Posted on March 21, 2017
My first car was a baby blue 1969 Mustang. It was a beautiful car that started almost half the time when you turned the key. I can remember so clearly sitting behind the wheel, key turned all the way forward, foot firmly off the gas pedal, listening to it whine and groan, whine and groan, and then, just for a second, it would sputter and pop and you’d think it was going to start, but then it would just go back to whining and groaning.
That feeling of something never quite catching, never quite igniting was very much in my mind as I watched Kong: Skull Island. The movie would drag along with a remarkably phoned in performance from Hiddleston and Brie Larson trying gamely but ultimately having little to do and then for one brief, shining moment, John C. Reilly would burst into the narrative and light it up and you’d think, “Okay, here we go,” but then they’d push him aside and we were back to Samuel L. Jackson’s dreary attempt at Heart of Darkness.
Basically, I wish they would go back and cut out most of the other characters entirely and just tell John C. Reilly’s story. I was far more interested in what had happened since that day he and the Japanese pilot were shot down up to the present than I was in anything going on with the superfluous characters in the foreground.
On the plus side, we finally have the CGI capabilities to make a good looking Kong movie. Now all we have to do is tell a good Kong story.
Yeah, let’s face it. When you go into a theater to see a movie with a number in the title, you’ve already subconsciously set the bar really low. To my mind, there have only been three great sequels: Godfather 2, Aliens, and Terminator 2. I don’t know if John Wick: Chapter 2 belongs on that list, but it is definitely better than 99% of all sequels out there.
Spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 2 follow
I have to admit that when it comes to speculating about the future I am definitely a pessimist which is why I usually opt for more diverting fare like Ready, Player One and Lexicon. But one summer not too long ago I took a bath in despair by reading Never Let Me go, 1Q84, The Handmaid’s Tale, Children of Men, and Oryx And Crake all in one summer.
I’m both slightly dyslexic and very ADD, so audio books have been a real boon to my reading. The only problem with listening to a book is that you don’t get the same feel for the writing. Also, a bad narrator can keep you away from a book that you really want to read.
So I read some of those books and listened to others. It didn’t seem to matter which why I took in the stories, it all had the same effect. I ended up a hopeless, suicidal mess. Now, to be fair, this happened during a particularly stressful time of my life and I was already close to going out my mind. This series of books was just the nudge I needed to see into the blackness of human future.
I had already begun work on the initial drafts of my Dangerous Thoughts series when I went through this summer of bummer, but I hadn’t gained any real traction. Generally, when I start out to write a book, I begin with a dogmatic statement. It’s more of a lecture than a story, really, and over time as the characters come to life and the narrative develops that message slides into the background.
My initial idea was to show how awful our society is by showing a future society that had overcome all of our problems. Reading these books at the same time I was developing my story destroyed all my Utopian ideas. The problem with every human society — Communism, Socialism, Capitalism — isn’t the Ism, it’s the people in it. Eventually, the story began to mirror my own struggle as it details multiple attempts to establish a successful human society on different planets, all of which eventually fail.
Right up front, I’ll say that these are beautifully written novels and all of them, except for the tedious 1Q84, are spryly told. But they’re so fucking depressing. Not so much in their predicted outcomes for humanity as much as their dire and dead on depiction of how flawed humans are and how the more flawed they are, the more sway they hold.
1Q84 was a meandering mess that eventually led to nothing, but the one book I wish I hadn’t read is Never Let Me Go. Not because it wasn’t well written or interesting, but because it literally broke my heart. It is the saddest book I’ve ever read and a little bit of that despair stays with me to this day, years after I put it down.
In the spring of 1977, I was just home from college and looking for something to do in the then small town of Manassas, Viriginia. I looked through the paper and saw an ad for a new science fiction movie called Star Wars and reached out to a friend about maybe going to check it out. But here’s the thing: I hadn’t heard anything about it and judging from the poorly drawn ad in the newspaper, I was under the impression that it was one of those awful Japanese imports like The Green Slime. The only thing my friend Sam and I loved more than badly dubbed Japanese SciFi with visible string special effects was badly dubbed Kung Fu movies.
Needless to say, when that Star Destroyer passed overhead, I realized we were in for something else entirely.
The reason I mention that story (which I tell way too often) is because it’s a scenario that is impossible today. Whenever a movie of any size comes out, we are inundated on every platform with opinions and information and trailers and reviews. It is very hard to go into a movie with an open mind anymore and this was especially true of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Now I’ve said before that when I decide I want to see a movie, I impose an all-platform media blackout. I don’t watch the trailers, read the tweets, peruse the blog posts, listen to my coworkers or anything else until I’ve had a chance to see the movie with fresh eyes. Even so, some stuff always gets in and if that stuff is bad then I start to let more stuff in.
