Aliens Among Us: Probing Hillbillies and Freaking Shut-ins, How Netflix’s “Encounters” and Hulu’s “No One Will Save You” Prep Us for the Coming Alien Apocalypse, Kind of

So with the Congressional hearings on the little-green-somethings formerly known as UFOs (now called UAPs) and crazyass whatnot we should all be aware the Alien Apocalypse is soon upon us—imagine old geezer croaking “The end is nigh”—and there are two new streaming shows to offer a glimpse of what these intergalactic ne’er-do-wells have up their spacesuit sleeves: Hulu’s fictional No One Will Save You and Netflix’s documentary (semi-fictional?) Encounters.

I watched No One with no expectations and was pleasantly surprised: I’ll rate it a Minor Gem. The gal who plays Brynn (Kaitlyn Dever) is certainly an up-and-coming It-Girl actress and does a terrific job of getting under the skin of this character and convincing you to keep watching. (She’s been in numerous hit films/series, including Dopesick and Unbelievable.) I expected a typically cheesy alien-abduction movie. It’s not that. Kind of Action Adventure/SciFi with a spritz of Psycho Thriller. I’ve seen other pretty-good films (Underwater, The Babysitter, Divergent) by this director (Brian Duffield) and they tend to be Action-Adventure (I guess) flicks, more eye candy than anything else. No Onereaches a higher level, I’d say: It’s good action/drama, while also being cleverly thoughtful. Yes, there are aliens who get considerable screentime. It’s like a cozier Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—and without Tom Cruise shouting “Rachel! Rachel! Rachel!” for two hours plus. Kind of a slow burn to a twisty ending that echoes Don’t Worry Darling, only with aliens engineering human happiness (we wish). A largely positive review in the New York Times can be found here.

And then there’s Netflix’s Encounters. It’s a series and I’ve watched all four eps. I can’t say any of the footage or alien-encountered “survivors” are particularly convincing, but it is good for a few laughs—the Texans are particularly amusing. You gotta love those hillbillies. (Confession: It’s my former home state.) For my money, the production/direction mostly undercuts the believability of the various stories and the people telling them. Too much New Age hooey. While I’m certainly a UFO skeptic I do find the subject fascinating and there are some amazing/bizarre stories out there (don’t know about the truth, though), particularly the infamous Travis Walton abduction tale and the various U.S. military encounters that have been in the news for years now. But too much of Encounters is rather . . . squishy. People see strange lights in the sky, yes. When the people seeing these strange lights get telepathic messages—or feelings, as this show is big on feelings—from unknown/unseen aliens, you lose me. But hey, maybe I’m wrong. I laughed when Encounters played the great Carpenters song from the early 1970s, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” Or when the Texan claimed that aliens always look kind of gray and pasty—and his town (Stephenville, Texas) is known as the Milk Capital of the state—which prompts him to say, “They’re comin’ for our milk.” You gotta love that.

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My Life as a Bob Odenkirk Character: On How Watching Netflix’s Black Mirror episode “Joan Is Awful” Mimicked My Experience of Watching the AMC series Lucky Hank

So after a long hiatus the much-acclaimed Netflix series Black Mirror arrived (Season Six) and I loved the first (terrific) episode, “Joan Is Awful.” It’s a funny twist on media, deep-fake technology, and other wrinkles of our tech-hungry culture, featuring Annie Murphy (of Schitt’s Creek fame) as a woman whose life is being broadcast as a TV show starring Salma Hayek, kind of. I’ll try not to give anything away to spoil it, but there are twists and turns and I laughed a lot. Admittedly I’m a Black Mirror fan, though I’d say about half are knockouts and the other half not-so-good. Season Six is a mixed bag, as usual. But when it hits, it really hits, as in episodes like “Fifteen Million Merits,” “Nosedive,” “U.S.S. Callister,” “Crocodile,” and many others. 

But what made “Joan Is Awful” particularly unsettling: A similar thing actually happened to me when viewing the AMC series Lucky Hank, which stars Bob Odenkirk, who created (inhabited?) one of the greatest TV characters of all time—Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. I’ve been an Odenkirk fan for years, from his days as the ruthless agent Stevie on The Larry Sanders Show and as one of the creative masterminds of The Mr. Show. But all of it pales in comparison to the magnum opus of Better Call Saul. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and Saul season finale aired last Fall—in one of the best TV-series finales ever. (The going-back-in-time riff is genius.)

So following Saul Odenkirk stars in the AMC series Lucky Hank, which aired Season One this Spring—to mixed reviews, as far as I can tell. 

The man

But watching the first episode of Lucky Hank, was a surprise: It’s about a fiction writer (as I am) working as an administrator in an English department (which I was until January) at a college in Pennsylvania (in the series it’s the fictional Railton University, while in my life it was Penn State University—Go Nittany Lions!), who has irritating students (uh huh) and can’t stand his colleagues (don’t get me started). He has a sweet, lovely wife (ditto) and daughter (ditto), and doesn’t like his job anymore (he’s the Head of his department, I was the Director of Creative Writing). At season’s end he quits his job and leaves Pennsylvania, just as I did (last December). 

