The Update Post

A few updates this morning:

  • For those who haven’t heard, Sybil’s Garage will be opening to submissions for our 7th issue on January 15th.  Guidelines here.
  • The World-Fantasy award winning anthology Paper Cities is now only $12 for the holidays.  Get it now.
  • Altered Fluid, my writers group, will be appearing on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf on January 16th.  We will be critiquing a story by the talented writer and amateur lepidopterist Paul Berger.
  • I’ve been toying with the idea of changing the trim size of Sybil’s Garage from 7″ x 8.5″ to 6″ x 9″.  (The latter size is a common trade paperback size in the U.S.) For issues two through six, we used the “half-legal” size, which I shamelessly borrowed from such great zines as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Electric Velocipede. But there are problems with that .  Most notably, the size is not an industry standard.  The printing costs are higher.  Additionally, I’d like to start selling Sybil’s as a print-on-demand title.  This would allow it to be sold on Amazon and through bookstores via distrubution.  Previously, we only sold Sybil’s at conferences, through the Senses Five website, and at a few local bookstores.  So the pluses are: cheaper printing costs and greater potential distribution.  The negatives?  We will no longer be old-skool “zine” sized.  I’d like to hear opinions from people on this, as I’m not 100% convinced.  (More like 98%).
  • I saw Avatar with my girlfriend last night.  We both enjoyed it.  It’s a totally immersive experience.  The world is rich, beautifully rendered, full of life.  Pandora seems like a real place.  Exotic, colorful, a complete biosphere.  The plot is flawed, however.  It’s chock full of stock plotlines and easy stereotypes.  Many characters are no more than cardboard (how odd that in a 3d film the flattest things were the humans themselves).  But the world is so vibrant and alive that I was able to overlook the plot flaws and engross myself in the planet’s wonders.  I’d like to see what a good writer can do with this technology.
  • Generally, it is not a good idea to be a hallucinating hipster knocking on my door at 5:30 am on a Sunday morning and claim to live in my apartment.  Additionally, knocking again at 8:00 am and claiming to know  me will not solidify your case.
  • Have a happy holiday season.

Inglourious Basterds Take Deux

Inglourious Basterds Take DeuxI have been discussing the film Inglourious Basterds on Facebook again following a post from Claude Laliumere and then I was referred to a review by Daniel Mendelsohn in Newsweek.  Mendelsohn pans the film because he believes it tells the following message:

Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carboncopies of Nazis, that makes Jews into “sickening” perpetrators? I’m not so sure. An alternative, and morally superior, form of “revenge” for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future. Never again, the refrain goes. The emotions that Tarantino’s new film evokes are precisely what lurk beneath the possibility that “again” will happen.

There are two things wrong with that statement.  The first, I think, is so obvious I’m embarrassed for Mr. Mendelsohn.  Does he really expect the victims in a Tarantino film not to fight back?  And do what instead, “preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them?”  I.e. create a museum?  This is a war film.  And this is a Tarantino film.  One should expect there will be no quietly brooding intellectual discussion on the horrors perpetrated by an entire generation of people.  No, there will be blood.*

The second thing that’s wrong with his statement is that it denies the core of the film itself.  Repeatedly the characters state the theme: “now the shoe is on the other foot.”  Often, I loathe when authors state their own theme, but here it comes together magnificently.  The Jews become the killers, the Nazis the victims.  Those who saw the film, did you note how people laughed and cheered when the Nazis were killed, but how silent and spooky and downright repulsed you felt when the Nazis were cheering the deaths of the Americans on their film?  Tarantino was trying to wake you up, to tell you that you’re not so different from those Nazi fucks, that you should get off your high horse and stop pretending there was something evil or intrinsically wrong with that generation of people and understand that we all have the capacity to do evil within us.  Tarantino turned the tables precisely to make us uncomfortable with our own enjoyment of violence, which he is capitalizing on.  He is saying: “Look, you’re no different from them, when you strip away the pretense.”  If you want a deep exploration of this particular subject, I suggest you read The Moment of Freedom by Jens Bjørneboe, one of the best novels I have ever read.

* I in no way mean to demean or deride the creation of such memorials as the Holocaust Museum, which serve a valuable and important purpose of reminding humanity what horrors we are capable of.  But this is a film, and no one wants to watch a film about Jews getting murdered and the survivors creating a museum.  Or maybe they do — but it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film.

