A Few Thoughts on The X-Files – Season 10

The X-Files Season 10, despite some reviews saying it lost a step, couldn’t have more captured the original show. It was the classic mixture of absolutely-off-the-cuff bullshit sold as its “mythology,” a single genius episode buried within, a couple worthy standalones, and one absolutely atrocious piece of garbage. A.K.A. Season 10 was a microcosm of the original 202 episodes that aired from 1993 to 2002.

Episodes

  1. My Struggle
  2. Founder’s Mutation
  3. Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster
  4. Home Again
  5. Babylon
  6. My Struggle II

By my estimation, the show went 3-for-3, its biggest strength being the reunion of talent behind and in front of the camera. All of the good stuff was done the two returning stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, though Anderson unsurprisingly does better work, and by X-Files veterans like James Wong and Darin Morgan who return to the material like no time has passed (despite all the show’s flaws, its writer’s room was often exemplary).

Morgan previously wrote four classic X-Files episodes, “Humbug,” “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “The War of the Coprophrages” and played the fan-favorite Flukeman in Season 2’s “The Host.” So it’s no surprise that his written-and-directed episode “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was head-and-shoulders above the rest. It is a brilliant exercise in existential absurdism that embodies everything about the best X-Files episodes, with the added tragicomedy inherent in Morgan’s writing.

“Home Again” (NOT a sequel to the classic Season 4 “Home” as many like me hoped) is a Wong joint and brought horror elements missing from other installments. Like most episodes, its plot is shaky and a little weak but its themes and perverse tone manage to overcome it. Any day there’s a trash monster going around ripping people apart by hand, it’s a good day in my book.

Meanwhile, “Founder’s Mutation” was a little more generic but was a welcome shift to standalones after the astonishingly-bad, mythology-heavy opener (DIGRESSION: Chris Carter, if you’re reading, the show should just be standalones. Seriously, fuck this mythology. It would give a pretzel a heart attack: END DIGRESSION).

The three bad episodes of the revival have one thing in common: creator Chris Carter. As an extraordinarily hands-off showrunner, his show has always cultivated an auteur flavor, giving television writers like Morgan, Frank Spotnitz and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan the chance to imprint it with their passions and personal flavor. Carter’s auterism, however, is didactic and often boring.

Let’s be blunt: the “My Struggle” two-parter was not good. In fact, they were pretty awful in almost every way. Carter, who wrote and directed both as well as the also-terrible “Babylon,” is the George Lucas of The X-Files, i.e. a creator totally divorced from what makes his work great.

In the premiere alone, Mulder gives the most muddled conspiratorial speech since the end of JFK, unconvincingly rewriting the last 20 years of the show’s mythology. Carter madly tries to fit the show’s many catchphrases (I want to believe! The truth is out there!) wherever it is needlessly obvious. Meanwhile Joel McHale’s right-wing personality Tad O’Malley convinces him of 21st conspiracies like 9/11-was-a-false-flag seem unnecessarily politicized for this show. Conspiracies in the 90s – aliens! monsters! demons! – were a lot less offensive.

The aformentioned “Babylon” is truly one of the worst hours of television I have witnessed. From the disgusting blend of casual racism and Islamophobia, to the nonsense “plot” of giving Mulder magic mushrooms to make a psychic connection with a comatose terrorist (it’s even worse in action) to the fiftieth set of Mulder-Scully dopplegangers, Miller and Einstein played by Robbie Amell and Lauren Ambrose. Carter tried to wedge comedy in with the new agents and Mulder’s trip (which includes a dance number). None of it worked.

Despite all of these flaws, I will watch this show ad infinitum just to discover gems like “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster.” I’m bullish but I’d be lying if I said this revival wasn’t discouraging. Yet, I feel each truly-great X-Files episodes makes it all worth it and it’s not a feeling I have about almost any other show. So I’m glad despite the underwhelming nature of Season 10, there is already talk of another go-around.

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The Walking Dead 6.10: The Next World – Review

Richonne happened!

The two warriors, badly damaged by the zombie apocalypse, finally realized they were what the other wanted after an episode of palate-cleansing misadventures. Rick and Daryl encountered a stranger named Jesus (new series regular Tom Payne) on a supply run and Michonne, with an assist from Carl, helped Spencer find closure by ending his zombified mother Deanna (an unexpected final appearance by Tovah Feldshuh).

The romance is another example of showrunner Scott Gimple’s remix approach, which has been largely embraced by fans. Around this point in the comics, Rick begins a relationship with longtime companion Andrea (dead since the Season 3 finale in the show).

As I mentioned in last week’s recap, The Walking Dead is, for better or worse, a predictable show by virtue of its construction (eight episode batches every spring and fall) and its own folly. That said, this episode was unique. It was lighter in a way few episodes of this show are. Starting with the classical pairing of Rick/Daryl, the addition of comic fan-favorite Jesus and the consummation of Richonne, there was humor, normalcy and even sex – things usually absent or in short supply from this perpetual survival tale.

It plays into the theme of this back half – that of a “larger world” and figuring out where Alexandria fits in it. It reminds the characters (and thus the audience) that there is more to the world, this world, than constant decapitations and a growing numbness to horror. That is a beautiful thing and I can’t think of a more beautiful summation of this idea than the concluding shot, with Rick and Michonne artfully entwined after lovemaking. Of course, in another Dead theme, the moment was all-too-brief, with Jesus entering and insisting he and Rick talk.

For all intents and purposes, this was “breather” episode. The aftermath and cleanup from last week’s Battle for Alexandria is skipped, as is Carl’s recovery from his de-eyeballing. Rick and Daryl’s misadventures with Jesus echo a buddy cop dynamic and their camaraderie was sorely missing from the first half of the season. And speaking of Gimple’s remix method, the scenes of Carl with Enid (and her with Glenn last week) seemed to continue setting her up as a surrogate for Sophia (a character killed in Season 2 yet still alive in the comics, like Andrea) who becomes a daughter figure to Maggie, especially after some upcoming tragic events occur.

Some point to Rick hooking up with Michonne so soon after the tragedy with Jessie as gross, but that discounts the time skip between “No Way Out” and this episode, as well as the relationship between the two that’s been evolving since they met in Season 3. It’s not like they introduced a new chick for Rick to bang for this episode. Most importantly, it felt like the Jessie storyline mattered. She got Rick to open up one emotional place to another where he was looking for romance.

What was lovely was how natural instead of gimmicky the Danai Gurira and Andrew Lincoln made it feel, against Internet odds wherein Richonne shippers have existed for years. Together, they collectively clued the audience to the unspoken truth the characters were only now acknowledging. It’s the benefit of strong actors combined with longform storytelling, so kudos to Gimple for doing this story right.

I’ve been burned too many times by the show to say that The Walking Dead has conquered its lingering problems. Still, there’s too much good to ever write the show off, even if it succeeds on a case-by-case basis. This chapter is good addition to the canon, accomplishing the feat of introducing new elements, moving pieces into place and paying off long-running arcs.

Loving this show, like loving most things, means learning to accept them as part of the imperfect whole, in this case the whole is planet Earth’s favorite TV show.

 

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The Walking Dead 6.9: No Way Out – Review

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is my 100th post for the Slog. To all my readers, thank you for following along. To all my non-readers, you’re not reading this, so I can say with impunity I fucked your mom last night after making her pay for a seafood dinner. And I’m not calling her back.

The dead are back to walking as AMC’s flagship hit shambles back for the second half of its sixth season. No Way Out is an exciting piece of television but its impact not what it could be thanks to the show’s missteps, most egregious being last fall’s whole #IsGlennDead debacle.

In what has become an all-too predictable pattern, the show blasts out of the gates strong (with excellent premieres like Season 5’s “No Sanctuary” and this year’s “First Time Again“) but the momentum from those big episodes is almost always drained by fluff stretched to a breaking point to get to the next “event” episode, in this case the finale, which already promises the introduction of much-heralded Big Bad Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The Walking Dead‘s constant struggle has been making these interludes between the zombie-and-human mayhem interesting.

This half-season, subtitled “A Larger World” after the comic book arc (similarly, this episode’s title is also straight from the comics) promises a new era on the show: one less constrained by the formula of finding sanctuary, losing it, finding another etc. and more by rebuilding civilization, one Medieval brick at a time. The wording is no coincidence; the worldbuilding of different factions, their alliances and history echoes its rival for television omnipotence, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

However, those aren’t issues “No Way Out” has to deal with because it graciously drops us right where we left off. The zombie herd has invaded Alexandria. Rick, Carl, baby Judith, Michonne, Father Gabriel, Jessie and her sons Ron and Sam covered themselves in zombie guts to sneak through the undead crowd. Tara, Rosita and Eugene are holed up with the unconscious Carol and Morgan after the wounded Wolf took Denise hostage and left. Maggie is trapped on a guard tower while Glenn and Enid try to save her. As if that’s not enough, Daryl, Sasha and Abraham are stopped on the road back to Alexandria by a bunch of Negan’s biker henchman who call themselves the Saviors.

This opening encounter was teased extensively prior but it resolves itself very quickly via RPG explosion courtesy of Daryl, who gets another badass RPG-hero moment at the end of the episode when the trio finally get back to Alexandria and join in on the climatic melee against the horde.

