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Sunday, November 29, 2015

The 2013 Egg Nog Tasting
Family Holiday traditions are very weird, like how my family does an Egg Nog tasting every Thanksgiving... after dinner. You know, because we're still hungry and it's not like Egg Nog is filling at all. In fairness, it was a tradition born by accident. One year, literally everyone thought they were in charge of bringing egg nog, so they brought a couple and we ended up with, like, 15 of them. Since then, we've intentionally started doing this. Sometimes, this gets super complicated and involves blind tastings and whatnot, but the last couple years have been pretty informal. Check out some previous recaps: [2013 | 2012 | 2010 | 2008].

The past few years have represented an attempt to find different egg nogs instead of crowning the same two every year (usually local mainstays Wawa or Swiss Farms). This has been fine, but I don't think any of those actually beats our normal champions. This year, we returned to previous champions, and went for some new things too. Not a crazy number of entries this year though:
2015 Egg Nogs
For posterity, the Egg Nogs pictured here are (from left to right):
  • Swiss Farms Premium Egg Nog
  • Southern Comfort Traditional Egg Nog
  • Wawa Egg Nog
  • Turkey Hill Egg Nog
  • Organic Valley Eggnog
  • International Delight Classic Nog
  • Upstate Farms Premium Egg Nog
So we've got three former winners (Swiss Farms, Wawa, Upstate Farms), two standard, middle of the pack entrants (Southern Comfort and Turkey Hill), one I don't remember having before (but which I apparently have), and one that isn't even Egg Nog. It's always amusing how these weirdos try to trick people into drinking this stuff. The giveaway is the use of the word "Nog" without the corresponding "Egg". That International Delight nog is described as a "Festive Dairy Beverage" whatever that means. You might think this would be a shoe-in for "Worst in Show", but in reality, it was kinda just like milk with some cinnamon and nutmeg or something. Not bad at all, but not really anything like an egg nog either.

In an odd turn of events, Upstate Farms got under some people's skin and ended up taking the award for worst egg nog. I didn't think it was that bad, but it was clearly inferior to the top two, Wawa and Swiss Farms. Someone mentioned that Upstate had a sorta artificial, chemically character to it. I didn't really get it, but whatever! Swiss Farms took first place, and at this point, remains undefeated. Personally, I still go for Wawa, but that's just me.

It was fun, as usual, but it was a pretty low key year. Perhaps next year will be the year we finally break down and make our own egg nog. If we can get over our fear of making everyone sick, which seems likely? I feel like it should be simple enough, but we'll see. Otherwise, I want to find something I can bring to rival Swiss Farms. It's good, but I don't know that it's quite as dominant as its performance the past few years indicates. Until next year!
Posted by Mark on November 29, 2015 at 03:10 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ancillary Mercy
With Ancillary Mercy, Anne Leckie has completed a trilogy that began with a lot of promise which was almost immediately squandered with the middle installment in favor of, I don't know, let's just say tea. This is perhaps more harsh than necessary, but I do think this series is indicative of much of the strife going on in SF fandom these days.

The first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, had a lot going for it. A complex, non-linear narrative that deftly employed indirect exposition to establish its worldbuilding (instead of tedious info-dumps). A heady mix of hard and soft SF, including an ambitious exploration of hive minds or shared consciousness. Galaxy-spanning empires, mysterious aliens, all the Space Opera tropes you could ever want. It was distinctly lacking in plot and storytelling, but as the first in a series, it established a lot of potential. Potential which the second book, Ancillary Sword, almost completely jettisoned in favor of a small scale, colonialism parable. This was so unexpected that you kind of have to respect the reversal. The problem for me is that nearly everything I enjoyed about the first book was gone. Instead, we had lots of interpersonal relationships, petty politics, and lots and lots of tea. Endless drinking of tea, the intricacies of good and bad china, even the exploitation of tea plantations.

