Six Weeks of Halloween 2020: Horror Anthologies

The weather grows colder, leaves are falling off trees, gourds are being mutilated and put on display along with all manner of decorative corpses, headstones with ironic puns, and ornamental cobwebs. And of course, the (pumpkin) spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers can mean only one thing: it’s Halloween season! Given the real-life horrors we’re dealing with in 2020, I couldn’t be more thankful. I much prefer the vicarious thrills of horror movies to actual pandemics and ever-encroaching partisan politics.

Here at Kaedrin, we celebrate the season with a virtual cornucopia of horror movies (and books), pretty much nonstop for the six weeks leading into Halloween. Why six weeks? Well, it used to be two weeks better than most people’s horror movie marathon (which was usually confined to October), but more and more people are jumping on the bandwagon these days. We’re trend setters, is what I’m saying.

It’s traditional to start the marathon with something a little more heady and respectable. Older movies, foreign movies, you know the drill. In the past, we’ve tackled Silent Horror (twice!), some Criterion Collection curated horror, and lots of Italian horror. This year we’re going to tackle horror anthologies.

It’s a topic we’ve covered before, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The biggest challenges for horror anthologies are that, by their very nature, they can feel inconsistent or disjointed. Anytime you have multiple stories crammed into one package, some are bound to be better than others. It can also be difficult to suss out a common theme, sometimes leading to weird tonal shifts. What we have this week are three anthologies, two from the UK and one from Japan. Not the stuffiest of week 1 material, but I assure you, we’ll get to trashier horror soon enough. All older than I am. Let’s dig in:

Week 1: Horror Anthologies

Dead of Night – While not the ur example of a horror anthology (you’ll have to go back to silent era classics like Waxworks and Uncanny Stories for that), this is nevertheless an influential trope codifer and popularizer of the form. An architect looking for work goes to a country house where he meets several strangers that are eerily familiar to him… because he has a recurring dream (nay… nightmare!) about them. Intrigued by the mysterious circumstances, each member of the group shares an unexplained story from their life as a way of assuaging the anxious architect.

Dead of Night - Ventriloquist and Dummy

Highlights include a segment about a haunted mirror that reflects room where a murder was committed and a story about a ventriloquist with a sinister dummy. Both are uncanny and influential, while still retaining a power unto themselves. For instance, you’ve almost certainly seen a take on the ventriloquist segment before, but this one doesn’t lose its punch because of that. Even the shortest segment, “The Hearse Driver”, could probably be traced all the way up to the Final Destination series. While there are some neat effects here (I particularly like the effects in the haunted mirror segment), this movie is much more about mood and atmosphere than effects or gore.

Unlike a lot of horror anthologies, the wraparound story about the architect actually concludes with a bang. Most wraparound stories are mere conceits that frame the various stories and don’t even try to reach a climax. But the ending makes Dead of Night more than the mere sum of its parts (which is, again, something that most anthologies don’t even try to do). Well worth a look, especially for fans of the format. ***

Asylum – In the sixties and seventies, Amicus Productions made a series of horror anthologies that were inspired by, you guessed it, Dead of Night. This one has an inspired, if a bit silly, wraparound story. A young psychiatrist is interviewing for the head position at an asylum. As a test, he must interview four patients and figure out which one of them… is actually the doctor he would be replacing!

Peter Cushing in Asylum

This movie has a great cast that elevates the material, which, unfortunately, does need elevating. That might be a bit of an overstatement. Written by Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame), each segment is reasonably well done and entertaining enough. They just don’t quite stand out amongst the throngs of anthology stories. I suppose there are a few memorable visuals. Body parts wrapped in butcher paper. Even the little boxy automatons one of the patients makes are interesting, if a bit goofy. (How does it scale the wall like that? Never you mind!) The cast sells even the most ludicrous bits though. Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Britt Ekland, and Charlotte Rampling stand out.

Like Dead of Night, the most intriguing segment might be the wraparound. It’s a reasonably well executed take on the form and well worth checking out for students of the genre, but other Amicus productions (notably Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror) are probably even better examples. **1/2

Kwaidan – Early Japanese take on horror anthologies, this one doesn’t even bother with a wraparound story. And yet… these four tales hang together pretty well. The archaic Japanese word “Kwaidan” translates as “Ghost Story”, and sure enough, this movie adapts several Japanese folk tales about ghosts. Clocking in at just over 3 hours long, it does move a bit slowly and at least one of the segments is perhaps unnecessary. On the other hand, it’s a stunningly beautiful film and one of the segments is an all-timer.

In “The Black Hair”, a poor, down on his luck Samurai leaves his wife to marry into money… with predictably tragic results. At first, this seems like a simple drama, but the supernatural elements show up later and get things going well. It’s definitely a story that will make you think of past choices (you know, the ones that haunt you). Definitely an influential segment, you can see bits of this in the J-Horror boom of the 90s.

The Woman in the Snow from Kwaidan

“The Woman in the Snow” is about a woodsman who gets caught in a blizzard. His life is spared by a ghost, but only if he never tells anyone about the incident. I think you can see where this is going, but the story manages an ironic twist (though one you will probably guess as it takes its time getting there). Probably the most beautifully photographed segment of the film, filled with snowy landscapes and an otherworldly sky. The whole film is obviously shot on a soundstage with painted backdrops, but the production design is so great, and the colors so striking that it’s hard to argue.

Hoichi performing for ghosts in Kwaidan

“Hoichi the Earless” is about a young, blind musician who is asked to perform for an audience of ghosts. This segment is basically a feature length movie of its own, and definitely the best of the bunch. Again we’re treated to striking visuals, this time mixed with a musical treatment of battles from the distant past. The segment carries more thematic heft than the others too. It forces us to confront what we owe to the past, and how much we should let that dictate our present.

