• image credit: Screen Media Films
    essays,  movies,  writing

    Say Less: 4 Lessons for Writers from Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

    Have I ever told you about one of my favorite good-bad movies, Willy’s Wonderland?

    Willy’s Wonderland is essentially an unlicensed Five Nights at Freddy’s-like horror movie. If you don’t know FNAF, you probably know Chuck E Cheese. It’s a family restaurant and arcade with animatronic mascots for entertainment. In both FNAF and Willy’s Wonderland, the animatronics are evil murderers.

    Willy’s Wonderland is one of those movies that isn’t good, but it’s kinda great: you won’t be scared by the horror content, but you’ll laugh, and the central performance from Nicolas Cage is one of his good ones. You’re never sure which version of Nicolas Cage you’re going to get. Here, he’s flawless.

    What makes Nicolas Cage so excellent is the fact his character has no dialogue. I’m not talking minimal dialogue like Mandy (2018). I mean, none. Reportedly, Cage agreed to do the movie only if they cut his dialogue completely.

    You’d think it’s a weird choice for the big-name star playing a hero to keep his mouth shut through a film, but I’m convinced that’s the only reason Willy’s Wonderland is any good.

    There’s a great history of low-dialogue characters across media. Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal are notorious for their silence. One of Jack Reacher’s most common lines of narrative (not dialogue) is “Reacher said nothing.” I’ve used this myself: In my Descent/Ascension Series, Elise Kavanagh is someone whose dialogue is heavily limited to increase mystique.

    You can learn a lot about writing from Willy’s Wonderland.


    Lesson One: You don’t actually need character back story.

    Since Nicolas Cage can’t tell us what’s on his mind, or where he came from, we can only make guesses. His hero reacts to the horrifying situations without hesitation. What kind of man doesn’t seem to care about murderous animatronics on a job site? Over the course of the movie, Cage’s commitment to doing the agreed-upon job despite peril gives you the impression of Willy’s Wonderland accidentally hiring John Wick.

    By showing what he hates (bad work/life balance) and what he loves (his soda and a pinball machine), you get a strong impression of a sentimental but practical man who is a bit of a jaded, overgrown child with a hard life. It’s mounds better than anything the dialogue would have been capable of delivering, as evidenced by the back story everyone else shares.

    Give your audience some credit: Write less dialogue, and write less explicit back story. Events can do the heavy lifting.


    Lesson Two: Quiet characters provide opportunities for contrast.

    You can contrast a quiet character to more talkative characters, sure. That’s the most obvious utility. If you’re writing for fiction, where it’s a massive wall of text, distinguishing characters can be different; contrasting how much dialogue they use is a simple-but-effective way of delineating them.

    You can also contrast the character’s different emotional states to create a more dynamic narrative landscape. It builds punchlines into the narrative. You can’t help but laugh and get excited when the janitor tears into his animatronic foes.

    It’s shocking when the Janitor goes from working with his head down into a violent, roaring rage, beating the crap out of his attackers. The energy level of the film is also naturally improved simply by going from longer silent periods with occasional action, to a lot of action with less quiet.


    Lesson Three: Bolster your writing weak spots by working around them.

    The dialogue other characters have in Willy’s Wonderland is…not a highlight. Every single line could have been cut back dramatically. Nothing can go unstated, the actors struggle with long sentences, and little room is given for emotional displays that aren’t shouted at one another. So much of it is simply unnecessary.

    That isn’t to say the writing is all bad, though! The good in Willy’s Wonderland is general plot structure, the concept, and the heroic character. It’s simply fun to watch. One little edit (silencing the hero) took this from labored to a delight.

    When you’re writing, you can choose to bolster the stuff you’re good at and mostly skip over the stuff you’re bad at, too.

    Where are your weaknesses? If your dialogue isn’t strong, you might find yourself focusing on plot…which is what I tend to do. On the other hand, if you’re great at dialogue, maybe you want to enhance that at the cost of narrative. Play to your strengths! It’s your story.


    Lesson Four: Don’t drag everything out.

    Willy’s Wonderland is a brisk 1.5 hours long. Much like the hero, it shows up, does its job, and leaves.

    The story begins when Cage’s hero arrives in town. His work-life balance in this flick is legendary; he walks away from active fights when it’s time to take a break. In the morning, he clears out of town promptly, and that’s where the movie ends.

    My favorite writing advice I’ve received is “Enter the scene late, leave the scene early.” Willy’s Wonderland and its Janitor both exemplify this rule perfectly. It keeps things punchy, focuses on the delightful strengths, and doesn’t blow out its back dragging things out for an extra twenty minutes on the reel.


    Even though this campy, low-budget ripoff of a kids’ horror game isn’t “good,” the choices the team made transformed it into an outstanding delight of infinite rewatchability. You can take these lessons into your writing, whatever your format. When you find yourself struggling with a scene, try asking yourself: “What would Willy’s Wonderland do?”

    (image credit: Screen Media Films)

  • essays,  movies

    Alien (1979) is a great lesson in cinema for horror kids

    Yesterday I watched Alien (1979) with 13yo Moonlight, the eldest of my offspring. I’ve been musing how to review it since. The greatness of Alien is well-understood. Even Letterboxd rates it at an average of 4.3, and I seldom run across movies so uncontroversial.

    On a personal level, as a writer and as a child-bearer, I think Alien is fascinating in how queer it is. Secondary character Joan Lambert is canonically mtf trans per its sequel. Ripley was written to be a man and gender-swapped. (CBR) The order in which people are killed on the Nostromo is “woke” enough to please a modern moviegoer like myself; they clear out the white men (including one android) before killing Yaphet Kotto’s character, then Lambert, and gender neutral Ripley is left as final girl along with her final cat. Horror deaths are known to be moralistic: it is inevitable that the people seen as “bad” in some way (promiscuous, drinkers, drug-users, queers, and often nonwhite people) will be killed first, and the final girl is ultimately the purest of them. Alien’s kill order alone can be seen as a political statement.