This third and final book of the trilogy aims to complete the story, and despite hewing much closer to the second book's small-scale approach, it actually manages to stick the landing. But to continue the gymnastics analogy, the series as a whole feels like a routine that started off with ambitious, high-difficulty release moves, flips and twists and whatever, then moved on to boring filler, and finishing with the simplest dismount possible. Again, this might be too harsh, as this book does comport itself quite well, it's just so different than what the first book seemed to promise that I can't help but feel disappointed.

During this year's whole Sad Puppy kerfluffle, I ran across some non-puppy lamenting the puppy line and proclaiming that science fiction was primarily about the "exploration of the human condition", which is funny because I think that is indeed the whole crux of the matter. With this Ancillary series, Leckie is clearly fascinated by the "exploration of the human condition". And of course, there's nothing wrong with that! Much of science fiction does this, and it's a wonderful, time-honored part of the genre. The problem is that the grand majority of art ever produced is about the "exploration of the human condition". That's not what makes science fiction unique, and while Leckie managed to channel some of SF's unique sense of wonder and conceptual breakthrough in the first book, she basically abandoned that pretense in the succeeding novels. Lots of Puppies complained about Ancillary Justice, but I know for a fact that a lot of them enjoyed the novel. I doubt any of them appreciated the sequels. (NB: while I have some leanings towards the type of works Puppies prefer, I am not and have never been a Puppy!)

So what we end up with is a series with some fascinating worldbuilding and SF ideas that are established but not really explored. What seemed like promising lines of thought in the first book come off like window dressing in this final novel. Leckie even acknowledges this shift in-story. In the first book, we find out that the shared consciousness tyrant that rules an empire had actually fragmented into two factions that were secretly at war with one another. Great idea! In Ancillary Mercy, our protagonist Breq flatly opines that she doesn't care what happens, and thus we get no real exploration of what this civil war amidst a hive mind would entail (and no clarification as to how these hive minds actually work, and how such a situation hasn't happened thousands of years earlier). Another example? A mysterious alien race called the Presger have been hinted at throughout the series. It's suggested that they may be the force behind our Tyrant's little civil war. There's this extra-super-fantastic gun that, at first, is simply undetectable. In this final book, it can destroy entire spaceships with a single shot. As deus ex machina, it works, I guess, but it's pretty indicative of how Leckie treats the Presger. They're there for convenience, not for actual insight.

So I've blathered on for several paragraphs and I haven't even talked much about this book. It picks up where the last one left off, with Breq trying to effect repairs of a space station while overseeing the planet's transition from tyranny to more self-determined government or somesuch. She knows that Anaander Mianaai is going to visit to re-establish her rule, and she will probably have to also deal with the Presger, who will no doubt be a little upset that their translator/ambassador was killed in the previous book's shenanigans. Meanwhile, everyone drinks tea out of cheap china because the good china was destroyed in the previous book, but hey, tea is needed.

I know it sounds like I'm being dismissive of the tea stuff, and to a certain extent, I feel justified in that, but it actually doesn't bother me that much. I enjoy the tea minutia more than I would have thought, and as a beverage nerd who enjoys a cup of tea every now and again, it's got its charms.

Anyway, the plot of this one actually works a good deal better than the second book. It's not as episodic, and hangs together better. If you can go with the deus ex machina of the Presger, the story actually works really well. The pacing is still off, and too much time is spent on the seemingly endless parade of officers that have severe emotional problems (seriously, this is the culture that conquered most of the galaxy? How?) For instance, at one point a mysterious ship shows up out of nowhere. It's the new Presger translator/ambassador! She will no doubt be a little miffed that the previous translator was killed! Whatever shall we do? Apparently, we need to sit down and discuss how microagressions make a member of the crew feel. And look, I'm not predisposed to hate that sort of thing, but it kills plot momentum and is one of several such instances. On the other hand, the new Presger translator is, by far, my favorite part of the book. She has a very weird affect about her, coming off as nonplussed and yet somehow wise, and primarily acting as comic relief. Her disaffected demeanor fits well, and is used to good effect throughout the novel, almost making up for contrived role the Presger play in the series.

