Saturday, September 29, 2007


Now, normally I'm a very nonviolent person. Despite what you may think of my reading or viewing habits, I normally go out of my way to avoid confrontation in real life. There is, however, one place in the world where this isn't true; the movie theatre. You probably could have guessed that from my review of the Kingdom. I don't know exactly why this is. Well, scratch that, I think I have a pretty good idea of why that is, actually.

I love going to movies. Movies are such a part of my life that seeing a movie in the theatre is almost like church. As technologically advanced as my living room setup gets, and as much as I enjoy lounging back on my couch while eating horribly fattening food, nothing beats being in the audience when the lights go down and the movie starts to roll. It can be magical, and it's always a good time for me. The movie may be utter shit, but that's not the point. The point is the shared experience. One of the best movie-going experiences in my life was Star Wars Episode One. I saw the very first showing in Alaska, and went right along with the crowd as they cheered. They cheered when the lights went down, they cheered when the Lucasfilm logo popped up, and they gave the opening title crawl a standing ovation! Everyone there was there to enjoy the film, and they completely gave themselves up to the joy of seeing this with a theatre full of like minded people. Of course, I went and saw it again with my family a week later, and I couldn't believe I'd been duped like that.

My point is, seeing a movie in the theatre is almost a sacred tradition with me, and I can't stand it when others don't give it the respect it deserves. Of course, I'm not alone in this; I'm probably the last blogger on earth to jump onto this bandwagon. People begin to treat the theatre as a large living room, talking on cell phones, talking to each other, and generally making an ass out of themselves and disturbing those few people left who seem to want to watch the movie.

Over the past couple years, my tolerance for this has dropped WAY off. I used to make do with passive-aggressive looks at the person behind me, hoping they would see my pointed stares and be shamed into silence. That never works. Now, though, I'm much more direct. If people don't shut up in the movie, I lean over and tell, not ask, them to politely shut up. If someone a few rows down won't stop playing with their cellphone, and the light keeps distracting me, I'll get up and go tell them. And, believe it or not, it works almost every time. I'd had a few sarcastic remarks, but they still shut up or put the cellphone away.

It's something I try and encourage my friends to do, because we need to reclaim our theatres. If movies are costing 10 bucks(more in other places, but in Alaska it's about 9.75 for a non-matinee show), why should we have to put up with distractions? For that matter, why would people pay 10 bucks a piece, and twice that probably when snacks are counted, to not watch the movie? Just tell them to shut up. Politely, though, that's probably a bit more unnerving to them.

[I have to mention this: either my spellcheck is getting stupider, or I'm actually getting a bit smarter. This post, and my last one, each had only one mispelling in it, and that was punctuation! Yay me!]

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: Death Sentence

Picking up a handful of months after the ending of Death Wish, and beginning in an entirely new locale, Death Sentence feels more like a continuing chapter than a standard cash-in sequel. In almost every way, this book is an extension of the first novel, both in events and concepts.

After Paul Benjamin's daughter, reduced to a catatonic state by the attack that started everything in the first novel, dies as an indirect result of that attack(the actual reasons are not very clear, and not explained in the book), he leaves New York and takes a job in Chicago. As one character points out, it's an odd choice; Chicago(at least at the time) has a higher crime rate than New York. Of course, we the reader understand that this suits Paul just fine, as it gives him ample opportunity to continue his nocturnal habit of gunning down criminals. And it isn't too long before he's back at it, buying a new gun and making plans and false identities before he even begins his job in Chicago. Paul is still meticulously careful about his crusade, using false names when he purchases his guns(which he buys across state lines), and renting an office in a rundown neighborhood as a safe house for his guns, so that if police ever do suspect him, they won't find any incriminating evidence in his apartment. But cracks are beginning to show, and things are starting to fall apart around him.

Paul befriends an attractive prosecuting attorney, initially as a way to have access to gossip about how the town's power structure and legal system works, but it isn't long before the relationship grows into something more. And it's this relationship, and the possibility of love for the first time since his family was murdered, that begins to chip away at Paul's resolve. Where once he was able to focus everything on his crusade, and bottle his emotions up, Paul now finds himself wounding instead of killing, and horrified at the spiralling chaos his vigilantism is inspiring. The crime rate may be going down, but more and more citizens are putting themselves in harms way to take the law into their own hands. Shopkeepers and old ladies are refusing to stand by as criminals mug them, and have taken to standing up to the thugs, often with fatal results. And somewhere out on the streets of Chicago is a copycat vigilante, something that doesn't seem to concern him until he begins to see the error of his own ways.

While Death Wish was spare and neutral, choosing not to judge Paul's acts, there is no denying which side of the argument Death Sentence falls on. Brian Garfield was fairly public about his dismay over the violence in the Death Wish movie, so it's possible he wrote Death Sentence as a reaction to that, a clarification of his values and intentions. Almost every other chapter is a news story pulled from a(fictional) Chicago newspaper, recounting Paul's actions, and the ripple effect he creates. There are many points when characters will have heated debates over what should be done with our limping legal system, and Paul's own thoughts become particularly noxious. This book ups the body count significantly, and where the righteousness of the violence in Death Wish was rarely specifically questioned, it's obvious Paul is off his rocker here. It begins to be unclear as to whether or not to root for a man who guns down kids who steal a portable television from an apartment, or who prowls outside of the juvenile court house so that he can follow and murder teenagers who got off the hook. In Death Wish there was a sense that Paul really was helping, that although his actions were detestable, his heart was in the right place, and he really did make New York safer with his string of murders. In Death Sentence we're never certain that any of these people deserves it, and it becomes clear how Lone West Justice can slide easily into fascism.

All of this leads up to an uncertain Paul Benjamin trying to hang up his spurs, as it were, and a violent and bloody meeting with his copycat vigilante. It's a little too convenient the manner in which Paul finds his copycat, but the book seems aware of this and casts it's own doubts upon it. As a hard boiled thriller, Death Sentence may lack some of the straightforward punch of Death Wish, but it's still a fascinating character study. As much as the book focuses on Paul's own deteriorating mental state, it's much less interested in the personal cost of vigilantism than the social cost. It could almost be argued that Paul could go on indefinitely with no adverse effects to his own psyche, but what he inflicts on society is far more dangerous than the rising crime rates. All of this inside a gripping, action story that would entertain any fans of pulp fiction(the genre, not the movie, although movie fans may enjoy this too, they aren't mutually exclusive), with or without the social commentary.

I guess it's no surprise when I say I really enjoyed these books. I've looked over Brian Garfield's bibliography, and I'd like to see what else this man has accomplished, but his books sure sound unappealing to me. I did notice he wrote the book version of Hopscotch, and although I hear it is radically different from the movie, I'll probably slide that into the pile for later consumption.

Also, one final note: There's a movie version of Death Sentence in theatres at the moment, from the director of the original Saw. IMDB, and film posters, attribute the source novel to Brian Garfield, although I don't see how this is possible. The plot of the movie concerns Kevin Bacon killing his son's murderer, and attracting the attention of the large street gang whose member he killed. There's nothing even remotely like this in the novel, so I can only imagine they had the rights to the book, loved the name and the revenge theme, and tried to cash in on whatever clout the book has. Which I can't imagine would be that much, but who knows.

