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TIME PILOTS – commentary on Ernest Cline’s novel “Ready Player One”

readyoneReady Player One author Ernest Cline probably did not select the 1980s as the nostalgia motif of his novel simply because it happened to be the era of his youth. In current pop culture, Stranger Things, IT, 24K Magic, and plenty of other manifestations keep making the ‘80s the decade that cannot be terminated. Decades foregone, do today’s Gen-Zers ever feel false-nostalgia for Marcus Welby or The Macarena? There is something specifically poignant about the ‘80s that Cline thought would resonate with multi-generational readers.

Teenage Wade spends his days and nights memorizing the dialogue of John Hughes movies, listening to New Wave song files, and, most importantly, mastering classic arcade video games like Pac Man and Tempest. The year is 2044. Teen character obsessions with ’80s pop culture in Ready Player One is more than pacifying entertainment in the age of a catastrophic global energy crisis. Their avatar identities connect to virtual reality through a visor and motion-controlling gloves and hunt for treasure in the vast network called the OASIS, where people can become anybody they want or visit any place in the imaginable universe. Hunters occupationally plunder VR worlds for currency credits, fighting skill points, magic weapons and clues to the location of a trillion dollar prize. Halliday, a genius and recluse who designed the OASIS, has died and willed its ownership to the hunter who first solves a series of puzzles leading to a final figurative Easter Egg hidden in the lore of Halliday’s own ‘80s pop culture obsessions. The contest requires intense familiarity with Halliday’s favorite books, cartoons, and videogames from own teenage years, and has led to a global ‘80s craze fifty years beyond. As Wade, isolated in his personal hideout, describes, “Spiked hair and acid washed jeans are back in style.” He means what is in style amongst his peers inside the idealized and abstract universe of the Oasis.

In the America of 2044, climate change, wars and corporatism have reduced most of the population to depressed scavengers. Teenagers like Wade have been forced to abandon most of what we might consider a normal life of school, friendships, sex, and stepping outside. He lives a lonely existence in a vertical trailer park ghetto. But in the Oasis, Wade’s anonymous avatar, Parzival, is becoming the most famous Gunter [Egg + Hunter] in the world, relying on his mastery of ’80 pop culture to pursue the trail of Halliday’s arcane clues. The bulk of the novel follows Parzival, along with his team of Gunter comrades known popularly as the High Five, solving Halliday’s posthumous challenges left inside elaborate movie and videogame recreations. Their nemesis is IOI, a greedy corporation plotting to control the Oasis with a force of avatar clone armies trained to win the contests through cheating, extortion, and real world murder.

If this plot structure – a gang of troubled but precocious young people combine their expertises to defeat the schemes of an unscrupulous adult enterprise – sounds to you like Goonies, or Whiz Kids or other ‘80s era media artifacts, say Uno!

A recent article in the blog Vulture asked in its title Why Are We Still Obsessed With The ‘80s? Some of their answers were practical, such as what we see on our screens and hear through our earbuds is coming from media creatives in their 40s and 50s who have an affinity for the pop culture of their youth. Also the time traveling powers of YouTube and Facebook have mid-lifers introducing children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews to the pop culture that populated their childhoods. So maybe the resiliency of the ‘80s is a phenomenon of shared multi-generational touchstones more available through current technology. As Vulture commented, “When one generation influences a second (and a third) generation in this way, there’s a pop cultural ripple effect that keeps on rippling… The pop culture we grew up on? You couldn’t ignore it if you tried.”

On a more theoretical level, Vulture suggested the tendency of media creatives to delve into the ‘80s as a means to connect the “now” to an era taking first steps into a transformative technological age. Nostalgia mining always offers an escape to idealized memories of youth, but the 1980s is the last full decade before the internet became an avatar for human interaction. In other words, maybe the reason why we keep trying to relive the ‘80s is because our computers have disconnected us from an authentic shared culture.

Ab ovo, Halliday’s Easter egg hunt. The futuristic odyssey specifically revisits a past in which technology was capturing young people’s desire for adventure before the internet supplanted real human interaction. We have to remind ourselves in the midst of Cline’s story that the High Five’s swashbuckling teen teamwork is all an illusion. In real life, the High Five buddies reside in remote parts of the world and do not even know what their comrades or competitors look like. Winning inside the Oasis – just as all commerce, politics, and notoriety of the day – is just a fantasy. There are not really trillions of dollars at stake in finding Halliday’s egg, just trillions of zeros and ones. The youths of ’44 have no actual participative culture of their own. It was Halliday’s dying desire to bequeath them his antique pop culture passions in a way that would stimulate actual interaction, something the inventor of the Oasis felt personally responsibility for ruining. Halliday’s contest is his last chance at real human connection, ironically after his death.

We might also say that Halliday is Ernest Cline’s avatar. Both the Easter Egg Hunt and Cline’s dystopian aesthetic are respective expressions of loss over something the ‘80s represented, a lost era of social engagement. Halliday filled his OASIS with references and facsimiles of the ‘80s culture he loved, then willed a contest which could only be won by someone who cared enough to love his same interests. Likewise, Cline, in writing Ready Player One offers readers a chance to connect or reconnect with his ’80s fondnesses. Of science fiction, another author, William Gibson (credited with reviving the SF genre in 1980s), once said, “It doesn’t resonate back from the future, it resonates out of modern history.” Cline’s sci-fi depicts a future that still searches for something we are missing out of our modern history. Both Cline, the creator, and his creator avatar, Halliday, seek to reboot real human-to-human communication.

rp13As for the Ready Player One motion picture adaptation, despite excellent special effects, it misses the chance to visualize the vast possibilities of the Oasis so inventively depicted by Cline. Also, the game of our hero Gunters using their intellectual powers to solve Halliday’s cryptic puzzles is given secondary treatment to fighting and action sequences. Not to say the action sequences are not well executed. In particular, a recreation of the movie The Shining as the setting for one of Halliday’s challenges provides something amazing on film that a novel could never do. Still, a disappointing shortcoming is the movie’s inability to capture the literal aspects of the Oasis as simulacrum, to understand the world’s fixation with videogames in this future as a product of desolation. Overtrying to be hopeful, the movie steps around an important theme in the novel, which explores something dark about our modern society and the mass-loneliness advance technology is creating.

Social commentary in the novel is deftly weaved through exciting action challenges. The book also succeeds in making our protagonist (avatar) Wade/Parzival both socially awkward and cool. The last third of the novel avails too much deus ex machina, and an anticipated final encounter feels rushed and superficial after the novel’s earlier insightfulness (Spoiler Alert: Only reality is real). Overall, Ready Player One is an electric read, the experience of a complete future universe both exciting and tragic.

FAR OUT! – commentary on Michael Sussman’s novel “Crashing Eden”

edenDo you believe everything you hear? Joss was a troubled teenager before ever telling his psychiatrist that his bicycle collision with a random car door was “meant to be.” He is the child of upper-middle class professionals who attends a private high school in multidimensional Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he also grew up angry and defiant, and he just got out of two years lock-up in juvie for setting the neighbor’s house on fire. His meeker younger brother killed himself; a tragedy over which the father has fallen into dissociation and the mother has become an irreconcilable bitch who holds Joss responsible. Yet, in the hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered, Joss feels euphoric, spiritually renewed and he has begun to hear the OM.

The OM is the primordial vibration of the universe. It sounds like a cosmic choir chanting and could anciently be heard by all humans, before the mythical fall of creation. To this point Michael Sussman’s novel Crashing Eden is still a fairly phenomenological YA drama. We are not sure yet if this is a journey into myth and the supernatural, or the story of a depressed kid having a psychotic break.

The psychiatrists seem to have a clinical grasp of what’s wrong (or too right) with Joss. They explain that the OM is an auditory hallucination brought on by Joss’s state of manic bliss. Euphoria and delusions of grandiosity are common to mental patients Joss’s age. Joss’s belief that he has developed special powers, coinciding with the anniversary of his brother’s suicide, is likely a function of Joss’s mind protecting itself from sadness and guilt. Is Joss’s life changing experience of the OM going to be real within the context of the novel, or a maddness through which Joss will exercise his grief? The author will make a choice for the reader about what kind of novel this is going to be – a story about mental illness and family discord, or a sci-fi, superpowers fantasy that will suspend all physical rules to deliver readers beyond the universe to the feet of God. Because Joss believes that something universally significant is happening, and his conviction is about to be substantiated by a series of stupefying narrative events:

Event: Earth is hurtling toward intersection with a vast black hole in outer space, portending the end of the world.

Event: Joss encounters a pair of grad school scientists who have built a wearable device that amplifies the OM. They also enlist Joss in distributing the devices to young people everywhere, in the hope of saving the world by re-syncing it with the primordial vibration of the universe.

Event: the human mission to restore honestly and goodness to the world angers God Himself, who irrationally rains down catastrophic blizzards, earthquakes, and plagues.

Final Event: Joss teams up with the grad students, the ghost of his dead brother, and other friends who have developed supernatural abilities. Joss and company fly as spirit bodies through the black hole to confront God and talk-therapy Him through his attachment disorder related to his own mother abandoning him thirteen billion years before.

Anyone who took a high school English class is probably familiar with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of poetic faith, described as the willing suspension of disbelief. This refers to a reader’s willingness to accept a fictional imagining of the world (or world’s) on the author’s terms. Crashing Eden raises a question about the point at which fantasticism in speculative fiction breaks the readers willing suspension of disbelief. Sci-fi and fantasy stories freight a lot willingness before the cover page is ever turned, and, of course, suspension depends entirely on the individual reader’s cooperation.

There are a couple common ways the fantasy in a genre story gets broken. 1.) The RULES of the Impossible World are implausible in the real world, e.g. the wizard about to cast his death curse conveniently has a heart attack and dies. 2.) The RULES of the Impossible World are inconsistent, e.g. only a wizard can do magic until a non-wizard steals the magic wand. Despite other weaknesses, Crashing Eden actually passes both of these tests. After the on the level looking early chapters, Sussman wends a fairytale path, but there are no early conceits, no limits on the contrived reality that prevent the story from traveling beyond the beyond. So why does Cashing Eden not entirely work? In the druthers of your humble reviewer, its gradually elaborate fantasy simply gets too far out.

If the issue is not broken disbelief, perhaps we could call it cognitive estrangement from the breadth of Sussman’s fantasy world. We can still give up on a story if at some intangible juncture its fantasy proposal feels pointless. Too fantastic. Too weird. There are no doubt other readers for whom legends given authenticity, superpowers employed to punch-out God, and the undisputed existence of God at all, is an exhilarating reading experience. And Sussman deserves credit for giving young readers a positive parable about redemption, healthy self-forgiveness, and celebrating ethics of peace while never ennobling a particular religion. The book is also slyly funny and the teen hero is complex. To my taste, I would have liked the novel to continue in the direction of teen-with-a-mental-problem, and the fantastic parts to be something Joss subconsciously invented as a recovery tool. A little more science and not so much fiction, please. In words attributed to sci-fi author Damon Knight: “Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Wonderland, good. Weird Alice In Weird Wonderland, not good.”

 

SIMON 2.GAY – commentary on Becky Albertalli’s novel “Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda”

simonSimon has a millennial age secret. He is gay and he is not ashamed of it. A 17-year-old suburban white kid with close friends and a chummy, functional family, Simon is not so fearful about being socially ostracized. His Gen Z size worry seems to be that people he already trusts to accept homosexuality will make his coming out a “big deal.” What is at stake for gay Simon in a post-acceptance era is that his differentness from the hetero default will eclipse the adult identity he is still in the process of constructing, and that people who would otherwise completely approve of his sexual preference, will appropriate their associations with him for their personal agendas.

As a coming-out novel, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, written with soaring emotional intelligence by Becky Albertalli, approaches the subject rather different than the kind of young adult material of my 1980’s teen years. If there were coming-out stories, I did not read them. What I remember is clunky afterschool TV specials like What If I’m Gay? and The Truth About Alex. In both of those stories, which intended to present an affirming message about homosexuality, a high school jock’s closetedness is exposed through accidental circumstances, unleashing havoc on girlfriends, families, and sympathetic friends. In subtext, coming-out was audacious and reckless. Were teenagers of the era ready for The Truth? Where I grew up the only thing these specials produced were homophobic punchlines in the locker room.

Closeted Simon, growing up in present-day suburban Atlanta, has been engaging in an anonymous online romance with a mysterious boy from the same high school, going by the faceless moniker Blue. Simon is not a jock but a theater kid with a popular personality. A less popular and more awkward classmate, Martin, happens upon a school library computer display of Simon and Blue’s private homosexually revealing emails, which Simon accidentally forgot to close. Martin is not even homophobic, but he is a conniver and he threatens to abuse the secret unless Simon helps Martin get the attention of a female friend who is way out of Martin’s league. When the girlfriend does not show romantic interest, Martin posts a vulgar, fake coming-out confession on behalf of Simon to the high school’s gossip blog, and also hints at outing Blue. Simon might try to deny the gay truth, but instead our Twenty-first Century hero reluctantly accepts it an opportunity to start coming-out publicly. Some taunting and humiliation comes down from the jock clan at school, but mostly what is unleashed on Simon is a series of embarrassing endorsements. A dozen straight kids make a point of saying they support him. His BFF’s pick out guys they think are boyfriend prospects and squabble over who got to be first told. Teachers stand on guard for bullies. A lesbian couple hugs Simon and hands him their phone numbers. One girl reassures him that Jesus still loves him. Simon tolerates the undue attention, but he worries that the hullaballoo will somehow collaterally uncloset Blue. Will he lose Blue after his own carelessness with the library computer has set off a chain of events that might include schoolmate’s being so determined to embrace gay people, they will shortcut Blue coming-out on his own terms?

In Simon’s generally enlightened middle-class suburbs, one coming to terms with one’s identity can be just as scary, or risky, or embarrassing as it ever was. Albertalli has released a version of the coming-out story that updates the order of consequences. Simon is not ashamed of being gay, but he anticipates the unfairness of people coming to know him as that one thing. Before he has even had any real sexual experience, he will be redefined as his sexual preference. As Simon writes to Blue, “Do you ever feel locked into yourself? …Sometimes it feels like everyone knows who I am except me.” If Simon comes out, will his would-be allies receive him as he truly is, or will they impose some new version of himself he does not even know yet? Simon, version 2.gay ?

What is so fresh about the Simon character is that as he experiences typical teen rites of passage, he is also emotionally mature enough to recognize sexual preference as one part of himself. “I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.” Albertalli is suggesting that all teenagers reach a stage at which the adult they are struggling to find within feels like a secret identity. That every teen feels like the person they are perceived to be is a disguise over the person they actually are. That it is a universal experience to come-out as someone other than who family and peers recognize. “I don’t know how to tell them something like this and still come out feeling like Simon. Because if they don’t recognize me, I don’t recognize myself anymore.” Albertalli’s suburbs are progressive, but imperfect.

