Thursday, December 26, 2013

Elysium Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
No, it’s a mess.

Is it technically good?
Visually, the movie stunning, bringing the chaotic-future motif from the director’s previous effort (District 9) to the next level.
The acting seems to be okay, but the script is so scattered that the actors have almost nothing to work with.
The music and sound are good, if not stand-out.
The writer/director, Neill Blomkamp, hasn’t created a world or a narrative that make any sense - and also isn’t fun.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
Visceral, gritty science fiction grounded in social commentary - sadly, it doesn’t deliver anything but some pretty pictures.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Oblivion, In Time.

DMQZ ebook sale PSA

In case you don't have your copy yet, DMQZ is now on sale for a limited time over at Amazon. You know, for that new Kindle/iPad/tablet/phone/other thingy you got. You can't beat 99 cents!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Map of Manhattan and the Old Boroughs

Just finished this map for the world of my book... not sure yet whether or not to add the content to the book itself. One of the nice things about self-publishing on Kindle only is that I can always add things.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Almost Human: First Impressions

Fox's new sci-fi show, Almost Human, has a lot of cred. It's produced by the ubiquitous JJ Abrams, created & written by JH Wyman of the excellent Fringe, and the lead is Judge Dredd/New Bones Karl Urban (with one of my personal favorites, Lili Taylor, in a supporting role). It looks cool, too (trailer).

So why isn't it gelling yet?

Almost Human takes place in a relatively near-future that feels a lot like the future of Fringe (without the Observers/Invaders) with a smattering of Blade Runner motifs. Like so many other new sci-fi and fantasy projects, the show uses the frame of a police procedural, tracking the story of Urban's Officer Kennex (countdown to an "Officer Kleenex" joke) and his android partner Dorian (played by Michael Ealy, who hands-down is giving the best performance on the show). There's a crime syndicate story arc that the first episode takes pains to establish.

Despite every bullet point that should be snagging eyeballs for the network, though, the show stumbles out of the gate. There are three main challenges that it'll have to overcome over the first season.

1. Right in the second episode it falls prey to over-reliance on the police procedural format. Wyman and co need to skip quickly to the kind of case-of-the-week with multi-episode arc blended in that made Fringe so good once it hit its stride. The "it's like CSI with a robot" approach isn't compelling enough; the show needs to buy its own premise. Shows like Dollhouse and even early Fringe had the same problem at the beginning, and the most successful high concept shows of late throw all the crazy in your face from day one and benefit from it (see Person of Interest or Sleepy Hollow).

2. The future world doesn't make sense yet. Even in the second episode, viewers are left without a sense of how weird the case of the week was. Do these android things happen all the time? What kind of society is this? Sci-fi shows set in the present day (Fringe) or the very different future (Star Trek) have an easier time with this. Almost Human needs to tell us where this world is in relation to say, the kind of future of Blade Runner, Dredd (2000AD), Demolition Man, etc.

3. Right now Karl Urban is the weakest part of the show. He does well with the funnier moments, but he's awkward with the serious ones. This is a shame, because Urban's done so well with other roles, and it'll be frustrating if this one doesn't fit. Michael Ealy is trying to carry the show himself - and right now he is, but it can't last for long.

Despite its flaws, though, Almost Human isn't a bad show. It's an okay show so far... but that's a problem in the current market. As much as "genre" fans like to complain about the scarcity of shows that cater to them, there are a dozen other science fiction shows on TV of the same or better quality competing for viewers. If you add in the other kinds of shows sci-fi fans likely watch, we're approaching a real physical limit to the number of TV hours it's possible for humans to watch and still eat/sleep/work. The first-world problem now is that in this age of legitimately good television, viewers are having to cut out "okay" shows. Almost Human needs to distinguish itself from the pack.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thor: the Dark World Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
Yes, it earns its insane faces-and-action mishmash poster.

Is it technically good?
The special effects are top-notch, the cinematography clean and pretty.
The actors from the first Thor movie return in good form to treat comic book material like Shakespeare, but too much makeup and voice manipulation hide any acting that Christopher Eccleston does as the big bad.
Like most modern Marvel films, the music and sound is spot-on.
The director Alan Taylor, a vet of some Game of Thrones episodes and other TV, does good work here - but there are a couple of awkward editing choices.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
More Thor - it does deliver, and unlike Iron Man 2, Thor doesn't struggle post-origin story.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Thor, the Avengers.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The House of the Devil Spoiler-free review

Is it good?
Hell yes.

Is it technically good?
The cinematography is Hitchcock by way of naturalistic ’70s movies - it’s pretty without being fancy in a way that takes you out of the moment.
Greta Gerwig is hilarious, Tom Noonan is the perfect amount of creepy, and Jocelin Donahue does well carrying the bulk of the movie on her own.
The music is a perfect fit for the retro style of the film.
The director, Ti West, knows how to milk suspense and make the movie work without jump scares.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
Retro horror done modern - and it certainly delivers.

If you liked these, you'll like this: the Innkeepers, the Sentinel, Rosemary's Baby.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Man of Steel Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
No, it is not super.

Is it technically good?
The director, Zack Snyder, knows how to make pretty still pictures, but has a hard time connecting them in a way that has emotional impact as a movie.
The acting is the best part of the movie: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon try really, really hard with the scant material they are given.
The music and sound are good, if the soundtrack is a little generic and wishes it was the Batman music.
The script is the most problematic element of the film, which is confusing because it was written by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan - the pair behind the Nolan Batman trilogy scripts.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
A more serious Superman movie that's at least close to the same league as the Nolan Batmans (and therefore justifies making more Superman movies) - and no, it does not deliver.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Superman Returns.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book promotion update

While I've already been tweeting about this, felt the need to post this here: DMQZ's free promotion got picked up by BoingBoing yesterday. Following that, the rank on Amazon's top free Kindle books jumped up, and it's hovered right above the overall top 100 free while staying in the top 10 in free science fiction for the last 24 hours. Too awesome!

If you haven't downloaded a copy yet, tomorrow (Friday) is the last day to get DMQZ free! Click here to go to the Amazon Kindle store.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Free eBook Promotion

I'm giving away my science fiction novel, DMQZ, for free through Friday!

Download a copy from the Amazon Kindle store:

In the wake of the global pandemic known as the "little dormouse," the line between the Safe Zone and the Quarantine Zone divides New York City. The shores and waters of the East River are the "DMQZ," the uninhabited area that separates uninfected Manhattan from the slowly dying borough of Brooklyn.