    As the movies continued, the pregnancy body horror of it all is further teased out and expanded upon, but even Ridley Scott’s initial outing has undertones of pregnancy commentary. It’s queered up by implanting an unwilling man with a baby alien in this first movie. It reminds me an awful lot of my nonbinary ass exploding my second baby via emergent c-section.

    These subjects have been thoroughly explored by others, and way better than I could. I don’t want to explore them again. I don’t have anything to say except that “There is a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to fail to recognize this one.”

    Instead, I’d like to note that Alien is a perfect horror movie to share with kids as part of cinema education. I think kids inclined toward horror tastes should watch Alien.


    Raising conscientious horror kids

    My kids have grown up in an era where horror for kids is an entire *thing*. Mascot Horror as a subgenre (TV Tropes) has been defined, if not outright invented, in the time of my kids’ lives; much like Mommy, they enjoy a dark skew to their content, so it’s natural they would fall in with Mascot Horror.

    Navigating horror for kids as a mother is interesting. I believe a lot of families either ban violent/disturbing content outright, or simply stay hands-off their kids’ media diets, because either options is easier than trying to navigate it with them. Parenting is *always* a matter of too many concerns and not enough time/energy to handle it. Media consumption is low priority compared to the numerous high demands of Life.

    When my peer parents were blocking YouTube so their kids wouldn’t get tangled up in extremely dodgy Elsagate stuff (Wikipedia), we chose to let them stay online, unfiltered, unblocked. We kept our media consumption devices in the same room for many years so that we could keep an ear/eye on what they were watching, and “Pick a different video!” was a frequent call across that room. This spurred conversations about why we thought a video wasn’t appropriate. We told them how to navigate these things themselves, and one of my main urgings was simply: “If it makes you feel weird or bad, don’t watch it.”

    Of course, they watched stuff when we weren’t supervising, and they ended up having to figure out how to filter things for themselves. Multiple times, they brought videos, games, and memes to me with questions, or just generally asking for feedback; knowing that they would never be in trouble created a fertile ground for us to communicate.

    The result is kids who have extremely developed opinions about what they like, what is good and bad, what is safe and what isn’t. They know what to do with themselves on the internet and among media. They like horror a lot. That part has never changed.


    Kids’ media is pretty nuts anyway

    What kind of horror is “safe” for kids?

    Critically, I must point out that plenty of non-horror for kids is upsetting as hell. Kids’ media is often much more upsetting than you’d think. Consider legendarily upsetting content like Bambi, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Brave Little Toaster, The Bridge to Terabithia. Kids’ media often goes straight for the places kids are most vulnerable, like death of parents, or separation from family. This stuff is scary already!

    If anything, a movie like Alien is soft for kids. They are in no real, tangible risk of going to a planet in Zeta Reticuli, getting attacked by face-grabbers, and then hunted throughout the Nostromo by a big juicy monster.

    Alien also isn’t all that scary for most of its length. Most of it is tension and build-up, deliciously so. Deaths mostly occur off-screen. The effects are great, but not too egregious.

    I wouldn’t watch an especially gory movie with the kids, but they do play shooter games, and some level of tension and violence is fine. That rules out less-tense horror-comedy movies like Renfield, which loooves gore. The sexualization of Ripley is minimal in screen-time, which is also a concern with kids’ comfort levels. I can’t show them the hilarious Chopping Mall, for instance, because that’s in a much more exploitative tradition of horror. M3gan was a great horror movie for kids (to the point it’s kinda too boring for adults). We’re All Going to the World’s Fair is an amazing queer horror movie for the internet generation, but it’s incredibly slow and vibe-based, appealing more to Millennials.

    Alien stands on top of all of these. It’s not too gory, but it’s a little gross (like the robot exploding into a glitchy white-blood mess). It doesn’t have sex scenes. It’s also, frankly, just a great movie.


    A whole cinema culture class in a single film

    I actually watched Alien with Moonlight for the first time when they were eight, maybe nine years old. It’s more a feat of attention span than enduring anything scary at that age. Considering Moonlight was neck-deep in FNAF at the time, and well inured to jump scares, they mostly walked away thinking it was fun to watch a movie with so much space ship in it. (Space ships are awesome.)

    A few years later, Moonlight has seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and loads more movies for grown-ups. They asked to watch Alien again. A young teenager is capable of thought abstraction in a way that an 8-9yo is not. I realized that Alien was kind of a perfect movie to watch in order to teach them more about cinema in general.

    We had great discussions while watching Alien. It serves as a platform for lots of topics.


    Alien has strong visual language. It begins slowly, with long shots of the vessel’s exterior and interior, and shots are roomy. The pacing is methodical. At first, the most dramatic things are considered with a sort of distance; medical procedures performed on the first victim are partially viewed through windows by the other crew.

    Immediacy of the style increases as the emotional intensity does, too. By the time Parker and Lambert are attacked, the shots come quick and tightly framed. Ripley’s survivalist last act loses all the methodical dolly shots and steadycam, shaking more as the camera runs along with her.

    Moonlight specifically noted the use of strobe light as a way to increase agitation in the viewers. Strobe is very unpleasant, but it makes you feel anxious like Ripley does, whether or not you’re paying close attention.


    In context, Alien teaches about cultural call-and-response. Not only has Alien influenced countless media that came after it, there are prominent elements in conversation with major predecessors. The style of the early moments are a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey (ten years Alien’s predecessor) and the long panning shot of the Nostromo’s underside is a lot like the first sight of a Star Destroyer in Star Wars: A New Hope (two years Alien’s predecessor).

    I’d actually say one of its biggest influences is Jaws (four years Alien’s predecessor). I might even argue that Alien is best described as Jaws vs 2001.

    All media is engaged in cultural call-and-response, and this is important for people to understand. It’s how you learn to tell what’s derivative versus what’s genre trope versus what’s a direct reference to add commentary to something else. You could not have Sunshine or Event Horizon without Alien, nor many other SF/horror movies. You also probably wouldn’t have Doom or Half-Life without Alien. The impact is seismic, and accentuating this element to young cinemaphiles can provide context for a whole lotta culture.


