Monthly Archives: August 2013

That’s My Jam #3: Dr. Octagon, ‘Earth People’

Writer’s note: This is another in my That’s My Jam series, an attempt to reclaim the phrase for real music fans, the type of people who quit listening once the word “Kardashian” pops up in conversation.

I went a bit more conventional with the first two in my That’s My Jam series (No. 1 and No. 2), so I decided to get weird on No. 3. And if you’re going to get weird, Kool Keith – aka Dr. Octagon – is a good place to start.

The character Dr. Octagon is an extraterrestrial, time-traveling gynecologist. I don’t know that I’d recommend the Dr. Octagonecologyst disc in its entirety, but Earth People is a wonderful window into the freak show. The low rumbling bass, Kool Keith’s surreal lyrics and unusual delivery all combine for a track that reminds me a bit of less smooth version of OutKast’s ATLiens.

So get down, Earth People. And don’t take candy from strangers in flying saucers.

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Judging a book by its cover… it’s worked OK for me

When I go to the library, I often have a book or two in mind that I intend to pick up. But what I started doing last summer was picking up a book from the new releases or featured books stands as well. Not anything I’d ever heard of or from authors I knew. Just judge the books by their covers, and pick one I think I might like. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results, and here I share some of my favorites.

The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand, Gregory Galloway – Adam Strand never dies. He shoots himself, hangs himself, throws himself off of bridges. In fact, it happens so often, he now awakes in his own bed after each attempt, as everyone in town knows not to take him to the hospital. Strand is a disconnected, bored, troubled teen with one sole focus: To figure out how to die. However, as is often the case, it’s about the journey, not then end. Strand realizes he is more connected to his family and friends than he ever realized. I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s considerably less dark than it sounds, and considerably more hopeful. Galloway does a terrific job with Adam’s growth and setting up the community around him.

Four Stages of Cruelty, Keith Hollihan – My least favorite of this group, but still good. Cruelty develops at a reasonable pace, then seems like it ends too quickly. I felt like I need just a bit more development, particularly late in the second act. In this the tale of a female prison guard in a men’s prison who wanders into a conspiracy she is in no way prepared to handle, Hollihan does a tremendous job of building paranoia and, when the time comes, chaos and fear.

Panopticon, Jenny Fagan – Dark. Let me repeat that: Daaaaaark. For anyone who has been a victim of abuse, this novel could trigger some serious issues, so be careful. But this story of a British orphan trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be while struggling to survive the public foster and orphanage system is also intense and, in its own twisted way, hopeful. Oh, and it’s dark. Very, very dark.

Redshirts, John Scalzi – If you’re a Trekkie, this is a must. I really only have a passing familiarity with the original Star Trek cast, and I thought it was hilarious. What if you found out that you weren’t really explorers, soldiers and adventurers conquering the galaxy, but just expendable secondary characters on a sci-fi TV show … and not a very good one? At one point, a direct connection is made to Star Trek, but I won’t ruin the moment. Scalzi, I’d be willing to bet, had more fun than any of his readers while concocting this tale.

The Vindico, Wesley King – A group of teens learn they have super powers, and they’ve been assembled to train and learn how to harness their abilities … by the bad guys. This is geared more toward a male tween audience, but the tale is fun, in the spirit of the Artemis Fowl series. The nut of this novel is that the kids learn that the good guys aren’t always that good, and the bad guys may not be quite the villains they’ve been portrayed to be. The troubled, gifted teens must figure out where they fit into the fight. I haven’t read the sequel, Feros, yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

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An end in sight?

I don’t write a lot about my novel-in-progress, precisely because this blog is more my opportunity to both get away from it for a bit, as well as take a critical look at the work of others to see what I can learn from what others have done. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty boring to listen to people gripe about their works-in-progress.

But this isn’t a gripe. I sat down today and looked at my notes, trying to figure out just what exactly I needed to do. And that list is a lot smaller than I expected. I have about a half-dozen chapters to write, and another 3 or 4 – including the end – that will need some re-writing.

Twenty nine chapters in total. It’s right in front of me that beautiful, terrifying finish. I can hardly believe it.

Of course, maybe I shouldn’t be too excited. I’m sure there will be much re-writing to be done after I’ve received some notes on this draft.

Maybe it’s more like the beginning of the end. Still, it feels pretty good.

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Ballet movie showdown: ‘Suspiria’ vs. ‘Black Swan’

The pyschedelic peacock was one of my favorite parts of "Suspiria" ... no, I'm not kidding.

The psychedelic peacock was one of my favorite parts of “Suspiria” … no, I’m not kidding.