Jacob Hale is a Manhattan police officer rising in the ranks of the Safe Zone military government until a bank heist gone wrong lands him on suspension and under suspicion. On a quest to clear his good name, Hale finds himself drawn into a web of conspiracy, terrorism, and revolt - and into the orbit of a mysterious woman who may be the key to it all.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Top 10 Ways to Improve the Dexter Finale (Spoilers)

Sunday night, Showtime's long-running serial killer drama finally came to a close. It's safe to say that a great many people were unsatisfied. Many shows end in a way that displeases fans - some notoriously - but a few quick fixes really could have made the finale a lot better.

Thorough, extensive spoilers for the end of Dexter below.

1. Get better weather special effects.
Hurricane Laura looked worse than Sharknado. After nine years, don't you think they could have spent a little more money instead of just turning down the brightness and contrast?

2. Up the body count.
For a show about a serial killer, the finale was light on the killing. The body count was just two - even that annoying political aide from the Killing lived!

3. Let the Brain Surgeon put up more of a fight.
Seriously, this guy was creepy. He looked like Ryan Gosling crossed with Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt) and had the crazy-eye thing mastered... but then he gets taken down in one second by Angel.

4. Shut up little Harrison.
Why can't anyone write believable lines for kids? It's just painful watching every scene with the squeaky hair-sphere. Wasn't he supposed to be the second coming of Dexter?

5. Dexter remembers to weight Deb's body down.
Epilogue: Deborah Morgan's bloated, blue, half-fish-eaten corpse discovered on beach by small children. Just like she asked for in her living will!

6. Write better fake news.
Nothing takes you out of the moment like awkward fake news announcers saying the storm is over and everything is returning to normal, or reading the worst-worded online newspaper headline announcing that someone is NO SIGN OF LIFE.

7. Add a twist.
Any twist.

8. Penguins.
They tease little Argentinian penguins repeatedly and yet we never get to see any. Harrison should have been playing with a penguin at the end of the episode.

9. Dexter grows the beard earlier on in the episode.
That's a good beard. Why didn't he grow it earlier in the season?

10. Have Professor X recruit Dexter from that lumber yard in Canada.
Because he's Wolverine, right? That's what we're supposed to get from that ending.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mama Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
Mama starts strong but finishes weak.

Is it technically good?
The cinematography is pleasantly professional, clean, and unstylized for the most part, and the special effects are excellent.
The acting is quite good by all involved, including Jaime Lannister, that lady who caught Bin Laden, and a couple child actors who have a lot of ideas to sell.
The film is really good and scary all the way up through the third act, until the resolution/climax… which is overdone and squanders all the horror and mystery that had built up over the rest of the movie.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
Creepy kids, creepy gross mother issue creatures, and scares - it delivers, but then the ending makes you wish they ended things 10 minutes earlier.

If you liked these, you'll like this: the Ring, the Ring 2, the Haunting in Connecticut.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sleepy Hollow: First Impressions

Sleepy Hollow on Fox has officially set the new bar for "high concept" television. The pilot is essentially a giant infodump, and the fact that it still manages to be entertaining speaks well of its future. The show earns points for avoiding camp without going gritty and/or dark - although this is a show where heads get chopped off at a rate of 1 per 15 minutes. The overall tone that the show strikes is just about perfect; they've managed to find that precarious spot in between horror and comedy that Supernatural sits in. We'll find out how the weekly structure shapes up, but they could find a worse model.

Spoilers below.

Perhaps once we've gotten past the learning curve the characters will get a chance to breathe. As it is, we've got:

  • the legend of Sleepy Hollow
  • the legend of Rip Van Winkle
  • witches
  • dueling covens of witches
  • priests who are witches(?)
  • demons
  • probably the devil
  • the apocalypse
  • childhood flashbacks
  • 18th century flashbacks
  • conspiracies
  • the Revolutionary War as a cover for the timeless battle between good and evil
  • Starbucks jokes
If there was ever a time for this show, it's now. It captures the current American zeitgeist that obsesses over The Vampire Diaries and Once Upon A Time, laughs at Thor and Captain America confused by modern technology, and still wants a sequel to National Treasure even though those movies really shouldn't be entertaining. If there were a teenager or two onscreen this could be a CW show.

The one problem this show already has, of course, is the fact that they've set the stage for a seven-year arc (the timeline of the approaching end of the world)... and if Sleepy Hollow is any good Fox will cancel it in season two.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Top 5 Reasons to be Optimistic About the New Robocop

There is a lot of pessimism going around about the Robocop reboot that comes out next year. The biggest question that it faces is the inevitable "why" that reboots have to deal with. The original Robocop is a science fiction classic and a perfect snapshot of everything wrong with the 1980s. Why mess with it by remaking it? What can be added?

Those more existential questions aside, there are a lot of reasons to be excited about the new film. 

1. Joel Kinnaman in the leading role.
For those of you who don't watch The Killing on AMC, Kinnaman is one of the biggest draws of the show. He's a dynamic actor, familiar with the urban-cop territory, and has the gravitas necessary for a leading man. There are a lot of people that shouldn't be in the metal alloy shoes of Robocop, but Kinnaman is a solid candidate to step up.

2. The supporting cast.
Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Ehle, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams... the list goes on. Sure, actors can make mistakes, but the volume and depth of talent in the cast indicates their confidence in the material.

3. The director.
If you're worried about the new Robocop movie, go watch Jose Padilha's Elite Squad & Elite Squad 2. They're almost like non-sci-fi auditions for a Robocop film. They have intense, meaningful violence, corrupt politicians and cops, conflict with a brutal underworld in an culture grappling with a gigantic class divide... the only thing they're missing is robots and Detroit.

Baruchel outlines his own process for deciding to be a part of the reboot as a fan of the original. 

If nothing else sells you, the trailer shows a lot of promise. The key themes of the original are definitely intact, the special effects seem solid if not mind-blowing, and they didn't make the new suit look stupid.

Calling it Rebootcop. Come on, you know you want to #hashtag #rebootcop. This is a good internet thing even if the movie is a disaster. Future tweets will proclaim things like "some1 call #rebootcop on this ninja turtles reboot."

Friday, September 13, 2013

Europa Report Spoiler-Free Review

Is it good?
It's pretty neat.

Is it technically good?
It uses a documentary-style approach (not just found footage, it includes testimonials and bumps) to get the most out of a small budget, but sacrifices investment in the characters by putting them at arm's length.
The acting is decent, with Sharlto Copley a standout.
The documentary format is applied to narrative at editing in a way that's more an interesting exercise than "good."