This is exactly what happened with Suicide Squad, a movie I still haven’t seen. The idea of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn alone was enough to make me mark my calendar for opening day and turn off all other sources of information. But then news of Jared Leto’s crazy behavior on set leaked through and then I learned Will Smith was in it, and then came the re-shoots and the pushed release date, and then I just read everything that came out about it. Yep, still haven’t seen it.
With BvS, I didn’t even care enough to turn off the feeds. I’ve always thought Batman squaring off with Superman was a stupid idea best suited for preteen arguments in tree houses. I thought, if I go see this at all, I will be high as a kite and in it for the giggles. I ended up going because it was movie day and nothing else was playing.
When people asked me if I liked it, I told them I did not. When they asked me why, I didn’t have an answer. I’ve now watched it three times in an effort to come up with that answer.
Potential spoilers for Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice follow.
Holy shit, this is the worst movie since Purge Election Year which was the worst movie I had seen since Face/Off. I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be a quality film but I thought, what with the beer and pizza I was having with it, I would at least be entertained.
Is this what all Resident Evil movies are like? This even fails as fan service. More than once, I heard snickering ripple through the crowd as yet another improbable scene plopped into existence without explanation.
Let’s start with the declarative dialog. I mean, 90% of the movie is, “That’s the door we have to get through. Time is running out. Here they come. I’m here for you.” Just short bursts of information that aren’t even necessary because we can see that’s the door you need to get through and we know time is running out because you have an Escape From New York countdown bracelet on and we know they’re coming because we can see them coming and so on.
And then the editing. Holy shit, I’ve never hoped for an editor to be fired and never work again before. The cuts are so hyper-kinetic they actually remove sense from the scene. Half the time, we don’t know how a character got from here to over there. That information was cut out to show us an unintelligible, half second clip of someone’s unidentified hand going by.
Also, sound designer. You’re fired, too. Just ugly white noise being blasted at us at random intervals for two hours. Get out.
It’s pretty obvious Paul W. S. Anderson wishes he had directed The Matrix but enough with the stealing, already. Also, maybe hire a writer next time? The deaths of characters who mean nothing to us add no value or gravitas to the story.
Oh, and that brings up another thing. Casting agent: EVERYONE LOOKS THE SAME! Since they don’t have interior lives, it’s really hard to tell them apart. I thought Ali Larter’s boyfriend had already died three times before he actually did.
And then… And then… the motherfucking betrayal of all storyteller betrayals….
I don’t ever publish personal stuff on this blog. I tried doing a blog like that a while back and it ended up consuming all of my creative time and energy. The only reason I returned to blogging at all was that my agent told me I would need an internet presence when The Vengeance Season came out and he had a deal in the bag.
Also, I feel like talking to yourself about yourself is the literary equivalent of jerking off in a bus station while yelling about how the government is trying to control your thoughts.
The content updates have been splotchy at best over the last year. Maybe this scene will explain why I’ve had other things on my mind:
Me: What does alcohol consumption have to do with stage IV cancer?
Doctor: I’m just trying to get a lifestyle profile for your chemo…
Me: I have three martinis a night. My cholesterol is fine and my triglycerides are little high, but that’s mostly down to my love of fried food. Let me save you some time. I don’t exercise, I eat too much, I drink just the right amount and I smoked for twenty years. And yet no doctor has been able to take me out of the game.
(I reach for the gun in my ankle holster)
Me: You weren’t the first white coat to make a try for me and you won’t be the last, but today is not the day. Or should I say, it’s not your day?
(I shoot him twice in the chest and stride out of his office to a Springsteen song we can afford)
That’s right. I’ve been unable to focus on blogging because… I’m a terrible screenwriter.
Oh, and my country somehow managed to elect an unhinged narcissist to the highest office in the land. That may also have had something to do with it.
Okay, let me be serious. I haven’t been on stage since November 9th. I haven’t written any new material since then. I haven’t done any improv. I haven’t worked on my book. I’ve just been watching blankly until something grabbed my attention hard enough that I would look at it.
Rogue One was a wonderful and powerful film. I loved it. I came right home and started to write a post about it and all I could think was, “Hey, here’s another goof saying Rogue One is good.” Saying something is good without delving into the emotional context of the experience of having watched it is the equivalent of “liking” a post on Facebook or “hearting” a tweet on Tweetbook.
So, Rogue One was good and impactful and I’m so proud of Disney for not getting in the way of that ending that showed that rebellions require real sacrifice, but I actually wept while watching Arrival.
