Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Fan's Note

"If the crux of ardent fanhood holds a touch or more of madness, then Cleveland fanhood is a bug eyed, shit smeared lunatic, howling for a God who's never going to come."

Scott Raab, The Whore Of Akron

"It's easy to win. Anybody can win.” 

Philip K. Dick, Scanner Darkly

What does it mean when the awfulness of the only team you've ever truly loved is so apparent that their unrelenting shittiness is considered a fitting premise for a film? When their incompetence is so taken for granted that the feelings that others hold for your team have moved past derision into the realms of condescension and finally, most terribly, pity. This was a question I had cause to contemplate as I waited in line to purchase my ticket for Draft Day, a movie whose entire plot is set upon the crux of how much The Browns suck at football.
 Not that I had cause for a lot of hope going in. Kevin Costner hasn't exactly been raking in the quality scripts lately and by my count Ivan Reitman hasn't made a watchable film in twenty years.  Ghostbusters notwithstanding I don't have the affection for his earlier work that others of my generation have (surely I cannot be the only one who thinks that Meatballs would work much better without the bizarrely prolonged quasi rape scene). But one's team is not the subject of a film everyday and I'm nothing if not loyal.

For years I've answered questions about The Browns with a sheepish grin and a quick change of subject (but always honestly). When pressed on why I'll say something about growing up watching them. That is only a half truth.

Because I really didn't start to enjoy watching football until my late teens. So the post season contending "cardiac kids" of the late eighties were never a conscience memory for me. What is a conscience memory are the nineteen starting quarterbacks we've had since the reformation (count 'em). It's watching with a slack jaw as Jeff Garcia whipped the ball into a referee's crotch with sniper's precision and force. It's Brandon Weeden managing to trap himself under a giant American flag during the pregame. It's having my heart broken watching Jim Brown: All American as the documentary about the greatest player ever to wear a Browns uniform opened with Brown giving a pep talk to the Baltimore Ravens and declaring that Art Modell, AKA the worst man who ever lived, should immediately be inducted into the hall of fame. It's watching Peyton Manning throw a game to get home field advantage in the post season, keeping us out of the playoffs with a 10-6 record in the process. It's watching hyped saviors without number be they Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, Brady Quinn or Peyton Hillis all fail to deliver and implode spectacularly. It's about watching Mike Holmgren suck salary as a GM, doing about as much to earn it as a statue of a walrus carved from platinum would have. It's about a never ending litany of, "Holy shit what's next?"   

Most of all it's never giving up hope in all that time. Never being content to be the lovable losers, (as one friend has been known to growl between quarters, "We're not the fucking Cubs"). We go into every season genuinely believing that it will be different this year, or at least there's a chance it will be.

So why do I do it to myself?

In part I watch The Browns because it connects me to Cleveland. A city I love but will never truly be a part of. I've spent enough time there to have it permanently influence who I am (not to mention instill a life long craving of Swenson's Galleyboys). Though many of the people I have loved the most in my life live and have died there, it will never be home the way that California, or even Austin is. I go there as a welcomed outsider and when I do visit it's almost as if I spend my time looking for an alternate universe version of myself; one that I am keenly in tune with every Sunday in the fall. Or maybe I can't help but relate to something that has been on the receiving end of so much love and support and yet never comes within swiping distance of achieving its full potential.

I watch The Browns because it's taught me the value of loving something that doesn't love you back. Something that doesn't make its rewards immediately evident. The love of a fan that has never been tested is a poor and brittle thing. Dynasties are pumped up by fair weather fans and bandwagoners. Anyone can love a winner; it takes character to do the other thing. It takes pride to love something that long. There are of course the fleeting moments of glory and the friendships one makes with fellow expats and true believers. In other words I'd say being a Browns fan has done me good and will do me good and I saw God bless it. Keep your humbugs I will stay with Dayenu.

Draft Day
gets that. I don't want to oversell the movie. It's less the kind of film that will blow you away as it is the kind that will pleasantly surprise you on cable or netflix, its pleasures are modest. Modest but real, it's the good Kevin Costner who's shown up this time, grumpy, stoic but charming and Jennifer Garner and Dennis Leary both make surprisingly good foils for him.  The movie has a deep bench as they say, with an enjoyable ensemble populated by the likes of Frank Langella, Terry Crews, Pat Healy, Chadwick Boseman, Ellen Burstyn, Sam Elliott. Hell even Diddy and Tom Welling acquit themselves well. The script is filled with a few exchanges that really crackle and Reitman mostly gets out of their way, shooting in two shots and editing to their rhythm (only a few distractingly permeable split screens spoil the effect). Reitman shoots Cleveland without indulging in rust belt condescension, or trying to glamour  it up. A montage set to a sports radio, starting with the team's extending to the hopeful of today sums it up beautifully.

Draft Day
may ultimately be nothing more than comfort food for fans who need it ("I cried like six times," said the friend I went with, I suspect he was only half joking). Nothing more than a fantasy. But it is a fantasy that looks appealingly achievable. I know the day is coming. I'll be waiting for it this Autumn and the next and the next. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Night Film

The term "literary thriller" is one of those phrases that is almost always taken as a pejorative even if it is rarely meant as such. The implication from the genre side being that the author is too self conscience to really deliver the genre goods and from the literary side that however good it might be it is still only a thriller old chap. The unspoken agreement is that everyone would have been happier if they had just stayed where they belonged.

