Friday, April 5, 2019

Sometimes, Books Are Better

The scariest thing in the world is not a serial killer, zombies or a demonic clown. It's losing someone you love. Stephen King knows this and that's why Pet Sematary is the most heartbreaking and terrifying book he's ever written.

(Spoilers - you can't really talk about a book like this without them)

I. The Book

After I was finished with It (which I have already written a great deal about), I was eager to read some of King's other work and Pet Sematary was a title I had heard often. While only about one third of the length of that doorstopper, Pet Sematary has an even more profound emotional impact. There were times when I stopped mid-paragraph just to marvel at the power of what I was reading. I guess you could say it resonated on a personal level, but in theory it would resonate with anyone who feared the death of their loved ones. It's a great book that I'll probably never be able to read again.

A doctor named Louis Creed moves to rural Maine with his wife Rachel and his two children, Ellie and Gage. They look like an ideal family but both parents are struggling. Louis is having visions of a young man who died during his first week at work and Rachel has spent her adult life dealing with the trauma about her older sister Zelda, who died of spinal meningitis. Their new neighbor is a kindly older man named Jud Crandall and when Louis saves his wife after she has a heart attack, Jud wonders how to repay him. He gets his chance when the family cat Church is run over by a car on the busy road in front of their house. There's an old cemetery where kids have buried their lost pets (spelled "sematary" of course) and in one special area, animals can be returned to life. Church is resurrected and the kids are none the wiser, even though the cat is acting a lot less friendly.

So a surly cat doesn't sound all that scary, but what happens if a person is buried there? The horrible temptation presents itself when Gage is killed by a truck. The aftermath and funeral are given much attention which does a lot to establish Louis's fragile state of mind. Jud knows what he's thinking and warns him against it, sharing stories about other people who tried to resurrect family members with nightmarish results. But grief gets the better of Louis and Gage returns as a murderous little abomination. By the end of the book, Louis has gone completely insane and his own death is imminent. A lot of King's novels have a bittersweet ending but not this one. He twists the knife in every way possible and it's pure horror.

I think it works so well because it tells a truth that is rarely spoken aloud. Think about how movies typically portray grief. People are sad but a main character won't give up. How many times have you seen a movie or a TV show where someone grieving goes back into work earlier than expected? The co-workers whisper to each other and the boss brings them into the office and tells them they can take more time off if they need it. But the character will say they "just need to work." How American is that, huh? "Get this grieving stuff out of your system so you can start making us money again." And sure, this does work for some people. But I respect this book a lot for having the guts to say that there are some tragedies that are so terrible that things will never be okay. It's a scary thought, but it's reality.

The story goes that Stephen King finished this book and was so horrified by what he had written that he didn't think it should be published. He tucked it into a drawer and only took it out again when he was falling behind on his contractual obligations. It makes one wonder if there are other tales hidden away...

II. Pet Sematary (1989)

The first cycle of movies based on Stephen King books was already in full swing by the time Pet Sematary was published in 1983(we're in the midst of another one now). The first movie came out six years later and it has its share of fans. There's even a straight to video documentary about its production - I've seen it and it's pretty enjoyable considering I don't like the movie. While it may be a decent horror film on its own, I don't think it's a good adaptation of the novel and I've heard from other readers who felt the same.

To be fair, it has a few things going for it. Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall was brilliant casting. I have family in Northern Maine and I've met dozens of people who look and sound almost just like him. He's the best part of the movie by a long shot. The makeup effects are also very good, with the Zelda scenes in particular being especially frightening. The song by the Ramones that plays during the end credits is delightful...if completely inappropriate.

In fact, that's the whole problem with this movie. I love 80s horror but this is too much of a typical 80s horror movie for this material. It just doesn't feel...serious. Some of the most emotional moments from the book are rushed and silly. While it doesn't shy away from the dark plot points, much of the impact is just not there. Take the final confrontation between Louis and the evil resurrected Gage. In the midst of this brutal denouement, Louis takes a moment to tell the aggressive Church to "fuck off, furball."

Wow. All that's missing is Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing the cat away with a shotgun and quipping "De cat will NAT come back de very next day."

I was pissed off the first time I saw this movie. As the years have gone by, I've come to a more measured opinion of it. It definitely could have been worse. Still, I really hoped for a remake that would get it right. And then last year I heard there was one on the way.

III. Pet Sematary (2019)

On the whole, I would say this one is a mild improvement. The gloomy atmosphere is closer to the mood of the book and there is welcome attention to Louis's character arc, the man of science who thinks he's comfortable with the idea of death but seeks a mystical solution as soon as death hits home. The evil burial ground itself is a hell of a lot creepier looking, almost like something out of a German silent film. John Lithgow plays Jud Crandall more subtle, which is more in tune with the overall film but I missed the accent.

The first half is really very good and I was all set to come back here and write about how impressed I was. But then the second half started to go off in an ill-advised direction. In an interesting change, it's Ellie rather than Gage who gets killed. This itself was not a deal-breaker even though I think it was mostly done for practical reasons (i.e. not wanting to go through the hassle of trying to get a toddler to cooperate for the camera). But things continue to diverge from the novel up until the ending, where the entire family is dead and resurrected. On the surface, it sounds darker but it really isn't. I'll explain that in a minute.

The film is done mostly in the Blumhouse style where every scary sight needs to be punctuated by a loud metallic noise. I can't really blame that on the other movies of this era, not when so many outstanding horror films have been made in the past several years. It Follows didn't need any of this banging noise shit. Yet despite how grim and bloody the movie is, it is reluctant to fully embrace the emotional horror of its source. The actual scene where Ellie dies hits hard, as it should. But the movie clearly isn't comfortable sitting with that tragedy for long. The new ending seems to be a way to soften the blow, perhaps unintentionally. The family may be undead abominations but at least they're together. That's not nearly as scary as going on alone.

It's the same instinct that made Stephen King initially hide the book away. The thought that the public just can't handle the reality of a devastating loss like this. In the movie business when millions of dollars are on the line, this reluctance is even more pronounced. I think the popularity of the book shows that we can handle the truth (sorry, Colonel Jessup). I'm not sure a big studio movie will be able to really capture this book, but it's always interesting to watch them try.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Oscars 2019 Educated Guesses

A love/hate relationship is inevitable when you follow the Oscars year after year, but lately it looks like these feelings are also held by the Academy itself.

It's like the Oscars are embarrassed by themselves. But not because of the La La Land/Moonlight debacle or giving Best Picture to The English Patient. They've gotten themselves upset that the show remains a fairly niche event and not the inescapable cultural juggernaut that the Superbowl is. On one level, I get it. I gave up talking about the Oscars with people I didn't completely trust, just because I found it discouraging to keep hearing person after person tell me they don't care about the Oscars. If I did that every time someone mentioned sports to me, I'd never have time to talk about anything else. Unlike the wise decision to expand the list of Best Picture nominees from five to between five and ten depending on enthusiasm, this year's proposed changes were disastrously ill-advised.

First there was the suggestion to create a "Best Popular Film" category, which was a demonstration of the exact type of snobbery they were worried about exhibiting. If they took the time to fairly evaluate films from genres more popular than "biography of famous artist" and "tone-deaf drama about race," they would find plenty that deserved a nomination. And honestly, they needn't have worried. Last year, Get Out was the first horror film in 20 years to be up for Best Picture and this year Black Panther is the first superhero movie to ever compete for that honor. Expanding Best Picture mostly did its job when it came to this issue so chill. After a backlash, they decided to scrap this idea.

Even dumber was the idea of removing some categories from the live broadcast altogether. Best Cinematography and Best Editing might not have much drama from year to year but the idea of excluding them from an event about movies just boggles the mind. It was borne out of concern about the long length of the show, which indeed never ends on time. After another backlash, they decided to scrap this idea. But if you're worried about the length, you have options. Every year there's a handful of "magic of the movies" montages that are hardly essential. There's also at least one gimmicky song or dance number paying homage to some past classic. One year they had this Sound of Music tribute that was like 10 minutes long. I understand that movie is classic but was that really the best use of time?