Progress has another modern consequence, as demonstrated by people in Simon’s orbit who use his sexual identity like an invisible token that can be invested into some other enterprise. As when Simon describes his coming-out to his family on Christmas morning:  “I guess it’s about what I expected. My mom’s asking about my feelings and my dad’s trying to turn it into a joke. Alice is getting political…” What Simon intuitively fears is that his differentness is something other people will treat as an object that may be taken from his hands. And it is. Martin, a kid who cares about his own gay brother and marches in a Pride parade, selfishly outs Simon on the gossip blog thinking that while it might be embarrassing it would be relatively inconsequential. Simon has to chew out Martin: “You don’t get to say it’s not a big thing. This was supposed to be mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it… You took that from me.”

Recalling the good old 80’s again, I am reminded of a friend who was forced out of the closet at age fourteen when his father caught him messing around with another boy in a tent. Not only did the father make the remainder of his teen years a torment, he became a pariah among his classmates and community. No doubt ostracization still happens to gay and genderqueer kids, but the queer stigma in most American places is fortunately becoming relic. Simon is less concerned with people disliking him or being violent towards him, than he is in being defined by his society in a way that is both narrow and manipulable.

My initial reaction to the Simon novel and its adjacent movie adaptation was: Hasn’t the teen coming-out thing been done enough? But, in fact, I am hardpressed to find a story about a teenage protagonist coming-out actually made into a major studio film. Even if the accomplishment is tardy, teenagers will love Love Simon’s thoughtful humor. The screenplay is a loose adaptation of the book, and cleverly executed given that the source material is about 1/3 epistolary (those email exchanges). It successfully regenerates most of the same dramatic beats with excellent young actors. It does not quite arrive at the post-acceptance angle portrayed in the novel. Instead of peers looking out for Simon, the movie’s drama leans on alienation, misconception, and, like the old days, making the gay teen seem responsible for his own victimization. Although, at the end Simon’s classmates rally around him. And Simon’s relationships with his parents are more fully realized. The movie was emotionally touching and I recommend it.

Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a radical coming out novel. Because what is more salient now in our culture is not gay-or-straight, but the lingering requirement of a person to have a static sexual identity at all, or the requirement that one should have to articulate one’s sex life to the whole homo sapien demos. These issues are still confusing at a time when people are, for the most part, accepting of homosexuality, and people who are publicly unaccepting often become social pariahs themselves. Tolerance, fortunately came to sound too patronizing, and today in America acceptance might be said to imply cis-chauvinism, even when the accepting party’s intentions are good. Because knowing what sort of sex partner another person prefers, or knowing whether the person considers them self only male or female, is no longer an acceptable method of knowing the person. As it reads in one of Blue’s emails to Simon, “You can memorize someone’s gestures but you can never know their thoughts… people are like houses with vast rooms and tiny windows.”

 

 

 

 

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TIMES THEY ARE A WRINKLING – commentary on Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Winkle In Time”

7567On the occasion of a major motion picture adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time 56 years after its publication, I decided to tesser through the fifth dimension back to 1962 to learn about the novel’s apparent durability among middle-grade literati. What I discovered is a mid-generational artifact wedged right between the 60’s feminist movement and McCarthy era preoccupations.

Meg is a twelve-year-old science nerd and bullied weirdo at school. However, at home she is the fulcrum of her weirdo science nerd family, including her unusual five-year-old brother, Charles Wallace, who hides his amazing intellectual gifts from other children. After Meg’s father, a physicist, mysteriously vanishes during a top secret experiment, a trio of intergalactic ferry-like women – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit – arrive offering to help find him. They lead Meg, Charles Wallace, and a teenage friend, Calvin, on a dangerous mission to rescue the father, and introduce the children to the Tesseract, a method of space travel that involves folding (or wrinkling) time. From a luminous spot in the cosmos, the children are shown Camazotz, a dark planet shrouded by a malevolent cloud called The Black Thing and inhabited by people whose minds are controlled by IT. The authoritarian IT, is a disfleshed, mechanical brain, imposing total social conformity among Camazotz population. IT also holds Meg’s father prisoner. Meg and the other children are the only beings capable of traveling through The Black Thing to Camazotz, and risk being indoctrinated into ITs ethos of homogeneity. Through Meg’s journey two major themes emerge, the indicated one, appointing a young girl as progressive protagonist and hero of individualism, the other a subtextual bulwark of anti-communist zealotry and prevailing conservative values.

Meg begins the story as a hesitater and social outcast among her peers. Because she does not fit it, she is considered stupid, (a missummation also applied to Charles Wallace). Although, the three missuses celebrate Meg’s differentness and individual gifts, ultimately saving her family and the world from galactic evil is something she accomplishes alone. They provide the vehicle of the Tesseract, the mission, and the encouragement, but Meg’s strongest tool is her inner ability to overcome self-doubt. That is the novel’s timely, broad-minded wrinkle.

Within the same pages a second, less forward-looking theme lurks. The nebulous Black Thing is slowly encompassing planet Earth, as it has to completion the less resistant planet Camazotz, a name which happens to rhyme obliquely with communist. Citizens of Camazotz live in identical suburban houses, where all children play games in unison and parents fearfully obey an average routine. The Black Thing suppresses individuality itself, replacing its importance with the false bliss of social equality. Camazotzians are not starved, or deprived of civil rights. Sameness, civic efficiency and the provision of equal economic resources are depicted as worse deprivations. “[Meg] held on to her moment of revelation. Like and equal are two entirely different things.” Children of Camazotz are bereft because they have been absorbed philosophically by IT. The literal brain IT takes over independent thought making a person not just part of IT but turning them into an IT, and IT takes over Charles Wallace’s mind. Depriving Charles Wallace of self-determination is described as an act hate, so Meg resolves to give Charles Wallace what ITs vacuous equality cannot – love. That is, nonsectarian Christian love, which is moderately referenced throughout novel.

Besides Economic Liberalism and Christianity, there are other quaint ideological convictions touted. Intellectualism is a bogeyman as demonstrated when Charles Wallace, the most erudite of the children, falls into ITs mind control most easily because he has the arrogance to think he can defeat IT with logic alone. Meg’s father admits to irresponsible scientific exploration of the Tesseract – “we’re children playing with dynamite” – a reference to nuclear weapons. Also, L’Engle’s composition has a formal, fairy tale cadence that was perhaps the culture of children’s books in 1962 – a lot of dears and darlings and Faaathers.

This brings me, in brief, to the 2018 movie version. The adaptation is successful in imagining a fantastic special effects vision of the novel, distinguishing the characters, and abandoning some of L’Engle’s passé ideology. The movie seizes on the spirit of Meg learning to take pride in being an individual and turning her anger, stubbornness and impatience into strengths. And the filmmakers grow L’Engle’s feminist seed into an inclusive and multicultural universe. There are some deficiencies. The acting is broadly terrible, and L’Engle’s Christian sentiment has morphed into New Agey child-of-the-universe-summon-your-inner-light platitudes that feel drippy. But the best parts of the movie would not exist without the best parts of the original novel.

On the whole, A Wrinkle In Time is a novel from which young people will still draw relevant positivity. It is a story about a girl possessing the ability to solve problems with interior powers even the immortal, interstellar traveling women do not have. Maybe its 1962 first-world triumphalism does not hold up, but the message of children, particularly female children, learning to respect themselves is enduring.

FINNEGAN’S FAKE – commentary on Flann O’Brien’s novel “At Swim-Two Birds”

atswimAt-Swim-Two Birds is simply Flann O’Brien’s novel about an Irish student novelist writing a novel about an unfinished novel. Do you twig? The student’s spare-time literary activity includes spontaneous composition of the story of a lazy novelist who’s misused characters, drawn largely from Irish folk legends, animate and conspire to write their own novel in which their creator is tortured and tried for his abuses. In between the folk legend sections, O’Brien’s young author is browbeaten by his middle-class uncle who criticizes the student for his seeming disinterest in studying.

Metafiction may be a particular taste, as is toiling through O’Brien’s long adaptations of Irish verse and writing styles. I confess I wanted give up on this book early on, it was so bewildering. But sticking with O’Brien’s mythical fantasies and stream-of-conscious writing came to feel rewarding. Once I gave up on my inclination to understand every reference to Irish myth or modern Dublin slang term, I was able to absorb that O’Brien created something of epic imagination and wit, even while abandoning all writerly responsibilities toward character and plot. I’ve never been able to slog through the impenetrable language of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, the style of which O’Brien appears to imitate or parody. Maybe At-Swim is Finnegan’s Wake lite. I know I’ve never before successfully read an Irish novel like this, or finished one feeling as edified. O’Brien’s humor is wicked, and his gifts for description and prose are extraordinary.

12 MOST EDIFYING MOVIES OF 2017 (and 9 disappointments)

faceIn 2017 there were at least 800 feature-length, English-language movies released, of which I screened 63. Having seen only of fraction of what came out, I can hardly claim to know which were the “best” movies of 2017. Making a list of my favorites might be fair to the movies I didn’t see, but the expression lacks specificity. Instead I’ve generated a list of movies exceeding my expectations to which any artistic work should aspire:

Art should seek to edify understanding of the human experience, improve intellectual or moral knowledge, and expand contours of the form.

Thus, in order of release date, my list of the most personally edifying movies I saw in 2017.*  This is followed by a list of nine films I thought in some notable way failed to achieve my precept.

 

TWELVE PERSONALLY EDIFYING MOVIES IN 2017

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

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A live-action musical fairy tale. Belle, a self-reliant young woman taken captive in a castle by a hideous half man-half beast, looks beyond his ugliness and transforms him into a kind prince. I wouldn’t say this film is a feminist revision, but Belle is an enjoyable, smart heroine. The mosaic of live actors, motion capture and CGI is fascinating, and the musical experience is spectacular.

 

IT COMES AT NIGHT

In the aftermath of a near-future apocalyptic plague, a survivalist family hazards on allowing desperate strangers inside their remote cabin. Mistrust and paranoia intrudes, itcomesand heat between the families detonates into barbaric violence. The monsters residing in the human mind are mysterious and terrifying.

 

 

 

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APESwarapes

Roger Ebert once wrote that sequels are marketing decisions yoked to creative ideas somewhere farther down the food chain. It is evidential that, as the objective of profit precludes substance, the quality of the cinematic experience decreases (For empirical proof, try watching the progressively depreciative first POTA pentology,1968-1973). Somehow the current Planet Of The Apes series defies this rule. Each film has improved over the last in creating compelling stories, intense action, and emotional appeal for the ape heroes.

 

 

ATOMIC BLONDEAtomic Blonde (2017)

A British secret agent assigned to recover stolen documents in Cold War era Berlin, uncovers a cauldron full of double crossing international spies. Charlize Theron playing a bisexual, badass, James Bond is just fucking cool. So are the amazing Kung Fu sequences.

 

SHOT CALLER

shotcaller

A white-collar family man botches his life and earns a prison sentence. Through violent rites of passage, he becomes the leader of a high-stakes criminal gang. The film is adept at presenting the protagonist’s identity transformation, as well as sustaining his long strategy of self-sacrifice, played against other gangsters, in order to protect his family outside of prison. It’s too bad SHOT CALLER was a sleeper in 2017, its business is thrilling and smart.

 

ANNABELLE CREATIONannabelle

Attempting to overcome the undying grief of their daughter’s tragic death, an aging and weird farm couple take five orphan girls into their care. The presence of young girls in the house rouses the resentful ghost of the dead child inhabiting a homemade doll. This sounds like the kind of goofy plot that would inhabit an over-ambitious, under-funded freshman effort, but between the solid children’s acting and the filmmaker’s command of the haunted house space, this mid-budge horror succeeds. It is genuinely freaky and well-crafted.

 

GOOD TIME

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A small-time crook goes to spectacular extremes trying break his handicapped brother out of police custody. What at first seems like a boilerplate heist story, veers into epic Sisyphean failure for the skilled, if unrecognizable, actor Robert Pattinson.

 

BRAD’S STATUSBrads-Status

A middle-aged dad touring New England colleges with his teenage son declines into a distressed state of existential underachievement. While not a particular achievement in filmmaking (I think the subject matter would be better suited to the stage), BRAD’S STATUS is well-acted, funny, and genuine. One of the most profound screenplays of the year.

 

BLADE RUNNER 20492049.jpg

The futuristic story of a policeman assigned to kill renegade, autonomy-seeking androids. It is bigger in universality, special effects, and plot complexity than its 1982 antecedent, although it does not achieve the predecessor’s bleak, emotional allure. BR49 is among the most stunning visual achievements of the film year and deserving of more accolades.

 

BEACH RATS

beachratsFrankie, a Brooklyn teenager, spends his summer getting high with his hooligan friends, meeting girls on the Coney Island boardwalk, and experimenting with clandestine gay sex escapades. Lacking confidence and direction, Frankie’s life is muddled by his attraction to men, his straddling of blue and white collar culture, and the creeping expectations of adulthood versus the lingering indolence of his youth. All of this is presented with a spare and sullen indie cinema vibe. BEACH RATS, with its frequently bare chested male actors, may look like a highly-sexed Abercrombie & Fitch catalog adapted for film, but there is also an interesting, inconspicuous story and a beguiling minimalist aesthetic.

 

THE POSTthe-post-2

Journalism drama drawn from true events and key players surrounding publication of the infamous Pentagon Papers. I’m usually uncomfortable with movies mounted on political bias, even when the bias accords with my own sentiments. However, what the U.S. requires right this second is an elementary refresher on the necessity of an independent press to investigate tyranny, and for reluctant influencers like the late Katherine Graham to be bold. Most impressive in THE POST is Meryl Streep’s ability to employ the shortcomings of her character so genuinely in an otherwise heavy-handed chronicle. THE POST isn’t made with a sense of environment like the great, paranoid ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, but it earns its credentials being both exciting and apropos.

 

THE STRANGE ONESstrange ones.jpg

An adult man and a teenage boy pretending to be brothers on a road vacation, are revealed to be running from a bizarre secret past. Viewers familiar with the dream motifs of Russian fillmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky may discover themselves on a similar metaphysical plane, questioning the certainty of what’s real or imagination. The surrealistic atmosphere, furthered by disturbing subject matter, gets progressively darker as does the performance of James Freedson-Jackson, playing the adrift teenager. He is an overlooked prodigy. THE STRANGE ONES is an overlooked prodigy.

Worth mentioning that the creepy tension is enhanced by an excellent electronic score by same composer of the similarly excellent IT COMES AT NIGHT.

 

Honorable mentions: GET OUT, BEFORE I FALL, CREEP 2, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, SHAPE OF WATER, MOLLY’S GAME

 

 

and now… NINE DISAPPOINTING MOVIES OF 2017

BABY DRIVER

Speeding toward you, BABY DRIVER looks like a stellar cast and a unusual take on heist genre (the getaway driver’s POV). Going away you might realize you raced pass any substance to see a lot of faux-hipsterism, overacting, and improbable robberies.

