The Witch

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Soaked in the colors of an oil painting and lit by gloom and lanterns, The Witch is a relentlessly oppressive mood piece. A Calvinist family has exiled itself from a settlement, only to be set upon by a witch from the forest. Crops fail, the baby goes missing, and something is awful suspicious about the black goat which moves around the homestead. Robert Eggers frames everything to make the actors seem either small or absolutely powerless; one motif consists of a worm’s eye view, from the back, as one of the family wanders towards the treeline, branches snaking into view as if to devour the interloper.

At times (Eggers’ script is too pulpy and straightforward for a coherent throughline, lacking the audacity of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem), this emphasis on the natural world could read as a cautionary tale on imperialism. The family, led by stubborn fundamentalist William (Ralph Ineson), insists it can and will conquer the wilderness. Faith and prayer are their only weapons, as William’s efforts to hunt and farm appear desperate, a combination of the supernatural menace and his own inability. The way they turn on each other–particularly sullen teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is angered when she listens in on her parents plot to marry her off to another family; her defiance gets her accused of witchcraft–suggests an internal rot brought out by scarcity of resources and external threat. (William tells his oldest son “only God knows our true natures”) The family’s primary response is to double down on faith, deferring to a higher authority for aid. Their destruction is assured.

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MRAs’ Baby

devil's-due

Even if Rob Zombie hadn’t changed the game for Antichrist movies with last year’s Lords of Salem, Devil’s Due would still come across cheap and fraudulent. Like other entries in the increasingly-pointless “found footage” subgenre, the movie puts on the pretense of home videos of a newlywed couple Zach and Samantha (TV actors Zach Gilford and Allison Miller) who honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, and afterwards discover they have a baby on the way–which turns out to be Satanic in nature. Unlike Zombie’s film, which charted a range of femininity in its depiction of paganism, Satanism, and witchcraft, Devil’s Due shrugs women off in favor of superficial “dude” horror.

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett substitute mood or theme with a hodgepodge of horror cliches and Paranormal Activity jump scares. Despite focusing primarily on camera-mugging Zach, the duo somehow miss every opportunity to explore any paternalist fears: even when he discovers the baby was conceived by the Devil, he shows none of the antipathy or reluctance found in Larry Cohen’s killer-baby classic It’s Alive. Nor do the directors address Zach’s insistence on making every scene about him and his feelings–even as Samantha breaks down physically and mentally (going from vegan to devouring raw meat in a supermarket), he’s compelled to record it with mealy-mouthed justifications like, “It’s for the baby.” Later, he’s passive-aggressive when Samantha and a friend walk into a partially remodeled baby room (bonus points: it’s Samantha’s former office, which he mocked her for having in a previous scene). If anything, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett treat Zach’s possessiveness and gutter-sniping as noble and endearing, the total opposite of Lords of Salem‘s dismissal of male saviors (which were at best misguided, at worst oppressive, either way another form of evil). It’s the same behavior as Men’s Rights Advocates (MRAs) whining about articles discussing sexual harassment. And the duo couldn’t be less interested in Samantha, reducing Allison Miller to creeping plot device designed to scream, screech, or stand in the center of effects-driven carnage; she lacks the agency and curiosity of Lords of Salem‘s Sheri Moon Zombie or Rosemary’s Baby‘s Mia Farrow.

With no internal struggle or consideration, Devil’s Due focuses all its terror on external threats, manifested in cult minions who stalk and spy on the couple. Most of them are black and Hispanic men, the only woman a creepy fortune teller stereotype (the entire honeymoon sequence plays on racist fears). The directors often crib shots from Halloween, but lack John Carpenter’s rhythmic sense of timing and suspense (and chalk up Jamie Lee Curtis as another lead actress who takes control). They miss how Carpenter made the mundane terrifying, as Devil’s Due‘s evil is constant, exotic Other invading the suburbs (by the end, even Samantha behaves more like “them” than “us”), an ugly perpetuation of mainstream media’s fascination of White Women in Danger.

Furthermore, their camcorder artifice puts up a barrier to audiences–a constant reminder of how fake it all is–which robs any scene of immediacy. Questions hang over the production: why is the footage (which includes an overcooked shot of a ritual with supernatural flare) never looked at until the plot demands it, why none of it is ever brought to police, or why Zach hides all his fears from Samantha? Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett are too busy fawning over Zach’s pass-agg chivalry (doomed through no fault of his own, as an epilogue makes plain) to answer such questions.

Their only play is to fall back on more gimmicks: special effects shots of hellfire, telekinetic destruction (three teens appearing solely as cannon fodder), or body horror (a baby sneak peak) get thrown in willy-nilly. Whatever can ride on the Paranormal Activity method of throwing objects at the camera for theme park thrills. These attempts at water-cooler moments are as silly as they are cynical, plundering the depths of horror movies for a surface appeal to MRAs.

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.