Or here's another idea. Maybe just accept that the Oscars are long, they will always be long and that people who are interested will watch anyway. Nobody cares if the Superbowl goes into overtime, so stop worrying about whether this once a year event is cutting into the midnight weather report. And if you want one more suggestion to save time, maybe don't have a host. Oh wait, they're already doing that. It's for the best. Hosting the Oscars is one of the most thankless jobs ever, the person gets shit on by the media every year without fail so yeah let's drop that.

On that note, people may wonder how political the Oscars will be this year. Honestly, I don't think there will be much of that because you don't need to be dramatic to make a point anymore. We don't need a Michael Moore-esque broadside because we're in this strange era of American history where any assertion that people should be kind to each other is implicitly taken as a rebuke to Orange Caligula. There will be people endorsing empathy. Someone will say we need to build bridges and not walls. Probably nothing stronger than that since it doesn't do much good anyway. We can chase a comedian off Twitter for making racist jokes but we can't get a psychotic racist maniac out of the White House. Oh well, what's nominated this year?

Best Animated Feature
The Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Who Will Win: Normally you bet on the Pixar movie in this category. However, The Incredibles 2 doesn't have the same magic as the original and there's another movie that's been racking up other awards. Into the Spider-Verse went way beyond expectations and is light years ahead of the last several Spider-Man films. Isle of Dogs could be a contender since the voters typically like stop-motion films but it came out almost a full year ago. Ironically, it looks like the first Marvel superhero movie to win a major Oscar is one not even made by Marvel Studios (Sony has retained some of the rights to the character and has been busy with spin-offs, including the much less acclaimed Venom.)

My Choice: This was not a particularly great year for animation, so the standout is clear. Into the Spider-Verse had a striking visual design that looked like comic book art rendered in 3-D, along with an exciting and well-paced story. Definitely the strongest of the bunch.

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG


Who Will Win: The biggest shock of this year's nominations was not in Best Picture or any of the acting categories. It was the absence of Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the popular documentary about the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. All of us who follow this stuff thought it would win easily but now it's a close two-way race between RBG and Free Solo. While they didn't break out the same way, both of these were fairly popular in their own right. It could go either way, but my sense is that RBG has gotten this far because of affection for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rather than the quality of the movie itself. Meanwhile, Free Solo captures the beautiful backdrop of Yosemite National Park and El Capitan with impressive artistry. This is a crowd receptive to strong cinematic technique and that will likely decide the race.

My Choice: Ginsburg is a national treasure but RBG is only a so-so documentary. There are moments so fawning that I wondered if it was made for the judge herself rather than a mass audience. I'd totally go with Free Solo. Everyone makes a big deal out of Tom Cruise doing supervised stunts in the Mission: Impossible movies but try climbing a 3,000 foot cliff without ropes or safety gear.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Joel and Ethan Coen for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk
Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters for A Star is Born

Who Will Win: I don't think Black Klansman will go home empty-handed and this is the best chance for a win. Spike Lee and the others started with the memoirs of the real "black klansman" Ron Stallworth and nicely integrated it with interesting moments that don't initially feel like they belong but contribute to a striking overall picture of the cyclical nature of racial violence in America. Whether it's the KKK's terrorist activities in the 1970s, a monologue about the violence following the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, or the concluding footage of the Charlottesville riots, the awful truth about the United States becomes inescapable. If Lee manages to get up to the mic at any point during the night, he'll make sure everyone knows what he was getting at.

My Choice: Black Klansman was one of my favorite movies of the year and I'd enjoy seeing it win. Would also be happy for Barry Jenkins since If Beale Street Could Talk deserved more nominations.

Best Original Screenplay
Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara for The Favourite
Paul Schrader for First Reformed
Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly for Green Book
Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
Adam McKay for Vice

Who Will Win:
Green Book could pull it off, but that's a middlebrow movie in a typically highbrow category. I think the voters will go with The Favourite, which mixes layered commentary on power and class conflict with profane one-liners that make it feel like an episode of "Veep" produced by Merchant Ivory. A long-shot winner is Paul Schrader, the veteran screenwriter and director whose major claim to fame is the script for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. First Reformed was worshiped by critics but not so much by the Academy since this is its only nomination. The Favourite is the f...the one most likely to win.

My Choice: The Favourite is a fine choice. Most of the original screenplays I really liked this year aren't in the lineup.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams in Vice
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
Marina de Tavira in Roma
Emma Stone in The Favourite
Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Who Will Win: This one is tough. Regina King won the Golden Globe for her complex performance as a mother trying to keep her future son-in-law out of prison. However, she was left out of the Screen Actors Guild awards which are usually an accurate precursor to the Oscars. Whoever they chose instead might have offered some insight into who would win but instead they gave it to Emily Blunt for A Quiet Place. I think that's an awesome choice but Emily Blunt's not on this list. I'm going with King but it's not a done deal. Amy Adams has never won despite six nominations but Lynne Cheney is the type of role she could do in her sleep. The two Favourite ladies will cancel each other out and are both a mild case of category fraud since there are really three leads in that film. Marina de Tavira is the true wild card as nobody expected her to show up in the nominations. While it's a good indicator of the overall support for Roma, I don't see her winning. So Regina King it is.

My Choice: Emily Blunt? I don't have strong feelings in this case but Regina King was very good and deserves the win.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali in Green Book
Adam Driver in Black Klansman
Sam Elliott for A Star is Born
Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell in Vice

Who Will Win: It looks like Mahershala Ali will win his second Oscar in just three years for his performance as the musician Dr. Don Shirley. It could also be an award for handling the various Green Book controversies with grace. The real Dr. Shirley's family loathes the movie but have still said they are rooting for him. A possible dark horse winner is Sam Elliott, a veteran actor who has never actually been nominated until now.

My Choice: There are four great performances in this category...and Sam Rockwell, which is just stupid. Josh Brolin was the superior George W. Bush. Anyway, I'm rooting for Adam Driver. There was a scene in Black Klansman that felt surprisingly personal to me when his character is reflecting on his experiences going undercover in the KKK. He says "I never used to think about being Jewish. Now I think about it all the time." I've felt very similar about my Polish background this year for various personal reasons. The scene still haunts me. I hope it's the clip shown when they're reading off the nominees.

Best Actress
Yalitza Aparicio in Roma
Glenn Close in The Wife
Olivia Colman in The Favourite
Lady Gaga in A Star is Born
Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Who Will Win: No actor has as many nominations without any wins as Glenn Close, who is on number seven this year. That should change this year and Amy Adams will probably wind up breaking her old record soon enough. Originally, people thought Lady Gaga was going to win but they may have realized that playing a young woman who suddenly becomes a world-famous singer isn't exactly a stretch for her. Besides, she's guaranteed to take home the Oscar for Best Song. Then Close had a pretty epic Golden Globes speech and seemed to seal the deal. Her toughest competition is Olivia Colman, who gave the best performance in a movie full of very good acting.

My Choice: Maybe I just like underdogs, but I would love to see a win for Yalitza Aparicio, the preschool teacher who is now nominated for her first role as the put-upon housekeeper in Roma. These other nominees have plenty of experience with award shows but it just seems so much more special for someone who is a true outsider. But Glenn Close has the "overdue" narrative on her side, which is just about impossible to beat.

Best Actor
Christian Bale in Vice
Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen in Green Book

Who Will Win: Is Bohemian Rhapsody the real life? Nah, it's mostly just fantasy. But the other nominees are going to get caught in a Rami Malek landslide, no escape from reality. The success Malek has enjoyed so far is surprising given the controversy surrounding the film. In what is becoming a distressingly common new awards season trope, a damning expose about years of sexual assault and manipulation committed by the director Bryan Singer dropped right around the time Bohemian Rhapsody won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. The publicity campaign has decided to just pretend the film directed itself out of thin air, but the reports that Malek feuded with Singer during production actually seem to be working in his favor. The only real competition is Christian Bale, who underwent one of his signature physical transformations to play Dick Cheney. An actor playing a villain hasn't won this category since Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood and in this case, I think the Oscar voters would prefer to honor Freddy Mercury rather than try and stick it to Cheney by giving Bale another chance to call him "Satan" on live television. But if they're feeling salty, who knows?

