6WH: Week 2 - Isabelle Adjani

The Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon continues with another week of obscure scream queens, this time focusing on French acress Isabelle Adjani. Last week, we looked at a few of Erika Blanc's films, which are distinctly more lurid and trashy than Adjani, who has more of a reputation for staid, artistic work. You'll see below that she's also worked with some more popular art house directors, like Werner Herzog, Roman Polanski, and Andrzej Żuławski. While successful in Europe, she never really managed to crossover into the U.S. filmmaking scene, hence my labeling as "obscure". Of course, last week's reservations about the term "scream queen" apply doubly here, as Adjani is clearly trying for more, despite her work in genre films. Still, she makes an impression, as we're about to find out:
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: Bart Simpson's Dracula
  • What We Do In The Shadows (trailer)
  • Is that a whip? (Robot Chicken)
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre - Werner Herzog's retelling of the Dracula story, this obviously resembles previous incarnations (most obviously F.W. Murnau's silent film), but Herzog's approach puts enough of a twist on the story that this is certainly a worthy successor. Since Bram Stoker's novel Dracula had entered the public domain, Herzog was able to use real character names and combine that with some of Murnau's aesthetic. Despite a similar shape that hits most of the same beats, Herzog's film manages many changes. Max Schreck's Count Orlok was a simple, but terrifying monster (a solid choice given the limitations of silent film). Here, Klaus Kinski plays Dracula with more humanity. Still a monster, to be sure, but sad, tired, and envious of mortality. Adjani plays Lucy, a character updated to be stronger and more active in fighting Dracula (Van Helsing, by contrast, is less of a hero, becoming more of a dispassionate observer than a driver of the story).
    Nosferatu The Vampyre
    Herzog's visual style is on full display, with lots of well composed shots of nature and landscapes during the various travel scenes and some wonderfully creepy atmosphere all throughout. The sight of the town square, filled with "plague" victims' coffins and tons upon tons of rats, is memorable and disturbing. Alas, these beautiful visuals and dreamlike fugues also tend to slow the pace down to a crawl, which, when combined with our familiarity with the story, does present a bit of an issue. The ending has been updated to be more ambiguous, with Dracula defeated but the vampire menace set to continue. A worthwhile updating of an old classic. ***
  • The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: The Shinning
  • Rosemary's Baby (trailer)
  • Delicatessen (trailer)
  • The Tenant - A man rents an apartment where the previous tenant has attempted suicide. Soon, the man believes his neighbors are trying to drive him to a similar end. Adjani plays the previous tenant's friend, but isn't given too much to do throughout the film. The story is more focused on, well, the new tenant (played by Roman Polanski, who also directs).
    The Tenant
    Unfortunately, the pacing is rather slow here as well, with not much happening until the halfway point, and still taking its time before the really creepy stuff starts to poke out (even then, the good stuff is awfully short). While it does a decent job capturing the paranoia, it didn't need to take quite so much time to get there. The ending is a little on the nonsensical side, but it at least represent an interesting idea and provokes a little thought. I generally try my best to separate art from the artist, but fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski is one person I do struggle with on those grounds. This film, at least, was made before Polanski's crime, which helps a little, but it's still something I find sticking in the back of my mind. If I knew Adjani's involvement was so small, I probably wouldn't have watched. **
  • Inside (trailer)
  • All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (trailer)
  • High Tension (trailer)
  • Deadly Circuit (aka Mortelle randonnée) - An aging private detective is put on the case of a serial killer who murders and robs rich men on their wedding night. The woman reminds the detective of his long lost daughter, so instead of completing the case, he follows and aids her when he can, eventually making contact. It's a weird little film. I can't say as though I follow the whole thing particularly well, but it's entertaining in a stereotypical French way.
    Deadly Circuit
    Adjani is the serial killer here, and she pulls off all the different looks and costumes well. She's got enough seductive charisma that you can kinda see why all these different guys would fall for her, but on the other hand, the relationships all seem so rushed and it doesn't make a ton of sense. The detective's motivations are also a little odd and I'm not entirely sure they make sense either. It's ultimately not a particularly memorable film, but it's got some interesting ideas and might be worth a watch for completists (as to what they're trying to complete... I'm not sure, actually). **
  • They're All Gonna Laugh At You (robot chicken)
  • Grace (trailer)
  • Spring (trailer)
  • Possession - I watched this last year and frankly, my original thoughts remain:
    Dear lord, what the hell did I just watch? The batshit insanity quotient just went way up in this year's 6WH. Ostensibly about a bad divorce, it turns out that the woman's new beau is, um, some sort of tentacled monster (apparently Andrzej Zulawski's elevator pitch for the movie was "A film about a woman who fucks an octopus."). Dial performances up to 11; Sam Niell is always great at playing unhinged and Isabelle Adjani is absolutely fearless (dat "miscarriage" scene). Frankly, I have no idea what to make of this movie. Watch it if you dare.
    Upon rewatching, I have tried to make some more sense of the movie, but it remains impenetrable, though I think I may have connected an extra dot or two. It's visually quite impressive and the atmosphere of obsession and dread is quite effective.
    Possession
    There's a lot of things in this movie that I'm not terribly excited about (there's a lot of manic arguing early on, for example), but for some reason, I find myself compelled to keep watching, and the payoffs are well worth the effort... even if you have no idea what's happening. There's a sequence in an empty subway hallway that is just a tour de force, even though, again, it makes no real sense. I think it's supposed to be a kind of miscarriage. Whatever the case, Anjani sells it, and she sells it hard. As mentioned above, this is a fearless performance, and it was the one that made me want to explore more of her filmography in the first place. It doesn't exactly have mass appeal, making it hard to recommend, but it's got a certain cult appeal. As with last time, it's a difficult film to rate, but I'll just throw it *** and leave it at that...
That finishes up this week. Later this week, we'll take a look at a book of horror movie recommendations, and next week's theme will be Nazis (I hate these guys). In the meantime, head over to Film Thoughts, as Zack is already outpacing my viewings and posting writeups every day.
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6WH: It: Chapter One

I was just a hair too young for Stephen King's apex in the mid-80s, meaning that I sorta got the gist of the phenomenon without really experiencing much of it. I remember the hype and even seeing commercials for King books on TV and various adults going crazy for his stuff, but as a young kid, I was less sanguine about scary stuff. I didn't really get into horror (or, for that matter, reading) until the early 90s, but once I was on board, I certainly did burn through a bunch of Stephen King novels and film adaptations. One such event was the It miniseries that aired on television in November of 1990 (I viewed it on one of those fancy double-VHS sets in the mid-90s). I don't remember much about It except for a vague outline of the plot and characters. I enjoyed it and could see why it was a popular story, but didn't think too much about it. I should also note that I haven't read the book, mostly because I'm the worst. But I can tell it's one of King's more popular works.

