Monthly Archives: December 2014

‘Winter’s Bone’ performance made Lawrence obvious choice for Katniss

The future Katniss Everdeen starved and fought in the wilds of Missouri before she took on the powers of Panem.

The future Katniss Everdeen starved and fought in the wilds of Missouri before she took on the powers of Panem.

A while back during a semi-anti-Moby Dick rant, I professed my love for the Daniel Woodrell novel Winter’s Bone. The story of a 17-year-old girl living in rural, cloistered Missouri follows her as she attempts to find her crank-cooking father, who, if she can’t get him to court in time, will cost them the family home he put up for bail. Then Ree would be left to care for her two younger siblings and mentally unstable mother without a roof over their heads.

Winter’s Bone is compact, pulse-pounding, a book that’s hard to read because you know even if you get a happy ending, it’s probably not going to be all that happy.

I applaud Debra Granik and those behind the screen adaptation of Winter’s Bone. They captured the poverty, the grind, the inevitability of violence that permeates the book. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific, a mix of determination and fear driving her every action. You really can watch this – a teenage girl protecting a younger sibling(s), no dad in the mix, violence around every corner, poverty and starvation the norm – and see precisely why Lawrence earned the role of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies. Hell, watch Winter’s Bone and you’ll wonder why they ever bothered auditioning anyone else to play the Mockingjay.

I also want to credit the filmmakers for making me re-think the book. On the page, the constant rejection by everyone around Ree seems to be simply the product of a cloistered society that relies on illegal income. Nobody wants to say anything because nobody wants to be labeled a snitch. It’s the code of Ozarks, cut and dried. In the film, it feels more personal. Ree is the daughter of a snitch, and who knows, maybe that shit’s genetic? When she is turned away time and time again by those who might help, it comes off as less about the code and more personal, a rejection of who they believe Ree is, the daughter of Jessup the dead rat. It doesn’t change the plot or outcome at all, but it adds a ripple and separates it from the novel just a hint.

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Robinson-Heinlein mix natural in ‘Variable Star’

The idea of one writer picking up the pre-planned novel of an author who has passed doesn’t sit easy with me, and, I would imagine, with most readers. It’s just not going to be the same as it would have been had the original writer run with the concept, and sometimes those gaps or failings are going to be glaring. Plus, it feels disrespectful to the work of the dead artist.

Unless, apparently, you are Spider Robinson taking over a Robert Heinlein project. In which case everything comes up roses.

Heinlein wrote the notes and outline for the book Variable Star in 1955, got distracted by other work and never came back to it. After the death of Heinlein’s wife, the notes were found by Heinlein’s children, Robinson was offered the chance to complete the project, and Variable Star hit bookshelves in 2006.

It’s really a terrific mix of the two authors. Orphaned teen Joel is ready to set out and become a musician, gets his world rocked by his love interest that jump starts a massive identity crisis, and instead jumps on the first spaceship he can find to travel light years away to be a colonist on a previously unsettled planet. If you’ve ever read any Heinlein, you know it isn’t that straightforward. The requisite Heinlein oddities and twists are all there. There were even moments where Robinson truly captured Heinlein’s voice, and those times usually left me laughing.

What’s great about it is that Robinson, while staying very much true to Heinlein’s story and style, is also able to add his own touches that really round out the work. One example that strikes me is when Joel starts to have a mental breakdown and is forced to seek counseling. Heinlein had a more brusque style, I think in part generational and in part the natural outcome of a writer who was trying to crank out product to feed his family. Plus, I think Heinlein tended to get excited about the concept and was less into creating nuanced characters of great depth, because that wasn’t what he was about. Robinson adds a sensitivity that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have, creating sympathy for Joel as he tries to find his way after having his world rocked. In other chapters, where there is less action and more of Joel figuring out who he is and what he is or should be doing, Robinson’s hand is felt similarly, keeping the story interesting as well as letting it move at the leisurely pace someone on a long spacecraft voyage would be operating at.