But then you have a book like Night Film for which no other term will do. Marisha Pessl's novel is a dark mystery that has more on its mind than its solution, a horror novel that might not be a horror novel but then again might very well be, a thriller where the hero spends most of the time running, terrified he's about to get his ass kicked. In other words, it's a literary thriller and is intermittently brilliant as it is frustrating. 

Night Film follows McGrath a journalist, disgraced in the aftermath of a disastrous investigation of a reclusive cult filmmaker Cordova. Cordova, a filmmaker of Kubrick's genius and Argento's perversity, who bears a pronounced resemblance to David Lynch on a Rolling Stone cover we get a look at, has been a recluse for years, isolating himself at his private studio "The Peak" and releasing a series of increasingly disturbing films to increasingly rabid fans who put the cult in cult audience. Cordova fed McGrath false information through an anonymous source that McGrath was all too eager to release, destroying his career in the process. Now years later Cordova's daughter commits suicide and McGrath realizes that the mysterious young woman had been trying to contact him. He launches an investigation into her death, searching for the information she may have been trying to deliver, plunging himself back into the disturbing world around Cordova. Recruiting two young witnesses to the daughter's final days, they begin investigating the people closest to Cordova and his daughter, drawing out a portrait of them second hand like an occult Citizen Kane.

The book builds the presence of Cordova well, through a series of news stories, blog posts and message boards that get the tone just right. But it's also in this key information that the cracks start to show. At one point a character describes a later film of Cordova's as "his first out and out horror film," before going on to describe a series of earlier films that sound a hell of a lot like horror films. I might sound like I'm nitpicking here, but for a book that is about and has been marketed to a group of people as minutia obsessed as cinephiles, these details matter. Much more problematic is the treatment of McGrath's character, who  despite the fact we are told over and over again that has been disgraced and out of work for years has no problem affording his Manhattan apartment and solves nearly every problem he comes across by throwing money at it. I'm not asking for a fifty page account of McGrath's financial woes,  but the incongruity between McGrath's life and means is indicative of Pessl's worst tendencies as a novelist. It smacks of laziness, shorthand, of assuming no one will notice because it is "just a thriller" and who the hell cares about character consistency? The shorthand comes in other ways too, I don't know if it was an editor or agent who told Pessl that genre fiction has to have at least forty percent of its words italicized but whoever did should have one of their teeth knocked out so every time they run their tongue over the divot that has been left there they remember not to give that kind of shitty advice.

And yet when Night Film works, it kills. The dual Cordova's make compelling figures all the more entrancing for being so elusive and Pessl's central trio is likable. The mystery she builds around Ashley's final days is well constructed. She (for the most part) takes the time to make the details of Cordova's fictional Oeuvre feel right, as well as the obsessives who surround them. Individual set pieces like the wonderfully disorienting raid on The Peak, which features a remarkably matter of fact glimpse at the supernatural, are best in class stuff.

And then we come to the ending...

Often times the thing that truly marks a literary thriller is lack of confidence. The author feels too self conscience about the supernatural or other gauche elements of the genre and has to build themselves an out. While I have no intention of revealing the final elements of Pessl's story, suffice it to say it starts to look like Pessl intends to do that, but then she doesn't, not quite not really.

Normally "ambiguous" endings are all too often an excuse by authors to play to tie. And while you could easily accuse Pessl of doing that, I don't think that's quite it. The ending of Night Film does not so much play to a draw as it puts a cunning opponent in a stalemate. Which is not the same thing. The ending of Night Film, which could have easily felt no more profound than a stoned dorm mate taking a bong hit and saying, "Like the truth is pretty hard to know if you think about it," is instead genuinely disquieting. A sense that though we are skipping out before all is revealed that is A OK with us because we may not want to have all be revealed.

All of Night Film is like that, just when you think it can be safely dismissed, just as you're sure you can write it off as a disappointment it outmaneuvers your expectations in a way that is well... literary.


A few other matters of importance:

If you're reading this site you probably already know who Jeremy Richey is, which is why you would also know that it's a very, very good thing for film fans at large that he is starting his own print magazine. A print magazine that I just so happen to be slated to contribute to. I'm extremely excited at the prospect of writing for Art Decades and its humbling to be included with such a great slate of writers.

Jeremy is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help with set up expenses and if you'd contribute you would have our thanks. 


I'm equally enthused to be working once again with Muriel Awards. AKA what would happen if film awards were picked by folks who actually cared about film. It's always a blast to read the carefully considered pieces that go up each year, and this years slate has been particularly good.

Check it out. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Top Ten Films Of 2013

6th Annual Southland Tales Award For Film I Liked For No Damn Reason: The Great Gatsby:
In all fairness this one could also have easily slipped into Overhated. While Luhrman’s take on Gatsby is certainly, if we are to be generous, a misinterpretation (Psst… Daisy is not supposed to be a good person). There is more than enough here to make it worth watching. DiCaprio himself makes a fine Gatsby his boyish charisma changed to boyish insecurity, his natural charm a thin veneer. But the complaints about the film’s style crossed the line into bizarre. Luhrman is an acquired taste and his take on the material is certainly distinct but what the hell did the people complaining about the gaudiness expect? I’d just as soon watch a staid, restrained Great Gatsby as I would a staid, restrained Titus Andronicus. Luhrman’s Gatsby may not be perfect, but at least it’s not embalmed.

Overhated: Man Of Steel: No it wasn’t the perfect Superman film we were all promised but like all of Zack Snyder’s films The Man Of Steel was just eccentric and weird enough to make me really like it. Prog Rock Record Cover Krypton was fun. Digital Jedi Russell Crowe was fun. General Zod as played by 70’s Christopher Walken as portrayed by Michael Shannon was fun. The ending was apocalyptic but caused more genuine dread than anything I’ve seen in a blockbuster that comes to mind. As for the neck crack heard round the world, look I didn’t hear you all complaining when Christopher Reeve straight up tossed three people into a bottomless pit.

