A Review of The City and The City

China Mieville

I have a brief audio review of China Miéville’s novel The City and The City over on PodCastle

You can listen to it here.

I briefly met Mr. Miéville last fall at Blue State Coffee and thanked him for his books. He seemed genuinely appreciative of my comments and was very polite. Of course, the man is both talented and way too attractive for a genre writer, so he’s kind of jealous making. But be that as it may, if you like compelling, world-building, unique, imaginative, and fierce prose, you should check out my review and then go about buying up all his books that you can.

You won’t regret it. Also, be on the lookout for his new book Kraken.

Freshly Viewed: Ink

Last night I watched Ink and totally fell in love with this movie. Primarily because, while the basic story (father needs to reconnect to what’s important and save his daughter and, by doing so, himself) is neither subtle nor original, the world that writer/director Jamin Winans creates—a world where our dreams come from invisible but actual storytellers and our nightmares from equally invisible but malevolent incubi—feels fresh and unique. Also, the movie ignores any number of conventional storytelling structures, letting itself unfold with a dreamlike structure and pace, particularly in the first half of the film. I was reminded of City of Lost Children, not so much for the story or the cinematography, but for how richly developed the world of the movie is and just how much I wanted to go back to that world and explore it through other stories.

In a way, Ink is about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves: the ways in which we make ourselves brave or cowardly, strong or weak; the narratives we present to others in hopes of hiding our flaws and our fears. I could talk about the acting or the visuals or the small moments of joy and sorrow that just feel right and not at all forced stereotypical movie languages, but most of all I simply want to say that if you have an ounce of poetry inside you, if you want to see into a new world (or into our world in a new way), or if you want to see a beautifully crafted movie, you should watch Ink. And soon.

Zombie Watch! Unwatchable!

Saturday night after spending a big chunk of the day doing some podcast production, I decided to go through my Netflix Instant Streaming Queue and check out some of the unknown zombie movies that I had lined up.

They were unknown for a reason. So here were some zombies movies I turned off after a short time because they were simply awful.


"Platoon of the Dead" (John Bowker)

Shot on video, a bunch of very, very non-military bad actors pretending they are in the Army, using plastic guns, spouting incredibly bad dialogue . . . one step up from a a bunch of college kids deciding to make a zombie movie. Actually, strike that. One step down from a bunch of college kids deciding to make a zombie movie.


"Zombie Wars" (David A. Prior)

Another movie shot on video, better weaponry than Platoon of the Dead but the dialogue was just as bad and the women who were supposedly raised by zombies as food somehow showed up clean and well shaven and able to learn language. Some decent zombie performances in terms of movement styles, though the make-up was a bit too garish and bright. I lasted about 15 minutes, but since I didn’t care about a single person, and since the dialogue was dumb, I turned it off and deleted it from my Netflix Instant Queue.


"My Dead Girlfriend" (Brett Kelly)

Ouch. This is painful. I can’t even make it to the part where the girlfriend dies and is brought back. Wow – this is the least interesting packing-up-to-move-into-my-professor-boyfriend’s-apartment scene ever! Buh-bye!


"Undead Or Alive" (Glasgow Phillips)

I actually tried watching this several weeks ago with Erin. Money was obviously spent on this movie and it was an actual bone fide real movie with actual actors and quality film production. Too bad people wasted their time on such a crappy script. The humor was not humorous and after about 10 minutes it became obvious that there was a very good reason nobody recalls Chris Kattan’s breakout performance . . . because it wasn’t there.

Zombie Watch! Part 8


"Otto; Or, Up With Dead People" (Bruce LaBruce)

Another movie that I am glad I watched but can’t recommend to most people. In fact, if you have problems with explicit gay sex, gory eating of people and animals, extremely aggressive and loud sound designs that are full of industrial noises and distorted voices, or films that reference late capitalism, the alienation of the subject in a postmodern world, or Herbert Marcuse you probably want to skip this movie. Heck you probably ought to skip this entire review because, quite frankly, there’s nothing for you here.

. . .

Are they gone?