    The politics of Alien are fascinating. Moonlight is the cusp of Gen Z and Alpha; their generation is not expected to do better than my generation, which is not expected to do better than our parents’ generation. A lot of this is due to runaway unregulated corporations. But this problem isn’t new. In 1979, Alien pointed a finger shamelessly at a parent corporation (Weyland-Yutani) for its unethical practices.

    At some point, the movie reveals that the corporation deliberately sent the Nostromo to retrieve alien specimens and bring them back to Earth, regardless of how many crew died in the process. You can easily tie this to the unethical practices of unregulated corporations by watching a few episodes of John Oliver. It’s always been a practice for Big Money to throw lives away in pursuit of profit. (In this film, Ripley theorizes Weyland-Yutani wants the aliens for military use; it’s expanded upon elsewhere in the franchise.)

    As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, the deployment of horror tropes and who the movie kills first is also extremely political. We often think of the past as being more regressive. But we’re in a time when trans people are spectacularly unsafe and often targeted directly by policies and less directly by stochastic terrorists; more than forty years ago, we had a movie casually throw in a couple of *very* gender nonconforming characters, one of which was trans. These are the kind of people society often marginalizes and feeds to the meat grinder.

    The fight we’re fighting now isn’t new! For all its antique-looking retrofuturism, Alien had a lot of ideas we’re still battling with, right now.


    Alien is defined more by what it doesn’t show than what it does. It remains a truism of art that the best stuff happens off-screen (off-page, in the gutter, out of frame, etc), and Alien demonstrates this element of craft perfectly.

    The truth is that you don’t need great special effects to tell the story you want. Alien *does* have great special effects, but a lot of it is never really seen beyond glimpses. That’s not the point.

    The focus remains on a naturalistic approach to the characters–showing them working, in their common life, with minimal backstory. We don’t really know why Ripley is so calculated and intelligent, but you feel like you know her anyway. Natural closure describes everything you have to know. This kind of subtlety is often lacking from blockbuster products in our current era, but understanding the raw power of closure opens up so much media to the viewers, and it makes for better artists, too.


    Alien is a perfect movie to talk about cinema and art at large, and it’s a perfect lesson for horror kids in general. This is one of those evergreen flicks that I think should be taught to everyone for generations to come.

  • essays

    Commentary ~ Jon Stewart’s return to The Daily Show is a regression for Late Night

    If you are a left-leaning liberal or centrist, you might remember Jon’s politics aligning more with yours. In fact, Jon was never very interested in partisan politics; The Daily Show under his tenure was mostly about holding media to account. A single interview of John Stewart by Tucker Carlson was responsible for shutting down an old Fox show called Crossfire – the best example of Jon’s interests on TDS. But even though he often stood in opposition to Fox News due to their poor journalistic standards and entertainment news, it’s not really because he’s “anti-Conservative” or something. I’d say he’s about as centrist as a man of his wealth can be.

    (If you’re not familiar with my usual speeches about class solidarity, I will say “class solidarity always comes first” and Jon’s part of the ruling class in America by virtue of provisional whiteness, extreme success in the entertainment industry, and the access his money provides him. Hence, we would consider it strange if he did not behave like a Rich American, right?)

    Jon’s a true believer in American exceptionalism, which is a viewpoint making someone vulnerable to a lot of blind spots about America’s role in the world. He’s mostly wielded his power and opinion for good, though! He advocates for 9/11 rescue workers and American veterans, which is the exact kind of activism I hope to get from that stance. His persistence navigating political systems to advocate for these folks is my favorite work of his.

    Unfortunately, Jon has also espoused some marginal, paranoid viewpoints. I don’t have anything to point to besides a really strange interview with Colbert about the “Wuhan lab leak” covid conspiracy – but Jon left TDS to go into a farm in the woods and grow a beard, and it seems like he maybe bought into the crazy bearded guy in a farm in the woods bit too well. He may have had more marginal, paranoid viewpoints in his pocket when he lost his Apple deal, but I suspect Apple was also being weird. Either way: Jon has strayed further from mainstream appeal in the intervening years and he might have something *really* weird in his pocket.

    But I think that he wants to go back to TDS because he feels a sense of responsibility. His mission to point at American journalism and say “this sucks” didn’t end up helping much; our infotainment and propaganda systems have worsened, radicalizing an already polarized country. I think Jon Stewart wants a platform to return to media accountability in the year of the 2024 election because he wants to put his finger on the scale against another Trump presidency.

    We’re in a really different world than the one left at the end of TDS. Correspondent Jordan Klepper is doing some really challenging, agile work exploring right wing extremism in America. Former correspondent Roy Wood Jr had a vision for TDS moving forward, but Comedy Central refused to play ball with him, so they lost one of their best voices. There are other great potential successors in the wings, like Amber Ruffin, who could bring something completely new to TDS – and John Oliver, the most leftward late night personality, voiced his support for Uncle Roy and Ruffin.

    It’s impossible to say what Jon Stewart is going to do on his return, but the temporary nature of it makes it clear this is a special project for him, and I question how much meaningful sway he’s going to have on this election. Comedy Central has chosen to do away with a regular host for the foreseeable future, and a late night host is a big boss who organizes correspondents, facilitates comedy careers, and also gets a platform for her own interests.

    It feels like this is promoting Jon’s desire to save us from Drump, and Comedy Central’s desire for advertising dollars, at the expense of other performers’ careers — without actually adding much to the conversation. Late Night in general is more vessel for PR than an effective tool for organization, as proven by Stewart and Colbert’s own 2010 Washington rally that was only a comedy show and didn’t register a single voter (or do anything else). We have already seen what Jon does with peak TDS; I would rather see Uncle Roy or Amber behind the desk full-time (or Leslie Jones! or Charlamagne tha God! my two favorite guest hosts) in an election year, a time of political turmoil. We should not burden any Late Night show with more responsibility or expectations of relevancy when America’s problems are much more profound than Jon’s perspective, limited by his own successes, can pick apart.

