Saturday, February 20, 2016

Slick surface, no substance

Ocean's 13 is a crap movie. It's an unfortunate second sequel to an interesting remake that didn't really deserve a first sequel.

Everyone in it is fine but perhaps a bit phoned in. The movie is pretty to look at in every particular but every set blends together in a haze of dim lighting and overdone interior decoration. There ARE two interesting side-schemes to the main plot that are amusing on their own (the torture of the hotel reviewer and the revolution at the die factory) and I wish had more screen time than the interminable focus on the antics of Ocean's crew gaming games and being smarmy.

I don't even have the energy to write about this film. There isn't enough in it to sit down and give a shit about. I didn't even have the energy to watch this movie, it came on TV while I was inking a comic so I just let it run in the background as mildly irritating white noise.

Ugh, it's so frustrating to know that basically everyone connected to this movie is capable of being brilliant and they just WEREN'T for this feature. Everything about it feels lazy, from the script to the music to the costumes almost everything you see on screen could have been better but someone chose not to make it so.

     - Alli

Just a taste

I'm always perplexed when I discover a Stephen King book that I've not yet read. When I was in high school I pretty much caught up on everything he'd written from Carrie to Cell so I feel like I've read everything but I keep forgetting that the man is a bloody machine and will just keep pumping out two books a year with occasional additional collections of shorts or novellas.

He's also had a habit in the last ten years or so of releasing off-genre pulp novels and shorts through an imprint that seems never to make it to the endcaps in bookstores, so I never end up finding these until they pop up as recommendations on Amazon. Goodreads helps - they have their nice little monthly flier about new works by authors you've read in the past - so hopefully I'll be able to keep up more in the future.

Anyway, Blockade Billy is a tiny little book made up of two non-horror novellas. The titular short is abut a ballplayer with a shocking secret. "Morality" is a short that covers the well-covered question of whether accepting money for doing something awful will turn you into an awful person.

"Blockade Billy" is interesting - it's a bit spooky and feels like a King story in the atmosphere and character development even if it isn't really a horror story. The characters are fun to get to know, the narrative is nicely constructed, and overall it's a good way to sit down and spend an hour disappearing into some fiction.

"Morality" is regrettably cliche - it's basically a rebranding of The Box mixed in with Indecent Proposal and watches the dissolution of a marriage over a husband and wife team committing a crime that is bad but not heinous for a $200K paycheck and not being able to cope with the guilt. It feels somewhat lazy and is incredibly predictable - I don't regret reading it, really, but there's no reason for me to ever read it again.

I do sort of wish this had been a larger collection though; I feel like with another couple of stories Blockade Billy easily could have fit in with Everything's Eventual or Different Seasons as a solid collection of shorts. And I like short collections because they're a good way to introduce new readers to an author or to participate in that author's worldview without having to dive headfirst into a novel. As it stands this double feature isn't quite enough to sink into. I enjoyed it but it was over much too fast.

King, Stephen. Blockade Billy. Scribner. New York: New York. 2010.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A window into someone else's pain

I need to remember that I don't like reading poetry. It's not that I hate poems, it's not that I think most poetry is bad, it's that poetry requires intense concentration and a tremendous amount of emotional literacy that I think I'm lacking.

In spite of that I did find myself enjoying Wanda Coleman's African Sleeping Sickness, and I found myself being wounded by it.

Coleman didn't write this book for me to understand. She didn't mean for this to be a collection of anecdotes for middle class suburban white feminists to fawn over and feel connected to the issues facing black women. Wanda Coleman wrote this book because she'd been hurt, badly, by the world and by people who should have been helping her instead of striking her down over and over again.

And for all that Coleman wrote of her pain I'm sure she wouldn't give half a shit for people using it as an excuse to wallow in white guilt. So instead I'll focus on what is so powerful about her poetry: she doesn't glorify, she doesn't make-pretty, she doesn't tidy up her world before sharing it. She speaks the truths she knows and some of those truths are sores. And many of those sores are weeping.

Coleman published these poems between 1972 and 1990, and it's painful that so many of them still speak ugly, relevant truths in 2016. "Emmett Till" is Coleman's mournful, furious poem about the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. Her poem was written in 1986 and thirty years later the same awful rage and loss and sadness could be applied to the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, or any of the hundreds of black boys killed by white supremacy since Coleman wrote her poem. It is wrong that these boys keep dying, it is wrong that black girls and women kept being left behind or overlooked by society, it BURNS that the kind of injustice that Coleman railed against is still so prevalent in American society.

