Don’t Breathe

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It’s hard to watch Don’t Breathe and not immediately draw comparisons to The People Under the Stairs. By the time a drooling rottweiler pursues burglar Rocky (Jane Levy) into the claustrophobic spaces between the walls of its owner’s home, it’s clear Wes Craven’s film was a major signpost for Fede Alvarez’s. Both are home invasion thrillers centered on the invaders’ economic desperation (and it’s three in both films); the invaded are psychopaths, their homes fortified deathtraps guarding a horrible secret in the basement, trapping anyone who comes looking. There’s a girl locked away, idol and fetish-object for the home owner.

The imagery is certainly there, but Alvarez approaches it more obliquely. People is a fairy tale, a black child taking on Reaganomics–in the form of two white, incestuous, cannibalistic slumlords–and winning. Craven’s own They Live. Don’t Breathe is nowhere near as neat. Rocky, like People‘s protagonist Fool, wants a quick windfall to get her and her loved ones out of impoverished living, but she’s so laser-focused on the goal she appears cutthroat and manipulative (also, for her, “loved ones” primarily means her younger sister, with their mother a drunken, abusive oaf who needs to be escaped from). She runs with her juggalo boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and bland, wannabe-paramour Alex (Dylan Minnette), burgling suburban Detroit homes serviced by Alex’s dad’s security company. When they catch word of a blind old hermit (Stephen Lang) sitting on over six figures, in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood, the opportunity is too good. What they don’t count on is the Blind Man being an Iraq war vet, driven mad by the death of his daughter. His depravity is unveiled in stages. During the break-in–where Alvarez guides us through the house with smooth tracking shots, foreshadowing the geography of the ensuing chaos down hallways, into rooms and even the spaces between walls–the Blind Man is shown sleeping while listening to a video of his daughter, aligning sympathy. His murder and terrorizing is first seen as an understandable response to the sudden intrusion of his sanctum.

Then the girl is discovered. And that she is the one who accidentally killed the Blind Man’s daughter. From there, context gradually shifts until he is shown as truly monstrous (Alvarez played a similar game in his Evil Dead remake, shifting audience allegiances to leave us guessing who to root for).

Lang’s frame complements this portrayal: rippling, puffy musculature, he prowls as he feels his way through the house, checking for markers. The Blind Man responded to his battlefield handicap with a strict regiment and discipline, mechanizing his existence. He handles the death of a loved one similarly, taking those deemed responsible by force and attempting to (artificially) replace the loss. Old Testament-style, post-9/11 bloodlust sexualized, allowed to operate unimpeded by a socially and economically declining America eager to sweep horrifying reality under the rug. Pitting this against Rocky’s desire for escape makes the evil at the heart of the story abstract yet all too real. It can’t be killed, because it’s everywhere. Don’t Breathe isn’t a fairy tale, but a nasty, hopeless exploitation flick.

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Basically, We’re Screwed (But Damn, We Got Some Great Movies)

2012 was not a good year. By all accounts, 2013 was not any better. All the usual politics hyped up to catastrophic levels for anyone who works/cannot work for a living (government shutdowns, furloughs, the push to cut more from assistance programs, that sort of thing), more war, more shootings (and more shootings of unarmed kids by supposed adults), Barack Obama pushing hard to finally meet his goal of being exactly like Ronald Reagan, basically the entire Republican party dropping even the most cursory pretense of concern for actual people from their platforms, Detroit being forced into bankruptcy by Michigan’s Governor Snyder and his corporate toady Kevyn Orr (to the obvious catcalls of Americans oblivious of the same misfortunes brewing in their own backyard)–an ongoing story which resembles less an attempt to fix the broken structure of one of America’s greatest cities and more like a bunch of mobsters trying to dump a body after putting a bullet in its head. People in other countries dying because of shoddy work conditions, which pundits who advertise themselves as right or left seem to agree is okay, because, hey, slightly-less-expensive jeans, yo. People dying in this country because of shoddy work conditions, which pundits just seem to be unaware is a thing, still. Comics and video game nerds competing over who can have the worst attitudes towards women/blacks/gays//etc, only to be beaten at the last minute by Duck Dynasty fans. Which is embarrassing, really. It’s a fakey-fake-fake reality show about some fakey-fake-fake millionaires pretending to be good ol’ boys (why, they worship Jesus and have tacky, matching camouflage outfits!), whose only goal is to sell their cheapo merchandise to white people who complain about how their rights are oppressed by gay people–with their “not wanting to be beaten to death in the street simply for being grown, consenting adults fucking other grown, consenting adults of the same gender” agenda–all while snuggling up to T-shirts made by people in countries who actually are being oppressed (Brand synergy, motherfuckers!).