If you’re a Heinlein fan and you have any doubts, don’t. Yes, it’s not a Heinlein novel in the purest sense. It’s a collaboration, and because of that, it’s a beast all its own. But what a beautiful beast it is.

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I wouldn’t say you can’t knock the ‘Hustle’

This movie was worth it just to get Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale to sport those hair cuts.

This movie was worth it just to get Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale to sport those hair cuts.

American Hustle was a lot of fun. The hair, the clothes, the performances … the hair. It’s worth the two hours just to see Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld put on his rug.

But as a whole movie … there was something lacking. To me, it felt a little predictable. I knew Irving and Sydney (Amy Adams) were going to walk away unscathed. I’m not saying I knew how they were going to pull it off, but there was an air of inevitability to the proceedings. It doesn’t take away from all of the wonderful things David O. Russell and his cast and crew did here, but it left me with an empty feeling as I kept waiting to get sucked in deeper. I prefer a lot of Russell’s earlier catalogue – Flirting With Disaster, Spanking the Monkey, Three Kings – when compared to Hustle. There’s a freshness and unpredictability to each of those offerings that American Hustle just doesn’t have.

That said, you could do a lot worse than American Hustle. Bale, Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and others all bring their A game. The film looks great – lighting, settings, clothes, makeup, etc. – and the soundtrack is pretty cool, as well.

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Favorite 40 songs of 2014

27, Passenger – A 27-year-old takes stock of his life. Witty, intelligent and occasionally sad.

1,000 Deaths, D’Angelo – D’Angelo emerges from his hibernation to drop one of the more interesting discs of 2014. Welcome back.

Avant Gardner, Courtney Barnett – Stream-of-consciousness psychedelic folk. Plus Barnett uses “emphysema” as a verb.

Bad News, Sleeper Agent – Love him or hate him? To be decided …

Blinded, The Bots – Not sure either of these brothers is old enough to drink. They are, however, old enough to kick musical ass.

Come Back Home, Trampled By Turtles – Amp the speed up to ludicrous and belt out top-notch bluegrass tunes. Repeat as necessary.

Dat Sound Good, PRhyme feat. Ab-Soul and Mac Miller – DJ Premier always sound good. Here, teamed up with Royce da 5’9″ and guests Ab-Soul and Mac Miller, the track rolls as the rhymers raise their game to keep up.

Dead Man’s Tetris, Flying Lotus feat. Captain Murphy and Snoop Dogg – I love it when hip-hop experiments. The production is unique and other-worldly, and Snoop lends the most familiar voice in the rap game to ground the track.

Don’t Mess With Me, Brody Dalle – Mrs. Josh Homme cranks out no-nonsense, ballsy rock.

Doses & Mimosas, Cherub – Probably my favorite song of 2014, and definitely not in my wheelhouse. A hedonistic, electro-funk disco kiss off that may be one of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard.

Eye to Eye, Lee Bains & The Expressions – Soul music, done right.

FUNKNROLL, Prince – Ah, funky Prince sticks his head up again. Feels so damn good.

Guns + Ammunition, July Talk – I keep going back and forth on this one or Summer Dress. These Canadians are responsible for one of the best live shows I witnessed in 2014. Can’t wait to see them again.

High & Wild, Angel Olsen – A swirling haze of distorted guitars wrapped around Angel’s stoned, vulnerable voice.

I Just Don’t Understand, Spoon – Spoon’s always known how to ride a groove, but they upped their songwriting game on 2014’s They Want My Soul.

Indie Cindy, The Pixies – Classic Pixie sound, new Pixie song.

Jolly Fucker, Sleaford Mods – These guys land somewhere between iconoclastic Sex Pistols and Brit hip-hop star The Streets, a mix of UK punk attitude and stoner rap.

Just Another Bullet, Young Fathers – I’m not sure you can really go wrong with anything from Dead, but Just Another Bullet has some of the most interesting production I heard in the past year.

Legs, Chuck Inglish feat. Chromeo – A former Cool Kid teams up with the latest neo-funk stars for a track that should have been banging out of every third car over the course of the summer of 2014.

Like a Mighty River, St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Soul music, effortless and classic.