The second episode features something truly weird: Odenkirk-as-Hank brings the writer George Saunders for a reading gig, just as I did—twice, actually. Now I realize this isn’t special to me, as George is a fabulous (and funny) fiction writer who has won all the awards. I’m sure he’s visited many college campuses for reading gigs. But here’s where it gets really meta: Although George is very much alive and kicking, it’s not him in the episode, but an actor playing George Saunders. And the fictional fiction-writer George comes across as something of a smug jerk, and rival-of-sorts to Hank, who is less successful and who has a prickly history with George. I can attest to my experience as a person who arranged a campus visit at Penn State with the “real” George Saunders, however, that he’s not like that. George was kind to students and faculty, gave a great reading, and stayed up till two a.m. at a party at my house afterward. One of the biggest differences as well: In the Lucky Hank episode the literature faculty fawn over George and jostle for attention with him. At Penn State a few came to the reading, but that was about it. They certainly didn’t fawn (and most, I believe, didn’t really care). It’s an odd case of the idea “art mirrors life”: Superficially it was like my experience, but with much more emotional baggage and bad behavior. I’m not surprised, of course: The show wants drama. And it was a “fictional” George Saunders anyway. 

But here’s where the Black Mirror episode “Joan Is Awful” connects: I was surprised to see this plotline, that seemed lifted (accidentally, albeit) from my own life. Fortunately it didn’t have the downside-of-internet-fame element of “Joan Is Awful.” But still. The experience was like watching TV and seeing Bob Odenkirk playing me! And as I’m a big Odenkirk fan, it was both disconcerting and . . . I kind of liked it. Now Lucky Hank has come and gone (though you can find it streaming) and the whole season had its ups and downs, ending with “Hank” resigning his job at Railton University and moving to New York to be with his wife. My life: ditto. Except I resigned and headed to the mountains of Colorado, where our home is a bit larger than the 520-square-foot apartment his wife, Lily, has rented in Manhattan. And if art does imitate life in some meta-fictional universe, I hope Hank is happy.

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“Bobcats, Bobcats, Bobcats”: Animal Life and a Tribute to “Modern Family”

So it’s the Autumn Equinox, woohoo! I’ve been away—until January 2023, in the Hell otherwise known as Academia (I joke)—and it’s about time I get off my duff and start posting again. Yesterday I woke in my Colorado Springs neighborhood home to find three (or four) bobcats sleeping in a backyard pine tree. At first I crept close with all due stealth but they turned out to be surprisingly mellow. I got some decent photos. My tongue-in-cheek title here is a nod to the genius of ABC’s erstwhile hit series Modern Family (2009-2020), of which I’m a fan, and if you know the show, also a fan of “Pritchett’s Closets” rival competitor “Closets Closets Closets,” which was helmed by the great character actor Jon Polito—who was terrific as the gangster Johnny Caspar in the Coen Brothers film Millers Crossing (1990)—as its gravel-voiced funnyman/boss. This first pic is mother bobcat and Kitten #1, who seemed to be the smallest and kept close to its Mom:

Mother bobcat with big kitten

This second pic is a closer view of the kitten, impressive with its camouflage.

The last kitten to leave the tree, perhaps the smallest

And below is a pic of Mom giving me the stink-eye. We didn’t really bother them, other than taking a few photos, and they hung around the pine tree for quite a while before all wandering off.

Mother bobcat: the paw hanging above right is a sleeping bobcat kitten on a branch above

And lastly here’s the smallest kitten, the last in the tree, saying goodbye before it climbed down and followed the rest of the clan.

This is roughly the Broadmoor neighborhood of Colorado Springs, in the shadow of Cheyenne Mountain—supposedly home to a nuclear-defense bunker a la the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964).

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“The North Water”: This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Moby Dick

So Ian McGuire’s novel of 2015, The North Water, is one of the best of that decade. It’s demented and visual, a twisted contrast to such polar adventure tales such as Shackleton’s Endurance. Now it’s a miniseries of five episodes, and I can report it’s actually Pretty Good. Great acting, terrific visuals. The malevolent star of the film is Colin Farrell’s character Henry Drax. Farrell does a great job pulling off this difficult character. He’s awful, but he’s compelling. He’s real. It’s a great revisionist Moby Dick of sorts, twisted for our times.

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Day 25: On David Quammen's "Spillover": Terrific Book That Foretold Our Pandemic, Kind of

So I’ve seen various books mentioned as predicting pandemics, now that the coronavirus time is nigh, but not much mention of one of the best virus books I’ve read: David Quammen’s nonfiction book about the biology behind zoonotic diseases, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (2012). I read it when it first came out, and am a fan of Quammen’s work, dating back to his days at Outside magazine. It’s a terrific read, both thoughtful and technical. Some of the parts about African viruses are downright scary, including the search for the origins of Ebola and Marburg virus. It’s a good read in these trying times, Day 25 of my virus hunkering.