Underrated: Elysium: Sometimes it just plain feels like no one had as much fun with a film as you did. But how that was possible when the film in question involved a Cyborg Hobo Samurai played by Sharlto Copley, the most impressively realized Sci Fi world this side of Children Of Men and gore that would make Dead Alive era Peter Jackson blink, I am still not sure. It might not be subtle but then again neither was Metropolis.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Oz The Great And Powerful: With words of reshoots and a few iffy trailers I walked into Oz full of apprehension. But while Oz might be a second tier Raimi film, never quite reaching the emotional depth it’s striving for, it is a Raimi film through and through. A PG Army Of Darkness driven by an eccentric sense of humor, a genuine generosity and doesn’t skimp on its horror imagery. As pleasing and unexpected as a china girl with a butcher’s knife.

Most Disapointing: Carrie: The only movie of 2013 that left me genuinely heart sick. A waste of potential on every level so flagrant that it’s downright criminal.

Worst: Parker: Nearly as criminal as reimaging Donald Westlake’s consummate sociopathic motherfucker of the ages as a cuddly robin hood type with a strict list of moral rules. Fuck you.

10. Much Ado About Nothing: Call it slight, so is the play. But Joss Whedon’s noir restaging plays to his strengths. All of them. From his affection for his cast and characters, only matched by his love of putting them through the shredder. Simply put, Much Ado About Nothing is tailor made for Whedon and while it can be argued that all he does is get out of the plays way, that’s A) infinitely better than getting in the play’s way (see Branaugh, Kenneth)  and B) It’s Shakespeare what else does he need to do? Call me undiscerning but I can’t help but be thoroughly happy watching a great filmmaker pull off one of my favorite love stories with this level of ease. “Get thee a wife,” indeed.

9. A Band Called Death: I cannot imagine anyone who has ever tried to create any kind of art walking away from A Band Called Death without being enormously affected by it. Not so much a recording as a redress, A Band Called Death is a funny, moving portrait of the joy of creating music, fraternal love and that of a man who never lost faith  that he had created something worthwhile even as he lost his grip on himself. If you’re not smiling when the end credits role I think there might be a part of you missing.

8. Pacific Rim: No film plastered as sloppy of a smile on my face as this one. Del Toro once again unleashes his imagination on the biggest canvas he’s gotten to play with yet and the results are as always spectacular and singular. Genuine imagination and heart are rare qualities in movies, and nearly extinct in blockbusters. Del Toro has told a story that digs up your inner twelve year old and gives it a high five, and does so with more exuberance than seems strictly possible.

7. Lords Of Salem: It’s been a strange mixture of bizarre and gratifying watching the response to this film. For every Noel Murray, Tim Brayton, Kevin Olson, and Bill Ryan (though he may deny it) who has gotten behind it, there have been people whose response has been downright hostile. I’ve had not one but two people literally insult me to my face for daring to recommend a Rob Zombie film to them. It’s been strange.

Which is fitting because as I said in my review Lords Of Salem is one weird fucking movie. To quote the aforementioned Mr. Brayton it does genuinely feel like Dario Argento suddenly remembered how to make movies again and tried to atone for Mother Of Tears with a fourth“Sisters” movie. It’s a film with its own queasy unique energy that burrows under your skin and stays there.

6. Before Midnight: Even with all of the praise that has been heaped upon it I still think Before Midnight has been underrated. People haven’t acknowledged just what a risk it really was. As lovely and true as the first two films in the sequence ring they’re both idealizations to the point of being fairy tales. Before Midnight takes that idealization and dumps on fifteen pounds of reality stuffed in a twelve pound bag. Creating one of the most caustic relationship movies this side of Husbands And Wives. It could easily have fucked everything up. Instead in a way that feels damn near alchemic Before Midnight doesn’t just work well on its own, it makes Before Sunrise and Before Sunset into better movies. It’s bitter, but never hopeless and all the more moving for being so hard won.

5. To The Wonder: A lot of people came down hard on this one and while it is the least of Malick’s films I cannot help but be still be overwhelmed by it. In part the frustration is understandable, at its core To The Wonder is a story of failed grace, and that by definition is going to be frustrating. And yet it’s such a beautiful and moving portrait of an attempt, anchored by a performance by Javier Bardem so naturalistic that I am fairly certain that most of the cast was simply not told that he wasn’t actually a priest. Make no mistake, this one is going to endure.

4. Gravity: I’m pretty sure that the breath I inhaled during the opening credits of Gravity is the same one I exhaled as the final credits began to roll. It’s as pure a visercial experience as I’ve had in a film, as if Cuaron somehow extended the car chase sequence in Children Of Men to feature length. Yet those dismissing it as such are missing the point. Like To The Wonder, Gravity is a work of poetry not prose. It doesn’t need any justification, it justifies itself.

3. The World’s End: I’ve talked to people who have had fairly uncomfortable reactions to this movie and that’s kind of why I love it. Make no mistake The World’s End is bleak. A movie that starts at rock bottom and continues to tunnel until it explodes like a depth charge and starts the stunning comic anarchy of its last two acts. That bleakness never leaves the film, few lines have rung as bitter and true as “Nothing happened.” (one of the exceptions being “I fucked up my life because I like the way you sing.”)

