Summer of Film, Part One (12 mini reviews)

I don’t watch much television, but between Netflix and having three theaters in town, I do see a lot of movies. I made an effort to get out and catch more indies and documentaries this summer, since that’s what I love most, but also branched out into mainstream titles based on YA novels (like How I Live Now, which I reviewed in July) that I normally would have avoided. Plus a couple of geek favorites, because fun is good. Here’s my (first of two) quick review of everything I can remember seeing:

  1. Chef - Might be my favorite fun movie of the summer. The characters were well-conceived and even with a few silly cameos, the whole thing felt solid, with nothing to pull you out of the story. And the soundtrack! Glorious. Will make you want to cook, dance, and love. There were other films that impacted me more, that I’ll carry with me for longer, but if you want entertaining, life affirming (in the sense that life is delicious and you need to go out and taste it), and a happy ending, this is the movie for you.
  2. Detropia - not the best documentary I’ve seen this summer (too long, a bit too disjointed to tell a coherent story) it’s nonetheless an important look at the failure of the American Dream on a massive scale. Detroit went from being the fastest growing city in the US to one that’s collapsed in on itself, in less than 100 years. Do you know why? The film offers an explanation, and the hope that where commerce has failed, art (and starving artists, and gentrification) might thrive.
  3. Divergent – (Based on a novel I haven’t read) Up until the end, I thought this was actually a much better film than I’d expected. Fun, quick, not terribly dumb. Reasonable post-apocalyptic society, realistic consequences for those that didn’t fit or couldn’t keep up, and it was solidly YA in that it focused on a main character who acted her age. There was no sex, no magic powers, nothing that threw you out of the story or the character… until the last 1//4 of the movie. Suddenly, logic goes out the window, and the last 120 seconds of the film is a complete 180 from the story so far. Unless there’s a sequel that shows that bit was all a ruse, and – wait, you know what? No. Not even then. The end was wrong for this movie. It breaks the promises the story makes to the reader at the very beginning. Watch it for a fast course in writing a YA story, with the understanding that the finale is what not to do.
  4. Finding Vivian Maier - Beautifully documented story of holding yourself back. (Resolved: I must stop doing that.) Up there with Jodorowski’s Dune as must-watch documentary of the year. Vivian Maier was a nanny of questionable origins with a deeply private secret – she was also a prolific and talented street photographer. A grad student discovered a box of her photos shortly after she died, and has dedicated himself to researching her, buying up her other work, showing her off to the public, and trying to get her recognized by the art institutions of the world. His journey to uncover the truth of Vivian Maier revealed a woman unknown by those closest to her, one who probably endured abuse and suffering as a child, and who never meant to hide her work for so long… but her own issues got in the way of pursuing a career as a photographer. The images Maier took are deeply moving, and so is this film.
  5. Godzilla (2014) – I am a sucker for all things Gojira. He’s my first kaiju, the one I grew up watching. I own the Gojira / Godzilla, King of the Monsters box set on DVD. I pine for the 1978 Mattel Shogun Godzilla I had when I was a little girl. So, even though I know that American-made Godzilla movies are embarrassingly bad, I will watch them anyway, if only because the 2 hours of suck is the price I have to pay for the 30 seconds of screaming Godzilla roar when the creature’s finally fully revealed. This one sucked less than the 1998 Matthew Broderick version, by an order of magnitude, but still suffers from being based in a very American PoV. The first 42 minutes of the movie set up the main character – who was nothing more than a minor player til then – as the reluctant hero, the American GI who can save us from the mistakes made by the Japanese scientific community. They quickly bring him up to speed, for no real reason (he doesn’t know anything about Godzilla or Mothra or… science… ) other than we need a white male hero, apparently. And there’s a ridiculous amount of stupid, like sending unshielded planes against a kaiju that they KNOW has EMP blast powers. And must we have the same exact “running from a tidal wave” scene in every disaster movie? (PoV: child looking back over dad’s shoulder, guy in car as feet run over his windshield just before the water hits, etc.) Good points: brief shout-out to the Philippines for being the birthplace of Mothra; couple of cute moments, like our hero’s childhood insect terrarium with “mothra” written on the side; some clear homages to 1950s US “giant radioactive monster” movies; halo drop onto Godzilla that was the best few seconds of the film.
  6. Guardians of the Galaxy - took my son to see this; (first movie we’d seen together in a theater in years, because he went through a phase where he was too hyper/bored to watch a whole movie at once, which he seems to be over). He liked Groot most of all; I think Drax and Rocket were my faves. By now you’ve probably seen all the tear downs of this movie, and I’d say they’re mostly right. Plus, it really is different from the comic. It’s fun, but you can’t expect too much out of it or think too hard while you’re watching it.
  7. Jodorowski’s Dune – Started with the documentary, Jodorowski’s Dune, then went back and watched (or rewatched) his films – Fando Y Lis, El Topo, Holy Montain, and Tusk, in that order. I’ll have to do a proper review of all the films together, but for now let me say that this is worth watching, more than once. I adored it, and I am one of those folks who actually knew/read/watched a lot of the work and artists it references. It’s breathtaking to see the expanse of Jodo’s vision, even as you realize how impossible it all was.
  8. Only Lovers Left Alive - I left the theater feeling that the more interesting story was the one told in between what was happening on screen. The film was beautiful, languid, well-acted, and deliciously slow in that way where it’s almost troubling, and you almost need it to speed up, but never quite slows too much to bear. It’s probably the best Jarmusch has done, and the actors were all perfect. But what makes it so wonderful is that the important bits – who made who, why, what kind of people they are and who’s the one behind it all – is never spoken aloud. We see that Swinton’s Eve is the collector, the one who doesn’t create anything on her own, the one in love with life and experience and beauty, but it’s Hiddleston’s Adam (and Hurt’s Marlowe and who knows how many countless others) who are the real artists, the ones she collects, and the ones who inevitably feel the decline and ennui that losing their mortality brings. By changing them into something she can hold on to, Eve is destroying what makes them fascinating, albeit very slowly. In that way, how is she any different from Ava, who takes what she wants and destroys much more quickly?
  9. Philomena – A character study that’s primarily interesting because the characters don’t change much at all from the beginning to the end, except that Coogan’s character softens a bit toward Dench’s, once he’s realized that he’s not doing her a favor so much as being allowed into the private revelations of a woman who was terribly wronged. Philomena was wronged, but can’t quit stop blaming herself, and Sixsmith does end up doing exactly what he sets out to do. Without growth, the story is a little boring — I admit I played a few rounds of “Pixel Dungeon” while watching it — but if you look at the movie’s poster and think “This is my sort of film” then it probably is. Most interesting, to me, was how easily everyone ignored or forgot the horrible way that unwed Irish mothers were treated in those days, and would still be, if it weren’t for the Internet and cell phones and other ways that news travels much faster. The Catholic Church systematically stole children from their (often) loving mothers, shamed the girls for the sin of having gotten pregnant, and sold — yes, for money — their babies right out of their arms. That’s how much power the Church has, that most people can say “well, that’s just how it was”. All of the drama in this story is in that erasure, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, then 2 hours watching Philomena isn’t a waste of time.
  10. The One I Love - How can I review a movie which requires that you don’t spoil any of it? I laughed, I enjoyed myself, I was probably less surprised by the end (because I know the Richard Matheson story this was probably inspired by) but even with that, the movie stuck the landing. It was exactly what it should be. It’s short, it doesn’t try to be more than it is, and if you enjoyed Safety Not Guaranteed, you’ll probably love this.
  11. Thor, The Dark World - If you’ve watched the rest of the new Marvel movies so far, there’s nothing in this to surprise you. Popcorn cinema: bright, shiny, fun, not deep, but hey, everyone in it is very pretty.
  12. Veronica Mars - I was a big fan of the tv show (watched it when it aired, plus a dozen rewatches since it hit Netflix) so I was looking forward to this, but still didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. The film didn’t disappoint. It was exactly what you would have expected, with all of the nostalgic moments you’d hoped for, and a huge number of appearances by now-famous actors who got their start as kids on the show. At the same time, it was darker and grittier than the original show, with more noir lighting choices and and overall message that says “you can never really get out”. Good people get hurt. The moments we want to see – resolutions, love, tenderness – come at a price, including disappointing those who wanted better for Veronica. It helps a lot if you’ve seen the show, but I think it’s a decent movie if you haven’t.