Enter It: Chapter One, the latest big-screen adaptation of King's work (hot off the heels of the craptacular Dark Tower movie) that's been lighting the box office on fire. In just a couple of weeks, it'll have become the most successful King adaptation of all time, even adjusting for inflation (and there's talk of it becoming the most successful horror film of all time as well). When I first heard of this adaptation, I wasn't particularly intrigued, but there was a buzz surrounding the movie that did make me a little curious. This is usually a fruitful combination: good source material and competent filmmaking team, coupled with lowered expectations. As a result, I found myself greatly enjoying this movie, much more than I thought I would. It definitely has flaws, but it's a fun, crowd-pleasing experience, such that its surprising success actually feels earned.

Derry, Maine appears to be a quaint little town on the surface, but its history is one of cyclic tragedy, and since children are beginning to disappear at an alarming rate, it seems this tragedy is still ongoing. Set in the late 80s, seven kids, each with their own hangups and fears, come to figure out and even confront the evil plaguing the town. This evil manifests itself as representations of their fears, but also and most often in the form of a clown named Pennywise.

The story is told entirely from the kids perspective, which is a notable change from the book/previous miniseries (which alternated between the kids and adult versions of the kids, both groups fighting It during one of its cyclical feeding periods), but one that I think works out well. Not having read the book, I can't say for sure, but I suspect this sort of narrative structure works great on the page, but would be really difficult to pull off on screen. Plus, from what I gather, they made enough other changes to the specifics that this more straightforward approach also leaves open the possibility that maybe some of the characters won't survive. I'm sure that, from a book reader's perspective, this sort of tension is more meta; are we scared that a member of the Losers Club won't survive? Or are we scared that killing one of those kids is just a terrible idea and would ruin the movie? Whatever the case, given the constraints of a single movie and a 1100+ page adaptation, this seems like a reasonable choice.

The kids from It viewing a slideshow

And the kids are great. Many a film has floundered on child actors, but every single one of the kids in this movie does a good job. They have great chemistry with one another and whether they're tooling around on their bikes (evoking that 80s Amblin feel) or bickering with each other (in ways that provide a good, comedic release after the various horror tensions), they're an entertaining bunch. Since there's seven of them and this is a little over two hours long, the characters could feel like stereotypes, but each one has just enough individuality that they are at least distinct, recognizable, and likable on their own.

On the flip side, Bill Skarsgard does a great job as Pennywise. It couldn't have been an easy task to reprise the role made famous by Tim Curry's performance, but Skarsgard clears the bar. The film does rely too heavily on CGI for some of Pennywise's scares, but when Skarsgard is allowed to give a quirky smile or contort his body in a practical way, it's quite effective.

Director Andy Muschietti is obviously good at wrangling the kids and getting good performances out of them, but he has some visual chops too. It is a well composed movie, and Muschietti knows how to manipulate an audience. While he relies too heavily on audio stingers and jump scares, he is adept enough at executing them that these sequences don't feel like cheap shots. There might be a few too many horror setpieces too, which can lead to fatigue towards the end of the movie and maybe muck with the pacing at times. On the whole, though, this is more calibrated to an audience viewing, and it's supremely successful on that front. All the craft goes towards generating a crowd-pleasing experience. This may rub fans of slow-burn horror the wrong way, and I'm sure that King's book allows for a much deeper, more immersive experience, but given the constraints, this film admirably achieves its modest goals.

There are several memorable setpieces. The opening with Georgie is very well done and compares favorably to the previous iteration (and, as I understand it, to the book as well). I particularly enjoyed the painting that Stan was terrified of, and that sequence was wholly terrifying. A scene in the library, where one of our characters discovers a historical tragedy involving Easter, then follows a balloon into the basement is quite good. The slideshow presentation when Pennywise shows up is also great. Some of the more simple interactions, such as Bev's conversations with her father or the pharmacist, are also quite creepy. Most of the scary sequences achieve a certain base level of effectiveness, even the ones that rely on CGI.

It does feel like there could be a lot more depth here. It's not entirely clear how Pennywise works or how the kids manage to defeat It, other than vague platitudes about fear. What little history we get is very affecting, but the runtime limits how much of this can be explored. I haven't read the book, but I imagine many of these gaps are filled on the page. Again, this is understandable given the limitations of a film project.

I'm calling this It: Chapter One, but that's only revealed in the ending credits. My guess is that they were hedging their bets here. They couldn't possibly fit the whole thing into two hours and wisely chose to focus on the kids' story (which, I will say, ends in a way that is satisfying enough that you don't feel cheated), but the sequel wasn't guaranteed. Well, given the box office performance, I think we can now assume that the sequel is forthcoming. Since it will take place 27 years later, they will need an all new cast of grownups, which will probably lead to some familiar faces (i.e. Jessica Chastain for Bev is a fan favorite).

From the Stephen King that I've read, I will say my biggest issue is the way he ends his books. I feel like he often writes himself into a corner and only barely manages to find a way out, if at all. I don't remember details about the miniseries conclusion, but I do remember it being somewhat underwhelming (involving a giant spider). As I understand it, the book goes a little further, so perhaps there's something interesting to look forward to there. Whatever the case, I'll almost certainly be checking out the sequel.