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
Realistic space exploration and scares - it doesn't quite deliver on either, but it tries hard and has good intentions.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Apollo 18, Lunopolis, Apollo 13.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness Spoiler-Free Review

Is it good?

Is it technically good?
The special effects are even better than the first, with JJ Abrams' signature attention to nerdy detail.
The returning actors remind you how good they are at these characters, and Benedict Cumberbatch is determined to show you every expression the human face can synthesize.
The music and sound is good, with the exception of a piano piece that turns a serious sequence into melodrama.
Star Trek Into Darkness feels more like a Trek movie and less like an audition for Star Wars VII, although the things fans griped about in the first are still in the second.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
An evolution of the adrenaline-saturated alt-Trek universe - it delivers, with slightly less lens flare.

If you liked these, you'll like this: JJ's first Star Trek reboot.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Iron Man 3 Spoiler-Free Review

Is it good?
It's on par with Iron Man II.

Is it technically good?
The special effects are awesome… but fall victim to timing mishandling. If Zack Snyder uses slo-mo too much, Shane Black uses slo-mo too little. Never thought you'd want more slo-mo, did you?
The acting is good. Ben Kingsley steals his scenes and Guy Pearce chews his scenery up, but RDJ remains the rock that steadies these films.
The music is a bit of a letdown from the first two, riffing more off the Batman theme than Iron Man's own.
The director, Shane Black, goes a bit auteur, and in this case that means making Iron Man III a mash-up of Iron Man II and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
A return to the form of Iron Man I that will make you forget Iron Man II - while it can't make you forget II, III doesn't diminish on returns.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Iron Man II, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Back from vacation

My posts have been somewhat wanting in the past couple weeks; the sharknado didn't get me though, I was just on vacation. A week of prep and then a week on a lake in Maine have helped to cleanse the body and soul. I am always impressed by people who write prolifically while working a full time job besides. It's been a challenge balancing those aspects of my own life, and I needed a recharge. Back in the realm of the living this week, with belated film reviews to come and resumption of the work on my sequel to DMQZ.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

SharkNado Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
It's so bad that it's not good.

Is it technically good?
The special effects are worse than an iOS handheld game.
The acting is bad, though I'm pretty sure that Tara Reid thinks SharkNado happened for real. All the actors take things, way too seriously.
The music is bad, though it's a step above Under the Dome. (What's up with Under the Dome's music?)
The bizarre editing and overuse of stock footage makes large portions of the movie incoherent.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
Insane lo-budget Syfy disaster - and it's certainly a disaster, but not quite bad enough, or self-aware enough, to be fun.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Troll 2.

Pacific Rim Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
It's kaiju-crunching good.

Is it technically good?
The jaegers (giant piloted robots) and kaiju (giant monsters) feel big and real.
The acting is solid, even if Charlie Hunnam's accent isn't, and Idris Elba Idris-Elbas all over everything in a good way.
The music is epic, scored by Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame.
Director Guillermo Del Toro doesn't take the auteur approach, which is a-OK considering the kind of movie it is.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
A live-action giant robots vs giant monsters movie that out-robots Transformers and out-monsters Cloverfield - and yes, it delivers.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Transformers, Cloverfield, most '80s cartoons, your childhood if you were born between 1975 and 1990.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Top 10 Reasons to Go See Pacific Rim this Weekend

1. Charlie Hunnam.
He's come a long way from his start on the UK Queer as Folk, and this star of FX's Sons of Anarchy deserves a big screen presence. And since he's not a "star,' there's no way that he's phoning it in as much as Brad Pitt in World War Z.

2. Giant robots without Michael Bay.
Right now, Michael Bay has a monopoly on the giant robot movie. That means that every giant robot movie has slightly too many explosions, lots of sweaty people, ridiculous lens filters, and stereotypes that are just a little close to being racist. I've watched all three Transformers movies more than twice each, but it's time to put those robots in a different cinematic context.

3. Charlie Day.
The best part of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia makes everything better. What part of giant robot maintenance is Charliework?

4. GLaDOS.
Recognize that robotic voice from the trailer? That's GLadOS, the AI from the beloved Portal games. Knowing Valve's turnaround time for new games, it'll be a while before you get another Portal.

5. It's not a superhero/Hasboro/videogame/reboot/YA novel movie.
There aren't that many blockbusters that are new ideas anymore. We'll keep getting retreads unless we demonstrate we pay for new IP.

6. Idris Elba.
Stringer Bell. Luther. Heimdall. He's canceling the apocalypse.

7. Nerd cred.
Movie studios need to see that the movies that get standing ovations at conventions can still bring in the dollars if they're going to keep making them. Nerds whine about the lack of good sci fi/fantasy/horror, but there's a direct line from their wallets to the studios' ears. Imagine what different movies we'd get if Upstream Color had made as much money as Twilight.

8. Hellboy 3.
Whether or not the third BPRD movie gets made may depend on the success of Pacific Rim.

9. Guillermo del Toro.
There aren't a whole lot of people you can trust to make a good genre flick. Del Toro is one of them. Sure he's had some missteps (Hellboy 2), and you might not like everything that he's produced. But Pan's Labyrinth redeems 99% of the bad things you might say about the director, and he knows his way around an action picture.

10. Giant robots vs giant monsters.
Did we really need the other 9 reasons?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Under the Dome: Does Setting Matter?

The new CBS sci-fi show Under the Dome started this week to record-breaking viewership. It has some solid pedigree: the showrunner, Neal Baer, is a veteran of ER and Law & Order: SVU. The show is written by Brian K. Vaughn of the excellent Y: the Last Man. They've mined the cast from cable, with recognizable actors from Bates Motel, True Blood, Breaking Bad, and even a Lost alum in the pilot. And the biggest name of all attached is Stephen King, author of the book that Under the Dome is based on.

Like many Stephen King stories, Under the Dome takes place in a small Maine town; this one is called Chester's Mill. The TV show shoots in North Carolina, which is approximately 1,000 miles away from Maine. That's equivalent to shooting a story that's set in London, UK in Florence, Italy.

Yes, TV shows and movies shoot in strange places pretending that they're other places all the time. Notoriously, a lot of shows shoot in Canada and pretend to be everywhere from Georgia to New York City. But at least they try to pretend.

Under the Dome isn't even trying. There are no attempts at Maine accents, or even Boston-y accents (which is generally actors' fallback for New England). The buildings and flora don't look right - there are almost no pine trees. There's even spanish moss hanging from trees at one point. Spanish moss. If you've ever been to Maine, you know how ridiculous that is.

