Sunday, January 10, 2016

2015 TV Shows In (Late) Review

I sadly didn't get to make it to the theater very many times in 2015, and for this I am ashamed. I hope to atone for this in 2016, and I'm always looking for movie buddies to assist in my promise. 

However, I did watch an amount of television that might border on the unhealthy. I totally blame Netflix for this. I think if "affluenza" can be a mental condition, then so can "flixing." The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Anyways, all I can say is that I love the direction that television has taken. Because it is much easier to do a lot with very little resources, television is mastering the art of telling longer stories. 

TV writing used to feel more like telling the same sorts of stories every week until they run out of ideas, because formula makes good economic sense. There didn't used to be as much of a motivation to have an ending in mind before starting the show. 

But now, the formula includes the freedom to try things. Because some shows are released all at the same time, there is more emphasis on telling it right the first time without pandering to the audience. 

I love all the changes, and I love that serious actors are getting more serious roles to sink their teeth into. I love that serious filmmakers are taking television seriously. And I love that there are literally too many shows to choose from.

So I started watching as many as I could. I watched shows that everyone is talking about, but also a few that people seem to be missing. 

This is what I watched, in no particular order. 

Walking Dead (Season 6 - AMC) 

This has got to be the best season of the show. It is not sluggish like previous seasons have been, and I love that they continue to tell the story in vingette-style, with each episode focusing on a few characters at a time. I love that. I also had no issues with the Glenn cliffhanger, unlike most people (for some reason). Overall, though, it is the arc of the season that gets the props for me. Usually there isn’t such a clear trajectory on a show like this. The particularly brutal introduction of the Wolves was also gut-wrenching. Very good stuff. 

The Strain (Season 2 - FX)

Not enough people talk about this show, and that breaks my heart. It is vampires like you’ve never seen them. It's the Vampire Apocalypse. I really didn’t like the new kid they brought in to replace Eph’s son, and I thought his character was way too bratty. That’s the only thing I remember disliking, though. The more we learn about the master plan, the better it gets. Eichorst and Palmer both were very interesting characters to watch, and I’m also interested to see where Gus’ loyalties wind up. I’m pretty sure he’s being played. 

The Man in the High Castle (Season 1 - Amazon)

This is by far the best show I watched this year. I'm not joking or exaggerating at all. It is based on the Phillip K Dick novel about what happens in an alternate reality where the Axis won WWII. The Reich controls everything east of the Rocky Mountains, and Japan controls everything west. It’s 1962, and the fuhrer’s death is imminent, which means another Cold War scenario may be on the horizon. But the really interesting thing is how the propagandists treat the growing rebellion, which is the center of the story. 

The acting, the writing, the special effects, and in particular the production design, are all amazing. It’s so convincing, it’s like watching a nightmarish version of America. Honestly, I could go on. I cannot recommend this show highly enough. 

Dark Matter (Season 1 - Syfy)

This show is on Netflix, and it’s worth a look. It may not be groundbreaking science fiction, but it’s competent and even has a few surprises. The premise involves six crew members that wake up on a ship with no memories. They soon find out pieces of who they were, but the mystery of who wiped the memories remains until the very end. But the main point of the show is the age-old question of tabula rasa: if you gave someone a clean slate, would they just make the same mistakes all over again? If if so, is it instinct, or something else? They also revisit familiar sci-fi questions like, where is the line between life and A.I.? What role should a governing body play when scientific research puts lives in danger? Etc, etc. 

Jessica Jones (Season 1 - Netflix)

I personally liked this show more than Daredevil. Not necessarily because it is darker, but because of the overall execution of the show. The performances are stellar, and it isn’t afraid to up the stakes at any point. No one attempts to write Jessica as a traditional hero, either. I like the fact that, prior to the beginning of this show, Jessica Jones made a failed attempt to be an actual superhero. The fact that she failed (or at least thinks she failed) is what make her so interesting. That, and David Tennant playing a villian that is likely to make anyone absolutely terrified. The visuals and tone are also totally engrossing. 

House of Cards (Season 3 - Netflix)

I’m with the critics on this one: this season pales in comparison to the previous ones. The main problem is that Frank Underwood is more interesting to watch when he is under unbelievable pressure and there seems to be no where left to go but to turn around and go back. But now he’s president, so his obstacles are few and far between. 

This is why the only significant obstacle left, and the part of the season that everyone loved, was Russian President Petrov. He is glorious to watch, because he is Underwood’s match. Sadly, though, he is more interesting to watch than Frank this season. The cliffhanger is also not very compelling to me. 

Gotham (Season 1 - Fox)

The real treat of this show is the approach to corruption. It is very similar to a gangster story, but it is told in the context of justice and heroism. Detective Jim Gordon is like Mr. Smith going to Washington, and he’s all alone. Even his partner expects him to get with the program, because who is he kidding thinking he can change the system? 

This show seriously had an impact on me as a writer, too. Someone once told me that good writing means trying to write yourself into a corner, and then trying to write yourself back out. It’s another way of saying if your hero can get out of any situation, it’s too easy. But one man trying to clean up deeply entrenched corruption from the ground up is something to see. The performances are pretty darn good, too. Penguin is the real star, as it turns out, but Fish Mooney and Edward Nigma are pretty amazing too. 

Skins (Season 1 and 2 - E4)

This British drama is another hidden gem that I found on Netflix. I've scrolled past it several times before and decided to try it. It basically follows the lives of teenagers in England, and all of the crap that they go through. I think it's safe to say it's more like a show about life and death that happens to center around teenagers. The second episode, "Cassie," was the one that actually got me hooked. I've watched the first 8 minutes of that episode a couple of times, because it worked wonders on me. It worked because it was cinematic, which is a rare quality to find on television anywhere. 