 

DUNKIRK

Certainly the task of creating an epic experience out of the WWII British evacuation of Dunkirk by land, sea and air looked worthy in writing. The raw elements of any of these three coterminous stories as a stand alone project would have made for a good movie (except for the air one). Unfortunately, what came out the other end of this massive endeavor was a dull, meandering, emotionally dry, muddle.

 

IT

I was told by I had to read the novel to get IT, which I tried and found IT, like the movie, both incomprehensible and lightweight, except protracted over hundreds of tedious pages. So to you ITidots, who love this thing, mazel tov. I’m bored.

 

MOTHER!

I dig surrealism as much as the next avant-gardiste, and I thought act one of Mother was intriguingly weird. What happens in the second act is an absurd abandonment of aesthetics that serves the filmmaker’s desire to shock, not to edify.

 

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

The first KINGSMAN movie was a successful James Bond for millennials. GOLDEN CIRCLE is Kingsman for people who are shallow and easy to amuse.

 

BETTER WATCH OUT

The Home Alone movies of 1990’s, specifically the casual, cartoonish violence appear to be the object of critique in this dark comedy. What they have produced here is something simply trashy, sadistic and unfunny.

 

JEEPERS CREEPERS III

Like other Creeps, I waited fourteen eager years for the next chapter of this literate, idiosyncratic horror series. JCIII is not just a let down – it’s insulting, uncreative junk.

 

I, TONYA

Maybe there is retrospective humor to be found in the imbroglio of the 1993 Nancy/Tonya figure skating incident. I don’t see what’s funny in 2017 about a man smashing a woman’s head into the wall to the beat of a Dire Straits ballad. Such video collages with music from the period seem to fill-in for the filmmaker’s lack of figure skating i.q. Also, I would like to mention that the athlete to whom this movie gives disadvantaged bonafides was sent to the Olympics twice by the elites that were supposed to be discriminating against her, and yet she still conspired to maim Nancy Kerrigan. I TONYA is a skewed, irresponsible, alteration of Harding’s story. It is also not a particularly creative movie.

 

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

The intent of dark comedy is to create humor out of non-humorous subject matter, such as ridiculous and ironic human behavior in the wake of young woman being raped and murdered in fictional Ebbing, MO. It is a big ask for the audience to empathize with these flawed characters, but we are also are expected to give a humor license to policemen’s racism, homophobia, brutality, willful neglect, and incompetence. We are asked to tolerate all these offenses for the final justice of a racist policeman being given a mulligan by the surviving mother and the two together beginning a vigilante roadtrip as if they were Hope and Crosby. THREE BILLBOARDS produces some fine acting and dramatic poignancy, but at a time when America is perhaps starting to listen to the voices from embedded cultural oppressions, this movie is dreadfully tone deaf.

 

 

* Arbitrarily all selections are feature length. Also, 12 and 9 is of no significance. These were movies that stood out to me most positively or negatively.

 

MEET ME UNDER THE WHALE, commentary on Brian Selznick’s novel “Wonderstruck”

konigsburg

Wonderstruck is a six-hundred plus page juvenile fiction novel that might only take kids an hour an a half to read. That is because much of it is told in picture book form (Although, I found myself revisiting the artwork again and again.). Wonderstruck is two stories. Ben, a ten year old deaf boy runs away to New York City, following a trail of clues to find his abandoner father. Ben’s story is set contemporarily and told via traditional paragraphs. In the companion story, Rose is a ten-year-old deaf girl in 1927, who runs away to New York City to find her distant mother. However, Rose’s adventure is told entirely through the author’s mimetic pencil illustrations. The two journeys lead both characters to explore and hideout in The American Museum of Natural History. Eventually their timelines cross. Ben and old age Rose are united through their mutual interests in the same animal habitat diorama – a means of storytelling weaving art and science, life and imagination. Likewise in the last section of Wonderstruck, words and pictures, become interwoven.

Maurice Sendak once said, ““I don’t write for children. I write–and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Wonderstruck is a fun, intertextual odyssey for the mind and the eye. There are also difficult circumstances of disappointment and death that the characters confront together. It is life illustrated for child and adult.

 

 

All Things Concentered- book review of ‘ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR,’ by Elizabeeth Brundage

brundage3Consider All Things Cease To Appear a work of literary merit that happens to begin with a murder suspect ruminating on Emerson and an ax in the skull of the protagonist. In other words, author Elizabeth Brundage eludes the general classification of a novel into Genre Fiction or Literary Fiction.

Genre Fiction usually gets divided into romance, horror, mystery, et cetera and then subdivided into cross genres and further complicated taxa. Literary Fiction is both difficult and easy to classify because it resides in the category of books with no category. Literary Fiction is for sale in the section of your book store where the fog never lifts, its shelve hanging unfastened between the land and sky. Is All Things Cease To Appear a mystery/thriller, a romantic/horror, or a literary fictive with genre elements? Here, context serves as an inside-out metaphor for the content, the imaginary hinterland Brundage creates.

The setting is Chosen, New York, an insular working-class town. George and Catherine Clare, intellectuals from the city, have moved to a house on a foreclosed dairy farm, also the site of the previous family’s tragic self-destruction. While George attends his new position as professor of art history at a nearby college, Catherine forgoes her career in art restoration to become restorian of the spooky, decaying property. She hires the teenage Hale brothers, a sad but bighearted trio, to repaint the exteriors, although she is unaware the house was last the Hale’s home until they were orphaned by their father’s violence and mother’s murder?/suicide.

George Clare teaches study in the Hudson River School of landscape painters, specifically George Innes, whose nineteenth century works were intended to be both observably captivating and spiritually experiential. Meanwhile Catherine Clare is experiencing her own metaphysical shift. She relies on the Hale boys and other new local friendships to navigate passage through her collapsing marriage and creeping ennui. George turns out to be a character perpetrating frauds, betrayals, and violent acts with sociopathic artifice, which culminates in his becoming the prime suspect in Catherine’s gruesome murder.

In its breadth, All Things tells the concentric history of two abused mothers who meet similar tragic fate in the same house at different times. Like any good novel, the story is rich in comparative elements, but referring to Brundage’s elements as ordinary pairings and opposites seems inadequate. Counterpoint might be a closer descriptive (Catherine plays Chopin on piano!), in the sense of independent melodies composed into one harmonic texture: Catherine is the abused mistress of the house, but the ghost of her lost predecessor, Ella Hale, continues to traverse the creaky stairs; the Hale boys still consider the house their property, and yet they are dispossessed from it; the Clares and the Hales are two families at different times appearing, concentrating, and disappearing.

These contrapuntals reflect the novel’s central philosophical platform: reality is a place where morals and meaning are uncertain concepts; time is an ebbing and disappearing focal point; life is a composition of light and darkness- like an Innes landscape that balances land and sky into a vague frontier where all things blend until ceasing to appear. Brundage performs context and content in counterpoint as genre motifs are blended with literary themes and superb prose. In this scene Eddy Hale, working outside Catherine’s house, is both a de facto permanent occupant and a frequent voyeur looking in from the outside:

“Maybe she’d come out to hang the wash. He’d watch her back, her arms reaching up, her elbows as knobby as a garden snail’s. Across the fields that had been his grandfather’s and his great grandfather’s before that, the wind spoke to him. Wait, it said… Now Catherine’s daughter was sleeping in his old room. He wouldn’t tell her. He wouldn’t tell her what had gone on in that house, how his father would come after them, turning over chairs and tables, how his mother would cry up in her room or sometimes sit in one place shaking just a little, like somebody who was scared.”

 

I suppose genre readers could find themselves disappointed to be led into a four hundred page murder mystery that neither provides a competent detective nor concludes with certainty about who is guilty. It is a risk for Brundage to write a beautiful novel wherein beauty and love depend on the unseen, and the success of heroes and demise of villains depends entirely on implication. As Brundage writes- in fog certain things, certain colors become important. Like Innes’s intention that observers of his paintings would have their souls see what their eyes could not, Brundage shows readers that the division of genre and literary fiction, like lateral time and universal logic, is mere optical illusion.

Laying Wait For Blood – book review of ‘THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET,’ by Karen Vorbeck

Mystery genre is often the product of formula. webRhianna_Davies_final_hi_res_coverThe motivations of suspects are presented first and then the sleuth’s [reader’s] job is to piece together which motivation found a plot. Most mystery characters are a virtual police lineup of hyper-motivated and obvious schemers. What’s intriguing, and refreshing, about Karen Vorbeck Williams“THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is it’s mixture of subtleties. The novel focuses on a protagonist who is rather ordinary and only ever in the proximity of danger. Or is she?

Winna is a middle-aged divorcee returning home to Colorado to clean out her family manor. In doing so she dusts off family secrets about adultery, hidden jewelry, and suspicious deaths. The deeper Winna digs into old trunks, the more it’s apparent that someone, someone inside her small circle of family and friends, may be trying, subtlety, to kill her. But why?

Williams’ story uncannily makes us feel connected to Winna. Like Winna, we are baffled as to how seemingly trustworthy characters could possibly be suspects, could be killers. It’s true everyone’s behavior toward Winna is slightly selfish or odd. The author inserts clues mostly in the authentic dialogue, hinting at underlying greed or resentment that any of us might be guilty of amongst our closest relations. It’s unnerving because we, as Winna, like the suspects and want to trust them. This is an ingenious strategy for crafting suspense. Who does-she/do-we trust?

One complaint with “THE HOUSE ON SEVENTH STREET” is the ending, which, for me, was a sort of a flat tire. The revelation of the culprit within Winna’s midst comes without any confrontation. There are also some secondary mysteries going on which are either red-herrings, or dropped when the book ends abruptly at what feels like an enforced three hundred pages. However, I don’t want to spoil the mystery or the experience. I think reading the novel is worth the reader’s time, even if the end is too bad. Williams is gifted in her atmospheric descriptions, drawing characters who feel authentic, and cooking suspense on a gradual roast.

Blessed Insurance- book review of Norma Zimmer’s unlucky autobiography

Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though some strange thing happened to you. – 1 Peter 4:12

Norma Zimmer was a gifted soprano who performed for decades on television’s ‘LAWRENCE WELK SHOW.’ Welk even gave Zimmer the title of Champagne Lady, the highest honor among other fine women vocalists on the show. Zimmer accepted that appellation graciously in her autobiography,norma although with reservations about sounding like she would be promoting liquor.

She was raised by alcoholic parents in poverty in the Pacific Northwest. Her parents were emotionally abusive, they smoked cigarettes, and they did not yet know God. But Norma grew up to confess Christ on her own. Throughout her story she draws Christian lessons from a life of “tests” and “fiery ordeals.” Her gifted singing, confident will, and the generosity of early supporters enabled Norma to make a great career of radio/recordings, television, and Christian revival concerts. She describes her adult life with financial comforts, devoted family, and spiritual bliss. Yet through bad luck (or influence of her book editor), tests of her and family’s allegiance to God never abate: toxemic pregnancy, auto accident, crooked car salesman, crooked agent, twisted intestines, psoriasis, debilitating arthritis, broken back, brain shunt, family strokes, sister dies of liver disease, father dead in a car two days, family dog burns the house down, near death penicillin reaction, near death choking on beef Stroganoff, stranded on treacherous river rapids, water skiing accident, downhill skiing accident:

“…’one of the [ski-lift] workers climbed up on the tower to repair it and he called for a peen hammer. They threw one up to him but he missed it and it fell and hit your husband.’ I was crying, and praying, O God, help us! Please protect him, Lord!”

A prayer too late, if you ask me. I imagine if Job read Norma’s autobiography he would say, “Wow, this dame can’t catch a break.”

Still, what also never abates is Norma’s optimism about life, people’s good nature, and her faith in God’s long game. Some readers may discover her buoyant attitude and ornamented writing style ironic, others inspirational. If you are a fan of the ‘LAWRENCE WELK SHOW’, like I am, you already have a sensibility for what is over-decorated but enjoyable. If you take your Lawrence Welk more serious, you might also find Zimmer’s book metaphysically uplifting.

Lawrence Welk

Lawrence Welk

However, if you pray to read more detail about what it was really like working under Welk’s baton for twenty years, God’s answer will be No. There is not much behind the scenes here, except some descriptions of how busy Norma was on days driving between the studio and hospitals, and lists acknowledging all the backstage angels who kept Norma looking grand. I hoped for behind the curtain conflict among the performers, rather than hearing more about Norma’s redoubtable faith in Jesus, no matter what terrible shit life threw at her. I wanted to read more shit about Lawrence the hot-headed puritan, or the over-the-hill band member schtuping a teenage Lennon sister, or the on-camera star who had an off-screen champagne problem.

I admit that despite my being atheist, I did find Norma’s take on life encouraging. She was a person who absolutely believed that smiling into the video camera communicated a hopeful message to viewers. At another scene in the book she describes laying awake with her her croup-afflicted toddler Ronnie, worrying if she should take him to the hospital for a tracheotomy:

“He was barely able to breathe… I lay beside Ronnie, watching and praying. ‘God,’ I prayed over and over, ‘please heal our little son.’ Suddenly I noticed a brightness behind me… Standing near the bed was a lovely blonde woman with a white blouse and dark skirt… She just stood there with a radiant smile on her face, looking down at Ron. Then she just faded away. It was a glorious experience. I felt no fear – just awe. I have always believed that I was permitted to see Ron’s guardian angel.”

A blonde in a blouse and skirt? Who was her son’s guardian angel, Donna Reed?

Off screen Norma Zimmer sounds like she was a bit of a kook, but I’m also convinced, beyond a doubt, that she was a wunnerful, wunnerful lady.

SEA SWALLOW ME and OTHER STORIES by Craig Laurance Gidney

my notes on Sea Swallow Me (2008), RF Brown

A young Japanese monk, yielded to a life of prayer and ministering to the poor is marked for love by a mischievous yosei, a shimmering male fairy with a fetish to tempt mortal chastity and piety. This chassis supports many of Craig Laurance Gidney’s stories: a young character in the ordinary toils of  earthly existence, crosses paths with a metaphysical experience. As in the case of the monk, “He who was studious and practical had caught the eye of something supernatural.” More often Gidney’s protagonists are young black and/or gay men in modern settings. A bored club kid unwittingly keeps psychokinetically murdering his sex partners. A lonely, island tourist pulled in by over-curiosity is dragged to the floor of the ocean and given physical wholeness from a benevolent, giant serpent. A nebbishy, underachieving artist chases off the cloying  ghost of his racist mother by deliberately having sex with a black man on her antique bed [respectively: “Etiolate”, “Sea Swallow Me”, and “Her Spirit Hovering”].

Gidney’s visionary universe exists in a literary dimension somewhere between James Baldwin and The Twilight Zone. The author’s imagination is alternately funny, melancholy, and fantastic and there is the consistent thread in this collection of his expressive narrative voice. He has dazzling skill at painting amorphous scenes with tangibility-  colors are carnal and smells are emotional. It’s never explicit whether the bizarre experiences of these characters are something truly supernatural, or if these phenomena are the delusive manifestations of their broken black and gay souls. Are they cursed or crazy? The character lives are humdrum, but not normal. Whose life is?

