Old School Reviews: It Follows and The Ring

My sister often complains that, being the horror geek of the family, I've usually already seen most of the films we watch. So we decided to start out this past year's Shocktober festivities with a recent horror flick that's gotten plenty of good notices, but that I somehow hadn't managed to catch as of yet.

For the uninitiated: It Follows is the story of Jay (played by imperfect Brittany Murphy clone Maika Monroe), who finds herself being pursued by an implacable supernatural force after spending the night -- well, part of it, anyway -- with a guy she's been seeing. Said force can appear to Its target as any human being It wants, though It seems to lack the ability to verbally imitate people. It is seemingly indestructible. And It is only visible to those, like Jay, who at some point have had the "curse" passed on to them by someone who acquired it previously. 

That's how the rules of this particular curse work, you see: if you have sex with someone afflicted, it gets passed on to you... but that doesn't mean the person who "infected" you is safe, however, because if It kills you, It will then promptly turn around and start following your predecessor again. (If anything about this set-up seems vaguely familiar, we'll get to some possible reasons why in a few minutes). 

With the exception of Year 1's Lovely Molly (one of my personal favorite horror flicks of the last ten years or so -- perhaps ever), It is probably our strongest inaugural Shocktober effort so far. The score is spooky. The pace, setting, and cinematography reminded me constantly of Halloween and other classic late-70's shockers. In fact, I had a hard time deciding, while watching the film, whether it was supposed to be a period piece or not. The "rules" governing the film's titular supernatural threat were elaborated on just enough to be intriguing (and to raise a LOT of interesting logistical questions), while not being overexplained to the point that it became tiresome trying to keep track of it all.

All in all a great effort. I give it three-and-a-half out of four weird compact-shaped ereading devices.

The Ring

Ah, The Ring. The film that launched Aussie import Naomi Watts' career, ushered in a spate of reheated Americanized J-horror offerings, made creepy little ghost girls scary again, and most importantly, introduced us all to The Face.  (If you don't know what I'm talking about... consider yourself lucky). 

Sexy female reporter Watts investigates the mysterious death of her teenage cousin. Discovers a creepy videotape filled with mind-bending imagery that apparently triggers a curse that kills you 7 days after you watch it. Gets her ex to watch it. Lets her creepily precocious little preteen son watch it. Eventually uncovers an elaborate backstory involving child abuse, weird psychological experiments, dead horses, and other developments I'd rather not spoil. 

All in all, I'd say The Ring holds up well. The green-tinged (well, more like saturated) cinematography and perpetually rain-soaked portrayal of greater Seattle are a bit overdone, and as my sister pointed out, did they really need a magic videotape filled with psychedelic imagery, a creepy undead ghost girl, and a creepy little human kid with vaguely defined psychic powers? In the end, though, these are middling complaints. It's a neat little film. I give it three out of four of these:

Just because.
And the writers of It Follows should give the film props as well, 'cause they kinda ripped off Ring's climactic twist for their central conceit.


Near the end of the film, our heroine discovers that, unlike everyone else she knows of who's watched the tape, she didn't die. She concludes it's because she made a copy of the tape and passed it on to her ex, thus paying the 7-day curse forward a degree and exempting herself from death. This, of course, bears more than a passing resemblance to the premise of It, wherein those afflicted with the film's paranormally-enhanced STD must keep passing it on in order to save themselves.

Shenanigans? You be the judge.

(Kinda) Old School Review: Annabelle

The Good

The heroine is sort of a poor man's Alison Brie, so I'll give 'em points for that. 

The Bad

But otherwise, this film is just dull and, toward the end, seemingly interminable dreck. Also one of the least convincing "period pieces" I've ever seen, by the way. (Apparently 1970's Pasadena looked a hell of a lot similar to its 2014 counterpart, save a vintage car or two driving by in the background).

The Ugly

The execution of this film really points up the limitations of the Annabelle concept, as established in The Conjuring and expanded on here. As a monster, 'Belly leaves a lot to be desired. On the one hand, she's not running around engaging in typical "killer doll" shenanigans like Chucky; but on the other, she's not an ethereal, vaguely defined threat like the demon in the Paranormal Activity series, or the supernatural force in Lovely Molly, either. The danger posed by Annabelle is simultaneously too vague and too concrete.