Ok, so, Otto, or Up With Dead People is not, I repeat not a horror film. Despite being lumped in with other zombie movies in the horror section, and despite a handful of graphic, gory, and grotesque images that border on the horrifying, the movie as a whole is what you would expect if you took a treatise on zombies in popular culture, mixed in some observations on postmodernism, gay subcultures and homophobia, added a pinch of porn, and included a parody of pretentious avant garde filmmakers (even as, yes, Otto itself comes off sometimes as a pretentious art film), along with a sound design that is like the industrial sounds of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, but on speed and with a campier sense of humor. The director, Bruce LaBruce has a history of mixing genres and pushing boundaries, making a series of independent films that often cross the line into pornography and then back again into splatter-gore and then crossing into satire and political commentary. I have not seen any of his other films, but plan on checking them out in the future because his work, while relentlessly aggressive and bloody, violent and brutal, demonstrates a very real compassion for his characters and challenge the viewer in ways that few filmmakers will dare. Imagine David Lynch doing gay porn, or John Waters with a penchant for bloody violence and you’ll have a sense of what Bruce LaBruce’s style is like.

A few things I learned from Otto, or Up With Dead People:

Shots of a zombie eating a dead and disemboweled rabbit by the side of the road are far more grotesque and sickening than almost any shot of a zombie eating a person in any other zombie movie I’ve seen. Probably because we’ve all seen those animals, we have direct experience with road-kill and very little direct experience with the whole “zombie eating people” thing. We’ve seen the flies, we’ve smelled the death. The line between make-believe and reality grows just a bit too thin when watching Otto pick up the rabbit and begin tearing into its bowels.

When a movie with zombie gay orgies, bloody sex, and extremely graphic intestine-eating manages to make the most horrifying moment of the movie a scene where a young gay man is about to be beaten by a gang of homophobes, you know that the director has considerable talent.

Speaking of eating intestines (I told you not to continue reading if this kind of stuff bothered you!!), if you are making your zombie film on the cheap and don’t have a lot of money for really excellent and realistic body parts have your zombies stuff their mouths to over flowing. Regardless of the verisimilitude of the human flesh, watching a zombie with cheeks distended and mouth crammed full of anything is going to bring up a feeling of queasiness in your audience.

More movies should have characters from a silent, black and white film inserted into them and interacting, in a silent film way, with the other characters.

I love sound design. Ok, I didn’t really learn that from this movie, but the sound design for Otto is rich, layered and challenging. But more than that, the sound design, even the seemingly random static and industrial noises creates a set of meanings that are not bound by the logic of the visual images. Certainly the sound design and music will often amplify or underscore specific scenes, but at times the sound is like a whole other character in the movie that could represent Otto’s experience of the world or could simply be a representation of the noise and static of our contemporary world that we try so desperately to tune out with iPods and earbuds. If you are interested in sound design, I recommend at least listening to this movie even if you might not want to watch it.

While I do think that this movie is actually very good an a lot of levels, it is certainly not one that I’d recommend to most people. That said, I think that Otto is a much more subversive, humorous and, in its odd and twisted way, a decidedly more hopeful movie than something like Dead Girl. So if you were forced to choose between which these zombie movies to watch, knowing that each had some rather off-putting zombie sexuality, I’d be up with Otto all the way.

Zombie Watch! Part 1

Because I’m going to be submitting a dissertation proposal that involves zombies as part of my application to the University of Hawaii Department of Theatre’s Ph.D. program, I’ve started watching a bunch of zombie movies that I’ve been meaning to see. Now, my proposal doesn’t look at zombies in film per se because I’m more interested in comparing the phenomenology of performing zombie-hood with the Japanese performance/dance form of Butoh. Still working on the details of that . . . but in the meantime I figure it can’t hurt to watch some zombie movies.

Friday Night: Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead

I really, really like Sarah Polley and have liked Jake Weber since his work in American Gothic. That afternoon I had read an academic article that dealt with this movie and had hopes that it would be taut, suspenseful, and scary.

Meh.