I have a couple of quibbles with the actual publication of Sea Swallow Me. First, the book was put out by an indy press and there are frequent typos. I know some readers for whom mistakes are maddening and others who would regard it as bohemian charm. I seek the noble path on the presence of typos because ideally it should be easier for a great writer like Gidney to find a big-six publishing deal that pays for unlimited editorial resources. But readers dropping $13 bucks on this book should be aware there are errors. Writers who are constantly encouraged to go indy or self-publish can take a sip of reality here: even a brilliant writer can get sandbagged with a sloppy book. Second, two of Gidney’s stories, “The Safety of Thorns”, about a young American slave who finds out the Devil is an apathetic drunk, and “Strange Alphabets”, a transcendental roman à clef about French poet Arthur Rimbaud in Jail, are pleasant guests here but otherwise foreign to the rest of the collection. In my editorial opinion they would be at home someplace else. It’s feels weird to launch this criticism given that these two stories in particular are each excellent standing alone, perhaps my two favorite in the book. If there is a collection of historical fiction somewhere in Gidney’s future canon he certainly has the background, discipline, and command of voice to put one together. Those two problems aside, Sea Swallow Me is a magnificent and mysterious body of work.

REFERENCE REVIEW: LANGUAGE OF AMERICAN POPULAR ENTERTAINMENT

Notes on The Language of American Popular Entertainment: A Glossary of Argot, Slang, and Terminology

by Don B. Wilmeth (1981)

If you’re like me and looking for jargon related to popular theatre and Broadway then you are also running into the wrong book. However, despite what this glossary doesn’t include it can be an excellent and thorough reference source for anybody writing or researching 19th and early 20th century American carnival, circus, magic and minstrel shows. Wilmeth’s glossary is not in a sophisticated package. It’s pretty much alphabetical listings of 3200 entries, no cross indexing. I love exploring reference books like this but then always find myself in a mobius when it comes to everyday use, if I knew what word I was looking for I wouldn’t need a glossary. Some categorization might have been a more practical format. Online you can find similar glossaries but entries are fewer, less researched and mostly the sites are weakly designed with limited search tools. Someday all books like this will get e-booked and send us right to what we’re looking for. Until then this is best effort out there in its subject matter. And frankly the subject matter is a fascinating historical record. Again the book is heavy on words related to carnival or circus but it also provides terms from magic, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, tent shows and Toby shows, medicine shows and pitchmen, early cinema and optical entertainment, fairs, puppetry, pantomime, and wild west shows.

Media Log: 02.19.2012 – PARADISE LOST 3, THE GREY

West Memphis 3, Paradise Lost 3

(cinema) Paradise Lost 3, Purgatory (d. Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011) It’s been 16 years and two sequels since I saw the first Paradise Lost documentary at the Film Forum in New York City. I’m glad the wrongfully accused are set free but I still feel the truth rots a in dark, incarcerated place. I remember that the first documentary, a compelling story of wrong compounded by wrong, was also a frustratingly unthorough piece of journalism. The synopsis is that in 1993 three eight year old boys were murdered and thrown in a ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenage boys, to be nicknamed the West Memphis 3, were convicted of the murders under highly questionable investigatory and judicial procedures. The first film fell well short for me in providing a sufficient account of the prosecution’s so called case. A year after seeing the first PL the friend I went to see it with called me up and said, “I heard those documentary guys made it all up to make the teenagers look good. When you hear the whole story they are totally guilty.” Really? What’s your source? None, really. Is there a whole story?  I have always been convinced that the teenagers were railroaded. But after years of sequels, cult-like public outrage, websites, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp I still have no idea what happened back in 1993. If the WM3 were not murdering cub scouts that night in 1993, where were they? None of these films have ever discussed an alibi. If a documentary is presenting itself as the balanced account of its subject matter and one side of the argument is being left out, there must be a reason. I can’t speculate the reason because facts in this case have always been overshadowed by emotions, self-righteousness on behalf of the WM3 supporters, stubborn obfuscation by law enforcement, and repeated attempts by the filmmakers to offer alternative accusations that frankly are as shoddy and irresponsible as the lousy case against the teenagers. There is another feature documentary ,West Of Memphis, in circulation as well as many tv magazine pieces which may provide more information. I’d like to know if there is more to know about what happened the night those young boys were murdered, and I’d like to know more about what the police actually had on the WM3. In Purgatory the defense has gone to all the trouble of pulling together world renown criminal profilers and DNA experts. Yet the new documentary doesn’t reveal one thing we didn’t already know. These films succeeded in calling attention to injustice perpetrated on the accused and the fact that the real killer will never be brought to justice. The Arkansas court system created an outcome in which the case will never be reopened. The whole story is fascinating and sad, but these movies aren’t very good either. ๏ ๏ outof ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏… The Grey(d. Joe Carnahan, 2012) An airplane transporting ruffian oil workers

The Grey. Your enemy or your conscience?

crashes in barren Alaska. The men must try to survive arctic conditions, interpersonal conflicts, and attacks by an aggressive pack of wolves. The wolves are of course metaphor for the organizational behavior of a pack of men on the brink as well as the haunting pasts that brought each man to this frozen Purgatory. The challenge includes lots of tense survival action and man-chewing wolves, but what keeps the film interesting are the metaphysical elements, both in the blurry camerawork and the cryptic storytelling. Is this situation real or are we in the self-exiled imagination of the central character? Not brilliant but  an experience, however harrowing. ๏ ๏ ๏ out of ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏… (theatre) West Side Story (RISE theater company at Stadium Performing Arts Center, Woonsocket, RI) I go to a lot of community theater and you might think I am fortunate to live in a place where there are many local companies. One has to approach community theatre with prejudice of lowered expectations. Some of the worst crap in the world gets to Broadway with multi-million dollar underwriting. Under what circumstances can one expect no-budget theatre to be any better? Surprisingly often the risk does pay off in community. I see performers all the time who have dedicated their lives to craft and not to making it big. But “big” took on new meaning for me in seeing this production of WSS when the curtain went up on a cast of teenagers who were mostly all overweight. I’m not kidding. I don’t know anything about casting a play in suburban area where your company may also be completing with a lot of other companies, but surely someone had to realize the absurdity. WSS is as much a dancing show as it is musical as no one wants to see roly-poly people rolling around on the stage floor. I will say that the lead vocals were excellent. But the show itself seemed out of the director’s grasp. The pacing was awkward, the actors were bad, and the choreography was an embarrassment waiting for wincing audience. Whoever you are RISE, you need to set your ambitions lower for now and find material that is appropriate for your acting pool.

Media Log: FEBRUARY THEATRE SPECIAL

I had the opportunity to see a lot of theatre in the last week, both on Broadway and near home in Rhode Island. A reminder, I usually give theatre a simple SEE IT  or SKIP IT recommendation based on content not performance. In cases where good material is performed badly, I’ll add an additional note.

Take Me Out

TAKE ME OUT, writer Richard Greenberg. In 1993 the novelist Richard Lefcourt published a popular book “The Dreyfus Affair” not about the famous French Dreyfus Affair but about a gay, inter-racial  romantic affair between two major league baseball players. Although amusing enough, Lefcourt, whose primary occupation is television scriptwriter, clearly wrote a novel looking for movie rights. His actual knowledge of baseball seemed slight and as far as I can tell he is also a straight guy who failed to capture gay sensibility with any substance either. Lefcourt’s readers were sort of told: Dudes, just move those yummy, round tits down under a schlong and it’s the same thing. It aint. Also not the same thing is the 2003 play TAKE ME OUT by Richard Greenberg (and I confused these two for years) but it’s about a professional baseball player coming out of the closet. Fortunately instead of trying to tackle everything about baseball and gayness the play draws its dramatic energy from issues about all kinds of  intolerance. There actually isn’t any sex in it, which is ironic because many of the scenes call for full male nudity. The dialogue comes off too polished and overly theatrical for my taste, however the characters and the social commentary are complex. TAKE ME OUT won a Tony Award for best play. The cast at the production I just saw at 2nd Story Theater in Warren, RI was as talented as any you’ll see on Broadway.  SEE IT.

COMPANY, music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim, book George Furth. COMPANY is sometimes referred to as Broadway’s first successful “concept” musical. That’s historically arguable, but COMPANY was very influential in moving musical theatre away from the grand and formal Rodgers and Hammerstein book form. Instead COMPANY is a plotless musical about married couples done sort of in vignettes or review style. The common thread is the bachelor character Bobby who is a friend to each of the couples and a prism for their modern upper-middle class angst. COMPANY is my favorite musical on any stage, largely for Sondheim’s brilliant music. SEE IT for the music alone but be warned that the current production at Black Box in Mansfield, MA has a weak cast.

If you are reading this in the New England area both of these shows have their last performances this weekend through Feb. 19th, 2012.

Merrily We Roll Along

MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, music and lyrics Stephen Sondheim, book George Furth. Another great Sondheim work, and underrated for decades, is MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG currently in revival at Encores in New York City. The concept here is to tell the story of three bickering friends in showbusiness starting at the end of the story and moving backwards twenty years to when they first met as idealistic young people. So we begin at the bitter end, and end at the hopeful beginning. The first Broadway production of MWRA in 1981 was an historic flop for Sondheim. It closed after two weeks. The music was brilliant but the concept was confusing to audiences. Over 30 years Sondheim and his collaborators have tinkered with the show. One of the big things that changed is the nexus of the story-  it’s gone from being a critique about artistic integrity to being more a reflection of how adult friendships change over time. I’m still  interested in that story but I think dramatic efficacy gets lost in backward plotting. I love MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG because it’s unique but I don’t know if the concept will ever really work. SEE IT.

Nick Jonas, How to

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, music and lyrics Frank Loesser. If Merrily We Roll Along is an intellectual musical H2$ is the opposite. H2$ is what everybody’s talking about when the say that musicals are dumb stories surrounded by sometimes good music. I love Frank Loesser’s score and I think there are sometimes brilliant subtleties to this broad comedy about a window washer who climbs the ladder of business. I did not have the opportunity to see this revival’s first cast with Daniel Radcliffe and John Laroquette. What they have now on Broadway with Nick Jonas and Beau Bridges is pretty bad, particularly Jonas. To me the character of Finch is supposed to be an opportunist but not necessarily conniving. The comedy is in that everybody at the company keeps promoting Finch because he stands in the right place at the right time. Jonas seems to think that the way to play Finch is to play Nick Jonas playing Finch and he just comes off as smug. Jonas’ vocal performance also isn’t ready for Broadway.  SEE IT somewhere but skip the current production on Broadway.

Media Log: 01.08.2012, incl CHRONICLE and SMASH

CHRONICLE: CAN ANDREW CRUSH HIS PROBLEMS?

(cinema) Chronicle, d. Josh Trank, 2012. There’s a quote attributed to Will Rogers, a very practical guy: When you find yourself stuck in a hole, stop digging. I offer this aphorism for consideration to the lead character Andrew in Chronicle and to the filmmakers behind Chronicle as well. Andrew, a shy teenager, finds himself part of a trio of boys who discover a strange crystal artifact in an underground cavern. The crystal, for some reason, gives the boys telekinetic powers. They can move objects with their minds and even figure out how to fly above the clouds. The external benefits of Andrew’s new physical power include making new friends, becoming popular at school and even attracting the interest of girls. But ultimately Andrew’s damaged ego and personal problems at home are more powerful than his abilities his father is an abusive drunk and his mother has a terminal illness. As Andrew’s telekinetic powers strengthen, his emotional self-control weakens. Instead of being a hero, he becomes a menace of violence and destruction. The “chronicle” part of this is that the whole movie is shot in so called “found footage” style. I call it faux-verite. Andrew carries a video camera and his recording of everything that happens is our viewpoint into his rise and fall. There are a lot of movies using faux-verite but experimenting with the form, Chronicle ventures into original territory. I like the special effects work of the suspended objects and flying teenagers. I also like the story in the first two thirds a lot. Is all this really happening to Andrew or are we a voyeur into his fantasy life? Is this an origin story of Andrew as a comic book style hero, or super villain?  There are probably a hundred interesting places Chronicle could have taken us but it doesn’t go to any of them. Instead the story runs out of gas creatively and begins to get boring, even at under 85 minutes. In the desperate feeling last act, Andrew goes on an I-can-destroy-you-all-if-I-chose power binge. The filmmakers have no idea what to do with their own character. So they drag Andrew into a hole of explosions, nihilism, and waste. Unfortunately, Andrew lacks the ability to think of any better solution than to just keep making things worse. In the same manner Chronicle goes from good, to boring, to bad, to worse. I should mention that I saw a strong homoerotic subtext here as Andrew’s fantasy-come-to life seems to be finding a phallic object in a cave and using its secret power to convince attractive, popular boys to runaway with him- just something I was thinking about as I watched this movie go to pieces.  ๏ ๏ outof ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏… The Harvey Girls, d. George Sidney, 1946. Not everybody knows who Johnny Mercer was but everybody knows a Johnny Mercer song: “MOON RIVER”, “JEEPERS CREEPERS”, or “YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY.” Mercer wrote lyrics for and recorded hundreds of songs in the Great American Songbook including “ON THE ATCHISON, TOPEKA AND THE SANTA FE”  for the movie musical The Harvey Girls (music: Harry Warren). That song is used in a grand Hollywood production number at the beginning. What happens after that are some less fantastic numbers and a thin story. Judy Garland plays a 19th Century mail order bride from Ohio whose train stops in an old Western American town. Garland takes a job as a Harvey Girl. That’s an ebullient, hard working server in a friendly whistle stop restaurant called Harvey’s. It’s a respectable opportunity for a young, unmarried woman, especially compared to the girls who “entertain” men more provocatively across the street at the local casino and dance hall. A cultural conflict is set up here between the two kinds of girls in town, a conflict repeated in the battle of affections over the same man by both Garland and the leader of the showgirls. There is a longer discussion to be had about how these microcosmic conflicts attempt to play out familiar value themes in musicals: work versus leisure and chastity versus sexual promiscuity. But the case is well summarized at the end when all of the town drunks and gamblers come over to Harvey’s to learn how to waltz. As the town parson says, “For the first time the men in this town chose having a good time over having a wild time.” This movie is a good but not wild time and there are some great, less recognizable Mercer/Warren tunes as well as an amazing tap dance specialty number by Ray Bolger.๏ ๏ ๏outof ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ ๏ … (television) Smash. This show premiered on television after a great deal of marketing and other ballyhoo. It’s premise is to follow the evolution of a fictional Broadway musical and the lives of its creators and performers. So far I don’t quite give it a “smash.” The pilot was more of a “ring” or a “bang” to me. The characters started out kind of flat but they promise to be much more interesting than the nitwit cartoon characters on Glee (Hate it!). I’m impressed with the quality of Smash’s original music by Marc Shaiman, composer/lyricist for musicals like Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can. I wonder if they’re going to be able to maintain the quality of that music over the course of a television series. One of the principle character conflicts is going to be the two young singers fighting for the lead role. I thought Megan Hilti, the blonde, was amazing and that Katherine McPhee, the brunette, was just really good. However my unbinding straw poll revealed that there are people who feel completely opposite, that McPhee clobbered Hilti. What did you think? I think Smash could turn out to be a lot of fun to watch. WATCH IT… In my continuing power screening of old Golden Girls episodes I just finished the 3rd season. LARCENY AND OLD LACE (S3, Ep.21) Sophia is dating a retired gangster and finds a wad of money she thinks he robbed from a bank just to impress her. One of the big problems I have with GG is that they enlist a lot of great Hollywood and Broadway actors as guest stars and then never give them anything funny to do, perhaps to contain them in upstaging the regulars. However, this episode features Mickey Rooney as the old crook and he’s in great form. WATCH IT. BTW, Mickey Rooney was older than any of the GG actresses. They’re all dead except for Betty White and Rooney’s still alive. ROSE’S BIG ADVENTURE (S3, Ep.22) Rose has to convince her newly retired boyfriend to do something with his life. Also, the girls hire an old Sicilian architect to remodel their garage. This isn’t a bad episode but neither story line is particularly believable or funny. SKIP IT. MIXED BLESSINGS (S3, Ep. 23) Dorothy forbids her son to marry a woman twice his age. Meanwhile the bride’s family is forbidding the marriage because they are black. It’s a weird pattern to me that the adult children are always flying into Miami to spring shocking news to their Golden Girl mother at the front door. Ever hear of a telephone? And what’s with all the parental forbidding? It’s okay though, the white people come out looking really tolerant in this one. SKIP IT.  MR. TERRIFIC (S3, Ep. 24) Now Rose is dating a television kiddie show super hero named Mr. Terrific. What happened to the good for nothing she was seeing two episodes ago? Through sitcomy circumstance Dorothy gets Mr. Terrific fired from his gig and has to fill in for him on the air. I wanted that situation of comedy to be funnier. Also, I’ve always disliked the character actor Bob Dishy who plays Mr. Terrific. He never fails to irritate. SKIP IT.  MOTHER’S DAY (S3, EP.25) Each GG recalls a memorable Mother’s Day story. Again, the show goes to the lengths of getting the great comedian Alice Ghostley as a guest star and she’s barely in it. But the writing in this episode is pretty touching. WATCH IT.