Little Monster, Royal Blood – Just a bass player and a drummer cranking out thick, deep, melodic metal.

Littlest League Possible, Guided By Voices – So GBV imploded in 2014? Bob Pollard will likely be back with seventy-two albums in 2015, so you won’t get much of a chance to miss the genius of this Midwestern songwriter.

Love You Forever, Jenny Lewis – If only Jenny’s output was at a rate closer to that of Bob Pollard and Guided by Voices. But you won’t hear me complaining about the final product.

Madness, King Tuff – If this was 1983, I’d be calling this “rad.” I’ll stick with that.

The Map, Parkay Quarts – Parquet Courts’ alter ego dropped this little nugget of madness late in the year.

Means to be a Woman, Brother O’ Brother – Bluesy Indiana rock of the highest order.

My Mama Said Be Careful Where You Lay Your Head, The Wind and the Wave – This is one of those songs where the first time you hear it, you’ll be singing along by the second chorus. And by that point, you’ll have already been stomping your feet and clapping your hands through the verses.

My Resignation, Besserbitch – A chewy nugget of punk-pop rage.

New American Standard, Wussy – Sometimes, nice and easy works. This stripped-down rock cut exemplifies that.

Not the End of the World (Even as We Know It), Faded Paper Figures – “Yeah / It’s hard / But it’s not the end of the world / Not even as we know it.”

Oblivious, Jessica Lee Mayfield – Hints of Mazzy Star and Sleater-Kinney. I just love the guitar sound.

Question Everything, Logic – Quit listening to the lies and bullshit and see the truth. #logicforpresident

Raw Milk, Parquet Courts – When I hear Parquet Courts, I think of a lot of good 1990’s bands: Pavement, Sonic Youth, Slint, etc. Courts manage to reflect those influences while crafting their own sound.

Talk to God, Goat – It’s interesting and a bit hypnotic, rock grounded in folk tradition.

Two Weeks, FKA twigs – Twig’s album, LP1, is incredibly overrated. That said, promise shines through on tracks such as this one.

Violent Shiver, Benjamin Booker – Unrestrained blues rock that’ll have you bouncing off the walls.

Watch You Change, Drowners – I said it earlier this year, these rockers have one of my favorite lines of 2014: “There’s not a shoulder / cold enough for me / to give her.”

Welcome to America, Lacrae – Fight for your country and return, only to be targeted as a thug or gangster by the society you served. Welcome to America, indeed.

West Coast, Lana Del Rey – This and Brooklyn Baby drew me into Lana’s web.

On the bubble: Brand New, Pharrell feat. Justin Timberlake; Bring Me Your Loves, St. Vincent; Brooklyn Baby, Lana Del Rey; Chaghaybou, Tinariwen; Change My Ways, Tony Molina; Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck), Run the Jewels feat. Zach de la Rocha; Disco Shit, Cherub; D.R.E.A.M., Pharoahe Monch feat. Talib Kweli; Drown With the Monster, White Lung; Emerald Tuesday, Cibo Matto; Fall in Love, Phantogram; God & Nature, Loudon Wainwright III; I Don’t Wanna Go Home, Curtis Harding; I Wanna Be a Yank, Fucked Up; Jerk Ribs, Kelis; Lonely Sunday, Reignwolf; Longer Than You’ve Been Alive, Old ’97s; Lost Boys, Sir Michael Rocks feat. Mac Miller and Trinidad James; Never, The Roots feat. Patty Crash; Other Lovers, Devon Dubois; Owen, Frankie Cosmos; People Don’t Get What They Deserve, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings; Porkpig, Logic; Riff Randall, Sleeping Bag; Rollercoaster, Bleachers; Sexy Socialite, Chromeo; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Flaming Lips feat. My Morning Jacket, Fever the Ghost and J. Mascis; Strut, Lenny Kravitz; … to the bars, Sterile Jets

