Saturday, January 6, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2017

Well, we made it. It's hard for movies to compete with the insane drama going on in our nation's capitol, but by the time we got to the end of December, there was a strong slate of movies to choose from and this list became surprisingly competitive. A dominant theme I noticed in most of the films I liked was the necessity of confronting hard truths. It could be the discovery of a terrifying new reality in a horror film, a legendary warrior forced to rethink everything he's ever known, or just a teenage girl forced to realize she has a lot to learn about the world. We could all benefit from some soul-searching of our own, to go beyond the details of one election and examine the broad issues in America that have led us to this dreadful place. If we survive this, the movies are going to get really interesting.

One adjustment for this year - thanks to streaming services, tracking down movies has become much easier and as a result, I can have a full list shortly after the new year, unlike past years where I scrambled for most of January to fill in some missing pieces. A few films that are taking their sweet time to open near me have been cut off (Sorry, The Post). I've also decided to replace the honorable mentions with an expanded list. The second set of films won't get full write-ups but I think it's interesting to see what came within striking distance of making the top 10. And away we go!

10. Get Out
This tense, cutting horror film perfectly captured the anxieties of its era, a typical trait of the genre but with a perspective that was sorely needed. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young black man who drives with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) into upstate New York to meet her wealthy parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). At first, they just seem like awkward but well-meaning old liberals but something sinister lurks beneath the “post-racial” fa├žade. Director Jordan Peele makes the oblivious behavior of the white characters painfully familiar until the big twist happens. I don't think this is a perfect horror film, in particular I found the third act a little too derivative of other “domestic terror” films. Still, its impact can't be overstated, especially since the film seems on track to (fingers crossed) become the first horror movie to get a Best Picture nomination in almost 20 years. And while I wouldn't call it a comedy (unlike the Golden Globes), there is some welcome levity and Lil Rel Howery in a supporting role as Chris's friend is hilarious.

9. Brigsby Bear
The title refers to a kid’s show with an audience of one: James (Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the film), who lives with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in an underground bunker. When the police show up one day, James realizes that everything he’s known was a lie…although his main concern is how to continue “Brigsby Bear.” In less capable hands, the film might have turned into another smug hipster movie in love with its own irony. But it goes in the other direction and is genuinely sweet, with a complex, even-handed examination of how pop culture indoctrination affects us. The strong supporting cast includes Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Claire Danes and Andy Samberg, who also served as a producer. Good luck not being charmed.

8. The Void
The films of John Carpenter, particularly The Thing, are a clear influence on this lean and mean horror ride, one of the few of this nostalgic era that captures the wonder and dread of the movies it emulates. A police officer (Aaron Poole) discovers an injured drug addict and brings him to a short-staffed hospital, unaware that the building is the target of a mysterious cult connected to something beyond imagination. The cast includes Kenneth Welsh, Art Hindle and Ellen Wong, but the real star is the outstanding practical effects used for the various horrors that unfold. The story feels greatly incomplete by the film’s end, but in a way that will leave viewers wanting more.

7. The Shape of Water
What if the monster got the girl? This twist on Creature From the Black Lagoon takes place in a 1960s research facility, where a mysterious aquatic creature (Doug Jones, but not the new Alabama senator) has been captured in the Amazon rainforest and placed in a water tank for further analysis. In the meantime, the creature forms a strong bond with janitor Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who begins to plot his escape. The creature looks absolutely fantastic, the most impressive part of a film that boasts lots of visual splendor. It’s remarkably cohesive given how many moods it has - Guillermo Del Toro moves from gruesome violence to character-based comedy and back again several times, although the black and white musical number is a little much. The film also has a great supporting cast, including Richard Jenkins as Eliza’s comic relief neighbor and Octavia Spencer as her loyal co-worker.

6. The Last Jedi
Don't look at me, I'm as surprised as anyone. The Force Awakens played things so safe and while Rogue One was solid, it also felt like the beginning of a transformation for the Star Wars series, one that would turn it from a special event into another corporate machine churning out films every year like the Marvel films, which while rarely bad, have grown increasingly indistinguishable from one another. I certainly didn't expect the best Star Wars movie in...what? 35 years? Maybe more? Picking up right after the last film ended, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks training from Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has become a bitter old man haunted by past failures. Meanwhile, Princess Leia (the final performance of Carrie Fisher brought about some Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight deja vu) and the scant remains of her resistance force are barely staying ahead of the evil First Order. While filled with rip-roaring action and beautiful locations (both real and digital), what makes this film stand out among its peers is a rich subtext about the perils of hanging on to the past while the present changes rapidly. This challenge to the more purist elements of the fanbase, combined with director Rian Johnson’s delight in subverting expectations whenever possible, antagonized a lot of the whiniest fanboys but bowled over this fair weather fan. J.J. Abrams is back in the director's chair for the next one, he better not screw this up.

5. The Villainess
I could not tear myself away from this breathtaking movie, which opens with an assault on a crime boss’s headquarters shot like a first-person shooter. After about five minutes of jaw-dropping mayhem typically associated with male action heroes, someone calls the attacker a “bitch” and her face gets slammed into a mirror. That’s how the audience is introduced to Sook-hee (a terrific performance by Ok-bin Kim), who is subsequently recruited by the government and promised eventual freedom in exchange for ten years of service. Assigned as a “sleeper” agent in Seoul, Sook-hee grows fond of her newfound domestic existence with her young daughter, but the dangers of her other life are a constant threat. Byung-gil Jung wisely doesn’t try to top the phenomenal first scene until much later, allowing a character drama to unfold slowly in layered flashbacks that can occasionally get confusing. While the action is brilliant, it’s not exactly a “popcorn” film - those not used to the ruthless crime dramas that get made in South Korea might find it too upsetting.

4. Dunkirk
A suspenseful, beautifully-shot film that recreates the famous evacuation during World War II. In 1940, British and French troops have been boxed in by the Germans and gather on the beach in Dunkirk. Their only hope lies with a fleet of ships crossing the English Channel, many of them civilian boats answering the call. The story is divided into three perspectives - land, sea and air - and while these plots are occurring at different times, Christopher Nolan’s signature propulsive editing makes them all mash together into a solid overall arc. The cinematography, particularly during the air sequences, is worthy of David Lean. The cast includes Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance, along with a group of other dark-haired young men who can be difficult to tell apart. Critics love it, but the biggest endorsement may have come from Ken Sturdy, a 97-year-old Royal Navy veteran who was actually at the Battle of Dunkirk and said he was moved to tears by the film.

3. Lady Bird
Coming of age films rarely feel this convincing and effortless. Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to be called “Lady Bird,” is desperate to leave her hometown of Sacramento and get away from her difficult mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). In the meantime, she spends her senior year of Catholic high school struggling with her identity and dealing with the usual troubles with friendships and boys. The dialogue is great and both Lady Bird and her mother have rich character arcs, able to remain sympathetic even while acting like jerks. Greta Gerwig, best known as an actress in independent film, had co-directed a film years ago but really made waves with this one. Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges and Beanie Feldstein are all invaluable in supporting roles.

2. Baby Driver
I'm not typically into cool car movies, but I'll watch anything by Edgar Wright and he really delivered this time. This joyous caper stars Ansel Elgort as Baby, a quiet young man with tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) that he drowns out with constant musical accompaniment (he's a big fan of 1970s rock and R & B). He’s also a masterful getaway driver, able to choreograph daring criminal escapes to his favorite songs, a feat he uses to pay his debt to a powerful mobster (Kevin Spacey...yeah, I know. Ick.). However, Baby gets a girlfriend (Lily James) and begins to hope for a different life. The thrilling car chases feature real vehicles on display, no CGI trickery and the results speak for themselves. With Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm in fun supporting roles, this delightful movie outdoes most blockbusters with three or four times its budget.