book reports – VIOLENCIA! A MUSICAL NOVEL by Bruce Jay Friedman

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to know the author Bruce Jay Friedman. I came across his novel Violencia! (2001) while doing research for my own novel in progress. Friedman, now in his 80s, over decades has written a bunch of novels I never read, some off-broadway plays I never heard of, and the screenplays for movies made in the 1980s I couldn’t care less about, e.g. Stir Crazy, Doctor Detroit, Splash. If Friedman is a famous author I gather it’s because he’s supposed to be a master wit in hysterical fiction. Hysterical is a pretty good word for describing the mania of Violencia! A retired police precinct clerk is recruited to write the libretto for Violencia!, a Broadway musical based on gritty experiences observed in the crime fighting world. Despite knowing nothing about writing a musical and being a rather ordinary man, the clerk unwittingly becomes a swiveling node for the novel’s cast of neurotic producers, composers and theatre actors. They all see the dull clerk as an embassy for their vanities, character flaws, and harebrained ideas about art and audience. Violencia! follows the attempt to put on a big musical from it’s distasteful concept, to dishonest financing scheme, to pointless and vulgar production numbers, and then to calamitous road tryouts. The novel is intended as a satire on the affectations of backstage Broadway. Situations and characters in this book are clever I have to admit, but satirical comedy like this too often proceeds plausibility: the fatigued composer returns energized after vacationing in less than a day’s travel from New York to PuertaVallarta, no-nothing producers with hundreds-thousands of dollars at stake insist that Violencia!’s success is held in suspense by the script’s call for use of the word “doody.” This style of writing allows for comical leaps in logic and abandoned story detail. Friedman’s novel is creative but I also find the storytelling a little lazy considering it’s something he’s been doing for decades. This may be a good light read for someone in the mood for lampoonery; I take my comedy much more serious.

Media Log: 01.25.2012

Owen "Woody" Wilson with Marion Cotillard

(cinema) Midnight in Paris, d. Woody Allen, 2011. A few years Woody Allen got to old to play himself. Being a septuagenarian and casting himself as the male romantic lead against the likes of Marion Cotillard would seem as unseemly as, well, as Woody Allen’s real life romantic life perhaps. Anyway, the guy playing the Woody Allen character in Midnight in Paris is Owen Wilson and his Allen-esque comic delivery is an adequate replacement. Although, I prefer my neurotic nebbishes a bit more Jewy. With all the attention drawn to this movie, including Academy Award nominations for best picture, director and screenplay, one might draw the conclusion that Woody Allen has returned to making great films. I don’t know about that. The character in the movie is a writer who travels back in time to Paris in the 1920s, meets F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and other artistic heroes of the era. What he learns is that everybody thinks the era before their’s was better. I didn’t find this revelation all that profound. Nor did I think the comedy was consistently side-splitting. There are many intended to be funny scenes that come off completely flat. Midnight in Paris, like Woody Allen himself is likeable but too awkward to love. ๏ ๏ …(television) Alcatraz. Last week I reviewed the new J.J. Abrams vehicle and determined that I would watch one more episode to see if it was going to go with its mysterious premise or go with its boring cop-show gimmick. This week’s episode got no closer to investigating where all these prisoners went for 50 years and I got bored. Alcatraz is closed for me. Skip it…. Golden Girls, AND MAMA MAKES THREE, S3-Ep.20. Sofia is lonely and Dorothy is sorry when her mother starts attending all of Dorothy’s dates with a new beau. Sofia’s obliviousness to the imposition she becomes is inconsistent with her character as is Dorothy’s inability to tell her mother to get lost. But the episode is, overall, really funny. Watch it.

Media Log 01.23.12

(cinema) The Innkeepers, d. Ti West, 2011. “Let’s go to the basement and find out what that fucking ghost’s problem is.” That’s a funny line from this horror movie that is playful in its script without ever degrading to farce and stupidity. It is the lobby level of Innkeepers where the movie works, at least for the first three quarters. Two slacker clerks in a New England hotel kill time on their long shifts by trying to record proof the old place in haunted. Besides the funny banter between the clerks there is the role of the horror movie “last girl” presented here as quirky, nerdy, and on time with her slap stick. You don’t see girl characters like this in any kind of movie except for maybe one with Drew Barrymore. Kelly McGillis also makes a strong appearance as a psychic guest in the hotel who warns the clerks against waking up spirits. Yep, Kelly McGillis was the sex object in Witness and Top Gun back in the 80s who never did anything again except come out of the closet. I don’t know if I can say McGillis is slumming now in indy horror. The cast is the best part of The Innkeepers. The worst part is the proposed ghost story. That fourth quarter is fairly suspenseful, scary and bloody but the back story on why the place is haunted never comes together. ๏ ๏ ½

Media Log 01.22.12

Michael Costello's design for a puppet on PR All Stars

(television) Project Runway All Stars, MISS PIGGY. The competition in this special run of Runway has been great despite the producer’s seeming attempt to infuse it with the most stupid, embarrassing themes like dress-up Miss Piggy. But all star designers continue to bring it. I don’t know if people are watching this version of the series. If you prefer the smash up derby aesthetic of the regular show you might find All Stars a little dull. I continue to be impressed by the resurrection of Michael Costello. He was made out to be persona non-grata of Season 8, everybody hated the bitch because she kept winning despite being a compulsive complainer who couldn’t sew (if you go back and find the episode where Costello hysterically imitates Michael Kors wearing a burka you’ll see he was always a likeable guy). Finding the only one winner in on All Stars has been difficult, but so far Michael Costello has been the most consistently good to great… The Golden Girls, GRAB THAT DOUGH (S3, Ep.16) The girls are jazzed up for their chance to win hundreds of dollars on a game show, Grab That Dough, but the trip out to Hollywood turns out to be nothing but a series of comical disasters. This in another one of those girls-go-on-a-trip episodes where the characters we used to know all act they’re possessed by the ghosts of Lucy and Ethel. Writing terrible, comedy lame. Skip it. MY BROTHER, MY FATHER (S3, Ep17) In order to impress an uncle who she hasn’t been seen in forty years Dorothy has to pretend to still be married to her ex Stan. Does that sound like a contrived, sitcomy premise? Your right. I hate Stan episodes. Skip it.

Media Log: 01.20.2012

(cinema) We Need to Talk About Kevin, d. Lynne Ramsay, 2011. The IMDB entry for this movie says: The mother of a teenage boy who went on a high-school killing spree tries to deal with her grief and feelings of responsibility for her child’s actions. I lived in Colorado at the time of the Columbine High School murders and I’ve thought a lot about what life must be like for a parent whose kid has does something so awful. It’s an intriguing script idea but it doesn’t happen to be what Kevin is actually about. The high school mass murders here are a sort of foregone conclusion to the story of a mother who is emotionally terrorized by her son, beginning when he is an infant. This is a unique piece in that the story is told in non-linear flashbacks and the cinematography is experimental. Yet the story to me plays closer in genre to horror than to a psychological drama you might see at the arthouse. I can recommend this movie if it’s only on the multiplex at the mall level. Otherwise we’re looking at something that it is on the edge of camp. Witness the

Ezra Miller as Kevin

scene where the mother tries to explain reproduction to her little boy via the Mama Bear and Papa Bear and the boy interrupts, “Is this about fuckin’?” If it isn’t highbrow horror Kevin is just Mommy Dearest with the abuse roles switched around. Did you want the gays to love your movie like that? ๏๏๏… Afterschool, d. Antonio Campos, 2008. The actor who plays the

Miller in Afterschool

sociopath in We Need to Talk About Kevin was in this earlier movie where he also plays a disturbed kid but with a bit more subtlety. Ezra Miller is great actor in addition to have grown up to be pretty hot. Anyway, in Afterschool, Miller is a nobody kid at a prep school who accidentally videotapes two popular girls die overdosing on tainted cocaine. As the school goes into damage control trying to shake out all the drugs, Miller starts to act erratically believing he is under surveillance. Surveillance, public image and acts of watching are huge themes in movie. Apparently a lot of people don’t care for the slow pace of the story and static camera scenes. I could write a book on why every shot matters. I think it’s brilliant.๏๏๏๏๏

Addendum: If you want to a see an excellent movie about the psychology behind school shootings I recommend Zero Day, from 2003. Both Afterschool and Zero Day stream on Netflix.

Media Log: 01.20.2012

New Show on Fox: Alcatraz

(television) Alcatraz. I kind of thought I was going out to Alcatraz to find what was new from the producers of Lost. Lostwas an ensemble show about seemingly normal people crashing into an impossible situation and, by the end, confronting paranormal forces. What’s behind the disappearance of the prisoners of Alcatraz Island, and their reappearance fifty years hence, may also turn out to be paranormal. The first two episodes that premiered this week are closer in genre to tv cops shows than to Lost. Alcatraz early on seems like it’s part of a trend in cop tv cops that are built around a single story telling concept: Numb3rs – every week mathematics are used to solve a crime, Without A Trace – every week somebody goes missing, Person of Interest – the good guys try to stop a bad guy before the crime happens. My problem with this kind of show is that often the characters are slaves to the gimmick and things get worn out very quickly.  Alcatraz – the cops have to stop a new/old criminal every week. Maybe Alcatraz will reach a little higher over time but right now the gimmick is already a bore, the dramatic situation of the cast is illogical, and the crime solving has been implausible. I’m not done with Alcatraz yet but I am, so far, disappointed… Golden Girls, DOROTHY’S NEW FRIEND (S3, Ep.15) Dorothy is befriended by a local novelist and starts brushing off the other girls to rub elbows with intellectuals. She learns to value her friends when the novelist turns out to be a snob and an anti-Semite. This is a pretty funny episode as normally only simple-minded Rose goes full retard.

Media Log 01.17.2012

50/50 : Gordon-Levitt/Rogen

(cinema) 50/50, d. Jonathan Levine, 2011. Can you take a movie seriously that starts with the line, “I can’t have cancer, Doc. I recycle”, even if it’s a comedy? What if  it’s a comedy about cancer? The script for 50/50 attempts to straddle a fence between being a wise cracking comedy about a young guy facing death, and an insightful drama about a young guy facing death. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the young cancer patient adequately, he isn’t given much to do. When his mother, his best friend and his girlfriend all react in different ways badly to his condition, Cancer Boy comes off a bit blase to me. I don’t think he even looks that sick. But most of the characters in this movie aren’t very convincing. The girlfriend’s shallowness seems forced, all the doctors wouldn’t be so robotically insensitive, the perky new psychologist couldn’t possibly be so badly trained, and don’t tell me the mother would have actually said “I smothered him too much because I loved him.” The problem with 50/50 isn’t with any of the actors or even with trying to milk comedy out of a sad subject. I think Seth Rogen as the funny, knucklehead best friend who has no filter is the best character. But, on the whole, 50/50’s dialogue and characters just aren’t genuine enough for laughs or tears. When Gordon-Levitt’s character finally has an emotional catharsis near the end it’s too much too late… (television) Star Trek DS9, PROGRESS, S1-Ep.14. Major Kira, assigned to evacuate a Bajoran Moon for mining, confronts a stubborn farmer and an ethical dilemma about repeating the abuses perpetrated by the Cardasians on the Bajoran people. To this point in the show I have found Nana Visitor’s performances as Kira to be annoyingly at full volume. For once her over-excitement seems to have collided with a good script. I like Kira in this one and the turmoil she has with hating and having to do what’s right. Brian Keith as the irascible but wise old farmer is great too… The Golden Girls, BLANCHE’S LITTLE GIRL, S3-Ep.14. Blanche’s estranged daughter shows up after three years with a fiance and a lot of pounds heavier. When it turns out the fiance is a mean creep, Blanche is torn between protecting her daughter’s interest and butting into her life. This one is a better comedy episode than it is a drama, especially Sophia’s fat jokes about the daughter. It’s a little weird that the Goldies get so ticked off about the fiance making fat jokes when they were being just as mean.