Honorable mentions: Ain’t So Simple, Protomartyr; American Horror, Speedy Ortiz; Black and White, Parquet Courts; Blind Faze, TOPS; Blue Moon, Beck; Bobby Reid, Lucette; Can’t Break Me Down, Billy Idol; Cedar Lane, First Aid Kit; China, BRONCHO; Creepin’ Jenny, The Pack a.d.; Dog Bumped (Live), Tim Barry; Don’t Leave Me Dry, Spanish Gold; Faithless, Black Veil Brides; Frequencies, Katie Herzig; Ghost & Pains, Wildbirds & Peacedrums; Heady Ways, Fly Golden Eagle; Heavy Metal and Reflective, Azaelia Banks; I Am Me, Logic; I’ll Go To Sleep, BLUFFING; I’m Only Joking, Kongos; The Impasse, Hookworms; Interference Fits, Perfect Pussy; Just One Drink, Jack White; Life of Sin, Sturgill Simpson; Long Gone, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger; Looking for Something, Paolo Nutini; Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, The Flaming Lips feat. Miley Cyrus and Moby; Magic, Mystery Skulls feat. Niles Rodgers and Brandy; Native Korean Rock, Karen O; Now Here In, Cloud Nothings; Parade of Choosers, Centro-Matic; Place Names, Cymbals Eat Guitars; Red Water, Diamond Youth; Run Rabbit Run, Black Pistol Fire; Runners, Lacrae; Sisters, Raveonettes; Slow Coming, Benjamin Booker; Sober, Childish Gambino; Soul Food, Big K.R.I.T feat. Rafael Saadiq; Summer Dress, July Talk; Supernova, Ray LaMontagne; Take Away These Early Grave Blues, Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra; Top Notch, Manchester Orchestra; Tongues, Joywave feat. KOPPS; Uno, Freddie Gibbs and Madlib; World Away, Tweedy

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Favorite 10 albums of 2014

Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker – Maybe my favorite album of 2014. I wrote before that Booker is “somewhere between the Black Keys and the Black Crowes.” I still think it’s a fair assessment.

Curtis Harding, Soul Power – Today’s R&B so frequently sounds way too clean or way too dirty. Soul Power keeps a fresh, live sound throughout.

July Talk, Guns + Ammunition – A great one-two, male-female vocal combination. Saw them live in October, and I was blown away by their stage presence.

Jenny Lewis, VoyagerVoyager is a departure from the country-tinged solo albums preceding it. It’s Lewis’s lyrics that keep me coming back for more.

Parkay Quarts, Content Nauseau – Parquet Courts’ second release of 2014 was another impressive entry into their short catalogue.

Perfect Pussy, Say Yes to Love – Hard, heavy and awesome. I can’t wait for more from PP.

Pixies, Indie Cindy – It’s Frank Black’s band now, and it works. Not a classic, but better than 95% of the new releases from old bands getting back together.

Royal Blood, Royal Blood – The Lord said there shall be metal. And there was.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything – It’s not easy, and it’s not catchy. But it is awesome.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Half the CityHalf the City recreates that classic Stax/Muscle Shoals sound, and St. Paul and Co. do it well. They also put on a show on the live stage.

On the bubble: Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas; King Tuff, Black Moon Spell; Lacrae, Anomaly; Tony Molina, Dissed & Dismissed; Parquet Courts, Sunbathing Animal; Spoon, They Want My Soul; Jack White, Lazaretto; Angel Wilson, Burn Your Fire For No Witness

Honorable mention: Cherub, Year of the Caprese; Lana Del Rey, Ultraviolence; First Aid Kit, Stay Gold; Guided By Voices, Motivational Jumpsuit; Kelis, Food; Logic, Spectator; Pharoahe Monch, PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; Pete Molinari, Theosophy; PRhyme, PRhyme; Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2; Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Give the People What They Want; Spanish Gold, South of Nowhere; St. Vincent, St. Vincent; Trampled By Turtles, Wild Animals; Tweedy, Sukierae; Young Fathers, Dead

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Ready to hit the gym? One recovering chunky monkey’s take on a healthy journey

I usually stick to the pop culture on my blog, but as I prepare for the annual flocks of New Year’s resolutioners who will be seeping into and filling the gyms I work out at, I thought I’d offer my two-cents worth regarding how to get fit.