Book Review: Dial M for Monkey

3 of 5*

Only 60+ pages; this quick read can be started and finished in well under an hour, and that alone makes it not a waste of time. The stories are a mix of “high impact” and “needs an editor” – I kept wanting to revise or strike his last lines, over and over.

Maxwell sticks to a format of “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, TWIST”, expanding it sometimes to “Here’s the story, wait, no there’s a twist coming up, wait for it, wait for it, really I mean it, keep waiting, TWIST, he he he” for most of the collection. Most of the characters are middle-aged, blue collar, London-area blokes, and a lot of the humor is crude (“He got hit in the balls with a block, lol” type of stuff.)

Probably the best are “I Almost Spanked A Monkey”, “Sprouts” (which is one of the few near-genre stories in the book), and “Is That To Go?”. All use Maxwell’s preferred format successfully, and none go on too long.

The longer pieces aren’t quite as good as the flash, IMO, but at the same time Maxwell brings in an earthy, working class, feel to his fiction that I don’t often see in lit flash. It’s an important perspective because it’s not often published, and some of the pieces do work very well. Don’t read it because it’s the best ever (it’s not) but it is a valuable use of an hour, even if you’re only learning what not to do yourself.

On Vinyl: The Jazz Piano Quartet, “Let It Happen”

(In my ongoing series of “records I own which I think you should hear”. Click here for more.)