It doesn't help that the movie can't seem to nail down its own "rules," paranormally speaking. Early in the film, a female member of a Manson-esque hippie cult dies, and her spirit seems to infest the doll. We're told later, however, that it's not the dead hippie girl's spirit that's terrorizing our main characters, but rather a demon (or something) called up by the cult, which is now intent on stealing their newborn child's soul. 

But wait a minute -- if the spirit of the dead hippie girl isn't what's inhabiting the doll, then why show the dead hippie girl running around shrieking, and then vanishing into thin air, left and right in the early moments of the film? And if, in fact, the dead hippie girl is just an illusion or whatever the demon is using to torment Ms. Brie... isn't that kind of off-message? This is an evil doll movie. Shouldn't the demon be possessing the doll, or at least moving it around a lot to freak out the characters... or failing that, shouldn't it at least confine itself to general poltergeist-like shenanigans, supplemented here and there by doing creepy stuff with the doll?

It's like the movie can't decide who it wants its monster to be -- is it the doll, or the creepy little ghost girl, or perhaps the bloody hippie-girl ghost? Or is it something more akin to the red-faced/wall-crawling/child-stealing thing from Insidious? I don't know, and I don't think the creators do either. This flick is just all over the place.

I give it one out of five creepy little ghost girls. Or killer dolls. Or, you know... whatever.

On the importance of good old-fashioned storytelling

"Storytelling itself is a craft, and even though television is a visual medium, storytelling is infinitely more important to the TV format. No one watched the entirety of Breaking Bad entirely for those fast cut montages or beautiful shots of the New Mexico landscape. People watched the entirety of Breaking Bad because they were hooked [on the story]."

This is an excerpt from a comment on The AV Club (written in response to a column you can find here). The article is essentially a screed against "spoilerphobes" -- i.e., those who prefer not to have key story points, plot twists, and so on "spoiled" before viewing a new film or television show. The commenter was very respectfully taking issue with some of the author's main points.

All I really have to say is that I agree with said commenter's sentiments wholeheartedly. I believe plain old-fashioned storytelling gets a bad rap. The predominant viewpoint among critics seems to be that the sights, sounds, performances, and artfulness of the dialogue in a film or TV episode are what really matters, and that the plot itself -- the story -- is kind of a MacGuffin. Something largely inconsequential, that exists more or less entirely to act as a showcase for those other elements.

You see something similar in the academic world, when it comes to writing -- the idea that it's all about the flair and style of the language, or the exploration of theme, rather than whether or not the story holds together or otherwise makes sense. This is why genre work is largely reviled: because it's often so plot (read: story) driven. I'm not saying that a deft hand with language and resonant themes aren't necessary -- they surely are, just as good acting, cinematography, shot composition, and so on are crucial to a good piece of audiovisual entertainment -- but I'd also argue that they amount to nothing if not employed in service to a great STORY.

Essentially, I'd argue that the way critics and academics talk about entertainment is largely out of step with how most viewers (and readers) actually respond to it. This is why critics pretty uniformly loved the TV show Lost, for instance, while most viewers ultimately found it wanting. That show's sins were largely those of sloppy storytelling -- bad art, if you will, as opposed to poor craft -- and, as we all know, storytelling doesn't really matter all that much.

Thanks to anonymous AV Club commenter John for supplying the impetus for this article.

Review: House of Cards

There's a growing sentiment, among those who write and talk about TV, that the age of the great antihero drama might be coming to an end. According to this school of thought, the likes of shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Shield, and even Dexter (when that show was *really* on its game) have said everything interesting there is to say about protagonists who lie, cheat, steal, and often kill their way to the top of whatever hill they're trying to get to the top of. 

I don't generally agree with this line of thinking -- I don't see the antihero drama as a genre unto itself, per se, so much as a realization of the fact that the main character of a TV show doesn't necessarily have to be either a cop, a doctor, a lawyer, or a superhero. Main characters can be flawed, they can be complex, they can even be downright evil, as long as it's in the service of good drama.

When I watch House of Cards, however, I can see where some of the naysayers might be coming from. Cards is an entertaining, engrossing, and at times downright addictive show, and I enjoyed watching the second season about as much as I enjoyed the first... which is to say, a lot. This is a show built largely on the charisma of its lead, and there's no denying that Kevin Spacey is absurdly fun to watch, as most liars, manipulators, and schemers usually are.