I mean, seriously: Duck Dynasty? That’s what Americans will be moved to stand with?

Anyway, enough of that shit. Here’s the entertainment I consumed and felt best defined 2013:

Pain & Gain: Back when it came out, I tried writing an essay about Michael Bay’s black-hearted comedy (had the title “The Grossest, Most Beautiful People” in mind), but never got around to finishing it. This was an absolute surprise, a Coen Brothers movie on testosterone and aimed at cutthroat capitalism–represented by an intense Mark Wahlberg as Danny Lugo (the leader of the real-life Sun Gym Gang) and a caustic Tony Shaloub as a sandwich shop magnate Lugo kidnaps and extorts. The way Lugo and his buddies (Anthony Mackie and scene-stealer Dwayne Johnson, as a cokehead/ex-con/born-again Christian) are seduced and corrupted by the American Dream, the way they leave people dead and broken (Johnson, as the closest the group has to a conscience, has sympathy for the victims), the way they indulge in every gaudy, lurid fantasy Bay ever committed to celluloid, and the way their situation spirals out of control is perfectly nasty, hilariously disgusting, and smartly cutting. The ease with which Lugo gets around tepid regulations of bank practices (bribing his boss, a notary, into falsely approving a transfer of assets) turns the mid-90s crimes upon which the movie is based into a perfect metaphor for the housing market collapse (doing for that crisis what The Dark Knight did for the War on Terror). If Michael Bay’s career as a Bruckheimer hack was the plot of a film, this was the third act twist. The pulling back of the curtain to reveal Bay as a much smarter director than anyone (myself included) ever gave him credit for. Transformers 4 could be the worst piece of shit on the planet, Pain & Gain still justifies its existence.

Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us: Voice actor Troy Baker’s year was defined by one theme: emotionally scarred, cynical men escorting teen girls through a sci-fi nightmare (in both, the girls are, for the most part, only vulnerable to the psychological wounds the game inflicts). The Last of Us was standard zombie apocalypse fare, with Baker’s Joel escorting foul-mouthed Ellie (Ashley Johnson) across America. Gameplay was divided between genuinely tense stealth moments (where scrounging for supplies was dangerous, yet could pay off in a tight spot) and the same cover-shooting and Quick Time Event action setpieces which defined Naughty Dog’s one-dimensional Uncharted games, but also took the time to marvel at the elegant mix of beauty and horror in nature reclaiming civilization. Joel and Ellie bonding, becoming co-dependent (she a surrogate for the daughter he lost years ago), makes up for the script’s lame attempts at deconstruction (only once does Joel kill someone who is neither threat to him or Ellie, and only after the game goes out of its way in the third act to tell us he’s a crazy, murderous psychopath).
Bioshock Infinite, however, was the more complete experience: its entire world, the floating city of Colombia, defined by violence and oppression. The bourgeois class, led by Comstock (Kiff VandenHeuvel), enjoys so much leisure they refer to their metropolis as “Heaven, or the closest you’ll get in this life,” but rest on the broken backs of slave labor (a cross-section of early 20th century black and immigrant communities) who routinely get mangled by unsafe work conditions, if not killed for sport. This inspires justified revolution (The Last of Us‘ Fireflies didn’t have real motivation…they were a plot device), except it goes so far as to murder children. Baker’s character, thug-for-hire Booker DeWitt, only adds to the chaos, with motivations for extracting teen psychic Elizabeth (Courtnee Draper) more personal than he realizes. Redemption and baptism figure prominently in the narrative, with Booker trying to “wipe away the debt” even as more and more blood gets on his hands. Pundits mistook this critique in a first person shooter as ludonarrative dissonance, forgetting that any story about the effects of violence has to have violence. Those sprinkled moments of quiet throughout the first half–Booker and Elizabeth wandering Colombia, or when they hide out in a bar for awhile, performing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”–are about these two finding some grace, but it always exists in a fragile bubble amidst carnage they leave in their wake. Ken Levine and his Irrational team chase these themes down a rabbit hole of alternate universes and time travel, until we get to one, single conclusion: the damage we do can’t be fixed by simply repenting.