I love shows in which every episode feels like a movie, with all the visual subtlety and craft of a movie. In fact, the thing I like the most about this show is how it conveys so much information visually, which TV is not really known for doing. The episode, "Chris," is another good example. This show's worth a look.

Sherlock (Series 1 - BBC)

The greatness of a show like this is not limited to the amazing performances by its cast, especially Benedict Cumberbatch. This show also feels like a series of movies. Actually, it pretty much is. Each episode is filled with long scenes where it seems like the characters aren't actually in a story at all. It's like a John Ford film, where we just sort of hang out with them until one of them makes a decision, and the story gets going again. But I like those moments. It's not like the story is going no where. This is just what it's like when the story is entirely character-driven, and that's saying a lot for a show that is basically a procedural. I had a screenwriting teacher tell me in college that Law and Order was a character-driven show - an idea that I think is laughable if you've ever seen the show. I've never read any of the famous mystery novels, but if they are anything like the character in this show, I can certainly see why Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant sociopath, is such a fascinating character. And Watson, the Yin to Sherlock's Yang, is just as interesting.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Del Toro's Crimson Peak Denounces Moralism, Praises Romanticism

Del Toro is at it again, presenting fairy-tale horror in all its lavish excess and beauty. He's also embedded a pro-liberty message into the film, as he seems to be fond of doing. The private-sector-financed Jaeger team in Pacific Rim, the psychological horrors of war in Pan's Labyrinth, and now the revival of gothic horror with a particular sort of Romantic feminist flavor. 

This is old-fashioned gothic, by the way. The fact that Del Toro doesn't even bother to keep the plot mysterious is smart. Instead of being unpredictable, his stylishness grants us permission to truly savor  the horror of its gothic setting.

The contrast between American enterprise and English aristocracy could not be more stark. 

The first act of the film takes place in the up-and-coming, turn of the century Buffalo, NY - an interesting choice, given how that city looks today. A young woman named Edith takes a liking to a newly-arrived Englishman who nevertheless fails to find anyone to invest in his building of a machine used for mining. It seems clear that he means to woo Edith and marry her for her money, a plot that his sister no doubt has a hand in. 

This is the very predictable plot: a washed-up Aristocrat on his last dime turns to the exploitation of a young girl who does have money, because he doesn't have what it takes to compete. 

And that's it. There's really nothing more to it than that, other than the (spoiler alert) incestuous love affair with his sister. But even that's not hard to see coming.

I really like this technique. A lot of people may gripe that the poor girl should have seen all this coming, but isn't that part of the point? That in the face of all evidence to the contrary, trusting a man whose house is literally falling apart and seems to have a paranormal infestation of spirits is a little bit insane. 

I say look a little closer.

Something that Scorcese did with Shutter Island is relevant here. If you recall the first image of that film, it was of Leo De Caprio's character vomiting into a bucket. In the first frame, he's telling you that the protagonist is sick. He practically spells it out for you, and still some complained about an ending that - if you had been paying attention - should not have been that hard to see coming. That film was more about why he is sick, and those reasons are for another article. 

So you already know how this film will end. You may not know the sequence of events, but you know how it will end. What the attentive viewer then gets to relish is the subtext. The purpose that brings us here. 

Period horror is inherently gothic. When has there ever been a period horror film that actually glorified the past, as if it was somehow better and more noble? Most period films seek to draw parallels between behaviors we ought to have gotten rid of by now with times in which we demonstrated a total lack of concern for it. Think of Kathy Bates's pro-slavery character in the third season of American Horror Story and you get the gist. 

The horrifying social traditions being skewered in Crimson Peak are fairly obvious: the social death of matrimony for some women, the ignoble and pathetic reliance on other people's money (inherited or otherwise), and the dismissal of a woman's ability to educate herself without help from a man.

In fact, I think this film firmly declares itself capital-R Romantic, as opposed to tamer forms of gothic fiction that existed back then. Actually, it literally does this in a scene early on in the movie. When  Edith meets the Englishman's sister for the first time, once again the subtext of women's issues rises to the level of text. The woman, seeing that Edith fancies herself a writer, compares her to Jane Austen, but Edith rebukes this association. 

She prefers Mary Shelly. Why the distinction?

Because Austen was only playing at the problem of social institutions that harm women, but Mary Shelly was a Romantic that truly believed that women were every bit the equal that men were. They didn't just have their "place" in society, they were truly free to be whomever they chose to be.

There are other differences. Austen was a moralist that wanted men and women to act a certain way, and seemed to pick and choose which social customs were "proper" and "moral" for both men and women. She was progressive enough to point out cruelty towards women and didn't want to see them treated as second-class citizens, but she was not radical enough to blame the very structure of society, without which the Aristocrats at the center of her stories would surely suffer. 

Mary Shelly, by contrast, based her horrible treatment of Frankenstein's monster off of the way orphans, outcasts, unmarried and widowed women, and many other types of socially dead people were actually treated. She was also not afraid to portray men and women as truly independent and individualistic. Rational but also empathic. Beautiful but at times cruel. There was no specific morality promoted in her work, but simply showed men and women at their best and at their worst. 

And Edith is certainly more like Shelly. Although the American doctor-turned-investigator spends the whole film figuring out that Edith is in trouble and does eventually arrive to help her, he proves to be utterly useless. By this point, she's already figured out the mystery on her own. She also saves herself and, by doing so, saves the doctor, too. 