1. The Florida Project
It's not as commanding a number one pick as last year (films like Moonlight don't come along often), but what drew me to it was its touching empathy in a time when America seems to have abandoned that concept altogether. The movie is an honest, quietly tragic slice of life which takes place primarily at a three-story purple hotel in Orlando just outside Disney World. These hotels were once tourist destinations but are now something more like housing projects and little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) couldn’t be happier and prowls the grounds with her friends daily, oblivious to the struggles of her loving but immature mother (Bria Vinaite). William Dafoe, who has played freaks and weirdos for most of his career, finally gets to play a more down to Earth character, the stressed but noble hotel manager. There are also strong supporting turns from Mela Murder and Josie Olivo. The colorful and gaudy setting is Florida incarnate and also helps along the film’s message about struggling Americans forgotten by their neighbors, who are having too much at the theme park down the road. The emotion in this film really sneaks up on you, but it's totally earned. How long will we continue to let people suffer like this? I don't know, but a movie like this is a nice little step forward.

11. Super Dark Times
12. The Disaster Artist
13. Personal Shopper
14. Wind River
15. It
16. Logan
17. First They Killed My Father
18. Coco
19. Wonder Woman
20. The Devil's Candy

Happy 2018, everyone. The Perfect World Awards are coming in a few weeks and then of course, the Oscars. Should be a really interesting year.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Tales From the Crypt: Season Four, Part Two

Showdown: Despite the intriguing possibilities, the Western and Horror genres are rarely mixed, which makes this episode a nice change of pace. It’s also directed by Richard Donner so we know we’re in for something good. Wild West scoundrel Billy Quintane (Neil Giuntoli) wins a classic face-off with a Texas Ranger (David Morse) only to find that the ghosts in the ghost town he’s hiding in are all people he’s killed before. There are a number of major twists which were later ripped off by some very well-known ghost movies. Donner nails the Western imagery and atmosphere although I do wish it was a little scarier. A-

King of the Road: A middle-aged father and police officer (Raymond J. Barry) keeps quiet about his past as a legendary drag racer, but a slimy young punk (Brad Pitt) has tracked him down and challenges him to a race. He’s not interested but the psycho won’t stop invading his privacy until he agrees. It’s often one-note and feels like an episode of a different show, but the unexpected ending is a real surprise that’s darkly hilarious. Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”) contributed several songs to this episode. B-

Maniac at Large:
John Frankenheimer directed this episode about a meek librarian (Blythe Danner) working late while a serial killer roams the streets. Seeing threats everywhere, she begins to go crazy with paranoia despite the tepid reassurances of her domineering boss (Salome Jens). This was based off a story in EC’s “Crime SuspenStories” series, which means the horror elements are toned down but the ending is a perfect example of how edgy these comics were in their day. B

Split Personality: The Cryptkeeper suggests parental guidance, as in “guide your parents out of the room so we can have some fun!” Joe Pesci is excellent as a con man obsessed with the number two who meets a pair of rich twins ((Jacqueline and Kristen Citron). Hoping to get his hands on their inheritance, he invents a twin brother to try and marry them both. The twins seem like naive dingbats for most of the episode, but the tables are turned with an incredibly sick finale. A-

Strung Along: Donald O’Connor (yes, the guy from Singin’ in the Rain) plays an aging puppeteer who gets invited to a tribute show and trains a younger assistant (Zach Galligan) to help him out. He also begins to suspect that his young, controlling wife (Patrice Charbonneau) may be cheating on him. There are two big twists, one you will likely see coming and another one that you won’t, because it makes no sense. The casting of O’Connor, whose best known work was in the 1940s and 50s, really sells the character but the episode suffers in comparison to the outstanding Don Rickles puppet episode from Season 2. B

Werewolf Concerto:
In this straightforward episode, a werewolf is terrorizing a ritzy hotel. The manager (Dennis Farina) has assured his guests (which include Timothy Dalton, Beverly D’Angelo and Reginald Veljohnson) that a specialized hunter is on the job, but that person wishes to remain anonymous. Who is the werewolf and who is the hunter? The answer is not as simple as it appears. The makeup effects are impressive, although the story relies far too much on misdirection. B-

Curiosity Killed: Actually, it didn’t. Not really. That’s the least of the problems with this lame season finale where a bickering old couple (Kevin McCarthy and Margot Kidder in old age makeup) meet some friends on a camping trip. The wife thinks her husband is plotting to get rid of her, but it’s not quite as simple as that. There are some neat effects near the end, but this mostly just feels like killing time. C

So that's Season 4. Despite the major star power in these episodes, I think in general this one was on the weak side. Three more seasons to go so let's hope there are still some great ones left. Till next year, boils and ghouls!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Tales From the Crypt: Season Four, Part One

So this series vanished for a long time, eh? Sorry about that. I got off to a strong start but life got in the way and it took a long time to pick it up again. What I plan on doing is going through one season each October for the next couple of years so we'll do Season 4 this year and Season 5 will come in 2018. Get ready for more misbehavior, gore and bad puns!

None But the Lonely Heart: Treat Williams plays a vile con man who romances wealthy older women and then poisons them to get their money. In the midst of his latest scheme, he discovers that someone is on to him and paranoia makes him more dangerous than ever. Spending 20 minutes with this bastard is wearying but the unexpected ending is out of step with everything that’s come before…in a good way. Tom Hanks directed this episode and has a small role. B-

This’ll Kill Ya: The opening of this episode is lifted straight from the film noir classic D.O.A. - an amoral pharmaceutical executive named George (Dylan McDermott) walks into a police station to report his own murder. It’s another story of a jerk who eventually gets what’s coming to him, but things pick up when George is accidentally(?) injected with an experimental drug. The ending is satisfying, but as a whole this one feels like parts of previous episodes mixed together. Even the name is easily confused with “Easel Kill Ya” from Season 3. C+

On A Dead Man’s Chest: William Friedkin of The Exorcist directs this episode, which is the raunchiest one I’ve yet seen. It’s chock full of nudity, swearing and some seriously bloody mayhem at the end. A selfish rock singer (Yul Vasquez) gets a strange tattoo from a mysterious artist (the musician Heavy D) and it seems to have a life of its own. It’s lively fun with an interesting cast - Tia Carrere and musician Gregg Allman have supporting roles. Naturally, the band is named “Exorcist.” B+

Seance: The Cryptkeeper does his best Humphrey Bogart impression (complete with a terrible closing Casablanca-inspired pun) for this engaging hybrid of film noir and ghost story. Two bickering con artists (Cathy Moriarty and Ben Cross) pull an elaborate swindle on Mr. Chalmers (the late, great John Vernon) only for the scheme to backfire and accidentally cause the man’s death. Now they hope to fool his wife with a fake seance. You can figure out the ending right away, but the final scene is very well executed. B+

Beauty Rest:
Mimi Rogers plays Helen, an actress who keeps losing roles to younger competitors. Whens he finds out about a beauty pageant where the winner gets to be a company spokesperson, she becomes so desperate that she begins to murder her rivals. Naturally, winning the pageant turns out to be bad news and the ending twist is bizarre (and would have been more effective with better special effects). Rogers is able to make her character a little more sympathetic than the usual antiheroes of the show, but the glib way the film treats the sexist elements of show business can be a little off-putting. B

What’s Cookin: Christopher Reeve plays humorously against type as Fred, an arrogant chef who, along with his long-suffering wife (Bess Alexander) runs a restaurant that serves only squid. For some reason, the public isn’t particularly interested and the couple faces bankruptcy until one of their employees (Judd Nelson) introduces them to a mysterious new recipe. Fred discovers the truth about halfway through in a disgusting (and yet somehow delightful) reveal and Reeve’s natural charisma makes you root for his character no matter how twisted things get. A funny, engaging and enjoyably twisted episode. A-

The New Arrival: An arrogant psychologist (David Warner, making his character highly hateable) with a radio show is about to lose his gig due to low ratings so he comes with the idea of broadcasting episodes from the home of a mysterious woman (Zelda Rubenstein) who is constantly calling the show complaining about her daughter. Something is definitely very wrong about this child, but the episode wisely keeps her hidden until the very end, nicely building anticipation. B+

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Three Faces of It: Part Three

Last of a three-part (?) series. Go here to read about the book (which also summarizes the premise of the story for anyone who needs a referesher) and here to read about the 1990 miniseries. Spoilers should be expected.