Up next: It looks like this will be Death Wish week(or, I dunno, couple of days at least), because the two books have prompted me to go and rent the movie and it's 4 sequels. I've made it through the first one so far, but will probably be writing about all of them at the same time. It may take me a few days to get to it, but it will most likely be before I finish my next book.

The next book is, as I said before, A Brand New World, by Ray Cummings.

The Kingdom

A curious incident happened right before the start of The Kingdom, the new Iraq-war themed movie starring Jamie Foxx & Jennifer Garner. The theatre was packed, and while I normally get to a movie 30-60 minutes early(depending on how busy I think it will be), I had carpooled with a friend who wouldn't leave until 15 minutes before the film was scheduled to start. So it was no surprise that there were no seats left, and when an employee came in telling people to scoot towards the middle, I jumped at an opening of two seats. As I walked into the aisle, a very large man and his girlfriend bounded up the stairs, pushed me aside, and jumped into the seats. A muttered 'asshole' on my part prompted this very large man to jump up and ask me if I wanted to say something to his face. Now, normally I'm a very passive guy, not prone to violence at all, but occasionally I'll just decide I don't want to put up with it anymore. This was a very large man, and perhaps I should pick my battles a little better. He went to the standard 'you wanna take this outside?' line, and I just said 'yeah, come on.' I mean, who actually gets into a fistfight over a theatre seat? But, he took me up on it, much to my chagrin. So I led him out into the lobby, and straight to the first theatre employee I could find. This prompted more blustery anger, and a promise to find me after the movie(he never did, of course). Probably I could have handled that a bit better, and certainly I knowingly egged him on a bit, but this sudden tendency to violence was a bit surprising to me, and actually speaks to the problems with this film in general.

The Kingdom, directed with endless shaky handycams by former Chicago Hope actor Peter Berg, opens with a striking credits sequence in which a timeline is set for the nation of Saudi Arabia. Starting in 1932(a year before oil was discovered), and tracking America's involvement with the nation through drawings with thick black lines that the 'camera' is constantly moving around and through as they, and the dates, move forward. Over this we get occasional audio culled from documentaries and talking head news reports. A graph showing America's oil consumption compared to the rest of the world becomes a silhouette of the Twin Towers, and as a plane flies towards them the screen goes black, coming back on more scattered images of a post 9/11 world. One speaker laments that Osama, through his use of Saudi extremists in these attacks, has made the nation of Saudi Arabia as a whole an enemy in the eyes of most Americans, when we have been allies for so long. This sequence sets up a movie that will be rife with political subtext, a message movie if ever there was one. Unfortunately that movie is not The Kingdom.

After setting up in the opening sequence how Saudi Arabia is not the enemy, the movie seems to lose that faith, and in fact every Saudi is a potential, and likely, killer. The uniformed Saudis are seen as strict, prone to torture(all except for our hero, Faris, played by Ashraf Barhom), and basically either inept or uncaring about a suicide bombing that kills several hundred American men, women and children. They aren't monsters, but they are apathetic about what they see as a corrupting influence on their soil, and not inclined to hunt too seriously for the perpetrators of this heinous act. On the other side of the coin are the civilians, who all seem to be gunmen waiting for the opportunity to strike out at Americans(and, in one scene, that's just what they are). Surprisingly, especially after that credits sequence, the movie loses all interest in politics, or message. Making a movie purely for entertainment, not for political reasons, is nothing to be ashamed of, and anyone looking to a movie for insightful, informed opinions on the 'war on terror' are looking in the wrong place. Still, it's a bit jarring that the movie seems to have no political point of view. To take something this current, where people are dieing every day, and just the merest mention of the subject is enough to draw even the quietest person into a heated debate, and then to completely ignore politics or higher meaning seems a bit... opportunistic.

Instead of politics the movie aims for compassion, trying to show the human side of this war by teaming four FBI agents with a Saudi military man, Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, who appears to be the only Saudi in the film who has misgivings about the violence in his country. This movie tugs at the hearts strings, with scenes where American agents, fresh from killing family members in front of children, win back the hearts of the people by giving those same children a lollipop. 'Sorry I just shot your brother and grandfather to death, but here, have some hard candy. We cool?' This is also a film where action sequences and killings end with a joke and a hearty laugh from the audience. The film features a musical montage of understanding, where the daily life of Saudis is shown cross-cut between images of the American agents going about their investigation. The problem is, this film doesn't have the conviction to reach what it's aiming for. No attempt is made to explain, explore or understand the Saudi Arabian culture. We see endless shots of people stopping to pray at various times of the day, but no effort to support the central idea that 'we are actually all the same creature.'

There is one successful, tense sequence near the end of the film where our heroes, en route to the airport, are ambushed by terrorists, and Agent Leavitt(Jason Bateman) is drawn from the car and thrown into the back of a black SUV. This begins a lengthy chase scene, where the group must race through mazes of streets, and then mazes of dilapidated apartments, hunting for Leavitt before he is beheaded on video for a terrorist website. The tension is undercut slightly by the repeated use of handheld cameras. Normally, I love handheld video. I like the way it looks and think it can be quite an effective style, but this movie continually overdoes it. I didn't get nauseous, but I did get a slight headache when the film would always cut away just before the camera came into focus. Trying to make out whats going on onscreen is sometimes an impossible feat.

In the end, the point of this film, the 'message', if you will, seems to be that we CAN all get along. Americans and Saudis CAN overcome their differences and coexist in harmony, so long as we can just get together and kill a bunch of people. Actually, this may be true, and certainly it's worked in the past. It worked at Salem, when all those people came together to burn witches, it worked for the Aztecs with their ritual sacrifices, and hell, it worked for Hitler when he united Germany against the Jews. The problem is that now we understand that our enemy are humans too, with families and jobs, hopes and dreams. The enemy may hate us, but they've been given a tainted image of America, what with the constant meddling from oil companies, and the propaganda news reports. Some of us may hate Saudis, but we have a tainted image formed from propaganda news reports and faulty 9/11 connections. The average man on the street these days is aware of this problem, and we find it hard to categorically condemn an entire people. This idea, instead of uniting us, actually divides us further.

The movie is probably not as insidious as all that, and certainly the audience I was with enjoyed it quite a bit more than I did. Chances are most people will enjoy this more than I did, but I was just confused. What was the point of this film? Why set up a political hot button issue and then ignore politics all together? The movie attempts to gain focus at the end with a coda that implies the violence will never end because both sides jump to bloodthirsty anger faster than they turn to discourse and discussion. Just like that man in the theatre. So maybe this movie is more prescient than I thought, but it's still a muddled, unlikable message.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: Death Wish

Have I said yet how much I'm enjoying this little book project? Every day I'm tempted to run down to another used book store and find some new, forgotten gems. It's quite addictive, and I find myself reading quite a few more books than I used to. I normally average a book a month, since I have to find time between work, child and movies. Of course, most books I read are a bit lengthier than the ones I've been reading recently(which average out to under 200 pages each), and, not to be judgemental, they tend to be of higher-brow fare. But there's something enjoyable about these books, this opportunity to read a novel without putting quite so much thought and effort into it. I know that sounds like an insult, but I don't mean it to be. The connecting thread through all the books I've read in this vein so far is the way they couch their social commentary in rip-roaring good stories. Actually, that might be a generality that's undeserved: Gloryhole Murders was neither a rip-roaring story, or full of relevant social commentary. However, with Ballad of Beta-2, and especially today's book, Death Wish, the stories are entertaining, fast paced, and fairly straightforward. There's more there beneath the surface, but it isn't hammered into your head, and it's only there if you want to see it.

