Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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My Favorite Opening Sentences of 2014

A collection of opening lines that stood out to me among the books I read this year:

Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson
“The way Craig Ralston found out that his old high school buddy Jimmy Brand was coming back to town was that Jimmy’s mother had called him for help.”

Ron Carlson’s stories use a direct style to deal with small communities, and I like the way this opening sets a decent tone, neither brisk nor leisurely, and also introduces some of the key dynamics (friendship, reunion, helping others) that will define the story.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

How could you not want to read what comes next?

Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain
“It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows.”

Crain’s dense, ambling novel is all about texture and place, much more so than plot or action. Here we get time and place and vibe, all in one.

My Struggle (Book One), Karl Ove Knausgaard
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”

The first of Knausgaard’s six-volume meditation on life and loss begins with a treatise on the physical processes of death before transitioning to the emotional battles of his youth. This is just a beautiful, poetic way to begin.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
“Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.”

A great opening in part because Smith is going to spend most of the novel proving how untrue it is. Everything looks serene from the outside, but for the lower-class denizens of Brooklyn at the turn of the century, life was endless torment.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North
“The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996.”

Another catchy genre opener that speeds the reader right into the story.

Zone One, Colson Whitehead
“He always wanted to live in New York.”

Whitehead’s novel is fantastic, and the opening lays out the wishful thinking of the protagonist that will come to be questioned and mourned as the novel goes on.

Lost Horizon, James Hilton
“Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had.”

A genteel and cold way to set the scene and introduce ideas of longing and aging that will define the book’s central story, about Shangri-La and man’s endless quest to return to a place he feels is better than the one he’s in.

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
“At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.”

Smiley’s retelling of King Lear in the cornfields of Iowa is stunning and heartrending for many reasons, not least of which is the way it deftly portrays what feels to the participants like an epic story even as it underscores that this kind of thing happens to people everywhere. The emotions and actions feel earth-shattering to those involved, but it’s all taking place on a patch of land you’d miss if you blinked.

When Axel Rose: Beverly Hills Cop at 30


In honor of its 30th anniversary, I wrote about Beverly Hills Cop for Movie Mezzanine. I am happier with the headline I chose than I am with almost everything else in my life.

When Axel Rose: Beverly Hills Cop at 30

(Also linked over at The Dissolve.)

Scattered Thoughts on The Babadook


(Spoilers ahead.)


The Babadook is a fantastic movie, full stop — not just a fantastic horror movie, or a fantastic thriller — because it’s about terror based on reason.

Trends come and go with little warning, and there are always outliers that don’t go with the herd, but in general, many modern horror films have rooted themselves in senselessness of cause when it comes to narrative. The person or people being hunted and killed did nothing to warrant their punishment; rather, they suffer for no reason. 2008’s The Strangers, a stomach-churning home invasion film starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, takes this to an extreme as it depicts a group of invaders in baggy masks who trap and murder a husband and wife in their own house. When Tyler’s characters begs to know why they’re being hurt, one of the killers responds glumly with, “Because you were home.” It’s the strain of nihilistic horror film that sees suffering everywhere but no hope for escape. The torture porn vogue of the early 2000s was similarly down on reason and nuance: you meet the wrong person, you die, end of story.

The Babadook, though, is frightening, engaging, and moving precisely because of the degree to which it rejects that kind of nihilism and instead connects its central haunting to character and narrative. The Babadook is a monster, but a monster born of the feelings of the main character, Amelia (Essie Davis). It’s a physical manifestation of the grief she feels at the death of her husband in a car accident almost seven years earlier, as well as the guilt she feels from wishing her husband had survived and her unborn son had died in the accident. Amelia’s haunting is hers alone, and her actions have created the Babadook and lent it power. The horror, in other words, makes sense. By rooting the origin of the horror in the characters’ actions, writer-director Jennifer Kent is able to tell a tale that’s both unnerving and sympathetic.


There’s a gorgeous surreality to the visuals that places the film in a fable-like world. Almost every room in the house is gray, which highlights the storybook nature of the film while also serving as a manifestation of Amelia’s stagnation and grief. She’s surrounded by darkness, living in it, without even knowing it.


We never see the Babadook, not really. Some shadows and hands, some arms, a blurred face. In part it’s because the idea of something is always scarier than its execution; this is Horror 101. But it’s also because The Babadook is a manifestation of this specific character’s grief, and grief is both hard to see and different for everyone. It’s a universal emotion individually applied. We all grieve alone. Only we know what it looks like.


