Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Best Movies of 2022, #9, #8 and #7

What these three movies have in common is that they all fell into the year’s trend of serious movies being box office bombs, which not only dimmed their own prospects but put at risk the prospect of any adult movies getting made in the future. I guess the only thing that might save adult movies is that kids movies like Lightyear and Strange World were megaflops as well, so Hollywood may just decide that they simply don’t know how to market anything anymore. Hopefully they’ll realize that the movies aren’t letting them down, they’re letting down the movies.

I don’t have a lot to say about these, so I’ll cover them in one day.

#9: Three Thousand Years of Longing

Especially for someone who doesn’t make movies very often, has any director had more varied output than George Miller? Four Mad Max movies, two Happy Feet movies, two Babe movies, The Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil... Now after another many-year break, he returns with his first romance. I saw this on date night with my wife and we both loved it.

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba are very appealing performers who have been mostly sexless on screen so it’s wonderful that they got to generate some heat here as a scholar and the genie she releases, in a modern story paralleled with various historic tales. Beautiful imagery and a satisfying story.

#8: White Noise

The movie made very little money in its brief theatrical window and equally little impact on its subsequent Netflix run, but surely it’s time to put a new push behind it, giving what’s going on in East Palestine, Ohio. Has there ever been a more timely movie? Well, yes, one… This movie has very much become the China Syndrome of its generation. That movie about the danger of nuclear plant meltdowns came out twelve days before the near meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, sending people to the theaters in droves to find out more about the danger. Now that White Noise has proven to be so oddly prescient, will people also rush to belatedly discover this tale of a deadly cloud rising from a rail disaster chemical spill?

If they do they’ll discover a delightful and disturbing movie. Capturing the delicate tone of a Don DeLillo novel is a tricky business, but writer/director Noah Baumbach does it well, with ample help from the always great Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig.

#7: Amsterdam

The reviews were dreadful so everybody I know skipped this one, but I knew that I always find David O. Russell movies appealing whether they’re hits or flops, and I’m a big fan of the cast: Christian Bale is always worth watching, and the rest of the sprawling cast, Margot Robbie, John David Washington (sounding more and more like his father Denzel as his voice matures), Anya Taylor Joy, Rami Malek, Robert DeNiro, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Zoe Saldana and many others are reliable performers.

The movie is at its best in flashback sequences to World War I and its aftermath, but the non-flashback portions of the story, unraveling a massive conspiracy in the late 1930s, are also quite good. A very enjoyable movie which you almost certainly missed and well worth checking out.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Best Movies of 2022, #10: She Said

A good old fashioned shoe-leather journalism story. All the Presidents Men but with a female screenwriter, director, stars and subject matter. I thought it was better than Spotlight, which won best picture. One problem was that that movie pretended that its investigation was revolutionary, when really it was just another in a long line of exposés of the Catholic church. The subject matter of this movie really did change the world. This movie is also more stylish and has more tension.

I also liked how this movie contrasted with one element of “The Dropout.” That was a great TV miniseries, but it really sucked that they felt the need to invent a new editor at the Wall Street Journal. I watched the whole thing thinking “Really? Rupert Murdoch hired a black woman to be the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal? And that wasn’t a huge news story in and of itself? Is this real? Am I going to have to look this up?” And eventually I looked it up and of course they faked it. The real editor was a white man who describes himself as a “right-wing curmudgeon.”  Murdoch would rather tear out a nostril than put the WSJ in the hands of a black woman.

The makers of the TV show just didn’t want to have a whole storyline where two white men (a reporter and an editor) do the righteous work of taking down a white woman and an Indian-American man, because that looks bad. But I think they had a responsibility to lean into the fact that it looked bad. Taking down Elizabeth and Sunny was heroic, but there were uncomfortable elements to that and of course the WSJ would not be totally adverse to lunging when this woman and POC stuck their necks too far out. I think the show had a responsibility to admit that, instead of just inventing a black woman editor.

I like how She Said basically leaned into the fact that the two heroes were two fairly similar women. White working moms of young kids making their way as career women in New York. As in All the President’s Men, we get one Goyish and one Jewish, but that’s the only difference. (Of course, it helps that the NYT actually has a black editor, so they didn’t have to make one up, but he’s not a big part of the story.)

Friday, February 24, 2023

Reluctantly Not on the 2022 List: Everything Everywhere All At Once

I know, I know, here I go again, being the party pooper, disliking a movie that everyone else loved. Let me be clear: This is a well-made movie. I was impressed with it. I liked the performances, and wouldn’t mind if they won things. I laughed at some things. I would call these visionary filmmakers and admired their ability to get their vision on screen.