The thing is... Frank Underwood would make a great villain, but does he really have what it takes to be the lead character of a TV show?

The "heroes" of those other shows did more than just lie, cheat, scheme, and occasionally show a glint of humanity while doing so (as Vice President Underwood does when he learns that his wife was sexually assaulted by a business associate decades earlier, or that the proprietor of his favorite rib shack is losing his business as an indirect result of Frank's scheming). Walter White didn't start out as a bad guy -- we actually saw the transformation, and that was the point. Tony Soprano may have been a gangster, a thug, and a murderer from the beginning, but his panic attacks and therapy-room confessions let us know that at least a part of Tony longed to be a good man. Dexter Morgan spent the majority of his tenure on Showtime chafing against the ways that his psychopathic nature prevented him from establishing lasting human connections.

These are all relatable, human motivations. We all want to provide for our families. We all want to be good, at least on some level. We all want to be loved.

Frank Underwood's motivation seems to be nothing more than pure, unadulterated, unbridled ambition. He manipulates and back-stabs his way from one rung of the political ladder to the next, seemingly for the sake of doing so. Maybe he truly believes, on some level, in the progressive ideals of his party, and wants to take the reigns of his country so he can lead it in the direction he's convinced it needs to go. Maybe he was bullied as a kid, and craves power because he never had it earlier in life, when it really counted. Maybe he's secretly a neo-Nazi, and wants to use his ever-increasing power to usher in a new Reich. I have no idea.

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to feel while watching this show. Am I supposed to be aghast at Frank's actions? Am I supposed to root for his downfall? There can't be any pathos in watching Frank's fall into further depravity, because he was already well and thoroughly depraved when we first laid eyes on him. Frank is corrupt through and through; and to the extent our occasional glimpses of his humanity seem to conflict with this -- 'tis all for naught, because neither the show nor Frank himself seem to acknowledge the contradiction. There's no conflict within Frank, no inner turmoil; he's more a collection of character traits, at times haphazardly thrown together, than an actual character.

I think House of Cards might be the ultimate vindication of the idea that the villain of your story can't also be the hero. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad worked because they kept pitting their (decidedly villainous) heroes against guys bigger and badder, or at least notably more despicable, than they were. Walter White and his adversaries were rarely less than evenly matched. Frank Underwood has no hero, nor even a slightly less shady antihero, to match him. He's a Goliath with no David... leaving House of Cards little to be but a testament to his cleverness, and to Kevin Spacey's expertly oily charm.

Why do TV show fandoms hate pretty girls so much?

This is something I've been noticing in online message boards and comment threads for a while now, most recently in relation to the characters of Megan on the AMC show Mad Men and Bradley on the A&E series Bates Motel. In particular, the preoccupation with Megan on the Mad Men boards at Television Without Pity seems a bit cloying, not to mention more than a little obsessive. This is a character who was barely there in seasons 4 or 6 of that show, after all - she was only a driving force for the show's narrative in season 5, and even then only as a reflection of the character development - or lack thereof - of the show's male lead, Don Draper. Yet to hear the ladies on TWoP tell it, Jessica Pare is almost single-handedly responsible for the show's perceived decline.

I've been treading the treacherous seas of online TV fandom for quite a few years now - more than I care to remember, much less admit - and the simple fact is that, with nearly every TV show whose fanbase I've cared to interact with, there's come a point, approximately midway through the length of an average show's run (say, after 3-4 seasons or so), where the tide starts to turn and a backlash starts to develop. Maybe it's because that seems to be around the time when a show starts experimenting and changing up its format.  

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, lost two or three main characters, added a couple more, and shifted the show's focus away from the relationship between the three (original) main cast members in its fourth season. Mad Men started a new firm, moved its cast to a sleek, modern-looking new set, and sidelined the main character's home life in its fourth season, along with arguably shifting focus away from characters like Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson to accommodate newcomers like Jared Harris' caustic Brit Lane Pryce. Many fans didn't like this, and so, inevitably, the backlash started cropping up.

The tendency to focus this discontent on one or two specific characters, however, is something I've never quite understood. This is something that even crops up in the early seasons of some shows - Lana Lang on Smallville, for instance, or Laurel Lance on the current CW show Arrow, or Laurie (or Andrea) on The Walking Dead, or Bradley on the aforementioned Bates Motel - and, conspicuously or not, in nearly all these cases, the scapegoated character also happens to be played by the most conventionally attractive female actor on the show.