“In a Cup of Tea” is the shortest segment of the anthology, and probably the least necessary. A man sees a reflection of a stranger in his cup of tea, only to become haunted by the reflection. It’s a fine segment and it shares the production design and visual prowess of its brethren, but coming as it does after the strongest segment, it pales in comparison.

All in all, this is impeccably crafted, almost poetic stuff. Each segment is gorgeous and visually stunning, and they all share a certain thematic similarity about the past’s influence on the present. However, it is rather long and slow moving. As mentioned above, you could really separate one out as a feature unto itself, and leave the others as the anthology. Still, even as it is now, it’s an artistic achievement, if not a mainstream one. ***

So there you have it, week 1 in the can. Stay tuned, for we’ve got some Horror on Computer Screens coming up later this week. Then comes the horrors of Week 2. If you’re still hungry for more, check out Zack’s Film Thoughts, as he’s doing six weeks of his own.

Link Dump

Yes, another Link Dump. Just a routine clearing of the baffles before the Six Weeks of Halloween starts in earnest next week:

Scrambled Eggs a la Kung Fu – This woman is creating insane, over-the-top blockbuster cooking videos with homebrew special effects and stop motion animation. Each one is absurdly fun to watch.

Scientists find that the moon is rusting and they don’t really know why – It doesn’t look like it’ll be turning red like Mars anytime soon, but scientists are still baffled as to how an airless, waterless moon could be rusting:

Although the Moon is airless, recent findings indicate the presence of hematite, a form of rust that only occurs with oxygen and water. This has scientists baffled.

The Moon is also constantly exposed to a steam of hydrogen from the solar wind. Hydrogen is a reducing agent that ‘donates’ its electrons to the materials it is exposed to.

Rusting occurs due to a loss of electrons, so if hypothetically oxygen and water were present on the moon, the hydrogen would cancel out the rusting process.

“It’s very puzzling,” says planetary scientist Shuai Li of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.” “The Moon is a terrible environment for hematite to form in.”

SHOCK it to me – Final Girl is back and returning to Shocktober roots by going interactive. Check it out and send her your top 20 horror films. She’s done this a few times in the past, and it’s always been a fun Halloweentime activity…

Joe Bob Interviews Wes Craven – This is foreshadowing one of the weekly themes we’ll be doing here at Kaedrin during the Six Weeks of Halloween. It’s worth watching in its own right, and they’re talking about Craven’s underrated The Serpent and the Rainbow.

UPGRADE Knife Fight Scene in LEGO – Stop motion hommage to a pretty great and also underrated movie.

Guy Replaces the Guts of a Pregnancy Test – Hijinks ensue.

Winamp Skin Museum – This brings back some memories.

Star Trek’s most prescient prediction was communication via memes in ‘Darmok’ – Leonardo Di Caprio, his glass raised.

I realize that some of these link to Twitter. I’m sorry, I’m trying to avoid it too. But these particular posts are still fun and you don’t have to browse the rest of the site. Be strong. Alright, so we’ve had a lot of Link Dump posts of late, but we’re entering Halloween season, so you’re about to be inundated with horror movies and other nominally ghastly signifiers of the season. Brace yourself.

Offbeat Streaming Picks – Documentary Edition

I recently posted some Offbeat Streaming Picks for folks running out of things to stream and while that post did have one documentary, I figured there’s room for more. Like last time, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about high-profile stuff like The Last Dance or Tiger King, but there’s lots of stuff floating around the streaming services if you know how to Medusa Touch the Algorithm. So here’s a few documentary picks I’ve streamed recently:

Tread (Netflix) – In 2004, a small town welder fortified a bulldozer and used it to destroy his perceived enemies in the town. Directed by Paul Solet, who’s known more for offbeat horror fare like Grace, this film uses reenactments as well as real footage and audio from a series of tapes left behind by the welder. The tapes reveal a deeply dysfunctional relationship with the town driven by paranoia and rage at perceived wrongs perpetrated by certain families and political structures. That he jumps from there to what he ended up doing is bizarre, but the documentary covers his life and motivations well.

Tread

His grievances with the town seem petty at first, but the righteous anger he feels comes through well enough, and it’s a bit sobering to watch in light of what’s happening in the world right now. It’s hard to describe what he did without sounding impressed (he basically created an unstoppable tank), but that’s not the right tone for this, as he could have easily killed a lot of people. It’s a compelling story and the documentary does a great job covering it.

Class Action Park (HBO) – Action Park was a kinda/sorta urban legend for some of us on the east coast. An amusement park with no real rules where multiple people have died in not-so-freak accidents? I always heard about this place growing up, but it was in North Jersey, so it was never really on the agenda to go there. But for the folks that lived near there, the draw was apparently quite strong. This documentary covers the eccentric owner of the park, his strange strategy for designing the rides (i.e. don’t hire professionals), and eventually the consequences of his shortsighted project. The documentary starts out all fun and games, but it takes some sharp turns in the latter half. Your mileage may vary; this could seem like a movie that’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting movie, mostly because of that last half hour. The first half of the movie may undermine the second half a bit and some of the more thought provoking themes are perhaps a stretch, but again, it’s at least an interesting attempt that’s worth checking out.

The Speed Cubers (Netflix) – Radically nice documentary about two rival “Speed Cubers”, people who solve Rubik’s cubes as fast as possible. If Tread is a movie of the times, The Speed Cubers represents a good antidote. Good kids who become friends whilst competing in an unconventional arena. I’m not a parent, but a good portion of the movie involves parenting a child with autism. It is a touching sub-plot, even to this non-parent. It’s only 45 minutes (or so) long, but it packs an emotional punch and is definitely worth watching if the news has got you down.