African Sleeping Sickness was daunting to read. It demanded attention and respect, it sighed with exhaustion, it felt alternately defeated and defiant. It made me sick of a world that is sick and it made me wish that there was anything I could do to show Wanda Coleman some kind of improvement in the world - but there hasn't been much improvement in the world since Wanda Coleman wrote about it.

Coleman died young, younger than she should have at any rate. I don't think the Black Lives Matter movement would have surprised her, nor do I think she would have been overly optimistic about it, but I do think she would believe that the movement is vital. I don't want to speak over black voices, I want to use my white privilege in a white supremacist country to uphold the voices of people who need to be heard more than I do, so I'll end this post with Coleman's voice instead of mine:


what's looked for is many bleeds ago
may never have evah

what you don't see is what you get/an unrepentant
unresplendence of abortions and too-lates
what's dangling status post lynching: the overweight, the
hanky-head, the dead on her feet (aka fat forty and
fucked up)

zero in on the left laughing eyeball, the right orb
bloated, purulent with hate

talk about reparations? hahaha

besides, there ain't cash enuff

Coleman, Wanda. African Sleeping Sickness. Black Sparrow Press. Santa Rosa: California. 1990.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

I'd like to come back inside now

John Carpenter's The Thing is very nearly a perfect movie. It's creepy, it's funny, it's tense, it's well-written, it has amazing practical effects, all the actors are wonderful, the setting is a great combination of beautiful and haunting. Fuck, this is just such a great, fun movie to watch.

It also has scared the crap out of me for a large part of my life.

I don't know if I've made it clear enough on this blog, but my parents are huge movie geeks who raised my sister and me to be just as geeky as they are. And sometimes they accomplished this through actions that might be considered, well, perhaps going a bit too far.

I was about 12 the first time I saw The Thing, which would have made my sister about 10. We'd seen the poster hanging up in our house, and had looked at the back cover of the laserdisc on our shelf (again, my dad is enough of a movie geek that he adopted the laserdisc format for image/sound quality AND the fact that most laserdiscs had extra features before DVD was a thing) and the images were pretty spooky. We were excited about seeing the movie but nervous too. So when our parents announced that we were going to watch The Thing one night my sister and I huddled up under a blanket on the couch together and got ready to be spooked.

(Spoilers? This movie came out in 1982. It's 34 years old. Get over yourself and go watch it.)

It worked - the best part of the film is the slow, mysterious build of tension. From the suddenness of the opening scene you move into a molasses-paced exploration of these characters and their conflicts on their isolated Antarctic base. The languid conversations, minor arguments, disputed music, and dim lighting, always surrounded by an inhospitable hellscape, makes it clear that these people are ripe for an explosion. And of course as you're getting to know these folks, and realizing that they'd all kill one another in a heartbeat ANYWAY, there's that creepy fucking dog.

The whole situation blows up and blows up beautifully. The tension of the first act is supplanted by the aggression of the second, with everyone mistrusting everyone else and about half of the cast immediately turning into gruesome monsters, and builds to a crescendo of explosions in the third act with the realization that defeating the titular thing means that basically no one in this story gets out alive. It's a tragedy in that it ends with a lot of death but it's also a triumph because the crew had made the ultimate sacrifice to save the world.

Well. It turns out that my parents had decided THAT was the perfect night for us to watch the movie because my mom had found stuffed toy huskies that sat in the same position as the creepy thing-dog when it was first started infecting the other dogs. So my sister and I went to our rooms after watching this creepy-ass movie and found stuffed huskies calmly staring back at us, just waiting for the lights to go off, because my parents are evil. But in a really awesome way.

And it's not like that scarred us in any way. My sister still has her stuffed huskie and I still distrust anything that could potentially spread infection and take over the planet. No problems there.

So anyway, I was super excited when The Thing came on TV the other night, and I giddily watched the whole thing while clutching my dog in my lap and hiding behind her during the scary bits. (For reference my dog is 15 inches tall so this wasn't very effective hiding.)

     - Alli

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Action, adventure, and overexposure to Muppets

I've been meaning to read Treasure Island for years but have just never really gotten around to it - I think it's another of those books that I initially started to read before I was a teenager or speed-read and completely forgot before I was a teenager because I know I'd sat through at least the scenes that take place at the Admiral Benbow but I could recall essentially nothing else about the book.