My wife and I hit the gym in 2004, a few months after the birth of our second child. My wife was mostly hoping to shed baby weight. Me, I was just unhealthy. I was getting the evil eye from the nurse any time I had my blood pressure checked. Sleep apnea was becoming an issue. None of my jeans fit right, and I could barely wrap a towel around my waist anymore. It was time to do something.

That was 10 years ago, and I’m still on the workout train. I go to the gym 4-5 times a week, always getting my cardio, frequently hitting the weights. I’ve participated in a few Warrior Dashes and long bike rides. I bike to work when the weather is favorable, and all of my fat-boy health issues disappeared years ago.

How did I do it? Here’s some free advice from me to you:

1) Don’t get on a goddamn scale. When I first started, I didn’t get on a scale for six months, not once. I noticed my clothes fit better, I knew I was feeling better, but I resisted. I was afraid of getting satisfied, or maybe that I hadn’t even lost that much weight and would be disappointed. I think too many people get fixated on weight when what they should be fixated on first is feeling better and being healthier. Get used to your regimen, get comfortable with it, find out what works for you. If you worry about the weight later, you won’t have to worry about the weight. It will take care of itself.

2) Start slow. For the first six months, other than riding my bike to work, I would just work out three days a week, pretty much all cardio. After finally stepping on the scale and seeing what this did for me, I upped the stakes. I started working out four days a week, lifting weights and changed my processed-food heavy diet. I think too many people want to jump in and bust ass 24-7 to start, and burn themselves out, get hurt or just end up frustrated. Find a groove. Once you do, then it may be time to up your game. Which brings me to …

3) Challenge yourself. I’m not saying every day you need to push to the next level or do something nuts like run a double marathon. Find something that interests you, and set that as a goal. For me, that’s what my Warrior Dash performances were, a test of my physical fitness. For my 40th birthday, I set a goal of doing 40 chin-ups. I hit that in the weeks leading up to my birthday, so I decided to toss in 40 dips for good measure. I don’t mind the grind, but I think a lot of people get bored. Setting goals should help.

4) Don’t be intimidated. No one is looking at you in the gym. No one cares how heavy or out of shape you are. All those crazy-looking machines? Just watch other people do them, and you’ll know what’s going on. Those knuckleheads dead lifting 300 lbs. and dropping it loudly on the floor? They don’t care about you. The blonde who looks like she eats three peanuts and a sprig of parsley before heading out to rip off 500 crunches before her daily half marathon? You’re not on her radar. Even if those people are watching or talking about you, why do you care? Put on your headphones, and get to work. The gym is not another dimension or something to be feared. It’s just a place where you get out what you put into it. That said …

5) Don’t be a moron. You know what pisses me off to no end? Two people sitting on machines or weight benches talking to each other, but doing absolutely nothing. You want to talk, it’s called a coffee shop. Or a bar. You want to work out, come to the gym. You really want to anger your fellow workout junkies, then sit on the machines or benches moving nothing but your mouth. Taking this in another direction, I myself got carried away. I mentioned earlier that after months of avoiding the scale, I started working out harder and eating better. That wasn’t without its perils. I’d do a two-hour workout, eating nothing beforehand, then following it up by eating two pieces of toast and a salad. After a few weeks of that, I almost passed out at work. I righted the ship and got smarter, but I could have really hurt myself. There’s more than one way to be a moron. So don’t be.

That’s it. Not exactly rocket science, is it? That said, if something feels wrong or hurts or whatever, cut it out and go see a doctor. Injuries obviously aren’t good for you and could end up being a barrier to a healthy lifestyle down the road.

Other than that, just keep it at it. You’ll be happier and healthier because of it. I am.

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‘Revolver’: What the hell happened?

Jason Statham seems to sleepwalk through the bulk of 'Revolver.'

Jason Statham seems to sleepwalk through the bulk of ‘Revolver.’