The conclusion actually works, too. It is, of course, not a conclusion to all that was set up in the first novel and again relies on the deus ex machina of the Presger, but it does resolve the smaller-conflict at the heart of the book in a surprisingly satisfying fashion. At the start, I thought Leckie had written herself into a corner, but she manages a couple of twists and turns that make sense. I left the book feeling pretty happy that I read the series, even if I have my fair share of complaints.

Despite my reservations, this book has been well received critically and fans of the series seem to love it. I have no doubt that it will make next year's Hugo ballot (indeed, even the Sad Puppies are talking about it), even if it will probably not make my ballot. I am actually curious to see if Leckie will revisit this universe, maybe even tackle some of the unrealized potential she so ably established in the first book. I would like to read that, actually.
Posted by Mark on November 22, 2015 at 01:32 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Whither the SF Classics
A couple weeks ago, author Jason Sanford kicked up a fuss about the "fossilization of science fiction and fantasy literature", suggesting amongst other things that "No one still discovers the SF/F genre by reading Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, or Tolkien." Needless to say, this caused a lot of consternation in some quarters, though my guess is that the medium of delivery had a lot to do with the response. Sanford posted all this in a series of Tweets, which by necessity are brief and thus come off as pompous and dismissive. Sanford later posted a clarification on his blog in a much more friendly tone, even if the weight of his argument is the same. Others have taken up the call as well, notably John Scalzi who notes:
The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this.
And indeed, I'm not surprised by this notion, but it does represent a difference in the SF/F world. I was a teen in the 1990s and read all sorts of stuff from the 1930s-1960s corridor that generally represents the Golden Age, the same way (near as I can tell), teens in the 70s and 80s did. This is literally the first time in history when readers weren't introduced to SF/F via Golden Age authors like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein (as Scalzi notes, Tolkien probably still reigns in Fantasy). What has changed?

I think a big part of it might have something to do with the on-demand nature of our current media environment. To take an example from another medium, kids growing up in the 70s didn't have much choice as to what movies they watched. It was whatever was playing on TV or the local theater, and a lot of what played was in the public domain. In other words, film nerds in the 70s saw a lot of silent movies by default. I grew up in the 80s, and with the advent of cable, I didn't really see any silent movies until I started actually studying film. I did, however, watch lots of black and white movies or movies from long before I was born, simply because that's what was showing on Cinemax or whatever. You can really see the difference in film critics who grew up in an earlier era, they have a much broader base to draw from when discussing current movies. Nowadays, it's all about what's on Netflix.

Bringing it back to SF/F, I think this is a big part of it. Many folks hit up the classics of SF/F back in the day because they were basically the only thing available. Book stores had tiny SF/F sections and primarily stocked the classics with the occasional new release. These days, kids can snag an ebook or even an audio-book on-demand, and their available choices have exploded in the past couple of decades. SF/F has sorta conquered the world, and is widely available everywhere. Thus the classics, while still available, are getting dwarved by other books.

And this is before you get to all the other options kids have to occupy their attention these days (video games, anime, internet stuff, etc...) There seems to be a dismissive streak running through fandom these days. Perhaps its because there's so much new SF/F flooding the market. There's too much to keep up with; you don't have a choice but to filter in some way.

One thing a lot of people mention when it comes to this is that kids don't like the classics because they can't relate, which seems kind of silly to me. Sure, old books were written in a different context, and there's a lot of weird stuff people were exploring. But for crying out loud, this is Science Fiction we're talking about here! The whole point is to explore alien ideas and blow your mind within the confines of a rationally knowable universe. When people are pining for the Golden Age of science fiction, they're craving that Sense of Wonder we got from Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Lots of great science fiction is being written these days, but a surprising amount is dystopian misery porn or boring character studies with a veneer of SF Tropes. This is especially rampant in YA fiction, which is so melancholy that I'm wondering why we're so excited by it. Maybe the reason people keep recommending Heinlein juveniles is because so much of YA fiction is dedicated to gloomy settings and grim despair. There's nothing wrong with that type of story, but is it really surprising that some of us crave Golden Age throwbacks like, say, The Martian?