Spaceship Earth (Hulu) – Back in 1991, a bunch of hippies built a replica of Earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. The concept was that this scientific experiment would help us learn about Earth and provide an idea of what would be needed to attempt colonization of other planets. The only problem was that they weren’t really scientists, they didn’t really know what they were doing, and the whole enterprise was basically doomed to failure. That said, their vision was a compelling one, though I’m still not quite sure how they managed to raise $150 million to build such an ill-conceived experiment. I’m being a bit hard on them, but the documentary takes a neutral stance, allowing all involved to tell their story unfettered. It’s actually quite well done.

Operation Odessa (Netflix) – In the early 90s, bolstered by the fall of the Soviet Union, a Russian mobster, a Miami playboy, and a Cuban spy conspire to sell a nuclear submarine to a drug cartel. The story is told in a pretty standard format, but the personalities involved are so colorful and unashamed that it becomes a compelling watch. It’s not tackling important issues and the narrative jumps around a bit, but it does cover the core team’s tales of coke-fueled excess in an entertaining way. It’s perhaps slight when compared to the above, but worth a gander if you’re in the mood for low stakes zaniness.

So there you go, lots of offbeat streaming picks of the documentary kind for the taking. Only two more weeks until The Six Weeks of Halloween starts in earnest. Prepare yourself!

Link Dump

Another link dump of culled from the depths of ye olde internets.

Sharpest egg kitchen knife in the world – Riveting video that feels a bit like the kinder, gentler, more productive version of HowToBasic. Stick with it to the end. It’s going somewhere you probably don’t expect. If del.icio.us was still a thing, this would get filed under #idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingoninthisvideo.

An Oral History of ‘Steamed Hams,’ the Funniest ‘Simpsons’ Scene Ever Recorded – Sure, they start with the actual writers from the show, but it quickly evolves into interviews with memesters, isometric exercise trainers, food truck owners, chefs, and Aurora Borealis experts.

Stream Resolutions Are Quality Maximums, Not Minimums – A good point about streaming claims, particularly around HD and 4K.

Stream resolution puts a maximum quality on a stream. For a given codec setting, the more bits you allocate to a stream, the better it will look, until eventually it gets to the point where there’s no more quality to be had. A 720P stream will reach this point sooner than a 1080P stream, which will in turn reach it much sooner than a 4K stream.

However, prior to that point, what really matters more is the bandwidth of a stream. A “720P stream” pushing a megabyte/second will be higher in quality than a “4K stream” pushing 800kilobytes/second. It’s completely possible to have a higher quality “lower resolution” stream.

Motion Smoothing Is an Abomination – A solid overview of the problem that gets into some very detailed specifics as to why motion smoothing systems on televisions are so bad. It’s still amazing to me that these are the default settings TV manufacturers use.

EXCLUSIVE: Meghan and Harry’s new home sits behind a spooky estate once owned by the schizophrenic son of the inventor of the mechanical reaper who developed a foot fetish, carrying his slippers in his arms as if they were live pets – Ok, fine, I’ll read your stupid article.

2020: an isolation odyssey – Some people are using their lockdown to do… things like this. Could be a whole lot worse, I guess. Um, spoilers for 2001: A Space Odyssey? I think? Kinda?

That’s all for now. We may have another link dump coming soon, but then smooth sailing. Did you know that the Six Weeks of Halloween are only a few short weeks away? Most exciting!

SF Book Review – Part 34: MilSF Edition

I’ve been reading a lot of MilSF (that’s “Military Science Fiction” for you normals) lately. I’m far from an expert in the sub-genre, but I enjoy dipping into it from time to time. It just so happens that I’ve been dunked further than normal in the past few months, so here goes:

On Basilisk Station by David Weber – The first in the long running series featuring Honor Harrington, an officer of the Royal Manticorian Navy and ice queen extraordinaire. Having pissed off a superior officer, she gets posted to a backwoods star system. Low on resources but high on tactical awareness, Harrington must deal with drug-addled alien aboriginals, smugglers, corruption and oh yeah, this out-of-the-way locale is about to become a flashpoint for interstellar war.

There’s nothing especially surprising about the story, but it’s competent and entertaining. Weber isn’t exactly a prose stylist, but he knows his physics and military tactics. While there are occasional info-dumps (par for the SF course), he’s able to employ all this well enough. You’ve seen the setup before, but it’s always fun to see someone beat the odds and succeed when they’re being (unfairly) set up to fail. Truth be told, I’m more likely to go back and read more Horatio Hornblower (to which the Honorverse and seemingly a dozen other SF franchises are deeply indebted) than I am to explore more of this series, but I’m not, like opposed to it either.

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley – In this Hugo finalist, Dietz joins the war against Mars as a member of the infantry. Since traveling to another planet to wage war is time-consuming and costly, scientists have figured out a way to convert soldiers to electromagnetic energy so they can be transmitted to the battlefield at the speed of light. But something goes wrong with Dietz, and she’s experiencing her combat drops out of order. Can she retain her sanity and figure out what’s really going on with the war?

With this novel, Hurley is clearly attempting to enter the conversation that started with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and continued in Haldeman’s The Forever War (amongst other classics of MilSF over the intervening decades), but I don’t find it entirely successful on that front. Granted, I’ve never been a big fan of Starship Troopers, but for all its faults, it did pretty much single-handedly invent the sub-genre. Unfortunately, what Hurley seems to have glommed onto are the lectures (from a structure standpoint; clearly not a content standpoint). This is pretty much everyone’s least favorite part of Starship Troopers. Basically, Hurley takes Starship Troopers, scribbles “Capitalism Bad!” over the lecture sequences, and then biffs the military stuff, because who cares about that?

