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.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2017 Educated Guesses

The Superbowl was political. The Grammys were political. And you can bet your bottom ruble that the Oscars will be political. I suppose that's just part of the new Age of Shadows we live in. A parade of charged speeches is predictable, as is the ensuing round of whines from those who elected Comrade Trump thinking it would teach political correctness a lesson and are now indignant that progressive-minded people didn't instantly lose their ability to speak after his inauguration. Their guy won the election and yet they're still aggrieved because Meryl Streep sassed him and Netflix has a show called "Dear White People." Sore winners doesn't even begin to describe it.

To be fair, a lot of liberals also find political speeches at the Oscars to be obnoxious. I suppose it's because it can seem insincere or self-aggrandizing, as if rich Hollywood types really suffer under any political arrangement. However this is a different year, not just because Trump pays more attention to media commentary about himself than his predecessors, but because the Oscars have been drawn into the impact of his election just like the rest of us. Before his Muslim ban was overturned by the courts for being blatantly unconstitutional, it looked like Foreign Language film nominee (and past winner) Asghar Farhadi would be barred from attending. At this point, he could come but was so disgusted by the whole affair he decided to stay home. Given that the whole affair has given his film The Salesman a strong chance of winning, the moment after this announcement could be the most memorable of the evening. So I think political speeches are more appropriate for this particular year than they have been in a long time, but I also think these pale in importance compared to the statements the Oscars make when picking the actual winners. More on that soon enough.

Best Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life As A Zucchini
The Red Turtle
Zootopia


Who Will Win: With no Pixar in the mix this year, Zootopia should take it pretty easily. The two lesser known films were even harder to see than usual and the other two had wider releases but don't have a social commentary so finely attuned to the current moment.

My Choice: Zootopia is a deserving winner but I'd pick Kubo and the Two Strings. Laika has been producing exceptional stop-motion films for several years now and has yet to win.

Best Documentary Feature
13th
Fire At Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America


Who Will Win: The towering O.J.: Made in America has the advantage of having eight hours to dive deep into the material it chronicles and has enjoyed huge acclaim. However, this race is a little closer than it first appears. 13th and I Am Not Your Negro are both blistering takes on race but are likely to be overshadowed by O.J. Sometimes the members are in the mood for lighter fare in this category and if that was the case, the only choice would be Life, Animated, about a young autistic boy who uses Disney films to help express himself. However, I think the real upset looming could be from Fire At Sea. A film looking at the refugee crisis in Europe, the vile Muslim ban could be just the boost it needs to swing the vote. For now, I'm sticking with O.J. but keep an eye on this one.

My Choice: As usual, this category has a fine lineup and yet many other great documentaries were left out. That said, I was seriously impressed by the clarity with which O.J.: Made in America gave to such a complex real world story.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Heisserer for Arrival
August Wilson for Fences
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi for Hidden Figures
Luke Davies for Lion
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

Who Will Win: Interesting story about Fences. The playwright August Wilson passed away in 2005 but is still being given sole credit for the movie's screenplay. If you've seen it, it does appear that not a whole lot was changed in the transition from stage to screen. However, I suspect that this will be Moonlight's chance to shine. Arrival is a contender but the final big twist gets mixed reactions from viewers. The screenplays for Hidden Figures and Lion fall neatly into the usual prestige formula but the writers who vote in these two categories tend to aim a little higher.

My Choice: Moonlight is one of those movies that doesn't even feel written, more like it just unfolds before your eyes. That's no accident.

Best Original Screenplay
Taylor Sheridan for Hell or High Water
Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills for 20th Century Women

Who Will Win: The voters in this category rarely go with the herd and while La La Land is set to have a good evening at the Oscars, the writing isn't what has gotten it this far. I could see them embracing the singular weirdness of The Lobster, but I suspect that this year they'll rally behind celebrated writer Kenneth Lonergan and award Manchester by the Sea the prize. His examination of grief goes refreshingly against the conventional wisdom and the unmistakable (and profane) Boston dialect helps it go down easily.

My Choice:
I would totally give it to Taylor Sheridan. Hell or High Water was ridiculously entertaining and fun while drawing strong parallels between the violence of the American West's past and the indignities committed by today's financial industry.