I suppose the worry is that this represents another cultural battleground where kids don't read the classics because they're trying to establish a "safe space" or some other such nonsense. Again, I find that odd considering the whole point of speculative fiction is to expand your horizons. To a lot of people, reading is a passive activity, but it really isn't. If you're not interrogating what you're reading, you're doing it wrong. This gets us into strange territory though, and we'd have to go about discussing what really makes the SF genre work, which is probably better served in its own post someday.

None of this is malicious or necessarily dangerous, but it is different, and for the first time in 70ish years, kids aren't reading the "classics". One can't help but wonder what that will mean, but I'm not too worried. People like what they like. I don't like the idea of dismissing the classics out of hand, but I wouldn't be surprised or upset if someone got into SF by reading, say, Scalzi or Weir. For instance, I don't think Fantasy is anything but strengthened by the popularity of Harry Potter. The same is probably true with SF, even if I'm not a huge fan of dystopian YA...
Posted by Mark on November 15, 2015 at 11:27 AM .: Comments (4) | link :.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Weird Book of the Week
Last time on Weird Book of the Week, we fell in love with giant pink space bunnies who shoot laser beams out of their nose. This time, we amp up the weirdness with something that is 100% chosen because of it's title. Behold: I Don't Care if My Best Friend's Mom is a Sasquatch, She's Hot and I'm Taking a Shower With Her. I think that pretty much says it all. Probably a good companion piece to a former Weird Movie of the Week, Yeti: A Gay Love Story.

It appears the author, one Lacey Noonan, has quite a back catalog of raunchily titled books, including A Gronking to Remember (first in a series of Rob Gronkowski themed erotica novels), Seduced by the Dad Bod, and The Babysitter Only Rings Once. Quite prolific.
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2015 at 08:13 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Link Dump
Two link dumps in a row? I'm the worst. I shall endeavor to produce something of quality and originality within the next few weeks, but for now, here are some links worth checking out:
  • Exercise Vague Caution - Someone puts up a "This Building is Monitored by Closed-Circuit Cameras" sign in Jamie Zawinski's apartment building, and unimpressed by this security theater, he adds little slogans underneath, such as the titular "Exercise Vague Caution" or "Drone Strikes Authorized 7PM - 5AM". Beautiful.
  • What Does 'Cinematic TV' Really Mean? - Interesting video essay by Matt Zoller Seitz and Chris Wade that explores the divide between TV and Cinema. When most people think of "Cinematic" television, they generally just think about production value. A big part of that is that production value for TV is historically pretty terrible. When the X-Files came on in the 1990s, I think everyone recognized a difference. TV at the time had a very "flat" sort of feel to it. The X-Files had actual cinematography and depth that you didn't see much in TV at the time. Now, that sort of thing is much more common. This video attempts to go further than I have here, and it makes some good arguments, though I think perhaps they may be overstating their case. The best television these days rivals the best cinema, but it's not like there aren't craptons of terrible examples of both. Film may still be better than TV on the whole, but TV is growing rapidly.
  • Making Meatballs With Mario and Maria Carbone - A neat enough video on its own, but I don't think I'd be linking to it if Charles C. Mann didn't append his brief description in a tweet: "A ferocious Oedipal power struggle over meatballs, captured in fine 12-minute video". Quite an evocative headline for a video about "Dead Cow Spheres"
  • The Long, Sweet Love Affair Between Cops and Doughnuts - Surprisingly edifying look into a common trope that has apparently has origins in fact.
And that's all from now.
Posted by Mark on November 08, 2015 at 09:14 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Link Dump
With six whole weeks of horror movies, the link repository has been growing and growing with lots of interesting tidbits from the depths of the internets:
  • Flipping Out - This is the most inspired and hilarious writing I've read in a long time. It's about the single craziest inning of playoff baseball that's likely to ever happen, but even if you're not a sports person, you should read this, because it's brilliant. There's a great precision to the writing, and the format is almost conversational, but it's like one of those Tarantino movies where people are speaking naturalistically, but their speech is stylized in a way that no one actually speaks. Or something. Just read it, ok? It's great.
    Both the most- and least-surprising aspect of that moment was that baseball has a rule for it. And, as you noted, the rule - rule 6.03a, as we learned - is literally an EXACT description of what happened. It was the most surprising aspect because, indeed, no one had ever seen it before. It was the least surprising aspect because of course baseball has a rule for this, it has a rule for everything. And of course it was incredibly specific, because all of baseball's rules are incredibly specific. Baseball rules are the opposite of football rules. Football rules are like...

