Zombie’s “Lords of Salem”

A Satan-worshiping rock band. “God is the unholy pig,” says the lead singer. “We serve the butcher.” Their song brings the devil—a huge werewolf in one scene, something much more stout and strange in another. It possesses a radio DJ. She can’t get a break from demented hallucinations getting progressively worse. Demon doctors and priests torment her.

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My wife wouldn’t watch “Lords of Salem,” the new Rob Zombie movie just out on DVD. She made it through the witches’ obscenely blasphemous naked fire dance ceremony at the beginning, then she was out. I thought we had a standing rule she has to watch horror movies with me every Halloween week, just like I watch “The Notebook” every Valentine’s Day. (Yeah, right.)

Rob Zombie is a personal hero. He made two of my favorite snowboarding songs, the fast-blasting “Feel So Numb” and “Never Gonna Stop.” Once when I was in high school, I went to watch my friends play on the soccer team and “More Human Than Human” started playing over the loudspeakers during warmups. It starts with 20 seconds of a woman moaning through sex. A bunch of the parents got this look on their faces like something stank, and started huffing like offended uptight nuns. One went to the announcer’s booth and got the song turned off. Ha!

Zombie’s movie “House of 1,000 Corpses” remains my favorite scary movie. In horror films the characters are usually afraid of being killed. In “Corpses,” the poor kids just want to be killed so their suffering will end. A lot of it is psychological trauma—pure fear—from watching what happens to the members of their group lucky enough to die first. It’s scary. Craziest clown ever. Faces are cut off and worn like masks.

There’s skin melting in “Lords of Salem,” as a coven is burned at the stake. The movie includes atrocious violence against babies. Its story takes place over a week, with each day announced on-screen. Things slip so far out of control by “Tuesday” that the thought of how bad it can get by “Friday” fills ensuing scenes with pronounced dread. Zombie doesn’t disappoint. There are creatures, and crazy religious symbols. After a demon birth like this, what can Zombie possibly do next? Something even more insane.

I didn’t see “Lords of Salem” in the theater and felt a little guilty when the flick appeared to bomb. Like Zombie’d needed me. I’m glad I waited until this week to watch it, though. Halloween is when witches should burn and the devil should rise. Zombie rules.

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Cormac McCarthy and “The Counselor”

In his great how-to book “On Writing,” Stephen King says this about Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”:

The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, a fine novel. I believe Blood Meridian is another, although there are great whacks of it that I don’t fully understand. What of that? I can’t decipher the words to many of the popular songs I love, either.

Perfect. “Blood Meridian” is full of sentences that are hard to understand. Every page has words like “topers” and “tainture” and “roehawks” and “godless charivari.” It is also one of the craziest, scariest books you’ll ever read. A total ride. The story mostly follows an unnamed teenager (the kid) who signs up with the Glanton Gang, who hunted and scalped Indians along the U.S./Mexican border. It’s filled with Gothic brutality and bad guys. Judge Holden, “the judge,” is the novel’s classic villain, a fat, bald albino who, toward the end of the book, hunts the kid on horseback with a naked, crazy-eyed idiot leading the way through the desert by leash.blood_meridian_cover_by_ectmonster-d6359iw

Once, around the time his book “No Country for Old Men” was released as a great Coen Brothers movie, I thought McCarthy was going to be at a fancy party I attended in Santa Fe. (He lives here.) I was so nervous. I wanted badly to talk to him about the “No Country” novel, which I love, but Cormac McCarthy kind of terrifies me. I read his books and think he must be one of the smartest, meanest men alive.

His stories express profound ideas that are also fairly basic. And depressing. Here’s the judge, sitting naked at a fire one night with the Glanton Gang:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always there. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. . . .

Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be?

Remember Anton Chigurh in “No Country,” flipping his coin? Same idea. McCarthy is often thematically combining man’s awesome capacity for violence with the random nature of existence. As an old man tells the kid: “You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it.”

A dancing bear gets shot at the end of “Blood Meridian.” This is not close to the first animal killed in the book. Animal abuse is as rampant as the scalpings. There is a scene in which the judge buys puppies from a boy so he can walk to a bridge and drop them in the river, where they are shot by another man before they can drown. I do not read Cormac McCarthy to the baby.

He’s written a new movie. “The Counselor” is directed by Lord Ridley Scott of Prometheus and stars Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem, who won an Oscar playing Chigurh in “No Country.”

How is “The Couselor”? Insane. Salon calls it “The worst movie every made.” It’s great when critics hate certain movies (like “Cloud Atlas”), because then those of us who actually understand what the filmmakers are doing can feel especially smart. Aaahhhhh.

McCarthy calls the counselor character in the film (unnamed, like the kid) “the classical figure in tragedy. He’s a decent guy who gets up one morning and decides to do something wrong, and that’s all it takes.”

It’s a basic idea. One bad decision leads a nice, successful man to spectacular ruin. The theme prevails. There are some absolutely crazy scenes in “The Counselor.” Cameron Diaz fucks a car. A motorcyclist going around 200 gets his head chopped off by a wire. Innocent nobodies wander into gunfights and get killed. I loved — LOVED — Brad Pitt’s final scene in this movie.