Like all of Wright’s films The World’s End functions both as a parody of its genre and a superlative example of it. Ending with a kind of brazen pride in the fact that humanities defining attribute might be its ability to fuck things up. Now please tell me that Roger Moore has a part in Ant Man.
2. Upstream Color: Remember the first time you saw a David Lynch movie, before you were exposed to endless repetition, parody and attempts to ape his style. Remember the pervasive wrongness of it all and the horrid intractable logic behind it. Now take that feeling of unease and make it absolutely heart broken as two people try and rebuild in the aftermath of what can only be described as a mental rape, and you’ll maybe start to get why Upstream Color is among the most remarkable experiences I had in a theater this year.

1. The Wolf Of Wall Street: This is a film that’s almost hard to write about given just how infuriating some of the willful misinterpretations of it have been. Suffice to say if you cannot tell that Scorsese holds Belaforte and all that he represents in complete contempt, even after showcases a room full of men in five figure suit beating their chests and yowling like the apes at the beginning of 2001 before the monolith civilized them, even after he casts himself as Belaforte's first victim, even after he has them recreate part of Dryer’s Joan Of Arc, even after he has them repeat the Freaks chant for the love of Christ, then I’m not sure how you’ve found your way to the internet to deliver your opinions. Make no mistake this is Scorsese's depiction of hell no less than Shutter Island, with Matthew McConaughey serving as a cornpone Mephistopheles.

It is Scorsese’s genius that he doesn’t treat Belafortes story with any kind of dignity or gravitas but warps it into a degenerate farce. This is Scorsese’s most Felliniesque film (he would have loved the midget tossing) with displays of degenerency that would be at home in a surrealist film if they weren’t, you know, real. 

As far as I'm concerned at this point DiCaprio's collaboration with Scorsese is every bit the equal to Scorsese's with DeNiro. They both dig into to playing a character with no redeeming facets, nor any interest in acquiring them, DiCaprio in particular throwing himself into the role with such abandon that it makes the days when he passed on Patrick Bateman because he was afraid it'd look bad for his image seem like a surreal memory. Whether it's having a lit candle jammed up his ass, or the already legendary Quaaludes scene, a work of extended physical comedy that makes the most outlandish of Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey look restrained and dignified there's a dedication that's stunning.

71 years old and Scorsese still hits harder, more creativity and with better accuracy than filmmakers half his age can dream of. As long as he's making movies I look forward to many more years as good as this one.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Oh Bloody Hell Eleven Books Of 2013

11) The Flamethrowers:

Following a rootless young woman as she drifts from the Bonneville salt flats, through the pretentious art scene of 70’s New York and into violent revolution in Italy, The Flame Throwers paints a portrait of a character who is adrift in a world that is unmoored. Written with an eye for character, place, a wry sense of humor and a just this side of detached style that recalls vintage McMurtry, but wedded to a sinister undercurrent and global spanning, time slipping narrative that makes it feel like something else entirely, The Flamethrowers is hypnotic, ineffably disturbing and unlike anything else I read this year.

10) The Ocean At The End Of The Lane:

Neil Gaiman’s fable is deceptively slight and simple, but like all of the great man’s work it contains multitudes. Bringing the mystery and terror of childhood to life in a way that few books have. 

9) Double Feature:

What more canbe said of Double Feature than that one critical moment of schadenfreude made me laugh so hard in public that I actually disturbed passersby? It's not isolated either, and a consultation with a severely incapacitated poetry professor provoked a laugh nearly as loud. To give too much of the plot away would be the very definition of spoiling the fun, suffice it to say that Double Feature follows the estranged son of a B movie icon, whose own career as an aspiring director takes some unexpected turns. Intercutting a modern day Amisian farce with wistful remembrances of the initial fracturing of the father son relationship. Funny and humane, Double Feature's final chapters do wraps things up just a touch too neatly. But then again there are far worse sins for a novelist to have than an abundance of generosity towards his characters. Funny novelists are rare, funny novelists free of misanthropy are virtually as common as Dodos. I eagerly await King’s next book.

8) The Double:
Despite featuring what is without a doubt the worst author’s photo I have ever seen, George Pelecanos delivered a superb sequel to The Cut. As he did two decades ago with Nick’s Trip Pelecanos really finds his rhythm on his second go round. The Double deepens Spero Lucas, an Iraqi war veteran who works as a PI, making him a flawed man who try as he might can’t solve everything. And who Pelecanos seems to understand to his core. The plot of The Double starts with a neat set up and ends with a fray of unsolved strands and unavenged deeds, with Lucas not so much saving the day as performing triage the best he can. Pelecanos tends to abandon reoccurring characters after three or four books, but I truly hope he shoots for a longer run with Lucas. He has a rare hero here and despite his flaws Lucas earns that designation, one with a lot to learn and a lot to lose. Most authors would kill for a character this rich. I eagerly await seeing him do so.

7) In One Person:
About fifteen years ago Tom Wolfe engaged in a vicious feud with John Irving and I’m not even going to pretend I was on Irving’s side. But looking at their last two novels side by side I cannot help but feel that some particularly vicious act of literary karma has taken place. Wolfe has descended into shrill self parody going from one of the most engaged working writers to one of our most tone deaf, meanwhile Irving has produced two of his most vital works. Novels every bit as strong as those he wrote in his eighties heyday. I’m not saying Voodoo is involved but I’m not saying it’s not.