    "If a guy kind of grabs a pass but doesn't really like totally like have it, and then he kind of maybe shimmies around but doesn't make a like 'football move,' or maybe he doesn't like seem to really like command the ball in a way that I can't describe but it's like pornography and I know it when I see it, or something, then let's go ahead and say it isn't a catch?"

    Yes - football rules often end in question marks. Because not even the rule writers believe in them.

    Baseball rules are like: "There was an A's-Yankees game in May of 1933 and this insane thing happened and we made a rule to cover that exact situation." I'm actually surprised it didn't say:

    RULE 6.03a: If Russell Martin tries to throw a ball back to a relief pitcher in a tense 7th inning of a deciding playoff game and Shin-Soo Choo is doing that weird thing where he holds his bat out directly in front of him like a divining rod and Martin's throw bonks off his bat and rolls away, Odor is allowed to score from third."
    I hesitated to even include this pull-quote because the entire article is amazing and you should really read it, but I couldn't help myself. Also, NBC needs to make a 30-for-30 style documentary that is just these two guys performing exactly what they wrote here, edited into the actual inning as played.
  • Genre Savviness Is Not Enough - I probably should have found a way to work this into the Six Weeks of Halloween, but whatever, this is also a great list of lessons learned from horror movies. Sample awesome:
    24. If you hear a nursery song and you are not in an actual nursery, vacate the area immediately.

    25. If your travels must take you through a rural area in which agriculture is done, try to make sure you stick with the towns that grow ground crops. No one has ever been chased through a field of peanuts by an eldritch abomination or cult. Avoid cornfields and apple orchards at all costs.
    Also worth checking out, Popehat's list.
  • If the moon were only one pixel - A tediously accurate map of the solar system. One of many attempts to internalize the enormity of space.
  • A Wild Weekend in Florida - I used to think that Twitter was a terrible place for long form writing, and for the most part I'm right, but then there's this story about strippers, pimps, guns, and murder, as told by the smarter of the strippers. It's an astounding piece of work and needs to be turned into a film at some point.
  • A-List Directors, interviewed by Sam Mendes - This is charming, and they actually managed to get a large amount of major names.
    Have you ever walked off a set in a temper?

    Ang Lee: I only Hulked out once.

    Christopher Nolan: I once tried, but nobody seemed to notice, so I came back.

    George Clooney: No. The reason is because eventually you have to walk back on, and that would be too humiliating.
    Good stuff.
  • Arrested Westeros - Mashup of Arrested Development quotes with Game of Thrones screenshots. It's surprisingly effective.
And we'll leave it at that for now. See you soon.
Posted by Mark on November 04, 2015 at 07:09 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, November 01, 2015