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis in Fences
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Nicole Kidman in Lion
Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea

Who Will Win: Viola Davis, despite the category fraud of competing here when it's a leading role. She's come within a hair of winning a few times now and keeps doing great work. She won a Tony for this role on stage and now an Oscar's up next.

My Choice: Everyone listed here was very good in their respective films. Viola Davis should be in Best Actress. I suppose I'd go with Naomie Harris. Yep, looking at me rooting for Moonlight again. Better get used to it.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel in Lion
Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals

Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali had a very good year. He was one of the best parts of the Netflix show Luke Cage, playing the gangster Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes and also had a supporting role in Hidden Figures. He brings immense gravity to his quiet role as a father figure to the lonely young boy at the center of Moonlight. Dev Patel is probably the one with the best chance to upset, given how well he holds Lion together despite how underwritten his character is, but this one isn't particularly competitive.

My Choice: No complaints here. Ali's last scene in Moonlight is one of the scenes that haunts me months after seeing it.

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert in Elle
Ruth Negga in Loving
Natalie Portman in Jackie
Emma Stone in La La Land
Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Who Will Win: Emma Stone has been favored for most of the race and there's not much reason to think she won't win. She's quite good at making audiences forget about her glamorous movie star status when she plays misfits and underdogs. The dark horse is Isabelle Huppert, who had a surprise win at the Golden Globes and landed in this category despite expectations that Amy Adams or Annette Bening was headed for that fifth spot. But La La Land's momentum has been consistent so Stone is probably in.

My Choice: Viola Davis. I'm serious, she ought to be competing here. As usual, this category is a disappointment. Taraji P. Henson? Ella Ballentine? Rebecca Hall? And yes, Amy Adams? That's just scratching the surface but for whatever reason, it always plays out like this.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling in La La Land
Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington in Fences

Who Will Win: There has been a lot of drama in this category and it's going to be close. For a while, it seemed like Casey Affleck's performance as a man destroyed by grief in Manchester by the Sea was a guaranteed win. However, tales of sexual harassment incidents in his past have followed him throughout the award season and it's always a gamble as to whether stuff like this makes a difference in the end. When the nominations were announced, I expected the presence of the typically more controversial Mel Gibson in Best Director would take the heat off him, but the opposite seems to have happened. Everyone's decided that Gibson is old news and Denzel won at the Screen Actors Guild awards. The SAG doesn't always line up with the Oscars, just most of the time, so Affleck may yet win, but my gut is that things will ultimately work out in Denzel's favor. This will be his third Oscar, putting him in a small group of elite actors that include the likes of Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Another piece of trivia - he would also be only the second person to win in a film that he also directed (the first was Laurence Olivier).

My Choice: Denzel's electric presence comes as no surprise by now. The one who surprised me was Andrew Garfield. Desmond Doss, the man he played in Hacksaw Ridge, was one of those people who are almost cartoonishly noble. It had the potential to be very corny on screen but he grounded the character without compromising that core decency. A really impressive performance.

Best Director
Damien Chazelle for La La Land
Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle looks poised to win for only his second film. The first was Whiplash, a much darker exploration of many of La La Land's themes about ambition and sacrifice. Could Barry Jenkins or Kenneth Longergan upset? Possibly. But Chazelle has the Director's Guild award, and Oscar buffs bet against that at their peril.

My Choice: I have two choices here that I really like. Obviously I'm a huge fan of how Barry Jenkins created such a controlled mood for Moonlight and made it seem effortless. I also thought Arrival was a great experience on the big screen. The way Villeneuve contrasted the alien ships against dramatic landscapes was really epic. So either of those two would be great.

Best Picture
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight


Who Will Win: Last year was really close and I wound up making the wrong call. This year, it's not close at all. Can anything beat La La Land?

Arrival may be highbrow science-fiction, but it still has aliens and spaceships so that doesn't help. Fences is an actor's showcase and will be rewarded as such. Hacksaw Ridge has some pretty intense violence plus Mel Gibson's baggage. Hell or High Water is way too awesome. Lion's incredible true story deserved a movie with better writing. Manchester by the Sea is way too depressing. The remaining two films have more of a chance. Moonlight has developed an enthusiastic following despite its small release and would be the ideal choice if the awards wanted to promote empathy and understanding. Hidden Figures is another important black American story and is a much more conventional prestige drama. Plus, it really connected with audiences and is actually the top-grossing film listed here! If any film could upset La La Land, this is it. However, three out of the last five Best Picture winners have been about show business (Argo, The Artist and Birdman) and La La Land is arguably the most adoring portrait in the bunch.