Prior however, we were treated to Glenn and Enid’s continued adventure in empowerment blah blah blah. After #IsGlennDead, I am burned the fuck out on Glenn/Maggie separation drama so his rescue of Maggie lacked any dramatic tension whatsoever. The best we can hope for is for the show to put this behind it and use Deanna’s (Tovah Feldshuh) death to elevate Maggie to a position of power. And the show felt downright trolly when Glenn and Maggie’s “reunion” (really just her seeing him) nearly ended with Glenn about to be devoured by walkers. Again. But Glenn’s execution (by baseball bat, specifically) was stayed by the machine gun fire of big damn heroes Sasha and Abraham.

Speaking of heroes, the question of who is a hero and who can be a hero was an enjoyable if unsubtle theme to tonight’s episode. Carol and Morgan recovered after their fight over the Wolf’s life while he held Denise hostage in the midst of the horde. This storyline was always intriguing but a tad frustrating, as if the writers’ were uncertain how it would play out. Ultimately, the Wolf actually saves Denise from a walker before being bit himself. He seems almost perplexed by his actions but, change achieved, Carol takes him out but not before witnessing him save her again. Denise returns to the infirmary changed as well, newly confident in her abilities.

I was thrown by how awfully inconsistent the rules of talking around zombies appeared. To me, it was fairly evident the midseason finale last fall implied Sam was blowing the whole thing by talking. But instead we get several conversations in the midst of crisis like it’s no big deal until of course, it is. After night descends, little Sam’s wailing does indeed get the better of him and the zombies get him. Jessie refuses to let him go and gets caught herself. Her death grip on Carl forces Rick to make another sanity-shattering decision to save his son – by cutting her arm off. This guy just cannot catch a break.

The show feels the need to further drive this point home via a bullet to Carl’s eye, shot by a vengeful Ron who was aiming at Rick. Michonne, not one to fuck around, kills Ron while Rick carries the unconscious Carl to the infirmary where Aaron, Spencer and Heath were hiding out. Denise, fresh from her ordeal with the Wolf, has found her confidence and immediately goes to work to save Carl’s life. Rick is left in shock, no doubt realizing that, no matter the zombie apocalypse, getting your kid shot twice before he’s finished puberty is shitty parenting.

Rick, for want of a better phrase, goes apeshit. After handing off his one-eyed son to Denise, he walks outside and goes to town. Soon joined by Michonne and the others, the group of fighters swells with much of the main cast. Carol, Morgan, Tara, Rosita even Eugene and Fr. Gabriel (who had protected Judith at great risk) step up to the plate, with the latter leading his church denizens.

The sequence was a great example of how when the show does things right, it does them very right. Starting with the impeccably costumed walkers, hundreds in number, corralled by famous makeup artist/producer/director Greg Nicotero. His flourishes with Rick’s reaction to Jessie’s death and Alexandria’s fight back against the horde were highlights.

The theme of change was wrapped up nicely by the final scene with Rick by Carl’s bedside as he lays comatose. Andrew Lincoln sells the shit out of yet another of Rick’s speeches (this was a subgenre: Rick by Injured Carl’s Side Speech). He saw that people can change and the world can change with them. They aren’t controlled by the zombies anymore. They can fight them. And win. They can start over in “the new world.”

 

 

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Deadpool (2016) – Review

Take Bugs Bunny, give him katanas, bloodlust, Ryan Reynolds’ abs and ADHD snark and you have Deadpool, the titular antihero of the year’s first superhero movie, which makes use of the character’s fourth-wall breaking and humor to gleefully take apart superhero film tropes, most hilariously encapsulated by an opening credits sequence rivaling Watchmen for creativity (ex: the director is credited as Overpaid Tool). The film’s irreverence masks the underlying emotion coursing through the film: joy. Everybody is having a blast in this movie and that, above all, is why it works.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary (although the film tells us he A-Team-style only helps who can’t help themselves, as if we need more than Reynolds’ face to find Wade likable) who hangs out a merc bar run by his best friend Weasel (T.J. Miller). There, he meets and falls in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a hooker who’s “crazy matches his crazy,” as he puts it.

However, a terminal cancer diagnosis sends Wade into the arms of a mutant “workshop” (presumably an off-shoot of the Weapon X program that gives Wolverine his claws*) which promises a cure. Led by the sadistic sociopath Ajax (Ed Skrein), the “treatment” turns out to be little-more than torture which gives Wade superhuman healing for the price of disfiguring his face. After he escapes, he refuses to return to Vanessa until he can find Ajax and get him to fix the damage.

Meta-superhero takedowns are a subgenre unto itself at this point, home to to the aformentioned Watchmen, Kick-Ass and Super but Deadpool differentiates itself by never once taking itself seriously, despite a love story wedged into the film to give it something resembling a heart when all it needed was a dick, if we’re still down for the body part metaphor. The romance forms much of the plot, which essentially comes down to an extended flashback and some action scenes. Really, that’s it. But, for the most part, it doesn’t matter because the film never lets you think about it too much.

The problem that meta-textual stories (i.e. stories where the character breaks the fourth-wall to inform the audience this is a “different kind of superhero movie”) face is having-its-cake-and-eating-it-too syndrome, wherein the film does the exact things it intends to skewer/deconstruct and somehow because the characters’ are self-referential, it’s suddenly fine (looking at you, Jurassic World)? Deadpool solves this issue like its hero would – by making fun of it and then miming masturbation. Surprisingly, it works.

Reynolds’ makes this movie. It quite literally wouldn’t exist without him. First attached in 2006, his passion for the character survived his infamous sodomy at the hands of X-Men Origins: Wolverine as well as Reynolds’ other superhero misfire Green Lantern. Given his experience, he thankfully refused to compromise here and, in exchange for a significantly-lowered budget, an R-rating was allowed and cinema is finally gifted with a scene of Ryan Reynolds getting pegged by a hooker.

The rest of the cast fill their roles and little else, which given the zippy inanity that is Deadpool’s world is probably tonally preferable. Baccarin bring energy to hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype and Wade’s love interest. Skrein is suitably evil as the stereotypical British Villain (as he is credited) who insists he be called his nickname Ajax instead of Francis, something Deadpool takes great glee in ignoring, and MMA fighter-turned-actress Carano is wisely given little dialogue as henchwomen Angel Dust. The film also adds some B-Team X-Men, metal man Colossus (a fully-CGI creation voiced by Stefan Kapcic) and indifferent teenage girl Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), to the mix to give some tenuous connection to the X-Men franchise (there’s also a cameo appearances by the Professor Xavier’s School for Mutants and the X-Jet).

First-time feature director Tim Miller is a Deadpool lifer like Reynolds, having been attached for the last six years of development. He keeps the film moving at a brisk pace and the jokes flying so fast that the duds are forgotten in favor of the gags that work. Much of that can also be attributed to writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, as well as Reynolds’ own comedic skills and Miller’s improvisation as comic relief/sidekick Weasel. Broadway actress Leslie Uggams adds a few laughs later in the film as Deadpool’s blind housemate appropriately named Blind Al, whom he calls “his Robin, if Robin were an old, blind black woman.”

Given the decade of difficulty in getting this film made, the passionately fun filmmaking and expert marketing have turned it into an event. It wisely occupies the same February weekend that gave the similarly R-rated takedown film (in this case, spy-fi) Kingsman: The Secret Service a surprise $400 million worldwide gross. Indeed, a sequel is already greenlit, with Reese and Wernick returning to script. It’s a good thing too, because the key to this movie working is the obvious love and commitment each party brings to the process, with Reynolds leading the way.

As will all comic-book movies, stick around after the credits for a little something. And as with this comic book movie, expect it to have its cake and eat it too. Thank god it’s made of Reynolds’ secret sauce.**

*For those wondering, Deadpool does indeed take place in the X-Men film timeline.

**It is what you think it is.

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The American Gun Debate: How Can We Curb Gun Violence?

Credit: WaPo, Tom Toles

Last New Year’s Eve, in Florida, a mother shot her daughter to death because she thought she was an intruder.

In California, a father killed his son’s bedridden mother, girlfriend and friend before the son wrestled the gun away and killed him.

And just Tuesday morning, an Ohio father shot his son when he returned home from school, believing him to be – you guessed it – an intruder.

The last two weeks has already given a bloody reminder of the stain gun violence has on America, particularly in 2015. Nine African-American parishioners murdered by a white supremacist in a South Carolina church. Two dead at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. Nine dead at an Oregonian college campus. Five dead at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs. 14 dead at a San Bernardino office party.

Of course, mass shootings, while the most visible and publicized form of gun violence, are only a small part of the America’s unique problem with gun violence. To deal with the issue properly, you have to understand both the intentional and unintentional harm guns cause and collateral damage that remains stubbornly unaddressed.

It requires us to look beyond our hardline defense of the right to bear arms and instead remember we all first and foremost must protect the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” rights that were denied to each and every victim of gun violence, whether they were students at Virginia Tech, parishioners in South Carolina and children at Sandy Hook. Surely the lives of our fellow Americans, our friends and families, are worth that compromise.

Yet all these deaths seem to pass us by with nary a change. One could be mistaken for thinking politicians’ recitation of “now is not the time” would precede the aforementioned time but it never seems to, as Christopher Ingraham pointed out last July. Instead, another mass shooting occurs, the clock resets to 0 and it isn’t “the time” again. Others argue that the conversation is actually already over, determined by our government’s inaction in the face of the murder of 20 children and six adults.