Look, I’ve never served in the military and am far from an expert, but I found myself nitpicking almost everything having to do with the military in this book. There are so many things that are just outright wrong here (basic stuff like what marksmanship is or how ranks work) that it’s hard to believe that Hurley cares one whit about the subject, except insofar as she can use it to denounce capitalism. Blatantly, in long, lecturing speeches.

It’s implied that the Martians have become so technologically advanced because they’re communists, but we never really see them. If you’re going to insist that communism will finally be made workable in the future world you’ve built, you should probably give some indication of how that happened, seeing as though it doesn’t have a particularly great track record here in the present and recent past. For example, Ian M. Banks’ Marxist paradise, The Culture, at least has some justification in the form of hyper-advanced AI Minds (I’m not entirely sure I buy it, but hey, at least he’s trying!)

Look, I’m not saying the complaints about capitalism are necessarily wrong, and the book does capture timely political ideas in a compelling way. The notion of putting conditions on citizenship (a clear lift from Heinlein, but still quite relevant) or the corporatization of government or the way media and propaganda can be leveraged by the malicious are all subjects worth exploring, especially in this day and age. It’s good that the book tackles these subjects! But it would be nice if there was some sort of path out of the hell Hurley creates other than just whining about it all. I’m not asking for much here. Even some form of handwavey magic would do the trick, but this book can’t even be bothered to go that far. At best, this makes the book’s ideas a “preaching to the choir” situation.

Alright, I’m being hard on this novel and I think it’s clear that I didn’t love it, but I do actually think it does some things well. As bad as a lot of the military mistakes are, Hurley does nail the interpersonal interactions of military service. Again, not an expert, but the relationships between the characters feel realistic and authentic. Likewise, while the transportation method of “light” is basically nonsense, the non-linear narrative that emerges is actually quite well done (a good example of handwavey magic getting the job done). I’m a sucker for time travel stories and this puts a nice spin on well worn ideas. It’s not quite the mindfuck that some seem to believe and the “twists” that happen aren’t very surprising, but it lends some weight to the proceedings. I don’t know, if you’re part of the choir that Hurley is preaching to, this probably works like gangbusters. Alas, I’m not singing in that choir.

The Lost Fleet Series, by Jack Campbell – I actually read the first book of this series, Dauntless, around two years ago. In that short review, I mentioned that I would probably pick up the second book at some point, and I finally got around to it. Then I got hooked, and read the remaining four books. To recap:

Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is a legendary war hero presumed lost in the early days of a war between the Alliance and the Syndics. The war isn’t going particularly well for the Alliance when they miraculously discover Geary, who survived in hibernation. Geary is shocked to learn that he’s revered as a hero, but resolves to do his duty, whip his fleet into shape, and dodge the onslaught of Syndics coming his way.

The first five books or so of the series basically consist of a “Long Retreat” through Syndic space, with the last book being a sorta return offensive (being a little vague here, so as to not spoil anything). At the macro level, this can get a bit repetitive, but if you go in for this sort of thing, it’s well executed and entertaining. Each novel basically consists of a few large engagements with the enemy coupled with some interpersonal relationships and fleet politics.

The military engagements lean more towards the thrilling and entertaining side than, say, the aforementioned On Basilisk Station, but author Jack Campbell does a good job establishing the parameters of how the military operates in space, and then abiding by them. Campbell is basically taking naval warfare and adapting it to space with minimal concessions to physics. He does take full advantage of the three dimensional space and acknowledges the difficulties of fighting whilst moving at relativistic speeds, but I’m sure there are plenty of nits to be picked with the way Campbell portrays combat in these novels.

That being said, Campbell manages to make each battle interesting by switching up tactics or devising new wrinkles within the system he’s set up. Sometimes combat is shaped by devious Syndic tactics, other times it’s driven by the need to feed the fleet’s auxiliary ships (which refine fuel and manufacture parts and munitions), and then some battles are avoided entirely. At one point, there’s even a ground action with orbital support. Your mileage may vary, but the need for each fight is well established, the goals are often different from one engagement to another, and the progress of each battle is well portrayed and entertaining. At the macro level, this might seem repetitive, but there’s a lot of variety in the specifics of each engagement.

I’m not entirely sure how this war could possibly last for over a century, especially given the way people and equipment are so frequently destroyed, but the series is action packed and well executed enough that this becomes a minor complaint. Campbell gets enough stuff right that I didn’t find myself nitpicking or dwelling on things I didn’t love.

The interpersonal relationships are perhaps a little less successful. Here, the repetition does become a bit stilted. In particular, a sorta love triangle develops between three main characters that works well enough to start, but eventually just keeps spinning its wheels. It’s not strictly bad, it’s just not as well varied as the military side of things.

Similarly, the fleet politics bits are quite pronounced at first, and represent a true and interesting threat to Geary’s command. Geary’s whole strategy revolves around a return to more traditional tactics and practices, which a lot of officers in the fleet disagree with, at least initially. Even as he gradually wins over most of the fleet, there are those that are scheming behind his back, and just when this fleet politics stuff starts to get a little too redundant, Campbell turns the tables in an interesting way in the later books.

Along the way, we’re treated to some other SF staples. Naturally, there’s an alien presence that’s been manipulating the war for a century or so, but they can only really be inferred from the evidence on hand. As the series progresses, that inference becomes a little more solid.

There are a few interesting bits about how Geary’s style is so different that it actually impacts the way the military software works. Rudimentary AI has been trained over a century on tactics that Geary is now trying to upend. This has unintentional consequences that are well played by Campbell.