This is also something quite distinct from, say, the "Skylar's a b*tch" backlash among certain segments of the Breaking Bad fanbase - it's not a misogynist thing, men complaining about a strong female character "mistreating" their show's male hero. Female posters seem to be the predominant offenders here. I feel like there's a Pop Culture Studies thesis here somewhere - why do TV fans hate pretty girls so much?

Why Is America so Robo-phobic?

It occurs to me, as I sit down to write this review, that it's probably going to sound as though I'm savaging the new RoboCop. And the fact is, I actually quite enjoyed it. I found it perfectly entertaining, perfectly... adequate. If a friend wanted to see it, I'd happily sit through it again.

My problems with the film, I think, lie at least partly in its very, very strange relationship to its predecessor. You see, there's more than one kind of remake: there are films, like the new Carrie or Gus Van Sant's 1998 reboot of Psycho, that aim to be almost scene for scene (or, in the latter case, nearly shot for shot) re-imaginings of the original source material; there are movies like John Carpenter's The Thing or David Cronenberg's version of The Fly that take the core concept of a film, the very basic premise, and then go in a completely new direction with it; and then you have the majority of remakes, which follow the broad strokes of the parent film's plot, changing certain elements along the way and leaving others intact. 

Jose Padilha's RoboCop is almost an example of the Carpenter/Cronenberg type of approach, but not quite. It contains almost no specific scenes and very few direct character analogs to connect it to the previous film, yet it also doesn't break enough new ground to truly set itself apart. The first forty minutes or so are promising, as they set up a nice counterpoint to the first film: where the original Robo is about a machine slowly realizing that he was once (and to some extent still is) a man, Padilha's version gives us - at least initially - an Alex Murphy with his memories, personality, and family intact: in other words, a man trying to cope with the fact that he's now mostly machine. 

That's a potentially compelling emotional hook to hang the movie on, but for it to work, the film would have to stick with it all the way through: we would have needed a lot less corporate intrigue and a lot more of Murphy (agonizingly) trying to reconnect with his family and his old life. Think Murphy trying to be "intimate" - to the extent possible - with his wife, or trying to pal around with his coworkers in the locker room when they're all wearing towels and wifebeaters and he's stomping around like a tank.

It's all moot, however, because the film abandons this pretense halfway through, by [[SPOILER ALERT]] having the conflicted scientist responsible for resurrecting Murphy (played by Gary Oldman, in a typically great Oldman performance) chemically dampen the emotional centers of Murphy's brain, turning him into an automaton more in line with the classic Robo of the first film. Then Murphy has an emotional confrontation with his wife, which seems to more or less turn him back to normal; then he sets about trying to solve his own murder, which takes all of fifteen minutes, allowing the final twenty minutes or so to hinge on the efforts of Murphy's corrupt corporate handlers to take him offline for good.[[END SPOILERS]]

Essentially, the film doesn't stick with any one conflict long enough for it to gather any weight. It's also woefully lacking in the villain department: Michael Keaton tries hard, and Jackie Earle Haley is always nice to have around, but Raymond Sellars and [insert name of Jackie Earle Haley's character, which I can't remember at the moment and don't care to take the time to look up] are just no Dick Jones and Clarence Bodicker... or even Bob Morton, for that matter. It's like The Dark Knight without the Joker, or Darkman without Robert G. Durant

Perhaps surprisingly, given current events, the film is still set in Detroit; even more surprisingly, however, it fails to do absolutely anything substantive with this setting. In a country where crime has been falling steadily since the 90's, a real-life urban wasteland like the Motor City is one of the few locales that might realistically need a bunch of robot soldiers to help clean up its streets. Huge missed opportunity there, political correctness aside.

Finally, a word on Robo's new Basic Black suit design: I didn't mind it. The black suit plays a lot better on screen than it does in still shots, I think, and more crucially, the more "traditional" design featured during the early part of the film actually doesn't play all that well. I love the classic RoboCop look, and think it worked beautifully in the original (if not so well in some of the sequels), but there's something about the clunky nature of Classic Robo that doesn't mesh well with CGI. I think the filmmakers realized this, and acted accordingly.

I know it probably sounds as though I hated the film, but honestly: I didn't. I just feel like it could have been so much more.

I give it two out of five brain in a vat shots. (You'll understand when you see it).