This is a crowd-pleasing movie and entertaining experience at the theater. It may not be quite the revelation that the book was, nor is it as effective as some more "serious" horror cinema, but I don't think it's really trying to outshine either of those things. It's just extremely well executed and fun, totally worth seeing in the theater. ***

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The Autumn Wind is a pirate, blustering in from sea... Yes, the weather is turning, the wind is crisper and colder, trees are abscising their leaves, gourds are being mutilated for decorative purposes, and of course, the pumpkin spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers of the season can mean only one thing: it's Halloween season! To celebrate, we embark upon a six week long horror movie marathon. That's, like, a whole two weeks longer than most Halloween movie marathons, because we're just that awesome.

To kick things off, I'm going to do a couple weeks of what I was going to call "Obscure Scream Queens". Now, that phrase is generally reserved for actresses associated with horror movies and I've always found it to be a term of affection and respect in the horror community, but as it turns out, there are some reservations to be had with the label. Particularly since the term is often misused or devalued, especially by folks outside the genre community.

Screaming damsels in distress have always been a thing in horror movies, dating back to the silent era, but you'll often see names like Fay Wray in King Kong (1933) bandied about as the true start (as she was one of the first and seemingly most memorable examples in the "talkies"). The phrase Scream Queen, though, didn't really enter the popular parlance until Jamie Lee Curtis took on Michael Myers in Halloween and then followed that up with a surprising string of additional horror titles (i.e. Terror Train, Prom Night, The Fog, Road Games, not to mention Halloween II). As we plowed through the golden age of slashers and 80s horror, the term's usage intensified and this is also probably where the devaluing usages also came into play. To be sure, like any label, it's reductive and doesn't truly capture a holistic sense of what makes these actresses great, but as mentioned above, I've always seen it as a term of respect and admiration.

Erika Blanc is probably not a name commonly associated with the label, but she certainly fits the bill. She came to my attention during last year's marathon with her performance in The Night Evilyn Came Out of the Grave (she also turned up in a Mario Bava themed week a few years ago). While probably most famous for her role as the first Emmanuelle in the infamous series of erotic films, she also racked up quite a long string of impressive performances in horror films, three of which we'll examine today. A fiery redhead with piercing blue eyes and a penchant for playing roles that mix sexy seduction with death and mayhem (i.e. typical Italian cinema here, but still), Blanc is hard to beat. Nothing like a bunch of obscure Italian horror movies no one's ever heard of to get people riled up, amiright? Perhaps not the best way to start the 6WH, but it worked well enough!

  • Lotion in the Basket (Robot Chicken)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (trailer)
  • The Snowman (trailer)
  • A Dragonfly for Each Corpse - A police inspector gets assigned to a case of serial killings in Milan where the killer leaves an ornamental Dragonfly, soaked in the victims' blood, as a calling card. This is paint-by-numbers Giallo trash, but such things can work well enough, as it does here. We're treated to some necrophilia, Nazis (I hate those guys), crossdressing, a gunfight on a roller coaster (literally), and some ridiculous falling dummies... Despite being second-billed, Erika Blanc doesn't get a ton to do for most of the movie (she's the inspector's wife), but she does get to do some research in the nude. This isn't a role that really leverages her strengths, but she elevates the film anyway.
    Erika Blanc finds a dragonfly
    The mustachioed inspector is played by Paul Naschy, doing his best tough guy impersonation and mostly succeeding. The mystery at the heart of the story is par for the Giallo course, not always making a ton of sense but it's about as kitsch as you can get, which has its own pleasures. The pacing falters a bit in the middle, but there's plenty of setpieces, even if they don't all entirely work. It's always amusing to see early action sequences like this, but while not always great this acquits itself relatively well for the era. I was watching a pretty crappy pan-and-scan transfer with terrible sound, so it's hard to comment on the craft of the film, but it didn't seem particularly accomplished in that respect. The music, often a strong point even in corny Italian cinema, was lackluster at best. In the end, it's Giallo comfort food, but little else (and certainly not Blanc's best in the sub-genre). **
  • Grindhouse: Don't (Fake Trailer)
  • The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (trailer)
  • What Have You Done To Solange (trailer)
  • Love and death in the garden of the gods - A German academic rents an old villa, finds a series of recordings that tell the tragic tale of the villa's previous inhabitants, and inadvertently gets caught up in the tragedy himself. Most of this story is told in oddly structured flashbacks within flashbacks; a needlessly convoluted exercise that was nonetheless pretty common in Giallos. At first, though, this doesn't seem at all like a Giallo, but rather a straightforward drama about a woman, her brother, and her new husband. After a suicide attempt, the woman (played by Blanc) relates her story to a psychologist (who is the one recording the tapes that will later be discovered). Things get continuously more complicated and byzantine as the story unfolds, and then the narrative goes full taboo, with incest, cruel manipulation, and yes, murder. As per usual, it doesn't particularly make sense, but that's how these things work. Blanc is a perfect choice for the role, seductive and manipulative at the same time, I doubt this would work with anyone else.
    Erika Blanc
    It certainly takes a while to get going and at times I wondered if I had erred in including this as a "horror" title, but once the revelations start coming, things pick up in the end. I guess its still not horror, but it definitely hits thriller territory, and I have to admit, of the three movies I watched this weekend, this one seems to be sticking with me the most. This could also partly be due to an effective visual style and great music. Even when the story was bogging down, it was always gorgeous to look at (and I'm not just talking about Blanc). Despite it's odd framing device and languid pacing, this one managed to win me over in the end. **1/2 (As an aside, this movie contained my favorite line of dialog of the weekend. When the groundskeeper is showing the German academic around the villa and the German makes a crack about knowing local wildlife, the groundskeeper retorts: "You're the big professor, but I have a master's degree in fried chicken!" Brilliant.)
  • Seven (trailer)
  • The House of the Devil (trailer)
  • The Incubus (trailer)
  • The Devil's Nightmare - Seven strangers on a tour bus take shelter in a mysterious Baron's creepy castle. Naturally, a succubus also attends the party. This movie begins during WWII as the Germans are being bombed and a woman has just given birth to a baby. Upon learning the baby is a girl, the father, a Nazi officer, pulls out a ceremonial dagger and stabs the baby. Cut to the present day (i.e. the early 70s), and then we join our seven tourists being stalked by a succubus played by Erika Blanc. It seems like the victims are supposed to represent each of the seven deadly sins, though I had trouble placing a couple of them (and frankly, "Lust" could apply to a bunch of them, eh?)
    Erika Blanc is a succubus
    In any case, this was the role Blanc was born to play. A seductive, deadly succubus that wears a most ludicrous outfit whilst meting out appropriate punishments to each of the guests, in accordance with their evil deeds. Some of those set pieces are quite effective, and of course Blanc can pull off even the most absurd looks (I mean, that dress). Of course, the plot, which involves a family cursed by the succubus, makes absolutely no sense. I gather that the infanticide that opens the picture was meant to break the curse or something, but that doesn't seem to take since the rest of the film, you know, happens. Then there's the ending in which a seminarian makes a deal with the devil (played by the great Daniel Emilfork, who is channeling Max Schreck). Kinda. I think. I don't really understand it. But I don't think this is the sort of movie you try to understand. It's the sort of movie where Erika Blanc plays a a sex-demon who throws one dude off the roof of a castle into a bunch of spikes that just happen to be on the grounds, then tries to seduce a priest. A lurid tale of Eurotrash satanism with gothic undertones, this one is certainly a garish sight to behold. **1/2
Alright, so I may have jumped the gun a bit on the whole Six Weeks of Halloween thing (this will technically be around 7 weeks), but I apologize for nothing. Stay tuned, next week we cover another obscure Scream Queen, Isabelle Adjani (whose titles are decidedly less lurid or trashy than Blanc's)... and who knows, maybe some horror TV will show up at some point too...
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Weird Movie of the Week