My Choice: I hope that Willem Dafoe eventually gets a role that he can win for. But for this year, I was pretty amazed by what Christian Bale and his makeup team pulled off. He honestly looked exactly like Cheney and even though the movie obviously thinks little of the former vice president, Bale managed to show a little bit of humanity perhaps in spite of himself.

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
Yorgos Lanthimos for The Favourite
Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Adam McKay for Vice
Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War

Who Will Win: The newer members of the Academy are really flexing their muscles in this category, which passed over some highly favored American directors for arthouse Europeans like Lanthimos and Pawlikowski. However, the story here is the continuing domination of Mexican directors in this category. Hollywood still loves Cuaron and his impressive long takes, giving him the telltale Director's Guild win that foreshadows a second Oscar for Best Director. You'll likely be seeing Cuaron a lot during the evening as he's also nominated for Cinematography and Foreign Language Film. Mexicans have won this category in five out of the last six years, which is as good a reason as any to stop talking shit about immigrants.

My Choice:
Alfonso Cuaron is great but Spike Lee is overdue. He hasn't been able to achieve that inevitability which will help Glenn Close. There must be some reason. Oh, it's because this is his first nomination. Sure, that must be it. He's been stuck with the reductive "angry black man" label for most of his career when his best work (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour and more) is much more versatile, combining snappy dialogue with righteous moral clarity. If he did win, it would probably be enough to elevate Black Klansman to Best Picture (like with Scorsese and The Departed in 2006). Maybe he should do some more long takes.

Best Picture
Black Klansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star is Born
Vice


Who Will Win: I've had some trouble with this category for the last few years. It's been tough to predict how the influx of new members into the Academy changes the usual patterns. In hindsight, the Best Picture nominees have reflected the clashing tastes of the old voters and the younger, more diverse voters. It's this tension that leads to a weird movie like The Shape of Water actually being a consensus winner. It's also become quite clear that a significant controversy is much more of a deal-breaker than it used to be.

On that note, we can rule out a few nominees right away. The Academy may enjoy Rami Malek's performance, but Bryan Singer is still way too toxic for Bohemian Rhapsody to have any shot at the win. Green Book is also likely to be undone by the various controversies. It would have been unbeatable in the 1980s or 90s but it's become harder to reconcile the optimistic outlook of movies like this with the real world. Vice is also much too polarizing to manage a win.

Moving on to the upper tier. There was all sorts of Oscar talk for A Star is Born when it first opened but voters seem to have decided that it's a well-made drama and not much more. Black Panther's nomination is the happy ending to a story that began ten years ago when The Dark Knight's absence from this category sparked a backlash so intense that the Academy moved beyond the usual five films approach. It's been nice to see but the movie won't win. The Favourite has its champions but in the end it's probably a little too caustic and skeevy for Best Picture. Like I said earlier, Black Klansman could have had a real shot if Spike Lee was going to win Best Director but it doesn't seem to be his year.

So that leaves us with Roma. It's quite unusual for the consensus pick to be a Netflix-released black and white movie that's entirely in Spanish, but that's where we are. Nobody really expected it to get this far but when the nominations came out there were some surprises (Marina de Tavira being the biggest one) that made it clear there was wide support for the movie. Watching it is a memorable experience - the first hour is naturalistic to the point of boredom but it turns out you're being set up for the kill. The second half is a potent series of unforgettable, intense sequences that can turn a viewer into a sobbing mess. Enough emotional power can help someone get over the anomaly of giving Best Picture to a film on a streaming service or that's also nominated in the Foreign Language Film category. It might very well win both, which would certainly be a first.

My Choice: Black Klansman > Roma > Black Panther > The Favourite > A Star is Born > Green Book > Bohemian Rhapsody > Vice. I suspect I've said enough about Black Klansman that summarizes why I would like to see it win. It's wishful thinking at this point so I'll add some more - I'd like to see the Oscars at peace with themselves. We'll all have our complaints (I'm going to be pissed off about The Act of Killing's loss for at least another decade) but they've honestly tried to do better and we're seeing the results each year. Don't skip categories, don't add stupid new Appease the Plebs categories, just...be yourself.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The 4th Annual Perfect World Awards

Time for another round of my alternative Oscar nominations. I typically try to get this done the day before the real ones come out, but I almost forgot this year and am now typing faster than a thin-skinned bro after watching a commercial for razors. I hope you can forgive the self-indulgence of this whole thing but it really is a fun little activity. You should try it!

Best Picture
Annihilation
Black Klansman
Blindspotting
Cold Hell
Eighth Grade
The Hate U Give
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Quiet Place
Scream For Me Sarajevo


Plausibility: Black Klansman is the only sure thing. If Beale Street Could Talk has a good shot too. Eighth Grade would be a surprise but it could happen. Annihilation certainly had good enough reviews but is probably too out there for the Oscars, who prefer their science-fiction to be light on the fiction. Believe it or not, some pundits are predicting A Quiet Place makes it in. That'd be cool but I'll believe it when I see it. The lack of awards attention for a powerful drama like The Hate U Give is just baffling. Blindspotting deserves a nomination but its release was just too small. Documentaries never show up in Best Picture, but if someone were to adapt the powerful story of Scream for Me Sarajevo into a narrative feature it might do pretty well. If you saw my top ten, then you know my choice would be Cold Hell, a roller-coaster ride with an incredibly relevant story. Not gonna happen, it would have to at least get a Blu-ray release first.

Best Director
Panos Cosmatos for Mandy
Alex Garland for Annihilation
Tarik Hodzik for Scream For Me Sarajevo
Spike Lee for Black Klansman
Stefan Ruzowitzky for Cold Hell

Plausibility: You know you've gone out on a limb when the person on your list most likely to get nominated is Spike Lee. He's overdue but there's a case to be made for everyone here. Alex Garland did wonders with a mid-size budget in Annihilation. Tarik Hodzik elegantly shuffled between past and present in Scream For Me Sarajevo. Stefan Ruzowitsky combined the bright colors of the giallo with modern techniques, although he at least already has an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film for The Counterfeiters). When it comes to a singular aesthetic experiences this year, however, I think of Mandy right away. In only his second feature, Cosmatos created a totally unique world for his surreal story to unfold in. Or maybe it's just because so many of the backdrops look like metal album covers.

Best Actor
John Cho in Searching
Daveed Diggs in Blindspotting
Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
David Howard Thornton in Terrifier
John David Washington in Black Klansman

Plausibility: Ah ha ha ha ha! I would pay good money to see the reactions of those old Oscar voters if they actually sat down and watched Terrifier. Even though extreme gore is not everyone's thing, Thornton gave an amazing, completely wordless performance as the unspeakably evil Art the Clown. John Cho should be a no-brainer, but none of the various Oscar controversies have made it any easier for Asian actors to get any respect. Daveed Diggs and Ben Foster were both great in small independent films that will likely be overlooked. The best shot here is John David Washington, son of Denzel and the star of Black Klansman, a movie that's looking to do pretty well tomorrow.

Best Actress
Toni Collette in Hereditary
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Kindergarten Teacher
Violetta Schurawlow in Cold Hell
Amandla Stenberg in The Hate U Give

Plausibility: I was iffy on Hereditary. The hype was just out of control and mostly based on a single and admittedly shocking scene. The rest of it was pretty familiar stuff, but no demon-worshiping cult is anywhere near as scary as watching Toni Collette's character slip into grief-driven madness. She was incredible and there's been plenty of talk about her breaking into the final five at the Oscars. I suppose it's possible but I have a feeling we're in for a repeat of the whole Essie Davis/Babadook thing. The other one with a feasible shot is Elsie Fisher, who embodied that familiar middle school confusion where you think you should be acting like an adult but you don't really have any idea what that means. Definitely on the bubble but she has a much better chance than the rest. Maggie Gyllenhaal was great but the movie had a small Netflix release (if you're not Roma, this is still a pretty hard sell for the Academy). Amandla Stenberg hasn't shown up in this awards season, maybe because she's been overshadowed by Elsie Fisher and two teenage nominees is unlikely. Violetta Schurawlow kicked all sorts of ass, but (no pun intended) Cold Hell's flicker of a release in the Western Hemisphere, plus being a horror movie, plus being on a streaming service...yeah, you get the idea.