In the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting, The New York Times made the controversial decision, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial, titled “End the Gun Epidemic in America,” on the front page – traditionally thought the most sacred space in news (before, you know, the Internet happened)

Prominent conservative blogger and radio host Erick Erickson responded by shooting holes in the editorial.

This is what I think of the New York Times editorial today. The United States suffered its worst terrorist attacks since September 11 and the New York Times' response is that all law-abiding citizens need their guns taken away. Screw them. The New York Times wants you to be sitting ducks for a bunch of arms jihadists who the New York Times thinks no doubt got that way because of the United States. It should be striking to every American citizen that the New York Times believes the nation should have unfettered abortion rights, a right not made explicit in the Constitution, but can have the Second Amendment right curtailed at will though it is explicitly in the Constitution. Again, we have suffered the worst terrorist attack in more than a decade and the New York Times believes now we must have our rights taken away as a response to terrorism. I hope everyone will join me in posting pictures of bulletholes in the New York Times editorial. Send them your response. Use the hashtag for my radio show and I may give you a shoutout. #EERS #glock #pewpew #2A #guns @shotspotguns

A post shared by Erick Erickson (@ewerickson) on

And that, peerless readers, pretty much encapsulates where the American gun debate stands in this controversial and quintessentially American debate.

But, politics aside, if there’s one thing Erick Erickson and The New York Times‘  editorial board should agree on, it’s the desire and need to prevent the deaths of American citizens. Now the means they advocate may be vastly different. But unless the argument is publicly made and compromises reached by both sides – innocent people who could be saved will die and the odds of another unchecked mass shooting increase.

This essay is broken into four parts: 1) the preceding introduction you (hopefully) just read, 2) the Four Questions, 3) where the sides stand and finally 4) what can be done about it.


For both your sake and mine, I’ve broken down this debate to the four most essential questions. Our goal is to follow the evidence wherever it leads us.

  1. Does America have a gun violence problem?
  2. Does having a gun make you safer?
  3. Does having gun laws make you safer?
  4. Do armed civilians (a “good guy with a gun”) prevent gun violence?
  • Q1: Does America have a gun violence problem? 
    • A: Yes, America has a gun violence problem

There were 33,636 deaths in total from gun violence in the U.S. in 2013 according to the limited Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research available. Let’s put that in perspective: that same year, two cardiologists used data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Small Arms Survey to calculate firearm injuries and guns per capita in 27 developed countries.

The U.S. overwhelmingly has the most guns (88.8 guns per 100 people) and most gun deaths (10.2 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people) of any of the closest comparable countries. In distant second is Switzerland with 45.7 guns per 100 people and 3.84 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Japan has the lowest of both rates, with the former at 0.6 and latter at 0.06.

Going deeper, more than 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides. Since guns are more lethal than most other methods the suicidal try, they result in successful suicides over 90 percent of the time, compared to 5-7 percent for the other assorted methods. Survivors rarely attempt again, making the permanence and ease with which those victims were able to commit suicide all the more tragic.

“Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair,” said David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and director of its Injury Control Research Center (ICRC). “Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide.”

Gun deaths of black people are roughly 80 percent more likely to be homicides than suicides while the inverse is true for white people. This makes sense considering ongoing narratives of 2015-16 include both police brutality and gun violence in African-American communities and the heroin epidemic and rampant suicides ravaging Caucasians.

Despite being much more likely to be murdered by gun violence, blacks are only about half as likely as whites to have a firearm in their home (41 percent vs. 19 percent).

But how about mass shootings? How American is this gun violence phenomenon?

Active shooter eventsdefined by the FBI as a gunman actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area – have been on the rise. According to Mother Jones‘ comprehensive “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America” (seriously, check it out, they also keep a Google Doc with all the requisite info up to date), since 1982, there have been 73 public shootings with four or more victims killed. 36 of those mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and at least half of the deadliest mass shootings in American history have occurred in the past decade, including Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. On November 30 last year, The Washington Post – using a definition of mass shooting as any incident in which at least four people are wounded by gunfire reported there were more mass shootings in 2015 than days at that point (351 mass shootings in 334 days).

Of the 143 firearms used in Mother Jones‘ documented mass shootings, more than three-quarters were obtained legally. Several passed federal background checks but because of ongoing loopholes, various psychiatric and criminal charges did not appear or were discounted.

CREDIT: Mother JonesA Guide to Mass Shootings in America

Specifically in the case of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, because of the government’s limited background check powers and the fact that, if a background check is not conducted within three days of a sale the gun seller is legally allowed to just sell the gun anyway, the FBI concluded he should never have been able to purchase the gun that killed nine innocent parishioners.

So America has a gun violence problem but, more broadly, does it have a violence problem?

Yes, America is an unusually violent country and evidence suggests it is connected to the amount of guns. By similar measure, the South is the most violent region.

These graphs by Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, illustrate both points by measuring assault deaths by country and by region. What’s striking is 1) how both show America and the South are by far outliers in violence among their comparisons and 2) how, nonetheless, crime has dropped steadily over the past 30 years.

That lesser-known fact, somewhat concealed by the public carnage, also belies another change: protection has replaced hunting, 48 percent to 32 percent, as the primary reason to own a gun, despite the violent crime rate dropping steadily over the past several decades.

  • Q2: Does having a gun make you safer? 
    • A: No, having a gun does not make you safer

It is a common refrain among gun advocates that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that, since criminals by definition ignore the law, disarming law-abiding citizens is not only unfair but implicitly fatal.

This fear, combined with the ever-present notion that any gun control proposal, common sense or otherwise, is simply the first step to a confiscation conspiracy, keeps the debate alive and vibrant. Because its premise dictates we are constantly on the precipice of tyranny, gun advocates are more single-mindedly motivated on the issue than their opponents and much more likely to turn out to vote in elections.

Consequently, Americans, as Vox‘s chart title plainly says, own a ridiculous number of guns, accounting for almost half of the civilian-owned guns on the planet.

Nonetheless, there has been consistent research for decades that it is a lack of gun safety that is more likely to cause harm than an intruder or criminal, undermining the argument that the best way to be safe is to own and/or carry a gun for self-defense.

One study from the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that, “For every case of self-protection homicide involving a firearm kept in the home, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides, and 37 suicides involving firearms. Hand-guns were used in 70.5 percent of these deaths. The advisability of keeping firearms in the home for protection must be questioned.”

A later one in the same publication also found that,”As a gun owner, you’re 2.7x more likely to kill yourself or a family member rather than an intruder in your home.”

David Hemenway, referenced earlier in this article and considered one of the top gun violence researchers in the country, said the there’s “no question” that the relationship between guns and gun deaths is real.

“It shouldn’t be really a surprise to people,” he said.

(Journal of Health and Social Behavior, “Risks and Benefits of a Gun in the Home“)

Here is an excerpt from an article by Susan Perry in the online newspaper MinnPost that further quotes Hemenway and makes me think we have similar taste in movies.

“There are real and imaginary situations when it might be beneficial to have a gun in the home,” [he] concludes. “For example, in the Australian film Mad Max, where survivors of the apocalypse seem to have been predominantly psychopathic male bikers, having a loaded gun would seem to be very helpful for survival, and public health experts would probably advise people in that world to obtain guns.”

“However, for most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit,” he adds.  “There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise.”

In addition, there is strong evidence for a simply equation that less guns equals less gun violence. The opposite has been true in states with the laxest gun laws like Missouri and Louisiana, both rank among the highest gun homicide rates in the country. Which leads us to our next question . . .

  • Q3: Do gun laws keeep you safer? 
    • A: Yes, gun laws do keep you safer

Very simply, the states with the most gun laws are heavily correlated the ones with the least gun deaths.

CREDIT: The National JournalThe States With The Most Gun Laws See The Fewest Gun-Related Deaths” by Libby Isenstein

Probably the biggest indicator of gun laws’ effectiveness is what happens when they’re gone, as Missouri found out. A 2014 study from the Johns-Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that, after the state repealed a law in 2007 requiring anyone purchasing a handgun to carry a permit verifying they had passed a background check, the murder rate in the state jumped 16 percent – meaning 49 to 63 additional murders per year. The study tracked large increases in the state of gun sales directly between dealers and criminals as well as in guns purchased in Missouri recovered by police in border states with stricter permit procedures. 

(Everytown for Gun Safety, “Gun Background Checks Reduce Crime And Save Lives“)

Current federal background checks are required for any gun sold through a licensed seller. However, the infamous “gun show loophole,” originally for private sellers and hobbyists, has been exploited in the age of the Internet to bypass them completely. Approximately 40 percent of gun sales are made without background checks through unlicensed sellers. Because the gun industry largely regulates itself, several unlicensed dealers operate with impunity, selling guns to whomever they wish.

It is accurate that the overwhelming majority of Americans – as many as 90 percent – support federal background checks as a requirement for all gun transactions. Following the rejection of the Manchin-Toomey bill in April 2013 (notably, both senators had “A” ratings from the NRA), the Pew Research Center that the majority of voters among both Democrats and Republicans (81 percent) – favored expanding background checks and a slightly-smaller majority (73 percent) thought new gun laws should have passed.