The Long Journey: Boulet’s infinite canvas webcomic doesn’t just capture modern frustration. With a story which only builds, and never really ends, as his avatar goes beyond humdrum reality to backpack across surrealist landscapes, he finds beauty in expressing that frustration. Boulet wishes to escape the world, yet keeps coming back to incidents and images he sees everywhere (graffiti being the most prominent). What he finds is the need for connection, with himself, with people, with life. The nuances within the monotony of existence, which keep us going when all is dark and the end is never in sight. Boulet finds out he can go on a little more.

Horror movies: The genre had a minor comeback this year with three movies. First was the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Evil Dead remake/sequel/thing, a vicious allegory about the plight of addicts. Fede Alvarez borrows superficially from Sam Raimi’s original movie (the isolated cabin, Book of the Dead, possession, girl being raped by tree) but fixates on the self-mutilation the Deadites force upon their hapless victims (two lose their hands, one as a morbidly funny bit of misdirection), calling to mind the amputation of Jared Leto’s arm in Requiem for a Dream. In a worse year, this would’ve easily been the best horror flick, but it was just warm-up: after this came Rob Zombie’s American giallo Lords of Salem, contemplative in the ways all his previous movies were (about violence, sexuality, drug use, music, and Americana) but with a much more assured hand. The big winner, though, is You’re Next, a movie as much a window into the fucked-up dynamics of an upper-class family (as seen through the eyes of Sharni Vinson, playing the fiance of A.J. Bowen’s meek middle brother) as it is the latest in the new wave of home invasion thrillers. Adam Wingard neatly divides the movie into halves, allowing the relationships between the siblings (especially Bowen’s antagonism towards his cocksure, passive-aggressive older brother) to be the core around which the movie revolves. In a way, their bourgeois affectations expose the rottenness of most Hollywood dramas and mumblecore (both about the troubles of pretty, rich, white people), while Vinson gets to portray the working-class, can-do attitude of a John Carpenter anti-hero. I cheered for this.

Arrested Development Season 4: I’m really not sure what people were griping about. Instead of wasting the new opportunity provided by Netflix cruising on fan-service, Mitchell Hurwitz and crew took Arrested Development in a bolder, meaner direction. Splitting apart the Bluths, embroiling them in schemes which became increasingly sad and pathetic extensions of their own isolated misery (George’s loss of masculinity and Maeby still going to high school), and even more explicitly attacking the American political system (Terry Crews is better at being Herman Cain than Cain is), this was exactly what the show needed to be.

Star Trek Into Darkness: Just kidding, this sucked.