Granted, most people who watch the show have never been to Maine. In fact, many people probably don't know that Maine is a real place, and not just an imaginary state that Stephen King made up for his books. It's been portrayed so many different ways in film and television - shot so many places that are not actually Maine and not similar to each other, either - that it must exist in the imaginations of many as an amorphous, omni-climated, manse-ridden land of a million small towns beset by monsters.

Let's set the record straight! Maine is a real place.

Look, you can google map it:

But does it matter?

Some stories have a very specific place or time that matter to the plot, or the mood of the piece. King's the Shining would not have been the same set in Florida; Pet Sematary wouldn't have been the same without Herman Munster's Maine accent. Is Under the Dome one of those stories, or is it the kind you can put just anywhere?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Five Best New Shows You Just Missed the Whole First Season Of

You just woke up from your Game of Thrones thrall and now there's nothing to watch except True Blood and you don't like Anna Paquin. Good news/bad news. While you were crying about the Red Wedding, there were some great first season of freshman shows on the air, and they're all renewed for second seasons. The bad news is now you have to track down the episodes before those second seasons start.

1. Bates Motel
AMC's Bates Motel is a (horror?) drama that gets its name and story from the Psycho films. This series took a lot of risks with the original material: most notably, it's been updated to the present day and they've added the character of Dylan, Norman's older half-brother. These risks pay off excellently, especially the former. Norman Bates and his mother, Norma, speak and dress on the border between the original 60s Psycho era and the modern day. The music, too, pays homage to the days of Hitchcock. But the modern context lets characters say and do things onscreen that only would have been implied in the original movies - and not in a gratuitous way like the Vince Vaughn remake. If you watch this show, be ready for some brutal violence and blunt talk. One does have to get over Norman Bates texting, too.

As Dylan, Max Thieriot is a welcome addition to the Bates family. He often serves as a foil for the nuttier characters, and grounds the plot in reality. More than that, though, Dylan is a stand-in for the audience: he gets that his family is insane, but loves them anyway.

More than anything else, Bates Motel is a showcase for two actors: Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore. As Norma, Farmiga chews the scenery like nothing else you'll ever see. Somehow she manages to play both incredibly funny - I hesitate to say "wacky," as that makes it sound stupid - and utterly emotionally devastated at the same time. Just watching her facial expressions and body language while other characters talk puts most TV acting to shame.

Freddie Highmore completely vanishes into Norman. He's creepily close to Anthony Perkins while bringing his own angles to the character as well. I won't spoil how "psycho" he is in the first season, but the show does a good job of making you feel for him. Clearly there's something wrong, but it's hard to blame him for going more nuts with the wringer he goes through.

2. Hannibal
It's a rare thing to have one television show on the air that's successful at adapting a movie franchise, let alone two. But Hannibal joins Bates Motel as a freshman series that honors - and in some ways, surpasses - the movies that cam before. Read a full run-down on Hannibal here.

One thing that makes this retelling of Hannibal unique is the character's relationship with Will Graham. Unlike the paternal/teacher/potential-lover dynamic set up with Clarice Starling, or the rivalrous duel between Hannibal and previous incarnations of Will, this show explores what friendship with an equal might mean for a serial killer. Yes, this might be a dead-serious serial-killer buddy cop show. In the best, most straight-faced way possible.

3. The Americans
It's a funny thing to write, but the Americans is a 1980s period piece. The producers are smart not to over-play that aspect of the show, though, and the costuming and "80s-ness" balances subtlety with anachronism fairly well - you won't feel like you're watching I Love the 80s.

The Americans follows the lives of two Russian spies, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, and the federal agents hunting them. Keri Russell is good enough - and badass enough - to make you almost forget that she was Felicity back in the day. Matthew Rhys is amazing as her assigned spy husband, like a not-anorexic version of The Walking Dead's Andrew Lincoln with a better fake American accent. They're living across the street from the FBI agent that's hunting them while their children play together. While the setup is perhaps a little too neat-sounding, the execution is anything but: their lives are an exquisite mess and the show is emotionally brutal.

The real fun of the show is how grounded everything is. Yes, it's a spy show, but it's no Alias: there are no lasers or ancient/immortal inventors with prophesies or meeting rooms with glass walls and too many monitors. In some ways, the producers seem to be using the 80's as an excuse to give us realistic spycraft, because we expect magic technology in our modern spy shows. But it's not just the spy stuff that's realistic, but the characters as well; even better, actions have consequences and MacGuffins aren't MacGuffins because they're real things that could tip the balance of the cold war.

4. Orphan Black
There's a reason why there's Emmy buzz around Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany: she plays at least 5 different, truly distinct characters. It's probably more than five. ***Very minor spoiler that's barely a spoiler at all: she plays clones. But because the clones were all brought up separately, they all have different personalities, accents, and motivations, and Maslany does a laudable job of making them all not only different but compelling as well. She does such a good job that at some times you may forget that it's the same actress.

With a strong (very Canadian) supporting cast, and some good writing, this BBC America production manages to make a conspiracy thriller about clones feel like a grounded drama. Another accomplishment: a show with a mystery plot that has satisfying reveals on a weekly basis without demystifying the overall mythology. Many times stories with arc-mystery structures either never explain anything to satisfaction (Lost) or become boring once there's a major reveal. Orphan Black falls into neither trap. While the pilot is the weakest episode, the series pulls you deeper in as it goes along.

5. Arrow
This is it, folks: Arrow is the closest thing you're going to get to a new Batman live action TV show. Which makes sense, since the Green Arrow was originally devised as a green-er, beardier Batman with a bow and arrow. All your favorite stuff from classic Batman and the Nolan Batfilms is there in Arrow: raspy voices, dead parents, servant sidekicks, angst, vigilante ninja-ing. The writers and producers have successfully mashed up Green Arrow canon with a very CW cast, arc storytelling, and Lost-style flashbacks.

There are three dangers that Arrow deals with well. The first is camp. There's just the right amount of camp to make everything fun without decreasing danger - about the same amount of camp as the Vampire Diaries gets away with.

The second is the Smallville factor, in which a superhero TV show never really delivers the hero in the way depicted in comics. Smallville notoriously only showed Superman in his costume in the very last episode, making it not a Superman show at all, really. Arrow shows Green Arrow in his green-hooded glory from episode one (although they never call him that).

