. With luck, that extra footage will make its way online and we can all be impressed.

“I don’t want to be what they made me.” A Review of Jessica Jones S2

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When I finished watching the second season of Jessica Jones (the first time through) I tweeted this:

Now that I’ve seen it all the way through three times does my opinion still hold up?

Yep!

Spoilers! Continue reading

“We’re not in a prophecy.” “Let the past die.” “I’m scared.” Three short reviews

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I think that, if I group my reviews together, I can keep them short. So I’m going to try that.

Bright

Everyone who creates a fantasy with a contemporary setting has two major issues they need to address. Okay, it’s more than two, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest.

First, the stakes are bullshit.

Second, monsters are not effective stand-ins for victims of injustice.

The first is pretty straight forward, I think. In the normal course of things, I care as much about who becomes the next arch-duke of the sewer goblins as I do about whether some complete stranger I’ll never meet is going to wear a blue hat or a green one. It’s made up. It’s not connected to me. I just don’t care.

Worse, when fantasy has a contemporary setting, the plot is always about *preventing* some terrible event. If the heroes aren’t fighting like hell to keep a mcguffin out of the villain’s hands, they’re doing their best to break up a ritual. That makes the most dangerous consequence the characters are facing into a threat that’s never realized.

That’s why, when I was planning Child of Fire, I set it in a small town where the villain is the main source of jobs for the locals. Hammer Bay will die off if the heroes end the bad guy and they lose all those jobs. That’s a stake that people understand and care about. (Also, the ritual happened long before the story started.)

Bright, at least, avoids the shitty ritual climax, but it still trots out a bunch of folderol about a Dark Lord who will return if the villains can blah blah with the mcguffin. It never happens. I knew it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care.

And do I really need to explain that second pitfall? You don’t illuminate human injustice by dehumanizing the victims of injustice. It’s even sketchy to do it to the perpetrators of injustice, although there are ways to make that work. But the victims? No. Just, no.

As for the movie itself, it’s not good. The end is dull. The beginning is unpleasant because of that second pitfall above. The middle is buoyed by a few interesting action scenes but too much of it is too dark.

The first time I heard Netflix was going to make a Will Smith movie about a cop with elves and orcs, I thought they meant Law & Order: Angmar. That would have been interesting. Once I heard they were going to set it in modern LA I knew it would be crap.

The Final Jedi

I’ve been calling this film by the wrong name on Twitter as a joke, and now it’s begun to feel more right than the right one.

Seeing it a second time was a smart choice on my part (pats self on back). Having the ending spoiled, and knowing who was going to succeed, and which elements that I was originally rooting for turned out to be terrible, made the intent of the film much more clear.

I wonder how many people, conditioned to cheer on the hotshot pilot and the bold plan, were prepared for the way that plot line turned. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some viewers’ disappointment lay in that unexpected feeling of futility and dismay.

It still feels a little long, but I liked it much more a second time.

The Punisher

I’ve seen this show three times now, and I’m more impressed every time. It very much wants to be divorced from the MCU that it’s nominally a part of, and frankly, that weakens it. It’s hard to imagine these villains in this particular setting operating without trying to recruit superpowered people or acquire high-tech weapons. And frankly, that’s what I was hoping to see.

The show gave me something else: a military/spy thriller about a CIA coverup combined with a drama about veterans and PTSD. And it was beautifully shot and acted.

I’d suggest a few of the roles could have been cast better. The actress playing Medani has the worst accent of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers, and the guy playing Billy isn’t physically frightening enough to match Bernthal’s Frank Castle. He looks more like a successful divorce lawyer than a
deadly killer.

What’s more, unlike most of these Netflix Marvel shows, the pacing is solid. Not breakneck but there are no episodes that feel like treading water.

Turns out, it’s a solid show, but not a Marvel show.

Mohawks, Barrel Fires, and a Few Nice Shots: a highly qualified defense of episode 7 of STRANGER THINGS 2

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This post contains spoilers for the second season of STRANGER THINGS 2. You should only read it if:

a) You have already seen the show
b) You actively like spoilers
c) You enjoy discussions of storytelling but have no interest in this particular show.

Moving on: episode seven, is widely regarded as the weakest episode of the entire show, for good reason. It steps away from the setting we, the audience, are invested in, and it drops all of the regular characters except one: Eleven. (I should start calling her “Jane” but I’m not ready to move on.)