One of the funny things about reading this series in proximity to The Light Brigade is that Campbell actually touches on many of the same themes. The Syndics are a hyper-capitalist society. They don’t have presidents or admirals or generals, they have CEOs. And they are clearly the villains. But Campbell doesn’t lecture, he just shows the logical, rational end point of some more extreme business-like behavior. I won’t claim that these are “important” novels, but I found it ironic that this series made me think about the same ideas while also being entertaining and well constructed.

I don’t think that Campbell is breaking any new ground here, but it’s very well executed and competent stuff. Well worth checking out if you’re in the mood for some MilSF.

Link Dump

It’s been a while since our last twirl through the depths of ye olde internets, so let’s get movin with some interesting links:

The Serendipity Engine – Dude quits his job to go on a “serendipity break”:

The concept of taking a serendipity break is based on my belief that luck doesn’t exist and that new, unexpected opportunities can be the result of feeding the Serendipity Engine. …

The Serendipity Engine works just like an internal combustion engine and, like with a high performance muscle car, you need to feed it with the right kind of propellant. In this analogy, the fuel is made of different activities, skills, and conversations. In my case I select them so that they are deliberately out of or tangential to my current professional domain. The engine also requires maintenance and fine tuning via iterations and changes to the activities or skills I become involved with.

I’ve been thinking about serendipity lately because social media used to be a good way to traverse obscure depths of the internet, but has lately become moribund medium. I will grant that maybe I’m no longer following the right people, but that’s also become more difficult. Speaking of this subject:

A Q&A with Rob Walker, Author of The Art of Noticing – This guy has written a book about observation skills and includes lots of exercises. This interview features a couple of good ones:

KPG: If you were going to a new city or destination, which exercises would you recommend trying as a way to better explore a new place?

RW: One would be Get There The Hard way. At least once during your trip, go to some destination without taking directions from your phone. Plan out a route in advance—you can consult a paper map if you want, or written directions, just don’t rely on your phone—and if you get confused, ask someone for help. Be engaged with the space you’re in and the people you’re around, find your way, and be open to discovery as you go.

The other is Eat Somewhere Dubious. Have one meal at a restaurant that you didn’t find on Yelp or through any sort of recommendation and that doesn’t even look trendy or hip. First you’ll have fun keeping an eye out for it: “Is THAT our dubious restaurant?” Second, even if you have a mediocre meal, you’ll have an unpredictable experience! And this, by the way, is how the best food writers make discoveries and find the places that later get hot on Yelp. So maybe you’ll get lucky.

I did a hike recently where the trail wasn’t especially well marked and my phone wasn’t much help. This just underscores how dependent we’ve become on our phones for stuff like directions. The “Eat Somewhere Dubious” idea actually sounds like a lot of fun, and I will have to try it out. I’ve definitely done something like “Drink Dubious Beer” before (i.e. Vermont Beer Roulette or Belgian Beer Roulette), and it’s always been fun, even if I didn’t much care for the beer.

The ’70s Independents Who Took on the Mafia – Overview of 70s gangster/cop flicks from Mike Malloy, who clearly knows his stuff. Naturally, this vid lead me down a rabbit whole of other Malloy videos, notably this one:

I Don’t Need to Ever Read Another F*cking Word About Sergio Leone – Malloy takes on the glut of books about Sergio Leone (and Sam Peckinpah). Unlike a lot of people complaining about this sort of thing, he puts forth examples of other “tough guy” directors who could use some scholarly treatment…

A Theory of Hot Sauces, with Recommendations – I enjoy hot sauces just fine, but I’m always fascinated by posts like this where someone just talks about their favorites. This guy has been using his pandemic lockdown to explore hot sauce:

OK, so one thing I’ve been doing during pandemic era is trying out hot sauces. Like a lot of hot sauces. Like a really unbearably large number of hot sauces. Like setting up hot sauce tastings where lunch is me making sad fish tacos out of my toddler’s abandoned day-old fish sticks but there are 15 different hot sauces to try with it. Like, when I got the new dream job, I was like, “I need to celebrate!” and… immediately went to an online hot sauce store and bought ten new hot sauces. This is apparently how I pandemic when I’m cut off from exploring restaurants and stuff.

As usual when it comes to hot sauces, the grand majority he lists are things I’ve never heard of (again, not an expert here, but still). Incidentally, I’ve been enjoying Hank Sauce; recommended if you’re in the market for reasonable hot sauces (i.e. tasty but not going to burn your face off).

And that’s all for now. Despite the serendipity explorations above, finding links for posts like this is harder than it used to be… We’ll have to work on improving that.

Offbeat Streaming Picks

If you’re running out of things to watch on streaming services, I’ve got some offbeat picks for you. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about stuff like Palm Springs or The Old Guard, but there’s lots of good, recent stuff out there if you know how to Medusa Touch the Algorithm. Here’s a few movies I’ve discovered recently that might not be mainstream crowdpleasers, but are interesting in their own right:

  • Arkansas (Amazon Prime) – Slow-burn country noir about drug dealers in Arkansas. They work for a guy named Frog, whom they’ve never met. When a deal goes horribly wrong, they need to figure out how to escape. It’s structured in an odd way and moves a bit slow at times, but the performances are great.