However, it is also accurate is that there is skepticism ingrained about the laws’ chances in Congress and their effectiveness in action even while supporting them broadly. The same Pew data showed, despite the support explained above in theory, that Americans (specifically Republicans) have in practice been deeply suspect of attempts to make expanded background checks a reality. For example, 77 percent of conservative Republicans supported background checks but only 50 percent supported the Manchin-Toomey bill. Per Pew:

When those who support background checks in general but oppose the Senate legislation (10% of the public) are asked why they do not want to see the bill pass, 20% point to flaws in the legislation. Nearly as many cite worries about individual rights (17%) or say that it would expand government power too much (16%). Another 17% are critical of the legislation’s effectiveness, saying that it will not deter criminals or curb gun violence.

Conclusion: Gun laws are like broccoli. They’re good for your health and you should have them but those facts don’t matter when you hate broccoli*.

*Addendum: My personal theory is that, since gun violence isn’t a curable disease, Americans on both sides of the debate are desensitized not only to it (see: Question 1) but by extension to gun laws. Nobody claims gun laws outright stops gun violence. Why do anything if it won’t solve everything? As the insane troll logic of that statement shows, gun advocates’ arguments are generally based on the promise that violence will always exist therefore why do anything about it?

  • Q4: Do armed civilians (a “good guy with a gun”) prevent gun violence?
    • No, armed civilians (a “good guy with a gun”) do not widely prevent gun violence

Do armed citizens prevent mass shootings?

To find out, you could ask the FBI, which did a report on active shooter events from 2000-13 and found only 3 percent were stopped by an armed civilian. In fact, more active shooter situations were stopped by unarmed civilians – 13 percent – than not.

The report is a bit dry so, for maximum entertainment value, you could watch The Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper’s aptly-titled segment “Jordan Klepper: Good Guy with a Gun” (a summary is available from Vox by clicking the link).

The “good guy” theory goes that more people should be able to freely defend themselves by whatever means necessary and, in modernity, that means carrying a gun. But many take the theory even further and believe that arming oneself is more than a right, it’s a necessity. It doesn’t help that the primary academic advocate for this idea – John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime – is a well-known crackpot who cherrypicked data to make his false claims.

Research has consistently suggested that more guns mean more gun deaths. Vox notes that this holds true in homicides, suicides, domestic violence and violence against police. The more readily available guns are makes it more likely situations will escalate to lethal violence. In a well-researched column for Politico, University of Texas professor Matt Valentine cited the FBI report “Crime in the U.S., 2014” which found, after analyzing information from 48 states (For some reason, Florida and Alabama declined to share their data) that the most common cause of gun homicide is arguments. Valentine writes:

“The number of people shot to death last year in arguments not during the commission of a felony (1,759) dwarfs the number shot to death in gang violence (667) and the number shot to death in drug trafficking (298)—combined. These are arguments over things like radio-controlled-car races, candy, inheritance of a tractor and road rage. What do you suppose will happen when we add to that milieu armed confrontations over grades, hazing and college breakups?”

Analysis of further FBI data by The Washington Post found that for every justifiable gun homicide, guns are used to commit 34 murders and 78 suicides. In interviews with combat veterans and former law enforcement regarding the Hollywood gunslinger fantasy, The Nation writer Joshua Holland found the distinction they made was not between “good guys” and “bad guys,” but between the trained and the untrained. Shockingly, it turns out that making life-or-death decisions in the most stressful moments of life can be really difficult. Commands aren’t communicated, cover isn’t taken, shots miss wildly etc.

Of course, all of this does not mean an armed citizens have never once stopped shooters. There are certainly recorded cases of it happening, as Eugene Volokh in The Washington Post listed. But to say that it is proof of the aforementioned good guy theory is false. This topic is a nebulous one because some will argue that many “prevented” crimes or shootings aren’t reported, the real research and statistics just isn’t available. Even if the information and data existed on the topic, mass shootings account for only 1 percent of the annual homicide rate and are unusually impervious to lawful detection and prevention. After all, it’s hard to stop someone who is essentially on a suicide mission.


Four questions, done and dusted. The information is there. Now, where does the fight against gun violence stand? How does the terrain stack up? What obstacles remain?

The reign of the NRA

In few other advanced countries in the world is the gun worshipped as much as it is in the United States. Some of it is our history as “rugged individualists” in search of manifest destiny. But most of it is the extremely successful and effective propaganda campaign by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The power of the NRA can be best summarized by the fact that, after the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Newtown and the following bipartisan legislative failure, public opinion of the NRA did not change.

According to an in-depth Politico essay by president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the author of The Second Amendment: A Biography, Michael Waldman and contrary to the NRA’s narrative, the Founding Fathers never intended to create unregulated access to firearms by writing the 2nd Amendment.

“A fraud on the American people,” was how Chief Justice Warren Burger described it on PBS in 1990.

Prior to 1977, the NRA was focused on gamesmanship, competition and training. In fact, it was founded by Union soldiers post-Civil War primarily as a way to train others. Then, a rise of hardline ideologues took over leadership in 1977 and that was when the 2nd Amendment became the focal point of their efforts.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

In conception by luminaries such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, it’s purpose was primarily appeasement to the Antifederalists, states-rights supporters who advocated state militias to oppose a tyrannical federal government. Ironically, the NRA inscription of the Amendment at its headquarters leaves off the first part (a.k.a. the subject of the Amendment) and instead uses an ellipses to get to their favorite part: “. . . the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Selective editing at it’s best.

From 1888 to 1959, it was “common law” that the 2nd Amendment did not give the unregulated right to a firearm. The first case that argued it was by a law student in 1960 using literature published by the NRA. In the 1970s, this leak became a flood and money began flowing to academics and others to verify the previously-unthinkable position – that the 2nd Amendment had been interpreted wrong for 200 years.

Reagan was the first person to advocate the position in the run-up to the 1976 election and as such, in 1980 received the NRA’s first presidential endorsement. Waldman elaborates:

As the revisionist perspective took hold, government agencies also began to shift. In 1981, Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in 24 years. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch became chair of a key Judiciary Committee panel, where he commissioned a study on “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.” In a breathless tone it announced, “What the Subcommittee on the Constitution uncovered was clear—and long lost—proof that the second amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.” The cryptologist discovering invisible writing on the back of the Declaration of Independence in the Disney movie  National Treasure could not have said it better.

It was only in 2008 that a group of libertarian lawyers to the right of even the NRA took a perfectly-packaged case – District of Columbia v. Heller – to the US Supreme Court. On June 26, 2008, they ruled 5-4 that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a right to own a weapon “in common use” to protect “hearth and home.”

Opponents have learned lessons from the NRA and, since Sandy Hook, liberal donors like Michael Bloomberg and gun control groups, such as Everytown For Gun Safety and Sandy Hook Promise, have risen politically active proponents. This also reflects the political realities. As opposed to the NRA, gun control advocates have moderated themselves, as Jason Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker.

What is true is that the N.R.A. at last has worthy opponents. The gun-control movement is far more pragmatic than it once was. When the N.R.A. took up the banner of gun rights, in the seventies, gun-control advocates were openly prohibitionist. (The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was originally called the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.) Today, they’re respectful of gun owners and focussed on screening and background checks. That’s a sensible strategy. It’s also an accommodation to the political reality that the N.R.A. created.

As part of the NRA’s efforts to undermine the opposition, they and the gun industry lobbied Congress in 1996 to eliminate the $2.6 million appropriation that underwrote the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) research on firearm injuries. President Obama ended the funding freeze in 2013, and Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Research Program at the University of California, Davis, told NBC that private funding for gun research has also spiked with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and other high-profile acts of violence.

Meanwhile, the NRA and the gun lobby argue that the CDC research will be biased and slanted. The New York Times called them out for the fear of facts in the aptly-titled Dec. 24 editorial “The Republican Fear of Facts on Guns.” Despite Obama’s actions, until Congress appropriates the funds, the research remains undone and the field has suffered for it.

For example, up until 2004, the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance survey asked people about whether they kept firearms at home and if they were locked up. They no longer do. Because of fear of public attacks or budget-cutting, anything that could be construed as “gun control” research will not go forward. As such, information and data on such things like firearm safety – arguably the best way to reduce injuries and deaths – are lost.

The then-director of the CDC, Mark Rosenberg, and the Republican Congressman from Arkansas who fought to defund it, Jay Dickey, collaborated on a WaPo editorial that detailed their personal history of opposition and eventual friendship. Overtime, they came to understand each other, both as NRA-members and defenders of the 2nd Amendment. Today, both advocate for restoring funding to CDC research. They write:

Our nation does not have to choose between reducing gun-violence injuries and safeguarding gun ownership. Indeed, scientific research helped reduce the motor vehicle death rate in the United States and save hundreds of thousands of lives — all without getting rid of cars. For example, research led to the development of simple four-foot barricades dividing oncoming traffic that are preventing injuries and saving many lives. We can do the same with respect to firearm-related deaths, reducing their numbers while preserving the rights of gun owners.

2016-present

Last week, President Obama announced executive orders tightening gun regulations within his purview. It clarifies which gun-sellers must obtain federal licensing and perform background checks. It adds new standards on whether a gun-seller qualifies as “engaged in the business” of firearm sales, such as acceptance of credit cards and advertising revenue. It proposes more funding and agents to federal agencies to process background checks 24/7 . He also pushed for innovation in gun safety technology.

The same day, he wrote an editorial for The New York Times.

(The Washington Post: “President Obama’s amazingly emotional speech on gun control“)

He also participated in a CNN town hall focused on gun violence hosted by Anderson Cooper, hearing from diverse voices such as Taya Kyle, the widow of the “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Fr. Michael Pfleger, whose church is in one of the most violent areas of Chicago.

