Saturday, March 25, 2017

Alien "Life"

2017; written by Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick; directed by Daniel Espinosa

Due to a happy confluence of a good friend's career worries and a free Friday afternoon, I found myself among Chicago's first regular Joes and Janes to see Life.

We came to the film with competing agendas. I was hoping for something that would recreate those sick feelings of dread unleashed by the original Alien. My buddy was simply hoping the storyline wouldn't step all over certain elements in his own upcoming project.

Based on the trailers and early reviews, we had plenty of reason to anticipate both. In Life, a group of astronauts aboard the International Space Station capture a probe returning with the first soil samples from Mars. The discovery of a single-celled organism first intrigues and then excites them, along with their eight billion fellow humans below. But the crew's enthusiasm soon turns to alarm when the organism begins to grow, attacks a fellow researcher, and escapes the confines of the lab. Making matters worse, the creature is basically a fast-moving bundle of extraterrestrial stem cells, making it all muscle, all nerve, all brain -- "a tough little son of a bitch," to quote Alien's science officer Ash.

But for all its homages to Alien (and there are plenty of them) Life doesn't quite hit all the hot buttons that its predecessor thumbed so well. Where each of the Nostromo's crew members is unique, with plenty of psychological and physical quirks to distinguish one from the other, the crew in Life is basically a good-looking bunch of polite space professionals whose biggest disagreements play out in exchanges of good-natured bickering. Even Jake Gyllenhall's character, a haunted-looking misanthrope who's been aboard the space station longer than anyone and is in no hurry to leave, decides to do the right thing for the sake of humankind.

When it comes to the monster, Life's semi-transparent starfish fails to stir the same Freudian anxieties that made H.R. Giger's penis-headed xenomorph famous -- even though it seeks to penetrate the human body just as much. (In addition to the trailer's shot of it slipping into Ryan Reynold's mouth, it's suggested in the film that the slimy little bugger will take any opening it can find.) The gore it unleashes is all courtesy of CGI, and lacks the visceral punch of Ridley Scott's practical effects.

I will give Life credit for not dishing up a happy ending. Not only does it end with a twist, but it's a dark and nasty one that only the most aware viewer will see coming -- and then only a few minutes before it arrives.

As we discussed things afterward over a beer, we were both happy we'd seen it. This film is fast-paced science-fiction fun. The visuals are stunning, with a which-way-is-up style that increases the claustrophobia; the music and sound design never let up, keeping the tension high. Though it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, it wasn't as bad as my friend had feared, either.

Monday, February 27, 2017

These Things Happen

Maybe you saw it last night, or maybe you saw it today when your social media feeds blew up with the news.

La La Land won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2017. Until it didn't and Moonlight was named the actual winner.

History was made, once again, right before our disbelieving eyes. It's one more improbable event in a century that's already seen more than its share. Bush v. Gore. 9/11. Steve Harvey's mistaken crowning of Miss Universe. The Cubs' World Series win. Trump's presidential election. The Patriots' Super Bowl upset.

This article from the New York Times does good job of explaining what happened, and this one from does an equally fine job describing how. If you watch the full video, keep your eye on the background action -- it's where all the interesting stuff happens as the truth slowly dawns on everyone involved. You can see the La La Land producers look around with increasing urgency; at one point Emma Stone mouths the words "Oh my god." There are howls of disbelief and celebrities pulling out their phones to take pictures, just like those tourists host Jimmie Kimmel invited to visit the show. Despite a great deal of awkwardness, everybody involved handled the situation with tremendous honor and grace.

What I have yet to see is anyone discussing the increasing frequency of events like these. I don't know what it means. It might not mean anything. All I can say for sure is that it feels like history is getting really good at hitting holes-in-one, and now it can't stop itself from showing off.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Unhappy Endings

A Cure for Wellness, 2017; directed by Gore Verbinski; written by Justin Haythe

Get Out, 2017; written and directed by Jordan Peele

Spoiler alert: In each of these films good triumphs over evil.

And that, in a nutshell, is my major complaint about A Cure for Wellness and Get Out. Both are good (and in the case of Get Out, great) films. But both would have benefited from darker endings.

More and more, it seems otherwise fine, dark-tinged films are abruptly switching gears in the third act for the sole purpose of delivering an upbeat ending with no lingering questions. No matter how dire the circumstances, in the end the main character(s) will breathe a happy sigh of relief, glad that that's finally over.

I call this phenomenon the Tyranny of the Happy Ending, and it's led to the downfall of several otherwise satisfying thrillers and horror films over the years.