Best Supporting Actor
Adam Driver in Black Klansman
Brian Tyree Henry in If Beale Street Could Talk
Russell Hornsby in The Hate U Give
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
Rich Sommer in Summer of '84

Plausibility: Adam Driver will probably get a nomination. Michael B. Jordan might too if Black Panther gets a wide sweep. A stronger than expected showing for If Beale Street Could Talk would be good news for Brian Tyree Henry, whose character gave a haunting monologue about the indignities of prison life. Rich Sommer as the police officer who may or may not be a murderer is the main reason why Summer of '84 worked. My top choice would be Russell Hornsby as Mav Carter, the charismatic, hotheaded and noble father from The Hate U Give.

Best Supporting Actress
Nadia Alexander in Blame
Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place
Shayna McHayle in Support the Girls
Debra Messing in Searching
Gina Rodriguez in Annihilation

Plausibility: Forget Mary Poppins, this was the 2018 Emily Blunt performance that will be remembered. Nobody who saw A Quiet Place will forget the scene where she has to give birth while trying not to make a sound. She just might get nominated too. Everyone else here doesn't have a chance unfortunately. Gina Rodriguez made her character's paranoid meltdown super intense. I didn't know Debra Messing was capable of the type of performance she gave as a police detective in Searching. Nadia Alexander's final scene in her movie was one of the most emotional moments of the year. The biggest mystery might be why Support the Girls, a "dramedy" in tune with modern anxieties, has been shut out of the awards season. They usually love this kind of thing.

That's all for now. I'll be back in a month or so to predict the results of the real (and surely less interesting) nominations.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Top Ten Films of 2018

My self-imposed deadline for these lists is the weekend of the Golden Globes. In the past, I've had a hard time meeting that goal but not so much in the last several years. With more streaming sites popping up eager for "content," many movies that otherwise would have gone straight to obscurity are easily accessible. There were just a lot of movies in general - two movies about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two movies about gay conversion "therapy," horror movies named both Terrifed and Terrifier, two documentaries directed by Morgan Neville that profile creative geniuses, you get the idea. I still didn't manage to see a few of the year-end films - I really wanted to get to If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest film from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, but I just didn't have the means - but there were many other movies to keep me busy.

There are two parallel stories that sum up the movies of 2018. The first is a major influx of films in all different genres that focus on the types of people who rarely get this sort of attention. Most of these films also had directors who knew the experiences depicted in the films firsthand. The activist and social media fueled push for diversity in our entertainment is bearing fruit and if these films are an indication, this is absolutely the path to continue on. The other notable trend is the explosion of independent horror films. I've been talking about this for most of the decade, but this year may have been the peak. This genre is thriving in a way I've never seen. I suppose with all this in mind, it's not a surprise that my top pick is an illustration of both of these developments. Let's get started.

10. A Quiet Place
In this taut and suspenseful horror film, Earth has been overrun by blind, fast-moving creatures that attack anything that makes noise. Krasinski and his real-life spouse Emily Blunt play parents who have managed to survive by communicating in sign language and maintaining almost compete silence in their home. The mother is also pregnant, which is borderline suicidal given how noisy infants are. The long stretches of quiet make any sudden noise into its own special type of jump scare and the tension reaches a fever pitch when the creatures invade the home just as she is about to give birth (Blunt’s performance is seriously intense). In addition to being very frightening, the attention to the relationships between the parents and children (especially the deaf daughter played by Millicent Simmonds) adds a layer of affecting drama. The cinematography and sound design are also top notch.

9. Free Solo
It would be difficult to find a movie with a more arresting opening shot than Free Solo. A downward view of El Capitan, the towering 3,000 foot cliff in Yosemite National Park, with one man hanging precariously without any ropes or safety gear. This hit documentary follows professional climber Alex Honnold as he trains for years before attempting to climb El Capitan in the absurdly dangerous “free solo” style. The directors put a lot of effort into profiling the eccentric Honnold while still keeping the focus on the impending climb and reckoning with the chance that they might be inadvertently making a snuff film. The knowledge that Honnold completed his climb (there wouldn’t be a movie if he hadn’t) is easy to forget during the final ascent, which looks so difficult it’s almost beyond comprehension. Along the way there is also plenty of beautiful footage of Yosemite, an area that can outdo any computer-generated landscape in terms of grandeur.

8. Mandy
An otherwise familiar revenge tale is rendered in vivid colors and powerful imagery. In the year 1983, woodsman Red Miller (Nicolas Cage, giving his best performance in who knows how long) and artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) have found a peaceful life in rural California. When a bizarre cult led by a failed musician (Linus Roache, giving the strangest performance in a movie full of them) upends their lives, Red begins to hunt them all down. The trance-like pacing and droning soundtrack owe a lot to David Lynch, but Lynch never made a movie where a man fights demonic bikers with a steel battle axe. This one has divided audiences but I found the wild production design and unique tone to be absorbing and quite satisfying to watch. 80s character actor Bill Duke has a cameo.

7. The Hate U Give
The late Roger Ebert once described movies as "a machine that generates empathy." This is especially true in the case of this drama, although the people that most need to see it probably won't. Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) lives in two worlds - her poor black neighborhood and a posh private school. The boundary between those separate lives collapses after she witnesses her childhood friend’s murder at the hands of a police officer. She is reluctant to take on the system but the callousness and bigotry illuminated by the shooting pushes her into activism. It’s a movie of immense emotional power and honesty and despite the countless real-life examples that give context to the story, only one or two scenes ever feel forced (there's one conversation in particular that feels like it was cut and pasted from a social media argument but it's easily forgiven). Stenberg guides her character through a fully realized arc and leads a large cast of interesting characters. Russell Hornsby is particularly good as Starr’s hot-tempered, righteous father.

6. Eighth Grade
For most people, eighth grade is their first experience with fascism. Kayla (an exceptional performance from Elsie Fisher) only has to get through one more week but it won’t be easy. She is kind and intelligent but has been cowed by the daily abuse from her classmates, using her spare time to post videos of herself giving the sort of advice that she rarely takes. Her doting father (Josh Hamilton) tries his best to communicate with her but he can’t do much to help Kayla deal with the pint-sized brownshirts. Times and technology may change, but adolescence is still a hellish time where kids are constantly seeking the approval of peers who will either ignore them or dump shame and humiliation on them. It’s not the first film to explore this difficult time, but it’s one of the better ones thanks to the authentic performances from the teen actors and the distinctive synth soundtrack.

5. Blindspotting
A movie stuffed with heavy themes about gentrification and identity that still manages to be frequently hilarious and entertaining. Daveed Diggs gives a charismatic lead performance as Collin, who is on probation following a year in prison (he got into a fight with a hipster and accidentally set him on fire). With his probation almost over, Collin tries his best to stay out of trouble despite witnessing a police officer shooting a fleeing black man and the antics of his loose cannon best friend Miles (Rafael Casal). The real-life friends Diggs and Casal wrote the screenplay based on their own lives growing up in Oakland, which is becoming a very different place than they remember. It’s funny, involving and bursting with life as the two leads interact with a variety of interesting characters (Wayne Knight as a nerdy artist, and Utkarsh Ambudkar who hilariously recalls the incident that got Collin thrown in jail) and occasionally busting out improvised rap verses. There’s real anger about police violence and gentrification in this film but it balances the social commentary with buddy comedy for a very effective result.