Notably, despite its headquarters being just down the road, the NRA declined to participate, instead choosing to bash Obama from a distance on Fox News. The Hill reported GOP party leaders faced “enormous pressure from the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights activists to take a stand against Obama.”

Despite typical rhetoric of trampled 2nd Amendment rights, gun experts said the move would have a limited impact, with one former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent telling WaPo the move is a “very, very, very small step.” Nevertheless, Harold Pollack, an expert on public health and gun violence at the University of Chicago, told the publication that the moves, while not “transformative,” would be helpful in reducing guns in the gray market.

In addition, the majority of Americans support the president’s actions while holding their typical levels of skepticism.

Pro-gun safety, anti-gun violence

Skepticism remains and by-and-large it is a healthy thing. If only that skepticism were turned on those who believe their assumptions about America, gun rights and the death toll the nation pays for this debate. Guns cannot be separated from the violence they enable.

Our country needs to step back from that arbitrary gun rights vs. gun control binary for a second. It’s become obvious that it is far too polarizing and narrow a prism through which to handle this issue. The conversation has become an either/or, all-or-nothing scenario to both sides. Instead, if progress is to be made, the conversation needs to change.

It’s about saving lives and that means finally curtailing gun violence in America. It’s about avoiding pro-gun, anti-gun nonsense. It is about pro-gun safety, anti-gun violence. This slight perspective shift can bring us together in the middle, where actual solutions occur. Doing nothing is not an option.

I’m a journalist and it’s a role I take seriously, just as seriously as I take my responsibility as an American citizen and a human being. People are dying. And I can’t sit on the sidelines or stay silent while relatively easy steps could be taken to save countless lives.

My personal perspective: I see one side advocating for solutions to the problem and my research into the available evidence points in their favor. I see another side hiding behind weapons, tools of death and in exchange for the carnage of 33,000 deaths the gun lobby facilitates, they offer . . . nothing; vague prayers and halfhearted attempts at mental health reform that never actually gets voted on, let alone enacted.

Meanwhile, when President Obama presented the barest of the bare minimum in regards to gun law reform last week, you would think he was authorizing a confiscation force. It makes a good scare tactic but it’s just not true.

In response to Obama’s executive actions on guns, Donald Trump honestly said “You’re not going to be able to get a gun.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, second in the GOP polls, said something similar.

It cannot be overstated the harm generated by the consistent retreat behind gun barrels and apocalyptic dialogue, as this fundraising pitch from Cruz does. He, Trump and their fellow Republican candidates often resort to same extremist rhetoric aimed at Americans’ gun pleasure centers to get them to look past their atrocious tax policies that radically redistribute wealth upward.

Trump’s and Cruz’s statements are objectively false. A liberal president getting rid of the Second Amendment is as likely as a conservative president adding a constitutional amendment, say, banning gay marriage or requiring a federal government have a balanced budget. It would require a constitutional convention convened by at least 2/3 of the states and the chances of that is nigh impossible.

Nonetheless, the lies pervade and the gun manufacturers profit. Make no mistake, the real “winners” here are the corporations who profit from fear (remember, the number one reason someone buys a gun is self-defense).

To be clear, no one is trying to take away guns. Nor is this week’s announcement a precursor to such a thing. It’s blatant manipulation. Gun sales have soared under Obama’s administration, particularly in last month.

CREDIT: NYT http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/10/us/gun-sales-terrorism-obama-restrictions.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur

Gunmakers produced 5.6 million guns in 2009, according to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency. They produced 10.9 million in 2013. The New York Times reported (via the above link) that the number of sales transactions increased from seven million in 2002 to 15 million in 2013.

Nobody is taking away guns. Rights are not being infringed upon.

It’s a lie.

It’s not true.

The reason this lie is believed is because the NRA has owned this issue up until this point, even though every proposed gun law would, in all likelihood, grandfather all current firearms into the system (seeing as America has more guns than people, if more guns really were the answer, we’d already be the safest country on the planet).

One reason Republicans and pro-gun advocates win is because it is make-or-break emotional gut reaction hardwired by years of partisanship. If you even mention gun control (or elect a Democrat as president), they will turn out in droves and form militias because they believe government tyranny and the apocalypse is sure to follow, because of the NRA campaign fermenting radical beliefs about gun rights for decades. The emotional, reactive approach is seen in its policies at curbing gun violence, per The New York Times, include talk of mental health reform and about how more guns make us safer. You’d think if they were so adamant about good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns, they’d have some kind of mainstream agenda or policy for requiring citizens be trained to handle firearms.

(The New York Times: “Presidential Candidates on Gun Violence“)

By contrast, Democrats, and liberals in general, approach and think mechanically to the point that their presidential candidate can help torpedo an election by not emoting about his wife’s hypothetical death. There’s less emotion than condescension. Beyond presidential elections, this is problematic. This also goes for gun control, where frustration is high but passion drained, in this case by Congressional gridlock. Stymied at the federal level on combating a recurring and unrelenting problem, recent years have seen successes for gun control advocates on a state and local level. Meanwhile, for the first time in its organizational history, the NBA, in collaboration with Michael Bloomberg is throwing its weight behind the issue of gun violence.

You can agree or disagree with President Obama’s use of executive orders on this issue and it will most likely depend on your ideology but it’s easy to understand the frustration of having to give eulogy after public eulogy for lives you believe could have been saved through policy and attitude adjustments. Right or wrong, the frustration, felt by the President and others, is real. The status quo is untenable.

When politicians sell fear, like the GOP candidates, and another calm resolve, like Obama, I instinctively trust the latter and distrust the former. I suspect those who would use fear, a base emotion, to manipulate me. Liberal psychology aside, the point is that making a decision based on fear puts our brains in a binary, flight-or-fight, reactive mindset that favors short-term rewards in lieu of long-term gains. I prefer rational decision-making that weighs all the options, that is willing to lose in the short term to make huge gains in the long run (the execution of this strategy, The Atlantic‘s James Fallows writes, is the reason the Obama presidency achieved so much/angered so many in the conservative base, particularly in 2015).

Much of the fear are, unsurprisingly, unfounded. The federal government has not passed gun legislation since 2008, despite all the brouhaha. In 2013, Pew Research Center found the homicide rate had fallen by half over 20 years.


What can be done? 

With a paradigm shift to pro-gun safety, anti-gun violence, you open up innovation. One area is gun safety and lockup measures. Another is the adoption of a public health campaign to, systematically over years, get the information out on the reality of owning a gun and the consequences of using it in real life.

For some technology is the answer. Gun-owning NRA-member Omer Kiyani – who was also a victim of gun violence as a teenager – has developed a detachable fingerprint-lock compatible with any gun. This overcomes gun-owners concern that new technology will render current models obsolete or phased out. Kiyani told The Washington Post it was the Sandy Hook massacre that compelled him to act.

“Now is the time, no one else is doing it, so I have to do it myself,” he said. “I have to do it because I felt helpless.”

Smart regulation can save lives. For example, California recently enacted a law that enabled law enforcement to repossess guns who are reported by family or friends as a danger to themselves or others. In 28 states plus the District of Columbia have various laws on the books that hold gun owners criminally liable if children access their guns.

And, as Christopher Ingraham writes, “research suggests these laws work: A 2005 study found that child access prevention (CAP) laws in 10 states prevented 829 injuries in 2001, saving $37 million in medical costs. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004 found that CAP laws prevented 333 teen suicides between 1989 and 2001.

“. . . In the end, it’s much more important that communities, parents, and gun owners just adopt a slightly different perspective around how they store firearms to make sure they’re safe,” Ted Alcorn, Everytown research director said.”

Probably most important to the effort combating gun violence is the growing public health campaign akin to the one fought against tobacco and cigarettes in the 1980s and 90s. Guns now kill as many people as cars in the U.S.

It’s been noted by Obama and gun control advocates that guns should be treated like that commodity, comparing gun safety to the government mandates certain features like seat belts. Additionally, never forget the role suicide plays in the gun violence debate. Mental health reform is a potential source of bipartisan legislation in the future and a worthy goal, even if it doesn’t address the core issue.

But, until the tide of public opinion changes, there are limits are what can be done.

Will anything I wrote reconcile differences? Change minds?

Unlikely.

I don’t delude myself. By the same token, if I can inform and find the truth, maybe others will do the same. Maybe that information spreads, if enough people hear it. Maybe then, change will actually occur.

Until then? This quote from the Economist after the Charleston massacre occurred pretty much sums it up.

“Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass shootings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.”

CREDIT: WaPo, Tom Toles

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7 Movies (And 5 Trends) To Watch Out For In 2016

7. Zoolander 2

Release date(s): February 12

Ah, the Wall Street 2 of comedy sequels. The cultural timing seems right but can it break the comedy sequel curse? Anchorman 2 was supposed to, then missed the mark wide. Skepticism aside, the characters of Derek Zoolander, Hansel and Mugatu (played by the veritable Big Three of aging comedy superstars, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell) always seemed ripe for an update in the new world of 2016. The film’s trailer did a lot to allay doubts that this could be really, really funny. In an age where everyone seems to be trying to cash in on nostalgia by “getting the band back together,” this is one reunion that could be fun.