  • essays,  resembles nonfiction

    I said what I said: Defiance as diversion in current pop music trends

    Ariana Grande has dropped “yes, and?”, which is a track that sonically draws from Madonna’s Vogue and visually from Paula Abdul’s Cold Hearted Snake, forming a generically pleasing bop that never quite rises to the sum of its parts but is nonetheless EXTREMELY catchy. The “yes, and?” video frames the song as an anthem for pop stars vs critics. (Youtube link.)

    On Celebitchy, my favorite celebrity gossip blog since Dlisted shuttered, Kaiser noted that it’s poor taste for Ariana to release a song dismissing criticism when she’s been on her worst behavior. I guess you could summarize what’s going on with this one sentence from the post:

    Ari started f–king a married man who had a wife and child at home, then Ari threw a huge tantrum when [the wife] openly bad-mouthed her.

    The lyrics do seem to be a direct response to that. Full lyrics on Billboard, but pointing here:

    your business is yours and mine is mine
    do you care so much whose dick i ride

    It seems to directly address issues that you’d think Ariana would prefer we avoid discussing. (Releasing a big pop song is always the best way to avoid talking about things.) I would like to add that the seemingly direct approach is just a sophisticated method of PR smokescreen.

    First off, the lyrics could also be referring to other parts of her famous love life; I suspect more people think about Pete Davidson in regards to Ariana and Dicks rather than her current paramour. Also, the chorus is focused on empowerment. So plausible deniability is strong.

    The video has an entirely different message. The implicit cyclical nature of Music Video Ariana performing her song, then turning to a statue, which crumbles so she can perform the song again, has the same atmosphere as a music box which we can wind and open to play for us whenever we want. By the ending, critics who bad-mouth her have let loose, rescued by the liberation of Ariana, who only exists to entertain and better those who criticize.

    Most of the criticism about Ariana lately has not been related to her music, though. She’s been filming Wicked and working on other projects for a while. She’s been making news in her personal life to the point that people who don’t pay attention to celebrity news might hear about it. But most people haven’t.

    Sassy, defiant messaging is one of the mainstays of pop music, where the tropes are manufactured to appeal to the heightened emotions of adolescence. It’s probably different kids who got hyped listening to Rage Against the Machine saying “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” but Ariana intends to hit a similar nerve. In order to control the narrative surrounding Ariana, PR has decided to summon defiance (with a twist of empowerment as a treat).

    “My life is none of your business, begone” is the attitude expressed here. It’s adjacent to Ariana’s real issues without directly addressing them: savvy PR in a performance borrowing elements from well-established pop hits that is meant to have us discussing Ariana in the same breath as Madonna and Paula Abdul. She is in ownership of her sexuality and liberated and cool, above all else, and fuck the haters.

    Considering “the hater” is a new mother left at home with her baby, is such a high-budget and finely-tuned responding salvo tasteless? Sure, if you put it that way. But Ari put it in a sexy way! With a hat!

    It’s also inevitable in pop music, which commodifies the entirety of a human in our hyper-capitalist era of everything-is-product. Taste is only relevant to the point that it doesn’t detract from the brand’s ability to generate capital. The permeability of barriers between individual and branding has become widespread in the social media era. Stars like Ariana Grande must sell herself as a product more expertly than anyone else, and the narrative she constructs is worth multimillions. Every single event, good or bad, must be a stepping stone that builds her value.

    One of the main methods of getting big numbers currently remains TikTok. Sassy, defiant lyrics from this song are guaranteed to be isolated and disassociated from Ariana’s affair, instead given associations like funny memes, cool dances, and relatable posts.

    Whatever commentators are saying on blogs, most people are going to be exposed to Ariana and this song in a way that makes it feel personal and intimate. Not about an affair that turned out kinda gross and depressing.

    Another pop star who benefits a lot from this model, especially TikTok, is Doja Cat. She’s well-known for her personal behavior, which this Rolling Stone article touches upon.

    On Friday, Doja Cat uploaded the selfie donning a shirt with the image of Sam Hyde, an internet-infamous edgelord with ties to both the alt-right and neo-Nazi movements.

    There are a boatload of stories about Doja’s behavior online that I won’t recant here; she’s such an online person that you can just do a search and see everything for yourself.

    Yet this is another case where the average person doesn’t know enough entertainment news to realize that Doja’s actual behavior is legitimately troubling; they’re much likelier to have heard of her social media posts where she fights and insults fans.

    Reality Doja’s vocal idealogy is a problem to the degree that her PR — which often packages Doja like pop music, though she’s also a talented rapper — has no choice but to fold Pop Music Product Doja Cat into an especially defiant package. Chances are good that her social media posts insulting fans directly are PR the way that Ariana Grande announcing song titles wearing sweaters are. (UPROXX)

    The Doja Cat Team (because we really must see pop stars as the entirety of the machine surrounding them, as well as the individual whose face covers the brand) is embracing her public flaws and steering the narrative as they want. It’s better to talk about Doja fighting fans and releasing a song where she doubles down (with lyrics like “bitch, I said what I said”) rather than letting the conversation focus on Doja’s alt-right associations. (Youtube link.)

    The way that their Pop Star Branding handles the various “controversies” of their life is certainly tasteless, but there’s no other way for the product to work; it is part and parcel of becoming such a valuable brand. You can’t make the individual a better person, but you can amplify the most commercial aspects of them, which often means leaning into cathartic adolescent feelings for their mass-appeal and allowing virality to dissociate the artist from their actual issues. It’s a whole industry of turd-polishing set to a catchy beat. Oh my goodness, does the shiny turd have a catchy beat.

  • essays,  movie reviews

    The Worst and Best of 2023 Movies

    It’s that time again! Last year was the first time I really got into tracking my movie-watching habits, so my 2022 watches are the first meaningfully populated year. But 2023 has been full-throttle Letterboxd and I’ve got opinions. (Click for the list on letterboxd. Links in this article either go to my reviews on this website or my reviews on letterboxd.)