Dr. Jones, You Owe Me Ten Bucks

One of the hallmarks of a good film is this: you know what’s going to happen because you’ve seen it before, and yet it’s still fun to watch. We know the rebels will destroy the Death Star in Episode IV, yet, damn, that ending is exciting to watch again and again. We know Roy will make it over Devil’s Tower to see the aliens land in Close Encounters, but hey, our hearts still race when they’re chasing him with helicopters.

[spoilers below]

Unfortunately, I don’t think the new Indiana Jones film will have such staying power. One reviewer said it correctly: in the first films the mystery kept us guessing until the end. Sure, in this film everyone suspected that the crystal skull was an alien artifact, but did we have to have Cate Blanchett as uber-sexy Irina Spalko just up and tell us halfway through the second act? And Karen Allen as Mirion: when did she become super-chick? Yeah, we got that she could belt back about fifty shots and drink any man under the table, but in the first film she’s hiding behind the bar during a gun fight (as any sane person would do). In this flick she’s literally driving an amphibious car off a cliff, timed just so that the car lands on a branch, gently places them into the river, then snaps back to knock some bumbling Russians off of their footholds. “I told you to trust me,” she says, and unfortunately, that’s precisely where I lost faith in the film.

It was Chekhov who said that if you present a gun in the first act you must fire it in the third. Now, enter Irina Spalko who spends several minutes in full-on evil villain mode, boasting about how she will control the minds of Americans with the psychic power she will gain from unlocking the secrets of the crystal skull. The movie opens with her trying to psychically read Jones’s mind. Yet I don’t recall ever seeing this gun fired, so to speak. Why is Oz, Jones’s friend, able to psychically recognize his friend’s arrival, and yet Spalko, who presumably has been studying psychic phenomenon for a long time, not able to produce anything extra-sensory in the entire script? Her explanation: “The skull doesn’t work for everyone.” More like it was convenient for the mediocre plot.

Hence, gun never fired. Instead, we are rewarded, after two action-filled hours, with seeing her disintegrate when she absorbs too much knowledge. While I found that exciting in a Lovecraftian sense, what this knowledge might be was never developed. Couldn’t the writers have given us a smidgen of what she and Dr. Jones saw to titillate our senses? Indiana Jones at one point stares into the crystal skull. Later, he says the skull, “Told me to return it.” Yet we never really know what he saw; he only squirms in the chair like he’s at the dentist. And, perhaps in the coolest special effect of all four movies, we witness the formation of a giant dimensional portal in the sky. Did Spielberg forget that in Close Encounters people were so curious as to what was inside the alien vessel that they forced him to go back and shoot another twenty minutes of internal footage of the alien ship? In this film we are never shown a glimmer of what might lie on the other side. Instead, we are supposed to be satisfied with the trite old alien grey — a creature that is about as new as, well, Close Encounters.

And Ray Winstone as Mac is about as interesting a character as, well, no one, because he really isn’t that interesting. Not a millimeter of depth for him. I can’t fault Shia LaBeouf for his role as Mutt. In some ways, he is the most interesting character in the script, though totally underdeveloped. And as much as they were supposed to be kindred, Harrison Ford and LaBeouf just didn’t share all that much chemistry. Besides one interesting scene in a 50’s malt shop, where the tension among the two runs high, I just didn’t enjoy their interaction. I have a theory why: the movie should have been Shia’s, not Ford’s. The scenes where Shia is the protagonist work because Ford just isn’t able to carry the film like he used to. Let’s face it, we all identified with the swashbuckling hero in the early films. Who wants to be over the hill and gray?

The movie was not without merit. I found the opening scene in the warehouse completely enjoyable, though I’m not sure how I felt about seeing the Ark of the Covenant, the seed of the three Abrahamic religions, tossed haphazardly about the warehouse, with its side torn open. It was of course a wink to the audience, but it was a cheap one. And John Hurt brought life to a lifeless character with Ox. It’s funny that the character with the least number of lines felt the most real to me, but such is the skill of Mr. Hurt.

It’s not a bad movie, per se, but it’s not a good one either. It seemed to me like a decent first draft of a story that “alas, didn’t quite work for me. Best of luck with this one.”