6. Snowden

Release date(s): May 13

The story of Edward Snowden is ripe for a cinematic telling, especially by historically-minded Oliver Stone. It’s literary; is he a noble man or a traitor, a hero or a villain? The fire he started in the debate over freedom vs. security made the USA Freedom Act happen last June and is continued to be debated on the campaign by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul. Match the story and storyteller with an up-and-coming movie star in Joseph Gordon-Levitt and an eclectic supporting cast (Shailene Woodley, Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo, Timothy Olyphant, Zachary Quinto, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage etc) and you have (hopefully) a consciousness-raising film.

5. The Nice Guys

Release date(s): May 20

Shane Black is one of those writers, like David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, that leaves an indelible mark on a script, usually in the wiz-bang snarky dialogue or deconstructing symbol of masculinity. After scoring huge directing the $1+ billion grossing Iron Man 3 in 2013, Black rightfully cashed in to direct his own script, a comedic period noir starring walking symbols of masculinity Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. A question mark was whether traditionally dramatic actors could channel Black’s sharp tongue like, say, Robert Downey, Jr. but the trailer put those doubts to bed. In a sea of familiarity, it’s refreshing to have an original voice like Black back in the game.

4. Ghostbusters

Release date(s): July 16

The death of Harold Ramis in February 2014 was the death of the oft-delayed-for-Bill-Murray threequel reuniting the original cast with a new generation of ‘busters. Pretty quickly, a new pitch took over from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) to reboot the whole thing with his signature funny women stepping (Bridesmaids duo Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy plus SNL breakout stars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones) in as four new Ghostbusters in modern New York. Given the track record of the three principals, the potential for McKinnon and Jones to break out anew, there’s a ton of potential here for a new beginning for this franchise.

3. The Magnificent Seven

Release date(s): September 23

No photos released

As a lover of both the original Kurosawa film Seven Samurai and the Western remake of the same name, I’m looking forward to this modern retelling of such a classical tale. It’s a sign of it’s durability that last month alone we can have two homages (Ridiculous Six and The Hateful Eight) as far away from one another in tone, quality and content as possible. My anticipation turned to confidence when director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer, Southpaw) assembled a cast consisting of megastars Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt and character actors Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Wagner Moura, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, and Peter Sarsgaard. Expect this one to print money come fall.

2. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Release date(s): December 25

I read the book and liked a lot of it, director Tim Burton hasn’t made a good film in a while and is due, and the cast is pretty spot on. Combine these factors and you have this upcoming adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ YA adult novel – the first in a trilogy of course. It concerns young Jacob (Asa Butterfield of Hugo and Ender’s Game fame) whose grandfather’s death sets him on a journey complete with invisible monsters and time travel to find the titular Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her peculiar children. Riggs’ novel was deservedly praised for integrating old photographs into the narrative, which added an eerie and bizarre backdrop that hopefully Burton is suited to recreate on screen. It’ll be the key to making it as special a movie as the book was.

1. Story of Your Life

Release date(s): N/A

No photos released

This unscheduled sci-fi tale comes from new filmmaker-to-watch Denis Villeneuve, who is on quite a streak after directing Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario and this film in a row with a plum job directing the Blade Runner sequel up next. Amy Adams stars as a linguist hired by the military to make first contact with an alien craft and determine their intentions in an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s award-winning 2000 short story of the same name. Supported by Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, the synopsis hearkens back to old school sci-fi with the hard science of The Martian thrown in. While the person who made Sicario such a beautiful film (legendary DP Roger Deakins) isn’t back, Villeneuve is an innate visual stylist all his own. Will his streak of cinematic greatness end?

MOVIE TRENDS in 2016

5. Superhero films: Marvel (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse & Doctor Strange)

Release date(s): February 12, May 6, May 27 & November 4

You’ll forgive me for compressing; there’s just so many of these damn comic book films now. Both Marvel and D.C. (more on them next) seem to realize this and have set up quite the varied buffet of darker and weirder superhero fare this year, from the superhero-movie-as-an-R-rated-comedy (Deadpool) to the superhero-movie-as-a-disaster movie (X-Men: Apocalypse). The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is stepping up its game as well with a stacked Captain America film that seems awfully like a third Avengers film to introducing the psychedelic magic of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). For those keeping score at home, the Avengers films and Doctor Strange are part of the MCU owned by Disney while Deadpool and the X-Men films are in a separate franchise universe owned by FOX.

Of the bunch, I think Deadpool has the most promise (the above trailer is set to DMX’s “X Gon Give It to Ya.” ‘Nuff said), Civil War‘s trailer got me from expectant to excited, and I love what Marvel’s saying about Doctor Strange and hope it delivers. Despite a stellar cast, I am most reserved for Apocalypse which had a bad trailer and already looks pretty cheesy.

4. Superhero films: D.C. (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice & Suicide Squad)

Release date(s): March 25 & August 6

On the opposing side, they’re just trying to get out of the gate. While Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman is poised to blow the doors of the hinges for the Justice League (seriously, didn’t the above trailer spoil literally all three acts?) and, more broadly, Warner Bros.’s entire D.C. Extended Universe , it’s Suicide Squad that is garnering the most interest. It’s their attempt at this year’s above-mentioned “dark and weird” superhero genre and, overall, it’s a smart play. Its story is equal parts Guardians of the Galaxy and The Dirty Dozen, a team-up movie but with bad guys. Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch and Fury) specializes in morally-ambiguous antiheroes and is just the right auteur to pull this off.

As a fan of the flawed Man of Steel (there’s legitimate criticism to be made), I’m optimistic the brand can shine as Marvel’s has, but in a different creative way. And, as a fan, the hiring of Patty Jenkins, James Wan and Batman himself Ben Affleck to direct Wonder WomanAquaman and the next Batman film respectively, should give hope that we’re going to get creative and innovative visions of these classic superheroes.

3. Franchise expansions (The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them & Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

Release date(s): April 22, November 18 & December 16

The newest thing in franchise filmmaking in 2015 was the rebootquel – stories that aren’t quite sequels or remakes/reboots but combine elements of both to update what is, for all intents and purposes, the same story for a modern audience. Two made a ton of money (Jurassic World & Star Wars: The Force Awakens), one didn’t (Terminator Genisys) and two made less money but garnered heaps of critical acclaim (Mad Max: Fury Road & Creed). But that’s old now. In 2016, franchises are looking to create spinoffs that will defy the limits of traditional franchises.

Got Snow White in the movie’s title but want to make a sequel without her (let’s forget why)? Chuck the actress and the character and tell a different story in the same world. Want people to think the words “Wizarding World” first instead of “Harry Potter?” Get J.K. Rowling to write an original screenplay based on a magical “textbook.” Want a Star Wars film every year? Start telling anthology stories set in different parts and times of the galaxy far, far away. Forward-and-backward moviemaking doesn’t cut it in 2016. You have to go side-to-side and diagonal.

2. Video game adaptations (Warcraft & Assassin’s Creed)

Release date(s): June 10 & December 21

Video game adaptations have, thus far, sucked. So there’s a low bar to clear to make a quality film but consequently, pessimism runs rampant about even the possibility. Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed are entering this gauntlet with an all-or-nothing attitude. The former, from the fantasy MMORPG, comes from uber-nerd director (and son of David Bowie) Duncan Jones featuring Orcs fully-rendered by actors in motion-capture while the latter reunites the team behind last year’s Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth  – director Justin Kurzel, stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard – to tell the story of a man who’s memories can be transplanted by machine to his ancestor, an assassin in medieval Europe.  If these films fail to make money, it won’t be for lack of trying. These will be reverent and smart adaptations but will there be an audience for them? That has yet to be proven.

1. Delayed sequels (Independence Day: Resurgence & Bourne 5)

Release date(s): June 24 & July 29

Following up on my rebootquel remarks, a precursor to their surge was the delayed sequel, checking in on a character or characters we haven’t seen for a while. That’s the case behind Independence Day: Resurgence – coming 20 years after the original – and Bourne 5 – coming 9 years after the last Matt Damon-led film. Since the original was such a formative film for me growing up, my nostalgia leans heavily with Resurgence and, really, any excuse to have Jeff Goldblum back in a blockbuster is good enough for me. It was the trailer that made me realize how powerful that feeling was there.

As for Jason Bourne, I remain neutral. Paul Greengrass – the filmmaker who made the second and third films such hits – is back with Damon so I expect it will be well-made and have some topicality to the picture at the least. But the Bourne films always came across as cold to me and with the story of the (former?) amnesiac’s mysterious past exhausted, I’m curious more than excited how they continue the superspy’s story.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments! 2016 here we come!

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Fear, Our Old Friend

Dear Readers,

2016 is upon us and that means 2015 is behind us. Last January, I set out to write a blog for a year. I’d become far too insulated during my college years. Time I would have spent reading and writing when I was a teenager, I started using to burnish my resume, party and generally forget that an undergraduate career is typically four years.

I enjoyed a ton of it. I learned a lot (unsurprisingly, mostly out of the classroom). I grew as a person. I did all the things you’re supposed to do.

But I wasn’t writing.

How can you call yourself a writer, identify as a writer, be a writer (forget making money off it) if you don’t sit down and fucking do it? It turns out the threat of the total collapse of my self-concept, the evaporation of everything I thought I was, was exactly the motivation I needed.

I like to think I kinda of succeeded, success here defined as “not failing.”

Together, here we sit, 96 posts later. I guess I can best summarize my 2015, particularly on the Slog, with this screenshot one of my friends kindly Tweeted my way:

Embedded image permalink

Yeah, I pretty much dominated the news in 2015, no doubt about it.

