What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:



HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.


“Give Me The Banjo” 2011

I like a lot of different kinds of music. Different styles for different moods. In general, though, I like my piano lively instead ponderous, prefer fiddle music to violin classics. And a fine trumpet player has always moved me. While the banjo doesn’t catch my breath in the same way, I always thought of it as a fun instrument. Quick and clever, requiring a lot of skill and dexterity–I appreciate the technique. Plus I grew up with a fair amount of bluegrass; one of my mom’s best friends was, and still is, a bluegrass fiddler (you can watch a video of her band here).

So when I saw that “Give Me The Banjo” was streaming on Netflix, I threw it on. I am a sucker for both documentaries and American music history. Background music, I thought, while I got other things done. It turned out to be too good to half-watch, and I ended up putting everything else aside. 6 minutes into the movie, it was clear that they meant to truly explore the banjo’s history, with this introduction:

You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo. – Greg Adams, Ethnomusicologist

Then straight into clips from a minstrel show. Blackface. Newspapers proclaiming a “Much-Admired Nigger Melodist” was playing. The white Southerner, Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, and then took both the knowledge of how to build one and his neighbor’s music with him to New York. Turning an African folk instrument into a white American musical staple. “Elevating” the instrument with fancier building designs, reinventing the music into the new “classic” style… purposely reminding audiences that they’d stolen from the people they considered themselves better than, with a style of music they called “Coon Songs”… This look at the past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening.

The interviews with experts–historians, musicians, and banjo builders–along with photos, songbooks, and recordings of the popular musicians from different eras, make this a documentary worth watching if you care at all about musical history, or the racial and cultural history of the US. (Even if the banjo itself doesn’t matter to you.) Steve Martin gives excellent narration, and they’ve got an impressive breadth of interviewees. Find the movie here: Give Me the Banjo (83 min.)

Innsmouth, 1939

I am, as I usually am, writing on a couple of different pieces at once. Though I have the plot outlined for my Mythos noir story, “The Night Hours“, I’m taking my time writing it because the research is so important. Noir is about a lot of things*, including a focus on setting. It has to feel gritty, slick, and damp… sexy, and hopeless, all at once. To build that kind of world, I have to combine HP Lovecraft’s Innsmouth with enough real, late 1930s, set dressing to convince you this all could have happened. There’s so much visceral and emotional information you need to buy into for a noir story to work. You can’t relax into it if the little details aren’t right.

I can already tell that this is going to be the start of something bigger, so I don’t mind spending the time. My Innsmouth is economically depressed, as befits Lovecraft’s description, and the years after Black Tuesday. It hasn’t got WWII to really bring the money back in, but the fishing is good, the rent is cheap, and a lot of people who couldn’t make a home somewhere else are starting to settle there. But it’s still a weird place, under the surface.

There’s the expected mix of boarding houses, secretaries, busboys, and messengers; all part of a migrant population which ebbs and flows like the tide, and from whom the occasional missing person isn’t really missed. The weather isn’t great: constant fog, dense rain, snow and sleet and slush in the winters. And too often, the strange things get ignored, because it’s easier than focusing on something you can’t control anyway, when you’re barely getting by yourself. The First Church of Christ (Deluge) teaches that the Flood got interrupted, for example, and will be back again soon to wipe us all of the face of the Earth. How weird is that? But they give out bread on Tuesdays, and host a free fish dinner on Fridays, so their congregation is always full.

It’s Fall in Massachusetts, in 1939…

Music is the biggest source of daily entertainment, with a record player in almost every house. We just lost the great Tommy Ladnier. The Duke Ellington band is popular, and so is Benny Goodman’s, but Count Basie is starting to catch up. Jazz, blues, and swing abound, blend together, and influence each other greatly. The major touring bands are predominantly white-fronted, playing more swing than jazz (timed for the foxtrot and other couples dances), but the smaller clubs are either still in the midst of their jazz uprising or starting to play “jazz revival” style–and more importantly, people of color play in, and front, many of those bands. Wilder Hobson’s American Jazz Music and Frederick Ramsey / Charles Edward Smith’s Jazzmen are published, and both try to convince the world that Dixieland is the true jazz. Dizzy Gillespie has joined Cab Calloway’s band, Charlie Parker is developing Bop, Louis Amstrong is starting to be considered “too commercial”, and Nat “King” Cole is using only a jazz trio–piano, guitar, and double bass–instead of a big band, and though he hasn’t yet given up playing piano to focus on his singing, he is doing the occasional vocal set in between instrumental pieces. John Hammond has arranged the first of two performances of “From Spirituals to Swing” at Carnegie Hall.