6WH: Speed Round and Halloween
It appears that time flies when you're scared out of your wits and the infamous Six Weeks of Halloween ended with the main event yesterday. As per usual, I have not covered all of the movies I watched during this glorious six week period, whether that be because it didn't fit with a given week's theme or perhaps I've already seen and written about it or maybe I just didn't have that much to say about it. So here's a quick roundup of things I saw that haven't already been covered...
  • The Babadook - Dear Lord, that kid is obnoxious. That's kinda the point, I guess, but it's the sort of thing that kept me bouncing off of this. It is wonderfully atmospheric, and when the horror starts creeping and crawling, it levels off into something that kinda works, but most of the runtime doesn't seem to engage with the horror of the premise, instead focusing on themes of maternity and whatnot. I can see why critics love it, but again, I mostly bounced off it. **
  • From Beyond - Stuart Gordon was on the shortlist for the "Obscure Horror Auteurs" theme that drove the first half of this year's marathon, but it was not to be. However, I did catch up with this one, based on a Lovecraft tale (as is a lot of Gordon's best work) about a "resonator" that allows you to see other realities... the problem is that they can see back! Some interesting ideas here and it's reasonably well executed, but this just doesn't hold together quite as well as Re-Animator. **
  • The Monster Squad - Delightful as always, horror fun for the whole family. Especially effective when you've seen all the old Universal horror flicks this draws on and even expands (I especially like what they did with Wolfman, and not just the "nards" bits. Frankenstein is heart wrenching too.) Whatever happened to the director of this, Fred Dekker? Was Robocop 3 really that bad that he wasn't allowed to work again? After Night of the Creeps and Monster Squad, you'd think he'd be able to weather a flop... Anywho, you should totally watch The Monster Squad, it's great. ***
  • Hotel Transylvania - I'm not really a fan of Adam Sandler, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. This is perhaps more due to the other talent involved, like Genndy Tartakovsky or Robert Smigel, but whatever the case, this is fun stuff, also drawing on old monster lore and it features some genuinely likable characters. I liked the ending. It's a little bland, but as a kid's movie it works, and it's fun. There is, however, a rapping Dracula, something I just can't fathom in this day and age. **1/2
  • Hotel Transylvania 2 - No rapping Draculas, which is a plus, but also not much else to recommend it. Not bad, and there's some nice bits (I like the intersection of the normal world and the monster world), but it doesn't really go anywhere new. Still, decent for a kids movie. **1/2
  • Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence - Kinda going for a Bride of Maniac Cop thing here, but I guess that wasn't in the cards. Maniac Cop is brought back by voodoo and wreaks some havoc in service of a female cop who is wrongfully accused or somesuch. Robert Davi returns as the hard boiled detective, Robert Z'Dar is Robert Z'Dar, and Caitlin Dulany is the helpful doctor. It's all in good fun, though it drags a bit more than previous iterations. **
  • Vamp U - This movie is objectively terrible, it makes no sense, and yet, I had fun with it. Some interesting ideas here. A vampire who is impotent, meaning that he can't "fang out" because he once accidentally killed his love. He now teaches history at a college and is surprised when a student comes to class who looks exactly like his long lost love. There's a lot of fun stuff here. The vampire is named Wayne Gretzky for no reason, something that could have been endearing if the rest of the movie supported it, but it feels kinda tacky overall. Decent performances from Adam Johnson as Gretsky, and Gary Cole as his friend and confidant. Only abbout a third of the jokes actually land, so this isn't quite calibrated or effective, but it's the sort of thing that could maybe work if they took more time to develop it. *1/2 but I'd totally watch this again for some reason.
  • The Visit - A little too uneven to be called a true return to form, but this does at least represent a reversal of course for Shyamalan, halting a long skid of mediocrity and outright bad films. There's a lot to like here, but the dialogue and plot are a little too on the nose and hamfisted. The overarching story works well and contains enough thematic heft that things come out alright in the end though. On the other hand, there are three (count 'em, three) scenes in which a white kid does freestyle rap and it is more horrifying than anything else Shyamalan has ever done (in, uh, a bad way). Once again, I don't understand how we're still using rap from an unexpected source (like a white kid or Dracula) as comedy in this day and age. A middling effort, but given where Shyamalan has been for his past few movies, that's a major improvement. **1/2
  • Cargo - Probably more science fiction than horror, but this doesn't really hold up in either genre. It's fine, to be sure, but I had heard a lot of good things and thus my expectations were perhaps a bit too high. In the far future, earth is mostly destroyed and humanity lives in cramped space stations, awaiting a trip to new planet Rhea. Rich people can go there easily, others have to work menial jobs, etc, etc... you can see where this is going, right? And that is where it's going. It's fine, and reasonably well executed, but it's not the SF or horror masterpiece I was lead to believe it would be. **