Kent stages most of the film with wide, direct, often formal images. There are only two instances where the viewer can accurately predict where the monster will appear: when Amelia’s looking out her window into her kindly old neighbor’s living room, and when Amelia later runs from the monster and collapses next to an empty fireplace. Both of these use basic negative space to prime the viewer for the creature’s appearance: there’s a nice gap on the left side of the frame behind the back of the neighbor’s chair, and there’s a similar gap, also on the left side of the frame, when Amelia collapses with her back to the hearth.


Kent knows the suspense inherent in doing this (we even see Amelia look into her neighbor’s living room earlier, with the same expectant shot composition, but not creature), but she’s also smart enough not to overdo it. Many of the film’s most haunting images look straight ahead into darkness and shadow, mimicking Amelia’s attempt to see what’s in front of her. These images are eerie and affecting precisely because they abandon the idea of cheap tricks (music stings, shaky framing, etc.) and force us to stare into the darkness for just a few moments. It’s almost more than we can take.


The film’s most unsettling sequence relies on precisely this kind of disquiet. Amelia, driven into a hallucinatory dream state after days of restlessness, walks down into her basement and sees a vision of her deceased husband. When he appears, he’s bathed in a peaceful, almost angelic light, and Kent cuts from a shot of Amelia to one of her husband to show us her perspective:


Amelia sees him and almost can’t believe what’s happening. Overcome with emotion and a sense of relief, she embraces him:



In the course of talking to him, though, she realizes the apparition is related to the creature that’s been haunting her. She backs away slowly, her dread growing:


Kent then repeats the cut from earlier, snapping back to Amelia’s husband, only now Amelia’s perspective has changed. This is what she sees, and so do we:


It’s horrifying, precisely because of what it is and what Kent does with it. We don’t see a gruesome monster, or even an empty space to show that the vision was unreal. Rather, what once was lit is now in shadow, and we’re unable to make out the details of the man’s face. He’s bathed in darkness, speaking in a soulless groan, emanating an evil and control that’s almost palpable. (It’s also worth noting that the imagined version of her husband looked off-camera, while the shadowy horror looks right into it; by looking the thing head on, Amelia’s able to see what it really is.) This is masterfully done, and endlessly more gripping than a cheap shock. Kent’s work recalls David Lynch in many ways, with its willingness to hold long, static takes on unsettling images and a reliance on effective sound design to augment those visuals. There’s a kind of insectile buzzing that accompanies the appearances and intrusions of the Babadook, and it’s often so well done it only becomes noticeable when it stops.


The film is ultimately about the toxicity of grief, the way it poisons slowly over time. The Babadook is the thing we don’t want to address, the shame and guilt we live with over something from our past: surviving something we wish we hadn’t, loving someone we wish we didn’t. That’s a powerful thing for any story to be about it, and it’s only a short jump from a drama about unrealized life to a horror story with an externalized villain. The story’s already horrific on an emotional level. That’s also what makes the film’s plot and message so rewarding: grief is almost never a thing that can be beaten, merely managed. We run from it, face it, moderate it, discuss it, and might eventually find ourselves able to hold it in our hands without fear of losing control of it. But it’s always going to be there.


Scattered Thoughts on Foxcatcher


(This piece will wind up discussing plot details of Foxcatcher, as well as the true events upon which the film is based, about which you can learn more here. Because the events are a matter of judicial record, it’s tough to consider them spoilers as such, but still, heads up.)

• At what point does a famous actor in a prosthetic stop being a famous actor in a prosthetic? Is it even possible to take such larks seriously after they were lampooned in Ocean’s Thirteen? Steve Carell is much more convincing in certain moments here than I’d expected him to be — call it the unintended benefit of casting a comic in his first serious role; the bar is lowered a rung — but it’s also all but impossible to stop thinking of his performance as “Steve Carell in a fake nose.”

• The simian grace with which Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo inhabit their roles as wrestlers is perfectly done without ever going overboard. They walk with a tensed hunch, often with their elbows bent slightly, so their arms are never quite down at their sides. They’re always ready to spring forward into an attack. It’s a small but nicely done physical detail.