Here's a short list off the top of my head: The young girl in The Monster defeats the titular terror with her mom's Zippo and an aerosol can of antiseptic spray. In It Follows, the teens dispatch the creeping menace using a combination of small electric appliances and a public pool. Mia Wasikowska walks away from all the horrors of Crimson Peak. The heroine of Hush corkscrews her assailant. The Visit concludes with a freestyle rap. The aliens in Signs are undone by a glass of water, on a planet that's 75% covered with the stuff.

Notice the trend? No matter how powerful the antagonist seems or how desperate things have become, good must prevail. I understand the reason: audiences, supposedly, prefer happy endings. But a happy ending is not always a satisfying one, especially when it requires the storyline to tie itself in knots or blow holes in the plot.

I'm not saying this always happens, but the exceptions are rare. Yes, Anya Taylor-Joy survived every vexation of The Witch and gave herself to Satan. The couple who decided to attend The Invitation survived only to see red lamps illuminating the California hillside. Elle Fanning was literally consumed in The Neon Demon. And Thomas Jane drove himself to the bitterest of ends at the conclusion of The Mist. 

I think A Cure for Wellness and Get Out would have done themselves -- and audiences -- a favor if they'd opted to join the latter group. Instead, each one pulls its punches. Rather than striking a mortal wound that would have stuck with their protagonists -- and audiences -- they allowed us to walk away relatively unscathed, breathing a sigh of relief, glad that that's finally over.

There's a moment in A Cure for Wellness, 15-20 minutes before the final frame, that would have made for an ideal ending. I can almost imagine an earlier version of the script concluding then and there, before a Hollywood overseer demanded both more spectacle and absolute neatness. Dean DeHaan is sitting on a bench, gazing emptily at the sun as it sets on the valley below and the mountains beyond. He's been through eighteen different kinds of hell at this point and the experience has changed him forever. "Why would anyone want to leave?" he asks his companion, something horribly absent in his voice. It's a chilling moment, and such a fitting end I was literally gathering my empties, sure the credits were about to roll.

Instead the film served up a fourth, superfluous act in which DeHaan's character somehow pulls himself together, conquers the villain and escapes with the film's heroine practically on his arm. Get Out, despite all its intelligence and nerve, finishes in much the same way.

And in my book, that's a mistake.

Here's why: I once had a playwriting teacher who told us never to end something with the old It Was Only a Dream! ploy. "You might as well tell your audience they've wasted their time," he said.

The Tyranny of the Happy Ending is the 21st century version of It Was Only a Dream! It doesn't matter how bad things get, how grim everything becomes, how impossible the situation seems. The hero will prevail in the end. He or she always does. Fear not. It was all a dream. Everything will work out just fine. You've wasted your time.

One of the great things about stories, one of the reasons they exist and endure at all, is that they teach us how to deal with life's challenges. And a story that so easily defangs its villain does us a disservice. Because life's challenges aren't always so easily defanged. Real life doesn't work that way, and and neither do some of the best stories, the ones we remember long after they're done.

The couple at the end of Cloverfield don't beat the monster that's laid waste to Manhattan; they die in a last-ditch effort to stop it. Mia Farrow doesn't turn her knife on all the devil worshippers in Rosemary's Baby; we watch as some dark maternal instinct takes control of her. Katherine Ross doesn't burn down the men's club at the center of The Stepford Wives; she stares at us blankly from a supermarket aisle. Duane Jones doesn't kill the zombies and save the girl in Night of the Living Dead; a Pennsylvania militia shoots him in the head. Joan Crawford doesn't concoct a plan to kill Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; she bakes in the hot sun while her mad sister dances for a camera that's no longer there.

As a result, we remember these films, long after they left the theaters. They stick with us -- you might even they haunt us -- not because everything worked out fine at the end, but precisely because it didn't.

There's a saying that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. Maybe that's why I prefer one type of ending over the other. Both teach us lessons. But the ones from unhappy endings stick around far longer than the others.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Your Winter Horror, as Ranked by the Geniuses at Thrillist

This is the kind of post that will have doubters claiming I'm secretly on the Thrillist payroll.

In truth, it came from clicking on a random Facebook post, compulsively reading the whole thing, admiring its accuracy and level of detail, then deciding to stop my work on an important project just so I could tell you about it here.

Before you click that link, know that this is not one of those articles you scan for your own state and then ditch. It's worth reading word for word, because the authors have put so much love and humor and well-observed detail into each entry. You'd swear both of them (and a few guest editors from specific locales) had endured a winter in every state.

So take a look. Read through the list. Feel superior to those beneath you (unless you're in Hawaii) and tremble in fear at those above (unless you're in Minnesota). 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

You've Already Seen This Movie

I should have jumped on this Wednesday, when it turned up in my slice of the Internet. That would have been super timely. But life, as they say, got in the way. So here it is now -- 2016, transformed into a horror film trailer. So apt.

