Favorites of 2013: Movies

I did not see a lot of the big movies that came out this year, unfortunately. The first 2/3 of the year was spent living in a town with a six-screen cinema that mainly played the big stuff that came out. The final 1/3 was spent during a busy semester where I struggled to find time to go to the movies at all. What I did see wasn’t bad, necessarily, but it wasn’t what I would consider great. Pacific Rim? Very fun, but flawed. Thor: The Dark World? Again, fun, but also kinda boring. Man of Steel? Don’t. Get. Me. Started. I’ll probably wind up seeing the new Hobbit movie at some point, though I’m in no rush. And the Anchorman sequel was quite underwhelming overall. Also, I did not care much at all for Star Trek Into Darkness, which did nothing to improve my current impression of J.J. Abrams and the quality of his filmmaking overall. Iron Man 3 was fun, but it also hasn’t stuck with me throughout the year. And I’ve seen movies like Elysium and The Wolverine, which I liked, but didn’t love for various reasons. I’ve also so far missed out on features like 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Blackfish, The Act of Killing, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, The World’s End, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Place Beyond the Pines, Trance, and other movies that I still want to see.

In all honesty, what made the cut for me this year were a lot of movies that weren’t made in 2013. I wonder if that says more about me or about 2013. Probably more about me. Anyway…

Berberian Sound Studio: This one is a headtrip that rewards repeated viewing and, I think, holds up to close scrutiny (as opposed to Upstream Color, which has gotten more attention, but I think is overly obscure). What starts out as a story of a meek British sound engineer brought on board an Italian giallo (read: slasher) film in the 70s becomes something more sinister and bizarre as it goes. The final act of the movie takes it completely into WTF-ville, in the best way. I’d love for more people to watch this movie, mainly so I could talk to them about it and hear their theories on what really happens.

Holy Motors: Another headtrip, and a deliriously imaginative one. Basically, a strange man moves through a large city, inhabiting a series of radically different lives at every stop, doing sometimes mundane, sometimes eerie, sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant things. Why he does this is never explained, but there is an actual sequence to it all that can be followed quite easily. The movie is brilliantly conceived – if it were literature, it would be New Wave SF, and good New Wave at that – and the acting is superb.

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Sauna:  Great little Finnish horror film that stayed in my head for weeks afterward. As a student of horror stories and storytelling, I consider this required viewing for anyone in the same vein. The level of historical detail and background is really impressive, setting the story at the end of the 16th century at the close of a 25-year war between Sweden and Russia. The story itself involves two brothers  – one a solider (who looks like the Finnish Walter White), the other a mapmaker and academic – who get lost in a Finnish border village where no new citizens are born and people live forever, despite still aging, and the specter of a young girl seemingly haunts them. At the edge of the town: the titular sauna, which houses horrifying visions for those who might visit. The horror of this movie is strongly derived from the intense, unnerving imagery and set design (the sauna itself is a high point), but much of the movie’s grip on me came from how deeply it excavated the guilt of the principals and made that guilt an axis for the story (the arc phrase for the movie as a whole is “Wash your sins,” and for good reason).

The White Ribbon: This one definitely wasn’t released in 2013, but that hardly matters here. What does matter is that it left a profound mental and emotional impact on me. Ostensibly a story of sinister happenings in a small German village in pre-Great War days, this movie pretty much cored me out as I was watching it. I felt like I was watching the origin story for a particular kind of evil that we are all familiar with from studying the events of World War II. What is often ascribed by some to seemingly supernatural causes – the rise and power of Nazism – is given a more realistic treatment here, and it’s all the scarier and sadder for it.

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Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky: Lest you all begin to think I’m a completely mature individual with sophisticated tastes, feast your eyes on this. It’s a perfect example of how I can consider a movie to be great, despite obvious flaws in storytelling and moviemaking. This one feels like watching a live action anime made by a teenage boy given free range to creatively express his id-like desires. The main character punches holes in prison walls and ties a tendon in his arm with his fingers and teeth when it’s sliced during a fight. One of his foes smashes a poor fellow’s head with his hands like a soggy watermelon. Another one bloats up into a one-eyed demon when angered. You get the idea. Watch it late at night with your friends and have a laugh. (Side note: the following embedded video is the full movie.)

The Host: One of my absolute favorites that I watched this year. Part horror movie, part environmental cautionary tale, part family tragedy, part comedy, this movie holds up amazingly well because of its stellar story, which switches between and mixes several storytelling tones in a compelling and cohesive manner. The ensemble of actors and actresses in this movie is amazing as well. Indeed, if it weren’t for the naturalistic and relatable manner of their acting, I don’t know if I would have engaged with the movie’s more outlandish elements as well.

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The Red Shoes: Those of you with access to the Criterion Collection (like, say, Hulu Plus users) must watch this movie. It’s a masterwork. The writing is superb, as is the acting. The story follows a template seemingly old as dirt: an aspiring ballerina is caught in a tug of war between the struggling playwright she loves and the rich producer who loves her. The actual movie is more complex than that, especially once it starts taking more creative risks in externalizing the ballerina’s struggles. The centerpiece of this movie is a staged adaptation of the titular fairy tale, where the ballerina acts out an increasingly phantasmagorical and frightening drama that forces her to engage with her own conflicts. It blew me away when I saw it.

Suspiria and Deep Red: I went on a Dario Argento kick earlier this year, after watching Berberian Sound Studio, appropriately enough.  I’m not an Argento defender; his movies are way too scattered in terms of their quality, and once you see enough of his work, the Argento formula becomes exhausting. Tenebre and Phenomena and okay, though not great (and Suspiria is a partial ripoff of his own Suspiria), and I thought Inferno and Opera, though sometimes imaginative, were mostly terrible. Suspiria and Deep Red, however, are legitimate horror/thriller classics that I would consider required viewing. Suspiria is the quintessential creepy boarding school story, cooked with bizarre, metaphorically charged imagery and genuine suspense. The fantasy elements of the story work well enough (except for at the very end), making the movie feel like a twisted fairy tale, of sorts. Deep Red is a much more realistic affair, though still very much suspenseful and actually clever in its use of psychoanalysis as a mode of investigation. It also boasts a great lead performance from David Hemmings.

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Brazil: Why did it take me so long to watch this movie? Why? It’s so beautiful. It’s one of the best science fiction movies I’ve ever watched. It’s the best dystopian movie ever, period. It’s a fantastic satirical work and a product of genius. It’s also imaginatively and emotionally rewarding in equal measure. So brilliant that it will likely serve as a creative touchstone for me in decades to come. The best movie I saw in 2013, but it also shares that honor with the last movie…

Performance: The headtrip to serve notice to all headtrips. A genuine oddity of storytelling and moviemaking that couldn’t have been produced by any other combination of principals (Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg, James Cox, Mick Jagger), any other set of influences (Borges is a huge touchstone here), and any other time (the turning of the 60s into the 70s in London). The first half of the movie is realistic gangster drama, with Cox playing the volatile gangster Chaz finding himself in trouble with his bosses for breaking too many rules of conduct. He shacks up with Jagger’s drug-addled, philosophy-obsessed, creatively blocked rocker Turner in the second half, and that’s when the fun really starts. What we wind up with is the ultimate Cortazaresque/Borgesian story, a puzzle box of conflicting philosophies, gender and sexuality, and identity as a whole. The climactic music video where Turner burrows into Chaz’s psyche – that’s a fairly literal way of describing it, by the way – is easily my favorite movie moment from this year.

Other movies that easily make this list, but I’ve already written about on my blog: 13 Assassins (fantastic samurai historical action), Walkabout (gorgeous Outback coming-of-age story), Velvet Goldmine (glam rock tribute opus), Cemetery Man (wryly funny zombie mindtrip), If… (barbed boarding school satire), Trollhunter (found footage brilliance), Mother (heartbreaking Korean family tragedy), Santa Sangre (best Jodorowsky movie? possibly), The Good, The Bad, The Weird (madcap Korean western action), The Secret of Kells (beautifully animated gem), Brick (teenage detective story with stellar acting), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (deliriously weird and fun), and A Tale of Two Sisters (chilling family tragedy as horror).

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Favorites of 2013: Music

All told, this was a rather good year for music. I enjoyed a lot of what came out from new and established artists. There’s still some albums I need to get caught up on, and as always, I’m welcome to suggestions from people. Here’s what I consider my favorites…

Arcade Fire, Reflektor: Amazing that possibly my least favorite AF album could still stand alongside a year’s best albums in general. The back half of Reflektor is too inconsistent and maudlin for my tastes, but it also contains my favorite track from that album, “Afterlife.” The first half of the album, however, is classic. I’m impressed with what AF is able to accomplish by getting a little more groove-heavy, even if the results are a little scattered by their usual standards.

David Bowie, The Next Day: Excellent album that honestly stands along the better albums of Bowie’s career. Lots of highlights from this one, but “Where Are We Now?” is a personal favorite. I’ve always loved Bowie’s ballads.

The National, Trouble Will Find Me: I’ve been a fan of The National since I first heard “Fake Empire” years ago. That song, like pretty much every album of theirs I’ve listened to, always puts me in a very particular state of mind: mellow, clear-headed, maybe a little melancholy. They’ve inevitably become an important part of my internal soundtrack, and Trouble Will Find Me is no exception.

CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe: Possibly my favorite album of the year, and one of the year’s best surprises for me in music. One of the best overall debuts I’ve heard as well. This one is responsible for a handful of my favorite songs of the year too: “The Mother We Share,” “Gun,” “Lies,” and “Recover.”

Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d cityI know, technically this is a 2012 album, but I didn’t get to listen to it until this year. I’m glad I did, because this is the best rap album I’ve listened to in a long time, since Kanye West’s My Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is on constant repeat on my iPod, but really, the album as a whole is fantastic. It has a strong sense of narrative and pushes the boundaries and expectations of not just rap, but music as a whole, and in a necessary way.

Drake, Nothing Was Ever The SameBetween this album and his last one (Take Care), I got into Drake big time this year. He has a lot in common with other musicians with a strong sense of narrative and mood, like Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is an amazing single and, surprisingly, reminds me of Sade. Another personal favorite is “Furthest Thing,” mainly because of how the song winds down at the 2/3 point, only to make a total musical and lyrical U-turn. I love it when something can surprise me.