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered a guy who killed Hitler, and then Bigfoot. This time, we've got The Manitou, which I discovered reading Brian Collins's Horror Movie A Day: The Book. His brief "synopsis based on fading memory" sounds glorious:
A woman gets a weird growth on her shoulder. As is often the case, it turns out to be a fetus.
And not just any fetus, but "a 400 year-old demonic Native American" fetus. And if that's not enough, the trailer hints at even more bizarre happenings, including Tony Curtis randomly screaming "John!" and a door opening to a starscape or something.

Next week begins the fabled Six Weeks of Halloween, so get strapped in... up first is some Italian horror/Giallos...
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Link Dump

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As per usual, just some linkies I found interesting:
  • My IRB Nightmare - Scott Alexander got revved up and tried to do some formal research at his hospital. The resulting bureaucratic mess is a thing to behold...
    IRREGULARITY #1: Consent forms traditionally included the name of the study in big letters where the patient could see it before signing. Mine didn’t. Why not?

    Well, because in questionnaire-based psychological research, you never tell the patient what you’re looking for before they fill out the questionnaire. That’s like Methods 101. The name of my study was “Validity Of A Screening Instrument For Bipolar Disorder”. Tell the patient it’s a study about bipolar disorder, and the gig is up.

    The IRB listened patiently to my explanation, then told me that this was not a legitimate reason not to put the name of the study in big letters on the consent form. Putting the name of the study on the consent form was important. You know who else didn’t put the name of the study on his consent forms? Hitler.
    The ultimate point is worth considering as well:
    I sometimes worry that people misunderstand the case against bureaucracy. People imagine it’s Big Business complaining about the regulations preventing them from steamrolling over everyone else. That hasn’t been my experience. Big Business - heck, Big Anything - loves bureaucracy. They can hire a team of clerks and secretaries and middle managers to fill out all the necessary forms, and the rest of the company can be on their merry way. It’s everyone else who suffers. The amateurs, the entrepreneurs, the hobbyists, the people doing something as a labor of love. Wal-Mart is going to keep selling groceries no matter how much paperwork and inspections it takes; the poor immigrant family with the backyard vegetable garden might not.
    Well said.
  • Redditors design worst volume sliders possible - A little UX humor for you, though I bet somewhere, some bureaucracy is mandating the use of something like one of these for ridiculous reasons.
  • World's Strongest Man — Full Day of Eating - Around 12,000 calories. This is almost a week's worth of calories for me (or, uh, should be). The crazy thing is that he considers eating to be the hardest part of his training regimen, though it sounds like a constant, all day affair, so I could see that getting old. I imagine the Bodybuilder diet is different, since this guy is going for pure, functional strength rather than body sculpting...
  • No, YOU spent Labor Day weekend putting Michael Meyers into the background of Activia commercials. Brilliant.
  • Stop Laughing At Old Movies, You $@%&ing Hipsters - I don't get to a lot of repertory screenings, so this isn't something I run into, but it does sound obnoxious.
    The audience at Hercules in the Haunted World thought the styrofoam boulders were hilarious. They cracked up the first time Park opened his mouth and baritone Kihun Yoon began to sing. Soon after, most people settled down. But a third of the house continued to treat Bava's heartbreaking fantasy epic like a comedy. Guy gets boiled in lava? Hysterical! Lady gets her throat slashed? Priceless! People weren't laughing because Mario Bava was funny. They were laughing because Mario Bava wanted them to feel. (No one seemed to care if composer Patrick Morganelli and his singers had their own feelings hurt.)