My Choice: My opinion of the nominees goes like this - Moonlight > Hell or High Water > Arrival > Manchester by the Sea > Hidden Figures > La La Land > Hacksaw Ridge > Fences > Lion. I found La La Land to be a well-staged musical and I don't really have many issues with it as a film (or the three other showbiz movies I referenced just now). But if you've followed my Oscar commentary for a while, you might have seen that I try to be aware of the historical significance bestowed by winning Best Picture. We can all joke about underwhelming past winners but the fact remains that this is the biggest spotlight the Academy can shine on a film.

By taking shots at Trump and our current political climate, the Oscars will be attempting to communicate that they are in touch with the world outside of Hollywood. But if they talk a big game and then give their top award to another celebration of their craft, they look just as insular as ever. In a year like this one, they really ought to put their votes where their mouths are. There's no explicit anti-Trump film in this batch (probably will take two or three years before we really start getting into that) but there are other ways to make a statement. Honoring a film like Moonlight, a story featuring the kind of people who will be the most hurt by what's happening in America now, would be a powerful signal of empathy. It likely wouldn't merit a mention on Trump's twitter account but it would say to those who have suffered in similar ways as Moonlight's characters that their stories are important and worthy of enshrining in a historical record that includes films like Casablanca and The Godfather. The fact that I believe it to be the best movie of the past year is almost beside the point.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Oscar Nominee Banned from the Oscars

The Oscar nominations are out and you might think I'm here for another discussion of the Academy's dismal record on race. Not today. In fact, this year's group of nominees is the most diverse in a long time. So diverse that one of the nominees can't attend the ceremony without breaking the law. This is no Polanski situation where he can't show up cause he'll be arrested for a past crime. Asghar Farhadi is a celebrated Iranian director who is currently banned from America thanks to Comrade Trump's ban on citizens and refugees from several countries in the Middle East.

When I first heard that this cold-hearted idea was actually going to become a real thing, banning entire nations of people from the United States (except of course, countries where Trump has business interests like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), I didn't expect to hear about it in this context. Farhadi is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, a category that he won in 2012 for A Separation. I typically don't include that category in my annual predictions, but it's not for a lack of interest. It's just usually not possible for me to see all the nominated films before the Oscars.

The front runner for this year's winner in that category has been a German film called Toni Erdmann, but a scandal like this could easily swing the vote. If Farhadi does win for his new film, The Salesman, what happens at the awards? We'll need someone to go up there and say "Well, the director couldn't be here because our idiot President thinks he's going to blow up the place." And if he does manage to attend, I'm sure he'll have thoughts on the matter. Either way, sounds like a recipe for the leader of the free world to complain on Twitter about how "overrated" Iranian cinema is.

Supposedly someone from the White House said to People magazine that Farhadi might be eligible for some special wavier that would get him through the ban. But if that's true, does it really make them look any better? A director can be an exception but not all the innocent children suffering in Syria right now? What the hell, man?

I don't think this will be the last time the impact of this policy will show up in unexpected places. Taking a shit on millions of people has wide-ranging repercussions. When Farhadi won last time, he made a really beautiful speech about how he believed the people of America and Iran could be friends one day if our respective leaders took it down a notch. I wonder if he still believes that. I never thought I'd be writing an Oscars post like this one.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The 2nd Annual Perfect World Awards

I had fun with this last year, so let's try it again. Oscar nominations are coming soon and it will be really hard for them to leave black people out this year, but you never know! Before the traditional grumbles begin, I've stacked the categories with my own wishlist while keeping in step with the Academy's rules. Let's start at the top.
Best Picture
Arrival
The Invitation
Kubo and the Two Strings
Hell or High Water
The Monster
Moonlight
Sing Street
Zootopia


Plausibility: If you read my Top 10, you know I'm on Team Moonlight. Thankfully, it has a good shot at a nomination. So does Arrival. Hell or High Water may get in there too. The rest...unlikely. Animated films have to make a huge impact to land in this category - not even Inside Out could manage it last year. Sing Street wouldn't be seen as having enough gravitas. The Invitation can be a tough watch and alienates many viewers. And of course The Monster is a horror film and doesn't have a shot in hell, although Sean Spicer may argue otherwise.