So I’m watching Revolver, and I’m thinking about how much Pulp Fiction and Fight Club are being ripped off throughout the bulk of the film. It looked cheap, it’s not one of Jason Statham’s finer performances and it kind of goes off the rails in the third act, followed in the credits by real-life big brains discussing how the ego can mess with someone’s head.

As the credits start to roll, I’m expecting to see a name under director that I’d never seen before, maybe a first timer or someone with TV experience. Instead, it’s Guy Ritchie.

Guy Freakin’ Ritchie.

How does this happen? The Guy Ritchie I know from Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and Sherlock Holmes mixes tough-guy clichés, crazy personalities, low-brow stupid and operatic violence to create some of the most interesting, fun flicks I’ve ever seen.

Revolver is pretentious, burdened by voiceover, slow, trying to be too smart for its own good. The only main character of any interest is Dorothy Macha – played by Ray Liotta – a gangster who is starting to lose his grip as he loses his power. Even then, Liotta’s big finale falls flat, anti-climatic, out of character and confusing. The movie lacks much in the way of humor, the continuation is clunky and the big reveal at the end is anything but. It’s really a far cry from Ritchie’s better work, almost a caricature of it.

Realizing all of that, Revolver went from underwhelming to unimportant. Nothing to see here. Move along …

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“The End and The Beginning”

Writer’s note: My parents brought this to me a few weeks ago, a story I wrote as a 17-year-old high school senior that earned me an “Excellent story 98” from my senior composition teacher. I submit this to you with no edits. Another note at the end will address a few other things.

“The End and the Beginning”

Darkness. The sun rises in the early morning mist. A shadow approaches. Shades of gray. The shadow forms a man. Breath appears in the chilly air. Thudding of feet on the tarmac. The man is close. Details can be seen. Dark hair and dark eyes show a face that has grown old before its time. A young man who has seen more than many men two times his age. Dressed in blue denim and black hightops, the clothes are dusty and worn from much walking. Many road and many days make a man hard and old.

Isaiah. The name given to him years ago. A last name he cannot remember, and does not want to. In the real world, names do not matter. Only faces. Deeds. The deeds he has performed are known to many, and feared by more. Relationships are a casualty in this line of work. Besides, who will trust him if they know his craft?

On an Arizona road to another job. Usual payoff, usual risk. He carries his equipment on his back, the equipment of a man who knows death. Up ahead is a sign. “Calhalda-1300” it reads. He has arrived.

A small town. Here to fill the gas tanks for passing travelers in the desert. Small mines outside of town. The bread and butter of a western community. There, the place he was looking for.

He entered the store. Musty. Dark. The community gossip center, also known as the general store. From condiments to condoms. Isaiah smiled grimly.

“Can I help you stranger?” There was an unfriendliness and suspicion in the voice that only years in an isolated community can foster.

“I’m looking for a Mr. Jonathan Roberts,” replied Isaiah. “Would you know his place of residence?”

“Well, I would probably know because I am Johnny. Who are you?” replied the proprietor.

“I am Isaiah. You sent for me,” he answered.

Johnny’s face went white. “I didn’t expect you quite so soon. I guess it’s for the better. She needs you. Come with me.”

Johnny led Isaiah through the back of the store. Isaiah noticed the large array of goods. With only a sixty watt bulb to light the way, he had to be careful of the supplies in the aisle.

They reached the back and began to ascend some stairs. As they reached the top, Isaiah noticed how dark the apartment appeared to be, not only in terms of lighting, but also in terms of decoration. The walls were all painted a dark blue, possibly black. There were also many crucifiction scenes adorning the loft. Those were not the typical christian (writer’s note: I didn’t capitalize Christian, thus the 98 instead of a 100 from Ms. Spencer) scenes, but seemingly more graphic.

At the top of the stairs, the turned right and entered a small bedroom. In the bedroom, darkness again. The smell of death. And there, on the bed, lie the woman.

She was probably in her early sixties. Not that it mattered. Cancer had eaten away at her body and soul. Now she was just an empty shell of a formerly vibrant woman. Now she wanted to die. That’s why Isaiah was here.