4. Black Klansman
Yes, I know there is an extra "k" wedged in there but that makes my eyes hurt so I'm leaving it out. Gimmicky title notwithstanding, this simultaneously rollicking and sobering movie draws sharp parallels between the 1970s and the 2010s. Spike Lee hadn’t changed his approach much in the 30 years since he made Do The Right Thing, one of the definitive films about race in America. However, the culture at large has gone back and forth in terms of how his work has been received. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, America had convinced itself that we had come far enough on race issues that we didn't need a confrontational filmmaker like Lee. Better to explore the problem with subtler, more even-handed dramas. That didn't work out. Overt racism has enjoyed such a resurgence that Lee was sorely needed and we ought to be grateful he's still willing to bring the fight. Based in part on a true story, detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel) infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in order to expose their violent plans. However, as Stallworth is black he needs Jewish officer “Flip” Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go undercover in his place. Lee doesn't get enough credit for how fun and entertaining his films can be, but he still doesn’t let the audience off easy and concludes the film with footage from the instantly notorious Charlottesville white supremacist rally of 2017. Progressive film buffs will also appreciate a righteous takedown of the vile silent film Birth of a Nation. On a more personal note, I am greatly looking forward to seeing people try and pronounce "BlackKklansman" at awards shows.

3. Annihilation
A hypnotic, visually stunning film that takes the premise of H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Colour out of Space" and expands it into a very ambitious film that leaves viewers pondering the weighty matters of life. Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is shocked when her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns after being presumed dead for a year, following an investigation into a bizarre environment created by a meteor impact. Lena and a team of other scientists end up exploring the place themselves and what lies within is best left unspoiled for those who haven’t seen it. The production design owes a great deal to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, although generally more engaging and with a wider variety of moods - for example, this is not a horror film but has one of the absolute scariest scenes of the year. The truth of the “shimmer” evokes the reality that someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, our own world (and us with it) will change beyond recognition. The gravity of the story and the wondrous images the filmmakers created with a mid-tier budget make this an unforgettable experience to watch.

2. Scream For Me Sarajevo
I may get accused of bias, but this moving documentary gives a triumphant example of how powerful music can be in the right circumstances. After the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the city of Sarajevo was besieged by Serbian soldiers for years. In 1994, two United Nations personnel in the city invited Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson (who was estranged from the band at the time and releasing material with different musicians) to perform. Dickinson accepted, not totally understanding that this was one of the most dangerous places in the world during those years. The concert may have inspired the film, but Dickinson doesn't even appear on camera until about a half hour in. This is foremost the story of the people of Sarajevo who lived through Hell and found a true light in the darkness at a metal concert, if only for one night. The director Tarik Hodsik elegantly shifts between past and present and while there are harrowing stories told in the interviews, the film ultimately ends on a triumphant note as Dickinson returns to the city over 20 years later and the participants reunite and marvel at what they managed to survive. It's highly emotional, with just about everyone who gets interviewed fighting off tears at one point or another. A story like this can appeal to anyone, but those who enjoy this sort of music will find the experience of watching this film almost transcendent. If you've ever cried listening to "Tears of the Dragon," just wait until you see the final scene.

1. Cold Hell
A serial killer targeting Muslim women stalks the streets of Vienna, Austria. Ozge (Violetta Schurawlow), a taxi driver of Turkish descent, witnesses one of his murders and finds herself targeted. However, she’s an aspiring kickboxer with a lot of unresolved anger and will not go down easily. That’s the simple setup of this thrilling movie that delivers exceptional suspense while offering a weighty subtext about how women and minorities (especially people who are both) get treated by the system. With its colorful production design and the occasional use of digital video to add immediacy during the action scenes, the movie is like an Italian giallo shot by Micheal Mann. Schurawlow is awesome in the lead role, turning Ozge into a heroine the audience cheers for even though she acts like a surly grouch most of the time. Given how great this film is, I really wish it was easier to see. It's not yet available in America on DVD or Blu-ray and I originally saw it on Shudder, which has quickly become the premiere streaming service for horror fans thanks to savvy acquisitions like this one. In a year full of white guys acting like complete psychopaths over immigration, a movie like this is immensely cathartic. The changes happening in the world can't be stopped and if you can't deal with that and keep acting out, not everyone will put up with it forever.

11. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
12. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead
13. Searching
14. Roma
15. Sorry to Bother You
16. Leave No Trace
17. Black Panther
18. Support the Girls
19. Blame
20. Terrifier


Happy 2019, everyone. Well, I'd honestly settle for just a decent 2019 at this point.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Tales From the Crypt: Season Five, Part Two

Well Cooked Hams: Before The Prestige, there was this standout episode featuring a perfectly cast Billy Zane as an incompetent magician in the 1920s. He meets an older illusionist (Martin Sheen, playing way against type) with a fantastic trick and longs to have it for his own repertoire. But if you're going to steal from a magician with actual talent, you better make sure you do it right. It's highly engaging and may come as no surprise that two years later, writer Andrew Kevin Walker would craft the brilliant screenplay for the classic serial killer film Seven. A

Creep Course: A college jock (Anthony Michael Hall) asks bookish girl Stella (Nina Siemaszko) for help passing a mid-term after a pompous professor of Egyptian history (Jeffrey Jones) threatens to have him kicked off the football team if he fails. From the start, it's obvious Stella is being manipulated and the first half of this episode is generally unpleasant. Maybe it's just me but I've never been comfortable with stories where someone's insecurity is taken advantage of. Things pick up a bit in the second half, when Stella ends up confronting an ancient mummy and manages to turn the tables. The mummy looks great and the final sight gag is good for a chuckle. C+

Came the Dawn: This was one of the most acclaimed stories from the old EC comics and having read it makes me ambivalent about this episode. Perry King plays a man on the outs with his wife who retreats to a cabin in the woods. On the way, he picks up a stranded woman (Brooke Shields) and later hears reports of a killer on the loose. Is his new friend dangerous or is he just being paranoid? It's a passable episode on its own but an awful adaptation of the comic, which had a poetic simplicity and a real sense of tragedy. For whatever reason, it was turned into yet another story of selfish jerks being awful, complete with a stupid twist out of a dozen better stories. This one deserved better. C

Oil's Well That Ends Well: A weak episode starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Priscilla Presley as con artists who get a group of men at a bar excited when they claim they've discovered oil under a nearby graveyard. This series often goes outside traditional horror stories and it's usually fine, but in this case it's just a story of deception without any blood or scares. It almost seems like an episode of a different show, complete with acting that's much worse than what we've come to expect. John Kassir does double duty in his one - in addition to his usual gig voicing the Crypt Keeper, he plays a small role in the story itself (which of course the Crypt Keeper takes great pains to point out during the outro). C-

Half-Way Horrible: That's more like it. The great character actor Clancy Brown gives an epic performance as Roger Lassen, a chemical exec about to unveil a miraculous preservative. At the same time, his business associates are being murdered by someone who seems to know a lot about the new formula. The answer lies in the past when Lassen and the others journeyed to Brazil to acquire the stuff from the natives. It's a solid mystery with some satisfyingly nasty moments near the end. B+

Till Death Do We Part: In the season finale, Kate Vernon plays a waitress having an affair with a mobster (John Stamos, He Who Does Not Age). The trouble is that he's also involved with a murderous older woman named "Ruthless Ruth" (Eileen Brennan) who has some very gruesome revenge in mind. What elevates this one above an average crime episode is a unique structure, cutting between past and present and then shocking the viewer with a brutal twist worthy of David Lynch. B+

So that's Season 5. On the whole, I'd say it was a little better than Season 4, although the back half had several weak episodes and it was surprisingly light on the supernatural elements that I prefer. I'll be back with Season 6 in 2019. Enjoy your Halloween, kiddies!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tales from the Crypt: Season Five, Part One

Happy October, kiddies! We're back with another season of Tales From the Crypt. Can the violence and cynicism even come close to the state of the world in 2018? Spoiler alert: No. But the puns are better here! Let's get started.