So, yeah, I came home and wrote that one up and published it. I got on a roll with Black Mirror because I was basically hate watching an inferior product that didn’t live up to my expectations — which is the firstest of first world problems. Dirk Gently, as much as I loved it, wasn’t good for my mental state. Douglas Adams has never been good for me. He’s exactly my kind of depressive. Where everyone else sees randomized hilarity, I see him speaking directly to my fear of the truly nihilistic heart of an uncaring universe.
It’s been a tough year. I think my psychic propierception alerted me early on that Trump was going to win, that the world was going to shift suddenly and terribly to the right the way it did during the 1930s and that we were going to have to live through some truly terrible times. The sense of doom fell over me a year ago and I haven’t been able to shake it since.
I finally did find something to engage the other parts of my brain. A show that Netflix dropped without warning or fanfare, one that I watched only because I respect its star and creator, Brit Marling, and because of Netflix’s cache for original programming.
Spoilers for The OA follow.
In 1951, during that short breath America takes between wars, director Robert Wise delivered an elegant, hopeful movie about an alien from an advanced civilization bringing a gift to our government. That same year, The Thing From Another World (later remade as John Carpenter’s The Thing to much greater effect) put forth a much less hopeful thesis on alien encounters.
There couldn’t be more difference between these two movies, one plays to our better angels while the other harnesses our worst fears. One is finely wrought and delicate in design while the other is blunt and obvious.
Arrival is our The Day The Earth Stood Still.
I’m going to talk about Arrival but before I put in the spoiler warning break, I just want to say that if you don’t want to cry in front of your girlfriend, don’t go see this movie with her. Take her to see Independence Day 2: Even More Independenter instead.
SPOILERS for ARRIVAL follow….
If it is true that the devil is in the details then Westworld is positively diabolical. I find myself watching and re-watching episodes looking for the tiniest clues to the inner workings of what is surely one of the most complex automata ever constructed for the purposes of entertainment.
But sometimes you just want to laugh.
Stan Against Evil, as created by the hilarious Dana Gould, is one continuous verbal pratfall. The always golden John C. McGinley fine tunes his grumbling heart-of-gold-but-crusty-on-the-outside character from Scrubs by just straight up removing the heart of gold. His constant but hysterical grumbling plays perfectly off of Janet Varney’s just-an-inch-away-from-giving-up Sheriff Evie Barrett.
Varney who is pitch perfect in so many supporting roles (You’re the Worst!) finally gets to step out front and take the lead. The way she plays off McGinley’s character could suffice for a post-graduate degree in “acting is reacting.” She not only delivers her lines with comedic perfection but her facial expressions when dealing with the craziness around her are comedy gold.
The cast is rounded out with more lunatics than you can shake a stake at, including Gould himself as one of the most no questions asked grave diggers the world has ever seen. Deborah Baker Jr. plays McGinley’s grown daughter with the mind of a toddler, an act you would think would get old except they keep feeding her the best lines in any comedy — “White Power Teeth Cleaning” leaps to mind — and Nate Mooney not only plays the best deputy since Barney Fife but also wins the award for the only human who can scream at a higher note than bats can hear.
It’s like Grimm but funny and interesting.
I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams. After reading the Hitchhiker’s series, I consumed all of his articles and opinion pieces with great relish. But I could never get into the Dirk Gently series, never even made it through the first book.
Now, however, there’s this wonderful new series from BBC America, created by Max Landis and starring Elijah Wood and Samuel Barnett. As I said, I’ve never read the books but I understand that it was nearly untranslatable to the screen. Apparently, Landis added Elijah Wood’s character to fix that problem and what he’s come up with is great television.
Dirk Gently is a classic Douglas Adams story rife with cosmic coincidence and Gently is a perfect Douglas Adams protagonist, even more clueless than Arthur Dent. The writing is sharp and the pacing is perfect. Landis has come up with a visual language that is perfect for Douglas Adams’ bizarre sense of humor.
Samuel Barnett plays Dirk as a kind of cosmically aware toddler. Which is perfect for a man who cannot know anything because the universe places him in the path of the things he needs to know.
Elijah Wood provides the necessary drag on Dirk’s bottomless enthusiasm and if it’s true that his character, Todd, was created to make the story work, I think it was a stroke of brilliance. Without Todd, everyone is a fucking weirdo and that’s just too much fucking weirdness.
There’s a part at the end of Larry Niven’s Ringworld where the nominal protagonists discuss the possibility that the only reason they’ve been through all these crazy adventures was so that the girl who tagged along with them could meet her one true love. It’s a nutty theory but one that would fit perfectly in Adams’ world.
I’m only three episodes in but it’s become one of my favorite shows. Highly recommended.