“Hello, my dear, ” a week voices asked from the bed. “Who did you bring with you?”

“It is him, love,” squeaked Johnny.

“Then let us get it over with so that I may meet my maker,” she said. “I have been waiting many days, you know.”

“I’m sure you have, ma’am,” replied Isaiah. “Shall I begin?”

The woman nodded. Isaiah set his pack on the floor and opened it. The sound of the zipper penetrated the room, bringing a grimace to Isaiah’s face. He withdrew a small pack and opened it. He took out a syringe and inserted the small dose of cyanide.

Isaiah then walked to the bedside. “My dear woman, if you have anything to say, you should say it now.”

“Johnny, come here,” the frail woman commanded. As Johnny knelt by her side, she said, “You know this is for the best, don’t you.” Johnny nodded as she continued, “We will see each other again on the other side, my love. Now kiss me and leave.”

Johnny gently kissed her cheek as tears streamed down his face. He gripped her hand for the last time, stood up, and head bowed, left the room.

“Don’t worry, ma’am, there won’t be any pain,” Isaiah said as he inserted the needle.

“Son, after the pain I’ve been through, it wouldn’t matter anyway,” replied the old woman.

Isaiah injected the poison, and sat for five minutes as her breathing slowed and finally stopped altogether. He then threw his pack over his should and went down stairs.

*****************

Euthanasia. Mercy killing. Whatever the name, not matter how grim the job, he would be there. The silhouette of the stranger began to disappear in the distance. No one liked the job, but it relieved the pain of many a person and brought peace to a soul which had not known peace in a long, long time. The shadow of the man was now gone, but the man himself would never, ever be forgotten.

Writer’s note: I re-wrote this piece a year later for my freshman composition class in college. The stranger then rode a motorcycle, went a to a private home and not a store, and I think I spent more time describing the condition of the home and the old woman. And yes, I I’m reasonably certain received an A on it as well, but I don’t have a copy of that revised piece.

As for what was going on with my 17-year-old self that prompted this dark short story, I have no idea. Probably the two issues I felt strongest about at the time were freedom of speech (I did my senior composition research paper on Broward County’s (Fla.) attempt to censor the 2 Live Crew) and homosexuality, when I was a much more Christian, much less enlightened, gay-hating individual (grew up and got over it). So I’m not at all sure where this statement on euthanasia came from.

All in all, I think, for 17, not bad. I cringe at some of the dialogue choices, now I would have added a bit more suspense to the stranger and his purpose, and I don’t think I would have added that last paragraph, but that’s a much older, somewhat wiser writer’s opinion.

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Struggling with ‘I Spit on Your Grave’

This wasn’t an easy film to watch.

Don’t get me wrong: I Spit on Your Grave is a deftly crafted thriller/horror flick. The build of suspense as we wonder if our heroine, novelist Jennifer, is going to escape the clutches of those who would do her harm, is handled effectively. Her subsequent revenge for the gang rape is chilling, brutal and spot-on. Sarah Butler is top-notch as Jennifer, and Jeff Branch is convincing but not over-the-top as the belittled redneck Johnny. Andrew Howard steals scenes as the sheriff, a solid family man and gleeful rapist. The portrayal of the rape as an act of power and degradation, rather than a sexual or titillating experience, is also well done, a credit to filmmaker Steven Morse’s handling of volatile material as well as the work by the cast.

Yet as I thought about it, I was ill at ease about recommending it, partly because there is an element of exploitation to the proceedings simply because of the nature of the subject matter. As I’ve said, that’s not intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who clearly sought to portray a horrible incident as honestly as possible. The more obvious exploitative elements come on the back end as Jennifer inflicts her fury and vengeance on the perpetrators.