Date: June 10 & 11, 1974
Location: RCA Studio A, New York City
Label: RCA, limited release in Quadraphonic sound
The Jazz Piano Quartet (ldr), Roland Hanna, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Marian McPartland (p)

10 songs laid down by a quartet of jazz pianists with no other instruments, without rehearsal, with only the barest of notes written beforehand – usually as a jumping off point – and recorded simultaneously without overdubbing… It could have been a disaster. Instead, Dick Hyman, Roland Hanna, Marian McPartland, and Hank Jones nailed every song on the first take.

The soloists are not identified, other than noting that Hyman and McPartland are playing through the left speaker, and Hanna and Jones through the right speaker.  The record starts with a melodic presentation of “Lover Come Back to Me,” then moves into a lower pace on “Maiden Voyage” and “Let It Happen.” The tempo picks back up again with “Here’s That Rainy Day” before side A ends. The B side is more experimental, beginning with the almost-atonal jazz fragments embedded in “Solace” — though never breaks all the way out of the box on that tune. They push the arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” enough that you might not recognize the song until you get to the chorus line; the whole thing reminds me of a more-melodic version of a Bad Plus variation. The third track on side B is the star of the show, putting on display a fully improvised jam inspired by only a 6-bar fragment of a Erik Satie song. The grand finale is the most intense, dramatically-keyed track on the whole album, and literally ends with a bang.

Overall, the album is so excellently played that it’s hard to believe this is the result of a couple of seasoned pros sitting down, playing for two days, and calling it “finished”. Yet that’s exactly what it is. I love this album for the piano, for the way it pushes without taking the listener so far out of their comfort zone that they get turned off, and because it’s a reminder that we don’t always need to edit/revise/edit/revise our work to death. There’s something to be said for being fully confident of our skills, and just getting it done.

Listen to this if you can find it. You won’t regret it.

Track List:

a-01 Lover, Come Back To Me – 2:22 (Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-02 Maiden Voyage – 3:55 (Herbie Hancock) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-03 Let It Happen – 4:21 (Ettore Stratta) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-04 Watch It! – 3:03 (Dick Hyman) / arr: Dick Hyman
a-05 Here’s That Rainy Day – 4:43 (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-01 Solace – 3:38 (Scott Joplin) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-02 You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – 3:45 (Stevie Wonder) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-03 Improvviso – 6:48 (Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Roland Hanna) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-04 Warm Valley – 3:38 (Duke Ellington) / arr: Dick Hyman
b-05 How High The Moon – 3:00 (Nancy Hamilton, W. Morgan Lewis) / arr: Dick Hyman

Notes: All titles on: RCA LP 12″: CPL1-0680 — Let It Happen (1974) “Solace” listed as “Variations on Scott Joplin’s ‘Solace'” and credited to Scott Joplin and Dick Hyman. “Improvviso” is based on a fragment by Erik Satie.

Movie review: FRANK (2014)


FRANK is a brilliant, introspective, and illuminating film based partially on real events. It follows a bumbling, seemingly talentless, wanna-be musician (Jon) as he gets sucked into the world of a charismatic and mysterious Frank – a man with a paper mache mask for a head. At first, it seems Frank and his pals are the ones with the vision, and Jon is desperate to be someone more than who he is. He craves fame and respect and Frank, he is immediately sure, will help him get there. It quickly becomes obvious to the viewer what John doesn’t realize until later: Frank is severely mentally ill, along with at least a few of his bandmates. His genius isn’t in his wackiness, but is obscured by it; the sad truth is that Frank’s musical talent wasn’t set free by giving in to his illness, but his illness robbed him of the chance to truly express his talent. Outside of the carefully manufactured and strictly guarded world that Frank allows Jon to be a part of, the outside world – let in by John’s tweets and blog posts (part of his desire to connect with others and find his audience) – can clearly see what Jon doesn’t.

John think they’re making avant garde art. The world thinks they’re making a joke.

Warning: vague spoilers ahead (more…)

Seven Bits of a WIP

Various people tagged me in a meme that’s going around about finding the seventh page in the seventh book that you wrote for the seventh brother on your wedding day, or something like that. Rather than tag a bunch of others to do the same — because I am nothing if not an enabler of you keeping things to yourself — I’m posting seven sentences from one of my novels-in-progress here, no strings attached:

Determined not to be the first casualty, caught unawares by a child in a bloodstained nightgown waiting silently for her wake up so it could feed, she focused on the enemy Romero gave her. She packed watertight plastic containers with dried food, wooden matches, camping gear, medical supplies, and knives (in assorted sizes). She refused to live on the first floor, since a second-story apartment was more defensible. And she kept her doors locked when she was home, even when she was awake, so nothing could sneak in.

Years of paranoia and preparation, and in the end, none of it mattered. It was all made useless by the sudden realization that the something lurking in the darkness wasn’t foreshadowing a future apocalypse. They were only ghosts.

What a fucking waste of time.

This is from my urban gothic (aka “No, she should not have a tramp stamp on the cover god dammit”) novel, tentatively titled “Shades of Grey” because my sense of humor demanded I use this until the book is done enough to tell me its real title.

If you do decide to post your excerpts as well, and want me to see it, leave it in the comments and I’ll take a look.