Disclosure, Settle: This album totally snuck up on me toward the end of the year, but it made my radar thanks to suggestions from a few friends. I’m not a fan of mainstream electronic music in general, but I think this album demonstrates the genre’s potential when placed in the hands of meticulous, thoughtful practitioners. Also, the vast majority of the album is purely catchy and addictive.

Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest: Three straight electronic-based albums? Hell yes. Also, this is Boards of Canada we’re talking about here. This album in particular should be considered as a straight-up album, which shouldn’t be listened to on a solo track-sampling basis. It sounds like a soundtrack to a lost John Carpenter movie, from the period when he was making classic movies (think The Thing or Escape From New York). I want to write the story that goes with this album.

My Bloody Valentine, m b v: This one’s not on Spotify, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this was one of the best albums of the year, and an excellent comeback album in a year full of great (and not-so-great) comebacks. I feel comfortable saying this album matches up splendidly with MBV’s classic Loveless.

Foals, Holy Fire: This one is getting hardly any year-end press, probably because it was released at the start of the year. It’s excellent, though, and a great follow-up to Total Life Forever. It’s also more consistent than that album, making this a wonderful step forward in quality for Foals.

The Joy Formidable, Wolf’s Law: The most epic album of the year, hands down. Loud, dynamic, dramatic rock music meant to be played at full volume, preferably while base jumping or something. I wish Muse’s last album (2nd Law) had been even half as good as this one (it wasn’t, sadly).

Queens of the Stone Age, …Like Clockwork: Speaking of great comeback albums! This one is possible QOTSA’s best album overall since their early work. Ten songs, all killer, no filler. Personal favorite tracks include “My God is the Sun,” “I Sat By The Ocean,” “If I Had A Tail” and the surprisingly funky “Smooth Sailing.”

Sigur Ros, Kveikur: So, Sigur Ros went dark on this one, and it sounds fantastic. Another album for the writing soundtrack playlist, preferably for stories with tons of internal struggle and storminess. At times this year when I felt particularly troubled or conflicted, this was almost a perfect musical interpretation of what I was feeling, much in the same way Bat For Lashes’s The Haunted Man did for me last year.

The Knife, Shaking the Habitual: Another great comeback album! This one is pretty massive, and to be honest it took me a few tries to get all the way through it. The album as a whole is rather exhausting, and rather daring too. The one-two punch of “A Tooth for an Eye” and “Full of Fire” at the very beginning is hard to beat too.

Haim, Days Are Gone: Haim actually visited Lawrence a few months ago to play at the Granada. I had no idea who the band was at the time, but I was assured of their quality afterwards by a coworker. Upon listening to the album, I immediately regretted not seeing the band in person. They’re quality musicians and songwriters. Also, “The Wire” is the best song of the year.

As an added bonus, in case anyone wants to check out my favorite songs of the year, here’s a link to my Spotify playlist. I’m not going to list it out here, but it’s safe to assume that there’s some good jams included.

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Movie Roundup: Mechas, Mugwumps, and Samurai

Time for another batch of movie reviews! I’ve watched a ton of movies in the past few months, but I haven’t written about it in a while because I’ve been busy with things, most recently with packing up and moving to Lawrence. Now that things are settled and I’ve got some free time, I can get back to this.

The big thing I’ve taken away from the last batch of movies I’ve watched (which is much, much bigger than the sample size here) is that my movie-watching tendencies are changing. For one thing, I am much more willing to give up on a movie now, if I get thirty or so minutes into it and it bores or infuriates me. I don’t like giving up on stories, and I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but the fact is that there are so many other stories out there that may or may not be worth watching, and the majority of the time it just isn’t worth spending two hours on a movie when the first forty minutes are terrible. Hell, most of the time I can tell within twenty minutes. I’ve even given up on movies right before the final stretch recently because I just couldn’t take anymore (for instance, House of 1000 Corpses and Calvaire). They were just doing nothing for me at all, and I figured, why bother?

I’ve also gotten much more critical of genre movies that I have been in the past. I’m pretty sure that’s due to the fact I’ve seen so many of them now. I’m beginning to see where some movies base what they do off of what other movies have done, less so out of homage and more so out of a lack of imagination. A lot of sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies don’t do it for me anymore because I can call all their shots now. So, increasingly I’ve turned toward other kinds of movies, most notably noir and historical dramas. I really enjoyed a trio of British crime films recently, in fact – The Long Good Friday, Layer Cake, and Croupier – that I didn’t write about here, but I do want to mention them so people can seek them out for their own viewing.

But, there are reviews to get to, and with that I turn to the biggest blockbuster of everything I saw, and one of the hot button topics in film this summer…

Pacific Rim: Before and at the time it came out, this movie was the leading cause for activism in my own geek circles. It’s a movie about giant mechas battling transdimensional monsters for the fate of the world. It’s basically a live action retelling of the cartoon mashups I used to make up with my action figures when I was 11. There are obvious touchstones for fans of Mobile Suit Gundam, Godzilla, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Neon Genesis Evangelion (oh goodness, yes). A $200 million blockbuster made by nerds, for nerds. Pure fanservice. (Which goes a long way in explaining the outright defensive stance many people took on behalf of the movie before they even saw it.) And you know what? It is a lot of fun to watch. The visual design and polish of the movie is fantastic, and it is very well shot for a CGI-heavy blockbuster. Guillermo Del Toro does in fact know what he’s doing when it comes to spectacle. The fights themselves are awesome, easily the main reason to see the movie. The story? Not so much. Like I said before, it’s cobbled together from bits of other stories and the characters are cardboard, mostly. I’m also fairly certain Charlie Hunnam might be the new Keanu Reeves. That speech from Idris Elba’s character that they play in all the trailers? It sounds cool in the trailers, but when I watched it in the movie I had flashbacks to Bill Pullman’s pre-climactic speech in Independence Day. Still, there is much fun to be had in the movie, so long as you treat it like the spectacle it is and accept the fact that it isn’t terribly original.

header-pacific-rim-epic-wondercon-trailer-unleashes-jaeger-furyUpstream Color: I really wanted to like Upstream Color, much like I really wanted to like Shane Carruth’s first movie, Primer. There’s a very strong imagination at work in this movie, but it’s a primarily visual, cinematographic imagination. It’s a gorgeous movie: beautiful colors, texture, camerawork, etc. The sound is impeccable too, as is Carruth’s score, which stands up surprisingly well even when divorced from the movie. The story in Upstream Color is somewhat coherent, but still convoluted. The emotional component of the movie is definitely stronger than it is in Primer, which is quite a welcome change, as I think Carruth is a bit too cold with his characters. In the end, I think that Carruth has potential, but right now he is much more gifted as a cinematographer and director than he is as a writer and actor. I think he relies too much on obscurity in his storytelling, to the point of annoyance. He frequently defends his obscurity as part of his process in interviews, which to be honest kinda bugs me. His obscurity comes from the fact that he isn’t actually presenting the pieces of his stories in such a way that they can be properly reassembled at the end. There is a strong difference between a story about an inexplicable thing and an inexplicable story. Carruth shouldn’t confuse the two.

Upstream-colorLunopolis: I found this one on Netflix, and it wound up being a semi-pleasant surprise. IT’s shot as a faux-documentary about a secret alternate history of America involving moon bases, the lost city of Atlantis, glowing moon rocks, Men in Black, time travel, and other things. So, it’s sort of a mashup of different conspiracy-ish things, the kinds of things that make UFOlogists and Forteans perk their ears up. I happen to have a fondness for Forteana, so I enjoyed it for that component alone. It’s a movie that doesn’t attempt to disguise the fact that it’s trying to depict something that is batshit crazy (albeit fictional), and I admired that. The story itself is both good and not-so-good. Once it introduces the time travel component, things get unnecessarily twisty and convoluted, which is unfortunate because it’s otherwise still quite creative. The other thing is that the story is so packed to bursting with ideas that the backstory of the movie overalls the foreground story. So, it would be easy to classify this as a case of the filmmakers’ intentions outspanning their grasp, but their overall energy and creativity of the movie must be commended.

LunopolisCobra: Wow, this movie is bad. Like, really bad. Even by 80s action movie standards, which quite frankly weren’t that high to begin with, it’s bad. This should be a Reagan-era-approved, by-the-numbers “badass cop fights crime with disregard for the rules” movie, thoroughly mediocre. And yet, it doesn’t even clear that mark. What it is, is flamboyantly bad. It’s a Marty Stu piece for Sylvester Stallone, who basically hired George Cosmatos as a ghost director for the project, much like Kurt Russell did for Tombstone. The hero is so hypercompetent and macho as to reach the point of caricature, complete with random expertise and skills and improbable weapons storage. Every other character in the movie is basically there to pay testament to how much of a badass Stallone – erm, Marion Cobretti – is. This setup is also so thoroughly transparent that it turns into an unintentional comedy. So yeah, it does wind up falling into the “so bad, it’s good” category.

Troll 2: Speaking of so bad it’s good, we have this little treat. I recently tried to explain this movie to my friend, Matt Switliski. I’ll just quote what I told him: “You remember The Room? This is an unintentional comedy goldmine of the same caliber, absolutely. It’s about goblins, even though the movie is called Troll 2, and these goblins are vegetarians. They only eat vegetables. But they eat people. See, what they do is make people ingest this poison that turns them into vegetable goo, and then they eat that. Apparently, that works better for them than just eating vegetables. So, this family goes to this town called Nilbog – yes, Nilbog, ‘goblin’ spelled backwards – and the goblins come after them so they can eat them, and the youngest son is the only one who knows what’s going on because his dead grandfather told him – he’s a ghost. Oh, and there’s a scene where the goblin queen makes herself hot – really, all she does is dye her hair brown, take off her glasses, brush her teeth really good, and put on a dress – and seduces a guy in a trailer by dancing around with a corncob. And then they make out in the trailer and popcorn erupts in the air. It’s that kind of movie.”