Media Log: 01.14.2012

(cinema) Drive, d. Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011. I just watched Drive for the second time. On closer inspection I figured out that if this movie with the same L.A. crime underworld story had been edited too fast and too furious and amped with a soundtrack of Kidd Rock anthems it would have come off as total trash. As one gangster character who used to produce low-budget films says, “One critic called them [movies] European. I thought they were shit.” For Drive the filmmakers adopted highly stylized and deliberate editing with brilliant, catchy, 1980s sounding synth music are these are the two elements that hide all the flaws in this movie and make it so captivating. As produced, Drive is brilliant in its turns between the actors subtleties and violent action excesses. Drive is the best movie I saw in 2011 and goes on a list of great of great American films. ๏ ๏ ๏ ½… The Mothman Prophesies, d. Mark Pellington, 2002. Richard Gere is a recently widowed reporter who inexplicably wakes up in a West Virginia town four hundred miles from home. He starts encountering townspeople who are having their own paranormal encounters with a moth-like man who whispers warnings of a looming catastrophe. Mothman is a successfully weird and suspenseful thriller that never tries to over-explain its phenomena. We are never told exactly what is going on between life in the town and whatever dimension the Mothman comes from, nor is it resolved why reporter id dragged into it. I like that these mysteries stay in tact. I like that we don’t really know how much of what is transpiring is just shadow of the reporter’s unresolved trauma. Is he imagining everything? Is he Mothman? In the end it’s a well acted drama about the reporter trying to move beyond his tragic past. But this is a false ending as we find out there really is tragedy about to collapse on the town. Apparently the story is adapted from an investigation into a real incident in 1968 where a West Virginia bridge collapsed and killed forty-six people. That part of it may be factual but it didn’t make for a better ending. One other issue with this film is the terrible casting of Laura Linney as the town cop and love interest for Gere. I love Laura Linney in everything else. Would Elizabeth Taylor have made a good Barney Fife just because she was a good  actress? If the movie had got its priorities straightened out it could have been a modern classic.๏ ๏ ๏… (television) Star Trek DS9, THE STORYTELLER. O’Brien and Bashir visit a village of idiotically superstitious Bajorian yokels who think only O’Brien can save their village from the wrath of a giant cloud entity that looks a lot like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. In an equally idiotic subplot, a teenage ambassador, negotiating for the future of her own village, gets the best advice from the only other kids on DS9, Jake Sisco and his Ferengi chum Nog. This episode plays like it was written for and by children. Not the worst of the first seasons episodes, but quite irritating.

Media Log: 01.13.2012

(television) Project Runway All Stars, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Design a gown that will only be worn to the opera. This is the sort of challenge I watch the show for. Ambitious, fantasy gowns where the designers can show both their modern creativity and nod to formality. It’s a much more interesting challenge to me than make a dress out of only things sold at Radio Shack. The opera episode was great too because the competition was truly all star; there were at least six designs which could have been a winner. But first, the judges definitely got all the losers right. One trend across the competition seemed to be a lack of knowledge about what a night at the opera looks like, manifest in high waisted hoop skirts. She’s going to the opera in 2012, not playing the part of Violetta in La Traviata. In the case of designer Sweet P’s losing gown it was a hoop skirt with a summer free festival color palette. Her girl looked like Violetta smokes hash at a Joni Mitchell concert. At the better end  I liked Rami and Mondo’s designs best and neither of them made the final judging. Some of middle-of-pack finishing gowns may have been deliberately left out of the final. Are the producers keeping the show fresh by holding back their ringers while the also-rans play out their role, which is to be cannon fodder? This may sound cynical but I’m beginning to question the veracity of reality shows… (cinema) Tree Of Life, d. Terrence Malick, 2011. This movie got a lot of attention last year and deservedly for being an amazing achievement. Frankly I’m surprised that something so abstruse and non-plot driven garnered so much attention. The late Andrei Tarkovsky made films that were just as lyrical and ambitious but nobody ever heard of him. Lars Van Trier makes films that are perplexing and unorthodox and nobody goes to see them. Perhaps at least part of the draw into Tree of Life is Brad Pitt and the reputation of the ascetic director. Terrence Malick has only directed five feature films over nearly forty years, most of them great. It turns out the middle-class family depicted in Tree is at least partially autobiographical. These are memories of Malick’s own childhood in a film he’s apparently been making since 1973. It’s highly personal but it’s also universal. In fact Malick depicts both the beginning of the universe and the end of it as bookends around the mundane experiences of his family. I thought the creation of the universe, special effects sequences were amazing (real photography techniques, not CGI). The family stuff I didn’t respond to as strongly. If I can get personal on you, the ontological questions, what is the meaning of suffering, is God responsible stuff didn’t evoke in me the kind of response I think was intended. It just made me think “Look, there’s no God, get over it.” But Tree of Life is an epic poem spoken though film and it’s extraordinary.

book reports – ONE MORE KISS, Ethan Mordden

One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s is the 6th of Ethan Mordden’s 7 volumes reviewing the history of Broadway musicals. Mordden has had an eclectic career as writer and composer from novels, to other non-fiction books, and whole off-broadway musicals. Mordden’s familiarity with theatre makes him more than qualified to write about the subject matter but I’m surprised that a publisher would be so committed, volume after volume, to one person’s idiosyncratic style, or that an editor would let the infusion of the author’s personality overwhelm the history. These historical essays account for just about everything that ever lasted a day or more on Broadway, but they are also outlets for the author’s unsolicited opinions. Unfortunately along with opinion comes the author’s voice and an irritating sense of humor. I want to read something that is comprehensive about the shows of 70s. Why is this guy here? There are actually occasions when Mordden tells the reader what their favorite show is. I find it invasive. The volume is a treasure chest of information but it’s wrapped around an authorial style that I can’t abide.

MEDIA LOG – 01.10.2012

(cinema) Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, d. Thomas Alfredson, 2011. I’m sure there are people who love this British Cold War cloak and dagger stuff. I’m either too dumb or too impatient to keep up with mysterious plots that turn on a word mumbled over a reel-to-reel tape recorder in a dark room. I might also benefit from an English to English lesson as everything including the title in TTSS requires having foreknowledge of British noir lingo as well as the political context. I’m pretty sure Gary Oldman is great playing the role of soft spoken detective who struggles to contain his outrage, but I miss Robert Mitchum. The ending where Oldman sets a trap to draw out the mole totally confounded me. I watched it twice and I still don’t get it. If anyone can explain it, I come with a degree in media studies and I’m all ears. 2 movie spotlights… Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, d. Guy Ritchie, 2011. The reboot of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead a couple of years ago set out to depict the iconic detective character as uninhibited, amoral, Saturnalian, and manic. If the original Holmes was a little neurotic, the new one is supposed to be bat-shit crazy. That was an update I could live with as Robert Downey was so good and the movie was well produced. There were great effects and modern editing trends but Victorian London was believably dark and pugilistic. The action sequences were an engaging addition to a good detective story. Game of Shadows abandons the detectiving of Holmes and Watson to show them instead as adventure characters. And I find the whole adventure pretty uninteresting. What we get is an endless series of escape sequences from boring villains. Sherlock’s sleuthing acumen has become either quasi-supernatural or silly and defiant of logic. The special effects are impressive, but what Guy Ritchie has done with Holmes is turn the legend and the franchise into a video game. 1 movie spotlight… Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, d. Nicholas Meyer, 1982. Somebody just told me that after Wrath of Khan all the makers of subsequent Star Trek movies felt they had to unfairly compete with Khan, that the series reached its high watermark early. I think a lot of the films are great, especially the last two from Next Generation, Nemesis and Insurrection. Wrath of Khan is great because the characters are familiar enough that the story has time to explore Kirk’s anxieties about reaching middle age. As a character study this is manifest in Kirk being chased around the galaxy by his demons- an old enemy, his illegitimate son, the death of a friend. I hadn’t seen this movie for years and for the first time I picked up on some big holes in the science. Ironically Khan could be the best script in the series but there are better overall post-Khan Star Trek movies. 3 1/2 movie spotlights.

MEDIA LOG 01.09.2012

(cinema) Deep In My Heart, d. Stanley Donen, 1954. This is a tall tale biography of 20th century composer Sigmund Romburg. MGM did this same type of movie for Jerome Kern (Till The Clouds Roll By) and Rodgers & Hart (Words and Music) where the biography  is manipulated into the connective tissue for a review of musical set pieces highlighting the artist’s career. The idea is to also employ a parade of big stars doing cameos. Deep In My Heart includes fabulous stage productions with Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Rosemary Clooney, and my favorite hot-as-lava dancer Miss Ann Miller. But the Oscar goes to Jose Ferrer playing the role of Romburg. Ferrer was not famous for being a singer, but if you watch five minutes of this picture go right to the Jazza Doo number. Ferrer is brilliant and hysterical. He actually only got a one Oscar for something else. But he puts a tremendous performance into the otherwise dull bio sections. 3 movie spotlights… (television) Star Trek DS9, “Vortex.” Odo transports back to the Gamma Quadrant a prisoner who claims to have knowledge of a colony populated by other shapeshifting Odos. I think this is the first Odo-centered episode and it’s excellent. The evolving relationship between Odo and the prisoner characters from enemies to allies is well written and the space chase through the vortex is genuinely suspenseful. 3 1/2 spotlights.  “Battle Lines.” Commander Sisco is giving the Pi Opaka (she’s sort of like the Bajoran Pope) a tour through the wormhole when they crash land on an abandoned penal colony. The colony’s prisoners are condemned to fight a bloody war in which nobody ever dies. It’s a cool sci-fi concept but kind of a mouthful for 45 minutes. More backstory would have been more interesting to me than the opportunity to see Kira (Nana Visitor) overact. 2 1/2 spotlights.

the dirty needle – THE LAST SWEET DAYS OF ISSAC

The Last Sweet Days of Issac is about a guy trying to make it with a girl in an elevator and then, in the second act, the same guy, in jail, trying to make it with a different girl through a television screen. I don’t think we’re in Oklahoma anymore. The play appears to be Brecht inspired and the music is the definite offspring of Hair. Issac was a decent off-Broadway hit in 1970. The show’s creators were the female-female team of Nancy Ford (composer) and Gretchen Cryer (lyrics and mother of actor John Cryer). Ford and Cryer got what ever they needed to bring another show to Broadway called Shelter. Shelter flopped, but after that they had their biggest hit I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It Out on the Road. The songs in Issac are so much like Hair you could transfuse “I Want to Walk to San Francisco” and “Herein Lies the Seeds of Revolution” into the Hair lineup and not know they’re from different shows. That’s a compliment. I love Hair, and I love a lot of the rock ensemble pieces in Issac. This show has its pretentious clunkers, but it also seems to have its own point of view about living life to the fullest. I would love to see this show revived somewhere. 3 gramophones.

The vinyl copy I found has some distortion, especially during the louder tracks on side two. I think it’s an issue with the pressing rather than the recording. I’ve seen this soundtrack in the record swap bins a couple of times so it’s not hard to find and it should be cheap.

Media Log: 01.07.2012

(cinema) The Help, d. Tate Taylor, 2011. I didn’t know anything about this movie or

from "The Help"

it’s source novel before screening it (In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was under the impression it was a comedy about black people who hire a white maid). I enjoyed it overall but I couldn’t stop thinking the whole thing doesn’t seems inaccurate. The conservatism of the Southern whites seem behind the times of the setting and the black characters are patronizingly simple-minded. The telling of America’s civil rights struggles in the 1960 is territory that has been well covered in better movies. It’s interesting that this story about black domestic help is told mostly from the white character points of view. And while I hate to say it, there is something cloyingly liberal about the depictions of “proud” black people and “good” white people. The movie is well made and well acted but the level of story telling never goes above something you might see on Lifetime. 2 1/2 movie spotlights… (television) Star Trek DS9, “Move Along Home.” Quark is forced to participate  in a game with a gang of gamblers who all look like roadies for a Southern rock band. The stakes of the game involve transporting the DS9 senior officers into a holographic maze that is filled with trap doors and dangers. You would like to trip with our characters into this Alice In Wonderland like fantasy game. But the episode fails completely to ever establish a plausible connection between what’s happening in Quark’s game room and what’s happening in the hologram. It all comes off to me as under imagined and lazy. 1 spotlight. “The Nagus.” Quark is put in charge of the Ferengi trade alliance and becomes the target of assassination plots. This is the first episode in the ST universe that gives us some flavor and background of who the Ferengi people are besides cartoonish filchers (and vaguely anti-semitic stereotypes). It’s a fun episode even it is light on sci-fi and drama. 2 1/2 spotlights… Golden Girls, “Charlie’s Buddy.” Rose falls for a con-artist who is pretending to be an old friend of her deceased husband. This a pretty well-balanced episode that handles both its dramatic story and its comedic subplot with some maturity – a quality surprisingly lacking in many episodes of this show. 3 spotlights.

More From My Mother’s Record Collection – A Merry Christmas With the Four Aces

I’m still catching up on Christmas records that come from my mother’s record collection, a collection that I finally rescued from a Denver storage locker last summer. Today I attempted to make a digital rip of A Merry Christmas With the Four Aces.

The collection included all of my favorite Christmas albums from my childhood. But there were also a bunch I don’t remember. I think some of these were already in bad shape before I ever got there and they were already retired from the holiday rotation at our family turntable. Every track on the Four Aces Christmas is fucked up with skips. I’m not even going to save it, even though I love the music.

The Four Aces were a bunch of buddies from Philly high schools and the Navy who first formed a jazz instrumental group before discovering there was more demand for their vocal talents on the nightclub circuit. You have to be a real fan to remember which group of four Italian guys did which big vocal harmony hits of the early to mid-fifties era – The Four Lads, The Four Freshman, The Four Preps. The Four Aces are the four who did popular versions of “Love is a Many Splendored Thing”, “Three Coins in the Fountain”, “Stranger In Paradise”, and “Shangri-La.” All great records.

This Four Aces Christmas album has some great musical arrangements, including a lot of vibraphone. Even the usually slow tempo Christmas standards like “White Christmas” and “We Three Kings” are pepped up. And of course the Aces have perfect vocal arrangements. If you can find a clean copy the album it’s worth preserving. 3 gramophones.

Media Log 1.3.2012

(cinema) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, d. David Fincher, 2011. A character in this movie says that society in Sweden hides behind the shiny veneer of Ikea furniture. Behind the European setting and slick filmmaking lies a silly, and totally predictable story. When you take away the heavy down parkas the mystery is as thin as its undernourished heroine. I liked GWTDT but probably in total only about 60%. 2 and 1/2 spotlights… (television) Star Trek DS9, “Captive Pursuit.” The crew rescues the representative of a new species who turns out to be the hunted prey of his bloodsport pursuers from the Gamma Quadrant. Sisco must balance his moral conviction with his responsibilities to uphold the prime directive. Like the best episodes of past Star Trek series, often the right thing to do is not what is best decision. This is a very sophisticated script for the being only the 6th episode. 3 and 1/2 spotlights… The Golden Girls, “Three On A Couch.” Are relations really so frayed around the GG house that they all need to a group therapy hour with a psychiatrist? Not, really. The session is just a flashback device to some recent, disconnected comic incidents, none of which seem important enough to take in for service. A watchable but unmemorable episode. 2 spotlights… (theater) Blood Brothers, screening of 1989 London cast w/Kiki Dee. Music, lyrics and book by Willy Russell. Twin brothers are secretly separated as infants into rich and poor upbringings. Circumstances raises them as best friends but both of them are doomed to a young, violent death. The story is inspired by The Corsican Brothers and the music obviously by A.L. Webber’s popular rock theatricals of the 1980s. I found the play to kind of sputter until finally getting interesting in the last half of the second half. The music to me sounded like the same two songs over and over, alternating between the gloomy one and the peppy one. There are some good elements but overall: skip it.