The third is the pitfalls of making superhero action on a TV show budget; unlike the Spiderman movies, there aren't millions being piped into making a digital Green Arrow to do all the insane stunts. Arrow's stunts and effects are mostly done practically and pack a punch. The best practical effect is Stephen Amell's abs, which you already know if you've seen any of the promotional materials for the show. No, those aren't photoshopped, and to his credit Amell actually does a large portion of the stunt and fight work himself. And he's not a half-bad actor either; he plays Oliver Queen like he's Dexter Morgan (bonus: Dexter alum David Ramsey plays Queen's bodyguard, Diggle).

The new golden age of television isn't over yet, and the quality of the serious dramas is finally seeping into the pulp - and we're all better off for it!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

V/H/S/2 Spoiler-free Review

Is it good?
The 3rd tape sequence, "Safe Haven" makes it worth it.

Is it technically good?
Because there are five separate shorts combined (4 VHS "tapes" and a frame story narrative) the production quality varies.
The frame narrative: unlike in the first V/H/S, the frame narrative in 2 barely has its own story and it isn't executed well.
The first tape: good production is pulled down by poor acting and writing.
The second tape: a great concept (zombies from zombie POV) is decently done but doesn't end up being scary enough or going far enough.
The third tape: great production, good acting and writing, complete insanity - this could have been, and perhaps should have been, its own film.
The fourth tape: decently made but twist-less.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
Horror shorts from different directors to shock and terrify even more than the first V/H/S film; while the third tape is great, the first V/H/S is still overall a better compilation.

If you liked these, you'll like this: V/H/S, the Eye.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Remember to review!

Read DMQZ? Post a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads to help spread the word!

Like many independently published authors, I've got a marketing budget of zero - so I'm counting on word of mouth from readers like you to help spread the word. If you read indie authors, especially Kindle Direct folks like me, help support the community by posting reviews online of what you've read.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Red Dawn (2012) Spoiler-free review

Is it good?
No, watch the original instead.

Is it technically good?
They hired workmanlike crew, and they got a serviceable result; it's a vehicle for youthful faces, ridiculous product placement, and explosions.
The acting is fairly terrible except for Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who does his best to salvage things but can't overcome the rest of the movie.
They clearly paid for a lot of pop music rights, but the score itself is underwhelming.
The editing is confusing at best, and 90% of the movie plays like an extended montage.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
An update of the pulp classic '80s commie paranoia flick Red Dawn with today's hottest young stars; some of 2009's young stars in a brainless, disorganized extended trailer that makes the original look like high art.

If you liked these, you'll like this: Abduction starring Taylor Lautner.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Solaris (1972) Spoiler-free review

Is it good?
Yes, it's good weird.

Is it technically good?
Visually, it's striking and different - even if some of the special effects don't stand up.
The acting is quite good (though it's sometimes hard to tell in a different language).
They're going for a counterpoint to sci-fi blockbusters, but it's too quiet.
Be ready for a slow movie. If you can make it through Part I, Part II is a good payoff, though it's still slow.
In short: it's Criterion for a reason.

What does it promise - and does it deliver?
A contemplative, psychological, art-house counterpoint to sci-fi's action and technology blockbusters - and it delivers.

If you liked these, you'll like this: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek the Motion Picture.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

1996 and 2/3: TV show pitch

Twenty years ago, FBI agent Cameron Archer (Nic Cage) underwent experimental surgery to trade faces with terrorist Vic Troy (John Travolta) in order to shut down Troy's criminal organization. Things went sideways when Archer, wearing Troy's face, was caught by his FBI partner Riley Hale (Christian Slater) and sentenced to life in prison. Troy has infiltrated Archer's life - his family, the FBI - and has been living as Archer for two decades.

Now, Archer is forced to make a daring escape during a prison transfer by plane to get his old life back. Teaming up with notorious criminals (including John Malkovich and Dave Chappelle), and hunted by US Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack), Archer is taking over Troy's organization to bring it down.

Troy is pulled into the hunt for Archer, as Hale starts to have doubts about his partner. It's a game of cat and mouse and confused identities as the villainous Troy plays both sides - he likes the life he stole and it's slipping away. But Troy has an ace up his sleeve: a stolen nuke, somewhere in the desert...

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Toss the bathwater, Frankenstein the baby: lessons from Hemlock Grove series 1

Netflix's Hemlock Grove is such a mixed bag it's hard to even say it's "good" or "bad." Let's break it down, +/- style.

Spoilers for Hemlock Grove ahead.

+ The story. There's a compelling supernatural drama/soap going on in Hemlock Grove. There are characters that diverge from cookiecutter tropes that horror gravitates towards. The story goes to some interesting places. Particularly enjoyable is Dr. Price's journey from arch villain to sympathetic counter-programmer.

- The production. Writing and editing muddle the good parts of the story. Twists and revelations that should have made you say "I can't believe that happened" instead prompt "what just happened?" too often.

A tragic example of this: in the church confrontation, I had to rewind and deduce why Sheriff Sworn shot Shelley. I've come to the conclusion that Sworn must have only seen the end, Shelley holding the dead vargulf in human form, and fired thinking her the killer. This shouldn't be a conclusion the viewers have to reach alone, though; we should have been shown. It would have been just a few quick cuts of Sworn arriving.

Also at the very end I think we're supposed to infer that Roman either can't help raping people, hypnotized himself to forget, or was hypnotized by his mother to do it. Without clarification, it's impossible for the viewer to forgive the character, so that's a pretty important missing piece.

+ The whole gypsy clan. The Rumanceks and the actors that played them were the best part of the series. More of them, please.

- The dialect coaches for the Godfreys. It was hard to take anyone but Shelley seriously in dramatic moments when their accents were so bad.

+ The humor. Who knew a horror show could be so funny without camp? Even though the Wire-style "shiiiiiiiit" was overused, it offered much needed relief more often than not.

Favorite moment: "Do you want to have sex with me?" "Well, here we are."

- The horror. Expectations always should be tempered when it comes to effects, because we all know that budgets exist. But 1.2 transformations over an entire season of a show that's billed about being a werewolf show... underwhelming. There were fewer effects than any supernatural BBC show, and those shows are Hemlock Grove's main competition.

Overall, there was more potential than product in Hemlock Grove. Here's hoping it gets a second series and a bit of course-correct so that it can deliver on its promise.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Supervillain plot = Real life public policy

The nefarious plot of the supervillain on CW's Arrow was revealed in full last episode. As evil as it is, I was struck by the feeling that I'd heard of the idea before. And not in Batman Begins.

Spoilers below for Arrow and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. But really, if you haven't seen Nolan's Batmans, you should really be catching up right now.