Naked Lunch: This is one of the better David Cronenberg movies I’ve seen, a step below Videodrome and The Fly, but still quite good. It features a lot of ingenious, twisted imagery: typewriters that turn into alien cockroaches and, ahem, copulate; a disembodied alien head that dispenses drinkable liquid from one of its antennae; bug powder that double-functions as a snuffable hallucinogen; etc. All of this is utilized, however, in service of what is in fact a biography of William Burroughs filtered through the imagination that spawned his famed book, Naked Lunch. Even though it traffics in speculative detail, the movie feels very faithful to Burroughs, even affectionate at times. What may be the issue with this movie, however, is that you honestly need to read Burroughs’s book to understand this movie. Otherwise, you’ll marvel at the strangeness, but the references in the strangeness won’t add up the way they should.

394951457_640I Sell the Dead: Watched this one just the other night on Netflix. It’s nothing special, but is a pleasant bit of horror comedy done very much in the vein of Don Coscarelli and some of his movies, with a fondness for character interactions and horrific elements that ultimately come across as absurdly glib and fun. It’s a story of two gravediggers who sell corpses for money and their rivalry with other gravediggers, and also their encounters with some very peculiar creatures, namely the undead (along with a more distinctly science fictional critter that I won’t give away here). It isn’t really a story so much as a series of events from the main character’s life, told by himself to a priest while he awaits his execution. It’s the kind of thing that could easily see a sequel or two, so long as the people behind it continue to find stories to tell.

Cypher: Netflix kept tossing this movie at me as a recommendation, and so I finally gave in and watched it just to shut Netflix up. My verdict? It’s not particularly good. I really hope it doesn’t bear out too accurately as an indicator of Vincenzo Natali’s other movies, because I do want to see Cube and Splice eventually. It starts out promisingly, peaking about a third of the way in with a fondly Philip K. Dickian scene depicting a mass brainwashing in a hotel conference room, conducted by shadowy corporations whose only function seems to be instilling their employees with false identities and then brainwashing them in favor of newer false identities, without notable reason or purpose. If it had stayed in that weird SF vein, I would have loved it more. Instead, it becomes a standard corporate espionage “who’s double-crossing who” intrigue for the sake of intrigue. Also, the characters suck. So, no, Netflix, you blew this one.

cypherUpside Down: My God, this movie really sucked. The premise is sorta cool, sorta incoherent: two planets are locked in the same gravitational orbit around their sun, hanging out in space like a pair of those Chinese arthritis balls resting in the palm of your hand. Each planet has its own gravity that affects only the people and things native to it. A person from Planet A cannot stand on the surface of Planet B because Planet A’s gravity will pull them back. However, they can stay on Planet B if they wear or weigh themselves down with matter from Planet B, much like ballast. However! Matter from one planet will ultimately burn up when in contact with matter from the other planet, so you can’t use the ballast for long. Now, this creates a lovely visual style for the movie, with unique use of color and staging; lots of altered perspective shots, people running on ceilings, gravitational shifts, very cool. The science, clearly, is shit. You can’t even properly call the gravity of the two planets “gravity” because, well, that’s not now gravity works. It’s a force field, not a rubber band. These physical rules are only created to serve the purpose of the story. Problem is, the movie then proceeds to constantly break these rules whenever it serves to benefit the story, to the point that having them in the first place is mainly pointless. And on top of all of this, the story sucks. There is genuine potential to be had – the more affluent planet constantly takes resources and manpower from the other planet, leaving it poor and decrepit. This should have been a story of social upheaval and change. Instead, this background is used in service of a story about two bland, unlikable paper cutouts of people who fall in love with each other and their struggle to be together, which I frankly did not give a rip about.

13 Assassins: This might be my favorite Takashi Miike movie! Which is strange, because it’s also not particularly Miike-esque, in the sense of how people characterize him from his horror cinema. Also, I have a fondness for jidai-geki stories. Nevertheless, this is a well-made, rousing movie. It revolves around thirteen assassins (duh), more specifically twelve samurai/ronin and one woodland hunter who joins up with them randomly, and their mission to kill a nobleman who is causing problems for Japan because of his ruthless cruelty. So, they clear out a small town in the Japanese countryside and turn it into a giant deathtrap for the nobleman and his men. This leads to the final third of the film, entirely composed of the sequence where the nobleman rides into town and the trap is sprung. And it is awesome. The action is well-choreographed and seriously gratifying, never dull or boring, always intense, with some seriously inventive set pieces, my favorite being an alleyway pincushioned with swords, which the samurai proceeds to use as a makeshift gauntlet to mow through a procession of mooks. If it helps, imagine it as a smaller, Japanese variation on 300 with less abs, more substance, and no racism.

Walkabout: This movie haunted me during and after watching it. It’s a simple story: a boy and his sister are lost in the Australian Outback after their salaryman father goes nuts and tries to kill them, only to off himself and torch the family car. They reach the brink of starvation and are then rescued by an Aboriginal Australian boy, who takes a shine to the sister. This movie is a lovely experience, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve watched. Nicolas Roeg lingers on scenes of nature and animal activity – lizards, birds, kookaburra trees, water buffalo, all in their perfect natural functions – and really makes you adore it all and also lament when human activity spoils it, as happens later in the movie when some callous hunters nearly run down the Aboriginal boy and shoot an animal for no clear reason. It feels senseless, and that has much to do with the intense empathy the characters have for their surroundings by that point, and also for our empathy with it. The heart of the movie, though, is the sweet, awkward budding friendship/romance between the sister and the Aboriginal boy. They are keenly aware of their own bodies and also each other at a time when they are going through adolescence, growing comfortable around one another. They are also divorced by their respective cultures; one mistakes the other’s ritual for bad magic or insanity. It all makes you long for the ability to put aside language and culture and just reach a state of union, with other humans and with nature.

A Field in England: The latest movie from Ben Wheatley, who made Kill List, an intense little gem that still sticks with me. A Field in England is much, much stranger, but it sacrifices some coherence for that strangeness, which leaves it as a less enjoyable affair, though still worth watching. Basically, it’s a story of an alchemist, Whitehead, fleeing a battle during the English Civil War (we’re talking 17th century, non-Brits) who gets roped in with some grunts in service of an evil man named O’Neill who wronged Whitehead’s master and is now in pursuit of some treasure supposedly buried in the titular field. What this all builds up to is bantering about alehouses, torture, rune divination, ingestion of “magic mushrooms,” and an apocalyptic battle of the wills between a coward and a murderer. Even with its flaws, and it’s definitely far from perfect, it’s still worth watching for anyone in pursuit of distinctive cinema.

fieldVelvet Goldmine: Now this was a trip to watch. The whole thing is ostensibly the story of the rise and fall of this glam rock star named Brian Slade, along with his various love affairs and musical endeavors, and also his attempt to fake his own murder on stage, which wreaks horrible consequences on himself and others. If I had to describe the movie, it’s basically a glam rock concept album brought to life, something David Bowie would’ve done (which is funny, because Brian Slade is basically a thinly disguised David Bowie, with liberal doses of Oscar Wilde splashed in). The story structure itself is pretty inventive, told in a nonlinear style that assembles various pieces from interviews with characters who knew, loved, and hated Slade. It’s very much set up as a “who’s the man behind the mystery” thing, with a vaguely SF-nal feel to everything – Brian Slade has a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego named “Maxwell Demon” (as in Maxwell’s Demon, the famous thought experiment) who, like Ziggy, is not of this planet – and really, glam rock itself is pretty SF-nal, when you think about it. Gender bending, identity politics, the power of music, glamours and façades, it all feels very fantastical when seen in a movie, but it was pretty much par for the course in the scene itself and its music. It was all about building a new mythology, and that’s something this movie absolutely nails. Another thing that’s totally nailed down is the music; this movie has quite possibly one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard.

velvet goldmine6Cemetery Man: One of the most peculiar movies I’ve seen recently, and definitely one of the most imaginative. It’s a total mindscrew of a movie, in fact. Rupert Everett plays the caretaker of a cemetery in a small Italian town, and he has what amounts to the worst job in the world, since almost anyone he buries comes back to life as a zombie. He doesn’t have much of a life, since the majority of it is spent either burying people or killing them again. He attempts to have a love life, but that ends badly too, especially since they often die, and he has to bury them, and you see where this is going. Except you don’t, or you won’t. I didn’t. I refuse to say anything more on the movie, other than to say it’s well worth watching, if you can get your hands on it. (Apparently, versions of the whole movie exist on YouTube! I don’t know how legal it would be to watch it, but if anyone wants to take the plunge, that would be up to them.)

Cemetery-ManV/H/S/2: I previously reviewed V/H/S, this movie’s precursor, and found it lacking for many reasons, namely the annoyance of the found footage formats, the lack of actual quality storytelling, and the dependence on obnoxious, unlikable characters. If those problems hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have minded the blatant shock value of the movie. Those problems are definitely addressed  all around in V/H/S/2. Hell, I even liked this movie. I found three of the four segments ultimately forgettable, but still enjoyable in the moment. The first segment is still the weakest part here, a bit about a guy who can see malevolent spirits after a cybernetic eye transplant, although it does utilize its jump scares effectively. The bit with the guy on the bike becoming a zombie, shooting everything from the POV of his bike helmet,  was fun but slight. The ending segment, with the alien abduction at the slumber party, is a pleasant surprise, with its science fictional trappings standing out from the usual horror of the movie. One of the segments, however, is worth sitting through the whole movie to see: “Safe Haven,” directed by Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. This one, about a news crew investigating an Indonesian cult with decidedly sinister, demonic underpinnings, is a minor classic. The escalation of this piece is fantastic, and once the payoff begins and shit hits the fan, it crackles with energy and intensity. It’s simply brilliant.