    The guy behind me munching Sour Patch Kids and wearing an ironic Hawaiian shirt kept up the chuckles for 91 minutes, long after I began to beseech Zeus to throw a non-styrofoam boulder at him. His stubborn laughter was an advertisement for his own superiority, like it's heroic to refuse to be “suckered” by a fake rock that's obviously fake. But there's nothing triumphant about being too cool to dream.
    Seriously, why would someone like that go to a Mario Bava movie? I guess he found it funny, but it's still obnoxious.
Oh man, the Six Weeks of Halloween is coming. Just two weeks. Gird your loins.
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The Book Queue

It's been well over a year since I last posted a book queue, and since we're quickly approaching the Six Weeks of Halloween, I need to figure out some creepy seasonal reading, so here's some books I'm looking into. I used to love reading horror, but aside from the occasional dip into the waters, I haven't kept up at all... I probably won't get to all of these (and who knows, I might read something not on here), but it's where I'm starting:
  • Deep State by Christopher Farnsworth - I've been a fan of Farnsworth's Nathaniel Cade/President's Vampire books for a while, and this latest little novella will have to tide me over until Farnsworth manages a full length follow up to Red, White, and Blood (which was the best of the series up until now). Anyway, I don't know much about this, but it seems like it'll be fun Halloween season reading...
  • Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr - I don't remember where I heard about this one from, but the quick description sounds... interesting... "a tripping-balls Los Angeles noir, where a mysterious dame drags you through a time-warping Bizarro hall of mirrors."
  • Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias - Looks like a quick read about a drug dealer turf war that veers into the supernatural. Not sure what to make of this, but reviews make it sound fun...
  • The Croning by Laird Barron - Another horror book that I added to my queue last year and again, I can't remember where I heard about it, but it sounds interesting. Not really sure what this is about, even after reading the description. Can't decide if that's a good thing or not. I also have The Imago Sequence short story collection on my list.
  • Christine by Stephen King - More a placeholder for a Stephen King novel than anything else, but a friend really loves this novel and has told me it's a lot better than the movie... which is a movie I really like (I mean, it is John Carpenter)! I've read a bunch of King, but nowhere near comprehensive. It might be worth checking out It before this new movie comes out, and there are a few others that could work too, but I think Christine might be the one...
  • Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts by Orrin Grey - Short story collection that is supposed to be themed around cinematic monsters, which seems appropriate for our primarily-movie-based Six Weeks of Halloween, no?
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones - As a slasher fan, this seems right up my alley. "The Last Final Girl is like Quentin Tarantino's take on The Cabin in the Woods. Bloody, absurd, and smart. Plus, there's a killer in a Michael Jackson mask." Sold!
  • Horror Movie A Day: The Book by Brian W. Collins - I actually picked this up towards the tail end of last year's 6WH, so I didn't really use it much and just skipped around a little, but I'm giving it a more thorough read right now in the hopes of finding some 6WH fodder. For the uninitiated, HMAD was a website where Brian Collins would watch a horror movie every day and review it. He did this for 6 years. The book is an interesting mixture of films, tons of deep cuts here, not stuff you'd see on every other "Best Horror" list (and indeed, Collins doesn't shy away from truly bad movies, which keeps things interesting). This will almost certainly guide a week or two of this year's marathon...
So there you have it. I definitely won't get to all these, but look for some reviews during the 6WH...
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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Without delving too deeply into defining Science Fiction (a contentious undertaking worthing of a separate post), there is a tendency to expand the bounds of the genre by applying scientific precepts to other, nominally supernatural stories. Witness Arthur C. Clarke's infamous dictum: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And speaking of magic, one such sub-genre could be called the "technology of magic" story which layers a science fictional structure on top of fantasy (or horror) tropes. Nicole Galland and Neal Stephenson's latest novel, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is one such technology of magic story.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Melisande Stokes is a struggling academic linguist who inadvertently meets one Tristan Lyons, a handsome military man who recruits her for a secret research project. He reveals little of his motivations or goals or even who he even works for (as he flatly responds to one of Mel's many questions about documents she's translating, "Whether or not they are classified is classified.") Nevertheless, Melisande's polyglot skills quickly reveal some context: Magic was once a real, measurable phenomenon and driver of history, but witch practitioners reported a waning of magic in the early 19th century, eventually disappearing completely in 1851.

The scientific hypothesis is that this magical extinction event was precipitated by the invention of cameras, and in specific, an 1851 eclipse that was widely photographed. The explanation being that magic was some sort of manipulation of quantum physics and that photography represented a form of observation that resulted in a sorta magical wave-function collapse.

It's a clever conceit that provides a good basis for the story. Once they realize what caused the disappearance of magic, our heroic duo get in contact with Dr. Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca East Oda, who have independently been working on a kind of Schrodinger's Cat box, an isolation chamber that might prove ideal for practicing magic in the modern world. After making contact with a real, live witch named Erszebet Karpathy, our oddball band of heroes manage to show that magic does, in fact, exist. Once this hypothesis is confirmed, the government begins a more formal exploration with the hopes of restoring magic and exploiting it for their own strategic ends.

Of course, magic isn't quite all its cracked up to be. Its applications are not immediately obvious until they stumble upon Erszebet's ability to send someone back in time. Even this ability comes with numerous unexpected complications. It turns out that while you can travel back in time and make changes, you must do so on several "strands" of the multiverse until you reach some sort of critical mass where those changes become permanent (or, at least, observable in the present). Of course, this can get pretty tedious and there are additional dangers. If, for example, you were to attempt too large of a change, the universe responds with a literal explosion of magic referred to as Diachronic Shear. Let's just say that it's something to be avoided.

But our heroes persist and after some early success, the DODO (now revealed to be an acronym for Department of Diachronic Operations) organization grows at an alarmingly fast rate as they create new ODECs (i.e. Schrodinger’s Cat boxes that allow magic), recruit an army of historians, martial artists, and other subject matter experts, and of course identify Known Compliant Witches (KCWs) in pre-1851 Diachronic Theaters (so that present-day operatives that have been sent to the past have a way to get back to the present, naturally). One such historical contact is the Irish witch Gráinne, who appears very cooperative, but also has motives of her own. As the title of the book implies, the whole undertaking may be undone thanks to bureaucratic excess and manipulative figures like Gráinne...

The majority of the novel is comprised of first person accounts in the form of diaries, government memos, after-action reports, intranet chat logs, wiki-style howtos, epistolary accounts, and so on. In the beginning, this is primarily from Melisande's perspective, but as the DODO organization grows, so too do the perspectives. As a literary device, this provides convenient cover for the SF genre's info-dumping tendencies while also allowing you to get multiple perspectives on the same events. It works well and never wore out its welcome (unlike some other framing devices I've read recently).