Either way In One Person is a remarkable novel. Crafted with Irving’s trademark open heartedness. This is simply put one of the most sympathetic novels, let alone mainstream novels, involving transgendered sexuality, or hell sexuality in general, that I've come across. Funny, tragic sweeping and generous In One Person shows Irving’s skills to be fully intact.

6 & 5) Doctor Sleep, Joyland

As do these two numbers. As I've written before I was genuinely frightened that reengaging with one of his best works would derail King’s late period winning streak, I needn't have feared. Doctor Sleep shows King doing what he does best, ripping into a porterhouse of a narrative, populating it with characters both light and dark worth getting invested in and setting up stakes that truly matter. King doesn't try and best The Shining, he just uses it as a base to tell one hell of a yarn. And if it takes it’s time getting started it’s only because how clearly it all matters to King, both the legacy of his original novel and Torrance’s experiences with addiction and recovery which feel nearly as raw as the material in On Writing.

Joyland, is a slighter novel, but no less pleasurable. Time, place and character have always been King’s tools as a novelist and Joyland excels at all three. Even if it does occasionally feel as though King would like to pull a Colorado Kid and just forget the whole mystery thing.  A few fans groused that together they represented a softer King, this being the same guy who recently wrote the end of Duma Key, Full Dark No Stars, and cheerfully BBQed an entire town at the climax of Under The Dome. But as I said of his son’s novel, generosity is no vice in a novelist.  Watching King practice his craft over the last seven years has been a pleasure. I can’t wait for the next three decades or so.

4) The Republic Of Thieves: Now this is an interesting little bugger. No one in the fantasy genre writes quite as well as Scott Lynch. Oh sure Patrick Rothfuss has the whole conversational literary style down pat, and Sanderson has his efficient world building and can plot like a mofo. But where Rothfuss can occasionally be ponderous when his humor fails him and slide into self parody when his reach exceeds his grasp (“Bless the moon for sending me this lusty young manling” and so forth) Lynch slides through his narratives with the propulsion of a con man convincing you to get a second mortgage. And while Sanderson makes his world building unobtrusive Lynch makes exploring his world feel not like a chore but fun

Lynch through fans for a loop by backing away from the high stakes of the first two novels for what seems like a particularly ingenious game of Spy Versus Spy. For all but the last thirty pages or so of the six hundred fifty page novel, all that seems at stake for the characters in The Republic Of Thieves is their hearts. It is testament to Lynch’s skill that seven year hiatus or no, this seems more than enough.  

3) You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me:

If you know Nathan Rabin, chances are you will be unprepared. I walked into You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, expecting one of Rabin’s trademark outsider looking in works. In the vein of his famous Year(s) Of Flops, or his sojourn through country music. That’s not what this is.

You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, is one of those happy books that increases your good opinion of the author (especially nice when you already like the author in question a great deal). Showing him capable of more than you expected. Simply put You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is self laceratingly honest, incredibly dedicated and howlingly funny. Rabin never condescends to his subject matter and instead throws himself into the loathed subculture of The Juggallos and Phishheads with an intensity that recalls Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. No I’m not shitting you.

Take that aforementioned work and mix it with the hurt, passion and soul of Scott Raab’s The Whore Akron and you might have some idea of what You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me reads like. Buy it. Buy it now. The next three books might be “better” but You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me is easily the most undervalued book of the year.

3)Bleeding Edge:

This is the first Thomas Pynchon novel that hasn't read as a period piece to me (which is not to say the first he has written) and to be honest that kind of sort of scares the shit out of me. But it’s hard to be unnerved for so long when the man holding the fun house mirror up to your own time is such a charming host. Bleeding Edge has all the head long energy, virtuosity, absurdest humor and manic paranoia of Pynchon’s best work. A cross between the Gospel according to Groucho Marx and Kafka’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Pynchon remains line by line the most brilliantly unpredictable writer I've come across. Like a man who walks into a drawing room with a sledgehammer which he uses to tap out a delicate version of Fur Elise. Slapstick broad one page (Perhaps no moment of my reading in 2013 was quite so odd as realizing that Thomas Pynchon had made a fucking Daikatana joke), almost unbearably delicate and poignant the next.

Like King Pynchon hasn't so much softened as he has chosen to highlight elements of his work that served as a background hum. Here he adds a wholly unexpected portrait of observant Judaism sans the usual neuroticism and regret, as well as a dedicated portrait of family life. Neither of which shield Pynchon’s heroine from his trademark waves of conspiracy and counter conspiracy and shadowy organizations who never quite coalesce. But which, Pynchon seems to suggest, might serve as consolation enough.

The world Pynchon writes is the world I see outside my own window (how perfectly Pynchonian was PRISM?) this is welcome news.

2) The Wes Anderson Collection: Matt Zoller Seitz’s The Wes Anderson Collection isn’t merely a scrupulous piece of criticism blended with an incisive career spanning interview. Instead it is a book with such a keen understanding of its subject that the book feels less like a book on Anderson as his films as it does an object from one of Anderson films. Few books have brought me as much pleasure. In fact only one book has…

1) N0S4A2: It seems dismissive to describe N0S4A2 as a complete blast and dishonest to call it anything else. At it’s core it’s a page turner, with a stripped down roaring engine of a story. The kind of book that has you glancing at your clock at 3AM as you try and convince yourself that you’ll function perfectly fine at work with five hours of sleep so you might sneak in a few more chapters.

But it only works that deviously because of how thoroughly Hill invests himself in his characters and in his world. N0S4A2 isn't a throwaway, and Hill’s empty devils and tattered angels aren't merely cardboard cut outs and or victims. But people who matter. Hill’s darkness is not simply the darkness of grotesquery but the darkness within the human heart, to be rejected or fed at our will. He gives evil its weight, and as a result good gets its own as well.