The first reports of a new It movie came out sometime back in 2009. I remember being thrilled when I first head the news and annoyed that there was so little information at that stage. Although I do enjoy the miniseries for its good qualities, I always felt the material demanded more. We needed a movie that could fully embrace the scarier elements of the story in a way that network television was incapable of at the time. Of course, these days HBO or Netflix might come up with something pretty solid if given the chance. In an era full of unnecessary remakes (Flatliners? Really?), this struck me as one that would be very welcome. That and Drop Dead Fred. Somebody get on that.

Some time later, Cary Fukunaga was announced as the director. At this point, I only knew him from his immigration drama Sin Nombre but when the first season of HBO's "True Detective" came out a few years later, I had a better sense of what this guy could really do and was even more excited for the new movie. When was it coming out, anyway? Well, not for a while yet. The studio took exception to Fukunaga's vision for the movie, which was more cerebral and unconventional than what they were hoping for. He eventually quit, although he retains a writing credit on the final script. The actor Will Poulter, most recently seen as a cop more evil than any clown in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit, had been cast as Pennywise but left along with Fukunaga. With no director and star, the movie seemed dead. However, months later it was revealed that Andy Muschietti, the director of the visually impressive horror film Mama, had taken over and later found a new Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).

The first thing to note is films with this kind of production trouble typically don't turn out well in the end. However, this new It is a pretty solid movie. It's also a little hard to judge at this point since we only have about half of the book accounted for. This It is really It: Chapter One, as the filmmakers tease right before the credits. Nobody knew if a second movie was even happening until the Friday it opened, when early numbers indicated a major box office hit was on the way. The studio has always seen this movie as a risk for reasons that are unclear to me. They needn't have worried and now that they have greenlit the second movie, they should also send a thank you card to Tim Curry because lingering affection for the mini-series is a big part of why people were so excited for this. Now we'll see the opposite approach and have a wave of killer clown movies coming our way. Maybe Killer Klowns from Outer Space will even get a remake.

In my view, the way to judge the success of this version will be how well the two films complement one another. Can't do that yet but there's still plenty to talk about. The "past" of the seven main characters has been moved from the 1950s to the 1980s, presumably so the "present" half can take place in the 2010s. We begin where we have to, with little Georgie Denbrough encountering Pennywise in the storm drain. This scene is ruthless in its brutality, even with some spotty CGI. It also establishes Bill Skarsgard's approach to the clown. He plays Pennywise as totally inhuman and more of a animal predator. He may be able to speak but could never pass for just a regular clown like the Tim Curry incarnation might.



What I enjoyed most about this movie is how some of the moments in the book that were too scary for TV finally come to life. The hideous leper that menaces Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) finally appears and the House on Neibolt Street was perfectly rendered. The scariest moment was actually one the filmmakers made up - Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) gets creeped out by a painting in his father's office only to find the distorted figure from the painting stalking him. The imagery in those scenes was unlike any I've seen before. Muschietti has a knack for gothic visuals and gets a major assist from Chung-hoon Chung, the Korean cinematographer of Oldboy.

All the child actors playing the cast are good, which makes it unfortunate that even at 135 minutes, a few of them feel underdeveloped. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is the group's leader and naturally gets a lot of screen time. Richie (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, swearing up a storm) and Eddie were also great. The rest deserved more time in the spotlight. Stan's character arc feels unfinished by the time the movie ends, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Mike (Chosen Jacbos) have weak character arcs that could use more detail, and as for Beverly (Sophia Lillis), she gets plenty of screen time but also a lame "damsel in distress" sequence which I imagine annoyed Stephen King (although he's too polite to say so...or maybe he's just glad Stanley Kubrick is dead and didn't do this one). The evil bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) shows up as well but gets somewhat lost in the shuffle by the end.

What I was most curious about was how the movie would handle the final confrontation with It. It turns out they took a page from the miniseries and decided that it was better just for the kids to face off against Pennywise himself rather than the Spider or the true non-physical form in the Ritual of Chud. Bev briefly sees the "deadlights" but there was one other hint that I saw of the creature's true nature - at one point Pennywise dances on a rickety stage in front of a background that appears to depict fiery orange light. As for the fight, it's more down and dirty than book readers will expect. Instead of a slingshot that fires chunks of silver, the kids pummel Pennywise with things like bats and fence spikes. Outnumbered and with its scare tactics now ineffective, Pennywise appears to perish. Of course, we know he'll be back in 27 years when they're all adults.

It should be fun to follow the progress of the second movie and casting will be especially interesting. It also means that this blog series is not quite over, but it will be dormant for the near future. With the first half a success, a lot will be riding on how Muschietti and the rest handle the final confrontation between the Loser's Club and It. Would a giant CGI spider really be that much better than the claymation Spider from 1990? Or will they take the plunge and depict the psychic battle with the Deadlights? I'm hoping for the latter, but we'll see. Keep floating, everyone.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Three Faces of It: Part Two

After almost a decade of false starts and behind the scenes difficulty, a new adaptation of Stephen King's It is headed for theaters this September. I'm a huge fan of the story so I'll be writing a three-part series about it - first about the book, then the 1990 TV miniseries and finally the new film when it's released. Spoilers should be expected.

See the first part if you want a refresher on the plot and characters of this story.

A long horror movie is hard to do. The few that are out there demonstrate this pretty well. Rosemary's Baby is well over 2 hours and while it may be a classic, I think you could cut about a half hour from it and it would still be just as good. Dawn of the Dead also cracks the two hour mark and the film's interminable middle act slows things down to a crawl. But if there was ever a horror story that demanded an epic canvas, It was...it. The first adaptation of the gigantic book was a three-hour miniseries (four with commercials) roughly divided by the two eras in the novel. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace from a script by Lawrence Cohen, this version cuts a lot of the more gruesome stuff from the book was still pretty boundary-pushing for its era. It was unusual to see blood on prime time network TV in 1990, let alone balloons full of it.

However, this was also a long time before our modern era of Prestige TV and the budgetary limitations are evident. This is not an easy book to adapt in the first place and not having the means to realize the more mystical elements of the story results in only a few brief references to the true metaphysical nature of It and without the full context of the book, these moments seem like non sequiturs. Later on I'll get into just how much it trips at the finish line with a huge anticlimax of an ending. I may be sounding at bit harsh now but there was also quite a few things this adaptation got right. To start with, the enduring appeal of the miniseries over 25 years later can be summed up in two words - Tim Curry.



Among people who saw this as children, that scene is discussed in almost mythic terms. Simply saying that Curry is "good" as Pennywise doesn't seem like enough. He absolutely disappears into the part and it's become standard practice in entertainment journalism to give him sole credit for making children afraid of clowns. And indeed I have read so many testimonials and spoken to many people who recall how much Pennywise scared them. I can't imagine any other film from that era (the 1990s was pretty weak as far as horror goes) which had that kind of effect.

Considering the limitations, particularly the reluctance to show kids in mortal danger on network television, the movie did pretty well. While the most gruesome stuff was obviously left out, a large amount of dialogue and scenes from the book found its way into the script. At its best moments, the movie captures the camaraderie among the seven kids. It helps that the child actors are really very good, including a young Seth Green as Richie and the late Jonathan Brandis as Bill. The Emmy winning score by Richard Bellis is also a major asset - not just for the demented carnival music that plays for Pennywise but for its main theme, a beautiful melody that nails the novel's combination of nostalgia and fear.

If you only have time to watch half, go with the first half. The strong performances of the child actors make it even more surprising that it's the adult actors who struggle with the material in the second half. Some of this is the dialogue's fault. Adult Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) makes a sarcastic comment about Acapulco that is borderline incomprehensible. Annette O'Toole as adult Beverly gets the groaner, "Why is It so mean?!" Harry Anderson fares best as adult Richie, who gets a big laugh right before the final showdown with It when he says "I don't suppose anyone thought to bring something really useful? Like a machine gun?" In general, the second half is just harder to take seriously. Pennywise is an intimidating presence in the first part but the intervening 27 years must have messed with him a bit since he's much more goofy. He cracks himself up shouting "Kiss me, fat boy!" at Ben and later appears as a severed head to roast the group like he's on Comedy Central. And then there's the hilarious library scene. I used to rewind the VHS over and over again just to hear that wacky laugh Pennywise does after he makes a lame joke. Thankfully, now we have YouTube.