Death of Some Salesman: Tim Curry goes full-on Eddie Murphy in this ridiculous episode, playing three different members of the same family (and two of them are female!) Ed Begley, Jr plays an amoral cemetery plot salesman who makes a living swindling old people. It's quite a racket until he stumbles on the wrong family. He'll have to put all of his bullshitting to the ultimate test to get out of this situation. What starts as a typical poetic justice episode gets more and more tasteless (and funnier). Not scary at all, but amusing. B-

As Ye Sow: A well done tale of paranoia that attracted a huge cast. Hector Elizondo plays a dry cleaning executive who suspects that his younger wife (Patsy Kensit) is cheating on him. The direction of this episode is very clever in how his visualizes his insecurity and the twist ending is pure EC Comics. Just about everyone wanted to be part of this episode - Adam West and Sam Waterston play private investigators and Miguel Ferrer (this is...what, his third appearance on the show?) shows up in a small but very important role. On a personal note, Elizondo was also the voice of the thief Ioz on "The Pirates of Dark Water" and I would have loved to hear him bust out a "Noy Jitat!" A-

Forever Ambergris: Steve Buscemi and The Who vocalist Roger Daltrey (YAAAAAH!) play war photographers in this satisfyingly gruesome episode. The two have a friendly rivalry that turns toxic when Daltrey starts falling for Buscemi's wife (Lysette Anthony), allowing his personal and professional jealousy to take over during a trip to a Central American nation that has been struck with biological weapons. The sloppy demise of anyone exposed to the toxin is disgustingly and awesomely rendered. The Cryptkeeper introduces this one by remarking on his fondness for a fish-eye lens...with an actual fish eye attached to it. Don't ever change, buddy. A-

Food for Thought: This weird take on mind reading stars Ernie Hudson as the sideshow performer Zambini and Joan Chen as his long suffering assistant. She's the one with the more powerful gift, but that doesn't stop Zambini from keeping her trapped in their abusive partnership. The blend of fantasy concepts with believable relationship drama is interesting but this episode can be sloppy with random digressions like a pissed off gorilla and a silly sight gag involving conjoined twins. Plus the ending is a giant WTF moment without that signature Crypt irony. C+

People Who Live in Glass Hearses: Bill Paxton and Brad Dourif play two brothers, Billy and Virgil, who hatch a plot to get revenge on the ice cream vendor (Michael Lerner) who got Billy sent to jail. It often plays like a gruesome "Of Mice and Men," with the not-all-there Virgil frequently endangering the plot with his random outbursts of violence. Like some other episodes, it's basically a twist in search of a plot and the final twist is admittedly pretty great. Everything else is on the dull side, although voice acting legend Cam Clarke gives an uncredited cameo as the voice of a puppet. B-

Two For the Show: This clever episode begins with a rich businessman (David Paymer) murdering his wife (Traci Lords) after she threatens to leave him for someone else. While trying to get out of town, he is followed by a police officer (Vincent Spano) who seems to know exactly what's going on. It's well paced with the audience always wondering just what Officer Fine's game is and plays with expectations - you probably have an idea of what the twist is, but there are more surprises to come. B+

House of Horror: I've never understood why any college student, following four years of high school bullshit, would subject themselves to even more bullshit by joining a fraternity. In this goofy episode, a group of pledges are taken to an abandoned house to undergo a spooky hazing ritual. The location, which is a fantastic piece of production design, has a surprising purpose. Those who have watched enough episodes of the show probably can guess the twist but the comedic banter among the frat boys keeps things entertaining. This episode features a grab bag of young early 90s stars, including Kevin Dillon, Jason London and Wil Wheaton. Even if you don't like the episode, you should stick with it until the very end for one of the Crypt Keeper's best puns to date. B+

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What if Donald Trump nominated Michael Myers to the Supreme Court?

The following is a parody...well, barely.

Wolf Blitzer: Welcome back to the Situation Room, I’m Wolf Blitzer. Washington is still reeling from the shocking news of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s sudden death from alcohol poisoning. Earlier today, President Trump announced his nominee to replace him - Michael Myers.

[show picture]

Blitzer: Now we’re getting word that Judge Myers is being accused of attempted murder. A woman named Laurie Strode claims that Myers tried to kill her with a butcher knife on Halloween night 40 years ago while she was babysitting. When asked for his reaction, Judge Myers said…nothing. In fact, nobody has ever heard him speak. For more on these shocking developments, we’re joined by two members of the United States Senate. Majority Leader and professional hypocrite Mitch McConnell of Kentucky…

McConnell: Afternoon, Wolf.

Blitzer:…and self-aggrandizing hack Susan Collins of Maine.

Collins: Thank you. [turns to camera] Don’t change the channel! In just a few minutes I will reveal how I plan to vote!

Blitzer: So what do you two make of these allegations? Do you believe Michael Myers really chased Laurie Strode around with a knife?

McConnell: Absolutely not. Why are we damaging this man’s reputation over allegations that are 40 years old? There were many babysitters in her neighborhood that night and none have come forward to corroborate this harebrained story.

Blitzer: For the sake of accuracy, Senator, I believe that’s because they were all murdered that night.

McConnell: Seems awfully convenient.

Blitzer: What about the children she was babysitting? Has anyone taken their testimony?

McConnell: Well, uh, I’ll leave that to the FBI. They’ve just started their investigation, which will take no longer than five minutes.

Blitzer: I see. And Senator Collins, how have these new revelations affected your decision?

Collins: Can I get a drum roll?

Blitzer: ….I guess. [drum roll starts]

Collins: 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…here we go! I am going to vote to…..confirm Judge Myers!

Blitzer: So you don’t believe the allegations?

Collins: No, I believe Miss Strode.

Blitzer: But how can you believe both of them? That makes no sense. Somebody must be lying.

Collins: Well, not so fast. Judge Myers hasn’t commented on the matter at all. He is a very dignified man who won’t get dragged through the mud. I expect that he won’t speak much from the bench, much like Judge Thomas. However, Miss Strode is likely telling the truth except she has the wrong Michael Myers. Maybe we should be looking into Michael Myers the actor!

Blitzer: So you think the actor Mike Myers is the one who attacked her?

Collins: It would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?

Blitzer: Don’t either of you think it would be a good idea to postpone the Senate vote to make time for a real investigation of these charges?

McConnell: That will not happen. If we allow the Democrats to ambush us with this nonsense, no man who ever chased a woman around with a bladed weapon will be safe. We all lived through the 70s and 80s so let’s not pretend we don’t have our own babysitter corpses in the closet ready to pop out and scare someone who’s trying to hide from us. A lot of women are saying things like “no” and “please stop,” but we’re just going to ignore what they want and push this thing right through.

Blitzer: Do you think history will look favorably on the Senate if they dismiss such a serious allegation of violent assault?

McConnell: Don’t lose perspective. I’ll tell you what the real violent assault is - getting yelled at by women when you’re trying to walk through an airport.

Blitzer: That happened to you recently, didn’t it?

McConnell: Yes. They were shouting “do you always turn your back on women?” Of course I don’t. I’m perfectly happy to traumatize them to their faces.

Blitzer: One last question. If you were to find proof beyond any doubt that Judge Myers tried to kill Laurie Strode, would it affect your vote?

McConnell: No, but it would really trigger the libs.

Blitzer: Thank you, Senators. When we come back, live coverage of President Trump’s meeting with Freddy Krueger to discuss the economic anxieties of working class dream demons. Stay with us.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Mental Illness and Quality of Life in America

Disclaimer

If you read this blog for awards season analysis and other movie commentary (if you read it at all), this post might come as something of a surprise. When I first started writing here eleven years ago, I imagined that there would be a fair amount of political entries. It didn't take me very long to learn how exhausting that really is. Politics on the internet is a constant parade of various outrages and overblown non-news stories and I'm not sure how anyone with any sort of real-life schedule is supposed to "react" to all of them. I put that stuff aside to keep the focus on what I thought I did pretty well, stuff like Oscar predictions and looking back on childhood shows with an adult's point of view. Sometimes, though, I just have to get something out and that's basically what this is. Not a rant exactly, more like a structured essay that gives me a chance to express some feelings I've been stewing about for a few years now. If that's not your thing, I understand. Oh, just one more note - I've been working on this for so long that the bulk of it was actually written before Trump was elected. I'm going to try and keep him out of it, especially since he's a particularly vile symptom rather than the disease. But with him around, basically take everything here and multiply it by ten.