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Masks for Everybody! Stick 'em Up!

So my wife made me a coronavirus mask. I have the curious itch to rob a bank.

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"The Hunt" Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Bomb

So we all heard the hoopla about the notorious “anti-liberal” film The Hunt back in the Fall, causing its debut to be delayed, but it’s out now and it’s a hoot. First let me admit to being roughly in the category of a progressive or liberal, although that has a much different meaning to me than to most of the right-wing world. So theoretically I’m in the category who would find this flick offensive, but it’s so comical, so slapstick and silly, you’d have to be a dolt to get your dander up. The “elites” who are hunting the “deplorables” in the film are comical caricatures to the extreme, and the dialogue is meant for laughs. At one point an “elite” couple posing as a Mom & Pop owners of a country store slaughter three deplorables, and their store is shown to be a ruse to trick the hicks: the food items on the shelves, including powdered donuts, are poisoned. So when they’re mopping up the blood spilled after their killing spree Mr. Elite grabs a bottle of juice from the cooler and starts to drink. His wife freaks and says, “It’s poison!” He spits it out, and then she adds, “You know how much sugar is in there?” That’s how the humor tends to go. Hillary Swank plays the Queen Elite, and gets into a long catfight with the heroine of the deplorables, and you guess which one comes out on top. (The one who shares her champagne on the flight home with the flight attendant, that’s who.) I laughed out loud several times. It’s gory and campy and in that comic/horror tradition of Scream and many others. I did think the eyeball stuck to the end of a high heel shoe, which had been plunged into a deplorable, was a bit much.

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"Underwater" movie review: You think you got a big monster?

So in this time of virus lockdown and pandemic horror, let’s imagine creatures that don’t exist and have some scary fun! Or that seems to be the thinking of whoever made the new Kristen Stewart film, Underwater. It’s like Alien meets Gravity in The Abyss. There’s an enormous monster who would kick Godzilla’s ass, and Kristen Stewart in spiky blonde hair and a skimpy black swimsuit. What’s not to like? Well, it’s all a bit silly, but at times, does have its exciting moments, in that action/adventure mode. Kristen Stewart plays a character like the heroine Ripley of Alien, though she’s no Sigourney Weaver. Her absurd trek to save herself and her buddies echoes Sandra Bullock’s improbable escape-ride in Gravity, and it’s all in the deepest (but not darkest) depths of the ocean, ala The Abyss. Enjoy.

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The Great Stillness

So I’ve been calling our present stay-at-home reality the Great Hunkering (as in “hunker down”) but now I’m thinking it should be called The Great Stillness, at least in my neck of the woods. Things are quiet. The most people I see are on our Hike & Bike trail, and we keep distance from each other. Most are walking their dogs. In my last novel, The Bird Saviors, there was a virus outbreak based on the bird flu fears, named the Crow Flu (which the main characters resented, essentially because it seemed to blame birds). I didn’t use the term “pandemic” in the novel and didn’t think of it quite that way, and now I know what life in a pandemic is like. In the neighborhoods, it’s quiet. I realize city life would be quite different. The best comparison seems my Colorado home after a heavy snow.

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"Ad Astra" Review: Killer Baboons, Moon Buggy War Zones, and Space Travel as a Walk in the Park

So I caught the new Ad Astra film last night, and in my best snarky Bill-Murray-as-Film-Critic-on-SNL mode I’ll quip: It’s like Apocalypse Now meets 2001: A Space Odyssey with a spritz of Alien. I’ll confess I’ve never been a big Brad Pitt fan (him pretty boy syndrome, me jealous) but I thought he was excellent (though I liked him even better in the climactic scene of Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), stoic and believable as a emotionally damaged astronaut struggling to land a spaceship on the fly, while he hunts his Dad to save humankind, among other things.
The setup: sometime in the near future, the planet is in great peril. (Isn’t it always?) War is ongoing and pervasive—in the Arctic, among other places, as well as on the moon (Thanks, Trump!). An antimatter thingamajig/glitch is threatening to destroy our solar system, and NASA or its ilk blames Brad Pitt’s father, Tommy Lee Jones, who is far, far away, trying to contact other intelligent life forms. (To see if they support impeachment, perchance? Glad it’s not Clint Eastwood in that spaceship.)
It would be a crime to give away all the secrets of this film, but I’ll offer this praise: It’s full of surprises, most of them good. You don’t really know what’s going to happen from one scene/event to the next. It does a great job of withholding explanations, but giving the audience just enough info to ground us, while filling the story full of mystery. At times I laughed when you weren’t supposed to, but perhaps that’s me. (For instance, when Pitt says, “Hi, Dad,” to Tommy Lee Jones, gritty and full of astronauty gravitas.) The ending was a little gooey for my tastes, true. And it makes a trip from here to Neptune and back seem slightly longer and more difficult than one to Disneyworld from Chicago, but so it goes. If you like space movies of a thoughtful nature, such as Interstellar (2014) or Arrival (2016), you’ll dig it.

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