A little trivia - two X-Files stars appear in the miniseries. Megan Leitch, who played Mulder's sister Samantha, is the librarian at the start of that clip and William B. "Cigarette Man" Davis shows up briefly in one of the 1950s scenes.

So the major issue people tend to have with this version is the ending, and rightfully so. At the end of the first half, the kids drive off Pennywise but, unlike the book, never see the creature's true form. This made sense but the confrontation with the adults is a huge anticlimax. The audience has waited 3 hours to learn the monster's true form and then...a stop-motion giant spider walks into the room. Not even very good stop-motion either, Ray Harryhausen was making more convincing stuff in the 1950s. There's a puppet used for close-ups that looks a little better but that doesn't help much. Everyone says "It's just a spider?! What a let down!" I've even seen an article on the movie that tried to blame this on the book, to which I say: Oh, hell no.

Anyone who has read at the book will remember that the giant spider encounter is just a prelude to the real final battle - the psychic Ritual of Chud where Bill and It engage in a battle of wills. As a child, Bill defeated It this way by reciting a phrase he learned to help him with his stutter. The determination required to overcome his speech impediment and repeatedly say the tricky phrase ("he thrusts his fists against the posts but still insists he sees the ghosts") severely wounds It and the creature retreats. As an adult, Bill tries again but loses the fight. He would have been dead if not for Richie, who leapt in and began spouting up different voice impersonations, showing that his powerful childhood imagination was alive and well. It is disoriented and becomes trapped in the spider form it uses to anchor Itself to Earth. In this brief window, the group beats the spider to death and rips out Its heart, defeating It once and for all. (But did they get all the eggs? Bum bum bum) There's more stuff going on, but that's the gist. In the movie, Beverly hits the spider with a slingshot (which makes no sense) and then the group beats it to death. So yeah, they didn't exactly stick the landing.

But just as in the book, 27 years have passed and sure enough, Pennywise is set to show his face once again this September. I'm beyond excited to check it out and Part 3 will hopefully come shortly afterward.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Not this Father's Spider-Man

(Mild spoilers, maybe?)

It's hard to imagine now that we're at our third Spider-Man movie series since the turn of the century, but there was a time when comic book movies were rare. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that the movies might help sell the comics. A lot's changed since Marvel Studios began its shared universe project and left other studios scrambling to catch up with interconnected properties of their own to varying success. Whereas the comics was once the core of what Marvel was, now it's clearly the movies. These things make a boatload (Staten Island Ferry load, even) of money and now it's the job of the comics to sell the films. Take a good critical look at the Marvel comics in a shop near you and I bet it won't take long to come to that same conclusion. So with that in mind, the way these films go about trying to please their target audience has changed a great deal, with much less of an interest in old guys like me who read them before there was any Spider-Man movie to speak of. That was undeniably clear after I saw Spider-Man: Homecoming.

So you may be thinking "Who cares, Rob? Is it any good?" Well, sure I guess. It's quite entertaining in that typical Marvel way. The studio's gotten very disciplined at putting out fun, unoffensive blockbusters with a welcome emphasis on character-based humor. They're usually good but almost never great and always too cool for opening credits. They are disciplined about their world-building, which is a good skill after seeing how The Amazing Spider-Man 2 crashed and burned three years ago as it tried to start its own cinematic Spidey universe single-handedly, failing to learn the lessons of Raimi's Spider-Man 3 and stuffing the film with so much backstory, villains and lore that it crashed and burned. Sony hit that brick wall so hard that it crawled on bloodied hands and knees to Marvel's doorstop, offering to share the profits if they could just help come up with a movie that felt like an actual movie and not just a checklist.

This incarnation of Spider-Man has actually already appeared in an amusing sequence in last year's Captain America: Civil War. He's played by Tom Holland as one of those Hollywood nerds who is very charming and quick-witted and yet somehow totally unpopular. Say what you will about Tobey Maguire, he played Peter Parker as a bona fide awkward geek. He's in high school, which I think was a smart place to start. Poor feeble Aunt May is also a lot younger, played by Marisa Tomei as a total AILF. (Seriously, she hugs Peter and I'm like "that lucky little bastard.") Ned Leeds shows up for the first time, not as a Daily Bugle reporter but as Peter's best friend at school. Jacob Batalon is really funny as this new Ned, one that I can't ever imagine becoming the Hobgoblin. But let's be real - the thing that makes or breaks the movies most of the time is the villain, so how did we do?

I might have cast Charles Dance as the Vulture, but Michael Keaton is damn good as Adrian Toomes. The Vulture is a fairly one-note villain in the comics, so there's a lot of room for a movie to experiment with him. This version is a working-class mechanic/construction type who gets screwed over thanks to bureaucratic bullshit before making a name for himself as an illicit arms dealer (unlike respectable arms dealer Tony Stark, but we'll get to him later). The flying costume itself is the same armor-plated look that we've seen in a hundred movies like this already, but Keaton is great. He's at the center of the film's best scene, when Peter Parker unexpectedly encounters him in a civilian environment. Plus, his right hand man (Bookeem Woodbine_ is the Shocker, a nice way to fit in another villain without succumbing to bloat.

So that's what I liked. What I didn't like, ironically, is what was supposed to make this one superior to its predecessors - the connection to the Marvel cinematic universe as a whole. In the comics I remember, Spider-Man could be standoffish around other superheroes. It made sense, he was picked on so much in school that he didn't trust people to treat him fairly so he generally operated as a loner. I don't mind the "guy in the chair" friendship with Ned Leeds in this movie, but Peter's desperation to be a part of the Avengers and impress Tony Stark/Iron Man just hits a sour note. Especially when we find out that the Stark-designed Spider-Man costume has all sorts of hidden systems and gadgets in it and even a Siri-esque artificial intelligence. Really? It's all just such corporate cross-promotional wankery.

But Marvel's not worried about what a old-school Dad like me thinks. Not anymore. Marvel needs kids to be obsessed with the Avengers, so Spider-Man is obsessed with the Avengers. This Spider-Man is tailored to this era, not my era, and I think kids who have grown up over the least several years of Marvel movies will find this one delightful. I can either reject that and tune out entirely, or keep watching them with the interest of what directions they will take the characters. Plus it's always fun to speculate about the upcoming movies. This one makes it pretty clear that the Scorpion will be showing up next time, although I'm still waiting on Mysterio, preferably played by Bruce Campbell.

There's also some other rumored Spidey content on the way, from characters that Sony has held on to. Tom Hardy is set to play Venom in some kind of solo movie, and how they will introduce that particular character without Spidey himself should be pretty interesting. At least it's better casting that Topher Grace. Another benefit of more movies for old Dads is that new collected editions of the old comics usually show up when a movie is coming soon. Always a silver lining.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Three Faces of It: Part One

After almost a decade of false starts and behind the scenes difficulty, a new adaptation of Stephen King's It is headed for theaters this September. I'm a huge fan of the story so I'll be writing a three-part series about it - first about the book, then the 1990 TV miniseries and finally the new film when it's released. Spoilers should be expected.

My introduction to the story was actually the miniseries, but we'll get into that next time. For now, I'll just note that I was highly interested in reading the book afterwards. I checked it out of my high school library of all places and was immediately absorbed in a way I hadn't yet experienced with a novel. I read that huge 1,200 page book over a long Thanksgiving weekend and have read it two more times in the years since. To this day, cracking it open to any page is like being sucked into a whirlpool and who knows how much time and pages will pass before I put it down and go about my business. It's hardly light reading, in fact it takes over a hundred pages just to fully establish the seven lead characters, but It is truly epic in a way that's very rare for the horror genre.

While the book is best known as the definitive killer clown story (plenty on that in a bit), the core of It is a story about a group of friends in Derry, Maine navigating the joys and hardships of childhood. It's quite similar to something like Stand by Me (which was based on another one of King's stories) or, to use a more recent example, Stranger Things. In the legendary first scene, which is also the most famous part of the TV version, a little boy named George Denbrough is killed by a clown that emerges from a storm drain.