BSD Movie Log: The Skulls

The Skulls (2000, d. Rob Cohen)

Luke, a working-class, scholarship kid is invited into the secretive, elite, club called The Skulls.  He is easily seduced by the secret society’s power, largess, and promise of  clearing his way into Harvard Law.  When his best friend, a campus paper reporter writing an expose on the The Skulls commits suicide, Luke is suspicious.  He uncovers a conspiracy and battle for power within club.  Luke must decide whether to abide the club’s rules of secrecy, or put his future and his life on the line in exposing the truth.

I feel like a sponge in enjoying all the silly melodrama of The Skulls, from Joshua Jackson’s casting as street punk gone Ivy, to the Provost of Yale University shooting students in the streets of New Haven with impunity, to a US Senator encouraging students to settle their disagreements in a gun duel.  This movie is accidentally ridiculous, but I still wish I could join their little club.

BSD Movie Log: The Curve

The Curve  (1998, d. Dan Rosen)

Two college roommates, Tim, an underachieving playboy and Chris, a scholarship student, determine to capitalize on a school policy that grants a 4.0 grade average to a student if their roommate commits suicide.  The two plot to push a third roommate over a cliff and make it appear as suicide.   When the police investigate, Tim leaves a trail of clues to frame Chris for murder.  Then the roommate they thought they killed shows up alive.  Was the whole thing really plot to kill Chris and fake his suicide?

I have to credit this movie for Matthew Lillard’s standout, Dennis Hopper-esque performance, but that is the extent of my generosity.  With all the twists in the story, characters with secret alliances, and casting Lillard as the lead, you can see that somebody thought The Curve was going to be the next Scream.  But they neglected to provide any likable or believable characters.  They don’t come off to me as clever and cool, just petty.  Save your trash diving for the Jerry Springer show.

Bad To The Bone

Megamind (2010, d. Tom McGrath)

Earlier this year I posted my notes on the animated feature Up! That movie really opened my eyes to the possibilities of animated family movies, in fact, it was so good it’s going to be hard not to compare every cartoon feature from now on to Up! I’m still pretty Magoo when it comes to animation.  For me existential speculation about innate evil versus attained evil hasn’t moved an animated cel past wondering if the villian really could have gotten away with if it weren’t for those meddling kids.   “And that dog!”  So, one might draw from this that I don’t demand much from the oversimplified ethos of Megamind.  But I do.  I seek deeper meaning.   Maybe I’ve finally grown up!

Two super-human characters represent the balance of power in battling for the soul of Metro City.  Mega Man is the super-hero, a strapping, idolized, do-gooder with exasperating false humility, and the apparent affection of Roxanne, a t.v. news reporter    Megamind is his arch enemy, a bantamweight, blue-skinned alien who decided as a child to adopt a life of crime.  Megamind is also gaga for Roxanne, but she shows no interest in his attention craving schemes.   During one of their often repeated good versus evil showdowns, Megamind, to his own surprise, effects a successful plot to harness the power of the sun into a deadly ray that actually finishes off Mega Man.  Evil prevails.  Megamind rewards himself with an office in Metro City Hall, raids all the banks of money, and acquires the great European art masterpieces.    Yet, he discovers that having it all is still not enough.  Without a force of good to challenge him, Megamind feels purposeless.  So he schemes to create a new super-hero rival from the person of Roxanne’s schlubby, nobody news cameraman who he christens Titan.  Megamind trains Titan for a new epic battle of evil versus good but the plan goes off course when would-be hero Titan elects to use his power for evil and reek havoc on the city.  Meanwhile Megamind, who has been pretending to be good to impress Roxanne, ultimately discovers that love and goodness is indeed more rewarding.  Megamind vanquishes his own evil creation, Titan, and becomes Metro City’s new super-hero.

Megamind is pretty funny and well executed visually.  But I think the animation marketplace has evolved beyond all the cartoon cliches this movie depends on.   Animated features now need to have more complex moral drama while still providing story and action that has universal appeal.    I wouldn’t call Megamind juvenille, or stupid but it does feel purposeless.   The idea of turning the Superman mythology inside out, so that the Lex Luthor-esque character is sympathetic seems original, but Megamind and his mixed-up moral compass become a trifling bore.

BSD Movie Log: Borderland

Borderland (2007, d. Zev Berman)

Three impulsive and illiberal students, awaiting grad school,  take a bro-cation to a tenderloin, Mexican border town. Although  looking for  dope and hookers, they accidentally find themselves the prey of a violent drug order/religious cult.  While one bro is being tortured and strung up by his castanets, the other two come after the well-armed gang with a tire iron and get their gringo culos handed to them.  They should have turned around at El Paso and headed straight back to Stanford.

Based on a true story, Borderland is a case where a better movie is lurking just beneath the one we’re unfortunately watching.  The American douchebags are neither sympathetic characters nor well cast actors.  More interesting to me is the gang of drug-smuggling orphans who kidnap virgin male tourists for their Jim Jones-esque leader.  A guy who performs a sadistic Santeria ritual upon the victim in the belief that such blood sacrifice will render him invisible to narcotics law enforcement.  Now that’s entertainment!

BSD Movie Log: My Bloody Valentine

My Bloody Valentine (1981, d. George Mihalka)

After a 20 year moratorium, a small coal mining town plans to relaunch their once traditional Valentine’s Day dance, even though the day is scarred with the memory of  a serial killer who brutally murdered V-Day revelers.  Then real, dissevered human hearts, in heart-shaped candy boxes, start getting delivered to the town’s elders – the same modus operendi of the legend.  Has the Valentine’s murderer come back or has someone else picked up his trademark? A group of young partiers end up in the bowels of the local coal mine, trapped inside with the spiteful Valentine’s Day killer.

I don’t know why this guy came to hate Valentine’s Day so much.  Maybe he thought he was the only one in town who wasn’t getting any.  Anyway, the motivation for all the killing is really secondary to the joy in seeing innocent people cut into pieces, no?  Murder qua murder. My Bloody Valentine isn’t like the high-tech torture porn of today’s horror cinema.  It’s just gory, suspenseful, cheap, idiotic and cool.

BSD Movie Log: I Bury The Living

I Bury The Living (1958, d. Albert Band)

A businessman is obliged to serve a rotation as administrator of a company owned cemetery.  While on site he finds a wall-sized map of the reserved grave plots.  He also discovers, to his consternation, that inserting a ball-head pin in a plot will cause the intended plot owner to die mysteriously.  Is it coincidence?  Is someone playing an evil trick on him?  Or is there some paranormal phenomena orrcuring?

I Bury The Living is a fun, creepy idea, although the concept doesn’t necessarily call for a feature length movie.  It’s sort like of a good Twilight Zone episode stretched out to 70 minutes.

BSD Movie Log: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Freddy's Revenge

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, d. Jack Sholder)

Teenage Jesse and his family move into the same house on Elm Street where the teenage girl of the first movie was terrorized in her dreams by the psychotic spector Freddy Krueger.  Now Freddy is haunting Jesse’s dreams and wants to make Jesse his living avatar for murdering people in the living world.

After successful use of the familiar “last surviving girl” motif, the first Nightmare on Elm Street sequel went with a story centered around terrorizing a teenage boy.  Not a bad direction to take, but horror movies are cathartic fantasy and male protagonist victims always come off a little gay.  If they didn’t mean for it all to come off gay here they should have maybe cut the scene where the teenage boy in the gym shower psychokineticly strips his bondage fetishist coach naked and lashes him to death with jump rope.  There are a lot of weird homoerotic scenes if you like that.  Otherwise this is below average material.

BSD Movie Log: Pulse

Pulse (2006, d. Jim Sonzero)

A computer hacker commits suicide and his girlfriend starts looking into a mysterious, mind-controling virus he may have downloaded.  It spreads first among her friends, then across her college campus, until she finds herself one of the last survivors up against  a powerful, malevolent force that is rapidly taking over entire world via the Internet.

Pulse has little character or plot development with its initial LAN of college friends, and then it streams at high bandwidth into a story about the demise of civilization.   It is a concoction of one part 28 Days Later and two parts The Ring, two enormously better and more successful horror movies.  In particular Pulse was a really late dropper in a spate of horror movies inspired by Ring style technophobia.

BSD Movie Log: Fear of the Dark

Fear of the Dark (2002, d. K.C. Bascombe)


A 12 twelve year boy old lives with chronic phobia of dark places.  Is it a psychological disorder, immaturity, desire for attention, or does the boy see really see terrifying things in the dark that can’t be seen in the light?  His torment comes to zenith when one stormy night he and his older teenage brother are at home alone during a blackout.  Evil spirits come from the walls to attack the boy, and big, macho brother starts to see  them too.

This is a horror movie that falls in-between being to0 scary for kids, and too arrested for any adult with an IQ above 80.

Paranormal Too

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010, d. Tod Williams)

Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” went to #1 on the Billboard charts twice.   His sequel “Let’s Twist, Again” only made it to #8.  Paranormal Activity, from 2009, was derivative of other horror movies using hand-held video and a found-footage conceit, but it was a creative twist.  As for Paranormal Activity 2, I’m sorry, but sequel, prequel… whatever, you don’t get credit for making the same movie twice.

A married couple brings their newborn baby home to their suburban dramatization, and unhealthily video tapes every living moment of their unextraordinary lives.  After the house is curiously vandalised, but not robbed, they install an elaborate security camera system that documents every inch of their  laminate and Oak Express interiors.  So, most of the found-footage from this point on comes via those cameras (which actually helps to address a lot of the “if their so freaked out why do they keep filming it?” criticisms).  What we see, from our fly on the wall view,  is the hour by hour behavior of some evil apparition, a demon in the house,  gradually more and more ornery.  Mostly the demon comes in the form of a crescendo of audience-jarring noises.  At the beginning of the movie we hear a snap.  By the middle is ascends to a crackle.  And finally, near the end, the intense pop!  My question is, if the demon is so pissed off, why doesn’t he just start terrorizing the family at full volume?  Eventually it’s revealed that the demon is after the baby.  Well, he should just ask for it.  Instead we have 90 minutes of the same wondering when something’s going to  happen , the same zombie lady standing around possessed for hours sped-up – all the same spooky tricks used in PA1.  In between there’s the continuation of the vague, cursed family back story that has really nothing to do with what’s happening in front of us.

Paranormal Activity 2 operates on this marinating model to build dramatic impact.  That would be fine if it weren’t the exact same drama building device they used in the first movie.  I don’t dislike Paranormal Activity 2.  I just think my movie dollar should stretch farther.

Patchwork of Horrors Under The Stairs

The Brown Shoe Diaries Halloween Movie Club.Track down today’s movie and post your comments.   Good?  Lame?  Scary?  Not scary?  Bring it.


Today’s recommended feature is:

The People Under the Stairs

Between numerous sequels of Nightmare On Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes, horror director Wes Craven came up with this wild, little urban-horror fairytale.  It is a horror movie, but a patchwork of just about everything horrible under the full moon: sadomasochism, poverty, injustice, incest,  slumlords, economic exploitation, OCD, racism, child abuse, castration anxiety, haunted houses, gore, slapstick, violence, and animal cruelty.

Fool, a 13 year old boy, gets involved in a  home robbery with two adult burglars.  Fool is looking for a rumored coin collection, the value of which could prevent his family from being evicted and pay for his mother’s lifesaving cancer surgery.  The coin collection belongs to a wealthy, racist and a bizzare man and woman who are also the family’s landlords.  After breaking into the fortress-like surburban house, the burglars discover that it is full of passageways between the walls, deadly traps, and a vicious guard dog.  Also, the homeowners are holding their teenage daughter captive as well as a dozen or so teenage boys in a cage under the stairs, and their tongues have been cut out.  The homeowners themselves are a nerotic folie a deux, alternately compulsively clean and prone to wanton destruction of their own property; alternately sexually perverse and obsessive about their daughter’s chastity.  Chased by the couple and their flesh eating dog throughout the house and it’s hidden chambers, Fool befriends the teenage girl and her imprisoned, mutilated consorts, and they help him escape with the coins.  His family’s financial crisis solved, Fool makes a deadly decision to return to the house and liberate all of the teen prisoners.

The People Under The Stairs isn’t great horror movie or a great movie period.  But its unique story and the story telling is intriguing.   It has a fairytale quality and a lot of juvenile  humor, yet adult themes.  It has slapstick and farce, but it’s also effectively violent and gross.  The bawdy comedy and gore is definitely intended for a broad theater audience.  However dumb it was, I have to confess it worked on me.  The bad guys lose and the audience wins.

The People Under The Stairs (1991, d. Wes Craven)

BSD Movie Log: I Monster

I, Monster (1971, d. Stephen Weeks)

A turn of the century British doctor is on the verge of a medical breakthrough: he’s devised a drug capable of releasing deepest inhibitions. But when the good doctor uses the drug on himself, he releases a dangerous alter ego. With each transformation, he becomes more powerful and hideous. The doctor is caught in a deadly struggle with his inner self.

If this sounds to you like a movie version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”, you’re spot on, as the British would say.  In addition to starring both the greats of Hammer Horror Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, it’s a fairly loyal translation of the original story, accept for the main character’s names.

If anybody knows what happened with this movie in getting made with the name change, please comment.

Haunted Home

The Brown Shoe Diaries Halloween Movie Club.Track down today’s movie and post your comments.   Good?  Lame?  Scary?  Not scary?  Bring it.


Today’s recommended feature is:

Burnt Offerings

The literary antecedents of the haunted house movie go back  to 18th and 19th century gothic novels and the underlying mythological matter probably from further than that.  I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies this month and hadn’t fully realized how frequently the device of the haunted house is used.  Real estate marketing parlance has infected our contemporary culture in the use of  the word home for house, to conflate an ideal with a place.  The idea being that home is about values – family, comfort, safety, legacy – and that a house is the thing that will provide all of that for a negotiated  price.  It doesn’t.  The home/house conflation is a hollow notion.  Maybe that’s why when talking about movies where people find their new place occupied by restless dead people, demons, and unsettled spiritual grudges we prefer not to have the residence of these terrible stories called a haunted home.  The haunted house as depicted in Burnt Offerings I think symbolizes a deep uneasiness with the excepted idea that for every family, house is where the home is; that the values of home can always to be found through accumulation and consumption.

some unseen force tears this family asunder

The family of Burnt Offerings isn’t wealthy.   They are a  middle-class family stumbling across a home that is not too nice for them, but rather too much, too big.   When they assume the role of being able take control of the house, they discover too late that the house is consuming them.   Marian and Ben, with their teenage son and septengenarian aunt in tow rent a neglected and decaying gothic mansion as their summer getaway.  They are told by the off-beat  sister and brother who own the house that the couple can have it all summer for $900.  They only need the couple to provide care for their invalid mother who resides in the attic.   Marian volunteers to be the one who looks after the old woman and set meal trays outside her locked door.  The family moves in, but Marian begins to be obsessed with the photographs and antiques and spends long periods in the old woman’s parlor.  She overreacts when the the boy accidently breaks a crystal bowl and admonishes him not to touch “beautiful things.”  Meanwhile Ben begins to be feel depresssed.  He and Marian stop having sex.  He is haunted by terrifying memories of his mother’s funeral.  He has disabling visions of a old fashioned hearse driven by a creepy, spectral  chauffeur .  Ben’s disorientations lead to a scary incident where he uncontrollably tries to drown his teenage son in the swimming pool.  The aunt, at first animated and full of vigor, quickly declines into lathargy and ill health.  As the family falls to pieces, the aging old house starts to repair itself; the gardens bloom and the shingles and siding literally fall off like old skin to be magically replaced by fresh painted materials underneath.  The house thrives like a destructive parasite on the family’s youth and vitality.  The family is dying physically and emotionally, so that the house can live.  By the time they figure out it’s the  house that’s killing them, they also learn that the house will not allow them to leave.  The dream house becomes a prison and a death trap.