    I’ll probably keep watching 2023 movies as we move through awards season; I’ll be back with future reviews if something changes.


    Your Place or Mine, Cocaine Bear, and The Weeknd: Live at SoFi Stadium were the worst movies I saw come out of 2023. The former two are movies I completely bounced off of and barely finished. The Weeknd’s concert feels a little more like a personal rating because I used to really, really like his music. He’s pulled off great staging at some of his live events. I had high expectations, and this was…not good. He stood around singing the whole time, and his dancers don’t really dance. This marked falling out of love with The Weeknd’s music (his TV show, The Idol, and the extreme amount of cringe resulting from it was the real death blow).


    In the category of mediocre things I still kinda enjoyed, we have Little Mermaid, Red, White, & Royal Blue (aka RWRB), and Rebel Moon.

    Little Mermaid isn’t the worst of the Disney live action remakes and that’s the faintest praise with which I may damn it. Halle Bailey was charming and seemed to understand she was mostly doing a modeling job; she looks pretty through all the extremely artificial shots, projects princess vibes, and throws a giant middle finger to people who can’t handle princesses with melanin. Plus she’s great at singing!

    RWRB was just so much not my interest. I don’t remember it well, but the main thing that sticks out when I reflect is how much the guy playing the prince looked like a Windsor, and how much that was a *massive* turnoff. The fairytale mirror universe version of real-world politics didn’t work for me either. But honestly, if you’d just switched these out for fake countries, this might have been one of my favorites of the year.

    I already talked at length about how much I loved hating Rebel Moon, and I keep thinking about watching it again so I can laugh at it again. Zack Snyder is good at making movies I think are so wonderfully bad. He always makes me ask myself how bad his movies *really* are, when I have so much fun. You know? But I can’t defend his disaster screenplay and wouldn’t try.


    My next tier includes surprisingly enjoyable watches like Renfield, Five Nights at Freddy’s (aka FNAF), Elemental, and Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain.

    I’m never sure if I’m going to enjoy Nicolas Cage or be annoyed that I’m watching a Nicolas Cage movie. Renfield is one where I enjoyed him, albeit not as much as Mandy (my personal favorite recent Cage flick). The sheer ambition of the gore levels in Renfield was really endearing. It made me just want to go watch What We Do In the Shadows again, but also, I never feel like my time is wasted by yet another Dracula movie that uses whole buckets of blood.

    FNAF was a long-anticipated movie in my household; I couldn’t help but enjoy it because my eldest did. I can tell you, knowing as much as I reluctantly know about this franchise, the FNAF adaptation was perfect for its audience.

    Elemental was a weird slippery one for me. I liked it a lot and thought it was beautiful, but deeply flawed. The flaws didn’t seem to matter when Elemental was obviously made with so much love? I wonder if I would have rated Elemental higher a little higher when my kids were younger and more likely to sit in front of its bright colors for hours on end. I don’t get tired of loving immigrant stories, regardless.

    Please Don’t Destroy is a movie by a nepobaby and his friends where you don’t hate them for the nepotism. They’re so harmlessly, stupidly funny, and concerned with the arrested development of new adulthood, that it’s hard to resent them for much of anything. Bowen Yang elevates everything he bats his eyelashes in. Plus two of the heroines are fat. That’s cool. The kids are all right.


    In the tier of really great movies that came out of 2023, we have Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Blue Beetle, Nimona, and Bottoms.

    My love of genre is surely showing here. Whatever else is going on in Dungeons & Dragons, I just freaking love second world fantasy, and I’ve enjoyed D&D since I forced guys to play with me in high school. This movie is charming and funny and only a little plodding. We get tracer beasts, a mimic, and Tiefling racism on-screen. For better or worse, this is my exact kind of steaming heap of genre.

    Similarly, Blue Beetle reminded me why I’ve been a lifelong superhero fan. It’s healing to remember I do love superheroes so much when it feels like movies have made me mostly resent their presence these last few years. As a love letter to the classic origin story, Blue Beetle was exactly the shot of family-friendly energy I wanted this year.

    Nimona was much the same, playing with all the fantasy and science fiction tropes I love in the queerest way possible. It’s the most honest, authentic expression of how *excruciatingly* lonely it is to be trans. But it’s also fun.

    If you don’t want to feel any bad vibes about being gay, you might like Bottoms as much as I did. I related strongly to the ugly, untalented lesbians at the center of the movie, which reinforced one important fact: Nobody in this world will hate you for being gay, just being gay and absolutely useless. Doggedly chasing high fashion cheerleader tail when you, yourself, barely know how to wear a t-shirt and jeans is exactly the bullshit nonsense I got up to at this age, and Bottoms is the dadaist gay comedy of my dreams.


    Given the themes of May December, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch it. I almost didn’t make it through the first ten minutes. I’m so glad I did. This is a breathtakingly complicated movie by artists operating at the peak of their power.

    The director is responsible for Velvet Goldmine, one of my all-time favorite movies. That one happens to be like colorful fanfic about David Bowie and Iggy Pop. It’s weird getting so personal about real-life figures, but May December gets even weirder by being colorful fanfic about Mary Kay Letourneau and the man she began abusing when he was a child.

    You’re not allowed to be comfortable with the situation at any point, but it’s all done so well, it’s problematically good. The extreme recursive conflict of being a soapy, pulpy movie about the worst parts of real humans’ lives is centered in May December, accusing itself of exploitation while being exploitative. I’ve found that I like feeling kind of weird and gross and guilty, and the negativity of feelings from May December almost makes me want to shelve it with horror. The masterful control of storytelling made this one of the biggest standouts of the year.


    There was nothing I loved this year the way I loved What Happens Later. It’s one of those things where it arrived at the right time and place in my life. I was already doing a big watch of romcoms, including romcoms with Meg Ryan, so a new Meg Ryan romcom was serendipity. (No, not that Serendipity. That’s Kate Beckinsale.)