The clown seized his arm.

And George saw the clown’s face change. What he saw then was terrible enough to make his worst imaginings of the thing in the cellar look like sweet dreams; what he saw destroyed his sanity in one clawing stroke.

"They float," the thing in the drain crooned in a clotted, chuckling voice. It held George’s arm in its thick and wormy grip, it pulled George toward that terrible darkness where the water rushed and roared and bellowed as it bore its cargo of storm debris toward the sea. George craned his neck away from that final blackness and began to scream into the rain, to scream mindlessly into the white autumn sky which curved above Derry on that day in the fall of 1957. His screams were shrill and piercing, and all up and down Witcham Street people came to their windows or bolted out onto their porches.

"They float," it growled, "they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too–"

George's shoulder socked against the cement of the curb and Dave Gardener, who had stayed home from his job at The Shoeboat that day because of the flood, saw only a small boy in a yellow rain-slicker, a small boy who was screaming and writhing in the gutter with muddy water surfing over his face and making his screams sound bubbly.

"Everything down here floats," that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more.


His older brother, Bill Denbrough, is arguably the book's main character and the story gives a lot of attention to his struggle with grief. Bill finds some solace with a newfound group of friends who begin to call themselves "the Losers Club." The other members include Ben Hanscomb, an overweight kid whose father died in the Korean War, Beverly Marsh, a tomboyish girl with an abusive father, Richie Tozier, a motormouthed kid who dreams of being a comedian, Eddie Kaspbrak, a meek boy with asthma and a domineering mother who clearly has some kind of Munchausen syndrome, Stan Uris, a neurotic Jewish boy in a not especially friendly town, and Mike Hanlon, a history buff who is one of the only black kids in town. Even without the monster living underneath Derry, the group would still have to contend with Henry Bowers, a psychopathic bully in true Stephen King tradition.

The kids bond when they realize they have all encountered a shape-shifting monster, often in the form of Pennywise the Clown. Unfamiliar with the creature's origins, they use the name "It." But what is It? As we eventually learn, It is an ancient creature from another universe that landed on Earth in prehistoric times, in a spot that would eventually become Derry. Centuries of coexisting with the creature has conditioned Derry's citizens to turn a blind eye to the constant disappearances and murders happening in their town. The monster's true form is a mass of orange light, the "deadlights," which will drive a person insane should they witness it. However, to influence events in our universe, It must anchor itself with a physical form, which turns out to be a giant spider. Pennywise is It's favored form since it helps the monster approach children. I find it amusing to think that if such a creature ever showed up in the real world, it would find that tactic totally ineffective thanks in large part to this book. Does anyone of any age want to approach a clown just hanging out by himself?

It can look into the minds of children and get a sense of their worst fears, however this turns out to also be a weakness if the creature doesn't fully understand the form it's taking on. In one scene, It attacks the kids in the form of a werewolf without realizing that all the children believe silver hurts werewolves, resulting in a painful surprise when Beverly hits It with a piece of silver fired from a slingshot. Because it relies so heavily on thoughts and imagination to find prey, a strong will and powerful imagination are good weapons against It. The only real way to defeat It is with the "Ritual of Chud," which is a psychic battle of wills that can severely injure the monster if the opponent is strong enough. Things get trippy for sure.

After driving off It in the 1950s, all of the kids eventually leave Derry except for Mike, who becomes the town's Library Director. There are a series of interludes that elaborate on Mike's research, establishing the pattern than It appears in Derry roughly once every 27 years and the creature's return is always heralded by some awful tragedy like a factory explosion or white supremacists setting a black-owned bar on fire. Sure enough, 27 years after the kids defeat It in 1958, a group of bigots attacks a gay couple and throws one of them off a bridge, where he is promptly finished off by Pennywise.

The other six members of the Losers Club have all moved on and forgotten most of those memories, but they all return at Mike's urging except for one. Stan is so terrified at the thought of facing the monster again that he kills himself and writes "IT" in blood on the wall. Now missing one of their own, the others also have to confront the reality that the childhood sense of wonder that allowed them to defeat It once has been compromised by exposure to the rational adult world. "You're too old to stop me!" Pennywise snarls at one point. "You're all too old!" The clown might be right.

I've been summarizing the book in chronological order, but the tale unfolds in a non-linear way, cutting back and forth between the 1950s and the 1980s until the final sequence, where both confrontations between the Losers Club and It are depicted simultaneously to dizzying effect. I won't go into too much detail about the final sequences yet. Better to save that for next time in order to compare it to the way the TV miniseries ended, which was very different.

So is this a perfect novel? Well, not quite. If you want that, check out Pet Sematary, which is also overdue for a new (and hopefully better) movie adaptation. I love It and consider it a great book, but there is one scene in particular that always bothers me. Anyone who has read the book already knows what I'm talking about. After the Loser's Club defeats It as children, they find themselves lost in the dark sewer tunnels on the way out. Visibility's totally gone and the kids are starting to panic. In order to calm everybody down, Beverly decides the best thing to do is get it on with all six of the boys, one at a time. Yeah, I know. It's gross. It's not eroticized or anything but it's still really gross. I don't get it. Wouldn't a group hug have been enough? I've had a number of conversations with other readers of this book that go exactly like this.

"It is one of my favorite books. I think it's brilliant, well except for that one scene."

"Oh yeah, THAT scene. What the hell was that about?"

It's safe to say that little scene, derisively referred to by fans as "the sewer orgy," won't find its way into any cinematic adaptation and you won't hear a single complaint from the readers. Even with that weird little tangent, the book is still an epic experience to read. It moves believably from a small-town America setting into overwhelming cosmic horror out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. Even though it can feel mentally exhausting by the end, I'm always drawn back to the huge scale and detail of its world. I think the reason it really resonates with me is the honest treatment of how cruel and scary the world can be to a child, especially when adults don't seem to care. However, the book also celebrates childhood and makes a strong case that we lose precious parts of ourselves when we're forced to grow up, parts that we may need if we ever want to get rid of the more down-to-Earth evil here in our world. For that reason alone, I suspect It will always be timeless.

Next time: The 1990 miniseries.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Don't Drink the Water

(Part II of a fanfiction/political commentary project)

This was not how John Quail expected to end his workday. He was sitting in a fairly small plane on the way to Palm Beach, where the President of the United States and his staff had asked for a meeting. It had started three days earlier, when Quail and some of his fellow agents prepared a report on the Reaper to the White House. Everything they suspected about the killer, including his use of the Death Note, was in the report...except for one omission. Quail decided to leave out the fact that the cause of death was up to the writer, with the default outcome being a heart attack. Instead, he wrote that a heart attack was the only one the Death Note could kill someone. Those who remembered his recent briefing about the Reaper might contradict the report, but this particular presidential administration didn't seem to be interested in any sort of research.

Nobody yet knew that Quail himself was the Reaper, except for his wife Jennifer, who shared his conviction that the Death Note needed to be used to ensure the safety and future of their daughter as well as the rest of America's most vulnerable citizens. Leaving the full capacity of the notebook out of the report gave him an option of going after a target without the death being seen as an act of the Reaper. After what the media was calling the "Health Care Massacre," (which struck him as a decent name for the legislation itself), any heart attack suffered by a prominent figure would likely be attributed to the Reaper. That could yet be useful, but he was also exploring the possibility of trying to influence public policy without having to call upon his murderous alter ego.

Several hours before the had boarded the plane, he was informed by his superior that the President's staff had reviewed the report and asked for a meeting with the Bureau's foremost authority on the Reaper. When Quail volunteered to take a walk over to the White House, he was told he was actually supposed to meet the President at Mar-a-Lago, his estate and private club in Florida. The timing was interesting as the White House had been swarmed with scandal during the past few days, even by the standards of the current administration. The sudden firing of Bureau Director James Comey had made the atmosphere at work even more chaotic, quickly taking the public's attention away from the Reaper, who had yet to strike following the deaths in Congress. The media had lost some interest as well, other than the occasional speculative report on who might be the next to die. Quail hadn't decided yet, but took the coverage under advisement.