Suspiria, 1977

I have a lot less respect for my fellow fanboys now. Suspiria, the allegedly classic horror film from Italian horror master Dario Argento, is awful. Calling the writing sophomoric raises it a couple of grade levels from where it really is. The direction veers from brilliant – when the blind pianist walks through the vast, open courtyard in the middle of the night, it’s the one truly frightening, suspenseful scene in the film – to juvenile – the close up of the knife in the heart, to name just one. The acting – or maybe I should say “acting” – makes Denise Richards’ performance as Dr. Christmas Jones in the Bond flick The World is Not Enough seem positively Oscar-worthy. Although give the actors credit: They were given absolutely nothing to work with when it came to the script, and some were not speaking their native language. And the special effects … well, yeah. I don’t expect cheapy 1970s horror effects to be great, but I do expect the director not to actually draw attention to how awful they are every step of the way, unless you’re going a funnier route, a la The Evil Dead. The only consistently good parts of this film are the soundtrack provided by the Italian band Goblin, and the intensely colorful set design, making the school and the surrounding city a huge part of the film to the extent that I sometimes found myself ignoring what was actually happening on screen to absorb the surroundings.

But my reaction is that of a 40-year-old man seeing it for the first time. As a kid, would this have creeped me out? And I don’t think it would. I know if I showed it to my kids – ages 9 and 11 – they would have laughed, if they paid attention at all. They’ve seen scarier, more attention-grabbing drama on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hell, my kids have seen more terror on episodes of the TV series Goosebumps.

It’s bad. And not good enough to be good bad, either.

Black Swan, 2010

Black Swan is everything Suspiria is not: Suspenseful, methodical, intense. Every shot director Darren Aronofsky selects has purpose and serves the story, such as the brief but telling shot of the broken ballerina spinning on Nina’s music box. Argento seems to throw shots together simply because they’re “unique.” In the scene where Suzy seeks guidance from a psychiatrist, the oddly framed over-the-shoulder shots, the shot of the reflection of the talking pair and the absurd shot of the psychiatrist from the ground where it is his small head in front of a big blue sky are unnecessary and indulgent. Where Argento bathes his film in color with little or no discernment, Aronofsky sticks to black, white, gray, brown, picking and choosing brighter colors for specific purposes: Using the pink in Nina’s room to convey immaturity and innocence, reserving red for the explosive look in Nina’s eyes when her madness and passion come to life, as well as for the blood of Nina’s rampage that spurs the final act of the film. Argento’s actors wear their emotions on their sleeves until they become an overused accessory. Natalie Portman’s Nina is shut off from her emotions, bottling her passion up until it explodes, then keeps attempting to tamp it back down until she can control it no more and it runs wild. Black Swan‘s script builds a story of madness around the physically demanding schedule of dance, diet and discipline of the ballet world. Suspiria could have been set at a girl’s school, a winery or a supermarket, because ballet plays no real role of import in the movie.

Is it unfair to compare Black Swan and Suspiria? Well, yes, to an extent, largely because Portman’s paycheck for Black Swan probably could have paid for Suspiria. However, Aronofsky has shown his ability to be brilliant despite his budget on three separate occasions: Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. Sometimes it’s less about budget, more about having a clear vision. And that, ultimately, is where Black Swan succeeds and Suspiria fails.

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Olsen’s lead performance raises ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

Elizabeth Olsen is captivating as a confused, impressionable young woman who escapes a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Elizabeth Olsen is captivating as a confused, impressionable young woman who escapes a cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene.

In the lead-up to this fall’s release of Spike Lee’s re-make of one of my favorite films – Oldboy, a movie I mention on this blog with some frequency (such as here and here) – I’ve been pretty excited with what I’ve seen. Josh Brolin is the lead, Sharlto Copley is the man pulling Brolin’s strings and Sam Jackson who, well, let’s face it, pretty much makes everything better.

The only question mark on the cast, as far as I was concerned, was the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Elizabeth. Other than knowing she has a sterling reputation for her performances in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House, I knew nothing about her. So to get a feeling for Olsen, I recently watched Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I was duly impressed.

Olsen is Martha, a girl whose mother is dead, father is … no longer in the picture, and an older sister who was off at college while all of this was family upheaval was happening. Martha is left in the care of her aunt, but ends up leaving to live with a cult for more than two years, which is where we meet her. Martha escapes the cult and calls her older sister to come get her.

Olsen has two roles to play. Marcy May is the name given to her by the cult leader, a charismatic young man named Patrick (John Hawkes). Patrick explains to her that family and society have let her down, that she’s special, a teacher, ready to help the world. He singles her out for favor, even writing and playing a song for her. Fairly idyllic … until the initiation, where Marcy May is drugged by one of her fellow female cult members, then awakened with the jostling of Patrick’s rape, dubbed a rebirth. Later, a new girl enters the picture, and Marcy May is pushed to the side, becoming one of the Marlenes, the name that all of the female cult members use when answering the phone. Abandoned again and a witness to a murder committed by one of the cult members with the blessing and aid of Patrick, that is when Martha is moved to call her sister and leave the group.

