EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE (2015)

(PC/PS4/PS5) From The Chinese Room and Dan Pinchback, the developer of DEAR ESTER — which can probably lay claim to being one of the most popular ‘walking simulators’ — came this extraordinarily fascinating and exceedingly measured look at an apocalyptic scientific event in a small English town.

It’s all there in the name: EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE. Scientific forces are toyed with, and an entire town’s inhabitants disappear. ‘You’ discover their memories and piece together the event that unfolded.

Some might not label this as horror as it’s quite bloodless — in fact, if you didn’t know the context of why you’re there, it might feel quite quaint and cozy to explore this verdant Shropshire locale — but you do know why you’re there, and you know peoples lives have disappeared, and they are not coming back. Despite being entirely different tonally, it reminds me a bit of Carpenter’s PRINCE OF DARKNESS: the result of unbridled science.

I’d be remiss not to mention Jessica Curry’s orchestral score, as it’s expertly composed and woven into the work; it’s perfectly melancholy with its swell of strings and ethereal vocals, and is often what I think of first when I think of this game.

MADE FOR LOVE SEASON TWO (2022)

(HBO MAX, for now) I’ve written about MADE FOR LOVE twice before — first concerning the initial HBO season and second regarding the original novel. Now I’m writing about the second and, sadly, final HBO season so, this will probably be the last time I’ll write about it.

Both the initial novel and the first HBO season dialed in on a very sloppy woman named Hazel who routinely made bad decisions and rarely thought about or regretted them, which lead to the trauma of being a woman escaping from a technological bubble created by Byron Gogol, an obsessive man’s technological spider-web. She ultimately gets roped back into the bubble — The Hub — but MADE FOR LOVE’s second season is a tad more flip, far more darkly comic, albeit at the cost of a lack of focus.

While the end of the first season of MADE FOR LOVE aptly set the stage for a second season — going against the grain of its source material, I’ll add — the second season feels like a wild swing for the fences; it tackles a number of wide-eyed high-concepts in ways that recalls cyberpunk classic MAX HEADROOM while still hewing close to its character study of Hazel’s difficult relationship with her father, how she can course-correct her life, and ultimately find a better version of her self.

There are times when the season feels rushed, however there are also a number of subplots and character arcs that feel tantalizing but sputter out — especially the reintroduction of Zelda, the dolphin that aided Hazel’s escape in season one. However, the highs exceed the lows — this season ventures into batshit-crazy territory and completely exploit the universe. I wish I could say why without spoiling matters.

Season two bites off more than it can chew, certainly, but goddamn it is an aspirational piece of high-concept work that utilizes tech and humanity in ways that feels revitalizing.

NEPTUNE FROST (2022)

(Theaters/VOD soon) In this age of cheap film production values, of 4K cameras in every pocket, toaster box CGI readily-available, it’s odd that truly out-spoken, revolutionary DIY works seem to be less visible now than they were during the 90s, when you only had shitty digital cameras or bought the unused 16mm heads or tails from local TV shoots.

This is only one of a number of reasons why Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman’s NEPTUNE FROST is such a welcome and radical musical, one that embraces a lo-fi, DIY ethic, while still shooting for the stars, for having a globally disruptive message and still being absolutely wildly engaging.

Part-fairy tale, part-post-industrial capitalist nightmare, NEPTUNE FROST sings a number of songs of specially anointed individuals that find each other and then work to upturn the world through their technical abilities. NEPTUNE FROST is one of the most vibrant, most effective posterworks to extoll what can be accomplished by a lo-fi look: the film mostly eschews CGI — apart from some CG-centric motion and interface design late in the film — opting instead for some radical costume design, glowing make-up, black lights, and dumpster diving for CRT monitors, raw electronics, and tactile keyboard pieces.

The physicality of the disparate look of the revolutionaries sets NEPTUNE FROST apart in ways that so many other films would falter. This is a film that should be spoken alongside of REPO MAN, of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, and other lo-fi class-centric punk films. It is an effective call to arms, one that I hope finds its audience.

If you do get a chance to see it in theaters, please do so: the soundtrack is astounding, and you will want to feel it surround you.

THE TINDALOS ASSET (2020)

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s THE TINDALOS ASSET is the third and final novella in the TINFOIL DOSSIER trilogy, a fitting bookend to their confidently wild portrayal of mostly scumbags trying to reign in — or perpetuate — horrors both otherworldly and extra-dimensional. Like the other two novellas, it’s an absolutely wild ride of clipped thoughts, traumatic events both past, present (and some future), all occasionally interrupted by bouts of depravity.