  • Puppetmaster - Haha, this is way more trashy than I remember it being, but it's still fun and you have to admit, those little puppets are supremely well designed and memorable. This is one of those movies I discovered as a youngin trolling cable at, like, 3 am or something, so there's a tinge of nostalgia at work here too. Originally scheduled for the Killer Dolls and Dummies week, I just didn't get to it in time. **
  • Madman - I'm always surprised when I find yet another decent flick from the golden age of slashers, but I shouldn't be, as there are, like, hundreds of them. This one is pretty fun, and I love the opening scene around the campfire. So glad I caught this one, I didn't realize how much I was craving a good, old-fashioned slasher. Like a comfy sweater on a cold autumn day. Alright, so it's not exactly "good" but I enjoyed the hell out of it. **1/2
  • No One Lives - I wasn't that excited for this movie, but it turned out to be one of my favorite discoveries of late. A group of petty criminals attempts to kidnap a wealthy woman... but all is not what it seems. As it was unfolding, I was thinking to myself that it would be cool if the husband was actually a serial killer or something, and then was surprised to learn that this was actually the case. I love stories like this, where bad people tangle with worse people and get their comeuppance. This one was fun. ***
  • Ghostbusters - It's a classic and you don't need me to say anything more about it. Needless to say, if you haven't seen it before, you need to watch it, whether you like horror movies or not. ****
  • Trick 'r Treat - This is becoming an annual tradition around here, and I think I like it better every year. ***1/2
  • Halloween - Duh. ****
  • Scream - I watched the previous three films on Halloween eve, saving Halloween day for a minature Wes Craven marathon. First up was Scream, which holds up great if you put it in the right context. The opening is still brilliant, and the self-referential bits are well done. It's just a lot of fun watching this. I really wanted to watch Scream 4 again too, but I never got to it. ***1/2
  • Deadly Blessing - One of the few Wes Craven movies that I'd never seen before and, well, let's just say that there's probably a reason for that. It's not bad at all, actually, but there's not a ton going on either. It's set in Amish country (not technically Amish, they call them Hittites in the movie) and there's some decent stuff here. You can certainly see some of Craven's touches. For instance, he reuses a shot in the bathtub in Nightmare on Elm Street, but the latter is perfected while this one is less effective. Lots of stuff like that in this film, and a kinda bonkers final couple of scenes also remind of his later work. Worth a watch for Craven completists and horror historians. **1/2
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street - Finished off the marathon with the classic, Craven's most purely distilled horror. Yeah, sure, there's some third act issues, but at this point, they've become charming, haven't they? I still love this movie. ****
  • Scream Queens - I watched the first two episodes of this and almost immediately forgot I even did so. It's got some interesting stuff, but it feels overdrawn and too small for a full season of television. It's definitely trying (and mostly failing) to channel that sorta Heathers-like gleeful dark comedy, but it's too unfocused and blatant about it to work well. Some great performances, but there just wasn't enough there to keep me engaged...
  • iZombie - This show, on the other hand, engaged me way more than I'd have ever thought. Perhaps that's because the Zombies in this are so different than your typical Zombies, and also the sorta procedural case-of-the-week stuff that tends to pull me in. Some neat ideas here, like the fact that Zombies are basically just normal people who retain their intelligence, but have really pasty skin and bleached hair. Oh, and they crave brains. And when they eat a brain, they take on that brain's characteristics and even get some of their memories. This is a neat premise for a police procedural. Really enjoyed the first season and blew through it on Netflix in a couple weeks.
Phew, so there you have it, another successful Six Weeks of Halloween. Be sure to check out Six Weeks of Halloween and Film Thoughts for their final thoughts as well. See you for another six weeks next year!
Posted by Mark on November 01, 2015 at 11:33 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Scarlet Gospels
"I am doing another Books of Blood collection and I'm writing a sequel to the book on which Hellraiser was based - this will be Pinhead's first appearance on the page, because he isn't even named in the original." - Clive Barker, from an interview in Imagi-Movies, Vol 1, No 2, Winter 1993/94
The story that would eventually be published as The Scarlet Gospels has been a long time coming. To my knowledge, it was first mentioned in 1993, and has gone through innumerable permutations on its way to its current incarnation, published in May 2015. First it was to be but a single small story amongst others, then it ballooned into a 230,000 word behemoth, and finally it was cut back down to around 100,000 words. It's been quite a journey, and while I remain fully committed to the notion that authors don't owe their readers anything, teasing a story for 20+ years is perhaps a bit excessive. The biggest problem with this novel is one of expectations. Even if I found myself enjoying the book, it's hard to live up to 20 years of anticipation.