The story of Death Wish is pretty well known by now, and it's become something of a cliche for exploitative action films looking for an air of respectability or artiness. Paul Benjamin is a liberal whose wife and daughter are attacked in a home-invasion mugging. His wife dies and his daughter becomes a catatonic mess. Eyes opened to the rampant crime in New York City, Paul buys a gun and begins to stalk to streets at night, looking for criminals, any criminals, to punish. Paul never finds the kids who killed his wife, and in fact the book seems to treat that idea as the height of preposterousness. In a city that large, with that many crimes committed every day, what are the odds he'll run across the exact three who attacked his wife?

The book tells us Paul is/was a liberal, although that's never really supported by the text. Paul lives in a rich neighborhood, and works as an accountant who enjoys finding ways to make sure rich people keep as much of their money as possible. We're told he's a liberal because he does things like avoid using the N word. It's true he seems a bit more compassionate in the beginning of the book than he does by the end, but I might not go so far as to call him a liberal. Still, politics are beside the point, and only worth noting when looking for a selling point; Liberal loses wife, becomes gun-toting vigilante! The real focus of this book is how a rising crime rate, how personal violence, can shatter anyone's world and alter their convictions.

Following the attack, Paul is nearly catatonic himself, puttering around his apartment alone, cut off from his daughter(his son-in-law and his daughter's psychiatrists suggest he limit contact while she recovers), alone for the first time in decades, he is undone as much by the sense of life utterly changing as he his by the love of his deceased wife. The changes in his outlook are subtle at first; he begins noticing kids on the street, imagining them as drug addicts or muggers when often they turn out to be nothing of the sort. His fear turns to outrage at a world where people put up with the concessions they have to make to security; double locks on doors, security cameras, and not walking after dark. Eventually Paul's loneliness gets the better of him, and he heads out to a bar, thinking of meeting a woman, but really just looking for a way out of his apartment. A little drunk, and in a new neighborhood, Paul is accosted by a would-be mugger, a young kid who he scares off with a scream and a wild swing. That night Paul has his first good rest in months, and spends the next day in a haze of almost sexual euphoria.

We know where things go from here. Paul buys a gun and begins trolling the streets, setting traps for criminals and killing them all. He's surprisingly level headed about this, and the book is careful not to paint him as a psychopath, to point out how reasonable and logical he's being in his quest. This isn't vengeance(so he says, but of course we know better), and this isn't an obsession, this is something he feels needs to be done. As the cops catch on that the string of murders has a common thread, the papers pick up the vigilante angle and Paul becomes a shadowy cult hero, and even the people who disagree with him seem to secretly sympathize. And why wouldn't they? The lone hero, riding out to save the innocent townsfolk from the villainous black hats, it's a myth repeated in every culture and every era, and would certainly resonate in a time and place where crime has reached almost epic proportions.

The book was a fun, quick read. Very straightforward, with very concise, direct language. It takes awhile to get some steam, but the book barrels along through the latter half towards a conclusion that, while chilling, is a little spare. I actually checked my copy to make sure no pages were missing. There's a nice little moment there, and it definitely fits as a finale, but the writing style seemed to leave it hanging, like there was a lot more to come. Add to that the MANY loose threads, and it was a bit of a letdown. However, I did discover the sequel book, Death Sentence, which picks up shortly after Death Wish and seems to tie up some of those loose ends. I'm only a short way into it, but I'll be writing about that in more detail when I finish it.

I was surprised at how little moralizing there was in this book, how it never really explained it's political implications or chose a side in the debate over whether or not vigilantism works. That's not to say it's ignorant of those sides, it just leaves the decision up to you, the reader. Obviously the implication is that Paul Benjamin is losing his mind, destroying himself in order to avenge the crimes he sees. And the idea of vigilantism is extreme, and deplorable, but the book never states that outright. Some characters may voice concern, but the tone of the book is very neutral. It's entirely plausible to read this book and come out thinking that a vigilante approach to crime is a great idea. It's that grey area that I enjoy; the idea that the reader should be intelligent enough to make up his own mind. Of course, above that the book is a great, tense read, but it's nice finding the substance beneath the style.

Next week(or whenever I finish the book, so probably a day or two), Death Sentence.

After that, Ray Cummings' 1928, Planet-in-Peril epic Brand New World.

And after that, I'm not sure. I've got a sizable stack of promising sounding sci-fi, but I may take a break for some non-bargain bin reading.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Spout #5: LOL

It's taken me awhile to write the review for LOL, mainly because I keep trying to think of good things to say about this movie. I'm feeling a bit like the lone dissenter here, the only person out there who didn't love this film. I've gone and read some reviews, and I've read up a bit on this 'mumblecore' movement I keep hearing about, hoping to find some explanation, something to tell me what I was missing. But no, nothing worked. Put me in the 'don't get it' category. That's not to say I don't understand the film itself, I do, it's nothing if not painfully obvious about it's intentions. I just don't understand the growing cult surrounding this and other movies that fall under the mumblecore umbrella. But let's focus on LOL for now.

The film follows three friends and their inability to engage people(or, more specifically, women) without the aid of their various technological gadgets. Alex is a musician who seems unable or unwilling to realize that the random woman he's been emailing at a porn site probably isn't really attracted to him. So deluded and self involved is he that when an actual flesh and blood girl flirts with him, all he can think to do is lie to her, convince her that he's going on tour and needs a ride from Chicago to St. Louis. Once there, she puts him up at her parents house, and is obviously willing to share her bed, yet he spends the entire night on her mothers computer, checking his email obsessively for a reply from the aforementioned porn star, holding out hope that she likes him somehow more than every other random, anonymous man watching her take her clothes off and sending her love letters. It seems like common sense to me that someone charging you for their time probably isn't that into you, but apparently Alex missed that lesson.

It's hard to decide whether or not this is the biggest example of douchebaggery in the film, as his friends are all just as clueless when it comes to the opposite sex. Tim(played by the film's director, Joe Swanberg) spends every moment with his girlfriend either on his cell phone or laptop, at one point even chatting online with his friend, who is sitting on the couch with him, while his girlfriend fumes between them. He seems completely aware of how angry this makes her, and sees that this is driving her away from him and towards other men, but really doesn't seem to care much, asking if she can wait 20 minutes before they finish having sex so he can work on his computer. Chris, visiting from out of town and away from his girlfriend, passive aggressively goads his girlfriend into sending him nude photos, and then berates her for not making them sexy enough(completely not true, I don't know what he was looking at). Later he tries to coerce her into having phone sex with him, and when she expresses discomfort, insults her and dramatically declares their sex life dead, ignoring her personal problems to flirt with random women while she apparently has a breakdown back at home.