XCOM: Enemy Within: It’s not often a game’s expansion pack adds thematic depth as well as content. Opening with a new, foreshadowing quote from Buckminster Fuller–replacing the too-common Arthur C. Clarke one of Enemy Unknown–the Firaxis team fills out the premise of sacrificing humanity to achieve victory with a slew of upgrades in addition to the neat tech and psychic powers: genetically modify your troops, giving them secondary hearts or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or cut them up and turn them into cybernetic MEC Troopers (complete with an international crew of voice actors impersonating Peter Weller), players are presented with choices as existentially horrific as they are really fucking cool. A new human faction, EXALT, gives one pause when realizing how closely they mirror XCOM itself (scientist Dr. Valen hypocritically remarks about how little responsibility they show with their genetic tampering), even as their allegiance leans towards the alien invaders.

Pretty Deadly: 2013 comics were a sorry state of affairs. The mainstream littered with the jack-off fantasies of bald(ing) white men–the Brian Bendis-written non-event Age of Ultron springs to mind–and giant corporations flooding the market with crossover tie-ins, accelerated release schedules, and tightly-managed-yet-poorly-edited “content.” Even good superhero comics–Fraction/Aja Hawkeye, Gillen/McKelvie Young Avengers, Nocenti/Sandoval Catwoman, Dial H,–couldn’t maintain momentum under those circumstances. The bigger creator-owned publishers (Dark Horse, Image, IDW) didn’t fare much better, with TV pitch-comics and fake-liberal Brian Wood on Star Wars being the norm. The small guys were off doing their own thing (most of which I’d have to tread the murky realm of buying online, and I’d rather not because I’m a total Luddite when it comes to Amazon and PayPal). There was plenty of good and even great work, but almost all of it was continuations from previous years (honorable mentions: Prophet, Fatale, The End of the Fucking World, Rachel Rising).
Then this happened: a magical realist Western created by the invaluable Emma Rios and the respectable Kelly Sue DeConnick. Deploying manga tricks and the surrealist touches of Sam Kieth’s The Maxx or Todd McFarlane’s Spawn (minus the latter’s high-school philosophizing), the duo turned out three virtuosic issues transferring song and good old fashion myth into the tale of a blind gunslinger, the Native American girl he cares for, and the death which chases them. Prodding, divisive, and experimental, this was the rare comic worth arguing about. And it’s a comic worth reading more of.

Music: There was plenty of great music this year. Neko Case had a new album. I saw Murder by Death in both Detroit (at the Magic Stick) and Chicago (at Reggie’s Rock Club). There were some other songs and albums which caught my attention, but my opinions on music aren’t as strong as with other things. But still: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight. The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Such a great album.

The World’s End: So much to say about Edgar Wright’s final Blood and Ice Cream movie. About how great Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are (here having completely switched roles), how smart and crisp the dialogue and imagery is (“There’s nothing between us!” goes down as my biggest laugh of the year, followed only by a line from Inside Llewyn Davis), and how the fight scenes are coherent and inventive. It’s also about getting old, trying too hard to cling to youth, and watching gentrification creep up and claim everything unique and interesting in the name of mediocrity and propriety. As funny and cool as it is, it’s about as biting as satire gets.

Nemo: Heart of Ice: A small, unassuming entry in  Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, revolving around a failed Antarctic expedition. It was Moore/O’Neill’s racist/hyper-capitalist interpretation of pulp character Tom Swift, a thorough condemnation of science fiction’s often gleeful championing of imperialism, which drew the most attention. It’s also Moore and O’Neill addressing the legacy of Victorian fiction (Janni attempting to conquer what her father, Captain Nemo, could not: Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness), its decline (Swift’s partners are fading, English predecessors), and the way literature corresponds with its respective empire. Before Watchmen never had a hope for being this good.

Inside Llewyn Davis: I could talk all about how the Coens articulate grief, the way Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a failure at everything but music, and callbacks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Especially gripping were the scenes where Llewyn is presented with an opportunity to do something noble or decent, but passes it up because he’s just pent-up and confused and angry and desperate. Basically, the only closure he gets is a modicum of comfort over the tragic suicide of his musical partner, even if he will never get over it. And all of that is wonderful, touching, and resonated with me on a personal level, but I really included this as an opportunity to type these words: “WHERE IS ITS SCROTUM!?”