If…: If this movie and a handful of other novels and movies I’ve encountered are any indication, I would never, ever, ever want to go to an English boarding school. Good grief, no. The boarding school in If… is downright fascist and chilling. The prefects are abusive snobs, the headmasters are ineffectual and unattached, the teachers are bundles of neuroses, and young men like Malcolm McDowell’s Mick Travis have to play revolutionary to get their points across without being beaten down. If…, then, is a great movie. It functions on multiple levels, as both a horrid account of boarding school life and as an allegory for what happens when people are manhandled by institutions larger than themselves. Because of this odd mixture of detail and intent, among other things, the movies gives off this impression of being realistic and fantastical at the same time, and so the proceedings are deeply weird, never more so than in the final minutes of the movie, where Travis and his friends stage a literal coup against the school. The violence in the movie isn’t terribly explicit, but it is frightening, especially the scenes of corporal punishment; there’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through where one of the prefects canes Travis repeatedly with running windups, clearly above and beyond the recommended level of severity, that stands out in particular. The coup at the end isn’t as frightening, given that’s the point where the allegorical reading of the movie bulldozes its previously established reality, but it is chilling in the context of what we’ve seen from actual school shootings in the real world thirty-odd years later. So, then, does that make If… a prophetic work? It’s not impossible.

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Ad Astra, Per Aspera

As of right now, I’m sitting on the couch in the living room of my new apartment in Lawrence, watching Lunopolis on Netflix and writing this. I’m by and large finished setting up my apartment, aside from some wall decorations and clocks I still need to take care of. Right now, I feel very comfortable and relaxed, ready to tackle whatever awaits me in Lawrence and at KU. The path leading up to here, though, was much less relaxing. In fact, it was downright intense and grueling at points.

The actual act of packing everything up in the first place was rather time-consuming, mainly because I had a lot of stuff to get together: clothes, books, mattress, couch, computer, desk, the works. In the days awaiting the move, my dad and I managed to get everything I needed into a single 6’x16’ trailer and the bed of a pickup truck, miraculously enough. We strapped everything down beforehand as best we could with trailer straps and wrapped it all three times over in polyethylene sheeting.

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The top of the packed materials is in fact level with the top of that ladder, which is full-sized.

Despite his very vocal insistence, I did not bring my cat to Kansas.

Despite his very vocal insistence, I did not bring my cat to Kansas.

The idea behind all of this was to minimize risk as much as we could, because unlike so many times before, handy, do-it-all Dad couldn’t make the move with me. Business was beginning to pick up again at the family bowling alley, and my move was happening on a Saturday, our busiest day of the week, so he had to stay behind. That left only my mom and I to move everything on our own, plus my brother, who promised to join us in Springfield, MO to help on the second leg of the five-hour drive.

I spent the rest of that weekend saying my goodbyes to friends and family in town, which left me feeling very wistful and sad, more than I was anticipating. I don’t think you ever really know what you mean to people, or what they mean to you, until either you or them leave for good, and then there’s this sense of tragedy involved, because the departure is supposed to be permanent, or semi-permanent. I’m always going to have ties to West Plains, no matter what, because my family lives there, as do some very dear friends, but the intent is to make Lawrence, and wherever I go after it, my home, on my own. And so, goodbyes were said, and many long, emotional embraces, and that Saturday morning I left town in my Camaro, following Mom as she drove the truck and trailer by herself.

That was when things started to fray a bit.

Driving as fast as we did, with as much stuff as he had on the trailer, stacked as high as it was, the plastic started stripping away from the trailer. It did not hold up as well as we had hoped it would. It peeled off like string cheese, flapping in the drag of the trailer down the highway like tendrils of an angry jellyfish. It came off in flakes, floating to either side of my car while I rode behind Mom. We called Dad and he said there was nothing we could do; we’d just have to hope that the straps would hold everything down. So, we stopped, cut off the excess plastic so it wouldn’t be a hassle, and drove off down the road.

Except then we had to stop about ten minutes later because my driver’s side window wouldn’t work. My AC sucks, and it was a hot day, and my Camaro turns into a dutch oven on hot days, so I rolled my window down. It wouldn’t roll back up. We stopped, then, and messed with the door and the window until it rolled back up (it hasn’t worked again since then, which is just marvelous). I rolled my passenger side window down, and off the highway we went again.

But then we had to stop in Rogersville, ten minutes or so outside Springfield, because one of my boxes was about to fall out of the trailer. The only thing holding it in was the plastic wrap, which threatened to give at any moment. At that point, I was really worried, so Mom and I pulled over in a school parking lot and I drove across the street to an O’Reilly’s, where I bought extra trailer straps. Mom and I discussed the possibility of driving back to West Plains at that point, so I could try and drive up to Lawrence with Dad on Tuesday. That wouldn’t have worked, I said, because I had things I needed to do in Lawrence starting on Tuesday. She said we’d just have to suck it up and try to make everything work, and stop worrying.

It was at that point Mom sliced her hand open with a box cutter.

It was purely an accident, something that happened while Mom was trying to cut the trailer straps out of their packaging. The card backing the straps slipped in her hand, and the point of the box knife dug in and out of the fleshy part of the top of her hand, between her thumb and forefinger. It left a flap of skin shaped at an acute angle and a sudden oozing of blood.

I felt horrible. I felt partly responsible for what happened, because I insisted on getting extra trailer straps to shore up weak points on the trailer. I had insisted on continuing the move to Lawrence. Mom also felt horrible, for obvious reasons.

So, I made the trip to a local Dollar General to grab a bottle of super glue, some gauze and bandages, and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol. My brother, Graham, was waiting at the trailer on my return. We made the group decision to keep going, no matter what, and not to freak out about what might happen on the move. Like a pro, Mom patched up her cut with the super glue, and Graham and I strapped the trailer down as securely as we could.

From that point on, the move went much more smoothly and less stressfully. The new straps on the trailer held securely. Not a single physical article fell off the trailer. Not a single tire blew. Not a single car cut us off. We just rode on in a chain down the highway.

I made a playlist for myself, for the journey to Lawrence (yes, I make playlists for shit like this). When we crossed the border into Kansas on the highway, The Chemical Brothers’ “The Test” played on my stereo: “Am I coming through?/Am I coming through?/Is it sweet and pure and true?”

It turns out we came through the move better than we thought we would three hours earlier, in the school parking lot in Rogersville. Mom’s wound did not get worse, and when she saw someone at an Urgent Care clinic in Lawrence a few days later, they said she’d patched it up rather well, all things considered. We got everything moved into the apartment in less than two hours, and as of now everything of importance is put together and unpacked. There’s a few boxes left to be thrown away and a few wall hangings left to set up, like I said at the beginning, but the move itself is over. What blood was spilled in the process is already healing up.

The hard part begins now, I think. This is the first time I’ve truly lived on my own. Yes, I was often living on my own when I was in college before, but I lived in residence halls on campus. I didn’t have to worry about getting groceries, or paying utilities, or keeping up with monthly bills. I have to do all of that on top of school now, all by myself. School itself isn’t going to be easy either. It’s a PhD program; half of all PhD students don’t get to the dissertation phase (my statistics might be bad there, though). It’s going to be a tough five years, with lots of work involved. As comfortable and relaxed as I feel right now, there will be hardships and difficult decisions to make.

What I’ll do in those moments is think of the long drive up here, and the flapping plastic on the trailer, and my mother driving on with her makeshift first aid on her bleeding hand so I could come here to Lawrence for a fresh start. I’m not going back on any of that. I’m going to honor those difficulties by tackling my own and aiming for the better things that will hopefully result. I’ve never been a quitter, not even at times when I’ve felt most stressed. It’s not a quality that runs in my family.

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I’m a World Fantasy Award Nominee?!

So, the news has already broken, for a few days now, but I figured I should share it here too: I’ve been nominated for a 2013 World Fantasy Award! More specifically, I’ve been shortlisted in the Special Award—Professional category for my editorial work at Weirdfictionreview.com alongside my bosses/chief editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I didn’t even know about it until Ann and Jeff called me up to tell me late Tuesday night, while I was rooting through some old notebooks, finishing up unpacking for my apartment. Turns out they’d been trying to get a hold of me for a while before then and finally found my cell number. When they told me I was nominated, I was incredulous for a few seconds, and Jeff had to tell me about three times before it sank in. I spent the next few hours prancing around the apartment, pinwheeling, calling my parents, etc. True to what Ann and Jeff told me, Facebook was blowing up with the news, and I had scores of well-wishers congratulating me, which left me flabbergasted and sentimental at the same time.
wfclogoI feel very thankful for all of it, the nomination and the attendant celebration. Truth be told, if you’re going to pursue a career in publishing/editing/writing, genre or otherwise, you have to do it because you love it and feel devoted to a particular purpose, and you pursue that purpose as best you can. What satisfaction you gain from that pursuit will sometimes be material, but almost always will be internal or qualitative, the knowledge that you’ve done a good job or found new readers for something that badly deserves a wider audience. Awards and award nominations are hard to come by because there are only so few awards and opportunities for recognition, and there are so many deserving publications and writers every year.

My work at WFR.com satisfies me, for many reasons (which I’ve previously mentioned, I’m sure). I get to read some of the best, most imaginative work from writers I may not have encountered otherwise, and I help them find more readers in a crowded market. I get to help make a difference for those writers, and also for the readers that come to enjoy them. I want to become a greater gatekeeper and tastemaker, not for glory, but for the purpose of helping more writers and readers down the road. I will admit that my work at WFR.com has also made me a better reader and writer, which will pay off for my own writing down the road as well. In the end, though, I gain satisfaction from the daily work and the communication with fellow editors and contributors, from seeing a great shape forming from smaller pieces.

A World Fantasy Award nomination, then, feels like a stirring validation of that work. It confirms what I had hoped for the website all along. It’s especially meaningful knowing that the nomination comes for the duration of our published material from 2012, a year when I turned to my work on WFR.com as an escape from personal discord and stress. So, not only do I feel joy, but a strong sense of catharsis as well. The good words and well wishes I’ve received from others has been heartwarming and a real source of pleasure and self-confidence, and I appreciate them wholeheartedly.

I also want to say this: it may be my name and the VanderMeers’ names on the ballot for the nomination, but as far as I’m concerned, that nomination stretches to all of the contributors at WFR.com. As an editor, I would be nothing without the talents of our regular columnists and contributors, and all of the great writers whose essays and stories have graced our website. They all deserve a round of applause and a share of the spoils.