So yes, villain Malcolm Merlyn (Doctor Who/Torchwood's John Barrowman, @team_barrowman on twitter) is the progenitor of a plot to destroy "the Glades," the poverty-stricken district of Arrow's Starling City. And yes, it's pretty much the same plot that Ra's Al Ghul had in Batman Begins. Merlyn even has a mysterious device being shipped in to perform the task that has a striking visual similarity to the water-vaporizing weapon from the Batman movie.

(I'm willing to give Arrow a lot of leeway to borrow from Batman because it does it so well. If you haven't been watching Arrow and you like superheroes, you should start. I'm the first to admit that I have a bias against DC superheroes that aren't Batman. I grew up with the more underdog approach to heroes of the Stan Lee stable. But like pretty much every person on the planet, I've got a lot of love for THE BATMAN, and the Green Arrow that Arrow gives us is pretty darn close. The things that Arrow adds and subtracts from the Batman story are thoughtful: Oliver Queen has a much longer road to having a heroic mission, and he's more limited in his mental and technological prowess, making him more sympathetic and more vulnerable.)

But the mission and method of the villains in both the Nolan Batman trilogy and Arrow are to fix the problem of crime by leveling the city and starting over. On the face of it, the destruction of struggling areas to fix their problems is the idea only a supervillain could have. In reality, though, it's a fairly common approach to the problem of urban "blight" and crime.

If you watched the Wire, you know why and how it happens. There's a crime- and poverty-ridden area, politicians look for an easy and symbolic way to fix it when policing fails - knock the buildings down.

The euphemism for the practice of demolishing poor areas is urban renewal. There was a rash of urban renewal in the middle of the twentieth century following World War II, pioneered by people like Robert Moses and Richard King Mellon. The government used the American Housing Act of 1949 and eminent domain (that thing where the government can pay you what it wants for your property if it "needs" it) to take over, flatten, and rebuild large sections of major US cities. While less explode-y than the DC supervillain approach, the goal and approach was very similar.

So does the parallel between real policy and supervillainy make urban renewal crazy/evil, or Malcolm Merlyn's plan more logical? The answer is mixed; urban renewal projects have had both good and bad results. Sometimes there is improvement, sometimes further social slide. Like most public policy initiatives, urban renewal wasn't the "magic bullet" to fix cities' problems.

Of course the major difference between real life and fiction is that urban renewal doesn't - as a goal, anyway - flatten buildings with people in them.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Free Book Promotion

It's the month anniversary of the release of my novel, DMQZ, so it's free today through Sunday on Amazon for your Kindle or Kindle-app device.

Why is it free? I've released DMQZ independent of a publisher (commonly referred to as "indie"), which means that my best advertising is you good word of mouth. So download for free, read & enjoy, and then write a review on Amazon and tell your friends!

What is it about? DMQZ is a mystery/thriller set in New York City after a global pandemic. Most of the world was wiped out by disease, but New York is on the border of a safe zone that extends south down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The main character, Jacob Hale, is a cop trying to clear his name after making a hard call. DMQZ is the first in a trilogy (I'm writing the sequel now).

Will there be another free promotion? Probably not. So get it 'em while they're hot!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hannibal is the Dexter we really want

The Hannibal Lecter we all know and love on the big screen in Michael Mann's Miami Vice-ish Manhunter, the iconic Silence of the Lambs, the less-iconic Hannibal, the where-is-Anthony-Hopkins Hannibal Rising, and the we-swear-it's-not-Manhunter Red Dragon has come to the living room on NBC's Hannibal.

(Some #spoilers for Dexter below, but all very general.)

That might make it seem like the Lecterverse is getting a little overwrought. At this point the serial killer genre starting to feel a little crowded, too, with Hannibal, AMC's bizarro-awesome Bates Motel, the wasn't-this-an-Ashley-Judd-movie-in-the-1990s-styled the Following and of course Showtime's Dexter. Dexter is the eldest of the lot and has the most in common with Hannibal.

In many ways Will Graham (the familiar hero of Manhunter/Red Dragon) and Hannibal are two sides of Dexter's character: Will is the socially maladjusted and forensically gifted half, while Hannibal is Dexter's dark passenger with Harry's controls. If anything, they're even more exaggerated. Will is more socially awkward than Dexter ever was, so much so that he can only befriend animals; Hannibal's control of his urge to kill is absolute but his willingness to repress it nonexistent.

Where the two shows diverge is their approach to who has the upper hand. Dexter made a narratively interesting choice by making the serial killer a sympathetic underdog. Hannibal lets Hannibal run the show - there's cat and mouse, but Hannibal is certainly the cat.

In many ways Dexter's evolution seems to have been a de-evoltution, the gradual decline of a serial killer from the peak of his abilities to his downfall. Every season finds Dexter discarding more and more of Harry's rules, making more and stupider mistakes, and getting ever closer to being caught. Maybe that's the end of the series - and that would give the show an interesting angle on the genre. In the meantime, though, there's much less of a sense of danger to Dexter himself. In the first season, we could believe that Dexter could kill any one of the characters if it weren't for his rules, and his dark passenger monologues were sometimes frightening. These days we wonder if he can pull off a kill without getting hurt or caught.

Hannibal on the other hand is at the beginning of the peak of his power. The events of Hannibal take place before and in between stories we're familiar with, so it's uncharted territory. We're used to Hannibal in a cage or on the run. The iconic image is Hannibal behind glass or behind a protective mask (see title image). Now, he's free, walking around, analyzing some people and dining on others.

The best trick Hannibal plays is convincing you of how smart Hannibal feels. Mads Mikkelsen is a far better actor than I would have guessed from his villainy in Casino Royale, and he's given excellent material to work with. He's smart in a way that the viewer can see without the visual aids that Benedict Cumerbatch gets on Sherlock. He's smart in a way that lets you watch him think and manipulate, rather than a "gotcha" at the end. Watching Hannibal, we believe he's a genius.

Mads Mikkelsen may not have Anthony Hopkins' stare, but he's a worthy successor. He certainly outdoes Gaspard Ulliel and Brian Cox in the role. And he brings the scary back to the killer TV show.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Humanoid Alien Problem and Syfy's Defiance

Syfy's new show Defiance is trying to fill a lot of big shoes. It wears its biggest influences on its sleeves: Joss Whedon's Firefly is the western-future mashup spiritual ancestor on one side, and Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica is the other clear tonal influence. Syfy is invested in attracting and keeping new viewers, but its approach runs the risk of alienating the same fans they seek to attract: the similarities to Firefly may make the new show look bad in comparison, and many science fiction fans have "grit fatigue" brought on by the generation of "darker" shows already following in BSG's footsteps (Syfy's own Stargate Universe is an example of how the tactic has already backfired). But it's the similarities to another Moore show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that risks alienating the most potential new viewers - with aliens.