In the initial hysteria following the Health Care Massacre, one constant point of discussion was whether Trump would be the next victim. Quail wasn't as sold on the idea as many of the more outspoken liberal commentators. He found the man's public persona as off-putting as anyone else, but the question of succession was an issue. The loss of the President would promote the Vice-President, then the Speaker of the House, then the President of the Senate, followed by the various cabinet officials. None of these people struck him as ideal occupants of the Oval Office and he would probably have to wipe out about two dozen people before he got an acceptable outcome. Such a thing was possible, but Quail was growing less enthusiastic about using the Death Note's power.

He remained haunted by the night Dominic had showed up at his condo, having figured out the truth simply from the drawing he left at the bottom of his letter to the New York Times. Quail cursed himself for his foolishness. How could he have forgotten that he used to decorate his notes with that same insignia during training? He had sent Dominic to his death and hadn't slept well since. A decent man like his fellow agent was not the kind of target he had imagined when he decided to take the Death Note out of that drawer. It was easy to rationalize the decision as necessary for the greater good, but that did little to soothe his guilt. Not helping matters was the notepad found in Dominic's car by the police, on which he had drawn the insignia himself. When news of the suicide broke, several of his agents had asked Quail if he believed Dominic himself was the Reaper and had killed himself out of guilt. Despite how easy it would have been to pin the blame for the murders on a dead man, he declined to do so, instead speculating (correctly) that he had gotten too close to the truth and had been removed before he had a chance to share whatever he had learned about the case.

When the plane landed in Palm Beach, Quail found a group of men in suits waiting for him inside the airport. Most appeared to be Secret Service agents, but he recognized one as Trump's son-in-law.

"Nice to meet you, Agent Quail. I'm Jared."

The group made their way to a limousine and arrived at the property after a brief drive. Quail had never seen anything so opulent in his life, the massive estate was all marble, stone and gold trim and looked especially beautiful now that the sun had begun to set.

"First time seeing it, huh?"

Quail nodded and his host continued. "Most of the senior staff is here. Everyone was very interested to hear what you had to say. We'll be meeting in the main dining hall."

The dining hall was surrounded by gold pillars as chandeliers glimmered overhead. Quail had been to the White House before but it looked quaint compared to this. Was he on his way to meet a President or an Emperor? Finally he was led to a table full of people he had seen on the news countless times. President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, the president's daughter Ivanka, and the White House adviser Reince Priebus.

"What do you think of Mar-a-Lago?" Trump asked as Quail and Jared took their seats. "Isn't it the most beautiful place you've ever seen? Everyone's saying it's terrific."

"It's overwhelming, sir."

"I guess it would be if I were in your shoes. I'm used to it by now, I'm very rich. Anyway, we read your report on the Reaper. Very fascinating stuff. Very fascinating. Do you know where I could get one of these death notebooks? Could I get one? Seems like a useful thing for a President to have, don't you think? Some people in the media would suddenly be off the air. I'm just kidding, of course. But maybe I'm not."

Quail was momentarily disoriented by the flurry of disjointed words he had just heard. He felt someone's hand gently resting on his arm.

"Agent Quail, do you believe we are in danger?" Ivanka asked.

"Well, I need to be honest with you, Mrs. Trump."

"Ivanka, please."

"Anyone in the public eye is potentially in danger. If our theory is accurate, all the Reaper needs is a name. He's been quiet since the Health Care Massacre but the description of his motives he gave in the letter to the Times suggests that he may act again at some point."

"If his goal was to kill our health care bill, it worked." Priebus said. "The Senate is terrified of this guy. They won't even discuss the issue in public, let alone vote on the bill. I guess we're stuck with Obamacare for a while. My question, do you have any leads on who it is?"

"I bet it's Obama," Trump interrupted. "It makes sense. Everyone's saying that. He spies on me, you know. He watches me through the microwave. He thinks I don't know he's doing it, but I do."

"Well, I don't personally believe it's a politician," Quail replied. "I suspect it's an ordinary citizen who is fed up."

An unfamiliar voice rang out. "Some globalist Jew cuck, I bet." Quail turned to see a pale, disheveled man at the next table, slumped forward and holding an open bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand.

"Don't mind him," Jared said.

"So all we know about this person is that they are a Democrat?" Pence asked.

"I'm not quite ready to make assumptions about party registration," Quail answered. "It could be a Democrat, or it could just be someone concerned about the survival of those who are vulnerable."

Pence arched his eyebrow and clearly did not miss the jab embedded in that comment. It seemed to go right over Trump's head as he spoke again. "Why would someone like that go after the Health Care bill? It's a great plan. It covers everyone. Everyone says it's terrific."

Trump noticed the awkward silence at the table. "It does cover everyone, doesn't it?"

"Everyone who needs to be covered is covered, sir," Pence said, as if he were talking to a toddler.

"So is this how we're going to run the country now?" Priebus asked. "Our whole legislative process at the mercy of some serial killer with a magic notebook? It's ridiculous. There's got to be something we can do."

"I do have a suggestion," Quail said. This was the key moment he had been waiting for. "It might help to start something new, something that would help people. People who aren't rich, I mean. Something that the Reaper would be hesitant to disrupt by killing anyone else.'

"Any ideas?" Jared asked.

"There are a few ways you could go with this, but my first thought was the contaminated water in Flint."

"Flint?" Trump asked. "That's in Michigan, right? People love me there. Nobody thought I could win Michigan. I'm the first Republican to win there in 400 years. Hey, do you want an Election Night map? I carry them around all the time. Here, have one."

"I've...um, seen the map, Mr. President."

"Okay," Trump said. "Just let me know if you want one."

Pence spoke up again. "There is work going on to fix the issues in Flint, Agent Quail. Congress allocated some resources to the issue shortly before the massacre."

"The people there have still been without drinkable water for three years now," Quail said. "Anyway, it's just my idea. You all will decide, of course."

"Hey, do you want to be FBI Director?" Trump suddenly asked. "We need a new FBI Director. You seem pretty smart and you haven't said anything about Russia."

"That's nice of you to offer, sir, but I would...uh, prefer to focus on this investigation. That might be hard with so much extra responsibility."

The waiter came to take everyone's order and Quail learned it was Seafood Night at the club. After being assured by the President multiple times that it was the best seafood in the world, he ordered a lobster which couldn't meet such high expectations. It wasn't bad, but he had been to Maine and there was no comparison. He didn't dare say so, but then again he wouldn't have been able to get a word in either way. Trump dominated the conversation with recaps of his Election Night victory as the others at the table showed remarkable patience. After the meal, Quail bid farewell to the group and was led to the suite where he would be spending the night.

If he lingered a little longer, he might have noticed Pence leaning over towards Priebus and commenting, "That man knows more about this than he's letting on."

****

One week later, Quail gently lowered himself into his bed back at the condo. The baby was finally asleep and it wouldn't take much for him to pass out, but first he wanted to check a few news websites on his phone. Jennifer was next to him reading a paperback with a couple embracing on the cover.

"Any luck?" she asked without looking over.

"No," Quail said. "I guess my suggestion about Flint went in one ear and out the other."

"Should we break out the Death Note? You could write another letter demanding that they do something or else the whole administration dies."

"That's risky," he replied. "If the Reaper started pushing for cleaning up Flint so soon after I suggested it at Mar-a-Lago, they might put two and two together. Well, not Trump but one of the others. Still, there might be another way."

"What's the plan?" she said with a wicked grin. She had a special hatred for Trump and the rest of the Republicans and was clearly enjoying this whole thing much more than her husband.

"Well, the public believes that the Reaper can only kill by inducing heart attack. That gives me some control over the narrative."

He reached over to his nightstand and grabbed the Death Note. As Jennifer leaned over to see, he wrote the name of Michigan's governor, Rick Snyder, who had been remarkably callous about the whole incident. For the cause of death, Quail wrote "contaminated tap water."

"There's some poetic justice," Jennifer said.

Quail nodded. "Not only that, doing it this way means the story isn't about the Reaper. It keeps the focus where it belongs...on the water."

Jennifer was the first to wake up the next day as the baby began crying out for milk. He woke up shortly after and reached for the remote control. The morning news programs did not disappoint. The crawling text at the bottom of the screen read "Breaking News: Governor Rick Snyder dies from poisoned water."