Austen's worldview would have required her to do the moral taming of her arrogant male counterpart, while he got her all learned up and stuff about worldly matters. The doctor does figure it out, but he doesn't need to explain it to Edith. 

The fact that Edith is totally naive - thinking that moving in to a creepy English castle is anything to be smiling about - is necessary. The point is for her to learn the horror of her situation on her own, and that's exactly what she does.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Dybbuks, Golems and Madness: The Hidden Gems of Jewish Horror

The Feast of Tabernacles is going on this week, and it is the last of seven Biblical Jewish feasts for the year. I figured with how much Israel has been in the news lately, I should do an article on Israeli horror films. 

At least, I originally wanted to write another article like the ones I’ve written so far, but to my surprise, the genre is less than 5 years old in Israel! Not only was Jewish horror close to non-existent in Israel until recently, it's remained fairly rare even in the West. 

I actually find this really surprising, but there are a number of reason why this may be the case.

Perhaps the most obvious is that the realm of the fantastic probably rings a bit hollow for a group of people historically well accustomed to actual horror. But then again, this has never stopped Japan, Germany, or many others from excelling at the genre. In fact, horror on screen as a byproduct of real world horrors is more often the rule, rather than the exception.

Another huge possibility is the very strong ethos of cold hard rationalism among Jewish people (not unlike the Russians!). They would be more at home in film noir, mystery and detective fiction than in horror. However dark it may get, boundaries do exist. There are laws and customs and rules, and they exist for good reasons. 

But a more complicated reason Jewish horror films don’t exist might be the complex relationship that Christianity and Judaism has maintained throughout the years in the West. 

The fire-and-brimstone storytelling mechanics from which modern American religious horror films are rooted are absurd by Jewish standards. A belief in Satan is problematic, as is the existence of a Hell. To a Jew, it’s as if this puts the burden of personal responsibility beyond one’s own physical existence. 

But that is not where horror really exists to a Jew. 

It exists on Earth, here and now, in the hearts of real people. Not being Jewish myself, I have to imagine Christian cosmology as depicted in horror films is rather cartoonish and adolescent by comparison

It should come as no surprise that the first horror films in Israel are psychological thrillers. 

And yet, I don’t think it will end there, because the potential for dark fantasy in the Jewish tradition is very vast. We're already starting to see an interest in these stories, even in the "mall horror" films I review here. 

Truth be told, Judaism has an incredibly compelling and expansive catalogue of stories, and they all make the Grimm’s brothers look like Dean Koonz and Danielle Steele. You may have heard of some of them, too. 

Dybbuks and golems are creatures that are linked to Jewish parables that actually mean something, and the pantheon of Jewish monsters doesn't end there. It includes the great sea monster Leviathan (upon which Moby Dick and many other stories was partially based), Behemoth, and a giant bird named Ziz whose wingspan is said to be capable of blocking out the sun.

From Dr. Suess' acid rock phase...

People in the West are familiar with these creatures because they've influenced much of our Judeo-Christian culture. But we tend to conveniently forget the source. 

There’s even an alternative origin story in Jewish mysticism involving a female demon named Lilith that was supposedly made at the same time as Adam, who may have even been his first wife. Fans of the show True Blood may recognize Lilith as being the original vampire for that show’s cosmology, yet the source of inspiration for this story is easy to overlook. 

It’s a hard knock life for a Jewish storyteller. Always having to provide a burnt offering on the invisible alter of Christian dogma in order to simply be heard. Even when the origin is stated as clearly Jewish, it appears in a story whose narrative only co-opts the story to reinforce a Christian narrative. 

It’s true, Jewish Rabbi’s are used in American religious horror films all the time like they are the token black guy on the writing staff of a TV show about inner city crime. They add authenticity to the proceedings, but their worldview is still ultimately “wrong” in the end. 

Maybe there’s an inner Jew in each Christian that just wishes he or she took their faith half as seriously, and need a little bit of reassurance. 

Rent-A-Rabbi. For when things get real. 

In any event, I’m hopeful that with the advent of indie film, this will change. It should be evident from the following list of films that the potential for great horror films coming out of the Jewish community still remains to be realized. At the very least, it is proving to be an avenue that studio execs in Hollywood are increasingly willing to explore for new ideas. 

One last note: anyone who wishes to explore this topic further should review the works of Mikel Koven. He’s a professor at the University of Worchester, and after studying various genres like Blaxploitation and Italian Giallo cinema, he has recently set his sights on Jewish horror film. He mentions a scene from American Werewolf in London (which I’m not reviewing here), that seems to suggest that the protagonist is indeed a Jew having a nightmare involving senseless violence from creatures dressed up as Nazis. Koven has actually already spoken about the topic of Jewish horror multiple times at Jewish film festivals, and if you are interested in learning more about it, you should definitely check him out.

This list is in no particular order, but I'm starting with the films of Israel.

Rabies (2011)
Directed by: Aharon Keshales and Davot Papushado

This film was billed as the first Israeli horror film, and it’s a pretty darn good first attempt.  It demonstrates the ease with which every person can become prone to violent rage, given the right circumstances. Not only that, but while this film borrows most of its plot mechanics from American survival horror, it remains unpredictable and largely character-driven until the very last scene. 

Even though the basic plot is familiar - young people wind up trapped in an unfamiliar and isolated environment - the story plays out more like Shakespearean tragedy, with an extra dose of caffeine to heighten the mania. The stroke of genius of this film is in the fact that everyone in the film kills at least one other person, except for one: the “killer.” That’s right. The person set up the be the main antagonist is actually shot with a tranquilizer in the first act, and doesn’t reappear until the credits roll. 