Preface

I've seen quite a few articles about how anxiety and depression is rising in America, particularly with young people. As I read them, I often slowly nod my head in agreement since the observations of the journalist line up with my own observations in my personal and professional life. I honestly feel like the majority of people I know struggle with anxiety (and possibly depression, although that's harder to spot). Medical science says that people are born with a certain level of susceptibility to these feelings and that leads to a sense of inevitability that compresses the conversation into variations on "What can these individuals do to help themselves?" This is all well and good, but if we really are seeing more anxiety and depression than we used to, I think we have to talk about the bigger picture as well.

The "big picture" is usually invoked as a way to cheer someone up, as in "You had a bad day today but in the big picture, your life is going pretty well!" That's fine but I don't hear people talk about how if the picture gets big enough, it might make you feel worse. I don't think you can talk about these prominent mental conditions in America without talking about life in America. Quality of life in America to be more specific, which is often compromised by our country's obsession with productivity and profit. It's true that some people are more prone to depression or anxiety than others. That doesn't mean we always need to be making it so goddamn easy to feel that. Right now, America is facilitating anxiety and depression, keeping it going the same way my phone charger didn't create my phone but keeps it at 100% power. We've got to do better.

Obviously, there are a lot of directions we can go with this - poverty, discrimination, police brutality, war, environmental blight, our longtime tradition of constant mass shootings, border patrols re-enacting scenes from Sophie's Choice with migrant families at the Mexican border, etc. If I was younger, I probably would have tried to hit all of them with an essay like this. These days, I think a "jack of all trades" approach to advocacy leads to inevitable instances of sounding presumptuous and/or uninformed. That said, while all of these issues don't impact everyone directly, they do contribute to an overall portrait of despair that can do more damage to someone's mental state that we usually give credit for. I'm narrowing my focus to a few loosely connected issues that relate to a person's relationship with their career as well as obstacles in the way of getting the necessary help, which are topics I have plenty of personal experience with. Those who have had conversations with me in real life will probably find that much of this is familiar, but I never get the chance to tie it all together like this. Four paragraphs is a long enough introduction, I'd say. Let's start.

The Broken Bargain

Since the economy went south, it's become very common to hear things like "you should be happy to even have a job right now with the economy the way it is." Yet when you consider how so many people in America are treated by their employers, gratitude is hardly the first emotion that comes to mind.

People talk about full-time work as if there is no downside to it. But there is. There always has been. Giving up 40 hours of your life every week for years is a huge sacrifice. That's time that could be spent with your family, out in a park, doing something creative or just quiet reflection. Time is not a renewable resource. When it's gone, we're gone. The whole idea behind it is that you get paid enough to sustain yourself and enjoy the time that you're not at work. The exchange of time for money - this is a bargain that is supposed to sustain contemporary society, but it's broken.

We've lost respect for the time that people give up when they spend countless hours in an office. America's $7.25/hour minimum wage is an insult, not even close to anything resembling proper compensation for giving up that time. To make up for this, many people have taken on additional jobs, giving up even more time in exchange for earning just enough to stave off hunger for another week. I don't have enough negative adjectives to describe this situation - unjust, heinous, despicable, shameful, horrifying, take your pick. Politicians like to say "Nobody who works full-time should live in poverty." I'd prefer to say that nobody at all should live in poverty, but yes it's particularly insulting when you're also working your ass off. But there's more to quality of life than just avoiding poverty. People who are giving up that much time should make enough to pay their bills, feed their families, and have enough left over for something special every so often. A trip to a restaurant, a family vacation, an opportunity to enjoy life. Because if you can't do that, what's the point of working? What's the point of even being alive?

Sometimes you hear people say that the minimum wage should be kept low in order to encourage fast-food workers and other people at "dead-end" jobs to strive for something better. But those jobs will always exist because there's always a need for them, so someone will have to do them. Not everyone has the resume to move on to something more respectable (and fewer will in the future since higher education has gotten so laughably unaffordable), so is it really right to sentence these people to lives full of struggle just for working jobs that are always necessary and yet seen by the public as disreputable? Fast food places are everywhere so there's obviously high demand for them. Why have we collectively decided that the people who serve the food deserve to be paid so poorly?

This issue is at the heart of the "income inequality" concept, which I have to admit is a term I'm not a big fan of. Not because I don't feel it's a problem, it obviously is, but because I think the wording is ripe for distortion. It's too easy for pundits to get overly defensive and sound the alarm about the plot to bring everyone's wages to the same level. We don't actually need a society where everyone gets paid the same exact amount of money. We just need to make sure nobody gets screwed. The bottom of the ladder, so to speak, should still yield enough money to live a decent life. Once again, I'm not saying everyone needs to be able to get sports cars and mansions and luxuries of that nature, but they should be able to live comfortably with opportunities to create those memories that make life worthwhile.

Real Family Values

The fact that the phrase "family values" is almost exclusively used in American politics as a warped justification for various types of bigotry or moral censorship is a sad commentary on our national conversation in general. We shouldn't have to cringe when our leaders use that phrase, because actual family values are important and not given much respect in this country's work culture. The most glaringly obvious example is that new parents are still not guaranteed any paid time off to care for their newborn children. We love to heap praise on mothers and fathers when their respective parent-themed holidays roll around, but when it counts, it's just talk.

In the interest of honesty, I should note that this is personal. When I became a father, I was shocked and deeply discouraged by how my employer behaved. They couldn't legally deny me time off, but they tried everything to make the process as inconvenient and unhelpful as possible. I'm not going to get into all the details here, I've told the story many many times. I don't mind telling it since it has that rare 100% success rate of getting a sympathetic response, which I've never been accustomed to when talking about my problems. The unanimous solidarity people express when hearing that story, regardless of age, background or politics, makes me wonder why our laws are so behind on this issue because clearly a decent chunk of our people are not. But make no mistake, what America offers is abysmal compared to the rest of the world. Even Iran, a country we always paint as full of backwards-ass fundamentalist nutbars, will give you 12 weeks of paid family leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed about 25 years ago and provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents and guarantees that you will have a job when you return. I got to become very familiar with this law during my own experiences, particularly its limitations. Various exceptions within the legislation mean that a huge chunk of the workforce (sometimes estimated as high as 50 percent) is not eligible for anything. But beyond that, unpaid leave creates a very different dynamic than paid leave. Sure you can keep your job, but you are being punished for taking the time off by having your income cut off. Have you ever bought baby formula? How about diapers? It's expensive. Not the best time to be short on money. It's supposed to be an incentive to have children, but instead it becomes an incentive to go back to work earlier. That doesn't strike me as an accident.

I've seen a few articles reporting that a significant percentage of people my age and younger don't intend to have kids. If they just don't want to, that's all well and good. Being a parent is a ton of work that shouldn't be forced on anyone who doesn't truly want children. However, the most commonly cited reason is not a lack of desire but financial insecurity. They're afraid that they can't afford it or that it will compromise their careers and they're totally justified in those fears. I've seen a lot of tone deaf articles whining about not enough babies being produced so what's holding us back from doing something significant about it? Well, I read one article that speculated that opposition to paid family leave is rooted in opposition to women working at all. While I'm sure that's the motivation for a decent amount of people in Congress, I think most of it is just cold hard capitalism. Too many employers are worried that paid family leave could cause them to miss out on some potential money. As far as America is concerned, there is no greater good that's good enough to risk such a horrible fate.