Simply put N0S4A2 is a great story told to its full potential by a master storyteller in full command of his craft. And if there’s anything better than that I haven’t found it. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unlockeing Keyhouse

After 5 years and 40 densely imaginative issues Locke & Key is drawing to a close on Wednesday. And I'm going to lose my monthly dose of literary smack.
So in tribute to what has been for my money the best book on the racks for over the last half decade. I want to do a little something different. Rather than look back on the highlights of the run I think I'll let you discover them for yourself.
But Locke & Key also offers a puzzle of another sort. Hill is a novelist and has peppered Locke & Key with all sorts of literary references. Some are fun tributes, others offer hints to the mechanics of Hill’s world offered nowhere else in the text, some might hint at whatever end is coming tomorrow. Here are a few of the more prominent ones.

H.P. Lovecraft: Locke & Key follows three siblings, Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, who move with their Mother from California to their ancestral home of Lovecraft, Maine in the wake of a family tragedy. There they find themselves heir to their family legacy, a series of reality bending keys. If you are in a horror story there are few worse ideas than moving to a place called Lovecraft Maine. Perhaps only Satansberg, OH and That-Place-Where-All-Those-Camp-Counselors-Were-Butchered, TN can compete.
The Lovecraft influence actually lay dormant for most of Locke & Key’s run as the book developed its own intricate mythology. But the Lovecraft DNA reared its head with a vengeance in the first issue of the Clockworks arc, “The Lockesmith’s Son”. Revealing (via a fantastic Drag Me To Hell reference) that the mysterious Black Door buried beneath the ancestral Locke home leads to the Lovecraftian Gods, the Great Old Ones. Making it approximately the 798th portal to the Great Old Ones that protagonists in horror fiction have stumbled upon.
I have mixed feelings about Hill making the Lovecraft connection explicit- well explicter. On one hand it’s not the first time Hill has used the device, his novella “Voluntary Committal” hinged on a similar reveal. But as Lovecraft himself noted, “…the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" and ironically Lovecraftian horror has become a very well known quantity. Hill’s homebrewed mythology was up until that point not. Which brings us to…

N0S4A2: In Hill’s latest (and absolutely phenomenal) novel, N0S4A2 the Locke Family makes a cameo on a list of Inscapers. N0S4A2 was an ambitious book, among other things it ties Hill’s previous work into one cohesive universe using the concept of Inscaping.
To simplify, Inscaping is the power to make imaginary things real, or to be more precise, the ability to bring the things inside of your head into the real world, whether they’re actual physical things or abstract concepts (such as when Kinsey Locke first removed and then imprisoned her capacity for grief and fear). Hill uses the Head Key to literalize the process, which allows characters to physically open the mind and access whatever is within it.
Inscapers can be benevolent or malevolent but all eventually pay a great price for the use of their ability. The Lockes are no exception.  
Bill Waterson: In one of the oddest stand alone issues, the first issue of Keys To The Kingdom, “Sparrow”, found Gabriel Rodriguez drawing almost the entire issue in the style of Bill Waterson. It tells the story of youngest Locke sibling, Bode, as he uses the keys to explore the wilderness, recruiting a flock of sparrows in the fight against the evil stalking the family.
What at first seems like an out of left field choice pays off brilliantly, utilizing Waterson’s signature style to bring the New England winter woods to starkly beautiful life. A simple, unshowy mastery and respect for nature and wildlife were always a hallmark of Watterson’s art. It’s put to beautiful use here, as is the emotional transparency of Watterson’s signature character style.
But the true brilliance of the reference comes at the end of the story. After all what is such a situation for a child than one of Calvin’s daydreams come to life, with the stakes risen to terrible proportions.
Ray Bradbury: Bradbury is one of Hill’s biggest, yet least cited influences. Hill has played with Bradburyian conventions before. His first published collection, 20th Century Ghosts, featured the short story “Last Breath” which could have come straight out of The October Country. He also contributed “By The Silver Water Of Lake Champlain” to the collection of Ray Bradbury tributes, Shadow Show.
The Locke & Key standalone “Open The Moon” finds Hill once again trying on Bradbury’s voice for size (the issue is dedicated to him). Exploring Bradbury’s style at his most wistful, “Open The Moon” tells the story of a Locke ancestor’s attempt to use the keys to create a refuge for his terminally ill son.
The story is true to Bradbury’s voice, paying tribute to his singular ability to blend whimsy and sentiment with melancholy, to take the awareness of the omnipresence of death and to use fantasy to disarm it.


The Tempest: But by far the text most central to Locke & Key is The Tempest. The image of the Shakespeare play performed with real magic is introduced in “Intermission” the first issue of Headgames, arguably the best issue of the entire run. It’s an event returned to time and again, the lynchpin that sealed the fate of the Locke family.
Echoes of The Tempest can be seen across Locke & Key. Like The Tempest, Locke & Key is about a child (or in this case children) kept in ignorance of their legacy by their parents. It also doesn’t take much to connect The Tempest’s magical character Ariel, sealed in a pine, to the main antagonist of Locke & Key the demonic Dodge who begins the story sealed in a well.
But I am most interested in how The Tempest might hint at the ending of Locke & Key. The Tempest ends with Prospero, a practicing sorcerer, drowning his book of spells. Given the handy grotto beneath Keyhouse, where several of the principles are now trapped, it’s possible that the story might end with The Locke children drowning their keys.
However, it is possible that another, darker, meaning is hinted at by the reference to The Tempest. After all among the play’s most famous lines is the phrase, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”
If you REALLY want to hear me geek out about Locke And Key (and other things Joe Hill) over an extended period of time, be sure to check out my book Son Of Danse Macabre, available on
The Kindle and Nook.  2.99 Cheep!