Pitt is perfect as Westray. He looks awesome. He is smart, scared, and prepared. The counselor is not prepared. He’s a sap. He underestimates how bad things can get, and this is the worst thing to be in a McCarthy story.

What did they do? They somehow enabled a drug shipment, but the details are past-black murky. Who’s the biker? Don’t know. What’s with the body in the barrel? Don’t know. It is — intentionally, I hope — impossible to understand the plot of “The Counselor.” For me, that’s totally OK. This is a Cormac McCarthy story. You just have to hear the theme that the universe is cruel, and enjoy the fallout.

I guess what I’m saying is, there are great whacks of “The Counselor” that I don’t fully understand. But what of that? “We announce at the darkness we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives,” the counselor is told. The darkness doesn’t care. That’s all.

“Breaking Bad”: Jesse’s Box

Why was Jesse laughing as he sped like a maniac from the Nazi compound? He’s been a slave, basically, whose best escape attempt failed and got a dear friend capped by Todd. When Walt looks at him in that trailer, he’s looking at a broken, hopeless dog.

Recall when Jesse told Hank, “Mr. White, he’s the devil. He is smarter than you. He is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, the exact opposite of that is gonna happen.”

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These men have history

Imagine that last scene from Jesse’s point of view. Mr. White is there? And he kills all their enemies with a rigged machine gun in his trunk? That’s exactly what Jesse was talking about—Walt had to be brilliant and lucky. He was. From out of nowhere.

Walt told him about Jane, in “Ozymandias,” so they were done. There was nothing left to ever say. But for Walt to appear and set him free was the final perfect act of Heisenberg. Kill some bad(der) guys and end things with a nod. Classic.

There was a short flashback in that final episode, of Jesse making a wooden box really carefully, lit pretty with angelic music playing over soft closeups of the meticulous crafting. Then we see him tortured, face cut up and swollen, chained to the roof in a Nazi meth lab. He is imprisoned and forced to make drugs.

It’s not so easy to make a box like that. That box was about Jesse’s potential. In a 12 step meeting back in the third season (episode: “Kafkaesque”) he describes making the box when a teacher challenged him to do his best. He built multiple boxes. “By, like, box No. 5, I had built this. . . thing. You should’ve seen it, it was insane. I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs, no screws. I sanded it for days until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. When you put your nose in it and breathed in, it was perfect.”

Aaahh. He lies and says he gave it to his mom. When his sponsor starts to tell him “It’s not too late,” Jesse interrupts to say he didn’t give it to his mom, he traded it for an ounce of weed.

Where does Jesse go after fleeing the Nazi compound? Someplace to fulfill his potential. He can do that now because Mr. White freed him. Holy crap “Breaking Bad” was great.

“Gravity”: Ryan Stone’s Daughter

In “Gravity” . . .

Spoiler alert.

. . . Ryan Stone says she had a four-year-old daughter who died suddenly one day for no good reason. Just from falling. This becomes a recurring element of the film. She’ll speak of the daughter as her angel, and ask dead George Clooney’s wise ghost to give the girl’s spirit a hug.

Manipulative, right? Contrived?

No. It’s called storytelling. Duh. “Gravity” is brilliant and amazing.

Remember the movie “127 Hours”? That was about a real guy who fell down a canyon and had his armed pinned by a boulder. He cuts the arm off with a dull pocket knife at the end. He decides he has to live no matter what, and the movie shows us pieces of his life—regrets and joys, mostly—to demonstrate why survival matters.

“Gravity” is similar, but better. “127 Hours” was cool, but it’s insanely busy, with tons of fast editing and obvious camera tricks like getting us inside the bottle of piss as he drinks it. “Gravity” is in space, and that’s flashy, but it’s a much smoother ride.

When she can hear the dog and the baby on the radio, Ryan Stone decides it’s OK for her to die. The death of her daughter definitely adds incentive to accept death’s peaceful bear hug. It would make more sense for this woman to want to die than practically anyone else.

Thus the epic triumph of surviving. Click here for an “analysis” of the movie’s spiritual values by Religion News Service. The article asks to whom Stone is speaking when she says “Thank you” into the beach at the end:

And that takes us to the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated who make up one in five Americans these days. If they’d all sign up on a list, only the Catholic Church could claim more members in the U.S. The whole point of being unaffiliated, of course, is that they don’t want to sign on to any constraints. When asked to identify their faith on a list, they’ll choose “none of the above.”

That’s right. Absence of religion in a movie about why life is great makes perfect sense. It’s one of  many reasons “Gravity” works so well.

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“Gravity” and Bravery

“Gravity” is gonna win a lot of Oscars, in categories like sound, effects, and cinematography. The cinematography is amazing, and my second favorite shot . . .

Spoiler alert.

. . . comes at the end, after the whole ordeal in space is finally over. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) has swam onto the beach. She puts her face to the mud and says “Thank you.” She stands on wobbly legs and starts to walk. The camera stays at ground-level, shooting her from below. Directors do this to make their characters look huge, and in that moment Stone looks like a god.