Listen to Ladnier’s I’ve Found a New Baby

What I’m Watching Now

I have a hundred different things to talk about – cons and writing and publishing and life – but I’m also dealing with deadlines (external and self-imposed) so I’m going to try to catch up with everything in bits and pieces. Today I wanted to update you with my television watching preferences.

Though “television” isn’t true in my case, since I watch everything online. I have a tv, in storage at a friend’s house, and I’m going to pick it up soon, but I don’t use it to watch shows. I use it to play Xbox. Just so you know.

But I can get everything I want to watch online via Hulu, Netflix, or other sites, so I’m good there. Right now I’m watching:

  • Daily Show – News, satire, and interviews. Perfect.
  • Colbert Show – just started watching this again; my writing projects are fairly dark and I needed more comedy in my life.
  • Once Upon a Time – I’m a sucker for fucked up fairy tales. It’s got some issues – the main character, Emma, is beloved of pretty much everyone in the entire show, yet is flatly one-dimensional and grumpy to boot. I do like seeing how various fantasy characters get translated into “real world” people, and it gets bonus points for bringing Frankenstein (the doctor, not the monster) into the show.
  • Grimm – of the two fairy tale shows, this one’s my favorite, as it mixes Grimm’s Tales with a Portland police procedural. Dark, bloody, sexy, fun.
  • Alphas – eh, I loved season one, and I’m still watching season two (in theory) but I’ve got three episodes in the queue I haven’t gotten to yet. I’m afraid I may be over it.
  • Haven – Inspired by a Stephen King short story, mixes people with powers/curses, a police show (sense a trend?), and some great actors.
  • Castle – I go back and forth on this. Last season I was over it, but then a few people recommended this season as having gone back to what made earlier seasons good, so I gave it another chance. I won’t make time to see it, but if I’m bored/sleepy/have time to kill, I’ll catch up.
  • Go On – I’m normally not a sitcom girl, but this has Matthew Perry and John Cho being snarky and adorable and talking about sports, so I’m in.
  • The occasional (as I can catch one, or at least find recaps of) Houston Rockets game.
  • I’ve seen some great movies lately, like Before Sunrise and Indie Game: The Movie

What I like about Hulu and the rest of those sites is that I don’t have to be tied to a schedule. I couldn’t keep up with any of these shows if I had to sit in front of a screen at a certain time. I often go days without watching anything, and then watch a couple of hours worth at once when I get the time.

Anything I’m missing out on?

Attack The Block: 10 Minutes In, Best Alien Invasion Movie Ever

I promised you a review of this film a few months ago, I know. If it makes you feel any better, I watched it again, just for you, to be sure that I felt the same way about it. That’s the kind of friend I am. Quick review: It’s the best alien invasion film I’ve ever seen.

Why? It’s ok. You can ask me that. Here’s the answer:

The film opens on a shot of the night sky, with a single star falling from the heavens, before panning down to reveal fireworks over London. The camera settles, not on the downtown, not on the homes of the wealthy, but on a tube station and a young white woman talking to her mother on her mobile while walking home past street vendors hawking flowers and vegetables. Her hat doesn’t match her coat that doesn’t match her pants and her scarf – well, let’s just assume that an elderly aunt knitted it for her and move on. Kids run down the street with sparklers, as the woman walks into a residential neighborhood with more graffiti than street lamps. A sudden burst of fireworks startles her but there’s no one behind her; she’s jumpy, though we don’t yet know why. She finishes her call with a plan to meet for Sunday dinner, and looks up to see her way blocked by a group of kids wearing dark-colored hoodies and bandanas over their faces. Crossing the street doesn’t stop them from surrounding her and mugging her. Suddenly that falling star is a meteor crashing into a car only a few feet away from them, and the invasion’s begun.