Friday, December 6, 2013

That Obscure Object Of Remakes With Potential That Somehow Do Not…

Since it was released a decade ago Oldboy has felt almost like a dare to American filmmakers. The shock still hasn’t come off of it. It is a caustic film, rage choked in a way that makes it feel legitimately dangerous on a level above the average foreign melodrama or fanboy geek show. And it accomplished this not because it pushed away from American ideals of filmmaking but because it embraced and made sweet unnatural love to them. Oldboy isn’t a great film because it’s unlike anything we’ve seen before, we know the tools it uses; a premise that is like some sort of Hitchcockian platonic ideal, an eye for action and a well shot showdown, a gripping mystery and a gloating villain. Like Oh Dae Su’s hammer, Oldboy takes these familiar tools and uses them to hurt us- to say nothing of the hero. And ever since Tarantino anointed it with the Grand Prix it’s like it's been grinning, asking, “Can you do the same? Can you still hit this hard? Play this rough?”

Well points for trying.

Out of all the directors who have taken up, and then put down the challenge I found Lee the most intriguing in a just crazy enough to work sort of way (yes even more than Spielberg- let’s face it fellas there was no way certain stuff was going to show up in a Spielberg movie, in one of his “This Is For A Serious Purpose” films such as Munich sure, but not one of his “entertainments.”) Sure it was nothing much like anything else in his filmography, but then again there’s no two films that are much like one another in Lee’s filmography. While there’s a certain image everyone has of a Spike Lee joint, he’s also able to put on other writer’s voices (albeit through his own filter) like Richard Price or David Benioff, step offstage for his documentaries and follow his various muses through the structures of musicals and biopics. Nothing in his filmography immediately made me think of him for Oldboy, both nothing discouraged that notion either.

It’s not even fair to stand by the old critical phrases like “interesting failure” when it comes to Oldboy, because Oldboy doesn’t so much fail as it does succeed at aims that no one else is going for. It’s as though Lee invented an alloy that no one knows what to do with, let alone wants.

The smartest decision Lee makes with the material (and oddly enough the one he seems loath to admit to) is setting the film in New Orleans. By transplanting Oldboy into the south, he transforms the story into an maniac Southern Gothic. It’s one of those head slapping, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that,” ideas, because it’s the only Western context in which Oldboy can even be parsable. Set Oldboy anywhere else and the long imprisonment and web of incest at the heart of its plot would seem outlandish, but in the south, well that just feels like another day in Yoknapatawpha County.

Brolin does dedicated work bringing “Joe Doucett” to life. Both as the grieving monster he becomes when he’s unleashed and as the tormented figure he embodies when he’s torn down again and again. The hotel sequence at least matches the original, and nearly tops it with Lee cooking up a vignette involving a short lived pet of Brolin’s that’s more personally cruel than anything that happened to Oh Dae Su. When he’s unleashed, he’s less showy than Min-sik Choi’s performance, but arguably more damaged. In one key substitute Lee exchanges a scene where Dae Su fought a street gang in some generic violence, with Joe going up against some well meaning Dudebros in the middle of a pick up game, who as far as they know are merely trying to prevent an assault. Brolin nearly cripples them. There’s a real sense that he may no longer be a man fit to be released. That the damage done to him has already run too deep and may be permanent.

And it’s moments like these that make it all the more frustrating when Oldboy just goes dead for long periods of time. Including the infamous Hammer sequence which now plays out with all the impact of Side Scroller The Movie (though interestingly enough Lee has a much better handle on the up close and personal violence that precedes it). There are some, well let’s call them deliberate, choices that make up the film. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Sharlto Copley fan than I, but man I’m not sure what’s going on here. I’m not going to be as condemnatory as nearly every other review I read, because it feels like he was giving Lee exactly what he was asking for. But he plays the mastermind, the cancerous heart of the mystery, as history's most malignant Upper Class Twit Of The Year contestant.

His character is Lee’s most overt political statement in the film, portraying the one percent as decadent and depraved lunatics. Emphasized by one of the few deviations from the plot that Lee makes underlines this with a sequence, that once again, only works if you’re thinking of Oldboy as a Southern Gothic.

Lee does makes some other changes to the ending, though not the one you are thinking of, credit Elizabeth Olsen for not flinching from the material (and while we’re at it Michael Imperiolli does well and Samuel Jackson seems to be having the most fun). And, just for a little extra kick of confusion out the door, I’m reasonably sure I find this ending more satisfying than the original’s.

So here we have a movie equal parts infuriating and fascinating. One that strings perhaps forty minutes of electric scenes between eighty minutes of dead weight. I can’t in good consciousness recommend Oldboy to anyone as a film. But I would absolutely recommend anyone who was interested see it as an experiment. I guess at the end of the day I feel like my biggest problem is that if someone were to capture Spike Lee and pose him two all important questions of his own, “Why a remake?” and “Why this film?” I’m not sure he could answer.

And now to a remake that I’ve just been plain too dispirited to write about until Oldboy got me thinking about it again.

Let me be perfectly clear, there are other directors whose underuse disappoints me. Kim Peirce is the only one who makes me angry.