So why did the movie ultimately leave me cold? Why could I not bring myself to put it on my top ten list?

Here’s the thing: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had a harder time following confusing stories. In this movie, once things get super-weird, they explain what’s going on so quickly that I just got lost. Really lost. I considered pausing the movie and asking Betsy to explain what was going on, but I decided it was hopeless and just mentally checked out. I spent the whole rest of the moving just saying “Huh? What?” until it ended. I didn’t get a word of it.

The next morning, Betsy was explaining the plot of the movie to our kids and I was gobsmacked. Where was she getting all this from? How had she been able to follow any of it? Then the movie became the most beloved on the year and I felt increasingly stupid. I considered rewatching it so that I could re-evaluate it for this list, but ultimately decided that no, I gave it a fair shot, and it just didn’t do anything for me.

This is a subjective list. There will be movies on it that make you say “He liked that more than Everything Everywhere All At Once??” I just gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.

I must say that the thing I admired most about this movie was this interview with Daniel Kwan calling out toxic fandom and excusing critics not putting the movie on their top ten lists.  Thanks for having my back, Dan!  

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Not on the 2022 List: Dr. Strange 2 (and Thor 4 and Black Panther 2)

This movie wasn’t as awful as Black Widow or The Eternals, but in many ways, it was the most disappointing output of the MCU phase 4. This is because the best element of phase 4 was WandaVision, and this was sort of a sequel to that and couldn’t have dropped that ball more disastrously.

Wanda was such a deeply human and heartbreaking character in that show, and then she shows up here as just a kill-the-bitch horror villain. As I was watching it in the theater, I kept thinking that it was almost as if Sam Raimi didn’t even watch WandaVision. Then I got home and found out that nope, he didn’t, though he had plenty of time to do so. Is there any worse example of directorial malfeasance? Watch the masterpiece you’re making a sequel to, ya doofus!

Ultimately, I realized they could have made it work if they had made it clear that the Darkhold had turned her evil, as in the storyline pictured below, but no, Raimi implied that motherhood alone had warped her brain. Ugh.
By far the best part of the movie was seeing all those cameos on that other Earth, but then they were all gruesomely killed one by one, which was no fun to watch.

Ultimately, other than WandaVision, Loki and Spider-Man No Way Home, phase four was a big disappointment. (And I hear that phase five hasn’t gotten off to a good start either, but I haven’t made it out to see the new Ant-Man yet.) The rule in Hollywood is that if a franchise lives long enough, it will get to see itself become the villain, but we’ll always have phases 1-3.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Not on the 2022 List: Top Gun: Maverick

I don’t begrudge this movie its tremendous success. If anything was going to get people back into theaters, I’m glad it was a fun, old-fashioned, they-don’t-make-em-like-that-anymore nostalgia fest.

But lord-a-mighty this movie was dumb. The dumbest movie to ever get a Picture nomination? Possibly. Specifically, it was a lot dumber than the first Top Gun, which is saying a lot.

Somehow, I had never managed to watch the original over the last forty years, but finally watched it in preparation for this movie. I could see how the movie earned its reputation for cheesiness and the dumbing down of movies. Watching the volleyball scene, cut like a music video in a way that made it impossible to know who was winning the game, was infuriating. But I was shocked at how grown-up the movie was. Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer are competing to see who will be the best pilot. Then Tom Cruise’s copilot dies in the air. At this point, I fully expected Tom to have to overcome this obstacle and win the competition anyway. But no, there’s no longer any thought of him winning, and he graciously concedes to Kilmer, as he struggles to get back into the air at all. I respected that.

Compare this to the far-cheesier sequel, where nobody ever accepts the consequences of any setback. The movie reaches its apotheosis of dumbness when Tom Cruise is shot down in Iran and Miles Teller goes back in his fighter jet to rescue him. It turns out that Teller arrives just in time, because Cruise is about to be shot by the guns of an Iranian helicopter, which Teller blows up. But what’s the plan now? How do you rescue a civilian on the ground when you’re flying a fighter jet? How do you land? They’ve already established that the only nearby runway has been carpet bombed. So what is Teller’s plan for picking up Cruise? What happens is the only thing that could have happened: Teller gets shot down too. Once they’re both on the ground, they can work together to steal a plane from the busted-up runway and get out. But what was Teller’s plan if he hadn’t been shot down? This is never explained. We’re just supposed to understand that this is a very dumb movie. (And why were the Iranians going to kill Cruise instead of capturing him? Surely he would have been a high-value hostage?)

Unlike its predecessor, this movie is pure cheese. I’m glad that we’re learning to have a cheesy good time at the movies again. But Best Picture??