    Arkansas

    Written and directed by the unlikely Clark Duke with an exceptional cast, including Vince Vaughn, John Malkovich, Vivica A. Fox, and Michael Kenneth Williams, it’s got a Tarantino-esque vibe, though that comparison may be unfair. Still, an unconventional narrative structure and some smart procedural stuff make this worth checking out.
  • I See You (Amazon Prime) – What seems like a rote serial killer tale mixed with dysfunctional family drama takes a hard turn about halfway through. Worth sticking with it to see how it goes. I won’t spoil anything here, but it’s an interesting flick.
  • Furie (Netflix) – Slick Vietnamese actioner starring Van Veronica Ngo as a mother whose child has been kidnapped by a trafficking ring. Ngo is an actress on the rise. She’s been showing up in bit parts in Hollywood fare (like The Last Jedi or Da 5 Bloods) and I suspect she’ll be breaking out in the near future. Furie is a good vehicle for her talents, both as an actor and an action star. It’s not a complicated story, but it’s very entertaining.
  • Cosmos (Hulu) – Ultra-low budget drama about three astronomers who accidentally stumble on a weird transmission from space. It takes its time to get going, but it’s reasonably well done. Decent atmosphere and some interesting ideas, it plays out like a less exciting version of Contact. That might be underselling it, but I don’t want to mislead anyone. This isn’t action packed and you’ll probably be ahead of the characters on the mysterious happenings, but it I enjoyed it.
  • The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime) – Micro-budget Twilight Zone riff about Space-Race-era teens discovering a weird radio signal in their small town. Director Andrew Patterson infuses the simple story with tons of energy and visual style.

    The Vast of Night

    This ranges from long-takes freewheeling camera movements to blacking out the screen to emphasize the audio. It might feel a bit overbaked for some, but I really enjoyed the movie.
  • The History of the Seattle Mariners (YouTube) – This six-part documentary on MLB’s most embattled franchise is pretty well done for a film centered on a big graph of wins/losses. If you finished The Last Dance and want another overlong documentary about a sport you don’t need to care about to enjoy the movie, this is for you. Fair warning: it’s basically the opposite experience. Low budget, no access, and covering a terrible team. But they’re a lovable team! As the narrator intones, “The Seattle Mariners are not competitors. They’re protagonists.” Look, if you get to the Jello Toilet incident and you’re not laughing hysterically, maybe this list of movies isn’t for you.

There you have it! Many hours of interesting, off-the-beaten-path movies released within the last couple of years. None are perfect or mainstream, but they’re worth checking out. Do you have any other offbeat streaming picks?

Hugo Awards 2020: The Results

The Results of the 2020 Hugo Awards were announced a couple of days ago, so it’s time for the requisite joyful celebrations and/or bitter recriminations. I read most of the novel nominees this year, but I didn’t finish. I never dipped my toes into the shorter fiction categories either, so I ultimately ended up not participating. This tracks with my generally waning enthusiasm for the awards over the past several years, but hope springs eternal. Maybe I’ll find next year more worthy of engagement. In the meantime, congratulations are due to all the winners, even the ones I don’t like. For those who want to geek out and see instant-runoff voting in action, the detailed voting and nomination stats are also available (.pdf).

Best Novel

The Best Novel Award went to A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, which was a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed that novel. Indeed, this is the first time in several years that I actually liked the winner of this category. It has its flaws, but so did all the other nominees I’ve read (5 out of 6), and all things considered, I think it’s great that the award went to the debut author. Apparently the race for first place was very tight, with Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame coming in a close second place. They were clearly my favorite two nominees, so it’s nice to see. The Ten Thousand Doors of January came in last place, and that also fits with my ranking…

Short Fiction

The only short fiction I had actually read that got nominated were a couple of stories from Ted Chiang’s collection, Exhalation. They were good, as per usual from Chiang, but I never got around to reading the others. In scanning the winners, the one I would be most interested in is This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. After years of being soundly disappointed by the Short Story category, I finally gave up this year.

Best Series

The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) wins Best Series. I read the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, a while back and came away unimpressed. However, I’ve also received recommendations from folks I trust, so maybe I’ll check it out again at some point. Perhaps it gets better as it goes.

That said, this award continues to baffle. Only one book from this series (the first) has actually garnered a Hugo nomination for Best Novel, so it’s better than the last few winners in that respect. But it’s still a logistically difficult category to judge. The Hugo Awards are always a popularity contest, but I suspect that’s so even more here than with the other categories. Plus, I have serious doubts that voters have actually read enough of each series to make a truly informed decision. Maybe I’m wrong about that! But the sheer quantity of work contained in just one ballot seems infeasible.

In addition, books from series keep getting nominated for Best Novel, so the Best Series category hasn’t curtailed that much either. Series are tricksy beasts. Clearly they sell, hence their proliferation. But when it comes to awards, they present a problem, because you’re often not judging a single work. I’ve never really participated in this award, mostly because of the aforementioned logistical problems.

Best Dramatic Presentations

The Good Place wins Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form for the third year in a row with: “The Answer”. A fine episode, to be sure, and I did quite enjoy the series, but it did sorta peter out. Personally, I would have much rather seen the award go to a new show/episode, like The Mandalorian: “Redemption” or Watchmen: “A God Walks into Abar”, but the voting wasn’t even close.

Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form went to another TV show, Good Omens. I never watched it because I read the book and had mixed thoughts. On the other hand, of the nominees, it’s certainly a defensible choice. This category has always been a weirdly mainstream, blockbuster dominated affair. I probably would have voted for Us, but I’m in the clear minority there. It did not do well in the voting. Weirdly, I’ve been finding a bunch of smaller, low-budget 2019 movies that would have been deserving of recognition. But I’ll save those for a later post. In the meantime, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and more interesting than the offerings from Marvel or Star Wars.)

Retro Hugos

There’s apparently quite a row brewing about the Retro Hugo Awards, presumably because the Cthulhu Mythos won Best Series. No matter how much you may dislike Lovecraft, it’s difficult to point to a more influential nominee. Indeed, the award is for the Mythos and explicitly includes other authors, which in theory include books like The Ballad of Black Tom. All of which is to say that I’m doubting that the (relatively few) people voting in the Retro Hugos are motivated by rewarding Lovecraft’s bigotry, but rather the enduring qualities of his work (which, to me at least, are not the racism). I don’t know, maybe I’m being naively optimistic here. I certainly can’t fault anyone for being turned off by Lovecraft’s racism. It’s telling, though, that all of the complaints about the Retro Hugos never refer to alternatives and also seek to minimize the other winners.