THE TINDALOS ASSET returns to The Signalman, the binding character of the series, while spending much of its time in other Dreamland agents’ heads. In several ways, both in setting and inciting events, TINDALOS feels smaller in scope, far more than the epic, wide-ranging state-of-the-world relayed via the second book in the series, BLACK HELICOPTERS. That feels strange to say, given that TINDALOS is centered around very apocalyptic events, but it primarily takes place in only three locales: a hotel room, and airplane, and by a body of water. Between the limited locations and the amount of exposition and dialogue expelled between the major players, TINDALOS often comes across more like a stage play, as opposed to the unseeable weird fiction it is.

That TINDALOS feels more insular and focused more on the headspace of its characters and their actions and motives, and this approach is to be applauded! Each act in this grand work has its own texture, its own litany of surprises. Don’t enter weird fiction hoping for more-of-the-same with every installment, because if you do? You should find a different genre.

After reading AGENTS OF DREAMLAND I noted: “To riff on the ‘it’s not a season of TV, it’s a 12-hour movie’ sentiment, the TINFOIL DOSSIER series is not so much three novellas, but a three-part novel.” I wish I’d taken my own advice and binged the novellas like a season of TV. Reading the three novellas over the period of a few months under a year proved to be too spread out. To those who read these as they first appeared, especially those who followed it via piecemeal through anthologies and the like, I salute you. I wish I’d read them all in one big gulp, but in time — instead — I’ll simply re-read them, hopefully shortly after being told the release date of a TINFOIL DOSSIER film or TV adaptation.

The complete TINFOIL DOSSIER: https://us.macmillan.com/series/tinfoildossier

MADE FOR LOVE (2017)

I love adaptations. Part of it’s the writer in me, as I love to scrutinize how a work is transformed to fit a different medium. However, truthfully, most of it boils down to the fact that, as a youth, my parents wouldn’t allow me to watch anything racy or violent or swear-laden so instead I simply read the novel adaptation of a PG-13 or R-rated film instead which, as you might suspect, played fast-and-loose and often were far more taboo than the source material.

That said, a lot of modern adaptations disappoint me. (To be clear, we’re mostly talking about comic/novel to film/tv adaptations, because the heyday of film-to-novel adaptations has long passed.) They often hew too closely and lose their luster, or go wildly off-the-rails. Rarely is there an in-between.

I first watched MADE FOR LOVE and loved it and immediately ordered Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel of the same name, curious as to how they’d handle the interiority of runaway wife Hazel Green. However, given how thrilling plotted and substantial the series was I figured they mostly followed the novel’s template and goosed a few scenes to play better visually.

That is not what they did. Instead, showrunner Christina Lee (SEARCH PARTY) enlisted Alissa Nutting (who also wrote the controversial novel TAMPA) to join the writers room and run with the core concept of Nutting’s novel: a desperately unhappy wife Hazel Green decides to leave her brilliant-but-psychopathic billionaire tech mogul Byron Gogol upon being told of his plan to ‘merge their minds together’ via a chip implant in her head. Hazel breaks free of his isolated work compound, leaving all of her belonging and any money behind, so she has no option but to crash at her widower father’s trailer home. Shortly after being introduced to her father’s partner — a sex doll named Diane — she realizes that Byron had already implanted the chip in her head.

So far, the source material mostly mirrors the adaptation, however, this is where it slowly starts diverging. Since I’m comparing and contrasting the two — I have yet to watch MADE FOR LOVE season two, so this will only refer to the first season — I’ll be noting specific plot points and character traits for both the series and novel, so if you want to go in blind, best circle back to this later. If you just want to know if it’s worth reading the book, regardless of whether you did or did not watch the show, I implore you to do so.

The first sign that the show is its own creature is that: in the novel, her father has to use a Rascal mobility device to get around, whereas in the show he’s very mobile.

The second sign is how the book handles Liver, who on the show is a handsome twenty-something working at a local bar, brewing beer at night, outside, shirtless, arms covered in foam up to his elbows. In the novel, he’s has forty years on Hazel, and they quickly fall into a very friendly, physical relationship, partially due to the fact that they’re cranks.

The third sign was that I kept waiting for Alissa to add a possibly more sympathetic side to Byron, even if it feels like he was pretending to do so — akin to the show. However, he remains a monster all the way through.

Similarly, Hazel is fleshed out a bit more and comes across as smarter and more aware than she is on the show, but also has an array additional issues that lead to her living life as a fuck-up.

There are also some minor changes with how Byron can access Hazel’s experiences. Unlike the show, where he has a direct live feed 24/7, in the novel he downloads them once every 24 hours, which significantly alters the tension dynamic.