Still, I didn’t finish my novel. I didn’t follow through on the promise to publish my serial. I didn’t even read the books I sought to. Maybe I was simply lazy but I learned long ago “laziness” is often a substitute for “afraid.”

Fear is a tricky thing. You can try to fight it, conquer it, even snuff it out temporarily, but ultimately, it is a part of us. And, like any part of us we don’t like, whether it’s a mole on our face, a tumor in our brain, or a predisposition for depression, the only long-term method of control is acceptance.

I tried the first way for a long time, imagining myself locked in heavily-choreographed hand-to-hand combat with my fears as I tried to subdue them through mental brute force. It was foolish, because the fight became more important than the doing. I wasn’t moving past the fear; I was reveling in it.

I wrote above that I felt most threatened – and most motivated – when it appeared I was losing part of myself. This blog, more than anything else, stands as a reaction to that fear. In 2016 though, I am gripped by a new fear:

I will die if I do not write my novel.

Let me clarify, before your brain starts extrapolating wildly: that’s not a promise or a prediction. What I mean is who I am – or at least who I think I am – would cease to exist if I do not write this novel. This isn’t a project I can put aside, a naive dream I have to move past to achieve my adult apotheosis. This is more than half – 12-goddamn-years – of my life. It represents the most fundamental parts of myself. This book isn’t a thing or an idea; it is me.

It’s taken me a long time to accept fear. It’s definitely not something I’m practiced at. I suspect much of my 2016 will still be spent continuing to battle it to varying degrees, whether that is in finishing college, finding my career as a writer, or just plain beginning my post-collegiate life. At the same time, I have a glimmer of hope that 2015 has taught me how to look at fear not as an enemy but an old friend, one who doesn’t deter but guides me to the areas of my life I need to change.

I didn’t set out to give myself therapy when I wrote this but here we are. What I did set out to do was thank you for reading this and any other bits of inanity I’ve scribbled the last 12 months. I write for and covet an audience, especially as an up-and-comer decidedly without one. Without an audience, I’m pretty much Tom Hanks in Cast Away, only my Wilson is a Pikachu piggy bank.

Thank you so much for making the Slog a part of your life, whether this is your first post or your 96th. Happy New Years and may you be the change you seek in 2016.

-SPF

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Sam’s Top 7 Movies of 2015

7. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Dir. Christopher McQuarrie (The Way of the Gun, Jack Reacher)

Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Simon McBurney, Tom Hollander

Tom Cruise never fails to entertain and he takes home Sam Flynn’s Imaginary Award for Best Summer Blockbuster two years in a row (last year’s sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow was, poor title aside, truly an epic piece of cinema). This time, instead of dying over and over for our entertainment, he commits further to his daredevil stunts, hanging off the side of  an actual airplane and holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time.

Despite script issues and a release date shift that shaved six months off post-production, somehow the film comes out better for it, a lean and exhilarating spy thriller that beats 2015’s other contenders – Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre. This franchise, now five films deep has transcended traditional franchise fatigue and has only gotten better with age, much like the Fast and Furious series.

The film’s success and the speedy sequel turnaround (the sixth film is tentatively scheduled for summer 2017) speaks for itself, as does the fact that both McQuarrie and Ferguson will be returning, the first time in the franchise a director or a leading lady have followed-up (not counting a Michelle Monaghan cameo in Ghost Protocol). Both are great news – Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust was the first person in the franchise who felt like an equal to Cruise’s indestructible superspy Ethan Hunt and McQuarrie brought a writer’s perspective to directing, while pushing himself cinematically in several sequences.

6. Sicario

Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners)

Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Jon Bernthal, Maximiliano Hernandez

An entry on the list of films-that-look-amazing (it was shot by world-class cinematographer Roger Deakins), this pitch-black thriller follows DEA Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, playing yet another badass after the aforementioned Edge of Tomorrow) as she is recruited to a CIA taskforce to combat the Mexican drug cartels. Almost immediately, she finds herself in over her head with enemies on both sides of the fight.

The failure of the War on Drugs makes a convenient backdrop for modern nihilistic tragedies a la Traffic and The Counselor. The script by former actor Taylor Sheridan takes the It’s-the-System approach of the former while avoiding the smug literary flourishes and Jaguar sex (the car, not the animal) of the latter.

The film cements Villeneuve as a master filmmaker in a similar vein of Christopher Nolan, making me as hyped for his next two projects, the sci-fi first contact flick Story of Your Life starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and the long-anticipated Blade Runner sequel (with Ryan Gosling starring) as some are for Tarantino films.

5. Ex Machina (my review here)

Dir. Alex Garland (directorial debut of the novelist/screenwriter of The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine)

Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac

It’s bold (and smart) to make your first film essentially a play about three people in a room. But writer/director Alex Garland is quite smart and knows that not only is it a) an easy first step in a directorial career but b) the conflict at the center – whether a robot has true consciousness – would make the story far grander than its simple premise suggests.

Through the prism of A.I., Garland is able to touch upon gender roles, sexuality and misogyny in new and unique ways, serviced by a mesmerizing Alicia Vikander (having a banner year with five films released) as the robot Ava caught between her creator (Oscar Isaac, bro-ish, funny, perverse and subversive) and the employee he randomly picked to act as his surrogate in the Turing tests (Domhnall Gleeson, boy-ish, soft, kind and polite).

The story and characters/actors A lot of films like Transcendence and Terminator Genisys have tried and failed miserably to tackle the growing field of A.I.

4. The Martian (my review here)

Dir. Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings)

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong

Ridley Scott is a prolific filmmaker for a 78 year-old, as masterful as he is frustrating. But every time he is counted out, he returns with a script that well-suits his talented visuals and a cast of characters audiences love spending time with. That’s exactly what happened with his previous successes (Alien, Gladiator) and what happened here, yielding the highest-grossing film of his long and storied career.

In probably the most uplifting film of the year, Damon impresses as the titular everyman astronaut while the film also adds a truly stellar supporting cast belied by the lone-survivor premise. With a cast of this caliber delivering this stunning work and the best backbone possible provided by novelist Andy Weir and screenwriter Drew Goddard, Ridley Scott’s skill is finally served as it should be.

3. Spotlight

Dir. Tom McCarthy

Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schrieber, Brian d’Arcy, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Gulifoyle

Good journalism films are few and far between, maybe because the process of fact-finding and verifying is so rote and time-consuming that it doesn’t make thrilling cinema. So maybe it makes sense that it isn’t until an earth-shattering reality check comes that yields our greatest film tributes to journalism, like seminal Watergate chronicle All the President’s Men and, now, arguably it’s successor. Life, after all, is stranger than fiction.

Spotlight covers the titular Boston Globe investigative team that peeled back the layers on a global cover-up of preists’ sexual molestation of children by the Catholic Church. I was too young to be anything but merely aware of the scandal but the script, by McCarthy and Josh Singer, takes an appropriately methodical approach to Spotlight’s investigation, situating the film as a crime procedural with journalists at the center, instead of police detectives.

The ensemble is only rivaled by The Martian, with Ruffalo and Keaton in standing out as they’re asked to carry most of the emotional heavy-lifting. But I was particularly taken with Schrieber’s take on the mellow outsider Marty Baron, a legendary journalist who has edited The Miami Herald, The New York Times and currently edits The Washington Post. By far, the film that feels the most “important” of the year.

2. Creed (my review here)

Dir. Ryan Coogler

Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Gabriel Rosado, Ritchie Coster, Wood Harris, Andre Ward

I wrote a lot about how meaningful Creed is in my review so I won’t rehash. But even with a few weeks to think about it, it’s clear that there’s only one 70s franchise that successfully reinvented itself without blemish in the last few weeks and it wasn’t Star Wars: The Force Awakens (OK, hyperbole, there’s technically two 70s franchises; see below).

Creed‘s mastery hides the youth of director Ryan Coogler, for whom this was only his second film, yet he delivered not only an emotionally-honest script but honest-to-god innovation in the field of boxing films without unnecessarily heightening the drama (I’m looking at you, Southpaw). I mean, just watch this scene.

Jordan gets the starmaking turn he deserves, Stallone moved me to tears, and Thompson played an actual woman as opposed to an indecipherable romantic interest. Everything works, every punch lands. Truly a revelation, beaten only by . . .

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (my review here)

Dir. George Miller

Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rose Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Abbey Lee, ????

Where Coogler has youth and innovation on his side, Miller has the experience and wisdom to push boundaries of filmmaking in a way only decades of training can allow some to do. The first film ever made captured a train coming at a camera. Motion and action are at the core of cinema and director George Miller the director crafts a film that is entirely in motion.

A chase without stakes is no chase at all, and Miller the screenwriter gives a human cost to the film, personified not by Tom Hardy’s titular character (although he is also excellent, expertly using body language as the virtually-mute Max) but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, a one-armed amputee who has survived the post-apocalyptic wasteland. She is the real star of the film and the embodiment of all its strengths, from its surprising feminist themes to the no-nonsense practicality of the film’s actual stuntwork.

Mad Max: Fury Road not only feels like a distillation of pure cinematic heroin but, also appeals to my personal peculiarity (i.e. obsession with world-building, women of power, how human connection and communities are forged). Hence, you have a rare confluence: my favorite film of 2015 is also the best film of 2015.