Now, it's not the filmmakers job to create likable characters; plenty of great films have been made about unlikable assholes. Neither is it the filmmakers job to make the film enlightening OR entertaining. But I will argue that it is the filmmakers job to at least provide an audience with one of those three things. So obviously the characters are jerks, but is the film entertaining?

Decidedly not. The only reason I didn't stop this movie halfway through was my desire to see the entire thing before reviewing it, and a growing lethargy that seeped out of my TV screen. As the film dragged on my limbs became heavier and my brain moved slower so that I just couldn't bring myself to get up and turn off the TV. It was easier to keep watching than to stop and get off the couch. How about enlightening, was it at least that? Well, maybe if you were a self involved teenager, I could see how this would seem earth shatteringly relevant.

It's the god-given right of every person between their teenage years and mid-twenties to be a conceited, narcissistic jerk. It's expected, and socially acceptable, even. But to take this navel gazing and build a film 'movement' around it is a bit much. What am I supposed to learn from LOL? That twenty-something hipsters are socially inept egotistical morons? Is that really a revelation? EVERYONE is like that at a certain age. In actuality, and to be fair to the film, the real message here is something about how computers are getting in the way of real human contact. That's fair. However, this is also nothing new, and a bit false. Socially awkward, self involved people have existed for... well... ever, long before the Internet came around. The only difference is that now instead of comic books, or D&D, these same people spend their time online, where sites like Myspace and Facebook can let them feel social without the pesky 'interacting with people' thing.

I'm probably being a bit too hard on this film, and I feel bad trashing something that was obviously cobbled together by friends doing things they enjoy. The film does try to say something, it does attempt to be relevant and meaningful, and that's a lot more than many more polished, professional films accomplish, but it still struck a false note with me. But then, as you've probably gathered, I am not the target audience for this film. This is probably right up the alley for anyone who loved Four Eyed Monsters(look closely and you'll see Arin and Susan from that film in some of Alex's musical montages), but where that film had an underlying sweetness and nifty visual style to dilute the navel-gazing, LOL is nothing but narcissistic reflections put on screen, trying to pass itself off as a raw and honest exploration of what it's like to live in the digital age.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Caught an episode of Ebert and Roeper this weekend, something I've gotten out of the habit of doing since Ebert took his medical leave. Roeper is annoying enough, but when he's paired with 'celebrity' guests and mediocre filmmakers, the sycophantic attitude and ill-defined criticisms are just too much to bear. So it's been awhile, and it took me a few moments to notice something was missing; the Thumbs.

Roger Ebert, left without speech after salivary cancer, owns the copyright to the use of the thumbs up/down gimmick, along with Siskel's widow. Disney and Ebert are in contract negotiations, and when the negotiations stalled, Disney yanked the Thumbs from the show, putting out a press release stating it was Ebert's decision. Ebert used his website(on which he's been reviewing movies again, thankfully) to state that he had allowed Disney the use of the Thumbs as a sign of good faith. I'm not sure what this means for the future of the show, although I can't imagine Disney firing Ebert from the show(Ebert does expect his voice to return as he heals).

Part of the reason I think his job is secure is the fact that Roeper just needs someone to slap him around every once in awhile. And on that matter, they may have finally found the perfect guest host, someone willing to loudly, jovially and vehemently disagree with Roeper, and openly mock is silly, silly opinons. Robert Wilonsky is a film critic I've never heard of before, although I've since read a few of his reviews online(there's a few available here). I can't honestly say whether or not I agree with his opinions, because I haven't seen any of the films he discussed, although I'd like to think he's woefully off the mark with his negative review of Across the Universe, a film I've been anticipating for awhile. I see he's been the gues for awhile, and he'll still be here next week, so I think I may start watching Ebert and Roeper again. Still, good critic or no, Wilonsky is the shot in the arm this show needs while it awaits the inevitable, glorious return of Ebert.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dead Silence: D.O.A.

When I was a teenager, still in high school, and living with my mom, brother and sister, I found a doll in my room. A creepy little thing, about a foot tall, dressed in a parka made of real fur, and old. Not ancient, but definitely made before I was born, and in almost pristine condition. I found this doll, unexpectedly, on my bed one day after school. My siblings were not allowed in my room, but still I assumed it was one of theirs. My sister was the obvious choice, so I left it in her room. The next day the doll was back. My brother, much younger than I, was still at the age where playing with dolls(or stuffed animals, more likely), was not considered odd, so I put it in his room. I assumed the dolls return to my room was because my sister was saying 'its not mine!' But the next day the doll was back. Laying on the floor, staring up at my bedroom door. Now I assumed someone was fucking with me.

I began leaving the doll hidden in my siblings' closets, but it would always end up back in my room. One day, when I was home alone(my brother and sister still at daycare, and I was only recently home from school), I turned around to find the doll sitting on the floor behind me, when it had been absent moments before. I took this as a sign, and figured if the doll was going to keep coming back to me, I may as well accept it. The doll was allowed in my room, and was left undisturbed. Out of a sense of superstition I even afforded it some respect, and would always set it down rather than drop it or toss it, and it would usually reside on the couch in my bedroom, sitting up rather than laying askew.

One day, maybe 6 months to a year later, a friend was coming to stay the night and watch movies. Cleaning up, I put the doll on the couch in my room, against the armrest. When my friend arrived he took everything from the couch and piled it on the floor. Going over to the pile to sort it out, I noticed the doll was missing. "Hey, where'd you put that doll that was on the couch?" I asked. "What doll?" was his response. "Everything from the couch is in that pile." But the doll was gone, and I never saw it again.

Everything in that story is completely true, and I tell so that you will understand why I tend to give scary doll movies the benefit of a doubt, and I don't just assume they have to be silly. Yes, I always wonder why the characters in these films don't just kick the damned thing across the room, or stomp on it's head, but I'm also sympathetic to the idea that dolls can be creepy. Especially the ones that aim for a distorted human realism in their design. This story is also told so that you will believe me, utterly, when I say that Dead Silence is a complete and total piece of crap. In fact, if you got totally wasted one night and decided to make a horror movie with your sisters My Little Pony dolls, and left the lens cap on the camera, it would still have a shot at being a better, scarier film than Dead Silence.

Dead Silence falls into that no-mans-land of bad movies that are completely awful, but not quite horrible enough to be worth a campy good time. And the final kick in the shins is that it had promise, it had potential, it could have easily gone either way(scary or silly) and been a complete success. The beginning of this film got my hopes up, and I expected to at least enjoy myself when I saw the original Universal logo pop up, with some moody music beneath it. I still held out hope when the completely unnecessary title card(ala old silent films, natch) came up. But then the movie abandoned all attempts at fun and decided to go for a mood more familiar to the people who created the Saw franchise; unrelenting gloom and endless grey filters that have been popular in horror films aiming for class and respect ever since Seven. Donnie Wahlberg is almost amusing, with his world-weary detective who has a ridiculously over-zealous interest in our hero's life, and never goes anywhere without his electric razor(every scene he's in, almost, involve him shaving nonchalantly before beginning his questioning). He's like a slimy, unconvincing version of Columbo. Or at least that's what I imagine they were going for.