Not that this will spoil the film, though, because watching each person become triggered by one impulse or another is nothing short of mesmerizing. Everyone in the film becomes a dangerous person to be around, and there is no supernatural appeal presented to explain it. And that is just terrifying.

Big Bad Wolves (2014)
Directed by: Aharon Keshales and Davot Papushado

Big Bad Wolves is a film about uncertainty, and it goes much darker than the first film by the filmmakers. By a lot. It reinforces the worldview of their previous film, Rabies, and suggest that one can lose his or her soul in the pursuit of justice. It is as dark as one can get, and as comical as one can get when being that dark.

After all, the story features the torture by a vigilante of a man believed to have mutilated a little girl. Much like the French film Martyrs (which I reviewed on this blog), it suggests that there is something perverse in the human condition that drives one to desire this sort of retribution, even when the guilt of the victim remains unclear. 

And yet, you would never think that a film with this sort of premise would include moments that are just plain hilarious. When the father gets involved in the torture with his son, they actually start to bond. Throughout the torture, he stops to digress with silly memories, and it's as funny as it is twisted. It’s a very odd film overall, and it cannot be described. American audiences will not likely be used to its tendency to undermine every expectation, but it’s well worth it for those with an open mind and a strong stomach.

Cannon Fodder (2013)
Directed by Eitan Gafny

Cannon Fodder is not a particularly good film, I’ll be honest. As far as zombie films go, it is pretty mediocre. The special effects are awful, the acting doubly so, and the premise couldn’t be more infantile as far as zombie convention goes. It is also very predictable, and not really scary at all.

On the other hand, there is something special about seeing the zombie apocalypse originate as a result of biological warfare between the Israelis and the Palestinians. As sloppy as this script was, and as terrible as its execution was, I believe there is potential for a truly original idea to come out of this area of the globe with respect to zombies. But this film isn’t it. And that breaks my heart because zombies.

Goldberg and Eisenberg (2013)
Directed by: Oren Carmi

This is by far my favorite of the Israeli horror films. It features a genuinely scary premise and a nearly perfect execution of that idea. A lonely man tries to find a woman to connect with, and as he does, he is tormented by a bully that stalks and harasses him. The police don’t take his pleas seriously, and when his new girlfriend finally decides she wants no part in it, he has to take matters into his own hands. 

Some of the scenes with Eisenberg (the bully) go on for an uncomfortably long time, and the parallels between the lonely Goldberg (the protagonist) and Eisenberg do not seem to be accidental. It is almost as if Eisenberg represents what Goldberg could be, if he was less sane. They are not that different. But this film is nothing like The Cable Guy. 

There is so much more going on here, and the darkly comic script is so tightly written that everything that happens follows naturally from what came before it. It is well worth a look for anyone looking to study a good psychological thriller. It really is like many critics have said: it is like Israel’s answer to the Coen brothers. 

The Possession (2012)
Directed by: Ole Bornedal

This Sam Raimi-produced flick deserves mention on this list because of the Jewish tale upon which it’s based. There seems to be mixed feelings regarding whether it treats the Jewish legend fairly, or if it is merely an appropriation of yet another Jewish story as retold in a WASP-y setting of American suburbia. 

The criticism is fair. The film works best when it is sticking to the premise that what is really going on is a young girl is experiencing puberty at the same time that her parents are divorcing. A daughter can indeed act as though she is possessed under these circumstances, and the brilliant execution of the film its Danish director really seems to keep the emotional center alive all the way to the end.

On the other hand, I’m sure no one in America would have ever known what a dybbuk was before seeing this film, or that it had anything to do with Jewish folklore. Hauntings seem to be a universal movie monster, which is why we see ghost stories all over the world. But this Jewish legend historically focuses on the reunion of a recently lost loved one with the body of the loved one left behind. This very old Jewish parable is about learning to let go and not hold on to loss forever, because it can make one spiritually sick. 

For this reason, this film works best when it reinforces the parallel between a young girl possessed by a dead creature and a daughter that desperately hopes in vain for her parents to get back together. It has a better story and better characters than any of the Insidious or Conjuring movies have. This is not a perfect film, but is is one of the better attempts at the possession sub genre

The Unborn (2009)
Directed by: David S Goyer

This is an exceedingly silly film (not in a good way), and I hesitate to include it at all. There is very little that this film does right. The metaphysics are confusing, so you don't know what the stakes are. The movie isn't even sure what kind of movie it wants to be. 

As far as the Jewish angle goes, the heroine's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, but this is presented more like cheap, exploitative window dressing. Also, the dybbuk in this film merely wants what the demon from the Insidious movies and all the other similar movies want: a physical body. Of all the angles to the dybbuk myth, these American movies seem to want to pick the most basic and least interesting. It is a real shame. 

The one thing this film tried to do that I really might have liked, had it pulled it off, was an exorcism that seems to be cobbled together based on various mystical traditions. The stereotypical Rabbinical authorities also don't make an appearance. Instead, this exorcism is sort of an admittedly amateurish affair, and this should have made the final exorcism more interesting and exciting. But it wasn't. 

The Golem (1920)
Directed by: Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen

Although this film was made in Germany by a Catholic, it is still one of my favorite horror films of all time. It is a retelling of one of the most famous Jewish legends: the resurrecting of a golem by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, one of the most famous Jewish scholars of all time. Whether or not there is any veracity to this legend, or whether the legend was even Jewish in origin, remains a mystery.

The Rabbi uses Jewish mysticism to resurrect an inanimate creature made out of clay, and although he originally does so to save his own people, it ultimately pulls a Frankenstein and goes on a murderous rampage. This might be a significant deviation from the original story’s intended purpose, though. 