• For a film about wrestling, Foxcatcher is surprisingly ambivalent about the body, and about the power of touch. There’s only one scene where we really feel the bodies at work, and it comes early on, as Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz are sparring in the gym. The way their heads touch as they get set, the way they move their arms weave together and come apart; the way their sibling dynamic is made tactile in their grappling, and the way Mark’s sense of frustration and jealousy comes out in his increased speed and aggression, ultimately bloodying Dave’s nose. The way Dave shakes his head, blows the blood from his nose one nostril at a time, and returns to a crouched stance before reengaging his brother. It’s the best sense we get in the entire film of these men’s bodies as machines that they construct and use to their own purpose. What few wrestling matches we do see are tied to different senses of accomplishment or failure, and that’s understandable, but it also means they could be anything: card matches, foot races, cooking classes, crossword puzzles. It’s the sense of bodies in proportion to each other that makes the film work whenever it does.

• Ruffalo is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Carell here: he’s buried in glasses and a hairpiece, he walks with a hunch and talks with a lilt, but he never once feels like he’s putting on a costume. He’s so perfectly confident in his role: never showboating, never greedy with moments, never trying to stand out as a supporting player. He’s just natural. I submit that this is the hardest thing for any performer to do, and that Ruffalo does it a lot, and that he’s such a good actor we tend to forget how good he can be.

• The movie is based on true events, which is its downfall. This is the problem: even something based on a true story still needs to be a story. There are plenty of ways to actually tell a story on film, but there’s a shoddiness to the structure here — a kind of imperviousness to the nature of the tragedy at the film’s core — that makes it feel weak and random. The film charts Mark’s relationship with sponsor and benefactor John duPont (Carell), and Mark eventually flees duPont’s Foxcatcher Farms compound to get away from the shadow of his brother and the memory of the latest father figure to abandon him. Dave stays on to train the rest of the team. One day after John’s mother has died, leaving John searching for a place to put his neediness, John drives down to Dave’s house on the property and shoots him to death. John is apprehended. Mark, we see, has made his way to ultimate fighting, which was viewed with some disdain by the wrestlers earlier in the film.

Then it ends.

A few brief title cards aside, detailing the later lives of Mark (living in Oregon) and John (died in prison), the film has no more to offer. John’s murder of Dave remains senseless, impenetrable, random, frustrating. It was all those things in real life, and director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) seems to want to keep things that way. His structure definitely underscores the cruelty of the killing, but it also leaves us yearning for something more: some kind of insight, some sense of drama, some sketching out of the way lives can become intertwined in a way that leads to tragedy. But the film withholds those things, and it’s my contention that it does so — that it’s allowed to do so — because it’s based on real events.

A death like Dave’s is heartbreaking in real life, but here, it’s narratively senseless. At best, John’s sense of inadequacy was exacerbated by his mother’s death, and having no one left to validate him and no idea of what to do, he went a little mad and decided to murder one of the few people he’d let into his life. Dave is portrayed as much stronger than Mark — decisive and committed where his brother is uncertain and flighty — and his willingness to stand up to duPont was something John didn’t experience that often. Still, though, I feel like I’m working backward from the film’s actions to justify its methods, when it should be the other way around. There’s not a lot of drive here for John, and certainly not enough to push him to murder. Rather, it’s just out of the blue. He was intimidated by Dave’s presence and resentful of the younger man’s natural athleticism and leadership, and on some level he likely viewed him as an obstacle toward John’s control of the team. But the film is light on this. It feels like we’re supposed to infer a few things and then do some reading and possibly consult the film’s marketing and promotional materials. And in interviews, yes, Miller and cast talk a good game about the characters and their motives. But filmmakers don’t get to stand up in front of the audience after each screening and bolster their argument. Everything has to be up on the screen, and here, it doesn’t feel like that. There’s not enough here to make the movie stand on its own.

For My Consideration


This is always a weird time of year to write about movies, because it’s when talk of awards begins to heat up, and it’s also when critics (including me) start to receive links and DVD copies of movies that various studios are pushing for award consideration. It’s nice to get these, sure, but it’s also a reminder of how little I care about awards and how dangerous and misleading I think they can be for viewers. I see good movies every year; some are better than others, but assigning a “best” in any category is inherently impossible. Good things can be good for many reasons, and it feels disingenuous to me to say anything other than “I liked these, and I didn’t like these others.” You can make arguments about why one movie might be better or more rewarding than another, but attempting to crown one as a winner feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of what the movies are trying to accomplish in the first place.