So, with humor no longer an option(or, as in Wahlberg's case, so inept that it can't be counted and is easily missed), the filmmakers opt for straight-up horror. And fail miserably. The central conceit is a intriguing, however, which only makes this missed opportunity all the more painful. When the evil doll-spirit is about to strike, all ambient sounds go away. Radios fade, the wind through the trees no longer whistles, and birds stop chirping. All you can hear are the sounds you make yourself, and if you scream, the spirit kills you, removing your tongue(In the realm of specific action inspired murders, this is pretty easy to avoid, and should result in a large amount of survivors). This setup almost reaches scary, before they end the scene with either a false scare or a gory murder. And on the subject of these murders, I'm still a little unclear as to what the actual story behind them is. It involves an old woman killed by the people of a small town(shades of Freddy Krueger), her 108 dolls, and a MacGuffin that is practically staring you in the face and shouting 'here I am, the obligatory twist ending!' from the first 15 minutes of the film on. Hint, for those who care; pay attention to character names.

Normally I don't tell people to stay away from a film, and in fact I've only ever done it once or twice in my life. Even if a movie is horrible, I still tend to find the experience worthwhile. But I doubt anyone out there is quite as forgiving. In my case, the viewing got this blog post, and I was 2 hours older at the end of the film. I have suffered so that you don't have to.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


A few years back, when Asian horror was still a relatively new fixation of mine, and still relatively new in the eyes of most westerners, I caught my first glimpse of filmmaker Takashi Shimizu in the low budget horror film Ju-On. It was on a slightly grainy 'grey-market' VCD(I have appropriated the term grey-market from the All Movie Guide entry to this film, because it's a perfect way of describing those unofficial imports that pop up where international copyright laws get hazy), and it scared the bejesus out of me. Like no film had since I was a child, really, and certainly more so than Ringu. A slightly lackluster sequel followed, but it still had a few moments that elevated it to likable, and of course that utterly horrible remake(helmed by Shimizu himself, in all fairness). None of those things dampened my enjoyment of the original, but then came the official release. I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, and told all of my friends to buy it, because it was the scariest film I'd seen in ages. Watching the movie at home, I was completely unmoved, and secretly hoped none of my friends had followed my advice, because the film was decidedly not scary. What had happened was that the film was too clean, too sterile, and what had been terrifying in grainy low-definition became silly and cheap when displayed in a pristine digital format. Possibly, Shimizu-san was aware of this problem, and so filmed his followup to the Ju-On films, Marebito, in a mixture of slightly grainy digital, interspersed with ultra-grainy practical sources, such as a character's handheld video camera, or security-cam footage. And, I must admit, the tactic worked. For the first half of this film I was absolutely terrified, pushing back in my seat and tensing up for a huge scare that always seemed just around the corner.

Cult Japanese director Shinya Tsukamota(director of the infamous Tetsuo films) plays Masuoka, a freelance cameraman who takes whatever odd jobs he can get(documentary, TV news) and spends his free time watching and rewatching his footage. His obsession with filmed media extends to his personal life, and he has camera's set up around his apartment, seemingly not for security purposes. He also takes his camera with him everywhere, sometimes concealing it in a bag and filming his own public interactions, or walking everywhere with the camera in front of him, experiencing the world almost entirely through a viewfinder. Lately, Masuoka has been obsessed with a suicide he witnessed, and filmed, in a subway station. Constantly rewatching the footage, he yearns to see what the suicidal man saw, revisiting the scene of the incident, and embarking on a journey to what may or may not be the Underworld. He remarks at one point that "They didn't see something that terrified them. They saw something because they were terrified." It's statements like that that make it hard to imagine the film isn't speaking directly to(and about) us, the audience. Masuoka searches for terror with increasing veracity, desiring to learn what true terror can teach him, and ruminating on the unending search for new and more horrifying things. And in the end, isn't that exactly what brings us to movies like this?

As Masuoka ventures further and further beneath the streets of Tokyo, he meets the prerequisite oddballs and symbolically wraithlike strangers. Eventually the journey goes deeper than would logically be thought possible, until he finds himself in vast underground caverns reminiscent of a Jules Verne novel, with ruins straight out of Lovecraft. In fact, a lot of this movie seems like a fever dream inspired by turn of the(last) century fiction and occult beliefs, with references to the Dero's(short for Detrimental Robots, featured in Richard Shaver's sci-fi stories), Agartha and the Hollow Earth ideas popular in Lovecraft fiction, and Victorian-era occultist writer HP Blavatsky, all filtered through a modern day Japanese sense of terror and fear of technology. Eventually, in these vast underground caverns, full of natural light, Masuoka discovers a nude girl chained to the rock. She's unresponsive, and, it should be noted, attractive. It may be that last part that most informs Masuoka's decision to bring her back to his apartment. Although the relationship never becomes sexual, and he seems to be honestly interested in helping her recover from what he imagines was a harrowing ordeal.

After this point in the film, the focus on horror shifts from actual scares to terror at the depths that human depravity can reach. The film's frights are more akin to Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, as Masuoka continually films the deeds he is driven to by the madness surrounding him, watching his adventures later with the same emotionless stare he wore when perpetrating the acts. There are a lot of ideas here, and many ways to interpret them. Masuoka's spiralling descent into madness becomes more frenzied, and the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur for both him, and the audience. This isn't a new technique in horror, but it's more clever in it's execution in Marebito. The implication is that when every aspect of your life can be filmed, then edited and re-edited, how do you keep track of what really happened? Events begin to take on different shades, they happen in a slightly different order, and people become characters that shift and change throughout the film. In this case the film is Masuoka's life, and the meta-message is that his madness spreads and draws the people around him into it. In this way it fits perfectly into the canon of Asian horror films dealing with technological anxieties. The camera distorts what it films, and reflects that back on society until it too becomes distorted. A sinister feedback loop that mirrors that politician's argument about how violence in media will bring about the end of the world.

As great as this film is, the end is a bit of a letdown. It fits, perfectly in fact, with the message of the film, but it still gets wrapped up in an unhealthy layer of Asian Horror Bullshit(henceforth to be known as AHB). AHB, basically is the ill-defined, pseudo-philosophical meandering that enters into almost every Asian horror film. Stuff that the filmmakers probably think is going to blow your mind, but is basically boring and nonsensical. It's not as prevalent here as in others, but the film still collapses under the weight of arty, philosophical time and reality warps. It's all consistent, as I said, but it seems a little... bare. The ending came and felt as if it didn't receive the same care the rest of the film did.

When the movie ended, I had no idea how much time had passed. The films running time is officially 92 minutes, but the reality warping effects of the camera spread outwards from the DVD, trapping you in a time-loop. All I knew at the end of the film was that there was daylight outside when I started, and it was pitch-black as the end credits rolled(nightfall comes quickly during Alaskan falls and winters). Had it been 45 minutes? Three hours? Though I didn't outright love the film, it cast a spell on me, and sucked me in to a degree most movies can't manage. If your looking for another frightfest along the lines of Ju-On, you may not really dig this film. But if your looking for something different in the increasingly stale J-Horror subgenre, this film is right up your alley.