Most importantly, while dolphins factor into the novel, they do so in a wildly different manner, and feature a con-man Jasper who hooks women into his orbit, bleeds them dry and moves to another town. At first it feels completely unnecessary, but Alissa manages to weave it all together in a smart manner. I do wonder if they may touch upon that in the second season (which I have yet to watch).

Lastly, the endings of each could not differ any more, but both are quite satisfying within the context of each work. (I’d argue the end of the novel would work as the end of the first season, but not vice versa.)

While the show is an amusing thrill ride that happens to examine human desire, tech and surveillance culture, and more, the novel touches on all of that but is mostly concerned with Hazel and Jasper’s personal journeys and growth, of reckoning with guilt and poor decisions, all while trying to figure out what they want their lives to look like. Both are vastly different and both have a lot that they want to say, and both are worth your time.

MADE FOR LOVE (2021-)

(HBOMAX) MADE FOR LOVE is not exactly the most enticing premise for a television series, despite the fact that Alissa Nutting’s novel that the show is based on was very well-received. (It is worth noting that Alissa Nutting is credited with writing on the show as well.)

The show is about a smart-ass firecracker, Hazel Green (an amazing fictional name, played by the astoundingly elastic Cristin Milioti) who, while down on her luck, selling false raffle tickets for free smartphones to make ends meet, ends up marrying tech capitalist Byron Gogol* (played by the delightfully creepy Billy Magnussen, who was Marcus in one of my favorite episodes of TV ever: THE LEFTOVER’s ‘Guest’). Byron then moves Hazel into his home: the Hub, a hyper virtual reality workplace campus, a place where she has no agency, where she has to periodically log orgasm ratings in order to play the flight simulator video game she uses to numb herself to her situation.

Hazel finds herself loathing Byron and this technological purgatory, and she finally snaps when she discovers that Byron has been using her — without her consent — to develop ‘Made for Love’: implants that ‘co-mingle’ two beings, tethering two together so one can see and feel and experience what the other is feeling.

Hazel then runs, falling backwards to home, to her sadsack father (a delightful Ray Romano, whose dramatic skills have been vastly underrated) who — after the death of his wife/Hazel’s mom — has adopted a realdoll to replace his romantic and physical urges. Byron, being the controlling megalomaniac that he is, is completely unwilling to let her go, for both personal and capitalist reasons.

What follows is a thrilling and heartfelt and intelligent exploration of human desire, tech and surveillance culture, infatuation & the kept woman, and the masculine, blinkered approach to problem-solving emotional relationships. All of this is bolstered by pitch-perfect sound design, music supervision, cinematography, and production design; the Hub is so expertly handled — a modernist dystopia of tech and interior design; watch for how the show constantly throws visual barriers between Hazel and Byron, and how Byron’s often lathered in an icy blue; there’s one moment in the third episode where Hazel literally smells agency, then acts upon it; and the integration of the Gogol logo to also reflect handcuffs is a stroke of brilliance.

MADE FOR LOVE is a show flexing all of its muscles. It is in complete command of what it wants to convey and how it wants to convey it. I initially thought it was a limited series, but no, it ends on an open note, and the second season airs April 28th.

  • I know a number of folks label him as an Elon Musk techbro, and yes, I think there’s some of that there, but personally I think his DNA is more Howard Hughes than Musk.

BLACK HELICOPTERS (2018)

BLACK HELICOPTERS is the second in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s TINFOIL DOSSIER trilogy. I wrote about the first part, AGENTS OF DREAMLAND, in September 2021 and, upon starting BLACK HELICOPTERS, imagined it’d be narratively and stylistically in the same vein.

That was a poor assumption to make.

AGENTS OF DREAMLAND is very weird, but its high-concept, futurist Lovecraftian ideas are told in — relatively speaking — more conventional storytelling terms. I’ll briefly say that both books deal with scientific hubris, parapsychic humans, outer world threats, and the fear of the unknown.

BLACK HELICOPTERS sees matters escalate wildly, both concerning in-world events, how humanity reacts to it, as well as Kiernan’s approach to the material. It’s wildly fragmented and opaque, racing through dialogue and internal monologues and depictions of the unearthly, never stopping to explain itself. There are numerous exchanges in French that are never translated to the reader when reading it, and the reader is not given enough context to quite make sense of it. (That said, translations are available at the end of the book, but in a way that matches the tone and experimental style of the rest of the novella.)