Sure, a lot of science fiction fans like aliens. Heck, I like aliens. But aliens are often the first thing that turns a new sci-fi viewer right back around to the door. Forehead wrinkles, contacts, skin paint, spots, false teeth - easily cheesy. A more gradual approach to introducing the outlandish has been what's roped viewers into things like Game of Thrones (that, and wanton sex and violence).

As a science fiction fan, I've got to ask the question: why are do so many "aliens" have to be so human? Why do we keep on making TV shows that have aliens that look so much like us?

I get that there are budgetary concerns. And CGI is only just getting to the point now that it's cheap enough to have weirder aliens at an affordable price. But let's run through some of the problems with humanoid aliens.

  • It's incredibly unlikely that one, let alone several, alien life forms will evolve such similar height, weight, limb number, skeleton type, genital location, etc to humans. I'm glad that Defiance has some "giant" and "dwarf" aliens, and a glowing ball of energy alien, but the three primary races are human-norm. And everyone but the glowing energy balls has two arms, two legs, two eyes, one mouth, five fingers, etc.
  • Alien "culture" often takes the place of actual character. Essentially, every member of an alien "race" (more on that term in a minute) is 99% a product of his/her/its imaginary culture rather than a thinking, feeling character. The best alien characters are those who are the product of their culture but also act as independent people - something we take for granted with human characters.
  • There's a whole lot of alien racism. Think about it for a minute: all ___ of the ____ race has these characteristics. If we're not talking about aliens, that's a pretty shameful statement, so why is it so easy for science fiction writers to treat it casually? This isn't unique to sci-fi either; fantasy has the exact same problem. Have you ever heard of a fat elf? Why is there so much variety allowed and recognized among humans and so little among aliens?
  • Language: everyone in the universe has somehow evolved languages that everyone can (physically) speak, with similar conceptual and grammatical rules? While I'd love to say that it's some sort of comment on evolutionary linguistics... it's not.
  • And let's not forget the whole gender/species question. a) Why do all humanoid alien races have all the same gender characteristics? b) If we can reproduce with aliens, are we the same species? What?
It's not that I don't think there's a place for humanoid aliens. But so many other shows have gone there before that it begs the question of what new can Defiance bring to the table? Can it be more than a sum of parts gathered from other shows?

There are enough examples of doing stranger aliens, better, that Defiance seems a little lazy (Farscape did weirder, better, though there were a lot of humanoids there too). To me, the best, most inventive work on alien races came from a video game: Mass Effect had more interesting, more varied, and more variable alien life-forms and alien cultures than anything I've seen on the television. In addition, there's a hint as to why there might be so many bipeds in the ME world (a shared galactic ancestry, intermittently destroyed by #spoilers).

It comes down to this: if tomorrow aliens landed, and they had two arms, two legs, one head, five fingers, etc, I'd want to know why they look so human. It would be weird, and we would want to know why there was such a close resemblance. So why don't we apply the same rigor to our science fiction?

And why do we keep giving Julie Benz work?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hemlock Grove, why can't you be better?

I'm worried about Hemlock Grove. It's Netflix's new supernatural release-at-once series, and it's showing the vulnerability of the format.

Hemlock Grove is set in Pennsylvania, which seems to have the same look as every town on CW shows. There are werewolves, along with other supernatural fauna. There's some class warfare and murder mystery stuff going on there too. The show has the big name draw of Eli Roth. It's what you'd get if you crossed Teen Wolf with True Blood and then treated the material like serious drama. On paper, the plot and character summaries are fun and meaty, which is probably how the show got picked up.

First the good stuff: there's some solid acting (by some), some interesting writing (in places) and some decent effects (once in a while).

Now for the bad: Bill Skarsgard needs acting classes (so many vampires in that family), some of the writing is clunky, some of the effects are cheesy... and the pacing kills everything that the show had going for it. The editing feels as though they shot enough for 30-minute episodes, but then decided to stretch them to hour-longs. There's too much space at the beginning and end of scenes, space that doesn't add dramatic tension or an artistic feel. The dialogue is also slowed down in the same way: there is too much time between one character speaking and the next, making the conversations feel unnatural.

At first I almost liked the odd pacing. The first episode felt very Twin Peaks, like they were messing with the audience on purpose. Now that I'm four episodes in, though, it's just grating.

This exposes one of the vulnerabilities of a release-all-at-once show. A traditionally released show does shooting and post while the first episodes are airing - with some shows, only one or two episodes will be in the can when a season starts. This lets networks cancel or fix shows that don't perform well with minimum losses. For the viewer, it means there's real hope that a show will "get better." When a show releases all-at-once, there's essentially no hope for change; Hemlock Grove is done already, so we can expect the same uneven editing for at least the first whole season.

Netflix is in a bind, too. With any release-at-once show, they've invested the vast majority of their money already by the time something looks bad going through post. I can believe that watching dailies from Hemlock Grove, anyone would think the show was going to be good. But once Netflix discovered the clunkiness, they had a choice: nix the show with big losses or risk the brand by airing something they knew wouldn't review well.

Hemlock Grove has a distinct advantage in its favor: genre. A certain percentage of the critics always hates supernatural/horror fare regardless of inherent quality, which means that Supernatural/horror fans are more apt to ignore critics. And because of the very small number of scripted horror on TV, viewers have been forced to lower standards. It's a perfect storm that's giving Netflix a pass.

Will Netflix learn from this? It's hard to say. They've had a hit with House of Cards, a bit of a misfire with Hemlock Grove... perhaps the decider will be the Arrested Development revival.

(And yes, everyone just pretends that Lilyhammer never happened. Sorry, Little Stevie.)

Writing update

Almost immediately after finishing DMQZ, I started smashing my brain up against the sequel. I'd planned the Dormouse books as a trilogy, and since I had finished one, I was ready to move right on. The sequel is currently evolving under the working title U.S.S.

Of course, it's never quite as simple as you hope it will be. You often hear about two camps of writers: those who plan like fiends, and those who "just write" and let the story and characters guide them. I fall somewhere in between. I don't write outlines or have maps or a wall of sticky notes, but I do need to have a basic idea of where the story starts, finishes, and what the main beats will be. The process of ironing those main plot points out is sometimes called "breaking the story."

I started writing U.S.S. with the story only half-broken. While DMQZ follows just one main character, U.S.S. is a split narrative, following two. When I started writing last year, I only had one narrative's story figured out. I started that one, but when it came time to switch at a chapter break, I hit a brick wall.