Do we care about Kali and her band of punk murderers? We do not. Kali herself has a few nice moments, but the rest of the group never gets a chance to be funny, or charismatic, or to have a worthwhile goal the audience can root for. Their dialog isn’t clever or witty, either. They make fun of Eleven’s clothes, for god’s sake, by singing “Old MacDonald”.

The members of the gang say they’ve been “saved” by Kali, but that’s something that needs to be shown, not told. If you can’t actually show why these punks are so dedicated to her–and all it would take was to show Kali using her power to calm someone’s panic attack or withdrawal symptoms–then it seems that the real reason they’re with her is that they really enjoy is robbing and killing people.

And no cutesy slow-mo walk is going to make that palatable.

As 80’s nostalgia, it’s dumb and also pernicious, on the level of an episode of QUINCY, ME.

Frankly, STRANGER THINGS has always played with the other people’s ideas. The whole show is an homage of one kind or another, but those old tropes are either actively pleasant (like the boys riding their bikes around the neighborhood) or their given an interesting tweak (see: Steve Harrington). Kali’s gang has zero interesting tweaks, and all the barrel fires and in-jokey graffiti in the world can’t make them pleasant.

Authors like to encourage newer writers to steal anything they like, because each writer’s individual voice will make these old tropes their own, but this episode proves that’s not always true.

But why talk only about the episode’s flaws?

First, there are a number of lovely little storytelling moments that elevate the show above the schlock it’s mining. Not just the steadicam single shot that turns 180 degrees to show both the gang’s pov and the cops’ pov or the edit from Kali’s face reflected in the van’s window to Eleven’s in the bus window, but a bunch of smaller choices, too. Each little edit from the moment Eleven sees the picture of Ray with his kids to the moment she TKs the gun from Kali is perfectly structured. Brava to the director.

Second, the show gets some much needed girl-to-girl time.

One of the problems with STRANGER THINGS is that its female characters are so isolated from each other. The women and girls on the show are surrounded by dudes and maybe a mother. Eleven has Mike and his pals. Max has those same boys and her step-brother. Joyce has her sons and Hopper. Nancy has Steve and Jonathan.

I’m convinced one of the reasons fans had such a strong reaction to Barb was that, aside from being a sort of Everywoman among all the TV-beautiful actresses, she was half of the only woman-to-woman peer relationship on the show, and that’s not something they can afford to throw away.

The scene with Kali and Eleven on the roof is a moment that the show needed: a scene of bonding and caring between female characters. They had an opportunity to revisit that at the beginning of episode nine when Max met Eleven, but they shrugged it off for an understandable but unwelcome moment of jealousy. (If season 3 doesn’t open with Max and Eleven as the best of friends, I’ll be seriously disappointed.)

This episode was also a mentoring moment. The show has routinely showed how much stronger Eleven’s powers were becoming, but with Kali she managed the leap that justifies the climax.

Third, it provides space for an unexpected escalation of the stakes.

Most of us watching these Netflix miniseries recognize by now that the climax is spread across the last two episodes, and the big oh shit! moment comes at the end of the episode just before that climax.

STRANGER THINGS 2 thwarts that expectation in a pleasant way. I was genuinely startled by the end of episode six, when the baby demogorgons begin to climb out of the hole, and there’s Chief Hopper looking incredibly vulnerable in his hospital scrubs.

It’s a nice cliffhanger, arriving as it does an entire episode early, and all of episode seven leaves us dangling off the cliff. Personally, I enjoyed the anticipation, but I would have enjoyed it more if ep seven had been a little stronger.

Fourth, it expands the world and sets up Kali as the villain for season three.

The show wisely opened the second season with the gang on the run from the cops, then Kali’s nosebleed and tattoo. That it later fumbled those elements doesn’t negate their importance in continuing and expanding the story. Eleven can’t be the only test subject in this world, and the others can’t be duplicates of her.

Season three will need to introduce other kids with tattoos and powers (all of them little girls, if they’re smart), and it will need Kali as one of the villains. Establishing her as a betrayed sister in this season was a good move.

Besides, you can mine a lot of terrifying moments out of a horror show where people can’t trust their own senses. Season three can’t get here fast enough.

So, to sum up: the episode had a lot of necessary and worthwhile elements, but was hobbled by the thoroughly ham-handed way it handled the supporting characters. Definitely a weak moment, but still interesting.