Take the perennially dismissed Leigh Brackett. She’s experienced something of a resurgence in recent years, but even then, her contributions to the genre are consistently downplayed or erased. The last few Retro Hugos have provided some spotlight on this underrated author, and I’m happy about that. I don’t understand why so many are so willing to dismiss or ignore her work.

I saw one comment that said the Retro Hugos were rewarding people that we’re trying to relegate to the dustbin of history. Well, the Retro Hugos are quite literally “the dustbin of history”. There were only 120 nominating ballots for the 1945 Retro Hugos, which is an order of magnitude lower than the 2020 Hugo Awards (approximately 1500 nominating ballots). What’s more, I find it hard to believe that the grand majority (if not all) of those 120 people weren’t also participating in the 2020 nomination process. My guess is that these people aren’t obsessed with the past to the exclusion of the present and future. Ultimately, I find value in exploring the history of Science Fiction, warts and all. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t read or like new science fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to track down a copy of Killdozer!

20 Years of Kaedrin Weblog

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years (two decades!) since I started Kaedrin Weblog. I’ve already covered the history behind the site often enough, so I won’t bore you with repetition. I’ll bore you with something new and hopefully even more boring.

The first few years of the blog were filled with design changes, upgrades and the like, and I suppose I “found my voice” at some point, whatever that means. I eventually settled into a pretty comfortable 1-2 posts a week cadence and subject matter has shaken out a lot of random stuff. I’m mostly posting about books and movies these days, with the occasional foray into other topics.

Blogs themselves have gone through the whole lifecycle of technology, from a new and trendy form of self-expression and empowerment for the normals, to something that became almost universal and monetized and co-opted by professionals, to a steady decline. Looking back, I suspect the death of Google Reader was the biggest nail in the coffin. People don’t talk about it often these days, but Google’s ill-advised adventure in Social Media really hastened the demise of blogs and associated technologies like RSS. Not that blogs weren’t already in decline by then, but this was a big blow, and I think the internet landscape is worse off because of it.

Of course, blogs aren’t entirely dead, but this has never been a particularly popular blog. I like knowing some folks read it, but I like getting the practice in writing and it allows me to explore various things in a somewhat organized fashion. At this point, I’ve been writing this blog for almost half of my life (we’ll cross that threshold next year), so it’s become almost automatic.

One thing I noticed when transferring the blog to WordPress is that I have this Best Entries category that I haven’t added anything to in about a decade. I figure it’s time to recognize some of my favorite entries in that timeframe, so here’s a few entries worth checking out:

And that only brings me to the beginning of 2013. These trips down memory lane are fun, but it’s probably time to move onwards and upwards. Here’s to another 20 years of Kaedrin Weblog!

The 1978 Project: Part VI

The 1978 Project is a deep dive into the movies of a single year (guess which one!) As of right now, I’ve seen 66 movies made in 1978 (and am now caught up in reviewing each one). I keep discovering new pockets of films I want to watch, so there’s still a solid 10-20 left to go, but here’s the last 7 I’ve watched:

  • Convoy – A group of truckers led by the inimitable Rubber Ducky (all the truckers have goofy names like Love Machine, Widow Woman, and Big Nasty) run afoul of an abusive sheriff and form a mile long “convoy” in order to escape the forces aligned against them. Director Sam Peckinpah, in need of a success, basically took on this Smokey & the Bandit ripoff mostly because he didn’t really have any other options left at that point in his career. It falls pretty squarely into the trucker and C.B. radio craze of the 70s and while Peckinpah was able to add some of his own flavor to the proceedings, it’s ultimately just as cheesy and goofy as the other trucker-sploitation flicks that this imitates. You could certainly map traditional Western genre tropes to these trucker movies, which might have been the draw for Peckinpah. The truckers are the noble outlaws, the Sheriffs are corrupt lawmen, trucks are horses, and so on. I suspect Peckinpah’s big contribution was to incorporate the subplot about a politician who attempts to co-opt the convoy’s popularity for his own purposes, which does add a dark note to an otherwise silly story. Peckinpah’s visual preferences are also well represented here, particularly the cramped, sweaty environs of the truck cabins and general gritty tone. This film has its moments and it’s a diverting enough affair, but it’s nothing particularly special unless you’re a huge fan of trucker/C.B. cinema or a Peckinpah completest (which, to be fair, are both worthy pursuits, though not necessarily mine). **1/2
  • Slave of the Cannibal God (aka Mountain of the Cannibal God) – Sergio Martino‘s take on the jungle cannibal jamboree, it’s the standard tale. A woman charters a trip into the nefarious jungle to find her missing husband. Naturally, the jungle is filled with cannibals and it’s not long before star Ursula Andress (most famous for being the first Bond girl, but she has a long list of grindhouse credits) is strapped up on the chopping block. Look, it’s not delicate, subtle cinema, but it’s pretty entertaining.