I wasn’t scared, though there were a few moments of intensity and suspense. I didn’t really care about the characters despite liking some of the actors, and, while almost all zombie movies contain some paint-by-numbers elements, this film felt like someone simply ticking off a checklist of story elements with no real passion or finesse. There wasn’t much more than a token attempt at any kind of real character development, and even that felt half-assed. It did cross my mind that maybe I wasn’t scared because I was watching in on my computer. But I watched Dead Set on my computer and was completely freaked the frak out by that series, so I know that genuinely scary writing, compelling characters, and suspenseful filmmaking can translate to a good thrill-on even when watching on my Mac.

Ultimately, a movie as empty and vacuous as the mall that the characters hide out in for most of the time.

Saturday Night: Night of the Living Dead (the 1990 remake)

Again, a protagonist played by an actor I like with Patricia Tallman stepping into the role of Barbara and actually surviving the night. The zombies were of the classic, slow moving kind and there is something far creepier about slow zombies. They may not have the flash and initial fear factor of the fast ones, but their very slowness, their very inevitability is settle into the pit of your stomach scary.

But my god, there as a lot of nailing in this movie. Oh, get your mind out of the gutter, I’m talking about nailing up boards over windows. Felt like it went on for nearly half the movie as characters scurried around the house nailing doors and pieces of wood over windows. There must have been something like 20 windows in that place!

Overall a bit creepier than Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead and I liked the ending quite a bit, but the acting was certainly on the B movie side of things, the conflict between Ben and Harry seemed forced—as if the characters were there to simply serve a points of conflict instead of having the conflict arise from the characters—, and the pacing was a bit slow at times. Certainly worth watching as an interesting remake that has a few fun twists, but it won’t knock your socks off.

What I have noticed after watching both of these movies is that even if I don’t think the movie is all that good, zombie flicks are good for giving me very vivid and action packed dreams!

That’s it for the first installment of Zombie Watch. A friend is visiting tonight and we are going to have a zombiefest and see if we can get through Romero’s oeuvre in one night as I have Night, Dawn, Day, Land, and Diary of the Dead cued up and ready to lumber. We may not make it through them all tonight, but I’ll give you an update on my thoughts tomorrow on the ones we do manage to get through.

Remember, aim for the head.

Movie Recommendations

“Down by Law – Criterion Collection” (Criterion)

If you are a fan of Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni, Fishing with John’s John Lurie, or the understated but highly original story-telling of Jim Jarmusch, you should own Down by Law. Not just rent it, but own it. I recently watched this movie again and if the first time I saw it I focused mostly on the performances and the joys of watching Tom Waits in a movie, I was much more aware of the visual compositions this time around. The gorgeous black and white photography of Robby Müller creates a depth to the images that draws you into the world rather than distancing you from it. The performances are pitch-perfect and fit the actors like the proverbial glove—so it’s not surprise to discover in the commentary that Jarmusch wrote the principle characters specifically for these actors. This is a wonderful movie that doesn’t rush itself or try to be more than it is and is laid-back and “cool,” but sincere and fun at the same time.

Once Upon a Time in the West” (Sergio Leone)

Speaking of not rushing, the time and space that Leone allows his actors to simply be and to look while on camera is at once slightly discomfiting and strangely exciting at the same time. The first thing that you notice in Once Upon a Time in the West is just how different the pacing is when compared to contemporary films. Leone creates amazing visual moments in his films and allows us to actually look at them instead of instantly shifting to another picture. People stand in doorways, or look across rooms, or are silhouetted by sun and sky and do so for long periods of time. In fact, I would say that in this and other Leone films, his characters become iconic, less because the say very little and more because the audience gets the chance to simply stare at them for long periods of time and can invest ourselves in these character’s lives and emotions precisely because they are both still and silent. There are some incredibly beautiful shots in this movie.

However, if there is one reason to see this movie—and there are several reasons, but if I had to pick just one—it is to watch Henry Fonda playing a stone-cold killer. His performance is brilliant and watching him in this reminds you of just how good an actor he was.