The novel brings together two of Barker's most famous characters. There's the Cenobite popularly known as Pinhead (but don't call him that to his face), who we meet as he's finishing off a quest to obliterate all living human magicians and in so doing, wrest all of their arcane knowledge for himself. You probably know Pinhead from the myriad filmic portrayals in the Hellraiser series of movies, but his origin is rooted in Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart. Then you've got Harry D'Amour, the private detective with a knack for finding himself at odds with the supernatural, as he did in Barker's The Last Illusion (from Cabal) and Everville. Here, he starts off on a routine assignment to clear out a dead man's magical library. Amongst that man's possessions is Lemerchand's Configuration, the infamous puzzle box capable of opening a door to hell that is usually occupied by our Pinheaded friend. It turns out that Pinhead would like Harry to act as a witness for the next phase of his nefarious plan. Harry is naturally reluctant, but when Pinhead kidnaps Harry's best friend Norma Paine, an old blind woman who can nevertheless see and speak with the dead, Harry has no choice but to round up a posse to chase after Pinhead. Their travels naturally lead them to hell, where Pinhead is waging all out war on hell's establishment.

I tend to vacillate back and forth on Barker. I love a lot of his short work, but he also has a tendency to get lost in language and stylistic machinations. That being said, I often find that he's able to right the ship just before I'm about to actually give up on what I'm reading. His best work manages the balance incredibly well, other works are a little more uneven. This one actually veers towards the more page-turnery side of the divide, but perhaps he's gone a bit too far. It feels pretty mainstream for what I normally think of from Barker. Even his grotesque imagery feels a little staid, nowhere near that edgy stuff he was writing in the 80s. On the other hand, this was actually quite a fun read, and I mostly enjoyed the whole experience.

I tended to prefer the plot threads centered around Pinhead, who remains a fascinating and somewhat obtuse character. On the other hand, I think I've figured out that I'm not a particularly big fan of Harry D'Amour. He's fine, but I feel like we're constantly told how badass he is, rather than actually seeing him doing something cool. For the most part, he seems to just blunder through the story, barely making it through alive. This story is often pitched as Pinhead versus Harry D'Amour, but if that was the case, Harry'd be dead on page one. He just doesn't display the competence that we're constantly informed he is supposed to have. Take, for instance, his encounter with Lemerchand's Box. He actually recognizes it for what it is (competence!), but he picks it up and starts playing with it anyway, thinking to himself that he can stop before it goes too far. As a reader, you're just sitting there in shock that a character who is supposedly smart when it comes to the supernatural is doing something so utterly stupid. He does slightly better as the story proceeds, but that's mostly just because he's so ineffective that no one actually considers him a threat, and thus he can act as Pinhead's witness.

Hell is always an interesting place to visit, and Barker's hell is an interesting one. A bleak, blasted landscape filled with impossible architecture and grotesque creatures, not to mention an almost bureaucratic streak that runs through everything, Pinhead guides us through it all with aplomb (Harry just follows along in Pinhead's footsteps like a dope). We're eventually treated to a glimpse of the morning star himself, Lucifer, and what follows is a well plotted and interesting confrontation. The ending seems oddly appropriate, though I have no idea where hell is supposed to go from here...

So was it worth the wait? It doesn't really feel like it, but that doesn't make the book bad either. It's clearly missing the edge that Barker's earlier work so astutely captures, but it's still worthwhile and actually quite entertaining (if a bit on the perverse side). It was certainly a good Halloween season read, which is all I can ask for...
Posted by Mark on October 29, 2015 at 07:30 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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