She’s just survived a horrifying adventure alone, where the stakes were that the slightest screw-up meant death. She thought hard about giving up, speaking out loud of how afraid she was. There was even the call of her dead daughter to contend with. Instead, she willed herself to survival. After getting back to Earth, she’s totally reborn for having faced down fear and death. This is why she’s filmed like a god.

This is a great movie.

Let’s go back to “Man of Steel.” The best part of that movie is its opening, when Russell Crowe races across the exploding planet Krypton with the help of a pet dragon who sacrifices itself. The scene’s premise is pretty basic: He has to get from point A on the planet (the stupid council) to point B (the precious codex) to point C (his family and their phallic spaceship). The survival of his baby and species are at stake. Given the tight time frame, it’s very exciting.

“Gravity” is the same play executed better. A scared newbie astronaut gets stranded alone in space and has to get from point A (her battered ship) to point B (the International Space Station) to point C (a Chinese space station) to point D (Earth). She is not a good astronaut, and she knows it. If she takes a wrong angle, or her grip slips, she will float away to die in space. She can’t even breathe too hard, either, because her suit’s running low on oxygen.

The ending is my second-favorite shot. My first-favorite is the destruction of the ISS by satellite shrapnel on its second pass. It looks like this:

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There isn’t any sound when these insane explosions and crashes are occurring, because there’s no air to carry vibrations. It makes it scarier. For as insane as this movie gets, action-wise, it feels incredibly realistic. It’s a unique viewing experience—I can’t recall the last time I cared so much whether an action-movie character survived.

Stephen King just wrote a book called “Joyland.” He did not release it for e-books or in hardback. “Joyland” came out in paperback only, because King thought the pulpy nature of his carny murder mystery was best experienced as a tactile novel like he bought as a kid for a dime. The story fits a particular media best.

This is why you should see “Gravity” in the theater, in 3-D. Stone’s death-defying journey miles above Earth is meant to be projected huge in front of your eyes, with depth that makes it more stunning and scary. This is the third movie I’ve seen in theaters that was enhanced by 3-D, after “Avatar” and “Prometheus.” (“Tron: Legacy” sucked.)

It also deploys a perfect Clooney.

Browns Winning Despite Vandal Bosses

I miss Trent Richardson so much. Why? WHYYY?! Why did you trade him?

The Cleveland Browns played against the Bills on TV last night. Tied at 24 in the fourth quarter, the Browns got to the goal line, one yard from the go-ahead touchdown.

Trent Richardson is a running back who can bench press 500 pounds and squat 700. Last year was his rookie season with the Browns (following a national-championship run as Alabama’s best player). He doesn’t have a high yards-per-carry average, but that’s because he’s a sledgehammer. You can’t throw a sledgehammer very far, but you can smash through whatever’s in front of you. Double digit touchdowns last year. Richardson bull rushes straight ahead wielding cannonball muscles like weapons, and he has an intangible feel for getting into the end zone. The Browns traded him to the Colts three weeks ago for a draft pick.

That just looks right. Dammit

That just looks right. Dammit

So they got to the goal line Thursday night on NFL Channel against the Bills. 24-24. Disturbing quarterback Brandon Weeden (the sort of terrible player the Browns usually draft in the first round, particularly at quarterback, and you MUST have a good quarterback), handed off to Willis McGahee, the old (he’s my age), oft-injured running back they signed to replace Richardson. McGahee can’t bench 500 pounds. A defender met McGahee, easily pushed him backward, and tackled him for a loss. Terrible first-round quarterback Weeden threw an incompletion and Cleveland wound up with a field goal.

They won 37-24 Thursday night and it was fun to watch, but they’re fucked because of this trade. They have a big, fast game-breaker receiver (Josh Gordon, who’s 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds), and good players on defense for the first time since I can remember. Barkevious Mingo (who’s 6-4, 240) is terrorizing quarterbacks as a freaky athletic stand-up end rusher, and Joe Haden shuts wide receivers down. The win-sealing score against the Bills was a defensive touchdown off an interception by Browns safety T.J. Ward. Like Richardson, these guys (and budding-star return man Travis Benjamin) are young.

This is the AFC North, where defense and tough, buff play prevail. Steelers. Ravens. Both Browns rivals have won multiple Super Bowls in the modern era of Browns dreadfulness. After Thursday’s win, the Browns lead the division. They’ve won three games straight. Cleveland’s a better team right now than Baltimore or Pittsburgh. (!)

At halftime the Browns had a ceremony for Jim Brown, the only player to ever average more than 100 yards per game. He won a championship in Cleveland and is considered the greatest football player ever. HE PLAYED RUNNING BACK.

I watch this year’s badass Browns team and I miss Trent Richardson so much. It’s infuriating. Maybe the Browns will make the playoffs this year, but they’ll be going in with a weaker team than they would be with Richardson. Browns management—stuffy CEOs Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner—made a surprise contender worse. Buttholes.

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