Tales From The Discount Bin: In Which Our Host Explains His Inspirations

First off, I use the word 'host' above because author would be too misleading a word. Authors create works that I write about here. I am merely an amateur writer. And now, my admission. This series in my blog is not entirely an original idea. I was inspired by AV Club writer Keith Phipps. He began a similar blog a few months ago when he bought a grab-box of 75 genre paperbacks for 30 bucks. As motivation to read them all, he began blogging about it on the AV Club's site. I've been enjoying that blog, and it's inspired me not only to write this, but to check out more books that I've been meaning to, but just never got around to. I love the pulp style, but until recently it's been mainly in the abstract sense. I was familiar with the fact that Dashiell Hammet, Robert Howard and Michael Moorcock were authors, and I even knew the basics of some of their more famous characters, but I had never actually read anything by them. And so, after reading a couple of Mr. Phipps' posts, and enjoying them, I picked up a few of the titles, and grabbed a couple of my own choices. I've justified my creative plagiarism by staying away from writing about books he's already covered. A rule I'm going to break today, because I find myself with a few things to say, and a desire to share this book with my friends.

As much as by Keith Phipps, this blog series was inspired by another writer; one Kilgore Trout. Of course, Kilgore Trout is an imaginary construct, but that doesn't mean his impact is not felt in this blog. Kilgore Trout is a character that appears in many of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, and is indeed most likely a surrogate for Vonnegut himself. He's a failed science fiction author, who is wildly prolific, but makes no money from it. His work appears mainly in the back of men's magazines, and by all accounts he's a fairly talentless writer. But where his strength lies is in his ideas, and Vonnegut seems to use him as an in-book outlet for all those ideas he wants to share, but probably can't stretch into a satisfying story. Where the point of Trout's story excerpts may be that he's a bad author, I always think to myself 'man, I would love to read that book'. And of course I'm always out of luck, though, because no such book exists. That isn't to say there aren't books like that, as I'm currently discovering, and today's entry is just the sort of thing I'm was looking for. Not having read much hard sci-fi(which I define as books that can't exist without the science, whereas most of what I read has the science as a hazy catalyst to the book's actual story), I was unfamiliar with Samuel R. Delany, though I gather he's fairly well known within the genre. Although I had never heard of him, his short, early novel The Ballad of Beta-2 turned out to be exactly the sort of thing I was looking for in bargain-bin paperbacks.

The Ballad of Beta-2 has no shortage of big ideas, and for the first half of this book my mind was officially blown. The basic plot concerns Joneny, a student of galactic anthropology, who is sent by his professor to study the art of the Star Folk, particularly the eponymous ballad. The Star Folk are humans who left earth towards the nearest habitable star system, in 12 city-ships, on a journey that would take at least 12 generations. While on their journey, humans on Earth discover faster than light travel, and by the time the ships arrive the system is already colonized. But, something happened during the voyage, something that no scientist has yet discovered, as the Star Folk are mainly given their own space and considered 'evolutionary dead ends' by prevailing wisdom. When the city-ships finally arrived at their destination, there were only 10 remaining, down from 12, and two of those were empty, intact but with gaping holes in their hulls. As I said, there seems to be no real desire by the human society in this book to determine what happened to these city-ships, or in fact to learn anything about them at all. A cursory examination was made when they first arrived, but finding the ships' inhabitants devolved to the point that they have no point of being integrated into human society, they are sent off in a perpetual orbit, in their own corner of the star system, and left there.

Joneny is at first reluctant to pursue this 'evolutionary dead end', and approaches this mystery as trivial. But of course it isn't. Reading through historical records he finds several blank areas, and is amazed that no one thought to study these people any further. Focusing on the Ballad of Beta-2(the Beta-2 was one of the empty city-ships), Joneny is at first unable to comprehend the meaning of the text, both due to the poetic symbolism, and the different way that language evolved in the two societies. As he reads and listens to ship logs, Joneny begins to piece together the meaning behind the ballad, which tells of the destruction that befell the fleet, and he discovers a secret that has been waiting out in those ships for over a hundred years.

The mind-bending finale suffers, though, for being a bit brief. In fact, the book itself suffers from brevity. Calling this a novel would be a bit too generous; at 115 pages, it's padded out by large font and a few blank pages, making it a long short story, or a short novella, but not a novel. With this shortness we get great ideas, but no real opportunity to flesh them out, which is a pity because they practically beg for expansion. On the flip side, Delany seems a little too preoccupied with the Science part of the Fiction, a curse that befalls most sci-fi authors at one point or another, and many are never able to overcome it. Although the science isn't described in technical detail, we're still given too many passages describing minute details and actions that amount to 'Joneny put on his suit and stepped outside'. I may not be the target audience here, though, and this may be a strength in the eyes of more hardcore genre fans. To the casual reader, however, it's a bit daunting.

There are a few other problems with this book, most notably, probably, is the never addressed question of why no one ever met the city-ships halfway to let them know about their nifty new hyper-drive technology, but the strengths are definitely... stronger. The mystery unfolds at a tantalizing, yet swift, pace, and the ideas are intriguing. The historical records lay out, in diary form, a fairly realistic sounding scenario in which eugenics(originally intended as a way to maintain genetic diversity during the long voyage) gives birth to religious mania, where anyone outside of the norm(being too tall, too thin, having the wrong hair color) is a crime punishable by death. The explanation for the ship's de-evolution is convincing, even if the book seems a little light on elucidation, sometimes. Still, this was enough to convince me to pick up another Samuel Delany novel on my last trip to the book store. Dhalgren is widely considered his masterpiece, and at near a thousand pages, it certainly offers him a chance to let his ideas expand and breath. Unfortunately, it could also give him the chance to fill hundreds of pages with off-putting technical jargon, so we'll see which way the coin falls.
[Small note; the cover pictured is not the cover I picked up, although I like this one much better. My scanner isn't hooked up today, and I just grabbed this one off of a google search]

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Four Eyed Monsters

One of the hardest things to ignore on, since the day I signed up, has been the constant discussion and advertisement of a film called Four Eyed Monsters. At first I was not very interested, the graphic accompanying all the advertisements, and the general tone I got, gave the impression that this would be a low-key, aggressively quirky, hipster-themed movie that would probably aggravate me. It wasn't that my interest mounted and the constant discussions about the movie pummeled me into wanting to watch it, I just found myself with an hour and a half to kill last night, and no desire to get up off the couch. So with the laptop on my chest, I surfed over to youtube, where the entire movie has been uploaded by the filmmakers, and decided to see what all the hubbub was about. It turns out my original impressions were completely correct, although I wasn't nearly as aggravated as I thought I would be.

From the opening, the film grabbed my attention with a quite simple, but still clever, manner of illustrating how human relationships have evolved, or devolved depending on your point of view. People's Myspace or Facebook profile photos are animated as the images tell the audience what they're looking for, or a little about them. The implication throughout most of the movie is that real, honest, face to face human interaction is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The world is full of lonely people stuck in their apartments, unable or unwilling to make the effort to meet people, and grasping around fruitlessly for some meaningful contact with the outside world.