Buena Vista Social Club” (Wim Wenders)

Unless you yourself are a stone-cold killer without any weakness for inspirational stories or music, then you will probably enjoy Buena Vista Social Club. Wim Wenders is one of my all-time favorite directors but I’d never gotten around to seeing this documentary examination the group put together by Ry Cooder that revived a whole genre of music and several musical careers along the way. I have to admit that at times I found the movie to be a little over-directed in the sense that the camera would occasionally be pointing itself out during an interview, but overall the music, the personalities, and the stories are joyful and inspiring. As an artist, I find that hearing the stories of other artists, especially ones of these caliber, is a profoundly humbling experience. At the same time, these stories also challenge me to challenge myself to be better and work harder at my own art.

The stories and the music in this movie will definitely bring a smile to your heart.

Of Things Read & Seen & Heard

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“Four And Twenty Blackbirds” (Cherie Priest)

Summary: Eden sees ghosts, but the three that haunt her life most are benevolent guardians killed in a tragedy long before Eden was born. When she goes on a quest to find out about the mother and father she never knew, Eden finds that her own story begins in the mid 1800s and is born out of blood and magic and death . . . and the story is far from over.

Response: Overall, I enjoyed this book and recommend it if you like ghost stories, but I have to admit that I started off expecting it to be a bit more moody and atmospheric than the story turns out to be. The first twenty or so pages primed me for something elegiac, a Bradburyesque story of ghosts and childhood, of fear and difference. And while there are some genuinely spooky moments throughout, the story takes a turn toward mystery/action that I found somewhat disconcerting. Ms. Priest offers no great twists or turns in this novel, and I found myself being slightly ahead of Eden when it came to figuring out what was going on. Still, Eden is a fun protagonist, tough and self-deprecating and sarcastic. A fun read, but not quite as introspective and interesting as I expected from the opening chapter.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

 

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Summary: Boy breaks piggy-bank, buys prostitute, is abandoned by uptight father and adopted by the old shop-owner across the street who teaches the boy about life and the Koran and then dies. Boy grows up to be shop-owner and thus the cycle continues.

Response: The acting is quite good, but the film just doesn’t really go anywhere new. Oh sure, the sixteen-year old buying his first sexual experience is cute, but the everything in the film feels so clean and well kept, despite the fact that Momo and his father are supposed to be living in a seedy area of town. The ending feels cheap and convenient. The structure felt jerky and haphazard and would have benefited by letting the audience know that the entire story was being “told” by the older version of himself (who is introduced only in the final scene). I found myself thinking “it’s Karate Kid with Islam instead of karate.” Partly because the kid playing Momo looked a little like Ralph Macchio and partly because the story of a dispossessed kid taken in by an older mentor was being painted pretty much by the numbers here.

The acting really was good though, and Omar Sharif is a joy to watch – so if you are a fan of his, I would totally recommend this movie. But if you aren’t, I wouldn’t bother.

Rating: 5 out of 10

 

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If you like Death Cab for Cutie, then you’ll like this album. If you don’t, then you probably won’t. And if you haven’t really listened to them much, I would probably recommend you start with either “Transatlanticism” or “Plans”, both of which I think are stronger albums. However, Narrow Stairs is a solid album and offers up Ben Gibbard’s typical themes of loss, loneliness and the desperate separation between people that are the staple of his songwriting. What puts him above many other songwriters in “hip” and “cool” alternative bands, is the attention to detail in his lyrics. This is apparent from the first track “Bixby Canyon Ridge” when he sings
I descended a dusty gravel ridge / Beneath the Bixby Canyon Bridge / Until I eventually arrived / At the place where your soul had died. / Barefoot in the shallow creek, / I grabbed some stones from underneath / And waited for you to speak to me.
Gibbard is most masterful when evoking scenes and images with this lyrics, bringing you along to the place of the song and not just the feelings of it. In fact, when he writes more broadly he looses a lot of his power and you get songs like “Talking Bird” and lines like:
And you’re kept in an open cage / So you’re free to leave or stay. / Sometimes you get confused / Like there’s a hint i am trying to give you. / The longer you think, the less you know what to do.
But while there are a few songs that don’t highlight Gibbard’s best, overall the album invites the listener into a series of scenes and lives that evoke recognition of those scenes and moments in our own lives when we are trying to reach out to people we’ve lost, or express ourselves to people we love, or admit to our own sense of mortality. Some of my favorite lines include:
“She holds her smile like someone would hold a crying child” (“Cath”) “I’ve been slipping through the years / My old clothes don’t fit like they once did / So they hang like ghosts / Of the people I’ve been” (“You Can Do Better Then Me”) “I guess you decided that that old queen holds more space than you would need. / Now it’s in the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says it’s free. / And I hope you have more luck with this than me.” (“Your New Twin Sized Bed”)
Musically there are no surprises here, although the band does enjoy contrasting melancholy lyrics with music that seems to be a bit more “up” than you would expect and they do this more effectively than a lot of other bands might. If you like your bands a bit ironic, your lyrics both poetic and specific, and your songs coming with a healthy dose of melancholy and full of imagery, Narrow Stairs will not disappoint.
Rating: 8 out of 10.