My thoughts on Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

In lieu of a traditional review, I've decided to structure my thoughts on this one as a series of observations.
  1. In Paranormal Activity-land, apparently, Spanish teenagers drink, hook up, and smoke pot, while white teens are too virtuous for such behavior. 
  2. Also some gratuitous nudity in this one; another first for the series, if I recall. Who got their Friday the 13th all up in my Paranormal Activity, yo?
  3. Man, at this point the cult -- or coven, or whatever the heck the old ladies who worship the demon like to call themselves -- has gotta be wondering why the @#$% people keep crashing in on their rituals with video cameras. I'm anticipating an in-joke along these lines in PA 5.
  4. Of the last four entries in the franchise, I have to say this feels least like a rehash of elements established in previous installments.
  5. That being said, I detected "homages" to the likes of Chronicle, [REC], and even The Blair Witch Project sprinkled throughout.
  6. Lots of cute Spanish chicas in this. In particular, I'll be watching the careers of Gabrielle Walsh, Noemi Gonzalez, and Catherine Toribio with interest.
  7. Speaking of careers... Christopher B. Landon (son of Micheal Landon, of Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven fame) directed this. Hmm.
  8. It's tough living in West L.A. -- our characters have nearly as many scary encounters with drug dealers and hood rats as they do paranormal... well, you know. Kind of thought-provoking, seeing as how non-witchcraft-related crime is all but nonexistent in the series' previous entries. It does help give Marked Ones a different flavor than the others, however.
  9. This one isn't nearly as dependent on jump scares as its predecessors, but the ones it has are probably the weakest of the seriesvto date. Way too telegraphed.
  10. The scene where Moms drinks the teenagers under the table is priceless.
Overall, watching The Marked Ones was a lot like watching the fifth season of Lost -- I'm still enjoying myself, but starting to feel like a bit of a sucker for doing so. Also, they both involve magic babies. And time travel.

On twist endings...

So I've recently been doing a little "research" on some of the faculty at the various grad schools I plan on applying to in the coming weeks. In particular, I read A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein, head of the Creative Writing MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden, and watched the film The Life Before Her Eyes, which is based on a novel by University of Michigan faculty member Laura Kasischke. I've just finished watching Kasischke's film as I write this, in fact, and the marked similarities between the two stories are part of what's prompted me to do this post.

Friend is about a doctor living in a well-to-do suburb of New York who tries to prevent his troublesome teenage son from running off to Europe with the daughter of his best friend, a Bohemian type who brought scandal down on the community years earlier by murdering her newborn baby and leaving the body in a dumpster. Life, meanwhile, is (purportedly) about a middle-aged wife and mother played by Uma Thurman, who finds herself experiencing painful memories, and eventually (maybe?) hallucinations, centered around a school shooting she survived when she was a teenager. Both stories utilize a narrative structure that plays with time, "flashing" back and forth between different periods and moments in the characters' lives, and each employs a different variant of the particular narrative device mentioned in the title of this post: the twist ending.

At this point, I feel I need to warn any readers who might actually be interested in watching/reading either of these tales that there are big, fat, possibly story-ruining SPOILERS ahead, as obviously I can't discuss the authors' usage of twist endings without spoiling the particular details of those endings, and what they reveal about the rest of the story. 

Twist Ending #1: The Ending You Can't QUITE Guess
Now then: it's revealed near the beginning of Grodstein's book that her main character, Pete Dizinoff, is on the outs with his friends and family because of something tragic or scandalous that took place involving the titular family friend. As a fan of genre stories and murder mysteries, my mind immediately leaped to the conclusion that he might have killed her, or that she might have died (or disappeared) under mysterious circumstances following some sort of public confrontation with him, which would obviously make him the prime suspect. There's nothing in the story that explicitly indicates this - the author doesn't seed any "false clues" or misleading foreshadowing throughout the story, at least not that I was aware of. That's just the way my mind works. 

We do learn, via strategic storytelling and essentially by his own admission, that Pete has been nursing a long-simmering infatuation with his best friend's wife - the mother of the aforementioned family friend - since the three of them met in college, one she seems to be aware of and doesn't do a whole lot to discourage. We also learn that her daughter's physical appearance reminds him of her when she was younger, which may or may not be playing into his discomfort at watching his son pursue a relationship with her. This is what formed the basis for my primary theory going into the back stretch of the book: that he would be caught in some kind of compromising situation with the girl, and would have zero credibility with his loved ones when trying to deny or cover up what happened because of his past behavior toward her mom.