It’s encouraging to see WFR.com in such strong company as the rest of the ballot. The competition in the Special Award categories (Professional and Non-professional) is going to be tough. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the folks at PS Publishing, Subterranean Press, ChiZine Publications, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Acqueduct Press, and Centipede Press, for starters. Elsewhere on the ballot sits my friends Karin Tidbeck and Gregory Bossert, nominated for her collection Jagannath (which I helped out on!) and his short story “The Telling,” respectively. Kij Johnson, who I hope to work with soon at KU, is also nominated for her collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees, which, as one of my friends pointed out, means there are now two WFA nominees in the English department at KU. How cool is that?

It remains to be seen whether WFR.com takes home an award, but the nomination itself feels like a win. Now is a time for celebration and positive thoughts, and positive momentum as well. There’s still more to be done, for myself personally and also for WFR.com. I need to get back to work, but I’ll do it with a bigger smile than usual.

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Countdown to Kansas

Back in March, I announced that I’d accepted a spot in the PhD program for Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. Much has happened since then, and so I thought now was time for a bit of catch-up.

First and foremost, I’ve found a place to live in Lawrence already: Park 25 Apartments, a little over two miles from the KU campus and where I’ll be teaching. It’s a one-bedroom apartment, about 750 square feet, in a nice part of town. My official move-in date is Saturday, August 10, 36 days from now (hence the countdown in the post title).

I’m very happy with where I’ll be living. I took a trip up to Lawrence with my parents on Memorial Day (May 27, for those not in the States) and spent the next day touring apartments that I’d researched online and inquired after by phone, narrowing down to facilities that fit my necessities and budget as nicely as possible. What impressed me the most about Lawrence while I was there was how green it was. Even though it’s a fairly big town (about 90,000 in population), it didn’t feel too densely packed; it has a nice sense of sprawl to it, and it’s surrounded by gorgeous nature trails, lakes, and parks. One of the best moments of the entire trip happened when we took our dogs out to one of the parks on the southwest end of the town to run around a bit and burn some energy. My border collie, Molly, brought back a giant felled limb longer than she was, which turned out to be a branch cut from an Osage Orange, a tree practically nonexistent in the Ozarks. So, even before returning to Lawrence this August, I have a personal memento to tie me there (and a good walking stick at that).

The apartment hunt was much more uneven in quality, and probably more interesting to talk about. I was aided in this by my parents. My mom is a financial wiz, and my dad is a master carpenter and contractor, so both of them can smell lemons from miles away. I thought it was important to get their impressions of apartments alongside my own because I trusted their experience with apartment shopping and property appraisal more than my own. Some of the apartments we saw, however, were blatantly bad enough that even I noticed it, with my relatively limited experience.

Here are some, ahem, highlights of the various apartment tours:

  • Walking up to an apartment built into a hillside and noticing how the entire building is in fact curling away from it.
  • Walking into an apartment bedroom and noticing at first that the sliding closet doors, covering the entire height and width of the wall, are slanted, and then realizing they’re in fact standing straight and the room itself is slanted.
  • The distinct smells encountered, including but not limited to mold, trash, and animal “leavings.”
  • Having a leasing agent offhandedly refer to an adjoining neighborhood as “Drugville” and, when asked about building security, saying “You’ll have a deadbolt.”
  • Being taken into not one, but two different apartments that turned out to be inhabited by outright hoarders or slobs (albeit with very charming pets). The inhabitant for one of them wished us luck getting to the bathroom, namely because it was at the end of a hallway blocked off by a waist-high snowdrift of dirty clothes.

In the end, though, it came down to two apartments which were the best by miles: Peppertree Apartments and Park 25. Both had good facilities, clean and well-constructed rooms, and affordable rent/utilities packages, and the people we interacted with at both facilities were pleasant, intelligent, and well-prepared. Even though I didn’t choose Peppertree, I was still very satisfied with the attention I received there and the quality of the apartments themselves, and I would recommend anyone moving to the Lawrence area to check them out.

I’m pretty comfortable with the actual move-in schedule as it stands. Moving in on August 10 gives me that weekend to unpack all my stuff (or most of it anyway), build/install furniture, and make the apartment into a home. That also gives me a whole week to just decompress and get to know the area before I start official KU business. Truthfully, I know that when the time comes the move will be stressful, despite my overall excitement for it. It’s a much needed change of scenery, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to feel really weird being on my own in a new land at first. So, it’ll be good to just have a week to relax and get to know people.

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One of my cats, Josie, making a fort out of my moving boxes.

Sadly, because of the move I won’t get to go to ReaderCon this year; it would be hard to justify airfare and hotel reservations when I need to stockpile money for moving and apartment rent and services (I’m hoping to make it out of KU without student debt; I’ve pulled it off with all my other degrees so far). Hopefully once I get settled in and have a better idea of how far my money will need to go for various things, I’ll be able to set aside funds for going to conventions again. My big goal for next year is to make it to ICFA, since it’s a more academic conference on fantastical literature, and of course making it to ReaderCon for that go-round.

For now, though, I’m going to keep packing and cross my fingers. I’m hoping for a smooth relocation to Kansas, but I’m also hoping I don’t go nuts waiting for it. Thank goodness I’ve got Weirdfictionreview.com and other projects to keep me occupied in the meantime!

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Reading Roundup: Cataclysms, Memoirs, and Other Things

So, I’ve been gone from the blog for a while, for various reasons, chief among them my ongoing work at Weirdfictionrevew.com, preparations for my move to Lawrence, KS, and the demands of my regular day job. It feels like I update this in spurts, anyway. I run for long stretches of time where I only half-feel like I need to write something, or I feel like nothing is ready to share or worth sharing yet, and then it all bottlenecks until I let loose a handful of entries before retreating into the ether again. I wish I could do this more regularly, but at least I’m becoming more openly honest about my tendencies.

There are definitely more posts to come here, ranging from my thoughts on some recent horror film and fiction (some quite good, some truly horrible, a lot in-between) to a definitive update on my move to Lawrence and what I’ll be up to for the rest of the summer. For now, it’s time for another reading roundup! This is all material I’ve read over the past few months that I felt worth sharing with people. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Circus_of_doctor_laoThe Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney: This one’s a classic of fantasy literature that I finally got around to reading after I acquired it a few years ago. It came to my attention as a precursor to a novel I enjoyed in my childhood, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (which is overdue for a personal reread). The premise, naturally, involves a circus led by a Chinese man, the titular Dr. Lao, for a stop in the good ol’ small American town of Abalone, Arizona. There’s a parade through town, which introduces readers to both the mythological inhabitants of the circus (a sage, a sea serpent/dragon, a Gorgon, a mermaid, etc.) and the inhabitants of Abalone. After that comes the circus itself, which we’re led to experience through the viewpoints of the various citizens and their respective wonder (or lack thereof) at the strange sights and events, all of which ultimately lead to an awe-inspiring final act for the show involving a god and possible human sacrifice…

It’s a deservedly classic book, and also deeply weird. The book is driven by an ultimately cynical, weary core, with a sense of frustration in people (especially small town America) who do not recognize the wonder and beauty in special events. The people of Abalone are largely ugly, petty, and shortsighted, even in the face of Dr. Lao and his friends. Dr. Lao himself is a great character: to the citizens’ faces, he validates their most simplistic Oriental stereotypes, but behind their backs he lambastes their racism and stupidity in most articulate style. It feels like Finney is training his sights on the more loathsome attitudes of his time (the 30s), and he does so with notable humor, mainly through the use of sarcasm and irony. The edition I have (from Bison Books, TPB) also reproduced the surreal, whimsical illustrations by Boris Artzybasheff, which made for a delightful bonus.

Cataclysm-Baby-Final-Cover-FrontCataclysm Baby and How They Were Found by Matt Bell: Taken in tandem, these books make a sturdy case for Bell as an excellent writer with a unique, notable voice. Baby is a novella-length collection of vignettes about children born and raised during or in the aftermath of various disasters and apocalypses (a case of the title being surprisingly literal). It also takes the form of a baby name book of sorts, so you wind up with 26 linked flash and short stories. Overall, they’re dark and haunting, suffused with incredible imagery and staggering emotion without sentimentality. Found, meanwhile, is a collection of short stories by Bell that predate Baby, at least in terms of publication, and features several stories well worth reading: “The Receiving Tower,” about a group of amnesiac soldiers manning an outpost after a barely-remembered apocalypse; “His Last Great Gift,” about a preacher building a strange machine from blueprints inspired by supposedly divine visions; and “Dredge,” one of the most inventive and twisted detective stories I’ve ever read. Bell is a great choice for fans of genre fiction who want to explore more literary writers and stories, namely because he can play so effectively with genre-based expectations (like in “Dredge”) or write science fictional or fantastical stories that the reader can identify as such while lightly touching on familiar tropes and topoi, if at all. I personally can’t wait to read his new novel.

the-stone-godsThe Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson: I’d been meaning to read this for a long time, and it did not disappoint, although it’s a bit erratic at times. The premise of the novel is fascinating: humanity has made quantum leaps in technological advancement, especially in terms of posthuman body manipulation, but it is also stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, where the potential of our technological achievements is hamstrung by our immaturity (women alter their genetic code to be “locked in” at pubescent or pre-pubescent ages, for example). Meanwhile, the environment is left so destitute by industry and technological development that leaving Earth is a very real necessity. The novel springboards from this initial premise and ultimately becomes a meditation on several themes – the limits of evolution and human achievement, the nature of love and lust, the cyclical nature of destruction and creation that humans are seemingly shackled to – tethered to a series of linked characters, both human and nonhuman.