Original mentions of a “golem” in the Talmud, the Bible and other places suggest that a golem simply referred to any unfinished or unformed creature. As with many Jewish stories, this German depiction of a creature from Jewish folklore is more menacing than originally intended, and with a different message. I must remain ignorant as to whether it can be considered “Jewish” in its own right, but I think it is a good film and worth a look.


A few more flicks to check out...

As I mentioned before, Mikel Koven provides a more thorough examination of Jews and Judaism in horror films. Here are a few other films to look at:

Der Dybbuk (1937) - A Polish film based on a play of the same name. It supposedly portrays a more genuine version of the dybbuk tale, where a recently deceased lover is resurrected in the body of the surviving lover. I would comment further, but sadly I have yet to find a copy that is in English. 

American Werewolf in London - A superb, oscar-winning film featuring a protagonist that is very likely to be a Jew. As mentioned previously, his nightmare sequence contains evidence that his family is Jewish (including a menorah on the mantle in the background). 

God Told Me To - Presents religious horror in the form of a detective story. Serial killers continue to utter the words, “God told me to,” after every killing, and one cop slowly goes mad trying to figure out why. It is never so much as hinted at that it is Satan, as one may expect. 

Pi - Koven doesn’t mention this film, but I think it counts. It shows the downward spiral into madness of a mathematician that is being pursued by both a wall street company and a group of Jews because of a 216-digit number in his head. The examination of the Hebrew language in mathematical terms, and of Kabbalah, is fascinating. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Yup, Jurassic World Is Also Libertarian

Gee wiz, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie in a theater, and I’m glad I broke that trend with Jurassic World. It has already made more money than the second Avengers movie did, and that’s kind of a big deal. 

What I imagine is going on at Universal right now is that scene at the end of the third Die Hard movie when the Germans are popping champagne on top of piles of money, saying, "Now we have to decide which country we want to buy!"

When I gave my talk two years ago on the 100 highest grossing films of all time, I argued that Jurassic Park was libertarian because the triumphant dinosaurs represent the free market. It is not an anti-science film because the thrill of seeing dinosaurs at all is what got us spectators in the seats in the first place. It’s not anti-capitalist because Spielberg replaced the greedy charlaton of the book with a sympathetic old man with a sense of adventure. 

Plus, the lawyer gets eaten, as does the thief that started the whole mess. Spielberg went out of his way to get us to relate to the whole idea of a dinosaur theme park. He practically said, “no, seriously, this is awesome. Amiright?”

It was awesome. And so is Jurassic World.

What’s the common denominator of these two films? What is the theme that Jurassic World seems to hammer home over and over? Simply put, it’s about control.

Literally. That word is spoken so many times in the film, I lost count.

If you were expecting a treatise on environmentalism, or even just a lecture on cruelty to animals, you came to the wrong movie. This movie likely will make people WANT to go to Seaworld this summer. Maybe you think that’s a bad thing, but this film doesn’t care. 

This film is channeling the same American moxie that sent the proud, oil-rig-drilling Texan Bruce Willis into outer space to blow up an asteroid. It's a lot like that, actually.

But that’s not to say the film doesn’t address animal cruelty. It’s very clear that raising animals in captivity is not what’s being criticized here at all. Instead, it’s saying that working with animals is a relationship, and it’s wrong to always think about that relationship as being one of supremacy by one over the other. 

But it goes deeper than even that. 

Why make the hero a veteran of the Navy, when the film clearly demonizes the actual villain for his pro-military approach to pretty much EVERYTHING. He’s the guy that wants to weaponize the raptors and use them for military operations. There's even a disturbing boyish grin on his face as the dinosaurs begin to wreak havoc, like a playground bully poking an injured animal.

That’s pretty dark, but even that is not so black and white. The film seems be informed by an anti-military worldview, in fact, by making a soldier the film’s primary hero.

Actually, you could say that the whole film is a series of mandala-like paradoxes. 

Consider the geneticist. He’s responsible for creating the Indominous Rex, and he doesn’t even seem to feel any guilt about it like we might expect him to. But he makes a good point: Everything that was done in that lab was an invention that might be considered “unnatural” by those that tend to frown on innovation. Everything that's new could have negative consequences, and that was always true. It was true with the locomotive, and with nuclear energy. He’s not the bad guy. 

What do all these stories have in common? The lab tech, the manager, the soldier? They are all familiar with having to think for themselves from within larger institutions which operate using the control-or-be-controlled binary. 

The soldier, the animal wrangler, the scientist, and the park manager all understand that there is a right way and a wrong way to do what they do. You could say that the film champions the proletariat, except that there’s no similar indictment of capitalism. In fact, the solution to the problem was found from within the same system that created it. No outside intervention necessary.

And let’s not forget the kids. These amazing specimens go from being hampster-wheel-driving Rex bait to safety, all on their own. And they do it by working together (much like the kids in the original film did). They don’t respond to danger with the expectation that help will come, but by rigging a Jeep and saving themselves. There’s a whole libertarian story in its own right.

One last observation you could also make is to point out the commentary on transparency. It’s understandable for a corporation to not want the pubic to know about a new attraction in the works, but its entirely another when the park manager doesn’t even know anything about that creation. Actually, no one but the chief geneticist himself seems to understand what the thing even is or what it can do until it’s too late. 

I can say with some experience that this issue of transparency is not just a problem in government, but in any institution that is big enough to hide big secrets. Why would we libertarians expect corporations to be incapable of this? The only difference is that the losses are private losses, not socialized losses.