It’s also stomach-churning because awards are purely about marketing, perception, and hype. When Miramax goes on a years-long run of nominations and awards, it’s not because they happen to have acquired the best movies in a given period, year after year, but because those movies are shrewdly marketed and tied to winning campaigns. To believe that Best Picture means “the best picture” is to believe your own press. Viewers have no stake in these awards, either, but it can feel good to root for them or get involved for the same base reasons it’s rewarding to pick a winner in an election: you feel validated for your tastes.

So this is a weird season. It always is. I love movies, and I absolutely hate awards. I never feel more phony than when I vote for them, as I’m compelled to by the bylaws of multiple critics societies to which I belong. It’s something I dread every year because I always feel like I’m lying: about the movies, about my beliefs, about what matters. I’m always trying to get back to what moves me, and awards have nothing to do with it.

Why Award Season Is Bad for Movies
There Are No Oscar Snubs
The Illusion of “Great Movie Years”

Turkey on the TV


I wrote a piece last year about the end of the “Thanksgiving episode” era of TV, which peaked, as did audience share, in the 1990s. Still, I return at this time of year to some comforting classics. “Shibboleth,” from the second (and best) season of The West Wing, is always one of those. It’s alternately funny, sweet, and just the right amount of earnest.

Review: Interstellar


Kind of a weird if well-intentioned mess. Some amazing technical moments, and some good story ones, but it’s also inconsistent and phony and full of holes.

Read the review.

Review: Before I Go to Sleep


Mostly forgettable.

Read the review.


There are a lot of interesting moments in this 1991 interview with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, but the one that stood out was Siskel’s defense of what he believed to be Ebert’s misconception about their differing approaches to film, art, and reviewing. Ebert’s ascension into pop cultural grandfather figure at the end of his life — thanks in part to the tremendous volume of work he began to publish online when he lost his ability to speak, as well as his memoir Life Itself, later turned into a documentary — was genuine and well-earned, but Siskel tends to get short shrift when it comes time to dole out posthumous honors. He was, after all, an equally smart critic and the one who sparred with Ebert all those years, and I’m convinced he’d be remembered differently if he’d lived long enough to see online criticism flourish. As is, he died in 1999 at 53: complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor.

Anyway, at one point in the interview, Ebert says of Siskel: “He’s lacking in enthusiasm. … I go to the movies anticipating a good time. Gene goes fearing a bad time. My glass is half full, his glass is half empty.” Siskel’s response is honest and direct about his personality and about the nature of the job, which requires sifting through the dunes every day in hopes of finding a diamond. He says:

I’ve heard Roger say that before, and I don’t believe it’s true. I want movies to be good. I’d have to be a masochist to want them to be bad. But if you were to stop me any day and say, “Gene, do you expect to see a good movie or a bad movie today?” I would tell you I’m expecting to see a bad movie. The reason is that most of the movies I see are bad. I’m being practical in telling you that most of the things that people create aren’t all that interesting, and that’s too bad. What keeps me going is that I have a strong desire to see something great. And when I see it, it lasts for a long time.

Siskel’s words reminded me a little of Daniel Mendelsohn’s thinking about how beautiful these things are, and how easily they can be broken. I believe and act as Siskel does here. I don’t want a movie to be bad. I never go in hoping for failure. But doing this job (even part-time) means seeing a lot of movies, and a lot of them don’t connect for one reason or another. So you keep looking, and you keep looking, and when you find a treasure, you dig it out of the ground and hold it up.

Stray Thought About the Fifth Season of The Wire

The fifth season of The Wire gets short shrift not because it’s bad (which it isn’t; it’s pretty good, and in places great), but because that’s the year that David Simon’s cynicism about the inevitability of systemic corruption and ignorance expands to implicate us, the viewers. The season’s focus on media hype and the glorification of certain narratives is as timely as ever — and is timely material to revisit in the wake of the murder in Ferguson — but it’s also hard to take because it puts us on the hook for the things we don’t see. For the first four seasons, we watch a sweeping narrative unfold and feel a subconscious pride in the fact that we’re having the experience. But in the show’s final year, Simon says: no matter what you think you know, you know less. You miss so many things. You miss what matters, and you sweat what doesn’t. It’s not untrue, but it’s understandably a harder pill to choke down than, e.g., the game is the game. To fully engage with the show’s final season is to accept our own role in the institutional quagmire of the drug war, the faltering economy, and the ruined castle of education. We want to remember the more gruesome but comparatively less accusatory stories about corner boys. We can tell ourselves we aren’t them. Come the final season, it’s no wonder we want to look away.