"If you're just joining us, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan was found dead late last night. Early coroner's reports identify highly contaminated tap water as the cause of death. This issue was previously thought to be confined only to the city of Flint but is now apparently affecting Lansing as well. Moments ago, President Donald Trump announced that his administration would immediately begin working with Michigan officials to contain the contamination before it spreads farther."

"Now that's more like it," Quail said quietly. All it had taken was the death of a rich white guy to get things moving.

He would keep that in mind.

Monday, May 8, 2017

I'm No Different

In all of his years working at the Bureau, Dominic had never seen anything like it. Less than 24 hours after the United States Congress narrowly passed the American Health Care Act, all 217 Republican legislators in favor of the bill were found dead. After the initial chaos had subsided, doctors on the scene determined the cause of death to be a heart attack...for every last one of them. It might not have been a huge surprise for some of the older members given the stress involved before the vote, but there were plenty of younger men (and a smattering of women) who were in otherwise perfect health and seemingly in no danger of cardiac arrest. It defied explanation but there was more to come.

A few hours after the news broke out, one of his fellow agents had reminded everyone of a letter forwarded to them by The New York Times. It had been sent via the postal service a few days earlier by someone who had declared his(or her) intention to kill anyone who voted for the AHCA. Nobody thought much of it at first - these sort of rants were common, especially in these acrimonious times, and this one seemed too outlandish to be a credible threat. The Times had printed it two days after the mass heart attacks and started another round of hysteria. It was now clear to the public that this was done on purpose, somehow. The mainstream news outlets condemned the act and were at a complete loss to explain how it happened. Internet commentators were less careful and openly rejoiced at the death of over 200 politicians who had just voted to strip thousands, if not millions of people of their health coverage. Impromptu block parties had broken out all over the country to celebrate, a strange moment in the history of representative democracy. Each state had its own procedures for replacing a Congressperson who died in office and a flurry of special elections and appointments were causing their own sort of chaos.

Congress would eventually be full again, but the FBI was no closer to figuring out just what the hell had happened in the first place. Agents had combed the Capitol building from top to bottom and come back with nothing. A few reports of suspicious characters, but they turned out to be just eccentric protesters who were as bewildered as everyone else. What had they expected to find in the first place? How could anyone trigger 217 spontaneous heart attacks? Most agents he spoke to suspected poison, but nothing yet corroborated that theory. At the moment, Dominic was on his way to a briefing room to hear from John Quail, one of the Bureau's best criminal profilers. If anyone could figure out a method to this madness, it was him. He and Quail had attended training programs together and Dominic recalled glancing over several times to see him doodling wacky symbols and stick figures in his notepad. He was one of those people who had just been born brilliant while guys like Dominic worked their asses off to get ahead. Quail didn't have a shred of arrogance, however, and the two of them always got along well. He had been absent from the office for months following the birth of his first child. A daughter, Dominic remembered. This was quite a case to come across his desk just as he was getting back into the swing of things.

Everyone found their seats while Quail got his laptop computer set up for a power point presentation. As he checked the connections, the chatter in the room subsided.

"Thanks for coming, everyone."

"Tell us you've got something, Quail," a voice said from the back. "We look like a bunch of Dipsy Doodles right now."

Quail smiled awkwardly. "Well, I might. I've been going over this letter non-stop and I do have a theory that would explain a lot. Still, you're going to have a hard time believing it. Let's start by reading over what was sent to the Times."

Dear Editor,

I will get right to the point. If the American Health Care Act passes Congress, I will kill everyone who votes for it.

I understand you may want to report this threat to the authorities. Do whatever you feel is ethical. It won't help.

I can kill anyone without leaving my home. I've known of this ability for some time now. I've never really wanted to use it, but the continuing violence enacted by this government against its own people has gone too far. I hope the deaths of these representatives will be enough to get them to change course. If not, more will die. As many as necessary until our leaders stop behaving like sociopaths.

After the moment comes, you may get many letters claiming responsibility. None of them will be from me. I will not use email or social media. You will know a letter is from me when it has this insignia drawn at the bottom. I hope the bill is defeated and you are able to discard this letter. But I fear the worst. Perhaps I will contact you again.

-The Reaper


The newspaper had obviously declined to show the actual insignia, since its entire purpose was to separate the true killer from imitators. This was Dominic's first time seeing it. There was something familiar about it. He almost raised his hand, but couldn't piece together where he might have seen that shape before. Quail noticed him briefly and continued on.

"I believe that this 'Reaper' has the Death Note."

There was silence for a few moments. Finally someone said, "What in the hell is the Death Note?"

He was ready for this and advanced the slide show. What looked like a DVD cover was now on the screen.

"Death Note is a popular Japanese cartoon about an enchanted notebook that will kill anyone whose name is written inside it. There's actually an American movie coming out later this year based on it."

Several people in the room burst out laughing.

"Listen to more about how it works before you laugh," Quail continued. "The writer can specify the cause of death but if they do not, the default cause is a heart attack. Just like the letter says, all someone has to do is enter a full name in the book while imagining the person they intend to kill. It can be done from their home and is untraceable."

That got everyone quiet.

"The show is not especially political. The main character, a guy named Light Yagami, mostly targets petty criminals. There are lots of twists and turns and eventually, Light's hubris gets the better of him and he goes down. But this guy, this Reaper, is different. Light wanted people to worship him as some kind of god and dared anyone to try and unmask him. The Reaper is cautious and has a distinct political agenda. You could almost say he's learning from Light's mistakes."

"What is this, Quail?" an older agent asked. "You're trying to tell us that this cartoon is nonfiction? What's next? Is the Reaper going to turn out to be Mickey Mouse?"

"I'm far from the first to speculate about this," he continued. "Not long after the public learned of the deaths, even before the Reaper's letter became public, there were already dozens of memes going around about Light Yagami and the Death Note. I contacted someone at Netflix who told me there had been massive recent interest in the show...as well as a 1970s grindhouse movie called I Spit On Your Grave, but that's neither here nor there."

"That's certainly an...interesting theory," someone else said. "But we need suspects. Do we have any suspects?"

Quail sighed. "That's where it gets really hard. If I'm right, whoever did this doesn't have to be anywhere near Washington, DC. This bill pissed off a lot of people, particularly the threat to people with pre-existing medical conditions. At this point, it may be easier to round up people who don't have a motive."

****

The moon and stars were on full display by the time Dominic finally got to his car that night. Everyone at the Bureau had been extremely busy since this whole thing started, but today was even harder. He had a terrible time focusing on his work after the briefing. All he could think about was that drawing on the New York Times letter. He started the car but hesitated to put it in drive. Instead, he grabbed his notebook and furiously drew the symbol with a black pen sitting in the cup holder. In this rushed form, it looked even more familiar. Suddenly, everything fit together. He started the car and headed for the Potomac.

He would have to drive across the river to find what he was looking for, a condo complex in Arlington that he had only been to once before for an engagement party. Despite the late hour, the demonstrators were still in full swing, with most appearing to be in favor of the mass deaths in Congress. There were a few signs reflecting the other point of view, including one blaming the billionaire George Soros for the whole incident, but most of them had slogans like "Thank God for the Reaper" and "Karma's A Bitch."

As the crow flies, it wasn't a particularly long trip to the condos, but the traffic made for almost a half-hour drive. Finally, Dominic reached the address he had searched for within his archived emails, the invitation to that party that he had received years ago. Hopefully the couple still lived here. As he approached Unit 45, he questioned what exactly he was looking for. It wasn't the time to report any of his suspicions, there wasn't any way to substantiate this hunch. Looking through a window, Dominic saw that all the lights were off except for one lamp. Hopefully the baby was asleep.

To his surprise, the door was slightly open. Something was wrong. He turned around to head back to his car and then he heard it.

"Come on in, Dom. I've been expecting you."

Dominic considered running away, but if everything he had heard today was true, that wouldn't do him a bit of good. He tentatively pushed the door open. John Quail was sitting at a desk in front of a laptop with his back to the door. Upon hearing the door open, he swiveled his chair around to face his guest. A small bassinet was situated next to the desk.