Well, there is one socialized loss, I suppose: getting eaten by a dinosaur. Let’s face it, that’s gotta be a drain on the economy. 

The moral of the story seems to be: working together voluntarily (even across species, as the case may be!) is preferable to force. To turn any of these animals into weapons, or to treat them like they are owned (even if, legally speaking, they are), is not good. It’s not bad because “animals have rights,” but because it demonstrates an insidious behavior that, if used against one’s fellow man, is demonstrably bad. 

Whether the world of our story is pubic or private, politically speaking, the same libertarian tendencies still triumph. Non-aggression, free association, open communication and transparency, mutual respect, spontaneous order. What fails are policies of control, manipulation, dishonesty, secrecy, cruelty, and ignorance. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Game of Thrones Is Getting Better, Not Worse

I wanna lay down a little truth about Game of Thrones, and the first part will be spoiler-free. The second half, however, will spoil like goat cheese on a summer day in Arizona. I’ll let you know when to stop reading. 

Right up to the end of season five, Game of Thrones was owning its story, and it was glorious. It’s as if it didn’t care WHAT fans wanted or expected, it just told the story in the best way possible. It didn't pander, and this is a GOOD THING, not a bad thing. 

Not enough people seem to get it, and a lot of it stems from those darn books. I’m not knocking the books, and given that I have not read a word of them, it would be pretty arrogant of me to do so. 

Buuuuuut on the other hand….

TV is not literature. They are two different things. One involves a television set, and one does not. 

Unless, of course, your bookshelf is a TV set.

There is too much whining going on every time the show does anything that it’s drowning out the few voices that see the genius for what it is. 

People are lining up to eviscerate Game of Thrones. Some don’t hate it, but think that it’s lost its way in recent years. These days, this has become sort of a tradition. A very sad tradition, though. But they are missing the point. 

Personally, I think the show is like a pH balance water tester, but for political correctness. And that always wins brownie points, in my book. Someone somewhere is not happy with what just happened in the most recent episode, and they want the WHOLE world to know just how much they are NOT taking it anymore. 

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

These aren’t people who didn’t really like the show. These are fans. So it’s perplexing. I haven’t seen this much of a love/hate relationship with a show since the writers at Lost introduced a three-toed statue and then took six seasons NOT explaining where it came from. 

But it’s not the explanations that have GOT fans in a tizzy. For some, it’s the story itself. They don’t like seeing lovable characters get killed. And those folks need to find some healing crystals and a small furry animal of some kind, and then when they gather up the gumption, take their beef up with Mr. Martin himself. Because that’s his fault. 

My beef, though, is with fans that don’t like the deviations from the books. Boo hoo that your favorite character is still alive in the books. Cry me a river because the thing went down, but not EXACTLY like it did in the book. It will be ok, I promise. 

I see this every time there is an adaptation of anything, and it bugs the hell out of me. It’s annoying because many book fans have unobtainable expectations. Even the most openminded of them will draw blood at the first sign that their favorite character doesn’t get the attention they deserve.

Folks, chill. 

When I wrote my blog on why I thought Katniss Everdeen was a terrible character, the main criticism I got was that I hadn’t read the book. Well I did read the book after that, and while it clarified some expositional stuff, it didn’t change my opinion of Katniss. In fact, I concluded that the experience of watching the movie was (for me, at least) much more enjoyable than reading the book. I would much rather see the world of Panem on screen than have it described to me by a 17-year-old. Maybe that’s just me.

The point is, not only is it possible for adaptations to be successful, but they can even improve upon the source material. I won’t know for sure unless I read George Martin’s books, but I will say that every time someone complains about an event that was changed on the show, the way it plays out in the book (as told to me by the magical interwebs, and by friends) always seems lame by comparison. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I like to think that, being a writer myself who pays close attention to story mechanics, that I can recognize good storytelling when I see it. And I gotta say, Game of Thrones is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen. While many are out there saying the show is going down hill, I could not disagree more. It has never been sharper.

This show is like Pinot Noir, and it’s getting better with each season. The improvements they’ve made to the pacing and plotting of each season is measurable and impressive. While the early seasons were sprawling and uneven (like I’m told the book is), the last two seasons in particular feel as if they were mapped out. It feels like the storyteller is very much in control, as it should be. No one wants to start a show anymore for the same reason they wouldn’t want to get on a roller coaster after the attendant says, “I think you’ll like it… we have no idea where it’s going to end!” 

Oh no... not another X-Files!

Uh, no. I insist all of my roller coasters have an ending planned. That’s kind of important.

There is nothing more gratifying than knowing that the creators have an endpoint in mind, and to see them shuffle things around and make room, all in the name of telling the story in the best, most efficient way possible. 

Take Bram’s story, for example. It was pointed out at the end of season 4 that his story had already reached the point it had reached at the end of the book. They wondered why his story had been accelerated so quickly, and that the showrunners announced he would not be in season 5 for this reason. Yet when I learned of this, I knew why immediately. And it’s a stroke of genius. 

If we can focus on that story and give it the justice it deserves, and doing that means telling it quickly, why is this a bad decision? It does not affect the other stories, so why not get that one out of the way, so that season 5 can focus on everything else. The only other option is to drag it out, and ALL fans hate it when shows do that. 

The bottom line is: There are dozens of stories going on at any given time in the world of Westeros, and the showrunners of GOT have realized that telling them all at once is a TERRIBLE idea. Yet if fans had their way, all the stories would get told, but nobody would stick around to watch them. Because tedious. Because confusing. Because boring.

One of the ways the show fixes it is by combining story-lines and characters. Another is the above-mentioned time displacement of the individual stories themselves (like Bram’s story). But the most innovative is the one people hate the most: killing off characters. 