What is with people’s fascination with this chick? Sure, she’s pretty but I’ve never seen her do more than adequate as an actor and this album does not add to my impression of her.

She does an album of Tom Waits covers.

Tom Waits covers.

Does it work? In a word, “no.” In fact, my reaction to listening to this (which I did at imeem.com, for free thank god!) is that listening to Scarlett Johannson sing Tom Waits is a bit like listening to a ten-year-old reading the poems of Charles Bukowski, they both understand the words, but not the sense behind the words.

Give it a listen if you must, out of curiosity or fear, but don’t expect any worthwhile reinterpretations of Waits’ music.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

When the Doctor Disappoints

The recent Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Daughter” is arguably the worst episode produced since the show’s return in 2005. So disappointing that I had to blog about it, even with the attendant risk that I might confirm the suspicions of people who don’t like the show. I mean, it’s one thing to complain about episodes with other fans. There is a safety there, an “all in the family” feeling that makes it ok to admit to the show’s failings, but I hate to give fodder to those who might judge the show without ever giving it a chance.

This episode was really, really bad. More than that, however, it was actually insulting to fans of the show as well as the show’s own mythology in a way that felt calculated and cynical.

Let me stop you here if you are watching the show on Sci-Fi in America. The British air dates are about four weeks ahead of you, so you should probably stop reading right now and come back to this entry after you have seen this episode. For those of you in Britain or who are getting the show through, ahem, other channels . . . click through to read the rest of this rant.

Continue reading

Late to the Dance: Mad Hot Ballroom Review


“Mad Hot Ballroom” (Marilyn Agrelo)

J & I watched Mad Hot Ballroom last night and came to the same conclusion: the kids were fun and interesting to watch, they made some fairly profound statements, and seeing how this ballroom dancing program touched some of their lives was pretty darn inspirational and lovely.

But the movie itself was kinda crappy. Not horrible, but just not well edited and, more importantly, didn’t seem to have any kind of narrative muscle. Introducing the previous year’s champions 4/5ths of the way through the movie seemed a huge misstep and drastically undercut the potential strength of the stories being told. We also wondered why there were so few interviews with the parents of these kids. Yes, seeing them all practicing the tango and swing dancing is cute, but they could have sacrificed a good deal of that in order to make the story of these kids and this program far more compelling.

I would recommend it as “supper time” watching, if you are the type of person who, like me, watches tv during the cooking and eating of supper. The kids are enchanting at times, and seeing the hope and determination of 10 year olds always touches something special in our memories of ourselves and our hopes for the future (well, at least it does so for me), but the movie ends up feeling a bit slight and empty if you sit down and give it your full attention.


Book Review: Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

Take the Earth, place it in a kind of time bubble that slows our time down to an infinitesimal crawl compared with the rest of the universe and shut out the stars and you create a world that poses a highly unique set of challenges to the characters involved. Sort of like the whole world has become Rip Van Winkle. What is most impressive about this novel, however, is not the big, science fiction ideas, or even the philosophical questions it raises about humanity’s relationship to the rest of the universe. For me, it was the characters that made Spin a novel to relish and Robert Charles Wilson an author to look out for.