That is all seen in flashback. In the now, Martha is clearly in shock, possibly suffering from PTSD. She simultaneously fears the cult yet is drawn to return to the familiarity of her former life and the comfort of her relationships with fellow cult members. Martha has been stripped of her innocence, yes, but also of her social knowledge. She is blunt and occasionally rude with her comments to her sister, Lucy, and her sister’s new husband. When she goes to take a swim, she strips completely and dives in, returning to shore when Lucy chastises her for her nudity. Unable to sleep, she lays down in her sister’s bed … while Lucy and her husband are in the middle of making love.

Olsen handles it all with the aplomb of a much older actor. Her sincerity and uncertainty as a young cult member seeking acceptance, her fear as she realizes she is in over her head, her inability to connect with her achiever sister and brother-in-law, the guilt her memories bring her, the paranoia that the cult may come for her by force because of what she knows. A lesser actress would have been tempted to go over the top with it. Olsen’s performance is one of subtlety and nuance. (And kudos to the writer/director Sean Durkin and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier, who both do a brilliant job behind the scenes.)

I look forward to seeing what Olsen brings to Oldboy. I might not even wait, and check her out in Silent House, as well.

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That’s My Jam #2: Tupac feat. Dr. Dre, “California Love”

There’s no need to explain this one. ‘Pac at the top of his game, with Dre laying down some of the best West Coast funk production of all time. Shake it baby, shake it.

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A taste of Hitchcock, via South Korea

One, big happy Stoker family

One, big happy Stoker family

I remember how excited I was when it was announced that John Woo would direct Mission Impossible II. I’m a huge fan of his pre-U.S. work, such as Hard Boiled, and I thought Face Off was diabolically trashy. The first Mission Impossible was criticized as being too confusing (a charge I still don’t understand), and Woo was to bring his guns-blazing brilliance to the franchise.

That didn’t work so well. Yes, it made a ton of money, as anything with the words “Tom Cruise” and “Mission Impossible” stamped on it will. But the movie itself was horrible. It was like a collection of over-stylized John Woo clichés (can the man have people shoot each other without doves appearing amid the bullets?) resulting in a big dumb mess of a movie. As one of my pals likes to point out, how can you have a movie where the heroes face a set deadline yet you NEVER SHOW A CLOCK?

So on the one hand, when I heard Park Chan-wook, director of Oldboy, one of my favorite films, was going to make his first English-language flick, I was excited. On the other hand, I met the news with some trepidation, worried that I might be Woo-ed once again.

Fortunately, that was not the case. The word “Hitchcock” got thrown around a lot of reviews for this film, and I can see why. The deliberate pacing, the tightly wound characters, the sudden bursts of madness and violence. It’s not hard to make connections between Stoker and Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. Chan-wook’s brilliance is that Stoker does a satisfactory job of being an homage without becoming derivative, maintaining its own unique vision with dribs and drabs of the horror master’s classic thrown in.

The story is about the Stoker family and starts the day of India’s (Mia Wasikowska) 16th birthday, which coincides with the day of her father’s death. India is a favorite of her father, who gives her a pair of saddle shoes for every birthday, his attempt to preserve her youth and innocence. The innocence of his youth was shattered when his middle brother, Charlie, killed their youngest brother, then only a toddler, and he is determined nothing like that will happen to India.

India and her mother know nothing of Charlie’s (Matthew Goode aka Ozymandias of Watchmen) violent history and have never met him until the day of her father’s funeral, when he shows up at her home and starts to make nice with India’s mom, the repressed, delusional and bitter Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Charlie starts to worm his way into Evelyn’s heart and bed, becoming a younger, more attentive version of his brother. At the same time, Charlie begins to stalk India, attempting to become her confidante. The madness spirals downward from there.

The movie does occasionally suffer from over-stylization, which, admittedly, is Chan-wook’s weakness (see his Three Extremes contribution, Cut). But those are brief moments. Overall, Chan-wook’s vision – which involves plenty of unique framing techniques that emphasize small details which reveal much – works well.

The performances elevate Stoker, even in its weaker moments. We never really know if India’s murderous feelings have developed because of her relationship with Uncle Charlie, or if Uncle Charlie’s tutelage merely helped reveal the killer within. India’s coming of age is awkward and uneasy, but most importantly, believable. Goode’s restrained performance almost seems too pat until it comes time to unmask the predator under the surface. The glint in Charlie’s eyes when he starts to realize that India is blossoming under his guidance is disturbing and dead on. And how Kidman wasn’t at least nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award shows just how foolish – and commerce-driven – the Academy is. Kidman is the ultimate wealthy elitist, literally living in a world of her own creation on the top floor of her home, drinking pricey wine and joyful in the fact that her inattentive husband has been replaced by a younger, more virile version of himself. When she starts to lose her grip on Charlie, losing him to her daughter, the resentment and jealousy reveal just how poisoned Evelyn’s soul really is.

Step into Stoker, and enjoy the madness.

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