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Not on the 2022 list: Avatar: The Way of Water

To prepare for this movie, I rewatched the original Avatar (the theatrical cut, I’m not insane) and I thought it was pretty fucking great.

I was in chemotherapy for most of 2009 and not going to the movies. When it came time for the 2010 Oscars, it was the first year in my adult life I hadn’t seen the nominees. I knew the two frontrunners were Avatar and The Hurt Locker, I knew the stories behind them and I knew what I had heard about the two movies. I knew that James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow had once been married until he left her for a younger woman, and now they were coming up against each other with movies at the Oscars, so obviously, I’m going to root for her in that situation. As for the movies, I had heard that The Hurt Locker was really left wing and critical of the war in Iraq, and Avatar was really right wing in that it was a bullshit white savior power fantasy. So I was totally rooting for The Hurt Locker and happy when it won. Then, a year later, once I was recovered, I actually saw the movies. I discovered that, from my point of view, The Hurt Locker actually felt very right wing and its critique of the US presence in Iraq was shallow and insincere. And Avatar, when I actually saw it, seemed to actually be quite left wing, both in terms of its environmental message and its anti-imperialism. I could still enjoy that Bigelow got revenge on the man who left her, but in terms of the movies themselves, being a leftist, I felt that the wrong team won.

I then, like most moviegoers, forgot about Avatar, assuming I would never watch it again. But lo and behold, 13 years later, a sequel arrived and I decided I’d better brush up on the original.

It’s just a very clean, simple movie, despite its length (even the theatrical version is long). It’s a tale as old as time: Colonizers arrive, seeking a resource under the ground, one colonizer falls in love with a local girl from an ecologically balanced tribe, completely changes his mind and joins their bloody revolt, which is successful. Stand up and cheer. (Yes, it’s a little bit white savior-y in a few shots, but it’s more about humbling himself and learning to live their way than imposing his awesomeness.)

The sequel is, alas, nowhere near as clean or clear. It’s a big ole mess.

What exactly is the humans’ goal? When they first return, we logically assume that they’ve come back for the same thing they originally wanted: unobtanium, so that’s the presumed goal for the first hour. Then Edie Falco reveals that no, that’s not why they came back. Instead, they’ve finally ruined the earth and they just want a new place to live. Okay that’s a good twist and escalation. (Not tremendously logical though, since they can’t breathe the air, but whatever) But then an hour later, we get a completely different answer: they’ve come here to go whaling, because there’s some strange substance inside Pandora’s whales that can make humans live forever. So now, assuming that there’s still unobtanium sitting around, the humans have three competing reasons to re-invade the planet, which is just too much. The original movie was so much cleaner in its plotting.

Another issue was a huge case of repeated beats. The big climax goes on for almost an hour and keeps resetting itself. At one point the villain has two of Jake’s kids hostage and handcuffs them to the railing of the ship with guns to their heads. Jake’s other two kids go to rescue them. 74 plot turns later, the villain now has the other two kids captive and he once again handcuffs them to the same railing and puts a gun to their heads. It may be the most egregious repeated beat I’ve ever seen in a movie.

But the real problem in this movie is that our hero, who so memorably kicked the humans’ asses in the first film, sees that the humans have returned in this movie and so he just runs away, and continues running away for the entire movie. I realize that, ever since Empire Strikes Back, there’s been a sense that the second movie should have the heroes be totally luckless, but that’s no excuse for having the heroes just turn tail and run for the entire 3 hour and 16 minute runtime. Not even at the end do they announce that they’re going to take the fight back to the human villains. They’re just happy they’ll be able to hang out with the water guys a little longer.

As with tomorrow’s movie, I’m glad that this got people back out to the theaters, but it’s a big old mess. Not on the list!

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Best Movies of 2022, Introduction

You may be asking: Isn’t this a little late?

I’ve always run this series in the two or three weeks before the Oscars, depending on how many movies I wanted to talk about. For a while they were moving the Oscars up in the calendar to try to compete with the Golden Globes, so I was running these earlier, but now they’ve strayed back into March, so I’ve moved back with them.

Frankly, I like it this way. I’ve never understood why everybody insists on running their year end top ten lists in mid-December. What if there are great movies you haven’t seen yet? Are you just trying to beat everybody else to press? Why? Why not run yours in January? That’s a graveyard for movies, so you’ll be lacking for good material, as opposed to December when there’s lots of good movies being released to write about.

But I recognize that running mine in February/March might be pushing things, because who can remember the movies of 2022 at this point? What can I say, it takes me a long time to get around to seeing these things.