This is essentially what happens, although not quite in the way that I was expecting. Pete goes to his family friend's apartment, has an angry confrontation with her, slaps her (hard enough to leave her with a broken nose, apparently), and she then disappears, leaving Pete's son behind and telling her roommate - who then goes on to tell her parents and Pete's family - that he sexually assaulted her. There's no real evidence, and Pete of course proclaims his innocence, but there's enough doubt in everyone's minds to destroy Pete's standing in the community, get him fired from his job, and nearly cost him his marriage. His relationship with his son appears to have been completely destroyed.

So here we have, in a way, the most innocent form of twist, the kind that concludes nearly every mystery: there's a question we don't know the answer to, at some point we think we've figured out what the answer is going to be (or at least narrowed it down to a small handful of possibilities), and in the end the answer turns out to be not quite what we thought. The only question left, as far as whether this particular twist ending "plays fair," is if it can possibly be deduced from the portrayal of the events that preceded it: is it possible to read the story right up to the point just prior to that climactic revelation, and arrive at the real answer via anything other than random guesswork?

In this case, I'd argue that it's not, although that's not such a terribly big deal. A Friend of the Family is not primarily trying to be a mystery, I don't think - it's more of a character study; a sad, meandering tale that tries to get to the bottom of who this man is, and what his real motivations are. 

Is he really trying to do what's best for his son, or do pent-up infatuation and misplaced jealousy play more of a role in the proceedings than he's willing to admit to himself? Are his actions justified, even assuming his intentions are more or less pure? Hitting his son's girlfriend is certainly not justified, but that's not the crime that Pete ultimately ends up being punished for (in the court of public opinion, if nowhere else); and that kind of physical rage seems to come out of left field, anyway - there's nothing elsewhere in the story that implies that Pete has a temper, or that he might be capable of violence, and certainly not that he might be capable of committing sexual assault. As a result, I'm left feeling not entirely sure what Pete is being punished for - or what he's being forgiven for, if his wife's actions at the end can be said to constitute a kind of redemption.
Twist Ending #2: The Rug-Pull
The Life Before Her Eyes employs a much more drastic form of twist: the kind that undermines the fundamental reality of everything that we've been watching unfold, and forces us to look at what we've previously been shown in a completely different way, in light of this new information.

We learn in the closing minutes that the lead character, Diane, died during the school shooting that opens the film, and everything else - the husband who may or may not be cheating on her, the young daughter who's showing signs of following in her mom's rebellious teenage footsteps - has been an elaborate fantasy; the life she might have had "flashing before her eyes," as it were. There are clues to this leading up to the climactic reveal: there are no attempts to place the flashbacks in time - period music, old cars and the like - Diane at one point places flowers near the death scene of a man we were led to believe survived, despite grievous injury, earlier in the film, and the older professor teenage Diane will eventually marry doesn't look a whole lot younger when we finally meet him in the flashbacks.

The climactic moments of Life change it, in effect, into a completely different type of story: if someone were to ask you what the movie is "about," based on the first 90 minutes or so you'd say something along the lines of, "It's about a middle-aged woman trying to overcome traumatic memories of a tragic experience from her youth." But that's not really what it's about, is it? Rather, it's about a teenage girl learning the true meaning of friendship, or something to that effect. But that's not at all evident going in, and in fact you couldn't really tell someone that without, essentially, spoiling the ending. This is the essence of the Rug-Pull.

And it doesn't have to happen at the end of the story, either: for instance, I had a similar experience recently watching the film Side Effects. Roughly the first half of the film is a somber exploration of the effects of living with depression, and how mood-altering drugs like Paxil or Zoloft can be as much a curse as a blessing. In fact, the film's (presumptive) heroine, a young woman played by Rooney Mara, ends up stabbing her husband to death while (allegedly) in the midst of a fugue-like state triggered by the medication. You'd be lying if that's how you described the film to someone, however, because the story takes a turn at the midpoint and becomes a thriller about a disgraced psychiatrist, played by Jude Law, trying to save his career and reputation by proving that Mara, in fact, was faking symptoms of depression all along, in order to get off the hook for the premeditated murder of her husband. 

Wheels within wheels, hence all the parentheses in the above description.