It’s a critique on the idealization of American dream. In trying to live the dream, this family learns that the cost isn’t just $900 for the summer, but the hidden costs of moral and familial values that would make such a dream worth living.  Even if you don’t buy into the critique, Burnt Offerings is still a great horror movie.  The scenes with the ghost hearse and the family trying to escape are all effectively frightening.  But the growing uncertainty in what these formerly nice people are going do to each other, as their inner rage manifests, is the scariest part.

Burnt Offerings (1976, Dan Curtis)



BSD Movie Log: Doomwatch

Doomwatch (1972, d. Peter Sasdy)

A British government scientiss visits a rural, inhabited island to collect soil samples in the wake of an offshore oil spill.  The scientist is greeted with hostility by the locals.  They are attempting to hide an ugly secret.

Doomwatch was a theatrical release derived from a British t.v. adventure series.  The first half is interesting,  atmospheric, and weird.  The second half  is preachy and embarrassing.    This is not a horror movie.  Don’t get sucked in.  You’ll only end up with a lot suck.

What's EATGNU? (or Jeepers Creepers! Its The Gay Bogeyman!)

The Brown Shoe Diaries Halloween Movie Club. Track down today’s movie and post your comments.   Good?  Lame?  Scary?  Not scary?  Bring it.


Today’s recommended features are:

Jeeper Creepers (2001)

Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003)

I finally watched both of the  Jeepers Creepers movies for the fist time after seeing a post that including them among The Most Unintentionally Gay Horror Movies [link].  I have to admit both were great, though not because they were unintentionally gay.  In fact, calling Jeepers Creepers unintentionally gay would be like saying the Kennedy assasinations were the result of unfortunate accidental gun discharges.  The serial of these films is most assuredly about a man-eating monster who favors the flavor of men.

In Jeepers Creepers a young brother and sister couple are driving home on break from college on a desolate country road.  Darry is bringing his laundry home to mother, who we are told dotes on him.  Trish is taking time off from her boyfriend to pepper little brother with jibes about his full masculinity and the suggestion that maybe people “know something you don’t.”  They cross paths with a menacing truck driver, who has the vanity license plate BEATNGU.  They witness the guy dumping sheet-wrapped bodies down a drainage pipe.  The kids sneak back to investigate the pipe and Darry daringly crawls in.   At the bottom he uncovers the body of a naked young man who has had his torso dissected and resown.  Further into the cavern Darry finds hundreds of dismembered corpses sewn into the walls like a quilt.  Darry and Trish drive to a roadside diner where they contact the police.  In the meantime, the killer has been tracking the couple.  Darry had used a pair of his dirty underwear, unintentionally died pink in the laundry, to tie down the broken trunk of their car, and this served as an unintentional baiting device.  The killer breaks into the car to enjoyably sniff the laundry and confirm that Darry has something he wants.  A policeman arrives and is escorting the couple’s car home when the patrol car is attacked and the kids get their first good look at The Creeper.  Despite attempting to  disguise himself with a wide brim hat and a tattered black duster, The Creeper is a tall moth-like monster with scales on his skin, and wings.  He is a creature who looks somewhere between Japanese kaiju horror monster Mothra and Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider.  In a demonstration of sadisitc homoeroticism, The Creeper decapitates the male police offficer with a home-forged hachet, and bites the tongue out of the severed head.  Darry and Trish escape to a police station where a local psychic, who has also been following them in her visions, catches up to notify them of what she’s learned from the dreams.   The Creeper, who aparently emerges from dormancy every 23 years for a 23 day feeding period, sniffs out people for specific body parts that he desires and eats.  She also implies that Darry, despite his denial, already knows what the monster wants of him.  I won’t spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that the end is more proof of The Creeper’s specific interest in male bodies and homoerotic voyerism .  I read this as an allusion to the idea of gay men may fetishizing male body parts, that they want to build a fantasy male from the combined parts of different men.

We get another clue what The Creeper has  desire for in the beginning of  Jeepers Creepers 2 when he swoops into a cornfield and flys away with an attractive, toe-headed teenage boy.  Nearby a school bus is  transporting a boys high school basketball team, and a few of their cheer girls, down the same country highway a few days after the incidents of the first Jeepers movie.  Where Jeepers 1 was a stand alone horror story, Jeepers 2 begins more similarly to what I would consider a copycat teen slasher movie: a lost group of teen characters are hunted and methodically killed according to an implicit order of punishment for boorish behavior and/or fornication.  Here, The Creeper disables the school bus on an isolated road and kills all the adult chaparones to enhance a sense of helplessness and  fear on behalf of the teens.  We learned in the first movie that fear emanates some scent The Creeper uses to identify which victims present the most desirable body parts.  In a scene I can only describe as out of the ordinary, The Creeper, while hanging upside down in the bus window points through the crowded alies of the bus at each of the teens he intends to consume, like picking live catch from a restaurant aquarium.  If the implication in the fact that each of his menu selections are male is still unclear, he advertizes his interest in the last boy with a disgusting, erotic sweep of his steaming tounge.  As The Creeper begins to tear apart the bus and pick off his selected male victims, the teens argue over whether they are safer on or off the bus, and whether they should take the doubtful step of dividing themselves into groups as The Creeper’s chosen and unchosen.  Ultimately this debate is of little value as when the kids make a run for it, The Creeper finds his marked boys and wings away with them anyway.  What they fear most is unavoidable.

To my surprise this teen horror movie turns far from the copycat rythm as the teenagers spend much of the time defending themselves not only from the attacks of the monster, but from the prejeudices of their peers.  In the midst of crisis some kids show the character to see the importance of being a team, other fall into patterns of self-preservation and bigotry.  There are unsubtle opinions raised about race, social status, and explicitly in the other boy’s suspicion of the “gay” kid.  The high school sports journalist Izzy, is frequently accused of being gay, “Izzy or isn’t he?”  As in the first Jeepers film, homosexuality left in question is ultimately more important than getting a definitive answer.  Where analysis of teen horror film often proposes a subtext of adolescent anxieties about sex, procreation, and marriage, Jeepers Creepers is a unique mainstream discourse in male anxiety about suppressed homosexual feelings.  If you are a regular boy and a gay monster, after smelling all your peers, selects you, what does that say about you?  Does the monster know something you don’t?  In the story the alleged real gay boy is actually overlooked by the The Creeper and survives to act heroically.  The Creeper is not only an eroticised homosexual killer, he violently demonstrates the terror of a sexual monster within, the fear of what happens to men who are tempted by underlying homosexual desire.

Its worth noting that despite being a different kind of text for a horror movie, the classic feminist critique of an ever present male gaze continues to stare longingly.  It’s just looking in the mirror now.  The Trish character in the first movie and the cheer girls on the bus still have little agency in these stories.   She is now just a bystander as opposed to the obect of male fetishism.  As a selection for the Halloween Movie Club, there are other reasons to like the Jeepers movies besides the feminist critique and the homoerotic text.  Both movies are sharply written, genuinely suspensful, and well acted.

Finally there is public information available about the film director having spent time in jail for child molestation before these movies were ever made.  I think knowing that may be prejudical to first time viewing although it opens the discussion to some other interesting analogies.  I recommend watching the movies before looking deeper into the director’s biography.

Jeepers Creepers (2001, d. Victor Salva)

Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003, d. Victor Salva)

BSD Movie Log: Rosemary's Baby

Rosemary’s Baby (1968, d. Roman Polanski)

A young couple moves into a new apartment and find themselves overwhelmed by peculiar neighbors and unsettling coincidences. When the wife becomes pregnant, she also becomes paranoid that the neighbors are witches and that the coincidences are parts of a plot to kidnap her unborn child for use in Satanic rituals.

Considered by many to be a horror classic, and even a cinema classic, I like the movie but find it disappointing on two levels.  The first is a fault in the construction of the film in that it seems to have no middle part.  It’s more than 2 hours of anxious build-up with a rather silly payoff in the last few minutes.  The second disappointment I suspect stems from being sui generous and controversial in its time.  But it’s been imitated so much that now that it comes off as trite.  I suspect people at the time of the movie’s release found it an indicting treatment of the upper-middle class and bourgeois professionals.  It just doesn’t seem shocking now.

BSD Movie Log: Clownhouse

Clownhouse (1989, d. Victor Salva)

Just back from an unsettling night at the circus, and home alone, three young brothers are terrorized by three escaped mental patients dressed as circus clowns.  This movie is about confronting childhood fears, identity questions, and sexual anxiety.  Taking it more logically, I didn’t understand why the clowns wanted to get into the house or why they thought disguising themselves in white face and hoop-waist pants would make them inconspicuous.

This movie became notorious years after its release when one of the young cast members came forward that the director had molested him during production.  Somebody who wants to pick it apart will find a lot of analogous behavior between  the scary clowns and the decision by  the director to frequently show the tween boys in their underpants.  It left me feeling a little dirty.  But to anybody who pervs on that, I say. “Bon appetite, Short Eyes!”

BSD Movie Log: Audrey Rose

Audrey Rose (1977, d. Robert Wise)

A married couple and their daughter, Ivy, find their happy, cosmopolitan life turned tumultuous when a disturbing man attempts to convince them Ivy is his deceased daughter, Audrey Rose, reincarnated.  At about the same time, Ivy starts having terrifying sleepwalking episodes in which she takes on the personality of Audrey Rose, and acts like a lunatic.  The movie is organized as two discreet parts.  The first half follows the family and their uninvited interactions with the strange man.  It’s excellent phychological drama performed by a classy cast.    The second half  is mostly courtroom and hospital drama.  A dozen or so lawyers or doctors walk in and out of professional decisions in regard to Ivy’s welfare that were harder to fathom than the concept of reincarnation.

A post script on the Audrey Rose movie poster.  When I took a closer look at it I wondered if it was designed by somebody who didn’t see the movie.  First, there is a very prominent illustration in the bottom right of a girl walking out of a grave that’s surrounded by flames.  Trust me there no scene like that.  Second, they depicted a weird apparition over Ivy’s face which I take to be the ghost of Audrey Rose.  Although in the movie we only see Audrey Rose as a 5 year old girl at the time her death played by the actrees who played Ivy, or some similar looking child.  Then it occured to me that the apparition is not Audrey Rose at all but actually David Bowie:

Kill More, Talk Less

My Soul To Keep (2010, d. Wes Craven)

The reason I never really followed the Nightmare On Elm Street horror series beyond the first movie was because the concept never attacked  me, so to speak.  I know people enjoy their serial killers, or blood and mayhem but I have to believe in what I’m watching for 93 minutes.  Nightmare, directed by Wes Craven was about a serial killer, Freddy Kreuger, a nine-inched nailed spector who hunts teenage victims in their dreams.   The teenagers are the surviving children of a mob who burned Kreuger to death because he had murdered children (molested in the 2010 remake).  It’s a pretty simple, although supernatural,  slasher concept that was understandably popular and basically repeated for 10 sequels.  I, personally, found it too simple and too separate from my anxiety portfolio to ever be interesting.  Craven has returned now with something called My Soul To Take and comparing the coherency of this new concept makes Nightmare On Elm Street read like “Ulysses.”

Here goes.  A guy who has been mis-diagnosed as schizophrenic, stabbs seven people  to death, stealing their souls, while in unconscious thrall to his evil personality nicknamed “The Riverton Ripper.”  When he is captured and demobilized, the souls within him escape and infiltrate the bodies of seven babies born that same night at Riverton General.  Fast-forward 16 years.  The Riverton Seven, now teenagers, are marking the solemn anniversary of Ripper Day by participating in a ritualized puppet show that is supposed to call The Ripper back for a confrontation.  Among the seven is Bug, the fearful, perhaps schizophrenic, perhaps telepathic, surviving son of The Riverton Ripper (Bug, doesn’t know he’s the son, but everybody else in town does).  Someone wearing the ugly, lifesize Ripper puppet costume, acquires the Ripper’s signature weapon, a fold-out knife with  the word “vengence” engraved, and starts the business of murdering the Riverton Seven one-by-one.  As it appears The Ripper is finally coming for him, Bug goes through a mild metamorphosis and decides to face his fears.  When only Bug and his best friend Alex are left, they accuse each other of carrying the inhabitant soul of The Ripper.  Bug, stopping to explain in great deatail how he traced back Alex’s movements, proves how only Alex can be The Ripper.  He stabs Alex in the abdomen with The Ripper’s knife.  Bug, once the object of everyone’s quiet pity is now a hero for rescuing Riverton from The Ripper, even though everyone The Ripper returned to kill is now dead.

Come to think of it, an ugly, vengeful killer returning from the dead to possess people and murder a circle of impartial teenagers is the same story as A Nightmare On Elm Street!   But what’s most ironic about this convoluted supernatural/natural movie is the amount of time dedicated to having characters try to explain it to the audience.  The murders aren’t very gory and The Ripper’s appearances are never much of a surprise.  Given all of Craven’s experience in depicting bloody murder and horror cinema’s advancements in senseless torture, I find the killings here rather uninspired.  Yet, characters take an inordinate amount of on-screen time explaining what they’re going to do, what they’re doing as they’re doing it, and why they did it.  There is a lot of dialoge but I’m not sure what it’s ever  in service too.  It doesn’t help much in combing out all the tangles over who The Ripper was, who The Ripper is now, and what’s really bugging Bug.    I’m not a fan of violence for violence sake, but this movie would have benefited from not taking itself so damn seriously, telling less, showing more, and hacking up more pre-maritally lustful teenagers.

By the way, My Soul To Take was cynically released as 3D.  There’s not much real 3D in it.  It was a trend-driven afterthought, added to bump the ticket price up by $4 and probably is not the least of  reasons why it flopped at the box office.  Don’t fall for it either.  Any of it.