After mulling it over for a few days, I think I’ve pinned down exactly what was causing my concern. When I think of exploitation flicks, the blaxploitation era is what comes to mind. Those films were generally low-budget and dealt with urban tales heavy on the violence, drugs and sex. However, you had large African-American casts, actors and actresses whom couldn’t find much work in what was, even compared to today, a much whiter Hollywood. You also had African-American filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles find work behind the camera. Plus, the sorts of themes of these black-centered tales weren’t receiving any real attention in the broader cinematic world. In other words, while the black experience in America was being exploited on screen, there were African-Americans who were able to benefit and expand their careers because of the opportunities offered in blaxploitation cinema. I’m not arguing that it was a perfect system or all sunshine and puppies, but there was an upside off-screen in the real world that came as a result of those films.

When it comes to I Spit on Your Grave, the same cannot be said. Only two of the 11 producers listed are women, and none are executive producers. There are only four women in the cast, two of whom are little seen side characters, and one who is solely used briefly for sex appeal (the audience sees more of her ass than we do her face). As you move further through the crew credits, outside of departments where you might traditionally expect to see women (makeup, costuming, etc.), there aren’t many females listed.

And are females watching a film like I Spit on Your Grave? Blaxploitation flicks drew African-American audiences. I have a hard time believing you can find a strong, core group of female fans who are going to flock to rape cinema. Those who have suffered a brutal sexual assault aren’t likely to want to live it over again on screen.

Plus, the skeevy profit motive starts to come into play when you see that I Spit on Your Grave 2 followed three years later, which, of course, could mean a ISOYG3 is just around the corner. It’s one thing to make a film about rape, an important if hot-button topic. It’s another thing to attempt to capitalize on rape by turning it into a franchise like Friday the 13th or Halloween.

To me, that naked greed, the idea that it’s OK to continue to earn money off of manufactured degradation of women, creates more of an ick factor than the jarring, disturbing, fictional images in I Spit on Your Grave. And, in the end, that’s why I feel I can’t recommend the movie, no matter the quality or the delicate handling of the subject matter.

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Focus on Tony Stark works when little else does in ‘Iron Man 3’

It's hard to look people in the eye who paid theater prices to watch the 'Iron Man' movies.

It’s hard to look people in the eye who paid theater prices to watch ‘Iron Man 3.’

One of my biggest complaints about the first season of The Blacklist was the hairstyle sported by Lizzy, federal agent and main character of the show.

I know, seems petty. And generally, I have a lack of concern about fashion. When I choose what to wear for the day, it comes down to two questions: 1) “Is it clean?”, and 2) “Have I worn it in the past five days?”. So for me to not only be criticizing a Hollywood fashion choice, but to also be so consistently distracted by it, was unusual and quite annoying. But that entire first season of The Blacklist, I was unable to take Lizzie’s character seriously because anytime guns were fired, I expected to see bullets bounce off her helmet hair. I’ve enjoyed season two quite a bit, and I think part of that is I’m not blinded by Lizzie’s do.

I thought of that as I watched Iron Man 3. When scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) appears asking Tony Stark to join his think tank, I kept expecting to see the a cartoonishly large, empty box in the background sporting the type “Stereotypical Nerdy Science Guy Hair and Glasses Kit by Acme” on the side (“I give it a thumbs up,” Wile E. Coyote). Then when Aldrich shows up again years later, this man who is secretly a global terrorist ends up coming off more as a some douche who really thinks wearing Axe body spray will actually result in large-breasted, smiley woman coming at you in waves like the Uruk-hai attacking Helm’s Deep. Plus, I instantly knew he was, at very least, in league with the Mandarin. You don’t undergo that sort of change unless you’re evil, like “I sing along with Katy Perry’s Fireworks while clubbing baby seals” evil.

That’s the legacy of Iron Man 3, for me: Just too much annoying bullshit. The big reveal, that The Mandarin is an actor, not an actual villain, doesn’t feel all that big. The Iron Man suits all fighting the bad guys in the climactic battle was pretty boring. Not once did I think Pepper was actually dead. And so it goes.

It’s frustrating. Iron Man might be the most fun of any of the Avengers, and when director/co-writer Shane Black focused on the new Tony Stark – still a bit of a self-involved cad, but with some heart and now a nervous condition – that worked. It was the super hero stuff that just wasn’t up to snuff. Disappointing.

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