As always, I’ll start by pointing out the movies that I didn’t get a chance a see, which in this case includes two Best Picture nominees, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Banshees of Inisherin. Also Babylon and some others that I’m sure I’m forgetting.

I’m going to have four movies to talk about that pointedly aren’t on the list, and ten movies that are on the list. Let me take this time to single out four movies that almost made the list. I whole heartedly recommend Pinnochio, Armageddon Time, Turning Red, and Women Talking. Go see them.

Okay, tomorrow the first movie not on the list!

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Episode 39: Agents

It’s a new episode of the Secrets of Story Podcast, without so long a wait! In this episode, James and I discuss our checkered history of getting agents/managers, losing them, and finding new ones. You’ll find lots of helpful hints for the unagented!

As you listen to the audio, you’ll notice that we foolishly said that you could find a ton of things on the blog, so now I will attempt to link to all those things here!
  • James recommends these websites for finding agents: AgentQuery.com and ManuscriptWishList.com.
  • James cites Bill Shunn’s book THE ACCIDENTAL TERRORIST as an example of a book that did self-publishing right. You can find it here, and you can see his blog posts around the process of putting it out here.
  • I mention that I considered self-publishing The Secrets of Story and made various covers for it with different titles (and for different audiences.) Here are some of those.
  • James mentions his short story “The Lam of Hal Hamburger” which was published in 2004 in the Chicago Reader. You can find it here. There was art by Paul Hornschemeier (who did the cover art for the paperback of ODD-FISH) that was included in the print edition of the Reader but is no longer on the Reader website, which can be found here.
  • James mentions his ex-neighbor, the author Marywinn Heider, who inherited his agent. Find out more about her here.
Here’s the query letter for THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH:

Dear [agent],

I have recently completed a young adult fantasy called THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH. I would like to submit it for your consideration.

Jo Larouche is a thirteen-year-old girl who, up until now, has spent her life taking care of her erratic Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily is an elderly ex-Hollywood starlet with a past so murky she’s not even sure how she came to be raising Jo. They live alone in Aunt Lily’s decaying mansion in the Californian desert. Jo doesn’t know anything about her real parents, or where she is from; the only clue is a note Aunt Lily found with her, a note that said she was a “dangerous baby.”

Jo and Aunt Lily’s quiet life is interrupted by some unexpected houseguests – an obese ex-KGB agent and a snobbish cockroach – who bring Jo and Aunt Lily to Eldritch City, where Aunt Lily had once been a knight in the Order of Odd-Fish. Jo’s parents had also been knights of the Odd-Fish. But they were killed, and Eldritch City was nearly destroyed, in the conflagration surrounding Jo’s strange and violent birth.

A cult called the Silent Sisters had claimed Jo was their reincarnated queen, a world-destroying goddess called the All-Devouring Mother. The Silent Sisters’ attempts to spirit away the newborn Jo led to a battle that almost demolished Eldritch City. Even today the name of Jo’s family, and the incident of Jo’s birth, is only spoken of in fearful whispers. Nobody in Eldritch City has ever seen Jo, but almost everyone believes that she is a supernatural monster. So Jo must remain incognito in Eldritch City, for if anyone other than her closest protectors knew her real identity, they would turn against her just as they had thirteen years ago.

Following in her parents’ footsteps, Jo becomes Aunt Lily’s squire in the Order of Odd-Fish. There are many orders of knights in Eldritch City, each with its own traditions and mission; the mission of the Order of Odd-Fish is to research the appendix to a great encyclopedia. This appendix aims to chronicle dubious and untrustworthy knowledge that is not reliable enough to include in the official encyclopedia. Each knight in the Order of Odd-Fish has his or her own dubious scholarly specialty, such as Useless Weaponry, or Unusual Smells, or Dithering. The knights cooperate in their research and live communally in a lodge with their adolescent squires, who are knights-in-training.

Jo explores Eldritch City’s raucous neighborhoods, makes new friends and enemies, and learns more about her scandalous parents and why her own birth almost caused the destruction of the city. But Jo’s faith in her new friends, and their trust in her, is tested when her real identity is exposed. And Jo is put to the ultimate trial when she confronts her true nature, which is frighteningly close to what the Silent Sisters had claimed.

My previous publishing credits include THE LAM OF HAL HAMBURGER, a 14,000-word short story that was featured on the front page of the December 31, 2004 fiction issue of the Chicago Reader.

THE ORDER OF ODD-FISH is 130,000 words long. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,


And here’s the cover of James’s upcoming novel The Bride of the Tornado!  It comes out in August 2023 but you can preorder it here!