Yesterday, though, I finally broke story two. Sometimes, cranking up a mix with a lot of Bear McCreary while cleaning the apartment just does the trick.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

99 Cent eBook of the Week: Wool 2

Hugh Howey's first Wool serial is a short piece that compels the reader to consume until satisfying finish. It reads very much like a short story, and the prospect of a series follow-up is an exciting one: we don't have to leave the world just because one story is finished.

(For more on Wool Part I, click here.)

Wool 2, then, has some big shoes to fill. While the first Wool is free, the second part of the series costs real money ($0.99, granted, but there's a big distance from $0 to there). It needs to justify its existence, engage the Wool reader for the series' long haul, and measure up to part one.

Where 1 felt like a vignette, 2 feels like a chapter in a book. Much of the structure of the story feels designed to give the reader a tour of Wool's silo world and how it works. This isn't necessarily bad; the reader gets a good look at Howey's world-building, and a better picture of why and how things happened in part 1 - but the shift from the deft interweaving of world building into plot elements (a hallmark of part 1) to more forced exposition is jarring.

The story itself is also another departure from 1; where 1 was fueled by tight plotting, 2 is a character study. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. The reader comes to know and care about the characters more this time around.

So does it measure up to part 1? No, but it doesn't let down, either. Importantly, for the readers who are newer to science fiction, 2 creates a realistic world that functions. It fleshes out the universe to create room for more stories to grow.

And yes, I'll probably just turn around and get Wool 3.

Update on free book day

If you're reading this now and you didn't download DMQZ for free, then that means that you missed free book day. Don't worry! It's still only $0.99, which is literally the least they would let me charge without making it free.

For those of you who did get free copies while they were going Monday (Pacific time, which meant into my Tuesday), I hope you enjoy!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Free book day tomorrow!

April 15 is tax day. I hate tax day! So my book, DMQZ, will be free tomorrow.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Beware Room 237: Failing Calumet-spiracies

The new film Room 237 claims to have new, exciting, and intriguing theories about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Kubrick mad a film that is narratively confusing, different from Stephen King's source material is strange ways, and visually entrancing. The Shining hints at deeper meaning with ambiguous, haunting images that are never explained, so it's not surprising that we've gotten a movie that tries to do so.

The media campaign is probably the most compelling part of Room 237. It's great: there are posters with the hypnotic Overlook Hotel carpet, keyholes filled with garden maze, and the now-infamous Calumet baking powder cans. The previews are perfectly done as well: they use Kubrick's original footage rearranged for maximum effect.

I was excited enough about Room 237 that I watched The Shining in advance. I even wrote an article on this blog with a new conspiracy theory about The Shining. I hold a soft spot in my heart for conspiracy theory movies, like JFK in this article's title image, even when they can be completely bananas. There's something compelling about the idea that there is hidden meaning beneath the surface of what we know that draws us to movies like this.

But unfortunately Room 237 is a letdown. It's not that there aren't some good theories. Rather, the theories a) aren't explained well by the narrators (who we never see) or b) aren't supported by evidence in the film itself.

First off, the narrators are nuts. Not that you would be able to find multiple, super-coherent experts to talk about their theories on such a specific subject - but it would have been nice to get at least one. The narrator with the most interesting, compelling ideas is also very evidently high, or is so frequently high that it has permanently changed his laugh into a stoner laugh. When the narrators "explain" theories, they do so with such a cursory, broad approach that the ideas seem completely unsubstantiated - or they are so specific that the theory is too broad an extrapolation. And there are such huge logical leaps taken that rather than going from A to B, the trip is from A to W, and there's no way for the audience to connect the lines.

Worse, there are several times when a narrator will swear that we'll see something in the footage - and then it isn't there. Room 237 will show the footage, and the thing that the narrator promises doesn't exist. This happens multiple times. In other cases, the footage will actually show something completely contradictory to what the experts are claiming. This would be amusing if Room 237 claimed to be a film about debunking crazy people's theories about The Shining.

Spoilers from here on in as we delve into real content. Reading below will totally spoil the movie for you.

There are a few neat things that Room 237 does talk about. I'm going to spoil them for you now so that you don't have to see the movie:

  • There's an impossible window, which based on the layout of the hotel, should not face the outside (but it does).
  • There are a variety of continuity errors (a vanishing chair, a morphing typewriter), which could be hinting at deeper meaning if they are intentional. While I don't necessarily think they aren't purposeful, if they are I would guess it's more likely that Kubrick was using them to make the viewer feel uncomfortable.
  • Jack Nicholson is reading Playgirl while he's waiting for his new boss in the lobby of the Overlook.
  • The wreck on Hallorann's drive up to the Overlook is that of a red beetle, which could signal Kubrick's disregard for Stephen King's source material.

On to the wonky stuff. There are several over-arching themes that Room 237 tries to apply to The Shining:

  • The Shining is about the holocaust.
  • The Shining is about the plight of the Native Americans. (This is the Calumet can theory.)
  • The Shining is about how Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing footage.
  • The Shining is meant to be played backwards over itself, and we can learn things about it by doing this.

The first two ideas are only marginally interesting, not well explained, and not well substantiated by the evidence that the narrators use. The last one is a great idea for something creepy to do for your next Halloween party, but not very informative as they never explain what the heck the overlaps between forwards and backwards mean.

The Stanley-faked-the-moon-landing idea is the best fleshed out. Sadly, it's also the worst undercut by the zaniness of the narrator. Just when you think that he's making a valid argument, he talks about his friend who says that there are aliens on the moon. And then when you think that he's going to explain how he knows that the footage was faked using a certain technique, he doesn't. And finally, he says that the "Room No 237" label on the key hanging from a lock clearly labels it as the "moon room." This is because the letters in "Room N" (he disregards the third "o" because it's not big) can only be arranged to spell "moon." Sadly, using the "r" that he discards without explanation, we get the more appropriate "moron."

There are convincing arguments to be made for nearly all the theories that are espoused in Room 237. Room 237 doesn't make any of the theories sound convincing. There's still the opportunity to write the definitive documentary on The Shining conspiracies, and I sincerely hope that someone makes that movie.

I don't advocate the recreational use of drugs as a rule. That would be reckless. But if you're of age, and are going to watch Room 237, watch it drunk. And if you're in a state, country, or province where weed is legal, watch it high. The best viewing of this movie is a stupefied, non-critical one where you can wonder at the cool ideas without thinking about them.