Best Director
Jaume Collet-Serra for The Shallows
Barry Jenkins for Moonlight
Karyn Kusama for The Invitation
David Mackenzie for Hell or High Water
Denis Villeneuve for Arrival

Plausibility: Pretty decent! Barry Jenkins and Denis Villeneuve have very good chances. David Mackenzie is a long shot but not impossible. Unfortunately for Kusama, it's hard for a woman to get in this category unless your name is Kathryn Bigelow and you make big manly war films. Nobody would consider a silly B-movie like The Shallows for awards, but Collet-Serra's underwater photography and use of scenery were really beautiful, to the point where it was a minor letdown when the killer shark actually showed up. Still, the mood and imagery of Moonlight still haunt me a few months after seeing it so it'd be great to see Jenkins get an Oscar.

Best Actor
Casey Affleck in Manchester By the Sea
Brian Cox in The Autopsy of Jane Doe
Ryan Gosling in The Nice Guys
Do-Wan Kwak in The Wailing
Max Records in I Am Not A Serial Killer

Plausibility: Barely. Casey Affleck is highly favored for a nomination and possibly the win. The rest...not so much. Ryan Gosling will probably get in for La La Land, but I would prefer to recognize the hilarious comic performance he gave in The Nice Guys. Cox is an underrated actor who elevated what otherwise would have been a stock role. Do-Wan Kwak is going way out on a limb, since the Academy doesn't even seem to be aware that Asians sometimes appear in Hollywood movies, let alone movies that come from Asia. And once again, Max Records is in a horror film so no dice. It's a shame because his performance as a young man fighting against his recently diagnosed sociopath tendencies was the most complex, interesting take on this condition I've ever seen in a movie.

Best Actress
Amy Adams in Arrival
Ella Ballentine in The Monster
Rebecca Hall in Christine
Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

Plausibility: Low. Amy Adams is the only one with a good shot. Henson might make it if Hidden Figures does really well. Ballentine and Taylor-Joy were great in horror films, so we know how that goes. Annoying, isn't it? You would think Rebecca Hall had a better chance given that Christine checks most of the Oscar boxes - real-life story set in the past, lead character has an illness, media sensationalism is a highly relevant topic now,etc - but I guess the release was just too small.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Moonlight
Michael Fassbender in X-Men: Apocalypse
Jack Reynor in Sing Street
Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight
Patrick Stewart in Green Room

Plausibility: Mahershala Ali is a good bet, but why stop there? Moonlight had a ton of good acting in it and the contribution of Trevante Rhodes as the older Chiron really brought things in for a solid landing. I would have thought Patrick Stewart had a better shot because it's so against type but I can understand Academy members not really wanting to think about Nazis at this particular moment in time. The last X-Men movie was one superhero film in a sea of them but Fassbender gave it 110 percent. My pick would be Jack Reynor, who really got to me as the frustrated noble older brother in Sing Street.

Best Supporting Actress
Tammy Blanchard in The Invitation
Naomie Harris in Moonlight
Allison Janney in Tallulah
Soo-an Kim in Train to Busan
Kate McKinnon in Ghostbusters

Plausibility: Almost a complete wipeout if not for Naomie Harris, who has a good chance. Blanchard and Janney both gave very emotional performances in films that have been absent from this awards season. Even though the Ghostbusters remake was (pathetically) the most controversial movie of the year, Kate McKinnon's scene-stealing greatness seems to be generally agreed upon. My favorite was little Soo-an Kim, who showed off a huge range. However, the movie is Korean and is about a train full of zombies, so we're way outside the realm of Oscar awareness here. It's a shame, because you'd think they really were meant to represent an entire year's worth of film, not just all the middlebrow dramas released right before New Year's Day.

That's all for now! I'll be back to predict the results of the actual nominations soon enough.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Top Ten Films of 2016

It's been established ad nauseam that 2016 was a wretched year for humanity, but how were the movies? At first glance, it seems on the weak side but it turned out to be one of those years where I had to dig a little deeper to fill out this list. While most of the attention goes to the parade of sequels, reboots and desperate appeals to 80s/90s nostalgia (an Independence Day sequel? Really?), the ever growing realm of streaming services has given movie fans a chance to find gems that had only a tiny stint in actual movie theaters. Even a classic crowdpleaser like Sing Street would have gone totally unnoticed if not for Netflix. Combined with strong showings by the horror and animation genres, the year turned out to be a little better than I first thought. Let's go through some of the high points.