    Imagine this movie like having an air travel layover in Heaven. No, you’re not dead, despite the fact this movie definitely makes it look like the leads are dead. It’s more like something divine (God? Angels? Gen X pop-rock muzak?) has plucked Meg Ryan and David Duchovny out of their lives to force them to help each other.

    With a screenplay adapted by Meg Ryan and the gift of this woman’s directorial vision, What Happens Later feels like the most beautiful sublime dream with wonderfully bittersweet emotion at its core. I’m not yet in my fifties, which is where these main characters find themselves treading water, but even now I can already relate to the strangeness of looking back on a life and asking, “What if?”

    Those unanswerable questions ring in the hollow spaces of Meg Ryan’s deft work. This woman understands love and romance. She only gives us an HEA in this one (fair warning), but the power of love and hope and change is so healing that it’s way more satisfying than so many other romcoms with more definitive conclusions.

    You want these two to get it together and talk things out so badly. And when they do, I was crying along with them. I loved What Happens Later a lot. I think it fell softly on the year in terms of release impact, but it’s one I plan to revisit a lot in the gray winters to come.

    How would you rank your 2023 movie watches, buds?

  • Diaries,  essays

    You might be overlooking sources of cope close at hand

    When I was almost 30, I spent a hundred hours in a mental hospital on suicide watch, though I wasn’t suicidal. I had been switched to a new antidepressant by my general practitioner. I had a strongly negative reaction, flooded by serotonin, and could feel myself going crazy every time I took it. One time I took it and had a meltdown. I went to the hospital trying to relay what was wrong with me, but I couldn’t do it effectively, and I ended up on suicide watch with weird markers on my chart that nobody else had.

    I was fine once I came off that antidepressant. Even so, they gave me strong, strong sedatives in the hospital and I remember nodding off sitting up at random times. This hospital has since been condemned; it was sinking while I was there. With nothing else to do, I organized activities for the bored younger people in the ward. The cafeteria served great food so I obsessed about eating as much as possible while there. There was plenty of time to read books. I herded young women around because we were not in a segregated ward and old men sexually harassed them. I only got to see the sunlight when I was walked outside in a group by a student therapist. I think we went outside once while I was there.

    Basically it was miserable, but I made the best of it, and aside from the enormous trauma I did learn things.

    During that one time we sat outside, I think we had the most productive (for me) group therapy session.

    Group therapy is my favorite. Other humans are so compassionate in this setting, when we are vulnerable about the things that hurt us most deeply. I shared some of the thoughts I hadn’t been sharing with anyone, and the kindness of others really helped me see that I was having some basic issues of rationality.

    Primarily: Why hadn’t anyone in my family known something was increasingly wrong with me?

    The medication alone was not the only problem. I was swallowing poison-bombs of stress constantly, to the point where I did pop a massively bleeding ulcer the prior year. I internalized everything in my body. I was hurting myself without ever hurting myself, just by turning myself into this crazy, bolted-down, feverish ball of I CAN’T COPE. When I did cope, it was maladaptive, like controlling my diet so my body shrunk to its smallest size ever, drinking way too much alcohol, and other things you expect an almost-30 femme to do to herself. I never felt good. Ever. I could never relax.

    But I had a genuinely loving family standing around me who really didn’t know the severity of the problem. They saw me hiding myself away to over-work, but I didn’t have any way to explain what was going on. I didn’t know. I was locked up.

    I had to learn radical new ways to cope in order to change into the person I am now.

    These days, I am happy and relaxed and only productive in ways that feel constructive.

    The changes were radical in effect, but they were super duper easy in practice. It turns out that coping well is something that fills up your cup and makes everything better, and you shouldn’t run away from it into the arms of toxicity (or just self-destruct quietly on your own).

    My four radical coping mechanisms:

    1. Talking to loved ones
    2. Conscious time with loved ones
    3. Food (ideally eaten/prepared with loved ones)
    4. Seek perspective on the role of personal responsibility in a hierarchical world


    Talking to loved ones kind of has to be the first step. It means saying all the messy stuff, even the hurtful things, the stuff that sounds bad no matter how you put it. It means vulnerability.

    This isn’t safe with everyone you know. Your family may not be your loved ones. If you’re already resisting the natural human impulse to talk to your loved ones, you’ve probably been exposed to derision when you were vulnerable at *some* point.

    But the wonderful thing is that *most* people *are* safe to be vulnerable with. Yes, I’m including random strangers here. Most humans are kind in response to vulnerability. It’s a human quality. If you feel like everyone is going to judge you, you’re just wrong! The world is not made up entirely of people who are derisive and cruel. That is an experience you had with some particular folks, and I’m really sorry.

    If “people will usually be nice to you” doesn’t ring true, consider: Humans form social groups (families, cliques, whatever) that have develop personalities unto themselves. A social group in itself may foster toxicity. And it may foster toxicity *selectively*. People perceived as lower in the social hierarchy of this group will be the subject of abuse from people higher in the social hierarchy as a bonding mechanism. If you’ve been picked as a punching bag by a group, they might even be good people to each other, or to others outside the group, but uniformly awful to you. It feels like The Whole World is awful. That’s not the case. You’ve been chosen as a punching bag. Your role will be different in different social units.

    You can find people to treat you kindly anywhere, as long as you don’t wait around expecting toxic people you know to change.

    Talk with loved ones.

    “I don’t want to be a burden,” sayeth your mind.

    Doesn’t it feel good when you help people work through things? People will feel good helping you too. Give them the opportunity.

    You have to try to say the things that are hardest to say. Whatever is stuck deep in there, get it out. Don’t hold any grudges. You can’t fix what you won’t address. Say things quickly, when they come to mind, so you’re not building up pressure to explode everything out. State your intentions with your loved ones clearly: “I feel really embarrassed talking about this but I need help because I’m too scared to do xyz.”

    Solutions can happen quicker than you think, if you don’t simmer on stuff. And for the things that can’t be solved, or don’t need it, loved ones can then be a big emotional hug of validation.