The Best Movies of 2007

Popcorn.  Mmmmm,The Best Movies of 2007
By Mercurio D. Rivera

It’s difficult for me to construct a Top 10 list this year because a number of otherwise entertaining films suffer from the same ailment: a disappointing ending. Among the culprits is Oscar nominee Atonement, a period-piece melodrama that evokes no sympathy for the character seeking atonement and finally culminates in a maddening “it was all a dream”-type of twist ending. The equally lauded Zodiac starts like gangbusters before disintegrating into one obsessed character’s tiresome investigation of countless red herrings. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a clever exercise in point-of-view shifts, proves utterly bleak and, in the end, empty. But the winner of “bleak” is France’s much-praised, profoundly depressing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about a paraplegic who can only communicate by blinking his left eye. And although I’m generally a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts, Charlie Wilson’s War, proved an unwatchable and uneven mess, wavering between political satire and drama.

Here are the ten best movies of 2007 and the ten runners-up:

10. 28 Weeks Later – The Infected return in this smart splatterfest, a sequel to 28 Days Later that boasts an effective undercurrent of wry political commentary. A belligerent American occupation force has secured London after containment of the virus that turns ordinary people into fast-moving, flesh-hungry zombies. But they soon come to realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew when the virus reemerges. The shaky handheld camera and accompanying rock score are pitch perfect for this kinetic, chaotic horror flick.

9. Juno – Jason Reitman’s witty and warm-hearted story of a spunky pregnant teenager hits all the right notes. While the dialogue is sometimes too clever for its own good, Ellen Page sparkles as the sarcastic and feisty title character, a mom-to-be who decides to audition a couple to be the parents to her unborn child. Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner are terrific as the flawed couple, and pasty, gangly Michael Cera cracks me up every time he’s on screen as the title character’s droll, smitten boyfriend.

8. Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate yet again in this dark, alluring version of the Sondheim musical. Depp plays Sweeny Todd as a glowering, menacing rock star out for revenge against the judge and the town who cost him his family. Burton’s grey palette fits the dark tale perfectly, interrupted only by the sporadic bright crimson of splattering blood.

7. Into the Wild – Based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller, Emile Hirsch gives a star-making performance as a college graduate who abandons all of his material possessions and treks across the American landscape towards the wilds of Alaska, encountering a bevy of memorable characters along the way. Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener and especially Hal Holbrook all shine in supporting roles. The gorgeous cinematography makes it impossible not to empathize with the adolescent’s wanderlust and Eddie Vedder’s earnest soundtrack complements the movie perfectly. The tragic ending highlights the fine line between idealism and naivety, wisdom and hubris.

6. Eastern Promises – David Cronenberg’s violent, moody, Russian mob drama stars Viggo Mortenson as a stoic mobster and the best friend of the Boss’s son. When a nurse at a London hospital (Naomi Watts) is unable to save the life of a pregnant Russian prostitute, she brings home the orphaned baby and the mom’s diary, which contains secrets that drag her into a seedy underworld of drugs and prostitution. Armin Mueller-Stahl is especially charismatic as the suave, grandfatherly crime boss. Menace, suspense and surprises fill every frame up until its somewhat abrupt ending.

5. The Lives of Others – Last year’s Oscar winner for best foreign movie (surprisingly beating out Pan’s Labyrinth) was released in the U.S. in February, making it eligible for this year’s list. It tells a riveting, suspenseful tale of distrust and government intimidation set in 1984 East Germany. The protagonist, a loyal agent of the secret police, is assigned to spy on a renowned playwright and his actress girlfriend and in the process undergoes a slow, unforgettable spiritual transformation that mirrors the changes in Germany itself.

4. The Namesake – Sprawling, cross-generational, epic about a Bengali immigrant family and one young man’s search for his own identity (comic actor Kal Penn from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle in an impressive dramatic performance). This moving melodrama explores the essence of the immigrant experience, what is sacrificed to fit in, and the ties of culture and family.

3. Stardust – Based on Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, this sparkling fantasy revolves around Claire Danes as a shooting star given human form and Charlie Cox as the boy who slowly comes to fall in love with her on their journey together. Robert Deniro and Michelle Pfeiffer seem to have a blast playing a cross-dressing pirate on a flying ship, and a life-sucking, evil witch, respectively. Romantic and fun, entertaining and charming, Stardust strikes a whimsical tone reminiscent of the classic The Princess Bride.