What I could remember was just a whole lot of Muppet Treasure Island. It was actually really hard for me to see Long John Silver as anything other than a Tim Curry character, so it kept jarring me when he was described as large and blonde in the book. The Muppets are amazing, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I feel like a lot of my interactions with the books are as a direct and highly colored result of my consumption of the kid's version. Treasure Island is an adventure story, for sure, and probably one that is fairly appropriate for somewhat young children, but there's a whole lot more violent murder in the novel than I recall encountering in the Henson adaptation.

It's a decent book, by the way, and a fast little read, but it's far from the best R. L. Stevenson I've ever encountered and it doesn't even rank in my top five pirate/treasure stories (for reference my top three pirate/treasure stories are all written by a DIFFERENT Stephenson - Neal). The story really does seem to be written with a young audience in mind, and there's never enough drama to really put you on the edge of your seat or worry you for the fate of various characters. In fact, if anything, there's FAR too much foreshadowing and forewarning because Stevenson uses Jack, our protagonist and narrator, to interject things like "he wasn't long with us, as you soon shall see," liberally throughout each chapter. All of that contributes to a low-pressure story with not much other than the quick pace to pull you along. It's not bad, not really, and you can't really fairly call this story boring, but Treasure Island is predictable and the style of narration makes the story more low-stakes than it honestly deserves. I had a lot of fun reading it but in the future I might as well stick to the Muppets.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island. Adventure Classics. Naples: Florida. 2001. (1881-82).

Friday, February 5, 2016

Nixon, index cards, and whiskey

What a magically odd time the '70s must have been. Politics were in a furious uproar, war was fucking with the national attitude, science was figuring out some crazy shit, the age of the internet was barely even a speck on the horizon, everyone could fuck without worrying about HIV. What a fascinating and different time it was, so alien to the 21st century.

That's not to say that I think the '70s were better than now by any means. It was shitty to be a woman, it was shitty to be a minority, it was shitty to have a disability or a mental illness (or worse, you couldn't even get diagnosed as having either and just got labelled "lazy"). Now isn't much better, but things have improved at least a little.

I bring this all up because that's most of what I got out of reading Jimmy Breslin's How the Good Guys Finally Won - a fascinating time capsule of a book that includes backslapping with Gerald Ford before he was anything more than the Speaker of the House, concerned discussions about how women were going to fuck up politics, and some of the most amusingly biased reporting I've ever seen about a President all told in an archaic, gloating tone that wouldn't be out of place coming from Hunter S. Thompson.

The book is fine, I guess. I'm not sure I want to read any more Breslin (he's got a fine voice and he's amusing enough but gives off an undeniable creepy-college-guy-at-the-high-school-dance vibe) but this did make me want to read a lot more about Nixon. It made me aware of political figures I'd never heard of before because, let's face it, America's educational system is kind of fucked and I'd never learned much about Nixon or his impeachment/resignation in my history classes. It's an interesting perspective to take on the whole debacle, really. Breslin cobbles together a coherent narrative out of the slow building of evidence and tales of closed-door meetings on the Hill. It's political drama that apolitical people can enjoy, and has the wondrous aspect of an impending train wreck hanging over the whole thing that makes it tense and fun to read even when you basically know how everything washes out.

But it was decidedly odd to read. The voice is wrong for the story - Breslin describes himself drunk and stumbling around fundraisers, shows lawyers as hip-shooting desperadoes, and glories in gory details. Breslin wants this to be a novel, he wants this story to be a slaughter, and it frankly isn't. It's got nightmarish aspects, to be sure, from a civil liberties perspective. But in the end it's a story about politics, not a Die Hard movie, and so Breslin's brash wanna-be cowboy style feels a little out of place.

But from what my dad tells me Breslin was the reason people bought papers - you'd pick up the Times instead of the Bee for Jimmy's column. That was the voice people wanted to hear their politics reported in. And that, more than anything else, makes me wonder just what the everliving fuck was going on in the '70s.

(Also this book was stolen from a coffee shop, but don't worry I'll be returning it and donating some more coffee-friendly books to their "so your friend is running late or your date stood you up" shelves because I'm pretty sure someone put this book there as a joke.)


Breslin, Jimmy. How the Good Guys Finally Won. Viking Press. New York: New York. 1975.