Here’s the thing… 

I suspect that some of the character deaths will ultimately prove to be better on the show than in the book. Martin likely doesn’t know who is going to die or how or when, until he gets there. But what if the showrunners - acting like prescient Gods who know better - can see that these character deaths might be better served if handled differently. Rather than give all the epic deaths to minor characters, only to let major characters just sort of fade away in the end, or get caught up in pettiness, they make changes. They fix it and make it better, more compelling.

Wanna see what I mean? Stick around. 

I could pick any episode of the show, because they pretty much all make the point as well. Here’s my thoughts on Season 5's finale…

Ok, here come the spoilers…


After spending a whole season at the House of Black and White, learning to become some sort of faceless assassin (because she has nowhere else to go, and why not?), she finally picks her target. It is the pedophile, Meryn Trant, and she violates the code of her teaching to kill him. And man is it a good death. It is brutal, like the death of the Viper last season. But she gets punished for this because he was not the man she was supposed to kill. She goes blind, and now her fate is up in the air. 

First of all, the choice to change the man from the more minor character Raff the Sweetling to the incredibly relevant Meryn Trant was one of those strokes of genius I was talking about. Meryn and Arya have a history. Meryn has terrorized her family since season 1, and even smacked Sansa around a bit. When Arya recites her list of names she wants to eliminate, his is first on that list. The moment of this man’s death was one of those moments that made me think “they must have known back in season 1 that, regardless of how he goes out in the books, it would be Arya to end him.” This was very satisfying. 

Also, I’ve read quite a few things concerning Arya’s training, and while the first part of her story in this season was plodding and uninteresting, combining the various threads into one moment like they did was effective. I just wish we didn’t have to wait so long.


In typical GOT fashion, at least one major storyline gets wrapped up in episode 9, and I was glad it was Dany’s. Not many shows are going to end the episode with a heroine flying away on a goddam dragon, and this could have been a season-ending scene in its own right. But Daenarys Targaryen has claimed the final moments of several seasons already, so give the other dog a bone. 

Still, this episode did a few things differently than the book, and they work wonderfully. In the book, Barristan Selmy is left to run the city of Mereen while Dany is M.I.A., except they killed him a few episodes back on the show. I believe this episode kinda shows you why. Isn’t it infinitely more gratifying to see Tyrion in a position of authority instead? How long have we waited for Tyrion to get his day in the sun, where he is able to finally put his political genius to work? And not only that: we’ve been watching Dany struggle without an advisor for some time, and this union is so exciting! And the cunning Verys is there, too! 
With not one but a few effective advisors, Dany (if she survives her recent capture by the Dothraki) just may well get her wish of taking King’s Landing. Oh, and her “Break the Wheel” speech, which wasn’t in the book (or so I’m told), is also exciting. The cliffhanger to Dany’s story is probably my favorite, and it’s totally because of Tyrion. 

One more thing about Dany’s arc that sticks out to me is the love between her and Jorah. I’ve always believed that Dany and Jorah represent the greatest love story on the show. Think about it: Dany’s failures this season, I think, are the result of Jorah’s absence. Many have misunderstood her erratic behavior and lack of clear direction as a fault of the writers, but I think this is actually precisely the point. She’s lost her way. She is nobody without Jorah, who was there with her when she was at her lowest point ever, and turning him out was the biggest mistake she ever made. 

She’s forgotten why she wanted to take King’s Landing in the first place, and it shows in her poor leadership decisions. This is deliberate. She needs to forgive Jorah for his betrayal, and Jorah needs to forgive himself. These two need each other. How many men would be willing to fight to the death in the pits to get back into a woman’s good graces? And Dany knows it, too. Their reunion will be even more overdue than her meeting Tyrion. And I can’t wait. Because I’m a sap.


Poor poor Stannis. His attempt to take back Winterfell from the Boltons did not go as planned. Half of his men deserted him because he decided that barbecuing his daughter was more important than, you know, being a human being. His wife offs herself, Melissandre high-tails it out of there, and Stannis marches into sudden death with so very few men. 

To understand the tragic beauty in all of this, remember how far Stannis has come. He’s been quite successful the last few seasons, and after seeing what Ramsey did to our beloved Sansa, we REALLY wanted him to take back Winterfell from the Boltons. Not because we like Stannis, but because we REALLY don’t like the Boltons. But it’s even more tragic because we spent so much time getting to know Stannis as a human being, only to find that he is capable of filicide. 

He was all ready to show the Boltons what’s up (and boy, were we hoping he would!). But I kept thinking, “How the mighty have fallen.” In the book, the battle is more even, but I think I like the former approach better. Sometimes, battles always have that sense of arbitrary unfairness to them in stories. While war may be unfair in reality, it’s always more interesting dramatically if the failure is tied to a character flaw of one of the leaders. In other words, if the Boltons and the Baratheons fought a mostly-even fight, and one of them came out on top, it is only as interesting as the battle itself. But if it’s tied to a flaw (cowardice, hubris, incompetence, etc), then that is more interesting. 

It’s not just Stannis’ treacherous actions that make this ending fascinating. For me, it’s also the fact that very little of this is even stated. It’s all shown visually. The men desert, but we don’t have to be told why. His wife kills herself, but we are not told - it is shown to us. But best of all, we never need to be told how much the deck is stacked against them. All we need is the line, “There won’t be a siege,” followed by the visual of Bolton’s army flanking Stannis’ small band of men (see: image at the start of this article). It’s told visually, because it’s television. And that’s awesome. 