BLACK HELICOPTERS reads like a fresh, modern, queer fusion of weird fiction filtered through a MONDO 2000 mindset. It expects a lot from the reader and, given how brilliant and multifaceted Kiernan is, you’ll almost always be falling below the author’s expectations, but that’s okay! It’s so smart, so vibrant, so unique both in voice and setting and exploration that you will feel compelled to continue reading, even if you’re completely and utterly bewildered.

https://publishing.tor.com/blackhelicopters-caitlinrkiernan/9781250191137/

PROJECT A-KO (1986)

(Blu-Ray/Roku/tubi) As one might suspect, I was a gigantic nerd in my youth, enough of one that I was part of a group in high-school that would pool our lunch money to order LaserDiscs of late 80s anime and we’d then, err, find ways to ‘happen upon’ ways to duplicate copies for all involved. Let me tell you: bootlegging works were far more difficult, but far more enthralling, back then.

Apart from the soundtrack occasionally popping up in my playlists over the years, I’d mostly forgotten about PROJECT A-KO (despite still having a proper VHS copy of it)! At least, until this post popped up in my feeds.

The immediate flashback this post induced was: “oh, now that I think about it, this anime wasn’t just fan-service, it was super gay.” And, yup:

“The basic plot of PROJECT A-KO is: one dumbass lesbian fighting another dumbass lesbian to win the heart of the dumbest lesbian in the lands.”

I forgot how funny, how comic, PROJECT A-KO was, even though I know I didn’t get the bulk of the in-jokes and parodies and references back-in-the-day, and probably still don’t. However, it features a ton of hilariously universal kinetic physical comedic moments, while still often feeling grounded despite, you know, someone using numerous missiles as stepping stones during combat. Additionally, while the characters do a lot of punching, there’s not much in the way of punching down. Everyone here is flawed and messy and definitely either queer or over-protective found family, and you’re meant to identify with their flaws, rather than scorn them.

I rarely recommend any YouTube film-centric commentary video that runs for over an hour because I often don’t have the patience for watching them, but I highly recommend the one linked in the MeFi post above. I learned a lot, and it brought back a lot of memories.

Lastly, the OST is well-worth your time. Spaceship in the Dark is still a banger with all of its orchestral hits.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

(Cinemas) I’ve gone on record as being both an easy laugher and an easy crier when it comes to film viewing, but it’s very rare that I do both at the same time. The Daniels’ (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheiner, who previously helmed the surprisingly affecting dick joke of a film SWISS ARMY MAN) EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE had my face wet and aglow more than a few times.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (henceforth referred to as EVERYTHING) is an absolutely outrageous film; it’s mind-bogglingly high-concept, often amusingly puerile, always inventive, but also remarkably emotionally grounded. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, read no further and just go see it, preferably on the largest screen possible. (Although, if you do read further, I promise no major spoilers.)

EVERYTHING is all about Evelyn (see what they did there?) played by a never-better Michelle Yeoh — and that’s saying something, as her career is vast and multi-faceted and brilliant — who helms a laundromat with her overly joyful husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, who you may remember as INDIANA JONES’ Short Round) that is currently being audited by the IRS, specifically by Deirdre (Jaime Lee Curtis, clearly having the time of her life). Meanwhile, Evelyn is trying to mediate matters between taking care of her addled, elderly father (the illustrious James Hong), and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her daughter’s girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), all while personally bemoaning all of the options she could have pursued over her life, including singing and acting, instead of tending to a struggling laundromat where her husband keeps slapping googly eyes on everything.

When heading up in an elevator in a non-descript IRS building to meet Deidre and iron their financial matters out, Waymond’s disposition completely shifts; he pops an umbrella to obscure a security camera, and then gives her the barest of instructions and information, which ultimately results in: right now, I’m not your husband; I’m the same person, but from a different, splintered universe, and I need your help. Evelyn’s then walked through the process of accessing her multiverse personas, explicitly through silly, surreal actions.

Matters escalate and what ultimately follows is a very heady trip through not only a mid-life crisis, but a personal reckoning with family. And hot dog hands, which happen to exist in a universe in which people play pianos with their toes. (I can’t help but think that’s a bit of a Tarantino riff. Notably, Uma Thurman is thanked in the credits.)

While EVERYTHING feels a tad too long at almost two-and-a-half-hours, none of that running time is wasted. It is jam-packed, almost overstuffed, with so many ideas, so many effusive, brilliant visual gags, so much hurt between Evelyn and Joy, so much enthusiasm from Way, so many brilliantly choreographed and executed fight sequences, it’s hard to say what they could have cut. The film is an embarrassment of riches, a treasure-trove of cinematic appreciation, but also a surprisingly thoughtful take on hope and love and humanity and of aging and of missed opportunities. While I’m prone to crying and laughing too much at a film, it is an astonishing achievement, and one worth being exuberant about.