Not having read any of Nicole Galland's previous work (save some of the Mongoliad, another collaboration with Stephenson and several other authors), I can't say for sure how the collaboration worked, but as a rabid Stephenson nut, I can tell you that there's plenty of Stephensonian touches here. Of course, one would assume their collaboration involves shared obsessions, so this all makes sense. Still, there's enough commonality between certain things here and Stephenson's other work such that I feel confident that, for example, the whole subplot involving the underestimated Viking Magnus's assault on a Walmart is very Stephensonian in concept and execution (As the character Rebecca notes in her journal entry: "Magnus is ludicrously hyper-masculine in ways that have been bred and trained out of modern-day men and so they have to deprecate his intelligence." In fact, Magnus' intelligence just manifests in a different way, similar to, say, the Shaftoe brand of genius being quite distinct from the more common Waterhouse conception (for the uninitiated, those are characters from Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.)) The Fuggers, an enigmatic family of well-connected bankers, also feel very Stephensonian (and while they are not implied to be immortal, their subtle methods of influence recall Enoch Root... or maybe I should just stop comparing everything to Cryptonomicon.)

From what I understand, many of the historical bits come from Galland (though, again, that's not an unusual avenue for Stephenson either), and they jive well with the rest of the story. There are, perhaps, a few quibbles to be made about the plot. In particular, Gráinne's rise to power seems precipitated by an event I'd be extremely wary about. The ending works well enough, though it does appear to be setting up a sequel/series and when combined with Stephenson's reputation for endings, this may rub some folks the wrong way.

There's still more than enough good to make up for any of the nitpicks though. The clever quantum underpinnings of magic, the slow exploration and tedius implications of the way magic works (uh, that's a good thing), the droll and humorous takedown of beurocratic excess, the seemingly infinite parade of acronyms (my favorite being the Diachronic Operative Resource Center or DORC), the well researched historical panache, the winning and charismatic characters (even the villains are the types you love to roll your eyes at), it all contributes to a fun adventure tale that is well paced and entertaining. There aren't a ton of completely new ideas here and you could argue that it isn't as deep or idiosyncratic as Stephenson's best, but it is a very well executed take on those tropes, and one that I prefer to many other offerings.

Overall, it's a light, fun, entertaining romp reminiscent of Stephenson's other collaborations (the Stephen Bury books, which he cowrote with his uncle George Jewsbury) or Reamde. It might not be as revelatory as Cryptonomicon or Anathem, but it's a fantastic book. I will most likely put it on my nominating ballot for next year's Hugo Awards.

Not much to go on when it comes to Stephenson and/or Galland's next books, but in this interview, they mention that they're both approaching the homestretch on solo projects, but are not ready to announce anything yet. Given the ending of DODO, I have to wonder how quickly we'll see a sequel (or if it will even be written by these two authors again?) Time will tell, but I will most likely be reading whatever these two put out (and frankly, I should get on some of Galland's back catalog).

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Hugo Awards 2017: The Results

The 2017 Hugo Awards were announced on Friday, so it's time for the requisite whining/celebration that peppers the steak of our blogging diet (that's how food works, right?) Um, anyway, despite my formal participation in the awards process roughly coinciding with the Sad/Rabid Puppy era/debacle, this marks the fourth year wherein I've contributed to the results. This year's awards were less directly impacted by those meddlesome puppies, but I feel like we're still suffering through an indirect backlash and overcorrection. This isn't exactly new, so let's just get on with it. (For those who really want to geek out and see how instant-runoff voting works, the detailed final and nominating ballots are available.)
  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin takes the rocket for Best Novel, making Jemisin just the third author to have back-to-back wins in this category (joining the ranks of Orson Scott Card and Lois McMaster Bujold). She's a good author, but damn, these books are not for me. Both were at the bottom of my ballot and while I can see why her novel won last year, this one is a little more baffling. It appears to have been a close race though, with All the Birds in the Sky only narrowly missing the win. I regret not putting it higher on my ballot, as it's the only non-series finalist, and that's something that's becoming more and more of an issue... My preferred Ninefox Gambit came in third in the voting, which wound up being a theme for my first ranked works this year.
  • “The Tomato Thief”, by Ursula Vernon wins Best Novelette. I had it at #2 on my ballot and it was very close to the top, so no complaints here. “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, by Amal El-Mohtar wins Best Short Story, which I also had at #2 on my ballot (though I was less in love with this). In both cases, my preferred story wound up in third place. (I didn't vote for Novella, so I'll just note that the ever-popular Seanan McGuire took home the award.)
  • Arrival wins Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form in a landslide, meaning that some things are right in this world. If there's been a movie more destined to win this award, I can't think of one. Also of interest, Ghostbusters (2016) came in dead last, which I think befits its profound mediocrity. In the nominating ballots, it appears my campaign for The Witch fell on deaf ears, as it didn't even make the longlist (for comparison's sake, Arrival received over a thousand nominations, while the bottom of the ballot got 240 and the longlist ends with 10 Cloverfield Lane, which only snagged 72. I know I nominated The Witch but I suspect I may be the only one.) I suppose its on the outskirts of what typically gets nominated (historical period piece horror), but it'd be a much better choice than Ghostbusters or Deadpool. Next year, I'll be curious to see if the likes of Get Out or Colossal will make the cut (if history is any indication, that's a negative - we'll have a couple of super hero movies and the now permanent fixture of Star Wars that will push out all the more idiosyncratic and interesting offerings. Nothing against that blockbuster fare, but it would be great if some of the recent boom in small, independent SF films were represented in these awards...)
  • "The Expanse" Leviathan Wakes wins Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. I didn't vote for this category, but this is one of the episodes I saw, and I like the win because it's not Doctor Who or Game of Thrones (both of which have perhaps won too many of these awards).
  • The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold wins the inaugural Best Series Award, which is again, as it should be. This was an experimental category this year, but I believe it's be ratified to continue on. It's an interesting concept, but as I've noted before, it has some major logistical challenges (namely, how on earth could any reasonable voter read all of the nominated works in time for voting?). Still, as a huge fan of Bujold and the Vorkosigan Saga, this award makes me happy.
  • There are, of course, tons of other awards, but I mostly didn't vote on them due to time and, well, motivation. The puppy angle no longer warrants any particular analysis (not that I ever did much anyway). None of the winners are particularly surprising, but of course ,congratulations are due to all the winners!
  • As mentioned above, this is the fourth year I've participated. Every year, I debate whether or not it will be my last. I suspect this year's focus on series (in the Novel ballot, not the separate award) will continue, and that's something I'm not particularly sanguine about. There's a couple of shoe-ins that I probably won't want to read as well. In general, I'm glad that I've participated these last few years and I've read a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise... but then, every year, when I finish Hugo reading, I go back and read some older stuff that I almost always enjoy a lot more. These things go in cycles, and it seems like the types of books I really enjoy are not in fashion these days. I do wonder how much of that is due to the Puppy overreach. For all their rhetoric, political bluster, and hypocrisy, the primacy of storytelling that they ostensibly preached is something I can appreciate. Their execution was... let's say flawed. The "slate" approach was terrible and quite frankly, many of their preferred nominees didn't capture that emphasis on fun storytelling (quite the opposite in some cases). Much of it was against the spirit of the awards and rightly faced stiff opposition. But now we're drowning in literary fiction tropes and inchoate characterization rather than sense of wonder and fun ideas. Even my favorites this year tended to lack a bit of spark. Hopefully things will continue to settle down in the coming years. This, by the way, is one reason in favor of my continued participation. Criticism might be better taken from someone actually participating, you know?
  • The notion that a current year's membership allows you to nominate for next year's awards is clever and will keep me participating at least until then. There are a handful of exciting books this year that I'll gladly throw a nomination towards, and who knows, I could be surprised by the finalists. Stranger things have happened. I'm not holding my breath though.
This marks a close of this year's Hugo festivities. Up next, we've got some reviews (of new and older works) and, of course, we're only a little over a month from my most favoritest time of the year, The Six Weeks of Halloween horror marathon (I should probably start planning now, hmmm)...
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Tasting Notes