The erratic nature of the novel comes from its structure, being both episodic and cyclical, where different segments go on to inform readers’ perceptions of earlier chapters. The best part of the novel by far is the first and largest chapter, which reads like a tragic love story and a deeply awe-inspiring, profound look at life on Earth and the possibility of life and existence elsewhere in the universe. Subsequent chapters aren’t as compelling as the first, though. Overall, Winterson’s writing is incredibly sharp, and the characters she creates are very affecting. This is also one of those novels where the author’s worldview infuses everything in the book with a certain spirit (very reminiscent of Charles Finney’s in The Circus of Dr. Lao, actually), and you’ll either feel empathy with it or you won’t.

b354aca931db183b32cecffef2cf46a4Constellations by Nick Payne: This one came to my attention via a review from Tor.com. It’s a story about a young couple, Marianne and Roland, and the development (or stifling) of their love (or lack of it) over a period of days (or weeks, years, etc.). There’s a lot of that or stuff going on in Constellations, which can be explained by this stage direction at the beginning of the script: “A change in formatting—from Normal to Bold, for instance—indicates a change in universe.” So, it’s both a love story and a multiverse story, with the kinds of branching narratives you could expect from that kind of structure. For the most part, I did enjoy Constellations, but in the end I still felt the lack of something important. It’s not that it’s a bad story; far from it, as I felt a good deal of sympathy for the plight of the characters and laughed at their various failings when trying to connect to one another (neither one of them is what I would consider as being totally successful in having their shit pulled together). The problem is that in the end, the payoff of the entire story isn’t all that different from other multiverse/love stories. What gives the story novelty is its form (a theatrical production), not necessarily the story itself. It’s less successful as science fiction, but much more successful as highly literate emotional comfort food/tearjerker material. I think my response would be more positive if I got to see the play acted out, as opposed to just reading it on the page. There’s also the chance I may just be far too picky in my preferences…

Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman: My introduction to the writing of Aickman came via his story “The Hospice,” which I encountered in The Weird. That story absolutely blew me away with its nuanced strangeness and menace. It’s one of the most inexplicable stories I’ve ever read, which is even more impressive because there’s nothing in the story that’s explicitly fantastical. Everything that happens in the story is realistically possible, if not plausible. The events of the story don’t feel too obscure because they happen with perfect clarity of detail; it’s the logic of the events and their sequence and meaning that feel obscure.

Cold-Hand1-332x500“The Hospice” is most certainly one of the highlights of The Weird, but it’s also the biggest highlight of the first proper Aickman collection I’ve read since then, Cold Hand in Mine. As an overall reading experience, I enjoyed this collection, but I also think it’s topheavy in quality; I enjoyed the initial four or five stories much more than the rest. Part of the reason there may be that I tried to read the collection in one or two sittings, which is probably not the way to read Aickman. It’s better to read the stories one at a time over the course of a week, to let them simmer properly. That said, I loved “The Swords,” the collection’s lead-off story, almost as much as “The Hospice,” and I enjoyed “The Real Road to the Church” and “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal” just a step below “The Swords.” Aickman excels at these ambiguous moments of tension between sureness and doubt in the reality of one’s surroundings and the people around them, and in fact many of the stories here are oriented on an escalation to a point of maximum tension of this kind. I’m going to reverse my commentary on Matt Bell’s fiction earlier in saying that Aickman is a good gateway into fantasy and horror for people who are otherwise used to literary, mostly realistic fiction.

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz:  Schulz is another author I wanted to revisit after reading his story in The Weird – “Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass,” one of my favorites in the entire anthology. Thankfully, I had a copy of Crocodiles handy (the Penguin edition with the foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer, which also includes the rest of Schulz’s output as a fiction writer). It’s a stunning, inimitable book that has remained in my mind since reading it. The entirety of the book is taken with the memoirs of a man recollecting his childhood in a small Polish town, living with his eccentric shopkeeper father and the rest of his family. That description sounds pleasant and down to earth, and Crocodiles is frequently such, but it is also one of the most surreal, inexplicable books I’ve ever read. At any moment in the narrator’s recollection, a realistic story about his father and his obsessions can soar into a meditation on multicolored paper birds that fill a room with their swirling flock, or a treatise on the nature of the soul as seen through the personhood of a tailor’s dummy. Time can and will dislocate itself multiple times within the same story, to the point that the reader feels like they’re dropping through different layers of reality and finding something stranger and yet more real each time.

street of crocodilesFirst instinct would dictate that these stories are fictions built around an imaginary character, Schulz’s way of reconstructing his childhood experiences through a surreal, fantastical filter. In the course of my research, I’ve discovered that these stories actually are Schulz’s autobiography, more or less. The stories that compose almost all of Schulz’s fictional output have their origins in letters that he wrote to a friend as personalized accounts of his life with his family, friend, and other people in his hometown. In the reader’s eyes, it doesn’t get more fictional that Crocodiles, but to Schulz this is straight-up nonfiction. It’s sometimes very humbling to meditate on perspective and how the reality or irreality of someone’s existence changes depending on the observer. Crocodiles and the rest of Schulz’s writing stands as the most powerful reminder I’ve encountered.

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A Personal Education

So, it’s official: I’m going to the University of Kansas for a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature, starting this fall! I broke the news previously on Facebook when I was originally notified of acceptance by the program, but I officially notified the university of my decision to enroll at KU a few days ago.

Here’s how it happened. On Valentine’s Day, while I was eating breakfast, I got an email notification on my Google Nexus, which I use for reading the news in the morning. I opened it and it said, in so many words, that the university had reached a decision on my application for admission. They didn’t say what the decision was in the email, just that I needed to log into the university’s online application portal to see their letter of decision. It was a bit nerve-wracking, wondering what it meant. I actually thought at first I’d been rejected, since I hadn’t gotten a phone call or any other form of communication yet. But then, I thought, maybe I got selected for the program after all and this is just standard operating procedure. Ultimately, I forced myself to finish my breakfast and a cup of coffee, trying not to let my imagination run wild (I distracted myself by watching Downton Abbey), before I ran upstairs to check my application.

Thankfully, the first few words of the letter said, “We are pleased to inform you…” And just like that, my worry turned to joy.

Giselle Anatol, the Director of Graduate Studies in English at KU, called me later in the day for a chat to let me know person-to-person that I was admitted to the program and they hoped I would choose to accept their decision. They’ve offered me a GTA position, complete with tuition waiver and yearly stipend, among other things. And, as I mentioned at the top, I officially accepted their invitation to join. So, after living in Mizzou country for the past twenty-eight years of my life, I’m going to be a Jayhawk.

jayhawkAll told, it’s what I wanted from the start, not just the GTA position with funding, but the acceptance to KU. It’s a striking reversal of what happened when I initially applied to MFA programs back in 2008. Six different schools, all of them turning me down, with my two personal favorite picks turning me down before anyone else. Totally demoralizing. This time, it’s the exact opposite. And, as an extra special twist of fate, one of those two schools that originally turned me down for MFA applications was KU! It’s a really sweet indicator of how things can change within five years, and how far I’ve come in that time.

Overall, I’m ecstatic. One of my favorite writers, Kij Johnson, teaches there, and they have the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, established by James Gunn and currently directed by Chris McKitterick; I hope to hang out there whenever I can. I can’t wait to meet Giselle Anatol, especially after our very pleasant conversation on the phone. I’m also looking forward to meeting the rest of the faculty at KU. One of the best lessons I learned in my time at Stonecoast is that you can learn a lot from a wide variety of teachers, especially the ones you don’t initially intend to study with, and I fully expect that to apply to KU as well. Plus, Lawrence is supposed to be a great college town, and I’ll be fairly close to some friends in the Kansas City Metro area.

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I have high hopes that it will be a good, much-needed change of scenery for me. The plan for now is to move to Lawrence sometime this summer, hopefully mid-to-late July so I can take some time to acclimate to the area and prep for the school semester in relative comfort. Before that, I want to drive up to Lawrence to meet everybody in the English department and scout for apartments, or see if there’s anybody in the department looking for a roommate.

Getting picked up for enrollment at KU has made me very reflective lately, in a good way. It’s a nice change of pace from the brooding introspection of the previous year, spurred by all the obstacles and difficulties I encountered. This time, I’ve been looking back fondly on good times with my family, since I’m going to be leaving them to go out of state for school for five years, and beyond that hopefully somewhere else for a tenure-track teaching position. My parents have been very supportive and loving the past four years, letting me live with them while I completed my MFA program and tried (and failed) to find full-time teaching work. I’ll be glad to strike out on my own, but I’m still incredibly grateful for the time I’ve been here with them.

My acceptance at KU has also prompted me to realize that even after graduating with my MFA, I’ve continued carrying out my own personal, customized education. What did I do after getting my diploma? I agreed to manage Weirdfictionreview.com for the VanderMeers, and even before then I was reading materials for them and offering advising opinions and copyedits. I’ve been doing a lot of reading since January 2012, as part of that work and also on my own prerogative. Why have I been doing this? Deep down, I realized that I wasn’t the kind of expert I wanted to be, not yet anyway. I also felt like it was time to take another leap in my writing, to change my methodology, and I wasn’t sure of how to do that. So, it was time to sit and simply absorb things, and become more widely read and knowledgeable.

What the PhD means is that my personal education will become “official” once again, because I’m pursuing a degree. That said, I wouldn’t have been able to join KU without engaging in the education I laid out for myself the past year. I would have still wanted to be there, but I wouldn’t have nearly as good an idea of what I wanted to do. My studies of the past year have enabled me to know what I want to do once I get to Lawrence. So, after what I feared was the futile sturm und drang of 2012, all of that time wasn’t for naught after all.UKansas

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Movie Roundup: Klowns, Ghosts and Other Monsters

This will likely be the last movie roundup I do for a while, mainly because I’ve got a lot of writing and reading I want to get done in the next few weeks. I also want to post something to this blog that isn’t just a list of stuff I’ve read or watched for once, since I’m getting back into the habit of updating this thing regularly. There’s a few topics and questions I’ve been thinking about the past couple days, and hopefully I’ll steal away some time to write about them soon. That said, I’ve watched some notable movies recently, and as they say, sharing is caring, and I do care, so here we go.

Pontypool: I watched this Valentine’s Day, which was appropriate – not because it’s a sweet date movie, but because it’s set on Valentine’s Day in a town in Canada. Basically, the denizens of the town of Pontypool find themselves afflicted with a bizarre infection that turns them into crazed, hiveminded monsters. They’re like zombies in almost every way except for the brain-eating, although they engage in cannibalism at some points. The movie revolves around a radio jockey and his production staff, who have to at first figure out what’s going on and then try to warn people how to stop the infection later. It’s a clever movie with some great acting. The nature of the infection is very distinctive and unique for this kind of movie. The action of the movie is what I would call “stage-bound,” though it doesn’t happen on a stage, because it’s contained to the setting of a radio station studio. In that sense, it felt like I was watching or listening to modern variation on the classic War of the Worlds broadcast from the early 20th century. If you can overlook the lack of “action” for a strong story, it’s worth watching.