"It was the insignia, wasn't it?" Quail asked. "I hadn't even considered that someone might remember seeing it in my notebook all those years ago...until I saw your face during the briefing. Why didn't you ever tell me you had such a good memory, Dom?"

"So you have this...notebook of death or whatever it is?"

"Death Note," he corrected with a smile. "Would you like to see it?"

As Quail's hand reached for a drawer, Dominic swiftly pulled his gun from his holster and trained it on his colleague. "You keep your hands right where they are! I'll check it out myself later."

"Whatever you say," Quail said with a shrug. "Just try to keep it down, okay? I sent Jennifer to bed cause she was just so tired and I finally got Daisy to go to sleep. I suspect that you have questions."

He hesitated, but curiosity quickly got the better of him. "Where did that thing come from?"

"I just found it in the parking lot one day," Quail answered. "This was the end of April in 2011. I had already seen the show, so I figured it was just some merchandise. You know, like something you might get at Hot Topic. But I took it inside and decided to write down the name of Jen's boss just for fun. He was one of those old bastards who misses the days when you could hit on your employees and nobody would complain. She went to human resources but they didn't do shit. Finally, we put a stop to it when I told him where I worked and threatened to sic the Bureau on him. But the point is I thought I was just messing around. Imagine my shock when she called to tell me the guy had just dropped dead of a heart attack."

"That's six years ago," Dominic said. "What have you been doing with it all this time?"

"Well, being the patriotic civil servant that I am, I decided to use it on Public Enemy Number One."

He was almost speechless. "Osama Bin Laden?"

"Yep," Quail continued, with a slight chuckle. "What I didn't know was that the Navy Seals were just about to raid his compound. They must have stormed in there the next day and been pretty surprised to find him already dead. So of course the story we got was something a little more dramatic. I must have been the only one laughing in the theater during Zero Dark Thirty, looking like a goddamn lunatic."

The baby started to whine softly. "Can I pick her up?" he asked.

Dominic nodded and Quail gently picked up the infant. He rocked her gently back and forth and kept talking. "After that, I decided to rewatch Death Note. It freaked me out to see how corrupted Light Yagami became by the end of the series. I started to think it wasn't right to have this kind of power, so I put it away and didn't touch it for five years, although I came real close to using it on George Zimmerman."

"And then what?" Dominic asked. "The health care thing happened and you couldn't hold back anymore?"

"Almost," Quail said. "Actually, I used it once last year. When I found out Jen was pregnant, a bunch of my friends took me out for drinks. I didn't pay for a single drink that night and I lost count of how many I threw back. We got into talking politics and how the Supreme Court had been screwing us over. I made a joke that someone should take one of the conservative ones out while Obama was still President and then I realized I actually could do it. So I went home, still piss drunk, and wrote Scalia's name in the book cause he seemed like the biggest asshole of the bunch. Holy shit, did that backfire. I didn't think the friggin' Republicans would just leave the seat empty for a whole year."

Dominic felt exasperated. "This is ridiculous. You're like a...murdering Forrest Gump, just accidentally changing the course of history? I suppose you took out Fred Phelps, too?"

He shook his head. "No, after Scalia I took another break. I realized I only had so much control over the consequences of this. I agonized over whether or not to take out Trump, but I kept getting worried that it would throw the election to the Republicans. I never thought that idiot would actually win. I mean for God's sake, he's out there talking about molesting women. That would have destroyed anyone else. The thing is, I still want to believe in America. I keep hoping that our society is strong enough to deal with times like the ones we're living in. But now I realize that even if that's true, it may not be worth the lives that my inaction could cost."

Quail laid the baby back down into the bassinet. "Daisy's nice and healthy, but she might not always be that way. If she ever gets sick, our insurance will probably cover it. But if it's a pre-existing condition and that law passes, who knows? I get paid pretty well at the Bureau and I'm still not sure we'd have enough money if something come up and she wasn't covered. You see where I'm going with this? It's not just the health care either, it's all the guns out there, it's the climate change stuff, it's people getting paid almost nothing, it's drinking water getting poisoned, it's all the police violence. All these problems the government just keeps making worse regardless of who dies. They keep throwing people out to dry like this and pretty soon nobody will need the Death Note to cause death and destruction. In the long run, it's better to try and change things now."

Dominic was done. "Thanks for the story, but now you're coming with me. Get up and head towards the car." Once Quail was inside, he would handcuff him to the steering wheel and go back for the Death Note. He couldn't imagine what the others at the Bureau would think of all this. How would they test the notebook's authenticity without using it?

He meant to keep the gun pointed at Quail, but something was off. His hands fell to his sides although he maintained his hold on the pistol. He couldn't move them again. He opened his mouth to speak to no avail.

"Ah, it must be working," Quail said. "You see, what I didn't mention in the briefing is that you can specify not just the cause of death, but also the time. I wrote your name down as soon as your car pulled in but I wanted to give us some time to talk."

Dominic felt his body turning around and slowly heading towards the door. He strained as hard as he could to fight the impulses, but all it did was slow his movements down.

"You're suddenly having an uncontrollable urge to drive to a secluded area and put a bullet in your mouth. It's supposedly an immediate death with no pain. I'm sorry about this, Dom. You're a good guy and a good agent. But I can't afford to be exposed now. It's a critical time."

Despite using all of his willpower, Dominic was now back outside and still marching stiffly towards the car. Quail followed him.

"You know, any other animal on Earth would kill to protect its young. We may have an advanced society, but we're still animals. I'm no different."

The following morning, police investigating a suspicious vehicle found the corpse of an FBI agent inside. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. On the passenger seat rested a notebook with a scribbled symbol. Maybe one of his colleagues at the FBI would know what it was.

The Beginning

Monday, February 27, 2017

Moonlight wins Best Picture after Colossal Screw-Up

So I got Best Picture wrong this year. So did everyone else. In fact, even the Academy had it wrong for a few minutes. In what will go down as perhaps the most shocking moment in Oscar history, La La Land was mistakenly presented Best Picture only to have to turn it over to Moonlight in the middle of the acceptance speech.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the stars of the classic Bonnie and Clyde, were presenting Best Picture. As Beatty opened the envelope, he stared at it awkwardly for a few seconds, leaving everyone to think he was just milking the suspense for a laugh. What really happened was that he had been handed another envelope for Best Actress, which had just been given a few minutes earlier to Emma Stone of La La Land. Not sure what to make of a card that was awarding Best Picture to Emma Stone, he handed it to Dunaway to make sense of it. She announced La La Land, an outcome that everyone had expected from the start.

While the producers thanked their colleagues and loved ones, a man with a headset made his way into the crowd and broke the news. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz told the crowd about the mix-up and handled what must have been a horrible disappointment with major humility and generosity. Beatty tried to explain what happened (Dunaway wasn't there, presumably hiding under a rock) and the stunned Moonlight team approached the stage and made their speeches, but they were too dazed to make the most of the moment. The clip is here in case you didn't watch the show.

Honestly, I've never seen anything like it. Why in the hell was Warren Beatty given another Best Actress envelope when that award was already over and done with? I almost heard the frantic clicks of a million pre-written thinkpieces about how La La Land shouldn't have won being hastily taken off the web and put aside. The internet reacted the way anyone would expect, with jokes about Steve Harvey (who made a similar blunder at a beauty pageant), M. Night "what a twist" Shyamalan, and photoshopped envelopes announcing movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip as Best Picture.

In hindsight, Spotlight's win last year could have been predicted. But this year, I can't think of any clue that would have tipped me off that Moonlight would beat the odds and claim the top prize when all the typical signs pointed to La La Land. If not for the fake-out, there would be more talk about how the Oscars looked outside of their own world and chose to recognize empathy over escapism. Under any circumstances, it's a huge upset. The shock of the final few minutes will also likely overshadow the politics of the ceremony, which weren't as overt as many thought (except for the righteous statement from Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, who declined to attend in protest of Trump's Muslim ban). Like I said in the predictions post, giving Best Picture to a movie about people whose struggles are often forgotten is a much more powerful statement.