2. There Will Be Blood – Paul Thomas Anderson’s eccentric and explosive character study of American capitalism told through two characters: Daniel Plainview (sure-bet Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis), a ruthless, single-minded oil driller, and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano from Little Miss Sunshine), an ambitious, money-hungry Evangelical “healer.” The stunning cinematography, dissonant slasher-film score, and Day Lewis’s high-octane performance all make for a strange, unforgettable movie-watching experience.

1. No Country for Old Men – The Coen Brothers’ suspenseful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel features a classic villain played by Javier Bardem certain to join the ranks of Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates in cinema’s ultimate rogue’s gallery. Bardem plays an unstoppable, merciless assassin on the hunt for a rancher (Josh Brolin) who happens upon cash from a drug deal gone wrong. Tommy Lee Jones gives perhaps the finest performance of his career as the small-town sheriff trying to make sense of it all. The desolate vistas, the true-to-life folksy dialogue, the sense of impending doom, make this the best movie of the year.

11. Superbad (Judd Apatow-produced high school comedy that generates the year’s biggest laughs); 12. No End in Sight (astounding documentary about the administration’s colossal missteps in the reconstruction of “post-War” Iraq); 13. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (tense, harrowing account of a young woman’s mission to help her college roommate obtain an illegal abortion in oppressive 1987 Romania—as different in tone from Juno and Knocked Up as you can get); 14. Michael Clayton (slick, smart legal drama starring George Clooney as a problem-“fixer” at a huge law firm and a terrific Tom Wilkinson as an attorney victimized by his own conscience); 15. The Orphanage (chilling Spanish horror flick about a family that moves into a haunted orphanage with a dark history); 16. Ratatouille (sumptuous Pixar classic about the rat who would be chef); 17. Persepolis (affecting animated feature about an Iranian girl coming of age under the dictatorship of the Shah); 18. The Simpsons Movie (Springfield’s beloved characters make it to the big screen in all their glory (particularly Bart)—but there’s not enough Mr. Burns for my tastes); 19. 3:10 to Yuma (beautifully shot, suspenseful Western with outstanding performances by Christian Bale and Russell Crowe); 20. Sunshine (moody sci-fi flick about a deep-space mission to reignite the fading sun).

The Number 23 on DVD

23 the MovieThe Number 23 on DVD
By Mercurio D. Rivera

For Jim Carrey completists, his most recent movie, The Number 23, an attempted psychological thriller, arrived on DVD this past Tuesday. The DVD is chock full of impressive special features, including, deleted scenes, alternate endings, commentary by director Joel Schumacher, and three short documentaries, including one on the making of the movie. For fans of this film [Are you out there? Hello? Anybody?], it’s certainly worth picking up for the extras.

Carrey continues to stretch his acting muscles, this time playing Walter Sparrow, a dogcatcher who becomes insanely obsessed with the supernatural secrets of the number 23. Sparrow happens upon this mystery after his wife (Virginia Madsen, giving her all) gives him a dime-store detective novel in which the protagonist private dick (also played by Carrey), fixates on the number. It turns out that when Sparrow adds up (or subtracts or multiples or divides or randomly transposes) any numbers, ranging from his street address to his social security to the pairs of shoes in his wife’s closet, he arrives at …23! Eerie, huh? So what does it all mean? No one knows. Not Sparrow. Not the detective in the novel. Not even the scriptwriters apparently.

Unfortunately, the movie spends way too much of its time in the two-dimensional world of the detective novel with its cardboard, clichéd noir characters and not enough time in the real world where Sparrow slowly loses his grip on his sanity. Schumacher uses every trick at his disposal to try to make the detective story interesting, including diagonal camera shots and washed-out coloring, all to no effect. In the end it’s hard to do anything but yawn and look at your wristwatch as these dull stereotypes blather on. Worse, both the main story and the detective story are weighed down by Carrey’s incessant voiceover, explaining everything that happens along the way. But all the explanations in the world can’t bring any sense to the convoluted screenplay. The two storylines nicely converge at the end, but it’s too little, too late.

Rating: 1 star out of 4
(The missing numbers between 1 and 4? 2 and 3. Holy crap!)