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard 2: David Petersen’s small publishing hit churned out another round of anthologies. All of varying quality (the best was Christian Slade’s “The Love of the Sea”), but each a celebration of storytelling and art, from its roots in oral tradition to modern publishing for the masses. Utterly charming.

Drug War: An allegory for Hong Kong/Chinese relations, Johnnie To’s first mainland action movie found humanity within the inhumane systems of crime syndicates, Chinese communism, and the global War on Drugs. Everyone here is a person–the cops have each other’s back for gas money, the crooks pay true respect to their dead friends by burning their profits, delivering 2013’s single greatest scene–which makes it all the harder to watch when the bullets fly and bodies drop. To effortlessly displays the ways even decent people, whether they have a badge or cook meth, fall prey to systems designed purely to steamroll over them.

Happy 2014.

Every Villain Is Likely Doing Everybody A Deal

Jane Levy as Mia from "Evil Dead"

A lot of what happens in Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead comes down to the hostility of its characters. Most of it directed at David (Shiloh Fernandez), who left his sister Mia (Jane Levy) while their mother was mentally ill and dying. This, in turn, led to Mia’s drug addiction, the detoxing of which is the impetus for this cabin sleepover. However, that hostility is as free-floating as the demonic spirit that haunts the Massachusetts woods* when one of their number reads from the Necronomicon. Not only do Mia’s friends Nick and Olivia show resentment towards David, due to being left to care for Mia, but to each other and even Mia herself. When she warns them of things being wrong in the woods–after a much nastier version of the infamous “rape by tree” from Raimi’s original Evil Dead–Olivia cruelly remarks the cuts on her arms were probably self-inflicted and dopes her with tranquilizers. She refers to such measures as “doing this the hard way.” Their intentions of helping kick the habit might be noble, but the cynicism of these actions effectively puts off dealing with the real problem (in both text and subtext).

When the shit really hits the fan, and everyone realizes that Mia’s not just going through withdrawal (right around when she vomits blood and speaks in a voice not hers), Nick proposes killing her. Because of course he would. He spends most of the movie removing himself from the presence of others: we’re first introduced to him sulking at his car; later, his fixation on the Necronomicon is as much him avoiding David as it is curiosity (the favorite excuse for genre contrivance). Naturally, he’s the most removed, and most likely to suggest euthanasia. This is justified as “putting her at peace,” a sentiment shared with the movie’s prologue, where a man is forced to murder his possessed daughter.

Despite the trip being about helping Mia, it’s notable how she’s deemed expendable. Olivia and Nick are resigned to this being a last, all-but-doomed effort for Mia to quit heroin cold turkey. Such an attitude is common in how society handles addicts–where the larger institutions would rather imprison than treat, while family and friends might give up under the financial and emotional strain–which leaves people like Mia truly lost (“Your sister’s being raped in hell,” she says. A chilling metaphor). David himself struggles with this impulse throughout the movie, due to self-interest and fear of losing his mind (like his mother did and his sister appears to be). Early on, he breaks a vow that he would take Mia home if she asked (Jane Levy’s wide eyes and almost childlike face convey her sense of betrayal, which soon turns to rage). He also tries to avoid talking about the past (he stops Mia muttering an old nursery rhyme), a discomfort about family the Deadites exploit in some of their more obscene outbursts. One is directed at his girlfriend Natalie. Her use is limited (she fades to the background in virtually every scene before Mia attacks her), really only there to inform how David has removed himself from his sister.

The narrative truly belongs to Mia. Alvarez’s detox subplot is mixed with elements of the Final Girl narrative–the transformation from victim to hero and a baptism by blood–a far more effective use of tropes than last year’s Cabin in the Woods. However, the movie toys with David’s sibling affection most of the movie, asking what it really means to be family and stand by those you love. And it turns out compassion, not cynicism, is really the hard way.

*Disappointed on this front. With all the references to the Mitten, I was sure this cabin was in Northern Michigan.