___________________________________________________________________________

All my reviews, both film and TV for 2015 are archived here on the Slog. Just go the Category button and select which you’d like to view. If you’re so inclined, follow me through the cinematic landscapes of 2016. I promise I won’t lead you astray.

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The Revenant (2015) – Review

I find films succeed or fail on three factors: 1) story and characters 2) filmmaking 3) acting. The Revenant has two and three down, but it’s the film’s failure with one that makes me think the film will be forgotten soon after (or perhaps before?) Oscar night in February.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s film is about as opposite a Western can be in relation to the other cheerful foray into the bloody frontier, fellow auteur Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Whereas the latter is a wordy detour in the minds and motives of bad guys, Revenant is focused on one man’s struggle against nature and, more broadly, all man’s relationship with it. What both share is a mastery-level of filmmaking, absolutely spectacular cinematography, and a predisposition toward the worst aspects of their respective auteur directors.

“Inspired by a true story” as the poster says and adapted by Innaritu and Mark L. Smith from the historical novel by Michael Punke, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a local tracked leading a bunch of fur-trappers in the Canadian wilderness. He knows the land and has a racially-mixed son from a relationship with a native. After his expedition is ambushed and slaughtered, the survivors flee back to civilization until Glass is mauled by a bear while hunting. The captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) to stay behind with Glass until they can return to save him.

Which would be fine if Fitzgerald weren’t a selfish, half-scalped loon and Bridger an impressionable youth. In short order, Fitzgerald murders Glass’s son and abandons him half-buried in a ditch. What follows is as brutal a survival tale as has been told as Glass literally and figuratively rises from the grave to get revenge on Fitzgerald.

Shot over nine grueling months, from Canada to South America and using only natural light, its already-infamous Apocalypse Now-style production was as much an endurance test as the film itself. DiCaprio ate raw bison liver and Hardy choked out the director. The proof is in the pudding, as it were, and the film is gorgeous, with Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki capturing their signature long shots (like the opening battle between the trappers and the natives) that take the breath away. Sadly, all the dedication to and belief in their art is undercut by poor narrative choices.

So rarely do are the second and third fundamentals of film I outlined undercut by the first. A simple (and, once again, true) story became muddled when adapted. I haven’t read Punke’s novel but from what I understand it was far more accurate to Glass’ tale, whose actual vengeance took years to accomplish. With time truncated, accent points were added to the drama and the narrative became more elaborate and heavy-handed, whether it’s the invention of the character of Glass’s son or the use of Native Americans to make points about man’s history with, and relationship to, nature.

The film shares many similarities with Innaritu’s friend and fellow Hispanic director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (a visually stunning survival tale) as well as his own previous film, last year’s Oscar-winning Birdman (pretentious Oscar-bait). But, for Innaritu, it seems telling the honest-to-God tale of Glass’s survival wasn’t enough. Who would survive simply to survive, the condescending artist who wrote Birdman asked? He has to have a dead son. Subtle parallels between spirituality and religiosity of nature isn’t enough. Glass has to walk into an overgrown and ruined church and hug a vision of his dead son.

Few things can be gleaned from what is on screen, so clear are Innaritu’s narrative intentions here. That make the film, while beautiful, ultimately forgettable and hollow. I know, for example, quite clearly where the film stands on men, nature, and the value of revenge. If I can’t infer or ponder myself the meaning of the trauma Glass has undergone, I am removed, on the outside emotionally of the story. He failed, as a writer, to match nuance of story and character with the nuance of his filmmaking.

DiCaprio is phenomenal as always, willing to do anything in his eternal quest for an Oscar, whether it’s eating raw bison or cuddling up inside a dead horse. Already the sheer dedication to the role he displays here have people saying “it’s his time.” But, with DiCaprio’s best interests at heart, I say: don’t give it to him. Next thing we know, he’ll quit acting and focus full-time on banging models, climate change and other bullshit endeavors.

Hardy, who began the year as the titular hero in Mad Max: Fury Road, plays a great villain as the unstable Fitzgerald, finding nuance in selfishness and excuses for his immorality. Poulter is the poor soul caught up in his destructive orbit and plays the guilt well. Gleeson – also having a stellar year with roles in Ex Machina, Brooklyn and Star Wars: The Force Awakens – does a fine job as the well-meaning but ignorant captain.

I hesitate to call the film a failure because of the sheer level of commitment and skill. But both Birdman and The Revenant’s astonishing filmmaking prowess don’t mean a thing if I don’t want to revisit the film or its characters. While there is a lot to chew on here for cinephiles, I don’t see repeat value in storytelling so heavy-handed it amounts to a lecture on the writer/director’s part.

 

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The Hateful Eight (2015) – Review

The Hateful Eight, appropriately the eighth film from auteur Quentin Tarantino, dovetails his first film, fellow bad-guys-in-a-room thriller Reservoir Dogs with the Western genre with an added dash of Agatha Christie. Together, they combine for a surprisingly-sincere film with a powerful plea for racial tolerance. Like any auteur of Tarantino’s pedigree, the film’s wounds are self-inflicted, born of a lack of restraint and ego. Some people need a yes man; he needs a no man who can stop him from indulging his excesses.

Six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War, a stagecoach is chased by a blizzard across the wintry Wyoming landscape. It carries John Ruth (Kurt Russell), known as The Hangman because his bounties are always taken in alive. In this case, Ruth’s bounty is murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). On the road, they encounter Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier and fellow bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate soldier on his way to supposedly assume the sheriff’s position at their destination of Red Rock.

However, the worsening blizzard forces them to seek shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, which is run by Bob (Demian Bichir) in Minnie’s mysterious absence. Inside, they meet Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the local hangman, mysterious drifting cow-puncher Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern). Soon after arriving, Ruth starts to suspect one (or two) of the trapped men are accomplices of Daisy. Holed up for days, tensions, racial and otherwise, boil over as old grudges and secrets are revealed.

The film’s bloat (it runs a hefty 167 minutes) weighs down the narrative rather than helps and while bloat filled with Tarantino propulsive dialogue makes up for the lack of narrative momentum, it’s still bloat. There are several points where Tarantino could and should have cut the fat from the story. By his own admittance, his interests in recent years have shifted away from film – his Kill Bill duology is his most accomplished piece of cinema – to novels, TV and theater as part of his oft-repeated promise to retire after his 10th film.

Case in point, this film began as a novelized sequel to his previous Western, Django Unchained with Django filling the role of Jackson’s Warren. It’s an easy extension for Tarantino, who likes to keep his Westerns in the American Civil War era to analyze what he feels is a glaring omission from Western films previous – slavery.

To that end, Tarantino’s infamously-liberal use of the n-word is in full-effect here. Racial politics have always been a part of Tarantino’s films but by dealing directly with the stain of America’s racial history, they’ve gone from the background to the foreground of his storytelling. While Django was open and broad, focused more on vengeance and bloody catharsis in the American South, Eight, as Jackson’s character says, “slows it way, way down” for a more introspective analysis of race befitting its cold, claustrophobic setting.

Given his first lead role in a Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction, Jackson proves how adept a performer he is, especially around Tarantino’s dialogue. Russell, the loud-and-proud Ruth, is having a resurgent year with roles in the billion-dollar grosser Furious 7 and the acclaimed indie Western Bone Tomahawk, as is Leigh who is also in Charlie Kaufman’s Anamolisa. Their relationship is oddly endearing at times and brutal at others.  But the stand-out is Goggins who again the most enjoyable part of whatever he’s a part of (The Shield, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Predators, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, American Ultra, etc.). Roth, Madsen, Bichir and Dern acquit themselves well with broader archetypes, in some cases subverting or averting typical tropes in true Tarantino fashion. Also, following in the footsteps of Jonah Hill in Django,, another 21 Jump Street star makes a surprising cameo that won’t be spoiled here. Suffice to say, the film, a study in the slow-slow-slow build, truly kicks off when his character makes his entrance.

Tarantino is one of the few people keeping film synonymous with cinema against the encroachment of digital, alongside Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg. To that end, he filmed the movie in Panavision 70mm (used to classic films like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments) and the distributor The Weinstein Company spent millions collecting and refurbishing old as many as 100 70mm cameras for use also as part of a roadshow with an overture and an intermission. It hearkens back to the days when a night at the movies was an event, a show instead of a commodity. For Tarantino, today, it is too easy to just entertain (make no mistake, this movie entertains). He wants you to have an experience. He is a priest and the cinema is his church.

While Tarantino’s passion for cinema and its past is admirable, the 70mm film is oddly suited to what becomes a insular talk-fest. Beyond some opening scenery porn of the snow-capped Wyoming mountains, the 70mm  is largely relegated to scenes within the Haberdashery. Still, each frame and each shot is so beautifully-staged, it mitigates the endless minutes the camera spends following horse-drawn carriages barrel through the snowy drifts or hovering on actors’ faces or feet (another Tarantino favorite).

Whether it’s because it’s the first time Tarantino has revisited a genre, especially back-to-back, or because he’s running out of things to say, much of The Hateful Eight feels like treading water. There’s little here Tarantino hasn’t already covered in more iconic or original ways previously. Thing is though, even middling Tarantino is better than 90 percent of the films in the marketplace. So what you’re left with an impeccably-shot murder mystery filled with character actors from Tarantino’s trusty stable of performers chewing and savoring his delicious dialogue.

A.k.a. a good time at the movies.

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