The Stone Tape: Rather neat movie overall. This one is really hard to find, since it was broadcast on BBC back in the 70s and it’s never received an official DVD release (it is available for download and rental on Amazon Instant Video, though). The premise: a tech development team moves their operations into an old manor home with a secretly haunted history; when they discover the presence of a ghost, they try to discover the source of the haunting, thinking they’ve discovered a new form of data storage. It’s a very scientific take on the concept of a haunting – in fact, from what I understand, this movie popularized the notion of “residual haunting,” the incident of a ghost or ghostly phenomena repeatedly occurring in a set sequence of actions in a location like a tape loop. This has since become the “Stone Tape Theory.” Nicely done, Nigel Kneale! Anyway, it makes a better science fiction movie than a horror movie – using science and computers to find an alternate explanation for the occurrence of ghosts and supernatural phenomena. Yes, the characters are prone to spells of back-and-forth exposition about this, but it all sounds so cool and brain-bending when you listen to it, so it ended up appealing to me. The ideas are better than the story, but that doesn’t mean the story is bad, just that the ideas are massive. My other major misgiving about this movie involves the female protagonist, the programmer who first discovers the presence of the ghost. Half of the time, she’s this strongly capable scientist who makes major breakthroughs in how to communicate with and then “record” the ghost; the other half of the time, she’s your typical hysterical, helpless female protagonist from any other somewhat sexist ghost story. It’s fairly annoying.

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The Chaser: Another Korean action-thriller, on the heels of The Man From Nowhere. This is a good movie, but not as good as Nowhere. A former-cop-turned-pimp finds out that his prostitutes are being abducted and murdered by a serial killer living in his city, so he uses the skills cultivated from his former trade to track him down. It’s a fairly exciting movie, but it suffers from being a little overlong and dragging too much in the middle when the police bring the killer in to their custody and wind up running around in circles trying to find evidence of his crimes. There’s a sense of something intangible missing from this movie that’s present in similar movies, like the aforementioned Nowhere and others like, say, Oldboy, that I can’t fully explain except to say that it’s a matter of personal resonance with the characters or their emotional contexts. It just feels a little more ordinary in comparison to other movies I’ve seen recently. Doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching, though.

Donnie Darko: I’d already heard all about this movie, owing to the fact that it’s a cult classic. When I went to college, every other student’s favorite movies were this and Boondock Saints. I had already heard every possible opinion about this movie – good, bad, indifferent – so when I finally watched it, I was in this bizarre situation where despite all I’d heard, I came to it with no expectations. Turns out I like the movie quite a bit (the original theatrical cut, not the director’s cut; I know there’s a world of difference between the two). It is a very weird movie, and the SF-nal/Horror-ish elements work well without a lot of explanation, simply because of what they lead the characters to do to themselves and others. What I noticed about the movie more than anything else? It’s a surprisingly funny movie, dependent on the irony of its frequently self-absorbed characters saying and doing stupid things. It’s also one of the few movies I’ve seen, aside from American Psycho, to honestly portray just how weird and alien the 80s really were. And yes, it has a pretty awesome soundtrack.

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Killer Klowns From Outer Space: Yeesh, this movie is lame, but I suppose that’s kind of the point. It actually terrified me when I was a kid; I never finished the movie. It’s exactly what it sounds like: killer aliens that look like clowns and use alien-circus-grade technology kill and abduct people in this little college town while a few people try to stop them and escape their clutches. Turns out it’s on Netflix, and I am now somewhat less scared of clowns than I used to be, so I decided, what the hell, I’ll give it another shot. Still couldn’t finish it, but for different reasons. It’s a B-movie, basically, and it never tries to rise above that or take itself more seriously. I watched the first fifty minutes or so because the filmmakers actually do come up with some unique ways of having the klowns terrorize people – in my favorite scene, a klown makes shadow puppets on a building wall at a bus stop before eating a group of bystanders with a shadowy t-rex. Once the novelty of watching the klowns wreak havoc wears off, though, there’s no real reason to finish the movie, other than simply wanting to finish the movie.

Trollhunter: This is right alongside Lake Mungo as my favorite found footage film ever. I’m very critical of the found footage style/genre/whatever in most instances where it pops up, for reasons I may have to get into with a future blog post. Trollhunter does not suffer for being a found footage movie, though, and in fact makes a good case for when it’s done well. Basically, an amateur film crew tracks down this reclusive hunter and finds out he’s been tasked with controlling the troll population of Norway, and so they begin documenting his adventures, which quickly become their adventures. There’s quality acting, for what the movie requires, and the story is inventive and clever and above all good. The faux-real style of the movie makes the appearance of the trolls all the more incredible when they appear, especially when the Moby Dick of trolls shows up at the end.

Dark Portals – The Chronicles of Vidocq: I liked this one in theory, but not in execution. It’s a detective story set in 19th century France, with all of its social upheaval and what-not. The main character, Vidocq, is basically the French version of Sherlock Holmes. The primary calling card for this movie is the stunning visuals and bizarre scenes and villain, a black-cloaked “alchemist” who can seemingly shapeshift and blend into the shadows/wall/floor anywhere, invulnerable to attack. Imagine my disappointment, then, to find that it’s mostly a by-the-numbers murder mystery with supernatural elements added in and too many plot points dependent on coincidence alone. The big twist with the revelation of the villain’s identity is fairly underwhelming too. There’s really no reason to care about the movie unless you happen to care for these kinds of stories. It is well shot, but I’ve seen better. Overall, it left me with a feeling of “meh.”

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The Skin I Live In: One of the strangest movies I’ve watched recently, and it also happens to be the first Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve ever watched. I’m, um, not sure how typical this movie is of his other movies, but I do know that I liked this one enough that I would readily watch anything else he does. It features maybe my favorite Antonio Banderas performance ever, as a mysterious, creepy doctor who keeps a woman locked up under odd circumstances in his home, watched over only by him and his maid, the only two people who seem to know that the woman is a prisoner there in the first place. The first thirty minutes are somewhat rough going, but the movie picks up big time as it rolls out the tragic backstory for the doctor and the causes of the woman’s imprisonment in the house. It also contains some industrial-grade twists, which impressed me with how unexpected they were. It all builds up to a surprisingly affecting ending. Definitely one of those movies that grew on me as I watched it.

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Movie Roundup: The Good, the Bad, and the Strange

Thanks to Netflix and the extra free time resultant from graduating grad school, I watch a lot more movies and TV than I used to. I didn’t watch a whole lot while I was in grad school because I had to really concentrate on getting my school work done in tandem with my full-time job and part-time teaching work. It’s nice to watch this stuff now because it gives me ideas of things I want to explore in my writing and provides an opportunity to study how storytelling works in other mediums.

So, on a regular basis, I’ll probably start posting lists like these, of movies I’ve watched recently and my take on them, in case anyone is looking for suggestions of their own or just want to start up a conversation. I’m always looking for further recommendations myself.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover: A gangster/wannabe gourmand’s wife carries on an affair with a book depository clerk in the restaurant that they all frequent, with the head chef’s blessing. Things go very badly from there. Some very frank sex scenes and violence, though it works well within the overall aesthetic of the movie, which is very theatrical and even painterly at times. The cinematography and set design are lovely, and the soundtrack is great (Michael Nyman FTW; love his work). Some quality performances too. What held me back from really liking the movie was the chilly tone and presentation (which feels Kubrickian at points, to give you an impression of it) and the overlong running time; the movie drags on in places. Good choice if you’re in the mood for tragic love triangles, beautiful arthouse directing, and inventive revenge.

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Mother: Another revenge movie, of sorts, and this one is a doozy. A teenage girl in a rundown South Korean town is murdered; a mentally handicapped young man is fingered for the crime, and his loving (and zealously protective) mother seeks to prove his innocence. The actual story itself isn’t nearly that simple, and the supposed innocence of any and all involved gets substantially called into question by the end. I’ll say this right now: Mother is not a feel-good movie. It’s a tragic family/small town drama more than anything. Bizarrely, it reminded me of Winter’s Bone at times, because the poverty of the town is such an influencing factor for many of the characters (although it isn’t openly acknowledged to nearly the extent in Winter’s Bone). You wind up feeling horrible for just about everyone in the movie. That said, it’s masterfully written and directed (courtesy of Bong Joon-ho, whose movie The Host is high on my watchlist, and his writing partner Park Eun-kyo). Kim Hye-ja gives a stunning performance as the mother, one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory.

Requiem from the Darkness: I used to watch anime all the time in high school, but fell out of it in college. At the time, I simply couldn’t afford to buy much anime, being a broke college student, and I didn’t want to illegally download it. It slipped my mind until recently, when I found a treasure trove of anime series on Netflix. I decided to dip my toes back in the water with this series. It’s a macabre horror series about a writer exploring Bakumatsu-era feudal Japan, collecting ghost stories for an anthology, when he encounters three spirits who roam the land, setting traps for people who have committed atrocities and allowed their guilt to fester within them. Each episode is a self-contained story until the very end, where they wrap everything up. It’s actually a pretty good series. It’ll definitely work your horror jones, especially in the court of body horror, demonic/supernatural forces, and revenge stories (again!). The character design is, um, interesting. The show was pretty low budget, it looks like, but the animators ultimately turn it into a strength. Don’t watch it expecting a masterpiece and you’ll do just fine.

The Man From Nowhere: I kinda went on a streak of watching Korean films, starting with The Man From Nowhere and continuing with a few of the movies on this list. This one’s an action-thriller about a widower with an ex-Black Ops experience who hunts out a criminal gang (would there be any other kind) after they kidnap a little girl who befriends him. Way, way better than similar films, like Taken. The pathos that runs through the movie and the protagonist, Tae-Sik, makes you care a lot more about him and the little girl while he rushes to save her, as opposed to just witnessing mindlessly entertaining action. That said, the action is pretty killer, especially the climactic fight near the end of the movie where he confronts the remnants of the gang in a last bid to save the girl.