For this year that's on its way out and can't leave fast enough, there are just a few things I'd like to say:
Hey, 2016. It is OVER between us. I've met a new, younger year and am ready for a fresh start.
You had your (limited) charms -- thanks for that Cubs win -- but on the whole you've just been way too much of a downer. Plus, I really, really hate your politics.
All your clothes and stuff are sitting out on the street. Pick them up before tomorrow or I'll set them on fire, dance around the flames and piss on the ashes.
Don't write, don't call, don't talk about me to your friends, and if we ever see each other on the street, just keep walking.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Ghost Story for Christmas

Image result for whistle and i'll come to you
Christmas is the most haunted holiday.

Yes, we have Halloween. But the ghosts and spirits we celebrate then are abstract and harmless.

Christmas is different. There's something about the season that reminds us of loved ones who are no longer with us. We think about the Christmases past spent with them. We feel their loss all over again, sometimes deeply. We wish them back, so they could be here now. We imagine them with us, at the dinner table, the holiday get-together, when a certain Christmas carol begins to play, or we gather around the tree to open presents.

If that's not haunted, I don't know what is.

The British must have known this, too. This may be why, back in 1971, BBC commissioned a television special under the name of "A Ghost Story for Christmas." It ran for eight consecutive Christmases, then disappeared. It came back In 2005, and has appeared sporadically since.

Mostly it presented classic ghost stories by M.R. James, but has also included a short story by Charles Dickens and two original screenplays.

I watched one last night. The first. "Whistle and I'll Come to You." In it, a shy and awkward academic in his middle age vacations at a strange seaside inn. During one of his walks he finds an old whistle and blows on it, waking up something that follows him along the shore, and back to the inn, and all the way into his room.

The show was in black and white. Sometimes the camera shook a little or the picture appeared to warp or stretch. Some of the dialog and pacing was a little odd. It all started to work on me, so that when the ghost first appeared -- a dark wraith that seemed to twist and turn just beyond the reach of the waves -- I actually felt chills.

So if you have a little time this Christmas, here's a link to "Whistle and I'll Come to You." And here's a link to all the others if you have a little more.

Merry Christmas. May you be surrounded by your loved ones. The living and the rest.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

You Are Listening To

Back in the mid-nineties a band by the name of Soul Coughing made us put down our beers, sit up straight and take a listen. Especially when "Screenwriter's Blues" came on. (There's no official video, but some good soul by the name of Toby Arguello has posted the song on YouTube so you can listen to it today. Do this: 1.) click that link above, 2.) play it, then, 3.) come back here.)

And today, some twenty-odd years later, there's an amazing site called YouAreListening.To that you should, well, listen to. Today, tomorrow, and all the days that follow.

The site takes its name from a refrain in "Screenwriter's Blues." (Are you listening to it now? You should be.) In it, the singer, or narrator, or whatever he is describes a nightmare drive through a Southern California landscape of models and movie screens and on-fire red-eyed sunrises that exist outside of time and space and the bounds of whatever petty sense of morality you might have begun this hellish journey with. And as he does he intones, over and over again, "It is five AM, and you are listening to, Los Angeles. It is five AM, and you are listening to, Los Angeles."

Aside from all that, what makes the site interesting and worth mentioning here is that it allows you to combine ambient music with police and fire department radio feeds from 25+ cities, as well as airports, the New York Times, NASA, and those conspiracy-worthy numbers-only stations most of us first heard about on Lost. Go ahead. Choose your own adventure.

If you need to work, or write, or run errands with a strange sense of purpose, or just put some goddamned distance between you and whoever's on your very last nerve, YouAreListening.To is a strange, yet strangely calming, place to go.

Go there. Now. Then come back and tell me I'm wrong.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Into the Forest"

2016; directed by Patricia Rozema; written by Patricia Rozema and Jean Hegland

In any kind of survival situation, life gets stripped down to its essentials: food, water, shelter, safety from the people, animals and/or things that are determined to rob, rape, kill and/or eat you.

You could say the same for some film adaptions of novels.

Jean Hegland's Into the Forest blew my mind so much when I read it in 1998 that I recommended it to Oprah Winfrey for her wildly popular book club. I was working for Harpo Productions at the time, so I personally handed it to the producer responsible for her monthly book club series, as opposed to just driving by and tossing a dog-eared copy at the Carpenter Street entrance while shouting, "This would make a kick-ass Oprah's Book Club selection!"