Our hero is one of those people. Arin is a kid in his early 20s, he lives with a rarely seen but jovially scuzzy roommate and makes wedding videos for little or no money, although he dreams of a more creatively fulfilling job. He also spends his days fantasizing about every woman he meets, or fails to meet, more often then not. His nights are spent on social networking sites, throwing out a buckshot spray of emails, to everyone, hoping to get a response. These messages are pitifully inept, and would under normal circumstances be offputting to the exact type of woman best suited for him. He seems to want a sex object, but his hipster-emo style and complete social ineptitude would suggest that none of those women would give him the time of day. Which, of course, they don't. His inbox remains empty. Until he meets Susan, a young woman with the same artistic temperament, and an overwhelming boredom. Her reply to his slightly inappropriate email, which calls her hot, and requests more pics, is to give him the address of her place of employment, and tell him to just come in one night. This, to normal people, would not be a good idea, and the reasons why become apparent in the film. Arin goes to meet Susan, but his aforementioned social ineptitude makes him leave the restaurant, and hang around outside, following Susan home and filming her all the while. He then emails her a series of pictures of, including one of her sleeping, under the subject "stalking Susan". This behavior could only be found charming in a romantic comedy or by hipsters way too into performance art.

A romance is born, and then dies, and is born again, and then dies, and is... oh hell, you've heard this one before. And yet it plays out with a bit more intrigue, and enough twists to consider it inventive. In keeping with the theme of an uncommunicative society, the two romantic leads never speak directly, spending hours filling pages with notes passed back and forth, or video diaries mailed to each other. Did I mention this film was aggressively quirky? Is this pissing you off yet? Because reading back what I've written, I feel a flash of annoyance. These characters are not very likable. They come across as friendly people, but I've known too many people like this, who view everything as a piece of performance art, and are incapable of relaxing and being themselves, while constantly claiming to be 'true.'

I think it's telling that I keep referring to these people as 'kids', even though they're only a few years younger than me. I think I've grown past the age where I find selfishness and forced kookiness to be attractive qualities in a romantic partner. So as much as I enjoyed the final product, I found myself completely uncaring about what happens later, even though the film is far from the definitive end for these characters. Characters may be the wrong word, because by all accounts this movie is completely autobiographical, with the two leads playing themselves in a direct translation of what they went through. There are even video updates, new 'episodes' on, but I really am not interested. If Susan breaks up with Arin for his selfish controlling and insulting ways, well, good for her. If not, well, good for him; they are very much alike.

In the end, though, I did enjoy this movie. It was fun, sweet, and occassionally hilarious. Plus, I have respect for this DIY feature, which looks anything but, and has a nice visual style, melding various forms of media; Photo collage, stop motion, animation, and even the use of internet web-sites. It's a remarkably polished low budget film, and pretty well paced and acted(although, again, they are playing themselves). So I can't really fault the film, if it's autobiographical and I don't like the characters. Plus it's free, and short, so you could do worse than sit down with this for an hour and 11 minutes. Sounds like faint praise, I know, but it's hard to recommend this to people whose tolerance for asshole characters in a good movie may be lower than my own. Still, I would recommend this overall.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Tales From The Discount Bin #2: Judging a Book by it's Cover

In the mid 1960s, the spectre of World War II still loomed large. The event was a recent(comparatively) memory for many people, and many were still reeling from the horrors that had been brought to light at the end of that war. In 1961 old wounds were revisited with the high profile trial of Adolf Eichmann for war crimes, and lesser trials that continued throughout the early 60s. As the kids were waking up and moving to freedom, peace and love, many were stuck looking back at a time that seemed to have none of those things. Culturally it's a fascinating time, and the source of many great, incisive works that try to cut to the heart of the global emotions of the time. It is in this atmosphere that the book I review today was born, and it is just this goal that it attempts to realize. An admirable goal, anyone would agree. Still, in the quest for serious literary recognition, this was probably not the best idea:

First off, I have to express some slight disappointment with the Little People; it's actually, against all logic, a decent book. I was, I admit, half prepared for this, though not due to the dubious claim of "carefully laid on horror" from no other than the New York Times. John Christopher(one of the seven- Seven!- pseudonyms of British sci-fi author Samuel Youd) is the author the Tripod Trilogy, a series I enjoyed immensely when I was in Jr. High, and it was while I was looking for The Pool Of Fire in that series when I happened upon this book. And so, with that beloved series in mind, I had some inkling that The Little People might actually be halfway decent. But still... that cover... how could it be?

The book begins promisingly enough, with endless page after endless page of descriptions of place, and furniture. Loads of furniture description and long-winded British dialogue. Apparently "The calorific loss of the average male during sleep has been scientifically established as only a quarter of the loss when he is sitting in an armchair and reading a nice but unexciting book" is what passes for sweet, post-coitus pillow talk in England. Roughly translated, that sentence should read as 'good sex, me hungry!'

The dry British language and syntax in this book make for a daunting read in the beginning, and I found my eyes losing focus every time I picked up this book. I've slogged through some awful reads in my day, but this is the first and only time a book has literally put me to sleep. It took me three days to get past the first 30 pages. This of course led me to believe that my instincts were correct, and this book would be suitably horrible. And then, on the 4th day, I finished the book. You get used to the writing style, around page 30, and Christopher turns out to be a witty and intelligent author, with astute observations and characterizations. At least more so than a book with this title and cover would imply.

The basic story revolves around Bridget, an Englishwoman who inherits a decrepit Irish castle from her cousin Seamus. She decides to open it up as a Bed and Breakfast, mainly as a way to ensure she gets a higher value when she eventually sells it. During it's inaugural days of being open, strange things begin to happen to and around the characters. Based on that cover, I can imagine some fairly upset customers feeling cheated. Instead of homicidal garden gnomes with whips, we get a book more concerned with the inner lives of it's main characters. For the first three quarters of this book, Christopher sets up these characters' lives in a series of introspective moments. As the houseguests wander around the castle they think back over their lives in a distinct tone of melancholy. All the while, there are a few odd goings on in the background; some items go missing from the kitchen, one of the guests sees a small shape outside the castle one night that appears "feminine", and a mysterious diary, entirely in German, is found. Everything escalates when a tiny footprint is found by a hole in the castle wall, and the inhabitants of the castle begin a whimsical and only half serious search for the Little People of Irish legend. They search the castle tower(finding intricate and well furnished doll houses), and the basement. Setting a watch one night, to see if any little people will come out for food, they capture a woman no more than a foot tall, and begin a slow, strange dialogue with her, eventually coaxing out her cohorts.

The little people are revealed just over halfway through the novel, and with the diary translated by Stefan, a German ex-soldier, we're given the story of where they came from. It involves Nazi scientists experimenting on the pituitary gland in an effort to increase the human life span, and creating seven(and yes, that's noticed by the characters) miniature humans. After the war ended, the little people remained in the castle, locked in the tower as a secret known only to Bridget's cousin Seamus, who used them as, quite literally, his own playthings. Seamus was God to the Little People, a role he seemed to enjoy a bit too much, spending his hours locked with them in the tower, giving them meaningless orders and forcing them to punish each other with whips for his amusement. It's probably this aspect that the cover artist was referencing when he put whips in all of the Little People's hands, for they never actually carry whips in the book.