Special Mention: O.J.: Made in America
Eligibility for this one was tricky. This is a five-part documentary made for ESPN, but it also had an awards-qualifying theatrical release that should come in handy this awards season. Ultimately, I decided the massive difference in length gave it an unfair advantage over the rest, hence the special mention. Highly detailed but never boring, the epic chronicle begins with Orenthal James Simpson’s rise as a record-breaking football player, commercial star and comedic actor in the late 60s to the early 80s. Then he was arrested for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. The rest is history, but you’ve never seen it like this. Director Ezra Edelman contrasts Simpson’s ascent with a series of high-profile conflicts between the police and black residents of the running back’s native Los Angeles. With this as a preface, it becomes clear why the trial of a man who had distanced himself from the black community became an unlikely referendum on decades of appalling behavior by the LAPD. Following the trial, the filmmakers continue to follow Simpson on his sad decline into decadence and crime. It’s a towering experience to watch, with somber music and haunting archival footage expertly accompanying the comments of an army of interviewees.

10. Green Room
Jeremy Saulnier’s gruesome, nerve-shredding movie stars a small-time punk band in need of money who find themselves playing in a venue full of Nazi skinheads somewhere in the Oregon woods. After they witness a murder, the band (including the late Anton Yelchin, who sadly passed away this year) barricades itself in the green room and the skinheads outside make increasingly brutal attempts to clean everything up. Patrick Stewart plays way against type to tremendous effect as Darcy Banker, the monstrous but oddly paternal leader of the thugs. The tension pins the viewer to the screen for the entire standoff and when it ends, the audience is left to reflect on the pockets of hateful white rage that have been growing in the corners of America while so many of us fooled ourselves into thinking things were getting better.

9. The Witch
This period horror film follows a family too extreme in their beliefs even for the Puritans who are exiled and find themselves living uncomfortably close to a genuine witch. After stealing the family’s infant child in an early scene, the witch prefers to menace them from afar while isolation and unsuccessful attempts at farming begin to strain their relationships. Despite the presence of a very creepy goat, the true horror of the film is watching this family slowly collapse and Eggers stages some brutally intense scenes where they turn on each other. Only the eldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to really understand what’s happening and is central to the thought provoking ending, which goes totally against the conventional wisdom for tales like this.

8. Sing Street
The 80s nostaglia thing might be getting out of hand, but it can still be done really well. This delightful coming of age story takes place in 1980s Dublin, where sensitive teen Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is dealing with the crumbling marriage of his parents and being transferred to a joyless Catholic school. When he meets the glamorous Raphina (Lucy Boynton) he tries to impress her by telling her he’s in a band. Despite knowing very little about music, he relies on the expertise of his older brother (Jack Reynor, the heart of the movie) and gathers a group of nearby young musicians who quickly cohere into a real band. It’s pretty familiar stuff, but it works wonders thanks to the sincerity of the cast and the infectious fun of the songs themselves (composed primarily by Gary Clark). There is also a surprisingly heartfelt subplot about the pain older brothers endure so that their younger brothers have a better chance for success.

7. The Monster
For me, this was the year's biggest out of nowhere surprise. It’s a familiar setup – young Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and her mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) get into a car accident on a rainy night and then figure out that a mysterious creature is lurking in the nearby woods. What makes this film stand out is the emotionally intense relationship between the two lead characters. Flashbacks explore the family’s dysfunction and this is not the typical “my mom doesn’t understand me stuff,” these are unsparing glimpses of domestic life gone wrong. Director Bryan Bertino wisely uses the monster sparingly and when it does appear onscreen it looks fantastic. There are no explanations given for its existence, which will annoy some viewers but keeps the focus where it belongs – the powerful family drama playing out during the scares.