I didn't see how it could lose. Into the Forest had everything Oprah was preaching at the time. Two sisters (female protagonists!) face a post-apocalyptic world in which life's little luxuries disappear one by one, followed by its necessities. As they navigate challenges of death, rape, pregnancy and birth, the two sisters grow increasingly grateful (gratitude!) for the things they still have, while gaining newfound confidence in their ability to survive with what nature provides.

Maybe it was too on-the-nose. I don't know. No one ever got back to me.

It's taken almost twenty years for Into the Forest to become what paperback books used to trumpet as "a major motion picture." Who's to say why, except that the wheels of Hollywood grind exceedingly slow and sometimes things get into turnaround and don't come out for quite a while.

Here's what I can tell you: the film version of Into the Forest gets the essentials right. Ellen Paige and a pre-Westworld Evan Rachel Wood play sisters facing the apocalyptic scenario. What starts out as a power outage eventually leads to the end of civilization. Wood is the older sister, a dancer so intent on an important audition that never comes she practices to the tick-tocking of a metronome, and throws a fit when her younger sister, played by Paige, won't let her use some of their remaining gasoline to power a generator so she can once again dance to music.

Maybe Jean Hegland held out for the opportunity to adapt her own novel. If so, good for her, because she and co-writer Patricia Rozema managed to capture all the book's major movements. And Rozema does a fine job of envisioning its sense of gradual loss as the sisters first adapt to living in a world of ever-decreasing expectations, then choose to leave it behind entirely.

And yet. The parts of the book that stuck with me then (and stick with me still) are the parts I wish the movie had more of, like the sisters carefully rationing the contents of their last remaining tea bag. Some Hegland's language around the idea of lack and want was beautiful, and I almost wish there had been some voice-over narration in the film.

Still, these elements aren't totally missing. Toward the film's mid-point, after Wood's character has been brutally assaulted, she refuses the last aspirin in the house, insisting that it be saved for something more worthwhile. Which only made me wonder how much worse things would have to be for that aspirin finally to be worth taking, and at that point what possible good it could do?

However, while the power's still on, the Internet's up and you're able to stream Into the Forest from Amazon Prime (among other online services) the question remains: is it worth your time, one of your precious remaining evenings? Yes. There's plenty of suspense, sadness and unexpected joy here to reward all but the hungriest of viewers, which just happened to include me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

I'm Just Here For All the Awesome Self-Promotion

That headline up there? That was my Facebook status a while back. A little snark aimed at all my friends who were busily promoting their books, movies, plays, albums, art openings, poetry readings, fireworks shows, children's tap/jazz dance and ballet recitals, and public displays of affection on Facebook.

If you've ever experienced the same degree of frustration (and let's not bullshit each other here, envy) feel free to copy and paste it with my compliments.

But don't expect miracles. My passive-aggressive post didn't stop anyone there and then, so there's no good reason it should stop me here and now.

I'm happy to announce that my short story, "The Night Crier," will appear in The Horror Library, Volume 6.

The story is about a recent widower who can't sleep because of an obnoxious bird and its constant tweeting to attract attention. (Hmm. Notice any parallels?) He decides to find and kill the damned thing, and that's where everything begins to go horribly wrong.

Here's a little excerpt to whet your appetite:
Ed hurried downstairs. He grabbed the rifle and flashlight and went outside. 
The night air felt like ice water against his skin. He headed toward the woods, stopping every few yards to listen, adjusting his course each time the bird cried out. He marveled at the darkened houses around him, at the way others could sleep through this, their husbands and wives beside them, their children safe in the next room. 
He crossed the street and stopped at the tree line. It was colder here. Darker, too. It smelled of moist earth and life waiting to emerge. 
He waited for the night crier’s call…
It's my first sale in a while (honestly, it's the first story I've finished in a while) and I have Eric J. Guinard -- a fine editor and a great writer himself -- and Farolight Publishing to thank for picking it up.

The Horror Library, Volume 6 is scheduled to come out this spring, so look for me to mention it again at least one other time around then.

Until then, thanks for your kind attention. I now return you to your normally scheduled Internet.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Is This Thing Still On?

It's been a while. Seven-some years, I'm ashamed to say. It's not that I haven't had things to say. I just haven't been saying them here.

But 2016 has been a year with a lot of loss and weirdness and horror, so the time seemed right to suit myself up and jump back into the game.

Plus, there's news. Good news. I sold a short story to a well-known anthology series. I can't say what or where just yet, but watch this space for details and, if I'm fortunate, more good news to come. Because there's more than one story making the rounds.

And in case you're thinking, "Oh, great. Another blog chock-full of awesome self-promotion," (and I wouldn't blame you if you were) there will be reviews and news as well. 

Just give me some time. Like I said, it's been a while. But it won't be that long again.