If it weren't for the explicit cover, I may have been unsure of the destination this book was heading in. It could, for most of it, be leading into a more idyllic adult fantasy realm. As the characters' search for the Little People continues, first starting as an amusement, and then turning into something more serious, the book has a mild sense of wonder. This wonder works on the characters as well, and they seem to be taking the first, tentative steps toward self-recovery as their quest continues. Mat, the drunken Irishman, finds temporary relief from the Whiskey bottle, the argumentative American couple appear to be rediscovering their respect for one another, Stefan seems to be making some personal headway with his guilt and subtle resentment towards his Jewish wife, and Bridget finds she quite enjoys running a bed and breakfast. But, as the cover so blatantly lets us know, this isn't going to last.

In the end, the book is somewhat of a shaggy dog story, with the Little People serving as a catalyst for a more personal journey for the various characters in this story. But, though the Little People aren't as homicidal as the cover suggests, they are indeed malevolent. I wont spoil exactly how they begin to turn on their hosts, in the off-chance that anyone will actually pick this up, but it's not as violent as the cover implies. Still no less horrific. In this one night, one chapter, of horror, the various hopes, fears and concerns of the characters are warped, twisted and perverted as the sadism of the Little People finally becomes clear. After the night is over, it would be untrue to call this a happy ending for any of the survivors, as the small glimpses of brightness in their future seem to have been extinguished by this one event. Mat and Cherry(daughter of the American couple) become engaged, but this happiness seems to belong to another book. Bridget's final reflections, suddenly without a fiance and unwilling to continue on in her cousin's home, paint the tone of this novel better than I probably can:

The abandonment of cousin Seamus' legacy was no hardship, and what else had she lost? Nothing material. Merely the feeling that one could trust oneself to another human being, at any time, under any circumstances. That was not important, surely. One could get along much better without it.

So, again, that cover. It's horribly misleading, and disguises an actually enjoyable read. On the other hand, I wouldn't have read this book without it. I don't suppose it'll change much about the way I pick books, because it fulfilled my reasons for starting this project. The idea that out there, hidden in the exploitative covers and silly titles, are great works of art that have been forgotten, or buried beneath unskilled writing. So I think I'll continue buying books for their covers. Here's hoping the next one isn't quite this good.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Spout #4: 13 Tzameti

I was really looking forward to this week's movie for Spout Mavens, 13 Tzameti. I had seen a flurry of reviews(many positive), and the DVD case was packed to the gills with glowing blurbs from some very respectable sources. The director had won Best First Feature at the Venice Film Festival, and the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, so obviously people liked this film. The description on the back painted the film as a thoughtful, if gritty, meditation on poverty and the temptations of violence. And then I opened the DVD case and was greeted by an ad for a 'real time version' of the game of Russian Roulette that forms the center of this film, which asked 'do you dare play?' So now I didn't know what to think as I began the movie.

Luckily I find uncertainty to be the best state of mind for watching a new movie, and I found myself being drawn in as the movie unfolded. And I do mean that the movie unfolded, like a road map, piece by piece becoming larger and clearer and more informative. The film begins with Sebastian, a 22 year old immigrant in France, and his brother as they work as handymen on a seaside house. We get glimpses of the owners of the house; an affluent-seeming junkie and his girlfriend. There is no effort on the part of the director to explain this scenario, letting the actions speak for themselves, giving a much more realistic feel to this film than many others. How many people speak in exposition that clearly delineates what they are talking about? None, most people have their own shorthand when they get together with friends, and although it isn't really obtuse, it never includes the backstory and explanation that most movie dialogue has. And what eavesdropper is lucky enough to hear every conversation from the beginning, so everything is laid out for him? Again, none, and it is in this way that Sebastian makes the unfortunate choice of stealing an envelope from the seaside house shortly after his employers death. All he, or the audience, knows is that this envelope holds a train ticket to Paris and a pre-paid hotel room, and the promise of a big payout. This is so tempting to him not out of selfish greed(or, not entirely anyway), but out of a need to support his family, who share a tiny apartment. Had he been in a more typical movie, one where eavesdroppers get all the pertinent information, he probably would not have decided to go to Paris.

But, of course, he does go. There would be no film if he hadn't, and now the movie really begins to unfold. In Paris Sebastian receives a phone call with more instructions, which lead to even more instructions, which in turn leads to a secluded house in the middle of a dark, imposing forest, and a very dangerous game run by very dangerous men with very large gambling addictions. This first section of the film, with Sebastian moving from place to place with no idea what is going to happen at the next stop, sets up a good deal of tension. It's twisty and a maybe a little fun to figure out the rules and follow along, but there's a fatalistic dread eating at the edges. Once he makes that first, almost innocent blind step(although lets not fool ourselves, Sebastian is well aware that whatever he's going after is illegal), Sebastian is pulled along on a trip he has no control over, towards an unknown destination.

The tension builds towards that inevitable game in the forest, and although most reviews, and the case for this DVD, seem happy to give spoilers, the details of this game are revealed in a way so integral to the films effectiveness that I would advise you to skip over any part of a review that goes into too deep a description. The tension built in the first half of the film begins to pay off here, while ratcheting up the intensity at the same time. With every round of the game the tension builds, releases for a moment, and then builds again, reaching greater heights each time. Some of this may become a tad bit repetitive, and have a slight numbing effect, but the craftwork is still to be admired, as it unravels with an almost clockwork precision. Sebastian's reaction to this 'game' is at first shocked refusal, but he finds himself unable to leave, stuck by his own bad decisions. As the game continues, and the stakes are raised, he finds himself becoming emotionally numbed even as his internal horror rises. At the end, it's impossible for the viewer to tell if he's laughing or crying as he raises the gun.

So obviously I enjoyed this one. My main complaint with the film itself would be the ending, which seems a little too tidy. It robs the character, and the audience, of the opportunity to reflect and deal with the aftermath of the 'game'. I suppose it fits with the feel of the film, which is spare and concise to the point of feeling like a short film. An extra 15 minutes or so of reflection and aftermath would have made the ending feel a bit bloated. Still, it is a bit of an obvious ending, and a slight disappointment.

Now on to that online game. I went to the site advertised, but the game took a long time to load and then asked me to download a bunch of attachments, so I never went forward with it. But I did look around the site, which is far too tasteless for this film. You can look at the leaderboards to see who's killed the most and survived the most games, read discussion threads full of bloodthirsty trash-talk, or even look at the 'Best Shots', which is a list of famous suicides and Russian roulette losers. I found nothing to indicate whether the filmmakers were involved with this, or if it was a site put up as a marketing tool by clueless studio executives, but it shows no understanding of the film itself, and is as crass as can be. The marketing for this movie, even down to the DVD case, seems to be selling this film as an exploitation piece, capitalizing on the central figure of the infamous game. So maybe I'm the one who's clueless. Perhaps this is merely a bit of modern snuff torture porn, wrapped up in classy french clothes that has fooled me into thinking it's art. Whatever the outcome, it's an interesting ride, and an effective film that I may actually be buying one day, to see it without the screener warnings and maybe check out some of the special features. And that, actually, might be the highest recommendation I can give this film.