    For me, my loved ones are my spouse and sibling foremost. But I really don’t stop there with expressing my emotions. I’m a whole fountain of it. The more I talk openly about what I’m dealing with, the more I find other people I’m dealing with, and they become loved ones (at least on this subject).

    If people react negatively to you, they’re not your people. Move on. It doesn’t reflect on you.

    Therapy actually can fill in a lot of this, and some folks do need therapists for specific causes, but you can get a lotta emotional work done just in your community like this because it’s so natural to humans. Before therapists, we had hair dressers, neighbors on an adjoining stoop, the other guy sharpening spear heads beside the fire. Use your community.

    (FWIW, I’m under the care of a psychiatrist and on multiple psychiatric meds. I’m so happy I did many many years of therapy and plan to return. I absolutely believe in handling the medical side of things in a medical way. I just don’t talk about it much here because it’s not always very accessible to folks.)


    Conscious time with loved ones actually isn’t the same as talking. Think of it this way: We talk shit out the way that we demolish rooms of a house. Then we spend time with people to sweep it all away and clear the space.

    I used my family as a way to get away from life. I gave them my kids and pets and house and said, “Take care of this while I have my bildung,” and then I traveled alone. Does that sound like a healthful use of family? Maybe sometimes, honestly. But not exclusively.

    If you’re with your family and you spend the whole time visiting with internet friends via your phone, are you actually with your family?

    Do stuff with your loved ones. Bonus points if you get casual physical contact. Make stuff, cook things, play games. Engage with them in a way that is just fun and doesn’t involve any kind of emotional burden.

    Having a cleaner mind and a happy heart makes room for so much abundance. It’s just as important to create happiness as it is to process unhappiness.

    Anxiety, grief, stress, et al can also steal us away from perfectly pleasant moments. I have some really nice memories surrounding funerals because we were sad, but it was still nice to just be together. Making someone laugh with a remark can be your cope when the greater context sucks. Be in your nice moment, whatever the context.


    Having food with loved ones is a really important one that I neglected personally. I had come to see food foremost as a medical thing. I counted my macronutrients to make sure I had the ratio where I wanted, and I ate whatever I was eating — always prepared separately from the family.

    Although my food problems were a thing unto myself, this can also develop over time if food has to be functional for another reason. I think diabetics can really fall into seeing food as medical sometimes. A method of delivering the correct amount of carbohydrates to one’s body. It’s true but not *entirely* so.

    I would have thought of food as a coping method derisively. Maybe you would think of food as a coping method sadly, like, “I can’t eat for fun because xyz food intolerance/concern.”

    But I want to put forth the idea that food should be cope and social bonding *first*. It is so important to us because of its role in fueling our bodies, but humans have always oriented their cultures around eating in a more meaningful way. Whether it’s coming together for feast holidays or regularly doing food preparation in a group, food is really a whole activity that can refill your cup…if you let it.

    The simple act of eating whatever else my family is eating is a bonding thing. We are sharing a culture. It’s healing.

    Let’s say that you can’t eat with loved ones, though. I’m gonna tell you that’s even better. You’ve never met a method of cope like eating distraction-free. Full attention on a balanced meal, tasting every bite, is an amazing cup-refiller. It doesn’t necessarily have to be gourmet food. Consider what you’re eating. What does it remind you of? Can something simple like french fries from the burger place transport you to the nicest memory of your adolescence, every time you eat them?

    The taste can be good, the textures, the memories, the peace and solitude. Try putting everything away and really eating. For reals, it’s awesome.


    Getting perspective on personal responsibility is such a difficult one, but I really needed it.

    Anxiety can make people feel like they need to control things so that bad outcomes don’t happen. The not-so-secret truth is that we don’t control things. Like, almost nothing.

    I know that’s a horrible thought, but isn’t it a little liberating, too? Stuff happens to us. Shitty stuff happens to us. We often couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.

    Something shitty we’re all living with is a society that isn’t designed for everyone. In fact, it’s intended to enrich an increasingly narrow portion of “everyone.” It’s never been a secret that governments suck. Hippies knew what was going on. You’ve always seen folks going Walden off the grid to try to escape it, it’s so shitty.

    There are better and worse ways to cope with the shitty uncontrollability of reality, but one of the better ways is to simply accept it *is*. So much of what is stressing you out isn’t your fault, at all. Period.

    A lot of things you are holding yourself responsible for are simply not your fault, and a lot of your future’s path isn’t up to you.

    On this thought, some idealogies are better than others for fostering a pro-cope environment. If you find yourself getting caught up in any sort of idealogy that preys on your anxiety and an outsized sense of personal accountability about something systemic, the long-term impact is going to be negative more than positive.

    Capitalism likes you to think that bootstrapping is the moral ideal; fad fitness trends want you to think you can willpower your way through having a human body; radical politics wants you to think the pains of living as the proletariat under the bourgeoisie are your fault. This stuff really doesn’t serve you personally. Even if you are someone benefited by inequity — you are the socially preferred race, gender, religion, whatever — the environment fostered by haves and have-nots can leave you lingering in terror of losing your status and helps you cultivate a personality of superiority over your fellow human.

    Like, it’s just not good for you, my dude. You gotta let go of all that stuff. Take a quick breath in and let it out slow and blow out all your sense of responsibility for the huge systemic games humans think they’re playing. The games are playing the humans. You can’t opt out entirely, but you can remind yourself of your size.

    You’re just a person. One person, like anybody else. Exactly the same. You are not great or terrible. You are a person. Isn’t that kind of a relief? You might be a person having a shit life. It’s not your fault. You might have even done some shitty things. Everyone does shitty things. You’re normal. Let it go. <3

    Sweep away the junk and make room for better things to grow in the future.


    There are many other ways of coping that I’ve found helpful, and which you’ll hear suggested elsewhere. Letter writing, for instance. Journaling. Gardening. Crochet. Obviously I enjoy all of these things too. But personally, I found I couldn’t make use of those things as coping methods reliably until I took care of the big ones above. I had to reorganize my life into something where I fell into the embrace of my loved ones more easily before anything else really took root.