Is it ultimately even possible for a twist that big to play fair? I'd argue not, for such a story almost has to either be written from the twist back, in which case the whole thing becomes a fairly cynical exercise in trying to fool the audience; or, even worse, the twist must be an "inspiration" that comes into play only late in the creative process, which necessitates a lot of narrative shoving and twisting in order to make the two parts of the story fit together smoothly. It's entirely possible the novel on which Life is based was stronger in this respect; the film only starts laying on the really serious foreshadowing toward the end, which makes the climactic twist feel more like it comes out of left field, rather than less.

So what's the point of all this, you might ask? Have we come to any serious conclusions about the validity of the twist ending? Probably not - these are just some of the musings that were bouncing around inside my head as I consumed these three very similar stories. All were ultimately strong stories that I enjoyed and would recommend, and though I took varying degrees of issue with the twists that each employed, that's not meant so much as a criticism of these particular stories or authors, but as a consideration of the twist as a narrative device in general.


On series finales and serial killers

   So two of the most iconic television series of recent years ended their runs last month - one to widespread acclaim, the other to jeers heard across the internet.

   Let's face it, Dexter ran out of steam a long time ago. After four (mostly) good seasons, two lackluster offerings, and two terrible ones, I don't think anyone was expecting the show's final episode to be any kind of a tour de force. But wow, the last couple episodes of Dex were bad. [[That gives me an idea... maybe Showtime could cut out the serial killer bits and repurpose the relationship-driven portions of the show as a cute family sitcom, a la Ally or those Breaking Bad videos on YouTube. Just a thought... feel free to cut me a check any time, Showtime execs]].

    First off - and I know I may take some flak for saying this - but ending the show with Dexter being 'cured' isn't necessarily a terrible idea, or at least not an unworkable one. And there's the kernel of something powerful, or at least decipherable, in the notion that his murderous urges might be cured by the same type of trauma that brought them about in the first place; namely, watching his mother (or, in this case, a mother-figure) being brutally murdered before his eyes. But the show didn't take that idea far enough. If Dexter's nemesis had knocked him out, tied him up or something, and then forced him to watch his surrogate mother being systematically butchered, I might've bought it. In a sense, all of Dex's murders are a subconscious attempt to recreate and relive the memory of his mother's murder; his mind's way of dealing with and ultimately trying to overcome that trauma. He's simply never able to recreate it quite closely enough to resolve anything. So I can accept that vividly re-experiencing that trauma might have every bit as profound an effect on Dexter as it did the first time around.

   In order for any of this to come across, however, the relationship between Dex and his new mom - the emotional connection between them - would've had to have been much more deeply and skillfully developed. As it stands, I just didn't care about the character; I didn't care about her death, and I didn't care about the effect her death would have on Dexter. So the whole thing just falls flat.

   Ironically, the show already had a character who shared a deep emotional bond with Dexter, one whose death could much more plausibly have turned him psychologically and emotionally inside-out; and, as horrible as it might be to contemplate the idea of poor Deb, Dex's ill-fated sister, being murdered and dismembered by Stock Recurring Serial Killer Character #7 (another profound weakness of Dexter's final season, its lame-duck villain) - it would have made sense, it would have had emotional resonance, and it ultimately wouldn't have resulted in any more ignominious an end for the character than what she already got.

   The less said about the infamous "ice road trucker" ending, the better.

   And then we have Breaking Bad. The mothership. 21st-century TV's preeminent anti-hero drama.

   This is another unpopular opinion, but I ultimately felt the final season represented a bit of a falling-off from the show's glory days. I could almost imagine a crazed carnival barker rattling off a laundry list of the last eight episodes or so's dizzying array of long-awaited plot developments: Hank finds out about Walt! Jesse turns against Walt, and even joins forces with Hank to take Mr. White down! The Chekov's Ricin finally comes into play! Jesse and Marie finally get a scene together!!!

   That being said, the last eight hours of Bad were still amazing, and the last few minutes of the finale are something close to perfect. Who could've guessed that one of TV's darkest dramas would have such a perversely - dare I say it? - upbeat ending? And all without compromising the show's central moral vision. Vince Gilligan and co. should teach a class on How to Write a Good Series Finale.

   Here's hoping Matthew Weiner takes that class, or at least gets a look at the syllabus, before wrapping up Mad Men next year.