6. Zootopia
Are we in the midst of another Disney renaissance? The surprising depth and visual ingenuity of this animated buddy-cop movie makes a pretty strong argument. The story takes place in a giant city where predator and prey have long since evolved from their primal ways and live in harmony. An idealistic rabbit (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) defies expectations for her species by becoming a police officer and teams up with a con-artist fox (Jason Bateman) to solve a series of disappearances. The colorful setting, made up of several ecosystems, is constantly delightful to look at and there’s always something interesting to see. There is also a surprisingly detailed examination of prejudice and identity politics buried beneath all the sight gags.

5. Arrival
This smart and surprisingly optimistic tale of man’s first contact with an alien race depicts a point in the not too distant future where a dozen spaceships touch down at various points on the Earth’s surface. Lonely linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams) is recruited by the military to try and decipher the circular ink-blots the tentacled aliens use to communicate. Meanwhile, panic gradually sets in across the globe and a war could erupt if Louise and her partner (Jeremy Renner) don’t crack the code soon enough. The main breakthrough in figuring out the language seems to happen during a montage, leaving the audience with disappointingly little insight into how it works, but Director Dennis Villeneuve’s majestic visuals and a major twist conveyed with surprising grace make this a powerful film. If the day ever comes where we meet aliens, I hope it turns out to be more prescient than naive.

4. Kubo and the Two Strings
So I wasn't a big fan of The Boxtrolls, but Laika Studios came back in a big way and turned in another top-notch production with this classic hero’s journey tale about a boy (voiced by Art Parkinson) trying to find three magical artifacts to protect himself from his wicked grandfather (Ralph Fiennes). Along the way, Kubo is joined by a foul-tempered monkey (Charlize Theron) and a bumbling samurai beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Some of the attempts at humor can feel strained but the film’s gorgeous animation feels as effortless as it is spectacular. You can't overstate just how amazing the stop-motion work here is. Kubo has the power to manipulate paper but the only one who can conjure more magic than him are the animators.

3. The Invitation
Two years after the tragic death of his son, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband (Michael Huisman). In the midst of the reunions, the couple babbles new-age nonsense about expelling bad feelings and Will isn’t having any of it. In general, things seem unusually tense for a gathering of friends but are we right to be suspicious or are we just viewing things through Will’s agitated perspective? How much passive-aggression and intimidating behavior should anyone tolerate for the sake of politeness? The ensemble cast is excellent and Director Karyn Kusama directs everything masterfully, withholding answers as long as she can and dragging the audience to the edge of their seats.

2. Hell or High Water
Most modern takes on the western are dour, but this is a surprisingly fun morality tale of cops and robbers that nonetheless makes powerful observations about how the American West’s history of domination and exploitation continues in the form of modern capitalism. Texan brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) carry out a series of robberies to try and save the family ranch from foreclosure, slowly pursued by a smart-ass Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner (Gil Birmingham). The emphasis on banter, memorable side characters and dark comedy (it’s tough to keep robbing places in a state where seemingly everyone is carrying a gun) does its job and the audience will be heavily involved with all the characters by the time things get intense in the final act.

1. Moonlight
This soft-spoken but intensely emotional film follows Chiron, a fatherless black boy with a crack addict mother (Naomie Harris) who is quietly trying to piece together his own identity. The movie follows Chiron at three points in his life – he is played as a boy by Alex Hibbert, a teen by Ashton Sanders and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes, all of whom give great performances. While much of its subject matter, such as drugs or bullying, may be familiar, the strength of the actors and Barry Jenkins’s inventive cinematography make it feel totally unique. With its colorful yet desolate depiction of Miami and sometimes unsettlingly personal dialogue, the film is a involving portrait of people whose lives are rarely explored in movies. It’s Chiron’s story but the other roles are also filled out by talented performers, particularly Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer whose growing attachment to the boy force him to confront the reality of his trade. The late Roger Ebert once said that at their best, movies are "a machine that generates empathy" and in a year where empathy was violently kicked to the curb, we need movies like this one more than ever. There will be plenty of righteous takedowns of Trump-era ideology in the years to come but movies like Moonlight, which draw attention to important issues simply by exploring the lives of our fellow man, are likely to make more of a difference in the long run.

Honorable Mentions: The Little Prince, I Am Not A Serial Killer, Audrie and Daisy, Captain America: Civil War

That's all for this year. Soon I'll take another stab at my Perfect World awards, hopefully out one day before the Oscar nominations get announced.