While Ramsey was off slaughtering Stannis’ men, Sansa finally lights her candle just a moment too late for Brienne to see it. She gets caught, but Theon - in a long-awaited moment of defiance - throws her captor to her death. The two then jump into the snow, where they will presumably attempt to escape. It is the end of a very dark period in both of their lives (we hope), and we are all eagerly anticipating what happens next. 

Sansa’s rape a few episodes back was the topic of much controversy, and I had mixed feeling about it. Or at least, I did have mixed feelings until I discovered that Sansa never marries Ramsey in the book. Then I had a realization: People are only mad that it happened to Sansa, instead of a minor character no one cares about. I don’t understand how it could be a step backward to remove a minor character, and give a trying experience to a main character. 

It ups the stakes. It’s easy to kill or torture characters we don’t really care about and haven’t gotten to know. It’s another thing entirely to do it to characters we’ve gotten to know, and care about deeply. But this is Game of Thrones at its best. It is any show at its best. Think of that scene in the final season of The Sopranos between Tony and Christopher. Or Nate on Six Feet Under. Or any of a number of characters on The Walking Dead. Except, with Game of Thrones, it’s every episode. And all that matters is that the death is done in the service of good storytelling. 


Things don’t go well for Cersei either, although I’m sure Theon would have gladly traded places with her. Cersei’s walk of shame is where this episode, “Mother’s Mercy”, likely gets its name. And it’s really powerful. 

After giving political power and legitimacy to the High Sparrow for her own political gains (to have her daughter-in-law thrown in prison), it backfires when they throw her in prison. And that isn’t even the half of it. They know about her love affair with her brother Jaime, and they intend to hold a public trial. She confesses to infidelity but not to the allegation of incest, for which she is actually guilty, and is granted the freedom to return to her castle. 

But only after she walks there, through the city streets, completely naked. The chickens come home to roost for the evil, manipulative Queen mother. 

Seeing her in prison the last few episodes was gratifying, for sure. This is an evil woman, after all. She calls her own brother, Tyrion, a freak, and blames him for their mother’s death. She even accused him publicly of killing Joffrey, even though she knew it probably wasn’t him. She’s complicit in Ned Stark’s death, did nothing to curtail Joffrey’s lunacy, and has dozens of political machinations at work at any given time. She is not a good person. 

And yet… I wept for her. 

She walks through hundreds of people, many of whom shout sexual slurs and hurl feces at her. The scene goes on for about ten minutes, and it seems like Cersei is going to endure it all. She forces herself to endure it, and not show weakness. The scene is both big in scope and intimate at the same time. 

In short, the show conveyed the painful emotions women often feel in our own society in a way that a man like me can actually connect to. And they did it with one of the least likable characters on the show! They have succeeded where hundreds of feminist bloggers have failed, even while these same feminist bloggers decry the show for its depiction of sexual violence toward women. Had the show held back or censored any of this scene, it would not have been as powerful. 

More importantly, this scene is WAY more effective in a TV show format than it could ever be in a book. There is less at stake in the imagination, but seeing it on screen adds a gravity that is not possible in the book. Lena Headey is a very real person, and the things she experienced while filming this scene are undoubtedly at the back of a viewer’s mind while watching. Of the myriad ways this scene could have been filmed, that they did not shy away from showing the ugliness of such an event is good. Most of it doesn’t feature music, and they do not use kid gloves. I truly believe that this scene is not any longer or shorter than it needed to be. In 10 minutes, an evil mastermind was transformed into a human, relatable character. And that’s good storytelling.


Sam and Jon have a little chat about Sam going to learn to be a Master, and it’s clear that one of them is probably saying goodbye to the other for good. It turns out that person is Jon. The other Night’s Watchmen do not take kindly to Jon Snow’s decision to let Wildlings through the Wall, and so they kill him. 

This scene was like Stannis’ battle scene. It was tragically beautiful, if you think about everything that came before it. Jon Snow’s motives are, at this point, 100% pure. He knows the White Walkers are an unbelievably powerful force to be reckoned with, and he’s obviously making all the right decisions in getting the Night’s Watch to work with the Wildlings. 

On the other hand, the bad blood between them has a long history. Jon is, perhaps, naive to think this plan would work. That is why, when the boy who lost his family to Wildling raiders, is one of the last to put a dagger in Jon’s heart, it is understandable. He looks at Jon, as if to say, “how could you?” And it feels right and wrong at the same time. This moment almost moved me to tears. 

Now consider the book, where Jon tries to convince the Night’s Watch to join him in attacking the Boltons, and there’s a mutiny because he in effect is breaking his vow never to get involved in political matters of the realm. Now doesn’t that just seem a tad petty by comparison? Instead of Jon dying for something that we can all agree is a good cause - defending the realm against White Walkers - he dies in pursuit of yet another game of thrones, so to speak. 

This is why the show is better: it knows that heroes have flaws, but it also knows that stories like this need people to root for! It’s a drag when every character you place your hopes on just lets you down all the time. If heroes don’t rise up at all, then it’s just torture porn. We’re just pain addicts. That’s when the show really does become exploitative. So perhaps it’s Martin that’s being exploitative for not giving us at least something to root for.

The way they chose to kill Jon Snow, as opposed to the books, is one of the best examples of why the show is so great. And who knows… maybe the much-talked-about Lady Stoneheart storyline will be combined with Jon Snow, and they’ll bring him back to do everything she did in the book. Who knows? The good thing is that, we’re now at a point where no one knows the rest of the story. Not even book-fans. Maybe now, we can start to appreciate the show, instead of denigrating it for its lack of strict adherence to a book series that isn’t even finished.