I used to do this thing where I'd do a series of quick hits on my media diet, but damn, it looks like I haven't done this in about five years? Let's rectify that situation:

Television:

  • The Good Place - I wasn't expecting much, but then I burned through the entire first season in just a couple of days. It's a fantastic season of television, very funny, great stakes, well paced (both in terms of individual episodes, but also in the way the series expands on its own world throughout the course of the season). There are some big twists that you might pick up on early in the season, but in general, the season works well as a whole. I'm somewhat wary of the forthcoming second season, but the writers managed to be pretty clever throughout the first season, so there's a hope that the second season will work. But they'll need to do something almost completely different with the premise this time around (otherwise, it could get very repetitive), which is a challenge.
  • Patriot - What a fucking bizarre show. It's clearly aping the prestige TV tropes out the yin yang (i.e. Breaking Bad-esque cold opens, anti-heroes, etc...) and I can't exactly say it's planting any of its own flags, but I actually kinda liked it? I find it hard to recommend and when I break it down, it's not super original and many of the characteristics of the show are things I don't normally care for, but somehow it tweaked me just right. At least until the very end, which is an anticlimax (albeit one you can kinda see coming). It's about a spy who goes undercover at a piping firm in order to travel to Europe and do some sort of deal to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Things immediately go wrong, and pretty much the whole series is an ever-telescoping series of crises built on top of crises. It has this ridiculous sense of deadpan dark humor (I think? Nothing about this show makes perfect sense to me...) that I don't think I have any reference point for... It's almost worth watching so that you can get to the Rock/Paper/Scissors game scene towards the end of the series, which is utterly brilliant. Again, a hard one to recommend though. It might be worth watching the first episode (it's an Amazon Prime original though, so I think you can only see it there). If you're on board with the ridiculous things that happen there, this series might be for you. I honestly still don't know what to think about it, which probably means I think its good?
Movies:
  • Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan's WWII epic is indeed a spectacle to behold, one of the best photographed movies of the year and definite nominee for Most Visually Stunning in the Kaedrin Movie Awards. Not a ton of dialog and minimal plot, and yet it's propulsively paced and at times harrowing. It's not your traditional crowd-pleaser, but nods in that direction far enough to keep interest up. I hope it continues to do well. It will likely make my top 10 of the year, though perhaps towards the bottom of that list...
  • The Big Sick - Delightful romantic comedy based on the true story of Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (who wrote the script), and you can see that heart up there on the screen. It deals a lot with family and culture clash in a sophisticated way, but it never drags at all, and is generally able to leaven the drama with comedy. Another film that will likely make my top 10.
  • Baby Driver - Edgar Wright's latest is fantastic entertainment, a sort of hybrid musical that substitutes car chases for dance numbers. This works spectacularly for the first two thirds, but there's some serious third act problems with the story (lots of inexplicable decisions and character turns), even though the execution of what's there is still very enjoyable. Hitchcock's refrigerator comes to mind here - it works ok when your watching it, but does not hold up to scrutiny. Not a shoe-in for the top 10, but will definitely be a candidate and it will certainly garner a Kaedrin Movie Award or two. Still recommended!
Books:
  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland - I'm about two thirds of the way through this book, which features witches, a quantum mechanical explanation for magic, and lots of time travel. And bureaucracy. I'm pretty much loving it so far, but as a long-time Stephenson fanatic, I think you could probably have guessed that, right? Really curious to see how it will play out (seems like a solid candidate for a Hugo nomination for me). More thoughts forthcoming in a full review...
  • Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin - Non-fiction story of gravitational waves and the LIGO project - an arduous, fifty-year endeavor to measure gravitation waves from events like two black holes colliding... So far seems to be pretty excessively focused on the personalities involved and the hoops they had to jump through to get funded, etc... Interesting stuff, but not necessarily the most immersive story.
  • Killfile by Christopher Farnsworth - Trashy little thriller about a security consultant/spy who can read people's minds. This is from the guy who wrote about the President's Vampire, so we're not looking for anything groundbreaking or anything, but it's a fairly fun little story. I basically got this (and its sequel, which I didn't like as much, but was basically more of the same) so that I could get a new President's Vampire story (which I actually haven't read yet and at this point, will probably save for the Six Weeks of Halloween), but these were an enjoyable enough diversion, if a bit formulaic and disposable...
Gaming:
  • Friday the 13th: The Game - This is an online multiplayer game (not my usual thing) that is set in the Friday the 13th universe (emphatically my thing). The technical term for this type of game is "asymmetrical multiplayer" because while most of the players are camp counselors running for their life, one randomly selected player gets to be Jason, whose job is to hunt down and kill all the other players. It's a lot of fun, even though I suck and the game and am not really willing to put the time into it to get good at it (the last time I played as Jason, I only killed one counselor and spent a couple minutes chasing one person around a table). Worth checking out if this seems like your jam.
  • Dominion - This is a deck-building card game that I stumbled onto because some folks at work started playing at lunch. I don't always get to play there, but once I got into it, it's a really deep and fun game to play. There's an online version (linked above) that works well enough, though it could use some updates (it's relatively new though, and they're still making improvements). I still really enjoy the meatspace version, and it helps that my friends have basically all of the expansion packs (which add a lot of flavor).
The Finer Things:
  • As always, I'm drinking a lot of beer and as you probably know, I have a whole blog where I keep track of this sort of thing. Recent highlights have all been IPAs, actually, like Tree House Julius and Burley Oak 100
  • Since it always takes me, like, 2 years to get through a bottle of whisk(e)y, I was intrigued by the concept of an Infinity Bottle (aka Solera bottle), which is basically when you take a bunch of nearly finished bottles and blend them all together into one super-whiskey. I started a bourbon based bottle recently, mostly Four Roses based, but with some Stagg Jr. and Bookers. Biggest problem right now is that the proof is excessively high (approximately 122) at this point. I need to find some low proof stuff with some age on it (am I crazy, or is this a job for an orphan barrel bourbon?) Still, it's a fun little project and it should get more and more interesting over time (as more and more whiskeys join the blend).
Phew, that's all for now. I will be on vacation next week, so posting is dubious, though you never know!
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Link Dump