    Whatever coping methods you use, just make sure they serve *you*. You’ll know it’s healthy when it helps connect you to more humans and doesn’t isolate you. It’s also good when it helps you express yourself and process everything you’re going through.

    Resist the allure of coping methods that “turn off” your feelings regularly, isolate you, or cause any kind of damage to yourself or community. I am a huge fan of destructive coping, so I get the idea might be offensive, but but trust me on this one. You don’t have to feel like this.

  • essays,  movie reviews

    The John Experiment (2023) – Colors as a Visual Language

    I was invited to view The John Experiment by its co-creator and voice of IVY, Lux Karpov Kinrade. As one half of publishing and marriage duo Karpov Kinrade, Lux has a great many talents to her name: many books, a USA Today Bestselling author title, a romance game on the Dorian app, and an inclination toward illustration. Bear in mind this is only skimming the surface of this particular artist’s interests based on my rugged research (citation: “paying attention to Facebook for a few months”).

    We’ve been acquainted with one another for a while since we’re both SFF-loving indie authors of a similar “generation.” A similar interest in movies only recently came to my attention when Lux began posting about her film festival experiences and I started posting movie reviews. Turns out we’re both obsessives about a lotta similar things.

    So when she asked if I wanted to watch her movie, my tits got real jacked.

    To my pleasure, “The John Experiment” is a short film that invites interpretation–my favorite kind. I adore it when I get to watch something and then be Extremely Opinionated About What It Really Means. Hence, I decided to write an analysis of the film before asking Lux Karpov Kinrade anything about it in the style of my usual reviews.

    Spoilers for The John Experiment from this point onward. (All images credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade.)

    Be aware: STROBE WARNING. The John Experiment contains explicit on-screen death by suicide. Themes of death and possible implied child abuse.

    In a focused fifteen minutes of film, The John Experiment takes us from an apparent thought experiment (can hot-button tech like AI help us heal from grief?) into a metaphoric space of punishment (do you deserve to heal from grief?).

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    John is looking happier already!

    John is doing therapy in a sparse red room, like a studio apartment stripped of personality. He spends much of his time in bed. When he’s not in bed, he’s at his laptop at a small white table. The only method of physical interaction with the outside world is an unremarkable white cabinet. From this cabinet, John can retrieve his coffee or expel bodily waste. These things are cared for by IVY, an AI character voiced by Lux Karpov-Kinrade.

    Also, John seems to be trying to write an email to his wife, and it’s not going great.credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade

    Ostensibly, the purpose of John and disembodied IVY semi-coexisting is for IVY to help John overcome his grief. The email changes throughout the course of the film as John begins to accept his own role in a baby’s death. He stops blaming his wife as much.

    Eventually, John even admits he should have checked on the baby instead of watching football.

    If that was the point of IVY and the red room, I guess that would be the end of the movie, huh?

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    John does not feel better.

    Unfortunately John is still trapped. Initially it’s not clear whether he’s suffering from psychosis or not–is there really a baby crying?–and his distress rises as he should be healing.

    Maybe John isn’t telling the whole truth to himself, to his wife, or to the audience.

    The room isn’t getting smaller, but it’s getting “smaller” as he realizes how little control he has over the situation.

    The white cabinet permitting ingress and egress of Things to John’s room is not there for him, and exiting the room is simply not an option. John wants to go home to his wife.

    IVY says, “I’m sorry Hal, but I can’t do that,” or something to that effect. He signed a contract.

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    “Of course I didn’t read the EULA! Nobody reads the EULA!”

    The therapeutic room changes in increasingly distressing ways. John cannot access the internet to talk to his wife anymore. There’s a new picture in the room: a red circle upon a white field, bold and accusatory, and here to tell half of the story with its abstract form.

    Why is such a red circle so upsetting to John?

    Why is John’s room so red?

    Hey, let’s take a look back to his video chat with his wife, Ana, at the beginning of the movie.

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    One of the blue things in this film is the room Ana chats from. Also, Joe’s mug.

    These two were permitted one conversation, where Ana begged for John to get out of the program. She was bothered by how little he was allowed to take in, and even more so, how he doesn’t seem allowed “out.”

    Initially, John is not so terribly bothered being trapped in the red room.

    He still has comforting sources of blue refuge: video chat with his wife, his mug, the bedspread under which he is usually lying to do therapy, and parts of the painting. Anything signaling comfort is blue. Blue is hope and peace in Western color theory, and this applies to John’s world.

    But there is that damn red dot painting.credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade

    It’s like the redness of it all doesn’t want John to find refuge. It wants him to see that he is in the red place.

    The red dot upon white can be emblematic of so many things: The nipple a baby nurses upon, the roundness of a pregnant belly, the sphere of a newborn’s head. In Western culture, red is often hostile and angry. It is a bloody evocation of John’s sins.

    Because as we established, if this was a therapeutic environment, he would have probably already made enough progress to leave.

    credit to Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade
    The blue sweater, blue jeans, and blue bedspread are no longer comforting, but cold and deathly.

    If John is in Hell, communicating with Ana in Heaven, we could read deeper meaning into this than parental neglect. John’s fury over a crying baby could be the normal frustration of a sleepless parent, the pain of a grieving parent, or a sign that this man gets *real* angry when he hears a baby cry.

    Though the size of John’s grief could belong to anyone struggling, the heightened emotional state in the end, and Ana’s position in a “blue place,” suggest a family annihilation to me. That red dot is the bloody thumbprint of his legacy, and he will never reconcile his actions enough to exit that red room.


    The John Experiment is supported primarily by a compelling, human performance by Evan Gaustad as John. This movie was produced, directed and written by Lux Karpov Kinrade and Dmytry Karpov Kinrade. This was an Official Selection at the LA Sci Fi Film Festival.

    Lux assures me this film will be available for streaming once it leaves the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for future updates.