Lastly, buy an everything bagel before diving in, and save it for after. You’ll thank me later.

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST (2021)

My gaming comfort food during the pandemic — stupidly, I’m literally someone known for writing about comfort food games — have been open-world games; almost exclusively ASSASSIN’S CREED games. Their doling of bite-sized, mostly frictionless, quests have been a balm while trapped inside.

It’s been a while since I’ve played HORIZON: ZERO DAWN, but I recall it as being a rather concise, smaller open-world game, one that doubled-down on plot and character rather than scenery and scale, and I greatly appreciated it for that.

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN DAWN is the polar opposite: it’s absolutely overwhelming and mind-bogglingly grandiose. When I think of the hours spent to make this, I feel a bit sick. While I think it could have reeled in its scope, I did find it notable in a number of other ways.

UNRULY HAIR

Aloy is one of the most fascinating triple-A leading videogame characters of recent times. A clone of one of the most influential scientific women of the game’s fictional history, she steps up and fills her shoes, although she does so while also being petulant and impulsive, all while still missing her ‘mother’ (her search for her was arguably the focal point of her introductory game, HORIZON: ZERO DAWN).

She also has some of the most dynamic, radiant red hair in videogames. Hair is a touchy subject when it comes to tech, as it’s often a point of programmatic pride, rarely born of character motivation. While it’s a film and not a videogame, look no further than Pixar’s BRAVE for a quintessential example, which was explicitly created as a way for them to show off their hair rendering tech (and similarly features a vibrant redhead).

As someone who has had long, wavy hair for far longer than I have not, and as someone who often thinks about hair and identity and representation, seeing anyone with unruly hair (or as Guerrilla Games labels it: tousled hair) in media has become oddly strange to see, as production models for entertainment have skewed closer to generic hairstyles to maintain continuity and production costs. While Aloy’s hair isn’t exactly curly, it is remarkably distinct and, in real life, would require significant management, something most folks don’t often think about. Long hair moves, it gets in the way; it’s something you are always aware of. It’s either in your vision or in your mouth or getting caught on something or in somewhere, and how Aloy’s hair is animated — always in motion, always cascading around her — reflects that same sort of bodily self-awareness. Even if some folks seem to think the hair animation is a bug, I see it as a feature.

It’s also worth noting that, apparently, a number of people don’t realize that women have hair elsewhere.

THE FUTURE IS FEMALE

One of the most amazing things about HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is that it’s all about women repairing the damage that men have wrought. Almost all of the men alive and dead are villains or sidekicks, and the game is more than fine with that, but never explicitly calls attention to it which, for a triple-A videogame meant for worldwide consumption, seems wild, which is a sad remark on the state of blockbuster videogames.

SHAPES AND SIZES

One other brilliant facet of HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST is its variety of character models. The world consists of people of all sorts of shapes, sizes, and hues; it’s not your standard post-apocalypse of wafer-thin white people, and the game doesn’t commit the standard narrative sin of playing someone’s girth for laughs or pratfalls. They’re just people trying to survive in a world that is constantly trying to kill them.

TALKING TO ONE’S SELF DURING THE END OF THE WORLD

HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST features an absolutely astounding and exhausting amount of dialogue. I can’t even begin to fathom the script, but it consists of reams and reams of lore, meant to flesh out the world that was sketched out in the first game. However, a good portion of the game features Aloy simply talking to herself. While most of that dialogue is meant to prod the player towards goals, quite a bit of it is purely observational. Aloy is depicted as a singularly individual person, one used to being alone, one used to supplying her own entertainment, of comforting herself in her own way because who else would? Who could?

A NEW MODERN

All of this culminates into a game that comes across as remarkably fresh, as opposed to the hoary male-led misery porn of most modern big budget games. HORIZON: FORBIDDEN WEST feels like a new frontier for gaming, at least with its command of characters and scenarios, even as it leans on the old model of open-world gaming, of FAR CRY-ish puzzle towers and checking off map-centric quests. It’s a world that one can luxuriate in and explore to your heart’s content, and not hate yourself for doing so.

P.S. One facet of the game that is missing is any semblance of sexuality whatsoever, so I’d like to boost this piece.

P.P.S. Even I as a very white, prior New Englander felt that a number of character designs and attributes were not what they could have been. I’m definitely not qualified to critique this game’s Orientalism, so I’ll leave this here.