Santa Sangre: I’m not a Jodorowsky rookie; I’ve watched El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and I actually enjoyed both of them for what they were. I loved the surrealistic, philosophical imagination of the prior two movies and how fast and loose they played. Santa Sangre is a much tighter, more cohesive affair, though it still possesses that Jodorowsky touch. I’ve heard it described as Psycho adapted by Luis Buñuel, which is actually very accurate. Fenix, a former circus performer who underwent horrible family-based trauma as a child, grows up to aid his armless mother in committing murders. I’m in agreement with Roger Ebert, who essentially called this a psychic trauma horror story – a psychodrama, in more concise terms. It’s a surprisingly affecting movie, all told, though it also features plenty of WTF-worthy scenes and moments, most notably (for me, anyway) a funeral for an elephant and the worst tattoo session ever.

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The Last Circus: I wanted this one to be good, I really did. The trailer is so utterly crazy, I couldn’t help but watch this movie. Another one set in a circus, in fact. Sad Clown Javier, a wimpy sad sack of a man with a tragic history, meets Happy Clown Sergio, an abusive psychopath, and Segio’s trapeze artist girlfriend, Natalia (their relationship is seriously twisted – and unfortunate, given the real world issues of abusive relationships). Guess what? There’s a love triangle, and it leads to tragedy for all of them in the end. The path to that tragedy is the bulk of the movie, of course, and for the most part the movie is entertaining. It’s pretty insane overall, so you can’t ever take everything in it completely seriously, but it’s entertaining, and there’s an eye for historical context that provides an added reading for the events of the movie (it takes place during the Spanish Civil War). It’s a shame the final fifteen minutes of the movie utterly ruin its momentum by finally tipping over from absurd to overblown.

Reservoir Dogs: Hopefully all of you know what Reservoir Dogs is by now, so I won’t say much about it. All I will say is that this was my first time watching the movie (I’ve only ever watched Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies from Tarantino’s filmography). I enjoyed it! Great acting, sharp writing, inventive structure. It’s pretty hyped up as a cult classic, but it didn’t let me down.

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V/H/S: I’m very fond of anthology films, especially anthology horror films. I see them as the filmic equivalent of short story collections. V/H/S is getting a lot of love from people for being the latest, greatest horror anthology. There are some people on IMDB that absolutely rave about this movie. Honestly, I thought it was one of the most obnoxious, useless viewing experiences I’ve had in a while. There were a few inspired ideas and moments, but by and large the movie demonstrates a ton of things I absolutely hate about some contemporary horror movies and the found footage format. The opening story, with three “bros” going out on the town to seduce drunk women and then film sex with them, was so repugnant I almost turned the movie off right then and there.

Three… Extremes: Now this is how you do a horror anthology! Three great directors – Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike – each contribute a forty-minute film (Dumplings, Cut, and Box, respectively), every one imaginative and grotesque in its own way. Dumplings gets a lot of love for being so blatantly horrifying (it’s about a supposed cure for aging, made from the worst ingredient you could possibly imagine). I’m a bigger fan of Cut, because I’m a big Park Chan-wook fanboy, and especially Box, which is a surreal, sad mini-masterpiece. Three…Extremes is worth watching for Box alone.

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The Good, the Bad, the Weird: This movie was a blast. It’s a Korean western loosely inspired by The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Instead of the American west, it’s set in 1930s Machuria, then under Japanese rule/oppression. The main characters – the titular Good, Bad, and Weird (a bounty hunter, hitman, and thief, respectively) – all chase one another to gain possession of a treasure map, while larger forces, namely the Japanese Imperial Army and Manchurian freedom fighters, chase them. I loved the spectacle of this movie and the glorious, seemingly endless action scenes and chases. There’s a prolonged chase scene toward the end, that takes place in the Manchurian desert, which I consider one of the best of its kind that I’ve ever watched.

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The Secret of Kells: Lovely animated film loosely based on the famed Book of Kells. I got sucked in on the basis of the animation alone, which is so crisp and distinctive, but the story itself is strong as well. Highly, highly recommended.

“Street of Crocodiles”: They have a pretty good collection of short films from the Brothers Quay on Netflix, including this absolute gem of a short film. The animation, puppetry, and set design are stunning. It’s actually a very haunting little film, despite the lack of an obvious, explicit story per se. I took note after note of running motifs and images throughout the film simply because I felt compelled to, because they somehow create this emotional algebra (putting it perhaps too succinctly) that I want to absorb for myself and my writing. Highly recommended.

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Brick: I enjoyed Looper, so I decided to go back and watch Brick, a murder mystery set I a high school in Califorina. At first, it’s really weird listening to these high schoolers spout off Chandleresque dialogue like its second nature to them, but by the end of it I was sucked in. Joseph Gordon-Levitt totally kills his role as the wounded, loner anti-hero who has to make sense of the sordid plot.

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Under most circumstances, I would consider Santa Sangre the weirdest film I watched in this batch of movies, but just before that I watched Buckaroo Banzai. Quite the madcap movie; I honestly feel like I need to watch it again, just because the movie throws so much at you and expects you to pick it up and keep running along. Trans-dimensional travel, aliens in human disguise, rock and roll superstar scientists, doppelgangers, government conspiracies, schizophrenic John Lithgows, the works. It is the kind of movie that might prompt someone to label it as “weird for the sake of weird.” That said, it is a fun movie, especially once you throw up your hands, say “screw it,” and just go along without trying to figure everything out.

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Mary and Max: A heartbreaker of a movie with some of the best stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. It’s a simple enough story, with a sad, lonely little girl becoming penpals with a man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome and the development and challenge of their friendship over the years. The emotional content of the movie is in fact very complicated and even tragic at points, or threatens to become tragic. Ultimately, though, the movie winds up being life-affirming, and it earns that nature without schmaltz or dubious sentimentality.

Trailer Park Boys: God, this show is hilarious. I absolutely love it… well, Seasons 1 through 5, anyway. Season 6 isn’t nearly as funny, and I watched eight minutes of Season 7 before deciding the show was no longer all that entertaining.  Still, I got a big kick out of the show while I could. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s about the residents of a trailer park in Nova Scotia, initially centered around the misadventures of two drug dealers, shot in a mockumentary style that works pretty well. The show lives or dies on the strength of its characters, but they’re more than up to the task, especially the boozy trailer park supervisor Mr. Lahey. Totally worth it if you’re up for a laugh.

Lo: Check this Netflix description of the movie: “Lovelorn Justin sees his life change for the better when quirky April lands in the middle of it. When she’s abruptly kidnapped by a band of demons, Justin sets out to rescue her, with the help of the hellion Lo, who has an agenda of his own. Hell, musical demons and oversized rats complicate the path to love in writer-director Travis Betz’s horror-comedy hybrid.” This should’ve been right up my alley, yes? Problem is, it’s actually terrible. The “comedy” part of the horror-comedy hybrid is painfully unfunny to the point of being obnoxious, and the acting is annoyingly hammy and distracting. It’s like everyone involved with the movie tried too hard to make it quirky and theatrical. The whole thing feels utterly forced and lame. I turned it off halfway through; I couldn’t finish it. Very rarely do I not finish a movie, even if I don’t think it’s good.

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Die Monster Die!: Rather lame monster movie from the 60s loosely based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space.” An American scientist who more closely resembles a flat-topped classic gumshoe travels overseas to visit his sweetie at her home estate, which happens to be the creepy old place up on the hill with a tortured family history involved strange meteorites and deformed relatives. Yeah, it’s got Boris Karloff in it, and there’s a certain retro movie monster charm at times, but the script is pretty bad and laughable, especially towards the end. Might be worth watching in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sense, though.

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I Spit On Your Grave: I know that this is a cult classic of the slasher movie genre, but I found it almost completely unwatchable. I get that the movie is basically an indictment of men who commit atrocious acts against women. The whole point of the movie is a woman getting revenge against a pack of rapists by mutilating and killing them in horrible ways. That said, I found the actual rape scene extremely horrid and hard to watch. I couldn’t watch the whole thing because it hurt to watch it, so I fast-forwarded to the end of it. I get the argument that claims events like this should be depicted as realistically as possible so people can see just how damning these acts are, and in spirit I admire it…except that it’s still very traumatic to watch. I already know that violence against women is something I would never, ever condone or participate in. So, in my perspective as a viewer, it becomes less of a valuable moral lesson and more of an excruciating endurance test, and the rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave really does feel almost completely like an endurance test, which in turn makes me question the morality of the filmmakers. Anyway, I feel like that’s opening up a whole other venue of argument that I would actually like to engage in down the road, so I’ll cut this off for now by stating the other rather damning part of the movie, one that doesn’t really intersect with the moral dimensions of it: it’s truly, utterly boring and even amateurish at points.

Shrooms: I didn’t really care for this movie. It’s about a bunch of American students traveling to Ireland to go explore the woods and trip out on mushrooms – seriously, that’s the main reason they travel over there. Of course, they’re by-and-large unlikeable boors who you won’t mind seeing perish over the course of the movie, minus the Final Girl and her Irish would-be boyfriend. Of course, their Irish friend tells them there are dire consequences if they eat the wrong mushroom, which happens to look very much like the right mushroom they’re looking for. Of course, once he mentions that, one of the Americans ingests the wrong mushroom and gets totally messed up throughout the movie, notwithstanding the serial killer that suddenly starts stalking them. The movie seems to exist solely for the central conceit of the tripped-out victims seeing weird stuff and being killed in grotesque ways, because otherwise the story is pretty predictable and boring. The ending is even worse because they try to pull a total 180 on the perception of one of the characters, which, as opposed to saving the boring movie that led up to it, actually makes it even worse.

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A Tale of Two Sisters: Let’s end with what I would consider a truly great horror movie.  I feel like I’m coming to the party a little late on this one, since it’s been out for a while and it’s a bit of a modern classic of horror movies and Korean cinema. That said, it’s a great movie. It’s genuinely creepy and unsettling, and the movie sustains and builds true tension throughout. It also executes not one, not two, but three game-changing twists, two of which actually surprised me. The really great thing about the movie is that as much as it executes some expected and unexpected horror movie beats, the story is tethered to strong, complex characters with unique psychologies and affecting conflicts. At the core, this is just as much a Shakespearean family tragedy as it is a horror movie, which is exactly the way I like it.

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