It’s not just because she’s an auteurist woman working in a field where both are in short supply. It’s because she’s really fucking good. If the director of Boys Don’t Cry and Stop Loss had a nine and five year gap between films respectively and was named Jim Bob I would still be pissed. And unlike so many films that get shucked for their last ounce of name recognition Carrie was ripe for reinterpretation.

Few works capture the nastiness of adolescence as sharply as Carrie. The rage, the isolation, the loneliness, the thwarted potential, none of it has aged a jot. And in the wake of cyber bullying scandals, school violence and the highly publicized rash of gay teen suicides Carrie hardly needed to remind anyone that it was still a pertinent, potent piece of material.  So let’s just recap. We have a remake that is:

A)     More socially relevant than ever.

B)      Despite the excellence of the previous adaptation, there was material in King’s novel that just couldn’t be portrayed at the time, most of Carrie’s apocalyptic final rampage was excised. Leaving plenty of plumb new material to mine for the new adaptation.

C)      Would be helmed by a director who not only would almost have to offer a more interesting take on the gender politics than Brian DePalma, who has always had a well let’s just call it complicated relationship with women, but who knows the rhythms of small town life in her bones. This was someone who wouldn’t just make Carrie matter, she’d make it hurt.

So there you have it. A remake with a bonafide reason, strike that, multiple reasons to exist.  Why the only way they could screw it up is if they ignored the book completely, pretended that the last thirty five years never happened, and just readapted DePalma’s film!

…anybody want to guess what they did?

It’s hard to know who to be mad at with Carrie. Sure Chloe Moretz was miscast, but she does honorable work, and she’s able make at least one line near the end really hurt. I understand that Peirce may not have had as free of a hand as she was accustomed to and some of her detractors have been unfair in their criticism of her handling of her horror material, there’s at least one gore gag here that goes cheekily far, and while her prom scene may not match DePalma’s it has its moments. Julianne Moore does fine work as Margret White. It would be easy enough to call it a hard won single, off of what should have been an easy grand slam.

And yet, the sheer, stubborn unwillingness of Carrie to engage with anything leaves such rationalizing feeling hollow. There’s NOTHING new here, no unused material from the book, no attempt to understand the new kind of bullying that will follow kids home through their computer, no attempt to portray how questions of sexuality are used as an attack, no new empathy, no new insight. It might as well have been titled Carrie! Again! And that’s the last thing it should have been.

Well it made money at least, which means that maybe Peirce’s next film will get off the Launchpad a bit easier. But now her all too short CV carries something else new. A disappointment.

Oh also I saw Frozen, it was pretty neat.      

Friday, October 18, 2013

31 Days Of Horror: The 31 Dayening: Doctor Sleep

There’s no point in mincing words, I’ve been dreading Doctor Sleep pretty much since it’s been announced. Not in a good way either. I’ve been a big proponent of King’s late period. By my mark everything he’s written since Cell has been worth reading and a good deal of it (particularly Full Dark No Stars) deserves mention among the best work he’s done. While the last seven years haven’t been entirely without missteps (I still say Under The Dome stumbles at the finish line) taken as a whole the body of work King has produced is incredibly strong.

This did nothing to bolster my confidence in Doctor Sleep.

The Shining is a perfect popular novel. If you have any interest in writing genre fiction, not just horror fiction, you owe it to yourself to read it. It’s a freaking machine. The word page turner is often used dismissively, but the construction of The Shining, the way every revelation baits you deeper and deeper into the book is a thing of beauty. And it’s all in the service of a story with so much empathy and hurt that it matters. The fact that the book is scary as hell almost seems like a bonus. That’s not the kind of thing you can just replicate. Particularly thirty five years after the fact.

And as details on Doctor Sleep leaked out it didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The initial premise, Danny Torrance working at a hospice where he helps ease his patient’s transition into death, sounded promising, but then King announced that “psychic vampire pirates” would be in the mix and sometime after that I trained myself to stop reading articles about Doctor Sleep.

So color me pleasantly surprised that Doctor Sleep is a complete blast of a novel, it might not have the ambition of 11/22/63, it might not be as introspective as Duma Key, or push his limits like Lisey’s Story. But it ranks among King’s most purely entertaining work. God help me I never thought I’d type this, but the story in which Danny Torrance battles what for all the world reads like the world’s first NC-17 Sailor Moon villain, ends up being not merely an entertaining read but a genuinely satisfying conclusion (continuation?) to The Shining.

After a brief prologue Doctor Sleep opens with Danny Torrance as a wreck, having followed his father’s footsteps much closer than the ending of The Shining would have you guess. Drifting and self destructive Danny finds himself drawn to a New England town where he joins AA, finds work at a hospice, and prepares himself for a destiny he can faintly see coming.

Doctor Sleep is one of those happy books were even its flaws end up working for it. At first The True Knot, arguably the best villains that King has cooked up since Annie Wilkes, and their carny slang patois seem jarring and out of place. But they end up being conduits for the sheer love of language that has always been one of King’s best qualities. No other popular novelist has King’s pure pleasure in playing with words, deconstructing them into babble, smashing together disparate bits of counter slang into inimitable phrases. It takes Doctor Sleep a bit to kick into its main plot, but that’s only because the AA material is so obviously heartfelt. And if Doctor Sleep, like this year’s Joyland, is kinder gentler King, with characters he can’t quite bring himself to really put the screws to, he’s still capable of hitting hard enough in the early goings of the story that you never take anyone’s safety for granted.

Heartfelt, funny, and genuinely eerie at times, far from derailing King’s late period resurgence as I feared it might Doctor Sleep continues it in high style. Hail to the king baby.