After months of Hugo recapping and Kung Fu, the links have been piling up, they have. Enjoy:
  • Carmageddon is Coming - Angus Hervey forecasts the convergence of mobile tech, electic cars, and self-driving software:
    Within a few years, electric vehicles are going to be cheaper, more durable and more reliable than petrol powered cars, autonomy will be good enough that you don’t need human drivers and everyone will be able to hail a car on their phone (or their voice-activated Alexa spectacles). The cost of taking a car trip will become cheaper than getting a coffee, which means it will be accessible to everyone. Overnight, we’ll see a mass defection to mobility as a service.

    This is the real kicker: we don’t have to wait for people to get rid of their old cars; one morning, they’ll sit down and do their monthly budget, and realise it makes more sense to hail an autonomous, electric vehicle. Given a choice, people will select the cheaper option.
    The predicted timelines are a bit aggressive, but I think this gets the general shape of things right, including all the non-obvious impacts (to things like healthcare, etc...) I'm at the point right now where I would normally be thinking about getting a new car, but if these things actually do progress this quickly, that might not be a wise choice...
  • Meet the Artist Using Ritual Magic to Trap Self-Driving Cars - On the other hand, these guys trapped a self-driving car using a salt-circle, just like the frigging Winchester brothers use to fight demons. (In all seriousness, this is the sort of thing people point to as a silly failure mode of self-driving cars... that will obviously be solved quickly and quietly, until such failure modes become vanishingly rare, which won't take too long...)
  • Pharma Bro claims he can’t get a fair trial because of Post’s coverage - The story is fine and all, but this is worth clicking through just for the courtroom sketch, which makes Martin Shkreli look like an orc. Well played, courtroom artist, well played.
  • How a Minor Character from ‘Taxi Driver’ Influenced One of the Most Iconic Scenes in ‘Pulp Fiction’ - Neat story about how the character Easy Andy (the guy who sells DeNiro guns in a hotel room) was played by an actor who basically inspired one of Tarantino's famous scenes from Pulp Fiction.
  • no feelings may be hurt - Generalizing lessons from disputes over sexuality:
    demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.
  • Remembering the Murder You Didn't Commit - Innocent people so thoroughly bamboozled that even after they've been exonerated by DNA evidence, they still feel guilt and can recall the crime they didn't commit. It's an incredible story.
  • “I Just Wanted To Survive” - Another crazy story, this time about a college football player who was abducted and tortured for 40 hours.
  • The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything - Worth keeping in mind:
    The vast majority of the world's books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It's just numbers.

    ... there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you're well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

    Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It's the sorting of what's worth your time and what's not worth your time.

    ... Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn't have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, "I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I'm supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn't get to."

    What I've observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you'd otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, "All genre fiction is trash."
    With apologies for chopping up my quote so much, this idea that people are obsessed with culling is definitely a thing that spreads across broad spectrums. No one wants to build towards expertise, they want to know what the best such-and-such thing is so that they can immediately become an expert. I see this pattern all over (to pick a non-obvious example, beer is filled with dorks who are obsessed with only drinking walez, bro). But you need to know the bad before you can realize what the good is really doing. For skills, you need to learn to fail and learn from your failures before you can really achieve something. There was a computer programmer who got fed up with the preponderance of "Learn to program in 24 hours" style books, so he wrote a book called "Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years". Back to books and movies, I recapped a fairly wide swatch of martial arts films last week, but I've only really scratched the surface. Many of these movies aren't "great" in a broad sense, but even some of the bad ones have important or interesting elements that I'm really glad I caught up with...
And I think that's enough for now. Stay tuned, but I, um, don't know what's coming up next. This is both nice and also somewhat troubling.
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