So that's the sad state we find ourselves in. Productivity and profit is more important than the continuation of society itself. Bringing the next generation into the world, already challenging on its own, is turned into a major financial risk for thousands of families out there. Speaking from experience, I can tell you this sort of thing is very bad for your mental health. It poisoned my mood for the few months I spent at my job afterwards and even now, it still haunts me. I think of these lyrics from Eminem's "Like Toy Soldiers" - Even though the battle was won/I feel like we lost it/Spent so much energy on it/Honestly, now I'm exhausted/But I'm so caught up in it I almost feel like I'm the one who caused it. But I didn't. I was just trying to be a good father until my job got in the way. We won't shut up about "family values" and yet we don't actually value families. The irony is very cruel indeed.


The One Great Sight

"Wildness is a necessity. I am losing previous days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must get out into the mountains and hear the news."
-John Muir


Quick note: We don't have paid sick leave either. This one really boggles the mind. Do you want a waiter serving your food at a restaurant to have the flu? Didn't think so. This is a much easier sell than family leave and yet for some ungodly reason, we still don't have it.

Vacation time...now that's a hard sell. Most people agree that taking time off to get healthy or to care for a newborn child are still practical choices. But taking time off to relax? To see a beautiful place? To enjoy uninterrupted time with your family? This isn't seen by employers or politicians as smart use of time that could be spent making other people money. This is a distinctly American eccentricity. We've been called "The No Vacation Nation" by the Center of Economic and Policy Research. There are benevolent employers out there who grant paid vacation time to their employees, but the fact that you're at the mercy of your employer when it comes to this issue is what bothers me.

Our obnoxious cultural disdain for enjoying life in non work-related ways can be summed up by a car commercial from a while back. I'm not gonna give a link to it because they can go fuck themselves. It showed an over-privileged white douchebag walking around his house insulting the French for taking six weeks of vacation each year and praising America for using our limited time on the planet making great cars instead. Yeah, I'm sure the French are sulking around Europe during their long vacations because they don't make cars as cool as ours. However, that wasn't the worst part of this commercial. The most insidious part was at the end, when the pitchman said that "only taking two weeks off in August" was worth it for a nice car. This presents two weeks of vacation as the default in America, but it isn't. The default is nothing. A large portion of people working in this country have no time off whatsoever.

Making the whole situation even stranger is that despite our reluctance to guarantee vacation time to our citizens, we still have the federal government taking care of millions of acres of protected land - our National Parks. They're meant to preserve beautiful places for our enjoyment, but these days they're used more by foreign tourists. You know what I'm talking about if you've been to one - most people there are from Germany or Canada or China or Japan. In fact, I've even seen Chinese-speaking tourists at Walden Pond. You've got to have a lot of time off to make the trip from China to Massachusetts...and be really into Thoreau. The parks are one of the greatest things America ever did. Most of the world has followed suit, but why are we not prouder that we did it first? Why do we take more pride in how efficiently we can destroy other nations rather than the beauty of where we live? I actually feel patriotic when I'm in a national park. Yeah, me. The lack of access to television and the internet probably helps with that.

There was a time when our leaders found them patriotic as well. President Theodore Roosevelt, who did more for this cause than anyone else to hold the position, once described the Grand Canyon as "the one great sight that every American should see." But good luck making good on this if you don't already live near it and don't have any vacation time. Trying to do it in a weekend would be more stressful than your job. I saw a particularly dense article (this is becoming a running theme) theorizing why more minorities in America don't go to the parks. The writer wondered if it was because there was no wi-fi. Someone actually got paid to suggest that but I'll tell you the truth for free. They don't go for the same reason a sizable portion of white people don't go - not enough money, not enough time off.

I understand that parks aren't necessarily where everyone wants to go, but whatever you enjoy doing that isn't strictly profitable...you should have time for that without having to risk your financial security. It's not unreasonable to ask for that, no matter what a brain dead commercial might tell you.

Good Help is Hard to Find

"I tell ya, I get no respect! I get no respect at all!"
-Rodney Dangerfield


If you've read everything up to this point and are on board...thanks! But this is the part you're not going to like. Still, it needs to be said. More often than not, the way people react to depression and the people who have it is the opposite of help.

This is the sad, awful truth about living with depression - being alive is hard. It doesn't even have to be a bad day. The simple state of being alive is hard. When you consider the deaths of beloved, successful people like Robin Williams, Chris Cornell or Anthony Bourdain, people who weren't dealing with any of the stuff I've been going on about, you understand just how ruthless depression is. I've got kids running around, I have to drag myself out of bed every day but it's hard when your energy level is so often depleted. Sometimes a simple thing like bending over to pick something up becomes tiring. Some days I panic if people ask too many questions because of the effort required to answer them all. Tasks that most people would complete without a second thought often require me to spend a while shoring up the energy and willpower. People just don't want to hear this. They hate the idea of someone having an "excuse" not to be overly productive or hardworking. It's simply not acceptable. So they tend to react to people who are mentally ill with passive-aggressive glurge or sometimes outright hostility. Want some examples?

"Stop being so selfish!"

You know what somebody who is struggling is going to think after you say this? Here's a hint, it's not "Wow, he's right!" More like "Well, I won't be opening up about my struggles to that person again." If that's what you wanted (and something tells me it just might be), then mission accomplished. Just don't start going on about how "I had no idea anything was wrong."

One of the worst parts of depression or any mental illness is the shame, that awful guilt about being a burden to everyone around you. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel like the proper thing to do is to pile on even more shame. They think it's about your well-being, but it's not. It's about what you can give them. They'll call you selfish for taking something away from them, never mind the hurt of what they take from you.

"You're not entitled to a living wage/sick time/vacation time/family leave/anything that might give you the impression that you're a worthwhile human being!"

Ah, the E-word. Where would assholes be without it? The thing is...it cuts both ways. You're not entitled to borderline free labor from employees who express nothing but happiness about getting screwed over! See how easy that is?

"Smiling is the best anti-depressant!"

Wait, isn't this a quote from The Stepford Wives? No? This is a thing people actually say? Wow. Well, it's inaccurate in addition to being incredibly stupid.

Otherwise well-meaning people might interpret this stuff as "tough love," but frankly nothing about it feels loving. We're all getting called out constantly by the culture around us and to be treated like this by our loved ones does not help. People who are a little more savvy will advise you to get professional help. They're right but it's not always as simple as it sounds.

It's become routine for journalists to provide the number for the suicide hotline at some point in their coverage. It's a thoughtful idea but it's not a magic bullet. The hotline's go-to move is to send you to the ER, because that's the surest bet that you'll remain alive once they're off the phone. But the suicide hotline doesn't pay that ER bill. Not only that, visits to a therapist add up. Medication adds up.

And so we've gotten to the most literal example of mental health being compromised by the whims of business and commerce. As long as we treat mental health care (or any health care, really) like a big screen TV or some other luxury, this won't stop. You can keep pushing people into darker corners, but you can't make them happy about it. We're all going to become very familiar with that reality. When the next shooting comes around (should be any day now, it's been a few weeks) and people start reprising their empty declarations about "mental health," maybe think about what it would actually take to address that instead of just using it to fill airtime.

Conclusion

This rise in anxiety and depression that baffles so many otherwise intelligent people is inextricably linked to a society that doesn't see its citizens as actual people, but economic units to be plugged at their lowest possible price into a ruthless market that provides the greatest possible returns on investment to the wealthy few...all with no thought to the resulting human resentment and misery.

It may be tempting to think that it's not worth even trying. If depression is so bad, is it even possible to do anything? The answer is yes. Some people are lucky enough to have their illnesses go into remission for a long time, sometimes even years. Many other people will always be dealing with them at least a little bit. Regardless, moments of happiness and joy are still possible. It can be anything from standing on top of Glacier Point to hearing "What is Love" start playing over the intercom while you're grocery shopping (I like that, anyway). More than anything else, hope for more moments like these is what keeps people alive. So maybe don't make it so difficult to experience them?

It's just a thought.