The novel focuses on three main characters, Tyler (the narrator of the book), and his friends Jason and Diane, who are brother and sister. What struck me most about Spin was the way that love and friendship were played out between these three people, each of them struggling to understand and/or accept a world that changes radically in one single moment when they are children. That moment, the moment the Earth becomes separated from the universe and from the stars and even from the moon becomes the defining moment for all of them, yet they experience that moment and their subsequent lives in very different ways. Jason quests for knowledge at all and any costs while Diane retreats, at times, to the seeming security of religion and faith. Tyler is the middle ground, reaching after both of his friends but never able to match their purity of vision, their absolute commitment to either the mind or the spirit. I suppose one could see Tyler as the body, Jason as the brain, and Diane as the heart. But such schematics seem, ultimately, a bit hollow as I reflect on the book and the characters. What most struck me most about Spin was the honesty that Wilson demonstrates in writing the relationships between the three characters. Here is a book were people lose each other for years at a time . . . sorta like–or very like if you ask me–life. In addition, I couldn’t help but recognize Tyler’s feelings for Diane as they moved in and out of each other’s orbit throughout the course of decades (subjective time, of course, billions of years go by throughout the course of the story). The puppy love of a child, the flavor of true friendship being haunted by spice of sex and the fear of ruining everything, the growing apart and becoming strangers and yet still, somehow, connected on an intimate level are all emotions and situations that I have experienced in two of my most important relationships.

One of those relationships was with Emily Richardson. She and I met in High School and only “officially” dated for two weeks when we were freshman. And by “dated” I mean that we walked to the library holding hands and talked on the phone a lot. Then, over a spring vacations, she broke up with me. I don’t remember being devastated, I don’t remember really any strong reaction to that moment, but for the next ten years or so, I would orbit her like an asteroid: sometimes far away and distant, her form vague and only barely present and sometimes so near and present that I was always in danger of falling completely, leaving orbit and falling into her gravity well. Never to escape. Years would pass and I would believe that I was really, truly, over her. Then we would spend time together and I would begin falling once more. Yet, through it all we remained friends. She knew me better than almost anyone for a good long time and to this day I can still feel just how warm and right her embrace felt; how much just holding her in my arms could make the universe seem more manageable. We lost touch about four years ago when I was unable to go to her wedding. I hear she has a kid now and I miss her. I miss knowing the shape of her life, of sharing my own with her. I miss having a friend with whom I shared years of love (platonic as it may have been) and stories and memories and intimacies.

The point is that Spin, for all its science fiction and big ideas, is about relationships and the toll that time can take on them and, perhaps, the redemption that some relationships can offer after even more time. In a sense, Time is a forth character in the book. How time moves, how it feels to move through it becomes a central element of Spin: time that sometimes moves slow and sluggish and at other times jerks and twists violently, time that is a friend and time that is an enemy. Time, like the other characters in the book, is contradictory and never simple. Tyler does not spend every waking moment wanting Diane, yet she is never far from him. Jason is supremely arrogant yet he understands, more than the others, how to be humble in the face of knowledge. Diane lives a life of fear, but has more inner strength than the men in her life. Wilson gives the reader characters who are complex, dynamic and who feel instantly recognizable while at the same time always doing or saying something that defies expectations. In this way, Wilson brings a verisimilitude to his characters that is rare in any genre.

I read the book courtesy of TOR Books. And by courtesy I mean free. Yes, free. TOR has recently been giving, every week, a book away for free. You can download them in PDF, HTML or Mobipocket formats (and it is relatively simple to convert the HTML version into a Microsoft Reader format if you have a copy of Word 2003). No DRM, no catches – just free electronic books that you can read on your computer or any number of other devices. Having read one of his books in this format, I am extremely more likely to buy another book by Wilson in the future, perhaps even a hard copy version of Spin. For those who have doubts about the benefits to giving some work away for free, TOR’s experiment will hopefully provide a model that bears significant fruit for everyone, readers, authors and publishers alike. I, for one, eagerly look forward to reading and buying more Robert Charles Wilson, and whole-heartedly recommend Spin.