    Slave of the Cannibal God

    Andress is always fun and it’s nice to see larval Stacy Keach (bordering on unrecognizable) as the experienced woodsman. I’m not an expert on the sub-genre, but this seems like a decent take on the Italian cannibal flick that is perhaps understandably overshadowed by the more controversial entries like Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s got some twists towards the end that sorta recall the nonsensical turns in Giallo flicks and I kinda like that. Apparently this was the highest budgeted Italian Cannibal movie and the only one to have internationally recognizable stars. It’s also one of the few that wasn’t outright banned in most countries, and thus is more accessible these days (Is it thus missing a badge of honor? Eh, probably not…) It’s still gorey as all get out, and while I’m sure we could come up with some sort of grand pretension about these types of films, it’s mostly about the gore and prurient interests, and Martino’s visual prowess pulls it off in fine style. **1/2
  • Heaven Can Wait – Not to be confused with Heaven Can Wait, the 1943 comedy of errors about a man who dies and tries to convince the devil that he belongs in hell (I really enjoyed that Ernst Lubitsch movie, watched as part of the 50 Under 50 project). This 1978 movie also deals with the afterlife, but is otherwise completely different. An overanxious angel accidentally sends a quarterback to heaven, only to realize that the quarterback wasn’t supposed to die yet. To make up for his mistake, the angel finds another body for the quarterback to inhabit, that of a recently murdered millionaire.

    Heaven Can Wait

    The millionaire’s wife and accountant, who were the attempted murderers, are naturally confused by this development. The become even more so when the millionaire decides to buy the LA Rams and become their quarterback, just in time for the Super Bowl. It’s certainly got some silly screwball tendencies, but there’s a more sophisticated core at work here, a balancing act that I’d attribute to writer Elaine May, even though Warren Beatty made this movie happen. It’s got some nice comedic touches, and I love the way Beatty interacts with his would-be murderers in ways that confound them, but it eventually settles into a more dramatic story that I found genuinely involving and pleasantly surprising. I didn’t realize this was nominated for an Oscar, a rare comedy to be recognized in that way, and it makes for a fun change of pace to the more somber, dramatic nominees in 1978 (which we’ll cover in more depth soon enough). ***
  • Koko: A Talking Gorilla – A documentary about Dr. Penny Patterson and her work with Koko, a gorilla who has been taught sign-language. It consists of standard talking-head interviews where people discuss the complexities of Koko’s use of language, and actual footage of Patterson interacting and speaking with Koko. There’s lots of interesting ideas about language and consciousness that are thought provoking. The interactions captured on film are great, if repetitive (especially in the middle of the film), but it’s hard not to fall in love with Koko and it’s nice to see the way Koko and Patterson develop a relationship. It’s not formally inventive or anything, but it’s great subject matter and well worth checking out. ***
  • Foul Play – Goldie Hawn gets caught up in a criminal scheme involving albinos, dwarves, and a plot to assassinate the Pope. Along the way, she has the help of Chevy Chase as the bumbling but competent detective, Burgess Meredith as the lovable landlord, and Dudley Moore as a… pervert. As a romantic-comedy-action-thriller-mystery, it’s completely serviceable, even if it doesn’t manage to do any of those genres justice. Apparently a big success at the time, having Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase as leads helps a lot. Not a lot of chemistry there, to be sure, but they’re pretty charismatic on their own, I guess. Everything’s just a hair off here. The convoluted assassination plot involving dwarves and albinos and the Pope has the potential to reach madcap proportions, but it never quite pulls together for what should be a cascading series of revelations and confrontations. Instead, it just sorta limps to the finish line. The comedy never quite gels either, and the action/thriller components are sorta undercut by the other elements (the car chase towards the end of the film, for instance, is a total drag and it goes on forever). It sounds like a blast, so I did find it a little disappointing, but it’s ultimately just fine. **1/2
  • Someone’s Watching Me! – John Carpenter’s made-for-TV movie about a woman being stalked by a stalking stalker. Carpenter would go on to direct Halloween not long after this, and you can see his craft evolving here. It’s got more of a Hitchcockian feel to it than Carpenter’s other work, and the reliance on the telephone as an element of suspense recall Mario Bava and Bob Clark. Lauren Hutton does good work as the lead, and Carpenter puts her through the paces well enough. It’s clearly a limited production, but as 70s TV movies go, it’s a pretty solid line drive. Ultimately, it’s probably more for Carpenter completists than anyone else, but there are worse things to be (this is kind of a theme in this recap). **1/2
  • Coming Home – A woman whose husband is fighting in Vietnam begins work in a VA hospital and falls in love with a paralyzed veteran. Jane Fonda plays the woman at the center of the love triangle and she’s a fine actress, I guess, but her infamously outspoken anti-Vietnam activism always kept me at arms length from this movie. There’s a lot to respect about it, a distinctly more feminine perspective on the vietnam war (it contrasts nicely with 1978’s other Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter), but I also tend to prefer later takes on the war (Coppola’s Apocalypse Now wasn’t far off, but Stone and Kubrick’s efforts had the benefit of perspective, I think). No one element felt overbaked (even the love triangle, which isn’t nearly as cliched as you might expect) and the performances are all excellent, but it never really gelled together for me when you collect all these elements together. It’s worth stressing the performances. Fonda does good work, but Jon Voight really stands out as the paraplegic vet (his closing monologue is a highlight of the film) and while Bruce Dern doesn’t get as much time as the husband, he really turns up the juice when he comes back from the war with a nervous, wiry energy that I don’t think could be duplicated by anyone else. Unfortunately, big performance showpieces like this often don’t work as much for me. I have similar issues with the aforementioned Deer Hunter, which also has great performances but is otherwise pretty plodding, with the exception of one masterful scene. It probably deserves a better place in the Vietnam war movie canon, but it didn’t particularly work on me. I’m glad I watched it though, and I’m clearly in the minority on this one. **

This brings me up to date on my progress so far. Things have slowed a bit as the most accessible movies have been watched at this point, and now I’m trying to scrape up copies of out-of-print movies or I’m starting to tackle some things I want to watch, but which seem to have difficult subject matter, etc… Again, I still have a solid 10-20 more 1978 movies I want to catch up with before doing the traditional awards/top 10 &c.